The Guardian — The Drunkard’s Tale

Chapter Two: The Drunkard’s Tale

The Italian Edition -- "The Guardian", from Edizione Piemme

The Italian Edition — “The Guardian”, from Edizione Piemme

Harald Gaptooth would eventually be grateful for having known nothing of what was to happen that night in Lanark town, but even as he began to recover from his injuries he was aware that his own laziness and ignorance had saved his life. He knew, too, that had his friend Bernard of Boothby not been sergeant of the guard that night, he would have been flogged for reporting drunk for duty and being openly mutinous. But he had had no slightest idea, before the world went mad, that anything significant was about to occur; no suspicion that the scene he was witnessing would be seared into his eyes so that he would see it over and over again in the years to come whenever someone mentioned certain things or named certain names. Gaptooth knew none of that. Looking back on the events afterwards, all he would recall was his anger that night, unusual this time because it had a focus, as opposed to the dull, constantly burning anger that consumed him at other times.

He had been angry about being stuck on guard duty when he ought to have been out carousing somewhere on a well-earned leave, safe by a tavern fire on a night that was cold enough for the dead of winter when it ought to have been bright and balmy with the breath of spring. No one had expected snow so late in May. And no one was ready for it, after two months of sunshine and soft weather. Daffodils and crocuses had been blooming for weeks, many of them withered and gone already, and new leaves were bursting their buds on trees everywhere.

And then God, with a malice that denied all logic, had decreed not only that it should snow but that the temperature should plunge within hours and the snow should be blown everywhere by shrieking winds that cut a man to the bone, chilling the marrow at the centre of him.

His commander, the sheriff Hazelrig, a strutting, pride-filled cockerel, had gone off somewhere four days earlier and had not returned by the time the start of Gaptooth’s promised furlough came around two days later. That meant that Gaptooth’s release had been delayed—that was how Bernard of Boothby, the sergeant, had put it—until the sheriff’s reappearance, because the hot-headed fool had taken almost the entire garrison with him and Lanark town was now seriously undermanned at a time when reports of local rebellions and unrest were coming in daily. Two more days had passed since then with no word from Hazelrig, and the sheriff’s acting lieutenant, Sir Roger de Vries, was visibly worried.

Then, the night before, a fitful wind had sprung up, blowing out of the northwest, and by dawn a heavy, blustering snowstorm had changed the world. By sunrise, visibility had shrunk to less than a longbow shot, and the sight of snow-shrouded, impenetrable masses of trees looming just beyond the town walls was giving rise to thoughts of being attacked while most of the garrison was absent. De Vries had issued orders that all watches were to be double-manned and changed to a four-hours-on, four-off frequency, replacing the standard six-and-six format. No one was permitted to go outside the gates for any reason, and all leave was cancelled until such time as the sheriff returned and garrison life was restored to normal.

Even before word of these new restrictions was passed, Gaptooth’s anger had begun to bubble sufficiently to send him to the nearest alehouse. He set about drinking determinedly as soon as he got there, before noon, and by the time his shift came around, four hours later, he was thoroughly soused, barely able to walk back to his barracks. His friend Bernard, the sergeant of the guard that afternoon, snatched him by the arm as soon as he set eyes on him and dragged him quickly into the lee of a storehouse and out of sight. There he threatened him with hellfire and damnation for being drunk on duty and reminded him of the penalty for being found unfit for guard duty in times of emergency. He sent Harald off with a flea in his ear and a dire warning to wash himself and be sober by the time he showed his face on the parapet walk, lest he find himself arrested and thrown into the cells, where he would, beyond a doubt, be hanged once things returned to normal. De Vries was rattled, Bernard said, probably afraid and certainly unsure of himself, and he would not think twice about reinforcing his authority at the expense of anyone who crossed him.

And so Harald Gaptooth washed his face and head in icy water from a barrel outside the latrines, cursing the weather all the time and shivering like a man with ague as he scrubbed at his cropped, wet hair with a rough towel. Then, wrapped in a heavy sheepskin coat, and with a long muffler made of joined strips of the same fleece wrapped several times around his neck and lower face, he presented himself for guard duty on the tower walk above the castle’s main gate.

Sergeant Bernard eyed him with surly hostility but made no reference to what his friend was wearing. He himself wore a heavy, ankle-length cloak of wax-smeared wool that was completely waterproof. Gaptooth had once owned its twin, but he had long since sold it for money with which to drink, whore, and gamble.

“Well,” the sergeant snarled, “I don’t know how you did it, you ugly turd, but you look sober enough to pass muster. I’ve given you the bridgewalk post, all to yourself—it’ll keep you awake and it’ll keep you apart. But if de Vries or any of his people come anywhere near you, say nothing to any of them and for the love of Christ don’t let them smell your breath. Otherwise, just stay awake and stay on your feet. Keep that up for four hours and you might escape the hanging you deserve, you sorry whoreson. Carry on.”

Gaptooth cursed his friend, because the bridgewalk was the most public guard post in the garrison, exposed at all times to watching eyes, so the sentries up there never had the slightest chance of slacking off for a few quiet minutes. They were on parade constantly, even in the dead of night, trudging incessantly between the man-thick end posts of the great gallows that towered above them, their every move illuminated by the beacons that blazed on either end of the bridge over the town gates that gave the post its name. That night, Gaptooth knew he would be glad of the beacons’ heat once they were lit, but two hours of daylight yet remained. All he could do in the meantime was brace himself and keep moving, hoping that the constant pacing back and forth would keep the blood flowing through his veins and stave off frostbite.

There were no bodies hanging from the gallows that day, and Gaptooth was grateful, for even though the chill of the snowy air would have killed any smell of death, Harald, like all his garrison mates, had deep-dyed memories of pacing the bridgewalk beneath a frieze of ripe and rotting corpses in the heat of summer days, and he felt his belly tightening even at the passing thought of it. He had cared nothing, ever, for the people hanged there. They were all Scotch, and merited being hanged for that alone, but he bitterly resented the summer-rotted stench of them, and resented, too, that he and his companions were forced to do duty directly beneath their decaying hulks, breathing in the filth of their stink and walking through the swarms of flies they attracted. Yet where better to place a gallows than directly above the town’s main gates, where everyone coming and going would see the dangling bodies and reflect upon the folly of incurring the wrath of English justice? It made perfect sense. Still, every garrison trooper who had ever spent a summer guard watch parading beneath the stinking carrion detested the bridgewalk and the duty of manning it.

The wind grew stronger towards the end of his watch, shrieking with malice and increasing the noise of the two great beacon fires to a deafening roar. He tightened his fleece coat about him and rewrapped his thick muffler more snugly around his neck before marching over to the right side of his post, to stand as close as he could get to the fire in the great brazier, bracing his back against the pillar of the gallows, his spear cradled in the crook of his elbow as he clapped his hands and stamped his near-frozen feet. When he looked up again, his vision distorted by the dazzling firelight, he saw the shapes of Bernard and someone else coming towards him from the far end of the bridge, moving eerily through the whirling snow until they walked into the light from the hissing brazier on that side. They had already seen him marching, knew he was awake and alert at his post, and he felt a surge of gratitude that the wind had roused him when it had, for the man walking alongside Bernard of Boothby was Sir Roger de Vries himself. Harald drew himself fully upright, taking a firm grip on his spear shaft and squaring his shoulders, stooping forward slightly to increase the few inches of distance between his shoulder blades and the pillar at his back. He didn’t think de Vries would accuse him of lounging, but he had long since stopped being surprised by the behaviour of any knight.

But the newcomers did manage to surprise him, albeit without intending to. Just as he raised a hand to address the guardsman, Bernard of Boothby leapt silently into the air and spun away to Harald’s left, a short, twisting convulsion that sent him over the edge of the parapet and down to the cobbles beneath. A moment later something blasted the spear out of Harald’s hand and hurled him backwards into darkness.

When he opened his eyes again Sir Roger de Vries was kneeling on the causeway in front of him, looking up at him from no more than ten paces away, and Harald felt a panic-stricken urge to laugh and look away from the sight of a knight kneeling to him. Then sanity returned and his stomach heaved, for he had no wish to see what he was seeing. Although everything in front of him was blurred by swirling snow and flickering firelight from the braziers, and his eyes felt strange, he had no doubt that de Vries was dying there, on his knees on the bridge, gaping up at Harald with his mouth dripping blood down over his curled beard and onto the rich fabric of his winter cloak, reflecting red and black flickers from the brazier flames. And then as Harald watched, appalled, the knight pitched slowly forward to reveal two long, lethal arrows in his back—unmistakably yard-long broadheads from an English longbow—and Harald felt fear claw suddenly at his bowels. The word treason stamped itself into his mind and he turned to spring away to safety and raise the alarm. Except that he did neither, for he could not move.

Fear flared up in him like the beacon at his back. Gasping in panic, he felt his gorge rise in a surge of nausea. He fought it down and forced himself to remain still, keeping his eyes closed and breathing as deeply as he could. He counted to ten, willing his breath to slow towards normal, then did it again, and felt calmer. By the end of his fourth count of ten, he permitted himself to open his eyes.

The knight De Vries lay face down on the bridge in front of him, clearly dead and already dusted with a coating of snow that appeared black around the base of the two arrows. Apart from the swirling snow, nothing else moved anywhere within sight—and it was then that Gaptooth realized his sight was limited. Something was hampering him, stopping him from moving; now he felt pain and an intense pressure beneath his chin. Fighting off another flare of terror, he willed himself to stay calm, and then he peered downward.

It took him several moments to understand what he was looking at, but then he recognized the finger-thick shaft of another English broadhead. It was lodged hard beneath his chin, tilting his head up and backwards and pressing his skull hard against the curving surface of the gallows frame at his back. He could see along the entire length of the angled shaft to the fletching and the deep bowstring notch at the end. He tried turning his head to the right, to pull his chin clear of the arrow’s shaft, and an explosion of agony seared the entire left side of his head. He remembered the massive blow that had thrown him back. It had hit his spear! The damn thing must have glanced off and angled upward to pierce his throat, and he marvelled that he was still alive. A moment later, though, he knew he must be wrong. He could not have lived had the arrow really pierced his throat. Gaptooth was familiar with broadhead war arrows and their wide, triple-barbed, razor-sharp edges, and so he knew that if the warhead had struck him, he would not be capable of moving at all. He would already have bled to death. The lethal arrowhead had missed his throat, and he realized that it had penetrated the thick strips of fleece wound about his neck, piercing them firmly enough to nail him to the gallows post at his back. The pain told him an edge of the broadhead had cut him, somewhere along the jawline, but he felt no strength draining from him and so a clear-thinking part of him recognized that the wound must be a minor one.

And then he heard sounds close by him and he froze just as two men ran by, stooping low and ignoring him completely as they went to examine the snow-covered body of de Vries. One of them pulled the two arrows from the dead man’s back, using the full thrust of his thighs to rip them free, then gripped the corpse by the shoulder and heaved it over onto its back. Then he turned and looked over his shoulder. The fellow’s eyes swept Gaptooth up and down before he turned back to his companion.

“Get Will.”

As soon as the man spoke, Gaptooth became aware of the clamour of voices from the street below the gateway tower, voices he had not noticed until that moment. He narrowed his eyes slowly until they were mere slits and watched as the second man went obediently to the side of the ramp and raised his voice in a shout.

“Will! Up here on top o’ the gate,” he shouted with a sweep of his arm. “It’s me, Scrymgeour. There’s a dead knight up here might be the one you’re lookin’ for.” As he moved back to where his companion still knelt over the body of Sir Roger de Vries, he jerked his thumb towards Gaptooth. “Was it you shot that one?” he asked.

The other man glanced over at Harald and shrugged. “Nah. But whoever it was, he was bigger than me, to nail the whoreson to the post like that wi’ one arrow, right through the neck, and all. He’s a big bugger, but that shot picked him up and threw him like a bag o’ beets. Look at the way his feet are crossed. Ah, here’s Will.”

Harald Gaptooth found himself marvelling at the ways of God. The trick now, he knew, was to keep these men thinking he was dead, and that meant making no movement that might be seen by anyone. Luckily, he knew now how to achieve that, for the Scot had told him how he looked: pinned at the neck to the gallows post by a single hard-shot arrow that was supporting his entire weight, his head and body twisted sideways in different directions and one leg thrown over the other. He inhaled slowly, with great care, and willed himself to remain motionless, his unfocused eyes gazing into the blowing snow beyond the stone parapet.

The Will fellow, clearly their leader, was now standing between his two men, all three of them gazing down at the corpse at their feet. Seeing that they were ignoring him, Harald dared to open his eyes completely and take careful note of the newcomer. The fellow wore a rough tunic, belted at the waist and covered with a thick woollen shawl that was pinned at his shoulder, and his long, sturdy-looking legs were encased in trews of heavy cloth, their lower ends wrapped in the leather cross-bindings of heavy, thick-soled boots with iron-studded soles that left clear imprints in the snow. He was tall and bearded, with an enormous breadth of shoulder and depth of chest coupled with long, heavily muscled arms that would have marked him unmistakably as an archer, had he been English. But he was not English, and clearly he was no archer, for he was carrying a huge sword, the longest sword that Harald Gaptooth had ever seen. He had been holding it reversed at his side as he approached, the elongated hilt pointing downward, the tapered blade stretching upward over his right breast, but now he leaned on it as he looked down at the dead man, his elbow hooked over the weapon’s wide, down-curving cross-guard.

“Ye’re sure he’s a knight?” The question was an idle one, Gaptooth knew, for the tone of the man’s voice indicated that his thoughts were elsewhere.

“Shite, aye, look at him,” the one called Scrymgeour growled. “That fancy sword, an’ thae spurs. He’s a knight, right enough.”

“Aye, I suppose. His name’ll be de Vries, then. Sir Roger de Vries, Hazelrig’s deputy.”

The leader turned his back on the dead knight and looked around him, and Gaptooth quickly closed his eyes, not daring to breathe, but the other had no interest in him, for a moment later he spoke again, his voice coming this time from the far end of the bridgewalk parapet. Harald opened one eye with great care and saw the fellow standing there looking down, then turning back to gaze up at the crossbeam of the great gallows overhead. He stood there for a moment and then bent over the bridge, looking down into the street below.

“Shoomy!”

“Aye, Will.” The response from below was immediate.

“How many bodies have you down there? English.”

A pause, then, “Seven.”

“Any alive?”

“No.”

“Have some of your men cart them up here. And see if you can find some rope. We’ll need lots of rope.”

“There’s loads o’ rope in the wee turret room, there, Will,” one of the two men flanking him said. “Coils o’ the stuff. They must keep it here for the gallows.”

“Aye,” the leader growled, then raised his voice again. “Forget the rope, Shoomy. We hae plenty. Just bring up the bodies.” He turned back to look up at the gallows again, then spoke to the man Scrymgeour. “Hang this one up there, right in the middle. Take his sword, and ye can keep his spurs, but lash his shield across him so folk can see who he was. Hang the other seven up there, too, on each side o’ him. We’ll let folk see that Lanark town is no’ a welcoming place for Englishmen.”

“What about him on the pole? Do we hang him, too?”

Gaptooth’s breath stopped in his throat as the big leader glanced at him. “No,” he said, “I like him just the way he is. Died at his post, that one, failing to guard the dead men over his head. Let him hang where he is. People will notice him, probably more than the rest.”

They all turned away and Gaptooth snatched a cautious breath that was suddenly full of the odour of smoke. The man Scrymgeour cocked his head.

“Are we burnin’ the town?”

The leader, Will, raised his head and sniffed, then stepped quickly back to the edge of the walkway and bellowed, “Shoomy? I said nothing about burning the toun. What’s going on?”

“I dinna ken, Will, but I’ll find out. If it’s organized, d’ye want it stopped?”

“If it’s organized? Christ Jesus, Shoomy, this is a Scots toun, full o’ Scots folk—of course I want it stopped. An’ if it’s organized I want the organizer right here, to look me in the face an’ tell me when God put him in charge. Gather up the English that are left alive, but put a stop to any wildfire burnin’. And gin anybody winna pay heed, tie him up and hold him for me.”

There followed a brief period wherein the wind sprang up with renewed ferocity, forcing Harald to concentrate hard on not shivering and betraying himself. Scrymgeour and his companion worked hard in the meantime, finding and raising a long ladder to rest against the gallows crossbar and separating heavy coils of rope while their leader stood silent, lost in his own thoughts and seemingly oblivious to the wind. Then a small knot of well-dressed, unarmed men appeared from Harald’s right, eyeing him nervously as they shuffled by him. The man called Will saw them but made no move to acknowledge them until one of them raised a hand timorously to attract his attention.

“Maister Wallace,” he stammered. “Yer pardon, but are you William Wallace?”

The leader drew himself to his full height and frowned as he closed his fingers tightly on the cross-hilt of his sword so that his knuckles showed white against the darkness of his skin. He looked the speaker up and down, then scanned the small group with him before glancing at Scrymgeour and his companion, who had stopped working and now stood watching. He glared at them until they registered his look and turned away to busy themselves again.

“Who are you?”

“Simpson, Your Highness. Maister Tod Simpson, provost o’ Lanark toun. Your men are burnin’ our toun, sir. Can ye no’ stop them?”

The man Wallace—Gaptooth remembered the name now as belonging to the outlaw Hazelrig had been hunting—sighed and flexed his fingers and his frown deepened to a scowl. “Provost,” he said civilly. “Look about you. What can you see? Look up, above your head. That’s a gallows, built for hanging ordinary folk like you and me—Scots folk. In a wee while it will bear new fruit—Englishmen. So, as I said, look around you. My men are burning out a nest of Englishmen. That you and yours will suffer by that, I hae no doubt. But you wouldna be having this much grief gin ye’d been a bit less welcoming to your guests. Surely you see that?” He paused, his face solemn, his scowl less evident. “I’m no’ saying ye harboured the enemy gladly, mind you. But harbour them ye did, and ye stood by wi’out complaint while they loaded these same gallows, time and time again, wi’ your friends an’ neebours. You bought your ain comfort by no’ complainin’ too loudly about the death o’ others, but it was a chancy purchase and now the times hae changed. And so ye maun pay now for that comfort ye enjoyed while other folk, aiblins better folk sometimes, suffered and died at the hands o’ your guests, and if that means some of your houses might burn down, then so be it. Some would ca’ that justice, Provost, so console yersel’ wi’ bein’ yet alive and able to rebuild your toun later on.”

He spun on his heel and stalked away, leaving the delegation of townsfolk to make their own way back whence they had come, and Scrymgeour and the other man were soon joined by a large group carrying the bodies of the seven dead Englishmen from below. By the time the beacons were replenished by the raiders, sometime close to midnight, eight corpses swung from the bar above the gates in the freezing wind, and Harald Gaptooth, ignored and untouched, had come to believe that he would, in fact, die there, nailed to the gallows post. But though he was stiff and sore and bruised and chilled to the bone, he was close enough to the beacon brazier for its heat to keep him alive.

By dawn the storm had passed. The snow had stopped, the screams of maimed and wounded men had been silenced, and as far as Gaptooth could tell from where he was, the flames of the burning houses were dying down. Drifting in and out of awareness as he was, though, he could not have said afterwards when it was that he became aware that the Scots raiders had moved on. There came a time when he noticed that he appeared to be alone on the bridgewalk. The creak of ropes above his head told him the English bodies hung up there still, twisting in the little wind that remained, but he could see or hear nothing to indicate that any other living being shared the walk with him, and as the sun began to crest above the trees in the distance beyond the gates he finally dared to rouse himself.

He straightened his legs and pushed the small of his back against the gallows post, and then, braced for the first time in hours, he raised his right hand and grasped the arrow that had saved his life and pushed it sharply up and away from him. The shaft snapped, his bracing leg gave way, and as he fell, the fleece wrappings slid free, spilling him to the ground with fresh, warm blood gushing down from his neck and into his clothing. He landed hard and heard himself cry out at the agony that seared his left side from neck to ankle and he knew that something in him was broken. But he was alive, and for a while he writhed on the snow-covered bridgewalk, trying without success to move his left arm and shoulder. Then, weary and chilled and sweating with pain despite the cold, he managed to crawl, on his right side, as far as the centre of the bridgewalk before he lost consciousness.

He was found there by the first searchers from the town, and for the rest of his life he would tell anyone who would listen how he witnessed the fury of the outlawed felon William Wallace on the night the Scotch Ogre had first raised his head to ravage Lanark town after killing its sheriff and slaughtering its garrison.