In the year of our Lord’s grace eleven hundred and fifty-two
Atop a gentle rise in Berkshire’s green and gentle hills, a digger of graves paused, fixed his gaze eastward toward Newbury Castle outside the town of Hamstead-in-Berkshire. Overhead, the sun burned a white-hot hole through a thin veil of clouds. It was early morning on a central-England day in spring, with mist just burning off the hills, rooks diving, and hens shrieking at the kitchen maids who came to gather eggs.
His face sweaty from work, the grave-digger wiped his brow with his loose-fitting shirt. He looked down into a deep rectangular pit that smelled of fresh-turned earth.
“Is it long enough for a five-year-old, do you think?” he called into the pit, speaking with a thick Saxon accent.
“Sure as I’m five myself,” came the voice of a child inside the pit.
Though it had been a hundred years since the Normans had conquered England, the Saxons still spoke in an Anglo-Norman patois rather than the Norman-French of noblemen.
The grave-digger thrust out a hand to the mud-streaked lad and helped the boy climb from a ladder onto the scraggly groundcover. The child pointed into the distance, “Look, father. Is that the boy they’re going to hang?”
The digger turned to face the east. In the distance came a short procession of men marching from Newbury Castle towards a hill. They were spear-armed and grim-faced, heading from thick oak trees toward a cleared patch atop the hill. In the center of the field were two gallows, one of them full-sized and well-used, the second new and built especially to fit a child.
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