Read an Excerpt
The Rufus Stone
High over Sarum the small plane flew. Below, the graceful cathedral with its soaring spire rested on the sweeping green lawns like a huge model. Beyond the cathedral precincts, the medieval city of Salisbury lay peacefully in the sun. Earlier that morning there had been an April shower, but now the sky was clear, a pale washed blue. A perfect day, thought Dottie Pride, to fly a reconnaissance mission. Not for the first time, she was grateful for the fact she worked in television.
Say what you like about her boss and there were those who said John Grockleton was a brute he was good about things like chartering planes. "He just wants to get on the right side of you," one of the cameramen had remarked. She couldn't help that. The main thing was that she was in the Cessna now, and it was a beautiful morning.
From Sarum, the beautiful Avon valley continued due south through lush green meadows for over twenty miles until it reached the sheltered waters of Christchurch harbour. On its western side lay the rolling ridges of Dorset; to the east, the huge county of Hampshire with its ancient capital of Winchester and great port of Southampton. Dottie glanced at the map. There were only two small market towns on the Avon between here and the sea. Fordingbridge, eight miles south, and Ringwood, another five beyond that. A few miles below Ringwood, she noted, there was a place called Tyrrell's Ford.
They had not even reached Fordingbridge before the plane banked and turned towards the south-east. They passed a low ridge, crested with oak trees.
And there it was below them; huge, magnificent, mysterious.
The New Forest.
It had been Grockleton's idea to do a feature on the Forest. There had been controversy in the area recently: angry public meetings; local people starting fires. Television cameras had already been down there a few months before.
But it was another news item that had sparked off Grockleton's interest. An historical surprise. A piece of ancient pageantry.
"We'll cover this at least," he had decided. "But there may be something larger here: a full feature, in depth. Have a look at it, Dottie. Take a few days. It's a beautiful place."
He really was trying to get on the right side of her, Dottie mused.
Perhaps there was something else in it for her boss, though. It had come out the day before.
"Do you have any connections with the Forest?" he had asked her.
"Not that I know of, John," she replied. "Why, do you?"
"Funnily enough, I do. My family was pretty big down there in the last century. There's a whole wood named after us, I believe." He gave her a smile. "You might like to work that in, perhaps. If it fits, of course."
"Yes, John," she had said wryly. "I"ll see what I can do."
They flew over plantations and brown heather heath for ten miles. The terrain was wilder and barer than she had expected; but as they came to Lyndhurst, at the Forest centre, the landscape changed. Groves of oak, green glades, open lawns cropped by stocky little New Forest ponies; pretty thatched cottages with brick or whitewashed walls. This was the New Forest she knew from picture postcards. They followed the line of the old road that led south through the middle of the Forest. The oak woods were thick below them. In a glade, she caught sight of some deer. They passed over a village in a huge clearing, its open green lawns dotted with ponies. Brockenhurst. A small river appeared now, flowing south, through a lush valley with steep sides. Here and there she saw pleasant houses with paddocks and orchards. Prosperous. On a high knoll on the valley's wooded eastern side, she saw a squat little parish church, obviously ancient. Boldre church. She should visit that.
A minute later they were over the harbour town on Lymington and its crowded marina. To the right, on the edge of some marshes, a sign on a large boathouse proclaimed: seagull's boatyard.
The English Channel lay a few miles away to the west. Beneath them was the pleasant stretch of the Solent water with the green slopes of the Isle of Wight beyond. As they flew eastwards now she looked from the map to the coastline.
"There," she said with satisfaction. "That must be it."
The pilot glanced across at her. "What?"
"Never heard of it."
"Nobody has. You will, though."
"Do you want to fly over Beaulieu?"
"Of course." This would be the setting for the opening sequence. Far below them the lovely old abbey precincts lay tranquil in the sun. Behind, screened by trees, was the famous Motor Museum. They circled it once, then headed north again towards Lyndhurst.
They had just passed Lyndhurst and were flying north-west towards Sarum when Dottie asked the pilot to circle again. Peering down, it took her a few moments to locate her target; but there could be no mistaking it.
A single stone, set near the edge of a woodland glade. A couple of cars were parked in the little gravel car park nearby and she could see their occupants standing by the small monument.
"The Rufus stone," she said.
"Ah. I've heard of that," said the pilot.
"Few of the hundreds of thousands who went to wander or camp in the New Forest each year failed to pay the curious site a visit. The stone marked the spot where, according to the nine-hundred-year-old tale, King William Rufus, the Norman king called Rufus on account of his red hair had been killed by an arrow in mysterious circumstances while hunting deer. After Stonehenge, it was probably the most famous standing stone in southern England.
"Wasn't there a tree there once?" asked the pilot. "The arrow glanced off it and hit the king?"
"That's the story." Dottie saw another car make its way into the gravel car park. "Only it seems," she said, "that he wasn't shot there at all."
The deer started. She trembled for a moment, then listened.
A grey-black spring night still lay like a blanket over the sky. Along the edge of the wood, in the damp air, the peaty scent of the heath beyond mingled with the faint mustiness of last year's fallen leaves. It was quiet, as if the whole island of Britain were waiting for something to happen in the silence before the dawn.
Then suddenly, a skylark started singing in the dark. Only he had seen the hint of paleness on the horizon.
The deer turned her head, not satisfied. Something was approaching.
Puckle made his way through the wood. There was no need to move silently. As his feet brushed the leaves or snapped a twig, he might have been mistaken for a badger, wild pig or some other denizen of the Forest.
Away on his left, the screech of a tawny owl careened through the dark tunnels and sweeping arches of the oaks.
Puckle: was it his father, or his grandfather, or someone further back who had been known by the name of Puckle? Puck: it was one of those strange old names that grew, mysteriously, out of the English landscape. Puck Hill: there were several along the southern shores. Perhaps the name came from that. Or perhaps it was a diminutive: little Puck. Nobody knew. But having got one name, the family had never seemed to bother with any more. Old Puckle, young Puckle, the other Puckle: there was always a certain vagueness about which was which. When he and his family had been kicked out of their hamlet by the servants of the new Norman king, they had wandered across the Forest and finally set up a ramshackle camp by one of the streams that ran down to the River Avon at the Forest's western edge. Recently they had moved several miles south to another stream.
Puckle. The name suited him. Thickset, gnarled like an oak, his powerful shoulders stooped forward as though he was pulling some great weight, he often worked with the charcoal burners. Even to the Forest people his comings and goings were mysterious. Sometimes, when the firelight caught his oaken face in its reddish glow, he looked like a goblin. Yet the children would cluster round him when he came to the hamlets to make gates or wattle fences, which he did better than anyone else. They liked his quiet ways. Women found themselves strangely drawn to some deep inner heat they sensed in the woodsman. At his camp by the water, there were always pigeons hanging, and the skin of a hare or some other small creature neatly stretched on pegs; or perhaps the remains of one of the trout who ventured up the little brown streams. Yet the forest animals hardly troubled to avoid him, almost as if they sensed that he was one of them.
As he moved through the darkness now, a rough leather jerkin covering his torso, his bare legs thrust into stout leather boots, he might have been a figure from the very dawn of time.
The deer remained, head raised. She had wandered a little apart from the rest of the group who were still feeding peacefully in the new spring grasses near the woodland edge.
Though deer have good vision, and a highly developed sense of smell, it is on their hearing their outer ears being very large in relation to the skull that they often rely to detect danger, especially if it is downwind. Deer can pick up even the snap of a twig at huge distances. Already, she could tell that Puckle's footsteps were moving away from her.
She was a fallow deer. There were three kinds of deer in the Forest. The great red deer with their russet-brown coats were the ancient princes of the place. Then, in certain corners there were the curious roe deer delicate little creatures, hardly bigger than a dog. Recently, however, the Norman conquerors had introduced a new and lovely breed: the elegant fallow deer.
She was nearly two years old. Her coat was patchy, prior to changing from its winter mulberry colour to the summer camouflage a pale, creamy brown with white spots. Like almost all fallow deer, she had a white rump and a black-fringed white tail. But for some reason nature had made her coat a little paler than was usual.
To another deer she would, almost certainly, have been identifiable without this peculiarity: the hindquarter markings of every deer are subtly different from those of every other. Each carries, as it were, a coded marking as individual as a human fingerprint and far more visible. She was, therefore, already unique. But nature had added, perhaps for man's pleasure, this paleness as well. She was a pretty animal. This year, at the autumn rutting season, she would find a mate. As long as the hunters did not kill her.
Her instincts warned her still to be cautious. She turned her head left and right, listening for other sounds. Then she stared. The dark trees turned into shadows in the distant gloom. A little way off a fallen branch, stripped of its bark, glimmered like a pair of antlers. Behind, a small hazel bush might have been an animal.
Things were not always what they seemed in the Forest. Long seconds passed before, satisfied at last, she slowly lowered her head.
And now the dawn chorus began. Out on the heather, a stone chat joined in with a whistling chatter from its perch on a gorse bush a faint spike of yellow in the darkness. The light was breaking in the eastern sky. Now a warbler tried to interrupt, its chinking trills filling the air; then a blackbird started fluting from the leafy trees. From somewhere behind the blackbird came the sharp drilling of a woodpecker, in two short bursts on a bark drum; moments later, the gentle cooing of a turtle dove. And then, still in the darkness, followed the cuckoo, an echo floating down the woodland edge. Thus each proclaimed its little kingdom before the time of mating in the spring.
Over the heath, rising higher and higher, the lark sang louder still, above them all. For he had glimpsed the rising sun.
Horses snorted. Men stamped their feet. The hounds panted impatiently. The smell of horse and woodsmoke permeated the yard.
It was time to go hunting.
Adela watched them. A dozen men had already gathered: the huntsmen in green with feathers in their caps; several knights and squires from the area. She had pleaded hard to be allowed to ride with them, but her cousin Walter had only grudgingly agreed when she reminded him: "At least I shall be seen. You are supposed, you know, to be finding me a husband."
It was not easy for a young woman in her position. Only a year had passed since that cold, blank time when her father had died. Her mother, pale, suddenly rather drawn, had entered a convent. "It preserves my dignity," she told Adela as she entrusted the girl to her relatives, thus leaving her with nothing but her good name and a few dozen poor acres in Normandy to recommend her. The relations had done their best for her; and it had not been long before their thoughts had turned to the kingdom of England where, since the Norman Duke William had conquered it, many sons of Norman families had found estates sons who might be glad of a French-speaking wife from their native land. "Of all your kinsmen," she was told, "your cousin Walter Tyrrell is the best placed to help you. He made a brilliant marriage himself." Walter had married into the mighty family of Clare: their estates in England were huge. "Walter will find you a husband," they said. But he hadn't so far. She was not sure she really trusted Walter.
The yard was typical of the Saxon manors in the region. Large timber, barn-like buildings with thatched roofs surrounded it on three sides. Their walls were made of great darkened planks. In the centre, the great hall was marked by an elaborately carved doorway and an outside staircase to reach the upper floor. The manor was sited only a short distance from the clear and quiet waters of the River Avon, as it flowed down from the chalk ridges by the castle of Sarum, fifteen miles to the north. A few miles upstream lay the village of Fordingbridge; downstream the little town of Ringwood and, eight miles beyond, the Avon entered the shallow harbour protected by its headland and thence out to the open sea.
"Here they come!" A shout went up as a movement of the door of the hall indicated that the leaders of the party were about to emerge. Walter came first, looking cheerful; then a squire; and behind them, the man they were waiting for: Cola.