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 Two

Gwyllm spent the rest of the afternoon tending the pigs and chickens. His father had slopped the pigs and thrown scratch to the chickens before he headed out to work at the sawmill. Gwyllm left the task of mucking out the pig stall and the chicken coop for last, as it was his least favorite chore of all. “Why am I here covered in shit everyday instead of living a life of adventure in the army, marching all day and fighting bandits for fame and glory?” he said to the one fat sow, as if she could understand human speech. He spread fresh straw in the stall and the coop, then gathered a few eggs from the nest boxes and took them into the house to his mom.

Gwyllm washed and put on a clean pair of dungarees, then hung the stained pair he had been wearing all day to dry on a stand near the fire. In the morning he would beat the dried dirt and manure out of his pants with a clothes beater and be ready for another day of labor.

It was getting near dusk, and soon his father, David, would be home from work at the mill in Swansea. Perhaps he would bring treats back for the family from the sweet shop, as he sometimes did, or that new pair of work boots Gwyllm had been asking for for ages. It was hard to work with stones in your boots. It wasn’t long before he heard the door latch turn and his father walked in, visibly tired from his long day.

“Sadie, what’s that wonderful scent I smell in this house? Wherever did you find a roast of that size?” David asked.

“It is a bounty from the Duke’s men, traded for a sack of roots. I do hope it is ready for our meal. It’s only been on the spit before the flames since early afternoon,” Sadie replied.

The small family made the table ready for their meal. Wooden plates, bronze forks and table knives, and earthenware cups were set out. Sadie filled the cups with homemade sparkling strawberry wine for the special occasion. Potatoes and apples, roasted near the coals, were piled in a wicker basket and placed in the center of the table. Gwyllm and David brought the roast off the fire and slid it off the spit onto a great wooden trencher at the far end of the table. They sat down to eat, saying their blessing:

“Lord and Lady, bless this food,

Thank you for all that is good,

So mote it be.”

The prayer finished, they took their forks and knives and piled their simple plates full of the delicious food. As they ate David spoke about his day at the mill: “I nearly lost a hand today at the buzz saw. I had to clean the saw of chips and bark, so I pulled the brake and stopped the blade. I set the pawl, but forgot to close the gate to keep water from the wheel. I went to clear the chips from the chute, and as my hand neared the blade I heard a click. The pawl on the brake slipped and the blade sprung to life. I told the foreman about that tricky pawl last week, but I should not have been in such a hurry that I forgot to close the gate before I worked on the saw.”

“That’s terrible, Dear,” Sadie said, a look of grave concern on her face. “When are you going to find a safe job doing something easy, like taking people’s money for wares at the dry goods shop?” She began to clear the dishes from the table and store the leftovers away in a footlocker under the small side window.

David thought for a moment and wiped his face on his sleeve. “Easy jobs like that go to good-looking young women, wife, not middle-aged farmers like myself. Besides, we need the coin I get from the mill to pay down the Duke’s taxes.” He rose from his seat at the head of the table and went to sit in his easy chair by the embers of the fire. Sadie had placed a bottle of his favorite dark ale by his chair, knowing he would need it to relax after a long and trying day at the job. Gwyllm helped wash the tableware, then took the basin of wash water outside and dumped it on his mother’s flower garden.

The family were just getting ready to turn in to their woolen blankets and down pillows for a night of well-deserved rest when there was a loud knocking at the cabin door.

“Open up inside! This is the constable. We have reason to believe a crime against the county has been committed on these premises.” The gruff voice and continued pounding on the door roused David from his reverie by the fire.

“Hold on there, I’m coming. What is this all about?” he asked, opening the door and then being rudely pushed back into the center of the one room cabin by the constable and his two officers.

“There boys, do you smell it too? The sweet scent of roast venison. These yokels have been poaching the Duke’s deer out here in the sticks. You didn’t really think you could get away with such a crime, did you?” the constable asked. He then ordered his officers to bind the hands of the three behind their backs.

“This was legal venison,” Gwyllm said, turning his head to look over his shoulder as the officer tied a rough hempen cord around his wrists. “We got it in fair trade from the Duke’s own men just this afternoon.”

“Really now boy, is that your story? Why, it was the Duke’s very men themselves who reported your poaching to me. They said you tried to bribe them into silence when they saw you shoot that doe in the clearing where they came to encamp. You offered them the lion’s share of the kill and a sack of vegetables from your miserable garden. They have only just now shown me the evidence of your crimes, and I have the testimony of no less than ten witnesses to your transgression.” The constable looked long and hard into Gwyllm’s blue eyes and twirled his handlebar mustache.

“That’s a lie!” Sadie shouted at the men. The officer at her side slapped her face hard.

“Silence woman, none of your false accusations against the good men of the Duke,” the constable said. “And what of the ten witnesses? All good men in the service of the county. Why would they lie to me all about these crimes they have witnessed? They even showed me the crude bow and arrows they confiscated from young Gwyllm here, which he used to bring down the poor creature.”

The constable walked over to the fire and sat in David’s easy chair, steepling his fingers in thought. He bade his officers stand the family in front of him. “As constable of Swansea Township and magistrate in the Duke’s Court of the Sixth District, I shall now pronounce sentence on you all.”

“We’ve done nothing,” David growled.

“It has already been determined what has been done and by whom,” the constable spoke. “For receiving stolen venison from the Duke’s domain, I sentence you two, David and Sadie, to a fine of ten pieces of gold, to be garnisheed from David’s wages at the mill at a rate of 50%. In addition you are to supply two pigs to the Duke’s men, which will be taken as provisions for their long march to Lancaster in the morning.”

“Now, as to the matter of what shall be done about young Gwyllm. You should have known that poaching is a capital offense. You shall be held in the Swansea jail until such time as a scaffolding can be erected. Then, at sunrise on the third day, you are to be hanged by your neck until dead in front of the entire town as a warning, that all may learn from your grave error.” The constable banged his fist on the arm of the chair and rose.

“Officers, you may release David and Sadie from their binds. They have been good citizens of the community before this incident and I know they will repay their debt to society. Take the boy and throw him in the cage on the wagon. He has a greater debt to pay to the piper for his effrontery to the law.”

The officers did as their commander ordered them and cut David and Sadie free. They took Gwyllm and roughly pushed him barefoot out the door, down the path to the county road, and into the steel-barred cage in the back of the wagon. The officers went back to the house and confiscated all the food, especially the roast venison, and threw that in the wagon as well.

“The Duke’s men will be by in the morning to collect the pigs,” the constable told David as he walked out the door. “It’s too bad about your son. He had such promise before this unfortunate incident.”

Gwyllm could neither believe nor understand what had just happened. He had been taught since childhood that the Duke and his men were honest, good people to be trusted with your very life. Now they had sold him out and condemned him to death for what? A couple of stinking pigs? His wrists hurt from the tight binds, and the hard wooden floor of the cage made his backside ache as the wagon bounced over rocks and debris on the broken concrete of the roadway. So now he was to die in ignominy. What would become of his family?

In about an hour, the wagon, drawn by two great jackasses, arrived in Swansea. Gwyllm was taken out of the cage and ushered through the lamplit streets into a white cinder block building. He was taken into the jail and pushed roughly into a small cell, surrounded by heavy steel bars. The officers cut him free of his bindings and tossed him a threadbare woolen blanket. The cell was fitted with pitted stainless steel bunk, sink, and toilet, relics from a forgotten age that, because of their nature, had survived the centuries. Everyone knew something about the past, at least those who had been taught to read, like himself.

“Get used to it boy,” the jailer growled from behind his desk. “We haven’t had a good hanging in a couple years, and a poacher too, eh?”

“I’m no poacher, sir, just a hard-working farm boy who doesn’t know what has just happened. What gives you and the Duke’s men the right to abuse us good people in the dark of night like home invaders? If I didn’t know better I’d think the Duke was nothing better than an old brigand himself,” Gwyllm said. All he got was silence as a reply.

Gwyllm spread the thin blanket on the cold steel of the bunk and curled up to try and get some rest. So this was how his life would play out, a condemned criminal swinging at the end of a rope for all to see. He could do nothing now but pray to the God and the Goddess for deliverance, and if not, a good long drop and a quick end to his short life.

Back at the cabin David and Sadie were beside themselves with anguish. A big purple bruise was blossoming on Sadie’s left cheek where the rude officer had roughly struck her.

“Come here woman, let me put some witch hazel on that bruise for you,” David told her. He took the glass bottle of infusion from the high medicine shelf, soaked a cotton ball in the solution, and gently applied the liniment to her bruised face.

“They will be hanging poor Gwyllm. Oh David. They wouldn’t even hear my witness. What kind of a world do we live in?”

David did not know what to say. He had lost half his wages and would have to work at the mill for at least a year to pay off the heavy fine. Two of his three pigs were forfeit to the soldiers who had caused his only son to be hanged with their perjury. He would have to find a way to cope with this loss, but he knew he was powerless against the combined forces of the army and the police.

The next morning found Gwyllm still locked in his barred cell. He ached all over from his sleepless night on the cold steel slab. The day jailer pushed a bowl of cold mush under the cell door as the morning sun shone in through the glass block windows of the small jail. Outside he heard shouts and commotion as the constable’s men began hammering together the parts of the scaffold, making ready for his execution.

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.”