When Saturday arrived the village was shrouded in a blanket of fog. The holly gatherers met at Anvil’s forge, relishing the warmth of the fire before they set out. Some seemed subdued as if the fog pressed down on them, while others laughed and joked as if nothing were amiss.
“Everyone got their basket?” Anvil asked before they set off. There was a general chorus of agreement, so he ushered them outside, pulling the main door to the workshop closed behind them to deter visitors.
As they set off along the road, their boots rang against the hard surface; a welcome sound when the group leaders could not be seen by those at the back.
“Keep together now, lads. We’re going to take the track to the west copse from Bowsen Lane once we get up to the water trough. I don’t want anyone getting lost.”
“You think you’re the only one who knows their way around the woodland?” called a voice from the middle of the group.
“No, Jack Ackerley, I don’t, but I don’t relish explaining to your Lizzie why you or Colin aren’t home for dinner on time because you mistook Lawsons Oak for the Laurel Tree down on Hollowbarn Rise.”
Jack laughed loudly. “You tell that to our Lizzie and you’ll likely get the dinner thrown at you, Anvil or no. “
“Seems a terrible waste of good stew.”
“How’d you know we’re having stew for dinner?” Colin asked, fighting with his basket straps which threatened to strangle him rather than hang neatly from his neck.
“I gave your Ma the rabbits, that’s why.” Anvil came up beside the young lad, taking the basket from him and untwisted the straps so they could pass easily over his head and lie as they should.
A gap in the stone wall on the roadside loomed to their right. The leaders turned onto the Bowsen Path and started to walk uphill. Their boots squelched in mud and several of the men nearly slipped as their feet slid from under them.
As they reached the brow of the hill, a smaller path took them left into the woodland. At first they passed large bramble bushes covered in frost damaged leaves, a few young elders and holly lining the route, before taller trees –hawthorn, crabapple and hazel appeared out of the mist.
“Not far now,” Anvil said to Colin. “When we reach the first lime trunks we turn left and start down to the clearing where the best holly berries grow.”
Colin made no answer. The fog seemed to have entered his brain and he couldn’t think clearly. He knew every inch of the wood. His father was gamekeeper for the Earl of Landreich, who owned most of the village and thousands of acres nearby. Colin had been coming here ever since he could walk, but he wasn’t interested in the birds they bred for shooting or keeping the vermin down. Colin loved the trees.
When he was very young, he told his siblings the trees talked to him, but when they laughed at him, he learned to keep his thoughts to himself. It didn’t stop him from spending time in the woods and learning woodland skills along with all the other village children. It was these skills which had enabled him to join the Anvil’s Wood Folk at such an early age. His nineteenth birthday wasn’t for another two months. Most men were twenty one or older before they were accepted. Some never joined at all, moving away from the village or preferring the mental challenges of the Bridge Club.
Suddenly, Colin’s foot caught in a low-growing briar and he sprawled onto the damp carpet of dead brown leaves. When he picked himself up, there was no sign of the other men. Colin knew he should follow them to the clearing by the six-trunked lime tree, but something turned his footsteps to the right instead of the left and he found himself going back up the hill and over into the hidden fold where the sacred well and the chapel nestled.
Behind the chapel stood an ancient holly tree, covered in bright red berries.
“I don’t know why Anvil’s taken everyone to gather holly down in the copse, there are more than enough here,” he murmured holding his hand out to touch the smooth bark of the trunk. “You don’t mind, do you?” he said, looking up through the branches to the mist laden sky.
An hour later, Anvil’s group were gathering together at the edge of the wood.
“Anyone seen Colin?” his father asked. The men all shook their heads. Each man had only thoughts of gathering the holly leaves and berries once they reached the clearing, wondering if this were the year they would be chosen. Only Colin’s father finally realised his son was nowhere to be seen.
“Don’t panic, Jack. He’ll be somewhere close by. It’s not as if he can come to any harm.” Anvil laid a reassuring hand on the other man’s arm. “Let’s walk on and see if we come across him on the way back.”
Sure enough, as they reached the Bowsen Path, Colin was walking down the hill towards them, whistling cheerfully.
“Where have you been?”
“Look at all the holly I’ve got!” the boy exclaimed, holding his basket out for his father and the other men to admire.
“Where did you get this?” Anvil’s question was quietly asked, but suddenly the whole group was silent, waiting for Colin’s answer.
“I fell over soon after we entered the wood and when I got up, you’d all gone. I remembered the holly tree behind the chapel was laden with berries this year, so I went there.”
“You cut leaves from the chapel tree?”
The boy stepped back, hugging his basket to him defensively. “I didn’t cut them, I broke them off with my hands. I don’t have a knife, remember? I did ask and the tree didn’t seem to mind.”
Anvil caught sight of a blood smeared handkerchief poking out from Colin’s trouser pocket. He pulled it out and presented it to the boy.
“Is this yours?”
“It’s stained with blood.”
Colin sighed. “I know. Ma’s going to be cross. She gave it me clean this morning. She always says blood stains are the devil to get out once it’s set. I was going to wash it in the well, but I thought I’d better not. The holly prickles were something fierce on the lower branches. They weren’t so bad once I’d climbed up higher.”
“This is your blood?”
“Yes.” Colin tried to retrieve his handkerchief, but Anvil tucked it away inside his coat.
“I’ll keep it for now. We’ll see how you get on this afternoon.”
Anvil turned and walked briskly after the rest of the group, most of whom were already on the road back to the village.
“Why didn’t you stay with us,” Jack hissed .
“I told you. I picked some beautiful holly. I don’t see what all the fuss is about.”
“You shouldn’t have picked from that tree. It’s the King Tree. It’s where you go if you’re chosen.”
“Not now, Jack.” Anvil’s voice cut through the fog like an arrow through butter.
“See what happens this afternoon.”
Colin frowned. He opened his mouth to ask a question, then shut it again as he could see from the look on his father’s face he’d get no answers.
Why did old people have to make everything so complicated!