THE TANGLED WOOD
John Ross ©
My young brother and I called it ‘The Tangled Wood’. We had called it this ever since our mother told us the story of a young knight who had dared to enter it. The legend said that he had become so entangled in the thick bushes that grew under the towering trees that he had never returned. She was always warning us that the woods were full of evil, and demons and goblins lived there. There were also rumours that a tribe of men who worshipped the devil had made it their home.
Our estate was the largest in the county and was bordered on one side by the road to Winchester and on the other three by a brook. The woods began just on the other side of the brook. My father employed many people to work our land. They lived in family groups in small villages scattered over the estate. Even as a very young person I was aware of the vast difference between these folk and our family. Neither my brother nor I had to work and we had private tutors. The serf families were very poor; their children received no education and were sent out to work as soon as they were old enough. This did not overly concern me as it was the way it had always been. My life was too full of exciting things and I rarely had time to dwell on such matters. I was very busy with my lessons and the captain of our house guard was teaching me how to use a long sword. Father had also told me that after my next birthday he was going to arrange for me to have lessons in jousting. I dreamt every night of joining the crusaders in far off lands and winning heroic battles.
The day before my sixteenth birthday my brother John and I had ridden out to the edge of the estate near the wood. My uncle from Winchester had recently given me a hunting falcon and we had set out to give it some exercise. We had chosen this area as game birds often flew out of the wood to drink at the brook. It was time for my falcon to try for his very first wild kill.
I waited until a large pheasant flew down to the water’s edge and then released my falcon. The pheasant immediately took fright and darted back into the darkness of the wood followed closely by the falcon. The falcon is a bird that lives and hunts in open country so I was amazed to see it enter the woods.
We waited for many minutes but the bird did not reappear. Then my servant tapped me on the arm and said, ‘Listen master. It’s the falcon can you hear it?’ Just very faintly from deep in the wood I could hear the sound of the bird in obvious distress. I immediately dismounted and started towards the brook.
Without looking back I said, ‘We’ll cross here. We can follow the sound of the bird into the wood.’ Behind me I heard a gasp from my brother and turned to see a look of horror on his face. My servant had dropped to his knees and was fervently crossing himself and mumbling Hail Marys.
I was not going to let a few rumours started by ignorant peasants stop me from trying to retrieve my prize bird, so ignoring my brother’s pleas and the servants talk of demons I crossed into the wood.
I had only taken a dozen steps when my courage deserted me. The small bushes that lined the edge of the wood had given way to tall trees with gnarled twisted trunks. Very little light filtered down from the canopy far above my head. In the deep gloom a rotting tree stump became a snarling goblin. A twisted vine hanging from a branch was the devil’s serpent. Darkness wrapped itself around my soul and the chill of evil invaded my mind and body.
The cry of the falcon brought me back to reality, and summoning all my courage, I headed deeper into the wood towards it. To keep my imagination under control I started to recite the Lord’s Prayer aloud.
Ahead I could see a clearing and a patch of sunshine. Instinctively I changed direction towards it. Just a few moments in that golden light would lift the black thoughts from my soul.
I stood in the centre of the small clearing and lifted my head up to the light. Its warmth renewed me and I felt ready to continue.
Suddenly the deep piles of fallen leaves around me exploded.
The air was full of flying, rotten matter.
A terrifying cry rent the silence asunder.
I fell to the ground, my body convulsing with terror.
Dimly through the twisting, dancing leaves I saw them.
Grotesque figures with contorted faces. Demons. The spawn of Satan.
It was dark. I was lying next to a roaring fire over which a deer carcass was roasting.
Two young men who were sitting next to the fire were looking at me. The tallest one stood up and walked over towards me. He sat down next to me and said, ‘Don’t be frightened Master Richard. My men meant you no harm. It was their idea of a joke.
When I asked who he was he replied, ‘My name is Robin and my fat friend there is Brother Tuck.’