Having kicked the man in the balls and relieved him of his belongings, Joyce wasn't quite sure what to do next. She could run, but he might come after her the next minute. If she tied him up here, in the middle of nowhere, he might be eaten by wolves; or starve to death. Besides, she didn't have any rope. She could kill him... perhaps. The thought left a bitter taste in her mouth.
'What am I to do with you?' she sighed.
'Well,' he groaned while giving her a look that sent shivers down her spine, 'You can run, but that won't help you, cause I will find you! So you just wait another few minutes until I get back up again - and I mean ˙p- and then, I'll do you like there's no tomorrow! Which, by the way, for you there won't be!'
Well, that sure narrows down my options, she figured as she bent over and closed her trembling fingers around a good, fist-sized rock...
It wasn't much later when the road took her out of the forest and into the farmland. When she spotted the little village in the distance, she took a minute to prepare herself. Having slept in the woods, her hair and clothes were a mess already, and a bewildered expression was added fast enough. Squeezing out some obligatory tears was harder. She tried thinking about her current predicament and how she was practically forced on the run, but that only made her angry. This was her life, dammit, and she was more than a prize breeding mare! Kicking some pebbles, Joyce tried to compose herself - she needed tears, not rage! Damn her parents for making her do this! She tried to picture their stern, stone-set faces, but all she could think of was her mother, in tears; and her father, sick with worry.
'Oh, mother... father... damn you both!' she sobbed, and dabbed at her eyes to make them more swollen as a spoonful of droplets ran down her cheeks.
Five minute later Joyce half-ran, half stumbled into the tiny town square, shouting with as much hysteria as she dared: 'Oh my God, there's brigands in the woods! They killed someo-' Hey, where the hell is everybody?
The village, a mere hamlet occupied by farmers, woodcutters, thatchers and such, was as empty as her stomach. It wasn't until she reached the far end that she heard the shouting; by the sound of it, there was something going on further down the road. The voices led her back to the edges of the forest, where the villagers had gathered round a small, wooden shack; pelting it with stones, apples, cabbages and the occasional cauliflower. Well, at least famine doesn't appear to be an issue here, Joyce thought, as she carefully approached the crowd. A fair amount of them were carrying torches and pitchforks.
'I say, what's going on?' she asked a young mother, who was breastfeeding a baby while providing her husband with rocks.
'It's the old hag that lives here!' the woman shrieked, 'She's a witch!'
Joyce's eyebrows went up before she could stop them. 'A witch? That is...' prepostrous ...'most...' unlikely '...something...' she stammered. More villagers turned to her now, their faces contorted in masks of collective anger as an avalanche of accusations bore down upon her.
'She was hummin' to herself all day last thursday, and that evening, there was a thunderstorm!'
'I saw her by the orchard and now there's worms all over it!'
'She gave me an ointment she said would heal this boil I gots on me leg, but now I've got an awful itch!'
'And when I went to see her because I had cut me own hand, she made me drink spirits, said it'd ease the pain. But the next day, I had a headache and was sick all over the place!'
'She is a witch, she must burn!'
'I've got two arms as well!'
'Oh dear...' Joyce pinched the bridge of her nose. 'Look, you-'
'There she is!!'
Indeed, the more hands-on members of the mob had worked up their courage (Joyce noted one of them was waving a jug of mead) to kick down the cottage door and remove a hunched figure from it's one room. It was an elderly lady, Joyce observed, but she had thick, curly blonde hair and no apparant warts. When she screamed in pain after a kick to the ribs, it seemed she was also still in possession of most of her teeth. As stones and aforementioned vegetables rained down upon the woman, two men grabbed her by the arms and dragged her to the other side of the road, where a good supply of wood was piled around a stake. They threw the woman down in front of it and-
All heads turned to her. Joyce gasped, but there was no way back now, so she pushed forth and knelt down next to the fallen woman.
'This is insane!' she snapped, hoping they would not pick up the trembe in her voice, 'This woman is no witch, and even if she was, she deserves a fair trial! You can't just go about burning someone because it rained a few days ago, what is wrong with you people?'
The crowd parted, and a single figure emerged. He was clearly some sort of travelling priest, as his robes were covered with dust and his body had that lean quality to it that revealed a most unclergical tendency for regular exercise. His eyes were hollow and cold.
'Who are you,' his voice was soft and slow, 'to understand the work of God?'
'I... I am...' I am not me, that's for sure! And even if I could throw my hours studying Scripture with father Potbellius in your face right now, I'm sure you'd discard them. 'I am someone who knows about compassion!' There, stick that where His light doesn't shine!
'Our lord is most compassionate,' the priest droned on, 'As he sends his faithful servants to deliver us from evil, such as witchcraft.'
Joyce rolled her eyes. There's NO reasoning with these people! Whenever they'd visit her home in the past, father would immediately invite them to the castle for dinner, offering them a comfortable bed for the night as well as an armed guard to escort them off his lands first thing in the morning. We have our ways of dealing with your kind, "priest"! Unfortunately, I neglected to bring my castle with me when I fled, so I'll have to improvise.
'I can't let you harm this woman!' Granted, it wasn't much of an argument, but it showed courage. People always respected courage.
'She is in league with the evil one.' the priest whispered. The mob responded as one:
'She's a witch as well!'
'Oh, for the love of -ouch!' Joyce staggered backwards as a turnip hit her hard in the chest, and one moment later she was the centre of a hail of vegetables until a rock hit her hard on the side of the head, and everything went dark...
When she came to, the throbbing inside her skull vied for attention with the chafing on her wrists.
'Ooohhh... Where the hell am I?'
'You're on my stake, dear,' a cheerful voice by her ear replied. 'It's not very comfortable, but I honestly didn't expect to have company up here.'
'Oh, great...' So much for self-reliance! Joyce managed to open her eyes. The crowd was still there, with torches, pitchforks and a revered silence for the priest, who was holding the Holy Book while mumbling some litany Joyce could swear wasn't really in there.
'..."suffer none of them to live", the Lord spoke, "for they are the vermin of Evil! Do unto them as you would to a serpent, a worm or a roach"...'
'Oh, for the love of God...' she groaned.
'No, dear,' the supposed witch corrected her, 'it's not His love we are witnessing here!'
'You seem very cheerful, given the circumstances.'
'Well, contrary to the accusations, I am very much devouted to our Lord in Heaven.'
'Oh, sweet irony.'
The woman gave a thoughtful nod, 'I suppose it is, considering I was midwife to most of those gathered around to kill me now.'
'You delivered these idiots into this world? Perhaps you do deserve to die!'
Her remark was met with a hearty laugh. 'Oh, don't worry dear, it'll all work out for the best. You just gotta have faith.'
'Have faith?? Do you really think that any moment now, God will arrange for someone to pop his head round the corner and shout-'
His white mare stood in the middle of the road as if he owned it, his hands were loosely on the reins and his sword, though sheated, was very prominently there; as was the trio of her father's guards that accompanied him. Although he was only eighteen, Sir Thomas Daxon looked every bit the knight he had set out to be when he became her father's squire all these years ago; and, as such, immediately instilled respect in the villagers.
'What's all this, then?' he informed, his tone making it an obvious reprimand.
'They're witches, m'lord...' one of the villagers muttered, but every bit of passion had been drained in favour of subservience.
'No. They're not.' As Sir Daxon slowly rode up to the stake, the crowd parted and torches and pitchforks were dropped from now the meekest of hands.
'He a friend of yours?' the supposed witch whispered as close to Joyce's ear as her bonds allowed her to get.
'No! I mean, well, sort of...'
'His armor's awfully shiny. And that's a fine horse, you don't see them much whiter than that.'
'Milady.' Sir Daxon halted in front of her. That he had to see her like this! She suppressed a groan and pulled herself in as dignified a position as she could manage.
'I'm glad to have found you, and in due time I might add. Your noble mother and father are worried sick about you.'
Don't play that card, Thomas, I beg of you! Joyce pleaded silently, fighting to hold back her tears as relief for her rescue struggled with frustration over her apprehension. But when he climbed the stake and cut her bonds, she couldn't help but lean into him. The priest, who had not moved a muscle, now spoke.
'The work of the Lord mustn't be hindered, on penalty of-'
'The daughter of Lord Brandson ámustn't be burned either, on penalty of which I dare not wonder!' Sir Thomas cut him off. 'Not to mention how he feels about strangers who stir amok amongst the common folk!'
'These are not Lord Brandson's lands...' the priest started to object, only to be silenced again.
'No, they're not. However, his lands are less than a day's ride east, we'll claim to have caught you there. Edwin!' Sir Thomas turned to one of the guards, 'Guard this man at all times. I'm sure Lord Brandson will have a most interesting heart-to-heart with him!'
'Wouldn't wanna miss it for the world,' the guard grinned as he dismounted and took a rope from his satchel. Meanwhile the knight turned his attention to the midwife and cut her loose as well.
'Much obliged, good sir,' the woman cackled. 'I'd swoon for you, but I fear I am not the most distressed damsel present.'
'Ah, um... yes. No. I guess.' Sir Thomas frowned, and turned her over to Edwin. 'Escort this lady back to the castle as well, for her safety.'
There were no objections. Most of the villagers were leaving anyway, now Sir Daxon and his party had pooped what was to be a good day's entertainment. No one wanted to be singled out by any of the soldiers either. Roland, who had served her family since the time of her grandfather and was always in for a good laugh and a blind eye, now looked like he'd run through the first person who so much as sneezed. This is my doing... if things go bad, the blood of these people will be on my hands!
'Ralph!' Sir Daxon led Joyce to the third soldier, 'Take Lady Jocelyn back to the village and guard her. Demand a room in the inn, we'll join you there shortly.'
As Ralph led her away, Joyce could hear Thomas giving the remaining crowd an earful about judgement, compassion and the idiocy of wasting good food when winter was coming...
'You are injured,' Sir Thomas observed as he entered the tiny upstairs room in the village's only inn.
'I'm fine, Tom. Just let me go and forget you ever saw me.'
He pulled up a chair in front of her and sat down, shaking his head. 'You know I can't do that. My orders are to find you and bring you back home in time for your marriage with Sir Peacoque.'
'Sir Peecock can drop dead! I'm not getting married!'
'Lady Jocelyn, please-'
'Oh, we're back to "Lady Jocelyn" now, are we?' If her words had been daggers they would've cut right through his armor, but Thomas merely sighed.
'Joyce. I can understand these... reservations you're having. But we all have duties to uphold; and so, as your friend, I'm asking you-'
"Friend"? After those summer days in the orchard and that time by the lake I'd say we're more than just "friends", Tom! 'You're asking me to give up. On... on us!'
'There is no "us"! You are the daughter of a lord, I'm merely a fourth son from a watered down lineage. Your father was more than kind to take me as his squire. He knighted me, in God's name! How can I betray his trust?'
You didn't seem to have many problems with that when we took off our clothes for a swim! If we'd shown any less restraint then, we would have become very close friends! But after that you got all worked up about your bloody vows, and next thing I know I'm betrothed to a man who looks like he's got to lay an egg. Well, so be it! 'Then, as my "friend", ought you not to be on my side, Sir Thomas?'
'I am, truly. But you're in the wrong here, Joyce. Come home, and I'm sure that, in time, you'll learn to appreciate the joys of marriage...'
Her eyes erupted with raging fire as one single thought consumed her mind: There will be no Joyce in thýs marriage!
When Ralph poked his head round the door to see what all the commotion was about, he found Sir Thomas on the floor, clutching his crotch; the window had been opened, and there was no trace of Lady Jocelyn...