Council was held four times a year, and petitioners had been coming and going all day long, pleading their cases to my father, the Earl of Somerset. Almost everyone from the village was present. Spectators and claimants alike crammed into my father’s timber hall. Slaves scurried about with clay pitchers filled with mead, and the drink flowed into waiting bone horns. The central hearth, a long narrow trough dug into the packed dirt floor, burned bright, filling the hall 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 beams overhead. There were no windows, and shadows were deep. Pinpricks of light flickered from oil lamps suspended from the ceiling, and iron candle-trees, scattered about the large open hall, sputtered in the constant drafts.
I had been silent, beyond the occasional grumble of dissent, and duly recorded each case and its judgment, but this last quarrel broke my tolerance. I put down my quill and rose, the hem of my dress brushing the freshly laid rushes under foot.
I turned an appeal to my father. “The boy is merely a puppet.”
My father sat in the lord’s chair high upon the raised dais, his eyes hooded beneath waves of honey-blond hair, his face unreadable.
Sigberht, my father’s Seneschal, stormed forward. “Surely, Avelynn would be better suited to the weaving shed,” he hissed. “Council is no place for a woman.”
I scowled at him. “Apparently, neither is justice nor common sense.”
“Peace, you two.” My father sat forward in his chair.
Sigberht gripped the hilt of his sword. “The law is clear. Let me cut off the boy’s hand.”
“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.
A round, squat man stepped forward, wringing a wool cap in his hands. “I stand up for my brother and his son, lord.”
“You are a farmer?” My father asked.
“Yes, my lord.”
I frowned. Judgement was made based on personal worth. The more status you held, the more influence your word carried. 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. “Both my brother and I have seen 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 power and oaths, Wulfric had just won.
Sigberht withdrew his sword from its scabbard and grabbed the child’s arm, hauling him toward the door.
The boy’s face waxed ashen, and eyes as wide as a snared fawn pleaded with the cold, impassive stare of his father. He was trying to be brave, but a stray tear loosened and charted a wayward path through the grime on his cheek.
“Wait.” I rushed forward. “I offer an alternative.”
The hard set of my father’s jaw warned of his abating patience.
“The boy will be twelve summers old, 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. After that small victory, I was not inclined to push my father further.
Sigberht addressed the crowd. “Demas of Wareham, nephew of the Late Bishop Ealhstan, step forward and state your business.”
Bishop Ealhstan, the man who had anointed my head with divine oil, 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 made from light-brown wool, simple and unadorned, but he wore a 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.