CHAPTER SIX

 

Spring; at the Green Lanterns Pub in Plymouth, England

 

                 The old man by the window reminded Rosemary very much of Widow Anslye. He, too, had been possessed of a pinched and angry face when first she had noticed him, as she saw to the tuning of her harp in the place that the landlord at the Green Lanterns Pub had especially cleared for her. But now she was playing one of her more lyrical pieces and her vibrant, clear soprano soared above the strings, the sounds blending in perfect harmony. The old man’s wrinkled brow had softened, and a gentle smile had reached his eyes, if not yet his lips. Rosemary knew that although she could not expect to receive from him a pat on the head such as the one given to her by Widow Anslye, she could expect him to walk out of the pub feeling as though his burdens had been lifted somewhat from his stooped and weary shoulders.

 In the three months Rosemary had been employed at the Green Lanterns Pub, her ability to soothe, comfort, and heal through her music had never once ceased to amaze and humble her.

The reactions had been nearly unanimous since her arrival in Plymouth: from the landlord’s wife smacking her husband’s arm with a spoon and saying that “if he hired not that winning lass he was done for and no mistake”, to the youthful and somewhat sappy looks on the faces of the hardened seafaring men who often spent their shore leave in the pub. Those struck her as the most amusing, for they walked in all briny-smelling bravado and noise and swagger, but within minutes of hearing the harp they would practically turn to puddles before her eyes, their grubby heads cocked to the side like faithful puppies, listening like rapt children to the lilting strains she sang. Mayhaps it put them in mind of their mothers, or mayhaps it was just the nature of G-d’s miraculous creation, music. All she knew was that from beginning to end, she had lulled, enchanted, and rejuvenated the listeners who came to hear her play. She had been given the gift of bringing serenity to people through song, and in the bringing of it, she had found serenity herself.

She had even found that what she had feared most was, while still enough to give one pause, not wholly insurmountable. Only once had her single and unescorted state proved too tempting for a would-be molester, and even then she had had nothing to fear in the end. That night she had climbed the stairs to the room she rented above the pub, and had just begun to undress when her door burst open and in stumbled a drunk and menacing-looking sailor.

Sufficiently emboldened and uninhibited by his drink, the man had waited a few moments after she had played her last song and collected coins from her admirers, then had followed her up the stairs and lurched to her room. Once there, he had grabbed the back of her neck with one hand and the front of her bodice in the other, and was just in the process of forcing his beery mouth upon hers when five other burly sailormen had crowded noisily into her room.

Three of the men hauled the drunkard off of her, and one slammed him up against the wall where he slumped to the floor in a smelly heap. The other two courteously took Rosemary’s arms and gently guided her to a chair.

They had seen their shipmate leave in the direction of the stairs, they said, and it had not taken them too long, given his reputation, to deduce his destination.

As the fourth sailor hoisted the now-unconscious drunkard onto his back, the fifth turned to her and declared that she would have no more to fear from the likes of him. He would be dealt with severely enough once they boarded ship, and if they should chance to stop by Plymouth once more, they would tie him to the mast before letting him set foot near her or this pub again. Then, without further ado, they had thanked her for the music, and had squeezed themselves back out of her narrow doorway, the last one shutting it politely behind him.

For several moments afterwards, she simply sat in the chair where they had lowered her, her bodice half-undone and her hair knotted on one side. First she was simply silent in shock, and then she giggled, then chortled, then laughed and laughed until her sides were aching and she had rolled off her seat to sit sprawled upon the floor.

Rosemary had been in Plymouth long enough to discover that sailors were not ordinarily so polite and chivalrous. But this night her music had somehow tamed them, making kittens of lions and swallows of dragons - perhaps only for an hour or two, but long enough to ensure that she slept safely and unmolested that night.

              And so it was that Rosemary had spent these three months playing and singing for her supper, and happy in her employment in Plymouth. In fact, she was feeling so carefree that when she next caught the old man watching her from his table by the window, she winked at him as she plucked a sprightly chord. He looked surprised, almost angry, as if he thought perhaps she was making sport of him. Then a muscle in his cheek twitched and he dipped his head, but not before Rosemary caught a smile pulling the corners of his lips and crinkling his eyes, which he strove to stifle with difficulty. Rosemary smiled too, as her hands worked the strings on her harp.

One more, she thought.

She had begun to make a game out of it, seeing how many surly strangers she could cause to smile unexpectedly…. and still she could not believe that people were willing to pay her for what she considered her privilege.

               It was now twenty minutes past the time when the landlord had issued “last call”. The men were wiping the ale-foam from their lips and fastening their cloaks, pulling themselves together for the long walk home. Many of them stopped by Rosemary’s chair to drop a coin in her cup, and a few of the “regulars” wished her a good night, pledging to see her upon the morrow, or the day after at the latest. Rosemary graciously thanked each one as she put her stool back in the corner, then collected her harp and cupful of coins, wished John the landlord a good night, and climbed the stairs to her room.

From the basin by her bed, she scooped water into her hands and rinsed her face, then slipped out of her clothes and into her night rail. It had been such a beautiful day, and such a mild evening, that Rosemary decided to sleep with her shutters open that night. For a few moments, she stood at the window which looked out into the wooded area behind the pub, propping her chin on her hands like a child and gazing up at the waning moon. She felt the breeze rustle her hair and she breathed deeply, taking in the musty, green, vibrant scent of the woodland just beyond the building.

Ariana is out riding beneath this moon tonight, she thought to herself, and then blinked in surprise. Though she had thought about the gypsy girl a great deal in the first few weeks after their parting, the routine of the past few months had begotten a comfortable predictability, and she realized she had not thought about Ariana with such startling clarity in several weeks. Why should she come so vividly to my mind now? Rosemary wondered. She stared at a thin cloud passing over the bright half-moon, and then slowly turned away from the window and slipped into bed, her question still unanswered and tugging gently at the corners of her mind. The cool breeze through the window floated over her body as she curled her arm beneath her head, and after a time, lulled her into a gentle sleep.

 

 

                Rosemary had just barely finished dressing that morning when she heard a commotion outside her window. Hastily she knotted the laces on her bodice, and ran to the still-open shutters to investigate. For a moment she could see nothing but the rustling of leaves at the edge of the woods, then suddenly a girl burst forth through the brush, running towards the pub, pursued by three dark-skinned boys. The closest boy caught up to the fleeing girl, and grabbing at her sleeve, hauled her roughly against his chest, pinning her back to him as she kicked wildly and attempted to pry his fingers off of her arm. The girl screamed, and the boy who held her clapped his other hand over her mouth as his two companions, breathing heavily, caught up to them. Rosemary noticed that one of the youths - though almost devastatingly handsome - had a nasty scar upon his cheek, and it was this one who grabbed a fistful of the girl’s hair and yanked her head back against her captor’s shoulder, providing Rosemary with her first glimpse of the girl’s face. With a shock, she realized that the still struggling girl was Ariana, but before she could cry out, she heard Scar-face speak.

“Be still, thou half-breed whore! We shall not kill thee, though after the times we have had tracking you these months, believe me it would give me pleasure! Zounds, she is strong for a girl! Take her feet!”

The third boy was reaching up under Ariana’s skirts, dodging her kicks, and Rosemary saw a length of rope in his hand.

Three months!” Scar-face was shouting, his cheeks flushing with fury. “Three months we have been running after thee! I would not have thought thee worth it, but my father was unusually vexed by thy disappearance, and charged us to find thee at any cost! He managed to settle his debt to the camp elder who was to claim thee, but he thinks thou wouldst still fetch a goodly sum as a slave to some other camp! ‘Tis apparent that blonde horse-thieves earn quite a purse in this day!”

The third boy had succeeded in trapping both of Ariana’s legs, and was now winding the rope around her ankles, trussing her like a fallen deer. Though Ariana’s hair was still wrapped around Scar-face’s fist and her mouth still secured by the first boy’s hand, she swung her body in wild arcs, twisting this way and that in her frantic attempt to escape, her blue eyes above her captor’s hand shimmering wide with fear.

“Od’s blood!” Scar-face shouted, yanking on Ariana’s hair as she whimpered in pain, “Can y’not hold her still? Make haste with her feet! We still must find where she hid the bloody horse!”

Rosemary could see that Ariana’s strength was flagging, and she screamed silently at her brain to produce an idea, any idea, to save her friend.

Where is John? The good landlord is always up at this hour, why has he not come to see what the noise is about?

But neither John nor any of the others were in sight, and Rosemary knew she had to think quickly. The boy at Ariana’s feet who had already secured her ankles was pulling a second length of rope from around his belt, presumably for her hands.

Hold!”

Rosemary shouted with all the authority she could muster, and four pairs of eyes looked sharply up at her window. She saw Ariana’s eyes flutter in recognition, and Scar-face turned his body towards the window, his hand still gripping Ariana’s hair.

“I demand that you unhand my serving wench at once!”

“Thy serving wench?”

“Aye, the girl thou art so rudely manhandling, knave, has been in this pub’s employ for several days now, and we should be lost without her. I therefore demand that you unhand her this minute!”

Scar-face made a derisive snort and darted a glance at his companions, as if to question the truth of her statement. Rosemary caught his look, and with all the arrogance of a queen, delicately arched one brow and asked in a low voice, “Do you dare to doubt my word, villain?”

Scar-face let go of Ariana’s hair and gave a mocking bow, his handsome dark face pointed at her window.

“I would not presume, my lady! But I am afraid, mistress, that my father has prior claim to the girl. She is a common horse thief, and as such is to be sold to any camp that will have her. I am sorry to cause thee the loss of such a valuable serving girl, but surely thou desirest not a runaway horse thief to remain in thine employ.”

He was about to turn back to Ariana, when Rosemary called in a voice as smooth and cool as freshly churned butter,

“How much?”

Scar-face’s brows knit, and he turned back to the window.

“How much?” he parroted.

“Aye. You said she is to be sold. How much?”

Scar-face looked to his companions in consternation, then back at the window.

“She is not for sale to thee, mistress,” he replied. “My father gave his express instruction that -”

But Rosemary had whirled away from the window out of his sight. Flinging open her trunk, she rummaged to the bottom for a red-dyed leather purse, which she snatched up and raced back to the window. Yanking at the drawstrings, she upended the purse and sent down a shower of heavy gold coins upon the heads of the foursome below. The coins clanked noisily to the ground just as the landlord, John - an axe in his hand and wood chips flecking his clothing - came walking around the side of the building, stopping dead in his tracks at the sight of the trussed girl and Rosemary shaking the last of the coins out her window.

 “There be payment for the girl,” Rosemary was saying, “and I assure thee, ‘tis more than she is likely to fetch elsewhere. Take it back to thy father and tell him thou hast saved him the trouble of selling her.”

 Already the boy who had tied Ariana’s feet was scrambling to pick up the coins, but Scar-face was not so easily put off.

“What of the horse? There was a fine gelding belonged to my father that she stole! I demand -”

“There is more than enough gold there to pay for the horse and the girl. However, if thou art still unsatisfied, I can add silver to the pot,” Rosemary said, gesturing dramatically to the gleaming face of the axe lying loosely in John’s hand.

The landlord looked startled, but taking a quick look at the determination in Rosemary’s face, aided her by instantly striking a menacing pose with the axe. Scar-face looked from the angry scowl of the wiry landlord to Rosemary, who stood like an avenging angel at the window, her eyes filled with a furious light and her arm still outstretched as if calling the axe to do her bidding with or without the landlord’s help. He looked from her to the young man still scrambling after the fallen coins, and then to Ariana and his companion who still held her.

Though he had a handsome, masculine jaw and enviably broad shoulders - a body well suited to bravery and combat - he lacked the courage to take on both an armed man and a woman of Rosemary’s determination. With a twist of his mouth that said he was well aware of his own cowardice, he gave an abrupt and impatient gesture to Ariana’s captor, who released her mouth and flung her to the ground. As he and Scar-face bent to retrieve the coins, Rosemary gestured urgently for John to help Ariana, whose face had grown deathly pale and who looked on the verge of fainting.

Sliding the handle of his axe through his belt, John untied Ariana’s feet and helped her to rise. The gypsy boys, having retrieved the last of the coins, ran into the forest without a backward glance. John supported Ariana on his arm and began to lead her around to the front of the house, but Ariana’s huge eyes stayed locked upon Rosemary in the window until she was no longer in sight.

              Now that the immediate danger had passed, the panic that had of necessity been delayed flooded her, and Rosemary’s knees buckled. Catching herself on the windowsill, she took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. Wiping the moist sheen of fear-sweat from above her lip, Rosemary cast her eyes about the room. Hastily she went to straighten the bedclothes and draw a chair into the center of the room, so that Ariana could easily sit as soon as she arrived.

By the time she had finished she could hear their footsteps on the stairs, and she unlocked her door and stepped out just in time to see John arrive at the landing, struggling to hold a staggering Ariana upright. Rosemary opened her arms to embrace Ariana, but no sooner had the girl closed her arms about Rosemary then her body sagged, and Rosemary faltered under the weight of her fainted friend. John aided her in lifting Ariana onto Rosemary’s bed, and then turned questioning eyes to the woman who had behaved so strangely out of character. He found Rosemary’s unexpected ferocity as worrisome as it was amusing, and he raised his bushy eyebrows at her in silent query. Rosemary opened her mouth to explain, then waved a weary hand at the landlord and swallowed hard.

“There is too much story to tell you every bit just now,” she said softly. “Let me tend to the girl, and I will explain all to you later.” She laid her hand gratefully upon the landlord’s strong arm. “You played your part beautifully. I thank you for your help this day.”

John patted her hand and quietly left, closing the door behind him.

Rosemary briefly considered trying to find smelling salts to revive Ariana, then came to the conclusion that it was undoubtedly best to simply let her rest, and to let her wake when her body was ready. Rosemary pulled the stool from the corner of the room close to the bed, and sitting upon it, smoothed Ariana’s hair away from her face. It was then that she noticed a peculiar addition to Ariana’s raiment: a small hematite crescent moon hanging from a leather cord tied around her head, so that the stone lay upon her forehead just between her eyes. Rosemary gently traced the strange adornment with a questioning finger. Such an unusual pendant must have some particular significance, but for the life of her, she knew not what.

Ah, well, there was naught to do about it and other such questions until Ariana woke, so Rosemary pulled her stool even closer to the bed, and slipping her hand into Ariana’s, settled in to keep her vigil until the gypsy girl revived.