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.”
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.
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.
The corporal, a man named Makentire from the name tag on his breast, looked Gwyllm up and down and chuckled. “You almost look like a bandit in all that gear we confiscated on our patrol of the zone,” he said. “Alright, it’s getting dark. Before we lose the light I want you to gather as much dead wood as you can from up and down the roadway and help the men get a watch fire going. Look smart now and snap to it,” he ordered.
“Yes, sir!” Gwyllm replied before trotting down the shoulder of the cracked asphalt roadway searching for branches to take back to camp. It was dim in the evening twilight, but the rising full moon shed some light on the ground and helped guide him to the dry, gray firewood. In about an hour the troop had a big pile of fallen branches stacked into a pit they had dug. A short, chubby private crouched near the pile and arranged tinder and twigs to kindle the flames. He sparked the tinder with steel and flint, then blew the glowing point gently in his hands until flames leapt up and the burning furze was set beneath the pile of twigs to ignite the pyre.
The evening meal, cold leftover stew, was meted out to the troops, and though there wasn’t a surplus, there was enough to keep their bellies from growling. Gwyllm was hungry, so he ate what had been proffered as rations, using the utensils from the mess kit he had been issued in his sack of personal items. He thought about his Dad and his poor Mom at home alone. What would become of them now that he had been taken by the army?
As he finished his meal, Makentire sat down beside him at the fire and spoke: “You must know, boy, that this has all been a ruse to get supplies and a new conscript for the Duke. We set you up and you fell like tenpins. The lieutenant had a good laugh at what the constable did to you and your family last night. He carries that scroll with him everywhere, and the funny thing is nobody ever questions him when he pulls it out. If they had bothered to read the dates on the commission, they would know that it had lapsed three years ago. It’s hard to argue when the army stands in front of you in full force.” The corporal smacked him hard on the back, laughed, and stood. Gwyllm stashed away his mess kit and rose silently. “Report to Gundry, soldier, for guard duty. And mind you don’t sleep at your post or you’ll get ten stripes on your back from the sargent,” the corporal ordered.
Gwyllm walked over to a large oak tree on the western edge of the camp where an old, gaunt, gray-bearded soldier leaned. “Are you Gundry?” he asked.
“That I am, and you must be the new recruit reporting for duty. Tell me lad, what do you know of keeping watch through the night for trouble?” Gundry asked.
“Nothing at all, except to keep your eyes and ears open and call out if you see anything.” Gwyllm looked over the old man, who seemed out of place in the company of young soldiers.
“Well, I’ll be. You come to us an expert already and you haven’t even stood your first watch. Let me tell you something: Don’t stand too close to the fire, it will dim your vision and leave you an open target for marauding archers. Don’t talk too much either, unless to challenge anyone who approaches, or you will give away your position. Notice how quiet the camp is now that the men are turning in? If you see anything, call out for help. I’ll be at your back in an instant. We’ll need to secure the perimeter, so move around on the verge of the camp and observe from a variety of angles.” Gundry paused to let his information sink in.
After a minute Gwyllm asked: “The corporal said you could teach me something about swordplay.”
“Now that I can boy. I’ve been in many fights myself and carry my fair share of scars and broken bones from combat. I will tell you that fighting with a sword has little to do with play. It’s damned serious business. You don’t dance with the enemy, they’re not your mistresses. You fight with everything you got, sword, fists, elbows, boots and teeth if need be. I once caught a man off guard, kicked him in the balls, then drove the point of my sword down through the top of his shoulder while he was doubled over in pain.”
“That doesn’t seem fair,” Gwyllm flatly stated.
“What’s fair about war son? It’s their life or your own. Are you going to play Jesus and die so that others may live?” Gundry sneered.
“You have a point,” Gwyllm said.
“Your sword has a point as well, keep it sharp and use it often. All the slashing and jumping around you hear of in storybooks and see on the stage are just for show. Swing your blade to knock your opponent off guard, then drive the point of your blade into some soft, vulnerable flesh. Give the hilt a good hard twist when it is set in your enemy’s body and you will bring him down with pain. Place your boot on your enemy next to where your sword has entered and yank the weapon out. If you have made a lucky hit and severed an artery, a fountain of blood will follow the blade and your enemy will bleed out. Then move on to the next opponent. There’s always another enemy to step in when one falls.”
“That seems so cruel,” Gwyllm stated.
“What do you think war is son, a birthday party with iced cake and donkey rides? You must have lived a sheltered life out there in the fields. How cruel would you be if you came home one evening and found a bandit raping your wife? Well, the stakes are just that high in war and more. There are people in this world whose evil knows no bounds. Lesson one over. Time to take your post lad.”
“Where am I supposed to be stationed?” Gwyllm asked.
“I’ll take the west end of the camp and keep watch of the road to Lancaster. You take the east and watch for trouble from our back. We’ve a good eight hours of the night to keep guard, so mind you don’t wander far from your post or sleep.” Gundry set off from the fire toward the west side of the camp and Gwyllm walked the 30 paces to the east end. There was to be no more discussion, only duty.
Gwyllm kept watch in the darkness through the night, patrolling the perimeter by the wagons and the roped-off temporary paddock where the horses nickered and slept. He watched as the moon slipped in and out of high clouds in its transit of the night sky. He tried to make out constellations, but the sky was too misty for most stars to shine through. From the woods to the north he heard the hooting of an owl, but thought nothing of it.
The loud “crack” of a broken stick snapped him to attention. “Who’s there?” he called. He heard a rustling from the woods across the roadway and followed to investigate. It might have been a deer or a raccoon, but it might have been a person as well. He stopped to look and listen, getting ready to turn back to camp, as he was now almost out of sight of the fire. Before he could react, an arm wrapped around his belly from behind and he felt the cold steel of the edge of a blade placed to his throat.
“Quiet now, and nobody gets hurt,” a voice, obviously female, whispered close to his ear.
“Who are you and what do you want?” Gwyllm stammered back.
“That’s none of your business. We need to move.”
Gwyllm felt the arm removed from his waist and his sword pulled from his scabbard by the unseen stranger. He was pushed from behind, away from the camp as he heard Gundry shouting to the men to raise the alarm, his absence now clearly noticed. “Quickly now, and not a sound, or I cut your throat soldier boy.”
Gwyllm thought that he must be in serious trouble now. Stumbling almost blindly through brambles, bending shrubs out of his face as he struggled to push his way through the forest. The moon was beginning to sink in the western sky. The point of a sword in the small of his back goaded him onward through the thickets to where he knew not.
Coming to a gully, banks soft and eroded under his boots, Gwyllm paused. “Which way now?” he asked.
“Turn right and follow the creek,” the unseen voice commanded. He sidestepped down the embankment and began to walk eastward along the shallow bed of the stony stream. The orange light of the setting moon filtered through the trees and dimly illuminated the way. The creek wound around fallen logs and great boulders. On his left he could see the land rise up in the slope of a hill. They walked until the sky began to redden with the first rays of twilight.
“That’s far enough,” the girl said. They had stopped near a ledge of limestone that hung over the creek bed, creating a natural shelter, good cover to hide them from any of the patrol who may have followed.
Gwyllm turned to face his captor. In the dim light of dawn he made out the form of a young woman, about his age, slim, dressed in black jeans and smock cinched at the waist with a wide leather belt. Her hair was long, black, and curly, and her face was beautiful, though her eyes were dark with heavy eye shadow. What Gwyllm noted most, however, was how she held sword and dagger in front of her, ready to strike at a moment’s notice.
“Are you Gwyllm of Swansea?” the girl asked.
“How do you know my name, and what do you want from me?” Gwyllm countered.
“I’ll ask the questions,” she snarled. “If you are another ordinary cur from that company of fiends this will be your doom.”
“Well, if you put it that way, I’ll have you know that I am Gwyllm, from the village of Swansea,” he replied.
“What are you doing on patrol with those war criminals? Shouldn’t you be at home on your farm, taking care of your mom and dad?” The girl sheathed her dagger and tucked the blade of the sword into her belt. “We’ll be safe here for a while. It’s time I let you know what I know about the fine gentlemen of your company and of what remains of both our families.”
“What do you know of me and my family, miss?” Gwyllm asked, “and what should I call you? You have a name, I assume.”
“I am Rachel of Ravenwood. You should be thanking me now from saving you from a certain and rather painful death,” the young girl replied. “Did you honestly think that troupe of devils was going to make you part of their company so easily? You were nothing but an expendable pawn to them and bait for me. Why do you think they stationed you at the rear guard without even giving you basic training? You were never in the army boy.”
“What do you mean by calling me bait?”
“I have been dogging that patrol for the last week. In the dead of night, while their guards are dozing. I sneak up on one of them, given an opening, and slit his throat for him, nice and quick and quiet. I’ve taken two that way, and one in the woods while his pants were down.” Rachel spit.
“You sound like an assassin. I guess from what you have told me thus far you have reason for your murders?” Gwyllm asked.
“All in good time boy. First I must swear you to silence, and to cause me no harm. I am alone in my revenge and believe we may have common cause, though of this cause you know little yet. Swear, by whatever gods you have, or by your own life, and I will spin out my pretty tale to your delight.”
“Something tells me few of your stories are pretty, Rachel. You have done me no real harm thus far, and I am no friend of those soldiers, despite being in their company. I will swear, by the Lord and the Lady, to cause you no intentional harm, and to speak your tale to nobody.” Gwyllm made the sign of the Pentacle in the air before him using his sword finger.
“A brother of The Craft I see, and not a follower of Yeshua. I will trust in your oath before our gods and reveal to you why all this has occurred, at least as far as I have been able to understand.” Rachel sat now on the dark, wet sand of the bank beneath the sheltering limestone ledge. Gwyllm sat cross-legged in front of her, wondering what could drive a beautiful young lady to take upon herself the life of a cutthroat.
After a pause to collect her thoughts, Rachel began: “Seven days ago I was little more than a happy young woman, content with life in our small town on the western border of Nimshire. I had a day job at the milliner’s, weaving lace and sewing dresses for the ladies of the hamlet. My father was an herb doctor, and my mother cared for the young children of the village and my sister Anna, who was special. We led a good simple life and never had trouble from what few bandits would stray from the Neutral Zone, offering them meal and ale in exchange for fresh game and furs. We knew little of crime, and took care of our neighbors in times of trouble.”
“That afternoon a week ago, as I sat at my loom in the shop, I heard a commotion outside. I ran out the door into the streets to see people running helter-skelter, screaming. From the west I heard shouts and death cries, the clang of steel on steel. The men of Ravenwood rushed into the streets, blades at the ready, but we were outnumbered and taken by surprise. I ran to my home, a quarter mile down River Street, but stopped as our cottage came into sight. Fox, my friend from school, was there and took my arm, pulling me behind the oleander bushes in his front yard. From our hiding place I watched as your brave corporal in his shining helm and mail dragged my little sister Anna from our burning house into the streets screaming. I could hear the cries of my mother and father from inside our home, I was that close. Fox held his hand over my mouth so I could not scream and give away our position.”
“Finally the people of the village, men, women and children, armed with whatever would serve as a weapon, gathered en mass and drove the raiding party from the streets of Ravenwood. Smoke darkened the sky from the dozen or so homes that had been burned. When all was clear I ran to the burning wreck of our cottage, but there was nothing to be done. In the streets the dead were strewn and the dying bled and moaned. I searched everywhere in the wreckage of the raid but could find poor Anna nowhere. She and other young girls of the village had been taken by the soldiers. I swore that dawn, by the elements, to see this company of demons drown in their own blood, or in the attempt offer my own life and join my family in the Summerland.”
Rachel paused now and dropped her gaze to the black sand of the creek bed. With her right hand she clutched the sand, held it a moment, then opened her grip and let the earth fall between her fingers.
“You are one against a nation, Rachel,” Gwyllm softly spoke. “The patrol will be nearing Lancaster City tomorrow, and they will surely bring reinforcements to hunt you down. Tell me, what do you know of my family, and how do you know my name?”
“The night you were taken by the constable I was hiding in your small orchard. The next morning, that damned corporal and five of his men came. When they began to loot your root cellar and haul off your animals, your father protested. They beat him to the ground. Then they bound him and your mother hand and foot, threw them into your cabin, nailed the door shut and piled brush from your wood pile around the perimeter of your house. Your family is with mine in the Summerland now. After the soldiers had left I followed them into Swansea. I made inquiries as to you and your family in the dry goods store while they sprung you from jail. I made sure to get a good view of your face and form as they loaded you into their wagon and marched out of town. I followed them, keeping away from the road. Soldiers march so slowly in their heavy gear.” Rachel finished her story, watching the tears well up in Gwyllm’s eyes.
Gwyllm held his hands over his face, trying to keep from crying. His family gone, his freedom taken, how could men sworn to keep the peace and protect the population do such things? There was something about the girl’s voice, quavering, thin, which caused him to believe that this was all no elaborate lie. This one dark, willowy girl had a whole platoon of the Duke’s Army on the run? He was guided by the Rede to harm none, yet if he did nothing, many would be harmed by his inaction. All he knew now was that he was alone in this world, as was Rachel, yet they had common cause. He would fall in with this young lady, and do what he could to help her.
“Your story is indeed terrible,” Gwyllm spoke. “We are both outraged by this foul company. I don’t know how we are going to do it, but I swear, by Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Ether to protect and aid you, Rachel of Ravenwood, until our revenge is served. So let it be!”
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.