Her hair was greying but her back was as straight as a rod. A scuffed leather bag sat on her knee, and with both hands she gripped the parrot-shaped handle of a black umbrella. Chimney smoke drifted from the pub across the green, but its windows were dark, and there was no laughter at the bar. Only birdsong pricked through the evening hush.
Maglor had watched as she took her place an hour ago, on the bench, opposite the memorial with her back to the church. He had seen the villagers file past on their way to the service, some scurrying along and avoiding her eye, some pausing to give a furtive, sympathetic smile. More than one had glared, as though her presence outside the sacred building was an insult to God himself. She spoke to none of them.
Yellow light glowed in the mullioned panes, and the organ's pipes breathed a tired lament. She pressed her lips together. Eyes keen as pins stayed fixed on the memorial – a strange stretched spindled thing, with Christ bound to the cross at its tip.
Maglor slipped out of the shadows and sat beside her.
She glanced at him. “You're not local, then.” There was a sting behind the flat Yorkshire vowels.
“I'm not,” he admitted.
A nod towards the memorial. “Did you know someone?”
“No. No, I'm only passing through.”
Another nod – slower, thoughtful.
Maglor leaned into the bench and regretted it as the damp from the earlier shower soaked through his light coat.
“They wouldn't put his name on it,” she said suddenly. Her cheeks reddened. “Our Billy. The Committee wouldn't have him on the memorial.”
The organ's aching voice modulated into the chords of a hymn Maglor had often heard in the trenches. Untrained, earnest voices pleaded in song for their God to stay by their side.
Her knuckles tightened around the parrot's head. “Coward, they called him. I don't know how they dare. He volunteered!” Her voice cracked. “By God, he volunteered...”
Maglor rested his hand on the bench next to hers. He watched her eyes travel over the ancient scars, saw the familiar flicker of revulsion and pity.
“You were out there and all.”
It wasn't a question, but he answered anyway. “Yes.” No need to tell her that the terrible burns were from a war many Ages ago and long, long forgotten.
“Then you understand.” Tears thickened her voice. “He was wounded too – only you couldn't see it. He was wounded in his mind. He couldn't go on, do you see?”
“Yes, I see.” He had seen it too many times through the Ages, and the Western Front had been more terrible than anything since the War of Wrath – damp swollen corpses snared on barbed wire and turning green, the hiss of the gas and the rattle of guns, the blood trickling into the stinking slop that seeped from the earth...
The voices from the church grew defiant in their grief.
“Where is death's sting? Where, grave, thy victory?”
She took his hand and gripped it so hard that her bones pressed sharply against his. The dying sun spilled dim red light across the rooftops; the November air cooled, and the organ's last chords whispered away into silence.