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Involuntary Insensate Inquest

By Peter Longmire

 

A bloodcurdling scream brought the Irishman back to his senses. The three-legged stool on which he sat, back leant against the barn wall, slipped, and he fell face-first into the heavily-trodden mud. He coughed out the grimy mixture and struggled to stand, finally managing to lean against the adjacent shed for support. Lyulf exploded into the farmyard; he shot a look over his shoulder as if to check on an unseen pursuer. A bow hung heavy in his hands, an arrow on its string. Hakon ran out from a small thicket of bushes across from the barn and checked his angles quickly; an axe, known as the ‘Ugly-Stick’ to all but the pretty, was in his hands and raised above his head.

A single note sounded around them, almost discernibly from the thicket: a single bleat.

The three cringed in fear. The Irishman searched his person as he scrambled behind the water trough, and failed to find any weapons. He grabbed a dirty spade and raised it as if it were a poleaxe, a weapon he knew well. Lyulf leapt a rickety fence into the pigs’ pen, hoping that the loose wood neglected by he himself of any decent repairs would give him cover. Hakon was stupid enough – or smart enough – to realize that It would find him anywhere, and stood in the centre of the yard with his axe.

A second bleat reverberated through the air.

Airka the Irishman swung the spade towards the sound and almost decapitated Lyulf. A lump of pig muck flew off the scoop and passed close to Hakon’s head.

“That Pig-fancying …” A string of indistinct swearing crossed Hakon’s lips. “Irishman! You let it get out!” he cried.

“I didn't …”

The Irishman paused to reconsider. He removed the four-inch panel of wood barring the door of the shed that had hitherto housed the goat. He edged the door open with his foot, spade raised. Several pounds of rope fibre, chewed and split, were scattered around the small space. Several panels of the back wall, each an inch thick, were shattered.

The Irishman slowly closed the door and replaced the bar athwart; that shed had been reinforced to hold the goat. He readied the spade.

“Where is it?” hissed Lyulf from the pigpen.

“Is Gareth around?” asked the Irishman.

“No, he’s at the Tower,” Hakon replied, realising his folly to stand so exposed and edging closer towards the barn wall.

“In a cell?” the Irishman asked hopefully. The lights in his eyes would be dashed by any unpleasant news to the contrary.

“No!” Lyulf spat, “he’s under tutoring from a Knight. Wulf pulled a few strings; if he’s going to be an English archer then he will need to know how to fight with the best of them.”

All three of them knew the importance of being able to kill not just with the bow. While mallets and poleaxes were sufficient for weary foes, they had all been in situations where a little more expertise with a more precise weapon might have saved them a few bruises and the Irishman a few smart knocks across the brow; his eyes crossed for a second as he scanned the yard.

“So he’s not here to call off his hellhound?” Airka cursed. “Fick es!”

A fuzzy flash flickered between the barn and the farmhouse. Lyulf had his arrow at his cheek barely a second after it had departed; he eased the strain on the bow and scanned the yard.

Another bleat came from behind Airka. He whirled around and laid the flat edge of the spade against the goat house, beating it until the structure fell apart; only stopping when he realised that the goat was not there. Without his laboured breathing, the farmyard would have been silent.

Hakon tightened his grip on his axe.

The goat materialised in front of the barn. Lyulf drew and Hakon had to knock his bow to stop the arrow tearing through the goat. Or passing straight through it without touching it; he couldn’t say for sure.

“Don’t!” hissed Hakon. “Gareth would kill us! Wulf would disembowel us! And that goat would eat us!”

‘What? In that order?” exclaimed Lyulf. “I was always sure that it would be the reverse!”

“I don’t even know that it can be killed,” Airka whimpered. “But, surely, we, and I mean you, can give it a bruise without Gareth …”

Hakon stopped him. “Irishman?”

“Yes?”

“Please shut your mouth. Just remain still, and quiet … I don’t think he can…”

“He’s charging!” screamed the Irishman in a well-rehearsed fit of hysteria.

Airka leaped over the fence enclosing the farm yard and made for any structure that he thought would survive anything less than the Last Days. Lyulf hesitated; his personal honour raised its ugly head ever so briefly before his body decided to run with the screaming coward. It took Hakon several seconds to catch on to the tactical retreat. The goat bore down on him.

He raised his axe.

And ran.

Airka and Lyulf dashed past the barn, the latter easily catching up to the portly former. Lyulf spotted a coil of rope just inside the barn and paused to collect it as leisurely as he dared. The Irishman’s world consisted of nothing but terrain, himself, and that bloody goat; he hiked up the hill and nearly collapsed, holding his heaving chest; his descendants, or much more likely the descendants of his relatives, might have used the words ‘cardiac’ and ‘arrest’.

“Go on without me,” he wheezed.

When no reply came, he risked a glance backwards and saw Lyulf withdrawing the wrong way; what he was doing might be considered a tactical retreat towards the enemy. Lyulf was carrying a coil of rope, which made clear his intention. Not wanting to be the coward of the group, a title he had not so much inherited as grossed, Airka made his way back down the hill and grabbed another coil from the barn.

Lyulf noticed that the porky Irishman had decided to not flee, and instructed him to make a noose with his rope, similar to Lyulf’s; both were very good at tying nooses. Airka decided to go one step further, and tied the un-noosed end around his wrist so he wouldn’t lose it. Before them, Hakon ran around the farmyard with the goat behind him, a patch of bloody fabric in its teeth. Lyulf waited until Hakon had passed them for about the fourth time before he cast his noose and snagged the goat. Immediately the rope went taut, but, as the doctrine of comedy decrees, didn't stop.

The goat was stronger than Lyulf had expected, and he was pulled forwards onto the ground. Airka watched with dreary amusement as Hakon ran around the yard, followed by the goat, with Lyulf trailing behind it, his face in the dirt and animal excrement. A large oak stood in the middle of the farmyard, and the procession passed behind and in front of the tree a few times before Airka cast his noose towards the goat. He missed the goat – something everyone expected save himself – and snagged Lyulf’s leg instead.

He felt powerless as the rope rushed away from him and then became taut in his hands. He hesitated again when he was yanked forwards by the wrist and onto the ground. Hakon tripped over the Irishman and failed in any act of grace, the universe preferring him to land with a face of dirt to a clean countenance. He rolled over, deciding not to apologise for kicking Airka’s kidney, and saw the goat within an ant’s fart of him; he could smell the stench of Airka’s toe wash over him.

Both Airka and Lyulf barked in effort as the rope became taut.

“Tie it up quickly!” cried Lyulf, desperately holding on to the rope that was holding the goat, and hoping that the animal wouldn’t turn around and prefer game from the Highlands. He was right up against the tree, bracing himself against it to hold back the farmyard cretin.

Hakon realized that with Airka’s and Lyulf’s combined weight had brought the goat to a halt; the ropes had wrapped around the tree and limited the goat’s movement. This also meant that the Irishman’s wrist and shoulder were most probably dislocated; if the goat had the final word, they would be much worse for it. Hakon grasped the rope around Airka, being careful to keep out of the goat’s limited reach, and started pulling, causing the goat to be hauled backwards towards the tree.

Airka seemed to stir. “Did you have to kick me?” he asked.

“That was the goat,” Hakon lied.

With the goat still trying to get at him, Hakon tied one end to a nearby fence and taunted it until it followed him around the tree, gradually shortening the rope till the goat was right up against the bark, pinning Lyulf in place. Hakon stared at the arrangement and began to question his judgement. Lyulf blinked and wished that he wasn’t staring into Gifu’s beautiful eyes.

The goat bleated.

Lyulf screamed.

Hakon rushed forwards and hacked at the ropes with his axe. The screams of Lyulf masked the dull thuds of the axe striking at the rope and tree. As the ropes eased, Lyulf struggled out of their coarse embrace, finding that the goat had done the same. It lunged at Hakon and the two wrestled briefly, Hakon trying to keep Gifu’s pearly molars away from his face, before Hakon threw Gifu off him.

The three stepped backwards in unison, away from the goat while it trotted quietly towards them, only its breathing disturbing the silence.

“Irishman,” said Hakon softly. He made a brief gesture when he had Airka’s fleeting attention.

“Please don’t,” Airka replied.

“Irishman,” the other two retainers asked in unison.

Then Hakon said, “Hold it down while we tie it up.”

“Please, there are safer ways of …”

Their stares stopped him. Like a starving man discarding his last meal, Airka ran towards the goat and leaped on it. A dark shadow eclipsed the sun and the goat’s pupils dilated like full moons. The others thought they could hear bones breaking or at least dislocating. The goat bleated and then bit hard; the Irishman’s eyes watered. Hakon and Lyulf rushed forwards and used the rope shreds to secure the goat’s jaw and feet.

As Airka rolled off and remained a beached whale on the ground, the others admired their knotwork; it appeared as if an incompetent sailor had taken to agriculture.

“Wulf must have been the last to tie it up,” Lyulf remarked. “Even the Irishman can tie a better knot than Wulf can.”

“It’s a good thing, then, that you sailors know how to tie …” The Irishman’s audacious comment was cut short by a stamp on his other kidney. He moaned, “I’ll be pissing blood for the next week.”

They watched the Irishman stand and stumble.

“Ha, you move like a pregnant cow!” Hakon sneered.

Gareth chose that moment to wander into the yard, an expensive blade hanging from his belt. All three retainers seemed to contract rigor mortis like the Black Plague. Gareth paused suspiciously as if he was the subject of some unholy wager; he stole a glance over his shoulder just to make sure.

“Are you three feeling well?” he asked, cautiously. “And I use that term very loosely.”

“Well?” questioned Hakon. “My calves are sorer than a boil on the Devil’s backside; Lyulf’s face has undergone what can only be deemed a makeover – the dirt’s a good addition; and the Irishman is about to pass a kidney stone.”

“I think I just skipped the stone and went for the whole kidney,” Airka moaned.

“We might just get some haggis from this misfortune,” Lyulf smirked.

“Did ye say haggis?” asked Lachlan, Wulf’s Scottish serf, as he passed by with a barrow full of rotting manure. Airka eyed the contents; they looked familiar. Lachlan wet his lips and bore an expression of appetite. “Wot I would nae give frae a decent helping o’ that, would I not.”

“Airka?” whispered Hakon slowly, his voice betraying his fear for the hungry Scot. “You speak Gaelic. What did he say?”

“It was English he spoke, not the Golden Tongue,” Airka hissed back. “I grew up speaking more Gaelic than your horrid tongue!”

“It was? I couldn’t understand it at all. So Mr Linguistics Expert, what did he say?”

“I have no idea; possibly something about you smelling like his barrow, I think.”

Lachlan seemed annoyed that his love of haggis had gone unanswered, and continued on his way, muttering curses in his Scottish dialect. The smell remained.

“What are you two geese hissing about?” Gareth’s pupils dilated and the whites of his eyes grew by an order of magnitude. “And … and is that… is that Gifu? What did you three do to my goat?”

The goat coughed as if to indicate its suffering, and spluttered out a small shred of soiled fabric. Gareth drew his knife and stared to cut though the ropes binding the goat. All three retainers nervously looked at each other; the goat never broke eye contact with all three of them.

“Oh, please don’t,” Airka begged.

Gareth ignored him. After the last binding had been severed, Gareth helped the creature up and rounded on the retainers.

“Why did you tie up my goat?” he demanded.

“It attacked us!” Hakon cried, pointing an accusing finger at the goat.

“What? Three of the King’s men are scared of a goat?” Gareth replied, fondling Gifu’s ears and stroking the animal between its horns. Gifu leant against the youth’s leg affectionately, giving an audible sigh of pleasure as it did so. Its face was a prospect of bliss and complete innocence; the murderous thoughts suppressed ever so briefly. “Look at her! Isn’t she just harmless?”

“She?” repeated Lyulf.

Hakon exhaled; they had been running from a goat and now it turned out to be a she! He kicked a stone and then was reduced to nursing a bruised toe.

 “Why do you think that Ireland has never been conquered and occupied successfully?” Airka replied, himself not realizing the goat’s gender. “It’s ruled by these horned and hoofed animals! He’s…”

He?” Gareth repeated.

Hakon cuffed the Irishman and then explained the definition of gender in farm animals to him. When Airka understood that they had been not only bested but also been screaming like little girls as they ran from this goat, the stream of insults could continue.

“And a white rabbit can defeat Arthur and his Knights?” Gareth spat sarcastically. “Just wait until Uncle Wulf hears about this! And the shed! You destroyed it! It’ll take all day to fix! I’d advise you fix it before he sees it! Now don’t touch my goat; the Constable of the Tower has got a new executioner after the old one signed his name on the wrong dotted line and he’s aching to knock someone’s block off, if you know what I mean.”

“Ich weiss nicht,” Airka replied.

Hakon cuffed him. “Yes. Wee veess nikschts,” Hakon said slowly, every syllable mispronounced.

Gareth exhaled with obvious frustration, and left. The goat was still staring at them; one eyebrow rose slowly. The retainers slowly made several steps backwards, towards the road.

“I know a tree up in Northumbria that is unclimbable unless you have grappling hooks,” Lyulf said. “And I should know.”

“Can goats swim?” asked Airka. A working knowledge of hoofed mammals escaped him.

“No, trying to run to Prussia every time something wants you dead is not a good idea,” Hakon replied. “That captain at Dover has started to offer you discount rates ‘cause you book so many passages!”

“Well, it’s safer than running to Ireland. I know quite a few people who want me dead for the silliest of offences. Ever wondered why I left?”

Hakon ignored him. “Lyulf, I like your idea.”

The three retainers turned and ran. The goat charged.

They never reached Northumbria.