and the importance of York and Durham mean that the Normans have been careful to rebuild and resettle. In the west, little has changed since the murder and destruction of 1069.

So complete is the devastation and killing in the remote parts of the hinterland that no one is left to bury the dead. Bodies, now no more than sun-bleached skeletons wrapped in rotting fragments of clothing, are still lying where tens of thousands of people were massacred in their villages.

William is deep in thought; there are tears in his eyes, his knuckles white as he grasps his reins in anguish.

‘I have read all the accounts of the Conqueror’s dreadful deeds in this land, but words cannot describe the true horror of this. It is to be hoped that he is now suffering at the hand of God for what he has done here.’

Roger has been fortunate in life. His has been the sheltered existence of a cleric since childhood; he has never witnessed anything like this before.

‘So, it is true. He really was a monster.’

‘Yes, he was a ruthless tyrant, like many of your countrymen.’

‘We are not all like him.’

‘I know, my son, but my father was a Norman, so I know that a love of war and a penchant for avarice fire the Norman blood.’

Both men say silent prayers as they pass every example of the brutality committed a lifetime ago.

There is still a small community on the hill at Lancaster, where a heavily armed garrison of the King’s men is overseeing the building of a stone keep, but the only civilians are a few souls marooned in service to the garrison and the masons. Most of the old burgh is in ruins, its simple wooden buildings burned to the ground, its small Saxon stone church gutted, its roof timbers charred and decaying.

William and Roger make camp beneath the walls of Lancaster’s keep. It is a cold night and their men build a large fire for them.

Roger is in pensive mood.

‘Abbot, why is it always the innocent who suffer?’

‘War is like a tempest; no one is safe. When a storm rages in the hearts of men, it consumes everything in its path. Like peasants’ hovels in a gale, it is the little people who are the most vulnerable.’

‘I’m glad we have the walls of Malmesbury and our Holy Orders to protect us.’

‘Don’t be too complacent, my young friend. If the winds are powerful enough, neither stout walls nor a monk’s heavy cassock will keep you safe. Both can prove flimsy in the midst of the tumults made by men.’

‘Thank you for that comforting thought, Abbot.’ Roger smiles wryly before another blast of cold air reminds him how uncomfortable he is. ‘This prince, Edgar… what kind of man is he?’

‘He is intriguing — enigmatic, shrewd, obviously a survivor. He has lived a very long life and is the only senior figure from the time of the Conquest still alive. He knew two Kings of England — Edward and Harold — and he was at York with Hereward of Bourne when the great English rebellion looked like it might succeed. And that was only the beginning of his story.

‘He befriended King William’s firstborn, Robert Curthose. He fought in Sicily and the Crusades, and stood with Robert at the Battle of Tinchebrai. What stories he can tell us!’

Roger stares at his mentor admiringly.

‘Well, if you put it like that, I suppose it’s a journey worth making.’ Then he adds, with rather less enthusiasm, ‘I just wish it wasn’t so far north and so bitterly cold.’

When they reach the settlement of Sedbergh, they find another tiny enclave of normality. Previously a flourishing village, it is now no more than a few makeshift shelters; the once-proud Anglo-Norse inhabitants have been reduced to a wretched vestige of humanity. Many are sick, some are lame, and all look pale and undernourished. Their clothes are little better than rags, few wear leggings and most walk barefoot.

William decides to stay for a while to help the community find some purpose. He puts his men to work, trying to make the meagre dwellings more habitable, while he and Roger strive to inspire the locals to help themselves. One young man, no more than a boy of sixteen or seventeen, seems the most vigorous, and William takes him to one side.

‘How many people are there here?’

‘Sire, about twenty in the village and another dozen or so in the hills around us.’

‘Where is your priest, or your thegn? Don’t you have a lord?’

‘There is no one. We are all from different villages. Our parents settled here a few years ago, after spending years hiding in the forests and on the fells. No one has claimed the village, so we came here to try to rebuild it.’

‘What is your name?’

‘Aldric, Abbot.’

‘Where are your parents now?’

‘They are dead. All the original settlers are dead. Last winter was very harsh, and many died. A group of younger men went down the valley in the spring to look for work, but we never saw them again. So, this is all that’s left — old men and women, a few children and four or five of us who are reasonably fit and well.’

‘Why haven’t you left?’

‘Because it’s our duty to stay; they would all die if we left.’

‘I admire your courage and sacrifice. Gather together the fit members of the community; I want to talk to them.’

Young Aldric summons two other young men, as well as three girls in their teens. William sits them down in the middle of the village and addresses them.

‘I am claiming possession of this village under the ownership of the Abbey of Malmesbury.’

There is an immediate look of horror on the faces of Aldric and his companions, but William is quick to reassure them.

‘My abbey will not be taxing you — at least, not until you can easily afford it. I will give you silver to buy seed, a couple of oxen and a plough, and sufficient to buy some sheep and cows. Tomorrow, Roger and one of my men will ride back to Lancaster to buy food to get you through the approaching winter.’

William is heartened when he sees the horror on the faces in front of him transformed into an expression of astonishment.

‘I am appointing Aldric as Thegn of Sedbergh, which I will have confirmed by King Henry at Winchester upon my return to Malmesbury. The rest of you are appointed elders of the village on my authority. Are there any questions?’

There is a stunned silence.

‘Tomorrow we will help you build a longhouse for the village, where you can all stay warm together in the winter. We won’t leave until it is finished. When it is complete, I will bless it and we will say mass together. In a few months’ time, when I find the right candidate, I will send you a priest from Malmesbury and together you can build him a church.’

Aldric bends down to kiss William’s ring, but the Abbot pulls him up, embarrassed at the overt show of gratitude. However, he’s not agile enough to prevent the girls, overcome by emotion, kneeling at his feet to bury their heads in his cassock.

Roger, seeing William’s unease at this outpouring of gratitude, catches William’s eye and grins at him mockingly.

‘Away to Lancaster with you,’ roars the Abbot. ‘And be quick about it!’

Ten days later, the longhouse finished and the village given a spark of life, William and his party head north to Appleby on the river Eden and begin to ascend the fells of the high Pennines towards Kirby Thore and the old Roman fort of Bravoniacum.

As they leave Sedbergh behind, Roger turns to Abbot William.

‘Will they prosper?’ he asks.

‘I think so. They’ve been through a lot and are strong people; they just needed a little bit of inspiration. We will keep an eye on them.’

Roger smiles to himself. He knows he has a lot to learn and that William will be an inspiring teacher.

There is a similar scene of poverty and destitution in Appleby. The old village is in ruins, save for a single ale and mead house run by Wotus, a crusty old Northumbrian, and his family, whose Anglo-Norse language William has

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