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Deleted scene: Ghost Stories at the Cross Roads from 'The Red Hand'

2 years ago

With the The Hunter of Sherwood: The Red Hand by Toby Venables OUT NOW worldwide we thought we'd give you a sneak peek this week at some of our director's cut:

Ghost stories at the crossroads

The road to Berughby – 15 May, 1193


It was strange to see the Prince outside of his normal confines. Evidently the Prince himself found it strange, too – but he wore it like liberation. Gisburne had feared John would feel vulnerable and exposed on the open road. Instead, he seemed filled with a child-like delight.

“This is the life,” he said with a sigh and a beaming smile. Gisburne and Galfrid exchanged a secret look, and Galfrid stifled a snigger. But, raising his eyes and looking about him, Gisburne felt the Prince was right. The afternoon sun was bright and warm, the breeze ruffling the trees cool and fragrant. The sky was blue and dotted with white scudding clouds. Bees buzzed. Birds sang. They were in no hurry and there was no one to pay them any heed, all troubles – for the moment – forgotten.

Yes, this was the life.

Gisburne began to realise that this was the longest time he had ever spent in Prince John’s company. So often, it was a matter of an hour or two, centred on intense discussions of the latest pressing matter. Now, free of the burdens of duty and status, Gisburne saw John as the young man he really was. Such were the responsibilities thrust upon a prince from the moment of birth, that youth – an entire phase of life – was bypassed. Gisburne had to remind himself that John was still only twenty-six.

John rode with ease – a natural. One could ride for hours that way and not tire – but Gisburne had never had any doubts about the Prince’s stamina for the journey. Whilst hardly the strapping physical specimen presented by his great brother – Richard had inherited the imposing height of his mother Eleanor, whilst John had got his father’s barrel-shaped body – John was far from the effete wastrel that his opponents painted him. Not only was he surprisingly robust, he also had his father Henry’s inexhaustible energy. Out on a dawn hunt, Gisburne knew, John would have left his critics standing – would, in fact, still be urging his horse on at sundown when they were fit to drop. John’s fault, if he had one, was that this energy so frequently went unchannelled. He had sometimes wondered what it was that so attracted John to the hunt. It wasn’t the thirst for blood or competition – the Prince enjoyed it just as much if his quarry effected a bold escape. Nor was it the company, nor the need to assert himself before others – he would just as well go alone. Today, Gisburne understood. It was the freedom.

 

 

At the crossroads near Berughby, the promised inn came into sight. It presented a very different aspect from the last – newly built, freshly whitewashed, a huge pile of logs at one end and curls of smoke drifting from the chimneys. It was backed by thick forest and set back from the road, and before it, on a large stretch of grass, were various barrels and benches, among which a few weary customers were already sitting. A little way from it, close to the place where the two roads crossed, was the blasted stump of what had once been a great tree.

They dismounted and led their horses to the long trough next to the log pile. The animals drank thirstily. As Galfrid went ahead to arrange lodgings and food and Gisburne hung feedbags about the horse’s heads, John wandered out to the stump and sat himself upon it. The blackened wood presented a perfect seat – almost flat on top, but with a large, wedge-shaped projection that had split off the main trunk, which now served as a backrest.

Gisburne did not take his eye off the Prince. As soon as he was done, he moved to join him, his eyes scanning the handful of guests as he passed. He’d rather leave their valuables with the horses than leave John unaccompanied. But none took any interest beyond the occasional nod or smile as he caught their eye. No one here was looking for any trouble – certainly not with the likes of him.

“Not exactly a throne,” said Gisburne as he stood alongside.

“One takes what one can get,” said John with a wry smile, and sat back, looking out across the road and fields beyond as if it were his new domain.

As he did so, Galfrid returned from the inn. “We’re in luck,” he said. “Plenty of room for the night, the food is wholesome and I can vouch for the ale.” He wiped his lips. “There’s a good smoked ham and some fine aged cheese. Unless...” he looked at the Prince, suddenly uncertain.

“Unless...?” said Gisburne.

“Unless we mean to observe the fast,” said Galfrid. “It is Whitsunday Eve.”

Gisburne looked at Galfrid, then at the Prince, then back again. “What’s the alternative?”

“Vegetable and bean pottage,” said Galfrid. They stood in silence for a moment.

“Well, if no one else is going to say it, I will,” said John. “I demand ham and cheese, even if it means eternal damnation.”

“And the landlord will serve it?” asked Gisburne.

“I caught him picking at the ham,” said Galfrid. “He’ll serve it.”

Gisburne nodded. “Ham and cheese it is, then.”

John clapped his hands, rubbed them together in satisfaction, then stretched out his legs with a contented sigh. “Let’s sit out a while. It’s still early, and the night is mild. Have the food brought out here.”

The last was issued as a command. Though spoken without any hint of harshness or disdain, it was a sudden reminder that John was unused to doing things for himself. Gisburne looked at Galfrid and gave a shrug, then, looking about, headed towards the log pile. He returned with two stout logs, each long enough and wide enough to sit upon, and set them down before John. Galfrid, meanwhile, tamped down the grass within the rough triangle formed by the three improvised seats, then headed off to fetch their bags as Gisburne dumped down another armful of logs in the space.

“What’s this?” said John, with a bemused smile.

“For the fire,” said Gisburne, heading off to fetch kindling.

“But it’s not even cold!” protested John.

“It will be,” called Gisburne.

 

 

An hour later, as the sun was dwindling to a thin slash of blood red across the horizon and the air was growing cool, they were sitting around the cheering blaze, eating bread, ham and cheese and drinking good ale. Galfrid had not been wrong about that. Gisburne had learned that the squire was never wrong where drink was concerned. Several of their fellow patrons that evening had looked askance at the ham and cheese as it passed by, then turned back gloomily to their meatless pottage. But Gisburne didn’t care. He didn’t really think God did, either. The fire popped, the flames bathing their faces with its warm light, the air fragrant with woodsmoke. Crows called distantly in the cooling air. From somewhere deep in the wood, an owl hooted.

These were the simplest of pleasures – but, right now, they seemed worth more than all the riches on earth. Gisburne withdrew his knife from the flames and ate the piece of smoked ham and melted cheese off its point. As the fragrant morsel hit his tongue – almost too hot for it – he felt a kind of rapture.

There had been only one curious thing to mar the idyll of the evening. They had been awaiting the arrival of their food. Galfrid had just struck a spark upon a tuft of wool from his flint and steel – a process that had much fascinated John – and the fire was beginning to crackle into life. They had suddenly been aware of a figure standing motionless, some fifteen yards from them – a scrawny looking man with long, lank hair. The sallow skin of his face was deeply pitted by a strange pattern of scarring – a relic of some childhood ailment, Gisburne supposed. From the recognition on Galfrid’s face, Gisburne surmised this was the innkeeper – though none of them had seen him approach.

“Begging your gentlemen’s pardon,” he began.

“No need to beg,” said John cheerfully. “Come closer and enjoy our fire.”

The man did not move. “I come only to say that since you are to be guests beneath my roof tonight, you should know that I shall be bolting the doors before turning in.”

“Bolting?” said John, with some surprise, and looked right and left along the length of the road. “Are there outlaws hereabouts?”

“Not outlaws,” said the innkeeper. For a moment, it seemed the man was to say nothing more, but after a lengthy pause he added: “There are things I would rather keep outside.”

John nodded as if all made perfect sense. The innkeeper returned the nod awkwardly, then turned and sloped away.

John raised his eyebrows. “Well, it appears we are to be kept secure tonight.”

Gisburne was not apt to criticise anyone for the way they wished to keep their house. If the man wished to lock his doors, or throw them wide open, or ride about naked on a pig, that was his own concern. What struck him, though, was the man’s expression as he had addressed them – inexplicably hovering between anger and fear.

While these thoughts had played in Gisburne’s head, a maidservant – the innkeeper’s daughter, Gisburne guessed – had brought the food out to them upon a board. It had apparently taken some persuasion on Galfrid’s part to secure this small service, and she had seemed nervous as she approached – something to do with it being a fast day, perhaps. In softened mood this night, had felt a pang of sympathy for the girl, and attempted a reassuring smile – then had caught sight of the innkeeper watching from the doorway, his face now creased into scowl, and reined it in. The girl, her face flushed, had, at any rate, not been encouraged by Gisburne’s effort – nor by John’s cheery exclamation of delight. Still looking unaccountably perplexed, she had stopped some ten yards from where they sat, and – as if afraid to break their circle, or even approach it – had set the board down where she stood.

John had frowned at that. With a laugh and a hand extended in paternalistic welcome, he had urged: “A little closer, if you please! We’ve only just got comfortable...” The girl looked panicked, lifted the board, advanced it all of one foot, and scurried away, her eyes fixed on the ground. The innkeeper scooped her into the open doorway, and slammed the door.

Galfrid had given a heavy sigh, then, and – heaving himself up on cracking knees – brought the food the rest of the way.

“Are we really so terrifying?” mused John

“You just can’t get the staff these days,” Galfrid muttered, then shot Gisburne a glance as if expecting some jibe at his expense. Gisburne suppressed a smile, and said not a word.

 

 

“So,” said John, tearing at a piece of bread, “things I would rather keep outside... What do you make of that?”

Gisburne shrugged. “It’s a busy highway. People passing through day after day. That makes you wary, even if he says there are no outlaws.”

“But things,” said John, pointing his knife to emphasise the word. “Not people. Things...”

An image of the Red Hand – or some mockery of it, all reptilian scales and plumes of fire – came unbidden into Gisburne’s mind. He realised only then, as the attendant anxieties gripped him, that the matter had been out of his thoughts for most of the day.

“The black dog,” piped up Galfrid, matter-of-factly, without looking up. Both companions turned and stared at him as the squire folded a slice of ham into his mouth.

“A dog?” said John with a bemused frown.

“Black dog,” said Galfrid.

John snorted dismissively. “It’d take more than some stray barker to have me quaking in my bed – black, white or green.”

Galfrid shook his head. “It is no ordinary dog, but the unearthly kind.”

Gisburne gave a spluttering laugh and slapped his knee, but Galfrid’s face did not crack.

“Surely you’ve heard of the gigantic black hound that prowls the roads at night? Hideous. Ghostly. Eyes like fire. Death following in his wake. Black Shuck they call him out east. Padfoot up north. Skryker. Barguest. He’s got many a name. But everywhere you go, you’ll hear tell of him, and the places to be watchful. Lonely thoroughfares. Near water. Where gibbets stand. By crossroads especially.” He glanced across at the place where the two roads met. Gisburne and John looked towards it, then at each other.

“A gigantic hound?” said John with an incredulous laugh.

“Big as a calf,” nodded Galfrid.

“And you think our innkeeper bolts his door against such a ravening beast?”

Galfrid shook his head. “He’s no ravening creature. Not this one. He’s no need. One has only to touch him to be struck dead. But there’s more than that to him, too. Shuck is a portent of doom. He knows who death will strike – or himself brings it upon them, I know not which. Sniffs them out, senses the stink of the grave on them. Even the traveller who survives an encounter is forever cursed with ill luck from that day on.” Galfrid leaned closer to the Prince, eyes wide, then turned towards the surrounding dark. “And he’s out there, somewhere, right now. You can bet your life on it...”

Gisburne glared at Galfrid across the fire. Considering John’s current predicament, this was not in the best of taste. Galfrid caught the look, and to Gisburne’s surprise, winked at him. John, meanwhile, sat forward, wildly amused.

“And you’ve seen this Padfoot, have you?” he asked.

“Not myself,” said Galfrid. “But I know plenty who have.”

“Well, there we have it,” said John. He sat back on his blackened throne and turned to Gisburne. “Have you ever noticed how you never meet the person who has actually seen such a ghostly terror themselves, only ever the one who heard it from someone else? They’re like a priest’s promises – always around the next corner.” Both he and Gisburne, their spirits warmed by the ale, chuckled at Galfrid’s expense. “Believe me, my mind is open to such things, Squire Galfrid. I’ve heard many a strange and wonderful tale. Yet never have I seen with my own eyes these ghouls and restless corpses that we forever hear about – far less some hellhound.”

“Nor I,” said Gisburne, and shot Galfrid a smile of perverse satisfaction.

Galfrid held Gisburne’s gaze, his face giving nothing away. “Well, there is one thing I did see,” he said. John’s ears pricked up again, and his eyes narrowed. “Did I ever tell of the time I met Wakeful Mary?”

“If she’s the one who kept you up all night in Soissons, I don’t want to hear it,” said Gisburne.

John cackled with laughter. Galfrid looked aggrieved. “Wakeful Mary has been dead these past hundred years and more,” he said in protest. “But if you don’t want to hear it...” And he sat back with a shrug.

“No, no!” said John. “We do want to hear it. In all its gory detail... It is Whitsun Eve, when we await the descent of the Holy Spirit, and this our vigil. What better entartainment tonight than a ghost story around the fire? Pray continue, Squire Galfrid.” And he rubbed his hands in delight.

“Well, then...” Galfrid leaned towards the fire, spat into it, and began. “It was back when I was a young squire – to a knight named Godbert. He was the pious sort. Fancied himself a potential Templar. In fact, it was whilst travelling to Dunwiche to visit an acquaintance at the Templar church there – one he thought might help further this ambition – that these events took place.”

John leaned in closer. Gisburne, in spite of himself, did the same. Galfrid paused to poke the fire with a stick, making sparks fly up, then brushed his hands together.

“Well, the road from Snape to Dunwiche is a lonely one, and it is not uncommon for parties who have to travel after dark to join together for company. So it was with us. At Snape bridge we were joined by two pilgrims, also heading for Dunwiche, fearful of what they might encounter upon the journey. Godbert was more than happy to offer protection for honest pilgrims against thieves or robbers – it was as if he were a Templar already. It was not until we were well on our way that they finally admitted what it was that really terrified them.

“Well, the old Snape road is a funny old road. Many will tell you they’ve seen things upon it. But the worst of these – the very worst – was the baleful creature known as Wakeful Mary. No one could say how it was she died. All anyone knew was that she would not lie in her grave, and that she had a vicious hatred of the living. If ever she heard a wayfarer upon that stretch of road at night – especially if he had the nerve to be singing a good Christian hymn – she would come screaming at him, her hair flying, her furious eyes wide as pot-lids. So terrible a sight was she that some dropped dead on the spot out of sheer fright.

“Our companions related how they themselves had witnessed such a thing when last they had travelled upon the road. On that occasion, they had been with a monk. All three had been warned at an inn to make no sound upon the road, and such was the innkeeper’s expression that for a long time they dutifully maintained their silence for fear of inciting Mary’s wrath. But then, just as they were about to pass from Mary’s realm and beginning to feel themselves safe, the monk found himself unable to resist humming an Alleluya under his breath...” Galfrid paused and looked into the eyes of the Prince, rapt by the story. His voice had lowered to little more than a husky murmur.

“Hurtling out of the dark she came, flying the length of the road, her scream so horrible it tore at their ears. Our companions threw themselves flat upon the ground in terror. As one looked up, the stink of decay in his nostrils, he saw the monk trying to grapple with the shrieking cadaver, crying out prayers as he did so. But his fingers sank helplessly into her flesh, and his words just enraged her the more. The pilgrim saw her bony talons wrap about the monk’s throat, stifling the sound, then covered his eyes in horror. He heard the monk thud to the ground between them, stone dead. They lay there huddled against his corpse for an hour or more after the terrible sound subsided, not once daring to look up. When finally they did, they hurried away in horrified silence, leaving the poor monk where he fell.

“Hearing this, Godbert was suddenly emboldened. Good Christian knight that he was, he resolved to rid the road of this unclean pest once and for all. He returned to Snape and roused a priest, and demanded to be taken to the tomb which was said to hold poor Mary’s bones. She was to be laid to rest, either by benediction or the sword.

“And so the five of us went in solemn silence, the priest leading, and at length left the road altogether onto a far older track, through clinging gorse and bracken. I wondered what kind of graveyard this must lead to, there being no church visible for miles around, but I did not dare utter. Finally we came to the spot – a bleak, lonely place – and I realised this was no Christian burial ground. All around were earthen mounds – ancient graves, from pagan times – and all amongst them a low mist swirled about. There was dark menace in every stone and stalk of that bleak moor. Even the air felt dead. Looking back the way we had come, I could no longer see the road – nor could I see any human light in the darkness. It was as if we had left the world behind. I turned again to see the priest’s shaking finger pointing at the largest of the mounds, within which was set a rough, stone door no higher than my chest – a work of unimaginable age.

“Immediately, without fear, Godbert went to the door, thinking to force it open. He had barely touched it when the stone sprang open of its own accord. There was no doubt now that the shrieking monster slumbered within.” Galfrid’s voice dropped further, to a barely audible whisper, as if still afraid to wake her. John leaned in closer from the edge of his throne, the flames casting strange shadows upon his face.

“As we stooped and entered the dark tomb, none dared even to breathe. We all stepped as though upon ice, knowing that the slightest sound would rouse her. Ahead of us, in the weird light of that heathen netherworld, lay a horrible sight – a great slab of grey stone, longer than a man, hewn by unknown hands into a grim vessel. And within it lay the corpse-pale body of the hag. We crept around her, the knight ready with his sword, the priest with his words of blessing, none knowing whether either had the power to subdue the fiend...

“And then, as we bent over the ghoul’s coffin, a single dead eye opened, and... WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!”

Galfrid lunged at the Prince, hands like claws and eyes bulging. John reeled backwards in shock, bowling off his stump, legs in the air, his cup flying from his hand in a trail of frothy liquid. Gisburne leapt up in alarm. Galfrid, meanwhile, sat back and resumed his supper. Gisburne prepared to give the wayward squire Hell – or at least plead his case – before the Prince had him hauled off and executed.

Then, from the overturned figure on the grass, he heard... laughter. It rose in volume and intensity. John slapped his knees and waved his feet in the air, then rolled over, hooting with delight. He sat up, grass in his hair, near helpless with mirth, climbed to his knees and clapped Galfrid upon the shoulder. Galfrid glanced up at his master, and grinned like the Devil. Gisburne simply stood, bereft of words.

“Squire Galfrid,” laughed John, “if ever this man should give up on you” – he gestured to Gisburne – “then you are assured a place at my court as its Fool. Swear, at least, that you will come and relate that story to the king of France next time I am to meet with him...”

“Does he have a fancy for that sort of thing?” asked Galfrid, deadpan.

“No!” roared John. “Not at all! And no sense of humour either. None!” He guffawed, bent double, then gave a girlish whoop, retrieved his cup and filled it from the jug.

Gisburne sat back down upon his log, his own heart still thumping. Galfrid was either a madman with extraordinary luck, or the shrewdest judge of character in the kingdom. The Plantagenet temper was legendary. Gisburne, who found John for the most part an urbane and sanguine sort – far more prone to cutting sarcasm than outbursts of anger – had witnessed it only once. It was in response to the news that the detested William Longchamp had plans to return to England. The transformation from the man he knew had been total, and terrifying. In the space of a few minutes, red-faced and roaring like a madman, he had strewn or destroyed everything within his grasp – tearing cushions with his bear hands until they burst open and reducing a stout wooden chair to kindling.

The Prince downed his ale, then, still laughing, patted the squire once again on the shoulder and went to relieve himself by the trees. Gisburne turned and squinted into the darkness, nervous at letting John out of sight. As if in response to his fears, John began whistling a cheery tune as his urine spattered against the foliage. Gisburne turned back to Galfrid and gave a heavy sigh. “Don’t try to get a rise out of the Prince,” he said in hushed tones. “It’s a long road to London, with the Tower at the end of it...”

Galfrid shrugged and raised his eyebrows, as if to say: Who? Me? Gisburne recalled only then that Galfrid had known the Prince longer than he had.

John joined them again, still grinning from ear to ear, and spread his hands before the fire.

“Your turn,” said Galfrid, gesturing towards him with the point of his knife.

“Turn?” said John with a frown.

“To tell a story.”

“Ah...” John rubbed his hands like a fly, his eyes glittering in the firelight. “Yes,” he said. “I think I know one...” And he sat back on his strange throne once more, interlocking his fingers. “There were once three noble princes, each of quite different temperament: one shrewd but without strength; one strong but without humanity, one humane but without shrewdness. One day, they were out hunting boar in the forest, when a thick mist descended. All at once they looked about them and realised they were lost, and separated from the party. They listened out for the yapping of the hounds, but nothing could be heard. Then, from out of the forest staggered three grim corpses, the flesh of each one –”

“Heard it,” interrupted Galfrid. Gisburne glared at him once again. “The three corpses are their fathers, returned to warn them of the weaknesses of the flesh.”

Irritation flashed in John’s eyes, but immediately dissipated. He threw up his hands. “Well, it’s down to you then, Sir Guy,” he said, turning to him.

“To me?”

“One more ghost story before we retire.”

Gisburne shook his head self-consciously and shifted on his seat.

“Come now,” pressed John, “you must have heard a hundred stories in your time. Surely there’s one you could relate.”

Gisburne sat in silence for a moment. “No,” he said. “No, there isn’t.”

A sound in the surrounding darkness – now ink-black, and made even more impenetrable by the brightness of the fire – made them start. Gisburne drew his knife, and Galfrid gripped his staff.

In the blackness, something shuffled again. John put his hand to his brow, as if squinting against the sun. “Who’s there?” he called. “Show yourself.”

A figure stepped into the glow of light – just barely – and stopped a dozen yards distant. All breathed a sigh of relief at the gaunt, but familiar features.

“I’m locking up now,” said the innkeeper, his manner civil, his tone as morose as ever.

“Come closer where we can see you properly,” urged John.

The man shuffled again, awkwardly. “I’ll not do so, if it’s all the same.”

Gisburne and Galfrid looked at each other, frowning.

“Tell us then,” said John, “for you have us wondering. What is so fearful upon this road that you lock your door at night?”

The innkeeper hesitated, looking John up and down with a peculiar expression. “Not the road,” he said. “There. Where you’re sitting.” John looked down at his makeshift throne in bemusement. “That stump was the hangin’ tree, before the lightning took it,” said the innkeeper. “That was God’s judgement upon it, some say. The blackest hearts in the land writhed and choked their last breath just where you sit, spilling their badness into the ground. And so it remains, and festers. And ventures abroad, too, when the evil that grows there is of a mind. There’s none hereabouts will go near that spot, not for love nor money...”

He stopped. All sat in silence, barely daring to move.

“Now, if you gentlemen would care to come inside...” he said. “The witching hour approaches.” And with that he turned and walked briskly back into the gloom.

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