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Loxley

One

It was the year of our Lord, eleven hundred and ninety-three, in the month of Ianuarius, and the wind was frigid across the Channel, bringing with it a heavy snow that blanketed Dover and the surrounding countryside in a mass of wet, sticky snow that clung to everything and everyone it touched. The town had all but shutdown, closing in on itself for warmth and survival as the temperatures had plummeted, smelling mostly of woodsmoke and human waste from lack of anyone daring to brave the cold to clean up the shit frozen in the gutters of the streets.

The Maiden's Grace, her tall masts glistening with ice, her sails and decks heavy with snow, slid into a berth bearing a handful of weary travelers home. England.

Nearly fifty had set out from Jerusalem so many month's before; some were Knights, others were Priests or servants, but now only seven were left. Some had died on the Pilgram Trail through Antioch during the retreat as the Saracens who dogged them picked them off one by one like wolves culling the herd, others fell to the desert herself, succumbing to the blistering heat and bone chilling nights meant to break any man no matter his will or stamina, and a few chose to take a different rode home as not all were from England. Some were bound for Rome, some for Saxony, some for Normandy - all called to that place, and to war, by their Kings or their God. Even one pair of Knights were set to make their way home to Castile in far away Spain. But seven, seven rode for England.

No one came to greet them as they offloaded their horses and gear. Not a single person appeared from within their warm homes to offer welcomes or shelter from the storm, and so they made their way silently from the ship to an inn where they could warm themselves and prepare for their journeys home. This would be their last night together, these seven men, as five wore the tabard of the Templars, and as such, they would return to their closed ways and suffer not the other men to ride beside them.

Six drank heavily the ale or wine that was poured for them, devouring it as they did the food placed before them, silently praying that it would help them sleep the night through, staving off the nightmares. Only one asked for water, yet he ate as much as the others, hidden behind his hood pulled low to cover his face. Few words were spoken, as these men no longer needed words, not with each other. Their eyes said all that needed to be said and even though they would part on the morrow, each counted the others as his brothers in arms.

War did that to men.

The morning dawned faintly, the sky overcast with snow heavy clouds and a biting wind blowing from the east. The seven men stood in the barn, their mounts saddled and ready, their armor newly polished with a vigor none had shown in months beyond count. They placed their hands in the center of their circle, one atop the next, eyes darting to meet each in turn, give a grim smile or a nod. Words were spoken in Latin by a Templar, an ancient prayer to shepherd each home, and then they were mounted and moving from the city as their horses tried to pick a safe path through the ice and snow.

No one accosted them as they moved through the gates, their cloaks and hoods pulled round to shelter them from the frigid snow and ice that had begun to fall. If a guard even stood watch, they saw no sign of him. The Templars broke away immediately, moving westerly and setting a brisk, if cautious, pace. They would eventually come to London by their own path, separate and apart from the other two men who did not even look to see them going, they simply turned their horses and followed the road on. Canterbury, then Rochester, then London - that was their route. Beyond that, Bedford, Oakham, Nottingham and then, finally, after nearly four years of war, home.

To Loxley.

 

Two

"Are you gonna get that fire going anytime soon?"

The man who spoke paced back and forth, creating a trench of slush just at the edge of their camp, wringing his hands with each step as if to clean something off them that no one else could see. They'd done their best to clear away the snow beneath the tree they'd chosen for shelter, pushing it beyond the little circle to create a wind break to help against the chill of the night soon to come. The fire was proving more difficult.

"The woods soaked through," said the other. Still, he struck his flint again and again, trying for a decent spark. They needed something dry, a bit of leaves or sticks - anything that would catch. In this damnable weather, though, everything was soaked through.

"Oh, you've got an answer for everything, you do!" said the first man. He grabbed the flint with a snarl and bent down to try his own luck, his face getting more and more red with each strike. Not a single spark caught on the waterlogged scraps of wood they'd gathered.

"Wait, I might have paper in my pack. It's dear enough to come by, but it should burn. Gather a bit more wood - when we get this fire going, we'll try to dry it and then take it with us for tomorrow nights fire."

"Just get it done!" shouted the first man, throwing the flint down and stalking off into the snow. "I don't even know why we stopped here in the first place!" he shouted over his shoulder. The man's temper was getting worse, and it was worrisome. He'd have to do his best to keep him occupied when they came to Canterbury else they'd find themselves in the stocks for God knew what.

Truth told, he had four scrolls in his pack, each one dear enough to him that the last thing he would do was burn them, and yet they had to have the fire this night or not survive it. The temperature was dropping fast and the night would be unbearable. He pulled the scrolls out, looking at each in turn before choosing a scroll from his father, one of the first he'd received from his elder. Slowly, methodically, he began tearing at the edges. His father's elegant, flowing script filled the middle of the scroll, allowing him to remove about a third without sacrificing the actual contents. This third he began to shred, mixing it with what they'd gathered, his mind making a note to dry some moss for tomorrow nights fire as well so he wouldn't have to destroy every letter he'd managed to keep for so long just so they could be warm these last few miles home.

"There's nothing out there!" said the first man as he returned and threw down a handful of scraps. "No wood, no animals to eat - we left one wasteland to come home to another!" He fell more than lowered himself into a seated position while the other worked the flint and was rewarded with the beginnings of a flame, a flame he nurtured, slowly breathing on it, cupping it against the biting wind, caressing it until it grew strong enough to catch bits of the sticks and bramble he slowly fed into its heart. The wet wood began to hiss, pop and smoke as the flames licked up to touch them.

"It's been a hard winter, Will. The people have probably picked the land clean of every rabbit and squirrel they could find for their cookpots. S'why we bought some food in Dover."

"Cheese and salt pork!"

"Better than we've had in a long time," he reminded him with a smile, and got a snort for his efforts. "And we stopped because the horses are tired and sore from the trip across the channel. We can't ride them too hard for a bit or they won't make it very far. We ride for an hour and walk for an hour and we stop early." That got him a grunt which, he decided, was a step above a snort and that made it progress in his mind.

When the fire had grown a bit, he set the kettle on the edge, filling it with snow and setting the lid on. "We'll have a bit of stew, how does that sound?" Another grunt. With a sigh, he waited for the snow to melt.

"Why's it been so hard here? They ain't been fighting a war snugged away in their homes!"

"Where do you think the food we ate came from? Much of it came from right here, Will."

"Sod it. They got it easy."

He checked that the snow had melted, then began adding what ingredients they had; some pork, a few questionable vegetables, a bit of salt and spice, one of their two potatoes - sliced up with a bit of the onion. Not much of that left. Not much of anything left. They'd hoped to resupply a bit in Dover but the cupboards were bare or no one wanted to sell. That meant people were hoarding more and that was never a good thing.

"That bloody thief had more," Will was saying into his thoughts. "He had more than bloody pork and goats cheese - he just didn't wanna sell it!"

"Will! I've had enough. Calm down."

"Or what?" Will spat. The man's temper had pushed his limits. Slowly, ever so slowly, he rose from the kettle, never once taking his eyes off of Will's, those dark brown eyes he'd known most of his life. It wasn't often that he lost his temper, not anymore, but when he did it was best to be behind him, not in front of him and Will knew that better than anyone as he quickly looked down and away. He stared at his friend, at the man who had become his brother, with his ruddy brown hair and thick beard, at the half healed scar running from a midpoint in his forehead towards his ear, passing just a hairsbreadth from his left eye. This man had saved his life, and vice versa, a dozen times or more over the past few years.

"Sorry," Will whispered. "Sorry Rob." That's when he realized that his own hand was on the hilt of his sword. He'd been looking at Will as an enemy, his face a thunderhead ready to explode.

Ashamed, he turned from the camp, saying over his shoulder, "Stew will be ready soon." He didn't like losing his temper, didn't like what it did to him, what it made him do. His father had always said that his temper would cause him trouble and it had on more than one occasion and it had cost him more than he liked to think about. Plus, it irked him when his father was right about something like that.

Keep Will from causing trouble? He'd have enough on his hands keeping his own temper in check. With a deep breath, he returned to the campfire. Will didn't meet his eyes again that night and he didn't press.

It would be a long road to Loxley.

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