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The Prisoner

A short story that led to the Earls of Mercia series

The Prisoner

A short story that led to the Earls of Mercia series

I’m the last of my family, and as I sit here, bounded by four unyielding walls, it grows daily less and less likely that I’ll ever continue my family line. We, who rose from little, and achieved so much, will die out here, in a prison of my king’s making.

I know that I’m to blame. I must lack the skills of reconciliation and compromise that my sister, my brother, father, grandfather and even great-grandfather possessed. If those attributes had been mine, then I’d not be here now.

Or so I torture myself—a life of solitude with my thoughts. There’s no need for knives and blades to injure, for the threat of a cruel death to kill me, for fear of the unknown to drive me insane. I can do just fine on my own, locked up away from the sights and smells of what it means to be a man, from the touch of another person, with only myself to talk to and against whom to argue.

However, I know I’m too harsh on myself. My family has done what no other has done, well apart from the destroyed royal House of Wessex, direct descendants from the ancient Cerdic, first of his name, half a millennia ago, or so they would have everyone believe. But the House of Wessex had many twists and turns to it, and most would laugh at the outrageous claim now. The House of Wessex was as rotten as any other. In the end.

The House of Leofwine had held its position longer than any other family. Ever. Even those descended from kings. It was inevitable that our luck and skill would run out eventually.

We’ve survived the reigns of seven capricious Kings of England, with the eighth proving too much for us. Not that he’s a real King of England. But I digress.

We’ve endured war and factionalism, the demands of petty men, the blades of mighty warriors, and some not so mighty, the greed of power-mad kings, the rantings of women who would have destroyed us all, the threat of Viking Raiders kings who tried to eradicate us before we’d even begun. Through it all, we’ve prospered. Until now, and the new world ‘order’ that’s taken hold of England and all but destroyed her in the last twenty years. Twenty years in which I’ve been captive to the whim of a man who succeeded when he shouldn’t – a man surprised, and terrified, of all that he achieved with hardly any effort.

I hear, even in my prison, the soft scamper of a whisper, the heavy tread of a command, the salt of the bereaved. I know much more than a man blind to the outside world should know, and none of it is good.

He came as a Norman, a Duke, and a man of honour, but he’s the worst of all of his ancestors, the Viking Raiders. The very worst.

He came as a Norman, in the dress of a mighty and Godly warrior, enshrined in the golden light of a false Heaven, with swords and arrows as his angels, but he held the morals and greed of a monster, the devil himself.

He’s not English. He never will be. He’s a Norman. A bastard Norman, at that, though none like to say it too loudly for fear of being overheard and punished.

Even now, it’s taken me nearly twenty long and lonely years to realise that all optimism is gone. I’ll never take my place as rightful earl of Mercia. I’ll never walk the paths my forebears were proud to call home.

Those mausoleums of my family’s strength will at no time hold my dead body or be honoured by my presence. I can only grieve here for all those I’ve lost: for those who I never knew but to whom I owed my position of strength and power; all those I’ve failed.

Yet, if my family’s past has taught me anything, it is that I should never give up. Fate is not inevitable, as those who taunt me within these four walls would have me believe. I do not know what waits around the corner and who the Lord will call to his heavenly side next, upsetting the current political balance. I do not know, and every unknown is a possibility to be exploited when it comes along. So I try to hone my mind, to stay sharp, to banish the monotony of my prison and the futility of my crushed hopes.

I sit, and I wait, or I pace, and I rail, or I sob, and I shudder in my tiny prison. I replay my family’s past through my mind to see if I should have acted differently and gained when I lost or where a hard-won gain led to an eventual loss. And sometimes, I fear I can hear my brother and sister, father, my grandfather and great-grandfather talking inside my head, offering me their sage words of advice, assuring me that I did my best and that they would have done the same.

Or, as sometimes happens, they argue and shout, angry words exchanged in the vacuum of my head, and I listen, and I learn, for without belief there is nothing, and if belief is all I have, then I have no intention of giving it up. Ever. No matter the tedium of my circular thoughts.

King William I

I’m a prisoner not because of who I am but because of what I am – a reminder of the past and an unwelcome one at that. And all men who fear the past have good reason to, and King William, as he is known, is only too aware of his failures and his greed; of the lies he has built his life upon; of the luck that has made him king of England when he was nothing but a duke and a feeble one at that.

I do not fear my past; neither do I long for it. I would change nothing other than the outcome of my lost battles. I fought for my future, for my England, and I can forever be proud of that, even here, in my exiled imprisonment, with no one but myself for company.

I did not fear to stand my ground, to hold faithful to the oaths given by my brother, father and grandfather to the people of England, to the Kings of England and the Viking Raiders of Denmark and Norway, even occasionally Sweden.

I did not quake before the invader, the spawn of all the worst that the Viking Northerners had to offer. No, I battled him, and them, determined to drive yet another aside, even when he came festooned in the regalia of a righteous man, with the banners of Christ proclaiming his entitlement.

England belongs to the English, no matter what the Normandy Duke might think, and one day he will die, and the illusion of his power will shatter, just as it always does when a king leaves his throne unguarded. No matter how powerful, feared, and tyrannical, no man can ever leave a kingdom to the next generation unchanged. Cracks will always appear, shining a light on the unjust regime of a man grown fat on the proceeds of a lie, and those cracks are there to be exploited, as they must be.

Yet, even I can admit that twenty years is too long for one man to stand alone, especially one as reviled as he is, and one as cruel – always cruel, as those salted sighs inform me, time and time again, hammering against my prison, reminding me that not only am I trapped, I’m also useless to combat the menace of this Normandy Duke.

***

And then I have my wish.

The crack of a door, the shuffle of whispers on wooden floors, the spilling of light into a room too long-shuttered and bolted against the outside world. And into it strides a man I’ve never known; a warrior in shimmering iron and fire, a hand steady on his sword at his hip, an odd fashion, I notice with some annoyance, as I’m blinking, eyes weeping at the strange twist of fate that has brought me to this.

I’m an old man, or rather, an older man, a shrivelled wreck, dried from my time indoors, hollowed by my seemingly desperate need to escape, to restore myself to all that I once had. I know, if only I could win free, that men and women would flock to my banner, the twin-headed eagle of the House of Leofwine, the righteous banner of a family too long denied their place in England’s governance.

“The King is dead,” clangs like a bell through my silent mind, splintering the essence of my futility.

“Long live the King,” is further intoned, and I know and understand, that just as I thought, all men must die, and all men must be replaced by another, perhaps in their image, but somehow ‘lesser,’ always ‘lesser.’ No man, or woman, has yet managed to outlive the time allotted to them.

A strange sensation over tight lips, hot, bursting, perhaps even painful, as my hand tugs on my face, feeling upturned skin, cheeks tight with delight. And music bubbles from my mouth and erupts into the sterile cavern of my imprisonment.

The iron giant stands before me, an expressionless saviour.

“You’ve been given your freedom.”

The words drop like arrows into my feverish mind, each one piercing more deeply than the other until they reach the shadow of the man I used to be; an earl in my own name, the brother of the king’s wife, the brother of an earl, the son of an earl, the grandson of an earl, the great-grandson of an ealdorman.

The giant leaves me, and I hear the clamour of his passage as I stand, first a little taller, and then a little straighter, and then far taller, far straighter, the weight of who I was tensing my soul and my body, returning me to who I was when I was locked up twenty years ago.

My laughter dries to a resounding silence.

The door to my prison is open, just hanging there, the wood, bared against my passage for so many years, gleaming enticingly. The light of the bright day on the pitted surface shows me where I’ve hammered against its solidity, demanded it yields to my entreaties, always in vain, only the indentations of my knuckles a testament to my actions. All that I’ve accomplished in twenty years.

Now it awaits me and my first steps to freedom, to a life I should have had.

A final glance around my prison shows me how little I’ve become. There is nothing for me here. Not now, and never again.

I take a step toward freedom, my boots old and creased, just as I am. But then I pause and swallow.

This has been my dream—all these years: to walk, unwatched from the confines of my exile.

I swallow again, my throat dry against the promise of freedom and a future so long denied me.

But, I’m an earl, the brother of an earl, the son of an earl, the grandson of an earl and the great-grandson of an ealdorman. I know who I am and what I am.

Without a backward glance, I stride through that door and into my future.

It’s been too long in coming.

 

M.J. Porter writes historical fiction set in Early England and Great Britain before 1066, with a penchant for little-known Mercian warriors. Of late, MJ has strayed into the 20th century with the 1940s mystery set in Birmingham, The Custard Corpses.