They brought me gruel tonight. Who am I to complain? With callused, trembling hands I lunge for the meal. It is cold, and this time, littered only with cockroach wings and twigs. I dive into it like it was Marseilles bouillabaisse brimming with fresh tomatoes, saffron and baudroie, or as peasants in the English lowlands call it, monkfish. It is tasty, rolling over my tongue like the way mist cascades over a lake at dusk. Who am I kidding? I’m glad to have this concoction of…of…maybe I’d better not think about it and just enjoy it heartily.
I haven’t eaten since yesterday. The soup then wasn’t so bad, but I could have done without the moldy bread. When the jailer slid it through the narrow slot in the door, I pretended it was the tenderest portion of the fatted calf thrust in to ease my suffering. Do the keepers care about me? Probably not. When they first threw me in here weeks ago under orders from his majesty the king, they guffawed as if Pierrot himself was regaling them with the most ribald, albeit speechless, jokes.
I used to believe in our king, Roland the Faithful. So noble upon his steed, he was the very essence of security we peasants needed in this misbegotten kingdom. Surrounded by his most allegiant ministers, there was no war he couldn’t win or outland he couldn’t usurp. We all believed in him here in Ysindor. Blessed with good looks, maidservants fainted when he addressed them. In their bosoms they longed to be his bride even though, not being of noble birth, that was as unlikely as gaining a griffin for a pet. The men folk thought him to be an honorable and just king, and from the decrees he gave, they had no reason to believe he was less than his word.
Nearly six months ago, King Iseldauf from the next neighboring land, Upper Um’qast, sent a spy into our kingdom to find out if there were weaknesses within the ranks of Ysindor’s army. The spy, a comely maiden with hair like a raven’s plumage, made herself available to the king’s men. Smitten by her beauty, they revealed little secrets while also under the grasp of her Bacchanalian touch. With the fiery intoxicants flowing through their veins, they told her that their archers were the weakest lot of the bunch because their bows were made from dried juniper branches. The bows, in essence, were easy to carry but prone to breakage. The soldiers asked the spy many times what her name was but she never answered. Instead, she led them on a short leash, making them believe they were the most special men she’d ever laid eyes on. Eventually, they came to call her Raven’s Hair since she was so secretive.
Eventually, word of her presence came to King Roland’s attention. The whispers amongst his men had become like an epidemic and he sought her out himself. His quest didn’t take long for Ysindor wasn’t that large a kingdom, and one of the obvious perks of being king was that he was free to go anywhere within his own realm.
Sitting alone one clouded afternoon on a birch stump in front of her tiny hut near the edge of Emerald Forest, Raven’s Hair looked up when she saw Roland the Faithful, flanked by two soldiers, approach her from the mist that had enveloped that area. Laying aside the shawl she was weaving, she straightened up her flower-decorated dress as she rose. Her own steed, a white mare named Hyacinth that was tethered to a post near the hut, whinnied as the men approached.
“You live so far away from everyone one, Miss…” the king began as his regally decorated horse settled itself.
“Because your people are given to calling me Raven’s Hair,” she explained, “that is the name I shall go by.”
“You are a pretty sight,” the king complimented her as he dismounted.
“Your highness,” Raven’s Hair said bowing, “what brings you this far from the throne?”
“The census is upon us again I fear,” he answered. “Everyone must be accounted for.”
Raven’s Hair looked puzzled. “The king,” she thought, “involved in such pedestrian activity?”
“The last census we had didn’t go so well,” he elaborated. “I thought this time that, with my presence, every man, woman and child were sure to be accounted for.”
“You’re as noble a man as you are king,” she said. “No wonder the people love you so.”
“What about you?” he asked. “You’re a settled stranger as mysterious as the winds.”
“I’m actually no one special,” she assured him. “Just a lonely wanderer. No doubt you’ve seen many.”
“Yes, I have,” he admitted. “Seems like Ysindor has become a haven for the down trodden and the lost. You know, you must come dine in the palace some time.”
“Me?” she asked. “What an honor! Are you sure?”
“It’ll be my pleasure,” he answered. “Tomorrow night?”
“Tomorrow!” she yelped. “I haven’t a thing to wear!”
The king walked over to the shawl on the stump and held it up.
“This looks almost complete to me,” he said.
Gently, he placed it across her shoulders and stood back to admire her.
“Yes,” he nodded. “I’m confident you’ll look fine.”
Raven’s Hair curtsied.
“My lord,” she said.
The king got back on his horse.
“I trust you and your mare can find your way to the castle?” he asked.
“Yes, my lord,” she answered.
“Then take care,” he uttered then turned and rode off with his men.
Raven’s Hair could feel the wind gusts the horses created as they disappeared into the mist. Clutching her breast, she sighed deeply. An audience with the king! Gazing around the nearby wooded area, she wondered if the animals could sense her unbridled joy. The hedges and trees seemed to stir as if some invisible giant’s hand was tickling their branches. Turning, she walked over to her horse.
“Hyacinth,” she began, “you and I have a date tomorrow night. You must be on your best behavior.”
Her mare nodded as if it understood.
“Good girl,” she concluded. “I’m going inside to rest. We have a big day ahead of us at next sun up.”
Rubbing Hyacinth’s nose, she turned and entered her hut. The next evening, Roland the Faithful was in the middle of a huge dinner in the main dining hall of his spacious castle. As fiddlers and drummers played their instruments, merriment was had by all as dishes of sweet meats, delicious apples, baguettes, éclairs filled with four different flavors of crème pâtissière, thick onion soup and dragon’s ale was devoured by all in attendance. Even the servants were dining at the long wooden table. The king, sitting at one end, kept looking out at the sky. The sun, a bright red orb in the sky, would soon give way to the chariots that brought Sister Moon to commence her nightly duty. The ministers intermittently gazed at the king because they sensed something was wrong. A few of the soldiers in attendance knew what the problem was but chose to remain silent about it.
Just then, the large double doors at the far end of the cavernous room were thrust open by two guards. Everyone at the banquet watched as Raven’s Hair entered as if in a dream. Her movements were eerily slow as if she manipulated time. Garbed in a flowing black dress, the lightest colored piece of clothing she wore was her newly crafted shawl draped around her shoulders. King Roland, overcome with joy, leaped to his feet.
“Welcome!” he shouted.
Everyone else in the room remained silent. A few of the soldiers in attendance recognized her but the majority of spectators simply sat stunned.
“This,” the king responded as if sensing their unspoken query, “is Raven’s Hair.”
Spurred on by Roland, everyone rose to greet her.
“Please,” she remarked. “I’m not important. Return to your feast.”
“Come,” the king beckoned unto her. “Sit at my side.”
Obediently, Raven’s Hair walked over to where Roland was standing and took a seat near him. He also sat down just after she did.
“This,” he told her spreading his arms, “is what joy feels like.”
Reaching over to a silver platter, he picked up a roasted quail’s leg and handed it to her. Nodding, she took the food from his hand.
“I thank you,” she stated.
“The joy is mine,” he said. “Eat up. The night is young.”
As they ate, some of the attendees started conferring among themselves.
“Who was this mystery maiden?” they asked. “What spell has she over our king?”
“Shh!” one warned another. “Do you wish to lose your head over a slight?”
As the night wore on, some of the participants started falling asleep at the table, no doubt too drunk to return to their quarters. A few soldiers excused themselves as did some ministers. Eventually, the musicians departed as did the rest of the ministers and servants. Around midnight, the only two people still awake were the guards by the door and King Roland and his new friend, Raven’s Hair.
“Perhaps you’d like a tour of the castle?” he asked her.
“Tonight?” she asked.
“On the morrow,” he answered. “I shall be your guide.”
“You’re too good to me,” she insisted. “Begging your pardon, sire, I am as fatigued as a horse that’s crossed the Middle Plains.”
“It’s very late,” he noted. “You must rest in one of my chambers.”
“I am curious,” she stated. “Have you not a wife?”
“To tell you the truth,” he answered, “I’ve been so busily engaged in building this kingdom that I’ve little time for personal pursuits. No doubt I’m admired but I just haven’t had the time.”
“Very well,” she said. “I’ll stay here and look forward to tomorrow’s tour.”
Raven’s Hair slept well in one of the castle’s comfortable bedrooms overlooking a moonlit lake, but the same couldn’t be said for the king. Ingesting too much ale, his head spun the next morning like the pixies’ carousel at a country fair. Needless to say, he didn’t rendezvous with her till after midday. Apologizing like a hapless clown, he showed her some of the rooms rarely seen by those outside of his inner circle. Word of his new special interest went around the kingdom like a wildfire. Some say the king was in love for the first time; others believed she was nothing more than a witch with hair the color of midnight sent in to enslave their dear leader. Whatever it was, the joys from the castle spilled out among the common folk. If the king was in love, that was fine by them. It could mean that he’d go easy on the taxes and let them enjoy the fruits of their labor without apportioning any to his royal highness or his ministers.
As it turned out, the villagers were right as the king chose to spend all his time with his new treasure. Over the next following weeks, the ministers grew worried because they knew a storm was brewing. They couldn’t ignore the rumors borne upon the western winds which stated that King Iseldauf from Upper Um’qast was looking to expand his kingdom and his sights were set on Ysindor. Roland the Faithful was briefed on this grave matter but he didn’t act on it. Convinced it was nothing more than rumors, he continued regaling Raven’s Hair as if she was his queen.
Late one evening, Roland got word that, not only was an attack from Iseldauf imminent, but that his new love was actually a spy. With one wave of his hand, he had the news bringer, one of his trusted ministers, jailed for providing false information. Later that night, while the kingdom slept, they were suddenly besieged by a vicious onslaught from King Iseldauf and his barbarian army. Realizing the jailed minister was right, he ordered him released while his soldiers fought to secure the palace and kingdom.
Many men died that night on both sides but Ysindor fought back valiantly. Iseldauf, realizing he was all but defeated, withdrew his army and quickly returned to the west. All of the dead were hoisted away in caravans and buried while the injured were brought to the infirmary for healing. King Ronald visited the infirmed and reassured them they were in good hands. Later, he went to see if Raven’s Hair was safe in her chambers, but to his amazement, she was gone.
The funerals continued into the following day with the widows and mothers of the deceased wailing as if their hearts would be torn asunder. The previously jailed minister approached the king and told him that there was a good chance Raven’s Hair hadn’t left the realm. Immediately, Ronald ordered a search of every cottage, tavern and barn in his kingdom. His men searched high and low, from modest hut to expansive home, but she could not be found.
That’s where I come in. On the evening after the attack, I was picking flowers in the back yard of my forest cottage for the soldiers’ burial when I saw her. Frightened and pale as a ghost, she stood in the shadows and uttered two words – “Help me.”
Laying my task aside, I stood and watched her momentarily. I’d heard about this woman but had never met her before. I’m sure it was Raven’s Hair. No one else in the kingdom had hair as strikingly black as that. Not only that, she had a beauty the likes I’d never seen until then.
“Who are you?” I asked. “What do you want?”
“I’m Raven’s Hair,” she answered. “I’m weary and need to rest.”
My heart leaped into my throat. Our king wanted her arrested, but her frightened visage told me otherwise. Somehow, I felt she needed protection.
“Okay,” I said. “But only for a little while.”
“Thank you, sir,” she said. “What do they call you?”
“Rolf,” I answered. “I’m both a gardener and woodsman.”
“Well, Rolf,” she stated, “I promise I won’t be a burden to you. I shall keep as quiet as flung pixie dust.”
“That’s not the problem,” I told her. “Suppose the king’s men come looking out here? Granted, I’m some distance away from the palace, but it could be anytime now.”
“Then perhaps I made a mistake,” she admitted then turned to leave.
“No,” I quickly said. “There’s a secret compartment beneath my hut I use for storage of supplies for the winter. I can’t turn my back to a soul in need.”
Raven’s Hair walked over and took my hands in hers.
“Thank you,” she whispered. “You shall be rewarded for this.”
I’ve often heard villagers say that to give up on hope is to give up on life. I’d never believed that until I met her. I was ready to die by the sword of some anonymous invader, perhaps even stabbed through the heart by the odd unicorn, but after I met her it seemed as if I’d been granted a second lease in life.
Weekes passed by and we grew closer. I’d bring her foodstuffs in the secret chamber and she told me stories of her life as a child. There were two occasions when I was visited my soldiers. My hut was even scrutinized but none found the secret chamber. So well hidden, they would stand right above it while Raven’s Hair kept as silent as a cat hunting its prey.
Against my wishes, or perhaps because of it, Raven’s Hair and I became more than friends. We fell in love, conquered by that mysterious emotion saved for the smitten and the lucky. Unfortunately, because she was still an outlaw, she dared not come above ground till night fell. This challenged both of us deeply, but in light of the sentiments that abounded, we had no choice.
One afternoon I was in the forest collecting wood when I heard several hoof steps coming from the direction of my cottage. Dropping my pile, I ran to see who’d come to visit.
“Stand fast!” one soldier on horseback yelled to me as I exited the clearing. The other four soldiers on horseback said nothing.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
Just then all five soldiers dismounted.
“We’ve come to check your hut,” the first soldier exclaimed.
“Why?” I asked.
“Harboring fugitives is a crime punishable by death!” he retorted. “Would you circumvent the will of your king?”
“No,” I answered, “but what fugitive are you talking about?”
“We have reason to believe that Raven’s Hair is in your care,” he answered.
“That’s preposterous!” I shot back.
“We shall see,” he said. “From my experience, the fruits that begin rumors often have edible meat in them.”
Guarded by the other four soldiers, I watched as the first soldier entered the hut. My heart started beating faster because the last time I saw Raven’s Hair she was fast asleep in the secret chamber. Minutes later he re-emerged.
“I see there’s a secret compartment beneath this cottage,” he said.
“For storing grains,” I explained.
“No doubt,” he stated. “I checked it. There’s no one there.”
“I told you,” I said relieved.
“But I found this,” he said holding up Raven’s Hair’s shawl. “You’re under arrest!”
Now it’s been weeks, perhaps months, since I’ve been imprisoned in this infernal dungeon. Water dips down the walls incessantly. Rats scurry about looking for food in the darkness. Just outside my cell are “truth tools”, cruel wood and metal devices designed to drag confessions from even the hardest soul. I’ve been whipped twice, been stretched on the rack, and even had my thumbs squeezed in a vice. I can’t tell them what I don’t know. I’ve already admitted over lashings that I harbored Raven’s Hair, but I just couldn’t say where she went.
Two days later, one of the jailers splashed water from a large bowl on my face.
“Wake up!” he shouted. “You’ve been pardoned.”
After feeding me food fit for a king, I was told that Ysindor was again at war and all able bodied men were needed. I pleaded that I had no strength but they kept on feeding me. Within days I was able to carry a shield and spear and sent to the front lines.
They don’t call King Iseldauf a barbarian for nothing. The onslaught out on the moist dews against his men was the most traumatic thing I’d ever experienced. I watched as my brothers-in-arms fell to the lance of his gigantic soldiers. Our archers fared poorly as they were counter-met by archers with better aim and resiliency. It did not require a fortune teller to know we were doomed.
As the fighting raged on, I caught a glimpse of the dark haired warrior fighting by the side of the western king. As I drew closer I realized it was Raven’s Hair. Eventually, she noticed me. Perhaps I was dreaming, but she suddenly laid her sword down. Rushing off to one side near a ravine, I met with her. Our swords were pointed at each other. Then, I laid mine down.
“I don’t want to fight you,” I told her. “I’ve done nothing but think about you all these months. You are like a stain, a good stain that never leaves the polished cloth.”
“Then let’s leave,” she beckoned. “War is for animals. I can’t bear it any longer.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Samantha,” she answered. “King Iseldauf’s sister. Let that not come between us.”
As the chaos raged, Raven’s Hair and I stole two horses and slipped away. By the time anyone noticed, we were miles away from the fracas. Knowing that both kings would send people after us, we kept riding and riding until our horses nearly died from exhaustion. Eventually, we settled in a shire so far away that it would be foolish to send anyone after us. We never knew how the war turned out, and we didn’t care. One thing was certain: the life we built for ourselves would’ve been impossible back home. Later, I learned Ysindor had triumphed but at a grave cost. It was a shame that so many died, but that is the pattern of man. At least here, it was a pattern that we were only too glad to have written its final chapter.