Blackthorn

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How can wind cut so bitterly through the blackthorn and trees this deep in a wood? My hands and feet are numb and virtually useless clubs.

Tiny snowflakes and spicules of ice dart and zig-zag left and right, up and down, helpless in the battering gusts among ice-rimed trunks and branches.

Sluggish, cold, I can’t even move my mouth. I think I’ve been asleep but everything is confused. I lean a shoulder on the cold-snapped bark of a tree. There’s no point in trusting my frozen hands to steady me.

I’ve been stripped of my armour, dented and torn though it was. I can’t imagine the battered and hacked remains of my sword were taken, more likely thrown aside. Rigid fibres of frozen rope stick out from my sleeves like a hedgehog’s spines, why? Oh … I was tied and prostrate by a dying fire. Hungry. A prisoner. Now I remember, my captors lying silent and exhausted as I worked my bonds loose, the effort keeping my blood moving.

My hair, stiff with frozen sweat and blood, crumples as I rest against the tree. Breath, wheezing, blinds me with vapour in the light of a full moon.

It’s time to crawl. There is no getting through the blackthorn wall ahead. The moon obscured, I can’t find my way through except to feel using my forehead and eyelids – the only skin still able to register touch … and heat. My head hits something not viciously cold or sharp. It moves. The heavy thud of a hoof, a deep snort and cloud of vapour mean I’ve come out of the clawing hedge and bumped into a horse’s fetlock.

A horse … maybe I can get away. The stars are beginning to fade; I’ll soon be able to see – and be seen. I’ve left a trail a baby could follow through the frost-fringed leaves. I have no idea how I can mount a horse. The effort is unimaginable in my present torpor. I haul myself up and hug the horse’s leg for warmth, pressing a cheek through ice. Another blast of scything wind causes the beast to move, dragging my face against coarse bristles.

I’m groaning. No, it’s someone else … movement too. Moonlight glints on metal. A sabaton I think. A knight sleeping among brambles? I think that’s what I saw.

Movement has brought more feeling and coordination to my limbs. Pulling on a stirrup I stand and, as darkness creeps fugitive from the dawn, reassess my situation.

A knight means ransom, valuable armour and he may carry some food and wine. A horse, valuable too and a means to evade or outpace pursuit. All I need is to get my body working and win over the animal. Stroking its nose I hold the bridle and scan the saddle for bags. One either side plus a scabbard and sword. My morning is improving but with the fiercest pins and needles I’ve ever experienced.

Fingers like dead sticks pull cold-stiffened fabric. The first bag contains a hard loaf, some cheese and a shard of honeycomb so cold I can hardly bend it. The horse likes honey, and snorts with pleasure. We’re making friends.

Something is wrong with my vision. Are my eyes too cold to see anything clearly? I’ve never heard of such a thing; maybe it’s exhaustion, hunger or my head received some mighty blow.

Another groan from the knight. I try the other bag, hoping to find rope with which I can bind him. Only a flask but I’ll make rope from the brambles he’s fallen among or use the lacings of his armour.

Wait … there’s an arrowhead buried in the saddle. Blood streaking the outside. Surely not? It’s an awl-tip and must have passed through the knight’s cuisse, leg, the inside of his cuisse and penetrated the saddle. It’s been hacked off. He’s had to cut it to dismount … or collapse.

So my ransom is wounded. I’ll have to find some way of keeping him alive. Bramble leaves crushed could staunch and stop the wound poisoning.

I lurch towards him. The rest of the arrow is still through his leg and tangled in bramble shoots. Chewing leaves for a poultice, I unlace his cuisse and tug the arrow out. Brave knight, he hardly makes a noise. Removing the armour and rubbing bramble-leaf paste into the wounds, I secure everything with a strip of leather torn from my jack.

I’m still bedevilled by blurred vision and can’t see his face clearly as I remove the helmet.

I can tell from his armour, exquisite fluted mail, he’s not one of ours and not one of theirs. Some poor sod caught in the crossfire.

Stripping the armour off piece by piece and taking care to avoid metal clattering, I decide to wear it myself. Hopefully I’ll be seen as neither friend nor foe and allowed to pass unhindered.

The knight shivers and I wrap him in his cloak, tucking ends in and ensuring his feet are well insulated. Wine dribbles down his neck as I soak bread and feed it to him by hand. I’m still shivering but he’s weak and may have lost a lot of blood.

He’s talking but not in any way I understand; I can’t make out a word. It’s more a series of noises from which you could make words though I do get the impression of sentences.

The sky is quite light now, cut into a myriad shapes by silhouetted branches and twigs. I can’t hear a noise other than our gasps and raucous birds fighting over the dead. Not a single sound comes from those people I escaped though they can’t be much more than a minute’s walk distant.

~

The last few days have been dreamlike. Maybe it’s weeks. I’m still hazy and confused. That must have been a savage impact my head received. Everything is still a bit of a blur but I’m getting used to it. I wonder if my captors were all dead or dying frozen: no one pursued me. Did I slaughter them in their sleep? I don’t remember. It would have the obvious action if I was thinking clearly. I haven’t survived this long through being merciful.

The prisoner is my main worry. He’s bound and tethered on long ropes from the saddle – ropes I gained by cutting down enemy deserters hanged by the wayside. Following about four metres behind, the knight stumbles and groans. I’ve dressed his leg wound and kept him fed and watered, indeed he’s had more food than me. I don’t know why I bother with him. I doubt he’s worth much and there’s all the fuss of finding out where he comes from, sending messages demanding ransom. I can’t understand a thing he says so even torturing for information is useless.

Stopping at a tavern I used some gold and silver I took from him and bought several days’ supplies – and he’s eaten the lion’s share. Still his leg wound grows and my simples have failed to stop it, despite my upbringing in a country burgeoning with medicinal plants.

The weather is improving though the world is still scabbed in cracking ice and hoar. Fewer gusts blind us with snow whipped from the road and marsh either side. This is a black, grey and white land with endlessly overcast sky. Gloom eats through my soul, emptying me. A lonely and brutal place – and, with no sun or stars to guide me, I’m lost.

There’s a small stream under a low bridge at the first junction I’ve seen in days upon desolate days. I can feed and water the horse and think what I’m going to do with the knight. Killing him swiftly is the most humane of my convenient choices.

The knight collapses as we stop. I have no idea what to do with him or which road to take. I think one leads northwards to my country but so far the road has twisted between low rocky outcrops and dangerous bog so much I doubt if any direction will be better than another. I feel defeated: the gods have taken my soul and wrung it out. For the first time in my life I don’t want anything but peace and rest.

My armour is silent, all joints softened by woollen picadills, as I ease the knight to his feet and cut his bonds – there’s no fight left in him. Barely standing he leans on me, one arm over my shoulders like a brother. He’s still talking his surreal tongue, though it’s almost a whisper. I’m not sure if he’s thanking me or asking me to kill him.

As I walk him towards the horse to help him on, he speaks louder and looks down the road I chose not to take. Pulling away from me he stands swaying, pointing. His speech remains unintelligible but the message is clear. He wants to go home.

I suspect he’s going to die soon. To die at home … to be buried by the people you love? I sigh. This changes everything. If I don’t take him I will damn myself even if the gods look aside.

With vision still fogged I study the horizon and hope it’s a line of trees I see. There may be shelter, wood for a fire, warmth. I nod, place his good foot in a stirrup and grunt as I push him up. Blood drips from my chin. I’ve bitten a lip; my arms shake. Everything seems so much effort. My knight is slumped, nose nearly touching the pommel.

I stumble and slide, scattering broken ice over frozen bog as I collect sphagnum to push into his wound. It hasn’t appeared to help yet but that’s no reason to stop.

After binding his thigh again. I remove my sabatons and greaves swapping them with the boots I lent him. I have to walk now; steel, no matter how beautifully sculpted, doesn’t work – especially on ice.

Without the effort of walking, the knight rallies a little, talks and looks around. His voice, sing-song and even sounding humorous at times, is a welcome relief from his earlier groans which were the only sound other than harsh cries of carrion crows.

We take his road and drag ourselves up a gentle but still arduous slope. Yes woodland – at last. We’re going to camp and rest for a full night of warmth and firelight.

~

Sunlight! It didn’t reach us before the cloud swamped it again but the tips of the frosted trees glowed white for a moment in the dawn.

I’ve dried our clothes, removed my ticks, roasted pitch from birch bark, mixed it with crushed oak galls and treated his wound. Gods, that has to help or nothing will. He seems brighter and stronger this morning. My eyesight seems to be improving but I still can’t see him clearly. It’s like he’s not prepared to reveal himself or hasn’t… I don’t know what I think.

Even the horse is in better spirits, waiting stock-still and uncomplaining for me to help the knight into the saddle I’ve cleaned and stripped of mould.

Rabbits scurry and bound from the road as we rejoin it, white tails and ears flapping. So that’s what keeps the grass short. Thank you, rabbits; it would have been hell without you.

The trees thin and we leave behind the endless spiders’ webs spangled with icy dew. Ahead is a gap in crags of steepled rock. Forbidding, radiating threat.

I think my poultice is helping the knight. He slips from the saddle, hands me the reins and walks forward, limping but stronger. Signalling me to stop he stares at the claws of stone and walks back to me. Murmuring in his soft tongue, he pushes my arms up and releases the sword and scabbard from my waist. Attaching them to the saddle loops, he waves me on. There is an enormous respect and trust developing between us. I don’t know how it’s happened but I’m glad.

The knight walks forward, signalling me to follow when he’s about twenty paces ahead. Using the reins I urge the horse to a slow walk, hooves thump on softer ground, no longer scrabbling for purchase among iron-hard ruts.

My sense of dread turns to paralysed horror as clawed terrors scratch and scramble among the rocks ahead. Bat-like wings open and monsters rise, filling the air with screeching cries and a foul stench. I sink to my knees, hands over my ears, retching. Creatures like these are painted on shields, woven on banners, inked around illuminated texts – they don’t actually exist!

I’m screaming, helpless, unmanned, too weak to move.

A hand, firm and confident tries to help me up. Instead, I cringe tighter into a ball as I’m pummelled by blasts of demonic wings, shrieks fracturing me like splintering slate. I’m shaking, crying out. Some of the things have landed and crawl around us. I can hear turf ripped up by claws, stones dislodged and smacking together. The knight removes his bandage and wraps it around my eyes, pushing pitch into my ears. Deaf and blind, I take deep breaths and put my fate in his hands. I’m helped up and led forwards, foul breath making me gasp and spit as if I’m breathing the fumes of boiling vomit.

The horse skitters and slides on loose rock. My arm is held firm by the knight, guiding me through a maze-like chaos of tumbled boulders until we leave the screams behind.

After helping me down a few metres of stony track, the knight removes the bandage, wipes tears and pitch from my face and, still talking calm and confident, rebinds his wound.

Despite screams of frustrated fury behind us I’m stunned by the view. If this is the knight’s country… I would never have believed such a glorious sight possible in this world.

We’re high on a ridge cut by a zig-zag track leading down, nearly for ever, to a plain circled with snow-capped mountains on all sides but that of a curving bay going almost out of sight. Islands, sunshine! This is like heaven.

It’s too steep to ride so the three of us clatter and scramble, the knight and I holding the horse either side, not merely for its benefit but mutual support.

As the track eases I’m startled by birdsong. So long on battlefields, I’ve usually heard the cruel cries of crows, rooks, ravens and other birds of death. Now it’s thrushes and skylarks. From a pond between waterfalls a white egret glares as if trying to damn us for disturbing its concentration.

Leaving it to lofty isolation we continue down to a stream where we rest the horse and drink sparkling water.

~

I’m standing on a balcony overlooking the slopes, vineyard below and sea in the distance. Gentle breezes blow the soft white of blackthorn blossom like a warm blizzard. This place is so dreamlike… Have I woken from a nightmare? Is this how life should be? My vision is perfect now – except the knight is still a vague outline. Sometimes I think his shape changes and wonder if there’s a monster hidden behind the blur. This must be his house. There are others here but I’m not sure if they’re servants or family. They all speak the same way but their language is becoming less of a mystery. Every sentence seems to be a whole word which expresses feelings. I suspect things are considered less important and probably omitted. If you listen to the tone you’ve more or less grasped the whole message. I’ve been practising and seem to be understood. My problem with understanding their language was not that it is complicated but so simple.

I’ve slept in a bed several wonderful times! Today I went down to the vineyard and planned ways to fortify and raise the embankment to stop flooding. I suspect the work done last year … did I do it? … is too fragile now.

Yes, the embankment, logs, clay, rocks was my project. Time is confusing here but not a problem. I also started work on an overflow to stop all floods in future. How long have I been here? This feels like my home now, or it always should have been. I never want to be anywhere else. Yes, storms in summer last year. I remember the messy, dangerous and hilarious adventures everyone had of draining the vineyard. Adults and children covered in mud, hair sticking out, splashing, dodging the worst currents that pulled frames from the ground and spun them towards the sea.

This is a new home. I feel safe and healed. My soul clear of torment and doubt, is bound into place. This is not the nightmare world of hatred and death I remember being born into, where everything was so wrong someone had to come and help me rescue myself.

That someone steps onto the balcony and for the first time I see the knight clearly. She smiles, speaks in that enchanting voice and hands me a goblet. Red wine. Wine we all made from grapes salvaged last year.

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©Gary Bonn, 2018

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