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The Forest Laird
“The Forest Laird”
A Tale of William Wallace
by Jack Whyte
Penguin Group Canada, Inc. Publication Date, August, 2010
His name was Ewan… Ewan Scrymgeour, and he was half Welsh, his given name taken from his mother’s family, and even now, when more than fifty years have passed, I find it difficult to imagine a less likely paladin. Yet paladin he was, to us, for he saved our lives, our sense of purpose and our peace of mind, restoring our shattered dignity when we were at our lowest depth. Possibly the least attractive looking man I ever saw, he quickly became one of the strongest anchors of my young life, and to this day I warm with pleasure in recalling every crease and wrinkle of his maimed and battered, toothless and beloved face.
We would discover later, because I was young and insensitive enough to ask him, that his face had been destroyed in a battle, long before we were even born, crushed into ruin by a mace. But on that first evening when he startled us from an exhausted sleep, we saw only the monstrous, green-framed and hairless face of a leering devil looming over us.
We were gibbering with terror, both of us, and our fear was very real, because for two full days we had been running in terror, uphill and down, stumbling and falling and blinded with tears and grief, sobbing and incoherent most of the time and utterly convinced we would be caught and killed at any moment by the men pursuing us. We had no notion of the miles falling behind us or the distance we had covered. We knew only that we had to keep running. At times, rendered helpless by exhaustion and unable to go farther, we had stopped to rest, huddled together in whatever place we had found that offered a hint of concealment, but we never dared stop for long, because the men hunting us had legs far longer than ours and they knew we could condemn them for the crimes we had seen them commit. And so, as soon as our breathing had settled down and we could find the strength to run for our lives again, we ran. We drank, too, whenever we found a running stream, but we had nothing to eat and we dared not stop to hunt or fish. We could not even steal, because we fled through open country, avoiding people and places that might house our pursuers.
But then, only a short time before this monstrous creature caught us, we had arrived at the top of a long moorland gradient and crouched there behind a tall clump of bracken ferns, looking back down the way we had come and astonished to discover that we could see for miles and that there was no one chasing us. We must have stayed there for an hour, straining our eyes for signs of movement on the sloping moor, but all we saw were hares and once what might have been a wild boar, more than a mile below us. There were, we finally accepted, no ravening murderers hunting us.
Soon after that we crossed a ridge and found a different landscape on the far side, where the hillside swept gently down from our feet for half a mile towards a grassy plateau that was bounded on the right by the deep-cut, tree-filled gully of a mountain stream.
Will pointed. “We’ll go down there, into the trees below the edge. No one will see us there and we can sleep.”
It took us half an hour to reach the edge of the gully, and before we did I was reeling drunkenly, unable to think of anything except the fact that we were going to sleep. It may have been the release of tension that undid me, the relief of knowing that, after such a long time, no one was pursuing us and we were actually safe. It was late afternoon by then, and the sun was throwing our shadows long and far ahead of us, and we had been moving hard and fast, with few rest periods, since before dawn. The grass beneath our feet was short and cropped here and the going was easy, so that we soon reached the edge of the defile and jumped down into the first accessible depression we found, a high sided, grass filled hollow enclosed by the tops of the trees that stretched up from below us in the steep, sheltered cleft. Within moments after that we were both asleep.
How long we slept I do not know, but something struck my foot and I opened my eyes to see the most hideous face I had ever seen, glaring down at me, and such was my terror that I screamed and woke up Will. We scrambled to our feet and tried to escape up the steep bank behind us, but he caught us easily, snatching me up to tuck me beneath one arm while he grasped Will with his free hand and twisted him over to lie supine, pinning him to the ground with a massive, booted foot. until he silenced us with a mighty bellow of what we took to be raging bloodlust, and when we were mute and stupefied he dropped me from beneath his arm, thrusting me down to huddle at his feet, then removed his boot from Will’s chest and stepped back a pace to where he could eye both of us together. I reached out for Will and he took my hand, squeezing it tightly, and we both prepared for the sure and certain mutilation and death he would visit upon us. For a while it seemed as though time and the world itself had stopped moving. But then the gargoyle blinked and shook its head and turned its back on us, and we heard it speak.
“I thought you were thieves, at first, bent upon robbing me. But I was far away from you and thought you men…”
It was a strange voice, unexpectedly soft and gentle, and the words were spoken with a careful, clearly articulated cadence, precisely formed and slowly, almost lispingly uttered, as we were to discover, to compensate for the appalling deformities of the speaker’s face. He spoke in Scots, but with an alien lilt born of his Welsh mother’s tongue. At his first utterance, however, we knew not what to think, still gripped by terror, and we stared at each other wild-eyed, silently debating whether or not we should attempt again to flee while his back was turned. This time, though, now that his back was to us, I was able to see that there was nothing supernatural about him. He was a man like any other, from behind, though enormous in his bulk. It was only when he faced you squarely that you saw him as hideous. He was dressed all in shades of green, from head to foot, his head concealed by a hooded cap that was a part of his tunic, and as I watched now, my heart beginning to slow down, I saw him reach up with both hands, tugging, it appeared, at his forehead.
When he turned back to us, his face was covered by a mask of green cloth that he had pulled down from his hooded cap. It was drawn tight beneath what chin he had, its only openings three ragged-edged holes, one for breathing and one for each eye, and I could see the right eye gleaming at me from its opening.
“There,” he said. “That’s better, no?”
“Better?” My voice was no more than a squeak, but Will made no attempt to speak at all.
“My face. It’s one to frighten children. So I keep it hidden, most of the time.” He turned his head to look at Will, tilting it slightly so that his one eye could run the length of him from head to foot. “So now that I can tell you arena here to rob me, I have some questions to ask you.” He bent suddenly and grasped my ankle and I stiffened with fear, but all he did was twist it gently and pull it up to look at the back of my leg. “Your legs are covered wi’ dried blood . . . caked with it . . . and so are yours,” he added, looking again at Will. “Why? Why just your legs, and why the backs of them?”
“You know fine well.” Will’s voice was little louder than my own, but I could hear defiance in it, underlying the fear. “You did it . . . you and your friends . . . used us like women . . . or like sheep.”
“I did what?” The giant, far and away the biggest man I had ever seen, stood there for a moment, opening and closing one massive, craggy fist, and then he quickly stooped and grasped Will’s ankle as he had mine earlier. “Lie still,” he growled, tightening his hold as Will started to kick. “I’ll no’ hurt you.”
I had tensed, too, at his sudden move, thinking to hurl myself to Will’s defence, but then I remained still, sensing somehow that there was no malice now in the man’s intent. And so I merely watched as he flipped Will over to lie face down, then dropped quickly to one knee and pinned him in place with a hand between his shoulders while he pulled up the hem of Will’s single garment, exposing his lower back and buttocks and the ravages of what had been done to him. I had not seen what now lay exposed to me, for neither of us had spoken of what had happened to us since it occurred, but I knew that what I was seeing was a mirror image of my own backside, the tight, white buttocks clenched in agony, the cleft between them choked and befouled with the effluent from what had been done to us, blood and feces and semen mixed and clotted with dirt. And then the pain, the burning, throbbing, endless agony inside me, inside my bowels, overcame me. My stomach revolted and I vomited helplessly, emptily and painfully, hearing the giant say again, “Lie still, lad, lie still.”
When I finished wiping my face they were both watching me, Will sitting up, ashen faced, and the giant leaning back, his shoulders against the vertical bank at his back. The silence lasted for some time before our captor shook his head. “Sweet Jesus,” he said, in what we would come to know as his curious, soft edged and sometimes lisping voice. “Listen to me now, both of you, I know the sight of me frightened you. That happens often and I’ve grown used to it. But know this now, as well… I had no part in what was done to you, and no friend of mine would ever do such a thing. I know not who you are, nor where you came from, and I never saw you before you came across that ridge up there. But here we are more than thirty miles from anywhere. I know how I came here, but I am wondering where you came from.” He flicked a finger at Will, managing to communicate that he was talking about the mess he had just examined. “When did this happen?”
“Yesterday.” Will’s voice was a whisper.
“When? Daytime, or night?”
“Daytime. In the morning.”
“Where? Where were you when it happened?”
“At home, near Ellerslie.”
“Near Ellerslie? That’s in Kyle, is it no’?”
A slight pause, then Will nodded. “Aye, near Ayr.”
“Carrick land. Bruce country. But that’s thirty miles and more from here. How did you get here?”
“You ran? Thirty miles in two days? Bairns?”
Stung by the disbelief in the giant’s voice, Will snapped back at him. “Aye. We ran. They were chasing us. Sometimes we hid, but mostly we ran.”
“Who was chasing you? Where was your father, and what’s his name?”
“Alan Wallace. Alan Wallace of Ellerslie. And he’s dead. They murdered him. And my mother. My wee sister Jenny, too.” Now the tears were welling from Will’s eyes, pouring unheeded down his cheeks, etching clean channels through the caked-on dirt.
“Christ!” The green mask swung back to face me. “And who are you? His brother?”
I shook my head, feeling the tears trembling in my own eyes. “No, I’m his cousin Jamie, from Auchincruive. My name’s Wallace, too. I came to live with Will when my family all died of the fever, two years ago.”
“Aha.” He looked back at Will. “So you’re Will? Will Wallace.”
“William. My name’s William.”
“Ah. William Wallace, then. My name is Ewan Scrymgeour. Archer Ewan, men call me. You can call me Ewan. So tell me then, exactly, what happened yesterday to start all this.”
It was a good thing he had asked Will that and not me, for I had no idea of what had happened. Everything had been too sudden and too violent and all of it had fallen on me like a stone from a clear blue sky. Will, however, was far from being me, and he was two years older, more than accustomed to being able to think and reason for himself since he had been taught for years, by both his parents, that knowledge and the ability to read and write are the greatest strengths a free man can possess. Will came from a clan of fighting men and women, as did I, but his father’s branch of our family had a natural ability for clerical things, and two of his uncles, as well as several of his cousins, were monks.
Now Will sat frowning, thinking about what this man had asked him and trying to come to terms with it for the first time since it had happened. I could tell, just from looking at him, that he no longer thought of the green-masked giant as a persecutor or an enemy. The man was merely an inquiring presence that had caught his attention with an intelligent request for information.
“They were Englishmen,” Will said eventually, his voice still low, his brow furrowed as he sought to recall the events as they had happened.
“Englishmen? They couldn’t have been Englishmen. There are no English soldiery in Scotland.”
“I saw them! And I heard them talking. But I could tell from their armour, even before I heard them growling at each other.”
“Jesus, that makes no kind of sense at all. We have no war with England and they have no soldiers here... Unless they were deserters, come north in search of booty and safety. But if that’s the case, they’d have been safer to stay where they were, in England. King Alec’s men will hunt them down like wolves. How many of them were there? Did you see them all?”
“Aye. There were ten of them on foot and a mounted knight in command of them. He had a white thing on his surcoat . . . a turret, or a tower . . . some kind of castle.”
“And what happened when they came?”
“I don’t know.” Will wiped his eyes with the back of his wrist. “We were down by the old watch tower hunting squirrels, Jamie and me. We heard the noise and ran to see what was happening and we met my sister Jenny running away. She was witless . . . out o’ her mind wi’ terror, frightened to death. Her eyes . . . her eyes were awful . . . she couldna speak, didna even try. She just wailed, high and keenin’, like an old wife at a death… I knew something terrible had happened. So I left her there wi’ Jamie and ran to see—” He fell silent, staring into emptiness and a bleak, awful look settled on his face. None of us moved and after a short time he spoke again, his voice sounding very strange to my ears . . . nothing like the Will I knew.
“They were all dead… Scattered in the gateyard . . . Jessie the Cook, Angus the groom… Timothy and Charlie and Roddy and Daft Sammy. All dead . . . split open and covered in blood and...” He sobbed then, a single, wrenching sound. “My Da was sitting against the wall by the door with his head to one side and his eyes wide open, and I thought he was just looking at them, but then I saw the blood on him, too . . . black-looking, all down his front . . . and then I saw that his head was almost off . . . hanging to one side… My mother was beside him, lying on her face, wi’ a big spear sticking up between her shoulders… I could see her bare legs, high up... I’d never seen them before.” His breath caught in his throat and he hiccupped and shuddered and had to draw a deep breath before he could continue. “The ones alive were a’ strangers . . . what the English call men-at-arms . . . a’ wearing helmets and jerkins and mail, forbye a knight on a horse. The men were a’ talking and laughing, but the knight was just sitting there on his horse, cleaning his sword on something yellow, and then he moved away, a ’round the back o’ the house. And then one o’ them saw me watching them and gave a shout and I ran as fast as I could, back to where I’d left Jamie and Jenny…”
When he stopped this time, I thought he would say no more, but Archer Ewan wanted to hear it all.
“What happened then?”
“What happened after you ran back to Jamie and your sister?”
“Oh . . . We ran back the way we had come, but I had to carry Jenny and they caught us near the old watch tower. Five o’ them. One of them killed Jenny. Chopped off her head and didna even look at what he’d done. He was watchin’ Jamie, wi’ a terrible look on his face… And then they . . . they did what they did to us and then they tied us up and left us there, in among some bushes against the tower wall. They said they’d be back.”
“How did you escape? You did, didn’t you?”
Will nodded. “Aye. I kept a wee knife for skinning squirrels, under a stone by the tower door, close by where they left us. Jamie was closer to it than me, so I told him to get it for me. He rolled over and got it, then he crawled on his side to me, holdin’ it behind his back, and I took it and managed to cut his wrists free. It took a long time. Then he cut the ropes on his legs and set me loose… And then we ran.”
“And are you sure they chased you?”
Will looked up at the giant in surprise. “Oh, aye, they chased us, and they would ha’e caught us, too, except that there was thunderstorm and you could hardly see through the rain and the dark. But we knew where we were going. They didna. So we gave them the slip and kept movin’ into the woods, deeper and deeper until we didna even know where we were. We ran all day. Then when it got dark we slept for a wee while and then got up and ran again. But they found our tracks and we could hear them comin’ after us, shoutin’ to us to gi’e up, for a long time.”
“Hmm.” The big man sat mulling that for a time, and years later he would tell me he had been having difficulty accepting that grown men, no matter how depraved they were, would have wasted two days in pursuit of two small boys who were really in no position to threaten them with anything. He could see our terror and exhaustion and he knew that it was real, and he believed the story we had told him about the slaughter of our family, but he chose to believe that the two-day pursuit we had undergone had been born of our terror and panic and had not been real. He was convinced that we had imagined it all—the voices and the running feet and the noises of the ravening wild men at our backs. Eventually, though, without saying a word of any of that, he nodded his head. “Well,” he said. ”All that matters is that you escaped from them and you’re here now and well away from them. Who were they working for, do you know?”
Will frowned. “Who were they working for? They werena working for anybody. They were Englishmen! There’s no Englishmen in Carrick. The men there are all Bruce men. My Da’s been the Countess o’ Carrick’s man all his life. It was the elder Robert Bruce who knighted him, and Robert Bruce o’ Annandale, his son, is the Earl o’ Carrick, married to the Countess. My Da’s always been fierce proud o’ that.”
“Aye, no doubt. Then if you’re right, and they were Englishry, they must have been deserters, as I thought in the first place. Either that or your father must have crossed someone important. And powerful. Was he rich?”
“My Da?” Will blinked, thinking about that. “No, he wasna rich. But he wasna poor, either. We’ve a fine herd o’ cattle.”
“Had, William Wallace. You had a fine herd of cattle. That might have been what they were after. But whether yea or nay, those cattle winna be there now.” He sighed loudly and then clapped his hands together. “Fine then, here’s what we’re going to do.” I was fascinated by the lisping quality of his precisely enunciated speech as he continued, “I have a camp close by, down at the bottom of the gully there, by the stream. We’ll go down there, where there’s a fine, sheltered fire, and I’ll make us a bite to eat, and then you two can wash the blood off yourselves in the burn and I’ll show you how to make a bed of bracken ferns. Then, in the morning, we’ll decide what you should do from here onwards. You agree?”
We both nodded our agreement and he harrumphed in his throat and turned to me.
“You, Jamie Wallace. If you climb up this bank and look about, you’ll see my bow and quiver lying up there on the grass. Bring them back here quickly, and be careful not to trip and break anything. When you’re back, we’ll climb down the gully while it’s still light enough to see our way. Away with you now.”