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My horse, good beast that he was, stood steady, ears pricked to listen, as were mine.
When a man has enemies he had best beware, and I, Barnabas Sackett, born of the fenland and but lately returned from the sea, had enemies I knew not of.
The blackness of my plumed hat and cloak fed themselves into the blackness of the forest, leaving no shape for the eye to catch. There was only the shine of captured light from my naked blade as I waited, listening.
Something or somebody was in the forest near me, what or who it might be I knew not, nor was I a believer in the devils and demons thought to haunt these forests.
Devils and demons worried me not, but there were men abroad, with blades as keen as mine, highwaymen and creatures of the night who lay waiting for any chance traveler who might come riding alone... to his death, if they but had their will.
Yet the fens had trained me well, for we of the fens learned to be aware of all that was happening about us. Hunters and fishers we were, and some of us smugglers as well, although of these I was not one. Yet we moved upon our hidden ways, in darkness or in light, knowing each small sound for what it was. Nor had wandering in the forests of Raleigh's land among the red Indians allowed my senses to grow dull.
Something lurked, but so did I.
My point lifted a little, expecting attack. Yet those who might be waiting to come at me were but men who bled, even as I.
It was not attack that came from the darkness, but a voice.
"Ah, you are a wary one, lad, and I like that in a man. Stand steady, Barnabas, I'll not cross your blade. It is words I'll have, not blood."
"Speak then, and be damned to you. If words are not enough, the blade is here. You spoke my name?"
"Aye, Barnabas, I know your name and your table, as well. I've eaten a time or two in your fen cottage from which you've been absent these many months."
"You've shared meat with me? Who are you, then? Speak up, man!"
"I'd no choice. It is the steps and the string for me if caught. I need a bit of a hand, as the saying is, and the chance to serve you, if permitted."
"Serve me how?"
He was hidden still, used as were my eyes to darkness, yet now my ears caught some familiar note, some sound that started memory rising.
"Ah!" It came to me suddenly. "Black Tom Watkins!"
"Aye." He came now from the shadows. "Black Tom it is, and a tired and hungry man, too."
"How did you know me then? It is a time since last I traveled this road."
"Don't I know that? Yet it is not only I who know of your coming, nor your friend William, who farms your land. There are others waiting, Barnabas, and that is why I am here, in the damp and darkness of the forest, hoping to catch you before you ride unwitting into their company."
"Who? Who waits?"
"I am a wanted man, Barnabas, and the gallows waits for me, but I got free and was in the tavern yonder studying upon what to do when I heard your name spoken. Oh, they kept their voices low, but when one has lived in the fens as you and I... well, I heard them. They wait to lay you by the heels and into Newgate Prison."
He came a step nearer. "You've enemies, lad. I know naught of them nor their reasons, but guilty or not they've a Queen's warrant for you, and there's a bit in it for them if they take you."
A Queen's warrant? Well, it might be. There had been a warrant. Yet who would know of that and be out to take me? We were a far cry from London town, and it was an unlikely thing.
"They are at the cottage?" I asked.
"Not them. There's a bit of a tavern only a few minutes down the road, and they do themselves well there while waiting. From time to time one rides to see if you are about at the cottage, and I think they have a man in the hedgerow."
"What manner of men are they?"
It was in my mind that my enemy, Captain Nick Bardle of the Jolly Jack, was out to take me, but he himself was a wanted man, and he'd have no thought of Newgate.
"A surly lot of rogues by their looks, and led by a tall, dark man with greasy hair to his shoulders and the movements of a swordsman. He seems the leader, but there's another who might be. A shorter, wider man... thicker, too... and older somewhat if I am to judge."
My horse was as restive as I. My cottage was less than an hour away... perhaps half that, but the night was dark and no landmarks to be made out. My situation was far from agreeable.
My good friend and business associate, Captain Brian Tempany, was aboard our new ship, awaiting my return for sailing. It was off to the new lands across the sea, and for trade with whom we could. And perhaps, for Abigail and me, a home there.
A Queen's warrant is no subject for jest, even if he who had sworn to it was dead and the occasion past. The warrant should have been rescinded, but once in Newgate I might be held for months and no one the wiser.
Once back in London, Captain Tempany might set in motion the moves to have the warrant rescinded, or my friend Peter Tallis might, but to do that I must first reach London and their ears.
"Go toward the cottage, Tom, and be sure all is quiet there, and along the hedge as well. Then come back along the track and meet me. Lay claim to a boat."
"I'll do it."
"A moment, Tom. You spoke of a favor?"
He took hold of my stirrup leather. "Barnabas, it is hanging at Tyburn if I'm caught, and it is said that you are lately home from the new lands across the sea, and that you sail again soon. There's naught left for me in England, lad, nor will there ever be, again. I am for the sea, and if you'll have me aboard, I'll be your man 'til death.
"If you know aught of me you know I'm a seaman. I've been a soldier as well, and am handy with weapons or boats. Take me over the sea and I'll make out to stay there."
There was sincerity in him, and well enough I knew the man, a strong and steady one, by all accounts. To be a smuggler in Britain was to be in good company, for the laws were harsh and many a churchman or officer was involved in it, or looking aside when it was done.
Our fens in Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire were havens for smugglers, for there were many winding waterways by which a boat could come from the sea, and a score of towns the boat could come to with no hint that it came from the sea.
"Think well of what you ask, Tom. It is a far land to which I'll go. There be savages there, and forests such as you've never seen. It will be no easy time."
"Whenever was it easy for such a man as I? The scars I carry speak of no easy times, lad, and however bad it may be it will be better than the steps and the noose, and that's what awaits me here."
When he had gone I sat listening for a time, untrusting of the darkness, but heard no sound for the slow dripdrip of raindrops from the leaves. Black Tom would be a good man in Raleigh's land... a good man.
My horse started of his own volition, impatient of standing, and sheathing my sword I let him go, then loosened the flap of my saddle holster on the right side. As we drew near the tavern I turned my mount to the grassy border along the track that we called a road.
A tall man who moved like a swordsman? A man with black and greasy hair? I knew of none such.
Before me appeared the lights from dim and dirty windows, and I remembered the tavern. An old place, with a stable for horses. The door opened and a man came into the darkness as I drew rein. He closed the door behind him, and I waited.
He stood a moment, then went around the house to the stables. After a moment he emerged, mounting the horse he led, and turned along the track ahead of me. At a respectable distance, I followed.
This must be the man who would ride to the cottage to see if I was about. Would Black Tom mistake him for me?
My stay at the cottage need not be long. It was a thing of sentiment as much as business that had brought me back, for the feeling was on me that I'd not again see the home my father had been given for his service in the wars. My father was Ivo Sackett, yeoman, soldier, first-_class fighting man... a decent man, too, and as good a teacher as he was a fighter.
There was William to see, for he would care for the land whilst I was gone over the great waters, and we had a few small matters to speak of. He was a man to be trusted, but in the event something happened to him... after all, all men are mortal.
My father had schooled me well, and although he left me a fine stretch of fenland, I had no desire to remain there, nor had he wished me to. He had trained me well in the use of arms, of which he was a master, and taught me better than he knew of reading and writing.
"Lad," he would say to me, "I know a weaver who became a great merchant, and the men who rode with William the Norman had only their strong arms and their swords, but with them they became the great men of the kingdom. For some men an acre and a cottage are enough, but not for you, Barnabas. I have tried to fit you for a new life in the new world that's coming, where a man can be what he's of a mind to be."
This cottage and the land in the fens was what my father had done. Now was the time for me. Deep as was my affection for the cottage and the fens, I knew there was a broader, wilder world. I had my father's contempt for the courtier who suspends his life from the fingertips of those in power, looking for morsels. I would be beholden to no man.
The rider I followed was slowing down now as he drew nearer the cottage.
He drew up suddenly, listening, but sensing he was about to halt I had myself pulled up close under a tall hedge, and he could not see me.
He stared down the road behind him for a long time, then he started on, but I held my horse for I had a feeling he would stop again. And he did so, turning in the saddle to look back. After a moment he started again, seemingly reassured.
When he was near the lane that turned down the slope to my cottage, he drew up and dismounted. Purposely, I let my horse take two steps that he could hear.
Instantly, he froze in position, staring toward me. But I sat silent, knowing he was worried—frightened a little, or at least uneasy—and this was what I wanted.
He led his horse into the opening of the lane leading to my cottage, and what he saw or failed to see satisfied him, for he mounted again. But he rode on to where he could look toward the water side of my cottage, and then it was that I started to hum a tune and walked my horse toward him. He was around a turn of the lane but he heard me, as I knew he would, and as I turned the corner I saw him, halberd in hand.
"Ho, there!" I said, not too loud. "Is this the way to Boston?"
"Ahead there, and you'll see the marker." He leaned toward me, peering. "You came up the track?"
"Aye, and a start it gave me, too! Something was there... I know not what. I spoke to it, but had no answer, and came on quickly enough. Damn it, man, if that be your way, be careful. I liked not the smell of it."
"Aye, a fetid smell... as of something dead. I saw no shape or shadow, but... have you ever smelled a wolf?"
"A wolf?" His voice rose a little. "There are no wolves in England!"
"Aye... so they say. Not wolves as such, I suppose, but I have smelled wolves... not your ordinary wolves, you understand, but huge, slinking creatures with ugly fangs. Bloody fangs! And they smelled like that back there. Have you heard of werewolves, perhaps? I sometimes think—"
"Werewolves? That's just talk... campfire talk, or talk by peasants. There are no wolves in England, and I—"
"Well, I've had a smell of them. That was in Tartary where I went for Henry the Seventh—"
"Henry the Seventh!" His voice was shrill. "Why, that's impossible! It has been almost a hundred years since—"
"So long?" I said. "It scarcely seems so." I leaned toward him. "Werewolves! I'd know that odor anywhere! The smell of graves opened! Old graves! Of bodies long dead!" Pausing, I said, as if puzzled, "But you said King Henry the Seventh was nearly a hundred years ago?"
"Nearly." The man was edging away from me.
"Well, well! How time goes on! But when you have passed, you know, when you're no longer subject to time—"
"I must go. They await me at the tavern yonder."
"Ah? A tavern? I was tempted to enter, but you know how it must be. When I enter the others leave. So I—"
"You're mad!" the man burst out suddenly. "Crazy!" And he clapped his heels to his horse and raced away.
From the hedge there was a chuckle. "He didn't know whether you were crazy or a ghost, Barnabas." Black Tom shivered. "On a night like this a man could believe anything out here in the dark." He gestured. "Come quickly! We have a boat."
Down the lane I rode, with Black Tom trotting beside, hanging to my stirrup leather. There was time for only a glance at the cottage, dark and silent, its small windows like lonely eyes. I figured William was at the hut, some distance away. I felt a twinge at my heart, for the cottage had been my boyhood home, this place and the fens. Inside was the fireplace beside which my father had taught me my lessons. No man ever worked harder for the future of his son, teaching me all he could from what he had seen and learned.
No more... my father was gone, buried these several years. A wave of sadness swept over me. I started to turn for another look...
"Quick! Barnabas, into the boat! They come!"
It was no common boat, but a scow, and I took my horse quickly across the plank, and we shoved off upon the dark, glistening water. We could hear the hoofbeats of horses.
Looking back, I felt warm tears welling into my eyes. It had been my home, this cottage on the edge of the fen. Here I had grown to manhood, and here my father had died.
And where, in my time, would my body lie?