From the best of times, to the worst of times.
Over the years, our secret meetings had become a familiar ritual to us both. Protection of each other became second nature to us. We learned to deceive, and we were always so careful.
It began, usually each Wednesday, when our eyes met across the market and held for no more than three seconds.
She reached up and brushed her hair back from her face, as a proud young woman, conscious of her beauty would, as I, in turn, took off my hat and adjusted it before replacing it. I had taken it off in salute to her, and she knew it.
No one else took note. Why would they? There was the width of the market between us, and no one could see us both.
But she’d, taken note.
That was all that we needed to do. By that simple signal, we had each agreed to meet in our usual place by the river.
No one had seen us, but no one was watching me. She was the one that was being watched as carefully as any protected girl in our community, but the more so, as she was a Chambertin.
There was little love lost between our two families; the Chambertins and the Vaillancourts, because of our rivalries, but it had never gone beyond the usual taunting or bullying, though the corrosive bitterness and jealousy ran deep, waiting for the right moment to break out.
Rossignol and I had been meeting like this for several years now, since we were thirteen, out of sight of both of our families (I’d related some of that already). We did not allow the well-known, petty rivalries and difficulties between our families, to affect us in any way. We were in love. And we were careful. To be discovered was to invite death. At least for me, and possibly for her too. The honor of one’s family was something to be well guarded.
While her aunt had lived, until just two years earlier, we’d had those rare, wonderful, love-filled moments of wild freedom--for days on end-- that few lovers ever knew. However, once the old lady had died, we needed to find another way of meeting; of breaking free to get to our other, remaining sanctuary.
She had one friend she could trust, without trusting her too far. Rossignol would plead to go home with her, and that she would make her own way home after that with the escort of that girl’s family.
No one objected. They thought they knew where she would be. Her friend had covered for her before, and no one who valued their life would ever choose to lay a finger on her.
Except for me.
Once we’d exchanged those faint signals, I took off, as though to go back home, but took a circuitous route to the river, soon finding myself pushing through the thicker brush, up close under the cliff.
We still met in the cave and still swam in that pond.
We’d told no one about it, or of the smoky outlines of animals that no longer lived in our time and place, on its walls and roof.
I’d blocked the entrance with rocks...whenever we’d left, and farther in, I’d closed it with a mesh of woven branches to let me know that no one else had been there since we’d last left; usually just a week earlier; and that no animal had got in either.
The wild pigs had slowly been hunted back from our settlement. They were the only dangerous animals that we had now, but some of the very old cave paintings that we saw drawn onto the walls, spoke of other animals living in this area, from a time long gone by; strange animals with large horns, rather than antlers.
Over time, I slowly stocked it with candles, and wine from my family vineyard, and I dragged dried grasses in to make a thick bed for us to relax upon. I often brought some cake, or fruit with me.
I lit a few of the candles and then went out again to wait for her, and to be sure that she’d not been followed once she’d left her friend, after leaving the market with her. Her friend had her own assignations to attend to, so they helped each other in that way.
When Rossignol came into sight I signaled cautiously, with a bird call, to let her know that it was safe, and then I followed her in, closing off the entrance again.
As we always did, when we met like this, we spoke each other’s names, reaffirmed our love... ‘my Rossignol’; ‘my beloved Guillaume’... embraced, kissed and slowly undressed each other.
She knew all about me and my constant eagerness for her, but it was mutual.
We were both breathless about then with anticipation after a week without each other, barely able to contain ourselves.
I first laid all of my clothes on our grass bed, to be sure that she would not carry any of the grass with her in her hair or on her body, then overlaid them with hers before she laid down, and brought me over her for us to make love.
We’d been doing this, meeting here since she had been thirteen, and we’d soon learned much more about each other, as curious adolescents did after we’d swum together for the first time, followed by us making love in the warm pool after that, and then making love in her aunt’s home as we spent the next few nights together.
I knew nothing, other than that when I was with her, I never wanted to leave her, or to be anywhere else. She felt the same way about me, and we counted off the days and the hours to our next meeting.
We spent many hours on the small plateau behind and above the cave, and many memorable hours in the pool.
It was inaccessible from both below and above, other than through the cave, and was heavily treed. In summer we spent time up there, wandering naked together, holding hands, kissing, touching, through what we believed to be our very own private Garden of Eden, bathing often in the warm pool up there and making love beside it, as well as in it. Those were the happiest years of both of our lives.
No one could see us, and there were no larger animals that could get to it either.
We spent as much time in the sun up there, playing naked through the trees, making flower necklaces for each other, pausing only to drink at another spring; fresh, cold water this time. Swimming.
This was our own little piece of heaven.
We knew that we had no more than two hours before others would want to know where she was, so we watched the passage of the sun carefully, and made sure that we left that place with time to spare, if the sun had not made its appearance that day.
I was always the first to leave, once I’d dressed. I crawled out of the cave and looked around from cover, before daring to venture farther out, with my sword, to be sure we were alone.
After I’d signalled her by tapping a stick on a rock near the entrance, she extinguished any candles we had lit, and emerged with her dress bundled up to avoid it getting soiled, smiling at me mischievously, knowing that I watched her.
If the entrance of the cave was muddy, after rains, she emerged naked, and let me dress her out of sight, well aware that it would always get out of hand between us. At those times she had to be especially careful about getting me on her clothes. Mothers always looked for those tell-tale signs.
Before she dropped her dress to sit properly around her, I used a wet cloth to wipe off her knees and any trace of soil on her footwear (and even of me, from her legs), looking up at her and smiling. She knew what always happened after that. I ran my hands up inside her dress and pulled her into me, holding her soft cheeks in my hands, kissing her tenderly under that, and then ran my hands even higher to caress her breasts, as she touched and held my head close into her, under her dress as I kissed her.
I led the way from that place and saw her back to the home of her friend, who then accompanied her home. Her friend, try as she might, never learned of me, or where we had been for those hours.
As we’d got older, she’d learned what precautions to take to avoid becoming pregnant (we’d been lucky up to that point), knowing the trouble that would arise if that ever happened to her.
As the years progressed, there were many times that we could not meet, sometimes for weeks and even for months.
Over the winter months, when it was too cold to meet easily and to be intimate, I was usually sent away to one of the distant monasteries to continue my education in the church while breaking even more of those rules they sought to teach me, as soon as I got home.
I was a fast learner and soon learned, with the minimum of tuition, to read, as well as to write. As expected of any young gentleman destined for a future in the church, I learned its rules and rituals. I also became proficient in Latin and other languages.
I most liked to meet with visiting Monks from other regions, discovering that I had a natural aptitude for many other languages as I toiled with them in the fields to gather the last of the harvest, or in preparation for spring planting. As long as I kept my voice down and applied myself to my studies and other duties, I did not attract any criticism.
Each spring I returned home, and, ignoring much of what I had been taught about the evils of fornication and morality, and how the devil was always ready to lead young persons, astray (I no longer believed any of that), we picked up our intimacy again, and with even more eagerness than before.
She knew that in our eagerness after such a separation, risking too much at times, we might inevitably be found out by her family, or that she would become pregnant.
We tried to be careful not to get any of me on her clothing for others to find, and to question her about it.
We discussed that and decided that if either of those things happened; discovery, or pregnancy (we were often careless, and I was not always fast enough to withdraw at difficult moments, always wanting to stay in her body to complete that act), we would both leave our families at dead of night, marry somehow, in the church of the next village over, even if it meant deceiving the priest of the need for our marriage, and strike out on our own.
Just as my education had not been neglected, nor had hers. Her grandfather, the one who held the family together and pulled them back from their less temperate ambitions, ensured that she should learn to both read and write, despite the wishes of his son, her father, who regarded the education of any woman to be a waste of time.
We knew that if we did turn our backs on our homes, that, once in a larger city, we could easily enter the society of the day and take on the rolls of tutors, or as scribes in the service of some Christian family, either in France or in England. A good, classical education opened many doors outside of the church.
Fortunately, none of that resolve was ever put to the test.
All of that, changed just a few years later in that fateful year, 1222, when we both reached the age of twenty and when everything was taken out of our hands in the most violent of ways. Violent for me; not for her, fortunately.
Her grandfather’s health was failing and he had often discussed sending her away to be with other relatives to shield her from the trouble that would come with his death.
He’d already set all of that in motion.
We were running out of time.
I’d also learned from Rossignol that she had just discovered that she was pregnant, but others would not learn of it for some months. Time was closing in upon us. We would have to do something about it and soon, before she left to go to her relatives.
Instead of us meeting at the cave that Wednesday, I took two horses, and we rode over to Colombes, and married in secret. She could leave now, before her grandfather died, and I would join her later.
Before we parted, we exchanged crucifixes. They would help draw us together again after this.
Her grandfather died, just two days later.
A week after that, and before I could disclose my own plans to my mother, I got a message from the church in St. Denis. They required my presence immediately, but without providing any details. When the church requested one’s presence, one did not question it.
I set out for St. Denis the following day. I had no idea why they’d sent for me, or what had been planned for me and for my family in my brief absence, or I would never have gone.
However, I covered that part of my history, earlier.
The only part I did not relate was how I had rounded up that Chambertin family over the course of one night after that, and had taken them to that cellar in my own home to atone for what they'd done to my family.
A crossbow with long arrows; some of them blunt and with a heavy padding of cloth and leather, does a lot of damage to a man’s body. A hit from one of those can make a man think that he might even be dying, giving me time to tie them and gag them.
For others not of that line, but who were still my enemies, I used my regular arrows with the killing blades I used for pigs. When they fell, they did not get up again.
I may fill in those details at some other time.
Suffice it to say that I had not been gentle.
No man should ever face what I had to face at that time, but most of those responsible for it had been dealt with.
My life as a husband, had begun in just the previous few days, and then, it was over.
I knew I could never join the love of my life... Rossignol. Not now, or likely, ever. Not after I had murdered all of her male relatives, reserving the worst of it for her father, as he’d pleaded for his life at first, and then had begged for me to kill him.
She would eventually hear of what I had done from those female relatives of hers that I’d encouraged to escape, rather than to kill as they’d expected I would, but they would not thank me for that, or for saving their lives after that, by dispersing them as I had.
I destroyed myself that day. I was cursed to eternal damnation.
However, I had not yet finished.
The church had conspired, and had had a hand in this. It should pay, and I knew his name. But first I had to drop out of sight for a year or two to convince others that I really was dead; as I watched, listened, and waited.