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The people of Vanning knew nothing of the plight in which King Richard had left his realm, nor of the greed and corruption of his weak, conniving brother and successor John. King John, a neurotic control freak, was losing land and revenues in the French provinces of the Plantagenet empire and his only way of propping up his regime was the merciless taxation of his English subjects. Godric de Chollerton had been one of the Barons who had opposed the accession of King John. Now he was being financially crippled by the penalties John demanded. The King had even appointed a Reeve to manage Godric's estate.

Geoffrey was the King's man; the younger son of a minor Knight of the Shire he had neither land nor property and had enlisted first as a paid soldier in Richard's crusade then as a mercenary in John's army that had fought in the French provinces.

Geoffrey's ruthlessness in torturing prisoners had brought him to John's attention. He was a man without moral fibre, totally unprincipled and self serving. The King understood such men. Now his task was to bleed dry the wealthy de Chollerton estate. The reward on offer was the hand of Alise, daughter of Baron Godric and the title once the Baron was dead. Alise was the only surviving child and under John's law a widow or daughter had to pay a fee to the crown in order to inherit an estate. All Geoffrey had to do was ensure Alise could not pay. Baron Godric was a good man who took his duties to the poor very seriously. He would not have tolerated Geoffrey's behaviour and so the Reeve had chosen Vanning as a base from where his cruelties could be indulged.

In the crude shelter where he slept, Wat beat his fist on the packed earth floor as he tried to shut out the sound of Hilde's sobs. It was as so many other nights, Geoffrey liked to beat a woman before taking his satisfaction. Her hurt and humiliation was an aphrodisiac.

Tom Smith sat in his forge. The soft swish of a stone on a tempered blade was barely audible outside.

"What art thou at, Tom?" a woman's voice asked quietly.

"Thinking my love," was all Tom said. His anger and frustration burned hotter than the fire.

Next morning Edwin and Ralf were about their business early. They wanted to finish regular chores and be gone before Geoffrey awoke. To help their purpose Ralf, the village brewer, had sent Hilde some very strong ale to give to the Reeve. The men were long gone by the time Geoffrey was at his breakfast.

"Beg pardon master," said Wat standing at the entrance to Hilde' house.

He was waved him forward.

"Edwin say to give thee word him and Ralf gone to the forest to bring back stray swine."

"That's the swineherd's task is it not?" The question was asked sharply as if the young serf was responsible.

" It is not for me to say sire, Edwin is a freeman. Begging pardon sire, but swineherd has many beast to tend and some stays off. Twice a year sir someone has to help him. Like we all joins to get th' harvest in."

"Thou art a fighting man my master," Hilde said, "what ought thou to know of country ways when thy life has been devoted to battling bravely for the glory of our King and the One True Church? Edwin is a good man, he will take care of the pigs."

"Well spoken woman," Geoffrey said, pleased with the show of deference. "Wat, saddle my horse."

"At once sire, he is groomed already." Wat made a small bow and turning, caught Hilde's eye and smiled quickly, acknowledging that she had saved him a beating. The glance lingered a fraction of a second too long.

"Thou makest eyes at my woman, whelp?"

The first blow sent Wat tumbling into a pen where Hilde kept her young chickens. A strong hand grabbed the serf's tunic and jerked him up. "I asked doest thou make eyes at my woman?" The fist drew back.

"N - no sire, I - I"

"Master it was nothing. I have known Wat since he was a babe." Hilde restrained the arm and earned herself a slap.

"Speak when I permit, woman," Geoffrey growled before returning to his vassal. By the time the Reeve left the village with Wat trotting behind the big bay horse the young man's face was bruised and bleeding and he held one arm to his side to try to stop the hurt in his ribs. Tom Smith spat into the forge as several village women ran to help Hilde. Edwin and Ralf had better do something or Tom knew he would have to challenge this violent bully.

Once Edwin and Ralf reached woodland it did not take long to find a forester. These people lived wild lives outside the law. They famed pigs in the clearings and grew corn and vegetables, hunted the Baron's game and gathered the produce of the forest. Some had been born into bondage and were runaways, some came from families that had been in the forest for generations. All of them hated the French speaking nobles that had come with the Conqueror a century and a half before. Within or outside the law, life was brutal and often short for the common people.

"Hail Brand Tewson," Edwin called.

"Hail Edwin Fletcher. Hast thou fled t' new Reeve."

"Thou hast heard talk on un?" Ralf asked

"Everybody in the shire talks of him. Even the bailiffs who work for him call him a devil."

"We have not fled to the forest, Brand. We seek Ambrosius the Hermit. He will help us be rid of this canker that has come amongst us."

"Brand, who had emerged completely from the bushes where he had observed their coming, shook his head, "Bother Ambrosius answers the summons of no man but I will put out word of your plight."

"Tell Ambrosius we do not summon, rather we beg."

"He is often among the foresters at this time of year," Brand said, "he will hear of your plea. Now what is your business in the forest?"

"I have brought arrows but we must take some pigs back to satisfy Geoffrey." Both villagers unslung the bundles they carried. Brand examined the arrows, their slender shafts of Ash, copper heads and flights made from Goose feather. The foresters could make their own arrows but by comparison with the work of a tradesman the product was crude and did not fly true.

Brother Ambrosius always wore the cowled habit of a friar and most people thought of him as a monk who had left his order for a life of contemplative solitude in the woodlands. Sometimes he was no seen for months, years even; at others, particularly in troubled periods he seemed to be everywhere among the people, healing and encouraging. Foresters had more freedom of movement than the peasants and as Ambrosius showed no desire to be among the nobles and bourgeois gentlefolk it was among the foresters he was most often found.

When Edwin's message was passed on by Brand Tewson it took only a week to reach the hermit. Ambrosius was in a large ham on the other side of the shire where an outbreak of fever was causing mayhem. His herbs and brews healed some, protected some and his wise and kind words comforted the dying and those they would leave behind.

Word of the new Reeve of the Chollerton estates had spread and Ambrosius was not surprised to learn that the people of Vanning were suffering under the tyranny of this bully the hermit promised he would visit them to offer his advice for what it was worth.

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