Chapter 1 – In Thunder, Lightning, Or In Rain

It was wretched weather. The rain lashed down, unforgiving and unrelenting. Although it was only early evening, the sky had taken on granite tones and seemed to suck the light out of the air. Lightning arced from cloud to cloud, bathing the landscape in momentary flashes of stark blue-white. Thunder cracked and roared. A wind whipped across the water meadows, shaking trees that made them appear to be trembling in fear. Wet grasses released their scent as a girl of around fourteen or fifteen years of age struggled across the fields, looking back nervously from time to time to see if she was being followed. She wasn’t, of course. No-one would be foolish enough to be abroad on a night like this. The going was tough; the tall grass wrapped itself around her ankles, soaking her stockings. The ground was soft and marshy; her shoes sank into the earth and filled with water. Now and then she fell, thumping down on her hands and knees. Once, she pitched head-long, landing face down. She forced herself onto her feet again and tried to brush off the dirt and grass that clung to her clothes but merely smeared mud all over the white cotton apron. She sighed heavily, hoisted her shawl back over her head to protect her from the worst of the rain, and trudged on.
After a while she reached the river. Normally it was relatively shallow and could be waded across but the rain had caused it to swell. She paused, shivering with cold. She needed to find shelter soon otherwise she might succumb to a chill. Only a short distance away, tantalisingly close, was the church. Its tower had been her landmark, her target as she fought her way through the storm. If only she could get across the river. She looked up and down the bank. A little way downstream she noticed a tree had fallen, blown over by the wind. Its crown had entangled itself with that of another tree on the opposite bank, forming a rather precarious-looking bridge across the torrent. The girl hurried towards it, tying her shawl securely so she would not lose it as she climbed. It was not a large tree but it looked strong enough to bear her weight. The bark was slippery and the tree swayed as she scrambled her way across. Suddenly the tree dropped towards the churning water beneath and she screamed with fright. Almost as suddenly it came to a jolting stop, slamming her small body into the trunk, winding and bruising her; some branches must have given way, causing the tree to fall a few feet closer to the river, before snagging again. The girl clung to the trunk, shivering with cold and fear, not daring to move. She remained like that for several minutes and then, cautiously, inched herself forward, a little at a time, until she reached the mass of twisted and fouled branches. She was most of the way across the river by this point but the main trunk had thinned into a mesh of seemingly impenetrable branches. As she pushed her way through, some of the branches appeared to fight back, whipping her across the face or trying to push her into the water below. Just a few feet in front of her was the trunk of the other tree. If she could reach that it would be a simple case of climbing down and she would be back on relatively solid ground. The girl traversed a couple more branches and then stretched her arms out towards the almost vertical trunk. As she did so there was a sickening crack and the world dropped away from beneath her. She fell forward, smacking her head against the trunk. Stunned, she plummeted down in a thrashing mass of branches. Time slowed; the fall seemed to last forever, though in truth it could not been more than a second or so; enough time for her to think I’m going to die. Then she was gasping in shock as she hit the river and cold water closed over her. Branches snatched at her clothing, as though the tree was trying to stop the river whisking her away. She surfaced and screamed for help as loud as she could but knew it was pointless; no-one would hear her in this storm. The cold was rapidly weakening her. She felt herself succumbing to the force of the river. She felt herself lurch abruptly; her clothes had torn themselves free of the tree’s grasp and she was tumbling downstream through the frothing water. The river, though in spate, was not very deep, and the girl kept striking the bottom but could get no purchase. After a moment or two she felt the riverbed rise sharply as it pushed her around a point bar, a beach-like deposit of sediment. Instinct took over and she jammed her hands into the soft soil. The river swung her around, trying to carry her feet-first downstream, trying to wrench her hands out of their hold. She kicked for all she was worth, inched forward very slightly against the flow but enough for her to pull a hand free and stab it back into the soil further up the bank. Again and again she repeated this until, utterly exhausted, she lay upon the wet earth. She knew that the water could rise further and that she must get to the safety of the riverbank but was too tired to move. She felt herself surrendering to the cold; if she fell asleep then she may not wake again. Just as sleep was about to overwhelm her, she felt something warm and rough rubbing her face. A sickly-sweet cloud of breath hit her and brought her to her senses. She pushed herself up onto her elbows and then sobbed with relief; it was a cow! A cow was licking her face! It backed off as the girl moved and eyed her warily. The girl tried to make reassuring noises as she crawled painfully up onto the riverbank, but the cow wheeled away, mooing unhappily, before turning back to stare at the forlorn child dragging itself across the grass. Her hand was in something warm now and she knew it was a fresh cow pat but she was past caring. Other cows appeared out of the rain and followed her achingly slow progress across the meadow. The storm was subsiding, the sky losing its menace amidst failing clouds, and the rain fell intermittently. Ahead, less than fifty yards away, glistening in the dying rays of late evening sun, loomed the squat tower of the Obsidian Church.

It was dark when the girl awoke. Stars hung overhead; they looked so bright and tempting that she felt that she could reach up and pluck any one of them out of the sky. There was something hard at her back; a wall. The rough stonework dug into her shoulder-blades; she must have been so tired that she had crawled up against it and fallen instantly into a deep sleep. She was aware that her clothes were still wet through and she was chilled to the marrow. Shaking uncontrollably with cold the girl got to her feet and inched her way along the perimeter. After only a short distance she came to a small wooden door mounted into the wall. A rusty handle dangled invitingly and she tried to turn it but her strength gave out. Sobbing with frustration she slumped against the door, which gave way and fell inwards, with the girl crashing to earth on top of it with a scream. She was sure someone must have heard the commotion; she rolled quickly to one side and leapt up and ran towards the darkest shadows she could find. She had been right; from the lee of the wall she watched two figures come scurrying out from the church buildings, a lantern swinging wildly.
“See, I told you that gate needed fixing, Brother Hesketh. It was no good just propping it up; those blasted cows are in again.” The lamplight caught the unmistakeable outlines of several cows, whose curiosity had caused them to follow the girl through the doorway. The cloaked figures attempted to herd the cows back into the meadow. The cows had other ideas, especially as it appeared that they were in a walled vegetable garden which offered new and exciting things to tempt their palate. As the men tried to coax them towards the gap in the wall, the cows shot off in different directions. Their bovine chums in the meadow, hearing the noise in the walled garden, came to investigate and promptly joined in. In a very short space of time, a dozen or more cows were running around and destroying what had been a very carefully tended vegetable garden. Leeks, carrots, cabbages; all were consumed with gusto. More men came hurrying out from the church dormitories. Lanterns were being flashed about, the men blinding each other in their confusion. There was plenty of yelling, shouting, and language quite unseemly for church residents. And whilst the men fell over each other, the cows appeared to be enjoying themselves enormously. Stifling her laughter and realising that the animals and men with lanterns could, at any moment, come charging her way, the girl scurried away from the stampede, hugging the shadows and using the chaos as perfect cover. It did not take long to reach the main church building, or a door that opened easily. She ducked inside and closed the door behind her as quietly as she could. It was quite, quite dark and she stumbled around, bumping into various objects until she caught her foot on something and fell, clumsily; she had tripped on the bottom step of a stone staircase. Feeling her way in the dark she headed upwards, the stairs climbing and climbing in a long spiral until, eventually they stopped at another door. She groped around in the darkness until she found the handle, and gave it a sharp twist. The door opened inwards, hesitantly, squealing on rusty hinges. No-one else would hear; they were too busy rounding up cattle. She stepped into the room. It was still very dark. There were a few large shapes discernible in the starlight but quite what they were the girl could not tell. What she did know was that it was dry and quiet up here, and she was away from all the other children who had picked on her. She made her shawl into a pillow. It was still wet but it was better than nothing. “Let’s see if anyone really cares about Sally Prestwich,” she said to herself and, curling up into a small ball for warmth, Sally cried herself to sleep.

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