The Goatherd

Martin’s hand rested on the capstones of the dry stone wall, and Jacintha’s hand covered it with gentle fingers.   “It feels so special, here.”  She said, her voice subdued almost to a whisper.  “I just know we could be so happy, darling.  This has to be our house!”

Beside them an Agents’ ‘For Sale’ board rattled.   “The view is to die for.”  Martin admitted.  “You can see miles from those French doors in the kitchen, absolutely miles!”

Martin would never confess that, even with the aid of thick spectacles he always wore these days, horizons could be no more than a haze.  He could see the house, though.  Yes, he could see that.

It was a truly tempting piece of architecture:  five bedrooms, palatial bathrooms, open-plan kitchen and diner ( “The heart of the home, darling,” Jacintha insisted; “The heart of our home!”), living room, study, and so on.  A double garage with a loft above, a half-acre of wild, heather-strewn land.   Yet it was the last house on High Croft, a development of eight newly built houses, the other seven of which had been bought long ago.   Why had no-one wanted it – or was it merely a matter of a price Martin already considered cheap?  Could he make a cheeky offer?

“Alright, my sweet.  If you like it, it’s ours.  I’ll call the Agents.”

Jacintha smiled her satisfaction, suppressing a little whoop of joy within.  It would never do, in her relationship with Martin, to express emotion more honestly.   Martin must be expected to conform to certain conditions, as must she.  He was, after all, somewhat short of her image of the perfect man, but she took pride in his apparently limitless wealth, and his predilection for spending it on her.  He was also good company; even mildly amusing, at times.

Martin found his mobile ‘phone in his breast pocket.  The ‘For Sale’ sign flapped in noisy reminder. 

“It’s a little windy here.”   He said.  “There was a pub just down the hill:  I can make the call indoors.   Last one there buys the first round!”  

As her husband bounded away Jacintha sighed, giving a vestige of a shrug to a weathered-looking, waxed jacketed man who witnessed this humiliation from the further side of the road.  She busied her six-inch-heeled feet with a dozen or so quick little steps in passable imitation of a run, then reverted to an elegant walk.  Ahead of her, Martin’s outburst of fun was already over.  He was looking back for her with an embarrassed smile.

The pub was unpretentious, but comfortable.   Jacintha picked a window table with a settle while Martin ordered drinks.

“You looking to buy that house up top of the hill?”  The Landlord responded, wrestling with the new experience of preparing a Harvey Wallbanger.  “It does get cold in the winter, mind.   You can get snowed in for a month sometimes, easy.  There was a time no-one’d think of building anything up there, not even a bothy.  It’s three hundred feet above the treeline, isn’t it?”

Martin joined Jacintha on the settle by the window.   “The landlord thinks we’re mad.”

“Perhaps we are, a bit.”   Jacintha murmured.  “I love the open moors, darling.  The air is so fresh up here!”

“And there’s so much of it!”  Martin agreed.  “I’ll get the deal sewn up.”  He delved for the Property Agent’s specification sheet, lining up a telephone number to tap out on his mobile.

“The wind up there, it blows forever.”

The voice caught Jacintha and Martin by surprise.   Their eyes rested upon the figure who had watched their feeble attempt at a race not long since, and who stood over them, staring intently at Jacintha, now.  Upon closer examination Jacintha could see this was a man of flint, of stern jaw and leathered skin, a dweller in these hills she considered, by the way the elements had sculpted his features.   Finding she was breathing too fast,  she collected herself hurriedly.  “Does it?”  She responded lamely.  “Yes, I suppose it does.  It’s wonderful.  I love to feel the wind on my face, it’s so…so inspiring!”

‘Happy birthday, Mr President, happy birthday to you…’ Martin blinked behind his glasses – what had brought that into his head?

“You’d be buying that ‘ouse, then?”  The man said flintily, with a jaw that hardly moved when he talked and lips so thinly stretched across the wide slit of his mouth they almost twanged. 

“I believe so.”   Affirmed Martin with as much masculinity as he could muster; aware the proprieties had not been observed, and more aware than Jacintha, perhaps, of how pink she had become.  “I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve…”

“Abr’ham.  That’s my name.  You can call me Abe.”  The man waved an airy hand towards the other occupants of the pub.  “Most everybody does.

 “That used to be Meg’s place, there.  You wouldn’t think it, would ‘ee?   Oh, not the ‘ouse, o’ course.  It’d make Meg laugh, in that high squeaky voice of her’n, all that nice clean porc’lain and neat red bricks.  Stone, ‘er place were, with flags for a roof and a door o’ planks she borrowed off the loose boxes from the Squire’s stables.”  Abe interrupted himself long enough to inject a conspiratorial look,  “Not that Squire knowed.”

“Really, Abe?.”  Martin gave the newcomer one of his mildest smiles;   “She sounds like a real character.  Did you know her well?”

“Know ‘er?  Why bless you, yes.  Ever’body lives up ‘ere knows Meg.”

There was an uneasy pause.  Martin broke it.  “I’m sorry, we didn’t introduce ourselves.  I’m Martin; this is Jacintha, my wife.  I would guess you know a few things concerning the house?”  He didn’t wish to seem inhospitable.  This man gave the impression of living locally; a villager, maybe.  “If we tempted you with a drink, perhaps you could fill us in?”

“Well, I thank you kindly.  Yes, I could use a pint of Draught.”

 “I’ll get us all another round.”  Martin said. 

No sooner had Martin departed for the bar, than Abe had taken his place on the settle next to Jacintha.  “I adore the house!”  She self-consciously smoothed her skirt over her thighs.

“You’ll be ‘appy there wi’ ‘im, will ‘ee?”  Abe said.  “You’m a strong woman, I can see that.”  Martin brought the drinks.  “You’re def’nitely going to put in an offer, then?”

Martin set the glasses on the table.  Piqued at losing his seat, he pulled a chair from an adjoin table with some assertiveness.  “I think so.  We are, aren’t we, Darling?”

“Oh, yes!”  Jacintha breathed.  “Wild, open moorland like that, full of myths and legends – I couldn’t ask for more!” 

“My wife is an artist,” Martin explained, failing to keep all trace of irony from his voice.  “She writes.  And paints.”  He added as an afterthought.  “Tell us about this Meg?”

Abe sipped from his pint of draught.   “Ah!  Crooked Meg, she’m better known as…”

“Oh, why?”  Jacintha cried.  “What did she do wrong?”

“Meg?  Meg done lots that was wrong, but it aren’t the reason for her name.  No, Meg was a goatherd.   She was a goatherd because that’s what her father did until the day he died, and there was a herd of goats to feed, so Meg just took ‘em over.  Ever’one has to make a living, and that were Meg’s.”

“But she’s not to blame for that, surely?”

“Well no, but goatherds gener’ly weren’t popular people out here.   They smelt unpleasant, you see – a penalty of their callin’ – and they weren’t too particular how they fed their beasts.  Very few of ‘em had land of their own; theirs was a poor living and they couldn’t afford it, so they just drove their herds about the lanes, letting ‘em graze off the verges, or, if no-one were watchin’, off a legit’mate farmer’s crop, which, o’ course, being goats, they strip to the soil – leavin’ nothing!”

“Gosh!”  Jacintha was enraptured.  “That must have made the landowners awfully cross, mustn’t it?”

“That it did, Missus.”  Beneath the table, Jacintha felt Abe’s hand grip her knee.  “It did madden old Jacob Morrow, when he found ‘er in his cornfield, that’s for sure!”

“I imagine so.”  Martin’s face wore a perplexed look.  “I imagine ‘old Jacob Morrow’ would have taken measures to stop her?”

“Measures?  Oh, ‘er took measures alright.  Jacob were a poor tenant farmer see?  He couldn’t afford to lose all that corn she were takin’.   No-one blamed him.  Not at all.”

“Blamed him?  Oh my gosh!  Blamed him for what?”  Jacintha’s hand was engaged in a covert tussle with Abe’s hand which, having found its way to her leg, seemed reluctant to leave.

“He took after ‘er, see?   An’ she ran, ‘cause he weren’t a good tempered man, and he’d have beat her senseless.   Well, she don’t have time to open the five-bar gate, do she, so she clambers over.  Done it many times afore, no problem for Meg, not that.  If’n this time ‘er hadn’t caught ‘er foot in the third bar, and fell back-over!   You might say it saved ‘er, in a way, ‘cause with ‘er screaming  Jacob got frightened and lef’ ‘er alone.”

“God, that’s horrible!”  Jacintha whispered.

“Horrible, aye.”

Abe quaffed deeply from his pot of beer, which had miraculously emptied.  He pushed it across the table to Martin.  “Thank ‘ee kindly?”

“Another?”  Martin offered, not without reluctance.

“Aye, same again since you’re buyin’.”

“Yes, alright.”

While Jacintha’s husband was away at the bar Abe had two free hands, so he deployed both of them.  As Jacintha’s initial flattery at this attention was wearing thin, she used counter-measures.  Abe discovered, as had Martin years before him, that Jacintha’s annoyance could be quite painful.  Even a waxed jacket could not absorb the full force of rebuttal from elbows like Jacintha’s.

Martin’s return was a little quicker this time.  “ What happened to her?”  He demanded as he set down Abe’s second pint; “What happened to Meg?”

 “ Some say ‘er back were broke, some say her hips.  Still she dragged hersel’ two mile to get home, ‘cause they made ‘em tough, back then, and there weren’t no doctorin’ if you was poor.   She healed bad, though.  Ever after that she were bent over back’ards like a billhook, she were.  That’s why she’m called Crooked Meg.”

“Poor woman!”

Abe nodded into his replenished beer.  “Poor woman, ah!”

“Yes, it is an engaging tale.”  Martin, who was not oblivious to Abe’s rueful massage of a bruised rib, was sceptical.  “One thing puzzles me, er…Abe.”

“Ask away.”  Abe said.

“At the beginning of your story you spoke about this woman as though you knew her personally.     You said she had a squeaky laugh, if I remember.  Yet a tragedy like hers couldn’t happen today, could it?  This took place – what – a hundred years ago?”

“More like two…”

“So how….?”

“Oh, Meg’s still around.”

The silence was palpable.  It was Jacintha’s turn to break it;  “Sorry…did you say…?”

“I said Meg’s still around, Missus.  Most people up ‘ere ‘ll run into her, from time to time.  Where you’re going to be livin’, you’ll come across ‘er a lot.”

Martin frowned:  “So this is a ghost story?”

“Well, some might call it that, but only from a distance, if you see what I mean?  See, this isn’t the end o’ the tale.   Affer her accident. Meg couldn’t herd her goats no more, ‘cause she were crippled, so she took after gettin’ ‘erself a husban’.”

“Not easy, I imagine.”  Jacintha muttered. 

“No, she weren’t exactly a pretty dish.  But those were desp’rate times and they had desp’rate people in ‘em.  She married Ben Stokesley, she was the only one who would.  They was a foul family, them Stokesleys, and no sane woman would have had ‘em.  Some say Meg weren’t sane, though, even then.”

“After all she’d been through….”

“Exac’ly.  He were a drinker, were Ben, like all his kin.  Most the time he were too drunk to stand, and when he could stand he beat Meg until she bled, poor woman.  He didn’t hardly never work, an’ she couldn’t, so they never had nothing.  They was so poor they did eat grass from the hill from time to time, until one day Ben went out and sold Meg’s house from under her.  It were hers and her father before ‘er.  Meg couldn’t stand no more.

“When she found out, crippled as she was, demented as she was, poor screaming soul, she tore that house apart, stone by stone, timber by timber; and when Ben come’d home, roaring drunk having poured the money he’d got for the ‘ouse down he’s throat, she picked up the heaviest stone and she crushed he’s skull.   That’s where they found ‘er next morning, still sitting on Ben’s body and shouting out like the spirits of the moor were a-hunting in her head.”

“Dear Lord!  Whatever happened to her?” 

“No-one rightly knows.  Some said she was took to ‘Sessions and hanged, some that she were put in an asylum, because her madness wouldn’t ever free her.  But there was some….I don’t know as how I should tell you this…”

Jacintha was ashen.  “No, please, you must.  Go on.”

“Well, some say the Stokesley family came affer ‘er before no law could have her.  Some say they did her to death up there, and they buried her body deep, and head down, as they would a witch.  Them as says those things believe she’s up there still, beneath that new house o’ yourn.  Ever’one agrees though – ask anyone here – that they seen her walking the moor at night, and partic’lar in this las’ year heard her screams jus’ at sunrise, just afore the day comes.  Her house was razed to the ground, you see, nothin’ left.  But it was her home, and she don’t take kindly to anyone else living there, even with their fancy porc’lain and neat red bricks.  Some say she’s lookin’ for revenge, but them’s just tales. I don’t want you to worry none, now.”

“Not worry!” Exclaimed Martin, aghast.

“Didn’t you wonder how ‘twas such a grand ‘ouse stands empty?  For more ‘n two hundred years no-one dared build on that land for fear of offendin’ Meg.  But there ‘tis.”   Abe sighed.  “There ‘tis.”

 “Oh, Darling, this is awful!”  Jacintha might have been referring to Abe’s pat on her thigh, which she took to be a warning of renewed assault; Martin interpreted her otherwise.

“Yes, well.  Yes.”  He decided.  “I think we should go, now, Jacintha!” 

His wife attempted a delicate manoeuvre that would allow her to rise from the table without closer, and more intimate, contact with Abe.  In this she failed.   Her face passed within inches of his flint-sharp features as he murmured.   “Pity!   Still, us being neighbours and all, I ‘spect we’ll be seeing a lot more of each other now, eh, Missus?”  He turned to Martin, whose pale countenance might equally be expressive of fear or anger,  “You’ll be quick to put that offer in, now, will ‘ee?”

Martin stumbled. “Yes.  Well, no.  Perhaps not yet.   We may take a little longer to consider it.” 

“We do have one or two other properties to look at.”  Jacintha explained hastily.  

Abe watched his two drinking companions scuttle from the dark mood of the public bar into bright forenoon sunshine.  The Landlord called over:   “They was in a bit of a hurry, weren’t they, Mr Abrahams?”

“Yes George.  Yes, they were.”   Abe agreed, as he ferreted for his mobile ‘phone.  Holding it beneath the light from the pub window, he tapped out a number.  “Marcus!”  He hailed, in a voice that had lost all of its rustic burr:  “It’s Jocelyn, dear boy; Jocelyn Abrahams.  Marcus;  that house on the High Croft estate – ‘Woodlands’?   It’s been empty for a year now – if you remember, I told you at the time no-one would pay three hundred and fifty thou for it.   A bit too wet and windy, I said that, didn’t I?  Anyway, I’m on something of a buying spree at the moment, so have you thought any more about my offer?  Two-seven-five, yes.   Oh, you’ve got a view, have you?  Well, if they don’t bite, you just call me and I’ll be in your office in the morning.  Close it straight away!  Cash on the table, old boy – take my word for it, you won’t get better.   Of course,  you can rely on me.  I’ll look forward to it.”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Header Image: Capri23auto on Pixabay.

Of Canford Bluff

From those archives again!

  Don’t think us rude if we stare, stranger.  We get so few who visit here, you see.  Same weathered faces, same laboured jokes, but the beer’s good.  Arthur, he knows how to keep a good cellar, don’t you, Arthur?  Stay for a drink.  We’ll entertain you.  

Hartwood Farm?  Take the Brompton road a brace of miles, where it runs by Bretton Oaks, up Malton Hill, and if you turn left where you see the Wishing Stone there is a drovers’ track; it is there you may find it.  A mile or so.  A short mile, no more.

As the river runs about the foot of Hartwood Fell it leaves a basin of green land, not so large as you might think it, nor so green as you might wish it, but a farmer’s living once.  I knew him, the man. He who farmed that pasture – who lived there.  Sair, he was, with cheeks scoured black by the north-blown rain.  His name was Borden; Isaac Borden.

His home is standing, still, you’ll see it there, afore the narrow band of trees that skirt the Fell.  Of random stone it is, bare-laid on clay, and it might not be a house to make you proud, with no boards to warm your feet or plastered walls, yet when the easterly blows its flagstone roof holds firm against the worst, and when the river runs high from the fells in the spring rains it stands above the flood.  And there he spent all his years, did Isaac.

When I knew him he was old and he was broken.  But he was husband and father once, and inasmuch as a farmer is ever happy in these hills, he was contented with his lot.

What happened?  What was it led to his misery and his downfall?  Arthur, this man would like to buy me a pint, so my throat shall not dry.  I have a tale to tell.

He met her at the Wishing Stone.  She was waiting hooded in the snow for something she said would never come.  And he thought at first she was a wayward girl, but she was as hungry as she was cold, and so he took her in.  She warmed by his fire, she ate the hot soup he kept beside the hearth.  She pushed back her hood, she put her cloak aside.

They were married in the spring, Isaac and Mirabelle.  She bore him a son, she bore him a daughter, she stayed beside him through the years, but although he loved her best and knew her as well as any man can know a woman, there’s some would say she loved him not at all.

Now the daughter, Naomi it was, who paved their downfall.  A lonely child, as any child so raised must be, but with a yearning that might not be answered and a song in her head she could not name.  As she grew towards womanhood that song became more insistent, the words sweeter, until at last she took to wandering in the hills as if to search for it.  One summer forenoon when the heat was on the gorse and the curlews mewing she discovered what she sought.  Faint at first, it was, the music; the entice of rhyme but very near to silence.  Yet Naomi turned her steps to follow the tune:  she followed because she was curious; that at first.  Then, as the song grew louder, she followed because she must; because the music would not let her go.

Her head swam with the melody; her feet danced to the tune.  She climbed higher and higher, some said as high as Canford Bluff, and there she found upon the summit of the moor, as she thought, a fissure in the rocks whence the music came.   Such was the magic in her dance that she could go where no human might, and though the cut was no wider than the thickness of an arm, she slipped inside it.  She stepped through, into another world.

Isaac Borden waited, Jacob his son waited, hour upon hour all of that day, for Naomi to return.  You may not think of them as idle, for there is always work for poor farmers such as they, but they fretted and worried.  Mirabelle meantime, going about her tasks, she made no sign of worry.  As she worked she sang, a song neither man nor boy had ever heard her sing.  And when Isaac her husband spoke to her of Naomi’s tardiness, she smiled and made no answer.

Come that eve a thunderhead was building.  Jacob could contain himself no more.  Bearing his crook to guide his arm and setting his cowl against the lancing rain he set out, the boy, to find his sister.  In gathering dark, over rocks made slick by the downpour of the storm you might think his task was hopeless, yet he did not stumble and his stride did not vary.  Once and again bright lightning revealed his path, but a dozen times he might have slipped and fallen, were there not the strangeness of a pale green light that seemed to dance before him; and that light it was that beckoned him upward, until the music found him and drew him in thrall to the rocks of Canford Bluff.

Jacob saw his sister there, in a land beyond.  Through the narrow cleft he saw her figure dancing in a resplendent ballroom, with a score of courtiers all about her.  Jacob knew at once that he had stumbled upon the palace of the Fairy King.  He saw musicians in frenzy thrashing out the tune that had enticed him, fine ladies whirling to their rhythm, and watching over them all, upon his high crystal throne, the Monarch of the Wild People himself. His Majesty, he was as impressive a figure as you might expect – his stout body, too heavy for his wilted wings, clothed in rich silks and ermines, his round legs clad in white stockings, his feet in velvet slippers buckled with gold.   And the moment – the very second – Jacob set eyes upon him, the King’s frog-like stare matched his own!   Instantly, the boy felt a furious buzzing in his head.  White flashes skittered before his eyes and the stinging thrusts of a thousand fairy swords prickled upon his skin.   What could he do?    He called, he shouted as loud as he might to his sister:  “Naomi!  Naomi!”  But though she may have heard she paid him no attention.  He was too large to pass between the rocks; he could not reach her.  The stabbing swords became spears – they probed deeper, drawing blood – and try as he might, there was no riposte.  His assailants were too quick, their intent would all too soon become mortal.   Reluctantly, then, he turned away, but with one last vision in his head.  Utterly disbelieving, he saw his mother there among the dancers, looking up to meet his eye, and she was laughing!

When Jacob returned, bloody and torn, to his home, he discovered his father sitting in the pasture by the rushing river with tears upon his face.  And when they spoke and took some mead together the old man told how Mirabelle had left her wedding band upon his table, then walked without a word from his house; and how he knew at once what had happened, for these hills are rich in fairy lore.

“She was a child of the woods, my son.  I met her by the Wishing Stone and always knew in my heart it was so.  Your sister was destined; it was marked upon her.  Much as I have dreaded this day, it had to come.”

Now Jacob, he grieved for his father, but he puzzled how it was his mother’s seed had grown in his sister, yet not in him.  The years went by, and father and son struggled with the land each season in its turn.  The wild call did not visit Jacob’s ears again, though he worried greatly that it should.

Then one even, when the blackthorn bloomed snow white on the bough, and Jacob in his thirtieth summer, was returning from market on weary feet he discovered a maiden seated by the Wishing Stone.  Her head was cowled and her body wrapped in a gossamer cloak, so he knew her at once for what she was.  Nevertheless a wood nymph’s beauty intoxicates and a wood nymph’s voice is sweeter than song, so when she drew her veils aside; when she told him he was the one for whom she waited, he could not deny her.  

One winter they spent together in the cottage by the river, Jacob and Linantha, his bride.  And before they left in the spring Jacob learned how his wife well understood the wild blood that ran through his veins, for Mirabelle his mother it was who sent her to him.   

You see, upon that long-ago time when Isaac Borden met with Mirabelle at the Wishing Stone, she was waiting for her prince, rightful heir to the throne of the Fairy King.  He had not come, therefore she knew the usurper Malegon must have slain him.  When she lay with Isaac her purpose was plain.  She should bear two children with an earthling – the one a girl, who, with her wild blood, must become of age as a nymph.  The other a male child in whom the father’s seed was the stronger – who would remain with earthling kind until she sent a key.

So Mirabelle stirred the music in her daughter, and firm in her resolve, joined Naomi at court.  Together they charmed the fat usurper Malegon.  Naomi tempted and cosseted him, Mirabelle plied him with her sweetest wine, until he grew too fat and dissolute to defend his crown.  Among the courtiers was a girl so lovely all the courtiers fell upon their knees before her, and she was Linantha, Mirabelle’s niece.  Therefore Mirabelle selected Linantha as her key.  

Let Linantha and Jacob but lie together once, and Mirabelle knew the music would begin.  Jacob’s wild blood would be awakened.  Came the spring, and it was so.  Jacob bade farewell to his father, and with Linantha made his journey to the court upon the high fell.  The slaying of Malegon would be a simple thing.  Jacob would take his crown with Linantha as his queen, and Mirabelle, though thwarted in her wish to wear the crown, would be content to be the Queen Mother. 

And there the tale ends. These things the old man revealed to me when I spoke with him; when he was old and broken and alone. He knew their purpose when they left that Spring, Jacob and his nymph bride.  As he believed, they had gone to take their place on the throne of the wild people, and he died believing his son was a king.  He never saw them again.

What really happened?  No-one knows – or no-one knew until today.  This very day, come to think of it.  Go to the house.  You may find what you are seeking there.   You will find the old man’s grave, in the field by the river.  But I think you know what you will find, just as I think I know you, because I see in you your grandfather’s face, your grandfather’s eyes.  And at last, the truth.  The coup failed.  Malegon still reigns as fairy king.

How should I know this?  Because you are still an earthling, for all the cold fire in your eyes. You were born on this earth.  But let us talk of the song playing in your head, son of Jacob.  Perhaps ’tis Canford Bluff you really seek?

© Frederick Anderson 2015.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Crossing the River

They would remember how they made it to the river that night, the travellers, and how it felt, emerging from the forest, to see the silver ribbon of the waters glittering in the last of the day and the first of the moon.  Tam was much the worse by then.

“In the mornin’ we’ll cross,”  Abel decided.  “Not tonight, not now.”

Three days since, the travellers, two men and a boy, had left the ashes of their village, the morning after the Reivers came.  The border raiders had stripped them of everything, their livestock and their families, leaving no good reason to remain or any clear idea of where they were going, other than a hope they might find protection with the Prince Bishops who ruled the land to the south.   Abel, the fittest, drew a travois laden with what few belongings they had saved; Tam, the village chieftain whose leg had been badly burned in the firing of his hut limped along as best he could, with the boy to help him.  They had known the river barred their way; they also knew the Reivers would not be far behind.

 “We’ll rest here.”  Tam, exhausted and crippled by pain, dropped to his knees.  His companions understood.  The boy was only thirteen summers old, yet he knew there comes a time when a man’s blood flows too slowly, when his fingers turn black.  Tam’s beard was frozen back to his flesh, where it found no warmth to free it.

“They’ll not spare us, those bastards,”  The boy said.

Abel patted the boy’s shoulder.  “Here’ll do.  Young un’, get what ye can from the river, will ye?  We should eat well.  It’ll be raw tonight.”

There was their plan, then.  The ‘young‘un’ set off along the riverbank with his sharpened wand of willow, while  Abel gathered wood to make a fire.  And there was Tam, picking at the grass for dry kindling with numb fingers, but otherwise moving not very much at all.

The river was wide and the river was deep, which the boy supposed had a beauty to the minstrel’s eye, but he was never much for rivers.  Its waters were so cold with melt from the high tops it would eat your bones if you stayed still, even in its shallows, for long.  He had no wish to tarry here; if the choice were his he would cross the water that night, for to have the Reivers discover them so exposed on this north bank would leave little the crows could peck over, but Tam needed rest, and Tam was his Chief.  

Fortune smiled:  she permitted a fat Chub to languish where it thought itself safe, deep in a pool behind a promontory of rock.  The boy’s point struck fast enough to pierce it.  It was four hands long, food for a man, but little enough for three.

Atop the promontory the boy rested a while, drawing his prey to leave a gift for the birds and giving himself time, as Malfus his father had taught him, to learn about the land that must afford him shelter until light returned.  In this moment he remembered his parents’ charred remains as the Reivers had left them, and he swore in his heart the Reivers would pay.  Abel was his father now, if any man was. 

The silvered river had turned leaden in the departing light, flecked black where it over-ran itself, or interrupted its journey around a stone.  No other sound than its music penetrated the pall of silence.  No birds sang.

It was a howl; it was pitched high to hang, wavering, on the wind.  The howl was long, echoing and re-echoing above the dark trees, and it froze the marrow in the young one’s bones. A fox?  A hare, perhaps, in a fox’s jaws?  A primal scream, certainly, yet of madness, not of pain.   Stock still, the boy let only his eyes move as he strained to see the first visible sign of danger.

Steep forest garbed the river’s further bank, not a forest like those of his Borders home where the trees men call pines hold the land in fief and nothing can grow in their shade, but a mesh of oak and birch and a floor of briar.    Somewhere in the blackness of that tangled wood, he could be certain, the author of the howl was watching him – watching and waiting.  

And so it proved.  Two great eyes of cold fire, flame and ice, moving with slow precision through the undergrowth.  With a hunter’s skill that belied his tender years, the boy began to move, his head perfectly still, his eyes never leaving those fiery orbs.  A river stood between himself and this creature, he reasoned:  let it be an expert swimmer, he would still have time to rejoin Abel and Tam.  If a stand against a monster there must be, they would make it together.

Abel and Tam were waiting.  They had heard the cry as distinctly as he.

 “’Tis crossing the river – ‘tis coming for us!   Run!”

Abel started to his feet.  Tam did not move at all.  Could he move?  But the boy’s alarm aroused the fitter of the two men for no more than a second before Tam’s words reassured them.   “The creature will not cross the water.  It is as the legend tells it.”

Abel frowned,  “Sometimes I trust my eyes better than I trust the lore.  There are  tales told then, of a worm?”

 “Some say it’s a worm,”  Tam agreed;  “some will have it as a dragon.  Yet dragons, as I have heard it, fly.  No-one’s ever seen such a thing hereabouts.  It is his forest, and as forests go it is a bad place.”

“You knew of it?”  Abel accused him; “And still you brought us here?”

“I have heard the legend.  I did not know the legend was true.  Besides, there is no other path for us.” Tam warmed himself by the fire while Abel set about cooking the young ‘un’s catch over wood he had collected. “Dragon or worm, ‘tis said to be a monstrous creature.  And if it has seen the boy it knows we are here.”

The two men exchanged glances.  The boy could see the fear in their eyes.

Tam shifted himself uneasily.  “Tend my foot, young ‘un, will ye?  It pains me.”

Obediently, the boy knelt to untie the thongs of hide that bound Tam’s leg, releasing skins which clothed his foot in the manner of a boot.  The skins were stuck to the flesh beneath, so as he peeled them away, the flesh was lifted too.  

“Poison.”  The boy said, struggling to keep a lump from his throat as his nostrils were assailed by a too-familiar stench.

“Aye.”   Tam caught Abel’s glance.  “It’ll serve me long enough!”  He snapped.  “You’ll not be cutting my limbs from me this night, man!”

They should have taken turns to watch, perhaps, and there might have been some plan to do so, had not their weariness and the gnawing of starvation overcome the travellers, to send them into a deep sleep.   For his part the boy slept fitfully, beset by dreams of the burning of his village and the terrible blood-lust of the Reivers.  He woke long before the sky returned to light.

Given peace to think, he considered their chances with the monster across the river.  One fit man and himself.  If his crippled chieftain had been whole it might have been a more even contest, but there was only Abel.  Abel was more a weaver than a fighter.

Yet if they stayed this side of the river the Reivers would just as surely get them.  Their raiding parties were everywhere, so even if they were not specifically pursued they would be found, and very soon.   They were in no condition to run.

Propped with his back against a rock, the boy took a decision; he rose, padded softly to the travois where he knew that Tam had left his sword.  As Abel slept not three spans away, he took the sword and slipped silently away towards the river.

Did he have a clear idea of his intentions?  Beyond crossing the river probably not:  could he slay the worm?  He might have persuaded himself of that, but neither could he be blamed if his hope was to simply escape;, a boy of thirteen, struggling for survival in a world that wished him only harm.

The swim took him downstream on the current, so he made landfall out of view of his companions on the northern bank.   It also tired him, for he was unused to swimming and the weight of Tam’s sword held him back. Then there was a difficult clamber up a slick and muddy riverbank while the oak woods frowned down upon him as if entering them at his tender age was vaguely distasteful.  He began patiently exploring the few apparent chinks in the dark wood’s armour of briar, but blind alley after blind alley ended only in a wall of thorns.  The sky was already light when at last he found a gap that led somewhere.   His companions would be wakening.  They might think he had gone to fish for food, but if they discovered the missing sword…

Progress was still painfully slow.  The ground was rising, the sounds of the river dwindling behind him to be replaced by…silence.  Still there was no sound: in an oak wood at dawn, not one bird sang.

When the boy came upon the clearing he had no idea how far he had travelled or how late the hour, because the canopy of the trees had kept him from the sun.  Every step had been an agony of fear and doubt, expecting the legendary worm to pounce upon him, for he felt certain it knew of his coming.  It was watching him from behind the arras of the forest, picking its spot.  This glade could be its amphitheatre.  With fear oozing from every pore, he stepped into the sun.

“Greetings,”   Said a voice, conversationally.  “A better day than yesterday, don’t you think?  I’m sorry if that’s the wrong thing to say, but in my experience Englishmen prefer to talk about the weather.”

‘Be still!’  In the boy’s head his father’s voice reminded him. ‘Until you know your enemy you cannot decide how to engage with him!  Think before you move!’

 All in all the boy had never had much confidence in this advice, and always favoured running away as a first option.  However, this seemed quite a congenial encounter and he did not feel afraid.   Obviously this was a fellow traveller.  Obviously there was less to fear in this forest than he had thought.

“Who are you?”  He replied, scanning the surrounding undergrowth for the owner of the voice.  “Where are you?”

“Oh, over here!”   A clump of dense vegetation parted, to reveal a human head – rather grizzled, distinctly hairy, but human, nonetheless. 

The boy sighed with relief, “Us be fellow travellers, then!  I’m headed for the land of the Bishops, what’s your destination?”

“Destination?  Well, nowhere, really.  Wherever fortune takes me, I suppose.  I wonder, would you perform a small service for me?”

“Anything!”  The boy grinned broadly; “What have ye in mind?”

The face’s eyes closed and its nose inhaled deeply, as though savouring the woodland scents.  “Thank you.  I am so grateful!  Do you see the book over there in the grass?”

Now the boy had heard of books, although he had never met one personally.  This was his first.  Fortunately, as there was only one object to choose from he had no problems with identification.  It was a doughty volume, hide-bound, lying open.

“Aye, I see it”  He said, anxious to oblige.  “They told me these were dangerous woods.   I’m happy to find them otherwise?”

“You heard they were dangerous?  Oh, dear!”

“Aye, they say there’s a worm..”  The boy’s voice tailed off as his eyes drank in the beautifully illuminated manuscript of the book. “That’s beautiful!”  He breathed.

“Isn’t it?”  He heard, rather than saw, his new companion emerging from cover behind him.  “A man in a grey husk dropped it there.  Would you read from it?  That would oblige me awfully.”

“I would if I could,” The boy said earnestly, wondering exactly what was meant by a ‘grey husk’, “But I’ve no notion what the symbols mean.  I‘ve never seen the like.”

“Oh, that is a pity!”  said his new companion; almost at his shoulder now.  “I thought all humans could read books.”

“Humans?”  The boy was suddenly aware how his guard had dropped.  “You said ‘humans’?”

“I did, didn’t I?”  Replied the voice.  “I, you see, am not – well, not entirely.”

Putting his deceased father’s advice firmly to one side, the boy forced himself to turn around, and the sight that greeted him dried the words in his throat.  Standing in full view the owner of the face was a little taller than he – that he expected.  The luxuriant chestnut mane which framed the face, the lithe feline body rippling with muscle, the twitching, spine-laden tail, they were quite beyond expectation.  Terror triggered his legs to flight but his feet remained resolutely rooted to the spot.

“Oh, don’t try to run,” the face entreated him; “I’m much faster than you, as the man in the grey husk discovered.  It just wouldn’t work.”

“You’re the worm!”  The boy managed to stammer.

“Worm?  My dear child, do I look like a worm?”   The creature turned a little to one side, offering itself up for inspection; “I’m a Manticore if the name is familiar to you, but I don’t imagine it will be.  The head of a man, the body of a lion and a tail a bit like a porcupine.  You won’t know what those are, either, if you cannot even read a book.”

“Are ye going to kill me?”

“Kill you?  Yes.  Eat you?  Yes, although there’s hardly enough of you to make it worthwhile.”

“Is that what happened to the man in the grey husk?”

“Yes.  How do you think I got the book?”

“But you’re so … so…”

“Polite?  Well-mannered?  Of course.  The fact that I am going to consume you is nothing personal, so there’s no harm in a congenial conversation first, is there?”

“If I’m too small to bother with,” the boy kept a firm grip on his nerves as he tried to inject a note of reason,  “why don’t you simply let me go?”

“Why.  Why.”   The Manticore seemed to ponder this for a moment, then his eyes lit up, as if kindled by sudden inspiration.  “If I do you will spread word of me among the humans of the south, and then one of them, usually in a metal suit, will come to slay me.    I can cope with that, but the bits of metal get stuck between my teeth.  I’ve got a triple row of teeth, look!”   It gaped, exposing what did seem, indeed, to be three tiers of razor-sharp teeth.  “A dragon acquaintance of mine had just such an experience a century ago, and he didn’t handle it very well at all.  The human despatched him with a long sharp stick – most upsetting.  That was what induced me to move away from Persia.  I suppose it’s why I’m here.  ‘Why’, you see?  Your word, your word!”

It bounced up and down on its forepaws gleefully, “Well now, I think we’ve observed all the pleasantries, haven’t we?  I admit to being a little peckish…”

“No!”  The boy jumped back, Tam’s sword raised:  “Leave me alone, creature!  I don’t want to have to harm ye!”

“Harm me?”  The Manticore chortled; “Oh my dear, look at you!  A scrap of a thing, hardly worth the bother, really, but it’s a fetish of mine, isn’t it?   Do put that pointy thing down, child, before you drop it!”  It raised one paw, exposing a row of long, hooked claws which it examined professionally, before polishing then on its mane.  “I could live very adequately on the deer from this woodland, but I do like a human now and then – quite a different taste, you see?  Are you familiar with pork, at all?”

The boy was not without acumen, quick to assess his chances as very low, yet not prepared to give up; not yet.   “Suppose I could be of use to ye?  If I’m scarce worth eating, perhaps I have skills I could offer?  It’d be better to keep me alive then, surely?”

The Manticore laughed, and its laughter was not a pleasant sound.  “Do you know I can fire the spines from my tail, like arrows?  I have so many weapons, child.  What could you possibly offer that I do not already have?”

“I could collect the spines for ye, and bring them back…”

“I don’t want them back!  I simply grow another set.”  The creature stretched its leonine body and lay on the grass, its chin resting on its paws.  “But this is intriguing.  What else can you offer me?”

“I can hunt deer for ye?”

“No!  Ah, no.  I can do that for myself.  I like doing it.”

“I can catch fish!”  The boy said.  “Basically, you’re a cat.  You must like fish!”

The Manticore cocked an eyebrow.  “Now that is interesting, you are quite correct.  I adore fish!”

“Well, I can catch them for ye.”  The boy said – and as he said it a scheme of such low cunning entered his head it was all he could do to keep from laughing in the creature’s face.  “I bet yer can’t catch fish for yourself – ye don’t like water, do ye?”

“As you observe with such perspicacity, I am a cat.   I loathe the water!  I hate the water!  I despise it!”  In the ensuing shudder, a spine accidentally dislodged itself from the creature’s tail.  It flew like an arrow and embedded itself resonantly in a tree-trunk.

“Few men must pass this way,” the boy suggested, “because there’s legends told of ye in the north to make them afraid.  Suppose my companions and I were to build ye a raft from the timber in these woods?  Ye could cross the river and your paws would barely get wet. A short march north of the river there are many humans for ye to feast upon – not men in armour but wild raiders easy for ye to catch and devour.  Y’see, ye would profit greatly from letting me live!”

“Really?  Could you do that?  My dear chap, could you absolutely do that?”

“Oh, aye!”  Said the boy, “We can do that.”

So it was that the Manticore agreed to let the young ‘un’s companions cross the river.  Tam was beyond caring, but Abel’s reluctance, and his horror at his first sight of his ‘worm’ took longer to surmount.   When the boy explained how their cooperation could be ample vengeance for the razing of their village, though, he was inspired.  

The Manticore had another surprise in store for them yet, because it possessed a power of healing, which it exercised by bringing Tam back to health.  While the boy fished, the adult pair felled trees to fashion a raft, and came the day when the Manticore was able to step gingerly onto its floating transport.

By the combined efforts of men and boy their unlikely cargo was propelled across the river without incident, and after some surprisingly emotional goodbyes the Manticore confessed the smell of quarry was quite overwhelming.

The three travellers had the pleasure of seeing it vanish into the trees beyond the river, knowing what a dreadful revenge awaited their Reiver foes.

Finally, the trio released their raft into the current, lest the Manticore should ever alter its mood and try to return.  They turned to the south, and although their own legend is rarely told, it is said they made their way safely to the more secure lands ruled by the Prince Bishops.   There, the boy learned to read the book the Manticore’s poor unfortunate lunch had left behind, becoming versed in Latin and a revered scholar.   

At least, that is the legend…

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.