Serf against lord, Welsh against Norman are the conflicts in Andrew Knighton’s “The Sound of Stones”. A great medieval tale to conclude Alt Hist Issue 9.
The Sound of Stones
by Andrew Knighton
One by one, Rhodri plucked the stones from the field and dropped them into his basket. More than just rocks, they carried the spirits of past generations, reaching out to Rhodri through fragments of their land.
Every spring the same, since men came to this valley in a time older than tales. Rhodri heard the spirits of those long dead men whisper in his ear, an echo of when they worked these same fields.
Clear the fields, sow the grain, wait for Old Mother Rain.
The flint he’d just picked up was chipped to a cutting edge, the work of the stone men who’d first come here from the west. Rhodri felt the skill of its making flow through him, the memories of a man sitting outside his hut turning a rock into a blade. Perhaps some ancestor of Rhodri’s, long turned to dust in this same field. Rhodri wondered if he came from the free time, or had lived long enough to labour under the steel men’s yoke. For the people of the valleys, life had become harsher under the steel men’s rule. Feeding a family was hard enough in this land, without having to pay a lord’s tithes.
Meinwen waved at him across the field, red hair blowing in the wind off the sea. His heart swelled with pride. She worked as hard as any son might have, helping him in the fields and her mother in the cottage. The time had come when she should find a husband and make a home of her own, but she held back, even after dancing on Harvest night with Glyn ap Reese. Rhodri knew that she wouldn’t stay forever, but he treasured the days while she did.
Meinwen’s smile turned to a scowl. Rhodri turned, following her gaze. Three familiar figures were trudging up the path from town, one a mass of flapping red velvet, like a wound walking across the land, the others hulking brutes in chainmail shirts, steel hats glinting in the sunshine. They stopped at the dry stone wall, not out of respect as a villager might, but out of the arrogant laziness that coloured their every move. Rhodri knew who lay beneath that red velvet, and Gerard de Hadsville would never take a step others could take for him.
“A word with you, Master Ellis,” Hadsville called.
Rhodri set down his basket and walked reluctantly to where Hadsville stood.
“Good morning to you too, Master Hadsville,” Rhodri said.
“That’s Squire Hadsville, Ellis.” Hadsville’s soft, pale fingers writhed around each other like worms.
“I’m sorry,” Rhodri said. “How can I help, Squire Hadsville?”
He knew the answer, sure as spring was green. The Squire only came up the valley for one reason.
“Your tithe is overdue,” Hadsville said. “Where is my money?”
“It’s been a hard winter,” Rhodri said, “and spring’s come late. What little money we had has gone on food. If you can give me two more weeks—”
“I wish that I could.” Hadsville frowned and shook his head. “But I have obligations to those above me, just as you do. I must make payments to my lord, to my creditors, to my men …”
The two brutes clambered over the wall, knocking off the capstones as they went. They loomed either side of Rhodri, pillars of muscle and menace.
“Where’s the squire’s money, flinter?” The guard leaned close, an oak cudgel swinging in his hand. He looked much like the men of the valley, but thick set, with a harsh accent.
“Where’s the bloody money?” The other guard’s breath stank like old eggs.
“Two weeks. That’s all I need.” Rhodri kept his gaze fixed on the Squire. He wasn’t afraid. He’d been here before. Better to take a beating than to starve.
Hadsville wouldn’t hold Rhodri’s gaze. He looked away over the farmer’s shoulder. He smiled, but the expression was neither friendly not sympathetic.
“Your daughter’s grown into a fine young woman,” he said. “I hear your wife’s quite the beauty too, or was in her day. Maybe they can help you pay.”
On cue, the guards chuckled lasciviously.
Rage boiled in Rhodri’s veins. If these thugs weren’t here, he’d have knocked Hadsville flat, and to hell with the law. There were older laws, laws that let a man protect his family. But Hadsville and his men lived by the laws of steel, cold laws of lordship and power, and those laws could kill.
“Our black sow’s had a litter,” Rhodri said with resignation. “Take them. They’ll cover the tithe.” Those piglets would earn the tithe twice over at market, once they’d grown another two weeks. But Rhodri didn’t have two weeks.
“I knew you’d do the right thing.” Hadsville rubbed his hands together. “Sometimes all we need is a gentle reminder of our place in the world.”
He turned back down the path, more stones tumbling as his men crossed the wall. Rhodri winced.
“Thank you for the reminder, cousin Goronwy,” he called after Hadsville.
The squire spun around, his face twisted with rage. “That name is gone. You speak it again, I’ll have you beaten back into the past where you belong.”
Rhodri stooped and resumed putting stones in his basket.
END OF FREE EXTRACT
You can read the rest of this story by purchasing a copy Alt Hist Issue 9.
About the Author
Andrew is a Yorkshire based ghostwriter, responsible for writing many books in other people’s names. He’s had over fifty stories published in his own name in places such as Daily Science Fiction and Wily Writers. His historical short story Honour Among Thieves is available for free from Amazon or Smashwords. You can find stories and links to more of his books at andrewknighton.com and follow him on Twitter where he’s @gibbondemon.