by Marc Prudhon

Where did the soda fountain go, that's not a mystery.
Like the mom and pop grocery store, lost to history.
The corner store where the owner greeted you by name.
The big box stores have no soul, it just isn't the same.

REBEL, REVOLT, find one of those stores left, so few.
You can help save it, and they'll be happy to see you.
Sure it is cheaper elsewhere, but those few cents of cost.
might secure/rescue a bit of nostalgia, before it is lost.

I'd call Mike at Millers' Hardware, tell him what I need.
Was ready when I got there. How's that for speed?
I am guilty as all, and saying it isn't at all nice.
We've sold part of our soul for a few pennies of price.

The Monster and His Keeper, part 13-18

by Lyle Dagnen

Part 13

“How is it that we get children?  I like them, I've played with them, I know how to take care of them.  But how do we get them?” She paused. “Cook said that they were found in the cabbage patch.  I tended the cabbage patch and never found one of them.”  He wanted to laugh but he knew he should not.  She was serious in her observations.

“God's teeth” he shook his head. “You are such an innocent.  Has no one ever talked to you at all?”

She blushed. “My mother spoke to me to calm me down so that I would know that I as not dying when um...” She was chewing her lip again. “You know, I'm sure.  That I was not bleeding to death.”

He nodded his understanding of what she was stammering to say. He thought, How have I gotten himself into a conversation like this?  He had always expected his bride to come to him, at least, informed about what was going to take place.  Here she sat, resting her elbows on his knees, looking to him as a font of information about everything.  He noticed for the first time a sprinkling of freckles across her nose.

Maybe this was the universe pulling itself together to be sure that he was properly punished for surviving when others might have died.  That she was only fifteen and he was twenty-five was not such a shocking thing.  He knew of men who had been wed to females as young as thirteen.  Some men had been proxy married to infants in the nursery and had waited patiently for them to grow up.  Most had plowed their way through a field of courtesans while they waited.  Not that he had not spent time in the arms of the women trained to please a man, but he had tried to avoid many of the problems that happened when visiting these women too often.  Now, he had been given a female to be his wife who  did not have the first idea of how to be a wife, or how to please him in bed.  She said she tended a cabbage patch, did she know how to tend his castle?

Part 14

“Since this union was not brokered by anyone, can you tell me what you are capable of doing?” It surprised him to watch the play of emotions on her face.  She had clearly not been instructed on how to maintain a countenance of calm.  He thought he might like this, at least he would have some idea of what she was thinking.  Women, at best, were a puzzle.

She leaned back, holding on to one of her knees as a counterbalance.  “I can read and write Latin and English.  I am skilled with numbers, I can add, subtract, multiply and divide.  The priest who taught me spoke of something called Algebra but I know nothing of it. I can sew. My stitches are small and neat. I can do fancy stitches as well as knit.  I can cook. Cook taught me about running a kitchen and his assistant taught me about the garden and herbs and spices.  I helped care for the children on wash day. I can even do laundry.  I can ride bareback and sit a regular saddle.  I hate a side saddle, but I did ride one on the way here.  I can make candles, build a fire and clean a keep.  I thought all of these skills would be of value to the monastery and perhaps lead to me being a prioress.” She had watched his face as she listed all of what she called her skills.

“Did your parents know that you were out in the garden and building the fires?” He found that all of her activities were difficult for him to believe, in the normal circumstances of her being a girl in a family of high rank.

She was blushing again. He found she did that when she shared something like a confession or when she was caught in an explanation of something she had done.  “They knew nothing of my activities.  I surely would have been punished if they had caught me riding across the meadow in a dead run on one of the war horses, bareback.  Mostly, I am able to be very quiet and move around without being noticed.  It was easy to become lost in all the people.  As long as I didn't call attention to myself I was pretty much left alone.  I hope that I have not offended you.”

She was looking directly at his face.  Most people could not stand to look at the twisting of the scars that covered the upper third of his face and into his hair line.  He glared at her.  When his expression changed she noted it immediately.  “I did not mean to offend you,” she whispered and dropped her gaze to her hands.

“Get used to the face!”  He was back to barking at her. “It is the face you will see every day of your life for the rest of your life.  It will be the face that you look at when I'm inside you, the face you will see when you eat your meals.  The face of a monster” He had grown defensive and angry.  She did not understand what she had said or done to get this reaction from him.

“You do not frighten me.  I told you that.  I look at you to put your face in my memory.  I have never before laid eyes on you; I want you in my memory.” She did not move her eyes from his face.  He was as stubborn as she, and he did not look away.  He looked in her eyes and saw no pity, he saw no fear, just the look of someone who did not know him and seemed to want to know about him. She had lowered herself to a kneeling position.   “Now, you tell me what your skills are”  she rested on her knees between his legs, her hands on his forearms.

Part 15

He began to tell her about his academic knowledge which did surpass hers, but hers was stolen, his was deliberate.  He had fostered at ten and because of his size had excelled in all of the battle training.  With lance, bow, shield, sword, and whip he had led all of his companions in battle.  The king had chosen him as his champion and knighted him when he was barely out of training.  His tendency to protect the king had led to his injuries.  He spoke of the arrow in his knee which had caused him to be off balance in using his shield which had resulted in his face being burned and the loss of part of his right hand.  He had trained to use his sword with his left hand but was not as quick as with his right.  He spoke of himself like a broken old warrior put out to pasture.  He wasn't old at all, injured yes, but he wasn't old.  It was his left leg that had taken the arrow at the knee.  He could still mount a horse.  His right hand could be used, just without the two fingers.

She did not see him as broken, bent maybe, but not broken.  She asked him a bold question, “Are the parts of you that make you a husband to me broken or damaged?”  She really did not know what she was asking, but maybe there was something she needed to know about.

“God's Blood!” He was a fountain of swear words.  She was soaking each one up for when she might need them again. “You say the strangest things.  I am not broken or deficient and will service you quite well when the time comes.” He leaned down so that his nose was almost touching hers.

That they had been together like this, almost intimate, was an unusual thing — unheard of in their circles.  He had not expected her to stay. No chaperone had been provided.  She thought she would be in a monastery by now.  It would be so easy to kiss her, to just cover her mouth with his lips.  She was unusual, he was brave, he decided to kiss this woman who would be his bride.  They were alone which was highly improper.  He turned his head to adjust for their noses and covered her lips with his.    He placed his hands over hers and maintained the pleasant placement of his mouth on hers.  He felt her move slightly toward him allowing her mouth to conform to his.  They maintained contact for a long time, he lost count of how long; she did not seem to care to move away from him.  When they separated they each seemed stunned at what feelings had stirred between them. “We must never speak of these conversations or of this time together among other people.  We would certainly shock people and your honor would be called into question”  His  voice was quiet but still carried an air of command.

“I can keep a secret.” She yawned in a very unladylike fashion. “I am tired.  I will sleep by the fire.  Wake me in the morning.” She had spent the last two nights on the ground by a fire.  She lay down on the hearth and was soon asleep.   He watched this creature that had wandered into his life.  Surely she was going to upset everything in his well-ordered life.  Instead of frowning, he found that he was smiling at the prospect of fitting her into his days.  He would enjoy solving the puzzle named Kat.   She had simply curled by his fire and gone to sleep.  He had had the master’s rooms moved to the first floor when it had become obvious that his knee would be stiff and climbing stairs would be a problem.  He thought once of picking her up and moving her to his room but decided against it.  He had allowed enough compromise of her tonight.  He would not complicate it by having her sleep in his bed even if sleep was all that she did.  He would marry her, she would be the mother of his children, the heirs to his titles and lands.  There would be honor in the reputation that was spoken of in this castle.

Part 16

The next day the bailey was alive with conversation about the fact that the young woman he had sent for had stayed.  When they all saw the priest making his way into the great hall they all knew that the master would take that young woman to wife.  Their master had stayed closed away ever since he came back a hero, but damaged in such a way that he remained hidden from people.  Naturally, such behavior grew rumors and stories about why he stayed hidden away as he did.  The men who were his soldiers were as quiet as he was reclusive, which made the stories grow even faster.  There were no parties, no celebrations, no feast days, only closed doors and rumors of a young man who had saved his king and been horribly injured.  Now the priest was entering on the morning after the arrival of the young woman that the guards had been told to be prepared to escort right back to her family.  She had not left, the priest was on his way in, it had to mean that they were getting married.  

When he woke he had dressed and gone to find her.  Finding her sitting by a built-up fire making pets of his dogs, he asked, “Do you have any other clothing to wear for your wedding day?”  He motioned to the clothes she had worn into the keep.   The fancy clothes she had worn for travel were still damp; no amount of brushing could help them at this point.

“I only have more like this.”  She stretched out the fabric when she sat up.  “I think my mother thought that we would marry as soon as I arrived.  She did not account for the rain and the fact that you thought I would leave and be returned to them.” He offered his right hand, she took it without hesitation, he helped her to stand.

“Then what you have will do.  I have sent for the priest.  It is time.”  Fredrick led the priest to Lord Andrew.  “Father John, this is Cecilia Katherine Marie, Lady Stafford.  She is to be joined with me in marriage this day.”  He placed the copy of the notification by the king on the table for the priest to read.

The priest bowed to them, “Lord Andrew.”  The priest began, Fredrick stood as witness.  The priest spoke all of the words as if they were in front of a huge crowd.

“Cecilia Katherine Marie, will you take Robert William Andrew as your husband?”

She answered, “I will.”

“Robert William Andrew, will you take Cecilia Katherine Marie as your wife?”

He answered, “I will.”

Drew had his parents' rings, he held them for the priest to bless them.  She slid the ring on his left hand and he slid his mother's ring on her left hand.  It occurred to him that this wedding was so much less than most women of their social group expected.  She held her hands inside his as the priest blessed them and their union. She swore fealty to him.  The kiss matrimonial was given.  Then the priest served them communion. He managed to kneel with his left leg stretched awkwardly behind him.  She knelt facing him as the marriage was blessed by the church. Fredrick helped him to stand. When Drew helped her to stand, she stepped in close so that he could balance on his stiff leg.  As swiftly as they had been joined by Fredrick and Father John, they were left alone.  Fredrick had gone to get their breakfast.

Part 17

“It seems,” she commented, “that we are now bound together.  I hope that you have no regrets.  I cannot be the prize that you had in mind.” She had no illusions about who and what she was.

“Look at me,” he commanded. “I think we are the best match possible.  You are no silly twit; I certainly have no wild dreams about some fantasy.” He drew her hands to his chest and her in close to him. As he held her hands inside his, the rings tinkled together with an appealing sound.   “I have a woman who is wise beyond her years.” He moved so that his arms were around her, holding her tight against him. “Every minute I stay with you, you mean more to me than the last.”  He kissed her again, this time spending more time with her mouth under his.

“My Lord.” Fredrick bowed, setting a tray of food on the table for them.

They sat at table sharing the morning repast. He pulled her close to him, touching her back, holding her hands. When she reached to touch his face he closed his eyes and allowed her gentle caress.  She asked all sorts of questions about the place that she would call her home.  For the first time, in what seemed a lifetime, he wanted to ride out from the castle and show her all that was theirs.  He would speak to his master of horse to see that his saddle stirrups were adjusted for his leg that would not bend.  He would spend today preparing her for his claim of her, as best as any woman could be prepared.  He just hoped that she did not hate him afterward.  He had grown quite fond of her in a very short time.  As the day moved toward evening, he felt it was time; he issued a command to her.

Part 18 

“Go to my room, I will send a woman to you.  She will train as your maid.  You may arrange the things in my room so that you will have room for yours. Go.”

She followed his directions to the room for the master.  She opened the windows to allow air to flow in.  The air was cool, but a room needed fresh air.  She was unpacking the saddle bags when a woman came in, nervous.  She bowed, incorrectly, but she bowed.

“My lady.” her voice sounded weak. “I am Ester.  The Lord has chosen me to be your maid.  It seems we'll learn this together.  How may I help you?”

“I need to find a place for my clothes.  My best dress is drying still before the fire in the great hall.” Kat saw the look on Ester's face when she saw the dresses she laid out on the bed.  “I only have plain clothes.  I was not dressed for suitors or society.”

Ester came up to her and touched her hair.  “I'm not much on curls but I'm good with braids.  Your hair is beautiful.  We can braid it like a crown and let it fall down your back if you like.  Would you like a bath?”

Kat nodded and Ester went to order her bath.  In a matter of minutes a large tub was hauled in the room and buckets of water were carried in to fill the tub with water. The window was closed so that the fire could warm the area.  A folding screen was placed behind the tub to reflect and hold the heat.  This would be the first time in her life that a bath was drawn just for her.  She had bathed in the stream in the woods by her father's keep, but it was always cold and winter weather was just too cold for bathing.  She had never undressed in front of anyone before, but Ester helped her maintain her modesty by allowing her to use the screen to preserve privacy.  Stepping into the hot water was such a great feeling.  Ester came round and washed her back and washed her hair, but left the rest to her.  While she sat enjoying the water, Drew came into the room and dismissed Ester and shut the door.

(to be continued...)

Untitled, by Jeffrey P. Hergan

The light of the moon on a crystal night
Its sultry lick, of eyes, of skin
And the weirdish beams lighting river ripplets
And wrapping around weed flowers and the undersides of branches
Of trees that sleep and yawn in the sunlight
And muddy puddles ascurry with bugs
And amphibian symphonies 
Interrupted by the crunch of dead leaves underfoot 
While nothing, nothing at all, is voiced
But 'Yes.'

A clearing in the woods

by Marc Prudhon

A clearing in the woods.
Fleeing memory, he walks the woods, the silent mountains,
Behind him, a city of glass and steel, man made fountains.
Tho not bold, the deep shadow of the forest holds no fright,
He wishes only that enfolding peace, found within the night.
Fearing to sleep, for sleep may bring that dream,
Awakened, heart pounding, trying not to scream.
He could not save her, he could but sit at her bedside.
Watching, helpless to halt the ebb of her life's tide.
He walks on, hearing and feeling the night sounds;
Deep and dark, never quiet, in the forest, life abounds.
He desires that darkness, moonless times, dark as jet
So leaves the house at the fiery kiss of each sunset.
Coming upon a clearing in the woods, a meadow he did not seek,
Arriving just as the morning dawn enflames the mountain peak.
Old blackened stumps tell a tale, how the meadow was born.
Grass and beautiful flowers, doth now the clearing adorn.
Looking across the clearing, a way to end this rift
The meadow has no other side, he sees there, a cliff.
He stands at the edge, the clearing behind him like a park,
Facing the dawns first rays, below him night, deep and dark.
Gazing down that fearful height, he hears night's siren call.
Just one small step, then an end-- an end to dreams and all.
He steels himself to take that step, and thinks, None will care.
Suddenly he feels a warmth upon his hand, a breath light as air.
He turns, he looks, and there in the light of dawn,
Gazing trustingly into his eyes, a tiny dappled fawn.
He steps back, takes one hand, wipes at the blood on its side.
Not the fawn's, somewhere in the night, a mother doe has died.
He picks up the fawn, it relaxes in his arms in total trust
Says "Let's get you fed, little one. Our life's in front of us."
As each of us travels life, from birth until deaths door.
We simply want to be needed, just that, nothing more.

Nothing is Forever

by EJ Sankey
written with the image shown, as inspiration

Jacob got out of the car and looked at the house in front of him.

"Come on, son, we have to go and start cleaning. We have a full day ahead of us," his father said as he walked up the stairs.

Jacob slowly ascended the stairs and stopped at the threshold of the doorway. Memories of family dinners and gatherings filled his head.

"It's just so empty. I can't believe Grandpa is gone, and Grandma is coming to live with us."

His father was standing by the couch, holding a trinket in his hand.

"I can honestly say that I never thought this day would come. I thought my father would outlive me."

Jacob just looked at his father.

"Well, where shall we start: upstairs or here?"

"Grandma was telling me that there were a whole bunch of treasures up in the attic. So I think we should start there."

"Okay, let's see what we can find."

They pulled the stairs down. They creaked and moaned as a draft of cold air blew across them.
Jacob's father went first, shining a flashlight around.

"Look at all this stuff. I had no idea it was all up here."

Jacob came up after his father and looked around. It was like a time capsule. He picked up an old toy.
"Who's was this?"

His father found the light and turned it on, revealing all that was up there. There were paintings, boxes, old clothes, toys, a baby crib and much, much more. He walked over to Jacob to see what he was holding. "I don't know. I have never seen this before."

Jacob put it down and started rummaging through all the wondrous things around him. "Hey, Dad, look at this."

His father came over and took a look.

"Well, what do you know? It's my prom picture. I remember this. I took Susie Straton. Wow, what a blast from the past! Here, let's take this box and start filling it up."

"Okay," Jacob said picking something up and putting it in the box.

"I wonder what else we are going to find up here?"

"By the looks of it, anything is possible," his father said, looking around.

They started loading up the box when something caught Jacob's eye. It was half poking out of the corner and looked intriguing. He walked over to it and took a dust rag out to clear off some of the cobwebs. He held it up to the light. It was an old painting of a man in a room, warming himself by a painting of a roaring fireplace.

"Hey, Dad, what is this?" He felt like he was being redundant, constantly calling his dad over. "Sorry, I don't mean to keep doing this, but there's just so much really cool stuff to look at."

His father put what he had in hand into the box and walked over to Jacob. "It's okay. What do you have there, son?"

"I don't know. The man in the picture looks familiar though."

His father held the painting closer to the light to get a better look at it. "Oh wow, you know what this is?"

Jacob shook his head. "No, sorry."

His father gingerly propped it up on a table. "I haven't seen this painting since I was a kid. I always wondered what happened to it. This, Jacob, is your great great great grandfather Ezekiel."

Jacob smiled and looked at the painting. "Why is he warming himself by a fire place that looks like . . . well, like a painting?" 

His father returned to packing the box as he continued with the story. "The year was 1871, the year of the Great Chicago Fire. Our family was very well off, but the fire took everything from him. It took his home, his money, even the business that he built from the ground up." 

Jacob's father found a folding chair and sat down. "Now, you would think that would dampen a man's spirits, to have everything taken away from him like that. But it didn't. Your great great great grandfather took his family, not too far from the city, and found himself an apartment that he could afford with what little money he had left. Your great great great grandmother got a job as a seamstress, and Ezekiel went to work painting pictures and selling them on the street. Well, one day, your grandmother came home to a note on the table. It said, 'Come meet me at this address, I have a surprise for you.' So she got on a bus and headed over to the address that was written on the note. Do you know where she ended up?"

Jacob shook his head. "No. Where?"

"Right here in this very house. You see, your great great great grandfather sold enough paintings to buy a nice-sized house, and this was it. Your grandmother was so moved at the sight she beheld, that she took a picture of it. Later your grandfather painted a painting of it. This right here is that very painting of the picture that your grandmother took. See, son?" his father said turning the painting around and pulling out an envelope. He opened the envelope and pulled out a picture and a note. "Here is the picture, and here is the note,” he said, handing it to Jacob.

Jacob looked over the note. It was fragile and yellowing. Then he looked at the picture. It was old, but still clear enough to make out that it was the same thing in the painting. He turned the picture over. It had some writing on it. It said, “Nothing is forever, everything can be rebuilt. My love for you has never been stronger. Love always, E.”

"Hey, Dad, did you ever see this?" He showed his father. 

His father smiled. "I can honestly say 'no' I have never seen this. This is amazing." His father handed the picture back to him. "Come on, we have to get back to work. We can talk more about it when we get back home. We can show it to your mom and grandmother," his father said, handing it back to Jacob. "Let's see what other treasures we can find tonight."

Jacob gingerly put the picture back in the envelope along with the note. "I think we found all the treasure we need, right here in this painting."

The Castle

by Marc Prudhon

written in complement to the image shown

image created by Robert Buhl
All sleep here now in peaceful rest, but this  wasn't always so.
Protected by those who were the best, in centuries ago.
So visitor, pay your fee to enter, this hallowed place, if you will.
Walk these halls where battle raged, warriors blood did spill.
Your guide will tell of that final time, when heroism was the norm.
When invaders came over the walls, on a night of lightning and storm.
Down from those walls, past the stables, the men awakened from their sleep.
Fought to keep the intruders out, save the woman and child within the keep.
Finally they were driven off in retreat, their evil plans bereft.
They never knew how very few of those warriors were left.
On nights when thunder rolls and lightning flashes, so some do say.
The shades of those brave ones, guard the castle to this very day.

Song in the Sand

by J. Hergan

Song on the Sand by Forrest Munger
Striding alone on the shores of my self
I hear the exotic rhythm of the song of her heart
Whose lyrics I know, for I found them here
Inscribed in the sands of my soul.
And raising one rough shell to my mournful ear
I listen once more, that I might dance
Once more, with her, and hear, not know.
But no one sings the song from me
And from her lips, spread slightly, soft
Not one sweet word to grace her ebbing beat
She whispers only: shhhhhhh.
Still she knows she bears the key
That releases the words love carved in me
That the only rhythm they'd ever grace
Is the symphony of beauty blessing her face
And the opera of passion, her flowering mind
And the strumming of her fingers on my lips
And the crashing pound of my heart.
So I wait, and watch but cannot hear
The words of the song she evokes from me
Words I know, writ still within,
That only she can sing from me.
But: shhhhhhh she breathes, and smiles, knowing.


by Marc Prudhon

Wings enwrapping her, she finds them warm not cold.
Shielding her body from harm, her heart, spirit, and soul.
He says "Come with me, all the Universe can be free.
Hear the songs the stars sing, in this and each Galaxy.
Through eons past for me, wonders and miracles have been shown.
But after millennia of passage. I tire of ever traveling alone.
Little one, put aside any terror, from fear you shall be free.
You will be safe from all harm, on this journey with me."
She answered, "You of great wings, eyes burning, body so stark,
In my life I feared many things, but never once feared the dark.
To you I vow to open all of my being, my soul, spirit and my mind.
I cannot wait to see all the miracles, the joy, and wonders we'll find."
He held her to his chest, smiled calmly, and his wings did unfurl.
Neither was ever seen again, throughout the life of this world.

The Monster and His Keeper, part 7-12

by Lyle Dagnen

Part 7

He leaned forward out of the shadows and stood, using his right leg to support the left one that did not bend.  He was a tall man, she was tall for a female, still the top of her head just barely came to his shoulder.  He had grown his hair long to have it fall over his face as it did now.  He took his scarred right hand and moved the hair back from his face.  The flaming liquid that he had prevented from touching his monarch had burned the upper third of the right side of his face and a section of his scalp.  A face that at one time had been called handsome.  It was a horrible, scarred mask now.  Only he could not remove the mask.  He lived with the scars every day, every day a horrid masqued ball.. The burns had not taken his eye but his eye was locked inside scar tissue. 

“This is who you have been given to.” His voice was like a growl. It matched the howling skies outside his castle. He stared at her, daring her to scream, to run, to go weak-kneed and faint. 

“Given to?” Her comment shocked him for two reasons.  One, she wasn't running from the room screaming at the horror that was his face. Two, she had to be the most innocent, unaware female in the realm.  “Given to?” she repeated as a question.

“You're my reward,” he barked at her.

“Your reward." Her face wrinkled in thought, How am I a reward to anyone?  I am promised to the church.  I'm supposed to go the Abby in Canterbury in January. She kept saying she was promised to the church.  She looked him straight in the face.

“God's blood and bones,” he swore. “Did no one explain to you what this was all about?”

“Sir, your eight men came to my father's keep and delivered a letter to him.  He read it, looked at me, and told me to pack everything I owned, that I was going with them.  I packed, was placed on an abomination of a side saddle and brought here, in the rain.” She emphasized that she had traveled in the rain.   “For the last two, almost three days I have ridden in the rain to get here.  I am still soaked to the skin. I am cold. I am hungry.  I do not know why I am here at your keep and not in Canterbury.” 

She took a step in his direction. ”Those eight great louts would not speak to me or answer any of my questions.  I do not see myself as anyone's reward as I do not see myself as a prize at all.” She finished her tirade by turning to the fire.  She took a breath. She knew that she was jabbering.  She was accustomed to talking to herself, to an animal, to the servants who tolerated her jabbering with good nature, but not to anyone with any station in life.  Her frustration was spewing forth out of her mouth in a very unladylike manner.

“My face and my deformities do not frighten you?” 

She looked at him like he had to be crazy.  He wasn't answering her questions.  What did his face have to do with this; she told him so. “Why should your deformities frighten me?  You cannot help them.  Do you mind explaining things to me?  I have gone just about as far as I can stand without knowing the answers.” She turned her wet clothes to the fire.  She had dismissed the horror that was his face as if it were no more than a freckle perched on the side of his face.

His shoulders fell in a sigh. This time his voice was not a bark.  It was softer. “The king thought I should have a wife as a reward for saving his life and ending mine as a man in his army.  My hand,” he held up his scarred arm, “and my leg that took the arrow saved his life, but I am no longer any good in his army.  Since I had the misfortune to live and not die, he searched his kingdom for a woman as a reward to repay me for my sacrifice.  It appears you are the one I am supposed to marry.”  

She was a spirited thing, he was beginning to like her.  It was her animated face that first drew him to her.

“Marry?” her use of the word expressed her confusion.  “I was supposed to be a bride of Christ.  I don't know anything about...”She was at a loss for a word that described what exactly she didn't know anything about.  Finally her brain settled on “being a wife.”

Part 8

“That puts us at least at the same point, I do not know anything about being a  husband.  Not that I hadn't thought of finding a wife  sometime before I became this hideous form of a man.”  he dropped his head, allowing the dark blond curls to fall over his face.  She thought it was a gesture that he practiced.  “I sent for you because I thought that I would bring you here and you would run screaming from me. My men have stayed prepared to gather you and your belongings and take you back to your father”

She stood looking at this man.  He had been hurt, hurt bad enough that others might have died but he had lived.  He had in him such a desire for  life that he had recovered.  He had been willing to give his life for another.  He lived in the dark, believing he was so hideous that no woman could look at him without screaming.  And his king, without knowing anything about her, had chosen her as a gift for him.  She angered by the way he had been treated; if after his sacrifice, she was the best gift the king could find for him to take as his wife then he surely had not been rewarded.  Someone needed to tell him that his king had fallen short in the area of gift giving.

She wasn't sure she was a gift to anybody, she was not a well trained lady.  She didn't know how to dance, other than the folk dances of the servants, she didn't play any musical instruments and she sure didn't know the first thing about what a man would expect her to do as his wife. Somebody needed to tell him this, she was the only one here to tell him.

She knew about children because she played with the children in her father's keep but exactly how those laughing little creatures came into the world was a mystery to her.  She blinked her eyes and thought of the humiliations that would be her father's and his if she left.  She knew what it felt like to be ignored, over looked, and generally treated as someone who did not matter.  She decided to keep her mouth shut.

He had allowed the rumors of him being a monster to grow and develop so that people would stay away from him and from his castle. Now, she had been plopped in his midst.  It appeared that they stood at a portal; one they could walk away from or one which they could enter together.  

Part 9

She could not run away from him.  He was a stranger to her.  She knew that people were married to other people that they did not know.  This was the way of things.  In the eyes of the world she was an object to be traded, an object to be used, she had not escaped the fate of many women.  She was an object that had been awarded to the Earl of North Cumberland.

She breathed in a deep breath. “You may instruct your men to bring in my things and to unsaddle their horses.  It appears you have won me.” She smiled. “You may come to see me as not such a great prize, but that is just the way things are, it appears.” She turned so that she could warm her other side by the fire.  “I do not have a maid with me; I did not have one to bring.  I am not accustomed to having a maid.  This is the only dress I have that requires assistance to get into and out of. I've been wearing it since I left my father's house.  I am so wet that I have begun to think I will never get dry.  Hopefully, something I have brought with me has arrived dry. I have turned from you, not because I am offended by you, but because I am trying to warm myself.  I can move or you can come round to this side of me so that we may look at each other when we speak.”  She lifted her hand to rest on the mantle, she was shaking out the folds of her skirts.

“You're staying?” His question was soft, for her ears only.

“I am staying.  It appears to be the thing we are supposed to do.  I will depend on you to tell me what it is I am supposed to do, for I have no idea at all.”  She bowed her head.  “I am outspoken and untrained. I depend on you to be my teacher.”

He called out in a loud voice to someone named Fredrick.  He issued orders as one who is accustomed to telling people what to do.  One of the guards delivered the saddle bags and left the great hall.  “Is this all?” he asked her when the four sets of saddle bags were placed on the table near the fireplace.

“I was told to pack all that I owned.  That is pretty much it.  I had to leave my books and pens because no one knew I could read and write.” She put her hand over her mouth fearing that she had said too much.  It was good that he knew in case he wanted to rid himself of her, that way she would be spared repacking.

Part 10

“You are the daughter of an Earl? ” The rest of the comment implied that she should have more than what she had with her.

“I am the seventh child in a large household of older brothers and sisters who are all married with children. It is easy to lose the one who is promised to the church and needs nothing special to prepare her for the world.” Her answer was without resentment. “Sometimes, I think my father thought I was one of the servants.” She stood still for a moment. “Can you help me out of this wet dress? I am quite miserable standing here in it.”

He knew about women's dresses. He had not always been a monster in his appearance. He hated the sound of his dragging foot as he moved in her direction. “I can help you. I will find you one of the women to train as your maid.”

“That is not necessary. I don't need a maid,” she protested

“As my wife you should have a maid to assist you when you dress.” He got out his knife to cut the stitches that attached the flowing sleeves to her dress. He loosened the laces that held her dress to the form of her body. She might be wet to the skin but the fragrance of some flower filled his nose as the folds of the wet fabric came away from her warming body. The underdress was made of linen, its dampness made it want to cling to her skin.

He wasn't sure what it was about this female that he had been gifted with, but she was calling to him in ways no other female had ever called to him. For one thing, she had seen his face and had not flinched from him. She was also probably the most uninformed female he had ever met. He had come to believe that there were no innocents in the whole land, yet, here she stood before him warming herself by his fire. He would be willing to bet that her hand had never been kissed, let alone those lips that she kept chewing on. He helped her step out of the wet velvet. She left him holding it while she went to one of the saddle bags. She pulled out one of those yoked, rough fabric jumpers that he saw many of his female servants wearing. She dropped it over her head, then went digging for a comb for her hair.

She returned to the fire, working the comb through the tangles. No wonder her father had thought her a servant, she dressed the part. Immediately he wondered how it was that she dressed the part and had not been corrected. Here he was helping the woman he would marry out of her clothes and she had not batted an eye at the whole process, declaring that she did not need a maid to help her. He found himself just watching her as he spread the garment to dry before the fire. . “We will choose someone to be your maid. We will find the best seamstresses and we will have dresses made to fit your station as my wife.” His voice told her that the decision was made. She did not question him.

Part 11

“I can sew. I made the dress that I am wearing. I did not think I needed dresses because...”

“You were promised to the church,” he finished the now familiar comment. “Well, that is a promise that will not be kept.” He sat her on a stool in front of him, taking her comb from her and with a much gentler hand than hers began to comb the tangles from her hair letting the strands fall though his hands to allow them to dry. It was like silk drifting through his fingers. His mother had dried her hair this way before the fire. Before he had been fostered for training, he had spent time with his mother combing her beautiful blonde hair. “I know the name on the marriage contract. Cecilia Katherine Marie. What are you called?” he waited for her answer.

“You mean besides, hey you.” She rested her elbows on his knees. “I answer to Kat. The servants would joke with me about how I danced around like a cat trying to get though a room full of hungry dogs.” She paused. “The rest of the family just started talking to me when they took time to notice that I was even there.”

“You have a lovely set of names. I was named for my father, my grandfather and the king. Robert William Andrew. The king chose to address me as Andrew, he wasn't fond of my father and he chose William as his name of the set he was given. I would not allow the shortening of my name to Andy so I am called Drew by those who are close to me.”

Thee Women Combing Their Hair, by Edgar Degas
“In public places you will be called Lady Katherine and I will be called Lord Andrew. When we are together as we are now, privately, I will call you Kat and you will call me Drew.” As her hair had dried it had begun to feel cool as it slid through his fingers. Long straight pieces of silk. “It is late today. I will notify the priest and he will join us after we break our fast on the morrow. He will perform the service of marriage since there is no other official to do it. Since I did not expect you to stay, I did not have a room prepared for you. You may take my room and I will stay by the fire.”

“Nonsense!” was her comment. She noticed that he stiffened, probably unaccustomed to being opposed. “I slept by the fire most nights in my father's kitchen. It was warmer than my room and I liked to cook. I can sleep here and be comfortable.”

This was going to be her first lesson about being his wife. “Turn round and look at me.” He waited for her to face him. “Wherever you sleep tonight it will only be for this one night. Tomorrow you will be in my bed.” She looked at him, then he saw her process that information. For the first time since she arrived he saw fear on her face. “What are you afraid of?”

Part 12

“I remember the loud, rowdy bedding ceremonies of my sisters and brothers, of my parents and the other parents going into the bed chamber and hanging bloody sheets on the stairwell for all to see.” He immediately understood her fear. “I had thought I would not…”

“Have to face that because you were to be given to the church,” he finished for her. “Since we will only be attended by the priest and my man who will be a witness, this will not happen to you. There will be no bedding ceremony. We will keep the sheets for anyone who might question the fact that I am your first, but the sheet will not be hung in the hall for all to see.” he watched her as she processed the information he was giving her. By all the Saints’ Bones, she had not been told a damned thing. She had no idea that the blood would be hers and that he would be the one to cause her to bleed. “Damn.” He muttered the word and she sat back at the expletive. He'd explain that later. Tomorrow would be soon enough for that.

“So,” she began to share what she had reasoned “After tomorrow, when you marry me, I will sleep in your bed.” She looked at him for confirmation. He nodded in the affirmative. “Would you not be more comfortable with me here by the fire? Out of your way?”

She wasn't going to make this easy for him. “ I want you in my bed. “ He reached for her hand. “You are to be my wife. A wife belongs in her husband's bed, beside him.” He held her fingers with his injured right hand. Even damaged, her hand fit inside his. He held her fingers to his lips and kissed them. He watched her eyes grow large as she held her breath. He smiled at her.

She was looking at him with questions in her eyes. “Then if I am to share your bed why should I not share it tonight?” She knew that when the servants decided to become husband and wife that they just moved into the same house together. “That is what the servants do, they just move in together and claim one another.” Her parents might have ignored her but she had gathered a great deal of information by just be observant.

“Because you will be a lady when you become the wife of the Earl of North Cumberland. Our union must be sanctioned by the king and approved of by our two houses. Our children will be heirs to the fortunes of our two houses joining. It is a much more formal affair than just us deciding we are going to get married.” He paused. “Do you understand?” She nodded her head 'yes' but he knew that in her reasoning that it didn't make much sense at all. Her hand in his large one seemed small. He could feel the calluses from all the work she had done over the years. She was a puzzle he was going to solve. Her next question rocked him back in his seat.

(to be continued...)

One More Day

by Karyn Kavanagh

image taken by author
Gabby opened her eyes and looked up at a cloudless sky, with the oceanʼs song in the background. The cool breeze danced along her skin, making her hair tickle her face.

She was laying in a hammock between two palm trees in a long white sundress. She smiled to herself, thinking how perfect the day was. She laid there for a little while just enjoying the peace when she felt the urge to get up and walk. She sat up and started walking towards the water. She couldnʼt figure out why she wanted to get in the water. She wasnʼt wearing her swimsuit but she continued to stroll towards it.

The waves were crashing into the shore and she could see the water rush towards her and then retreat back into the ocean. She watched this over and over as she kept going. She thought she should have felt the water by now but with every step she didnʼt seem to be making any progress. It was like she was walking in place. She looked down at her feet but she couldnʼt see what was keeping her from touching the water. When she looked up again she saw her dad. He was standing at the waterʼs edge with his hands in his pockets and a big smile on his face.

“Papa?” Gabby stopped. She was confused. Her dad died five years ago. She didnʼt understand why she could see him. She closed her eyes and shook her head. She opened her eyes again. He was still there. She started to run, fast, faster, faster, yet she didnʼt move.

“PAPA!!! PAPA!!” She was becoming frantic. Why couldnʼt she get to him? She suddenly stopped because she realized she wasnʼt making any progress anyways. She stood there looking at him, a tear slipping down her face.

“Papa? Is it really you?” He was still standing there with his hands in his pockets smiling. She blinked and he was right in front of her. She jumped a little to see him so close all of a sudden. But then she really looked at him, memorizing everything. She was always worried she was going to forget what he looked like. He looked the same as he did when she saw him last. Green eyes, brown hair that was going gray, a few wrinkles here and there, that smile. That smile that always lit up the room for her when she saw it. She wanted to hug him, she wanted to hold him and never let go so he wouldnʼt leave her again. But she couldnʼt move.

Another tear ran down her cheek. He reached up and wiped it away. She closed her eyes at his touch and he cupped her cheek. She pulled her hand up to close over his. She couldnʼt stop the tears now. They came down like rain. She wanted to stop crying so she could see him but it was like they had a mind of their own. Her dad now had both hands cupping her cheeks, rubbing her tears away with his thumbs.

“Papa.” she whispered. She had so many things that she wanted to tell him, so many things she didnʼt get to say before he was gone. She always thought he would be there, she thought she would have many years to tell him all these things. But in an instant he was gone and she was left wondering why....why him, why didnʼt she say what she needed to, just why.....

“Gabriella, my angel. Please donʼt cry.” She looked into his eyes and willed herself to stop. She didnʼt want to miss this moment with him. However long it lasted she wanted it to be clear in her mind.

“Papa? I....I donʼt understand....” Gabby stumbled over her words not knowing what to say or how to say it. She looked deep into those green eyes searching for her answers.

“Awww, baby girl, I know itʼs been hard on you. I wish I could go back and change things. I really do but this is how it is now. I never meant to hurt you....but I guess thatʼs exactly what I ended up doing. I thought you would be better off without me, without all of my faults, my mistakes, my constant letdowns. I thought if I was gone you would be happier not having to worry about me and how I was always disappointing you. I was in pain, Gabriella, and I couldnʼt figure out how to make it stop.” He dropped his hands and looked down, feeling shame and remorse. He had always failed her, he thought.

Gabby stood there listening to her dad tell her how he felt and his reasons why he took his own life. She saw that he was sorry for it and that he wished he had chosen a different way. She understood the way depression worked, had grown up with her dad fighting it and it was one of the reasons she had wanted to work on the brain. She wanted to help people with that but when she was in medical school and did a rotation in psychology she decided it was too much for her to handle, so she went into neurosurgery instead.

When Gabbyʼs dad dropped his hands she felt an emptiness inside her at the absence of his touch. She reached her arms out and grabbed him into a tight hug. She felt like she had just come home after being gone for centuries. It was like she could finally release the breath she didnʼt know sheʼd been holding for the last five years. She didnʼt want to let go of him. She wanted to hold on to him forever. She breathed him in, trapping him inside her.

“I love you, Papa! Iʼve always loved you, during the bad times, during the good times, during the sad times, during the silly times. There was never a time when my love for you wavered or when I thought you were a bad father. You were the most wonderful father I couldʼve ever had! And I never doubted how much you loved me until the end.....You broke my heart that day. You shattered my world. And all I could think was why....Why did you have to leave me, why didnʼt you take me with you, why am I left here to deal with the pain? Why? I miss you so much sometimes that I think my heart may actually burst. I love you with everything I am. And I wish there had been a way for me to take away your pain because I would have, Papa. I wish I had seen those signs and stopped it, I wish my love for you had been enough to keep you here.”

Gabby couldnʼt stop the tears now and she didnʼt let go of him. He held her close, stroking her hair, wishing heʼd never made that awful decision 5 years ago. But whatʼs done is done, he thought. He held onto her some more and then pulled her away from him, holding her face in his hands. He knew he could never make her pain go away completely but he hoped this meeting would ease her heart a little.

“Gabriella, my love, my beautiful daughter, your love was what kept me alive for so long. I would have died a long time ago if you hadnʼt loved me like you did. None of it was your fault and there is nothing you could have done to change it. Sometimes our fate is written in the stars and we canʼt change the stars, can we? I am so proud of you and the woman youʼve become. So honored that I was allowed even a moment to be in your life, to feel your love. You were the greatest daughter any father could have hoped for, and more. I love you so much! Donʼt ever forget that, okay? I want you to find your happiness, the love that your mom and I had. I want you to remember something, sometimes the things we need most are the things right in front of us and sometimes the people we need most in our lives are the ones right in front of us.”

Gabby felt some peace from his words, felt her heart mend just a little. She would never forget the years she had him and would always be grateful for that time. She would never stop loving him, never stop thinking about him. But now she would think of all the good times they had, not the whys of his decision.

Her dad wiped her tears, kissed her and pulled her close to him for one last hug. His time with her was coming to an end but he didnʼt want to leave her again. He wished he could stay like this with her forever, hugging her and feeling her close to him. He would keep watch over her and make sure she was happy. This was a promise he would make and keep this time. No matter what.

Gabby held on, not wanting to let go. “I love you, Papa! Forever and always!”

image taken by author
“Gabriella, you were always the light in my world of dark. I love you, too, forever and always!”

They hugged for a little longer and then her dad pulled away. Gabby reached for him but he was walking away. She tried to run after him but again, she wasnʼt going anywhere. She kept running, faster and faster, sobbing and reaching out for him but he kept going.

She saw him walk into the setting sun and collapsed to her knees. She dropped her head into her hands and didnʼt stop the tears this time, they came like an avalanche, hard and fierce.

She pulled her head up and opened her eyes. She was lying in her bed at home, her pillow soaked with her tears. She laid there remembering her dream. She really missed her dad but at least she had this last moment. Because inside she really felt like he had come to visit her in her dreams, to tell her he loved her, to tell her it wasnʼt her fault, to give her her wish of one more day with him. She could still feel him in her arms and she could still smell him. She laid there smiling as the tears continued to roll down her face.

The enticing window

The image that inspired the story, photographer unknown

by Bonnie Ramsburg

I smelled the yeasty, mouthwatering scent of fresh-baked bread first. Inhaling as deeply as I could, I scanned the street to find the bakery from which I could purchase a loaf. The beauty of the leaves surrounding an open window, with a curtain billowing out when the breeze caught it, caught my attention. Through the window, I heard the infectious sound of a child giggling, intermingled with the lower tones of an adult's laughter. Moving closer to the window, I inhaled again, the enticing aroma of bread, cinnamon, vanilla and sweet indulgence was definitely coming from this window. I perused the area surrounding the window, but couldn’t find a door. I attempted to get the attention of the occupants through the only way I could see.

“Hello, the window!” I called out. The laughter and giggling stopped, and a woman’s face appeared, shadowed by the now still curtain.

“May I help you?” she asked.

“Excuse the intrusion, Miss,” I replied, “but I smelled the heavenly aroma of fresh-baked goods, and I was wondering if you sold them?” I caught a brief flash of a smile, which for some reason chilled me to the bone, as the breeze moved the curtain again.

“Not usually,” she told me, “but today, I will make an exception.”

“Where is the door, good lady, that I might purchase some of those delightful smelling goods?” I asked her.

“Just look beyond the leaves to the left of the window, good sir,” she replied. “You’ll find the door there if you are meant to.”

Confused, but becoming more and more bewitched by the beguiling smells coming from the window, I looked to the left as she had told me to. Surprised and a little bewildered, I noticed that there was indeed a door where before I would have sworn there wasn’t. I reached out to grasp the handle, but the door swung open before my hand could even touch it.

I entered into the gloomy entryway, where an elfin looking child of six or seven waited for me.

“Welcome to our home,” she said. “Follow me, please.”

I slowly followed, feeling as if this wasn’t the wisest choice I had ever made, but unsure as to why or how to exit the situation gracefully. We entered the kitchen from which the delightful smells were drifting and a homely looking woman was waiting for us.

She smiled at me and said, “Welcome to my kitchen young man. We’ve been waiting for the main dish to arrive.”

Death's Promise

by Lyle Dagnen

Death rides a black horse, a mighty animal, glowing blue black in the light. Death is warm, strong, and tender; a gentle lover, a good friend. He is lonely, no one wishes to speak to him or claim his friendship for fear that he will snatch away life before it is time. He's not like that. He is compassionate, he has time to lend. Some days he whispers in my ear, he plays with my hair, I feel his breath on my neck as he caresses me. His voice is so sweet and comforting. He makes me promises, promises that one day he will keep. Death lends me time, he's willing to let me borrow the time. He'll never ask for repayment. Even thought I borrow time, it is a willing, loving gift from him because he knows that I need that time.

Twice he has held me in his gentle embrace, whispered in my ear, nibbling at my neck. At our first interlude he was so kind, telling me that he would release me, that this was only a brief visit. He held my face in his hands, kissing me good bye. His passion never runs cold. Some days I long for his touch, his embrace, his smiles. The second time he came to hold me he was not so willing to let me go. We had grown fond of one another. We had spent many hours in a dark place where he held me close so that I would not be frightened. When we parted he held me for a long time, With a final kiss, he held my hand until our fingers parted as I returned to my life.

Now and again he rides that marvelous horse of his and watches me from a hill top. He calls to me in the dark of night when my heart is breaking, he whispers his promise “I will come for you.” Each time he has held me he has given me a choice, he asks “Do you wish to stay with me?” Twice I have refused. The last time he whispered this promise to me “When I next come for you, I will not let you go.” One day I will turn to him, he will lift me in his arms to sit with him in his saddle. He will wrap me in his cloak, hold me close to his heart, and take me with him.

My Favorite Seasons

by Bonnie Ramsburg

Photo by Crystal Van Wyk
Spring and fall are my favorite seasons. The weather is just right, cool mornings, warmer days, and the nights are perfect for sleeping. The colors of both seasons are another reason I like them. The bright pastels and bold greens of spring compete for my affections with the vibrant oranges, reds and yellows of fall. Spring has the sweet smell of earthiness and renewal, while fall has a crisp, sharp, wood smoke smell all it’s own. While both seasons tend to be wet, you know that spring is leading into the warmer, dryer weather, while fall is leading into the cold, wet snow. This may sound like a deal breaker, the one thing that means I shouldn’t like fall, except for one little fact. Fall has a sound that you never hear anywhere else. A sound that even as an adult, I actively search out and participate in.

            ~~Crackle, snap, crinkle, swish!~~

                        ~~Crackle, snap, crinkle, swish!~~

                                    ~~Crackle, snap, crinkle, swish!~~

                                                ~~Crackle, snap, crinkle, swish!~~

     Ahhhh, the sound of walking through fallen leaves! I enjoyed it immensely as a kid walking to and from school and I continue to enjoy it to this day! 

The Monster and His Keeper, part 1-6

by Lyle Dagnen, part 1-6 (with ongoing posts to tempt you daily)
by _ellen_
She was soaked to the skin, water dripped from her garments onto the road at her horse's hooves.  She had been riding for two and a half days, two and a half days with only a short break for some cold food and water.  Three men in front of her, one on each side of her, and three in the back of her, all armed to the teeth and not a one of them answering any of her questions. They kept watch over her as if they thought she would go riding away somewhere.  “Where would she go? “ she thought to herself.

She had never been anywhere.  She didn't even know how to get to any of her sisters' homes and her two brothers stayed at home learning how to manage the  castle and the adjoining lands.  Besides, they all had families and would just turn her over to her father.   She had long ago given up keeping the hood of the cape over her head.  It was wet, the only thing wetter was her hair, it was dripping cold rain down her back.

It was an understatement to say she was wet.  Now, adding to the rain, the relentless rain, was thunder and lightening.  She wished that she knew some evil, vile words to  shout out as a curse.  Somehow, to raise her fist to the skies and say "Oh!" just did not do justice to the way she felt about what was happening to her.  She was the youngest daughter of the Earl of Stafford.  She had been promised to the church.

Her sisters, all four of them, had been married to worthy gentlemen.  She had heard the stories of the bedding ceremonies, she had fervently thanked God that she would be Christ's  bride in a monastery, living out her days doing whatever it was that nuns did. Her father had never had to spend money on a wardrobe for her.  She had never been paraded before men seeking a bride to bear them sons.  She had been promised to the church and left alone.

The Knitting Girl by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1869

She had learned to sew from the women in the sewing room.  Her stitches were beautiful.  Her needle work was exemplary.  Cook had taught her to cook. She had a real talent for it, Cook said it. She had learned from Cook's assistant how to plant and grow a garden.   She had watched and listened to her Mother as she managed the keep.  

The priest had taught her to read and write, Latin and English, and with it she had learned numbers.  Since nobody cared what she did, because she had been promised to the church, she had acquired quite a vast amount of knowledge that she planed to take with her to the monastery where she hoped that her family name and history might lead her to be a Prioress.  She had been promised to the church. 

How many times had she told these great, silent, louts escorting her North that she had been promised to the church.  She now knew what it meant to say "Fall on deaf ears".  Not one of them altered the course, not one of them acted as if what she said amounted to any thing more than this relentless rain mattered to them.

To add insult to injury, she had been riding side saddle.  An abomination to a woman's butt and  a horse's back. Since nobody had cared if she were a lady or not, she had learned to ride bareback or astride.  The wind blew, billowing her wet cape, making sure she was really chilled to the bone.  Her wet hair, long ago had lost the pins to hold it up and it slapped wetly against her wet face.  Did the word wet mean anything to anybody? She uttered the only curse she knew "Ooooohhhhhh!" and still they rode.  

The image that inspired the story, created by Robert Buhl
Seeing the outer walls of the castle near the evening of the third day did nothing to make her feel better.  It looked cold, it looked lonely, it looked like it hadn't seen a warming fire in a hundred years. Was this the castle that was rumored to contain a monster?  One that would gobble up the unsuspecting, destroy the faint of heart?  The thunder boomed as lightening seared the air with bright flashes.  The cold wind chilled her; she shivered with cold.  Her fingers felt numb in the soggy leather gloves. 

The sight of the cold, gray walls of the castle drove to the ground the  fantastic dream that maybe, just maybe, she was being delivered to the monastery at Canterbury This was were they had been traveling for two and a half days, nearly three? Was anybody ever going to answer any of her questions?  She twisted in the saddle to see if any of the eight men who rode with her reacted in any way.  The man on the front right raised  his hand to stop them.  "We are here" he told her like that made a difference.  Where was here?  He called out to a guard on the parapets "Open".  The draw bridge began its decent across the castle moat.  "This sure isn't a monastery" she thought as drops of rain splashed her face. The draw bridge lowered with very little noise.  Once connected to the road on their side, the horses clomped across making thundering noise.  She could see activity in the castle yard.  

There was a large bailey outside the keep, filled with people working and not looking at her.  What she would have said to any of them,  she did not know.  The rain, the thunder, the lightening, seemed to increase.  The same man who seemed to be in charge of the group  who had guarded her so closely came and stood by her horse.   “We are here, my lady.  May I be allowed to assist you to the ground?” As wet as her clothes were she knew that she had to weigh three maybe four stone more than she normally did.  She could even feel the water dripping down her legs.  She looked at him with some anger. 

“You may assist me” was all she said.  She wanted to kick him, but what good would that do?  She certainly couldn't run in these wet clothes.  He placed his large, gloved hands at her waist and lifted her to the ground like she was so much duck fluff.  He held her long enough to be sure that she was able to stand then bowed to her and backed away.  

The steps leading up the the door of the keep looked like a steep climb to her.  Since she had never learned to put out her hand for assistance she began the steep climb by lifting her skirts so that her feet could move without becoming entangled in her wet, wrapping, skirts that the wind seemed to want to blow in every direction possible.  She felt the muddy water seeping into her shoes before she stepped up on the stone steps.  The noise in the bailey stopped as they all watched her walk up the steps.  She straightened  her back as she walked. She questioned in her mind “Why are the watching me?  Who is waiting for me beyond those doors?  Why did no one in my family accompany me to this place?  What is this place where I have been delivered?”   The wind tried to blow her off the steps; she had to lean into the wind and struggle to make it up the steps to the doors that did not open with any sort of welcome to her.

Standing at the large doors there was no knocker; nothing she could use to announce her arrival.  All she could do was place her hand on the large ring and push it to the side to open the door.  No one was there to greet her, to welcome her, to say, “Go away, go back home, nobody wants you here.”  Just the door silently swinging open and a welcome, warm gust of air blowing round her wet, disheveled appearance that had her dripping a puddle and squishing in her shoes when she walked.    She gathered what dignity she had, she was a Stafford after all, and walked into the dim chamber.  When she turned to close the door she heard the noise and activity in the bailey begin again. She could see a fire burning in the huge fireplaces at both ends of the great hall.  She stood still while her eyes adjusted to the very dim light.  She heard, more than saw, two huge stag hounds  come to where she stood, sniffing the stranger in their midst.  She held still, her hands held out waiting for their welcoming licks to her fingers.  Her hands moved to caress their large heads when she felt their large tongues offer welcome.   “Hello” she called out.

“Come!” it was an order, bellowed from the fire at the far end of the hall. An order, issued like one given to make the dogs attend, which they were doing. She was not a dog to be commanded to move.  Still, she moved toward the commanding voice.   Once again she lifted her skirts and walked in the direction from which the voice had come.  She did not lag in her steps, might as well go to where he was. If it be her fate to be devoured by a monster, she would meet that fate head held high. She would at least explain things before that happened. The sooner he understood that she was promised to the church, that this was all a mistake, the sooner they could put her back on a horse and send her to the monastery. He might be a monster but surely he would not consume a Bride of Christ, well, almost a Bride of Christ.

She had packed everything she owned in her saddle bags and in  three of the saddle bags of the men who had brought her here.  She had had to leave her books, her paper and pens. Neither her mother nor her father knew about her academic achievements, or anything else she could do. When he saw how little she owned, how little she had brought with her, he would decide to send her on to Canterbury.   She was quiet, she moved whisper soft, she didn't get in the way,  she was the seventh of seven children, she was lost in the massive numbers of the people at her father's castle.  She had thought.

As she approached the warmth of the fire she noticed that one very strong looking, long left leg was straight out before the fire.  His arm was reflecting the fire light, it looked powerful and strong, as if it should wield a sword.  She noticed that the fingers were shaking slightly.  It was her ability to notice the small things, that most did not see, that gave her the ability to go unnoticed.  He did not get up to greet her; he stayed seated. “That's odd” she thought but kept it to herself. Now was not the time for her tendency to be outspoken when challenged to come forth. It was her ability to keep her mouth shut, know when to keep her mouth shut, that also kept her unnoticed.   

She moved into the firelight, he stayed in the shadows of the chair where he sat. She could not see his face.  Was he young? Was he old? Why was she here, did he know?  She decided to keep the questions to herself. The heat of the fire felt good, it drew her as if it were the sun and she were a plant in the spring breaking the surface of the earth.  Her cold hands went out to the fire; she could not help it, a moan of pleasure came out of her mouth.  A most unladylike sound.  She just kept compounding her errors but for almost three days she had been soaked in cold rain.  She could feel his eyes on her.  She was not at her best, whatever her best might be, this wasn't it.  

She turned to face the person in the shadows.  She could see that he was richly dressed, he was broad of shoulder and long of limb.  His hair was long and unbound, it was curly falling below his shoulders.  His skin was fair. She could not see his face, it was hidden in shadow. 

She mustered what dignity she had left in her rain soaked body,  “I have been brought here to you.  I do not know why.  I am the youngest of the Earl of Stafford's children, I am promised to the church.  Since this isn't a church can you please explain to me why I am here?”  “Was he hiding in the shadows because he was a monster, ready to pounce?”  she kept that question to herself. Cook at home, said she had a saucy mouth when she felt comfortable.  She certainly wasn't comfortable, she wasn't home, she was trying not to be saucy. If she was about the be devoured by a monster who owned two rather friendly stag hounds, she needed to be sure that it was understood that she had been promised to the church.  Maybe it was time to speak up, if she was going to die at the hands of a monster she decided not to go quietly.  “For what reason have I been brought to this place?”  She would have stamped her foot but it still squished so she just raised her chin in defiance.

A bark of harsh laughter issued from the shadows.  For the first time, it occurred to her that maybe she should be frightened. Maybe, it had been a good thing that she had ridden all this way in the rain, it had not entered her mind to be frightened. The thought skittered across her mind.  “No one told you why you were to be  brought to me?”  With a snap of his left hand and a point the two dogs settled by his chair before the warm fire.

“No... Sir,” she thought to add.

“You seem to be who the king thought would be the best match for me.” His voice was bitter.

Her mind was racing as to how the king had even known she existed. But wait, match, what kind of match? Her mind was stunned. She was to be a match for him; for what reason did the king want to match her to this total stranger?  She had not said a word but he could read her thoughts as if she spoke aloud.

He watched the confusion on her face.  It was not a strikingly beautiful face; it was an honest face, one not disposed to dissembling.  “Do you not understand why you were sent to me?”

“No, Sir” her voice did not waver or break.  It had a depth of tone that he liked.  Not some whispery, weak sound.

“I am the Earl of North Cumberland, I served our king well in his last outing against the French.”

She turned to look directly at the shadow that hid his face. She remembered hearing stories of this heroic person from visitors who shared a night at her father's castle.

“I am sure the king is grateful for your services, Sir.  What does that have to do with me?” She tilted her chin to the side, her wet hair falling in clumps over her shoulder.  Impatient with the wet mess,  she threw it over her shoulder, not to be coquettish, but to get it out of her way.

“The king is very grateful.  I saved his sorry life.  I took an arrow meant for him and a bit of something like Greek fire sent his direction.”  He held up his right hand to show the lack of the small finger and part of the one next to it.  His fore arm was scarred.  He watched her reaction.  She did not flinch, she stood there and maintained her posture and expression on her face.  What would she do when she saw his face?  he thought to himself.   Well, it was time to see what she would do...