PASTORALE No. 1 • by Gerald Warfield

A knight emerges on horseback from fog at the edge of the woods. The chain links of his hauberk ripple in the sunlight.  His helm gleams.

He does not follow the road but crosses a field covered with green shoots and wildflowers. His horse’s hoofs make no sound upon into the soft earth, but the fine Castilian leather of his saddle quietly creaks.

A woman, seated on a pile of rocks stands as he approaches. She wears a gray, homespun dress and a white bonnet.

“Nelda,” the knight says. “I can hardly believe it.”

“Nor I, Sir Gregory.” She smiles and puts a blossom behind her ear.

“How could you know?” He gestures. “You couldn’t have waited for me every morning.”

“You come on the same morning every year. It’s the day…” She cocks her head and spreads her lips in a thin smile. “Only now I am free.”

“You are free?” He lowers his chin and draws his eyebrows together. “There was a Richard, was there not?”

“Aye, there is a Richard still.”

“I’m glad. Did he…”

“He adopted John.”

“So it was a boy.” The knight squints into the distance. “I’d like to see him.”

“He’s got his own family, now, his Maylinn and his children.”

The knight frowns. “Has it been so long? Does he know?”

“How could he not? Everyone knew. We weren’t exactly secret.”

“No, I guess not. It seemed like everything was possible then. I would defeat the Umbrians, and you would be the lady of my fiefdom.”

Her laughter floats in the air like petals drifting from a tree. And then their eyes meet, and for a moment she looks stricken. “The Umbrians rule here, now.”

The knight bows his head, and in the silence the warble of a thrush carries from the forest edge. When he looks up, resignation lines his face. “And you sit on a pile of rocks before the castle that would have been yours. Are you disappointed?”

She looks up the hill. “There’s not much left. I saw it when the west tower fell. But I do not dream of castles; if I dream, I dream of your arms.”

He throws back his head and laughs. “I don’t believe it. What woman doesn’t dream of a castle?”

She closes her eyes for a moment, and a smile lifts the corners of her mouth. Looking again up the hill, she sighs. “Oh, my, the banners. I always liked the banners.”

“Then climb up, and we’ll see them again — together.” He lowers an arm.

She hesitates and looks back toward the village.

The knight raises an eyebrow. “Richard?”

“I’ve already said my goodbyes,” she says, a catch in her voice.

“I haven’t a pillion,” he said, nodding behind him, “but I seem to remember that you’ve ridden bare rump before.” And he laughed.

“I should smack you for that,” she says, but instead, she takes hold of his arm. She jumps and he pulls her up to sit side-saddle behind him.

“Put your arm around me.”

She threads her arms around his waist to his buckle and leans into his back, her head against his neck.

“There was never anyone else like you,” he says, “never.”

“Liar. There were plenty.”

“Not really.” A pained expression furrows his brow. “And what about you?”

“Richard is a good man. His arms did not hold me as gently as yours, but he did provide a cottage, more children, and food as best he could to last the winters through. I never asked that he conjure dreams.”

The horse moves forward, gently bobbing its head with each step.

“Let us not speak of food, or loss, or the cold. The sun is warm, and your hair smells of plum blossom.”

“The tree still grows next to the spring.”

“And look there. The guard waits for us.”

Ahead, shadowy figures stand rigidly at attention and women in pale dresses hold baskets of wildflowers.

“You don’t think they’ll scorn me, do you? A village girl putting on airs.”

The knight laughs. “They’re jealous, every one.”

“Yes, they were — for those months before the war. But afterward, life was hard. Only three of my children lived. I wondered whether they were the lucky ones.”

“But now, we both are lucky. See how the banners stream in the wind. The gate opens and the portcullis is raised. Everyone waits for us.”

Nelda sat erect, straightening her back, and with her free hand smoothed the folds of her dress

“Then let us proceed. They need wait no longer.”

Gerald Warfield’s short story “The Poly Islands” won second prize in the first quarter of the 2011 Writers of the Future contest. The same year, his humorous story “The Origin of Third Person in Paleolithic Epic Poetry” took first place in the nationally syndicated Grammar Girl short story contest. “Happiness Everlasting” appeared in the anthology Timelines edited by JW Schnarr. His story “Stonehenge in His Garden” previously appeared in Every Day Fiction. Gerald published music textbooks and how-to books in investing before turning to fiction. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writers Workshop (2010) and a member of SFWA.

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