Nobody but the knight-giant knew why he had left his cave and transmogrified into the wall of a cliff. But the question was the subject of local rumour up until the last century, after which such debates were, somewhat predictably, removed to academic institutions.
The knight-giant was one of the few from the York district to have made it back from the wars but, on returning, he had found himself without shelter. Worse than that, Miriam’s first reaction to his knock at the door was to draw back and wring her dress through her fingers. He had witnessed enough abroad to know at once that she was no longer a maid, done enough to allow him to forgive her for that. But seeing himself through her wary eyes, not a brave man but a scarred man, ganglier even than he had been before he went away, he realised he had been foolish to hope that she would open her arms to him, seven long years on. There was no denying it; the cords of their betrothal were severed.
As he left Miriam’s place some young uns leapt up from the mud where they were playing and scattered. Quick enough to catch one of the smallest by the scruff, he lifted him up to eye level. ‘Does Mrs Adcock still abide by the tanners?’
The boy stopped struggling and began to cry.
A girl of about twelve edged towards him. Mary-Ann, Louise’s eldest? The boy’s sister, most likely. ‘Mrs Adcock’s passed on two years hence, Sir.’
The cold stone of grief filled his stomach.
She gulped. ‘Will you put him down? He thinks you’re a ghost.’
‘He might be right, at that.’ And the knight-giant put the boy down with a gentleness that hadn’t left him though he’d had little cause to use it for many a year.
A little way down the street, was the farriers. He paused by the door but either his old friend Peter was intent on the stubborn stone in the hoof he was examining or he was too afraid to offer him a hello.
Because he could think of nothing else to do and because war and the journey back had made him used to walking – not all knights had the privilege of a horse to ride – the knight-giant left the village. Pebbles pressing through the thinned leather of his shoes, he pushed his way into the forest. And for days and the nights that followed, he trudged without sleep in the circles of wolves, tormented by the ghosts every soldier carries with him.
By the time he came to the cave on the banks of the Nidd, he had walked off much of his grief for his mother and Miriam, much of his resentment at a country that only valued its soldiers on the battlefield, for villagers that could not bear to be reminded of the wounds he had gained for them.
He carved a bed of stone from a fallen rock and took up residence in the cave. It was a natural hollow, small, but it never grew very cold and the woods had berries and rabbits enough to keep him. Besides, apart from the rush of the Nidd, it was a quiet spot and after the clatter of war he was glad of that, so glad that he pledged to honour its tranquillity by keeping his silence until he had something to say.
It was in his daily baths in the nearby dropping well that his gashes began to heal, their infections soothed by the saline water. His fractured bones benefited too, mended with the calcium carbonate that filtered through the rock into the waters. Unlike in the village he hailed from, those he met at the well did not retreat from him for they understood well that those wounds could not be passed on to others. Yet he didn’t speak to them for he still had nothing to say.
Every day from his cave he watched handfuls of them trudge along the riverside – pilgrims in pain – watched them walk back, often a little lighter, until one day, after the shadow of noon had passed, a bright-eyed young boy stopped at the cave mouth. John had noticed him because he had passed both ways several times over the last few months and because of his limp that did not improve for all his visits to the well.
The boy swung his stiffened leg into the cave and asked a question. After eighteen months of silence, the knight-giant found it was a question that he could answer, and so he did. The boy went away with the limp he had come with but lighter nevertheless and he did not visit the dropping well again. After that the knight-giant had many visitors, all with questions that he found he could answer and they all went away lighter, unless gravity was what they needed, in which case that was what they found.
This way of things went on for more years than anyone knows until one day the knight-giant left the cave and took up post a little further along the cliff. It could be that from outside the cave he found it easier to hear the prayers uttered by the torrents of the Nidd or that he simply liked the feel of sandstone against his back or perhaps he knew that one day a man would carve a holy place into the cliff and would need someone to protect him and his icons. It is not known whether from his place as sentinel of the rock he continued advising the pilgrims that came by there or whether he had run out of words altogether. But what is known is that he had showered so frequently in the waters and breathed in so much of the calcium carbonate in the stone that his flesh eventually solidified to rock.
So if, on the course of your pilgrimage, you visit Knaresborough and happen to have a question, do pose it to that knight in the cliff, just at the entrance of where the chapel is now. Listen carefully for his answer before standing beneath the dropping well to let those waters wash over your skin. Only take care you don’t stay too long.
N.B. This story was inspired by the etching on display at The Mercer Gallery 7th Feb-21st June. ‘St Robert’s Church at Knaresborough near Harrogate Spa in Yorkshire’ by an unknown artist.