Bohemia Village Voice  Bohemia Village Voice

For bohemians everywhere

Polly Douglass


Five hundred paces. Mother said it was so, but she knew it was not. It was the ploy of all mothers. Another step, another sip, another . . .
My sisters are young. They cannot fathom: ‘It won’t be long now’. What is long? When shall we be there? Mother trusted me to keep them on the march.
“Look, the deer are watching. Listen, what bird calls here?” Now it is only the lure of grandmother, with honey for the bread in my apron, which keeps them on their feet.
“Can we talk to the bees again?” my sisters beg. “Tell us about St Abigail, and the hives who defended her people.”
Agatha is the worst. She must explore. Her heels hurt. She is thirsty. Where is mother? Little Anne is quiet. Thoughtful for a child of three. I will soon have to carry her again, but I cannot carry Agatha. She is too big, and she is being difficult.
The huge ships came into sight late yesterday bringing many horses and men with tall spears and heavy armour. My father said those Norman bastards were really coming this time. Our fishing boats must be hidden. The men sailed west at nightfall.
At first light: “We must go now”, said mother. She climbed with us, the steep hillside behind our wooden shelters, and pushed us off through the woodland beyond Bohemia towards our grandmother’s hamlet. There will be fighting. Mother has returned to plead for the old ones.
“I will come soon,” she said.
“When is soon?” demanded Agatha. But it is the French who will come sooner. They will haul their great ships onto the shingle shoreline between the cliffs of Hastings and Bulverhythe.
Well past midday and we have walked far. We are tired. The land, like us, is quiet, five hundred paces long gone. I can count. The good monks, who walked from the North, taught us. They brought God’s salvation from windswept coastland where St Bede’s scribes painted words of the Apostles in precious gold. Hundreds of leagues travelled, living with people like us. Baptizing, teaching, praying, healing. My mother lost many babies between my twelve years and Agatha’s five. Their herbs helped her; their prayers, and maybe the honey mead. I missed them when they left us.
Men with messages travel hard, and fast when they must, like the runners from York. They brought blessed news of our new king’s victory; and then set off back again to warn King Edward’s successor of the French enemy at his shores. Harold Godwinson must come quickly back to save us all. His great warriors must destroy these invaders, like they killed the Viking king. Harald Hardrada and his brother Tostig are both dead, and soon the heralds will trumpet the return of our army. We will hear them for leagues. Then it will be the Normans who will lose their sting.
But now we are within sight of sanctuary. Grandmother will be tending her hives. Agatha shouts in triumph. She sees the woven cones with their tiny sentinels circling above, uniformed, disciplined. Black and yellow. Something is not well. We stand back, unsure. Brazen insects, in drunken victory, fly towards us. Wasps.
The girls at a distance, I tap the hives and listen. No gentle, busy bee conversation within. I knock the hives from their perch. They spill their contents at my feet. Silent pyre of still bodies. Thousands upon thousands dead. Sweet life destroyed by a marauding, murderous army, greedy for the bounty made by God’s simple work-a-day souls. Marauders. Murderers. St Abigail was not here today.

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