Hacking through thick brush and overgrown weeds was tiring work, and when Rowan signalled for the group to rest, Spragg drifted a short distance away and climbed onto a large rock. His initial excitement at travelling far from his village was now tempered by the growing prospect of never returning. Though relieved to have escaped the last attack with only a few bruises, he was beginning to realise the perils of this adventure were as treacherous as Rowan had warned.
“To make speed we must return the road,” urged Guy. “We need to be more convincing as pilgrims. I will disguise my sword using leaves like Magda did, and Spragg, make sure your cross can always be clearly seen.”
Spragg then looked at the storyteller and despaired. “Juilliard, try to look a bit more humble. At least find something to cover your head, your red hair shines like a haystack fire even in the dark.”
Juilliard mumbled glumly to himself, and began rummaging in his pack. Rowan was unusually quiet.
“You be well?” Spragg asked Rowan.
“Our journey is proving even more dangerous than I predicted,” he replied. “We must all stay on our guard.”
Spragg nodded thoughtfully in agreement as he strolled away. A heady mix of familiar forest sounds soon reassured him and brightened his mood and when he noticed Guy had beaten him to the narrow sunken lane, the sides of which were thick with flowering gorse, he sped up to catch him. Something the page had said was playing on his mind. As he drew level, Guy was rubbing the leaves of a mint plant between his fingers and sniffing the fragrant odour.
“Guy,” he began. “I’ve a question to ask.”
“Yes?” Guy shot him a quizzical look. “One more will make little difference I think,” he teased.
Did you always want to be a knight?” he asked. Guy was taken aback for a moment, then smiled in response. “Even when I was very young I knew that for me it was going to be either life in a castle or the church. My father is Sir Garston de Leigh. He fought for King Edward in France before his son Richard came to the throne, and he says that evil men now advise the young king and rule the country, that they care for none but themselves. My master agrees.”
“This message he gave you to carry must be very important and he must trust you well.”
“I am certain of it. But when I finally meet Wat Tyler, I intend to find out.”
“As long as he knows the code,” countered Spragg.
“Aye, he’ll know, I am certain of it.” Guy could see from his friend’s expression that Spragg wanted to know more than he had asked and that his curiosity was still not satisfied.
“My father is Lord of the Manor at Ashleigh-by-the-Bridge, on the edge of Guisedale. He is kind to his tenants, and asks only small service from them. Our estate is more than a thousand acres, spread over three valleys and contains two large villages. My mother supervises the household and the servants. I am their only child.”
“Lord Moldwood has eight children of his own. Some say there be more in the villages,” laughed Spragg. “Now I think of it Henrac looks a bit like him, they both be as ugly as mules,” he sniggered.
“Now don’t be so cruel. Moldwood is not was bad as some I have heard tell about.”
“At Christmas the old goat sends his servants to each house with a cake and a pheasant I suppose, but then he spends the rest of the year taking what he can. Each autumn, father carts the barley we grow to the brewing mill where he be forced to buy back his ration of beer at a high price. He even has to shear Moldwood’s sheep and slaughter the manor pigs when his turn comes around. It’s so unfair.”
Guy raised his eyebrows at this news. He had no idea things were so unfair for people on the land. Spragg went on.
“Father understands we must pay rent, but cannot see why our family should struggle when rich folk seem to do naught but get richer and tie us to their land. I love farming, but I also want to be a free man.”
“You can buy your freedom I think?” offered Guy.
Spragg scoffed. “We’ll never have enough coin for that, and Moldwood would never allow it.”
“Not all lords are like that. My father is a just man and helps anyone who needs it, rich or poor.”
“Aye, but he still keeps servants and takes his dues like the rest of them, I reckon.”
“Of course he does. The war with France has been very expensive for the country and the knights, like my father, that fought in it,” said Guy. “The government now needs even more money and men and the taxes they charge on manors and estates may ruin my family yet. Even rich folk get short of coin sometimes.”
“Would your training stop if your father couldn’t pay?” Spragg asked.
“Keeping horses and hiring trainers costs a pretty penny, but my father would fight the devil himself to fulfil his holy duty to see me made a knight.” Spragg felt a pang of envy.
The dim light made it difficult to negotiate the pot-holes and the maze of wheel ruts as the road passed through a tiny settlement of woodcutters. All at once, they tensed at the thunder of clomping of hooves heading towards them.
Spragg soon made out the outline of a small pack mule with a man either side, three massive bales of cloth stacked awkwardly on the poor creature’s back. Perhaps he could not afford to be a page, but he’d show Guy and the others he had courage all the same.
“Greetings fellow travellers,” he offered cheerily. “What brings you out on a night such as this?”
“We are merchants of Colchester, in a hurry to get this cloth to market.” His companion peered out from beneath a wide-brimmed hat and looked around anxiously.
“Take care on this road brother,” he whispered to Spragg. “We were due to rest three days ago, but we met a knife grinder on the road who told us a tale that’d keep you awake at night.”
“Quiet now, Cottar,” his companion ordered. Cottar ignored him and carried on.
“The way the grinder tells it, hundreds of peasants, from villages in Norfolk, arrived in Toddlebroke, early morning two days ago, to ask Sir Robert Salle to be their leader in a revolt seeing as he treats his farmers so well. They promised him a quarter of England if he agreed.”
Guy had heard of this noble knight, and knew him to be one of the finest in the land. His father had told him that Salle was a good man, the son of a simple mason.
“They say the mob was certain Salle would join them, but thought to convince him by threatening to burn the town down if he refused. When he tried to send them on their way, they were much aggrieved and attacked him, right there in cold blood. Salle killed twelve with his fine Bordeaux sword, but there were too many of them. His arms and legs were cut off by all accounts, the rest of him chopped to pieces.”
“Cottar, shan’t tell you again. Best be on our way.” He bade them all a quick goodnight and led the mule and his nervous friend down the road.
Before Spragg could ask Guy more about Sir Robert Salle, a burst of drunken laughter and mocking shouts reached their ears as three horsemen appeared from a clump of thick bushes and pulled up just in front of them. The snorting horses, shaggy and stumbling, kicked up the mud with great hooves, circled and wheeled around before coming to a halt before them. Spragg and Guy were relieved to see that, though they were soldiers, they did not sport the livery of the Regent’s men.
All three riders were burnt brown with the sun wearing tattered scabbards and rusting chain mail. Dirty rags painted with a fading red cross was draped over each of their cracked harnesses marking them as crusaders. The leader had an ugly squint, a mess of black beard and a nasty scar that traced a straight line running from his chin to his right eye. He dismounted with all the grace of a lame donkey. Drawing an evil-looking blade from a leather sheath at his waist, he waved it menacingly under Spragg’s nose.
“State your business plain you half-starved rat,” he barked. Spragg straightened his shoulders and offered only a smile in response. This boy keeps a cool head in a crisis, thought Rowan as Spragg shifted his weight and began to open his mouth to speak. Before he could begin, Rowan sensed an older face would seem less threatening and interrupted.
“Kind sirs. You gave us a fright. Please excuse our poor manners. We’re humble men of God travelling to the Holy Land. We walk at night so we may better forget the evil of our sins away from the godless heathens that clutter the road by day.”
“Bad luck, God has deserted us and we be the heathens you fear. Search them Rampton,” came the terse riposte. After less than a minute, Spragg’s bow and Guy’s sword lay on the ground. Squintface, as Spragg had privately named him, looked wary.
“Explain these,” he demanded.
Spragg nervously fingered the cross around his neck. “Sir, my bow be for hunting food. I kill the odd rabbit or rat, or whatever comes our way. It be a poor diet but our needs are few. We’ve no coin to buy from merchants.”
“My sword, sir, is for protection,” Guy chipped in. “We hear many tales of danger on the road. I admit I am unskilled with it, but I will do my best if needs be.” Not satisfied, Squintface reached towards the sword and examined it carefully. “This is a fine piece of metal for a poor pilgrim to carry. Where’d you get it? Stole it I shouldn’t wonder.”
Guy feigned hurt.
“No sir,” he whimpered theatrically. “I won it from a corn merchant two months back in a game of chance, fair and square.” The pair faced up to each other. Squintface scowled and quickly calculated that these holy fools had nothing he needed and were wasting precious time.
As he remounted, he shouted towards Rowan. “Take care on the road, father, and pray the boy’s sword stays sheathed in leaves.”
He led the others away as quickly as they came. The morning brought heavy rain. The group sheltered beneath a giant oak, settling down on a soft bed of moss, a good twenty paces from the road. Heavy drops spattered the leaves above their heads as they fell asleep almost at once.