(A Short Extract #1)
by Andrew G. Lockhart
I awoke on a bed of straw. It was just past daybreak, and there was enough light for me to see I was in a peasant cottage. The woman who had befriended me the evening before was bending over me. She handed me a cup. Thinking it was more wine I shook my head.
‘Drink it, Daughter,’ she said, ‘ ‘Tis only water from the stream.’
‘Thank you, good Mother,’ I replied, using the same idiom she had employed, and drank. She regarded me strangely, as if uncertain whether to begin a conversation.
‘I’ve washed some of the dirt from tha face an’ hands,’ she said at length. ‘They were much in need of it. ‘Tis a great pity ’bout the gown …’
She hesitated, and ran her fingers along the silk hem.
‘Some stains will never wash out,’ she went on gravely, and with double meaning.
I hung my head and did not answer.
‘Tha should be with thy mother, child, and not walking ‘lone in this rough country.’
‘My mother is dead of the plague. There is only my father and …’
‘Fathers is fools, an’ blind too when their daughters turn to women. A child who wears such a dress as thee must have female kin t’ care for her.’
‘I cannot go home,’ I muttered, and turned away. She would not see me weep. The effects of the wine had worn off and I felt more wretched than ever.
‘Would that I’d such as thee to come home to me,’ said she sadly. ‘I’d two daughters once, aye, an’ gran’daughters too, but the Mortality took ’em, ‘long with an ‘usband an’ son.’
I had guessed her circumstances correctly, and my heart was filled with pity for her. She was old, much older than I had taken her to be in the torchlight.
‘I’m truly sorry, mistress,’ said I, facing her again and laying my hand lightly on her arm. ‘You have been kind to me, and if it were possible to make your life easier, I would gladly do it. But those lost to us can never be brought back.’
‘Th’art a wise child, as well as pretty an’ of good family. It grieves me that tha should lie with a youth who’s such an oaf.’
I saw that she had misunderstood my condition. She had seen the bruising on my arms and shoulders through the tears in the dress. She had seen the blood too, and had drawn her own conclusion.
‘I was forced,’ I managed to blurt out, and hung my head again.
‘Then go home, child. If tha were inn’cent, there’s no shame. Some of the village maidens will escort thee to the city gate. Brunswick is not so far, after all.’
‘I would not go to Brunswick, good Mother,’ I said, thinking of Hanna and hoping she had returned safely. ‘My way lies in the direction of Hannover.’
‘That’s on the other side of the world, Daughter.’
My cap was long lost, but I remembered I still had my purse with a coin or two in it. Akhtar had not deprived me of that.
‘I can ride,’ I said. ‘If there’s a pony for hire in the village, I can pay well.’
The peasant woman seemed amused. A tolerant smile creased her pale countenance.
‘In the whole village there’s only one donkey,’ she told me, ‘an’ he’s so old he could not take thee to the next village, let ‘lone half way to Hannover.’
‘What am I to do?’ I cried.
For answer she rose, went towards a dark corner of the hovel and returned a few moments later with a bundle of rags. She unravelled it and placed the items on the ground before me. There was a pair of coarse canvas breeches, a torn shirt and man’s jacket, sandals and a cap.
‘If th’art determined, then a youth will attract less attention on the road than a maid. I’ve kept these garments many a long year. Leave me the gown! It’s ruined but I may be able to repair it to suit a village girl. Take thy money with thee. Pr’aps it may buy thee a ride, or a crust to eat.’
So it was arranged. Clad in peasant’s garb, I was escorted to the high road. The shirt smelled musty and irritated my skin but I soon became used to it. I walked until the sun was high in the midsummer sky, when I was overtaken by a man and woman driving a wagon, who allowed me to share their provisions and offered me company as far as the town of Hildesheim. My throat was dry and my voice husky, so there was no need to pretend the tones of a youth.
The following day I fell in with some friars travelling west from the church of Saint Michael. We made slow progress, for they made it their business to accost every wayfarer and rider whom they came across, or who overtook us. My feet were bruised and sore, and I had the utmost difficulty maintaining even my companions’ unhurried pace. However, I felt secure in their society, and they were too preoccupied to take me for anything other than I seemed. Even so, I was uneasy when one of them approached too closely lest he penetrate my disguise. Of men on horseback I was doubly wary, and would stand well back from the road when the friars hailed one and engaged in conversation.
When evening fell on the fourth day after leaving Brunswick, we begged hospitality at a small settlement that I was surprised to find I recognised, being close to the border of the Hasenbach estate. In the morning, I bade farewell to the friars, and, before noon, I stood on the hill overlooking the River Leine and that part of the valley in which our manor house stood.
I knew where I would go. I needed time to think how I would excuse my presence, explain my appearance, look my father in the eye and tell him that I was dishonoured. I was fairly sure I was not impregnated, but what if I were wrong and had conceived a child in my shame. Once alone again, the pain and humiliation returned and I berated myself for having been foolish enough to leave the protection of the court party. More than once I found myself wondering about the gift of which the Singari woman had spoken – for I saw Akhtar everywhere – and whether I was blessed, or cursed, by having any power to look into the future.
I skirted the boundary of the manor house, picking roots and berries to keep hunger at bay. I avoided the church and, my footsteps very weary now, climbed to the coppice where stood the entrance to my mother’s tomb. All was quiet. I pushed open the gate, crossed myself hastily, entered the chamber, and fell to my knees at my dear mother’s grave.
- The new edition of The Dark Side of the Fylfot: a mediaeval fantasy is available as ebook and paperback from Amazon, and as ebook only from Apple Books, Lulu, Kobo and B&N.