'The Shadows of the Night'
Usher shivered, sneezed and then wiped a long smear of snot on the grass beside him before returning his attention to the hawthorn branch.
‘It’s going to rain again,’ observed Cal gloomily. ‘Do you think we have enough dry wood for the fire later?’
‘Wood we have. All we need is to catch something to cook over it and we’ll be sorted for tonight.’ Meryn pulled his line in, inspected the offered worm, and then cast it out into the pond again. Thunder rumbled in the distance and a chill breeze chased ripples across the surface of the pond.
‘I don’t remember comfy,’ sniffed Cal. ‘My fingers are too cold to tie this stupid thing. Usher...’
‘In a minute, I’m nearly done.’ Usher sneezed again then dragged his sleeve across his nose.
‘What are you messing about with, boy, didn’t you ever fish before?’
Usher glanced up at the grinning face of Meryn Link and decided to ignore him. The knack of tying a hawthorn hook was firstly to cut it from the branch properly, which he had now carefully done, and then to make sure that you tied not one, but two parts of the thorn securely, that way the fish wouldn’t be able to pull free of the line when it was snagged. It wasn’t easy, especially when the line you were using was strips of thin bark platted patiently by the light of a campfire. Of course, Meryn had produced a carefully rolled line of platted horsehair for his own use, along with some well-carved bone hooks, which was the reason he was putting on that superior air – it was really beginning to annoy Usher.
‘Pass me a worm,’ he said, still concentrating on flattening his final knot.
Cal poked about in the muddy bowl and produced a fat worm that curled and rolled lazily in his fingers.
Usher glanced over. ‘Do you have a smaller one? One of those red ones? They move a lot better.’
Cal sorted through; inspecting the various worms they had found and finally saw what Usher was looking for. He passed it over then returned to setting up his own line. The hawthorn kept pricking his fingers as he tried to tie it but his hands were so cold he couldn’t feel a thing anyway.
‘You two really think you’ll catch anything? I would have leant you one of my good bone hooks, but ...’
‘We’ll be fine,’ interrupted Usher. ‘Why don’t you just concentrate on your own line.’ Satisfied the worm was firmly lodged on his thorn, he hefted the rolled line and swung the wriggling offering close to a patch of ragged lily pads, close to where a stream of bubbles had just broken the surface.
‘You’ll be into a tench if you put your worm there. Nasty taste, all mud ’n slime they are.’
Usher glanced across at Meryn, and then back at where his line was slowly disappearing below the cold green surface of the pond. He was too cold and miserable to answer.
‘I’m so hungry,’ muttered Cal. ‘I’m sick of porridge and dry old oat cakes. We have to catch a fish.’ He shivered and blew on his hands trying to revive some feeling so he could tie his line round the fiddly thorn.
‘Don’t eat them worms, boy.’
‘I won’t eat the worms, Meryn. But I’d eat a tench if usher catches one.’
‘Nasty muddy things, tench. Summer fish, sit at the bottom eating all the stuff other fish drop or can’t get hold of ... and they eat the stuff the other fish ...’
‘Well then catch something else. We’ve not eaten anything decent in days. If we catch a tench then Usher and I can ...’ Cal jumped up. ‘Usher, your line!’
Usher’s line pulled tight against his fingers and quickly began moving round to the left. He yanked it hard and felt the satisfying pumping of a fish fighting for its life on the other end. It was trying to get back into the lilies and he knew he had to turn it. Ignoring the pain as the line bit into his hand, he concentrated on trying to coax it out into open water.
‘Don’t let it get caught up.’ Cal flung himself down flat in the mud and hung over the edge of the pond ready to help get the fish out.
‘It’ll only be a tench,’ muttered Meryn. Usher continued to ignore him.
‘Here it comes, Cal, get it,’ cried Usher. He stood, careful not to slip down the bank into the icy water and drew more line in. With a flap that sent a spray of water up onto Meryn, the fish broke surface and rolled on its side, exhausted, one beady red eye looking up at him.
‘Get it, Cal.’
Braving the cold water, Cal scooped the slippery green fish up and it flopped and flapped in his hands, for a moment, it looked like he was going to drop it, but then he turned away from the water hugging it to his chest and grinned up at Usher. Meryn peered across and shook his head. ‘Tis a tench’
‘We eat!’ exclaimed Cal, smiling up at Usher.
‘We eat, but maybe Meryn would rather eat more stone-hard oatcakes? Come on, Meryn, catch us something else.’
‘I Will, boy. I’m not beaten yet.’
Sometime later, as the setting sun was making a brief appearance below gathering clouds, a tench stew was cooking over the fire. Three tench had been caught – two by Usher, the other by Cal. They had washed them of slime and then cleaned the flesh thoroughly before putting them in the pot. No other fish had been caught, and for once, Meryn had to grudgingly admit defeat – the stew was delicious.
It rained in the night but beneath a shelter of reeds, Usher slept with a full stomach and woke with enough energy to meet the day, even if it was a day that started with weapons training.
See below for the Prologue to Shadowland.