5 Page Challenge
The year is 1691 and Alexander Roule has spent 2 years imprisoned, waiting for death for a murder he cannot recall committing. Instead he is banished. Only a stumble into the future can save Alexander from a fate worse than death and an accusation of witchery as he struggles to remember the past.
Pages 1 - _
Leaning against the cold stone wall, Alexander stared out the window at the soft snowflakes drifting lazily to the ground. The first storm of the season had begun, shrouding the dismal gray earth in a blanket of white. His second winter here, watching the seasons pass so slowly, each day melting into the next like the warming ice trickles into the sea. Somewhere a bell tolled.
The quarreling cry of many ravens echoed from the stones of the courtyard below. Alexander shivered and hugged his arms around his chest.
He bowed his head; listening, concentrating. If only to hear a human voice, but rarely did they come. Only when the wind was kind would it bring the occasional trace of conversation from a nearby street.
But today the wind was not so kind and in the stead of a human voice, it brought the melody.
Most would have cherished the resonance. But Alexander closed his eyes, dreading it. He had heard it before, too many times. The violin sang softly yet its sound drowned out even the bells. A warning disguised as a greeting. It began as always; a child’s cry—faint and afraid. Then sweetly it rose, so melodic he was almost fooled by it, until it swept inside, drifting on the acrid air of his cell, brushing past the wisps of mist from his own breath, taking possession in the dark far corner of the cell, where she rested.
Where she had not moved nor been touched in two years.
Do not look.
The weeping rose to a scream in an attempt to draw Alexander’s attention. No, he did not wish to see, but she screamed louder. Relentless.
He turned slowly, and gazed through heavy lids, fearful of looking fully upon her. She was propped against the wall, as always, but the dust that obscured the carved angels on her varnished body, the cobwebs that entwined her neglected strings vibrated with the music and fell away, leaving her clean and begging for retribution. It was not my fault, she was screaming, so why slight me, why make me beg for release?
She was punishing him.
Alexander clasped his hands over his ears. Still the violin screeched. He squeezed his eyes shut. Maybe if he did not look. Maybe if he refused to hear… “No! Leave me be!”
Was it a trick? Cautiously, Alexander lowered his hands. Had she forgiven him at last? No, she had not. He could now hear that which had graciously stilled her. A voice outside the cell, growing louder. A human voice. Someone was approaching.
“You would be mad as well,” said the voice, “accused of murder and remembering naught… spending two years of solitude in there.…He is harmless. Now let me in!”
The door groaned its protest and an older gentleman appeared. His clothes were neat and rich--the ornate garments of a court magistrate, from the long and wavy white wig, perfect and prim, down the buttons of his braided waistcoat, the gathered breeches, to the fancy heeled shoes that clicked on the dusty stones as he walked in. The heavy door clanked shut behind him.
“Hello John, “said Alexander as he turned his attention back to the snow outside.
His mood lifted ever so slightly. Though John Peters was not his first choice for company, at the very least there would be a voice other than hers to listen to. A human voice. “How long has it been?”
Draped over one arm, Peters carried a long cloak, and this he placed on the small bed. “Too long, I am afraid,” he stated apologetically, hugging himself.
“Tis so cold in here, Alexander.” He gazed over to the small fireplace, the pile of ash in its hearth cold since last winter.
“They stopped bringing me wood long ago,” Alexander stated dejectedly.
“I have brought you a cloak.”
Alexander chuckled beneath his breath. “Two winters here and now you bring me a cloak?”
“I know, I should have come sooner.” Crossing in front of Alexander John stood on the opposite side of the window where he could see more clearly the man he had put into this place. “But I—“
John paused, his gaze shrouding Alexander’s form. Under his breath he muttered, “Bloody hell.”
Alexander concentrated on the thickening snow outside the window. He wished not to be reminded of the state in which he had been reduced to these past years; of the clothes he wore, once so like John’s, now nothing but rags that barely hung from his emaciated body, covered in two years’ dirt like an old and neglected piece of furniture.
Peters, obviously sensing Alexander’s discomfort, recovered himself. “I needed to care for business.”
“Would this business,” said Alexander, aware of his own sarcasm, “have anything to do with why I remain in this prison, rather than seeing my retribution on Tower Hill?”
“You sound as if you wish to hang.”
“Oh the anguish,” Alexander said dramatically. “I do.”
“Why would you talk this way?”
Peters moved to place a hand on Alexander’s shoulder, but seemed to think better of it and pulled back. “I know it could not have been pleasant, spending time in this…” he glanced around, “this cold, rather disagreeable place, but…” He gazed out the window. “Look, the snow is so beautiful, surely you do not wish to die and miss it.”
Alexander remained silent. He lowered himself onto the small bed and sighed.
Peters grabbed the single cane chair that rested in the corner of the cell, placed it before Alexander and sat. Elbows resting on his knees, he rubbed his hands together thoughtfully—or perhaps to warm them—and when he spoke his words were soft and soothing.
“You were-you are the greatest violinist in all of London…all of Britain. One of the greatest composers the court has ever seen. To have none but the rats to play to in here, I cannot imagine.”
Their gazes met. John’s expression was almost one of…guilt. But guilt for what, Alexander could not imagine. For committing a life-long friend to years spent alone in the Tower? The punishment befit the crime, Alexander did not blame John for this.
“I wish I could change all that happened,” said Peters as if to confirm Alexander’s thoughts. “If only Carmina had not come…” He paused, then drew a deep breath. “I am aware of what was done here…I know of the fever you suffered and I know that every day of your life these past two years has been hell. You do look such a fright, I have never seen you so thin, and I for one do not feel you deserved all this, despite what I had to do.”
“Not even with Elisabeth’s blood staining my hands?” Alexander shook the long greasy hair out of his face and scratched at the thick beard itching his chin, not daring to think on what may be living in it.
“I believe in your innocence.”
“How can you when I cannot even believe in it for myself?”
“You do not deserve death.”
Alexander stared at his old friend, long and hard. “I have to live with the scars of my sins for the rest of my life. I had hopes it would not be so long.”
Peters stood again, and began to pace, as if what he had come to say was painfully difficult.
“I have come with—” his words halted as his gaze fell to the violin, now quiet and untouched once more, wrapped yet again in an embrace of cobwebs and dust. “Your violin… Have you not played in all this time?”
Alexander did not respond, but merely looked in silence to the window. The snow was heavy now, obscuring any view of the opposite tower. The day grew dark as night came on.
“Yes, yes, I see…” stammered Peters. “Well, I come with news. I was hoping good news.”
Alexander looked up.
“Well.” The smile that tugged at his lips was observably feigned. “You have been pardoned…in a fashion.”
Alexander raised a brow. “In a fashion?”
“Well, yes— I mean—“
“Yes, yes…right.” He lowered himself back onto the chair. “Now understand, it is all I could do—I spoke to King William…and the court would only agree to this…and I had to just about walk on water—”
“Oh shove me in manure and roll me over twice, John. Get to the point!”
“I am sorry… Alexander, you have been banished.”
Silence ensued, and all that could be heard was the soft hush of wind, sleet and snow against the stones outside. Even the ravens had gone silent, having sought shelter from night and the storm.
Banished. The word was there, yet took a moment to materialize into Alexander’s consciousness. And what it meant—
“Exiled,” said Peters, as if needing to explain. “You can never return to England, or Britain for that matter.”
Never return. Alexander had to think about this a moment, for the concept was too great and horrible to comprehend all at once. Never allowed to return. But he knew no other place. England was his home; where he built his life and his career. He had hoped for a family someday. To leave London and all its stone marvels behind…to never again ride across rolling green hills or stroll the moors…never…His eyes closed tight against the tears that burned behind them. Where then? Where?
“Perhaps Vienna?” He asked aloud, speaking more to himself than to John. “They are so open to—“
He opened his eyes. “I have been shunned from there as well?”
“No…but…er…you know well how news travels throughout this circle. I am afraid you would not be very welcomed.”
Alexander tilted a suspicious glance to Peters.
“Do not look at me in such a manner!”
“You are casting me off in deliberation. There is something you are not telling me!”
“’Tis not…I mean…” John drew a breath and stated in a serious tone, “Alexander, hold your tongue on this matter and ask not the many questions that I know burn in your mind. This is for the best. You must trust me.”
“For the best? Where am I to go? I have no money any longer. To live as a beggar in the streets of—of where?” He had not worked, not collected any wages in over two years, his home was long sold off to pay for debts and fees whilst imprisoned. Everything he owned was gone, save some rags for clothing, the small cane chair John now stood beside, and…he glanced once more to the violin. Quiet now. You mock me.
John was speaking. “I have made some arrangements. ‘Tis not much, I know, but I still own that property in the New World.”
Alexander turned to him in horror. “But did you not once tell me—”
“’Tis the only way!”
“I know I should be grateful for your efforts, John. But you present me the choice to either hang in my homeland on Tower Hill or have my scalp hang in some savage village in a strange world.”
“Those savage attacks were many years past, Alexander. I am sure it is safe…they are gone by this time now.”
“Then why did you never sell the property? Why did you never return?”
“I-I have my ties here now, you know this! And I just never got about to selling—”
“Because no one would buy,” Alexander muttered. “Do I have the choice to hang here?”
“No. This has been decided. It may seem now like worse punishment, but really it is not. You are strong, Alexander. Look at what you have endured—God is offering you a second chance. To make a new life. Surely you can see that is better than the gallows.”
“And what am I to do in this New World? Are they in need of a violinist or a composer?”
“Uh, actually…they rather frown on music, but—“
“A world that frowns on music!” Alexander interrupted. “Oh the anguish, you send me to Hell anyway.”
“’Tis not as bad as all that.” John ran a hand along the top of the cane chair. “You made this chair, did you not?”
“Many years past…so?”
“Even in the New World they need furniture to sit upon.”
Alexander drew in a deep breath and looked across the room to her.… The movement was minute, Peters did not catch it, but Alexander did. One string vibrated ever so slightly, for a brief moment, then went quiet once again. I will allow you to mock me no more. It is over, the struggle we have put one another through. The pain. The punishments. You need not worry any longer.
Alexander looked back to Peters. “When do I leave?”
“You have some time. Meanwhile, you shall stay with me as my guest. ” He sniffed once at the air. “And have a good wash, you need it! We shall procure some proper clothes for the journey.” He stood and straightened his waistcoat proudly. “The cloak is for you. Come along then. A carriage awaits.”
Alexander stood and grabbed up the cloak, swung it over his shoulders. The delicious scent of sandalwood wafted from the fibers. So long since he had smelt anything beyond decay and death. He closed the cloak tight about himself and started for the door.
“Are you not forgetting something?”
He halted and turned to John, who now stood beside the violin. “You always spoke of her as if she were your best friend—” He stooped and lifted her; a rain of dust and cobwebs flitted to the stone floor. He held her out to Alexander. “Now you desert her here?”
“No—no, of course not. I suppose I was just…anxious.” What could he say? How could a magistrate of the court understand all she had done to him, the betrayals? He took the violin, her weight feeling strange in his hand for the first time. How ironic that the one thing that gave him comfort all his life now offered naught but pain.
Outside of the Tower walls felt like an entirely different world. A different time, a different place. For so long he believed he would not see it, unless to go to his death, it felt strange to know he would live on. He was not sure whether to be anguished or relieved. It was wrong, yet right all at once.
He paused for a moment, his boots sunk in the deepening snow, gazing first one way then the other down the street, watching the driving storm and how it obscured the flickering street lamps. He lifted his face into the wind. Wet snow stuck to his beard and brows, dripped into his eyes and he licked it from his parched lips. Nothing else in this world could be so pure and perfect. Even the air smelled clean. And the voices…Hurried people going about their daily lives, rushing home to the warmth of their families. Human voices all around him, carried on the wind.
He was alive. How many could walk from the Tower of London boasting such a feat? Perhaps John was right. He had been reborn.
He climbed into the carriage and set the violin on the floor beside the seat. Perhaps one day she would forgive him his misgivings. Perhaps one day she could help him learn to forgive himself.