An Excerpt from
Call to Crusade:
When I awoke, my face was a mass of pain. I could feel a cold, wet cloth wiping gently at my eyes and nose, then at the clotted lump on my head. I pushed the hand away and opened my eyes to find a young girl tending me.
“Do you live, young sire?” she asked.
“I’m not sure,” I mumbled. Carefully I sat up and looked about. It was early morning. I was lying in the manor yard atop the soiled straw and horseshit of the stable manure pile. My clothes and shoes were gone, replaced by a sackcloth tunic. I was barefoot. On my ankle, I wore a leg shackle spiked to a short, fat log.
“Let me fetch you drink,” she said, and ran off, returning moments later with a wooden mug. It was small beer, and tasted better than anything I could recall. I realized had not eaten or drunk since the night before last.
The drink cleared my head. “What is your name, girl?” I asked. She appeared to be about ten; she was thin, fair, and dressed as I was in sackcloth.
“I am called Aleine, sire—my mother says it means sunbeam. I am the blacksmith’s daughter.” She smiled and I saw how apt her name was, for she lit up as she did.
“And truly you are, Aleine. Thank you for tending to me.”
She smiled again, a bit more shyly, and said, “Father said I’m to tell him when you wake. He says you work for him now, by order of Sir Andrew.”
“Well, you must do so right away, but first tell me, Aleine—do you know where they have taken my mother—taken Lady Mildred?”
She shook her head. “Sir Andrew said she has gone in the night to a convent, not wanting to stay here now that Sir Euan is gone. I’ll go to find my father.” Then off she ran.
I thought a bit. My bastard of a half-brother killed my mother as he stole my inheritance, concealed her body somewhere, and told the household she left for a convent. Whether he intended to kill her or not, she is dead, and he is the cause of it, for he was already committing a crime to rob her, and his seax stabbed her. And only I know the truth.
Then and there, I vowed that I would avenge my mother’s death and punish Andrew’s crimes, no matter how long or what it took. But it was likely to take quite a while, for just then the blacksmith approached from the undercroft, grabbed me by the arm, and pulled me up.
“On your feet, laddie. You belong to me now and we have work to do. When did you eat last?” He handed me a fire-baked barley cake and I tore into it. I was ravenous.
“Night before last,” I mumbled, my mouth full. “You’re Carrick, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am: Carrick the Smith. And I know who you are, Godric; your father was a great knight and a good lord to me—fair and generous. But Sir Andrew is my master now. For the good of my family, I must do as he says. So must you, if you want to live. I do not mind if you call me Carrick, but I suggest you call me ‘Master’ when your brother is nearby. That will convince him that you are humbled and he will leave you alone. Come with me and we will start our day.”
I started after him, and promptly fell over when the chain on my leg tripped me.
“Before he rode off this morning, Sir Andrew said that you will wear that shackle until you are humble and obedient to all his commands. So pick that up and follow me.”
Lugging the cumbersome log, I followed him to the smithy. It, like the other buildings inside the palisade, was timber-framed, with the bays between timbers paneled in thick wattle and mud, plastered over to keep the rain from the mud. The brick forge sat in the front, near the wide double doors and centered under a smoke hole in the high, steep-pitched roof. In the rear, an open loft covered the storage area filled with sacks of charcoal, iron ingots, and ore. A planked storeroom in the rear corner held tools and finished ironwork. It was about to become my new home.
Carrick picked up a long spike, took the log from me, and set it on the forge hearth. Then he gave me a hard look.
“You are of no use to me or yourself wearing this. I know that you are a good lad, training for knighthood. I can free you, but if you escape him, he said he would hang me together with my family. So before I pull this staple, I ask you for your word of honor not to run away. To do so means death for my family.”
I understood. I would free myself one day, but not at the cost of his life, or his family’s. “Upon my honor and the souls of my parents, Carrick, I swear I will not run away.”
Carrick nodded in approval and without another word levered the long staple from the log. Then he sat me on a stump, picked up a thin iron rod, and said, “I can straighten your nose it you allow it. I have done so for your father and a few of his men-at-arms on several occasions. It will hurt, but not nearly as much as it did when it broke.”
Carrick called for Aleine. When she appeared, he said, “Daughter, fetch me a bit of washed wool from your mother.” She nodded and vanished.
I took a deep breath, clenched my teeth, and nodded again. He clamped my head in vise-like arms and used his rod to push the thin bones up my nose back into line. My eyes watered and fire shot again through my face, but it lasted only for a few moments before subsiding to a dull ache.
Aleine popped back in with a handful of wool. Carrick took it and gingerly poked little twists of it up my nostrils, leaving the ends hanging out. Aleine watched, grinning.
“Not very pretty now, boy, but it’s straight. The wool will hold things in place while the bones set, and I will pull it out in three days. Meanwhile, breathe through your mouth.”
Aleine offered a woman’s appraisal: “It’s much better now, sire. When the black eyes go, you’ll be handsome again.”
Carrick growled, “Away, you silly creature. And thanks be to you and your ma for the wool.” To me he said, with a wink and a knowing smile, “Knows a handsome man when she sees one. Takes after her ma, she does.” Aleine just grinned at me and skipped off, gold hair shining like sunlight.
Carrick gave me a leather thong to tie the loose end of the chain to my belt, freeing me to walk. He produced a scrap of leather to line the manacle and stop its chafing, and he gave me a leather apron, breeks, and leather slippers to wear, for as we worked, hot sparks and sharp iron scraps would lame me should I step on either.
Within the week, Andrew returned. The following day, he gathered the population of the thanage and spoke to the assembly.
“You all know me as the youth I was here years ago. Things are different. I am Sir Andrew now, and with the recent death of my father, I am now lord of the thanage. You are my subjects, and my law and justice will govern you.
“I will do things much as my father did, and you will all remain in the roles you have held. There is, however, one major change I am making. My father was too lax, and allowed some of you to cheat and steal by failing to make the payments you owed him. No more! You live here on my land and feed off my substance, and you owe me work and profit in return. Do not cheat me, for the consequences will be severe!”
And so it was that I began a new life of serfdom, and a new education, first in hot iron and then in timber. It was a hard time of life, cruel and unfair, but it made possible the man I became, and I will always owe much to Carrick.
Every morning in the smithy, Carrick and I brought the fire to life. Initially my work was to fan the coals by pumping the bellows, a leather bag shaped like breeks sewn up the middle, forming two tubes funneling into an iron barrel. Two paddles alternately pushed air from the bag into the flames.
Whenever he called for it, I fetched for him charcoal and iron from the storage hut, and water for quenching from the well. When and as he instructed, I helped pound orange-hot iron until my shoulder muscles screamed in pain. When I flagged he said, “Keep striking, boy,” so I did. And as I did, the pain subsided into a sort of numbness. After that I learned that when I pushed through the pain, I could pound all day without much discomfort.
Knowing that my growth and my work required food, Carrick fed me well on barley cakes baked by Aleine and her mother, Alice, on beef and pork when the steward permitted us any, and always on small beer or ale. He allowed me to sleep in the smithy loft—it was out of the weather, and warmed by the forge fire. I had a coarse-woven cloak to wear in the cold and wet weather, but I never needed it in the smithy except as a cover on cold winter nights.
I suffered much in those months, from the physical pain of the hard work by day, and from anger, doubt, confusion, and grief by night. Both of my parents were suddenly dead, the brother I had admired treated me worse than an enemy, my life of privilege—the only life I knew—had become one of slavery overnight, and my only friends were people I had never really noticed before. Those whom I had called friends had not thought to look for me.
I was not of much use in those first months, for although I was stocky and healthy, I had not the muscle to strike very hard. Training in Dunfermline was never so difficult. Nights I would ache everywhere, but not long; for weary as I was, sleep came fast. I am ashamed to say that initially it came as I lay grizzling in the darkness as I grieved for my parents, dismayed by the dramatic downturn of my fortunes and confused at what I might have done to earn the hatred of my own brother.
But as the months went by I built new muscle, toughened by endless hours spent pumping bellows and pounding iron. My confusion and grief turned to anger and hatred for the man who had done this to me: Andrew. I could not change things, but I could endure. I would use this to toughen myself and learn from it. Someday I would free myself and then I would keep my vow of vengeance and justice.
I had learned that, whatever the cost, a knight must fight evil and injustice. Yet I also realized that somehow Andrew had missed this lesson. Indeed, despite rising to knighthood, evil was rooted deeply in Andrew’s heart.
Only I knew of the murder that Andrew had committed, so it must be me that would have to set things right. After that, I never cried again, for it was a weakness I could no longer afford.
So I worked, and learned, and toughened myself. Six days a week, Carrick and I labored from dawn to sundown over fire and hot metal. Never on Sunnandæg, though, for that broke the laws of church and kingdom.
Sir Andrew wanted forged iron to use in building and to sell, so we made brackets and nails, stirrups, and tools of many sorts: hammers, axes, hoes, and mattocks, arrowheads, rings for chainmail, and blades. Many blades.
After a few months of Carrick’s training, I spent my days making nails and chainmail rings. Both required more brain and skill than pure muscle to form metal into square nail after nail. Two inches of orange iron rod. Eight strikes to square the shaft, then into the tapered form to flatten the head with four more. Tap it free and start another. I made thousands in those years.
Chainmail was made of rings formed by wrapping a coil of squared wire around a mandrel, cutting the coil into rings with a chisel, and flattening and piercing the ends of each ring for riveting. I reached the point where I could make two hundred rings a day, twelve hundred a week. My nails were sold to builders, while my rings were sold to armorers for a handsome profit to Sir Andrew. I knew I was making him wealthy, but there was little I could do about it then.
We seldom saw Sir Andrew. His steward was a pinch-faced weasel of a man named Nessan who oversaw the running of the thanage. Nessan did not like anyone as much as he liked money, but he was cowed by Carrick and left me alone. Our main dealings with Nessan involved getting iron ore and charcoal; we would tell him when our stockpiles of either began to run low, and then we complained incessantly until more was supplied. He bought us cartloads of charcoal from local charcoal-burners and iron ore from more distant iron mines. He grumbled throughout, but he always smiled when the merchants and tinkers bought our ironware, and he cheerfully took away silver to the strongbox.
Whenever Sir Andrew came to collect his profits and inspect his holdings, at some point he would come over to the smithy to gloat over me. When he rode in, I would hammer my chain staple back into the log, so that it appeared I remained shackled to it. When he rode out, I levered myself free again. In truth, the only chain on me was my oath to Carrick.
After a year, Carrick started me in the making of small blades. These took more work and more muscle, but I was accustomed to the former and much stronger, and I could soon produce good blades for common knives of the kind everyone carried for work, eating, and protection. A knife was worth two pence, most profitable to Sir Andrew. After several months, I could make a barrel of one hundred and twenty blades in a month, worth an entire pound of silver.
In all that time, Carrick had become much pleased with me, and fond as a father. He began to teach me secrets that he had learned in his youth while he was apprenticed to an old Danish-born blacksmith named Sven af Stål, or Sven of Steel. It was said that Sven had once sailed in Danish trading ships south and east to lands of strange men who knew the secret of steel, and he learned from them in exchange for gold.
Stronger and more flexible than iron, steel was born of a kind of magic. It required good iron bits cut small, charcoal hammered into powder, and a special kind of ash. We put a measured mix of each in a small, thick-walled jug, sealed it with clay, and buried it in a pit filled with charcoal. We dug on one side a tunnel to force in air and another to let smoke escape, and capped the charcoal mound with a paste of clay and dried horse dung. Carrick would light the fire and I would force air through the fire with our bellows, shooting flame from the other tunnel. For three hours, I would pump air steadily, taking it in turns with the stable boy, until the charcoal burned out and the fire failed.
Then Carrick and I dug open the pit and retrieved the jar. Breaking it revealed a plate of slag and an orange-bright ingot of metal that we took to the forge and together pounded into a bar. We heated it carefully, then folded and re-pounded it back into a compact bar, several times. This steel produced blades of flexible strength and lasting sharpness, ever so well suited for swords of high quality.
On Sunnandægs when there was a priest, we went to Mass. There I prayed for the souls of my parents, for my friends the princes, for Father Thomas, and for Carrick and his family.
Aleine and I became great friends, and we spent our evenings in the smithy. I taught her to count, to read and write letters, and to speak Anglo-Saxon and Norman French. She loved to hear stories of Dunfermline and the ladies of the court, of the monks, and most of all, of the adventures I had had with the princes. We sat outside in good weather and inside by the forge in cold or rain, and I told her stories again and again as she listened, full of questions, longing for ever more detail.
Carrick and I began to forge other items that Nessan told us were in demand: spikes, axe-blades, files, bolts for crossbows, angle braces for manor house roof timbers, and small armor plates to be sewn into gambeson coats. After two years, there was not much I could not make. Carrick had benefited from the profits of our work and prospered, not because Sir Andrew was generous, but because the law required Carrick be paid for his work. For his part, Andrew was greedy for the silver we earned him.
I had grown powerful in those years, adding thick layers of muscle to my arms, back, chest, and thighs from thousands of hours pounding red-hot iron. I had grown in height as well; I was taller than Carrick, in size about a match for my half-brother.
I had not forgotten my vow, but we rarely saw Andrew. We heard he had grown rich, not only through our work, but also through gaming, though it was said he won by cheating; that came as no surprise to me. We heard he spent most days drinking, wenching, and gambling, all tales I could now well believe.
When he returned, he was often accompanied by other men-at-arms—too mean and pinch-faced to be real knights, but armored in mail and gambeson, and armed to the teeth. Brigands, I thought, that he was recruiting for some dishonest venture. Soon enough, rumors came to us that he was indeed raiding across the southern border into England to steal cattle. I was sure he did not mind taking Scottish cattle as well whenever the risk was small.
One day, Sir Andrew walked to the smithy and watched me shape an axe-blade. He said, “You do that work well, and your skills have made me rich. But I have greater needs elsewhere. Tomorrow you will work for the timber-framer. I want a fortified tower built, and you will help build it for me.”
I knew better now than protest, so I stayed silent. I nodded assent and he left. Carrick watched him go and said, “What the devil does he need with a tower?”
I spit in the forge and said, “Power. He thinks it will bring him power. And he needs a place to safeguard his loot.”
Asleep that night on a mat by the forge, I awoke to a girl’s screams coming from the manor yard. Andrew had returned earlier that day, and his return always brought us trouble. I jumped up, picked up my stump by the chain, grabbed a hammer, and ran into the yard.
A girl crouched outside the manor door, screaming and wailing. By the moonlight, I recognized her. It was Mary, the miller’s daughter, who at thirteen was my age and a sweet lass. Her linen tunic was ripped, and by dark stains on its lower half, I could tell what had happened. Sir Andrew had again engaged in his favorite sport: despoiling maidens.
Others gathered around us in a semicircle as I helped her rise and comforted her. I saw Carrick and his wife Alice among them. Then the miller and his wife burst through their ranks. There was a mix of horror and rage on their faces as they took their only child from me. Focused as I was on them, I was unaware that Andrew had emerged from the manor until he spoke.
“Good sport, that one! Lively is how I like ’em. Keep her handy, Miller, I’ll want her again.” He smirked, flipped a silver coin into the dirt at our feet, and turned to reenter the manor. The coin was an insult on top of the injury, and the outrage that welled up in me overwhelmed all regard for my self-preservation.
I beat the miller to a response, hurling the hammer I held as hard as I could at Andrew’s head. It struck him at the base of the neck hard enough to stagger him and bounce his head on the edge of the open door. When he picked himself up and turned to us again, he had a vertical cut on his forehead that bled down his nose, giving him a dreadful aspect. His eyes fell on the hammer and then scanned the group of us. “Who threw that?”
“I did, you bastard! I hoped to crush your damned skull!” I was too furious to think about the consequences.
To his men-at-arms he said, “Seize him and truss him to that tree. I am going to beat him myself and enjoy every bit of it. Get them out of here.” He motioned to the manor-folk still gathered there.
My shackles gave me no chance to flee. In a heartbeat, I was taken, dragged to an oak, and bound with my arms around it. They slit my tunic down the back and peeled the halves clear, leaving my back bare to my breeks.
From the corner of my eye I watched Andrew come close, bearing a bramble switch that he tested by whipping it back and forth. Satisfied, he stepped up behind me.
The first blow hurt so much it stole my breath completely. In truth, I do not know if I managed to remain silent or if I screamed as Mary had. Andrew was frenzied, and blow after blow shredded my back—fortunately, as it turned out, for in his fury, half of them struck off-center so that the tree absorbed much of it. All the same, the pain was so severe that I passed out long before he exhausted himself.
According to Carrick, who watched all this in fury from the smithy, when Andrew was too tired to continue, he dropped the switch and said, “Leave him there,” as he stumbled back to the manor. Carrick waited until the men-at-arms disappeared, then cut me down and took me to the smithy. He spent the night there, staunching the bleeding from the cuts the bramble thorns opened with ashes from the forge. I was not much use to him for a month afterward while my back healed.
Two days later, we found Mary Miller. She had tied a rope around her neck, the other to the windshaft, and jumped from the roof hatch in her father’s mill. It was with great sadness that we added her to the graves in the cemetery beside our chapel.
And even today, the scars on my back make men cringe and women weep. All they ever made me do was vow once again to live long enough to see Andrew dead.
One day Andrew returned late in the evening. The following day, he summoned the manor folk, had a bound churl brought out, and spoke to the assembly.
He paused and turned his attention to the churl, and said, “My steward says that you are delinquent, delivering only half what your neighbors produced. What have you to say for yourself?”
“Sire,” the churl began, “I would not cheat you. The truth is that things are not good with me. My wife is terribly ill and cannot care for the wee ones, so I must tend to them and to her as well as farm my holding. I beg your understanding and mercy.” He trembled and could barely look up to gauge Andrew’s reaction.
Andrew smiled at him and then at the assembly. “What is your name?” he asked.
“David, sire, David MacGaven,” the man replied.
“Well, David, let me show you something. Godric, where are you?” Andrew looked about him. With a start, I realized he meant me.
“Damnation, Godric, come forth!” he called. I stumbled from the crowd, lugging my log, stapled once again to the end of my chain. Pointing at me, Andrew addressed the group.
“All of you look here. This is my own half-brother, Godric, the younger son of my father. He is guilty of false accusations against me to the king,” Andrew lied. “See how I treat him. Should I be more lenient with you when you steal from me?”
He looked at David with a slight smile, and shook his head. David’s head dropped and he wailed in fear, wetting himself as he did.
Andrew’s smile vanished. He turned to a yeoman and said, “Take him to that tree beyond the palisade and decorate it with him. Oh, and don’t forget a placard that says Thief as a warning to others.”
Then Andrew turned back to me. “A lesson for you, brother. If you would command men, you must make them fear you first. Love you or hate you they well might, but fear you they must.”
He turned to his steward and said, “Now get them back to work and make me some money!”
Three days later, Andrew rode away again. I convinced Carrick to let me cut down David, and we buried him in the burial plot beside the chapel. Two days later, a churl brought in the bodies of David’s wife and children, who died when he did not return. We buried them beside David, and marked them with a cross. I renewed my vow of justice on Andrew for David and his family, for in truth, he had killed them all.
Like it? I hope so. You can buy a copy here: