Although he was barely seventeen it was well known that John knew these woods better than anyone. His grandmother had taught him some things but he had learnt the rest on his own. In summer the sun burnt his broad shoulder, in winter his tawny hair was whipped by the wind. He was coarse handed and strong, he moved with swift resolution, silent as any other creature creeping in the undergrowth. He knew things the way animals know; instinctively and without judgement. He could mend and build up and chop down and sow. He knew where to take other youths from the villages around and how to lay them down in the long grass and what could be done outside the confines of the wedding night. He knew when the priest was lying and what was true. But he did not know that today his education would complete itself and how high value was of not knowing what can't be put to right.
He had heard from people in several of the villages on the forest fringe, that there was a wolf about. A big wolf worrying the sheep, sneaking up right close to the edge of the town, closer than wolves would normally go. This day he decided to see if he could find it. He set out early, the sun floating low on the horizon. Even then it was balmy, the heat of the day clinging possessively to the morning air. He slung his bow across his back and tucked a knife into his belt and set out into the woods.
The search was useless. The sun was higher now and the heat beat down through the canopy. Turning back he was surprised when he heard footsteps on the path and saw a glimpse of red through the trees. It was girl. He did not know her. She was dressed vividly and clearly had money. He had been taught later that although she had money she couldn't have had class. She was categorically not nobility, out alone, dressed so flamboyantly would have scandalised the court.
Her presence in this part of the forest made him uneasy, the path stopped not far ahead. And she was not alone. John saw the shadows moving beside her. He stood still and watched. The shadows formed themselves into something solid and dangerous. She barely seemed surprised, he thought, to find herself accompanied.
Even after the mystery girl was left alone again he decided to follow her. She was so young; her vulnerability was tangible, like ripe fruit left for the crows. She turned back, but he was not reassured. Menace gloomed in the dark woods, the rustle of life all around seemed muted like bated breath; the forest was speaking in whispers. He followed.
The girl entered a clearing containing a small cottage. He knew the owner; a sour old woman, pious and devoutly incapacitated. But the familiarity and the neat rows of vegetables and the scrabble of chickens was not enough to dislodge the deep, deep unease that lay over the place, as suffocating as the heat. He waited until she disappeared inside before walking up the path. He saw the woman's dog, lying motionless in the baking sun. As he got closer he saw the unnatural angle of the head. Flies danced in its eyes. Its neck had been snapped.
He grabbed the large axe stuck in the chopping block and thrust open the door. The first room was empty, but through the dim light he could make out door to the second. The bedroom door was slightly ajar. He stepped over the threshold and recognised the heavy smell of blood. His thoughts were out of time with his body and as he registered the smell he was already across the room and then into the bedroom.
He saw a hulk of grey and smashed the axe into the back of its head, bloodying the greasy blackish hair. He heaved the axe, and dislodged it from the skull with a sickening jolt and smashed it back down again and into the spine.
He pushed the body to one side, gathered up the girl and placed her on the bed. She squelched onto blood soaked sheets. Fighting back vomit, he picked her up again and carried her outside where he laid her on the grass. She was shaking and soaked though with foreign blood. Half dazed this seemed to him intolerable, she must have new clothes he decided. He went back inside and steeling himself, rummaged in the big wooden chest at the foot of the bed. He emerged with a grey woollen cloak and a shapeless nightdress, it had been the best he could find and he could not stand to stay too long in that little horror filled room. She allowed herself to be undressed like a tiny child. He helped her into the nighty and wrapped her in the cloak. The blood was drying in her blonde hair, matting it and tingeing it pink.
He took her to the nearest village, handing her over to a kindly woman, whose children watched with horrified fascination as the bedraggled girl was led inside. The men in the village crowded around him, slapping his back with hearty congratulations. He led them to the cottage so they could remove both corpses. By the time they arrived the bedroom was swarming with thick black flies. The heat had made slaughter smell unbearable. The celebratory mood was sucked from the group. No-one minded when he left early.
"God bless the poor boy" he heard one man say, as he slipped away, into the cooling air as the afternoon dragged on.
He could not go home. He had found evil in that little house. They would not let him see the old woman's body. He had more nights left to sleep through than they did.
He wandered down to the river and sat by its moss covered banks. The glade was still and empty and his; he had never led anyone else here, the only company he had known in it was his own. John lay on the ground, empty minded and impossibly weary.