RINGS AROUND TIME
by Mary Parker
7. A devil of a time in a Saxon village.
It was a fine autumn day; the overnight ground mist was lifting leaving a heavy dew on the ground. The air was crisp and clear. The time travellers found themselves in a long narrow field surrounded on three sides by woodland where they could see some men felling trees and chopping up logs.
“Still chopping them down. It’s amazing there’s any forest left,” remarked Fran.
They spread out their anoraks and sprawled on the ground lazily listening to the sounds of the foresters at work. A peaceful couple of hours passed. Then another sound caught their attention. Ben jumped up. “Wow! Look at that!” he exclaimed.
Coming round the curving edge of the next field was a team of eight oxen pulling a heavy plough through the sticky clay. A small boy ran alongside prodding the great beasts with a long stick. They grunted as they strained at the traces and sweat ran off their bodies. A cloud of flies followed and the ploughman, keeping the plough steady, grunted, strained and sweated as much as his beasts.
“That looks a lot more efficient than one poor woman with a hoe” observed Fran, “I wonder if Lucy has had her baby yet. Oh! What am I saying? She lived thousands of years ago”.
“How long have we been gone now?” asked Ben.
“Er ... six, no ... seven days,” replied Chips counting on his fingers ... “or if you prefer ... I think we’ve travelled about seven thousand years forward through time by the last stop”.
“At that rate we should be home the day after tomorrow.”
“I shan’t be sorry,” said Ellie. “Where are we now... I mean when are we now?”
“There’s a village of some kind up there on top of that hill. Let’s go and find out,” replied Ben.
“I don’t want to go. I so hate these horrible places.” Ellie clenched her fists and scowled.
Jack put his arm round his sister. “I think we ought to take a quick look. Just so we find out where we are. We’ll be very careful.” Ellie shrugged him off angrily but she followed, albeit reluctantly, as the others set off. They soon came to a wide grassy track bordered by ditches and banks. It led directly towards the village but it was a steep climb.
“Phew! I’m hot! Can we stop for a minute?” wailed Ellie slumping onto a large boulder which marked the corner of a field. So they all paused in the shade of an old oak tree for a while to admire the wonderful view across a still very much forested land.
“Is that the South Downs in the distance?” asked Jack.
“I think so.” replied Chips.
“Hey! Look at those clouds.” Fran pointed to the western horizon where some big black clouds were swirling. “That one looks like the number six.”
“Oh yes ... and that one ... and that one. They were all pointing.
“Oh no!” exclaimed Chips. “That’s the Devil’s number.”
“What do you mean?” asked Ellie.
“He’s just being superstitious. Don’t take any notice,” said Ben.
“Well, what ever they are, they’re coming this way. We’d better get a move on and find some shelter,” urged Fran.
Just at that moment a herd of large bristly pigs came up the hill towards them. There must have been at least a hundred of them, snorting and snuffling as they bumped into each other - a daunting sight.
“Oh, do come on,” urged Fran. “We don’t want to get behind that lot. The ground will be absolutely plastered!”
They moved on quickly. But they needn’t have hurried because the pigs slowed at the oak tree, much too busy snuffling about in the wayside for acorns to heed the urgings of the swineherd and the barking of his dog which nipped the heels of the stragglers.
The travellers soon reached the top of the hill where timber-framed houses clustered around a little wooden church. “We must be getting into medieval times,” observed Chips.
The sound of hammering caught their attention. It came from a building opposite the church. They peeped in through the doorway and saw that it was a blacksmith’s forge.
The smith, who was wearing a large crucifix, looked up and spoke. His voice was guttural, and to Jack it sounded a bit like German so he said “Guten tag”. Jack had learned a few words of German during his short time in Berlin. The tall fair-haired blacksmith nodded and smiled. What kind blue eyes he had!
Just then it started to rain - heavy drops that splashed on the hard dry earth beneath their feet. So they edged inside and watched the smith as he continued beating a red-hot horseshoe before dipping it into a trough of water with a violent shush of steam. “It’s just like farriers do nowadays,” observed Fran.
They watched intently as the smith picked up another horseshoe with a long-handled pair of tongs and thrust it deep into the glowing red charcoal of his furnace. Turning, he took something off the shelf behind them and removed a leather wrap. To the children’s astonishment, inside was a beautiful golden chalice.
The five of them watched fascinated as he gently, almost reverently, polished it. They had seen some beautiful things since they started their journey, but to see something as lovely as this in such a humble place took them completely by surprise.
As it was still raining, the children perched on a bench and Ben took out the Roman loaf of bread. He broke off a chunk and offered it to the smith who shook his head. Ben gave his companions a piece each but kept some back for later.
Wrapping the chalice lovingly in its cloth, the smith placed it back on its shelf and returned to his earlier labours. With his tongs he took the now red-hot horseshoe out of the fire and started beating it on the anvil. Sparks flew.
Meanwhile, it had become very dark outside and was even darker within. All of a sudden, the children became aware of a chill wind blowing in through the open doorway. In spite of the heat of the furnace they shivered, but not just from the chilly draught. It was as though something sinister was about to happen. A sudden gust whipped a cloud of smoke from the fire and dust whirled up into the air making them cough and splutter. Fran, shielding her eyes with her hand, noticed a formless figure in the doorway. She could not see the face – it seemed to be out of focus. Looking down she spotted something extraordinary.
“Ooh look! goat’s feet!” she cried out. At that, the smith uttered a furious roar and, through streaming eyes, the children saw him lunge forward, thrusting his hot tongs towards the head of the cloven-hoofed spectre.
An ear-splitting shriek rent the air, as both disappeared from view through the doorway.
Half deafened, the children rushed out just in time to see a black speck streaking away through the sky. The smith was brandishing his tongs in the air. “Selig Sudsex, selig Sudsex” he shouted, triumphant at having successfully beaten off the devilish apparition.
“Hell! What on earth was that? Who’s silly?” exclaimed Ben misunderstanding the old English for ‘holy’.
The smith glanced at Ben sternly. Going inside the forge he took down the chalice and, grabbing Ben by the arm, walked purposefully towards the church. The other children followed obediently and a crowd of villagers converged on the church.
As they entered the simple but holy building, the smith washed his hands in a bowl at the side of the door, put on a white overall and made the sign of the cross. Then he walked up to the alter and knelt down, and the children realized that the blacksmith was also the village priest. As the now quite large congregation knelt, they too bowed their heads to receive his blessing and took a sip of communion wine from the holy chalice.
The blacksmith/priest addressed the congregation. He was obviously relating the recent events of the day for they all burst out laughing, touching their noses and saying “ouch!”
As everyone filed out after the sermon they shook his hand and Jack thought he could make out words that sounded like “Thank you, Father Dunston”.
“Dunston? Wasn’t there a St. Dunston?” he asked Chips.
“Yes,” replied his step-cousin. “He was the blacksmith at Mayfield who grabbed the Devil by the nose.”
“Then that’s who he is.” They looked at the saintly man in some awe.
“Well,” said Ben “now that we’ve seen the devil and been blessed by a saint we ought to be able to tackle anything”.
The sun came out again and, with much boosted confidence, the time travellers waved good-by to the soon-to-be Archbishop Dunston. On the way back to the crop circles they stopped to pick some early-ripened apples from a tree that hung low over the track. The fruits were small and knobbly but absolutely drippingly delicious.
“Keep some for the journey,” ordered Ben as he wiped the juice from his chin with the back of his sleeve.
“Right ho, bossy boots,” sang Chips teasingly, tweaking Ben’s nose and soon they were all doing it to one another and their noses soon stuck out whitely in otherwise dust-blackened faces.
And so they ambled merrily along and as the crop circles came into sight Fran broke into an old music-hall song that she remembered her grand-father singing:
Show me the way to go home
I’m lost and I want to go to bed
I had a little drink
A little while ago
and its gone right to my head.
They all joined in and for the first time since their adventures began, they felt relaxed and safe. Coming to a half-built haystack not far from their crop circles, they climbed up on to it. Most of it had been thatched on top to protect it from the weather, but one end was open and although still a bit wet from the rain, it offered a cosy place to rest. The children slumped down idly watching the steam rising in the hot sunshine and enjoying the sweet scent of freshly ripened hay.
They had good reason to be tired, what with the fire last night and the still vivid terrors of their flight from the Celts two night before that. So as dusk began to fall, they found it hard to stay awake and as it seemed such a safe place they decided to spend the night there. They snuggled down under their cloaks and furs and were soon fast asleep except for Fran who lay awake looking at the stars like diamonds on a black velvet cloth, she thought, enjoying the feel of the now cool night air caressing her cheeks. How silent it all is was her last thought as she fell asleep. So she did not hear a mother mouse burrowing busily away at the base of the stack making a nest for its next litter of babies.
The sun had risen before they awoke. Ben was the first up. “Come on you lot,” he urged. “I’m hungry. Let’s get on,” and he pushed the others off the haystack. They went quickly into their rings and started to sing ..... whoosh ..... and they were off again.
A sign in Mayfield