‘You will never know unless you try.’
I had told myself this since the Hallows Eve service when I had first laid my eyes on her. She had walked in, one foot in front of the other. The soft leather of her shoes tapping upon the stone flagstones of the church floor. She had not seen me straight away; her eyes lost ahead of her, staring after the tall figures of her Pa and Ma. She had worn a dress of the finest wool, blue in shade, almost as bright as the light that fell from her eyes as I felt them on me for the first time. She had followed her Pa and Ma into the stall, and glanced back over her shoulder, and it was then, in that moment that I felt as though I had been struck by God. She did not smile, but frowned and turned away to sit in between her parents.
‘But what if she says no?’
‘What would change? You would still be a black smiths apprentice,’ said Alfred.
The hammer fell to strike the metal; the dull clinks filled the warm stale air of the forge. I looked at Alfred, his looming form bent double over the anvil, his huge arms lifting; another blow from the hammer moulding the red metal to his will.
‘But what if she tells her Pa?’ I asked.
‘You will be beaten bloody by her brothers and ol William Constable would happily take the chance to give you a night in the stocks.’
I glared at him, he caught my eye and grinned. ‘You need to learn your place Hal. She is the daughter of a knight-’
‘But I love her,’ I replied.
‘She will be married off to some Lord or other-’
Alfred plunged the glowing metal into a bucket of brown water; a white haze lifted as it hissed. I noticed the bits of straw that floated on the rippling surface; the long blade was lifted from the depths and laid upon the anvil. ‘There.’
‘May I go?’ I asked.
Alfred spat into the fire and nodded, he said: ‘Now, young Hal, do not go doing anything stupid-’
I let the door to the forge rattle shut behind me as I made my way from Alfred's yard, I needed to think, I needed to get away from all of the smoke and cramped hovels of the village. She would never like me if she saw me here; my fingers stained black with the coal and filth of the forge. I tried to brush the stains from my front, but it did little good. If only she was as low-born as me, we would be happy, we could marry and live out our lives together. My thoughts wandered to the pale skin of her neck; the fine wool of her dress that formed shapely around the outline of her breasts. I felt a swell of excitement from my loins, -not here, not now. I walked on; a pig grunted from behind the wicker of its fence, from somewhere chickens clucked frantically as a dog growled. Widow Jane Howell was crying again, she always cried, crying for the boy and girl that had been taken by the blue sickness, and the husband that had been killed by the French. My own mother had tried to comfort her, but it had not helped that my Pa had returned from France. I pressed on; my stomach growled, but I was in no such mood for food, I needed to get to the river. Ma would be angry if I missed supper, but I could not go home like this. Folk were returning from the fields; their clothes fresh with mud, their faces grim from another day's labour. The horses were being unhitched from the ploughs and taken to their stable for the night, the sun would be lost soon. To the west the sky had turned pink, the few clouds hung, their edges stark against the fading light. I passed between the smudged faces of the men and women that I knew well, words were exchanged and soon I was free from them and alone with the brown gentle waters of the river. A thrush sang from somewhere in the trees, as above now, swooped and rose a cloud of starlings. Across the waters loomed the grey and weathered towers of the monastery, its facades now empty and fallen to ruin. Folk said a spirit lived there, a monk. It was said that he sang under the chancel, down in the crypt, awaiting god's vengeance. I walked until I was out of view from the village, the air had cooled and I longed to be alone. I found myself under the shadow of a willow tree; the long flowing branches gently swaying in the breeze. I sighed and lifted my shirt above my head. I kicked off my boots and then unhitched my trousers and left them there upon the bank. My naked body was welcomed by the cold, I felt the sharp intake of breath as the air rushed from my lungs. The water rose to my throat and I fought to stay upright, the silt and stones passing between my toes. My vision blurred as my head ducked beneath the water, I opened my eyes to see the brown rush, the other world never seen, it was as if a wave had consumed all and I was God, looking out upon the flood. The tangle of reeds and the flutter of a fish as it fled from the cloud of kicked up dust. Was someone shouting? I found my footing and emerged, I gasped and breathed heavily, feeling the freshness of the air in my throat. It was then that I saw her, standing upon the bank. She was speaking but I could not hear her, she was shouting.
‘What?’ I asked.
‘Do not kill yourself,’ she said.
I looked down from her to the water and then back up into those piercing eyes and replied: ‘I am not.’
‘Oh, then what were you doing?’
‘You can swim?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ I replied.
She crouched at the water's edge, her long brown hair billowed, fluttering across her face. She said: ‘I can not.’
‘Why not?’ I asked.
‘No one ever taught me.’
‘I could teach you?’
She looked behind her and then back at me.
‘But what if someone saw us?’
‘They will not, no one ever walks this way.’
‘What is your name?’ she asked.
‘Henry Holmes,’ I replied.
‘The blacksmith's boy?’
I bridled at her use of the word boy.
‘What is your name?’ I asked.
‘Alice Fitzwalter,’ she replied.
‘The knight’s girl?’
She scowled, I smiled, an infectious smile and soon the red edges of her lips had creased. ‘Are you coming in?’
‘I can not, they’ll hang you if we are caught.’
‘Then if we are caught we will run away,’ I said.
‘But you do not even know me blacksmiths boy.’
‘Do I not? I know that you are the daughter of a knight and that you are the prettiest girl in the village.’
Her cheeks flushed red and she replied: ‘Only in the village?’
‘In all of England.’
‘So there are prettier girls in Scotland?’ she asked.
‘I can not say, I have never been.’
She mirrored my smile and ran a hand through her hair, pulling at the curls, and letting each hair slip between her fingers. She kicked off her shoes and held out a foot, it was a small foot, pretty, with little toes at its end that soon vanished under the flow.
‘If I drown they really will hang you,’ she said as she found her footing; she held tightly to the hems of her dress and hitched it up high, offering the world a glimpse of her pale thighs. ‘How old are you?’
‘Eighteen summers,’ I replied. ‘So no boy.’
‘Are you not?’
The water had reached up to her knees, the hems of her dress now turning black. She held her breath as she took another step, and then exhaled, her breathing quickened as the water reached her waist. She took a step back and sat down amongst the long grasses of the bank.
‘I will make sure they hang you for ruining my dress-’
‘How old are you?’
She smiled and replied: ‘Guess.’
‘I am surprised you can even count that high, -no.’
I reached out with my hand, cut it down into the water and sent a wave in her direction, she squealed and laughed as it broke around her legs. The droplets caught in the falling sun as they fell to form little circles in the water at her feet.
‘Twenty?’ I asked.
‘Did my brothers tell you?’
‘They do not like me.’ I said.
‘Nor me,’ she replied.
She kicked down into the water sending up a splash of water, I felt it break on my face and I smiled.
‘Come over here then,’ I said.
‘I would rather stay where I can not get wet,’ she replied. She looked past me for a moment, lifted her arm and pointed. I followed her awestruck gaze and saw that she was looking up at the buildings, they were not far from us now and appeared to loom above us. ‘Have you ever been there?’
‘Never,’ I replied.
‘Would you take me?’ she asked.
Our eyes met and she offered me and the world a mischievous grin. Crows cawed, their black bodies hung up high, almost lost to the night. ‘Or are you scared?’
‘What if we are caught?’ I asked.
‘They would never know.’
Perhaps she would let me kiss her if I was brave, brave like a knight. ‘How do we cross?’
‘It is shallower down river,’ I replied.
She stood and shook the crinkles from her dress.
‘Hurry then, we must go before it is dark.’
I waded up to her and then stopped; I remembered my nakedness and felt my cheeks flush with red. My hands fell to my front as I took a step back. ‘Oh do not worry, I will not look, scared I will laugh?’
‘No-,’ I stammered as she turned her back to me. I carefully placed one foot after the other and heaved myself up onto the bank. I felt the prickle of grass against my knees as I shifted my hand to reach out and retrieve my shirt. I slipped it over my head and heard her giggle.
‘I am impressed.’ I could see her looking at me, her head tilted as she began to walk away beside the river. ‘Come on then Hal.’ She winked.
I dressed and followed, I felt as though a dog to its master.
‘Is this where we cross?’ She stopped and pointed to where the river widened and was shallow enough so that the stones of the river bed could be seen. I nodded and took a step down into the water and held out my hand for her to take. Her skin was as soft as I had imagined, she held it for an instant and pulled her hand away once she had found her footing. We took care in crossing, I placed my shoes around my neck as she had hers and soon I was heaving myself up onto the grass-covered embankment. She pulled herself up beside me and there we lay, for an instant, I could hear the rush of blood pounding through my head as I looked upon her. She smiled, caught her breath, stood and was gone. She was running, laughing, her wet feet falling one after the other through the long grasses of the meadow. I took off after her, I felt joy in my heart at that moment, I felt freedom, to feel the grass between my toes and the fresh air of Spring in my lungs. For she was beautiful and I and she were alone. ‘You are too slow Black smith’s boy,’ she called from ahead and I quickened my pace until I was almost upon her. She squealed in play and dodged to one side and fell in a heap of laughter. I found my breath as I looked upon her; her chest rising to fall, she caught my eye and rose to her feet and began to walk to the first of the moss-covered ruins.
‘You are different than I expected,’ I said.
‘How so?’ she asked.
‘Even better,’ I replied.
‘Oh is that so?’ We were consumed by the first of the towering structures that dwarfed all around them. As the sun had gone, and we were alone with the onset and gloom of night, I felt my heart quicken. A crow squawked and I froze. I was not one to feel fear but at that moment I wished that we had stayed on the other side of the river and not rambled idle into such a foul place. Alice seemed to not notice, for she wore a wide smile as she peered up open-mouthed at the high arches and empty windows. She crossed over the threshold of a stone hearth and into a wide and open space; pillars lined the sides of what I guessed was once a hall. The stone now lost under a green coat of ivy and lichen, and what could be seen had crumbled to spill out across the cracked and broken flagstones. To think what awe this place once held, and how little had been lost but for the ghost of broken glass. ‘Over here.’
She had walked to another side door, one enclosed by a ceiling, taken by the darkness. ‘Look.’
‘Should we not go back?’ I asked, praying she would not hear the quiver in my voice.
‘No, silly, come on.’ The dull blue of her dress was taken at once by the shadow, and her voice turned to nothing more than an echo.
‘Alice?’ I whispered.
I followed, startled for an instant by the quiver of a stone beneath my foot. I sighed and carefully traced her steps, along a passage and out into an open square, lined by pillars and a roof. I could imagine the white shadow of a monk, silently gliding across the untamed grasses and down through where we now stood. I shuddered. Alice caught my eye in what brief light the sky still held and reached out with her hand. I felt her grip, it was cold, icy, she squeezed and led me along the passage.
‘Where are we going?’
‘Up there,’ she replied and pointed up to where above us stood the priory tower. It was a huge thing, three times as tall as our church at Waterside, and three times as wide. It seemed to hoard all the light and sky for there was little to be spared around it.
‘We can not,’ I said. I felt her fingers tighten around my palm and with it my heart quicken, she took a step toward me and I felt the brush of her chest against my own.
She led me, we cut across the courtyard and back once more into the depth of shadow. Our bare feet pattering along the stones, and soon we were upon the first of the stone steps, one foot, another, and then another until I looked below and to my shock saw that we had ascended above the earth. I felt my legs quake and my palms dampen.
‘We are so high.’
‘We can go higher,’ she said with a laugh.
And we did. I pulled my eyes away from the distant ground and bid my mind to her. Would she let me kiss her? What pleasures awaited us once we reached the top. We broke out from our gloom and into the cold embrace of night, there was a chill in the air, and for all, I swear I thought I saw the far off flash of white. An Owl? She stopped and took a moment to take in all that she could see. Again I felt my eyes drawn to the rise and fall of her chest, how captivating she looked, her gentle form cast under the white wash of the moon's light. She let my hand fall to my side and took a step toward the ledge and with it, a loud roar of wind filled the space between us. Fear gripped my throat and I felt the sudden urge to gasp for breath, my fingers closed around my throat as my mouth opened and closed. ‘Can you hear them sing?’
‘The Monks,’ she replied.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Can you not hear them?’ She took another step toward the ledge. ‘Come and see Hal.’ She held out her long and slender arm, her white fingers stretched so as to touch me. Was this it? Was this when she would kiss me? She did not look up but held her eyes down toward the ground. ‘Can you not hear them?’
‘No,’ I replied as I took another step toward her.
‘Come and see.’
I paused beside her and peered down into an empty nave; the high pillars reached up from the earth and stood idle, as though waiting for the day of judgement.
‘I see not-’
Her hand pressed on my back and she pushed, with little effort, she shoved me and I was gone, lost and alone. I was caught for a moment in the sky, her gaze the last thing that I would see and then my world became a blur. The rush, the roar of the wind as I fell, the grey world was gone and then it all collapsed, to tumble and fall, into the light.
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Oh Ben, then what happend, you can't leave me with wanting more of the story!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! What an excellent way to write this story. I was with you the entire way, and sad to know what Alice had in store for you. She seemed interested in you, and I don't see now how the story will have a "Happy ending". You're a very articulate and descriptive writer, I will reread this over and over to learn from you. Thank you for this heart wrenching story. Parshalla Wood
An intriguing story, well written. A surprise ending. I felt strangely disappointed in the girl, because my name is Alice and I expected better of her.
Thank you so much Alice! I really appreciate that you liked it and sorry about the name 😅