When he came back, it was quiet. He didn't know where he was, except that he was lying face down in stinking mud. His hair lay in dripping, black strings across his face. He dug his fingers into the muck. In a dim way, he wondered if he should be attending his father.
He drifted off again.
No, the letter said my lord father died in a dungeon.
Nothing hurt. Shouldn't it hurt? Mayhap something had broken inside. He tried to move to find out. Dire mistake. His belly cramped and bent him like a bow. He gasped with the crushing agony of it. Holy Virgin Mary, what did he do to me?
After a long time the cramp passed, and he lay in the sunlight, too weak to do anything but pant in relief. He was too shattered to move. Thoughts drifted like blowing leaves. That he'd seen thieves die from such beatings. That mayhap he was so hurt he'd never be able to move.
He lay still in the mud as the shadows lengthened in the waning afternoon. His face felt like a pillow stuffed with lumps of coal. He managed to breathe through his mouth, his nose clogged with blood.
Eventually, he lifted his head and took heart that his body didn't cramp. He wasn't getting worse.
He knew from the practice yard that the best way to deal with being knocked flat was to take your time. The daylight had dimmed as shadows crawled towards the riverbank. A breeze chilled him and he shivered. Dark was good. It would hide him. Mayhap if he moved carefully, cautiously, he could get to his feet.
He tried moving, dreading the pain. He moved his arms, his legs, tried to sit up. Couldn't do it. His muscles trembled. Lifting his head, he considered a huge chestnut tree a few feet from the riverbank. He crept across the ground, crawling, as far as the trunk and propped himself against it, panting.
He rested there for a while, hurting but alive. Increasingly, he thought he would stay that way. Strength returned, no longer a distant memory. He could stand if he tried. He grasped the rough trunk of the tree and pulled himself upright.
Tottery, he held onto a drooping branch. It wasn't so bad. He ached all over but he could move.
Limping through the dark streets, he kept to the shadows against the buildings, using the slimy walls to stay on his feet. He hid in the dark whenever anyone walked his way.
The half-moon hung high in the black velvet sky when he stood propped in the kitchen doorway of the Auberge du Grand Cerf. Heat from the roaring fire in the hearth bathed his face. The serving girl, Ysabeau, turned from the tun of wine with a full pitcher in her hand. Her mouth dropped open. "Mon dieu! Your face..."
He held up a hand.
"Madame Jehannette," she yelled for her mistress. She banged the pitcher down on a table.
He was trembling and feared he might spew all over the floor.
"Did they catch you hunting in the king's forest?"
He shook his head no and pain shot through his head. The room revolved. Legs wobbling, he leaned against the wall.
"Sit. You're about to fall over." She grabbed him around the waist and lowered him to the ground. He wanted to tell her that he'd hardly managed to get up, but the words didn't seem to come.
"Why are you bawling, girl?" Madame Jehannette stalked in, hands on her ample hips, her skirts swishing.
"He's hurt. I'll get water and a cloth." She left him propped against the whitewashed wall as she leapt to her feet and scurried away.
"Someone beat him." Madame pursed her lips. "I told you not to take up with un Écossois." She pulled a cloth from her sleeve and dropped it next to James's hand. "Don't get blood on my clean floor, boy."
"I'm sorry, Madame," he mumbled around his stiff tongue. He wiped at the crusted blood on his face.
She shook her head. "Eh, well... You've been a good boy selling me meat for the stew pot. I won't complain as long as you don't make a mess."
Ysabeau squatted beside him. She dipped a cloth in water and, pushing his hand away, stroked the wet cloth across his cheek. Her breath caught with a little sob. "Shhhh..." she said although he hadn't made a sound. He closed his eyes over gray mists that floated around him, sparkling with diamond-bright pin stars.
A warm stream ran down his chin. He wasn't sure if it was water or blood and didn't much care. Ysabeau stroked back his hair.
He would have liked to put his arms around her and rest his head on her small breasts as he had the times she'd let him lie with her. She'd said he was too young, even though she was only a little older, but he hadn't been. The memory helped. He was grateful she was there--that she would help him. He tried to tell her but what came out was her name.
Madame clicked her tongue against her teeth. "I suppose he may have a cup of wine."
Wine sizzled when Madame put a poker in the flagon to warm it. Even through his stuffed nose, he smelled the pinch of cloves she added.
"You don't want to get his blood on your gown," Ysabeau said. "Let me do it, Madame." Ysabeau pressed the cup to his lips and he took a sip. "Who did this to you? I've never known you beaten in a fight."
James shook his head and rainbows sparkled behind his eyes, red and purple and green. "It wasn't a fight. I knocked fruit off his stand. He hit me from behind." He shut his eyes to stop the sparks. "The Abbot gave me a letter. From England. That no more money would come for my schooling. The money my father sent is long since used. He said to go."
"They never even fed you proper." She made a sound in her throat. "If there was money, they never used it for you."
He wanted to tell her what else had been in the letter but his head was too muzzy. He heard Madame talking about foolish boys who knock into a merchant's stall and cause damage. That it was his own fault he was hurt, but she took the cup and was refilling it. He had to agree with her that it was his own fault. He'd run crying for his father like a bairn, not watching where he was going.
"Anyway," said Madame, "why is there no more money? Your father's a baron, no?"
"He's dead." The short sentence was all he could manage.
"Ah, your wars with the English King. That Edward! He thinks to take part of our kingdom, too."
He gave a quick nod that made the room spin. "He took everything."
"Let him stay, Madame," Ysabeau said. "He can sleep by the fire. He's strong. He'll hunt and work."
Madame shook her head. "No, there's not work for another. My Pierre and you are enough. He'd cost too much to feed, still growing the way he is."
After Ysabeau finished cleaning his face and the split in the back of his head, Madame said he could rest for an hour or two beside the hearth. What am I going to do? As he tried to decide, the kitchen faded into gray half-sleep. He ran through the forest with a brace of rabbits, dodging the French king's huntsmen. If they caught him, they'd hang him of a certainty. A shout made him open his eyes and he tried to decide if it was real.
Voices came from the other side of the kitchen. Madame saying again: No, he couldn't stay. Ysabeau worrying that the merchant who'd beaten him might be looking for him.
His face throbbed with heat. He moved his arms, stretched his legs. Stiff. Nothing was broken even though his shoulder was too sore for him to use his left arm. He could manage.
"You don't look so bad," Madame said as he walked gingerly towards them.
"Thank you for helping me." He tried to speak clearly through his swollen mouth. "I'll be on my way."
Madame smiled, pleased that he wouldn't beg. "Where will you go?"
"You're too hurt." Ysabeau looked at her mistress. "Madame, let him stay for the night."
"I'll get back to Scotland, somehow." His voice was muffled from his nose being stopped with blood. He gently felt the bridge. It was fat but seemed straight. With his hawk nose, he had to be glad. If it were crooked as well, it would be hideous.
Ysabeau looked pained, but he knew she couldn't contradict her mistress. "You don't have money for a horse--or a ship once you get to the sea."
"I can work my way. Once, I get to Scotland." He narrowed his eyes. He'd have to think about that. What then when he got back? But it was his home. The only one he had and somewhere was the king who had killed his father and stolen everything.
Madame took out her purse. She put a single coin into James's hand. "You've brought me many rabbits for the pot and that haunch of venison. And you'll fight the horrible English king." She sighed. "Ysabeau, get Pierre's old cloak. He can't take to the road without one."
Ysabeau turned and went to get it from the hallway. She sniffled, crying.
James flexed his shoulders. Every inch of him hurt, but not as badly as it would tomorrow. At least he would be on the road, and no one would know he didn't usually limp along like a beggar. He fastened the wool cloak around his shoulders. "Merci, Madame. Ysabeau, je tu reverrai un jour, je l'espère." But would he ever return? Only God knew.
Ysabeau kissed his cheek and he tried not to wince.
"Bonne chance," Madame said.
He went back out into the night. He'd work his way to the sea, but first he had to find MacAilpín. The thought that the dog might lay suffering, waiting for James to come help him was like a rock in his belly.
He'd been running blind when he'd run into the merchant's table. It took an hour of wandering in the dark to find the edge of the market where he'd been beaten. In a corner, he stumbled over the hound's body. His legs were stretched out stiff and his rough coat still sticky with blood. "Devil take them," James said through gritted teeth. "God damn them to hell."
For a long time, James squatted next to the body. His father's steward had bound up the stairs, the pup in his hands, yelling that he had something for James. Years ago... A lifetime ago...
James cradled his pounding head in his hands. He owed his father... something. Not vengeance. There wasn't enough vengeance in the world for what the English had done. But he'd at least get back what they'd stolen. Somehow, he'd do that. "I swear it," he whispered. He couldn't even begin to think how. First, he'd have to get to Scotland. A long, weary walk to Calais and then take a ship, working his way. Mayhap, he could find Bishop Lamberton, who'd been his father's friend.James' eyes stung. He clenched his jaw and swallowed to suck back the tears. He wouldn't weep. Never again.
Please check out my historical novel, Freedom's Sword, available on Amazon and Smashwords.