‘The wolves came at me from opposite sides. Their eyes are yellow, and reflect the firelight so, though I could not see their bodies, I knew exactly where they were. One of them charged and I threw a knife instinctively. As there were only the eyes to aim at, I suppose it was inevitable that I took it in the eye.’
John Stanley -7th March 1355
John cleared his throat and quickly removed the tremors from his voice.
‘Milord, I have been responsible for the deer on the peninsula for two years now and, before that, I was the shepherd of the family sheep. In summer they run on the same pasture as the deer. I know this area well, very well.’
He stopped abruptly, wondering whether it was permissible to run family sheep on the King’s domain.
Lord James showed no reaction. ‘And what are your biggest problems, John?’
John thought for a moment. ‘Wolves… and poachers.’
‘And how do you deal with the poachers?’
‘It depends whether you mean Baron de Masci or the people from the villages.’
‘Baron de Masci is a poacher?’
‘Yes, Milord. He acts as the sponsor for the Benedictine monastery at Birkenhead but uses his frequent visits to hunt. We make sure he knows we are reporting his hunting to the King but other than that there is little we can do. Because we will not co-operate with him, however, he has no detailed knowledge of the deer’s habits.
‘And you do, John?’
‘Yes, Milord I do. It is my job. I probably know every track on the peninsula and every grazing area. Can I show you something, Milord?’
‘Yes, of course.’
John turned to a large wooden writing desk and from the top drawer pulled out a bulky loose-leaf folder. He lit several candles to make it possible to read the enclosed documents. He smiled shyly, hoping he gave an impression of confidence. He opened the folder and turned over the first four pages. He pointed to the fifth page. ‘This is a picture of a track in the forest.’ He flicked through the next ten pages allowing Lord James to get no more than a quick glimpse of each one. ‘All these pages are pictures of sub-tracks from the first track I showed you. On the summary page, the sub-tracks are shown in red, the main track in black.’
‘And the dots on each page?’
‘Green dots are my deer sightings, blue dots are traps I find, red dots are deer taken by wolves. Black dots are sightings of the baron’s hunters. The small circles are known grazing and resting areas. All the sub-tracks are summed up to the main tracks and all the main tracks summed up to geographic areas of the peninsula. The top page is a summation of all the areas. Please, Milord, look at the top page. Here you can see the mismatch between the baron’s hunting patterns and where the deer actually are.’
‘You can see where traps are set and where the wolves are most active. I use all of this to manage our area. It enables me to decide where to concentrate my effort.’
Lord James emitted a low whistle. He flicked back and forth between the pages. ‘Incredible! And who does all this?’
‘I do, Milord.’
‘And who taught you to do this?’
‘No one, Milord; it just seemed sensible.’
‘So, looking at the traps, who sets those?’
‘The people from the villages, Milord. To catch them is just a question of continual inspection of the tracks the deer frequent and knowing from the diagrams where they are most likely to set traps. Once a trap is located we watch it until a deer is caught and the poacher emerges to take his prize. My father holds forest courts in which the poachers are heavily fined.’
‘Who takes the most deer?’
‘The baron, despite the fact that he does not know where the biggest concentrations of deer are. Since the Black Death took so many people, there are too few people to work on the farms. Wages have at least doubled, perhaps even more, so the people from the villages are better off than they have ever been. They no longer need to risk poaching. The ones who still do it are those who see it as easier than honest work. They are ne’r do goods.’
Lord James’ eyes flickered.
‘And the wolves?’
‘The wolves will take deer or sheep. In the midst of winter, they will take an occasional unwary traveller, even one on horseback. They have their lairs and again the concentration of the dots helps us to pinpoint the most likely location of the lairs. In spring we spend much of our time searching for the lairs. If we can kill the cubs, the packs can be kept to manageable proportions.’
‘Is that dangerous work?’ Lord James’ brow crinkled as he lifted one eyebrow.
‘Not in the way you might think. They will try to lead you away from the lair but will sacrifice the cubs rather than involve themselves in a fight they believe they can’t win. But they are not cowards; they are intelligent and unforgiving. They will actively search out those who have been involved in a raid on their lair. It happened to me.’
‘How did you escape?’
‘I am not sure escape is the right word, Milord. I was guarding the sheep one night when two wolves sniffed me out. I had a fire lit, which is supposed to hold them at bay, but it didn’t. I have a set of throwing knives and unsheathed them. The wolves came at me from opposite sides. Their eyes are yellow, and reflect the firelight so, though I could not see their bodies, I knew exactly where they were. One of them charged and I threw a knife instinctively. As there were only the eyes to aim at, I suppose it was inevitable that I took it in the eye. It knocked me over but it was already dead. I turned to face the second one but it turned tail. It knew I had killed the first wolf and it did not know how I had done it, so it ran. It still watches me, I can feel it.’
‘So you are skilled with weapons?’
‘Only Saxon weapons, axes and knives, which my elder brother and I use to give displays at local fairs. I have started practising with the longbow but with uncertain success.’
Lord James fingered his bottom lip and returned to the main topic. ‘And because of all this, you know the movements of the deer very well?’
‘I do, Milord.’
‘Then tell me, how will the Prince get his kill?’
‘Milord, we are outside of the normal hunting period and the hinds are with foals. I take it we will not use any hunting technique which would disturb the hinds?’
‘Yes, you are right. The Prince will use a bow and we must get him a clear shot at a stag without using dogs.’
‘At this time of year, there is then, only one way.’