© 2010–2016 Reckless Books, England
Chapter 2: The Outlaws
Evesham, August 1189
It was a bright, summery morning, when Cuthbert, idly seated on a low stone wall, watched squad after squad of armed men riding up to the castle of the Earl of Evesham. From the boy’s costly belt hung a light short sword, while across his knees lay a crossbow, which in itself was a declaration of his Norman blood, the Saxons having always preferred the axe and the powerful English warbow. Cuthbert’s brow wrinkled as he looked anxiously at yet another group of young blades riding past him towards the castle.
‘I would give anything,’ he said to himself, ‘to know what wind blows these knaves here. From every small castle in the Earl’s fief the retainers seem to be hurrying here. Is he going, I wonder, to settle once and for all his quarrels with the Baron of Wortham?’
As he was pondering on this interesting possibility a jovial-looking functionary, closely followed by two large hounds at his heel, dodged past a pack of horsemen clattering into the castle and came down from the main gate, heading into Evesham town. Cuthbert sprang to his feet and walked briskly to intercept Hubert the falconer before he could turn the corner of the outer ward and pass out of sight. Hubert’s sudden appearance was a godsend to the curious youth.
‘Ah, Master Cuthbert,’ Hubert said, coming to a halt, his panting dogs slumping to a rest around his feet, ‘what brings you so near to the castle? It’s not often that you favour us with your presence.’
‘I’m happier in the woods, it’s true, but I had an errand to run for my mother and I was on my way back, when I saw all these knights, squires and men flocking into the castle bailey. What’s Sir Walter up to I wonder?’
Cuthbert was well aware of Hubert’s delight in gossip and that he considered the lad before him a harmless listener to secrets the falconer could hardly bear to keep to himself. Nevertheless, he shook his head sagely.
‘Oh, the earl keeps his own counsel.’
Cuthbert just kept quiet, knowing that a pause would certainly reveal more detail.
Hubert harrumphed and then, leaning forwards conspiratorially, added: ‘But a shrewd guess might be made about the reasons for the gathering. It was only three days ago that his gamekeepers were beaten back by the landless men of the forest when they caught a bunch of them cutting up a fat deer.’
Cuthbert gave Hubert a ‘what really!’ look of outraged surprise, the better to encourage more information.
‘Now you know the earl my lord is an easy man and kindly to everyone; he doesn’t enjoy harassing the common Saxon people the way most of his neighbouring barons do, but he’s still as fanatical as the worst of them when it comes to his forest privileges. It wasn’t helped by the way the gamekeepers were treated. They cut poor figures with their broken bows and draggled plumes after the hoodlums had dumped them in a stagnant pond. Sir Walter swore an oath that he would clear the forest of the outlaw bands. So I would guess that this assembly is for that purpose. On the other hand…’
Hubert stretched out both of his arms expansively to encompass infinite possibilities, ‘It could also be that he has finally lost his rag with that evilly disposed and treacherous bastard baron, Sir John of Wortham, who has already begun to harry some of our outlying lands, and has rustled, I hear, many head of cattle. It’s a quarrel that’s going to have to be fought out sooner or later, and the sooner the better, I say. You know me, Cuthbert, I’m not a warlike hawk, but I’d gladly throw on my mail shirt to help to raze to the ground the keep of that robber-tyrant, Sir John of Wortham.’
‘Well I hope that’s what it is. I should hate any harm to come to the forest men. Thanks for all that Hubert,’ said the Cuthbert with a broad smile, ‘but I can’t stand around here gossiping with you all day.’
Hubert’s florid countenance paled somewhat. ‘For God’s sake, Cuthbert lad, don’t tell anyone that the news came from me. He may be a kindly man, but Sir Walter would have my balls struck off if he knew that my tongue had let slip any warning to the outlaws, especially if they then slipped through his fingers.’
‘Don’t worry, Hubert, I can keep a secret when the occasion needs it. When do you reckon the knights are likely to start their war?’
Somewhat relieved by Cuthbert’s airy reassurance, Hubert said, ‘Oh, any time soon. I left the first ones to arrive swilling beer and stuffing themselves on game pies, and from what I hear, they’ll start as soon as the last ones arrive, which will be soon, unless indigestion gets them first. Whoever’s their quarry, they’re bound to attack before news of the call to arms leaks out.’
With a wave of his hand to the falconer Cuthbert went on his way. Leaving the common road, and striking across the gently undulating country dotted here and there by clumps of trees, he ran at an easy mile-eating lope without stopping, until after half an hour he arrived home at Erstwood Manor.
On entering the gates, Cuthbert rushed up to the upper floor and the solar where his mother was sitting with three or four of her maids, busy with their sewing.
‘I need to speak to you, mother,’ he gasped, catching his breath from the run.
‘What is it now?’ she said, waving her hand to the girls. They quickly gathered their things and left.
‘Mother,’ he said, when they were alone, ‘I’m worried that Sir Walter is about to make a raid on the outlaws. Armed men have been coming in all the morning from the manors around, and if he’s not intending to attack the Baron of Wortham he must be plotting against the landless men of the forest.’
‘What do you want to do, Cuthbert?’ his mother asked anxiously. ‘It won’t do your future any good to meddle in these matters. At the moment the earl looks favourably on you for the sake of his wife, to whom you’re related through me, and of your father, who was his loyal friend, but still—’
‘But, mother,’ Cuthbert interrupted, ‘I’ve so many friends in the forest. What about Cnut, your own second cousin, and many others of our friends, all good honest men who are forced to find refuge through the cruel Norman laws.’
‘What do you plan to do?’ his mother asked again.
‘I’ll take my pony and warn them of the threat.’
She pursed her lips and sighed. ‘If you’re set on going, you’d be better off on foot. I’ve no doubt that men will have been sent to watch for any warning sent from the Saxon franklins’ homesteads. You’re familiar with all the paths and it’s no great distance. On foot I think you can evade the spies. But one thing, Cuthbert, you must promise me that if the earl and his men meet with the outlaws, that you won’t take any part in fighting.’
Cuthbert hung his head momentarily, before looking straight into his mother’s eyes ‘I’ve no reason to argue against the castle or the forest. My blood and family are with both. I want to save bloodshed in a quarrel like this. I hope that the time will come when Saxon and Norman can fight side by side for our common cause.’
A few minutes later, having changed his fashionable blue jerkin for one of much drabber colour, Cuthbert started for the great wildwood, which then stretched to within a mile of Erstwood. Much of the country was given over to forest, which provided the Norman elite preserves for the hunt. It was death for a Saxon or any serf to be caught poaching, but the very policy of the Normans in preserving these woods for the chase, prevented the needed increase in cultivated land and so drove many to live outside the law merely to survive.
The trees were widely spaced at the forest’s edge, but as Cuthbert ran farther into its depths, the branches grew more thickly and close together. Here and there open glades ran across each other, and in these his sharp eye, used to the ways of the forest, could often see the stags starting away at the sound of his footfalls.
After a long run Cuthbert reached the place he was aiming for, an age-old clearing created by a long-forgotten storm. Overshadowed by giant trees, men of all ages and appearances were at work. Some occupied themselves by stripping the skin off a buck which hung from the spreading limb of a tree. Others were roasting portions of the carcass of another deer. A few sat apart, some talking, the fletchers busy making arrows, while a few lay asleep on a grassy bank.
As Cuthbert ran into the clearing, several of the men rose to their feet. One was a giant.
‘Ah, Cuthbert,’ he shouted, ‘what brings you here, lad, so early? You don’t usually visit before midnight when you can sight a stag by the moonlight in your crossbow.’
‘No, no, cousin Cnut,’ Cuthbert said in a teasing tone, ‘you can’t say I’ve ever broken the forest laws, although it’s true that I’ve often watched while you have.’
‘I think that makes you what your Norman friends call in that ghastly Latin-French of theirs “an accessory after the fact”,’ laughed Cnut, ‘and if the foresters caught us in the act, I doubt they would see any difference whether it was the shaft of my longbow or the quarrel from your crossbow which brought down the quarry.’
By this time Cnut had walked across the clearing towards Cuthbert, and closer up realised from the boy’s expression that something was wrong.
‘You’ve been running fast, lad. Catch your breath and tell me what’s up.’
‘I have, Cnut, I’ve not stopped once for breath since I left Erstwood. The earl’s preparing for a raid.’
Cnut laughed disdainfully.
‘He’s raided before. The landless men of the forest can hold their own against a handful of Norman knights and retainers in their own home.’
‘Maybe,’ Cuthbert retorted, ‘but this is no common raid. This morning knights and mounted men-at-arms from all the manors within miles around have ridden in. At least five hundred are likely to attack today.’
‘Hmm’ said Cnut thoughtfully, as exclamations of surprise, but not of fear, broke from those standing round. ‘If that’s so, lad, thanks for the warning. We can slip through the fingers of ten times five hundred, but not if they took us unawares; hemmed in things would go badly for us. Which track will they take and what’s the end-game?’
‘I don’t know. All that I gathered was that the earl intends to sweep the forest, and to put an end to your law-breaking. You had best be off before Sir Walter and his heavily-armed men get here. Why not shift your quarters to Langholm Chase until the storm’s passed.’
‘Langholm!’ Cnut shuddered. ‘Sir John of Wortham is a worse landlord by a long shot than the earl. I can’t hate Sir Walter, he’s a good knight and a fair lord. If only he would rid himself of that ridiculous Norman notion that the birds of the air, the beasts of the field and the fishes of the water all belong to Normans, and that we Saxons have no share in them, I wouldn’t have a quarrel with him.
‘He doesn’t grind down his people or neighbours, seems content with a fair share of the tenant farmers’ produce and is a fair judge. Wortham’s a fiend incarnate. He would gladly cut the throats, or burn, or drown, or hang every Saxon within twenty miles of his keep. He’s a disgrace to his order, and some day when our band gets a little stronger, we’ll burn his nest about his ears.’
‘A hard nut to crack,’ Cuthbert said, laughing.
‘I’ll crack both his Norman nuts one day! Ladders and axes will go far, lad, and the Norman men-at-arms dread the shafts of our arrows. Still, if we must be his neighbours for a time, so be it.’
The preparations were simple. Bows were taken down from the branches on which they hung, quivers slung across the backs, short cloaks thrown over the shoulders. The deer was hurriedly dismembered, and the joints fastened to a pole slung on the shoulders of two men. The drinking-cups, some of which were of silver, looking strangely out of place among the rough horn implements and wood platters, were bundled together, carried a short distance and dropped among some thick bushes for safety; and then the outlaws started out for Langholm Chase and Wortham.
Cuthbert stayed for a while at the edge of the deserted clearing. Unsure which of several routes the earl’s men might take in their approach, he remained motionless, listening intently.
After some time had passed he heard the distant note of a horn. It was answered from three different directions, and Cuthbert, who knew every path and glade, was able accurately to work out those by which the various battles of knights and men were entering the forest. Knowing that they were still some way off, he began to run, weaving through the clustered trees directly towards them.
When he could make out distinct voices calling and the breaking of branches, he rapidly climbed a thick tree and hid himself in its boughs. From there, secure from the sharpest eye, he watched what must have been a hundred men-at-arms, led by Sir Walter himself and half a dozen of his knights, tramp beneath his feet.
As soon as they had passed, Cuthbert slipped easily down the tree and made at all speed for home. He reached it, so far as he knew without having been observed by a single passer-by.
After a brief talk with his mother, he followed her advice and started out tirelessly for Evesham. The theory was that his appearance at the castle would divert any suspicion that he might have had a hand in warning the landless men, and what could be more natural for a lad his age to be curious at seeing the movements of so large an army that he should go there to gossip with his acquaintances in the bailey. He felt some guilt about Hubert, but soothed his conscience by telling himself that he had used the phrase ‘when the occasion needs it’, and this had definitely been an occasion when the falconer’s secret could not be kept.
However, he was destined never to arrive – at least not on that afternoon. When he was about a mile from the town and joining the road between Evesham and Worcester, he spied a small group ambling towards him.
On a white palfrey rode Margaret, the earl’s little daughter. She was accompanied by her nurse, also riding, and two retainers on foot.
Cuthbert was about to hail them, for he was a great favourite with Margaret, for whom he frequently brought pets, such as voles, nests of young owlets, falcons and other woodland creatures – when the peace was abruptly shattered as ten mailed and mounted men burst out onto the road from a thicket of trees.
Without a word they rode straight at the astonished party. Margaret’s retainers were cut to the ground before they could draw a sword in their defence.
The nurse was cold-bloodedly slain by a blow from a battle-axe, and Margaret, snatched from her palfrey, was thrown across a saddle like a little sack, and then her abductors galloped off in a cloud of dust.