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Proclaim ye this among the Gentiles; Prepare war, wake up the mighty men, let all the men of war draw near; let them come up.
Hell, thought Duke Richard II. This is Hell.
That’s what it was. All of it. The invasion of the Vikings, who were more beasts than men. More brutal even than the Great Heathen Army of Duke Richard II’s grandfather’s time. The conduct of the war, which had led Richard here, his whore sister and quaking idiot brother-in-law—Æthelred the Unready!—begging Richard to travel to this godforsaken hole. The horrid marriage he arranged between them in the first place, which is what brought him to this peat bog of an island, far from his beloved Normandy. The dull mud-brown glare of his sister’s eye as he indulged her husband, who had just a lovely idea to save them all from the ravishment and pillaging of the Danes. Pay them not to invade! Pay pillagers in pillage! And then Æthelred died, leaving his third son, Edmund II, to rule and fight the war. And oh, did Edmund II, called Ironside by his friends and Ironhead by Richard, have a lovely idea to save England.
The lovely idea—send his dearest ally, Richard, to the ass-end of England to recruit the land’s most talented warrior, who was himself a talent of piss filling his armor like it was a barrel latrine. Sans retinue, sans horse, as every available body and beast was needed to enforce the shield wall. Send Richard to Hell, this place, Assandun.
And speaking of Hell … Hexen Sabbath, who flaunted hell in his very name. He would be easy to find. Richard II just had to find the tavern with the cheapest ale and the loosest whores.
Truth be told, Richard’s own plan was to nail the door to the tavern shut if he could, then chuck a torch into the thatching and kill everyone in it. Then he’d throw in with the Danes, who were surely in need of an intelligent polyglot fellow like himself, given that they were hell-spawn pagans who wouldn’t understand God’s word even were it whipped letter by letter onto their backs by Richard’s own hand.
But the Danes would probably kill him as soon as parley with him, especially now that he was alone, on foot, his clothing stained rags, his beard unkempt.
Hexen Sabbath might not believe him either, truth be told. The damned knight, the son of a witch and a pervert, might run the duke through as soon as look at him. If it came to that, Richard just hoped that the last thing he’d smell would be his own lifeblood pouring from his guts, and not Sabbath’s foul breath or his own bowels giving way.
He stumbled and took a knee into a mud puddle. In the distance, a pair of peasant children pointed and laughed. Richard had half a mind to run them through and leave their bodies for their parents to discover later, but something about the skeletal pair touched his heart. What would their lives be like under pagan rule, divorced from the Word of God and the protection of God’s chosen king? These poor imbeciles just needed to understand that the nobility truly cared for them, and were ready to sacrifice all for their lives.
“Hallo, children,” said Duke Richard II, unsheathing his sword and waving it jauntily at the poor rag-dressed kids. “It is I, the Duke of Normandy, brother to your queen Emma. I am on a mission from the king to save—”
“Papa says we’re all going to die today!” shouted one of the children—a girl, from her voice.
“What does your father know?” Richard spat.
“He’s just come from the Royal Standard tavern!” said the boy. “Your own knights have retreated there to whore and drink. They’ve given up the battle!”
“Well, it was only one knight,” said the girl. “But only because most of the others have already abandoned the field.”
“Or are decorating it with their innards,” said the boy. He cackled madly, his face like a half-sliced gourd. He had probably been brought to the front to scavenge arrows and driven mad by the scene.
Better just to address the girl, Richard thought. She looked as if she might still be sane. “The tavern, you say … Is it there?” Richard pointed.
“Yes, right up Shite Hill, and down the other side,” said the girl.
“Shite Hill…,” Richard said to himself. “I suppose they named it that to differentiate it from all the other mounds of shite around here.” Then to the children, “Thank you! God bless! The Lord will reward you for your service to King and Crown!”
“Yeah?” said the girl. “Reward us with what?”
“A quick death, I hope…,” muttered Richard.
* * *
Were he in a better mood, Duke Richard might have called the Royal Standard unassuming, or perhaps even quaint. There is something about having knowledge of the sure and imminent death of not only oneself but of one’s whole world that allows one to gaze upon the universe as it truly is, and not as one wishes it to be. The Standard was, in fact, a lopsided hovel he wouldn’t stable a donkey in. Perhaps the name was a prophecy. England would fall, the kingdom reduced to nothing more than a place to rot one’s guts with hops and loins with whores. With some regret, Richard noted that the walls and thatched roof were so filthy that even were he to take a torch to it, the dirt would extinguish the flame before it did any damage.
“Ah, it is this for which we are all eager to lay down our lives; this is what the dark-haired Danes struggle so mercilessly for,” he muttered. He should simply offer to parley with Cnut himself, invite the Danish warlord over to the Royal Standard for the drink, and let the fleas and vermin do an assassin’s work. Then Duke Richard II would be the hero of the day, not that execrable …
The patrons of the crowded, squalid pub turned to stare at him. There was no steward to speak of, or even proper chairs. Just ragged, bleary-eyed people, some with still-open wounds, hunched on barrels and loose bales of hay, with planks for tabletops. Except in the very rear of the establishment, where in the shadows far from the candlelight, a certain jovial squealing emanated.
“You, Sabbath!” Richard said as he strode across the tiny, crowded room. “You’re needed at the battlefront—now.” Sabbath didn’t even care to look up from the bosom his face was pressed against. He was barely visible beneath the tangle of limbs and yards of fabric from the rawboned women who were crawling all over him, fondling him. The knight’s mail and armor lay nearby in a heap. Richard was aghast.
“Pardon me,” said one of the women. All three turned to glare at the duke. “You’re interrupting something.”
“I know,” said Richard.
Sabbath smiled and said cheerfully, “Ho, Dick! How goes the war?”
Duke Richard II, his tunic and leggings and cape still splattered with mud and filth, held his arms out wide and said, “Please, Sir Hexen, I beseech thee. Accompany me to the lines. You could turn the tide of the battle.” This was not a moment for sarcasm or japery; Richard knew that much. For all the travail it had meant, his mission was crucial, sacred. “As you wear the most Holy Cross round your neck, come and repel the pagan horde from our motherland, in the name of the King, and Christ!”
Sabbath touched the rounded cross hanging over his tunic. “I suppose I could win the war for you. Or I could stay here and catch up on my consumption … and fornication!” He casually fondled the woman nearest him. “Right, girls?” They cheered. “Right, everyone?!” The whole tavern roared in approval.
“Do any of you care who rules you?” Richard demanded, turning on his heel to sneer at the patrons. “Would you live in pagan darkness, under the rule of the foreign Danes?”
“Where’s your accent from, bright-eyed Norman?” shouted a man behind a plank between two barrels that served as a makeshift bar top. Perhaps he was the steward, though he was as drunk as everyone else. “Unless Danes are teetotalers, I couldn’t give a fig who sends out a man twice a year to rob me, and thrice a year to relieve my custom of their little wealth.”
“Oh, Dick, you do have a knack for speaking with the commoners,” said Sabbath, rising. “They’re not educated in the ways of statecraft like you and I. You cannot simply demand their obedience, especially not in those rags.”
Copyright © 2019 by Matthew Tomao