Judith Arnopp Historical novelist
1078 - The New Forest, England. When Leo encounters a trio of Normans molesting a girl he stops the attack and his actions unleash a train of events that will end only with the death of a king.
We sank into the undergrowth. Leofric raised his hand and beckoned me forward. Fear scuttled up my neck as the scream ripped the silence again. We waited, listening, the pounding loud beneath my ribs.
Beneath the canopy of the trees I could see nothing. Leo cocked his head to one side, mentally blocking out the sound of the surging river. He ignored the natural noises of the wood and set his sights upon larger prey. The cry came again, echoing and terrible, sending a shrim of fear through my body. This time I recognised the sound as human, and female.
Leofric fitted an arrow into his bow. We trod stealthily forward. A twig snapped beneath my feet. Cursing my clumsiness, we moved on. The path took us downhill, Leo had scented his quarry. I knew we were close.
He drew aside a tangle of undergrowth and we peered into the clearing. We saw three men, strangers. One solidly built, the others his bondsmen. A girl cowered before them. It was her cries that had penetrated the quiet.
They grabbed her and, like an animal in a snare, she writhed in her attackers grip, her limbs pale against the woodland floor. One of them struggled to hold her legs but she broke free. She kicked him, hard, on the mouth. Spitting out a tooth, he put up a hand, bringing it away bloody. His accomplice pinioned her arms above her head. Their leader took the hem of her tunic. We heard it rip and saw it tossed aside. The other man caught and held her again. His superior, dropping his breeches about his knees, prepared to take his pleasure. It was the first time I had seen a naked woman.
The girl thrashed and screamed. I glimpsed a gaping mouth and white-blonde hair. Leo had them marked. A thin sound, swift and true, hushed through the clearing. The un-breeched man clutched his chest and fell to the ground, spouting blood.
They let her loose, backing off, hands raised as she scrambled away. Spreading their arms they asked silently for mercy. Leo drew his bow. One man took his chance and turned to flee. His accomplice fell with Leofric’s arrow through his throat.
Leo stood up, nocked another and moved into the clearing. He released it. It ripped into the back of the fleeing man. I glimpsed the girl crouched in the bushes. Heard her breath rasping. Leo kicked her tunic toward me. ‘Give her the clothes.’
I thrust the garment to her. A hand emerged from the bush. I saw fair hair strewn across a thin, naked shoulder.
A few moments later she stood before us, pulling down her torn garments. She was ready to flee, not trusting us. Her eyes darted from Leo to myself as I absorbed every extraordinary inch of her.
Unlike other forest dwellers, her hair was as white as a gull’s back. And her eyes, that seemed to burn in her narrow face, were as bright as the sky. She was filthy and about fifteen summers, a couple of years older than me, although she seemed more. The shadow of a bruise marred her forehead. Leofric put down his bow. ‘Come, we will lead you home.’
We trailed after Leo, unspeaking. I noticed her placing her grimy feet in the prints left by my brother’s and I did likewise. Half hour or so later we reached the lonely glade where her father lived. Smoke sulked from three cone shaped piles of turf and a few scrawny hens scratched in the dirt before a tumble down shack. Purkiss and his forebears had lived here for generations burning charcoal in the forest. It was an ancient craft and the life a lonely one. They kept to the deep woods, not mixing with the other forest dwellers. Leo jerked his head.
‘Send Purkiss out.’
She ran toward the hovel without saying goodbye. I hoped she would come out again. Leo and I waited until, at last, the door creaked open and a small, twisted man emerged. He nodded, blinking in the sun and grimacing in a horrible approximation of a smile. Leofric spat onto the ground.
‘Tisn’t safe for a girl to be out alone, Purkiss. The wood is full of vermin. In future, keep her close.’
Purkiss nodded and pulled his forelock.
‘Aye, Master Leo, aye, that I will and thank ye sir, thank ye for bringin’ her safe back.’
Without further words, Leo and I trod the forest path homeward.