Stunned, Raoul lay motionless. It all had happened so quickly! In one blissful instant, the sweetest dream he had ever enjoyed in his long exile was abruptly shattered by the thrill of his own joy. And in the next astonishing moment, the awakened prisoner found himself staring in silent amazement.
Yet was he really awake?
The alert knight quickly fumbled to his feet. Where was his wooden bed? His stifling prison? The decrepit tower? Instantly, the slave's eager hands shot searchingly to his neck and wrists. The chains! They were gone.
The intense delight of his dream suddenly surged once again through the bewildered Crusader like a violent wave. It was all real!
But… could it be?
Raoul looked up into the rich blue sky. Yes, the sun was there, shining brightly - but it was not the harsh, oppressive blaze that he had known for so long. And the air! It was so breathtakingly clean and mild.
“I must be dreaming,” he stuttered at last, his heart bursting with joy. “But then …” he glanced around. “It all seems so real... whatever it is.”
He did not know where he was, though he appeared to be in a forest of some sort. All he knew for certain was that he was free!
“Oh my loving God!” the knight dropped to his knees, “Blessed Mother!” His soul was grateful beyond words. He felt such exhilarating bliss. Surely, he thought, Heaven could not be a happier place!
“Surely I am dead?” the joyful exile wondered. “… And this is Heaven.” The beautiful scenery seemed to shine now with ethereal splendor in the ardent Crusader’s eyes.
“I must have been strangled to death in the night,” Raoul said softly. A sweet breeze brushed against his red cheeks, and the knight turned.
“But was I?”
In the rustling wind, Raoul could detect the distinct and dear sounds of animals, grazing peacefully in some distant meadows. There were noises closer at hand, though as well; shy and lively creatures that occasionally poked out their furry heads or went darting amidst the thick foliage. The trees surrounding him also seemed quite natural, their strong branches waving gently in the warm movements of air. And the birds... Raoul’s smile turned to the skies. He had nearly forgotten how sweet and exhilarating their chirping chorus could sound.
“Then this must be earth,” he thought. “And I am alive. And free!”
The nobleman’s soul soared with joy. But the magnitude of his freedom was far exceeded by the love he felt in his thankful heart.
“Holy Virgin -” Raoul raised his serene eyes to Heaven. But he could only sigh with happiness. His joy had rendered him quite speechless. In fact, he did not know which brought him the greater joy – being touched by Heaven, or being freed from his master.
The sudden remembrance of his hostile enemy swiftly returned Raoul’s mind back to earth. Somehow he had been miraculously freed from his prison… but how far? Was he safe from his master’s swift pursuit? It was already day, and the Muslim surely by now had learned of his escape.
The liberated prisoner now cast an anxious glance at his beautiful surroundings, a host of worries rising furiously in his mind. Where was he? How would he return home to Europe? And what if his master were to catch him!
Instantly regaining his composure, Raoul shut his eyes. “Everything is all right. My Blessed Lady has already brought me this far. How quickly I forget,” he half-smiled to himself, “how powerful She is.”
A sudden noise caught his attention, and Raoul turned. Squinting ahead, he saw that he was, in fact, not alone. At the far end of the tree-studded pathway, there was someone, a peasant it looked like, chopping wood.
“Thank you, my dearest Lady” Raoul sighed gratefully. Surely this local could help him – at least by answering his urgent questions, if nothing else. Wasting not a moment, the lordly fugitive hastened towards the stranger as fast as his legs would carry him.
The woodcutter, hearing quickened footsteps, glanced up from his work. But no sooner had he laid eyes upon the knight then a look of terror spread over his face. All color draining from his cheeks, the woodsman stared in petrified horror at the approaching knight. And then, to Raoul’s further astonishment and confusion, the trembling peasant instantly dropped his sturdy hatchet and took to his heels, as if running for his life.
For a moment, Raoul’s steps faltered. What on earth was the matter? The French lord had no memory of ever meeting this fleeing stranger before in his life. It was therefore quite impossible that this man could possibly have somehow recognized him!
Then, with an amused grin, it suddenly dawned on Raoul.
Darkened and burned by the fierce Arabian sun; half-starved; unshaven; bloody and filthy, with only a coarse, ragged tunic stretched over his wounded body - the runaway Syrian slave was certainly a sight to behold! And most assuredly, an uninviting one.
“I did not even think of that,” the poor knight realized. But as the Crusader looked on towards the woodsman fleeing for his life, the thought of his own deadly pursuers instantly returned to his mind. Raoul shook his head resolutely.
“I simply must speak with him,” he sighed. “There is no time to lose.” And though still reluctant to frighten the poor woodcutter, the determined knight nevertheless pressed on with his fervent chase.
Breathing hard, the fleeting peasant cast not so much as a glance behind him as he darted amongst the trees. His fearful haste was in vain though, for despite the many scars and wounds, Raoul’s legs were rapidly closing the distance between the two runners.
Finally now within reach, the knight shot out his long arm and tightly caught hold of the terrified man’s shoulder, bringing them both to a stumbling halt.
“Please,” Raoul hastily assured the peasant as the latter turned to face him. “Please! I am lost,” he explained. “Can you show me the way out of these woods?”
But the man just stood staring, panting for breath. Though somewhat calmer, a bewildered expression still lingered on his puzzled face. Hearing the knight speak was enough to convince him that this was no dreadful ghost, as he apparently had feared. But still! What a frightful appearance! Tragic circumstances had clearly befallen the towering stranger standing before him. But what was more peculiar…
“I… I am sorry,” the baffled woodsman stuttered with confusion, “but I do not understand what you say!”
At these words, Raoul instantly released his grip on the man’s shoulder. Confounded, the knight slowly stumbled backwards. The man had answered him… but not in Syriac, as Raoul expected him to. The woodcutter had spoken in French!
“My… my good man,” the words came slowly, as the long exiled lord rediscovered his native and beloved language. “Please help me. Tell me whether I am dreaming… or under some terrible delusion.” His firm voice nearly trembled with astonishment. “Tell me,” he pleaded, breathing hard at each syllable, “where am I? I am lost, and I know not a soul in this country.”
The woodsman, greatly relieved by the stranger’s ability to speak his own civilized tongue, waved his hand at the surrounding trees.
“Why, we are in France, my friend, near the borders of Flanders,” he answered. “And this wood where we now stand is called the forest of Crequy!” Then, with a pitiful eye, the peasant smiled at his companion. “But tell me, poor man - who are you? You must be some Catholic captive. Escaped, perhaps, from a shipwreck off the neighboring coasts?”
But the kind inquiries fell upon deaf ears.
For the moment that Raoul learned he was truly and at last in his own country and native place, he was filled with a sensation such as few in this life ever experience. In a miracle altogether unexpected and wonderful, the faithful Crusader had not only been rescued - he had been brought home.
Falling to his knees, the grateful knight extended his arms and raised his eyes and voice to Heaven.
“O Almighty God! O most Holy Virgin! My sweet Protectress, my help, and my deliverance! By what miracle have you brought me here?”
The confused woodsman respectfully and silently kept his distance. For a moment, a reverential stillness lay upon the forest. With kind compassion, the peasant watched as the Crusader knelt for a time before rising. But his astonishment was far from over, for the ragged stranger turned once more to this considerate companion and proceeded to launch a rapid succession of eager and excited questions - questions which for nearly a decade had lain unanswered on many an agonizing night.
“Please, my good man, tell me of the Lord Gerard. Does he yet live? Is he still reigning as the Lord of Crequy? And what of the Countess Mahtilde?” Raoul pressed eagerly, “Tell me. Are she and her son still living? Are they in good health?”
“What! You know them?” The poor man was now receiving his share of shock and surprise. However, out of consideration for this mysterious stranger, he endeavored to answer his odd questions.
"It has been many years since the old count died of grief, bewailing the loss of his three eldest sons. They were slain in battle, you see,” the peasant explained, his anxious listener evidently moved and grieved by the news of the old lord’s death. “Nearly ten winters have passed since our young lord led his brothers to battle in the Crusade. But unfortunately,” the man’s face grew hard. “Not all of the count’s sons died.”
Listening in rapt attention, Raoul looked sharply at the woodcutter. Unfortunate! What ill will was this? Why should he desire the death of Lord Gerard’s sons? His unspoken questions, though, were quickly answered.
“Count Gerard’s youngest son, Baudouin, has taken possession of the title and estate, proclaiming himself Lord of Crequy.” A frown crossed the woodsman’s cheery face. “He has behaved most dishonorably and treacherously to his late brother’s widow and child. It is disgraceful… as well as disgusting.” His angry eyes glanced distractedly at a rustling bush, from which scurried an errant and equally agitated woodland creature.
But the attentive stranger said nothing. Distressed by this bitter betrayal, Raoul’s mind turned at once to his wife and son. What fearful pains had they endured these many years? And what had become of them?
“But the lady,” Raoul ventured to ask. “Is Lady Mahtilde yet alive?”
The woodcutter’s focus returned to the knight.
“Yes,” he nodded, “and her father, who still lives, is now with her at the castle beyond these woods. He has traveled to Crequy from a great distance - his home is in far off Brittany. He came expressly to persuade his daughter to secure her future and her son’s rightful inheritance. Indeed, for some time now, Sir Renaud has tried repeatedly to convince the young widow to marry again.”
The riveted knight stood breathless. His Mahtilde remarried? After all of these years… Raoul bit his lip. His weary heart froze! He dared not ask…
“It is to the Lord of Renty that he seeks to entrust his daughter’s happiness,” the woodsman continued. “For the noble lord has promised to protect her boy’s rights, and to cherish him as the son of his dear friend - our late Lord Raoul, God rest his soul!”
An awkward but charitable pause ensued, as the knight watched the loyal peasant offer a prayer for the repose of his deceased lord’s soul, unaware that the object of his charity was standing before him. Only the echoed cry of a distant hawk broke the solemn silence. Then, after a moment, and with brighter spirits, the man went on to extol the generous and noble Lord of Renty.
“He is rich and powerful, and our lady cannot do better than to accept his hand! But for lo these many years, she has refused his proposals. She would not listen to any prospect of marriage. That is…”
There was an expectant pause, as the air was filled with the fluttering and flapping of several flocks of cheery birds clustering suddenly in the neighboring trees. The woodcutter gave them an idle glance, keeping his listener in breathless, yet brief, suspense. For the next moment, Raoul’s hopes were instantly crushed at the sight of the woodcutter’s proud smile.
“Until a few days ago,” he beamed, “when, for the sake of her dear son - the little master of Crequy - our Lady Mahtilde at last consented to wed the Lord of Renty.”
Raoul stared earnestly at his companion, his ears deaf to the exuberant chorus chirping around him. His mind was numb, and yet racing at the same time.
“When is the marriage?” he asked, subconsciously and fervently praying that the answer was not a date in the past.
“This very day!” The peasant boasted happily. A thankful sigh imperceptibly escaped the Crusader - yet his gratitude was accompanied by the immense and stark reality of his extraordinary situation.
“But when?” Raoul maintained remarkable composure.
“At the hour of six,” was the prompt reply. “And there will be a grand celebration on this wondrous occasion - for our lovely lady will, at long last, have married the knight who shall finally bring joy and fulfillment to the house of Crequy!”
A low wind whistled solemnly through the dense forest, leaving behind an eerie silence which seemed to shudder at the proud and joyful proclamation.