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Steven French

The Ties That Bind

As he made his way down the lane, one he had walked along many times before, the trees on either side gave way to scrub and then fields, barely visible with dawn still an hour or more away. Glancing over his shoulder, however, he could discern a darker mass of cloud piling up above the woods and he picked up the pace, thinking he might not make it home before the rain fell. 


Passing an orchard beside the road, he thought back to the ancient apple tree he had leant against, so many days ago, on that hill above the battle-field. The branches had been stripped but there was one pippin left and in that previous before-dawn darkness he had bit into its flesh and wondered how the day would unfold. As the juice ran down his throat and he looked up at the sky, the stars were replaced with a vision of flames and destruction, and people screaming, of animals slaughtered, fields salted and survivors starving as winter bit down hard. Sinking to his knees he had dropped the apple and cried out, drawing looks from his fellow soldiers. His head in his hands, he wondered whether he’d still be there to see the stars the following night. 


Not so many of his comrades would as things turned out. Maybe it would’ve been different if the shield-wall had held. Whether through lack of discipline or youthful exuberance, many had broken ranks to chase the enemy horsemen after they’d been repelled and turned tail. It was a feint, not a retreat, as some of the more experienced soldiers guessed but their shouts and cries of warning were carried away by the wind. When the cavalry swung back the pursuers found themselves at the sharp end of the lances and swords and were cut down. Worse still, the shield-wall was now fatally weakened and after that, well, things moved all too predictably to the phase that the chroniclers liked to call ‘mopping up’. 


As the sky lightened, he could now see the outlying buildings of the village. The first to be met by any traveller coming from the south belonged to the blacksmith, Edgar, and already he could hear a clattering from the smithy as fires were stoked and tools made ready. He paused, thinking he should really go in and give the news. If he did, however, Edgar would know without the question even leaving his lips that his boy was one of the fallen. Then more questions would follow. Had he died well? Was he given a proper burial at least? The first could not be answered. As for the second, well, sometimes a lie could ease the pain and why add to that by saying the lad was crow-food along with thousands of others. But yet, he still had hopes he could get home and slip into bed with Ælfwynn before she started the day’s work. He imagined her surprise and joy and how they would hold each other, not saying a word, just happy to be together again. So, he turned away from the forge, telling himself he was letting the family live in ignorance a few hours longer but knowing it was selfishness pulling him along.


Perhaps there was only so much generosity of spirit to go around at any time and right now it had all been used up. Certainly, as on the field of battle, so in kingship and matters of state, feinting and backstabbing seemed to be the order of the times. Although the new king had promised those he had conquered that they could keep their land and their holdings, once they’d bent the knee and sworn allegiance, he’d replaced them all with his own folk. Sure, there was talk of resistance and rising up and outright rebellion, but as he walked those long and dark roads back from the slaughter, making his way across country, through the villages and hamlets where such talk could be heard, he recalled the vision he’d had on that hill and knew it would all amount to nothing.


He shook his head, as if the images could be dislodged so easily. Maybe the harrying and its attendant horrors would pass them by, maybe they would be left to till and milk and raise families in peace. But he knew what the chances of that were. He sighed as he thought how he and Ælfwynn would have precious little time in each others’ arms before they’d have to make some difficult decisions. Perhaps if they could get across the hills and stay with his relatives, distant in more ways than one, tucked away in the dales, far from the well-known tracks and passes, they could find refuge from what was to come.


As he thought this, he saw to his right the inn, still shuttered, where he’d spent many evenings after a hard day. And where he and Ælfwynn had met, she serving, he enjoying a beer after topping off the house he was building. The house that he took her to after they were wed, their hands bound with ties that he felt even now, pulling him back to her. He thought the story of their meeting would make a fine one to tell their kids, once they had some. They’d had hopes of starting a family before he was called to war but there was still time, he reckoned, and the will. 


Ahead was the market square with its stone cross at the centre, a mix of pagan and Christian carvings around its sides, a brace of Apostles sharing the stone with Weland the Smith. For a second he rested his hand against its rough surface and bowed his head. But his thanks – to whom? To all, he didn’t care – were interrupted by old Dunstan’s dog, barking and snarling. The beast had never cared much for him so he made a face and scowled back and for the first time he could recall, it ran off, tail between its legs and whining. As he watched it disappear down the ginnel between two of the houses, he gave Dunstan a half-hearted wave, the man coming round from the yard out back, no doubt just having relieved himself. Pushing down his reluctance to talk to anyone, to tell what had happened, he started to call out a greeting but before the words left his lips, Dunstan had turned away to watch the dog run past.


Quickly walking on, he left the main part of the village behind as dawn came and he heard people begin to rouse and move about in their homes. Finally, there, at the edge of the settlement, was his house, that he had built with his own hands, solid and firmly rooted; their home that they had made together. Soon Ælfwynn would be up to milk their one cow and feed the chickens and pigs and so he hurried round the back, hoping still to surprise her before she was out of bed. As he opened the gate and entered the yard, a pair of geese came flying at him, hissing and pecking. “It’s me, for the sake of the gods!” he cried, waving his hands to shoo them away. They retreated a yard or two, still fussing and squawking and making a racket and his shoulders slumped when he heard the back door open behind him. 


As he turned around, Ælfwynn called out “Who’s there?” and grabbed a stave that was propped against the wall. The stave that he had fashioned for her, and had taught her how to use, or tried to, for as she told him, “Before I was a bar-maid, I grew up on a farm and I well knew back then how to look after myself.”


“Its me” he said. Ælfwynn stepped forward and for a moment, it really did seem as if time had stopped, as he looked into her eyes and held out his arms. Then, the world regained its movement and she walked through him. 


Not quite sure of what had just happened, he tried to swallow and say something, as Ælfwynn strode around the yard, holding the stave as if someone could be there, hiding in the shadows. Turning, he waved his arms in her face, but the breeze picked up and as he watched, his shirt and breeches began to tear and shred and be carried away. Just then the sun came up across the fields and for a second or two, it seemed that she did see him, caught in that early lambent radiance. He opened his mouth to tell her of his vision, to warn her of the horror that he knew would soon be sweeping up the roads he’d just travelled, but the wind snatched the words away. Then the sky clouded over and as her eyes widened, it started to rain. And he was gone.


Nodding to herself, Ælfwynn set down her stave and went back into the house. Others would accuse her of taking fright over nothing, but after such a warning, with her husband dead long since, and their child to protect, she would be a fool to stay. Picking up the ribbons that had bound their hands that day she held them close to her belly, as if the strength of the ties could be transmitted through her flesh. And then she started packing.


Steven French’s most recent pieces have appeared at Danse Macabre, Moonpark Review and Rural Fiction Online.

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