This is a story spelled out in the long shadows of trees across chalk and flint fields.
The carter’s boy ran up to the Pilgrim Woman just before the Lord arrived for his peppercorn story.
‘Do you know any local tales?’ he asked.
She looked inland from the north-facing windows of the garret. A circle of dark trees ringed a rounded hill on top of the Downs, like a garland set upon a giant brow.
The boy grinned and raced downstairs. This is the tale she told for him.
The bats always came with the invitation to the feast. This time, they flittered in the half-light, swooping to snatch pale moths above the brambles. With the dust of torn wings falling onto the thorns, they circled the girl’s head and whispered their request.
She was the third maiden they had tried that night – and the first to listen. The flittermice spoke of mushrooms gathered in Duffet’s Copse, below the tump where the Fair Folk held their feasts. They sang of honeycomb dripping in plaited skeps, staining the bee-boles with sticky, fragrant rings.
In between crunching on delicate limbs, the flittermice told her of berries plumped up with summer’s sacred juices; fat with flavours that mortal tongues rarely shared.
The light of the sunset dripped below clouds the colour of old blood. The first star shone above autumn’s ragged twigs. The last leaves rattled along the bostal that led up hill.
Should she go?
The stories of wine, golden-tinted by primrose peeps gathered on Maypole Green, and cobnuts saved from the Old Wood luscious in withy baskets, would not leave her. Her mouth filled with spit, and the word yes.
It would not do to be unkempt.
She loosed her plaits by the light of stars and wove a crown of ivy. Tendrils she threaded down the length of her hair, then washed her face and fingers in the Lady Well. Barefoot, she walked up along the toe-chilling lane to the Feasting Ring. She shivered.
What if the village tales were true? What if she were still dancing when the cock crew to call the Sabbath dawn?
The notes of a jig came from the copse that circled the brow of the hill. One measure of that giddy dance, one chorus of that night music, one draft of that bone-warming mead and she would have enough memories for a lifetime. The village could mind its own business.
Let the dawn come as it would, tonight she had a feast to attend.
The maiden was never seen again. Only her shoes were found left beside the old holy well. Some swore there was one more tree in the chain around the tump – with ivy dangling from it like loosened hair.