“We must move quickly,” Guy advised. “While I was in the Tower I overheard the King being urged to break all his promises, betray the rebels, and execute as many as he pleases. He intends to march any survivors out of London.”
A whiff of incense drifted from inside the church as the boys disentangled themselves from the hedge. Both laughed at the sight of each other covered in scratches. Thin rivulets of blood ran, like dribbling streams, across every inch of their exposed skin.
I’ve seen enough excitement, thought Spragg. Witnessing so much violence in a short time made him realise being a knight would not solve the world’s problems. Again he yearned for home and long days hunting in the forest with his father, far from bloodshed and chaos. Working the fields in all weathers might be dull in comparison, but it was a life worth fighting for. If only the battle could be won without killing. But how?
Guy’s heart was also in Moldwood with Maewynn. Nothing would prevent him going back for her. He trembled at the memory of her.
“To my mind, Richard be no real king to treat folk so bad,” said Spragg. “Can we warn the rebels of what he plans to do?”
“No, it’s too late. Our only hope is to slip away. The King is desperate for the names of the nobles who were behind the rebellion, so I must not be caught. Cramper will surely have his murderous hands on me next time.”
“Don’t worry. We be looking more like we have the plague than be recognised as rebels,” Spragg joked as he wiped a dock leaf across Guy’s face to clean the blood smears before setting off.
Montfort beat them to the village by five hours. He jogged his war-horse onto the common. The scene was exactly as Spragg had described it to him. No stranger to poor villages in foreign lands, the whiff of neglect and desperation in his own country tore at his heart. Tying his horse to a sycamore tree, he ambled towards the only house with a pig tied up outside where he spied a handsome woman and, sitting next to her, a pretty maiden weaving yarn on a simple loom. However, there was no sign of the man he had come to see. Reluctant to disturb their work, he approached quietly.
“Good day to you, ladies.” Orla and Maewynn looked quizzically at the stranger. “I am a friend to the boy Spragg, and I seek his father. Am I addressing his mother?”
Orla grabbed Montfort by the arm, shouting wildly. “Why speak you thus? “ she screamed. “Don’t talk of my husband, he be dead. Where’s my son?” Montfort pushed Orla away. He looked into her deep, brown eyes and thought her attractive even when she was angry.
“I’m truly sorry to hear of your husband’s death,” he began when Orla was calm. “He will be in my prayers,” Montfort signed himself with the mark of the cross. “Your son was with me in London and when I left him he was safe and in good health. I plan to meet him here and expect him at any time.”
“What be your business here,” Maewynn demanded.
“Forgive my poor manners. My name is Beaufort de Montfort of Guisedale, Guy is my page.” Both women stared in surprise.
“But you are dressed ….” Maewynn spluttered.
Montfort chuckled at his baker’s disguise.
“Believe me madam, I am who I say I am. I have had no chance these last days to change back into my own clothing.” Maewynn pouted, her eyebrows drawn close over suspicious eyes.
“You speak well of my brother, but what news of Guy? Be quick to tell.” Montfort was not used to being treated such, especially by a girl, but he took no offense.
“He is a prisoner of King Richard and I fear for his safety and my own,” he revealed.
Maewynn stamped her feet. “Then you be a coward if you abandoned him.”
“Would that things were so simple,” Montfort countered. “The rebellion has failed, and anyone involved is now in grave danger. It seems the King has betrayed us.”
Maewynn fought back tears. She rushed into the house and curled onto the bed in a tight ball. First her father and now Guy. It was too much to bear.
“Do anybody know of Spragg’s part in the revolt?” asked Orla in a quivering voice.
“No madam. Though I must tell you his involvement was small and of no consequence,” he lied. “When we met in London he was much afraid and hiding away from trouble. The Regent’s men will most likely return to Moldwood for revenge. The King is certain that it was Guy that escaped them and that he rested somewhere near. I myself saw twenty rebels hanged this morning as a warning to anyone thinking of fighting on.”
Orla shuddered. “My daughter grew fond of Guy while he stayed here. Very fond. We be poor, and though it’s true she must wed a local boy if we’re to survive, her heart lies with your page, I fancy.”
“Worry not gentle lady. Your daughter knows her own mind I am sure. You also have a fine son who will return. Then he will answer to me as he must.” Montfort stood up and Orla sensed something amiss in his thin, strained smile.
“I need to attend to an urgent errand and will return within two days.” He bowed politely and held Orla’s eyes for several seconds more than was polite or necessary, before striding towards his horse.
An hour later, Seth arrived to find Orla more distant than usual. She had grown tired of his daily visits. Angry at her coldness, he slammed the door at this latest rebuff. Orla kneaded a ball of dough oblivious to his moodiness. She had more important things than village gossip to care about.
Still distracted, she ignored the voice that greeted her from the doorway.
“Mother, it’s me. I’m back,” Spragg shouted. Orla blinked and, at first, did not register the evidence of her eyes. When she realised she wasn’t dreaming, she rushed to hug her son, squeezing him so tightly his faced turned puce. When she realised Guy was standing outside, she waved him in and embraced them both. Every muscle in her face shone with joy.
Orla led her son outside. Guy listened as she told Spragg the news of his father’s death at the hands of the tax collector and the terrible tale of how other villagers were also butchered. She kept her daughter’s suspicions about Seth to herself.
Orla held Spragg’s hand as the look of grim determination on her son’s face turned to rage. He pulled away from her and punched the wall of the hut until his knuckles bled, barely noticing the pain.
“I’ve had my fill of killin’. No good comes of it,” he howled. Pushing his mother away, his eyes blurred with tears and he ran as far as the reed beds protecting the banks of the stream. There he scrambled high onto a sturdy branch of a sycamore and pictured the times he had sat in similar trees watching his father scything and binding. Great rasping sobs shook his whole body.
It took Guy nearly an hour to find his friend. He approached cautiously and sat beneath the tree to wait. He thought his friend had not noticed him until he suddenly spoke.
“Why do people kill each other?” asked Spragg. “I make no sense of it.”
“My master told me there will always be war and sometimes you must fight for something you believe in. You may think nothing has changed these last weeks, but those who care about fairness and freedom have lit a spark across England that will not be doused until justice is done. You have played your part and can be proud. I will fight on if needs be and won’t rest until people like you get what they deserve.”
“Hah,” Spragg rasped. “Tyler promised we’d get just reward and look what happened to him. We be worse for it, far as I can see, and now my father’s dead. I wish I’d never met you or your kind. Just leave me alone.” His grief blinded him to Guy’s look of anguish. No more adventure, thought Spragg, no more blood. He jumped nimbly from the branch and stamped off.
Guy was anxious to see Maewynn again and when he found Orla filling a pigskin from the stream, he asked where her daughter might be.
“She’ll be out in the west meadow where I sent her,” she told him. Guy thanked her and ran as fast as he could and when he spotted Maewynn she was leaning over her basket filling it with thyme and dock leaves. The lilting melody of a merry ditty she was warbling reminded him of when he first heard her singing on the day of the fair. She was even more beautiful than he remembered, and his pulse quickened as he crept up behind her and gently tugged her hair.
“You came back,” she squealed.
“The Devil himself would not have kept me away. I do not want to leave you ever again.”
“And you still wear my token,” she purred. Guy fingered the amulet she had given him then pulled his love toward him.
Moments later, their lips met, softly at first, and then with passionate urgency. They were so lost in each other that they failed to notice the ground tremble beneath their feet. The noise grew louder.