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Ranulf the Norman  -  Philip Ordinaire


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Ranulf the Norman
A Novel
by Philip Ordinaire
Writers Club Press, 2000
US price: $11.95    UK price: £10.27
Format: Paperback
Size: 6 x 9
Pages: 192
ISBN: 0-595-13169-7                         

When a young Norman knight attempts to claim what is his following the Norman conquest of Britain, he is implacably opposed by the beautiful Saxon Lady of the Manor.

Set in conquered Saxon Britain, the population resentfully accepts their Norman masters. Amid the hate and despair, a young Norman knight is given a manor and lands for services rendered to the King on the battlefield. But when he attempts to claim what is rightfully his, he is implaccably opposed by the beautiful but warlike former Lady of the Manor.

Their battle for dominance is carried out in the harsh and cruel times immediately following the conquest.

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The following is the first chapter from Ranulf the Norman:


BROTHER MAURICE blasphemed under his breath as his foot sank up to the ankle in mud and pigshit. God, it was going to be one of those days! His stomach rumbled. He grimaced, for he was serving a penitence for audibly breaking wind during silence. He hitched up his black cassock, shivering as he increased his pace feeding the pigs. The sooner he was finished the sooner he could return to the warmth of the monastery. It wasn’t much warmer inside but at least he would be out of the driving rain.

            He emptied the last bucket of pigswill and muttered under his breath. That bloody Egbert! Egbert was the Norman cleric who had punished him. It irked him that Egbert had prowled about the monastery asking questions about everyone’s way of life, looking closely at the books in their library -- even prying into the kitchen and sticking his nose into their larder. And he had the temerity to suggest that their main diet seemed to be mainly meat and vegetables. Well, what if it was!

Rumour had it that Brother Egbert sought major changes in the near future -- changes in monastic discipline and their way of life, including the problem of married monks. Brother Maurice’s lips curled in an ironic grin as he slammed shut the pigsty door and made his way back to the abbey. What would Brother Nicholas do? He not only had a wife but a mistress!

The monastery was well hidden behind a line of trees. The only indication that a building existed was the stone tower of a Saxon church showing through the foliage. Over the years the Benedictine monks had added buildings and cloisters, and it was impossible to determine which was original. But the Celtic crosses in the nearby cemetery were evidence that this was a place of worship before the arrival of the Saxon invaders.

The cold November wind whipped rain in flurries. There was little hope of a change in the weather and a number of sheep huddled in a cluster in the lee of a barn adjacent to the monastery. But inside the ancient building the massive walls deadened any sound from the outside world. There the silence was broken only by the murmur of male voices.

* *

A young knight wounded in a battle fought a few miles away at Hastings lay recovering in an annexe adjoining the main building. The annexe was occasionally used by the monks as a hospital for ill and injured travellers. The room was long and narrow with a timbered roof. Light filtered through narrow barred windows set high in the wall.

A large wooden cross drew the eye to the middle of one wall.  The opposite wall was dominated by an ironbound door with an eye-level grill. Six beds and a crudely carved sideboard were the only items of furniture.  A smoldering charcoal fire gave out a comfortable warmth, yet somehow enhanced the smell of blood and gangrene that lingered in the air -- a legacy of former patients who had all died of their wounds.

The surviving knight, heavily bandaged round the head and body, stirred. He moved his head from side to side as if in pain. He raised himself on his elbows in an attempt to sit on the edge of the bed. He winced as he eased himself upright. He took in his surroundings, his eyes drawn to a cross and an illuminated parchment prayer frame on the sideboard.

A faint smell of incense permeated the room. In the distance the sound of chanting and the persistent tolling of a bell confirmed he was in a religious building.

He lay back on the bed, his mind in a whirl as he tried to recollect the circumstances that left him injured and languishing on a sick-bed. He collected his thoughts and began to piece together the events of the past few days. Ranulf Le Gros conjectured that a blow to the head had brought him to this impasse, but he had difficulty recalling the details of the battle.

At the onset of the fighting he had trembled with fear, particularly when he charged the enemy lines with the Norman cavalry and engaged in hand-to-hand fighting. But as the day wore on he found himself shouting and screaming in excitement! He couldn’t deny he began to enjoy the apparently endless slaughter, though neither side seemed to have an advantage.

Late in the afternoon he saw a Norman knight, unhorsed, being attacked by three Saxons. Without thought he threw himself in front of the Norman, fending off a sword thrust. The weapon damaged the red-painted cockbird on his shield. But much worse, he took a cut in the side from a Saxon battle-axe. He staggered and screamed in pain, yet was able to cut down another attacker before being brought down by a blow to the head. His last recollection before the world blanked out was of the Norman knight remounting his horse.

He fell back on the bed, his head spinning, his limbs heavy with weakness. Sleep cloaked him again but when he awoke he still had no idea of the time of day or who, in fact, had won the battle. Then the thought hit him -- he might well be a prisoner of the Saxons!

There was no apparent way of summoning anyone. His mind worried about where he was and how he was going to survive. All he possessed was what he was wearing at the time he was wounded -- a suit of old disc mail, a helmet and his father's sword.

With these thoughts on his mind Ranulf dozed fitfully. He woke with a start when, with a rattle of bolts, the door crashed open. A monk dressed in black and a middle-aged man approached the bed.  The man, who had cropped hair, a fierce weather-beaten face and wore a hauberk and cloak, was the first to speak.

"Ah! Sir Ranulf! I’m pleased to see you’ve recovered consciousness!" The man sat on the edge of the bed. "I called on you earlier but didn’t want to disturb you. My name is Count Richard Bellami.” He nodded towards his companion. “This is Brother Egbert, attached to the monastery. I’m sure you’ll be pleased to know his knowledge of medicine and unstinting care are the reasons you survived your wounds."

Ranulf gave a sigh of relief. So he wasn’t a prisoner of the Saxons! But he pricked up his ears when he heard the count’s next words.

"When you’re fit enough we’ll ride to London to meet the King. Unfortunately I have to leave immediately. Other duties require my attention. But I’ll return as soon as I can. No doubt you’re probably wondering why the King wishes to see you. I’m sorry.” He smiled briefly, seeing Ranulf’s brows contract. “I cannot tell you more. I’ve no idea myself why you’re being summoned to London. So I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until you hear it from the King himself. In the meantime Brother Egbert, here, will look to your requirements and well-being."

Having bade them farewell, he left the room and Ranulf was left with the monk to ponder about his meeting with the Count. Also, about why the King should want to see a lowly Norman knight -- and how these new circumstances were going to affect his future.

Ranulf found his tongue as he turned to Egbert. "I wish to thank you for your undoubted medical skill -- and the effort you made on my behalf."

Egbert gave a wry smile. "Unfortunately you’re the only survivor of at least a dozen wounded warriors. Although they appeared not to have fatal wounds, they all died of flesh rot and raging fever. So, my friend, your recovery owes more to luck than my medical expertise."

In the weeks that followed Ranulf and Egbert became fast friends. Attended by the monk after he had finished his duties, Ranulf soon regained his strength and began to take part in monastic life -- in light work in the kitchen garden; occasionally, too, he turned up for prayers.

Meanwhile, Egbert, who had arrived in England the year before to finalise his studies and was fluent in both Norman and Saxon, was becoming increasingly involved with notions about reorganising the monasteries. For years the Saxon Clergy was a meat-eating, easygoing community. But Rome demanded a more disciplined and fish-eating way of life and hoped the monks would actually like the change to French cuisine!

Ranulf and Egbert were strolling in the cloisters one morning when the monk, in an attempt to ease Ranulf's boredom, offered to teach him the Saxon language. Ranulf, eagerly accepting the offer, proved to be a quick learner with an aptitude for languages -- and he soon had a working knowledge of the Saxon tongue.

On one occasion Ranulf asked Egbert why he had become a monk. Egbert explained that his father was a Norman stonemason who learnt his trade in Rouen and became a leading member of the guild. At the request of the Bishop he took his knowledge to England where he worked on stone village churches, replacing old wooden Saxon buildings; during his second year in England, he married Margaret, the daughter of a local carpenter, who taught Egbert her mother tongue. Returning to Normandy a few years later Egbert's father was commissioned to work on the cathedral at Falaise. There Egbert, first of three children, was born. He grew up to be a serious minded boy who, under the influence of his parents, entered the church at an early age. So now, aged 27, his dedication and obvious intelligence assured him of a bright future.

Some weeks later Egbert and Ranulf were eating breakfast when Egbert casually announced: "Count Bellami is returning at the weekend. We’ll have to be prepared to travel to London. I have instructions to provide you with some clothes for travelling, and also fit you out with arms and a horse. I know someone who’ll be able to help with these items -- but it will mean a ride of some ten miles there and back. But I’m sure the effort will be worthwhile."

"Whatever you say," said Ranulf, eager to get out and about for a while. "I’m entirely in your hands. I’ll be only too happy to accompany you."

So the young Norman knight was only too pleased at being kitted out with mail. The best chain was so expensive that only the rich and powerful could afford it. Although mail was universally worn, most of it was of an inferior make and was incapable of withstanding a thrust from a sword. Whatever he was offered, he needed to be sure it was of good quality

Warmly wrapped in their cloaks, they set off on horses and a pack mule provided by the monastery. After being cooped up for some weeks the Norman felt a sense of exhilaration and freedom as they rode along a well-worn track. Now, perhaps, when he met the Count he would be able to plan his future. Nonetheless, at the back of his mind was the persistent thought that he might have disgraced himself in some way and would have to face the King. But he was determined to enjoy the day out and put such thoughts out of his mind. Riding up close to Egbert, he asked: "Who exactly is this man we’re going to see -- who has apparently gathered an endless supply of clothes and horses?"

The monk smiled indulgently. "As you know, after a battle, the usual task of clearing the field of the dead and the stripping of mail and weapons is undertaken by the victors. My man Fulk, however, has an aptitude for spiriting away quite a large amount of equipment and weapons, some of which we hope to acquire. He will ask an exorbitant amount of money, so leave the talking to me!"

The two men rode in silence for some miles. Eventually Egbert pulled off the track into an overgrown copse. A little distance beyond, well hidden in the scrub, was a dilapidated barn with a lean-to. They dismounted and approached the building. As they were tethering their horses a voice behind them cried: "Hold! Who are you -- and what do you want?"

They swung round and the man’s face lit up, wreathed in smiles.  "Ah, Brother Egbert! What a pleasure to see you! Introduce me to your companion."

Ranulf studied the man who was clearly Egbert's friend Fulk. He was a thin runt of a man with a turned eye, missing front teeth, dressed in an odd assortment of clothes.

Egbert held the man in a steady gaze. "This is Ranulf Le Gros, a dispossessed knight from the recent battle who requires kitting out. He has to travel to London, a journey which could be dangerous for an unarmed Norman knight!"

"What have you in mind, Sir?" Fulk turned his eye disconcertingly, giving the impression  he was looking at them both at the same time.

Ranulf smiled hopefully. "I need at least a hauberk and shield, a sword, clothes and a horse."

"Right, come with me to the barn and we’ll see what we have in store. It will be expensive,  bearing in mind the dangerous and difficult task I had acquiring the gear!" Fulk winked his turned eye.

They entered the barn. Hidden behind a stack of hay and covered with sacking lay a pile of assorted weapons.

Fulk spoke quickly. "Take your pick! We’ll settle up later."

Ranulf inspected the heap of iron. Most of it was damaged with virtually nothing worth a second glance.

"Is this all the rubbish you have?" Ranulf’s tone betrayed his disgust.

"Well,” Fulk said, fingering his chin. “I do have a few pieces put aside you might be interested in." His eyes glinted as he pulled aside some bales of hay. A stack of oiled weapons and mail met their surprised gaze.

"Ah! This is more like it!" Ranulf picked up a suit of beautifully made chain mail that had obviously belonged to a man of high rank. After some more rummaging Ranulf selected a well balanced sword.

Before long Ranulf had a considerable pile of equipment, including a battle-axe and crossbow. After a frustrating hour chasing some untethered horses in an adjoining paddock, he mounted a sturdy black mare capable of carrying a fully armoured man.

"Right, how much do you want for this lot?" he asked, knowing full well that he had no money.

"Let me speak to Fulk alone," said Egbert.

A short time later a smiling monk and a scowling Fulk came out of the barn.

"Ranulf, load up the mule and prepare to leave," Egbert said. “My friend and I have come to an agreement. So we can be on our way."

As they continued their journey at a slow pace so as not to tire the mule laden with Ranulf's new possessions, Ranulf asked: "Egbert, how did you get involved with Fulk? He doesn't seem the kind of person a monk would wish to be seen with?"

"Oh, he’s a great asset to me!" Egbert eased himself more comfortably into his saddle. "As I’m a Norman monk, peasants distrust me. I’m seen as a threat to their way of life. Fulk, as one of their own, passes on to me some of their fears and worries. For example, who is getting married, who is trying to evade taxes, and all aspects of village life."

Ranulf eyed his friend dubiously. “But why does he do all these things for you?"

Egbert released a tight grin. "Some time ago I saved him from hanging after he raped a sheriff's wife. It was a charge he strenuously denied, of course, alleging it was the wife who raped him! He’s a very devious and cunning rogue, yet is grateful enough to do little services for me. Mainly if it’s to his advantage, if you catch my drift!"

At the monastery that night, as Ranulf was relaxing after a meal and a few glasses of wine, he thought of how his fortunes appeared to be changing for the better. The second son of a minor landowner, his older brother inherited the estate and he was destined either to enter the church or attempt to marry a girl with a good dowry. The family lived in a manor house near Rouen, a holding comprising six villages and providing ten men at arms. His father, wounded in a siege some years ago, was looked after by his wife, whilst his eldest son managed the estate. This son, appointed sheriff of the district, stayed behind when Ranulf sailed for England.

Once again Ranulf wondered about the King's interest in him and the close friendship that had developed between Egbert and himself. They seemed inextricably tied together. Perhaps tomorrow would shed some light on the new direction his life was taking.

That night Ranulf slept a dreamless sleep and was up early next morning for matins. He was looking forward to his meeting with Count Bellami.