The Cherlebury Rose
After three days of chafing under siege conditions, Elaine rebelled. She slipped out the postern door when the chance offered itself, and into the thickly wooded grounds surrounding the manor, following the path that lead one down into the valley of the Evenlode River, to the rough footbridge that villagers from Cherlebury used to cross over into Wychwood Forest to collect firewood.
Her rebellion was a cautious one. Oxfordshire was as peaceful a county one could find, and was virtually untouched by the dynastic battle being waged outside its borders. Elaine knew the area around Cherlebury intimately, and had explored most of Wychwood thoroughly at one time or another. She was known by the villagers and farmers in the area, and they would not dare lift a finger against her.
But balancing that security was the news they had heard of a large battle on Oxfordshire's northern borders, perhaps two days ago. The news had been worrying, and her father had ordered they prepare for any eventuality. That meant no-one was to leave the manor house, except when absolutely necessary, and all but a few of the windows were to be shuttered against unexpected attack.
The stuffy conditions would have been bearable for a short time, but Lord Curran had been alarmed at the news of Pembroke's execution as a traitor. The rebel's victory meant they would be free to continue south. Abruptly, the magnitude of the emergency had expanded. Elaine had moved around the hall, soothing fractious babies, reassuring worried mothers, dolling out the ration of food that they would be restricted to while the emergency lasted, and generally trying to sound more positive than she felt. It didn't help that her father and stepmother were immured in their private chamber, for everyone in the house thought it was a sign of their fear, although none dared voice their beliefs to Elaine.
After three days of stifling inactivity and strain, whilst not a single remarkable event occurred outside the manor walls, Elaine knew she must get out into the fresh cool air or she would scream. Screaming in front of the servants and families in the great hall would be a transgression against decorum that her stepmother would never forgive her for, so Elaine chose to escape.
She had her dagger tucked into her girdle, and she had wrapped herself up in her uncle's heavy black war cloak. The hood was large and enveloped her features, and the warmth of the thick wool cloak would be welcome in the deep shade of the forest. The dark material brushed the ground when she put it on, yet it only came to her uncle's knees on him. She knew it would blend in well with the shadows under the trees.
Elaine paused now, on the crest of the path, just before it dipped steeply down to the river, and scanned the cultivated land on the other side of the bridge. Farmland stretched for nearly half a mile before the dark shadow of the forest swallowed it up. Most of the land was unenclosed, still, and used for crops, while on the village side of the river, nearly all the farm land had been contained and turned over to pasture for the sheep and cattle that provided the best wool cloth in England and the choicest meat and milk.
It was a peaceful picture Elaine saw, and the serenity reassured her. She tucked an escaping curlicue of golden wheat-coloured hair back behind her ear, and picked up her skirts and made her way down to the bridge, and crossed quickly.
The water chuckled invitingly, and Elaine toyed with the idea of bathing, but decided against it. Swimming was one of her favourite past times, but needed careful orchestration of time and privacy, neither of which she was guaranteed to have today. She would be scolded for her foolhardiness when she returned anyway. There was no need to add to her crimes.
She cross the ripening fields quickly, moving with a light grace that defied her efforts to imitate an overworked farmhand trudging home for his noon meal, and slipped in amongst the trees, fairly certain her passage had not been noticed.