Chapter One

Ordinary life held no pleasure for young Gwyllm. As soon as the cock crowed in the early dawn he was rousted out of bed by his father. His mother would fry bacon and eggs, using just enough wood in the hearth to finish the preparation. Gwyllm often had to gather fallen branches in the forest for fuel as firewood was scarce. The duke had forbidden the felling of trees by the commoners.

“Good morning, Mother,” Gwyllm said as Sadie dished out a bowl of steaming bacon and eggs for him at the rough-sawn table. Will you be needing anything before I head out to the garden to weed?”

“No Son, your father brought in water from the well and enough wood for the day before the stars had left the night sky.” Sadie straightened her checkerboard red and white kitchen apron and started scrubbing down the skillet in the wash basin.

Gwyllm finished his breakfast in a hurry and laced on his work boots, holes long worn in the soles and brown leather scuffed and slashed by the heavy hoe. “I think something good will finally happen today, Mom. I had a dream last night that we had fresh game for dinner, and it was so real I could smell it cooking and taste it when I ate my fill.”

“Dreams are for the rich, Son. We common folk have to be content with a roof over our heads and a place to sleep. Food on the table is never sure, and in this world you don’t get something for nothing.”

“Still, I think dreams have a secret meaning. I’m just sure something good is going to happen today,” Gwyllm said, then turned the wooden latch on the cabin door and headed down the garden path to the tool shed to get the morning gardening started.

The sun was bright that day in early September and the dew was still on the grass, making dark wet blotches on the toes of his boots. Gwyllm put on his work gloves and began hoeing the small weeds from between the rows of beets and parsnips. There was a slight breeze that kept the flies off and he whistled a country tune as he rhythmically brought the blade of the hoe down on the roots of the scraggly weeds. Just another day.

“Step it up soldiers!” the sargent called to his small troop as they trudged down County Road Six on the way back to headquarters in Lancaster. They were returning from patrol in the Neutral Zone between Lancaster and Nimshire. The two counties had been in a state of armistice since the bloody War of ‘98. Raids still happened from time to time in the uneasy peace that had been negotiated between the two fiefs. The Duke of Lancaster, old Cromwell, was largely retired, having passed on the day to day business of the county to his son Hubert. The big decisions were still made by Cromwell, like tax rate and inter-county relations, but it was apparent to all that the old man was losing his reason.

The patrol stopped at a clearing around noon, after an extended march, and prepared to bivouac for the night. They had been on the march for a day and a night to get away from the brigands who made the zone their home, away from the reach of the constables. They were very near the village of Swansea, on the banks of the Cygnet River, and ahead was a small cottage with a large vegetable garden and a farm hand working the field.

“Corporal, I have a task for you,” the sargent said. The corporal stood to attention and awaited his orders. “Take this haunch of venison to yonder farmstead and trade it for some fresh vegetables so that the men may have a hearty stew for their dinner.”

“Yes, sir!” the corporal smartly replied, then hefted the flayed leg of the deer that the archers had brought down the day before in the Neutral Zone. He sauntered down to the cabin, approaching the field where the farmhand was just taking a break from his field work.

Gwyllm had worked all morning with the hoe, and now, a little past lunch hour by the sun, he stopped to take his noontide meal. He had a stale biscuit with hard cheese, a green apple, and a flagon of weak ale. As he sat in the cool grass near the garden wall he heard a rough voice calling:

“Hello there laddie. How would you like a nice cut of fresh, legal venison for a few potatoes and carrots?”

Gwyllm looked up from his half-eaten biscuit and saw the red-whiskered face of a soldier, dressed in chain mail jerkin and brightly-polished helm. The corporal leaned over the garden wall, hefting a large haunch of deer leg on his shoulder that would feed his family like kings for a week.

“Yes sir! I have potatoes and carrots to spare, parsnips and beans as well as sundry other crops. I’ve everything you need fresh from the garden, washed and stored away in the cool earth.” Gwyllm quickly stuffed his lunch back into a sack and stood to greet the corporal.

“I’ll have the beans, the carrots, and the taters boy, but them parsnips makes yer piss stink. I’ll have none of them. Here, lug this haunch back to your mistress and show me the way to your root cellar. The boys are hungry, and stew takes hours.”

Gwyllm grabbed the hefty leg and swung it over his left shoulder, a big smile on his face, as he led the corporal up the garden path to his home. “Mother, come quick! We have a visitor,” he called as they approached the weathered wooden door of the cabin.

“Well well, what have we here?” Sadie said. “A soldier back from the wars, and with a gift.”

“Not a gift mam, just fair trade of our surplus for yours. Our archer brought down a doe in the Neutral Zone. We have plenty of meat, but no vegetables left in the wagons to make a decent stew. You need at least taters and carrots for that, maybe an onion or two.” The corporal smiled, then took a burlap sack out of his belt pouch and shook it out, getting ready to lug as many vegetables as he could carry back to the camp. “Now, if you don’t mind I must be getting back to my patrol. We have been marching all night and half the day on empty stomachs and the men are beginning to grumble.”

“Very well,” Sadie said. “Gwyllm, take the good young man around back to the root cellar and see he gets as much as he can carry of our best produce. This meat is worth a hundred pounds of potatoes, though I doubt he intends to carry that much by himself or could fit it in his bag.”

Gwyllm led the corporal to the root cellar and unlatched the wooden cellar doors. He helped the soldier pick through the crates of vegetables put up for the long winter until his bag was almost splitting at the seams.

“That’s plenty enough, lad. You know, you are getting along in years and you look like a strapping, hale fellow. Maybe you should think of a life in the army in service to your Duke and county. The pay isn’t great, but the wine and women are free. Think it over. A life in the military would better you more than a life working a hoe in a hardscrabble field.” The corporal hefted the heavy sack of potatoes, carrots, beans and leeks over his shoulder and bid Gwyllm good day. He set off back to camp and Gwyllm was left wondering how good fortune had found him on this otherwise ordinary day.

Gwyllm walked back into his house and spoke to his mother. “You see, dreams sometimes tell the future,” he said. “I can hardly wait for Father to get home from the mill to see what good fortune our family has had today.” He took the remainder of his lunch from his sack and sat at table, watching his mother prepare the venison for roasting on a spit in the fireplace. He thought long and hard about what the corporal had told him about joining the army, but wondered how his mom and dad would get along without his help on the homestead. “These things can wait,” he thought, “there is a roast on the fire and we will have full bellies in the coming days.”

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