“MMmnn”, I snuggled down into my bracken mattress, smelling the sweet musty smell of the leaves through the linen cover. The woollen blanket I was wrapped in didn’t smell quite so sweet. It doubled up as a cloak on really cold mornings and yesterday I’d managed to trail it across the pig-pen while I was feeding them, and now it had a rather strong piggy odour. “Toki!!”. I groaned and snuggled down even further. I could tell the morning was cold and frosty even without sticking my head out of my bed and I had enough chores to last me until nightfall today and I didn’t need my elder brother Azor reminding me. There were the chickens to be fed and the eggs to be collected, one old bird was particularly wily at hiding her nests away and I’d no doubt spend ages looking for it. Then there was Matilda to check up on. She was due to calve soon and then there’d be enough creamy milk to make cheeses and butter for everyone with plenty left over to trade. Then I had to walk the sheep up to the hill pasture and watch over them for the rest of the day, scaring off any wolves or eagles that might happen to fancy a bit of fresh lamb. I’d also have to milk the ewes before we set off and again when we got back in the evening. And even when I was up with the sheep there was woollen thread to be spun on the bone weighted drop spindle mother always insisted I carried. “You spin the worst thread I’ve ever seen Toki” she’d say, but we can still use it for blankets so keep spinning boy, you never know, you might get better with practice!” I sighed and tried to remember what else I had to do today.
“TOKI, get up you lazy goodfornothing cur!!” Azor, my elder brother had crept over and was now bellowing in my ear. I leapt to my feet to avoid a cuff to the head and grabbing my cloak, rushed out of the door, closely followed by Azor, only for us both to be brought up short by the sight of the whole village gathered in silence and staring off to the east. We crept round them and saw for ourselves, smoke, way off in the distance, but quite clearly a village on fire from the size of the cloud drifting up and away in the cold air. Some of the women had begun to cry quietly.
When the Normans seized power, here in the north, we hadn’t noticed much difference. Our English lord, Dringel still had power over us to demand service and labour in the fields. But Dringel no longer owned these lands, instead they had been parcelled out, along with much more besides, to a Norman lord called Osberne de Arches. I’d seen him once, riding by on his black charger, proud and despising us all as we grovelled at his stirrup. Dringel had muttered and cursed but was wise enough to know there was nothing he could do about it. So we continued on, farming our land, tending the sheep and the cattle, harvesting the oats and the barley.
Then it had all changed. Prouder or stupider English lords than Dringel had risen up in the north and dared to challenge William the king and his greedy Norman lords. They’d been destroyed of course and now William was wreaking his revenge, his Norman henchmen tearing through the countryside, firing every village in their path. For days now we’d heard rumours that the war bands had passed us by, but now the evidence couldn’t have been plainer, they were on their way in that black rage that seemed to grip these Norman men, a rage that couldn’t be quelled until they’d had their fill of wrecking.
We all stared in terror at the grey smoke, imagining the horror of burned houses and trampled winter crops. Cattle and sheep slaughtered or burned alive in their sheds. The land would be laid waste and the people would starve with no fields to work or seed to plant. My father was the leader of our little community and he broke the spell with a loud cry. “Wake up men, gather your families, collect what you can. We must get out of here right now!” There was a rapid discussion and I heard that the decision was to travel up the gill with as much of the stock as they could gather. Once up on the moors they’d spread out and find what cover they could. “We must try to save what we can from those Norman dogs!” People ran back to their huts, children cried, dogs yelped as they got in the way and were kicked. Pigs squealed, two escaped and that was that, there was no time to catch them.
I ran as fast as I could to the stable where Matilda our best milk cow was tethered. As soon as I got to the door my heart sank, of course she’d chosen right now to start calving. We couldn’t possibly move her and so her fate had been sealed. I looked into her dark brown eyes and felt a lump rising in my throat. With no cheese and butter to trade for iron tools our lives as farmers would be impossible. I turned and ran back to the hut to tell my mother. Her strained white face grew even paler as she understood the desperate situation. She was carrying a length of precious linen that her grandmother had woven. I’d often heard stories about her, she’d been of Viking blood and no-one could spin and weave the bright hard flax as well as she. Mother knew she’d couldn’t carry it away, there were far more important things like oats and salt that we couldn’t live without up on the moors in hiding. A sudden determined look appeared on her face. She thrust the piece of linen into my hands. “Toki” she said, “we must pray for a miracle, run now, as fast as your legs can carry you, to St Anne’s Spout. She’s helped us in the past and she’s our only hope now”.
I didn’t need telling twice, stuffing the precious piece of cloth inside my jerkin, I sped as fast as an arrow from a bow down the bank and then up along the stream side. I passed the first family to leave the village, struggling along on the opposite bank. They were arguing about how much the old woman was carrying, she was holding them all back. If the war band caught them, who knows what would happen to them. I ran on, my chest beginning to hurt in the sharp cold air. Just a bit further, just a bit further. I stumbled on a rock then clawing my way forward, tipped up at the foot of the holy spring. Named for the Virgin Mary’s mother, St Anne, it ran sweet and clear throughout the driest weather. The spring was named for a kindly saint and when people were in trouble, when there had been no rain for weeks, when the sheep were giving birth to dead lambs, we came here with whatever offering we could scrape together, to ask for her help.
I knelt down and laid the shining piece of cloth on the flat offering stone, just in front of the grooved, smooth rock that made up the back of the slope and down which the water slid before bubbling away into the gill. “St Anne” I said through trembling lips, “watch our people today in these troubled times. We’ve done nothing to deserve our village being burned and our animals slaughtered. We work hard and pray to you and make our offerings. Look down on us now and help us”. The hot tears began to scald my cheeks and I bent down and placed my face against the cool linen cloth and sobbed my heart out. I don’t know how long I cried, but I began to be aware of feeling deathly cold. I shivered and rubbed my bleary eyes, it was getting colder as if the whole valley knew death was on its way. But where was my family? I stared up and down the gill in vain. Surely they hadn’t passed me by? The little valley wasn’t that wide, I would have heard then going by, they would have called to me. Fear then really began to grip an icy hand around my heart. Had the war band sent a scouting party up ahead on foot? Had they crept into the village in all the confusion and started the burning there and then?
Without another thought I fled back down the way I’d come. Panting hard, I suddenly saw my elder brother up ahead. “Quick” he yelled, “come with me, father wants us to set watch for the first signs of the Norman dogs. They’re trying to load as much seed corn as they can onto the ponies. It’s really touch and go down there.” Without a word, I set off after him up the hill slope. My father was either being very brave or very foolish. Without the seed corn many of the old and the very young would probably die of starvation next winter. But if he didn’t get the village cleared in time, we’d all die. On and up we scrambled over the tussocky grass. If we got high enough we’d get a fine view along the track that led over the hills and down to the ford. Our village lay on the high ground a little way above the ford.
We made it and strained our eyes and sure enough we could see more smoke, this time it was closer. “That’s Dringel’s manor” said my brother “poor reward for his bending the knee to Osberne so readily!”, I nodded dumbly. Dringel wasn’t a bad lord, he understood how the thin upland soil and the harsh weather sometimes let us down and he never asked for more than we could afford to give. Osberne de Arches was a different kettle of fish altogether. He came from the rich soils of France and didn’t want to know whether his demands were reasonable or not. And now of course it was all for nothing. His land was to be laid to waste just like everyone else’s. Not that he’d care, with all his estates in the south and abroad.
“Ow” My brother suddenly gripped my arm hard. “Look” he pointed, “they’re coming.” I squinted into the wintery sun and then I saw them. Men on horseback, the sun glinting off their helmets and boar spears, riding hard and throwing up the dry earth as they came. Even this far off I could see that some of them carried burning torches. As my brother scrabbled out the cow horn he’d been given to sound the alarm, I turned to look at my home probably for the last time, offering up one last prayer to kind St Anne as I turned. Then it was my brother’s turn to yell when I grabbed his arm. “LOOK!” He looked, and saw what I saw, St Anne’s miracle. She’d taken pity on us like she’d done so many times before. And what had she done? She’d gathered up a mist from the river to the south and at that very moment it was flowing up our stream to the ford and settling there in a great thick cloud. The people in the village had seen it too, a milky, pearly miracle gathering below them and hiding them from the Norman’s view as they came thundering down the hill past them, across the ford and on up the other side and away. How my father managed to keep the village quiet as they hurtled by I’ll never know, though the noise they were making and the deadening effect of the mist must have helped.
Silence returned and then I heard my father’s strong voice rising up to us, he was singing an old English song of praise and celebration. Azor and I joined in at the tops of our voices as we strode down the hill to our home. And there in the doorway of our barn was Matilda’s newest calf, still wet and wobbling, but fine and strong, I laughed with joy. There was new life in the village and hope for the future.