The Walking Drum
Nothing moved but the wind and only a few last, lingering drops of rain, only a blowing of water off the ruined wall. Listening, I heard no other sound. My imagination was creating foes where none existed.
Only hours ago death had visited this place. This heap of charred ruins had been my home, and a night ago I had lain staring into the darkness of the ceiling, dreaming as always of lands beyond the sea.
Now my mother lay in a shallow grave, dug by my own hands, and my home was a ruin where rainwater gathered in the hollows of the ancient stone floor, a floor put down by my ancestors before memory began.
Already dawn was suggesting itself to the sky. Waiting an instant longer an instant longer, my knife held low in my fist, I told myself, "I will have that gold or kill any who comes between it and me."
Fire no longer smoldered among the fallen roof beams, for rain had damped it out, leaving the smell of charred wood when it had become wet, and the smell of death.
Darting from the shadows to the well coping, I ran my hand down inside the mouth of the well, counting down the cold stones.
Two . . . three . . . four . . . five!
With the point of my fine Damascus dagger, I worked at the mortar. Despite the damp chill, perspiration beaded my brow. At any time the men of Tournemine might return.
The stone loosened. Working it free with my fingers, I lifted it to the well coping. Sheathing my knife, I ran my fingers into the hole, feeling for the box my father had hidden there. They touched wood. Gently, carefully, I drew it from the hole, a small box of strange-smelling wood. Then from behind me, a soft footfall.
Turning, I saw that a dark figure loomed before me. So large a man could only be Taillefeur, lieutenant to the Baron de Tournemine, a veteran of mercenary wars.
"So!" Taillefeur was pleased. "I was right! The old wolf hid treasure, and the cub has returned for it."
"It is nothing," I lied, "some trifles my father left me."
"Let me have those trifles"--Taillefeur extended his hand-- "and you can be on your way. Let Tournemine hunt his own children."
My left hand rested upon the stone I had removed from the well couping. Boy I might be, but I was tall and strong as a man, dark as an Arab from the sun, for I was not long from the fishing banks beyond Iceland where I had gone with men from the Isle of Brehat.
"If I give you the box," I said as I gripped the stone tighter, "you will let me go?"
"You are nothing to me. Give me the box."
He reached a hand to receive it, and I swung the stone.
Too late, Taillefeur threw up his arm to ward off the blow. He saved himself a crushed skull, but the blow felled him in his tracks.
Leaping over his body, I fled to the moors, and for the second time in a few hours the moors were my saving.
Dodging into a hollow choked with brush, I scrambled through a tunnellike passage known to wolves and boys, and as the storm clouds were scattering like sheep to feed on the meadow of the sky, I came again to the cove.
The ship was there. The crew was ashore filling casks with water, and when they saw me coming, two of them drew swords and a third nocked an arrow to his bowstring, looking beyond to see if I was accompanied.
It was a squat, ill-painted vessel with a slanting mast and a single bank of oars, nothing like the sleek black ships of my father, who was a corsair.
The two who held swords advanced, looking fiercer when they realized I was but a boy, and alone.
"I would speak with your captain," I said.
They indicated a squat man, running somewhat to fat, in a dirty red cloak. His skin was swarthy, his eyes deep-sunk and furtive. I liked not the look of him and would have withdrawn had not the men of Tournemine been behind me, and searching.
"A boy!" He spoke impatiently.
"But a tall boy, " one of them assured him, "and a strong lad, too."
"Where do you sail?" I asked.
"Where the wind takes us." He eyed me with no favor, yet with a measuring quality in his glance.
"To Cyprus, perhaps? Or Sicily?"
"What do you know of Cyprus?" he sneered.
"My father may be there. I seek him."
"It is a far place. What would a father of yours be doing there?"
"My father," I said proudly, "is Kerbouchard!"
They were astonished, as I expected, for the ships of Kerbouchard harried the coasts, attacking the ships of many nations, trading beyond the farthest seas. My father's name was legend.
"Your voyage would be useless. By the time you came to Cyprus, he would have sailed."
"There were lessons I had yet to learn, and one was not to talk too much. "His ship has been sunk, and my father has been killed or sold into slavery. I must find him."
The captain seemed relieved, for no man wishes to incur the displeasure ofKerbouchard, and he knew what he planned to do. Tall I was, and broader of shoulder than all but two of his crew.
"Ah? If you sail, with you work or pay?"
"If the price be not too great, I will pay."
"The men of the crew edged nearer, and I wished for a sword. Yet what choice remained? I must escape with them or face the dogs of Tournemine.
"I could offer a piece of gold." I suggested.
"You would eat that much!" he said contemptuously, but his hard little eyes sharpened.
"Where would a boy lay his hands upon gold?"
His sudden gesture took me by surprise, and before I could move to resist, I had been seized and thrown to the ground. Despite my struggles, the box was torn from my shirt and broken open. Bright gold spilled up the sand, and some of the coins rolled, setting off a greedy scramble.
The captain took the gold from their reluctant fingers to be divided among the crew. "Take him aboard," he commanded. "He has paid his way, but he shall work also or taste the whip."
My knife was jerked from its sheath by a moonfaced man with unkempt hair, who belted it. Him I would not forget. Damascus blades were hard to come by, and this was a gift from my father.
"You've learned something," the captain said, maliciously. "Never show your money before strangers. But do your work, and you shall live to see Sicily. I know a Turk there who will pay a pretty price for such a handsome lad." He grinned at me. "Although you may not long be a lad after he lays hands upon you."
Bruised and battered I was , but when my foot touched the deck a thrill went alongmy spine. Yet when taken to my place at the slave's bench, and seeing the filth in which I must work, I tried to fight. That men could exist in such evil conditions seemed impossible.
Our craft demanded two men to each oar, and shackled beside me was a burly, red-haired ruffian. "You fought little," he said with contempt. "Have the Celts grown so weak?"
I spat blood. "The ship goes to Sicily, where I wish to go. Besides," I added, "death awaits me ashore."
His hard laugh told me that, whatever the whip had done to the others, he still possessed spirit an strength. "If they get there!" he said cynically. "This lot knows little of fighting and less of seafaring. I will be a God's wonder if they do no drown all of us."
A little pompously, for I was young, I told him who my father was. "Men of my family were captains among the Vent when they fought Caesar, and it is said there was a Kerbouchard among the monks who welcomed the Vikings when they first came to Iceland."
"A ship does not sail with yesterday's wind," Red Mark replied. "I know what Breton corsairing men have down, but what of you?"
"Ask me that question five years from now. I shall have an answer for you then."
Four years had gone since my father set forth on his voyage of trading and raiding, for piracy was a business of all ships when opportunity offered.
As for myself, I had but returned from a voyage with the men of Brehat to the fishing grounds in the far west. Those months at sea had put muscles in my arms and shoulders and taught me how to live and work with men.
Returning home, I found our horses stolen, our flocks driven off, and that two of my father's oldest retainers had been set upon and murdered near Brignogan.
When my father was at home Tournemine trembled in his castle, for my father would have hung Tournemine by his heels from his own battlements. Yet try as I might, I could raise no men against him. Frightened they were, and cautioned, "Wait until your father returns."
When next Tournemine came, my mother and I met him at our gate with four strong men beside us, and two arrows ready. We were too eager for his taste, so he threatened only, demanding tribute and promising to burn our place about our ears.
"Come when you will," my mother spoke proudly. "Soon Kerbouchard will be her to greet you."
His was a taunting laugh. "Think you I have not heard? H was killed fighting Moors off the shores of Cyprus!"
This I repeated to Red Mark in whispers, and told how one day I had returned to find my mother murdered and my home in flames.
Mad with grief, I had sprung from behind a hedge and flung myself at Tournemine; only a quick move had save his life. As it was, my blade laid open his cheek, showering him with blood. Astonished by the suddenness of my attack, his men failed to react, and I escaped, although my freedom proved to be short-lived.
Our galley sailed south, and over the next weeks I saw what Red Mark spoke was truth. These were not seamen. They blundered and wasted the wind. Fearful of losing sight of the shore they endangered themselves needlessly. Avoiding large ships, they preyed upon fishing boats and small villages, even murdering shepherds to steal sheep from the hill pastures.
For days we edged along the coasts of France and then of Spain. A night came when we turned back along the coast of Spain. One of the crew was a renegade, a thief driven from his village, and he offered to guide Walther to it. The galley was short of bread and meat, and the village, sparsely armed. Leaving guards, the crew took their weapons and went ashore.
An hour before dawn they staggered back drunk, dragging behind them a few miserable women and girls, leaving the village to the hold the torch of its burning against the sky.
The crew no sooner staggered aboard than they cast off, fearful of reprisal. The sail was partly filled, and the galley made slight headway upon the dark water, but with the rising sun, an offshore breeze filled the sail. With the wheel lashed the crew lay about in a drunken stupor while we rested on our oars, whispering among ourselves.
They sprawled on the deck like dead men, their bodies moving slightly with the roll of the galley. There was a slight movement as one of the village women worked herself from under a man's heavy arm. She moved with infinite caution, and we, who could see but little of the deck, held our breath in hope for her. We who were in chains watched her who was free, wondering what she would do and hoping she would do something.
Her face was bruised and swollen from blows. She got to her feet, then drew his knife ever so gently from its scabbard, then she knelt beside the man and drew back the sheepskin jacket.
Ah, but this on knew where a man's heart lay! She lifted the knife high, then plunged it down.
His knees jerked , then relaxed slowly. She cast the knife away and went to the rail. She looked once toward the shore, not too distant yet, then dove over.
The offshore breeze strengthened, and the galley moved out upon the sunlit water. I wanted to believe she made it to shore. She was a strong-built wench with courage
The deeper roll of the vessel started a cask moving. It banged against a bulwark, then rolled among us. Eagerly, the slaves bashed in the head of the cask and pass along their cups for the strong red wine.
Ah! There was a draft fit for men! The strong wine ran down my parched gullet, warming the muscles of my throat and setting my heart to pounding. We emptied the cask among us and tossed it over the side.
A few drops of rain fell. One of the crew wiped a hand across his face and sat up. He stared stupidly at the sky, where clouds were now appearing, then a look of alarm flashed across his face and he leaped to his feet so suddenly he almost lost balance and fell. He grasped the bulwark and stared, aghast, at the deep-rolling sea beginning to be flecked with whitecaps.
He shouted, then he ran to Walther and shook him awake. Walther, angry at being suddenly awakened, struck out viciously. Then as the import of the man's words penetrated his awareness, he staggered to his feet. The crew scrambled up, too, staggering and falling and staring wildly at the empty sea.
They were far at sea, a storm was blowing up, and they had no idea in which direction lay the land.
Walther stared at the horizons. The sky was becoming overcast. No sun was visible. Walther came along the runway among the slaves. The galley wallowed in the sea, yet he dared give no order, for the direction chosen might easily take them further to sea. He glanced at Red Mark whom he knew to be a seafaring man, but he big Saxon's face showed him nothing.
At last he turned to me. "Which way did the wind take us?" he asked. "Where lies the land? Tell me . . . quickly !"
The veins in his neck swelled. He gestured to Mesha and the whip. "We'll have it from you or your back in ribbons!" he threatened. "I'll--"
"If that whip touches me, I shall die before I speak one word. Death is better than this." I paused. "But you can make me pilot."
Leaning on my oar, I said, "Why waste me here? Had I been pilot you would have no worries now. I would not have drunk wine. Why waste a Kerbouchard at an oar?"
Angrily, he turned his back and strode away, and when I looked around, Red Mark was grinning. "Now why didn't I think of that? But if you become pilot, will you forget us?"
"I shall forget nothing. I must wait my chance."
The clouds grew darker, and the wind lay strong upon the sea. Waves crested and spat angry spray. The galley rolled heavily and shipped a small sea over the bow. Walther's face had turned green, and the crewmen were shaking in their wet breeches.
Walther walked back to me. "You shall try, and if you fail, you shall be hung head down from the bows until you die."
He turned to Mesha. "Strike the shackles."
When the chains fell from me, I stood and stretched wide my arms. It was good to be free. Then I turned up to the round-faced oaf who had stolen my knife. "Give me the blade!" I said.
He laughed scornfully. "Give you--? By the Gods, I'll--"
I kicked him viciously on the kneecap, and when he howled in anguish and bent to grasp his knee, I doubled my fist and struck down like a hammer on his kidney. He screamed and went to the deck on his knees. Reaching down, I took the knife from his belt.
"You will need a slave to take my place," I said. "There he is!"
Walther stared at me, hatred ugly in his small eyes, I knew then he would never be content until I lay dead at his feet.
"Take us to shore," he said sullenly, and walked from me. However, a few minutes later the moonfaced man was shackled in my place.