The Bone Thief

The Bone Thief by V. M. Whitworth

Book: The Bone Thief by V. M. Whitworth Read Free Book Online
Authors: V. M. Whitworth
with one huge hand, both mother and son grinning.
    ‘And you’ll stay the night, lads? You’ll not get a lot further today, not with this weather coming in.’ His round red face creased in a smile, framed by long yellow-grey moustaches.
    Wulfgar, surprised by the comment, looked at the sky, but Ednoth nodded his agreement.
    The Bishop had told them to hurry, however.
    ‘I’m sorry,’ Wulfgar said, ‘but we have to be on our way.’
    ‘Where else would you stay tonight, that you’d turn down a place by our hearth, and weather closing in? There’s no coldharbour left within a day’s ride. Better a good hearth here than a chilly camp under a bush ten miles up the Way.’
    It was very tempting. The Bishop hadn’t known about Garmund, Wulfgar told himself. Touched, and more grateful that he dared admit, he gave way.
    Heremod – their host – ordered his slaves to take the horses round to the stables and bring water for the travellers to wash, and he sat them down on benches outside the west side of his hall, catching the late afternoon sun and out of the wind.
    Wulfgar was glad beyond words to be off a horse, and to have the prospect of a comfortable night. Their host was right: the fickle April weather was turning against them. Dark-browed clouds were building up to the north east, and for all the sunlight the breeze had a sharp edge to it.
    The old lady insisted on serving them herself, bringing out warm crumpets, new curd cheese, smoked fish, rose-hip pickle and garlic relish, shamelessly picking out the choicest morsels for Ednoth – ‘My lovely boy,’ she cooed – though she cosseted Wulfgar, too, with a cold camomile poultice for his brutally aching temple.
    To his surprise he found his appetite returning and, Ednoth was quite right, he told himself: canon law did say that if they were travelling they were exempt from fasting. It wouldn’t help their mission if he fainted from lack of food, and the meal was far better than he would have expected from this comparatively modest household. They feasted and drank sweet mead, and Ednoth, shameless as their hostess, fell fast asleep with his back against the sun-warmed timber and his mouth falling open.
    Heremod looked at Ednoth and rolled his eyes upwards.
    ‘Ah, youth! Have you eaten enough?’
    Wulfgar nodded carefully, one hand on his poultice.
    ‘Tell me more about these raiders, then.’ Their host shook his head. ‘Things have been quiet across the borders of late. No real trouble for six, seven, years.’ He sighed. ‘Too good to last. So, men of Leicester, were they, Wulfgar?’
    ‘Those misbegotten louts?’ It was the old lady. ‘They were no Danes.’ She reached over his shoulder for an empty dish.
    Heremod swivelled round. ‘
Not Danes
?’
    ‘Think I can’t tell a Danish voice by now, son? Or, if they were Danes, they had a renegade West Saxon leading them.’ She cackled with pleasure. ‘Ah, that’s made you sit up!’
    ‘Wulfgar, is my mother right?’ Heremod’s voice had taken on a peculiar urgency.
    Wulfgar wondered what to say in reply. He looked into the cup of mead cradled in his hands, swirling the sticky liquid, absently noting the fine quality of the earthenware and the rich greeny-yellow depths of its sun-tinted glaze.
    ‘No.’ He closed his eyes, trying to banish the ache behind them. ‘I mean, yes. Your mother’s quite right. They were men of Wessex.’
    ‘Definitely not Leicester?’ There was no mistaking the note of relief. ‘Lordless men, then.’
    Wulfgar shook his head carefully.
    ‘Well-dressed, well-armed, well-spoken, well-disciplined.’ He gave his fears voice. ‘I think they must have been the King’s men.’
    Heremod hissed through his teeth.
    ‘That doesn’t bode well. War between Wessex and Mercia, then? With the Danes biding their moment to pick our bones? We’ve been there before.’ He thumped a heavy fist on his table, rattling the dishes and rocking the trestles with the sudden gust of his

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