Writer's retreat

Writer's retreat

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Making a story your own: The solder, the inn and the axe

This is a tale my mother told me as a very young child. It is one of the series of stories about a soldier returning from the war. Others include The Magic Tinder Box and Stone Soup, which is my favourite.

Who was the soldier and which war was he trudging home from? He never has a name and his age varies from young enough to marry a princess after making his fortune from the Magic Tinder Box or show his cunning in Walter De La Mere’s Twelve Dancing Princesses or old enough to be weary of all the fighting as in Stone Soup and this story. Which war had he been fighting? Again, we never know, but the story has a feel of Middle European and perhaps Napoleonic when soldiers were press ganged into taking the King’s shilling and many folk songs tell the stories of the time such as Sweet Polly Oliver, By the Banks of the Sweet Dundee, The Blue (or white) Cockade.

It might also be helpful to consider the difference between an inn and a public house. The latter is merely a building within a village where ale/beer and other alcoholic beverages can be bought and consumed. An inn is different with much older origins.

An inn is a building set beside a road expressly for meeting the needs of travellers. Rooms were always available for hire and food was offered. Often spare horses would be stabled there for use of the public coaches which came past, but stabling and provisions for private carriages or single riders would also be available.

Ordinary people mostly travelled on foot and would not have been able to afford the luxury of a bed in which to sleep. Indeed most people, unless they plied a trade which involved travelling such as tinkers, tailors, weavers and drovers would never have set foot outside their own village or small market town. Travellers were seen as outsiders and feared.

The Story
A soldier was returning from the war. He had been walking a long way through the forest and he was tired. His clothes were covered in dust. It was the end of summer, when all the moisture had been drawn from the soil but the winter rains had not yet arrived.

The soldier’s throat was dry. His water skin, filled from the last stream he passed within the forest, was nearly empty. Before him came the light of a clearing and within the clearing stood an inn.

The soldier’s mood lightened. He felt in his pocket for the few remaining coins. There was enough for a drink and maybe he could trade his strength – what there was left of it after months of fighting and walking – for a hot meal if his luck held. He stamped his feet and brushed the worst of the dust from his clothes with his hat before clasping the iron latch on the heavy wooden door and walking in.

The main room of the inn was dark after the brightness of the sun outside. The soldier looked around, but saw no other travellers beside himself. The large, burly innkeeper was wiping a row of pewter mugs laid out on the bar before hanging them up on hooks on a low beam.

“Be welcome!” The innkeeper’s voice boomed through the still room.

The soldier nodded, finding himself a table on which to place his hat and sword in full view of his host.

“A pint of your best ale, landlord, if you will.” The soldier laid the small group of coins on the bar and the innkeeper nodded

“Take the weight off your feet, soldier. No doubt you’ve come a long way.”

The solder looked at his dusty boots.

“Yes and many more miles to go before I reach my home.”

He took a seat just as the innkeeper’s beautiful daughter came into the room. Her hair was the colour of golden straw. Her face shone with the brightness of her smile and her body flowed with the promise of youth. The soldier drank in her presence with his eyes as she took up her father’s cloth and began to wash and dry more tankards.

The innkeeper dried his hands on his apron.

“I won’t be but a minute. The barrel of ale is finished and I must go down to the cellar and fetch a new one.” He opened a door beside him and disappeared from view.

The soldier wanted his drink, but he was used to waiting. Fighting the enemy taught you many things, most of all patience. Besides, the innkeeper’s absence gave him an opportunity to talk to the daughter.

He asked her simple questions about herself, her life and her family. She answered him well enough, her fair cheek blushing at his compliments, but she never left her side of the bar, no matter he offered to show her the trinkets he had picked up during his travels.

Time passed, but the innkeeper did not return. His wife came out of the kitchen, the aroma of boiled cabbages lingering on her apron.

“Where’s your father?” she asked the girl. “He was supposed to bring me turnips from the garden an hour ago.”

“He went to fetch a new barrel of ale,” the young girl told her. “I don’t know what is keeping him.”

“I’ll go and see,” the old woman grumbled, opening the cellar door. They heard the sound of her boot nails clanking on the stone steps gradually fade and then stop.

“Get a lot of trade, do you?” asked the soldier. “Your father has a large cellar?”

“We do enough,” the girl replied, but her face was worried. The long case clock on the wall ticked and tocked, but still her parents did not return. “I’d better go and look for them,” she said at last. “They might need my help.”

The soldier nodded and smiled, but his throat was dry and the smell of ale from the slops behind the bar was making his thirst increase. He buckled on his sword and went to investigate the cellar.

He counted five steps until the staircase turned a corner. The sound of weeping filled the air. The soldier drew his sword, wondering what massacre would greet his eyes when he came into the light below.

There, sitting on the bottom steps were the innkeeper, his wife and his daughter; all of them crying as if their hearts would break.

“Whatever is the matter?” The soldier asked, scanning the darkness with wary eyes for hidden danger.

“Look,” sobbed the innkeeper’s daughter, “look at the axe!”

There above the iron sconce holding the torch was a large axe.

“What about the axe?”

The innkeeper’s wife spoke first.

“Oh Sir, when I came down the cellar steps, I found my husband sitting here, crying as if his heart would break. When I asked him what was the matter, he told me he was walking down the cellar steps when he noticed the axe as if for the first time. He thought what a terrible thing it would have been if he had asked our daughter to fetch the cask of ale and the axe had come loose from the wall and fallen on her head and killed her. Our beautiful daughter, killed by the axe.

“When I heard his tale, I felt tears come to my own eyes, for what if the axe had killed not our beautiful daughter, but my husband instead? How could I continue living here as a widow with all the hard work entailed in looking after the inn. My daughter and I would be forced to leave, to become beggars until the wild dogs attacked and killed us in the forest.”

“Oh Sir, it’s true,” the innkeeper’s daughter sobbed. “When I came down here to see what had happened, I found both my parents weeping and wailing. They told me about the axe and I thought how terrible it would be if the axe fell down on their heads and killed them leaving me an orphan, with no-one in the world to love me and care for me. So I sat down beside them and joined them in their sorrow.”

The soldier, by this time, was losing patience. He took his sword and cut through the fastenings holding the axe to the wall so it clattered safely down into the cellar.

“There!” he cried, pointing to the fallen axe. “There is your axe. It is quite safe on the floor. It can never fall and kill any of you. Now, please can I have my ale?”

The ending
There are two endings to this tale and you may choose the one which pleases you the most. There are some who say the soldier was so enraged by the stupidity of the innkeeper and his family that he slew them all with the axe and took over the inn thereby ensuring his future prosperity.

There are others who say he returned to the inn’s main room and waited for his ale. He was rewarded for his actions with the offer of a job and a place to stay and in time, he grew close to the innkeeper’s daughter and married her. When her parents became too old to do the heavy work around the inn, they took over. They were lucky, too, for the King adopted the road through the forest and it became a safe route to travel so trade was brisk and the inn prospered.

And the axe, you ask me? What happened to the axe? Well it’s over there in a glass case above the fireplace for everyone to see.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

A story for Beltane

"I'm going to be Queen of the May, Queen of the May!" Merilla crowed, dancing around the kitchen holding the special white dress high above her head.

"You're just angling for a roll in the hay with young Rob Jenkins," her older sister retorted as she tried to clear the table for lunch before her father returned.

"You're just jealous, because I was chosen to lead the procession and you weren't, even though you're the oldest girl of the Wise Woman and the Blacksmith." Merilla stuck out her tongue. "The Elders must feel that that the Goddess smiles on me more than she does on you, Nessa!"

Nessa said nothing and went to fetch the butter from the dairy. Privately she thought that the Elder's choice had far more to do with the fact that Merilla fitted the dress lovingly created two years ago by Libby Proudfoot's mother than any affinity she might have with the Goddess, but she recognised that such a spiteful thought probably was tinged with jealousy and sighed. She stopped on her way to smell the blossom on the cherry tree and almost lost her balance as the heady sweetness drew her senses deep within the tree and the promise of the summer fruit to come. She put out her arm to steady herself on the tree trunk and caught her father's apprentice, Tobyn, a resounding blow to his chest as he walked past her.

"Hey, what was that for, Nessa? I ain't done nothing to you!"

Nessa felt her face turn scarlet and her throat seize up as it always did when any of the young men of the village addressed her. With wild eyes she picked up her skirts and ran to the dairy, glad of the coolness to try and regain her composure.

What was happening to her? Normally this was her favourite time of year, with all the plants growing and the leaves coming upon the trees and the new born calves in the fields with their mothers. This year she felt so strange - as if the sap rising in the trees was rising in her too, bringing a unity with all growing things. When she turned over the earth to plant the seedlings she had grown so carefully during the Spring months, she wanted to plunge her hand deep into the soil and feel the earthworms moving around her fingers. When she listened to the birdsong at dusk, she could almost hear each separate note and without thinking whistled a response as if she were another of their kind, marking out her territory.

"What's the matter, Nessa?" the soft voice of her father's oldest journeyman broke in upon her thoughts. "Tobyn said you just hit him!" Jeran stood in the doorway, his solid bulk blotting out the light and casting deep shadows upon the bowls set out for the cream to rise.

"None of your business!" Nessa shouted, "If you come here asking questions, you'll get no answers from me!" and she picked up the pat of butter wrapped in leaves and pushed past him, diving out into the sunshine and running as fast as she could back to the house. The entire household seemed to look at her with a disapproving air as they sat around the huge kitchen table while her mother ladled stew into bowls.

"It's not my fault!" she wanted to scream, but the words stuck in her throat once more and all she could do was drop the butter on the table and run.

"Nessa?" her mother called out, but the errant daughter was soon out of earshot, heading out of the village, across the green where the maypole stood with its virgin ribbons flapping in the breeze and on towards the sacred grove and its stream.

Her mother exchanged worried glances with her father, but when he rose to go after her, Jeran stopped him.

"I'll go," he said. "I know the paths of the grove and it's me she must answer to now."

The blacksmith nodded and his wife put her hand on Jeran's arm. "Go gently with her, Jeran, she's not felt the calling before and it's always hard on those who feel the earth."

Jeran bent and kissed the Wise Woman's cheek, "Don't worry, little Mother, I'll not hurt her. I've loved her far too long to harm her now. It will be as the Lord and Lady wills, if we are chosen!"

"But I'm the chosen one!" Merilla protested. "The Elders said so! I'm Queen of the May!"

"Yes, dear, " her mother soothed her ruffled feelings, " and a very beautiful Queen you'll be for the whole village! But sometimes the Goddess choses someone else to light the need fire on Beltane night and jump the flames to ensure the crops will flourish. The Lord has spoken to Jeran and we can only wait and see what happens." and with that Merilla had to be content. She grumbled into her stew but everyone else was too full of excitement for the morrow's celebration she could not stay cross for long. She was the one who would wear the crown of blossoms in her hair and lead the ribbon dancing and everyone would look at her and glory in her gift to the Maiden.

Nessa didn't look where she was going. until she came across the maypole on the village green. She wished she were going to be one of the ribbon dancers the next day, but she was too old now. Things had been so simple when she was a child, but now - she didn't understand the bands of energy coursing through her, making each part of her body feel more alive than she had ever felt and the only thing she could do was to run, run, run away. Away from the looks of her family, away from the idle chatter of her sister and the footsteps she heard running after her.

The trees! The trees would hide her, no-one would find her in the glade. She stopped for a moment and whispered words of petition to the Elder mother guarding the entrance. When her leaves shivered in the still air, she ventured further towards the Oak father, placing her hands on his trunk and feeling the energy rising towards her, leaving patches of warmth on the bark where her hands had been.

Again she heard the footsteps and recognised Jeran's shadow on the grass. He would not take her back! Quickly she glanced around and darted towards the maze, deep in the heart of the glade, seeking to lose him in the twists and turns of the hedgerows.

Once inside, she slowed to a walk, the still air warm on her face. She noticed how the hedges were grown from different trees, the bright green of the hazel, the white blossom of the blackthorn and the glossy evergreen holly that pricked her hand as she leant against it.

Then, as she turned a corner, there was Jeran, standing in front of her, the branches of the willow rising up behind him like the antlers of a young stag!

"Why have you followed me here?" she challenged him.

"Because I love you, " his voice was young and deep in the still air.

"How can you love me? " she teased him, "when you can't even catch me!" and she ran off again, darting along the paths as if she had always known their secrets.

"No matter how long you run, I will always find you!" Jeran's voice rang in her ears. "Though the moon shall wax and wane o'er the ocean and the sun rise and set amongst the mountains, still I will follow you, for my love is endless and together we shall encompass the earth!"

The blood pounded in her ears as still she ran, twisting and turning until she came to the centre of the maze, the sacred place, the grass covered mound from whose depths a tiny spring rose. A place honoured by the ancients with a single monolith, cup marks gouged from its side, and there, leaning against it stood Jeran.

He stood quite still as if a living part of the stone. She went towards him, as if drawn by the stone's power, her chest rising and falling from the chase, but the need to run in her finally sated.

He held out his hand and when she took it, his palm was cool and dry but so large that it engulfed her tiny hand. They looked at each other for long moments.

"I have come to thee, my love, because the Lord has bid me find thee, his Lady. Will you have me to join you, now and for enternity as the wheel of the year and of life itself, turns?"

"Yes, beloved, for the Earth has called me to her, to be kissed by the sun and washed by the rain and infused by the sweet air we breathe. I am your Lady, now and for all time as the wheel turns."

Then he took her in his arms and laid her upon the sweet grass and together they honoured the earth and the air and the sun and the stream, that all things might prosper in the time ahead.

When they awoke, the sky was dark and a million stars twinkled above them. They heard the sounds of the villagers coming towards the grove to set up the need fire, that every household could light their torch and so rekindle their hearths.

Jeran led his love from the maze and they stood before the people.

"Is it done?" the blacksmith asked, his voice echoing off the trees.

"It is done," Jeran replied, "The Lord has found his Lady and together they have ensured the land will prosper!

A huge roar went up from the crowd, marking their approval.

"It is your place then to light the needfire, " the blacksmith said, handing him the flint and box of tinder. Jeran knelt and struck the flint until sparks began to rain upon the tinder. Then Nessa blew upon the sparks as the tinder began to curl and flame and they pushed the tiny fire under the need fire, watching it catch the fronds of dried bracken and then the twigs and then the kindling until the fire was strong and bright.

One by one the women of the village brought their cauldrons to take the flame back to their hearth and then the men lit their torches and when everyone had what they needed, they went back to the village singing and rejoicing that summer had come!

"I shall still be Queen of the May tomorrow, " Merilla objected when Nessa brushed out her long black hair that night before she slept.

"Of course you will, dearest, " Nessa assured her, "You are the Maiden and it is Her we honour."

"Can I still honour the Maiden," Jeran asked as Nessa slipped into bed beside him.

"As many times as you like, my love, " she replied. "How else will I pass from Maiden to Mother if you don't?" and she laughed as she blew out the light.