Sample Chapter from the latest novel (unedited)
Due out approximately 15th August
The Kingdom of Brycheniog
Elena Wyn tended the fire in the stone hearth, feeding in the extra logs to warm the contents of the pot. The sound of metal on metal echoed from the other room on the ground floor as her husband worked the ore to make a new plough blade for the manor. Elena paused and wiped the sweat from her brow. The combined heat from the furnace and the hearth meant the single living space was stuffy but it was better than the piercing cold that lay outside the thick stone walls.
Wales was in the grip of winter and the snow lay knee deep throughout the valley, forcing the villagers to stay indoors and ride out the storm. Ordinarily this meant only a few days isolation but the snow seemed never ending and they were relying on the dried fruit and salted meat they had put aside for times such as these. Throughout the summer, Elena kept pigs and chickens but though most of the birds were kept alive for the eggs, it made no sense to feed the pigs through the winter so every autumn they butchered the animals and salted the meat to preserve it for the colder months. In the spring, she replaced her stock with piglets bought from the Manor farm, using the small amount of coins her husband had earned from the occasional traveler needing to shoe a horse or straighten a knife.
Every family in the village made their own arrangements against such winters and though often the precautions were unnecessary, if anyone neglected to prepare and the weather caught them out, then the ensuing hunger was a cruel bed mate.
Elena stirred the Potage, content that it was thickening up nicely. She turned to her five year old daughter sitting in the window alcove, peering at the white world outside through a crack in the shutters.
‘Lowri, summon the men,’ said Elena. ‘The food is done.’
The girl jumped from the stone ledge and ran to the door separating the two rooms. The blast of heat was instantaneous and Lowri waited until the sounds of clashing iron eased.
‘Father,’ she shouted when there was a pause, ‘the dinner is done.’
Thomas Ruthin looked over and smiled at his daughter before straightening up and stretching his back. The young boy on the bellows also stopped and pulled a rag from his pocket to wipe the sweat from his brow. Garyn was her sixteen year old brother and worked alongside his father at the forge.
‘Are you sure you haven’t eaten it all, Lowri?’ teased the boy.
‘No, we haven’t touched it yet,’ answered Lowri with a haughty shrug.
‘Well, that’s a shame,’ said Garyn, lowering his voice menacingly, ‘because now I’m going to eat it all …and then I’m going to eat you.’ He crouched and ran with arms outstretched toward his sister, chasing her into the living area.
Lowri squealed in delight and ran around the table before seeking refuge amongst the folds of her mother’s skirts.
‘Enough,’ chided Elena, ‘the pot is hot and you will burn.’
‘He’s going to eat me,’ cried Lowri.
‘No he’s not,’ said Elena, ‘Garyn, leave your sister alone.’
Thomas walked in, closing the door behind him, shutting out the smells of the furnace.
‘It smells good,’ he said taking his seat.
Elena wrapped a piece of cloth around the handle and hoisted the pot from the flames to the table.
‘I put in another piece of pork this morning,’ she said, ‘as well as a basket of dried apples and some grain. This pot should last for three days.’
She placed five wooden bowls around the table and silence fell in the room as Elena filled just four, leaving the fifth empty alongside a knife they knew would remain unused.
‘Prayers,’ said Thomas and they linked hands. ‘Heavenly father,’ he said, ‘we thank you for your bounty and pray you bring our son home safe. Amen’
‘Amen,’ answered the family.
Elena looked toward the empty place setting before glancing at her husband with a sad smile.
‘Thank you,’ she said.
Thomas just nodded and gave her an encouraging smile of his own.
‘Can we start?’ asked Lowri.
‘Wait,’ said her father suddenly, ‘I’ve forgotten something.’ He left his seat and disappeared into the workshop.
‘What’s he doing?’ asked Garyn.
‘I have no idea,’ answered his mother.
‘Can we start, pleeease,’ whined Lowri.
‘In a moment,’ said Elena. ‘We will wait for your father. The soup is still too hot for you to eat.’
Again they fell silent, the quiet broken only by the crackle of flames from the hearth and the sound of Lowri blowing her soup.
‘Sorry,’ said Thomas, re-entering the room. ‘I forgot where I hid it.’
‘Hid what?’ asked Elena.
Thomas produced something from behind his back and placed it on the table before Garyn.
‘Your mother tells me it is the anniversary of your birth,’ said Thomas. ‘This is a good day, Garyn so I have made you something as a gift.’
Elena’s hands flew to her mouth as she gasped at the unexpected gesture..
‘A gift?’ said Garyn taking the Hessian wrapped package from his father. ‘For me?’
Thomas looked at Elena who was beaming with delight.
‘For you,’ said Thomas, returning his attention to his son.
‘What is it?’ asked Garyn.
‘Just open it,’ moaned Lowri impatiently.
Garyn poked out his tongue at his sister before slowly opening the hessian and revealing a perfectly formed eating knife. The blade shone in the flickering candlelight and the highly polished oak handle was silky smooth to the touch. It was a replica of that used by his father.
‘Every man should own his own eating knife,’ said Thomas.
Garyn picked up the knife and held it up.
‘It’s beautiful,’ said Elena.
‘And well made,’ said Garyn.
‘I should think so,’ guffawed Thomas, ‘or my years as a blacksmith have been wasted.’
‘Can we eat now?’ whined Lowri.
‘Of course,’ said Elena and while three of the family lifted the bowls to sip at the hot broth, the fourth was already delving through the liquid with his knife, quietly excited at the acquisition of his first blade.
‘It’s stopped snowing,’ shouted Lowri, early the following morning.
‘Does that girl never rest?’ mumbled Thomas into the horsehair filled deerskin that formed his pillow. ‘The sun is not yet up and she already seeks adventure.’
‘Her spirit fills me with joy each day,’ said Elena, snuggling closer to her man beneath the sheepskin cover. ‘Her laughter is a tonic no apothecary can hope to bottle.’
‘I know,’ smiled Thomas, ‘and I would have it no other way. But is a few moments’ extra sleep too much to ask in the morning?’
‘You go back to sleep,’ said Elena. ‘I will take her to feed the chickens.’
‘No, it’s all right,’ yawned Thomas. ‘The little devil has me awake now, besides, I have a busy day before me.’
‘Come,’ said Elena. ‘I’ll get some bread and cheese. You light the fire.’
They descended the ladder from the sleeping platform in the rafters and Thomas smiled to himself at his daughter’s constant chatter as he gently blew the central fire back to life.
‘Can we go out in the snow?’ asked Lowri, peering through the window shutter. ‘It looks so clean?’
‘Later,’ said Elena, ‘call your brother first and join us to break your fast.’
Lowri went into the forge to wake Garyn. Her brother slept in the corner of the workshop in his own cot while she slept in an alcove of the main room. Her nose wrinkled at the smell and was glad she didn’t have to sleep in here. It was so dirty. She ran across the workshop and pounced on the sleeping figure of her brother.
‘Wake up, sleepy,’ she said. ‘It’s stopped snowing and mother said we could play outside.’
‘Go away,’ mumbled Garyn and turned over to get more sleep.
‘You have to get up,’ said Lowri. ‘Mother said.’
With a sigh, Garyn threw back the sheepskin and followed his sister into the living area.
‘Hello, son,’ said Thomas. ‘Sleep well?’
Garyn nodded and sat at the table with his eyes shut.
‘Here,’ said Elena, handing him a wooden tankard. ‘There is some milk left, drink it before it goes off. Now the snow has stopped I can go to the village and get some more.’ She placed a chunk of cheese on the table along with half a loaf of flat bread.
‘Eat up,’ said his father, ‘we have a busy day before us and you will need all your strength.’
Garyn produced his sheathed knife from below the table and Thomas had to stop himself laughing when he realised Garyn had slept the whole night with his new knife attached to a belt over his woollen night shirt.
‘So what are you doing today?’ asked Elena as she cut slices of cheese for Lowri.
‘The brothers at the Abbey sent word they want a cart re-wheeled,’ said Thomas. ‘We have to go up there, strip the cart and bring the wheels back as templates. God willing, they may have some other work as well.’ He turned to Garyn. ‘Get yourself dressed boy, this commission will keep us going until the weather breaks.’
Ten minutes later, father and son trudged through the virgin snow toward the far side of the village, their heads covered with hooded capes against the biting wind that still whistled down the valley. Soon they approached the imposing walls of the Abbey and Thomas rapped his knuckles on the large wooden door. He repeated the action until they heard the sounds of bolts being drawn back and the door swung slowly inward with a lazy creak. A monk stood inside, dressed in a full length black habit secured by corded belt around the middle.
‘Good morning’ said the blacksmith, removing his hood. ‘We have come about the commission…’ His sentence lay unfinished as he recognized the man before him.
‘Thomas Ruthin,’ said the Monk in recognition. It is good to see you again.’
The two men stared at each other and Garyn detected a hint of anger on his father’s face.
‘Brother Evan,’ he said. ‘It has been a long time.’
‘It has,’ said the Monk and fell silent again. ‘I forget my manners,’ he said eventually standing to one side, ‘please come in out of the cold, you are expected.’
‘Do you know him?’ whispered Garyn once they were in the gloomy corridor.
‘I did once,’ said his father curtly.
The Monk turned toward them.
‘Please follow me.’
The three men walked down a narrow corridor, lit by a few candles. At the end they passed through another door and Garyn stopped in awe as they entered a large chamber decorated with tapestries depicting the glory of God and tales from the bible. Statues of angels lined the walls staring down piously from above as they passed.
‘I thought the Brothers lived frugal lives,’ said Garyn.
‘Shhh,’ admonished Thomas.
‘It’s quite alright,’ said Brother Evan. ‘Your son is very astute and is partly correct. These corridors are for the eyes of the people of the village who expect such things from the order. We live a far more frugal existence than these surroundings suggest and you would find our cells austere in comparison. They passed through the hall and stopped as the Monk knocked on a door.
‘Come in,’ said a voice.
The Monk opened the door and they entered the sparsely furnished room. At the far side, another monk sat at a small table writing methodically in the light from a single slit window.
‘Father,’ said the Monk. ‘This is Thomas Ruthin the Blacksmith.’
‘Ah,’ said the sitting monk. He put aside the quill and turned in his seat, ‘I am Father William, the Abbot of St Benedict’s. Thank you for coming.’ He nodded at the first Monk who promptly left the room, closing the door behind him.
Please, be seated,’ said the Abbot. ‘Would you care for some wine?’
‘No, thank you,’ said Thomas. ‘We have come about the cart.’
‘Yes, the cart,’ said the Abbot. ‘Well, there is indeed a cart that needs repair but I have to confess it is of secondary importance to the real reason you were summoned.’
‘I don’t understand,’ said Thomas.
‘I hear you are an honest man, Thomas and can be trusted to keep your silence.’
‘I am a man of my word, Father, a trait that all men would benefit from.’
‘Indeed,’ said the Monk, ‘and your son?’
‘Our values are shared,’ said Thomas. ‘I will vouch for him.’
‘Good,’ said the Abbot. ‘I do have a commission for you, Thomas. It is but a small task but pays well, twice the price of a cart wheel. In return, I require your silence as to what you are about to see and do. Can you guarantee this?’
Thomas only needed a few seconds’ thought before agreeing. Commissions of any sort were rare during the winter, especially lucrative ones such as these.
‘You have my word,’ he said. ‘What is the task?’
‘Follow me,’ said the Abbot and picking up a lit candle, led them through a second door. They crossed a courtyard before descending a winding stairway to a set of cells below the Abbey. As they walked along the corridor, they saw two plainly clothed servants struggling with a sobbing man.
‘What goes on here?’ demanded the Abbot.
The two men pushed the third against a wall and held him securely.
‘Father,’ said one, ‘we caught this thief in the grounds. He stole a loaf from the kitchens.’
‘Is this true?’ asked the Abbot.
‘Father, my children starve,’ said the man over his shoulder. ‘The shutter was open and I forgot myself. I will pay as soon as I am able, I swear.’
‘Theft is never an option,’ said the Abbot.
‘But my children cry in pain at the ache in their bellies,’ begged the man. ‘Please, just a crust until I can get work at the manor. I beg you.’
‘The times are hard,’ said the Abbot, ‘and many feel the pangs of hunger. How would it be if we just allowed all such thefts to be justified so? Crusts we can spare but theft is a crime that cannot be condoned.’ He turned to the servants. ‘Put him in a cell and tomorrow we will hand him over to the Manor for judgement.’
‘No, please,’ gasped the man, ‘Cadwallader will have my hands. My family will starve.’
‘Then pray to God and hope Cadwallader is lenient,’ said the Abbot.
‘Father, please have mercy,’ begged the man.
‘The Lord will have mercy,’ said the Abbot and nodded toward the servants. The two men dragged the prisoner along the corridor before throwing him in a room and locking the door.
‘Thank you for your diligence,’ said the Abbot. ‘See if there is warm soup as a reward.’
‘Thank you, Father,’ murmured the men and disappeared from the dark passageway.
‘A sad testament to these troubled times,’ said the Abbot and continued to the end of the corridor before stopping before a locked door. ‘What you are about to witness, remains in this room,’ he said and turned a large key in the lock.
Thomas and Garyn followed him into the cell and waited in the dark as the door was locked behind them. The Abbot took his candle and lit three more around the room. At first they struggled to see anything in the gloom but as their eyes adjusted, they could see the shape of a man lying on a cot facing the far wall. He was dressed in the type of winter cloak favoured by the Monks.
The Abbot walked across the room. He reached forward and shook the man gently by the shoulders. Immediately the man jumped in fright and scrambled to the back of the cot, pulling his hood across his face.
‘Be calm,’ said the Abbot. ‘These men are friends.’ He turned to the blacksmith. ‘This man was brought here a few days ago,’ he said, ‘and as you will soon see, he is in need of your particular skills. I assume you have your tools?’
The blacksmith removed the bag from over his shoulder.
‘I do,’ said Thomas, ‘but see no task.’
The Abbot turned to the prisoner.
‘Please stand up,’ he said.
After a few moments, the man struggled to his feet and stood before them with his head bowed, the deep hood covering his features.
‘I am going to undo your cloak,’ said the Abbot. ‘We mean you no harm. Do you understand?’
The man nodded. The Abbot reached out to undo the ties around the man’s shoulders and stood back as the cloak fell to the floor.
Thomas and Garyn stared in disbelief. The man was nothing more than skin and bone and every rib could be seen through his parchment-thin flesh. His black hair fell in a tangled mess around his shoulders and a matted beard fell to his chest. Around his neck he wore the iron collar of a slave with similar bands around his waist and ankles. His hands were restrained in cuffs and all were connected to each other by several short chains, restricting his movement to an absolute minimum. His face was heavily pitted from some sort of disease and they could see the unmistakable scars of the whip across his torso. Despite his appalling condition and the restrictive physical constraints, there was one more thing that kept father and son staring at him in astonishment. His skin was as black as the darkest night.
‘Who is he?’ asked Thomas eventually.
‘He is a from the holy land,’ said the Abbot. ‘And has been sent to us by our brothers engaged on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.’
‘Since when has the order condoned slavery?’ asked Thomas.
‘We don’t,’ said the Abbot. ‘and that is why we asked you here. Our brothers saved his life and I would free him from his chains.’
‘But why send him here?’ Surely it would have been easier to free him in his own lands.’
‘That is not your concern,’ said the Abbot. ‘All I need you to do is release his chains. Our tools barely mark the surface. Do you think you can do it?’
Thomas approached the man, who took a step backward in fear.
‘Does he speak?’ asked Thomas.
‘Not that I know of,’ said Father William. ‘Though he seems to understand most of what I say.’
‘What is your name?’ asked Thomas facing the man but he remained silent. ‘I need to look at your chains,’ continued Thomas. ‘I won’t hurt you.’ He stepped closer and put his hands up to the collar, feeling the quality before examining the chains and the bands around the hands and feet. Thomas stepped back. ‘The chains will be straight forward,’ he said, ‘but the collars are of quality steel. They will take time.’
‘Take all the time you need,’ said the Abbot. ‘Enemy or not, no man will wear the yolk of slavery within these walls.’
‘Do you think it is safe to release him?’ asked Thomas.
‘He is as weak as a new-born,’ said the Monk. ‘You are quite safe.’
‘There are some other tools that I will need,’ said Thomas, ‘but I have enough to be getting on with for today.’
‘Then I will leave you to it,’ said the Abbot. ‘The door will be locked from the outside but attended at all times. Just knock when you are ready.’ He left the room and they listened as the key turned in the lock.
‘Replace your robe,’ said Thomas, turning to the prisoner and pointing at the garment.
The man bent, lifted the cloak up to his shoulders but due to the chains connecting his shackles to his waist he was unable to tie the cords. Garyn stepped forward and tied the knot for him.
‘Sit,’ said Thomas pointing at the cot. As the man dropped to the cot, Thomas pulled up a chair and sat before him, staring into his piercing eyes.
‘Look,’ said Thomas eventually. ‘I don’t know why you are here but like the Father says, it is none of my business. I am an honest man, here to do an honest day’s work. I mean you no harm and would like to think you will return that sentiment.’ He fell silent, staring at the man, wondering if he had understood anything at all.
‘Garyn, bring me another chair,’ said Thomas eventually, ‘I think in this case, actions speak louder than words.’ When the chair was in place, Thomas leaned forward and lifted one of the prisoners’ feet onto the chair, revealing the clasp around his ankle.
‘The task will need the benefit of the small anvil,’ said Thomas examining the clasps, ‘but at least we can give him some mobility. Hand me the large file and the tongs.’
Garyn opened the sack and retrieved the tools.
‘Hold these fast,’ said Thomas, clasping a link of the chain in the jaws of the tongs and placing it on the chair.
Garyn did as he was told and as soon as the chain was secured, Thomas set about it with the sharp edge of the file, slowly cutting into the link. It took a long time and father and son exchanged places many times before Thomas called a halt.
‘That should be enough,’ he said, ‘bring me the spike and the two hammers.’ He placed one hammer on the stone floor and balanced the blunt end of the spike on the flat side of the hammer head. ‘Hold the spike still,’ said Thomas and lowered the cut link over the pointed end of the spike. Using the other hammer, he drove the link down onto the bar, forcing the link apart. Within moments the link opened enough to allow the next link through the gap and the first leg was released.
‘There you go,’ said Thomas wiping the sweat from his brow, ‘the first of many.’
They sat against the wall and Thomas unwrapped a cloth containing the remains of the bread and cheese from Elena. As they ate their meal, they watched as the prisoner stretched his leg and scratched at the scars where the chains had chafed for so long. Garyn stood up and walked over to stand before him.
‘Careful, boy,’ said Thomas.
Garyn broke his piece of cheese in half along with the bread and offered it to the prisoner. The man stared at him for a few moments but didn’t move.
‘Take it,’ said Garyn.
The man slowly pushed his chained hands through the front of the cloak and accepted the food.
Thomas watched as the two shared the meal in silence. Eventually he too stood and walked over with the flask of wine Elena had prepared.
‘Drink,’ he said. ‘I have had enough.’
For the remainder of the day they worked on the rest of the chains and on one occasion, sent for the Abbot to ask if the prisoner could be taken to the forge but the request was denied, despite being assured the process would be much quicker.
‘He stays here,’ the Abbot had replied. ‘We will pay you well for your time.’ After that, Thomas and Garyn focussed on the task in hand and by the time night fell, all the prisoner’s chains were removed.
‘That’s enough for one day,’ said Thomas. ‘Tomorrow we will bring a brazier and the small anvil. The collar will have to be softened before being worked but it won’t be easy. We will have to protect the skin from the heat.’
Garyn packed away the tools and walked to the door. Behind them the man watched them leave but as the door was unlocked, they heard him speak for the first time.
‘Wait,’ he said and both men spun around in surprise.
‘Masun,’ he said. ‘My name is Masun.’