The Highwayman's Footsteps (7 page)

BOOK: The Highwayman's Footsteps
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Chapter Fourteen

S
now starts as something mysterious, something wonderful and magical. On the moors it can quickly turn dangerous. Landmarks disappear and trees change their shape for the approaching traveller. I did not know the landscape even without the snow. With it, I lost my sense of direction.

But Bess's instructions were clearly given, drummed into me in that impatient way of hers. She had told me to follow the lane upwards until I came to a row of six poplar trees. These I quickly found. From here I was to leave the lane and continue in the same direction as the trees, always heading upwards, until I came to the brow of the hill. There I would find a standing-stone, shaped like a cross, and on this cross I would find marked the four points of the compass. North-east from here, and no more than thirty paces, I would find a wall with a stile, which I should climb, and then follow the line of the wall, downwards and then up the next hill. At some point, I would have to leave the wall, but I should always aim for a hill of a particular shape, which she drew for me in the dirt. Over the brow of this hill, I was to search for the source of a stream, amongst some large boulders on the very edge of a small pine wood. Bess said it would take not much more than an hour if I made good progress.

Driven by fear of becoming lost, and of being frozen to death, I kept up good speed and, less than an hour later, found myself at the top of the hill, breathless and sweating despite the cold. I looked in all directions, peering through the softly swirling snow. Where was the stone cross?

Which way? Either was possible. A mistake could herald disaster, as the snow was now falling so thickly that my footsteps were covered within minutes of being made.

It was by now late afternoon and the winter light was fading fast, grey gloom shrouding everything. I could see only a few yards ahead of me and the shapes of rocks and trees were like ghosts, staring at me through the veil of snow, waiting to see which way I would go.

I did not have much time if I were to reach the bottom of the valley before darkness fell completely. Bess's home was over there somewhere, on the other side, but I had to choose the right path down the hillside or I would find myself in a treacherous marsh. Bess had warned me, though I already knew well enough the stories of people walking to their death on these moors, the ground turning to lethal silt without warning to those ignorant or foolish enough to venture into this region unprepared.

I had to choose a direction. Straining my eyes, I thought I could make out the darker shape of something ahead and I made towards it. I was glad of my thickly-woven winter cloak – if it had been thinner, my whole body would have been as wet as my drenched thighs.

Luck was with me once more. There was the stone cross, rising like a stern friar in front of me. I hurried towards it. So thick was it that I could not have put my arms around it, and tall, taller by far than I. I looked up at its cold strength and gave thanks to God for signs and crosses and the men who in early times had placed it there for the sake of travellers.

With my fingers, I traced the marks which depicted the points of the compass, and hurried in a north-easterly direction, counting my steps as I went.

Sure enough, there was the wall, the stile. My heart leapt! How could I have been afraid? Almost laughing, I scrambled over the stile, and followed the wall as Bess had instructed. Running now, towards the next brow, the cold air sharp in my throat, I hoped against all hope that I should not lose the way. Could I be sure this was the right hill? In this fading light, perhaps the shapes played tricks on my eyes?

At the crest of this hill, I stopped, leaned forward gasping, trying to quieten my breathing so that I could listen for the sound of water, as Bess had told me I must. Nothing. Still nothing. Had I made a mistake? I looked around, desperately. From which direction had I come? Should I retrace my steps and return to the stone cross?

The emptiness was huge, all-encompassing.

And then – suddenly – the unmistakable sound of water ahead of me! Bess had said that beside this spring was the path I was to take down the hillside, starting between two rocks taller than the others. Sure enough, her directions had been good once more – here were the rocks and here the path. I hurried down it, taking care on the slippery stones, all my senses alert. There was no need to worry about soldiers here. My greatest danger was in slipping. I held my arms out for greater balance and to break any fall. But I found that I was sure-footed and my confidence grew as I sped down the path. Nothing could hurt me! I would reach Bess's home and find her horse. I would ride it back to her and then … well, then I would see what might happen. I need not think further than this task. Luck was on my side and God would provide.

Would He not?

Perhaps the spirits of that place heard my boastfulness. Perhaps I forgot that Bess had told me to seek out the turning to the left. Perhaps I simply went with too much haste. Whatever the reason, I missed the fork in the path.

At first, I did not suspect anything was amiss, so keenly did I speed down the hill, so blindly did I follow that path. It was only when I came to the bottom and found no dry-stone wall that I slowed down. It was only when my feet began to slip and then sink, bringing me to a standstill, that I remembered her instructions and understood my mistake. Stunned, with panic sending a clouding rain over my vision, I stood stock-still. The wind slapped icy water at my face.

The marshes! I had come to the marshes. I should be nowhere near them. I turned, or tried to. I pulled one foot from the mud, bringing my boot only with difficulty. My left leg was deeper in the mud beneath the snow. The more I tried to move, the more it sank. I fell forward onto the ground, digging my hands into the grey slime. A flurry of wind blew fresh snow into my face. Lying as flat as I could, I very slowly began to pull my leg from the mud. It would not come. The harder I pulled, the more the mud sucked it back.

Fear and loneliness threatened to overcome me.

With every jot of strength, and anger at the weather which seemed to shriek its laughter in my face, I fought my fear and forced myself to be calm, and at last, with a horrible sucking sound, my leg came free. I was safe.

But I would not be safe if I stayed much longer. Weeks or months later, I would be found, a ragged skeleton and no one to say who I might have been. I must move. I must go backwards – I could only be a pace or two from safe ground, I reasoned with myself. I slowly raised my body onto my hands and knees and crawled backwards. When I thought I was surely safe, I stood up, carefully, feeling the ground firm beneath me as I straightened. Now, all I had to do was turn and walk back the way I had come. Inch by inch, I turned until I judged myself to be facing in the right direction. The blizzard now was swirling so thickly that there was nothing my eyes could tell me.

I took a step forward …. and sank once again to my ankles. Heart thumping, I slowly dragged my heavy foot out, and placed it but a short distance to the right. It sank again. Which direction was I facing? Which way had I come? Which way was safety?

Chapter Fifteen

I
stood, motionless, desperately trying to judge which way I must be facing, to decide what to do. I was shivering now, not only from the cold. My father was right – I was a coward. I knew this because my mind was crying out to be led to safety. I was desperately clinging to life, whatever that life might hold. I wished that anyone were here instead of me.

I think I shouted. I shouted to the wind, to God, to no one at all, for I knew no one could hear. I screamed out my fear and my fury and my prayers.

It was at this moment that I saw it – though even now I cannot be sure. I blinked. Could I have imagined it? A light. Far ahead of me, moving slightly, swaying in the wind, like a lantern held at shoulder height.

I blinked again. The light disappeared. But no! There it was again. Swinging. Moving away from me slowly. I peered into the growing darkness, my wide eyes stinging in the whipping snow. Wiping my hand across my vision, I strained to see. Yes! It
was
a light.

But then again, perhaps it was not. I still could not be sure what I saw. I am still not sure now.

I had a choice: I could ignore the light, or I could follow it. Something drew me on, something which I will never understand. It was not bravery. It was something deeper. We are drawn to light as moths to a flame, even if the flame may singe our wings.

The light seemed to move in one direction. And disappeared. Now it appeared again, swinging in the same direction, and disappeared once more. The next time this occurred, I thought perchance that whoever held the lantern meant me to move in the same direction as he had moved the light. I took one step. The ground was firm. The light moved again. I stepped again in the direction indicated. Firm ground once more. Could I be rescued? I began to dare hope so.

I stepped forward.

Firm ground was beneath me at every step now, as I followed the swinging direction of the light. I hurried forward, trying to get closer to whoever held the lantern, or whatever it was. Sometimes the light disappeared completely, and I would stand and wonder if I had imagined it, as I peered into the darkness and the swirling blizzard. Perhaps I did? But each time I glimpsed it again, I believed it, and followed it eagerly.

As I hurried, the light moved faster away from me. But then, in a sudden lull of the wind, the snow thinned and I could see a dark shape – a horse, surely a horse! A rider on a horse. I could even observe the outline of his cloak. And then, as suddenly, the snow swirled again and I could see nothing but the faint swinging of the distant light.

I do not know how much time passed as I followed the light across the marsh. I forgot my tiredness, my soaking clothes, my icy skin; I almost forgot my fear, fixing my mind only on the light and the occasional flimsy glimpse of the shape of a horse and rider. If that was what I saw. Each time I saw it, I thought I was certain, but within moments I was equally sure that my memory was playing tricks.

The light disappeared. Now I could not see it at all. I stood still again. “Where are you?” I shouted. My voice was as weak as smoke, blown away on the wind. No reply came back, only another swirl of snow.

I walked forward. What choice did I have? I walked on and the ground was firm beneath the snow. But where was the lantern, the horse, the rider? Whom might I thank? There was nothing to be seen, merely motionless shadows and shapes disappearing deep into the night.

I looked at the ground in front of me. The snow was covering everything quickly, large flakes settling with increasing thickness. But surely … I stepped forward, bent down to see more clearly. Surely these were hoof prints? I ran forward, following them as fast as I could, before they could be covered completely.

After a few moments, I could see them no more. They had simply disappeared. When I looked behind me, there were the ones I had followed, still just visible. But there were none in front. Perhaps the snow had been shallower here. Perhaps the horse had begun to gallop and its prints were further from where I was looking? Perhaps I had lost my sense of direction again?

At that moment, just when I was wondering which way to turn, I heard a sound. The unmistakable whinny of a horse. I listened again. Once more it came, muffled, from my right. That was the direction I took, caring nothing if it might be dangerous, wanting only to find the person who had helped me. I needed his help still. I did not know where I was or what to look for. Bess's instructions would be useless now that I was far from her path.

A few yards further on, a little way up the slope, I could make out the shape of a building in front of me. I halted, hesitant once more. There were no lights, no smoke, just the dark shadows of the walls and the outline of a roof against the night sky. I heard the horse again, the soft noise of its feet moving. It seemed to come from the black hole of an open doorway – a wide doorway – of a stable or barn.

As I walked towards it, the snow began to fall less heavily. I looked around, but could see no movement, of horse or human. No danger. Apart from the black doorway. Anything could be in there, anyone, waiting for me to come in, ready for me. But of whom was I afraid? Who could be lying in wait, and why? If someone had guided me in safety across the marsh, why would he do so if he then meant me harm?

Although reason told me there was little danger, my beating heart said otherwise. I walked forward as strongly as I could, looking behind me as often as I looked ahead and pulling both pistols from my belt. There was no time to check their priming and I knew there was a strong chance that the powder had not stayed dry. I put one pistol back and took the knife from my bag in place of it. Pistol in one hand, knife in the other fist, blade pointing upwards, I walked firmly on. And as I came to the doorway, I sprang forward with a shout which sounded braver than I felt.

Chapter Sixteen

N
o one leapt back at me. No one shouted. I peered into the darkness. I could see nothing. I strained my eyes and ears. But it was my nose that told me what the barn contained. Horse. The unmistakable smell of warm horse.

As I stood there, slightly away from the open doorway, waiting for my eyes to become used to the deeper blackness, I heard a sound, footsteps, slow footsteps, coming towards me. But not human, I knew. Horse. What I did not know was whether there was a rider. I held my knife out in front of me.

It was only the horse, riderless. He came towards me and put his head over the top of his stall as if I were an old friend, trusting me, or perhaps sensing that I was no danger to him. Horses know such things, I believe. He put his muzzle in my hand. I could tell little of his appearance or breeding in the darkness, only sense his size and power.

Reassured by his friendliness, I went into the stall with him. Now, I could tell he was well-bred, muscled, strong in his tall withers, his mane finely groomed. I felt his flanks. They were dry. He could not have been the horse I had seen out on the marsh. So, where was his master? There were no lights in the dwelling, no sign of human life.

BOOK: The Highwayman's Footsteps
6.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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