The fresh, crisp air stung at her lungs as Lynwen breathed deeply on the porch of the inn that she had stayed at the previous night. She pulled her cloak tightly around her body, shivering slightly. She looked out in the fields as the farmers hurriedly tried to harvest the last of the crops before the primary frost set in. Axes swooshed through the air before clacking into trees or logs. She can hear a gruff woodcutter sing as he worked. A stable hand grabbed a pitchfork, heading into one of the empty stalls to start mucking it out.
Lynwen noticed coming down the road to the small village, a closed carriage with the royal sigil emblazoned on the side. Surrounding the carriage was a contingent of men-at-arms wearing heavy gambeson. They carried spears in their hands with a kite shield strapped to their back. Lynwen saw these people before: they were tax collectors.
She watched as they turned into the inn’s complex and stopped at the stable. Several stable hands came out, grabbing the reigns of the horses. The carriage man stepped down off the back of the carriage and set a stool down at the door to the carriage before opening it. The overweight man stepped down out of the carriage and slowly walked towards the inn with his guards following close behind, two of which carried a small wooden chest.
The rotund tax collector looked at Lynwen and bowed to her out of respect. Lynwen curtseyed back to him but remained silent. She watched as the man struggled back up. He waddled into the inn. Lynwen turned towards the workers again, some of whom stopped and went to their homes to gather their purses.
After a few more minutes, Lynwen turned back to the inn. She entered the long smokey building. She walked over to the bar, putting a silver piece on it as she ordered her meal. The young assistant nodded, taking the silver piece. The young lad walked into the kitchen. Lynwen then turned to the rest of the room as her small group of guards sat at a table near the counter.
She sat down at the table, looking over the room. Her guards moved to stand up, but she quickly encouraged them to sit down. They did so, keeping their eyes focused on the tax collector’s party. The guards stood rigid around the tax collector who started writing what he had collected into his ledgers. Several times he also made marks of delivery for certain goods to be delivered to Aldberg.
Lynwen watched as several peasants, those who no doubt owed more than they had, were put into chains. Her stomach knotted up as she watched. She knew that they were going to one of the many work camps in Suthsax. She looked to her guards, gaging what they are thinking. She noticed that the muscles in their jaws tightened as they watch.
“We will rescue them,” she promised in a soft voice that was almost drowned out by the activity. “We will liberate them.”
Her guards looked to her and nodded slightly before going back to their stance. The assistant came with the platter of food and a horn full of ale, setting it in front of Lynwen. She smiled at the boy and started eating as her guards finished their remaining meal.
During the meal, the tax collector stood up and walked out of the inn. The guards secured the chest and prisoners, ushering them out. She stood up and walked up to her room after she finished the last of her meal. She undressed out of her bliaut, packing her clothes away. She then slipped on a soft linen tunic and trousers. She then pulled on her boots and donned on a gambeson.
She stood up, walking towards the door. She opened it, hiding behind the door as she called for one of the inn staff. A young girl walked up to her bowing her head before Lynwen. Lynwen gave the girl instructions to get her carriage ready for a couple of hours later. The girl nodded and left.
Lynwen then covered her face in a veiled cowl, draping a thick woolen cloak over her shoulders. She walked down the stairs where her guards, now increased to her full contingent and standing by the door. She walked up to them, looking to the captain, nodding to him.
They all go to the horses, already prepared for a ride. One of the guards helped Lynwen mount her horse. They then mounted up as one of them came riding back, getting into formation.
“You scouted ahead?” Lynwen asked.
“Aye, my lady,” he said.
“Good, you will lead us. I want to be able to get in front of the tax collector. It wouldn’t be good if they can get to Aldberg before we can dispatch them.”
“Aye, my lady, I will do my best.”
Lynwen looked over at her guards, who numbered only at ten- including her. “Right, let us ride. We do not have much time to waste.”
With the command, the group of warriors galloped out of the compound. They turned down the road where the carriage and prison carts had gone. Lynwen was glad that her sword was hanging from the saddle with her shield. She strapped the round cavalry shield to her left arm.
The group rode hard and fast down the cobblestone road. After about ten minutes, they spotted the lazy group of the tax collector. Lynwen unsheathed her sword, swinging it out. Her warriors drew their weapons and spread out wide.
Lynwen raised her sword high above her head, riding now in the front. She swung her sword down to the front. With a roar, her warriors surged forward. Their swords and spears gleamed in the morning light.
The sudden roar startled the king’s guards that they froze and turned. Lynwen and her mounted warriors charged, wrapping around the tax collector’s entourage. She heard the captain commanded for everyone to drop their weapons. The men at arms, realizing that the group of riders started bringing in more and more peasants, dropped their weapons onto the ground.
Lynwen dismounted and walked over to the carriage, opening the door. She looked to her people with a nod before she entered the carriage, where the tax collector sat shaking in fear. She drew the curtains and, hearing her guards ride to block the doors from unwanted eyes. She pulled back her cowl, letting her golden locks fall across her now fully revealed face.
The tax collector’s eyes opened wide. “You are a reb?” he asked before he felt a sharp point at his throat.
“I am going to say this once,” she said coldly, staring him unblinkingly into his eyes. “You will give me the ledger and the keys to the prisoner cart and chest. If you do so willingly, and my men will leave with your men’s weapons, the prisoners, and the money you collected. If I am forced to take them…” She pressed the dagger to his throat, hard enough to let a little bit of blood start to trickle down his neck.
The tax collector tried to swallow. He averted his gaze from her. He points to the book set on the bench next to Lynwen. The book was a ring of two keys. Lynwen smiled, grabbing the keys and ledger. She knocked on the door and held the items out of the open window. She felt her guard grab onto the book and keys. He whistled to someone who came and took it from him.
“By the gods, you have seen my face,” she said, feigning shock stupidity. “That is not good because that means I am either going to have to take you with us or kill you here.”
“Nay, my lady,” he stuttered. “I will not tell a soul. I swear by the gods. Please do not kill me. My family needs me in Aldberg.”
“What benefit would I have if I released you? You have seen my face, and you have assumed that I am a rebel. Tell me why I should let you live. I would be putting my security out on the line if I allow you to go free. How do I know you will not be a liability?”
“I have business associates all over the kingdom. I can get your group anything you need. Money, goods, weapons, armor.”
“And what happens if you get captured by the king? Nay, your only safety is in the ground or with us.”
“Then, I will gladly join you. I will gladly move wherever you say I need to go. Just please, do not kill me,” the fat man started crying.
“Where does your family live?” Lynwen ask.
“Near Market Square.”
Lynwen pulled the dagger away from him and sheathed it. She covered her face with the veiled cowl. She took one look at the tax collector, and then she left the carriage. She walked over to the open cart that her men filled with the men-at-arms, their colors stripped from their armor. The captain looked over at her.
“These men said that the king had forced them to join the army,” the captain said. “I loath to leave them here and become peasants’ victims, but neither do I trust their motivations.”
“We must show mercy and grace, captain,” Lynwen said. “Send them to Castleton. I will differ to father’s judgment on what to do.”
“Of course, my lady.”
“And captain, be sure you keep an eye on that snake in the carriage. I cannot prove it, but I believe he will try to escape and get to the king.”
“Aye, my lady. You can consider it done.”
Lynwen looked over to the group of peasants watching her. She strolled towards them, causing them to kneel before her. She stood in the middle of the group looking over them.
“You are now free to return to your homes if you wish,” she said gently. “I know your families would be worried about you. But I also want to offer you a chance to do some good for your kingdom. You strove for long hours trying desperately to meet the demanding taxes that the king placed upon your shoulders. I offer you a chance to live free under that burden. If you choose to go to Castleton, then the people there will welcome you with open arms.”
The people looked up into the veiled lady as she said this, surprise on their faces. One of them, a young girl, was looking up at her. Lynwen knelt and wiped away the tear that was falling down her cheek. She then stood up, looking to her men who were gathering everything.
“Captain, I shall walk with these people,” Lynwen said. “Go ahead and overlook the preparations.”
“I will do so, my lady,” he said, turning to the rest and issuing orders.
Lynwen walked with the villagers back towards the inn. She encourages the people in whichever direction they choose to work hard. She promised them that someday the king would be held responsible for the destruction of his kingdom.
As the group reached the heart of the village, a young noble was talking with the innkeeper. He stood a head taller than most in the village. His dark hair, tied in a leathern cord, hung down to his shoulders. A bright, vibrant crimson cloak wrapped around him, exposing only his hands and his arming sword’s pommel, hung over his lean body and barely cleared the ground. The peasants, who arrived with Lynwen and her guards, knelt before this young noble. The man, who noticed the innkeeper’s gaze turned away from him, turned in the direction he looked.
Lynwen held his gaze for a moment before she bowed to him. He nodded in return and looked to the men returning with the king’s tax collector.
“Well, it seems you and your men-at-arms were successful, good sir,” he said with a soft smirk. “Though I do have to wonder why you would attack the king’s men this close to Aldberg. It seems foolish.”
“Perhaps it is,” Lynwen said softly, “but some injustices cannot be left to go uncheck.”
The young noble, with a hint of surprise, looked at this veiled person. “My lady, my apologies,” he said after a little while. “I did not know who you were.”
Lynwen looked at the handsome noble. “And what is it that you are here for, my lord?”
“I am here looking for a Lady Lyn. I heard that she had stopped here, but the innkeeper told me that she was not up in her room. I know she is about to leave soon, but I do need to talk to her.”
“Then maybe I can help, but first I would need to know to whom she will be speaking. It is only right for her to know who is calling upon her. Especially when one knows of her, and she does not know of you.”
The man smiled. “Then let me introduce myself then. I am Yeshua ben David of Helmsberg.”
Lynwen smiled, knowing that he could not see it through the veil. “And what is the reason for this business? Lady Lyn is a very cautious woman.”
“It is a matter of personal interest to both the Sylvans and the Davids. It would be most improper to divulge such topics with anyone other than Lady Lyn.”
“If I may be of assistance, my lady,” said the captain. “I have heard that the Davids are most noble in the land. I have also heard that they align with certain interests of ours.”
Yeshua smiled at the captain. “Well, it is quite a surprise to see someone as renowned as you here, captain.”
The captain smiled some. “I am afraid that we are in a hurry. We must catch up with Lady Lyn shortly. But if you do not mind riding with us, I am sure Lady Lyn will join us soon.”
“Ah, so this is her entourage then. Of course, I would love to join if it is not too much of a bother.”
Lynwen smiled. “Not at all. Please have a seat in the carriage, and we shall be on our way shortly.” Lynwen turned away from the man with her captain.
“I have already given some clothes to Athelstan,” the captain whispered. “I will give you five minutes before starting the group.”
“Thank you, captain,” she said just as softly. “Do you mind if I take your horse as well, considering what is attached to my saddle?”
“Go right ahead. But please be careful and be swift.”
Lynwen nodded and mounted upon the captain’s horse. “I cannot promise anything, but that I will try.”
She trotted off with Athelstan behind her.
Lynwen got out of the creek. She slowly dried her soaked body, which shivered some from the cold water. She then took the finely made silk chemise and slipped it over her naked body. She pulled the wool bliaut over her chemise before Athelstan came up with the houppelande. He helped her get into the heavy wool gown. He then knelt and put some fur slippers on her feet.
The two of them slowly started to walk towards the road. Athelstan draped his cloak over Lynwen’s shoulders. She smiled, pulling it tightly around her body. She walked through the meadow towards the horses, which were eating the tufts of grass that they could reach. Athelstan picked up Lynwen and set her on the horse that hitched to one of the low branches of a cedar.
Athelstan unhitched the horses, mounting upon his horse. They rode together in silence towards the inn. Lynwen smiled. She listened to the wind whistle through the branches of the trees or the leaves rustling in the wind. Squirrels chattered about high above her, as birds sing their multitude of songs.
Lynwen regally rode when she spotted her carriage and guards. She smiled as she met with the captain.
“Captain, it is good to see you again,” she said with a smile. “All is well, I hope?”
“Aye, my lady,” he said with a smirk. “We do have a visitor in your carriage: a noble by the name of Yeshua ben David.”
“Did he say why he is here?”
“Only that it was a personal affair.”
“Very well. I will see what he wishes to speak of.”
With the help of her guards, Lynwen dismounted from the horse. She walked over to the covered carriage with the sigil of the mighty oak silhouetted in the setting sun. Her carriage man opened the door for her and held up his arm to let Lynwen get in safely. She entered the carriage sitting across from the young handsome noble.
Their eyes met, sending a shiver down through her spine. She smiled at Yeshua.
“You must be Yeshua,” she said.
“Indeed, and I presume you are Lynwen,” he smiled.
“You are correct. I am sorry I could not have entertained you earlier when you were at the inn.”
Yehoshua smiled. “I fully understand the need to defend the serfs. And before you try denying it, the woman I spoke to earlier had your voice.”
“Well, Master David, you are observant. Though I doubt you would be willing to stay with us upon knowing what we are planning to do.”
“Well, you must understand then that we need allies at this time more than ever. My family has wealth and contacts to help you and your friends to succeed in your mission.”
Lynwen narrowed her eyes slightly. “What are you implying, Master David?”
“I am merely stating that I know who you are, Lynwen. And I and my family wish to help you.”
Lynwen’s eyes narrowed even more. “So, you know who I am. That only means that there are spies within the camp.”
“We both have a mutual friend with a certain Elvehan.”
“What do you mean? Arianwen, the Elvehanim princess.”
“Well, that puts me at some ease. I am assuming that Arianwen told you about me?”
“Not only that but also what you were planning to do. Arianwen was the one to set up the need to ally with you. I know that Brunbald is not an actual noble, and I also know that he is not your father, though he is your guardian until most recently.”
“What would the benefits of this alliance be?”
“You will have a stronger tie to being nobility, thus making your mission hold up against in-depth scrutiny. Your people would also benefit from having gold in your coffers. In return, my family would benefit from having a strong and well-trained army with a legend as a general.”
Lynwen sat there for a moment. She turned to the driver to halt the carriage and to have the captain come. The carriage came to a stop. A few moments later, the door opened, the captain standing there.
“Captain, join us, for I need your council on some matters.”
“As you wish, my lady,” he said, climbing in.
Yehoshua sat there calmly as the party slowly moved. Lynwen explained the situation to the captain, who listened carefully.
“I am also willing to pay your soldiers, Master Wilhelm,” Yeshua said with a smile. “And before you attack me for blowing your cover, you are a very difficult many to hide from most people, especially when you speak. I am here only to ally my family and the rebels. We already have a working alliance with the Eastern Elvehanim Kingdom.”
“Well, this is an unexpected turn of events,” Wilhelm said softly. “Though I must ask: why do you come here to speak with Lynwen and not with Brunbald? He is the leader, not Lynwen.”
“Well, it is straightforward, Master Wilhelm,” Yeshua spoke. “She is the one that is of higher station. I cannot reveal my sources, but Lynwen is not someone that is pretending to be of noble birth. She is of noble birth. However, I feel that if the king finds out who she is, it will prove to be fatal for her and the rest of the rebels.”
“What are you suggesting, Master Yeshua?” asked Lynwen. “So far, you have not given us any clear solution and the means of cementing this alliance.”
Yeshua looked to Lynwen. She could see that what comes next is a huge step and that it is also severe enough to be considered deeply.
“I am willing to offer you a full alliance, sealed entirely in the knot of matrimony,” he said, his eyes not leaving hers. “At the very least in the public sphere. I would not wish to make you any more uncomfortable than that.”
Lynwen sat there shocked, her mouth hanging open as she tried to work through what he presented. Wilhelm sat there next to her as Yeshua sat comfortably across from them, remaining silent. He knew that they need to consider things through.
Lynwen finally composed herself. “Are you asking me to be your wife?” she asked softly.
Yeshua smirked some. “At least that is what the public should know. The benefits would be that the court would not scrutinize you too much if I were publicly playing your husband. I would fully understand if you do not wish to be my wife, but at least while you are in the public eye.”
“That would make my mission more difficult, for if I were to be your wife, then I could not have the freedom to get closer to others and try to sway opinions away from the king. I do thank you for your concern about solidifying our position.”
Yeshua smiled again. “Well, my uncle lives in the city. I am sure we can convince him that you are his adoptive daughter and that I have come to help you get accustomed to the political sphere. Thus, giving you the freedom to do what you need yet still have a solid connection to a noble family.”
“How close are your parents to your uncle?” Lynwen said.
“We are close. I often see my uncle. That was my destination when I had heard of your cover name was at the inn.”
“Well, at least we do not have to worry about you having to go in the opposite direction then.” Lynwen smiled.
“Even if I did, I would still have seen you safely to Aldberg.” Yeshua looked into the young petite woman’s eyes as he said the words.
“You are too kind, Master Yeshua. But as you can see, I am not without protection.”
“I was not talking about making sure you are protected. I was talking about getting to know you.” He looked directly into her eyes. She can see his character’s strength in those dark eyes.
“My lord,” Lynwen said softly, feeling heat flood her cheeks, “you flatter me with your words.”
“Nay, not flattery but the truth,” he said, sitting up straighter. “My apologies, my lady. I had heard you were fair but never knew how much so. Bards would hardly have the words to describe how fair you are.”
Wilhelm cleared his throat. “My lady, I believe we should take up this alliance offer. It would strengthen our position a little bit. It would also allow us to have a little more freedom of movement and speech.”
“I agree as well, Master Wilhelm,” Lynwen said as the carriage rolled to a stop.
“Stay here, my lady. I will see what is happening.” Wilhelm opened the door of the carriage and stepped out.
Yeshua slid over on the bench so that he can see out the window. “Looks like the king’s housecarls. Just be calm and let me do the talking if they come near.”
Lynwen looked at him, nodding. She sat their calmly as she watched Yeshua. Deep in her stomach, she felt the knot tighten. She took a deep breath as a housecarl walked into view. Yeshua explained that he had come to visit family and that he was also escorting Lynwen to her new home with his uncle. The man looked to Lynwen then back to Yeshua. Yeshua, at this point, held up his signet ring with his noble sigil. The housecarl bowed and signaled to the others to let them through.
When the group got beyond the group of housecarls, Lynwen breathed a sigh of relief. “I appreciate you being here, Master Yeshua,” she said. “I now fully see what you mean by allying with your house.”
Yeshua smiled. “Let us wait to draft it formally with my uncle. Until we get there, I am merely a noble guard for you.”
“What should we do once we are in Aldberg?”
“The decision is yours to make. However, I would counsel you to go before my uncle to cement our alliance. That would also help you have a place to stay while you are in court without being followed to an inn. It would look most improper for a young lady of nobility to frequent an inn.”
“You are right. We should have considered housing while we were here.”
“And among other things. But do not be too hard on yourself because you have not grown up with a noble’s privilege. Though I doubt you would be permitted to leave until my uncle teaches you properly on the rules of the court. Just be warned that he expects excellence before he grants you noble’s privilege.”
“To me, it sounds like he is a taskmaster.”
“That is putting it mildly. You will understand that he has been playing the game for a while. He understands how people think and operates in court. He knows what motivates each person and who is more trustworthy or not. And according to him, you are a danger to the game we all play because you are not qualified to be within the noble class.”
“I see. So, your uncle would hide me away until he is satisfied that I can handle the game, he can ensure that very few possibilities or us to be caught as rebels seeking to destabilize the kingdom. That is a wise course of action.”
“You are indeed a rare creature. Not only are you beautiful, but you are also intelligent.”
Lynwen’s cheeks turned scarlet at the compliment. “You are most kind, Master Yeshua.”
She turned to look out the window. She can see the peasants stopping to eat their midday meal. Off in the distance, she can see the hillfort of Aldberg with its stone retaining walls. Wooden palisades stood atop the raised mounds of earth, dotted with short wooden watchtowers. Even at this distance, she can see guards up in the towers patrolling their posts.
The group followed the winding road as it wound its way towards the outer gate. Peasants, who were on their way to the market square of the town, stepped aside to let the armed carriage by them uncontested. Lynwen could see a look of hardness in their faces as if they have lived most of their lives under tremendous despair. Her heart leaped out for them, understanding the hardships of living under tyrannical rule.
Her thoughts were interrupted when she felt a dark, cold presence standing at the gate. She looked out the window and standing at the entrance was the most powerful man Lynwen had ever seen. He was the king, and he looked directly at her.