The Monster and His Keeper, part 1-6

by Lyle Dagnen, part 1-6 (with ongoing posts to tempt you daily)
by _ellen_
She was soaked to the skin, water dripped from her garments onto the road at her horse's hooves.  She had been riding for two and a half days, two and a half days with only a short break for some cold food and water.  Three men in front of her, one on each side of her, and three in the back of her, all armed to the teeth and not a one of them answering any of her questions. They kept watch over her as if they thought she would go riding away somewhere.  “Where would she go? “ she thought to herself.

She had never been anywhere.  She didn't even know how to get to any of her sisters' homes and her two brothers stayed at home learning how to manage the  castle and the adjoining lands.  Besides, they all had families and would just turn her over to her father.   She had long ago given up keeping the hood of the cape over her head.  It was wet, the only thing wetter was her hair, it was dripping cold rain down her back.

It was an understatement to say she was wet.  Now, adding to the rain, the relentless rain, was thunder and lightening.  She wished that she knew some evil, vile words to  shout out as a curse.  Somehow, to raise her fist to the skies and say "Oh!" just did not do justice to the way she felt about what was happening to her.  She was the youngest daughter of the Earl of Stafford.  She had been promised to the church.

Her sisters, all four of them, had been married to worthy gentlemen.  She had heard the stories of the bedding ceremonies, she had fervently thanked God that she would be Christ's  bride in a monastery, living out her days doing whatever it was that nuns did. Her father had never had to spend money on a wardrobe for her.  She had never been paraded before men seeking a bride to bear them sons.  She had been promised to the church and left alone.

The Knitting Girl by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1869

She had learned to sew from the women in the sewing room.  Her stitches were beautiful.  Her needle work was exemplary.  Cook had taught her to cook. She had a real talent for it, Cook said it. She had learned from Cook's assistant how to plant and grow a garden.   She had watched and listened to her Mother as she managed the keep.  

The priest had taught her to read and write, Latin and English, and with it she had learned numbers.  Since nobody cared what she did, because she had been promised to the church, she had acquired quite a vast amount of knowledge that she planed to take with her to the monastery where she hoped that her family name and history might lead her to be a Prioress.  She had been promised to the church. 

How many times had she told these great, silent, louts escorting her North that she had been promised to the church.  She now knew what it meant to say "Fall on deaf ears".  Not one of them altered the course, not one of them acted as if what she said amounted to any thing more than this relentless rain mattered to them.

To add insult to injury, she had been riding side saddle.  An abomination to a woman's butt and  a horse's back. Since nobody had cared if she were a lady or not, she had learned to ride bareback or astride.  The wind blew, billowing her wet cape, making sure she was really chilled to the bone.  Her wet hair, long ago had lost the pins to hold it up and it slapped wetly against her wet face.  Did the word wet mean anything to anybody? She uttered the only curse she knew "Ooooohhhhhh!" and still they rode.  

The image that inspired the story, created by Robert Buhl
Seeing the outer walls of the castle near the evening of the third day did nothing to make her feel better.  It looked cold, it looked lonely, it looked like it hadn't seen a warming fire in a hundred years. Was this the castle that was rumored to contain a monster?  One that would gobble up the unsuspecting, destroy the faint of heart?  The thunder boomed as lightening seared the air with bright flashes.  The cold wind chilled her; she shivered with cold.  Her fingers felt numb in the soggy leather gloves. 

The sight of the cold, gray walls of the castle drove to the ground the  fantastic dream that maybe, just maybe, she was being delivered to the monastery at Canterbury This was were they had been traveling for two and a half days, nearly three? Was anybody ever going to answer any of her questions?  She twisted in the saddle to see if any of the eight men who rode with her reacted in any way.  The man on the front right raised  his hand to stop them.  "We are here" he told her like that made a difference.  Where was here?  He called out to a guard on the parapets "Open".  The draw bridge began its decent across the castle moat.  "This sure isn't a monastery" she thought as drops of rain splashed her face. The draw bridge lowered with very little noise.  Once connected to the road on their side, the horses clomped across making thundering noise.  She could see activity in the castle yard.  

There was a large bailey outside the keep, filled with people working and not looking at her.  What she would have said to any of them,  she did not know.  The rain, the thunder, the lightening, seemed to increase.  The same man who seemed to be in charge of the group  who had guarded her so closely came and stood by her horse.   “We are here, my lady.  May I be allowed to assist you to the ground?” As wet as her clothes were she knew that she had to weigh three maybe four stone more than she normally did.  She could even feel the water dripping down her legs.  She looked at him with some anger. 

“You may assist me” was all she said.  She wanted to kick him, but what good would that do?  She certainly couldn't run in these wet clothes.  He placed his large, gloved hands at her waist and lifted her to the ground like she was so much duck fluff.  He held her long enough to be sure that she was able to stand then bowed to her and backed away.  

The steps leading up the the door of the keep looked like a steep climb to her.  Since she had never learned to put out her hand for assistance she began the steep climb by lifting her skirts so that her feet could move without becoming entangled in her wet, wrapping, skirts that the wind seemed to want to blow in every direction possible.  She felt the muddy water seeping into her shoes before she stepped up on the stone steps.  The noise in the bailey stopped as they all watched her walk up the steps.  She straightened  her back as she walked. She questioned in her mind “Why are the watching me?  Who is waiting for me beyond those doors?  Why did no one in my family accompany me to this place?  What is this place where I have been delivered?”   The wind tried to blow her off the steps; she had to lean into the wind and struggle to make it up the steps to the doors that did not open with any sort of welcome to her.

Standing at the large doors there was no knocker; nothing she could use to announce her arrival.  All she could do was place her hand on the large ring and push it to the side to open the door.  No one was there to greet her, to welcome her, to say, “Go away, go back home, nobody wants you here.”  Just the door silently swinging open and a welcome, warm gust of air blowing round her wet, disheveled appearance that had her dripping a puddle and squishing in her shoes when she walked.    She gathered what dignity she had, she was a Stafford after all, and walked into the dim chamber.  When she turned to close the door she heard the noise and activity in the bailey begin again. She could see a fire burning in the huge fireplaces at both ends of the great hall.  She stood still while her eyes adjusted to the very dim light.  She heard, more than saw, two huge stag hounds  come to where she stood, sniffing the stranger in their midst.  She held still, her hands held out waiting for their welcoming licks to her fingers.  Her hands moved to caress their large heads when she felt their large tongues offer welcome.   “Hello” she called out.

“Come!” it was an order, bellowed from the fire at the far end of the hall. An order, issued like one given to make the dogs attend, which they were doing. She was not a dog to be commanded to move.  Still, she moved toward the commanding voice.   Once again she lifted her skirts and walked in the direction from which the voice had come.  She did not lag in her steps, might as well go to where he was. If it be her fate to be devoured by a monster, she would meet that fate head held high. She would at least explain things before that happened. The sooner he understood that she was promised to the church, that this was all a mistake, the sooner they could put her back on a horse and send her to the monastery. He might be a monster but surely he would not consume a Bride of Christ, well, almost a Bride of Christ.

She had packed everything she owned in her saddle bags and in  three of the saddle bags of the men who had brought her here.  She had had to leave her books, her paper and pens. Neither her mother nor her father knew about her academic achievements, or anything else she could do. When he saw how little she owned, how little she had brought with her, he would decide to send her on to Canterbury.   She was quiet, she moved whisper soft, she didn't get in the way,  she was the seventh of seven children, she was lost in the massive numbers of the people at her father's castle.  She had thought.

As she approached the warmth of the fire she noticed that one very strong looking, long left leg was straight out before the fire.  His arm was reflecting the fire light, it looked powerful and strong, as if it should wield a sword.  She noticed that the fingers were shaking slightly.  It was her ability to notice the small things, that most did not see, that gave her the ability to go unnoticed.  He did not get up to greet her; he stayed seated. “That's odd” she thought but kept it to herself. Now was not the time for her tendency to be outspoken when challenged to come forth. It was her ability to keep her mouth shut, know when to keep her mouth shut, that also kept her unnoticed.   

She moved into the firelight, he stayed in the shadows of the chair where he sat. She could not see his face.  Was he young? Was he old? Why was she here, did he know?  She decided to keep the questions to herself. The heat of the fire felt good, it drew her as if it were the sun and she were a plant in the spring breaking the surface of the earth.  Her cold hands went out to the fire; she could not help it, a moan of pleasure came out of her mouth.  A most unladylike sound.  She just kept compounding her errors but for almost three days she had been soaked in cold rain.  She could feel his eyes on her.  She was not at her best, whatever her best might be, this wasn't it.  

She turned to face the person in the shadows.  She could see that he was richly dressed, he was broad of shoulder and long of limb.  His hair was long and unbound, it was curly falling below his shoulders.  His skin was fair. She could not see his face, it was hidden in shadow. 

She mustered what dignity she had left in her rain soaked body,  “I have been brought here to you.  I do not know why.  I am the youngest of the Earl of Stafford's children, I am promised to the church.  Since this isn't a church can you please explain to me why I am here?”  “Was he hiding in the shadows because he was a monster, ready to pounce?”  she kept that question to herself. Cook at home, said she had a saucy mouth when she felt comfortable.  She certainly wasn't comfortable, she wasn't home, she was trying not to be saucy. If she was about the be devoured by a monster who owned two rather friendly stag hounds, she needed to be sure that it was understood that she had been promised to the church.  Maybe it was time to speak up, if she was going to die at the hands of a monster she decided not to go quietly.  “For what reason have I been brought to this place?”  She would have stamped her foot but it still squished so she just raised her chin in defiance.

A bark of harsh laughter issued from the shadows.  For the first time, it occurred to her that maybe she should be frightened. Maybe, it had been a good thing that she had ridden all this way in the rain, it had not entered her mind to be frightened. The thought skittered across her mind.  “No one told you why you were to be  brought to me?”  With a snap of his left hand and a point the two dogs settled by his chair before the warm fire.

“No... Sir,” she thought to add.

“You seem to be who the king thought would be the best match for me.” His voice was bitter.

Her mind was racing as to how the king had even known she existed. But wait, match, what kind of match? Her mind was stunned. She was to be a match for him; for what reason did the king want to match her to this total stranger?  She had not said a word but he could read her thoughts as if she spoke aloud.

He watched the confusion on her face.  It was not a strikingly beautiful face; it was an honest face, one not disposed to dissembling.  “Do you not understand why you were sent to me?”

“No, Sir” her voice did not waver or break.  It had a depth of tone that he liked.  Not some whispery, weak sound.

“I am the Earl of North Cumberland, I served our king well in his last outing against the French.”

She turned to look directly at the shadow that hid his face. She remembered hearing stories of this heroic person from visitors who shared a night at her father's castle.

“I am sure the king is grateful for your services, Sir.  What does that have to do with me?” She tilted her chin to the side, her wet hair falling in clumps over her shoulder.  Impatient with the wet mess,  she threw it over her shoulder, not to be coquettish, but to get it out of her way.

“The king is very grateful.  I saved his sorry life.  I took an arrow meant for him and a bit of something like Greek fire sent his direction.”  He held up his right hand to show the lack of the small finger and part of the one next to it.  His fore arm was scarred.  He watched her reaction.  She did not flinch, she stood there and maintained her posture and expression on her face.  What would she do when she saw his face?  he thought to himself.   Well, it was time to see what she would do...