Aelfric stopped abruptly, the short hairs rising on the nape of his neck as he realised, with a growing sense of unease, just where his wandering had taken him.
As though for reassurance, he glanced back along the path, restless blue eyes ranging over the coastal scrubland and beyond the tidy fields and gardens to the distant outlines of the thatched roofs of the monastery, burnished by the rising sun. He listened to the faint sounds carried on the gentle spring breeze. The gurgling of a nearby beck. The rustling of leaves and a chorus of birdsong.
The young man adjusted the strap of his woven foraging bag and squinted ahead towards a silhouette outlined against the low sun. It was a grove of oak trees, ancient and gnarled, festooned with mistletoe and thronging with birdlife. He tended not to come this way on his early morning walks gathering wild herbs and medicinal plants, usually preferring to roam where the pickings were more fruitful: inland to the weald or down to the seashore. He had always taken great care to avoid this stretch of scrubland and the incongruous cluster of oaks which grew there, and if asked would have been unable to say why he had been drawn in such an unaccustomed direction on that particular morning.
Looking warily at the roughly circular cluster of mighty trees a hundred yards ahead, Aelfric mulled over the reason for his wariness. After all, had not the abbot warned him about the oak grove, a sacred site of centuries past, and muttered darkly of the pagan priesthood known as the druids and their unspeakable rituals and otherworldly beliefs? It was an unholy place, and it would not be wise for a godly man to turn his steps thereto. All this the youth recalled with a shiver, drawing his grey woollen tunic tightly about him. And yet…
The morning sun was shedding a golden aura over all the land this fine morning, the scent of bluebells and honeysuckle and the salty tang of the Northern Sea were carried to him, and at that moment he could imagine no better place to be than beneath that canopy of sky reaching branches amidst the birdsong and vernal freshness. Deep within himself, he sensed the stirrings of an irresistible compulsion to penetrate those fragrant shadows, to feel the enfolding strength of the oaks, and listen to the secrets whispered by the rustling leaves. After all, he thought as he instinctively reached for the wooden cross which hung on a cord about his neck, he could surely trust in the good Lord’s protection.
As he resolved upon his course of action, there arose in him an unaccustomed sensation, almost an exhilaration, at the thought of what he was about to do, a sensation which vaguely troubled his naturally pious nature. Nonetheless, he squared his broad shoulders and set his feet firmly back upon the half overgrown path.
As Aelfric reached the margin of the sacred grove, his rising excitement was checked suddenly by the rattling alarm call of a startled mistle thrush, and the next second he had stopped in mid stride, as tense and still as a stalking cat, heart hammering. For there, deep within the shadows of the ancient trees he had seen a hint of movement, a brief glimpse of a white-clad figure.
When at last he felt he could breathe again, Aelfric looked back over his shoulder, but he could no longer see the comforting outlines of his home, hidden from sight by the gentle contours of the land. He looked again towards the grove, but could discern no further movement. He felt his courage waver, for had he not been told that the pagan priests of old, in the days before the advent of Christianity in this remote land, had arrayed themselves in white vestments? To proceed further was surely the height of foolishness. He hesitated for long moments, torn between a dread of the unknown and the hungry curiosity of youth. Then, a decision reached, he began to move slowly forward, scarcely breathing, every sense alert.
Edging closer to the nearest of the great trees, Aelfric pressed his trembling body against the broad grey trunk. The ridged bark was reassuringly solid and warm beneath his fingers as he peered into the clearing, nerves taut as sinew. What he saw there made his breath catch in his throat and the world around him seem to tilt and reel. For there, amidst the dappled shade of the trees, seated upon a fallen trunk of lightning blasted oak, was a young girl, clothed in a gown of purest white. Her golden tresses tumbling loosely about her shoulders, she was softly singing a haunting melody in a voice of fragile loveliness.
Spellbound, Aelfric stood rooted to the spot, hardly daring to breath, drinking in the sight of her ethereal beauty, until it seemed that all the world and all of time had shrunk to that place and that moment—an eternal now.
The girl abruptly ceased her song and, apparently growing once more aware of her surroundings, assumed an attitude of listening. Her head turned and her grey eyes, full of a timeless wisdom incongruous in such a youthful face, roved over the glade until they settled upon the pale face of the young man peering from his place of concealment. She showed no concern at being surprised by a stranger in that lonely spot, but simply looked at her watcher with a level gaze, calm and unafraid.
As he realised he had been seen, the spell which held Aelfric fast was broken and he backed away. A sudden surge of panic overcame him and he took to his heels and fled headlong towards the sanctuary of home.
That night, in the comforting austerity of his crude hut of rough-hewn stone and turf, Aelfric lay shifting restlessly upon the straw of his cot, thinking of his hurried return to the monastery. The brothers had expressed some concern at his flushed face and air of bewilderment, and he felt again the shame of his reluctance to tell of that which he had seen. Even Egfrid the abbot, who loved him like a son, was unable to convince the troubled youth to unburden his soul. His hard labours in the fields had provided some distraction from his inner turmoil, but now, after particularly lengthy and fervent prayers before retiring for the night, and despite his tiredness, sleep was a long time coming. As he stared unseeingly at the roof thatch, he knew, even as he resolved never to do so, that he would return to the oak grove the next morning. When exhaustion eventually overtook the youth, he slept fitfully, dreaming of white-robed priests brandishing golden sickles, human sacrifices trembling in wooden cages, doorways in trees leading to unfathomable worlds, and always, behind the ever shifting panorama, he sensed the serene watchfulness of mystical grey eyes.
Waking with a start before dawn, Aelfric picked up his foraging bag and slipped out of the compound. Seemingly without conscious thought, he found himself once more walking the ancient track amidst the tattered ghosts of morning mist. Almost before he knew it, he was there. Against the gold of morning, the oaks stood in solemn conclave like a gathering of elemental spirits at the dawn of time.
By turns, fearing that the strange girl might be there and dreading that she might not, he slipped beneath the canopy of leaves into the twilit world within. His eyes adjusted to the gloom and suddenly she was there, seated upon the deadfall she had occupied the previous day, as though waiting. She turned toward him as he stood hesitantly at the edge of the clearing and, smiling in welcome, gestured for him to sit by her side. A sense of unease made him half turn to go, but then she spoke, and her voice, soft and gentle as the sighing of wind-stirred leaves, held him like an embrace.
“I pray you, don’t go. Sit with me that we may talk.”
The reassuring voice eased Aelfric’s misgivings, and he found himself doing as he was asked. Setting aside his bag, he perched himself on the fallen timber, closer to the girl than he might otherwise have deemed appropriate. Questions whirled through his mind, but his tongue refused to move and he could only sit and stare. Her fresh, innocent face and open, guileless gaze enthralled him and he forgot his disquiet.
“I would know your name,” she stated simply.
Finding his voice with difficulty, the youth strove to reply. “Aelfric,” was all he could utter.
Seemingly pleased, the girl pressed him further, “By your apparel it would seem that you dwell in the mynster nearby. Are you then a priest?”
Almost relieved by the mundane nature of the question, Aelfric found his words tumbling out in a rush. “I am no priest, though such I hope to become in time, God willing. I work for the brothers, so they may have more time to devote to their meditations and prayers.”
“Well said.” The girl clapped her hands delightedly and laughed.
Aelfric frowned and his cheeks burned with youthful indignation, “Do you mock me?” he asked.
Dismay clouded her face. “No. I meant no mockery. It has been long since I heard the speech of men and my heart was gladdened. Do not be affronted. Tell me, how old are you?”
Placated by her evident remorse and concern, Aelfric answered readily. “I have seen fifteen summers,” he said.
“And did your mother and father place you with the priests?”
Aelfric’s eyes clouded over momentarily as he replied, “I do not remember my father, and scant little of my mother. I was barely a year old when she left me at the abbot’s door. Egfrid took me in and raised me. He taught me to read and write and set my feet on the path of salvation.”
“Then Egfrid must be a good man,” she said.
A smile came to the young man’s lips for the first time as he warmed to the subject and spoke with pride. “He is the best and wisest of men. In his youth, he studied on the distant isle of Lindisfarne and has conversed with Bede and seen the coffin which holds Aidan’s bones. He established the mynster here and the devout came to him. We are a community of twenty now, and we have built in stone, as the Romans did long ago. It is a good life, and God has seen fit to bless us with good health and wellbeing.”
“And yet your spirit is restless,” she observed.
“Why do you say so?” he asked defensively, alarmed by her perception.
“Because you come willingly to a place which is ill-regarded by those of your calling,” she replied. “Do you wish to know of the world?”
“I do know of the world,” he responded quickly, his youthful pride stung. “Egfrid has taught me. He says my head is full of dreams, yet still I have learned many things. I know that Aethelbald sits upon the throne of this kingdom, and that hairy painted beast-men known as the Picti live in the frozen wastes of the far north, and a land called Gaul lies across the grey sea, and untold leagues beyond that is the Holy Land, and moreover I know that this…,” and here he gestured around the clearing with a contemptuous wave, “…was a place of pagan wickedness and deviltry in ancient times and may well still be so.” He stared at the girl significantly as he voiced these last words.
Unperturbed by the young man’s outburst, the girl replied, “This was a sacred place in times past, it is true, but it was a grove of lovers, not devils. Those without child would have lain herein, in hopes of becoming blessed.”
“Such things are the will of God,” Aelfric muttered.
The girl smiled. Aelfric found his eyes drawn to the gleaming whiteness of her gown and the slim figure beneath. He looked swiftly away and watched instead the dancing of leaf shadows on the floor of the grove. “You know my name,” he said, acutely conscious now of her nearness, “I would know yours.”
“I have been known by many names.”
“I do not understand.”
“It matters not. All names become buried in the dust of the ages and are forgotten in the endless passing of the years, just as the deeds of men are buried and forgotten. Such is the way of things.”
Aelfric pondered this for long moments and his uneasiness returned. “I must be away,” he murmured. “My chores await and the brothers will be concerned at my absence.” Yet he made no move to go. The girl’s hand reached across the space between them and came to rest upon his own. He stared silently at the pale and delicate fingers and felt their softness and warmth.
In years to come, Aelfric would think often of how, from that moment until day’s end, he seemed to lose all sense of time and place. He would recall that he had willingly told the girl of his life, and of the vague dreams and embryonic hopes he had shared with no other. In turn, she had told him of the legend-haunted land which was his home, a land far older than he had ever realised, hoary with ancient and terrible secrets, yet ripe with the promise of greatness. Much of what he heard defied his comprehension and would fade in his memory as dreams fade upon waking, yet the elusive hints he remembered would give him pause for the rest of his days. As the light grew mellow and the afternoon sun dipped toward the dense ramparts of the distant forest, Aelfric slowly came to realise that if this girl who told him so much of life and yet so little of herself were to ask him, he would gladly stay by her side. Yet all too soon, it seemed, she lifted her eyes to the deepening blue of the sky, sighed, and rose to her feet.
“I must go now,” she said.
Aelfric remained seated, staring helplessly at the graceful vision in white, groping for the words to express a yearning he did not understand.
“Let me go with you,” was all he was able to say, and even in that dreamlike moment, he was surprised at the urgency of his plea.
She smiled sadly and gently shook her head, “Such things cannot be. You must follow the path which has been set for you. You are consecrated to your God. In your heart you know this,” she said.
Disappointment and confusion made Aelfric‘s manner harsh and he spoke out scathingly. “Aye, I know this, and more too; I know that you are no woman born of mankind. That much is plain. So what manner of creature are you?”
She looked at him for long moments, as though pondering deeply upon some unknowable quandary, before seemingly reaching a decision. She turned her gaze to the west and her eyes became lost in an unimaginable distance.
“You wish to know my nature? Then I will tell you and mayhap some day you will understand,” she replied tenderly. “ I am the dawn mist and the forest clad hills, the lichen mottled stones and murmuring streams, the sun dappled dales and windswept crags of this sacred isle. The wild things partake of my bounty and my aspect haunts the dreams of men. My crown of heather is jewelled by the storm, and the foaming waves wash the golden hem of my gown. I am this land, ancient beyond your imaginings and wise beyond your ken, and I will endure long after man has ceased to be.”
As though stirring from a trance, she turned to look at her companion, aware of his presence once more. Her unfathomable eyes met his and he became aware of a sudden dizzying sensation, as though he were perched upon the lip of a precipice over vertiginous misty gulfs. One step would plunge him into the unknown, and yet the temptation to take that step was an urge well-nigh irresistible. With an immense effort of will, he turned away and to hide a sudden panic snarled angrily.
“Girl, you speak in riddles. This is the Devil’s talk and I will have none of it.”
Yet even as he spoke the words, he knew there was no conviction behind them. With this realisation, his fear faded like sea mist before the sun and in its stead came a gentle wonder.
The girl smiled a slow, melancholy smile, turned away from the young man, and walked between the great oaks, toward the setting sun. Aelfric, unspeaking, watched her go, his mind awhirl with thoughts he hardly dared admit to himself. The sun’s rays, strong and low, dazzled him momentarily and he raised his hand to shield his eyes. When his vision had cleared and he could look once more upon the familiar landscape, the girl was gone, and he was alone with the memory of a timeless day—a secret he would share only with God.
The shades of twilight were swiftly gathering before Aelfric emerged from his reverie and, with a last look at the flaming western sky, set his feet on the familiar path back to the world he knew.
In all the many years of his life which followed, even after he took up the mantle of abbot of the small monastery, Aelfric’s contemplative walks would often lead him past the ancient oak grove. Always it would be alive with birdsong, but never again with the song he heard in his youth. Yet ever throughout his lifetime of piety and devotion would he see the gold of tumbling hair in the morning sunlight and the grey of mystical eyes in the restless sea, hear the tinkling of laughter in the bustling stream and the gentle caress of a voice on the whispering breeze.
—Christian Green is a full time freelance writer of articles and short stories for magazines such as Countryman’s Weekly, Best Of British, Natural Health, and others, as well as website copy, blogs, press releases, ads and anything else he can squeeze into his working day.