Madoc would have flexed his hands in anger if his damn fingers weren’t stiff with the cold. He stopped to look back at Brynn. The lummox was a few feet behind, standing in the snow that was hip deep on both the men. “Bryn, if you don’t shut your bloody yap, I swear by St. Daffyd himself that I will slit your stupid throat just to get some peace and quiet!”
Bryn’s eyes widened. “You would NOT! Da would…”
“And just when would I see our Da, eh? It’s been five years since he threw us both off the farm. He’d never know I’d done for you. Now shut up and get moving, or we’ll both freeze to death out here in the middle of bluidy who knows the hell where!” Madoc whirled, or tried to in the deep snow and started walking once more. The only sign they were even on a road at all was the wide aisle of open space through the forest to either side of them. Damnation!
Bryn, to give him credit, managed to keep quiet for at least a half an hour before he spoke again. This time it was in a hoarse whisper: “Madoc? Are we gonna’ die out here?”
Although he didn’t stop moving the question shocked the smaller Welshman. The brothers had been in some very bad spots in their short careers on the wrong side of the law and not once had Bryn brought up the subject of either of them dying. Madoc kept pushing his way through the snow, not daring to stop and let Bryn see the expression on his face. The truth was that for the first time in his own life Madoc was having the same thought. He shook his head. “Bryn, you best not let me hear you ask that again or I’ll slit your bluidy throat.” He didn’t bother to think about the lack of logic in the threat. Besides, Bryn would probably just fall over in the snow and wait to die if he didn’t keep on him to move. “Now keep walking!”
Madoc risked a glance back over his shoulder and cursed loudly as he saw his brother had fallen to his knees ten paces back. He trudged back through the snow and grabbed the taller Bryn under the arms and heaved him to his feet. “Don’t you start getting lazy on me, Bryn. Here,
you’re bigger than me! You should be in front making it easier for me to walk after you!”
“Walk where, Madoc? We’ve been walkin’ for hours and we haven’t seen any sign we’re gettin’ closer to Camelot. It’s gonna be night soon, and we’ll be out here in the dark and the snow. Where are we gonna walk to, Madoc?”
It was a good question. Now Madoc knew they really were in trouble if Bryn was doing more thinking about their situation than he had been doing himself. He looked desperately at the woods to either side for an answer, then grinned as he saw the smaller road leading off through the trees to their right. “Look! Down that way.” Far off a brief glimmer of yellow could barely be seen through the falling snow. “It has to be a farmhouse or an inn. We’ll go there.”
Bryn squinted into the distance. “What if they won’t let us in?” “They’ll let us in,” Madoc said, then patted the hilt of his sword. “And if they won’t, we’ll make them. You kept your bowstring dry?”
Bryn nodded. “Just like Da taught us.”
“Good.” He turned Bryn in the direction of their new destination. “Now move!” He gave his brother a shove in the back to get him started.
“Hullo the house!”
The light at the end of the road turned out to be coming from a medium sized farmhouse that looked like it had seen better days. The fence around the house (where it could be seen above the snow) sagged at an angle and the henhouse door hung from one hinge as the wind blew it back and forth.
Madoc might have thought the place was deserted except for a glimpse of firelight between the tightly shuttered windows and the fresh tracks in the snow they’d come across as they’d made their way here. He drew his dagger and walked towards the front door, silently pointing out to Bryn the tracks of horses leading toward the nearby barn. He reversed the dagger in his hand when he reached the door and used the pommel to bang on it. “Let us in, for the love of God and all His saints! Give us shelter!”
“We’ve no room!” It was a woman’s voice.
Madoc quickly sheathed the dagger; she sounded frightened enough already without opening the door to a man with a dagger in his hand. If she opened the door at all, that is. “Please, Mistress, we’ll freeze to death before we reach the next shelter. We mean you no harm!”
“Mistress, we cannot. We mean you no harm, but if you do not open the door and let us in of your own free will, we will have no choice but to break it in.”
There was a faint murmur of voices from within and then the sound of the bar on the other side of the door being slowly lifted. The door swung open to reveal a woman and small boy huddled together before the shining fireplace. Madoc was nearly bowled over by his brother as Bryn rushed through to warm himself by the flames before he stepped inside himself.
The door slammed shut behind him.
He barely had time to curse himself for forgetting the tracks they’d seen outside before someone grabbed him by the hair and pulled his head back while setting a sharp edge at his throat. There was a harsh laugh before his captor whispered in his ear. “Well, well, look what the cat dragged in from the snow!”
Madoc was jerked backwards and his captor leaned over to look him fully in the face. “Madoc! It’s been awhile since I saw your sneaky little face.” The knife blade tickled freely at Madoc’s throat before it was withdrawn and his hair released. “You left the city in a hurry, eh?”
“Hullo, Torrin. Fancy meeting you here.” Madoc moved away from the other man and scowled. A quick glance to either side of the room was enough to tell him Torrin wasn’t here alone but then again Madoc had never seen the other thief without his henchmen nearby. “And here’s Jesse and Edric. Out for a stroll in the country, are you, boys?” As usual the only response he got from either of them were their black toothed smiles. There was a third man that Madoc didn’t know and who didn’t smile. “Right. So, why are you out here, Torrin? I thought you have never been out of sight of the walls of town.”
Torrin had begun cleaning the grime out from under his fingernails with the dagger point. He spoke without looking up. “We did a little job a mile from the city and next thing we knew, there were patrols all over the countryside, riding about getting folk ready for this storm. We had to find a place to wait out the storm and well, we found sweet Huldah here and young Jack all alone, without a real man to look after them.” Now he looked up to leer at the woman before turning to grin at Madoc. “You can have some if you behave yourself, Madoc. None of your
tricksy Welshman antics.”
“Tricksy? C’mon Torrin, you know me and Bryn aren’t known for our wits in The Hook. All we want is to bide a while here until the snow stops and then we’ll be on our way. Fair enough?”
“Sure, Madoc, sure. Why don’t you just go over by the fire with your brother and keep the boy quiet whilst me and my lads have a long…private conversation with his ma, eh?” He beckoned the woman to him with his finger. “Come on over here, sweet Huldah. We don’t want your young Jack to get hurt trying to be the hero defending his ma’s honor, do we?”
Madoc walked over to where Bryn was warming his hands. He could tell what his brother was thinking by the troubled frown on his face. “Bryn, you aren’t going to do something foolish are you?” They were close enough so that they could whisper without being heard.
“It ain’t right, Madoc. They’re gonna kill her and the boy after, aren’t they? Ain’t right to kill a woman an’ kid.”
Madoc sighed. “Bluidy hell, man. They most like will kill us, too. That worries me more. But you can’t go off half-cocked on me.” He looked over his shoulder, then back to Bryn. “You kept the bowstring dry? And the bowstave?”
“Just like Da taught us.” Bryn patted the long oilskin wrapped bundle leaning against the nearby wall. He’d carried it slung over his back all along the journey together with the quiver of arrows.
“Good.” Now Madoc turned to the young boy. “Alright, the name’s Jack, is it?”
The boy nodded.
“Well then, Jack, we’ll help you and your ma, but I need you to stand clear once things get loud, alright? Good man. Now all we need is—”
Huldah let loose with a loud scream behind them.
“—that. Bryn, when I nod you get that bow strung and ready.” Madoc turned and called across the room. “Oi! Torrin, that’s not a very bright thing to do out here. Screams carry a long way and there was a patrol coming down the road awhile back.”
Torrin looked up. Huldah had put up a good defense and he’d only gotten one button on her blouse open so far. “I warned you.”
“Fine, don’t believe me. Me and Bryn will go back up to the road and check to see if they heard.”
It went as Madoc expected it would. Torrin was by nature a very suspicious man and he stayed true to form. “And have you call them down on us? I don’t think so. Jesse! You take Edric and see if he’s lying.”
Jesse and Edric looked less than pleased as they went out the door. If they made it back to the farmhouse it was not going to be with love in their hearts for Madoc. That left Torrin and the new man to deal with. Huldah slowly rebuttoned her blouse as Torrin stared angrily at the Welshmen in silence. Madoc turned to Bryn and slowly nodded.
Silently, his brother began unwrapping the bow stave.
“Here now, what is he doing?” Torrin started across the room.
“Stringing his bow.”
“Bryn’s going to deal with Jesse and Edric.”
Torrin’s smile was wolf-like. “He’ll have to deal with me and Alf first.”
Madoc shook his head as he drew his sword. “No, that would be my job.”
“You?” Torrin gave a loud laugh as he drew his own blade. “You’re going to fight me to save a woman? Who do you think you are, Madoc? A bluidy knight? “
“Bryn and me, we may be nothing but a couple of thieves and poor ones at that, but we have standards, you see? We might kidnap a woman here or there for ransom, but we never harm them. And we damn well sure never killed one, or a kid neither.”
Torrin spat on the floor. “That for your standards, Welshman. Fine, I was going to kill the pair of you anyway afterwards so I’ll just get it over and done with now.” He stepped forwards, blade at the ready.
“Bryn, best hurry up.” Madoc kept his eyes on Torrin. “I don’t know how long before the others turn around to come back.”
“I’m nearly done.”
Then all hell broke loose as Torrin attacked. He came in low and Madoc tried to block him as fast as he could, but even so he felt a line of pain like fire along his right side.
Madoc began to think that this hadn’t been one of the brightest ideas he’d ever had.
“Bynnnnnnnnnnnnnnn?” Madoc drew out his brother’s name as he warded off another of Thorrin’s thrusts. “Are you done YET?”
Torrin cursed as Madoc blocked his sword. “Are you completely mad, Welshman? They threw you both out of the Archers because you were both poor marksman.” He lunged forwards, once more attacking Madoc’s wounded side.
Then this was it. Madoc blocked once more. “Make your arrows count, brother.” He lurched a step ahead, convinced he was about to die. His only hope was to move in within Torrin’s guard and try to get a death blow in before Torrin killed him as well. He drew back his sword, his intent to smash the hilt into his opponent’s face. His arm moved forward but his feet slipped on the wet floor. Madoc desperately stabbed at Torrin’s chest before the other man could move to parry and the blade struck home.
Torrin crumpled lifeless to the floor.
Behind him, bloody kitchen knife in hand, stood Huldah the farmwife. The man Torrin had called Alf was slumped in the corner with a shocked look on his dead face. “Is that true, your brother was dismissed from the Archers because he was a bad marksman? Give me the damn bow, I’ll do it!” She tried to push past Madoc, then slapped him when he wouldn’t move.
Madoc probably would have yelped except the pain from his side was much worse. “Bryn is a good marksman. Let him do what must be done. “He reached out to grab her as much to steady himself as to stop her. “Bryn, go!”
His brother nodded and walked out the now open front door as Madoc, Huldah and her son followed. The storm had let up but the afternoon sky was slowly darkening. Bryn had strung the bow and slung the quiver up over his shoulder, his first arrow already nocked. He stepped out into the narrow lane that led back up to the road and aimed at the pair of figures struggling back through the snow to the farmhouse. He pulled back the string of the longbow.
Huldah tried to shake Madoc loose. “What is he doing? If he’s such a poor archer, shouldn’t he wait until they are closer? If he misses, they will be on him and you’re in no shape to fight again.”
“He won’t miss.” Madoc concentrated on Bryn, ignoring the growing pain. He didn’t dare look anywhere else; if he saw the snow stained with blood at his feet, he’d be worthless. “Bryn, don’t miss.”
“Hush. I’m ready. “And with that Bryn let fly his arrow. As one, the heads of the other three swiveled to look at the approaching brigands.
Huldah shook her head. “Too far.”
And then one, Jesse from the color of his cloak, slumped to his knees and fell backwards into the snow. Edric turned to look back at his companion and Bryn’s second arrow caught him square between the shoulder blades. A second later he too lay dead on the ground.
Huldah looked from Madoc to Bryn. “I don’t believe it!” She yanked her arm free from Madoc’s grip to go check the brigands.
And Madoc decided he was going to lie down right there in the snow.
It was amazing how warm and soft snow could be, Madoc thought, and if it weren’t for whatever it was that insisted on shaking him, he could just lie here for a long, long time. He tried to swat it away and found his arm entangled in sheets and comforter. A boy’s face stared intently at him.
“Wha?” Madoc tried to remember where’d he’d seen that boy.
“Ma says you’ve slept long enough. Your wound’s healing and I’m to help you sit up on the side of the bed. She’ll bring you some broth and she says she’s not feeding it to you anymore.” The boy, who the groggy Madoc now recalled was named Jack, reached out a hand to remove the warm covers.
“Here now. I need these still!” Madoc gripped the covers tightly with one hand and with the other slowly pushed himself up to a sitting position. He winced at the pull of stitches in his wounded side, then allowed Jack to help swing his legs over the side of the bed. The room spun around him for a few seconds but gradually it righted itself and Madoc waited in silence for his meal.
Shortly afterwards Huldah came in with a bowl of broth and a spoon.
“Are you able to hold this?”
She handed it to him but kept her hand beneath it to catch it should he lose his grip. Once she saw he was not going to drop it she stood back, then took a seat in a chair by the bed.
Madoc paused in filling his spoon with broth. “About what?”
“That man, Torrin. He said you and your brother were dismissed from the Archers because you were poor marksmen, and yet Bryn brought those two men down with ease.”
“Ah. Well.” Madoc swallowed a spoonful of broth. “He was only half right. I am a very poor archer. Bryn, on the other hand, is a great one. But when I failed the marksmanship trials, he realized we would be separated So….”
Huldah laughed. “ He pretended to be as bad as you?”
“Yes. Of course, if he’d stayed in the Archers like I told him he’d have made enough coin to get us both a room somewhere in town, but all he knew was I was leaving him.”
“Well, that strikes me as very loyal and brotherly.”
Madoc didn’t tell her he thought it had been very stupid. She did, after all, have his trousers... somewhere. He concentrated on finishing the broth and then handed the empty wooden bowl back to Huldah. The woman looked vaguely troubled as she took it. He waited, having a good idea what was coming.
“You can’t stay much longer. Maybe two or three days but no later.The patrols are increasing again.”
Madoc nodded slowly. “What happened to the …?”
“We buried them down behind the chicken coops.” Huldah stood and smoothed her skirts with one hand. “I’m sorry I cannot let you stay any longer than that, but you and your brother are thieves aren’t you?”
“Among other things, aye.”
“Then I’m sorry, I can’t risk you being caught here. They might think I am an accomplice and I can’t gamble the happiness of my child if I’m arrested. You understand?”
“Yes.” Madoc leaned back in the bed. “I need to start eating solid food, meat to get my strength up for traveling.”
Huldah nodded. “And you can have two of the horses. I’ll keep the
third.” She moved away and then stopped to look back. “And Madoc?”
“Thank you. If there is ever anything else I can do, I shall.”
“Well, there’s one thing.” Madoc grinned. “ Keep Brynn fed, will you?
Judging from the look on Huldah’s face, she’d already discovered that Bryn was always hungry. Madoc concentrated on his bowl of soup. They’d miss their meeting in the city, but for the moment, he and Bryn were warm and fed.
That was enough for now.
About the AuthorBill West is a former bookseller who's been hooked on the sword & sorcery genre from the day he first read "Conan the Conqueror." He has had poems published in Renaissance Magazine and writes about his family history on his "West in New England" genealogy blog.
© 2008 B.West