This is a tale spelled out in pine needles, bracken and long silver hairs.
The Pilgrim Woman tells a new Peppercorn story – which may reveal something of her past…
The Lord-by-the-Sea had scarcely dented his velvet cushion when the Pilgrim Woman started her tale. She smiled at the carter’s boy as she began:
A bonny lass lived with her father in a tavern at the edge of a forest. Not amongst the sharp hollins of the dark margins, nor on the wide, cold moors, but on the sunny side of an old drift road.
Drovers came at the end of summer and put their cattle to rest behind drystone walls. The men and the lads ate and drank and told tales at the tavern. The lass listened, year after year.
One Harvest Moon, she found the boldness to ask a drover’s lad where the stories came from. She so wanted one of her own.
‘Written on the wings of kittiwakes and spelled out on the shore with seaweed,’ he said.
She frowned. ‘I’ll not find them round here. Any other source you know of?’
‘Och, well, some of our forefathers heard them from the beaks of loch griffins and in the chants of the crag trolls.’
Her face crumpled. ‘Nowhere nearer?’
He glanced through the window to the forest across the road. He swallowed before answering.
‘I have heard tell of a beastie in there that sings the oldest of tales, though…’ he turned away from the shadowed glass,’…finding him is a task only for the stout-hearted.’
He drank up his small beer and she cleared away, making silent plans all the while.
By the light of that broad moon, she went to the edge of the forest. She wore stout leathern boots against the bramble thorns. Dark and plain were her clothes to slip between the tree trunks as she passed amongst the men in her father’s tavern.
At first, she stalked the open rides. The long grass rippled in glassy strands under the moonlight. So wide and lovely, they were paths to Fairyland. She forgot her mission and galloped along, pale moths rising at her joyful footfall.
She caught sight of two glinting hooves disappearing behind the low branches of a yew tree. Cloven and white as new milk, their pints shimmered for three of her heartbeats then faded. She chased after it but the beast had gone.
Still – there was hope.
She tracked its passage through dented bracken. Wherever it had passed, leaves twisted in a warm sweet breeze for a moment. After scores of her strides, the signs faded and she wearied. How far was she from home? Perhaps the stars could tell her.
At a fallen bough, she tilted her head upwards and gazed into the sky. Constellations sparkled through the gap in the canopy. They were the crystals of Witch Queens, the tears of sweethearts, the salt of a lost sapphire ocean.
Sweet, hot breath bloomed into the clearing. She lowered her head slowly. She had a glimpse of an ivory beard and bright teeth.
The beast. Her boot snapped a dried stem of Queen Anne’s Lace. A snort came from a pale muzzle. The tufted end of a long tail swept past her and the chase was on.
She ran crashing through stalks and old leaves and heaped pine cones. Jays screeched. Boggy patches hurled their stench in her way. Shaley ground slipped beneath her soles. The strain of its resistance pushed her heart against her ribs. The shouting of her blood filled her ears.
She came to a pool and circled it looking for tracks. Not a sign of the beast. Not a quarter curve of a hoof-print in the damp rim. She was miles from home and storyless. The beast would never come near her, much less be tamed.
She sat on the fallen trunk of an alder to catch her breath. With a twig, she began to to draw patterns. She made the arcs of cloven hooves in the soft silt. The waves lines of a fine beard. Ribbed stems and the ripples of a lonely pool.
The peaty water settled into stillness. White blobs drew together into long slender reflection: a horn that twisted and tapered to a deadly point. The girl carried on with her art, allowing only her eyes to slide toward the reflection. The grooves on the horn became clear, then a gleaming forelock and fierce white brows.
She added pebbles to her design, and the clustered seed heads of reeds. The beast drew closer. It drank from the pool, turning its reflection into mess of petals.
She kept her head down. Whiskers touched her cheek. The sweet breath made a cloud over the tree trunk. Water drops fell from the beast’s glistening beard.
She sat back. It laid its head upon her lap and folded its razor-sharp hooves away. Its ears drooped. She smoothed its mane, finer than the silken strands of fire-weed, softer than dandelion clocks. The unicorn crooned a song – a ballad of fear of and freedom and trust. She stored it in her heart alongside the love of her lost mother. Then she slept.
The dawn brought the songs of small birds, and the unicorn rose and left.
When she found her way back to the Tavern, the cattle had long gone. Her father held her tight, his back to the forest.
‘I thought you had died in there. What happened?’
She shook he head, said nothing and embraced him tightly. As for the drover’s lad, she’d thank him next year – if she and her story were still there.
The Lord-by-the-Sea squinted at the Pilgrim Woman.
‘You know a great deal about this lass and where she lived – how might that be?’
‘Now that would be telling – and I’ve done with tales for this week,’ she answered, then gave the carter’s boy a wink.