They did not come in the night, like monsters. They didn’t have horns or wings, or wear glinting jewels or hold cutlasses. They trudged slowly through the snow: one of the men had a limp, the other a rag wrapped around his left eye. They were scarred, grizzly, strange. These were the men who had taken their land. The women with them were wary, slung low with squalling children and hessian bags. When one turned to look at her, Ida turned away.
Down by the old willow tree, Henry called out to her. She waved, returned to the ice, skated back towards him. He had spent all night polishing the wooden blades, the whole of the day before pleading his mother for some pottage for them to share. “It’s good.” Henry said. “We got some salted pork.”
She was lucky to be betrothed to Henry: his father had four goats and a large patch of land; Henry had a mop of blonde hair and large brown eyes. In less than a year, she would be his wife. The thought of it still made her throat dry.
Evening came. They gathered in a circle around the fire, the smoke thick enough to suffocate, acrid on her tongue. When Ida finished her meal the low ache of hunger remained. They did not have the supplies they needed: Alfred and Robert had spent the summer as soldiers, leaving them to harvest. They didn’t speak of the food dwindling lower with every day. Her father’s face had hardened into that of a stranger. He didn’t speak. Her brothers were quiet too; there was something violent in it. Her mother busied herself with the baby, who had begun to cry and wouldn’t settle. The men left. Her mother curled up on the bed, wrapping the baby up into her.
On the distant hilltop, made inaccessible by the last lashing of snow, Ida had a tree. She could see its silhouette against the liquid crimson of the sky. She had carved her name into it, the only word she could write. Her education had died with her grandmother when Ida was four. That had been ten years ago, in the year 1057, when they had an English king. Deira women had no need for the written. She had a scrap of parchment with her grandmother’s writing on it; the letters were strange and curled like smoke.
Her family had lived in Deira for six generations, toiling under the same great family which she had never seen. She knew they wore gold and great dresses. She knew they read great books backed in leather. Perhaps they would be killed, now that France was in charge of England. It was a strange thing to think.
She used to imagine herself as a pirate, an explorer, a soldier. Before her first truly cruel Winter. Before she met Henry, and her future narrowed into being a wife, a mother, a homemaker, a harvest-taker. Now, she let herself drift away again.
Henry found her, hunkered down under her cloak, hands balled under her gloves. He was all nervous energy and sparking eyes. “I’m coming with them.” He said. His voice was not quite broken, all sudden highs and crumbling lows. “They said I could. We’re going straight after sun down, with torches. They’ve taken the old huts by the twisted up oak.” The moon cast shifting shadows. “We’ll burn them while they sleep.” Ida’s stomach turned. She thought again of the scarred, strange, scared people. “We have to kill them though, because if not then we’ll die. Your Albert was talking about it. They bring disease or poison for the crops, they’ll sacrifice our goats and take all our food, and then we’ll be left with nothing. That’s what they do, the French. Everyone knows it. There’s not enough to go around as it is.” She didn’t recognise the look in his eye. “I’m protecting you, Ida. I’m just keeping my family safe.”
Henry squeezed her hand then backed away. The darkness intensified, black as ink. Around her, torches rushed into life, the distant ones no different to embers. More of them lit up; she craned her neck and but couldn’t see who held each one. They were just dark masses. The fire left orange imprints on the back of her eyelids. The wind tasted like smoke. Ida knew enough about fire to know that, once lit, it didn’t stop until there was nothing left to burn.