Three days after crossing the Roman Wall we found ourselves scrambling in the depths of wild and windswept country with forbidding hills ahead. There were no cultivated fields and even the trees seemed small and stunted as if they had been defeated by the elements. The land seemed strangely silent. There was no hubbub of men, no calling of cattle. The few straggling herds of sheep seemed to have little energy for noise. Only the occasional cries of birds of prey shattered the silence for a moment. And then the silence took hold once again, like dank mountain fog.
We stopped a passing shepherd who told us we were on the fringes of the Cheviots. It was a bleak and forbidding place. Yet our hearts rose somewhat for we saw that in this rocky place Norman horsemen would lose any advantage over us. We were traversing it slowly but men leading horses would be slower still. We had a good chance of outdistancing any pursuit.
But the next day our bellies grew empty and we began to flag. Despite the danger of Norman pursuit Willard decided that we must halt to hunt for food. If anybody else had made the suggestion I would have laughed. We had no horses, hounds or hawks to aid us in our hunt. But we had Willard and his men and they had lived by their woodcraft and hunting skills for many years.
Willard thought this likely country for boar and deer and threw a screen of his outlaws to left and right. He hoped to drive some game into the uplands to the north where we might be able to trap them.
I was walking with Godwin, Anna, Hog and Freya when we heard a shrill whistle to our right.
Hog raised his hand to his ear and listened to a further round of whistles.
‘They’ve shot a stag,’ he said. ‘It’s wounded but not down.’
‘Where?’ I asked. My heart began to race with excitement.
He pointed to the north. ‘Alric’s arrow hit it in the valley just there. It’s running to the west now.’
‘Then let’s get after it,’ I said. ‘Hog, stay close to Anna and Freya.’
I clapped Godwin on the shoulder and we began to race towards the valley.
We ran hard for a mile and could hear the cries and whistles of the rest of the men as they too chased the stag. We slowed to a halt to ease our aching legs.
‘It must be strong to run so far and fast with an arrow in it,’ Godwin said.
‘I think it’s leading us a merry dance,’ I said.
I scanned the hills ahead. My eyes followed the rise and swell of the hills, the little streams cascading from the higher ground, the clumps of trees and thorn bushes. If I were the stag where would I run?
I grabbed Godwin by the arm. ‘That’s where he’ll be,’ I cried.
I pointed to a cleft in the hills which climbed at a gentle rise to the uplands above. It must have been formed by a narrow stream for it twisted and turned, giving good cover for any creature fleeing through it.
‘Come on,’ I cried, ‘let’s cut it off.’
We forgot our aching legs as we raced towards the cleft. By climbing directly up the hill we were soon above the winding valley. We peered down and there, sure enough, we saw the stag running along the path beside a stream.
‘We’ve got him,’ I cried and leapt down the hill towards the valley.
We slithered down the slope and almost fell the last hundred yards to a space torn out through massive rocks. I signalled Godwin to be silent and hearkened for any sound. In moments we heard the soft footfall of the stag. It almost blundered into us; it must have been too exhausted to exercise much caution.
It scrambled to a halt and lowered its head, pacing backwards to the rocky wall behind it.
‘Blood of Ironside’ is the third novel in The Lost King series. It is available on Kindle for $3.08, £1.97 or €2.68. You can buy them by clicking on the links below or through Amazon outlets in your own country.
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