I need to write this down for someone. I’m not sure who that someone is. What’s important is that some things should not be forgotten, because with memory they can be prevented.
It was the night of terrors and unknown bloodshed. Where the screams of children dying, mothers watching them die and then being killed themselves. Of the fathers and brothers that died in an effort to save the members of their families. Whole generations gone with the slashing of a sword.
I sit watching and listening to the sounds with my only view that of hellish blase burning its memory in my retina. The crack in the barn door reveals no other evidence of what lays beyond it. Someone once told me that hearing pain is much worse than seeing it. At this moment I believe that theory and wait in anticipation to be found in my hiding place.
I was always fabulous at hide and seek as a child, always knowing the best shadows to position myself. How to slow my breathing and not move for minutes on end. It’s easy to do when your mind is focused on not being tagged. The adeneline you feel is palpable and exciting. The same adeneline kicks in at this moment and yet the stakes are so much higher. When you know that the child who will tag you will turn into a vicious man and tag you with a steel blade instead.
Cover your clothing, hold still, slow your breath, close your eyes, breathe.
You hear the sounds of the dying slow and stop. The voices of men.
The door opening.
The crunching of hay underfoot.
Voices talking and laughing.
Horses whinning as they are corralled outside.
Blades slashing and stuck deep in the bales to find those they missed,while creaking indicates that others climb the ladder to examine the loft.
They start to leave.
The door closes and I open my eyes to smoke moving in tendrils around my skirts. If I run they will find me and if I don’t I die.
Crouching like an alarmed frog, I crawl as fast as I can toward the wall at the end of my line of vision. A dip in the earth beneath it reveals a chance of escape and I panic trying to move the pieces of wood on the wall. The barn is as old as Noah’s Ark and I expect the wall will crumble with ease. So very wrong in my thinking, the wall remains in tact as I press my whole weight into my hands to lift the board. I imagine the barn itself is laughing at my pathetic efforts of escape, telling me it will withstand any effort to pull it apart. I then reply by noting that the barn is burning so that theory probably won’t hold for much longer.
One more shove and my hand breaks through, a splinter left as a memento of my struggle wedged in my right hand. Stiffling the profanity I was about to utter I crawl through the opening and out the other side. At this point I’ve made no effort to check my surroundings. Why would I? I just swallowed what felt like the contents of a fireplace and maimed my hand in the last two minutes. Clearly not cut out for a life of espionage, I flatten myself to the ground and play dead as I try and see my surroundings. Beyond the towers of grass I see the hay bales piled several metres to the left and the edge of the forest beyond that. I stay still and listen to the sounds around me. The voices of men enjoying themselves around the front of the barn and the sharp crackling sounds of wood breaking as barn says it’s farewell to the world in the flames. Noone is close to me, but still I lie there thinking that the next few minutes will be the hardest of my life. As I contemplate the complications of moving, a section of the barn comes away and lands not even five feet away. I spring into action and belatedly realise the stupidity of moving away quickly and alerting the monsters to my pressence. Dropping to my belly again I start to scramble on my elbows, dragging my legs behind me. In my current atire the effort is probably wasted, as the hoop I wear under my skirt gives the illusion that a large boulder is moving though the grass. Luckily no one has noticed this strange anomaly and come to investigate, because within a matter of minutes I am safely behind the hay bales.
Wasting little time I use the hay as my shield and run toward the closest trees in the forest. The trees provide limited cover at first, but within a matter of seconds the foliage encloses in its arms and shrouds my from from those looking in.
I peer through a small opening and look back toward the barn. The bodies of the family who sheltered me are swinging from a nearby tree. Though they are too far away I feel their gazes, their pain and sorrow. I can‘t look toward the youngest as I know her image will haunt me the most. Thanking them is a worthless act, but I silently do just that as I hide in the darkness. Their prescence protected my own and allowed time to find shelter.
Turning away from the past I have no time to wallow in self pity. I need to run and hide well. Having never spent the night alone in the forest I know I may well die soon from the cold and if I’m not that lucky then maybe from the wild beasts. Stepping forward into this new unknown is frightening and also necessary.
I run at first, letting my legs guide me faster through the forest paths. In daylight the plants and animal have a mystical almost effervescent quality to them. By night the fingers of the trees reach down to touch you, the moon peeks in only occasionally to offer any light. Every chill wind causes the whole forest to dance in a haunting way, while creatures of the night wake to hunt for their nocturnal delights. Hopefully I'm not on the menu.
Slowing to a walk I hope I'm not being followed. For the next hour I look for shelter, throwing my head from both sides of the path to note any rocky outcrop, sheltered tree or bush. As I pass each possibility of rest, I tell myself that I need to move further away from the scene I've left behind. Each option is either too small, won't provide enough cover or probably houses an array of dangerous creatures. I need to rest soon so that I have the energy to find civilisation, food and water in the morning.
My mind starts to wander again to the murderers behind me. I know nothing of their intent or reasoning. Who are they?
I suspect that they were part of the band of soldiers moving toward the coast to defend against possible attack from those across the sea. Without warning tears spill down my cheeks, chasing each other with increasing speed, before soaking into my already frozen skin.
An image of Molly, the youngest in the family running through this very forest playing hide and seek assails my mind. Her white pinafore dress and cap were filthy by the end. Braids flying, flushed and smiling as she turned her face to check that I was right behind her. Another image invades. The swinging bodies of Molly and her family and the wind making them look like puppets on a string.
I quickly shut down the damaging thoughts and focus on my own survival. I can’t allow myself to wallow any longer until I find safety.
A few miutes later a cross roads confronts my line of vision. Both are small and uninviting with vegetation growing to reclaim the paths. I stand still and contemplate my direction. Either way presents a problem of my tracks being seen. I’m still unsure if I’m being followed and belatedly realise I’ve already left a clear trail to follow as I gave little thought to leaving footprints behind in my hurry to escape.
Making the choice to leave both trails and clamber through the forest on my self made path, I realise my choice was not as brilliant as I had first suspected. While the vegetation in my way gives plenty of options for immediate cover should the need arise, my footsteps are as loud as an elephant crashing through the undergrowth. Every leaf, stick and branch I break amplifies it’s noise through the night air and I start to feel that any moment I will hear the obvious sounds of pursuit.
The night grows colder as the moon climbs higher in the sky and I start to bitterly regret my decision to leave my shawl behind. Ripping my skirt around the bottom I use the scrap to drape around my shoulders. The dress is constantly snagged on low lying bushes, so cutting it aids my progress significantly. An owl hoots mournfully in the trees ahead and in that moment everything seems to stop.
The forest becomes unnaturally quiet and as though I were born in the trees, I know it is a warning. A predator is near and the owl warns those below to still their voices. Taking its lead, I stand as still as possible, breathing slowly to quiet my fast beating heart and using my eyes to survey the landscape for places to hide. The bushes are too small to hide behind and the trees to thin to climb. My serviceable dark dress provides a measure of camouflage, but only if I’m not seen.
Instinctively I know the moment I’m found.
The hairs rise slowly on the back of my neck and the air feels as if it is being taken from my body. Without thinking I launch myself forward as fast as I can, lifting my skirts to propel my legs into flight.
In the dark I stumble five or six times as I try to outpace whatever it is that's behind me. Every twenty paces or so I steal a look behind me to gauge where my persuers are and hear the echo of movement beyond my line of sight.
Run. Dodge. Run. Glance behind. Search for safety. Run. And so the race for my life continues in this fashion for several minutes. Whatever or whoever follows does not get any closer and chooses instead to stalk. I’ve no doubt that they could catch me with ease if they chose.
Tiring quickly I’m not sure how much longer I can expend my engergy before I collapse and let them have me. Frantically I renew my search for a hiding place and see nothing of use.
A dog barks to my left and I realise I am being tracked, by wild dogs or humas it doesn’t really matter. I turn right and decend to a small gully. There is water in a dying steam at the bottom and little chance of being able to float downstream.
As I step into the stream I notice a barely perceptible opening in the bank a short way up. I crawl beneath it and begin covering my skin in the mud beneath me. Hoping this will be enough to cover my scent I lie there and wait for death, capture or freedom.
Somewhere further back in the forest two men stop their pursuit.
“Shouldn’t we keep going?” Dane asks as he sits on a tree stump, a dogs head in his lap.
“No, we have time.”
I wake up to the sounds of a soft bubbling stream, chattering away as it caresses the soft stones on its edges. The birds call energetically through the trees as the sun begins to shaft its way through the canopy to reach the undergrowth below. I lie in my hiding spot taking all of this in during my first moments of wakefulness.
My head hurts, my legs hurt, my back hurts. In short, I feel like I’m a hundred and six three years old. My body has been contorted and shoved in this ungodly space since the late hours of the night. I’m tired from having only slept fitfully and my body feels sluggish to move from the hardened mud coating my skin and hair. Moaning, I stretch my body out like a lizard as I crawl out of my hiding place.
The forests innocence this morning is in such juxtaposition to the previous night that I can’t help but compare.
I attempt to wash the grime from my body using the limited water from the flowing stream. Turning my head to the side I undo my braid and let the end of my crusty hair trail in the water. Getting all the mud out is going to be a challenging task, so I settle for dripping water through and combing my fingers after it. My face and arms are next and then I dust what I can from my dress and makeshift shawl. I probably look hideous, like a wild forest witch, but I reason that my appearance is the least of my worries.
As I re-braid my hair I turn around considering the direction I have come from and where to next. There are some animal trails across the stream which the creatures use to come and drink. The gully climbs steeply on the other side and I know I will need to make my way to the top to find the town on the other side.
The night produced no more sounds of persuit from those following me and I believe, perhaps ignorantly, that I am momentarily safe. Despite this I know that I need to keep moving and be a greater distance away before nightfall and so I cross the stream and begin to climb.
My shoes slip constantly and I find myself gripping branches of flexible trees to stop me hurtling back down the hill. Moving upward is a slow business and takes all my energy as I frequently stop for rests. Telling myself to just take ten more steps, I feel I am achieving small goals, until I look upward to the rocky outcrops that line the top part of the hill. The gods must have been playing marbles in this part of the world when it was made, because so much of it is dotted with boulders large enough to dwarf any man.
The sun is high in the sky by the time I make it over the ridge to survey the landscape beyond. Cursing my stupidity in not drinking from the stream before I left, I throw a longing look down the gully. Only thick scrub greets me as the stream below hides.
Thankfully the ground ahead produces only a light decline and flat land beyond that. The cart road stretches ribbon like to my right, culminating in the township of Huntsford. Despite knowing how unwise it is to follow the road, I turn my body and start walking towards it, reasoning that I can always hide quickly if I hear any oncoming signs of life.
My stomach grumbles painfully while my legs feel semidetached by the time I reach the road. “Not long, not long now. ” I say quietly to myself as I pat my stomach. My voice sounds cracked and unused and I begin licking the sweat dripping from my forehead to ease the dryness. Easing the lacings on my gown, I breathe a sigh of relief and continue stumbling forward. Wind singing through the fields on my left is the only sound I hear aside from my own steps for several miles.
As the afternoon wanes I take more frequent stops as my legs are unused to walking such long distances. On the right an embankment appears with a small collection of boulders. Deciding the highest will provide me with a vantage point to see the village I begin clambouring on all fours to reach the top. It takes several tries, scratched hands and knees to finally see over the top, but finally I’m rewarded with a welcome sight. Huntsford is so close, not even a mile along the road. Smiling I roll over and close my eyes knowing that safety is near.
One thing I forgot about being on top of a large rock is that despite the fact that it’s imminently easier to see long distances, it is also easier for others to see you from long distances. At that point I may as well have waved a banner or sent up a smoke signal to everyone in the neighbouring district to show them my location. A little too late and I hear the voices of men coming around the corner ahead. They are so close I barely have time to hug myself against the rock, hoping to blend in. Laughing as they round the corner I can hear at least three voices drifting through the breeze. My head turned to the cold stone I can’t see them but I know they sound like young men up to mischief. Then I hear a voice call in confusion, “What‘s that?”
I don’t know if it’s me he’s looking at, but I know that in a matter of seconds all of the men in the road could have zeroed their gaze on where I am and decide that I could make for their evening sport. Unmarried or married women don’t frequent the country unaccompanied by a brother, husband, father or guardian. Making the decision to move, I slide in one movement off the rock. A muffled thud and pain screaming up both legs and I am sheltered behind the rock.
“What are you looking at Samson?”
“Up there on that rock. There was a woman there.”
“Samson you’re so drunk you’d think your horse looked like a decent woman.” The other men gawffled in response.
“No, no I’m sure she was there.” Samson protests loudly as a bottle sloshes.
“I’m sure what you saw was some bird or beast. Don’t worry we’ll find you a real woman instead of a fictional daydream.”
As the group continue down the road, my heart begins to slow to a normal rhythm.
I spend the next few minutes making sure that no one is on the road before I venture out again. The rest of my walk seems rather uneventful compared to the rest of the day and I stumble into Huntsford just as the sun begins hugging the mountains goodnight.
I’ve been so focused on finally making here that I failed to think about what I would do when I arrived. Having only moved to the district a few months prior, I have no connection to the stern townspeople and they clearly have no love for me. Two ladies in shawls shoot uncomfortable glances my way as I make my way up the dusty street. I probably look like the witch they drowned last week.
Deciding to give the onlookers only a brief glimpse of my disheavled appearance, I speed up and move to an alley between a shop front and an inn. A long barn stretches the length of the inn at the back, but my eyes go instantly to the animal trough in the centre of the yard. “Water,” I mumble to myself as I dive my way toward the blessed rusted metal as though it‘s the holy chalice.
Leaning over the trough I see instantly that it’s not suitable for drinking. An array of insects and tadpoles have made this their home and the water has turned a murky brown. There are levels of desperation and I haven’t yet reached the point of pure animalism to drink from such a place.
Straightening I stand and consider what to do. My immediate needs are water and food and beyond that finding a suitable place to hide until I’m sure that the men pursuing me have ceased. I have nothing to barter except my necklace and that I refuse to part with. My mother may be dead, but I’d be damned if I was forced to give up the only physical reminder I have that she existed. I need to work to find shelter and food and decide the inn is my best opportunity.
Straightening my dress, I dust what I can from my skirts. Then my hair is loosened and retied in a simple braid. Praying that these simple efforts have made me look mildly respectable, I make my way to the front entry and step inside nervously.