John felt like he had slept for days. He could not remember dreaming. He snapped from one absolute darkness into a softer dark. It wasn't late yet and he couldn't have slept longer than an hour but he felt exorcised. There was a moment of bewildering blankness before he remembered everything that had happened since that morning. But even remembering he felt calm for the moment, hollowed out and apathetic. All around him the glade purred with life and the hot sun had cooled to warm, clear evening. A murmur of breeze lifted the sweet, smelling smoke from a charcoal burner's hut which combined with the river's leafy dampness. Normal life went on.
He realised he was still streaked with sweat and blood. Stripping off his shirt he knelt on the river bank and doused his face and hair and torso with the clean cold water. His arms goose pimpled, but he felt himself becoming human again. Ordinary thoughts started to trickle back, like food and getting back home. Suddenly overwhelmed by thirst, he realised he had drunk nothing all day. Greedily he gulped the cold water, scooping it in both hands. He did not notice someone else standing at the bank. It was the horse he heard first, the great beast drinking docilely a little way down the stream.
It was a magnificent animal. The most expensive horse John had ever seen. Its owner was standing beside it, watching him, their expression inscrutable in the dappled light. John stood back up, dripping hair flopping in his eyes and nodded to the stranger. The stranger walked over, slowly but with the assurance of birthright. He was graceful. No-one in the villages moved like that: as though even his footsteps were abundant enough to be squandered, like walking was practise for dancing.
"Good evening" the stranger said, visible now he was closer, dark haired and pale skinned. He had the pallor that belonged only to those who led effortless lives. His dark, intelligent eyes were unreadable; it was not the light that concealed his expression but something internal, as though such an everyday intimacy as knowing what he felt could not be granted unthinkingly.
"Evening" John answered, and nodded again with desultory deference to authority. Living half way out of society he had never learnt the etiquette of self abasement; he was not a good peasant. The stranger could not have been much older than John was himself; he was physically far slighter and a little shorter, but John had an impression that subservience was expected of him. He saw no reason to grant it. John looked the stranger straight level in the unreadable eyes.
"I was wondering if you could lead me out of the woods" the strange boy said abruptly. It was meant to sound like an order, but even coming from one obviously used to dispensing command, it was unconvincing. John realised that to this stranger all the wood's shadows held menace, night was falling and he was scared.
"Where are you from?" John asked not unkindly.
The stranger did not answer and looked warily towards his horse.
"I'm not a thief" said John, understanding instinctively the stranger's reticence. "I'll not hurt you".
"I didn't think…" the boy started and stared at the ground, regal pretence lapsing briefly.
"You did. But it won't matter. You're right to be wary. It's dangerous for someone like you to be riding such a lovely beast alone. Who are you?" John asked, talking in the voice he used for startled creatures or small children.
"I'm a courtier" the strange boy said.
"But what are you called?"
"Edward" he answered. It was strange to say his own name. He could not remember having ever been asked for it before.
"I'm John. Which court do you belong to, Edward?"
This question too took him by surprise. He had forgotten these woods were a no-man's land, the border lost somewhere in their middle. The court was the centre of his world. That there could be people living out there whose lives it did not impinge on even a little did not seem possible. And he did not like the woods; he knew they teamed with outlaws, wild creatures and other more slippery supernatural things. He had rarely ridden them alone before, preferring the open fields and hills to this… hideous tangle. He felt younger than he'd ever felt before. The man John continued to watch him, as though he were some exotic creature who had landed unexpected and poorly adapted.
"King Harold's court"
"You won't get back before nightfall."
Edward felt something collapse in his gut. The shadows swooned around him with half-hidden terrors and for the first time ever no-one was on hand to put this right; to make life run comfortably and disappear crises. But the man John smiled. It seemed to Edward that he never seen a smile of such genuine kindness. At court smiles were wolfish or fawning; this was the most human smile Edward had known.
"You'll stay with me for the night. I don't live far from here. I'll show you the way home in the morning. Take that horse and we'll be on our way."
They did not talk much as they walked back towards the hut, but went in amicable silence as above the canopy the stars prickled out.
"I live with my grandmother." John explained as they approached the little hut. Edward nodded; he was beginning to feel fearful again. The man with the reassuring smile seemed good, but he was a stranger and he was undeniably unusual. He had been taken aback that he was not recognised, but rationally that was not surprising. He felt fugitive and slightly giddy, as though he was in disguise. But even though John had not guessed the particulars of his identity, Edward knew that the man recognised he was important. Despite this he displayed no deference; Edward did not mean to feel offended but a lifetime of sycophants left him uneasy about the man's informality. The rules had changed without his noticing. More worrying he was about to go as a stranger into someone's home; happy stories, he was acutely aware, rarely began that way. John seemed trustworthy but that was his honest expression and his warm, candid eyes. Just because someone is beautiful, Edward knew, did not mean they could be trusted implicitly.
John was remarkably lovely to look at though. Magnetic in a way that court fashion would not understand: his clear sun darkened skin and thick wavy hair, a strong unrefined body, lean and capable looking. He looked like he was part of the forest itself, the sunny parts so natural and easy, yet his brown eyes were full of mirthful curiosity. Edward felt artificial beside him, manicured and insubstantial, like a hot house flower next to an oak tree.
Once home, they tethered the horse alongside the donkey, and John fetched a trough full of water from the well and some hay, and the two animals fed side by side unfazed by the strange company they were keeping. The hut was solid and relatively spacious. A fire was smouldering in the hearth; a black pot full of something fragrant smelling was suspended from a hook above it. From the main room, two smaller rooms led off; his grandmother's and his own.
Edward had never seen anything like this before. The well swept dirt floor and the bare walls, the dried plants and joints of meat hanging from the ceiling. He had passed by peasants' cottages, but had never though what might be inside. He felt exhilarated. He liked being in John's home.
The house was empty; John peered into his grandmother's room. She missing and so was her battered bag of remedies and charms.
"My grandmother must have gone for the night," he said, "I expect Sarah is having her baby, my grandmother is often called out to help. She is well known around here for such things. We'll eat if you're hungry, and you can tell me about yourself, Edward the courtier."
They ate rich stew from wooden bowls and Edward talked, while John asked few questions. Edward was surprised at how much he was telling to this stranger who, with little effort it seemed, could draw out whole life stories from a person before they even realised what they were saying. He told an edited history of course, but it was true in effect. John watched him talk, with the same curious kindness Edward had noticed earlier. When he had no more to say John told him about his life.
About living in the woods, raised by what sounded to Edward suspiciously like a witch. But the night had been strange enough already that whatever Edward had known before, was probably no longer applicable and perhaps even witches could be honourable in this new, subtler world. John had been an orphan since birth. His mother had died in labour and his father was a shadowy figure who John knew little about. Edward listened as intently as he had talked, seduced by the stories of the creatures John had hunted and of the village life that John participated in vicariously.
John even told Edward about what he had seen in the little house and the girl in the red cape. As John told the story Edward could see the day had aged him. When he found out that John was no older than him he had been surprised, but the grim events of that morning made sense of the strange weariness shadowing the young man's appealing features. The man who had shown him to the hut was different to the boy who had left it that morning.
By the time it was late enough for bed it was understood by both of them without mentioning that they would be sleeping together. The spare bedding that John had brought out to air was left unused where it lay. The flame of the candle keeled and distorted as John stood up and they followed its small yellow halo towards his little room. The embers glowed faintly in the grate.