The Strangers' Field
Note on the use of Old English pronouns. Thou is the second peson singular nominative case, Thee is the dative and accusative cases, thy or thine the possessive. You and your are second person plurals.
The rider approaching the hamlet of Vanning from the direction of Chollerton had the appearance of a man recently returned from war. His battered shield bore no arms or heraldic inscription only the simple cross of a crusader, the breastplate and greaves and chainmail tunic showed sign of rust and the woollen cloak and hose were ragged and threadbare. The man himself suited the armour well, lean and angular with a scarred face that told of many battles his pale, cold eyes were expressionless like glass under the heavy brows. This was not a man from whom one would expect a friendly greeting. Dismounting at the edge of the village square he walked to its centre with an uneven gait, the result of an old wound. In the wattle huts around the square people watched.
"Art thou the new Reeve?" A village lad asked stepping forward to take the horse's reins and receiving for his good manners a backhanded slap that knocked him down.
Two older men who had been lurking in the shadow of the roundhouse looked at each other as the lad sprawled in the mud and dung of the square.
"A mercenary doest reckon Ralf?" said one.
The other spat on the ground, "No knight or squire for sure Edwin. A gentleman would not strike a serf for no reason, they would not soil their hands." Ralf fingered resentfully the copper band that encircled his neck and whistled to his son Wat.
"Let's look about or work 'fore yon sees us," Edwin said.
The same thought occurred to others around the village square. A smith's hammer began to ring on the anvil and from behind a large hut came the thunk, thunk of an adze shaping wood.
The village was self contained most of the time, about forty people lived there in all. The road through led only to a few small farms further up the valley and a priory that belonged to the Abbey at Chollerton. Few travellers passed except for monks going to and from the priory. A few times a year the Baron's Reeve would come bringing serfs to help with harvesting and a monk to act as clerk, recording the quantities of crops and calculating the tithes and levies. Three times each year the villagers would go into Chollerton; the hiring fair took place in spring, the great fair at midsummer and the harvest fair on the feast of All Hallows. Other than that few outsiders were seen and news came to the hamlet only through contact with field workers and herdsmen who tended their animals on the commons.
It had been known for some time that there was to be a new Reeve. Villagers also knew that King Richard's adventures in the Holy Land had bankrupted the royal treasury and that King John would mercilessly tax the poor in order to buy the loyalty of his knights and nobles. The attitude of the visitor did not lighten the mood.
"Boy, come here," a harsh voice commanded the young man who had been knocked down. Wat looked pleadingly at Edwin and Ralf but his elders could do nothing, the Reeve had the authority of law. Wat moved slowly back towards the rider. "Take my horse and tether him and then help me off with my armour and chain mail."
Being a serf Wat did not think to question the command. Next the soldier turned towards the forge.
"Blacksmith; clean and oil my mail and repair this breastplate."
"Aye sir, for four pence."
A gloved fist crashed into the smith's mouth. Around the village the watchers gasped. Tom Smith was a freeman. It was common enough to see a serf or bondsman beaten but a freeman had rights.
"Thou seekest payment for payment smith? Has this village no hospitality."
"Aye sir, pardon me sir." Tom lifted his hugely muscled arm and wiped the blood from his lips, accepting the humiliation. Even though he was more heavily built and only slightly shorter he knew better than to fight this man. The visitor was no ordinary soldier, there was a threat in everything he did and not a trace of compassion in the hard eyes, he was a man who took what he wanted and revelled in his small portion of power.
"I shall put my other work aside and deal with your armour at once sir," Tom Smith muttered.
Once this scene had been played out young Wat stepped forward and began to unbuckle the armour, passing each piece to Tom.
Once out of his armour and with his horse being tended by Wat, the soldier picked up his shield and standing in the centre of the square began to bang its metal boss with the hilt of his broadsword. People emerged from the huts and pens, gathering in a rough semi-circle in front of the stranger.
"I am Geoffrey of Malton, Reeve of this district and lieutenant of your Baron Godric de Chollerton. I will lodge here in Vanning for it suits me well, you will treat me as your Lord. "Wench,." He pointed at a good looking woman of about twenty - five who had come out of one of the larger houses, "Who art thou?"
"Hilde widow of Merrick, Piers' son sir."
"I shall lodge with thee widow."
"It would not be proper sir, my husband and father are recently dead. I have nobody to protect me, it would not be proper."
"Thinkest thou thy Reeve is not proper to protect thee woman?"
"Sir, I am a freewoman, I hold land. I am not thine to command."
"And with no man to farm it for you how wilt thou pay thy tithes."
"The village men help me sir and I pay them." She had been about to say Wat helped her but he was in enough trouble already.
"The village men do as I say now." With two strides Geoffrey closed on the woman and snatched the arm of her child. "Did I not say thou must honour me? Yet a wench of no family insults me and denies me hospitality?" He drew a dagger and held it against the child's cheek.
"Very well sir, thou shalt lodge with me tonight."
"And for as long as I please." Geoffrey roughly threw the crying child at Hilde's feet.
Seeing that nobody could help her Hilde bowed her head in acquiescence.
For the rest of the day Geoffrey toured the village and surrounding fields, taking the freeman Edwin as his guide. Wat was told to await the arrival of the cart bearing the Reeve's possessions and to move them into Hilde's house. Hilde herself had been told to provide a worthy supper. The widow was well provisioned enough to feed so demanding a guest but the other women brought her two coneys and a knuckle of mutton. To save one of their own they must feed the stranger.
Gossip buzzed among the villagers that day, why had the new Reeve chosen to live in Vanning, surely the Baron could provide lodging in Chollerton. And why had Baron Godric, a good and just master, chosen such a man, a fighting man who had no connection with he district or its people. When the cart arrived people were once more surprised. Geoffrey had few possessions, armour and weapons, the accoutrements of a travelling knight, bridlery and saddlery and a small trunk. The whole spoke of a man who had spent most of his life on horseback, probably in the service of the Plantagenet kings who had ruled England so disastrously.
That night Hilde's cries as Geoffrey took his pleasure heralded the start of a reign of terror that would bring the people of Vanning close to breaking.
The new Reeve was no less hard on the villagers and farmers around the rest of the deChollerton estate but Vanning suffered most because of his constant presence. The simple joys of life seemed to be abolished as people worked from sunrise to sunset all through the summer. Any idling, gossiping over a cup of ale or sharing a joke or a song could easily earn a beating. Geoffrey's pleasure lay in exercising his power over people and in Vanning, away from the eyes of the world that power was absolute.
Hilde was almost a slave, she was soon showing signs of pregnancy but that did not spare her the regular beatings and humiliations if her lodger was displeased with anything. Another girl, aged only twelve and just into her womanhood was also with child and told of being taken while walking back from the fields one day.
Ralf and Edwin were both in their forties, a good age for common people at the time, and though Ralf wore a serf's band he had travelled with his master and served in the wars. It was to these two the villagers would turn in times of trouble. One night in Edwin's house, safe from Geoffrey's sharp eyes, the talk centred on the villagers' misery.
"We mun do something," said Peter Shepherd, "afore yon take everything for he self and we go through the winter starving."
"Or worse kill the breeding stock and milk cows" said Tom Smith.
"Thou mun fight him Tom, thou art strongest. We'st back thee. And when un is beat we'st tell him we are not animals to be treated so."
"And he will bring bailiffs and throw me in the dungeons at Chollerton. If he don't kill me first. Yon man is a trained soldier."
"But we mun free Hilde," said Wat.
"Will you fight then Wat? Your quarter staff against the sword of a skilled fighter?"
Wat flushed with anger and beat his own forehead with clenched fist.
"We can't fight Wat," said Ralf gently to his son, "Reeve has law to protect him. But maybe there is a way if we are patient."
"If we are men before God why are we not men before the law?" Wat asked, not expecting a reply, "will the priests not give us justice. I will fight him alone if I have to."
"God works for those who pay his bishops," Ralf said, patting the his son's shoulder.
"We know you are soft on Hilde but how will it help her if you are killed. She needs her friends alive."
"Let it be" said Edwin, "you are a serf Wat and Hilde a free woman. You could not have her to wife unless you won your freedom.
"I know that" said Wat, "but we cannot do nothing."
"We will not do nothing," said Edwin, "but we have no weapons except wisdom. Vanning is away from the roads and a small unimportant village. We are unlucky Geoffrey came here but he was attracted by our isolation. Where there are no prying eyes to see what happens he can be a king. We need wise counsel."
"Why does he treat us so?" Wat begged of anybody.
"Because he can," said Ralf, "it is in the nature of such men."
Ralf looked at Edwin. "The morrow we mun go to the forest for the stray swine?"
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