The Castle (2)
Elowen and Maben stood over the footman’s body. His eyes were open and the centre of his forehead, where the stone struck, had left a soft depression in the skin. Elowen wondered if he was pretending to be dead. As the thought took hold she became fearful that he might rise up without warning and snap both their necks. Cautiously she reached down and took up the musket, aimed it at his head for a while, ordered Maben to kick the legs several times before concluding that yes, the monster had indeed breathed his last.
They each took hold of one of the footman’s ankles and tried to drag the body into the woods, managing only a few inches before deciding it was too heavy. Elowen, lacking coin, placed small stones on the dead man’s eyes before telling Maben to collect branches and leaves. They would throw as much over him as they could, preferably until the mighty fellow disappeared from plain sight. The boy did as he was told, scampering into the forest a number of times, dumping wood and foliage beside Elowen who carefully covered the corpse. When it was done she considered saying a prayer but knew none. Instead, she pushed the footman’s musket into the pyre to rest alongside him. She told Maben to keep watch.
Elowen made her way down the hillock to the abandoned carriage, gasped when she looked inside. Such luxury! A red velvet seat was imprinted with the three white feathers; black velvet curtains were available to shade the windows; an array of liquid victuals, contained in cut glass decanters, sat snug in a red velvet cabinet, each glass item depressed within its own holder. The inside of the carriage looked like a fancy house. Elowen considered pulling the plush velvet buttoned seat out and keeping it for herself. But the task was too great. What’s more, time was against her; she knew the drivers would soon return.
She moved beyond the carriage to the spot where the footman had been digging. He had done a good job because Elowen had to brush at the earth several times in order to identify the contours of the rectangular hole. When it revealed itself, she clawed away the soft earth, then began raking the soil so as to uncover the thing hidden. It took only a few minutes to reveal a buried chest - three palms in length, several palms in width. It was locked, as she expected, which made Elowan even more eager to investigate its contents. Three feathers were carved on the lid, as well as some Latin text enclosed within a carved scroll that she did not understand. The weight of the thing surprised her. With a supreme effort Elowan, her fingers tight around the brass side handle, lifted the chest out from its grave. Numerous objects clattered and clunked within. She ran to the rear of the carriage and called out: ‘Maben! Maben! Come now!’
When there was no answer or sight of the boy she was made aware of the three horses shifting to and fro. The great beasts were murmuring, as if they had been unsettled. ‘Maben ? Maben ? Where are you, boy ?’
He was stroking the head of one of them. His cheek was pressed firmly above the animal’s mouth and he was whispering into its ear, those strange contortions of language that no human could understand.
‘Maben - we must leave.’
There was no response. Elowen had never seen the boy so calm, so content. Maben was shy and not given to affection, even toward Ann and Bethsany, his wards. It was said he had been one of two babes left on the porch of a church and mistress Ann had vowed to care for the boy with Bethsany, her sister. Even when it was revealed the child was lacking in wits Ann and Bethsany resolved to stand by him, teaching him as best they could to eat with good manners and mumble his prayers at night. Maben remained a strange, lonely child, wary of folk. How different he was now, Elowen thought, as he patted each animal, showing hitherto unrealised affection.
‘Maben!’ Elowen walked up to him, tried to guide him away from the towering beasts. ‘If the drivers return, we will be hanged. You must help me carry the chest into the wood.’
Reluctantly he obeyed. She fed her slingshot through the handle and together they pulled the chest like a sledge to the brow of the hillock, past the body of the footman, until they crossed the threshold of the forest and were able to rest. Elowen could see the boy’s unhappiness, felt his childish yearning to feel the warmth of the three black horses. And so, she made a decision that she knew was both dangerous and reckless. ‘Come’ she said. ‘We must work quickly. Hurry, boy.’
They ran towards the carriage, frightened that at any moment the two drivers would appear accompanied by soldiers from the castle. ‘The horses’ she shouted. ‘Free them from their harness.’
They each took a role. Old Elijah, their forest neighbour, had taught her how to dress a horse. She unthreaded the leather fastenings, looped them under the horses’ bellies. The harness that held them was of the finest quality – thick black leather, polished silver bits, and pretty brass clasps. She noticed that the thicker parts of the harness had been branded with the sign of the three feathers. What did it mean, she wondered ?
The animals’ excitement began to rise as they realised they were being untethered. Maben calmed them. When Elowen had lifted the final strap, she threw the harness to one side. ‘Now, Maben boy - send them on their way.’
At first it seemed that he didn’t understand what she meant. Then his face transformed itself into a vision of glee. He smacked the rump of the first horse. It raised itself onto its hind legs and bolted across the grasslands causing Maben to whoop with joy. There was no need for him to encourage the other two horses – they quickly followed their leader. Maben continued to whoop and jump and wave to the three animals as they galloped free into the far distance.
Then Elowen once again gauged the taut, changeable atmosphere of the day. ‘Quiet’ she said, lifting her head. Riders were approaching.