Pain and Pestilence (by Aigneis)

Summary:  If you’ve read my last story, you’ll notice I’ve recycled the name Matilda here. It had nothing to do with a lack of creativity, but everything to do with following a line from the original show. If you’re a Covington Cross fan, you’ll probably recognize it. If not, just forget you’ve even seen this!
Category:  Covington Cross
Genre:  Medieval
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  21.901


 

“You’d best ride on to another inn, m’lord,” the blacksmith said as Richard dismounted and patted his chestnut mare on the nose. “There’s pestilence here.”

“Pestilence?” Richard queried. He gazed around at the group of villagers that had gathered before the small tavern, shocked by what he saw, for each of them held a torch of burning rushes. “What are you doing?” he asked, his deep green eyes sparked with a fire of their own. “Where is the innkeeper?”

“Dead o’ the illness, m’lord,” the man crowed.

“As he wife an’ daughter soon will be,” the cooper added confidently.

“Where are they?” Richard bellowed, a flush of anger touching his cheeks. He kept one hand on the hilt of his sword, his eyes flicking warily from one man to the next, hoping his suspicions would prove unfounded.

“Ain’t our fault they won’t leave the bloody place,” the tall workman grumbled, “though where they’d go anyway, I couldn’t say. ‘Tis better for them to die right here and now.”

Are you mad?!” Richard shouted as he pushed by the young furrier and headed for the door.

“’Tis you who are mad, m’lord,” the boy warned, catching Richard by the arm. “Sitting up in that great castle of yours, you ain’t never seen what this kind of pestilence can do to whole villages. Better two die now than more later.”

“Never lay a hand on me again,” Richard scowled as he ripped his arm from the lad’s grip. “What right have you to condemn these people to death simply because they’re ill?”

The boy dropped his arm as he recalled his station, but he was not to be silenced. “Not just any sickness, m’lord. ‘Tis the pox they have. One look at them tells you that. Death is sure to claim them anyway, might as well put them out of their misery.”

“And who are you to be the judge of that!” Richard bellowed. “If you fear it so, keep your distance, or I will see you felled by my arrow. Now go back to your homes and stay clear of this inn, for I will keep a constant vigil until they are well again.”

The townspeople grumbled but slowly headed back towards their own cottages. Richard watched them warily; his eyes flickering in the torch light like two distant sentries. Then he opened the door, and steeling himself for what lie ahead, he entered the tavern.

“Please, m’lord,” Esther Tupper exclaimed as Richard made his way toward the two small rooms that served as their living quarters. “Come no closer. My husband, strong as he was, lies in his grave from this wretched disease. Do not think yourself immune because you are noble.”

“I think nothing of the sort,” Richard stated as he walked over and placed his hand on the little girl’s forehead.” What are you doing for the fever?”

“Cool water, or what I have left of it, m’lord, for I can no longer go to the well.”

“Why not!” Richard exclaimed, the heat in his own cheeks rising once more out of fury.

“They won’t let me,” she said as she nodded toward the door. “Nor will they let you now, noble or not. ‘Tis their own lives they think of.”

“Would they think that way if it was one of their own who was ill?” Richard snapped, but then his voice softened. “Never mind, we’ll make do with what we have.”

Richard sat by her side for the next few days, but the girl’s fever only grew, reaching its peak on the third morning. A bright red rash covered her face, and Richard knew he must do something more to help them.

“Do you think you can sit a horse?” he asked the haggard woman.

He realized that her warnings about her neighbors were true. There were already disconcerting rumblings outside the heavy oak door, and he knew his station as a noble would only hold the anxious villagers at bay for so long. Their only hope was the convent of St. Martha. The journey would take over three days with conditions being what they were, but once there the sisters would care for them and keep them safe.

“Aye, m’lord, but where would we go?” Her voice was hoarse and strained, but there was no mistaking the urgency in it. “To bring us to your home would risk all within its walls.”

“Not to my home,” Richard assured her softly, “but to a convent not far from here. They are known for their kindness to the sick and will not hesitate to take you in.” He smiled reassuringly, resting his hand on the woman’s shoulder, then bent to lift her child in his arms.

“Then take my Catherine and go, m’lord. I’m far too weak for such a journey, and you will move faster without me. I can feel the illness coming on and would only hinder you.” She stood up, but wavered slightly, grabbing on to the headboard for support.

Richard could see the sense behind the woman’s plea, but he had no intention of leaving her to the wolves that gathered outside her door. “No, we will go together, or I we will not go at all. I know a path through the forest and perhaps can save us some time that way.”

“You are more than kind, sir, but with my husband dead, I have no way to repay you.”

“Never treat anyone as they have treated you,” Richard responded in all seriousness. “That is all I ask.”

“On that you have my word, m’lord.”

The woman placed a shawl around her own shoulders, then after wrapping her daughter in a blanket, reached down to gather Richard’s cloak. She staggered once more, causing the knight to grab her arm in support, but after closing her eyes for a moment, she smiled confidently and placed the garment around his shoulders.

“Will you be all right?” he asked.

The woman nodded, taking a deep breath and setting her eyes on the door before them. “Let’s get on with it then, shall we?”

Richard smiled once more, then took a deep breath himself, for he knew that making a hasty departure was not going to be easy. “Keep behind me . . . just in case I have to fight our way out of here,” he said as he handed the small child to her mother. Then opening the door, he walked out into the early twilight, an arrow primed in his bow ready to cut down the first man who tried to interfere with their movements.

“If you plan on leaving, m’lord,” a voice echoed out of the darkness, “you have no fear of us trying to stop you. Be on your way and good riddance to you. You’ll be in the ground yourself within a fortnight.”

Richard kept an ominous eye on the gathering crowd as he laid his bow aside momentarily in order to get a firm grip around the small child’s waist. Esther was reluctant to release her at first, but seeing his right hand tighten on the hilt of his sword, she felt a renewed sense of security in his presence and let go of her tiny charge. Yet, even as he clutched the child’s whimpering form to his chest, Richard continued to peer out into the mass of humanity that was hovering around them, all but daring any to step forward in a threatening manner. They took his meaning and stayed well back, however, as he motioned for Esther to mount his horse.

It was no more than a few feet from the inn, but even that seemed like a vast expanse to the weary woman when she considered the muffled grumblings that were taking place all about them. Richard could see her trepidation, could feel it himself, but he remained a steadfast sentinel, his stance firm and unyielding. His strength gave her the courage she needed to do as he had instructed, and seconds later, he was returning the child to her embrace, taking hold of the reins and mounting behind her.

He looked down on the villagers, his hand still firm upon his sword. Though he showed no sign of fear, he was no fool either. If they tried to attack, he would make a valiant effort to defend his charges, but he would be powerless to stop the onslaught. His only hope lie in the villager’s utter fear of the disease. Using that fear as surety, he began to move away slowly, the inhabitants still close upon his heels. He stopped only once, at the outskirts of the village, and threw two gold coins upon the ground.

“Those coins are for any man who will go to Covington Cross and inform my family where I have gone.”

“And where might that be, m’lord?” the cooper asked.

“To the convent of St. Martha, but woe be to any man who follows us or tries to bar our path.”

“I’ll go,” the furrier said. “What difference is it to me? At least they’ll know where to claim your corpse.”

“Think what you will, but be sure to fulfill your part of the bargain, elst I will return and thrash you myself.”

“As you say, m’lord,” the boy exclaimed, but as he picked up the coins and watched Richard leave the village, he turned to his friend. “Then I have naught to worry about, now do I?”

“You mean you’re not going?” his friend uttered.

“Why bother,” the first boy replied. “The convent will send news once he’s dead.”

*****

It was nearly three days later when the small party arrived at St. Martha’s, Richard walking most of the way to lighten the load and hopefully keep his horse from growing too weary. The small girl’s fever had eased considerably, but her mother was far worse, having just broken out in a rash herself.

“I believe it’s the pox,” Richard said to the kindly nun who opened the gate. “They’re from a village about a two day’s ride from here by horse. The villagers were about to set their home afire.”

“You’re not the husband then?” the gentle woman asked.

“No, Sister. Her husband is dead. They ran the inn, and I just happened to stop for the night. If I might get something to eat, I’ll be on my way at first light. You will care for them?”

“Yes, of course, my child,” she said softly, “but what of yourself? If it is the pox, you may fall ill as well.”

“Thank you for your concern, Sister, but I’ll be fine,” Richard said with respect. “Besides, surely if I were to fall ill, I would have done so by now.”

“Perhaps,” she replied slowly, her voice revealing her doubt. Still, she could do little to force the boy to stay. “Pray God go with you then, my son. I will have Sister Margaret prepare something for your journey.”

*****

Richard rested for a few hours than started on his way back toward Worthington. He had gone three day’s ride out of his way, but if he kept to the forest paths, he would be able to make it up in no time. Surely, his father would have received word by now, so there was no need for him to hurry. Lord Shelby had already agreed to the terms of the contract and this trip was a mere formality at any rate.

The weather seemed unbearably warm for a spring day, so after loosening his scarf, he stopped beside the stream to take a drink of water and get some nourishment. A frightening thought came to mind, and he leaned over to look at his reflection in the water. With relief, he fell back upon the shore, flopping down on his arms and heaving a sigh of relief. No rash! It was just his imagination getting the better of him.

Feeling light-hearted, he mounted his steed and started out toward Worthington once again, arriving just before evensong.

“It’s good to see you, Richard,” Lord Shelby said with relief. “I must admit, I was becoming a bit concerned as to your whereabouts. In fact, I’d already resolved to send my men out looking for you if you didn’t show up today.”

“I am sorry, my lord, I stopped to bring a young woman and her daughter to the convent,” Richard said by way of apology. “They were ill with the pox and had no other way to get there. Can you imagine,” he added in disbelief, “the villagers were going to burn down their home . . . with them in it. What kind of Christian charity is that?”

Lord Shelby smiled, the wisdom of age showing in his features. “The kind that is bred of ignorance and fear, I’m afraid, and perhaps rightfully so. Don’t judge them too harshly, Richard. The plague is not the only disease that can wipe out whole communities, you know. Not everyone has your courage.”

“It had nothing to do with courage,” Richard snorted. “It was simple compassion. I did nothing any other decent man would not have done.”

“Perhaps, but I hope that compassion doesn’t cost you your life,” Shelby said in all seriousness. “Now come and eat, and then you can get some rest.”

“If you don’t mind, my lord, I’d like to take care of business first. I’ve kept you waiting long enough.”

“Are you sure you’re up to it, Richard?” Steven Shelby asked, his brow furrowing in concern. “You do look a bit pale.”

“I’m fine, my lord,” Richard replied with a sigh. “It’s just been a long journey, but I assure you I would rest far easier were the papers all signed and sealed.”

“Very well then,” Lord Shelby said as he dipped his quill in the inkwell. “Let’s have them then, before you fall on my floor out of sheer exhaustion.”

Richard smiled, and once the deal was concluded and his belly full, he headed off to bed. He had not really been very hungry. In fact, it had been almost uncomfortable to eat, for there was a soreness in his mouth and throat he could not explain. He held his hands out in front of him. No sign of a rash, he thought. Then looking in the mirror over the washstand, and peered down his throat. There was indeed a slight redness to it. Just a bit of a cold, I suppose, he thought. What I need is a good night’s sleep. Once again he sighed deeply, and splashing some cool water on his warm skin, he tried to explain that away as well. It is about time the weather turned warm, he uttered. Then he flopped down on the cool linen sheets and went to sleep.

The next day felt even warmer than the one before, and he was glad to be on his way. He was actually looking forward to a nice bath and perhaps even laying stark naked on his bed for awhile before dressing. Though he loved the late spring and early summer, there was on the rarest occasions, a day like this, when he longed to be a young page again, released for the day to take a swim in the river, free of responsibilities . . . and my heavy clothing, he thought with a smile. Maybe if no one were around, he pondered as he headed off on his way, but no, his father would be anxiously awaiting his return with news that the deal had been concluded.

*****

Back at Covington Cross, Thomas Gray paced the floor in front of the Great Hearth. Richard should have been home days before and still there was no word of him. Granted he may have lingered an extra day or two at Lord Shelby’s estate. From what Thomas had heard, the man did have a rather pretty young niece, but he thought her arrival was not to be for at least another week or two. That was one of the reasons he had chosen to send Richard when he did. It certainly was not that the contract was in any jeopardy one way or the other. Lord Shelby was an honorable man, and the terms had all but been concluded on his last visit.

“Perhaps the niece did arrive early, Father,” Armus said, able to read his father’s thoughts without any difficulty.

“Still, it’s unlike Richard not to send word,” Thomas argued.

“It is exactly like Richard not to send word when there is a young lady involved,” Armus countered with good humor.

“Yes, I suppose it is,” Thomas conceded. “There are times he can be so responsible, and yet at other times . . .” His voice trailed off, and he simply shook his head, for he was at a loss for words.

“He’s still young, Father,” Armus offered by way of explanation. “He had to grow up quickly. It’s only natural that some things lag behind a bit.”

“Yes, you’re right, of course,” Thomas agreed, “but that does not mean I’ll let it go without giving him a good tongue lashing. That’s if he ever does get home.”

“Do you want me to go for him?” Armus asked, hoping his father would not deem it necessary, for he had no desire to spend a beautiful spring day in search of his brother.

“No, no, leave it until tomorrow,” Thomas said with a sigh of resignation. “If he has not returned by then, I’ll go after him myself.”

“Yourself!” Armus exclaimed. He raised his eyebrows slightly.

Thomas saw the expression on his son’s face and replied incredulously. “Yes, Armus, I am capable you know.”

Oh, no, Father, it’s not that, it’s just . . . well, I wouldn’t want to be Richard when you catch up to him. Perhaps it would be better to let me go and give you a chance to . . . cool off a bit.”

“Yes, well, we’ll see. Perhaps he’ll be home before morning and neither of us will have to go anywhere.”

*****

As Richard rode along, the sun beat down with increasing intensity. In all his twenty-one years, he never remembered a late April afternoon being so hot. A stream was running alongside the trail, and he decided to stop and take a cool drink, for his throat had become unbearably sore. Besides, he thought, the cool water would feel good against his face and neck. He bent over the stream, kneeling on one knee as he cupped his hand and sipped from the bubbling brook. The chilled water was just what he needed. He felt almost human again and had to laugh with relief at the folly of the thoughts that had been going through his head. Thoughts about fevers and rashes . . . and the pox. Still, some small voice inside caused him to gaze at his reflection in the water nevertheless. No rash. It truly was just the heat from the sun that had caused his cheeks to feel as if they were on fire.

He had just risen and was beginning to scan the surrounding countryside, when he was overcome by the strangest sensation. For a moment, he was not exactly sure where he was. Sweat was running down into his eyes, causing them to burn and itch and blurring his vision, so that blinked in the hopes of clearing it. I should have stopped for that drink sooner, he thought. He squinted, trying to block out the sun’s rays, for a searing pain throbbed in his head as the scenery began to brighten as if a thousand candles had been lighted. His head spun, and he grabbed on to the nearest tree, feeling incredibly ill. Fearing he was going to pass out, he began to stumble toward his horse, hoping that if he rode fast enough the feeling would pass, but even as he went to grab for his saddle, he could sense himself tumbling to the ground, helpless to control the momentum of his body. He lay there on the thick carpet of grass, too exhausted too move, too ill to care.

It must be sunstroke, he thought as he willed himself to crawl to the waters edge. Just a little further.

 

*****

Richard lay prostrate alongside the gurgling waters, his right hand just reaching its cooling spray. Gemini stood frozen for the moment, whinnying nervously as she looked at her master lying there motionless at her feet. A perfumed breeze blew across the water, and she finally stepped forward, nudging the downed knight with her nose. She whinnied loudly in his ear, then nudged him again, but still he did not stir. For the longest time, she stood by his side, stamping her hoof by his head or prodding his shoulder with her nose. When even that failed, the horse began to pace around, becoming more and more agitated with each passing moment, until finally, she reared up, snorting wildly and took off down the road toward home. It was as if she could sense that something was very wrong and was heading for the only place she knew of to get help.

Richard did wake at last, hours after Gemini had galloped away. Frogs were croaking off in the distance, and he could hear an owl hooting somewhere overhead. He blinked to clear his eyes, though even then he could see very little as darkness had already descended. He still felt incredibly warm and reached over to take a drink from the stream, splashing his face with the cool liquid. Then rousing himself, he rose and called out for Gemini. He had no way of knowing that the poor animal had stayed by his side for the better part of the day, trying to wake him, only leaving went she felt there was no other recourse.

“Gemini,” Richard called as he wiped the sweat from his face. Though it was evening, the day actually seemed to be getting warmer. He cursed beneath his breath, disappointed that his usually steadfast animal had deserted him when he needed her most.

No sense in dwelling on it, he thought. He knew the small village where he had rescued Esther and her child could not be too far – Bryerton, he thought it had been called – so he decided to head that way in the hopes of finding someone with an old nag to sell, if nothing else. Even a donkey would do, he moaned to himself.

He staggered to his feet, grabbing onto a low lying branch in an effort to steady himself. If anyone had let a drop of water touch on his forehead, he thought, it would surely have sizzled. He needed a cool drink of ale. Then perhaps he could think more clearly and rid himself of the incessant burning in his throat, which seemed now to be accompanied by a nagging cough. A good cold, he told himself as he headed through the forest. The walk was longer than he expected, but he pushed himself, hoping to reach the abandoned tavern before dawn.

With every step, his legs grew heavier and heavier, causing him to push himself all the harder. There was no reason for it, he thought. He was a knight for heavens sake, trained to endure long bouts of physical exertion. This walk should have been nothing for him. Why then did he feel as though he wanted to collapse right there on the spot? In spite of the near exhaustion that was nipping at his heels, he pressed on until at last he saw the early morning sun rising just beyond the thatched roofs of the village where his latest misadventure had begun.

In the distance, he could see the inhabitants beginning to stir, going about their early morning tasks, unmindful of his presence. He called out to one of them as he approached the inn, his voice hoarse and raspy, but he never would have expected the reception that was about to befall him.

“You there, cooper, who’s taken charge of the inn?” he said wearily. “My horse has thrown me, and I’m sorely in need of a pint of ale and a good place to rest.”

The cooper’s eyes widened as he looked up from his barrel. “Stay back, m’lord,” he shouted. “We warned ye, but ye would not listen.”

“Warned me?” Richard asked, puzzled by the man’s reaction. “What are you talking about?”

“The pox,” the cooper repeated, loud enough so that his neighbors might hear and come to his aid. “We told ye it would happen if ye got too close, but ye wouldn’t listen. Now ye’ve come back here and brought it with ye.”

“You’re mad!” Richard exclaimed. “Esther and her daughter are at the convent of St. Martha, safe and sound. They’re no longer any threat to you.”

The cooper shot a glance at his friend, the furrier, and then turned back to Richard. “Not them, m’lord, ‘tis yerself that’s the threat now.”

One man, standing nearby, picked up a large stone and hurled it at Richard. The projectile hit the weary knight in the head, causing blood to gush from the laceration it had left behind. Another followed suit, while a third held a pitch fork to his neck and began to force him toward the inn.

“Damn you, man!” Richard bellowed. “Lift another stone, and I’ll sever your head before the rock leaves you hand.”

“I think not, m’lord,” the local forester roared. He lifted his bow, its arrow pointing straight at Richard’s heart. “Now either leave this village of your own accord, or you’ll find my arrow feathered in your carcass and we’ll roast you along with that disease ridden inn.”

The blacksmith touched two torches to his forge and brought them forward, handing one to the cooper and keeping the other himself. “We’ll have no more pox in this village!” he barked.

His face was stern and determined, as were those of each and every villager around him. Some held pitchforks, while others carried bows, or rusted swords, but one thing was certain, they had no intention of allowing Richard to remain in the village. The tawny haired knight could not understand this degree of ignorance, but stood firm, trying once again to reason with them, for he was too exhausted to comply with their demands.

“What are you afraid of?” he asked. He was fighting to keep his breath calm and measured, trying not to let his temper overcome him. “It’s been nearly a fortnight since I left here, surely if I was to grow ill . . .” His voice trailed off as he saw the expressions on the villagers’ faces turn from ones of calm determination to those filled with a kind of pity and irrational fear.

“’Tis better for all concerned if we end it for him here,” a farmer roared as he pressed his pitchfork up against Richard’s shoulder and pushed him further toward the inn. Before the young knight even stumbled across its threshold, he could hear the shudders being slammed shut, see the torches being raised to the roof above.

“What are you going to do?” he shouted. He drew his sword and sliced at the men who were hurling stones and prodding him with pitchforks and rusty pikes, but it was no use. In his weakened state, the weapon was easily knocked from his hand. He was outnumbered, and there was little he could do but stumble backwards onto the hard dirt floor of the inn. Moments later the door slammed shut, and he heard the bar being set across it.

He sat stunned, too weary to move, yet knowing he must. He could hear the crackle of burning thatch and smell its putrid odor. Smoke was billowing down the narrow staircase. In seconds, it would fill the small rooms below, all but cutting off his oxygen. He had to try and find a way out, but how? In desperation, he ran from one window to the next, but try as he might he could not budge one of the shudders. He was going to die, here in this dilapidated inn, miles from the home he loved, with no one to comfort him or mourn for him. His father thought him safe and on the way to Lord Shelby’s. It would be days before he learned of his disappearance; days before they even began a search, and what good would that do anyway. Even if they did stumble upon this village, he would be long dead and cold in his grave.

Richard Gray, however, was not one to give up. Gritting his teeth and forcing himself to carry on, he dipped his scarf in a bucket of water. Then placing it over his nose and mouth, he made his way toward the staircase. Perhaps if he ventured to the upper floor, he could get out one of its windows; that is, if he made it through the acrid smoke filling the rooms above, he thought. He started up, but he had gone no more than a few steps when a violent fit of coughing made him realize just how foolhardy such an endeavor was. Formulating another plan even as he turned, he headed down toward the back door, stopping for a moment to cough up the black spittle that had lodged itself in his throat.

A wave of panic surged through his body, and he pressed himself up against the heavy oak door, closing his eyes in an effort to calm his frazzled nerves. His heart was pounding furiously, his face felt as if it were on fire, sweat saturated his clothing, but he was determined that he would not die this way. Slowly reason took hold once more, and he opened eyes, blinking to clear the smoke and soot away. Then he began to look around for some weapon or tool that might help him break through the back door. Almost immediately, it became obvious that there were none to be had, not a sword or ax, nor kitchen knife. The building had been ransacked, relieved of even the most fundamental furnishings. They weren’t too frightened to rob it, he thought as he slumped down against the sturdy oak and began to pray.

“Father, forgive me for my indiscretions . . .” The words gave him an idea, and he shouted out as loudly as he could.

“Would you let me die without benefit of the clergy?”

“God have mercy on your sinful soul,” the miller yelled out, and the crowd roared its approval. They were no longer a group of villagers, but a mob, intent on destroying the thing they feared the most. No amount of reasoning could save him now.

Richard could not speak. His throat felt as if it were closing and his face burned with an inner fire, though it was no longer anger that roared within him. “Why would they do this,” he whispered. “I’m not ill! . . .am I?” he thought as he felt the heat radiating from his cheeks. “No it’s nothing more than the fire.” He had just slumped back down against the door, no longer able to fight, when a sharp motion jerked it open, causing him to fall flat on his back.

“Hurry,” a soft voice whispered. “If they see me here, they’ll set us both afire.”

He looked up to see a girl, not much younger than himself, staring at him urgently. “Who are you,” he managed to say, though as he reached up toward her she backed away, sighing in frustration.

“What does that matter?” she snapped. “Now come on. The woods are only a hundred yards straight ahead. They’re all too busy out front to notice. Just run as though ye life depended on it, for trust me, m’lord, it does.”

“Why are you doing this?” he said, still too stunned to move.

She grit her teeth, then sighed to calm herself. “I figure it’s the good Lord who should decide whether you live or die, not us. Now get on ye way before I change my mind.”

Richard nodded and took off toward the forest. The blood from his forehead ran down his cheek, and he wiped it with his sleeve. Just keep it out of your eyes, he told himself as he stumbled toward the protection of the thick set trees, but his vision was becoming blurred. He turned and began to run toward the stream, letting the sound of its rushing waters guide him. Agitated voices echoed after him as he stumbled erratically through the wooded glen. He could hear himself praying, yet he dared not stop to think. Nor would they, he told himself, if they caught up to him.

Somewhere in the distance, he heard a voice cry out. Leave him!!! Disgruntled shouts replied, but then all seemed to grow quiet. The only sounds he could hear was the screeching of a hawk somewhere above, the gentle gurgle of the stream, and the constant throbbing in his head. It must have been a mile or two before he chanced sitting down at the water’s edge though. Then, and only then, did he chance to peer over to view his reflection, his heart pounding in trepidation.

“Dear God!” he exclaimed, for his image was crystal clear in the rivulet’s mirror like surface. He swallowed deeply as he gazed at the strawberry like rash that covered his face. “I must not bring this home,” he whispered aloud. “The convent! I must return there, beg there indulgence.” Sweat was trickling down his forehead, mingling with the blood from his wound. Without really thinking about it, he took the scarf from around his neck and tore it in two. Then dipping one piece in the cool water, he wrapped it tightly around his head. His breath seemed to be coming in more labored drafts, followed by fits of coughing that left him physically drained. In truth, all he wanted to do was lie down in the deep rich grass and rest. Perhaps the villagers were right, and he would be dead within a fortnight at any rate.

*****

“Blast that boy,” Thomas roared as he stormed down the staircase.

“Now, Thomas,” Lady Elizabeth pleaded. “Perhaps he has a reasonable explanation. Please promise me you will give him a chance to explain.”

“I’ve been too lenient with him,” Thomas snapped. “A few strikes with my strap is what he needs.”

“Father,” Armus said, echoing the lady’s concerns. “He may be hurt, had an accident along the trail. Don’t you think we should find out first?”

“He had best pray he has broken every bone in his body,” Thomas bellowed, “for if he has not, I shall do it for him.”

“Now, Thomas, you know you don’t mean that,” Lady Elizabeth said as she rested a calming hand on her knight’s arm. Thomas sighed reluctantly, looking from the lady to his son and back.

“No, of course not,” he conceded in a softer tone. “I just don’t know what to do with him. One day he is the model of knightly virtue, and the next he’s nothing more than a very badly behaved child . . . a rogue I’ve heard him called. What am I to do with him?”

“Thomas,” Lady Elizabeth exclaimed, a touch of laughter shading her tender voice. “Could it be that he reminds you very much of yourself at his age. I seem to remember . . . .”

“Never mind that!” Thomas replied hastily, a hint of mischief in his pale blue eyes. “I will try to remain calm, but he will be punished. Do not try to dissuade me from that. The boy has to learn . . . as did we all,” he added with a twinkle in his eye.

*****

The convent had not seemed so far away on his first visit, but then, he had not been moving so slowly then either, nor had he been feeling so ill. In truth, he knew it was still quite a ways off, but to make matters worse, nothing even looked remotely familiar, and his mind seemed so addled lately, he could not even be sure he had headed in the right direction. The stream was by his side, as it should be, but was it on the right side? With a frustrated sigh, he sat down, taking the scarf from around his head and wetting it in the sparkling water again before returning it to his injured forehead.

He wondered what his death would be like. Would he go in his sleep? Would the pain be unbearable before the end? He thought of how his mother must have suffered and took strength from her example. She was with him; he knew that, even if he could not see her.

“I think I’ll be with you soon, Mother,” he uttered, a strange calmness in his voice. “I’m only sorry I won’t be able to. . .” Tears came to his reddened eyes, and he blinked rapidly, trying to brush them away. His lips began to quiver, but he pressed them together, taking a deep breath. Then he picked himself up and began to walk off toward the setting sun.

It was almost twilight when he cut across a small hillcrop that overlooked a freshly plowed field. He was not even sure why he did it. Just the right way to go, he told himself, though it made no sense to him. He could barely stand, let alone think, and on reaching the top of the hill, his legs gave out and he tumbled to the bottom. Moments later, he found himself sprawled face up on the fresh turned earth. Everything was out of focus and a strange buzzing sound filled his ears. His nose was congested and what little breath he seemed to have left was knocked out of him. Convinced it was the end, he simply closed his eyes, surrendering to the inevitable.

*****

Old Tired Tillie was what everyone called her, though her proper title was Lady Matilda Payne. She pretty much minded her own business, though, keeping to herself and her garden. From time to time, she would venture into the village to get what she needed, but she never said much to anyone. Folks said she was still in mourning for her family who had died years before of the plague or the pox or some epidemic. Word had it that she was the only one left and had vowed never again to love anyone. The younger inhabitants would sometimes tease her, but she would just ignore them. When asked why she did not scold them, she would answer that they were just children and did not understand. It was they who did not understand, however, for in her own way, Tillie loved everything and everybody that ever came her way.

So it was that when she found Richard sprawled across her newly furrowed field, she felt obliged to bring him into her home. She did not even balk when her field hands would not help her.

“He’s got the pox, m’lady,” they warned, standing far back from his limp body. “Just leave him be and let him die where he lay. Sure he won’t last the night.”

“I’ll do no such thing,” she snapped, “but neither will I ask any of you to put yourselves at risk. Just rig me up a liter of sorts and tie it to Esmerelda, then bring her here to me. I’ll do the rest.”

“But m’lady,” the man protested.

“Do as I say,” she scolded the servant.

Moments later, all was done as she had requested. She was quite spry for her apparent age, so it did not take long for her to roll Richard’s sturdy form onto the liter. The horse did the rest of the work, bringing the knight up to the front door of a small but well built manor house. Once there, she bent down beside her patient and shook him gently.

“Come on, lad,” she urged. I can’t get you inside by myself, strong as I am. You’re going to have to help me a bit.”

Richard opened his eyes slightly. “Sister!” he uttered, half dazed. “I made it to the convent then.”

“Not quite, lad, but almost as good as, I suspect,” she said, her voice soft and soothing. “Come on now, lad. On your feet.”

She placed her arm under his and helped him stagger to his feet. Then she guided him into a small room to the side of the house and laid him on the bed. He was certain he had died and gone to heaven, so soft and inviting was the mattress upon which she laid him. His funeral pyre, he thought groggily as he drifted off to sleep once more.

It must have been the next day before he awoke again. His body still felt as though it were on fire, as did his throat, but he could feel a soothing presence on his forehead and arms. He blinked twice as he opened his eyes, trying to clear them so he could make out who it was that was tending to him. Tillie noticed immediately and smiled down on him.

“Feeling any better now, lad?” she asked in a voice he was sure would have rivaled that of any angel.

“Are you one of the sisters?” he queried in response, still believing he had somehow miraculously arrived at the convent. Suddenly, a wave of guilt overcame him. “You shouldn’t be tending me so closely. I’ve the pox. You might become ill yourself.”

“My, for one so sickly you do have a lot to say,” she said cheerfully. “Now, first off, I’m no saintly sister, far from it. I’m not sure what convent it is you were heading for, but there’s none for miles around here. Most people just call me Tillie, so I guess that will do for you as well.”

“Secondly,” she continued, “I’m not likely to get the pox, because ‘tis not what ails you. I’ve seen the pox,” she added, her voice tinged with an unmistakable sorrow, “and ‘tis not what you have, you can be sure of that.”

“Thirdly,” she uttered, her voice suddenly becoming strained and distant, “even if it were, it didn’t touch me then; it will not touch me now . . . so rest easy,” she went on, her voice returning to its normal light-hearted tenor just as quickly as it had drifted away from it.

“Where am I then?” Richard asked.

“About a half days ride south of Bryerton,” she said as she wrung out a clean linen and replaced the one resting on his forehead. He shivered momentarily, for though the water was in reality room temperature, it felt cold against his fevered skin. She did not even seem to pay it any mind, however, and went about washing down his arms again. The action caused him to gasp abruptly as it dawned on him that he was lying naked beneath the thin sheets. Instinctively, he drew the linens up around his chin, causing the old lady to laugh heartily.

“Oh, my,” she said. “You are a godsend. I haven’t laughed like that since before . . . well, not for a long time. Calm yourself, lad, you’ve nothing there I haven’t seen before, in many a size and shape.”

“Oh, you’re a harl . . .” Richard exclaimed, stopping himself short. “I mean . . .”

Tillie laughed again, her eyes tearing under the strain. “I know exactly what you meant, lad, and I’ve been called a few things in my day, but that certainly has never been one of them. I guess I should be flattered, though. No, ‘tis just that I’ve been married three times, had three brothers, and carried two sons into this world . . . and cared for them all at one time or another . . . but that was a long time ago.”

“What happened to them?” Richard asked. Somehow he found that talking to this kindly old woman came quite easily and helped take his mind off his own discomfort. She seemed to appreciate the soothing effect her conversation was having and had no objection to continuing it. In fact, it was almost as if it were a gentle salve for her wounds as well.

“Well,” she began, “my first husband, he was killed in the Crusades. The marriage was arranged and the fool was more in love with the fame and glory of it all, so I really didn’t get to know him too well. My first son, Alan, was his. I was still a young thing when he died, so my family was able to arrange another marriage for me shortly after. Edmund was a good man. It didn’t take much for me to fall in love with him, and we were quite happy for a number of years. I bore him two sons and a daughter, but before they were very old, death came to claim them all,” she sighed with a sadness that cut Richard to the core.

“I’m so sorry. Was it . . . the plague? My mother died of it as well,” he said, and his heart reached out to this sweet old lady.

“No, not the plague,” she said, “’twas . . . the pox.”

Richard swallowed deeply. “And I’ve brought it into your home again. I’m so sorry.”

The woman smiled once more, her tenor returning to its old cheerfulness. “I told you, lad. ‘Tis not the pox that ails you. I know them right enough.”

“What is it then?” Richard queried, not sure he wanted to know the answer. A fit of coughing overtook him, and he sat up, grabbing the linen cloth she handed him to cover his mouth. He hacked until he thought his lungs would come up, but finally it subsided and he settled back down upon the pillows. He went to hand her back the rag but was horrified by the red tinge he saw upon the clean white linen. His eyes must have shown his concerns for Tillie smiled softly, taking the cloth from his hands and washing his face off with a clean wet one.

“No need to worry about that, lad,” she said. She tried to speak as light-heartedly as she could, but Richard could read the concern in her eyes as well. “’Tis just a blood vessel ruptured from all that coughing,” she went on. “Nothing to worry about at all.”

In spite of his own fears, Richard did not have the nerve to press her about it. So instead he prompted her to finish her story. “You said you had three husbands.”

“Oh, aye, well that’s a bit of a long story,” she said, resting back against her chair, “but I don’t suppose you’re apt to be gong anywhere for a while.”

“No, I don’t suppose I will be,” he said, letting a smile cross his lips for the first time in days. As he did, he noticed something flash across the woman’s eyes, a hint of recognition, something familiar, something close to her heart. He knew it was not really his business, but he was lying in her home, upon her bed, and somehow he wanted to know.

“What is it?” he asked, trying not to sound like he was prying.

“The way you smile,” she lilted, her eyes filled with that faraway look once again. “It reminds me of someone I knew long ago. Where did you say you were from, lad?”

“I don’t believe I did,” he said defensively, though he was not sure why. It was cold and callous, and no sooner had the words passed his lips then he regretted them. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that,” he said, hoping he had not offended her, but she had not even seemed to notice.

“Sorry about what, lad?” she whispered as she laid a cool fresh rag across his forehead. “It’s a natural reaction. You don’t really know me.”

“It was rude,” Richard insisted, “and I am truly sorry. I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to repay you for your kindness, but I can answer your questions. My name is Sir Richard Gray, of Covington Cross.”

“Richard Gray!” The old woman sounded surprised, but immediately covered it up. “Well, I’m pleased to make your acquaintance Richard Gray of Covington Cross. You’re a good bit from home, I’ll say that.”

Richard was curious, but he did not want to say anything that might offend the woman. His brusque manner had come near doing it twice already, and he feared the third time might not be laughed off so easily. Trying to come across in an unobtrusive manner, he brought the question up as diplomatically as he was able.

“Yes, I suppose I am. Have you ever been there . . . in passing I mean?”

“Oh, more than in passing, lad,” she said, as if fond memories accompanied the thought. “I spent quite a bit of time there, but that was long ago, almost another lifetime.”

Richard could contain himself no longer. “Did you know my mother and father?”

“Yes, of course, lad,” Tillie replied as she rose and walked over to a cauldron of stew simmering on the fire. “Do you think you could eat something?”

“What?” Richard exclaimed, intent on his line of questioning. Though he knew it was obviously something the woman did not want to talk about, he could not help himself. “Oh, no, I don’t think so . . . Do you remember them when they were younger . . . Mother especially?”

“You mentioned she died of the plague,” the woman responded, a sadness invading her gentle cheerfulness once more. “How long ago was that?”

“It seems like forever,” Richard replied, his sentiments echoing those of the handsome woman who now stood before him with a bowl of stew. “I was but a child of thirteen . . . not even a squire yet.”

“And your brothers, they could not have been much older,” she reflected. “Armus could not have been more than eighteen then, Steven perhaps sixteen, and of course, William, why, he could have only been twelve. You poor dears!”

Richard began to nod at first, but then an odd thought struck him. “Who was Steven?”

“Why your brother, of course!” she exclaimed, but then a dark shadow covered her face. “He’s gone as well, isn’t he?”

“I don’t have a brother named Steven,” he replied, confused by the woman’s assertion. “At least, I don’t think I do . . . or did, but then . . . I know there were a few others . . . Wait a minute!” he exclaimed. “I think I do remember Armus and Father mentioning a Steven once or twice, but he died very young . . .” suddenly Richard’s face clouded with dread, “. . . of the pox.”

The woman nodded, closing her eyes in sullen acceptance, a silent prayer on her lips. “Yes, I don’t suppose your family could have escaped unscathed either. It seemed to hit the castle very hard that year . . . as well as the village,” she added hastily, almost as a second thought, . . . There were cases of it almost every spring back then . . . but never before so potent.”

“Did you work for my father?” Richard inquired. “You seem to know a great deal about my family.”

“Sir Thomas and Lady Anne were very good to me and my husband.” She smiled, her mind a million miles away.

“Why did you leave then,” Richard asked, his usual candidness returning once more.

“When my second husband died, I thought it best,” she replied just as brusquely. “After all, what could I do there to earn my keep?”

“But I’m sure Father would have found something for you to do,” Richard stated. He was indignant at the idea that his father would have turned a young widow out into the cold.

“Yes, I’m sure he would have,” Tillie replied, “but my husband had family I could go to.”

“But you’re all alone here,” Richard argued. “Did they turn you away?” Richard had started to cough again, and the old woman deemed they had spoken enough for one day.

“My, you are an inquisitive one,” she said tenderly, “but then I should have expected that . . . Richard the righteous was what my Emma used to say.”

“What!” he exclaimed. “Why?”

“Because even as a child, you cared what was right, what was just,” she whispered. “Now enough conversation for today. You need to get some rest.”

“But you didn’t answer my question,” Richard insisted. “Why are you all alone here?”

“If I answer, do you promise you’ll rest for a while?” she queried. It reminded him of his mother, and for a moment he felt an incredible tenderness for the tiny woman.

“Yes, all right then,” Richard replied.

“I did go to my husband’s family at first, but with it just being me and my eldest. . .” she said, her voice trailing off momentarily. “It just all felt so awkward. Then eventually I met Liam, and we came to settle here. We were happy for a time, but then death came and claimed his life as well, so here I am . . . alone,” she said with a tender smile. “It’s not really as bad as it seems.”

“But you could have come back to Covington Cross,” Richard continued. “I’m sure my father would have found you a place.”

“You hold a great respect for your father, don’t you?” she asked, matching Richard one for one when it came to the candidness of her questions.

“Yes, why shouldn’t I?” Richard replied. There was a touch of resentment in his voice and Tillie spoke to ease it at once.

“Oh, no, you misunderstand. I would think very little of you if you did not hold him in high regard. As for myself, I have no doubt Sir Thomas would have made sure I had a roof over my head and ample food to eat” she laughed, “but you made me a promise, and I intend on seeing that you keep it. Now rest, my lord, for that is a conversation for another day . . . one I am not yet ready to consider,” she added to herself as she tucked the sheet in around Richard’s shoulders.

The woman was right; he had become incredibly tired and put up little resistance. “Do you promise we can speak more later?” he asked, feeling very much like a small child once again, yet somehow not minding at all.

“Will you eat something when you wake again?” she bargained.

“Yes, I promise, but only if we can talk more,” he countered, ever the consummate negotiator.

“All right then,” she said tenderly. She brushed the stray hair away from his forehead and replaced the dried cotton with a fresh damp one, “but first you sleep.”

*****

Thomas and Armus rode hard, coming to Bryerton just as the sun was setting. “Looks like there’s been a fire at the inn,” Armus sighed wearily. “Does that mean we’ll have to go on to Worthington tonight?”

“No of course not,” Thomas said with an understanding smile. “I’m sure there’s some kind soul in this village that will give us lodgings for the night.”

The first cottage they came to was the cooper’s, and he smiled pleasantly as he opened the door. “Good day to ye, m’lords. How can we help ye?”

“Looks like you’ve had a bit of a fire at your inn,” Thomas noted cheerfully. “Was anyone hurt?”

“No, not a soul,” the man replied, his voice suddenly growing tense. “Now, what can I do for ye?”

Thomas and Armus threw each other a curious gaze, then turned back to the cooper. “We’re looking for my son. He was supposed to have ridden this way about two weeks ago, and we’ve not heard from him since.”

“Can’t help ye,” the man said as he began to close the door over.

Armus thrust his arm up against it. “How do you know that?” he said, his eyes boring through the man. “We haven’t even told you what he looks like.”

“He’d of been dressed like you, would he not,” the cooper replied, without taking a moment to think. “There’s been no one dressed so fine come through here in months.”

“I see,” Thomas sighed, for he had hoped to at least learn that his son had been heading in the right direction. “A room for the night then. We’ll pay you well.”

“Nothing available I know of, not since the inn burned down,” the man replied gruffly. “There’s another village of sorts half a day’s ride south of here. Perhaps they can help ye.”

“Half a day’s ride!” Thomas exclaimed. “It will be the middle of the night by then.”

“Sorry m’lord,” the cooper replied curtly. “Now if ye wouldn’t mind . . .” he added, nodding up toward Armus, whose arm was still holding the door open.

“No, we’re sorry to have disturbed you,” Thomas replied, motioning for his son to release the door. “You wouldn’t mind if we asked around though, would you?”

“Ask all ye want, m’lord,” the man replied. “We’re just poor folk here, have barely enough room for ourselves.”

“What happened to your inn then?” Armus asked curiously, for his throat was dry, and he longed for a cool draft of ale.

“Burned down it did,” the cooper replied.

“I can see that,” Armus stated, “but how did it happen?”

“Tell him, Da,” a determined voice said from off to the side, and both Armus and Thomas turned around to see a beautiful young girl, standing with her hands on her hips.

“Now, Ellen, this is none of your affair,” her father replied.

“But it’s their affair, if indeed he was their kin,” she persisted. Then directing her conversation toward the two nobles, she continued. “Was he a handsome lad, with hair the color of straw and the greenest eyes ye’ve ever seen?” she said dreamily.

“Yes, I suppose that could describe Richard,” Thomas said. He cast a glance toward his eldest son, then turned back to the girl. “Have you seen him?”

“His cloaks in there,” she said, nodding to what was left of the burned out inn. “What’s left of it, anyway.”

“Was Richard caught in the fire?” Thomas asked, his voice suddenly shaking.

“He would have been if for the likes of me Da,” she said, anger and disgust tingeing her voice, “but it wasn’t right us locking him in there and putting the torch to it, no matter how sick he was.”

“Sick!” Thomas exclaimed, this time looking at Armus for support. “What was wrong with him?”

“He brought the pox here!” the cooper snarled. “We warned him he’d get it if he went too close to them over there, but he wouldn’t listen. Insisted on getting them help. Then he comes back here, and doesn’t he bring it back with him. We were going to put an end to that, so we set him and that disease ridden inn on fire. We had our families to think of. He had his chance.”

Thomas’ face went pale as he walked over toward the burned out inn. He could see the charred pieces of Richard’s cloak laying in a corner, his clasp seared and hanging on to a patch of deep blue velvet. Armus turned around and grabbed the man by his collar, lifting him from the ground. His face had gone a crimson color, and his fists held tight to the cloth, causing the man to sputter and gag as the material drew tighter around his neck.

“No, Armus,” Thomas whispered. “A tear ran down his pale cheek, his voice trembling as he spoke. “The King will see to this himself. This village shall pay for the death of my son.”

“But we didn’t kill him,” the young girl said as she gazed in horror at what Armus was doing to her father. “I got him out and sent him on his way. ‘Twas the Lord’s choice whether he lived or died, not ours.”

“He got away?” Thomas asked, almost feeling elated at the news. He nodded for Armus to put the red-faced man down. “Where did he go?”

“Probably to that convent,” the man sputtered. “That’s where he took the innkeeper’s wife and her daughter. We told him he’d get it himself, but he wouldn’t listen.”

“Were you going to burn them out as well?” Armus growled.

“We didn’t get the chance,” the man replied sarcastically, “your brother came to their rescue.”

“And thank God for that,” Thomas snarled, suddenly feeling guilty about the way he had spoken about his younger son. “What was the name of this convent he headed for?”

“Well, we don’t know that’s where he headed, m’lord,” the girl replied as she brushed down her father’s crumpled tunic. “’Tis where he said he’d brought Esther and her daughter.”

“St. Martha’s!” Armus exclaimed. “But that’s two days’ ride from here.”

“Three days or more the way he was going, m’lord,” the girl remarked, hanging her head in shame. “He came back to the village because his horse had thrown him.”

“Richard was on foot!” Thomas bellowed. “You let a sick boy go out into the wilderness on foot!”

“There was naught else I could do for him, m’lord,” the girl whimpered, “not with so many against me. I risked my life as it was.”

“She did, m’lord,” the cooper said, coming to his daughter’s defense. “We’d gone mad, the whole village,” he added. “We’d already lost four to the pox. I don’t know what happened to us. When we saw him run from the cottage, we ran after him like some kind of rabid dogs.” The man broke down, sobbing softly, and his daughter comforted him.

“’Twas me Da who told them to leave him go,” she whispered in his defense, but there was nothing else she could say.

“This is not the end of this by far,” Thomas said sternly. “You have no right to condemn any soul to death simply because they become ill, nor to send them out to certain death because you fear the illness.”

Thomas and Armus mounted their horses, giving one final look at the villagers, who had one by one begun to stick their heads out of their doors and windows. Each one was as guilty as the next, and yet, in a way, Thomas could understand their fears. He thought of what he would do even at this very moment to protect his own family. Not risk the life of another, he thought as he spurred his horse forward.

*****

“Gemini!” Eleanor exclaimed as the horse came galloping into the bailey. “Where’s Richard?” She ran off toward the castle, calling for Cedric and Lady Elizabeth, not knowing what to do. Ordinarily, she would have turned to her father or Armus, Richard or William, but none of them were there. She felt incredibly alone and frightened, a sensation that did not usually plague her. This time, however, it did, because the fate of one of the very people she would have turned to was now in question.

“What is it Eleanor,” Lady Elizabeth said as she opened the door to the Great Hall.

“It’s Gemini!” she shouted. For the first time in her life, she was truly glad that the lady was in some way part of her family. “She came home alone.”

“Where’s Richard?” Lady Elizabeth asked, her voice taking on a solemn tone.

“I don’t know,” Eleanor replied, almost on the verge of tears, for in spite of their constant bickering, she loved her older brother dearly and knew he was far too good a rider to have lost his mount, unless he was in someway incapacitated. All sorts of scenarios began to run through her mind. “We have to tell Father.”

“What good would that do?” Lady Elizabeth said calmly, but it was clear her mind was racing. “They’re heading for Worthington as it is. If Richard was injured along the way, they’re sure to come across him.”

“But it’s been two weeks,” Cedric argued. “Richard could already be dead.”

Lady Elizabeth put her arms out for the two teenagers, and they willing fell into her embrace, albeit a bit awkwardly. “Richard is not dead and if anyone can bring him home, it’s Thomas. Besides, if Gemini has just returned home this minute, then whatever happened to Richard, happened within the last day or two. She’s too good a horse to have run around the countryside aimlessly for two weeks.”

“We could let Gemini lead the way,” Eleanor suggested, brushing away a sniffle. “Maybe she could take us to where it happened.”

“Yes, perhaps you’re right,” Elizabeth nodded, but we must take a guard with us, so he can ride off toward Worthington to let your father know where we are.”

“I could do that,” Cedric protested.

“Yes, I know you could,” Elizabeth replied soothingly, “but the last thing we need is another Gray off on his own. If we find Richard . . .”

“When we find him,” Eleanor interjected.

“Yes,” Lady Elizabeth corrected herself, “when we find Richard I want us to all be together. He might need our help.”

Cedric nodded, then the trio went their separate ways in order to ready themselves for their immediate departure.

*****

Richard woke ravenous. The fever was still with him, but he did not feel anywhere near a bad as he had felt the day before. He did, however, have the incredible urge to scratch his entire body. Much to his dismay, he found that his hands had been wrapped in linen strips, so that they looked more like huge white claws than hands.

“What’s this for!” he exclaimed indignantly, squirming slightly in an effort to scratch at least some part of his body.

“The itch has started then,” Tillie observed. “Well, ‘tis a good sign that, though I dare say not very comfortable. This should help, though. It’s my own concoction, but it does seem to ease the discomfort.” She began to wipe him down with a thick ointment, but he held up his arms, blocking hers, in protest.

“Now wait a minute,” he complained. “I can do that myself you know!”

“Oh really,” she stated, her voice challenging him to contest her observations. “And how do you plan to do that? Even if your hands weren’t wrapped, are you such a contortionist that you could see to your back yourself? That is what’s causing you the most discomfort at the moment, is it not?”

“Well, yes . . . I mean no,” he conceded, “but . . .”

“Then let me take care of that, and we can talk about the other bits later on . . . if they bother you.”

“They won’t,” he muttered in defiance, though he could feel his legs tingling even as they spoke.

“Oh, they will,” she said with a sympathetic smile. “’Twill get worse before it gets better I fear, though sometimes the itch doesn’t come at all. Either way, I think it’s safe to say you’re going to be all right now. I’ve not known of anyone yet to die of the itch.”

“You weren’t so sure of that yesterday though, were you?” he said, hoping she would be honest with him.

She sighed in resignation. “No, lad, I wasn’t. It’s not the pox, but it’s serious enough. There’s many have died from it just the same, mostly from the complications that come with it. You’re cough sounds much better today though and the fevers down, so I think you’re on the mend.”

“But this rash . . .” Richard complained.

“Will disappear in a day or two. Now eat your breakfast,” she said in a motherly tone. “Remember you did promise.”

“And you promised to talk more,” Richard replied like a spoiled child.

“So I did, young Richard,” she conceded. She pulled up a chair and sat down by his side.
“Now what is it you want to talk about?”

“Did you loose all your children to the pox?” he asked, fearing he might have gone too far, and yet wanting to know all he could about this strange and wonderful woman. The contented look on her face told him that he had not, and he sighed in relief, resting back against the pillow. He took a spoon of porridge, and then waited for her to speak.

“A spoon for a question is it?” she inquired good naturedly. “All right then,” she continued, her eyes showing signs of the sadness she had buried long ago. “No, not all, two died of the pox, but the third fell from the plague, as did my second husband. Only Alan survives, and he . . . Well, he’s off at the Crusades. I haven’t seen him in five years.”

“He knew all you’d been through,” Richard exclaimed indignantly, “and he left for the Crusades. Doesn’t he have any consideration for you at all?”

“Oh, no,” she said in defense of her son, “it wasn’t like that at all. You see, Alan never thought he was good enough. He was always the extra son, the one that came along with me. Edmund tried to convince him it wasn’t like that; we all did, but there was something inside him. He had to prove himself. After my third husband passed away as well, he did all he could for me, but I could see where his heart was. More than anything in the world, he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, to succeed where he had failed. I know it’s hard to understand, but . . . I insisted he go . . . I told him I wanted to be alone.”

“It’s not hard to understand,” Richard said, ashamed of his outburst. “I suppose there are times we’ve all felt like running away.”

“Yes, I suppose there are,” she said quietly. Then all of a sudden her eyes regained their sparkle. “And when did you ever feel like running away?”

This time it was Richard’s eyes that revealed a hidden sorrow. “When my mother died, I suppose. Armus left for the Crusades shortly after, and I wanted to go with him, to forget, but I couldn’t. First, I was too young, and then Father needed me . . . “

“Maybe running away’s not really the answer,” she said as she brushed a stray hair from across his forehead. “Did it help Armus?”

“Oh I don’t think Armus went just because of Mother,” Richard said hastily, “at least not completely. He went because it was expected of him. I suppose Mother’s death is the reason he left so young, but he would have gone anyway. Mother knew he would someday, that’s why she made Father promise that Cedric would become a cleric.” He started to laugh slightly as he spoke. “Of course, Cedric’s fighting it all the way, and I have a feeling Father is going to loose.”

“Cedric?” Tillie asked, her curiosity piqued. “Is he your brother as well?”

“Yes, my youngest brother,” Richard replied as he stuffed another spoon of porridge in his mouth. He had not realized how hungry he truly was. “Didn’t you know?”

“No, your brother William was the last I knew of. He was no more than two or three when I left.”

“Oh, then you don’t know of Eleanor either?”

“Eleanor!” Tillie’s smile broadened. “Dear Anne got her daughter.”

“Well, yes,” Richard said though he sounded a bit undecided, “I suppose you could say that, though she’s not quite like any other girl I’ve ever known. She doesn’t even like to wear a dress. Of course, she was only seven when Mother died, so there really wasn’t much of a female influence. She wants to do everything we do, especially William and I . . . Armus was away for so long, she barely even recognized him when he returned. Of course, they are catching up on things now.”

Richard knew he was babbling on, but he felt so much better, and Tillie seemed so easy to talk to, he could not help himself. The fact that she had known his mother and father did not hurt any either. Besides, it seemed to bring a smile to her face as well, and she joined in the conversation just as eagerly.

“But what of your third husband?” Richard finally asked. “What happened to him?”

“Oh, he was a good man,” Tillie said with fond recollections. “This was his house, and a fine one it is. He was nearly twenty years older than myself though, and the years caught up to him faster than they should have. That was almost seven years ago now.”

“And you’ve lived alone here all that time?”

“Yes, most of it anyway, ‘twas best that way,” Tillie replied philosophically. “I needed time to reflect, time to find myself. I went from one man’s home to the next, never really finding myself. Now I have, perhaps it is time that I saw my family again.”

“But I thought you said you had none?” Richard queried, “except for your son, I mean.”

“Oh no, lad, there’s family,” the old woman said warmly, “but I didn’t want to be a burden on them. Perhaps it’s time I returned. I have my own life now and wouldn’t feel that way.”

“Your family should never have made you feel that way in the first place,” Richard stated. He could not imagine his own family turning him away. “My parents would have cared for you.”

“I know that, lad, but I didn’t say it was my family’s fault,” she chided him. “They had nothing but kindness for me. It was me who felt that way, just a foolish girl who put her pride above all else.” She smiled tenderly and touched Richard’s cheek. “I do believe the Lord has sent you to me Richard Grey to make me see what I’ve been missing. Rest here for a few more days, then I’ll take you home . . . and I shall go home as well,” she added softly.

*****

Thomas and Armus road hard for the next two days, praying they would come across Richard along the way. As that hope disintegrated, their prayers became centered on finding him at the convent itself, though if he did indeed have the pox, they each secretly wondered how he would have been able to travel that far. Suppose he had gone in another direction. Where would they begin their search?

“We will find him Father,” Armus said reassuringly.

Thomas appreciated his son’s gesture and nodded affirmatively, but in his heart he knew neither one of them was certain about that anymore. Oh, he had no doubt they would eventually come across him, the question that ate away at his heart was whether or not he would still be alive. He could see from the intense expression on his eldest son’s face, that he was thinking the same thing.

They rode in silence most of the way, each caught up in their own memories. It was sad, Thomas thought, how it took a crisis for people to reminisce about the one’s they loved. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if we could somehow capture the moments for all time and hold them close to our hearts, like a portrait, only instead of simply capturing the people, it would freeze a moment in time. Thomas sighed whimsically, and Armus looked over at him.

“What is it, Father?” he said, a smile touching his lips, for he could almost sense what was on his father’s mind. Indeed, he was certain similar thoughts had occupied his own mind.

“I was just remembering the time Richard and Derek Maxwell were trying to peek into Barbara Spencer’s window, and they both fell into the pigpen.”

“Both you and Lord Spencer thought they were dead,” Armus laughed.

“Yes,” Thomas grinned, “our hearts stopped when we ran out to find the two gangly bodies lying face up in the mud.”

Armus nodded in agreement. “Yes, I remember your concern, until they both sat up and you realized they were all right, that is.”

“I could have killed him,” Thomas grinned, “and yet, I could hardly keep from laughing. Between the mud smeared across their noses, their disheveled tunics, and the look of impending death written all over their faces, I could barely keep a straight face.”

“I remember,” Armus noted, “you almost took the strap to him that day. I think he wished you had,” he added, laughing heartily. “Your lectures were always far worse than a swift tanning.”

“Yes, but remembered longer,” Thomas pointed out, the smile drifting from his face. “I wish that’s all this was, Armus. I would give my own life to have it be no more than a mischievous prank.”

“I know that, Father,” Armus said, the line of his lips turning down as he tried to conceal his emotions.

“Do you think I’ve been too hard on him?” Thomas asked, as his eyes looked off into the distance. “It was very difficult for him when your mother died. He kept everything inside, was the shoulder for the rest of us to cry on. He doesn’t realize that I know, but he sat up every night with your brother and sister, until I finally made him return to his training. I think sometimes that he still pretends she’s alive. He never doubted her love, Armus,” Thomas said, trying to hold back the tears. “I’m not so sure he feels the same way about me.”

“That’s nonsense, Father,” Armus protested. “Richard knows you love him.”

“It’s as if he always has to prove himself to me, do something to get my attention, be it good or bad.”

“It’s just Richard’s way, Father,” Armus countered. “He may not express it very well, but he truly feels everything he experiences. To Richard, life is meant to be lived.”

“Yes,” Thomas uttered, spurring his horse to ride on ahead. “I hope he still can.”

Armus closed his eyes and moaned. What a stupid thing to say, he thought, but what if his father was right. He had only recently begun to get to know his brother again, not the gangly ill-proportioned boy he had left behind, but the strong self-assured man he had grown into, albeit arrogant and a bit too cocky at times. Was he now to loose his brother before he fully renewed the friendship they had once shared?

“There it is, Armus,” his father shouted, drawing him back from his reverie, “St. Martha’s Convent.” Both men spurred their horses, clearing their saddles before their mounts had come to a full stop. Thomas rang the bell frantically, and a small sister answered the summons.

“May I help you, m’lord?” she said, speaking so softly Thomas had to lean over to hear her.

“I certainly hope so, Sister,” Thomas replied, forgetting his manners for a moment, but the look on his son’s face reminded him. “My name is Thomas Gray from Covington Cross, and I have reason to believe that my son may be here. He may be very ill.”

“No, I’m afraid the only patients we have here at the moment are a woman and her young daughter,” she replied gently, fearing her words were not what the man before her wanted to hear. She could see the frantic look in his eyes, and her heart went out to him.

“Yes, my son may have brought them here,” Thomas replied, encouraged by the news.

“Oh yes, a young man of noble birth did deliver them to us,” she said, “but then he went on his way, to Worthington, I believe. Has he become ill then? We feared as much, but though we offered him sanctuary, he would not stay. He said he would be fine and that he had things to attend to in the town. Perhaps you will find him there.”

“Yes, I’m sure you’re right, Sister,” Thomas said as the lump in his throat nearly choked off his speech. Richard may well have gone on to Worthington, but he did not stay there, for he had returned to the village days later. Unless, he thought,perhaps he did head back to Worthington. It would be closer than Covington Cross, and he knew Lord Shelby would surely help him.

They thanked the Sister, but as they mounted their horses, Armus could already see what his father was thinking. In fact, he had been thinking that very thing himself, if only momentarily.

“I doubt he would have tried to get back to Worthington, Father. Perhaps it is closer from the convent, but not from Bryerton. If anything he would have tried to head home.”

“No,” Thomas said, considering the situation. “Richard would not have brought the pox to Covington Cross. He would never chance infecting the whole family.”

“But if that is the case,” Armus replied, dreading the implications of what he was about to say, “then it’s doubtful he would chance infecting Lord Shelby’s either. Which could mean . . .,” he muttered, the pain his conclusions caused all too obvious.

“Which means,” Thomas struggled to say, “he’s out there all alone.”

*****

“Just let her lead Cedric,” Eleanor shouted as they followed the deep chestnut mare along the trail toward Worthington.

“I am,” Cedric insisted. “I can’t help it if she wants to go this way. She didn’t have a rider when she made the trip, you know, so I’m sure not keeping to the road was a lot easier then.”

“Watch out for that branch!” Eleanor exclaimed as Cedric ducked just in the knick of time. “I don’t understand why she’s coming this way. Isn’t there a village just a few miles north of here? I would have thought that’s where Richard would have headed.”

“Maybe we should just turn up that way.” Cedric suggested. “It is getting dark. They might have an inn where we could spend the night . . . you and Lady Elizabeth I mean.”

“No!” Eleanor protested. “First we have to see where Gemini leads us, or else we’ve defeated the whole purpose of our journey.”

“Eleanor’s right,” Lady Elizabeth interjected. “Our first concern is finding Richard.”

“Look!” Cedric shouted. “She’s stopped down there by that stream.” He bounded off his mount and headed down the slight incline to the narrow brook. Gemini was poking at the ground with her nose, then suddenly she stamped her hoof and shook her head with a loud whinny.

“It’s all right girl,” Cedric said as he grabbed her harness and patted her silken mane. “We’ll find him . . . won’t we Eleanor,” he added, though the strain in his voice reflected the feelings of doubt that had begun to overwhelm him.

“Of course we will,” Lady Elizabeth said. She came to stand by Cedric’s side, putting her arm reassuringly around his shoulder.

“But where should we look now?” he asked. “Gemini seems to think Richard’s here.”

“Or something of Richard’s!” Eleanor exclaimed as she sprinted over to the water’s edge, bending down to pick up the torn scarf.

“No!” Lady Elizabeth shouted, grabbing the girl by the arm to keep her from touching it.

“But it’s Richard’s,” Eleanor exclaimed, the old feelings of annoyance at Lady Elizabeth’s constant presence returning.

“And it’s covered in blood and Lord knows what else,” Elizabeth replied sympathetically. “Richard may be ill. The last thing he would want is for any of us to become ill as well.”

“But it could help us find him,” Cedric protested.

“What if he is ill and needs our help?” Eleanor agreed. “The sooner we find him and bring him home, the better.”

“Yes, I agree,” Elizabeth continued, “but taking that piece of ragged cloth will help us with neither.”

“It would if we had the dogs,” Eleanor suggested, her voice brightening slightly. “They could get his scent and find him.”

“Yes, that’s a wonderful idea,” Elizabeth agreed, but as Eleanor reached over to pick up the crumpled scarf, she restrained the girl once more. “Anything of Richard’s will do the job. Cedric, I want you to ride home and get the dogs. Bring another guard or two back with you to help.”

“But why can’t Hugh go?” Cedric complained, looking over at the guard. “Isn’t that why we brought him in the first place?”

“Hugh will indeed be busy doing what we brought him along for,” Lady Elizabeth replied, her voice soft and calm as she spoke, “which you will remember was to ride off toward Worthington in search of your father.”

“He has to ride off as well then?” Cedric asked, mulling the situation over.

“Yes, of course,” Lady Elizabeth replied diplomatically, “only a soldier or knight could perform such important tasks. Richard’s life may depend on you both getting back here as soon as you are able.”

“Yes, I suppose you’re right,” Cedric said, no longer feeling not so bothered by his assignment. “I’ll be back as soon as I am able.”

“Be swift, Cedric,” Eleanor encouraged him, and the boy nodded and took off back through the forest, which of course was the shortest way to return, in spite of its obstacles.

Hugh Fitzwarren took off as well. Riding as if his coat was afire and the only water lie at Sir Thomas’ feet. He like Richard, had watched him grow from a lanky teenager into a man who carried himself well for the station to which he was born, but what he liked most about him were the glimpses of boyhood that would inevitably push their way through his polished veneer. This was when Richard was his most honest. In truth, it was what made him so endearing to the opposite sex, the soldier sighed with a slight smile. “Even my little Katie.”

What had truly cemented his relationship with Richard, however, was how the knight had treated the young girl’s infatuation. Not laughing it off as some others might have or taking advantage of the opportunity, Richard treated her with dignity and respect, taking her feelings into consideration. He had no need to, for there had always been enough damsels for him to woo without worry of who he offended, but what Hugh marveled at was the fact that he never seemed to avail himself of that option. It was no different with Katie. Instead of ignoring her or laughing behind her back, Richard had let her down easily, telling her it could never be, not because of her station, but because he was known as a bit of a rogue. You deserve far better than the likes of me, he had whispered. Then he told her he would always hold her affection as one of the greatest honors ever bestowed upon him. To prove that he was being sincere, he had carried her colors into the tournament and won, making her the most popular and envied girl at the Harvest Festival that year. She had never forgotten that day, nor would he. Time had not altered his opinion of the boy. So it was that he rode that day as if his own life were at stake.

*****

Hugh found Sir Thomas just about a day’s ride from Worthington. Having decided there was no other option, he and Armus had decided to head that way, in the hopes of finding Richard hold up somewhere along the trail. They had just stopped to have a bite to eat, when the soldier came barreling out of the woods, reigning up his steed sharply to keep from running over the two men. On seeing him, Thomas stood up immediately, a strange mixture of hope and dread written across his face.

“We think we’ve found a spot where Sir Richard may have stopped for a bit, my lord, though when I cannot say.”

Though a thousand questions were running through their minds, neither Thomas nor Armus stopped to ask them. There would be time for that later. Without a word, they extinguished their fire and mounted their horses, and within moments the trio was galloping back through the woods. It was only later as they stopped to give their horses a much needed rest that Thomas ventured to ask anything at all.

“What brought you to this spot, Hugh?” he inquired, trying not to sound as if he were chastising the soldier. He knew the man would not have left his post if he had not had an incredibly sound reason.

“I’m sorry for disobeying your orders, my lord,” the soldier replied with the utmost respect, “but when Gemini returned without Sir Richard . . .”

“Gemini returned without Richard!” Thomas interrupted as he slumped down in the grass, his face losing all its color. His son’s face grew pale as well, for Armus knew well how steadfast a mount the horse was. For her to return without Richard, something had to be terribly wrong.

“Yes, my lord,” Hugh stammered, painfully aware of what the occurrence signified. “She led us to a spot just south of Bryerton, and we found a piece of Sir Richard’s scarf . . . Lady Elizabeth believes he must be very ill.”

“Lady Elizabeth went with you?” Thomas exclaimed.

“I am sorry, my lord, but they would have it no other way,” he apologized. “Master Cedric has returned home for the dogs and will meet us there on our return. As it turns out, our journeys should be equally as long.”

“Then we must be on our way,” Thomas instructed his companions, “for Cedric will not stop to rest, . . . and I fear Richard may not survive the night,” he added as he mounted and started off through the forest.

Hugh looked to Armus for an explanation, and the young man obliged, his voice laden with pain. “Richard has the pox,” he replied, “he is indeed very ill.”

*****

“We can’t just wait here and do nothing,” Eleanor protested. “Richard needs us.”

“Indeed we shall not,” Lady Elizabeth replied with determination, “but neither must we stray too far. When Thomas and your brothers return, we must be here to guide them. We can, however, begin to look around the area. Richard knows how to take care of himself. He would look for some kind of shelter.”

“But what if it’s the plague?” Eleanor uttered, almost hating herself for saying the words. “Richard would never risk putting anyone else in danger.”

“Then we must look everywhere for him . . . in groves and caves, nestled up in the woods somewhere. We can’t give up Eleanor.”

“You really do care for him, don’t you?” Eleanor noted, a fondness growing ever deeper for this woman who she had so long tried to dislike.

“I know you’re not my children, Eleanor,” Elizabeth replied tenderly, “but I can’t help feeling as if you are in a way, as if Anne has graciously entrusted your care to me. She was a dear friend of mine, you know. I remember when it was first announced that she was to marry your father. She came to ask me what I thought of this reckless knight.”

“Reckless knight!” Eleanor repeated as they began to ride along. “When was Father ever reckless?”

“He was very much like Richard when he was younger,” Elizabeth laughed. “That’s probably why they’re so often at each others throats. Thomas sees what he once was, all the wonder of it, and all the pitfalls. And Richard sees what he will one day become, feeling much the same about that inevitability.”

“But why did Mother come to you?” Eleanor asked.

“Because we were friends,” Elizabeth answered, “and because I knew your father. Our parents were business associates, and I had seen him on a number of occasions.”

“What did you think of him,” Eleanor said with a delightful grin.

“Oh, I knew he could be a rogue,” she said, her eyes twinkling, “but a handsome and dashing one. I also knew he had a heart of gold and would treasure your mother as if ‘twas what she was.”

“But then why didn’t you marry him,” Eleanor persisted.

“Because my father thought Gordon would make for a more stable husband,” she said, straining to keep out the bitterness. “It mattered not that I loathed the man.”

“And you went through with it?” she asked, stunned that the lady would have given in so easily.

“I was very young and did not have the luxury of declining,” Elizabeth replied. “We don’t all of us have fathers who take their children’s feelings to heart.”

“Father tried to marry me off to Henry of . . .” she began to protest.

“But he didn’t,” Elizabeth interjected good-heartedly. “He loves you all very much. I can never take your place, Eleanor . . . or your mother’s. I can never be anything but third best in his eyes, but for me, that’s enough.”

“What did you tell Mother about him?”

“That I envied her finding someone who could love her unconditionally.” Elizabeth smiled and spurred her horse.

The tears in her eyes told Eleanor just how much Lady Elizabeth had given up for her friend. She could have said awful things about her father, made her mother despise him, petitioned her own father until she had won him herself, but she had not. Perhaps her mother did approve of her presence at Covington Cross, the girl thought. Perhaps she even encouraged it.

*****

Richard sat in the tub and washed away nearly three weeks of dirt, grime, and illness. The rash had all but faded, though a bit remained on his hands and legs. Yet, even that was no longer a bright red, but more of a tan color. His fever had subsided, and he felt almost human again. The good lady of the house had taken his clothes and washed them, placing them across a chair by the fire. With a bit of a giggle, she had then left for her daily walk, warning him she would return within the hour, so he had best be washed and dressed by then if he didn’t want her to see everything he owned.

Reluctantly, he lifted himself out of the water, drying his body and dressing as quickly as possible. He was just buttoning up his tunic when she entered, a touch of rose on her cheeks and a basket of flowers in her hands.

“Oh, that looks much better,” she said. She walked over and pressed her lips against his forehead. “Not even warm.”

“How can I ever thank you?” he replied. “I’m certain I would have died if not for you.”

“Do you believe those we love watch over us, Richard,” she asked, quite seriously.

“Yes, I do,” he nodded, curious about where she was going with this. “You think Mother led me here?”

“It doesn’t matter what I think,” she answered wistfully. “Now sit down to your breakfast.”

“Were you her lady-in-waiting,” he asked without really knowing why, but more than ever he was curious about this pleasant woman’s connection to his parents.

“Me! Lord no!” she chuckled. “We’ll start for home in the morning. I’m sure your father is devastated by now. I thought of sending word, but . . .”

“You wanted to make sure I lived first,” Richard said, finishing her sentence. “It’s all right. I know I was very ill. It was the pox though, wasn’t it?”

“No, it wasn’t!” she exclaimed, a touch of exasperation in her voice. “You are your father’s son. There’s no doubt about that. Thick as an oak!”

“How can you be so certain?” he argued. “I had all the signs . . . “

“Eat your breakfast!” she grumbled, then she sat down across from him. “My late husband, Liam, was a merchant. He traveled on occasion to India and Persia and such. On one of his trips he brought back this book. It was written by a physician over two hundred years ago. Look there, it tells you how to distinguish between the pox and the measles.”

“Measles! . . . We lost three villagers to that last year. At least that’s what the physician said it was. A number of others had it, but they survived.”

“Yes, I’m not surprised. It doesn’t seem to hit as hard as the pox, but it’s still a risk,” she stressed, “especially amongst the older folks. At any rate, that was what ailed you, not the pox.”

“Then Esther and her daughter will probably be all right as well?”

“Who are they?”

“Two villagers who were ill with it,” he informed her as he downed a goblet of apple cider. “Their neighbors were going to burn their inn with them still in it, so I took them to St. Martha’s convent, then went on my way. I wasn’t far from home when I took ill. Have you nothing stronger,” he sighed as he gazed into his mug.

“Nothing I’ll be giving you until you’ve had a few more days rest!” Her lips turned up in a mischievous smile. “So you stay away from that barrel over there while I’m out tending my garden.” She started out the door, then stopped short, turning around and giving him a stern look. “I’ll know if you take more than one or two,” she said, “and I’ll take the strap to you.” With that, she put on her bonnet and headed out the door.

*****

“Elizabeth!” Thomas shouted as he rode into the small camp the ladies had constructed.

“Oh Thomas,” she cried, jumping up and ran into his arms. “We’ve looked everywhere. I don’t know what else we can do. We have sent Cedric for the dogs, but I fear by the time he arrives it may be too late. Thomas . . .” she began hesitantly, “I believe he may be ill.”

Thomas closed his eyes, trying to steady his voice. “It seems he may have the pox. Hugh said you found his scarf close by.”

“Yes, it looks like it’s been used as a . . . handkerchief,” Elizabeth said, “perhaps to cover his mouth when he coughed. If it’s gone that far, Thomas . . .” She fell into his arms, resting her head on his shoulder, and he wrapped his arm around her, holding out his other arm to his daughter. She did not hesitate for a moment.

“Father, what are we going to do?” she asked, the sense of urgency in her voice pressed to the breaking point.”

“We look for Richard,” Cedric shouted as he came riding out of the woods, followed by a pack of four yapping dogs and two guards. “I’ve brought one of his shirts from home. The laundress hadn’t washed it yet, so the scent should be fairly strong.”

“Cedric!” Eleanor scolded her brother.

“What!” he replied. “I only meant it hadn’t worn off, though I have to admit it is pretty rancid. I know it’s one of his favorites, but he really should have it washed more often.”

“Richard may be dying, and you’re worried about his laundry!” Eleanor shouted. “Don’t you remember who sat up with you all those nights, who gave you your first sword, who taught you to ride, who . . . “

“Shhh . . .” Cedric scolded his sister as he threw an uneasy glance toward his father. Seeing he was talking to Hugh, he continued. “Richard will kill me. No one else is supposed to know about any of that.”

“Don’t you understand,” Eleanor went on. “Richard’s ill, seriously ill. He may even be . . . “

“No! He isn’t,” Cedric stated firmly. “He’s hold up somewhere, safe and sound. You’ll see. That’s someone else’s blood on that scarf. He’s probably caring for them.”

“He has the pox,” Eleanor mumbled. She hung her head and began to cry softly. “Father told us.”

“He’s found him then?” Cedric asked.

“No, but others have seen him and drove him away.”

Cedric’s face grew red, his lips pressed tight together. “How could anyone turn the sick away? Don’t they know what the Bible says about that?”

“I don’t think it’s even crossed their mind, little brother,” Armus answered. He pulled the straps tight on his mount, and then turned back to his brother. “They’re frightened.”

“And Richard’s not!” Cedric exclaimed. “I’m going with you.”

“No, Cedric,” Thomas said sternly. “I want you to take Eleanor and Lady Elizabeth back to the castle, just in case Richard should return. You may have to go for the physician.”

“But . . .” Cedric began, but Thomas cut him off abruptly, startling the boy so, he actually jumped.

“I don’t have time to debate this with you, Cedric. You will do as you’re told, is that understood.”

“Yes, Father,” he answered meekly, and Thomas realized how harsh he must have sounded.

“I’m sorry, Cedric,” he apologized. “I should not have been so short with you. It’s just that every moment is precious, and I need you to do as I say. Should Richard return, I want you to stay as far away from him as you can and ride immediately for the physician. That goes for all of you,” he added as he looked at the two women in his life. “Richard will understand. Now let’s mount up, and everyone be about their tasks. Pray God, by morning Richard will be safe and sound in his own home once more.”

*****

Richard gazed at Tillie curiously as they rode away from the small manor house. For the first time since he had met her, her outward appearance truly resembled the tender heart that beat within. She had taken her worn bonnet off and dressed her golden curls so that they fell in soft waves upon her soldiers. A pearl encrusted comb held it in place and matched the earrings that adorned her delicate ears. Even her clothing was different, for she had traded the everyday cotton for a silk organdy gown that accented the gentle curves of her hips and bosom. She was definitely not the old woman he had thought her to be.

“Surprised,” she said, her lips turning up in the same pleasant expression he had grown to know so well.

“A bit,” he answered, though in truth he was completely bewildered. “It’s just that . . . “

“It’s all right, Richard,” she said, a touch of humor in her voice. “It’s the way I wanted it. I didn’t think I could bear falling in love again. If I was just Old Tired Tillie, no one would give me a second look. It simply kept the suitors away.”

“But your clothing . . .”

“I was married to three very wealthy gentlemen. I live simply . . . ,” she chuckled, “because I simply choose to.”

“You are amazing,” Richard stated, “but wait a moment, you said you and your husband worked for my father.”

“I said no such thing,” she pretended to protest. “I said I knew your parents. It was you who assumed I’d worked there.”

“You were playing me for a fool,” Richard moaned indignantly, “and I fell for it.”

“Oh no, lad,” she replied hastily, her melodious voice suddenly taking on a serious tenor. “All that I told you is true.”

“It is not what you told me that offends,” the knight replied, “but that which you omitted.”

“I am sorry, Richard,” she said, reaching over to touch his hand. “I never meant to deceive you. The truth is, it was myself that I had been deceiving all these years. Thinking that hiding from the world would ease my pain, instead of embracing the love of those who would readily open their arms to me.”

“Was your husband a friend of my father’s,” he asked as if not one cross word had been spoken between them, and she readily accepted the offering.

“Yes, he was, a dear friend,” she said with a wistful smile. “He offered his home to me after . . . but I couldn’t. I needed to get away and going to Edmund’s relatives in France seemed the thing to do. It was a part of my life I wanted to forget. Being around Thomas and Anne would have only reminded me of it. I was foolish, missed so much, but not any longer.

“You really did know Mother than,” Richard queried, his face lighting with anticipation.

“Yes, very well,” she replied, eager to bury any animosity her secrecy might have caused between them. “What do you want to know?”

“Nothing,” Richard said, spurring his horse and riding a little ahead, but Tillie followed kind, catching up with him almost immediately. She grabbed his arm sharply, her face filled with a stern sadness.

“Richard!” she exclaimed.

“It’s foolishness. Forget I said anything.”

“It’s only foolish when you shut others out,” she stated softly. “Take it from one who has ridden down that path.” Richard stopped his horse and stared deeply into her eyes. She could sense he was searching for some kind of reassurance, some sort of approval, and she gave it with a nod, coaxing him to continue.

“This is truly between the two of us,” he declared hesitantly. “If you ever speak a word of it to anyone else . . .”

“I shant, Richard,” she replied graciously. “You have my word as your mother’s friend. I would no sooner betray you than she would. What is it that’s troubling you?”

“Armus teases me sometimes,” he mumbled, “and I try not to let it bother me, but . . .”

“Yes,” she coaxed, intrigued by what exactly it was that could in anyway ruffle the feathers of one so self-assured.

“He says mother used to tell everyone I had a tongue that could cut you through to the heart,” he exclaimed, blinking away the tears. “She must have hated that. I remember her telling me I should learn to hold my tongue, but . . . Did I ever say anything that . . . I loved her more than my own life. I couldn’t bear the thought of hurting her.”

“My dear sweet child,” she said as she placed her hand on his cheek. “She adored you, and you her, though even as a child you did tend to be rather brusque with your words. Your saving grace was that you were always truthful. I remember Anne saying that she didn’t think you were capable of truly deceiving anyone.”

“Oh, I am capable,” he moaned, his head hung low as he thought of the many times he had made excuses to his father about his whereabouts.

Tillie somehow knew what was on his mind. “I’m not talking about the silly little everyday fibs,” she said, the touch of humor entering her voice one more, “I’m speaking about the deceitful lies, the ones that cause others pain.”

“Like the lies I told Armus about Charlotte,” he uttered. “I wish I had never seen her face.”

“Whatever it was, I’m sure you did the right thing,” she said. “I’m sure Anne would have been proud of you, but back to that little quote you said your brother was so fond of reminding you of. He’s obviously never told you the rest.”

“There was more,” Richard said with dread.

“Oh, yes!” she said sternly. “Anne also used to say you had the voice of an angel.”

Richard stopped riding once more and gazed at the woman who stopped along side. “What did she mean?”

“Your mother was a wonderful woman, Richard, who had the unique ability of seeing both the good and the bad in people, and yet loving them anyway. She saw the complete person, accepted the fact that only the saints have no faults, so she accepted each of us for what we were, good and bad traits alike. She loved you dearly Richard – temper tantrums and all.”

“I don’t have temper tantrums!” Richard grumbled. “Who told you that? It was William, wasn’t it?”

Tillie laughed heartily. “Oh, Richard! We all have temper tantrums. Your redeeming quality was how quickly you moved on. Just know she loved you.”

“I’ve never doubted that,” he said, “I just worry that I may have caused her some pain.”

“All children cause pain,” the woman laughed once more, but then seeing the look on Richard’s face, she added quickly,“ but it is a pain I would gladly bare ten times over, for the joy is a hundredfold. You’ll see yourself one day,” she continued on a lighter note. Surely you’ve no lack of ladies vying for your affections.”

“No,” Richard said, displaying the honesty that so often appeared as arrogance. “None that I’d want as my wife at the moment though, except…” he said thoughtfully, “perhaps one, but that would probably cause more trouble than it’s worth. Of course, than there was . . . but that’s another case altogether.”

Tillie laughed heartily. “Oh Richard! You are still the innocent in so many ways.”

The knight scowled back at her, “I’m not . . .” he began to argue, but she seemed to be enjoying whatever it was he was doing so much, he decided to let it go. “Anyway, I doubt my father would agree with you there,” he noted.

“I’m sure he wouldn’t,” she agreed. Then they spurred their horses to a gallop and headed for Covington Cross.

 

*****

The dogs led the way to the small hillcrop where Richard had first encountered Tillie. Some villagers were farming the fertile fields, planting the crops that would bring forth their harvests later that year. Thomas rode down toward them, being careful not to trample the neatly furrowed rows as he went. They looked up momentarily, then all but one returned to work.

“Can I help ye, m’lord?” the man inquired. “Peter’s my name.”

“Yes, Peter,” Thomas replied. “Can you tell me who your master is, and where I may find them?”

“He’s long gone, m’lord, beneath this very ground, but my mistress stays up at the manor house yonder. She’s not there now though.”

“Maybe you can help then,” Thomas continued. “I’m looking for my son and believe that he may have come by this way. He may have been very ill.”

The field hands stopped their work, looking up at Thomas, their eyes filled with dread at the news that would have to be conveyed. They had not heard from their mistress in days, but had seen her burying something in the yard that very morning. They could only assume it had been the boy she had taken in. Thomas noticed their apprehension and urged them to speak.

“Please,” he continued, “if you know anything . . .”

“The mistress found him,” Peter said softly, hating what he had to say. “’Twas the pox, m’lord, I’m certain of it, but the mistress took him in anyway. She wouldn’t let anyone get near him, didn’t want us to come down with it, so she took him into the Manor house. We haven’t seen her in days, not until yesterday that is. She came out and asked Josiah there to dig a big hole at the back of the house. She covered it up most of the way herself. Like I said, she didn’t want any of us to fall ill . . . I am sorry, m’lord . . . I’m sure she did all she could. I expect she’s gone off now to inform his . . . to let you know, m’lord.”

Thomas felt his throat constricting and a great emptiness opening up in his stomach. His heart felt as if it had been torn from his chest and yet he was still able to breathe, to feel. Could this be possible? He had sent his son on a simple mission. There was no danger involved, but then he realized that these days there was danger everywhere. Still for him to have left the world this way . . . alone and so far from home.

“May I see the grave?” he managed to whisper, for his voice was failing him.

“Yes, of course, m’lord, just follow this path. You’ll see the house as soon as you come over the next rise.”

Armus followed his father without saying a word, as did their trusted guards. There was nothing they could say, nothing that could alter the horrible truth that had just altered their worlds. Armus wanted to cry out, to ask the Lord to take him instead. It should have been him, he reasoned. He was the eldest, the one who had spent eight years in the holy land. Richard had given up so much, taken on duties that were not his to bear, faced responsibilities far before his time, and all because he had ridden off to the Crusades. He knew it was what he had been expected to do, knew it was right, and yet, he felt somehow as if he had cheated his brother, stolen something from him that he would now never be able to replace.

The house that stood before them was not very large, but elegant in its own way. Without saying a word the two knights, father and son, rode around to the back while the guards remained out front. They stopped before the freshly dug grave and slowly dismounted, coming to stand before it. It was there, as he gazed down upon the moistened earth, that Thomas found he could no longer contain his grief. Falling to his knees, he collapsed in a bundle of tears. Armus moved forward to comfort him, but stopped, for he knew nothing he could do or say would ease his father’s pain.

*****

“What were you doing in the yard this morning,” Richard asked nonchalantly as he bit into a ripe apple. They had stopped for a moment to have something to eat, for Tillie had packed a delightful lunch.

“Burying my past,” she said, her eyes reflecting the contentment that now filled her soul. “Not all of it, just the bits that have prevented me from moving on with my life.”

“You got rid of that old bonnet, didn’t you?” he laughed.

“That was the first thing in,” she said with a melodious laugh. “I didn’t want to be Old Tired Tillie anymore, so I buried her. It’s silly, I know, but believe it or not, it truly did help.”

“I believe it, but why didn’t you do it a long time ago?”

“I was too busy feeling sorry for myself, I suppose,” she reflected. “I know this sounds cruel, but for me, your illness was a blessing. It made me see things clearly for the first time in years.”

“Glad to have been of service, m’lady,” Richard said, a dubious smirk crossing his lips. Then he got up, brushing off his leggings, and they once more started off for Covington Cross.

The sun was just sinking below the horizon as they passed beneath the gatehouse into the bailey. Richard looked about, a little unsettled. There was something amiss; he could sense it. Tillie could feel it too and rather than take the time to ride to the stables, they dismounted right in the middle of the bailey and headed for the oak door that opened into the Great Hall.

“Father?” Richard shouted as he swung it open, a tremor of urgency in his voice.

“Richard!” three zealous voices replied and their owners came bounding at him like the hounds who have found the fox. Eleanor and Elizabeth were hugging him and kissing his face, while Cedric alternated between shaking his hand and pounding his back. Tillie stood back, laughing gleefully at the look of utter shock on Richard’s face.

“You’re all right,” Lady Elizabeth finally managed to utter. “We were all so worried.”

“You knew I was ill?” he asked, puzzled how word might have gotten to his family, and a bit annoyed that it had. That annoyance showed on his face as he turned toward Tillie, who shook her head in bewilderment. As she did, her eyes met Elizabeth’s, and both women stood starring at each other, a range of emotions dancing over their faces. It was Elizabeth who finally broke the silence.

“Matilda?” she queried tentatively. “Is it really you?”

“Yes, Elizabeth,” she said, a tender smile crossing her lips, tears of happiness clouding her eyes. “I’ve come home . . . that is, if Thomas will have me after all I’ve done.”

“Oh, Matilda, of course, he will!”

The three children looked from one to the other, not quite sure just who this woman who stood before them was, but it was Cedric who finally spoke.

“What do you mean if Father will have you back?” he uttered, not sure whether or not he should be indignant. “You’re not our mother, are you? Did Father lie about your death?”

“No, she’s not our mother,” Richard growled. He had trusted this woman, had put his life in her hands and once again she had deceived him. “I don’t know what her relationship with father was. In truth, I’m not sure I can believe anything she’s told me. She did save my life, however, and for that I will be eternally grateful, for that I will once again forgive her deception, but our friendship ends here, my lady.” With that he stormed up the stairs toward his chambers.

“Richard!” Lady Elizabeth shouted, then she turned back to their guest apologetically. “I’ll talk to him. He is headstrong, but I do seem to be able to get through to him on occasion, even if he’ll never admit it.”

“He’s much like his father,” Matilda noted. “But I think perhaps it’s best that I talk to him. It is, after all, I who have offended his sense of honor.”

“He doesn’t know then?” Elizabeth asked, and Matilda shook her head sadly.

“Truthfully, until this morning, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. Or what Thomas would say for that matter. He too can be very . . . well, he has a keen sense of honor. He may feel my silence was in a sense a betrayal.”

“That’s nonsense,” Elizabeth stated firmly. “You were in France with Edmund’s family. It was only natural that you’d want to be with them.”

“Not exactly . . .” Matilda muttered, slightly embarrassed, but Elizabeth hushed her.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, her smile broadening into a sincere grin. “You’re here now and Thomas will be pleased to have you home.”

All the while Matilda and Elizabeth were talking, the two youngest Gray’s stood staring from one to the other, not knowing exactly what was going on, or who this strange woman was. The expression on Cedric’s face finally registered, and Elizabeth started to laugh.

“I suppose I should introduce you,” she said, still giggling girlishly. “Eleanor, Cedric, this is your Aunt Matilda, your father’s sister.”

“Aunt Matilda!” a voice from above exclaimed. They all turned simultaneously to see a seething Richard standing at the banister. “I was coming to apologize for my rudeness, but I see I have no need of it. All that time, you knew I was your nephew, and yet you spoke not one word of it. I opened my heart to you, told you things I’d told no one before. You deliberately deceived me!”

With that he turned and stormed back down the hallway, slamming his door so loudly that it echoed even in the Great Hall. Matilda closed her eyes, feelings of guilt overwhelming her. Would her brother react any differently? she wondered. Had she any right to expect he would? Then out of the blue, Cedric spoke, easing the tension as he was so apt to do by saying something so outlandish no one could help do anything but laugh.

“What did he tell you?” he asked innocently. “Is it anything I could use the next time he teases me? I’d be willing to pay for it.”

“Oh Cedric!” Elizabeth scolded half-heartedly, her voice trembling as she fought to suppress a laugh.

“And what would you pay with?” Eleanor giggled, causing her brother’s eyes to transform into veritable daggers.

“I’m afraid it’s really nothing of importance,” Matilda replied, trying to quell a giggle herself. “Very boring actually.”

“Yes, well, that would be Richard,” Cedric complained. “Just talking about himself, I suppose.”

*****

“Richard?” Matilda whispered as she knocked on the boy’s door, but there was no answer. “Richard, please.” Still no answer, and so she opened it. Richard’s head jerked in the direction of the door, and he stood up. He was furious at her, and that fact reflected itself in both his expression and his voice.

“I’m no longer four years old . . . Aunt Matilda . . .,” he snapped, “so when you find my door closed I would appreciate you leaving it as such until I open it.”

“But you weren’t going to, were you?” she countered, matching his determination with her own. “And I needed to speak with you.”

“To tell me more lies!” he retorted coldly.

“I told you no lies, Richard,” she barked, her voice as stern as his.

“There are such things as lies of omission, Aunt!”

“Your mother was right, your words can cut to the heart,” she replied, tears welling up in her eyes.

“Leave my mother out of this,” he snapped. “Where were you when she died?”

“I had run away!” she shouted. “Think of how you felt when your mother died and multiply that by four. How dare you judge me! I told you all that I could, for until this morning, I was not even sure myself what I would do, what I could bring myself to do. Even now, I’m not sure how Thomas will take it. You’re so much like him . . . except your smile,” she added softly, as she turned to walk out the door. “That is your mother’s.”

“She said my voice could be like an angels as well,” he said softly. He looked down at his desk, pushing a quill around and watching the feather roll from one side to the other.

“Yes,” Matilda replied, “and I have heard that sound as well, but I fear I shall hear it no more . . .” She started to go again, but stopped once more, turning to look at her nephew. “Your secrets are as safe with me as they were with Anne. You need not fear my betrayal.” With that, she walked out the door and started down the hallway. She had gone but a few steps, however, when Richard came after her.

“Wait!” he exclaimed. He came to her side, standing before her, the chastised child. “I’m sorry for what I said. I didn’t mean it. It’s just . . . “

“It’s all right, Richard,” she assured him, a smile touching her lips once more. “I’m used to that sort of outburst. After all, I grew up around your father, now didn’t I?”

Richard laughed as well, then he scrunched his face up as if waiting for a loud noise to echo through the castle. “I’m not really that much like Father, am I?”

“Very much so,” she exclaimed as she carried on down the hallway. “Oh, and by the way, Cedric has offered me a nice price to tell him all that I know.”

“That little skunk!” Richard exclaimed. “He hasn’t even got any money.” He ran up next to his Aunt, putting his arm around her shoulders. “Of course, should you manage to extract any information from the little weasel, I am much better situated financially, and I’m sure I could see my way clear to . . .

*****

Thomas rode into the bailey, a broken man, his heart scarred and battered. His son was gone, taken from him years before his time, still a boy in so many ways. Yet he had died a man, performing his knightly duty of helping those in need, no matter what their status in life. Had he ridden away, not taken that woman and her daughter to the convent, he would still be alive. But they would be dead, and Richard would never have been able to live with himself. He wanted to bring him home, to bury him next to his mother, but his men had advised against it, suggesting that he wait at least a month or so, to make sure the disease had left the remains.

Armus was not in any better state. He was just a boy! he kept saying to himself. It brought him back years before, to the small coffin he had seen being carried from the castle when he was still a page, no more than eleven or twelve. He knew what it held, but his parents had asked him to remain behind to watch over his younger brother’s. Now he realized the true reason for their request. Steven had been only nine when the pox hit the shire that year. Armus recalled how hard it had hit the family of his aunt and uncle, but it had visited Covington Cross as well, taking his younger brother with it. All he knew at the time was that Steven would no longer be returning to training with him. He remembered all too vividly the pain he felt, the look of emptiness that filled his father’s eyes, the sorrow that gripped his mother’s heart. He saw that emptiness again today, but this time, he could feel it searing deep into his own heart. With Steven, he had not quite understood. This time, he understood all too clearly.

“Thomas!” Lady Elizabeth shouted as she came running out to greet the small party.

The knight’s heart sank even further if that were possible, for he knew he must now break the news of Richard’s death to his family. And what of William? he thought; I should get the sad news to him. He dismounted and took her in his arms. He needed her to comfort him, to ease the pain that was nearly incapacitating.

“He’s gone, Elizabeth,” he said, his voice choking. “We weren’t in time. My son is dead.” With that the man broke down in tears, and she held him close to her, trying all the while to get through to him.

“No, Thomas, Richard is fine!”

“I wanted to believe that, but I’ve seen the grave myself. Newly dug this morning. There is no mistake.”

“Oh dear!” Matilda exclaimed as she and Richard came out into the crisp evening air.

“Aunt Matilda!” Armus exclaimed, then seeing the familiar figure next to her, he exploded. “Richard! I’ll tan you myself!” He started toward his brother, steam nearly billowing out his nostrils, and the younger boy, dropped the apple he was eating and stood behind his new aunt.

“Aunt Matilda!” he exclaimed. “You didn’t save my life just so Armus could take it, now did you?”

The poor woman stood flabbergasted between the two boys, not quite knowing whether to laugh, scream or cry. Just when she was about to do all three, a loud voice broke the evening air.

“Armus! Leave your brother be!” he shouted. “He’s mine!”

Richard had never seen his father’s eyes quite that intense. That very minute he ungirthed his sword and took off the heavy leather belt he was wearing. Not once did he take his eyes off his younger son. His breath was steady, but deep and rapid. Richard had faced him from time to time in similar circumstances, but never had he looked so focused, so severe.

“Father, I can explain,” he stammered, gripping the small woman before him with all his strength.

Matilda stood speechless. She knew well her brother’s temper, and she held out her arms to shield the boy, who towered over her.

“Hiding behind a lady’s skirts, brother!” Armus scowled.

“No!” Richard exclaimed, “I . . . I just . . . Well Aunt Matilda can explain . . . “

“That’s enough!” Elizabeth scolded the two older Grays as she too came to stand before the younger boy. “Now, Thomas, I know you’re upset, but you’ll regret this later. Richard truly was ill.”

“He’ll feel even worse when I finish with him,” Thomas bellowed. “Now stand aside, Elizabeth, and let me give this young whelp what he has coming.”

“No!” Matilda stated firmly. “Now that’s enough of your temper, Thomas Gray. This boy has done nothing wrong.”

“I beg your pardon, but I don’t think this is any of your affair. Now stand aside, Matilda!” Suddenly, he stopped in his tracks and gazed down at the woman before him. All the anger, fear and sorrow he had been feeling seemed to slip away in that split moment. “Matilda,” he whispered, a tenderness replacing the intensity that had burnt in his eyes just seconds before. “You’ve come home to us.” Then he looked up to Richard, reaching over the two women and grabbing the boy around the neck. For a moment, Elizabeth was afraid he was simply going to strangle him, but seconds later, she realized that reason had at last prevailed, for he took his son in his arms, hugging him and weeping unashamedly, though this time they were tears of joy.

*****

“I’m proud of you, Richard,” Thomas said as they sat eating a very belated dinner. “Though I do wish you would have sent word. Knowing the circumstances, I would have sent help immediately.”

“But I did,” Richard replied as he stuffed a muffin into his mouth, washing it down with a large draught of ale. “I paid good money to have someone at Bryerton bring you word, and if they didn’t, I want it back.”

“Who was this man?” Thomas asked, his voice full of skepticism.

“I don’t exactly know,” his son answered matter-of-factly. “Whoever took the money, I suppose. Would you pass the leeks, please.”

Thomas shook his head is disbelief. “Really, Richard! You didn’t even find out the man’s name?”

“I was more concerned with getting Esther and her daughter to safety,” he argued. “I hoped there was some honorable man in that god-forsaken village. I suppose I’ll have to go back and find out who took it, so I can beat the living tar out of the scoundrel.”

“And you think they’re going to just tell you, little brother,” Armus teased.

“I don’t see why not. If it were me and someone had pocketed it all for himself, I’d soon tell who it was.”

“Maybe he didn’t keep it for himself,” Armus countered.

“Well I think we should all ride over there tomorrow and find out,” Eleanor suggested.

“I don’t think Richard should be riding anywhere,” Matilda stated. “At least not for a few days. Besides, if not for those villagers, Richard would never have come to me. I think we should thank them.” The rest of the family looked at her oddly, and she felt the need to clarify her statement. “I mean if Richard had not been run out of that village, I would never have found him and would not have had the courage to return home.”

“Yes!” Thomas exclaimed as he took his sisters hand in one of his own and Lady Elizabeth’s in the other. “I say we leave their punishment to the King’s sheriff, and be thankful that we are all here together once again. I do have one question though,” Thomas said, his brow creased in thought. “The newly dug grave . . .”

“Oh that!” Matilda said, blushing a pale pink. “It was just my old things. I wanted to bury them along with the past, so I could start again. I know it sounds silly, but . . . “

“I don’t think it sounds silly at all,” Thomas said softly as he squeezed her hand affectionately. “Not at all.”

He looked over to Lady Elizabeth, and she smiled meekly as she remembered the small piece of wall he had sent to her. It was a piece of wall that was once part of Anne’s chambers, but more than that, it was a symbol that he was prepared to move on.

“Nor do I,” Elizabeth agreed as she squeezed the knight’s hand. “Nor do I.”

***The End***

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