Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The Watcher on the Hill

Deer at Bradgate Park, Leicestershire - Halinka Lezanowski

The man in the dark red coat clambered up the hill, gasping for breath. Above him the open vault of the sky was still blue, though streaked with cloud that formed a wide arc around the hill. To the man's right the sun was setting, gilding the grassy landscape and the rocks. He did not know how much longer he might stay free or alive, but he had no intention of going without a fight. At the thought, he gripped the basket hilt of his rapier. Inside his coat, beneath his belt were two flintlock pistols. His close fitting boots, black and scuffed from his long march reached up to his thighs and within the tops he had crammed bags of lead balls and two horns of powder. Oh he would fight if he must and die too if necessary, but he did not intend that should happen just yet.

It was said that there was something atop the hill, within the ring of rocks. Something un-nameable and dangerous. The man, Markham did not care for tales by grandams at a fireside. He only knew that the something at the top of the hill was preferable to the known men who pursued him for his book. The Rathbone Codex itself was wrapped in soft leather and in a box made to keep it dry and safe. It weighed in the bag across his body and bumped pleasantly against his hip. It had been passed to Markham by his old friend Vickers who had been killed soon after. Markham wanted revenge for that and swore to the memory of old Vickers that he would keep the codex safe from the men who wanted it and murdered for it.

He was curious too. Curious at what the book was about and what made it so valuable, but he had been given no time to sit and read it. That very night he had left home and was almost murdered in the garden of his house by two men who he had left with death upon their eyes. The land at Deerwood was untouched, it was said with some justification that the nearby wood was a faery wood and that quite likely the heathland and the hillside were also their land too. As such, nobody built upon it and the deer owned it along with the faeries. If one believed what people said. Markham like most men believed some and disbelieved others. He believed that the wood was a faery wood, but disbelieved that something was on the hilltop. He did know that the natural ring of rocks would give him a defensible vantage point and that was enough.

Once upon the summit of the hill by an old ruined tower beside which stood an old stone doorway, Markham gathered himself. The first thing he did was look for somewhere to hide the codex and he found it easily. At the base of the old stone doorway a large stone block was loose. He pulled at it until it came free and discovered that above it was a cavity. The cavity was a little big for the box with the codex in it, but that was all to the good. He placed his bag with the codex inside and placed it upon the stone. Carefully and with some effort, he pushed the stone block back into place, scuffing the ground about the doorway and away from it. Now he drew his rapier and his pistols. He loaded the pistols and placed them ready. Within the ruin of the tower he laid out his powder horns and the lead shot. The walls of the tower must once have been tall and imposing, but now they were broken down by weather and people taking the stones for their own use. Until the tale of something dangerous upon the hill had scared folk away.

Deer appeared and grazed upon the bracken, watching for danger within their groups. They watched Markham for a few moments but then lowered their heads to graze, keeping their ears in his direction. Markham ignored them. He felt tense and ready to fight and was working himself up to a pitch of tension that made his heart beat faster. He knew that they would come for him, but not when. He wished he knew the name of their employer too, but no doubt their employer would keep his name well hidden in this dirty business. After a while he felt a slow growing of dread crawling upon him. The sky was greying now, misty almost and turning darker slowly, but it was still light enough to see by. He peered into the landscape which had become greyer somehow and less distinct. Colours such as they were now, seemed to merge into a darker grey-green. Darker greens seemed almost black. Then he heard a footstep and turned cursing softly, his pistols in his hand.

"I will not harm you Mr Markham," the stranger said softly, almost tenderly.

"Who do you work for?" Markham growled, keeping his pistols on the stranger.

"I do not want the codex, nor do I work for De Lisle who does. No, I want to make a deal with you on another matter," the stranger answered, coming into clear view.

He stood in the opening to the ruined tower with the light upon him and while the deer had looked up at the sound of Markham's voice, they did not appear to notice the presence of the stranger. He was taller than Markham and seemed somehow old. He had spoken in Latin also, which was nothing to an educated man like Markham, but the Latin had a distinct accent to it that he could not place. His face was gaunt but not wasted and the eyes were large and soft. The mouth was soft and almost sensual in a debauched way, Markham thought. He wore a long pale cloth about him in the style of a toga or something similar.

"I don't do deals," Markham hissed.

"You'll want to do this one, sir. I can die now and you can have eternal life. All you have to do is watch for invaders as I have done for many years. Some people will not listen and others will, but if anyone invades this land, you will know. I have done my service, now I offer you the chance to do yours. The codex will be safe, do not fear for it. De Lisle has gone too far this night already and dared De La Zouch who is more powerful and stands well with the Queen. He will suffer for his arrogance, De La Zouch will insist upon it. In it lie secrets that are best kept from the eyes of such as would have power for it's own sake. The faeries will keep it safe. Come sir, all you have to do is kill me. If I die here upon the hill, whomsoever living is upon the hill must take my place and become a watcher for those who would dare this precious land of yours," the stranger declared.

Markham heard a soft chuckle and a shot broke the dusk. The stranger fell and Markham turned his own pistol upon the shooter and fired. He heard a cough and a groan with some satisfaction, but it was too late for him. The stranger had not only fallen, but now seemed to fade into the gathering dusk. Then Markham stood and made as if to go down the hill again, but found that he could not. He hurled a howl of rage then into the sky and damned De Lisle and all his kind. The deer had scattered at the sound of shots, but after a little while they had returned. Yet, with all the anger and pleading and despair he vented upon the night, they did not look up once at Markham.

These days it is said that there is a strange figure sometimes seen upon the hill who comes through the stone doorway beside the ruined tower and gazes forlornly upon the landscape and weeps. Yet for all he weeps, he also watches out to warn against invasion of our precious land.

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