THE FOREST LAIRD (Chapter One)
Even now, when more than fifty years have passed, I find it difficult to imagine a less likely paladin. Yet paladin he was, to us, for he saved our lives, our sense of purpose, and our peace of mind, restoring our shattered dignity when we were at our lowest depth. Possibly the least attractive-looking man I ever saw, he quickly became one of the strongest anchors of my young life. But on that first evening when he startled us from an exhausted sleep, we saw only the monstrous, green-framed, and hairless face of a leering devil looming over us.
We were gibbering with terror, both of us, and our fear was real, because for two full days we had been running in terror, uphill and down, stumbling and falling and blinded with tears and grief, sobbing and incoherent most of the time and utterly convinced we would be caught and killed at any moment by the men pursuing us. We had no notion of the miles falling behind us or the distance we had covered. We knew only that we had to keep running. At times, rendered helpless by exhaustion, we had stopped to rest, huddling together in whatever place we had found that offered a hint of concealment, but we never dared stop for long, because the men hunting us had legs far longer than ours and they knew we could condemn them for the crimes we had seen them commit. And so, as soon as we could find the strength to run for our lives again, we ran. We drank whenever we found a stream, but we dared not stop to hunt or fish. We could not even steal food, because we fled through open country, avoiding people and places that might house our pursuers.
We had arrived at the top of a long moorland gradient and crouched there behind a tall clump of bracken ferns, looking back down the way we had come and astonished to discover that we could see for miles and that no one was chasing us. We strained our eyes for signs of movement on the sloping moor, but all we saw were hares and what might have been a wild boar, more than a mile below us. We finally accepted that no ravening murderers were hunting us.
Ahead of us, the hillside swept gently down for half a mile towards a grassy plain that was bounded on the right by the deep-cut, tree-filled gully of a mountain stream.
Will pointed towards the trees. "We'll go down there. No one will see us there and we can sleep."
As we set off, I felt myself reeling drunkenly, unable to think of anything except the fact that we would soon be able to sleep. It was late afternoon by then, and the sun was throwing our shadows far ahead of us. The grass beneath our feet was short and cropped here, and the going was easy. We soon reached the edge of the defile and jumped down into the first depression we found, a high-sided, grass-filled hollow enclosed by the tops of the trees that stretched up from below us in the steep, sheltered cleft. Within moments we were both asleep.
How long we slept I do not know. But something struck my foot, and I opened my eyes to see the most hideous face I had ever seen, glaring down at me, and I screamed, startling Will awake and sending us both scrambling to escape up the steep bank behind us, but the monster caught us easily, snatching me up to tuck me beneath one arm while pinning Will to the ground with a massive, booted foot. He silenced us with a mighty bellow of what I took to be raging blood lust, and then he thrust me down to huddle at his feet, after which he stepped back a pace and eyed both of us together. I reached out for Will and he squeezed my hand tightly, and we both prepared for the mutilation and death the apparition would surely visit upon us. But then the gargoyle turned its back on us, and we heard it speak.
"I thought you were thieves at first, bent upon robbing me. I was far away from you and thought you men."
It was a strange voice, unexpectedly gentle, and the words were carefully articulated. He spoke in Scots, but with an alien lilt. We knew not what to think, and, still gripped by terror, stared at each other wild-eyed. Now that the giant's back was to us, though, I was able to see that there was nothing supernatural about him. From behind, he was a man like any other, though enormous in his bulk. It was only when he faced you squarely that you saw him as hideous. He was dressed from head to foot in shades of green, his head concealed by a hooded cap that was a part of his tunic, and as I watched now, my heart beginning to slow down, he reached up and tugged, it appeared, at his forehead.
When he turned back to us, his face was covered by a mask of green cloth that he must have pulled down from his hooded cap. It was drawn tight beneath what chin he had, its only openings three ragged-edged holes, one for breathing and one for each eye. The right eye gleamed at me from its opening.
"There," he said. "That's better, no?"
"Better?" My voice was no more than a squeak.
"My face. It's one to frighten children. So I keep it hidden--most of the time." He tilted his head so he could look at Will. "So now that I can tell ye're no' here to rob me, I have some questions to ask you." He bent suddenly and grasped my ankle and I stiffened with fear, but all he did was twist it gently and pull it up so he could look at the back of my leg. "Your legs are covered wi' dried blood, caked with it. And so are yours," he added, nodding at Will. "Why just your legs, and why just the backs of them?"
"You know fine well." Will's voice was little louder than my own, but I could hear defiance in it. "You did it--you and your friends. Used us like women...like sheep."
"I did what?" The giant stood for a moment, opening and closing one massive, craggy fist, and then he quickly stooped and grasped Will's ankle as he had mine. "Lie still," he growled as Will started to kick. "I'll no' hurt you."
I had tensed, too, at his sudden move, ready to hurl myself to Will's defence, but then I remained still, sensing that there was no malice now in the man's intent. And so I watched as he flipped Will over to lie face down, then pinned him in place with a hand between his shoulders while he pulled up the hem of my cousin's single garment, exposing his lower back and buttocks and the ravages of what had been done to him. I had not seen what now lay exposed to me, for neither of us had spoken of what had happened, but I knew that what I was seeing was a mirror image of my own backside. I vomited painfully, hearing the giant say again, "Lie still, lad, lie still."
When I finished wiping my mouth they were both watching me, Will sitting up, ashen faced, and the giant leaning back, his shoulders against the steep bank at his back.
"Sweet Jesus," our captor said, in what we would come to know as his curious soft-edged and sometimes lisping voice. "Listen to me now, both of you. I know the sight of me frightened you. That happens often and I've grown used to it. But know this as well. I had no part in what was done to you, and no friend of mine would ever do such a thing. I know not who you are, nor where you came from, and I never saw you before you came across that ridge up there." He flicked a finger at Will. "When did this happen?"
"Yesterday." Will's voice was a whisper.
"When? Daytime or night?"
"Daytime. In the morning."
"At home, near Ellerslie."
"Near Ellerslie? That's in Kyle, is it no'?"
Will nodded. "Aye, near Ayr."
"Carrick land. Bruce country. But that's thirty miles and more from here. How did you get here?"
"You ran? Thirty miles in two days? Bairns?"
"Aye, we ran," Will snapped. "They were chasing us. Sometimes we hid, but mostly we ran."
"Who was chasing you?"
"The ones who--The ones who murdered my father, Alan Wallace of Ellerslie. And my mother. My wee sister Jenny, too." Now the tears were pouring down Will's cheeks, etching clean channels through the caked-on dirt.
"Christ!" The green mask swung back to face me. "And who are you? His brother?"
I shook my head, feeling the tears trembling in my own eyes. "No, I'm his cousin Jamie, from Auchincruive. I came to live with Will when my family all died of the fever, two years ago."
"Aha." He looked back at Will. "Your name's Will Wallace?"
"Ah. William Wallace, then. My name is Ewan Scrymgeour. Archer Ewan, men call me. You can call me Ewan. So tell me then, exactly, what happened yesterday to start all this."
It was a good thing he asked Will that and not me, for I had no idea what had happened. Everything had been too sudden and too violent, and all of it had fallen on me like a stone from a clear blue sky. Will, however, was two years older, and more than accustomed to being able to think for himself, since he had been taught for years, by both his parents, that knowledge and the ability to read and write are the greatest strengths a free man can possess. Will came from a clan of fighting men and women, as did I, but his father's branch of our family had a natural ability for clerical things, and two of his uncles, as well as several of his cousins, were monks.
"They were Englishmen," Will said, his voice still low, his brow furrowed as he sought to recall the events.
"Englishmen? They couldn't have been. There are no English soldiery in Scotland."
"I saw them! And I heard them talking. But I could tell from their armour even before I heard them growling at each other."
"Jesus, that makes no kind of sense at all. We have no war with England and they have no soldiers here. Unless they were deserters, come north in search of booty and safety. But if that's the case, they'd have been safer to stay in England. King Alec's men will hunt them down like wolves. How many were there?"
"Ten on foot and a mounted knight in command of them. He had a white thing on his surcoat. A turret or a tower. Some kind of castle."
"And what happened?"
"I don't know." Will wiped his eyes with the back of his wrist. "We were down by the old watchtower hunting squirrels, Jamie and me. We heard the noise and ran to see what was happening and we met my sister Jenny running away. She was witless, out o' her mind wi' terror. She couldna speak, didna even try. She just wailed, keenin' like an old wife at a death. I knew something terrible had happened. So I left her there wi' Jamie and ran to see." He fell silent, staring into emptiness, and a bleak look settled on his face.
"They were all dead," he said in a dulled voice I'd never heard before, "scattered in the gate yard. Jessie the cook, Angus the groom. Timothy and Charlie and Roddy and Daft Sammy. All dead...split open and covered in blood an'..." He sobbed then, a single, wrenching sound. "My da was sitting against the wall by the door with his head to one side and his eyes wide open, and I thought he was just lookin' at them, but then I saw the blood on him, too, all down his front...And then I saw that his head was almost off, hangin' to one side. My mother was beside him, lyin' on her face, wi' a big spear sticking up between her shoulders. I could see her bare legs, high up. I'd never seen them before." He hiccupped and shuddered. "The ones alive were a' strangers, what the English call men-at-arms, a' wearin' helmets and jerkins and mail, forbye a knight on a horse. The men were a' talkin' and laughin', but the knight was just sittin' on his horse, cleanin' his sword on something yellow. And then one o' them saw me watchin' and gave a shout and I ran as fast as I could back to where I'd left Jamie and Jenny."
When he stopped this time, I thought he would say no more.
"What happened then?" Archer Ewan prodded.
"What happened after you ran back to Jamie and your sister?"
"Oh...We ran back the way we had come, but I had to carry Jenny and they caught us near the old watchtower. Five o' them. One o' them killed Jenny. Chopped off her head and didna even look at what he'd done. He was watchin' Jamie, wi' a terrible look on his face. And then they...they did what they did to us and then they tied us up and left us there, in some bushes against the tower wall. They said they'd be back."
"How did you escape? You did, didn't you?"
Will nodded. "Aye. I kept a wee knife for skinnin' squirrels under a stone by the tower door, close by where they left us. Jamie was closer to it than me, so I told him to get it for me. He rolled over and got it, then he crawled back, holdin' it behind his back, and I took it and managed to cut his wrists free. It took a long time. Then he cut the ropes on his legs and set me loose. And then we ran."
"And are you sure they chased you?"
Will looked up at the giant in surprise. "Oh, aye, they chased us, and they would ha'e caught us, too, except that there was a thunderstorm and you could hardly see through the rain and the dark. But we knew where we were going and they didna. So we gave them the slip and kept movin' into the woods, deeper and deeper until we didna even know where we were. We ran all day. Then when it got dark we slept for a wee while and then got up and ran again. But they found our tracks and we could hear them comin' after us, shoutin' to us to gi'e up, for a long time."
"Hmm." The big man sat mulling that for a time, studying each of us closely with his one good eye, and I began to fear that he doubted all that Will had said, even though he must surely see our terror and exhaustion were real. "Well," he said eventually, "all that matters is that you escaped and you're here now and well away from them. Who were they working for, do you know?"
Will frowned. "Who were they workin' for? They werena workin' for anybody. They were Englishmen! There's no Englishmen in Carrick. The men there are all Bruce men. My da's been the Countess o' Carrick's man all his life. He's fierce proud o' that."
"Aye, no doubt. Then if you're right, and they were Englishry, they must have been deserters, as I jaloused. Either that or your father must have crossed someone important. And powerful. Was he rich?"
"My da?" Will blinked. "No, he wasna rich. But he wasna poor, either. We've a fine herd o' cattle."
"That might have been what they were after. But whether yea or nay, those cattle winna be there now." He sighed loudly and then clapped his hands together. "Fine, then, here's what we're going to do. I have a camp close by, down at the bottom of the gully, by the stream. We'll go down there, where there's a fine, sheltered fire, and I'll make us a bite to eat, and then you two can wash yourselves in the burn and I'll show you how to make a bed of bracken ferns. In the morning we'll decide what you should do from here onwards. Away with you now."
The water was frigid, but the rushing coldness of it against my heated body was intense enough to dull the worst of the searing pain in my backside. I gritted my eight-year-old teeth and grimly set about washing away the evidence of my shame and the sin I had endured. I could hear Will splashing close by, and hear his muttered curses, for he ever had a blazing, blistering way with words. When I could feel that my legs and buttocks were clean again, I did a brave thing. I knelt in the stream, bending forward to splash water over my face and head and scrub at both until I felt they too must be clean.
"I'm finished," Will called to me as I was shaking the water from my hair, and we made our way together back towards the bank, stooped forward and fumbling with outstretched hands for river stones that could trip us.
Ewan's campfire was well concealed in a stone-lined pit, but we could see the glow of it reflected up into the branches overhead, and soon we were sitting beside it, each wrapped in one of the two old blankets he had tossed to us with a single rough cloth towel on our return.
"Eat," he said, and brought each of us a small tin pot of food. I have no idea what it contained, other than the whipped eggs that held it together, but there was delicious meat in there, in bite-sized pieces, and some kind of spicy root that might have been turnip. He had something else cooking, too, in a shallow pan, but it had nothing to do with what we ate that night. He had raised his mask and tucked it back into his hood, perhaps so that he could see better, and was carefully keeping his back to us as he worked. The stuff in the pan was a soggy, black mess of plants and herbs mixed with some kind of powder that he shook liberally into it from a bag he pulled out of a pocket in his tunic. He kept the mixture simmering over the coals in a tiny amount of water, stirring it with a stick and testing its heat with a finger from time to time--though I noticed he never tasted it--until he removed it from the heat and set it aside to cool. Still keeping his back to us while Will and I gorged ourselves on our stew, he then set about ripping up what I took to be a good shirt, tearing it into two large pieces and a number of long, thin strips. Will and I watched his every move, chewing avidly and wondering what he was about.
Will cleared his throat. "Can I ask you something?"
The big man glanced up, the ruined side of his face masked in shadow. "Aye, ask away."
"What kind of eggs are these? They're good."
"A mixture, but four of them were duck eggs. The rest were wild land fowl--grouse and moorhen."
"Are you not having any?"
"I had mine earlier, while you bathed."
Will nodded, then said, "You don't have to hide your face now. We're no' afraid any more."
Ewan's face creased into what I thought might be a smile. "Are you sure about that?"
"Aye, we're sure. Aren't we, Jamie?"
"Aye, we're sure, right enough." Then, emboldened by my youth and the sudden realization that I truly was not afraid of this strange man, I asked, "What happened to it? Your face."
The giant drew in a great breath. "How old are you, William Wallace?"
"Well, then, when I was a boy just two years older than you are now, I got hit in the face by a mace. You know what a mace is?"
"Aye, it's a club."
"It is. A metal-headed club. And it broke my whole face and knocked out my eye and all my teeth on the one side."
"Who did it?"
"I don't know. It was early in a battle, at a place called Lewes, in Sussex in the south of England." He went on to tell us about how he had gone, as an apprentice boy to a Welsh archer, to join the army of King Henry, the third of that name, in his war against his rebellious barons led by Simon de Montfort. The present King of England, Edward I, Ewan said, had been a prince then, and had commanded the cavalry and archers on the right of King Henry's battle line, on the high ground above Lewes town, but the enemy, under Simon de Montfort himself, had surprised them from the rear after a daring night march and won control of the heights after a short and vicious fight. In that early-morning skirmish before the battle proper, young Ewan's company of archers, running to take up new positions, had been caught in the open and ridden down by a squadron of de Montfort's horsemen, one of whom struck Ewan down in passing.
"So if you missed the battle," I said, "why do they call you Archer Ewan?"
"Because that's what I am. An archer, trained lifelong on the longbow. They left me for dead on that field, but I wouldna die. And when I recovered I went back to my apprenticeship. I had lost a year and more of training by then, but my apprentice master was my uncle, too. He took me back into his care and I learned well, despite having lost my eye. It changes your sight, you know, having but one eye." He made a grunting sound that might have been a self-deprecating laugh. "I adapted to it quickly, though, and learned very well, for I had little else left to divert me from my work. Where other lads went chasing after girls, I found my solace in my bow and in learning the craft of using it better than any other man I knew."
He picked up the pan that he'd set by the fireside earlier, testing its heat again with the back of a finger. "There, this is ready."
I watched closely as he folded each of the two large pieces of torn shirt into four and then carefully poured half of the mixture in the pan onto each of the pads he had made. I wrinkled my nose at the smell of it.
"What is that?"
"It's a nostrum."
"What's a nostrum?"
"A cure, made from natural things. This one is a poultice made of burdock leaves and herbs and a special mixture of dried things given me by my mother, who is a famous healer. Usually poultices have to be hot, but this one needn't be. It's for you." He glanced up to see how I reacted to that, but I merely stared at the nostrum. "There's one for each of you. What we'll do is put them into the crack of your arses, where the pain is worst, and bind them into place with those long strips. Then you'll sleep with them in place, and come morning, you should both be feeling better. You might not be completely without pain by then, but the worst of it will be bye. Now, let's get them on. They're cool now, so they'll not burn you."
Will and I eyed each other fearfully, acutely mindful of what had happened last time a man had come near our backsides, but the big archer was patient and unmistakably concerned for us, and so we suffered the indignity of allowing him to set the things in place and tie them securely. It felt revolting, but I imagined very soon afterwards that the pain of my ravaged backside was subsiding, and I sat still, enjoying the heat from the replenished fire and leaning against Will, who was looking around at the archer's camp.
I looked then, too, and noticed that what I had thought must be a purely temporary place had signs of permanence about it. The fire pit was well made, its stones blackened with age and soot, and there were several stoutly made wooden boxes, or chests, that looked too solid to be picked up and carried away by one man on a single journey. I peered more closely into the dimness and saw that they were fitted into recesses in the hand-cut bank that ringed the campfire and provided us with seats, and that their sides were hinged and could be closed by a latch.
"Do you live here all the time?" Will had voiced the question in my mind.
"No," Ewan said. "But I spend a lot of time here. My mother lives close by."
"Why don't you stay wi' her?"
"Because she lives in a cave." Then, seeing the astonishment on our faces, he added, "I stay away because I don't want to leave signs of my being there. I only go to see her when I think she'll need more food. To go too often would be dangerous."
The big archer gave a snort of indignation. "Because someone might see me coming or going, and if they did they might search and find my mother. And if they find her they'll kill her."
The enormity of that left us speechless, and Will, having seen his own mother killed mere days before, wiped at his eyes, suddenly brimming with tears. It was left to me to ask the obvious question.
"Why would anybody want to kill her?"
"Because she's my mother and I'm an outlaw. So is she."
"An outlaw?" I was stricken with awe. "How can somebody's mother be an outlaw?"
He reached out a long arm to tousle my hair. "Aye," he said quietly. "It's daft, isn't it? But she is, because I saved her life and was outlawed myself for doing it."
He looked into the fire, and I drew my blanket closer about me, sensing a story to come. And sure enough, he began to speak, slowly and clearly in that wonderful soft-edged voice. "D'you recall my saying she was a famous healer? Well, she was. She lived in a wee place east of here, about twelve miles from where we're sitting now. It doesna even have a name--just a wee clump o' houses near a ford over a river. But she was known in a' the countryside, and whenever somebody got sick, they'd send for her. The land belonged to an auld laird called Sir Walter Ormiston, one o' the Dumfries Ormistons, but when he died it passed to his eldest son, a useless lump of dung called William, like your friend there. But he liked to call himself William, Laird of Ormiston. The old man had been plain Ormiston, but the son demanded to be called the Laird of Ormiston, by everybody. Anyway, this Laird William had a wife as silly as himself, and a wee son called Alasdair. The bairn took sick and the Laird had my mother brought to the big house to see to him. She was a great healer, my mother, but she couldna compete wi' God's will, and the bairn died. The father went mad, and his wife called my mother a witch, said she had put a curse on the bairn. They locked her up in a cellar in the big house.
"I heard all about it the next morning, and I went directly in search of her and got there just as they were going to hang her from a tree. I was too far away to stop them, too far away even to shout at them and be heard. I couldna believe what I was seein'. They put a rope around her neck and threw the other end over a high branch, and then three men gathered up the other end of the rope, meaning to run with it, hoisting her up into the air."
He stopped talking, and I had to bite my tongue to keep still and wait, but it was Will who spoke up.
"What did you do?"
"What could I do? I used my bow and shot them a' when they started to run, before they could hoist her off the ground. The rope burnt her neck, but they dropped her before she was even in the air. I was already running towards them. When I saw Laird William, I took a shot at him, but he was running to hide behind a tree and I took him in the shoulder. Sent him flying, but didna kill him. By the time I reached my mother there was just me and her and the three men I had killed. Everyone else had scattered."
He drew a deep breath and blew it out mightily. "That was two years ago, the end of my life as it had been. I took my mother up on my horse with me and we escaped, but we could not go home again, for they put a price on my head for murder, for the murder of the three men and the attempted murder of Laird William. I knew they would, but by the time the word got out we were far away, my mother and I. I took her into the forest and we stayed there for a few months, but then when the hullabaloo had died down I brought her back here, close enough to her own land to be familiar, but far enough away from everywhere to be out of harm's way.
"We hid in the woods here for a month or two longer, while I looked for a place for her to live that would be safe and comfortable, and one day I found the cave she lives in now. It's hard to find at the best o' times, and she's happy enough, but the ground below the hill side at the entrance to her place is boggy, and it's too easy to leave tracks that might be followed. That's why I stay away most of the time."
"Except when you think she needs more food," I said.
"Aye, that's right. She has a few goats that run wild but come to her call, and that gives her milk and cheese. And she grows her own small crops in the clearings among the trees. I bring her oats and fresh meat from time to time, meat that I smoke out here so that it will keep."
"What kind of meat?"
"Deer meat. From Laird William's deer. I'm a poacher and a thief o' his deer. It's thanks to him that I'm an outlaw and so I show my gratitude by killing and eating his deer."
"What's it like to be an outlaw?" I asked him.
The big man smiled at me and I saw his face clearly, but saw nothing ugly there now. "It's like being sleepy. You learn to accept it and you hope it won't last." He nodded towards Will. "Your cousin's asleep already. Now let's get you both to bed. We can talk more tomorrow."
We awoke the next morning to the sight of Ewan standing beside the fire pit, gazing down at us with what passed for a smile.
"Will you sleep all day then, you two? I've done an entire day's work while you lay snoring there. Up, now, and down to the stream and wash the mess from your arses, quick. I need you to help me cut this up, and then we're going to visit my mother, so up with you and scamper about!"
If we were bleary eyed at all, that vanished at once, for the gutted carcass of a small deer was draped on a rough cloth spread across his shoulders, its pointed hooves held together at his chest in one massive fist. We sprang from our ferny beds as he lowered the dead beast to the ground and we ran the short distance to the burn with his hectoring voice in our ears all the way.
The stream was narrower and faster than I had thought the previous night, and it swept around us in a bow, the outer edge of which followed a steep, treed bank every bit as high and sheer as the one at our backs. The only way to see the sky was by looking straight up through a narrow, open strip between the overhead branches, and I saw at once that Ewan's camp was as safe as it could possibly be, for anyone finding it would have to do so by accident. Not even the smell of woodsmoke would betray it, for by the time the smoke reached anyone it would have been dissipated by the thick foliage on the slopes above.
The water didn't seem as cold as it had the night before, either, and we washed the remains of Ewan's poultice from our bodies quickly, remarking to each other that we could no longer feel the throbbing ache that had seemed interminable the day before.
Ewan had almost finished skinning the small deer when we got back to the banked fire pit, where heat still smouldered under a covering of crusted earth. We watched him sever the head and lower legs--I was amazed by the colour and the sharpness of the curved blade he used--and wrap them in the still-steaming hide. He then lifted the entire bundle into the centre of the cloth that had covered his shoulders.
"Here," he said, tying the corners together. "One of you take that shovel and the other the pickaxe, then go and bury this along the bank of the stream. But bring back the cloth. And mind you take it as far from here as you can carry it. Dinna think to bury it close by. Bury it deep and stamp down the ground and pile stones over it. We dinna want to be attracting scavengers, animal or otherwise. Then get back here as quick as you can."
It took us some time to follow his instructions, and we barely spoke a word to each other, so intent were we on doing exactly as he had said. As we made our way back, we walked into the delicious aroma of cooking. Ewan had rekindled the dormant fire, and a flat iron skillet filled with fresh meat and some kind of onion was sizzling on the coals.
We ate voraciously, as though we had not fed in weeks. Those two days of running had whetted our appetites to the point of insatiability. The deer liver was perfect, coated in flour and salt and lightly fried with the succulent wild onions, and when the last fragment was devoured we sat back happily.
"How's your bum?"
The question, addressed to both of us, was asked casually as Ewan wiped his knife carefully, removing any signs of food from its gleaming, bluish blade. We both assured him that we were much better.
"Good." He gestured with a thumb over his shoulder to where the deer carcass lay covered with fresh ferns. "I'll cut some of this up into bits that we can carry, and leave the rest here to smoke later. You can help me carry my mother's share to her."
"Does she live far from here?" Will asked.
The big outlaw shook his head. "Not far, a two-hour walk. Far enough away to be safe when anyone comes here hunting me. Laird William suspects I'm still around, so every now and then patrols come looking. But they haven't found me yet."
"Are you no' afeared they'll find your mother?" Will asked.
"She's to the north o' here, across the hills, on the far edge o' William's land. I leave signs to the south and southeast from time to time, to keep them hunting down there. Besides, she knows how to take care o' herself." Ewan took up his knife again and began to strop it against a much-used device that had been lying beside his foot. I looked closely at it, never having seen one quite like it before, a strip of leather, perhaps a foot long and a thumb's length in width, that he had fastened to a heavy strip of wood. The leather had a patina of long use, its colour darkened almost to blackness by the friction of a lightly oiled blade, and I watched him test the blade's edge with the ball of his thumb.
He had no beard. That was part of why he had frightened me so badly when I first looked at him. In a world where all men went unshaven, a beard would have done much to conceal the frightfulness of his visage, yet he had made no attempt to cover the deformity of his face by growing one. If he would wear a mask, why not a beard?
I had seen beardless men before, but very few, and my father had been the only one I knew personally. As a child, I had watched with fascination as he went to great pains, daily, to scrape his cheeks, chin, and upper lip free of hair, using a thin, short-bladed, and amazingly sharp knife that he kept for that purpose alone. It was hard work to shave a beard, I knew, a meticulous and time-consuming, seemingly pointless task, except that my father's commitment to it had a purpose that I discovered by accident one day, listening to my mother speaking to a friend. My father, she had said, had an affliction of the skin that he could hold at bay only by shaving daily. He might perhaps miss one day, but three successive days without the blade would bring his face out in boils and scaly patches. I never did discover what this malady sprang from, but from that time onward I accepted my father's daily regimen as necessary. Watching Ewan wield his strange bluish knife, I knew his blade was far sharper than my father's, and that he could use it to shave quite easily. Yet there was a smoothness to his skin that showed no sign at all of being scraped.
"Ewan, why have you no beard?"
He looked at me in surprise, then laughed. "For the same reason I have no eyebrows. I can't grow one."
I gaped at him in astonishment, noticing for the first time that it was as he said. He had brows, the undamaged one boldly pronounced, but they were hairless.
He laughed again. "I was born bald, young Jamie. And I have never grown a single hair anywhere on my body. Look."
He stretched out a hand towards me, exposing the skin on his forearm. It was perfectly smooth, tanned, and heavily corded with muscle but innocent of any trace of hair.
"No hair at all?" I asked.
"Not a single strand. That's another reason for the mask, and the hood. My bare head makes me too easy to notice. Folk will remember a hooded, masked outlaw, but they won't be able to describe him. But a bald and beardless man is another matter altogether."
My mind raced to absorb what he had said. "Did you not wear a hood, then, before you were an outlaw?"
"No, why would I? I didna need one. I had no reason to fear people knowing who I was. I had nothing to hide and nothing to protect. But that's all different now. And what about you two? Where will you go next?"
"I don't know," Will said quietly. He had been listening closely to our conversation. "I think we ought to go and see the Countess."
"The Countess? In Kyle? That's back where you came from, thirty miles away. How will you get there? And what will you do when you are there? Have you other kin close by?"
"No. There was only us, and Jamie's folk in Auchincruive, but they're all dead, too. I ha'e two brothers, but Malcolm's training to be knighted and John was knighted two years ago and they're both with the Bruce forces, somewhere in Annandale. I don't know how to find them, to let them know what's happened. But they'll ha'e to be told. But that leaves just Jamie and me."
"And ye've no other kin anywhere?"
Will shrugged. "Oh aye. There's my father's brother Malcolm. The one my brother's named for. He lives in Elderslie, near Paisley."
The big archer blinked. "Ellerslie and Elderslie? There's two places with the same name?"
"They're no' exactly the same," Will answered. "They just sound the same. I don't think there's any connection."
"Except they both ha'e knightly tenants called Wallace."
"My father wasna a knight, but my uncle Malcolm is. He has lands there, and a house."
"And how did he and your father get along? Are they friends?"
"I...think so. They're brothers, and I know they like each other. Or liked each other..." His voice faltered only slightly, but he ploughed ahead. "And I've another two uncles, or an uncle and a cousin, close by there. At least I think they're close by. Peter and Duncan Wallace. My mother talks--talked about them a' the time. They're both at Paisley Abbey, one a priest, the other a monk."
Ewan sat up straight. "Then you have a whole clan there, in this Elderslie, even if they be all men. Are there no women there?"
Will shrugged. "I think so. My uncle Malcolm has a wife called Margaret."
"That's where you should go, then, to your kinsmen there. There's nothing left for you where you came from. The Countess would not let you run your farm yourselves, two young boys, mere bairns. And besides, if the men who killed your family found out you were back, they'd finish what they started. I think the two o' you should go to Paisley, to your kin in the Abbey. They'll take you to this Elderslie place."
"But Paisley's miles away," I said, hearing the dismay in my own voice, and Ewan swung his big head to look at me.
"Miles away? God bless you, laddie, it's a lot closer than the place you came from. That's thirty miles and more back, but Paisley's less than twenty miles from here."
I looked to Will, but he just shook his head, as ignorant as I was, and big Ewan took that as a sign that he was right.
"That's what we'll do, then," he said, his voice filled with certainty. "My mother will find you something to wear, to cover your bare arses, and she'll wrap up some food for you. And then she'll tell you the best way to go and we'll set you on the road. You'll see, it will be easy, and you'll be in Elderslie in no time, chapping at your uncle's door."
From that day onwards, each time I have heard that kind of certainty in someone's voice, I have held my breath and braced myself for the worst that could happen, for the days that followed were far from being easy for any of us.
It began that afternoon as we reached the base of the low, forested range of hills that Ewan told us contained his mother's cave. The land there was heavily treed, but there were great stretches of open meadow too, dotted with dense copses in the low-lying lands in the approach to the hills, and they were home to herds of deer. We had been walking for almost three hours on a rambling route, skirting the open glades and keeping to the edges of the woodlands because Ewan had warned us that it was not only unsafe but foolish to risk crossing the open meadows, where we might be seen by anyone from any direction. The deer, which were plentiful and grazed in small herds of eight or ten, ignored us for the most part, aware of our presence as we passed but seeming to sense no danger from us.
But that changed in an instant when all movement among them froze and all their heads came up as one. Ewan froze, too, in mid-step, and held up a warning hand to us. A moment later the entire meadow on our left was transformed as all the deer broke into flight at once, bounding high in the air as they fled towards the nearest cover, and when they had all vanished Ewan still stood motionless, urgency in every line of him.
I started to ask him what was wrong but he silenced me with a slash of his hand.
"Listen," he whispered.
I strained my ears, aware that Will was doing the same, and then I heard what must have frightened the deer, a strange, ululating sound far in the distance, although in what direction I could not tell.
"What is it?"
Ewan dropped the parcel of meat and slid the great strung longbow over his head. "Hounds," he growled, already launching himself into a run. "Hunting hounds. You two stay here!"
His last words were shouted over his shoulder as he went, but Will and I had no intention of remaining where we were. We looked at each other with no need to speak, then dropped our own two cloth-bound packages and set off after him. We ran as fast as we could, but Ewan was moving like a man possessed, in great leaping bounds, paying no attention now to his own warnings about being seen. We saw very quickly that we could not catch up to him but we kept running, pushing ourselves to the limits, uphill and down, and watching hopelessly as he outstripped us with every frantic stride and finally disappeared among dense undergrowth on another rising slope far ahead.
Moments before we crested that slope, we heard a single, chilling howl somewhere ahead of us. It was human, and it was filled with anguish. We crashed through the last of the undergrowth and stopped abruptly. We were at the top of a steep, grassy hillside overlooking a narrow, tree-hemmed clearing that ran for half a mile to either side of us. I saw movement everywhere down there, but I was so winded by the effort of running that at first I could make no sense of what I was seeing, and I threw one arm over Will's shoulders and hung there gasping, trying to take in the scene below.
My first impression, still sharp in my mind today, was of two points of stillness among an eddy of distant, wheeling, far-flung, and fast-moving men, some of them mounted, others on foot. One of those points was Ewan Scrymgeour, poised at the foot of the slope below us and looking across the narrow valley to the other, hanging from a large, isolated tree on the opposite slope, a shapeless, brownish bundle. And then in the blink of an eye the horror broke over me. The giant archer screamed again and set off at a run, headed directly for the hanging bundle.
The eddying men had grouped at either end of the narrow valley, and now they turned back towards him, gaining speed as they came and shouting orders and instructions to one another. I became aware of Will's clawed fingers digging deep into my arm.
"We have to help him. They'll take him."
Even as I heard the words, I heard the futility in them, too. We had not a weapon between us, and there was nothing we could do. We both knew that. Knew, too, that exposed as we were on the open hillside, we were as good as dead. If we were taken here, obviously having come with big Ewan, we would not be hanged as outlaws. We would be chopped down by the first man to reach us, if we were not first used again as women.
The attackers were stringing out now, six mounted men spurring downslope hard from our right and two more charging more uphill from the left, the latter followed by six running men who had loosed four big dogs from their leashes, hunting hounds that bounded past the two horsemen leading their group and were now racing towards our friend.
In the space of the moments that I had been looking at his attackers, Ewan Scrymgeour had reached the tree, and I saw the flash of his blade as he cut the rope, then leapt to catch his mother before she fell to the ground. He barely succeeded, and he lowered her gently, stooping over her so that I could not see what he was doing. But then he knelt, his head bowed, and I clearly saw him cross himself before he rose to his feet and took up his longbow. His full quiver, with almost a score of arrows--I had admired them that morning--hung at his shoulders from the strap across his back, and now he reached behind him and drew one, nocking it to his bow and looking from side to side at the men approaching him.
I had never seen the like of what followed, nor have I witnessed the equal of it to this day. Ewan Scrymgeour dealt death in a woodland meadow that day as though he were the god of death himself. Standing alone beneath the tree on which his mother had been killed, he slew every man and dog who came against him, shooting them down indiscriminately as they attracted his attention, some within mere yards of him, like the first dog that died in the air as it sprang for his throat, and others from greater distances. None of the men attacking him had bows, and that was his sole advantage. To deal with him they had to come within spear-throwing distance, or within a sword's length of him, and he killed them one by one before they could.
His assailants soon recognized that he never missed, and they lost all desire to fight. But these men had murdered his mother, and Ewan shot them down mercilessly as they rode and ran away until only two of them remained alive--a man on foot, who had hung back beyond range of the archer's bow, and the leader of the mounted group. This man, who wore the mail and half armour of a knight, had held himself well clear of the fighting, sitting his horse below Will and me at the base of our slope and watching as the action swirled and eddied.
Ewan lowered his bow, still holding an arrow nocked, his eyes fixed on the man below us. But then the man on foot began to run away. I do not believe Ewan had been aware of the fellow until he began to run, but the archer spun towards him and raised his bow again. He stepped into his pull, drew the bowstring back to his ear, held it there for a moment, then released. The fleeing man had been close to three hundred paces distant when he broke into his run and he was running almost as fast as Ewan had run earlier when the arrow struck between his shoulders, its force, even from such a great distance, tumbling him forward, wide armed, into a sprawling, motionless lump.
Even at the age of eight and never having seen a longbow used before, I knew that the feat I had just witnessed was extraordinary. But the mounted knight had missed it, for he had swung his horse around as soon as he saw the other man divert Ewan's attention and was now driving hard up the slope towards us, his bared sword held high. I could not see his face, for he wore a visored helmet, but I knew that he meant to kill us.
Will pushed me down and away from him, shouting at me to roll, and as I threw myself to the ground I saw him run towards the oncoming man and then dive into a downhill roll, his head tucked into his knees. I heard a thunderous thumping of hooves above and beside me, then heard a violent hiss as the point of a hard-swung sword flashed past my face, and frightened out of my wits I rolled again, as the rider reined in his mount and turned, gathering himself to slash at me again, sure this time of his target. I saw his arm go up and heard myself whimper, and then came a sound like a dull, hard hammer blow. My would-be killer flew backward over his horse's rump and crashed to the ground.
I had not seen the arrow hit him, but when I scrambled to my knees to look it was there, transfixing him, buried almost to its feathered fletching in the very centre of his chest, sunk through the layers of armour meant to protect him. I could see Will's feet and legs beside me, and when I looked up at him his eyes were wider than I had ever seen them. Still dazed and hardly believing I had not been killed, I stood up to look for big Ewan, and there he was with his bow by his side, standing motionless where I had last seen him, beneath the tree, beside the body of his mother. It would be years before I learned to appreciate how difficult it is for a bowman to shoot accurately at a target that is far above or below him.
Will was still staring at the arrow buried in the dead knight's chest. He turned to me and blinked, then looked down the slope.
"Let's help Ewan bury his mother," he said.
As we stood silent over the grave Will had helped Ewan dig with the shovel his mother had used in cultivating her wild crops--I was judged to be too small for such heavy work--I found myself thinking of the carnage that had swept into our lives during the previous few days. Numbed by the grief in Ewan's face, I stared down at the mound of fresh dirt over the woman I had never known and saw the faces of my own recent dead--my uncle Alan and my aunt Martha, Will's parents; Timothy and Charlie, Sir Alan's oldest and most faithful retainers, bound to him and his family by a life-time of service and dedication to the bloodlines of the healthy little herd of cattle they had bred and reared; Jessie, the plump, careworn household cook who had mothered me after my arrival in Ellerslie; Roddy and Daft Sammy, the slow-witted pair of labourers who had worked the cattle stalls and sometimes served in the stables with Angus, the dour old Highland groom; and sunny little Jenny, the laughing child whose severed head had bounced and rolled across the ground in Dalfinnon Woods before my eyes. Had that been only three days before? Ten dead, including the unknown woman we had buried here, and behind us, in the little valley, an additional eighteen, fourteen of them men, the others dogs. So much death. So much blood.
I have no recollection of leaving the graveside, no memory of entering the cave that had been Ewan's mother's home. I regained my awareness only after night had fallen, when I opened my eyes to find myself sitting against a wall close by a roaring fire. Ewan and Will were seated on the other side of the flames that filled the hollow space with leaping shadows. Ewan's legs were apart, stretched towards the fire, and he appeared to be asleep, his single eye closed and his slumped back supported by the sturdy frame of a short-legged chair of the kind my mother had used while nursing my younger siblings. Behind him, the mouth of the cave was outlined in light, its centre filled with blackness.
Will sat rapt, gazing at Ewan's massive bow as he ran his hands, first one and then the other, up and down the planed, polished surface of the unstrung stave. It was far taller than he was, and perfectly circular in section, too thick in the middle for his ten-year-old hand to grasp, but tapering gently towards either end, where it was less than a finger's width in diameter and carefully notched to hold the looped ends of the string of braided sinew that would transform it from a simple but beautiful staff into the deadly weapon that could hurl an arrow for hundreds of yards to pierce steel plate and heavy, linked-ring mail.
He somehow sensed me watching and hefted the weapon parallel to the floor so that I could see the flames reflecting along its polished length. "Have ye ever seen the like, Jamie?" His voice was filled with wonder. "Have ye ever seen anything like this? I want to learn to use one o' these, to use it like Ewan."
Our host had not been sleeping, for he spoke now without moving his head or opening his eye. "Then you have a long road ahead of you, Will Wallace, for it will take you years to grow big enough to grip it properly, and longer still to build the thews to pull it. That is from my mother's people's land of Wales. It is not meant for ordinary men, and ordinary men have neither the strength nor the skills to pull it, let alone use it."
"I'll learn," Will answered, "though it take me all my life from this day on. My name cames from the Welsh--Uallash. That's the Gaelic word for Welsh. Will you teach me?"
Ewan opened his single eye. "Teach you! How can I do that? I am an outlaw, and now a wanted murderer. I slew fourteen men today."
"You killed fourteen men who murdered your mother." Will looked directly back at him, his face strangely solemn, his words emotionless, and as he spoke it struck me that my carefree friend and cousin had changed greatly in the past few days. "Forbye four dogs that sought to kill you," he added in that same tone. "You didna murder anybody."
Ewan grunted something deep in his chest that might have been a sardonic laugh. "I doubt the folk who find Laird William and his men will see it that way."
"That was Laird William? The knight?" Again I noted the flatness in my cousin's voice.
"No knight, that one," Ewan replied. "Nobly born, but base in all things else. Aye, that was William, Laird of Ormiston, the craven who kept far off, then tried to kill you two when he thought himself safe from me. Who else did you think it might have been?"
Will still wore that expression that was new to me, a stillness marked by cold and angry-looking eyes.
"It matters not. He's dead, and so he should be. Where will you go now?"
"Back to the forest, to Ettrick. There's nothing to keep me here now. And if they hunted me before, they'll really hound me now."
Will stared into the fire, and what he said next came as a surprise to me as much as it did to Ewan.
"Come with us, then, to Elderslie. To our kinfolk there. No one there will ken you for an outlaw. They winna know you at all. We'll say you worked for my father and werena there when the farm was attacked. Afterwards you found us, then brought us to Elderslie. They will be grateful for that, and my uncle Malcolm will find a place for you. He's a good man, for I've heard my father say he set great store by him. And you, you're strong--worth your wage to any man that hires you. You'll be better off there, working for us, than hiding in the forest a' the time."
The big man produced what I now knew to be a smile. "Working for you, eh? How old did you say you are?"
"I'm ten. But I'll soon be eleven. And I didn't mean working for me. I was talking about my uncle Malcolm."
"And what about my face?"
"It's a good face...once you get over the fright of it. You can wear your mask at first, if you like, till folk get to know you."
"Hmm." Ewan's broad brow, the only unmarred surface on his face, furrowed. "How am I to know if I would like it there?"
"The same way we'll know. We've never been there either, so we'll find that out thegither. But you'll like it. And besides, I'll need you there to teach me to be an archer."
Ewan Scrymgeour placed one massive palm across his eyes and shook his head, then inhaled a great breath. "Well, William Wallace, that might be a good idea, and it might not. I'll ha'e to think on it. Now get you two to bed, the both of you. I'm going back outside to talk to my mother about it."
THE FOREST LAIRD Copyright © 2010 by Jack Whyte