All the King's horses and all the King's men . . .
“I have arranged your marriage to the Prince of Coventry.”
Stunned at her father’s pronouncement, Princess Roxanne could only stammer, “I will not, Father! I will not marry the odious Prince of Coventry!”
“But I am afraid that you must, Princess, for the continued safety of our land. Our Realm is surrounded on three sides by that of Coventry, and the land to the West by the warmongering King of Lancashire who is planning to come against us. Without the ally of Coventry, we cannot stand against him!”
Roxanne sought the aide of her mother but in this matter the Queen could only follow. “This is one of the responsibilities of Privilege, my dear. We must act to the benefit of the people and our Reign. It is the only path open to us,” she said, abject sorrow in her eyes.
Bursting into tears, Roxanne blurted out, “I will not!” and fled from the chamber.
King Reginald took his wife’s hand in his. “Talk to her, Mother, gain her acceptance of this union, it is vital to our people.”
The Queen found her daughter in her chamber, crying face down on her bed. She sat beside her and gathered the Princess into her arms. “It is the only way, my child. God gave us you instead of a son to lead us into battle, something we have never regretted. Your father is old, and our kingdom has been at peace for so long, we have not the army to protect us. But with Coventry by our side . . .”
“Was your marriage arranged, mother?” Roxanne interrupted.
“No, my child, but that is a different matter. Your father and I were already wed when we came to this land. We gained the acceptance of the people and forged our Realm without warfare, but in this Age, land and armies represent wealth and power and I’m afraid that we have relied on the Grace of God and not been as dutiful of that precept as our neighbors. An alliance with Coventry will save our people, although it will give Coventry a claim, through marriage, to our lands. It is the lesser evil. In Lancashire, the people are little more than slaves to the greed of King Griswold.”
“But, surely God is on our side?”
“We pray that He is, we have governed according to His rules. But remember, even in Biblical times marriages were arraigned to forge alliances. And remember to ‘Honor thy Father and thy Mother’.”
The Queen left when Roxanne pretended resignation, but she was not resigned in the least. Many plans coursed through Roxanne’s mind, each rejected in turn but one . . . flight! If she were not here, how could she be married? At that moment, Gerta, her stout, staunch Nanny and companion entered the bedchamber.
“Oh, Gerta,” Roxanne wailed anew, “you have heard of my planned wedding to the Prince of Coventry?”
“I have, girl, and what have you decided?”
That was Gerta, always to the point.
“Well, if I were ‘in absentia’ how could I be married?
“Where would you go, child? You are well known throughout Devonshire, Coventry is where you wish not to go, which leaves Lancashire, and no one wants to go into the lair of our enemy. What have you against the Prince of Coventry?”
“Mary, daughter of our Chancellor, has seen the King of Coventry. He is a withered, bent and odious creature with a nose out to here,” Roxanne gestured, holding her hand some distance from her own nose. “The son must share a likeness? I will not be married to a troll!”
“I’m surprised at you, child. Haven’t you learned not to judge a book by its cover? If the Prince is not as handsome as you are beautiful, does that mean that he cannot have qualities that you would come to love? Qualities like kindness, good humor and courage?”
“If you were in my place, Gerta, what say you then?”
Gerta cast her eyes down. “Alas, in my life no man has sought my hand, handsome or otherwise. I have not the beauty you have, so I would look deeper, were I in your place.”
“Dear Gerta,” Roxanne comforted, hugging her, “God provides someone for everyone, He will provide a love for you. A love of your choice.” She said firmly.
“I would think God’s choice would be best,” Gerta sniffed.
“Exactly! Not my parent’s choice, but God’s!”
“Since the King is a man of God, how do you know that they are not one in the same?”
“I do not believe that God would sentence me, or you, or anyone else to a loveless marriage. Now, if you be with me, pray go to the stable and get my mare and a horse for yourself and meet me by the old well. I shall gather together what we will need for our adventure.”
“Adventure!” Gerta grumbled under her breath. “Most likely the end to us all.”
Hiding by day and traveling at night, something one could do safely only in the Kingdom of Devonshire, Roxanne and Gerta made the river Ur in but two days. This river was the boundary with Lancashire, and they paused before crossing over.
“Well, my dear, I hope you have come to your senses and we may turn back. Once across this river we are lost.”
Nonsense, Gerta,” Roxanne countered. “Across the river and a short distance further and neither my father nor King Griswold shall find us. We will simply hide in the woods until my father comes to his senses. Until then, should we be found, we are just two women looking for their worthless husbands who ran off to join the army.”
Roxanne led the way across the river and onto the road beyond. A short distance later she turned south into a thick forest. “We have water from the river and enough food for a few days more, and then we will return to Devonshire. By then my father will have changed his mind, you’ll see.”
Coming upon a huge, sprawling oak tree they made to pass when suddenly a giant stepped out from behind the tree and grabbed the halters of their mounts! The man was huge, his head higher than those of their horses. He wore a leather helmet and chain mail and in the hand that held Gerta’s horse was also a battle axe of frightening proportions. A livid red scar crossed his left eye and traveled down his cheek leaving blindness behind. Roxanne and Gerta were paralyzed with fear!
“Well, well,” the giant said in the deepest of voices, “what have we here? Two ladies out for a ride in the country?” His laughter chilled them to their very souls.
“Garth!” A voice cried out from behind. “Thou art frightening our guests.”
When the giant’s head turned slightly to the right Gerta struck at his blindside. She was a large, strong woman and her kick caught Garth square in the face. As he staggered back she drove her horse into him and as he fell Gerta prepared to ride off with Roxanne. Looking back to make sure her Princess was with her she saw a man sitting on the horse behind her, a dirk to her throat. Gerta could not leave her charge, even for her own safety. With a sigh she rode back to the group.
Garth picked himself off the ground and grabbed Gerta’s horse again. “I like a lass with spirit,” he grinned through missing teeth.
“I likely have more ‘spirit’ than you can handle, varlet,” Gerta advised.
“Varlet, am I? Garth answered with a smiling laugh. He grabbed the horse’s head and twisted, his massive strength forcing the horse to its knees.
Gerta stepped off the horse before it could roll on her. “Thank you for helping me dismount, varlet, it seems you may have some manners after all.”
Garth blinked, stunned by Gerta’s impertinence.
Taking heart from Gerta’s courage, Roxanne told her captor, “Either cut my throat or not, but take your filthy hands from me!”
The knife disappeared and the man slipped off the back of her horse, and then presented his arm for her dismount. Disengaging her leg from the sidesaddle, Roxanne slid to the ground without his help. She stood with as much defiance as she could muster.
Roxanne’s captor, younger and ultimately more handsome than the giant, rubbed his goatee as he pondered his catch. “What say you, Garth?” He asked. “I say this one is a lady of some importance, though dressed roughly she rides a mare beyond the means of most. The other one a companion, or servant. The Fates have dealt us a lucky and profitable hand.”
“Aye, Will, I can smell the money.”
“It is a wonder that you can smell anything beyond the stench of your own body,” Gerta observed in defiance.
Garth raised his hand as if to strike her, but Gerta stood firm. “I can blind your other eye just as easily, varlet,” she growled.
Garth smiled again. “Spirit, lad, spirit,” he said to Will. “’Tis what makes a woman worthy.”
“So, lass, tell us who your father is, and we shall have you home before you know it, safe and sound, if poorer,” Will said reasonably.
Roxanne thought quickly. If these men of Lord Griswold knew that they had the Princess of Devonshire in their hands, all was lost! Dear Lord, what have I done? “And how would King Griswold take to being cut out of the profit?” She asked, hoping to strike a chord of uncertainty in her captors.
“Griswold is nothing to us. We go where we will, and fend for ourselves,” Will answered. “Come to think of it, perhaps he will outbid your father for a lady of Devonshire.” He leaned close to gauge her reaction.
Despite herself, Roxanne could see only his soft brown eyes and almost forgot the manner of man she faced. The romantic tales of highwaymen sung in the court came to mind and she had to struggle against confusing new feelings. “We are not of Devonshire, but Coventry,” she lied. “Our husbands have run off to join Griswold’s Army, and we follow.”
Roxanne could see the doubt in Will’s brown eyes, but Garth seemed convinced. “I’ve no doubt why this one’s man would go to war,” he said, moving his head toward Gerta. “An easier life than at home with her, I’ll wager.”
“What would you know about being a man?” Gerta asked the giant in innocent round tones.
“I’m more man than you shall ever meet,” he roared.
“You flatter yourself where no one else will,” Gerta countered.
The two stood almost nose to nose. Roxanne had never seen this side of Gerta, and she wasn’t as upset as she sounded. Gerta was enjoying this!
“Bah!” The giant muttered, removing his helmet and pulling an eye patch from inside it. “No use trying to scare this one,” he said putting the patch in place.
“If you think that makes you prettier, you are sadly mistaken.”
Garth took a deep breath. “A hood and a gag would do you wonders.” He muttered.
Will watched them with a bemused smile. He had never seen the warrior’s measure taken so quickly or completely. Garth was actually enjoying the repartee.
Suddenly Garth reached out and put his arm around Gerta and his hand over her mouth. With his other hand, he grabbed her horse’s halter and drug them both deeper into the shadows. Will had done the same with Roxanne, whispering, “Silence, it’s as much as your life is worth,” into her ear. It was then that the women heard the sound of horses and clinking armament and weapons on the road they had ridden.
Gerta stomped down hard on Garth’s boot and his mouth flew open but no sound emerged. Slipping from his hold she glared at him and then turned and put her hand over her horses’ nose, to keep it quiet. Will stared into Roxanne’s eyes, then dropped his hand and muzzled her horse. In silent consensus they became allies.
They heard Griswold’s soldiers stop at the river, then sounds of making camp. The war had begun, and Lancashire was sealing its borders.
Will motioned them to a copse that held two more horses. Mounting up, all four allies rode quietly south, putting distance between them and Griswold’s army.
Will turned to Roxanne. “You had but to cry out and be rescued by Griswold’s men, perhaps your husbands were among them.”
“We have no husbands, ‘tis a lie,” Roxanne explained.
“Then who are you, and how do you come to be in Lancashire?”
Roxanne was silent, thinking hard. Griswold was making war! As the reality of this sunk into her mind she thought of her land, her people, and her place in it. Something had happened to her back there, a change of heart and mind, and she suddenly realized how much responsibility now clung to her shoulders. She could not be selfish when the welfare of so many people she loved was at risk.
“If you will take us to the Court of Coventry, I promise you a greater reward than you could ever imagine.”
Will’s eyebrows shot up. “How can you promise that? Who are you?”
“You must trust me, I cannot tell you. Suffice it that you will be amply rewarded, isn’t that what you wanted?” Roxanne pleaded with her eyes, all pretense aside. “Please, in the name of God, trust me!”
“That is a name that I do not bandy about lightly.”
She held his eyes with hers. “Nor I.”
“What say you, Garth, do we trust the lady?”
Garth looked at Gerta. “Aye, but remember ‘tis but the work of a moment to set things right.” He made a motion across his throat with his hand.
Gerta yawned. “Yes, but a moment.”
“There is a crossing further on, little used. Perhaps there will be no soldiers, or just a few.” Will advised.
They rode into the dusk in silence.
Crouching in the darkness they observed the fire and the four soldiers around it
“Garth, circle to the other side of their camp and make sure there are but four. I shall attack from this side.”
“But there are four of them,” Gerta whispered.
“Hardly fair, is it?” Garth answered with a wink.
The men moved into the darkness and the women returned to the horses. “What if they are killed, my lady?”
“Then, during the battle, we shall slip across the river. It will be Coventry and surely someone can take us to Court.”
Holding the horses the women listened to the shouts, grunts and screams of the short battle, quickly followed by silence. They saw a torch being carried their way and Roxanne spoke her thoughts. “Perhaps we should mount and try the river; we know not who carries the torch.”
“Have no fear, my lady,” Gerta calmly said. “I know.”
Moments later Will and Garth, smiling and spattered with blood, entered their hiding place. “Passage to Coventry,” Garth announced, mounting his steed. “That way,” pointing with the torch.
This crossing was deeper than the first and Roxanne’s mare actually had to swim part of the way across. Gaining the bank they swiftly rode into the woods where no eye could see.
“There is an abandoned farmhouse ahead, and though no doubt poorer than m’lady is used to, it will suffice to keep the rain from your head. There is a stable for Garth and me.”
Roxanne grew impatient. “We must press on, already the army of Griswold gathers at the borders!”
“Yes, but it will take days for the main body of the army to assemble; we have the time, and surely m’lady is tired. I wish you to arrive in court looking your best for that is where our profit lies. A hostler grooms his horse before sale.”
Whatever romantic thoughts Roxanne had conjured up were dashed by the highwayman’s words. She was forfeit by her own doing and would do well to remember that to this man she was but profit.
The fog had grown thicker and rain had begun falling when they rode into the farm yard. The house was small but sturdy and Roxanne hoped the thatched roof was in good repair. The men unloaded the horses and gathered wood and soon a cheery fire in the hearth warmed the room. The ladies made their beds close while the men retired to the stable.
“You have decided to wed the Prince of Coventry after all, child?” Gerta asked as she snuggled into her blankets.
“You saw Griswold’s army, what choice do I have? Even I cannot be that selfish where the welfare of my Kingdom is at risk.”
Gerta nodded and was silent.
Roxanne noticed her depression and asked, “What’s wrong, Gerta? Surely we will be safe in Coventry in a day or three and there will always be a place for you by my side.”
“Yes, I know my dear; it’s just that . . . well, umm . . .”
“Oh, this is impossible,” Gerta fumed. “You must marry the Prince and I must be with you, and that’s that!” She sat up and looked into the fire. “It’s just that when I’m near Garth I feel all giggly inside, I feel things as never before. Oh, I know he smells of sweat and he’s rough and uncouth, but he’s a MAN and when I’m with him I feel so safe.” She fidgeted with the blankets. “I’m just a silly goose!”
“No, Gerta, you are falling in love.”
“Yes, with a man who cares not a whit for me, a man with a price on his head!”
“Oh, I think he cares; I’ve seen him look at you out of the corner of his eye. He’s always by your side.”
“To keep me from getting away.”
Roxanne smiled. “Yes, to keep you from getting away,” she said quietly.
Gerta’s eyes widened at the double meaning. “Well,” she said, blushing. “If it comes to that, Will’s been eyeing you, too.”
“Yes,” Roxanne said, sadly. “When he looks at me he sees a pile of gold sovereigns, nothing more.”
They grew silent, each wishing her wishes, hoping her hopes. Roxanne lay staring at the roof, and as she dropped off to sleep, thought she heard the sound of a horse riding away.
The morn dawned bright and sunny and crisp, as only a Spring morning can. A banging on the door and a deep voice muttering about “lay about ladies of the court” filtered through as Gerta put the finishing touches on a warm breakfast. Opening the door Roxanne bowed low and swept her arm, welcoming the men inside. Garth entered, his nose sampling the air.
“Eggs! Where on earth did you get eggs, woman?”
“From chickens, m’lord,” Gerta teased, with a curtsy, “chickens left behind when the farmer moved on. I don’t know how you slept through the rooster crowing.”
“I was not sleeping,” he replied, red creeping up his neck. “I was on guard.”
“Oh!” Gerta gasped, bringing her hands to her cheeks in mock fear. “Then you’d better save the horses because I heard a bear snoring in the stable this morning!”
As the red crept further up his neck, Garth opened his mouth to reply when Gerta shoved a plate of eggs under his nose.
“Here,” she said, sweetly, “you’ll need a big breakfast to tackle that bear.”
Whatever Garth was going to say was lost in sounds of eating.
Roxanne stepped into the yard and looked around. “Where’s Will?”
Garth swallowed. “He’s scouting ahead, we’ll catch up to him later.”
While Garth ate, the women gathered their belongings and soon all three were mounted and heading west. They rode quickly but cautiously and many times Garth led them from the road to the woods to avoid other people or villages. Noon found them watering their horses at a pond. Roxanne had dismounted to stretch her legs while Garth and Gerta talked quietly together. Roxanne envied the easy way they bantered back and forth pretending to be gruff. She had observed that for all of Garth’s strength and ferocity there was a soft place inside him, at least for Gerta. When they had to part company it would be very hard on Gerta.
Accustomed by now to stealth, Roxanne heard the horse when Garth did, and she saw him raise his battleaxe to throw. The whistle of a common sparrow wafted on the breeze and Garth relaxed as Will rode up to the pond. Roxanne could see that Will was sore used, but he did his best to hide it.
“The preparation goes well,” he said knowingly to Garth, “and we should reach Court by tomorrow eve.”
“Aye,” Garth returned, “and then we shall be free of our charges and wealthy.” His following laugh sounded hollow.
Gerta had turned away, her face a mask of sorrow. “Yes, free to go a’wenching and drinking, I suppose.” Silence fell among them, and none felt like talking.
Eventide brought the travelers to an abandoned village and as they rode through Roxanne saw nothing but waste and desolation. Burned out homes, crumbling buildings, nothing left but ghosts.
“A battle lost,” Roxanne noted in a quiet voice.
“Aye,” Will said, “to an unseen enemy. The Plague struck here and within a fortnight this is all that was left.”
At the edge of town they rode up to they only sign of habitation, a once grand building that now had but a single lantern burning over the door. As they dismounted, the door opened and an old woman, dressed as a nun, looked out. At the sight of Will, her face broke into a beauteous smile.
“Will, Praise God! The children will be so pleased!”
Will knelt and received her Blessing.
“Come inside,” she beckoned, “and welcome, you must be tired and hungry.”
She held wide the door and Will and the women entered while Garth took the horses off into the night. They were led across the darkened entry into a long low chamber that held tables and benches. Two nuns were smiling while they lit the candles on the wall. Soon the room was bright and cheery.
“Pray sit,” the nun insisted, “Sister Adele, some food from the kitchen, and Sister Grace, pray wake the children and get them dressed.”
Will took her hand. “A donation, Mother, for the children and God’s work.” He pulled a heavy leather pouch from his belt and placed it in her hand.
“Bless you my son,” the Mother Superior gasped, tears forming in her eyes. “Though you are not of our faith, you are a Christian and have saved us again.”
Roxanne looked at him with new eyes. Yes, he procured that money by nefarious means, but look what he did with it. What kind of highwayman robs the rich and gives to the poor? She was so confused.
Will moved off to help Garth who was carrying in their luggage. The Mother Superior turned to Roxanne, a question on her face.
“Will has never brought guests before, but you are as welcome as he and Garth. We have little but you are welcome to share it.”
“Will and Garth have rescued us from soldiers of Lancashire and are returning us to safety,” Roxanne quickly said. It wasn’t really a lie, they had been rescued, and she could not bring herself to besmirch their reputation.
“Yes, they have good hearts, although I sometimes wonder about the money.” The twinkle in the nun’s eye spoke volumes. “After the Plague there were so few of us left, mostly children whose parents had died; Will and Garth have taken it upon themselves to support us. God works in mysterious ways, my child.”
Gerta went to help Sister Adele with the meal and soon the travelers had eaten their fill of bread and cheese. A door burst open and a motley giggling gang of five children of all ages tumbled into the room, first hugging Will then attacking Garth, the fearsome giant who fell on his back as the children piled on. To the cries of ‘Horsey’ Garth rolled to his hands and knees and all five children climbed on his back for a ride around the room. Gerta watched with ill-disguised fondness and followed behind to catch and remount any child who might fall off.
Another child appeared at the door, a young girl of maybe twelve years. She walked haltingly with outstretched hands feeling the air and Roxanne was shocked by the realization that the deep blue angel eyes were blind.
“Will?” She asked with a shy smile.
In a choked voice Will answered. “I’m here, Mary, follow my voice.” He had turned and held his arms out.
As she shuffled closer Roxanne saw the deep, ugly pox scars on Mary’s beautiful face and hot tears splashed in her eyes.
“That’s good, Mary my angel, I’m right in front of you.”
There was no pretense now, Will wept unashamedly as Mary reached him and fell into his arms. He drew her close in an all-encompassing hug.
“Did I do well?” Mary asked. “I can walk without help almost anywhere inside the convent.”
Will’s hand went to the back of Mary’s head and he stroked her golden hair. “You did marvelous, Mary my angel,” fighting the racking sobs coming from his throat.
Roxanne had to look away, for the bittersweet pain of the man and the girl was too much for her to take all at once.
“You win a prize,” Will said, gaining control of his voice if not his emotions.
Mary slipped from his lap and stood before him. “What did I win?” Her smile was so beautiful that it hurt.
From a pocket Will produced a red velvet ribbon. Placing it behind her neck and under her shoulder length hair he brought the ends to the top of her head and tied it in a big bow. Her tentative hand felt for it.
“It’s a red ribbon, red as the roses that grow near the Rectory; you remember them, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course I do.” Her hands reached for his face. “Thank you,” she whispered, placing a kiss on his forehead.
“Children,” Mother Superior clapped her hands for attention. The boisterous mob quieted immediately. “It is late, well past bedtime. Will and Garth will be here in the morning, and if you go to bed and right to sleep, good boys and girls will get warm chocolate with breakfast. Now, say goodnight and off to bed.”
Garth had two children under each arm and one clinging to his back. “I’ll take this bunch up for you, Mother. Will, you handle Mary.”
Will stood and held out his forearm. “Lady Mary Beth, may I escort you to chambers?”
Mary felt for his arm and laid her hand upon it. “Yes, m’lord, you may,” she said formally. She took the body of her robe in her other hand and, head erect, walked from the room as graciously as any lady Roxanne had ever seen.
“What will happen to Mary Beth?” Roxanne ventured, breaking the silence that had enveloped the group all the day.
Will ducked under a low branch and moved his horse closer to hers. “The nuns will care for her and she may become one herself. I have never seen a child with her spirit.”
They rode slower and slower, as if by silent mutual consent not one wanted this road to end. But all things, once begun, must end, and so it was that nightfall found them at the gates of Castle Coventry.
“Ride up to the gate; they will open for a woman. Once inside, go straight through the courtyard to the tall double doors. Garth and I will wait here for one hour, if you be true to your word.”
As Gerta rode past, Garth whispered low, “Spruce yourself up, woman, and bring the best price.” Gerta said nothing through the tears on her face.
At the gate the soldier held his torch high then his eyes widened and he opened the gate with a bow. The other gate guard bowed out of their way.
Roxanne looked at Gerta who shook her head. What was going on?
At the steps to the doors, two hostlers brought benches for dismount and then silently took the horses away. After climbing the steps the doors magically opened, revealing the brightly lit chamber inside.
There were many finely dressed men and women of the Court, and all were bowing like a wave as Roxanne and Gerta made their way to the solitary figure sitting on the grandiose throne. They knelt before the King of Coventry who bid them rise, as he also stood.
“Welcome, Princess Roxanne of Devonshire, to the Kingdom of Coventry,” the King said. “I trust you traveled well?”
Roxanne looked into the face of the King and saw only a bright smile and a twinkling eye. He was tall and thin and not at all odious, as she had been told. She felt that she was rising from a dream, not knowing what was going on.
“Your Majesty, our travel was made safe by two men who wait outside. I promised them a reward for their efforts, if that be right with you.”
The King fell deep in thought. A Page led Gerta aside, leaving Roxanne alone and the center of attention.
“I believe,” the King began, “that we shall ask my son about the reward. William?”
“Your Majesty,” came a voice from beside her. She turned and looked into the brown eyes of Will the Highwayman, resplendent in red and gold. Just beyond were Garth and Gerta, arm in arm. “If the Princess of Devonshire will consent to become my wife, I can think of no greater reward.”
Quickly recovering her wits, Roxanne lowered her eyes and curtsied. “Nor I, Your Majesty,” she softly said.
© 2005 S.J. Beres