The caravan progressed slowly along the winding trail, the horses’ hooves thudding dully on the thick carpet of gold and yellow leaves. Lord Hampton, along with his youngest son, Richard, led the procession, each on their mount. Within a closed litter, Lord Hampton’s daughter, Gwendolyn, rode with two of her maids. Several in the lord’s personal army traveled beside and behind them to keep thieves and trouble at bay. The fall air sat in dank clumps of mist along the path through the forest. It chilled the travelers as they began their journey of several days to Lord Dewar’s castle. There, his son, Harold, would wed Lady Gwendolyn. The fathers would each be strengthened in their political dominion, and the House of Dewar would be enriched by Lady Gwendolyn’s generous dowry. Magicians, troubadours, and sellers of saints’ bones already assembled for the feasting and revelry a few days’ hence.
In the litter, Gwendolyn mentally went over her preparations. Just before leaving, as the dowry coffer passed through the great hall, she stopped its bearers and unlocked it. Searching quickly, she pulled the Hampton ring from among the jewels, closed the lid, and sent the chest on its way. When she returned to her room, she had one of her maids tie the ring on a ribbon, and then placed it around her neck, where the family heirloom lay hidden beneath her bodice. Now, as the wheels bounced unevenly, sending the litter’s occupants jostling from side to side, Gwendolyn clutched at the ring as she wondered about her future. She had only seen Harold Dewar twice in her life — once at the age of seven and again at thirteen. Finally, at the prime age of sixteen, she dutifully served her father’s house and agreed to the marriage.
A scream jerked her out of her reverie. Another scream of pain sounded close by. Yells and curses washed over her in a tidal wave of noise. Quickly parting the curtains, she dared to look. Arrows whistled through the air, puncturing men and animals alike. Ill-clad ruffians leapt from behind the bracken, brandishing arms and giving offense. Lord Hampton fell, mortally wounded. She understood instantly. Her father and younger brother were dead. Now only her oldest brother, Phillip, and she carried the Hampton line. Phillip, still at home, must be warned! In a blur, Gwendolyn ducked back in and unclasped the brooch that held her rich red cloak around her shoulders.
“Here! Trade me!” she ordered her maid. “But, my lady…”
“There’s no time to explain.” Gwendolyn thrust the garment at the frightened woman and grabbed the thin gray one in exchange. Taking the gold filigree crown from her own head, she placed it on her maid. Once the red cloak had been secured on her servant, Gwendolyn whispered, “God willing, I will see you again this day.” Before any other words were exchanged, she leapt out of the far side of the litter and ducked, crouching and unseen, into the welcomed invisibility of thick undergrowth. The sounds of the battle followed her as she ran, taking cover as she found it.
Swwiiisshh. Thud. A stray arrow embedded itself in her side, beside her left breast. Without time to moan, Lady Gwendolyn fell to the forest floor, unconscious, bleeding, and alone.
* * *
Remnants of the day’s light barely brightened the far western horizon when Lady Gwendolyn came to. At first bewildered, the pain in her side brought the horror of the day rushing back. With grim determination, she stood, swaying, and took a tentative step. Encouraged at not fainting in spite of the blinding pain, she ventured another. In this method, she finally reached the sight of the attack. No one of her party remained alive, not father, brother, soldiers, or horses. The litter was nowhere to be seen. “They’ve taken the dowry, then,” she muttered weakly as she held her side. The shaft stuck at an obtrusive angle, angering her. Reaching down, she retrieved a soldier’s large knife, then placed the arrow against a rowan, hacking at the arrow until it broke in half.
The searing pain brought her to her knees, trembling and crying. After a few moments, the spasm abated, enabling her to stand. By now, darkness enveloped her under the forest canopy. Weariness invaded her bones and muscles; the desperate craving to lie down and sleep overwhelmed her. But, sleeping among the dead proved too macabre. At least let me walk a short distance towards home before I sleep, she encouraged herself. Gwendolyn had taken no more than ten haltering steps when a noise stopped her. Peering over her right shoulder, she listened as the noise drew steadily closer. Instead of bringing fear, it lit her face with relief. Within a few minutes, a dappled gray steed walked out of the brush and stood before her, no doubt wondering what to do next. The gray wore the livery of her house, to her continued delight. She grasped at the stirrup and managed, through much travail, to mount the beast. With a click of her tongue, she turned its head for home.
* * *
Geoff sat with his feet toward the early morning hearth fire, a bowl of gruel in his hands. He had waited for today all of his eighteen years. Today, he was to become one of the House of Hampton’s guards. His new tunic of green lay on the bed while his wife Mary flitted around the small cottage, her nerves getting the best of her. “You won’t forget anything,” she asked for the third time.
“I promise, woman. I won’t.” Geoff sighed and finished his breakfast. Dressing quickly, he fastened his sword’s sheath to his belt and reached for his hat. “I’m proud of you, husband,” Mary said, wrapping her arms around his waist.
Geoff smiled into her lovely brown eyes and kissed her once. “Don’t make me late my first day.” “I won’t. But, I’ll worry about you while you’re gone.”
“Worry? There’s nothing to worry about. The Houses of Hampton and Dewar will soon be united, and we will be stronger than ever.” “I know. Still…” her voice trailed off as her wifely mind envisioned all manner of calamities.
“Quit worrying! I’ve promised you my life. You know that.” “Yes, but you’ve promised this House your death.” Mary shook her head and then patted him on his chest. “Off with you now, or you’ll be late for sure.” “I probably won’t be home for a week or so,” he reminded her.
“I know. So make this next kiss one that will last.” Her seductive smile made his task easy.
* * *
Geoff spent the day being shown around, even though he knew the castle grounds and the keep well enough already. That night, after a supper of bread, venison and cheese, Geoff helped lock the gate, and listened as the inhabitants settled in for the night. Curling up on the keep floor as near to the fire as possible, Geoff wrapped himself in his cloak, his thoughts turning toward home as he drifted to sleep.
“Open the gate!” A cry sounded in the night, hours later. Geoff’s captain walked by, nudging him in his side. “See to it,” he ordered.
Yawning, Geoff, threw his cloak around his shoulders and made his way outside. “In the name of all that’s holy, open this gate!” the voice cried again. Its urgency made his hands move faster.
When the gate finally swung open, a gray horse hurried through, its rider leaning far across the saddle. A woman! Geoff thought.
She half fell, half dismounted, and clung to her horse. “Murdered. We’ve all been murdered,” she moaned. Looking at her plain cloak, Geoff approached her. “What news is this, wench?”
Before she could answer, the woman fell at his feet, her humble cloak opening to reveal rich garments underneath. Black blood spread across the fabric, the arrow shaft still protruding from her body. As he leaned forward, the Hampton ring revealed itself as the ribbon slipped from beneath her bodice. “Lady Gwendolyn!” His alarm now trebled, Geoff knelt and picked her up. “Help!” he yelled to the keep. “Help!”
Soft rush light spilled from the open doorway as several guards ran toward him. “It’s Lady Gwendolyn,” Geoff quickly explained as he carried her to the trestle table, laying her upon it.
“Fetch her brother Phillip,” the captain ordered another guard. “And bring the physician.” Amid the tumult, Geoff tended to his lady, removing the cloak from her shoulders and placing it under her head. Her chestnut hair hung in its thick, long braid, golden thread woven with it. Her complexion, now too pale from loss of blood, would normally be fair. And hands far too delicate for their task of late, had blood encrusted under the nails.
Lady Gwendolyn moaned, sending Geoff’s hand pushing back the hair from her forehead. Her green eyes fluttered open at his touch. “Where am I?”
“You’re home, Lady. Rest.” As he watched her close her eyes, he determined that whoever had brought harm to the House of Hampton, to this beautiful woman, would pay — dearly.