The Castle (1)
Elowen stood motionless in the long grass, nestled between the oaks, heather, and burdock, looking out onto a lifeless winding road. It was the hour after dawn, when low lying mists sweep across fields and smoke begins to rise from the isolated dwellings hidden around the forest’s edge. A boy scuttled beside her – Maben, the mute, touched by the moon. Unsure as to why Elowen had stopped he fidgeted with a piece of dry wood and mumbled in that strange manner of his, a sound that was not language but the remnants of something, a long-forgotten ritual perhaps. Whatever it was, Elowen ordered him quiet and pulled tight the slingshot tied around her waist. Beyond the road lay more woodland – a dark, fresh estate, teeming with life at this hour. It was there she would lay traps and fill the sack, that the mute boy carried, with fresh meat. But she remained still, gauging the air, alert to the shifting rhythms of the new day. For, in the far distance, she heard a rumbling sound, a sound that was gathering beneath the earth like thunder.
Maben squatted. Thunder frightened him. Elowen knelt beside him and made him cover his ears. She knew all about the boy’s anxieties, the tics and nightmares that governed his life. He preferred the peace of the forest, the coolness of air. As the thunder drew closer, Maben curled himself into a muscle-tight ball, as if he was imprisoned in a fine space that was governed by fear.
Six horses pulling a carriage surged round the bend – black and sleek and fierce as they ran into the straight. Two drivers sat out front wearing long grey coats buttoned at the neck; a footman of robust size stood on a platform to the rear. Such a sight, in early morning, inspired tales of ghosts and supernatural beings. It set Elowen to thinking: inside this carriage sits either the devil or the king of England.
The carriage roared along the road, a road that led to Falmouth town. As it advanced the maul of horses’ hooves gave way to a high-pitched squeal, a grinding sound that Elowen had never before heard. The two drivers yelled, pulled hard on the reins. The horses reared and whinnied, nostrils wide, eyes distending. The carriage swerved this way and that and for a moment it seemed that it would tip onto its side, come to an unfortunate end. Suddenly Elowen realised what had happened: an axle had buckled shifting the weight. But the drivers used every fibre to pull the beasts steady, and the carriage slowed enough to right itself, coming to a halt in a cloud of dust not far from where the young hunters hid.
As the atmosphere settled Elowen stroked Maben’s head, soothing his fears, preventing him from calling out. She saw that the colour of the carriage matched the horses – jet black with three golden feathers painted on the side door. As the plumes of dust began to settle Maben began to shift in the long grass. ‘Quiet’ Elowen whispered. ‘They must not see us. We are folk who should have no knowledge of these things.’
She watched as the two drivers leapt down from their seats, examined the broken rear wheel. Elowen heard hammering, heaving, and shouts of ‘This way, damn you’ and ‘Push, I say – push, push, and push again!’ The large footman who stood at the rear climbed down and walked round to the side carriage door. A broad bull-like man with a grey beard and pony-tail, Elowen caught him well in her sight. She watched as he gently opened the carriage door, bowed, took off his greatcoat, and lay it on the ground.
Elowen gasped as she saw a slender figure climb out – a young man with long naturally curling lacquered hair. He was wearing the finest clothes - a black embroidered jacket, silk breeches and high buckled shoes. His felt hat, marked with a red plume, brushed the top of the carriage door as he alighted onto the footman’s coat. Then, in a graceful pose, he stood for a while, and took in the scenery. The footman bowed again and, as if in expectation of robbers or cut throats, took up a defensive position at a refined distance to the rear of the carriage where he could best observe things, in case anything more should interrupt this most important of travellers.
The drivers continued to heave and push but the wheel, it seemed, could not be fixed. The longer they laboured the more Elowen sensed danger. She unburdened herself of a number of stones from the pocket of her sheepskin coat, piling them within reach. ‘It will soon be over, Maben’ she whispered. ‘We must wait until these men are set on their way.’
After a while the younger man wearing fine clothes grew impatient. He summoned the footman - who gave another low bow before receiving orders. Then, after a discussion with the drivers, he loosened three of the horses from the main harness. Using saddles stored in the rear section of the carriage, the drivers helped prepare the horses for riding whereupon the young male traveller was helped into position by the broad footman and eased into the saddle. With the two drivers riding either side of the younger man, and with the carriage left in a state of disrepair, those three continued their journey in the direction of Falmouth town, leaving the footman alone.
A quietness descended then. Elowen wondered why the footman had been left behind. It soon became clear: there was work for him to do. First, he carried a chest from the carriage and left it at a distance before returning for a short-handled shovel. He began, with great purpose, to dig a hole a good number of yards away from where the carriage sat. It took him a short hour. Elowen watched intently as he set the chest in its grave, covering it well with earth, stones, and grass. When the job was finished he clapped his hands in satisfied appreciation, then eased his broad frame onto a small stool hidden in the carriage’s rear. The footman sat at rest for a while. He seemed in no hurry. Elowen considered that he was waiting for the drivers’ return.
Maben began to whine. Elowen snapped in his ear: ‘Quiet, boy. Do you want us to hang ?’ It proved the wrong thing to say. The boy screamed, a high, piercing rasp, loud enough for the drowsy footman of robust size to take note.
Elowen watched; the brute was looking in their direction. He stood and recovered his greatcoat, brushing it down before easing his thick arms and barrel chest into it, buttoning the top collar. ‘Who’s there!’ he bellowed. ‘In the name of the king - stand and be seen!’
Elowen ducked, lay herself flat in the long grass. ‘Quiet, Maben.’ Surely now the footman was climbing the hillock, like an angry bullock that had picked up an enticing scent. She raised her head, peered once more over the tips of the long grass, saw the brute within distance of where they lay. Elowen gasped: he was carrying a musket, primed for good use.
‘Maben - we must turn and run into the forest’ she said. But her words, in the tumult of his fear, were lost to the boy. He screamed once more.
‘Show yourselves, rabbits’ the footman shouted. ‘I’ll be quick and clean in my killing.’ Elowen could hear the man close by, his great feet grinding the tending grass. If they stood, he would dispatch them both with a single shot. ‘Show yourselves and let’s be done with it’ he wheezed.
Elowen took up one of the stones and untied her slingshot from her waist. She measured her breath and stood, quick and confident, causing the footman to halt and take in the creature he was hunting. The size of her made him smile. ‘A bunny’ he chuckled and lifted his musket into a shooting position, the powder sweet and dry between his finger and thumb, the cord and match hanging ready about his neck. Elowen set the stone in its cradle: it was all or nothing. She whipped her slingshot three times above her head before unleashing her ammunition with all her might. The stone travelled straight and true, quenching the air as it travelled at great speed. The footman’s eyes bulged as he realised his fate. With a smitch of sound Elowen’s stone landed full square in the centre of the footman’s forehead, before dropping to the ground with a dainty thud. The footman stood for a moment, as if a spectre had crossed his path, the shock waves of impact travelling deep into his skull. Then he crumpled and fell backwards into the long grass where he lay without so much as a twitch of movement, seemingly at rest.