13 September 2008

The Stone Arrow: first chapter

Tagart came out of the woods and stood facing the broad downhill sweep of the cereal field. The feeling of openness seemed strange and sudden after the embrace of the trees; he sniffed at the smell of the evening, almost cloudless now after the storm, a soft wind coming off the sea, bending the stunted ears of barley, fluttering the leaves of hazel and whitebeam.
    A hundred yards away the labourer stood upright and leaned on the handle of his mattock. He had only just become aware of another’s presence; yet Tagart had heard the man at work minutes ago, from the depths of the wood, whose floor he had traversed without so much as the snap of a twig.
    Tagart, or Tugart, or Tergart, was twenty-five years of age, tall and fine in the face, with dark hair and watchful brown eyes that knew the value of patience. His skin – for it was now the height of summer – was well tanned, his frame hard-muscled and long-limbed, with an economy of movement that seemed like slowness to those who had never been with him in the woods and tried to keep up.
    Chance had endowed him with a keen intelligence which the teachings of his elders had turned into solid skill and a command of the necessary knowledge. Of all the young men in his tribe, it was Tagart who had been regarded as successor to the leader, Tagart who had taken the most desirable bride, Tagart whose small son would in turn one day be chief; and Tagart whom the others were beginning to look upon with more and more respect and affection as each season passed.
    But now, in the course of a single night, all that had changed. Everything changed; everything raped and defiled.
    Not quite everything. Tagart was still alive. He was still alive, and behind the grief he was still himself.
    It was time to begin.
    “I come in friendship,” he called out, leaving the safety of the trees and starting across the field.
    The labourer, a short, stumpy man, did not answer. He stood shielding his eyes against the west, his right hand taking a firmer grasp on the polished ashwood haft of his mattock.
    Tagart went on. In the edge of his vision he was making a second survey of the field, making certain that he and the labourer were alone. The farmers’ village, which he had studied the previous day, was a cluster of stone and timber buildings inside a wooden palisade, hidden from this field by the rise of the land. It was only a quarter of a mile away, too close, asking for trouble; but then he’d had no choice. He had been forced into the open by the shape of the forest and by the way the fields sloped. Without revealing himself there had been no way to be sure that the labourer was alone, and to have wasted such an opportunity would have been madness. So he had accepted the risk. But that did not stop the tingling between his shoulder-blades, nor an almost irresistible urge to check more overtly behind and to the sides.
    He halted, just beyond the swing of the mattock, and forced a smile. “The soil needs more rain than this. After the drought she drinks it like a pigeon.”
    The farmer said nothing. He stood impassive, expressionless. His broad shoulders filled a stained and streaked doeskin jacket; his beaver leggings were bound by thongs; mud caked his crudely carved clogs. A talisman of some sort hung round his neck, a flat stone striped with bands of cream and maroon, held by a cord that passed through a hole drilled off-centre. Greasy brown locks showed beneath a hare’s-skin cap and hung in a tangle at his neck. Years of weather had left his skin leathery and his eyes wrinkled almost shut; his was a face devoid of animation or humour, the kind of face under a low forehead that frowns blankly as the brain behind it struggles to assimilate something new. Clearly the man was low in the order of the village, sent out to the fields to do some trivial task on his own. He had been digging up stones and heaping them to one side. This was the kind of work reserved for those at the bottom of the village hierarchy.
    “I have come along the coast from Valdoe,” Tagart told him, speaking more distinctly. He indicated his leather pouch. “My master wishes an exchange of barleys.”
    The farmer’s eyes flicked to the pouch, and back to Tagart’s face.
    “I see barley is your crop here on this acre.”
    No reaction.
    “I was told to ask for a man with no beard,” Tagart said. “A man of importance in your village. Do you know him?”
    The farmer grunted. There was no meaning in it.
    “Is he your head man? Will you take me to him? I want to talk trade.”
    The labourer took his hand from his brow and changed position so that he was no longer facing the sun. He nodded at Tagart’s pouch.
    “Seed barley,” Tagart said, holding the pouch forward.
    The offer was disregarded. “You say you come along the coast.”
    “From Valdoe.”
    “From Valdoe?” For the first time he showed a sign of interest. It was as if Tagart had not already mentioned the word. “Valdoe? From Valdoe? Are you sent by the Flint Lord?”
    “By my master, one of the Trundlemen.”
    “And he sent you trading barley?”
    The farmer’s eyes narrowed even more. “You will know the flint sellers. They will be here soon: it is time for their trade. Fallott, Bico, and the rest.”
    “My trade is not in flints,” Tagart said. “It is in seed.” More mildly he added, “There are many at Valdoe. A mere slave cannot know them all.”
    “You are enslaved?”
    “Building my freedom.”
    “Why go back? You are far from the Trundle. They could never catch up.”
    “That is not my way,” Tagart said. “My master trusts me and I am grateful.”
    The farmer forbore from comment. He turned and took a long look to the west, across the curving line of the field, beyond the distant green scrub on the clifftops, to the golden path where the sun was coming down on the sea. The wind pushed wisps of hair at the sides of his face. Tagart heard corn buntings and skylarks, and glimpsed the flash of a jay as it emerged from and returned to the security of the wood. He swayed slightly. Exhaustion was threatening to overtake him. His body wanted to sag to the ground. Sections of his mind were faltering. He was aware that his strength was draining away. With its loss came a fear that he might be left with too little when the moment arrived. He had stupidly eaten nothing that day, and the day before he had felt too ill to contemplate food. His guts had been emptied anyway, in the grey wet dawn with his arms and legs covered in ashes, slime, and blood, the back of his throat burning and his eyes watering with each useless retch as he had crouched beside their bodies on the riverbank.
    His mind drew back. He must not think of them. Not of them. Not of honour. He must think only of the immediate, the practical, what had to be accomplished in each moment. Only thus could he see it through.
    Fleetingly the whole vista stretched before and behind. The end of it was unimportant, his fate a mere contingency as long as he got through the next few days intact; for all but that, he was already dead.
    “You must talk to Sturmer,” the labourer said.
    “Sturmer? Is he your chief? A man with no beard?”
    “Sturmer does our trading.”
    “Will you take me to him?”
    “I will not. We have rules.” The labourer scratched his chin. “You say you bring seed. What of it? Our barns are full of seed.”
    “This is different,” Tagart said. “My master wants a barley for the sea wind; the Flint Lord desires new ground opened up along the coast.”
    “So you were sent to villages by the sea to trade. But why should we give our secrets to the Flint Lord? If he wants them he must pay, as we must pay for the things his traders bring. Flints, livestock, salt – these are the things we want. Of barley we have plenty.”
    “No – this seed is different. It’s special.” Tagart pointed to the south. “It comes from there, across the water. The yield is double.”
    “That is what my master says, sir.”
    “Not possible.”
    “It must be possible or the Valdoe farmers would not sow it by the score of bushels.”
    “Show it to me.”
    “There is nothing to be gained by that.”
    “Show me.”
    “My master said I was only to offer it to a head man. Take me to Sturmer. I will talk with him.”
    “Show me.” The labourer stretched out a hand. “Show me or be on your way.”
    “I should not do this.”
    The labourer impatiently waggled his fingers. Tagart gave him the pouch, which was tied at the neck with a drawstring. Two hands were needed to get it open.
    Seeing this, the labourer tried to loosen the string while keeping a grip on his mattock-handle, picking with a fingernail at the bunched leather, which Tagart had drawn especially tight before leaving the woods. After a few fruitless moments, aware that he would make himself look foolish by asking Tagart to open the bag, the labourer released the mattock, lodging the handle in his armpit, and freed both hands for the job.
    That was instant Tagart chose to kill him.
    Later, Tagart had time to wonder what went wrong. It may have been weariness, making him slow. He was not sure. He knew only that the man had put up a struggle which had made his end more difficult than it ought to have been.
    When it was done, Tagart searched the body for personal effects. With his flint knife he cut through the cord, releasing the talisman, and slipped it into his pouch. He worked quickly, fearing that someone might come from the village and discover him. The sun had gone down. Night was coming.
    A name formed on Tagart’s lips. Sturmer. He said it again. Sturmer. A name to go with the beardless face, the face in the firelight.
    Picking up the mattock by its blade, he thrust the haft into the ground. Beside it he arranged lines of stones taken from the pile the man had made, forming an arrow pointing in the direction of the wood. He finished it with three stones for each barb, and grasped the corpse by its armpits.
    It seemed heavier than a man’s body. Ideally he needed a sledge. He forced a grim smile. Ideally, he needed help for what he had decided to do, the help of a hundred men. Or, if not a hundred, then ten of his friends from the tribe, who were better than any hundred taken from these slab-faced peasants.
    The tribe. He must not think of the tribe. Anger would only slow him down, ruin his chances. He held a duty in sacred trust. The honour of the tribe had devolved upon him and upon him alone. Nothing must be allowed to stand in his way. If he was to discharge his duty he could ill afford the luxury of rage.
    But it was with a fierce renewed energy that he took up the corpse again, pulling it towards the forest.

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