In which the future conqueror of England is hunted like an animal!
Caudebec-en-Caux, Normandy, 1040.
“Where is William the Bastard?” roared the man-at-arms, seizing the miller by the throat.
“My Lord,” croaked the unfortunate fellow, “I cannot breathe!”
The soldier eased his grip ever so slightly.
“Where are you hiding the Bastard?” he repeated menacingly, shaking the miller forcibly to emphasize each word of his question. “If we find him here, I promise I will cut your heart out!”
The miller shuddered. “But I swear, my Lord, he is not here!” he spluttered.
“He was observed lurking near this street an hour ago!” insisted the man-at-arms. “Give him up now and I will spare your life! If you don’t talk, we will tear this place apart!”
“But I swear I can tell you nothing!” pleaded the miller. “Why will you not believe me?”
The soldier turned to his three comrades.
“Search everywhere!” he bellowed. “Tear this miserable hole to pieces! Leave no stone unturned! And you!” he growled to the miller. “You keep well out of the way!” With these words he shoved the unfortunate man roughly into a corner of the granary.
Nestled deep in a narrow space in a stack of flour sacks, the boy shivered with fear. They will find me and kill me, he thought. What will it feel like to die? Perhaps it would be a relief, he thought, to end this wearying life of flight and concealment with the constant threat of sudden death hanging always over my head. A wave of anger and self-pity swept over him. It had been this way ever since his father, Duke Robert, had died five years previously. Only seven years old he had been left entirely alone to face the savage realities of the world. His mother, Herleva, had been dismissed by his father when William was scarce three years old, and she had promptly married another man. Too young to rule and control his newly-inherited duchy, the boy known as ‘William the Bastard’, sole heir of the Duke, had been under the protection of a succession of ‘guardians’ – Alan of Brittany, Gilbert de Brionne, Turchetil and Osbern. All had died violent deaths at the hands of rival aspirants who sought to control the rich land of Normandy. For the past seven years the duchy had been rocked by anarchy as competing Norman barons struggled and feuded in an effort to gain ultimate power, the boy a helpless and unwitting pawn in their machinations. Only good fortune had so far preserved him from their greedy clutches, and he had been forced to endure the cold, hunger and fear that was the lot of a permanent fugitive.
The boy shifted his body cautiously in his hiding place. He was not sure how long he could endure this confinement. The air was so stale that he found it difficult to breathe, and he feared that the stack might at any moment collapse inwards and crush him like a trapped rat. His legs felt numb and his muscles ached. He felt a sudden, irresistible urge to burst forth from his hiding place to confront his tormentors, but the feeling passed almost as soon as it appeared. No, he told himself, I will remain concealed until they leave however long it takes. I am determined to outwit them. He clenched his fists. One day I will crush them all like so many ants, he thought fiercely! Crush them like ants! As he repeated his grim mantra, his spirit of resistance grew stronger.
At that moment, against the background din of the search, he heard a soft but strangely sinister swishing sound near to his hiding place. It took his bewildered brain several moments to realize what it might be. A soldier was thrusting his sword between the flour sacks, probing for a possible place of concealment. The sound drew closer as a cold sweat of fear ran through the boy’s body. The thought of being spitted on the probing sword like a piece of meat as he lay trapped in his hiding place was almost too much for William to endure. He wanted desperately to thrust the sacks aside and shout to the searchers, “Here I am! The one you seek! Do your worst!”
Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to remain still. He focused his straining ears to catch the approaching sound, using all his faculties to discern from what direction the sword thrust might come. Instinctively he jerked his head to one side a split second before the blade came thrusting through the sacks, narrowly missing his head, passing close by his left ear. The blade was withdrawn in preparation for another probe, and the boy suppressed a fierce urge to scream out as he waited trembling in his lair.
He sensed rather than heard the second thrust, twisting his body sharply aside as the razor sharp blade slashed the side of his tunic leaving a gaping gash in the cloth. Fortunately the blade did not snag and was withdrawn promptly and cleanly.
The boy had almost wet himself with fear. He was not sure if he could endure another thrust from the searching sword, but the blow never came! The searcher had given up his quest and moved on to another part of the granary.
William’s heart was pounding, his breath coming in short gasps. Slowly he calmed himself, forcing himself to inhale and exhale more slowly until gradually his heartbeat returned to its normal rate.
It seemed an age until the granary finally grew quiet again, and the miller carefully moved aside the sacks above the boy’s head and released him from his prison. William stood and shook the loose flour from his hair and clothes. The miller gently touched the slashed tunic with his gnarled fingers.
“A narrow escape, my Lord!” he said. “Indeed the saints are watching over you!”
“You speak the truth, my friend,” said William, smiling grimly. “Sometimes I wonder how long my luck will hold! When will the quarry be run to ground? When will the arrow or the dagger find its mark?”
The boy glanced around the ruined granary, taking in the devastation around him. Grain and flour was scattered everywhere, sacks and baskets torn apart, chairs and tables smashed. A rare expression of compassion spread across his face.
“Alas, Ranulf, my old friend, I am so sorry for all that you have suffered in my behalf! How can I ever repay you for your kindness to a poor unfortunate fugitive?” he said.
“Do not chastise yourself, my Lord,” said the miller. “I knew what the soldiers might do. I was willing to risk this for you. Your father, the Duke, was generous to me. He saved my brother from the gallows. It is a small repayment of my debt to protect his son from his enemies.”
The boy drew himself upright. Even at the tender age of twelve he was growing strong and robust, taller than average, with a proud tilt to his chin and a fierce glint in his hazel eyes.
“You are a good man, Ranulf,” he insisted, “and I must repay you as I can.”
He drew a small pouch from his tunic, and emptied a few silver coins into the palm of the miller’s hand.
“It is not much, Ranulf, but it is all I have,” said William simply.
The miller smiled and pushed the coins back into the William’s hand, closing the boy’s fingers over them.
“Nay, nay, lad!” he said tenderly. “You will need them more than I! My wife and I, we have survived worse than this. We’ll clean the place up, and have the old mill working again in no time. Now come thee and eat some fresh-baked bread!”
“When I am old enough to claim my birth-right, when I am truly Duke of Normandy, I will remember your kindness,” said William. “The bird has its nest, the fox its den, and I…I have your warm granary for my refuge! As soon as I have eaten, I will be on my way. You have suffered enough on my behalf!”
“No hurry, my Lord,” assured the miller. “My humble home is yours for as long as you need a place.”
“I thank you from the bottom of my heart,” said the boy.