It had been the worst storm Spragg had known. A gale tore through the night, rattling rafters and dark, scudding clouds spat fat shafts of rain. Branches flew like spears across the village and the stream overflowed onto the green.
Moldwood was little more than a ramshackle collection of odd huts daubed with mud in constant need of repair. Set in the lee of the manor house on the hill animals fought for space and a general air of overcrowding and decay dampened the mood. Rock-strewn mud paths and random tree stumps made moving around difficult at the best of times and this was only made worse with the extra litter of bad weather. Storm damage would mean weeks of unwelcome toil.
At dawn the downpour eased to a drizzle and Spragg and Guy helped to mop up some of the mess. Afterwards they rested on a dry sack and Guy asked Spragg to show him around.
“I’ll do better than that,” Spragg announced. “I’ll teach you that poor folks can do more than fart and grow turnips. Come with me to the woods and I’ll show you how to use a bow like a real hunter. This rain will have flushed rabbits from their holes.”
As she watched the boys disappear from view, Spragg’s mother, Orla, sighed. Lately, she felt weary and old. For years she had struggled to feed a husband and two children, often with little grain, and now there was extra tax coin to find. The family barely made a living from their four thin strips of land hacked out from the edge of the common.
She looked over to where Maewynn sat sewing a hem on a rough piece of muslin. Orla loved her daughter but could sense the girl’s frustration. She sensed how desperately her daughter wanted to fish and hunt with the boys. The girl had an independent streak that marked her out as different to other village girls. But she had taught Maewynn, from her first breath, that life in Moldwood had an ancient pattern. Homes were run by the womenfolk while it was men and boys who toiled in the field and the forest.
“Slower my child. Pull the needle through smoothly,” she chided. “Don’t hack so. Your brother needs a new smock this summer, not next.”
The girl’s reputation for being strong-willed did not impress her mother. Nor was Orla swayed by her daughter’s wild beauty. It would not be long, she thought, before the girl would be promised in marriage to one or other over-eager youth. Seth, the basket maker, had already put in a claim for his own wretched boy.
Unaware of her mother’s thoughts, Maewynn flicked a handful of thick, auburn hair off her forehead, revealing intense blue eyes. Though desperate to please her mother, all this handiwork was not what she dreamed of.
The arrival of the stranger her brother had brought to stay aroused Maewynn’s interest more than pulling thread. His clothes, his looks and his manner spoke to her of unknown delights and adventure. Though she had seen him for a few fleeting moments she thought him attractive. But this did not stop her feeling irritable. For the next few days, at least, she had to sleep on the floor next to Sally the sow.
“When can I have my bed back?” she pouted. “By the saints, Sally smells even worse than Spragg.”
“Don’t fret child. Your brother must’ve used a witch’s charm on your father. I’ve never seen him give a High-born the time of day before. Father says Guy can stay till he be strong enough to travel. That boy would soften the heart of a statue. ”
Maewynn would not admit as much, but promised herself to get to know Guy better. Village boys were coarse with the charm of drenched river rats. “We’ve enough mouths to feed, Mother,” she protested weakly.
“Fiddlesticks child. Guy’s helping Spragg with his chores, and I think he be a handsome boy.”
Maewynn blushed, concentrating on the needle.
“Can’t say I’d noticed,” she mumbled. Orla balanced a small bowl on her knee and smiled as she continued crushing ears of corn into a thick pulp.
Seconds later, the boys reappeared and strode towards them pushing each other playfully.
“Hello crag-face,” Spragg teased as he poked his sister’s side. She stared at the ground and did not respond, so he turned to his mother.
“Guy says he be a better shot than me but he’s just ...”
“You would miss an oak tree from three paces,” Guy interrupted. Orla was pleased to see the boys being so friendly.
“Yes, yes. Now away with you. Spragg, your father needs you over in Lord Moldwood’s barley field.”
Even looking through the corner of her eyes, feigning disinterest, Maewynn noticed how Guy stood a couple of hands higher than Spragg. His strong confident stride contrasted sharply with her brother’s slightly awkward gait as they made off down the path.
Spragg loved his life tending crops and living with the forest and the land, but he now found himself wondering if he might go with Guy and explore places that lay more than a day’s journey from home. There would be dangers breaking the law by leaving the village without the Lord Moldwood’s permission but here was a High-born who had a master determined to improve life for poor people and had even charmed his father.
They sprinted the last few yards to the field where Spragg’s father, Agrik, sat on a sheaf of hay. He was chewing a chunk of hard cheese his wife had wrapped in dried reeds for his lunch.
“You grow stronger each day. When will you leave?” he asked Guy.
“Three days, God willing,” he replied. “My master told me to deliver his message by the shining of the second moon. Friar Rowan is still up at the monastery with the parchment and says he’d better stay out of sight.”
“Tell him to come here the first day of May in two days time. The village will be crowded then and the fair should hide him well.”
“I’ll go to the monastery tonight,” offered Spragg. “I don’t trust that lard-gut.”
“We shall both go. I can travel that far,” said Guy.
The light began to fade in a crimson-stained sky as Spragg led Guy to a short-cut that took him near the ancient oak and passed by an old well, south of the river. In the cool darkness of the forest, Spragg sniffed the faint whiff of a familiar odour.
It was only when a half moon crawled from behind a grey cloud, revealing the faint outline of the monastery ahead, that he glimpsed the ghostly shape darting through the bushes keeping pace with their every move. The boys ducked behind a mossy bank and held their breath. Seconds later, a hooded figure stumbled into view. Spragg recognised his sister, even in the dim light.
“Maewynn, what you doing here?” he blustered. “You shouldn’t be out alone at night.”
She threw back her hood. “Don’t talk to me so. You think to mock me, but girls be not as daft as big-head boys. I can look after myself.”
Spragg sighed. “Stay out of this. Mother needs you at home and Father will be angry if he finds out. Come on Guy, tell her.”
“And why would I order a pretty maid so?” He bent forward slightly and flashed Maewynn a smile. She flushed with joy and shot her brother an evil look.
“Come on,” she whispered. “Any fool know you be going to the monastery.”
Spragg scowled, but his sister was stubborn, and he did not want to be late. He guided Guy and Maewynn through the alms door that was always left open by the monks to admit needy travellers. They sat beneath the branches of a yew tree, not far from the wall.
It was several minutes before Maewynn hissed at Spragg in frustration, “Why are we waiting so long?”
“We’re early,” said Spragg. “The friar said he’d come here every night after midnight prayers and stay for ten minutes. So just keep quiet.” Maewynn leaned slowly towards Guy until their arms touched. He did not move away. The screech of a distant owl pierced the forest calm. Spragg was the first to hear the chapel door creak open. He pointed to a shadow straying across the lawn towards them.
Days of silent prayer, hard beds and poor food had not dimmed the friar’s spirit. “So you decided to grace me with your presence at last. Very grateful I’m sure.” He turned and spoke to Maewynn. “And what is this?”
“I’m not a ‘this’,” she huffed. “I’m here to watch over my brother. The Lord knows he needs watching.” Spragg winced.
“God help him then. What a pretty party we have. I finally get the chance to serve my maker and all he sends me is a trainee knight with no weapon, a peasant boy with no coin and a girl with straw in her head.”
“So is my message in safe hands?” asked Guy, ignoring the jibe.
“Have no fear my young warrior. My life be just as bound to it now as your own. Most of the monks here care more for their bellies than their souls. The librarian, Brother Flaxman is made of sterner stuff. He’s hidden the parchment among his books.”
“Why did you let him do that?” Guy snapped.
“Travelling friars do not survive without their wits to keep them alive. Brother Flaxman is a friend and he has read the parchment. He says it is writ in some kind of code. He can’t make sense of it. Worse still, word reaches the monastery that the Regent’s officers are scouring the countryside. They offer a reward for capturing young Guy here.”
“Well let’s just take the parchment and deliver it,” Maewynn offered. “If we keep off the roads and main paths, they won’t find us.”
“Listen and listen well,” said Rowan sternly. “These men are murderers, and carrying that parchment be as good as suicide.”
“I will not wait more than a few days,” said Guy. “I grow stronger each hour, and if needs be, I go alone.”
Spragg had made up his mind. “Not without me,” he chirped. “You owe me that.”
Guy was surprised by Spragg’s enthusiasm. “In the Lord’s name, why even think to risk your life for life for a High-born like me?”
“If them that sent you really want to help people like me like you say, then I want to go with you.”
“You must know Moldwood needs all the workers he can get and will never allow it.”
“Won’t ask him then,” Spragg huffed
Guy’s face muscles twisted in concentration. “Your family needs you here,” he protested.
Spragg hesitated, but he remained determined to act. “You’ll need to k