10th September 2019
It was my twelfth year of life when my father Godwin hurled the wolf’s head at the mighty Eorl Uhtred, bringing my childhood to a violent end.
The cold woke me early on that terrible day. My three-year-old brother Rinan, curled up like a dormouse beside me, had taken most of the sheepskin covers, and I was angrily moving into my brother’s warm patch when I heard the door latch click and Father calling to someone as he hurried from the house.
These were dangerous times, and desperate to find out what was happening, I forgot Grandmother asleep behind the woollen hangings. But hearing no angry grunt from her, and making as little noise as possible, I dragged on my trousers. Feeling about in the straw for my woollen tunic, I quickly pulled it over my linen one and fastened my belt. Then lifting my useless leg over the side of the low wooden bed, I tugged on my boots, without bothering to undo the strings, and struggled awkwardly to my feet.
Only a few shafts of light came through the smoke hole in the thatched roof, and it was hard to find my way through the house. After the bitterly cold night, the oiled skins hung at the window places, and I shuffled across the floor, banged my legs on a stool, and gasped with pain.
Terrified I’d disturbed Grandmother I kept very still, hardly daring to breathe. Waking her without good reason would mean no hare coursing with Bodo, and days spent on the heath gathering herbs. Thankfully, the goat tethered in straw at the far end of the room did not start her shrill bleating, and the hens, roosting on beams above me, crooned softly and settled in their feathers.
My lurcher hound Bodo lifted his head, his eyes glittering in the light from the glowing embers in the sand box. I was worried he might bark, but he gave a long sigh, and deciding it was too soon to be up, he returned to his watchful slumber, and I lifted the door latch and slipped quietly out of the house.
Limping between our neighbours’ homes and workshops in the grey light of dawn, a sudden squealing made me jump. At the end of the path, I saw the palisade doors wide open and our slaves driving animals in from the fields. Frightened pigs came squealing across the plank bridge into the yard, and a flock of sheep tore after them, their hooves pattering on the icy ground. Our shepherd cursed and roared for help as he chased the darting animals into the pens, and I shuffled away from the heavy oxen pounding fast towards me and felt their foggy breath warm and damp on my skin.
Our terrified beasts thumped against the high walls of our palisade, and my kinsmen shouted and struggled to trap them inside the hurdles. I was sure the hill tribes were on their way to slaughter us, and it seemed forever before my father Godwin ordered the gates closed and the wooden blocks lifted into the iron brackets.
With this done I felt safer, although I was still anxious to ask my father what was happening, and I waited impatiently while he gave many orders to the slaves, picked up a rotting wolf’s head from the steaming midden, and came to greet me.
‘Up so early, Toland?’ my father said in his deep booming voice, his beard wagging, and his breath a thin cloud of white mist about his large head.
‘Is it the hill tribes?’ I asked nervously, looking up at him. I tried not to sound scared, but the words tumbled out and it was hard to keep fear from my voice. ‘Are they going to attack?’