Lady Roxana Hire
The scent of smoke and cheap wine filled the air of the Cheshire Inn. Lady Roxana Ferris sat alone, observing the clientele from behind a mug of mulled cider, touched with her favorite rum. They were all alike in their distrust of her, these Englishmen, who seemed to have no proper respect for solitary women or the professions they could pursue. But she comforted herself that any who offered trouble could quickly be turned away with the assistance of her father’s rapier. It was a simple weapon made special by its origins as her father’s first sword. For years he’d promised she would receive it when she had learned enough, trained enough. She’d thought to leave without it, and that her travels would be part of her education, but he bestowed it before she left. Her hand was never far from it these days.
The Cheshire Inn was raucous and busy this evening, as could be expected from a waypoint on one of the great roads in the lands of the English. Lady Roxana amused herself watching two men bicker over a spilled mug of ale. She found no dislike for the people and had even become fond of the honesty of the commoners — it was a trait sadly lacking in most of her acquaintances from home. Despite their cheerfulness, Lady Roxana kept to herself and was sure to disguise her voice with a local accent — as a Frenchwoman, she could never be too cautious. Her people were not so welcome in England nowadays, if they ever where. A sign of the times. Still, they had gold like any other people, and it was gold she most needed. She unconsciously brushed her hand against the coin purse concealed beneath her blouse and felt the remaining coins. Her funds were starting to run low, and she would have to find some work soon if she planned to continue the search she’d left France to undertake. Her father would certainly welcome any missive, but she wanted to write him when she succeeded, not as an appeal for aid. She recalled the map she’d memorized before coming to England, trying to place herself on it and determine the location of the nearest city. In a large city she might find someone who would hire a sword, even if it was wielded by a woman. City folk tended to be less suspicious, or at least have fewer scruples. ”Mylady?” The voice of a serving woman drew Lady Roxana’s attention away from her musings. She turned her head and looked with an inquisitive gaze at the girl. At first glance, the woman seemed handsome in an earthy yet plain way, but upon earnest inspection it was clear she was keenly attractive. Her semblance of mediocrity seemed practiced, a protective behavior that Lady Roxana recognized from long years of practice on her own part. The girl had something to hide, or someone to hide from, it was certain. ”I have been watching since you have been here, and the roadsmen seem to hold you in regard. And if your weapon is any indication, I believe I can trust you with a request. I wish to ask you for your work escorting me and keeping me in safety for a time. I can pay, not handsomely, but well.” Lady Ferris quietly waited for more, a calm, veiled expression on her face. ”I have travelled to get away from the unkind advances of the men in the towns where I have made my life. I will not bore you with the stories of a child’s misery, I will just say that I have seen my bitter days.” Haven’t we all? Lady Ferris thought to herself, her attention briefly drawn away from the young woman by a chilling memory. She quickly pushed the memory away, hiding a slight shiver.
“It seems that even here I have gained too much attention and too little respect from the local town guard,” the girl was continuing. “I cannot ask the inn keeper to defend me any longer. This inn is his livelihood and he has been kind enough to give me work and lodging for these past six seasons. I must leave. I just need to get beyond this fief and I can find my own way. A week at most, and I can provide supplies for travel, if you would be willing to protect me.” Wondering what this girl could have done to attract so much of the wrong type of attention, Roxana replied, “So long as you are paying me more than 1 gold in any coin, we are in agreement.” She was careful to speak in the clipped, cold accent of the locals. The girl nodded. “My name is Elsbeth. We’ll meet at the clearing to the north in the forest behind the inn on the morrow’s sunrise, if that is good by you.” Roxana dipped her head in agreement and the two parted, with only several of the patrons noticing their exchange. One of them, however, was a burly man who leered at Elsbeth as she walked by, carrying several mugs of ale, and Lady Roxana was careful to take note of his face and the clothes he wore. He appeared to know the girl, and although her work would not begin until the morrow, a dead charge was no good to her at all. Fortunately the evening passed uneventfully and the lodging was affordable. Roxana slept well but lightly and awoke to the next morning before the glimmer of the sun broached the horizon. The autumn wind was cool and damp. They’d been traveling for several hours now, and the sun was high above, but had barely melted the frost from the grass. Lady Ferris pulled her long cloak closed in front to block the wind. She held a hand up to her eyes, peering into the distance for Elsbeth, who had walked into the forest ahead to relieve herself.
After years of practice learning to track prey, the deer path into the forest was clear and she followed it easily. The sky was grey with the clouds that hang before a storm, and Roxana hoped they’d reach a town or a inn before the evening, or they would be in for a wet night. She was thinking that she would ask Elsbeth about where they could rest for the evening when the girl returned, when the gruff, slurred voice of a drunken man reached her ears. ”I laid my claim to you, wench, the moment I laid my eyes on you whe’ you stepd into the area around Pevnshy. I intend to make ye me woman, that you can bet your life on!”
Roxana hurried towards the voice. An assortment of amused hoots and snorts filled the area around. In a clearing Roxana could see three large men encircling Elsbeth. One was the man from the inn, the one who had followed Elsbeth around the place with his dark eyes.
What can the lass have done to earn their attention to such a degree? Lady Ferris wondered. But much as she would’ve liked to satisfy her curiosity, she knew that most travelers had their secrets, including she. She came to the edge of the clearing to see the backs of the men forming a semicircle around her ward. Elsbeth’s eyes flitted to Lady Roxana and she shook her head, warning Roxana off. The choice had been forged to protect this woman at the deal in the Inn, but to see her less about her own safety than the safety of someone else tempered the steel of that bargain. Roxana stepped into the low grass, with a calm voice, and a little too much of a French accent. “I do not recommend you putting your life up for wager this day. Move on now and we will both consider at least you have good taste in women, but hopefully better judgment than a plate of haggis.” The last word came out with a touch of bile at the memory of the culinary adventure in the Highlands a season prior. All three ruffians turned slowly with a mixture of surprise and vexation to the sound of her voice. The vestige of inebriation evaporated quickly to show a disconcerting malicious intent in the eyes of all three. The leader of the band looked suddenly more alert, a response to his combat training, his hand twitching on the hilt of his English long-sword.
“So we have a strumpet in fine leathers, with a hint of the French cur speech?” he taunted, his drunk slur burned away by a bully’s misplaced anger. “Make yourself useful and shed the cloth that covers your beauty, or begone. This is our matter, and so is she.” Roxana’s anger at such words rose to fierce heat, and with a single deep breath, she poured the water of her discipline on the fire. She had faced many kinds of bigotry and disrespect during her travels, but few brigands had managed to include so much mysogyny in one speech. She struggled to conceal her fury and responded as amicably as she’d begun.
“I must respectfully decline the majority of your proposal, but I shall show you a beauty most profound.”
The onlookers, including Elsbeth, looked incredulous at the response, from shock and anticipation. All faces changed to surprise when Lady Ferris drew her rapier in one swift motion and struck the En Garde. “I’m sorry, did you louts honestly think you where going to touch either of us this day?” She sighed, having hoped to avoid a fight, but willing to prove her mettle. “Please move on, life is precious and I would rather you live long enough to learn how better to treat a woman than to kill you for being unschooled in the arts of courtship.”
At the sound of two other long-swords being unsheathed, her posture changed, and her eyes changed color in the light of the morning. The woodland green was now almost grey. “Merde,” she whispered, for luck and to stem the tide of her fear. The full moment was less than a minute. The leader signaled to attack simultaneously and they acted as soldiers in unison, each taking a different angle on their target. A committed down-slash was turned against the leader with a hand-guard/hilt back repost by Lady Roxana, knowing a blade strike on her rapier blade would bend or break it easily. She dodged most of the blow, but the effort left her open for a cutting exchange between the third, and a strain of muscle. The wild strike by his second left the leader in dire bleeding straights, but he pressed the attack, his men following his example, as she hoped. With a lightning motion she unhooked her long cloak and spun it within the ranks. They were befuddled and caught, rending the fine cloth with blade and fist to see again.
Elsbeth, seeing herself useless, hurried away from the battle and cried a taunt to the band of ruffians. “Captain! I have heard the ‘house of pillows’ has given you a reduced rate, due to pity!” The words were well placed and caused a split second pause in the fight, enough time for a pommel strike to the face of the Captian, leaving him unconscious. She slashed to the left and thrust to the right, with only grave damage to her fine leathers and not too much of her skin, leaving Lady Roxana Ferris with the least blood lost. She withdrew from the first engagement, putting her back to her charge and standing tall, her blade confident. “One last chance, if I have to give you final rest, I will sleep with clear conscience, but if you have children, a woman or a wife, will they?” The final words startled the men at different levels. It was impossible to say if her skill had struck in them a newfound respect or wisdom, but the battle was over. One man spat on the ground, and the second man barely standing collected their fallen captain to begin the trip back to town, slowly, in pain.
Once they are well beyond sight, Roxana’s stature melted. She dropped her shoulders and leaned against Elsbeth. Her strong French accent was unavoidable as she said, “Why are there always men with there heads in the 900’s? I swear, shall we ever see the men of fantasy, that do not just love woman, but like them as well?”
She laughed and a cough followed as she assessed her wounds and found dressings to bind them. The cleanest fabric she owns is her cloak, but it will have to be sacrificed.
“I really did love this cloak, it is one of the few fabrics of home I still had, how sad,” she murmured to herself. She looked warily in the direction of the retreating men, then collected herself, cleaning and tying off wounds as she walked.
“Let us proceed then. If their egos overcome their consciences, they will return in force.”
Elsbeth laughed. “Only if they tell a tale of the dozen men that accosted them, I do not think they will be so honest to the barracks that they where bested by a woman, much less a French one at that”. At the realization that she had become transparent in the fight, her eyes sought Elsbeth and saw nothing but thanks. Her relief at finding an open-minded English woman in these times gave her peace of mind that she didn’t know she had needed, till now. ”Let us get our of the reach of this magistrate, then we shall rest, If we find a good place in a near town, I would buy a new cloak, these lands are too cold and rainy for my liking, but at least the company has become a ray of light” Both smile as they find way through the brush, the sun finding a moment to warm the area with a sudden opening in the clouds above. Travelers in kind, on the road to the next day.