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One Sun, One Moon, Two Stars

Chapter 2

The Hunt

Jonathan glanced around. It was true, Sylvene seemed to have vanished. He shook his head. “How odd… she was telling me about the Rufus Stone only a minute ago.”
      “Well, she’s not here now,” Victoria said sounding annoyed. “Ben, did you see where she went?”
      “No.” He scraped the blade of his penknife with his thumbnail, flicked a lump of bark into the air and glared at her. “I was busy.” He snapped the knife shut and slipped it into the back pocket of his jeans. “She’s probably taken off to the ‘dig’.”
      “Without us?” Jonathan frowned.
      Ben shrugged. “I told you she was an archaeological freak.”
      Victoria stared at him. “An archeological freak… Sylvene? Since when?”
      “I dunno… always. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that’s why we’ve come to the New Forest. There’s nothing she likes better than digging through layer after layer of dirt. She doesn’t stop even if it starts pouring with rain. East Oakhurst is where she met my Dad.”
      “Your Dad?” Victoria looked at him.
     Ben curled his lip. “Yes, my Dad. Do I have to repeat everything? He’s Professor of Archaeology at Bristol University and in charge of the excavations at East Oakhurst. Sylvene joined his team about three years ago… just after they found the remains of the Saxon village.”
      Victoria shook her head. “It’s no good… I don’t understand what all this has got to do with Sylvene disappearing.”
      “That’s easy,” Ben said. “She’s done it before. She gets an idea into her head and that’s the last you see of her for hours… sometimes even days. We could go and have a look…”
      Victoria shook her head. “Leave here… no? That would be crazy. Suppose she came back? She wouldn’t know where we’d gone.”
      “Victoria’s right… it’s not practical.”
      “Why not?” Ben stared at Jonathan. When there was no answer he rolled his eyes. “Okay, I get it… you two don’t want to come. That’s fine. It’s up to you. But I’m going anyway.” He walked across to a rough track zigzagging up the slope, hesitated and took a few steps back. “Are you quite sure you won’t come?” he said flapping at a fly buzzing his head.
      Jonathan glanced at Victoria. She shook her head. “Quite sure, thanks,” he called. “We’ll tell Sylvene where you’ve gone when she returns.”
      “When she returns… ha ha… very funny! Okay… but if you change your mind follow that path. We can’t be more than a couple of miles from East Oakhurst.”
***
Victoria stood quite still gazing down into the glade. By her reckoning a good half an hour had passed since Ben had left and there was still no sign of Sylvene. She looked down at Jonathan stretched out on the grassy slope and nudged him with her toe. “What are we going to do?”
      “Do? Nothing!” He closed his eyes, enjoying the warmth of the sun on his face. “She’ll turn up soon. She’s got to – I’m starving and the picnic’s in the car.”
      “But suppose she doesn’t… come I mean?”
      He opened his eyes and squinted at Victoria. “Then we’ll have to go after Ben.” He scowled. “And won’t he crow? Oh, who cares… just relax. Try and look on the bright side.”
      “What bright side?”
      “Well for one thing it’s stopped raining.”
      “Oh!” Victoria peered up at the sky. “So it has. When did that happen?” She glanced across at the car park and her frown returned. “That’s odd…”
      “What now,” said Jonathan?
      “The coaches… they’ve all gone… I didn’t see them leave… did you?”
      “No. Does it matter?” He yawned. “Those sort of tours always have a pretty tight schedule, twenty minutes here, half an hour there. If we stay around long enough we’re bound to see the next
batch arrive.”
      “Perhaps… but Jonathan, I can’t see any cars either.”
      He sat up. “No cars…you know what that means? Sylvene must have... hey… Victoria… wait…”
      “Sorry… horses… coming this way,” she called continuing to run down the slope.
      “Horses? Are you sure? I can’t hear anyt…oh!” Jonathan jumped up as the jingle of harness filled the air.
      Victoria turned and grinned. “What do you call that… the wind in the trees?”
      He smiled at her wryly. “Don’t get too excited. It’s probably only one horse…”
      “I don’t care how many there are. Horses mean people. Whoever’s with them might be able to tell us how to get back to the camp.”
      “Back to the camp? I thought we said we’d go after Ben.”
      “No! You said that. I didn’t,” Victoria said stubbornly. “I’m fed up with hanging around waiting for those two. If I’ve got to walk a couple of miles I’m going back to the camp not somewhere I’d never heard of until today. At least there I can have a shower and something to eat. Sylvene brought loads of food with her… oh look… here they come…”
      Waving her arms above her head she stepped into the middle of the path. The driver of the horse and cart that had just emerged from the trees stared at her then pulled his hood over his head, hunched his shoulders and whipped the horse into an unwilling canter driving it straight at Victoria.
      “Victoria, look out.” Horrified, Jonathan raced down the hill as, with a cry of alarm she flung herself off the path. Tailboard rattling and swaying from side to side, the cart careered past her, spitting a trail of dust and small pebbles into the air.
      “Ouch!” Victoria dropped to her knees clasping her forehead with both hands. A trickle of blood oozed through her fingers.
      “What happened… are you all right?”
      She smiled wanly at Jonathan, her face white. “A stone… it’s all right, I’m fine. But oh… it did
hurt.”
      She held out her hands. He pulled her to her feet.
      “You’re going to have an awful bruise,” he said touching her forehead lightly.
     She winced. “He wasn’t very friendly was he?” she said as the cart disappeared into a line of firs at the top of the ridge.
      “No… he wasn’t,” Jonathan said fiddling with the chain he wore that had got caught in the hair on the nape of his neck.
      “Why do you think he didn’t stop? We only wanted to ask the way.”
      “I’ve no idea. Just forget about it, it’s not worth worrying about,” Jonathan said softly. “Let’s decide what we’re going to do. Shall we go after Ben or back to the camp?”
      “We could stay here. Wait for Sylvene to come back.”
      Jonathan shook his head. “I don’t think there’s any point. Surely if she was going to she’d have done it by now.”
      Victoria looked at him. “Then I guess we’d better go after Ben,” she said reluctantly.
***
“I hope this is the way to East Oakhurst,” said Jonathan walking slowly past a single oak tree by the side of the path.
      Victoria shivered, her eyes wide and anxious. “Do you think Ben could be wrong?” Her voice shook a little.
      Jonathan frowned. “Possibly. No wait a minute, that’s rubbish. Don’t listen to me. I’ve never been here before and he obviously has. So I guess he’s probably right…”
      “Yes, and as long as we don’t leave this path we should be able to find our way back...” Victoria’s voice trailed away.
      Lost in their own thoughts they walked slowly along the track snaking up the side of the hill.
At the line of firs they hesitated, suddenly conscious of an eerie stillness. They looked back. The glade appeared unnaturally empty. Seeing the strain on Victoria’s face Jonathan smiled reassuringly despite his own concerns.
            A thick carpet of needles muffled their footsteps. The air was damp and chilly. When the firs began to thin out and were replaced by beech trees and oaks a dappled light fell across the track. Leaves rustled underfoot.
      They’d been walking for sometime when a piercing screech stopped them in their tracks. Victoria clutched Jonathan. “What was that?” she whispered, her face pale.
      He grinned with relief as a second screech broke the silence. “A pheasant,” he said and they walked on, deeper into the wood.
      The trees were now much larger and thicker, the light dimmer. Silence dominated their surroundings broken only by an occasional call of a bird flitting from tree to tree.
      Away in the distance came a harsh cry.
      Jonathan turned to Victoria. “Did you hear that?”
      She nodded.
      “It sounded like a hunting horn but I don’t see how it can be… it’s the wrong time of year.” Frowning, he walked on.
      Victoria followed a little way behind.
      When light began to filter through the canopy of leaves again Jonathan glanced upwards. “We must be coming out,” he said, relieved.
      Victoria grinned idiotically at his back. “Thank goodness…”
      “Ssh!”
      She bit her lip and waited.
      “Hounds,” Jonathan said. “I can hear hounds baying… nearby.” He turned and grabbed her arm almost jerking her off her feet.
      Side by side they raced towards an opening ahead.
      Together they flew out of the shadows into the sunshine and skidded to a stop. For as far as they could see a carpet of purple heather spread across the Forest, broken only by an occasional copse of trees and patches of gorse. A string of hillocks drew their gaze to the horizon.
      A second cry from the hunting horn broke the spell.
      They leaned over the edge of the ridge and peered into the valley below. A group of horsemen was circling a tangle of brambles, beating the flaps of their saddles with the handles of their whips. Hounds milled between the horses’ legs, whining noisily. One huntsman cracked his whip urging the pack into the undergrowth. Almost immediately a stag broke cover.
      Two riders spurred their horses forward forcing the terrified animal further into the open. At full gallop, the deer raced along the valley, horses and riders on either side, hounds in full cry. Suddenly it darted to the right, leapt a fallen tree, and raced across the open heathland hotly pursued by baying hounds.
      Before long all that remained of the hunt and its quarry was a thin ribbon of dust floating slowly upwards.
      “I’m sure something is wrong,” Jonathan whispered.
      “Wrong… What do you mean? Why do you think something’s wrong?”
      “The hunt… it’s only just August and they’re hunting…”
      “Does it matter?”
      “August…” He shook his head. “No… forget it. Let’s get going. At this rate we’re never going to reach East Oakhurst.”
      “How long have you lived on a farm?” asked Victoria as they walked slowly down the side of the hill?
      “All my life. Where do you live?”
      “London. I’d like to live in the country but my Dad’s work is in London.” She tilted her head and slowed a little. “Jonathan is it my imagination, or can I hear running water?”
      Jonathan smiled slowly. “Well, if it isn’t running water, I’m imagining it as well. Look down there…”
      Victoria followed the line of his arm. On the bottom of the valley floor the sun glinted on sprays of water bubbling out from under a huge boulder. She licked her lips.
      Jonathan grinned. “You’re thinking what I’m thinking!”
      She grinned back and nodded. Together they leapt off the track, skidded down the side of the hill on their bottoms and landed in a giggling, tangled heap by the mouth of a stream. Lying on their stomachs they sucked up mouthfuls of the delicious, icy water trickling over a bed of pebbles.
      “That was so good.” Victoria sat up and fastened the band around her ponytail more securely. “I hadn’t realised how thirsty I was.”
      Jonathan rolled on to his back and she giggled. “Your t-shirt’s covered in mud.”
      Jonathan laughed. “You can’t talk. So’s yours… are you ready?”
      She nodded.
      “Good, let’s get on then.”
***
“You know this is the longest two miles I’ve ever walked,” Victoria complained. “It’s hours since we
left the Rufus Stone.” She glanced at her wrist. “How strange… my watch says twelve o’clock. It can’t
possibly be. It was twelve o’clock when we got to the car park. What time do you make it?”
      “It’s… that’s odd… mine says twelve o’clock as well.” Jonathan tapped the face of his watch.
      The track had now become a man-made barrier between open heathland and a river. On the far side of the river was a field of waist-high corn.
      Jonathan stared. A line of men were walking across the field cutting the corn… with scythes! “Victoria…” he gasped.
      “What?”
      “I’m… er… beginning to think something really odd has happened…”
      “It doesn’t matter.” She pointed. “Over there… houses.” She broke into a trot, burbling happily. “Ben must have known what he was talking about but I think he was wrong about the distance – it was more like four miles than two – don’t you think?”
      “Yesss…” Jonathan stared at the row of low thatched roofs nestling beneath the hill at the edge of the corn field. “If this is East Oakhurst.”
      Victoria stumbled and shot him a startled glance.
      “What?”
      “I’ll explain later,” he said stepping on to a rickety bridge.
      But as they headed along what was obviously the main street he became more and more convinced that this wasn’t an ordinary village. The houses, if you could call them houses, were squalid. Some needed the roofs re-thatching, others had gaping holes in their walls. Surely no one could actually live in them?
      He jumped as Victoria brushed against him. “You know this place is creepy,” she whispered. “Where is everyone? I don’t think I like it here…” A loud shout broke the silence. Relief flooded into her eyes and she pointed: “Voices – over there.”
      Running swiftly they rounded a corner and stopped.
      Six or seven men were walking around the churchyard scything the grass.
      “Let’s ask them the way to the ‘dig’,” said Jonathan pushing open the gate.
      But before they could enter the churchyard a tall figure marched down the path towards them calling: “Qui êtes vous?”