A kick woke Peter from a heavy sleep.
His brother Simon stood over him, silhouetted in the meagre light from the half-open shutter. ‘Shooting today. Feed the quail.’
He gave Peter one more kick for good measure. Only one, though. Hunt days always saw his brother in festive mood.
Pulling on his shirt, Peter felt prickly lengths of straw in his hair – escaped padding from the thin mattress – and shook them loose. Simon wouldn’t have a fire or even a rush lit until after sunset, so Peter searched the stone flags with chill fingers until he clasped first one boot then the other. They were heavy, still damp from the previous day’s work.
Simon left the cottage with a bang of the door, cap askew, knobkerrie resting on one shoulder. He’d beat the world black if he could. That was what Mother had said and she’d often worn proof of it on her own face.
Outside, Peter went first to the barn to fetch a bucket of grain, then down the slippery path, jumping over the stream, up the bank and along the avenue of hornbeams, heading into the deep woods towards the birdcages. He heard the quail before he saw them, the males’ shrill call cutting through the soft coo of wood pigeons and the crack of roosting crows.
‘Morning,’ he said, kneeling by the cage, his fingers playing over the wire grill.
They’d grown to soft, plump ovals under his care. Dropping grain through the cage, he waggled his fingers at them, chuckling as the hens jumped and nipped at him.
The moment they hatched, their lives were leading them here, to their last day. The notion made him feel heavy enough to sink into the thick mass of leaves and moss, to bury him in the cool earth.
He put his hand to his temple, felt the lump from Simon’s last rage, the rough slash where the wound had knit badly. As the club fell, Peter had wondered if this would be the day he joined his mother in that little grave, unmarked besides a swathe of primroses.
The air was crisp, filled with the scent of fungus and compost, but not yet cold enough to be called winter. This would be the last chance before spring, before the rivers froze and they were bound more to the cottage, he and Simon and that knobkerrie.
Before he could think, he set about the cage, tearing loose any tangled grass, sweeping back the leaves. The contruction was only small, low to the ground, easy to move. With one tug he lifted it free. At first the birds didn’t move, merely pecked at the fallen grain.
Finally, one hen walked further afield, then another, until all were picking their cautious way through the tree roots, over the stamp of mulch.
Some would be found by foxes, others stopped by a hard frost. But some would live and live free.
He headed deeper into the woods, away from the cottage and its shuttered darkness.