Bosham in Kent, 1035
The horses screamed, kicking at their stalls as the fire crept closer. Embers danced in the air, buoyed by the heat from the flames.
“Open the doors! Get the horses out!” Shouts from all over the manor added to the panic. “Water! Over here, quickly!” Godwin grabbed the bucket from a trembling servant and rushed toward the flames, tossing the water. He backed away from the hiss of rising steam.
“Get a line going, now!” The earl turned, almost knocking someone over. He squinted through the smoke, the flames illuminated the face of his wife. “Gytha, what the hell are you doing out here?! Get inside!”
“I want to help.” Her features were frozen into a mask and he knew she wouldn’t be persuaded easily.
“You should be inside, gathering supplies. If the manor catches we’ll need to leave.” He took her by the shoulders. “Go. Please.”
She softened. “As you wish.”
Godwin watched her run back to the manor, thanking God, this time, she listened to him. He turned his attention to the fire. A line of people extending from the well to the stable, both servants and housecarls, were passing buckets between them. He took the position closest to the flames and started dousing.
“It’s working! Keep going!” His voice was hoarse from the smoke, but he was heard and the line moved faster. An almost hypnotic rhythm was established, as though this activity happened often. Godwin had experienced extreme events before and he had the scars to prove it. He often saw the phenomena in battle; of men working together as a single entity, striving toward a goal, almost of a single mind.
It was late when the last of the flames were beaten out. The choking, retching, and coughing of those who had fought the fire filled the air as they returned to the hall or their own homes, stumbling with exhaustion along the way.
“Thank God it didn’t spread to the manor.” The earl’s closest advisor, Wulfstan, grasped the cross he wore with his right hand. The large housecarl’s left hand unconsciously grasped his sword hilt. As the earl’s closest advisor his informal manner was excused.
“Aye, but the damage is considerable.” Godwin poked his sword into the smouldering wood. A whimper made him freeze. He motioned for Wulfstan. “Listen.” The carl leaned forward expectantly. The cracking and settling of the wood made it difficult to hear anything. After a moment he straightened. “A dog.”
“Damn.” Covering his face with his sleeve, Godwin rushed into the ruin, kicking the debris and using his sword to clear a path. Every few seconds he stopped to listen, then continued.
Wulfstan waited, the smell of damp charred wood and thatch assaulting him. “My lord?”
Finally, Godwin reappeared, his face smudged with soot and his cloak torn and dirty. His sword now sheathed, he struggled under the weight of a dog he held in both arms. Under his chin he carried a smaller object.
“I found her.” He placed the wolfhound on the ground away from the stable, nearly falling over.
“Dead. Except for this one.” The object he’d been carrying under his chin was now in his arms and yelped weakly. “And I don’t expect he’ll make it through the night.”
Wulfstan leaned over and peered at the dog. He pointed at the white patch on its forehead. “Tostig’s.”
Godwin nodded, wrapping the pup in his cloak.
“And the bitch?” The carl bent down to pet the mother.
“She’ll live. She’s a bit singed. Bring her into the house.” Godwin headed toward the manor, still holding the limp pup.
His family were waiting in the great hall when he returned. He went to his room to clean as much of the soot from his face and hands as he could before joining them. Gytha was pacing, her pale blue linen dress tight across the belly holding his sixth child. The rescued bitch lay in a corner on a blanket and wagged her tail weakly as her master arrived. Sweyn, his eldest, looked up as Godwin came in. “Father?”
At a glare the boy looked away.
He put the pup on a pillow on the long table running the length of the hall, and sat at the head. “I want to know what happened.”
At a wave of his hand a goblet of wine appeared. He drained it and wiped his arm across his mouth, leaving another dark smear across his cheek.
“I didn’t do it.” Sweyn’s chin jutted defiantly.
“It wasn’t me!” Harold’s voice rose, as if his brother’s denial was a direct accusation.
Godwin held up a hand and the room fell silent, save for the whimpering of the pup. “You two, go to your rooms.”
As they left Sweyn glanced at Tostig and Edith huddled together, their black faces and clothes betraying them.
“Edith. Tostig. Come here.” Godwin pointed to the chairs to his left. Gytha, tired from her pacing, sat to his right, her hand calming the kicking baby within her.
“Tell me what happened.”
They looked at one another, urging the other to speak first. Godwin watched the silent exchange between his son and daughter. At eight Tostig was still very much a boy but he’d already shown a precociousness that, if guided, would serve him well. Edith was ten and his only daughter; they’d been blessed with many sons and very few stillbirths.
The pup whimpered, and its mother howled from her place, the mournful sound ending in a pitiful whine. Tostig looked over at the pup and sobbed. Tears marked their path down his face as he gulped the words. “I did it.”
Godwin, noticing the colour of his wife’s face, held her arm to silence the outburst he saw coming. She looked away.
“Why? What would possess you to burn the stable?”
Edith watched her brother try to reply. Then the puppy cried out again and his words were incoherent. “We were playing. We made a manor out of old wood in the corner of the stable.”
Godwin’s focus was on Edith now. “And?”
She looked down, her dishevelled hair escaping from her circlet and hiding her face. Her small hands unconsciously played with a rend in her dress. “I got cold.”
Godwin shifted impatiently in his chair. “Why didn’t you come inside?”
Edith glanced at her mother, receiving a frown in return. “Because we had words earlier and she stormed out.” Gytha’s voice was shrill, something Godwin had never gotten used to.
“Is this true?” Not that he doubted his wife’s word, but he wanted to hear the child’s side.
Edith nodded, still unable to face her father.
The earl sighed. Lately his daughter and wife had been ‘having words’ as Gytha described. Those words were usually spoken at volume, and without filter, so all in the manor knew of the daily arguments. “What happened next?”
“I got some fire.” Tostig startled them although his voice was a hoarse whisper. “Edith wouldn’t go inside even though I told her if she was cold she should, but she wouldn’t…” Tostig’s words had started to run together again.
Edith took over. “Tostig got a faggot from the hearth in the hall and brought it outside so we could have our own hearth.”
Godwin stared at them both. “You brought fire into the stable. Fire. Have you lost your wits? What were you thinking?” He knew the questions were unanswerable; he’d learned from his eldest two boys that children rarely, if ever, knew the reasons for their actions. However, Tostig was a clever child and Edith was old enough to know better. Edith; perhaps another sign of her recent rebellious streak? He shook his head. “Do you understand what you’ve done?”
The pup chose that moment to whine, the sound ending with a painful wheeze. Tostig’s head jerked toward the noise, his eyes wide. He looked back at his father then at the dog, raising a shaking arm to point at the creature. Tears flowed in earnest, staining his tunic with dark patches.
There would be no reasoning with them this evening, Godwin realised that. He stood suddenly, addressing Gytha. “Take Edith to her room. We’ll speak tomorrow.”
“But father…” Godwin held up a hand to stop his daughter’s protest. He knew she would ask to stay with Tostig, they’d grown close the last couple of years and were now almost inseparable.
The earl turned toward Tostig. “You stay here and watch the dog. You did this, you’ll learn to be more responsible.” After a flurry of movement, the hall was deserted except for a small boy and two dogs.
Tostig looked around the room in a panic, wishing Edith was there. He looked down at the dog on the table, its small body trembling with the effort of breathing. He never thought to ask about the rest of the litter for this one was his, the one his father had promised him. The puppy yelped, causing its mother to howl. Tostig, gulping back his sobs, gently picked up the small dog and carried it to the mother, whose tail thumped gratefully on the floor. Placing the puppy next to the huge female wolfhound, he positioned himself a short distance from both and stared, his eyes blurring.
He remained like that the rest of the night, watching the small pathetic creature try desperately to stay alive. Its ragged breathing grew worse as it made one last attempt to nuzzle its mother before growing limp. Tostig watched its tiny chest rise one last time then fall still.
The boy’s screams accompanied those of the howling mother. She poked her nose at her baby, trying to get it to move, then looked pitifully at Tostig, still screaming and on the floor, grasping a chair leg.
When the carls rushed to the source of the screams, they found Edith asleep on the floor outside the hall, her hand stretched out to touch the door.
“Will I be whipped?”
Godwin stared at his son and wondered if he had done the right thing. The boy looked thinner, seemed smaller than before; his eyes were unfocussed and there were dark circles under them not caused by the smoke of the fire. His voice was so low the earl strained to hear.
“He should be.” The comment came from the doorway to the hall.
“Harold, leave. This is none of your business.”
“Father, he burned the barn! He could have killed the horses.”
Godwin glared at his son. He suspected enmity toward Tostig, and here was the proof. “Go. Now!”
The boy shuffled out, glancing malevolently at Tostig.
Godwin returned his gaze to his younger son. “No, you won’t be whipped.” Tostig looked up sharply, confusion added to the raw grief his face openly displayed. Godwin saw the boy had learnt a lesson, and a difficult one.
Edith watched her brother and saw his surprise. Did this mean her own punishment would be light? She stood and waited her turn.
Edith looked at her father hopefully.
“You’ve become wilful and disrespectful, unbecoming traits in one from this family. We’re sending you away, to be educated and to learn to become a woman of high standing, as you were born to.”
Godwin saw his wife wince, from the corner of his eye, and ignored it. “You WILL learn to behave like a young lady should. You’ll listen to your superiors and obey their orders, or I’ll know about it.”
Edith’s body sagged, and she grabbed a chair to steady herself. The smell of smoke still emanated from her clothes and hair, making her queasy. She couldn’t get all the words out, only “where?”
“We’re sending you to Wilton Abbey, your new home.”
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