Part 1 - Brellin
Brellin slipped again, his foot plunging into the dirty grey puddle that had filled the ruts along the sodden track and settling into the filthy clay mud at the bottom. He stumbled forward and threw his hands out to brace himself should he fall to the rain-soaked sod beneath him. Luckily, somehow he managed to stop in time, although it seemed to take longer than ever for him to pull his soaked boot out of the mire and back onto the relative dryness of the verge.
He sighed and wiped the rain out of his eyes. As soon as his fingers had swiped one eye clear it filled up again. He looked at the open farmland around him. The central track he was following – now twin serpents of mud – was bordered on either side by a few feet of dying grass and the odd patch of bristly burdock, bramble and briar. Beyond lay a rolling landscape of poor cultivation. This deep into October and the fields were either lying fallow or had been ploughed and tilled ready for the spring plantings.
Around some of the fields stood patches of scraggly hedgerow, around others were ditches that now gushed full and roared down into the streams and rivers of the valleys below. Occasionally a bare tree would be stood – either dead or in its wintry hibernation – and Brellin watched as bare twigs and branches flexed and swayed back and forth in the wind, the trunks and branches varnished a dark shining colour in the rain, remnants of autumn leaves being torn away.
It seemed to him as if the elements of wind and water conspired to return the cultivation to a wild and desolate state. He snorted under his breath. It wouldn’t take much.
Wrapping his thick woollen coat around him and pulling his thick woollen hat down over his forehead in the vain hope of finding any kind of warmth, he wondered what had possessed him to leave the glowing security of his own hearth on such a howling night – or more importantly if it was worth it.
There were still a few rises, dips and copses that hid any sign of the tavern he was making his towards. He placed hope upon hope that the rumours flitting throughout that week’s market had been true and his journey hadn’t been in vain. As he quickened his pace again, hunched over as he wove his body through the night and the storm, he focussed on the one goal that swirled around his body and clutched at his heart with fingers of fire.
He made his fitful way along the desolated and deserted trackway, following it’s curves, dips and climbs as faithfully as a dog followed it’s master. It wasn’t as though he didn’t know the land around here – he’d tramped it’s acres for the last three and more decades of his life. No, it wasn’t a lack of knowledge that kept him on this path, it was quite the opposite. For although there was a quicker route between his house in the village that lay far behind him and the tavern that lay on the main drover’s route between two large market towns, at this time of year and under these conditions the fields and mires left little room for error. No, it was safer and altogether quicker for him to stay on the track, as muddy and slippery as it may be.
He let out another sigh as he reached a seldom-used crossroads. It was here that his final decision had to be made – to push on out here in the open or take the track that lay going off to his left. Taking that would shave vital time off his overall journey, plus the woodland that it took him through would, hopefully, give him some respite from the constant buffeting of the wind.
Decisions: Why must it always be this way or that way? Why that one or those ones? That person or this person? Why had he allowed himself to be put into this position? Since making his last decision three days ago he hadn't ever thought of the actions that had led up to the statement in the letter he had received.
If you want me, I shall be at the Tavern on the night of the Full Moon in October. If you are not there, I shall know you have made your choice as I shall have to then make mine
Those lines took up the letter in it's entirety. No greeting. No salutation. No words of tenderness. No imploring. No begging. A simple decision. This one or that one. Me or not me.
A cold and wet substance slapped into his right cheek. With a start, Brellin jerked his hand upwards and pulled off a slimy palm-shaped sycamore leaf. As he was staring at it, another slapped into his temple, and another into his hair. He took the hint from the wind and turned from his path to his left, winding his way between a double row of hawthorn shrubs. Immediately he felt some respite from the biting of the wind and let his shoulders fall from their hunched up position.
In time the shrubs bordering fields grew thicker and he entered the woodland. Almost immediately the earth under his feet turned from a churned up grey mud to a hard-packed pebble-strewn chalky pavement. He doubted that many people came this way to the tavern any more – it had never been any good for herders or drovers given the narrowness of the track through the trees, and for all this way was quicker, the more open route had gained in popularity.
As he hurried along the track under his feet, he could hear the beech trees sighing and creaking as the storm lashed their bare branches and pushed their trunks to their limit. At one point he stopped as a particularly strong gust caused such a cacophony of angered, painful creaking that Brellin felt certain that the very ground under his feet was shouting in sympathy with the belaboured trees on it's surface.
He lowered his head as he carried on and entered a low, dark tunnel made from a copse of box. The heady smell of the evergreen leaves turned his mind to thinking about his childhood summers. Yes, the last time he had been in these woods was probably when he was around 11. He allowed himself to recall those carefree days, running around the woods and hills without a single care in the world. He looked around and to his right the ground sloped upwards and he could see dry patches of earth, littered with beech leaves and box twigs. The pale curves of the box twisted and gnarled were occasionally interspersed with the strong green-grey pillars of the beeches that soared and swayed far above his head.
However, this wasn't the time to dawdle and reminisce about his past. Not when he had a future awaiting him. He rushed ever onwards, the hard path following the same slope upwards. He wasn't far now. The dark tunnel arched over his head for a few more minutes until he came back into the beech forest. To his left the hillside sloped dangerously downwards, it's increasing angle, the night and the shrubs truncating his view to a few yards, but that was far enough for him to put more attention onto his own feet. Now was not the night for a trip, a stumble or a fall.
With a sudden rush of wind and heavy rain, Brellin left the relative calm of the windswept patch of woodland and was soon back on his original path. From here he should be able .... yes, he could make out the yellow glow from the tavern windows! He increased his speed until he was almost running. He no longer cared about the rain in his eyes. The path here was more solid, no longer bordered by slippery grass that threatened to pitch him into frigid and filthy puddles.
As he got closer he could see that the yard of the tavern was a hive of activity. Soon, even above the howl of the wind and pelting of the rain, he could hear the shouts of ostlers calling to each other and of other male voices. He couldn't make out any words, but even these sounds of passing humanity made his heart soar once more. Such a gathering in the yard could mean only one thing! The rumours had been true! It also meant that he had come in time!