Once upon a time there was a lowly maid who helped to clean the palace kitchens. Whenever someone wanted her help, they mostly just said, “Come here, girl!” But actually her name was Sarah. Sarah’s life was not an easy one. She had to get up before the sun each morning and help prepare breakfast for the royal family. Her own breakfast was a crust of bread and some tea before clearing the dishes and scrubbing the kitchen. Her cleaning duties lasted until well after dark, when she finally ate her dinner of stew and dropped into her bed. Only on Sundays was she given half a day to rest and do what she liked. And what she liked was to spend time with her best friend, Thomas.
Thomas was a stable boy, which meant that he spent his days cleaning up after the horses, giving them food, and doing anything anyone told him to do. Stable boys never got to tell anyone else what to do, not even the horses. But Thomas always looked forward to Sunday when he had the afternoon free to spend with his best friend, Sarah.
Thomas and Sarah had been friends for as long as they could remember. Each Sunday afternoon they would meet in the woods outside the castle as soon as the noon bell had rung and not go home until the bell rang again at sunset. When they were younger, they would climb trees or fish in the river or play tag among the tree roots. Now that they were older, they mostly just walked and talked or sat on stumps and read to each other. Not many of the castle servants knew how to read, but one of the knights had befriended Thomas and taught him to read, and later he spent many Sunday afternoons teaching Sarah to read also. Their favorite stories were of adventure and travel. They always dreamed about seeing the ocean one day and sailing to far off lands. But then the sunset bell would ring, and Sarah would go back to the kitchens, and Thomas would go back to the stables and they would work as usual all week long. But Sarah would often think over things they had read or talked about while she was polishing the silver or sweeping the long winding staircases, and when she did she would smile, no matter how tired she felt.
Then the kingdom went to war against the neighboring kingdom. The king sent all his knights to fight, but he needed foot soldiers, too. That meant that every farmer, blacksmith, and stable boy of the right age was going to war. Sarah knew that Thomas was going to become a soldier, but she didn’t want to think about it. She just worked and worked so hard and so long that she got all her work done in half the time, so she volunteered for extra jobs. There were lots of extra jobs in those days because so many of the male servants were off preparing to be soldiers, too. So Sarah was at the top of the bell tower, polishing the bell with all her strength, when Thomas found her to say goodbye.
“I only have ten minutes,” he said. “It took so long to find you. I wanted you to have this.” He handed Sarah a small book, covered in brown. It was their favorite adventure story and the only book that Thomas had of his own.
Sarah wanted to cry, so she didn’t say anything but just kept polishing the bell as hard as she could.
Thomas came over and touched the giant bell. “They say that the echoes from this bell can be heard even across the far seas, so I’m sure I’ll be able to hear it in whatever place I am going. Sunrise, midday, and sunset, whenever I hear this bell, I will think of you and of Sunday afternoon.”
Sarah whispered, “And I’ll think of you.”
And then Thomas was gone. And Sarah went back to work.
The war lasted a long time. Thomas fought in many battles and went through many dangers, but somehow he always made it through alive. And every morning, when the sun came up, he could hear the faint echo of the castle bell and he thought of Sarah and of happier times. And every day when it was just noon, Sarah heard that same bell as she carried the loaded trays of food into the dining hall for the king’s dinner, and she thought of Thomas and prayed for his safe return. And every night as he pitched his tent in yet another cold field, Thomas heard the bell again and remembered what he was fighting for.
There came a night when Sarah couldn’t sleep. She was exhausted from a long day of hard work, but her heart was so heavy she couldn’t even face her bed. She had never felt this way before. She paced up and down and up and down by her bed, trying to tell herself that everything was fine and she would need her rest for tomorrow, but she didn’t believe that everything was fine. She knew in her heart that something was terribly wrong. Finally, she couldn’t stand it any longer. Grabbing her cloak she ran up the many steps and into the bell tower. She didn’t have any plan. She just knew that Thomas was in some terrible danger and she wanted to be as near to him as possible. When she got to the bell tower she prayed yet again that Thomas would be safe and well, but she didn’t feel any better. She wished she could be with him and tell him that she was thinking of him. She wished he could know that she was standing here looking out over the trees and hills that were between them. Without even thinking, she stopped wishing and did what she knew needed to be done.
At just that moment, far away in a darkened field, Thomas lay badly wounded. The army had been ambushed as they set up their camp for the night, and many men had been killed. The knight who led Thomas’ company of soldiers had been killed, too, and Thomas had fought bravely to defend his body against the enemy. At last, help came, and the enemy was driven away. But not before Thomas was struck with a sword through his side. He was carried to the tent where men were tending those who had been hurt in the battle. Thomas’ wound was bandaged and he was given something strong to drink for the pain. But still he was bleeding, and the doctors did not have much hope for him. Then, from far away, a bell began to ring and ring and ring and ring. Every man in the tent stopped and listened with wonder. No one even noticed the tear that made its way down Thomas’ face.
Back at the castle the king was furious. He had been woken up in the middle of the night by the loud bell ringing and ringing. He had rushed to his window expecting to see enemies coming to cause such alarm, but there was nothing. Who would dare ring the bell for no reason? By the time his guards got to the top of the bell tower, no one was there, but the king would not let go of his rage so quickly. All the next day he had his guards question everyone in the castle. Finally a young gardener said that she had seen one of the maids climbing the tower after everyone was asleep. When the guards came to Sarah to ask what she knew, she couldn’t lie. She admitted what she had done. The king was even more angry that such a thing could have been done by a lowly serving girl, and he ordered that she be locked up in a tower cell.
Not long after that, Thomas was sent home. He was miraculously recovering from his injury, but it would be a long time before he had the strength to be of any use as a stable boy, much less a soldier. When he arrived at the castle, he was brought before the king. The king had heard of his bravery and had decided to put him in training to be a knight. This was a special honor that very few men received. Thomas was so happy and grateful that even the old king smiled.
The first thing Thomas wanted to do was go tell Sarah that he was going to become a knight. But he couldn’t find her. He searched over the whole castle, but she was nowhere. Finally he found one of the other maids and asked where Sarah might be. She told him what had happened. Thomas was struck to the heart that Sarah had been punished for something that had saved his life. He went straight to the king and begged to be allowed to tell his story.
The king was a hard man who carried many burdens and did not show mercy easily, but he liked young Thomas, so he listened. And he soon found that even a hard man could not be unmoved by such devotion. He agreed to release Sarah from her cell.
What Thomas said when he finally saw Sarah or what Sarah felt when she heard what had happened are not things meant to be shared. Suffice it to say that in time Thomas became a knight and in time Sarah became his wife. They traveled many places and had many adventures, but they were never parted again.