In open fields between several small villages, the earth was thick, black, and fertile. It was always moist with night mists and brief, frequent showers but the sun favored it as well, even in the cold months. A family had purchased their freedom from serfdom and found this patch of ground and told a few friends they could trust. They had all had saved and garnered favor from their stewards and gained freedom as well. Those friends passed the message to a couple more. A few modest huts rose at the ragged edge of the land just where the young yews, hazels, rowans, hawthorns, hollies, and birches spread their roots. Older walnut, chestnut, poplar, elm, and oaks grew denser as the forest spread in all directions, regularly interrupted with a spruce or pine, favoring the forest with dense foliage throughout the year. Flocks of redstarts, robins, and warblers fluttered in, calling each other by name and singing praise to the trees which kept them safe. Butterflies flitted about, helping the bees keep the flowers well-tended each season of every year.
At the far edges of this mysterious realm were other villages, a day or more by foot along shaded, lightly rutted roads down which carts could barely pass. Several men had lost their hats to a branch plucking them bare-headed as they rode to market.
The ten huts that made up the little community were well-spaced around the edges. Each hut had wattle fences that kept the chickens, goats, sheep, and cows safe from sharp-toothed prowlers. A barn interrupted the huts and gave shelter to the animals and their offspring, and for a few horses and oxen as well. Animal feed and grain was stored there through the cold months. A central room had been built into the barn to host the daily activity as the farmers’ families gathered, or their wives and children worked together stitching clothes and making cookware from the dense gray clay found a dozen miles off. They kilned the pottery in a brick oven for their own use or to sell in markets, and their work had gained some notoriety for its beauty and hardiness.
They shared a circular meadow for grazing, full of ryegrass, with chamomile, borage, clover, and poppies splashing colors about. Some of the flowers tendered nectar for the bees. Thistle patches served the goats up a prickly treat. While their animals grazed, the children followed them, gathering droppings to enrich the crops. Fenced off from the meadows were the vegetable rows, their specialties being broad beans, field peas, carrots, spinach, leeks, chard, cabbage, yellow and green gourds and melons, potatoes, parsnips, and turnips. The vegetable gardens hemmed in the large field at the center of the clearing. It was filled with barley, wheat, oats, rye, and flax. Slightly off-center in this golden patch was a spring-fed pond from which they drew water, while its bounty ran off to the north in a tidy stream, lined with watercress, filled with fish for the taking.
They had planned it perfectly, their little community of hard-working farmers, their families, animals, and crops. It was so important they always remembered that it had been John of Twylham that had stumbled across the fields ten or more years back and had been a kind man to his friends. He, his wife Constance, and their young son John had moved here with a few others and started work. They raised huts and the barn, getting the edges of the glade fenced off from predators, digging wells, tilling the land under, removing the rocks sparsely scattered throughout the meadow, and planning what to plant and when to harvest. Everyone had been farmers, and all were sick of the way their lords treated them and their neighbors. A new start on this land would save them from the miseries they had previously endured.
As the farm prospered and families grew, tasks were eagerly sought by the children. Some of them were goatherds and shepherds who learned to shear their flock. Some cared for the chickens, ensuring that chicks matured, roosters encouraged (or killed if they became a danger), and eggs plucked. Horses were groomed, their newborns pulled from their mothers and coaxed onto their wobbly legs. Cows gave their milk when they were not raising their own young.
Young John—Johnny—became the best bean and pea farmer any of them had ever heard of or seen at market. His beans were large and flat with a bright brown hue. His green peas and chickpeas in their bright green pods were as full-flavored as the mutton and goat they met in the local stews. While other farmers managed a larger count, their beans and peas stayed hard and tasteless after a night soaking or in a kettle stew, while Johnny’s got fatter, sweeter, and richer by the hour. John and Constance, Johnny’s father and mother, were proud of their son but stayed busy tending goats and chickens, weaving flax into fabric for other wives to fashion into clothing.
Johnny’s skills in the field became the envy of other farmers, who grumbled and cursed this child besting them at what they had done all their lives, seen less love for their toil. As his bounty made him popular with many families, they brought attention from the local lords, their stewards, yeomen, and vassals. When good food is smelled on the fire, wolves circle.
Vassals from the four villages closest to Johnny’s farm poked about and found the lone bitter tongue that had a story to tell, a story of their own failures rather than Johnny’s touch. As Johnny only came to market when he was ready, and that was early morning, he quickly sold his weekly crop to those who knew his habits. He was a hard fellow to find. He also favored each village in turn with a harvest, making his visits less predictable to the idle cook. The envious farmers woke later than Johnny’s customers. They tended their crops with less passion and only knew second-hand what their neighbors told them about the beans and peas that flew from Johnny’s stall as soon as he arrived.
Toby, the steward for Lord Twylham, differed from the tattlers. He found a nook across from Johnny’s Twylham stall and gathered some sacking to keep him warm through the nights before market day. He was bone-thin and muscular, a dutiful warrior at his lord’s side in battles beyond the villages, a cruel hand wielding the lash when his serfs and villeins slowed their work or malingered over imaginary illnesses. His eyelids would close but flick open at the smallest sound, their dark irises becoming thin rings around his pupils as they scanned the dark. Hidden as he was in his pile of sacks, he was unseen except by rats and insects rummaging about looking for scraps
When his Twylham crop was ready, Johnny headed out in the farm cart along with the other farmers with their eggs, milk, barley, melons, gourds, parsnips, and potatoes for the eager villagers’ kettles. They started out before the middle of the night to reach the market just before dawn. It was slow going near the fields, but their horses happily sped to a trot once they got through the thickest bits, again picking up their pace in the last thousand yards to town.
Truth told, all the farmers sold their produce in a blink as their fields seemed nurtured by hidden spirits. Their customers were keen to see them and milled about the market in the hour before sunrise, sharing news and rumors about their lords and the kingdom in which they all battled for their lives. When they heard hooves beating a quick pace towards town, they gathered at the stalls. The local farmers were already setting their specialties out or would have to satisfy those who were late for the hidden field’s treats. There was no pushing or shouting; those who hadn’t slept groused the same as those who just weren’t quite early enough.
Toby awoke when the gossiping began, his eyes taking it all in. As dawn came, he slipped out from his bedding and made his way to the proper stall. Toby wasn’t interested in gossip. He was the cause of some and didn’t care to hear their words. As such, he was first at the stall to greet Johnny when he arrived.
“Haven’t seen you before, sir! How does the morning treat you?” asked Johnny, bright and happy as always.
“Yeah, you have. Must have been a bit, though. You don’t remember?” A lie came to Toby’s tongue fast as spit and came out as ugly.
“Ah well, I must not remember,” said Johnny, who remembered every customer by name and knew he had never served this one. “What’ll you have?”
“All of what you’ve got, boy!” said Toby. He was greedy and a liar.
“Can’t do that, kind sir. I only give what can be used by a family in a few days, and the line is long. I’ll sell you four hands as I do the others and no more.”
“That won’t do. I want all of what you have, and I’ll pay double.”
“The price ain’t the thing, sir. I can’t sell you all I’ve got and leave everyone wanting, can I?”
“This time, you will,” said Toby, drawing a seax from his tunic’s waistband. The line saw this and spoke in frightened whispers.
“You can take the lot if that’s what you’re after. There’s no need to frighten these people, no need to threaten me. Just take what I have—four baskets of each and nothing left.” Johnny was calm to appearances, but a fury was building in him he had not known in his short life.
“Ah, you’re a smart one then!” said Toby, turning to the villagers behind and impressing them into duty as carriers. “You three, grab two each and I’ll carry my share. Follow me.”
They did as they were told with no joy. They knew who this was, even if Johnny and the field families from other towns didn’t. They knew they had a walk ahead and the cheap bastard would have no cart at the ready. But they also knew that this would not pass.
Johnny gathered together with the other farmers who had come to market. They saw it all, knew he had done what was wisest when a long knife is pulled. They knew that their market days had just changed forever, with caution the byword from then on.
As Toby and his unwilling friends started for his stone home to the south, away from the hidden field and away from Twylham, he sensed that he was no longer watching as much as being watched. A few eyes, then a dozen, a score stared out at him as he made his way down the rutted road to his fields. His hands carried the full baskets, but he planned his response if this was an ambush in the offing.
There was no time.
A stone, the size of a potato, smashed into his temple. He crumpled onto the roadside, the baskets dropping from his hands as he fell and lay still, bleeding into the musty leaves. The others set their burdens down, went to Toby’s side and examined him. He was still drawing breath, but a hand across his mouth and a firm pinch of his nose and that stopped soon enough. He was the steward to Twylham’s lord no more.
Some of the villagers came cautiously from the early morning shadows, thrown long and sharp by the rising sun, and stood around the abandoned produce and the dead man. Silently, they each grabbed a basket and headed back into town, hoping to find Johnny and the others before they rode for home.
Johnny’s brow furrowed when they arrived with the baskets.
“What has happened? What have you done?” he asked quietly, eyeing each of the men in their turn.
“He won’t bother you no more,” said one. “He’s a goner,” said another. “Not right for a man to take what isn’t his just because of his station,” said a third.
“Yeah, all that may be right, but this will not be the last we hear of it from his lord,” said Johnny.
“And what have you done with his body?” asked John of Twylham.
“There’s no need for you to worry none. He’s left us and that’s that,”
said a short red-headed man whose wife was a favored customer.
“There’s God’s law against what you have done,” said old John.
“Aye, there is,” said the red-headed man. “And one against stealing too. When one has been done, the other is fair.”
“Nay, it is not,” said old John, “and we all may have to pay the baron before this is done. We cannot say what the future holds, but we all know he is no friend to those who do not favor his table.”
“It will come as it may,” said Johnny. “For the present, if you queue up and respect the order you came in this morning, you can get your beans and peas. The farm has sold all else, and we must get back.”
“We have something pleasant for our pots at the least,” said one wife with a woolen shawl and a thin smile. “The baron will do as he will.”
And with that, the beans and peas disappeared as they always did, four handfuls to each who wanted as much and less to those who had fewer mouths to feed.
As they arrived at the farm well after the midday meal had been eaten and the children were at their naps, none of them said a word to their families. It had not been a happy morning, but all was sold, and they saw Twylham customers and friends. If there were payment to be made for what had gone awry, it would happen in its own time, and the farm had animals and crops to tend, children to raise, and crafts to make. There was no time for dwelling on what could not be mended. It wasn’t one of them who had done in the steward. That might keep trouble at the other end of the road, although all hoped the matter would die as quickly as Toby had.
As the farm had matured, honeybees had come. They carried pollen from the grains back to their hives and made honey from clover and borage nectar in the meadows. It was plentiful and delicious to the families, and the bees didn’t seem to mind their honey being borrowed as long as it was done gently. The farm kept it secret to those beyond the farm. Or so they thought.
Part of Johnny’s secret was that he visited his beans and peas at night as dew descended on the fields, a sparkling, diaphanous blanket. It was then that bunnies, mice, and voles would come in from the woods or pop their heads out of burrows and sniff the air, hoping for a treat. It was then green bugs would sip the dew and, if hunger took them, nibble a bit into a pod as well. The rodents all had to watch out for the skyborne shadows of owls, who enjoyed a vole or two as an appetizer before rabbit. Johnny’s patient tending of his crops helped them stay safe. He would share the pods that seemed least promising with the “lil-uns,” as he called the critters. While they clustered around Johnny, hoping for a treat, they avoided being snatched and carried off to hatchlings nesting in the trees. The bugs, though, had to watch out for Johnny, who would brush them away, encouraging them to find some meadow grass for their morsels. It didn’t matter to the bugs as all dewdrops were lakes and all leaves a feast.
One early morning—or very late night—Johnny had an unexpected visitor. Several, in truth. He had never seen them straight-on but had wondered for years if his eyes were working against him. He would catch sight of a blank spot in the fields at the edges of his vision, a place where the field was not illuminated quite right. He would turn, and the field would be as it should be. No spots, no blanks, no mysteries to be seen.
But one morning, the spots at the edges of his vision flew forward from each side, congregating a foot off his nose, hanging in the air, became far more than the blank spots he had never seen. They were tiny creatures, larger than a bumble bee and smaller than a bird. A dozen dark faces with sharp noses, elongated ears, pointed teeth, dark eyes like tiny pools of sap, shiny, dark shells like beetles wear, and dark wings that moved so swiftly they seemed still. They hovered, peering deeply beyond his eyes, into his heart. He stared back, a little too calmly perhaps. He knew they had been watching for a long while. They did not seem a threat to him or the farm. They were a presence revealed.
“We keep watch from the woods,” said the congregation without moving their mouths or blinking their eyes. “We led you here. You keep the fields. Make them live. Make them well. Make them safe. You brought the bees. We like their honey. Will you share?”
“Why, I am sure that would be a pleasure. How much would you like?” asked Johnny as he mulled over their praise and the revelation that his father had been led to this patch of fertile soil by sounds or thoughts or acts of will from these minute beings.
“We will take our need. Let the farm know we are here.”
“But who shall I say you are?”
“We are sprites. No one shall see us until we wish. We see all.”
“Very well. That is what I shall say… and not a word more,” said Johnny. His word was bond to the sprites as it was to his kin.
The gathering disappeared faster than it had arrived. Johnny returned to tending his pods, talking to the bunnies, laughing at the mice, giving the voles a tummy tickle when they rolled over and asked.
He slept, as always, past when old John and his mum were out doing their dailies. They knew his routine, trusted his sense of what was needed, and could always call on him, asleep or not, if more hands were needed.
At lunch, he told them about the sprites as they chewed through their bread and drank their goat milk with some apples they had bartered at the last market, for Twylham’s market profited as did those from the field. They did not stop, did not remark, and just kept eating. When they were done and ready for their naps, as their day would go past sunset, they said what they had to say: “We know. Now you do.”
Old John stood up next to Johnny, smiled, gave his shoulder a gentle, reassuring squeeze and the couple went off for their nap.
Lord Twylham had not been as fond of Toby as Toby had thought. If he hadn’t had a rough hand with his serfs and had found a wife, he might have become a yeoman or knight. He hadn’t the character for either. A missing steward leaves idle hands in the field and house. When Toby was absent, which happened all too often, one of Toby’s squires filled the post. The farm work continued, animals were tended, and the house was kept. After a day had passed with no sign of the steward, Gillen sent word to the baron that Toby had gone missing without leaving word. A couple of days passed before Lord Twylham’s sheriff rode to Toby’s farm and asked Gillen and the other two squires to the manse.
Toby had divided the affairs of the farm between matters of the fields, barns, and houses. Gillen had kept the fields reliable and productive over many seasons, although the produce had no remarkable qualities. A simple stable housed a score of horses, principally for plowing and for cartage, another barn for a score of cows, and a small one for geese and chickens, along with a yard for them to peck in. The house squire had served as little more than a valet to Toby, although his chores ensured that the housemaids kept it clean and the meals were always served hot and on time. He was a meek, kind man and had treated the house staff well, protecting them from Toby’s harsh words and the lash.
They arrived mid-afternoon, entered the kitchen through a side door, ascended the steps to the foyer, and found that the lord was still resting. They each were given a cup of water and a bread rusk while they waited.
Long after their repast had been forgotten, the lord asked them into his study. They were given no leave to sit but waited for Twylham to collect his thoughts… or concern himself with their presence. He was a short, fierce man. His face kept a youthful appearance and had not become ruddy with drink. He had served well in His Majesty’s battles but had become Baron of Twylham due to his father’s service, not his own. He hoped for ascension to some other rank, perhaps even a summons to court. It didn’t bear worry, so Lord Twylham made what he could from his holdings.
“I understand that your steward has taken his leave. Is this correct?” Lord Twylham paused to assess the silent nodding from his three visitors and continued. “The man had been reliable, but there’s a job gone wanting. You were the three he trusted?” A side glance noted more silent assent. “Who has the fields? That is the man who will take over the farm.” Gillen stepped forward and nodded once again. “Very well. A settled matter, then. You are my man on that farm. Ensure I have no worries.” With that, Lord Twylham exited through a door into an unknown maze of hallways and rooms and the visitors were guided out.
Mounting their cart and placing a dozen yards behind them, the men started talking.
“To be honest, I’d rather you had it than if it was mine for the worry,” said the house squire.
“Aye, well said and quicker than I could’ve,” said the barn squire.
“It’s a lot of worries and no question. I have it and must make the best of it. I’ll be gone as sure as Toby if I don’t.” Gillen was worried as he had never sought attention and had hoped one of the others would get the nod.
“It must be said, I warrant, that Toby must be found, and his absence laid to rest. He was a friend to none of us, but Twylham’ll poke his nose in if we don’t. Have you a thought of where he might have gone?”
Silence from both for another distance, sheltered on either side by a grove of well-kept plane trees.
“He heard of some beans for sale in the town market and got a notion to have some,” said the house man. “One of the villagers might know where he has gone.”
“Beans were none of his concern. Hadn’t cook tried for some?” said Gillen.
“Aye, but before dawn, her service was over the kettle. Her helpers got none of the beans or peas when they went in her stead. And Toby often went missing over a night. When he weren’t bothering our own maids. With your leave, I’ll go to the village and ask about.”
“Aye. Best you do and soon. Sam (for that was the barn squire’s name) and I will manage. Set out tomorrow before dawn and see what you can learn.”
“I’ll do it, then,” said the house squire, who would now learn if Gillen was as fussy as Toby had been.
The next morning before dawn, Cedric—the house squire—headed to market. The hidden farm had no presence at the market that morning. Cedric asked commoners and tradespeople in the village what they knew of Toby’s disappearance. He asked the butcher, who would sometimes come to the farm for Toby to carve up and preserve meats and who did no work for the hidden farm. The butcher professed no notion of Toby’s whereabouts but thought he might be bedding down at one of the other villages. Cedric talked to the baker, who would often sell to Toby but reserved his best bread and grains for the villagers or for barter with other villages. A wine merchant had traveled through with casks of piquette. The baker said that Toby had drunk himself cockeyed and was sleeping it off. That might be at the root of the mystery. The farrier, who had cared for horses for Toby, thought he’d seen him ride off on a donkey with a maid, though no one seemed to know the lass or her beast. The weavers, who spent their days at their looms, paid no attention to their surroundings and could hardly see past their fingertips. A deacon, who had moved to the village in recent months, barely spoke to anyone. He hoped to become their priest and spent his time reading to better appreciate God’s word. Even the tattlers, now warned of the consequences of their intemperate tongues, were afield when Cedric came to town, would have said nothing had he approached them. They might have appeared the least friendly of all, as fear and guilt had them struck nearly dumb.
Cedric returned to the farm and parlayed his information to Gillen, now steward in duty if not in name, and Sam, his fellow squire.
“He’s either badgered or laid up with a maid no one seems to know, all at once or neither. If he’s done both, he’s used a donkey or a cart or his own feet to leave, but no one had a word as to where he might be,” Cedric said, hoping this was the last of it and knowing it could not be.
“That won’t do for the baron. I’ll wager he’ll have us scouring the countryside before this is done.” Gillen could not afford to rest. He had his new chores in the farm house to worry over, the fields had no new squire, although he knew who was right for the job, yet this dangling thread was the thing to bring him the most worry.
“Did anyone know whether he’d purchase some beans?” Gillen asked before moving on to pressing matters.
“I asked and they knew nothing of the beans, peas, or other trading he had done.”
“Does anyone know where the beans and peas are grown?”
“No one said. It must be a farm nearby. I’ve never tasted either, but I wager their beans like any others.”
“They must be special, nor Toby would have bothered for them,” said Gillen. “I would wager that he must be searching for them still or he would have returned. He’s a bad man, but none of us have heard of him doing as the village says he did, aside from running off many a maid and causing children to be born to no father.”
“All you say is true,” said Sam, “and yet what village grows these beans that would make him go off his head?” All three shook their heads.
“Well, there’s nothing to be done except take it on myself. If I am ever to be named steward of this place, I must get him an answer. I thought my son would be a good friend to you as head man for the fields. He’s worked them hard and knows much, though there is always more to learn when times turn hard. Would you welcome him among you?”
“Aye,” said both men quickly, and with a smile. If there was good to come of Toby’s absence, this was good.
“Well then. I’ll tell him and Sarah this evening and go off in search of the farm before dawn. There’s no putting it off a day more as the sheriff will be here to round us all up if another week goes by.”
As the farm stirred before dawn, farmhands tore off chunks of bread for their breakfast, the cows lowed, the horses snorted, nickered, and tossed their manes, the chicken and geese clucked and honked before the roosters crowed. Gillen made his way off the property and towards the village to have a look about. As he arrived, the village was moving about, getting to the tasks their lives demanded. Their simple huts were meager but theirs all the same. They would need patching before winter came.
Gillen walked around the market, looking at stalls sparsely filled with local fare from the commoners’ plots. As he wandered, he noticed the cartwheel wear in a narrow road pointing off into the forest, not towards east or west where the main thoroughfare headed to crossroads, not back to his farm, but off into the thickness of woods he hadn’t bothered about until then.
He asked about where the ruts ran.
“Ah, I wager it’s a forester’s path as they’d need a tree here and there for lumber.”
“Ah, that’s just where we take our cart when we hunt for musheron and boar. It’s nothing but a dead end.”
“I can’t say I’ve ever seen a cart there, to be sure.”
These sounded like deception to Gillen. He knew the foresters used the baron’s vert and paid for each tree they took, planting one in its stead whenever one fell. If they took a tree elsewhere, the baron had promised to put them to the lash and brand them as poachers.
He knew that musheron were gathered on foot, carried home in a basket and was never so considerable a harvest it needed a cart. If there were boar there and their hunt was favored with a kill, they would field dress it, then carry the carcass back to the village lashed to a pole.
He also knew that there was much to do in any village, the work running from before dawn to after dark. Every person he ever knew in a small place such as this noticed when a leaf fell or the wind went still, whenever a stranger—or friend—came or left by whatever path there was for the taking, whenever a word was said or made up for someone to have said. They all knew that the ruts led somewhere and they all weren’t telling.
He felt sure that Toby had followed these into the forest dark. He had no choice but to go there as well.
Johnny and the hidden farm were busy with their farming as usual, but a sense of dread hung over the community. No one who had been in Twylham the day Toby had grabbed the beans could forget it. Those things had not happened since they had broken away from being parts of their various lords’ interests. While they were there, bandits or nobles too full of themselves would loot their stands and take what they wanted. As they arrived early and sold all they had, this didn’t happen anymore. Until Toby came and robbed them. Until their baskets had reappeared.
As was their practice, the community assembled in the craftwork room and talked.
“It was a foul thing for him to have done but I fear what may have happened to him.”
“Aye, ‘tis true. That village knows us all and knows that man. They will probably feel pain before they let their lord know what happened.”
“And that’s not a fair thing for them to bear for us. If one is hurt from hiding the truth, it rests on us as surely as we did a wrong.”
“We cannot act as we do not know what happened. We must wait for news at the next market and weigh what is told us then.”
“Cannot we send someone to hear what has gone on? Surely, a wait of three-quarters a moon is too long without knowing?”
“That’s a fair comment,” John of Twylham said. “I can ride in tomorrow for a bit of gossip. Does anyone have wares I can take? I’ll need a story to show up so soon.”
“Aye, I have a bolt of flaxen cloth ready for thread if you’d like.”
“That will be a fine story. Thank you.”
With that the community trickled back to their evening chores, discussing among themselves what might come.
As on every night, Johnny went to his crops that night and tended them, visiting with the lil-uns, brushing away the tiny feeders wherever they had set themselves for their night’s supper.
Before too long, a group of dark figures swum in from the edges of his sight and presented themselves just off his nose. He smiled.
“Hello, sprites! How is your evening?”
“It is a worry and a joy.”
“How is it both?”
“Our realm is peaceful and full of wonder. Yours is in danger. With your danger comes worry for us and our ways.”
“What are you saying, sprites? What worries you?”
“One of your kind passed into the dark on your last visit to the village. No life passes without a life being sought for the balance.”
“Someone died? No! That cannot be how that ended!”
“He was not good. Eyes watch for him, seek him. Eyes will come down the path to find him.”
“That is awful! I will warn the others, and we will tell them the truth.”
“That will be no better. We know what to do.” The sprites darted off into the forest.
John of Twylham rose early and saw Johnny coming in from the fields. “Father, they visited me last night. They say we are in danger. Perhaps you should not go.”
“I must, and that’s an end to it. I’ll return by mid-day and know more than we do now.”
“They said a man died and others seek revenge, father. If you go, you may be placing yourself in their hands.”
“I can manage, Johnny. Tell your mother what you’ve said. I am gone ‘til noon.”
Gillen had followed the cartwheel marks into the forest. They were not deep but were distinct. This was a journey that had been made many times by the same cart. He saw that they disappeared into the dense forest that surrounded him. The trees leaned in towards him as he walked past the ancient oaks and walnuts, spruces and pines, poplars, and elms, past the undergrowth of briars and ivy that matted the forest floor, slithered up bark and hung from branches like serpents. The deeper he went, the more the sun became a memory, something that he had seen once but nearly forgotten, the more windless and still the air he breathed. Yet, as the stillness and dark descended on him, an odd and all-present glow seemed to pulse from within the woods. And he thought he heard whispers, or didn’t hear them, he didn’t know. Nonetheless, he felt sounds beneath his hearing, a gurgling like his own name, a taunting call like no song or voice he had ever heard before.
He walked on, though. This had to be done by someone. If he was to be the steward, it was his duty to find an answer or others would come in his stead. A light fog came through the woods towards the rutted path. As it became thicker, Gillen’s view of the tracks, of the earth beneath him, grew more indistinct, less clear than it had been seconds before. He remained diligent, pushing his legs through what had become a syrup, like a thundercloud had set itself down among the trees. He placed his feet firmly on the dirt he could no longer see, every step becoming a labor, every breath more that of a man drowning than of one inhaling air.
He found that he had wandered off the path into the briars, their thorns nipping at his tunic and trousers, teasing tendrils of wool out in little loops that were caught more quickly by other thorns, slowing him further. Ivy seemed to tighten about his boots until he was at a standstill, foot to shoulder, wrapped in thorns and tendrils, caught like a fly in a spider’s web, his thoughts as frozen as his movements, his reasons for being here as forgotten as last night’s dream.
John found Gillen lying face down, arms by his side, legs together, on the shoulder of the road just where his horse would make its final trot for the village. John dismounted, rolled the man onto his back, and put his hand on his chest; it was moving, although with a slow, shallow draw like the breaths taken in a deep sleep. He was clad slightly above what the commoners wore, which would have been enough to protect him from the crispness this summer’s morning offered beneath the trees, but John did not know him from his years in Twylham. He sat down by his side and waited, reaching over to check that his breathing was steady, if not quite right. He was in a deep sleep.
John heard the village moving about a thousand yard off, but no one was going to come to where the path widened out from the constrictions of the woods unless they heard hooves—and his horse wasn’t moving much. Just a tail flick or a mane toss now and then. He was going to have to leave the stranger and find someone to help him. He mounted up and trotted into the village. His friends smiled and waved. He waved and smiled in return, but he was headed to the herbalist, a friend from childhood on. He was in his shop grinding something dry and dark green to a fine powder.
“Ho, John! What brings you to town absent a market day?” said Aaron.
“I’ve heard there was a dark deed when we were last here and felt a need to speak with someone I could believe. On my way in, I found a stranger sleeping at the mouth of the forest. He seems to need help, and I thought you might take a look for me.”
“I will. Appears to be sleeping, hmmm? I’ll gather my wares and meet you there.”
John rode back out to the stranger, no more than 10 minutes away. Another 5 minutes and Aaron arrived with his satchel. He felt the man’s chest, still in the same state as when John left him and thought about the matter for a minute or so.
“This seems like a spell. A bit of magic has been done on him, although I cannot say who or what did it.”
With that, Aaron took a couple of small bottles from his satchel and opened them beneath Gillen’s nose. The first, a concentrate of ramps, resulted in little more than a wiggling of his nose. The second, a tincture of valerian root, got Gillen sitting bolt upright on the edge of the road.
“Get that away!” were his first words, followed by a puzzled look at the two strangers. “Who are you?” asked Gillen.
“I’m John, and this is Aaron, herbalist to the village. I found you sleeping face-down where you sit now. Do you remember how you came here?”
“I was walking down a path and the fog came in so thick I lost my way. I remember being rooted in place and then… nothing. I’m here sitting with you. Thank you for helping. I don’t know where I was headed or why, but thank you all the same.”
“Where are you from?” asked John.
“I’m from the baron’s land, the farm and house where Toby once lived. Oh, I was looking for him. He disappeared and we’ve been worried. The lord will send men if we can’t find him.”
John looked at Aaron and received a neutral look in return.
“Aye, he was here near a week ago, and he left town.”
“That’s what I was told by the villagers. Ah well, I should get back to the farm. I’ve been made steward just a few days gone and there’s work to be done.”
Gillen rose, unsteady on his feet. “For my life, I’m still half-asleep.”
“Take a draught of this, sir. It will right you proper.”
Aaron offered a dark bottle. Gillen took a sip. It was sweet. Tingling vapors rose into his nose and flooded his body with warmth and vigor. He came out of his daze.
“That did it, no mistake!” said Gillen. “Thank you, Aaron. I may call on you again, good sir!”
And with that, Gillen was back through the village to the farm and his duties there. It would not make the baron happy to know no more than he did before but he had made an honest attempt, one that became more dangerous with each step, and he could report that with some satisfaction.
John and Aaron went back to his shop, where Aaron replaced the items from his satchel and returned his attention to the mortar and pestle.
“Aaron, be truthful with me. Is Toby traveling or has he passed over?”
Aaron kept working at the dried herbs in his mortar. He felt John’s eyes on him, asking a simple question of a lifelong friend. How could he be denied a simple answer?
“He’s done in, John. That’s all I can say. He did wrong by your people, your place out of pride, greed, gluttony, envy, wrath, and sloth. It wasn’t anyone’s place but God to end him, but it was done and those who done it will pay their price for pride and wrath, make no mistake. And I wager you will never be found at fault, though we may be, and soon enough. Leave it lie, John. Leave it.”
“I have no choice, do I? It was thievery of our toil. Ill may come of it for any of us, but harm may visit you here before it finds us. I pray that the baron sees Toby as a man not worth the worry and lets it be. Get word to me if others come looking. Aaron, please do that.”
With a handshake and a stare, the friends parted. John had no further business in Twylham and was delayed by the unexpected encounter. Aaron had herbs to powder and tinctures to prepare. He hoped he had not said too much but never mind. John would have found someone to do the same.
When the baron heard that there was no sign of Toby, heard of the mysterious cart ruts disappearing into the dark woods, he was furious. After these many years of handling the fields for this particular farm among his holdings, Gillen had failed him when it came to finding out the truth. He had hoped Gillen could replace Toby. Now he didn’t know.
He summoned his sheriff, a man who had ridden by his side during battles for the king and asked him to pull together a few vassals and follow the ruts into the forest. If Toby was found sitting on a tavern bench swilling mead with an arm around a milkmaid, he was as good as done. As Twylham folk had no more to say on his vanishing, it would do to indenture a few to remind them of their lord and protector.
As the sun came up, the group of five men, three in mail coif, hauberk, mitons, and chausses, two in wool pants and tunics, three with seax, two with cudgels and short blades, rode off towards the village. All were large men. The armor made them appear larger still, although the weight of their armor slowed their progress. They would impress a couple into servitude, seize their belongings and property on their return from the forest and whatever lay within. If those chosen for servitude resisted the seizing, if commoners protested the lord’s judgment, the loudest would be skewered, left in their blood and offal to remind others of the foolishness of resistance.
They rode mostly in silence, the mail rings clinking like coins in a purse, setting a rhythm to the ride. As they entered the forest, the birds were still singing and chattering about the night, food, and the young mouths they had to feed. It was pleasant for a bit, then the birds went silent, the path narrowing around them. The men, mounted as they were, were forced into a single file, the armored sheriff first, followed by his retinue. The branches over their heads seemed lower, the trees closer on the sides, the sun steadily becoming a memory rather than a brilliant presence.
At first, there was a simple touch by a little branch, a branch reaching in from their sides. A twig from a limb would catch in the rings or the wool and pull a bit. Hands went up to brush the twig free from their armor, and it would spring away, swaying, dancing back and forth, then coming to rest where it had been before they came. Their horses would stride on, and there was no thought other than to the closeness of the forest and the darkness that oozed from its depths.
Then it was unmistakable. A twig—or was it a tendril from the ivy that swept up the boles and out over the limbs—caught in the sheriff’s mail coif and a quick sweep of his hand would not set it free. He grabbed at this first tendril and pulled it. Still, it would not release, and there was another branch, another tendril, this time embracing his wrist and twisting through the rings of steel that enclosed his clenched fist, pinning his left hand to his head in a frozen salute. His other hand, holding the reins with the firm grip his mount knew well, was soon wrapped in a knot of vines, which slipped down the leather straps to his horse’s mane and stopped it mid-step. Had the horse’s bridle and bit gone unnoticed by the vines, it might have reared its head back, whinnied in its torment, bucked upwards and thrown the sheriff off. It could not. Its jaws were clamped shut, its fetlocks and forearms captured in a serpentine snare, soft, green, firm, pitiless.
The sheriff tried to turn in his saddle and warn his vassals. He could not turn. He could not move, except to draw breath through the muzzle of leaves that covered his mouth, nose, eyes, and ears, turning him insensate, a statue of an unknown soldier, mounted and long gone.
Had he managed a glance behind, he would have seen his companions locked in their own verdant, writhing shrouds, immobile, faced towards him, leaves where eyes once were, horses shivering in their rage at being constrained, eyes wide in fright.
Soon, they had all worn themselves out fighting against the absolute strength of their prisons. They sat, drenched in their own sweat, fevered yet bitterly cold, as if seized by an instant ague. They were blind, deaf, incapable of screaming for help, although no help was to be found this deep in the forest. They sat on their steeds, horrified, waiting for what was to come.
The silent, black fog of rapid wings and needle teeth, leaf-like ears and onyx shells, eyes like drops of poison floating in clouded water, each the size of a newborn raven, each unmistakably ancient and full-grown, appeared from the nowhere around them. The leaves peeled themselves back from the eyes of the sheriff and his men as if on command, revealing the static, threatening cloud of darkness that had gathered around them. Their eyes widened when the dire force swept in, sundering skin from bone, finger from hand, wrist from arm, shoulder from trunk, liver from kidney, leg from groin, knee from calf, foot from stirrup, blood from vein, corpuscle from lymph, spine from skull, nerve from brain. For an instant too short to measure, the men were turned into a shape that resembled the people they once were, a shape made of shredded skin, mist of bone, elixirs of blood and memories.
All but the last man, sitting his horse, his eyes filled with visions so grim the slaughterhouse was a paradise, the battlefield a meadow feast, the dungeon rack a pleasant dream.
The stygian cloud was sated with their four-fold repast and withdrew as quickly as it had come. Slowly, gently, the vines, tendrils, twigs, branches, leaves, all loosened their grip on the horses—all paralyzed in sleep as they stood. They released the last man, quietly sitting his saddle as if it were time for a meal of oats and water, rather than the nightmare he had seen.
Slowly, light returned to the forest, although it was a dim light in comparison to other forests and other roads. His horse slowly woke, shaking his mane, looking ahead as the other horses did the same. This last vassal in the party of five slipped from his saddle and, one by one, turned the others gently around, tying their reins to a line he had retrieved from his bags. He turned his mount, and slowly walked them all out of the woods, a horrific realm, a brutal memory.
When he arrived in the village, he tethered them to a tree and kept riding, never to be heard from again.
Life went on at the hidden farm. Their produce was sought by the villages at the ends of their four roads and to the other villages who came to their market days. As John and Constance grew older, Johnny grew up, married a young lady from a few doors down, had children of their own who learned to tend the beans and peas with the same care and kindness as their young father.
No thieves ever visited their stands in the markets, no lords sent parties looking for missing men. Among the common folk, they were friends who kept them in good health. Among those who envied them, they were a mystery that bore no thought.