Short romantic tale set in medieval England.
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He was a good man but cursed with the mark of the devil on his face and shunned by many. She was a dairy-maid, caring and brave, who feared no one.
Drawn to each other on a long and fateful Midsummer Day, can Haakon and Clare overcome the superstitions of their village and the brutal, lecherous knights to break out of their bonds of class and custom and to strive for a better life – together?
Haakon was a woodsman, a forester. He had cared for his parents until they had both died last winter and then given away his younger sister at her wedding this spring. He was lonely in his simple hovel, but not unhappy, because Clare had returned to the village.
"Clare," Haakon said aloud, for the pleasure of speaking her name. "Clare."
Clare was the daughter of Agnes, the wet-nurse, sent back from the castle this summer by the lord's new lady, who disliked well-favored girls. With glowing brown hair and hazel eyes, Clare seemed an unlikely dairy maid, being so small and slender, but the beasts were docile with her. Who would not be, when tended by such nimble, smooth hands?
Haakon smiled and shook his head and returned to his sawing, working surely amidst the coppiced ash boles. Clare was a sweet wonder, with a ready smile and an easy laugh, even for him, but he had no illusions. He had work and a good, solid house, but she would never marry him. He had the mark of the devil on his face, a red stain stretching over half his chin. Even his beard did not cover it, for he was fair, with face hair as fine as a baby's fuzz. He went about clean-shaven now, ignoring the stares.
Clare had not stared, nor made the sign of the cross against him. Driving a cow along the track running close to the woodland, she would nod to him and raise a hand in greeting. She did this each time he met her, and he took care that they met every day.
Today he had not seen her, but reminded himself that he would not until later. He worked early, to finish this task, although it was the eve of a holy day when by custom there should be no work. The lord had wanted fresh ash poles for a bower at the castle bailey. Haakon had warned that the tree might sicken through being cut so late, but the lord had brushed the matter aside. His lady wanted a bower, filled with flowers and arched over with honeysuckle, and she would have it.
Haakon stopped to rest his aching back and straightened, raising his saw above his head as he stretched and cracked his shoulders. He disliked the lord's new lady, although he had never seen her. She had brought new things to the castle and new people, amongst them a rowdy younger brother, Edwin, a squire, who bullied all those smaller and weaker than himself. Still, he could not despise completely the lady who had returned Clare to the village.
He heard a blackbird give its alarm at the edge of the wood and knew the castle steward and his men approached.
"Soon be done," he told himself, sawing anew, "then it is a dip in the stream for me and a climb to the bonfire field.
Clare might be there already, garlanded with flowers. He thought it only right that she had been chosen as the June Lady of the village, for she was as bonny as a rose.
She will speak to me and smile, and the day will be bright. He grinned, hauling the cut poles to the waiting steward.