Swords flashed and helmets glinted in the late afternoon sun. A man lay in chains at the foot of the stairs and all the servants were being rounded up. She fought for all she was worth against the men that held her from her home. A sword came down on her neck and then there was only darkness.
Faline Beresford awoke with a scream. Her door was immediately knocked in and two guards appeared. They looked around suspiciously, but Faline put them at ease.
“It is fine,” she said breathlessly, “just a nightmare. I shall be perfectly well by morning.”
“Are you quite sure, my lady?” asked one guard.
Faline nodded her head, making her long brown hair shake.
“Sweet dreams, then, m’lady,” said the other guard.
It took awhile, but Faline finally managed to fall back asleep and stay asleep for the rest of the night.
“I hear you had an unpleasant night?” Asked Sir Rowan of Langley the next morning over breakfast.
Sir Rowan was Faline’s benefactor and fiancé. However charming he pretended to be, Faline hated the man for all she was worth. Not only had he had his friend, the prince, murder her father, but then he had the audacity to declare her his betrothed.
“Not as unpleasant a night as it could have been,” Faline replied coldly. “But yes, it was rather unpleasant.”
“A pity to be sure,” Sir Rowan said with a sigh. “And what interrupted your dreams, dearest?”
“A nightmare, my lord, nothing more.” Faline stood up from the table and curtsied. “I will be going to my chambers now.”
“Very well,” Sir Rowan nodded, “and be sure to pack, as we are leaving on a trip to the capital today.”
Faline nodded once and stomped back through the hallways to her rooms.
“Beda!” Faline called to her nurse as she entered her rooms. “Beda, where are you?”
“I’m coming, m’lady!” Beda, Faline’s childhood nurse and current maid, scurried in from one of the other rooms and stopped only to curtsy.
“We must pack, Beda,” Faline nearly commanded.
“But m’lady, running is never the answer to anything!” Beda was just a bit confused on her meaning.
“Beda, we are not running,” Faline assured her, “we are simply taking a trip. Or, I should say, Sir Rowan is taking a trip and dragging me with him.”
“Oh, that man just gets on my nerves!” Beda stamped her foot.
“He gets on my nerves, too, Beda,” Faline said with an adamant nod.
“Then why are you going to marry him?” She asked with a frown.
“Because I do not have a choice!” Faline cried, “It was either marry him or die with my father! I would rather have died, but my father would not have it!”
“There, there m’lady,” Beda comforted her, “I’ll just go pack your things and you sit right here and write out a long letter about how you feel. I’m sure if we send it to the good king, he’ll intervene on your behalf.”
“I hope so, Beda,” Faline smiled slightly as Beda ran to pack their things.
That afternoon’s trip was uneventful and they reached the summer castle by suppertime.
“My friend, Sir Rowan!” exclaimed the prince as he met them at the gate. “And his lovely fiancé, Lady Faline.”
Even though prince Jasper was ten years younger than Sir Rowan, they got along very well. Too well, Faline thought.
Faline politely dipped her head to the prince. “Good afternoon, highness,” she said softly.
“I shall never know how you managed to entice her to marry you, Rowan,” the prince smiled. “And as surely as I am standing here, if I had known her before you I would have snatched her up myself.”
“All it took was a little bit of charm and some good looks,” said Sir Rowan as he dismounted. “The rest was all child’s play.”
Beda glanced at Faline and rolled her eyes. Faline smiled through her anger.
“Please,” continued Jasper, “do come in and join us for supper. Father is anxious to meet you.”
Jasper’s father was the good king Edmond, and, though she didn’t say it, Faline was anxious to meet him, too.
Following Jasper, they nearly burst into the great hall. Jasper walked to the front of the long dining table and made a dramatic bow.
“Father, may I introduce my good friend Sir Rowan of Langley and his fiancé, Lady Faline Beresford of Aled,” Jasper said.
Sir Rowan bowed slightly and Faline curtsied silently.
“Please,” the good king’s voice bellowed through the hall, “dine with us.”
Faline was placed exactly opposite Rowan at the table, and Beda beside her. Faline took a deep breath and began her meal.
“I was so pleased to find that you would be joining us this evening,” King Edmond said to Faline.
“It is an honor, Sire,” she said with a smile.
He smiled slightly and turned to Rowan. “My good Sir Rowan, did you have any trouble along your way?”
“No, sire,” Sir Rowan replied, “none at all. It was overall a pleasant trip.”
“I hear as well as being an earl, my son has bestowed upon you the position of tax collector. I expect you will be fair and wise in your new duties?”
Sir Rowan smiled greedily. “Of course, Sire,” he replied falsely. “I have, in fact, come here partially to begin my work. I was so hoping Faline could find a few weeks’ refuge here while I am away collecting these…fair taxes.”
“Of course,” the king smiled toward Faline. “A lady is always welcome in my home.”
Faline smiled just a little. At least she would be free from Sir Rowan for a few weeks. After supper, with a smile still on her face, she started to explore the rather huge library housed within the castle walls. She ran her hands lightly over the books until she heard voices just behind the shelf she was walking by. She stopped dead in her tracks and quickly flattened herself against the bookcase to listen.
“Oh, Sir Rowan, you are a genius!” cooed prince Jasper.
“I couldn’t agree more myself!” Sir Rowan complied.
“And father still has no idea about these rising taxes that have the people all in an uproar. You are a devil!”
Faline nodded her head in agreement.
“Yes, now along with my beautiful bride I shall be rich beyond comparison, too. Excluding, of course, the royal family.”
“Speaking of your beautiful bride, she seems a bit aloof with you. Perhaps she does not love you?” Jasper was almost too quick to point out.
“Nonsense and poppycock! She is just upset by my leaving her,” his voice turned almost cold, “and don’t even think about trying to woo her away from me! She is mine and only mine!”
“I wouldn’t dream of such a thing, Rowan,” Jasper laughed lightly. “Fortunately, my father wouldn’t dream of thinking ill of me, either.”
Lady Faline’s mouth fairly flew open and she quietly ran from the library.
“Beda!” she cried as she raced into her room. “Beda, come quickly!”
“Whatever is the matter, m’lady?” Beda asked as she came hastening from one of the other rooms.
“Have you heard anything about the people being overtaxed?” Faline asked breathlessly.
“N-no, m’lady,” Beda said hesitantly.
“Really, Beda, this is important!”
Beda nodded her head ashamedly. “Yes, m’lady, they are being overtaxed.”
“As I suspected. Jasper and Rowan plan to continue overtaxing them. It is ridiculous that the king should be blamed for something he isn’t even doing!”
“M’lady, it must be stopped!” Beda was adamant.
“I agree,” Faline said thoughtfully. “I think I will request to go on this tax trip with my dear Rowan.”
“Whatever ye’re thinking, m’lady, I s’pect it is quite the scheme.”
“Oh, quite, Beda,” Faline smiled almost evilly.
“Good,” Beda replied, “then I s’pose I will have to go with you.”
“Of course, Beda,” Faline called as she started to exit the room, “you are the only person I can trust!”
Faline fairly skipped down the hallway to the library, where she suspected Rowan and Jasper would still be. She slowly walked around the divider to where they had been and pretended to be surprised to see them.
“I am afraid I must apologize,” she said with sincerity. “I did not know you were here.”
“It is fine, love,” Rowan said with a smile. “Please, join us!”
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly. I must get used to being lonesome, as you will be gone for a few weeks.” Faline nearly gagged as she said this, but managed to keep her composure.
Rowan clicked his tongue and motioned for Faline to come sit next to him. “You have Beda and the king to keep you company,” he said, putting his arm around her.
Faline did her best not to flinch. “It will not be the same,” she said softly. “Could I not come with you?”
“It will be a most tiresome and…and…and gruesome journey, love,” Rowan began to stutter and removed his arm from around her.
“I would not mind it so much,” Faline said, biting her lip to keep from laughing.
“Jasper, what do you think?” Rowan asked.
Jasper smirked. “Let her come. She cannot hinder your work in any possible way.”
Rowan nodded. “You may accompany us, dear.”
Faline smiled and jumped up. “I will tell Beda to pack my things immediately.” She practically ran back to her room and started yelling for Beda.
Beda ran in like something was on fire. “Yes, m’lady?” she asked.
“He fell for it! We’re going on the trip with him,” Faline said, her voice full of glee.
“This will be dangerous, will it not?”
“It is just a trip, Beda.”
“I meant trying to catch him cheating people out of their money.”
“It will be difficult, not dangerous. If he wanted to kill me, I would be dead already, don’t you think?”
“I suppose so, m’lady.”
“He is set on marrying me. I don’t think he would hurt me at all. Stop worrying, Beda!”
“I was not worrying,” Beda assured her. She bit her lower lip and wrung her hands.
Faline stopped what she was doing and looked at Beda. Something was wrong. “Whatever is the matter, Beda?”
“A letter, m’lady.”
“A letter?” Faline stood to her full height and furrowed her brow. “For whom?”
“From whom? Where did you put it?”
Beda lifted her apron and reached into a pocket. She slowly handed a folded piece of parchment to Faline.
Curious, Faline broke the red seal and unfolded it. As she read, she sank slowly onto the bench by the huge fireplace.
“Beda, who brought this?” she said with curiosity.
“A simple messenger, m’lady.”
“Did he say where he hailed from?” Faline asked, shaking her head and refolding the letter.
“No, m’lady. Not a word. He just handed me the paper and left.”
Faline just nodded.
“An elk we’ve shot, a deer we’ve hanged. Hey, nonny nonny, hey!”
“Aldwin, would you stop that infernal racket!” Bevan yelled over to where Aldwin stood over the fire.
“Sorry,” Aldwin said too cheerily. “I was just trying to keep myself awake.”
“Yes. And I am trying to keep myself asleep!” Bevan yawned. Grumpiness was not one of his strong suits, but he was tired and Aldwin was not a talented singer.
“You cannot rhyme ‘hanged’ with ‘hey’. It is just not right. Now put out the fire and go to bed.”
Aldwin stood completely still until he thought Bevan was asleep and then began to sing quietly again.
“Aldwin!” Bevan nearly yelled.
“Sh-h!” Aldwin put a finger to his lips. “Do you want to wake the others?”
Bevan looked around at the many sleeping individuals around him. Men, women, and children who had all been taxed out of house and home. They were now his responsibility. He turned back to glare and Aldwin and put up a threatening fist.
“Alright,” Aldwin whispered, returning to his blanket and hunkering down for the night.
Bevan watched him until he was sure he was asleep, then got up and began to walk the camp. It was almost time for the guard change, and Bevan was almost always up to make sure it was done correctly. Aleta, his betrothed since birth, came up beside him.
Her brown peasant’s clothes made her look as if she were part of the night. Her cape and hood were nowhere to be seen.
“Good evening, Bevan,” she said quietly.
Bevan nodded slightly. “Good evening.”
“May I ask a question?”
Bevan just shrugged and kept his vigil.
“How do you stay up so late at night and still awake refreshed and eager to be off?”
“I know what I do is for the good of the people. That makes every day worth it.”
Aleta looked at the ground and took a deep breath. “You do not love me, do you?”
Bevan jerked his head back around to meet her gaze. That had come out of nowhere. He smiled slightly. “I must. After all, we have been betrothed for our whole lives.”
“To be honest, I do not know that I love you either.”
“It would not be the first time. I am sorry our lives must be like this.” She had expressed her feelings this way before. It was really nothing new, except for the inflection in her voice. It seemed different this time, more serious.
“As am I. If you will excuse me, I must be going.” She swiped at a tear on her face and hurried off into the darkness.
Bevan immediately regretted what he had said, but he had never been anything but honest with Aleta. She was one of the best friends he had ever had. Bevan didn’t want to break Aleta’s heart, but he could not lie and tell her he loved her when he did not. He was a fairly honest man, but he couldn’t believe he had simply come out and told her that. It just was not right.
A slight rustling caught his attention and he turned to see Wallace emerge from the brush.
“The guard is switched, Bevan, you can go to sleep peacefully now. I’ll keep an eye out.” Wallace was a good man. He was always on the lookout for Bevan, keeping him on track.
“Thank you, Wallace,” Bevan said sincerely. “I will.” And he would, eventually. He knew better than to tell Wallace he would do something and then not do it. Wallace would have his hide if he didn’t get some rest. He headed in that direction.
“And, Bevan,” Wallace added, “I do mean this instant.”
Bevan smiled, touched the tip of his brown hat, and lay down to sleep. He knew he would not be falling asleep for hours yet, but Wallace had ordered him to bed and he would obey. It was sad, really, but someone had to look out for the leader. He shook his head and shut his eyes.
The forest was so peaceful at night. No travelers, no animals, and no loud noises. Bevan truly was an outdoorsman. He did not even mind the hard ground and nearly threadbare blankets. He loved the peace and the safety. Safety. What a foreign word that was these days. No one was safe from anything. Taxes were unbearable, and even if you escaped to the forest it was never for certain that the men who called themselves lawmen wouldn’t catch you. It was a never-ending cycle. Bevan was almost sure that the people living in the forest would eventually outnumber those who lived in the shires.
Bevan opened his eyes. Wallace stood over him, hands on his hips.
“Good morning, you big oaf.”
“What did I do now?” Bevan had to laugh.
“You missed your shift last night.”
“You were the one who told me to sleep, Wallace. You can hardly blame me for obeying orders. And besides, that is no reason to call me an oaf. Save that for travelers.”
“I most certainly can blame you. You are the leader here. I should not be able to boss you around.”
“Oh, but I would miss being poked and prodded. And besides, you only say that when I do something not to your liking which is all your fault.”
“Well, you can hardly be blamed for speaking the truth. Come on, breakfast is ready.”
“The women and children have had their fill?” Bevan stood up with a single motion and stretched his sore limbs.
“Every last one of them. Three more came to camp last night. They were kicked out at midnight. The Sheriff of Windermere keeps a strange schedule.”
“That is true, that is true. Where are they?” Bevan glanced around for new faces, but didn’t see any.
“Aleta is getting them settled in the Cove. One of them is Ellis’ wife. She’s had a rough time with all this. Says the forest is no place for women and children, but it’s the only place for them to go.”
Bevan nodded. “I’ll check in on them. Thank you, Wallace.”
The Cove was a large arena of trees so thick they became impenetrable. Its circular shape had earned it the nickname, and its impenetrability had earned it its reputation as the safest place in the forest. There was only one way in and out.
Bevan quickly folded up his blankets and headed toward the Cove. He was interrupted halfway there.
“Bevan!” yelled Will, a short and stout messenger. “Great news, Bevan!”
Bevan stopped and waited for Will to catch up to him. “What is it, friend?”
“The tax collector is rumored to be heading for Windermere.”
“That is not great news, Will. That is not even good news. He shall tax those poor people out of house and home. Like so many he has already punished.”
“But he is riding through the forest. He has to. ‘Tis the only way to get to Windermere.”
“Windermere is a two-days’ ride from the farthest edge of the forest.”
“We could, ahem, invite him to dinner, could we not?”
Bevan thought about it for a moment. “Who rides with him?” He finally asked.
“I do not exactly know, Bevan. I only heard the rumor that he will be coming.”
“He rides with the prince and one hundred knights,” Aleta offered as she neared them from the Cove. “Lady Beresford and her attendant also ride with him.”
Bevan turned his attention to Aleta. “Who is Lady Beresford?”
Aleta smiled and shook her head. “The only surviving heir to Beresford Hall. Her father was stripped of his rank and soon after…died. Beresford Hall is a great estate not far from here. It is still hers. However, Sir Rowan of Langley is promised to her.”
“How did you come to know all this, Aleta?” Bevan asked, stunned.
“I am a woman. I hear gossip and rumors. You should hear the rumors about you, Bevan. They are extensive.” She gave a mischievous smile.
“I shall ponder it, Will,” Bevan assured. “Aleta, please point me in the direction of the three new ladies.”
Aleta laughed. “I shall do better than that. I will lead you to them and introduce them to you.”
“I shall be very honored if you would do so.”
Aleta nodded and began to walk. After a few seconds, she could bear it no longer. “I am going to take refuge with the scholars in Windermere. I simply cannot stay here anymore. I would still get you word of things you need to know, but I could do it from inside the gates. I am a city girl, Bevan, not a forest girl. I know our parents hoped we could marry, but I cannot live the life you must live. I am sorry, Bevan.”
“If you feel you must, then go Aleta. I will escort you as far as I can. Will the Red Deer Inn do? I am sure you can find safe passage from there.” Bevan was honestly concerned for her safety.
“I would appreciate it.”
“Are your things packed?”
“Yes, all of them. I planned to start my journey as soon as I told you.”
“We will leave as soon as you introduce me to the newcomers.”
Aleta looked so relieved. She hurried along to the entrance to the Cove, Bevan right behind her.
Three blond-headed women stood up as Aleta entered. They looked scared, Bevan thought. They looked scared and utterly gaunt. They had probably been tormented for months before leaving Windermere.
Aleta pointed to the first woman. “This is Carolee. She is Ellis’ wife. Carolee, this is Bevan. He runs things here.”
Bevan smiled and bowed slightly. “A pleasure to finally meet you, mistress Carolee. You are all Ellis ever talks about.”
The second woman bit her lip as Aleta introduced her. “This is Danka. She is from Holland. Soon after she married her husband, he was called to war.”
“Mistress Danka,” Bevan said with his largest smile.
“And last, this is Lady Madaline Kerrick. Her husband, Harold, Duke of Huntington was also called to war.”
Bevan bowed and kissed her hand. “My lady. How is it that a Lady was sent away from her castle?”
“Our riches are gone, master Bevan. We have nothing more to support our home, so I was ordered to leave or be dealt with. And I think we all know how the Sheriff of Windermere deals with people who don’t pay their taxes.”
“That we do, my lady.” Bevan liked her immediately. She was the kind of woman who would stand up to the Sheriff if she got a chance. It took that kind of courage to succeed in the forest.
“At the moment I must beg your forgiveness, ladies. I have promised to escort a friend on her way to Windermere immediately. I do hope we will have a chance to talk later.”
Lady Kerrick smiled and nodded.
Carolee turned to Aleta. “Are you leaving so soon? Whatever will we do without you here to show us how to survive?”
“I am sure that there is someone here who will help you. I simply cannot stay in the forest any longer. Forgive my selfishness.” Aleta was so gracious in these matters that no one could ask her to change her mind.
“Come, Aleta. We must fetch your things.” Bevan slipped his arm around her shoulders and turned her back toward her blankets.
With tears in her eyes, Aleta hugged the women who had become her friends and said many goodbyes to the children. She took her bundle from the ground and turned back to Bevan.
“I may not like the forest life, Bevan, but I will miss you all.”
“We know. Would you like to say your goodbyes to the men?”
Aleta nodded and headed that way.
Not long after, Wallace appeared beside Bevan. Together, they walked to where the horses were kept.
“She is leaving?” Wallace asked.
“She says she cannot take it any longer. I promised to escort her. Please watch over the camp while I’m gone. I should be back by morning.”
“I shall take care of the people as if they were my own.”
“I know you will, Wallace. I trust you with my life.”
“Be careful, Bevan,” Wallace warned.
“Would I be anything but careful? You know me, Wallace.” Bevan said as he began to saddle two horses.
“Yes, I do. That is why I’m telling you to be careful. You seem to be, oh how should I put this, a bit danger-prone.”
“Danger-prone? Me?” Bevan laughed. “Alright, I’ll be careful.” He led the two now-saddles horses toward Aleta. “Are you ready?”
Aleta, who was now clothed in a gray dress and black cloak, nodded. “I suppose we should be going.” She tried to smile as she said this, but it was not working very well. She nodded to the men and strode to Bevan’s side.
He carefully placed her in the saddle and tied her pack on behind her.
She waved as they rode off, trying not to cry too much.
Bevan felt for her. He rode silently by her side, a bow and arrows neatly tied to the horse’s saddle and a sword on his side. He wanted to be prepared if anything should happen to him or Aleta. And he knew he would be. He was the best archer and swordsman in all of England.
“The best archer and swordsman in all of England?” Faline nearly yelled. “He could not hit a cow with his bare hands!”
Sir Rowan had won the royal jousting tournament that afternoon and prince Jasper had boasted about Rowan’s fine skills in battle. Faline had graciously smiled and nodded, but in no way, shape, or form had she agreed with a word of what had been said.
“M’lady, there is another letter,” Beda said quietly, pointing to the table.
“So there is,” Faline said calmly, shaking the wrinkles out of her dress. She picked it up off of the table and looked at the handwriting on it. “It is from the Sheriff of Windermere. He has been looking after my estate. That means he has probably been letting it go to waste and has fired all the servants. I am surprised Sir Rowan let me retain it after my father had been stripped of his title, but then he is greedy.” She tore open the seal and sat down to read it.
“What does he say, m’lady?” asked Beda as she shook out Faline’s dusty cape.
Faline cleared her throat and began to read.
To my lady Faline Beresford from the Sheriff and Chief Law Enforcer of the shire of Windermere.
Dearest lady Beresford, I hope with my whole heart that you are getting along just fine with Rowan and His Majesty the King. I have not personally had the pleasure of meeting our dear King Edmond, but I have had the pleasure of meeting His Royal Highness Prince Jasper. I do hope you are coming along with Rowan and Jasper as they tour the countryside and collect the peoples’ dues. It is a revered and trustworthy position to be chief tax collector and to be escorted personally by the Prince. I am looking forward to seeing you soon, my dear.
“The estate is coming along fine, though I had to fire many of the servants. As you know, no servant will stay on if they are underpaid a little. They are all greedy and self-pleasing people and I do hope you know that it is for your own good they are gone. However, even if the servants are low in number, your most faithful ones are still on the payroll and send their wishes to see you soon, also.’
“I told you he would have fired all the servants, Beda! He is simply unbearable.” Faline had to roll her eyes as she said this.
“Is there more, m’lady? I do like to hear your pretty voice when you read your letters. It’s like an angel came from heaven, it is.”
“There’s more,” Faline assured. “It goes on to say:
‘I also hope you are not traveling without a guard, my lady. As you may well know, many outlaws live in Rosswell forest. Recently, this population has grown and become organized and many claim to be good people. They are sentimental in their ways, my dear. They will not rob the poor, they will not rob any lady or child, and they will not rob pilgrims or tinkers. They only take half or so of one’s money and make you sit down to a meal before you may go on. It is disgraceful. I myself have not had to meet them, but it is said that it is only a matter of time. The leader is supposedly called Bevan of Colwyn, a strange fellow I am sure. Do be careful on your way through the forest.
“As I must now attend to my holy and most important duties, I will bid you farewell. See that you take care of yourself and your love and do come as quickly as possible.
Yours truly and sincerely,
His Most Honorable Lordship,
The Sheriff of Windermere.”
Faline put down the letter and sighed. “He is the most insolent man, Beda. How will I ever manage this entire trip if I must speak with him? He is simply unbearable, Beda!”
“Mayhap this Bevan fellow could help,” Beda suggested.
“You heard the sheriff’s letter, Beda. He is an outlaw. Outlaws are nasty people, and certainly not someone I would want to come into contact with.”
“Oh, I don’t know, m’lady. He sounded like a good man.”
“Beda, I simply refuse to speak with outlaws. No matter how well meaning they are. We will have to find a way out of this situation by ourselves.”
“Yes, m’lady,” Beda submitted. “When are we leaving, m’lady?”
“Rowan said as soon as the jousting tournament was over, so I suppose now. He wants to be in Williamshire by nightfall. From there we will go to St. Christopher’s shire, then to the Parish at Fulton, and finally end our journey in Windermere.”
“And get all the people’s taxes along the way?”
“We’ll collect them as we pass through each town. There is a representative collecting taxes on Rowan’s behalf in each shire and they are to have them ready by the time we get there. Of course, we will stay in more than just those four shires, as they are many days apart. I only hope I can make it through this.” Faline crossed herself and headed out the door, riding gloves in hand. If only God really listened to her prayers.
Rowan met her in the hallway. “Ah! Are you ready to leave, my lady?”
Faline looked at him coolly and nodded. “Quite. I do hope we do not have far to go.”
“Just to Williamshire, my lady, just to Williamshire. We shall be there by nightfall.”
Faline smiled and rested her hand on top of his offered one. Together they walked down several hallways and to the courtyard.
The courtyard was filled with knights and wagons full of provisions. Jasper sat on his horse in the approximate middle of the caravan. They would be joined by more knights as they left the castle walls.
Rowan skillfully mounted his horse and a knight helped Faline onto her horse. Pulling her gloves over her hands, she nodded to the knight and arranged her skirts to give herself the best balance she could get. Riding sidesaddle was not as easy as everyone made it seem.
With Rowan and Jasper on either side of her and Beda as close behind her as she dared to be, they set out. A total of one hundred knights were with them. Faline guessed that they would bring plenty of business to the taverns and inns of whatever shire they stayed in.
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