Chapter One – ‘The Promise’

An indeterminable shade between grey and violet, Denny’s bewitching kohl-rimmed eyes remained fixed on the small silver key that dangled from the soft leather dashboard.  Her manicured fingernails skimming the slant of her ebony bob, emitting a weak moan she took hold of the solitary golden tassel that cascaded from her earlobe, rolling it between her finger and thumb – the claret gloss she’d applied with customary precision to her wide lips somehow less complementary today, its intense pigment emphasizing the tautness in her beautiful face.  The squelch of wheels over waterlogged gravel the only sound as the car continued its reverse down the driveway, Denny released the earring from her grip letting it swing free – its delicate reflection shimmering over the smooth, tanned skin of her slender neck as it swayed to and fro.

Dazzling certainly, but for one of her young daughters it was the only thing that now shone in a world deprived of sparkle.

Through the rivulets of water which meandered down the front windscreen, Serenity could still make out the black beams of the abandoned house – a house for so long her home, the only one she’d ever known.  But now it stood empty, desolate beneath the sullen gunmetal grey sky that loomed over the French countryside with grim determination for the last fortnight.  The springs of the rear seat creaking as the car reached the pavement, heartbeat quickening, Serenity shot a glance towards her father’s reflection in the angled rear-view mirror.

How could he do this to his own family?

His abundance of damp, ash-blond hair tousled from the blustery draft through the open window, with another rev of the engine he manoeuvred the car forwards, flush with the pavement’s edge.  Raking stained fingers through his unkempt tresses he turned to look back at the vacated half-timbered house, the expression on his rugged face inscrutable.

Through an area of glass curiously devoid of raindrops, Serenity too peered out through the rear passenger window to her side – at once catching sight of the diamond leaded windowpanes of the kitchen, her favourite room, where so much love and laughter resounded.

But on this most bleak of June mornings, a mournful inky black, they stared lifeless into the cold dampness as if the very soul of the house had died.  Rendered a sombre shade of charcoal by the relentless rain, the saturated thatched roof dripped huge drops of water onto the neat garden border below, some catching the radiant yellow petals of the sunflower that grew not far from the window causing its bright but downcast head to bob up and down, puppet-like.

The knot in the pit of her empty stomach tightening, Serenity bit hard into her lip.  Although having promised herself she would be strong, the salty tears pooled in her eyes already raw from a sleepless night.

“Cheers, all the best old girl!”

Jack’s splintered husky voice shattered the perfumed silence, his mellow Cockney lilt devoid of its usual humour and warmth, as, with a double click of his tongue the quiet purr of the engine built alarmingly.

Unable to shut out the image in her mind’s eye of her father’s leather sole pushing down onto the worn brass of the accelerator pedal, Serenity knew the dreaded moment had finally come.  Pulse racing, palm pressed flat to the window, she was convinced her chest would burst – for she could only watch, helpless, as the black-beamed house slid from view behind the padded beige wall of the car.

In one violent motion, she turned in the direction of her two younger sisters.  Their pretty faces blank as they stared onwards, neck straining, Serenity twisted her body further around in the seat – at once horrified to remember the monstrous height of the pile of blankets, clothes and dolls she’d helped her mother stack in the boot the previous evening.

Hastily unfastening the seatbelt, she clambered to her knees, throat dry as with feverish hands she pressed downwards on the pile – the black and white walls of her home distorted yet still visible through the sinuous rivulets.  Every inch of her young body trembling, Serenity attempted what she could of a final smile – just as the car picked up speed as it rounded a bend.  Her bare knees slipping backwards off the edge of the leather seat, she grasped out for the slippery black fabric of the loose seatbelt – but just as quickly lost hold – a howl escaping her as her left cheek impacted off its metal clasp end.

“Idiot!” snarled a voice from the far side of the car.

Unable to face her younger sister’s sarcasm, Serenity settled back into her seat.  Her gaze fixed hard on the rain-spattered windowpane, it was now the stark reality descended upon her that the gnawing sensation of loss was farworse than she’d feared – for in an instant she knew her childhood was no more than a memory.

With a deep breath, she let her brow thud against the chilled glass, but unable to ignore the rhythmic pounding of the backseat springs beneath her, Serenity turned her attention from the window – startled to find herself looking directly into the contorted pink face of her youngest sister – her round eyes squeezed shut, small ruby lips stretched tight in a zany grimace which showed off to full advantage her two missing front teeth – but now was not the time for Harmony’s pranks.  She could not bear it.

Instinctively reaching for the nearest of the two red buttons above the rear wheel ramp, with a sustained push the glass retracted a good eight inches.

At once flinching against the onslaught of raindrops which spat into her tender eyes as the breeze of her beloved forest whipped the lengths of her strawberry-blonde hair, Serenity knew only too well from this part of the woodland road she could see into its mysterious, dark interior, as row after row of trees sped past her window – two weeks having passed since the inexplicable incident – an experience she refused to put down to imagination.  For twice from an area of woodland deeper than they’d ever dared venture she’d heard the voice call out her name as she and her sisters played in their favourite clearing, deep within the forest’s sacred woody heart – a woman’s voice she was certain – but upon both occasions could see no-one and with her father’s announcement later that evening of his family’s imminent relocation to England sending all three girls into shock, the events of the afternoon were pushed from Serenity’s mind.

“Oh close the window, I’m getting wet!” yelled the strident young voice, but this time the demanding tone of Felicity’s words didn’t register.  As the spluttering rain tickled her lightly freckled face, jaw firm, Serenity’s finger remained pressed on the small red button.

“Dad!  Tell her to close the window!”

Without moving her head, Serenity flashed a glance in the direction of the angled mirror – in time to see her father wink back at her, the glow of empathy unmistakable in his clear blue eyes – but too ashamed to let him see her cry, she turned her face back to the emerald infinity beyond the open window as the gritty resolution swelled inside her.

“Darling, please!  Your sisters are getting wet,” came the dulcet plea from her mother.

Lips pursed, finger firm on the first button, Serenity could not bring herself to press the other.  A solitary tear rolling down her cheek as she struggled to swallow, she at length pressed down onto the red plastic.

Her windswept tresses falling still, for several moments she could only watch as the rain droplets outside continued their confused journey to the bottom of the glass until her gaze drifted to those having blown in through the window, splashing onto the exposed fair skin of her leg – and it was then, in her childhood innocence, it struck Serenity those droplets were in fact the tears of the forest – it letting her know that its heart was breaking too as it witnessed their separation – and for that reason she did not wipe them away, instead allowing them to trickle the full length of her leg savouring every moment of the tender caress of its farewell.

The strain in her throat almost choking her, she let her cheek fall against the cold glass, a single strand of saliva quivering between her bow lips as they parted in a world of silent torture – and at that moment, as the bitter tears fell from her eyelashes one by one, deep in her soul she made a promise – a promise she would live with from that day forwards, a promise which would give her the strength to face the unknown days and years ahead – and with that her lips closed, a new determination flashing in her tear-swollen eyes as the silver car broke free from the verdant sanctuary of the vast forest, speeding onwards through the endless patchwork of fields and pasture towards the distant horizon – its long journey still ahead – as well as the new life which awaited upon English shores.

 ***

Saturday, 21 July 2007

“Soisy-sur-Seine, s’il vous plaît?”

With a quintessential Gallic shrug and perfunctory grunt, the sallow-skinned taxi driver pulled out of the airport taxi rank.  As the final over-laden luggage trolley disappeared from view beyond her rain-speckled window, imbued in a delicious sense of freedom, Serenity slid her lithe body down against the plush upholstery of the rear passenger seat.

The breeze that entered through the window gap chopping without mercy into the crown of her tousled waterfall of loose curls, she tilted her face away, her attention returning to the morose driver.

From somewhere behind her a pair of concealed speakers were doing their utmost to infuse the tension filled car with the powerful, serpentine journey of Ravel’s ‘Bolero’, its passionate military style rat-a-tat-tat percussion grounding Serenity to the reality of the moment, charging the summer air with an impending sensation of anticipation for the journey ahead – but something else had now caught her attention.  Positioned between the front windscreen and the driver’s mirror, a small plastic horse hung suspended by a length of transparent red string.  Its casing crafted out of ordinary colourless plastic, it was filled with a crystal clear liquid, a depth of azure so pure it dazzled in its brilliance.

Her soft full lips twisting, Serenity observed it as it jiggled and bounced, quite oblivious to the rhythm.  Good for you, little horse!  Dance to your owntune!  Pouting in a smirk of self-satisfaction, she slid further down in the seat as the pine-scented taxi now picked up speed as it joined the southbound lane of the autoroute, the futuristic glass-fronted offices and airport hotels streaming past her window in endless succession.

“Accident!  Accident!” grumbled the driver.  Puffing, his blunt fingertips drummed against the dashboard.

“Really?” replied Serenity, as leaning forwards, she looked beyond the headrest of the passenger seat.  Ahead she could indeed see the red lights of a tailback of at least ten cars all moving at barely more than a crawl – her gaze darting to a group of workmen who stood behind a line of plastic cones.

“You are on holidays, yes?” enquired the driver, his dour face breaking into a surprisingly attractive smile as his dark brown eyes met Serenity’s in the rear view mirror.

“I’m here to visit the town where I grew up,” she answered, her attention still fixed on the workmen.  “Actually, I don’t think it is an accident.”

“Ah, but you live in England now?” replied the driver, chin jutting upwards as he too noticed the group of workmen.

“Yes, I live with my family in Rochester in Kent,” answered Serenity as she slumped back into the seat, satisfied the driver was wrong.  “It’s certainly picturesque, very English, but I’m looking forward to exploring Soisy again.  It’s been so long!”

“Ah, Kent!  ‘Le Tunnel’, oui?”

“That’s right, pretty handy for the Eurostar connection.”

“You work in London?”

Sometimes,” drawled Serenity as she peeled a strand of windswept hair from her eyes, the gust strengthening through the rear window, “but most of the time I work at home with my dad,” she added.  “He’s a photographer.  He used to specialise in fashion and catwalk, that kind of thing when he lived in Paris but his work took him to London back in the nineties.  In fact,” she went on, “when I finished art-college he took me on, training me as his assistant.  He’s got a studio near the house.  It was an old windmill when he bought it, really run down,” she added with a laugh, “but over the years he’s converted it.”

“Ah, that is good, to work with your family!”

“It’s cool.  We’ve actually just got back from Holland this morning,” continued Serenity.  “Dad was helping out an old friend in Amsterdam.  His daughter’s just started a rock band with some university friends and he’d asked dad if he could work on the photography.  There wasn’t room for the three of us on yesterday’s flight, so I took the option of going home via Paris.”

“But you had a good time?”

“Yeah, although I finished up modelling for the album cover.  Not quite what I’d hoped,” smirked Serenity.  “I do a bit of modelling every now and again in London,” she scoffed, “photo-shoots for beauty magazines, that kind of thing.  It’s fun,” she added, “but I don’t take it seriously.  Mum was actually a model in Paris and that’s how she met dad.  They’ve both been really supportive.”

A sudden torrent of rain battering the windows, the conversation fell quiet.  Gazing out through the rain-spattered glass, Serenity could only watch as the dense grey clouds overhead steamed their way southeast.  With so many years having passed since she’d left in a downpour, she could hardly believe she was now returning in one.

***

With a sharp flick Serenity shook her candy pink umbrella, the rain droplets plummeting towards the wet tarmac path like a myriad of diamonds. A hollow rattle from the thin metal bar of the tarnished latch, the dusky green wooden gate clattered shut behind her.  Her bewildered senses enveloped by the dense, earthy aroma of the damp forest air, she turned around. “I’m back!” she whispered, fingers trembling as she lifted them to her parted lips.  “I kept my promise and here I am!” she added, her words barely perceptible above the majestic breeze through the boughs.

Ahead, the path that led from the Parisian suburban street from where she’d entered continued uphill at a gentle incline for some fifty feet before branching off into two separate wider roads.

The salty taste building in her mouth, Serenity shot a glance in the direction of a small red car parked a short distance along the left roadway – the child’s voice which rang out from somewhere just beyond startling her.

Forced to suppress her emotions, she stood and watched as a full-figured dark-skinned woman of around thirty emerged from the passenger door, the vivid black, green and yellow pattern of her loose-fitting ankle-length garment similar in design to the length of fabric she wore wrapped around her head.  Dropping her car keys into the handbag clutched to her bosom, the woman nudged the door closed with her rounded hip before making her way to the opposite side of the car – the child’s voice at that moment again piercing the solitude of the forest – the woman re-emerging several moments later with two young children with whom she laughed and talked – a boy of seven or eight and a girl, presumably his sister, a few years his junior, their small arms heaped with silver and gold foil-wrapped gifts.

Uncertain as to whether it had stopped raining, hesitant to put down her umbrella, Serenity began her ascent in the direction of the small party.   The woman noticing her approach, beaming, she called out.

“Bonjour, Mademoiselle!”

“Bonjour Madame,” replied Serenity, acknowledging both children as they drew near, the young boy grinning up at her every bit as effervescent as his mother – his younger sister attired in a gauzy fairy dress, however, unable to muster more than a scowl, her shoulders hunched, lips sucked to a pout as her eyes narrowed to slits.

Making her way past the red car as the trio started down the path, it was then Serenity noticed the two wooden stumps hammered into the grass verge signalling the start of one of many trails that traversed the vast forest.

Upon reaching them, she peered along the tree-lined track that led off from the road, deep into the forest – the earth untouched by the recent shower.  Unable to access the forest by her preferred method – that of leaping over the log fence in the back garden of her childhood home – she’d had no option but to enter through the public gate in an attempt to somehow find her way back onto the same path she as a child had first chosen to follow, along with her two younger sisters, as that was the path which led to the clearing.  Gauging the track would more than likely lead in the direction of her former home, with a mischievous smirk Serenity collapsed her umbrella.

Stepping off the smooth tarmac, she tiptoed over the wet grass, giddy with excitement as she started along the dry earth path that led onwards into the shady distance – the sight of a small ravine running parallel to the path some fifteen minutes later causing her heart to leap yet soon after mourn for the memory of the stream which once flowed bounteously through the ancient forest – its parched mud walls now only channelling a pitiful, almost silent trickle of leaf-clogged water – but follow its course she would, for she knew where it led.

The haunting rattle of a woodpecker high above echoing through the leafy canopy, the distant whine of a chainsaw gnawed its way into the otherwise calm of the forest.

The glade itself having changed very little from how she’d remembered it all those summers before, Serenity bit hard into her lip as she surveyed the scene now before her.  The long grass strewn with a multitude of daisies, their tiny petals shimmied in the soft breeze, the shallow ditch, where the babbling stream once flowed, making its way into and around the far edge of the clearing as it continued onwards, disappearing from view.

A sudden gust of air disturbing the leaves of the lower branches, Serenity closed her eyes.  This was not how she’d imagined her return.

But what had she expected?

Serenaded by the mid-afternoon birdsong, she felt a stranger, as though she were intruding into this most secluded of worlds.  The words of her younger sister ran through her mind, words spoken on that final afternoon they’d played together in this very place, words which for a long time had stung her developing intuitiveness into apathy.

But even she accepted as a child her imagination was prone to bouts of fancy.  Appreciating what she’d then interpreted as Felicity’s innate sarcasm, Serenity now accepted her sister’s harsh words were in reality the truth.  The voice she was so sure had called out to her really was nothing more than the wind through the leaves.  How ridiculous she’d been to allow her childish curiosity to drive her here to finally accept this.

Of course Felicity was right.  It really was “time to get real”.

The sunlight attempting to break through the clouds, several shards pierced the treetops illuminating random pockets of grass on the far side of the glade.  Unable to ignore the heaviness of her heart, forced to accept her folly, Serenity turned away.  As she retraced her footsteps back towards the path, the raucous cry of a carrion crow rang out from somewhere behind, not so far away, but from the area of woodland where neither her sisters or herself had ever dared venture – the same direction from where she’d imagined the woman’s voice.  A lump in her throat as the repugnant image of Felicity’s sneer loomed clear in her mind, footsteps dwindling to a halt, Serenity again closed her eyes – the distant drone of the chainsaw, as if aware of her stillness, itself spluttering before falling silent.

“Why am I here?” she asked herself softly as she opened her eyes, face raised to the swaying treetops.  “What am I doing?”

As another rasping cry reverberated through the forest, the flimsy hem of her loose ivory muslin skirt catching in the calf-length grass, Serenity turned back to face the glade – her attention at once drawn to a section of sunlight-dappled grass from where a host of brown and white butterflies fluttered playfully in small circles, zigzagging towards the thicket of elm trees on the opposite side of the clearing that separated it from the woodland beyond.

The gentle breeze gathering strength around her, Serenity watched the delicate procession as it gradually disappeared from view beyond the trees, aware of a new emotion now forming within her – an instinct in its very intensity at once unsettling – and yet strangely comforting – a sensation sooverwhelming her sandal-clad feet were already pushing forwards through the long grass in pursuit of the butterflies – in the direction from where so many years past she was again certain she’d heard the voice.  Impeded by the stubborn undergrowth that tugged at the fabric of her skirt, the image of Felicity’s smirk once more manifested in Serenity’s mind as she advanced towards the thicket.

“Ignore it and follow your instincts!” she hissed.  “That is why you’re here.”

And follow them she did, fuelled with renewed determination, accepting with a delicious sense of peculiar delight she was in fact now powerless to turn back towards the forest path as onwards she ploughed through the grass and beyond the elms as if enchanted, overcome by something – something she did not understand.

The coterie of butterflies having mostly settled on a sunlit area of bare earth, surveying the until now undiscovered area of woodland before her, Serenity’s lips parted in wonderment as her gaze came to rest on a small stone bridge which spanned the grassy banks of the stream, its own dwindling journey continuing onwards, underground, into the forest.

“I never knew it existed!  I cannot believe we were so close!” she gushed, as she stumbled headlong down through the flower-sprinkled grass of the incline concealed by the swaying elms, whereupon even at a distance she could see the bridge was very old – its five, bulbous vertical stone pillars forming the balusters on the near-side crumbled away in places.

Tip-toeing over the springy, damp earth towards the banks of the stream, Serenity glanced down into the narrow ravine, yet again saddened at how its flow had dissipated over time, but choosing to shake off the despondency she turned her attention back to the bridge.

Aware of her quickening pulse, she hurried towards it, her pace slowing as she approached the gentle mound of earth that partially obscured the first of the twelve or so horizontal stone slats that formed the humped archway – three or four of which were missing.  Hand outstretched, she stepped onto the mound, her trembling palm flat on the left handrail as, pausing, she gauged whether the slats would safely take her weight.  Grinding the fine gritty dust of the ledge between her fingertips, with caution and a silent prayer, Serenity stepped onto the bridge – the slats to her relief considerably more solid underfoot than she’d initially feared, observing as she reached the apex the broken-off final section of the handrail.

I wonder what happened? she reflected, peering into the dry stream bed below as she envisaged the sight of the chunk of masonry swept away in the more substantial current of years gone by.  Turning around, it was then she noticed something that had quite escaped her attention.  “Oh, how beautiful!” she exclaimed, captivated by the serene beauty of the solitary statue which stood alone in the centre of the leafy glade, its grass-fringed plinth surrounded by an elliptical ring of bluebells.

But bluebells in August?

Considerably more sap-stained than the bridge, even with the ravages of time the statue was still recognisable as that of a young woman – the timeworn, benevolent beauty of what remained of her features more identifiable as Serenity drew near – the once-smooth hair chiselled to drape around her graceful neck, flowing onwards down the pitted marble of her outstretched arm, the moss-gloved fingers of her open hand cradling what appeared a sap-blemished bird.

Although impossible to know just how long it had stood so deep in the forest, the gentle, almost melancholic beauty of this most mysterious of antiquities had lost none of its magic.

If only I’d explored that little bit further I’d have found it! lamented Serenity, as looking away, she surveyed the surrounding woodland – her innate sense of mystery urging her that perhaps whoever had called out to her all those years before may somehow still be there, aware of her presence as they observed her confusion.

“Perhaps you do remember me,” she whispered, her gaze lowering to the tiny lavender blue petals at her feet – and it was at that moment the overwhelming impulse surged within her, prompting her to reach out and touch the pitted marble of the statue’s face.  With care, Serenity stepped over the bluebells, the delicate lace of her loose muslin tunic tumbling to the crease of her elbow as her fingertips caressed the mellow coolness of the dinted marble of the right cheek.  At once consumed by a wave of blissful calm, for some time an eerie quiet pervaded the forest, the stillness broken only at length by the harsh cry of the carrion crow, its call reverberating far into the woodland.

A gentle gust catching the tendrils of Serenity’s hair, it was as it gathered strength that she removed her hand from the stone, transferring her fingertips to her own cheek – aware as the leafy boughs groaned high above of a new feeling awakening in her – a profound sorrow, an intense sorrow, a sorrow beyond the boundaries of anything she’d ever experienced as the cool breath of the breeze billowed the soft fabric of her tunic against her smooth skin.

The temperature dropping noticeably, sufficient to cause the downy hairs on the back of her neck to bristle, a distinct chill traversed the length of Serenity’s spine.

“What’s happening?  Why am I feeling like this?” she uttered, rubbing her upper arms for warmth as she turned on the spot – startled to see as yet some distance beyond the bridge thick white smoke rolling towards the clearing.  Logic telling her it was no more than the forestry workers burning leaves, her intuition urged her to move away from where she stood, to vacate the clearing.  “To be dragged away once was bad enough, but to be forced away again!” she protested, her indignant glance darting along the endless avenues of trees.  “Why should I leave now?”

A rigid determination fuelling her resistance to the gut feeling within, hugging herself for warmth, Serenity stepped back over the bluebells.  Chin high in defiance as the temperature lowered further, she made straight for the swirling haze that continued in its steady advance as she reached the bridge.  Unable to ignore the quiver in her hand, she again laid it flat on the damp, gritty surface of the handrail, palm sliding upwards over the flaking stone as she now approached the summit – the thought occurring to her as odd there was no sound of a fire from anywhere nearby – none of the crackling, snapping and spitting usually heard when leaves were burned, nor any smell.

A swell of apprehension within her, Serenity continued onwards down the far side as the first wisps of mist caressed her skin – the diaphanous fog that rolled over and beyond, chilling her to the bone.

Unable to see through the pearly haze, the fog now so intense, Serenity wondered if the peculiar sensation of giddiness was merely disorientation – or a result of the overpowering bouquet of daffodils unmistakable in the vapour.  Sandals catching in the grass, she stepped onto the spongy forest earth, the undergrowth perceptibly dry compared with that on the other side of the stream.  And where is the birdsong? she thought, aware as the moments passed of something else which had until now evaded her.  “The stream, it sounds different,” she remarked, angling her face in the direction of where it flowed – and it was then, from the opposite bank, that she heard it.

“Who are you?” shouted Serenity, heart pounding as she spun around.  The voice distant, frail at first – as if drifting in and out of time – the name it called out through the dense, opaque mist was undeniable.

Spine stiff, pulse racing, for the moments that followed she wished with all her might that her sister’s accusation had been the case.  The fragrance of daffodils by now nauseous, the first five or six slats of the arch visible yet faint before her, Serenity dashed towards the bridge.  Sandals again catching in the grass, she grasped out for the stone ledge – her fingers stubbing against the broken-off section that, even in her panic as she hastened up the ancient span, struck her as much nearer the grassy bank than she’d remembered.  Aware the fog was now starting to dissipate, Serenity felt the softness of the grass once more beneath her toes.  Heart still thumping, she scanned the emerging woodland for whoever it was who stood there.

“I don’t know who you are,” she whimpered, swallowing hard as she peered into what remained of the fine vapour, “but I don’t want this!  You’re scaring me!”  No reply forthcoming, unable to see anyone, she hesitated on the spot.

“Why are you doing this?” she insisted as she turned in the direction of the statue.  “No!” she exclaimed, gaping at the tree stump which protruded from within a ring of daisies where only moments before the bluebells had grown.  “This is ludicrous!” she spat.  Raking her fingers through her hair, she stumbled backwards.   Her breathing shallow as she turned again and again on the spot, Serenity stared back at the stump, open-mouthed as she collapsed to her knees.  “This is impossible!  I only crossed the …”

But her words fell silent, for somewhere as yet far off a distant sound had triggered a disturbance through the treetops, the crashing from the branches intensifying as birds took flight all around.

“What is that?” she uttered, just then hearing it again – only this time nearer.

A curious noise at once mournful and eerie, the thin, warbling moan was now joined by the unmistakable sound of barking dogs.  Breathing faltering, Serenity spun in the direction from where she was certain the barking emanated.  Shooting random glances along the infinite columns of sturdy trunks, one tree in particular, an oak, some thirty feet ahead caught her attention due to its exceptionally broad girth.

“Get behind it!” she ordered herself as she dashed forwards through the long pockets of grass.

Now reaching the tree, she threw herself against its warm bark, but as her fingernails dug into its rough exterior she became aware of a new disturbance, this time from even nearer – an agitated rustle in the twigs of a thicket of bushes to her right – a noise increasingly frantic as she stared in alarm in the direction of whatever or whoever approached.

“Why have you done this to yourself?” she shrieked, edging away from the fracas – just as a fully-grown stag crashed through the branches.  An undeniable stare of terror in the creature’s eyes, its hooves skidded on the dense undergrowth as it noticed her in its lateral vision, but just as quickly found its footing as it veered away from her, changing course.

Body rigid but trembling, Serenity shoved herself away from the trunk.  Her foot stubbing against an unseen rock, she was unable to prevent herself sprawling her full length to the dry earth, her umbrella landing well beyond her reach.  The yelp of hounds now at a crescendo, Serenity managed to struggle to a squat, but her foot catching on the inside of her skirt as she attempted to make for the tree, she stumbled forwards on her knees.  Eyes half-closed, she pressed her grazed palms to her ears, as, in a frenzied blur of white, brown and black the hounds raced past, the clamour almost deafening.  Teeth clenched, Serenity lunged forwards, hunkering down into as tight a ball as she could, too terrified to move – the tumult at length passing.

Without so much as a second thought she struggled to her feet, bounding from behind the broad oak in the direction of the tree stump – aware as she careered over another parched section of earth of the ground beneath her feet pulsating, a heavy jangle of metal and dull thud of hooves approaching from her right.  The hoarse cry of a man piercing the air over the leaded clanking of the riding tackle, his shout was accompanied by the agitated yells of others.

Panic-stricken, Serenity turned her face in the direction of the commotion – at once catching sight of the three horses which thundered towards her at full pelt, the white horse out in front much taller than the others, its huge brown eyes wild, the network of veins pulsing below its sweat-glistening face.  Frozen to the spot, Serenity could only watch as the front rider kicked the sole of his black leather boot downwards onto the stirrup as, frantically, he tugged on the reins in an attempt to control his beast, its powerful neck straining, head bobbing wildly as it reared backwards in fear.

Shoulders hunched, forearms up to shield her face, in one last attempt to escape the impending carnage, Serenity propelled herself forwards – her knees giving way beneath her as she staggered aimlessly on the spot – now looking directly upwards into the mottled grey underbelly of the huge white stallion which towered above her, its two arched front legs already descending on her in slow motion, the cold black iron of its hooves only inches from her face – mere seconds before a sickening pain exploded in her head, radiating at lightning speed down through her body as the world tipped sideways and a carpet of soft but sharp blades of grass rushed upwards to meet her face.

Copyright © 2011 Audrey Graham. All rights reserved.

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