The Year We Lived Sample

by Virginia Crow

January

“The yule block is almost spent,” a delicate voice announced from the curtained archway, the first sound of the new year. The voice’s owner appeared, as slight and gentle as the sound she had made, and padded her leather clad feet into the room where her brother sat. “We’ll have none left to light next year’s block.”

“Did you come here to tell me this?” replied her brother, pushing himself from the beautifully carved chair. He turned to face her and gripped the mighty antlers which formed its high back. “I don’t care about the fire. Speak to me of my wife.”

“She’s sleeping.” The girl was neither surprised nor hurt by his dismissive words but gave a slight curtsy as she prepared to leave once more.

“I didn’t mean to snarl, Edie.”

She smiled across at him, her cheeks lifting in a childish manner which revealed the faintest sign of dimples, before she walked away from him, past the curtain and into the room beyond. Here the fire in the centre of the room attacked the enormous log, which was succumbing far quicker than she had ever known the yule block to do. It had to survive the next five days, or it would have failed in its role. She was unsure what misfortunes might ensue if this should happen, only that the last time it had perished before the end of Christmas had been eight years ago, when her parents had died.

She walked on, past the fire where three of her brother’s men were seated, reaching their hands toward the flames and talking in quiet tones. Drawing aside another curtain, she climbed up the three high stone steps and looked across at her sister-in-law, Matilda. Matilda was asleep, as she had told her brother, and her long thin hands rested on her swollen stomach, holding her unborn child in a warm embrace. There was another, smaller fire here on a grand hearth, enveloping the room in heat and light.

“Edith?” Matilda whispered as the young girl turned to leave. “Is that you?”

“Yes,” Edith replied, stepping over and taking Matilda’s hand in her own.

“I thought I heard you. As light as a butterfly, but as cautious as a squirrel.”

“A squirrel?” Edith repeated, laughing. “You usually say a rabbit.”

She sat beside the older woman and waited until she had fallen asleep before collecting a large woollen blanket and lying down before the hearth. She watched the rafters above her, huge beams from the trees of the landscape around them, as small beetles scuttled from one hole into another. There was a large spider which occupied the joist a little further into the room, which would occasionally labour out of its cocooned existence before wrapping itself once more in its hibernation. This view had accompanied her resting for the past two months since Matilda had fallen from her horse and become bedbound. Robert had commissioned Edith to be a nurse for his wife, and all around him knew better than to question his authority.

But Edith had not objected, even in the privacy of her own heart, to her brother’s demand. She liked Matilda, despite her Norman ancestry, and she knew how much Robert loved her. And Edith loved her brother.

She closed her eyes and listened to Matilda’s soft purring breaths as the new year reached its first sunrise. She did not believe sleep would ever find her, but the high window was filled with a misty filtered light when she was awoken by Matilda’s sobs. She scrambled to her feet, looking at the cold, empty hearth for only a moment before she bundled up the blanket and rushed over to Matilda.

“I had such terrible dreams, Edith,” Matilda gasped, leaning against the young woman’s side as Edith held her with one arm. “I dreamt you hated me and left me to die.”

“I could not do such a thing,” Edith reassured her. “Excepting Robert, I love you more than anyone else this side of death. It was only a dream.”

“I know, my little rabbit,” she muttered. “I remembered. You were a rabbit.”

Edith smiled across at Matilda and rolled up a blanket to support her back so she could sit rather than lie. When she was content with this, she handed Matilda the panel of tapestry she had been persevering with and left the room. She stopped as she encountered two of her brother’s men standing before her.

“Has Robert gone?” Edith whispered.

“He has gone out, Liebling,” the taller of the two began. “He asked us to watch over you.”

“I suspect it wasn’t me he asked you to watch over,” she laughed. “Matilda just had a nightmare. She’s settled now. But I’m going out to collect reeds.”

“You can’t, Liebling,” the other protested. “Why do you need to? There are reeds aplenty in the yard.”

“The yule block is almost spent,” she stated, pointing towards the diminishing object. “Burning the damp reeds will slow its progress.”

“Then I shall go with you,” persevered the first. “Aethelred will stay and protect Lady Matilda.”

“No,” Edith stated as she squeezed her thin form between them both and walked over to where her deerskin coat rested, pulling it over her shoulders. “If Matilda should need us, you must fetch me, Alan, while Aethelred must fetch Robert.”

“Little Liebling,” Aethelred said softly. “You think of everything.”

“But you must wear better boots,” Alan continued. “It hasn’t snowed yet, but the ground is hard with ice.”

“Thank you,” Edith replied with a smile, pulling on wooden-soled shoes which the farrier had hammered nails into to give a better grip on the icy ground. They were not her own shoes, but Robert’s, and they were too big for her even with her normal boots inside them.

Walking out of the heavy door, she took in a deep breath of the new year’s air. It was cold and sharp on her lungs and her eyes watered as she laboured down the slope. There were much smaller houses on either side of the street, erected in wattle and daub, with the timber frames visible in places. Only Robert’s Hall was built on stone foundations. But in weather like this, Edith envied them, for the houses looked so warm and welcoming, while her own was cold. Walking in her brother’s shoes gave her a new confidence and, if she passed any people on the path, they would part before her, each smiling across as they stepped away. Edith was as loved and respected in the village as her brother. For the past eight years they had all invested their time and devotion to raising the child of their former master and each had a burning pride in the gentle soul she had become.

“Liebling Edith,” began a young boy, half her age. “Mother has baked fresh new year pies. Will you come and try one?”

“Thank you, Chad, but no. I have work for the Hall.”

She watched as he scurried off. What she loved the most about this village was that she knew everyone, and everyone knew her. She pondered as she reached the edge of the village, which was marked by a wooden wall, on whether they knew one another as well as they knew her.

Edith passed without challenge into the countryside which was wooded and boggy. The road followed the high ground, twisting and turning like a writhing eel, while on either side trees drank from the marshy pools. A short way along there was a road to the right. It was not well-trodden, but she knew it would take her out to the reed beds. The ground gave beneath her feet as she walked along it and she felt as though each step became harder than the one before. Finally, the trees lessened and gave way to vast marshes. The pools shrank to become deep waterways and the heavens stretched away before her. It was always cold here, and she pulled the deerskin tighter around her as she carefully picked her way down to the water’s edge. Drawing out a small knife Robert had given her two years ago for her twelfth birthday, she struck the blade through the stalk of the damp reeds, collecting them on a pile behind her.

The sun must have been shining somewhere beyond the clouds, but she never saw it until it was preparing to set. She berated herself for losing track of time and looked at the cluster of damp reeds she had harvested. Only now did she consider the question of how to return with them, frowning thoughtfully as she sheathed her knife. A moment later the blade was firmly clenched in her hand, this time as a weapon, not a tool.

Someone was watching her.

Edith did not know how she knew, but she was certain she was no longer alone. Perhaps she had seen a shadow moving, or heard a heavier rustle in the reeds than the wind or a bird would make. Whatever the reason, she was certain someone had their eyes on her, and equally certain it was someone she did not know. Robert had taught her how to use the tool as a defence, how to hold it lightly and move it with slight, delicate movements. But, as the frightening sensation of being watched by an unseen observer continued, Edith only gripped the handle all the more tightly.

“Who are you?” she demanded, but her gentle voice quivered like the tall reeds. “Where are you?”

“Not in the direction you’re looking,” laughed a voice from behind her. “But I live here. I should be asking who you are.”

She spun around to face the intruder, who only laughed again as her knife flew from her hand. Still she could not see him, and now she was unarmed. Her knife appeared before her, offered by an outreached hand which parted the dense reeds around it. She took the handle uncertainly and drew back the reeds to find the hand’s owner. He was kneeling in the tall plants, almost camouflaged in a pale shirt which, far from being a winter garment, hung loosely from his shoulders. His eyes were dark and set so far into his skull that no amount of the dying sun’s light could reach them. But it was his smile which caught her imagination and gave her cause to lower the small blade. True, it was mischievous, but it made him look like a child rather than a villain.

“You live here?” she whispered, sheathing the knife. “But I often come here, and I’ve never seen you. Have you seen me?”

“Not until today.” He drew the rushes further back and looked at the reeds she had collected. “You can’t carry all those back to the lea by yourself.”

“How did you know I was from the lea?” she whispered, turning the knife in her hand.

“Well, you’re not from the marsh, and the lea is the only settlement hereabouts.” He held up his hands in a surrendering gesture as he noticed her grip on the knife handle tighten. “I can help you carry them back.”

“Thank you,” she muttered, rising to her feet and hugging the damp reeds to her stained coat. “Do you live in the marsh?”

He gathered the rest of the reeds. “Hereabouts.” There was a mysterious twinkle in his eye as he answered, so Edith was unsure whether he was being truthful or trying to tease her.

“There aren’t many houses,” she pointed out. “And I thought I knew everyone who lived in each of them, right the way down to the miller at the end of the river.” She waited for him to follow her. “Where do you live?”

“Not in a house.”

“Are you from the garrison?” she asked, spilling her reeds to point the knife at him once more. His dark eyes glistened as they narrowed.

“You must really hate them.” He bent down to gather the reeds she had dropped, never taking his gaze from the point of the knife. “Have they harmed you? Or do you hate them for their accents?”

“Hate?” She sounded shocked by his choice of words. “I don’t hate them, but they hate us.”

“You are lucky, then, that I’m not one of them. And they do speak strangely.” He watched as she returned the knife to its sheath and began walking forward. “Why does Lord de Bois hate you?”

“He hates my brother,” she returned. “Robert has done nothing to deserve it, but last year alone he had to repel three attacks from the Normans.”

“Robert?” the young man asked. “The master of the lea?”

“Yes,” Edith returned, watching as her new companion paled before flushing a deep crimson, a change visible even in the dying sunset. “He is my brother, and those reeds are for his hearth.”

“I’d heard he had a sister. I didn’t expect to find her alone in the marshes collecting fuel. But these reeds won’t burn well.”

“They’re not meant to,” she answered, slightly affronted. “They’re to slow the burning of the yule block.”

She led him towards the road, at which point he looked anxiously around him, as though he expected the attack she had accused him of. In the twilight the spreading limbs of the trees might have hidden anything, their twig tendrils forming a tight hedgerow along the pathway. Edith continued ahead of him, never speaking a word. Similar thoughts were passing through her own head and she began to imagine the hands of the trees reaching out to take her. The Normans were feared throughout this corner of the land for their devious and underhand attacks on the people of the fens. They sought to conquer each corner of their new kingdom without any consideration for the people who knew and understood its landscapes. They would think nothing of striking down a young woman on the road, for it would be no different to slaughtering sheep or cattle. This feeling did not subside until she heard a familiar voice calling out to her.

“Liebling? Liebling Edith?”

“Alan?” she called back, her heart racing and, as she saw the tall flame of a torch approaching from further up the road, she felt all her fears slip from her. Alan rushed forward and looked down at her, a mixture of emotions visible on his face, culminating in one of extreme relief.

“You’re soaked, Liebling,” he began, looking down at her muddy coat and marked hem. “Your brother has sent twenty men out to find you. Where have you been?”

“At the marshes,” she replied, feeling suddenly confident in the appearance of this man. “I was collecting reeds.”

“Where are they?” Alan asked gently.

“He has them,” Edith returned, turning to look at the young man who carried her gathered fuel. She frowned to find she and Alan stood alone on the road. There was no sign of the dark eyed man, not even footprints. The only trace was the large bundle of reeds he had carried for her which were placed on the side of the path. She moved over to them, almost expecting to find him hiding behind them, but he was gone. “There was a young man,” she whispered, more as a reassurance to herself than an explanation to the guard. “He carried them for me. Where did he go, Alan?”

“I didn’t see anyone but you, Liebling,” Alan said, a hint of anxiety creeping into his voice. “Your brother is concerned about you. We should get back to the Hall.” He handed her the torch before gathering up the reeds.

As Edith led Alan back to the Hall, she continued to look back for the strange boy she had found in the marshes. Or had he found her? She felt the corners of her mouth turn up in a smile as she recalled how foolish she had been with her knife, but it slipped as she remembered her careless words concerning the garrison a short distance away, and she felt a stab of guilt. This man, who loyally served her, was as Norman as any of the men at the garrison. Alan had been one of Matilda’s men, but since his mistress’s marriage to Robert, Alan had been more concerned with protecting and serving Edith.

Edith never ceased looking for the peculiar stranger, but he did not reappear. The curfew on the village which rose from the marshy land on the sheltered side of the large lake, meant that the streets were silent as she and Alan passed through them. Occasionally sounds would spill out from the houses, but for the most part, the earth was wrapped in a darkness which swallowed up all the sounds of the world. The air was freezing, and her breath was like smoke before her. As if this had only just reminded her of the temperature, she wrapped the long coat she wore tighter around her. Edith walked into the Hall, thanking Alan as he followed her and feeling more grateful of the roaring fire than she ever had before.