“I know some shortcuts,” said the bandit. “But you’re going to have to trust me.”
“We wouldn’t be here, sir, if we didn’t trust you,” said the princess.
“Then follow me. We’ll have to go single file. Be very careful.”
He merged off from the narrow road to an even narrower cobblestoned lane.
On one side was a sharp drop off. Even though they were sheltered by trees, the wind chilled Mary Elise. It had grown colder again. This had been a very strange winter, mild than cold and snowy, then spring-like again. It was too bad that this day, when they had found it necessary to travel, was a frigid one.
She held Perceval in a kind of sling under her cloak. He seemed to have no desire to be out in the cold.
“We’ll stop in a bit and get out the extra cloaks,” said the princess, as Mary Elise shivered. “But not now.”
Princess Juliana was busy guiding her horse and keeping a sharp eye on Patrick as he negotiated the broken down walkway ahead of her. Finally they swerved away from the edge.
As they moved along, they still had to watch carefully that their horses didn’t stumble, for their way was strewn with rocks and broken cobblestones. They presently came to the end, and found themselves in a courtyard that looked out over a heath. On one side were the broken-down ruins of a large house. Only a few high walls were still standing.
“Stay here, out of the wind, while I scout the area,” said the bandit.
The three stayed hidden as they watched the man ride out on his stallion.
“You don’t think he’s brought us into a trap, do you?” asked Mary Elise, anxiously. She wasn’t as sure as the princess about the wisdom of trusting this man.
“We believe he’s a true child of God,” said the monk. “I’m not at liberty to tell you his story. That’s for him to tell, if he sees fit. But both Father Douglas and I feel he’s sincere.”
“All right,” Mary Elise was satisfied with that.
It was some time before the man reappeared.
“Is all well?” asked Brother Frederick.
“They’re a good ways from here and heading south. I couldn’t tell how many. Some may still be at the monastery, but we’ll go on west. They don’t know all the hidden routes that I do. I lived here for a time.”
He led them past the ruins, and they crossed the heath. The girls were glad once again of Lady Maria’s long, warm cloaks over their own, but they soon came to more cliffs and rocky gorges where the wind was blocked a bit. This time they descended down into one of the gorges and moved along beside a shallow stream.
They traveled this way for an hour or so, than started climbing back up the steep bank, always hidden.
“It shouldn’t be much longer—ho! Stop!” Patrick held up a hand suddenly as he reined in his horse.
They all saw them! Soldiers!
“This is good!” said Brother Frederick. “The princess….”
“But what about Patrick? Will they recognize him as one of the bandits and take him away?” asked the princess.
“Let me go this time,” said the monk. He carefully headed up a trail and came out above.
They heard him hailing the soldiers, then it was impossible to hear the conversation until….
“Where’d you come from, anyway?”
“I was hiding,” said the monk, truthfully. “Bandits were heading for the monastery. You might go help. See if the brothers are still in danger….”
“Later. We’ll send someone.”
“Later may be too late,” returned Brother Frederick.
“So you managed to get out to go for help?” asked someone, “I still don’t understand where you came from…. You weren’t back there. You didn’t come from up ahead….”
“Why would bandits attack a monastery?” interrupted another. “Perhaps they do need help.”
They were all right overhead now, at the nearly hidden path which led down the gulch. At the sound of that voice, Patrick looked up, startled.
“Maybe they want spiritual help,” came a jeer.
“We’re under orders. Let’s go!” This from the stern commander.
They heard the group moving off, but Brother Frederick waited for quite some time before finally returning down the rocky path. He joined them near the stream, under cover of brush.
“That was close,” said Patrick. “Why were they so suspicious of a monk?”
Brother Frederick looked a little shaken himself. “They were the king’s soldiers. But they don’t seem to understand the role of the bandits in this rebellion. I’m not quite sure what their mission was. But I didn’t feel right telling them that the princess was with us. They seemed very rough and….” The monk shook his head, confused.
“Except for one,” said Patrick.
“Yes,” the monk brightened. “That one looked—kinder, wiser…I don’t know. I think I’m rather good at reading men, and I just didn’t trust the others.”
“Then we shall go a different way and not show our faces up there. Unless, Princess, you want Brother Frederick to give you over to them….to find your father….”
“No, I trust his judgment.”
“Then come. At least we’ll be out of the wind in a moment.”
He led them along on a narrow strip of land and presently they moved right into the stream, which was rushing faster here. The cold, swirling waters splashed their legs.
“In a dryer season we wouldn’t have to do this, but it’s not for long. And it will hide our tracks, just in case anyone’s interested and finds that trail down the gorge. Here we are….”
He led them up an embankment, and they suddenly came upon a cave. “In you, go,” he said.
Brother Frederick went first, urging his horse through the entrance.
The girls followed. Patrick took some time to find long sticks and light one with supplies from his bag, then he joined them.
“These caverns will take us where we need to go—hold this, Brother Frederick.”
The monk took the torch, and Patrick dismounted and went back out. They watched him brush their tracks away.
As he reentered the cave, he said, “I threw a bit of debris around, as well. Now, let’s rest a few minutes and then we’ll get on.”
They ate a bite, as the monk told them more of his conversation.
“They said they were looking for the princess. They didn’t seem to know where your royal brother and sister are either. I still felt that something was wrong. You said, Princess, that some of the royal guard is in on the rebellion?”
“Father didn’t know who. The head of the royal guard, yes, but we don’t know how many others in the army are involved. At least we didn’t then. A lot may have happened since I’ve been away.”
“I wonder if these are some who are on the bandit’s side. Maybe that’s why they didn’t want to go help the monks,” mused Patrick.
Mary Elise liked being in the closed in, safe place. She ate her bread and cheese as they talked, and the men finished off with some ale from a leather flask.
“Where does this take us?” asked the princess.
“Let’s move on. These tunnels should bring us out very close to your destination.”
“I thought we were close before,” said Brother Frederick.
“It’s not safe above,” replied Patrick. “We’ve been going a rather round-about way.”
Mary Elise glanced at the princess. Everyone had been taking them round-about ways, but she supposed it was for the best. Though even her friend looked like she was ready to just get there! But Lady Maria would tell them to be patient. God was in control and one never knew what He was doing behind the scenes.
Patrick led them to a dark entrance. He lit the other torch for Fredrick, then they entered a tunnel. There was plenty of room for them to ride single file. As they passed many entrances along the way, Mary Elise realized that if they didn’t have a guide, it would be easy to get hopelessly lost in here. Perceval was running ahead, exploring. He didn’t seem to have any fear of such a thing.
Suddenly their guide came to a halt.
“A rockslide! Our way is blocked. We’ll take a right here and go on up. I’m afraid this won’t take us as far as I had thought. But as my mother used to say, God’s ways are not our ways. We’ll trust Him.”
After turning into the new tunnel, they seemed to be moving upward. Sure enough, soon they saw light. They emerged onto a grassy slope—and directly in front of them was—
A soldier on horseback!
To be continued….
By Carol Bennett
Next time–the conclusion of The Milkmaid.