Mael was looking down the valley at the fields and the cattle in the drainage by the stream. He knew that they could cut three or four of the calves out of the herd as well as a cow or two without anyone noticing anything for a few days. Finn and Artur had scouted this farm earlier in the week. They’d wait till dark.
Artur came up beside Mael. “What are we going to do?”
“What do you mean? We’re here to steal those fine cattle. Did you forget?” Mael replied in a rather sarcastic tone.
“Not the cattle, the girl!” Artur said exasperated.
“Well, you weren’t very clear, so how was I suppose to know? As for Sian, she can stay or go as she pleases. I thought that I had made that clear to you.”
“But, she doesn’t belong with us. She’ll get us in trouble. She’ll…”
Artur didn’t finish as Mael’s hand clutched his throat. “I told you that she could do what she wants. She is just as much an outcast as any of us. And, if I have to say this again, it will be with my fists,” Mael growled. He turned to the rest of the men. “Any of you have anything to say?”
The men mumbled. “Nah”
“No Mael. Just seems a bit strange, what with a woman around,” said one.
“Ah, and Megan isn’t a woman?” Mael asked.
“Not like that girl Mael. No.”
“Well, you’d better start thinking of her just like one of us. She may not steal cattle or rob purses, but she will pitch in and already has. Like I told Artur here yesterday, she gave me her money to put towards her share. So, just forget her going off unless it is her choice. If I hear she leaves and it wasn’t her choice, the man who put her up to it will get the lash from me!” Mael was aggravated.
The men just nodded that they understood and shut up. They knew it was Artur stirring up trouble he didn’t need to borrow. Some of them even looked forward to seeing if she could cook. Anything would be better than Lew’s burnt bits.
Mael turned back to looking at the cattle. They weren’t the best, but this time of year, what with harvest season coming up, anything would do. People didn’t keep beasts they couldn’t feed. It was one of the reasons Mael didn’t feel too bad about taking cattle from the bigger herds. They’d end up in someone’s stew and it might as well benefit him. The sun was finally down and the valley began to darken. Mael motioned for Finn and Sam to go cut the cattle out of the herd.
“Go on! Get the calf for that one too” He motioned to a cow looking anxious about her calf.
Fin and Sam moved swiftly, and soon had the five animals moving back towards the ditch and out to the road. Switch in hand, they looked just like any other farmer’s lads moving the family cows. The other men joined them at the point where the drainage met the road.
“We need to get moving. These cows need to be to market up valley by morning,” Mael explained. They picked up the pace and while those on horseback rode ahead, the rest kept an eye out for farmers or other field hands. It wouldn’t do for them to have the cows recognized too close to home.
As was their usual practice,they moved from village to village selling whatever animals they’d stolen three or four villages away from where they’d taken them. They tried to do it within a day or so of taking them. It wouldn’t do to have to keep cattle too long. Too much of a risk. Chickens were different. You could keep them for months and sell them only when you were desperate. Plus, Megan liked the eggs. Sheep were different too. You just sheared them and took the wool. There were always too many to count when it was shearing time.
Mael thought about how things would change over the next few months. They couldn’t be careless. Not with Megan and Sian at the farmhouse full time. It would invite trouble. He’d better find another hideout for them as they couldn’t always use the farm. People will get use to seeing work done and workers around. Wouldn’t do to get recognized either. He didn’t want the men to know he was worried though. Artur would turn Sian back over to her father so fast, they wouldn’t have time to blink. Not that he was a bad man, just no compassion for women.
The sight of a calf wandering off caught his attention. “Eh! Sam! Grab that calf!”
Sam ran off to tend to the wandering animal, and brought it back over to its mother. They walked through the night, with the men switching off between riding and walking. Towards dawn, Mael got the men to put a bit of rope on the cattle so that they looked more like market men and less like casual thieves.
Up ahead, over the draw was the village and market day. It had been a long walk, but the marks they got for the cattle would see them by for a while and a long deserved rest. Plus, there were harvests starting up which always needed extra help that they hired themselves out for.
“Morning neighbor!” a man on the road greeted Mael. “Fine cattle there.”
“Ayyup! Hopes to sell um I do.” Mael in a mimic of the man’s speech. Mael had an ear for such things and it made it easier to blend in. “Come a far piece to market.”
“Oh? Ayye, I’ll be goin there meselfs. Gots to find a wee bit o cloth fer Marm.” The man had no obvious burden on his back which made Mael just a tad suspicious.
“Lucky you, she trusts you to pick out such a thing. My own mum wouldna trust me to pick out a bowl, let alone a length of cloth,” Mael said.
The man nodded like he understood and appreciated the compliment. About that point, Mael made a signal to Sam, and Sam responded.
“Ho Cow! Ho Bossy!” he called as he twitched the branch he had in his hand like the cows were going a bit astray. What he did in fact was move them straight into the man who was talking with Mael. It shoved him out of the way, and the group of men sped up the pace chasing after the cows.
“Mus be off. Cows ye know,” Mael called back to the man who was standing by the side of the road as they moved on.
“What made you do that Mael?” asked Sam.
“There was something I just didn’t feel right about, so figured we’d best be gone. Remember to keep an eye out for him today. See if he does by cloth,” said Mael softly.
“You don’t think he was on to us about the cattle now do you Mael?” asked Finn who came up beside them.
“Nah, just being nosy in a way that made me wonder if we didn’t remind him of something that went missing.”
“Alright. We needs be careful though this time heading home. No more daylight canters, ifin you know what I mean.” added Artur.
“Yes. But it wasn’t me what ran to the farm like a boy on a lark last time, now was it?” Mael added.
Finn and Artur looked away. They’d been a tad exuberant on the last raid, and came straight back to the farm. That was against the rules and they knew it, but had been a bit put out by Sian being there. Figuring if Mael could flaunt the rules, so could they. It didn’t work out in the long run.
The road was getting crowded, so they stopped talking and started acting like cattlemen. Some of the men re-arranged their clothing or covered their heads with a hood or hat. No one noticed though as all the other people around them were doing the same thing. Prettying up for market was something many did on the road.
Marw was a big market town. Cattle and other animals on one end, with fruit and veg stalls at another. Fullers, tailors, blacksmiths, coopers, the whole lot was there. Mael moved the cattle down to the gated area where they would be sold. Beast market usually went early so that people had time to walk the animals home or have them slaughtered. He left Sam in charge with Finn to help. Artur, Mael and the rest went to the pub for a bite of breakfast and a drink. Plus, they’d listen to the gossip as they did so. It helped to keep an ear to the ground.
“Six sausages and four pints,” Artur ordered. He took the food round to the men in a corner of the pub.
“Ah, that smells good. I’m starvin I am,” said Jon.
“Then eat up and take Sam and Finn theirs.” Artur thrust the food at Jon. “They’ll be just as hungry as the rest of us.”
“Ollrihht” Jon muttered through a mouth of sausage and bread. He ate quickly, downed his pint and headed out the door with the food in his hand. Those two would have to come to the pub for their own pint of ale.
The rest sat and listened.
“herd gone… but that was up Peter’s way…”
“never seen again the wee lass…”
“och Aye, Thunderin down like hell hounds on the loose they were…”
“Nary a bad one in the lot….”
“best thing I ever had for warts.”
Mael listened to the conversations and didn’t worry much. Most seemed to be dealing with local matters. They hadn’t stolen anything from this area in months, so they weren’t worried on that point. He was keeping an ear open for any word of Sian or her family. Let the rest of them worry about what was going in in a thieves den. At least until one name caught his attention.
“Hey there Cadell! Settle down. You’ll get fair price for that horse,” the speaker said.
A young and chiseled face leaned forward…. “Ah, shut yer trap! I’ve got to get enough to pay the farm off. Otherwise, that stupid old man will see what I really did and it will be the rope for me then.”
“Whatcha mean Cadell?” a companion asked.
Mael turned and started to stand. Artur’s hand came down hard on Mael’s wrist. “Hold still you fool!” he hissed. “Do you want to foul this? Just think, we get to see what that idiot looks like and what he’s up to.”
“Guess you’re right,” Mael agreed. “I want to flay the man for what he did. My temper just went to my head for a bit.” They sat there quietly listening to the argument. Mael was trying to figure out what on earth Cadell was on about. Something nefarious, but what? The conversation went too soft to follow, so Mael set the faces into his memory. Cadell and he men got up and left.
“I guess we aught to go down to the beast sale. Mael stood and headed out into the market.
“Yes, but you hold yer temper. Don’t go looking for that lout, just because you can trip him in the muck,” warned Artur.
“Ah, but it would feel so good to do it. Just once.” Mael sighed. He also kept running the conversation over in his head trying to figure out just what Cadell was up to.
“Hurry up Mael! Our cattle are up next!” Sam was hollering as they came across the market grounds. Mael and Artur moved a bit quicker and made it to the beast pens just as the first cow and calf were being offered.
The sales didn’t take long and soon Mael had nearly fifty marks in his pouch. He gave some to each of the men and held a bit back for the farm. “Go on, get yerself some fairing and remember you have to lug it home,” he said in a good natured tone.
Mael went off himself to buy a few things and saw Cadell and his man in the crowd. However, he remembered that he needed to be quiet and didn’t trip him into the nearest pile of droppings.
The men met back at the Inn where they had left the horses. They paid the stableman and got out on the road before it was too dark. Sam and Finn doubled up as they hadn’t enough horses this time. It was the back way to the cave they went, as they didn’t want to be seen. It was a long night, but they slept safe. Mael hid some of the marks in a secret cleft in the cave. If nothing else, there was always a bit put aside. Never more than a mark or two, but it built up. He’d done the same at the farm, putting most of Sian’s money in his nook up under the rafters in his room. No one else could reach it without a stool.
Mael woke to the smell of bacon cooking. “Which one of you louts used money to buy bacon?”
Sam smiled from the fire. “Didna buy it, had it in me pouch. Brought it from the farm I did.”
Mael smiled and got up with a tall stretch that brought his fingers within inches of the cave ceiling. “Smart lad you are. Is there enough for us all?”
“Oh aye. Just hope Megan isn’t too mad at me when we gets home,” he said as he handed out bits of bacon to everyone. They ate quickly and then in ones and twos headed in different directions for the farm. Mael was the last to leave, making sure the fire was out and all traces of their occupancy were hidden. He headed down a trail that would have him at the farm by sundown.