The Harp

Britain 1071. The Anglo-Saxon King Harold II of England has been defeated at the Battle of Hastings and King William of Normandy now sits upon the English throne. Many of the old native English nobility fear for their lives and have gone into hiding.
Yet as William pushes the borders of his newfound kingdom ever further, he encounters increased opposition. In the North-West of England, the sturdy folk of the Lake District do not take kindly to foreign rulers. And in Wales, though the mountainous terrain makes a centralised resistance difficult, the sons of Wales will fight to the bitter end to defend their homeland.
It is in this atmosphere of resistance that our story takes place - a story of love, betrayal, cruelty and redemption.

(Partly inspired by some of the miscellaneous poems of Sir Walter Scott)

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2. The finding

   Alfred's footsteps were heavy, leaving deep imprints in the fallen snow. He was not a particularly heavy man, but his armour weighed him down significantly, cauing his feet to sink deep into the sea of white. It was increedibly cold up here: it seemed as if with each breath he took someone plunged another knife deep into his lungs. Yet he had to get away from the camp; another hour spent with those insufferable simpletons and he was sure to go mad. For the sake of the Resistance, it may be necessary to bring together people from many different parts of the country, but that did not mean he had to get along with them. The worst was one of the soldiers under his command - James, his name was, a young lad from Galloway in Scotland. He was quite strong, but that was all that could be said in his favour. He was slow, stupid and had the incredibly irritating habit of refusing to look at whoever he was speaking to. A few minutes spent with him in the morning was enough to put Alfred in a foul mood for the rest of the day.

   His mood was darkening merely by thinking of the fools he was now responsible for. Yet what he saw next drove all thought of his soldiers far out of his mind.

   It was a man, lying on the frozen ground, half-covered in snow. He appeared to be dead - all the colour had drained from his face, his lips were blue and he showed no sign of breathing - but the icy conditions had flawlessly frozen his corpse in a grotesque act of preservation.

    A perturbed frown passed over Alfred's face, quickly followed by a look of surprise, for there, laying faithfully by his master's side, was a dog - some kind of terrier, if Alfred was not mistaken. The dog looked up at Alfred and whined despairingly. It was a wonder the dog wasn't dead already in these conditions - he certainly looked like he was on his way out.

   A strange thing happened then to Alfred. He experienced something he had not felt for the last five years - compassion. Since the Norman invasion, all he had known was hatred, bitterness and resentment. But there was something about this scene, the tragic death of some humble, unsuspecting soul accompanied even in death by his loyal canine friend, that stirred the depths of Alfred's heart. In that one moment, Alfred decided resolutely to take care of the old dog until he breathed his last.

   The dog (Alfred could not decide on a name quite yet) suddenly stood up, walked over to something hidden under the snow and began nudging it with his paw. "Please, my good sir, allow me," insisted Alfred, and walked over to see if he could discover what it was that lay concealed in the snow.

   "Hah!" he exclaimed in surprise. It seemed to be a small, simple harp. What was the old fellow, some kind of bard? No, his clothes were too plain. He was more likely some kind of poor peasant who had somehow learned to play the harp.

   The dog began wagging his tail excitedly as soon as Alfred picked up the harp. "So you like the harp?" Alfred asked. "Did your poor friend here used to play for you? Well, I don't have much skill with music but I do know a few tunes on the harp...Perhaps I can play something for you...." Mentally, Alfred searched through his very limited repertoire. Most of the songs he knew were war or battle-related; none really seemed to fit the occasion quite well. Finally, he remembered an old mourning song he had once learned as a boy. It was, admittedly, intended to mourn a warrior's death, and this humble farm-hand was hardly a warrior, but perhaps it would do for the occasion. The dog wouldn't know the difference, anyway.

   The harp had a soothing quality to it, and both Alfred and the dog found themselves much calmer by the end of the song. It made such a change to the constant sound of brash trumpets and bold horns he was used to hearing over the past five years. It seemed to wake memories within him of a happier childhood, a more peaceful time. For a brief moment, he had almost forgotten the Resistance, forgotten his soldiers, forgotten the bloodstained clothes that now littered his tent.

   When the music was finished, the dog wagged his tail happily and walked over to Alfred's side. He had not forgotten his old master, but nor could he do anything more for him than he had already done, and the dog seemed happy enough to follow Alfred.

   Alfred immediately decided he must take the harp with him, along with the dog. It was what gave him claim on the dog's loyalty for now, and it had, however briefly, transported him to a better world of happier memories and given him a moment's joy.

   "Come, boy," he said after a while. "Shall we not give your old friend a proper burial?"

   The dog seemed to think this a very good idea, and wagged his tail enthusiastically, before walking over to the man's body and resting his head and front paws on his back in one final gesture of farewell, and then, eventually, backing off a bit to allow Alfred to (attempt to) bury the body.

   A spade is not an item one generally carries around with them on deep philosophical mountain walks. Thus, the only item Alfred had available to him with which to dig the grave was his sword and his hands. A sword does not make a particularly wonderful digging tool, and human hands have little effect on frozen earth, so the grave he and the dog constructed was, in a word, pitiful. It was very shallow, and no doubt when the snow melted some of the body would be left partially exposed, but it would have to suffice. They dug that grave with sincerity and genuiune feeeling, and ultimately, that counts for more than all the smooth granite headstones or fine wooden coffins in the world.

    When they had finished, neither of them pronounced any eulogy - Alfred because he had hardly known the man and the dog for what should hopefully be obvious reasons - nor performed any rituals, though Alfred offered up a silent prayer for the man's soul in his heart. After they had buried the unfortunate man, the dog followed Alfred away from the place he had so jealously guarded for the past few days, with one last, melancholy glance behind him at what was now just ashen snow.

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