It was June 23, 1723. Twelve-year-old Alice hovered at the edge of the village where she lived with her Grandpa. Her freshly washed copper hair glinted in the sun.
A tremor of trepidation piano-fingered up her spine. No longer considered a child, she had no choice but to join the Midsummer festivities as an available maiden.
Ahead, the village green bustled with preparations for the night’s Midsummer festivities. Tables laden with food to welcome everyone, including travelling visitors, stood outside the door of the Parish. In the fields, the cattle had been penned close to the village, ready to receive the cleansing smoke of the bonfires.
A sudden breeze sprung into the air. Alice hunched into her tattered hand-me-down coat and pulled it over the bodice of her too tight dress. Yester year’s boots pinched her toes. Before the night was done, her heels would be blistered and bloody.
She looked at Thomas, the blacksmith’s boy, finishing the building of the main bonfire and thought of the handful of herbs under her pillow. Thomas looked up straight into her eyes and winked. Blood rushed into her face, setting her cheeks on fire. Her wreath of Oxeye Daisy’s dropped from her nerveless fingers.
A sharp slap on her back brought Alice back to the present. She turned and looked into the beady black eyes of the crow faced Parson’s wife.
“There is no time for daydreaming, missy, there is work to do. Thomas is above your station. He has been promised to our Mary. Not even the faeries will on this night grant your wish. Your Grandpa has been much too lenient with you. Get down there and make yourself handy.”
Alice blinked and swallowed her tears. Without a word, she picked up her wreath and combed her fingers through her copper curls. She lifted her chin, put her wreath on her head and marched ahead of the Parson’s wife to the table in front of the Parish. On her way past the bonfire, she peeked at Thomas. Mary, as crow faced as her mother, stood at his side, a malicious grin on her bloodless thin lips.
The day soon drew to an end and the sun’s last rays kissed the side wall of the Parish. Alice loved sunsets and looked into the sky. Aghast, she watched a giant dragon cloud opening its mouth and swallow the sun before it could duck behind the rim of the hills. Her breath hitched. A gas bubble galloped through her intestines.
Much later, she was released from her chores. She went in search of Grandpa and found him where he kept watch over the setting up of the Maypole. She folded herself into his warmth as he hugged her to him. It mattered, ought, that some daisies on her wreath were crushed.
The main bonfire was burning high on the village green. All over the village, oil torches were anchored into the ground and lit. The young ones played tag on the village green. Alice watched Thomas and his friends as they jumped over the bonfire. Mary and her cohorts had made a circle around the bonfire. They danced and clapped hands, encouraging the boys.
‘Why don’t you go dance with the other young ones?’
‘I just want to sit with you for a bit.’
It won’t be a good idea to tell Grandpa about her aching feet. He would just feel guilty about her too small shoes and it would spoil the one evening of the year he allowed himself a breather.
Alice took Grandpa’s rough hand in hers and they walked to the table in front of the Parish. She tried her best to steer Grandpa towards the far edge of the table, away from the Parson and his rambunctious guests. It was clear they were well into their cups already.
Alice was about to heave a sigh of relief when the Parson called out behind them.
‘Jacob, come back here. Introduce my guests to your eligible Alice.’
Alice could feel Grandpa stiffen beside her. They had no choice but to turn back to the Parson. Alice remained behind Grandpa as they approached Parson Brown. Even in the low light, Alice could feel his leer. Three men sat with him, decked out in red and gold livery.
‘Mr. Johnson here is looking for a maiden,’ the Parson said, pointing at the youngest of the lot. An acne scarred lad with close-set eyes.
‘Begging your pardon Parson Brown, my Alice is only just turned twelve yesterday. She will look to find a mate during the next midsummer fest.’
‘Twelve is the right age to train them well as to their duties,’ Parson Brown declared. His guests sniggered. The one called Johnson licked his thin lips.
As she was wont to do, Alice spoke before thinking it through.
‘If your wife considered me below the station of Thomas, the blacksmith’s son, I fear I am even less of a match for Mr. Johnson.’
The Parson jumped up. Stumbled and fell into a drunken heap at the feet of his guests, who scurried to help him up. The rest of the villagers gathered around them. Alice and her Grandpa worked their way to the edge of the crowd and hastened to their cottage, well beyond the village at the edge of the woods.
‘They will come for us.’
‘I am sorry, Grandpa. I am so sorry. I just could not. I could no…’
‘I know, lass. Grab what you need,’ Grandpa said as he scrabbled around, bundling up his own meagre belongings.
‘They won’t be following us tonight. We can get a fair bit of the way through the woods.’
Alice ripped off her boots, bandaged her feet with strips of an old shirt, and put on her mules. She glanced around the cottage. Her only treasure was her late mother’s book of herbs with descriptions and pictures drawn. An age-old knowledge settled in her. It would come in handy.
‘Here, put on this shirt and pants. It would be better if you travel as a lad. I will go get our horses so long.’
Alice dressed as fast as she could and tied her hair in a bun. She secured an old knitted woolen cap of Grandpa’s on her head. An unfamiliar noise outside the cottage door smacked her in the solar plexus. She spun around. The door burst open.
Johnson advanced into the cottage. Before Alice could step back, Johnson grabbed her by the front of her shirt. His breath stank of sausage and ale.
‘Where is that wench,’ he screamed at Alice, his spittle spraying over her face.
Alice fought to free herself from his grip. The woolen cap fell from her head and her hair sprung free. Johnson grabbed a fistful of her hair and dragged her to the table. His other hand fidgeted with his belt buckle. Oblivious to the pain in her scalp, Alice kicked Johnson. She missed his groin and the kick harmlessly glanced off his arm. Johnson slammed her head against the edge of the table. Her eyes blurred and her world tilted on its axle.
Alice tasted blood in her mouth. She swallowed her bile and bit back the nausea. She saw Johnson’s pants drop and knew it was her last chance. She turned her head and sunk her teeth into his forearm. Johnson howled and let go of her hair. She kicked him again, this time square in the crotch, and he fell to his knees.
Alice rolled off the table to the floor. Her eye caught the poker in the fireplace. She dove for the fireplace. Johnson grabbed her ankle. With a strength born of fear, she kicked him in the face. Johnson howled and let go of her ankle.
Alice grabbed hold of the poker as Johnson stumbled to his feet. Behind him Grandpa appeared in the cottage door with his trench knife in his hand. Alice took a swipe at Johnson with the poker. Unable to move with his pants pooled around his ankles, Johnson tumbled backwards. Alice watched as Grandpa bent down and buried the trench knife in Johnson’s neck. His blood pumped, spurted. Mesmerized, she stared as the arcs became smaller and smaller, then stopped.
‘Let’s go before they come looking for him,’ Grandpa said as he pulled his trench knife free.
Alice needed no further encouragement and ran out of the cottage. Nausea overcame her, and she hurled into the bushes until her throat burned raw. Tears scalded her cheeks. Grandpa wiped her mouth and held her tight for a moment.
‘Come now, lass, we need to get out of here,’ he said and helped her onto her horse.
After three months of travelling, many times backwards to cover their trail, they reached the Scottish border.