On April 12, I posted a 100-word story called Competing Vows. There were people who were curious about the situation surrounding it, both what had come before and what happened afterward. So, here is the full story.
Our candles were the fireflies that darted around, our incense the scent of the lilacs and lavender in full bloom in the bower chapel. I arrived first, with two of my friends as witnesses. A moment later, I saw Francesca appear with two of her ladies-in-waiting, ducking to avoid catching her hair on the low-hanging branches. My beautiful, forbidden bride.
I had just taken her hand when the priest arrived, stepping in silently from the other side of the grove. He was young to the point where I wondered briefly if he even was a priest.
“Thank you for coming,” Francesca said to him. “Thank you for doing this for us.” He nodded, pulled us closer together and started the marriage ceremony.
The words of the wedding mass flowed over me, but I could hardly believe this was actually happening. I was marrying the duke’s daughter, snatching her from the arms of the man she was promised to, a week before they were to be officially betrothed. I, in my cowardice, had been willing to concede defeat, but Francesca had fought for me. At least, secretly.
We joined hands and there in front of God, a farmhand, a tavern assistant, and two ladies-in-waiting, two became one. Five minutes later, Francesca and I left the bower together.
I had no money for preparations, but Francesca had rented a cottage not far away for our wedding night. My friends escorted us there and then with grins and slaps on the shoulder and cries of “good luck!” they said good night.
There was wine, cheese and bread waiting for us on the table inside. I built a fire while Francesca served the food. We sat on the rug in front of the fire and ate together, feeding each other and laughing, nervous and excited. But we both had other appetites on our mind, and only half the food was eaten before we fell into each other’s arms and abandoned food altogether.
I awoke the next morning to the crow of some distant rooster. The air was chill but the covers around us were warm. Francesca was lying next to me, her dark hair spread out like a halo on the pillow, my sleeping angel. I snuggled closer to her and was about to fall back asleep when there was a pounding on the door. We both sat up and I saw the fear in her eyes.
“It has to be my father’s men,” Francesca said, her eyes wide. “They’ve found us.”
“What do we do?” I asked. She had assured me that although her family would not be happy with our marriage, once it was done, they would accept it. I had trusted her because I had no choice. Now I was not so sure she was right.
We got dressed quickly as the pounding continued. I was just moving towards the door to open it when it burst open and soldiers pushed their way in. There was no discussion with them. One of them knocked me to the floor and as I picked myself up, I saw two of them escorting my Francesca out the door and out of sight. The clop of hoofs and rattle of carriage wheels told me that she was gone.
They took me back to the duke’s palace, back to the stables where I had worked for my whole life. But it was too much to hope that things would go back to how they had been. The soldiers guarded me until the duke appeared, striding purposefully towards us. He drew his sword. I stared back at him defiantly and waited for death.
He rested the sword against the side of my neck. “I took you in as a child, a beggar on the street and you stab me in the back like this, by stealing my only daughter away in the dead of night? What do you have to say?”
“I love her,” I said. I had no other defense.
“My wife wants your head on a pike outside her window,” the duke said. “I will spare your life for now in gratitude for your service to us. But if I see you again or hear news of you in this duchy, your life will be forfeit.” He sheathed his sword and turned back to the palace.
The soldiers escorted me to the outer gates and suddenly I was homeless and a new husband with no wife.
I was walking to the village when I came across Maria, one of Francesca’s ladies-in-waiting sitting by the side of the road. Her dress was dirty and torn and she was sobbing. When she saw me, she fell down and clutched at my feet.
“Forgive me,” she said. “The duchess discovered my lady missing this morning and beat us until we told them where you were. They turned us out.”
“Where is Francesca?” I asked. “Is she okay?”
“They are sending her to St. Margaret’s,” Maria said, referring to the convent in the hills east of the village. “It was her mother’s wish for her anyway and now that her father considers her spoiled, he has consented.”
“I need to see her,” I said. “Can you get a message to her?”
Maria wiped her eyes, and I helped her stand. “I will try,” she said.
Maria had contacts within the palace, and that afternoon she sent me a message at the tavern that Francesca would try to meet me at the convent garden gate after the Compline prayers. I spent the rest of the day in nervous tension and finally set out for the convent long before the arranged time. I arrived as the bells for Vespers were ringing and waited in the trees as the shadows got longer and darker. The Compline bells rang, and still I waited. It was dark when I heard a creak from the garden gate.
It was Francesca, and she bit her lip when she saw me. We were both trembling. She was still beautiful, even swathed in her crisp, new habit. I wanted to embrace her, but instead, I took her hand.
“Hello, wife,” I said, still unused to that glorious word.
She looked troubled. “The abbess said the cardinal has annulled the marriage.”
“We didn’t agree to that! Did you?” She shook her head. “Then God still honors our vows. Come, you can’t stay here. Run away with me. We can go tonight.”
“Go where?” I could hear the hopelessness in her voice.
“There must be somewhere your family can’t find us.” I tried to draw her outside, my body aching for her. “Do you have some time, at least?”
She resisted. “They made me take other vows here.”
“But ours came first.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
I felt like I was losing her, had already lost her. This day which had started so perfectly with Francesca waking up in my arms was ending with this gulf between us.
“I have nothing right now,” I said, “but if I earn enough to take you away from here and provide a place for you to live, away from your family’s reach, will you come?”
She smiled for the first time since I had seen her that evening. “I will,” she said. Then she leaned forward and kissed me. “Don’t forget about me, Bernardo.”
* * *
Seven years later, an expensive carriage rolled up to the gates of the Convent of St. Margaret. Even before the well-dressed man and woman were helped out by their footman, the abbess had been alerted and was waiting to greet them.
“Welcome, my lord and lady,” the abbess said, who could sense a large donation when it approached. She bowed. “How may we be of service to you?”
“We are setting up our manor and would like one of your nuns to come perform services in our chapel, at least temporarily,” the man said. “Of course, I would glad to donate something to the Lord’s work for the inconvenience to you.”
“I would be happy to be of service,” the abbess said, bowing again. She eyed the carriage, looking for a crest. “You are a count, perhaps?”
“Simply a merchant,” the man said, “at least for the moment. I provide horses to the Papal States and other kingdoms as well.”
“Please come in. I will select one of our most experienced nuns to come serve you,” the abbess said.
The man held up a hand. “Actually, my wife would like to select one, if it is okay with you. Can we see them?”
The nuns were summoned and stood around the edge of the courtyard while the man and woman strolled by them under the watch of the abbess. The woman walked in front, inspecting the assembled nuns and giving quick glances back at the man. They made it halfway around the courtyard when the man stroked his beard and the woman stopped.
“What is your name?” the woman asked the nun in front of her.
“Sister Amelia, my lady,” the nun replied. The woman glanced back and the man nodded.
“We’ll take this one,” the woman said.
“Immediately?” the abbess asked.
“If possible,” the man said. “She needn’t bring anything with her. We will provide everything.”
The footman helped the man and woman back into the carriage and then held out his hand for the nun to join them inside.
“It’s you, Bernardo,” Sister Amelia said as soon as the door was closed. “I recognized you as soon as I saw you, even with the beard and fine clothes.”
“I told you I would come for you.”
Sister Amelia glanced over at the other woman. “You’re married, I see.”
Bernardo nodded with a smile. “I’ve been married for over seven years.” He indicated the other woman. “This is Genevieve, one of your new ladies-in-waiting. I apologize that I had her wear one of your new dresses, but she needed to play the part. It’s a six-day journey to our house. Do you think that is far enough away from your family?”
“They have forgotten about me. My mother still comes once a year to see me but that is all.”
Bernardo reached over and took her hands. “I am afraid Sister Amelia must die, in order that Lady Francesca can be reborn in her place. I am sure the abbess and your mother will mourn her when they find out.”
She played with his fingers and looked up with a sly smile. “You would have me break my vows to God that easily?”
He grinned back. “What God has joined, let no man separate. Don’t you remember? Our vows came first.”