Oh, what a tangled web we weave
The haggard looking crone stepped back to appraise her repair efforts. The candy cane trim was once again intact, and swirls of icing hid the scalloped bite marks where the woodcutter’s brats had gnawed at the corner. Their escape still rankled, but there would be other opportunities.
Patience is a virtue, She thought wryly. All things come to she who waits.
The time-worn adage was proven true almost immediately. Her curiously pointed ears twitched to attention as a far-off drumbeat rose above the background noise of birds and breeze. It was the sound of approaching hooves coming along the forest path. She raised a long, crooked nose and sniffed the air.
A single rider, recently bathed, in good quality leather. Most likely a gentleman, she concluded thoughtfully.
Moving quickly, the crone went inside and stood in front of her full-length mirror. A series of intricate gestures and words of power soon transformed her reflection to that of a comely young lass with raven black hair, creamy white cheeks, and ruby lips. A simple, but elegant dress with a low-cut bodice completed the illusion. She then picked up a pretty wicker basket and posed with some fresh-cut blooms in the flower bed by the front gate. It was a lovely scene guaranteed to entrance any man with even an ounce of poetry in his soul.
It certainly caught the attention of the stout young knight who came riding out of the forest at a leisurely pace. Sir Patrick was returning from a valiant quest imposed on him by his father, the Earl of Blackwater. Patrick hadn’t wanted to leave his studies, or the comforts of the manor, but the Earl had insisted.
* * * * * * * * * *
“You’ll soon be known as Patrick the Portly if you don’t get your nose out of those books! Why can’t you be like your brother Hugh? There’s a man’s man, fighting and drinking and chasing wenches instead of emptying the pantry.”
It was a familiar tirade and Patrick didn’t bother to answer.
“The village of Overton is afflicted with a dragon and they’ve asked for help,” the Earl continued. “I’m sending you. It’ll do you good to spend a few days on horseback.”
Patrick didn’t attempt to argue that Hugh would be far better suited for dragon-slaying, merely sighing, “Yes father.”
He rose reluctantly, ordered his chain mail to be oiled and polished, and called for his sword to be sharpened. Camping gear was aired out and made ready. Maps were studied and the library was searched for dragon lore. Days were spent practicing with a powerful crossbow, shooting the heavy, steel-tipped bolts until he was satisfied with his accuracy. Dragons have few weak spots and Patrick knew that a frontal assault would be foolhardy.
“Will you ever set out?” demanded the impatient Earl. “Hugh would have been there and back by now!”
Thickhead Hugh would likely be cinders by now, Patrick thought with a twinge of sibling rivalry, but merely nodded obediently.
He quietly bundled up a few favorite books and had the cook pack up two weeks’ worth of provisions. Everything was loaded on a large, comfortable horse that would have looked more at home in front of a cart than under a knight.
Three days later, a saddle-sore Patrick arrived at the small village of Overton. He enjoyed their enthusiastic cheers, but found the prospect of hot food and a warm bath even more inviting.
The local shepherds gathered the next morning to bewail their mounting losses. They described the dragon’s fierce appearance and pointed out the location of its lair on Patrick’s map. They wished the brave knight Godspeed, but were careful not to volunteer to take part in the actual hunt.
Patrick followed the directions given by the shepherds and made his way up an overgrown, rocky footpath into the foothills above the village. It was too steep and too thick to go on horseback. Panting from unaccustomed exertion, he didn’t hear the sounds of a dragon feeding on purloined lamb. He pushed awkwardly through a leafy bush, stumbled off-balance into a small clearing and sat down hard in front of his intended target.
The startled dragon raised itself up and spread its leathery wings wide. The crossbow was slung uselessly on Patrick’s back and there was no time to draw his sword. He cursed himself for a clumsy oaf and resigned himself to his fate. But the fiery blast he expected failed to materialize. All that came forth was an odd whuffing sound accompanied by a steaming bubble of mucus that splattered harmlessly at Patrick’s feet. The dragon, suffering from a severe head cold, fell into a strangled fit of coughing, and collapsed weakly on the ground.
“Blease, just kill be now and but be out of by bisery!” it moaned in sickly distress.
* * * * * * * * * *
Patrick was awestruck, as intended, by the tableau of a beautiful maiden gathering fresh flowers in front of a picturesque cottage. The soft brown walls looked good enough to eat, and they were set off nicely by the red and white striped candy canes. Sugar glazed windows peeked out from between wafer cookie shutters with gumdrop accents. White vanilla icing tied it all together in a most pleasing design. Mid-morning sun lit the surreal scene with a brilliant radiance that shone against the surrounding forest.
“Good morn to you, Miss,” Patrick called out courteously, sorry to disturb the lovely vision before him.
“And to you, good sir,” she replied demurely. “Have you come a great distance or do you have far to go?”
“I return from a quest to rid the village of Overton of a dragon. I am Patrick, second son of the Earl of Blackwater, and I am on my way to our manor there.”
“I see that your quest went well, sir knight; in that you are still among the living. You must be a formidable hunter as well as very handsome,” she complimented him.
Patrick, unused to such attention, colored slightly and then hastened to set the record straight about his prowess.
“Fortunate, rather than formidable,” he laughed. “I came upon the creature indisposed by illness and thus survived my own clumsiness. And in the end, I hadn’t the heart to kill the poor, suffering beast. Instead, I extracted a vow to leave this kingdom forever in return for nursing it through the worst.”
“You have a gentle heart, to be sure,” the maiden remarked, impressed by his honesty and his polite manner. “But, why travel the forest path instead of the high road to Blackwater?”
“Lacking a suitable trophy, I sought to avoid the folk of Overton and return by a different way. And now I’m glad to have taken this path and found such a lovely prospect,” Patrick offered gallantly.
“Your cottage is truly a sight to behold, Miss,” he added quickly, afraid that his comment may have been too bold.
“Please, sir, you may call me Gwenda,” she replied with a smile that seemed to encourage boldness.
“And you must call me Patrick,” replied the smitten knight.
* * * * * * * * * *
The light and fluffy pancakes were made with fresh berries and the sweet syrup was almost addictive. Piles of scrambled eggs seasoned with wild onions and rashers of crisp-fried bacon were accompanied by rich, dark coffee and buttered toast.
Gwenda had invited Patrick inside to share a late breakfast. The ever-hungry young knight had accepted eagerly, not questioning how such a large meal could appear so quickly. He found the interior of the cottage to be more conventional than the exterior, with a comfortable front room and good quality furnishings. A kitchen on one side and a bedroom on the other completed the simple floor plan.
They were seated at a small table in a kitchen dominated by an elaborate cast iron stove. There were dual fireboxes, one on either side of the cavernous oven with what seemed to be an acre of griddle above. Patrick had been keenly focused on the task at hand during the meal, but found time for curiosity after eating his fill and then eating a bit more.
“How is it that you come to be here in such fantastical abode? Do you not fear to live alone in the forest?” he asked.
“Oh no, not at all. My clearing is under an enchantment. Only those who may be friends can find their way here and behold the cottage,” Gwenda explained, answering his second question with a half-truth, and completely ignoring the first.
“Am I then to be a friend?” Patrick wondered hopefully.
“That, and perhaps more,” Gwenda suggested shyly, her cheeks showing spots of color.
Patrick was unsure how to respond. He took a long swallow of coffee to cover the awkward moment, and changed the subject.
“The construction of this cottage is most curious to me,” he mused aloud. “Surely the rain would quickly ruin the roof?”
“Oh, the rain has been instructed to fall in the garden where it belongs,” Gwenda answered gaily.
“But why build with gingerbread at all?” persisted the puzzled Patrick.
“Why do lads and lasses fall in love?” asked Gwenda, by way of distracting him from inconvenient questions.
Patrick fell quiet again at her mention of love. He was only too aware of the attractive maiden and the fact that they were alone. His current feelings were not entirely consistent with the ideals of chivalry. He knew well what a man like Hugh would do with this opportunity. Patrick’s wavering resolve was strengthened by the thought of his brash brother. He would resist temptation and do the honorable thing.
And if ‘twere done, then best be done quickly, he thought, not completely sure of his self-control.
“I thank you most gratefully for your generous hospitality, Miss,” he said, more stiffly perhaps than intended. “But I fear I must hasten to Blackwater. My father will be waiting there for news of my quest.”
Gwenda showed disappointment at the formal tone, but made no overt attempt to delay his hasty departure.
“Fare thee well, gentle knight. Perhaps we may meet again.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Patrick rode for several hours and found himself still deep in the forest. The setting sun cast long shadows over a familiar clearing ahead. The young knight felt a prickle of unease and the hair on the back of his neck rose.
It can’t be, he thought, feeling disoriented. I left that cottage behind hours ago. A trick of the light perhaps.
But there was no mistaking the candy cane trim or the flower garden near the front gate. A whisper of fear was drowned out by a rush of elation at the thought of Gwenda, and he spurred his tired horse toward the gingerbread cottage.
The lovely maiden seemed unsurprised to find Patrick on her doorstep. She smiled with genuine delight and took his hand, welcoming him in graciously.
“What fortunate coincidence, Sir Patrick, you’ve arrived just in time to join me for supper.”
Patrick gaped at the feast that filled the small kitchen. Fragrant soup simmered on the stove top. Freshly baked bread stood on the sideboard with sweet butter and wild honey. A large joint of roast venison, still steaming from the oven, rested on a bed of potatoes and garden vegetables. And a flagon of ale was ready by his trencher to wash it all down.
Any and all questions were driven from Patrick’s head by the wonderful aromas and he sat down eagerly as Gwenda filled his plate. It was nearly an hour later, after laying waste to the bounty spread before him, that his curiosity returned.
“Gwenda, it’s most wondrous and mysterious to me. I rode to the west all afternoon, neither turning nor resting. The sun that had been behind me this morning was setting before me, but I found myself in the self-same clearing. I do willingly confess that thoughts of you have occupied my mind today, but how am I here again?”
“My path is also under an enchantment, good knight. True love always returns,” Gwenda said significantly, offering another half-truth that Patrick was all too willing to believe.
Patrick gazed deep into her dark, inviting eyes and knew that he was lost. Ideals and chivalry be damned, he would have this woman. He might not be so aggressive as Hugh, but he had similar needs and desires.
Gwenda offered no resistance to Patrick’s advances, welcoming his embrace and returning his kisses. She helped him out of his chain mail and bathed him all over with hot, scented water and soft towels. Patrick felt no shyness at her touch, only an urgent rising need. That night, they shared the same bed for the first time. It wouldn’t be the last.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Gwenda, my love, have we any more honey? The syrup is gone and I’ve eaten all the strawberry jam, but there are still pancakes to finish.”
Weeks of nonstop food and passionate love found Patrick relaxed, content, and bursting out of his doublet. His love of food, together with Gwenda’s talent in the kitchen, had created a Patrick of much greater parts. A fine linen napkin slipped to the floor as he pushed his chair back, and an overstrained seam let loose with a ripping sound as Patrick bent to retrieve it.
“I have overindulged and proven my father correct. Truly, I am become Patrick the Portly,” he remarked ruefully. “I fear that I am no longer the knight who captured your heart.”
“Nonsense, sweetheart, there is merely more of you to love,” Gwenda protested. “And, there is nothing I love more than a man with meat on his bones.”
The loss of his hose was a most alarming wake-up call. Patrick suddenly realized that a great deal of time had passed. The blush of infatuation began to cool and thoughts of the future began to intrude on his bliss. He thought guiltily of his worried family and the responsibilities he’d abandoned. Patrick felt as though a haze had lifted and he could once again see clearly.
He couldn’t live in Gwenda’s clearing forever, no matter how satisfying the food. Eventually, he’d have to do the right thing and introduce her to his parents. They’d be relieved, then angry, and finally thrilled to stage an elaborate wedding. He was certain that they’d approve the match, once they came to know Gwenda as he did.
But what do I know? Patrick thought, realizing with sudden clarity that he really knew nothing of Gwenda’s background and breeding. Where is she from, who are her people? She always deflects my questions with laughter and delightfully bewitching distractions . . .
“Gwenda, we need to talk,” he declared.
“Come to me, my love, and we’ll speak volumes that cannot be writ with words,” she coaxed, hoping to distract him yet again.
“No, darling girl, none of that today,” he objected, smiling, but firm in his resolve. “Our future beckons and I will not postpone it longer. I must return to my duties at Blackwater and you must be introduced to my people. I assure you that you’ll be welcomed and honored as my fiancée.”
“It’s time to consider wedding preparations,” he suggested more softly. “You may already be with child.”
Gwenda sighed, disappointed, but resigned. She had known this day would come, it always did, but somehow it felt worse with the gentle and kind-hearted Patrick.
“I couldn’t leave the forest, Patrick,” she said sadly. “No more than a spider could leave its web. It’s part of me and I’m part of it.”
* * * * * * * * * *
A riderless horse ambled into the Blackwater stable and sought out its familiar stall. The groom found an unused crossbow and a shirt of chain mail packed behind the saddle. A sheathed and unstained sword hung from the pommel. This was all the Earl ever learned of Patrick’s fate. The dragon had vanished without trace and so had his son. The baffling mystery, never solved, haunted his declining years.
* * * * * * * * * *
The aged crone sat down to her lonely supper of rump-roast. There was no longer any need for the Gwenda persona. She missed Patrick’s company, but felt more comfortable as herself. Fairy tale romance and happily ever after were fine for children’s books, but that wasn’t how life worked out in the real world.
For a time, though, it had been nice to pretend. Patrick was a delicious interlude. He’d lasted longer than any of the others who’d come to her cottage over the years. As she savored the last, flavorful morsel, an uncharacteristic tear rolled down her cheek. She wiped it away roughly, angry with herself for succumbing to emotion.
A tear, of all things, how cliché!
Author's note: ▼