Queens Wood: Prologue




In the south of Drythlor on the great isle of Elmond, when Cayden the Second ruled the land, there lived beneath the canopy of Stilwood Forest, near Linsdale Town, a famous outlaw whose name was Cwen Laird. No archer ever lived that could speed a shaft with such skill and cunning as hers, nor were there ever such yeomen as the three dozen knights of the greenwood that roamed with her through the greatwood. Deep in the heart of Stilwood Forest they kept house, suffering neither care nor want, but passing their days with bow and staff in archery matches and bouts of cudgels, living upon the King’s venison, washed down with draughts of ill gotten autumn ales.
Not only Cwen herself but all the band were outlaws and dwelt apart from other folk, yet they were beloved by the country people round about, for no one ever came to the forest queen for help in time of need and went away again with an empty fist.
And now I will tell the tale of how it came about that Cwen Laird became an outlaw.
When Cwen was a lass of eighteen, sleek in her movements and bold in her heart, the Reeve of Linsdale proclaimed an Epsilon tournament to celebrate the successful spring planting. In each of the events; wrestling, archery, stave, and a dozen others, he offered a butt of ale to the winner. “Now,” said Cwen, “that sounds like good sport to me. I will draw a string for the crowd and for a butt of sweet autumn brewing.” So she took her stout hornwood bow and a score of broad arrows, and started off from her home in Fordley Town through Stilwood Forest to the fairgrounds in Linsdale.
Cwen set off at dawn on what promised to be a beautiful late spring day, the leaves of the canopy were as green as they would ever be in this year and flowers filled the meadows and dells. Daisies and primroses grew alongside and amongst the brier hedges along the road. Apple buds were blossoming and the birds and bugs were in full song. And she saw more than a few lads and lasses slip from the path to look upon each other with sweet thoughts in the long grasses. Busy housewives smiled at her as they spread their linen to bleach upon the fresh green grass. The forest was like a faerie wood all in bloom as she walked along its paths, full of bright greens and rustling leaves, the birds sang her a song and the squirrels chattered in the branches around her. Cwen sucked a blade of grass as she strode along, thinking of the Barnstoh’s elder son, Martynn, and his broad shoulders, for at such times a lass full of spring thoughts are likely to turn pleasantly upon the lad that she fancies the most.
As she walked briskly along with a smile on her lips, she came round a bend in the road and suddenly upon some foresters seated beneath a great oak tree. A dozen or more of them, all making themselves merry with feasting and drinking as they sat around a huge meat pie, to which each man helped himself, thrusting his hands into the pie, and washing down that which they ate with great horns of ale which they drew all foaming from a barrel that stood beside them. Each man was clad in the green tabard of the king’s foresters, and a fine show they made, seated upon the grass beneath that fair, spreading tree. Then one of them, with his mouth full, called out to Cwen, “Well, hello there, where are you off to, sweetheart, with your little bow and that quiver of your papa’s shafts?”
Cwen flushed hot in an instant, for no youth likes to be taunted with their lack of years and Cwen was more proud than most.
“Now,” she said, “this hornwood bow and my arrows are as good as shine. And, I’ll have you know, I am on to the Reeve’s tournament at Linsdale, where I will draw string against the best yeomen in the county and leave them all thirsting for my butt of ale.”
Then one of the foresters who held a horn of ale in his hand said, “Ha! Listen to the lass. Why, girl, you’re sure to leave them wanting your butt and those tits as well, but win the prize. I think not, you who are scarcely able to draw one string of a two-stone bow.”
“I’ll bet the best of you twenty marks,” Cwen said, “that I hit the clout at threescore rods, by the good help of The Maiden Fair.”
At this the foresters laughed loudly, and one said, “Well boasted, girl, well boasted. But you know full well that there is no target here to make good your wager.”
And another cried out, “She will be bartering for a head of foam in the bush next, lads.”
At this Cwen grew even angrier. “Look,” she said, “there, at the glade’s end, I see a herd of deer, even more than threescore rods distant. I’ll hold you twenty marks that, by leave of The Maiden of Arbil, I cause the best hart among them to die.
“I’ll take that.” Cried he who had spoken first. “And here are twenty marks. I wager that you cause no beast to die, with or without the aid of The Maiden.”
Then Cwen took her hornwood bow in her hand, and placing the tip at her instep, she strung it deftly. Then she nocked a broad arrow and, raising the bow, drew the grey goose feather to her ear. The next moment the bowstring rang and the arrow sped down the glade as a sparrowhawk skims in a northern wind. The noblest hart of all the herd leapt high, only to fall dead, reddening the ground with his heart’s blood.
“Ha!” cried Cwen, “how do you like that shot, da? I think that wager is mine, and if I’m not mistaken, it was two hundred pounds.”
Then all the foresters were filled with rage, and he who had spoken first and had lost the wager was the angriest of them all.
“No,” cried he, “you get nothing, and get yourself gone, straightaway, or by all the Templars of Brae, I’ll beat your sides until you will never be able to walk again.”
“Do you not realize, girl,” said another, “You have killed one of the King’s deer, and, by the laws of our gracious lord and sovereign King Sharry, your ears should be shaven close to your head?”
“Catch her!” cried a third.
“No,” said a fourth, “let her go, she’s just a whelp of a girl.”
Cwen said nothing, but she glared at them with a grim face and hard eyes. Then turning on her heel, strode away from them down the forest glade. But her heart was bitterly angry, for her blood was hot and youthful and prone to boil.
Now, it would have been best for the forester who had spoken first if he had left Cwen alone. But he was hot with anger, both because the girl had gotten the better of him and because he had drunk deeply, and more than his share, from the barrel of ale. So without any warning he sprang to his feet, and seized his bow and fitted it to a shaft. “Aye,” cried he, “and I’ll hurry you along you little bitch.” And he sent the arrow whistling after Cwen.
It was lucky for Cwen that the forester’s head was spinning with ale, or else she would never have taken another step. As it was, the arrow whistled within three inches of her head. Then she turned around and quickly drew her own bow, and sent an arrow back in return.
“You said I was no archer,” she cried back at them, “what say you now!”
The shaft flew straight and true. The archer fell forward with a cry, and lay on his face upon the ground, his arrows rattling about him from out of his quiver, the gray goose shaft wet with his heart’s blood. Then, before the others could gather their wits about them, Cwen Laird was gone into the depths of the greenwood. Some started after her, but without much heart, for each feared to suffer the death of his fellow. So shortly they all came and lifted the dead man up and bore him away to Linsdale.
Meanwhile, Cwen, ran through the greenwood. Gone was all the joy and brightness from the day, for her heart was sick and her guts twisted within her, and it lay heavy on her soul that she had slain a man.
“Damn you. Damn you,” she cried, “you couldn’t just let me leave without a last test. Your drink and my pride have proven me both an archer and a widow maker. I wish you had never said one word to me, or that I never passed your way, or even that my right forefinger had been stricken before this day so that this had never happened. In haste I have killed, but will have the rest of my life to grieve at my leisure. I have killed a man. A forester of the King.” And then, even in her trouble, she remembered the lessons of her old grandfather and how after each mistake she had made he would say, ‘What is done is done, Cwen; and the egg cracked cannot be cured.’
And so she came to live in the greenwood that would be her home for many years to come. And she knew that never again would she see the happy days and well known lads and lasses of her sweet Fordley Town. Cwen Laird was to be outlawed, not only because she had killed a man, but also because she had poached the King’s deer, and two hundred pounds were set upon her head, as a reward for whoever would bring her to the court of the King.
Now the Reeve of Linsdale swore that he himself would bring this knave Cwen Laird to justice, and for two reasons: first, because he wanted the two hundred pounds, and next, because the forester that Cwen had killed was of kin to him.
But Cwen Laird lay hidden in Stilwood Forest for one year. In that time she gathered around her many others like herself, cast out from other folk for this cause and for that. Some had shot deer in hungry wintertime, when they could get no other food, and had been seen in the act by the foresters, but had escaped, thus saving their ears. Some had been turned out of their inheritance, that their farms might be added to the King’s lands in Stilwood Forest. Some had been despoiled by a great baron, a rich templar, or a powerful merchant—all, for one cause or another, had come to Stilwood to escape punishment and oppression.
So, in all that year, three dozen or more stout yeomen gathered about Cwen Laird, and chose her to be their leader and chief. Then they vowed that even as they themselves had been despoiled they would despoil their oppressors, whether baron, templar, knight, or merchant, and that from each they would take that which had been wrung from the poor by the taxes, or land rents, or in fines. But to the poor folk they would give a helping hand in need and trouble, and would return to them that which had been taken from them. Besides this, they swore never to harm a child nor to wrong a woman, be she maid, wife, or widow. So that, after a while, when the people began to find that no harm was meant to them, but that money or food came in time of want to many a poor family, they came to praise Cwen and her knights of the greenwood, and to tell many tales of her and her doings in what they came to call the Queens Wood, for they felt her to be one of themselves and took pride and pleasure in her adventures.

– — — // — — –

Cwen Laird lifted her head from her mat early one morning when all the birds were singing raucously among the leaves. And as she was up, so too she decided should all her knights be up. And she set upon them all in her way, until each was sitting or standing and rubbing their bleary eyes after a night of rough company and rougher ale. Then she leaped upon her chair and stood upon its arms announcing to all, “For fourteen days we have neither seen nor had any sport, and that is too long, so now I will go abroad to seek fortune and adventure. The lot of you stay behind, my knights, here in the greenwood and await my call. So listen and when you hear my call, three blasts on this bugle horn, you will know I am in need of you. So come quickly in my hour of need.”
And with that, she grabbed up her bow and quiver and strode away, leaving her band to their morning rituals. She walked forest path and game trail until she came to the verge of Stilwood. There she wandered for a long time, through highway and byway, through dell and forest skirts.
As she walked along she met a burly, russet haired lad in a shady lane, and each gave the other an appraising look, polite greeting, and passed their way. She saw a lady upon an ambling nag, to whom she gave a curtsy, and who bowed sedately in return to our young forest queen. She came upon a fat monk wrestling with his pannier-laden ass. She passed by a pair of scarred soldiers armed with spear and shield and laden with chain and plate armor sweating in the sun. She watched as twice she was passed by crimson clad pages racing through the forest with messages for their lords. Tailors, tinkers, farmers, and even a carriage of muirhauts. All these people she saw, but she found not a single adventure all morning. At last she took a road by the forest skirts, a bypath that dipped toward a broad, pebbly stream spanned by a narrow bridge made of a log of wood. As she drew near this bridge she saw a giant, blonde minotaur coming from the other side. Both Cwen and the minotaur quickened their steps, each thinking to cross first, as only one could pass the bridge at a time.
“Hold their big fellow,” said Cwen, “mind your manners and let a young lady cross first.”
“Bah,” said the minotaur, “I will not stray my path for some miss half my size. Stand back and let me pass, girl. I am in a rush.”
“Half your size I may be,” Cwen said, “but you will stop and stand aside for your betters, or else, by the sweating brow of Tempar AElfrida, I will show you the sting of this girl with a grey-goose shaft beween your ribs.””
“Now,” said the minotaur, “I will tan your hide until it’s as colored as a beggar’s cloak, if you dare so much as touch string on that bow in your hand.”
“You chatter like an ass,” said Cwen, “I could send this shaft clean through your proud heart faster than a court templar could bless a roast goose at Godsdae.”
“I chatter like an ass, proclaims the coward,” said the minotaur, “as she stands there with a good hornwood bow to shoot at my heart, while I have nothing in my hand but a plain blackthorn staff with which to meet your challenge.”
“Now, by the Maiden of Arbil, no man has ever given to call me by a coward’s name in all my life,” Cwen said. “I will lay down both bow and arrows, and if you dare wait on my coming, I will go and cut a cudgel to test your metal and teach you your manners.”
“Aye, for that, I will wait. It has long been a dream of mine to learn how badly I could beat a braggart and I could do with a bit of sport before lunch,” said the giant minotaur, planting his staff in the ground and leaning sturdily upon it to await Cwen.
Then Cwen Laird stepped quickly to the woods and cut a good staff of high-ground willow oak, straight and six feet in length, and came back trimming away the tender stems from it, while the minotaur waited for her, leaning upon his staff, and whistling as he gazed round about. Cwen observed him furtively as she trimmed her staff, measuring him from top to toe from out the corner of her eye, and thought that she had never seen a lustier or a stouter man. Taller than most women, was Cwen, but taller was the minotaur by a head and a neck and shoulders and then some, for he was eight feet in height. Broad was Cwen across the shoulders, but broader was the minotaur by twice her breadth, while he measured at least a yard around the waist.
“Nevertheless,” said Cwen to herself, “I will baste your hide right merrily, my good fellow.” Then, aloud, she said, “Ha, here I have a good staff with which to meet you. Step to the bridge, if you have not lost your nerve. We shall fight until one or the other of us is tumbled into the stream. Agreed?”
“Agreed. It will do my heart good to wash that swagger off your skin,” said the minotaur, twirling his staff above his head, betwixt his fingers and thumb, until it whistled again.
Never has the greenwood seen a stranger match up than between these two, a bold and nimble girl standing toe to toe with a powerful giant of a minotaur. Never did the Heralds of old meet in a stouter fight than these two. In a moment Cwen stepped quickly upon the bridge where the minotaur stood. First she made a feint, and then delivered a blow at the minotaur’s head that, had it met its mark would have tumbled him speedily into the water. But the minotaur blocked the blow easily and in return gave one as stout, which Cwen turned aside deftly, her quickness a match for his strength. So they stood, each in their place, neither moving a finger’s-breadth back, for an hour, many blows were given and received by each in that time, until here and there were sore bones and bumps, yet neither thought of crying “Enough,” nor seemed likely to fall from the bridge. Now and then they stopped to rest, and each thought that they never had seen in all their life before such a hand at quarterstaff. At last Cwen gave the minotaur a blow upon the thigh that made his kilt smoke like a damp straw thatch in the sun. So shrewd was the stroke that the minotaur came within a hair’s-breadth of falling off the bridge, but he regained himself quickly and, by a dexterous blow, gave Cwen a crack on the crown that caused the blood to flow. Then Cwen grew mad with anger and smote with all her might at the other. But the minotaur warded the blow and once again thwacked Cwen, and this time so fairly that she fell heels over head into the water, as the queen pin falls in a game of bowls.
“And where are you now, my good lass?” shouted the minotaur, roaring with laughter.
“Oh, in the flood and floating down stream with the tide,” cried Cwen, nor could she forbear laughing herself at her sorry plight. Then, gaining her feet, she waded to the bank, the little fish speeding hither and thither, all frightened at his splashing.
“Give me a hand,” Cwen said, when she had reached the bank. “I must admit you are a brave and a sturdy soul and, I must say, a good stout stroke with the cudgels. By this and by that, my head buzzes like to a hive of bees on a hot summer day.”
Then she clapped her horn to her lips and winded a blast that went echoing down the forest paths. “Ay, damn,” Cwen said, looking up at the minotaur, “you are a tall one, and a brawny one, for never, I swear, is there a man between here and Centerbury that could give me a beating like you have done.”
“And you,” said the minotaur, laughing, “take your cudgeling like a brave heart and a stout yeoman lass.”
But they both heard the sounds of a large group closing on them with the rustle and snap of twigs and branches. From the greenwood suddenly burst a score or two of Cwen’s band, all clad in forest greens and mottled browns, with Will Stutely at their head.
“Oh my,” said Will with a grin, “how is this? You look like a damned drown rat, Cwen.”
“Right,” Cwen said, “this big brute of a fellow has tossed me neck deep into the water and given me a drubbing beside.”
“Then we shall have to give him the same. No matter his size,” said Will Stutely, looking up and up at the giant minotaur. “C’mon now, let’s have at him.”
And with that, Will and a score of the band leaped upon the minotaur. Though they sprang quickly they found him ready and felt him strike right and left with his stout staff, so that, though he went down with the press of numbers, half of them rubbed cracked crowns before he was overcome.
“No. Stop.” Cried Cwen, laughing until her sore sides ached again. “He is a good fellow and beat me fairly and in good sport. Leave him be, he is wet and that is more than he deserves. Besides, I fear he will cripple you all with that damn staff of his.”
Those who had not joined the fray laughed with Cwen and at their bruised friends and the great shaggy minotaur standing to his belly in the muddy stream.
“Now listen, you have beaten half my band my band black and blue, let me make you this offer,” Cwen said, while grabbing Will Stutely’s hand and pulling him up onto the river bank. “Will you stay with me and be one of my knights? Three suits of the King’s best buckskin I guarantee you each year, beside forty marks in fee, and a full share of whatever else befalls us in this outlaws life. You shall eat sweet venison and drink the stoutest ale, and I will make you my right-hand man, for I have never seen such a cudgel player in all my life. Will you join me and be one with the knights of the greenwood?”
“I am of a mind to tell you, no, girl, and to beat the rest of you unconscious as well,” said the minotaur, splashing toward Cwen and the river bank. “If you handle that hornwood bow and apple shaft no better than you do an oaken cudgel, then you are not fit to be called a yeomen in my country. But, if there be any one here that can shoot a better shaft than I, then I will think possibly of joining your rag-tag band of outlaws.”
“Now by my mark,” said Cwen, “you are a right mouthy one, standing half in the river and surrounded by the best archers in the dale. Yet, I will caress your bruised temper as I would never to another fellow who had not shown me such fun.”
Cwen looked about her for a good challenge and having found one said, “If your legs are back under you, Will, would you be so kind as to cut us a fair white piece of bark four fingers width, and set it, oh, fourscore yards distant on that there oak.”
When Will Stutely had gone and placed the marker, Cwen said, “Now, stranger, hit that fairly with a gray goose shaft and you and I will both call you an archer.”
“Ay, that will I,” he said. “Give me a good stout bow and a proper arrow, and if I miss such a mark, you may, strip me and beat me blue with bowstrings.”
Then he chose the stoutest bow among them all and a straight gray goose shaft, well-feathered and smooth, and stepping to the mark—while all the band, sitting or lying upon the hillside, watched to see him shoot—he drew the arrow as near his cheek as his size would allow and loosed the shaft right deftly, sending it so straight down the path that it clove the mark in the very center. “Aha.” he cried, “and that with a bow two sizes to small. Beat that shot if you can.”
The gathered band shouted and clapped their hands in appreciation of such a fine shot, and one made with an unknown bow, none the less. Not a one of them was unimpressed and all turned to look at Cwen in anticipation.
“That is a keen shot indeed,” Cwen said. “That is a shot that I cannot match, it is at the very center of our mark, but let me see what I can do. Perhaps the winds will be with me.”
Then taking up her own stout hornwood bow and nocking an arrow with care, she shot with her very greatest skill. Straight flew the arrow, and so true that it lit fairly upon the stranger’s shaft and split it into splinters. Then all the band leaped to their feet and shouted their amazement, for none had ever seen such a display of skill and because their queen had won the match.
“Aelder blood and faeries touch,” cried the minotaur, “that is a damn fine shot, I have never seen the like in all my life. Now I can’t say if that was skill or luck, but whatever the case, girl, you are someone I think I needs keep close. I will join your band and be your man for as long as you’ll have me. The elves themselves are fair shot, but not even one of them could have made that shot.”
“Then I have gained a right good man this day,” Cwen said, extending her hand to the giant. “What’s your name, friend?”
“Folk call me Jachelous Leianira of Tinus and that’s what I answer too,” said the minotaur.
But Will Stutely, who loved a good jest, spoke up. “Nay, fair tiny stranger, that is a mouthful and none of us can spare a sprained tongue or grow old in calling to you. I do not like your name and I would beg that it be otherwise. Tiny you are indeed, a runt of a child and small of bone and sinew, henceforth you shall be called Tiny Jach, and I will take you beneath my wing and be your woodland father.”
Cwen and all the band laughed long and loud at Will’s joke, but the minotaur began to grow angry. For even among his own people, his size gave pause to those who would make him the butt of their fun.
“You risk much making fun of me, little man,” he said, looking down at Will Stutely, “you will have sore bones and little pay, and that in short time.”
“Hold friend, we are brothers and sisters beneath this canopy,” Cwen said, “bottle your anger, for the name fits you well and is not given you with any malice, but with irony. You are a giant among us and Tiny Jach is what we will call you from now on, and Tiny Jach is who you will be. So come, my knights of the greenwood, we will prepare a naming feast for this fair infant.”
So turning their backs upon the stream, they plunged into the forest once more, through which they traced their steps till they reached the spot where they dwelt in the depths of the woodland. There had they built huts of bark and branches of trees, and made couches of sweet rushes spread over with skins of fallow deer. Here stood a great oak tree with branches spreading broadly around, beneath which was a seat of green moss where Cwen Laird was wont to sit at feast and at merrymaking with her stout band about her. Here they found the rest of the band, some of whom had come in with a brace of fat does. Then they all built great fires and after a time roasted the does and broached a barrel of humming ale. Then when the feast was ready they all sat down, but Cwen placed Tiny Jach at her right hand, for he was henceforth to be the second in the band.
Then when the feast was done Will Stutely spoke up. “It is now time, I say, to name our foundling babe, is it not so, knights one and all?”
“Aye! Aye!” cried all, laughing till the woods echoed with their mirth.
“We will need sponsors for this newly weaned infant, seven of you should do.” Will said, as he hunted amongst all the band, choosing seven of the stoutest men of them all.
“Now by Saint Dunstan,” cried Tiny Jach, struggling to his feet after more than a share of ale, “more than one of you shall rue it if you lay so much as a finger on me.”
With wide grins but without a word they all ran upon him at once, seizing him by his legs and arms and holding him tightly in spite of his struggles. They carried him to the great oak while all stood around to see the sport. Then one came forward who had been chosen to play the templar because he had a bald crown, and in his hand he carried a brimming pot of ale.
“Now, who brings this babe into the greenwood?” he asked soberly.
“That would be me. I bring him.” Will Stutely said.
“And what name do you call him?”
“I call him Tiny Jach.”
“Now Tiny Jach,” said the mock templar, “you have not lived heretofore, but only got yourself along through the world, but henceforth you will live indeed. Before you lived you were called… well, you were called by a name none of us can abide, but now that you do live, Tiny Jach shall you be called, so I name you.” And at these last words he emptied the pot of ale upon Tiny Jach’s head.
Then all shouted with laughter as they saw the good brown ale stream over Tiny Jach’s long golden fur and trickle from his nose and chin, while his eyes blinked with the sting of it. He roared in anger, but quickly saw the ceremony for what it was and heard all about him the laughter of the band and knew he was one of them, and he laughed with them. Then Cwen took this sweet, pretty babe, clothed him all anew in forest garb, and gave him a great stout bow, and so made him a member of the outlaw band.
And so it was that Cwen Laird became outlawed. To herself she gathered band of likeminded companions, and too she gained her right-hand man, Tiny Jach. That is the end of our prologue. And now I will regale you with how the Reeve of Linsdale tried three times to catch Cwen Laird, and how he failed each time.