The Forgotten Duke

15-year old Maria Lemono stepped from the dim recesses of the small, wooden house that she shared with her parents. The early morning sun, rising over the distant blue moutains, cast a broad yellow path around the valley where she lived. Maria's green eyes glowed with pleasure. Her flock of chickens was plump and healthy. She strolled along the outside of the enclosure, feeding her chickens and cooing to them all the while.

"Now Fidelio, you are looking especially fine this morning. No rolling in the dirt now! Lucinda, be nice! No pecking Elizabeth! Don't be greedy, there's enough feed for everyone." Maria crooned. Her chickens fed, and the eggs collected, she rolled up the sleeves on rough brown jacket over her coarse, full length skirt and began to draw water from the well. She staggered back to the house clutching a bowl full of eggs and a carrying a bucket of water. A long, silky, black ribbon of hair billowed behind her as she reached the door. Maria stepped into her house oblivious that her life would forever change today.

"Good morning!" sang Maria as she walked through the door. "This is beautiful weather. I think I'll pick blackberries this afternoon."

"That would be wonderful," said her mother, kissing Maria on the head. "Blackberries would be very good with our dinner tonight!" Maria set her bowl of eggs and the bucket of water on the table and sat down, idly watching her mother cook breakfast. Her mother's long white-blond hair, gathered in a braid, fell below her waist and her blue eyes twinkled merrily in the dim light. It was surprising that Maria looked nothing like her mother. She took after her father in looks, but had inherited her mother's cool demeanor. Maria's train of thought was interrupted by her father's appearance in the kitchen.

"Hello pumpkin!" he boomed ruffling Maria's hair, "Such a fine morning, don't you agree!"

"Yes it is. I'm going to pick blackberries this afternoon," Maria said as her mother placed a bowl of steaming porridge on the table.

"Good, good," mumbled her father, his attention on his breakfast. Suddenly, Maria started.

"Oh Gods!" she moaned looking outside "I'm late! Goodbye! I have to go!" She darted outside, running up the small hill opposite her house to the small school that she informally taught. All the little children were gathered around the school laughing and talking. Panting, Maria slowed to a walk as she approached the children. It would not do for them to see her acting like one of them!

"Good morning children," she called, "sorry I'm late." Maria highly doubted that they minded because they paid no attention to her as they chased each other and yelled and screeched. Maria fought her way through the kids and opened the door. Inside, the schoolroom was dark and musty. Four rows of benches faced the front of the room. Her desk stood at the front of the room with a blackboard, a small, low bookshelf and a large window behind it. A hearth graced the wall next to the desk. Maria crossed the room to the window. Throwing open the sash, she leaned out and ordered all the children inside.

The day passed slowly. Everyone, including Maria was distracted and antsy. None of them wanted to spend the day cooped up inside when there were so many things to do outside on this fine day. Maria could not focus on her teaching. She kept at it though, until she couldn't stand it for one more second.

"Children," she called, catching their wandering attention "On account of extremely good weather, class is dismissed." The children leapt up, exuberant. They raced out of the room, screaming and yelling all the way. When the dust cleared, Maria was alone. She closed the window, locked the door, fairly sprinted home, grabbed some lunch and headed out to the blackberry bushes, pail in hand.

Maria spent a blissful afternoon, gorging herself on blackberries and lazing about in the sun. All too soon the sun slipped behind the mountains and twilight soon fell. Maria gathered her things and trotted down the path to her home. Occupied with visions of the delicious goodies that she and her mother would make with the blackberries, she didn't realize that she was being followed. Suddenly, a strong arm caught her round the middle. Maria was slung unceremoniously on the back of a horse black as night. Her hands were yanked roughly behind her and bound tightly with rough cord. A blindfold was tied tightly around her eyes and a gag stuffed in her mouth. In a matter of seconds she was as trussed up as a Christmas turkey. Someone positioned her in a saddle and the man behind her yelled.

"HIE!" and the horse took off. It seemed like hours they traveled, over hills and around boulder patches. Maria was so scared that she couldn't do anything. Her heart pounded like a trapped rabbit's. Her mouth was dry and she felt like she would never see the light of day again; that this man intended to kill her.

After what seemed like forever, the man stopped the horse. Maria was pushed off and she landed with a dull thump on the hard, dusty ground. She was pulled to her feet and led to a wall where she was allowed to sit. Maria felt her feet being tied together but luckily her gag was removed. Maria inhaled a breath of cool air, mildly joyful about the removal of the gag. She suddenly realized a man was talking to her, his voice rough as gravel.

"Now young lady, what's your name?" still recovering from shock and her terror, Maria didn't understand the question.

"E-Excuse me?" she asked

"Just our luck to capture a dim-witted girl," muttered the man. "I mean," he said, raising his voice "what is you name?"

"Oh," said Maria, coughing "My name is Maria Lemono. I'm the daughter of Roderick and Estela Lemono. Who are you?" she finished.

"Then you are the one we've been looking for," he mumbled "though I didn't expect to find you so…poor." Fear coursed through Maria's heart.

"Wh-What do you mean by 'the one we've been looking for'?" she cried. "I'm nothing special, just the only daughter of a farmer in the valley of Iridosmine!" The man barked a laugh.

"Oh, but you are special," he teased. "I've said enough though. Get comfortable girly, you'll be staying here a long time. "He chuckled and his footsteps receded away.

Maria felt terrified, cold and terribly alone. She didn't know where she was or who she was with. As far as she could tell, she was by herself. Night appeared to be falling, bringing with it the heady scent of the mountain heather, and the faint hooting of the owls, down in the valley. A brisk wind blew about, making Maria hunch her shoulders and wish she had brought a cloak. But why would she? It had been deliciously warm when she had left and had had no need for a cloak. She certainly hadn't bargained on being kidnapped and left alone in a cold, dark valley, tied-up and blindfolded. Maria couldn't stand it any longer. She set her head down on her knees, and began to cry. In this manner, she cried herself to sleep.

She was woken by a slight poking. Maria jerked awake and saw that the blindfold had been removed. It lay on the ground, slightly soggy. The bright burst of sunlight blinded Maria. Squinting, she looked around and saw where she had spent the night.

Maria was in a large gravel pit in between mountains. Ringed around the walls of the pit were a few other captives. A large fire pit stood in the center of this camp but it had not been lit recently. Near the back of the gravel pit, it narrowed to form a small bay. This was were the bandits slept. Three large lumps of cloth converged around a smaller, lit fire pit. Their horses munched grass nearby. At the far end of the pit, the walls fell away to reveal a breathtaking view of the entire valley. Lush, green foothills bounded away into the distance, crystal clear streams running between them. Trees dotted the countryside and large, golden fields of wheat spread out from around the tiny village in all directions. A road led from the heart of the village, winding away to the cities and places beyond. It gave Maria a weird sense of nostalgia to look out over the valley, at all the places she had roamed over as a child. It seemed so long ago and so far away, now that she was here. Maria's thoughts were sharply interrupted by a firm, hard pinch.

"Hey!" she snapped looking to her left. A small boy of about 13 looked back at her. His shaggy brown hair fell in the way of his piercing blue eyes. His expression, however, was one of exasperation.

"I've been trying to get your attention for the last 5 minutes!" he complained "pay attention, will you!"

"Who are you?" asked Maria, taken aback. No one had ever spoken to her like that before and she had never seen this scrawny boy, ever. But he might be from out of the valley.

"Well, my name's Spencer, but everyone calls me Weasel. 'Cause of the way I look" said the boy. "Now, do you want to escape?" Maria was shocked. This boy was either brave or foolhardy. Probably both.

"Are you crazy?" she hissed "of course I want to escape but those bandits would skin us alive!"

"Not if they can't catch us" replied Weasel "I have a plan."

Over the next few hours the two plotted. Well, Weasel explained his plan and Maria listened. The bandits slept the whole time and soon they had the whole plan laid out. Just in time too, because right after they finished one of the bandits stirred and rose, walking unsteadily towards them.

"G'morning you two" he leered "you're gonna fetch us a handsome sum young'un." He directed this last comment at Maria who felt the blood drain from her face.

"What do you mean?" she asked, shrinking against the rock face. She was terrified of this man, with his gaping, toothless smile and his violently bushy beard springing from his chin.

"I mean, your father is going to pay a pretty penny for you to get home safely." he said.

"My father can't" explained Maria "I'm sorry sir, but there must be some mistake. My father is a poor farmer who can barely pay his rent. You must have confused me with someone else." Maria's heart thumped after so bold an outburst.

"Your name is Lemono, right?" asked the bandit.

Maria nodded tentatively.

"Then we have the right person. That was the name he chose for himself."

"What?" asked Maria, plainly confused.

"I guess I should start at the beginning" sighed the bandit, sitting down on the ground. "No interrupting now" he warned "here is the story of Marco de Lemena."

"Your father was and is the heir to the province Delphi, where this here valley is located. He was the man who would take care of the realm in the name of the king. His father died early and Marco moved to the manor house in the valley. For a few years Marco was happy with his job as Duke, but then he started to grow restless. He envied the farmers who toiled in the field, who had, he felt, important jobs. One day he decided to become one too. He left the valley and created a new identity for himself, returning as Roderick Lemono. If anyone found his name familiar, nothing was said about it. Roderick found himself a wife when he was 23 and she was 18. They lived a happy life together. Roderick still continues his duties as Duke only in secret. He's still rich too. He just never uses his money anymore. And that my dear, is where you come into play" finished the bandit.

Maria was shocked. She was nobility? But that was impossible! She was just a farmer's daughter who did a little teaching. The bandit was still talking, about how they had figured this all out, but Maria couldn't take it in. She gazed off into the valley, her mind in turmoil. The bandit left and she still didn't notice. She couldn't. Maria was lost in her thoughts.

Several minutes later Maria realized that Weasel was unknotting the ropes around her hands. She flexed her fingers, feeling the blood rush back into her fingers as Weasel started on the ropes that bound her fingers. Soon, thanks to Weasel, Maria was unbound.

"Thank you" she whispered.

"No problem" Weasel whispered back "We can't escape if your tied hand to foot." Now that they both were free they waited out the day. The bandits deemed it necessary to give them only one meal a day, but they made do. The bandits also didn't notice that two of their captives were unbound. But the two were happy for that. If their plan was too succeed, they couldn't be bound up.

Weasel told Maria of the great city in which he lived, far away from the valley, and how he had come into the bandit's company. Apparently, he had been running an errand for his father's business when the bandits snatched him just outside the city. Weasel was to be the bandits' new servant. But Weasel had proven to be so uncooperative that the bandits decided to tie him up and hold him for ransom.

"Only I'm gonna escape before they start sending out ransom notices for me" he whispered to Maria "we're going to escape, and soon." The day soon passed. Night fell the bandits went to sleep shortly after. Maria and Weasel waited, and waited. Somewhere far off an owl hooted. The moon rose above the long black fingers of the mountains casting a silvery glow over everything. Slowly and cautiously, Weasel eased into a standing position. He looked around at the bandit camp.

"Is it safe?" squeaked Maria.

"Yes" answered Weasel. He helped Maria to her feet and they started across the pit. Weasel boosted Maria to her up onto a ledge in the rock face. Maria pulled Weasel up but suddenly lost her balance and crashed into a large boulder which teetered over the edge of the cliff and landed with a resounding crash! in the camp below. Weasel and Maria froze as the bandits leapt up, weapons in hand.

Maria dared not breathe for fear of being discovered. The bandits glanced wildly around at their camp and saw the fallen boulder. Assuming that it had fallen of its own accord they prepared to go back to sleep when one of the bandits noticed Maria's and Weasel's empty spots.

"'Ey!" he yelled "where'd the two brats go?" He scanned the camp and then saw Maria and Weasel standing stock still on the rock.

"They're trying to escape!" he shouted and the bandits swarmed to the foot of the rock.

"Run!" screamed Weasel and he bolted. Maria tried, but her legs betrayed her. She couldn't run, couldn't move couldn't do anything. Blood pounded in her ears and she struggled for breath. She felt constricted, like her whole world was closing in on her. She was scared, terrified of what would happen if she was caught. The bandits moved closer and closer. Maria's fear paralyzed her and she could only watch as those swords, their blades gleaming dully, come closer to where she stood. Suddenly, she was yanked off her feet. The sudden sharp pain brought her to her senses and helped her break out of her stupor. She ran, faster and faster away from the cruel bandits and their evil weapons. Maria ran and ran, Weasel right behind her. Her breath caught in her throat, but she didn't stop. Maria ran until she fell and then she laid there and cried. She cried as she had never cried before. Her body shook with sobs and her tears mingled with the blood running from her cut hands. She cried from sheer terror and pain. Maria cried until she could cry no longer.

Slowly, Maria became aware of where she was. They were on a small footpath, which explained why their running had been unobstructed. They were sitting right where the path rounded a curve and opened up, overlooking the valley. The moon shone silvery and cold, casting a hard, metallic glint on the trees below. Ribbons of smoke wound their way through the night air, rising from the chimney pots of the village. Warm golden light twinkled in the small windows, promising warmth and safety. Maria sighed wishing that she was safe at home tonight. Weasel sat to her left, looking at her.

"Come on" he told her gently "We're lucky this path was here to help us escape but it'll help the bandits catch us too." He helped her down the roc face where they clung, listening for sounds of pursuit. They didn't have to wait long. The bandits carrying flickering torches raced by, shouting. Soon they were gone and Maria could breathe again.

"Let's climb on down" said Maria "it's not far and the bandits won't expect us to go this way." Weasel agreed and slowly, they inched their way down the rock face till they were standing on solid ground surrounded by dense foliage. Maria breathed a sigh of relief.

"We've escaped!" she whispered gleefully.

"Yes we have" agreed Weasel "let's walk a little into the valley so we're further away from the bandits." Maria led the way and the two walked for a little while until they came to a small clearing. There, they slept, in two little patches of grass, until morning.

Maria woke to shouts. For a moment she thought that the bandits had found them. But that fear was quickly squelched when a familiar face popped out of the greenery.

"Utley!" cried Maria, joyous at being found. Her neighbor winked at her, then turned around and hollered back into the forest,

"I found her! I found her!" Within minutes almost Maria's entire village was gathered in the clearing. Maria flung herself at her father, sobbing happily. In this way, the little search party made its way back to the village. Later, after countless retellings of her capture, Maria realized that she had not seen Weasel make the trip.

But Maria had more important things to worry about at the moment. She stood in the middle of her family's kitchen watching her father. Maria had told him the story that the bandit had told her. Now she was waiting for his explanation for keeping his wife and daughter in the dark for countless years. Finally, her father looked up at her.

"I never meant for you to be so ignorant. It just… happened" he began "I was tired of all the nobles and the way they approached things, with rudeness and spite. I envied the honest farmers and their work in the field. So, I quit. I left on the valley on a business trip and didn't come back. I spread rumors that I had sickened, and had to be moved to a gentler climate. While everyone was feeling sad and sorry, Roderick Lemono came to the valley. No one could ever guess that I was the duke for I was his exact opposite in every way. I grew attached to Roderick and his way of life, though it was harder than I had thought. I could never stop being the duke so I lived a double life. I was Roderick, happy farmer, hard worker, father and husband by day, but Marco, lonely bachelor, noble and duke, by night. I just did this to protect you." Maria's father finished his story, looking up at Maria sadly "I didn't want you to grow up petty, shallow, and mean spirited, like all the other girls at court. And I didn't want my wife to either."

"Thank you for telling me this" Maria said as she sat down next to her father. "I'm sorry for being so rude. I was tired and confused."

"It's all right" answered her father "Now, it's time for bed" He said, getting up from the table. "Good night Maria"

"Good night, father" Maria hugged him, and then entered the solace of her bedroom where she pondered over what her father had told her.

Epilogue

Late that night, a lone figure, cloaked in black, slid from the shadows and skulked through the village towards the horse barn. Once inside, they picked a midnight-black horse and saddled it. In the horse's stall, the figure left a bag of gold, and a note addressed to Roderick Lemono. Later, after the golden sun rose above the mountains, the rider was long gone. Bruce, the stable master found the note and the gold and brought the note to the farmer, Roderick. Roderick took the note with shaking hands. It read,

Dear Father and Mother,

Don't worry about me, for I will be fine. I am off to the city to explore the world and earn my place in history. I'm also looking for the boy who helped me escape. Expect letters from me often. Father, I went into your study last night and looked through your records. If I am to look for my future, I need to know about my past. Please do not be angry at me. The money I paid Bruce was some of my teaching money. Again, please do not be too angry and do not try to follow me. I will be long gone by the time you read this. I will return with fame and fortune and, if not one, at least the other. Find someone to teach and please take care of my chickens.

With all my love,

Maria Rosita Celeste de Lemena