I had got a brace of pheasant in the Lord’s wood, and thought to be working my way out the way I come in when I ran across a ploughed field, and along the field a wood fence. I spied around me but saw no Hayward, and counting myself lucky I headed along the fence in quest of the lane I knew to be west of where I was. The sun was setting and I knew the way.
The young girl was sitting upon a stile, watching me come on, seeing me before I saw her. Her hips were swathed in a rag, and the shirt she wore was tied around her waist with a dirty sash. She was none too clean herself, but not being a man keen to ablutions either, that made little difference to me. I wondered at her intent, and would have asked her, but that her intent was made clear as she climbed down off the stile and came towards me, her eyes never leaving mine. I dropped my pheasants near a post, and leaned my bow, and together we laid down in the wheat that had grown wild next to the field, and knew each other better.
I know not what happened when I woke, to find myself whole, and the girl still beside me. Now there were two men, who looked alike to each other that I knew them brothers. My first thought was that my poaching had been discovered, but this was not their look. They rode no horse, or showed any sign of heraldry, but one had my pheasants and one had my bow. The one with my bow had gotten my knife, too, for I could see it clearly in his belt. The one with my bow spoke to the girl in an unfamiliar tongue, and the girl answered likewise, and I got from her way and from the man’s way that they were acquainted. I grasped my waist and found my pouch still there, and seeming all the coin that was in it, ten pieces in all. The man did not seem interested in my coin, and was not angry, nor was his brother when he said a word or two, but it was made clear to me that I should stand up and that I should walk with them.
We made our way together, all four of us, the girl ahead, towards the same lane I mentioned before. I had come to guess by then the girl was their sister, for they had ways about them that suggested as much, but though I had bedded her in the grass, and the brothers clearly knew it, they carried no malice for me.
When we come to the lane, that being the way into the Lord’s fiefdom, down the glen and to the little hamlet with its mill and villiens, the girl and the brothers grew quiet and fearful. We crossed it quickly, my thinking being that they were as feared of the Reeve as I. From that point we stole through the woods beyond the lane, the brothers on either side of me beckoning and pointing my way, and the girl ahead. I grew occupied with wondering our purpose, and with what should become of the game I stole, or my knife and bow.
By and by we came into the bottom of the valley, where all was tough grass and pond water, where none lived but cotters and worse, souls who lived off the Lord’s land but depended upon the labor they could gain there for livelihood. We came in time to a clearing where there were two hovels, hardly wider through the middle than I could stretch my arms wide. An old woman sat at the doorway of one on a stool, and the brother with my pheasants gave them to her, and she smiled and began to pluck them straight away. The other brother called and an old man stepped out, and this I knew was the father, and the old woman of course was the mother. The girl fetched water from a pond, pulling me along beside her until we came to one where there was movement in the water, a branch of the stream that was further on. What anyone thought of her and I going off alone I knew not, for they made no move towards it, and I could not understand the words they used to speak of it, if they even did speak of it, for I could not know that either.
When we came back with the water, the old woman had plucked the birds and a fire had been set and a clay pot sat resting in the fire. The girl beckoned me to pour the water into the pot, and it sizzled as it fell in. The girl stopped me from pouring all of it.
The old woman had my knife now, and she cut the bird to pieces and dropped it into the pot, and the young girl fetched wild turnips from all about, and the men smoked a weed through pipes they’d carved themselves, resting against a small circle of trees that were a bit above the hovels where it was driest. The one brother offered me the pipe, and I smoked it too, watching the women move about, trading it back and forth with the brother as the sun got lower in the sky.
We ate the bird and the soup in the twilight, from wooden bowls they had, picking the meat out with our hands and sipping the broth off as it cooled. The soup was flat and had hardly taste, but it was warm and filling, and they felt good enough to talk and tell stories and play with each other as people do around a fire.
As it grew full dark, and the fire died away, the brothers went to one hovel and the girl and I, and the father and mother, went to the other. All was dark inside, but the girl brought in a taper, lit by the fire, and showed me a place to sleep. It was upon a dry, greasy cloth, laid overtop straw and leaves and grass, against the wall. I crawled upon it and found it was restful, and turned to face the wall and sleep.
The girl laid beside me, and the father and mother upon another cloth in arm’s reach of us. I found I could not keep my eyes closed, as the girl pressed her body against mine. The moon rose, and a thin light came through the doorway, and presently I could see the dry clay walls inside, with nothing to mark them.
Then the girl began to fuss with me, pulling and moving me, impelling me to turn over, not letting me alone until I did. She pressed me until my back was to the wall, and her hands stole down the breeches to make her way. She arranged and nestled herself until she was beside me, and I in her, bedded like husband and wife.
And over her shoulder I saw the eye of her mother in the moonlight, staring at me but making no sound or movement to stop these goings on. For a moment I saw the girl’s father lift himself and look, but he took no notice of it and soon he was snoring. I closed my eyes against the mother’s gaze, as the girl humped against me, but I knew the mother did not close her eye against me. I know she went on watching, until the girl’s keening wail broke the night, and I had finished my last grunt. We were not disturbed, not by anyone, and the night passed thereafter uneventfully.
With the morning I rose, and climbed over the girl, my clothes tied up, and found the mother near the fire, making a tea with the water left from the night before. I approached her, to make a sign of some kind, and she stretched out her hand to me. I took her meaning at once, and found my pouch, and chose to give her four coins. She smiled, and pointed me to the door of the brothers’ hovel. There was my bow, newly strung, and my knife, oiled. My pheasants I did not miss. I nodded to the old woman, and collected them, and bowed to her. She wished me away with her hand.
I did not fear to make my way to the lane now, for I could not be caught as a poacher with no game. But I was happier than I’d been since I’d come, and knew I’d be happier when by the end of that day I had two other birds to bring home to my own family.