Read The Seventh Lost Tale of Mercia: Hildred the Maid Online

Authors: Jayden Woods

Tags: #ancient, #anglosaxon, #crime, #dark ages, #eadric, #eadric streona, #eadric the grasper, #england, #hildred, #hildred the maid, #historical fiction, #lost tales of mercia, #medieval, #mercia, #romance, #seventh lost tale, #shrewsbury

The Seventh Lost Tale of Mercia: Hildred the Maid

BOOK: The Seventh Lost Tale of Mercia: Hildred the Maid
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The Seventh Lost Tale of Mercia:

Hildred the Maid

Jayden Woods

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2010 Jayden Woods

Edited by Malcolm Pierce

*


This year was the great
famine in England so severe that no man ere remembered
such.”

--Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Entry For Year 1005
A.D.

*

SHREWSBURY, MERCIA

1005 A.D.

On her way to church that morning, anger
poisoned Hildred’s devotion. She knew that she was supposed to
worship God with a pure and loving heart, but she also doubted that
God would notice one way or another. After all, He clearly didn’t
see—nor care—what was happening to her body, nor the bodies of her
entire family, most of whom were dead.

The majority of the people trudging on the
same dirt path to the church suffered more than she. Their skin lay
flat on their bones and their raggedy clothes flapped loose on
their joints. This was the worst famine any of them had seen in
their lifetimes. Hildred fared better than them only because so
many of her own family members had died in the last few years,
leaving fewer mouths to feed.

Her eyes stung at the thought, but her
physical discomfort overcame the torments of her mind. Her belly
ached and her muscles trembled. For weeks she had lived on little
more than nuts and water. What money she and her father had, they
used to buy milk for the baby. A year ago, Hildred’s mother died
giving birth to him. Somehow, little Coenred had survived, and
lived still. He was growing sick, and he slept much more than a
baby should sleep, and every instance he squirmed and cried came as
a relief.

When she awoke this morning, she did so with
the determination to save her baby brother no matter what. Perhaps
that was why she dressed herself nicely today. She donned a soft
linen dress that once belonged to her mother. She untangled her
long brown hair with a pick and splashed her face with
stream-water. She was not even sure why. It was a desperate clutch
for pride and hope, she thought. When she knelt and prayed to God,
perhaps He would notice her at last. Perhaps He would pay
attention. And then He would show her mercy.

She heard a disturbance behind her and turned
to see two horses galloping up the road. As they neared the
pedestrians, the riders gave half-hearted tugs on their horses’
reins, but gave no indication that they would slow down to an
agreeable pace. The townsfolk murmured and pushed one another as
they tried to get out of the way.

The horses had little choice but to skid to a
walk or trample some human beings, so they cast clouds of bitter
dust into the air and snorted with dismay. Standing defiantly in
place, Hildred glared back at the two riders shuffling closer. One
of them was older and more rugged than the other, his wolfish hair
and beard shaded gray, his large hand on the hilt of his sword as
he yelled, “Make way for Thegn Eadric!”

Her glare fiercened. As the dust cleared she
saw Lord Eadric, a man near her own age at some nineteen years, his
red tunic blazing with color in the light of the sunrise. His long
yellow hair was tied back, but still several strands sprang about
his cheeks, thick and curly. Her heart gave a little leap at the
handsomeness of his face, the bright blue eyes and slightly bumped
nose, and she struggled to remember why she ought to dislike him.
In truth people said the land-owning swineherd was a good lord: his
own estate currently fared better than anyone else’s in all of
Shrewsbury. But people also whispered that he was a liar and
deceiver, though none of them could prove why. They probably
assumed that because he began as a base-born nobody, he must have
achieved his position by some evil, unfair means.

Her heart lurched again when she realized
that he was staring back at her. Without deciding to, Hildred now
stood in the middle of the road, blocking his path completely.
People on either side of the road kept him from moving around her,
and his horse had slowed nearly to a stop. She shut her gaping
mouth and blinked rapidly, as if her lids might protect her from
the lord’s curious gaze.


Out of the way!” cried the
lord’s companion, unsheathing his sword by a notch.

Hildred realized she was being very foolish,
and for no other reason than because she was jealous of these rich
and powerful men. She did not move from their path because she did
not feel that she ought to. But what would she gain from defying
them? Nothing but trouble, and she would be even more miserable
than she already was.

She deflated quickly, dropping her head and
stepping backwards. But even though she got out of their way, for a
moment, no one moved. She hardly dared to breathe. She could feel
the eyes of everyone watching her, judging her, and hoping to
witness an exciting scene, whatever that might entail.

She heard her own heart thudding through her
veins. She watched the horses’ hooves scuffle in the dirt,
agitated, but not moving forward. She glimpsed Eadric’s boots
clenching the sides of his horse. Why didn’t the lord move on?


You.”

She flinched at the sound of his voice, soft
yet sharp at the same time. Lifting her head only so far as
necessary, she strained to look at him through her lashes.

To her surprise, he was smiling. “Chin up,”
he said, and winked.

Her mouth fell open again as
at last he spurred his horse and galloped onward with his
companion. Her blood roared in her ears. Had anyone else seen that?
Did the thegn just
wink
at her? His horse flicked a sassy tail and she shook her head
in disbelief.

She looked down at herself: at the soft green
dress, the freed chestnut hair, and how both of them draped the
swell of her chest. Perhaps she had succeeded in looking even nicer
than she’d intended. Had she really expected to win God’s
attention, or was it actually the favor of wealthy thegns that she
hoped for?

Whatever the case, she now felt sinful and
childish for her vanity. What good could she really achieve by
looking pretty? At home, her baby brother lay on death’s door. Her
father was so miserable that if a chance at death presented itself,
he would gladly join the rest of their family in heaven. But the
thought of heaven sent chills across Hildred’s skin. Perhaps her
faith was weak, but the comfort of an afterlife was a faint one;
she did not want to die.

She began whispering her prayers long before
the church came into sight.

The church was a simple building, its rounded
walls made of twigs and clay, but it rested in a thriving valley.
The small gardens here, whether through tedious attention or
constant prayers, had somehow escaped the rot and malnutrition
infecting the rest of Engla-lond’s soil. Adding to the paradisaical
scene, cattle and sheep dotted the hills, strolling and grazing and
lowing with leisure. Hildred’s hands clenched at her sides. The
mere sight of such healthy livestock made her mouth water. How long
had it been since she tasted beef or mutton?

Her family had suffered from hunger for some
time now. Last year had been a minor drought, or at least everyone
looked back on it as minor; but in their hunger they had eaten the
seeds of next year’s harvest, and plunged themselves into a worse
famine than before. Her father lost his job plowing another
landowner’s field. The local reeves began to punish people severely
for killing too many livestock for meat. Lord Eadric, she recalled,
had been one of the harshest enforcers of this rule. No one wanted
what had happened to last year’s seeds happen to this year’s
animals. And yet as she stared at them, Hildred could not
comprehend the wrongness of taking a single cow and using it to
help her small family through the seasons.

She closed her eyes, murmured another prayer,
and kept moving.

At the door of the church, she stopped. Her
stomach churned within her.

She could smell food.

She knew that a small amount of food would be
doled out after the service. The clergy found it a way to ensure
attendance to their sermons. And in truth, they owed as much to the
people, who had often come to work the church’s lands in the past
when their sins lay heavy on their hearts. Hildred knew she should
be grateful. But it was difficult to be grateful for a small bowl
of leek soup after glimpsing the church’s gardens and flocks.
Surely they could afford to give back more to the people than that?
Didn’t she deserve a pouch of milk to carry back to her baby
brother?

Sweat beaded her brow, though a cool breeze
blew from the graying sky. She remained standing still as everyone
else flooded into the meager sanctuary. She glimpsed the monks
within their humble habits. Despite everything their cheeks glowed
with vigor and their robes remained tight against their forms. She
knew that perhaps God intended this, and rewarded these men for
their hard work; and yet all of a sudden, she could not stand the
sight of them.

She backed away from the church entrance. She
turned aside.

As if in a trance, she followed her nose. She
was not sure why no one stopped her. Perhaps they were all like
her, unable to think of anything beyond the pangs of their own
bellies. She walked through the lush fields, though they seemed to
lose color around her as the sky darkened above. She wondered if
God was watching now, hiding behind the blur of the clouds.

Her worn sandals led her through the dank
grass to the kitchens, a more skeletal building behind the church.
Her nose flared with the wafting scents and she felt dizzy.
Vegetables, bread, fish, and even fruit … her sense of smell
informed her that all of those things were only a few steps out of
her reach.

A single man worked in the kitchens now,
tending the food while the others worshiped. She could hear him
humming as he worked. She stepped into the enclosure, her eyes
drinking in the sight of the bowls of stew, the raw ingredients,
the stores in barrels or underground compartments. Under the shade
of a grassy roof, rays of sunshine shot through and bathed the
precious items in golden light.

Then she saw two more men, and her eyes
opened wide. They were Lord Eadric and his companion, standing
amongst the food as if waiting for the cook themselves, while their
horses grazed in the nearby grass. They were talking with casual
smiles on their faces while the chubby cook bounced about, stewing
pots with with thick fingers and then licking them clean of oil and
butter.

She stood there for too long. Of a sudden,
Eadric saw her.

His smile drooped to a frown. Hildred forced
a gulp through her watering mouth. She trembled but stood firm
against his cerulean gaze.


Hey Aidan,” said Eadric.
“You’ve a visitor.”

The monk stopped working and turned to look.
His round face took a strange slant. She could sense the unease
behind his forced smile. “Hello there,” he said. “Are you looking
for something?”


I … I …” She watched as a
slab of butter a few tables away melted in a large, gooey drop. She
felt faint. “I need food.”


I know it, my dear, I do.”
He walked closer to her, his large form blocking the sight of the
foods. She was forced to stare into his green eyes, which seemed
much too sharp and darting for a man of God. “But it is easy to
forget that your soul is in as great a need as your body, or more
so! You must offer your soul to God before you expect the fruits of
His good will for your body. Go on to church with the
others.”


I … can’t.” Not needing to
exaggerate, she shuddered and fell to her knees. She no longer
cared about the handsome nobleman watching, nor what he thought of
her. The sharp-eyed cook blinked rapidly with surprise. “I’m … too
weak.”

He cocked an eyebrow, growing irritated. She
trembled as his green eyes raked her up and down. “You look well
enough,” he remarked.


For God’s sake,” said
Eadric, startling them both. Hildred looked up to see, with some
relief, that the lord and his man were turning to go. “Give the
lady a carrot, Aidan.”

Aidan scowled after the
departing thegn. “If
you’ll
go to church.”


One day perhaps,” called
Eadric over his shoulder, smirking again. She glared at the thegn
as he lifted up sacks of bread and cabbages and secured them to his
horse’s saddle. Where did the sacks come from? In another breath
Eadric hopped gaily onto his horse’s back, the brightness of his
hair and tunic blinding even in the dull sunshine, and nudged the
mount along, followed by his ever loyal companion. How must it feel
to live with such comfort and security? She could hardly
imagine.

The monk grumbled to himself, but it seemed
as if he was, in fact, fetching her some carrots.

BOOK: The Seventh Lost Tale of Mercia: Hildred the Maid
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