It was a time of no war, yet Lady Gabrielle knew conflicts would rekindle to claim the new crop of young men as the winter steals life from the plants. She walked the roof of Rousseau castle, one of the smallest in the realm, yet it was her castle. The stiff wind blew her long brown hair back and rustled her dress, sending a chill far up between her legs. May the wind blow a man to me, a strong one with a powerful mind and gentle hand. It would be acceptable if he had a modicum of handsomeness to him. She smiled to herself.
Squire Anatole ran to her huffing for breath. “M’lady, you’re needed in the court.”
She sighed that God put a pure heart and strong mind in a short body, too short for being a knight, or so it was in the other manors, but at eighteen he should be close to a knighthood.
She exaggerated a wave of her hand past her nose. “Squire, you’ve carried the stable smell with you; no, it’s you. Did the pigs kick you out from their pens again?” She frowned but failed to contain a soft smile.
“No, Lady.” He lowered his head.
“Did I tell you yesterday to clean yourself?”
“Yes, Lady, but recall that my mother died after taking a bath. They’re dangerous.”
She backhanded his shoulder. “And your father died, but he never took a bath. And I brought you to this castle from a fallow field when you were ten, or else you’d be dead; you’ve never died before from a bath. I take baths. Am I dead?”
He rubbed his shoulder. “No, m’lady.”
She scowled. “I’ll deal with you later.” She slammed her hand into his other shoulder.
He grabbed that one and stepped back. “Ow.” A telltale pout developed.
She threw her hands to her hips and scowled. “Did my strikes hurt?”
Half a mischievous grin showed. “No, Lady Gabrielle.”
She tousled his hair. “Then stop acting like a woman and return to your duties. You’re a squire; act like one.” She enjoyed the fragment of a little boy left in the burgeoning and handsome man who possessed a strong body.
He bowed. “Yes, Lady Gabrielle.”
She smiled into the gusting wind; it made her feel alive, although she knew it warned of a harsh winter to follow the colorful fall.
In the court below, she settled into her ornate seat as she tilted her head to an assistant, who escorted two peasants forward. A woman knelt before Lady Gabrielle; a dirty, mid-sized man gave a lazy bow, which annoyed her. She barked, “Bow with proper respect!”
“Yes, Lady.” His voice lacked the appropriate decorum, but his bow improved.
She clenched her jaw. “Who brings a claim here?”
The peasant woman lowered her head. “I do, Lady.”
Lady Gabrielle waved her hand, as her husband and father before her had done, for the woman to proceed. “I gave my neighbor my horse because his died. He said he’d trade seven sheep, but he’s only given five and says that is all I will get.”
Lady Gabrielle motioned to the man who had irritated her. He spoke, “The agreement was for five sheep; I’ve fulfilled the bargain.” His half-smile, or maybe smirk, intensified her distain.
The woman snapped, “You said seven; you begged me for the horse.”
He snorted. “I don’t beg from a woman. I clearly remember I said five sheep. I have a sharp recall.” This time he smirked and looked down at her.
Lady Gabrielle stewed at the man’s arrogance. “I recall this is the third time you’ve been to this court, and each time was due to a disagreement over selling or trading of animals.” She stared at him until he gazed to the floor. “And each time you dealt with a widow.”
“They remember badly, My Lady.”
She slid to the edge of the seat. “And what did I instruct you the last time you stood before me?”
“I don’t recall, My Lady.” He shifted between his feet.
She yelled. “I ordered that the next time you dealt with a woman you both were to come here so my scribe can write the agreement to avoid arguments as is happening now. Do you recall that?”
“I had forgotten until you now tell me, My Lady.”
“Ha! Your sharp memory fails you when it doesn’t suit you?”
“But, My Lady—”
She threw her hand in the air. “Silence. My decision is that you failed to honor a bargain. You will, on this day, provide two more sheep of good health to your neighbor and one more as penance for you dishonest deed. Further, you are again ordered to bring all future bargains to this court for my consent, and you will bring one sheep here as a fine.”
The neighbors snarled at each other. The woman smiled and bowed to Gabrielle. “Thank you, My Lady.”
With an insignificant tilt of his head, the man turned away, igniting the ire of Lady Gabrielle. “Halt. You will show the proper respect to the manor. I command you to bring another sheep here for your insolence.” She motioned to her three squires. “After he pays his debts to the neighbor and the manor, stake him to the ground of his sheep pasture and keep him there until the sun sets. Let him wallow in the sheep droppings to remind him of his place.”
Squire Anatole, whom she could smell from the distance between them, and the other squires, Julien and Diodore, bowed and took charge of him.
The next case involved two men. Lady Gabrielle nodded to them. After they both bowed with precise care, one man spoke, “My Lady, I’m sorry to take your time, but my neighbor here has stolen firewood from me three nights this week. I salvaged and chopped dead trees from the forest, carted them to my home, and put them under cover. Twice overnight the pile dwindled; I stayed awake a third night, and I caught him taking wood.”
The other man spoke, “My Lady, no one else saw the deed; he is mistaken.”
The lady’s skin tingled, a certain sign the man lied. “Did you take his wood once, twice, or three times, and remember if you lie to me, you lie to the king, whose realm we all live in.” The man studied his feet and looked about the room. The lady barked, “This is not a difficult issue; you did or did not! Your silence and wandering eyes say you stole!”
He swallowed, and his mouth moved sans words.
“Answer!” She jumped to her feet, grabbed the sword made especially for her, shorter and lighter, and with two hands she raised it. “I’ll take your head now rather than wait for the squires to return and do it.”
He fell to his knees, shaking. “I regret my deeds, My Lady. We needed wood in the home.”
“If this were the land far away to the east, your hand would be cut off. If your neighbor can gather wood for his family, so can you.”
The first man cawed, “He sits about and drinks wine. His wife and children work more than he does.”
Lady Gabrielle took a step closer with the raised sword. It was getting heavy; she’d have to practice more. “Is this the truth?”
The second man trembled. “Yes, My Lady.”
She recalled a similar case years ago and how her father dealt with the thief. “I command you to return the wood you took in twice the amount and to go with no fire in your house for three days and nights.”
“M’lady, I’ll starve, and what of my wife and child?”
Her father would have condemned the family to the fate of the husband, but her heart held more compassion. Maybe it was good to be a woman. “You will not starve in three days. Send your family here to the castle; you can eat the grass as the sheep do. My servants will report if you obey or disobey me.” She took breaths to calm her shaking arms still hoisting the sword high. Finally, she lowered it and waved a hand. “Go.”
Both men bowed and left.
Three other cases came to her and each were handled in as wise a manner as she could, spiced with compassion. These were troubling times; why make it harder for village life?
The squires returned. Julien reported, “Lady, we put stakes in the ground and tied the man to them. One of us will free him at sunset.”
“Is he face-up or face-down?”
Anatole smirked. “Facedown, M’lady. We found a nice pile of sheep shit for him.”
Diodore pushed him. “It still smelled better than you.” Lady Gabrielle bemoaned that God cursed Diodore with a red wine-like mark on his face at birth. In all other places it would destroy his opportunity of knighthood.
Anatole stepped back and inspected the floor. Lady Gabrielle commanded, “Prepare your horses and mine; we’re off for a ride.”
In a chorus, they barked, “Yes, My Lady.”
She put a hand on Julien to stop him and whispered to his ear, “Bring a long rope and blanket; arm yourselves.” He nodded.
Lady Gabrielle, armed with a knife and bow, rode astride the horse as a man would. The few peasants they passed along the way stepped aside and bowed in the proper way. The Lady knew the wind would blow war or conflict to the manor someday, and it was ill prepared to defend itself. Jaunts like this gave some practice to the squires. Oh how she needed a knight to bring up the squires and take the lead in the manor’s defense. The crisp wind blew, and sorrow grew in her heart for the stumbling of the manor. So many had been lost to battle when sent to support the king; so many citizen had been claimed by the claws of the plague. She led the squires to the river and dismounted, refusing their offers of assistance. “Tie the rope to that tree.”
Their usual chorus resounded, “Yes, My Lady.” They stood and stared. She pointed to Diodore and Julien. “Strip Anatole and tie him to the rope and throw him in the river. He needs a bath.”
Mischievous smiles grew on their faces as Anatole stepped back. “Please, Lady Gabrielle, the river is swift and cold.” Fear covered his face. “I don’t swim well.”
She slapped his face before ruffling his hair and smiling. “Squire Anatole, is this how you’ll act if you’re attacked? Stay brave regardless of the consequences. Show no fear, and why do you not swim well? Did I not tell you to practice regularly? A knight must be able to do battle everywhere, in heaven, hell, and the river. You will not be a squire forever, as you were not a boy for eternity.”
Anatole, with his thick and muscled body, swallowed, making his sexy Adam’s apple bob. “No knight can fight in a river; the armor will take him under.”
She clasped his face in her hands. “I can only teach you three so much, but I know you must be able to fight in water, and if your armor drowns you then be certain it is ten heartbeats after your enemy has drowned. I expect you all to die in victory rather than defeat.”
“Yes, m’lady.” Their chorus was music to her ears. She stepped back and nodded to Julien and Diodore. They removed Anatole’s chest plate, sword belt, and all items of clothing showing his cock, which most horses would envy. They tied the rope to his ankles.
The Lady ordered, “Throw him in.” Anatole sucked a breath. They lifted and thrust him with some levity; surely his stench annoyed them too. Failing to stay clean was a bad habit for a handsome young man.
“How long, My Lady?” Anatole yelled.
“Twenty minutes, but expect the worst; you’ll be a knight someday.”
He spoke, but the water consumed his words.
Lady Gabrielle warned the others, “Watch that he’s safe. I only want to frighten and not kill him; he’s of value. Be diligent all around. Danger can approach in a moment.” She kept her eyes aware. She wanted to yell correction to Anatole, but expected little would make it to his brain as he churned in the water. It annoyed her that he failed to heed her direction to stay clean and to improve his swimming skills, but this could serve as a lesson for them all.
The others were diligent about watching about them and holding the rope that kept Anatole tied to the tree. They worked well as a team and she was happy to have them present. Twigs passed, then bigger ones, then branches. She looked upriver at a few approaching logs. “Haul him in this instant!”
Diodore asked, “What is it?”
“Obey me without question!”
They pulled him in as the logs came closer. “Anatole, logs coming! Dive under!” His face changed from disgust at being in the river to fear, and he dove down as a log bumped him. When they brought him to shore, he sputtered and coughed. “Drag him up higher,” she yelled. Once they did, she slapped his face and he coughed once, and then once more. “Get the blanket,” she commanded. They wrapped him. She patted her handkerchief over a wound on his forehead.
He blinked, and a wry grin grew on his mouth. “I’ll forever stay clean, My Lady.”
She gathered his clothes and they rode back in silence.
Back at the castle she instructed the others. “Be sure he gets a hot bath and plenty of hot soup.” She stroked his face. “Squire Anatole, you upset me by failing to stay clean despite my warnings, but I meant no serious harm to you; you’re valuable to me and the manor. I had planned a belting in addition to the river bath, but I’ll forego it this time because of your swim with the logs.”
“Thank you, Lady Gabrielle.”
She cast her gaze over them. “I expect greater diligence in maintaining your knightly skills, for someday you will all achieve that position. By mid-afternoon tomorrow, I shall inspect your weapons, armor, and horses.” She spun and moved three steps before facing them again. “Spend time in the village and farms. Find boys to serve as pages and later squires. It matters not their bloodline. We lack the bodies and cannot be too selective.”
The trio headed off, with Julien and Diodore teasing Anatole.
* * *
The next day she worried over the health of the manor and berated herself for not foreseeing the danger of the logs in the river. With the surplus of wool and wine to sell they would be on better footing, but how would she guard the shipment when it was sent out? Would she send one, two, or three squires? She sighed and spoke to the wind atop the castle. “Oh, to have a dozen knights about,” she laughed, “or just two pair; the squires need a leader so they can be knights, and we’ll need pages and squires for them.” She lifted her eyes to heaven. The clouds moved aside, and the sun blazed down. “What a glorious fall day,” she said as she wandered to the kitchen.
Rosalie the cook greeted her with her usual wide grin. “Good day, Lady Gabrielle.”
“Good day, Rosalie. How are the children? Are you raising a future king?” Lady Gabrielle nibbled from bread on the table and tilted her head at the two toddlers napping in a corner bed.
“They’re healthy, thank God.”
“They’re two and four years now, correct?”
“Do you still desire a child of your own? You were kind to take these two in.”
She stirred the stew on the stove. “Yes, but with my poor husband having come to an early and sudden death, who will be the father?” A wry grin followed.
The lady teased in return. “Rosalie, I thought you were only twenty-three; are you so old you’ve forgotten you were the one to lop off his head?”
“And by your grace I keep mine,” she chuckled.
“My father would have seen the horror of his ministration toward you; the animals were treated better. Your husband never dragged them behind the wagon with a rope. I admire your courage, but remember you’re still under arrest and imprisoned here in the castle.” She winked.
“It will be grand to have a child provided I survive the birth, but it would be an honor to die in your service. So, the father?”
“If we pray, God will deliver a new, but kinder, husband for you.”
“Aye, My Lady.” Her eyes focused on the stew, and her mouth fell silent, but the corners turned up.
Lady Gabrielle moved next to her. “Speak, what is it?”
The wry grin returned. “It would be acceptable to me if any of the squires desired me, but that is only a dream; I’m certain none want me.”
Lady Gabrielle chuckled. What a waste it would have been to hang her.
Rosalie nodded and again displayed her wide smile.