This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.
Awake since long before dawn, the lone figure trudged doggedly on through the grey tendrils of mist. It seemed to seep inside the lengths of homespun wool which were wrapped around him and chill him even more, if it was possible, than he had been all that long dark night. He was small and lean with a narrow face that seemed to pull to one side as if his jaw had been broken and ill-set. Dark brown unkempt hair that badly needed cutting made his face seem even thinner. His eyes, like his hair, were brown, edged with wrinkles of tiredness and pain and a hard life. His lips, on the thin side, seemed to agree with the curve of his chin and took away some of the imperfection.
He had lately been a soldier, though not through desire but through hunger. Famine had struck again the previous year, crops failed due to the almost never ending rain of Spring and Summer. Autumn brought not harvest but misery as foraged woodland nuts, leaves and even grass replaced vegetables in the pottage. At least a soldiers life promised regular food of sorts even if it was often looted or taken under threat of violence. So he had journeyed to the local lord: Herward, and had talked his sergeants into being taken on for a trial. He had stuck at soldiering for a six-month but in the end he knew he did not have the nature for obeying orders without question and the casual cruelty and even brutality that was expected on a daily basis. So, he had become that worst of all things in any militia: the unreliable one, the one who came back from a skirmish without blood on his blade, the one who always seemed to be around when a woman earmarked for later 'questioning', contrived to slip her bonds and disappear into the night. He had known it was only a matter of time: the other soldiers started avoiding him, and his sergeant-at-arms, a nasty weasel of a man called Bullen, had started giving him cold, thoughtful stares that promised something was being decided.
He made his own decision: his time had come so he left.
He did it while part of a regular patrol checking on some of Lord Herward's more distant manors. It was easy really, he was always given the worst time for sentry duty: the early hours of morning, so two nights ago, having kept half a loaf back from that evening's meal, he simply walked into the forest and kept walking. As a deserter he was now dead anyway, so he kept walking, only resting for moments at a time, until he was as far from the camp as he could get. At dawn he stopped and found shelter in some bushes, ate some bread and slept.
He was woken by the sound of hooves slowly moving close by, and voices.
'If he came this way the bastard can not have got much further. You two, spread out either side and check any bushes and trees.'
Will recognised that voice: bloody Bullen! He looked frantically around but could see nothing to help him, no wait, there in the bank behind the tree: a badger set. If he could somehow get his legs inside and push down far enough would he be out of sight? He slid over as quietly as he could and inserted his legs and used his forearms to lever himself backwards until only his shoulders and head were out of the hole. Reaching over, he grabbed a branch and pulled it in front of his face, not a moment too soon as a leg appeared in front of him, the blade of a sword held against it. He kept as still as he could for his life depended on it and watched as the soldier pushed through the bushes nearby. Looking across past the figure he saw resting on the grass, the remains of his bread. His heart sank, why in hell had he not eaten all of the bloody thing before he slept? The soldier bent over in front of him and thrust his sword in and out of the bushes, first to his left, narrowly missing his shoulder, then blessedly to the right and further away. After a few moments that seemed all eternity the man pushed back through the bushes and was out of sight. Will realised he had been holding his breath and quietly sighed. Mother of God that was close.
'Nothing in these bushes sergeant,' came a voice to his right,
'back over here then, we'll go on a little further, there is a farm not far from here, he may have chanced his luck.'
Soon he heard the sound of horses fade into the distance and slowly he let the branch swing back. He levered himself inch by inch back out of the hole until he stood crouching and looked between the branches to check they were truly gone. With a wry smile to himself he bent over and picked up the bread and chewed on it thoughtfully.
Will decided that his best course of action was to keep moving. If the soldiers had gone to the farm, then he would follow them. He felt safer if he knew where they were and was confident he could keep out of their sight. They wouldn't expect him to be following them! Their trail was easy to follow: hoof marks, broken branches and the inevitable pile of horse dung here and there. Still he remained cautious, he had good hearing and eyesight and used both senses constantly as he crept through the woodland.
It was his sense of smell that saved him. Luckily he was downwind and the familiar odour of horse and leather came to him in time to leap behind a large beech tree. They had got to the farm and back far quicker than he had expected. Keeping his back pressed to the trunk he listened as they drew nearer.
'Rats backside must have gone towards the river' said Bullen, 'we will cut over westwards and still find him before noon.'
Westwards! All he had to do was continue north and he would be safe, but what was north? He searched through his memory; northwards he thought, would lead him away from his known world, small as it was. There was nothing for him at home except hunger, he had no wife and his parents could barely scrape enough together to keep themselves alive. If he had a skill or a trade it would be different, even in hard times a living could be made but his father had been a labourer in the fields and so had he. He had picked up the use of a sword as a soldier, though he was no better at it than anyone else and a lot worse than some, he could draw a bow as could many men his age, enough to kill a Hare for food anyway. No his only hope for survival was his wits. He had been quick as a boy and Father Aldhelm, the local priest had started teaching him his letters when he could be spared from working in the fields. He could read with a bit of effort, and the priest had held out the dream of one day becoming a novice and through the church, moving away from hunger and grinding work. No, it was not to be, Father Aldhelm died of a fever one miserable wet winter and that was that. He was replaced by a cold severe man with little interest in anything but his rights and benefits, and certainly no interest in teaching a boy anything without payment of some kind.
Will trudged northwards; he decided to bypass the farm in case Bullen had offered any kind of reward for him. Times were hard and an extra few coins would tempt many. At least it was now March and the weather although still cold enough at night, was improving. There had been, if anything a lack of rain this year and with the sun now shining, his mood lightened as he walked. What he needed was food and a change of clothing for he still looked the part of a soldier with his sword and leather jerkin. It was just past noon he thought, when ahead of him through the trees he saw a lone hut or cot made of wood with a turf roof from which smoke drifted, behind it stood an old ox cart which seemed sunken at one corner. He looked around him, all seemed quiet and peaceful enough so he risked calling out.
'Ho! Anyone about?'
'Hail to you, I mean no harm, a simple traveller who would exchange a good leather jerkin for food'.
From behind the hut came a voice
'You carry a sword!'
'One I would seek to exchange, it would make a good axe for cutting wood or digging out roots.'
Out stepped a woman of middle years holding a staff in front of her as if to fend off attack.
'Goodwife I mean you no harm, if you wish I will lay my weapon down on the grass here where you can see it.'
'Yes do that.'
Will unsheathed the sword and laid it to the side of him.
'May I now approach?'
'Yes you may and welcome, did you say you wish to trade?'
Will walked forward, seeing the woman clearer now. She was on the narrow side but looked healthy enough with a small neat face, blue eyes, straight nose and a pointed chin that would have added severity if not for the thin smile which now appeared.
'Yes lady, this jerkin is good quality and would be welcome to any man; perhaps your man?'
She turned and leant the staff against the wall of the hut. Turning back she spoke again:
'Come and eat stranger, before we talk of trading, I have a stew in the pot.'
With that she gestured towards the open door. Stew! Suddenly Will was ravenous and did not hesitate to follow her into the dim interior. His eyes adjusted to the flickering light of a small fire in the centre with a bubbling pot over it. The smell was wonderful, not just a vegetable pottage there was meat in there!
'We...I, have traps so there is sometimes hare: do sit you down over there and I will bring you some.'
Will sat on a wooden bench and waited with anticipation. She pulled two wooden bowls from a low shelf and ladled a generous portion for him and slightly less for herself. Handing over a wooden spoon she waved hers and gestured to eat. He wasted no time, it was good, more than good for she had added some sort of herb or seasoning which he liked very much. Nothing was said until both bowls were empty, then she looked up.
'You are no simple traveller, that sword and that jerkin are the sort of thing a soldier would have, either you have killed for them or you are a soldier.'
'Mistress, I will not lie to you, I was a soldier until yesterday but I ran: I could stomach it no longer.'
'It seems you can stomach my stew though.'
'It is very good and I was very hungry, I thank you. It was hunger that pushed me to the soldiers life but I was not a good one so I left before...'
'Before someone else thought your jerkin and sword were wasted?'
'Yes, I hid last night and avoided the chase this morning. I heard them say they would head west to look for me at the river so I carried on northwards and here I am.'
'What is your name then soldier?'
'No, do not call me that now I am just... Will'.
'Welcome to my home Will, I am Gwen.'
'You can surely not be alone here, where is your man, your family?'
Gwen looked downwards and Will could not see her face. When she did look up he saw her eyes were sad, more than sad: deep sorrow clouded her face.
'I have not seen Hal my husband, or my son Jon for a week now: they left here in the morning as always to go into the forest. Hal is a woodsman, he cuts wood to sell in the town, Jon, now that he is ten goes with him. We have six pigs and it is Jon's work to look after them.'
'Would they not have gone straight into town?'
'No, do you not know wood must be seasoned before use for either building or fuel, we store it in places and only take it to sell when it is ready.'
'Have you looked for them?'
'You bloody fool! Of course I have looked for them! I have spent days in desperation, searching everywhere I could think, fearing they were trapped under a fallen tree or gored by a boar.'
Her face seemed to crumple and she quietly wept, her hands covering her face. Will reached out then pulled back in case his action was misunderstood, suddenly aware that they were alone together.
'If it would help I could look too.'
'Why would you, you are nothing to us here and you say yourself that you are a man on the run, a wanted man who should stay hidden.'
'Look. You did not need to give me food, it was a kindness, I would like to help you. If the truth be known I have thought of nothing but myself for the last six months and it seems fate has given me a chance to change some of that.'
Gwen looked up and sniffed, pressing both sleeves over her eyes in a curiously child-like gesture. She straightened up and seemed to make a decision.
'In that case I would be grateful but first you mentioned some sort of trade...?'
'Yes, as I said earlier, this leather jerkin is not something I wish to be seen in by anyone who might recognise it, could I perhaps change it for something your husband wore but no longer...' he was going to say needs but thought better of it, 'er, wants.'
Gwen thought a moment then got to her feet and crossed the room where a bed of sorts was pushed against the wall. She picked something from on top of the bed and brought it over to him.
'What about these, when Hal has no need to wear them we use them as extra cover at night but now it is not so cold.'
She held out two lengths of homespun wool, like long thin blankets, the sort of things a worker outdoors would cross around their chest, back and shoulders to make a warm coat.
Will had worn the same type of covering when working outdoors in the cold, it kept you warm but it was also easy to peel a layer off if you got too hot.
'Yes, thank you Gwen, that is a good trade,' he said, though he thought to himself that he would miss the supple leather and fine stitching of his jerkin.
'What about your sword?'
In truth Will was reluctant to give up such a fine weapon but he knew only a noble or a soldier would be expected to have such a thing.
'Do you have a sharp knife you can spare?
'Surely you have your own?'
Of course Will had his eating knife but it was a poor short thing, just about up to handling the cooked meat he sometimes had put in front of him. He reached to the side of his belt where a leather purse hung. Pulling it open he pushed his fingers in and pulled the knife out. Lifting it in as non-threatening a way as he could, he laid it on the palm of his hand and showed it to her.
'I think I can do better than that,' said Gwen and again arose to her feet and crossed to the shelf that had held the wooden bowls. She reached over and lifted down a bundle of rags which she brought over to him
Gwen handed the bundle to Will, he hesitated then laid it on his lap and slowly unwrapped the rags. What he saw puzzled him: it was a sheath of some kind of metal, it was hard to make out as it was covered in tarnish and grease. Sticking out of it was a metal handle with a knob at the end and another in the middle. Slowly he pulled at the handle and out slid a strange knife. The blade was roughly the length of his hand and wide with a ridge running the length of it, it was shaped like a fish or a leaf.
'What a strange blade, where did you get this from?
'Hal found it in the woods.'
'He said an old oak tree had come down in the storms last Autumn. He finally got around to cutting it up a few weeks ago and amongst its roots he found a stone. The odd thing was the stone was too perfect, it was worked as if shaped to be part of some wall or building but there is nothing near here that has ever needed stones like that. Well he worked on the tree for near a week but he kept on wondering about the puzzle of that stone. One day while he was resting and having some food with Jon he decided to look at it some more. He and Jon scraped the soil from it and found it had a carved line three fingers breadth down from the top. The line went all the way around the stone and suddenly Hal realized what he was looking at: this was not a solid stone but a casket with a lid!'
'And he found the knife inside!'
'No the lid was too heavy for even the two of them to lift, so Hal decided to cover it up again and it was while they were scooping handfuls of earth back over it that Jon came across a lump of lead which seemed like a box crushed almost flat. When they had finished covering the stone they put their find safely under a bush and Jon went back to tend the pigs. Hal brought it with him at days end and showed it to me here. We carefully prized open the lead and inside was a small leather satchel covered in grease.'
'Yes it was inside wrapped in yet more leather and grease.'
'Someone knew they were storing it away for a long time,' mused Will , looking down at the strange thing: a dagger, for it was something for stabbing rather than cutting.
'Would you give your sword for this? The sword I can say I found in the woods and can sell to the blacksmith, but the knife is too old and strange and would cause questions to be asked.'
Will found he was curiously attracted to the dagger. It was obviously old, very old but preserved in some miraculous fashion by whatever combination of lead, leather, grease and luck.
'Yes I like it,' was his simple answer.
Gwen left the hut and returned moments later with the sword. Will hesitated then undid his belt and slid the scabbard off. He took the sword and pushed it into the scabbard, handed it to her and she laid it up on the shelf and covered it with the rags the knife had been wrapped in.
Next Will undid the drawstring at his neck and pulled the jerkin over his head. Gwen passed him the lengths of wool cloth and he wrapped them around his shoulders and then fastened his belt to hold them in place. He picked up the dagger and slid it back in its sheath, he noted now that there were four rings for attaching it to a belt. He showed this to Gwen and she soon managed to find some strips of leather to tie the knife to his belt. Will decided to leave the sheath dirty and greasy so that it would draw less attention.
'Well we still have the rest of the day to look for your husband and son, show me where this oak tree is and we can at least make a start, perhaps my eyes will see something yours have missed.'
'Could we? I will get my cloak and show you the way.'
Walking together in the afternoon sunshine, Gwen told Will of their life as a family living in the forest, her pride in her son, his scrapes and adventures in growing up. After some time of walking though, she became quiet as if suddenly remembering why they were there. Up ahead Will saw the remains of an ancient oak with its roots pointing outwards and upwards. Up close he could see that a lot of the branches had been cut off and piled to one side showing evidence of Hal's hard work. A thought occurred to Will: 'where are your pigs?'
'Penned up near our home, Jon would let them out to forage but always got them back in at nightfall. Since he... he went missing they have not been let out, I throw them scraps of what food I can find.'
'So when Jon went missing it must have happened before he let the pigs out?'
'Why yes of course! I did not think of it like that!'
'And if something happened to Jon, his father would have tried to prevent it, I think we need to look near to where the pigs are kept.'
'I will take you there, about half way back home but further north.'
Gwen set off, her pace now increased to reflect the surge of hope she now felt. Before, she had searched desperately but without any plan beyond looking where her husband usually worked, now thanks to Will, she felt they were getting somewhere!
For most of the route they retraced their steps, then Gwen forked off to the left and brought them to a hillside where a cleft in the rock had created a natural enclosure completed by a willow fence. On each side the stone wall gradually closed in until meeting at the back, the last ten feet or so sheltered by an overhanging rock. Inside, the pigs either lay in the sun or snuffled around for any missed scraps of food.
The willow fence was sturdy enough and was jammed between a tree and a rock, meaning it had to be lifted to gain access. Will looked around at the trees and at the ground. He walked around looking for any signs of a struggle until eventually he reached softer ground at the edge of the clearing. There he saw something that made him pause and bend his knees to get a closer look.
'What is it?' cried Gwen, coming quickly over to join him.
'Do you know anyone near here who rides a horse? Look at these hoof prints, I would say maybe two or three horses and here are marks as if something was pulled through the grass.' Will stood up and looked thoughtful. 'What if Hal and Jon came here together to release the pigs and Hal was set on by someone, Jon would either run for help or go to try and aid his father in some way.'
'He would try and aid Hal, he just would, I know he would!'
'Then they would both be taken but why? Would Hal have talked of his find at the oak to anyone?'
'Two days after they found the knife, Hal delivered wood to the town: to Melenham. He said the priest would be the one to know about anything old found hereabouts: he showed him the knife!'
'I must talk to the priest and find out if he told anyone else about it, it is the only thing I can think of which might lead someone to seek out your husband.'
'It is half a days journey even by our ox cart and much the same walking, will you go at first light?'
'No, I feel time must not be lost with this matter, your husband and son have been gone too long and the best time to talk to this priest is going to be when he first comes into church. I will set off this evening after supper if you will spare me some and travel during the night. I will try and find somewhere to rest on the way and finish my journey at dawn.'
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