Approaching Shrewsbury I had already decided my command of the English language, was almost non-existant. Feining dumbness seemed a good ploy, but would it work? My first adventure in disguise as you will soon read provided food for thought.
Upon approaching a bend, I saw a horse-drawn wagon slowly coming my way, heading out of the town. A large Welsh Cob, with a proud chest thrust out, was breathing strenuously. Its thick bushy tail swished from side to side as he struggled through the mud. Strong legs, muscles stretched, veins prominent with blood pulsing to every sinew as it pulled the heavy cart laden with huge wooden barrels. There looked to be far too much weight on the wagon, some of the barrels barely hung on and were only loosely bound by thick ropes. A very overweight man clung to leather reins, huge hands at the end of thick-set wrists rested precariously on fat knees. A droopy, broad-brimmed, battered, old hat perched loosely on top of a very fat face. Getting closer, it was clear to this dwarf that the driver was rather worse for the quaffing of ale. Judging by his size and the state of him, he must have drained a barrel on his own. I laughed quietly under my beard. As the wagon drew closer, the cob snorted and whinnied under strain from its heavy load. It tripped on a furrow which made this fine stallion stop dead in its tracks, thus the wagon jolted to an abrupt halt. Instantly, two of the loosely bound barrels fell to the ground with an enormous crash. One burst into pieces, strips of wood splintering as the contents exploded, allowing gallons of ale to form pools amongst the furrows before sinking into the mud. The other rolled, undamaged, into a hedge.
“Dam and blast!”
The fat man came back to reality as he blasphemed. He was unable to stay seated as the wagon jolted and, like the barrels, was sent flying to the ground. He landed in a heap, face first, into the mud. His cursing became almost lost as he bubbled incoherently. His hat had been flung off into a puddle as he fell and I witnessed the fattest, baldest head that I had ever seen. He was the colour of beetroot, with a great jowl hanging loosely over his collar, spittle drooling from a tight little mouth that was almost unseen, hidden by limp flesh. The horse again whinnied and carried on undisturbed as the wagon wheels turned, sinking into the mud, squelching and splattering, drenching this heap of a fallen body upon the ground which now moved slowly, like a great boar rising from a deep slumber. He continued to curse as he rubbed mud from small piggy eyes with great fat fingers. He was clearly having great difficulty in his attempt to raise his bulk from the mire.
I stepped to the side of the great horse and reaching up, grabbed at the loose reins, pulling them taut, the bit jolting in its soft mouth. Quietly the cob stopped and stood perfectly still, tail happily swishing, rest-time assured. Behind us came sounds of grumbling and groaning, accompanied by cursing as the heap scrambled in the mud. I turned around to see the huge man struggling to his feet, picking his battered hat from the sludge. Looking first at me with a glancing look of surprise, he then turned quickly, surveying the shattered barrel before noticing the other stuck in the hedge. He turned back towards me and shouted in English with a slurred voice, spittle dripping from the side of his small tight mouth.
“You, Dwarf …. You frightened my horse, you, you!” He coughed and spluttered. “Look at this damage! Who will pay for this? You? I think not!” Putting the dirty battered hat back on his fat head and turning toward the shattered barrel, he screamed. “Look at this, just look at it!”
I looked at the fractured barrel, smashed to smithereens, scattered here and there across the sodden track. I knew some of his words, not all, but enough, I can tell you, to realise this fat heap of a drunkard was blaming me for the mishap. A mishap that would not have happened at all had he been of sober mind. Drunkenness did very strange things to folk, the most noticeable, of course, being an inability to speak coherently, whether or not the language could be understood. The signs are the same in every language. In every language, quaffing ale in great quantities ends up with nobody able to understand what is being said by the drunkard, often leading to great confusion and violence. But what I did understand, all too well, is that he was blaming me. His fat finger, pointing menacingly at me, did the trick.
I managed not to speak, although I nearly did. Remembering my vow of silence and feigning dumbness, I gesticulated innocence and bowed graciously, removing my hat. He shouted some obscenity that I did not understand, whilst continuing with a wagging finger proffered in my direction. Again, I mimed my innocence, acting out the accident in front of my accuser. I suppose I must have looked amusing, to say the least. Pretending to be the horse, I mimed hauling the cart and tripping in the furrow. In mime, I quickly changed from horse to cart, thence to pointing at the barrels. The fat man laughed hysterically, holding his sides and dribbling, his chubby face looking fit to explode. I ceased my antics and stared at him. Another interesting observation about those who quaff gallons of ale is their ability to instantly change from anger to humour and back again. I sincerely prayed he would not return to anger and in order to perpetuate my safety, I mimed ‘me leaping out to stop the horse’, then ‘me as the horse stopping in my tracks’. Throughout my antics the stallion stood motionless, tail still swishing. He turned his shaking head and whinnied, stamping a hoof into the furrow, he whinnied again. ‘Was he laughing too?’ The fat man laughed loudly once more, slapping his sides.
Thinking on my feet is what my Master, Llwyd ap Crachan Llwyd, had taught me and I was doing just that right now. I hopped, skipped and jumped towards the hedge. The fat man belly laughed again. Playing the ‘fool’ or ‘strongman’, or ‘both’? He was about to make his own mind up about me. Wrapping my arms around the barrel, taking its weight into my belly, I lifted it with ease. The muscles in my legs tightened as I slowly placed the barrel back onto the wagon. I could see out of the corner of my eye that the fat man was impressed by my strength. Moving swiftly, I wound the rope around the remaining barrels to secure the load. ‘They will not fall of now!’ I thought, finishing off the final knot with a twist. The fat man hobbled and staggered in my direction, still laughing.
“How, you are strong Dwarf!” He coughed and then smiled a knowing grin. “I could use someone like you!”
He chuckled heartily whilst patting me on the back. Worse the wear for ale he may have been, but he still had a powerful hand! My back will probably be sporting four fingers and a thumb mark, giving evidence to his playful assault upon me, for days to come.
“Well done Dwarf ….. Well done!” Coughing, he continued. “My name is Carter and carting is my trade.”
His speech, less slurred now, made me think sobering up was in his runes. Hardly surprising after he had fallen head-first into the mud, a sobering experience for anyone, man or dwarf! Smiling again and steadying his huge frame against the wagon, he said.
“I am sorry I blamed you, Dwarf. I must have fallen asleep at the reins. Too much ale!”
He spat into the slurry, shouting again. Why is it that when people know you are dumb, they assume deafness and shout accordingly? I gesticulated I was not deaf and he laughed loudly.
“Do you need work, Dwarf?”
Straightening himself against the wagon for support, he continued more coherently and less loudly.
“You saved my bacon. I am sorry I shouted at you.”
Sweeping his hat from the fat head, he bowed in my direction.
“Thank ye Dwarf, thank ye.” he bowed again before replacing his hat, the brim flopping over his face.
I mimed my decline of his offer of work and silently pointed toward Shrewsbury.
“We travel in different directions, Dwarf!”
Shouting once more and slapping my shoulder, he started to clamber back on top of the wagon. I put my hands under his haunches and by giving a little shove upwards, precariously balancing on the barrel, he gathered his competence.
“Here Dwarf!” He flipped a coin in my direction which I deftly caught in my right hand. “For your trouble!”
Slipping the coin in my bag, I watched as he raised the reins. With a quick lash, cracking on the stallions flanks, accompanied by him shouting “Get on!” he nodded farewell with a smile on his big round face.
The stallion strained in its harness, chest heaving, strong legs digging into sodden earth, it moved off, dragging the heavy cart behind with Carter perched on top, cracking the reins again. I watched them disappear into the distance as I sat down for a while to gather my senses. ‘Well that went quite well’, I thought ….. Being dumb had worked and not one awkward question had been asked, although I cannot pretend not to have been worried when he shouted at me. I had not found too much difficulty in understanding his words either. Now, that pleased me. So my qualms, though not without foundation, were groundless. Playing the ‘fool’, whilst demonstrating my strength, had matched well. So, my disguise was set.