Chapter 9 – The Barrow
Sir Robin de Coverlie rode north along the coastal road. A light breeze from the sea played with the new leaves on the windswept trees and the morning sun dappled his path. The smell of the sea, now that he wasn’t actually ON it, was pleasant and relaxing, and the fact that his breakfast, simple though it may have been was staying down, was giving him renewed vigour. Robin Redhair was of a naturally optimistic if slightly naive disposition, and in general he was at ease with the world, and believed it to be at ease with him.
It was with some surprise, therefore, that as he entered the next village some few miles from Westport, he encountered an atmosphere that could only be regarded as hostile. Doors were closed and children hustled off the street. Shutters could be heard slamming on windows and the scene went from ‘typical fishing village’ to ‘abandoned ghost village’ in no time flat. He was intensely puzzled by this reception but rode boldly on as if he noticed nothing unusual. The ways of peasants were generally a mystery to him. This was not an unkindness on his part, merely a reflection of the difference of his upbringing.
Out in the open countryside again, he looked around. To his left the sun sparkled off a sea bluer than he expected and to his right, beyond a thick hawthorn hedge, the land rose in a sort of rounded hill. A barrow? He knew of these ancient burial mounds. Something made him look again. Was there a doorway in the hill? Of course, there had to be an entrance to allow the dead to be interred, but it was usually covered over to allow the deceased to rest in peace. Sir Robin tried to ride on but something about the door in the hill had caught his attention and he continued to look at it through gaps in the hedge as he rode. At the first opportunity, where a farmer’s gate separated sections of the hedge, he stopped and looked at the barrow for some time. He was more convinced than ever that the dark recess in the hill was an entrance. He reached down to unlatch the gate.
“Don’t open the gate!” commanded a sharp voice. Sir Robin jerked his hand back as if the gate were hot. “The sheep will get out. Ride on, Sir Knight.”
Sir Robin could see no one. “Show yourself, man,” he said calmly.
A small man clad in sheepskin waistcoat and cap to match came out from behind the hedge.
“You offered me advice?”
The little man was undaunted by the knightly tone. “Aye, that I did. I told ya t’ ride on,” he said in a broad accent.
“I will not cause your sheep to escape,” Sir Robin said. “As you are here, you can open the gate and shut it behind me.” He waited. The man did not move. Sir Robin reached down to the latch.
“Dinny come in here,” the man warned.
“The ground is boggy. Yer horse will suffer a broken leg at best!”
“Really?” Sir Robin surveyed the field. Any horseman learned early how to recognise unsafe ground and this looked fine. “Whose land is this?”
“That is excellent. I am on my way to visit that very person. I will tell him of your warning. Now will you open the gate or shall I?”
“There’s nowt in here but sheep.”
“And that barrow.”
“Ya dinny want t’ go there.”
“There are – things – live there.”
Sir Robin raised an aristocratic eyebrow. “Things?”
“Aye,” said the man darkly, “things.”
“What sort of things?”
“Things best left alone.”
Sir Robin was an educated man, not given to superstition. “Not fairies, surely?”
The man glanced around as if to speak the word was to conjure them up. “The wee folk are not sweet little pixies that sit on toadstools! They would curse ya sooner than bless ya and if they grant ya a wish, never, ever take it.”
“Oh I have heard all that. Never eat any fairy food, nor drink any fairy drink or you will spend years in fairyland and if you ever get back all your friends will be long dead.”
“Aye,” the man agreed solemnly.
Sir Robin reached down and flipped the latch of the gate over and urged his horse forward. The little man grabbed at the reins of the horse and tried to pull its head round, but he had not reckoned with the training of a warhorse, which immediately shoulder-charged him and left him sprawling in the grass, then drew itself up to stamp on him. Sir Robin calmed it just in time with a word.
“Do not go there!” the man cried, scrambling to his feet. “Please heed me, Sir Knight! Do not go there!”
“I do not believe in fairies,” Sir Robin said. “There must be another reason you don’t want me to go there.”
The man looked genuinely distraught. “There is a beast sleeps in the barrow and it is well for us that he does, for when he is wakened his wrath is terrible. I beg you, Sir Knight, do not go there and waken him.”
Sir Robin noticed that the country accent had disappeared. “Would this beast be a dragon?”
“Just a wild beast, Sir.”
“Why has your Lord not dealt with him before now?”
“Many have tried, Sir, but the beast is too strong. He has killed three knights to my knowledge and once awake he burns our village, crops and livestock until his fury subsides. Please do not bring death and destruction to our village!”
Sir Robin hesitated. Much as he wanted to slay a dragon, he did not want the death of villagers on his conscience, or worse, the loss of crops and cattle, especially as he was about to pay a visit to the liege lord of the area. When he looked down again, it was to find a loaded crossbow aimed at him. His heart lurched.
“An unusual weapon for a shepherd,” he managed to say calmly. This was clearly no shepherd, but an experienced man-at-arms and the crossbow in his hands did not waver.
“Do not mistake me, Sir,” the small man said. “The instructions from My Lord are clear. If you take one more step towards the barrow I will shoot. And what’s more,” he added softly with a ghost of a smile, “Lord Silvermoon will pay me a bounty for your horse.”
Copyright Hilary Robinson 29.3.2010
Bold Sir Robin begins his quest less than successfully.
Barrows are ancient burial mounds, common across Europe. This sentence, at least, is fact.
The Faerie Tale is protected by copyright and is not in the Public Domain.