The cover of 'Housecarl' shows a scene in the style of the Bayeux tapestry. Saxon housecarls line up in chain-mail armour with helmets, shields, axes and spears, while the red dragon of Wessex, Harol's personal banner of is held aloft. A single archer is shown, much smaller than the rest, wearing a white tunic.

Housecarl by :Laurence J Brown

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Rouen, Normandy


It was dark in the cell, dark and cold and damp. The Saxon, huddled in the corner, shivered into his cloak and wondered when they would be coming for him. He sensed that it was daylight but he had no real way of knowing since he had been incarcerated far below ground and it had been over two weeks since he had last seen the outside world. He could only guess at the time. He knew that it had been several hours since his last meal, some cold stew and a skin of foul water that his captors might have pissed in for all he knew.

A rat scuttled about in the far corner and the Saxon hurled his platter at the noise, more in anger than in the hope of driving it off. The platter missed its target and the rat resumed its patrol of the cell. The Saxon cursed, and closed his eyes. He could only wait. He knew what would be coming, and had spent the night if night it was, reconciling himself to what he must do.

He lay with his back against the far wall so that he could face the door. It was solid, impenetrable. At first he had hammered on it until his knuckles bled but no one had responded to his desperate cries and eventually he had subsided into a fitful sleep. In his dreams he was in England, safe from harm, the master of his own destiny, and this had all been a dreadful nightmare, but then he had awoken to discover that this was the reality and his sanctuary in England a mere illusion. He had almost broken at that point but he rationalised that if his Norman captors had wanted him dead he would be. Instead he had been thrown into this stinking hole in the bowels of the earth whilst they decided his fate and the thought had somehow sustained him.

Eventually, after what seemed an eternity, but had only been a matter of days, he had received a visit from his host, Duke William of Normandy, otherwise known as William the Bastard and the full enormity of what was required of him was made clear. He had protested of course; he had ranted and railed in a way that would have had his servants in England piss their pants. But he was not at home, in England. He was in Normandy, the prisoner of the Duke, and the Duke was having none of it.

And so he had rotted his time away far below ground in the bowels of the fortress whilst his straw became fouled and the Duke laid his plans. And what plans they were. And if the Saxon had calculated correctly, today was the day. Perhaps it was, but he could not be sure. He managed to find a dry piece of straw and curled up on it. After a while he slept.

He awoke to the sound of footsteps, several footsteps, echoing on stone slabs. They were growing louder and so he raised himself from the straw into a sitting position so that he could watch the door. A key turned in the lock; heavy bolts scraped back. The door swung open on rusty hinges to reveal three heavily armed men. They approached him with drawn swords and for a moment the Saxon felt a frisson of fear.

"Out cochon!" The Captain of the Guard gave the Saxon's foot a kick, causing a sharp pain to lance through his ankle. The Saxon grimaced and rose to his feet.

"Follow me!" The Saxon felt the point of a sword in his back and obediently followed the Captain.

He was led, stumbling, up a long stone staircase lit only by the occasional torch until another door was opened and he was suddenly, unexpectedly, in bright sunlight. The unaccustomed brightness after weeks spent underground caused him to throw up his hands to shield his eyes but they were quickly pulled from his face by the soldiers flanking him and held tightly to his side so that be could not move them. The sword point prompted him forward again and the Saxon reluctantly obeyed.

Blinking furiously against the glare of an August sun he stumbled along on little-used limbs through grassy meadows redolent with the scent of wild flowers that only served to emphasise the squalid conditions in which he had been existing. Gratefully he filled his lungs with the sweet Normandy air, the first he had breathed for weeks. After a while he saw in the distance a large oak tree standing in splendid isolation and guessed that this was to be his final destination. As they approached the tree the Saxon saw that his guess had been right. An audience of Norman nobility had already begun to gather beneath the shade of its generous branches; young and old alike, dressed in their finery, preening and posing to impress their ladies, and those of their friends. They had all come to witness his humiliation. He saw too, that the chosen reliquaries had been placed in the shade of the tree although whether that was for his benefit or for that of his onlookers, or simply to preserve the fragile relics from the glare of the sun he was uncertain.

He knew that he had no means of escaping the ordeal that was to come, and as he stood before the Holy Sacraments his eyes reflected the inner torment of his soul. He had known for several days what he must do, here, today; of the Oath that he must swear to Duke William, but now that the moment had arrived he felt his resolve waver. He determined to look at no one, to stare blindly ahead, to deny his captor the satisfaction of seeing him humbled.

His arms, like his face, were thin and white from weeks spent in permanent darkness deep in the bowels of the fortress with only the rats for company, and now they were seized by the soldiers-at-arms and spread wide, placed firmly upon the Scriptures. They grinned at each other as they left him standing there, arms spread wide at the horizontal, and after a moment the Saxon realised that there was something about his pose that was familiar, that reminded him of a picture, or sculpture, or something. He had seen it often, but for a moment longer it escaped him. And then he had it; it had hung on the wall over his bed: Christ, on the Cross, at Golgotha. The Bastard was mocking him. He was mocking him. The realisation caused a flush of anger to course through his veins and as his cheeks coloured the Saxon silently swore revenge.

A priest emerged from the crowd and made his way up to the relics so that he faced the Saxon. After a few moments spent scrutinising the Saxon, and obviously disliking what he saw, he began to speak in the nasal tones that the Saxon had come to recognise as Norman. The words themselves meant nothing to him as he did not speak the language, but as the priest reached the Oath itself, the wording of which had been hammered out during exhausting weeks of negotiation, the crowd spontaneously burst into applause. Duke William rose from his seat to acknowledge them and the applause increased. It was all smiles and laughter, a great game played out on this glorious August day. But now the priest was speaking in English, and motioning to the Saxon that he should repeat the words as a bride repeats her wedding vows. The Saxon held his breath whilst he silently damned the man and desperately fought for some way out of his predicament. There was none.

"Swear the Oath, Godwineson." William the Bastard spoke for the first time, the words uttered quietly, his English poor, but the menace in his voice carried clear across the hushed crowd. The Saxon turned to look at his tormentor, a glance only, but it was enough. There was no choice, no choice at all. He was, after all, nothing more than a prisoner, a pawn in William the Bastard's grand strategy; a strategy that would hand him the Throne of England, the richest prize in Christendom.

And so the Saxon repeated the words of the Oath, each word, each act of obeisance stripping away his pride, layer by layer, until, finally, he was laid bare. He was the Duke's man, even unto death. Tears of shame, invisible to those watching the spectacle burned into his cheeks and with each tear the Saxon swore revenge. He would never forget what had happened here, today.


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