This was written for a wonderful writer's workshop at the
November 7th, 2005
get no coin from these empty bags, lad,” Duncan Carrick grumbled
warily at the approaching stranger. “Go find a rich man to rob.”
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.
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
not from Barnsdale,” the stranger muttered as he approached the rock
Duncan sat on. “And you’re not Saxon or Norman…”
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.”
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.
glanced upward at the gray sky above. The stranger might be right.
It did look like rain.
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.
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.
forest is full of brigands these days,” the stranger muttered. “And
I suppose I am one of them, if not particularly good at it.”
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.”
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.
seem well equipped for a man of no coin…” the stranger mused. “Are
you a monk?”
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.”
bow?” the stranger asked. He obviously cared little for the book as
well. “They let you keep that as 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.”
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…”
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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…”
seemed to lose himself for a moment, his gaze still locked beyond
the forest, watching again whatever horrors he had faced.
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.”
Barnsdale?” Duncan asked as he tossed his line back into the water.
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
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
quietly watched the string of his fishing line, lightly plucking the
pole as he listened.
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
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.”
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?”
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.”
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.
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.”
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
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.
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,
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.
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.”
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…”
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.
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.
stranger finally stood, peering up the stream at the forests, as if
he would find a band of brigands waiting for him to lead.
Duncan asked of him. “What did the Lion-Heart set ye to doin’ in the
stranger looked at him quizzically, as if just woken abruptly from a
dream. “I was an archer,” he replied simply.
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.”
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
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
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.
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.
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…”