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Leofric groaned inwardly as he watched the slow progress of the specter-like, veiled Lady Godgifu to the seat on a raised dais next to a large embroidery table. The thuds of the enormous staff she carried resounded through the hall with every hobbling step. At her appearance, he heard murmuring throughout the crowd around him and wondered at it. “What’s wrong?” he whispered, leaning down to a young woman holding a bundle of cloth.
“Well, look at her! She can barely walk,” she replied, gesturing at the old woman, her face etched with concern.
“She doesn’t normally walk with a staff, then?”
The young woman shook her head, and craned to see through the crowd. Leofric thought there was something strange about the old widow’s walk. She didn’t shuffle with small steps and uncertain balance, keeping her feet carefully below her at all times, as was common in the elderly. She also didn’t limp unevenly, as if injured on one side, like himself. No, this woman was not old, but injured… and the injury or weakness affected both legs equally. Though it was hard to be certain of it, because of the concealment of her flowing robes and veil, Lady Godgifu’s wide-stance gait was quite similar to many new recruits he had seen who found themselves riding a horse for the first time. Interesting.
A guard with a fierce countenance near Lady Godgifu’s seat on the dais, seemed on curiously high alert, scanning the friendly crowd as if looking for a hidden assassins or other threats, frequently settling suspiciously on Leofric’s large frame. A scribe at a table near the dais took his seat and dipped a feather into his inkpot, and called out, “The Lady Godgifu will hear matters only of the utmost importance first. Please step forward, one at a time, and state your business clearly, and slowly.”
To Leofric’s surprise, every child in the crowd scrambled forward and surrounded the scribe’s desk, all loudly describing their issues to discuss with Lady Godgifu that day. “One at a time! One at a time, I said! How am I to write any of this down? Is this how you listen to directions the monks give you in school?” the scribe complained, until the fearsome guard turned his head toward the babbling group and a deathly hush followed, as they immediately sat down on the floor and raised their hands. “Thank you, Sir Hulgar,” the scribe said, then called upon the first child.
The adult crowd around Leofric settled onto benches throughout the room, as the children visited with Lady Godgifu, showing her their various crafts, bruises or scrapes, and telling her stories while she listened and embroidered at the large table. “She embroiders while wearing gloves,” he said quietly, but loudly enough for the group of women next to him to hear as they sewed.
“Aye,” said one, leaning her head to see Lady Godgifu’s slight form pulling a stitch through while a boy showed her how he battled an enormous beast with his stick. “I canna see how she does it, m’self. I’d be throwin’ those gloves in the fire before I finished the first stitch,” she said, to a murmur of agreement from the other women.
“But, surely, the veil is a difficulty for her, as well. Does she always wear one?” Leofric said, sitting down next to the woman who had spoken.
“Aye, ’tis a shame, too. Such a pretty thing… well, she was once,” said an elderly woman, causing a murmur to go through the group of women.
The woman nearest Leofric leaned over to him, “Pay her no mind. Maida fancies she saw her Ladyship here in Coventry as a child, on a visit with her father. ‘Course Maida also sees faeries, so…” she muttered.
“She was wee a bonny lass with light blonde hair. Rode her father’s shoulders and sang a drinking song, of all things…” Maida said, looking up from her embroidery as if seeing the past a few feet away from her.
Blonde… Leofric looked back up at the small figure embroidering on the dais, seeing her head shift quickly away from him as he did, and a suspicion began to form in his mind. He couldn’t be sure, yet, but the very thought of it began tugging at the corner of his mouth. Soon, his belly began shaking and he struggled to remain silent.
At length, his resolve failed and a snort of laughter escaped him and the diminutive veiled woman surrounded by children looked up at him suddenly in alarm, and he knew he had stumbled on the truth. He knew it in his bones. He quickly stood and strode from the room, barely making his escape before bursting into gales of loud laughter that rang throughout the entrance hall and echoed back into the room filled with townspeople.
Tears rolled down Leofric’s face and he wiped them away, breathing deeply, trying to control his laughter, but long years at war had not given him practice either in laughter or in stopping it and he helplessly fell into its spasms again and again. Lady Godgifu… the veiled and pious widow, the living saint of the town, sneaking around as a woman whose name he dare not speak in polite company.
When he regained control bonus veren siteler of himself, Leofric returned to the gathering and leaned against the back wall, his shining eyes fixed on the Lady Godgifu, remembering the sight of her floating naked in the water, running her wet fingers over his body, her sitting astride him in the sunlight and impaling herself on his cock. He only broke from his reverie when the children were dismissed and the scribe spoke briefly with Lady Godgifu.
“Her Ladyship will now hear matters that concern His Highness King Cnut,” the scribe announced, once he had seated himself again. At this announcement, Leofric smiled down at his boots, feeling every eye in the hall turn to him, but he said nothing and did nothing. After an uncomfortable silence, the scribe cleared his throat, “Um… any other matters?” It seemed that no adult in the room had any business of import, and all eyes turned again to Leofric’s tall silent frame against the wall, only now he was looking steadily at the Lady Godgifu with a smirk on his face.
Leofric slowly stepped forward and stood before the dais, the entire room silent and transfixed. Godgifu had stopped embroidering mid-stitch, her veil flickering outward with each rapid breath. Sensing the tension, indeed, every eye in the room volleyed quickly between the two. “My Lady, I am Sir Leofric, Ealdorman of Twywell,” Leofric said, bowing low. Rising, he made sure he held her veiled eyes with his before speaking, “My Lady, would you be so kind as to grant me an audience with you, in private?” he asked.
“Yes,” the small woman quietly replied, and standing quickly, at the same time as Sir Hulgar barked “No,” putting his hand on his sword, and placing his body between the two.
“Sir Hulgar…” Lady Godgifu began, after clearing her throat quietly.
“Your Ladyship, this man is unknown to us, but merely that he was mentioned in a letter from the King. I’ll not have him going about town making claims of privileges promised while in private intercourse with you,” Sir Hulgar growled, staring down Leofric.
At Sir Hugar’s words, Lady Godgifu made a choking sound and started coughing desperately. As Sir Hulgar turned to see that she was all right, Leofric took a knee, tucking his chin down to his chest, and biting the insides of his cheeks to keep from laughing again.
When she was breathing easily again, Lady Godgifu took up the large staff and looked up at her glowering guardian. Leofric waited until saw the small figure square her shoulders before he spoke, “My Lady, I beg you would not speak too harshly to your servant on my account, nor beat him about the shins and ankles with yon staff, for you see, he is absolutely right. I would most delightedly claim any and all honors and privileges due me, should our “private intercourse” prove… fertile.”
At these words, Lady Godifru inexplicably fumbled with her hands and the sound of the staff clattering to the floor was deafening as it echoed throughout the hall, and Leofric tucked his chin into his chest, again trying to stifle his laughter. Sir Hulgar retrieved the staff and appeared as if he would like nothing more than to knock Leofric’s head off his shoulders with it, but Lady Godgifu silently pointed toward the corner where Sir Hulgar had originally stood with a vehemence that surprised him. The guard went to his corner and stood gripping the staff, whilst staring daggers at Leofric.
“But, My Lady, I assure you, such was not the purpose of my request for privacy,” Leofric continued, after he had control of his voice. “For, though I have been charged with persuading Your Ladyship into a more agreeable discourse with His Highness the King, I am but a man of simple words, unaccustomed to addressing so fine an assembly,” he said, gesturing behind him to the townsfolk and bowing graciously to them.
Turning back, he continued, “I do not say these words to curry favor, for I know I deserve none from such fine folk. For, indeed, I have traveled far in service as a knight, but I have not seen a place where such pride is taken in its care. The streets are clean, the people are healthy and fed, and the children are…” Leofric paused, his throat tightening at the memory of the children he had seen at war, “They are children… which is no more and no less than what they should be… precious, clever, and safe.”
“I have also come to beg your Ladyship’s pardon. When last we met, you asked me to spend my life with you… to choose to be happy here, but like a tired horse with blinders on, I spoke only of my plodding duty.” The hall filled with scandalized whispers at the disclosure of a secret meeting between the two, and Leofric bowed his head again to hide his smirk when Lady Godgifu’s gloved hands clenched each other nervously. This was far more fun than he had ever had at court.
At length, he raised his head and continued, “If only I had seen the haven to which you were inviting me, I fancy that I would not have been such bedava bahis a fool. I had thought to come here to advise you, to chastise you, even to threaten you into obedience to the King, if necessary. I see all that as vanity, now. You, Lady, have proven a most faithful steward of the blessings entrusted to you.”
“And so, I come before you today, chastised and humble, as I should be. I will not lie. Currently, I find myself deep in tax debt, without a pound to my name, and only by the grace of your townsfolk, am I even clothed. Even so, I come to ask more of your kindness and forbearance. I ask your Ladyship’s leave to set up residence in this fine town, as I serve your people and settle accounts with them. They deserve no less. And at the end of that time, if I have found favor in your eyes, I would ask another chance to answer your question… that I might be allowed to amend my first foolish answer and enjoy the rest of the days allowed to me by your Ladyship’s side, and have both the duties and the honor of being your husband.” Now, squeals and sighs of delight erupted from where the ladies sewed, and outraged grumbling from the men, some taking positions at the doorways, and others flanking Leofric as if to take him into custody upon command.
Lady Godgifu dropped down heavily in her chair, as if her legs had suddenly turned soft. The billowing air from her robes sent a needle rolling off the table and down the steps to where Leofric knelt. The entire assembly seemed to hold its breath, watching as he licked his finger and deftly flicked up the needle and climbed the steps to where Lady Godgifu sat, her veil puffing out rapidly with each breath. With a glance to the corner making sure Sir Hulgar remained in place, Leofric turned up a corner of the stitchwork to see the very same secret backstitched flower that little Anne had proudly shown him at the cuff of his burlap pants. Smiling, Leofric skewered it with the needle, and took up her shaking gloved hand. “If it please you, I shall await your answer at the Minxy Mare. Until then, I remain your servant,” he said loudly, bowing and kissing her hand. “…my Lady Godiva,” he murmured quietly, in a voice only she could hear.
*** *** ***
Leofric eased himself into the halved ale-barrel that had been sent to his room and filled with warm water, a ridiculous luxury, but an offer he accepted gladly from Mr. Talbot. One of many unusually kind gestures he had received, of late. Word had spread rapidly, changing the mocking smiles of his arrival to looks pregnant with excitement and even joy. Indeed, he found it difficult trying to address his debts with anyone because apparently everyone wanted to forgive anything owed by the potential future husband of the revered Lady Godgifu.
Much of the day was spent arguing people into the ways they would let him pay off the ridiculous debts they had invented against him, because his coin was absolutely refused. His coin, incidentally, was delivered to his room at the Minxy Mare by Sir Hulgar, himself, who told him which way to ride to catch up with the caravan of his belongings that they sent back to London. Ironically, now that he was flush with gold again, he had to barter services like re-thatching or re-shingling roofs rather than use it. Still, it had to be done. Leofric knew he needed more time, because he was by no means fooled into thinking that Lady Godiva would be easily tamed into matrimony… and he was also convinced that there was something not quite right about Coventry, and he meant to suss it out.
He leaned back and had almost closed his eyes when he noticed the complimentary charcuterie plate and glass of mead on the small table nearby and snorted in disbelief. He was already stuffed with the local delicacies that had been pushed at him downstairs by locals whose eyes assiduously avoided the place where his clothing was hanging on the wall.
Suddenly, Leofric blinked in surprise, because a small leg had hooked itself through his window. The leg was followed by an arm and a delicate hand that he was certain he recognized. Chuckling, he put his arms behind his head and watched Godiva pulling herself in through his window, grunting and puffing like a winded pig.
“Can I help you?” he asked, causing her to whirl around and squeak in surprise.
“Why is it the only times you want to help me are when you’re naked?” she asked, flustered and annoyed.
“Expediency, my Lady,”
She snorted and after spying the food, began eating a piece of cheese from his plate, as he admired her flushed cheeks. “Well, I could have used your help in the hall today, but you didn’t seem interested in anything but throwing my life into chaos,” she huffed.
“Said the woman holding a town together with her virtue and living a double life as a trollop,” he observed dryly.
“Oh, that’s rich coming from you. I am not a trollop! Just because I swim naked and steal idiot’s pants doesn’t mean I do… that,” she said, flustered. “You’re the one deneme bonus who doffed your clothes and flung yourself into my pond when you didn’t even know who I was! What’s the male word for ‘trollop’ because that’s you!” she hissed.
“Alas, there isn’t one. It’s quite unfair, I admit. So, if you don’t typically wrap your wet naked body around your victims and ravish them in the clover, why was I so honored?” Leofric asked, letting his eyes wander enjoyably down the low-cut blue dress she wore.
“I… um…” she stammered, looking uncomfortable, but then going on the offensive. “Why are you still here? I can’t work like this! You have no idea how many women told me today what a fine man you seemed, especially when viewed from behind. Hulgar got you your money, so just leave!”
“It’s Sir Hulgar, my dear,” Leofric said, grinning widely “the man deserves some respect, especially if he has the challenging duty of protecting you. And, as much as it pains me to refuse any request of yours, I cannot leave. I have a duty to the King, and I intend to see it through.”
Godiva growled, and took several more pieces of cheese and sausage off the plate. “What if I paid the taxes?” she said through a mouthful of food.
“Can you?” he asked.
Godiva nodded, taking a sip from his mead and making a face. “Guh, that’s awful. They gave you the good cheese, but bitter mead,” she said, smacking her lips. “We’re even lending to other towns for their improvements,” she said through a mouthful of cheese.
“At this point, I suspect your provocations will require a more meaningful resolution than simple compliance. Your defiance has become stuff of legend, and the King’s tolerance is- my Lady, you’re eating like a wolf, are you well?”
“I’m starving. I skipped dinner and told them I was going to bed early because I was… you know… fluttery and overwhelmed,” she explained, waving her hand dismissively. “Didn’t they give you any bread?” she asked, taking another sip of mead and grimacing again.
“Well, as I was saying, the new King cannot afford to have his sovereignty challenged in this way. First one town stops paying taxes, then two, then he is fighting wars within his own country rather than defending us from those abroad. You only hold these lands by the grace of the King, who owns all lands by right. Frankly, you are lucky to be alive, much less being badgered to marry.
“Your King ripped us apart in his conquest! We had nothing left when he was done with us! If we hadn’t withheld our dues in those early days, we would have all died! It is only by our own sweat that we survived, and certainly no thanks to him!” she cried angrily.
“And that is probably why you were allowed to forego your duties for a time, and why you are still alive, now, Lady. Do you not realize the danger to which you put your people when you provoke the King? These childish pranks on the tax collectors are one thing, but when you couple that with training soldiers secretly in the monastery, it looks like a prelude to sedition—”
“That’s… that’s not what it seems,” she said, a look of flustered shock on her face.
“I know what I heard, Godiva,” Leofric said, warningly.
Godiva came closer and knelt next to him in the bath. “When the war ended, and our men came home broken and scarred deeply, our struggles were not only to eat and fight disease. Our men couldn’t sleep, couldn’t be with their families, couldn’t live in peace knowing that at any moment their sons could be called away on the whim of a King. They were just farm boys when they were sent out… they knew nothing about war or fighting. When the men returned, they couldn’t bear knowing their own sons could be thrust into war with no readiness or training. To give the men some peace, I allowed them to train our sons in fighting, as well as the other lessons, just to know that what happened to the men would not be the curse their sons endured, as well. They’re just boys, Leofric…”
Leofric leaned back, closing his eyes. His mind replayed haunting flashes of the broken young men he had ridden past going from battle to battle, too many of them cruelly looking even younger in the sleep of death. “I have no wish to argue with you, My Lady. Your goals are laudable, but this is a dangerous game you are playing… and I have no wish to see you suffer for it. I beg you to reconsider your current course,” Leofric said.
Godiva nodded slowly, looking troubled. Then, her face brightened, “Oh, um… I’ve brought you a salve, too,” she said, reaching between her breasts and pulling out a small covered pot. “It’s for your sunburn… it should help it to heal faster. I’m sorry about… well, you know.”
The corner of Leofric’s mouth curled as, unbidden, she began to rub the salve around his chest, shoulders and arms, obviously pleased to find an excuse to touch him again. “Sorry about what, exactly? Stealing my clothes? Forcing me to walk naked to a monastery? Making me wear burlap pants whilst sunburnt? Or perhaps, about falsely inviting me to spend my life with you… what would you have done had I said “yes” in that moment? Such an act in a man would be seen as most dishonorable,” Leofric said, leaning on his large arm over the side of the tub to look at her more closely.
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