The Keeper of Secrets lived in the hollow of an old tree. There he would sit and listen
to the mutterings of a raddled old rook, a fox with three legs, a stub-footed pigeon and
a one-eyed frog. And the hedgers, bodgers and ditchers would come and the charcoal-
burners too. And the girlen who tended the geese and the old’uns and the potswills
and those that had forgotten they ever had secrets at all. They would come to the tree
and Old Snick, for that was his name, he would listen. But truth to tell, he did not
keep these secrets well, for he would whisper them to the wind and the leaves as they
fell and the babble of the nearby stream.
The lane became a tunnel of green, with brambles writhing either side. It had always
been there, though Elmskin had never come this way before. He knew about it, of
course. He’d heard the girlen talking and they always seemed to know. And the
old’uns would mutter and whisper in corners. But he’d never seen it, didn’t know
where it might take him. He took a breath and ducked his head to make his way
through when a wizened nut-brown figure swung down from the bough above. He
stood half as tall as Elmskin, yet firmly blocked his path.
Elmskin and Gloathren hurried away, glancing round to see Tormentil sitting where
they had found her, her face turned up towards the sky. It was growing dark now as
they blundered on through a maze of twisted trees. Their boots were sodden with the
brackish water which oozed between the roots. Elmskin’s teeth were chattering as
they plunged on through the mire. Then they broke out through the bushes, nearly
stumbling into the water as they found themselves at the edge of the river. A grey
goose clattered its outstretched wings and swooped into the air.