“Historical fiction lovers will enjoy this tale of knightly adventure.” –Sublime Book Review
It is the dawn of the Renaissance, a time when new ideas are just beginning to emerge. Alfred — the eponymous second son — comes of age in the enlightened court of his grandfather. Alfred is convinced that his life will be unremarkable, spent in diligent but mundane service to king and kingdom. His grandfather, however, foresees for him a special destiny.
It is also a time when peace and stability are tenuous, and threats can arise from unexpected quarters. Taken captive while on a mission for the king, Alfred is held for ransom and taken ever farther away from his home. With his prospects dwindling, he must find a way to survive if he is ever to fulfill that mysterious destiny.
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The last thing I remember before the world went dark was watching my arrow find its mark, saving my uncle from almost certain death. And the look — seemingly of recognition — on my victim's face as he turned toward me in his final agony. And the distant thunder of hoof beats — a troop of knights rushing to our rescue — a rescue that may have come too late for me.
I regain my senses to find myself draped across the shoulders of a horse, its rider in the saddle behind me. I decide to keep my return to consciousness secret for the moment, in hope of learning something about my situation. What I can see from this position, without turning my head or betraying my wakefulness, is limited. We're not on an open track or main road. From the abundance of leaves and underbrush beneath the horse's feet, I deduce we're in some kind of wood. Presumably, the rider wishes to remain unseen and undiscovered. There's a gentle undulation to the land as we move forward. A sign, perhaps, that we're skirting the edge of low hills? There's no way to determine our direction of travel, as the shade blocks any indication of the position of the sun. I detect no other horses nearby and no sound beyond what's made by our own horse, so we must be traveling alone.
My head aches dreadfully from the blow, the pain made even worse by my position, which causes the blood to flow to my head. My hands and feet are bound and tied together beneath the horse's chest. Though this may only be a precaution to keep me from falling off should the rider need to move swiftly, it seems more likely an indication that the rider is my captor and not my savior. Deciding there's nothing more I can learn from where I am, I stir visibly and turn my head to try to look up at the rider.
"You wake at last. I was beginning to think I'd done more damage than what I intended." He says nothing more ... just rides on in silence. I, too, remain silent, not wishing to give him any indication of fear or desperation.
The bones of the horse's withers press into my stomach and lower ribs as he walks — right, left, right, left — adding to my misery. After what seems like an eternity but is probably no more than a quarter of an hour, I ask, "Who are you? Where are we going?"
There's no reply. And there is now no doubt ... this man is clearly my captor.
We ride on until the shade deepens even more, night beginning to fall. The sound of running water must be a stream nearby. We stop. He dismounts, slings me over his shoulder, and takes me to a tree. He seats me facing the tree, then releases and reties the bindings on my hands so that I'm hugging its trunk. He does the same with my feet. He has no intention that I should escape.
He unsaddles his horse, hobbles it, and sets it to forage for something to eat under the leaves. Then he disappears. Returning with a flask and a cup, he pours water into the cup and holds it for me to drink. I had no idea I was so thirsty, but the water is sweet and I gulp it down, hoping for more.
He retrieves a loaf of bread from his pack, tears off a chunk, and holds it for me to eat. Then he pours another cup of water. While he's pouring, I ask again, "Who are you?"
This time he answers. "I know who you are. That's all that matters." He holds the cup for me to drink. When I finish, he throws the saddle blanket across my back for warmth and wanders off to make his own bed.
I'm anything but comfortable. The trunk of the tree is substantial and the way I'm bound prevents any possibility of reclining, but the upright position has at least relieved some of the pounding in my head. I lean against the tree, not expecting to sleep, my mind intent on working out how to escape. I struggle to devise a way to loosen the ropes around my wrists, but the girth of the tree is such that neither hand can reach the knots on the other. Trying to fray the rope by sliding it up and down against the rough bark does nothing but chafe my forearms. Getting a hand down to an ankle to untie those knots proves equally futile. The increasing girth of the tree nearer the ground prevents sliding even one hand downward more than a few inches — not nearly enough to reach an ankle.
Soon, reason overcomes my desperation. Even if I were to succeed in getting myself free, where would I go in these woods in the dark with nothing but a waning moon? The deep leaves on the forest floor could be hiding all manner of hazards that might leave me injured and alone. Besides, all those leaves would make it impossible to move silently. Better, perhaps, to spend my time thinking about how to overwhelm my captor in daylight when he must inevitably untie me to proceed on whatever journey he has in mind. So I slump against the tree and start plotting how best to catch him unawares.
Exhaustion must have overtaken me, for the next thing I know, it's morning, and my captor is kicking me awake. He's saddled his horse and tethered it to a low branch. In his hands is a long length of rope with a noose tied at one end, which he slips over my head and tightens enough to be sure I know he means business. He unties my hands and rebinds them in front of me, then unties my feet and hoists me into a standing position. My muscles are stiff and I fear falling, but I will myself to stay upright and show no sign of weakness. Pointing into the woods, he says, "Go relieve yourself. But don't think you can run away. All I have to do is pull on this rope and the noose will tighten. You'll only succeed in hanging yourself."
I take my time attending to nature's call, willing him to be distracted by something — an animal scurrying through the leaves and brush — a nicker from his horse — anything that would give me even a momentary advantage. Eventually, I can dawdle no longer. As I turn to walk back, I grab the noose in my hands and start running toward him, hoping to close the distance before he can react. Without hesitation, he gathers up the slack in the rope and yanks hard, pinning my hands between the noose and my neck, leaving me gasping for breath. Then he tugs me toward him like a fish on a line. "I warned you," he says, as he loosens the noose just enough to free my hands before readjusting it to its original tautness.
After rebinding my wrists behind my back, he unties his horse and mounts. It's clear I am to walk. "Let's go," he says. "Remember. You lag or try to run, I yank on the rope." Walking in the leaves and brush with fallen twigs and branches takes all my concentration. At least our pace is measured and I don't have to run. We emerge from the woods at midday and stop at a stream. Binding me once again to a tree, my captor fills his flask in the stream then repeats the ritual of giving me bread and water — this time with a few morsels of cheese — before eating his own.
Then we're on our way again. We ford the stream and soon arrive at a track that leads gently downhill to what appears to be a main road, where we turn to the right. Watching the path of the sun through the afternoon, I know for certain that we're moving west, away from my home. My mind screams No! Escape! Run! In the opposite direction! But with my hands tied behind my back, the options are limited. I could fall and feign an injury then try to use my legs and feet to incapacitate my captor. But perhaps if I show a bit of cooperation, he'll tire of having to feed me and rebind my hands in front of me to make his own life easier. At least then, I'd have a chance to grab the lead rope or to use my bound hands like a club to fight him.
As the sun begins to lower in the sky, we arrive at a walled town with a fortress in the center. We pass through the gate unchallenged and go directly to the smithy. "We'll sleep in your stable tonight," my captor informs the blacksmith, using numerous hand gestures to indicate his meaning. We must be in a place where people don't speak our language. "In the morning, I'll have work for you. Have your fires ready by sunup." The blacksmith doesn't argue. He's either terrified or knows this man or is accustomed to the presence of outlaws and brigands.
I'm given bread and water and taken to the hay loft for the night. My hands are tied around one of the posts supporting the roof and my feet around another nearby. At least tonight I'm able to lie down in the hay to sleep, a great improvement over hugging a tree.
I'm kicked from the depths of sleep at what I judge to be dawn from the faint light rising from the smithy below. I'm untied and ordered down the ladder, my neck rope held firmly in the grip of my captor. It's then that I discover I am to be the object of the blacksmith's work this day. I'm bound to a chair by ropes tied firmly around my chest and across my lap. The blacksmith ties on his apron while his apprentice works the bellows to stoke the fires.
"Wrist shackles first," orders my captor, drawing with a stick in the dirt to indicate what he wants, since neither seems to have much of the other's language. "One side fixed, the other with a hasp so I can unlock it to bind his hands in front of him, behind, or around a pole or tree. The chain between them short — about half the length of a man's foot."
Despite knowing what's about to happen, I'm oddly fascinated by watching the blacksmith work. Four half-circlets of metal. A single loop of chain attached to two of them. A length of chain measured to my captor's specifications and affixed at each end to a half-circlet. A hinge and a hasp and one shackle is complete. As he approaches me with this hardware, the noose around my neck tightens. Even the slightest additional tug and the rough rope would start cutting into the skin of my neck. I've no choice but to submit.
The apprentice brings red-hot metal from the fire, and they use that to weld the remaining two circlets around one wrist. The shackle with the hinge is wrapped around my other wrist, a lock placed through the hasp, and the key handed to my captor. The pressure on my neck relaxes somewhat.
"Leg shackles next," comes the order, accompanied by more drawing in the dirt. "He should be able to walk but not run." The blacksmith returns to work.
About halfway through the making of the leg shackles, a group of some eight or ten armed and mounted men appears at the smithy. Their leader, apparently parroting a few words he's been given, addresses my captor. "Our lord want talk."
"Then he'll just have to come down here," my captor replies insolently. "I've a prisoner to guard."
From the middle of the group, a voice says, "I rather thought you might say that," and those in front move aside to let this man pass through. He's heavily armed and sits his saddle with the authority of one who knows he's in charge. On his head is a small coronet. Clearly the local lord. He appears to be just a few years older than me and he speaks our language. "What business have you here?" he asks.
"What you see in front of you."
"And that is all?"
"Aye." It seems this is going to be the end of the exchange; then my captor turns to face the lord. "But maybe you could do something for me."
"I doubt it, but make your request."
"I need a message sent ... to the king of the lands next to yours. Tell him I have something that belongs to him. Tell him I want a ransom. And every day that I don't get that ransom, I'll take his grandson farther and farther away, and the size of the ransom will get larger and larger."
"And why should I send such a message? This is no business of mine, and we have no disputes with our neighbors." "No reason. Just thought I'd ask." And he turns his attention back to observing the blacksmith at work.
After a moment, the lord asks, "And what are your intentions once this ... business ...," he speaks the word with distaste, "is finished?"
Without looking back at his questioner, my captor replies, "You've nothing to fear from me. I've no quarrel with you. We'll be on our way. Like I said ... taking this man farther and farther away from his king."
"See that you're gone by sundown," says the lord, and he and his guards turn and ride away.
The business at the smithy takes most of the rest of the day. My ankles are shackled. Chains are fitted between the shackles on my wrists and those on my ankles — barely long enough that I can eat and drink if I bend my head down to my hands — intended, quite obviously, to prevent my being able to raise my hands above my head to attack my captor. Finally, the noose is replaced with a metal collar, to which a rope can be attached to keep me under control. My captivity is complete.
Obeying the lord, we pass out through the gates of the town before sundown, but camp for the night within sight of the walls. Once again, I'm tethered to a tree trunk, but this tree is small enough I can slide my arms down to the base of the trunk and get into a more or less prone position for sleeping. As my captor throws the saddle blanket over me, I speak for the first time today. "You're a fool, you know."
He says nothing.
"My king will pay no ransom. That's not his way." I have no intention of confirming to him my relationship to the king.
He turns and looks down at me. "I wouldn't be so sure about that. From what I hear, you're his favorite. If he's any sort of man, he'll pay to get you back."
Oh, how little you know, I think to myself. If you but knew what sort of man my grandfather is, you'd know he would never stoop to your game, no matter how much the results might break his heart.
In the morning, we take to the road again, my captor riding, me walking behind, led by my neck collar. The sense of urgency — of panic, almost — to get free returns. My mind tells me it's almost impossible now that I'm chained up with such limited freedom of movement. But that same mind says I have to try something. Around mid-morning, I start slowing my steps, gradually at first. My captor rides on, taking no notice of what's happening behind him. Nor does he take any notice when I slow further, and his steady forward pace eventually pulls me to the ground. I manage to turn as I fall so that I land on my back rather than flat on my face; but he plods on, dragging me across the hard, uneven road. Knowing that tearing my shirt or having the skin scraped off my back won't do me any good, I finally shout, "Alright! Stop! You win!" He slows his pace considerably but doesn't stop until I'm finally forced to beg, "Please!"
He stops his horse and turns in the saddle to look at me in what can only be described as amusement. "Walk or be dragged. I care not which." As I struggle to get back to my feet, the expression on his face turns into a smirk.
"Who are you?" I ask again.
Predictably, there's no response. But I resolve to ask him every day in the hope he'll eventually tire of the game and at least tell me his name. Even that would be some small comfort as I try to make sense of why he's doing this.
I realize I need to keep track of time and place if ever I should break free and need to find my way home. This is my third morning in captivity. The attack occurred on Sunday. Today is Wednesday. We're traveling west on a road that appears to have had much wagon traffic on it. I look for landmarks as we travel but see nothing of note. No wide flowing rivers. No distinctive hills or peaks to use as guides. So far, we've not come upon another town or village. I occupy my mind by writing an imaginary letter to Gwen, my wife. I tell her of my love and how much I miss her. I tell her that I'm traveling and describe the landscape, but omit the circumstances of that travel.
By now I know that my only hope of escape is for someone in a town or village — or someone we meet on the road — to challenge my captor with sufficient strength and conviction to set me free. How long will it be before that someone appears?CHAPTER 2
We continue to wander farther and farther westward, each day more or less the same as its predecessor. I'm kicked awake by my captor as the sun is rising. Every morning, I repeat my question, "Who are you?" occasionally adding, "Where are you taking me?" I've yet to be rewarded with a reply.
Somehow we always find a stream — even a small one — for our midday stop. It seems as if my captor knows this landscape. A cup of water, a small chunk of bread, a few bites of cheese ... not a lot to sustain a man. At least now I can eat and drink for myself. In the afternoon, we plod on. My captor makes no effort to accelerate the pace beyond what a man can comfortably walk. He seems in no hurry to reach whatever destination he has in mind. At night, we camp in the open, always somewhere there's a substantial tree. I'm becoming adept at sleeping tied to a tree. In truth, it's not difficult after walking all day with very little food.
The days turn into weeks. We wander, seemingly aimlessly, often taking tracks off the main road. Now and again we find shelter for the night in a shed or a barn. Sometimes we find a small village. Sometimes we find another track that takes us back to the main road. More often, we retrace our steps.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Second Son"
Copyright © 2018 Pamela Taylor.
Excerpted by permission of Black Rose Writing.
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