The road twisted between the trunks of great trees, but the way was kept clear of large roots. In places stone was used to prevent cart wheels from digging deep ruts in the soft soil. It stood to reason that a road so well-maintained carried a great deal of traffic, and even in the early morning we saw the carts and wagons of the local famers moving their produce to town, along with swift-moving riders wearing the uniform of the local lord. None of them had the time or inclination to inspect us.
Even with the traffic it took less than an hour to follow the road and then turn up the smaller track that led to the farmstead.
Although the farm was surrounded by towering forest, it occupied a large sunny clearing, the light from the low sun hard and brittle in the cold, offering no warmth.
At the edge of the clearing we passed through an area dotted with tree stumps, and perhaps fifty feet from us three men and a team of two large horses was working to pull a stump out of the ground, two of the men working on the roots of the stump with an axe and a large metal lever, while the third, younger than the others but almost as big, encouraged the horses. Men and beasts all were up to their ankles in muck, and mud coated them until it was impossible to say what colors they might have been wearing. Their cursing carried easily in the cold, still air.
“Get that godfucked lever under there!”
“Got no fulcrum, you twat! Use that fuckin’ axe for something besides ramming up your ass blade-first!”
Elena was smiling. Her sort of people.
Ahead of us was the main house, a long building with shuttered windows and two wooden doors of dark wood, one near each end on the side of the house facing us. A stone chimney rose from the near end of the house, lazily smoking. Behind the house to the right was another large building, taller than the house, with a pitched roof and a wide door on the end we could see. The sliding door to the barn was half open.
A wooden porch ran the length of the house and two men were standing there watching us, one with the silver hair of age, the other of middle years. They both moved with purpose; the older man took up a small hammer and struck a long metal pipe that was hanging from the roof, sending a ringing alert across the meadow, while the younger one ducked through the closest door. The men working on the stump stopped and turned to watch us as well, while four women and a handful of children emerged from the barn.
After taking a moment to size us up the stump workers moved to stand between us and the farmhouse, still carrying axe and pry bar. The youth who had been with the horses picked up another axe and moved to join them. Beneath the grime covering his face was the whispy beginning of a beard that would take a long time to fill in, and much longer than that before is was like those of the other men. All of the men were large, and thick of limb. Brothers, probably.
The two men from the porch joined them, the elder with a hoe, the other emerging from the long house with an actual sword, hastily putting on a metal helmet with dingy ring mail hanging down to protect the back of his neck. I imagined there was more armor where that came from, but haste took precedent. “You’re not welcome here,” sword-holder called out, striding forward along the path as we came to a stop in front of them. A few paces behind the men, the women and children formed a knot. The women kept the children behind them while brandishing items from the barn — one held a pitchfork, another a hammer, and the last some sort of scythe.
“We mean you no harm,” Kat said, holding up her gloved hands to show they were empty.
“Says the traitor,” the sword-holder said, shaking his head. His eyes were a light brown, almost yellow, surprising given his sun-baked complexion and dark hair. He knew how to scowl. “I know who you are. You’re not welcome.” He turned to the mud-covered lad, but never took his eyes off us. “Charlie,” he said, “get ready to ride. Mags, go help him saddle up. Take Winnie. Quick now.” The youth turned and ran toward the barn, still carrying his axe. One of the women in the knot turned and ran ahead of him, disappearing through the barn door before Charlie did.
“That is not acceptable,” Kat said. “We mean you no harm.” As if saying it a second time would make all the difference. Kat softened her voice. “My friend is ill.” She gestured at me. “He just needs to rest. When he is better we will be on our way.” I had not thought Kat could lie so easily. The woman was full of surprises.
“What’s your name?” Bags asked the sword-holder.
“You know who we are.”
“That I do, sir. You killed the Baron.”
“I killed the baron,” I said. “I didn’t even know he was a baron. He was raping a woman.”
“That’s his right, in’t it?” another mud-coated man asked.
“I prefer a world where that is not his right,” I said. I watched to see if perhaps that would buy me some sympathy from the knot of women. No cause for optimism.
Mud-man responded with the usual words of a man making excuses for the ones he must obey. “I must obey him, so it is not possible for him to be evil.” Nothing you haven’t heard. But at that moment Charlie emerged from the barn on a lean mare that looked fast. He slowed from a quick trot to a cautious walk as he swung off the path to move around my little group. “Don’t do it, Charlie,” I said. My voice was utterly absent of the menace needed to stop the boy and save his life.
“Charlie, for fuck’s sake!” Elena shouted. “Do you want to die a blue-balled virgin?”
“Ride!” Evan shouted. “You hold all our lives in your hands!”
Charlie pushed his horse forward again.
“Stop, you godfucked slack-wit!” Elena shouted back. “Pull your dick out of your ear and listen.”
“They won’t kill you, Charlie,” Sword-holder said. “We’ll make sure of that.”
Elena clenched her fists and looked at the sky. “No, you won’t protect him, you syphilitic fuck-twat. Just shove that sword up your own ass before someone gets hurt.”
Evan’s face darkened and he took a step forward, lifting his sword. “They won’t kill you, Charlie.”
Charlie paled and his fists clenched on the reins. “I’m sorry, miss,” he said to Elena. He nudged his horse a step forward, then another step.
“Charlie,” one of the bearded men in the bunch said. His beard was redder, a hue echoed in Charlie’s matted hair. “Hold still.”
“I have to go,” Charlie said. He was crying now. “I’ll bring help.” He pushed his horse into a steady walk.
“We mean no harm,” Kat shouted, as she readied her bow.
“Charlie, please stop,” a woman in the bunch called out.
Claire said nothing, forgotten by everyone, as she moved into Charlie’s path.
Elena screamed out, “Winnie, you goat-assed nag, fucking stop!”
Winnie stopped. Everyone stopped. The eyes of the farm were on Elena now.
Elena took a breath to say more, but Bags held up his hand. We all watched as he dismounted, landing with a squelch in the soft turf. He turned to face the man with the sword, his hands open. “She has a way with horses,” he chuckled. Evan relaxed a fraction, lowering his sword an inch. “They don’t understand,” Bags said quietly. “You have to forgive them.”
“I don’t have to —”
“You and I are soldiers,” Bags said. “We have always known that our lives will end on the wrong end of a sword. It’s just a matter of when. But these others,” Bags gestured to the rest of us. “They don’t understand what that means. Rather than see a man doing his honorable duty to his lord, they see a man willing to sacrifice the lives of everyone he loves for nothing.” Bags was close enough to the other man that Evan could have struck at him, but the frightened ex-soldier did nothing. “My name is Baxter,” Bags said. “I am an officer of the King’s Royal Guard, executing orders from the King himself. Lady Katherine is my prisoner.”
Evan snorted. “That explains why she is so well-armed.”
I couldn’t see Bag’s face, but I could hear his smile in his voice. “She means you no harm.” That earned Bags a tiny smile, and Evan’s sword dropped another two inches. Bags continued, “The prisoner is annoyed, sometimes, that we are not bringing her to justice more quickly. Her Grace is most annoyed that we will be pausing here to allow Mister Martin a chance to gather his health.”
One of the women stepped forward. Perhaps the one who had called out to Charlie, perhaps not. She was tall and big-boned, hair red where it escaped her cap. She carried a pitchfork. “No need to stop. We will care for your friend as one of our own. No need to keep the King waiting.”
Bags nodded in the woman’s direction. “A generous offer, but I’m sure you appreciate that things are not so simple. For one thing, he is my commanding officer.”
Even snorted again, his lip curled. “He’s no soldier.”
“Perhaps not in the traditional sense,” Bags agreed. “But this is not a traditional war. So listen to me carefully, Evan. He will be sleeping in there tonight.” Bags gestured to the long house. “You and your family will be in the barn, or in a grave. Martin doesn’t much care which — that’s the sort of soldier he is.” My throat tightened at Bags’ description of me, but that was the sort of soldier I was, wasn’t it?
“I would prefer that you were alive to move back in to your home in a couple of days,” Bags finished.
Evan tightened the grip on his sword. “You threaten me?”
“No,” Bags said simply.
Evan took a breath, his eyes darting between us, measuring us, planning.
“You are welcome in my home,” the woman behind him said. “Please forgive our poor welcome.”
Evan let his breath out and let his sword relax at his side.
“No offense taken, good lady. One must be careful these days,” Bags said, with a small bow in her direction.
It was her turn to snort. “What’s wrong with your commander, anyway? Perhaps I can help.” She took three steps forward to stand in front of Evan, handing him her pitchfork as she passed. Her long dress was made of coarse fabric that had served well for a long time; the bottom few inches were thoroughly coated in muck from the barn and the fields. She stood straight, but I could see gray hair mixed with her natural black. Her eyes were dark; her scowl, I fancied, was driven by intellect.
“It’s not just father,” Elena said. “Our horses have been suffering in this fucking rain. Even Gorowir here is feeling the cold.” She ran her hand down the neck of her broken horse. She smiled and her cheek dimpled as she looked over at Charlie.
The woman standing in front of Bags raised one eyebrow. “Your commander brought his daughter with him?”
Bags turned from the farmers to look at Elena. He rubbed his stubbled chin, grinned his gap-toothed grin, and said, “She’s… unusual.”
Charlie looked at Elena and dared a tentative smile. “I’ll make sure the mighty Gorowir is well taken care of,” he said. Elena had called me her father moments before, and now I was experiencing one of the privileges of that role. I didn’t like the way that boy was looking at her.