Chapter 1 – The Hanging Man
The inn was called “The Hanging Man”;
It squatted on the moor.
A busy road in ancient times
Had run past its front door,
But merchants had found safer routes,
For here there was no law.
The inn had survived wind and rain,
Though damaged by the weather.
The timbers creaked. The slate roof leaked.
The stone walls sagged together.
But limpet-like the inn clung on,
As if to last forever.
The inn was run by Mistress Meg,
Whom no one disobeyed.
The thought of her oak wooden leg
Saw tough men turn afraid.
Her brutal kick, so hard and quick,
Would leave a man dismayed.
Meg’s burly staff, a hardened crew,
Were brawny, scarred, and tough.
The last to fall in any brawl,
They enjoyed playing rough,
Except for one lad working there,
The stable boy called Scuff.
When Scuff could barely walk and talk,
His wretched father had,
To pay a debt to Mistress Meg,
Sold her his little lad,
And though Meg worked Scuff long and hard
Things had not turned out bad.
The first year Scuff was at the inn,
The lad had found his calling.
A horse had panicked in the yard
And sent its rider sprawling.
It reared and plunged, while staff backed off;
The danger was appalling.
Young Scuff approached the frightened horse
With no sign of alarm.
He gazed into its bulging eyes
And murmured soft and calm.
The horse relaxed and nuzzled him
As though he’d worked a charm.
From that day forth, Scuff earned his keep
By giving horses care.
The stable was his place to sleep;
He spent his whole life there.
The job was his and his alone;
Nobody wished to share.
Scuff grew up slowly, underfed,
And dressed in rags and straw.
He kept his thoughts inside his head
And never asked for more.
This boy, who seldom spoke a word,
Was easy to ignore.
The inn was now the haunt of thieves,
For they were safe inside.
No questions would be asked of them;
This was a place to hide,
And those who had big mouths would find
Their throats slit open wide.
The stable was a busy place
Though few thieves owned a horse.
They nearly always gained their mount
By stealing it, of course.
They’d sell it in some distant town
And never feel remorse.
Some horses stayed for many days
When lying low seemed wise,
And Scuff would take these horses out
To give them exercise.
He’d ride across the lonely moor,
Away from prying eyes.
He never used a saddle when
He rode upon a horse,
And he’d no need to hold the reins
To keep his mount on course,
Just gentle pressure from his legs
And never any force.
Across the windswept moor he’d ride
And never come to grief,
And as he rode, he’d say inside:
“I am a famous thief.”
This dream, which made him swell with pride,
Became his deep belief.
Scuff might have been some twelve years old,
Though no one kept the score,
When with one move, unwise but bold,
Life changed forever more,
Upon a winter’s day so cold
That snow beat at the door.
Dusk fell on this chill winter’s day,
A day for Scuff, ill-starred.
The feeble sun had slipped away;
A cruel wind bit hard;
Yet Scuff still heard the muffled hooves
Though snow covered the yard.
He opened up the stable door
And poked outside his head.
A man on horseback had arrived;
He turned to Scuff and said:
“This is a special horse my lad.
She needs a good, warm bed.”
The man’s voice was as smooth as silk
But carried a command.
Scuff grabbed his cloak and hurried out
To give the man a hand.
Scuff held the horse and kept it still
Though it was cold to stand.
The man swung nimbly from his horse,
His movements full of grace.
His brown eyes sparkled in the gloom
As he surveyed the place.
He grinned and let his perfect teeth
Light up his handsome face.
His horse was far more beautiful;
At least that’s what Scuff thought.
She was so tall and elegant,
Her muscles trim and taut.
She was indeed a noble steed;
Such class could not be bought.
Her coat was sleek and darkest black,
Much darker than the night,
Except upon her face she had
A star of blazing white.
Her piercing eyes were sharp and wise;
Scuff met them with delight.
But who would dare to steal this mare
So splendid and so grand?
Only the bravest highwayman
That ever roamed the land.
They called him Blade, and unafraid,
He stole what came to hand.
The highwaymen were daring thieves,
Who made the merchants quiver.
They held up coaches on the road
And cried: “Stand and deliver!”
Their loaded crossbows prompted folk
To pay them, with a shiver.
“The horse trusts you,” Blade said and smiled,
“And I shall trust you, too.
This horse demands the best of care,
It’s no more than her due,
And you must do your best by her,
For sloppy work won’t do.”
A blast of warm air struck them as
The inn door opened wide.
Meg called: “This is an honor, Sir!
We’ve warmth and food inside.
Please share a tale and mug of ale;
Your visit gives us pride!”
Blade gave a nod to Scuff before
He went inside the inn.
The door slammed shut and blocked Scuff from
The warmth and noisy din,
But he was content with the horse
And wore a happy grin.
The other horses in their stalls
Gazed on the mare with awe.
A hush had fallen over them
When she came through the door.
Their reverence hung in the air,
Too solemn to ignore.
Scuff thought that he would groom the horse,
He had time to devote,
But not a hair was out of place,
The boy took careful note,
And not one drop of mud had stained
The horse’s glossy coat.
The evening slipped gently by,
The horses at their ease.
Scuff ate his supper, cabbage pie,
A hunk of bread and cheese,
Then filled his shirt with wads of straw;
He had no wish to freeze.
Once more he slipped on his old cloak
And slid into the night.
The shuttered windows of the inn
Showed chinks of firelight.
By now folk would be telling tales,
Or else they’d start a fight.
Scuff could not go inside the inn,
Meg said it was forbid
Because he smelled of horse and worse
From all the work he did,
But he could peer in from outside
As long as he stayed hid.
Scuff picked a sheltered spot to crouch
And did not make a sound,
But peered in through a little gap,
And this is what he found:
The highwayman, Blade, telling tales,
His audience spellbound.
He spoke of daring robberies,
And perilous escapes,
And rooftop chases in the snow,
And gems the size of grapes,
And how he stole the hangman’s noose,
And other jolly japes.
He spoke of wealthy merchants robbed
Who’d put spies on his tail.
They’d captured him and told a judge
To hang him without fail.
In love, the judge’s daughter had
Helped him break free from jail.
Scuff hung on to each gripping word
And dreamed it was his life.
The perfect job was steal and rob,
One step ahead of strife,
And fool the fumbling hand of law
With wits sharp as a knife.
Blade finished off a final tale
Then said that he must rest.
His fellow thieves applauded him
And said he was the best.
Scuff crept back to his stable lair,
Excited and impressed.
Scuff checked the horses in their stalls;
Blade’s horse was wide awake.
She gazed at him with knowing eyes;
Scuff felt his insides quake.
She trusted him far more than Blade;
The horse was his to take.
Blade had not told the tale of how
He’d come by this fine horse.
It would have been dishonestly,
By cunning or by force,
But soon no one would talk of Blade,
They’d speak of Scuff, of course.
Chapter 2 – Robbery
Scuff led the horse out from her stall,
Coaxing was not required.
He held open the stable door;
She left as he desired.
They softly walked across the yard;
Scuff felt himself inspired.
They padded down the icy lane;
The snow had stopped at last.
The moon shone through the wisps of cloud
That slowly drifted past.
And Scuff could barely catch his breath,
His life was changing fast.
They stopped beside a wooden gate,
Some distance down the lane.
Scuff climbed the bars for extra height
And mounted without strain,
Then with his knees, he gave a squeeze,
And off they went again.
A snowy blanket cloaked the moor,
Through which stone outcrops jutted.
It smoothed the ancient lane they trod,
Which had been hard and rutted.
It crunched beneath the horse’s hooves
As she pressed on, sure-footed.
The lane descended from the moor
Through trees weighed down with snow
That sagged like old men with a load
Who have too far to go;
Their branches drooped across the lane,
And Scuff had to crouch low.
They halted at a junction where
The old road met the new,
Which did not twist and turn as much;
Instead, it cut straight through.
Scuff found a spot concealed by trees
That kept this road in view.
The distant sound of many hooves
Warned Scuff a coach drew near.
He heard the rattle of its wheels;
The sound was sharp and clear.
The time had come to make his mark
And start his bold career.
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