The Castle (3)
Before the soldiers from the castle arrived to gaze upon the stricken carriage, Elowen and Maben dragged the chest further into the forest and began to dig a fresh grave. Elowen had taken the footman’s short shovel and they worked silently and methodically until both items were safely underground. They heard shouts from the road, as well as the hammering of iron. Elowen knew full well that if the soldiers discovered the footman’s body the game would be up. But it seemed that another course of thinking had taken hold. As she once again covered the chest with earth, she heard angry shouts that the footman was to blame. The soldiers, it seemed, believed that he had made off by himself. And it was he, they said, as they stared into the empty hole, who was in possession of the royal chest. Without spare horses to harness the carriage, the soldiers left the scene, bound for the castle to impart their unfavourable news.
As the sky turned grey and light rain began to fall in a misty haze, Elowen and Maben saw fit to reveal themselves and move among the trees they knew so well. A cold dampness enveloped them, settling in their hair, their clothes, inside their thin, leather boots. They did not speak as they walked, content in the presence of the other, aware that even now the king’s soldiers were mustering to search for a traitor who, unbeknown to them, was lying beneath a mound of wood and leaves. Elowen looked up, tasted the rain. It was as if the actions of that morning had charged the air, settling on the cusp of a secret that was about to be revealed.
After a while Elowen began to walk with her usual swagger, clearing an invisible pathway with a long stick. She was a slender girl aged sixteen and a half with brown shoulder length hair and piercing grey eyes. She possessed a harsh uncompromising face that reflected her harsh uncompromising life, a life lived on the grasslands high above the town. The thick brown sheepskin jacket that she wore, belted with her slingshot, made her body look fuller than it was – a useful deception which served her well. She could hunt and fight as well as any boy her age. Her temper was even, though never to be underestimated.
Elowen’s animal traps were scattered over a wide area, hidden amongst thick bramble, identified by markers only she knew. Rabbits were her prey, as well as squirrels and the occasional bird – small things that would sit well in her grandmother's cooking pot.
She took a rough cloth from the pocket of her coat and wiped her face. Even in the wet she felt at one in this pungent place. The trees were endowed with mystic properties: the great oaks had been worshipped at harvest-time by the ancients; the hazel offered all good people wisdom; the yew was the tree of death, its wood helping to guide lost souls to their rightful place. Elowen’s grandmother, who followed the old ways, had taught her about such things. Ever since she was a child the old woman had encouraged faith in the mysteries, much to the dismay of their God-fearing neighbour, Ann Netherton. In the town Elowen’s grandmother had been marked as a witch; that was why she and Elowen were content to live on the edge of the forest, a place of solitude and mystery where many feared to tread.
Elowen stopped. At the sight of an elm she raised her hand in benediction, as if she were reaching beyond the canopy of leaves to the sky above. What, she wondered, would her grandmother say if she learned that Elowen had killed one of the king’s footmen ?
Maben, following at a pace behind, watched his friend. He began to snigger but was warned to silence as a rustling among the leaves caught Elowen unawares. A moment of caution lingered, then passed, as a sprightly vixen galloped towards the furze.
‘Come’ said the girl ‘let us move forward without fear, away from all we have witnessed.’
Maben surged ahead. Thin, pale, with thick fair hair as dry as barnyard hay, his movements were unconstrained. He skipped and jumped as if a demonic tic lurked deep inside him. He swooped and picked up a dry cone, examined it, threw it with the same; kicked a piece of lichen bark, crouched to see the insects squirm before his gaze. Being the younger of the two he followed Elowen in keen adoration, observing her as she moved through the forest, entranced as she knelt by a marker and exposed a well-covered trap to the light.
A nervous twitch of grey fur, then sudden movement. Weightier than she expected, Elowen lifted the trap door and reached in, pulling out a startled, rabbit by its neck. She held it down in the mulch before dispatching it with a clean twist of her wrist. She bound the paws and rear legs, then eased the still pliant carcass into a small sack.
'Here' she said.
Maban took hold, peeked inside - sniffing the kill - then held the sack tight against his belly, as if endeavouring once again upon his long-forgotten ritual.
A strange boy indeed, thought Elowen - touched by the moon. Let him find pleasure where he can.
She moved on with a feeling of contentment now that the forest had given up the first of its offerings. Her grandmother would be pleased – nothing would go to waste. The blood, offal, trimmings - all would be consumed; the pelt fashioned into a hat to sell, the feet sold as amulets. Even the bones would be washed then arranged in a peculiar fashion for market – a rattle chime to scare birds from a vegetable patch, perhaps, or else ground to a powder and mixed with daub to strengthen a neighbour's wall.
Within the hour their bounty had increased - a second rabbit, a pigeon, a squirrel added to the sack. Maban slung the sack over his shoulder and walked with a long stick of his own, imitating Elowen's actions – solid, sweeping movements from left to right in a show of mastery and completeness.
The rain stopped; the swirling grey clouds began to pass. Home was their destination. And yet Elowen knew that the forest was a place of surprise, always eager to throw up new obstacles and possibilities on a whim.
As they were about to emerge into the open grasslands Elowen came to a halt. She crouched down, placed a finger to her lips. Through the trees she could see two horses tethered beside a rough wooden shack that lay in a coppice. It was the home of their good neighbour Elijah, one of a number of poor souls who lived in this wilderness. A flash of red accompanied by the harsh rattle of pots and pans told Elowen all she needed to know about Elijah’s visitors: the horses belonged to soldiers of the king – soldiers from Pendennis Castle - in search of food, weapons, and honest answers about an abandoned royal carriage.