Short Story – The Hares of Horsenden Hill by Sarra Culleno

Short Story - The Hares of Horsenden Hill by Sarra Culleno

Horsa: Saxon chief and son of a King,

had but one daughter, Ealine Yilling.

Tales of her beauty far and wide

reached Bren of Brent, who made her bride.


She resisted the urge to scroll the history contained in her sleeping phone. Instead, Ealine tugged at the dwindling lock of hair from the base of her neck, where a patch of alopecia expanded. Flight-mode was switched on since the weekend, and she was even safer in this tunnel, where natural noise was bested by deafening subterranean smog, screeching at forced speed through the carriages. The air was compact and swaddling, carrying with it the cocooning relief that the notifications from the surface could not skewer her down here.

The tunnel also protected Kings Place and the rest of London’s overground from the twisted knot forming in her stomach, which sooner or later, would require a notification of its own. Ealine did not know the man well, but she knew enough of him to judge she did not want his influence in her child’s life. His notification would wait forever.


Of her mistreatment, Yilling sent

Starling to Horsa, who, hell-bent

on avenging his only daughter,

challenged to duel Brent of Thames Water


Imperceptibly to the other St. Pancras commuters, a wash of secret shame shuddered through her. Behind Ealine’s lids, she was back on his screen, a voice only slightly distorted in that familiar timbre of connection buffering, from the dark of the room, sneers “So does this one have a voice? You don’t usually let them talk mate”. Not a London accent, this must be one of his old Uni mates.

A round of fraternity sniggering.

“Are you filming me?”

This evening’s load was heavy; she had more than usual to carry as the Tube pulled into Sudbury Town, but at least the hordes which typically pushed past were notably missing. And although Ealine enjoyed it once she got there, she was grateful that her Friday Boxercise class had been called off due to the pandemic. It was absurd, that the self-care cure for burn-out, should entail high intensity calorie burning. Like a purge. Witches, punished, burnt at the stake.

In a chaotic frenzy, Ealine’s Editor at The Beholder had packed the writers off with extra devices, several phones, a work-only laptop for GDPR reasons, welfare questionnaires, hastily promising to see everyone on Monday’s Zoom. Ealine was grateful she would earn her way through this. As the most senior writer on the Environment section of her paper, she knew she was one of the few who could work at full capacity without the standard dehumanising commute. She did not want a cigarette. She did not want a Friday drink. She was looking forward to the solitude.


to meet and cross at River Brent’s ford.

There fought the two opposing Lords


As if to dissuade her from her intentions for seclusion, Ealine’s handbag vibrated an alert. Irritation turned to surprise, as she remembered she had switched her phone to flight-mode; receiving notifications was impossible. Perplexed, Ealine stopped walking, put her backpack down and fished around in her handbag to make sure she would not be disturbed again. Eerily, her device did indeed appear to be as she left it. Even odder still, was a rogue text message, which had managed to intrude in spite of her precautions. Without unlocking her phone to unleash the invasive text, Ealine could only see the first character of the message; a ghostly, stencilled silhouette of a rabbit or a hare.

Curiosity won, and Ealine followed the white rabbit down the hole: [I know more about Hares than you can ever imagine. I can show how that feels. I can answer your questions and help with your labours. RSVP for details.] 

“Spam” Ealine immediately said out-loud. But a deep movement within her had shifted subtly, and it cavilled at her silently, until Ealine had to read the proposal again. Who is this? How do they know about my Environmental writing, or about my… labours?  Ealine switched the phone off.

In spite of the backpack’s weight, she decided not to head straight home. The evenings had recently turned brighter and she never normally returned from work so early. Instead, Ealine walked away from the albatross of labels and debt in her rented apartment, and headed along Whitton Avenue East to turn left into Whittlers Woods to mull over the mystifying invitation.

Under those ancient oaks, the oppressive containment of the Tube wisped up into the rustling cool of afternoon leaves, following its own Will’o. Her backpack felt lighter. Her lungs filled with the ground’s earthy musk, permeating up through the London clay and Dollis Hill gravel. Swishing canopies of fresh green brushed clear the air.


Bren was slain and Horsa wounded,

buried under the Hill now mounded.


Woodland soon smoothed into the grasslands of Horsenden East, where Ealine knew the cattle would not yet graze for another five months. Ahead, arose the broad, grassy summit of the Hill, an island protruding from an absent lake. A sudden queasiness floored her, either the beginnings of morning sickness or the prospect that the sprawling facade of Brent was awaiting, should she continue to mount it. She did not wish to see The Shard’s phallic aspect any more that those unsolicited WhatsApp photos buried under recycle icons. Down here, she was shielded from that vista, and here encroached upon her an urge to press her stomach against the dry leaves and become flat. In a shallow dip of the long grass, she put her backpack of robotics down and sat, her back against it.

From the parapet in front of her, as if by way of example, she could see other beings burrowing too. The redwings sensed evening approaching and began to congregate to the safety of branches. A fresh molehill left a trace of another hunkering down. The kestrels had recently returned to form their territories disguised in the cavities of trees. To the birring whirrup peeps of hidden parakeets, she lost an hour or two, until the sky changed hues.

Ealine noted that by now, whatever time it was, she would usually need an extra layer. But she felt no shiver under the lilac sky and the waning crescent moon’s hanging smile. Dusk fell around her in a lavender haze, and an amaranthine vapour settled close to the ground, blanketing her further under her small valley.


T’was here the crone that mothered the maiden,

dug the green bolt-hole ‘Ealing’s Haven’.


A pair of long, black-tipped ears appeared, dancing just above the violet and mauve mists. They emerged from a shadowy existence in the last light fading from day, and Ealine was surprised, but unmoved – responding to this March hare in the same way she noted the unseasonal temperature. It was curious, to say the least, that such a shy, hyper-vigilant creature would venture so close.

This was not the only trait to flag the specimen a rarity. The hazelnut hare stood at least a metre tall. Her umber fur stood on end, enraged, and her eyes flashed in a crazed fury.

“Out, of my FORM.” she hissed with bile-fuelled enunciation.

Again, Ealine, was not taken aback by this bizarity. “I’m sorry, your form?”

“My FORM” repeated the hare vehemently, twitching and ticking involuntarily. She clenched her paws up in front of her, low on her haunches in a boxer’s stance. “My BED. Do you think I have spent my best March days, outrunning wolves, wild boar, and foxes, to have my form stolen from under my muzzle? Stand up and fight!”

“Leave her be” crackled an older voice, “Is your brain so waxing-mad that your eyes cannot see she is with leveret?” The voice came from another hare, crouched at the shoulders indicating her advanced age. Her ghost-fur was a luminous and immaculate winter snow.

“See, she has lined the form with her own plucked fur in preparation.” The White Hare pulled Ealine up halfway out of the form, and pushed her head aside to reveal a patch of slow growing alopecia at the base of her neck, which subdued the March Hare, marginally. “We may have outrun those beasts, but Eostra hides from the Huntsmen and Hounds.” The White Hare reprimanded, and at this, the March Hare shuddered.

“There’s no fight in her anyway. I’d have boxed her ears before your waning whiskers interfered and no mistake,” the March Hair muttered, casting a suspicious eye over the backpack abandoned in the form. Now she was distracted from fighting.

“Is that your basket of eggs?” The March Hare fell backwards into a guffaw, eyes streaming, unable to catch her breath.

The White Hare tolerated March’s foible, and turned to address Ealine for the first time. “Your defence is stillness and camouflage. Lie low in the form, with ears pressed flat to your back. Be still. Tuck your belly full of leveret to the ground.” She croaked, “Better the Huntsman catches the fox, than either catch you.”

Ealine shrank lower with the percipience. She knew at once, she had been granted a refuge denied to the other two hares, and this was the generosity of generations. She saw that the White Hare, beneath her milky-down, was scarred with attacks and narrow escapes.

“Eostre, you ken not of your own place, and have found yourself here without knowing how” began the White Hare crone. “If you outpace a slathering hound without your heart bursting forth from your ribs, your own kind will attempt to use your entrails for divination and have you skinned to line their collars. They will fudge your flesh into a Jugged Hare pie to feed their own. You may rest here, but know that next comes the harvester to slice up your leveret. Then the men’s mowers, turning your precious long grasses to silage, leaving you exposed and vulnerable. Hares are devoured in all ways, our modesty ravished, our leverets orphaned.

“Today, our Equinox, they stop. The men and machines are forced to allow you reprieve. So, what will you do Eostra? You hide here in the tussocks, that’s what. And when you see the chance, leap. You have the strength of the maiden which came before you and the crone who comes after”

Unconsciously, Ealine’s hand moved up to the base of her neck, searching out the small, familiar, expanding patch of alopecia. It was a nervous response she’d had since childhood, ripping out strands of hair to distract herself from anxiety. It had never grown back even in periods of peaceful living. The patch felt enormously bald, and Ealine realised it was proportionate to her rocketing distress over the past month.

But there was an itch beneath bald skin, which seemed now to be scratching off in flakes under her nails. Underneath it, she detected with the pads of her finger-tips, soft downy strands of fluff – could this be a recovery? It seemed to be sprouting at alarming speed though, as the rest of her hair fell out in clumps into her hands. The itch was spreading and irrepressible, a scorching burn forcing the entire covering of her body’s skin to convulse with the sensation, like an overwhelming anaphylaxis.

Her jaw unhinged, dislocated, realigned, as her lens of vision was a concertina; an uncoiling spring uncurling around her head. The shells of her skull diverged and converged like tectonic plates, jutting her muzzle forward and her forehead back. Extending backwards, her ear buds were shooting into black-tipped stems. Sprouting hair intensified a fiery scald at Ealine’s cheeks and above her mouth where weighted whiskers emerged to rebalance her disorientation. Ealine’s previous anxiety processed itself into focus and purpose, as she became newly poised, acutely attuned to sights behind her and above her. The new awareness developed into an intuitive urge to lay flat against the ground.

A primordial, ancient restlessness stretched out her cracking limbs, and instinctively, without thinking, Ealine fell involuntarily into a downward-dog position. Mechanically, her spine snapped and elongated as if under the manipulation of an experienced chiropractor.

Inside, Ealine’s entrails twisted into knots, addling the confusion and dread which ought to accompany this scene. Pain replaced terror. The agony distanced her from this spectacle in the same way mothers are removed from their indignities in labour. The pain is the threshold. Without trauma, the coming of age ceremony is incomplete. A memory flashed across her; a story about a butterfly retold in school assembly. An onlooker “helped” the creature out of its cocoon. But because the butterfly had not squeezed itself through the tight tear, life-giving fluid was not wrought through its extremities, rendering it unable to unfold its wings to fly. Ealine was a spectator, watching herself being forced through a torturous portal, if she could endure it. She had no choice but to endure it, she was halfway down the birth canal.

Fresh blood gushed in to intoxicate new tissues with a soaring, heady agitation. Her marrow expanded and contracted; the sinews and muscles surrounding the lengthened bones, struggling to keep up with the pace, like unfurling petals striving to unfold to an unnaturally fast sunrise.

Gradually, Ealine recognised how rutted and crushed she had been in her preceding form, especially in her hind legs. With each stretch, Ealine noticed a conditioning, a straightening, a release. She was now lithe, supple, and loaded with a power ready to vault.

Her two new friends rushed to her side and helped Ealine up onto her hind legs. To take stock, the Three Hares embraced, and rather eccentrically for hares, nestled together in the same form, that they might fortify each other to daybreak.


Yilling’s mother in the forest,

provided them with female fortress,

where her father had not done,

upon the Hill of Horsa Don.


Ealine woke stiff and midget-bitten to the first day of Spring and the first day of lockdown. She could not accept that her undertaking was a harmless dream conjured up by some meaningless junk mail. The encounter was raw enough that she was compelled to bear the veracity of her experience, and that the deliberate intention of its design was to prompt the offer’s acceptance. She was no longer preoccupied with the genuineness of yesterday’s cryptic summons. Instead, Ealine met an overpowering compulsion to seek out the sender. Newly determined, she carried her backpack home to her small, North London flat, ready to hunker down and lie low with her belly to the ground until it was her time to leap.


Note: ‘The Hares of Horsenden Hill’ will appear as part of the ‘Hare Spell’ audiodrama out in September, and also as a standalone audiodrama as part of the Alternative Stories podcast.