United States, June, 1951
Jan Covington was lonely.
Her lover Mel was in the Carolinas, responding to one of her mother's might-be-or-might-not-be-a-heart-attack-and-if-you-loved-me-you'd-be-here moments. She'd be back in a few days, but while Mel was gone, Jan grumped and moped about the house in the evenings. It was empty, forlorn, desolate. No Mel meant, to Jan, no life, no energy was in the house. Alone, she was useless anymore. She missed Mel.
She wandered onto the cottage's back porch. The night was warm and punctuated with the soft hum of insects. Fireflies dotted the night air. The back yard, small and fenced, with Mel's flower garden next to the house, was silvery-yellow, illuminated by a bright full moon. Mel's garden. That made Jan smile. And so did the moon.
A full moon meant that she could talk to Gabrielle. Not just hear the voice of her distant ancestor, as she sometimes could, but really talk to her. See her in her physical incarnation, look into her eyes and really talk to her. And she was suddenly possessed of an overwhelming urge to do just that. After a moment of indecision, she spoke the name.
She waited and listened. Then, she spoke again. "Gabrielle?"
She felt a warm, soft breeze touch her face, unexpected on such a still night, and a whisper which resonated about her, a whisper which sent an eerie tingle up her spine.
I am here, my distant daughter.
"Thanks for coming." She smiled an embarrassed little smile. "It's been a while."
Time is of no consequence in the immortal realm.
"Can we talk?"
At that, a shimmer of soft light began to coalesce at the bottom of the steps. It became a humanlike form, and assumed the detail which Jan had come to know and love. In a few seconds, Gabrielle stood at the base of the steps, looking up at her with that impish, knowing expression which said what words could not. Her body shone with a soft glow; her presence was material and yet energy, was warm and yet cool, was electric and yet soothing. And those eyes; eyes which were sad and wise; knowing, and colored with wit and humor. The collected experience of two thousand years of life in this realm and the next were reflected in that look.
"C'mon inside. Can you stay for a while?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Until the moon sets. You are... lonely?"
Jan shrugged, as if embarrassed. "Yeah," she said. "A little. Mel's not here."
At that, Gabrielle smiled her little knowing smile, gestured toward the back door, and followed Jan inside.
"So, did you do these chats with your other descendants, too?"
At that, Gabrielle laughed. She faced Jan on the couch. "I have done so," she said. "You have an interesting lineage."
"Tell me about it. How'd I get the name 'Covington'? I always wondered about that."
Gabrielle brightened. "A wonderful tale. Your ancestor Wynnfrith first took that name. She lived, let's see...perhaps in the Twelfth Century of your calendar."
"English? Descended, I'm guessing, from the child you had when you were living with the druids."
Gabrielle nodded. "Would you like to know the story of Wynnfrith?"
"You bet! Hit me with it."
At that, Gabrielle reached toward Jan. Her fingers hovered just above Jan's forehead. "Shall I show you?"
"Close your eyes." The fingers touched Jan's forehead. Her mind exploded with images, images which colored themselves in bright colors and surrounded her, consumed her, came to vivid life before her, a life that she could feel, taste, smell, experience as if it were her own, even though she was merely an observer.
England, 1180 A.D.
"Wynnfrith! Now where is that girl? Wynnfrith!"
A handsome, formidable-looking woman of determined expression strode across the castle's great room, scattering a couple of servants who were sweeping the old straw from the hall's floor. She headed toward the huge, open door and called again.
About five seconds later, a young woman with blonde hair braided and trailing across one shoulder to her waist, skittered into the door and slid to a halt. She was breathless and flushed from running and from the warm day. She was also spattered with patches of the thick, dark English dirt which made their shire a valuable possession, and which made her father wealthy. "Mother?" she asked, with an air of feigned innocence about her.
"Look at y'self, girl! You're filthy. You've been riding that horse again, haven't you?" Before Wynnfrith could answer, her mother began straightening her daughter's clothing and flicking away the occasional spot of mud. "You're supposed to be at your lessons. The good friar gives of his time to teach you, and you're out frolicking on that horse. It's unladylike. You're of a woman's years now; it's time to begin acting like a lady."
Wynnfrith nodded. "Yes, Mum," she said, then tore herself from her mother's rebuke and ran to a far table. She poured a glass of watered wine, thought about dreary lessons in Latin syntax, and muttered, "Where's the fun in that?"
"What's that?" her mother said.
"I, ah..." She turned and, to avoid more conversation, quickly began drinking the wine.
As her mother approached her, her manner softened. "A spirited girl, I have. I don't know why the Lord didn't make you a boy."
Wynnfrith lowered her cup. "I'm right glad He didn't," she said. "I like being a girl."
"But not being ladylike."
"If you mean hiding up in the keep all day and embroidering and looming and spinning and gossiping about which of father's knights has the biggest codpiece and who's tumbling whom around here - " She shut up when a couple of servants cackled with laughter.
"Wynnfrith!" The rebuke was authoritarian and echoed through the great hall, but Wynnfrith could see that her mother was covering a smile with her hand. "Well, that's enough of that talk, now. A maiden shouldn't be concerning herself with codpieces. At least, the daughter of the shire's lord shouldn't."
"The maidservants do."
"Yes. Well, they're the maidservants. They get to have fun. You're a lord's daughter. You're destined to marry a lord, you know."
Wynnfrith snorted in disgust. "I don't like the lords that come through here. They're all ugly and smelly and drink too much. And they're all old."
"There are some young ones about." She leaned closer and whispered, "With fair codpieces, too."
At that, Wynnfrith laughed. Then, she announced, "I will only marry one of whom I approve."
A deeper voice sounded behind her. "Then you'll die an old maid," her father said. "If I know your mind, Wynnfrith."
"Father." Wynnfrith curtsied, and her father took her by the shoulders and held her.
"Greet me with a daughter's affection," he said. She hugged him and he squeezed her, then held her at arm's length. "You've been on horse again, haven't you?" She nodded, and he smiled. "You could teach the squires to ride," he said. "Now go and clean yourself up. We're eating as a family tonight. I have news for you."
Her eyes widened. "What is it?"
He smiled. "Tonight, girl. Patience."
She pouted, then trotted toward the stairs to the upper keep, and her room. They watched Wynnfrith ascend the stairs, and her mother turned to her father.
"How do you think she'll take the news?"
"Like a shire lord's daughter, I should hope."
"She's too young," the mother protested. "Can we not wait a few years?"
"For Christ's sake," the shire lord said. "She's a young woman now. She's been fertile for several years. She's of marrying age, and she's getting married. And that's that."
"But - "
"Before she takes a fancy to some young buck around here, and we end up with a bastard child and a dishonored daughter. Think on that, Rose."
The lady of the shire stewed silently for a moment, then relented. "Who's it to be?"
"I've been in correspondence with that young duke in the shire east of here. Reginald."
The duke studied Rose. "Why? What's wrong with him? He's an able young knight, of right handsome countenance, and graced by the king with a domain. She could do worse."
"I suppose." She sighed, then admitted, "There's just something unsettled about him. An unhappiness, some dark quality."
"He's just lonely. He needs a wife."
"And you need another ally in this land."
"Well, there's that, too. Henry is a good king, but he's getting old. And if that dolt son of his, John, becomes king, bad times will fall upon us. I'll need all the friends I can hatch then."
"What about her?"
"Oh, come! You know our daughter. Do you think she can learn to love this duke of - of -"
"Yes." She spoke softly now. "She doesn't seem to show much interest in the fellows. Not like her younger sister."
"It's that, or a nunnery for her."
She might like the nunnery better, Rose thought. "You're right, of course. We'll break the news to her tonight."
United States, 1951.
Jan opened her eyes. "Whoa," she said. "That was intense." She looked at Gabrielle. "So, how did she react to the news?"
"How do you suspect she reacted?" Gabrielle touched Jan's forehead, and once again, swirls of color carried her into a past age.
"Wynnfrith! You open this door right now, young lady!"
Rose beat on the thick wood; a muffled, weeping voice replied in a defiant shout.
"No! I will not marry that man."
"You'll do what your father says you'll do!"
"I'll die first! I'll hurl myself from this window!"
Rose sighed, then threw her hands up in despair. She shouted, "So be it, then," and stormed toward the stairs to the great room. As she descended, her husband looked up at her.
"Well, wife. Did you manage to assuage her?" In reply, he got a withering glance directed his way. "I take that to mean 'no'." He smiled, a painful little smile. "Let me try."
"Good luck," she said. "You'll need one of those siege machines to batter down her door." She halted in her stride, halfway across the great room, and looked about. The servants, who were working slowly in order to be privy to the drama unfolding before them, suddenly found an added energy and began scurrying about, cleaning up from the evening meal. Then, the lady of the shire stormed into the family room where a warm fire and a bottle of brandywine resided, and slammed the door.
Wynnfrith's father slowly ascended the stairs. William, duke of the shire of Huntingdon, had seen much; he'd won at the jousts, been on crusade, commanded troops in battle and been advisor to prince and king, but of all things, a weeping woman still mystified him. The one before him now was the light of his life: his headstrong, unmanageable Wynnfrith. He smiled as he thought of her, a scrawny little charmer of a girl running about and chattering as a child. And now, she was grown. An active, bright, strong-willed young woman. Really, she was too good for any man. But she had to marry someone. And so it would be.
He stopped before the door, and he knocked. At the voice, he said, "Wynnfrith, it's your father. May we talk?" After a moment of silence, he added, "Please? I won't yell or get angry, I promise."
A bolt turned. The thick door squeaked open a crack. Wynnfrith's maidservant, a girl of the same age named Mary, peered out. "Beg pardon, my lord," she said. "My lady wishes to know that you're of a gentle mind."
"Come, sir." She opened the door and stood aside, offering William a respectful curtsey as he entered.
Wynnfrith was seated on the far side of the room, on a wide, cushioned window-sill, and she was weeping. She wiped her face and looked up. "Father," she said. "Does this have to be?"
He smiled painfully. He'd been wounded in battle, and that pain was nothing compared to seeing his daughter so unhappy. He sighed, then asked, "May I sit with you?"
She nodded, and moved aside. As he sat, he seemed tired. Mary made a motion to leave, and he said, "No, Mary. You're to hear our conversation. I know how close you two are." She stopped, and stood silently as the duke studied his daughter.
"What's so bad about this union?" he asked. "How can I reassure you?"
She looked at her father. "I'm to marry a stranger?"
"That's the way it's done, girl."
"Is that the way you and mother did it?"
"Yes. Well," he hedged, "with us, it was a little different." He laughed, then spoke softly as he leaned close to Wynnfrith. "I had to woo her, you see. Win her affections first. What a stumbling fool I was! She laughed at my letters, my poems. I think she married me out of pity."
"Were your poems that bad?" Wynnfrith asked.
"Why can't it be that way for me?" she huffed. "I want to be wooed, to be romanced, to marry a man I like. Not be handed off like a ham to some stranger."
"Circumstances are different. The times are ominous. I need Reginald as a political ally and a close neighbor. He needs a wife, and he has asked me for your hand."
"He didn't ask me!"
"He doesn't have to."
"Father!" She pulled her knees up and buried her face in her arms. "I thought you, of all people, would understand."
"I do. But the times demand this. And besides, you'll only be in the next shire, not halfway across the realm. I can keep you closer to me this way." She began weeping, and he urged, "If it's any consolation, I informed Reginald that your happiness is my dearest wish, and if I hear that you're not being treated like a princess, I'll - well, never mind."
"What?" She raised her head from her arms. "You'll - what?"
He smiled. "I'll raze his fortress to the ground and feed his balls to the hogs."
Across the room, Mary squelched a laugh. Wynnfrith couldn't suppress a snicker. "You said that to him?"
The trace of a smile flickered across Wynnfrith's face. "Liar."
"Ask him sometime."
For a long, silent moment, they looked at each other. Then, Wynnfrith fell into her father's arms. "Oh, Papa. I'll try to behave and be an obedient daughter."
He roared in laughter as he held his daughter. "When that happens, doomsday is near."
She looked up at him. "I have two conditions."
"Yes. I want Mary with me."
William nodded. "You'll need a personal maidservant, and you and she are close since childhood. Granted. And the other?"
"I want to bring my horse. And it's to be my horse, not his."
"I'll make sure he understands that."
"Thanks, Papa. I'm sorry I'm such a headstrong."
"It's your way, ever since you were little."
She looked up at him. "I'm frightened of this marriage, Papa. Frightened."
"It's only a marriage." With that, he kissed her on the forehead, then stood. "And it's either that or a nunnery for you." He touched her cheek, still wet with tears. "Give me grandchildren that I can spoil rotten, hey?"
They smiled a mutual smile at that, and then he left quickly, before his daughter saw him weep a little tear of his own.
Mary closed the door behind him, then ran and sat next to Wynnfrith. She leaned against her, rested her head on her mistress' shoulder, and said, "At least we'll still be together."
"You know that I'll always look out for you," Wynnfrith said.
"I know." Mary looked at Wynnfrith. "If you get married, you'll be sleeping with him instead of me."
Wynnfrith touched Mary's cheek. "Only sometimes. I'll make sure of that."
United States, 1951.
"So I guess she married that palooka, huh?" Jan asked.
"If you mean Reginald, yes. And at first, it went tolerably, although their relationship remained formal and distant. He seemed gallant enough, and gave her private rooms fit for a shire lord's wife. She assumed her responsibility of managing a large household, and the servants quickly grew to adore her. And, of course, Mary stayed with her." Gabrielle thought for a moment, then continued, "And then, the marriage took a most unexpected turn."
"Oh, Jeez. What?"
Gabrielle touched Jan's forehead. The scene unfolded before her.
Mary banked the fire, then ran across the room and squirmed into bed next to Wynnfrith. "It's chilly tonight," she protested.
"Yes. Your feet are - " Wynnfrith squealed, then laughed. "Cold!"
"Warm me," Mary said.
Wynnfrith nodded enthusiastically, then held her arms wide. Mary wiggled into her embrace, and they lay together, close and companionable, within the feather bedding. After a few minutes, a hand emerged and dropped a night-gown by the bed. A moment later, another night-gown was tossed from the bed, to land on the floor. Laughter sounded from within the bed, and soft whispers.
Time passed. The fire grew dimmer; their passion, brighter. Mary and Wynnfrith, consumed with each other, did not hear the door quietly open; they did not hear the slippered feet approach the bed, or detect the silent figure who listened to them. They only knew that their private passions had been discovered when the feather comforter was yanked to the foot of the bed, displaying their intimacy and nudity to Reginald. They shrieked and sat up in bed, covering themselves with their arms as best they might. Reginald merely stared, then turned and left the room without uttering a word.
The next morning, Wynnfrith joined Reginald at the table in the great room for breakfast. He greeted her in a subdued manner and they broke bread together, but they did not speak. Finally, Wynnfrith said, "I think we should speak privately."
"Yes," Reginald said. "I should think so. The family room. After breakfast."
That was all that was said. Afterward, in the family room, door closed, things were different.
Wynnfrith said, "What you saw last night - "
"I know what I saw last night. It left no doubt." He studied her. "I thought you were timid with me because you were inexperienced. I see now that I was wrong."
"I am inexperienced."
She met his gaze. "Yes."
"But not with women." She did not answer. He sighed, as if thinking, then began a slow stroll around the room. "I came to you last night because I was lonely and I wanted your company."
"I'm sorry," Wynnfrith said.
"Sorry that I was lonely, or sorry that I wanted your company?"
"Perhaps both." The admission was whispered.
"I know that you do not care for me," he said. "It's absent from your look, your touch. Now I know why."
She looked at him with a pained countenance. "We were strangers when we were married. We're strangers yet. I am trying to be a dutiful wife. I really am trying. But I cannot command my heart."
"Evidently, your maidservant can."
"Reginald, Mary and I are close since childhood, the dearest of friends. As my maidservant, she sleeps with me. Sometimes, it becomes - " She paused, searching for the right words. "Very personal and intimate between us."
"Obviously. How long has this been going on?"
"If you must know, since we came of age. And it's no business of yours."
"Oh? I think it is my business to know who my wife is fucking."
Wynnfrith winced at the crude term. "It is not ... fucking
, Reginald. That's with a man. It's as I said: a very private intimacy between Mary and me." She glowered at him. "And of no threat to you, and none of your concern." She huffed in exasperation. "I would think that you'd be glad that Mary is sleeping with me. If she's there, no man is. Isn't that the real reason noble women sleep with a maidservant? To assure their fidelity? To discourage secret liaisons with other men?"
"Is it? Should I worry about you and other men?"
"No!" Wynnfrith huffed in exasperation. "I fail to understand why you're so upset by this. If Mary was a man, I could understand your choler. But she's a woman. What's your fear?"
"Your lust for her leaves none for me."
"That's not true. Am I not available to you whenever you demand it of me?"
"You're there. You're not too enthusiastic about it. Not as you were with her."
"I'm sorry, Reginald. I am. But I cannot - "
"Yes, yes. I know. 'I cannot command my heart.' Well, you'll be delighted to know that I took a lesson from you. I, too, took a servant-girl to my bed last night. One who is lustier with me than you are, and much more pleasing to the eye." He gazed at her as he said that, as if he was attempting to pierce her with an arrow and dispassionately judging where the point had struck.
She swallowed hard. "Am I that ugly?" Wynnfrith asked. "That displeasing to you?"
"Ugly? No. You're just - skinny. You're like - like a twig."
"And she's not?"
"No. She's not. She actually has curves."
Wynnfrith felt as if she had been slapped. It was the casual manner in which he had informed her of his infidelity and her inadequacy as a woman, she imagined, that stunned her so. She turned away so that he wouldn't see her eyes water, and she managed a reply. "Well. You must do what you must do, I suppose."
"And, it seems, so must you." Then, he spoke again. "What you two are doing is a mortal sin in the eyes of the Church, you know."
She faced him. "And what you're doing isn't?"
"No. The Church will understand, especially since I'm generous with them. But you and Mary could be burned at the stake or sent to a nunnery. And all it would take is a word from me."
"So it's allowable for you, and not for me?"
"That's the way it works." He shrugged. "I didn't make the rules. God did."
"No. The Church did," Wynnfrith corrected. "A Church ruled by men." For lying down with a woman, she thought, I could be sent to a building full of women. What irony. Aloud, she said, "So, Reginald. What do you intend to do? Give us to the Church for judgement? Make the most intimate, private parts of my life public? Hold Mary and I up for censure, perhaps even a ghastly execution?"
"You're right," he said. "It would serve no purpose. Screw the Church."
"I'll leave that honor to you," she said. "And thank you for not betraying Mary and me."
He held up a cautionary finger. "On condition."
"Oh. Of course," she said. "A condition. What is it?"
"If we cannot be lovers, perhaps we can at least be allies. Show me loyalty, that's all I ask. Never undermine me or speak ill of me to others. I promise the same toward you. After all, we jointly run this shire. Authority requires respect. We don't air our differences in front of the servants."
"Agreed," she said.
"And we have a duty to have children. That requires the occasional fuck
on our part." He shot her a sarcastic look. "You'll just have to tolerate it, I suppose." His expression became wry. "At least I'll be somewhat assured that the children are mine."
Wynnfrith averted her eyes to the fireplace. "How often?"
He grew exasperated. "Is it really that repugnant for you, lying down with me?"
"Not repugnant, Reginald. That's a cruel word. It's just - it's just that I hardly know you."
Wynnfrith placed her hand over her cheek to hide her blush, and looked toward the fire. "It humiliates me to be naked in front of you and to be intimate with you and to do the things you ask of me whenever your lust demands it. I feel like your whore, not your wife."
"You shouldn't. We're married."
"Newly married. You're still a stranger to me. And it's..." She waved a dismissive hand.
She looked at him. "It's painful. You hurt me sometimes. I know that you don't mean to, but..."
"It hurts? I don't feel pain. How can it hurt?"
"It does! Try being gentle for a change."
He shrugged. "For you, madam."
"To answer your question 'How often?'," he said, "one night a week, I should think. In return, you can enjoy your Mary on the other nights. And I can have my privacy, too. I won't ask you what you do in your bed, and you won't ask me what I do in mine. Agreed?"
She stared at the fire. "It's only fair, I suppose," she said softly.
"A deal, then?" When Wynnfrith did not immediately reply, he asked, "So, do we have an arrangement, you and I?"
After a long, silent moment, she said, "Yes, Reginald. I'm relieved that we understand each other."
He walked to the door and rested his hand on the handle. Then, he looked back at her and watched her as she stood before the fire, gazing into it. She seemed to him, at the moment, young, fragile, and very despondent. He said, "I had hoped that we could become lovers. I can see now that it's not to be. And after last night, I finally understand why."
"I'm sorry, Reginald. I truly am. I never meant to cause you hurt or disappoint you so much. I just can't pretend to feel something for you that I don't." She looked up, and she offered him a pained little attempt at a smile. "Take heart. Give it time. Perhaps it will happen yet."
"Oh? Have you ever in your life felt lust for a man?"
Wynnfrith returned her gaze to the fire. "Rarely."
"But you have?"
"But not for me."
"No. I'm sorry."
He yelled, "Then why in the name of God did you ever marry me?"
Wynnfrith faced him, and her voice rose to a shout. "I never had a choice. You and my father made the deal. No one bothered to ask my opinion. And I obeyed, like a proper shire lord's daughter, so that my father would not be dishonored in a deal gone bad. I married you because I love him." She glanced at the floor, and her voice quieted. "And I hoped, foolishly, that I'd love you, too."
"Tell the truth. You feel nothing for me?"
"No, Reginald. And why should I? Did you ever attempt to befriend me, to romance me, to win my heart and affections? No! Did you come to me and ask for my hand? No! Of course I don't feel anything for you. I do not know you. I never learned you. And you never cared to learn me." She approached him and asked, "Let me now ask you this: why did you ask for me in marriage? Did you love me from a distance?"
"Oh. I see. It was politic. I was merely a prize piece of meat. You had no interest in Wynnfrith; you wanted the Duke of Huntingdon's daughter."
"That's it, exactly. And your sister isn't quite old enough yet, so I had to settle for you." For a long, silent moment, they stared at each other. Then, Reginald said, "Marriage is a necessity. Romance is a luxury. Now, let us start the day. I have a shire to run, and you have a household to manage. And let us remember the terms of our agreement, and abide by it."
He opened the door for her, and she paused. She said, "I promise to be discreet. Please do the same."
"I am, my lady, the essence of discretion."
"Good." She forced a smile and gave him a little kiss on his cheek, for the benefit of the servants and perhaps to seal the deal, and they emerged to face the day together.
United States, 1951.
"It could have been worse, I guess. I can't figure how, though."
"Yes," Gabrielle said. "Things went tolerably, for a while."
"But?" Jan asked. She had heard the hesitation in Gabrielle's voice.
"But," Gabrielle said, "His demons haunted him. He began to drink heavily. Perhaps it was his disappointment over his marriage. Perhaps it was merely his nature. Whatever the reason, it began his downfall."
Gabrielle touched Jan's forehead.
Wynnfrith entered the family room. The fire was burning, and Reginald sat in a high-backed wooden chair, studying the fire. That a half-empty bottle of brandywine and a wooden mug was at his elbow didn't escape her notice, either. He looked at her, and his eyes confirmed to her that he was in his cups again.
"Sit, wife. Talk to me," he said.
Wynnfrith sat on a nearby divan. "Reginald, perhaps you've had enough to drink tonight."
"What do you care, since we aren't sleeping together?"
"Noble women enjoy their own bed and their own rooms," she replied. "It's customary." A thread of fear wound through Wynnfrith's chest. Although he had never raised his hand to her, she was afraid of him when he got like this. "Besides," she said, light-heartedly, "you wouldn't enjoy sleeping with me every night. I snore, and I toss and turn, and my feet are like ice."
"And it would be crowded, too," he said. "With your maidservant between us."
"And yours," Wynnfrith shot back.
"If we did share a bed more often, perhaps you'd be with child by now." He noticed her intake of breath when he said that, and decided to push the knife deeper. "What's the matter with you? Any proper woman would be pregnant by this time."
"I don't know, Reginald. Give it time. It will happen." She burned inwardly for a moment, then returned the barb. "Just like it seems to have happened to one of your servants."
"And you blame me, do you?" He sat up in his chair. "How do you know it's mine?"
"Oh, come! D'you think I don't know which of the servants is warming your bed? I run this household."
"I notice that you are kindly to her."
"She's with child, and she's a sweet girl, all in all. How can I be otherwise?" She studied him. "Please tell me that we aren't going to fill this household with your bastard children."
His fist pounded on the chair's arm, and his voice rose. "Then give me a legitimate heir!"
"I'm trying, Reginald! I come to your bed every week! I can't just will it to happen!"
"It's your fault, you know. Perhaps if you showed a lustier disposition with me..."
Wynnfrith's face colored red. She stood and faced him. "Perhaps if you didn't dissipate yourself with servant-girls and wine constantly..."
He leapt to his feet and faced her. "Oh, now it's my fault?" He grasped her arm and pulled her close. "If you're not pregnant by the harvest, I'll petition the Church for an annulment."
She jutted her jaw defiantly and glared at him. "Do it!"
"You'll be a dishonored woman. No man will want you."
"I don't care!"
"I'll keep your dowry."
"And that fine horse. And your sweet little maidservant, too. They're part of the dowry."
She jerked her arm free of his grasp. Her voice rose to a scream. "There's two things you don't touch, Reginald. That's Mary and my horse."
Wynnfrith saw stars; when she regained her thoughts, she was sitting on the floor. Her face burned; her ears rang from the blow, and her eyes watered from the sting. She tasted blood. He stood over her and leaned down so that he was just above her. He grasped her by the neck, and he spoke, a whisper really, but a sinister whisper.
"I own this shire, and everything and everybody in it. That includes you. And that includes your horse and your servant. And before this night is through, I'll have ridden them both."
He released her, stood erect, and walked toward the door. Wynnfrith rose, staggered to the fireplace, lifted a fireplace iron from its hook, and hurled it at his back. It impaled itself in the wood of the door, a foot from his head. He froze, and watched in amazement as it quivered there. Then, he turned, stormed toward Wynnfrith, and struck her hard on the side of her head. She fell against the divan and slid to the floor, unconscious.
He watched her for a moment, then left the family room.
"Madam? Madam, are you all right?"
A servant was speaking to Wynnfrith, patting her cheek, leaning over her. And Wynnfrith could hear her as if she were in a distant meadow, calling. Gradually, the voice became nearer, and she could open her eyes. For a few moments, she wondered what had happened, how she came to be lying on the floor, and how the servant came to be worrying over her like this. Then, she remembered. She sat up, and a wave of nausea hit her. She groaned.
"Oh, m'lady. You're bleeding, Look, blood's all over you. You must have hit your head."
Wynnfrith looked up at the servant. "Where's Mary? Where's my maidservant?"
"What? I don't know. In your rooms, I suppose."
"Go. See to her. Tell her to hide herself." She grabbed the servant's arm. "And be careful. Reginald's on a drunken rampage."
"Oh, Lord!" The servant rose. "I'll see to her, ma'am." She ran from the room.
Wynnfrith rose, and found her strength. She was still disoriented, though. She shook her head, winced at the pain, and vowed not to do that again. Then, she forced her feet into motion and headed toward the great room. As she left the family room, she paused, jerked the fireplace iron from the door, and carried it with her.
When she arrived at the top of the stairs, she could hear a chatter coming from the direction of her rooms. The servant, a kindly, older woman, met Wynnfrith at the door. "M'lady," she said, "The Devil's been at work in there."
Ice washed over Wynnfrith's body; she felt numb. "Let me in," she said.
The servant stood aside, and Wynnfrith pushed the door ajar and walked into her room. She heard an anguished weeping, but at first, could not place it. As she paced around her room, she stopped before the burnished metal mirror and contemplated her own image. Her lip was swollen and bloody, and dried blood covered the side of her head and spotted the front of her dress. She looked down; her hand held the fireplace iron. A deadly weapon. She was at war with her husband now; a war which had escalated on this night from words to blows. She would not let him strike first again.
She resumed pacing, and found Mary curled up in a corner of the room, weeping. At the sound of Wynnfrith's voice, Mary looked up. Her eye was swollen half-shut, her nose was bloody, and her clothing was torn open in front. She reached out both arms, an imploring gesture, and Wynnfrith stepped forward and held Mary's head against her belly. She felt Mary's arms wrap around her waist, heard her weep into the cloth of her dress as she stroked Mary's soft, dark hair. Mary sniffled as she looked up at Wynnfrith, and wiped her mouth with a bloody hand.
"He - he came in here like a madman," She said. Her voice was weak and shaky. "He beat me, then he - "
"I know what he did," Wynnfrith said. "I - I'm so sorry I didn't protect you."
"It's done now," Mary said between sniffs. "What will we do?"
"You get ready to travel. I will deal with him."
"You're hurt. Bleeding."
"It's nothing, compared to you."
With that, Wynnfrith let go of Mary, left the room, and headed down the stairs. She opened the keep's door and stepped out into the night air. She placed a hand on a passing peasant, and looked at him. A boy, no older than about ten. "What hour is it, boy?" she asked.
"The last bell struck ten, my lady," he said.
She released him, then walked toward the stables. She'd been unconscious for about an hour or so. Plenty of time for him to do his worst. Across the keep's open court she paced, slowly, deliberately, holding the fireplace iron by her leg. Her head pounded with ache; her vision, from time to time, got a little fuzzy. She fixed her attention on the distant stables, and after what seemed an eternity, she gained the open door. Open, this time of night?
Just inside, she found her horse. It was agitated, and a stable lad was attempting to talk soothingly to it and rub it down. She stood and watched him for a moment, brushing the animal, speaking tenderly to it, and she noticed its near flank. Sweat, and whip stripes. It had been ridden, and ridden roughly.
"Lad?" she said.
The stable lad looked at her and froze. Then, he stepped back and nodded, a little bow. "M'lady," he said.
"Did Sir Reginald have this horse out tonight?"
He looked at his feet, then nodded. "Yes, ma'am."
"Where is Sir Reginald now?" she asked. The boy bowed his head. He did not want to answer. Wynnfrith leaned close to him and lifted his head by his chin. "Where?" she whispered. He slowly pointed toward the back of the barn. "Thank you," she said, and walked in that direction.
As she neared the back of the barn, she heard a new sound. It was not the sound of horses; it was the sound of fear. She stopped at an open stall and saw Reginald, his back to her, his attention focused on the peasant girl he'd cornered in the stall. Her whispered pleadings were frantic. Wynnfrith stood about three feet behind him and watched him yank the girl's clothing to her waist, heard the material rip. Then, she lifted the iron, grasped it in both hands, and swung it as hard as she could. It whipped through the air and connected solidly with the side of his head. The smack resounded through the stall. He wilted and collapsed onto the stable floor. He did not move, and a dark stain of blood began to form behind his ear, among the horse droppings and hay strewn about the floor.
The girl shrieked in panic. She huddled in the corner, desperately attempting to pull her clothing together, stammering in fright as her eyes fixed on the bloody poker in Wynnfrith's hand.
"Oh m'lady, please. I didn't - he forced himself on me - I - oh please, ma'am - I was so frightened - ma'am, please don't hurt me - "
Wynnfrith held up a hand to silence her, then sat down heavily on the straw, next to the girl. "It's all right," she said. "It's not your doing, I know." She opened her arms, and the girl fell into them and wept. As she did, Wynnfrith considered the situation and her meager options. She was glad now that she'd planned for the worst. It seemed that the worst had come to visit her.
United States, 1951.
Jan opened her eyes. "Wait a minute. She was expecting something like this?"
"Not this calamity," Gabrielle said. "But she believed that one day, she might have to flee Reginald because of his drinking. She'd concocted a scheme to leave the castle unnoticed."
"I'll show you." Gabrielle touched Jan's forehead, and Jan closed her eyes.
Wynnfrith returned to her room. Mary had dressed in traveling clothes and was pacing the floor. When she saw Wynnfrith, she rushed to her and they embraced, a desperate embrace. Then, she stepped back and looked at the iron. It was bloody. "You - did you - is he dead?"
"I think so. He's in the stable, lying among the rest of the horse-shit. I don't really care."
"Oh, Wynnfrith! We're going to be put to death!"
"No. Get your cloak and a few things. Get ready to leave this place for good." She opened a drawer in her writing table and lifted out a palm-sized bag. Then, she looked at the servant who had been hovering around the door. "Send for Sir John Poor. Tell him to meet me in the great room." The servant nodded and left, and Winnfrith turned to Mary. "Bring out my clothes. You know the set. We're leaving. I just have to write a letter." As she sat down at her writing table, she added, "And find the hair shears. I'll be needing them."
Downstairs, Sir John Poor entered the great room and gawked at Wynnfrith's appearance. "My lady, you're bloody as a saint. Are you all right?"
"That remains to be seen, Sir John. Let us speak frankly; I have not much time." He cocked his head to one side and fixed her with an intent gaze, but remained silent. "I know that you and my husband are not friendly with each other. Is that so?"
"I'm afraid it is, ma'am."
"Good. I wish to hire you as protector and deliverer. Here's twelve gold Crowns. They're yours, if you do something for me."
"Get us out of the castle tonight. Now, as soon as possible. Take my maidservant, Mary, and this letter to my father's castle. Deliver them both into his hands. Then, forget in which direction you saw me ride. Do you agree?"
"I may not be able to return to this employment."
"My father will welcome a loyal itinerant knight, Sir John. And I perceive that you are a good soul. I have asked him in my letter to take you in."
"In that case, I agree. I'll meet you at the stables as one bell strikes."
"We'll be there. Until then, good Sir John. Keep my confidence. I'm placing my trust in you."
"Ma'am." He bowed, watched her scurry up the stairs to her rooms, and puzzled over the twelve Crowns in his palm on top of a sealed letter. "Interesting," he said, then left to pack his meager possessions for a permanent change of employment.
Fifteen minutes later, Wynnfrith sat on a stool in front of her mirror. Mary stood just behind her, combing and braiding her hair into one long braid reaching almost to her waist. Finally, she said, "It's done. Are you sure...?"
"Yes. Cut it."
She slowly hacked through the braid, and it hit the floor. Then, she began to trim Wynnfrith's hair to resemble a young man's hair: short, shaggy, and reaching to the nape of her neck. It fit the disguise she was wearing; a young man's clothing, reflecting a person of modest means.
"Good. Take the braid to my father. Now, let us collect our things and go."
As the distant village church bell tolled twelve, Mary and Wynnfrith hurried across the nearly-deserted courtyard and found the stables. Inside, three horses were saddled, and Sir John waited in chain mail and helmet, sword at his side. He nodded to Mary, cast a glance at the hooded youth by her side, then said, "Where's your lady?"
"I am here, Sir John." Wynnfrith pushed back the hood covering her head, and looked up.
Sir John and the stable boy dropped their jaws in unison at her strange appearance. Then, Sir John recovered himself and nodded. "Well," he said, "we're ready, it would seem." He motioned to her horse.
"No," she said. "Mary, you ride my horse. I'll take that one." As they mounted, she dropped a coin into the stable boy's hand. "You saw nothing, lad. At dawn, bring the shire reeve here and show him Sir Reginald's body. Tell him that you suspect that he was drunk, fell, and hit his head. He'll know what to do." He nodded, and she swung her body up onto the saddle of the third horse. As she did, John noticed a long, wicked dagger thrust through her waist belt, in the front beneath her cloak. That gentle Lady Wynnfrith would have such a deadly weapon gave him pause. But then, Lady Wynnfrith seemed to be full of surprises tonight.
"What's the matter, Sir John?" Wynnfrith asked.
"I saw Sir Reginald back there," John said. "It seems he took a nasty fall. He's out like a drunken bishop." He looked at Wynnfrith. "He might even be dead. He's lost a lot of blood."
"He's in God's hands now," Wynnfrith said. "And we're in yours. Lead on, gracious knight."
As dawn broke, Sir John Poor motioned toward the distant castle, outlined on a hill. "Your father's place."
They stood on the road, their horses behind them, three abreast. Wynnfrith nodded. "Then this is where we part," she said. "Take care of Mary, good sir." He nodded assent, and she hugged Mary with a desperate, long hug. Mary kissed both her cheeks and wiped the tears from her face.
"Will we ever see each other again?" Mary asked.
"Keep faith," Wynnfrith said, as she mounted the horse. "This may yet have a good end." With that, she wheeled the horse and drove it down the road, then toward the distant forest, the forest where the King's men seldom venture and where the outlaws and banished ones live. Once, she halted and looked back, and she saw two figures on horses, hazy in the dawn, riding toward her father's castle.
Wynnfrith walked slowly along the wide path, her horse trailing behind her. From time to time, she'd let him halt and nibble at the thick, dark grass which thrived in the forest. Then, she'd gently nudge him onward, and they'd trek father along the path.
She hadn't thought this far ahead. Now that she was here, what would she do? She wasn't a hunter; she was a shire lord's daughter. She'd only brought a bottle of cider and a single, coarse round bread to eat, and she was done with those. She ached with hunger, and she was exhausted. She'd been wandering the forest for a day, a night, and most of the next day.
She wondered how her father was taking the news. Mary, she was sure, had described everything, and Sir John would be forthright with her father, telling what her letter did not. He would perhaps come looking for her; or perhaps he would not, as she had murdered her husband. She would be hunted. An outlaw. She'd be tried, convicted, scorned, and hung, and so would anyone helping her. She was alone, without help, without friend.
She led her horse away from the path and found a patch of grass. There, she sat down and leaned against a thick, gnarled tree. She was done in, spent. She held her horse's reins, looped the leather around her wrist, and watched it begin to graze near her leg. Then, she closed her eyes. Her head rested against the mossy bark, and she drifted into sleep.
She did not know how long she slept before, in her dreamlike state, she heard a voice speak her name. It was a soft voice, accented. Something touched her cheek, a cool touch, but tingly, and the voice urged her on. Do not give in to despair. Just a little more, it said. A refuge is ahead. Follow the path. Follow your ears, not your eyes.
She felt thrilled; she said, "Mama?"
It was then that she perceived sad, knowing eyes. She stared into those eyes, felt the nearness of a kindred, loving presence. Then, she started awake. It was gone; or perhaps, never there. For a moment, she did not know where she was. Then, she remembered. She was in the forest, homeless, an outlaw, a fugitive. She looked around her, and saw no one. Her horse continued to nibble at shoots of green near her knee. It was merely a dream. Just a dream. But it was so real, so vivid. Something touched her. Someone spoke to her. What did the voice say? Follow your ears? Just a little more? An angel, it was. She felt a chill wind up her spine. What else could it have been, but that?
She rose, and she led her horse back to the path. She looked left. She had come that way; nothing was there. She turned right, and began a weary trek, pushing her exhausted body into a steady walk. Just a little more. What could it hurt? She had nothing more to lose.
She halted, and she perceived the sound of a distant, rhythmic banging. It was the sound of humanity. She followed the sound around a bend in the path, and saw a house with an outbuilding and large barn in the distance, surrounded by a stone wall. It looked as if it had been there for some time, but smoke issued from the chimneys, and it seemed alive and well-tended. She walked nearer, and the banging became more distinct.
Eventually, she stopped at the open doors of the outbuilding, and she watched a man of middle age, graying beard, muscular arms and chest, and in a leather apron, pounding upon an anvil. His furnaces were heated; he was a smith, hard at his work. She waited for a moment, then called out.
"Hello, there. Can you help me?"
He looked at her, then wiped his brow as he approached the door. "G'day, lad. What's your problem?"
"My horse seems to have taken lame, good sir. The shoe, I think."
He noted the leg being favored, and bent down. "Let's have a look." He lifted the hoof, inspected the shoe, and felt the leg. Then, he straightened up. "Not the shoe. It's the leg. Needs some rest, I should think. Few days, a week or more, and he'll probably be as right as rain again." He studied the young person before him. "Traveling, are ya, lad?"
He noticed the injuries to her mouth and her temple. "Had a bad day? Bandits?"
"You might say that, sir."
"Got any money left?"
"Yes, sir." Wynnfrith felt in her pocket. She had two gold Crowns. She pulled one forth and said, "This is all, I fear."
The smith's eyebrow raised at that. "Well, that's plenty. Your horse can recover here. A week, hey? And we have a few rooms that we let pilgrims use, if they have a coin. Is that satisfactory?"
"Oh, yes sir. Thank you." She handed the coin to him, and he palmed it.
"You look exhausted."
"I am rather, sir."
He studied Wynnfrith closely, then smiled. "Come into the main house. My wife will feed you. I take it you're hungry?"
Soon afterward, she was seated at a long table, wolfing down a bowl of thick stew as the blacksmith's wife watched. The lady sat at the table and smiled. "Lord, young man. As skinny as you are, you surely can eat."
Wynnfrith glanced up in embarrassment. "I'm sorry. My manners must be horrid."
"You've got breeding, I should guess," she said. "Not your typical lad. A courtier? Troubadour? Can you read and write?"
"And someone beat you up, I see." She pointed at Wynnfrith's temple. "A nasty lump, there. I'll have a look at it after you eat." She rose. "No, no argument, now. You eat. I'll be back."
With that, she headed out the door, walked to the smith's shop, and called to her husband. At her arrival, he stopped his work. "Well, Margaret," he said. "You've got that little look that says, 'I know something that you don't know'. What is it, now?"
She laughed at that and gave him a playful slap on the arm. "That new guest."
"Oh. What about him?"
"He's a she."
"What? You're daffy."
"I can tell a woman. She's a woman. Of some breeding, too."
He scratched his chin. "Hm. Dressed as a man, wounded, and wandering about the edge of a forest full of disreputable folk. I did notice that he had a very fair complexion. Lacked a beard. And his build was scrawny. Yes, that explains a lot."
"It doesn't explain what she's doing here."
"Her horse came up lame. She's paid a gold crown for a week's lodging." He handed Margaret the coin. "See?"
"Well," Margaret said. "That's different." She studied the coin, then said, "But I still don't want a troop of men-at-arms showing up here looking for her. And someone's going to be looking for her. She's obviously someone of importance."
"Then we'd better keep our eyes open, hey?"
"She's running from something."
"We're all running from something."
Margaret smiled painfully, then ran a hand along her husband's cheek. "That's a truth, isn't it, Robert?" She turned and walked toward the door. "I'd best see to her injuries."
United States, 1951.
"Wait a minute," Jan said. "What about Wynnfrith's father? How'd he take all this?"
Gabrielle smiled. "Would you care to see?"
"Oh, yeah. I want to be a fly on the wall for this conversation." Jan closed her eyes, then opened them again and studied her ancestor. "And I'm glad you were there for her."
In reply, Gabrielle smiled. Her fingers touched Jan's forehead, and the colors swirled again.
William, Duke of Huntingdon, swore a blistering string of profanities, strode across the great room, and threw open the door. He pointed at a soldier standing guard at the distant gate and bellowed, "You! Fetch me my sergeant-at-arms! Now!" The guard sputtered a little, then broke into a run across the wide courtyard, dodging people, goats, and a wagon on the way. William watched him go. Then, he turned toward the dining table.
Sir John Poor sat nursing his cup of wine, and waited for the next brick to hit the floor. Next to him, Mary cowered a little, and Rose watched the proceeding with desperate concern. William paced, fumed, and re-read Wynnfrith's letter. Then, he turned to Sir John.
"You think he's dead?"
"In truth, sir, I do not know. He was fetched a hard blow to the head and he was bleeding buckets, but he might still be alive."
"By tonight, he won't be. I'll have that bastard's head on a pike."
The sergeant-at-arms entered, and William's voice filled the cavernous great room. "Assemble all my able knights-on-horse, ready to do battle. We're going to pay a little visit to the Duke of Grantbridge." He noted that the sergeant-at-arms was frozen to his spot, eyes wide, and shouted, "Now, man! Now!"
The hapless sergeant-at-arms disappeared, and William turned to John. "How'd you like to work for me?"
John smiled. "I believe I'd like that, sir."
"Then stand." John rose. William faced him and offered out his hand. "Do you swear loyalty to me, as I to you?"
"I do." John grasped the hand.
"Then, Sir John Poor, you and I are bound in oath. Now, I have a quest for you to fulfill."
"Sir?" John raised an eyebrow and tilted his head in question, but the twinkle in his eye revealed that he had already guessed the nature of the quest.
"Go and find my daughter, and bring her safely home to me."
William pointed toward the long blonde braid resting on the table. "She's taken a disguise, has she? A young man? Of all the hair-brained, impetuous schemes - "
"Why did she not come straightaway to us?" Rose asked. "Why did she run away?"
William held up the letter. "She thinks she's killed her husband. She sees herself an outlaw now. She didn't want to mix us up in this unholy stew. She's trying to protect us." He fumed and paced a bit, then looked at Sir John. "Can you begin this morning? Now?"
"I'll prepare to leave at once." With that, Sir John Poor strode from the great room, left the keep, and headed toward the stables.
Rose watched him go, then faced William. "Why him?" she asked. "We don't know him. We have knights with which we are more familiar."
William nodded. "And would you trust most of them on such a quest?"
"No," she admitted.
"He's a different one," William said. "There's a clever spark in that young man's eye, and a practical manner about him. I trust him. What's more, I like him."
"I wonder if Wynnfrith will," Rose mused.
"Nothing, husband. Nothing." She turned and left the great room, leaving William to pace and await the gathering of his knights.
Robert the smith sat at his table, sipping a cup of beer, as he watched his wife tend the wound on Wynnfrith's head. He leaned back in his chair. "So, lad. What's your name? Where are you from?"
"Oh." Wynnfrith winced at Margaret's touch, then said, "I, ah - my name is - Twig. Most folk call me Twig." She managed a smile. "Because I'm skinny for a fellow." She concentrated, and the name of a village she'd once been to with her father popped into her mind. "Twig, of Coving-town."
"Well, Twig of Coving-town. That's in Huntingdonshire, isn't it? William's the duke there. Good man, that William."
Her eyes widened. "You know of him?"
"Oh, yes. I went on crusade with him, so long ago. We were young bucks then, freshly knighted and anxious to do battle with the Saracen devils. We returned changed men. What we saw, no man nor beast should see. Cities slaughtered and plundered. Men, women, and children hacked to pieces. Mohammedan, Christian, Jew; it mattered not. They all died. Starvation, disease was rampant. It wasn't a holy mission for God and Church; it was a lust for blood and treasure, a trip to the blackest hell and back. I returned sickened by it all, and vowed never again to earn my wages by war."
"You were a knight?"
"Once." Robert rose and walked across the room. He opened a cabinet, and inside, a Crusader's garb hung. White over-garment with scarlet cross on the chest, a coat of chain mail, helmet, long sword, shield; it was all there. He allowed her to study it, then returned to his seat and sipped his beer. Then, he looked at her. "So, you see, we're all fleeing something in our past. What are you fleeing, Twig of Coving-town? Why is a young lady of some breeding dressed as a man and wandering in this disreputable forest, beaten about the head? A young lady who pays for a week's lodgings with a gold Crown because that's all she has, and wonders if it's enough?"
He sat patiently and waited for his guest to wrestle with her answer. Then, she looked at him.
"You have been kind and honest with me. I can only do the same in return. I am Wynnfrith, daughter of William, Duke of Huntington and most recently, wife - rather, the widow - of Sir Reginald, Duke of Grantbridge..."
Robert the smith, former knight of the realm, and his wife Margaret sat motionless during the story, in rapt fascination as Wynnfrith unfolded her tale and her fears of what may come to be. Finally, she ended. Robert clapped a wooden bowl of beer onto the table in front of her. "You look as if you could use this," he said.
"Thank you," she whispered, as she lifted the bowl and drank.
Robert regained his chair and studied Wynnfrith. Finally, he pronounced, "Well, Twig Coving-town. If you're to survive in this forest and impersonate a lad, there's much work to be done. First, we'll have to put some muscle on you. Smithing will do that. You work with me. And I'll teach you to hunt with a longbow and defend yourself from ruffians with a sword. I have one to fit your smaller hand, I believe."
Margaret said, "Yes. And I'll teach you potions and spells. The forest is a veritable apothecary, if you know what to seek. The ancients knew their medicine."
"Potions and spells?" Wynnfrith asked. "Are you a witch?"
Margaret laughed. "Oh, by the Lord, no! There's some of us still live the ancient religion. You know, the one here before the Church arrived. Druids, they were. Masters of spell and incantation, of medicine and potion, and of stories. My mother taught me, as her mother taught her. Of course, if the Church found us out, they'd put us to death for practicing the old religion."
Wynnfrith's eyes widened. "You're a druid? How fascinating. I've heard stories, but never known..."
"Because you're noble. Raised in the Church." She smiled. "I'm common. There's more freedom in being of common stock."
"And so you live here, you and Robert, the once-a-knight? In this forest, where the king's men don't travel? Where you can live in peace?"
"Relative peace," Robert said. "There's freedom here, but much danger, too. We'll teach you to survive and prosper here, if you like."
"If you can do that," Wynnfrith said, "I'll be forever in your debt."
United States, 1951.
Jan opened her eyes. Gabrielle was considering her with that impish, knowing look. "Okay," Jan said. "Did she learn?"
"Yes," Gabrielle said. "She learned well. She sweated hard in the smith's shop. Her body became tight with muscle and strength. Her hands calloused themselves with hard work. And Robert taught her the longbow and the sword, and she learned to hunt and become at home in the forest. In three season's time, she grew to resemble not at all the young gentlewoman of her past. She truly became Twig Coving-town to all who met her. Only Robert and Margaret knew her real identity and her true sex." Gabrielle laughed. "Except for one other person..."
Jan snickered. "I can't wait." She pointed to her forehead. "Do your thing."
Wynnfrith's thoughts were lulled by the rhythmic sound of her hammer upon the heated metal. She turned it in her hand as she pounded it, shaped it. Then, she thrust it back into the furnace. When she turned around, her eyes widened in surprise. "Oh!"
"I'm sorry. Didn't mean t' scare you." A young woman stood in the shop's door, holding a basket and a walking stick. "Where's Robert?"
"He's inside. I'm Twig, his apprentice." Wynnfrith couldn't help but look; her visitor had the appearance of a farm girl, with a worn dress and wooden shoes. Beneath a leather belt, a knife was present, for everyone traveled the forest armed. Her hair was dark, and wound into a thick braid. Her eyes were bright and her smile pleasant.
"Twig, eh? I'm Jean. I live by the village yonder, beyond the forest's edge." She studied Wynnfrith, then shot her a smile. "I come around sometimes. Sell 'em herbs and plants I pick, and run errands for my Papa. Robert's making him some hinges." She looked around. "Is he done with 'em?"
"I'm done with them." Twig lifted them from the workbench and placed them into Jean's basket. "For the price, you'll have to ask Robert, though."
"I will. Say, I'm thirsty. Where's your well?"
"Out back. Come on." Twig placed her leather gloves aside and led Jean outside, to the well. She raised a bucket and gave Jean a wooden cup. As she watched the girl drink, she became fascinated with the details of her appearance; her hair, the way her face and shoulders were brown from sun, the way she drank with gusto; then, she looked away. She felt herself aroused by Jean's near presence. The feeling surprised her, but she welcomed it. It had been a while since she'd felt that way, and although she enjoyed the sensations, she didn't quite know what to do with them.
"Twig?" She felt a tap on her arm. She looked, and Jean was offering her the cup. "You're thirsty?"
"Oh. Ah, yes. Thank you." She accepted the cup, dipped it into the bucket, and drank. Then, she put the cup on the well. When she looked up, she noticed that Jean was appraising her with a keen eye. Jean's hand touched her forearm, then began working its way up her bare arm to the leather jerkin covering her torso, exploring the tight muscle that smithing had put there. Wynnfrith could not draw away; she felt herself lean into the touch.
"You're a lovely lad, aren't ya?" Jean said. Wynnfrith felt the heat of sudden blush color her cheeks, and Jean laughed. She touched Wynnfrith's cheek, ran her fingers along the angle of her jaw. "Skin as smooth as a girl's." Jean's eyes narrowed. "How old are ya, Twig?"
"Old enough," was all that Wynnfrith could manage.
"Hm." Jean considered the answer. "Ever kissed a girl?"
At that, Wynnfrith smiled. "A time or two." Their eyes connected.
"Oh, you're a beautiful lad. Care to make it three?"
Wynnfrith grasped Jean's hand and pulled her toward the barn. They ran inside, and she pointed up at the loft. Jean laughed, then climbed the ladder. Wynnfrith was just behind her, and in a moment, they had found a spot and settled into the hay. Jean pulled Wynnfrith down next to her, and their lips met. The kiss was passionate, unrestrained, and seemed to last forever. Finally, Jean lay back and gasped.
"Lord, Twig. You can kiss!"
Jean attacked her again. For a long time, they remained buried in the hay. Finally, a squeal resounded in the loft, and Jean sat up. She gestured, then exclaimed, "Twig! Where's your - ?"
"I felt down there. You don't have a - !"
"Yes! I know!"
Jean shot a puzzled look at Wynnfrith. "Did something happen to it?"
"No. I never had one."
"Never? You poor lad." Jean's jaw dropped. "I ain't ever heard of such a thing. You were born like that?"
"Yes." At Jean's incredulous expression, she said, "There's a simple explanation, really."
"Oh? I got to hear this."
Wynnfrith took a deep breath. "I'm a woman."
Jean's jaw dropped, and her eyes grew wide. "No!"
For a long, silent moment, Jean sat still and considered that. Then, she looked at Wynnfrith. "I don't believe ya, Twig."
"If you be a woman, where's your bosom?"
Wynnfrith looked down at her chest. "I never had much of one."
"You're lyin'." Jean sat up and crossed her arms in a defiant gesture. "If you be a woman, then prove it."
"I beg your pardon?"
"You heard. Prove it to me."
Some time later, they emerged from the barn, brushing the last lingering bits of straw from their clothes and hair. "Yup," Jean said. "You're a woman, all right."
"I'm sorry that I deceived you."
Jean stopped and gave Wynnfrith that squinted, appraising look. Then, she smiled. "Don't be. By the saints, that was some good kissin', Twig. I just might have to come back for some more o' that."
Wynnfrith laughed. "Come around anytime. I'll be here."
Jean lifted her basket and walking stick from the well, then stopped and studied Wynnfrith. "Damn me, but you do make a pretty lad, don't ya?" With that, she turned and strode toward the main house. Just before she rounded the corner, she stopped and shot Wynnfrith a flirtatious smile. Then she laughed and disappeared behind the shop wall.
Wynnfrith watched her go, then returned to the shop and donned her leather gloves. As she pulled the metal from the fire and resumed pounding on the anvil, she found herself smiling, in spite of it all.
A little while later, Robert entered the shop. "Twig," he said. "You've got an admirer, it seems." Wynnfrith ceased pounding and looked up. "Jean thinks that you're one right pretty lad."
"I'll put that on my tombstone," she said. "Here lies Wynnfrith, one right pretty lad."
"She also asked us to make her father some iron nails. You'd best get to work, Twig. She'll be back for them tomorrow, she said."
Wynnfrith noticed Robert's smile. "I'll get started right away." She raised an eyebrow in question. "Tomorrow?" She felt a grin spread across her face.
"I might need a bath tonight," Wynnfrith said.
Robert roared in laughter, slapped Wynnfrith on the back, and left the shop. As she returned to her work, she began to sing a lively little tune in tempo to the pounding of her hammer.
"To-morrow is Saint Valentine's Day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine:
Then up he rose and donn'd his clothes,
And dupp'd the chamber door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more."
United States, 1951.
"So, did she and Jean...? Okay, yeah. None of my business, right?" At Gabrielle's expression, Jan said, "Oh, come on. You can tell me."
"We should return to the story."
"Rats. Oh, okay. Where'd we stop? Oh, yeah. What about that knight, Sir John? He was lookin' for Wynnfrith, right?" Jan asked.
"Oh, yes. He was questing, you see. He would not stop until he'd found her, or he was dead. And he searched faithfully for most of a year."
"Then he found her?"
"Oh, no." Gabrielle laughed. "She found him."
Sir John Poor allowed his horse to bend its head and drink from the brook. As it did, he stamped his feet and cursed the cold. It was winter, and winter always made him grumpy. He could never, it seemed, quite get warm. He paced, clapping his gloved hands against his arms beneath his cloak. He was glad that he was not in a knight's accouterments, chain mail, helmet, and so on. He would have been colder. He was dressed in nondescript woolen clothing of moderate quality, appearing more like a traveler than a knight. It suited him here, in the forest, and it made speaking to the peasantry of the countryside easier. They were more forthcoming with him if they did not see him as a knight dressed for war. A knight, to most peasants, represented nobility, represented oppression, represented taxation and a conscription of men for war and demands for a meal and care for his horse and lust for their daughters and a myriad other things. Knights were thugs with the power of the king behind them. Sir John was merely John Poor, seeking a wayward cousin, a beardless young man of fair complexion and pleasant voice who had run away from home, and whose family desired him to return.
He listened to the sound of approaching footfalls, then turned and found himself facing three men. They held weapons, and one spoke. It was a robbery. Highwaymen, bandits who populated the forest. They wanted his horse, his clothing, his money, his weapons. He shed his cloak, drew his sword, and dared them on. They accepted the dare. That was their mistake.
In moments, two were on the ground, bleeding from wounds. The third faced him, an axe in hand, and slowly spun it in circles as he studied John. They faced each other, each awaiting their opponent's charge, neither making a move. John knew that the axe was a deadly weapon; that his sword might not be able to parry the axe's blow, and his quest would come to a most unsatisfactory end. As these thoughts filled his head, a whisper passed his ear, and the shaft and feathers of a longbow arrow tore into the highwayman's chest. The man's axe flew into the snow several feet away, and the man teetered backward and fell to the snow. He did not move.
John approached him and studied the shot. It was a good one, right into the heart. Then, he turned to discover his benefactor. Thirty feet away, a young man stood, bundled against the cold, dressed as a peasant hunter, longbow in his hand. He watched John with interest. His hood was up; a scarf covered the hunter's face. Only the eyes showed, but in the young man's eyes, John thought he detected a moment of recognition. No, he decided, where would I ever have met this lad before?
"Thank you," John said.
A nod was his only reply.
He sheathed his sword. "I owe you."
This time, the lad shook his head. He walked to the dead highwayman, leaned down, and pulled the arrow from his chest. John watched him wipe the arrow clean on the highwayman's clothes and return it to his quiver. Then, the lad studied John for a long, silent moment. Finally, he spoke, a hoarse whisper from beneath the hood and scarf.
"You are cold?"
"Yes, actually," John said. "I'm freezing my balls off. Aren't you?"
The lad squelched a bright laugh with a hand over his scarf. "Come," he said. "I'll give you shelter."
John studied the eyes appraising him from within the hood and the scarf. He had seen those eyes before. "I'd like that. Thank you."
He followed the lad on foot, and led his horse. They joined a wide path following the edge of the wood, and trudged through the snow until they passed a bend in the road. A cluster of buildings loomed ahead, smoke rising from chimneys. Shelter was ahead.
In short time, John's horse was in the barn, and he sat warming himself by the fire of a great room. A pleasant woman with the remnants of youthful good looks about her thrust a bowl of stew into his hands, and a man of middle age with graying beard and massive arms negotiated with him the price of lodging, meals, feed for his horse, and a bath. John flipped the man a half-Crown and said, "The name's John Poor."
"I'm Robert," the man said. "My wife is Margaret."
"Honored," John said. "And the lad? Where'd he go?"
"Oh, Twig? He's here somewhere."
"He helped me dearly today," John said. "I wanted to thank him."
"I'll call him," Margaret said, and left the room. A moment later, she re-entered, followed by the lad, who stood at the door, his hood back, but his scarf still covering his face.
John stood, approached him, and said, "Thanks, lad, for that true shot and for getting me out of the cold. You've done me a service." In reply, the lad only nodded. "May I ask a kindness?" Again, he nodded. "May I see your face? You seem familiar to me."
At that, the lad's eyes widened. Slowly, the hand dropped, and the scarf fell away. They considered each other for a long, silent moment, and John bowed. "I thought that was you, Lady Wynnfrith."
"How," she asked, "did you discover me, Sir John?"
"No one else has eyes as pretty as you, ma'am, or a laugh quite as cheerful."
At that, Wynnfrith had to smile. She motioned to the table. "Sit, Sir John, and we'll talk."
United States, 1951.
Jan puzzled over the turn of events. "So, did that guy rat Wynnfrith out to her dad?" She noted Gabrielle's puzzled expression and said, "Sorry. Did John tell her location to her father?"
"Not right away," Gabrielle replied. "She did pen a letter for him to deliver to her father, assuring him that she was well and asking for news. You see, John had been on quest; he had no news."
"So, what about Reginald? Was he actually dead?"
"No. Where did we leave him?" Gabrielle asked.
"Wynnfrith's father was gettin' ready to stick his head on a pike. "
"Oh, yes. The day after she left. Here, I will show you." She touched Jan's head.
Sir William, Duke of Huntingdonshire, dismounted from his horse and glared at the reeve of Grantbridge. "Where is your boss?" he asked.
"If you mean the duke, sir, he is deathly ill and at his bed."
"Take me there. Now."
The reeve noted the knights behind William, sitting astride horses and ready for a quarrel, and decided that he didn't want his blood on the courtyard of Reginald's castle. He nodded, then turned and began walking. William's heavy tread was just behind his. They entered the great room and trod the stairs to the second floor, where William was ushered into a chamber. He approached the bed, and a servant stood aside. Reginald was in the bed, his head swathed in bandages. William cast a glance at the servants in the room, then spoke.
"Leave, all of you. Now. Close the door behind you."
The servants scurried out. When the door was shut, William removed his helmet and pushed back the chain-mail hood, exposing his head. Then, he looked down at Reginald, who lay quietly and waited William's comments. Finally, William had one.
"Well, Reginald? Are you going to die of your own volition, or am I going to have to kill you?"
"That," Reginald said, "remains to be seen."
"Where's your wife? You know, my daughter? The one you like to beat?"
Reginald glowered up at William. "Do you mean the same one who acts immorally with her maidservant and attempts to murder her husband? That one?"
"No. But it doesn't matter. I'm a noble, a duke. My word is all that it will take to convict her. She'll hang."
"Well, then. It appears that I'll have to kill you."
Reginald smiled. "You're getting old, Sir William. I can best you on the field. And I formally challenge you to personal combat."
"You cannot refuse me. You know the code of chivalry. Give me time to regain my strength, and I'll meet you on the field of honor. A combat to the death."
William studied Reginald for a moment, then nodded. "Done, you bastard," he said. "I'll separate your head from your shoulders in front of God and everybody else."
"I'll see you then," Reginald said.
"It'll be the last damned thing you'll ever see." William turned and marched out of the room. He halted at the door. "If I find Wynnfrith, she stays with me. She does not return here."
"She's my wife. I've a right to her."
"Come and get her, if you dare." With that, he left.
Reginald smiled, then winced at his pain. "Got you, old man," he whispered. "I'll kill you."
United States, 1951.
"Whoa! So who wins that one?" Jan asked.
"Patience, distant daughter," Gabrielle said. "Allow the story to unfold."
"Rats. So, where'd we leave off? Oh, yeah. John finds Wynnfrith, and she sends him off with a letter to her father. So, how'd William take the letter?"
"Let us see." She touched Jan's head.
John sat at the great room's fire with William and Rose. He enjoyed the fire's warmth and sipped his mulled, spiced wine as William read the letter from Wynnfrith.
Rose placed a hand on John's arm. "Was she well?"
"Very fit and well," John said. "Although she misses all of you."
"Bring her home to us," Rose pleaded.
"She'd best not come home quite yet," William said. "I received word that Reginald preferred charges against her."
"For what?" Rose gasped.
"Immorality and attempted murder." William held up his hand. "I was going to tell you, but I felt it would upset you."
"You're damned right it upsets me. Oh, husband! What shall we do?"
"I'll meet Reginald on the field and kill him as soon as he gets his strength back. That will put these charges to rest."
"And then, we'll bring her home."
Wynnfrith pumped the bellows and watched the fire glow hotter. Then, she inserted a rod of iron and watched it heat. Beneath her leather jerkin, her body was covered with a thin sheen of perspiration, and her short, shaggy hair was held back from her forehead with a scarf, twisted and knotted at the nape of her neck. In the background, Robert beamed at her progress. He was well pleased.
He felt a blast of cold air from the opened shop door, and he turned. Two men stepped inside, both bundled against the cold. One was obviously a knight, a hired man-at-arms. The other had the air of a noble about him, but as he shed his cloak against the heat of the smith's shop, he displayed a withered left arm and a weakened left leg.
"Sir?" Robert said.
"Are you Robert the smith?" the man asked.
"The one who holds the secret of the blade which can cut through chain mail?"
"I have been told of your expertise. Where did you acquire such a skill?"
"The Holy Land. I was in the last Crusade."
"I see. I need a blade of such quality. I am prepared to pay handsomely for it."
Robert considered the proposition, then nodded. "I'll need measurements."
"You may take them from my sword." He held forth a sword, and Robert lifted it from his hand. It was of good quality, but it had a porous blade. He could see the imperfections in it. The usual work.
"A moment, please," Robert said. He walked across the shop and rested the sword on a work bench. "Twig," he said, "measure this sword. We're making a hard blade for this gentleman."
Wynnfrith turned, and her eyes widened. It was Reginald. She froze, then quickly turned away. In a second, she'd pulled the scarf down over her face, leaving only her eyes exposed. Then, she walked to the workbench and began working over the sword with a knotted string. In a moment, she'd scratched measurements on a piece of wood, and she offered the sword back to Robert.
"Give it back to the gentleman," Robert said.
Wynnfrith felt her gut twist into a knot. She kept the scarf over her face, and slowly, she approached Reginald and offered him the sword. He took it with his right hand, and returned it to its sheath. Then, as she turned away from him, she felt his hand on her shoulder. He turned her back toward him. Their eyes met.
"Do I know you from somewhere?" he asked.
She shook her head. "No," she answered in a husky whisper.
"I'm sure I do," he insisted.
Again, she shook her head. "Excuse me," she said, and retreated to the bellows to continue work.
Reginald watched the lad work the bellows, watched the muscle in his slender arm flex, and puzzled over his uneasy feeling. Finally, he asked Robert, "Who is that?"
"That's my apprentice," he said. "Twig, he's called."
"He is a little odd up here," Robert said, as he tapped the side of his head. "But he's a good lad."
"Hm. He's skinny for a smith," Reginald noted. Almost feminine in his features and actions, he thought, and there's something familiar about his movements. "Let me see his face."
At that, the lad turned and stared at Reginald. Robert said, "Ah, he's sensitive about that, y'see, sir. Very shy."
"I'll fix that," Reginald said. He limped across the shop, confronted Wynnfrith, and pulled the scarf from her face. They stared into each other's faces for a moment, and then Reginald smiled, a cold smile. "I must have been mistaken, Twig." He limped back to Robert. "Well, then. When shall I return for my blade?"
"In a month."
"Fifteen gold Crowns."
"That's robbery," said Reginald.
"That's quality," Robert retorted.
"All right. Agreed." He held his head and winced. "Damned headaches," he said. "It's too bad you can't do something for that."
Robert considered the question, then said, "My wife can. She's a skilled apothecary. Come into the main house."
"I'd be grateful," Reginald said, as he followed Robert from the shop. When the door closed, Wynnfrith felt her knees give way beneath her. She sat down on the shop's floor and held her hands over her face as she wept in fear.
Inside, Margaret combined herbs in hot water, then offered it to Reginald. "Drink this," she said. It'll make your headache easier to bear. And I'll mix a little box of potion to take with you. Just make it in hot water and drink it."
"Thank you," he said, as he put the empty bowl aside. "You're skilled at herbs and potions, are you?"
"I learned from my mother."
"As she learned from her mother?"
"Yes. That's the way it's done."
"I see." Reginald considered that, then said, "That lad, Twig. What's his story?"
"Oh, Twig?" Margaret laughed. "We took him in. He's learning smithing from Robert."
"And potions from you?"
"Yes. I've taught him some. He seems to have a knack for it."
"Interesting. How long has he been with you?"
"Oh, I can't rightly say. Perhaps the best part of a year now."
"I see." Reginald slowly stood, then looked at both Margaret and Robert. "My thanks. I'll return in a month for the blade."
As Margaret placed the little box of herbs in Reginald's hand, Robert said, "Sir, you've never mentioned your name."
Reginald said, "I haven't? Good." He placed a coin on the table. Then, he limped from the house, as his bodyguard closed the door behind them.
Outside, he hesitated and stared toward the shop as he contemplated his course of action regarding the 'lad' in the smithy. Then, he mounted his horse with his companion's help, settled into his saddle, and rode slowly toward the wide trail leading toward Grantbridge.
Inside, Robert and Margaret looked up from their places at the fire as their door opened, then quickly shut. Wynnfrith leaned against the door and stared at them, speechless.
"Lord, girl. You look like you've seen a demon," Robert said.
"I have. That man is my husband," Wynnfrith said.
Robert and Margaret exchanged horrified looks, then waved Wynnfrith to the fire. She knelt between them, and Robert said, "Did he recognize you?"
"I don't know. Yes. Perhaps. I fear that he did."
"Oh, Robert," Margaret said. "If he did..."
Robert nodded. "You'd best be prepared to run, girl."
"To where?" she asked. She began to weep. "Where can I go?"
"To your father's domain. Or deeper into the forest."
Margaret muttered, "If I'd known he was that husband of yours, I'd have given him a potion to cure his headaches permanently."
"I thought he was dead," Wynnfrith said. "I thought I'd killed him."
"You just crippled him," Margaret said. "Think back. On which side of his head did you strike him?"
Wynnfrith squinted in thought, then said, "On his right side."
"And now, his left arm and leg are feeble. That's the way it works."
"Oh, God! What have I done?" Wynnfrith buried her face in her hands and began weeping, as Robert and Margaret cast helpless glances at each other.
A few days later, at the castle at Grantbridge, Reginald sat with an older man. The man perused a document, then looked up. "These are serious charges," he said. "I may be your uncle and a King's prosecutor, but I still have to bring a good case. What proof do you have that it was your wife who struck you that night?"
"I'm of noble birth, a duke. My word is all that's required."
"She hit you from behind, is that not true?"
"Then you never actually saw her. How do you know it wasn't the husband of one of those peasant women you've been diddling that did this to you? You don't, do you?"
"She crippled me. I want her hung for this!"
"Reginald, calm down. Look, you've got to have proof. She's a woman of noble birth; King Henry will be involved in the judgement. And he won't convict her on your word alone."
"But I'm a duke!" Reginald said.
"And he's the king. And Henry's got a soft place in his heart for the ladies. Wynnfrith's reputation is that she's possessed of a fair face and a pretty leg. Henry will not convict her. But..." The man thought, and Reginald leaned forward, awaiting his next thought. "But this immorality charge. From what does it stem?"
"I caught her and her maidservant in bed together, naked and in pleasure."
"Hm. The Crown doesn't care about that. Henry's a hedonist of the most outrageous sort. But the Church, now - that's another matter entirely. They might want to judge her."
"And if I can throw a witch in, for good measure?"
Reginald's uncle blinked in surprise. "You know a witch?"
"I know where my wife is living. The woman she's with practices the ancient religion, I'm sure of it. And that maidservant of hers is probably at William's castle. A little torture, and I'm sure she'll confess it all. There's three for the Church to burn. Three for the price of one."
"Reginald," the King's prosecutor said, "you're a vindictive man. I'll pass it on to the archbishop. Expect a visit from the Church sometime in the next month."
United States, 1951.
"Oh, man. This ain't lookin' good for the home team, is it?" Jan said.
"Patience, Janice. The story is not yet over. Let us travel forward a month. Spring has come. Robert the smith has finished the hard blade, and Reginald has returned to claim it. He has also returned with three men-at-arms."
"Reginald never intended to pay for that sword, I'll bet."
"You are perceptive," Gabrielle said. She touched Jan's forehead.
In the smith's shop, Robert demonstrated the blade's strength to Reginald. He swiped through a hunk of chain mail easily, then returned the sword to its box. "So," he said, "do you think my blade worthy of its price?"
"Perhaps," Reginald said. "Let me hold it, feel its balance and weight."
Robert smiled as he opened a box and stepped aside. He watched Reginald lift a sword and weigh it in his hand, swing it, and watched the duke's expression of delight. "So, sir," Robert said. "One hard blade, for fifteen gold Crowns."
Reginald pointed the sword at Robert. "I have three men-at-arms. Why should I pay for it at all?"
"Because I'll kill you if you don't." He lifted a sword from the work bench and faced Reginald. "Where's your men-at-arms now?"
"Arresting your wife and your apprentice," Reginald said. "They're in irons even as we speak, I should think. Come outside, and see for yourself."
Robert's expression fell. He stepped toward the shop's door, keeping a cautious eye on Reginald, and walked outside. It was then that he heard the weeping and the cries for help. Wynnfrith and Margaret were locked into iron manacles, and were being forced into the open wagon. He turned back to Reginald.
"Why?" he asked. "For God's sake, man. What's your purpose?"
Reginald watched as a man-at-arms pressed a sword's tip against Robert's neck. Then, he said, "Revenge. And I give them your wife to sweeten the deal with the Church. They love to burn practitioners of the ancient religion. Witches, they call them." He laughed as he turned and limped toward his horse. Halfway there, he turned and looked at Robert. "And don't think of rescue," he said. "My castle is impregnable and my dungeon is secure, smithy. The likes of you will never succeed."
"Should I kill the smithy?" the man-at-arms asked.
"No," Reginald said. "Let him live. I may have need of his skills again."
As the man-at-arms held a blade against his neck, Robert watched in anguished helplessness as Margaret and Wynnfrith were taken away, surrounded by Reginald and his men.
Wynnfrith and Margaret were pulled from the wagon, hustled through the courtyard of Grantbridge Castle, and taken down steps. They were pushed at spear-point into a dungeon cell, and they watched as the door slammed closed and was locked. Then, they took stock of their situation. They were free of shackles, but in a locked cell. It smelled foul. Only a small window at the top of the wall allowed any light into their world.
They sat on the edge of a stone outcropping and held each other for a while. Then, Margaret spoke.
"I hope Robert is well," she whispered.
"He can't get us out of here," Wynnfrith replied. "We're lost."
"Don't be so sure, child." Margaret smiled at Wynnfrith, an attempt to put the younger woman at ease. Then, she said, "Let me think for a while. Try to sleep, Twig."
It seemed like a good idea. She certainly wasn't going anywhere at the moment. She lay down, closed her eyes, and felt Margaret's near presence, sitting very, very still. She also felt silent tears wet her face. She had the feeling that there would be a lot more of that before she ever saw the forest again. If she ever saw it again.
Robert chafed inside his chain mail. He hadn't worn it in years, and now wondered how he had ever become accustomed to it. It was heavy and smelled of musty closets. He urged his horse onward, then halted it before a closed gate. He looked up as a voice hailed him.
"Sir Robert the Young, Knight-Crusader. I seek conference and fellowship with Sir William of Huntingdon. Is he in residence?"
"Yes. Wait there."
Robert sat astride his horse, fuming at the delay. Finally, the massive wooden gate creaked and opened, and a voice urged him inside.
In the great room, William looked up as a servant stood near him and whispered something. "What's that?" the duke said. "A crusader knight, here? My God, the last crusade was over twenty years ago. Well, bring him in, man. We'll show him hospitality." To Rose, he said, "He's got to be a creaky old fart by now."
Rose smiled as she kept her eyes on her embroidery. "Like you, dear?"
He smiled at his wife's jest. "Yes, damn it. Like me."
A crusader knight stepped into the great room, then removed his helmet and pulled the chain-mail hood from his head. He watched William's jaw drop, and laughed. "Hello, Sir William. It's been a while."
"By all the fornicating angels on high! Sir Robert the Young!" William rose, strode across the room, and grasped his hand in a vigorous greeting. "What brings you to my door? Come in and warm yourself! Mary, bring hot wine and food for our guest. Come, Robert, and meet my wife." He led the crusader to the table, and Rose stood and presented herself. Then, they sat, and hot wine and a platter of cold food was set before him. After bread was broken, William said, "It's good to see you again."
"And you, Sir William. But it's ill news that brings me." He looked at his old friend's questioning glance. "It would seem that you and I have a common problem."
William raised an eyebrow. "Oh? What's that?"
"Sir Reginald, Duke of Grantbridge."
"What's that bastard done now?"
"He's arrested my wife and your daughter on charges of witchcraft and immorality. They're in dungeon at his castle. The Church is sending a representative to conduct a trial. If they're found guilty, they'll burn or hang."
Rose's expression was one of horror. "They find everybody guilty!" she said. "Oh, husband! Our Wynnfrith! They'll burn her at the stake!"
From behind Rose, a clatter sounded. Mary had dropped a serving-tray on the floor and stood, wide-eyed, with her hands over her mouth. Rose left her chair, collected her servant, and led her away with some whispered words.
William sat, speechless, for a long, terrible moment. Then, he slammed his wine cup down on the table. "The hell they will! I'll lay siege to his stinking castle and level it. I'll feed his guts to the buzzards. Then I'll - "
Robert placed a hand on William's arm. "I have a plan."
"Hm. You always were the clever one."
"And you, Sir William, were the brave one, first into battle."
"Hm." William fumed a little, then said, "Oh, all right. Tell me your plan." He smiled. "And it's not necessary, old friend, to kiss my ass first."
"It settled you down, didn't it?"
Rose returned, with Mary trailing silently behind her. "And pray tell us too, Sir Robert, how you came to know of our Wynnfrith."
"A pleasure, ma'am. It began this way, most of a year ago now..."
Wynnfrith and Margaret huddled together beneath ragged blankets, facing an open fire burning in an iron pan in the center of the cell. "If my father hears of this, there will be war," Wynnfrith said. "He'll lay siege to this place and tear it stone from stone."
"Have you ever seen war?" Margaret asked.
"No." Wynnfrith shrugged. "I mean, I've seen the jousts, the tournaments, but not war."
"The guilty often survive. The innocent most often don't. Such is the nature of war."
They looked up when footsteps sounded in the hall. It was Reginald. He stood at the bars and gazed down at his two prisoners, an enigmatic expression on his face. His prisoners returned the stare in silence. Finally, he spoke.
"So, you chose a man's disguise. On you, I find that strangely fitting."
Wynnfrith said, "What do you want? Have you come to gloat?"
"Yes. I've also come to tell you that a representative of the Church is on his way here to hear your trials. In other words, to torture confessions out of you. A few days, and we can have this knot knit up." He smiled. "The knot around your necks, that is."
"How nice," Wynnfrith said, "for us."
"There is a way to stop this."
Wynnfrith looked at him. "What's the price?"
"Return to me as my wife. Pledge obedience. Repent. Beg forgiveness. Do penance."
"I'd rather die."
"Do you hate me so much?"
"If I ever get the chance again, I'll kill you."
"You should have struck a harder blow."
"I didn't realize you had such a thick skull."
Reginald smiled. "My, my. Wherever did our sweet little Wynnfrith go? The one who so shyly pledged her marriage vow to me?"
"She's not here."
"Obviously not. Enjoy your last few days." With that, he left.
For a long while, Margaret and Wynnfrith said nothing, just sat close to the fire and occasionally fed it a piece of wood. Then, Wynnfrith began weeping. "This is my fault," she whispered. "You'd not be here if it wasn't for me. I'm so sorry for all of it."
Margaret scooted closer, held her, pulled the blankets tight around them both. Then, she began speaking. "It wasn't you. It was him that caused all this. He acted according to his nature, and you reacted according to yours. That's the way of everything in creation, child."
"What is his nature?"
"He's become as twisted on the inside as he is on the outside. He's a rabid dog."
"And my nature? What is that?"
"You're good. I saw it right away. Gentle, loving. But a strong sense of what's right and wrong."
"I tried to kill my husband. Is that not wrong?"
"You attempted to kill a rabid dog. It's not the dog's fault it's rabid. It's diseased. But not to try to kill it is to put everyone around it in danger. And it's your nature to protect others. Think, now. You told me the story; what would have happened to that girl in the stables, had you not done what you did?" Wynnfrith looked at Margaret. "That's right. You saved that girl from a vicious act. You did that with the act that you now regret."
Wynnfrith wiped her face and sniffed. "I suppose."
"Of course you did. Now, quit blaming yourself for his sickness. Try to sleep. Our worst enemy is not going to be Reginald; it will be the Church. We'll need all our wits about us if we're to survive the next few days."
United States, 1951.
"Wait a minute, wait a minute," Jan said. "Hold the story. I've got a question. What about the challenge of mortal combat between Reginald and William? Reginald had that hard blade made for him so's he could beat William, right? But now that Reginald is crippled, is the challenge still valid?"
"We're getting to that," Gabrielle said. "Patience, Janice."
"Oh, all right." Jan settled down on the couch next to Gabrielle. At her ancestor's touch, her mind flooded with images of long ago.
"Sir, the Church's man has arrived."
Reginald looked up from his wine. "Fine. Escort him in. Bring him to me." When the shire's reeve did not move, he said, "What is it?"
"Sir, he's being escorted by Sir William of Huntingdon and his men-at-arms."
"What the hell?" Reginald rose and limped out to the courtyard of his castle. Sure enough, the coach with the Church's emblem on it was surrounded by knights-on-horse, all bearing William's mark on the cloth over their chain mail coats. One rode forward and stopped his horse in front of Reginald.
"Sir William," Reginald said. "Come to see your daughter's trial and execution?"
"No," William replied. "I've come to separate your head from your shoulders. You challenged me. I answer now. Face me or suffer disgrace."
In spite of the chill, Reginald felt himself perspire. "I'm - I'm not prepared."
"You've had a year to prepare. Meet me here and now, or be proclaimed a coward across the realm." William grinned. "And I'll still separate your head from your body."
"Give me time to dress."
"You've got until the distant church bell strikes half the hour. Then, I'll come into your keep, find you, and slit your throat."
Reginald's face clouded. "You boast too much, old man." With that, he turned and limped into the keep.
Near a riverbank, John and Robert rigged one end of a block-and-tackle to a vine-covered gate protruding from a hill. The other end was secured to a huge oak tree. In the distance above them, they could see the battlements of Reginald's castle. They tied the rope to the horn of a horse's saddle, and urged the horse on. The strength of the massive war-horse, coupled with the advantage of the block-and-tackle, yanked the gate free. Then, John took up a lit torch and gestured toward Robert.
"After you, lad," Robert said. "You know the way."
The two knights were not dressed in traditional chain mail and helmet; that would be too bulky for their mission today. Stealth was required. Instead, they were in warm woolen, wearing their swords across their backs. In addition, Robert carried a bundle wrapped in rough cloth on his back.
They entered the tunnel and paced toward the castle. "Where does this let out?" Robert asked.
"In the basements, near the dungeon," John replied. "We'll be in and out in short time."
"How do you know of this place?"
"It was designed as an escape, in case the castle was ever put to siege. We used it for sneaking out to frolic with certain young ladies who were not allowed out of the castle."
"I see." Robert tapped John on the shoulder. "If we meet a man in armor and helmet, let me deal with him."
John cast a laughing glance back at Robert, then nodded. "Absolutely."
William sat astride his horse, fuming. He bellowed, "Sir Reginald, I wait upon you."
Inside, Reginald was dressing for battle. His servant had helped him into his chain mail, sword-belt, and heavy leather gloves, and was seating his helmet on his head over the chain mail hood. His armorer adjusted the strap across his body that bore most of the weight of his shield, as his withered left arm was not strong enough to carry it alone. Finally, his armorer offered out a sword. Reginald shook his head.
"No. Give me that one. The one I got from that smithy in the forest."
He slid the special sword into his scabbard, then turned and limped toward the courtyard, to answer William's bellowed summons.
When he emerged into the sunlight, he saw a crowd gathered. Good. He would treat them to the sight of a blade that could slice through chain mail. He'd prove to all that, even crippled, he could still kill a knight of the reputation of Sir William. Then, he would command the respect of the realm. He'd manipulate the Church to execute his present wife, force a marriage to Rose, Lady of Huntingdonshire, and possess what the aging William now has.
He halted in the courtyard. "I attend you, Sir William. Dismount and do battle with me."
"With pleasure." William dismounted from his huge war-horse, hefted his shield onto his left arm, drew his sword with his right hand, and paced forward.
As the two opponents faced each other, the priest emerged from the coach and intervened. "It's my duty," he said to the two enemies, "to attempt to conclude a peaceful end to this quarrel. Will you not be reconciled?"
The two knights turned their heads toward him. "Rot," William said.
"Piss off," Reginald growled.
"Well," the priest said, as he retreated. "That's a sincere 'no', I take it."
Reginald drew his sword, and they stood apart. Then, they touched blades, and the combat began, to the shouts and cheers of the crowd.
"What's happening out there?" Wynnfrith called through the bars of her cell. "I hear much noise."
The guard paced down the hall. "Sir Reginald is in personal combat with that duke from the next shire."
"Huntingdonshire?" she asked.
"Yeah. That's the one. I'd love to see that, but I'm stuck here guarding a couple of immoral witches, instead." He motioned to Wynnfrith. "You look like a lad, but you sound like a girl. Which is it?"
"What do you care?" she retorted. My father, she thought, is fighting my husband to the death. I've got to get out of here.
"You're right fair, whichever you are. Seems a shame to see you burn. A right waste of pretty flesh, if you ask me."
Wynnfrith shot a look at Margaret, who silently urged her on. She nodded understanding, then stepped to the bars. "Oh? Are you interested?"
The guard studied her. "Yeah," he said. "So, which are ya?"
She smiled. "Come inside and find out. Just bring some food, because we're hungry, and then we can play, you and I."
Margaret stood next to Wynnfrith. "Bring food. Then we'll all play."
The guard considered the offer, then turned and walked away. "Don't go anywhere," he called over his shoulder.
When he was gone, Margaret looked at Wynnfrith. "I hope you have something good in mind," she said. "I mean, besides snuggling up to the likes of him."
Wynnfrith worked her fingers into the top of her boot and withdrew a dagger. "Good enough?" she asked.
In reply, Margaret smiled. "You clever girl," she said.
Robert and John stood at a locked gate. "Damn," Robert said. "It's locked. We'll just have to push it open, and hope the lock will break." He leaned against the bars and grunted, and the gate squeaked. Then, he looked at John. "Well, man? A little help here?"
John pulled a loose brick from the wall, reached into the hole, and produced an iron key. When he held it up, Robert rumbled with laughter. He whispered, "Asshole," then stepped aside as John unlocked the door and swung it open.
"The dungeon is this way," he said. They drew their swords and paced forward, down a wide, arched hallway lit with oil lamps.
"What the hell do you have a key there for?" Robert asked.
"Sometimes, we got back after the watch was set and the door was locked."
John pointed. "There. The dungeon."
William was becoming winded, but perceived that his opponent was in a similar state. Reginald was blinking the perspiration from his eyes, and his shield was drooping. He did not want to underestimate his opponent, however; although he was crippled, Reginald was still swift.
With that warning in his mind, William swung hard at the shield. His blade clanged against it, and the shield spun away from Reginald's body, separated from its straps. Reginald's eyes widened, then he attacked with a swing at William's head. It was parried by his shield, but the blow dented it noticeably. William replied with a horizontal swing of his broadsword, which passed just above Reginald's helmet. A moment later, he felt Reginald's sword strike his side. He felt a pain which took his breath away, and knew that the strike had probably broken a rib.
The guard returned to the cell with a half-eaten loaf of bread and a jug of mead. "How about this?" he asked. At Wynnfrith and Margaret's enthusiastic nods, he fumbled with a key in the lock, balancing the bread and jug of mead in one hand. As he opened the cell door, he said, "We play first. You two can eat afterward."
"No," Margaret said. "First we eat, then we play. We're starving."
"There's two of you. Take turns."
Robert walked into view and halted next to the guard. "Let's you and I play."
The guard stared, slack-jawed. "Who the hell are you?"
"I'm her husband." Robert's massive fist caught the guard squarely in the face. He flew backward, hit the far wall, and slid down to the floor, unconscious. Robert turned to Margaret. Then, he smiled. "Hello, love."
"Robert!" Margaret squealed. Then, she put her hands on her hips. "It's about time you showed up."
John stepped into view. "I don't mean to be rude, but we must hurry if we're to get you out of the castle," he said. "Lady Wynnfrith, Margaret."
Wynnfrith opened the cell's door. "Is my father fighting my husband?" she asked. "Oh, please say 'no'."
"I'm afraid the answer is 'yes', my lady."
"Then I'm going that way."
"My orders are to take you two out of the castle by the escape tunnel."
"My father!" She looked at Robert. "Reginald's got the hard blade. It'll cut through Papa's chain mail. I've got to warn him." She ran down the hall, and stopped at an intersection. She looked back at them, waved her hands frantically, and called out, "Please, Sir John! Which way?"
John shrugged, shot an apologetic glance at the others, and strode down the hall toward Wynnfrith. He took her hand and pulled her down a corridor. "This way is quickest," he said. Behind them, Robert and Margaret trotted to keep up.
In the courtyard, the combat slowed, but it was still vicious. William winced every time he swung his broadsword; the effort sent a shooting pain through his side. Reginald was managing to keep one step ahead of him, but was perspiring profusely and often stumbled. They were both becoming exhausted, but they were knights, and this was a combat of honor. One of them would die today.
John emerged from the keep's main hall with Wynnfrith in tow. Just behind him, Robert and Margaret halted. They climbed onto a low stone wall and watched the combat, a mere twenty feet in front of them. Wynnfrith paled as she perceived the situation; she turned, her expression aghast, and said, "I have to help him."
"You can't," John said. "It's between the two of them."
Robert put his hand on Wynnfrith's shoulder and shoved a long, thin, cloth-wrapped package into her hands. "A present, Twig. You might need it today."
She cast a disbelieving glance at him, then smiled. She knew by its feel what it was. She tore the cloth open, then slung her short sword and her quiver of arrows across her back. In a moment, she had strung her longbow. "Can I not take him from here?" she asked.
"Only if there's foul play," Robert said. "Remember that it's a contest of honor."
"But he's got the hard blade. He'll kill my father."
In reply, Robert smiled. "Patience, Twig. Have faith."
In the courtyard, William saw the opportunity and took it. His broadsword blade clapped Reginald across his withered arm, and knocked him to the ground. Reginald's sword slid away from him, and he lay sprawled in the dirt. As he desperately reached for his sword, William's booted foot tromped down on the blade. The tip of his broadsword hovered above Reginald.
"You've lost, you bastard," William said.
"The hell I have," Reginald retorted. He pulled a dagger from his waist and plunged it into William's thigh. The knight roared in pain, staggered a few paces, and fell as his leg gave way beneath him. Reginald struggled to his feet, retrieved his sword, and attacked. His blade pounded down upon William's shield again and again, denting the shield and sending shock waves up William's arm to his shoulder as he lay in the dirt.
Wynnfrith gasped. Her eyes watered, and she held her hand over her mouth. "Oh, John. Robert! Is there nothing to be done?"
"Wait here," Robert said, and began elbowing his way down the stairs to the front of the crowd. Wynnfrith watched him go, then returned her attention to the combat.
Reginald brought down a blow upon William's shield which resounded both with the clang of metal and the yell of primal blood-lust. The shield held, and the sword's blade broke. Reginald stared at the broken blade, then roared in anger and threw the remains of it aside. He held his hand out and shouted, "Give me a weapon!" As William struggled to rise, Reginald backed away and searched for his men's faces in the crowd.
A mace hit the ground at his feet, and Reginald picked it up. A heavy, killing weapon it was, about three feet long, with a head studded with spikes. It might not penetrate chain mail, but it would crush bones, mangle shields and helmets. It would work. He turned to face William, and saw the smithy cast a sword at William's feet. What chilled his blood was what he heard the smithy shout.
"Sir William! Here's a hard blade!"
That bastard smithy had cheated him with a false blade. After he killed William, he'd kill that smithy. But now, he had a more immediate problem. He had to get a killing blow in with his mace before William scored a hit with the hard blade. He raised the mace and limped forward with a strength fueled by hatred.
His mace rang against William's already damaged shield. A deep dent formed, and William cried out. He dropped the shield, and Reginald could see that the blow not only broke the shield, but possibly his opponent's forearm, as well. One more strike was all it would take to win. He raised the mace and yelled as he closed the distance to his enemy.
William's sword bit into the chain mail covering Reginald's chest. It parted, and droplets of blood spattered both combatants. Reginald staggered, then recovered himself. He'd been scarred, but not beaten. He raised the mace again, and his arm went numb. A shock traveled up his arm. For a moment, he did not comprehend what had just happened. Then, he looked down, and he saw his mace on the ground before him. Attached to it was his hand and part of his forearm. He blinked at the bloody stump just beneath his elbow, watched arterial blood spurt forth, and then looked at William.
The final swing tore through chain mail, leather, and Reginald's neck. He collapsed, fell hard to the ground, and did not move. A dark pool of blood quickly formed in the dirt, at the neck. William stared at the sight, then recovered himself and stood erect, in spite of his pain. He raised his arm high, his bloodied sword held up for all to see.
The crowd was silent. Not a voice spoke. The air seemed electric with tension, and Wynnfrith wondered what would happen next. John was more blunt. He grabbed both women's arms and whispered, "We'd best get ready to get the hell out of here. Head toward your father's men. Margaret, where's your husband?"
"I'm here," Robert said. "Come, this way."
They wormed their way through the crowd as a buzz of confused conversation began rising from the onlookers. Their shire lord had just been killed, and their shire lady had disappeared. What would become of them now? What should they do? Who would rule here in Reginald's stead?
"I claim this shire," William bellowed, "in King Henry's name. Where is the shire's reeve?"
A man stepped forward from the crowd. "Here, Sir William."
"You're in charge until the king rules in the matter."
A voice in the crowd shouted, "The hell you say!" A man not in armor, but armed with sword and with the bearing of a knight, stepped forward. Twenty or more additional men, all armed, some in chain mail and helmet, stepped forward and stood behind him.
"Oh, oh. I smell trouble," John said. "That's Sir Langley. He's a bad one."
Sir William's knights, as one unit, urged their horses into motion. They stopped their line behind William, and they lowered their lances until the tips gleamed into the faces of Reginald's men. No one moved.
Robert said, "There's going to be a slaughter here in about two minutes. You women had best head for the gate."
Wynnfrith set her jaw in a determined expression. "The hell you say," she repeated, then stepped from the crowd. In a swift, single motion, she'd notched an arrow into her longbow and raised it. Her arm drew back, and from his position behind her, John could see that it was aimed directly at Sir Langley.
William faced Langley. "Do you challenge me?" he asked.
Before Langley could answer, something whizzed past William's head. The shaft of a longbow arrow smacked into Langley's chest, and he staggered, then fell backward. He hit the ground hard, and lay sprawled in the dirt. The crowd fell silent, once again.
William released a long, slow breath. "Right, then. Does anyone else here challenge me?"
No one moved. No one spoke. The air was electric with silence. William asked the armed men, "Do you give allegiance to me, in King Henry's name?"
Another moment of silence hung thickly in the air, and then one of the armed knights raised his sword in the air. "Sir William!" he shouted. A second later, all of them had their weapons raised. The chorus of voices rang with shouts of "Sir William!", a chant that was joined by all present.
Robert sighed with relief, then spoke. "That was close."
John took his place next to Wynnfrith. "You're pretty damned good at that, m'lady."
She shot a glance his way, and they smiled a mutual smile. She said, "Let us join my father. I want to see him." Then, she pulled her hood up over her head.
The four of them emerged from the crowd and walked toward William, who was being attended by his men. His helmet was off, and his chain mail hood was pushed back. Pain was in his expression, but also exhilaration and pride. He had won the day. He beamed when he saw Robert approach, and shouted, "Thank you, Robert, for that hard blade." Then, his expression turned to puzzlement. "But who dispatched that arrow? That was the truest shot that ever I've seen!"
Robert pulled a lad, hood covering his head, longbow in hand, to stand in front of William. "Sir William, I present to you Twig Coving-town."
William clapped a gloved hand onto Twig's shoulder. "Lad, I'm right obliged to you." The head nodded, but the lad did not uncover himself. "Let me see your face, so I can know a true friend." He placed a hand on Twig's head and pulled the hood back. His daughter looked up at him. She beamed at his shock.
"Hello, Papa. I trust that you're all right?"
William stood, speechless, for a moment. Then, he roared in laughter and pulled her against his chest. "I am now!" he bellowed. "Come, daughter. Let's go home."
She looked up at him. "There's still that little matter of the Church."
"Oh, that?" William looked around. "Where's that blasted priest? Bring him over here."
The Church's representative for the trial stepped forward. "I'm here, Sir William."
"Now, what's this I hear about a trial?"
"Yes, sir. Two women have been accused of witchcraft and immorality. I'm here to see to the Church's interest in the matter."
"Do you intend to hold the trial?"
"With what evidence?" William pointed to Reginald's body. "There's your accuser, bleeding into the dirt. Go. See if he can testify."
"Confession is our usual evidence."
"Oh? And how do you obtain such confessions?"
"The Church does condone torture in these cases."
"The Church can kiss my - "
"Sir," the priest said. "Let me remind you that my authority in these matters is considerable. The full weight of the Church is behind me. And you are obligated, on pain of excommunication, to cooperate. You must surrender the accused to me. And you must surrender your daughter's maidservant, as well. She is also implicated. She will be questioned most thoroughly."
"Tortured, you mean," Wynnfrith said.
John noted the color of red that William's face was turning, and stepped forward. He took the priest aside, put an arm around his shoulder, and led him away. As they slowly paced, John spoke.
"Think wisely, priest. Here stands your situation. That fellow over there - " He motioned toward Robert. "Is the husband of one of the accused, and he doesn't like you very much right now. And the other accused is Sir William's daughter. Now, do you really want to talk about torturing confessions from people?"
"But - "
"Trust me, if you continue on this path, you'll end up in a shallow grave." He halted, and turned to the priest. "Now if, on the other hand, you were to judge that there was no basis to the accusations and dismiss the charges, I think that Sir William would be quite grateful." John smiled, and clapped the priest on the back. "And you just might live to see tonight. It's your call. Choose wisely."
They returned to William, who stood, hands on hips, and glowered at the priest. The priest assumed his most holy persona, palms together, fingertips touching, and cleared his throat. Then, he said, "Well. Ahem. By the power vested in me by the Church, I have thoroughly investigated the charges of immorality and witchcraft and concluded that there is no truth in them. I dismiss them. The prisoners are free to go, and are blameless in the Church's eye."
Wynnfrith felt light-headed, and leaned against her father. William beamed. "I salute you, priest. Before you return to London, you must enjoy my hospitality at Huntingdon Castle." He looked around. "As all of you must! Let us go home." He lowered his voice and said, "Before I fall flat on my ass."
The priest said, "Sir, you're injured and pale. Ride with me in my coach."
"Much obliged, priest. I'm about to collapse. I hurt like hell, and I'm bleeding like a stuck pig."
Robert helped him toward the priest's coach. "You're just getting too damned old for this kind of thing."
"Look who's talking. A Crusader knight? It took you twenty years to get home from Palestine? You must be possessed of the slowest horse in creation."
Robert roared in laughter. "Shut up, you cantankerous old fart. I can still drink you under the table."
"I'll take that wager, fair knight."
They eased William into the coach, and Robert and Margaret sat with him. "I'll tend his wounds," Margaret said. "But I need clean bandages, and liquor..."
"I'll get them," Wynnfrith said. She ran toward the keep, and a few minutes later, returned with a basket. She placed it in the coach, then looked in. The coach was full.
William extended his hand through the open window. "Wynnfrith, I'll see you at home. Now, now. Don't pout like that. It's unladylike." He looked at her man's garb and collar-length hair. "Well... unmanly. Whatever." Then, he grasped the front of John's tunic and pulled him toward the window. "Sir John, see my daughter safely home. Then join me for dinner and celebration."
William pulled him closer and spoke in a whisper. "And try to woo her a little on the way, will you? She needs practice hearing that sort of thing. She's a widow now, for Christ's sake. I just slaughtered her husband. I'm going to have to marry her off all over again. Damned nuisance."
"I'll do my best, sir."
"That's the lad."
He released John's tunic and the coach pulled away, followed by William's men-at-arms. John watched the procession leave the castle, then turned to Wynnfrith. "My lady?" He waited a moment, then said, "Twig?"
Wynnfrith was leaning on her longbow, watching the last of the knights-on-horse leave. She looked at John. "Yes?"
"May I escort you to your father's castle?"
Wynnfrith studied him: the eyes full of humor, the devil-may-care stance. "I think I might very much like that, Sir John."
"I have two horses by the river. We'll have to exit by the escape tunnel."
"Try to keep up," she said. Then, with a bright, clear laugh, she took off at a run, with John laboring just behind her.
United States, 1951.
Jan opened her eyes. "So," she said. "Did she live happily ever after?"
Gabrielle laughed. "What do you think?"
"Okay, so I've got a question. How did the Covington line continue? I mean, if - "
"Do you mean, 'Did she ever remarry? Have a child?'"
"Let me show you."
Mary appeared at the top of the stairs. Her voice echoed in the great room. "My lord! My lady! Her water's broken!"
Rose stood. "I'll fetch the midwife. Oh, it'll be a long night, what with her thin hips."
William stood, then hauled John to his feet. "C'mon, lad! Let's go comfort her until the midwife arrives and the blasted women throw us out."
William and John burst into Wynnfrith's room. Mary was fussing over Wynnfrith, who waddled in circles, breathing heavily and holding her swollen abdomen.
"Daughter!" William said. "It's coming now?"
"Now? Do you mean, now?"
"Yes! Yes, Papa. Now!"
John said, "The midwife's on her way. Be patient." He took her elbow, guided her to her rocking chair, and helped her sit.
Wynnfrith shot him a hesitant little smile, then huffed several times and said, "Oh, my!"
William sized up the situation, and he decided to be proactive. He stormed out of the room, went to the top of the stairs, and shouted, "Where is the midwife?"
Below him, Margaret hurried across the great room's floor with a basket, a jug, and the birthing stool in her hands. Robert was right behind her. "I'm coming, my lord. There's no sense roaring like a great daft beast!"
He saw Rose in the center of the great room and pointed. "Wife, fetch me the priest! Now!"
"The priest?" she asked.
"Yes, damn it. Fetch me that useless priest!"
Rose shook her head. "The priest," she muttered. "He wants the priest." She headed toward the chapel.
In the room, Wynnfrith was sitting uncomfortably on her chair, rocking and holding her abdomen. Margaret was setting out her things, and placed the birthing stool over some clean cloths on the bedroom floor. "Mary, you're to help me here," Margaret said. "My lady Rose, you're to help, too. And the gentlemen must leave now."
"Not yet," William said. He marched to the door and shouted, "Where's that damned priest?"
"I'm here, my lord," a friar said. He squeezed into the door, past William. When he saw Wynnfrith in labor, his eyes widened. "Holy Saint Peter!" He turned to William. "Sir, what can I do? She needs a midwife, not a priest."
"She needs both," William said. "John!"
"Sir?" John stepped forward.
"Stand next to my daughter. Yes, right there, next to her. Take her hand in yours. Good. Now, good friar, marry them."
"Yes, damn it. Can't anybody speak English around here? Marry Sir John and my daughter. Quick, man, before she has the damned thing."
Wynnfrith's jaw dropped. "Papa! Are you daffy? You want me to get married now? I'm having a baby!"
"No better time," William said. "What's the matter? You don't approve of him?"
She looked up at John, then back at William. "No. I mean, yes. I mean, he's a lovely man - I mean - damn it, Papa, I do. But - "
"Good," William said. "She approves. And you, Sir John. Do you have an objection to marrying my daughter?"
John looked down at Wynnfrith, rocking and huffing next to his leg. He looked at her hand, squeezing his hand, and winced. She was strong. She was also a prize that he never thought he'd be able to permanently win. "No, Sir William. I've no objection at all. It would be my honor."
Wynnfrith rocked faster, and huffed and moaned. "Papa! John! You're both insane! Oh! And I'm having this baby now!"
"I'm not insane, Wynnfrith! I don't want a bastard grandchild. John, here, is the only fellow that you've ever looked on with a twinkle in your eye and a wiggle in your strut. Oh, don't think I haven't noticed! Now, are you going to marry this fine lad, or are you going to condemn your child to a life of bastardy, lost to all title and inheritance forever? Would you really do that to your firstborn?"
The room went silent; the only sound was Wynnfrith rocking frantically, huffing and puffing, and looking around at the faces watching her. Finally, she looked up at John with a pleading expression. He leaned down to her.
"Come on, Twig. Be a sport and marry me," John said. "Please? I really want this."
She started huffing and puffing, and groaned a loud, long groan. "Oh, all right! All right! Ooooh!"
"That's the spirit!" William shouted. He pushed the friar toward them. "Let's get this knot knit up! Do your whatever-it-is-that-you-do, good priest. John, stand up like a proper groom."
The friar stood before them, opened his book, and began to intone in Latin. He stopped at Wynnfrith's voice.
"On three conditions!"
John looked at her in disbelief. William roared, "What's this?"
Wynnfrith huffed and puffed, and said, "Three - Aaaah! - conditions!"
"For Christ's sake, Wynnfrith! The last time, it was only two!" He fumed, then waved a hand. "All right. What are they?"
"Mary stays with me."
William looked at John. "Do you agree?"
"Yes. Of course."
"My horse is my horse, not yours. Is that - aaaaah! - understood?"
John nodded. "Implicitly, m'lady."
William fumed. "What's the third damned condition?"
Wynnfrith looked up at John and William, and shot them her most determined look. "We're women, not possessions. No man alive owns me or Mary. No man. Ever! Is that well understood?"
William was, for perhaps the first time in his life, speechless. He looked at John, and John, in reply, merely smiled. "My sentiments, exactly. Now, will you please marry me before you change your mind?"
"Or have that baby," another voice in the room muttered.
Wynnfrith held up her free hand. "Mary?" she asked. Mary stood by her, and took her hand. Then, the friar resumed his Latin mutterings, periodically waiting as Wynnfrith huffed and puffed and moaned through a contraction.
William gave the friar a slap on the back of the head and said, "Let's wrap this up."
"Do you, Wynnfrith, take - ?"
"Ohh! Yes! Yes, damn it to hell!"
"Ahem. And do you, Sir John Poor -?"
"I think you're about to witness a birth, friar. And yes, I do."
"Oh, dear. I now pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss the bride, and I'll be in the chapel." With that, made the sign of the cross, clapped his book shut, and retreated from the room.
"I think he kissed her three seasons ago," Robert jested.
Margaret let out a lusty laugh, then rose and waved her hands at the people in the room. "All you men, get out! Let the women alone. Go, now! We'll have this baby born soon enough."
William grumped, then turned to leave. He looked back, and saw John place an affectionate little kiss on Wynnfrith's forehead. She managed a smile at him, then released his hand and waved him off. "Now go, husband," she said. "I'm rather busy at the moment." Her eyes widened, and she resumed her frantic rocking and huffing.
Robert's massive hand grabbed John's tunic, and he was hauled from the room. The door slammed to the sound of Wynnfrith moaning and cursing quite prolifically, and the three men stood in the hall, listening. For a long time, they stood there. Finally, John said, "She has quite a colorful vocabulary for a gentlewoman of her stature."
"She has a colorful vocabulary for a drunken Saxon," Robert noted.
"Hm," William mused. "She got that from her mother, I suppose."
Robert nodded. "I suppose."
They walked down the stairs, across the great room, and into the family room, where a full pitcher of brandywine and a warm fireplace awaited them. On the way, William clapped an arm around John's shoulders. "Good job, lad."
"Do you mean the marriage, Sir William?"
"No. I mean getting her pregnant. I was worried that she couldn't conceive."
"Ah, thank you, I suppose."
"I suppose? What's this? D'ya mean you're not
the hound who poked my daughter?" William asked. He watched John turn a deep shade of scarlet, and chuckled. "Um-hum. I thought so. It's yours, you rascal." William laughed. "I should have married her off to you when she first started showing."
"She wouldn't hear of it."
William nodded. "That's my Wynnfrith. Headstrong and contrary." He growled, then said, "Imagine that, her first child born on her wedding day. How's that going to look?"
John laughed. "Well, you know what they say, Sir William, about marriage and children."
"No. What do they say?"
"All the rest of 'em take nine months, but that first baby can happen at any time."
United States, 1951.
Jan opened her eyes. "Okay, but that still doesn't explain the 'Covington' thing."
Gabrielle cast Jan a patient, but exasperated, look. "We aren't done. Close your eyes."
John, William, and Robert sat together in front of the family room's fire, sipping brandywine and talking softly. In their minds, though, they were all fretting Wynnfrith's first delivery. It was common to lose baby or mother - or both - in childbirth, and Wynnfrith's slender hips worried them.
"She's strong and determined," Robert said. "She'll do fine, lad." He clapped John on the back.
"So," John said. "Now I have a wife and a child to support on the wages of an itinerant knight-for-hire."
William chuckled. "If it's any consolation, I'm making you captain of training my squires. That'll mean a raise for you."
John looked up from the fire. "Thank you, Sir William."
Robert laughed. "I suppose you can't call yourself 'John Poor' anymore. You'll have some money now."
William looked at John. "How'd you get that name, anyway? 'John Poor'?"
John said, "I was the third - and illegitimate - son of a duke. The oldest legitimate heir got it all. I got a horse, my armor and weapons, and a kick in the ass out of the door." He shrugged. "I've always been poor. I thought it a better last name than 'John the Bastard'."
"You could call yourself 'John, the Poor Bastard'," Robert said.
"You need a new last name, I should think," William said.
"Yes," Robert said. "Something dear to you. Something you wouldn't mind your wife and child to carry, too."
John nodded agreement, sipped his brandywine, and smiled. "I choose Coving-town," he said. "In honor of that fine lad that my wife once was."
William and Robert dissolved into screams of laughter.
Upstairs, Rose opened the door and tread down the stairs. It was nearly dawn. She heard the roars of laughter coming from behind the family room's door, and shook her head. "Men," she said. "Useless during the birth. Well, at least they're good for something during the conception." She thought about that. "Some of 'em, anyway."
Behind her, as she descended the stairs, could be heard the voice of an infant wailing. She strode across the great room floor and threw open the family room's door. "It's a boy," Rose announced. "And mother and child are well."
The three men sprang to their feet and cheered. William pounded his new son-in-law on the back and said, "Go see your family, lad!"
Rose nodded. "You two, stay put." She pointed at John. "Wynnfrith wants to see you. We've got 'em cleaned up and resting now; you can come."
John entered Wynnfrith's room. She was resting in bed, propped up on pillows, and held a swaddled infant in her arms. Mary kissed Wynnfrith, then rose from the bedside. As she passed John, she patted him on the arm and said, "I'll leave you two alone for a bit."
When the door closed, John sat on the bed beside Wynnfrith. He could see in her face how exhausted she was from the struggle of birth, how weak. But he could see in her eyes a new light. He kissed her forehead and asked, "Are you all right?"
John laughed. "Liar," he said.
"You're right. I'm exhausted, and my bottom is killing me." She opened the cloth and held up their baby. "Isn't he beautiful?"
"Just like you. But you forgot to put some hair on his head."
"Oh, John!" She smiled at the words. Then, she looked up at him. "What shall we name him?"
"William, I think."
"Papa will like that. William Poor."
"No. William Coving-town. We're taking a new name."
Wynnfrith considered the name as she studied her infant son. Then, she nodded. "I like it. A new name. A new start. And you're Sir John Coving-town. And I'm - "
"Lady Wynnfrith Coving-town." He shot her a twinkling look. "But to me, you'll always be 'Twig'." He laughed, kissed her, and rose. "Now, I'd best get out of the way before your father kicks the door down to see you and his new grandson. Rest well."
"And you too, husband."
He stopped halfway through the door and looked back at her. "I really believe that I'm in love with you, Twig." He winked at her, then shut the door.
Wynnfrith admired her baby. "Little William," she said, "you have a mama who loves you. And I have a husband who loves me. What a nice beginning for us both."
United States, 1951.
Jan and Gabrielle stood on the back porch. "Thanks," Jan said. "I loved the visit."
"I did, as well."
"Don't be a stranger. Drop in anytime that the moon is full."
"Thank you, Janice. Call upon me."
They exchanged mutual, humorous little smiles. Then, Gabrielle disappeared. Jan retreated to her study, and emerged a moment later with a yellow legal pad and her fountain pen. She parked herself at the kitchen table, uncapped her pen, and began writing, taking breaks only to make some hot tea and occasionally, to refill her cup from the teapot. Time became lost to her.
And when the story was completely written out, Jan paused. What should she do with it? After a moment's thought, she knew exactly what to do with it.
A week later.
Jan looked up from her desk. Her cramped little office in the Department of Archaeology and History often had visitors, but this one was especially welcome. It was Sallie, dear friend and former archaeology student, and Jan's go-to person for anything to do with northern European history.
"Sallie! Come in and sit. Want some coffee?"
"Naw, thanks, Jan." Sallie plopped down on a chair and faced Jan. As she spoke, an unruly mass of dark curls bobbed in time to her irrepressible Brooklyn accent. "Hey, about that story you sent my way?"
"I did some research and made a few phone calls."
"It jives perfectly with the existing records of the time. Coving-town was a village in the shire of Huntingdon. First mention of a family name of 'Coving-town' was in the late Twelfth Century, although it's recorded in the legal records of the domain as 'Covingt'n'. And the first two mentions are a marriage record and a birth record."
Jan sat back. "Bingo."
"Where'd you hear this story, anyhow?"
"Oh." Sallie shrugged. "Okay. Whoever it was, tell 'em that they were right on the money."
Jan leaned back in her chair. "She usually is, Sallie. Let's go eat lunch."
- djb, Jan, 2013.
Author's note: To learn about the child that Gabrielle had while living with the druids, it's described in the Mel & Jan story The Treasure of the Amazons.
And please don't hold me to the genealogy or history; I made most of it up. Still, it was fun, though, huh? And the little song that Wynnfrith sang as she worked at the anvil is the one sung by Ophelia in William Shakespeare's Hamlet,
Act IV, scene 5.
Synopsis: In a late-night conversation with Gabrielle, Jan learns of her 12th Century ancestor Wynnfrith: outlaw, huntress, smithy's apprentice, daughter of nobility, and the first to hold the Covington name.