As he stepped out of bed, the marble floor felt cool to Benvolio’s feet. With his eyes mostly shut, he reached for his wooden sword and dragged it behind him into the hall, down the corridor, and into his cousin’s room.
“Romeo, are you awake?” Benvolio said as he entered.
Romeo mirrored Benvolio. Both were still somewhat asleep, their bare feet cringing against the cold floor, and wooden swords in hand. Their nightclothes hung off them; making them look smaller than they truly were.
“Yes, I’m awake,” Romeo said.
“Can we practice dueling?”
“We’re still in our nightclothes, Ben.”
Benvolio slowly walked back to his room. He began to wake up properly as he dressed. The room was new to him. He had only been living with his cousin for a month after the passing of his parents due to a sickness that ran through his small village. Benvolio could not think of another place he would rather be. In his ten years of life, his happiest memories were with his cousin, in his home.
And a grand home it was. Built of stone, it sat strong and wide. Tall towers stood at the edges to look over the family’s land, and large windows hung in every room, giving the villa a feeling of warmth. Named after its family, Montague Villa was home to Romeo, his parents, and a number of serving men and women. It sat in the hills on the west side of Verona, Italy, a large village at the foot of the Italian Alps. The villa was the gateway to the Montague family business, opening up to rows of olive trees and acres of vineyards. It was a business that made the Montagues one of the most prominent, rich and powerful families in Verona, second only to the Capulets.
Benvolio heard Romeo leave his room, walk down the hall and stomp down the stairs. He wanted to catch up with him, so he didn’t bother to fasten his boots or button his vest. He had given up on his unruly mop of brown hair a long time ago. It was going to do what it was going to do, and today it was standing up a bit in the front, and extra floppy all around. He grabbed his wooden sword and ran down the stairs.
“Breakfast is outside this morning, Master Benvolio,” a serving woman said to him as he passed her in the hall.
Benvolio ran out to the courtyard. The sun was already warm, and made it a bit easier to wake up. His eyes adjusted and the sight was comforting. Romeo was sitting at a small table with his parents. On top of the table were fresh fruits, cheeses, fresh squeezed orange juice, and Benvolio’s favorite, sweet braided bread covered in honey and nuts.
“Come join us, son,” Lord Montague said. “You’ll need your strength. From what I hear, you’re practicing for a wild duel.” He chuckled.
Benvolio took his seat at the table. Lady Montague smiled at him and offered him the sweet bread. He took it and covered his plate with piles of fruits and cheeses, and he took a big swig of his juice. With a full mouth, he quietly listened to his uncle speak of the family business. Plans to leave the business to Romeo and Benvolio were always on his uncle’s mind. Benvolio tried to listen, but it was a beautiful morning and he was full of energy, so he found it hard to do so.
“Go on then, you two,” his uncle said with a jolly laugh. “Go play.”
Benvolio took one last bite of his bread and shoved a few berries in there as well. He picked up his sword and took his fencing stance facing Romeo.
“Have at thee,” he called out, managing to keep all the food in his mouth.
Romeo took his stance and they slowly went through their moves. The clank of their wooden swords was matched only by the cheers and claps of Lord and Lady Montague.
“Well done, boys,” Lady Montague said.
She rose from her seat and came to them. They held their swords to their sides, because they knew what she was about to do. She walked to Benvolio and pushed his mop of hair away from his face. She then smiled and kissed him on his forehead. She did the same to Romeo, only kissing him on both cheeks and squeezing him tight until he squeaked. With a laugh, she messed up his perfect hair and went inside.
“You’ve got a hair out of place,” Benvolio said.
“I do?” Romeo said, dropping his sword as he tried desperately to fix it.
Benvolio laughed. "Let's find Balthazar and teach him how to duel,” he said.
Romeo led them back inside and to the great sitting room where they found Balthazar, who was polishing the silver on the shelves surrounding the hearth. Since he was standing on a shaky stool, Benvolio cringed as Balthazar had to catch his balance when they came running toward him.
“Balthazar,” Romeo said. “Watch what we learned at the First House in fencing.”
Balthazar continued to polish as he watched. He was the same age as the boys, only he was the son of Lord Montague’s Valet, which meant he was up, dressed, fed and working by the time Benvolio stepped out of bed every morning. Balthazar and his father were new to Verona and happy for the work. It didn’t take long for the boys to befriend Balthazar. Although the friendship was blessed by Lord Montague, Benvolio overheard Balthazar’s father telling him to make sure his chores never suffered. Benvolio had trouble understanding this, and was frustrated when Balthazar couldn’t play. Happy to include him while he worked, Benvolio took his stance in the middle of the great sitting room and Romeo did the same.
“This is called the Passado,” Romeo said as he lunged toward Benvolio. “Punto Reverso,” he said, blocking Benvolio’s backhanded thrust. “Hey!” Romeo yelled with his killing blow to the side of Benvolio’s chest.
Benvolio grabbed Romeo’s wooden sword and put it under his armpit. Spinning in place, he fell onto the sitting couch and pulled the pillows down with him as he fell to the ground. With a dramatic gasp for air, and with his tongue hanging out of his mouth, he turned his head and said, “I die.”
“Noooooooo!” Romeo pretended to cry to the gods.
“Romeo, you’re supposed to be happy that you killed him,” Balthazar said from his stool. “You’re not supposed to cry after you win a fight.”
“Oh,” Romeo said. He pulled his wooden sword from Benvolio’s armpit.
“Boys,” Lord Montague said as he walked into the room. “Boys, when I told you to play, I meant outside. You need to understand that Balthazar has work to do and does not need to be interrupted by you. And he doesn’t need you two messing up the work he has already done. Both of you pick up this mess and go outside.”
Benvolio looked around and realized he had made a mess, but a dramatic death was messy. He began to pick up the pillows with Romeo’s help. Lord Montague took a seat by the window and tried to read the daily sales reports.
“Lord Montague,” Balthazar’s father, Augustus, said as he came into the great sitting room.
Augustus gave Benvolio and Romeo a look of confusion as they did the job he probably felt his son should be doing. But when Augustus looked at Lord Montague, he dropped the subject.
“Sir,” Augustus said, “I'm heading to the market myself today. Is there anything in addition to your daily needs that I can get for you?”
“You can bring these boys with you, please. They need to get outside and I can’t seem to get them there.”
“Yes sir. Boys, we will leave for the market in two minutes.”
Benvolio fluffed the last pillow and placed it carefully as Romeo tossed another onto the couch.
“Come on, Balthazar, come with us,” Romeo said.
With the last of the silver still in his hands, Balthazar looked to Lord Montague.
“Yes, Balthazar,” Lord Montague said with a chuckle. “I meant you as well.”
Balthazar put the silver back on the hearth and jumped down to meet the boys. Benvolio wrapped his arm around Balthazar’s shoulders and pulled him out of the room.
“We’re going to teach you all the fighting moves we know,” Benvolio said.
“You’ll make a great sword fighter,” Romeo added.
As they came over the hill into town, the market was sitting under a cloud of kicked-up dirt. Benvolio kicked the dirt at his feet to contribute as he listened to Romeo tell Balthazar everything they knew about fencing. And in case he missed anything, Benvolio was ready to speak up. Augustus was leading them quickly into the crowd, so Benvolio pushed the chatty boys to keep up with him. They stopped at the baker’s, Benvolio’s favorite shop. The baker greeted Benvolio by name as he took a deep breath of the thick smell of bread cooling beside the ovens. From there, they headed to the meat market. Benvolio kept his nose hidden. The smell was growing more sour with the rising sun. He stared at the dead chickens hanging upside down, some with feathers, some without, and the red meats sitting in salts that were turning a strange gray around the edges. The crowd swarmed around him and pushed him away from Augustus. He gave up and let the crowd win. He left the meat stand and turned to join Romeo and Balthazar, who were standing beside the Market’s center fountain. The soft breeze was pushing through the water of the fountain and sprayed them with a cool mist.
"Let’s practice, then,” Romeo said. “We’ll show Balthazar the moves.” He raised his wooden sword and they began. “It’s more like a dance than a fight, isn’t it?”
“I suppose,” Benvolio said.
“No, it’s not,” Balthazar said, watching their every move.
“Sure it is,” Romeo said. “Think about it, we learn our steps like we do in a dance. Watch, Ben has his part and I have mine. When we do the move together, we move together, add the passion of the fight to raise the swords, and see? It’s like a dance.”
Benvolio smiled. “You can find something beautiful in everything Romeo.”
He raised his sword to block Romeo’s, and from their wooden swords came a metal clank. The boys froze. Benvolio turned back to the meat market to see a crowd forming.
“It’s a real fight,” Balthazar said. "Let's go watch.”
The boys ran into the crowd. Balthazar pushed past Benvolio. When Benvolio made it to the center of the crowd, he saw Balthazar stop beside his father, who was on his knees at the foot of a tall, angry woman. Her sharp dagger twitched at Augustus’s throat. She was dressed as a proper lady, in a black dress that shimmered blue when she moved in the sunlight. Her black hair was pulled back so tight, her skin was stretching. Her eyebrows twisted on her face and she was spitting as she spoke.
“Montague slave,” she called Augustus. “Dirt-wielding scum.”
Benvolio knew she was from the Capulet Family, and the hatred she was spewing for his family’s name had bloodied the streets of Verona for over a century. But this was the first time Benvolio had ever seen the fight for himself. He could never get his uncle to tell him what the fight was about. Every time he asked about it, he was told to take great pride in his name and never allow a filthy Capulet to tell him otherwise. He was told the Capulets were evil and angry people, and then he was told never to fear them.
Benvolio felt there was a kind of peace to Augustus’s response to Lady Capulet’s anger. He was sitting on his knees, his eyes forward, he did not engage her. He simply let her yell. Benvolio was sure Augustus had done nothing wrong except wear the colors of the Montague family crest.
Beside the Lady Capulet stood a girl. She had to be Benvolio’s age, her dark hair and dark dress matched that of her mother’s. She was a Capulet, but her anger was different; her porcelain cheeks were covered in tears and dust.
“That’s enough,” she yelled out to her mother. “Please stop.”
Lady Capulet turned and slapped the girl with the back of her hand that was busy with rings. Benvolio watched as the girl’s strength didn’t bend. As she looked back at her mother, he saw her whisper something that put a look of terror on her mother’s face. She stepped back to dodge another blow, and then she turned and ran away.
Without hesitation or a word to Romeo, Benvolio took off after her. As he passed her mother, he heard her scream out, “You will do no such thing, young lady!”
Benvolio kept running after the girl. He ran hard, but she was running harder. He tried to call out to her, but he couldn’t catch his breath, so he just kept running. She was headed toward the church, but she passed it. She ran around it, to the west side. Afraid he was going to lose her; he sped up as much as he could. His heart was pounding, and he wondered if it was the running making it pound so hard, or if it was her. He had never found a reason to run this fast before. He raced around the church and saw the dark of her dress head into the sycamore grove. He entered the grove and kept his eyes on her as she leapt and swerved through the trees like a doe. Benvolio was not as graceful. The roots of the trees jutted up out of the ground, grabbing his toes, and the branches hung low, slapping his cheeks as he passed through them. She started to slow down so she could take down her tightly-pulled-back hair. It fell and rested on her shoulders. Her dark hair was gold in the sunlight. She was beautiful. Then, she was gone.
Benvolio could see nothing but dirt; he could taste nothing but dirt. His chest felt empty as he rolled over and gasped for air. His feet were still stuck on the root he had fallen over. The twisted trees made him dizzy as they danced above him.
“Are you all right?”
Her face came into focus as she put her hand out to help him up.
“Sit here,” she said. “It might not be a good root to jump over, but it makes a great seat.”
She placed him on the root and as he began to catch his breath, he wished he was still on the ground, where the earth was cool on his head and he was not so dizzy. He breathed deeply and eventually the dizziness began to fade. He looked up at her. She was standing beside him, watching him with a worried look on her face. She smiled at him and brushed off the dirt from his chest. He stopped breathing again and the dizziness came back.
“Orange and red crest,” she said, looking at the patch on his vest. “Such warm colors the Montague family has.” She sat beside him. “I’m a Capulet.” She made her dress shimmer emerald in the sunlight.
“You were in the market just now, weren’t you?” she asked him.
“Was that your manservant?”
“It was,” he managed. “You stood up for him? Why did you do that?”
“My name is Rosaline, what’s yours?”
“Benvolio Montague.” She let the name sit for a moment. “My mother is very serious about her feelings for the Montagues. Even my uncle, the head of our family, doesn’t care for the fight as much as her. I don’t really get it at all.” She turned to him. “I’m supposed to hate you.”
“I know. I’m supposed to hate you, too.”
“But you can’t, can you?” She smiled at him. “You can’t figure out how to hate me just because you’re told to.”
Benvolio was starting to catch his breath again. It was easy to talk to her. He leaned back against the trunk of the tree and played with a stick, picking at it and tossing the bits around. He watched her as she got comfortable on the root. He was happy to see that she had nowhere else she would rather be.
“Your dress has some mud on the hem,” he said. He took a piece of the hem to see if he could rub it off with his sleeve.
“I think I like it better that way,” she said, taking a handful of her dress and examining it. “Brown, the color of earth. It’s a warm color, too. It’s the color of your eyes.”
She smiled at Benvolio and again he felt dizzy. She bent down and took a handful of dirt, straightened out the skirt of her dress and spread the dirt all over it.
“I like it much better this way, don’t you?” she asked.
“I really do,” he said, laughing.
“Help me, then.”
She took another glob of dirt from the ground and offered it to Benvolio. He put his hand out to her and she dropped the glob on his hand. She took up a handful for herself and began to rub it all over her dress.
“Come on, then, help me,” she said.
Benvolio reached out, took her skirt and wiped the mud on it. She started to laugh and Benvolio looked at her. He had seen her cry, and seen her in pain, and now more than anything, he wanted to see her face as she laughed.
“Your eyes, they’re green,” he said to her, confused.
“When you helped me up, they were blue.”
“And so was I, but now I’m happy.”
“Your eyes change color with your mood?”
“Guess what color they are when I’m mad?”
“I, I don’t know.”
She hopped off the root and did a little twirl for Benvolio to show how the muddy dress looked.
“What do you think?” she asked.
“Much better. You’ve got mud in your hair.”
“We’ll call it an accessory,” she said, she reached out her hand. “Come on, then, walk me home. Or at least walk me out of the woods and then don’t let my mother see you. I wouldn’t want her to give you all the credit for my new dress.”
“Rosaline?” he said, liking the feel of her name as it rolled off his tongue.
“What did you say to your mother right before you ran off?”
“Why, was she horrified?”
“I told her I was going to tell Mother Superior at the convent what she was doing. I heard my mother speaking to her once about the fight between our families. Mother Superior said that any soul who participated in the fight would be damned to hell. I saw my mother laugh at her, but I could tell she was terrified. So I whispered to her that I was going to tell Mother Superior, who was going to tell God what she was doing.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Because if the church could stop this fight, don’t you think they would have by now? There is no point. Our families have hated each other for so long, we don’t even remember why. The fear of God can’t stop it now.”
“What about the grace of God?”
She put out her hand to Benvolio once more. “Are you going to walk me home or not, Benvolio Montague?”
He smiled and took her hand, and together they walked through the woods. She showed him a path she had made that led them to the wall of the Capulet Villa at the edge of her family’s land.
“Will you be all right?” Benvolio asked her. “I mean, will your mother be angry with you about your dress? Will she still be angry about what happened in the market?”
Rosaline stopped walking. She looked at the wall of her home in silence for a moment, then turned to Benvolio.
“Do you see that tree down there that reaches over the villa wall?” she asked.
“I do,” Benvolio said.
“On the other side of the wall stands another tree. The two reach out for one another because a wall has been built between them. Sometimes I climb the tree on the inside of the wall and swing over to its mate. Then I escape the walls of my home and play in the sycamore grove. Would you like to meet me in the grove again tomorrow night?”
“I would like that very much,” he said.
“Then I'll meet you on the root you tripped over. Tomorrow night, when the moon is in the height of the night’s sky, leave your home and come into the woods. I'll be there every night from now until eternity, and you can join me whenever you please. You’re not afraid of the woods at night, are you?”
“No,” he said. At least he wasn’t until she said something.
“Good. Then I'll see you again tomorrow.”
And with a kiss on his cheek, she ran out of the woods. Benvolio couldn’t move. He tried to feel her lips on his cheek for as long as he could, but as she disappeared through the Capulet gates, so did the kiss. He took a deep breath and looked around. The day was getting old. Romeo was probably worried sick wondering where he had gone. And Augustus, what had happened to him after he left? Benvolio hiked out of the woods and turning away from the Capulet Villa, he ran home as fast as he could.
“I covered for you,” Romeo said with a smile. “Did you catch her?”
“Did I catch who?” Benvolio asked.
“Come on, we need to wash up for supper.”
Benvolio followed Romeo upstairs. He was planning to head straight to his room to wash up, but Romeo pushed him into his room instead.
“Tell me everything. Last I saw, you were running after that beautiful girl who stood up to who I assume was her mother. Who is she? She was magnificent. Did you hold her while she cried? What happened?” Romeo asked. He had a sparkle in his eye, like he did every time he spoke of love.
“Is Augustus all right?” Benvolio asked, trying to buy himself a moment to think.
Benvolio had shared everything with his cousin, and as badly as he wanted to tell Romeo of his feelings for Rosaline, for a Capulet, he couldn’t do it. The words wouldn’t come out of him. There was something very strong inside him that felt it was better to keep her a secret. To keep her all to himself.
“Augustus is doing fine now,” Romeo said. “After you left, the Prince’s men came and stopped the woman. She was sent home and Augustus was able to continue about his day. He acted like nothing ever happened. But something happened to you, you ran after her with such passion. Did you help her? Was your love for her enough to take away her pain?”
“I didn’t catch her, she ran into the Church and straight to the nunnery. I thought it was best to leave her alone, so I went for a long walk in the sycamore grove.”
“You hate it in there, you always fall. Well, maybe one day we will find out who she is and you can confess your love for her.”
“She was a Capulet,” Balthazar said, coming into the room with a bowl full of warm water and a clean rag. “She was the daughter of the woman who was attacking my father. They were both Capulets.”
“But she stood up to her mother,” Romeo said. “She tried to stop her.”
“She is still a Capulet.”
“And your father is still a servant, even though he conducted himself like a gentleman today. Why do you put so much power in a name?” Romeo said.
Balthazar was silent and so was Benvolio. Romeo never spoke of the fight between the families, but it was clear he didn’t put weight on the words that forced them to hate the Capulets, either. However, even knowing this, Benvolio didn’t feel like sharing what had happened with Rosaline in the woods. He joined Romeo at the bowl of warm water and dunked his hands. Immediately, the water turned brown and he smiled at the memory of covering Rosaline’s dress in mud.
“How many times did you fall in the grove, Benvolio?” Romeo said. “Disgusting.” He dried his hands with the clean cloth, then tossed the cloth to Benvolio. “Come on, I’m starving.”
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