Maid Marian and The Hunter's Moon

By Hester NicEilidh


It was a crisp autumn day, with the sun shining and the smell of woodsmoke in the air. Summer's warmth had not yet deserted the greenwood, but the oak leaves were touched with copper and gold.

Friar Tuck came puffing up the path and joined the merry band gathered round the campfire.

"Hello," he chirruped, in his good natured way.

"Hello, Tuck, " replied Robin. "What puts you in such fine spirits today?"

"I'm going to visit a friend tomorrow," answered Tuck.

"Oh," said Robin. "And who might that be?"

"Brother Wilfrid, a friend from my seminary days. He's now living the life of a hermit in a stone hut near St. Audrey's Hill. Tomorrow is the feast day of St. Luke, and I thought I would celebrate the feast with Wilfrid and stay the night at his cell."

"May I travel along with you, Tuck? asked Marian. "I had intended to pay a visit to the Virgin's Well tomorrow, and it's close by St. Audrey's Hill. There's a cave there that some of the holy sisters from Kirklees use as a retreat when they want to meditate in solitude. The entrance is barred by an iron gate, but the abbess told me where to find the key if ever I wanted to seek refuge there. After visiting the well, I can stay the night locked securely in the retreat, then meet you back by the well at dawn and we can travel home together."

"I'd love to have your company on my journey, Little Flower, " smiled Tuck.

"Do you mind being without me for one night, Robin?" asked Marian.

"I'll miss you, my heart, but I won't stand in the way of your spiritual needs. Go with Tuck and enjoy your retreat. I dare say you could use a night of solitude after so many months of listening to these louts snore around the campfire," Robin jested.

"As it turns out," continued Robin, "the rest of us may be camped quite near. We're going on a hunt tomorrow, and the forest around St. Audrey's Hill has plenty of game. We could journey with you part way, then part company at midday."

"A splendid idea!" said Tuck.

The next day dawned fine and clear, and the outlaws set out on their trek. All carried a bow and quiver slung across their backs, and a sword or knife at their sides, even Marian and Tuck, for, although they would not join in the hunt with the others, they had need of protection while travelling on their own in the greenwood.

At midday, the band stopped by the side of a swiftly flowing brook and ate a communal meal of bread, cold venison, cheese and apples. Then Marian and Tuck continued on their way to St. Audrey's Hill, while the rest of the band fanned out into the wood in twos and threes to hunt game.

After a short journey along the well worn track, Marian and Tuck came to a fork in the path.

Brother Tuck said, "Wilfrid's hut is just a little ways down this side path, m'lady. I fear I must make my farewells here."

The two friends parted warmly, promising to meet each other at the Virgin's Well at dawn the next day, then went their separate ways.

Marian hummed contentedly to herself as she continued along the path to the Virgin's Well. The "well" was really a natural spring, which bubbled up into a rock pool set against the steep, rocky face of the hill. Over the years, pilgrims to this sacred site had built up a sheltering wall of rocks, so that the water welled up even higher in the pool. During Roman times, the image of the goddess Diana had been carved into the rock face above the spring, but in this more Christian age, the image was usually referred to as the Blessed Virgin.

Marian heard the burbling of the water in the pool before she had made the last turning in the path. Parting the underbrush that hid the sacred site, she stepped into the small clearing around the well. Putting aside her weapons and satchel, Marian knelt before the pool and took an ancient stone bowl from its niche in the rock wall. With this, she scooped up some of the clear, fresh water. She washed the dust of her journey from her face, neck, hands and arms using the water in the bowl, then poured the wash water out onto the ground. Only after this ritual ablution did she take down the well-worn wooden dipper from where it hung beside the well and slake her thirst. The water was sweet and cool, much appreciated after the long walk on this warm autumn day.

Smiling her thanks to the guardian image of the Virgin, Marian got up from her knees and retrieved her satchel, then sat on a nearby rock to watch the birds in the branches and eat some of the bread and cheese that had been left over from the midday meal. Marian ate sparingly, for she knew there would be more food later that night.

With her meal finished, Marian got up from the rock and began to move purposefully into the thicket that obscured the rock wall beside the well. Peering through the gloom, Marian was able to make out a small doorway in the rock, blocked by an iron gate. She continued past the doorway without hesitating, counting off ten paces, then reaching up along the rock wall until her fingers found a tiny crevice and closed around the key hidden there. Marian went back to the gate and unlocked it.

The doorway was low, and Marian had to duck as she entered the cave that the sisters of Kirklees occasionally used as a retreat. Marian turned the key in the lock from the inside, so that no one could follow and disturb her.

The interior was cool and dry. There was a small antechamber with a stone ledge, on which sat several tallow candles, a lantern, a flint and some wooden spliffs. Marian struck the flint against the rock wall several times, until she was able to ignite one of the spliffs with a spark. She cupped her hand around the smouldering end of the thin wooden splinter and blew lightly on it, until it burst into flame, then used it to light the wick of one of the candles. She placed this in the lantern, which had a crude horn chimney to shield the flame from drafts.

To her right, Marian saw a hole in the wall leading to the nuns' sleeping area. The rock room was furnished with two palette beds (for the nuns always travelled in pairs), a wooden table and two chairs, and several more candlesticks. On the walls hung old tapestries that were now too threadbare and moth eaten for use at the abbey. A faint stirring of the air let Marian know that the cave, though snug, was well ventilated. Holding her lantern up to dispel the shadows, Marian surveyed the room to make sure that all was in order.

She placed her weapons on the table, picked up two more tallow candles and put them in her satchel, then slung it over her shoulder. Turning lithely, she went straight to an alcove in the back wall and pulled aside the tapestry hanging there, revealing another doorway and a set of stairs leading down into velvet darkness.

Holding the candle lantern out in front of her, Marian made her way carefully down the stone steps. As she spiralled further down into the depths of the earth, she began to detect a faint hint of sulphur in the air. At the bottom of the staircase was a small chamber that narrowed into a low tunnel at one end. Marian placed the lantern on the steps, and laid her satchel down beside it. Then, she removed all of her clothing, folding it neatly and placing it in a pile on the stairs. Finally, she retrieved the two extra candles from her satchel and picked up the glowing candle lantern.

Ducking low, almost bending double at times, Marian squeezed her way through the tunnel, careful not to scrape her bare skin against the rough rock walls. She emerged into an immense cavern with a high, naturally vaulted ceiling. The flicker of her lantern bounced weakly around the walls, reflected in shimmering streaks off the dark round pool that occupied the centre of the chamber. Steam rose in wisps from the water's surface, and tiny wavelets lapped the rock as the hot spring bubbled up continuously from the earth's depths. Marian expelled a sigh of satisfaction. She was here at last, at the Cauldron of Cerridwen, an ancient Goddess shrine whose secret was well guarded by the holy sisters of Kirklees Abbey.

Carefully, Marian lit the two extra candles from her lantern, and affixed them with wax drips to some outcroppings on the stone walls of the cave. Her nude body was a pale smudge in the dim light as she walked over to the water's edge. She stood at the lip of the pool, breathing in the moist, warm air.

The rock floor of the pool sloped gently downwards and Marian walked forward slowly. The water was just slightly hotter than was initially comfortable, so Marian eased into it, until her body adjusted, and she was able to luxuriate in the spring's heat. Lying on her back, she floated out into the centre of the pool and watched the candlelight play on the rock arch above her. Time was suspended here in this warm, liquid cradle, this secret womb within the earth. Marian remained in the pool, drifting and dreaming, until the candles began to burn low and gutter. She emerged from the spring glowing and refreshed. She blew out the two candle stubs, picked up her lantern, and made her way back through the narrow tunnel.

Once in the chamber at the bottom of the stairs, she dried herself on a piece of flannel from her satchel and set about getting dressed again. She did not put on the clothes she had originally been wearing. Tonight called for something special. Out of her satchel she pulled a long, sheer piece of white silk that the outlaws had taken from the saddlebag of a wealthy knight who had been unwise enough to travel through the greenwood alone.

She cinched the material together tightly with a thin leather thong, knotting it precisely in the middle of the length. She placed the knot on her right shoulder, allowing the pleated material to hang down evenly in front and back, reaching to her knees. Next, she spread out the folds so that the two halves overlapped on the sides, across her hips. She belted the material in place with a braided leather thong, then adjusted the folds. She was now dressed in a short hunting toga, with her left breast left bare.

She tugged on her deerskin boots, then picked up the rest of her folded clothes, her satchel and the candle lantern, and climbed back up the long spiral stairs to the nun's cell. She dumped her clothes on one of the beds, retrieved her weapons from the table, then carried the candle lantern back to its ledge in the antechamber and extinguished it. Then, she emerged through the iron gate once more, locking it behind her and tying the key to the leather thong at her waist.

Marian walked over to the fountain, and took a dipper full of water. The heat of the sulphur spring had made her thirsty. The sun was setting and dusk was closing in. Tonight there would be a full moon, the one known as the Hunter's Moon, which was indeed bright enough to hunt by. It was Marian's intention to hunt and catch a hare by the light of that moon. She would bring it back and present its heart and liver as offerings to the guardian of the well, the Virgin Huntress, Diana. Then, she would build a fire and roast the meat, feasting in solitary celebration.

With her bow and quiver and her satchel slung over her back, arcanely dressed in her ceremonial linen, Marian slipped into the forest in search of her prey.

The moon had already risen high into the sky by the time she sighted a hare. With swift reflexes, she drew her bow and sent an arrow hurtling at the animal, skewering it to the ground and killing it instantly. She removed the precious arrow from the small carcass, then wrapped the body tightly in the flannel cloth and put it into her satchel. Merrily, she headed back for the well, looking forward to her feast and her offering to the Goddess.

From long habit, Marian moved quietly through the woods. Ahead of her, up the path, she saw the flicker of a campfire, and heard voices. She approached cautiously, wary of being caught by either soldiers or a band of outlaws less merry than her own friends.

Peering through the underbrush, Marian was relieved to see that the men gathered round the campfire were only Robin and his band, their hunting completed. Still, she had no wish to join them tonight, and she hung back, intending to continue on her way back to the well.

But even as she gazed at her friends she realized that something about them was very odd. Instead of their usual clothes, the men were dressed in deerskin cloaks. Robin himself stood naked, except for a rack of deer antlers atop his head and leggings of darkly furred animal pelts fitted so closely to his thighs that she could see the powerful muscles flex underneath. Ah, she thought, they too are performing a hunters' ritual under the full moon tonight.

Just then, Robin's gaze met hers directly and she knew she had been spotted. Robin slipped away from the other men, who were passing around a horn of wine and roasting bits of venison on long sticks over the fire while chanting something that sounded to Marian like "Belatucadros".

Robin appeared in front of her, his figure in deep shadow. He did not seem surprised to see her there, and he did not even greet her. Instead, he said quietly, "These are men's mysteries. Any woman who witnesses them must pay a forfeit."

Marian raised an eyebrow, knowing just what sort of forfeit her husband had in mind. She was about to respond to her mate in playful jest, but just then he stepped forward into the full moonlight. Marian was shocked by the sight in front of her. The antlers were no ritual headdress; they grew quite naturally from Robin's head. On his legs, he wore no animal pelts, but was, rather, covered in his own sleek fur. And his feet were cloven hooves!

Marian turned and fled at full speed through the forest. She heard Robin following her, and she ran until her breath was ragged. Despite her speed, she could hear him gaining on her. She pulled her bow from where it was slung across her back, stopped, turned and drew an arrow, all in one motion.

She stood poised with deadly possibility, and there, mere steps from her, was Robin -- just her own sweet Robin -- without horns, or fur, or hooves. He was buck naked, sweating, and winded from the chase, but he was just a man, and her man at that.

"Well, my love," said Robin, with a quirky grin, "you look quite the Virgin Huntress in that outfit!"

Marian lowered her bow. Robin stepped forward, took the weapon from her and laid it gently aside on the forest floor. He pulled her into his arms, and kissed her sweetly. "Now will you pay the forfeit?" he whispered.

Marian's answer was in her kiss.

Marian barely had time to make it back to the well and make her offering to the Goddess, then change into her usual clothes before Tuck arrived at dawn.

Tuck appeared just as the sun was breaking over the horizon, looking cheerful and content. Obviously his reunion with Wilfrid had been a pleasant one. Marian greeted her friend, then thrust the gutted carcass of the hare towards him, holding it by its long ears. "Do you think your friend Wilfrid would like a hare for his stew pot tonight?" she queried.

"My Lady Marian!" exclaimed Tuck. "You've been hunting!"

Marian smiled and shrugged. "I intended it for my supper last night, but, well, I never got around to cooking it.

Bemused, Tuck took the proffered carcass and grinned. "Well," he acknowledged, "it would make a nice token of appreciation for the hospitality Wilfrid showed me yesterday."

"Good then," said Marian. "We'll drop it off at his hut on our way back."

Wilfrid received the present from his friend with alacrity, then sent the former priest and the one-time novice on their way with a heartfelt blessing.

Marian and Tuck arrived back at the main camp in the early afternoon. The hunting party had already returned, and the men were scattered about the glade sleeping off the effects of their bacchanalian revels the previous night. They had gorged themselves on venison and wine, but they had also brought back enough meat to fill their stone-lined underground cold larder, so the camp would be well provisioned for some weeks now.

Robin sat slightly apart from his sleeping comrades, his back against an old oak tree and his arm casually draped over one raised knee, in his habitual boyish pose. Seeing Marian and Tuck approach, he sprang to his feet to greet them.

"Welcome back," he hailed the travellers. "How was your spiritual retreat?" he asked Marian.

"Enlightening," she replied, her expression enigmatic.

Tuck thought he was probably missing some subtle subtext in the exchange, but he dismissed it as simple lovers' innuendo.

"So, Tuck," Robin said, "Tell me all about your visit with Brother Wilfrid."

Tuck obliged him with a detailed and enthusiastic account of their celebration of St. Luke's day, while Marian and Robin exchanged amused smiles over the top of the voluble priest's cherubic head, and the merry men snored blissfully on.