The Morning Gift, the ironsmith Ulf of Leystoke has been working at Hunlaf's forge for two winters and longs to return to his home village. Haunted by the memory of his dead wife Hroswitha, killed in a Viking raid, he still needs a wife. Is Hunlaf's daughter Goldrun the answer?
Previous Ulf stories are Starlight and The Cross of St. Mary's. All are available from Smashwords, Amazon and the usual retailers.
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The small town of Hemingburh had once been smaller still, a market held on a crossroads. From the windblown top of its only hill, where the Meeting Tree stood, an aging elm with its own green around it, a man could see the snow-covered road through Hedbarrow down to the coast opposite Wales or far inland almost, they said, to the far edge of Wessex.
Even in a world hardened to Welsh raids and to serfs being sold into slavery to the Irish, the Danes were feared here in the west even more than drought, storms and famine. Alfred of Wessex had ordered Hemingburh enlarged and walled, and the aldermen had brought landowners together and seen it done. For all the new houses, the mill by the stream, the square new church near the top of the only paved street, the people went back to meeting at the sentinel on the hill, the tree whose leaves had more than once been boiled and eaten when the crops failed.
So far this was a hard winter and the weather had closed many of the roads, so there was peace. Rooks hung on the leafless woodland trees like dead fruit, or rose and settled again like flies on a dungheap. Fields outside the wall lay under hard frost, waiting for the first cut of the plough. Smoke rose sullen from thatched roofs into the chill air.
In Hunlaf’s forge beside the paved street the hearth had been dampened down for the night. In the small house adjoining it the ironsmith, his wife Estrid and daughter Goldrun sat over a brighter fire and watched Ulf of Leystoke, a reliable apprentice if older than most, face his hardest task.
Hunched over a small table, his hair and beard dishevelled and a rhythmic muttering coming from his lips, he was clearly struggling.
‘It’s a good candle,’ Goldrun said gently. ‘We mustn’t waste it, Ulf.’
Ulf lifted his finger from the book, stretched brawny arms up towards the rafters of Hunlaf the ironsmith’s house and yawned. It was hard work, this reading, a task he had been happy to ignore when he lived in Leystoke village. ‘My eyes are tingling from the smoke.’
Goldrun put her hand on his shoulder, feeling the coarse fabric of his shirt. ‘When a man who works iron says that, it really is time to stop. You’re doing well.’
Ulf glared at the page. An army of curlicued ink letters marched relentlessly across the finger-marked parchment in intimidating rows. There was a picture of a bearded saint in the corner. The saint had his hand up in admonition.
Hunlaf looked up from stirring the fire. ‘Why do it? I don’t need it. Something to tally numbers, that’s all I need, and the priest can write for me.’
‘Because he’s curious,’ Estrid said, and poked her husband with a spoon. ‘Unlike some. And we have a clever daughter who can teach him. Am I right?’
‘Quite right,’ Goldrun said. ‘Pinch out that candle, will you, Ulf?’