For the full effect, read whilst listening to Bach’s “Cello Sonata No 5”
Some names have been removed to retain a degree of spoiler-dom… but really, it doesn’t matter who. I just say as shouldn’t that it’s a hell of a good piece of writing. I cried writing it, and I cried reading it again,
Prince Rupert was finally brought to a stand at the end of the siege of Bristol in September 1645, and after a brief and ferocious stand-off, surrendered to Thomas Fairfax.
I dare you not to shed a tear.
Hollie sat on the stairs with his eyes closed, feeling that old familiar gritty sting of too many tears under his eyelids. Watching the sun dropping down below the rooftops, covering the city with a kind rosy blanket, and listening to people being alive in the world. About their business – beginning to stir again, after almost a month under siege, beginning, shyly, hesitantly, to be unafraid. Someone singing in the kitchens below and for the lad’s sake he wanted them to be silent – how could they sing when a man’s wife was dying in his arms? – and then he shook his head, no. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
He hoped the lad was strong in his faith. He hoped the lad would believe most firmly that he would meet her again, in a better world than this, and that it would comfort him in his adversity. Hollie had remained uncomforted in his for the better part of ten years, seeking comfort or extinction by turns. Had lost his hope, his career, his faith, his good name. If it hadn’t been for Het, his bright pole-star, he’d not have come back. The September sunset was warm and mellow now, flooding the landing with a golden tide, and the singer in the kitchens had fallen silent. The city was silent, an odd moment of stillness, almost as if the world were enclosed in a fragile, hollow soap bubble. A blackbird, singing, in an apple tree, the liquid notes falling clear into the dusk.
He could hear the lad, talking to his wife, through the latched door. Couldn’t hear the words. Just the lad’s happy, bright conversational voice, talking to himself. Talking to a dead woman who was still breathing. Saying, God willing, all the things he hadn’t had time to say in six weeks of marriage, and should have had a lifetime to say. The lad was barely twenty-two, he was a boy yet, it was wrong that he should be made to suffer so. It was bloody wrong and any God that thought it was fitting to put a pistol ball in the brain of a living, feeling young woman with so many years of useful life in front of her, and then to leave her husband to lie alongside her on a narrow bed in a strange town and wait for her breath to stop – ah, Christ, no, that kind of God was a vengeful arsehole and Hollie Babbitt would look Him in the eye on Judgment Day and bloody well tell Him so, and the hell with the consequence.
It was nothing to do with the lad. He knew that. It was thinking of himself and Griete, all those years ago, that made the tears come again. Thinking he knew what the lad was feeling, though he didn’t, God knows he couldn’t, they were as unlike as flint and cheese, but – even so. Hollie knew what it was to love and then suddenly to find yourself cut loose and desperate. He’d not let the boy go into that darkness. Not alone.
He put his back up against the door and sat with his head on his knees for a while, listening to his own breathing. Thinking of his own girl. Loving her twice over, loving her for that other girl’s sake, for still being alive to be loved while the other girl was leaving this world. Crying again, silently, for he had no right to mourn another man’s wife, but he mourned the loss of the lad’s first love and the his innocence and, for a while, his joy, and that was a death in itself.
He’d miss the daft, dreamy little bugger. He could only hope the man was one day going to be as full of hope and dreams and cockeyed romanticism as the boy.
The moon was rising. In the room behind him, the lad’s voice was growing hoarse, but still steady, still constant. Worn out with war and grief, Hollie slept, with his naked sword to one hand and one of Het’s faded silk ribbons clutched like a child’s comforter in the other.
It was shortly after dawn the next morning when the lad opened the door. Pale, but neat and dry-eyed and calm “She’s gone,” he said softly. “Would you be so kind, sir, as to fetch – fetch your father?” .