Summary: When Elizabeth discovers a wounded man in the forests behind her home, she feels it is her Christian duty to help him—even if he is a royalist. Set after Charles II's defeat at Worcester. Rated for violence.
A.N.- Thankyou to Cynthia Brent and MistressBlack852 for their reviews, I truly appreciate them!
By Woodstock 1330
Afternoon sunlight filtered down through the leafy treetops, casting lacy patterns across the forest floor. A young woman hummed to herself as she plucked the last of the season's blackberries from their thorny bushes, collecting them in the basket under her arm. Every so often she would pop one into her red little mouth, closing her eyes to savor the sweet taste. She was pretty, not of the same caste as those frail and delicate lily maids so admired at court, but something to warm the blood. She had, in the supposed privacy of this wood, cast off her bonnet, exposing a rich crop of russet curls, pulled back into a bun to expose a long, graceful neck of fair, soft skin, though she couldn't keep a few stray tendrils from escaping, framing her pretty face. She was not tall, though well proportioned, and prettily formed. In stark contrast to all these charms was the rigidity and sobriety of her clothing, for though well-made from fine materials they bespoke, rather sharply, her Puritan faith.
Elizabeth sighed, content at last in her solitude. She was not, by nature, a solitary creature but no company at all was certainly preferable to that of the house. The constant heckling of the housekeeper which so unnerved the little maidservant and infuriated the cook, Elizabeth deemed bearable, even enjoyable, compared to the somber presence of the father. He said nothing, or if he did speak it was only in the attitude of a sermon, which Elizabeth got enough of on Sunday.
She should have been turning home, she knew, as the shadows lengthened and the light turned to gold, she was long past due…instead she popped another berry into her mouth. Let them wait a little longer; her duties would still be waiting for her whether she returned now or an hour hence. Let her father frown upon her and scold, little she cared…he possessed all the warmth of an undertaker and all the cheeriness of a funeral.
Her basket full at last she turned, not toward home, but a little stream that wended its way not far off. In turning her long skirts snagged on the thorny berry bush and, sighing she stooped to disentangle herself. At moments like these she envied Tom, the stable-boy, his sturdy boots and—she stopped short, still half entangled, staring at the stain of deep carmine strewn across the dried leaves at her feet. Blood. She felt suddenly cold and wished she'd brought her cloak with her…
"Silly child," she murmured aloud to herself, shaking her head, "probably some animal…" She made to rise but paused, there was a boot print beside it, clearly marked in the damp undergrowth. A hunter, surely, she thought, gathering up her basket and bonnet hastily. No, there hasn't been a hunt in weeks…a poacher then. She would have to tell her father, in fact, she ought to go and speak to him about the matter immediately. She started to turn towards home when something else, a little way off, caught her eye, something shimmering crimson in the falling light. She moved hesitantly toward it, wondering how she hadn't noticed it before. She came upon it, reaching out to finger the soft material gently. A sash of red silk caught in the brambles. No man would go a-poaching in something so fine, indeed surely no one possessing such finery would resort to such low pursuits…
Elizabeth felt a prickling at the back of her neck, something caught between fear and excitement taking hold of her. She turned about herself warily, half hoping she would find another clue, and yet terrified at the prospect. She did find it, another patch of dried blood not ten yard off and…not footprints she decided as she drew closer, the underbrush was scattered, nearby grass matted and twigs broken, more as though someone had fallen here. Her excitement faltered; if that were so then someone might be wounded, in need of help…
"Hello?" She called, anxious now, "is someone there?" Only a bird answered, chirruping from somewhere in the treetops. "Hello?" There was a crashing sound behind her and she whirled sharply, nearly crying out before she saw a rabbit darting away through the bushes. She clutched her throat, steadying her breathing…she was being foolish she knew, it was probably nothing, the sash might have been completely unrelated to the blood, left behind by someone out for a walk, or a ride. The blood was surely left behind by some unfortunate animal, a rabbit or pheasant that someone, be it animal or human, was now enjoying for supper.
She'd been reading too many thrilling stories, she mustn't tell anyone of this, her father would forbid her sister from bringing her any more, he already disapproved of them. She was just about to turn back for home when something once again caught her eye, nothing as innocent as a silk sash.
She picked up the pistol tentatively, the stock was covered in dried blood but beneath that it was finely crafted gilded in ornate silver plating, obviously belonging to a gentleman of some wealth and stature, perhaps even rank. She felt suddenly cold, vaguely wishing she'd brought her shawl with her. She moved forward slowly, searching the ground, following the trail of blood and boot tracks, her mind racing.
This was madness; for all she knew they could be miles away by now or still worse, they could be dead—her mind balked at the idea…they were obviously wounded, would she leave them out there to die? Would she allow that on her conscience? If they were dead, she shivered, they deserved a proper Christian burial at least…and what if they weren't dead? She turned the bloodied gun over in her hands, they could be dangerous, and here she was alone in the middle of a lonely stretch of wood, nearing twilight, "Foolish girl…" she said aloud.
The sound was so quiet at first she wasn't sure she'd heard it, she froze, telling herself it was the wind, or an animal. It came again, a little louder now… a soft moan, like that of a human in pain. She meant to speak, to call out, but her tongue stuck dryly to the roof of her mouth.
She swallowed hard, "h—hello?" She heard it again, goose bumps rising on her flesh, she turned about herself, searching. There, fallen at the base of a gnarled elm, a man lay among the crisp dried leaves, still as death.
Elizabeth was beside him in a dash, kneeling down. A gentleman indeed, swathed in dark velvet doublet and matching breeches, his boots, of fine dark leather, were caked in blood. His face was turned away from her so that only his stylishly long dark hair could be seen. Beneath his doublet his shirt was stained a garishly deep red…she felt her stomach churn.
"Sir?" she tried to force her voice above a shrunken whisper, "Sir?" The man gave no response, she reached out a shaking hand, to his shoulder, "please, Sir are—are you--."
He stiffened at her touch and groaned, the noise more a physical reaction than an effort to answer her and Elizabeth wondered at first if he were truly aware at all until he turned his head toward her. He was white as linen, his forehead creased as if he were struggling somehow, he moved to sit up but groaned again, clutching his side as he fell back against the tree.
"You're wounded," without thought she lifted his doublet, tearing away his spoiled shirt…she felt the blood drain away from her face, the wound was a deep jagged gash, as from a sword or dagger, just above his hop bone, dried blood caked the skin around it but fresh blood still oozed freely. She could smell it now, dense and metallic, it caught in the back of her throat, making her gag.
She drew her kerchief, pressing it to the wound, the man stirred violently, crying out. "It will be alright," she said softly, almost more to herself than to him. God help her, comforting a royalist soldier, for he most certainly was by the look of him, was he not her enemy? She knew the stories, the rumors, in other circumstances, if this man had caught her alone in the woods… His eyes opened then, they were pure blue, dark with pain and frightened. He was young, she realized, without even a trace of beard, he could only be a little older than she, if at all. "I'm going to help you," she said it firmly, almost a vow. His hand, stained with dried blood and unnaturally cool slid over her's, squeezing it lightly in recognition. She stiffened, unnerved, but didn't remove her hand.
It was growing late, the shadows stretching long through the trees, they would be missing her by now, soon they would be looking for her and if they should find her with this man… Her father was a man of God, merciful, but his heart was sent firmly against the royalist cause, he believed them all to be traitors against the true King, that of heaven…She wasn't willing to try him. "Can you walk?"
That young man's eyes had slid closed again but he nodded slowly. Elizabeth helped him into a sitting position and, pulling one of his arms across her shoulders and he using the tree for support, together they managed somehow to lift him to his feet. He swayed dangerously, his eyes closed tight against what must have been intense pain.
"Where—," he started, once the bout of dizziness had passed, but couldn't finish.
"Not far," they inched slowly forward, Elizabeth could feel his body trembling with each step, "do not fear, it's a safe place."
"Safe," he murmured, as if he didn't know the meaning of the word. They continued on like that, the sunk sinking ever lower in the western sky. It had nearly set by the time Elizabeth spotted their destination, a tiny stone cottage hemmed in by thick threes and an overgrowth of rose bushes. The woodcutter who had once dwelt here had passed on long ago and the place had fallen into a dismal state of disrepair. Elizabeth and her brother had discovered it as children, seeking refuge during a sudden storm, she'd never forgotten the place and visited it often, seeking a different sort of refuge.
Now she nudged the door back with her shoulder, carrying the man inside and setting him down on the dilapidated cot. There was enough wood in the hearth for a small fire, though it was damp and took her several minutes to get started. She turned back to the cot to find the man stretch out across it, eyes closed though his body was tense. She touched his arm lightly, "I must go or I will be missed, I'll return as soon as I can."
His eyes opened slowly, meeting hers, "Don't…you must not—that is—just forget…"
"I won't speak of it to a soul."
The memory of his eyes, the pain and fear behind him, seemed etched upon Elizabeth's brain as she hurried home through the twilight. She could think of nothing else, not of the danger, nor of her father's impending rage when she returned home without any explanation for her lateness. She shouldn't have left him at all, not in that state…
The sound of hoof-beats brought her out of her thoughts, she stepped to the side of the road to allow the traveler to pass, glancing briefly over his buff leather coat, steel breastplate and helmet—one of Cromwell's soldiers, she felt her nerves rise.
"Good E'en Miss," she nodded politely and continued walking, "Forgive me my boldness," he continued, undaunted, "duty requires I question any I might meet along this road."
"Question?" She asked, hoping he didn't notice the tremor in her voice.
"Yes, I must ask if you have seen anyone—anything out of the ordinary?"
"Apart from you, Sir, I have seen no one. You must excuse me but I was picking berries and lost track of the hour, I am very late in returning home."
"Berries?" he cocked a brow. Elizabeth cursed herself mentally, thinking of her berry bucket and bonnet, lying discarded somewhere in the woods.
"Yes," she swallowed, "for an friend, she is in poor health and cannot gather them herself. I delivered them and we got to talking, as women do."
"Ah, that explains your lateness," he said smiling.
Elizabeth was suddenly aware of her uncovered head, "yes."
"And where is it that you live Miss?"
"You have heard of it?"
"Certainly, I am en route there myself, Master Howell is most hospitable…you must be Ms. Elizabeth Howell then, his daughter?"
"You must allow me to escort you."
"Of course, Sir, we are going in the same direction."