It was the middle of the night but Manzio was unable to sleep. The sounds and smells of the forest carried to him, his senses alive to the possibilities of danger.
Beside him, Ulf, the oldest of the three children had fallen asleep. The boy had tried to stay awake, hoping beyond hope that Uther would arrive, having slain the attacking araken warband but this slim hope had faded with the light.
With a sigh, Manzio continued to stare, his keen eyes alert, whilst painfully aware that he was all that stood between the children and those bestial cannibals seeking them. He had pushed as far as possible into the dense forestland before finally allowing the children to rest.
They had sat out what remained of the day hidden by a huge, ancient oak tree. At one point Manzio had ascended up into the higher branches in hope of a better aerial vantage but could see little beyond their immediate surroundings.
The group said little and as one by one they fell asleep, hungry and fearful of pursuit, Manzio had sat throughout the night, his mind in turmoil, privately mourning the loss of his friend.
_Was it only a year before that in another campsite not far from the port city of Bruges, Manzio had finally approached the Templar. It was late evening and having followed the knight for several days, Manzio remained hidden, his back rested on an uncomfortable, wiry pine tree, contemplating how he could introduce himself.
‘You may as well come and join me boy. After all we seem to be walking the same path.’
Relieved, Manzio got to his feet, approaching the knight cautiously though after days of observing the older man, he had no reason to fear him.
The Templar was busy lighting a fire, the sparks from his flint and tinder gradually coaxed into a flame and eventually a fire.
‘That should do it,’ commented the Knight, clearly pleased by his handiwork. ‘Come closer to the fire boy and warm yourself. You look half perished.’
Warming himself by the light of the fire, Manzio was aware that the knight was studying him. For quite some time the two did not speak until the knight finally broke the silence.
‘Well boy. You’ve been following me by my reckoning for nigh on a week. You clearly mean me no harm, and the Lord knows, I could do with some company. It has been a long road.’
Plucking up the courage, Manzio asked the question he had wanted to ask the knight since first spotting him in Cologne. ‘Forgive me for asking by are you returning from the Crusades, Sir?’
Reaching into his pack, the knight removed some meat and bread, handing some to Manzio. His stomach lurched in delight, having only tasted berries and herbs gathered from the roadside in several days.
‘Yes,’ responded the knight. ‘I am returning to England. To York, more specifically. There I will meet with the Archbishop of York. My friend,’ he added.
‘What is your name boy?’
Although the meat was beginning to spoil, it tasted divine to Manzio. As he chewed, he considered if he should tell the truth. The knight had offered him hospitality and something in his steely mannerism suggested that a lie would not sit well with this man.
‘Manzio, sir. Manzio Alfredo.’
The knight nodded. ‘I am Uther and my family is that of God. I need no other.’_
Manzio woke with a start, his stomach grumbling in protest. A sliver of light had cut through the trees with dawn fast approaching.
He continued to feel a sense of malaise and guilt without Uther and in his mind he wondered if he should have stayed to protect his friend.
Looking at the children, he couldn’t help but think that history was repeating itself, as he inherited the responsibility of the children just as Uther helped him.
‘We need food,’ he muttered though the three children were still asleep. Waking them from their dreams, he led the trio a little deeper into the forest looking for a suitable tree with branches low enough for the children to climb. It didn’t take long and with some help from Ulf, Manzio helped all three climb into the relative safety of the upper branches.
‘Stay here and try to be as quiet as possible. I will hunt and return as soon as I make a kill.’
In truth the assassin was relieved to have some time alone, satisfied that the children would be difficult to find in the trees. He wondered if Cullen had survived the battle shortly before reaching Hadrian’s Wall and how he could possibly fulfill his mission without the other two.
It was the first time since meeting Uther a year earlier that Manzio found himself alone. Whilst he had hunted for the pair, he was acutely aware of the pressure to provide for the children and had to be patient. For several hours he searched for signs of wildlife and at last found fresh droppings. Not long after, through a glade of leaves and thick vegetation, Manzio spotted a wild boar sniffing around the roots of a great oak tree. He readied his crossbow, preparing to shoot…
Manzio’s crossbow bolt struck home, penetrating deep into the creature’s gut. It squealed in shock but mercifully died instantaneously.
Strapping a rope to the boar’s trotters, Manzio was able to haul the carcass over his back to the tree in which the children remained. The heavy body of the boar was difficult to pull but eventually, in the fading light, the assassin could hear the children dropping down from the tree delighted to see his return.
Working as a team, the children helped the exhausted Vesuvian to strip down the carcass, mounting the pig on a giant spike made from a branch fashioned by Ulf during the day. Risking a fire, hunger overruled the safety of the group and whilst one of the four took turns to dampen the smoke with a saturated cloak, they ate like Kings!
With a full feed in their bellies, Manzio had been considering the predicament of the group and knew that they would need to find water soon. Plus he needed to find out what had become of his friend, Uther.
‘We need to go,’ he said, whilst wiping the grease from his lips with the back of his blood soaked hand. I need to get you three to safety and Hadrian’s Wall offers us the best chance if we can avoid the araken.’
The children looked at one another fearfully but nodded their understanding. With darkness falling over the forest, Manzio led the group back toward the Wall. Finally, they reached the edge of the forest when a northern voice called out to them.
‘I was beginning to think I wouldn’t find you four.’
With the children hiding behind tree trunks as requested by Manzio, a danagrim stepped out from behind a huge moss covered tree stump, a crossbow in hand.
’Manzio, I believe you may are looking for your friend, Uther, the Templar? He is also keen to see how you are. Come, I think he will be excited by the news that you’re alive.
My name is Salinor and I was sent to find you.’
Relieved beyond belief, the children emerge from their hiding place whilst Manzio, grasps the hand of the danagrim scout.
‘Well met, friend,’ says Manzio, emotion entering into his voice. ‘I cannot begin to tell you how happy I am to see you.’
Close up, the Manzio can now see that the dangrim is cloaked in black, a deeply inked tattoo on his forehead and a distinctive drooping moustache rather than the bushy beards usually favoured by the danagrim.
It did not take long before Manzio was reunited with Uther, the children hugging the Templar first and then Manzio.
‘The Lord delivered us from danger,’ stated Uther, ‘by sending these stout Danagrim scouts to protect us.’
‘Aye well, a good job we’d been scouting the scum for a few days. We’re seeing more raiding parties like. But that warband are now six feet under. ’
Stepping forward from the shadows of the milecastle, a huge Danagrim emerged, his bushy black eyebrows and laconic eyes, taking in Manzio with a glance.
‘The name’s Cole, bonny lad. You must be Manzio?’
Manzio nodded and noticed other danagrim, situated above on the wall.
Uther, nodded to Cole and turned to face his friend.
‘Manzio, time is of the essence and much time has been wasted. Cole and his Griffin Century will take the children to our nearest Knight’s Templar at Newcastle but we must travel West. Tonight.’
Manzio said goodbye to the children, each returning his hug with sadness to see him go.
‘Be brave,’ he advised them ‘and work hard. You will be safe now.’
Soon after, accompanied by the Griffin scout, Salinor, the two companions once again set off, the Templar remarkably unscathed by his ordeal at the hands of the araken.
‘The Danagrim attacked shortly after you’d gone,’ explained Uther. ‘They simply waited until the noose could be well and truly tightened on their quarry. It was all over very quickly, as they were overrun and cut down. I tried to find you but Cole assured me that Salinor was his finest tracker.’
With torches in hand, the trio traversed the wall westward, Manzio looking beyond the great stone structure wondering both what had become of Cullen and how they would fare now that the borders of Scotia lay ahead.