Story - 03
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The Fox

 

The earth slept. Trees pushed bare, searching branches through the fog. Cattle rustled straw in open barns while voices of men hung gently on the air and then were lost. Later, the sun broke through, pushing the fog back to the corners of the fields, where it clung to the dry, stone walls and brambles.

The children, watching through the lounge window, saw the first group of horses canter along the skyline on their way down towards the valley.

"Look, look, the hunt!" they cried. Their mother smiled.

"You wait, " she said, " give them five minutes to get down to the Cover then watch the fox make his way to Granny's Bank at the top of the hill."

Sure enough, once the horsemen were safely away, up came the wily, dog fox, loping easily along through the grass field, his orange brush streaming out behind him as he slid over the wall and made his way off in the opposite direction.

An hour later, the ring of hooves heralded the arrival of the hunt along the road. Trotting sedately, carefully groomed men, women and children, made their way past the house following the route of the long gone fox. Steam rose from the horses into the frosty air, horse upon horse upon horse until, as they rode around the corner, all that could be seen was a moving cloud of vapour disappearing up the hill into the distance.

Later that night the wind got up, blowing away any remnants of fog, leaving only the full moon shining on the fields.

It was the knocking of the honeysuckle on the window finally woke her. Moonlight streamed into the bedroom through a gap in the curtains, leaving a silver trail across the carpet onto the bed.

The woman sat up; a sense of unease consumed her. She threw back the covers and edged her feet onto the floor. Her husband snored beside her, fast asleep.

Something called to her, something wrong, something hurt.

She pulled on socks and boots, dressing herself hurriedly by the silver gloaming in her room. Carefully she crept into the kitchen, holding her breath in the hope the orphaned lamb asleep in front of the fire would not wake and cry.

Once outside the call grew stronger. No words she heard, only a need tugged at her, pulling her feet along the road, then into the field beside the abandoned quarry.  A chapel stood in the midst of the grass, a building not there before tonight, yet grown like a mature oak in a familiar wood.  Candlelight flickered in the small windows, silver moonlight lit ancient carvings round the archway of the heavy oak door.

Hesitantly she turned the brass ring to lift the catch. Silence echoed around her, but she knew this was the place that drew her.

From the vestry, an old man bustled towards her.

"I knew you'd come," he said. "We have sore need of you tonight."

"Where is he?" the woman asked, searching the dark corners for a familiar, slumped figure.

"In here." The old man led the way into the Lady Chapel. There, on the floor, his plum coloured doublet caked in blood, lay a young cavalier. His thick, black curls hung damply from his brow. His face was flushed, his breathing shallow.

The woman blanched as she saw the state of him, but did not hesitate. She knew what must be done.

"I shall need water and bandages. " As she spoke, she heard the sound of tinkling water.

"Aye," said the old man, "we have the Mother's spring. Come, take what you will."

The woman followed him to the doorway. There, by the sacristy, was a roughly hewn bowl set back in a niche in the wall. Clear water bubbled up from a hole in the stone. She filled a vessel and returned, fearing even as she did, she came too late.

She cleaned the wound in the young man's side, but the blood loss was great. He could only lie there moaning.

"There is nothing I can do!" Hopelessness engulfed her but the old man only smiled.

"You know you can," he said. "You have only to try."

She bit her lip, placing her hand on the wound and prayed; prayed to the earth on which they stood, to the wind in the trees behind them, to the fire from the candles guttering in their sconces and to the water from the spring bubbling away below. Slowly she tied them all together with the moonlight, binding the stricken skin and causing the blood flow to cease, until there was no sign where the sword ran through him; his flesh was whole.

At last his grey eyes flickered open. "I am alive?"

The woman nodded. "How did you escape?" she asked. "All your kind were herded into Stow church and slaughtered. They say Sheep Street ran red with blood of noble cavaliers slain at the hands of the Roundheads!"

The shadow of a smile flickered over the young man's face. "They don't call me 'The Fox' for nothing," he whispered.

Suddenly, the candles gutted. A rushing wind roared through the trees. The woman found herself caught up in its whirling path so she could neither see nor hear nor move nor speak.

When at last the roaring ceased, she was alone; alone in her bed with sun shining in through open curtains. A blackbird sang in the garden while from the kitchen, the lamb cried for her milk. She heard the murmurs of her children while out in the byre, the cow lowed as her husband milked.

She knew somehow, somewhere, the fox was safe; the hunt would not find their quarry so easily again.

 

Copyright Sarah J Head 1998

 

 THE END

 

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