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A Saint Beckons

by Robert Douglas


Background
Wars of the Roses battle
You half-collapse against an elm tree. The arrow head is still lodged deep in your thigh, throbs like the devil. Gritting your teeth, you stagger onwards through the dusky gloom, panting with tremendous effort. Where in God's name am I? Not that it really matters. The sudden snap of a twig, thrash of a moved bush, and your heart leaps skyward. You stop dead, nervous eyes darting about the forest shadows. Yet no attack comes. The shriek of some wild animal followed by a rustle as it scampers in frightened protest at your approach. God's teeth! almost a whimper with relief. Another ambush like the last would certainly finish you.

You reassure yourself there shouldn't be any Yorkists around these parts but, if there were, and if worse comes to worse, you can always conceal or even tear off the red rose badge and feign loyalty to the white. You've kept such a emblem from a time when your commander, Andrew Trollope, fought for the Earl of Warwick before switching sides. Many others including yourself followed his example. Not much honour to be had these days, you admit. Nor trust: how can you trust a man who so readily changes allegiance to the enemy standard?

But such matters, even the battle itself, seem as distant memories. A dream... nay, a hellish nightmare, and one best forgotten! Your primary concern is to seek refuge, a shelter, some place warm, with perhaps a vegetable broth and small loaf to stave the autumn chill. At such desires, your mouth waters and an empty belly growls in protest. You'd managed to down a small tankard of mead and some beef tough as boot leather or perhaps it was boot leather! -yet even this sorry feast comprised your breakfast; you haven't eaten for, what... twelve, thirteen hours? Now, all made worse by having lost an alarming amount of blood, in your weakened state you can only hope there's a habitation nearby. Aye, I would likely die this night, in this dark place. You lean against the bough of a sturdy oak, as if hoping to absorb its strength. Finally, too exhausted to go on, you give in to thoughts of a peaceful eternal sleep, away from this cold, brutal, hopeless world of woes. You lean back against the oak, slide down the rough bark, sit with your legs stretched out. Grimy, sweat-streaked face cranes up to the starry heavens. "Beautiful," you gasp, "so beautiful, I never truly realised..."

No sooner have you closed your eyes than a beautiful chant relaxes your whole mind. Blissful... the scriptures were right, after all. Nothing ails my soul's ascent to Heaven. Your breathing becomes steadier, more rhythmic to your heartbeat... you frown: heartbeat? Your eyes open, not to heaven, but the same forest with its creaking branches, wild-flower scents, while a light breeze cools the perspiration on your brow. The hoot of nearby owl stirs you further to wakefulness. Yet the chant remains. How...? It takes you a moment to realise: Monks chanting a priory nearby!

This alone prompts your stiff, aching muscles into action. You grimace at the stab of pain in your leg, such sudden movement has renewed the bleeding. Nevertheless, your prayers for salvation have been answered (at least in the mortal sense) which propels you onwards with a fresh heart. The chanting guides your weary steps through the forest, the undergrowth is thick and makes the going hard, you pant with the exertion. Then, suddenly you emerge from the tree-line to find a wall some yards away. You stagger on, following it round, hand clutching at the coarse grey stone for support. After what seems an age you locate the great west door. With whatever strength remains, you hammer on the heavy wood, your frantic blows echo from within. Soon, the world dims and you lose consciousness...

You regain your senses to find the crucified Saviour gazing upon you. The room itself is a simple one, sparse of furnishings, save for the cot upon which you lie and a three-legged wooden stool nearby upon which sits your shirt, trews, and boots. Sounds of sheep and cows in the fields outside, even a cuckoo adds its familiar call -for the moment you're content to just lie there, lose yourself in nature's cacophony. Eventually, you decide to clamber out of your rest-bed and search the priory for some water. Your leg wound has been cleaned and neatly bandaged although you have a raging thirst.

You soon learn that the prior abbot is most intrigued by his mysterious 'guest'. You're also shocked to discover that almost three days have passed since they found you at the door, having being afflicted by a deep fever, your life ebbed towards the cold touch of death. Yet, you vaguely remember something brittle being laid across your brow after which colour returned to your pale features, the fever passed, and on the third day displayed an almost miraculous recovery.

"And so," smiles Prior Abbot Richmond, "on the fourth day, it seems Saint Milburge's gift has come to fruition once again. Indeed, it seems her blessing smiles upon you."

"Saint Milburge?" you repeat with uncertainty. "Who-?"

"Forgive me, my son, duty calls upon what so little time I possess. But, if you wish, perhaps you'd care to thank her in prayer at the altar watching over her bones?"

"Aye, Prior Abbot, that I would."

Despite it being a secluded place, tidings of the latest 'Milburge Miracle' somehow spread beyond the abbey walls and gathered apace as wildfire. Most townsfolk found some excuse to visit on 'official' business yet in truth only to regard you with awe.

Then, on the seventh day, the soldiers came.
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