The mystery man stepped into the circle of torchlight.
“Harley?” I said, not quite able to believe my eyes. “Can it really be you?”
“Yes, it can and it is! I!” he said with a flourishing bow. The bandits drew back, whispering among themselves and I wonder if they were planning to try and kill us both. I crept a little closer, the better to hear.
“Change of plan,” the head bandit was saying. “We will kill the man and sell the girl as a slave.”
“But that’s the same as our old plan!” one of the other bandits a grizzled old man with a grey beard said. “Except with one added element, that of killing the mystery man.”
“Well, what should I have said? Slight modification to the plan?”
“That would have been more accurate. We wouldn’t have been expecting a completely different plan if you’d said that.”
“Well,” said another. “Is it a modification? Or an addition?”
“Sorry, was that addition or edition? You know, like first edition, second edition…”
“Draft!” said a third. “You could have said: Here’s the second draft of the plan.”
“That’s just silly!” the first bandit said. “Second draft! Whoever heard of such a thing!”
“Some people might say Plan B…”
But they all just scoffed at such arrant nonsense.
They continued their whispered bickering and I went back to Harley. The love of my life. He’d rescued me from the burning ship the pirates who attacked the ship had set fire to, throwing me into the water and following with a dive headfirst into the water. He’d caught me in his arms and swum with me all the way back to England. I thought he’d drowned, but he was here, larger than life. The hood fell away from his face and I gasped.
“Harley!” I gasped. “You’re quite hideously scarred!”
“Yes,” he said. “And that is why I have hidden myself from you all these years. But now I’ve found you again and you can learn to love me once more, even if I am horribly deformed.”
“No, I can’t. I’m sorry, Harley, but a girl has standards.”
And I ran away from the circle of torchlight, the whispering bandits and my disgustingly disfigured former love of my life and through the dark empty streets of Bruges. Until I came to the house where the Earl of Oxford was hiding.
Delivering my secret message from the Earl of Warwick was easy. Escaping the lascivious clutches of the Earl was entirely another. Such is the fate of the beautiful but virtuous spy!
“Unhand me, sirrah!” I demanded in a clam but authoratative voice.
“Nay wench!” he said. “You may be disguised as a boy, in your breeches and doublet, your lustrous hair pinned up under a cap, but I can tell that you are a maid and a beauty at that. Let me kiss you, for I am a lusty man!”
I slapped him but he grabbed me by the wrists and threw me onto the settle. I thought it was all up for me, that my jealously guarded virtue would soon be a thing of the past when he suddenly stopped, fell at my feet and began most piteously to weep.
“I am a poor wretched soul!” he wept. “And you are a fair maid who has risked life and limb and more to deliver me a message from my brother-in-law the earl of Warwick whose sister I am married to but she is in England and I – alas! – am not.”
I sat up and patted him on the head. “There! There!” I said. “All will be well. My lord of Warwick has gone to France and soon he will raise and army to invade England and topple the king who wronged him so. You will see your wife again.”
He sat back and sighed, wiping a tear from his eye. “That is my dream!” he said. “And you, fair sweet maiden, have made it come true!” He took my hand in his and kissed it. “You who are so virtuous and fair! I shall adore you, you know, to the end of my days.”
Extricating myself with difficulty, I left the lonely Earl to his memories and hopes and made my way down the street to the house where the Duke of Exeter was hiding. Leaning against the door I took several deep breaths. It wasn’t easy being beautiful! And exciting the passions of every man who saw me! But I had a job to do so I knocked on the door and was let in by a servant who put his fingers to his lips and led me into a darkened room.
“Who is it?” a rasping voice said.
“A secret messenger from the earl of Warwick,” the servant said.
“Bring her closer. Let me see.”
I was pulled closer to the voice in the dark which belonged to the Duke of Exeter. He gave an audible gasp. “But she is beautiful! Do not be afraid, maiden. You are safe with me. I… I… I had a terrible accident and now I am incapable…”
I pressed my hands against my ears, not wanting to hear – or even imagine – what he was incapable of. He sighed and turned away. “You are safe with me,” he said sadly.
I held out the letter and he took it. “Tell your master I will be there.”
I left the house and it took me a while before I realised I was followed. I stopped, put my hands on my hips and turned around. “Harley!” I said. “I’m sorry that I can’t love you anymore, but you know I can only love a man as handsome as I am beautiful and you… Well, you’re not.”
“I seek not your love,” he said coming out of the shadows. “I want only to protect you. I have searched for you these many long years. Please don’t send me away. I shall stay hidden so that you don’t have to see me, let not your eyes fall upon my ugliness even by accident. Dakota! I beg you!”
I relented and let him follow me just in case anymore bandits tried to sell me as a slave. It was kind of creepy, you know? but how was he supposed to help it? Being in love with me, I mean. I mean, like, everyone else was. There was the Bastard of Fauconberg – dear Thomas! I allowed myself a fond smile – and the Earl of Oxford, Harley of course, Anthony Woodville, all those sailors… It made a girl quite cross to think of it.
“Where do we go?” he whispered.
“To France, Harley.” I said. “We go to France!”