Tolling Bells (short story)

Hastings

Saxon Story #2

It was the sound which all feared to hear. The tolling of the bells could mean many things, none of them good. They signaled death in the parish, plague, war and countless other catastrophes.

When men heard them without prior warning, it always meant the same thing. They should leave whatever work occupied them, gather their wives and children, and barricade themselves inside their homes.

“There it is.” The housecarl bellowed from his seat by the fire. “Scurry away, church mice.”

His words were accompanied by brassy clangs which echoed through the rafters of the mead hall. Patrons upturned stools and benches in their haste to rise.

There was a great exodus moving towards the narrow doorway, which soon became a bottleneck as men tried to force their way through it two at a time. Fists flew and curses crackled in the muggy air of the tavern.

Only two figures did not stir. The first was the housecarl, who continued to sip at his ale and watch the commotion with cruel amusement curling at the corner of his mouth. The other was Breya. She remained rooted by fear and uncertainty at the warrior’s shoulder.

“Aren’t you going to run, little church mouse?” The housecarl asked.

“I’ve nowhere to go.” She replied.

He looked up at her, his wide jaw set in something which could have been pity or concern. Then he twisted his neck and spat into the glowing red embers of the hearth. Any worries he had harbored for her safety flew away in that glob of spittle, now fizzing on the bright coals.

“Nobody to care for the lowly serving girl, eh? Aye, that’s a shame. Come closer and we’ll pass our last moments in lovers’ bliss.”

The housecarl wrapped a strong arm cased in iron links around Breya’s waist and drew her with efficient force onto his lap. She shrieked in shock, provoking a loud guffaw to erupt from behind his dark beard.

“Why are these our last moments?” She cried.

“Those bells signal the coming of our new masters, and they’re no friends of Saxons.” The housecarl looked at Breya’s long braid of straw-colored hair as he spoke. “They don’t care for a Norseman’s brood either.”

“If we’re going to die then you shouldn’t handle me like this. You’ll go to hell for it. It’s against the Lord’s commandments.”

To her surprise, the threat seemed to work. The housecarl clapped his hands on her hips and lifted her onto her feet like she was little heavier than a bale of hay. He tossed his bark-brown hair and chuckled.

“Will I go to hell then? Is that what your Lord plans for me?”

His words chilled Breya more than the thought of the strange invaders arriving in her village. He had called the Father your Lord. She could not believe that he was a man without faith, such a person could not exist in her mind.

“Please, I’m frightened.” She said. “Don’t say such things.”

Her pleading was interrupted by a great commotion outside the mead hall. An animal was shrieking and snorting in anger. The wall of the tavern thundered as something thrashed against it and a man cried out in alarm.

“What is it?” Breya asked.

“No mind, they’ll just be stealing my horse.”

She looked at the housecarl and felt bitterness kindle inside her. She wondered how he could so easily accept death. He was one of the king’s chosen men, she should have been safe with him.

“If you have a horse then take me away. Save me from the Normans if they’re so wicked.”

The housecarl rose and bent low to catch Breya’s ashen blue eyes with his. They were blacker than smoke and carried the intense but faraway stare of a man who had seen double his share of death.

“Aye, they’re wicked enough to fill every circle of hell. If you could only have seen the glee with which they butchered noble King Harold and his bonny knights.”

His gaze was severe and unflinching, but a twitch in the corner of his mouth told Breya that he mocked her. Before she was able to catch herself, the fire in her chest roared up and she slapped him across the cheek with the heel of her palm.

He did not flinch. The housecarl simply sucked in a deep breath, bent his knees and in a swift, fluid movement swung Breya up onto his shoulder like a sack of barley. She had no choice but to hang limp while he lumbered through the empty hall.

A rasp of metal and the sound of running feet announced that they had reached the doorway. In a moment, harsh sunlight was in her eyes and Breya found that she was perched on the back of a tangle-maned pony with a broad back and thick haunches.

“There you are, my fierce church mouse.” The housecarl declared. “Now which direction will we be escaping in?”

PART 3

You can read Saxon Story #1 here.

Find another historical short story here.

My novel about a Medieval Norse adventure, Vikingr, can be found here.

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