Aliwyn’s descent into outlawry began the afternoon she welcomed in a murdered knight’s daughter.
She had been rinsing her fishing spear in a stream behind her home. Water trickled around her bare feet as she stood on smooth stones, and her chickens ruffled their feathers in hollow dirt baths nearby. A linen sheet she’d hung out to dry dripped in the sun’s golden rays.
All was tranquil until the door of her mill creaked open on the other side. And shut again.
Aliwyn straightened, scowling as she wiped a wet hand on her apron. Ever since her mentor Miriam had died, she’d padlocked her door shut whenever she stepped out. No one had the key except her close friend, Aelfric, but he wasn’t expected back until Christmas.
Had a thief just broken in?
Aliwyn gripped the fishing spear she had cleaned. Biting on her lower lip, she stepped onto the muddy bank of the stream. Stories of theft had abounded since the latest rebellion against King William had begun, but the manorial village she belonged to had remained peaceful. The new lord of her manor had promised to send guards to her mill, but he never did. Aliwyn had lived by herself for months.
Whoever had opened her door made no other sound. Birds warbled from the woods nearby, and water roared from deep within the gorge behind her. No one traversed the bridges crossing the ravine to her lord’s castle, and the noisy peasants who came to grind grain had all left. Aliwyn’s pulse quickened as she gazed at the distant rooftops of their homes. The throng earlier that day had suffocated her, and she had taken refuge inside all morning. Now she wished a few had stayed so she wouldn’t have to investigate her door alone.
The calmness persisted. Maybe she was imagining things. Aliwyn rubbed her freezing feet together and longed for the stockings hanging by the hearth inside. She untied the knot holding up her ragged dress and stepped out of the stream that powered her mill’s waterwheel. Her shadow stretched over fallen yellow leaves as she tiptoed along the watermill’s stone walls. Holding her breath, she peered around the building’s corner.
The grassy clearing of her front yard was empty, and the rolling hills in the distance revealed no one. But the padlock once hanging from her watermill’s door latch was gone, and the door was still shut. Someone had removed her lock and entered her home.
Tendrils of dread crept up her spine.
How many bandits had just broken in? They might be armed with swords and daggers. She had better fetch the manor’s bailiff across the bridge.
Aliwyn spun around to leave and kicked a hen who had followed her. She yelped, and the hen screeched and scampered over the rustling leaves.
The watermill’s door cracked open.
“Aliwyn,” came Aelfric’s husky voice.
“Oh, it’s you!” Her shoulders slumped with relief, but she scowled at his nasty trick. “Why did you sneak—”
“Shhh! Come quick.”
Aliwyn blinked. Switching the spear to her less sweaty hand, she strode across her front yard.
Aelfric came out in a flash, grabbed her arm, and pulled her inside. The door closed again, quietly. Aliwyn’s eyes widened in the dimness—only one of his eyes was visible, and the other was wrapped in bandages. “What happened to—”
Aelfric placed one hand over her mouth. “I’ll tell you. Please calm down.”
His hand smelled of metal and dirt. Glancing around the mill, unoccupied save for the two of them, he continued. “I’m sorry for scaring you, but I wanted to get inside. Fast.”
Aelfric’s chest was heaving, though his hand remained still and warm against her cheeks. They had rarely stood this close face-to-face. Aliwyn’s heart fluttered, but the tension clouding his dark eye set a different mood. She twitched as he let go. He wore a woolen black tunic she didn’t recognize, but now wasn’t the time to ask where it had come from. His tall frame shifted toward a wheelbarrow laden with turnips by the door. It hadn’t been there before.
“Marie,” Aelfric said, “you can come out now.”
Turnips fell from the wheelbarrow, revealing a moving blanket underneath. One corner flew up, and a girl about eight years old pushed to her elbows. Wavy brown hair fell to her shoulders, and dirt streaked her face.
“Marie, this is Aliwyn. Someone I trust.” Aelfric took the child’s hand and helped her step out. She came up to his elbow in height. The girl glanced at Aliwyn, who still gripped the fishing spear, and buried her face into Aelfric’s tunic.
Aliwyn gawked. With a shaking hand, she slapped her spear against the door frame. She lifted a wooden plank and barred the door shut.
Aelfric hugged the girl’s shoulders. “Don’t be scared, Marie. We made it.” He turned to Aliwyn and continued. “This is Marie Marcotte, Master Marcotte’s youngest child. She needs a place to stay.”
The Marcottes were a prosperous family of two Norman knight brothers, their wives, and their children. Aelfric served one brother as a foot soldier, and he sent home his income to help Miriam pay for medicinal herbs and honey. Miriam had been a healer, and most of her patients couldn’t afford to pay for their remedies.
Ragged and thin, the child Aelfric had brought home didn’t look like the daughter of a rich family.
Aliwyn stared at her. “What happened to her parents?”
“English rebels attacked Master Marcotte and his brother. Only two Marcotte girls and a few servants survived, including me. We’ve been hiding in churches.”
Aliwyn stepped back with her stomach twisting into knots. Other peasants had chattered about distant battles for months, but the rebellion had affected no one she knew. Until now.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “And your eye…”
“I lost it, but it happened weeks ago now. Doesn’t bother me anymore.”
“Who dressed it? Want me to look at it?”
“No, forget about my eye. The Marcottes have been dead for weeks and that’s why I’m here.”
Aelfric looked older, with a sunken eye and his black hair unusually wild. His solemn gaze told of horrors unspoken, and Aliwyn stiffened. She couldn’t offer comfort when she couldn’t pretend to understand.
“Their murder was staged to look like an accident, a shipwreck,” he said. “I tried to keep you out of this, Ali. I tried to get help for the Marcottes elsewhere. But this rebellion just won’t end. The roads are full of bandits. Bridges torn down. Ports burned.”
She wrung her hands. “It’s safe here, Aelfie. You’re always welcome.” She walked into his chest and embraced him. “Welcome home.”
He was bonier than she remembered, and his arms hung by his sides. Where was the warm hug he gave whenever he came home? Her heart sank, and beside him, the girl he had brought back watched them with her lips pinched. Poor thing, she probably missed her loved ones.
Aliwyn released Aelfric and extended her hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Marie. You’re also welcome here.”
Marie gazed back with a blank face and slid behind Aelfric’s back. Aliwyn sighed. The girl’s dark brown hair and brown eyes matched the description Aelfric had given of his best friend, Matthew Marcotte, who was Marie’s cousin.
“Aelfric, what about Matthew? Did he…” she was afraid to finish.
“Matthew was training away with Lord Seville, so he wasn’t on the ship. He’s still alive, but the rebels just caught him. He’s being held hostage. I must get him out.”
“You?” She stiffened. “Why you? You just came back.”
“I can’t stay. I’m here to drop off Marie for safekeeping—if you’re willing to watch her. The rebels have started scouring the churches for the last Marcotte children.”
Aliwyn swallowed several times. She eyed the hilt of Aelfric’s sword hanging from his belt and wanted to squeeze him and never let go. Five years ago, she had opposed his decision to enlist as a foot soldier out of fear he’d get hurt. Now, he had already lost an eye. What would he lose next?
“What about all the king’s men? His barons, knights?” she asked. “They’re not doing anything for Matthew?”
Aelfric flicked the inner corner of his eyebrow. “His Grace is out of the country. He appointed his bishops to control the rebellion.”
“Oh, for goodness’ sake.” Heat rose to Aliwyn’s face. Bishops were busy enough managing their dioceses, and since when did they march to battle?
“Ali, I can’t… it’s hard for me to explain what’s been happening away from here. The rebels are perfect citizens by day, but at night they go torching the fields to destroy the Normans’ food supply. Then they vanish. The Norman knights are busy hunting them down. Matthew is only one of their squires, and he’s not a priority.”
Aliwyn crossed her arms and gazed at her feet. In the last nine years, repeated rebellions had attempted to overthrow King William, a Norman duke who had seized the English throne. With each uprising came theft, kidnappings, and murders as criminals took advantage of the civil unrest. Peasants of each manor had to take justice into their own hands. The neighboring manors could be hours away by foot, and the rebel army attacked messengers who sped away for help.
Marie left Aelfric’s side and wandered toward a shelf of carved farm miniatures and clamshells on display. Aelfric had fashioned the miniatures for Aliwyn when she was young, and the iridescent clamshells had been his special gift. Without asking for permission, Marie picked up the animal toys and plopped down to play on the dirt floor. Aliwyn scowled, but she had other things to worry about.
“Did you ask Lord Yeaton for help?” she asked. “He’s loyal to the Normans.”
“I tried. He wasn’t home. And his bailiff refused to see me.” He ran his hand over his face.
Aliwyn crossed her arms and paced the floor. She had never met Lord Yeaton, the lord of her manor who had just risen to power in mid-summer. She paid his taxes but had yet to receive the benefits of his protection.
“I don’t want you to go, Aelfric. How can you possibly save Matthew by yourself?”
“I’m not by myself. I’ve spoken to one of the Vasfian chiefs. Her tribe will help me.”
“The Vasfians?” She tensed all over. “You’re going to work with the Vasfians?”
The Vasfians were tribal pagans who lived independently of Norman rule and inhabited the hillforts between the manors. They had fed King William’s army that fateful day when he had slain the king of England. Maybe they had won his favor years ago, but it wouldn’t last. King William was too greedy, and Aliwyn waited for him to crush those pagans the way he had conquered her own people.
“You can’t work with Vasfians,” she said. “They have countless rituals we don’t understand. You could insult one of their gods without knowing it, and they’d kill you.”
“But we’ve lived on their territory for years and they’ve never hurt us.” Aelfric widened his stance. “They have a new chief named Reiya, and she wants the rebels dead for trespassing. She offered to help me rescue Matthew. I don’t have another group to help me.”
He pulled out a slender whistle that hung beneath his tunic. It was a Vasfian whistle, the kind that the tribal warriors blew to communicate. Aliwyn gritted her teeth. Aelfric had become one of them. The Vasfians were hot-tempered, superstitious redheads who were quick to kill. If only her mill hadn’t been built on their territory, and Aelfric hadn’t become so bold around them. But the lord of her manor had to negotiate and build the mill on Vasfian territory because that was where the river flowed.
“They kill their own children.” Aliwyn strode to Aelfric’s side. “Even Miriam had noticed how they bury their little boys. It must be some child sacrifice—”
“Enough,” Aelfric said with a flash of his teeth. “I’ve told you for years to stop repeating false rumors. We’ve seen nothing of the sort. You just don’t like the way they look.”
Aliwyn fisted her hands. No, she didn’t like the way the Vasfians looked, and neither did her villagers. Red hair sprouted from the scalps of crafty traitors, and despite five years of living on Vasfian territory, Aliwyn’s mouth still soured upon seeing their freckled faces. The freckles resembled the rash that had struck her birth family seven years ago and killed her only sister. The agony of seeing that darling toddler die still haunted her; she had three brothers but never another sister.
Aliwyn glanced at Marie, who sat surrounded by the wooden toys, and her vision blurred. Aelfric’s expression soon softened. He knew about Aliwyn’s sister, but he had never accepted her dread of the freckled redheads.
“I’m not here for you to approve my decisions,” he said. “I brought Marie here so you can take care of her.”
Aliwyn’s nostrils flared. If Miriam had been there, she would’ve stopped her argument with Aelfric before it began.
The silence spoke louder than words. Aelfric looked around the spacious mill, and Aliwyn followed his gaze. Three empty stools huddled underneath their dining table and a pair of battered shoes rested in the corner. A familiar apron hung on the kitchen wall over the stone slab where Aliwyn prepared vegetables and fish. No one greeted them from the guardrail of the mill’s second floor.
The sorrow on Aelfric’s face washed away Aliwyn’s anger. Miriam had died after his last visit. She had accepted Aliwyn and Aelfric as apprentices after the prior rebellion had left them both orphaned. Aelfric remained her apprentice in the manor records and returned to the mill for two months a year. He had always greeted Miriam with a kiss and a hug.
When he looked back at Aliwyn with a tearful eye, she shook with chills.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here when Miriam passed,” he said.
“You… you know? Who told you?”
“Reiya, the new Vasfian chief. She told me on my way here. If you can’t take care of Marie alone, I’ll ask the Vasfians to watch her.”
Aliwyn curled her cold toes. “Oh no. Don’t do that to this little girl. I’ll keep her.”
“Thank you.” He rubbed the bandage over his eye. “I have to go. Reiya and her tribe will protect our mill like they always have. Farewell, Ali.”
He walked past Marie, who hummed to herself as she rolled Aliwyn’s toys in a muddied area. Aelfric extended his hand, and she bid him goodbye.
Aliwyn struggled to swallow a still-racing heart. Beams of sunlight filtered through the vent holes on either side of the triangular thatched roof, and Aelfric passed through them and into the shadows. He was a soldier with responsibilities, and when he talked like this, nothing she said could stop him.
“Who exactly killed the Marcottes?” She approached him as he lifted the plank barring the door.
“A man named Ransley Boltan and his household. They wear black surcoats with a golden griffin, but you won’t see them.”
He pulled out the padlock he had removed from the outside. Setting it on a barrel nearby, he said, “Keep Marie hidden, and the next time the bailiff comes to collect eggs, tell him Ransley Boltan’s son has been riding to Myton. Something is happening there.”
Aliwyn registered none of it. “When are you coming back?”
“Within a week. If I don’t, then…”
“You’ll be back within a week, Aelfie.” She gave a trembling smile. “And I’ll be here waiting for you.”
He didn’t look at her. Opening the door, he slipped out, and the garlic bulbs drying beside the doorframe wavered. The door shut again with a hollow thump. Both the delight and devastation of seeing Aelfric crystallized as an icy lump in Aliwyn’s throat. Every revolt called upon soldiers to protect the king’s reign. Aelfric was fulfilling his duty, but her chest still shook with sobs.
Aelfric’s footfalls echoed outside. He was running back, and Aliwyn swung the door open as he skidded to a stop.
She looked at him up and down. “Did you forget something?”
He threw his arms around her shoulders, and she gasped.
“This,” he whispered in her ear. Aliwyn grinned. She closed her eyes and wrapped her arms around his torso. They rocked side-to-side. When she had been younger, he’d pick her up and spin her in a circle. This was the Aelfric she knew and loved.
His chest vibrated against her cheek as he spoke. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here for you and Miriam all these years, and that I have to go again.”
“Don’t be sorry. You had to work.”
His tunic and cloak were warm with the smell of fresh hay and wood smoke. She loved that smell, loved the sound of his beating heart. She could have stayed there all day, but Aelfric pulled back and put his hands on her shoulders. “Pray for us, will you? That you and Marie will stay safe, and that I’ll get Matthew out.”
“I will.” She could hardly speak.
“And when I come back, take me to where Miriam is buried. We’ll spend time together. You, me, and her.”
His face flushed around his eye, and Aliwyn managed a nod as his image grew hazy between blinks.
Aelfric smiled and stroked her shoulder with his thumbs. “Thank you for all you’ve done for me. I know you’ll make something delicious out of those turnips.”
He backed away, still smiling. The afternoon sun gleamed on the golden clovers she had embroidered along the neckline of his brown cloak, one for each of his birthdays. Under this same sun, they’d once walked to the lord’s land to plow the wheat fields. His face would beam as he told her the silliest stories and made her laugh.
If only she could turn back time.