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A Ghostly Gloating Goat

By Peter Longmire

The straight blade of die Loreley rested sharply in Hakon ðe Falcon’s lap. He had finished using the tip to remove from his teeth the fibrous strands of lamb that had hitherto been attached to a femur bone. He was garbed in a simple green and white parti-colour tunic and Liripipe hood. A brown leather belt enveloped his waist and carried an assortment of pouches and small tools, the kind of items that a retained archer might be expected to have in addition to a few other items that might be frown upon and one that was blatant illegal in all but the realm of Scotland. So far, no one had raised the issue.

In front of him, stood Lyulf Saint George, a tall man by any standard and a race unto his own. He wore a more elaborate tunic than Hakon and it was buttoned across the front by looped straps and in a more aristocratic or genteel style that would not have been out of place in the portfolio of a notorious felon. He stood as if his blood was ice, rendering him with the appearance of the inanimate; inert. The trick had served him well in the past and hitherto. He watched; arms folded; eyes forward.

“You’re not going to get any better,” Lyulf reminded with a bitter irony; the words breaking the water’s surface like falling pebbles before an avalanche, shattering the previous silence of dull thuds and spells of pejorative Gaelic damnation.

“Shut up!” retorted the Irishman before them. “This is what a month of management work does! Alpha told me to do it, so I did it. No arguing. The logic isn’t there but I didn't understand at the time that it meant that I would spend from dawn to midnight in a dark room in front of a book! I had to learn how to do taxes with your English coinage!”

“You didn't ask the Scottish Thrall, did you?” asked Lyulf. “They’re never paying up properly.”

“Him? Never,” the Irishman cried. “I went to Sir Alan de Buxhall. He needs to know how so he can check through records and catch people out. Obviously he never looked through Wulf’s records. He was so impressed that I had worked for my father balancing books that he got me to look through an entire fiefdom’s tax returns for anyone being ‘dishonest’. The King only got about ten pounds from it and a few peasants got their fingers broken.”

“What a coincidence,” exclaimed Lyulf. “Me and Hakon got to break a few fingers.”

“The best part was when their fingers broke,” Hakon sniggered.

The Irishman’s face screwed up. “Lucky little… My archery has suffered! Even Gareth will no doubt leave me with a few bruises tomorrow…”

The Irishman had a name.

That name was Airka Eóganachta Mór, a retainer to the Wulf House. But the English, in all their acclaimed glory over the Frogs, were incapable of speaking any Gaelic tongue so he was simply referred to as ‘the Irishman’ or ‘Acht-a’ spoken as if gagging. The later was all that the English tongue could pronounce before it twisted and threatened to choke the owner in a rather amusing manner. Airka wore a tunic of parti-colour black and white and a leather belt where his curved knife hung, named after the maidens of folklore also known as the choosers of slain warriors, ‘Waukarie.’ With his pouches, was his arrow bucket; a yew war bow rested in his hands, ready to accept another charge.

“Oh, yes. The fallen Irish bookkeep,” Hakon said musingly. “I didn't know that you could count!”

“Funny,” Airka retorted. “I was amazed how much tax Wulf has skipped on. Half of the farm’s income for the last year has been tax-free and the rest has dubious origins. Anyway, does anyone know how Wulf got his hands on thirty bundles of wool, three-by-three foot across? You wouldn’t expect someone to miss so many things so big.”

He fixed another arrow to his bowstring and drew the fletching to his cheek before releasing. The ashen shaft slammed into the mannequin’s shoulder, shaking it in its chains. He exhaled slowly.

Hakon smiled. “At forty paces, I would have expected better. The head, chest…”

“The crotch?” suggested Airka sarcastically and he watched Hakon smile fondly at the memory of his unhealthy accomplishments.

“I think the Frogs are sterile enough,” remarked Lyulf.

“Yes, the Frogs are missing an entire generation,” Airka retorted. “Now, there are less of them to play war games with.”

“I guess they are. Thank you for the compliment,” Hakon said very pleasantly. “If you have finished failing, are you ready to go hunting?”

“You mean poaching?”

Lyulf smiled. “Only if you get caught. First rule.”

“True,” Hakon replied with a quiet smirk at his old friend.

“Fine,” Airka answered and he unstrung his war bow.

He lent the stave of yew against the nearby barn wall and wandered forwards to gather his loose arrows. He pulled the short bodkins out with an effort, dumping them one-by-one into his arrow bucket. On the last one he inspected the non-existent head and then shot a look at the target only to see the metal bodkin wedged in the backboard. He spat an Irish curse and levered the head out with a blunt blade from his belt, leaving the metal that bit blunter. He only tried to collect those arrows that had given the mannequin a little bit of leg room once the other two seemed preoccupied with imitating mannerisms.

“The luck of the Irish,” commented Hakon, seeing Airka bending over for his last arrow.

“Hilarious!” Airka spat. “Now, are we going to get ourselves a stag or not?”

“A small doe will do,” Hakon said as he handed out some arrows with large leaf-shaped heads to his fellow retainers. “These will tear through flesh like a pint through a priest! They have all been marked so there are no arguments. I’m still polishing that stupid horse’s hooves after losing that last bet; it wasn’t like I was trying to hit him. I just had to… cheat. Anyway, I have another bet going with Lyulf that I will down the first.”

“I assume that it is worth more than that of a Wolfhead,” Airka said, beaming at Lyulf.

“Oh, it is worth more than those six silver pennies, as I recall,” Hakon smirked.

“Five silver pennies,” Lyulf corrected, glumly. “The reward for a Wolfhead is worth five silver pennies.”

“Really? Even less. What a good deal I got,” Hakon replied. “I think they’re still looking for you.”

“You just had to bring that up, didn't you,” Lyulf spat. Although the others didn't know it, perspiration was forming under his garb.

“Ever since France, I’ve always wanted to shoot another swallowtail,” Airka complained.

“Horses, Airka. Horses,” Lyulf reminded.

“Oh, there were no horses in that skirmish.”

“Right,” Hakon confirmed, shooting a look at the cynical Irishman.

“You were shooting swallowtails at people!” cried Lyulf in blatant disregard for the atrocities that he had performed both in France and before he relocated his franchise to French soil.

“Well, we had shot all our other arrows. It was quite fun, actually,” mused Airka.

Hakon coughed to get their attention.

“Do you have a cold, or something?” asked Airka.

“No, I…”

“Maybe you should consider sitting out for this one,” Airka suggested. “Sit with the Thrall, the manure is very warm this time of the year; it’s fermenting, see. I think the Scots actually brew it up.”

“It sure tasted like it,” Lyulf said musingly.

Hakon ignored the Irishman’s comment and made a mental note to overturn his cot sometime during the night. “Now, I saw a stag over Malden way, near the Hog Mill Stream yesterday. I was going to Kingston on some,” he coughed, “private business, so I didn't have my bow with me. A sword and half-a-dozen daggers, maybe, but no bow.”

“You don’t mean you went to visit…” Airka began.

“No! I told you before. She threw a piss pot at me!” Hakon cried at the Irishman.

“As I recall, she had very good aim,” Lyulf added.

A man of middle age that wore a tabard bearing the arms of Sir Alan ðe Buxhall, the Lord Constable of the Tower and a Knight of the Garter, rounded the corner of the barn and rubbed his face resignedly. He was Geoffrey ðe Wulf; but his immediate fellows called him by his given title of ‘Wulf’ or ‘Alpha’. He kept what hair he had left under a thick green and white parti-colour hood that swathed his face in what shadow the harsh English sun could spare. He was head of the Wulf Household. A merchant family, some said, whose exports was war and imports that of currency. Until very lately, business had been good.

He smiled briefly, but only at what he suspected his retainers were involved in. “Going hunting, are ya?”

The retainers looked up and made a visible effort to hide what they were holding like little children that could drop a man dead at over one-hundred-and-fifty paces.

“Practicing, Wulf,” replied Hakon.

“You aren’t using bodkins. Hunting, isn’t it?”

“Of course not,” Lyulf said. “Just practicing over in the fields and woodland down the road.”

“Yeah!” said Airka pathetically. “Practicing!”

“Shut it, Irishman,” said Geoffrey ðe Wulf without any consideration. “Now, boys; I expect venison on the table tonight!”

“You do?” Airka asked. “The odds that the ones that Hakon spotted yesterday are still there are slim.”

“What ones?” Geoffrey Wulf asked rhetorically. “I meant that you were supposed to go into town and buy some fresh from your favourite shopkeep.”

“You mean Jane?”

“Who?” Wulf asked with a mild dislike.

“Jane the shopkeep, butcher’s wife,” Airka tried to explain in his own way. “The butcher near that pie shop that sells that…”

“Lovely English ale!” suggested Hakon quickly.

“I was going to say ‘dark black sludge more befitting for French nobility and cheap English brothels’ but what you said gives me better odds.”

“Irishman, you are going be to the reason the next war with France starts,” mumbled Geoffrey Wulf.

“Why?” Airka asked though reaction rather than conscious thought. It suddenly occurred to him that he might regret it.

“Because I will kick your arse over there so fast they will think it’s an invasion!” cried Wulf.

“A one-man invasion? The French must be stupider than I thought!” Airka replied. He specialized in digging graves; namely, his own.

“Good work, Irishman. That is the first coherent thing I have heard out of you today.”

“Right, Alpha,” Hakon said, grabbing Airka and pulling him away. “We’ll take a nice stroll into town. We must bring our bows, as well. And these arrows.”

“Quite right,” Wulf replied.

He turned at the sound of light footsteps on the dirt behind him. A young boy in his late adolescence paced around the barn wall carrying a sackcloth bag of grain. He emptied the contents into the chickens’ pen and dusted his hands. He had shaved his head in such a way that he resembled the boar dangling on his pendent that sported an impressive mane. He was garbed in the standard archer attire of green and white parti-colours that Wulf wore to the same effect.

“Ah, Gareth,” said Wulf. “Fresh from the mill, I see.”

“Uncle!” cried Gareth in greeting. “Having a lovely day, I hope.”

“Pleasant, until this lot turned up,” Wulf replied. “Still thinking of going into town?”

“Yes, the cow’s sick again and Airka drank the last of the milk,” said Gareth. Unlike his uncle, he was able to pronounce Gaelic without wishing evil upon Airka. “Don’t think it did him any good.”

“That’s why my stomach hurt,” mumbled Airka quietly as he stared down at his boots gloomily.

“That’s why the latrine smells so bad,” retorted Hakon with a smirk brighter than the entire conquered realm of Scotland before Wulf could stop him and quash his ridicule.

“Just go,” Wulf ordered. “Remember: dinner.”

“Ja wohl, mein Herr!” cried the Irishman of Prussian heritage. “We’ll get you a leg of ham the size of all the members of a French village.”

“Venison, Irishman,” corrected Lyulf.

“What? We’re not going to the butchers?”

“You are,” Hakon muttered, his hand fell to die Loreley.

Wulf exhaled and refrained himself from striking the Irishman rather roughly. He continued talking to Gareth as the retainers gathered their bows and equipment and filed out. They reached the road and strolled through the hedges of the rolling countryside. Overhead, the sun held a glorious contentment over the English dales.

“I’ve got a good feeling about today,” Hakon said haughtily.

“Just like the last time. Remember?” asked Lyulf.

“That was different,” retorted Hakon.

“The time before that?” asked Airka.

“I have no idea about what you’re talking about. I think we caught them.”

“Correction: we caught one of them. The four others are still at the bottom of the Thames!” Lyulf reminded Hakon diligently.

“I enjoyed that. Just like campaigning in France,” Hakon muttered to all but himself.

The other two ignored him. They turned to the sound of leather on dirt and saw Gareth running up Half Farthing Lane towards them. He slowed and joined them; a purse that jingled to the chorus of minted English Kings hung from his belt, near a short broadsword that had been a gift from Wulf.

“If you’re coming shopping, you forgot your bow,” Airka said.

“I’m going to the markets; I’ve got my sword,” Gareth replied. He didn't understand whether or not Airka really understood the difference between reality and the pillars of sarcasm that subjugated the landscape. He had discovered, however, that if one spoke slowly and reframed from using metaphors, Airka seemed to understand their English tongue.

“Do you have a knife?” asked Hakon. “Or something shorter than that pike?

“Besides an eating one, no. Anyway, I don’t think my sword qualifies as a pike. Not that you would know. Why do you ask?”

In Hakon’s hands, a large blade with an oak handle materialized as if from nowhere. He twirled it in his hands and balanced it on the tip of his finger before flicking it and catching it with the blade threatening to remove his large toe. He handed the knife, hilt first, to Gareth.

“Take mine. It’s got good grip and a crosstree to stop your hand accidently slipping down the blade or into someone’s gut. I’m sure you know how to use it.”

“Doesn't that mean that you don’t have one?”

“No. I have another…” He did a quick mental calculation, recalling where he hid all his sharp objects. “... Score.”

“A score?” breathed Lyulf. “You have twenty knives stuck somewhere on your person?”

“And one for good luck,” Airka joked, nudging Lyulf. “Them sailors.”

“I heard you almost took Wulf’s head off with that thing,” Hakon said, gesturing to the sword on Gareth’s belt.

“You did?”

“We Irishmen like sleeping in the rafters. It reminds me of home,” Airka explained. “Which brings me to the issue with Guinivieve and the Scot…”

Gareth stopped him.

“It was the same day that that wolf was wandering Westminster. I heard it got seven men, a woman, and two babies!” Hakon continued. “Terrible stuff. Of course you and Wulf were away on business.”

“I asked if I could come and he told me that I was more of an asset on the farm,” Airka mumbled.

“I think you’re more of an asset in France where your presence can cause the most collateral damage!” Hakon replied.

“What business was that exactly?” asked Lyulf.

“Oh, just helping an old friend,” Gareth replied vaguely. “Favours and all. Supreme Law and Justice, and all in-between.”

Lyulf did not seem satisfied but dropped the topic all the same; he would mull over it and then find the truth as if it was a sculpture within a block of marble. Hakon scanned through the hedges and country paths bordered by old overgrown coppice hedges and then looked back towards the farm.

“Know where you are?” asked Airka.

Hakon immediately stopped looking over his shoulder and reassured Airka. “Yes. That way, well over that way; the stag was over that way.” He gestured towards the West Hill vaguely.

Airka placed the bottom of his bow against his boot and pulled the middle out while holding the top, sliding the string over the uppermost nock and stringing it. He gave it a testing pull.

“All right, then. We will see you later, Gareth,” Airka said, rolling his shoulders and stretching his back. There was an audible click as his spine corrected itself after long nights hunched over books and tables. He almost bleated in both pleasure and pain at the movement.

“We’ll keep the antler for you. I’ll make a handle for a new knife for you,” said Hakon.

“Thanks,” Gareth replied. “Airka, you can have the first pale of milk.”

The Irishman made an arm-pump in triumph. The other two retainers groaned. Airka was known to render any room uninhabitable after his daily pale. They parted ways; Gareth continued down the lane onto Wandsworth and the retainers bounded across  a style over the hedge and strolled across the rise between the two copses on what was called Putney Way.

Hakon and Lyulf strung their hunting bows and they took a moment to plan the hunt after they has crossed the River Wandle by the footbridge and could no longer been seen by those at Half Farthing. They all trudged up the hill and over Putney Heath, though Putney Vale, over the Beverly Brook and up the next incline.

“I thought the deer was just over on the Heath, Hakon, or did I somehow mishear you,” questioned Lyulf.

“Again,” muttered Airka, trying to catch his breath.

“Right… I think that we should go that way,” Hakon said.

“Any particular reason for that particular path?” asked Airka, wiping sweat from his brow, for the walk had indeed been far longer than Hakon had implied.

“It’s downhill,” Lyulf observed.

“I cannot argue with that.”

They spent several hours of sneaking between copses before they made any real progress. Hakon spotted a set of tracks and identified them as from a hoofed mammal. Airka and Lyulf concurred with a hit of sarcasm. Hakon discovered a cluster of what appeared to be a mulch of dirt and vegetable matter; he cut a piece off it using one of his many knives, one he carried for just this purpose, and sniffed and then tasted the sample; his face moved through a series of expressions each one more comical than the previous.

He concluded that it was the droppings of a stag. Airka and Lyulf had reached this conclusion at first glance.

It took another hour for them to sight the magnificent beast; it stood in a wide glade surrounded by woodland and low shrubberies. It was alone. The smaller does that Hakon had claimed to have seen were absent or hidden from view.

“Lyulf, take the centre. Irishman, take the left. I will flank from the right. When you are ready to make the shoot, make the hoot of an owl twice. I will then reply with the cry of a hawk; that is when we all draw and release. Understand?”

“Hoot and shoot,” replied Airka. “I understand you as clear as the bottom of a barrel of English ale; as clear as the Thames!”

Hakon ignored the last comment. He was very fond of ale, especially the kind that was cleaner than the water initially put in. “Lyulf?” he asked.

“Centre position, I understand perfectly,” Lyulf answered.

They nodded and separated. Airka crept through the bushes to the left while Lyulf nocked an arrow and shifted into a crouch. Hakon veered off to the right and ducked and weaved through the shrubberies. His tunic caught on a twig once and then twice, causing him to stop and dislodge it with the utmost silence.

“As clear as the bottom of a barrel of English ale,” he muttered, almost in silence. “If the Irishmen weren’t drinking their own piss, they might actually be a challenge to fight…”

He heard the hoot of a snowy owl. The stag didn't move. It sounded like Lyulf. He must have finally found a position that worked for him. Knowing him, it would not be behind a bush.

Hakon continued through the bushes until he found a commanding position that gave him a clear shot through the branches at the grazing stag. He cast a glance towards where he suspected Lyulf was and saw the peak of a longbow crest the greenery. He then shot a look to the woodland on the other side and failed to find Airka.

The Irish seemed to have a talent to hide in dense foliage. He considered his luck not to have been sent to an English fort in the Emerald Isles.

He heard a second owl hoot from across the glade. The stag looked up and scanned the trees; apparently satisfied, it returned to eating.

Hakon exhaled. He would cuff the Irishman across the head when they had taken this stag down. He got his breathing under control and drew an arrow. He could see the oblong-shaped tip briefly before his brain switched into an automatic mode and his fingers found the nock and attached it to the string. He levelled his bow with the stag and practiced the motion that he was about to perform. Inhale while drawing.

He would have to order the others to shoot with the cry of a hawk. Could he take this beast down by himself? With only a hunting bow and a single arrow, he doubted it unless he could hit it somewhere vital. He levelled the bow at such a plane that at full draw it would send an arrow through the stag’s chest, and presumably the heart.

He imitated the cry of a diving hawk and inhaled. The string and arrow fletching kissed his cheek.

The bushes to his right moved. It couldn’t have been one of the other retainers. His head turned to locate the source of the motion and briefly the image of an enraged goat with, what seemed in the instant, the spiral horns of the Roman-Pagan God of Pan, flashed through his mind from his soon-to-be bloodied eyes before something struck his forehead. He cried out in pain and confusion as he fell to the ground. He released his arrow in sheer shock and it passed a good twenty metres from the stag and into the woodland opposite.

His exclaim startled the stag and both Lywulf’s and Airka’s arrows soar clean passed the retreating beast.

Airka muttered an Irish curse and crept forwards from underneath the cover of an overhanging branch. The sun broke through a parting in the canopy above and blinded him briefly. Before he could move any further, the light was extinguished with an epic thunderclap. He paused and tried to enumerate the situation in terms that the mind of the intermediate could comprehend. The sun was there and then it wasn’t.

Intriguing.

He took a step back and saw that a leaf-shaped arrow head had stopped directly in front of his face. He followed the shaft and saw it was lodged in a sapling, after passing through more than half-a-dozen others. It had come from Hakon’s position; just after he had cried out. It bore the bastard’s mark, a large capital ‘H’; he glanced at his and saw that a smaller ‘a’ had been engraved on his shafts. He left the foliage in a manner of barely controlled anger and chaos.

“You stupid Englishman!” Airka cried after the stag was well out of sight.

Hakon groaned as he stumbled out of the bushes bordering the woodland across the glade. He was clutching his head in pain. Lyulf emerged almost ethereally from the leaves.

“Did all your arrogance try to escape from your head all at once?” asked the cocky Irishman.

“No, his head would be non-existent if that had happened,” Lyulf stated. “And there isn’t a great big hole where his mouth should be,” he added sarcastically.

Hakon glanced at the two and decided that Wulf would ask questions if he acted on his current intentions. He removed his hand from his forehead and saw a trickle of blood smeared across his glove and sleeve. He showed the wound to the other retainers.

“Did you shave your head down to fit on a branch?” Airka asked. “You nearly shaved mine!”

“I was attacked!” cried Hakon in both defence and fact.

“The attack of the immobile trees! Even the flowers are against the greatest archer this side of Nottingham,” jested Lyulf with a smirk.

“Shut up,” sneered Hakon. “It was a Billy goat!”

“You were attacked by a goat. How many of your stubby knives did you stick into it?” asked Airka.

“Shut up, Irishman. The blighter headed me just before I shot!”

“Correction:” the Irishman said, “you were attacked by a goat with impeccable timing. A very rare quality to find in goats. Even Irish goats do not have the same eminence that this goat seems to demonstrate…”

“Which is?” Hakon spat.

“A hatred for the Englishman. The Irish goat will just stare and eat.”

“Just like the inhabitancies,” Lyulf observed.

Hakon ignored him. “Did you see where that blighter went?” said Hakon, the fires of revenge burning in the bottomless fathoms that occupied the wells on his face.

“Only you got a look at that good creature. Maybe you just ran into a low branch,” Airka replied in a more sarcastic manner than was needed.

A goat bleated.

Hakon spun around; an arrow was already nocked and his fingers ready to draw faster than the knife was. It took him a little longer to see the infernal creature atop a knoll in the distance. Before the other two retainers could stop him, he drew and shot at the goat. Intending to see its putrid little head explode by the impact of a hunting arrowhead, Hakon was disappointed to see the arrow fall short by a few dozen metres. He cursed himself for not bringing his war bow; with that he could drop a Frenchman dead at twice the distance that the stupid goat was mocking him at.

“It looks like that goat has a good bit of meat on its frame,” observed the Irishman.

“Right!” said Hakon assertively. “We are going to kill that bastard or else I will do the same unto you. My anger has to be sated. There are no Frenchmen to substitute!”

“The perks of being in foreign country…” Airka said quietly. “I suppose that Alpha won’t be able to tell the difference between a heavily-herbed steak of venison and a heavily-herbed rib of stringy goat. All that French food must have stayed its course. What Wulf wants is what Wulf think he gets.”

Airka pronounced the name of their Captain using the same sounds that he would make if punched in the guts; the sound was given by his accent, it was even worse when he pronounced Lyulf’s. Hakon and Lyulf sometimes had trouble understanding their Irish company. Hakon tried to scare the goat with an impressive display of idiocy; the beast remained immobile, its beady eyes giving a response that unsettled even Lyulf.

Hakon growled and turned to his fellows. “Airka, take the right flank. Lyulf, the left. I will pummel this fiend down the centre!”

“Oh, he’s gone,” muttered the Irishman.

“Gone? What?” Hakon spun around and realize that the knoll was bare. He cursed and trudged forwards.

“That hill is towards Hog Mill Stream, where you saw those bucks and does,” Lyulf said.

“That has just given him a reason to follow that… creature,” Airka retorted to Lyulf.

“Come on,” Hakon cried in front of them, his tone suggested that he was not to be ignored.

Airka and Lyulf followed a few metres behind the aggravated archer. After a few minutes, they arrived at the Hog Mill Stream. The banks consisted of damp loam and hosted a field of reeds until a few metres from shore. Hakon wandered forwards and tested the ground; his foot sank, consumed by the mire.

He noted the small hoof-shaped holes through the loam and growled under his breath. “Right! There are tracks here that must mean that that bloody goat came through here. The mud should have slowed the bastard down.”

“We were all thinking that,” Airka muttered, he suddenly felt as if he should be regretting his words.

Hakon whirled around and stared the Irishman into submission. When he looked away, Airka’s hand found the hilt of his dagger; the bog here would be perfect…

Lyulf had to forcibly stop him.

Hakon drew and nocked an arrow to his bowstring. He knew the goat must be around here. It could not have gone far. Over the river, he saw movement. He turned and saw the goat nibbling at a turf of grass near a fallen log. He shifted his weight on the loose loam and he sank up to his shins. In one fluent motion, Hakon sighted, drew, and released a brilliant white-fletched arrow.

The shaft exploded across the narrow divide and removed a small turf of hair from the goat’s chin. He expected the animal to flee as it should when faced with assumingly superior forces but it just stood there, eating around the arrow now lodged in the log, apparently unconcerned. It stopped and turned to stare at Hakon as he tried to remove himself from the knee-deep sludge which he now blamed for his blunder.

Lyulf nocked an arrow and took aim. He paused and lowered his bow. “We should flank it. If it flees, we will lose it.”

“Oh, I don’t think that it has a reason to flee,” Airka mused, watching Hakon stare at his boots in disgust.

“Fine, you flank. There should be a crossing somewhere. How else could that goat get across?” Lyulf replied.

The Irishman realized the futility of a protest and, grumbling to himself, trudged away downstream. He pushed away at the drapes of the willow trees and crossed the mire without any real difficulty. The ground sloped upwards for a few score metres before cresting smoothly. There were several heavily-girthed trees that had fallen and one happened to lie across the river to the opposite bank. Airka approached the all-to-convenient natural bridge and tested its strength with one foot. He stepped onto it and jumped a few times. The dirt foundations on each side seemed to crumble into the running waters below but left the log stable.

Slowly, Airka crept across the log, with one foot at a time and his arms, one holding his bow, outstretched to keep himself balanced. A wind gust almost knocked him off into the water below. Steadying himself, he took several steps more. Suddenly, the log began to roll, re-centring its weight to a more stable position with the rise and fall of the bank… with the heavy Irishman atop.

Knowing that, should he fall into the water, he would only be able to keep his head above the surface and being ladened with expensive gear that held a particular dislike of water and had been supplied by his master, Airka did the only thing that kept him both dry and safe from Geoffrey ðe Wulf’s resulting wrath: he tried to grasp the moving log; his legs conveniently wrapping around the log of the lumber, taking the full force of the impact.

His eyes watered.

 

αβγ

 

Hakon watched the goat with a particular resentment. He did not want to release any more arrows due to the distance involved and the thick undergrowth. Arrows were expensive when the King was not paying for them. The goat seemed to know this and continued eating. He scratched himself and kneaded his face for an idea.

“I think I can hit it,” Lyulf said philosophically.

“How?” queried Hakon.

“If we can get right up to the edge of the bank, we should be able to get a straight shot.”

“There is a bog of loam between us and it. If you want to smell like me, be my guest,” Hakon replied, his antipathy clearly showing.

“I wondered what that smell was,” muttered Lyulf as he tried to move across the soft loam. His efforts at walking quickly turned to wading. He found a semi-stable area of dirt and coagulated mud, and fixed an arrow to his bowstring. He sighted his target and drew. Suddenly, the ground gave and he released more in shock rather than intent. The arrow soared skywards, abruptly becoming lost in the grand scale of the firmament.

“Well done!” teased Hakon. “Now we have lost two arrows!”

“Where did it go?” asked Lyulf quickly. “Did you see where that one when? I’m sure that it was almost straight up.”

Hakon paused in thought and looked upwards. The chances… With wind, it could go in any direction. It could be travelling towards him at that very moment. He scuttled underneath a large tree and tried to laminate himself against the trunk. He shouted for Lyulf to join him. With any luck, the branches above would give them protection.

As Lyulf joined him; he could hear nothing and smell only rotting marsh mud.

 

αβγ

 

Airka slowly steadied himself on the log. He glanced at where it intercepted along each bank and reasoned that it was now stable even though at one end it was only held in place by a tree root. He edged further along and paused briefly as the log shook again. He could hear Hakon and Lyulf screaming to each other in the distance and guessed that one of them had been pushed into the loam or one had tried to kill the other, again.

It had happened before.

These Englishmen are crazy.

Suddenly, a great weight descended down on to his foot. He paused briefly before the pain erupted through his leg. Glancing down, he realized that a very large hunting shaft had passed through his boot.

 

αβγ

 

Hakon and Lyulf heard the screams and correctly guessed what Lyulf’s arrow had hit. They didn't dare leave the safety of the tree; trees were good cover from both arrows and Irishmen.

Lyulf whispered, “You don’t think that…?”

“Well, all the arrows were marked. He’ll know that it was you.”

“Providing, of course, that he is still alive,” Lyulf muttered.

The two waited near the loam. Irishmen had a tendency to ‘overreact’.

 

αβγ

 

Meanwhile, Airka was hanging upturned off the log; a combination of both the fact that arrow had penetrated deep enough into the wood and him grasping an offshoot of the log kept him in place. He only whimpered instead of screaming now as his bow was between his teeth. A few of his arrows had fallen into the water from his bucket and floated majestically down stream like an eyrar of swans; the rest were caught up in his clothing and under his arms.

He glanced around and tried to formulate a plan that involved him getting back onto solid ground without taking half of London’s clean water with him. His eyes found a small ‘l’ mark engraved on the shaft that had impaled his foot. He moaned again and almost dropped his bow.

Now, the pain was not as much as fading but the shocking retreating. He saw that the arrow had pierced the very tip of his boot, meaning that he had very likely lost one or more of his toes. That was the best outcome; otherwise, this might result in him becoming lame. He knew that it was Lyulf’s arrow and he wondered about what Wulf would do to him…

A fate not deserving of even his worst enemies… Except, maybe, the French…

Did Lyulf really deserve that? Airka glanced at the puncture mark on his boot occupied by the predestined shaft.

Lyulf deserved every bit of it.

Airka grasped his bow with his free hand and flung it over onto the bank behind him. He undid his belt that held his arrow bucket and tossed it onto the bank along with the items that hung from his other belts. Taking another desperate look towards the moving water below him, he reached up and tried to break the arrow using the blade of one of his knives; every movement caused pain to shoot up his leg. Finally, the wooden shaft broke and he pulled his boot off the peg that the shaft now formed.

As soon as he did so, his grip faulted and he fell. Hitting the cold water hard, he floundered; his knife fell from his hand. He couldn’t swim as well as those now at the bottom of the Thames; he actually thought that they had done quite well before they failed resurface. His hands grasped at the reeds that bordered the water’s edge; each one broke with his touch. The current seemed to strengthen and he crashed against an outcrop of the band, knocking the wind from him and plunging him into a sub aqua realm.

The current rolled and he was surrendered to the sky and all things dry and pointy. The reeds thinned and the stream deepened and narrowed into a small gully. He could see places where the banks were lower and more level. He drew another knife from his boot, regretting leaving Waukarie on the bank, and plunged it into the bank; the blade entered horizontal and consequently slipped out of the damp clay and dirt. Desperately trying to tread the water and trying to keep his head above it, he plunged the knife into the bank again, only this time the blade was vertical.

It caught.

He grasped the handle and reached up the bank to steady himself on a net of protruding roots. After taking a moment to catch his breath, Airka pulled himself onto the bank and collapsed, gasping for more air. He would have to retrieve his gear, but after he regained his breath. Lying across a soft bed of lush grass, he held the knife across his chest and tried to decide where he would stick it into Lyulf’s person.

 

αβγ

 

“Do you think he’s okay?” asked Lyulf.

Hakon shrugged. “I’m buggered if I know. He’s probably across the stream and going after that goat…”

They both stopped and stared at the sodden figure approaching them, moving in more of a limp than a march. The only thing that wasn’t wet was his bow and gear. At least Wulf wouldn’t discipline him for that, but he would probably find another reason.

“Irishman?” questioned Hakon. “Irishman! Take a swim, did you?”

“What happened to you?” asked Lyulf, haphazardly.

Airka, soaked to his unwashed loins, held out a broken shaft, the break stained with the blood of an Irishman. His face was so screwed up in anger, it was incapable of forming words; his muscles so clenched in resentment, he was unable to hit Lyulf and beat him to an inch of his life. ‘Not to worry’, he thought, ‘Wulf would do that!’

Lyulf hesitated, clearing his throat. “Sorry about the whole accidental ‘shooting’ you thing…”

“Where did it get you?” asked Hakon, fascinated; he still had the scar from the crossbow quarrel the he had caught in France.

“My foot!” cried Airka. He continued but in a mixture of Irish and Prussian, mostly aimed at Lyulf, a being who could only be lowered in both dimension and personality, what Hakon referred to as ‘quantity and quality’, with a very large and serrated axe. Finally, he shrugged and marched off.

“Where are you going?” asked Hakon.

“Back to do some more bookwork! If I get shot in an appendage every time I go out with you two, I’ll eventually bleed to death! I’ve only got four to go.”

“So do the French,” joked Lyulf.

Hakon elbowed him. “Fine. Lyulf?”

“Actually,” Lyulf began, “I think I will go back with the Irishman.”

“Why?” Hakon questioned in what almost seemed to be an interrogation. “We’re still going after that goat.”

“No, we’re going after your goat,” Lyulf corrected. “We already smell of rotting mud and the Irishman is walking… stumbling with a very bad limp… I must have severed a toe or something…”

Hakon exhaled and glanced back where the goat was. It had reappeared and was staring at him. “Fine,” Hakon replied and unstrung his bow. He looked back and the goat was gone.

Lyulf was already cresting the nearest hill. Hakon unstrung his bow, recounted his arrows and drew his hood over his face to shield it. He told himself that it was a draw, but it still nagged at him. That goat was fearless.

Before he could climb the hill, the fiendish goat materialized from behind the bushes of the woodland. It marched across his path purposely, stopped, and turned to face him. He quickly glanced across the stream to where it had been. It was amazing how quickly it had moved. It wasn’t wet yet it had crossed a body of water that he couldn’t even jump and Airka had almost drowned in due to Lyulf’s blunder.

The world seemed to have been silenced by the grandeur of the moment. The final showdown between two great rivals: archer versus goat.

Hakon flexed his fingers and reasoned that he could string his bow before the goat reached him. He placed the bottom of his bow against his boot and fumbled with the string. He struggled to find the notch at the top. He stopped staring at the forlorn goat and glanced for one brief moment for the notch. He found it; the string fell into place.

His hands had already found an arrow and had it ready to nock. He returned his gaze forwards, expecting for his foe to the either stationary or beginning to charge. He was wrong on both accounts.

The goat was airborne, within a hand’s width from his forehead.

The titan and the man collided and the man was hurled backwards into the damp loam, submerging until only his face was exposed. The goat seemed to smile and bleated maliciously in three long notes. Hakon tried to reach for his knife, but found only mud.

The goat left its victim floundering. It trotted its way happily up the hill, towards the farm.

 

αβγ

 

Airka stormed into the barn and lent his bow against the wall. He undid his belts and dropped his equipment. Gently lowering himself, he sat on a bale of hay and began the excruciating task of removing his boot from his afflicted foot. He eventually manoeuvred it off and stared at his foot and four toes.

He paused and recounted.

Yep. Four.

Lyulf would hurt for this.

He inverted his boot and his liberated toe fell out of the leather tomb and into his shaking hand. He studied the former piece of his body and he could almost feel it as if it was still attached. He poked it and shivered.

A sharp bleat resonated from behind him.

He didn't move until a snout extended over his shoulder and breathed down his neck. Its tongue reached out for the severed toe.

The Irishman ran out screaming. The toe didn't have time to hit the ground before he was gone.

Lyulf caught him before he ran into a tree. “I can see that you’re not lame anymore… Is that your toe?”

What Airka then explained to Lyulf was either too rushed, terrible in its grammar and syntax, or in either Irish or Prussian and what Lyulf suspected was either a corruption of two or more languages or a new one known only to this sad little man.

“Die Ziege! Die Ziege!” cried Airka, his Prussian completely incomprehensible to his audience.

“English!” commanded Lyulf.

“The goat! Die Ziege ist im der Stall! The goat is in the barn! Wo ist die Axt?” cried the hysterical Irishman.

“It’s here?” breathed Lyulf, drawing his knife.

Airka fumbled around his waist and then realized that he had left his equipment in the barn. He found a large stick and held it over his head like a club. Lyulf edged the barn door open with his foot, expecting to be charged by a crazy goat. None was there.

He began poking and hitting the piles of hay in the pens. An irate cry came from one when he hit it. Airka hit it again and a thickly accented cry retorted. Lachlan, the Scottish thrall, pushed away the strands of straw and hay that covered his head and chest.

“Enjoying the manure today?” inquired Lyulf.

“Aye, ‘tis be nice an’ warm,” replied Lachlan.

“I didn’t get any of that,” whispered Lyulf, nudging Airka.

“Why are you looking at me?” cried Airka. “He’s not speaking Gaelic! He’s speaking English; that’s your department!”

“No, I’m pretty sure that he’s speaking Gaelic,” replied Lyulf.

Airka ignored him. “Lachlan… Thrall… Can I call you ‘Thrall’?”

“Aye, Mistre.”

“Thrall, did you see a goat in here?”

“Nay, cun’t sauy I’e hauve,” replied the Englishly-disabled Scotsman.

Airka nodded. “Wez just came frae the scran fae tha beasties?” he taunted, using the Thrall’s accent and mannerisms.

“I’m sorry?” asked Lyulf.

“He hasn’t seen that blighted bag of tender meat,” Airka replied.

“That must have been Gaelic,” asserted Lyulf.

“Laland Scottish,” corrected Airka.

“There, Scottish.”

“Laland Scottish is but badly spoken English.”

Lyulf shrugged and left. Conversing with a Thrall was below him; he had a very profitable trade with them once before the bottom for the market for Thralls dropped out.

“Are you leaving me alone?” cried Airka.

“Nope,” Lyulf replied, “You have the Thrall.”

Lyulf’s massive figure ceased blocking out the light entering through the door. Airka was alone, if you discounted the presence of the sleeping Thrall which he did. A light breeze blew the barn door shut, shrouding the barn in a murderous veil of loosely-interrupted darkness. Airka’s grip tightened on the club. The shafts of light that broke through the walls and roof scattered off floating particles of dust.

The roof beams creaked above him.

Airka shot a look up; readying his club.

Nothing was waiting to drop down on top of him. Nothing was waiting to rip his throat out and drink his blood.

That ‘Nothing’ was called a goat.

 

αβγ

 

Lyulf watched Airka run out of the barn again screaming. He almost tackled the Irishman to stop him running into the tree beside him. Airka was shivering uncontrollably and muttering.

“Did the Thrall breakwind?” Lyulf asked.

“Die Ziege! Die Ziege!” whimpered Airka.

“There was no goat in there. Anyway, if it is still following us, it would be attacking Hakon,” reassured Lyulf.

Airka raised his club; thousands of puncture marks had been engraved into the wood by thousands of sharp teeth.

“Okay, I believe you, said Lyulf. “What about the Thrall? He is worth quite a lot. Remember the ransom?”

“I would pay that ransom myself if it meant that I would never see that fiend again!” cried Airka.

“The Thrall or the goat?”

“The latter!” spat Airka.

The beams of the barn creaked. Airka flinched and waved the club wildly. “Take the tall one! He’s got more meat!”

Nothing happened.

“Try not to sell your fellow retainers out like that,” Lyulf reminded.

Airka whimpered.

“Ach, Yoo bue ay krukt littil beastie,” said Lachlan from inside the barn. The two retainers observed the result in absolute silence.

“I would suggest that we flee with our tails between our legs,” suggested Airka.

Lyulf cast a second-glance at the mauled club. “I agree.”

The two retainers dashed out of the barn and along the archery range up towards the safety of the more solid farm buildings. They passed a few hedges that would be very easily jumped by this rabid and uncompromising goat, and climbed the rise. From behind the farm buildings, a mound of reeking mud stepped out. If not for the longbow and equipment, Airka and Lyulf would have never guessed that it was Hakon.

“You’re looking very… rugged,” Lyulf tried to compliment.

“Shut up, Irishman!” snapped Hakon.

“But I never said…”

“I said shut up!” retorted Hakon, drawing a stick from his person. “Where is that bastard?”

“The absurdity of telling a perfectly silent man to…”

“Shut up,” mouthed Hakon. “Now. Once more: where is that bastard?”

Airka paused. “You mean Lachlan?”

“Who?” hissed Hakon.

“The Thrall,” Airka simplified.

“No, Irishman! The goat! Where is that goat?”

“It attacked me in the barn!” volunteered Airka, who now saw that the stick in the mud was in fact a wicked knife.

Lyulf realized this too and stepped aside. “I think we should say that we were attacked by a wolf.”

Airka nodded and watched Hakon round the barn wall and out-of-sight. “It should be six-feet long! And Hakon six-feet under.”

“With ivory teeth five-inches long,” added Lyulf.

“And claws that were stained yellow and fur stained red with dried blood!”

“Why would you stain a perfectly good rug red?” asked a voice behind him.

“Hello, Meister Wulf,” said Airka slowly without turning.

“And my question?”

“Just dealing with hypotheticals,” Lyulf answered.

Wulf nodded. “Where is Hakon?” he asked. “Gutting the stag, I’m guessing.”

Airka coughed. “Killing the wolf,” he offered.

“What wolf?”

“We were about to place our shots on a massive stag,” Airka said as both him and Lyulf made embellished dimensions with their hands, “when we were attacked by a wolf!”

“Like the one in Westminster?” asked Wulf, his tone was almost sarcastic.

“Bigger!” replied Lyulf.

“Really?” Wulf said, chuckling to himself.

They could hear Hakon calling out to the goat, taunting it. The ceiling beams creaked. Hakon screamed. From their spot on the hill, they could see the panels of the walls bend outwards as something heavy hit it repetitively. Each time, Hakon cried out, begging for mercy from an unreasonable assailant.

“It doesn't sound like a wolf,” observed Wulf, hitherto he had not believed his retainers. “No snarling or anything. Hakon’s not screaming. Sounds more like an ox or a …”

“Holy Cow!” screamed Hakon.

“There,” Airka said. “It’s a cow.”

Wulf didn't seem convinced. “I’m going to have a look.”

Airka and Lyulf flagged him down. “No, no, no. You don’t want to do that!”

“Why not?” challenged Wulf.

They both could not answer. But before Wulf could investigate further, the goat’s head punctured the wall, shattering a panel of wood. They could hear Hakon savouring his premature victory with taunts and insults before the goat, only its head being visible, shifted its weight and Hakon screamed. Something heavy struck the ground gasping.

The goat manoeuvred its head out of the wall, taking a good chunk of the wood with it, and Hakon screamed again as the goat bleated furiously.

“Should we help?” asked Lyulf.

“I would like my retainers intact,” Wulf retorted.

The pair didn't move. The hint not taken.

“I would like my retainer intact,” Wulf cried.

Airka and Lyulf, getting the message, crept back down to the barn and edged the door open with their foot. Inside, they saw Hakon backing away, one of his lesser knives in his least-battered hand. The goat was on the other side of the barn near the bloodstained hay and stray that was the Thrall’s pen, rubbing affectionately against Gareth’s leg. Gareth was holding a milking pail and his borrowed knife, one in each hand and both like a weapon.

“You want it back?” threatened Gareth. “I’ll give it to you! If you ever try to kill my goat again, I will cut you a second smile where the sun don’t shine!” He drew a half-crescent in the air at head-height as an exemplar. He turned to the goat and said in a sweet voice, “Gifu, are you okay?”

The goat bleated happily and then bleated a sneer at the retainers. Hakon took a step forwards and Gareth levelled the knife at his chest.

“That’s your goat!” cried Lyulf.

“Of course it’s my goat! It jumped the fence after I brought it home! I wasn’t going to buy a cow! The milk always sours, especially when Airka is around!”

The Irishman, previously looking for the Thrall while keeping the goat in his sight, glanced down at his boots in ignominy; he kicked a small pebble.

“Whose goat do you think it was?”

“The Devil’s,” suggested Airka before Wulf cuffed him rather roughly.