Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.
--Romeo and Juliet, Act I, scene v
The village had seen such sin, and so much sorrow had wormed its way into too many hearts. But life continued, unperturbed, dragging the burdened along with unabashed apathy. The elders now looked at the children of the village with heavier hearts and more unsettling doubts. Winter finally descended upon them, blanketing roofs and fences and trees with unadulterated snow, purifying, it seemed to Alice, every inch of the valley. They had suffered horrors and tragedies, and now the earth would freeze, and in the spring they could start again, cleansed.
But Lucius and Ivy could not wait until spring. They were married on an icy January afternoon, and in the meeting hall, which was garlanded with evergreen boughs for the occasion, they danced together for the first time. They moved carefully, almost awkwardly, due to Ivy's blindness and Lucius's weakness, which yet plagued him as he recovered from his wounds. But he had promised to dance with her on their wedding night, and so they danced, so plainly full to the brim of the purest happiness that Alice could not look on them without shedding a few tears.
"It is a very joyous occasion," Mrs Percy said, appearing at her side.
Alice accepted her congratulations with a warm handshake, and they exchanged various trifling pleasantries. All Alice could see in the woman's face, however, was thoughts of the son she had lost not so long ago. As Mrs Percy stepped away, Alice glanced across the room to catch a deep set, weary pair of blue eyes fixed on her; these eyes lingered for barely a moment before darting away, realising they had been noticed. A thrill shot through her bones, flushing and freezing her skin at the same time, and Alice hesitated only briefly before approaching Edward Walker.
He had turned away by the time she reached him, and fairly jumped when she touched his elbow. He seemed to know before turning round that it was her, for his face showed neither curiosity nor surprise, but something like a reproach.
"I must congratulate you, Edward," she held out her hand, her face and tone bright, "on the marriage of your daughter."
"And I you," he returned, quickly taking up the joke, "on that of your son."
Edward smiled quietly into her face in a way that made it all too clear that he was conscious of her proffered hand. Alice glanced around, and found that there was no one paying them any attention, not even anyone unoccupied enough to overhear them.
"Come, Edward," she said softly, somewhere in between scolding and pleading. "Our children have been married today. You cannot refuse to shake hands with me."
He stared straight into her eyes, pinching his face as though pained, but finally he dropped his gaze and clasped her hand in his. Alice smiled with renewed vigour, forcing the brittle grin to spread across her face as she placed her left hand on the back of his hand, capturing it like the prize that it was, so reluctantly given. His hand was stiff for a moment; it twitched slightly, and she feared he would pull away coldly, but instead his fingers curled around the edge of her hand, pressing her skin so gently but so emphatically. Alice's lips parted, but she could only inhale.
"Thank you," she finally forced herself to murmur. Quickly she added, "If it were not for you, my son would not be dancing tonight."
"It was the least I could do," he replied. He had not looked at her since he surrendered his hand, but finally he lifted his eyes up to meet hers again. "It was all that I could do."
This, Alice knew, was so plainly an allusion to the last instance of half-admitted feelings, and was so carefully spoken that she felt remonstrated as Edward pulled his hand away. She almost wanted to ask for his forgiveness, but he had already gone by the time the words had formed in her mind.