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Wisdom I & II

Wisdom (capitolo primo)

The horse's hooves fell heavily on the forest bed, thundering, and driven by an impatient rider through the dismal grey afternoon while the trees, similarly grey and nondescript, seemed to carry nary a lark or sparrow willing to show its voice. Presently, the horse, foaming, raced into the camp in a protected hollow and the rider, scarcely a boy, reigned the beast in. The horse – a chestnut mare – pranced nervously in a circle, whinnying, and then came to a stop, the boy pulling the reigns tight. Dismounting, he found the point of a sword aimed at his chest.

“You can ride, aye, but who are you?” The knight with the sword studied him closely.

“Sir,” began the boy, “I had despaired of finding you. I dreaded that you might have already moved on to battle.”

“What business would that be of yours, young squire?” The knight spoke with a sneer and, others looking on broke into disparaging laughs. The knight sheathed his sword.

“I had hoped to find here, Sir Robert – the oldest knight in all of Britain... and the bravest.” Again, laughter erupted but for one, who, sitting on a fallen trunk with his sword across his knees, slowly honed the blade, running a smooth, river stone along its shining edge. As the laughter subsided, this one spoke.

“Tell me your name, boy.”

The boy studied the seated figure: the stature and build were right to the description he had heard. The hair, no longer the thick mane of youth, was sparse, long and grey, drawn into a horse tail from the back of his head.

“Are you Sir Robert?”

“Answer my question, boy, or I will gut you and leave you for the French to eat when they arrive – which they surely will!”

The boy stammered a response.

“I am Charles, son of Stefan, the smith in the village, yonder.” He tipped his head slightly to the west. The other growled.

“I know this man. He has shod our horses many times and given us to drink. I also remember when the first boy, Charles, was born – it can't be twelve years ago.”

“That was my brother. He died as an infant. I came after.”

Charles gathered his courage, gulping air and, trailing the chestnut mare, approached.

“Sir Robert,” he beseeched, “I am young but my heart is bold. I want to learn your wisdom – that of the ways of the world which has come from your years – if you would teach me.”

“How long are you prepared to wait, boy?” Again, Charles was engulfed by raucous laughter.

“I'm sorry, Sir?” Charles looked around, confused, and the horse champed at its bit.

“I see you carry a sword. Can you defend yourself?” Sir Robert rose to his height, several spans taller than the boy and, the blade of the sword was cast, broadside, onto the rough, cotton shoulder of his chemise.

“I can do fairly, Sir,” responded Charles.

“Then do it. Alfred! Take the horse and feed it – it is a fine beast.”

“You,” he addressed Charles, “defend yourself.” Sir Robert took his stance and, relieved of the horse's reigns, the boy drew and presented.

The sword-play was painfully brief. In an instant, Robert's honed and razor-sharp blade touched Charles' forearm and drew crimson. His sword clattered to the ground. Charles stood defenseless, his defiance dwindling.

Unrelenting, Sir Robert continued.

“Pick up the sword and present it to me,” he ordered. Grimacing, while drops of blood fell from his arm to the leaf and pine-needle bed, Charles complied and presented the handle of the sword. Without hesitation, Robert grasped the blade and, swiftly reversing the weapon, clubbed Charles across the side of the head. The boy fell, prone and groaning, his nose rapidly filling with the musky odour of the forest floor. His sword fell at his side, discarded by Robert.

When Charles could see, the point of Sir Robert's sword was menacingly close to his exposed eye. Robert spoke.

“Do you want the wisdom of age, boy? This is it: when you are cut, you bleed; when you are knocked, you fall down. Just now, you've learnt both. Whether you gain your feet again is up to you.”

Robert shook his head and began to walk away, wiping the blade of his sword before sheathing it. This time, there was no laughter.

“What did you expect to hear?”


Wisdom (capitolo secondo)

The horse's hooves fell heavily on the forest bed, thundering, and driven by an impatient rider, hooded and cloaked in emerald green, through the dismal grey afternoon while the trees, similarly grey and nondescript, seemed to carry nary a lark or sparrow willing to show its voice. Presently, the horse, foaming, raced into the camp in a protected hollow and the rider, bareback and with fingers ruddy from the cold knotted in the beast's long, black mane. The horse – a chestnut mare – pranced nervously in a circle, whinnying, eyes wide, and came to a stop, guided by the mysterious rider. Before having time to dismount, the point of a  sword was aimed at the centre of the rider's chest.

“You can ride, aye, but what's to stop me from running you through?” The knight with the sword studied the rider closely.

“You can try, brave Knight, if you fancy losing your sword arm for your trouble,” challenged the rider and a hand came to rest on the hilt of a short-sword. “I have no quarrel with you or any of these good men of God and King.”

The Knight nodded, accepting the compliment and challenge followed by the means to mutually save face – the form was perfect. The point of his sword lowered to the ground.

“You speak like a man of honour. What is your business here? Show yourself that we may...”

The Knight stopped in mid-thought as, with a brusque movement, the hood fell back revealing a cascade of black hair surrounding a pale face with, not the lineaments of a man but, instead, a girl, still without the fullness of woman.

“I seek the wise Sir Robert – the most noble of Britain's Knights.”

In the camp, glances crawled toward the girl on the chestnut mare. The Knight looked confused and, after considering, hailed out.

“Robert! What should I do wif 'is one?”

Eyes then turned to one, who, sitting on a fallen trunk with his sword across his knees, slowly honed the blade, running a smooth, river stone along its shining edge. He did not look up.

“Tell me your name, boy.” His voice was strong as to one accustomed to quick responses. It did not lack. Dismounting, she spoke.

“I am Catherine, of Edward – the baker in St. Vitus' Wood,” she answered.

The stone stopped on the edge of the blade. Robert's head raised and he studied, eyes narrowed, the girl standing beside the fair beast; it's great head turned and nudged at her shoulder as if to ask when they would run again.

Robert slipped the polishing stone into a leather pouch on his belt. Taking the sword, he tapped the ground before him before sheathing it.

“Tether your horse and come,” he commanded.

“My horse will not leave my side, even in the Pit,” responded the girl and, walking confidently, the horse fell in line behind her. She sat where ordered, crossing her legs, and the horse stopped, lowering its head to watch over her.

“Aye,” commented Robert, “it is a loyal thing.”

He sat with his great hands posed on the knees of his leather breeches; hands, knuckles swollen and scarred, that seemed to tell the stories of each battle they had seen. Robert remembered another girl, also spirited and proud – his own daughter – who, along with his wife, was stolen by a French raiding party many years ago while the idiot King had played games with harlots and refused to call out an army. He had never been happier than when the fool had fallen – the victim of his own negligence to act.

“Where is your father?”

Catherine was prompt to answer.

“My father went to the last war – to fight for wise King Richard, as you do, Sir.” She studied the ground and then Robert's boots. “He still has not found his way home from that war.”

“Do you have brothers?”

“My older brother, David, died of fever when I was still a girl.”

Robert was incredulous.

“Then who runs the household and bakery?”

Catherine sat straighter and responded with pride.

“I do, Sir. I have two house servants and three in the bakery. I pay them with bread and eggs and keep the money safe for my father.”

“And yet, you come to me, seeking to go to war?”

“Sir Robert,” began Catherine, “it is true that I do not have the size and strength of these Knights loyal to you but, my sword sings on my arm and my horse is as fleet as any. If my father could go to defend our island and, perhaps...”

Here, she hesitated, knowing but unwilling.

“... and, perhaps, fall to defend Richard's Kingdom, should I not do likewise?”

Robert looked up through the overhanging, near-bare, branches that shaded the glade, noting the failing light. Already, across the camp, fires were being lit and, at the centre fire, the carcass of a pig had been split, gutted, and hung above the flames; the entrails stewed in pots at the edge of the pit.

“Should your father return, what would he find?”

“I would leave word for him.”

“And, those who depend on you, what would you do with them?”

“I would close the house and send them away.”

“To do what?”

“To fend for themselves as I have done.”

Robert stood suddenly, remaining slightly hunched from his years. The horse, hovering over Catherine's shoulder, whinnied and followed his movement.

“A wise man – like our King – never seeks battle.” Robert turned, the sound of his boots muffled in the foliage of the forest floor, and regarded Catherine, who, likewise, rose to her feet.

“Battles are chosen, for, the advantage lies in that – where, when and how to engage the enemy. By caring for a household of five, you are keeping people – our people – strong and healthy. In running off to war, you would fail that obligation and sacrifice the integrity of your father's house.”

Catherine looked toward where the pig was sizzling and dripping grease into the fire which sputtered upward, licking at the blackened and split hide. In the cold air, her cheeks burned with shame.

“I just want to...,” she began.

“You already are,” interrupted Robert. Then, pausing, he added, “In time, perhaps  there will be another battle for you but, now, you have yours as I have mine.”

With that, Robert walked away, ordering one of his Knights to bring meat and escort 'the Lady' back to St. Vitus' Wood.

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