CHAPTER 3. THE EMPTY GRAVE
Henrie was jarred awake by the cacophony of ravens, the flutter of countless angry wings filling the air as he tried to lift his head. His face throbbed with a pain greater than any he had ever felt in his life.
The knight tried to blink away the darkness, but his left eye refused to open. As he raised a hand to his cheek, his fingers bumped against a wooden shaft, causing him to wail with a sudden surge of pain that nearly sent him into another state of delirium. He almost choked as he coughed and spat up either blood or bile.
With a loud groan, Henrie rolled onto his back and struggled to regain control of his ragged breathing. After a few moments, he gingerly felt along his jawline up towards his eye. His face was severely swollen and disfigured underneath a thick layer of dirt and dried blood.
The arrow seemed to be lodged deep inside his cheek somewhere close to his nose, but the swelling made it difficult to know for sure. Somehow the shaft had been broken off a couple inches above the wound. Henrie knew for certain that he would quickly bleed out if he tried to remove it. His only chance was to find a surgeon.
How am I even alive? He tried to smile but could not.
The throaty barking of ravens once again descended all around the knight as the birds returned to their perches. Their flapping wings rustled in the dark branches above him, silhouetted across a waxing moon.
Henrie shuddered from the cold. He instinctively curled his arms for warmth and realized his clothes had been stripped away, leaving him in only a linen shirt and a pair of hose. He felt cold, wet earth beneath him. He carefully propped himself up on an elbow and allowed his eye to adjust to the moonlight. His lower legs were half-submerged in the brackish water of a fen bordered by trees and tall grass. He had been left to die alone.
“Shtebbn,” he suddenly called to his son, but his mouth refused to form Stephain’s name. Henrie rolled over to his hands and knees and tried to stand. He felt woozy but knew he had to find Stephain. He steadied himself against the trunk of a willow.
Stumbling forward, he continued to try and call out, but the words were incoherent. A few paces ahead a bare foot protruded from the black water. It was short and narrow like that of a teenager. The knight felt a wave of panic wash over him. He fell to his knees and crawled forward into the bog. He ignored the rancid odor that was more foul than a cesspit.
“Oh! My shun!” Tears ran down from his eyes and stung the wound to his cheek. Henrie ran his hands along the body until he could grab it by the shirt and drag it up out of the water. There was a long, jagged cut across the base of the throat. He cradled its head as he wiped the grime from its face.
Dickon. Henrie was both elated and sickened. He laid the boy gently down onto the ground and waded back into the marsh. He groped with his hands in the murky water as he slowly stepped forward, the thick mud squishing between his toes.
It did not take long to locate Morgan. His torso was pierced by at least three arrows. He, too, had a long jagged cut across his neck. James’s corpse was only a few feet further away. His hands had been bound. The same telltale slice across the throat revealed how James had met his demise. He let the corpse sink back under the dark waters as he turned and retraced his steps.
Henrie criss-crossed the water’s edge several more times. His son’s body was not there. Neither was Lynard’s. He assumed they must have survived the initial fight. Thank God! His chest shuddered with a mix of joy and misery.
The knight crouched low and followed the drag marks through the marsh and grass until he found the road. The moon was high above and bathed the landscape in a soft bluish light. Across the road lay the body of Abbot. There was a short trail of thick blood leading from the pile of intestines that marked where he had fallen. It looked as though the brigands had tried to drag him off the road but eventually gave up.
Henrie followed their trail. Even if he had not spent a lifetime hunting boar and stag, it would not have been very hard. The moonlight revealed discarded items every few yards. First came pouches emptied of anything of value. Then came the clothing deemed unserviceable. He picked up Dickon’s cap, likely too small for any of the brigands. Lastly, he found Lynard’s livery coat; it was soaked in blood.
So they had already killed him. Henrie realized that meant he had somehow missed finding his corpse. And Stephain? Perhaps he had walked past his son’s body in the darkness. Stephain. Henrie could visualize his son’s cheeks still rosy from the cups of sweet wine at the White Hart.
“No,” he spat, refusing to abandon hope. He kept to the trail. The horse hooves cut deep into the soft ground. The knight took a knee and tried to study the tracks, hoping he could discern some sign that Stephain was traveling with them.
They’re no fools, he reassured himself. The son of a knight is a valuable commodity that could be ransomed. Except they’re outlaws, Henrie. How could they imagine delivering a message without getting caught? Then thought of his wife receiving word that her son was being held captive and her husband was dead in a ditch made him give up on rationalizing their plans. My dear, sweet Isabell! The news would send her to an early grave. He had to find his son before they realized the futility of their endeavor.
The tracks veered from the roadside and started across a meadow of waist-high grass that gave way to rolling hills. The column of men and horses had left a wide path that was not difficult to follow. Henrie paused to catch his breath, resting his hands on his knees. A gentle breeze gave the grass the appearance of a roiling sea under the light of the moon. The faint glow of a fire twinkled from a large stand of trees a couple hundred yards away.
Alford can’t be more than a couple of miles south of here. Henrie had not seen a hedge or fence, so he doubted he was in one of the town’s fields left fallow for grazing. His mind raced; his thoughts seemed to tumble over one another without purpose. How can there be outlaws so close to a town? Where is the undersheriff? He wanted to just lie down and go to sleep.
The sounds of boisterous laughter echoed down from the tree line, reminding the knight of his purpose. He rose and started up the hill, keeping low and veering off to the right so as not to walk directly into their midst.
“Give me some of that wine, Dom,” a voice suddenly bellowed, causing Henrie to drop to the ground, his heart pounding hard against his chest.
“Sod off, Dugald,” came a quick retort. “While you were busy looting purses, I helped myself to the baggage.” Several men laughed and joined in the revelry.
“Make him pay for it!”
“Yeah, make him pay!”
Henrie slowly rose to a low crouch and eased closer to the dark tree line. He aimed for a point about 75 paces from the bonfire. He was still too far away to see any of the brigands. Several more times a loud outburst would send him sprawling to the ground.
“I need a new sword, Rabbie. Let me have yours.”
“In your dreams, Allan,” came the reply. Henrie once again recognized the voice from the inn. Anger caused the knight to ball his hands into fists. “What’s wrong with the sword you already have?”
“It’s shite. You claimed the fancy one from sir what’s-his-name, and then you let Dom have the other good one. Besides, you don’t need two. Let me have your old one.”
Henrie stayed low and moved swiftly, only pausing once he reached the safety of the wood line.
Ballocks! He could barely make out the ground under the canopy of the forest. He put his hands out and slowly started forward, feeling his way along. With every step, it became increasingly harder to see looking toward the bright fire. He considered waiting until the brigands wore themselves out and finally turned in for the night.
I have to know if he’s still alive. The knight crept forward. Suddenly, a dead branch crackled under foot; the sound echoed through the trees like a handgonne. Henrie froze. His heart raced as he glanced side to side, looking for a place to run and hide.
“Dugald, shot that tottering fool square in the face,” a man bellowed. “In the face.” The woods thundered with drunken laughter.
Henrie slowly laid down onto all fours and crept forward, sliding hands and knees along the ground to avoid snapping any more twigs or branches. He kept his eyes canted down to reduce the glare of the fire, moving from trunk to trunk until he was as close as he dared approach. Several large logs had been arranged into a circle around the bonfire. Dark silhouettes were seated atop them.
“I’m going to miss this place, boys,” the leader grimly stated, jabbing a thumb in the direction of two makeshift huts built amidst the trees behind him. “She’s been a good home to us.” He held up his cup in a toast and took a long drink.
“Whataya mean, Rabbie?” asked a skinny lad wearing a faded red waistcoat. He looked to be no older than Dickon.
“Time to move on, Glenn. We can’t stay here any longer.”
“Why the hell not?” another man countered. “I’ve grown to like it here.”
“Are you really that daft, Craig?” the leader growled, rising to his feet and pointing down the hill. “After the bloody mess you boys made down on the road, we’ll have the sheriff’s men after us for sure. And that weasel Perkyn will give us up in a heartbeat. I for one have no intention of having my neck stretched on the gallows. I’m cutting out of here at first light.” Rabbie sauntered over to a portly villein dressed in a pale blue cloak that was far too small for him; the leader reached down and grabbed the bottle at the man’s feet.
“Hey! What’s your problem? That’s mine.”
“Now it’s mine, Dom. You have to pay a stupid tax.” He switched the bottle to his left hand and placed his right atop the sword on his hip. “What was that? Did you say something?” He glared at the man who remained silent. “I didn’t think so.” He returned to his log and poured himself another drink.
Henrie counted six men around the fire but saw no sign of Stephain. Maybe they’re holding him in one of the huts. Each had roofs of thatched grass and blankets hung across the doorways and windows. The knight knew better than to move any closer. He had no choice but to wait until they passed out.
“Is Gregor going to make it?”
“He’ll be fine,” the leader replied.
“He lost his bloody hand.”
“It was only a few fingers.”
“He’ll never hold a bow again.”
“Yeah,” the man smirked. “You’re right about that.”
Henrie tried to lay his head down to rest, but it only made the throbbing pain more intense. He desperately wanted something to rinse the crusted blood from his mouth. He finally wriggled up against a trunk and tried to be as still as possible. After what seemed like hours, the fire slowly dwindled down to embers as the brigands one by one went to sleep.
Ambushed by outlaws and left for dead, Sir Henrie must make his way through the unknown darkness, alone, seriously wounded, and completely unarmed if he hopes to learn the fate of his son, Stephain. Will he find him in time, or will the outlaws find him first?
The story continues with The Revenant, Part 4: The Revenant.
About the Creator
I'm a weekend novelist & backyard daredevil. A lifelong medieval history buff, I enjoy the knightly pursuits of jousting, hunting & sword fighting.