The cover of 'Cold Heart, Cruel Hand' is covered in orange flame.

Cold Heart, Cruel Hand by Laurence J Brown

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They left York by the Jubber Gate, what remained of it, like thieves in the night. Behind them smoke from the blackened timbers of the burning City billowed skywards, choking the night air, obscuring the moon, covering their escape.

Every so often the man would cast an anxious glance over his shoulder to ensure they were not being followed. His wife, her face pale and drawn, clung tightly to him, her eyes flitting from the darkness ahead to the small child clutched to her husband's chest, cocooned in his muscular arms. She prayed they would soon reach safety, some undergrowth or undulation in the land to cover their retreat, to bring their suffering to an end.

York was doomed. Five days ago, after a stubborn fight the Norman army had forced the City walls, and then the gates, ending the insurgents' resistance. Those that could not escape were butchered where they stood: men, women, children, babies. There was no discrimination between young and old, innocent and guilty; no mercy either. Babies were put to the sword, mothers raped and then murdered, houses looted and burned. It followed a familiar pattern: kill, loot and burn until all was gone. This was the Conquerors' way with the Saxons, those that did not bend to his will. It had been so for four years and now the north was a blackened wasteland from the Humber to the Tyne, from the Severn to the Mersey.

Ranulf looked back again; a quarter of a mile and still no pursuit. If they escaped it would be a miracle. By all laws of reason they should be dead, lying butchered and broken with the rest of their comrades in the City or dangling from the City walls like some of their leaders, captured and tortured, then left to rot as an example to the others.

For five days, since the Normans had stormed the City, Ranulf and his family had evaded capture, eventually finding refuge amongst the corpses of their comrades, their bodies thrown into a burial pit as the purging of the City proceeded. For the last two days they had feigned death, man, woman and child, burying themselves ever deeper beneath the pile of insensate bodies to avoid detection until they thought they would go mad.

And then the opportunity that they had been praying for had arisen. The gate momentarily unguarded, the moon obscured by cloud and smoke, they had seized their chance. Hearts in their mouths they had crept forward, clinging to the shadows, Hal's tiny face tearful but blackened against detection, sworn to silence by his mother. He had manfully nodded his understanding, a boy of three, not really understanding but sensing his mother's distress, the importance of doing as asked. God alone knew what effect it was having on his tender mind.

And then they were up to the gate, their hearts pounding like hammers in their breasts as they paused, expecting a challenge at any moment before making the final bid for freedom beyond the walls that had held them prisoner for five nightmare days and nights.

They headed south, searching all the while for some cover in which to hide, to rest. There was precious little of that, for the land had been stripped bare by the local populace and by the Conqueror's army in their search for food and timber for their camp fires. The land was in the grip of a famine. Years of war had wasted both the people and the land and now the people were starving.

Ranulf knew that unless he could find food and shelter soon their chances of survival were slim. It was over two hundred miles to where they were heading and without food they had no chance. Alice's face was already thin and gaunt, her beauty marred by the ravages of hunger. Hal was surviving on what Ranulf could scavenge, depriving himself of much needed nourishment in order that his offspring should not suffer. But Hal was suffering, needed food and rest more than either he or Alice. He hugged the boy to him, protectively, compassionately. Somehow he would see that the boy lived, even if it meant sacrificing his own life.

And deep down he knew that he should already be dead; that his life was lived on borrowed time. He should have died with his comrades on Caldbec Hill four long years ago. It was his duty to have done so and the fact that he still lived was due only to the futile order given to him by the late King, Harold Godwineson, to abandon the field of battle to save his Queen. He had failed, and now both were dead. He blamed himself and sometimes, when the guilt became too great, he wondered why he had been allowed to live when so many good men, better men than him, had died. Perhaps God was punishing him by allowing him to live, to see for himself the legacy of defeat on Caldbec Hill.

That legacy was life, if one could call it that, under Norman rule. William the Bastard, called "the Conqueror" by his men, had no love, no time, for the Saxons. His conquest of England had been based upon the promise of land to his supporters; land that had once belonged to the Saxons. One by one, at an ever increasing pace, the Earldoms and Shires and Villages and Hundreds had been handed out to his Norman supporters, resistance by the Saxon nobility, those that had survived Caldbec Hill, being ruthlessly and efficiently crushed until virtually the whole of the country was in Norman hands.

After Caldbec Hill Ranulf had sworn an oath to fight the Normans until the last one had been driven from the shores of England. That Oath was now in tatters, the Saxon cause irredeemably lost, the Norman dynasty in supreme command. All over England the Conqueror had erected fortresses from which to govern, to control the people; timber fortresses perched high on moated hills, impregnable against all but the most determined attackers. And there were precious few of those. Without a King to lead them, without a figurehead to unite them, their revolts had been sporadic, doomed to failure.

It was hopeless, and even though Ranulf recognised the fact, he also knew that he would continue to wage war on the Conqueror for as long as he could. He owed it to his King and his comrades, dead four years now, to continue the fight; that they should not have died in vain.

And so he headed south with his wife and son to make an unlikely rendezvous, hastily arranged with his fellow rebels before the Norman army had flooded into York to end their resistance.

They had covered half a mile when he heard, in the distance, the sound of horses' hooves. They were iron shod, heavy. It was a single rider, a Norman. He would recognise the sound anywhere; only the Normans had horses that large. Only the Normans had anything. He handed Hal to Alice and ushered them away into the darkness. He hunkered down behind a small piece of scrub and waited for the rider to approach. He unhooked the sword that hung at his side and eased it from its scabbard. The sword was one of only two possessions that he had managed to retain during four years of fighting and running. The other was a slim stiletto, tucked into his belt, both weapons a reminder of the past, the memories etched deep into their steel like the scars that he bore on his body. The sword was Requitur, the Sword of Kings. It had once belonged to Alfred the Great and to every Saxon King since. He had picked it up by mistake in the gloom gathering over Caldbec Hill and had kept it safe ever since. It never left him, and since that day four years ago it had tasted Norman blood eleven times.

The rider was approaching quickly. His eyes now accustomed to the darkness, Ranulf could see that he was only lightly clad, no mail armour, no helmet. A courier or messenger perhaps. It did not matter. What mattered was the horse, a lifeline for them all. Heart pounding, his breath coming in short bursts, he waited for the rider to approach. Ten yards...five, and still he waited, crouched behind the scrub. The man was almost past him when he made his move, springing forward, swinging Requitur in a great arc that gave the man no time to react, no time to avoid the blow. The blade hit the rider in the chest, knocking him from the saddle. Moments later Ranulf was upon him, driving the point of Requitur down through his chest. The man hardly made a sound as he died.

The mare was a few yards away, having bolted in panic. The rider was dead but the mare was the prize and now Ranulf felt a different kind of tension as he slowly approached her. One false move and she would be gone. Whispering softly, arm outstretched to reach for the reins, he made it to within five yards before the mare shied and trotted away, eyeing him nervously. He cursed under his breath and tried again, this time, keeping his arms by his side. He got to within two feet of her, sensed that she was about to bolt and lunged for the reins. His hand grasped leather and he knew that he had her. He stroked her chestnut mane, nuzzled her cheek and whispered soft words into her ear. She was his.

He checked the rider's saddlebag and found some papers, sealed with wax. He could not read, English or Norman, and so discarded them. What he did find was a hunk of dried bread and some hard cheese. Manna from heaven. He called to Alice and Hal and they divided the food between them, saving a little for the journey.

They were safe at last. With food in their bellies and a solid mount beneath them they would head south, for the Fens, for a rendezvous with their comrades and with the most charismatic Saxon of them all.

And there, in the last Saxon stronghold in England they would challenge the Conqueror to fight them on their terms, on ground where his cavalry was of no use, where chain-mail was a hindrance rather than an advantage, and where the Conqueror's massed ranks of infantry would founder and sink beneath the treacherous miasma of the fens.

They were going to the Isle of Ely, to the camp of refuge, to fight for Hereward the Wake.

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