The owl swooped in a low arc, intent on the motorised rabbit whizzing along the grass. Her markings were like seashells: speckled and variegated and the colour of tiramisu. As the bird lifted her wings, I was struck by her beauty and the bond she shared with her smitten handler. Her eyes were perfect marbles, and her creamy face was rimmed with a line of coffee brown. Spectators cheered and clapped; their medieval garb adding to the charged atmosphere. Some wore long hooded capes of purple and peach while others sported plastic swords and crowns with glittering diamantes.
‘Have you ever come to a medieval fair before?’ the man next to me asked.
‘No, I haven’t actually. I didn’t realise there was a dress code!’ I replied.
‘Yeah, you stand out like a sore thumb.’
Looking around, I bit my bottom lip. ‘And there I was, trying to blend in.’
He laughed heartily, making me feel instantly at ease. Strangely, however, his companions were very different from him: coarse where he was smooth, impolite where he was gracious. Even their voices were harsh and raspy while his was soothingly modulated. They were bickering about something, and they churned my stomach.
‘It’s your turn to get the drinks,’ the younger woman whined.
‘No, I got the pies, so you can buy the lemonade. There’s a stall over there.’
‘There!’ the older one shouted, her finger shaking with rage.
The guy didn’t seem to notice; it was as if the women were merely a blip on his radar. Who is he? I wondered. And what is he doing with them?
The man stared straight ahead while the more youthful female fumbled with her bag. His jaw muscles bulged, then receded as she wandered off.
‘I’m Rowan,’ the man said, turning to me.
‘I’m Isabel,’ I replied.
‘Nice to meet you, Lady Isabel.’
‘Lady Isabel? I’m not even wearing a tiara!’ I said, laughing.
‘I have several if you’d like one. Joanna, where’s your bag of tricks?’
The woman rustled around and handed him a garish coronet.
‘No, not that one, the one with the gemstones.’
‘Here you go,’ she said, glaring at him with steely eyes.
‘Would you like to put it on?’ Rowan asked me.
‘Oh, no, that’s OK. It’ll mess up my hair.’
He touched my hand and electricity shot through me. What the hell was going on? Closing my eyes, I allowed Rowan to fasten the tiara to my head, the cool metal massaging my scalp. This reminds me of my ballet concerts, I mused.
‘I have a costume if you’d like to try it on.’
‘No, no, it’s a chilly day.’
Despite my jumper, goosebumps were forming on my arms. Rowan reached into a velvet bag and out slipped a jade-green dress with long sleeves and woven trim. It had side lacing and the neckline was scooped. I pursed my lips, wondering whether it would be too tight.
Rowan stroked my arm. ‘Don’t worry, honey, it’ll fit you perfectly.’
Could Rowan read my mind? And why was he being so familiar?
‘I don’t know. I might get mud on the hem, and it looks a bit too small.’
‘The dress has your name on it. Really, just try it on,’ Rowan cajoled.
His eyes were a warm brown, and I began to melt. I was planning on seeing some jousting and medieval combat, but the dress had a magnetic pull. Would I have time to change before the competition started? Taking my arm, Rowan led me around the corner and into a linen pavilion with a cordoned off area at the back. I nodded to a woman who was weaving on a wooden loom. People stood around, and she chatted happily with them, explaining her craft. Rowan handed me the costume, and I glided through the flimsy door. What am I doing? I thought. This is all a bit rushed. It only took me a couple of minutes to shimmy into it, but I needed someone to lace me up.
‘Um, Rowan,’ I said, peeping through the crack. ‘I need your help.’
Rowan strode through and rearranged the cloth so nobody could see in.
‘How can I be of assistance, dear lady?’ he asked.
‘These side things. Could you tie up the ribbons and pull them in a bit?’
Perspiration beaded on his forehead as he fiddled with the satin strips. He’s probably never laced anyone up before, I thought, grinning. But then I wondered, Why had Rowan chosen me to wear the dress? My stomach clenched, and I winced. Was there something he wasn’t telling me?
‘You look ravishing,’ Rowan said, smiling.
‘Yes, I can’t wait to show you off. Come with me.’
I’d been meaning to lose a few kilos, but perhaps Rowan liked girls with curves. And besides, the dress fit me like a glove and made me feel uncharacteristically confident. Rowan grabbed my backpack and swung it over his shoulder before linking his arm with mine.
‘Sir Rowan,’ the woman in the pavilion said, standing up from her seat and curtsying. I opened my mouth to say something, but nothing came out. Was she play-acting?
‘Am I part of the entertainment? I mean, are we going on stage?’ I asked, sniggering.
‘No, Isabel. Cedany is merely showing due deference,’ Rowan said.
A flush scudded up my neck. He was speaking in completely outdated English, and his manners were stiff and forced.
‘What’s going on?’
‘There is nothing going on. Everything is in complete working order,’ Rowan replied before handing my backpack to a man in hunting gear.
‘Hey, my phone’s in there and my wallet!’ I wailed.
‘You don’t need them anymore,’ Rowan said. ‘You’re Lady Isabel now.’
Tears pooled in my eyes. How had I gotten myself into this situation? If I were truthful, it was vanity. I’d been flattered by Rowan’s praise, and it had lured me into a trap. Glancing around, my pulse quickened. Who could I ask for help?
‘Quickly,’ Rowan said, his tone harsh. ‘We mustn’t delay.’
I shuffled along, sobs punctuating my gait. We arrived at the jousting competition, but the bleachers had vanished. In their place were low wooden benches and hessian mats where children and canines sat and squabbled. Rowan brought me to a large man in a beige tunic with a burnished gold crown perched on his head. It was a bit skew-whiff, making him appear slightly comical.
‘King Barda, may I introduce you to Lady Isabel?’ Rowan said, bowing.
My eyes widened as the king reached for my hand and kissed it. Instinctively, I stared at my feet and curtsied deeply.
‘My, she is a lady, Rowan. Just the one we were looking for,’ King Barda said, his crow’s feet crinkling. ‘Now, to the jousting. We have some marvellous athletes who will astonish you with their courage and skill.’
‘No doubt,’ I said barely above a whisper.
Rowan indicated for me to sit next to the king while he flanked me on the other side. I wonder which amateur theatre group these people are from? I thought. They sure have talent.
Men in full metal armour rode around the arena with flags held high. Their headgear featured a slit for their eyes while the attendants, who were whipping the spectators into a white-hot frenzy, wore chain mail. As the crowd roared, men hurtled towards each other with lances pointed straight ahead. Before I knew it, one of the wooden spears split in two and catapulted into the air. I ducked and grimaced, hoping it wouldn’t land on someone’s head.
‘Never fear, fair maiden,’ King Barda said in his rich baritone. ‘We are seated far enough away so as to be quite safe.’
I had no idea what time it was, but the sun was lower in the sky, so it must have been about four or five p.m. Turning to Rowan, I pointed to my lips.
‘I’m really thirsty,’ I said. ‘Could I have a drink?’
‘I’ll fetch some ale.’
‘No, no, just water. I don’t drink beer.’
‘I won’t be a moment,’ Rowan replied.
It was strange; his previous haughtiness had morphed into a cold sort of deference. Which of us had the higher status? If I did have some kind of advantage, perhaps I could use it to wrangle out of my mysterious predicament. Or maybe I could simply flee. I stood up, lifting my voluminous skirts as I prepared to run. A meaty hand wrapped itself around my wrist and I was tethered, leashed.
‘You mustn’t miss the next contest. My son is competing!’ King Barda bellowed.
‘Oh, I apologise. I was looking for the facilities,’ I said.
‘I mean the toilets, the loo. Call of nature, that sort of thing.’
Understanding dawned on the monarch, and he released my arm. ‘Rowan will direct you henceforth. However, you must return in time to meet Prince Jarin.’
All of a sudden, I was flooded with sensation. My hands were tingly, my eyes were moist and my legs felt decidedly wobbly.
‘Sit, sit, my dear. You mustn’t tire yourself out. Where is that beastly Rowan? He should have been back by now and provided you with your requested refreshment.’
‘I can always go and look for him,’ I said, but the king simply shook his head.
‘Rowan will accompany you wherever you need to go, and I’ll box his ears if he leaves you waiting any longer. He may be a knight and my son’s chief companion, but that doesn’t absolve him from the consequences of poor behaviour.’
Glancing to my right, I spied Rowan weaving his way through the crowd. He handed me a cow horn and assured me the water had been boiled. Surely some bottled water would have sufficed. Perhaps he thought I’d enjoy the novelty.
‘Where are your friends?’ I whispered.
‘You know, Joanna and Co.’
‘They’re not even born yet,’ Rowan said.
A chill coursed through me. What was he talking about? Surely this play-act had gone too far.
‘You’re scaring me,’ I said, tears welling in my eyes.
‘I’m sorry, Isabel. I know you’re having a difficult time adjusting to your new milieu, but when it comes to destiny, who am I to stand in the way?’
‘Are you on something? It’s as if you’re convinced we’re actually in a medieval village. This is a show, a fair. It isn’t real.’
‘Oh, but it is real. That pavilion was a portal. As soon as you stepped into the back room, your fate was sealed. You put on the dress, you allowed me to adorn you with jewels and you came willingly.’
‘But I thought I was simply trying on a gown. Have you ever heard of informed consent?’
‘I don’t subscribe to all that mumbo jumbo. You are a woman, and now you’re in my care. Why can’t you simply trust me?’
Trust him? Was he serious? Did he not realise I had two degrees and was halfway through my third? Didn’t he know I had rent to pay and lawns to mow and a car that needed servicing in the next few weeks? I was a fully grown adult, and I had earned my stripes; I wasn’t some pitiful female looking for a man to provide and protect. The jousting continued, and King Barda raised his fist in a victory salute. When there was a lull in the action, I asked him about his son. It was a shame I wouldn’t be able to size him up until after he had competed.
‘Oh no, he’s not up yet. I thought it would be sooner, but perhaps he’s last,’ King Barda said.
Presently, a slim woman in a tattered skirt took my hand and led me to a cloth hut so I could relieve myself. Glancing in every direction, I scanned for someone in modern clothing or with a phone I could use. The police would probably laugh, but at least I’d be out of there. Sadly, there were no leather jackets, backpacks or hoodies to be seen.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked once I was outside.
‘Malkyn, daughter of Cedany,’ she replied, curtsying.
‘Oh, I’ve met your mother. You look very similar.’
‘Many people say we’re like sisters, but I am not as beautiful as my mother,’ Malkyn said.
It was true that Cedany was very pretty, with her blonde curls and turned up nose, but Malkyn had the look of nobility, with a high forehead and wide, striking eyebrows.
‘Would you like to come and see the jousting?’ I asked. Maybe Malkyn could help me to escape or at least let me know what was going on.
‘Oh no. I must go and make the mead. The men will be hungry, and the children need to be fed beforehand,’ Malkyn replied.
I waved Malkyn goodbye, and Rowan took me back to the arena. She was such a sweet girl, and I hoped I’d see her again. However, was she in on it? Or was she brainwashed too?
‘So, who were those women?’ I asked Rowan as soon as I sat back down. Surely this time, he’d tell me the truth.
‘You know, the ones you were sitting with. Joanna and…’
‘They were nobody in particular. I thought Gina was keen on me, so I used my charms to get her to play along,’ Rowan said, smirking.
‘Really? They were happy to simply go along with you? You know, if you ask me, you’ve got tickets on yourself,’ I said.
‘Alright, if you must know, I paid them. I know I’m not that genetically blessed.’
I smiled. At least he had a smidgeon of humility and was back to using some modern lingo. The problem was, Rowan was easy on the eyes, which had made me more gullible than I should have been.
‘The thing is, Isabel, if you think I’m attractive, wait until you lock your eyes on Jarin.’
There was a loud clash, and a rider vaulted from his horse. King Barda went white and began to moan.
‘Not my son,’ he cried, cradling his head in his hands.
The attendants ran to assist the athlete, and his helmet was removed with care and deftness. A hush came over the crowd, and people strained to see what was going on.
The king stood up, and Rowan rushed to the king’s side. ‘Stand up, Isabel,’ Rowan hissed. ‘It’s common courtesy.’
We followed King Barda over to the casualty, and suddenly, his face lit up. ‘It’s not my son,’ he yelled, beating his breast.
‘But I am,’ called a man, his helmet in the crook of his arm. We swivelled around, and Rowan propped me up.
‘See what I mean?’ Rowan whispered into my ear.
Prince Jarin was tall and statuesque, broad-shouldered and dark, like his father. His eyes were searching, and his lips were full.
‘May I introduce you to Lady Isabel?’ King Barda said, staring intently at his son.
As before, I curtsied shyly and remembered my bills and exams and chores. Perhaps Rowan is not such a bad guy after all, I thought.
If you would like some creative writing prompts to give you ideas for competitions, blogging or journalling, here is a link to my 100 Creative Writing Prompts on Teachers Pay Teachers.