At the Crossroads
Ursel held her breath. She slid her feet up onto the oak branch so she lay hidden. The red deer hind drifted from clump to clump of grass, curled her tongue around the stalks, searching out juicy shoots. Her flanks rounded out with the little one growing inside; last year’s calf trotted at her heels. Their pungent scent on the breeze tickled Ursel’s nostrils – they couldn’t smell her, upwind. Or the hunters.
A twig cracked and Ursel inched her head round. A beard bristled in the cover of a holly bush. Low sun glinted on a steel arrowhead – pointed straight at the hind. Her mother’s words buzzed in her head, something about not upsetting her uncle, they depended on him now. Behind those words lay blackness and a cramp in her heart. She brushed the thought away as if it was a beetle in her ear.
Ursel swung down and waved her arms. The hind’s brown eye met Ursel’s and she barked to her calf. ‘Run!’ Ursel shouted, ‘Get out of here!’ She turned to face the arrows on the taut bowstrings. ‘Don’t shoot! Can’t you see she’s pregnant?’ Her uncle’s scowl told her he didn’t care. Men cursed, hounds bayed but the hind got clear away.
‘You witless girl! That’s our feast gone crashing away. What can we serve when Thane Roger comes?’
‘Get a stag – or an old one – don’t kill next year’s herd! It’s not right to target females.’ Ursel stood her ground, fists clenched.
‘How dare you!’ Her Uncle Kedric swung his fist at her. She ducked under his arm and dived into a thicket of thorn and hazel so dense the horses could not follow. The wildwood wrapped itself round her.
Cold shocked her body as Meg eased her head under water, as cold as Farmer’s narrowed eyes before he hits you. She pursed her lips round the hollow reed in her mouth. She learned long ago not to let the chill make her gasp. The shelduck’s legs were just out of reach. She waited, hoping it would paddle nearer. A fish silvered past – she met its glance. Nobody to shout at her down here. What do clouds look like from under the water’s skin?
Her breath, in through the reed, stirred the reflected clouds; her fingertip shattered the shine above her head to make a run of ripples. What if she could push through the fluff of clouds inside the sky, what would she touch above them? Would she prick her finger on a star, smooth it on the coolness of the moon…? The ducks clattered away and she bobbed up with a gasp.
May hopped up and down on the bank, ‘Come on Meg, there’s a tune coming from our meeting place!’
Meg pushed her feet down into sludge, reached up to grab a willow-root and hauled herself out. I’ve only caught three small ducks that won’t go far between everybody for the feast, Mother will frown. She wrung out her hair and the drops splattered the downy breast of the cloud in the water. Which way is up? Which clouds are real? Everything was slippery since her friends had gone cold on her, three months ago now, soon after Yule. Why?
She shook water out of her ears – yes, there was a thread of music rising from the top of the chalk scarp. She pulled on her tunic, tied her belt with the three teal swinging from it, slung on her quiver…
‘Wait, May. That’s not one of our elder pipes, it might not be safe.’ Her little sister scrambled up the slope, ignoring bramble scratches in her eagerness. Meg panted up after her, squeezed May’s hand and drew her close. Together they stared between white blackthorn spikes at the stranger in the clearing.
Music rose and tumbled out of the sky like lapwings; notes dived and swirled around them. Low tones called to Meg and reeled her in.
‘How do you do that?’ she breathed. The lanky woman strode towards them with a quirk of her eyebrow.
‘Aha, what have we here? Could be a buttercup, this small one with the golden head and mud on its roots. What’s the big one? Otter? Been swimming by the drips coming off it.’ Meg stepped closer, snuffed wild thyme in the folds of the stranger’s cloak; so, she’d come down the track-way along the chalk. From outside, not any of our settlements, some place nobody knew about.
‘By the size of your eyes,’ the stranger went on, ‘I’d say you’re hungry for stories. Any more of you about?’
Meg edged back, keeping her eye on the strange woman, raced to the edge of the slope they’d just climbed, and hung onto a hawthorn trunk as she leaned out. She yelled down the chalk scarp: ‘Winfrith, Roslinda! Herd the geese together and come up here, there’s a storyteller!’
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