The sweetness of fresh strawberries sprinkled with sugar, topped with a cool dollop of fresh whipped cream was what Sir Francis Willingham was craving as he hung in his father’s stockade.
His bare, sun-scorched back was scarred and bleeding. His long, curly black hair, drenched with sweat, dripped down his rugged face as he yearned to be fed his favorite dessert by his Lady Catherine.
A splash of cold water woke Sir Francis from his vision. His father, the Duke of Willingham, stood before him.
“Are you through now with this fantasy of marriage to my enemy’s daughter?”
Sir Francis slowly lifted his head. His voice was weak, but clear.
“Father, I love Lady Catherine. I would rather die loving her, than live denying it.”
“Then die you will.”
Sir Francis’ head slumped. Blood from his back began to stream around his neck to his lips and drip slowly to the ground.
Dear God in Heaven, I know she is one of your angels. She sings your verses so beautifully. She wants nothing more than to serve you in this darkened kingdom. I want to help her, my Lord.
The coolness of night crept in waves of goose bumps up and down Sir Francis’ exposed and battered skin. Sleep came and went. In anguish he lifted his head and roared in a weakened whisper.
“Father! Why are you doing this to me?”
A nearby guard approached.
“Sir, is it the Duke you are calling for? Shall I get him?”
“No, it’s the Father in Heaven I beseech. Have you heard from my Lady Catherine?”
“That I have, sir. She waits behind the bushes. She has offered the finest dessert to allow her to see you. But, I fear for my life.”
“In matters of love you worry about life? Go, eat strawberries. No harm shall come.”
“You may visit as long as it takes me to eat.”
A moment later, a woman veiled in black lace stooped and caressed Sir Francis’ face.
“My dear, Francis, how are you?”
“In love with you, my lady.”
Dried blood on Francis’ face cracked as he tried to smile.
“This is foolish. I am surely not worth your life?”
“You alone are not, but we together are. I have…”
“Shush, my love.” Catherine kissed her finger and touched it to Francis’ lips. “I have told my father that I do not wish to marry his enemy’s son. He is sending a message to your father at dawn saying I am being sent away.”
“No Catherine. I cannot live without you. Our kingdom needs your spirit, your God.”
“Then trust my God, and make Him yours, and in time, if it is His will, we will meet again.”
Lady Catherine gently kissed Sir Francis on the lips and disappeared into the darkness.
Three years later, Sir Francis was standing near his father’s death bed. The Duke had been stricken with a bleeding cough.
“My son.” The eldest Willingham spoke between gasps. “I have but one request before I pass.”
Sir Francis kneeled down and held his father’s frail hand.
“What is it?”
“Give me your word you will not try to locate Lady Catherine.”
The son stood and walked to the window, his fingers clutched a cross pendant that hung around his neck.
“You ask a very difficult thing, Father. But…”
Before Francis could finish his words, life left his father with a final weak cough.
His funeral was attended by thousands. That night Sir Francis sat alone in his room reading a Psalm. A knock at the door startled him.
“It is Richard, my Lord. May I come in?”
Richard carried a fancy dessert and a note.
“What have you there?”
“Gifts from Lady Catherine, my Lord.”
“My Lady?” Sir Francis arose and read the note.
My Dear, Francis. I am sorry to hear about your father‘s death. But, I do hope your love for me is as fresh as these strawberries I have prepared. My love for you is even stronger. If you feel the same, meet me tomorrow by the river. There is a patch of strawberries…
“Is it good news, my Lord?”
“That it is, Richard. Make preparations for a short journey in the morning. We are going to the river to meet my wife.”
“Your wife? Ah, your wife. Very good, my Lord.”
“And Richard, you my have this dessert. Tomorrow I shall eat strawberries fresh from my Lady’s hands.”
“Very well, sir. Very well indeed.”
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