About two hundred people thronged randomly on the green when Simon walked up. He was wearing his own jeans and T shirt and Osbert's old jacket, stiff but not uncomfortable. It was not as hot as previous days, a slight breeze agitating the washing that hung between the nearby houses. Bill stood in the centre of the field, looked up at the sun.
"Be about ten minutes now. Now look, these is all us team. That group by far end, they's all from Lower Brook, they don't run much but we lets em in anyways. When we starts just watch what they all does and you'll soon pick up the rules. Stay on for 'alf hour say then have a rest for a bit. Best not to be on when it rains, it gets all complicated."
"Rain? There's not a cloud."
"Will be by evening. Saw tree edgeogs comin' over."
"Evening? So how long does it all last?"
"Oh, right on into night, depends on how we all gets. Last year there was a few lads kept going by moonlight into next morning. Goals can only be scored by sundown though, if they are. After that it's just knockabout. There's plenty of folk, just go in when you feels like it and sit down when you feels like it."
Simon was not sure who was on which side but he was willing to give it a go. No one seemed to take any notice of him or his clothes so he walked across the field and started chatting to a couple of villagers. He noticed at the other end of the green two men playing with a bellows on what appeared to be a huge inflated pigs bladder.
"What on earth is that over there?"
"Be our ball that. See Sid over there, tis from ees pig. Were slaughtered yesterday special like. Be given a public roasting tonight for all us players. Both sides like, they at be left."
That sounded ominous but he noticed everyone staring at the sun which seemed to have reached its zenith. Two huge men escorted the ball to the centre of the field and threw it into the air to the sound of a huge cheer. To Simon's horror it came straight towards him. He positioned himself underneath and headed it mightily to someone he hoped would turn out to be on the same team. It was firmer than it looked and there was a huge roar of applause as the man caught it and lunged forward towards the massed opposition. He collided into a giant who grabbed the ball and started to push his way through. A mass of men and boys halted his advance and gradually the crowd toppled into a huge ruck. Eventually the ball emerged and was flung across the field. The pile of bodies stirred to life and ran off in pursuit.
"I'm surprised no one gets hurt in a scrum like that," said Simon when he caught up with Bill.
"Oh but they doos," replied Bill. "Get's usually two or three dead by end. Once Ned Turvey's boy were trampled like to death and no one could get near him for a hour, the play was so fierce. Eventually someone rushed on and dragged him off by the legs. Turned out he weren't dead after all but they banged his head against a stone by the edge of the field an' he died a couple o' days later. Aye, an' it took about three weeks last year for all they broken legs and things to mend. Look at young Mick Jones over there how crooked 'e is. Don't seem to do no 'arm though."
After twenty minutes going this way and that the ball came Simon's way and he caught it and started to run. Suddenly he found himself clear of the chasing defenders, most of whom had been grabbed and held back by the rest of Simon's team. Spectators ran on to the pitch to stop him and more spectators came on to intercept them. Ignoring the battles to his rear he ran for the end line and suddenly realised there were no goalposts. He crossed the line and stood there, not knowing what to do.
"Hold it up, hold it up," shouted supporters in the crowd. Simon held the ball above his head. There was enormous applause from the spectators and players on both teams. Bill came up and congratulated him.
"You'll be a hero now, me lad. This be the first goal since Mattie Hicks in the drought. Now just take it back up the middle and give ee a good kick. Then we'll go rest for a bit."
Simon sat on the sidelines among the spectators and watched the play. There seemed to be few rules except that the players did everything to keep the ball from reaching the opposite end of the field. There were so many on the field that it was almost impossible to secure an advance, the more so because everyone who captured the ball simply tried to barge straight through the opposition, regardless of their numbers.
"Wouldn't it be easier," he asked Bill, "if we did a couple of good kicks or throws to people standing in an unused part of the field, rather than simply pushing them where they're strongest? We could run rings round them. We'd score hundreds of goals."
"Ooh, that sounds a bit complicated for us folk," said Bill. "We just keeps to our tried and trusted methods. It's kept us all going for plenty of lifetimes. And besides, it be no good for you to start doing things new ways. You'll get yourself noticed, know what I means?"
Nick Scantlebury the Witchfinder was having a terrible day. It had been months since he had found a passable excuse for a witch and now one had been delivered straight into his hands, but no sooner had he found him than his bitter enemy Mister Perthwick had taken him away and the bumbling clot had allowed him to escape. It gave him the chance to redeem himself but now it was the day of the dratted football match and there was no chance of questioning anyone until the festivities were over. He slunk through the village looking for signs of aberrant behaviour but could do nothing more than make a mock trial and execution of a couple of stray dogs. Finally he gave up on the day and trudged over to the green to watch the match. On the way he bumped into an old acquaintance, Dick Johnson, and they stopped for a drink in the public bar of the inn.
"It's a fine old life, this, Dick. Don't suppose they'll be wanting me much more if I can't even sort out such a simple case. This village, it's like Satan's nest, but I be damned if I can find one of them. Every witch I get tried it's just an ordinary villager caught up in something he don't understand. But they are there aren't they. That boy ... You reckon, Dick."
"Oh aye. It's true all right. But what matter. They find witches all over the country, and if truth be known probably half of them won't be witches at all. But you can't be too careful. Just do your job, Nick, they can't blame you can they. After all if they is real witches they have magic powers and probably get away from you easier than normal folk. Tell you what, when we get up to the match we'll have a look and see if we can't find someone who looks a bit like a witch and then we'll see if we can't make you feel a bit better."
The Witchfinder cheered up at the prospect and finished his tankard. The two men started boldly down the slope towards the point where the two streams converged. The din of the game was audible from a distance and they could see the players running and fighting on the field.
"Don't know why grown men behaves like this," he muttered. "Should be out doing something useful instead. Don't suppose that boy'll be up there, aye? Be too easy wouldn't it."
They crossed the lane skirting the field and walked towards the edge of the playing area. People seemed to be joining and leaving the game at random and occasionally the ball came in among the spectators creating a brief scuffle among groups of old men. Dick went off to speak to a couple of people and came back in a few minutes looking excited.
"Seems like a goal's been scored. Looks like we're to win."
"Din't come ere to watch no goals."
"No but don't it sound suspicious like. Ain't no goals been scored for years."
"Oh aye. You reckon someone flew in and grabbed the ball. We'd aheard about it by now."
"Oh but you didn't hear what they said. One guy got hold of the ball and no one could stop him. Just ran and ran and like everyone was all paralysed. Know what I reckons?"
"Well, this guy could be our witch we was going to find. How could ee score a goal just so? It don't make sense otherwise."
"So we take the bloke whose just made isself a hero and make him a witch. You do think of some things, Dick. The crowd'll tear us to pieces. We're not too popular since John Slater."
"S'pose you're right. Twere just an idea."
Simon was hot after a second time on the pitch and he was bruised, as almost the whole Bournebrook team had been onto him whether he had the ball or not. He tried not to notice the rancid smell of Bill's beard.
"I'm starving. Is there a shop round here or anything?"
"There's food over by the far goal line. See the women setting up over there."
Simon looked over to see five or six women setting out wooden platters on blankets on the ground. "Can I go over there now?"
"Don't see why not."
They walked over to the edge of the pitch, a group of the opposing team shadowing Simon in case he tried to make a sudden break to run on and grab the ball. The women stopped their chattering as he approached.
"Ain't you the newcomer who scored the goal?"
"Mary here, her son, he scored a goal once. But he died."
"Why? What happened to him?"
"Oh, tripped over and got a rake stuck in his neck, weren't it? It were years later, ee were about forty-five by then. Only thing that kept his mouth shut, anyways. Twenty years he'd been going on about his flipping goal. Anyway you looks starved. Here, have an oggie." She handed him something that looked like a fried horse's hoof.
Not wanting to be rude Simon accepted the food and started nibbling at it. The women looked at each other. By the time he had removed the outer layer and was starting to chew at the bone underneath they could hardly contain themselves. The opposition men, who were still marking him, roared with laughter.
"You ain't never seen ees, where thee comes from? It's just a 'oof. They puts 'em in 'ee oven to kick demons away. Ask 'em for sommat'll do thee better."
Simon gratefully chucked the unappetising hoof to a passing dog and accepted a meat pie which was mostly turnip and swede, and an apple turnover. The opposition men decided to have something to eat as well. As they were chomping away Simon happened to look up and saw the Witchfinder standing on the sideline.
"Oh my God," he said to Bill. "Where can I find some geese?"
"Geese?" asked one of the opponents. "You being funny to us?"
"No. But I seen the Witchfinder there and he's been following me. I need geese to keep him away."
"Why? Be you witch?" asked one of the women.
All the women looked at him attentively. The men stood respectfully behind him. She waved his hands in front of his face and chanted something. The other women said something in reply and waved their hands in a complete circle three times.
"There you be. Fame and fortune will find you. But it might take time first, mind."
Simon looked warily over at the crowd watching the game.
"Eh, cheer up mate," said one of the opponents. "You wanted geese? You got plenty."
"How do you mean?"
"Well they calls us geese, theys igrant peasants from down Mill Brook. Don't be knowing why. So if thee wants geese we all is, like."
Simon looked back at the crowd. The Witchfinder was clearly not very interested in the game, as he seemed to be scanning the horizon in all directions. Fortunately he neglected to look Simon's way. He decided that it was time to move off.
"Hey, you guys. Are you supposed to follow me all afternoon? Make sure I don't get the ball again?"
"Great. I'm going this way."
The men looked at each other and shrugged. Simon started off and they followed behind. He kept glancing behind as they went but the crowd seemed too interested in the match to notice. He turned to see a man in front of him, glaring. Despite being disguised by a heavy cloak there was no mistaking the giant bulge from his belly, nor the fact that another large growth had started to issue from the back of his neck. Simon ran.
"Hey, you idiots. Go for him. He's a witch who's escaped from prison."
"Oh no, sirrah. He bain't no witch. That be Master Simon, aye."
"You fools. Oh, why bother. Scantlebury," he shouted so loud that the game stopped for a moment. "Scantlebury, come get your man."
The Witchfinder ran to Mister Perthwick and cringed in front of him. "Oh, sir, I seen him and was just getting some men together. Now he's run off."
"Are you trying to blame me for you losing him?"
"Oh no, sir. I'll get him right away. I'll go get some people who aren't too interested in the match."
Mister Perthwick sighed and cradled his neck. Then he waddled back to the village in disgust.
Simon did not look back for some considerable time. Fortunately he was fit, and after about twenty minutes he decided that he had run far enough. In any case Pigsty Hill alone would be far too steep for an old man. Even his bodyguard had given up by the time he crossed the stream. He kept expecting to hear the sound of a police helicopter overhead. Then he realised how fortunate he was to be in an age without motor vehicles. He could not recall even seeing a horse in Mill Brook though he was sure it would not be long before the authorities were after him. But he knew where he was going, and the sun was still visible behind the clouds so he could navigate the way he knew by the shapes of the local hills. Joining up with the tracks which passed for main roads in the district it was nearly two hours after leaving the football match by the time he arrived in front of the entrance to the priory at Wick Wick Wick to beg for sanctuary.
Bio: Having taken early retirement from the local council I now try and inspire young chess players with my work as an organiser and coach. In between I take time to write a bit. Have been writing short stories on and off for about thirty years and the three novels on this site are gradual updates of old stories I have put online as one of my lockdown projects.