OVERRULED BY FATE
‘Unasked by night; I am true Love,
I fill the hearts of boy and girl
with mutual flame.’
Then sighing, said the other,
’Have thy will,
I am the love
that dare not speak its name.’
~Lord Alfred Douglas
"Catch me, Nate!" the young girl laughed as she ran, her dark auburn curls streaming behind her. The emerald green of her eyes sparkled merrily as she threw a glance over her shoulder at the youth who followed more sedately. Nathaniel was unhurried, his long legs easily keeping up with her shorter strides. The spring sun blessed their uncovered heads with its warmth and the newly budded flowers surrounding them on the hillside reached towards its light. The smell of new grass and sunshine hung in the air like the most precious of perfumes on this fine day, whilst the beauty of the eight year old's sweet giggles rang out as she skipped down the verdant slope of the hill, dodging placid, grazing sheep as she raced on.
Neither the sheep nor the nearby villagers were surprised by the twosome, as common a sight as they were. Although a mismatched pair to be sure, the two were inseparable; the tall, tow-headed boy now entering his fourteenth spring, always trailing a few feet behind the Lord's high-spirited daughter. Nathaniel was the son of Lady Elspeth's personal maid. Madeline was the only daughter of the Lord and Lady.
Despite their differences in rank and age, Nathaniel could hardly recall a time when he hadn't adored her. He'd been merely a half-grown boy of six when Lady Elspeth had born what was to be her only child. To this day he could recall the commotion and excitement that had consumed the castle at Madeline's birth. Curious as boys that age are wont to be, he had snuck into the nursery to see the cause of all the fuss. Standing on his toes, he had peered timidly over the edge of the wooden cradle. Trepidation was overcome by awe and he became instantly mesmerized by the trifling wee creature that lay there, flailing her tiny arms and legs. The baby was so petite and dainty, not much bigger than a puppy. There was no doubt in his mind that someone would have to take extraordinary care of her. When the infant blinked her deep bluish-green eyes and then graced him with an open-mouthed, gummy grin, he'd known it would be him.
In the beginning, the castle residents had been vastly amused by the boy's devotion to the baby, but nevertheless assumed it to be a passing fancy. As the years went by however, with no waning of his zeal, they came to understand the depth of his dedication. Madeline's mother, disappointed with a female child instead of a male heir, gave her over to the care of a nursemaid almost immediately upon her birth. The nurse relied on Nathaniel, perhaps overly much. She rested confident in the fact that with Nathaniel watching over Madeline, no harm would come to her. When the toddler began to walk, young Nathaniel would be found hovering nearby, careful to prevent any tumbles. When she learned to run, he was inevitably only a few paces behind in fear she might trip and fall.
As the boy grew, he was tutored along with the other children in the keep. Lord John of Alwinsopp believed in education for his upper servants. When Nathaniel wasn't learning Latin and his numbers, he was tasked with minding Madeline. He had been excused from labours in the fields and stables as the other boys were ordered; his only duty to protect the adventurous, headstrong daughter of the keep.
"Nate!" she called out, pausing halfway down the hill. "Make haste! I want to see the bluebells," she insisted with the faintest note of petulance. "Amys said she saw them days ago and they were ever so pretty, but Nursey wouldn't let me go. She said I'd catch my death in the rain."
Nathaniel grinned good-naturedly at Madeline's grumbling. "Nurse was right, Linny," he gently chided her. "You must mind your health. It's been dreadfully wet and cold this spring. Amys is a strong farmer's daughter, well-used to foul weather."
"Pfft!" the girl dismissed his concerns with a flip of her hair and a quick lift of her delicately pointed chin, her almond-shaped green eyes flashing in derision. "Amys doesn't have so much as the sniffles and I'm much tougher than her. She's even scared of spiders," she confided disdainfully to her companion.
He nodded in earnest agreement at her rant but Maddie could see the twinkling in his deep blue eyes that told he was teasing her.
"Oh Nate!" she groaned. She swung a small fist at his shoulder, which he easily sidestepped.
"Now, now," he admonished her with a playful wink. "Is that any way for an elegant lady of the manor to behave?"
"I don't want to be a lady," Madeline complained, her forehead wrinkling into deep lines of displeasure and her pretty bow shaped mouth turning down into a seldom-seen frown. "Ladies just wear fancy dresses and sit with embroidery all day. I want to be a knight!" she exclaimed with a stomp of her small, booted foot.
"You can't be a knight," the older boy explained patiently for the hundredth time, shaking his head, the blond waves of his hair tumbling about the planes of his face in disarray. "Girls aren't allowed. You will grow up to be a great lady and your father will find you an important husband."
"Ugh!" the girl repined. "Never! I don't even like boys. They're all loud and stinky and they make fun of me because I'm a girl." She glanced up at her tall companion, suddenly realizing she might have caused insult to her friend. "I mean, except for you Nate. You're different than the other boys." She innocently fluttered her eyelashes up at him. "I like you."
With a cheerful grin once again brightening her heart-shaped face, she turned and pranced off in the direction of the woods where she was determined to enjoy the spring bluebells.
Nathaniel stood for a short moment and watched her go before him. Even at his young age, he was aware that her hopes and dreams for the future did not match with the reality of the expectations for a female of her breeding. The pretty child showed promise of growing into a woman even more stunning than her beautiful mother. She was long limbed and lanky now, like a young fawn, but she moved with an innate gracefulness and her delicate features blended into perfect harmony in her petite face. Undeniably, Lord John would have many suitors vying for the girl's hand in just a few short years.
He followed her path with his gaze and realized that she had already reached the bottom of the hill and disappeared into the trees that lined the valley. Hidden amongst them was a stream, swollen with winter runoff, which ran through the Lord's lands feeding the fertile soil. The grasses on the hill rustled about Nathaniel in the warm May breeze, never still, always moving with a disquiet he could feel in his soul.
"Linny," he called loudly as he began to descend the hill after her. "Madeline!"
He could hear no sound, save the stirring of the blowing vegetation, but nevertheless a vague sense of unease crept over him. He began to pump his long legs, further and faster, his eyes on the last spot he had seen her. As he reached the base, he expected to see Madeline standing at the edge of the woods. Her eyes would be sparkling and she would be wearing a mocking grin, laughing that she had triumphed against him yet again.
The sight that met his eye, however, made his blood run cold.
The man wore a great, heavy dark beard, the weathered skin of his face barely visible beneath. His hair hung long and unbound. He was clothed in a faded linen leine that reached to his knee and a leather brat on his upper body. His lower legs were bare, as were his feet. He was a huge brute and he held Madeline trapped firmly against his chest. His forearm was across her throat and his grimy fingers made indentations in the soft skin of her face where he held his hand over her mouth. Madeline was kicking and squirming violently trying to break free of his iron grasp.
Nathaniel's heart leapt into his throat.
"Let her go you filthy swine!" he demanded as he sprung towards the pair.
"If you come any closer, boy, I'll snap the girl's neck," her captor growled, revealing a jagged collection of stained teeth.
Nathaniel ground to a halt, glaring at the brute who dared put his filthy hands on Linny.
"Now," the man swung his attention back to the girl who still fought like a wildcat in his arms. "Who are ye? Fancy clothes and jewellery," he muttered in a thickly accented voice, taking his hand from her mouth briefly to touch the gold pendant hanging from her neck.
"Don't answer him," Nathaniel warned tightly, fearing the villain intended to hold her for ransom.
The man shook her violently, so viciously that Nathaniel could hear her teeth clack together. Then he asked his question again. Fury was written across the girl's face.
"Don't speak," the boy repeated in the same moment as Madeline's loud, angry voice rang out.
"I'm the daughter of Lord John," she berated her captor. "You better let me go right now or my father will cut your ears off and poke out your eyes!" she shouted, infuriated and without a trace of fear.
Nathaniel groaned as the man bared his teeth in triumph. He tossed the girl like a rag doll over his shoulder and, dismissing the youth as an unlikely threat, he turned to stride off into the woods. Nathaniel's only thought was of Madeline. Drawing the small carving knife he always carried with him, he flung himself towards the retreating kidnapper. His feet crunched in the dry leaves of the forest and the scoundrel spun with surprising speed for a man his size. He heaved Madeline off his shoulder and tossed her to the side where she fell, her head meeting a nearby oak with a sickening crunch. She lay at the base of the tree in a boneless, crumpled heap. Nathaniel growled low in his throat. The man towered over him, easily half again his height and probably double his weight but Nathaniel took no notice. A murderous fury rose up in him and he leapt at the outlaw. He neatly sidestepped the meaty paw that was aimed at his head. Lowering himself, he suddenly sprang forward and came up within the man’s outstretched arms. With a strength born of fear and rage, he drove his dagger upward into the villain’s thick neck.
With a gurgle and a slow wheeze, the outlaw slumped down onto his knees, an expression of shock frozen on his bearded face. The knife embedded in his neck. He rested there a long moment, still and unmoving, his eyes staring, but unseeing. Finally he fell, his face in the dirt.
Shock at the death his own hands had wrought left Nathaniel paralyzed, staring at the still body, whilst the man's lifeblood pumped from the wound in his neck and dripped down into the leaves on the forest floor. Eventually, he took a hesitant step towards him. Picking up a branch fallen from the same oak under which Madeline lay, he poked at the dead man cautiously. There was no movement. Satisfied that there would be no further danger coming from that quarter, he cringed as drew his knife from the broken flesh and then rushed to Madeline's side.
"Madeline! Linny!" he cried out, terrified lest she be greatly harmed. He pulled the small girl into his lap and held her gently whilst his hands searched her for injuries. There was a large knot forming just above her temple and blood matted her hair although it seemed to have already stopped flowing.
"Is he dead?" Madeline asked faintly, her eyes widening at the corpse lying motionless only a few steps away.
"He will never be a threat to you again," the boy promised her.
"I knew you would save me Nate," she vowed sincerely, with a tremulous smile. "I wasn't scared."
"I was," Nathaniel admitted freely.
For a few long moments he softly rocked Madeline in his arms and cooed words of comfort, more to reassure himself than her that the danger had passed. Eventually, he struggled to his feet with the child in his arms and carefully picked his way back up the hillside to where the castle perched on a craggy plateau. He began calling loudly for Lord John immediately upon nearing the heavy wooden gates. The guards on duty saw his approach and sent urgently for their master. Lord John rushed into the inner bailey as Nathaniel was staggering through it. He snatched his beloved daughter from Nathaniel's arms just as her rescuer sank down to his knees in exhaustion.
"What have you done?" her father boomed at the boy who was struggling to catch his breath. Nathaniel, horrified at Lord John's accusation, turned his eyes up to the man, stammering to explain himself. The lord's face glowed a mottled red and was tight with fear and anger. "Never mind! I will summon you later for a proper explanation of this," he growled. "Hold him in the guard tower," he ordered the assembled knights as he strode towards the keep with his daughter cradled in his arms.
Madeline craned her neck to peer around her father's body. She directed a weak smile towards Nathaniel as she was born away to be tended to by her nurse.
* * *
Two burly knights in chain mail flanked him on either side and, hoisting him beneath his arms, pulled him roughly to his feet.
"You heard Lord John. Let's go," the one on the left snarled darkly. "There isna much more precious to the lord than his wee lass. You had best start praying, boy," he advised as he gave Nathaniel a shove in the direction of the stone guard tower.
As they entered the gloom of the building, Nathaniel craned his head back to gaze in awe at the stone steps that wound in concentric circles up the inside of the tower, disappearing gradually into blackness at the highest point of the castle. With trepidation, he put his foot on the stairs and began to climb. The stones underfoot were slick with moisture and centuries of use had worn a deep hollow in each step. The exertion, following his climb up the hillside to the castle, left him panting by the time they reached the top. Directly in front of him stood a heavy wooden door. The knight that had spoken to him earlier stepped around him and pounded on the door, which was almost immediately jerked open by another.
"It ain't time for your watch yet Rulf," the new knight stated briskly, not noticing Nathaniel.
"Lord John wants this'un kept safe until he decides what to do with him," Rulf explained, tipping his head towards Nathaniel and giving him another rough shove through the open door.
"Right, I'll entertain him until then," the nameless knight agreed and slammed the thick, heavily reinforced door behind them with a thunderous boom.
Nathaniel inspected the small room that had now become his prison cell. It was dimly lit. Next to the door, and nailed into the wall, was a solitary flickering torch held in its cold iron sheath. The scent of mildew and dampness lingered in the dirty rushes concealing the floor. A thin pallet lay against the wall and opposite that was a window, sandwiched by wooden shutters that provided protection against harsh weather.
The knight glowered at him then pulled a hand-sized iron key from beneath his tunic and turned the key in the lock with a resounding thud. Tucking it back into his pocket he eyed Nathaniel who stood still, trying not to allow his teeth to chatter in dread at what fate awaited him.
"Sit," the knight ordered directly with a wave towards the pallet. "And don't move or I'll sharpen my blade on yer hide," he threatened, turning so Nathaniel could see the sword strapped to his side.
Having grown up in the castle, knights were commonplace to Nathaniel. In his humble opinion, they were all that was good and noble, protecting the castle for the benefit of all the inhabitants. Their terrifying fighting skills and ruthlessness were directed only at threats. Never before had they been directed at him.
* * *
Several hours passed in excruciating slowness before he heard an insistent knocking. The taciturn knight turned from his position at the window and strode to the door. He unlocked it and Nathaniel saw him nod and stand aside deferentially as Lord John ducked beneath the lintel to enter the guardroom. Nathaniel scrambled to his feet and prepared himself for the lord's impending verdict.
John of Alwinsopp was a red-headed bear of a man. Standing taller than most men, he was a formidable opponent who trained with his knights regularly. He had a fierce temper to match the red hair but he was also known, by those he ruled over, as being a fair overlord. He hadn't ever paid Nathaniel much attention despite the fact that he spent a considerable amount of time with his only child. But he was certainly paying notice to Nathaniel now. He could feel the man's eyes boring a hole in him as he stood at the doorway.
"Nathaniel," Lord John finally broke the silence.
He nodded and met his lord's bold eye contact.
"Perhaps you should begin by explaining the occurrences of this day."
"Please, my Lord, firstly may I enquire as to Lady Madeline's health?" he questioned, desperate to know how she fared.
"She is resting comfortably," her father informed him. "Nurse says she expects a full recovery."
"Thanks be to our Lord," Nathaniel swore softly, his relief clearly etched on his face.
Lord John's hard expression softened towards the boy. "Indeed. I am informed that today's outcome is directly due to your actions," he stated, staring searchingly at the young man standing stoically before of him.
"I have ever striven to protect Lady Madeline, my Lord," Nathaniel explained, shoulders slumped. "Today I failed."
"On the contrary, boy. The outcome would have been much different but for your bravery and bold action. Lady Madeline has told me the course of events and I am deeply grateful that you were with her when such a danger arose. We are in your debt."
Nathaniel's eyes widened incredulously. "But I allowed that villain to put his hands on her..." he broke off.
"There will always be dangers in our lives, Nathaniel," the older man reasoned with him. "We are to be considered fortunate if we have strong, brave friends to defend us in those moments. You have been that to Lady Madeline and we would like to offer you reward for that service."
"It is nothing, my Lord, I would fight a hundred men to protect her," the boy vowed with all the sincerity of youth.
Lord John's eyes crinkled at the corners in a rare smile. "Perhaps then you would like to begin training as a knight so that you will be even better prepared to fight those hundred men? Alwinsopp can always use another brave loyal knight to protect it. What say you?"
Nathaniel swallowed. He had long dreamed of becoming a knight. A wispy dream, merely the longings of a servant boy for something as out of his grasp as it was out of Madeline's.
"Truly?" he questioned, standing very still, barely daring to breathe or hope.
"You will start as a squire of course, as all others, but I have no doubt the day will come when I will accept your oath of fealty and present you with your sword," Lord John assured him.
Nathaniel sank to his knees before the man. More mature than his meager years afforded, he swore solemnly, "I will be honoured to serve you and your household thus for the remainder of my days."
Another smile creased Lord John's face. "Most excellent. Well done, boy. Now, Lady Madeline insists she would like a word with you in her solar. And we both know it won’t do to disappoint her. If you make haste you will be able to attend her before we sup."
Nathaniel rose and bowed briefly to the lord before rushing headlong out of the room and down the circular staircase. He didn't stop running until he arrived at the door of Madeline's solar. Slamming to a halt, he took a brief moment to take a breath and to run his fingers through his tousled, blonde hair before lifting his fist to knock upon the wood of the door.
Madeline's nurse opened it and beckoned him inside. Madeline reclined on a chaise before the fireplace that held a small blaze, lit to keep the chill from the air. Her nurse grinned fondly at the boy and then settled herself back into the chair she had clearly just vacated, as evidenced by the embroidery left resting on its arm.
"Nathaniel!" Madeline cried, spying him. "Come sit with me. Nursey says I may not get up, although I am perfectly well."
"Nursey is correct, once again," Nathaniel agreed as he neared, eyeing the goose egg visible just below her hairline. He could see the nurse nod smugly out of the corner of his eye.
Madeline shrugged but didn't argue, which told him her head was hurting worse than she let on. She reached up to undo the clasp of the chain that held the intricately wrought, filigreed gold pendant around her neck. A large emerald consumed the centre of the jewellery, glowing faintly in the firelight. She clutched it in her hand briefly then pressed it into Nathaniel's palm.
"This is my most precious thing, Nate. Papa gave it to me. He said the emerald reminded him of my eyes. I want you to have it."
He shook his head, smiling gently at her. "It's not for me, Madeline. You keep it. That you are safe is enough."
He could see the stubborn set to her chin before she spoke. "Nate, don't you know it's not very knightly to refuse a lady's request."
Nathaniel shook his head again. "It was a gift from your father."
"Please Nate, I want you to have it. Papa said I may and it will make me happy," she insisted.
Never had he been able to refuse her anything and so, gazing down at the beautiful piece of jewellery in his hand and the brilliant gemstone that did remind him of her eyes, he promised, "It is very special. I will cherish it forever, Linny."