The deer started. She trembled for a moment, then listened.
A grey-black spring night still lay like a blanket over the sky. Along the edge of the wood, in the damp air, the peaty scent of the heath beyond mingled with the faint mustiness of last year's fallen leaves. It was quiet, as if the whole island of Britain were waiting for something to happen in the silence before the dawn.
Then suddenly, a skylark started singing in the dark. Only he had seen the hint of paleness on the horizon.
The deer turned her head, not satisfied. Something was approaching.
Puckle made his way through the wood. There was no need to move silently. As his feet brushed the leaves or snapped a twig, he might have been mistaken for a badger, wild pig or some other denizen of the Forest.
Away on his left, the screech of a tawny owl careened through the dark tunnels and sweeping arches of the oaks.
Puckle: was it his father, or his grandfather, or someone further back who had been known by the name of Puckle? Puck: it was one of those strange old names that grew, mysteriously, out of the English landscape. Puck Hill: there were several along the southern shores. Perhaps the name came from that. Or perhaps it was a diminutive: little Puck. Nobody knew. But having got one name, the family had never seemed to bother with any more. Old Puckle, young Puckle, the other Puckle: there was always a certain vagueness about which was which. When he and his family had been kicked out of their hamlet by the servants of the new Norman king, they had wandered across the Forest and finally set up a ramshackle camp by one of the streams that ran down to the River Avon at the Forest's western edge. Recently they had moved several miles south to another stream.
Puckle. The name suited him. Thickset, gnarled like an oak, his powerful shoulders stooped forward as though he was pulling some great weight, he often worked with the charcoal burners. Even to the Forest people his comings and goings were mysterious. Sometimes, when the firelight caught his oaken face in its reddish glow, he looked like a goblin. Yet the children would cluster round him when he came to the hamlets to make gates or wattle fences, which he did better than anyone else. They liked his quiet ways. Women found themselves strangely drawn to some deep inner heat they sensed in the woodsman. At his camp by the water, there were always pigeons hanging, and the skin of a hare or some other small creature neatly stretched on pegs; or perhaps the remains of one of the trout who ventured up the little brown streams. Yet the forest animals hardly troubled to avoid him, almost as if they sensed that he was one of them.
As he moved through the darkness now, a rough leather jerkin covering his torso, his bare legs thrust into stout leather boots, he might have been a figure from the very dawn of time.
The deer remained, head raised. She had wandered a little apart from the rest of the group who were still feeding peacefully in the new spring grasses near the woodland edge.
Though deer have good vision, and a highly developed sense of smell, it is on their hearing -- their outer ears being very large in relation to the skull -- that they often rely to detect danger, especially if it is downwind. Deer can pick up even the snap of a twig at huge distances. Already, she could tell that Puckle's footsteps were moving away from her.
She was a fallow deer. There were three kinds of deer in the Forest. The great red deer with their russet-brown coats were the ancient princes of the place. Then, in certain corners there were the curious roe deer -- delicate little creatures, hardly bigger than a dog. Recently, however, the Norman conquerors had introduced a new and lovely breed: the elegant fallow deer.
She was nearly two years old. Her coat was patchy, prior to changing from its winter mulberry colour to the summer camouflage -- a pale, creamy brown with white spots. Like almost all fallow deer, she had a white rump and a black-fringed white tail. But for some reason nature had made her coat a little paler than was usual.
Excerpted from The Forest by Edward Rutherfurd Copyright© 2000 by Edward Rutherfurd. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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