Sir Elerde sat across the table with his old friend Malcolm in that man's fortress in northern Affynshire. Elerde idly flapped his gloves back and forth on the table as he explained to his fellow former mercenary what his plans were.
"I shall find the Queen and convince her to come with me here. I crave thy hospitality for us twain for a short time before we travel back to Brittany. Wouldst it be possible to have the manor house to ourselves for a nonce?" Elerde had saved this man's skin on several occasions, so he was confident of the reply.
Malcolm knew better than to make suggestive remarks about the lady to Elerde. The Breton was not a man to joke about women, or about much at all in fact. Malcolm knew that Elerde was risking much to pursue this particular woman. Finally a knight simply did not speak that way about a lady. Leave that to minstrels and commoners.
"As it happens, my friend, I shall be leaving soon for a long hunting trip. I canst leave orders for thee and thy good lady to take over the manor for as long as thou needeth it." He saluted Elerde with his wine goblet.
Elerde reciprocated. He offered, "I canst pay thee well…" but Malcolm put his goblet down on the tabletop hard.
"Do not insult me, sir. I be not a simple soldier who forgets his debts of life and limb." He glared at his friend.
Elerde smiled an elegant concession and saluted Malcolm with his wine again.
Learning that Josephine had ridden straight north had told the knight everything he needed to know. He had spent what seemed in memory idyllic hours walking with her in Lawrencium's surrounding fields and forest, smiling lovingly at her as she recounted tales of her and her brother and sister's summers in a village in her home, Affynshire. She talked of the older couple who had cared for them as they ran wild in the dales like children of the fairies. He had said to her, "I can see thee, my dearest love, all braids and dirty knees, making mud stew and throwing bits of it at Lorin." She had laughed merrily, then dodged a kiss he tried to place on her forehead.
She rarely chided him for his open ardor for her. He never understood why. At first he thought it might have been a way to make Lawrence jealous, but in fact it did and that seemed not to change her behavior at all.
Then he wondered if she, and perhaps Lawrence too, allowed him liberties with her out of gratitude for all he had done, saving her life, saving the kingdom, his loyal military service, his friendship with young Tavish. But it did not seem like gratitude. From the King, yes. The man seemed pulled by his own sense of what he owed Elerde and restrained by an unspoken command from the Queen. In any other kingdom Elerde's behavior would have gotten him sent packing at best and murdered at worst.
He finally came to the conclusion that the Queen was also in love with him. That truth still did not explain the odd triangle, but he knew it was true all the same. She had said as much, finally. But when he asked her to be with him, to come and be his love in Brittany, she had refused. The children of course. That must be it. So he offered to become her lover in Lawrencium. She refused him again. No matter how he argued the point, that they would meet only when Lawrence was not there, that they would be discreet, that no one needed to know, she remained adamant. And she would not explain herself.
When he had finally pressed Lawrence for a night, one single night with her, in a mad and drunken moment he had regretted ever since, the man had ordered him banished from the kingdom and he had gone. He had one last meeting with a brokenhearted Josephine, then ridden out of her life forever.
That is, until whatever had transpired since then had driven the King to commit an unforgivable folly, taking a lover under the Queen's nose and installing her in the very castle he shared with his beautiful wife. He did not try to understand Lawrence's reasons. The man was simply an imbecile. He must be to be so simple, so stupid, so apt to choose the only path among dozens that lead to obvious and predictable calamity. Elerde had no patience with idealists, dreamers, romantics.
So he had learned that the Queen had fled. This also did not surprise him. She was impetuous, even flighty. What surprised him was that she had not flown to HIM. What new folly from the Queen of Folly was this?
Still she was his Queen of Folly, ripe on the vine and waiting to be picked and savored.
Elerde dismounted at the inn of the small town in the dale. He gave the ostler his reins and stepped inside to speak to the innkeeper. He made no secret of who he was. When he asked the man if anyone in the town had a visitor from elsewhere, the man thought and replied, "Oh, aye. Old Athelstan. His wife's young niece hath come to live with them."
"Describe her," Elerde instructed.
"Well, I have not seen the girl myself. Rose, come here. What does Ceolwin' s niece look like?"
A thin girl came in, wiping her hands on her apron. "What, Jo? She is small, fair haired. And Lord if not the saddest little thing I e'er hath seen."
Elerde's heart had raced at the name "Jo." "Where do these people live?"
The innkeeper led the knight to the dooryard and pointed, "Take this road past the church and cross the churchyard. Thou wilt see a narrow road that windeth among hawthorns. Athelstan' s cottage is just beyond the grove. Thou mayst shorten the trek if thou cuts across the field that runs east of the grove."
Elerde handed the man a few coins and thanked him. He left his horse with the ostler and proceeded down the road.
At the end of the churchyard he took his way across the field to the east of the grove. His heart beat faster as he crossed the distance to the edge of a farmyard. He found a place alongside a stout oak to look in and see if Josephine was there. He did not see her, but he waited. At long last, he saw a slender figure come out of the barn and head around the cottage to the side farthest from where he stood.
He was not at first sure it was she. Josephine was all roses, ivory and gold. This girl was barefoot, her skirts tucked up to stay above the mud. Her arms and legs were tan and the ankles betrayed scratches from thorns and thistles. The hair was hidden under a scarf of simple homespun cloth. Could that peasant girl be his Queen of Folly?
He slipped silently along the fence that demarcated the farmyard until he was edging along it to where the girl must have gone. He saw her, sitting on a stool scattering bread to chickens. She looked up and stretched her back and sighed. His heart stopped. That was a sigh he had heard before, when he had stolen a caress in a dark stairway.
He waited to approach her. She stood and brushed off her skirt and stretched again. She started humming quietly. He saw her head away from the farmyard, passing over a stile and into the field. He smiled and followed.
She walked slowly and languidly, down a bank to a brook and then along it to a little dale. He stood and watched her stop and sit on the grass. She locked her arms around her bended knees and looked up at the clouds. Even tanned and mussed, she was beautiful. "La Dame Sans Joie, "he thought.
She sighed sadly and murmured, "My love."
Elerde stepped out from his lookout and replied, "Ma chère."
Jo whipped around and held her hand against her own breast. She saw who had addressed her. She sat for a moment as he approached and reached for her hands. She let him pull her up and into his arms. "Elerde!" she breathed. Their lips met and the knight finally had his longed for kiss.
Next: Lawrence and Shannon Beat the Crap Out of Each Other
Before there was the novel, there were the stories...
by Nan Hawthorne, who also writes under Christopher Hawthorne Moss, Books and Stories b ChristopherHawthorne Moss at http://authorchristophermoss.vlogspot.com