Judith Arnopp
Historical Fiction Author

                                

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The Forest Dwellers

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The story of a family who dwell in the woods of Ytene, now known as The New Forest, a land so fair and rich in game that it is coveted by the new king, William the first, for his hunting ground.  The people of Ytene are persecuted, evicted from their homes and forced to live in exile from the lands their forebears have inhabited for generations.  Life is hard.  The Norman interlopers are hated.  One day Ælf and Leo encounter a trio of Normans attempting to rape Alys, a forest girl, fairer than any they have ever seen.  They stop the attack in the only way they can … violently ...and their actions unleash a chain of events that will end only with the death of a king.

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The Forest Dwellers

Judith Arnopp

 Some were blinded and exiled from the land,

And some were reduced to ignominy.

Thus were the traitors to the king laid low.

Anglo-Saxon chronicle (Worcester manuscript: 1076 (75)

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, a loud drumming beneath my ribs.

Beneath the canopy of the trees I could see nothing.  Leo cocked his head to one side, mentally blocking out the clattering river.   He ignored the natural sounds of the wood, 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.

Leo fitted an arrow into his bow and we trod stealthily forward.  A twig snapped beneath my feet but, 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 woman cowered before them. It was her cries that had penetrated the quiet. Leo watched. 

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 while 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 toward 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 tunic.  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.’

The girl and I 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.  Purkiss and his family were not well-known to us but kept to the deep woods, not mixing with the other forest dwellers. Leo jerked his head. 

‘Send your father out.’

 She ran toward the hovel without saying goodbye.   I hoped she would come out again.  Leo and I waited.  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 tank ye sir, tank ye fer bringin’ her safe back.’

Without further words, Leo and I trod the forest path homeward.

Part one

Ælf

Ytene – 1078

‘Home’ was a ramshackle holding where, in the winter, the rain seeped through the thatch and quick, brown mice feasted among the floor rushes.  In my father’s day we had been prosperous.  Not rich but comfortable. He sat on the council and fought for the king. Not the bastard that rules over us now, but King Harold that led us well, until he was slain at Senlache Ridge. 

My family call me Ælf and, at the time my tale began, I lived in Ytene with my brothers Leofric, Guthlac, Oswulf and Edric.  My mother had perished giving life to me and I do not remember her.  As the last born, I was at the mercy of my brother’s goodwill.  They treated me fairly, teaching me how to hunt and move soundlessly through the wood.  They praised me when I excelled and thrashed me when I failed; it was a good system for I learned fast.  I could shoot as well as my brother, Edric and he was two years my senior.  My legs were sturdy and I could run like a hound and creep wraith-like through the forest.

In the year that I was born our father had marched off to fight for King Harold at Senlache. My brothers say he was a brave fighting man until he returned home with the side of his head cleaved open like a turnip.  When he finally awoke he had become a kitten and for three years they spooned gruel between his lips and cleaned his soiled linen.  On the day they found him stiff in his bed, with his favourite hound asleep across his chest, it was a burden lifted.  Nowadays, life for the English is all hardship and even my brothers can barely recall the merriment of the days when my mother was alive.  At least they have those golden memories.  I only remember the harshness, the hunger in my belly and chilblains gnawing my toes.

Life for the forest dwellers altered after the conqueror came; he coveted our forest for himself.  He didn’t care that our families had dwelt in the forest since before the Saxons took the land from the Celts.  He saw only a place to chase his deer and hunt the wild boar.  And so, our fences were torn down, leaving our crops unprotected.  Our mastiff’s claws and fangs were drawn so that they would not harm the king’s stags.  Where once our family had eaten well on small game, hunted in our own copse, we were afterward reduced to poaching on our own land.  The king and his countrymen feasted high on the hog in their sumptuous castles. 

Even the berries and acorns belonged to the new king now and we were forbidden them; instead we watched them moulder on the bush.  We could no longer cut turf or collect wood for our fires.  The king sought only the protection of the venison and vert and everyone that dwelt within the forest, and without for that matter, hated the Norman invaders.  The forest dwellers were miserable…and they were cold.  We spat on the name of King William.

 copyright© juditharnopp2010

 

READER COMMENTS ON THE FOREST DWELLERS

That is just fine writing, gripping, engaging, eye-popping and all round great. Everything is perfect: the tension, the revelation of character and even plot through the action, the language. I could see it, smell it, feel the fear and the tension, the brutality of life in 1080 - PERRY

This is brilliant writing, what more can I say. I completely enjoyed this . Such powerful imagery, such beautiful settings, such sumptuous history. A book to lose myself in…thank you - ANDREW

Lovely work.  Aelf's voice, his tone, and the circumstances of the times are so clearly drawn.  A story about real people in times past. I'm always interested in stories set in this time period and slightly before and this does not disappoint. This is confidently done, consistently written and thoroughly detailed. Excellent work!  -GEMMI

I was captivated from beginning to end. Love this story!!  - JESS

The community of displaced people living in the forest, sharing whatever they have and living in hope despite their hardships. The little details about people's everyday lives - what they ate and drank, the hearth fires, the livestock, sex, hunting - they all work together to paint a vivid picture of life as it must have been so long ago. The descriptions of the forest itself and the changing seasons are wonderful - they make me wonder how much the New Forest has actually changed since the eleventh century. - BOB