Gareth was contemplating the worn gold coin between his fingers. After five long years, it represented one third of his wealth and he was about to throw it away for revenge. He was stalling and he knew it. The old man had told him this would happen. Did he have to be right so often? If you squinted a little the face on the coin looked a little like the old man. Tilting the coin slightly, the face also looked like the innkeeper headed toward him. Time to make a choice. Follow the plan for the revenge that had been driving him for the last five years or call an end to this foolishness and go back home.
Damn that old man anyway he thought as he raised his coin to the innkeeper’s sight. “Innkeeper, how many nights of food and board will this get me?” he asked. The dour innkeeper’s face changed instantly as the man’s lips started moving in silent calculation. “Five days,” the innkeeper said as he started reaching for the coin. Seeing the look on Gareth’s face, he added, “but this is the slow season so I’ll give you an extra two days.”
Gareth fumed. He knew he was being cheated. Gold was not common here and even in its best days quality of this inn would fall short of average. The questionable nature of the inn’s clientele was part of the plan. The coin should have gotten him two weeks easily.
The old man had been clear. “You will be cheated. Let the innkeeper know you know and don’t care. Just follow the script.”
The words came out just as rehearsed, “Innkeeper, do you take me for a young farmer away from his fields for the first time in his life? This coin would easily buy 3 weeks in one of the finer inns.” Gareth paused, waiting for the inevitable rebuttal. Timing was important here.
Just as the innkeeper opened his mouth, Gareth gave a wide grin and let loose with a big laugh. “It matters not,” he said, smiling as he added. “While I have but two left, this coin has brothers and sisters aplenty and I will soon be rejoined with them. I can’t let you cheat me blind though.” Slowly, keep the measure. “I’ve been away from my village for the last five years and I would have company to catch up on my old home. A round of drinks for the house on my word and drinks all night for the five, no, make that six people at my table.”
Gareth hoped this did not sound as forced to the innkeeper as it did to him. After rehearsing those lines hundreds of times it was difficult for him to think of it as sounding natural. Maybe those months with the actors hadn’t been a waste of time after all, Gareth thought. At the time he thought it was another of the old man’s peculiarities. He certainly had enough of those.
The innkeeper’s lips started moving again, only this time in silent calculation. The innkeeper looked at the half empty bar then at the very empty table Gareth was sitting at, almost smiled and said “Though you would reduce me to poverty, you remind me of myself at your age. One week and drinks for this evening but not one bit more without giving up another of those gold coins you’re so fond of.”
As he partook of the broth and thin ale served to him, Gareth thought back to that fateful night that his path brought him to the old man.
Getting out of the dungeon had been simple, staying alive might be nearly impossible. It had only been three days since his imprisonment but lack of food and the beatings made it difficult to think. If only they weren’t using the dogs, Gareth thought. When he was very young, he had seen a fugitive captured by the dogs. The guards didn’t even bother trying to bring the body back.
As he ran into a clearing, Gareth saw a small brightly colored wagon with strange markings on the side. The man seated at the fire looked at Gareth as if it were entirely normal to have a half naked and bruised boy run out of the brush.
“Please save me,” he panted. “Those dogs will kill me if they catch me.” The man looked at Gareth, muttered something that sounded like “never escape the sins of my past,” and said, “What do you offer for my help?” Even now Gareth felt anger as he thought about the old man bargaining, when the dogs were so close. Helpless Gareth only stared as he said, “What do you want?”
Five years of his life. There was no bargaining, the dogs sounded like they were just outside the clearing. Left with no options, Gareth numbly agreed.
The man quickly showed Gareth a small trap door accessible from beneath the wagon. When Gareth scrambled in, the bottom was moved back in place leaving Gareth just enough room to lie on top of the door.
It sounded like the man then went to the back of the wagon, going through several drawers. He could barely see the man as he walked around the wagon shaking something onto the ground and then off into the woods and back.
Although it seemed like hours, it was only minutes before the dogs burst into the clearing. The dogs seemed to go wild. They were running in circles through the clearing. The dogs were so intent on the scent, it looked like their noses were glued to the ground. They never even approached the wagon.
The guards could see the abnormal behavior of their dogs as they burst into the clearing. His savior seemed unperturbed as the guards questioned him about the boy and the dog’s behavior. No, he had not seen a young boy run past but he had fallen asleep after having meat for the first time in weeks. Maybe that’s what the dogs smelled, the rabbit he had killed for his dinner. Where were the remains? He led the guards to the woods where he Gareth had watched him go. The old man pointed to a few pieces of bloody rabbit fur but the dogs refused to approach. They tucked their tail between their legs, backed off a few paces and howled. Nothing could get them to approach the fur.
The old man was the first to speak. “I’ve never seen dogs act like that. What do you have in these woods that would cause so much fear in fine dogs like this?”
For what seemed like the first time in hours, Gareth took a breath. It was beginning to look like he might survive the night. That’s when Gareth heard the man ask the guards to spend the night. Who knows what kind of monster was out there. The man was out of meat but he had some turnips he could share. Did the guards perhaps have any liquor they might be willing to share?
The guards took their dogs and left.
Gareth heard the man walk over to the wagon. He pushed on something and Gareth heard the thud of something entering the hidden space. “Eat this. Don’t leave the compartment until morning, we’ll talk then.” It was cooked rabbit, the best food Gareth had ever tasted.
Thus started his five years of servitude
As the dining area was filling up, Gareth took his time evaluating the patrons. They had both agreed that accidentally selecting an honest man could be disaster. Gareth shook his head thinking that was hardly a problem with this crowd. He would have a harder time getting his story explained before they decided to cut his throat for the other two pieces of gold.
Luck finally smiled on Gareth. Two men entered the inn and one of them recognized Gareth. The man stepped up to him and said “Gareth, is that you? We thought you died after they took you away. Nobody has seen you since that night.” Gareth finally remembered his name was Tom. He had been obnoxious and a bully in his youth. It was clear time had worn a few rough edges off him.
Gareth made a silencing motion with his hands. “Yeah, it’s me. Sit down quick and don’t use my name again,” Gareth whispered, all the while looking around as if he expected guards to come out of the walls with the mere mention of his name. Both men sat down.
“I remember you but I don’t know him, can he keep a secret?” Tom just gestured, “Frank? He doesn’t even talk to his mother. What happened to you anyway?”
Phase two of the plan required at least one more person at the table. He didn’t want to keep repeating his story all night. As many times as he had gone over it, each time he repeated it, was another opportunity to make a mistake and a mistake here could cost him his life. Less disturbed than he might have been over the prospect of being killed, Gareth motioned to the innkeeper, “Innkeeper, drinks for me and my friends.”
During the last five years he had seen a lot of violence. The old man seemed to attract violence. There had been several attempted robberies while they were on the road, none had succeeded.
The first time had been during an autumn evening just as the weather was starting to turn cold. They were traveling from town to town in the wagon and had stopped to eat. The campfire was warm and Gareth was relaxing from the day’s travel. Their appearance was so sudden, they seemed like ghosts when the three men appeared in the light of the campfire. All three looked scruffy and armed. The apparent leader was wearing a sword. The man to the right had a cocked crossbow pointed at the old man and the one on the left had a big double bladed ax that seemed better suited to felling trees.
“Rest easy as we take your wagon and we might let you live the night,” the leader said. The old man seemed to have aged 20 years in the last few minutes. He slowly struggled to his feet and started pleading with the leader in a trembling voice. “Please good sir, it’s all the boy and I have.” All the while he was tottering towards the man, pleading for his life.
Gareth was so astounded by the change in the old man he almost missed his cue. He barely saw the old man toss what looked like a small ball into the fire, as if disposing of the remains of his meal.
As they had rehearsed so often, Gareth dropped his head closing his eyes. When he reached a count of three the world lit up through his closed eyes. Now, he thought. He jumped and ran to the wagon. Getting the flintlock from the under the seat, Gareth turned to shoot. Seeing the fight for the first time now Gareth could see the leader’s throat was cut and the axe man was on the ground with the old man attempting to remove his dagger. Gareth saw the man with the crossbow trying to reload his weapon and struggled to take slow steady aim, just like practice.
Unlike practice, nothing happened when he pulled the trigger. By now the crossbowman had realized Gareth had a gun and was turning towards him. Gareth pulled the trigger harder but nothing. He heard the old man yell, “pull the flint,” as the old man threw the axe at the remaining bandit. In his haste Gareth had forgotten to cock the gun. The crossbowman easily dodged the big axe, but in doing so gave Gareth the time he needed to pull the flint back and fire.
He had to practice pulling the gun and cocking the flintlock every night for two weeks after. Gareth would never forget again.
Gareth took his time getting to know his new comrades. He asked about people they had both known, asked if the lord still ran the village, asked about a few of the prettier girls he remembered. Anything to keep them talking. Somewhere between the second and third rounds, two more men decided they knew Tom well enough to sit down. Gareth gave them a hard glance but was careful not to make it so hard as to drive them off. “They friends of yours Tom?” he asked. As he expected, Tom wanting to seem as important as possible, looked the interlopers over, nodded his head and said, “Yeah, they’re good.”
When the drinks arrived for round three, Tom finally realized that no money was changing hands. “I’ve known that man for years,” Tom said, motioning at the innkeeper. “He doesn’t give credit and he hasn’t asked you to pay a copper. What’s going on?”
Gareth started phase two. Taking a deep breath as if remembering something horrible, not much acting required there, Gareth thought. He followed with a sigh as if making a decision and said, “When they caught me, the guards beat me so hard I was almost unconscious. The lord had them put me in the dungeon because he wanted me conscious when he tortured me.”
As he talked about his capture, he let the old memories come back. The old man always said put as much truth as you can in your lies. He talked about how the big nosed guard kept kicking him and swore the man would die if Gareth even ran into him again. He talked about how the cell they had thrown him in smelled of moldy hay and piss. He talked about lying there moaning, wanting the pain to stop.
He had them completely captivated now. A few people at the other tables had even started listening.
“Do you want to see something really amazing?” Gareth asked. “Innkeeper, a round of drinks for the entire house.” The innkeeper looked at Gareth, nodded and started giving out free drinks. Tom stared at Gareth, “What did you do to him? Are you rich?” By now everyone was staring at Gareth. Things like this just didn’t happen, at least not in this village.
The stage was set, it was time to start his performance. Gareth took a deep breath, feeling like he was back with the actors. Gareth said “After I escaped I was. The last five years have been spent in luxury.” Looking around as if just noticing the crowd gathering around him, Gareth motioned his new friends to lean in closer, as if that would block everyone else out.
The reality of his last five years was far different than the luxury he spoke of. At first, time with the old man wasn’t much different than his apprenticeship with the cooper. He was expected to fetch, carry and keep his mouth shut. The old man wasn’t a cruel master but, once shown, he expected Gareth to get it right every time after that. The old man had started by questioning him on his knowledge of the weather, the surrounding villages, the practical aspects of being a cooper. He started to feel uneasy when he realized that the old man knew more about the art of being a cooper than Gareth did after eight years of apprenticeship.
Slowly it changed, the old man started telling Gareth about the local plants, the rocks, he called them minerals, and the animals. He started reciting lists to Gareth and having Gareth repeat them as if it were a game.
As they went from village to village the old man would sell potions he and sometimes Gareth made from the plants, minerals and even sometimes parts of the animals. Often the old man went off with the friends he seemed to have in every village, leaving Gareth to handle the selling of potions and the buying of supplies. Several times the friends stayed with them for several villages.
Some of the friends stayed to themselves even to the point of ignoring the old man while they were on the road. Many of them left lasting impressions on Gareth.
There was the bespectacled young man who was always reading. He took the time to teach Gareth reading and the basics of mathematics. At the time it seemed like magic to Gareth, he could add, subtract and make change if needed, but he was amazed at the idea of keeping track of the numbers and calculating a profit. It was at this point Gareth first realized they were spending far more on supplies than they were making with the potions.
Gareth felt so proud of himself when he told the old man this and suggested raising their prices. The old man listened and asked several questions about how much they were losing on each potion. He asked how much they should be selling their potions for. Both eyebrows went up when Gareth said they would have to triple their prices to break even. It was then that that the corners of the old man’s mouth came up ever so slightly. “Smart boy. You have the right of it but we deal in more than potions,” he said. “We deal in information and that brings a far higher price. Dealing in potions allow us to gather the knowledge.” It was a few more years before Gareth fully understood what that meant.
Looking around as if to assure himself no one else was looking, Gareth pulled his remaining two gold coins from his purse. Gareth was proud of the way he fumbled and then recovered the two coins. Everybody in the room had had a chance to see the gold coins. The frantic way Gareth grabbed the coins ensured everyone knew something was up. This too had been planned and went off almost as well as the first time Gareth had been shown the trick.
Holding the coins tightly, Gareth motioned his friends even closer. Then, as if he had never fumbled them, Gareth slowly exposed the two coins. “I managed to escape with two handfuls of these,” he said. Dropping his voice even more he added, “I don’t think even the lord knows about the chest in his keep.”
Tom was the first to speak, “A chest of gold coins in the keep and the lord doesn’t know about them?”
“Why do you think I was asking if the lord seemed to come into wealth,” Gareth slowly started weaving his tale. “I escaped though the privy grate in my cell. The years of piss and shit had corroded the fastenings of the grate enough that I was able to open it. I realized that this was my only chance and crawled into the muck below. It had to go somewhere. When I entered it, there was just enough room for me to crawl forward. Once I started forward there was no way to go back. The stench was so great that I was almost happy my nose was broken.” That part was certainly true enough.
“I could barely move forward by pressing against the walls and pushing forward. Even today I have nightmares that I’m trapped there again.” Gareth paused and took a long drink as if to wash away the memories. The pause was planned for dramatic effect but Gareth was surprised to realize he really did need the drink.
Gareth made a show of gathering himself and went on. “It could have been five feet or fifty feet, I had lost all perspective. My world was reduced to the four walls surrounding me and muck I was pushing through. That’s when I felt an opening above me. I was finally free. At least that’s what I thought. I couldn’t have imagined what awaited me above.”
The second year the old man told Gareth that they were going to spend the winter with an old friend. They arrived at a normal looking farmhouse. As they drove the wagon up, an older woman with a crossbow stepped into view. Slowly she smiled and said “Tobias is that you? Who’s the boy with you? Another of your trainees?”
If Gareth had not been taught the same gesture, he would never have noticed her give an all clear signal. He wasn’t sure but it sounded like there were three other people watching them and at least one them had a pistol. Tobias? He had never heard the old man called that. Gareth wasn’t even sure the old man had a name. A movement off to his left caused Gareth to turn his head, as he did he saw a young man about his age head into the woods running.
“Jerome is off hunting a bear that has developed a fondness for smoked meat. He should be back tonight.” she said. “How long will you be with us this time?”
Gareth thought he was finally going to have it easy. A whole winter with nothing to do but cut a little firewood, do a few chores and read. He should have known the old man had a different plan.
As predicted, Jerome made his appearance right about dusk. He came in with the boy Gareth had seen run into the woods. They were leading a horse pulling some type of skid. Based on the drag marks it was carrying a lot of weight. The old man told Gareth to wait there and went off to talk with Jerome as they unloaded the skid.
When Jerome came close, Gareth stood up and waited to be introduced. The old man always insisted on manners. Jerome turned out to be a very intense man with eyes that always seemed to look right through you. He moved with a funny gait, not as if he were injured but as if he was always maintaining balance. Gareth had never seen anyone else move that way.
He looked Gareth up and down, walked around him twice. He told Gareth to stand on one leg and then on the other. He turned to the old man and said “I don’t mind taking your money but are you sure this is what you want?”
“There are skills he needs to learn if he’s to survive with me. Already he’s developing bad habits that will cause both of you much grief. “
“Can you leave him with me for a year? I can evaluate him during that time. If he proves unsuitable no one will miss him here.”
Gareth started at this. Did Jerome just offer to kill him if he proved untrainable?
“You have three months and I’ll be responsible for his actions. Should he prove unsuitable, I’ll take care of the problem.”
Jerome looked at Gareth, shook his head again and said, “Sorry boy, this is going to be a painful winter.”
Jerome was right but Gareth was almost disappointed to leave. In the last three months he had learned the basics of unarmed fighting, sword work, knife work and stick fighting. By the end of the first month it seemed like even his bruises had bruises. Next to the big dog that snuggled up to Gareth for warmth at night, liniment became his best friend.
At the end Jerome only said “You’ll do boy. Don’t get involved in any sword fights with professionals, keep your knives close and don’t use your fists if a stick is handy. You might actually survive your time with Tobias.” It sounded like a compliment at the time.
“It took all the strength I had left to pull myself through the opening. I fainted again. When I came to, I had no idea if I had been out seconds or hours. There was no light, not even stars so I surmised I was still in the keep. I tried to find a way out by moving along the walls. I found nothing but several heavy boxes. Hoping for food I tried to open them. Finally one yielded to my efforts. There was still no light but there was no question that the box was filled with coins. I was rich and probably going to die of starvation.” Gareth looked up and took another drink.
“This time I fell asleep. When I woke I made two more passes through the room before I finally admitted to myself that there was no door and no way to get all that gold out. There was only one way out, the same way I came in. I pulled off my shirt and filled it with all the coins I could carry. When I went back to the hole I realized I had no idea which direction I came from. I might end up back in my cell.
“When I looked into the hole, it seemed there was a faint light to the left. Knowing I would die without food, I dropped my coins into the hole and squirmed in after them. If anything the stench was worse this time. I still had not idea of the time but the light definitely was getting brighter.
“Another eternity and I was at an opening. Now I could see that it was sometime in the early morning. With no choice, I clutched my coins to me and fell out of the hole.” Another drink while seeming to contemplate his escape.
Gareth and the old man had discussed the details of Gareth’s escape several times. It had to be at night so he had no idea where he exited. He had to fall out of the opening so it was plausible that he did not go back for the rest of the gold. He had to be driven by hunger to prevent him from going back and getting more coins before jumping out.
Both of them had taken turns acting as the audience and the story teller. They both asked questions, added details, changed details even down to when Gareth would pause for a drink. Gareth knew the story of this escape better than his actual escape. It was true that he had come out a sewer tunnel but there had been no secret room, no gold and he had only fallen five feet when he finally exited.
“I was fortunate that the ground had the consistency of mud. I often try to convince myself it was mud instead of what I knew it to be. I found a small pond to clean myself and hid myself in the hedges. I wasn’t off the estate. Looking back on it, it seems impossible, but it wasn’t morning that I remembered my coins. When I opened my shirt, I saw bright gold. There had to be at least 100 coins, all of them gold.” Gareth absently fingered his two gold coins as if remembering that morning. So well-rehearsed, all of it, even down to this.
“The excitement of gold drove the stench from my mind but it was only temporary. I looked and smelled like I had been dragged through a cesspit.” A wan smile crossed his lips. “Now that I think about it, that’s not far from the truth.”
“I found my way to the stream behind the keep and cleaned myself as much as possible, the gold never leaving my sight. It was close to morning now and the smell of morning bread was overwhelming.
“Too much, too fast, I was starving and the gold already had me thinking myself a lord. Without thinking I went to the kitchen and grabbed a loaf of bread. The maid’s scream brought me back to reality but the yells of the guards sent me running.”
As if the memories of that morning reminded him of food, Gareth asked the innkeeper for some bread and another round for his companions.
Misdirection was always a fact of life while living with the old man. The third year found them wintering with Jerome again. Not much had changed but his time with the old man had made Gareth much more observant.
This time when they rode up, Gareth noticed the tip of the crossbow bolt just peeking from the corner of the barn. He also noticed the muzzle of the flintlock glinting from the window. He also noticed they never moved when she said her welcome to Tobias. It was only after the old man mentioned crops that they disappeared and the children came out to greet Tobias and Gareth.
The winter progressed much as last. Jerome took up Gareth’s lessons where they left off. The dog still enjoyed snuggling up to Gareth in the night. There were puppies now and Gareth often woke to one or more of the puppies also sharing his position in the straw.
Given the way the season ended, it was fitting that Jerome spent much of the time refining Gareth’s feints with sword and dagger. About a week before their departure, a very scruffy man rode up on a far better horse. He seemed to know the old man but called him John instead Tobias. No one corrected him. Practice ended early that night and discussions of a nearby uprising against the king ensued between Jerome, Tobias and the scruffy man. In the morning “Scruffy” was gone.
There was no practice the day before they left. Jerome had Gareth help him slaughter and clean a pig. Jerome asked Gareth what he thought of the local politics and how he felt about working for an agent of the king. Although he seemed distracted, Jerome was almost surgical in the way he cleaned and bled the pig. They feasted well that night.
In the morning all three men rode in the wagon to the village for supplies. Gareth noticed a small contingent of King’s guards watching the town. The old man only commented that the uniforms unusual for this part of the country and drove on.
The old man complained of stomach pains and excused himself from the loading. Once the supplies were loaded, he turned to Jerome and said “Pay the man. I’m tired of giving away money to the likes of you.”
Gareth started, the old man had never been rude and he sounded positively drunk. Jerome was also taken aback. That’s when the old man pulled his dagger and yelled, “I said pay the man!” Jerome seemed surprised himself but seeing an armed man on the verge of attacking him, drew his own dagger without thinking.
This only seemed to infuriate the old man. Shouting, “You dare draw on me?” the old man thrust his dagger into Jerome. Or rather where Jerome had been. Jerome had sidestepped, parried the dagger completely out of the way and without pause made his riposte across the old man’s stomach. The cut must have been deep because blood started pouring out.
Gareth recovered enough to club Jerome from behind, knocking him down. Knowing that if Jerome got up they were both dead, Gareth grabbed the old man to put him in the back of the wagon and sped off. The guards had seen all of this but never moved to help.
Once his heart rate was back to normal, Gareth realized he had nowhere to go. The old man was dying and needed a doctor immediately. He pulled the wagon far enough off the road to avoid being seen and got down to help his dying master.
The initial shock of seeing the old man trying to untie the pig’s bladder from his stomach almost made him miss the puppy trying to help the old man clean up, almost. The puppy was Jerome’s parting gift to them.
It had all been misdirection. The old man hadn’t been stabbed! He wasn’t even hurt. All the blood was coming from the pig’s bladder. It had been filled with blood to make the attack appear deadly. This had been a ruse to convince everyone that Jerome’s friendship with the old man was ended. If war came, Jerome’s family would be safe. In one vicious attack he had demonstrated he no longer had any ties with the king.
“Call it lucky if you want, the lord never imagined an attack starting at the kitchen. I started running in the direction opposite to yelling guards. There was a rubble pile close enough to the outer wall that would allow me to get out if I made it that far. I chanced a look back and my heart sank, I already knew how much mercy big nose would give me and his companion this morning looked like a bull stuffed into a guard’s uniform.
“It was going to be close but I wouldn’t make it. I could say it was my plan but I stumbled and about 20 gold coins came tumbling out. I wanted my gold but I wanted to live more, I kept running, determined not to lose any more gold.
When big nose saw the gold, it was like hitting a wall. He stopped cold and started gathering gold coins, his companion did the same. I was completely forgotten. When I paused at the wall risking one more glance. Big nose wasn’t even looking me, he was looking about midlevel on the keep. I’ve often wondered if he knew where the gold was or if he knew where I had come from and was wondering where I might have found the gold.
Once I cleared the wall, I bribed the first traveler I saw to take me to our capital. In the back of a wagon filled with wine barrels, I counted 87 gold coins. I was wealthy.”
Gareth took a bite of bread followed with a long drink. “Wealthy is relative, especially in Cordwain. The first four years were one long drunken party. On the eve of the fifth year I realized I might make one more year and started thinking about all the gold I had left behind. The large chest I opened seemed to be full of coins, there were at least four more chests of similar size and maybe more.
“I’m back to collect the rest of MY GOLD!”
They would need a little time to think about it and realize this was far more gold than Gareth could ever haul by himself. Given a share of that much gold, they could all be rich. Gareth took another bite of the bread, watching the emotions play out on his new friends. He was so close to getting his revenge, no, push that thought away, he had to live the part he was playing now. He could enjoy his revenge afterward.
That’s when it hit him, the last five years had been spent in servitude to the old man, thoughts of revenge on the lord and of course, that big nosed guard that had taken so much pleasure breaking his ribs, were never far from his mind. Now his time with the old man was over and he would have his revenge by tomorrow evening. Feeling very strange, Gareth realized he had never considered a future.
Six months after leaving Jerome, the old man had two visitors late in the evening. While this was not unusual, both visitors were female, making it very unusual. They talked casually for a few moments then requested Gareth spend some time watching the stars.
Gareth looked at the old man who merely nodded and said “Try not to spend too much time dreaming about crops.” Gareth nodded, called for the dog to join him, and went into the night. Before he left, Gareth selected a log based on its size and added it to the fire.
While he kept watch, he practiced running the dog through his commands. Gareth had named him Jerome because it seemed fitting and it seemed unlikely they would spend any more time with the human Jerome. Although he was slightly less than a year old he knew all the basic commands and obeyed most of them. When the last embers of the log burned out, Gareth sighed, wishing he could spend the entire night outside but the old man had been clear on the time, two hours, no dreaming (keep watch) and there was no duress.
Both women stared at Gareth when he entered. They said their goodbyes to the old man and rode off into the night. The old man looked quizzically at Gareth and asked, “Have you ever considered being an actor? I need to be gone a while and I have some friends in a nearby town that are always looking for a new actor.”
Life with the acting troupe was educational and entertaining. The troupe consisted of about 20 people with varying ages. During his time with them he saw a number of people join and leave the troupe.
After all the time with the old man memorizing lists and fine details, Gareth had no problem remembering his lines. Unfortunately, that was as far as it went.
He delivered his lines with all the emotion of a talking stump. He almost decapitated his opponent in a stage fight when one of the girls winked at him and his reflexes took over. He broke out in a cold sweat when the script called for him to dance with a girl.
The stage master didn’t give up on him, although it was close when he caught Gareth and his daughter kissing. She told her father she was trying to help Gareth practice for the lead part in the play.
Time passed and Gareth was becoming a real actor. When his cape caught fire, Gareth ignored it and finished the scene while the stage manager was trying to put out the fire. At the time Gareth thought he was being hazed. It also helped that the actors finally became comfortable with Gareth in a stage fight. Once he mastered his reflexes and treated the stage fights as a dance, Gareth became quite good at stage combat.
He also became good friends with the troupe’s animal trainer. She helped Gareth train Jerome to obey more complex commands. She considered it time well spent keeping Gareth away from her daughter and both Gareth and Jerome benefited greatly from the training.
Gareth had worked his way up to playing the lead in the current play. Today was the debut and Gareth was looking forward to the play because, after all that backstage practice, he finally got to kiss the stage master’s daughter, without worrying about being caught. When he stepped on stage, he almost, but not quite forgot all his lines on seeing the old man in the front row. He knew his life as an actor was over.
Later that night the old man made him an offer, his revenge on the lord that had imprisoned him and his freedom from the old man if he was willing to play himself for three days.
Nothing is ever as easy as it sounds. It took over a month to develop a plan, rehearse the plan, move people into position. To say nothing of the high level objections to giving Gareth some background on all this. The king had a relative maneuvering for power, nothing overt, but he was developing support in key locations and moving small mercenary forces into those locations.
In this case, the king’s relative and Gareth’s lord were good friends. He had agreed to allow a small force on his property. Since this was more or less a staging area there were almost a hundred people in the camp with less than half being soldiers. An attack by the king would be a declaration of war but allowing small encampments to exist would ensure he lost the coming revolution.
He was also under pressure by the people because all the military forces were judged to be the King’s forces and they were putting severe strains on nearby villages for supplies. Not to mention the problems caused by bored soldiers.
Gareth was part of a larger initiative to discredit the camps without the King’s involvement. This would give the King an excuse to eliminate the camps and improve his popularity with the people. The fact that it gave Gareth the revenge that had been driving him almost five years was important only to Gareth and the old man.
Today was that day.
The questions at the table started almost immediately. What would you do with all that gold? How would you haul it off? Would you consider partners? If someone provided a wagon could they get a larger split? How did he expect to get into the keep? Did he know where the gold was?
Gareth pulled out a very detailed drawing of the keep. There were three areas circled and labeled possible concealed rooms. Gareth explained that one of the king’s architect had a fondness for drinking and card games that he fancied himself very good at. It had only taken two evenings for Gareth to put the man so deep into debt that helping Gareth on this drawing was the only way he would ever get out of debt.
The drawing had been done by one of the king’s architects, that part was true. It had been done as part of the preparation for this charade. The original drawing had been modified to ensure maximum structural damage to the keep in getting to those “secret” areas. The story had enough detail to be believable, the professional look of the drawing added credibility to the story and served to enhance the impression of Gareth as a scheming mastermind.
One of Gareth’s new friends offered up a cousin in the keep’s guard. He was sure he could convince him to open the gates for a cut. Gareth had hoped for something like this but did have a backup plan just in case.
The next person to speak up had a far harder question. “Some of the walls in that keep are 14 feet of stone, how sure are you that we can find an opening?” Gareth opened his mouth to make an answer when a heavy hand descended on his shoulder. He heard a gruff voice say “Well, me and my boys might have an answer for you ifen you don’t mind widening the split a little.”
Gareth turned to look at the intruder and his heart seemed to stop. It was the scruffy man he had met at Jerome’s place.
The man’s eyes got wider when he recognized Gareth, “Hey, I know you. You were that rich boy trying to kill his self with liquor back in Cordwain. I guess you ran out of money first.”
Gareth started breathing and made a mental note to discuss the finer details of planning next time he saw the old man.
“Me and the boys are with that soldier encampment. With us at peace and all that, nobodies paying much attention. Wouldn’t take much to get a few barrels of gunpowder past the guards. We have an old sapper with us that’s an artist with gunpowder.” Scruffy looked at the table and said “For 25 percent of the gold we’ll get you through the walls. We’ll even use our own wagon to haul the gunpowder in and the gold out.”
Gareth looked at him as if in silent calculation. “How many of you are there and how soon can you be ready? If you overheard me, several other people probably did. I don’t want to be fighting other groups.”
“Five men, myself included, three hours, 25 percent, do we have a deal?” Scruffy stuck out his hand. Gareth turned to the man whose cousin was with the guards. “How much do you need to bribe your cousin?” Gareth said already knowing the answer. Just as he expected, it was also 25 percent.
“That still leaves half for me,” Gareth said as if in thought. “Done!” he exclaimed, shaking Scruffy’s hand and then Frank’s hand.
The table erupted in curses and protests from the other occupants. They wanted in, they deserved a share or they would warn the lord, they could provide more wagons. When they mentioned more wagons Gareth stopped them. They each wanted ten percent. Gareth offered five percent saying if he gave any more he would be getting less than a third. A heated discussion ensued. Finally Scruffy said, “Captain, we can work it out among ourselves so you get your share. Give us a few minutes to talk it over.”
Three hours later, the caravan was on its way to the keep.
Less than a mile from the keep Scruffy signaled for a stop. “Captain, we have a few last minute details to discuss. Our sapper needs to see that map before we go in.”
He came up to Scruffy, handing the map over to the sapper. Gareth watched as the old man opened the map and angled it for a better view in the torchlight. Even though he knew it was coming, being grabbed from behind was still a surprise. Scruffy looked him in the face and said “Captain, me and the rest took a vote back there and realized we only needed your map. You being dead and all that won’t really need your share.”
Gareth felt about five or six blows to the stomach as Scruffy stabbed him. A quick nod from Scruffy and the man holding him tossed him about five feet down into the river. Without a pause, Scruffy jumped back into the wagon shouting “Last man there loses his share.” Nobody even looked back.
Scruffy had used the darkness to cover stabbing Gareth with the pommel of his knife rather than the blade. Realizing he wasn’t dead, he wasn’t even hurting that bad, Gareth stood up and started walking to the place where he had first met the old man. Gareth’s part in the charade was done.
As he entered the firelight, the dog looked up and growled. The old man didn’t even stop scratching Jerome when he asked, “How did it go?” Gareth looked from dog to man and back to dog. As he looked at the dog he said, “On tonight of all nights you finally got it right?” Not in the mood for more subterfuge Gareth said “crops” and was nearly knocked down by Jerome as he covered the distance in two bounds.
Gareth stared at the old man, finding it hard to hold his anger in the force of Jerome’s happiness on getting back with Gareth. “You know how it went, you bastard. I feel used and robbed of my vengeance. The keep will be destroyed, the soldiers will be discredited and out of gunpowder. Years from now, treasure hunters will still be searching the ruins.”
The old man had the decency not to smile at the plan’s success. “What do you intend to do now? There’s no longer a reason for revenge, you’re free of me now. You could go back to acting but I think you would find it boring and probably soon married, if memory serves me.”
“Spit it out,” Gareth said. “Are you offering me another five years of apprenticeship?”
This time the old man did smile, “No, this mission proved you’re no longer an apprentice.” Just as Gareth knew he would, the old man paused for effect, “but I could use a partner.”
Gareth was surprised, he hadn’t considered this. “A partner, what’s the catch?
“None, you already know most of my contacts, you know the routes and my last mission convinced me I need someone I can trust. We would split all the fees equally after expenses. Of course, since the wagon, horse and all the supplies are all mine, it’s only fair that you buy in.”
Gareth sighed, in truth he would have agreed to another five year apprenticeship. “How much to buy in?” he finally asked. He kicked himself mentally when he heard the answer. He should have known.
Five years later Gareth and the old man were recruited to lead a treasure hunting expedition. It was all they could do to keep a straight face when they were found out they were going to the keep. But that’s another story.
If you’ve read this far, I want you to know I appreciate your time. I would also appreciate your comments, positive or negative but it’s enough that you read my story.
I know it customary to put acknowledgements in the beginning but my first task was to get you the read the story. Acknowledgements could come later and yes I have a few.
My Mother, the published writer, who inspired me to write and spent hours making corrections to my random use of commas and a few other minor issues.
My Mother-in-law who encouraged me to do the illustrations and had to play “what’s changed” with all the versions I sent her.
My Wife who provided me with all the historical information I could of asked for. She didn’t even get mad when I chose to ignore historical accuracy in favor of story.
Last but certainly not least, my Aunt and Dave H. Both proved willing to read the stories (yes, I have more) and without flinching, tell me what was wrong and what they did and didn’t like about the stories.