Author’s Note: Sometimes it’s fun to fool around with stories like these. A lot of you have told me you like a different take on things, and I hope you enjoy this one.
There once was a famous warrior named Louise. She was a princess from a village called Dunburna, a land where peaceful men of great strength and bravery fought beside their women to defend and include others in their cause. Many years ago she had a partner, a prince named Christopher, which meant Christ-bearer. Christopher was killed in a terrible battle over land rights, as were many others in their royal entourage. Princess Louise fought valiantly beside him until hope was lost.
She was insensible for weeks after this terrible loss, until the ministrations of the local healer caused her to sit up one day. Her village rejoiced. “It’s time,” said her village. “It’s time to mourn the lost and rejoice with the new. Babies have been born, spring is here, the lambs are in the meadows, and life is back again.” Princess Louise stretched out her hands to find the work that was in front of them. They were good hands,hands scarred with years of stringing a bow and wielding a broadsword or dagger. But they were also gentle hands. Hands that had borne sick children and given careful aid to the faint of heart. Hands that had made music, brought life into the world, and dispatched life quickly.
One day the princess rode out of the village. She went on a journey to Meredune, a neighboring village, to propose a hunting arrangement that would be good for both. To get to the village, she had to cross through the dark and rust-colored forest. It was filled with brigands and bandits eager to steal what they wouldn’t earn. She carried textiles and blades in her bags as gifts, as her people were weavers and smithies.
Louise slowed her prized mare to a trot upon entering the forest. She drew her dagger to have at the ready should trouble take her by surprise. The trail was little more than a beaten path, and Louise hoped to remedy that by the increase of trade between the villages. Darkness fell quickly, and Louise was nearly out of the forest when she heard the branch break loudly above her.
She looked up just in time to guide her mare away from the falling branch, and straight into disaster. Several pairs of hands appeared from the hedgerow beneath the tree. The branch fell crashing to the ground, and Louise realized she had fallen into a trap. She was yanked by her blonde dreadlocks to the ground.
“Well! What have we here?” A deep voice rumbled above her. “Get the saddlebags, boys!” Her horse whinnied in alarm as it was stripped of her goods. They were unceremoniously dumped on the ground, and her saddle was taken from the horse. “Go through what she has, boys! She looks important, so give the horse a slap and send her home. They won’t dare come into the forest!” He cackled raucously and turned to the loot.
Louise jumped up, her leathers in place. “Odd,” she thought, “Why am I still allowed clothes in company like this?” She swung a fist at her nearest captor and felled him like a tree. Another grabbed a handful of dreads and she kicked him hard in his male parts. He curled up on the leafy floor, moaning. “Idiot. ” She fumed. “Think of me when you try to have children with that wench in a cave somewhere.” A kick to the head laid out a fourth. Another came to her from behind, and with a cudgel to the back of the neck, Princess Louise knew no more.
Prince Meinhart of Meredune rode out of his village toward Dunburna. Messengers had come to say Louise was going to propose some sort of trade arrangements today, and he wanted some time to think it over with her before presenting it to his village. He woolgathered as his steed loped along, in no special rush. He had never met Louise or Christopher, but had heard of the loss to the village, and mourned with them.
Meinhart was a mighty warrior in his own right. What he lacked in height he made up for in the twin characteristics of geniality and ferocity. He would often be seen bending low to lend a kind hand to the lowliest cripple, or be found sparring in the lawn with the giants of the village, usually sending them sprawling, giving no quarter even in games. His village loved Meinhart, he was a natural leader. His military bearing was organized and forward thinking, and since he came to power, his village had prospered.
He had loved a woman once, a beautiful heiress from a village once visited as a young man. He petitioned her father for marriage, and it was granted. The delightful union produced three children, but one day Meinhart came home to find his wife missing. Where had she gone? No one could answer. Not the children, who were close to adulthood by then, not the villagers, no one. Not a trace of her was to be found. It was as if she had never been. The mystery tore at Meinhart’s soul. He carried the weight with him to this day, and could often be seen brooding, distracted in a private moment.
Suddenly, he felt an urge in his heart he knew all to well . Meinhart of Meredune was also a son of the King of Heaven, and would often feel the tug of the Spirit. Pay attention, it would say, Something is going to happen. Use what I have given you.
“Oh.” Louise felt the back of her head. Her hair was a bloody, sticky mass. She tried to get up, to no avail.
“Just think.” Her mind ran over her body. Head, too painful to reckon. Ribs, several broken, breathing like a raggedy old man. Flat on her belly, she tried to move her legs. Barely a twitch. She moved her arms to brace herself and sit up, and her world spun back into darkness.
Meinhart scanned his surroundings. He was about to enter the forest which separated the villages. He generally avoided this place, preferring to leave the woods to the dregs of society.
Well, there was no use putting it off. Waiting for Louise to appear would seem fainthearted. He spurred his steed onward.
He clattered through the hardened path, the sound of his horse muffled by the dense forest. Look left, right, forward- Meinhart was on total alert to the forces around him. None dared to appear-so far.
Meinhart passed Louise before he realized what he had done. A sodden heap of leaves in the ditch was what he thought he saw, until a dreadlock glinted in the setting sun.
“What have we here?” Inwardly, Louise groaned at the repetition of the question. Just let me die alone, she thought. Why come back and hurry me along?
Meinhart dismounted, and squatted beside Louise. She was filthy and unrecognizable, still clad in tattered black leathers.
“Did someone get tired of you, good lady? A bit rude to be thrown in the ditch like so much garbage!” Meinhart was a powerfully built man. He picked Louise up and draped her over his horse. He drew his dagger in one hand, and with the other led his horse along the path.
“At this rate, it will be past dark when we get to Dunburna. Methinks we will put their hospitality to the test.” He walked along, largely talking to himself, occasionally asking questions of the figure on the horse, and getting no reply.
“Did you come from Dunburna? You must have, as you seemed to be going from that direction. Do you know your leader, Louise? I am told she is something to be reckoned with. Our villages would be better off combining forces. Sort of a ‘total force’ concept when we deal with our enemies. Your village has talented smithies and weavers, we have strong builders and renowned hunters. An agreement would have many benefits for all.” On and on Meinhart chattered.
Finally, the pair exited the wood. The lights of the Dunburna were blazing. Meinhart wove a path through the huts.
“Heigh-ho! Meinhart of Meredune, come in peace!” Heads popped out of opened doors. He continued to walk.
“Louise of Dunburna! I seek Louise!” The villagers slowly emerged to the walking path.
“Well, you won’t find her here, she left hours ago.” An elderly man with a walking stick approached.
“Yes, we’re worried sick! She left to meet leaders at Meredune. Some sort of arrangement to be made.” A bent woman with a basket of apples added. “In fact, she said something about you! Meinhart, you said? Have you seen her?” The elderly woman’s voice quavered with anxiety.
“Not me, good woman. I rode out to meet her on the path, with the thought of a private word before speaking to both of our villages. But she never appeared. I come bearing a gift though. ” He chuckled as he turn to the wounded figure on the horse.
“Where is your healer? I found this one in the wood, beaten within an inch of her life.”
“His hut sits on the northern edge, just a short walk from here. But really, we don’t have the resources to help every tattered wench who lives in the forest, Meinhart. What were you thinking?” The woman scolded him.
“Now, now, what would our Lord and Leader have me do? You know that! I’m sure your kind soul would have done the same.” He turned north.
He knocked on the wooden door of the hut. A grey bearded man of later years opened the door.
“How can I help you, young man? I am Bale the healer. It’s terribly late. Have one of the babies started to arrive?”
“No, no. I have something else for you to look at. ” Meinhart pulled Louise off the horse and carried her into the hut.
“Gently, gently,” the healer remonstrated. “Put her on the pallet over there.”
Meinhart did as he was told. He carefully straightened Louise’s limbs and wiped some of the grime from her face.
“Not too hideous, this one. In fact, their’s something different about her face. I’ve seen some of the forest dwellers, and they truly look like animals, sometimes.”
The healer had his back to the pair, busily arranging a tray.
“Here, take this kettle, and go out and heat some water over the fire. Get me those rags, and some of that balm in the pot on the table there.”
Meinhart sat by the fire as the water heated. His began to doze as the lateness of the hour and the heat of the fire sapped his will to stay awake.
“Soldier! Come here at once!” Meinhart snapped awake. “Go get the village council, the first three huts at the southern end, pound on the doors if you must, and bring all the inhabitants that you find. Now!” Meinhart strode off.
The first hut was dark, and Meinhart pounded on the door until candlelight shone under it.
“Awake! Bale the healer wants to see you now! Which are the other members of the town council? ” The door opened and a man of younger years appeared, his wife behind him, concerned.
Meinhart gathered the other members of the council as instructed. The couple from the first hut, and elderly man who lived alone in the second, and a three brothers who lived in the third. All strode purposefully to the the southern edge of the village.
“Bale!” said one of the brothers. “What’s this about?”
“You better come in.” muttered Bale. “The rest of you stay out, it’s too small in here for all of you.” Bale closed the door.
Meinhart stood apart from the crowd as they murmured their puzzlement. Finally, exasperated, he resumed his place by the fire. He noticed the warming kettle was gone. He had about nodded off again when the door creaked open.
Bale stepped outside the hut.
“Meinhart of Meredune, come here.” Meinhart stood. “We thank you for bringing back Louise to our number. She has many broken bones, but appears to be retreating from the edge of death. She would have been sorely missed, and we are grateful to you for your helping hands. Let us pray and ask that the King of Heaven complete her healing.’ The people’s heads bowed.
Louise? Meinhart’s sleepiness vanished. The tattered figure in the woods was Louise? He edged to the corner of the hut, and peered in through the door.
“I have given her a sleeping draught, young man. She won’t wake for hours, and can’t hear any of us. Do you want to see her before you go? ” Bale smiled graciously.
“Certainly. ” Meinhart sat upon the offered stool. Louise’s face and hair had been washed, and her bruised and wounded hands had been carefully cleaned and bandaged. A leg had been wrapped tightly against several straight tree limbs, as if to keep it still.
Meinhart was fearful to sit next to the wounded woman, as if the act of sitting with her would somehow inflict more injury. He drank in her features though, marvelling at the difference between the woman before him and the battered human he had carried through the forest.
Bale touched him on the shoulder.
“Go with the three brothers tonight. You can sleep there, and return to your village tomorrow. ” Meinhart rose and went to the men.
” Many thanks, Brother!” The crowd clapped him on the back. “May the King of Heaven bless you abundantly for your kindess!” The council murmured in affirmation.
“We can take it from here. But truly, we thank you for your effort. We would have been lost without her. Our children would have missed her the most. ”
Meinhart entered the hut of the brothers, and settled on the pallet appreciatively. He pulled the finely woven woolen blankets up to his broad shoulders, and dropped into the deep, restful sleep of the righteous.