Once upon a time, there was a quiet little town. And in that quiet little town, lived a quiet little boy. He hadn’t got many friends, because he didn’t like to play warrior, like all the other boys in town, nor did he like to play house with the girls. He didn’t like to play alone either, but he had no choice. The other children in the town were mean at the boy. Whispering behind his back, throwing pebbles when he passed, or shunning the boy’s mother. He didn’t have a father, or rather, he didn’t know his father. The whispers said his father could be any man in the village, but the boy didn’t understand what that means. Despite all that, he never felt alone. Some of the grownups were nice to him. A pity kind of nice, but nice enough. They would sometimes ask him to do an errand, like Mrs Graves. She had six young children, and didn’t always have the time to go out to the market to buy food and linen, so she would ask the boy to bring her some, whenever he was going out to buy food for his mother and himself. Or Mr Harold, who had only one leg. He couldn’t go anywhere, so the boy helped him a lot; buying bread, catching fish, sweeping the floor, and all from the expense of the money he made by running errands for others.
One day, when the boy was on an errand to fetch Mr Harold some water from the well, he found a stranger sitting on the edge of it. The boy didn’t dare to come close. His mother taught him not to speak with strangers, so he always avoided them when they passed through the town once every blue moon. But this stranger was stranger than other strangers. He didn’t look like a traveler, his clothes were too clean. He wasn’t a noble either, for he had no carriage or servants with him. The boy observed the stranger. He was sewing a dark brown jacket. It matched his dark brown trousers. Next to him, rested an equally dark brown top hat. The sleeves of his créme-coloured button-up shirt had been rolled up, revealing the black lines drawn on his skin. The boy unknowingly approached the stranger, his feet moving without needing an order. The stranger put the needle away in a pouch that hung from his belt. Next to it hung a small, faceless doll. The boy looked up at the man, wondering if he should speak to him. He knew he wasn’t allowed to, but he wanted to. The stranger glanced at him, a pair of dark brown eyes, twinkling as he smiled. “Hello there,” he said, his voice sounding pleasant and inviting. The boy had never heard such a sweet voice before. “Are you a traveler?” he asked.
“No,” the stranger said, as he started to roll his sleeves back down.
“A merchant then?” the boy asked.
“No,” the stranger repeated, pulling a hand through his black hair, attempting to flatten it a bit. The boy tilted his head. “Then who are you?” he asked.
“I consider myself a wanderer,” the stranger said.
“What’s that?” the boy asked. He had never heard of such a thing. The stranger scratched his chin as he thought of a simple enough explanation. “You could say it’s the same as being a traveler,” he said, “except that I don’t have a destination to travel to, no home to return to, and no route to take. I just go wherever I feel like going to.”
“And today you felt like coming here?” the boy asked. The stranger smiled. “Yes,” he said, “also I was thirsty, and my jacket needed fixing.” He showed the recently fixed hole on the sleeve of his jacket.
“Do you need shelter for the night?” the boy asked. The stranger shook his head. “There’s only one thing I want to do before I leave this lovely town,” he said.
“Which is?” the boy asked.
“To tell my story,” the stranger said, “care to listen?”
The boy put Mr Harold’s bucket down and sat on the ground before the stranger, who smiled and reached for a cane that stood on his other side, leaning against the well. It was a wooden cane, with a ruby-coloured knob on top. “My story,” the stranger said, “is about a young man named...er...what’s your name, kid?”
“Oh, um. I’m Lucas,” the boy said. The stranger raised a brow. “Is that your given name?” he asked. Lucas nodded. “Don’t you have a birth name?” the stranger asked. Lucas shook his head. “I don’t have a father, sir,” he said. The stranger smiled sympathetically, before continuing his story, though he had hardly started it. “Where was I? Ah right,” he cleared his throat, “a young man named Lucas…”
Lucas did not remember much of his childhood. Thinking back of it, every season had gone by in a flash, but that day where he met that stranger had always stuck with him. Every so often, the young man would find himself dreaming of the adventures that stranger had told him of that day: knights and dragons, fair maidens needing saving and rewarding him with a kiss, faroff places, kings and queens…
His mother’s rough voice snapped him back to reality. He yawned as he got out of bed, though bed was a fancy word for a wooden board with sheepskin against splinters, hidden from the rest of the one-room house by an old curtain with holes. He pulled said curtain outside, stepping into his boots. His mother had an actual bed. It was placed in front of the only window and was this close to falling apart. She coughed while Lucas walked over to the crooked dining table, and poured some water into a tin mug. He handed her the water, having to help her shaky hands to lift the mug to her lips. She had been bedridden for two moons now. All the town’s doctor could tell them was that she needed rest and that they had to pray for the disease to go. Her once, thick brown hair had started to thin, and her pale skin had turned gray, and her pretty face was now hollow and empty. Lucas was preparing for the worst. His mother had already seen more than forty winters. Most people in town couldn’t even reach that much. He was going to miss her, but he also felt like her passing would be a release for him. He could finally start saving money, and finally leave this town. He didn’t know where to go yet, but anywhere was better than here. He looked outside the window and found the sun had already rosen pretty high. “I’m going to get breakfast,” he declared, before making his way to the door and stepping outside. Gathering the ingredients alone usually took a while. First he had to walk all the way to the farm just outside of town, to pick up two dozen of eggs for the baker, and to buy some cheese and milk for himself. Then, in exchange for bringing the eggs, the bake gave him a bread and the money for tomorrow’s errand. Lucas returned home, prepared a plate for his mother, and quickly ate something himself before getting water for the day. There was a commotion by the well, as always. Usually the other young men in the village picking a fight, but today it was the girls that made a ruckus. A red-haired girls was hastily gathering the apples she seemed to have dropped, while three others pointed and laughed. It didn’t take a scholar to figure out what happened. The three laughing girls were Anah, Bethania and Candace, one fairer than the other. Lucas had to admit he was attracted to them too, all young men in town were. But as beautiful as their faces looked, as ugly were their souls. They loved to ridicule the other girls, especially if she could be just as pretty as them, but couldn’t afford the jewelry and dresses to match theirs. The red-haired girl was as such. Beneath the dirt and rags she was quite pretty. Lucas never really talked to her. No one did. After all, what good was a miller’s daughter? She had no money to her name, and no particular skills. Her hips were too small for her to bear strong children, and she was often called a witch. Lucas had no idea if she really was one. He couldn’t even care. But he was too good to ignore the situation. He crouched down in front of her, and helped her gather the last few apples, before offering his hand to help her up. She declined and rose up on her own. “Thank you,” she said, more as a courtesy than out of sincerity. Lucas stood back up as well. “It was no trouble,” he said, picking up his bucket and continuing to the well. The miller’s daughter followed him, placing her basket of apples on the edge. “Lucas, right?” she said, bluntly taking the sling and drawing water for herself first. Lucas nodded. “Well fate seems to have a rather ill sense of humour,” the girl said with a laugh, “the whoreson and witch are getting along.”
Lucas rolled his eyes. He knew the rumours, and he knew they were true. When he was little, he didn’t understand, but now that he’d seen about sixteen winters he knew better. His mother was a whore. There was no way around it. And Lucas was the bastard son of God knows who. He’d already established it was no one from the town. After all, he was the only man with sleek, golden-blond hair, and eyes similar to sapphires. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he simply said, not looking to amuse the girl. She raised a brow. It disappeared behind the unbrushed bangs of her red hair. “Do you know who I am?” she asked. Lucas shrugged. “I know you’re the miller’s daughter, but I never caught your name,” he simply said. The girl gasped astounded. “Rosemary,” she said. Lucas was at a loss. What kind of a name was that? Or wasn’t she telling him her name? His confusion showed on his face, for the girl sighed. “It’s a herb,” she said, “my mother named me after a herb.”
“Or a beautiful flower and Mother Mary if you cut it in two,” Lucas said. Now Rosemary was the one at a loss. Was Lucas making fun of her name or not? “So why do people say you’re a witch?” he asked, oblivious to her confusion. She realized she hadn’t been turning the sling, and slowly resumed the motion as she thought. “I don’t know,” she concluded, “I am rather fond of nature. Maybe that’s where they got the idea.”
“How do you mean?” Lucas asked. However, before Rosemary could think of a proper explanation, they were distracted by the blaring of a horn. Rosemary let go of the sling, causing the bucket of water to fall back down. She put a hand on Lucas’ shoulder and stood on the well in order to see the road that led to the village. “Goodness,” she muttered, “there’s at least a hundred men on horses...in armour.”
She hopped off the well and started turning the sling again. More rapidly this time. “I’d get my water fast and return home if I were you,” she said, “the King’s army marching through is never a good sign.” She poured the water from the well’s bucket into her own, grabbed her basket of apples and scurried off. Lucas followed her advice, quickly filling his own bucket with water and returning home. His mother was restless. “Did I hear a trumpet?” she said, trying to sit up.
“It’s the King’s army,” Lucas replied, “let’s hope they’ll just be marching through.”
“The King’s army?” his mother asked, sounding alarmed. She shook her head. “No, they won’t be marching through,” she said, “they never march through here, unless they’re recruiting.”
“Recruiting who?” Lucas asked.
“Everyone!” his mother said, “every man is obliged to serve the King if he asks.”
“That’s not a bad thing,” Lucas said.
“No, love, you don’t understand,” his mother said, “recruitment is voluntary, but young men such as yourself can be forced, in place of paying taxes.”
“But mother, we’ve always paid our taxes, haven’t we?” Lucas said. However, his mother’s face betrayed that it wasn’t true. Lucas felt as if his heart stopped beating. “I tried,” his mother said, “I really did. But I could never get enough. I owe the King a huge debt. I’m sorry Lucas…”
Lucas didn’t know what to say. He always wanted to leave the town and go places, but joining the army wouldn’t guarantee the freedom to go anywhere. Waging war wasn’t his thing. All he wanted was to be free to see the world, a peaceful world full of wonders. Not a world consisting of spilt blood and noble sacrifices. Without really thinking, he went back outside. The army wasn’t there yet. Perhaps he could hide from them, in the forest up yonder. The blaring of a trumpet sounded through the town. They were near. Lucas started running, to the other end of the town, off the road, and into the trees. He made sure not to turn too many corners, otherwise he might lose his way. And he didn’t stop running, until he came across a clearing. There was a small lake, and Lucas thought this might be a good place to drink some water. It seemed clear enough to drink. He knelt down on the shore, and scooped some water into his hands and slurped it up. It was cool, and tasted differently from the water in the well. Something rustled to his right, but as he looked up in shock he only saw a white, young stag, its antlers not quite grown. Lucas’ jaw dropped in awe. He’d only ever seen the hide of a stag, stalled out on the market, and he didn’t come in the forest often enough to ever spot a live one, let alone that he’d ever seen a white one. And now it was right there, stepping into the water and bending down its head to drink. It was so close he could touch it, but he decided against it. He wouldn’t want to be touched while just drinking some water either – Yet that was exactly what happened. A hand suddenly plopped down on his shoulder, eliciting a yelp of surprise. The stag was startled, and ran off, while Lucas jerked around, only to find a familiar face; Rosemary. Lucas clutched his chest, sighing in relief. “You startled me.”
“I noticed.” Rosemary deadpanned.
“What are you doing here?” Lucas asked.
“I followed you,” Rosemary said, “I saw you running past the mill.”
“You didn’t have to follow me,” Lucas said, “I would’ve been fine on my own.”
“You’re hiding from the army, aren’t you?” Rosemary asked. Lucas sighed and nodded. “So what?”
“They’re going to make camp just beyond town,” Rosemary said, “they’re not looking to recruit. You don’t need to worry.”
“Are you certain?” Lucas asked, his hopes rising. Rosemary nodded. “I overheard them talking when they passed through. They’re on a mission of some sorts. I didn’t bother to stay and hear which one. Come. I know a shortcut. It’ll be as if you’ve been at the mill this whole time.”
“Thank you,” Lucas said relieved, getting up and following Rosemary through the forest. Just as she said, they ended up at the back of the mill, where Rosemary’s father was stacking bags of grain. He didn’t pay attention to them as they passed.
Standing in front of the mill, they could see the field where the army was now making camp. They spent two nights in the field, before packing up one very early morning, and riding out at dawn. The town returned to daily life, as did Lucas. His mother’s condition worsened. Day and night she spent coughing in bed. Lucas had discovered blood in her handkerchief and on her sheets, but she waved it away as if it were nothing.