Forests of Wessex
In the year of our Lord 1390
“Time to chop off your thumbs.” The hulking soldier pinched the back of my neck through the coarse wool of my cloak. The sharp pressure forced me to kneel in front of the flat stone. “Put out your hand, you poacher.”
“You can’t cut off my thumbs,” I protested in a gruff voice I hoped disguised my true, girlish tone.
“For hunting on the Wessex land, I’m obliged to hack off the whole hand.” The solider, who was as wide as an ox, shoved me so that my false, padded belly pushed into the rectangular slab. “Count yourself lucky that Sir Edgar is in a good mood today and only ordered the loss of your thumbs.”
I glanced to the road, where Lord Wessex’s son sat astride his fair steed. He was surrounded by several other noblemen and women. His deep laughter rose into the air, followed by a chorus of giggles from his female admirers.
The usual hot anger spurted in my blood. I knew they weren’t laughing directly at me. Even so, I was incensed that they could find any reason for amusement at such a time. Had they no pity for an old man—what they thought me to be—who was about to be savagely maimed?
My gaze lingered on the fine silk gown of one of the young women, a deep purple hue strewn with intricately embroidered lace. She’d paired the dress with pure white gloves . . .and a pearl necklace. The pearls alone would buy enough grain to feed a dozen families for a week.
“Come now, old man. Don’t make this any harder than need be.” The soldier prodded my stooped shoulders. “Take the punishment you deserve.” But even as he spoke, his gaze followed mine to Edgar, who took a swig from a flask and then passed it to a friend. When I glanced back to the soldier, his lips were pursed at the sight of Edgar’s revelry.
“No one deserves this.” I bent my head and made my voice raspy. I wore my long hair tucked under a man’s linen coif and had smeared mud over my face, but if Sir Edgar or the soldiers took a closer look at me, they’d surely see past the disguise. They’d discover the cloaked bandit they were looking for. And I’d potentially lose much more than my thumbs.
The tall soldier on the other side of the stone yawned and then unsheathed his hunting knife. The long silver blade glinted in the autumn afternoon sunlight.
“Lord Wessex won’t miss a couple of squirrels,” I spoke quickly. Time was running out. I had to figure out a way to make my escape. “Especially squirrels as scrawny as those.” I nodded at the stiff creatures lying only feet away, next to my bow and quiver.
Even though I wasn’t truly afraid yet, I could feel a sense of urgency beginning to take hold. My fingers twitched with the need to reach for my weapon. But with the ox at my back and tall guard across from me, I would have to make my move at just the right time. Besides, there were at least two other soldiers on the perimeter that I would be forced to outmaneuver.
I eyed the brambles and dark shadows of the surrounding forest. If I released my arrows while sprinting, I might be able to eliminate two of the guards and reach the cover of trees before the others could react.
“Doesn’t matter what you take from Lord Wessex’s land.” The bulky girth of the soldier behind me pressed into my body, pinning me against the stone. “Stealing is stealing.”
I resisted his hold. “How can it be stealing when Lord Wessex doesn’t give us any place to hunt and no means to keep our families from dying of hunger?”
The soldier faltered.
“Please,” I whispered. “Have mercy. My boy is all I have left. And he’s always hungry. I’m sure you have a growing son and know how much food such children need to survive.” Although I had no son, I prayed my words would earn the soldier’s sympathy.
The ox heaved a breath laden with garlic and onion, and his grip slackened.
Maybe more of the populace was dissatisfied with Lord Wessex’s leadership than I realized. My father had always believed the people should rise up and fight against the oppression—that in their hearts they disliked Lord Wessex’s tactics, and that with the right leadership they could overthrow him.
Had my father been right?
I gave myself a mental shake. His faith in the populace had been his downfall. And I wouldn’t repeat his mistake.
“What’s taking so long?” came Sir Edgar’s irritated call from the road. “Must I come over and do the deed myself?”
I had the urge to stand, face Edgar, and dare him to try. I’d been waiting for years to spit into his face. If he came anywhere near me, I probably wouldn’t be able to resist the urge, even if it would lead to my death.
The tall soldier concealed another yawn and shook his head. “No, sir. We’re ready.” He lifted his knife.
But the hefty soldier behind me didn’t move. No doubt he was thinking that if I lost my thumbs, I would be maimed for life. Most of the men who lost their fingers or thumbs were rendered useless as hunters, and many of them could no longer ply their trades. Their already starving families suffered even more.
“Cut off his thumbs now,” Edgar shouted. “Or I shall cut off your hands.”
The ox released another garlicky sigh and then forced my arm upward onto the stone.
I was strong for a girl of seventeen. But I couldn’t resist the muscle of a full-grown soldier, let alone one who was at least double the width of a normal man. He pushed my gloved hand down against the smooth stone. The rusty stains on the rock reminded me that too many men had lost a limb upon this ledge.
The heat of anger seeped deeper into my soul. If only I could do more to alleviate the suffering of the peasants . . .
As it was, I tirelessly labored day after day to provide for the many families who’d been driven from their homes and from honest work. And as time passed, more and more came to depend upon me for food and shelter . . . because of Lord Wessex’s greed and cruelty.
“Spread your fingers.” The soldier behind me pushed my palm flat. With brute strength, he plied my fingers wider, and then nodded at his tall companion wielding the knife.
I tensed. What if my plan of escape didn’t work? What if the ox didn’t loosen his hold on my wrist? What if I sprang a moment too late? Beneath the layers of my disguise, a trickle of sweat made an itchy line between my shoulder blades. Even though the hint of cooler weather was in the air, the sunshine of the fall day was still warm.