Disclaimers & Copyrights: The characters of Amanda Montrose (Darieux, etc.), Rebecca Horne are copyrights of Davis/Panzer Productions and Gregory Widen. No infringement of their rights is intended nor is any income expected from this story. The story plot is original and is copyright to Maril Swan.
preliminary to The Raven & The Rose
By Maril Swan
Part Two of Five
Two days weary walking, keeping to the wooded verge of the road, found Amanda at a crossroads. While she was near her village she kept hidden to avoid meeting anyone she knew. As she put some distance from it, she stayed on the road, going in what she reckoned was a northerly direction. She did not know where she was, and could not read the signpost. Her unshod feet were blistered and cut as she carried her shoes to save the wear on them. Dropping wearily to the ground next to the post, she felt such desolation, such utter loneliness, she could not hold back her tears.
She had not eaten since early the day before, so was weak with hunger and fatigue. As she sobbed with self-pity, she heard what sounded like the strumming of a lute. She lifted her heard, searching for the sound. A melodic voice drifted to her as a horse and rider came into view from around a bend in the road.
The rider seemed as surprised to see her as she was to see one such as him. He was dressed in a fashionable tunic of burgundy, emblazoned with gold thread and shiny buttons. His plumed hat, set aslant on his dark head, matched the tunic. His legs were encased in fine brown hose, cross-gaitered with red leather thongs. Across his chest he held a lute which he plucked while humming to himself.
Seeing Amanda's tear-stained face and reddened eyes, he smiled at her and began a familiar tune:
He dismounted his horse and leaning down, said to Amanda, "And why is one so fair weeping? My lady of sorrows." He swept his hat off gallantly, bowing deeply, and smiled again into her eyes. "If I can be of service, my fair maid, I shall die of gladness."
Amanda was too astonished by his manner and appearance to create a coherent thought. He must think I'm simple, she admonished herself, trying to overcome her awkwardness. She struggled to rise, and he held out his hand to assist her. Unlike her father's hand, his was soft and uncalloused. Reluctantly, it seemed, he let her hand go after placing a reverent kiss upon the back.
Amanda snatched her hand away and put some distance between them. His elegant attire and manner made her feel cloddish, an ignorant village girl with ragged, dirty clothes. Already at a disadvantage, to be found weeping made her feel vulnerable, exposed. Fatigue and hunger shortened her temper and resentment flared as this insolent fellow seemed to be laughing at her. It was intolerable.
"You can do me a great service, if you will go on about your business, sir!" she snapped, and limped painfully away from the crossroads sign. His merry chuckle followed her and Amanda straightened herself to march away with some dignity. To her annoyance, the fellow seemed to trail behind her, his horse's clopping tread sounding very close.
"As we seem to be going in the same direction, perhaps we may be company for each other," he said, drawing even with her, and smiling merrily. "These are dangerous times, especially for a young maid, such as yourself, to be travelling alone. I offer you my protection for whatever part of your journey we may travel together." Beaming another wide grin at her, he continued, "Indeed, I also offer the comfort of my horse so you may rest your weary feet a while. What say you?"
Amanda halted and took a long look at her persistent companion. The fellow was as tall as she. His age she could not guess, but she felt he was older than her seventeen years. His dark hair was tied neatly behind his head, and his beard trimmed close to his chin. It was a handsome, roguish face, very attractive and somewhat frightening. Searching those twinkling blue eyes, she saw a depth of intelligence, and an element of danger.
Despite her earlier mistrust, she found herself drawn to his infectious good humour, and something reckless and adventurous she sensed about him. Amanda gave him a half-hearted smile and said, "I would indeed be grateful for your company. My apologies for my earlier rudeness."
"I have not broken my fast yet this morning. Would you join me for a meal? I have only some bread and cheese, but with you as my guest, it will be a banquet," he said with a blithe lilt in his voice.
He bowed elegantly, not seeing Amanda's narrowed gaze as she once again felt her mistrust rise at his effusive posturing. A fancy rooster, she thought dismissively, but at least it will relieve some of the tedium of journeying alone, and he did offer some food.
"I have not introduced myself," he added. "I am Randall, a bard and poet. A troubadour to the courts, and jongleur and entertainer to the towns. And who might you be, fair lady?" His eyes took in her ragged, travel-stained appearance, then dwelt appraisingly on her unkempt hair and dirty face. It was obvious by his look that he found her beneath him in class, but attractive nonetheless.
Amanda found this scrutiny uncomfortable, making her feel awkward, ungainly. She stammered slightly then said, "My name is Amanda. And I would be pleased to share your meal, Randall." She glanced away from those penetrating eyes. The offer of food was too good to pass up, in spite of her discomfort in his presence. Her stomach rumbled loudly causing him to smile.
Randall tethered his horse and opening his pannier, pulled out something wrapped in linen. He gestured to Amanda to seat herself, and passed her the cloth-wrapped food. It took all her will-power not to devour the bread and cheese immediately, her hunger was so keen. But she waited until Randall came to sit beside her with a flagon of some liquid.
He broke off some bread and cheese and offered it to her. Amanda chewed slowly, enjoying the sensation of the sharpness of the cheese, then the yeasty flavour of the black bread. Randall watched her as she blissfully satisfied her hunger, then offered her a drink from the flagon.
Amanda had never tasted wine, and found its dry harshness distasteful. She handed back the flagon, and asked, "Have you any water with you? Or ale?"
Randall shrugged and arose to get another flagon which he gave Amanda somewhat reluctantly. "Do you not like wine, Amanda?" he asked. She shook her head, and he added, "Perhaps it is an acquired taste."
"I do not think I will ever get to like it," she said. "I prefer ale or small beer." She handed back the flagon of water, and started to rise. Randall quickly offered his hand and pulled Amanda to her feet. Continuing to hold her hand, he looked deeply into her eyes, moving his head slowly toward her. She backed away, confused, mistrustful.
With a mocking smile, he said, "Let me offer you the use of my horse. She is sweet-natured but fleet of foot."
Amanda looked at the horse apprehensively. It was a huge grey hunter, and its great body and long shaggy legs made her quake slightly. "I have never ridden a horse. I would prefer to walk."
"You will be perfectly safe on her back. I will hold the reins and lead her."
Randall placed his hand near the stirrup of his horse to allow Amanda to mount. She landed awkwardly in the saddle, trying to balance herself. She had never been on a horse and the odd sensation of sitting astride the beast was unnerving, especially when it swayed and shook itself uneasily at the unfamiliar rider. Amanda gripped the pommel tightly, her eyes wide with fear.
Randall laughed. "She's a tame beast once she gets used to you. You're making her fret with your own nervousness. Try to relax. Be still on the saddle. I'll not let her run away with you." Obviously enjoying her anxiety, Randall took the reins and began to lead the horse down the rough road.
After a while, Amanda became comfortable with the rhythm of the horse and let herself sway with it. The view from horseback was exhilarating, as was the feeling of riding the beautiful animal. She stroked its velvety grey neck, and tickled its ears, causing them to twitch. Even its horsey scent, which she inhaled from its sweating hide, she found sensually enjoyable. She grinned with pleasure at these new sensations. With the warm sun upon her shoulders, and the open road ahead, Amanda began to feel that the world may have something to offer her after all.
A little guiltily, she watched Randall striding along, holding the reins, and began to feel her earlier qualms starting to vanish. He was something entirely new to her inexperienced years, and Amanda found it difficult to know how to deal with him. She was a freewoman, therefore had no feelings of inequality, yet there seemed to be a subtle difference of class between them.
She wondered what he thought of her, knowing she must look like a runaway serf or worse. She wished she could have some clean mended clothes to put on, or at the very least, could bathe somehow. Her years in the Abbey had taught her the habit of cleanliness, and though they also seemed to regard nakedness as sinful, the nuns insisted that the postulants keep themselves clean. For many girls, it was their first encounter with bathing. Part of the convent's introductory regime was to rid the girls of lice and teach them to maintain their postulant's habit in good repair.
Now, as Amanda rode along, only two days from the convent, she felt very keenly her own unkempt appearance. All she had in her pack were a sewing kit, her own brush and comb, some underclothing and a shawl. She had tied the purse of money inside her skirt where it hung heavily but out of sight. She wondered how she could modestly suggest a stop near a stream or pond where she could bathe. Never having spent any time alone with a man other than her father, Amanda was uncertain how to broach this delicate matter.
Steeling herself against his mocking gaze, Amanda began tentatively, "Randall?" He turned, raising his eyebrows questioningly. "I...that is, I haven't...I mean, I wish to ...where is there a place where I might bathe?"
His look of surprise told her what he obviously thought. She was what she looked like--a dirty, ignorant runaway serf. If that was the case, why was he being so kind to her? What did he want? Indignation seethed in her breast at his disdainful gaze. She was no one to be dismissed lightly, she thought angrily.
Randall stopped the horse and came to stand by its flank, placing his hand familiarly on Amanda's leg. She flinched and gave him a hostile glare. He moved his hand and stepped back a pace. If Amanda was having difficulty dealing with him, Randall found it even harder to place her into a context he understood. She had the face of an angel, but the eyes of a tavern hussy. Her clothing befitted a country wench, but her manner spoke of some refinement. He was puzzled by this waif whom fate had cast into his path.
"There is a brook a few miles ahead. The road crosses it at a shallow ford. You may bathe there, if you wish." Amanda nodded and Randall pulled the horse onward by the reins. They plodded down the road, which wound its way through the vast forest.
As she swayed to the rhythm of the horse's gait, Amanda was suddenly struck by a thought ...I am free! It was such a heady sensation, she nearly lost her balance, causing the horse to prance a bit. She laughed with the joy of it. This is the life I was meant for, she thought, to be free to go where I please and do what I want. Her spirits soaring, she felt the horse dancing beneath her as if it too were infected by her happiness. Impulsively, she kneed the horse into a gallop and dashed headlong down the road, whooping with delight.
The reins jerked out of Randall's hand as the horse bolted past him. He heard the girl laughing wildly as the horse and rider sped by, covering his fine clothes with a spray of dust. Too stunned to react at first, Randall watched them disappear down the road and around a bend. Cursing himself for a fool, he trudged on after them, wondering how he could have been so easily taken in. She had stolen his horse and all his possessions. He ground his teeth in exasperation.
Once she had the horse galloping, Amanda realized with terror, she didn't know how to stop it. Hanging onto the saddle for dear life, she saw the forest blaze by in a blur as the horse raced over the road like a thing possessed. It was frightened, Amanda could see, noting the white rim showing around its eyes. It was all she could do to keep her seat.
Ahead, she saw a glitter across the road. The brook. The horse thundered to its edge and stopped abruptly, tossing Amanda headlong into the water. She plunged into the cold stream, landing bruisingly hard on the pebble bottom. The shocking cold made her gasp, and as she arose, dripping, she began to laugh, falling back into the water. Well, she thought to herself with some chagrin, I wanted to bathe. She sloshed out of the brook and moved toward the horse.
It browsed along the shore, slurping water and chewing green plants, panting hard. Amanda took the reins and tied them to a bush. She pulled her pack out of the pannier, where she had placed it earlier, and got out her brush and comb. Going back into the stream, she washed her hair, then as much of herself as she could manage without removing her clothing. She had nothing to change into, so washed her gown while wearing it, scrubbing the worst of the grime off.
As she sat on the bank, braiding her hair in the warm midday sun, Randall appeared. He looked hot, sweaty and angry. A surprised look crossed his face, seeing Amanda and his horse waiting at the ford. He had thought never to see either again.
"Well," he said, his humour returning somewhat, "It looks like you've had your bath already."
"Yes, your horse obliged me with a toss into the brook." She laughed gaily, then more sombrely added, "I'm sorry about running off with your horse. It was a foolish whim. But no harm done." She gave him a brilliant smile which he returned.
"No harm," he laughed, finding himself rivetted by the picture she made. Like a woodland faerie, he thought to himself. With a clean face and her black hair neatly combed and braided, she scarcely resembled the bedraggled girl he had met only hours ago. Once again he was struck by the sensation that there was more to this woman than met the eye. In some way, she was special, different. He felt drawn to her as he had not been to a woman for a very long time. That made him wary of her.
"I suppose this is as good a place as any to take our midday meal," he said, going to the pannier. He withdrew the linen pack and gave it to Amanda. "I shall bathe myself first. It was a long, hot walk to here," he admonished lightly, raising an eyebrow at her, "And I feel the need of a plunge into the stream to cool me off."
He walked downstream a short distance, and removing his tunic and boots, waded into the water. His skin was milk white, his muscular shoulders shone in the bright sun as he plunged under then came up, spraying a fountain of water. A rainbow surrounded him briefly as he swung his long hair from side to side, shaking the water out of it.
Amanda watched, fascinated, attracted. She felt a strange languor somewhere in her body as she observed him, splashing and playing like a young animal. There was a heaviness in the region of her heart and she found it difficult to breathe. He looked up, feeling her gaze upon him and smiled knowingly. She averted her eyes and concentrated on the parcel of food, distracted and confused. In spite of the coolness of her damp clothes, she felt hot, tormented.
Unwrapping the food, she realized she had no appetite. Randall splashed out of the brook, and came to sit beside her. With dripping hands, he took the bread and cheese, and tore off large hunks, filling his mouth and chewing with obvious enjoyment. Retrieving the wine flagon, he swigged it down in huge gulps. He offered her wine but she declined with a shake of her head.
"Not hungry?" Randall asked. "It will be late evening before we arrive in the next town. You should eat something, Amanda."
"No, I am fine." She knelt to gather her belongings into the shawl, and the money bag clinked and swung out from her skirt.
Randall's eyebrows shot up and he caught his breath, when he saw the purse full of coins. He narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "Where did one such as you get so much money?" he asked harshly.
"Not that it is any of your business, but it was given to me," Amanda answered sharply.
"For what?" he snapped. His eyes were hard, their twinkling blue turned dark, contemptuous. Speculation gleamed in them.
Amanda felt cold suddenly, wondering why his open friendliness had unexpectedly turned to chill disdain. She had done nothing to earn this contempt. Her hands trembled slightly as she pushed her purse back inside her skirt. She felt off-balance and confused, and it made her angry. She tied her meagre possessions into the bundle and got up, preparing to leave.
"I thank you for your food and, the use of your horse. I will continue on my own now." Amanda stepped carefully across the narrow ford, and continued up the road without a backward glance.
Randall remained as he was, sitting on the bank, watching her walk out of sight. His thoughts were turbulent, and he tried to push her out of his mind, as he strove for the ease he normally felt as he travelled from place to place.
But the money kept plaguing him. There were only a few ways a peasant girl could get so much money--steal it, or sell herself to men for it. Probably, that was her game, pretend to be helpless, get a man to help her, then steal from him. But, he recalled, she had the opportunity to take his horse and get clean away. She had not. Perhaps because she could not control his horse, or perhaps because she had not thought of it.
The more he thought about her, the more confused he became. He couldn't figure out what she was, and it annoyed him. She was an enigma but he decided he would solve it and be satisfied. Then he could forget her.
Randall put on his tunic and boots, and replacing the food into the pannier, mounted his horse. He reined across the ford and urging the horse into a gentle trot, could soon see Amanda not far ahead.
She heard him coming, and stepped off the road to let him pass. Instead, he pulled up and dismounted.
"I fear I have made a poor impression upon you, Amanda," he said, gazing into her eyes with sincerity, the mocking smile absent. "I hope you will forgive me, but I have had some bad experiences with certain kinds of women. It has made me, perhaps, a little too cautious. May we not continue to travel together to the next town?"
Amanda searched his eyes for a hint of their former contempt. He smiled unaffectedly and she could not restrain herself from returning it.
"Would you like to ride my horse again?" he asked courteously.
"Oh, yes," Amanda replied, stroking the horse's neck as it nuzzled her shoulder. "I have never experienced anything like it. It was like...flying," she added, excitedly.
"You are a natural rider, Amanda. Most people take quite a while to get a good seat on a horse. But you seemed to have got it right away. With a few lessons, you could be quite good." He frowned slightly, suddenly wondering if this was the first time she'd been on a horse. It could be a lie. But why lie about that?
"Let me show you how to mount a horse," he offered, as he placed his foot in the stirrup and swung onto the horse's back. It pranced lightly, and Randall settled her with a soft pull on the rein.
"Now, you try, " Randall said as he held the horse firmly by the bridle. Amanda fitted her foot in the stirrup and tried several times to mount. The horse sidled nervously, making it more difficult. Amanda and Randall laughed uproariously as she hopped on one foot with the other in the stirrup as the horse kept turning away from her. He showed her once more, and after a couple of attempts, she was in the saddle, beaming proudly.
Randall then explained how to hold the reins, and to give the horse commands to start, stop, and turn. It was a world of delight to Amanda as the horse obeyed her, as she used the reins and her legs to guide the horse.
"Next time you gallop the horse," he said with a laugh, "you may not end up in the stream."
Amanda grinned with pleasure as she took the horse through a series of manoeuvres, with each move gaining more confidence in her abilities. "I shall have to get a horse of my own," she said blithely. "I had no notion that these beasts could be so enjoyable. My only experience with horses has been driving a cart. Draft horses can be quite difficult and unpredictable."
"How would you like to spend your day yoked to a waggon?" Randall asked.
"I have no intention of ever finding out," she retorted gaily.
Amanda guided the horse without Randall holding the reins, but after about a mile, she halted.
"Can this horse not bear two?" she asked. "I feel it is wrong for me to make you walk while I ride."
"Yes, I suppose," he answered. He jumped up behind Amanda, startling the horse and making it prance. "Just keep her to a walk. It's a long drop to the ground if I lose my balance," he warned, taking note of the roguish look that lit her eyes when the spirited horse seemed about to bolt.
"I have been meaning to ask you, Amanda. Why were you weeping at the crossroads this morning. In fact, what are you doing travelling alone? Are you running away from something?" His mouth was close to her ear, his warm breath tickled and she shivered. He smiled secretly at her reaction.
"I am not running away," she answered levelly. "I am going to meet someone."
He waited for more, but Amanda seemed to feel that this was enough. He tried again. "Who are you going to meet, and where are you going?"
"I'm going to Paris." A long silence developed as Randall hoped she would add to this statement, but again, she was not forthcoming. She stared ahead, seemingly lost in her own thoughts. Abruptly, she asked, "How far is it to Paris?"
"Many days travel from here. Paris is a large and dangerous place for a woman alone. Who are you to meet there?"
She didn't answer and he realized she would not give away any more than she wished to. What is she hiding, he wondered. Randall encircled her waist with his arms, feeling her stiffen with surprise, then relax. He smiled again. "I beg your pardon, Amanda, but I need to hold onto you for balance," he explained, close to her ear. Her sharply indrawn breath made him grin, and he began to enjoy this little game he was playing with her.
"Where are you going, Randall?" she asked. Her voice sound a bit breathless, and he suppressed a laugh. That would spoil everything, he reminded himself.
"I have no particular place in mind. I just go from town to town, castle to castle, telling stories, singing songs and bringing news and gossip to the various courts. Just a travelling bard, with no home of my own. Always on the road to somewhere," he finished airily, as if there was no better life.
He was pleased that she showed an interest in him. It added some zest to this game. She seemed innocent, but it must be a ruse. No woman could have that much money about her and be innocent, in his experience. Sooner or later, she would show her true colours. In the meantime, he would continue his own game and see where it would lead.
To while away the long ride, Randall began to retail her with some naughty gossip, and bawdy tavern jokes. The colour rose in her cheeks as she reprimanded him for his impertinence. He sang a few love ballads, so close to her ear that it seemed he was her lover sighing out his hopeless passion. He move his lips to her neck, brushing gently, feeling her shiver.
Abruptly, she reined the horse in, and slid down from the saddle. Her eyes snapped with indignation as she tossed him the reins. "I feel I am safer on the ground. Good day to you, sir!" She stood patiently waiting for him to move off and leave her.
"Amanda. If I have been importunate, it is only because I have been swept away by your charms," he said sincerely, gazing steadily into her eyes. "I shall die of a broken heart if you send me away," he vowed.
She sensed the mockery under his words, and her stare hardened. "I will not be treated like a tavern wench!" she declared hotly. "I come of a good family, equal to your own. If you cannot treat me with respect, then begone!" With that, Amanda started to walk away.
The afternoon sun warmed her back as she marched down the road, her whole mien rigid with indignation. What does he think I am, she wondered angrily. Her village had no tavern or tavern wenches, but the epithet had been hurled at her once by her mother. Amanda had not understood the implication and asked her father to explain. He stammered out an explanation that raised the colour in her cheeks, not only from embarrassment, but also from anger that her mother would speak thus to her.
The priests had warned the young girls in her village against the sins of the flesh, how easy it was to fall. Dire warnings from the Bible were drummed into their heads of fallen women who suffered for their sins, who were stoned to death for adultery. Until now, Amanda had dismissed them as just stories, like the faerie stories of goblins and trolls. Is this how one is lead into sin, she wondered, with honeyed words and soft touches? She felt herself flushing with chagrin. The Tempter takes many forms, the young girls had been told. Does the Devil wear fine clothes and sing beautiful sad love songs? She shook her head as if to rid her memory of his melodic voice as it whispered in her ear.
Nothing in her experience had prepared her for this man with his fine manners and his mocking arrogance. Amanda determined to have nothing further to do with him as she continued to put some distance between them. She could feel his eyes on her back. What was he thinking?
Randall sat his horse for a long while, watching her, once again, walking away from him. He felt a vague sense of loss, as if something that belonged to him had been snatched away. Abruptly, he kneed his horse into a gallop and passed Amanda with a spray of flying clods and grass.
Amanda watched him disappear with relief, but oddly, left her feeling more bereft and alone than before. He had been charming, entertaining company, and the day seemed to pass swiftly. Now, as she trudged along, she realized how much she had left behind her. The quiet solidity of her village where she knew everyone, and even had a few friends, the stability of convent life where decisions were made for her, those she had thought of as her family, all gone. She was truly alone in the world.
As the twilight deepened into dark, Amanda halted on the road. The smoke of a woodfire carried on the warm breeze, accompanied by the tantalizing aroma of roasting meat. Her empty, rumbling stomach reminded her that she hadn't eaten since early morning. As she continued to walk toward the scent, she viewed a glimmer of light ahead, near the road edge. Its flickering drew her like a moth to a flame, until, getting close enough to see the lone figure seated beside the campfire, she grunted with disgust. Randall!
As Amanda approached, he stood up and gave her a courtly bow. "Pray join me at my lonely repast," he called. "There is rabbit enough here for two."
Well, why not? she shrugged to herself. What could it hurt to partake of his meal? She had to admit she might have been a little hasty in her judgment of Randall. Besides, she was half-starved and the meat on the spit was very tempting.
Aloud, she replied, "I am already obliged to you for my earlier meal. But, if you wish it, I will join you gladly. I am famished."
Amanda moved off the road and seated herself on the opposite side of the fire. Its warmth and light were welcome after her long trek. She smiled with pleasure as she accepted a portion of the roasted rabbit. Blissfully, she tore off bits of the crisp skin and succulent flesh, relishing the fragrant gamey taste with every mouthful.
"You can't enjoy roast meat without this," Randall said, flourishing the wine skin. He poured a large measure into a pewter goblet, and offered it to her. She shook her head. "Try it before you say nay. I guarantee it will enhance the flavour."
Amanda took a tentative sip, and found it did indeed add to her pleasure in the meal. The meat and wine blended wonderfully. She finished the goblet and Randall refilled it. Her head felt a little strange, and she laughed for no other reason than that she was comfortably full and warm by the fire. She emptied the goblet and again found it refilled, almost magically. This too seemed incredibly funny, and she laughed again as her head swam giddily and she nearly lost her balance.
Randall picked up his lute and came to sit closer to her. He began to strum an old ballad, singing its sad verses with charming sweetness. Amanda felt as if the sentiment of longing to be loved, and never having it, was meant for her. She ached with melancholy, and a tear rolled down her cheek. Randall smiled furtively, and changed the tempo to something more lively, and a bit bawdy. He urged her to join in the chorus, and soon she was merry again. He refilled the wine goblet.
Continued in Part Three of five
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