CROSSROADS by Rick Haynes
A tale in 4 parts.
“Wherever you go, there you are, or are you?” A brief flash of anger vanished quicker than I could blink but it didn’t last long. “You may be as gentle as a lamb, and as busy as a bee, yet, do you know where you are going?”
Her lips remained closed.
“I remember the time we first met. Your mouth tried to open and your body shook when you tried to answer my comment about your beautiful eyes. Like sapphire in an ocean of darkness, I told you. Your perfectly shaped lips had stayed closed, even though I had pushed for an answer. But, I waited, for your brief smile told me to be patient. Was it?”
“You are as strong as an ox, yet as slippery as the eels in the river. And thus, I do not trust you, king-slayer.”
“Now you are speaking like me, I will play out the game for one as wise as an owl of many seasons. It may even remove the mask of hatred from your exquisite face.”
“Flattery from a man as cunning as a fox is no flattery at all. Every village within ten miles of us is sending armed men to capture the coward who killed the king. And here you are, trying to seduce me. If you think I am the fatted calf, ready to be devoured, then think again, Harold.”
“My lady, Mary. I am honoured you know my name. Your cruel King Edward had burnt too many at the stake for me to stand idly by and watch the flames licking around the feet of the men, women and children who dared to displease him. The screams of the youngsters even now ensure any sleep is restless.”
“He was my father.”
“Your voice is as quiet as a mouse for you cannot turn a blind eye to his cruelty. Try to think of his last victims - David and Anne, the twins. With so little food their skin was stretched, their bones sticking out as if they were already dead. Do you remember what they did? No? I’ll remind you. In the stables, there are horses and horses eat oats. The starving children crept in and pushed a few handfuls of oats into an old linen bag. And they left as quietly as they had entered. But one of the stable boys had seen their departure. And you know what happened next, don’t you?”
“Yes, I know, but you are wrong. The stable boy was attacked and died. Those evil twins killed him as they escaped. Bad apples are always disposed of in the end.”
“You are at a crossroads, Lady Mary. You can believe the lies that sprouted from the mouth of your, now dead father, or you can open those lovely eyes to the truth. King Edward didn’t simply order the twins to death, the stable boy was also murdered because he didn’t stop them from stealing. Fear is a beast, feeding on attention and your father unleashed the beast as often as he pulled on his leggings in the morning.”
“You will never make me believe you, Harold. I know my father and will honour his memories as any true daughter would.”
“Then I must bid you farewell, my lady. But first I will give you a piece of advice. As the sole heir to the throne, you are now at a crossroads. Straight on and my men will easily overcome anyone in your pathetically equipped army. Turn to the left or right and the head of each clan will demand your hand in marriage as payment for their protection. No matter what you believe, warriors from the villages are not coming to assist you. Coldstone will fall.”
“Why should I believe a man like you?”
“I have offered them more silver than you could, Lady Mary.”
“And what do you offer me, killer?”
“I offer you nothing more than cold feet in a cosy bed, protection from the clans, and justice for your people as well as mine. The fog of war will never rear its ugly head here. Your father had a heart of stone but I do not. Look at your people with their heads hanging low, their eyes looking down at the ground beneath their feet. Fear is their constant companion, hunger their unwanted friend.”
“Words are cheap these days.”
“Yes, they are, as is flogging a dead horse. You must listen to me, Lady Mary, for you have so little time to reach a decision about your future and those of your clan.”
“I’ll think about your proposal, slayer. I’ll give you my answer in the morning.”
“I doubt we’ll meet again for your tomorrow may never come if you delay any longer. Goodbye, and good luck, Lady Mary.”
I barely heard her shout in the wind but without thinking turned my head in her direction. She was frantically waving and I pondered.
Would it be worth all the pain in defending her people and listening to her nagging? But did I want another cold bed at night? Would she demand too much from me and my people? Yet, was her beauty worth more than the insanity of seeing her in another’s arms?
My eyes took in her beauty, my heart pounded in my chest, and my brain told me to ride away.
But what should I do?
As usual, my heart ruled my head. I patted the flanks of my chestnut gelding, gently pulled on the reins and slowly trotted back to where Mary stood. Trying to wipe away her tears had failed for the dark lines from her eyes told me everything I needed to know. No matter how proud and haughty she was, Mary was terrified.
Dismounting, I held out my hand and she took it. Her body was shaking, her eyes wide open and her voice was croaky.
“Thank you… I’m not sure what else to say.”
I bet that’s the first time she’d ever been lost for words, I said to myself. “You must gather all the villagers together as they will need to listen to my words.”
I followed behind her, slowly leading, Thunder, my horse. I hoped he would continue to be in a good mood, as so far, he hadn’t tried to kick me today. Already, villagers were waiting outside the massive barn. The farrier held a large pitchfork in his hands, and the mason had both hands on a mighty hammer. I ignored them and continued on my way to the small square. As Mary had already sent a young boy with a message for her clan to meet in the square, I could already see a crowd gathering. I ignored the insults as I lowered a bucket into the well. Once full, I pulled it up and Thunder immediately quenched his thirst. He needed something to eat and I asked for some oats. No one moved but after Mary nodded her acceptance and a bag full of his favourite food appeared, I knew he’d be happy for a while.
More and more people arrived. I started counting but soon gave up. With so many evil eyes looking in my direction, I guessed they were as frosty as their village name. Coldstone wasn't a friendly place.
Mary was standing at the edge of a circle of villagers. With one hand on her left hip, a scowl that would stop a charging horse, and another hand resting on the shoulder of a small girl, I realised how much power and love she wielded. It was time for me to make a speech and I knew, I’d better get it right.
“These are the words of your beautiful, Lady Mary. ‘You are as slippery as an eel and as cunning as a fox.’ And yes, I agree. I confess to my sins. But to survive the likely onslaught, you will need all of my devious ability to save you from annihilation. One of you must ride out to send a message to my clan. I will order as many warriors as possible to join you in the defence of your village.”
“Why are you here? Do you have something to gain?” The mason broke from the circle as he spoke, his mighty hammer like a small piece of metal in his huge hands. He was stocky, almost as wide as the barn door. With two front teeth missing his scowl would frighten anyone. Coming closer with every step, I flinched. It was time to be bold.
“What is your name?”
“They call me Stiff Neck, not that you need to know, killer.”
I ignored the barbed comment. “Have you ever loved someone, Stiff Neck?”
“What rubbish is this? I’ve had …”
“Shut up and listen, you fool. I loved your precious Mary from the moment I set eyes on her. And when you love someone, you will do anything to save them. And that’s why I’m here. To save Mary and to save her people which includes you, mason Stiff Neck.”
Before he could say more the farrier walked towards me, this time without brandishing his pitchfork. Dressed in a long leather apron and soiled tattered trews he was every inch a giant of a man as I had to look up a long way. “My name is James. I’ve been looking at my Lady Mary’s face. She stands proud, yet full of sorrow as I see little hope on her face. I don’t know what bargain has been struck between you two but I do believe your words. If we delay, our village cannot survive. I will ride my fastest stallion to take the message to your clan as long as you swear I will be safe.”
I held out my hand and looked him in the eyes. There was no give. We gripped as warriors do - wrist to wrist – and we smiled. The time had come to brace ourselves for the inevitable attack on Coldstone. Unlike the name, we would prepare a very warm welcome for any unwanted visitors.
“Death sits on your shoulder like an old friend. Am I right, James, the farrier?”
I saw the grimace on his face and guessed pain had been with him for a long time. He raised his head and nodded.
“Now we understand each other this is what you must do. When you arrive in Pelonia, ask for Alwynn. Tell him what is happening here and urge him to make haste with as many warriors as he can. He will shout and spit in your eye. It is his way. Ignore his bluster, look at his face, wait until he pauses for breath and give him this message. ‘Harold sends you greetings. He says you have a face like an old ram and you stink worse than cow shit.’ He knows these words and will react quickly. Ride hard, James, and if your horse is too weary for the return journey, demand one as fast as your own.”
“I will leave now.”
As James saddled his horse and rode off, Stiff Neck approached. “What do you want big man?”
“Trust hasn’t shown its face in Coldstone for a long time so maybe I was wrong about you. As James believes in you, so will I.”
“Good.” I slapped him on the back and hurt my hand. He was as hard as a bull I’d once been hit by.
As Mary hadn’t said a word, I called her over.
“How many people live in Coldstone?” I was sharp but I needed answers.
“We have fifty four men, seventy one women and thirty one children under the age of fifteen.”
Stiff Neck answered. “Sorry, Lady Mary. May I answer?”
“Yes, of course.” She took a step back. Her face was flushed and her body trembled with fear.
I put my arm on her shoulder and looked into her red rimmed eyes full of unshed tears. “When I said, I loved you, I meant every word. You may not love me but I hope over time you will see I’m not the monster you think I am. For now, I must find a way to protect you and everyone in Coldstone.”
Turning away to face Stiff Neck, I couldn’t get Marys’ pained face out of my mind. “What do we have?”
“In the barn, we have ten spears, but some are rusty. Every man has a sword for King Edward insisted we must be armed should raiders attack. I guess about forty men can wield a sword with purpose, including James and myself. Bana, and his brother, Nossa are superb bowmen. Also, most of the women and some of the boys and girls are proficient with hunting bows. Without fresh meat, we would starve so every day villagers venture into the woods to trap or shoot game.”
“You’re not as stupid as you look, big man.”
A flash of mischief washed over his face as Stiff Neck quickly closed the gap between us, picked me up in a bear hug and dumped me in the water trough. After he stopped laughing along with all the other villagers, he gave me his hand and pulled me out.
“You’ll do, Stiff Neck. I’m so glad I have a change of clothes in my pack.” With all eyes upon me, my smile was wide, and I knew these people, my people, were now on my side. No matter what, they had to survive. Much to the amusement of the villagers, especially the ladies, I stripped off, walked to my trusty steed and pulled on fresh clothes. Unfortunately, the laughter ceased in a flash.
I heard the sound of running feet and the yells of frightened villagers as a young boy ran into the square. It took precious seconds for him to get his breath back.
“What is it, Tomas? What scares you, boy?” A grey bearded man was holding Tomas upright.
Tomas pointed behind him and screamed out.
“I saw four men on horses. They have swords. They asked the way to Coldstone. I sent them the wrong way. Are they coming to kill us?
We needed more time. More time to lay traps, more time to funnel the enemy into the killing ground of the small square. More time to position the archers and two fighting groups and more time before my warriors arrived.
All eyes were upon me; my lethargy clear for all to see. This wasn’t me. I was quick of thought, impulsive even but an image of Coldstone after the attack refused to disappear. Dead bodies lay everywhere, the flies descending like a plague.
Stiff Neck sensed my indecision, slapped me on the back and grinned through his missing teeth. It was his way of making me wake up. Initially rooted to the ground, my feet finally moved and my brain decided to awake from slumber.
“Stiff Neck, spread out the swordsmen and women archers around the square. Make sure they are well hidden. Other archers will be joining you. You, what is your name?”
“I am Sellan, my lord.” Her voice was so quiet, I had to ask her twice.
“Do you have children, Sellan?”
She nodded but kept her head low.
“Now, listen carefully. I want you to take all the children into the forest. You will need help so choose quickly those who will journey with you. Can you do this, Sellan?”
“Yes, Lord.” And she was gone. My heart soared for at least some of my new clan would survive.
The grey bearded old man approached with Tomas. “I am Rusit, and Tomas is my grandson. Can we win?”
Dressed in a leather smock, badly worn trews and a torn linen shirt he looked more like a beggar than anyone else. But with his eyes so bright, so sharp, I knew this man had been a soldier.
“I won’t lie to you Rusit, the chances of victory are slim. If we can hold long enough before James returns with my men, we may yet survive. It now depends on our enemy.”
“You mean whether the four scouts have already returned to their leader who is probably coming ever closer to Coldstone. Or, whether their scouts will arrive here very soon after taking the wrong track? We would kill them but when the main band of men arrives, we cannot hold for long.”
“I agree, Rusit. We will do our best and hope. And as for you, Tomas, you are both brave and clever. I thank you for directing those riders along the wrong track.” His beaming smile almost made me forget our parlous position. “Now be off with you.”
“By the callouses on your hands, Rusit, I’d guess you were an archer?”
His back creaked as he stiffened. “Proud? I was, and I remain so. I wasn’t simply good. No, I was a superb bowman – still am to tell you the truth.”
“Then you must take control of everyone who can use a bow. The square is the killing ground and we must entice them in. I and two others will await their arrival in the square but your archers must not show themselves as the enemy approaches from the main track. We must all be patient but once I hold my sword aloft let the swoosh of death destroy those daring to kill us.”
“I will be proud to fight alongside you, Harold.” He turned to a group of villagers holding bows and spoke softly to them. Within a few minutes, they had scattered into small groups and disappeared. I knew where they were but if I couldn’t see them, the enemy couldn’t.
Harold returned with a flagon. He took a swig before handing it to me.
“What do you call this?” I sputtered for my mouth was afire.
“Rot Gut. Don’t you like it?”
“Oh yes, best I’ve ever tasted before a battle.” There was a little water left in the pail. I gulped it down in one and felt a smack on my back.
“Better are we?”
With my mouth still burning I could only nod. I sat down as a wave of uncertainty hit me hard. What if those, intent on our complete annihilation outflank us? What if the villagers panic and run? Why am I putting them in so much danger? Was it my ego pushing me down a track of no return? Would Mary ever forgive me?
“Rusit! Answer me truly. Do you think we can win?”
“No lord, but we will make this as hard as possible for them.”
I couldn’t do it. Mary had to be safe, her clan had to be safe. These were villagers, not hardened fighters. Why should I put them all at risk by believing in my cocksure attitude? It was lunacy.
“Change of plan, Rusit. Would you ask, Mary to join me?” I saw the frown on his face as he walked off. Within minutes Mary was by my side but her mouth was firmly closed. As I explained my new plan, she stayed silent until I had finished.
“Are you mad? Or do you think this fatuity will please me?”
“It’s the only way to save your people.”
“You really are mad then.”
I closed my lips, looked up to the fluffy clouds above and sighed. Mary was right but my mind was made up.
“Sometimes you show a weakness, Harold, for your eyes light up with sorrow. And reading your mind is easier now. One day soon, if we survive, I may even like you. Mary gently kissed my forehead. “I never thought I’d kiss you, Harold.”
As she walked away, I whispered to myself. “Neither did I.”
My back was aching with sitting down for so long but at last, a single rider rode into the village. Dressed all in black and holding a sword in one hand he slowly approached. With a lightning flash on the shield laying across his horse, I knew he was a warrior from the Raven clan in the east.
Seeing me disarmed, he dismounted and carefully looked around.
“Lord Naved, isn’t it? It’s been a long time since we crossed swords. Come and join me in a mug of ale. It’s very good.”
“Where are your men, Harold? Where are the villagers? Is this a trap?”
“I give you my word. There is no trap here. Only me, drinking ale with another warrior.” I held out a mug and Naved sipped the ale.
“This is good. Now, where are the villagers? Where is their queen? Shouldn’t she be here to greet her new friends?”
“It shames me to admit my future wife has ridden off.”
“Do you think me an imbecile? My men are only ten minutes away and one blast of my horn will bring them here.”
I could see his anger was ready to erupt which pleased me for the more he threatened the more the chance of a stupid mistake. Nevertheless, I played for time. “This village is as empty as my stomach. You see, I didn’t break my fast this morning and I’m hungry.”
“Where is she? Where are the villagers? Where are you men? Are they hiding?”
I could see his face turning a nice shade of crimson. His act of anger would be so predictable for Lord Naved would cease his bluster and draw his sword.
“I gave you my word this village is devoid of human life, except for me.
Are you now calling me a liar?” His hesitation pleased me as he was unsure what to do next. I guessed he remembered the last time we crossed blades. Leaving him with a few cuts to his arms was normal in any fight but pushing Naved to the ground and holding a blade to his exposed throat ended the contest. He knew humiliation for the first time, and the leader of the Raven clan, Mendici, was not amused.
“Where have they gone, Harold?” He spat out the words.
Before I could answer, the sound of many hooves loomed ever closer.
A slender man sitting on a grey stallion led his warriors into the square. His face had a large scar running from his chin to his left ear which gave him a constant smile. He wasn’t tall, just lean, and his dark eyes were akin to a cobra before the strike. I knew him well.
“Well met, Harold the king slayer.”
“And you, Mendici. How are your lovely daughters?”
“All married now so you have no chance of bedding any of them.”
I saw a brief smile turn into a grin. I walked towards him and we embraced. He was a good man when he wanted to. Alas, he could order a man to be impaled for daring to ask a question. I’m sure madness was his permanent friend, yet, so far, my humour had helped me to stay alive whenever we met.
“You know why I am here.” It was a statement of intent, not a question.
“Of course, my friend. Unfortunately, the lady had vanished before I arrived.” I put my hands up and tried hard not to smile.
“So where is she, Harold? And where are her people? You know, my soon to be people.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “You can search if you don’t believe me but the village is empty.”
Mendici ordered two squads of men to check. It wasn’t long before they returned.
“So, you told the truth for once.”
“Naturally, my dear old friend. You and I go back a long way so why would I tell you lies?”
“Where are your men? Are they back at home, too afraid to meet me?” He sneered.
I changed the subject. “Can you smell something, Mendici?”
“If your men look behind the barn, they’ll find a large hog nicely roasting and besides it, two barrels of ale. As you can see, the villagers left in a hurry.”
He looked me in the eye daring me to say something more. I held his gaze until he blinked first. And then I gave him my best smile and pointed the way. He ordered two of his men to find out whether I spoke truly. It didn’t take long. His men returned with meat and ale and Mendici slapped me so hard on the back, I stumbled.
“Not bad, Harold. Maybe you and I can be friends after all.”
Thinking we could ever be friends was akin to me facing a mountain lion with a stick. But with his pompous attitude, I’m sure Mendici thought we could, for perhaps a moment or two anyway.
It was time to eat and drink and I duly helped in passing the ale around.
With so much meat and ale available, Mendici urged his men to enjoy themselves. Looking at his warriors, I could already see the signs. A little more ale and they’d all be drunk.
One minute it was quiet and the next the sound of many hooves made the ground tremble. From the westward track, a mass of armed warriors crashed into the square and surrounded Mendici and his men. James had returned with Alwynn and my battle hardened warriors. I raised my hand for my men to back off a bit for I knew what was coming.
“You pig, you… vermin, I’ll have your head on a spike for this.” Mendici was screaming so loudly, I thought his heart would give out.
One by one his men stacked their weapons in one heap. I waited. Within minutes they began to fall. Lacing the meat with a little poison had worked better than I had thought. Mendici was the last to perish for he ate less than any other. Nevertheless, drinking ale doctored with henbane would kill anyone.
“Fancy a drink, James? What about you, Alwynn?” Seeing the writhing bodies in the dust they quickly shook their heads.
More and more villagers were now emerging from the woods as one of the boys had told them what had happened from the high branches of a massive oak tree. I could see Mary leading them.
“Well, Harold, who would have thought you could secure our safety and live.”
I bowed low to my beloved, Mary.
It felt so good when she kissed me for the second time.
“Will you…marry me,” I asked.
“Wait and see,” she waved her hand as she walked away.