“Fuckin’ hells.” Goyd pulled the skin apart and inspected the red, raw crevice between thumb and forefinger. The cut was deep. Clean, but dangerously close to riddling his right hand useless. There had been a feeling in his belly. Don’t do this, it urged. Turn back and all will be right. All will be as it was.
He plunged his palm into the icy stream and swallowed a wail. The water turned red as he scrubbed the wound and argued with his thoughts. “Nothin’ for me back there but a rope round my neck, there is. And that at best. His lordship will see to it ‘imself, I’ll wager.” He dried the cut carefully on his ragged cloak. “Though it would be a welcomed sight to see him bloody those perfumed fingers on the likes of me.”
He clumsily trudged back to the naked elm, smudging the snow with mud and dribbles of blood with every step. This time, he grabbed the dagger in his left hand and set to work on the hole again. It was slow, tedious work, but the blade was the only useful tool he kept in his haste to flee. Little by little he chipped away at the frozen soil, growing weaker with every thrust and jab. By the time the hole was large enough, he was shaking from the effort in the thin, chill air.
Goyd jiggled the roughspun sack into place and pushed its contents flush with the earth. The treasures within clanged sharply through the quiet wood, but still he worked the bag into the hole. It fit snuggly enough. He grunted in satisfaction and covered the hole as best he could, careful of his weeping right palm. When it was done, he turned over and sat upon his buried riches.
Somewhere overhead in the elm’s gnarled branches, a crow screeched. To his surprise, dusk had stolen the sunlight while he was lost in his digging. The night would be long, black, and frigid, but he dared not risk a fire. So he sat, and in his solitude he admitted the ache he’d held at bay for so long.
The ache crept through his feet. Feet that had so patiently bore the weight of his thighs, which bore the weight of his chest, which bore the weight of his heavy shoulders. Night after night he had carried this weight as his lord drifted in slumber beneath a sea of furs. And as the nights became months, and months turned to years, his compliance weathered and bruised.
One night and one day had passed since he cast aside both armor and longsword and fled through the postern gate during his watch. He could run quicker and possibly pass as a wanderer or a farmer without his steal, yet he felt uneasy without the staples of his trade. Who was he, if not a man of the guard? He was not sure.
He turned his palms upward to the heavens. One red with bitter cold, the other scarlet with his life’s blood. Perhaps there was no true escape and his calloused fingers would know only the kiss of steal. Perhaps he was as dimwitted as they said, and his own mind and whims would only betray him. He was a burly man, lost without orders. A pair of tough hands, trembling with the uncharted map they now carried. Turn back and all will be as it was. Turn back and all will be right.
But it would not, he knew. His lord was not forgiving, and the soldiers he had served alongside would find him. Some men could creep like spiders, but he was an ox, tall and broad and strong. His trek through the woods was messy, as he could now see from the spread of mud and blood against the moonlit snow before him. He had doomed himself with every step. Even the sack beneath his arse would be an obvious find for the search parties. It was only a matter of time.
Time—he had spent his life serving away his allotment of time. In dark halls he stood like the stones. Through downpours he watched on the ramparts. Outside the doors of lords fucking and before grand tables of ladies feasting, he stood. Waiting, watching, standing.
Suddenly a rage boiled from within. “Bloody hells, how can I be so stupid! Just like they say.” Goyd kicked to his feet, spun on his heels, and released a guttural shout into the night wind. “Come for me then, the lot of you! The way is clear!” He forgot his wound as he jammed his fists into the earth and retrieved the buried sack. He slung it over his shoulder, the clinking of precious trinkets within like music to his ears. There may be more for me yet, and I will wait no longer for my life to turn the tides.
With the bag over his back and dagger in hand, he spun around again, searching for any sense of direction. He had nowhere to go. No food, no friend, no home. His clothes were drenched in snowmelt and sweat, and his only weapon was the short dagger, carried in his lesser left hand.
He spotted the crow above him, dimly outlined in the night gloom, and watched as it stretched its wings and took flight beyond the ice-choked stream. “That’s good enough for me,” he said with a nod and trudged through the snow once more.
© 2023 Samantha Burgett