Friday 30 March 2018

Next excerpt from Part 1 of "The Poor Preachers". Chapter 4: "The Laughing Lion."

Master Harold Plowman looked with pride upon his son.
‘Verily, he be as Harold Godwinsson reborn, my love,’ he said to his wife, as they watched the young man work the team of oxen, singing in his fine, lusty tenor.

‘So ‘tis said,’ smiled the lady, “but though the Golden Warrior’s blood floweth in his veins, yet his fate shall be otherwise.’

Her husband glanced down at her with uneasy respect.
She was a godly woman and had developed some reputation as having a prophetic gift. Not without reason. But her pride was more in the sunny temper and endearing smile of her son, and in the generous heart that reminded her so much of his father.

She looked up at the strong, hardworking man at her side, and her smile faded.
‘Yet mine heart tells me that thine is the fate of King Harold also, my love,’ she added softly and sadly. ‘So be it. Then so also shall my fate be. Harold fell, that England may rise again. So we shall fall that our children may rise from our ashes.’

Hal’s attention was on his children, and he did not hear the strange prophecy. He waved to his daughter Mary, who divided her time between coaxing the striving oxen onwards and engaging in lighthearted banter with her older brother as he sweated happily at the plough.

Hal and Tom Plowman had worked themselves up through hard times to a more comfortable existence than most Dorsetshire peasant farmers could boast. They had recently obtained some land closer to the village of Gillingham, where Hal hoped to build a bigger and more comfortable dwelling, away from the growing danger of outlaws in Gillingham wood.

Lawlessness had been increasing of late, partly from the oppression of greedy landlords driving some poor men mad with despair. But moral laxity was everywhere, even rampant in the Church. 
Many of the local parsons, such as Father James, were decent men. They were often poorly paid by their bishops, and only stayed at their posts because they had a heart to serve God and the people.
In contrast, the hierarchy, by and large, lived lives of profligacy, ignoring the poorer classes.

But Hal Plowman never let the tragedies of his day affect his attitude to life.
His parents had died during the Black Plague, his grandfather in the Great Famine, but that was in the past. He was a free man, with the woman he wanted, children to be proud of, meat on his table and a roof over his head. He felt like a rich man and loudly asserted to his neighbours and friends that God had been good to him.

Everyone loved and respected the Plowman family, whose home was ever open to visitors. They threw themselves into helping their neighbours, even giving sacrificially to the poorer folk. They worshipped God with their whole heart during mass and often in between.
Tom especially endeared himself to everyone, with his cheeriness and enthusiasm for life, and smile that shone like the sun. He could lift the spirits of anyone, wherever he went. 
His prowess at the games at Dorchester Fair was proverbial, and he was as strong as an ox. Thus he became very popular, especially amongst the village girls. They would sigh over his blue eyes and rippling muscles, calling him ‘The Laughing Young Lion’, and gather at their gates to blow him kisses whenever they heard his voice lifted in song as he entered the village or town. 

He was not considered handsome, in the classical sense, for his prominent chin, sandy-golden beard and wild mane-like hair made him look too much like a wild and wilful beast to pass as an object of portraiture. However, he had rustic masculine charm, together with a sense of honour, a sense of humour, a generous spirit and a joie-de-vive that drew people to him. Many a village girl would almost swoon over his sparkling blue eyes, and longed to run her hands through his wild mane.

Unfortunately, and almost inevitably, his popularity and joie de vivre did make it easy for him to be led astray, and he allowed himself to be seduced by wild company, wild wood-ale (strong and heady liquor, forest-brewed in secret) and wild women. 

Being godly folk, his parents grieved over this. His father firmly, but kindly, confronted him, but Tom was unrepentant, carelessly insisting that he could easily get absolution and would cheerfully do penance for his illicit good times.

His father responded sternly, ‘Hast thou laboured so long in the fields, my son, and wot not that whatsoever a man soweth, that also shall he reap?’
Hal spoke from instinct and natural wisdom gained from observations of his world, not from any knowledge of the scriptures.
‘And this shall be thy watchword and thy song for aye, my son,’ his mother added prophetically.

Tom turned pale. For the first time he felt healthy fear and a sense of conviction over his loose living. He had too much respect and affection for his parents to go against their wishes in this matter, and he also had a deep respect for his mother’s wisdom and mysteriously prophetic insight, sensing a response to her words in his own heart.
So, from that day, he gave away the worst of his bad habits. 
His father and mother’s words were to haunt him for the rest of his life, both in good times and in bad, and he pondered on them often.

Tom had the knack of excelling in almost everything he turned his hand to. His thirst for knowledge led him to learn his letters. 
Father James, the parson at St Barnabas’ church in Gillingham, liked the lad. He took him under his wing and taught him as much as he knew, finding him quick and exceptionally intelligent.
Tom would drive Father James almost insane with his constant, ‘Wherefore…?’ The intelligent questions he asked were often disturbing, for Father James could not answer them with the limited and tidy theology he had been taught, and it flustered him a little.

One fateful day, Tom’s life totally changed.
Without any warning, a large gang of outlaws attacked his parents’ outlying farm.
Tom was away in the farthest field at the time, singing lustily as he worked, and he didn’t hear the faint shouts and screams in the far distance, until he saw smoke arising in the direction of his home.

With dread in his heart, he cut the oxen loose to graze, and then ran like the wind. The shouting had ceased, and he ran through a copse of trees to be greeted by a horrific sight.
The outlaws had fought and shot both his parents with arrows. Even their bodies had been dishonoured, with the best of their clothing ripped off and taken.

Tom ran, panting, up to his mother, then his father, trying to rouse them in vain. He then ran in among the ashes of his home, and found a third body of a young woman, burnt way beyond recognition.
His beloved sister Mary? The charred, unrecognisable remains were the only precious thing that remained of his home, now burnt to the ground. 

A few dead men lying around his father and mother’s dead bodies bore witness to a brave last stand, but everything he and his father had worked so hard for was either burnt or gone forever.
And he was too late!
He raised his fists to heaven and cried, ‘God! Hast Thou no mercy?!’
Then he fell on his knees and wept.

Tom undertook the heartbreaking labour of demolishing the pathetic remnants of the house, an easy task since the fire had done its work too well. Nothing of value remained -- the outlaws had made sure of that.
He buried his family where their home once stood.

Devastated and seething with bitter hatred, he looked darkly towards Gillingham Wood.
‘Someone shall answer for this in blood this night!’ he vowed.

After following tracks and the rumour of the passing of the murderers, he crept stealthily into the woods until finally hearing the distant sound of drunken revelling in a forest clearing. 

Creeping cautiously under cover, he saw a bandit sentry sitting up in the trees, but not very vigilant. He had a skin of ale in one hand, his bow in the other, and was yawning and belching prodigiously. The bandits had become overconfident, and thinking they were invincible, became rather careless.

Singing drunkenly to himself, the sentry didn’t hear Tom climb stealthily up behind him until it was too late. An iron hand clamped over his mouth, and his head was bashed hard against the trunk of the tree, knocking him senseless. 

Tom was almost ready to cut his throat, but he was no murderer, and couldn’t kill a man in cold blood. His father had instilled a rustic code of chivalry in him that, even now, he could not contravene. If he killed at all, it would be face-to-face, toe-to-toe, fist against fist, knife-to-knife, or arrow-to-arrow.

So he trussed and gagged the man to the branch on which he sat, took his weapons and crept up to where the bandits were feasting and making merry -- with his father’s ale, meal and meat. 

Swaggering with confidence that none would dare follow them into the woods, they laughed, drank, swore and jested about the prizes they had won, especially the prize inside the cave. They did not elaborate, but Tom guessed it was some object of especial value belonging to his mother or father.
Fuming, Tom lay low and waited until they separated. 

The loudest, largest and coarsest of them all stood in the centre of the group. He was the toast of his comrades and they drank to the health of ‘Baldrick the Boar’. 

Tom had heard fearful whispers about such a man, who had terrorized many a village right across Wessex. He ruthlessly slew or maimed anyone who stood in his way and eluded the hunting authorities like a cunning fox. 

Finally, Tom saw his chance as the Boar wandered out into the woods to relieve himself.
Tom quietly followed, and coming closer, discovered the huge beast of a man was wearing his father’s leather sleeveless vest. 

That was enough to thoroughly enrage Tom. He threw all caution to the wind and leapt upon the outlaw before he was aware, arm around his throat, nearly choking him.

But none had ever beaten Baldrick the Boar.
The big bandit had been fighting all his life. His throat was crushed so he couldn’t call his comrades, but though he gagged and coughed, he recovered quick enough to pick himself up and fight. Gasping for air, he charged in with a strangled cry of fury.

But though he was named the Boar, he had never confronted Thomas Plowman, the Raging Lion. 
Strong as an ox, quick as lightning and lithe as a snake, Tom was a skilled wrestler. As the Boar came for him, Tom threw him on his hip, sending the man crashing to the ground, winded. The Boar staggered to his feet, but a swinging blow to the jaw felled him so hard he bashed his head on a rock, where he lay motionless, blood streaming from a gash behind his head.

Tom ripped the vest off him and disappeared into the trees before anyone could discover what had happened. 

The others were used to the Boar regularly getting into fights with his own men, and so they had no idea that an intruder had penetrated their hideaway, let alone beaten him in a fight.
But finally, after a long wait, they went looking for him, cursing him for keeping them from their feast.

Furore erupted when they found their chief apparently dead. Who could have done it? Surely no one could have come alone. The sheriff and his hunters thought them miles away. 

‘The woods be accursed!’ one cried. ‘Wood-elves a-done this!’

‘Nay, it be the Judgement of God!’ cried another and crossed himself.

Others demanded that the woods be searched and called out all the men. 
But Tom had already gone.

Meanwhile, Tom brooded on his misfortunes, torturing himself over his past life of dissipation.
Surely, he thought, God had brought judgement upon him!

In his bitterness, he knelt by his family’s grave and swore a terrible oath:
‘Upon the bones of my father, mother and sister, I swear that avenged I shall be on all of those hell-born scoundrels, though I perish in performing this oath. God aiding me or no!’ 

He crossed himself, stood up and went off in the direction of Shaftesbury.
The sunlight of his eyes was quenched and, from that day, a dark mood took hold of him. 

The sergeant of my lord Sheriff’s band knew Tom well, but didn’t at first recognise the grim young man standing in the doorway that evening.
He was not the same happy-go-lucky lad who had often visited Dorchester and occasionally gotten into drunken mischief. Tom had always taken his punishment cheerfully, and the sheriff, like many other men, could not help liking and admiring him for it.

‘Thomas Plowman, lad! What is this?’ he cried, starting from his chair. ‘Come thou in. Wherefore comest thou so blackened and bloodied, lad? Thou hast the look of one that hath fought wild beasts!’

‘Aye, that I have done,’ said Tom, his brow darkening. ‘But the selfsame beasts hath had the best of it. But not for long, God aiding us.’

In a few trenchant and grim words, he told the startled sergeant what had happened to his family.

‘My God! Ben Baldrick the Boar? The black scoundrel hath slipped our net once again. Whither he be now? Gillingham forest?’ demanded the soldier urgently, buckling on his hauberk.

‘In Hell, if there be any justice!’ growled the young man, and he spat in that direction. ‘He hath not escaped the net.’

Tom went on to tell the amazed sergeant how he hunted down the Boar and fought him with his own hands, and how he had sworn to hunt down the rest of them. He then offered himself as a soldier in my lord Sheriff of Dorsetshire’s service.

The sergeant looked at him a moment. He had told Tom, on more than one occasion, that he would make an excellent soldier. If he had truly killed the notorious bandit in hand-to-hand battle, in the midst of his own hideaway, then Tom would be a valuable asset indeed.
Tom had a reputation for honesty, never boasting of any feat of arms he could not perform.

‘I grieve for Hal Plowman,’ the sergeant said at last. ‘A mighty man was thy father and a good one. His son would have found a place in our band, whate’er betide, for thou’rt a good fighter. Come thou to the armoury anon, for we must begin the hunt for those losels on the morrow, and need we every man we can use.’

So began Tom’s short career as a soldier. 
The Sheriff’s men, fully armed and reinforced by some of the Duke’s contingent, surrounded the forest near Gillingham the day after the next. Though they found the camp, there was not a trace of the outlaws themselves, except for one.

Frustrated, Tom took the sergeant to the spot where he had fought the Boar. Sure enough, there he lay. Tom spat on the carcase and turned away. He wouldn’t even help to bury the man.

Had the outlaws gotten wind of the soldiers approach long before? The tracks out of the forest were old and bore all the signs of a panicked stampede, not a stealthy, ordered retreat.

The local men of the town had gathered together in a tardy, half-hearted attempt to amend the situation, but none of them had ventured to enter the woods. Too many had done so in the past, never to return.

The sergeant made his report to the Sheriff, and thought little more of it, but it puzzled Tom somewhat. He suggested that a search be made, but the sergeant said there were too many other matters to attend to, and too few men to do it, let alone chasing elusive outlaws beyond the bounds of his writ.

A month passed, and Tom performed his duties faithfully.
To ease the pain and emptiness in his heart, he drank and womanised as much as any other soldier. 
His fellows developed considerable respect for him, not just for his fighting prowess, but also for his honesty and generosity. Although he had become grim and silent, he was always the first to buy drinks, and the first in to any conflict that was called for. He had a burning hatred for injustice and would swiftly avenge any hint of bullying among them or any oppression of the poor.

Yet there seemed to be no progress in the pursuit of the outlaws, and he became impatient with the normal processes of justice.

At last, the emptiness inside him became unbearable, and his oath of vengeance came back to torment him. He decided to go his own road, much to the sergeant’s disappointment. Tom was a promising warrior with leadership capabilities and could have risen rapidly in the ranks, but he would have none of it.

He decided to work his own way around the south of England until he avenged himself on any of the outlaws he could find. Maybe then he could find peace.

First, however, he returned to his family’s grave, and it was there that his life underwent the most amazing transformation.

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