She ran ….
The day had begun as many others – nothing to show that it would come to terror and flight ….
She’d fetched water, taken the bread for the baking – and yes, she had stayed there longer than she quite needed to, passing the time of day with the women – and aware of the baker’s son in the background. That would be a good match for her – above what might be thought right, but she’d set her sights high ….
Now, her sights were set only for the perilous twilight footing – they were not long behind her, and gaining. She’d only avoided them so far by coming into the woods, forcing them to dismount and follow her on foot – she never thought the day would come when she would bless the close growing trees…
“Go on through, girls, there’s nothing to hurt you there!” The mister often sent her on errands through the wood – “One day you’ll come back with more than you take in!” The mistress had made it clear her idea of a good match for Merewenne would be the charcoal burner’s son, but Merewenne had no desire to live out her days in the isolation of the deep forest, coming into town only for market days, if she was lucky ….
Luck was what she wanted now, as she ran on. The way through the woods was familiar enough – familiar enough to tell her that it held no hiding place for her tonight. She looked ahead and up, through a gap – if she could get up into the crags, surely she’d find a place to hide – to rest? She was so very tired ….
“Tired? I’ll give you tired, my girl!” The mistress had passed the mill on her self-important way to visit her sister, and had seen Merewenne sitting on the low wall outside the mill, talking to the other women there. “Get you home and about your work, girl!”Merewenne had dodged the blow, but not the words or the look, and had hurried home to continue her day’s work – carrying the fresh loaves, revelling in the scent of them ….
The scent of the forest – pine – loam – was giving way to the scent of open land. It was almost too dark to see, but still Merewenne ran on, confident in her memory to get her across the boggy pastureland to the rising crags beyond. A splash and a muffled curse told her the men following were not so sure of their own footing …. Merewenne ran on as they stopped to pull their comrade free of the bog – it gave her an edge. She ran on ….
“How you do run on!” The master’s voice carried, complaining at the long account of his sister-in-law’s doings. “See to my own household, wife – and leave hers to her.” Merewenne had pretended to be very busy about mending the tunic on her lap as the mistress came through, as though she had not heard. She should have seen, then, perhaps, that the day would go from bad to worse – the look in the mistress’ eye held trouble for someone; Merewenne just didn’t realise it would be her.
But it was … and it sounded as though her pursuers had returned to the chase. It was only the warning from the baker’s son that had given her what little lead on them she’d had ….
“Merry! Your mistress is in a state!” He found her at the well, at the edge of the village, fetching the night’s water.
“She’s always in a state, that one.”
“It’s worse.” He’d looked as though he had bad news … and he did. “The tithe money? In silver, due next market day?” Merewenne nodded — everyone knew her mistress insisted on seeing to the tithe herself…. “It’s gone.”
“Gone? How can it be gone?”
“There’s worse, Merry. She’s saying everywhere that ….” He’d trailed off, looking at his feet. At that moment, even from where they’d stood at the well, she’d head the master’s shout of rage – she couldn’t make out the words – but looking at Marcus, she didn’t really need to. Even before he managed to stammer it out, she knew who the mistress was blaming for the missing silver.
Merewenne didn’t even stop to consider trying to defend herself, to prove that she had not taken the money … they’d never believe her, they’d put her to the trial ….
So now, she was still running – she’d made it to the end of the boggy land and was on the first part of the scree at the base of the crags, when she heard something that caused her steps to falter, and sent her spirits plummeting – hounds! They’d brought the hounds with them! They must have been kept back, in the woods, but from the sound, they’d been loosed.
She called up a last bit of strength from somewhere, and spotted a cave; almost hidden, just ahead of her to the left. Too tired to run much further, she made for the cave – maybe a stream would hide her scent, maybe she’d be able to crawl into a place too small for the men to follow ….
The cave was almost pitch black in the gathering gloom, but she ran on. If there was a pit in front of her – well, falling would be quick and, after all, better than going back ….
So when she missed her footing and began to fall, it was almost with something like relief. But her fall was arrested by strong arms, holding her. She was too frightened to think, and too tired to care – she lashed out, trying to break his hold.
The one word brought her up short – stopped her frantic pummelling of his chest, her pushing against his arms. She looked at him, but could only see an outline of a face.
“Please sir! I didn’t do it, sir! I didn’t! Tell them, sir, you believe me, sir?”
He looked at her and said simply, “Wait.”
Releasing her, he turned away, toward the mouth of the cave. Now that she’d stopped running, she could hear the hounds – so close, so close ….
She realised she was leaning against the wall of the cave. Her strength finally exhausted, she slid down till she was sitting on the bare earth. She felt she no longer cared what happened to her, as long as she could rest.
When she woke, it was to a good fire, and a simple meal in front of her – oat cakes, rough wine, part of a roast hare. Realising how hungry she was, she fell to, eating and drinking as much as she could. Just as she was sitting back, wiping greasy fingers on her skirt, he came into view – as much of him as she could see by the light of the dying fire.
“Sir … I’ve eaten your supper …?” She asked it as a question, but the evidence was clear.
“No, there is more than enough here – be easy. Some of the country folk … remember.”
He looked down at her – she could see he was not tall even for the men of the village. She also realised he was waiting for her to speak.
“I was accused of stealing, sir.”
“And did you steal?”
“No, sir.” She didn’t add any more – he would believe her or not.
He nodded, as if satisfied.
“Not that I might not have given you refuge, even if you had, mind you.” He smiled, and pull off a part of what she’d left of the hare. “But this really is no place for you …. And it’s safe for you to go back.”
“How do I know, or how is it safe? Tell me, why were you so afraid?”
“Hounds, sir – they’d loosed the hounds.” She didn’t give voice to the fear she felt, but he seemed to understand.
“As I thought. In this place, the hounds are your friends, as they are mine. They didn’t find you – but they did find a stranger hiding in a barn … a stranger who had silver ….”
“The tithe! It wasn’t me, you see, sir?!”
”And they know that, now.”
A large hound pushed past him, toward the remains of the food. Merewenne drew back, and he laughed.
“I tell you, he is the best friend you have this night. Next to me, that is ….” He held out a hand to her ….
She came back to the village in the morning mist, the large hound at her side. No one questioned her – the matter was ignored by common consent. But the hound, having joined the master’s hunting pack, would always run to her if given the chance – and made his home outside the bakery, when she married ….
One might suggest that a Saxon village is an odd place to find the Lord of the Hounds. One might, however, think twice before suggesting it directly to him.
[The original Diotima discussed love with Socrates. The current author is not the original Diotima, but she does believe that the division between mind and heart has plagued Western civilisation for far too long. She is the author of Refuge: Tales of Myth and Magic; Banish with Laughter; Dancing God; and Goat Foot God, the last two examinations of Pan. She lives in England, finds it impossible to pass a bookstore, and is supervised by a small cat.]