First Chapter - Trusting in Faith

Trusting in Faith - A Medieval Romance This page contains the full first chapter of the medieval romance novel Trusting in Faith.

Chapter 1

England, 1191

Patience is a conquering virtue.
The learned say that, if it not desert you,
It vanquishes what force can never reach;
Why answer back at every angry speech?
No, learn forbearance or, I'll tell you what,
You will be taught it, whether you will or not.

--The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer

Sarah stretched low over the neck of her galloping horse, straining to maintain sight of the narrow deer path she traced through the dense, darkening woods. Even in the approaching dusk the stifling summer heat made the air almost liquid. The warmth from her steed washed against her in rolling waves, threatening to suffocate her. She longed to stop, to throw off the heavy black cloak she was wearing and to breathe, if only for a moment.

She knew she could not. Too much depended on her reaching her destination quickly and without being identified.

Sarah’s lower back ached with throbbing pain; she pushed the sensation away with practiced discipline. She had been on the road for over three hours, starting off at once when the summons came. Despite the urgency, she had taken all usual precautions to ensure she hadn’t been followed. Even so, her body remained at a tense alert. Nothing could guarantee safety from wolves’ heads – bandits who roamed the shadows, preying on the weak.

The reassuring weight of her longsword on her left hip tugged gently at her; she took in a deep breath. She knew enough to keep herself safe from the casual cutthroat. It was these newcomers who concerned her - the disaffected who were returning from the crusades with a penchant for crime. She understood her odds with realistic sobriety. An encounter with a man of that training would be brutal and short.

Lights flared ahead; she pulled her mount in hard. Her horse skidded forward a few feet with a loud whinny, sliding in the gravel to a rough, panting halt. Almost immediately, she was surrounded by a wall of glinting steel. She threw her hood back in the flickering shadows, shaking loose her long, tawny hair to show herself more fully.

“It is me, Sarah,” she called out in a low, urgent voice. “I am alone, I swear it.”

The swords were pulled back in an instant, and the crowd of men retreated a step to let her dismount. A tall, reedy, blond-haired man in his early twenties scurried forward to help her down from her steed. He assisted her with the leather bag she removed from the side of the saddle.

Once she was on her feet, he pulled her hurriedly through the crowd. His lanky body easily pressed through the roughly dressed men. They soon moved into the main clearing where a series of tents were set up around a campfire. There were a few simply garbed women and children scattered here and there, but the group was primarily comprised of armed men, suspicious, alert, and watchful.

Numerous pairs of eyes followed her as she ran toward one of the smaller tents.

She pulled open the coarse flap of fabric, took one look inside, and spoke calmly over her shoulder without turning. “Lloyd - go get me a pail of hot water, and some clean rags. Hurry.” She took another step forward, letting the cloth fall closed behind her, and moved in to kneel beside her patient.

“Shhhh, Abigail, you are doing fine,” she murmured soothingly to the young, willowy woman who lay before her. Sarah tenderly brushed back a few loose strands of blonde hair, and the teen relaxed slightly beneath her touch. Sarah then ran her hand with practiced ease over the large bulge in the woman’s stomach, feeling for the position of the baby’s head and limbs.

Sarah’s face eased into a smile. “Your child is just right. The head is pointing down, and everything feels proper. In a few hours you will be the proud mother of a beautiful son or daughter.”

She shook off her heavy cloak and laid it to one side. Even without the extra layer of fabric, the air in the tent was sweltering and close, like the inside of an oven. A surge of pity swept over her for the girl lying before her, drenched in sweat. “You might have chosen a better month to give birth in, though,” she added with a light tone.

Abigail attempted to smile at the quip, but another contraction shuddered through her, and she gritted her teeth against the pain. When it faded, she gasped, “I am afraid we were not thinking about a baby at the time ...”

Sarah nodded. “As is often the case,” she commented half to herself. “Still, here we are, and you will get through this fine, just as your mother did, and her mother before her. Focus on the thought that this is a short ordeal in exchange for a lifetime of joy.” Her eyes twinkled. “If birthing really was that awful, no woman would bear a second child!”

“My mother had three,” responded Abigail weakly, leaning back and closing her eyes. Sarah cleared out the floor space of the tent, arranging her bag to one side where it would be within easy reach. “Maybe she was a masochist,” the pregnant woman muttered under her breath. “It might explain her temper.”

Sarah chuckled. “I help many women who are on their second, third, or fourth child. They say it gets easier each time, and that the memory of the pain fades quickly when you hold your new child in your arms. This will be over soon. Just take it one moment at a time.”

She turned her head at a noise. Lloyd had returned dutifully with the cloth and pail and was standing nervously by the entrance.

“Thank you - now wait outside,” Sarah instructed him tenderly but firmly. “Stay within calling distance, but let her have her privacy.”

Lloyd’s face was creased with worry, but he nodded in understanding. He looked past Sarah to the woman lying on the rough blanket. “Abby - I love you,” he whispered to the young woman in labor. “I am right here for you.” Then another contraction began, and he closed the flap, leaving the women to their work.

Sarah washed and rinsed, then quickly prepared the cloths. She returned to the young woman and first helped her to a sitting position, then to stand. The low tent made them stoop, but they were able to walk small circles around the interior. Sarah moved slowly, helping to bear the woman’s weight. Abigail was a coltish girl of sixteen, maybe five-foot-four, awkward with her low belly and the pain spasms rippling through her. Sarah kept up a running commentary of soothing stories and advice, knowing that the teen she half-carried barely heard what she said. The important thing was to keep her body moving and her mind distracted as much as possible so that she would relax into her labor.

The hours passed slowly, with the pair alternating between moving and taking short rests. Even while Sarah spoke and sang, part of her continually evaluated the signs she received from Abigail’s body. Sarah had been helping deliver babies for eight years now - since she was fourteen - and had seen a wide variety of situations. She glanced at Abigail’s face and thought how common this story was.

“I know we have been meeting for a few months now, but I enjoy hearing the tale. Tell me again how you and Lloyd met,” she suggested quietly, looking to draw Abigail’s attention away from the pain of the contractions.

Abigail nodded, taking deliberate steps as she spoke. “I have known Lloyd for many years,” she explained, her voice rasping. “He cared for the horses in our stables. When he was able to, he would go riding with me to keep me company. He is the kindest, gentlest person I have ever met. He is five years my senior and always watched out for me.” Her face softened into a smile. “I suppose our falling in love was inevitable.”

She winced as another pain swept through her, and it was a moment or two before she could continue. “My mother caught us kissing behind the stables, and she was furious. She forbade me to see him ever again. It was too late, though – I was already pregnant. When she heard that, she threw me out of the house, saying I had disgraced the family name.”

Sarah nodded, encouraging her. “Mothers can be like that. At least you two were not alone – Kyle came with you?”

Abigail focused on putting one foot in front of the other. “Yes, Kyle is like an uncle to me. He was our witness when we married in a nearby church. This group of wanderers was moving through the area, and we joined up with them to have food and shelter while we figured out what we wanted to do. They have been very good to us. They even agreed to find a fixed camp location so that I could give birth in safety. I knew of your reputation for discretion, and sent out a messenger. Now here we are.”

Sarah shook her head, moving slowly around the tent with her young charge. Would the mother really still deny the daughter if she could see her now, doubled over in pain, about to deliver a new life into the world? How did it benefit anybody to be so stubborn about who someone fell in love with?

There was a change in Abigail’s walking rhythm; Sarah pulled to a stop. She quickly evaluated the position of the baby and broke into an encouraging grin. “You are a lucky woman, Abigail. Your great health has brought your child out in record time!” She looked up into the woman’s eyes. “You are doing so well, Abigail; I am quite proud of you. Just a little while more, and your infant will be in your arms.”

She helped Abigail move over toward the clean cloths. “Squat down over this area. Spread your feet out to support your weight. There you go. Now, slowly, push. Push down, low and hard.”

Sarah knelt before Abigail, and in a moment the girl’s thin hands were pressed into her shoulders for support. Sarah moved her own hands beneath Abigail. It was only a short while before she felt the head crown, and then slowly the rest of the body emerged. When the head was out, the baby gave out a lusty cry, and then, over Abigail’s moans, Sarah could hear a shout of celebration from outside the tent. Soon the cheers were echoing all around them, and Sarah held the newborn life in her arms. A slicing cut with the dagger she wore at her side, and the baby was free.

Sarah quickly cleaned and bundled up the young child, then helped the exhausted mother move onto the bed. She tenderly placed the infant into her mother’s arms; tears welled in her eyes as she saw that first look between parent and child. This moment was always special to Sarah - the ending of a dangerous ordeal, and the beginning of a new family.

She spent some time cleaning and checking on both patients. Many women in surrounding villages died during childbirth due to complications. Sarah prided herself on her attention to detail, checking carefully for tears or injuries. Luckily, there was little need for concern here. The baby was in perfect health, and the mother’s bleeding stopped almost immediately.

Worn down, Sarah pushed herself wearily to a standing position and gathered up her cloak and bag. Giving one last look around the tent, she moved to the entrance. Lloyd stood waiting, a wide smile on his face, shaking hands with a boisterous group of grinning men.

His eyes held hers, a flicker of concern showing. “She is fine? My wife?”

“Both your wife and daughter are perfect,” replied Sarah warmly. “You can go in and be with them now. Just wash your hands in the water first, please, to keep the baby clean.”

Lloyd needed no further encouragement, and was through the tent doors in a flash.

A weathered man in his late forties approached Sarah. “I am not sure if you remember me. My name is Kyle, and I am Lloyd’s good friend,” he introduced himself. “Come, let me find you a drink. You must be exhausted.”

Sarah followed him without a word. He guided her through the tents toward a crackling campfire on the far edge of the clearing. Only a quiet pair of elderly men sat to one side of the glowing embers, their creased faces shadowed, lost in thought. The crowds were beginning to settle down again, and a muted hush drifted over the dark camp. Sarah seated herself with relief on a moss-encrusted log, and soon Kyle brought over a stained pottery mug filled with mead.

Sarah drank the liquid gratefully, noting that the semi-sweet concoction was surprisingly good. She sat back, rolling loose the tension that had built up in her muscles over the past few hours. “This is tasty,” she commented to Kyle, who had found a seat on a nearby rock. “Do you make this here?”

The greying man nodded his head with pleasure. “Indeed, I do. I was a beekeeper at Abby’s estate,” he explained with a wry grin. “When Lloyd said he was leaving, I packed up my supplies and came along with them. I could not in good conscience stay behind when they were out on the road. Lloyd was always the impetuous one, but I keep him out of trouble when I can.”

Kyle took a sip from his own mug, contemplative. “We do have plans for the future. We could build a house a few villages over, once we have earned a bit of money for supplies. Between my skills and his we should be able to make ends meet.” He shrugged, looking around him at the rough collection of tents and people. “Unfortunately we have not built up our reserves yet. Life does not always work things out the way you think it will.”

“That is true,” agreed Sarah, taking another drink. “Life is sometimes more like riding a wild horse and hanging on as best you can. I am sure you will get there soon enough.”

Kyle leant forward, his face serious. “What is intriguing is that months can go by - or years - where it seems like nothing is happening. Nothing is changing. Then - wham - out of the blue comes something urgent, and you have to make a decision in a split second that will affect the rest of your life.”

Sarah’s mouth quirked into a smile. “That is why it is so important to make good use of those quiet months,” she commented with a chuckle. “If you have prepared yourself, and readied yourself, then when those moments come you can act wisely. Life is all about taking good care of yourself - and training your mind - so you can get through the sharp dips and turns when they do come.”

She finished the rest of the mead, then gave a long stretch. “I really need to head back home, or I will not make it before morning,” she sighed with a yawn. “Abigail and Lloyd already know how to care for the baby for the first weeks - I have gone over that with them several times, during calmer visits. I know there are other women in the camp who can share their wisdom should they need it. Please remind them that I will be back in two weeks to check on their progress and to answer any questions they might have. If there is any sort of problem in the meantime, send a messenger, and I will come.”

Kyle stood as she did, and took both of her hands in his own. “Thank you, for both of them,” he offered heartily. “It means the world to them that you came out to help her through this.” Kyle turned and waved to a scruffy young boy, who promptly brought the brown stallion over for her. He had been given oats and water, and looked ready for the return trip.

Sarah took a deep breath, then drew her heavy, disguising cloak around her, pulling up the hood. The heat was nearly overwhelming, and sweat immediately poured from her skin. She mounted with an effort and gathered up the reins.

She waved down to Kyle. “Until a fortnight.” Then she was heading back down the trail toward home.

The road lightened in front of her as she rode, allowing her to move more easily as the path evolved from wood to clearing to cart trail. Her pace, though quick, was not so frantic as before. Soon she was passing through an isolated village. Sleepy chickens nestled against the small homes in feathered clumps and a lone, mangy dog roamed the dirt street. Although none were awake at this early hour, she stayed at the outskirts of the next, larger village, and then turned south to cover the final miles toward her home.

Relaxed pleasure eased through her as she came over a rise and beheld the structure. The central three-story keep was built of sturdy grey stone, and the collection of smaller buildings were hidden behind the solid curtain walls which encompassed the area. Her parents were sticklers for discipline, and even in this pre-dawn light she could make out the alert, well-groomed guards manning the main gates. The pair had them open for her before she had a chance to call out, and the men waved a friendly greeting as she passed through, relieved to be home.

She rode directly to the two-story wooden stable building, only reining in once she was fully within its walls. She wearily dismounted and handed the reins to Lou, the young red-headed stableboy who stood ready at her side.

He gave her an impish grin. “Another late night, M’Lady?” He looked impossibly fresh and chipper to Sarah’s fatigued eyes.

“That it was, Lou. Please take good care of him, he has earned it,” she added, giving her mount a fond look. She smiled as Lou tenderly ran a hand down the horse’s neck. The lad was meant for the stables and cared for each animal as if it were his own child. Turning, she picked up her worn leather bag and headed slowly into the main keep.

The building was quiet in the pre-dawn light. She nodded in greeting to a guard in the main hall, then made her way up the stairs to her own quarters. By habit, she stopped by her younger sister’s room, poking her head in to check on her. The room was messy by her standards, with ribbons and lace strewn in all corners. The bed itself lay neat and untouched. Sarah shook her head, closing the door softly. Where had her sister gotten off to this night? Was it another tryst with the bard from the next town, or had she acquired a new beau?

Sarah put it out of her mind. What she needed right now was sleep. She moved down the hall to her own room, heaving the heavy door fully open with her shoulder. She hung up her bag, then shut the door solidly before wearily pulling her sweat-stained clothes off and piling them in a heap. A relieved sigh eased through her as she slipped on a light chemise.

She glanced up as the sun peeked over the horizon, sending a golden shaft of light across the floor. She pulled the heavy curtains fully closed over her two large windows. A breeze still curled around the edges, sending a refreshing breath of air into the room. Feeling relatively cool for the first time in many long hours, she climbed into bed and was instantly asleep.

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