There is an old tale of a man named Silus, who worked hard and was friendly with many of the villagers. His store, The Bullseye, made excellent bows, and his skill at mending other ones was second to none in Larkton Valley.
Silus had a habit though, one the villagers paid no mind to. Silus was a poacher, and loved to hunt in the rich lands of the Lords. Pheasant and hare, deer and grouse, his skill was unmatched, and his presence undetectable.
They named him “Serpent Tongue”, for the way he slid out of trouble, but one night his luck wore thin, and his cunning was needed more than ever.
Silus lay under the huncher tree. The late summer air washed over him, brushing over his face as it was carried on the warm current.
His eyes were closed, his hands behind his black-haired head, and he lay in the arms of the huncher tree’s three roots.
The Bullseye had shut earlier in the day, and Silus had wasted no time in getting up the sloping hillside overlooking the valley, resting before a good night of hunting. He would need the rest, he thought. Tonight would be a difficult hunt; but he loved a challenge.
Tonight he would hunt in Judge Tornby’s woods. It would be a badge of honour in his belt.
Silus opened one eye. Sunset was approaching, and in a matter of hours it would be twilight. He would have to be ready long before then.
He opened both eyes, staring into the low branches of the huncher. Hunchers were strange trees, he thought; they had distinctive orange leaves, and an aroma close to the scent of cinnamon.
He usually would lie in the open, but the heat meant the small tree provided good cover from the sun.
Silus’s ears pricked at the sound of feet rustling through the dry grass. Someone was making their way towards him. Judging by their steps, Silus noted they were heavy, with a laborious gait.
He pushed his bow and quiver further down, craning his neck around the tree trunk. Heaving himself up the hillside, Pau’s red face, slick with sweat, came into view.
The two men had been friends since boyhood, watching out for each other when they could, but also watching to see what the other was doing, worried one might lose out to the other.
A thickset men, Pau could crack the neck of a small boar if he got his hands on it, and was best in the valley at the God Stone toss.
Pau staggered when he reached the top. “Why you always – goin’ out – your way to make life – difficult?” he panted.
“You just need to do it more,” Silus replied returning to his previous position. “Besides, if it was easy it would be boring.”
“Why’d it be boring?”
Silus did not reply, but sighed contentedly where he lay.
Pau dropped down beside the tree – he was too large to fit underneath it. His breath came heavily, but clearly, flowing like the wind in a storm.
They sat in silence, Pau’s breathing slowly returning to normal. The sky grew redder as time went on, and they exchanged little conversation, enjoying the warm air. Soon, the sky was pitted with silvery holes, as night drew in.
Pau watched as the local farmers bellow brought their cattle into the barns. Loris Dorum, Helbert Tolin, and Samuel Gille the three cattle farmers in the valley.
Pau remember, as a boy, working on the farm with Dorum, shifting the barrels of fresh milk from the barns. At the end of the day, Dorum paid him with a glass bottle of what the farmers called the Maiden’s Share; a thick layer of cream at the top of the milk, usually considered a delicacy.
Silus sat up. The sky was like an oil painting, streaked with red in the gathering dark. He pulled himself from under the lea. The lowest branch of the tree was at his eye level, such was the nature of the huncher tree.
His body felt lean and hard; tensed before the night’s hunt. Pau watched his friend over his shoulder, as Silus pulled on his linen shirt and laced up the collar.
Pulling on a leather vest, his belt and quiver, Silus picked up his bow and softly strummed the taught gut. “Shall we go?” he asked Pau.
They set off. Keeping low to the ground, and his hands slightly outstretched like a bird of prey, Silus glided down the lush hillside. Pau was slightly less graceful, and huffed with every footstep.
Soon they reached the foot of the hill, and made their way toward the narrow track, which wound through the trees, and led directly to Judge Tornby’s land. They did not take it, but made for the trees beside the road.
They pressed on through the woods, keeping the road in sight so as to not lose their bearings. After a while the road veered off, and they made their way onwards without it.
The trunks of the trees stood like soldiers under the canopy above, appearing ghostly in the silvery moonlight breaking through their branches. The grizzled undergrowth shone eerily, as they made their way stealthily through the trees.
After some time they came to a fence – the border that signalled the start of Tornby’s property. Property was highly valued in the valley. A man was nothing without it, and as the only way to safeguard property was through the law, the judiciary naturally had a lot of property to hand.
Silus halted to catch his breath, and listed to Pau’s approaching grunts. Guards would be about, no doubt. Men with crossbows patrolled larger properties; poaching was not uncommon.
Once Pau had caught up, Silus signalled for complete silence before vaulting the fence.
As the two men moved through the trees they split up, wary the other might steal a kill. Silus moved like a cat; his feet moved through the heather silently, and his dark eyes darted back and forth, peeled for ground-nesting birds, which could burst out at any moment in an explosion of cries and feathers.
Pau hunkered to the ground. He delicately pressed his fingers to the earth, feeling the small prints a deer that had passed some hours ago. If he caught a deer, he thought, Silus would be livid. He grinned.
Then he heard a small snap, and his heart skipped a beat, and he felt the blood tingle through his ears and limbs. Something had moved in the undergrowth.
He glance ahead and to his right, and saw Silus – eerily silhouetted in the moonlight – make a motion, asking: “Was that you?”
Pau signalled “no”. Silence. Nothing moved.
They pressed on – more cautiously. Silus’s chest was tight, he was tensed. Then – a marvellous white rabbit appeared in the distance,
Silus froze. The rabbit stood, looking off into the distance through the tree, its ears moving independently side to side.
He eased himself to the ground, carefully drawing an arrow from his quiver, trying not to catch it on another. The rabbit dropped down out of sight, but reappeared a heartbeat later, staring into the distance.
Silus knocked the arrow to the bow. He slowed his breath, and shifted his foot. The breeze was light as he pulled the string taught. He raised it to his eye.
Suddenly the stillness was shattered as a howl like a wounded boar rent the air. Silus hit the ground in horror. The rabbit bounded away – its life spared.
Silus spun where he was, searching for the animal. A hundred yards away a great figure was writhing where it stood, cursing and whining in agony.
Pau’s eyes were blinded with hot rage and pain, tears streaming down his face. He could barely make out the large fox trap, its jaws encasing his leg. Its teeth bit into his flesh, his feet wet with his own blood.
Silus sprang towards him, avoiding any other traps there might be hidden. Pau’s vision was cloudy; he was lucky he was a big man, else his foot would be gone.
Silus knelt to the ground when he reached him, and saw the trap; it was too big for a fox, and there were no bears around. No, this was a trap for men – poachers.
“Fool!” he spat at Pau. “Quiet!”
Pau wanted to hit Silus, but he was in too much pain. Silus ripped a piece of cloth from his belt and bound it around Pau’s upper calf, stemming the blood flow.
He examined the trap, found the release mechanism and pulled it.
Pau crumpled, his fists clenched, his knuckles white. Silus’s heart dropped – shouts came from the woods beyond. Quickly he bound another cloth around the wound.
“Get up!” Silus hissed. Pau had to go. If they ran, Pau would not keep up, and they would both be caught. “Get up!”
Pau sat up. “Wh- no.”
“Go now, before they come!”
“We’ll both go.”
“You won’t keep up. I’ll stay. Just go, now!”
Pau crawled to his feet, his head swimming. He saw torchlight flickering beyond.
“They’ll easily find out who did it if we both run,” Silus pressed.
Pau looked at the pale face of his friend, and touched his shoulder. He left, avoiding their original path, and staying out of direct line with the path of the guards.
Silus turned to face the approaching torches, and looked at the trap.
He touched it, making it snap shut, before prizing it open with his hands. It had a heavy spring, but soon he made a gap big enough for a foot to fit into.
He placed his leg between its jaws, and released its jaws.
White hot pain seemed across Silus’s brain, blinding him. His stomach turned again, and again, and again – he wanted to be sick, but could not. He couldn’t make a sound.
He tasted blood.
Soon the torches were just two hundred yards away. He fell to the ground. As the darkness took him, he saw the stars through the branches, before they were consumed by fire.
Silus woke some time later. He felt number all over; his back ached, his head was splitting, and his leg – his leg did not feel part of him.
The stars were gone, instead he looked up into the dark stone ceiling above, plagued by glistening moss. The floor he lay on was cobbled, and rays of weak sunshine were wearing through the bars in the upper walls.
He made to sit up, but was dragged back to the floor; his arms were shackled to the wall behind him. Using the chains, he pulled himself into a sitting position, his back against the damp wall.
His head swam with the change in height, and little dots appeared in his vision. Once they had cleared, he noticed his leg was thickly wrapped in a large bandage. The blood had clotted, leaving a dark stain on the linen.
He sat for some time, watching a blackbird hop between the bars of the gaps in the walls above, before it bounced off the sill, leaving him alone again.
After what felt like hours, he heard boots coming down an echoey corridor. Heavy footfalls making their way straight towards his cell.
A clatter of keys, and the heavy oak door swung open. An enormous man stood in its threshold, his face etched with scars and a matted beard.
Unchaining Silus without a word, he half-dragged half-marched him down the corridor he had come, holding Silus by the back of the collar. They passed other cells; some with moans coming from them, others silent.
Soon they had reached the door at the end, and Silus was hurled through it, and he was blinded by the sudden light and the sound of jeers from all around him.
He was totally confused; noise came from above and around him, and he staggered forward. His weak leg gave way, and he was pushed roughly into a wooden barrier.
Bang, bang, bang! “Order!” came a rough voice.
Silus’s vision was returning to him, and he could see the outlines of a grand room with wooden furnishing and tiered benches.
He looked up, and his heart sank. Judge Tornby sat above him, his basset hound face leering at him from across the room. Behind him sat fifty or so gentlemen, all in dress.
Two other men stood next to Silus. He looked at them; their heads were bowed and sunken.
“Lords, tenants, members of the jury, accusers, accused.” This last word Tornby said with particular relish.
“These men stand accused of petty thievery in the form of pickpocketing and poaching, and trespassing. If found guilty, they will be sentenced to hang.”
Tornby shuffled his papers. “None of them has any defence, and so will have the chance to provide evidence against their conviction themselves.”
The trial began. The pickpocket was first, and he spun a tale of not knowing who he was stealing from, intending it to be a joke with a lady friend. He was sentence to hang for contempt of court and theft.
The second man, who had trespassed on another Lord’s land with “intent to commit thievery” practically confessed through tears, and was so sentenced to hang.
Silus was called forward. “This man,” said Tornby, “was found in a man trap in my own woods. He is charged with the intent to poach – something he has managed to do on countless occasions, according to the records, but never brought to justice – and for the act of trespassing.
“What defence do you have?”
Silus stood. “I have none, sir.”
Tornby raised an eyebrow, and said: “So be it. You are sentenced to hang for intent to poach, and trespassing on private property.”
He was led back to his position at the accused box.
Tornby licked a finger, and again skimmed through his notes. “I am a man of the law, but not a cruel one. Your crimes are not sufficient to hang from the gallows,” he said.
“However, hang you must. But I shall grant you one last request,” he said. “You may hang from the tree to which you love dearest, and may your spirit rest easily.”
The pickpocket chose the apple tree by the river, for it grew the crispest green apples in autumn; the second chose a great oak tree, for it was there he had first found love.
Silus stood. He would rather be sent to the gallows, and have this nonsense over with. It would end all the same anyway, he thought.
Tornby tapped impatiently. Then Silus recalled a warm day, not long ago, under the low hanging branch of an odd-scented tree. What he remembered most, though, was standing beside it, pulling on a shirt, his eyes level with its low hanging branch. He smiled.
“Sir,” he said to Tornby, “please hang me from a huncher tree, the most humble tree I know. Its orange leaves are like gold to my heart, and its lea so warm.”
Tornby grumbled, and pointed a finger. “Now, look here, thief. I granted you a request. You know a huncher tree is too low to hang from.”
“Oh yes, I know, good sir,” Silus said. “But this is my dying request: it is the tree I do love. Sir, please hang me from the huncher tree.”
And so the tale ends. No one knows what became of Silus and his huncher tree. Some say he hanged from the gallows for insolence; others he got away; and others say he still hangs there to this day.
© Ross William Brannigan and rbncblog.wordpress.com, 2014-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ross William Brannigan and rbncblog.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content, and with the consent of Ross William Brannigan.
Note: Title subject to change.