Another day, after vespers, Brother Paul followed Father Anthony into the kitchen and made his way over to the bench beside the fire while Anthony got a plate of dinner scraps from the cupboard to munch on because it was a feast day. The brothers all came in and sat down with their cups of beer and snacks. When it came time to tell a story, they wanted Paul to be the teller. One of the brothers asked Paul how it was that he lost his sight, although they could see from the scars that it was an act of man which had been the cause of it.
Paul said that it was God's just punishment upon him for his crimes.
They said that it may be so, but it was not for them to be the judge of such deep matters, and that if it was, indeed, a punishment, then it must also be a mercy, since it was clear that he was to avoid eternal punishment if God had already dealt with him this way.
Paul agreed that it may well be so, since it was true that God was very merciful. But it was not for him to presume such a thing. It was better to remain penitent.
The brothers all agreed with this, and were pleased with his answer, seeing that still waters ran deep in the old man. Still, they wondered how it was that he lost his sight.
"So, who was responsible for what happened to you?"
"Were you finally punished by the King's men?"
"Just the opposite. I was punished for loyalty to the King."
"Here is your cup, brother Paul." Paul reached out and brother Ealdmund placed the beer in his hand.
"Did The Conqueror blind you for serving Harold?"
"No." Paul pursed his lips and then smacked them. "It was in the old days."
"So... which King?"
Paul was amused with their persistence, and consented to discuss it further. "No. Not Aethelraed. In the years after Wulfnoth's mutiny, Ealdorman Eadric became even more powerful. He was raised up by the King to be the absolute Overlord of England. He interfered everywhere, and brought ruin everywhere. He continued to work with the Vikings, and even got them to work for him. He controlled everybody. Even the King grew afraid of Eadric."
Brother Anastasius concurred, "My own father was outlawed by Eadric Streona. He had to hide out in Mercia for years and we lost our place in Wigorn."
Paul nodded, and continued, "I think it was in 1015, King Svein of Norway finally invaded and all of Eadric's viking mercenaries turned against Aethelraed. Aethelraed panicked. He was such a weak man. He hustled off with most of his family across the sea to Normandy. Prince Edmund, 'Ironside' we called him, and Eadric Streona were left behind to organize the Fyrd against King Svein. Ironside did a creditable job, but Eadric wouldn't play the game. He just switched over to the more powerful army, ingratiated himself with Svein, and helped the Vikings defeat the English rump."
"And then you were blinded?" asked the young novice who had joined the monastery the previous week.
The brothers scowled at the lad and waved their hands at him to keep quiet. Paul heard the sudden rustling of half a dozen woolen sleeves and chuckled.
"No, Buddy. Remember, I was sort of on the Viking side. Having been one of the Sandwich Mutineers. It was not a bad thing for me when this invasion came. It confused many loyalties, and suddenly, I had a lot of company. In high places, too."
"Did you fight for Svein, brother Paul?"
"No, I stayed away. I had no interest in joining up. We knew how to keep out of sight."
"Would they have wanted a blind man?"
Paul wasn't surprised by this one, since it was Jocko who asked it. "Uh, Jocko, we weren't blind yet, remember?"
"Uh, oh yeah, that's right. Right. Sorry."
"Ironside rallied the Fyrd and the Vikings suffered a few setbacks. But the Fyrd was too weak and the Vikings too strong. There were just too many traitors in the Fyrd. But just when it looked like the worst was coming, we all got lucky. The Viking king dropped dead. Old Svein died and his son, Cnut, took over."
"I know Canute!" piped brother Jocko.
"Do you, now?" said Paul. "...Well, he was a better man. He cut a deal with Ironside. They set up a peaceful transition of power, made everything straight up. When Cnut took over England we had some hope. He was baptised. The Norwegians were suddenly allies. He inherited Denmark, too, and made the Danes into christians and friends. Old King Aetheraed died, so Cnut married our old Queen, to make it all regular, like. It was all for the good. Of course, Aethelraed's boys had to stay away. But it was good all the same."
"Best of all, for me, it meant I could come out of hiding. Because Eadric and his ilk were put to death by Cnut. Wulfnoth was remembered as a kind of good guy, officially. And Wulfnoth's son became Cnut's favorite. Yes, young Godwine had become quite a force among us. He reaped the harvest of Cnut's victory. And I was safe. All of us were. I mean, we could even talk about it... having been in the mutiny and all... after all, our side won, didn't it? The Viking faction."
"So those years were good ones. We called them the roaring twenties. Good times. I have to say that the years under Cnut were my favorite years. I did very well."
Here, Paul stopped and recollected those times to himself. Whatever prosperity he had enjoyed, what family he had known, what woman had been his wife, he did not tell. He raised his cup of beer to his lips and drained it. It was several minutes before he began to speak again.
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