Chapter Six

They heard a sword being drawn from a slick scabbard.


They both thought in unison.

“I’ve got you now, cunt,” Gwyllm heard Gundry growl. He grabbed the sword from Rachel’s belt and held it in front of him. Rachel pulled her blade and bared her fangs. They stood, crouched beneath the rock ledge. Rachel began to whisper: “Silence, confuse, misguide direction…” then stood motionless without the cavern.

Magick Spell <Dire Earwig>

Gwyllm advanced at front of the girl and planted his feet in horse stance in the rocks of the chilly creek. “direearwig direearwig direearwig” he whispered. “dire earwig Dire Earwig DIRE EARWIG!!!“He shouted in the direction from which the voice came. He gave a fearsome Kung Fu punch to the air in front of him with his right fist and drew back with his left as he wailed the last shriek of the deadly chant.

Gwyllm’s right fist began to crackle with blue flame. A runic ball of darkness shot out of his fist and struck Gundry full on in his chest. The old man staggered and dropped his sword. A black mist, like drops of ink in water, coalesced around him. The shadows whispered to the old man: “I got you, I got you, I got you…”

The shadow about Gundry began to rise and darken. Above him twenty feet the great black form of a giant earwig, pincers a yard long, suspended on dark wings of the nether ether itself. The creature clawed at the morning sun as if having just been born, which it was.

Gundry stood, head cocked back, jaws agape as the shiny black chitinous creature began to descend the short distance onto him. The Black Magick apparition lashed out at the old man with its pincers, striking him a great blow in the center of his back, knocking Gundry down as he tried to flee in panic.

Hovering over him, the thirty foot insect extended it’s abdomen and opened its serrated pincers. In an instant it had Gundry by the throat and was hauling him to his feet with a gentle flapping of it’s nether wings.

Gwyllm and Rachel stood amazed at what they were witnessing. “Son of a bitch! MOTHERFuckerrrr..” they heard Gundry’s last strangled gasp as the creature effortlessly clipped off his head with a clasp of its dull pincers.

The creature’s work done for the time being, it flew off into the west. Any locals out working their fields or orchards would surely notice a thirty foot earwig flying overhead, or maybe they wouldn’t. “What the fuck was that thing?” Rachel asked after all was quiet near the secluded stream.

“I need to sit..” was all Gwyllm managed before collapsing on the moist sand of the creek bed. He was flying over a roadway. In the distance was a walled city. He saw the small squad of soldiers, their horses and wagons. For some reason there was a swarm of red dots imposed over the marching platoon. “Targets acquired and processed. Initiating combat.” He heard a disembodied voice saying things in his head now.

“Tolgoig ni taslav!” he heard shouted. A volley of a hundred spinning scythes, glowing blue, shot off in front of him toward the marching soldiers. Gwyllm watched as soldiers, drivers, officers and their henchmen, were quickly and painlessly decapitated by the dire earwig’s death spell.

“Gwyllm, Gwyllm! Wake up! C’mon now!” Rachel pleaded. She cradled the young man’s head in her lap and caressed his face.

“We need to move! To the south now, the road is near.” Gwyllm said, opening his eyes.

Chapter Three

Gwyllm sat on the hard, cold steel of the cell bunk and tried to think. How was he going to get out of this jail and save his life? If he escaped he would become an outlaw in Lancaster County. More importantly now, how was he going to escape?

By the noon hour the constable’s men had finished erecting the scaffold. Gwyllm thought how his father had probably worked to saw the heavy beams that had been knocked together into the makeshift gibbet in his years at the mill. He decided that in the coming afternoon he would take in everything he could about the jail and try to come up with a plan to bust out when the opportunity arose.

“I’m guilty of nothing but being a trusting fellow,” he thought. “Why should I just let them kill me when I still have life in me?” Gwyllm decided that he would rather die in a fight for his life than let a corrupt system strangle him at the end of a rope. He would supply no spectacle for the thousand or so residents of Swansea aside from his defiant escape.

On the far wall of the tiny jail, behind the jailer’s desk, was a weapon rack. Billy clubs, knuckledusters, and a couple of double-edged short swords, hung in their scabbards, supplied the jailers in case of trouble. If Gwyllm could break free when the guards opened his cell for inspection, he could grab a sword from the rack and fight his way into the streets. He would commandeer a horse and make a run for the Neutral Zone. It was a dangerous plan, and the jailer was armed at all times.

One thing he was glad of was that he wouldn’t have to face gunfire. Most of the guns in the former United States had been confiscated back in the Harris Administration, over four hundred years ago. When the power went out, and finally with it all industry, there was no new supply of ammunition. Black powder weapons were still known, but shot and gunpowder were almost impossible to find. Humanity had sunk back into the stagnation of the Middle Ages, though here and there could still be found relics of the past. Now a sword might need sharpening, and it may break, but it doesn’t need to be loaded and sure as hell wouldn’t blow up in your hands like some of the decrepit old firearms were wont to do.

“Where’s the prisoner?” A stern voice roused Gwyllm from his pondering. “We’re here to see the condemned man for ourselves.” Three uniformed men, soldiers from the Duke’s Army, stood at the jailer’s desk.

“The lad is locked away securely awaiting his date with the hangman,” the jailer answered.

“It’s a shame to hang a good strong boy like that when he could be of service to the county. We have here papers of general manumission and conscription, signed and sealed by the Prime Minister himself, allowing us to take any condemned prisoner from any district of the county for lifetime service in the army. The large lieutenant, shortly cropped hair, standing half a foot taller then the old day jailer, fished a scroll out of his belt pouch and presented it to the confused civil servant.

The jailer carefully looked over the document and checked the validity of the seal. Yes, it was real gold leaf. “I will have to get approval from the constable for any release of prisoners.”

“None of your time-wasting. The patrol is moving out. I have thirty armed men right outside in the street who give me approval enough to take anything I want from your podunk village,” the lieutenant barked. The two soldiers accompanying the officer placed their hands on the hilts of their swords, as if to reinforce their leader’s words.

“Very well then, it’s on your head. You may be sure a complaint will be filed at the county offices about your insistence on this breach of procedure,” the jailer replied. He took the keys to the cell from a peg on the wall and walked over to the holding area where Gwyllm stood clutching the bars of the cell door. The jailer turned the key in the lock with a click. Gwyllm pushed the door open and walked out to stand with the soldiers.

The jailer replaced the key ring on its peg and started rummaging around in a drawer for some paperwork. “You’ll need to sign the writ of release before you can leave with this poacher boy,” he said.

“To the seven hells with your paperwork, clerk. We ain’t signing nothing,” the lieutenant swore. The soldiers gave Gwyllm a big slap on the back and then pushed him out the jail door into the streets where the convoy awaited. The lieutenant turned his back on the bewildered jailer and slammed the door as he walked out to join his men. Looking Gwyllm up and down he said: “Get in the back of the chuck wagon recruit. You’ll not be marching with the rest of the men until we get you fitted with some proper marching boots,” the lieutenant growled. Gwyllm crawled into the back of the covered wagon, which was filled with vegetables and two live bound pigs, no doubt all of it confiscated from his family.

The lieutenant mounted his war horse and shouted “Sally ho!” to the men. The patrol assembled into ranks and began marching behind their leader. The drivers cracked their coach whips at the horses drawing the three wagons and the whole platoon was soon moving down the road towards Lancaster City, still two days off.

Despite all the commotion and the small crowd that had gathered to see what was happening, the constable was nowhere to be found. Gwyllm settled in to the back of the wagon, wedged in next to a sack of corn meal, and watched as the streets and decrepit buildings of Swansea slowly disappeared behind the branches and leaves of the overarching trees. He was out of jail at least, but he had no idea what was to become of him. Was it true? Was he in the army now? And what of that bastard of a corporal who had set him and his family up for this mess? These were all questions he knew would be answered in time.

The patrol marched on through the low wooded hills until the sun began to sink in the west. Gwyllm, tired from his sleepless night in the cell, nodded off until the wagons stopped by a small stream and preparations were begun to set up camp for the night.

“Alright boy, get out of that wagon and report for duty. You’ve been sitting on your ass all day. It’s time to work.” Gwyllm opened his eyes and saw a familiar face, the corporal from the day before who had brought the contentious leg of venison. He sneered at the man, but thought it best to hold his tongue. If he had been confused before, waiting to be hanged for something he never did, he was doubly confused now. He climbed out of the back of the wagon and stood facing the corporal.

“No shoes I see. They took you in your sleep last night I suppose. Follow me to the supply wagon and we’ll get you fitted out with gear. You’ll stand watch with Gundry tonight and start to earn your keep. You’ll need a weapon as well, though I doubt you know anything about using a sword. Gundry is pretty handy with a blade, I’ll tell him to clue you in on some basics.” The corporal led Gwyllm to the supply wagon and the sargent got him provisioned with proper boots, a leather jerkin, a black, genuine US Army helmet, and a well-worn short sword and scabbard.

Gwyllm, now in a makeshift, ragtag army uniform, carrying a heavy steel sword at his side, stood in front of the corporal, awaiting his orders. He had the sense to say: “Sir, reporting for duty, Sir!” smartly when he turned to the gentleman, who had been watching him as the sargent helped him don his gear. Gwyllm didn’t know what had happened to his family, and he wasn’t sure what was happening to him now. He only knew that this was to be his life, which was better than the grave. All this had happened in the last 24 hours, and it was only a month since his eighteenth birthday.

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.”