Before long, Rosemarie is presented with the three most handsome and brave knights in the land. But when the knights’ arrival results in a series of attacks within her land, she begins to wonder if the convent is the best place after all. If only one of the knights—the one who appears the most guilty—had not already captured her heart.
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)|
|Age Range:||13 - 18 Years|
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An Uncertain Choice
By Jody Hedlund
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2015 Jody Hedlund
All rights reserved.
Montfort Castle, Ashby In the year of our Lord 1390
My slippered feet slapped the dirt road, and my heart hammered against my chest like a battering ram.
"Wait, Lady Rosemarie," my nursemaid called from the narrow alley far behind me.
But I couldn't wait. I lifted my silky gown higher and pushed my feet faster, straining to reach the town square before it was too late. I raced past the one-room thatched homes of the poor peasants, doors ajar and deserted.
Now I knew why everyone was gone, except for the bedridden and one lame beggar child who'd finally had the courage to tell me what no one else would. The entire town had gathered in the market square to watch several men receive punishment for their crimes. Only it wasn't the usual stocks or pillory, which I allowed. Nor even someone being placed in jail. No. This time, someone had apparently given the bailiff permission to boil the criminals alive.
Revulsion spread throughout my body. And anger. Why was the bailiff blatantly disregarding my law against cruel tortures?
I rounded the massive grain storage building and stumbled out of the dark alley and onto the cobbled street that led to the market. Almost immediately, I hit a wall of bodies—craftsmen and merchants who'd left their shops to watch the public punishment. My breath burned in my chest from my frantic run through town, and I gasped a lungful of the sourness that came from the unwashed bodies sweating in the merciless late-morning sun. The odor soon mingled with the stench of pigs and chickens brought to market, and the rottenness of overripe produce.
But fury mastered my nausea. I wouldn't tolerate cruelty on my lands, among my people. I hadn't allowed it in the years since the Plague had taken the lives of my dear father and mother. And I wouldn't start today.
With a flare of indignation, I stood on my toes, straining to see above the caps and wimples of all those who resided in my walled town. At the billows of black smoke arising from the center green, the ramming of my heartbeat doubled its pace. The smoke could mean only one thing—that an enormous fire had indeed been lit. And that a large cauldron had been suspended above it, filled with well water and set to boil ... with one of the poor criminals inside.
Panic rose to choke me as surely as smoke. "Cease this instant!" I cried. But amidst the clamor and shouts of those gathered, my voice only added to the confusion.
"I command you to release the criminals at once," I called again, louder.
My orders drifted into nothingness. At the back of the crowd, I was invisible. The townspeople were too intent on the cruel scene before them—some curious, others shocked. But mostly afraid. I could see the flickering lines of fear etching the weathered faces, the wrinkled brows, and the hunched shoulders. I needed to make my way to the front, to the bailiff, and demand that he stop the proceedings.
I tapped the back of one of the men standing before me. "Please. Let me pass."
Without a glance, the man shrugged away my touch as if it was nothing more than a pesky fly. I waited for him to turn around and see that it was I, Lady Rosemarie Montfort, the ruler of Ashby and all the many lands and estates beyond. If he would but take notice of me and realize who I was, he would fall to his knee before me. But he didn't budge. Like everyone else, he was too focused—too horrified—to see me.
With a breath of frustration, I stepped toward a group of women huddled together and attempted to wedge my way through their midst. But they only squeezed closer, blocking my way, shutting me out as effectively as the city gate.
With a desperate glance around the market, I caught sight of the steep steps that led to the guildhall's arched doorway. Bunching my gown, I worked my way around the edge of the gathering until I reached the large stone building. I wove through the children who crowded the steps, patting their bare heads tenderly as they bowed before me. When I finally climbed to the landing, the market spread before me. There, in the very heart of the green, was the bonfire. And suspended above the blazing heat was a large cauldron hanging from a metal tripod, with an old man cramped inside. The steam rising from the water told me it wouldn't be long before it began to bubble at an unbearable temperature. The old man's screams would soon fill the air as his skin blistered and flesh cooked. Even now, his exposed chest shone as red as freshly butchered beef. Beneath a mop of dirty gray hair, his eyes were wild.
To the side, another criminal was sprawled on the ground, his hands tied to stakes above his head. Ropes bound his feet, and the petty constable was cranking a lever that was slowly stretching the man, nearing the point where his arms and legs would pull from their sockets.
I spotted the dark cloak and hat of the bailiff, and found he was adding more kindling to the fire.
"Bailiff!" I shouted. "You must stop this cruelty."
Only the children on the steps heard me. They lifted their faces to watch me expectantly. I cupped the cheek of the nearest urchin and smoothed my fingers over his filthy skin. He peered up at me with adoration, and I managed a small smile for him. He shouldn't have to witness such a display of inhumanity. No one should. Ever.
With a shudder, I crossed my arms over my chest and attempted to ward off the dark chill that came from remembering the torture I'd witnessed four years ago after my parents' funeral. The gruesome picture was stitched into my memory like embroidery threads within a tapestry. I wanted no more memories like that one.
"Stop!" I yelled again. "As Lady Rosemarie Montfort, your ruler, I command you to cease. Immediately."
This time, my declaration caused heads to turn my direction. The women closest to the guildhall began to whisper and grab the arms of those around them. Some of the men bowed. But the petty constable continued to crank the rope, and the bailiff tossed another log onto the fire, sending sparks shooting high into the air.
I uttered an unladylike cry of frustration and raised my eyes to the grand castle on the bluff that towered as a lord over the town. The outer walls rose as if one with the rocky cliffs, making the fortress impenetrable on three sides. A moat and the town provided the defense on the fourth side.
If only I'd thought to bring one of my guards. Even now, I could make out the gleaming helmet of the soldier on duty at the gatehouse. But I'd never had need of protection in my town, among the people who loved me.
A glint of silver along the fringes of the gathering caught my eye. A short distance from the guildhall stood a war horse mounted by a knight. Dressed in his plate armor, the coat of arms on the horse's blanket was unfamiliar—red with a fire-breathing dragon emblazoned upon it.
How long had the warrior been watching the proceedings?
A shimmer of unease slipped up the veil trailing over my plaited hair and pricked the back of my neck. None of the neighboring lords had threatened Ashby. The land had been at peace. So who was this knight, and what did his presence in my town mean?
As if sensing my question, the knight shifted to face me. Through the narrow slit in his steel helmet, his eyes were dark and unreadable. Even so, there was something kind and respectful about his posture. He surprised me by bowing his head and paying me homage.
Then he lifted the long halberd at his side, dug his spurs into his horse, and charged forward toward the center green. At the heavy thudding of his steed and the sight of his weapon, those in his path fell back to make room for him. He thrust forward like a knight at a jousting tournament.
My muscles tightened. What did he intend to do? I wanted to call out, to question him, to demand that he explain his presence in my town. But as he made a direct path to the cauldron of bubbling water, I found myself praying he'd succeed where I had failed to bring an end to the torture.
With a precision and strength that no doubt came from years of training, the knight slashed the halberd's axe-head into the knotted rope binding the criminal on the ground, freeing first one hand then the other. Within seconds, the man was sitting and frantically working to unbind his feet.
The knight shifted to the bubbling cauldron. Again, he lifted his halberd, and this time swung around the fluke that hooked into the metal chain suspending the pot from the tripod. The knight gave his horse a kick that caused the beast to jolt forward. The swift jerk was all it took for the tripod to tip and then topple to the ground. As the cauldron crashed, boiling water splashed over the fire and onto the bailiff and other townspeople, who jumped back with cries. The poor old man who'd been inside, naked except for the breech cloth at his waist, rolled into a quivering heap.
"What do you think you're doing?" the bailiff called, brushing at the splatters of hot water soaking into his hose.
The knight steered his horse toward the newly freed criminal. The old man pushed himself up and held out shaking hands that were tied together at the wrist. His face was wreathed in gratitude. "Thank you, sir," he croaked.
Before the bailiff could protest further, the knight unsheathed his sword and slit the rope at the man's wrists. Then he reached down, clasped the old man's arm, and hoisted him onto the horse behind him. Though red and raw, the criminal wrapped his arms around the knight's armor and clung to him.
Only then did I dare to take a breath. The old man suffered burns and blisters from his ordeal, but he was free from his torture at last.
The bailiff pointed his dagger at the knight. "By whose authority are you disrupting this execution of justice?"
The knight said nothing. Instead he urged his horse away from the bailiff and trotted along the path he'd already made through the crowd. The townspeople were too stunned by his display of strength, just as I was, to utter a word.
With the pointed tip of his halberd, he caught the cloak of a merchant in passing, lifted the flowing garment, and held it out to the criminal so that the man could shield his unclad body from onlookers.
The bailiff's indignation rose in the now silent square. But the knight didn't stop until he reached the guildhall. Only then did he sidle his horse against the tall stairway and help the criminal dismount so that the old man slid to his knees before me.
At the sight of me standing at the top of the guildhall steps, gasps wove through the marketplace, and soon every person, young and old, bowed to one knee. From atop his steed, the knight, too, lowered his head.
"Thank you, my lady," the criminal spoke through cracked lips. I recognized him as one of the men I'd recently pardoned. He'd been accused of stealing out of the parish coffers so that he could pay his rent and provide food for the numerous orphan children he kept in his care. I'd determined then, as I did now, that he didn't deserve punishment but rather benevolence.
I tucked the cloak more securely around his shuddering body before rising to my full height and straightening my shoulders with frustration. Who had dared to override my compassion? And why?
I narrowed my eyes on the bailiff and constable, who had knelt along with the rest. "Bailiff," I called. "I shall require an answer for this blatant disregard of my laws."
He lifted his head, and fear flashed across his countenance. "I was only carrying out the sheriff's orders, my lady."
My frustration fanned hotter. I should have known. The sheriff hadn't approved of my leniency among the populace. But with two recent outbreaks of a mysterious illness in outlying areas, the poor were dying, and I had no choice but to bestow more compassion.
"Tell the sheriff I request his presence at the Great Hall this very day. And you will accompany him."
The bailiff lowered his head in acquiescence.
Inwardly, I sighed at the confrontation that was to come. The sheriff had never liked me, even though he'd saved me from a plague-stricken peasant several years ago. He was the kind of man who thought women were useless. And now that I'd inherited Ashby, his dislike had only grown, as had his resistance to taking orders from me. Of course, I hadn't yet become full ruler of my lands. I was still under the guidance and leadership of Abbot Francis Michael until my eighteenth birthday. But in a month, I would be able to rule on my own, even if it would be from the convent as a nun. The sheriff would eventually have to learn to accept my decisions. No matter how much he disliked the idea of having a female ruler, I was the only and rightful heir to Ashby.
The warhorse in front of me snorted, shifting my attention back to the knight, who was obviously waiting, as he should, for me to speak first and acknowledge his presence.
"Sir," I started. "I owe you my deepest gratitude." Only then did he straighten. Through the eye slits, his guileless gaze met mine and radiated with approval. And somehow I knew he was a friend, not a foe.
"My lady." His voice echoed behind the hollow metal. "You owe me nothing."
If only he would remove his helmet so I could see his mouth, to know whether he offered me a smile. Although I wasn't sure why that should matter.
He shifted in his saddle, his steed tossing its head and growing restless.
I was tempted to order him to dismount and show his face. Who was he? A lord from one of the neighboring lands? But before I could speak, he shied back a step. "For one as fair and kind as you, my lady, whatever you wish shall always be my command."
With that, he bowed one last time. Then, tucking his halberd under his arm, he gave rein to his horse, allowing the beast to twist and rear away. Before I could tell him to stop, he galloped across the square and veered down the main street that led to the city gates.
Like everyone else, all I could do was stare after him until he disappeared.CHAPTER 2
"The sheriff has gone too far this time," I said to the abbot, who stood by my side.
Abbot Francis Michael, taller than most men, bent low to speak into my ear, giving me full view of the bald spot on his tonsured head. "Don't be too harsh with him, my child. He's only attempting to keep order."
The sheriff and bailiff stood stiffly by the double doors of the Great Hall, flanked on either side by two of my soldiers. While the bailiff's expression contained the same fear I'd seen at the market square earlier, the sheriff's dark scowl reflected his irritation and none of the submission I desired.
"Think about the predicament from his perspective," the abbot continued in his calm and quiet tone. "If he allows a few to break the law without repercussion, then others will think they can do the same. Such lenience could lead to anarchy."
"You know I don't condone stealing," I said. "But if the poor are desperate enough to break the law, then we must increase the amount of their assistance."
The abbot rose and tucked his hands into the wide sleeves of his habit. Although a slender man from his many fasts, he was not weak. The reverent lines of his face radiated the strength I had come to rely upon over the past four years.
He didn't say anything for a long moment, and instead stared straight ahead thoughtfully and prayerfully.
I turned my own critical eye toward the view. The enormous hall with its high arched ceiling, palatial colonnades, thick tapestries, and glazed windows attested to my wealth. As did the elegant engraving on the golden chair in which I sat. What need did I have for such lavishness when my subjects languished? Selling or trading the opulent throne and tapestries could provide months of provisions for the poorest in the land. What need would I have for it anyway once I entered the convent next month?
The abbot finally sighed. "You have a soft heart, child. And you have already given more than you can afford."
My stomach cinched at the feeling of ineptness that weighed on me whenever I conversed with the abbot about the financial predicament of my lands. If there was one point of disagreement between the abbot and me, it was on the distribution of funds. Even though I supported the architectural plans for the cathedral and abbey he was designing, I wanted to remain generous to the poor. We seemed to be growing at odds on how to do so without draining the coffers.
"We must do more," I said more to myself than to the abbot. My parents had sacrificed their lives in order to help the people of Ashby. I'd vowed to do the same, to become the kind of ruler that my parents would be proud of, to do all I could so that their death wouldn't be in vain.
The abbot finally gave a resigned nod. He knew that I'd made it my life calling to rule my people with compassion. "In the meantime," he said, "you must show the same compassion to the sheriff that you wish to show to all of your people."
Excerpted from An Uncertain Choice by Jody Hedlund. Copyright © 2015 Jody Hedlund. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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