The rhythmic drumming of hooves from a single horse is followed within thirty seconds by the chaotic stampede of many horses. Branches slap the riders’ faces as they race beneath the low branches in pursuit of a lone horseman.
The forest reverberates with the sound of man and beast: leather saddles creaking, hilted swords rattling, shouts from the pursuers, and powerful blasts of breath from their steeds. All of it fading, fading into the distance as the last of the leaves disturbed from the branches glide silently to the ground, touching earth without so much as a sigh.
Belsante leans her whole body against the wet bark of the tree behind which she hides; her dress draws the moisture like a man dying of thirst. She presses her palms and cheek into the bark until it imprints her skin, but still she does not move. The rasp of her breath, steel against whetstone, swells and recedes in her ears.
Theobald left her with the promise of return and a scrap of cloth, the corners cross-tied into a knot, wherein he had placed a chunk of bread and a leather flask of wine. He barely had time to kiss her goodbye before he mounted his stallion, Saracen, and led her father’s retainers away from her hiding place.
They agreed that Belsante should make her way to the very abbey where her father planned to have her imprisoned upon learning of her desire to marry Theobald, a mere merchant’s son. It’s not that Belsante isn’t devout toward her faith or unwilling to attend the needs of the poor; she simply wants to marry the man with whom she had fallen in love and not the aging Duke her father had chosen for her. Furthermore, her father would never think to look for her there.
The Abbess, a kind woman with a progressive mind, doesn’t believe in making a girl serve against her will, no matter how generous the endowment from said girl’s father. The young lovers trust her to help in their plan to escape France. Where they’ll go and how they’ll make a living afterward is anyone’s guess. Theobald had proposed selling Saracen, the only thing of value he possesses, but the couple doesn’t know how to go about doing so without attracting attention.
When she can no longer hear the sound of hooves hammering the ground, Belsante peeks around the tree trunk. Twilight and mist dim the woods; she will need to hurry if she wants to reach the abbey before she is caught. The threat of wolves hastens her steps.
The young girl travels throughout the night, and as dawn approaches the horizon, she sees the walls of the abbey on the edge of town. She also sees her father’s men leading Saracen, his mouth flecked with foam, his sweat-glistened sides heaving. Theobald does not sit astride the majestic, black horse who limps as he walks.
Belsante cannot hear the conversation between her father’s men and the Abbess, but she can tell from the determined shake of the Abbess’ head that she is aware of the night’s events. With much hand gesturing, the elderly woman encourages the men to leave, convincing them that Belsante is not within the walls of the abbey.
Again, the distraught girl must hide among the trees until the men leave. She emerges to see the Abbess waiting for her; a gentle beckoning draws Belsante from the woods. The Abbess’ arms are open, and the weary girl falls into them, weeping.
“His mount threw a shoe. They overtook Theobald before he could escape,” the Abbess says.
“They rode him down like a dog,” Belsante cries, her voice anguished.
“What will you do, my child?”
Belsante lifts her tear-streaked face from the Abbess’ ample bosom.
“Do you know where they have laid my love?”
“His body has been returned to his family. He will be interred in the cemetery of the town where they reside.”
Steel stronger than any blade enters Belsante’s body as she stands before the Abbess, shoulders rigid, head held high.
“I will take holy orders. My life will be given to serve those among whom Theobald lived.”
The Abbess’ eyes look down and away; she knows the impetuousness of young women often fades once the hardships of life in the abbey become apparent. When she looks into Belsante’s face, she observes strength born of loss. The old woman nods her head in agreement.
“Welcome, my child.”