|Raven's Blood by Marissa Campbell|
Sigberht gripped the hilt of his sword, and my heart quickened.
“Cut off his hand, lord,” he said.
The boy’s face went ashen, his hands kneading the front of his threadbare tunic. Only eleven summers old, he should have been out chasing chickens or helping his mother collect firewood for the coming winter.
Council was held once a year, and petitioners had been coming and going all day long, pleading their cases to my father, the Earl of Somerset. Sigberht, my father’s Seneschal, was on hand to marshal out punishment. Almost everyone from the village was present, spectators and claimants alike crammed into my father’s timber hall. The reek of unwashed bodies was palpable.
Slaves scurried about with clay pitchers filled with mead, and the drink flowed graciously into waiting bone horns. The central hearth, a long narrow trough dug into the packed dirt floor, burned bright, filling the space with smoke and heat. A hole cut into the roof allowed some of the smoke to escape, the rest hovered over the crowd filling the spaces between the large timber beams overhead. There were no windows. Oil lamps hung suspended from the ceiling, and iron candle-trees, scattered about the large open hall, sputtered in the constant drafts.
My hands were sweaty from the heat in the room and a groundswell of indignation. I rubbed them against the soft wool of my dress. For the most part, I had been silent, beyond the occasional grumble of dissent, and duly recorded each case and its judgment. This last quarrel broke my tolerance. I put down my quill and rose, the hem of my blue kirtle brushing the freshly laid rushes under foot.
I turned an appeal to my father. “That’s not justice.”
He sat in the lord’s chair high upon the raised dais; his eyes hooded beneath waves of honey-blond hair, his face unreadable.
“Council is no place for a woman,” Sigberht said. Twenty and five, with eyes the colour of a calm sea and hair like silken oats shimmering in the sun, he would have been a comely man, if it weren’t for his arrogant scowl.
“Apparently, neither is justice nor common sense,” I said.
“Peace, you two.” My father sat forward in his chair.
“The boy is merely the puppet. If anyone should be punished, it should be the tanner, not his son,” I said.
“Your daughter needs a tighter leash, lord,” someone yelled from the back of the hall and was rewarded with a round of laughter.
The tanner stepped forward, his tunic smeared and reeking of dung: the perfume of his trade. “I swear my innocence.”
“And who supports your claim?” Sigberht’s grip on his sword never lessened.
“My brother.” A small man stepped forward, equally filthy but without the added foul aroma.
“Your brother is a farmer?” My father asked.
“Yes, my lord.”
I frowned. While a freeman, the oath of a farmer would not carry much weight.
My father’s master of arms approached the dais. Taller and thicker than most men, Wulfric looked like a bear. His shaggy mane and beard were blacker than pitch, and his eyes were hard and implacable. “As does my brother, Tanner, swear to seeing your bastard lead your pigs into my keep.” He spat at the Tanner’s feet. “The dog has been doing this all year, my lord. His pigs have grown fat off my land.”
Wulfric and his brother, Leofric, were both warriors in my father’s household guard. In a game of oaths, Wulfric had just won.
“The law is clear. The boy’s a thief.” Sigberht withdrew his sword from its scabbard and grabbed the child’s arm, hauling him toward the door.
The boy whimpered; tears streamed down his face.
“Wait.” I took a step toward the dais. “I offer an alternative.”
The hard set of my father’s jaw warned of his waning patience.
“The boy will be of age to hold a sword on his next birth day. Let Wulfric claim two swine instead, one for each of the boy’s hands.”
“I’ve only the five swine, lord. The boy will live with one hand,” the tanner pleaded.
“What say you, Wulfric?” my father asked.
“That’s fair compensation, lord.”
“Done.” My father waved them both away, ignoring the tanner’s protests, and turned to me. “The next word you speak, Avelynn, will see you bent over that bench, my belt your justice for all present to see. Am I understood?”
I nodded and sat back down, picking up my quill.
The latest verdict was openly debated upon by everyone present.
Sigberht addressed the crowd. “Demas of Wareham, nephew of the Late Bishop Ealhstan, step forward and state your business.”
Bishop Ealhstan had been an arrogant, dour little man, constantly voicing bleak Christian rhetoric; I never did have much patience for him or his litanies. I studied his nephew with curious interest.
Tall and lean, not a strand of sleek black hair out of place, his complexion was darker than any of the men in the village: he looked almost Saracen, exotic. His tunic and trousers were a simple brown and unadorned, but he wore a deep purple cloak attached at his shoulder by a magnificent gold broach. He made his way toward the dais.
“Lord Eanwulf,” he said, bowing to my father. “I’ve come to ask for your daughter’s hand in marriage.”
My quill floated to the floor.