The Sword
     Untitled
The Cabiri Chronicles
     Life of a History
     Under the Hood
     Hunger

     Balancing Act

     I was just acting!
     Lucifer as a Player
     Player Types Defined
     Railroading
     LARP Boredom
     LARP Survival

     Economics in D&D 3.5

     Sept 11, 2002
     Columbia Disaster

     A Letter of Vocation
     Evidence of Evil
     In Defense of a Reflection

     A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
     Hello
 

          Author's Comments: This was written for a wonderful writer's workshop at the Milaye Project.


Under the Hood
November 7th, 2005

          “Ye’ll get no coin from these empty bags, lad,” Duncan Carrick grumbled warily at the approaching stranger. “Go find a rich man to rob.”
          The stranger stood a moment, his pitted broadsword still at the ready. Finally, his sword wavered and his shoulders slumped. Duncan smiled to himself and turned back to the river that gurgled beneath the rock he sat on.It was barely autumn, but the brisk morning wind already carried the smell of dying trees. Soon enough, the trees would be barren and the creek bordered by ice. And the world would slumber under its white blanket.
          Duncan’s thoughts wandered to the cold nights ahead of him and the warmth of his own hearth, far to the north. The stranger shifted behind him and slid the sword into its place. The soft sound of the blade against the scabbard’s metal rim broke through Duncan’s dreams of home. He bounced the branch in his hand, which pulled the string at its end from a rock it had tangled in. And, he hoped, perhaps would entice even a small fish to clamp down on the lure at the end of that string.
          “You’re not from Barnsdale,” the stranger muttered as he approached the rock Duncan sat on. “And you’re not Saxon or Norman…”
          “And you’re no brigand,” Duncan chuckled under his thick beard. It, too, was in its autumn… a few gray strands lay entwined with the black. “Nay, lad… I’m a Scot.”
          The man stepped onto the boulder with a quick hop and sat down next to Duncan. The stranger was a lean man and sounded young, likely not more than a score of years since he was a babe. He wore a ragged shift, belted at the waist in leather, from which hung his sword and scabbard. From his shoulders hung a green cloak, as green as the trees that had so far avoided the gentle brush of autumn. He had the hood of the cloak pulled over his head, as if he were expecting rain at any moment.
          Duncan glanced upward at the gray sky above. The stranger might be right. It did look like rain.
          “Far from home,” the stranger replied as he sulked next to Duncan. “What brought you to England?” The stranger watched as Duncan played with his finish line some more, hoping to snag one of the fish he was certain lay just beneath the dusky water.
          “Came down for th’ fair,” Duncan replied, “but got set upon by highwaymen… real highwaymen.” He looked at the stranger and winked. The stranger’s shoulders bobbed briefly, as if we were silently enjoying the joke at his expense. With an exasperated sigh, his gaze fixed on the river again.
          “The forest is full of brigands these days,” the stranger muttered. “And I suppose I am one of them, if not particularly good at it.”
          “Ye just need to choose your mark better, lad,” Duncan replied, surprised at himself for giving the young man advice on pillaging.“The poor have little to steal.”
          The stranger examined Duncan carefully. Duncan did not look the role of a wealthy man.He wore a simple blue shift, stained and frayed with years of use. Two bags sagged from a wide leather belt, under which was tucked a thin dagger. Duncan’s side sat a curved yew longbow, a leather quiver half filled with arrows and, oddly, a thick, leather-bound book. By the way the stranger examined it, Duncan imagined it was the first bound tome he’d ever seen.
          “You seem well equipped for a man of no coin…” the stranger mused. “Are you a monk?”
          Duncan chuckled again, stroking his beard with his free hand. “Nay, lad, I’m a cooper, come down to sell my wares. The brigands threw my tome to me as they left in me wagon.”
          “And the bow?” the stranger asked. He obviously cared little for the book as well. “They let you keep that as well?”
          “Well, lad,” Duncan replied smiling, “not so much ‘let.’ You donna rob a Highlander without takin’ a lump or two. One of ‘em I dropped left the bow and I obliged to take it off his hands.”
          “It’s a fine weapon,” the stranger replied, reaching for the bow. Duncan caught the glint of a metal chain shirt beneath the stranger’s shift, but could still not get a good look at his face, shadowed beneath the hood of the cloak. The man hefted the longbow in his hand, turning it to the side to feel its balance. “Well made…”
          “Ye seem to know your bows,” Duncan commented. His fishing line suddenly grew taught and with a firm tug, Duncan flicked the stick high above him. Line, lure and fish suddenly erupted from the water, flew through the air and landed on the rock between the two men. The fish spasmed in protest, trying to bounce itself back to the safety of the river, but Duncan quickly clasped a large hand around its tail and held it to the rock until it stopped moving. “Ye a Crusader, lad?”
          The stranger nodded solemnly as he examined the bow. He finally tilted his hood back as he pulled the string taught to his cheek. Duncan was surprised at how young the man was. He had a mass of curly red hair and was barely old enough to sport the short-cropped beard on his chin. But something about his eyes… they seemed lost… confused. As if they’d seen something no man was meant to have seen. He finally placed the bow back at Duncan’s side.
          “What’s a Crusader doin’ out in these woods lookin’ to rob folk?” Duncan finally asked as he pinched a worm onto the small iron needle at the end of his fishing line.
          The stranger gazed off down the stream, beyond the flaming orange leaves that lined it, into the mist-colored forest beyond. Perhaps, it seemed to Duncan, even beyond that.
          “I fought with the Lion-Heart for two years,” he replied finally. “We never made it to Jerusalem.” Duncan raised an eyebrow and glanced at the Crusader. “We fought, aye, we fought hard. The Saracens countered us at every move. Their leader, some devil-spawn by the name of Saladin seemed to match every move His Majesty made. I saw men… boys… even the women, both dark and light, fall beneath blades. I’ve seen parts of a man no one but the Creator himself is intended to see. I’ve done things no man was ever intended to do…”
          He seemed to lose himself for a moment, his gaze still locked beyond the forest, watching again whatever horrors he had faced.
          “Finally,” he continued, “without much as to why, we were all sent home. Some stayed on Cyprus, but me… I’d seen enough of war. I wanted nothing more than to come home. For three months I crossed ocean and swamp and mountain and… then finally starting hearing words I could understand, then seeing places I recognized… finally, after three years gone, I’d come home.”
          “To Barnsdale?” Duncan asked as he tossed his line back into the water.
          “Yes,” the stranger replied. “I came home to… there was another man, another family living in my home. All I’ve known for the last three years was blood and toil and… so I killed him. And the two men that were with him. I knew it was wrong even as my arrows bore through them… but I couldn’t stop. Not until the invaders… not until they were dead.”
          Duncan nodded slowly. He’d known men to do worse, but that was back in the Highlands, where the place, and the people, were of rougher build. Down here in England, such a thing was unheard of.
          “I knew I couldn’t take the guard, so I fled. I found out later that there’d been rumors of my death reached town. Maybe lies, maybe someone just got confused. But the Abbot took my home and put my wife in a nunnery. He proclaimed my home defaulted to the Church and sent his tax collector to live there. That was one of the men I killed.”
          Duncan quietly watched the string of his fishing line, lightly plucking the pole as he listened.
          “I followed the Lion-Heart to war…” he said, his head falling into his hands. “I fought for God and his Holy Sepulchure. And I return to find everything that was mine gone. Stolen by the God I had killed for…”
          “Nay, lad,” Duncan finally responded. “Nay… God dinnae steal your home. A flesh an’ bone man did. Many ha’e last as ye have. These are hard times for England.”
          The stranger nodded. “I’ve never seen so many wanting… babes begging by the highways, farmers’ sons come out to be brigands… what happened while I was gone, Scotsman? Why’d this happen?”
          “The Prince has been ruling in th’ stead of the Lion-Heart,” Duncan replied soberly. “And he takes his ‘taxes.’ He says ‘e sends ‘em to his brother to fight the fight, but every month, I hear tell, there’s more gold dangling from the Prince’s fingers. Even th’ noble lairds are starting to grumble, but there’s none who dare stand against ‘im. Not against the Crown. Or his men.”
          The stranger frowned as Duncan spoke. Duncan well knew that, though Scots were expected to speak ill of their king and his family, the English were a bit more loyal. This English Crusader, though, didn’t seem willing to maintain his loyalty.
          “The way I see it, lad,” Duncan continued carefully. “These here brigands in these woods are just men, like ye and me and this Abbot. They ain’t here ‘cause they like stealing, no more’n ye do. They’re here ‘cause they ain’t got no place to go. And the Sherriff isn’t likely to send his men in after them. Nae in these woods.”
          Something suddenly crossed the young man’s face. A thought gleamed in his eye… a small ember at first, though it quickly burned into a raging pyre. Duncan actually felt himself lean back from the flame in the man’s eye, as if warding away a fire himself.
          “I am no brigand,” he whispered solemnly. “But I do know war… and I know how men fight… if I could gather even a few of the rogue’s bands in these woods, I could take them to the Abbot himself. And after the abbot was made to recompense, maybe the Sherriff and his tax payers…”
          Duncan chuckled in spite of himself. The young stranger looked up at him suddenly, his excitement quickly turning to rage. Duncan waved away the Crusader’s anger with his hand as he finished laughing.
          “Then what, lad?,” Duncan asked, his eyes sparkling. “Ye goin’ to take your grand army of virgaters up to th’ White Tower itself and demand the Prince’s head? How’d that army o’ farmers do in the Holy Lands, lad?”
          The stranger’s shoulders slumped again as his rage faded. Duncan could almost see the ghosts of those farmers, their entrails strewn across the desert sand, floating inside the Crusader’s eyes.
          “Lad,” Duncan said, his voice softening. “Those brigands do what they do out a’ need, but they know how to do it. Ye know how to fight. And ye’ve got spirit still in ya to do it. Ye get with them, they’ll learn ye to steal from rich men, the men who feast on pheasant and boar while folk like us starve. An’ ye’ll be a rich man yerself afore ye know it.”
          The stranger shook his head solemnly. “I don’t want to be a rich man,” he said quietly. “I’ve seen what rich men do. I don’t want for much, I just want a full belly and warm clothes for the winter…”
          “Then don’ keep what ye take from ‘em, lad,” Duncan said simply, his gaze returning to his fishing pole. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the stranger mulling things over. His haunted gaze focusing as he worked through Duncan’s words.
          “I’ll give that coin to those who need it most,” he finally said quietly. Duncan looked at him again. He sat there, next to that babbling stream, watching as the ghosts of those pained souls faded from the man’s eyes. It wasn’t often that Duncan had seen a man who was first laying eyes on his destiny and he sat for a while, just watching the stranger’s face as the pain of battle faded.
          The stranger finally stood, peering up the stream at the forests, as if he would find a band of brigands waiting for him to lead.
          “Lad?” Duncan asked of him. “What did the Lion-Heart set ye to doin’ in the wars?”
          The stranger looked at him quizzically, as if just woken abruptly from a dream. “I was an archer,” he replied simply.
          “Aye,” Duncan replied, nodding. “I thought as much. ‘Ere, take this.” Duncan scooped up the bow and quiver and handed it to the stranger. “Ye’ll make better use a’ that yew than I, lad.”
          The stranger nodded and stepped into the bow, tucking it behind his knee to unstring it. He hefted the quiver over one shoulder and turned to leave.
          “An’ lad?” Duncan called after him as the stranger bounded off the rock with a youthful bounce. He stopped and turned, looking up at the Scotsman. “Try to be merry… ye’re much to young to bear that much yet…”
          The man’s lips curled into a smile, his face cracking around it as if years of blood and toil were suddenly washed away. In that moment, the ghosts fading from his eyes found peace.
          “You’re a wise man, sir,” the lad called out as he pulled his green hood back over his head. “Some day, they’ll sing ballads of you.” With a leap, he bound into the auburn leaves lining the river and was gone.
          “Nay, lad,” Duncan mumbled to himself as he realized he’d forgotten to get the man’s name, “but I’d say they will sing of ye. If ye get rid of that damned ugly hood…”