Vol. 1 Escape
At the Old Oak
By Kenneth Mulholland
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Copyright 2002 Kenneth Mulholland
A thorny hedge appeared, running away to left and right into the
darkness, where the old road wound and wooden gates arose before him.
These were latched shut, though not locked, and after fumbling about for
some moments, the stranger found the cross bar through a hole in the
rough boards and lifted it clear, so that the timbers creaked back upon
their rusted hinges. Entering, he pushed them shut again and turned
toward the village. None it seemed were abroad at that late time, and so
he and his lamed horse ventured farther down the deserted way that led into
a square of sorts where shuttered buildings stood, firelight
glimmering from chinks at door and window.
Eventually, he stood beneath a weathered sign, creaking at its moorings.
'The Old Oak Inn,' he whispered, staring at the letters drawn in red by
the side of a painted tree, picked out in greens and browns. And beneath
these, he continued, 'Room and bed. Ale and wholesome food to be had.
Master Spiggot. Innkeeper.'
The thought of a warming hearth and welcoming folk within swept over him,
and he raised his hand to ring at the bell rope.
Then he checked such impulse, a chord of fear staying folly. 'It is far too
risky to chance a meeting here,' he thought. 'Better to seek shelter in
some stable, that I may rest this night, and on the morrow, perhaps beg
a little food in exchange for this poor mount.'
He was about to turn away, when a voice close at hand said, 'Why don't
you ring? Old Spiggot is a bit of a coot, but not so bad as to refuse
lodgings, even at this late night.'
A figure emerged from the lane that ran beside the inn, and came forward
until the lamp lit his squinting face. He was a squat man, with greying
hair about the edges of his balding pate, and a wisp of peppery
moustache beneath his rather red, rounded nose.
The horse snuffled, flicking its ears, whilst the stranger, though
startled, remained silent.
'Beggin' yer pardon Master, or is it Miss,' said the other, peering
closer, 'my eyes aren't what they was once. Ah, but I see now,
ye 're all but knocked up after long on the road by the looks of ye.
Well, heh, I say come in to you. Innkeeper Spiggot at yer service.'
'I... wish that I could,' answered the stranger, 'yet I have nothing to
pay for such comfort. Still, good innkeeper, if you would accept this
lamed animal, I should be glad of a straw bed beside him, and perhaps
fodder for he and myself.'
'Ah well then,' returned Spiggot, wrapping his muffler closer about his
neck, 'just let me tweak the lantern-wick a wee bit, and then follow
down thither to the animal's quarters out the back. I come up the lane,
do ye see, to run the bounds of the Oak, as is my practice. There, that
does it, now mind your way in the dark.'
The stranger did as he was bidden and soon saw the twinkle of a lantern
at the end of the lane, where loomed the outline of the stables. Once
within, Spiggot set about applying a salve to the old horse's hocks and
shins, whilst the stranger removed saddle and bridle, mindful to keep
his scant belongings thrust over his shoulder.
As the innkeeper finished his work, brushing the animal down and
watering him, he asked absently, though not without a little humour to
his tone, 'Ye have travelled many leagues, Master...er ?'
'Corin... that is my name, and yes I have,' replied the other, testing
the straw of an empty stall with his muddied boot.
'Oh, but ye can't bed here,' said Spiggot, squinting away as he closed
the animal into the next stall. 'Not when me and my daughter have an inn
almost empty of folk, and plenty of room to spare. Why, that would be
most unfair if ye were to deny us of yer company this night. We seldom
get folk from the southlands come winter. None at all these past many
days,' he added with a wink. 'There's a goodly fire a burnin' in our
parlour's hearth, and Flora putting up late supper for me now. Come and
warm yeself, the nag will be fine in a day or three, and we would have
news o' faraway, that is if ye've a mind to talk a bit.'
The stranger, Corin, hesitated whilst Spiggot ambled past, gesturing him
along; the balding head nodding, red nose pointing the way.
'Perhaps I could take a bite with you and your daughter, and wash,
before hand, if that be all right?'
'And with certainty, if only to get us out o' the cold and indoors,'
said the innkeeper. 'But be sure, the Old Oak is still the same;
welcomes all, alike to the times of my dad, and his dad afore.'
Flora met them in the kitchen, where pots and pans bubbled and steamed
on the wood stoves. She was a winsome lass; glowing cheeks, bright
lipped, ringlets in her hair. Her eyes glistened brightly when she heard
all that her father had to tell, and she fairly swirled about the supper
things. 'Well, this was to be another night alike enough to many,' she said,
smiling, 'and now we have a visitor unexpected. Go in, go in. I'll bring
broth and mead, and that to follow, when ye've got settled in the
The innkeeper burst through a further door, where leaped a light of fire
and greeting, and Corin followed at his heel, only to pull up short at
the sight of faces therein; and at once was aware and frightened by
them, and the severity of his peril.
'Come along with ye now Master Corin,' said Spiggot, bustling between
trestles and boards toward an oaken portal, 'I'll introduce ye to this
pair after ye've cleaned up and knocked the mud offen yer boots.'
Corin had but a fleeting glimpse of the two men seated before the huge
fire-place as he hurried after the innkeeper, to find himself in a hall
where opened many other doors.
'In here,' said Spiggot, throwing one such wide. 'You'll find hot water
and towels for yer purpose, and victuals a' ready when you return.'
Alone within the little bathing room, Corin had time to gather his wits
whilst he laved his aching limbs and face from an ewer dipped to a great
pot that overhung a fire in the ingle. He was safe enough for the
moment, he reasoned, for if the men had been of those who pursued him,
they would have taken him then and there. 'Better to face them, whoever
they are, slake thirst and hunger, and learn anything I may about the
countryside ahead. Later will be time enough to get free of the village
before dawn; and without my lame mount, too long will his healing be,
and I by needs far away ere then.'
When he had completed his brief toilet, he made to the hall door that
led into the parlour, halting to listen for sounds within before
entering. There came a steady drone of voices as he pushed the heavy
timbers open a crack.
'...won't be any more drays, roads too heavy with mire shortly.'
'Aye winter's on the step, and land sleeps the sounder for it.…'
'Ah! There ye be, young Master,' exclaimed Spiggot, lurking by the
shelf-lined wall next to the entrance, polishing pewter. 'Well do come in
and meet these fellow travellers. This here is Badger, and this 'un,
Rudd; timber haulers they be, out of Burdarrow, a village you must have
passed through afore Ways End.'
The two men nodded as Corin stepped inside, the innkeeper squinting at
him all the while.
'And this is Master Corin,' continued Spiggot, leaving off to stir the
fire and heft in several logs. 'He's come up with a gammy horse, and him
near frozen as well. Still, rest and good food will see that a' right,
and warming by this blaze as well; set yeself down here, next the
hearth, young sir.'
'Where do ye hail from?' asked Badger affably enough, taking a long pull
at his tankard as Corin moved closer to the fire, where warmth began to
seep into his body.
'I come from beyond King's Ford, Mydarrow way,' he answered evenly,
glancing from the flames to the men.
Their eyes regarded him with appraisal.
Badger's eyes were a curious deep blue, set in a weathered face.
A scar at the corner of his mouth, just above his close-cropped beard,
gave him the appearance of a continual mocking smile.
The other, Rudd, was bigger boned, with dark brown eyes almost hidden beneath
heavy brows and long black hair. His lips seemed a vivid red amongst a tangle of beard,
and when he spoke, his teeth flashed white.
'Mydarrow you say? Well we have carried timber that far, and I've never
laid sight to ye afore.'
'Nor I to you,' Corin answered in truth, making as light as possible of it.
'And what brings you all the long road here to the last village south of
the mountains?' inquired Spiggot, rattling goblets and platters on a
sideboard, and fussing away with his cloth.
'I seek any useful work for my keep that might be had,' and here Corin
feigned a slight embarrassment. 'I have left my home, you see, without
'Run away, you mean,' muttered Rudd, filling his cup from a jug near to
'Well, yes, I suppose so,' he returned, somewhat sheepishly. 'But I had
a great longing to see all this wide land, and those of my family have
no real need of me now. And so I took horse and these few belongings for
'And left without so much as a goodbye!' The innkeeper laughed. 'Still,
I suppose you'll return to them when ye've had yer fill of wanderin'.
That's nay so bad. Mind, I figured as much when I clapped eyes on ye.
Even if they be short a sight, you had a sort of look about ye. Well
don't fret over it; you're here now, and I won't turn you out on a night
like this 'un. Work enough, I can find for ye to pay yer way till horse
is cured a what ails him; then you can be off wherever ye like.'
'Must have lived off the land in all your travels,' said Rudd, eyeing
the bow and sword and other trappings at Corin's feet, where he had
dropped them. 'That looks like a blade fit to skewer more than rabbits.'
'I was told that there are still wild creatures in these parts,' Corin
replied, trying to make his words plausible, if tinged with innocence.
'Mayhap there are.' Badger grinned. 'Though inglet or iron would needs
be swift against bear or boar.'
The conversation was interrupted at that moment by Flora, entering with
a large tray, laden with mugs and bowls and plates, which she set to
table, where they steamed out a variety of delicious smells, enticing
hungry folk to forego speech in favour of simple feast. Together, the
timber carters, Corin, Spiggot and his daughter tucked in with a will:
there was turnip and carrot soup, hot baked bread, stew of meats and
vegetables, and mead to quench thirst, though Corin took little of such,
not wishing the heady liquid to dull his wits.
Afterward, whilst Flora cleared the board and Spiggot worked the fire
into a gale of sparks, the others fell to speech once more.
'I should like to thank you for your kindness,' said Corin, directing
this to the innkeeper, whilst watching the wood haulers where they
lounged at ease. 'And too, I wonder if your guests might tell me
something of their travels in this part of Ravenmoor? Does the road go
on beyond Ways End, and what lies there?'
'What lies there is shadow,' murmured Rudd. 'Shadow that hides a secret
kept within dark ways. There is a forest, so vast and deep that few have
ever entered that have come out again. Forinth, was it once named; now
it is called The Forbidding Forest, and the less I hear or know of it
the better. Why, if it wasn't for our work, you would never find me at
its margins. I hate the place.' He fell silent, and such was his
vehemence that a time passed where only the crackle of fire broke the
Badger, at length, went on, 'Rudd and I go up there to bring out timber.
Some, better than can be found anywhere else in all Ravenmoor. The
woods-folk who dwell inside Forbidding Forest cut it, and we bring it
out, where it be used, even by the highest of this realm at Penda, our
'The woods-folk,' said Corin with interest, 'then some do dwell in the
'Away to the east, yes; for there, after generations, they have made a
settlement,' Badger nodded. 'Yet even so, comes winter and they stay
close within their bounds, mending and making and planting, where they
deem it safe to do. Then, in the spring, we, and other timber haulers
will go up there to take out what they've cut; but none of us dare the
northern roads, old and overgrown as they've gotten.'
'Besides,' said Rudd, stirring, 'even them folk are queer, what with
messing about the unknown, and disturbin' who can tell?'
'Aye, but that's their living,' Spiggot intervened, pouring out more
'Not for me, innkeeper.' Rudd halted him with an uplifted paw. 'I go
where sleep calls me. The morrow, we have an early start, if we're to
get through The Rises and Rushall Marsh.'
He threw a glance at Badger as he took his way to bed, and after closing
the door to the hall behind him, his companion laughed softly. 'Aye,
he's right enough. One more draught and I'm to bed.' And turning to
Corin, the timber-hauler said; 'Ye mustn't be offended by Rudd's
gruffness. When he was no more than knee high, his father was lost in
Forinth, and even after all this time it grieves him. Truly, he means it
when he says he hates Forbidding Forest. Still, like those woodsmen and
their kin, he and I have our living out of it.'
'I suppose that is why this village is named Ways End,' said Corin, a
little wistfully as he stared into the flames dancing on the broad
'Too true,' chirped Spiggot, downing a goodly gulp and warming to some
There came the sound of Flora scrubbing pots in the kitchen, and a faint
sighing of winter's winds, as the innkeeper held forth. 'Travellers
Rest, was it called in the long ago, when our ancestors first built it
up. Ah, but then I should begin at the beginning, which ye may or may
not know a' ready;' he looked askance at Corin, who shook
his head, keen to hear more.
'Well now,' went on Spiggot, pleased it seemed to chat, 'as I have had
it from my dad, and he from his afore him, all we folk who live, to this
very day, in Ravenmoor are descendants of those fewest who came here
from out the lost waterways beyond memory. Since then, five kings have
ruled this land; the first no more than a wee child. Weldun. King
Weldun, I recall his name to be. And as the story goes, when those first
folk landed in Berry Bay, down south, they found the ruins of a mighty
castle on the high cliffs over lookin' the ocean. And later they found
the old road, the same as ye have followed the long length of Ravenmoor.
Ha!' he exclaimed. 'It must have puzzled them sorely; saved as they were
from wherever they 'ed come over the wide seas, to find landfall in a
realm empty of any kindred peoples, though sure sign was there that such
had once dwelt here.'
He mopped at his brow with a green kerchief, whilst Flora returned,
wiping her hands upon her apron.
'At any roads,' he continued, 'that is what happened. Our early settlers
took a hold o' the soil and dug they-selves in. They must've been hardy
enough, lasting through those cold winters at the beginnings, their
animals as well; but so be it they did. And after, they cut new stone
and timber, and began to build on the broken foundations, so that the
kings to come would have a seat; now our King Erryldene's stronghold of
Penda. Yet to this day, none have ever learned more of those mysterious
peoples who dwelt in this land before the coming of our own kind. As to
the highway, that has been mended and kept open from earliest times, as
villages began to spring up along the way: first Darrow, that was later
called Mydarrow; then Kings Ford and Burdarrow; and finally, Travellers
Rest, here on this very spot.'
The innkeeper halted his story a moment to ask his daughter if she would
turn down the covers of a bed for their unexpected guest, and light a
fire to warm his room, then he resumed. 'Now, when our forefathers
explored into the north, they came to the beginnings of a forest that
spread both west and east towards the surrounding mountains o' this
realm, and beyond the forest, far off north-away, they spied a taller
chain, that links the ranges and forms a barrier there. The forest they
called Forinth, in honour of their leader, and the cloud covered peaks
they glimpsed got named The Tumberimber, though I can't say why.
Still and all, the Long Road, as it has become known, wandered into that sea
of trees and they followed as best they could, cutting through overgrown
tracts long unused. The trees they felled went into the making of this
thorp, and it became a way-stop for all who ventured after.'
Spiggot rubbed a hand across his balding head, and rose to take a
blackened poker to the smoking logs. With a flick he turned them, and
they burst anew into yellow and blue flames.
'Mind you,' he went on, grasping his mug of mead and sipping from it,
'all this comes by word o' mouth for the most, down from father t' son.
There were little book writin' way back then, and perhaps some o' the tale is lost,
But,'-and he smiled as the warmth and liquor seeped into him, 'as I have it, from
the beginnings inside Forinth Forest, unknown dangers and mishaps
followed those who dared cross the borders of that wild place. The
further they ventured, the worse it got, folk vanished and were never
seen again; others were struck down by falling trees. Some came out,
witless as mad hares, to wander addled all their lives. Meantime, the
boldest, under this Forinth, scrambled on until they broke through to
the beginnings o' the lofty mountains; and there the road ended, led to nothing.'
'Aye,' nodded Badger, bearing out the innkeeper, 'that's about what I've
heard of the old times; yet I seem to remember talk of uncovered
quarries or mines.…'
'So 'tis told,' went on Spiggot, unwilling to let go his ramblings.
'Lost shafts and digs, and hewn places by the feet of towering
mountains, as goes the ancient tale.'
'But what of the way there?' Corin asked. 'The old road, surely that
must have pointed somewhere further?'
'If it ever did, young Master, that path lies under stone, as was it
when Forinth and his early folk first beheld the Tumberimber's
fastness,' murmured Spiggot.
Flora entered the parlour as the three fell silent, and her presence
broke the sombre quiet. 'I'll be off to bed now,' she said, and wended
her way to a stair that led aloft, after first kissing her father and
bidding the others good night.
'I have one last question,' said Corin, whilst Badger drained his
tankard and Spiggot stood up, yawning. 'Have none ever climbed the
mountains of the Tumberimber and seen what lies beyond?'
'If any have, I've never heard tell that they returned to speak o' what
they discovered,' answered the innkeeper. 'Why, it is said that of old,
folk made attempts to build ships and sail out o' Berry Bay; the only
place where 'tis possible, and there at best o' times dangerous and full
o' treachery. Most were sunk afore they passed through the Wave Races;
and those that were not, never came back. It has been lives of men since
they last tried. And as to daring the Forbidding Forest and the high
peaks that vanish into cloud there, even Forinth was lost without trace,
so the stories go. Whether he took it into his head t' see what he could
up there, who knows? But his name has lasted all the seasons of
Ravenmoor. He was master of the ship that brought our kin and their
flocks to land, and one of the founders of the realm; and afterward, an
explorer who, it's my guess mind, desired to probe the deep ways and the
lofty mountains. Aye, his name, and those who were lost at sea, King
Edrun, Queen Brenna, and their children Qwilla and Ernole, their names have
He shook his head as if to clear it somewhat.
'Kings have come and gone since then: Weldun, the Child-King first, and
after him, let me see, Tiernan his son, then Kean, and after him,
Edrazza... And now Erryldene.'
Spiggot sighed, resting an arm upon the tall mantle of oak that breasted
the width of the fireplace. 'All o' them too occupied with other
concerns: the building of this land, the crops and cattle, the day to
day growth, seeing to the needs of the kingdom, and that mostly down
south, so that to worry over things up here in the distant regions would
ha' been the last thing on their minds...'
'Besides,' Badger went on, the scar at his mouth dragging it to a mock
grin, though his eyes belied that, 'who would want to venture too far
beneath the eaves of Forbidding Forest? Only old tools, rusting and
broken, and old bones are left there. We few may tarry on the outskirts,
and the woodsfolk dwell just within, where they have cut a space, east
of Ways End; yet tale and fear mingle across the boundaries of the
innermost hidden depths. A legend that has grown from the beginnings,
tells of the Sleeping Lands, where our forefathers trod after unknown others
had abandoned it. Mayhap the soil itself, and everything thereon and
therein, will give up the truth one day; and then we, or our children or
theirs, will learn what was the truth of those Sleeping Lands, the same
fields and pastures tilled to this time.'
The timber hauler lurched to his feet and joined the innkeeper at the
hearth. 'You ask if any have ever found a way out of Ravenmoor? Well
here is a verse that was told me when I was but a chit of a lad, and
I've never forgotten it.'
He began, as the last of the logs burned and broke apart, crumbling to
coals that glowed, hissing and dying.
'In this country of bear in lair and fox in den, of marsh and river,
wold and glen: the eagle, the hart, the rabbit, the moke, the elm, the
yew, the pine, the oak. The dene, the dell, the dale, the glen; the
forests of trees, the abode of men. The ouzel, the owl, the shrike, the
stoat. The raven, the roe, the brock, the goat. The ghyll, the rill, the
babbling brook. The foxglove and buttercup, the haughty rook. The
kingfisher. The old man boar. And no escape from Ravenmoor.…'
Later, when Corin was alone within a cosy room where burned a little
fire, and the others had gone to their beds, he thought a time upon all
that he had learned. And he pondered too about those who pursued
him. 'They may arrive here on the morrow,' he thought to himself. 'Best I
be off before cock crow. The good innkeeper can have the horse for his
kindness, and bless him. Yet I must take my chances on foot, and with
all speed. The Voices call me into the north; and there lies the forest;
Forbidding though it be named, may it offer refuge, for such is my only
He unlatched the shutters of a window and peered out to where lay the
lane, silent and deserted. Leaves rattled about whilst the wind whisked
them in their deadness toward the faint glow of the lantern where his
mount was quartered.
'Out this way,' he thought, absently scratching at the whiskers on his
chin. A great weariness seemed to be overtaking him; probably caused by
food and the comfort of fire. 'I'll just put my head here for short
The bed, which almost filled the tiny room, welcomed him, and even
though he thought but to rest, the softness of the coverlet drew him
down into a snug warmth that closed about his aching body.
The village of Ways End slept, the last lights winking at their
moorings, as Corin too, dozed.
Southward, those who sought him also slept, muttering where they lay,
rolled in their blankets beneath the tumbling clouds.
All Ravenmoor slumbered, land and tree and creature. Though for how much