England -- 1461
The night was cold and haunted with shadows. The only light was reflected from the snow that had been falling steadily the whole day and now lay in high, powdery drifts against the inn and the outbuildings clustered around it. The wind was cruel and stung Bronwyn's cheeks as she worked beside her tired father. The snow clung to her rag-wrapped feet as she cleared the horse droppings from in front of the inn and dumped them on the growing dung heap.
"The horses are fed and watered, but they seem restless tonight for some reason," he said to her, walking back from checking them. It was their job for the night. They'd stood in front of the inn and collected the patrons' horses as they arrived, and then taken the animals out to the stables and fed and groomed them for a small fee. It would buy food for the family for the next day, and it was the only work her father could do now. Tomorrow, they would seek employment elsewhere.
"We're almost done." Bronwyn grinned up at her father. All she wanted, she thought wearily, was to warm her frozen bones before a good fire and to eat something. It'd been such a long day.
"Aye, little one, nearly done," her father replied. He was a thin man with long hair the same shade of gray as his melancholy eyes. He stretched and straightened up with a groan. "And I'm glad of it. I'm not as young as I used to be, and my leg is giving me a fit tonight. Damn leg," he muttered in disgust, slapping at it as if that would do any good. Bronwyn had noticed that most of the night he'd barely been able to hobble around. He had been wounded many years ago when he'd fought for the old king in France, and it was both the wound and the memories that plagued him forever after. He had been a good soldier once and now, crippled, he'd been tossed aside like an old nag, reduced to doing odd jobs for a living. Bronwyn knew it was his pride that hurt him more than the wound.
He put his hand on her shoulder to help support himself. She searched his face in the faint light and smiled wistfully at him. "Let's collect our pay, Father, and go home."
He nodded. "Aye, I'm for that. A warm bowl of stew and your mother's smile will put things right again. I'll see to our pay." He gave her a kiss on the top of her head as she stood there shivering, and then went off through the deep snow to the inn's rear door since servants weren't allowed in the front entrance. "Be right back, my poppet." He waved at her and disappeared into the bright, noisy inn.
Bronwyn stood in the shadows, waiting, his usual words teasing at her. Theinn is no place for a beautiful woman like you. It is filled with wicked women and lustful men...a soldier would lay eyes on such an angel as you, child, and surely want you for his own.
At the thought, Bronwyn would always laugh and say, "Who would want such a skinny girl with big feet and no chest?" She was only thirteen and knew she was no beauty. She was too tall already and skinny. She thought she was ugly, but her father saw her differently.
"You'll fill out someday, and you will be beautiful, like your mother. I promise." It was as if he could already see the woman inside the girl. Her father--how she adored him. Her mother and her two younger sisters, Samantha and tiny Mary, she cared for deeply, but she loved her father above all others. He made her feel like a queen, though she was only a poor man's daughter.
She tried to pull her ragged cloak tighter about her slim frame, but it evaded her efforts to capture it and flapped wildly in the wind. She raised her face to the dark sky and began to hum an old tune her mother had taught her when she was younger. She had a hauntingly husky voice for such a small body, but she didn't know that any more than she knew that she was indeed beautiful. Her long, silken blond hair was bound in a tight braid that hung down her back to her waist and moved softly when she walked. Her skin was white and smooth, and her knowing eyes were an emerald green. Bronwyn had a way of looking at a person asif she knew a secret they didn't know, and it amused her. She was selfless and kind to everyone. It wasn't so much that her individual features were lovely, rather that when she smiled and tilted her proud head in the way she usually did, people knew that in her touch there would be tenderness.
"Hurry, Father, hurry," she sighed into the night air, shivering. It'd been the coldest winter she could ever remember. There had been so much snow...and so much sickness. She frowned slightly. Bronwyn wasn't like everyone else, and over the last few years she'd learned to accept this. She had the gift of healing in her hands and the knowledge--from where she did not know, though she preferred to believe her gifts were from God--to make sick people well. She couldn't heal everyone, nor could she heal all ailments. It was curious, this ability of hers, and it frightened her witless at times. She was a healer , yet she and her family had to conceal her gift from those around them who feared her powers and might do her harm. Some people, those who had seen the softness and love in her eyes as she'd tended to the sick, called her a saint. Others called her a witch and said her talent was not a gift from God, but a favor she'd received from the devil for the sale of her immortal soul. Witch. Just the word was enough to strike terror in anyone's heart these days.
They tortured witches, burned them at the stake and threw them into pits in the belly of the earth and let them rot. They burned them.
Bronwyn knew that. The Lollards were being tried and set on fire in droves these days. Anyone who thought differently than Mother Church was said to be in league with the devil and therefore destined for the rack or the flames. It was like a plague. The stench of charred flesh was thick in the air. Between the burning of heretics and King Edward's men hungry for the blood of their enemies, the Lancastrians, there was little peace in England. It had been thus since before she was born, her father had told her. The Yorkists against the Lancastrians, the white rose against red, as they fought for the glittering crown of England. The country had been at civil war so long that no one could remember what peace was like. It was the poor people who suffered most; like her crippled father, they paid for the wars and gave their lives in the battles the noblemen waged. It would have been far better she'd often heard him say deep in the night in a whisper to her mother, had he died on the battlefield than to live as he was forced to now. Better that he'd died a soldier than live a cripple.
She stamped the snow from her feet and slapped her arms against her body, trying to keep warm. Where was her father? It was late and her mother would be worried. She'd been sick lately with fever and it worried Bronwyn that all her special herbs and care had been of no avail. There were times when Bronwyn's skills could not cure. The patient had to want to get better, and she feared that her mother had lost the desire to live. It was as if the harsh winter and the bitter poverty of their lives had drained the sap of her soul until her mother was merely a shell. Bronwyn didn't know what else to do for her. The fever refused to break, and the cough had become steadily worse.
Bronwyn had a heavy burden of worry upon her shoulders.
She grew weary of waiting and was about to go and look for her father inside the inn when the doors swung open wildly, and a group of men came stumbling out into the snowy night. They were drunk. She could hear their slurred words on the night air. They were richly clad, and she could see the sparkle of jewels as they came from the light and out into the dark courtyard.
"Our horses! You there! Get us our horses!" one of the group shouted to her father, who'd come running out behind them. "Can't leave without our horses," the same voice mumbled. She saw the man fall over, and her father stopped and helped him to his feet before running off toward the stables.
Bronwyn frowned. Would they never get to go home? Rich men! How she hated their spoiled, greedy ways. All they cared about was themselves. They looked down on poor men like her father and treated them as their personal slaves. She ached to see her father dance to their tune.
She could see him returning now, leading their horses. The animals' breath was smoky white in the air, and the heat from their large bodies clouded the cold air as their hooves stamped on the snow.
Bronwyn heard the galloping horsemen coming from somewhere in the woods behind her long before she saw their cloaked figures bearing down upon the drunken men and her father. Startled, she spun around. They rode so close to her that she could have reached out and touched them if she'd wanted to. They hadn't seen her. Suddenly she knew what they wanted, and her scream was lost in the night amidst the cries of the drunken men outside the inn's doors as she caught up her long skirts and ran toward her father. Later, she didn't remember what she screamed as she ran, floundering through the clinging snow. It didn't save his life. She only remembered the terrifying glint of raised swords, the rearing horses, the screams of pain, and death. She saw her father fall beneath the flashing hooves of a monstrous dark horse and, as if frozen for eternity in her horror-filled eyes, the profile of the man astride that horse as he spun the beast around and brought his sword heavily down upon one of the other men.
"Father!" she screamed, throwing herself to the ground to protect him as he lay bleeding. She took his head into her lap and looked up, for a mere second, into the face of the man upon the horse towering above them. "Murderer!" she cried, rocking her father's broken body in her arms. The other men lay still or moaning in the bloodstained snow. "Murderer!" She saw the white rose insignia against the silhouetted man's chest as he glanced down at her. She heard his voice shouting orders to the other horsemen as he wheeled his mount away from her and the bleeding bodies in the snow. Then she looked down into her father's still face as the other riders spurred their horses through the snow into the night.
It was as if something snapped inside her. Bronwyn jumped to her feet and sprinted after the man who'd killed her father. She threw herself at his leg, clawing at him like a crazed, feral animal. Through the darkness, he stared down into a child's tear-streaked face and laughed at her fury.
Without a word, he shoved her frail body aside as if she were a bothersome fly. "You killed my father! You--killed my father..."She crumpled to the ground in a heap, weeping in the snow at the edge of the woods, and watched through her tears as the men galloped away until their forms were specks against the night sky. Sobbing, Bronwyn pulled herself to her feet and walked back to where her father's body lay. She knelt down beside him after she'd checked the other men; all dead. The horsemen had done their job well. Not one man on the ground had been left alive, not even an innocent bystander like her poor father. What had he ever done to deserve this?
As people poured out of the inn to see what had happened, her thoughts were on the stranger who'd done this. Who was he? She knew nothing, had no answers. She swore that whoever he was, she would hate him until the day she died. Deep inside, she vowed that one day she would meet him again and avenge her father's murder. Bronwyn stared across the snow in the direction he'd disappeared. One day...
She was a child, but her anger was not a child's. As she sat there in the snow, cradling her dead father's body in her arms and listening to a hungry wolf howling mournfully miles away in the woods, she knew there was nothing she could do now to wreak her revenge. The knowledge made her grief harder to bear.
What could she do against the king's men: soldiers, armed and skilled in the art of killing? It was insanity to dwell on such thoughts, and Bronwyn was no fool.
She swore silently under her breath. 'Tislucky for them that I'm not truly a witch, or I would place such a terrible curse on those bloody butchers that they would wish they were dead instead of mygood father!
At that moment, Bronwyn would almost have sold her soul to have that power.