Vol. 1 Escape
The Jug and Kettle Man
By Kenneth Mulholland
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Copyright 2002 Kenneth Mulholland
‘Ding dong dell, ding-a-ling, ding-a-long, bell, bell, bell.... ‘
Ridiculous words tugged faintly at Corin, where he curled amongst the bedding, the light of chill dawn creeping through a crack in the shutters and slanting across his closed, yet flickering eyes. In a moment, he was fully awake, rubbing at his limbs to restore some feeling and rating himself for such foolishness. Rest he had most assuredly needed, but what the cost?
From somewhere toward the front of the building, perhaps outside, he heard Flora's voice, gaily singing;
‘Oh The Old Oak Inn,
where fire burns within,
forget about your achy bones,
you'll find a welcome grin.
Though saddle-sore and weary,
a bath and supper, deary,
await you when you come again,
to slake your thirst and ease the pain,
of travel on the road,
drop that heavy load, at The Old Oak Inn.
Oh The Old Oak Inn, never mind the din,
of life beyond the End of Way,
today's another day,
where you can have your fill of beer,
and laugh and sing, and share the cheer,
though little will ye pay,
to sleep upon a feather bed,
a downy pillow at your head,
when goodnight's are gladly said,
at The Old Oak Inn....'And then, another voice, deeper than hers, took over in song.
‘Ding dong dell, I've many wares to sell.
Sing it high, sing it low.
Yell it with a big yell!
Pish posh pan, the Jug and Kettle Man,
tell it here, tell it there.
Tell it to yer old gran.
I've got some mats and some rugs,
lots and lots of quaffing mugs:
I've got some beds complete with bugs!
Ding dong dell. Fal-lal-lel and fal-lal-lel,
ding-aling, ding-along, and ding dong dell.
Sing ding, sing dong, sing ding-aling-along....’
Corin scrambled to his feet and swept up his few belongings, hoisting them over his shoulder. ‘That must be a pedlar, come to the village,’ he muttered, flinging wide the window shutters so that pale sun streaked the tiny room. ‘High time that I was on my way, whilst he makes merry in the square, and folk are drawn to him.’
He lifted a leg over the sill and was about to jump down into the lane, when a further commotion reached his ears. It was the sound of horses clattering on the cobbles, and voices raised in command; one of which he well knew. Daring a quick look along the lane toward the sound, he saw that a wagon, part covered at the rear, blocked the way there; and without a moment's hesitation, leaped down to the hard stone, jarring his legs on impact, and hobbled away in the direction of the stables. Behind, a babble of hoarse shouts and general confusion arose, whilst those mounted spread through the village streets, mingling no doubt with folk turned out to see what was amiss.
As Corin gained the shadows of the stalls, wherein was housed his own poor steed, he heard a pounding at the inn door, and the rattle of the pedlar's wain coming along behind him.
‘Ding-dong-dell,’ sang the darkened figure of the man at the reins as the rig rolled beneath the roof, without halt, driving toward an open way beyond. In utter desperation, Corin hoisted himself aloft the back of the rumbling wagon and tumbled within. Risking one swift glimpse, he saw that a single rider followed; though he halted, recalled perhaps by those combing the square and the houses beyond. With some small relief, Corin realised that he had not been seen by his pursuers, and huddled down amidst a bumping mass of wares: anvils, inglet cauldrons, stoups, bird cages, platters and plate, and querns and mill-stones. The tinker's song rambled, untroubled, as they came out the far end of the stables, where fitful light lit the jumble of goods surrounding Corin, and none were there to challenge their passage.
‘Seems like most folk are too busy waking up, or goggling a' ready at the riders come from Penda, to bother with us today,’ said the pedlar, so unexpectedly that Corin started where he crouched, trying not to be squashed by all the objects swaying and rattling around him. The fellow at the reins laughed; a deep, wholesome laugh. ‘Ah Tocky, my dear old donkey, what care us? Ways End our last stop afore kith and kin, and we have wandered far, from Fernon Leven to Cotta Vale. Now a' homing we go, and nightfall will see us safe there, you to manger, and me to warmth of hearth. Long it has been, the better the welcoming, I'll wager.’
Twice the wagon halted; the first time somewhere on the outskirts of the village, or so Corin guessed, and that only for a group of children who flocked alongside whilst the Jug and Kettle Man tossed them down a scattering of dried fruits, scooped from a basket on his seat. The second, when the donkey stopped before a tall, green wall that was in fact the border hedge of Ways End on its northern side.
There came a heaving and a grunting, as the pedlar, beyond Corin's sight, threw open the way, and then led donkey and rig beyond. After that, the wagon rolled off over rough ground; still a stone paved road, but broken and holed, as if long without repair.
At whiles, Corin took a peep between the back board and canvas. Ways End lay behind, now only rooftops, grey against the dark green of enclosing hedge. None had followed.
‘They think me still somewhere in the village,’ he thought to himself. ‘In hiding, and without a mount; for they must surely have found the horse by now: Spiggot would have told them, that is certain.’
‘And how do you like riding amongst the clutter of The Jug and Kettler's home on wheels?’ said the man at the reins, without turning. ‘It's safe enough to show yer face now, my young lad; unless ye wish to travel wearing pots and pans.’
‘You knew that I was here all the time?’ Corin asked, making his way forward; surprised, though somehow unafraid.
‘This is my wagon, mine and Tocky's. We knows when extra weight be loaded.’
Corin drew up behind the driver's back, still crouching low between the flapping sheets that covered the rear of the rig. From there, he could see the narrow way ahead, where it wandered over chalky limestone and muddied ruts, through clumps of trees, turned inward to themselves, like wizened gaffers shielding from the onset of winter. And before that image of ancient road turning ever northward, bobbed the ears and rump of Tocky, the Kettler's donkey, plodding forward with determined step, as if the animal well knew, and longed for their destination.
As to The Jug and Kettle Man, he was but a bundle of clothing, hunched and wrapped fast against the cold of that end of autumn day. Upon his head, he wore a leather cap, beneath which fell curls of ample, brown hair. His hands too were brown; the brown of weathering from rain and sun, and time spent in the open beneath the sky of Ravenmoor's limits.
‘You have a friend or two to thank in Ways End,’ he chuckled, twisting his head about so that Corin could see his face clearly; it was rounded and creased in laughter lines, hard by his twinkling eyes and smiling mouth, and it seemed to light the brighter as the tinker's gaze swept his new come stowaway.
‘Old Spiggot and his daughter were out and about when I arrived, and they told me of your coming, even as those riders clumped through the gates of the village. Then the innkeeper hurried behind doors whilst Flora and I sang a warning and a waking for you.’
‘But how did they know that the king's men were on my heels, and why did they not turn me in to them?’ Corin asked, perplexed.
‘How should I know?’ answered The Jug and Kettle Man, flicking the reins and turning his attention to the way before him. ‘Perhaps it is that Spiggot be short on sight, but long on guesses. Perhaps they both thought you needed the chance to slip free from those who seek you. I cannot say for certain. Maybe, they simply liked you, and thought to give you some start. Folks are different up this end o' the realm, quiet like, but wary in their own way, and able to put twos with twos and come out fours.’
‘And what of you?’ asked Corin, still uncertain.
‘Oh, me and Tocky, we mind our business and go our way, and hold to our freedom. Freedom, aye, all should have at least that much, even to the poorest and the humblest of the realm. Per'aps Spiggot thought that too, about yersel'. What ever ye did to cause the king's men after you, surely can't o' been that much of a crime?’
‘Well...’ Corin sighed, ‘I stole some things: the boots, and garb upon my back, and these weapons, and a little food.’
He was telling the truth; or a smattering of it.
‘That's a bad thing indeed,’ muttered the Jug and Kettle Man, ‘but tell me, did ye have good reason for such doings?’
‘Of a certainty I did,’ answered Corin, loathe to explain more.
‘Never mind then,’ said the Kettler, dismissing the subject as if it was nothing. ‘It's not for the likes of me to judge yer actions. Time, and the king's folk will catch up with you, one day.’ He laughed aloud. ‘I'll be stewed if they hold me to blame for carting extra baggage that I know ought of.’
Corin gained the seat alongside the tinker, as he said; ‘So, my fine young sir; if ye've a mind, you may ride on with us as far as we go.’ The Kettler produced a couple of apples from deep within his layers of clothing and handed one to Corin. ‘Mind though, if those riders at Ways End take it into their heads to follow us, after they've searched high and low, ye may have to make a run for cover.’
‘I know that well enough,’ Corin replied, taking a bite, ‘and I thank you kindly for your offer to travel with you, but be assured that I shall not endanger you, good pedlar. Better that I go on alone, and leave you to your business.’ He made to swing down into the muddied road.
‘Hold hard young feller!’ cried the tinker catching fast at Corin's arm and drawing him back to his seat. ‘There be no need for ye to take off just yet. Storm's a coming not too long away, and we've a good view o' the road at our backs. If any follow, we'll see ‘em quick enough.’ For an instant, the Jug and Kettle Man's eyes met Corin's, and in that fleeting moment, the pedlar seemed to falter. Afterward, he had difficulty in saying why. It was as if he gazed into a deep pool of swirling water, beyond which strange lights played and danced. Then the effect dissolved, and he was saying, ‘Finikin Goosie, that's my name, but most just call me Fin, if they call me at all.’
‘I am Corin,’ answered the stranger at his side, once again resting the bundle of belongings at his feet, and leaning out to peer behind, where nothing moved upon the southern horizon.
‘Oh,’ was all that the Jug and Kettle Man could think to say, his easy merriment subdued, so that he lapsed into silence for a long time afterward.
The way ribboned before them, as dark clouds gathered out of the east, low and threatening, so that the lands there were masked from view, and morning faded toward midday. A cold wind rippled over the bleak moors where flocks of birds wheeled, racing across the wild skies. Wayside flowers dipped their ragged heads and closed their petals to the oncoming of rain.
Amongst the heather as they passed, a stoat sniffed the air, turning tail to hurry away to her family. Then only the insistent, monotonous cry of the rooks carried down to them, from where they circled above.
When the first streaks of lightning stabbed across the sky and thunder rolled out of the east, the little wagon was nearing the main outliers of a mist shrouded barrier; the awesome greys and greens of fog-hung forest.
‘Is that The Forbidding Forest?’ Corin asked, his eyes fixed upon the gloomy frontier before them.
‘Aye,’ Finikin replied, and his answer was so low that it was almost lost in the first downpour of blinding rain. ‘Do not be too afraid though. Within, there are homely folk and dry beds. Night will see us to them.’
The storm did not lessen, and many times they were forced to halt, the tinker's donkey standing stolidly whilst torrents washed over his back, and the riders took shelter within the leaking confines. Corin kept an anxious vigil to the south, but no sign, did he see of any there, and when they again plodded forward, his hopes rose that his pursuers were forestalled.
Trees: great yews and oaks, closed and gathered about the wagon, wrapping drenched arms above, so that the storm abated somewhat within, and darkness grew, the further they progressed. Still, thunder boomed and lightning lit the massed trunks, laying them naked and threatening with their reaching arms and ghostly stick fingers.
After a long time, they came to a point where the narrowing road forked, and there a signpost, pale in the light and leaning at a drunken angle, proclaimed: ‘Ahead, Forbidding Forest and the Tumberimber Mounts. To right, the Woodsfolk. Behind, Ways End. And safe journey, friend.’
The rain dripped off the tip of the wooden hand that pointed in the direction of the mysterious people who dared to dwell within such inhospitable boundaries, and up this muddy, sodden track, Fin turned, his donkey needing little urging; ears flattened, and head well down for the uphill pull.
Corin had only the swiftest glimpse of what had once been the main road leading on through the forest toward the mountains, and that now appeared almost overgrown, the broken stones lost beneath a tangle of weeds and mire.
Toward nightfall the Kettler's rig slid and splashed along the slippery incline, where water gushed in rivulets about the donkey's resolute feet. But Tocky, knowing and eager, kept his steady plod through rain and thunder; heaving away with animal strength until the going began to level out. And there, by the wavering light of Fin's solitary lantern, Corin saw a thinning of the trees, and beyond, a twinkle of far-off lamps. Smoke billowed from a cluster of huts and cabins. Grey clouds drifted into the darkness above and later, as they rattled ever nearer, lightning slit the rain-swept shadows and revealed a palisade enclosing all within. Dogs set up a wild barking, when the wagon lurched to a halt before the rough gates, and those inside peered out between the timber bars.
‘Who comes to the woodsfolk on winter's step?’ shouted the foremost at the gates. ‘It is nigh that we close ourselves away for the winter, and we welcome none after that.’
‘Ahweel!’ Fin shouted. ‘Surely y' call t' nest one o' your own?’
There came a muttering, and then a scraping across the mud as the timber barriers were drawn open the width of a man's reach. Through that gap emerged several dogs, struggling with each other to be the first outside. They set up a rowdy clamour until Fin called each by name. ‘Ho Briddy, Chaser, you Rags, rascal Pad! Where be your master?’
The dogs left off their barking to sniff eagerly around the legs of the donkey, where Tocky bent his head, rain running from his long ears whilst they prowled about him.
To Corin, even though the downpour continued, it seemed a merry meeting of old friends. Soon they were within the stockade, the dogs and woodsfolk leading the way toward a group of barns, outhouses and cabins, curiously built up on legs.
‘Keeps out slippery things,’ said Fin, in reply to Corin's question.
Ahead, figures dashed out bearing lamps, so that the yard was suddenly filled with light and the cries of welcoming voices. Willing arms drew The Jug and Kettle Man from his perch, whilst Corin clambered down behind, clutching his belongings.
Tocky was led away beneath the eaves of a tall tithe barn, there to find rest and fodder, and the company of other kindred creatures.
Meanwhile, Fin and Corin mounted the steps of a ladder, cast down by those above, that brought them to a wide veranda, surrounding an inner building. As they passed into the large room beyond, where fires burned at either end in great, open hearths and lamps splashed rich yellow colour across the faces of those there gathered, a music, gay, of fiddle and harp struck up, and in a moment figures whirled to a wild jig and voices rang out in song.
‘Well a fiddle's not a fiddle, till there's someone's hand to play it,
and a riddle's not a riddle, less there's a mouth to say it.
A bell is not a bell, if none are there to ring it,
and a song is not a song, without a voice to sing it.
So give us your attention, jest give us half a chance,
and we'll tell ye all about it while the woodsfolk dance.
A house be not a house, till halls are warm and cosy,
and the child becomes a maiden when her cheeks are bright and rosy.
A duck is not a duck, less it spends some time a' quacking,
and a forest's but a clump of trees, if woodsmen there be lacking.
You're putting on your stepping shoes, and hitching up your pants,
ready for a knee-up, while the woodsfolk dance.
A flower's not a flower, if it hasn't had a budding,
and a cloud be not a cloud, till across the sky it's scudding.
A table's not a table, till it's set for drink and eating,
and a heart is not a heart, less to music it is beating.
A foot is not a foot, less to rhythm it be tapping,
and a hand is not a hand without singing, for to clapping.
And now ye've had your fill o' song, you're looking for romance.
So take your lady-love off, whilst the woodsfolk dance.
Yes, take your lady-love off while the woodsfolk dance.’
The music ended amidst a burst of cheering and hand clapping that, together with the stamping of many feet, became itself a rhythmic pattern.
‘It's been such a long time since last we saw you, brother,’ said one of the crowd, stepping forward to clasp arms about the Jug and Kettle Man, whilst two small children hovered around his legs, laughing and tugging at his hands. ‘We're all glad to see ye safe and well; now tell us before we burst, who it is ye have brung along to visit with the woodsfolk?’
The two men stepped apart, holding each other at arms length, and at once Corin saw that they were indeed alike, almost as twins. Both having the same rounded faces and twinkling eyes.
‘This is a friend I picked up on the way; Master Corin by name. I met him at The Old Oak,’ said Finikin, with a flourish and a wide grin. ‘He be on the run from those who bear the king's arms.’
There came a sudden hush, broken only by the children's giggling and the hiss of logs burning in the grates.
‘There, there,’ clucked the Kettler, ‘I know little enough of master Corin, but I'll wager you all this much; whatever he's done to warrant folk out from Penda, he had good reason for it.’
‘How can ye say for sure?’ asked several.
‘Well... I just feel it,’ Fin answered defensively, glancing from face to face.
‘Perhaps I should speak for myself,’ said the stranger in a voice so queer that even the Jug and Kettle Man turned, startled, to where Corin stood apart, and alone, from everyone gathered therein. It was almost as if he belonged somewhere else, another place far beyond their knowing, or indeed, another time.
Later, some would wonder over this, and upon asking, find like thought in the minds of others. But for then, the woodsfolk could only stare in silence at the figure before them, whilst fire lit his haggard face, and shadow crossed those features within: the dark circled eyes, the sharp ridge of the nose, and the outlined curve of his mouth, where curled the beginnings of an unruly beard.
‘I have not been truthful, not to those who saved me at Ways End, nor to you, good Kettler,’ he began, ‘and if I were to tell why I am hunted by the men of the king it would bring only peril to you all. Is that what you would wish for yourselves, for your children? Better that I say only this much, and be judged by it. I am innocent of everything for which I am pursued, excepting the charge of theft. True, I took these weapons and most of the gear I wear, but with just cause. Out of need to flee the length of the realm, to escape here, to the forest, and beyond.’
‘Only the mountains of the Tumberimber, and death, await those who dare the deeps of Forbidding Forest,’ said one at Corin's back.
‘Aye,’ answered another. ‘Not even us'n will venture too far past our own cuttings and growings, though we make a life of it here in the fringes.’
‘That is so,’ nodded the man at Fin's side. ‘I am Branikin, brother of this trusting tinker, and leader of our woods people. We have dwelt here all our lives, yet still we know little of the mysteries of the inner forest.’
‘Be that as it may, I have intent to journey on,’ replied Corin, undaunted, 'unless you woodsfolk here prevent me.’ and they noticed that he still kept hold of the bundle where from projected the hilt of the sword. Yet as if sensing their apprehensions, he let fall the ill-gotten weapons, so that they rattled upon the rough floor boards at his feet. ‘Thief I am, but never the murderer of innocent folk. Nor am I fool. I beg not your aid, good people. I ask only my freedom, to go as I came, in peace. When the men-of-arms arrive hither, as they surely must, you may tell them that I was here unbidden, and that I went my way without the help or hindrance of any. Or you may decide to hold me here against my will and turn me over to them. If the last is your choice, be assured that my death shall certainly come of it.’
None inside stirred. Even the scattering of children ceased their games and fidgeting. It was as if all there, men and women, were weighing the stranger's words, his outward appearance and demeanour.
At last Branikin spoke; ‘I am leader, but judgement is not mine alone. Who are for holding this confessed thief, and who for giving him freedom?’
‘Freedom!’ cried The Jug and Kettle Man. ‘Why should we judge a body's right to such? We have ours, and treasure it. I hold by my first notion, in just cause does Master Corin stand before us, and if I be proved wrong, the might o' the king will fall on me as well. Think on it; If he were less than he claims, why did he not throw me into the mire before trusting himself so far? Freedom stands for all, kith and kin, gathered here. We cannot deny as much to him.’
‘Fin speaks of law breaking,’ muttered some.
‘He does,’ answered Branikin. ‘Yet also of trust and belief. I ask again, what will you?’
‘Let him here this night, and on the morrow take his own going,’ said a women, stepping out of the group and linking her arm with Branikin's.
‘Anser, dear wife, we know ought of this stranger,’ replied Branikin, uncertainly.
‘What will be the harm of it?’ she went on. ‘We can give him shelter for one night, surely.’
‘Aye,’ said Fin, taking his sister-in-law's free hand and smiling into her rosy face. ‘Corin will do us no mischief, I'll be bound, and if riders come up through the wee time a' fore morning, our folk and dogs 'll give warning enough for him to get off toward the West Holt.... ‘
There came a roll of thunder, and downpour that lashed the eaves. Rain-water splashed through cracks in the roof and around the shutters, forming puddles amongst the flickering of shadows.
‘Any out there this night, would wait in shelter, be my guess,’ shouted a tall, big boned man at the door, as he slid home the bolt and kicked sacking across the gap beneath.
‘Niggin's got it right,’ said another next to him.
‘Well and maybe, Ohen, and on yer head if we find oursel's in trouble over this doin,’ returned a third, flicking him across the back with an ease that set the others smirking.
‘My name's Umble, Master Corin, and here is my good lady Manda, and our boy Sial,’ he continued, gesturing toward a rather plump wood-wife and a stout young lad of no more than fourteen or fifteen summers. ‘I speak for mysel', and them too, we wouldn't throw a dog out int’ such weather as this,’ and he grinned, adding, ‘not e'an a vagabond with taking ways.’
This raised a chuckle or two from the others, that eased the tension of moments before.
‘Ease up Umbel, ye'll be givin’ him the bed ye share with yer wife next,’ laughed an old gaffer, introduced as Rejus, and this set all to merriment, so that they forgot their apprehensions and wonder at this stranger in their midst who declined to give account of himself.
‘Take your ease awhile and warm yer coldest parts at the hearth,’ said Anser, drawing Fin toward the blaze of logs. ‘We'll soon get some hot broth inta both o' ye, and a brew of old Rejus’ honey mead t' tickle yer tonsils.’ She went off in company with several other women there, to get about the supper.
‘What stories do ye have to tell us, Uncle Fin?’ demanded the two youngsters, bobbing around The Jug and Kettle Man.
‘Well,’ he said, smiling down at them, ‘I've seen a few things and been a few places alright, but let master Corin and me take our breath first.’
‘Your uncle will spend some time with you on the morrow,’ said Branikin, gathering them both into his arms. ‘Now it be bed and sleep and dreams of spring for the pair of ye.’
‘Will you tuck us in then?’ asked the boy, as his father carried them up steps that led to a loft, where burned a brace of tallow candles.
‘That I will,’ said the Jug and Kettle Man, following, laughing all the while.
‘Can we hear the Scarecrow, as you do it?’ begged the tiny girl.
‘That one's a bit scary,’ Fin answered, in mock alarm.
‘We like scary!’ they squealed together.
‘Very well, Finta and Branta, though make sure ye dream o' other things, as yer daddy said, after.’
‘The children take no fright at such, being used t' storm and winter's ways,’ confided Rejus, settling on a stool near Corin, whilst the rest of the woodsfolk took seat at tables about the dimly lit room, ‘and these good people like a song or rhyme as much as anything else,’ he concluded, pouring mead into a pair of carved wooden goblets and handing one to Corin.
Thunder boomed and lightning flickered at the cracks about the shutters, as Finikin aloft began, in a deep and hollow voice.
‘Old Scarecrow grins at the birds in the sky,
bending his head and winking his eye,
whilst the rails and corbies and corncrakes cry.
Yet to land on him, they daresn't try,
‘cos the Scarecrow scares ‘em, and that's no lie.
When the sun goes down and dark is nigh,
and the moon comes up to ride on high,
the Scarecrow moves to the north wind's sigh,
a bogey man flapping, and yer throat runs dry.
His legs are kicking, his shirt-tails fly.
When he gawks at you, then you know why,
the Scarecrow scares ‘em, and that's no lie.
Only a scarecrow, you say, oh aye,
till he sidles up, grinning sly,
feeling yer coat and your hat, and my!
Your teeth start a'chatter, and yer fit t' die.
Noon time comes, sun begins to fry.
There's earth fresh dug and a shovel nearby.
The Scarecrow wears a new cloak and tie.
The Scarecrow scares ‘em.
And that's no lie.’
The two children, squeaking with delightful fright, snuggled into their cots, as dogs curled about their feet to warm and comfort them, and the two brothers descended.
‘Best tell those by the gates to keep watch through this storm ‘fore morning,’ said Bran. ‘Niggan, Garb and Ohen, take turn about with ‘em, and raise alarm if any approach.’
The told-off men made away, a blast of wind-whipped rain pouring in as they went.
‘Ah, food to fill an empty belly!’ said Fin, when the wood-wives returned, bearing platters of soup and plates laden with meat and greens. ‘This is fine fare for a winter's night, after all the days out on The Long Road,’ he continued, tucking into new baked bread, and handing some to Corin, who munched at it in silence, aware of the woodsfolk watching his every move. They were studying him out of curiosity, more so than hostility, Corin thought, glancing at the children nodding upon their mother's laps, and the men sipping mead from their mugs.
‘I should like to thank you all for your kindness and trust,’ he said at last. ‘Would that there was some way to repay that much, though as you see, I have nothing.’
‘We seek nought from ye,’ answered Rejus, not unkindly. ‘Here in this end of Ravenmoor, folk are simple and hardy, and keep to themselves, and few ever comes a'far as this. Yet when one o' our own returns, bringing along a stranger who asks nay more than shelter from the storm, it be a hard thing to turn him out.’
‘Not e'en if he keeps close about his past doin's,’ added Umbel, with a quick grin.
‘To tell more of myself would be ill payment indeed,’ Corin answered. ‘But I should be grateful, if any might set me to rights about the forest and the mountains beyond.’
Branikin stirred from where he stood beside the fire, an iron poker in his hand. ‘Even now, after generations, we know too little of the land in which we dwell,’ he said. ‘Here, on the borders of The Forbidding Forest, the woodsfolk eke a livelihood, cutting age-old trees, and sowing new. Never do we venture too far in, for there lies the unknown, and lurks all manner of creatures: bear, boar, wolf. Most are gone, killed off, from the settled places, but yet they still survive in the forest's depths, as maybe, do other things... unnameable, faceless things.’
‘There have been folk that took it inta their minds t' dare Forbidding Forest,’ muttered Rejus, swilling his goblet. ‘Most long ago, t' my memory, and that of my dad's afore. And none that went in, seeking the ways beyond, came back. The mountains o' the Tumberimber, seen afar on a good day, wi' snow, and cloud hung about, hold to their secrets. We work the West Holt, where things be regular enough for us. There we cut the timber as our fathers of old did, and replant anew for those to come after us.’
‘And it is to that place of evil that I must take myself,’ mused Corin, staring into the flames as if he had almost forgotten the company of the others. ‘For as long as I can remember, have I been called there; and on to the mountains. What lies upon their further side, I wonder?’
Something in the tone of his words caused the woodsfolk to remain hushed, for it seemed to them then, that they were watching the waking dream of this stranger, where he bent, his gaze unblinking, at the fire before him. And again they sensed a singular wonder, wreathed about that hunched figure.
‘You are hunted unjustly by the king's men, and yet you seek more than refuge within the forest?’ Bran gently asked, hoping to hear further.
‘I am called,’ was all that Corin would say. And then, coming to himself, he asked in turn, ‘what is it about the forest? Are the trees themselves evil?’
‘I don't know how they could be. More likely it be what they harbour. They don't yelp when cut,’ Rejus chuckled.
‘If they are, we woodsfolk do our bit to cleanse Forbidding Forest, or this patch of it at least. Here at the edge, and down to West Holt, grow new trees, nurtured by us, so that one day perhaps the whole region will be named anew,’ said Bran, helping his wife to clear away the supper things.
Nearby, Fin yawned and stretched, basking in the uncommon luxury of a hot meal and warm surroundings with kith and kin.
‘Brother,’ he said, smiling amiably, ‘you folks can still talk a bird out o' the sky.’
‘Aye,’ old Rejus agreed, slapping his knee and rising, ‘e'en a namesake o' yer own: ye pair o' Goosies. And goose feathers to y'all; least ways those same that makes up my bedding, where I'll be gittin’ along. Storm's hanging o'er the length o' Ravenmoor, I'll be bound, and high time t' turn in. Jest hark it blow.’
The wind lashed beyond the mud-chinked timbers, so that the wide cabin creaked and trembled in the gale, and the lanterns swayed in the rafters.
‘We'd all best be on our way,’ muttered Umble, gathering wife and son to him. ‘With luck we won't get drenched, since we put up the shelters across the ramps. Come morn', if weather be a' right, some o' us might go tramping down to the Holt. What say ye Bran?’ He cocked an eye toward Corin.
‘If the weather be fairer by some,’ answered the woods leader, taking Umbel's meaning.
‘There are still a few saplings for planting, and maybe, this new friend o' my brother's will come along with us. For the walk, mind,’ he winked.
And so the woodsfolk settled for the night, whilst the storm raged about their small, isolated outpost; Finikin and Corin resting in rough rope hammocks slung from the beams of Bran's cabin.
Lamps were snuffed, and only the lowering flicker of the fires illuminated the interior, where Bran's dogs curled together upon skin rugs, and his children snuggled in the loft beside he and his wife Anser.
A snore from Fin's huddled form, told of The Jug and Kettle Man's swift slumber.
Only Corin, the stranger they trusted in their midst, remained awake; listening to the wind and rain, and The Voices, when, eventually, They came, seeking him.