‘What’s your name?’
‘Are you simple?’
‘Can’t you talk?’
‘Lost your tongue?’
‘Speak! Come on lad, speak!’
‘Leave him be. You can’t speak can you lad?’
Beorn said nothing and no matter how hard they tried no one could get him to say a word. When Harold looked into those mist-blue eyes, it was like staring down into a well. All he could see was the surface glitter. Much was hidden beneath.
‘He’s not spoken since his father’s death,’ the serving women said, as he couldn’t hear either. ‘Bless him. Poor lad. He’s gone quite dumb. They should send him to a minster.’
Harold didn’t like to hear his new brother being discussed like this, but whatever he tried, to suggest hunting for crabs during low tide, or sailing or exploring in the rushes, Beorn did not talk to him either.
It was around that time that their father, Godwin gathered his three oldest on to the bench.
They had all asked about Beorn so many times, ‘Come, sit down,’ Godwin said to his eldest three: Swein, Harold and their sister Edith.
Swein was pensive; Edith solemn. She was a chubby little thing. She didn’t speak much. But there was an intensity to her.
‘Will he ever speak?’ she asked.
‘I’m sure he will,’ Godwin said. He took in a deep breath. ‘He was there. In the church. When his father was murdered. The monks afterwards found him clinging to his father. They thought he had been killed as well. He was covered in blood.’
‘That is why he does not speak?’
‘Why did the king kill Beorn’s father?’ Swein asked.
‘It is the way of men who have risen too high,’ Gytha said. ‘That is why Knut has gone to Rome.’
Godwin explained. It didn’t make much sense to Harold. Beorn’s father, Ulf, was their mother’s brother. He was regent in Denmark. And Godwin was regent in England.
Which made Harold wonder if the king would kill Godwin.
The question made Godwin smile. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I do not think so.’
‘So that is why he does not speak…’ Swein said.
They all looked across the hall to where Beorn was sitting, cross-legged, on the floor. He was running a string along the ground. A kitten pounced, almost frog-like, along the ground after it.
There was a pause.
‘I will pray for him,’ Edith said at last.
‘Good lass,’ Godwin said. He fixed them each with a look. ‘Now I really ought to be going. The burgers of Dover are here, and they need me to talk some sense into them, apparently.’
They watched Godwin leave, and the three of them filed into their mother’s room.
It was a bright clean place, hung with thick embroideries in the Winchester style: all leaves and dragons all entwined. Harald liked to pick out the faces of men and monsters that peered out from the green silk thread foliage. But today he looked to his mother, who was sitting on her chair, telling tales.
There were many stories she dredged up from her store-house of memories. Tales of things she had seen and heard about, when her father and brothers returned from their wars abroad, and brought home slaves and strange gold rings they had taken from the battlefields, and bags of freshly minted English silver pennies: their edges still sharp to the touch.
She lifted Harold into her lap. Edith sat at her skirts. All children were safe within their mother’s grasp. It was a soft place to sit, with her arms wrapped about you, absent-mindedly playing with your hair.
But after a while she gently pushed Harold down. ‘You do not want to sit inside all day.’
They found Beorn sitting on the hall step.
‘Come on,’ Swein said and the three of them set off along the Bosham shoreline, where flies buzzed over the dark discarded ropes of bladder wrack and thick green kelp.
The tide had retreated out past the headland. The water had exposed the wicker traps in the middle of the channel. The fishermen were naked from the waist down as they picking through the traps.
‘Hoi-ya! Hoi-ya!’ the fishermen, stripped to the waist, called and clapped their hands, and the gulls cawed and flapped and could not decide between flight and food until the fishermen were close enough to throw a stone, when they relented and with great beats of their long-elbowed wings they powered aloft, and curled to the side, calling out in melancholy.
The children picked along the beach until the fishermen were done. They came striding back across the flats, their baskets now weighing on them.
Swein and Harald and Beorn watched as the fishermen tipped the fish out onto the mud.
The best fish would go to the hall. The others the fishermen could keep.
Occasionally they would discard a fish that was too small and one of them would rise, a slow-flapping fish caught in its beak.
Nothing held their attention for long. They went across to see a stallion mount a mare that was tied to a tree. They went to see a load of charcoal tumble in a cloud of black dust. One of the farm-hands brought a horse to be shod. The blacksmith first had to get his coals hot.
When, at last, they returned to the hall, they went straight to the kitchens. The cook, a cheerful man with a squint and an eager manner, gave them warmed milk, sprinkled with cinnamon, such as he served to the king when he was here.
Harold felt something rough on his kirtle. He looked down and saw a row of barbed grass seeds embedded in his kirtle. He tried pulling them off but they would not come. They pulled the threads instead.
Beorn reached across. ‘It’s like arrowheads,’ he said, his voice soft and croaking, creased and irregular, like winter cloaks when they are first unpacked from the long summer stores. Harold was almost too amazed to understand that the lad had just spoken. ‘Push them through to the other side.’
Beorn and Harald became fast friends. They were like blood-brothers: always up to some mischief, men would say. Gytha treated Beorn better than if he was her child. She gave him choice cuts of pork and salt beef, always made sure he had warm milk before bed, and had extra blankets when the storm put its mouth to the smoke-hole and blew low moaning notes throughout the night.
Swein and Harald and Edith accepted it. Beorn was their cousin and he was fatherless, while they had their father and mother, and a great household about them. But one day, after a morning of rain, with the grass heavy with damp, Edith ran to Harold.
‘He’s stopped talking again.’
It was their mother who explained.
‘The king has returned from Rome,’ she said.
That night Harald went to Beorn, who was still standing by the wall and he took his hand. Their fingers interlocked, and there was something in Harald’s touch that made Beorn turn. ‘I know what Knut did to your father,’ Harald said. ‘When we are men we will take revenge on him, if that is what you wish.’
Beorn’s eyes brimmed suddenly with tears. It was like watching the tide rising in the river bed, not quite overtopping the banks. He was furious with himself. He would not let them fall.
Paul Lindstrom says
Very good, as usual.