It had rained a little earlier in the evening and the long grasses by the side of the narrow path were wet, the track soft beneath the young man’s boots. He walked casually with the gait of a man who had spent the evening in the carefree company of friends at the inn in the High Village. His arms swung as he walked, his black wool jacket flapping open, revealing a collarless white shirt and a thin, red cravat tied loosely at his neck. His brown hair hung long and straggly about his shoulders from beneath a peaked cloth cap. His beard was wispy with the lightness of his age, which was 19. He hummed tunelessly to himself as his unsteady gaze took in the tall grasses and stands of trees which lined the path, branches silhouetted against the lightness of the summer evening sky.
The inn at the High Village was half a mile from the cluster of fishing cottages on the shoreline. The path he took home was a shortcut across the marshy common which lay between the sandy dunes and the farmland. It was a rarely used track, unsuitable for carts, cut here and there by ditches and fences. To his right the common was a dark tangle of brambles, tussocks, and occasional thickets, all still in the quiet of the cool evening air.
To his left ran a ditch, deep and filled with still, brackish brown water, overgrown with weeds and unfettered natural growth. Its surface glinted in the light of the moon and stars as the thin, broken cloud moved slowly across the sky. Beyond the ditch a belt of tangled woodland separated him from the sandy earth and dunes bordering the shore. A slight tang of salt in the air mixed with the sweet smell of wet grass and earth.
The young man walked without much thought in his mind. Occasionally he wondered about the weather, but it had been settled for a few days now, and the sea would not trouble them tomorrow when he and his father sought the mackerel shoals offshore. In passing he recalled the girl he had tried to befriend at the inn, whose name he could not remember, and who had rebuffed his clumsy advances amidst uncouth encouragement from his company. He smiled to himself, at the raucous laughter and the clashing of ale mugs.
His attention was caught abruptly when he saw the lanterns ahead, about one hundred yards down the path, glowing orbs in the half-light. He stopped short and ceased his humming. The orange lights danced like fireflies, as if held in the hands of those occupied in some business.
Without hesitation he fell to his knees and crouched low, his head down, and instinctively pulled the peak of his cap lower to cover the lightness of his face. Travellers were unexpected on this path, the more so those who tarried with lanterns. There were three, maybe four lights that he could see, but he could hear no sounds, no voices.
For some minutes the young man stayed low, keeping his head below the rise of the tall grasses next to the ditch. He watched. The geniality of the recent company and the light headedness of the ale had left him. He could feel his heartbeat and he struggled to keep his breathing low. In the dim light of the lanterns he could make out the dark shapes of figures moving slowly about, bending one moment, rising to their feet the next. And horses, maybe ponies, two of them standing close by just off the path. He glanced back down the track in case a means of retreat were needed. Still he heard no sound.
His knees ached with the crouch, and he shuffled his legs into a different shape to relieve them, careful to keep himself concealed. He knew that there were those who might be less than content at being discovered in their enterprises at this time of night, felonious or not, and he was unarmed. His fists would be of little defence against three men, and less against a pistol or a cutlass.
He watched the bobbing lanterns, not for one moment taking his eyes away from them. After what seemed to him an eternity the lights began to float away from the path and towards the common ground where the horses stood. One by one the lights went out, and he watched the shapes mount, two riders on one of the animals, one on the other. Still he heard no voices. The horses walked and then shortly trotted off into the darkness of the common and disappeared into the night. The young man on the path did not move. He watched, and waited.
Eventually, when he deemed it long enough, he rose slowly to his feet. He walked on cautiously and his eyes scanned the common. In the half light of the evening he felt a deep unease.
When he reached the point he estimated that the lanterns had bobbed and swayed and the dark figures clustered together, he saw that the wet earth on the path was disturbed. He stopped there and looked about him. He could smell brandy, or perhaps it was gin, mingled with the sweet, animal smell of horse. He could see the marks of boots and the crushed grasses by the side of the path. And in the ditch to his left he saw the body, face down with its black coat floating around it like the wings of a bird of prey.