The wiry man shifted back and forth, uncomfortable despite the inquisitor’s reassurances. His shoulders were hunched as if his head were trying to retreat into his body and his eyes rapidly darted around underneath hedge-like eyebrows.
“I can find it for you. The quarry’s dark but I can find it,” he mumbled through his beard into his chest. “But I don’t like this.”
The hooded woman did not look at her companion before answering. “You have our word, monsieur. You will not want for anything. To an extent, of course.”
The wiry man scratched his head, looked the two inquisitors up and down and cleared his throat softly. “We must be quick.” He turned to go, pulling his cloak over his head and shuffling through the door into the moonlight. The two inquisitors moved with impossible silence behind, floating across the straw-covered floor like the cats on the walls outside the hut. The cats froze at the disturbance before scurrying noiselessly into the shadows as the three silhouettes crossed the ten yards of grass before the blackness of the forest swallowed them. No fires flickered at this time, when the full moon was highest in the cloudless summer sky, and the three were the only waking souls in the hamlet.
It did not take long for the three to leave the hamlet along the rough path through the woods. It was not a true path, instead a route of worn-down vegetation cleared by decades of walking. But it was smooth enough to permit travel in exceedingly low light; fortuitous because only here and there did silver shards of moonlight penetrate the tree line. The wiry man moved surprisingly quickly given his ungainly shuffling locomotion though the two companions behind him were nimble on their feet and did not struggle to match his pace. Periodically an owl hooted, or leaves would crunch as some nocturnal mammal scampered away before the soft steps of leather on dried earth came in their direction.
The quarry was only a few minutes’ walk from the hamlet. The towering, scarred cliffs carved out of the hillside shone bright grey against the dark blue of the surrounding grass, and enclosed the clearing in the forest on both sides like a ruined Classical theatre. The woman was reminded of the old Roman theatre she had seen once in Marseilles. That she would see it now rather than this deserted pit, she mused.
But there was an errand to be run. She had written Guy that evening upon the chance conversation with the wiry man. Guy had always encouraged her to use instinct, and she had done so. It could be a dead end, much as this quarry was from the forest path; or it could represent a conclusion to the decades of searching that the woman’s predecessors had carried out even before she had been born.
The wiry man halted in front of them, and the two companions responded in kind with no questions asked. He was as a wary rabbit in the field. There were two men fifty yards ahead, both asleep. It would take a huge effort to thieve from a quarry in the dead of night but the lord thought it prudent to post two sentries to deter any spirited labour gangs. The orders for castle construction were from the King himself, and his earls and barons were encouraged to complete the building with the utmost haste. Any theft of materials from the quarry represented a defiance of the King’s will, and therefore the will of God.
The wiry man turned to the companions and whispered in his melodic Welsh accent. “Over them rocks, there. We’ll be in.”
The woman nodded imperceptibly but the Welshman had already moved off to the left, away from the sleeping guards. The three scrambled up the slope toward the boulders that formed a lip to the steep slope down into the quarry pit. Loose stones rolled with alarming volume down the direction from whence they came, causing the trio to freeze both their movements and their breathing, but because the slope faced away from the guards the sound did not carry. The wiry Welshman hauled himself over the boulders as if he weighed thrice his nine stone frame – the strain of years of quarrying had created a lean yet worn twenty-four-year-old with the look of a man in his late thirties and the energy of one even older. Yet he did not make so much as a grunt when jumping down to the sandy quarry floor below, bathed in the silver spotlight of the moon like some nightmarish hooded apparition. He did not wait for the two companions and strode off towards the far left wall as he usually did during daylight hours.
Atop the boulder ridge the woman could now see smaller enclaves that had been cleared in what previously appeared to be a backwall of uniform depth. She glanced behind to check on both the slumbering guards and her companion and, satisfied the former remained asleep and the latter had not been left behind, she jumped down after the quarryman. Checking on her companion had only been cursory, merely a symptom of her compulsion to ensure the wellbeing of those close to her; her companion was supremely athletic and would be more likely to have to check on her physical condition the longer the night went on.
They followed the Welshman into a small enclave in the sheer wall, beneath scaffolding that stood like a naked, stoneless castle against the cliff. They were once more in shadow, and had a small hill, one hundred yards and sleep between them and the sentries. The woman’s companion, a man of average height who had not removed his hood all evening, took a stick of torch wood from his satchel, and from his belt a flint and a small pot of oil. The wiry man continued through the darkness, feeling his way along the familiar walls that he had worked at just hours before. The white exposed limestone seemed to glow even in the shadows, providing a natural guide underneath the scaffolding and around the bulging outcrop of virgin rock awaiting the pick tomorrow or next week. The quarry worker slowed down, and then crouched down as the wall started to arch slowly to the right.
“Here. It is here.” He pulled away a cloth cover from the wall, and felt the smooth metal, brushing his right palm up and down without truly realising he was doing so, as if entranced. The woman’s companion applied the oil to the torch wood then placed it tail end down on a rock on the floor, and struck the flint spark a few times. The instantaneous orange of the torch seemed to fill the entire world with colour, a world that had been nothing but greys and silvers and blues and blacks since they had left the tavern a few hours previous.
The hooded man brought the flame toward the wall, and the three crowded round the silver metal jutting about the length of a forearm out of the surrounding limestone. It had the appearance of one end of a chest – who knew what form it took, the part of it embedded in the rock? But this was a chest of pure silver, or what appeared to be silver, with flawless craftsmanship and to the woman’s naked eye, flawless dimensions. It had no defined corners, and what would have been corners were impossibly soft, rounded edges the craft of which the woman did not think possible. The end jutting from the stone was about a forearm in height, and the same in width. The Welshman had told the inquisitors that he believed he was the only person who had seen it; it was possible, as this was a relatively secluded part of the quarry, underneath the scaffolding to the back of the area. He had worked as much as he could around it before covering it with cloth when the foreman ordered everyone home.
The wiry man had introduced himself to the woman as Brac. She had been sitting at a bench, hood down and long brown hair framing her pale face. Her eyes were kind, and she had a thin mouth that was barely wider than the small nose above it. She was not necessarily a remarkable looking woman, but she was certainly nicer to look at than Ugly Dillan and old Llwyd across the other side of the room. His curiosity was piqued when he had heard her speaking in French with the hooded man in the tavern. Only the highborn in the town spoke French, and none of them had ever so debased themselves to frequent the tavern. The English conquest of Wales had prompted mixed reactions from the Welsh; there were those who welcomed an end to incessant infighting amongst the regions but Brac himself was vehemently anti-English; not a day went by without thoughts of vengeance.
So it seemed to him a natural thing to enquire as to why the French woman was so far from France, and if she’d be interested in buying an unusual find from the quarry – Brac had no intention of allowing the English lords any fine Welsh treasures – he fancied himself an opportunistic man, he figured a woman travelling in a foreign land would surely have connections elsewhere, and be anything but helpless.
This was his opportunity to strike back at the invaders! Denying the brutal Lord de Grey possession of the most magnificent discovery Brac had ever seen in a lifetime of quarrying and stoneworking would be worth a thousand victories in the field. Before approaching, he had made sure to scope their footwear, and sure enough their style of boot was exotic relative to the leather mishmash Brac had tied to his own feet; both wore calf-length leather boots with conspicuously fine stitching, far more precise than any footwear the he had noticed around the town, not that he paid particular mind to the shoes others wore. But with so much of these two characters’ physical appearance concealed by hair, hood and cloak he had to make the most from what he could see. Striking accents and very high-quality boots – he had a sure feeling these were not the typical farmers, quarrymen or merchants he usually saw in the area.
At least satisfied the two were neither local nor highborn, the wiry quarryman had puffed his chest with inflated bravado to cover his nerves, and broached the subject with the mysterious duo. His initial optimism drained when it seemed the Frenchwoman was not easily manipulated at the negotiating table. She had taken unexpectedly great interest in the silver stone, and threatened to have the lord anonymously informed of its presence unless Brac took her to it that very evening. He had expected terms to be more favourable but in truth he had too little spine to combat this unnervingly determined woman. And so he had agreed, reluctantly, to lead the woman and the man (who had not said anything to him all evening) to the quarry.
“We must hurry. Get your pick,” the Frenchwoman ordered Brac in a quiet tone saturated in authority. He knew better than to disobey this foreigner – but who is she? He took a small pick from the belt underneath his cloak and gently nicked off the limestone around the top edge of the silver stone. Brac intended to create a shallow space in the rock the entire way round the silver stone in the hope that it might be wrenched free if the stone was not too deeply embedded. The woman spoke her native tongue to the other man, words utterly alien to Brac, and the other man sprung up towards the slope with the boulders. Brac watched him settle down at the peak of the slope, facing away from them, presumably as a sentry against the sentries.
The wiry man worked quickly and deftly, with nimble hands that caused the pick to dance around the silver stone object without ever touching it, not that it would have made a difference if he had. Earlier in the day before discovering it was there, Brac had hit it with his pickaxe and left neither indent nor even a scratch. As he chipped away at the surrounding rock under the decreasingly friendly eyes of the woman, Brac turned over the situation in his mind. He concluded that this strange, seemingly invulnerable metal object would be better off out of his possession anyway. A quarry worker did not need further uncertainties in his life. But, in case it was valuable, he’d rather the French had it than the English. He’d rather the French had it than the Church; how he saw it, the French could fight the English, but the Church could not.
After a few minutes of chipping, Brac gave the silver object a shove with his right shoulder. Nothing. He grunted. Taking his pick in his right hand once more, he scrambled to the left side of the object and concentrated on the limestone bordering its vertical plane. He made light work of carving a considerably deeper groove and returned to the top, where he did the same. Moving back round to the right, he put his shoulder to it again, and this time there was give; the impact gave Brac a dull ache in his shoulder but this slipped from his mind as he went about the subtle removal of stone from stone, by torchlight, without making a noise.
“Good,” uttered the woman, not even looking at Brac but mesmerised by the patterns of the flame as it reflected on the silver surface. He did not need accolades or congratulations for such work; he had been praised before, so he ignored the comment and continued chipping away. This time he worked on the right hand side then the underside, and putting the pick down he placed both hands on the left front edge of the stone and yanked back towards him to the right.
Again, a little give, but no more. He skilfully chipped at the loose limestone like a woodpecker on tree bark, and suddenly a clump of limestone the height of the stone itself fell away in one motion on the left hand side. Brac moved back round to the right and gave it another shoulder. The silver stone fell away from the wall, thumping onto the sandy quarry floor. It was flawless – no scratches, no impressions, no details. It was longer than it was wide, with the same rounded edges at the end that had been lodged within the rock. It shone magnificently in the torchlight as if it were a mirror. The two stared at it for a moment.
“C’est l’heure,” said the woman to the sentry man. Brac couldn’t understand. But he would not have noticed if she had spoken in English or Welsh, for he was fixated with the perfection of the stone. Is it a stone, though? He had worked around the products of the earth, the cliffs and the mines long enough to know that shapes such as this did not occur naturally, and especially not in silver as this appeared to be. Is this a gift from God? Brac felt his heart jump. Was he giving away a gift from God to the French and not the Church? His nerves, allayed by his labour, returned like a bucket of cold water being poured over his head.
Before he knew it, the woman’s companion had hauled the stone up into a large sack, and slung it ponderously over his shoulder. By the man’s slow movement and the subsequent momentary unbalance in his legs, Brac considered the object to weigh a considerable amount. Yet if it were silver, would it not be beyond the strength of all but the greatest men to carry it so? The woman’s companion appeared only of average build, a couple of inches taller than Brac. He pondered what could it be that takes a naturally pure silver appearance yet is patently not entirely silver. And the craftsmanship! Oh, no stonemason in the kingdom could match it. Some entity or being must have forged it, and left it here in the Earth to be discovered. To be discovered by me. All anti-English sentiment had evaporated and Brac now just felt nothing but guilt at having crept into the quarry when he was not supposed to, and then having given away a gift made by the angels or God Himself.
But he kept his silence, fearful of the bargaining edge the woman and the man now had over him. They slowly walked back towards the slope, Brac leading, the woman behind him and the struggling man with the stone at the rear. His footsteps were no longer soft crunches but loud scrapes as he hauled the great object across the quarry floor. The woman killed the flame on the torch. Brac noticed for the first time in a while the hooting of the owls, and he suddenly thought of the two sleeping sentries. At the peak of the slope, the two unburdened shadows looked out across the quarry from behind the boulders and saw the two sentries still asleep.
Just as well, thought the woman. Her companion was breathing heavily trying to carry the object up the slope. She hoped he would regain his composure on the way down and away from the quarry. She was already thinking of which route to take back into England and which letters she should send where for armed escort. There were still a few possibilities; the Order’s unofficial presence was typically stronger than its official presence. The man Brac would require payment which itself was not straightforward – a quarry worker would not become well off without arousing the suspicions of his neighbours, the sheriff nor the lord.
Should she write Guy again? She implicitly trusted Guy’s authority; he had been very precise about the exact nature of the object they were searching for. Was it not a sign from the Lord that the object would find them? After all of this time, a breakthrough! They had not yet left the quarry and the woman’s mind was four, five stages ahead.
Her mind was brought back to the current stage when a horn burst through the stillness, causing Brac in front of her to almost jump out of his cloak. The horn had been blown behind them, from the quarry – probably from the sentries, who were probably no longer asleep.
“Run!” she hissed, shoving into the sluggish Brac who by now had lost all composure. Her companion lumbered along in pursuit of the first two, who by now had disappeared into the forest. It remained a kaleidoscope of silver and black in the full moonlight, until a few dozen yards ahead a torch was lit, followed by a second and a third. As the eighth torch lit up the two men and the woman had slowed their sprint to a walk, and finally a stop. Some torches were elevated above the others; at least three of the torchbearers were on horseback. The soft, high ringing of steel on steel rustled sporadically.
“Surrender in the name of the King!” commanded a coarse, yet educated English voice. “Lay down your arms and the goods, and his lordship will treat with you as nobility dictates. Of course, there is a limit to the nobility that can be shown to petty thieves. Lay down your arms.”
Aware that she, Brac and her companion were still almost completely in shadow, the woman slowly yet noisily crouched down and dropped her knife on the earth. At the same time her companion lowered the bag with the silver stone to the floor with a thwump, but did not let go of it. In the same motion the woman had picked up stones and in the process of standing up, launched them at the wall of torches in front. Before her arm had come down she screamed, “Go!” and grabbed Brac forcefully by his left shoulder, dragging him right across the path with her and into the trees.
She heard the stones clang off armour, and the horses whinnied and reared at the unexpected shower of pebbles. By the time the Englishman with the coarse voice had yelled “After them!” the three were already ten yards into the forest, hurdling branches and roots where they could, and simply running through them and tripping over them where they could not.
Diving into the woods had already eliminated the three horseback torchbearers, but there were presumably at least five who would now be in pursuit, and would not have been burdened by carrying a heavy silver stone or by Brac’s ungainly motion. Equally though, the woman thought as she cleared another root from a massive old tree, pitch black and monstrous in the shadow, their pursuers were likely to be wearing at the very least mail armour. The crunching of the stones onto plate and mail had given her no little confidence. She could hear the crashing of the armoured men behind them, the occasional heavy thump as a body fell to the ground, but still the shouts and footfalls came.
“Keep going. Je traiterai avec eux,” the woman yelled to the two men before stopping dead in her tracks and disappearing from Brac’s peripheral vision. He dared to look round to gauge what the Frenchwoman was doing – unable to understand her native tongue, and terrified at the angry armed mob chasing him, the quarryman felt he had little to no grasp on the situation – though he saw nothing but the torch light before the other man grunted “Come!” in a southern English accent. The two men were labouring hard through the forest, the hooded man from the weight on his back and Brac due to his battered body, and compounding the physical difficulties were the problems running through his mind – the Welshman had no idea where they were running, nor how they would escape their pursuers.
Brac’s chest hammered with the exertion and fright; never before had he felt a dread like this, never was his own wellbeing so palpably threatened. The threat of violence or illness was always around the corner but the feeling of being hunted was a completely different experience, rendering him unable to consider anything else other than his escape from this situation, not even the destination to where they were heading. It was an all-consuming terror that roared at him with coarse bellows and clashing armour and thunderous footfalls, an unearthly discord threatening doom in the night. If he were caught, he would be hanged for theft from the King’s quarry; a miserable end and all for a moment’s greed. He had not been a man to covet, beyond the pipedream of striking back at the English.
And yet, Brac had indeed taken the first opportunity to strike back at the English, except the Welshman found himself regretting having done so. Grand ambitions fuelled by years of grieving and poisonous resentment had birthed an urge, that one day would manifest in a symbolic revenge against the invader. But he had not deliberated upon the consequences upon his own safety, let alone his way of life. In the hamlet and the quarry he faced no ostensible personal threats, beyond the occasional drunken scuffle. Brac kept himself quiet and went about his labour with little fuss. The English preferred it that way and, truth be told, so did he. The benefit of Lord de Grey’s uncompromising manner of governance was that for years north Flintshire had been largely free of the fighting that had ravaged the country for a hundred years; and now Brac had thrown away that peace.
Hindsight. Everything was obvious with hindsight. Brac had spent a lifetime keeping his head down so as to not require hindsight.
Why did I do this? he asked himself, feeling his straggly hair catch another stray branch before having to dive left around a tall tree of black bark emerging out of the night. In the thick woods, both man and plant were chasing him, trying to bring him down. He knew he must run. The Frenchwoman’s companion carrying the stone in the sack was ahead of him somehow, galloping at a remarkable speed through the uneven, cluttered and almost pitch-black terrain. The man must be part-horse or some other beast of burden, Brac imagined, such was his strength and stamina. It was then the wiry quarryman saw that the man with the stone was actually pulling away, and the chasing footfalls and shouts behind him were becoming ever closer. Driven to ever greater panic by the realisation he blundered on even more directly, his desperation removing his willingness to dodge obstacles that, in the briefest of moments he had to judge in the poor visibility, appeared to be sufficiently malleable to run through rather than around or under.
He brushed past the end of one such branch, a great thick arm almost perfectly horizontal across his path, with prying twigs for fingers that snared on the linen covering his right shoulder. It slowed the quarryman down somewhat, causing him to yelp as the twigs hooked through the material of his tunic and into his shoulder. In the instants it took to free himself of the arboreal trap Brac felt he was dragging the branch and its parent tree with him and his voice became ever higher with heightening terror.
He could hear the grunting of his pursuer as the man-at-arms careened through the vegetation his quarry had flattened just moments beforehand, his rattling mail complementing the nightmarish discord. Finally and mercifully the tough tunic material, designed to be nothing but durable, tore and released Brac from the branch’s grip. He lumbered away, somehow accelerating despite his twisted body’s reluctance to do so. As he did so the heavy branch sprang back in the opposite direction and struck the pursuing man-at-arms across the eyes; the great closing speed of man and branch created an impact with the viciousness of a whiplash and the severity of a training sword – the pursuer screamed as he stumbled with nothing to break his fall, clawing as he was at his eyes, one of which now blinded.
The bloodcurdling shriek spurred Brac on even faster than before and beyond what he thought his battered body could produce. The scream definitely belonged to a man, Brac decided in that instant, so it was possible the feisty Frenchwoman was still standing, somewhere, wherever she was in the forest at this point. He did not understand her French when she had last shouted and so did not know where she had gone, but the man with the stone had continued running so Brac thought he should follow suit.
And here they were, still running as the shouts and thumping of feet and clanking of mail diminished with every stride away from the path between the hamlet and the quarry. Brac’s lungs burnt with exhaustion and his throat had dried out, caused by both the ferocious pace and the quarry dust he had inhaled almost every day for the past fifteen summers. He knew he would soon be unable to muster much more energy.