Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Guardian at the Gate

“She awoke with a start. Dawn was just breaking. She had slept all night by the hearth. The two sisters stood over her. She sat up. One sister put the now empty basket down beside the girl. “We want you to bring back some autumn things,” they told her, “it would be nice to have nuts, - I like hazelnuts especially, - and some blackberries.”
“And mushrooms.” put in the other, “some bilberries would be nice as well.” The girl did not bother to argue. It would only earn her another beating. Thus resigned she rose to her feet, wrapped the threadbare cloak around herself, picket up the basket and left without a word. She was only too aware of how unreasonable the request (if it could be called that) was but she left anyway.
After closing the door behind her she did not go directly to the gap in the dense wall of trees. Instead, she walked to the back of the cottage to a solitary pine and from there struck into the forest. There was fresh snow and her footprints were plainly obvious, hence the detour. She stepped deep enough into the trees to be beyond any snow on the ground and walked through the trees to the point where the gap lay. When she found a recognisable area she set off deeper into the forest proper. Several of the features were by now familiar to her so she could reasonably pick her route, even though it was very overgrown and there remained little trace of her previous passage. The tree cover was so dense she soon found herself unable to tell which way she should be or was travelling. She was always advised to keep the sun on her right and this had always worked for her journeys back to the cottage. But for outwards? She reasoned that as her return trips were in the latter part of the day then this particular journey in the opposite direction during the early morning required she still keep the sun on her right. However, deep tree cover lets through little sunlight let alone a sighting of the sun. But shafts of light do slant through between the stems and sometimes the side of the occasional tree trunk is a glorious golden red when caught by the sun. Thus the sun’s position can be determined.
There was no raven fluttering overhead with its harsh yet comforting call to guide her this time. Perhaps this time she would fail and return empty handed? She was sure in her own mind that the two sisters would happily beat her to death were this to happen. It would be all the excuse they needed. Just as these thoughts began to trouble her she saw a brief flash of russet-red in the undergrowth. She stopped. A few yards further away a fox revealed itself and silently trotted along its way. After a few yards it stopped and looked back over its shoulder and straight at the girl. “Does it want me to follow?” she wondered. She walked on, the fox a few yards ahead and stopping to check the girl was still with him from time to time. The route soon became plainly obvious with her red-coated guide showing the way. It seemed no time at all, though in fact it took up most of the morning, to arrive at the final avenue leading to the clearing where the month-watchers sat. The fox left her here to go about its own business elsewhere. She was greeted with the now familiar growling mew of the wildcat. As usual it backed from her to allow her to pass. But this time she noticed bloodstains around the cat and to one side the carcass of a recent kill. But that is what wildcats do. She stepped into the avenue and made her way to the clearing.

“Unbeknown to her, the girl had been followed. The sisters traced her footprints in the snow and also realised it was a cunning ploy and eventually found the gap in the tree wall. But they had not gone far before they realised there was no obvious path and now no realistic way to decide which way to go. The pair stood in what is to all intents and purposes total virgin forest. They blundered around searching for some obvious path and created so much disturbance just about the entire forest knew where they were. Flocks of alarmed birds flew into the air above the tree canopy. Below, small mammals scurried here and there screeching their alarms. They were hopelessly lost. They found footprints. At last a path. But it wasn’t the footprints of their servant girl. She went barefoot and these prints were of shoed feet. They were their own. They had gone round in a circle.
“The forest is enchanted,” said one.
“Of course it is,” reasoned the other, “I told you she is witch. She has lured us to our deaths, wicked slattern that she is.”
“Karrkk! Karrkk – KARRKK!!”
Terrified, the two sisters clutched each other. “She has turned into an avenging angel,” whimpered one.
The other looked up to the source of the harsh call, “Pull yourself together,” she spat scornfully, not so much to belittle her sister but to re-assure herself, “Its only a bird, look!” She pointed to a branch high up in the cathedral-like vault of tall tree trunks. The raven lifted off soundlessly and glided to another tree. “Karrkk!!”
“I think it wants us to follow it.” They couldn’t come up with any better idea so they decided to do just that.
And guide them it did, all the way to the tree avenue. But not without giving them a tour of the forest first. They had to negotiate huge fallen tree-trunks, thick brambles with some unbelievable large and sharp thorns and to add insult to injury led them through a foul stinking mire. The raven flew on along the avenue to the clearing leaving to walk the avenue themselves.

* * *

“The girl stepped into the clearing. January sat before the damped down fire. The raven was perched on his shoulder. As she made her way towards January the raven rose lazily into the air and nonchalantly flew over the high treetops and was gone. She sat beside January on the frozen ground and placed her basket in front of her. She was about to speak. January cut her short. “I know why you are here. They sent you,”, he gestured to some point in the distance. “I also know you have been followed. But you have nothing to fear. They have become hopelessly lost and I have sent the raven to guide them. They will get here, - eventually.” The girl saw January’s eyes give an icy glint from deep within his hood. January went on to say, “ You must do exactly as I say.” The girl nodded but didn’t quite understand though she trusted January and would do whatever he said without question. As far as she was concerned she owed him her life. She nodded assent.
“You must set off back to the cottage. Leave this basket with the Guardian at the Gate, - the wildcat who guards the sacred avenue. You must also leave a piece of your clothing. Tear it from you and give it to him. Then the red fox will show you the way. When you have returned, you must shutter all the windows and bar the door. You must wait for the sisters who will return the next morning. Now go.”
She could not understand these strange instructions but the implicit trust she placed in him meant that these things would be done. She made her farewell, picked up the basket and headed into the avenue.

to be continued.....

1 comment:

Thumbelina said...

More....more....more... :0)