Most Fortunate of Men

Jael of Cairnsford

Cairnsford was so small, and it lay so close to the borderlands, that any day its people expected to see the enemy army march into the dusty town square. Squire Duncan’s daughter Jael could not help being nervous as she drove her pigs to the village well.

Not that the people lacked faith in their army. Why, on the outskirts of town sprawled the great stone mansion of General Caleb himself. But bitter hostilities with Lochbourne had continued on for ten years now. It seemed the best of generals could not win this war.

Many men and boys from the village had gone and never returned. Horses and oxen and every other kind of beast had been sacrificed in the fight. Jael remembered sadly what their herd of pigs had once been. The few that were left did not even have to fight to get a share of the water.

Jael looked at her reflection in the dark water and wondered. Her black hair still showed no trace of gray, still looked shiny and felt soft. Her face seemed unwrinkled, even around her green eyes, and her figure still slim, though she had now reached the age of twenty-seven.

“Have you heard?” Isa, the innkeeper’s daughter, exclaimed. “Our army won! The peace conference is to be held in the Trent Valley, just the other side of the forest.”

“Are you sure?” Jael demanded. She wondered that no word of this victory had reached her father.

“Of course I am sure!” Isa said mockingly, staring insolently up at Jael. “The squire’s daughter does not always get the first news. The messenger just arrived at the inn an hour ago. You have been tending your dirty pigs, I suppose, so of course you wouldn’t know. He has gone to see your father by now, so you’ll know soon enough. The war is over, and soon your betrothed will come home and see how haggard you’ve gotten!”

“At least I have one coming,” Jael said quietly.

“He may change his mind when he sees you,” Isa taunted.

Jael turned away from her and hoisted her bucket up on her shoulder, then deliberately let it spill out onto Isa as she passed by her. She left the screaming, sputtering girl without even seeing the results, though she chuckled inside at the thought of Isa’s painstakingly crimped yellow hair lying in wet rivulets along her stumpy fat neck.

Jael drove her pigs home as quickly as she could, thankful suddenly that she had so few. She saw the strange horse at the hitching post outside their dark-timbered house. Hurrying the pigs into their pen, she strode quickly inside. Her father sat at the long, rough-hewn table with a thin, weary-looking man in herald’s garb. The fellow rose hastily when Jael entered.

“My daughter,” the squire said by way of introduction. “You may repeat your news for her.”

The herald bowed. “Greetings to you, gracious lady,” he said. “I have made my apologies to the Squire for not coming first to your house, but my horse went lame and I had to stop at the inn to have him seen to.”

“It is no matter,” Jael said. She saw something in the man’s face that caused a sick feeling of dread to rise up inside her. “Tell your news, herald.”

“Lady, the war is won,” the herald said, far from being as hearty about such news as he ought to have been. “There is a force of about two hundred enemy left in the Trent Valley which we have surrounded. In their ranks is the Crown Prince of Lochbourne, and our king is even now sending negotiators to them to make terms.”

“What other news do you bear?”

“My lady is shrewd,” the messenger said, bowing again. “It is indeed a time to temper our joy with mourning. General Caleb has fallen, my lady.”

“It is impossible.” The room shifted around her, it seemed, but she grasped the back of a chair and steadied herself. “It is impossible,” she said again.

“Would that I lied, my lady,” the herald said, tears springing suddenly into his eyes and falling unchecked into the lines down his face. “I myself have come from that battlefield, straight to your father’s house. And I myself saw the general plunge from his horse in the midst of that final battle. It was their prince himself, a mighty warrior, who felled him with a terrible lance-blow. I saw him fall, lady. I saw him fall.”

“What of the body?” Jael demanded.

“Oh, lady, we searched the field all the next day, but found him not. It is our thought — lady, I would spare your gentle ears if I could — it is our thought that the body was taken by the enemy — they may have sought a thing upon which to vent their anger at their defeat. They may have defiled the general’s corpse.”

“May it not be possible that he lives?” Jael asked. “Could he have escaped the field and hidden himself?”

“You did not see the blow he received,” the herald said. “Lady, I was born in this village. For that reason I came straight here, for it is days closer than the capital, and I have told–” he faltered for the first time, and glanced at Duncan with a look Jael did not understand “ — I have told my tale.”

“What is this?” Jael demanded, staring at her father, who avoided her look. “Father?”

“There is nothing we can do,” her father insisted. “There is not a man in this village who could protect us. No one to attend us. We cannot do anything.”

“Father, we must go,” Jael exclaimed. “This outrage must not be permitted. We shall get the body from them and bring it home. It shall be buried here, where he was born, and where he lived and went out to defend our lives.”

“How can we?” her father exploded. “We shall be killed before we ever reach the place! And we could do nothing if we got there! They may have cast bits of him to the four winds by this time.”

“We must go,” Jael said firmly, letting go of the chair. “Father, we have taxed this poor herald most inhospitably. I will get him food and drink and then gather our things.”

“Lady, I will accompany you myself,” the herald cried. “It does my heart good to see you so resolved. Thank you for your courage.”

Jael’s father led in prayer for the food. “Oh, Lord God, we thank thee for this victory. We pray for thy protection as we go in Your Name and for courage and wisdom to do right.” His voice gained courage and resolve even as he spoke and Jael knew he was back to being the father she knew and loved. She just wished her knees would stop shaking.

They rode all that afternoon and came to the Trent Valley at dusk. The herald was so weary he seemed ready to fall from his saddle by the time they reached the camp of their forces, which held the enemy within its circle. When they made their errand clear they were at first refused permission to cross the lines. The general’s second-in-command came to speak to them.

“We have come to ask the enemy to return the general’s body to us,” Jael stated. “These soldiers block our path. Are we the enemy, that your men stop our way?”

The commander bowed. “Lady, these are not honorable soldiers we hold within our circle,” he said. “If you did not know it before, this outrage must have told you. We have sent messages every hour demanding the return of the body. The answer comes straight that they refuse to give it up. It is our hope that the king’s negotiators come quickly and make terms for its release.”

“They are at least another day distant!” Jael exclaimed. “Is not the king himself coming?”

“Aye, my lady, but he will follow by at least another day. It is hoped all will be settled by then.”

“All will be settled tonight,” Jael said. “Let me pass.”

The commander looked into her eyes, studied the straightness of her carriage, glanced at her fearful but determined father, and stepped aside.

“I will send an escort of soldiers,” he proposed.

“No. We go on a mission of peace,” Jael said, “not to start the war again.”

In half an hour they met the first of the enemy’s troops. Jael was surprised to find that they were at once conducted through the lines to the tent of the Prince. Jael and her father were ushered inside.

The prince was a very young man, younger than Jael. It was impossible to suppose he had fought for the duration of the war. No doubt he had joined the army only recently. He was tall, straight, handsome, and powerfully built. When they entered he had been seated in a chair draped with rich fabric, but he rose as soon as he caught sight of Jael. His clothing was completely black, buckles, tassels, even the small bells that adorned it. His skin was very white and his hair and eyes light-colored.

“Welcome, Lady Jael,” he said with a graceful bow. “May I offer refreshment to you and your father?”

“Yes,” Jael said calmly. They sat on a beautiful rug and were served bread and cheese and fruit and seasoned meat. The prince stood by and ate nothing. At last his servant offered them wine. Jael refused and said, “We have come for our general, and ask you to release him to us.”

The prince looked at her in genuine astonishment. “Your general? Why, my lady, it is impossible.”

“My father has brought a ransom which should be suitable,” Jael said. Duncan hastily produced a cask and opened it, showing the gold within. The prince paced the tent and whirled back to look at them.

“Is this what the commander has been asking for all this time? We could not understand,” the prince said. “Your general is a man of great courage and strength. I have never seen his like in battle, and mine is a family of warriors. He must be highly regarded among his own people as well, if they would send one such as you to plead for him.”

“He is of our village,” Jael replied, blushing. “It was fitting that my father and I should come.”

“Your village is close?”

“Half a day only.”

“Then perhaps if your general is alive in the morning, I will allow you to take him home. He may live to die in his own bed.”

“The general is alive?” Jael’s father cried.

“Why, friend squire, would I take him from the field if he were dead?” The prince asked quizzically. Then he saw the look Jael and her father exchanged and his face clouded.

“We are not beasts who find sport in worrying corpses,” he said sharply. “I saw that he still lived and struggled after he fell, and that your troops were unlikely to find him in time to do what could be done.”

“If he has lived all this time, are you so sure he will die?” Duncan asked.

“Squire, I broke his back,” the prince said without emotion. “Lady, allow me to prepare you quarters for the night,” the prince said, seeing Jael’s faintness. “Tomorrow take your general home.”

Jael’s father helped her to the hastily-emptied officer’s tent where they were to stay and she collapsed, weeping, when they were alone. Her father held her close.

Jael slept but poorly that night and was out of the tent at dawn. To her surprise, the prince stood waiting outside the tent. He bowed.

“Come and see your general, Lady,” he invited. “I have told him of your arrival. It is easier for him to trust me with himself, since he has no choice, but his concern for your safety is very great. Show him that I have done you no harm.”

Jael followed the prince silently as he made his way through the wounded lying everywhere, some under makeshift awnings, and some in tents. Many cried for a touch of his hand, which he gave willingly, speaking with great kindness to all he passed.

He led Jael into a tent and she fell down beside General Caleb. It had been a long time since she had seen him. He was a very tall man. His dark hair and beard were thickly shot with gray, but his blue eyes looked clear and filled with relief as he reached out a hand to her.

“Lady Jael,” the general said, kissing her hand. “Is your good father well?”

“Very well, my lord,” Jael said, wishing her eyes would stay dry as she bade them. “We have neither of us been harmed. The prince has been most gracious.”

“I thank God. And my thanks to you, sir,” the general said to the prince. “It is a strange thing to find one’s enemy not so much an enemy as he supposed.”

“This was my father’s war, noble general,” the prince said softly. “I tried to be a dutiful son. But I am glad it is over. Your people are fine and brave, and I am not sorry that you will keep what is yours. The lady has come to take you home.”

“We must send word to our army that a wagon will be needed, and men to help,” Jael said.

“Lady, I would be honored to give you what you require,” the prince said. “My men honor your general as I do, and will be an honor guard to show our respect for him.”

Jael stayed while the general was being prepared for travel. Only when her father had mounted his horse and started to follow the ox-drawn wagon toward their own lines did the prince draw her aside for a moment.

“I will take no ransom,” he said firmly. “I have told your father so. Our people have cost your people enough.” He hesitated, making Jael think he had finished, but then grasped her hand. “Lady, our people will be at peace soon,” he said. “I do not know if God will spare my life, but after today I believe He works miracles. If I am to live, may I ask your father if I may seek your hand in marriage?”

Jael stared at him, startled, and blushed. “You honor me,” she said. “But I am already betrothed.”

“Are you sure that he has lived through this ten years of war?” the prince asked wryly.

“I have no doubt of it,” Jael said.

“He will be the most fortunate of men,” the prince said wistfully. “Farewell, Lady.”

Miraculously, General Caleb survived the trip home. Jael stayed in the wagon with him all the way, making him as comfortable as she could. He insisted that he felt little pain, and could feel nothing at all in the lower part of his body. Duncan rode alongside on his horse and answered the general’s questions about the village, lamenting the shortage of beasts and poor crops. Jael said little except to express her concern for the general’s comfort.

At last they arrived at the dark stone house. Word of their coming had spread through the village and most of the people came to welcome General Caleb home. Even Isa gushed her praise for Jael’s bravery.

But Jael shooed them quickly away, except for those who could help deliver the general safely to his bed and prepare food for him. It was late in the evening before he was settled in for sleep and Jael could leave him with those who would care for him through the night. She came home to find her father brooding at the kitchen table.

“I will go back to see how he does in the morning,” Jael said as she fixed her father some cold meat and bread and set a tankard of ale before him. He looked at the food but did not eat.

“The general is a very strong man indeed,” he said in a low voice.

“Father, you should eat,” Jael urged.

“It may be that he will not die,” her father continued. “Our village doctor thinks he may live.”

“It would be a wonderful thing if he would live and grow strong again,” Jael said briskly, setting things to rights as she moved around the room.

“He will not gain the use of his legs again, my dear,” Duncan said firmly, stepping into Jael’s path and stopping her bustling around the room.

“How can you be so sure?” Jael demanded sharply.

“I am sure,” her father answered. “You must face it as a fact.”

“Father, time may make him well!” Jael insisted.

“How long will you wait before you realize it? And what will you do when you can no longer deny it?”

Jael began to tremble. Her father seized her in a fierce, protective embrace.

“You have been strong all these years, my Jael,” Duncan said in her ear. “Do not be weak about this.”

“I cannot, father. Surely he will not force me.”

“I do not think he will. But he will need you more than he ever could have.”

“I cannot be his nurse! I would have been proud and honored and glad to be his wife. But what kind of life can we have?”

“He is the same great and noble and courageous man he has always been. And you are betrothed to him.”

“Will you force me to wed him, then?”

“My Jael, I will honor my word.”

Jael pulled away from him and ran out of the house. She caught her horse in the paddock and galloped out into the night. The animal’s long legs stretched out beneath her, its hooves seeking footing as she plunged through the forest along a faint path.

Thunder rumbled, but she did not pause, even when a downpour drenched her. But the horse stumbled at last and she realized how dark it had become. Stopping, she found that a sharp stick had forced itself under the horse’s shoe. Binding it up with a piece ripped from her sleeve, Jael began to lead the beast home.

Lights and voices warned her of the approach of at least half a dozen mounted men. Jael cursed her stupidity, which had left her caught out in a rainstorm alone with a lame horse and no way of defending herself.

She was about to try to slip away into the woods when a man approached wearing the insignia of the king’s royal guard. He was followed by a group of men carrying pitch-soaked torches burning feebly in the drizzle that remained from the storm. At the center of the men she recognized the king himself.

“What a dreadful night to find a woman out alone in the woods!” exclaimed the king. “Do you know the village of Cairnsford? Can you show us the way?”

Jael nodded wordlessly and pointed off down the trail the way she had originally come.

“Your horse is lame,” the king observed. “One of my men will give you his mount and lead the beast.”

Jael accepted reluctantly, and as she mounted the soldier’s horse the king took a closer look at her.

“Why, you are the squire’s daughter, Lady Jael,” the king exclaimed. “We go to presume upon your hospitality. Tomorrow we can reach the valley of Trent, is it not so?”

“Easily, majesty,” Jael replied. “You honor our house with your presence.”

“I suppose you have heard that the war is over, Lady,” the king asked.

“Indeed, some such tidings have reached us,” Jael said evasively.

“It is sad news indeed that General Caleb was killed,” the king mused. “They will pay dearly for this outrage.”

“But majesty, the general lives.” Jael almost enjoyed the shocked look on the king’s face. “Today my father and I brought him home from Trent.”

The king reigned up his horse and stared at her. “How can it be? I was told many saw him fall, and that the enemy stole the body and may have defiled it.”

“It was false, sire. Their prince himself had his physicians care for the general and freely gave him up to my father and I. We did not even pay a ransom.”

“Then all is well!” The king seemed to draw himself up straighter. “I can scarcely believe it. My messenger said no man could have lived after the blow the general received. Yet you say he is alive?”

“Alive, yes, majesty,” Jael hedged. The king saw in her face that which whisked away the joy from his own eyes.

“What has happened?”

“Come to my home, rest and refresh yourselves,” Jael said, for they had come out of the woods and stood before her house. “Tomorrow I will take you to see the general.”

Jael spent another sleepless night and was down in the kitchen very early, baking bread and frying slices of ham. She knew the king and his men must be very weary, for they had arrived more than a full day ahead of the expected time. She tried hard not to disturb them as she prepared breakfast, but their hunger apparently was greater than their weariness, for they bestirred themselves when they began to smell the food.

Jael came out to set the table and found her father conversing with the king. She saw in the king’s looks that her father had not hesitated to tell him of the general’s condition.

“Your household shall receive great honor for what you have done, Squire,” the king promised. “A warrior’s share of the spoil from Lochbourne shall be yours. And a portion of their tribute shall be yours as well.

“And they shall pay dearly for General Caleb,” he went on after a pause. “No less than the life of the one who took from him all but his life. Their prince shall die here in this village.”

“Majesty, speak with the general before you do this,” Jael blurted out, startling all the men at the table. She blushed at their stares and cast down her eyes. “Seek his counsel, I beg of you, before you resolve such a thing.”

The king seemed genuinely surprised at her passion. “If you wish it, I shall, Lady,” he replied. “But he has more reason to be bitter than any of us. It is my wish to avenge him. Surely he will be pleased.”

“Perhaps you do not know the general as well as you think,” Jael ventured. And she was struck by the thought that she herself was unsure how the general would react. Before yesterday she would not have believed of herself that she would seek to be loosed from her betrothal for any reason. Now she felt again the bitter resentment rise within her at the very thought of spending her life with a crippled husband.

She knew the general but little, in reality. They had met and spoken half a dozen times in all the years of her life. His reputation as a soldier, a leader, and master she knew well, but how had he changed in the face of this tragic event? Would he be glad for the death of the Lochbournian prince? It would be no worse a thing than her own opposition to the wedding she had once looked forward to.

They made the short walk over to the general’s mansion as soon as breakfast was done. Jael had been unable to eat anything. She thought of letting her father take the king alone, but something drew her and she found herself in the general’s bedroom before she quite realized it.

“Our valiant warrior,” the king said gently, accepting the hand the general reached out to him. “We have heard of your victory, and we thank you. Be assured that we will deal with the Lochbournians as is fitting after their ten years laying waste to our land and slaughtering our people. And we pledge especially that this thing which has been done to you shall be avenged.”

“Sire, there is a thing you should know before you set sail upon the course you have charted,” the general said. “The king of Lochbourne died a week ago.”

The king stared at him. “I heard it as I lay in their tents,” the general said. “The prince had come to the battlefront to bear the news to his commanders and seek to end the war. This whole war was the work of a crazed monarch, and not the will of any of his people, not even his own son. It was a terrible mischance that the prince happened to arrive in the midst of this final battle and was forced to help defend his people instead of bearing the message of peace he had wanted to bring. This young man worships God and seeks good, unlike his father, whose evil he could not control.”

“Do you mean to say that he did not intend to kill you as he struck that blow on the field?” demanded the king.

“Why, majesty, I would do the same in his place. A man does not become a soldier to see if he can spare as many of the enemy as possible when they press hard to end the lives of his men. He but did a soldier’s duty. And now he seeks peace. Believe me, their people have been punished for this war. They spoke freely enough in my presence, thinking that I would never live to repeat anything. Their losses were far heavier than we realized, in men, in beasts, in money — their country lies in ruins, if half what they spoke is true. It has been plucked clean to pay for this war.”

“And so you think I must be merciful?” the king was angry. “Have they not ravaged us and cost us much in just those things you have spoken of, and fought upon our soil besides?”

“Majesty, you will find yourself with little choice,” the general said with a wan smile. “There will be little spoil to gather, little tribute to exact. I doubt none of what they said. Lochbourne is a wasted skeleton. You will have to be a skillful buzzard to pick meat from its bones. It is even as I am, left with nothing of value but hope that those in whose hands my future lies will be kind to me.”

Jael started to see his eyes rest upon her as he spoke his last words. And tears burst from her eyes as she understood the man she had pledged to marry at last. She stepped up to the bed and knelt beside Caleb.

“Your future lies in my hands, God willing, my lord Caleb,” she said with a smile. “It will be as bright as I can make it.”

Caleb smiled back at her. “Then perhaps I was wrong about having nothing of value,” he said softly. “Perhaps I am the most fortunate of men.”

By the time the peace negotiations were completed a month later, General Caleb was able to sit up in a wheeled chair. Jael pushed him around his yard so that he could see the state of his property. He eagerly planned the restoration of his withered flower gardens now that the servants who had gone off to war or back to their families would be returning. Jael too was grateful for the prospect of help with the work of restoring the village. It would be good to see their interrupted lives start moving again.

Voices sounded from down the wooded lane that approached the mansion and they both looked up. Several men, including Jael’s father, appeared around the bend. Jael recognized the king and some of his retainers, and finally realized that the others wore the crest of Lochbourne. Beside the king walked the prince who had used his lance upon Caleb.

“Welcome, welcome!” Caleb called heartily, and bade Jael push him toward the visitors. “Please excuse the state of my grounds. We were just talking of how to begin to care for these poor neglected beds, and we–”

The prince of Lochbourne strode forward and fell to his knees before Caleb.

“I thank you for my life, noble general,” he said brokenly. “And for the mercy your king has shown to my people. I know very well that it was your doing. As God is my witness, when my country has recovered itself, we will try to repay you. I only regret that some things cannot be mended with tribute.”

“Why, friend prince, it has all come out well, has it not?” Caleb responded with a smile. “We shall do better as friends than we did as enemies, I am sure.”

The prince looked up and saw Jael for the first time. He staggered to his feet and his eyes widened.

“Did not the king tell you of our wedding this afternoon?” Jael smiled. “He has come to wish us joy. Will you not stay as well and be our guest?”

“He told me of the general’s marriage today…” the prince faltered. “But he did not mention the name of the bride. You … told me you were betrothed. Now I see why you were so sure your husband was alive. It is … it is just as it should be, Lady. Indeed, I can with all my heart stay and wish you joy. I do not see how you and your general can fail to have it, whether by my wish or no. Certainly, you cannot but have joy, Lady Jael.”

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