-Outskirts of a small village, France 1184-
Snow. It fell silently and lazily from the grey skies, landing on the woman’s face as she directed her eyes to stare up the twirl of them in the wind, pushing the cool snowflakes against her, playing around her and decorating her dark lashes. She blinked them away and smiled. She had been born to the heat of the deserts, but she would miss this beautiful sight after leaving it. She believed she would never again see snow in her life. As she was going home.
Her heart pounding for joy the woman straightened her posture, now gazing ahead. Her guards had surrounded her so that she wouldn’t try to run, but as if she would do that. Even if she woud’ve been able, she did not wish to escape. If she hadn’t been bought by notable sum of money about four months past, she wouldn’t have been sent to her homeland along these men in the first place. So they were the only ones able to give her the opportunity to see her home again, only if she didn’t flee. Besides she had nothing to run away from. This was her life. Had been the last 10 years, and she had accepted it long ago, knowing she had nothing better to expect. So was it wrong to enjoy even simple sight of snowfall? No. She had learnt to store even slight moments of happiness into her memories, to give her strength when everything else seemed hopeless. Only that way she could fend in this wretched prison, which her existence had formed into over each elapsed year.
She heard the shackles rounding her wrists jingle as she then lifted herself higher, detecting a small village not far away from the road they followed. It had not many houses, not more than 30 or 40 with straw ceilings, but what dominated the scenery was the great castle of a landlord who obviously governed these lands as his own. The woman let her eyes round the village and she smiled slightly, seeing the goats and other animals wander about the lands, chased by children whose laughter was the only sign of life to invigorate this frozen scenery. It was quite idyllic place, even being so small, situated in middle of the wintry countryside which surely reached its full bloom when spring would arrive anew. Lives in this region must’ve been peaceful…
The woman heard her guards discuss it to be wise for them to fill their waterskins at that village. She of course stayed silent as a captive she was, one of the men now handing her a cloak to cover herself, as it was customary when they arrived to places with people. The men did not want anyone to see her. And obviously she said nothing against. Just put on the cloak, covering her head with the hood and her rich robes with the coarse grey fabric, hiding her form from the curious eyes of the villagers. She felt relief. She wished for a moment of rest after sitting on the saddle the whole day and half of the last night, causing her muscles to turn sore.
The men now directed their horses to the road leading to the village, riding toward it. The woman rode in middle of them, letting her gaze wander under the large hood which shadowed her face completely, giving her the possibility to examine the townspeople they then started to pass as crossed the village. All those men, women and children gave the group curious gazes as they continued, the woman looking back at them from the shadows darkening her features. She smiled as she saw a small child accidentally trip down into a puddle of mud.
Soon she noticed one, more separated building from the rest of the village come to sight. Well it wasn’t a house, but she reckoned it was used as a workshop of some kind. And whoever had the responsibility of it seemed to live in actual farmhouse a little farther away from the shop, which was situated on top of a small hill of some kind. And closer they rode, the woman was able to hear the echoes of metal being hammered, the wind carrying the sound to her ears. And then she understood the building they were nearing to be a blacksmith’s shop.
The first three men of the group rode next to the shop, the woman stopping right behind them, as the rest of the three stayed at the tail of her white mare. Waiting, as then abruptly the loud and somehow intense pounding came to a stop and a young boy stepped forth under the open shop’s roof, hold up by sturdy beams, looking questionable. The leader of the woman’s captors nodded toward the boy.
“Where’s your master?” he inquired, the boy glancing behind him. And then new sound of clanging metal cut the air as whatever had been worked on was shoved aside, another man now stepping into sight behind the boy. His expression was rather indifferent while gazing at this stranger who had apparently asked for him, shadows of numerous sleepless nights and unspoken torment under his eyes.
“Are you master of this shop?” the leader of the captors questioned. The younger blacksmith’s expression did not change from that nonchalant and depressed, but he nodded briskly, however not talking. Bypassing his silence the stranger pulled out his waterskin, throwing it to the assistant boy.
“We need water. We have to get going on our journey, but have run out”, he continued, now dismounting, taking out a pouch of money and handing a couple of coins to the assistant. “I pay extra. If you’d sent your apprentice to get us some water we’d be grateful. After that we go from bothering a man at work.”
The blacksmith measured these six strangers with his brown, somehow dead eyes, devoid of all expression. But his interest wasn’t awoken before his gaze focused on a person riding a white mare in middle of the men, not being able to tell what he looked like as his whole being was covered by a worn out grey cloak. But as this blacksmith next examined the mysterious form more, he noted the delicate hands, smooth and a pair which had not seen even one day of work holding the horse’s reins. Woman’s hands. The blacksmith did now frown a little to this fact as the animal let out low neighs, stomping a little on her place restlessly. The cloaked rider didn’t even turn to look at the blacksmith to acknowledge him. Just stared forward.
The master of the shop then waved at his apprentice without a word and sent him to get the asked barrel of water. And soon the boy came, then fetching quickly some cups and filled them, offering them to the men who drank earnestly before starting to fill their waterskins. The blacksmith followed their actions as always indifferent, but his attention was ultimately drawn to the cloaked form again who sat still, not moving in an attempt of drinking with the others. But then just as the six strangers finished filling their flasks, there was quite strong gust of cold air, the blacksmith next watching with his dull eyes as it shook the heavy cloak. However not revealing the features of this woman against his expectations. But Instead it covered everything within miles with fragile snow crystals, which had started to pour down not long before as a promise of forthcoming frost distinctive for this time of year.
The blacksmith eyed at the cloaked person in a quick moment of wonder, until waved at his assistant again who filled another cup with water and then handed it to his master. The six men froze as they then saw the blacksmith direct his earlier completely expressionless eyes, but which now had a hint of curiosity in them, up to the mounted woman, stepping closer and stopped beside the horse. He scanned the hood covered head once more, being able to see only the tip of lashes behind it, rest of her guarded traits still closely concealed from him.
It was odd, but at that moment he would’ve wanted to pull away that hood to expose who that woman was. As there was no doubt this rider to be a female when the blacksmith now discerned the hands holding the reins better, them indeed being hands of a lady. Not scratched nor worn from working. They were strangely tanned to this kind of environment, but as said delicate all the same, nails painted and well cared for.
He found it peculiar that the woman didn’t turn even now, but simply shifted her hand, him however hearing then a small jingle due the subtle movement. And as his eyes dropped he noticed an edge of a shackle peek under the woman’s sleeve, causing confusion in him, until disregarding the fact he then politely offered the cup he possessed.
“My lady”, he stated, smiling slightly. But it was forced and only polite. Smiling felt unnatural to him now. Meaningless.
The blacksmith next allowed his eyes to gaze at the mare, taking notice of the gold decorating the reins. Was this woman a noble hidden under that common, poor cloak of a traveler? While his rather impassive mind mulled over this thought, the woman accepted the given drink, either now not turning to him.
The blacksmith oversaw in equal wonder as this faceless woman lifted the cup and drank, then returning it back to him when empty, not saying a word either. Not even a small word of thank you. However as he took a hold of the wooden chalice again to claim it, he felt how the woman’s hand pressed against his palm momentarily, making him gasp. But when he then gazed up to her, he could sense her gratitude even through that one light touch without words, before the small hand retreated from the calloused hardel and took a hold of the reins again. The woman still not giving him a glance.
“Thank you”, the leader of the group of men then hurried to say, nodding, quite hastily mounting his horse. “Thanks to you we can carry on. May God be with you.”
The rest of the strangers now followed his example by mounting, where the young blacksmith only nodded briskly in response. Not bothering to show his obvious incredulity when it came to that common belief whole Christianity was built on, the same nonchalant expression returning on his face as he then turned around. No. As it seemed God had abandoned him, regardless of the fact that he like others, was His child. But ironically he had not yet received any kind of guidance from the Almighty Father in his ordeal, which was pretty much afflicting his faith.
The blacksmith walked back inside his shop to continue working. But because of this he failed to see as the covered head, which so far had been strictly directed forward now did turn a tad. Dark eyes of the woman giving his separating back a smiling gaze, before she encouraged the mare after the first two guards with a soft cluck of tongue. And so this cluster of strangers continued their journey forward, against the sluggish, but still quite mordant blizzard of the early winter.
On their way the woman soon saw three men beside a big cross placed on the plains, wrapped body laying on the frozen ground next to them, two of them digging a grave. The woman frowned as she rode past, beholding the burial and witnessed a face of a female peek from the covers, pale and her lips blue in death. A suicide, buried at a crossroads. She turned her eyes away from that sad sight, saying a short prayer for the deceased’s lost soul, while the three men stared at her and her escort as they passed. One of them was a priest, the woman concluded.
“Crap”, suddenly the leader of the woman’s captors said, something at the distance claiming his attention, as he came to a momentary stop in middle of the hill. “Crusaders.”
All men now halted as they and the woman saw indeed a small group of knights of the Holy war approach, riding down the hill they were climbing, wearing their armors and weapons in all their glory. But despite of their obvious valor, they looked intimidating. The woman eyed at them, and her gaze found one man in particular who seemed quite superior to others. He was a lord, most likely. Someone of importance.
“Let’s get the hell away from here”, other of her captors mused. “We just have to get her out of this country as quickly as possible, and I’d rather not have any clashes with crusaders. They are dangerous folk to meet with.”
And so they carried on, passing the other small caravan of men as they rode down instead, toward the village the group of six had just departed. The woman didn’t shift her gaze from the scenery ahead to look at the crusaders, but the eyes of the man she had presumed as a lord did turn to examine her as curiously as the young blacksmith’s had not but a moment ago. And as the fleeting encounter had passed, one of his men leant toward him.
“My lord, who might’ve those people been?” the English sergeant asked, curious. The lord thought a moment.
“Just travelers. Nothing more.”
Back at his shop the young blacksmith once more drowned his pains and thoughts into work. Grasping the piece of metal he had been working on, and started to mold it again after keeping it in the hot furnace a moment. His apprentice still stood outside, watching after the strangers who were now galloping out of sight after passing another small caravan of people approaching the village. But just as he also was about to return to the warmth of the smithy, something flew against his leg, brushing it. And as he looked down he saw a silky scarf, flutter in the wind at his feet, the colors and the print of it telling him no one in that village could’ve owned it. He picked it up in realization and turned, going inside to his master. The said man didn’t take much interest in him or his discovery.
“This was on the ground. The lady dropped this, master”, the boy said, the blacksmith stopping reluctantly his working to give the scarf a brief glance. He turned his eyes away indifferent.
“One of them was a woman, wasn’t she?” the boy specified.
“Run after them and return the scarf to the lady”, his master simply instructed, curtly, continuing to pound the metal bar into favorable shape.
“They are too far master”, the boy replied, the blacksmith once again stopping and lowering the hammer. He said nothing, but then just sighed and took the scarf from the boy, dismissing him with a nod. The boy went back to his chores, where the blacksmith was in turn left to examine the scarf of exceedingly fine material. It seemed that she would never have it back…
He pushed the scarf in his pocket, leaving it out of his mind, and once again continued working himself. As long as fresh neighs of horses soon stole his attention and his apprentice once again stopped his doings, staring out of the shop where new horsemen were approaching. The blacksmith cursed in his mind. How many would there be passing by today? Again sighing he put on a jacket to warm himself against the chilly wind outside, walking to receive another lot of strangers, seeing his brother race to the scene out of breath, pointing straight at him.
“That is the man… That is the man”, his brother announced, glancing behind at the apparent crusaders he had been escorting, until all eyes turned to the blacksmith. He had a thoughtful look in his eyes for a moment, before it was replaced by the same impassive expression. Well, who might these men be?