Copyright 2016 Steven A. McKay
All rights reserved. This short story may not be reproduced in any form,
in whole or in part, without written permission from the author.
Also by Steven A. McKay:
THE FOREST LORD SERIES
The Wolf and the Raven
Rise of the Wolf
Blood of the Wolf
Knight of the Cross
Friar Tuck and the Christmas Devil
The Abbey of Death
It was mid-morning and a little chilly although the sun was threatening to come out and Matilda Hood sat bundled in a heavy cloak as she worked with a basket of goose feathers, fletching arrow shafts for her father. She watched contentedly as her infant son, Arthur, played with some of the other village children, her fingers moving nimbly, expertly, despite the cold.
She hoped to finish as many arrows as possible before midday when she would head home and heat some pottage for their midday meal. It was just her and Arthur today, since Robin, her husband, was away in one of the neighbouring towns on a job for the sheriff, Sir Henry de Faucumberg. He wasn’t expected back for another couple of days so she’d come to help her father with his work.
Henry Fletcher was inside, cutting the wood that would become his arrows and grumbling about the unseasonable cold. He’d been happy to see his daughter and grandson that morning though since he had a lot of work to get through and, as a result, appreciated Matilda’s help and, of course, her company.
The Fletchers were a close family and Robin had been accepted readily into the fold, as had his younger, sixteen-year-old sister Marjorie, who appeared now, hurrying up the path towards Matilda.
“Have you seen Sam?” she demanded, her eyes darting about the garden anxiously. “I’ve not seen him since I let him out for a piss this morning. It’s not like him to run off.”
Matilda shook her head but smiled reassuringly. Marjorie had been given a puppy a few months ago when a local bitch gave birth to a litter and the girl had grown close to the animal which she’d named Sam. It followed her everywhere although, being a mastiff, it had grown much bigger than the excitable furry baby it had once been. It was a placid beast and Matilda had been happy enough to let Arthur ride on its back at times.
“Maybe there’s a bitch in season,” Matilda smiled, trying to calm her sister-in-law’s fears. “I’m sure he’ll be back soon enough.”
Marjorie didn’t reply. Her eyes hadn’t stopped scanning the village and now she hurried off in the direction of the Calder.
“I’m heading home to make some food for Arthur and me in a little while,” Matilda shouted at her back. “Come and join us if you like.”
“Can’t,” Marjorie shouted over her shoulder. “I’m heading down to the river to see if Sam’s there. He loves swimming but there was that heavy rain yesterday…” She trailed off as she disappeared into the trees, the fear of her dog drowning evident in her voice.
Matilda watched her go, fingers never stopping as she fletched the arrow shafts with practised ease. A short time later, around midday, she called on Arthur, waved goodbye to her father inside the workshop and then walked the short distance back to their home for something to eat and drink.
“Have you seen -”
Matilda broke in before her mother-in-law could finish her sentence. “No, I’ve not seen the dog. Still missing then?”
Martha Hood shook her head, eyes wide. “I’m not bothered about the dog,” she said. “It’s Marjorie I’m looking for.”
Matilda had spent the last hour at home, first sharing a meal with Arthur and then mending some of the lad’s clothes which were forever getting torn. She met Martha’s gaze now, only mildly concerned. Matilda had trained the girl to fight and knew she could take care of herself well enough.
“She went down to the river looking for that dog earlier. Has she not come back yet?”
“No.” The older woman wrung her hands and little Arthur wandered across, raising his arms to her with a grin. She peered down distractedly before finally lifting him and cuddling him in tight. “I don’t know where she is. This isn’t like her at all, Matilda. I’m worried, especially now you say she went to the river. There was that heavy rain…”
“All right. You take Arthur to your house,” Matilda leaned in to kiss her son on the forehead, “and I’ll go and find her.”
Martha nodded, her expression grateful. “My husband, John, is out looking for her too. Maybe he’s already found her. I’ll take this little angel back to mine and we’ll see, shall we? Shall we?” She tweaked Arthur’s nose and he squealed in delight, burying his face in her shoulder before pulling back so she could do it again.
“Off you go, then,” Matilda said, waving. “Don’t worry though – I’ll find her soon enough.”
She watched them leave then ran to the bed chamber and pulled her sword in its leather sheath from the wardrobe, tying it around her slim waist and grabbing her longbow. As she did so, another sleek black weapon caught her eye and she lifted that too before hurrying out into the afternoon sunshine.
When Marjorie had pushed through the foliage towards the Calder she’d feared only one thing: that her dog Sam had fallen or jumped into the water and been carried away to his death. The hound was a fine swimmer but she knew the swollen river could kill man or beast within minutes if they became trapped in the reeds or pulled under by the current, no matter how strong they were.
When she reached the water her heart had leapt as the muddy grass showed the sign of paw-prints, and they were big enough that she knew they were probably her pet’s.
As she followed them a thrill of fear ran down her back and she bent to examine a number of other prints that seemed to merge with Sam’s.
Around half a dozen men, accompanied by as many dogs, had passed this way not long ago and Sam had joined or been taken by them. That was bad enough, but her eyes settled on heavy ruts in the grass and, when she realised what they might mean her blood ran cold and she broke into a run.
Sam had been taken by bear-baiters.
Matilda came upon the same tracks a while later and instantly knew what they meant. She saw the smaller prints left by her sister-in-law and she followed them at speed along the river bank, hoping desperately that she’d be in time.
Marjorie Hood wasn’t physically imposing like her famous brother Robin – she’d been a sickly child who’d only recently grown in strength and confidence when she’d learned to fight under Matilda’s tutelage. But she was no match for the party they were trailing now.
The sun had risen high in the sky and reflected blindingly off the fast-flowing waters of the River Calder on the right side of the road.
“No!” Matilda pulled up, eyes wide in shock and fear as she spotted the slim figure lying prone on the thick green grass ahead. “Oh, please no,” she gasped, hurrying forward and pressing a hand to Marjorie’s cheek.
It was warm. Thank God!
There was a bruise on the girl’s forehead though and, as Matilda knelt by her, Marjorie opened her eyes, rolled onto her side and retched on the ground, her body shuddering pitifully as only yellow bile came out.
“Are you all right? What the hell happened? How could you be so stupid to follow those men? Men like that are used to danger, you’re no match for-”
“They have Sam,” Marjorie broke in breathlessly, still trying to spit the stringy remnants of bile from her lips. “I have to get him back.”
Matilda grabbed the girl by the arm as she tried to rise, holding her down. “You can’t. They’ll kill you. They did that to your head?”
Marjorie reached up and gingerly felt the large bruise, wincing slightly as she felt the size of it. “Aye. I tried to talk to them but they were having none of it. They were going to throw me in the river but I told them Robin Hood was my brother and they must have decided not to kill me after all. I almost wish they had.”
She bent down and retched again but it passed soon enough and she sucked in a great lungful of air, her eyes settling on the weapon in Matilda’s left hand.
“My crossbow.” She reached out and took it from her friend with a grim nod. “This will even things up a little. Thank you for bringing it.”
“You left it at mine the last time we practised. Thought it might come in handy. But-” she shook her head firmly “- you’re not going after those men. Your life is worth more than a dog’s. Come on. We can tell Robin about it when he gets home; maybe he’ll be able to find them and return Sam to you.”
“Sam will be dead by then! I heard them saying they were going to Normanton for a show.”
“Sam is a big, powerful dog,” Matilda argued. “It would take a lot to kill him.”
Marjorie turned and started walking, fast. “He’s soft, despite his size. I can’t bear the thought of him fighting that…. A bear for God’s sake!” She gasped in anguish then set her jaw. “I’m going after the bastards.”
Matilda watched her sister-in-law’s retreating back then, knowing it was useless and feeling angry herself at the situation, jogged after her, checking her sword was loose in its scabbard and her bowstring safely in its pouch.
The dog thieves weren’t travelling very fast since their show in Normanton wasn’t until the following afternoon and the ox pulling their heavy cart with the bear in it was slow, so the two young women managed to catch up to them when they were still about a mile from their destination. They’d stopped to rest and lounged on the grass or on fallen trees, drinking ale and talking in rough, hard voices to one another.
“There they are,” Matilda said, flattening herself against the trunk of a thick oak and watching the party ahead. Six big men with leashed dogs of various breeds and sizes, and one enormous brown bear, locked in a cage that sat atop the ox-drawn cart. “What are we going to do now?”
Marjorie crouched down behind a juniper bush and stared in silence along the narrow road. Clearly, trying to reason with the men was useless. Her battered skull was proof of that.
She loaded a quarrel into her black crossbow – an exquisite, masterful little weapon which had once belonged to The Raven, Sir Guy of Gisbourne – and smiled. It was supposed to be a confident, wolfish grin like her brother sometimes did, but her fear was obvious.
“We can’t just start killing them,” Matilda growled, realising they really hadn’t thought this through. “Stealing someone’s dog doesn’t warrant a death sentence. We’ll be hanged for it!”
Matilda nodded but there was a twinkle in her eye now. She might not have Robin’s massive physique, but she’d inherited some of his cunning.
“This is what we’re going to do…”
The six men looked round as one at the voice, their faces angry but not fearful. They had their beasts and their weapons to defend themselves after all, but no-one likes being insulted.
Especially not by a skinny young girl.
“It’s that little bitch from earlier,” one of the men grunted, rolling his eyes irritably. “I told you we should have chucked her in the river.”
“Aye,” Marjorie shouted agreement. “You should have. I told you who my brother is, didn’t I?”
The men knew very well who Robin Hood was. Everyone in the north of England had heard of the fabled wolf’s head and his ruthless gang. Word was he’d been pardoned and now worked for the law but still, tales of his brutality were sung all across the country.
The pack of dogs had begun to sense the anxiety emanating from their masters and some of them began to whine or growl. Marjorie’s heart leapt as she spotted Sam, tail between his legs as if he’d been beaten, and she gritted her teeth, bringing up the crossbow and pointing it at the nearest of the men.
“Your brother ain’t here lass,” the man spat, stepping towards her. “And this time you are going for a swim.”
There was a snap and a shocking blur of motion as an arrow tore from the thick summer foliage behind the girl and hit the approaching man’s thigh. The missile buried itself in the muscle so hard that it knocked him off his feet and he screamed in agony as the excited dogs began barking and straining at the ropes that tethered them to the cart. In contrast, the great brown bear in the cage looked on in silence.
“My brother is here, lad,” Marjorie hissed, eyes moving from the fallen man to his stunned companions. “And so are his friends.”
The men didn’t seem to know what to do now. They were hard men but they’d never been in a situation like this before, where unseen assailants were able to pick them off at leisure. Four of them shrank back close to the cart, but one, braver than his brothers, drew a long knife from his belt and charged at Marjorie.
She stood her ground, knowing any show of fear would shatter the illusion she was trying to create, but the sight of the enraged man bearing down on her almost turned her knees to water.
His knife rose high in the air and he came so close that the blackheads on his nose seemed enormous to the girl but, just before he reached her another goose-feather shafted arrow broke through the lush foliage, this time from the other side, and hammered into the man.
Christ above, she’s good, Marjorie thought in relief as her would-be assailant fell sideways, roaring with pain at the vicious iron broadhead buried deep in his shoulder. Feeling more sure of herself now she aimed her crossbow at the fallen man and stared at him with emotionless eyes.
“All I want is my dog back. You’re not making him fight that brute for the pleasure of a few villagers in Normanton.” She looked up at the man huddled nearest to Sam. “You! Cut him free now or another of you bastards will have a tale to tell your mates. Shot by Robin Hood! Only the next one might not be as lucky as your two downed friends – my brother’s the best longbowman in all England but even he sometimes hits a target in the wrong place.”
“You cowardly scum,” one of the men roared to the forest in general. “Hiding in the trees rather than coming forward and fighting like a man.”
“Shut up,” his compatriot next to him shouted fearfully. “This is how they always worked in the stories. Ambushing people from the safety of the trees. But Hood can best any man with a blade if he feels like it. So shut yer hole and cut that little bastard’s dog loose!”
The rest of the crouching men murmured agreement and so Sam’s rope was slashed through and the big hound sprinted happily towards her, tongue lolling stupidly, slavers dripping from his great maw.
Matilda knew she couldn’t lower her crossbow so she slowly backed away from the two prone men who remained where they were, murderous expressions on their faces at her retreat. Sam was by her side, making little jumps every so often in happiness at seeing his mistress.
“You’ll be sorry for this,” the one with the arrow in his thigh grunted, face pale as he grasped the injury. “You can’t go around shooting people, even if we did take your damn dog.”
“Which we didn’t,” one of the other men cried. “It followed us itself.” He stepped forward as one of the furious yelping dogs lunged at him, straining at its leash, and yet another arrow erupted from the trees to thud into the lush grass just a yard in front of him.
“Enough,” he screeched. “Take your damn mutt and go! We’ll be reporting this to the bailiff once we reach Normanton though, you bet your life on that.”
Marjorie shook her head angrily at the suggestion. “You report what you like. You whoresons stole my dog then beat me unconscious before trying to throw me to my death in the river. You’re lucky—”
Her words were torn from her as Sam, stupid, friendly Sam the one hundred and eighty pound mastiff that wouldn’t hurt a lamb, jumped up and licked her face, shoving her sideways. She was so shocked that her finger pressed the trigger of the crossbow, firing the bolt uselessly into the grass and she shouted at the dog to get off.
He did, but she panicked and her fingers fumbled with the mechanism as she tried to load another quarrel into it. The man with the arrow in his shoulder suddenly jumped to his feet, so furious at being bested by a girl that he ignored the longbowman hidden in the trees and threw himself on Marjorie, his good hand squeezing mercilessly around her throat.
There was no way Matilda could take the attacker down from her hiding place in the trees. If she tried to shoot him there was every chance she’d hit Marjorie instead.
Her mind whirled as she desperately tried to figure out how to save her friend. If she broke from her cover and used her sword to kill the man his companions would realise they’d been fooled and set the crazed dogs on them. Those animals weren’t like big, friendly Sam – they were fighting dogs, experienced and scarred from numerous bloody, brutal battles with the bear and, probably, one another too.
She stared in anguish as the man throttled Marjorie who tried to fight back but, pinned beneath his much greater weight as she was, had no way of freeing herself. Sam simply stood watching in confusion, his tail wagging.
Matilda’s inaction gave heart to the rest of the bear-baiters who, realising “Robin Hood” wasn’t attacking any more, had begun to slowly move towards the ropes that tethered their dogs to the cart.
This had all been a huge mistake. They were going to die for the sake of a stupid dog.
Marjorie could feel herself losing consciousness as she tried in vain to throw the man off. He was much too heavy and the way he was lying on top of her meant she could get no leverage into her arms or legs for a punch or kick to his eyes or groin.
Fear brought tears to her eyes and she saw Sam, looking down at her, his massive head tilted to one side in puzzlement.
“Get him,” she gasped, the words nothing more than a croak. “Get him!”
Her terror gave her strength and she somehow managed to squeeze enough air through her vocal chords to form the words at last, even if it was too late.
Instantly, the weight fell from her and she sucked in deep breaths, wondering what had happened. The screaming penetrated her oxygen-starved brain at last and she groggily turned her gaze to the left, where Sam was tearing her attacker’s throat to bloody pieces with his sharp young teeth.
She lay for a time, staring up at the terrible scene, trying to regain her senses. Then the reality hit her and she knew she had to move now, before the remaining men let the dogs out and came for her and her hidden companion in the undergrowth.
She rolled onto her belly and pushed herself up onto one knee, shocked at the sight of her usually-equable dog, his muzzle coated in crimson gore, as he padded across to her and licked her cheek.
Too shocked to complain, Marjorie grasped the dog’s back and used him to drag herself to her feet.
“Good boy. Good boy,” she muttered over and over, her vision blurred by tears of fear and shock.
There was another snap from the longbow in the trees as she staggered away, Sam at her side, back along the road to Wakefield, the sounds of barking dogs and outraged, shouting men barely registering in her ears.
Before they returned home Matilda led Sam to the Calder and washed the bloody mess from his face. The giant dog stood placidly while he was cleaned and the young woman could still hardly believe it had killed a man.
When they walked back into Wakefield word spread of their safe return but neither of them told the tale of where they’d been all day. Instead, they said the dog had gone after a bitch in heat in a neighbouring village and Marjorie had fallen chasing the beast, knocking herself out and bruising her head. Matilda had then, she said, found both dog and stunned girl and brought them home.
It was dark by this time and the vicious purple fingerprints on Marjorie’s throat were hidden by the shadows.
She wore a high-necked cloak for days until they’d faded.
No lawmen ever came to question them over the death of the mauled man, and they never mentioned the incident to Robin, but a few days later word reached the village of a wonderful bear-baiting show that had taken place in Normanton before the troupe had moved on to the north with their beasts.
Sam lived to the ripe old age of sixteen but never killed again, instead spending much of his time chasing after his tail.
He never did manage to catch it.
Thank you so much for downloading “The Rescue”, I really hope you enjoyed it and will check out my books if you haven’t already. Tell your friends about them too!
Steven A. McKay,
Old Kilpatrick, Scotland,
October 8th, 2016
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Yorkshire, England 1325 AD “Your brother ain’t here lass,” the man spat, stepping towards her. “And this time you are going for a swim.” There was a snap and a shocking blur of motion as an arrow tore from the thick summer foliage behind the girl and hit the approaching man’s thigh. The missile buried itself in the muscle so hard that it knocked him off his feet and he screamed in agony as the excited dogs began barking and straining at the ropes that tethered them to the cart. In contrast, the great brown bear in the cage looked on in silence. “My brother is here, lad,” Marjorie hissed, eyes moving from the fallen man to his stunned companions. “And so are his friends.” When a faithful friend goes missing from an English village it's up to Marjorie Hood to find out what's happened in this action packed short story. “The Rescue” is part of the 100,000+ selling Forest Lord series. "Once again Steven A. McKay delivers a story that, although short, hits like an arrow in the guts." - Stuart S. Laing, author of Jezebel's Chains Steven A. McKay was born in Scotland in 1977. His first novel, Wolf’s Head, was published in 2013 and went on to be an Amazon UK top-twenty bestseller. The Abbey of Death is the final story in the Forest Lord series. Steven is currently researching and writing a brand-new tale set in post-Roman Britain. He plays lead guitar and sings in a heavy-metal band when they can find the time to meet.