The next morning Rolf found a squirrel snagged in one if his snares. He hadn’t planned on rebuilding his fire but wasn’t in a hurry to leave familiar territory. He skinned and cleaned the squirrel, then scraped the hide and stretched it over a boulder while the meager meat roasted. Blackie ate his share raw and begged scraps as Rolf sucked the roasted meat off the tiny bones.
Blackie led him out of family-owned land that morning, but only the Willards had used the slopes before him for as long as anyone knew. Now his adventure truly began. Rolf drew a breath and felt better about completing his quest. He didn’t know how, but he’d succeed.
A breeze straight from the North Sea pushed leaden clouds against the hills fronting the Elbe Sandstone Mountains. The wind brought moisture as well as a chill. It would rain or snow soon. The wind pushing him eastward cut right through his wool cloak. His raised his hood. The threat of snow convinced him to hurry east toward the lambing pens half-hidden amid the natural sandstone pillars. The pens were dry rock enclosures where ewes having trouble lambing could be isolated, watched and if necessary, helped. It also gave the weaker lambs shelter for the first hours of their lives. He would be happy for shelter and seasoned firewood one more night.
The clouds were darkening as he approached the pens. He quickened his pace. At least with the wind behind him, Rolf did not smell the stink of centuries.
Blackie froze. He dropped his head and a growl rumbled from his chest.
Rolf stopped and looked from side to side. He heard, or thought he heard, a voice cry for help. Trouble. Trouble at his lambing pens. Signaling Blackie to circle to the right, Rolf took a two-handed grip on his staff and stepped forward. He sped across the dry grass as quickly as he could while not revealing himself.
“Help!” A feeble voice echoed among the pillars.
The cry came from near the pens. Rolf broke into a run. Before he reached the shepherd’s shelter, he spotted shadowy figures standing over another form whom they belabored with cudgels. Rolf knew of only one way to deal with wolves, whether they walked on four legs or two. You don’t challenge wolves; you attack. Rolf didn’t have time to get out his sling. He jerked his hand up, signaling Blackie to bark. The three rogues all looked toward the dog, away from Rolf’s attack.
He didn’t want to kill anyone, but he was outnumbered. He remembered his father’s instructions and attacked the largest ruffian first. Rolf hit the man’s shoulder with a two-handed strike. The man howled and fell. The others rounded on Rolf, but he had already spun his staff to strike the side of one man’s head with the staff tip. He likewise tumbled, grasping his ear. Rolf now faced the last man who raised a short wooden club.
Rolf spread his hands along the staff and crouched in a defensive stance. Blackie growled on the far side of the pens, giving the man another threat to defend against. The tough’s lips were pressed into a thin line. He made no move to attack.
Stepping forward, Rolf jabbed the staff tip at the rogue’s face. The man stumbled back fast enough to avoid contact but bumped against his groaning companion.
“Be gone,” Rolf ordered, painfully aware that he lacked the deep, commanding voice of his father or brother. Only then did he consider his audacity in attacking three grown, perhaps armed men. He should have run. No, he couldn’t leave their victim. Rolf had succeeded only because he attacked them as he had that old bear last spring. And wolves many times.
The sole brute standing upright was larger than Rolf but seemed shocked over the sudden reversal of his fortunes. He looked at Rolf, his groaning comrades, the dog and the silent man huddled at his feet. He hefted his cudgel as if to fight but froze as Rolf slid his hands to the attacking position. Blackie bared his teeth.
“I said, leave. Take your friends with you.” Rolf shifted his weight forward.
The largest man, still on the ground, tried to straighten his elbow and gasped. “You broke my arm.”
“I doubt it, but I will … or your head, if you don’t go away and stay away.”
The standing bandit hesitated, then lowered his weapon and offered a hand to his friend. Rolf stood back while they sorted themselves out. He couldn’t catch all they muttered to each other, but it suggested that neither Rolf nor their victim were worth their trouble. Two were definitely in pain as they stumbled away to the south. Rolf considered ordering them to go a different direction but thought it better not to alert them of his intended direction.
“We know who you be,” the largest thief said. “We’ll get you for this.”
“If you know I’m a Willard, then you should have known not to prey on men or animals on this ground. If we catch you on our land again, you’ll face the baron.”
“That old drunkard don’t scare us. And you used-to-was knights don’t fret us neither.” The men looked at each other, smiled and straightened.
Rolf knew how to handle beasts like this. Aiming the base of his staff for a flat rock, Rolf slammed it down and shouted, “Be gone!”
The three men froze. Again they checked each other and Rolf, but the confidence had left them. “You don’t scare us, pup,” the largest said. But all three shuffled away with no further threats.
“That was neatly done.” The old man whom the three had been beating rolled over and tried to sit up. Rolf’s first impulse was to kneel next to the man and help him, but the sound of the departing thugs warned him to stay alert. Once he felt safe, Rolf commanded Blackie to keep watch. He leaned his staff against a tree and pulled out his flask. He offered it to the man who leaned against a tree holding his head with his hands.
The old man moaned as he touched his head. He wore a home-spun tunic reminiscent of a monastic’s habit, but his head wasn’t shaved. Long, white hair ringed his pale forehead. His brows were drawn over pale eyes. With one hand he tried to balance, with the other he probed a knot forming above his left temple. “That was particularly unpleasant. Thank you.”
“Here.” Rolf held the flask closer. “It’s water, I think.”
“Don’t know what’s in your own flask, boy?” He squinted up at Rolf with his right eye.
“No, I—my mother prepared it for me.”
“Then it will be water.” The man chuckled as he leaned back against the tree like an old, fat bear. His smile looked more like a grimace, not that Rolf blamed him. The man pulled the cork and sniffed. “Ah, just a bit of strength. Your mother must think very highly of you, even though you’re not her eldest.”
Rolf stopped searching his pouch for the jars. “How do you know that?”
“The oldest son of a local family prominent enough to strike fear into common thieves would not be tending sheep.”
“I’m not. Not tending sheep, but then I’m not the oldest son either.”
“But you are beloved of your mother. A Jacob and Esau situation, perhaps?”
“Are you a holy brother?”
“Something like that.” The man’s smile looked more genuine. “You may call me Columba, and who might you be?”
“I am Rolf, son of Willard. We live down the Bache valley.” Rolf pointed downhill. “How did you come to be called ‘dove’? Was that name given you by your order?”
The old man tilted his head to one side. “In a manner of speaking. And why are you this far from home on this winter’s day? Regardless, you are not the one I seek. Though you are about an adventure of your own if I interpret your heavy bag and cloak correctly. Is it possible that among your mother’s treasures, she sent an ointment to daub on my bruises? Camphor would be especially nice.”
“I don’t know what camphor is, but one of these may help.” Rolf dug deep into his pouch and lifted out three clay pots, each sealed with a waxed stopper. He handed Columba all three, clustered in one hand. As the old man examined them, Rolf wondered who this man was and, now that he was safe, how to get rid of him.
“Mint. That’ll do, if there’s no camphor. You’re not knowing what camphor is suggests that you won’t have any. It has a distinctive odor. Available, but perhaps not so abundant here. And, ah, what’s this? A tincture.” He shifted, wrinkled his nose, and shook a few drops of yellow liquid from the opening on his fingertip. He rubbed his finger and thumb together. “Oil, no doubt, but I wonder what it’s infused with.” He rubbed his fingers again and sniffed. “Rosemary, I think. You have a most thoughtful mother. What did she tell you it was for?”
“That’s the one for bruises. The mint is for the stomach.”
He recapped the pot, which Rolf would now recognize by the red stain around the stopper. “And third, you have—”
“Don’t move,” ordered a hoarse voice behind Rolf.
Only then did Rolf notice that Blackie had alerted to whomever had approached behind him. Rolf did move, of course. He turned to see who had issued that command and found himself staring down the shiny blade of a well-used sword.
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