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.