“Well for goodness sake! Did anyone remember about the abbot?” One of the castle’s servants stopped short at his sudden thought.
“The abbot?” a kitchen maid asked from behind a tall stack of plates.
“Yes!” the man replied, somewhat anxiously, “He is still waiting at the monastery. Remember, Lady Mahtilde’s would-be wedding?”
The busy girl just shrugged her shoulders. For over a decade, Crequy’s castle had remained dull and lifeless. Now, at last, its greatest celebration was underway! There would be festivities and entertainment, food and drink, song and music… and guests! The Great Hall had not hosted such a crowd in years, and there were countless tables which required her preparation and attention. The young maid simply did not have the time to worry over the canceled marriage. Fortunately for her companion, their brief conversation was overheard by a passing nobleman.
“Do not worry,” a calm voice reassured them. “Lady Mahtilde’s father - Sir Renaud – has taken care of that.” The two servants looked up to see who had answered them. It was the Lord of Renty.
“A special messenger,” continued the lord, “was dispatched not ten minutes ago to bring his Excellency the extraordinary news of Lord Raoul’s return.”
The manservant flushed slightly, realizing whose wedding it was that had been canceled. He gave a low and grateful bow. “Thank you, my lord. I did not mean to trouble you.”
“It was no trouble. It was an important question,” nodded the knight. “And you need not worry about the other guests either. All have been re-invited to the… celebration.” A small smile broke out on his bearded face. But despite his pleasantry, there was a preoccupied look about the nobleman. After a hesitant pause, one of the servants asked him:
“Can I help you with anything, my lord?”
“Actually,” the knight gazed across the large decorated room, “I was looking for his lordship, Sir Renaud.”
“I can find him for you, sir,” volunteered one of the maids, glancing up. But the Lord of Renty waved a reassuring hand.
“No. There is much to do, and little time to do it. I shall find him myself.”
Thus dismissed, the servants resumed their work, and the lord continued his search. It turned out to be a more difficult task than he had first imagined, though, for the entire castle was teeming with activity. Fortunately, many of the preparations for this sudden celebration were already well in hand. As for the banquet itself, Divine Providence had already arranged everything. The splendid dinner prepared for the wedding, though no longer a marriage feast, would supply a magnificent banquet for the many guests soon to throng the Great Hall. Indeed, all that was lacking to the festivities was the Lord of Crequy himself.
Almost as soon as he had returned, Raoul was escorted to one of the private chambers deep in the castle. There, several skilled servants carefully tended to his many wounds. Cleansing his blistered skin of the filth and blood, they bandaged his larger injuries with strong, soft linens. It had been so long since the crusader had felt such relief; and, even longer since the servants had the pleasure and privilege of attending to their lord. They worked quickly and well, eagerly anticipating the victorious feast ahead.
And the servants were not the only ones who awaited the banquet with enthusiasm. Everything was moving swiftly and it was not long indeed before the numerous and excited guests began streaming into the Great Hall. The vast room was soon filled with the pleasant and yet deafening sound of chatter, laughter and music, as several hired musicians and court jesters wandered amidst the tables to entertain the waiting guests.
During that time, which seemed to pass far too quickly, the poor Lord of Renty continued his search for the lady Mahtilde’s father. Making his way through the private quarters of the castle, the Lord of Renty at last caught sight of the face he was looking for.
“Sir Renaud!” he called out. The old count turned from his attendants, his brow wrinkled with curiosity. “My friend, what brings you to this part of the castle?”
His innocent question was met with an odd and almost pained expression.
“Oh I see,” The Lord of Renty’s calm tone was mildly strained. Things were different in Crequy now… and he was not family. “I suppose I don’t enjoy the same privileges here as I did before.”
Sir Renaud waved aside the strange reply. “I expected you would be waiting in the Great Hall, along with the other guests,” he clarified kindly.
“They are arriving quickly. The Hall is nearly full,” the knight nodded in agreement. Then, with a cautious scan of the corridor, he whispered - “Any sign of Baudouin?”
With a playful shrug of his shoulders, Sir Renaud turned back to the servants.
“I believe he is with his mother,” he grinned. His merriment, however, was not returned by his companion.
“No,” corrected the Lord of Renty, “I am not referring to the child.” Sir Renaud raised his head.
“Ah,” the smile left his serious face. “Come,” he nodded, stepping away from the servants. The knight discreetly followed and, when at a safe distance, he pressed his question.
“Has Lord Raoul heard of his brother’s treacheries?”
“He knows,” was Sir Renaud’s solemn reply, “I have spoken with him myself.”
“Please. Let us not ruin this wonderful day for Mahtilde.”
“It is for her sake that I ask,” the knight whispered impatiently. Then, calming himself, he continued, “Do you honestly believe that the coward will accept Raoul’s lordship?”
The old man shook his head, “Of course not. But Baudouin will know better than to cause trouble… today anyway. Oh,” he sighed, “As if Raoul had not endured enough already. Could he not come home in peace?”
“If Baudouin raises so much as a finger - ”
“- he shall answer for it!” Sir Renaud agreed, “But for all of his cruelty, Baudouin is a coward. And in this hour of defeat, he shall sulk in his pride.”
“Yes, he shall sulk... before he strikes. He will not give up his lordship so easily. The brute will create some sort of havoc, if not incite a rebellion! That is... if he does not stain his own hands first.” The Lord of Renty peered down the hallway, “Something must be done! Where is Lord Raoul?”
“Preparing for a banquet, not a battle,” answered Sir Renaud, growing somewhat impatient himself. “You tell me that guests are assembling in the Great Hall now.”
“All the more reason to act,” insisted the lord, “If Sir Baudouin –”
“Lord Raoul will deal with his treacheries. That I can promise you.” The old man put his hand on the knight’s arm. “But let him first enjoy this day. Sir Baudouin is no immediate threat.”
Mahtilde’s father was firm and confident. Yet even as he spoke, the elderly count knew well how the future would pay for the mistakes of the past. Treacheries such as those of Sir Baudouin often condemned years, even generations, to endless jealousies and blood-filled feuds.
“But hush now!” Sir Renaud suddenly awoke from his thoughts and spoke quickly, preventing any reply. Several bustling servants were heading towards them, but it was the sight of something far more precious that caught his fatherly eye - the face of his daughter.
The Lord of Renty also turned, and his open mouth discretely dropped in sudden surprise. But it was not the inspiring beauty of Mahtilde that aroused his astonished admiration - but rather the tall and lordly man at her side. Stunned at how quickly he recognized him, the disillusioned knight rubbed his eyes, lest they deceived him. What had become of the ragged, ghastly beggar? Was this the miserable impostor that had boldly disrupted the marriage procession?
But no, here was no impostor, nor beggar. The truth was at last unmistakable, undeniable… and unbelievable. Here was Raoul, alive and home. Sir Raoul... the Lord of Crequy. Though clearly aged, a single glance was enough to assure him that the lord had lost none of the vivacious, noble spirit that won the hearts and esteem of all who knew him.
With newfound respect, the Lord of Renty stepped back with the attendants and bowed to the noble couple. A strange yet satisfied expression crossed his face, as he watched them go by. There was something... a certain feeling almost... that swept through the corridor as Mahtilde's husband passed. It was as if the castle was reawakening, sensing that its long-lost lord had returned.
Proudly eyeing his radiant daughter, Sir Renaud gestured toward the Lord of Renty. “Come now, my friend,” he smiled. “Today we celebrate how wrong we both have been for all of these years.” Joining in the little group behind the lord and lady, Sir Renaud followed them down the hall. His companion, however, hesitated. For the briefest moment, a pained look came over the Lord of Renty’s dismal face. But then, a heavy sigh quietly escaped him, and the shadow passed as quickly as it had come.
Accompanied by the trumpets’ blast and welcomed with a jubilant cheer, Sir Raoul had the distinct and long-forgotten honor of leading his lady into their crowded Great Hall. His father-in-law and son were soon to join them at their banquet table upon the dais, a slightly raised platform, at the head of the entire hall.
The many musicians throughout the room quietly gave pause to their music. The jugglers and entertainers also stood still - and every head in the hall bowed as a reverential silence ensued. Then, with a gratitude perhaps never experienced before in that castle, grace before the feast was intoned. As he blessed himself, Raoul could not help but smile at the sudden memory of other meals not so long ago. The humble knight fervently shut his eyes. He had so much to be thankful for.
Once the prayers were finished, the festivities began.
Raoul, however, had barely a moment to sit before he was overwhelmed with a host of greetings and questions from his numerous guests. Despite their variety, the many questions in essence voiced the crowd’s single wonder:
For a moment, Raoul sat speechless. What had happened? His thoughts drifted back to the day when he first left for the Crusade. He saw himself bidding Mahtilde farewell and gently leading her to his dear and now deceased father, Sir Gerard. His father…
Raoul smiled as he recalled the old man’s kind words and solemn blessing before sending young Raoul off in the service of God. And then the smile slowly faded from the knight’s face as he realized the significance of their parting: Sir Gerard had especially entrusted Raoul to the care of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
“You ask me what happened…” Raoul slowly emerged from his thoughts. He raised his eyes to the expectant crowd.
“A miracle,” he answered, his voice was strong and yet serene. “The most wondrous I have ever known, and wrought by the Mother of God Herself. For it is by Her merciful Hand that I have been returned to you.”
“But how?” Sir Renaud insisted eagerly. “News came that you were dead!”
“The battle, Raoul,” Mahtilde pressed. “We received word that you had fallen… Your men fled at your death.”
“I did fall,” nodded Raoul, “But by the providence of God, I did not die. I was taken prisoner. Then, before I could be ransomed, our Catholic armies drove the enemy back. Still held captive, I was forced to flee with the Saracens."
“‘Ransomed’?” The lady Mahtilde’s cheerful face went pale. “You wrote for a ransom?”
Lord Raoul hesitated. “Many times,” he answered, his gentle voice was like a whisper. His father-in-law's response, however, was not so calm.
“What!” the poor count cried, “You cannot be serious, Raoul! We never received anything. The only message brought to us was that Mahtilde was a widow!”
“Nothing...?” Strangely, there was a peace in Raoul's voice, a joy even. Painful though it had been, it was a relief for the crusader to know that his countless cries for help were never rejected. He had not been betrayed by those he loved. Smiling now at what had been a torturous thought, Raoul turned towards his wife. “Then there is nothing to regret. It was God's will, Mahtilde, that the letters never reached you.”
Tears were already welling in the poor woman’s eyes. “I suppose so,” she answered softly, wiping her wet face. Raoul quietly and firmly took her upraised hand in his own.
“God willed it, my love. I know that He did.”
A beautiful smile broke out on the lady’s sad face. She could not help herself. The strength in Raoul’s voice alone was enough to dispel her doubts and fears. But to see his courage, and to feel his faith, made Mahtilde totally convinced that he was absolutely right. God had accomplished more than she knew.
“But Raoul,” Mahtilde’s father pressed, “did the Saracens escape from the Crusaders?”
“My captors did,” the knight explained. “And they fled with me to Syria.” A general murmur arose among the guests and several leaned forward with eager curiosity.
“Then have you been there for all of this time, Lord Raoul?”
“Were there any others captured?”
“Did you remain the infidels’ slave?”
“How was it that you escaped, my lord?”
So quickly did the questions come, that Raoul, hesitant and open-mouthed, had no chance to speak. Smiling sweetly at his confusion, Mahtilde laid her hand upon his arm.
“Tell us everything, Raoul,” she implored him earnestly. “From the very beginning.”
“Everything…” The lord looked out upon the expectant faces before him, “... and how it all started.”
Turning again towards his wife beside him, his gaze fell instead upon a young and eager pair of eyes. Reaching past Mahtilde, Raoul took hold of his son’s small hand.
“My adventures truly began the happy day I learned I was a father. And it was a consolation I would never forget in all the long years that followed.”
Blushing with delight, little Baudouin smiled. It was a serious one, though, for so young a face. For in all his short life, the child had grown to covet the ability to comfort his parent. Too often had his helpless desires been in vain.
The lady Mahtilde was both surprised and joyful at her husband’s words. “Then you did receive our letter, Raoul?” She had nearly forgotten that she’d written it.
“Yes, and just in time. For it was not long afterwards that we made our way through the mountain pass.” He paused a moment, his voice growing quiet. “And from that hour forward, my life was forever changed…”
Thus the story began, as the Lord of Crequy recounted in every detail the chain of events that in time became the legend that would live on for centuries hence.
He first recounted the deadly ambush that had slain his dear brothers and how the hopeless fight had ended in his own capture. He explained how he was later able to obtain the broken half of Mahtilde’s wedding ring from his master, before writing the first of many letters for ransom. Then, as each one had remained unanswered, the knight went on to tell of the many years he had spent in labor as a shepherd, each day filled with false hopes of rescue - dreams which both sustained and tormented him.
“Then my master died,” said Raoul slowly, “seven years later.” Mahtilde closely watched his thoughtful expressions.
“Were... were you not then free?” she asked quietly. Her voice was weak and anxious; for without realizing it, the loving wife was reliving those painful years with her husband.
Raoul shook his head. “No. My exile was only just beginning. I was then sold to a man who detested God - and who would not rest until I had done the same.”
Then came the time of persecution from his new master, which quickly resulted in the knight's imprisonment. Raoul described the high tower, the dire threats, the cruel tortures - all solely intended to destroy the crusader's Faith. Though in vain, the cruelties were not completely fruitless, and the knight admitted his ardent desire for death.
“In the end, after three years in that prison, I was finally hopeless of ever regaining my freedom,” Raoul explained. “It was then that I discovered my master had himself decided to end my captivity - with my death.”
As Raoul continued to relate the last conversation with his master, the stark memories flashed vividly in his mind. With amazement, the knight realized that it was only yesterday, barely twenty-four hours ago, that he had lain chained in his sweltering prison, sentenced to a bitter death. How his heart had ached at the thought of never seeing his family again. But his regret had transformed into resignation, as he calmly and prayerfully awaited his last dawn.
Slowly continuing, Raoul carefully related the strange events of that memorable night - only last night - down to the smallest detail. Most especially, he described the mysterious visit of the beautiful Lady in his cell and how She seemed to break his chains. Inexplicable though it was, the crusader then spoke of his sudden awakening and realization that he had truly been freed!
The long and fascinating tale concluded with Raoul’s encounter and conversation with the woodcutter in the forest, and how the latter had led and returned Raoul to the castle; where the lord’s story and his lady’s were finally and once more intertwined.
“The rest you know,” Raoul finished at last, “and you see how your lord would this very day be a corpse in far-off Syria, had not Our Blessed Mother Mary rescued me,” he looked toward Mahtilde, “... and returned me to you.” Tearful and silent, the lady leaned into her husband's shoulder.
The entire room was still.
Then, in nearly one accord, every chair was emptied as all stood and raised their goblets high. Strong and triumphant, the guests filled the hall with a grateful toast and many a loud “Long live the Lord of Crequy!” The jubilant cries were accompanied by a burst of melody, as the various musicians and entertainers throughout the banquet room took up their instruments and resumed the jubilant festivities.
“And long live the Lady Mahtilde!” several voices cried out amidst the cheers. The lady, however, seemed oblivious to everyone except her husband. Her father, on the other hand, was not deaf to her praises.
“God has rewarded her faith.” Sir Renaud nodded, his voice was solemn but proud. “She was more true than the rest of us.”
Something in his tone caught the lady's attention. Still resting upon Raoul, Mahtilde raised her head towards her father. “God is rewarding all of us, father.”
The elderly count was not so easily put off. “She was faithful, Raoul,” he addressed himself to his son-in-law, "and she suffered bitterly for it. In fact, she would not have yielded to the marriage at all had it not been for our insistence." There was a tone of regret in his low voice, and his old eyes blinked sadly. As he raised them, though, Sir Renaud caught a look from his daughter that at once reassured him. The past was already forgotten - for there was nothing to forgive.
"We all acted out of love," the lady smiled. "So has God. And He has repaid us all,” she turned now to the young boy beside her “by returning your true father, my son." Mahtilde leaned over and gently kissed Baudouin’s head.
Quietly and happily watching, an intent look suddenly came over Raoul and he turned towards the full and chattering hall. Quickly scanning the room, his keen eyes spotted the object of his search. Sitting at a nearby table, silent and relatively alone, was the Lord of Renty.
"Yes," Sir Renaud nodded, "And thank God that He did bring him home. We all needed you back, Raoul" he added, glancing over at the boy's father. But to the count's surprise, Raoul, staring off, inexplicably rose from his chair. Mahtilde sat up as she watched her husband make his way past rows of elegant tables. Her brow furrowed thoughtfully when he slowly approached the place where, not far off, her ex-groom-to-be was seated.
"My lord Raoul!" The knight quickly made as if to rise, but the crusader laid a preventing hand on his shoulder.
"No, please," answered Raoul, "That is not necessary." The Lord of Renty shifted somewhat uneasily as Raoul sat beside him. A moment or two passed and the two men stared searchingly at each other as if anticipating what the other would say. So intent was their focus that they did not notice the countless heads giving occasional, curious, but discreet turns towards them. Despite the crowd's curiosity, though, there remained a polite decency and the cheerful din throughout the hall continued, making it impossible to hear the knights’ conversation.
Raoul meanwhile clearly sensed the Lord of Renty’s suspense, and would not keep him in it. That was why he had come.
"Today," Raoul said seriously, "has brought great change for both of us." His uneasy companion caught the tone in his voice and misunderstood it. Fearful that Raoul would discuss the canceled wedding, the Lord of Renty quietly steered the awkward focus away from himself.
"Ah yes," he agreed. "What a dark exile you have escaped from, Sir Raoul!"
The crusader nodded, "I have told you much of my captivity. Yet for all the bitter persecutions, I said little of my greatest torture. Nothing brought me more agony than the thought and worry of my family." His eyes drifted as he spoke. He was seeing himself now chained in the stifling tower. "How ardently I desired to see my wife and son, to hold them one last time... to know at least that they would be safe, even if I could not protect them myself."
Respectfully silent, the Lord of Renty watched his friend seemingly grow lost in his memories. Looking at the vivid scars on Raoul's face, a strong compassion arose in his noble heart and he easily imagined his friend's cruel imprisonment. His admiration, however, turned to a subtle apprehension and the dark shadow from before returned to his face. So engrossed was he in his thoughts, that he did not at once notice when Raoul emerged from his.
"In a way,” the crusader sighed, “it was a mercy I did not know all that Mahtilde was suffering. I may not have been able to endure it, knowing that I could do nothing." Raoul looked now at his companion, with an earnest and penetrating gaze. "But while I was gone… you were here at their side. So it is with sincere gratitude, and a great debt, that I thank you for the service you rendered my wife and my son."
The Lord of Renty, tense and alert, started. His narrow eyes peered in disbelief. He was not an impulsive man, and this was no slight matter. He had nearly married Raoul's wife after years of her resistance. How could the long-lost lord not be angry? The Lord of Renty was hardly expecting thanks, nor did he appreciate joking of the matter.
But Raoul was in earnest. After a decade of slavery, justice held a prominent and precious place in his heart.
"Despite Mahtilde's grief,” Raoul explained, “you sought only her welfare. In our hour of great need you did not abandon my family. You were faithful even when they were betrayed by those closest to them… by my own blood." The strain in his voice revealed only a shadow of the bitterness of this wound. The crusader, however, immediately resumed his former focus. "In our darkest trial, you, my friend, were there for Mahtilde and my son. In truth, how can I ever thank you enough?"
The music and laughter throughout the hall had continued its cheerful din, creating a certain privacy for the two lords’ conversation. And yet, though no one was listening, there were several proud nods as many of the astute guests accurately and merrily deduced the knights’ discussion. Mahtilde especially, smiled with touching satisfaction at her noble husband and at her dear friend.
None, however, were as moved as the Lord of Renty. No longer doubtful of the crusader's sincerity, he felt strangely humbled for his previous fears. Ever since Raoul’s sudden return, he had been plagued with a silent dread. He felt that somehow he himself had become the villain and would be considered an enemy of Crequy. Raoul’s gracious words were not only a relief, they were a shock. Even now, a struggle flickered briefly on the Lord of Renty’s face. Then, all at once, the shadow vanished... never to return.
"I... Lord Raoul, I am - " he stuttered with mild emotion. "You are most gracious. And I am grateful beyond words that the Holy Virgin has returned you to us alive." He glanced past Raoul and at the lady Mahtilde. Staring a moment, a sincere, but no longer spousal, love shone in his eyes. "She deserves you, Raoul," he nodded solemnly. "And nothing less. I could wish no more for her than that. She has earned it. Indeed…" his gaze wandered as his mind dwelt on someone else, not present at the party. "She has suffered much for it.” His hard face softened as he looked back towards Raoul. “You both have."
"Your friendship is a grace I have not earned," Raoul protested. “Rather, I am forever indebted to God and His dear Mother for it."
The fellow knight shook his head. "You would have done no less," he insisted. "I acted out of love and friendship. And I -" he hesitated, but only for a moment, "I shall consider myself exceedingly rewarded if I may claim yours, Raoul."
In answer, the Lord of Crequy extended his scarred hand. Without a word, the other nobleman gently took hold of it in a firm grasp. Raoul smiled. Moments passed as the two men once more gazed at one another, this time without an uneasy anxiety.
Then, though sitting, the crusader pulled his clasped hand nearer and cast his arm about the other knight’s shoulder. The Lord of Renty returned the strong embrace, while remaining mindful and cautious of his friend’s wounds. A sudden gratitude swelled within him, and a heartfelt prayer escaped him. "Thank God you are alive, Raoul," he whispered fervently, "… and home!"
When Mahtilde saw her lord rise, her discreet gaze quickly returned to their own table. Had she continued to watch though, Mahtilde would have seen Raoul hesitate. For, the moment that he rose, his keen eyes had spotted a sullen figure, hiding in the shadows. The lord instantly stiffened. Though older and somewhat thinner despite his unjust luxuries, Sir Baudouin was easily recognized by his brother Raoul.
No one in the banquet hall seemed to notice the Lord of Crequy looking towards the side corridor. More importantly, they did not notice his face. Neither, for that matter, did Sir Baudouin. He was quite ignorant, in fact, of his brother's grim stare. His own thoughtful gaze was proudly turned towards the floor. Raoul, meanwhile, eyed him as one would a despised and pathetic vermin, somehow painfully familiar and yet strangely unknown to him. Moments passed and still Sir Baudouin did not notice him. Without realizing it, Raoul was relieved. Neither brother seemed willing to face the other.
All at once though, a fire sparked within the crusader’s deep eyes and his breath quickened. With graceful discretion, however, Raoul quietly turned away and hurried towards his table. Raising a hand to his flushed face, the knight's resolute steps faltered as he approached his seat. His mind was like a whirlwind and he struggled to focus it.
Mahtilde had only noticed Raoul’s approach when he stumbled, and she looked up at him anxiously. His eyes were closed. Mahtilde said nothing, knowing Raoul would speak when it was right. Judging by his calm, though pale, exterior, the lady would not have believed the battle raging within her husband. She could never have imagined the fierce temptation that now confronted him: to condemn, if not hate, his wretched brother.
Curious though, at Raoul's odd behavior, Mahtilde looked over to where he had been. Squinting in mild confusion, she saw that the Lord of Renty was now feasting happily; his face was beaming and his spirits were high. The lady frowned. Evidently, the cheerful lord was not the cause of Raoul's strange mood.
Relieved, and yet puzzled at the mystery, Mahtilde sighed as she turned back towards Raoul. Her passing gaze, however, fell across the open and nearby corridor. Her curious expression vanished the instant that she saw Sir Baudouin standing in the shadowy passage. Cautious not to be seen, Sir Baudouin was stealthily hiding while peering out into the Great Hall. A shiver ran through the lady, for his dark eyes were fixed solely on Raoul.
Mahtilde looked fearfully at her husband, who was now seated beside her. A host of frightful thoughts flooded her mind, as she wondered if her treacherous brother-in-law had dared to threaten her lord.
Yet Raoul said nothing of any such evil. In fact, he acted as though he did not even know of her worries, for a quiet smile warmed his face. Calming herself then, Mahtilde silently sighed in relief. She confidently reassured herself that all was well… for the moment anyhow. Although in reality quite mistaken, she felt certain that Raoul had not noticed Baudouin.
Unbeknownst to Raoul, however, his younger brother had been observing him… very closely. Watching and waiting for his opportunity, it was not by accident that Sir Baudouin, with ever-increasing intensity, gazed boldly at the noble lord. Tightly fingering the hilt of his sword, the treacherous knight appeared ready to step out into the banquet hall at any moment.