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.  More than once they found the sword hanging from her belt.

“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 softly cleared his throat.  “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, whereupon 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 lone waking souls in the hamlet.

It did not take long for them to leave the hamlet along the rough path through the woods.  It was no true path, rather a route of worn-down vegetation cleared by decades of walking, albeit smooth enough to permit travel in exceedingly low light, which was fortuitous since 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 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 a small walk from the hamlet.  The scarred, towering cliffs carved out of the hillside shone bright grey against the dark blue of the surrounding grass, daunting bulwarks rising on both sides against nocturnal intruders and looking down at them in judgement.  He noticed the woman took a moment in contemplation of the environs at which the nerves knotted tighter in his stomach.  There was no moment for careless sightseeing.

His disquiet burgeoned further on as they crunched onto the site’s bare earth, finding what he feared to find.  Wary as a rabbit in the field he halted in front, and the two companions unquestioning responded in kind.  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 gave the curtest of nods although the Welshman did not see it, already moving off to the left and away from the sleeping guards, and soon the three were scrambling up the slope toward the boulders that formed a lip to the steep descent into the quarry pit.  Loose stones rolled down with alarming volume in their wake, causing the trio to hold their breath and movement a moment, but the slope faced away from the guards and so the sound did not carry.  The 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 made not 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 was greeted by smaller enclaves that had been cleared in what was previously a backwall of uniform depth.  She glanced back 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 with the other man in tow.

The pair following him into an 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 prior.  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.  He slowed and then crouched down where the wall arched away 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 instant orange illumination 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 argent 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 naked eye, flawless dimensions.  It had no defined corners, and what would have been corners were improbably soft, rounded edges the craft of which did not appear possible for the most skilled of smiths.  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 sole person to have 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 and covered 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 in the tavern, 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 – only the highborn in the town spoke French, and none of them had ever so debased themselves to frequent the tavern.

So it seemed 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.  He had no intention of allowing the English lords any fine Welsh treasures, and fancying himself an opportunistic man, he figured a woman travelling in a foreign land would surely have connections elsewhere, and be by no means helpless.

More pertinent, this was his opportunity to strike back at the invaders!  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, whilst Brac himself was vehemently anti-English, and not a day passed free from thoughts of vengeance.  Denying the brutal Lord de Grey possession of the most magnificent discovery Brac had seen in a lifetime of quarrying and stoneworking would be worth a thousand victories in the field.

Prior to approaching he had made sure to scope their footwear, and sure enough theirs were 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 he had noticed around the town, not that he paid particular mind to such.  Nonetheless, with so much of this pair’s 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 unknown duo were neither local nor highborn, the wiry quarryman had puffed his chest with inflated bravado to cover his nerves, and broached the subject of his personal rebellion.

His initial optimism drained, however, when it became apparent that the Frenchwoman was not so easily beguiled at the negotiating table.  She took an unexpectedly keen interest in the silver stone, and threatened to have the lord anonymously informed of its presence unless he took her to it that very evening.  He had hoped for terms more favourable, but in truth he had too little spine to combat this unnervingly determined woman, and so he had agreed, reluctantly, to lead both she and her companion – who was yet to say a word to him – to the quarry.

“We must hurry.  Get your pick,” the Frenchwoman bade Brac, her tone quiet and saturated in authority.  He knew better than to disobey this foreigner – but who was she?  He took a small pick from the belt beneath his cloak and gently nicked off the limestone around the top edge of the silver stone, intending to create a shallow space in the rock the entire way round the object in the hope that it might be wrenched free if it were not too deeply embedded.  The woman spoke her native tongue to the other man, words 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.  Upon discovery earlier that day, he had inadvertently 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, whereas the Church could not.

After a short while working, 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 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 and not a little ache to his shoulder in the process.

“Good,” uttered the woman, looking not to Brac, instead mesmerized by the patterns of the flame reflecting on the silver surface.  He did not need accolades or congratulations for such work, so ignoring her he resumed nicking away, the throb of the impact slipping from his mind with the subtle removal of stone from stone, by torchlight, bereft of sound.  Now he worked on the right hand side then the underside, soon placing both hands on the left front edge of the stone and yanking it back towards the right.

Again, a little give, no more.  Skilfully he 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 on the left.  Brac moved back around and gave it another shoulder, and this time the silver stone fell away from the wall, thumping onto the sandy quarry floor.  It was flawless – no scratches, no impressions, no details, and longer than it was wide, with the same rounded edges at the end that had been lodged within the rock.  There it lay, shining magnificently in the torchlight as if it were a mirror, and the two stared at it a moment.

C’est l’heure,” the woman then declared to the sentry man.

Brac could not understand, although 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?  His heart jumped.  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 returned and 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 bar 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 of that precious element.  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 bar 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.

He kept his silence all the same, fearful of the bargaining edge the woman and the man now had over him.  They carefully walked back towards the slope, Brac leading, then the woman 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 thought of the sentries.  At the peak of the slope, the two unburdened shadows peeked out across the quarry from behind the boulders and saw the watchmen still asleep.

Just as well, the woman mused.  Her companion was breathing heavily in lugging the object up the slope.  Checking on him was cursory, merely a symptom of her compulsion to ensure the wellbeing of those close to her, for he was supremely athletic and more likely to check on her condition the longer this night went on.  She knew he would regain his composure on the way down and away from the quarry, which enclosing the forest clearing reminded her of the ruined Roman theatre she had seen once in Marseilles.  That she would see it now rather than this deserted pit.  But there was an errand to be run.  The woman was already thinking of which route to take back into England and which letters she should send where for armed escort.  Guy had always encouraged her to use instinct and here she had done so; there were still a few possibilities; the Order’s unofficial presence was typically stronger than its official presence.  The man Brac would require payment, too, 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.

She had already written Guy that evening upon the chance conversation with this man Brac.  Should she write again?  She implicitly trusted his 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 she dared wonder if it were a breakthrough.  It could be a dead end, much as was this quarry from the forest path, or it might represent a conclusion to decades of searching started by predecessors well before she had been born.  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’s 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 crouched and dropped her knife on the earth, scouring for stones on the ground, whilst her companion lowered the sack to the floor with a thwump without relinquishing his grip.  At length she rose, slowly, in the process then launching her missiles at the wall of torches ahead.  “Go!” she screamed, grabbing Brac by his left shoulder as her arm came down and dragging him with her across the path and into the trees.

She heard the stones clang off armour, and the horses whinnied and reared at the unexpected shower.  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 mounted 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.  Then again, she thought in clearing 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 that they might flee this trap.  She could hear the crashing of the armoured men trailing 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 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 next to no grasp on the situation – though he saw nothing besides the light of torches, and heard a grunted “Come!” in a southern English accent.  Onwards they went, 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 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 other than escape from this situation, not even the destination to where they were heading.  It was an all-consuming terror that roared at him with 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 he 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.  He had not deliberated the consequences upon his own safety, however, 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 down through the previous century; 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 then 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 coming ever closer.  Driven to greater panic by the realisation he blundered on more directly, his desperation removing his willingness to dodge obstacles that, in the brief moments he had to judge in the poor visibility, appeared 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 and hooked through the tunic into his right shoulder.  His yelping heightened with his rising terror and he thrashed to break free of this arboreal trap, feeling he was dragging branch and tree with him.  The grunting of his pursuer grew as the man-at-arms careened through the vegetation his quarry had flattened just moments earlier, his rattling mail complementing the nightmarish discord.  Finally, and mercifully, the tough tunic material did what it was not supposed to do and tore and released Brac from the branch’s grip.  He lumbered away, somehow accelerating despite his body’s reluctance, and as he went the heavy branch sprang back in the opposite direction and struck the coursing man-at-arms across the eyes with the viciousness of a whip’s lash 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 faster and beyond what he thought his battered body could produce.  The scream was of a man, he determined in that instant, so it was possible the Frenchwoman was still standing, somewhere, wherever she was in the forest at this point.  He knew not what she had last commanded and so did not know where she had gone, but the man with the stone had continued running so Brac knew he should follow suit.

And here they were, still running as the shouts and thumping of feet and clanking of mail diminished with each stride away from the path between the hamlet and the quarry.  Brac’s lungs burnt with exhaustion and his throat was dry for 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.