ROBERT THE MEEK
The wind swooped out of the wooded hills to the north, driving a scud of fine snow before it. It rushed through the tall, dark trees of the forest, rattling the bare twigs and bending the tops of the tall evergreens. Here and there in the endless forest it crossed man-made clearings, with stubble in the frozen furrows and squat buildings leaking tendrils of smoke snatched away by the wind. Over an embankment it raced and down into an open-ended valley well cleared of trees. Here the wind pressed close to the ground, whistling around the squat sod buildings and tearing fragments of reeds from their roofs.
My name is Robert the Meek.
I have no real last name, at least not one that I have memory of, they named me ‘Robert the Meek’ for that is how they perceived me. They said I had eight years of age when my mother was burnt. Matthew Hopkins the WitchFinder sniffed her out from amongst a group of women who had been assembled before him, and loudly pronounced her guilt. A witch he had called her.
She was required to make her mark on a scroll, she wrote her name instead.
‘Further proof of her guilt,’ the gaunt faced man, his eyes hidden under the wide brimmed hat, declared, ‘from where could she have learned her letters but from her master; Satan?’
All I believed was she loved me, and she was the most beautiful creature I ever remembered. She had long blond hair which she always wore in a single plat, and a smile which could light any room she entered.
She had managed my father’s farm in his absence, most agreeably and with confidence.
My father had been called away to war just after I was born, he did not return with the other men. I knew him only by the tales and tender stories my mother told, oftentimes a tear would sparkle in the corner of her eye.
Many were the men, some of high birth who sought my mother’s hand, but she refused them all, always believing my father to be alive. I trust it were one of they who censured her. The sin of coveting another man’s wife, the priests taught, was enough to be damned to the fiery depths of hell, They taught of another misdemeanour, that of bearing false witness, but I guess that those two sins were permitted to men of high standing.
I lived with my grandmother until she passed away, she kept a little cottage deep in Fondle Wood to the north of the hamlet of Fondleham, which she left to me.
I was a quiet lad, not given to boisterous outbursts or riotous behaviour. My grandmother sold charms, potions and herbs to those few who came calling. If anyone should have given cause to be branded a witch, it was my grandmother, yet no-one ever did. Father’s farm was appropriated by Duke Simon of Fondle, the same person I believed to have denounced my mother. Perhaps possession of father’s holding had been his intent all along.
I discovered later it sat across a rich seam of tin.
Thirty five years have passed since that terrible day, my mother did not cry out once, though the excruciating pain of the flames, as they burnt and melted her beauty would have been most terrible to bear. Yet throughout the ordeal, before she slumped insensate, her mouth moved silently as though she were praying or chanting some oft remembered epistle.
Mother had befriended a little ginger cat that loved her almost as much as I. Some unfeeling lout, recognising the pet, lifted it and threw it upon the flames shouting: ‘Here, take your familiar to hell with you.’
They died together.
THE WOUNDED MAN
When I reached my majority I went to war. I joined the army of the man who I believed had stolen my father’s farm, certainly not out of loyalty to him, but to keep him close until the time came for me to reclaim my birthright.
It were a year past tomorrow, that I returned to the valley. Twenty-nine years since I had left: I now held the rank of Captain and was classed as a close companion to the Duke.
I digress; though it has been useful to begin my tale by placing these few memories on paper, sorting them through in my mind and soothing my qualms.
That which I must now recount has been the most horrendous and terrifying happening in my life.
Now a gray-haired and scarred warrior, my half armour bares traces of much hard use, as does my sharp-pointed helmet.
As duty officer I answered the call from the rampart watch, Duke Simon for want of something to do accompanied me.
I squinted in the dim light looking down on the man who lay bubbling and moaning on the dirt floor of the hut.
“One of them scrots seed him at edge of forest and telt me. He be lookin’ well crank, so I drags ‘im in here ya sees.” A short compact man, the overseer, in stained brown garments said looking up at Duke Simon and I.
“Do any of them know who he is?” Simon asked from the doorway, not interested in entering the foul-smelling hut.
“He’s nae one of us, he’s the look of an outsider,” I said.
“That’s what’em all sayin’, me Lord,” the man answered. “They’s crappin it. That one reckons he done seed him before, but he don’t know no name. They’s all stupid.” The small boys crouched together in the boxlike bunk, among the matted furs looking on fearfully, their eyes round white splotches in filthy faces. The boys shrank even further back as he spoke about them.
I didn’t like it. Something was wrong. I poked my toe into the man’s ribs with no effect. His eyes remained closed, a pink froth issuing from his lips. Fresh moss had been pressed into a great wound in his chest, but it had not stemmed the flow of blood that oozed and snaked in streams down his ribs. I have fought in a great number of battles and seen many men die, so it wasn’t the familiar presence of death that troubled me now.
Something was without doubt seriously untoward.
“Leave him,” Simon ordered and turned to go. He stopped and pointed at the boys, who shied away from his gesture. “Why aren’t they working?”
“The tin seam’s flooded,” the man responded, “they cannat ’til the water goes down.”
“Then put them to work on the charcoal kilns or pounding ore; there’s plenty for them to do.” I fell into step to the left and slightly behind Duke Simon.
I nodded a cursory farewell to the overseer, not taking much interest in the urchins. They were just scrots sold into bondage by their parents in exchange for a few pence.
The wind whirled the snowflakes about us; spring would be late in coming this year. The sun was a glowing cold eye close to the horizon. We strode through the half-frozen mud and long drifts of white ashes towards the welcome heat surrounding one of the furnaces.
KIRIN THE BRAVE
Under a lean-to, a pile of burning charcoal mixed with the ore, had been heaped into a cupped depression in the ground. It needed a forced draft, the two boys, who had been half-heartedly leaning on a pair of bellows, began to apply themselves with great gusto when we appeared; sparks glowed and scattered wide. The bellows, made from a length of wood fastened to an entire pigskin, its legs kicking in the air, squealing with restored life.
“This one’ll be cooked soon,” I said, squinting into the pile of red coals. “’nd me Lud, I dassant like t’idea of that incomer gettin’ in amongst us, and ‘im bein’ wounded too. None of them’r biding close by, I wonders ‘ow he comes to get in around ‘ere…” I continued, using the course accent I always affected whilst in the Duke’s presence.
He cut me off, “They fight with each other and die. It has nothing to do with us, just make sure you keep them out.”
This was dismissal enough. Reluctantly I left the warm fire and went to my own quarters to retrieve my bronze-studded shield and sword. A dagger and half armour were safe enough to wear within the security of the settlement – but nowhere else. A foot stepping outside the protective embankments, with their outward pointing spikes, required a man to be well armed and walk with caution.
There were strange creatures out there that would attack without warning, wolves, often in packs, considered men just another welcome source of food through the long winter. The wild men of the forest led by the Druids were the most dangerous killers of all. Any stranger from outside our fortress was an enemy. It was not always so, my memories trickled back to the days of my youth, when a man or woman could walk without fear in these parts. But that was before the mining of tin brought greed and murder in its wake.
Kirin my fellow Captain, was hunched down on his heels just below the crest of the embankment thrown up to seal the top end of the valley. His heavy shield lay at his side while he traced circles in the dirt with the tip of his sword. I didn’t see him until the last moment.
“I could have fallen over you,” I growled. “Squatting down like you’re enjoying a good shit.”
“How do you know I wasn’t?” replied the only man to whom I would entrust my life, wiping himself with a rag.
“We’ve had another outsider appear, his chest hacked open like the first.”
“Any idea where from?” he asked.
“No, but I’m thinking the Druids are into having another sacrifice session, it’s getting close to Walpurgisnacht, although I’ve never known them wound or even kill in this manner before,” I meant what I said, and continued, “I’ve never seen anyone still breathing after a wound like that, after all a present and working heart is supposed to be an essential part of any living body.”
“There’s always the first time,” he looked up at me with a strange expression, then stood with a fluid motion, pulled up his breeks, and scuffed dirt across his deposit. “I’d like to take a look at him.”
HOLY SHIT, HE’S ALIVE
The hut was empty, apart from the wounded man. I say wounded, for against all odds he still breathed, the pink froth covering his lips puffing out with each stuttering exhalation. I could not believe my eyes, but if anything his breathing was stronger than before. The bleeding appeared to have stopped, although he lay in a pool of black congealed slime.
Kirin hunkered down and with the tip of his sword lifted the pad of moss from the man’s chest. We watched in amazement as the edges of the wound began to creep towards each other. Within a minute there was just a filthy black scab covering half his chest. His eyes sprang open.
Kirin and I both fell back with a synchronized cry of dread.
“Holy shit!” I cried, “He’s alive!”
We stood frozen and watched open mouthed as the man without a heart rose clumsily to his feet, and without seeming to notice our presence stumbled and staggered out of the door. As soon as my right mind returned, I rushed after him Kirin close on my heels but the stranger had disappeared.
“What about the first, the one found yesterday?”
“ln the outhouse Robert, the one be-hint the stables, he were stiff as a board when last I seed him.” Kirin replied, bursting into a sprint after me.
The outhouse was little more than fifty strides from the hut. We made it in moments. There stood, gazing down on the corpse, our wounded man. His lips were fluttering and bubbling, noises unlike any I ever heard fashioned by the mouth of man issued from them; hissing noises, squeaks and chirrups like those a forest creature disturbed and on the defensive would make.
A cry from the direction of the hut grabbed our attention, it was burning, a fierce conflagration that would have taken minutes to reach the intensity, but we had been stood within it less than a minute beforehand.
“I am startin in to dislike this most exceedingly,” Kirin said, his hand to his mouth.
“Hichta manna samma lo kinde, echtie haffa coos offa!” The man screamed at the top of his voice, the outhouse began to burn, flames leaping up the walls and across the ceiling. Kirin and I staggered away from the heat, covering our exposed faces.
The dead man and his ‘living dead’ companion, were both consumed by the raging inferno in minutes. It was an hour or more before both fires burnt out and we were able to sift through the ashes to try and make some sense of it all.
We found nothing except the ashes and scorched timbers of the two wooden buildings. Of the two men, or their incinerated bodies we found nothing.
Snow began to fall, hissing and spurting in the embers.
(or is it?)
Peter M. Emmerson