As part of the Winter Siege Blog Tour I am delighted to be able to share an extract from the book with you, and what better place to start than the opening chapter?
The Cambridgeshire Fens, February 1141
At first, news of the war going on outside passed into the fenland without impact. It oozed into that secret world as if filtered through the green miasma of willow and alder that the fenlanders called ‘carr’, which lined its interminable rivers and reed beds.
At Scutney, they learned about it from Old Sala when he came back from his usual boat trip to Cambridge market where he sold rushes for thatching. He told the tale in the village church after the celebration of Candlemas.
‘Now yere’s King Stephen—’ he began.
‘Who?’ somebody asked.
Sala sighed with the exasperation of a much-travelled man for the village idiot. ‘I told you an’ told you, bor. Ain’t Henry on the throne now, it’s Stephen. Old Henry’s dead and gone these many a year.’
‘He never told me.’
‘Well, he wouldn’t, would he? Him bein’ a king and dead.’
As always, the little wooden church smelled of cooking from the rush tapers that had been dipped in fat. Scutney couldn’t afford beeswax candles; anyway, rushes gave out a prettier light.
‘Get on with it, will ’ee?’ Brother Arth struggled out of the rough woollen cope he wore to take the services and into the sheepskin cloak that was his working wear in winter. ‘I got ditchin’ and molin’ to see to.’
They all had, but the villagers stayed where they were – it was as well to be informed about what was going on in them uplands. Sala stretched back his shoulders and addressed his audience again. ‘So this King Stephen’s started a-warring with his cousin, the Empress Matilda. Remember as I told you old King Henry, on his deathbed, wanted his daughter, this Matilda, to rule England? But the nobles, they don’t want no blasted female queenin’ it over un, so they’ve said no and gives the crown to Stephen, old Henry’s nephew.’
He looked sternly into the standing congregation. ‘Got that now, Bert, have you? Good. Well now, Matilda, she ain’t best pleased with bein’ passed over and seems she’s brought a army as is a-fighting Stephen’s army out there some’eres.’
‘That it?’ Nyles wanted to know.
‘Enough, innit?’ Sala was miffed that Nyles, the big man of the village because he owned more sheep than anybody else, hadn’t been more receptive to the news. ‘I been tellin’ you as there’s a war goin’ on out there.’
Nyles shrugged. ‘Allus is.’
‘Excitin’, though, Pa, ain’t it?’ asked eleven-year-old Em, looking up at him. Nyles cuffed his daughter lightly about her red head for her forwardness in speaking in church. She was his favourite, but it didn’t do to let females get out of hand, especially not this one. ‘Well, good luck to ’em, I say. And now let’s get on with that ditchin’ and bloody molin’.’
But Old Sala, irritated by the interruption, raised his hand. ‘I’ll tell you summat else, Nyles. And you’ll want to listen this time. Want to be keeping a close eye on that one, you will,’ he said, pointing at Em. ‘Folk say as there’s a band o’ mercenaries riding round ’ere like the wild hunt and with ’em there’s a monk; likes red-heads, he does.
Does terrible things when ’e finds ’em too.’ Nyles shook his head indulgently and turned towards
the door. He knew Old Sala with his scaremongering and preposterous tales of abroad and yet he suddenly felt in – explicably chilly and, without realizing it, had reached out and drawn the child closer to him. Daft old bugger.
‘That it then, Sala?’ he asked. The old man looked deflated but nodded and with that the men, women and children of Scutney trooped out of its church to continue their own, unceasing war – against water.
The North Sea, that great enemy, was always threatening to drown East Anglia in one of its rages, submerging fields and cattle, even lapping the just-above-sea-level islands that dotted the flattest land in England. In winter, the sluggish rivers and great drains had to be cleared of weed or they clogged and overflowed.
Oh, and the mole, as big an enemy as the sea, had to be killed to stop the little bugger from weakening the dykes with his bloody tunnels.
No, the people of Scutney didn’t have time from their watery business to bother about wars between the danged nobles. Anyway, they were safe because just over there – over there, bor, see them towers in the distance? – was Ely, greatest cathedral in England.
Every year, the villagers had to deliver four thousand glistening, squirming eels to Ely in return for being protected by St Etheldreda, whose bones lay in a jewelled tomb within the cathedral walls.
Powerful saint, Etheldreda, an Anglo-Saxon like themselves, and although Scutney people resented the number of eels they had to catch in order to feed her monks, they were grateful to her for keeping them safe from the outside world with its battles and carryings-on.
Oh yes, any bugger who came a-trampling and a-killing in this part of the fens ’d soon have his arse kicked out of it by good old St Ethel. That’s if the bugger could find Scutney in the first place and didn’t drown in the meres or get led astray by spirits of the dead who took the shape of flickering Jack-o’- Lantern flames in the marshes by night.
Folk allus said that for an enemy force to attack Ely it’d take a traitor to show the secret causeways leading to it. And who’d be so dang-blasted stupid as to betray St Etheldreda? Get sent straight to Hell, he would. Such was the attitude.
But a traitor was even now preparing his treachery, and the war was about to penetrate Scutney’s fenland for all that St Etheldreda in her 500-year-old grave could do about it.
The first the village knew of its fate was when soldiers sent by Hugh Bigod turned up to take its men away to build him a new castle.
‘Bigod?’ roared Nyles, struggling between two captors while his red-headed elder daughter batted at their legs with a frying pan. ‘We don’t owe him nothing. We’re Ely’s men.’
Hugh Bigod, newly Earl of Norfolk, owned a large proportion of East Anglia. The Scutney villagers had seen him in his fine clothes swanking it at Ely with their bishop during Christmas feasts and suchlike. Didn’t like him much. But then, they didn’t like anybody from Norfolk. Didn’t like the next village across the marshes, come to that.
Nor was he their overlord, as was being energetically pointed out to his soldiers. ‘Tha’s not law, bor. We ain’t none of his. What’s he want another castle for? He’ve got plenty.’
‘And now he do want another one,’ the soldiers’ sergeant said, ‘in case Empress Matilda do attack un. There’s a war on, bor.’
‘Ain’t my war,’ Nyles told him, still struggling.
‘Is now,’ the sergeant said, ‘and if them nippers of yourn don’t cease bashing my legs, they’ll be its next bloody casualties.’
For Em had now been joined by her younger sister, Gyltha, wielding an iron spit.
‘Leave it,’ Nyles told his girls. But they wouldn’t, and their mother had to drag them off. Holding them tightly, Aenfled watched her husband and every other able-bodied man being marched off along the roddon that led eventually to Cambridge.
‘Us’ll be back, girl,’ Nyles shouted at her over his shoulder, ‘but get they sheep folded, an’ don’t ’ee sell our hay for a penny under thruppence a stook, an’ look to that danged roof afore winter’s out, and . . .’ He had suddenly remembered Old Sala’s warning in the church. ‘Keep Em close . . .’ And then he was too far away to be heard.
The women of Scutney stood where they were, their men’s instructions becoming fainter and fainter until only an echo came sighing back to them and even that faded so that the air held merely the frightened bawling of their babies and the call of geese flying overhead.
They didn’t cry; fenwomen never wept.
The men still hadn’t come back by the beginning of Lent.
It was a hard winter, that one. Birds dropped out of the air, killed by the cold. The rivers froze and dead fish could be seen enclosed in their ice. The old died in their huts; the sheep in their pens.
In the turbaries, spades dulled themselves on peat that had become as hard as iron, so that fuel became scarce and it was necessary for tired, overworked women and their families to venture further and further away from the village in order to retrieve the peat bricks that had been stacked a year before to provide fire for shepherds during the lambing season.
On St Valentine’s Day, it was the turn of Aenfled and her children to trundle a barrow into the marsh to fetch fuel. They’d left nothing behind in the woolly line and the thickness of their wrappings made them look like disparately sized grey statues perambulating through a grey landscape. Their breath soaked into the scarves round their mouths and turned to ice, but a veil of mist in the air promised that the weather might, just might, be on the turn. The children all carried bows and arrows in case a duck or goose flew within range.
Tucked into Em’s belt was a little carved wooden key that Durwyn, Brother Arth’s son, had shyly and secretly shoved into her hand that morning. Gyltha wouldn’t leave the subject alone. ‘Wants to
unlock your heart, he do. You got to wed un now.’
‘Sod that,’ Em said. ‘I ain’t never getting married and certainly not to a saphead like Durwyn. Anyways, I ain’t old enough an’ he ain’t rich enough.’
‘You kept his old key, though.’
‘Tha’ll be on the fire tonight,’ Em promised her. ‘Keep us warm.’
They stopped; they’d felt the drumming of hoofbeats through their boots. Horsemen were cantering along the causeway behind them.
‘Get into they bloody reeds,’ hissed Aenfled. She pushed her barrow over the causeway’s edge and tumbled her children after it.
Horses were rare in the fenland, and those travelling at speed suggested their riders were up to no good. Maybe these were friendly, maybe not, but lately there’d been nasty rumours of villages sacked by demons, women raped – sometimes even murdered – and grain stores burned. Aenfled was taking no chances.
There was just time to squirm through the reeds to where the thick, bare fronds of a willow gave them some cover.
Her hand clasped firmly over the mouth of her younger daughter, not yet old enough to be silenced with a look, Aenfled prayed: Sweet Mary, let un go past, go past.
Go past, go past, urged Em, make un go past. Through the lattice of reeds above her head, she saw flicks of earth being thrown up as the leading horses went by. She bowed her head in gratitude. Thank ’ee, St Ethel, thank ’ee, I’ll never be wicked no more.
But one of the middle riders pulled up. ‘Swear as I saw something dive into that bloody ditch.’
‘Deer?’ One of the leaders stopped abruptly and turned his horse back. As he approached the wind picked up,lifting his robes and revealing the animal’s flanks, which were lathered white with sweat and dripping blood from a set of vicious-looking spurs.
Keeping still as still, Em smelled the stink of the men above her: sweat, dirt, horses, blood and a strange, pungent odour that was foreign to her.
‘Could ’a’ been.’
‘Flush the bastard out then. What are you waiting for?’
Spears began thudding into the ditch. One of the men dismounted and started scrambling down, hallooing as he went.
Em knew they were done for. Then her mouth set itself into the thin, determined line that her sorely tried mother would have recognized and dreaded. No we ain’t. Not if I lead ’em away. She pushed her sister’s head more firmly into the ground and leaped for the bank. A willow twig twitched the cap from her head as she went, releasing the flame-red curls it hid beneath but, although she paused briefly, she didn’t stop for it. Now she was running.
Aenfled kept Gyltha clutched to her, her moans and prayers covered by the whoops of the men. She heard the one who’d come into the ditch climb back out of it and join the hunt. She heard hoofbeats start up again. She heard male laughter growing fainter as the riders chased their prey further and further into the marsh. She heard the far-away screams as they caught Em, and knew her daughter was fighting. She heard the horses ride off with her.
Birds of the marsh that had flown up in alarm settled back into their reed beds and resumed their silence.
In the ditch Aenfled stopped praying.
Except for her daughter’s soul, she never prayed again.