The Castle (8)
Standing high on the grasslands, before the trackway began its descent, Elowen caught a broad sight of the harbour. Ships lay at anchor; smaller boats zig zagged from one side of the land to the other. It seemed a day like any other, except everyone in the town was waiting for Fairfax’s army to arrive. As she made her way down the hill and through a narrow cut in the trees, she came out onto the road - a further steep decline that ended at the market square. As she neared she could see men, women and children huddled in groups, anxious about what was to become of them. She could have avoided the square but decided to walk among the traders, eager to listen to their foreboding, avoiding a boy who was hurriedly pulling a squealing piglet by a rope as she did so. A fisher woman, her skirts encrusted with dried blood and scales, was shaking her head in a rapid motion as if overcome by a strange visceral madness. Elowen took her hand and the woman calmed herself; then, when Elowen let go, began her shaking again. All around her in the market place people were shouting, issuing orders, praying for mercy. Elowen moved among them, and quietly yearned for the peace of the forest.
‘What’s to do, father ?’ she asked an elderly man, a wide brimmed hat fixed to his head, strands of long grey hair veiling his eyes. He smiled, revealing several blackened teeth. ‘The devil will soon be upon us’ he said ‘and we must take shelter where we can.’ ‘And what if I have no shelter to go to ?’ said Elowen. ‘Where then should I hide ?’ The old man shook his head and pointed towards the sea. ‘Away from ‘ere, boy, unless youse wants to end yer days with the staggers.’
Elowen now saw that a steady stream of ragged people were making their way along the high street. Some were pulling small carts piled high with bedding; others carried their life’s possessions in their arms. Elowen, struggling now with the pack on her shoulder, fell into line. This, she thought, is my new life, and she felt alone in the world.
When she reached the bend near the town’s church she saw in the distance an anxious knot of townsfolk waiting before an imposing grey building. The building was known as Arwenack House. A manor, it had been requisitioned as a Royalist headquarters and border post. Several guards stood shoulder to shoulder, preventing access to the rising castle road as a crowd waited to be admitted into the building. It was here the garrison’s commanding officers decided who would be allowed to seek refuge in the castle and who would be turned away.
An hour passed before Elowen was given permission to present herself to three army officials in a ground floor ante-room. She explained that she wished to enlist as a soldier whereupon an officer looked her up and down with a rueful eye. ‘Can you fire a musket, boy ?’ he asked. ‘Can you row or sail a boat ?’ asked another. Elowen said that she was yet to learn how to fire a musket and had only sailed once in a boat, whereupon the choppy sea waters had sent her into a giddy spin. Aware, in the silence that followed, that she needed to paint herself in a more favourable light, she hurriedly sought to explain her attributes. ‘Tracking and catching animals is my pleasure, sir’ she said ‘as well as being fearsome with a slingshot.’
One of the officers laughed at this. What use would tracking animals be in the confines of the castle ? Didn’t the boy know that the castle had provisions of its own ? The boy’s case was doomed to fail, they laughed, unless Elowen wished a job as a rat catcher ?
‘Ay, there’s plenty of rats lurking beneath the skirts of women at Pendennis castle’ said a second officer.
This brought on more laughter. A third official, whose rank seemed to be placed above the others, shook his head, indicating that Elowen should be sent back to the market-place.
‘But I am eager to learn, sir’ Elowen said. ‘And I wish above all to serve the king with three feathers.’
The commanding officer looked at Elowen in a puzzled manner. ‘How do you know that the Prince of Wales is at the castle, boy ?’
Elowen hesitated. ‘My grandmother spoke of it’ she said. ‘Before she passed on from this life, sir. She had a dream that he would visit. She knew things, sir, things that only a wise woman would know.’
The commanding officer continued looking at Elowen in a strange way. Then, with his quill lingering over a torn piece of parchment he said to a subordinate: ‘Take him through’ and Elowen found herself ushered to the rear of the great mansion.
A group of soldiers sat idly in the garden, an array of matchlocks and flintlocks before them. Elowen was asked to choose one. She took up a long-barrelled musket – similar to the one the king’s footman aimed at her on that fateful day. The soldiers gave a whistle in recognition of the haughtiness of her manner. A trooper, tall with long flaxen hair, smiled and made a brief aside to his comrades which Elowen didn’t understand. ‘First, fill your pan with powder’ said the soldier. ‘Then pour a small dose into the barrel. Next comes your wadding and ball. See ? – set ‘em good and proper with your scouring stick.’
Elowen could hear muffled giggles from the other men as she pushed the stick hard into the barrel. Was she been made a fool of ? The soldier set the match cord to what he called the serpent on the side of the barrel. ‘Now lad, take good aim, then pull the trigger’ he said ‘and blow old Fairfax to kingdom come.’
A scarecrow hung from a wall thirty or so paces away. The soldiers edged themselves into a corner, out of harm’s way. Elowen lifted the musket to her shoulder, aimed and set the trigger. A smoky, fizzing moment elapsed before a forceful explosion knocked her backwards onto the floor.
More laughter. Then the officer stepped forward to examine the hanging ball of rags shaped into a man. Elowen had missed the scarecrow’s head by a country mile. ‘Ee’s no good’ one of the soldier’s shouted. ‘A doxy’d do a better job of it!’ The flaxen haired trooper shook his head, told Elowen to make herself ready as she was best suited to a life winkle picking, not defending the king.
She begged them not to be so hasty. She pulled her slingshot from her waist and found a stone to set into its pouch.
‘What’s this ?’ asked one of the soldiers. ‘A child’s toy, is it not ?’
The flaxen haired trooper pulled Elowen towards him. ‘What are you going to do with that, eh ? Close up you look a tad less than a boy, would that be right ?’
He grabbed hold of her coat collar, then pushed his hand down behind her jerkin to her chest where he fumbled for a while and rubbed his filthy fingers against her warm flesh.
‘It ain’t tits you need to check for’ shouted a soldier. ‘Put your hand down e’s britches and see what’s to find.’
The trooper removed his hand, looked long and hard at Elowen’s face. ‘Show us what you can do, why don’t you boy’ he said and stood with the others ready to pass judgement on Elowen’s keen eye.
She set herself firm, her left leg in front of her right, and swung the pouch of her slingshot – several times more than necessary for entertainment’s sake - and let loose the rock. It travelled straight and true over the lawn before severing the head of the scarecrow at its scrawny neck.
The soldiers cheered. The flaxen-haired trooper slapped Elowen on the back. ‘Ee’s a dark horse, ain’t he ?’ the trooper said. ‘A slight ‘un with a keen and honest eye. They’ll have youse manning the castle defences, boy, ready to put Fairfax’s head on a platter!’ Elowen stood and watched as the troopers examined her slingshot, trying hard to replicate the wonder they had witnessed. Then a shout went up from the ante-room, which quieted the men immediately. Elowen was dismissed from the garden, and ordered to join a group headed for the castle.