Robert distinctly remembered the moment he first met Lord William Gray. Lenny had just finished shoving the man into the mud and then stomped away, ordering Robert to lift him back out. William had fallen in face first, and with his hands bound behind his back he started to kick wildly for fear of drowning in the filth. Robert gripped him around the shoulders, pulled him up to a kneeling position, then helped support him as he rose to a stand.
After spitting enough mud to the side that he could speak again William gurgled out a “Thank you, sir.”
“You ought not talk back to the guards like that,” Robert gruffly reprimanded as he brushed the mud from William’s eyes and nose. He gave a glance to the guards in question, but for the time being the three of them were huddled around a map a few dozen feet distant. No doubt they were trying to determine which district of Cotswolds their party was lost in now.
“Thank you, again,” William repeated as at last his face was clear enough that he could open his eyes. He was tall, with golden locks that fell to his shoulders. He held himself in an upright and dignified manner, one that did not fit with his dirty station. “It was a matter of principle, you see. They don’t have the right to speak to me that way.”
“You’re a slave,” Robert shrugged. “You don’t have any rights.”
“Well, in the first case, even a slave has the common rights of all men, and in the second case, I’m not properly a slave either, you see I am–“
“Lord William Gray, I know. I heard. You were being quite emphatic on that point when they brought you in.”
“Hm,” William pursed his lips. “And what about your name, sir?”
“Please don’t call me ‘sir’ anymore, I don’t want them thinking I need a shove in the mud as well. I’m simply Robert.”
“And what is your surname?”
“I’m simply Robert.”
“Well, Robert, I am indebted to you. I won’t forget this, and I will repay.”
“I’m sure you will,” Robert said dryly. Then stepped back as the guards came back from their huddle. They were called Lenny, Harry, and Bartholomew, and each of them bore the scowling mark of men that maintain a constant hatred. This hatred was as necessary to sustaining them in their work as food and drink, for without it they would never be able to keep their consciences at bay.
“Now you listen,” Lenny spat as he grabbed William by the shoulder and cut the rope off of his wrists with a rusted knife. “I’ll have no more of your backtalk. You’re in a rough bind, I know, but I’ve bought you fair and square.” He pulled William’s hands round to the front where he tied them again, and then fastened the cord to a long rope. This rope ran the full length of thirteen slaves and held them in their line. “You see that I spare you the irons, at least until night? I make things as nice for you as I reasonably can. So don’t give me your guff. Save it for the master I sell you to!” He gave the knot he was tying one more tug, then turned and mounted his nearby horse, the one to whom the line of slaves was secured.
Robert was fastened to the rope directly behind William, and could see from the way his shoulders were rolling back that he was inhaling deeply, no doubt preparing to call a reply to Lenny.
“Don’t say it!” Robert hissed and William froze. “You’re part of the line now, and that means all the rest of us are liable to pay for whatever trouble you stir. I hate Lenny, but what he says is true. If you must fight back, wait until you’re sold off on your own and none of us will be harmed for it.”
William was still for a moment, clearly giving Robert’s words sincere consideration. “I understand,” he finally replied, keeping his voice low so they would not be overheard. “I do not intend to subject myself to these injustices, but you’re right that I have to consider all of you. You’re my brethren now, and I mustn’t do anything until I’ve convinced each of you to fight alongside me.”
Robert was spared coming up with a response to this strange declaration as Lenny urged the horse into a trot and the whole line of sorry souls lurched forward in their march. They moved at a pace somewhere between a walk and a jog, passing over one rolling hill after another. As far as the eye could see in each direction was nothing but long, green grass with the occasional sprinkling of bare, gray rocks to break up the pattern. Above them the sky was overcast by a multitude of thin, wispy clouds, diffusing the sunlight into a universal ambience. It might have been an lovely scene, were it being viewed by less dismal souls.
When Robert had first joined Lenny’s party there had only been three others, wretches whose masters had sold them off to cover debts, just as Robert’s had done. But then they had taken a winding course through the hill-lands, and their numbers had increased one-by-one until they now marched thirteen long. They were destined for the auction houses in one of the main cities, where Lenny, Harry, and Bartholomew would sell them at a decent profit.
Until this William fellow, all the slaves in their party had come in quietly. Years of servitude had long conditioned them to the rough manner in which they were treated, and the prospect of leaving one master for another was a familiar passage. But William was different. From the first moment Lenny brought him he had shown the signs of an unbroken spirit. He had proudly explained that he was in actuality a royal lord, waylaid on the road by a band of highwaymen, mistaken by them for a well-groomed servant, and then sold into slavery at their hand.
Everyone in the party, slave and slaver alike, dismissed his story out of hand. The general consensus was that the poor man was insane, and likely it was for this condition that his prior master had chosen to sell him away. Where many of their band considered this a great source of fun and teased William for his sincerity of delusion, Robert could only shake his head in pity. He knew there must come a time where this dreamer would be forced back to his cruel realities, and Robert could not wish that crushing on anyone.
If Robert was honest with himself, though, it was not pity alone that he felt for the man. He could not help having a wonder and a fascination for him, too. At the close of each day, as they sat around their evening fire, one of their crew would invariably ask William for stories of his home and prior life. At first they had done this to mock him, but he spoke with such a fervor and richness of detail that it was impossible to not be captivated by the visions he spun. Night-by-night, the slaves’ faces became less cynical and mean, changed into something softer and longing. For a blissful hour they would forget their pitiful lives and saw the world of William as if in a trance.
Through William’s words they seemed to feel the summer wind blowing, fluttering out the red and yellow banner of his ancestors above their heads. They saw its emblem: a lion holding a long flower in its mouth. They lowered their eyes from its billowing form and found themselves on the parapet of a strong and imposing fortress. With William they passed the attendants and soldiers on either side, who all bowed or saluted in turn. They followed him up the spiral staircase to the lord’s chambers at the peak of the tallest tower. They heard the din of workers below and the singing of the birds above. They smelled the perfumes and the salts from the bath, the starch and the dye from the laundry. They saw the wardrobe filled with rich and colorful garments, the complex design stitched into the thick rugs upon the floor. They felt the soft warmth of the feather pillows, the cold hardness of fine steel in his suit of armor.
Only one of the slaves remained immune to William’s magic. Jules had enjoyed listening to the stories at first, but after a time said it made him frustrated to hear dreams that could never be real. Fantasy made his reality unbearable, and so he would always excuse himself from the rest of the party when the tales began and brood elsewhere on his own.
It wasn’t as though William only offered intangibles to his fellow slaves, though. He was just as gracious with his daily meal portions as he was with his words. He explained that the other slaves had not been properly nourished through life as he had, and so they needed the food more. Each time he would look them firmly in the eye and assure them that they would make it out alright. No one doubted that he truly believed it, and that he truly intended to share his better life with them all. Perhaps they were still not ready to believe William’s tales, but they did come to believe in him.
Though the three slave-traders heard bits and pieces of William’s lordly stories, they didn’t harass him any further than to occasionally make fun of his madness. William had kept his word and refrained from giving them any more trouble. That proud defiance never dimmed in his eye, but he held his tongue at their jeering. In fact he seemed to be saddened that they chose to be his enemies rather than his friends.
William’s intended rebellion never came to fruition either. Although William had gained the slaves’ appreciation, he was not any closer to winning their fighting spirit. A failing he admitted to Robert one night after all the others had fallen asleep. At night the line lay on the bare ground in their marching order, still tethered to the line, though now with iron fetters. As William and Robert were neighbors in the line they would often hold whispered conversations as the others drifted out of consciousness.
“I know I have to take this next step alone,” William was saying. “For a while there I had an ambition of us all raising up together and overpowering our captors. We outnumber them by ten, after all, but I have come to see that this isn’t in your nature to do.”
“Well of course not!” Robert shook his head. “We may outnumber them, but they’re still armed and we are not. Even if we were to overpower them, some of us would die in the effort.”
“Yes,” William nodded solemnly, “and I would be the first. But I would do it.”
Robert scoffed. “Then your escape attempt wouldn’t do you any good, would it?”
“Would I not be free then?” William smiled. “And my people would be free, too.”
“Who?… Oh, you mean us?”
“Of course. As I said before, you are my brethren. You are all of you of the House of Gray now.”
Robert just smiled and shook his head. “I must admit that being of the House of Gray still feels pretty drab right now.”
“You joke tonight, but soon you will see. The time of our liberation is soon upon us.”
“Oh?” Robert asked in amusement. “How so?”
William grinned, raised his iron shackles up to where Robert could see them, gave a tug and the lock sprang open! Robert started, and snapped his gaze over to the fire around which the slave traders spent their nights. All three were still asleep. “What are you doing?” he hissed.
“I had a moment alone with the fetters the other day and stuffed mine full of grass. The lock can’t catch properly.”
Robert stared at this revelation. “But what are you doing?”
“As fortune would have it, I know these lands. These brutes have been leading us straight towards my very home, the one I’ve told you all about. It isn’t even a full day’s journey ahead. If our overlords see it as I have described, and realize that I have been telling the truth, I’m sure they will feel very moved, though probably not towards doing me any kindness! My only chance is to get away tonight.”
Robert grimaced. “William, please don’t do this. You’re just going to die out there on your own.”
“I know you don’t believe me, Robert. I forgive you for that. But I’ll be restored to power within twenty-four hours and come back for you all! I’ve been gone long enough that the servants have likely abandoned the homestead, but there are enough hidden treasures in the place that I can immediately hire mercenaries and free you. Then all of us will live in my halls and we’ll build the House of Gray anew!” There was a joyful fire in William’s eyes, an excitement to at last be at his moment of action.
But Robert could not match his enthusiasm. “William, in spite of my better senses I really do like you. And honestly I do want to believe in your tales…. But dreams only have a place in us when we don’t get lost in them.”
William smiled in pity. “So you assume I am mad and off to my doom. What of it? Let me go, then. It is my choice.”
Robert nodded. “I suppose you have that right.”
William grinned broadly. “A slave has ‘rights’ do you say? Perhaps I’ve made a change in you yet! And that’s why I trust you with what I must ask next Robert. Listen to me close. I make a new man of you, I have that right as well. No longer are you to be ‘simply Robert,’ I pronounce you Robert Gray.” William lightly touched each of Robert’s shoulders. It would have been comical were his face not so sincere. “And I am entrusting you with these people until I return. Take care of them and follow the example I’ve set for you. You are my steward until I come back.”
In spite of his doubts, Robert’s eyes grew tearful. Whether it was madness or not, something stirred in his heart at the calling, something that had been still for too long.
“Now see to this, I have born your shackles and I have broken them,” William proceeded. He reached down and pulled Robert’s wrists up to eye level. “By which I mean: I stuffed grass into your fetters as well.”
“Just in case. Don’t worry, they won’t notice, you can’t even tell there’s anything different until you give them a sharp tug.”
Robert turned the lock towards him and saw a few telling blades of dead grass poking out from the metal.
“But listen,” William continued. “I must leave now. Will you take this charge to care for the others?”
“Alright, William, that much I can manage.” He nodded. “And who knows? You’re a crazy fool, perhaps, but you also also seem to have luck on your side. You may survive yet!”
“I intend to.” With that William gave him a wink, then began crawling away from the line. He moved as stealthily as he could muster, making for the declining slope at the edge of the plateau where the party slept. Robert watched the retreating form, and for a brief moment a part of him entertained the idea that maybe the man really was a lord. Whether crazy or honest, one thing was certain. William simply didn’t belong with a crew as wretched as the rest of them.
“MAN ESCAPING!” A shrill voice split the silent dark. Down at the end of the line Jules had risen to his feet and pointed accusingly at William’s retreating shadow.
“No!” Robert roared, but the damage was already done.
Lenny, Harry, and Bartholomew were on their feet in one moment, and had fully apprised the situation after a second. Lenny barked at the other two to remain with the line as he sprinted towards the nearest of their horses.
William didn’t even glance backwards, but upon hearing the cry he rose to his feet and sprinted full speed, now disappearing down the edge of the plateau.
Lenny threw his leg over the horse, and reached down to its side, pulling out a sword that flashed in the moonlight. He dug his heels deep into the horse’s sides, eliciting a whinny of protest, but then the beast obediently charged forward.
By now all of the slaves were on their feet, motionless as they watched horse and rider drive past them and down the same slope William had gone over. After a moment William returned to their view, a dark form streaking across the large valley that extended ahead. It was a field, open and bare, with nowhere to hide. Though his situation was hopeless, William continued to run, leading further and further away from the camp as now the horse came back into view and quickly closed the distance.
As Lenny charged past the fugitive his arm could be made out swinging, catching the form of William with the shining sword and felling him to the ground. William’s body lay still on the ground for a moment as Lenny hauled back on the reins, drawing the horse to a stop. As Lenny dismounted, the prone figure began to lift and fall, haltingly trying and failing to push itself back upright. Lenny advanced purposefully, raised the sword, plunged it down, and stilled the body forever. There was no cry, no flash of lightning to herald the moment, yet all the slaves felt a tremor within and bowed their heads mournfully. All but the traitor at their end.
It was certainly not my intention to publish half of a short story this week, after all on Monday I already examined the series as a whole and meant for today to wrap it all up with a nice bow. The more I tried to cram the full tale of The Noble into a single post, though, the more it became apparent that it needed more space to breathe.
However I see in this an opportunity. I think this idea of feeling out the needs of a story, whether it needs to move along at a snappy pace or whether it needs to simmer, is something we ought to look at in greater detail. As such, I will examine this idea in greater detail on Monday, and then a week from now provide the second half of The Noble and really conclude this series.