The villagers scattered in fear, scurrying quickly out of the way as the large group of heavily armed horsemen, led by the second Earl of Moltonrose, their Lord, came galloping down the road and into the village square, the Maltonrose war standard flying high above them.
The villagers all knew how cruel the Earl could be and returning from the terrible defeat at the hands of the English army, he was obviously in a very foul mood. In a moment, the village square, which had been crawling with villagers seconds before, was empty, completely silent and still as all the villagers moved way back to the edges of the wide clearing. Only the two novice nuns standing by the fallen large tree trunk to one side of the clearing stood their ground and they both stepped forward fearlessly to meet the horsemen
Jenifer and her younger stepsister, Emma, stood together close to the middle of the open square and their father brought his huge warhorse to a halt in front them. The rest of his men stopped behind him.
For a long moment, there was complete silence in the large square as the Earl, sitting atop his horse, stared down at his daughters, but no emotion showed on his hard face.
“Good evening, father,” greeted Jennifer with a deep courtesy. Her voice was firm and calm but her heart was beating fast. She still felt like a little girl in the presence of her father, seeking his approval
‘Good, evening, father,” chorused Emma, standing slightly behind Jennifer, clearly a little afraid of her father.
For a long moment, the Earl did not answer. He kept staring at his first daughter as a lot of things become clear to him now and new plans began to form in his mind. The tall slip of a girl he had last seen all of four years ago had changed completely. She had definitely become more mannered, but more importantly, she had blossomed into a rare beauty.
The unusual features, that pale gold hair and looks, they must have come from the Saxon blood on her mother’s side, thought the Earl even as he wondered where Roy Peterson could have seen her to want her so badly. It must have been on a market day here in the village, where else.
The Earl thought some more. Yes, now he understood what was afoot. He would increase Jennifer’s dowry a bit which would allow him up his demands on Roy Peterson. A fresh army of savage highland warriors and a personal alliance with their supreme leader would make him the most powerful lord in southern Scotland. It was just a matter of negotiations which would be done after the war but the army must come now, with his daughter’s agreement to the marriage.
The Earl nodded approvingly at his daughter.
“You remind me a lot of your mother now,” he said quietly. “How have you been?”
“I’ve been well, father,” replied Jennifer, her heart beating in her throat now.
“So, I see,” Earl nodded again. “I take it you’ve heard the news, that the English army is upon us and the devil himself is leading them?”
“Yes, father, I heard, we all heard.”
“They will be marching straight here and I haven’t the men to protect the castle much less the villages. I lost too many men in battle including three of your brothers, but there isn’t even time to mourn, only time to prepare for more war. I have asked the Highland Clan Lords for help and they have promised me a fresh army, but only on the condition that you agree to marry Roy Peterson.”
Jennifer was horrified. “Father, Roy Peterson is more than sixty years old!”
“Aye, but he’s head of the Clans and they all do what he says.”
“Why not his son, at least?” said Jennifer desperately.
The Earl shook his head. “Roy wants you for himself or there’s no agreement, which means the clans won’t come to our aid when the English army gets here. Everything, the castle, our lands and all our lives depend on you. If you refuse, we all die, if you agree, we live and keep our home.”
Jennifer sighed heavily in frustration. Just when she thought her father was finally beginning to recognize her as his first child and probable heir, her world comes falling apart.
“Father, is there no other way we can face the English army without this marriage?”
The Earl shook his head. “There is no other way. If we are to have any chance of protecting the castle and the lands beyond the river, we must have a fresh army and only the clans have that at the moment.”
“What about the villages on this side of the river, the convent?” asked Jennifer.
“We cannot protect them all. The villagers must protect themselves but the convent won’t need any protection. It has Rome’s protection and so won’t be touched even by the devil himself. It is the safest place to be right now, you and your sister will be safe within its walls.”
“So the Highlands will only give you their support if I agree to marry Roy Peterson?”
The Earl nodded. “It’s the only way we can make through this war. I lost more than half my army.”
Jennifer looked form her father to the other mounted men. They were all looking at her. Most of them, she recognized, they came from the town of Moltonrose itself. She had grown up with their children and most of them hated her, they even thought her a witch and murderer for the death of a village chief’s daughter and another girl who had drowned mysteriously while they were fighting at a river. The brother of the village chief was among the armed men with her father now and so was the father of the other dead girl, the village baker, there was a bloody bandage over one of his eyes. There was no sign of emotion on the hard faces of either man, none of the men show any sign of emotion or understanding of the sacrifice being asked of her. They didn’t even seem to see her.
Jennifer knew she had no choice. She loved her father and her people. If she said no, they and all their family would die… but if she said yes, all her dreams, all she had ever hoped for in life, would come to an end. She looked back at her father’s expectant face. She couldn’t let him down and so she made up her mind.
“Alright father, I will do as you wish.”
Her father nodded with satisfaction. “A message will be sent to the Highland clans at once. We will definitely survive this war.” The Earl looked up at the setting sun. “Best we get going, there is so much to be done and little time.”
“Take care of your sister and remember to remain within the convent until all this is over,” said the Earl tighten his grip on the reins of his horse. “I will send for you both then.”
“We will be waiting, father,” Jennifer nodded as she stepped back and put an arm around her younger step-sister.
The Earl kicked his horse and it started forward on its way at a gallop. The other men followed him at once, none looked at Jennifer or acknowledged her in any way.
Hiding deep in the woods beyond the village square, three men dressed like ordinary villagers with black clocks, watched closely as the group of horsemen galloped away, leaving the two nuns behind. The cloaked men were too far away to hear what had been said between the leader of the horsemen and the nuns.
“Strange,” said one of the cloaked men. “Why would the Earl come all the way here to talk to two ordinary nuns at a time like this, and so familiarly too.”
“Because the nuns are not ordinary, but very special to him,” said one of his partners with authority.
“Who do you think they are?” asked the third clocked figure.
“I don’t really know but look how respectfully the common folks are treating the both of them. I think we are looking at noble women, the Earl’s daughter.” replied the authoritative figure.
“The Earl is supposed to have only two daughters. Rumor has it that the younger one is the beauty of Scotland while the older one is plain.”
“Aye, and neither is supposed to be a nun. These two are nuns, and very beautiful too, particularly the golden-haired one,” said the man who had spoken first.
“They are novices, not real nuns. What better place to hide your daughters during wartime than a convent. As for rumors, they are wrong and this won’t be the first time. The dark-haired nun is surely the beauty of Scotland, the golden-haired one must be her older sister, look how she was talking to the Earl without fear, and see how in control she is now. We will take them both and let Royce make up his mind,” declared the authoritative figure.
“That was not our orders,” remarked one of the other men at once “The Duke ordered us to spy out the land and find the weak links in the defenses of Maltonrose castle.”
“You are looking at the keys to the front door of the castle and the entire south of Scotland. We will take them both.” insisted the authoritative figure.
The nuns soon set off with their basket of herbs and flower, walking back down the lonely road towards the convent, talking together as they went.
The three men in the woods followed.
*Epic Romance Stories*