The dying embers of the cooking fire spat and crackled as Guy reluctantly rubbed a gobbet of pig’s fat into his hair. He then pulled one of Spragg’s old smocks over his shoulders.
“You’ll make a peasant yet,” laughed Spragg.
“More chance than you’ll be a knight I venture,” he teased. “This material is rough, but it will do I suppose.”
Spragg did not rise to the bait, choosing to tease Guy instead. “My sister be a good seamstress, don’t you think?”
Guy quickly diverted the conversation. “How will we eat on the road?”
“The forest will provide us with food. We can survive on roots and berries alone even if we catch no game. I’ve packed some bread and turnip strips and some of mother’s oat cake.”
Guy did not want to embarrass his friend, so he suppressed a grimace as he recalled great feasts in the castle during which guests ate the finest meat till their stomachs could take no more. Instead he focused on more practical matters.
“My master tells me stories of campaigns he fought in far-off lands spending weeks away from camp, far from farms and rivers. Once he was forced to eat rats. I doubt we will be so sorely tested.”
“Has your master killed many men?” Spragg asked.
“Knights use violence only when necessary, and take no pleasure in it. They are guided in thought and deed by a code of chivalry.”
“Could I ever be a knight?”
Guy began to smile but could see Spragg was serious. “I think it would not be so easy with no coin. My father pays a lot for my training.”
Spragg’s face fell. Guy slung a sympathetic arm around his shoulder, but he shrugged it off.
“Leave me alone,” he huffed.
Guy could think of no words to comfort his friend, so instead he took the cross found in the parchment from his pocket and hung it round Spragg’s neck as a gift. Spragg was about to protest when, to his dismay, Maewynn flounced in with bright eyes and a grin as broad as a barn door. Her braided hair was tightened into a bun and she wore a dress Spragg had not seen before.
“I thought you’d be sulking today, sister. What makes you so pleased to be stuck at home instead of coming with us?”
Maewynn settled, cross-legged, atop a lichen-covered oak stump. She freed her hair and the spring sunlight glowed from every strand. The daisy necklace she wore around her neck added a golden sheen to her soft skin. However she might try, she could not banish Guy from her mind and meant to act on her growing feelings for him.
“I’m taking Guy to the old granary in the woods. Father says I can’t go there alone.” Spragg could think of no good reason for anyone to visit the broken-down shell of a building, but seeing the look on Guy’s face he held his tongue.
Guy tried in vain to avoid Maewynn’s longing gaze. His stomach felt shivery and light and these new sensations made him both nervous and excited. Their eyes met in that sparkling instant Guy enthusiastically agreed to accompany her.
As the couple strolled off together, Spragg grabbed his shoulder pouch and headed for the fields. Minutes later he found his father planting buckwheat on the far strip next to the pond. He lay down his sowing bag.
“Hello, boy,” he greeted him. “Be you ready to leave?”
Spragg straightened. “Yes sir, though I’ve work to do here. You need much help with the planting these next few weeks.”
His father smiled. “You be a good son, but I have friends and can cope here while you’re gone. The good folks of Moldwood will help and will keep your leaving secret.”
Spragg was about to reply, when a wrenching scream rent the air. He and his father reached the green at the same time and they both started at the sight of Modrag, writhing on the floor gripping his bleeding arm. All around, villagers stood open-mouthed.
A pompous-looking official, wearing a cloak with gold braiding stood over the potter and waved his metal-tipped rod in the air like a scythe. He was flanked by two soldiers bearing black shields.
“What’s going on here?” demanded Agrik. “This be a peaceful village, we want no trouble.”
“Quiet your tongue, peasant. My name is Bancroft the Reeve. Mark it well. I have come to collect the taxes due to the King,” he growled. “These men are searching for an escaped fugitive from justice, wounded these past few days not far from here. Should any man be found helping the rogue, their vengeance will be swift and deadly.”
He looked to Spragg like someone who would not be so brave without his tough companions.
Agrik stepped two foot lengths forward. “Are you collecting money for the King or yourself?”
“Have a care,” rasped the Reeve. “Peasant vermin may fool local lords into paying only half what is owed, but you will not find me so easy to deal with.”
“Nor us, my friend.” Agrik looked about him and raised his hand. About a dozen villagers ghosted from the shadows, carrying axes, pitchforks and sturdy oak staves. They held their simple weapons aloft and strode purposefully toward Bancroft and the two Regent’s men.
Bancroft realised the odds were against him. “Fools. You do not know the power of your enemies. The King does not take kindly to disobedience. Nor will I forget this insult.”
Spragg clenched his fist. This man was threatening his village and he rose to speak. “You can kill or punish a few, but not every man. We work hard and be not slaves or criminals.” His father moved to restrain him, but he continued. “We’ve been bullied enough. We’ll defend ourselves as you can see. Return if you will.” Beads of sweat peppered Spragg’s face, but his resolve did not falter. An evil glint appeared in Bancroft’s shifty, brown eyes.
“You people will see me again, of that you can be sure, and I will teach you that life is not fair. Not fair at all.” He pulled his cloak angrily around him, mounted his horse and thundered away.
The potter’s daughters rushed to their father. There they saw that Reeve’s blade had left a nasty gash three fingers wide. The eldest called for water, a clean cloth and a cup of burdock root powder to tend the wound.
Although Agrik was proud of his son and the way he’d spoken out, he remained nervous that the boy was brave beyond his abilities. Over the years, he’d seen poor folk suffer much violence and knew they were now in great danger. Perhaps it really was for the best he was leaving soon, he thought. Agrik leapt up onto a barrel to address the whole village.
“My friends, neighbours, be not feared by what you’ve seen here today. Stand together and we’ll be safe. Let us go about our work and do what we must. Go now, care for your families but be watchful.” As the crowd dispersed Seth seemed in more of a hurry than the rest.
Spragg checked Modrag was comfortable and the girls needed no more help then ran to the monastery to fetch the friar and Juilliard. On the way back to the village, this time at a more leisurely pace, he told them everything that had happened, missing out only the role he himself had played.
“We must leave as soon as possible,” Spragg told Juilliard when they were alone. “Friar Rowan says there have been riots in several towns and villages across this county and the next. Soldiers and landlords are panicking. Even if only half the stories are true we need to hurry. Where’s Guy?”
As Spragg remembered the answer to his own question, Maewynn and Guy approached from the woods and, for a second, their hands touched. Spragg called the group together and glanced at Rowan to get permission to speak first. Rowan nodded his assent.
“A change of plan. We leave tonight at dusk, and travel by moonlight. Anyone found where they shouldn’t be could get arrested, and most likely worse. Let’s meet back here in two hours.”
Spragg packed what he needed for the trip, including his trusty bow. They would have to move quickly. The open road was no place for lay-a-beds and speed of foot could mean the difference between living and dying. Guy welcomed the return to action. He was anxious to complete what he had started. In other times he may have chosen different travelling companions, but needs must, he thought.
Darkness fell quickly as the group gathered. A loud chorus of chirruping of crickets and the distant howl of a prowling wolf cut through their nervousness. Juilliard’s attempts to look saintly were laughably weak and Spragg still thought the storyteller ridiculous, but there was no time to waste. Spragg’s throat was dry with nerves at the prospect of finally making a start. He swallowed hard and addressed the others.
“We’ll just about pass as a group of holy pilgrims I think. With luck, folks on the road will be too busy to pay us much heed. And you three,” he said to Guy, Juilliard and Rowan, “better pray for good fortune.”
Spragg kissed his mother then shook hands with his father. Maewynn stood silently, staring vaguely at appoint in the distance. Guy put down his bag so he could gently usher her just out of hearing. He brushed her cheeks lightly with his fingertips.
“This business will have an end, then I promise to come back to see you.” He was scarcely able to look away from her moistening eyes. Maewynn was ready to place her trust in him, to love him from the depths of her soul. She pulled from her pocket a small amulet filled with senna, mint and rue.
“Take this, and wear it on your journey, it will protect you from danger. I made it myself.” A single salty droplet slid down her cheek.