Red-haired Margaret

Photograph by Felix Sproll, Story by Roger Hardenne

Corfe castle - Felix Sproll.jpg

King Arthur’s last battle was fought at Lyonesse in a death-white mist.

At the end of the day, Padraic hid in an animal’s hollow beneath a thorn bush, a length of grey fleece hanging from one of its branches. He drove his face into the soil to smother his screams while around him scavengers were pillaging the dead and dying. At length he lost consciousness.

 

When Padraic woke, he was in a bed. The wound to his thigh had been dressed and on a small table beside him were bread, and water so pure that it must have come from a spring. He slept again, and that’s how it was for several days: a little refreshment and a long sleep.

    He was aware of only one visitor – a red-haired young woman, perhaps twenty years old, his own age. She didn’t speak except to give her name: Margaret.

    The room was built of dark stones, one wall hung with a tapestry of hunting scenes. When Padraic was strong enough he hobbled to the window to see below him only the mist rolling and turning. He could hear ravens croaking and from somewhere in the mist came the jingle of plough harness and the calls of men working the land.

    Padraic wondered about his cousin, Ruadhri. He was certain he had killed him in that last fight where friend and foe were shadows in the mist. Neither had recognised the other until it was too late; Padraic had driven his short sword into his cousin’s neck and received the wound to his thigh.

 

When Padraic explored beyond the room he came to precipitous drops where walls had fallen away or a flight of stone steps led to an abyss. He was a prisoner.

    He didn’t know how Margaret came into the room. Sometimes she brought things he might need without having been asked: a wooden crutch, and at last a small harp. How could she know he was a harpist?

    He didn’t touch the instrument. He was heart-sick, a prisoner and the slayer of his first cousin.

    There was a new scent in the room. The harp’s frame smelled of the woods of Connacht, and Padraic could almost feel the soft rain. After a day looking at the instrument he tested the strings. Soon he was sitting on a chair with the harp on his lap, recalling the simpler tunes. Ruadhri should have been with him: what a pair of harpists they had been.

    Ah well, he couldn’t undo what had been done.

 

Their families had begged them to stay on the farms where life was good, not to seek fortune across the sea.

‘We are sixteen,’ Padraic had replied, ‘time to spread our wings.’

‘We shall become the most famous harpists in England,’ said Ruadhri as they set off to walk across Ireland for a boat.

‘France, too,’ added Padraic, waving goodbye.

 

Padraic thought about his family. At first he had sent them news of their good welcome at Arthur’s court, but as time went on and all the talk was of rebellion and war, he sent less and less. He should tell them about Ruadhri, without revealing it was his sword that had struck the blow.

    He asked Margaret if she would have a letter written for him. She shook her head.

    She was coming more frequently to his cell, singing in a deep voice that complemented the light tone of his harping. She told of his regrets; how he wished he had never left the farm; how he yearned to drive the black cattle to market.

It was unearthly how she could choose words which he had thought but not spoken – but then she was unearthly, not of the world in which he had lived. If it weren’t that he could see sky and clouds above him, he would have given up all hope.

 

When Padraic had been in his cell for exactly a year Margaret laid her hand across the harp so that he had to stop playing.

    ‘You must be prepared to travel,’ she said.

    ‘Will you come with me?’

‘Some of the way.’

‘All of the way. Please.’

Margaret led him out of the cell and into one of the rooms where two walls were missing. She touched a stone on the third wall so that part of it swivelled to reveal a passage and a flight of stairs down.

Through arrow slits Padraic could see that they had descended into the mist. Then it seemed they were below the ground.

‘I can’t see,’ said Padraic.

‘You must hold this,’ replied Margaret, unpinning her red hair so that it fell below her waist. But after twenty minutes she turned her head from side to side so sharply that he had to let go. Now I am doomed, he thought, as he heard her light step disappear.

He felt his way along the black passage until he fancied he saw a pinprick of light in the distance. Surely this was just his disordered senses.

No. He could smell beasts and manure. He came out blinking into the field beside his uncle’s farmyard.

 

Padraic’s legs became roots, his body a slim trunk, his arms the branches of a rowan tree. His berries were the eyes through which he saw his younger self and Ruadhri leaving for England. All the family was there, the mothers weeping, the fathers making the best of it.

The boys walked away from their families to the rowan tree.

‘I can’t do this,’ said Ruadhri.

‘No more can I,’ said Padraic.

 They returned through the farm gate, put down their packs and re-joined their families.

A slip of a girl had been holding herself back near the byre. Red-haired Margaret. She walked up to Ruadhri and kissed him on the neck, and she smiled at young Padraic.

What a voice this girl was going to have. There would be none to match her in Connacht, none to match the three of them in Ireland.

Roger Hardenne has spent most of his working life in book publishing and video production. Early employers included George Allen & Unwin and Cassell & Co. He went on to found Old Pond Publishing, specialising in books and DVDs for enthusiasts in the rural sector. In 2014 he sold the company to 5m Publishing of Sheffield.

    Roger has co-authored two non-fiction books with David Kindred, compiling and interpreting the photographs of the Titshall Brothers. In a Long Day and Just a Moment portray farm work and country life from 1925 to 1935.

    Angels Rising and Descending is Roger’s first fiction manuscript, a blighted love affair between two women in Victorian England. He lives in Suffolk.

Felix Sproll is a self taught photographer from the West of Ireland. He specialises in  landscape photography. You can find him here - @felix.sproll

© 2016 A Thousand Word Photos

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