(Hawk's Lair, Northumbria, A.D. 970)
Clueless men get stung...every time...
Honey was a lot like a woman. Sweet when you were in the mood, and sticky when you were sated.
John of Hawk’s Lair grimaced at his own flowery musing. He was a warrior when called to service by his Saxon king, a good master to his various estates, but mostly just a reclusive student of...yes, honey.
He didn’t realize that he’d spoken aloud until his visitor from the Norselands, Hamr Egilsson, made a snorting sound and said, "Hah! Forget about honey, when a man’s sap is rising, a female nether nest is the only thing that will do."
Nether nest? Help me, Lord!
Hamr of Vestfold, the wildest Viking that ever rode a longship, dipped a fingertip in one of the dozens of small pottery jars that John was experimenting with and licked the honey appreciatively. Hamr was a nephew thrice-removed of John’s Norse step-father, Lord Eirik of Ravenshire. Vikings considered even the thinnest blood connection family; John, though full Saxon, had been raised to do likewise.
John smacked his hand away. "Those are for research. Be careful you don’t drop any on my notes."
While Lady Eadyth of Ravenshire, John’s mother, was a beekeeper far-famed for her mead and time-keeping candles, John was more interested in the medicinal properties. His patience was wearing thin with his irksome guest, who was clearly getting restless after only three days here in the wilds of Northumbria. John doubted he would have his company much longer. Not that Hamr would be returning to his homeland any time soon since he had been recently outlawed by a Vestfold Althing. Hopefully, it would be a short exile.
"Can you not go find a country to plunder, Hamr?"
"Done that. In fact, I am thinking about becoming a pirate."
"Have you not fame enough as an outlaw? Must you add piracy to your sins?"
"Methinks I would be a good pirate. I will give piracy a respectable name."
"You would not know respectable if it hit you in your face."
John inhaled for patience. "Swordplay then?"
"Visit a brothel?"
"Done that. And done that. And done that."
"Go exploring in the lands beyond Iceland?"
"Join the Varangian guard in Byzantium."
"Too much work."
"Build a new longship."
"I have too many already. Rather, my father does."
John made a clucking sound of disgust.
"Lord Gravely, you are too somber by half and unimaginative," he continued.
John frowned at the rascal for all his m’lording. John was entitled to wear the title of Lord of Gravely, which he disdained because of his deceased, evil, undoubtedly insane father. For that reason, he would never beget children of his own. The risk of the taint in his blood was too great. "Call me Hawk, or call me John, but do not call me Gravely," he warned.
Hamr crossed his eyes at John. Betimes the lackwit behaved like a youthling scarce out of swaddling clothes, even though he had passed the same thirty-one years as John.
Easing himself off the stool with a long sigh of boredom, Hamr started for the door, finally, just before Graeme the Stableman knocked.
"Is there a problem, Graeme? One of the horses?"
Graeme twisted his cap in his hands. "Nay, the horses are fine. My manpart is not."
By the rood! What now?
Hamr’s ears perked up and, instead of leaving, he turned to listen to the conversation.
"I know ye pay me and me wife to slather that honey on my manpart so we kin stop breedin’ babes, but—."
"You can go now, Hamr," John said.
"Are you daft? This promises to be the most fun I’ve had since I got here." Hamr sat on his stool once again.
He was about to tell Graeme to come back later, but he blathered on, "By the saints! I was tuppin’ Mary in one of the horse stalls las’ night, and I’m still pickin’ straw off my ballocks and in my crack. Mary says she has straw up her woman channel, and it itches somethin’ awful."
Way more detail than John wanted or needed.
Hamr had a hand over his mouth. Laughing, no doubt.
"We both got flies swarmin’ around our private parts," Graeme was on a roll now. "What should we do, Lord Hawk?"
He cringed at being addressed as Lord Hawk...lord of anything for that matter. "You could take a bath," he suggested.
Graeme stared at him in horror. A bath a year was his routine, John guessed. Or twice a year, at best.
"I have an idea," Hamr said with a grin.
"Shut your teeth, fool," John advised. Then, to his stableman, "Do you want to quit the project, Graeme?" John had twelve couples of child-bearing years involved in his experiments to prevent conception. One less would not be fatal to the study.
"Nay!" Graeme replied. "We need the coin."
"My idea...does no one want to hear my idea?" Hamr was waving his hand to get their attention. "You could remove Mary’s honey by licking her nether folds."
Graeme’s expression bespoke his reluctance.
"And she could remove yours by sucking your cock."
Graeme’s eyes lit up with delight. "Good idea!" he said. "I will tell Mary it is Lord Hawk’s orders."
John groaned. But he had no time to bemoan his dilemma. Efrim the Woodsman arrived, holding a bloody rag to his left hand. His hand had been cut almost to the bone two months past, and the wound still festered. "Maude, the scullery maid, said you used honey on her husband Harry’s boil an’ it healed jist fine."
Honey on a broken blister was one thing, a gaping wound quite another. Next, his people would expect him to cure leprosy with honey.
John washed Efrim’s wound, emphasizing the importance of keeping an open sore clean and covered with unsoiled bindings. "Thank ye very much, m’lord. I have no coin, but my Essie will send ye some of her special goat cheese."
Arguing that he did not need to be paid had gained John naught in the past; so, he just nodded. "I do appreciate good goat cheese." I loathe goat cheese.
"Do you do this all the time?" Hamr wanted to know once Efrim departed.
"I do not claim to be a healer, but, yea, a fair number of people come to me as a last resort when all else fails."
"And they pay for your services with cheese?"
"And eggs, fish, venison, live chickens, a pig, wool, manure...yea, manure for the gardens. Even a barrel of eels."
Hamr rolled his eyes. "Mayhap you could hint that a big-breasted woman with wanton ways would not be unwelcome payment."
John decided the best course was to ignore the lackwit.
That night a lone rider entered the keep gates. A man of about fifty with a grizzled white beard and long hair in the Viking style, and a patch over one eye. Oh, good Lord! It was Bolthor, the world’s worst skald, who quickly told him that he had been sent by his mother to keep him company. A mother he was going to throttle if she did not stop interfering in his life.
John knew from past experience that come nightfall there was going to be a poem about honey licking and miracle cures.
And there was.
The night in John’s great hall, where the fare was plain, due to the recent death of the longtime Hawk’s Lair cook, a glaze came over Bolthor’s one eye...a sure sign that he was overcome by the verse mood. Without much ado, Bolthor announced, "This is the saga of John of Hawk’s Lair. I call it `Hawk’s Honey.’" It mattered not that John groaned and pleaded with Bolthor not to recite his saga aloud, or that Hamr laughed so hard he fell off his seat. Bolthor considered it his gods’ given duty to spread his poetic wisdom.
"In the land of the Saxons,
A lackwit knight was born.
Day and night he spent
Mooning over honey, but
Alas and alack,
As time went on,
He did not realize that
Ice was growing on his heart,
Even worse, cobwebs were growing
On his manpart.
And the most important honey
Was missing from his life.
Mayhap honey is a bane betimes.
Mayhap man needs a bit of sour
To offset the sweet.
Mayhap the hawk should fly
Instead of resting on his feathery arse."
While everyone else laughed and clapped their hands with appreciation, John was heard to murmur, "Mayhap someone ought to stuff a cod piece in a certain skald’s mouth."
To market, to market, to buy a... chauvinist pig?...
Ingrith Sigrundottir walked through the busy streets of Jorvik with five young orphans trailing behind her.
To Ubbi, her elderly "guard," she whispered, "I feel like a goose with its goslings."
"Best ye not be waddlin’, m’lady. Many a lustsome man here in the city might take it as an invitation."
"Ubbi! I’m almost thirty-one years old. Way past the time when men grow lustsome and drooling at my comeliness."
"Age is naught when the sap rises in a man," Ubbi said, "but ye are not to worry. I will protect you."
Which was ludicrous, really. Ubbi...seventy if he was a day...was no taller than ten-year-old Godwyn who preceded him. If anyone waddled, it was him on his short bowed legs. The little man with his gnarled hands carried a lance in his right hand, but it was more for a walking stick. No matter! Ingrith was well-armed with sharp daggers at her belt and ankle, and she knew how to use them.
Truth to tell, Ingrith was still an attractive woman. It was her no-nonsense personality, rather than her appearance that repelled most men, who preferred biddable women. She was happiest when she was organizing a kitchen and all the cooking, some said like a military commander. And she satisfied her maternal urges by caring for the orphans at Rainstead, an orphanage located outside Jorvik.
With blonde hair was braided and wrapped into a tight coronet atop her head, Ingrith did her best to hide her tall, embarrassingly voluptuous figure was hidden by a modest, long-sleeved gunna under a calf-length, open-sided apron. She wore her usual prim expression on her face.
"As fer that," Ubbi was still blathering on whilst she had been wool-gathering, "That Saxon commander, Leo of Loncaster, is certainly smitten with you."
Ingrith made a grimace of distaste at the reminder of the soldier who persisted, despite her continual rebuffs. Lately, although she did not see him often, he had become nasty.
"Could we move on?" Ingrith urged.
It was not that the market town was dangerous, especially during daylight hours, but it was crowded. And there were evil men who preyed on young children for the sex slave trade. Those same men resented the children’s shelter that offered refuge to what they considered a commodity. In addition, the city was home to numerous thieves able to slip a pouch of coins from people’s belts without them noticing. Godwyn had perfected that particular talent before being "rescued."
Jorvik, at the confluence of the Foss and Ouse Rivers which led out to the North Sea, was once the site of the Roman city Eburacum, or what the Saxons still called Eoforwic. It had been held as the capital of Northumbria by Vikings off and on over the past two centuries, most recently as ten years ago when the Norse King Eric Bloodaxe had been driven away. For the time being, Saxon earls ruled in King Edgar’s place, and the clomp-clomp of the garrison soldiers’ boots could be heard as they patrolled the streets in groups.
"Stay close. Hold hands," she warned as they approached the minster steps where two young monks were tossing out hunks of bread to the destitute who crowded there every morning.
"Why are the monks’ heads bald only on the top?" five-year-old Breaca asked. "A ton-sore? Oh, do they have sores on their heads, like Aelfric’s flea bites? Listen to the bells. ’Tis like angel music. Remember the story about St. Michael the Archangel?" Betimes, Breaca chattered away like a magpie.
"I would like to see an angel some day," sighed seven-year-old Arthur, and the other children nodded.
"I would not want to be a priest," Godwyn asserted. "They cannot tup girls."
"Godwyn!" Ingrith exclaimed.
"What? ’Tis true."
"The boyling has a point," Ubbi agreed with a chortle but still smacked Godwyn on the shoulder with his lance.
"What is a tup?" Emma asked.
"That is when—" Godwyn started to say.
But Ingrith cut him short with another "Godwyn!"
He ducked his head sheepishly, but he would probably be regaling the other children later with misinformation.
With a motion of her hand, Ingrith encouraged them all to move on behind her.
The city, which housed ten thousand people inside its walls, was laid out in an orderly grid of streets, best known as gates in the Norse language, such as Petergate, Stonegate, and Goodramgate. The Coppergate section, where they headed now, hosted dozens and dozens of craftsmen, merchants, and traders, many of whom lived in small, horizontally timbered or wattle-and-daub houses with neat front yards where tents and tables were set up to sell their services and wares. The children’s heads swung left and right, mouths agape, as they took in all the sights. Jewelers, blacksmiths, tanners, shoe makers, glass blowers, embroiderers, seamstresses, lace makers, wood carvers, knife and scissor sharpeners, barbers, potters, silver and goldsmiths, weavers, candlemakers, and so many more. The goods offered appealed to one and all, from ells of cloth in fat bolts as well as already-made garments of samite silk, fine Northumbria wool, and linen. Horseshoes, swords and knives. Arm rings and amulets. Live animals: cows, goats, horses, and pigs. Poultry and eggs. Relics from the Holy Land...some of them outlandish, such as the Virgin Mary’s toenails. Many varieties of fresh fish, including oysters and mussels. Newly butchered meats, still dripping blood. Rich cheeses, both hard and soft. Honey combs, mead, and candles. Fresian wines.
The raucous noises were not unpleasing to the ear, whether they be merchants calling out their goods, the braying, bleats, and grunts of animals, conversations of passersby, the bells of the minster, or conversations in a dozen different languages. The smells, though...ah, some of the smells were enough to gag a rat, like the leather booth they were approaching with its tannery in back. Then, too, there were the slave auction platforms down by the waterfront, which Ingrith always avoided.
"What kin I do fer ye, mistress?" the bootmaker asked.
"I need shoes for each of these children...leather ankle boots. Also, several lengths of leather thongs for laces."
"Fine children ye have, too, mistress," the bootmaker said, rubbing his hands together with anticipation of the coins he would soon have. "They look jist like you."
She laughed at that, especially since Kavil was a Nubian with ebony skin.
Kavil caught her eye and smiled back at her, a smile which did not reach his liquid brown eyes. It never did.
What a dear boy he was! Too pretty by half, and for that reason had been misused by sodomites to which his slave master had rented him out. His spirit and his body had been broken when they’d first found him. After a year, he was still not totally healed.
From there, the entire group stopped at various booths, buying spices from far lands, a new cauldron, carved horn spoons, and straining cloths for making cheese. For the thirty children from ages one to fourteen currently at the orphanage, they had two cows for milk and butter, as well as chickens that produced a large number of eggs, a goat, and several sheep.
A pottery booth drew her attention now. Behind the table was a petite woman with lustrous black hair and blue eyes. Although older than Ingrith, she was beyond beautiful.
"Are you interested in some pots today, m’lady?" The woman smiled.
"Yea, I am."
"My name is Joanna. Feel free to examine my wares." With a sweeping hand, she indicated her items for sale, both on a long table, and on shelves behind her. Presumably she lived in the neat timbered house in back. Ingrith could see a kiln on the side. "If these are not to your liking, I can provide you with any size or shape of container you want."
"Hmmm." There were redware pots of all sizes and shapes, glazed and unglazed. Jugs, too. The most interesting were those that had been decorated before firing with flowers and other designs. "Years ago, I was in Jorvik. As I recall, there used to be a red-haired man in this spot."
"That would be my husband Gerald, who was a master potter. He died three years ago."
"My sympathies. You are fortunate to have found another supplier for your wares."
"That would be me," she revealed, lifting her chin with pride. "Gerald taught me the craft, but it was my idea to add the decorations."
Joanna blushed prettily. "Thank you, m’lady."
"I need some of this size to store soft cheeses, like skyrr." She pointed to two of the plain ones with wide mouths and lids. "And that one over there would make a wonderful gift for my sister Drifa. She loves flowers." It was an urn, decorated with twining roses.
After she paid for her goods with a halved silver coin, and while the woman wrapped her purchases in worn, rough cloth, Ingrith carried on a conversation, for the sake of politeness. "Do you do a thriving business here?"
Joanna shrugged. "The stall on market days is busy, but I must close over the winter. I have steady orders from some customers, though, like a beekeeper in one of the northern shires who finds that size over there perfect for holding whole honey combs."
"Would that be Lady Eadyth of Ravenshire?"
Joanna’s blue eyes brightened. "Yea. Do you know her?"
"Her nephew by marriage is married to my sister Tyra."
Joanna continued to wrap the pots, then seemed to hesitate before asking, "Do you know Lady Eadyth’s son John?"
John? She refers to him by his given name? "Do you mean Hawk? John of Hawk’s Lair?"
Joanna’s face bloomed crimson with embarrassment. It could only mean that she knew John intimately. Was she his mistress? Ingrith had been told, or overheard, that men often sought widows for their mistresses, especially those not of the upper classes. Was that the case with John? Oh, good gods! Why should I care?
Joanna picked up a tiny glazed clay pot the size of her fist and caressed the edges in a loving fashion. "Lord Gravely..." She used his formal name now, having realized her error in calling him John. "...buys numerous pots of this size for his experiments with honey."
Well, that may be one reason you know him, but you are either smitten with the rogue, or you are sharing his bed furs.
There I go again! Musing on affairs that are none of my business.
"This size pot would be nice for table salt, or for storing spices. I like to experiment with different seasonings in my cooking," Ingrith explained. "Could I have six of them?"
After completing her transaction, she smiled at Joanna and said, "Give my regards to Hawk when you see him next."
"Oh, nay. I do not...he does not—"
Ingrith waved a hand dismissively. "Thank you for my new pots. I will surely recommend you to my friends and family."
With those words, she began to gather the children together for a return to the orphanage, despite their protests that they wanted to watch the musical birds in gilded cages. As she made her way through the crowd, she could not stop thinking about Hawk...John, as she was more wont to call him...and Joanna. Did he love the beautiful woman, or was she a convenient mistress?
And Ingrith wondered if she would ever find a love of her own. At her age, probably not.
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