The Second Day of Christmas was was nearly here.
After leaving Englewood, the three traveled a good distance before Michael called a halt around midnight.
“I thought we could travel through the night, but I forgot you two aren’t seasoned soldiers,” he grinned. “Plus you’ve been up all day. We’re going to stop at a friend’s house. He’s the one who gave me a good bit of my information.”
Mary Elise was relieved. She’d been dozing off, and only kept from slipping off the horse because her arms were clasped around the princess’ waist. Perceval had been keeping up quite well, but even he seemed to be lagging behind now.
“Thank you, sir,” came Princess Juliana’s weary voice. “I’m not used to traveling this far on horseback.”
However, they entered an even thicker wooded area than they’d already been traveling. They finally came upon a cottage. It didn’t look much better than the shepherd’s. Then, as they moved around the little building to the doorway, they saw that they were on the edge of a moor.
“Who’s there!” came a voice.
“It’s just us, Justin.”
“Michael? What are you doing back here?”
“Is it safe?”
“Safe enough. I’ve seen nothing more of them. Don’t tell me—you’ve got the princess! Who’s the other girl?”
“Her friend—uh, maid. They’re weary. They’ve had no sleep.”
“Come in then.”
Mary Elise saw the shadowy figure lower something. He was a big bulk of a man—and it was a crossbow that had been pointed straight at them. He laid it aside and bowed low, “Your Highness, you’re most welcome, though this is but a hovel.”
Michael dismounted and helped Mary Elise down. The princess swung down herself, and they were ushered into the cottage.
The loud whisper reached their ears, “now I wish I’d fixed up my house. I never expected a royal visit in my lifetime.”
“She’s too tired to care. And I think very grateful for any kindness done to her. No need to fret.”
They followed the girls in. Mary Elise hardly had her wits about her to look around and see the simple furnishings. They were offered refreshment, but the princess refused. “If we could just rest a little while….”
She was given the man’s big bed, complete with a fur coverlet. Mary Elise was made a comfortable pallet on the floor, with another fur to keep her warm. They were both sound asleep in minutes.
Mary Elise woke to the pleasant aromas of beef and porridge. She watched as the man put out cheese and barley bread, as well. Rising, she smoothed her hair and went out to help, as the princess slept on. Perceval seemed quite at home, lying in front of the fire.
“Pour the ale for Michael and myself,” the man said pleasantly. “Here’s fresh warm milk for you and the princess. You must have a good meal before you start. I’ll give you food to take with you, but it might have to last a while.”
The door opened and Michael entered. In the grey light of dawn, the sky was streaked with a hint of pink. It was rather misty over the moor.
“The horses are ready. We’ll have to go round-about ways in order to stay hidden now. That will take longer. I had hoped to travel by night and sleep during the day.” He grinned at Mary Elise. “What shall I do with you sleepy heads?”
“Ha,” said their host. “Don’t listen to him. He needed to rest just as much as you lasses did. I don’t expect he slept since he left me night before last.”
Michael grinned. “You’re right. But we should be moving on….do you think it’s allowed to wake a princess? ”
“I’m awake,” came Princess Juliana’s voice. “The servants certainly wake me early enough. There’s always something for me to do and learn. My, what a big breakfast…but I am quite hungry.”
While they ate, their host gathered venison and bread and dried apples into a sack, and refilled the water flask. They were soon ready to leave. With thanks and a wave, they headed off, not across the moor, but back through the forest, skirting the open fields. Perceval nosed about, exploring, then returned and trotted along beside them.
“For a poor man, he certainly was generous with the food,” said Princess Juliana. “I do hope he kept enough for himself.”
‘Oh, he isn’t poor,” said Michael. “He just doesn’t bother fixing up his house. He’s too busy. He’s a cousin of Duncan, who is giving your brother and sister refuge. Sir Justin rather scorned the big estate and enjoyed seeking his fortune. He was in the army for a long time, and was a business man for a while. He’s always wanted to try everything. Now he just enjoys helping people. These woods are his property, which is why he can hunt in them without being arrested. He loves to hunt and fish, and live simply, and give as much away as he can. He can always find people in need.”
Both Mary Elise and the princess were quite surprised at all this.
“However, he does not like to build houses—or mend them either—and he’d rather save the money than hire someone. People think he’s a little daft, but he goes his own way and doesn’t fret about it.”
“He looked like he’d been in a fight.”
“The bandits stopped here. They didn’t believe that he didn’t know anything about the royal family. But they didn’t get far with him, what with his crossbow and his pistol….”
Mary Elise had a feeling that the man was quite a good fighter,
Michael changed the subject for a moment as they came out of the wooded area. “Well, we’re heading into the mountains. And as it’s Saint Stephen’s Day. We mustn’t forget prayers—though I don’t think the Almighty would mind this once if we do them on our mounts.”
It was also the day to remember the legend of the good king Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia.
“Justin reminds me a bit of him,” said Micheal. “Sometimes he even takes a big sack of food and just goes about to the poor. And the children! Oh, he loves the children. Carves little things for them. He’s quite good—another of his endeavors. He worked with a master woodcarver for quite some time. He could have stayed on at any of these things. He’s a success at anything he sets his hand to, and makes it pay. But he likes to try this and that, just for the pleasure of it.”
They’d had such a big breakfast that they waited until mid-afternoon to eat their main meal, closer to supper time. Then they started off again.
It seemed to Mary Elise as if they were going around in circles, for when they did come out of the forest, the terrain all looked the same. They were quite warm enough, for Joanna had packed two long, adult sized cloaks for them to wear over their own. But it was warming up anyway and the snow was melting. They shed the cloaks during the afternoon and when Michael stopped for the night, it was not daunting to think of camping out.
They were deep in the woods again, and he felt safe starting a small fire and cooking some trout that he had caught and cleaned earlier at a stream. That, with more of the barley bread and apples, made a good late-night supper.
“We’re nearly there,” he told them, as he patted Perceval, who was lying down contentedly. “Another few hours in the morning. Pardon, princess, for being so cautious. You were asleep when Justin told me that the band of bandits is out and about, still looking for you—and quite vexed that your brother and sister escaped.”
“You’re a good guide. It’s right to be careful. I feel very safe here.”
But they’d only been sleeping a few hours when both girls woke to rustling in the bushes. Then Michael’s harsh, “show yourself! Who is it?”
“It’s me! Daniel! Put down your weapon. And call off your dog.” For Percival had been startled, too, and was circling round, growling.
In the glow of the embers, Mary Elise saw Michael lower his pistol. The princess had grasped her hand under the cloaks, which now served as blankets. Mary Elise squeezed it, comfortingly. It would be all right. Michael seemed to know the youth who moved into the light of the small fire.
“How did you find us!”
“The Lord led me to you. I don’t know these woods at all.”
“All right,” Michael sat back. “What is it?”
“Justin. The bandits returned. They somehow knew that he helped the princess….”
“What! How could they possibly know that!”
“A woman. Named Clara—she had contact with one of the bandits—he’s a brother or cousin or something. She told which way you were heading. You’ve only been one step ahead of them all the way. It’s a wonder they didn’t get you at Justin’s.”
Michael breathed out, “God’s protection, no doubt. But what now?”
“Justin says he heard them talking—the rebellion is smaller than we thought—now—but they’re heading to the coast to meet up with others. Someone must warn the king. He’s got his troops in the wrong place. He needs to send them to the south. You need to go.”
“Why me? You can go.”
“They won’t believe me. Justin is just an old soldier that they think is daft. They’ll believe you, the son of Sir Douglas.”
There was a long silence. Finally Michael said, “you’re right. But the princess—I have a duty to her.”
Princess Juliana suddenly spoke, making them both jump. They were startled that she was awake.
“You must go and give my father the information he needs. That’s the most important.”
“Pardon, princess, but I don’t know if your father would feel that way if we lost you.”
“You can relieve his mind and tell him where we are. And can’t we go on alone? You said it wasn’t much farther. Or can’t this messenger guide us?”
“Your Highness,” the youth bowed his head to her, “I’m not sure of the way. I’ve never been here before.”
“If God brought you to us, won’t He keep us safe and lead us?” She looked at Mary Elise, who she assumed would know, then at Michael. “I think you must hurry.”
Michael nodded. “All right.” He gave quick directions to the boy, then as he mounted his horse, he said, “and what of Justin? Is he all right?”
“A black eye and an injury to his ankle by the time it was all over. But you know him—with his staff and crossbow, he fought them off easily. Six of them, apparently, thought they’d get him to tell what he knew—but they should have known better.”
Michael smiled. “Princess, an honor to serve you…safe travel.” And he was gone.
The girls ate a bite, then they started off.
“According to Michael, we need to get across the moor before daylight, then we’ll be in the hills and there will be places to hide,” the boy told them. “My horse is at the edge of the forest.”
He lit a small lantern, than doused the fire. They reached the edge of the forest in due time. Even in the moonlight they could see the shadowy hills far across the stark fields.
They moved rapidly and by dawn had reached the safety of the hills.
“Look at the sky,” observed the princess, glancing back. “How beautiful.”
Streaks of orange and red streamed across the sky. Purples and blues merged with the shadowy hills and cliffs. There was very little snow here, and the air was warmer than usual.
“It’s the Third Day of Christmas,” remembered Mary Elise, suddenly.
They all were silent for some minutes, pondering St. John and the other apostles who had served God, and gone through such persecution.
“They were brave men.Would that we all would be so,” said Daniel.
“Do you know anything about the Scriptures, Daniel? Do you read them?” asked the princess.
He glanced at her, suddenly cautious.
“It’s all right,” said Mary Elise. “She understands….”
The princess told him about her new insights into God’s Word and how she’d learned of Jesus as her Savior and Friend, rather than a far off image on a wall or stained glass window. “I didn’t know there was something special we could do to have a relationship with God. I just went along with what everyone else did. It wasn’t from the heart, I’m afraid—but now it’s different.”
Daniel nodded. “I understand what you mean. I can’t read the Scriptures, but my mother can. I had to leave school when my father had an accident—I had to take over the shop. We’re just common people. But she came from a wealthy family and her father felt it important that she learn to read. Mother has portions of the Scriptures that belonged to him.”
They talked for a long time about religion.
“How wonderful to grow up in a family who understands these things. What a brave man your grandfather is, to teach his family the Scriptures,” said the princess.
Daniel paused. “My grandfather is gone. He was killed for his beliefs.”
The princess sat stunned. Finally she said, “I’m very sorry.”
“It’s all right. It was a long time ago. I was quite young. He’s been in heaven with the Lord for these ten years. We have forgiven his accusers.”
The princess urged her horse on. “Still, I am very sorry for your family.”
They rode on in silence, skirting cliffs and mounting high slopes as they crossed the hills that would bring them to Sir Duncan’s land. In the distance they saw the houses of a town, the spire of a church.
“It looks like it’s going to rain,” said Daniel. “Best put your hoods up.”
He was right, the sky had darkened. Mary Elise wondered if they could get under some shelter, just in case. Daniel had the same idea for he led them under a shadowy ledge.
“Duck! Hide!” he shouted, suddenly.
They all heard the pounding of hoof beats in the distance. They looked back over the moor they’d crossed, and at least a dozen men on horseback were racing towards them. They were nearly at the foot of the hills.
“Go!” Daniel told them. “Across that meadow. I don’t know exactly where we are, but go! Now!”
The princess turned her horse. “What about you?”
“I’ll hold them off, if I must—but I’ll at least hide and try to follow them, and find out what they know!”
“Daniel, I don’t know about this….”
As the first of the riders reached the cliffs and started up the hilly slopes, the princess urged Romaine into a gallop. They flew across the hidden meadow, pretty sure that the bandits—or whoever they were—could not see them due to the rocky crags. They entered a wood, not as dense as the forest Michael had brought them through. Even so, they soon found themselves lost.
“I thought we were going on a straight path and we’d come out near that little town.”
“You can never find a straight path in the woods,” said the princess, ruefully.
The skies suddenly opened. Rain poured down. Mary Elise drew out one of the large cloaks and threw it around herself and the princess—but it was soaked in seconds, and heavy on her shoulders.
Thunder rumbled and lightning suddenly struck nearby, causing them to cringe and Romaine to leap sideways. Percival barked excitedly, and raced back and forth.
“Hang on to me,” shouted the princess. “Grip with your knees.” She brought the horse under control. “I have no idea where we are. The trees are doing nothing to shield us. I’m going to let Romaine decide. Maybe he can bring us out.”
She didn’t guide him, just urged him on, and sure enough the horse took them out of the woods. He would have bolted once he had the room, but she reined him in. There—another cliff! They made for the overhanging ledge and stopped underneath. It blocked some of the rain, at least.
“Thank you, Lord God!”
“You talk to Him—anywhere?”
“Lady Maria and Charlotte, and even Joanna do.” Mary Elise replied. “I think it’s all right.”
“We still don’t know where we are, but at least we’re safe—”
CRACK! A bolt of lightning struck just in front of them. A loud rumble of thunder above seemed to go on and on. The rain came down in torrents, bouncing off the ledge above and streaming down in front of them. Princess Juliana patted Romaine, “good boy. You’re all right.”
“May I be of assistance?”
Both girls jumped, causing Romaine to shy again. A man grabbed the reins and brought him down.
“Do pardon me…why you’re just young girls.” The man joined them under the ledge. They realized immediately who and what he was.
He wore a long brown robe with a hood. A monk!
The princess sighed with relief. “Sir, we’re lost.”
“And cold and wet, no doubt. Come with me. The storm is to last some time, I think.”
He led the way, as the rain let up just a bit.
“I was out here praying and should have gone back when I realized how black the clouds were getting. But perhaps it was meant to be, for then I wouldn’t have seen you.” He held on to the reins tightly as another crack of lightening flashed, and Romaine danced nervously. Perceval didn’t like it much either.
“Where are you taking us?”
“Just up here.” They came around a hill and looked up. A large group of ancient buildings met their gaze.
“Yes. You’ll be safe from the storm there. Whatever are you doing out here all alone?”
“I’ll tell you when we arrive,” said Princess Juliana.
He gazed at her curiously, then nodded, moving ahead in the driving rain. It came down in torrents, and they all arrived in the courtyard, drenched.
A man came and took charge of the horse. Perceval tried to follow the princess, but she picked him up and gave him over to the stableman.
The big doors opened, and another brown clad man met them inside. Yet another came forward curiously.
“Father,” the monk who had brought them bowed his head. “Travelers.”
This man was all in black. He looked upon the girls, and his face showed his surprise.
“Your Highness? Princess Juliana?”
Their new friend looked in astonishment. “Princess?”
“You recognize me even in these clothes?”
The priest nodded. “I was in the city, with a company of other priests, visiting the bishop. You and your royal family were attending Mass.”
Princess Juliana gazed upon them all. “I ask for sanctuary. We were being pursued. And please, our guide may be in danger….”
The large door opened again.
“Father…a horse just galloped in—frightened by the storm, most likely–and riderless….” The stableman looked questionably at the priest.
The girls peered out into the rain.
To Be Continued….
By Carol Bennett