Brycgstow’ s Wall
The twig in Cate’s hand made a pleasant clacking sound as she dragged it along Brycgstow’s massive stone wall, but it provided little distraction from the choice her father demanded she make. Cate knew it was time for her to marry now that she was fourteen. Her sister Darryl had not been much older when she married. But the men her father had picked! She shuddered thinking of Wulf, an old farmer who leered at her whenever he came to town, and Sene, a carpenter from Gloucester she had never met, but who must be horrible if he could find no woman there.
Cate’s coarse blouse and skirt chafed against her body as the cold wind gusted, and long loose strands of ash brown hair lashed her eyes. She dropped her bucket in dismay when she saw the long line of women filling the steps near St. John’s Well and heard the chaos of merchants yelling to attract the attention of farmers crossing the Frome Bridge.
Just a few minutes, she thought, a little time away from everyone’s demands to bring the water, sweep the floor, tend the chickens, replace the bed straw. To choose how to live the rest of her life. St. Giles’s church was nearby. How much better to wait there and dream, if only for a moment, of Ruth and other saintly women who sacrificed all for Christ. How glorious it would be to be like them, instead of grinding grain or mending tears in her father’s shirt. Or being forced to marry an ugly old man.
As she neared St. Giles, the sound of water rushing in the river on the other side of the wall called to Cate. She knew she needed to help her mother prepare the garden now that the ground was softening. She knew she would get in trouble if she went outside the gate to sit by the river. Her mother often warned her Christian girls were not allowed there alone, or almost anywhere it seemed, but right now Cate needed peace.
Silly stories, Cate thought about the tales her mother told about the dangers of the false king Stephen’s prowling knights and the pirates who took young girls for slaves. Cate had watched the river many times, whenever she felt sad or lonely or confused, and she’d always felt safe. No bridge crossed the river here, and the few ships that sailed this far up the Frome congregated upstream near where the Jews lived outside the wall. And she’d heard her brother gloat many times that the false king’s men didn’t dare approach. The traitors had lost many men when they’d failed to rescue Stephen from Earl Robert’s prison. Why would they come now?
Old Radulf kept watch in the huge archway that led to the marshes, his face obscured by his hood with only his white beard and a few straggles of long white hair stark against his dark, bent silhouette. She glanced quickly up the wall to see if her brother Sperleng or any of his soldier friends were on guard today. Two Norman archers paced the wall farther down, facing the river and forest that surrounded the town.
Cate hid her bucket behind a bush. She was sure Radulf saw her but, as always, pretended he didn’t, looking to the right as she turned quickly to the left along the path that followed the curve of the outside wall before sloping downward. She headed toward the place she liked to sit, far from the boats and the soldiers and the noise.
She loved the whispering dark of the river and the fawn-colored grasses waving against the blue of the sky. Her clogs squished through the soft ground, and brambles clung to her long, stiff skirt as it brushed against blackberry bushes just beginning to flower. Lilacs, too, were opening, and she breathed in their glorious perfume. She lifted her face to shafts of light breaking through the clouds, letting the sun warm her. The wind was less biting here. She sank to her heels, calmed by the white tops of the waves shifting in the wind and the young leaves of the whitebeam trees across the river waving white and green.
A flock of crows circled overhead, their huge black wings glinting purple in the sunlight. They lifted on the wind currents, then dived toward the willows whose branches dragged along the bank of the river. Several landed near the water’s edge, interested in something long and dark. She stayed still, fearing it might be a wounded animal, but when it didn’t move curiosity overtook her. Grabbing her skirt in one hand, she skidded carefully down the hill. She took a few cautious steps forward. The birds flew to the tops of the trees, cawing raucously.
Cate saw a hand and froze. A child’s body lay in a shallow trench, partially covered with marsh grasses and willow branches. She picked up a large branch and held it protectively in front of her. When she reached the body, she waved away the flies and brushed the grass and leaves with her stick. Bile rose to her throat when she saw the distinctive coppery hair and familiar shape of Oxa, the blacksmith’s son, lying face down in the trench.
“Oxa! Is that you?” Cate dropped to her knees and shook him as she spoke. “Are you hurt? Say something.”
Cate felt stuck in a nightmare, unable to move. Get up! Get help! she told herself, but she couldn’t. A crow, lulled by her stillness, landed near Oxa’s feet, tilted its head to one side, and hopped forward.
“No!” Cate shouted, waving her branch in the air as the crow flew away. She bolted toward the gate, screaming for Radulf.
“Come quick,” Cate said, gasping for breath and holding her side. “Oxa’s lying by the river!”
They ran back through the muddy marsh, Cate tripping on her skirt, landing face first in the tangled grasses. She pushed herself against a rock, pulled off her clogs, lifted her wet and muddy skirt, and hurried to where Radulf yelled and prodded Oxa. Now she saw the dried blood darkening Oxa’s matted hair. Radulf turned the body, and Oxa’s unseeing eyes stared at them.
“He be dead, girl,” Radulf said quietly. “I’ll get the sheriff. You be off to your father’s house.”
Cate stared at Radulf, eyes wide. She had seen Oxa just yesterday, laughing happily atop his father’s shoulders.
Several large crows stood guard high in a tree screeching at them. Am I screaming too? she thought. No, Radulf would be shaking me if I were screaming.
I should do something. I should go.
It cannot be true. Christ, let him be alive. “Go, girl!” Radulf growled.
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