Beginnings oft times are brutal. Unfortunately, so are endings.
In between is mostly a race.
A mad dash to grow up, acquire knowledge and earn a living, whether honestly or not.
Events spin out of control. The passing show’s a blur.
On the final leg, if we’re lucky and fate hasn’t already intervened, we race towards death.
By the time the finish line appears, speed has become an addiction.
That’s not where Frieda was currently situated.
Her world was only beginning to accelerate.
On this night, both sides of life’s conundrum – birth and death – would be in evidence.
Circumstances were intervening, both favorably and with feigned indifference.
Frieda was lying flat on her back in a horse-drawn trailer on a lord’s estate.
She was in pain extremis.
Through no fault of her own one of the most natural things in the world was leading towards a frightful denouement.
The contractions had started at sundown, after a long shift of working her crystal ball.
Frieda had been fleecing the rubes in the local village. Their concerns were all trivial matters.
They’d come to her for advice on the most mundane of concerns.
Would my bean crop be plentiful this year?
Where will I find my one abiding love?
How can I cure this rash?
She had the potions and spells that could get her into trouble if the law made an appearance. She knew her calling wasn’t witchcraft, but others in authority weren’t likely to see things her way.
The social structure around which she orbited was fragile and explosive. Violence could break out too easily if allowed a chance.
Two man-made props kept human affairs under control, the nobility and the church.
The biggest fear among her family of travelers was the latter. If the religious authorities came a-calling, Frieda might be dragged off as a sorceress and burned at the stake.
That wasn’t the source of her present predicament.
The travelers were, by necessity, camping in a gully by the side of a stream on a secluded plot of land belonging to the local baron.
That wasn’t so unusual. There wasn’t a spot of property anywhere in the countryside that didn’t belong to some regal or another.
They’d been at this particular site too long. They had a strict policy of staying in one place only a couple of nights at most.
They knew reports of their presence would get back to the local constabulary and they’d be forced to move on, either peaceably or, as was more often the case, with roughed-up emphasis.
Frieda was chief consort of the troupe’s leader. Her delicate condition meant a delay in picking up and hitting the road.
The commotion started in the midst of her severe duress. That’s when the sounds of unwelcome men and the clamor of fighting began.
The untrained travelers were helpless against military might.
She was hardly aware of anything outside her own existence – the abdominal pushing, the sweating and the pain, and finally the sweet release.
Her friend Amelia, who was acting as her midwife, cut the cord, held the newborn upside down and slapped its backside to elicit a yelp.
Demonstrating remarkable fortitude and loyalty, Amelia had stayed with Frieda despite the obvious indications of conflict outside their canvas covering.
Now the child was born, Amelia would have to high-tail it out of harm’s way. She wrapped the baby girl in a knitted blanket and headed into the frigid night.
Frieda watched Amelia depart with fear and a sense of great loss.
To her horror, she wasn’t succumbing to sleep as she’d imagined.
Instead, a second series of contractions began almost immediately.
She soon realized her own travails were not at an end.
This was unexpected. Exhausted and weakened, her body took over while her will drained away.
Fifteen minutes later a second bundle arrived.
It lay smeared and not breathing in a pool of blood between her legs.
Frieda was too weak to accomplish what she knew had to be done.
The marshal was leading a gang of 10 men. He was only following orders.
His master, the baron, as soon as he heard about the latest band of interlopers, instructed that they be cleared from his property forthwith.
If that meant cracking some heads, so be it.
The baron was becoming fed up with encroachers. Poachers were a constant nuisance.
This latest batch of outsiders had to be dealt with as well.
How could he keep the locals in check if he allowed people to come in from anywhere to conduct their business however they saw fit?
The money the newcomers made from the local townsfolk was lucre he wasn’t going to collect in taxes.
It was a matter of maintaining respect. Or at the very least, of demonstrating what the consequences would be if the law was broken.
The marshal ran the operation as a military campaign. First the encampment was surrounded.
Second, agreed-upon signals indicated all his men were in place.
Third, a common convergence towards the centre was initiated.
It was night and the deciduous forest was thick, so escape by some of the targets was to be expected.
That was okay. Those on the lam would be sure to warn others about the dangers of coming to these parts.
Three of the braver male travelers, including what appeared to be their leader, were killed outright by sword and arrow.
Others, young and old, were rounded up. Tomorrow, they’d be placed in permanent detention.
It was now mainly a mopping up operation. Check the accommodations. See what remained.
Determine if anything useful was left behind.
Towards the back of the camp was one final wagon to examine.
The marshal raised the tarp and looked in. At first, he wasn’t sure what was in his field of vision.
A candle in a holder hanging from one wooden rib shed only a dim light.
Something important had just taken place, that much was clear.
At first, he supposed it was a place of sickness. There was a stench of blood and sweat.
Then he saw the woman’s crazed eyes in the lamplight. A shaky hand pointed to an area betwixt her thighs.
The marshal was a practical man. He had six children of his own, four still alive. He knew what to do.
He cut the connection and gave the baby a slap on the bottom. Nothing happened.
A second slap. This time, a choking cough followed by a fulsome cry.
He’d saved a life, but was about to bear witness to a leave-taking.
Frieda’s expression changed from pleased to wan and then to frail. Matted afterbirth and too much blood loss were about to take their toll. Her breathing became irregular.
Quiet as a church mouse, her essence was there one second, gone the next.
An unspoken “rest in peace” was all the comfort the marshal could manage.
He wasn’t sure what to do.
He’d take the baby to the baron’s home. That’s where the most important decisions about local matters were made.
He was quietly proud of one thing.
A tiny baby girl was alive and safe in the crook of his right arm.
Nuala had been living with the baron’s family for all of her 20 years. Initially, the baron and his wife wanted nothing to do with her.
She developed into a lovely child, the prettiest lass in the region. Tawny ringlets, sparkling eyes and dimples that could warm the frostiest disposition.
The baron had lost his only son in a freak hunting accident shortly before the marshal brought the newborn to his home.
The young prince was gored to death by a wild boar at the age of 14. He’d been an impulsive lad that everyone took a shine to.
He absolutely insisted he go on the hunt with the men of the region.
There was no denying him what he wanted. To his great sorrow, the baron had been putty in his son’s hands. Much of the starch in his backbone vaporized that day.
The resulting depression was one reason the baron took such decisive action against the travelers. It was in opposition to his character. The cost in life was eventually recorded in his personal ledger as another immense regret.
The prince’s death devastated the royal family. Nuala’s arrival was a surprising delight that helped most everyone among the serving staff regain their bearings.
With the passage of time, the baron also came around in his opinion. He was charmed by Nuala’s adorable presence.
She was a force of nature, a seed that takes root in the most unlikely of places, grows and blossoms even amongst perverse and sometimes less than attractive weeds.
As she grew older, a specific and unusual talent emerged that made her invaluable to the head of the household.
Nuala had flashes of insight or intuition or whatever you want to call it about the future.
When it came to important matters of commerce, she somehow knew what was going to happen.
Nuala became very fond of the baron and his wife. She’d hardly known any other family.
She knew the stories about how she’d been brought in from the woods one night. Also how the marshal’s family had been charged with her care for the first couple of years.
Indeed it was the marshal who provided her name, in memory of a revered grandmother.
Some kinds of gossip couldn’t be kept under wraps in a social setting as small and tightly bound as the baron’s entourage.
She’d even heard that her natural mother was a member of the traveling fraternity. It was a concept so foreign to the life she’d become accustomed to, she couldn’t comprehend it.
Nevertheless, the reality of her upbringing made her more nervous about her circumstances than the baron would have guessed.
Nuala nurtured a secret. She didn’t just have vague intuitive moments. That was her story for public consumption.
She could actually see the future.
Whilst in physical contact with certain individuals, she could re-focus her mind in just such a way that the most important upcoming events in their lives would enter her mind with crystalline clarity.
The first time it happened was a bewildering experience.
One of her female playmates wondered aloud if she would draw the winning red stone from a beaker filled with unremarkable grey stones during fall fair celebrations.
Nuala was certain her friend would be the lucky one and told her so.
Of course, she didn’t know if what she imagined would actually come to pass.
When events did turn out as perceived, a chill went down her spine that was both an inauguration into her odd vocation and affirmation that she was truly special.
Over time, she learned to control her heightened awareness and was able to apply it with greater precision. Simply holding an article of clothing or some other personal effect from another individual became all she needed to make her visionary leap.
The one thing that made her gift bearable was the fact she had no foresight when it came to her own affairs.
She could foresee many events, but never in all her imaginings, was her own personal welfare involved.
Except in a peripheral way, since the help she provided the baron elevated his status, both in a financial sense and in terms of how he was perceived within the hierarchy of nobles serving under the king.
In fact, that’s why the whole household was currently in turmoil. Preparations were being made to spend a while in early spring at the royal court in the nation’s capital of Haven.
The king wanted to keep an eye on his chief nobles and to assess their strengths and weaknesses at closer quarters.
Everyone was excited, Nuala no less than the rest.
Demona, to this point in her life, embodied the notion of fun. She loved working in the tavern in the capital city of the kingdom.
She could hardly believe her luck. Amelia, her adopted mother, finally decided this was where they should settle down after many years of being on the road.
Their peripatetic lifestyle had brought Demona few friends. It was time to change all that, although working in the Bull and Maiden might not be the place to gain the most desirable of companions.
At Demona’s insistence, Amelia had told her on a hundred occasions the details of what happened on the night she was born.
Upon the arrival of the baron’s men and immediately after Frieda gave birth, Amelia had taken the infant and hidden in the woods.
Amelia returned when the coast was clear, but the wagon had been stripped of its possessions and Frieda’s body left to be picked clean by night creatures.
So much for the nobility, thought Demona with disgust. But there was no denying the law of the land gave them the right to do as they pleased.
In the two decades since, there was one good thing to say about their time spent traveling up and down the countryside.
It provided Demona with the opportunity to pursue her craft.
From an early age, she discovered an astonishing ability to prophesy.
Like her natural mother before her, she could determine at a touch the most intimate and important details about another individual’s prospects.
Coming to her so easily, it profited her little to simply blurt out the pertinent details.
She and Amelia concluded early on that fortune telling as a commercial enterprise required the appearance of effort.
The harder she made it seem, the more people were willing to pay to be told the results.
There was one other factor to consider.
While tolerated to a degree, since the peasants needed a minor distraction to take their minds off their misfortunes, her profession could still get one into big trouble with the religious authorities.
With respect to all matters of a pecuniary nature, Amelia controlled the purse.
Hence Amelia and Demona set up operations in the tavern of a distant relative of the former midwife.
They came to appreciate the benefits of hiding in plain sight.
Amelia helped with the cooking and Demona worked as a serving wench. Her vivacious personality made her a favorite among the clientele.
It was soon common knowledge that, for a respectable sum, Demona could be enticed to intercede in one’s personal affairs. Some special ability allowed her to help in matters of the heart.
She was also able to provide guidance when it came to health issues or in any of a number of other areas, even the advisability of seeking revenge for a perceived slight.
Her so-called hunches were amazingly accurate. It didn’t hurt that she was also a great addition to the overall atmosphere of light-hearted play in the pub.
From most perspectives, Demona’s days were proceeding in a pleasing manner.
There was only one drawback. She had no idea where her life was headed. These were dangerous and uncertain times, even in a kingdom as benign as the one where she was fortunate to live.
When it came to her own future, the picture was as murky as a lily pond.
Nuala loved being in the big city, the site of the king’s throne.
It was brighter and more bustling than she had expected. It made the baron’s lodgings back in the northern forest shield seem dank and dreary.
Still, that was home and it would be advisable not to become too comfortable in her new setting.
There were people everywhere, hawking wares, shouting at passersby, scurrying to accomplish one task or another.
The king had greeted the baron’s party with open arms, setting aside a portion of one wing in the airy castle to serve as an apartment during their stay.
Several comings and goings of the sun had passed since their arrival and now the most important half-day of the week was at hand. It was the time when anyone, royal personage and commoner alike, could approach the monarch and make supplication.
Most of the cases dealt with legal matters. Disputes over property lines. Or who possessed ownership over what prized head of livestock.
Occasionally, something out of the ordinary would engage the audience gathered in the great hall to hear the king’s pronouncements.
The king sat on his slightly raised dais with several ministers of state arranged to either side.
Earlier in his reign, when his youthful inexperience contained only a narrow understanding of the world, he’d viewed this exercise as a tedious task.
With greater maturity, he’d come to understand the wider significance. It was a means to demonstrate, before a packed house, how he handled difficult decisions.
More practically, it was also a hands-on method to establish control over his people and to make clear who was ultimately in charge.
The wisdom of the exercise was shown in a surprising side-effect. The public consultation process helped the king forge a personal connection with his subjects.
Whether his rulings were correct or not, there was no denying that everyone was given a fair hearing. Nor could there be any doubt about the amount of effort the king put into the execution of his responsibilities.
As the morning hours snuck up on noontime, there was one young man at the edge of the gathering who caught Nuala’s attention.
He was dressed more plainly than the fancy nobles who were present in abundance.
He also emanated a barely controlled and almost contagious nervousness.
It was finally his opportunity to step in front of the king. He kneeled and the court clerk, reading from what was obviously a lengthy list, announced the name “Desmond Saltwater, your Highness.”
The formalities out of the way, the next few moments grew increasing painful.
Desmond tried to speak but all he managed was to stammer and sputter. No intelligible words emerged from his lips. His awkwardness became acute.
The crowd started to take notice. The low buzz of background conversation that was pervasive on these occasions gave way to an edgy stillness. Intimations of amusement were heard.
As Desmond stood cap in hand and head lowered, laughter spread throughout the room. If one had an ounce of sympathy, the pain and shame in Desmond’s eyes were painful to behold.
Not a moment too soon, he turned and ran. The standing crowd parted.
On the way out, he dropped his cap. Nuala, from her position near his passage, stooped to pick it up. Most other eyes were on the retreating figure.
At the precise moment her fingers touched the rough fabric, her world changed.
A familiar whirl of imagery seized her consciousness. Her immediate surroundings vanished and she was transported to another locale, somewhere in the future.
There was a woman tied to a stake, kindling wood spread at her feet. A pyre of timber was piled high at her back.
A man brandishing a lit torch was approaching from an angle.
A single rider, dressed in finery and on a magnificent charger, shouted “Halt!”
A sword was raised. There was no hesitation in his commanding presence.
The man on horseback was Desmond.
At the last second, before the vision faded, she caught a close-up glimpse of the bound woman in a flowing dark smock.
There was no mistaking her face.
It was someone she’d never encountered before in any of her dream sequences.
Barely recognizable, thinner and older, it was her own countenance.
Nuala was shocked. She’d never been more scared in her life.
Emerging from her trance, Nuala realized this man was important to her. In fact, he might be crucial to her survival.
His bearing as viewed in her projection was quite different from what she’d seen earlier.
More assertive and in charge, he was a man with a measure of experience and success behind him. After the ridicule he’d so recently suffered, it was important he be informed of the fact.
She chased after him down the hall.
“Sir, please, I have your cap,” she shouted.
Desmond, at first, paid no attention to the sound gaining traction from behind.
His mind was locked in a circle of regret, recrimination and self-accusation for his failure and embarrassment.
Nor was he used to being addressed as sir.
When the astonishing young girl stood directly in his path and waved the object at him, he finally came out of his stupor.
“What is it you want?” he said.
“I have your hat, sir. You dropped it back in the hall.”
“Oh, well thank you then. That was very kind of you. I appreciate it.” He accepted the outstretched offering with humility and a nod.
Nuala felt the jolt again from the brief contact. She was compelled to continue speaking.
“Sir, what I am about to tell you is very important. Please listen to what I have to say.”
Desmond looked skeptical but he nodded for her to carry on nonetheless.
“I don’t know what you’ve come here to discuss with the king, but it is crucial that you carry through with your original intent. Don’t give up. Don’t be discouraged. If you persevere, you will have the success you’ve been hoping for.”
Desmond was thrown into confusion. Did she have any idea who he was? Or what he was doing here at court?
And why should he pay any attention to someone he’d never met before?
Perhaps most important, could he possibly summon the nerve to return again next week and solicit help from the king?
His thoughts scurried about. He finally narrowed in on the woman. “What more can you tell me?” he asked.
She refused to be more forthcoming. “That’s all I can say on the matter. I don’t have any further insight. Please, sir, pay heed to my words. You won’t be sorry.”
With that, she ran back to be with her family.
After a few moments’ hesitation, but with greater purpose, Desmond continued his walk down the hall, out the front exit and back to his temporary lodgings in the town.
Watching from the sidelines that day was another man. Not exactly a whole man but one for whom outward appearance provided a semblance of substance.
His garments were a perfect match to cloak his true nature.
In the eyes of most people, he was someone to hold in highest regard.
Respect was what he coveted. Never mind that coveting was just one of his many sins. Or that acquaintance with his underlying persona was sure to yield a conclusion opposite to what he intended.
He watched stony-faced as Desmond fled the great hall. Not for him, the laughter of the masses.
What he did notice, with a great deal more interest, was the beautiful girl who bent down to pick up Desmond’s cap.
Now there was a honeyed apple worth a lick and a bite.
The clergyman Peter Lescarre was odd man out in the king’s court.
He was the darkness that hovered on the fringes; the chill that cooled the warmest nights; the dampness that seeped through the walls and provided sustenance for spoors of discontent.
He was here to make argument with the king the same as he did every week.
He wanted to alert the nation that there was an evil loose in the land and that its manifestation was most readily apparent in the common practice of witchcraft.
The enlightened king was ever reluctant to take action on the matter. His subjects were too happy with the way things were. There was no reason to upset the existing order.
The motivating force behind Peter’s continual search for villainy lay in his own exceptional history.
He and his twin brother, Paul, were notorious even as children in the little village where they grew up.
Their pranks had caused the family to be driven out of their tiny community, causing a rupture with their parents and other siblings at an early age.
Paul was the more vicious of the two. It started with the torture of little woodland animals and progressed to arson and additional acts of vandalism.
Violence against other persons was clearly not out of the question.
Peter knew this because he shared a preternatural empathy with his brother. Their mental connection was stronger the closer the proximity.
Eventually, Peter realized he must achieve separation from Paul or be taken down with him.
This didn’t make him a better person. It simply meant he was more clear-headed. He had a better understanding of where their crooked path would lead.
To save himself, Peter chose an option that left little wiggle room.
He sought sanctuary in a monastery, volunteering to help the brotherhood with its agricultural pursuits. He tilled the land and helped grow vegetables and fruit.
In time, the monks fully accepted his presence and taught him to read and write. His eager adoption of scripture and compliance with the order’s rules saw him rise quickly through the ranks.
When the bishop in Haven arrived on one of his periodic visits and told the abbot he required an acolyte to serve as a secretary, Peter was the obvious choice.
The move to Haven hadn’t soothed his soul as he’d hoped. His restless search for meaning in his life continued to occupy most of his waking hours.
A failure of imagination and a lack of self-awareness caused him to eschew the spiritual and choose material signs of goodness as his yardsticks.
The methods and persistence he adopted in chasing after external evil caused the distinction between who was the hunter and who-the-prey to dissolve.
Most tellingly, the pursuer in search of the paranormal was, himself, an unwilling and inadvertent practitioner.
He could still discern when his brother was up to no good.
Paul’s actions were no longer restricted to experimentation and sick fun.
Even at a considerable psychic distance, it was clear to Peter that Paul had embraced wickedness as his chosen lifestyle.
The Bull and Maiden was the fourth stop on a typical tour of dissolution spent by Nester and his casual drinking buddies that same day in the capital.
They were a bevy of young lords in waiting, supported by rich parents from among the nobility while squandering their time in wasteful but expensive ways.
Nester noticed the buxom barmaid immediately upon entering the establishment. He determined he’d take a run at her later, if intoxication didn’t render his ability to perform mute.
The turned-up corners of her mouth lent her expression a permanent smile and her body moved with an easy grace that suggested an enticing physicality.
The continual and obsessive amorous plans of most men bear only occasional fruit, however, and this was to be no exception.
As she brushed his arm while delivering a tankard of ale to his table, a startling transformation took place.
She stood as if frozen at first, the beer in her hand. Subsequent trembling spilled the amber liquid all over his lap.
“Hey, what’s the big idea?” was his unsurprising response.
The girl swung sideways and grabbed his shirtfront. “Listen to me very carefully. A day will come when you will be tested. It will be the day that makes or breaks you as a man.
“I see you standing by a bedside, dagger in hand. There are still several hours to go before cock-crow. You’ve just stabbed a predator and saved a life.
“You’re deeply confused about what you’ve done. There’s another person in the room. The scent of petunias permeates from a vase in one corner.”
Nester couldn’t refrain from being drawn into her story.
“All right, I’ll play along. Who’s life have I saved?”
“Sir, please don’t treat this vision lightly. It has a dimension I’ve never experienced before. I don’t know how to explain it, but the woman in the bed has my face.”
Her eyes continued to blaze. Then she released her hold, shrugged to regain composure and stepped back to the bar.
Nester would normally have sniggered. Instead, he was mesmerized.
The others at the table looked on in astonishment. A moment later, they cracked up in amusement.
Nester joined in their laughter. He wasn’t sure why. The intensity of the barmaid’s plea lingered on.
It was the consensus of the others that the revelation was both staged and about to take all the fun out of their evening.
There was agreement they should take their leave.
Nester’s earlier enthusiasm for a romp with the barmaid had been exorcized by her firm grip and stern admonition.
He was content to be led out of the bar and escorted to another watering hole.
The purpose of the night’s hi-jinks was to hold one final celebration before Nester left on a return journey to his family’s estate the next day.
Only much later did he realize something profoundly important.
He would remember the barmaid and her words of warning long after many other aspects of his stay in the capital had disappeared from his mind.
Two years passed and Desmond was coming home.
Not home exactly. He’d already passed that milestone, sailing into the harbor of Safe Landing in triumph.
Now he was on his way to see the king and pay back his debt. With abundant interest, he might add.
Desmond was a rich man. He was returning to the kingdom in triumph. Riding at the head of a long column of men and animals, he made a fine figure of authority and prosperity.
The cargo train stretched out far behind him. Pack horses were laden down with saddlebags full of foreign linens and fine furs. Carts jostled along in a snaking line filled with silver bowls and precious jewelry.
His trade mission had been more successful than his wildest dreams.
It was all thanks to one extraordinary creature and the most fortuitous of encounters.
He’d run out of his first meeting with the king in a blizzard of humiliation and embarrassment.
Somehow, he’d found the courage to go back a week later and speak with maximum clarity.
It was the girl who inspired him to take the second chance.
The kingdom really wasn’t a maritime powerhouse. Shaped like a diamond standing on one point, there was a singular tiny port along a southern coast that offered access to the sea.
That’s where Desmond had grown up, in a household with a longstanding tradition in the fisheries. He’d learned from his father about sailing on treacherous waters.
When it came to judging tide and wind shifts, it was clear from a young age he was a savant.
He’d heard stories from occasional visiting seafarers about the riches available for the taking if one had the fortitude to risk the elements.
He knew he was the man for such an undertaking.
Why shouldn’t his king participate in the wealth that was liberally on offer in the broader world?
That’s why he’d been at court, to make his pitch. He needed a rich patron to finance his venture.
Who better than the king?
To the surprise of everyone, their ruler had listened attentively and then concurred. He understood the courage it had taken this young man to stand before him again and suggest such a novel idea.
He also had more of a global view than anyone else in the realm. He received and gave audience to ambassadors from other countries. He knew that in the long run it wasn’t safe for his country to stand in isolation.
The more his kingdom reached out and interacted with other nations, the more likely it could anticipate dangers and be able to take defensive action if necessary.
He’d never have a huge navy. But the fact his nation had a port at all was a godsend. So many countries were land-locked.
He had explained all this to Desmond in a semi-private meeting after agreeing to provide funding for the junket.
Wrapped in remembrance, Desmond rode across the drawbridge and passed under the portcullis that led into the commercial area of the capital.
He’d been many months at sea, exploring exotic destinations and learning to bargain for the best deals.
Numerous flirtations with danger had led to an exponential increase in his skill with weaponry.
Dealing with surly natives and sharp-tongued merchants, he’d grown in ways too numerous to compute.
He had a lifetime of memories to mull over should he ever reach his leisure years.
For the moment, though, riding through the main square was a difficult proposition. A large crowd had gathered.
It wasn’t just his natural reticence that fed his understanding they weren’t there to greet him.
Several woebegone creatures were standing under guard on the west side of the square. A phalanx of priests was milling around as well.
A lackadaisical crowd of several hundred people was in the preliminary stage of being whipped into a frenzy.
A single clergyman was attempting to exhort them on. His speech was replete with droning intonation.
The mob’s attention was diverted when some at the back caught sight of Desmond and the beginnings of the line-up carrying treasure for the king.
A great cheer arose. Word of his imminent arrival and the success of his mission had spread from Safe Landing to the urban center.
Desmond was delighted by the reaction, until something about the first intended victim caught his attention.
Maybe it was the hair. Or the tilt of her head. Or the way her long legs and full upper body suggested a spray of flowers.
The imagery had been forefront in his mind for two years.
Could it be? Was it possible? The young lady in such imminent danger was the very one who had inspired his great success.
She’d been the one to accost him inside the castle to insist he try his approach to the king again.
She’d given him the confidence to say what he’d come for in the first place.
He owed her everything.
“Halt!” he shouted. Looking up at the source of the command from on top of the prancing stallion, the man with the torch was intimidated to stop in his tracks.
“Release that woman into my care. I’m on my way to have a word with the king.”
“She’s a witch and must be burned at the stake,” cried the clergyman who rushed into the scene, after abandoning his bully pulpit.
He was clearly the one in charge of the travesty.
Desmond managed to keep his wits about him. He wasn’t unaware the church would take exception to his interference in its affairs.
“What’s her crime?” he asked
“She’s been found guilty of employing the evil eye.”
“Then I have a purpose,” said Desmond. “At a time of such bounty for our land, I want to hold up before the king an example of the wrongdoing that can be found outside our boundaries. We must continue to be steadfast in our intolerance for such practices.”
The anger in the priest’s eyes softened and was replaced by contrition.
“I encountered her kind everywhere on my journeys,” Desmond added as a closing argument.
Desmond was thinking quickly. Once in front of the king, and accepted into the bosom of his good graces, perhaps he’d be able to make a special request.
To spare the life of this good person would be what he’d seek.
He knew such a course of action might save the life of someone who’d once done him a very great favor.
It would be accomplished at the cost of enormous enmity with the church. That was a conflict for another day.
For the moment, he had a task to accomplish. His shyness of old was replaced by a firm and mature resolve.
The woman was unbound and inserted into the convoy. She was allowed to proceed on foot under the watchful eye of clergyman Lescarre.
After a sumptuous dinner offered as a treat by their host, Nester lay in his bed tossing and turning. There were a number of matters about which he was unsettled.
He hadn’t understood why his father had accepted the invitation from the baron to visit in the first place. He knew his father hated the man.
His father was a noble in his own right, presiding over a vast region that abutted the property of the baron.
His father had a mean streak that belied his surface polish.
He was a vicious competitor on any playing field.
The concept of fair play was something he privately mocked.
Publicly, he was happy to espouse good behavior, especially if it could be worked to his advantage.
Hopefully, it would lead to the opposition lowering its defenses. Then he’d leap in for the kill.
His father came out a winner in almost all his business dealings. The one man he’d never been able to best, however, was the baron.
That was the source of their longstanding enmity.
The visit to the baron’s home was supposed to be about putting their differences behind them.
If Nester knew anything, though, his father’s visit was a pretext for something else.
There was a shadowy figure in his father’s employment who always seemed to be nearby when the outcome of affairs was indeterminate.
In essence, he was retained as a fixer. His methods were known to be unsavory.
The silent man’s name was Paul Lescarre and he was in their retinue on this trip.
That alone was cause for suspicion.
To this point in his relatively brief existence, there was nothing in Nester’s apparent make-up to suggest he might have moral qualms about anything his father did.
So far, he’d been happy to live off the spoils his father had managed to accumulate in whatever manner possible.
The vast amount of time he’d wasted in various drinking halls in every community in the land bore testament to that fact.
But there were certain features about this trip that felt bad.
His stomach was doing flip flops.
What was that beautiful young lady doing at the dinner table tonight? The last time he’d seen that face, she’d been serving him beer at the Bull and Maiden.
In two years, he still hadn’t been able to get her words out of his head. “Listen to me very carefully. A day will come when you will be tested. It will be the day that makes or breaks you as a man.”
He was sure something momentous was about to happen and he needed to act.
What should he do? Think!
He reviewed the conversations he’d had from time to time with his father concerning the baron.
The old man had a notion the baron had his own secret advantage. That’s right. Now it was coming back to him.
The baron was supposed to have someone in his household who could predict the future. With the help of such spiritual intervention, he was able to manage his affairs to grow rich and bountiful.
Could it be that Nuala was that fortune teller? Of course she was. Hadn’t she seen his future in an instant?
Nester had to make sure she was alright. He left his room and proceeded down the hallway.
This was a dangerous course of action he was undertaking, but he couldn’t turn back. He knew the domestic quarters of the baron were on the other side of the keep.
He kept his eyes open for anything suspicious.
The baron’s room was certain to be high up, at a corner of the structure where the view of the surrounding countryside would be at its finest.
He judged that a lower floor in the same turret was the most likely location to find Nuala. He crept along several passageways on cat’s paws.
Sure enough, a faint light emanated from one of the rooms, through a small crack between door and frame.
He pushed the door slightly inward and stuck his head around the thick oak plank.
Standing at the edge of the bed was a dark shape silhouetted in the dying light from the fireplace embers. A vague movement towards the headboard conveyed a threat of harmful action.
Nester was sure it was Paul Lescarre with garrote in hand.
Strangle the victim and throw him or her from a tower, suggesting suicide, had been Lescarre’s preferred method of dispatch on other occasions.
Nester was faced with no option. He pulled his dagger and crossed the five paces to the ominous form as quietly as he could.
Grabbing the man’s neck in an arm lock from behind, he stabbed him in the fleshy side and twisted the knife. There was a grunt and an expulsion of breath. Lescarre went limp in his arms.
The commotion woke Nuala, who in confusion and shock had no idea what was going on.
Nester placed his hand firmly over her mouth to prevent her from crying out. He wrestled with her as gently as he could until her struggling subsided.
When her exaggerated breathing finally relaxed, he was able to address her calmly.
He told her he’d gone looking for a late-night snack, become lost in the castle and happened upon an incredible scene.
The “mongrel dog” lying dead at the side of her bed had been about to accost her.
Her wild-eyed questioning look gradually turned to one of relief.
With Lescarre’s demise, there would be no embarrassing stories about his family’s role in the night’s activities.
Nester and his father could at least pretend Lescarre had been acting on his own, with rape as his ultimate aim.
Who could say differently?
Nuala was effusively grateful Nester had come to her rescue when he did.
Desmond had never been happier.
His position had been assured by the king and the wealth he’d brought home was distributed in such a way there was plenty left over to pay his followers and still live in luxury for the remainder of his life.
This was fine by him since he now had a companion with whom to round out his days and occupy his nights.
The king approved Desmond’s request to release Demona into his care. At no time had the king felt comfortable with the church’s actions in penalizing the hapless through charges of witchcraft.
It was his observation that most of the women who found themselves in such a situation were poor, uneducated and simply trying to survive by whatever means they could.
Besides, tweaking Lescarre’s misshapen nose was something he had no hesitation in doing. He’d never liked the man and had always suspected his motives.
Once she’d been cleaned up and better fed, Desmond fell hard for Demona in a manner that transcended being merely thankful for a kindness rendered.
He heard her story about how she’d landed in her predicament.
Having learned of her reputation, Lescarre had approached her seeking foreknowledge about his ambitions. He was willing to pay.
When she told him she didn’t see advancement in his future, his interest took a different turn.
He wanted attentions of a more intimate nature. Nuala was appalled.
Working in the tavern, she had her pick of a more appealing and vigorous lot than the clergyman would ever be. Just the same, she was still holding out for what she hoped would be a perfect match.
Again, Amelia had taught her well. Demona’s reserve had less to do with any inclination towards modesty or restraint than the realization that certain assets lose value when dispensed too freely.
Lescarre had taken violent exception to her rejection. His pay-back was to have her arrested for sorcery.
This was one of the few times he was able to make the king bend to his will. He produced witnesses who testified they’d seen Demona snatch up Desmond’s cap in the great hall so long ago.
Everyone knows witches use a personal possession or a strand of hair when casting a spell against someone.
Why would she do such a thing? To make a point? To prove she could?
Maybe she was a scorned lover. Perhaps she was acting on behalf of another who held a grudge.
He was able to convince the king she’d put a curse on Desmond’s venture and he was never coming back.
For her part, Demona denied she’d ever been in the king’s court. Too many witnesses were able to say otherwise.
Events for Peter Lescarre had fallen perfectly into place.
That is, until the whole rickety case fell apart upon Desmond’s return.
Only one problem remained. Well two, actually.
Demona had no idea what Desmond was talking about when he insisted she was his savior.
Similarly, she had no knowledge of the episode with the cap.
Desmond was confused but not entirely disappointed. Whenever he’d imagined running into his benefactor again, he’d known there might be a considerable gap in their social standing.
She was, after all, a lady used to mixing with royalty.
Now she was denying all knowledge of such a lifestyle. Either she was highly delusional, brought on by the trauma of recent events, or he was.
Her memories were too precise to suggest she was confused about her background.
Could he have been mistaken about their encounter two years ago? In the sway of his oscillating emotions that day, might he have imagined things?
It made no difference. He was in love with this girl and intended to spend the rest of his life with her.
Besides, there was another consideration.
Despite his new elevation in stature, he was sure to be happier with a partner who could relate to his background of a more modest nature.
As a couple, they would return to the fishing village where he’d grown up.
So what if there was a mystery that might never be solved.
From the night of the attempted assassination, Nester and Nuala had been inseparable.
They talked about their past lives, their plans and all that lay ahead for them.
There was only one sticking point.
It raised its head whenever they broached the subject of how Nester happened to come into Nuala’s bedchamber at such a fortunate time.
She had no idea what he was talking about when he said she’d given him forewarning of the danger two years before in the tavern.
She’d never been anywhere near a tavern, except when traveling.
It was true that she didn’t seem like the kind of girl to ever have worked in such a place.
So much the better for him.
He’d been brought up to appreciate a refined sensibility in his womenfolk.
Nevertheless, it was a puzzle.
It seemed he was the one with a cloudy recollection of past events.
Could he have been confused about their supposed encounter? In the midst of a night out drinking with the boys, might he have imagined the whole thing?
It made no never mind. He was in love with this girl and he intended to spend the rest of his life with her.
In the early spring of the following year, neither sister was aware she’d saved the other’s life.
Nor that she’d been instrumental in bringing her sibling together with her one true love.
Desmond and Demona were heading out of town after attending church on the first Sunday of Lent.
Their possessions had been sent on ahead under the supervision of Amelia, who had suffered myriad virtual deaths during Demona’s incarceration.
Amelia’s absence was just as well, since the two of them did appreciate the privacy on their honeymoon.
They were alone in a fine closed carriage heading in a southerly direction, across the cobblestones of the courtyard where Demona’s life had been placed in such jeopardy.
They entered the impressive gateway opening onto the drawbridge like any of a hundred other horse-drawn vehicles that day.
At about the same time, newlyweds Nester and Nuala were heading into the city in a northerly direction.
They would be spending some time in town during that particular period of the year at the king’s request.
It was the annual gathering of notables that was now a part of the regular rhythm and flow of the kingdom.
After swearing fealty to the king, they would receive his blessings. It was a means to ensure loyalty while also facilitating an honest rendering of fees owed to the court.
Nester’s father had withdrawn from public attention when his son uncovered the plot to kill the baron’s soothsayer.
He informed one and all his health was no longer up to long journeys and his son would act in his stead in most matters related to his holdings.
It wouldn’t be long until Nester would be taking over anyway. The father’s declining health was a matter of both sad and happy speculation.
Their elegant and private coach crossed the drawbridge and passed through the fortification’s opening.
At exactly the same instant, Demona and Nuala experienced a flash of cognition unlike anything they’d ever known before.
A brilliant white light exploded and expanded in both their heads, then receded.
Within its diminishing corona, images cascaded and danced in an ongoing sequence that seemed to last forever but in real time played out in seconds.
During that stretched moment, the future rolled out in a disorderly manner extending for generations.
Faces familiar and not so well known, but held in deepest regard, suggested a generational journey with no end in sight.
Nuala snapped back to consciousness. She immediately stuck her head out the window, sure that some close-by phenomenon had inspired such a miraculous event.
What she saw was nothing out of the ordinary, only several of the common folk passing on foot in both directions.
Looking forward, there was a nondescript priest skipping along to stay in front of their carriage.
Behind them, another coach was heading into the countryside beyond the town’s perimeter wall.
A few heartbeats earlier, Demona had also burst out of her reverie and was applying all of her reasoning power to understand what had occurred.
As she was about to look out the window, a possibly dangerous missile was thrown into the interior of the coach from outside.
Desmond unrolled what was a scrap of parchment and read her the note. Written in precise handwriting were the words, “You’ll know no peace. I have my inner eye on you.”
Demona was compelled to look outside.
There was nothing to see but a disparate group of people trekking along and a coach pointed in the opposite direction, into town.
She was pretty sure who’d thrown the missive. But even if they could catch him, he’d only deny it.
A monk in a black robe, hood pulled up, was walking in sprightly fashion across the town square’s cobblestones.
Several months prior, late at night, Peter Lescarre had been startled awake in the cell he occupied behind Haven’s cathedral. An excruciating pain pulsed low in his torso.
Once the initial shock and throbbing discomfort subsided, he was overcome by a devastating sadness.
In turn, that was replaced by a loss of encumbrance.
Calculation of a final tally revealed a substantial load had been lifted from his shoulders. He was sure he’d never hear word of his brother again.
He instinctively knew he was now in position to give freer rein to his own impulses. There was no longer the need to provide a counter-weight.
It was too bad circumspection had already rendered some of his plans ineffectual.
Still, in these dark times and under the cloak of his professional life, there were sure to be many more opportunities.
Peter Lescarre had the bitterest of smiles on his face.