Herald

I went to bed chilled by the odd time kept by the candle, not saying anything to Isolde. On my side, I pondered alone in the dark. Was it not an ordinary candle? Had it to do with the forest through which I had traveled? I could hear rain pattering down outside the window. The sound proved meek comfort with the damp draft it brought in. A loneliness clamped onto my heart and wouldn’t let go for hours. I considered that I enjoyed the forest for a time while I was in it, but the wilderness could grow forlorn. The castle, on the other hand, a dose of comfort in familiarity and defined spaces, became cloying in the “expected”–daily life and behavior of people. But since I had spent time alone in the dark forest this evening, coming home to the darkness of the castle brought little reassurance.

Of a sudden, a warmth fluttered in my chest as though someone had rubbed their hands together and inserted a “toile” (canvas) of loving energy there to displace my ill humor. Even though it felt foreign to my body as though not from me, I appreciated nonetheless. I had never experienced such “intrusive” feelings before and wondered about their nature. Had the Spirit taken pity on me?

Thank ye, I said in silent prayer.

In the morning, the hunched candle looked the same. Perhaps the moisture in the air last night had quickened the burning of the wick? If I was truly curious about the candles, I could test a similar one on a dry evening. In the light, my practical nature manifested.

I headed to the garden to harvest ginger for Isolde. Last night I had told her I had made a remedy for her. The rain water pooled on the leaves and ground, the mud sullying my shoes and wetting the hem of my dress. I gathered the small, cream herb to start the drying process (in order to replace what I had been using), and took out already dried ginger to boil a tea. Isolde would be waking soon, and I would bring a cup of tea to start her day.

As the water boiled, I watched robins hopping around the garden, listening, then pulling up worms. A gray sky hovered, threatening.  

A rider I did not recognize galloped past me toward the castle. Who was this visitor?

Candletime

I remembered how Isolde and I used to spin in the fields below potbelly blue skies and fall down dizzy. We discovered the trick to preventing disorientation was to pick one point and focus on it, so that each time we spun, we looked at that one spot to guide us.

The book covered and safely stowed in its nook, I set my candle on a knob-shelf of the tree, and said a silent prayer, closing my eyes a moment. I took a deep breath and looked straight into the luminous eyes of an owl. He was my spot. I spun thrice, each time looking into the owl’s eyes, but on the fourth turn, he flew off and I fell down, my head craning to watch where he went. I grasped the candle and scrabbled (carefully) to follow him. He landed in a new tree not too far away, then didn’t budge.

The moss growing on the trees caught my eye. I knew it covered the north side. I heard gurgling to my right and raised my candle that way. A stream picked up here, heading south.  (All tributaries I had seen near Cornwall meandered south.) I hesitated. The owl blinked at me. Should I head in that direction? That was what my gut told me (perhaps thanks to the owl).

I bustled, trying not to trip on roots or brush. How much time did I have before the candle snuffed out? It was a little wider than the width of my thumb, and I had been gone an hour or so? I had been foolish to go out at night. There could be unkind persons roaming. And I had been arrogant in speaking of the Adventurous Ford as though I had it all figured out. This is what happens, I stomped slightly in rhythm, when books are forbidden–I find myself wandering in dark wilderness, blaming the king. I hoped my absence had not yet been noticed. I needed to get back right away.

The stream widened slightly as I continued passing mossy bark faces. Their green color, vibrant during the day, held secret depths at night. I did not to stare at them too much and focused on the end of my journey–reaching the light of the castle.

An hour later, judging by the slumping height of the candle, the trees thinned out until I came upon the orchard. I slowed and looked carefully to see if anyone was watching. I brushed my head to loosen any twigs, straightened my dress, and tiptoed towards the great hall.

Indoors, Isolde saw me, and said,

“Brangien, did ye make the ginger remedy I asked ye for?”

“Yes,” I nodded, “I just made a batch.”

She ushered me to the bed chamber before anyone could ask questions.

“How long was I gone?” I asked her.

“Gone?”

“Yes, weren’t ye covering for me? I must have left hours ago.”

“No, Brangien. It’s been half an hour, an hour at most.”

I glanced at my candle. It had burned down almost to a stub.

A New Direction

Cecily made her way over to me.

“Brangien, ye had the key to the locked room. Did ye take a book?”

“What would I do with a book?” I responded, my face like stone.

“But ye were the only one who…” Cecily stopped speaking. I outranked her, and she was untoward in her accusation, even if I was a foreigner in this court.

I raised my eyebrows, and Cecily, scoffing, walked away.

Cecily did not bring it up again, but now I knew I had to be more careful where I read in the forest. And I could not bring the book back.

Isolde and I hurried to the royal chamber. Behind a closed door, Isolde asked softly,

“What are ye going to do?”

“I will travel deeper into the forest. But when will it be safe for me to go?” I sighed deeply.

“I am meeting Tristan tonight. I will ask him if he could move the book to the hawthorne near the Adventurous Ford.”

“Thank ye, my lady.” My eyes watered in gratitude.

I made my way to the stone cottage to make remedies, and looking behind me, I saw Cecily tracking me at a distance. She was not alone–others, including the barons, seemed to hover more closely. Or was it my imagination? I hoped the barons did not approach the king about this book affair. I would have to feign surprise at such news from the king (if it came to it).

I pounded the dried ginger reserve with a mallet, then a pestle until it crushed into a powder. The effort mildly released my frustration about human smallness that could bottle up an expanse as wide as the knowledge in a book. What good did Cecily’s counting of the books do when we all could be reading them? And if one went missing, how should it matter to anyone who would count instead of read a book, as if it’s only purpose was to sit on a shelf as a vapid, shallow number, a dispossessed possession, and collect dust, despite the deft fingers that had put such effort and skill into its pages?

I waited for Isolde in the garden, pulling lanky weeds into a pile. As the stars began to pierce the sky, Isolde returned from her visit with Tristan and passed by me, nodding in my direction as if to say, it is done. Farther from the castle, I slipped into the forest with a candle and moved cautiously, setting my feet on soft, silent ground until I reached the hawthorne. The book was safely tucked in. But when I climbed up, I felt movement. The branches swirled around me, as if rearranging to make a more comfortable seat. I wanted to stay and read, but the candle’s light would not last long. I could not let myself fall asleep here. So I reluctantly descended.

My surroundings were unfamiliar. Perhaps I had just gotten disoriented? I held up my light in the direction of the ford, but it did not catch the subtle movement of water. Oh no. Had the hawthorne moved with me to a new location?

A Seat of Abundance

I came back to the oak in the early hours of the morning by myself, eagerly reaching for the book. Good, it was still dry. I tucked it under my arm and climbed up, pulling myself into the foliage.

The brown exterior possessed an embossed design. I traced the bumps with my finger. As I cracked open the book, holding my breath, I admired the gold and ornate lettering. Isolde’s name looked so elegant. It was the only word I immediately recognized. These words were certainly not in the Irish tongue. I flipped through the pages gently, then paused, catching a faint scent of cowhide. I turned to one page with what might be a psalm and sounded the words out loud,

“Lauerd me steres noght wante sale me…”

When I spoke the words as best I could, I could hear the language of King Marc’s people in them.

Time passed at a luxurious lilt.

“A talking tree, what a novelty,” I heard someone’s voice down below. It sounded like Tristan’s.

I stopped reading and stayed still for a moment, then peered down.

Yes, it was indeed Tristan, who had guided his horse over to the book tree.

“Good morning, Tristan,” I said.

“Hello Brangien, what are ye doing?”

“I’m reading a book. Isolde and I…discovered it.”

“Ye may want to be careful of who passes by your tree. But please continue reading.”

“Would ye like to take a turn?” I asked Tristan.

“I am on my way to the castle. But if I were to pass by this tree on another occasion, perhaps I could lend an eye to reading this book.”

“Yes, certainly. I will hide it in the nook for safe-keeping,” I enthused.

“Good day, Brangien,” Tristan inclined the top of his head toward me, and flew away to the castle on his tawny-hued horse.

I best get back myself. Isolde would probably want to come here later today anyway? I hopped out of the tree and gently wrapped the book in the coarse fabric to keep it dry.

As I walked, I spoke out loud the words I had memorized, envisioning the spelling of each so I would not forget.

My voice trailed off as I entered the castle. There seemed to be some kind of brouhaha, servants scurrying around looking for something.

Isolde came over to me, worry shaping her facial features.

“Cecily reported that there is a book missing from the locked room,” she said softly.

Oh dear.

The Book Tree

Isolde got impatient lying down, pretending to be ill. After an hour, she sat by the window with her embroidery and sought to capture new plants with her craft.

Twilight approached, the dusk grasping its heels.

“Let’s go now,” I suggested to Isolde. It would be wise to find a spot before night fell.

She set down her threads and fabric, and I tucked the book into my waist awkwardly with Isolde by my side to partially shield me. She carried a light for when it would be needed.

“Where should we…stroll?” Isolde asked me.

I waited until we passed by someone in the castle who eyed us suspiciously.

“Let’s find a tree near the Adventurous Ford,” I suggested.

We stepped outside and veered towards the forest of Mornois.

“But what if the ford moves again? That would make for a bewildering landmark.”

“I believe I could find it, and all the more confusing for others. But then let’s try at least to find a distinctive tree,” I said, scanning as I walked. “There, the oak. It has a deep crevice in the middle with one half arching left and the other to the right and away.”

“Yes,” Isolde murmured. I think she nodded in agreement, but I couldn’t be for sure in the fading light.

I placed the fastidiously-wrapped book gently in the crook of the oak.

“The night is falling quickly. We won’t be able to read it today,” I said regretfully, worried about leaving it in the wilderness.

I thought I heard someone or something snap a twig and froze. Isolde stood still, too.

“No, you’re right. Let’s return tomorrow,” Isolde whispered and turned back, eager to leave the languid blanket of the forest. She reached for my hand, and I squeezed hers to reassure her.

We walked quickly without speaking until we reached the perimeter of the castle grounds.

I sighed with relief.

But had someone followed us into the forest? Unlikely.

The Book Quest

I convinced Isolde to embroider in the great hall, even though there was little breeze. As I embroidered, I watched Cecily as she moved between the hall and other rooms in order to see which room she most visited. She seemed to pass through the kitchen often, which was unfortunate. There were few reasons for me to visit the kitchen. But I had noticed an oak chest that stood in the kitchen–perhaps she kept it in there? I sat down my embroidery, and approached her.

“Cecily, we are short on bedding in the royal chamber. We need to borrow yours until it can be replaced. Do ye keep it in this chest?” I gestured to it along the left wall of the kitchen.

Cecily’s eyes got big and her face forlorn. She could not say no, which meant she would have to sleep directly on the floor.

I felt terrible after I asked, especially as a ruse.

“Yes, my lady,” she whispered in an almost wistful, childlike manner and motioned for me to gather up the bedding kept in the chest.

I walked over and opened the chest. The bedding, atrociously stained, wore the smells of the food that had been cooked over the hearth for many years. I tried not to breathe them in as I touched it.

I spotted a key! I pulled out the bedding gingerly, wrapping the key in it. I nodded thanks to Cecily and brought it over to Isolde, who still sat embroidering, slipping the key to hide in my dress.

Isolde gave me a look as though to ask what I was doing with Cecily’s pungent bedding.

“Isolde,” I whispered. “Just play along. Tell me ye don’t think this bedding is fit for the royal chamber.”

Her voice loud and clear, Isolde said,

“Brangien, this bedding is not fit for the royal chamber. Please return it to the kitchen at once.”

I carried it back to Cecily.

“Thank ye, Cecily, but the queen does not want this bedding.”

Cecily, relieved, took it back.

I had little time to try the key on the locked book room before Cecily realized it was missing. But there were too many people milling about, and the bolted door was visible from the great hall.

“Isolde, could ye create a diversion, leading everyone outside? I need half an hour.”

Isolde laughed a little at me and shook her head. But she stood up, walking at an angle in the direction of the door as though she had one of her bitter headaches and stated loudly,

“I don’t feel so well,” swooning and then bracing herself on the entrance door and then opened it, falling just outside.

A host of people followed her out the door, fanning her and trying to assist. No one was looking in my direction so I strode quickly to the barred room.

The key worked! I closed the door behind me and inhaled with delight. There were not more than ten to twenty books. Isolde and I had learned to read in Irish and most of these must be written in English, or so I assumed. I flipped through them quickly. Many contained maps, which although interesting, were not as tantalizing as others. I found a Book of Hours with Isolde’s name on it. Could I take one book with me? I shifted from foot to foot, indecisive, and constantly looked at the door. I grabbed the Book of Hours, tucked it under my dress awkwardly, and cracked the door a bit so I could peek outside. Isolde excelled in her role–the path was still clear. I quickly locked the door and headed upstairs to the royal chamber where I hid the book under my own bedding. I then walked outside to where Cecily stood with the others.

“Cecily, I found this key on the floor. I think it fell out of the bedding,” I told her nonchalantly and handed it to her.

Isolde stood up gradually.

“Thank ye,” she told the crowd. “I feel much better.”

She put her arm through mine, and I “assisted” her in walking to the royal bedchamber.

“Did ye get in?” Isolde asked when we were alone.

“Yes, and I borrowed a book that has your name on it. A Book of Hours, I think. It might have been a wedding gift.” I didn’t show her where I stashed it in case anyone walked through the door.

“What now, Brangien?”

“I will conceal it in under my skirts this evening. We will go for a stroll, and I will hide it in the forest so we can read it another day. We will have to learn to read English since the text is not in Irish. But wait until ye see it. The pages are so lovely.”

Isolde lay down in case anyone looked for her and I sat by the window and continued my embroidery.

“Brangien, what does the Book of Hours contain?” Isolde inquired.

I wondered that myself. I couldn’t yet read the English words.

A Quest?

I followed Cecily from a distance as she headed to the kitchen in order to see where she kept the book room key. Before I entered the kitchen, from my skirts I took out fastidiously-wrapped, dried herbs over which one could pour hot water to make a tisane. I had noticed Marie the cook coughing of late and had made it in advance for an opportune time. While watching Cecily out of the corner of my left eye, I looked forward, waiting for Marie to notice my presence. Cecily still had not hung or placed the key anywhere! As Marie turned towards me, I greeted her,

“Marie, here is a tisane powder to make a tea to soothe your throat.”

Cecily left the room. Did she still have the key?

Marie gave me a snide look, her lips pressed and her nose turned up, but took the herbs anyway.

I wondered if Isolde knew anything about this book room? I found her yawning as she gazed out the window with an embroidery project in her lap.

“Isolde, did ye know that the king has a locked room of books?”

Isolde raised her eyebrows.

“I did not know that. That is odd.”

We heard a horse galloping nearby, and we both looked out the window. A messenger?

Isolde and I rushed downstairs to see what he brought, walking more sedately once we arrived in the great hall, and stood towards the back with other women.

The messenger had a letter!  He carried it to the king who then handed it to Father Pryor, the chaplain. Father Pryor broke the seal and unfolded the letter. He whispered the contents to King Marc who nodded his head, inviting the chaplain to read it aloud, and the king drew his barons around him. Father Pryor quieted his peculiar pretension for the moment, planted himself in front of the king, and read out loud in a clear voice.

The letter was from the Earl of Brittany, and he was requesting an audience with the king for a particular reason he did not name.

King Marc said to his court,

“I am your king and ye are my marquis. If ye have a good piece of advice to share, speak.”

All of the barons agreed to welcome the earl’s visit, and the king dictated a response that Father Pryor wrote tidily on parchment.

Isolde raised her eyebrow at me, and we walked outside to the garden.

“My lady, why were ye raising your eyebrow at me?”

“Brangien, the king must not be able to read and that’s why he needs a chaplain to read and write for him. And he locks up the books so no one can read since he can’t.”

“That is what I thought, too, my lady. It’s a shame we have nothing to read here. And by God’s bones, Cecily of all people has the key to the locked room of books. I followed her to see where she keeps the key, but I didn’t see where she put it.”

“Brangien, do ye remember when we snuck books into the field, and I taught myself to read and then you, too? We learned before my cousin Flann, and he was so mad!…I wonder if any of the books have maps in them. My father liked to study maps.”

“I’m going to follow Cecily until I figure out where she keeps the key so I can look at the books. Wondering what they contain is pure madness.”

“Nay, Brangien! What if ye are caught? Is it worth it?”

Books

Before the merchants packed up their wares the following morning, I quickly walked through the aisles, finding a mix of smartly-dressed persons and soothsayer types, and spied a healer selling remedies. With long dark hair, she stood beneath a red-brown tent, fanning herself in the heat.  Always eager to find new uses for herbs, I side-stepped uncertainly to her booth and studied her jars and pots for sale.

“Hello, Madam, did ye come up with your remedies?”

“Nay, me mother passed them down to me and her mother passed them to her. Is there something yer looking for in particular?”

I noticed a ragged book sitting towards the back.

“Is the book for sale?”

“Oh no, ye wouldn’t want that. It’s me old herb book with samples stuck in the pages,” she said dismissively, but then looked back at it furtively and then at me as though I might take it.

“Thank ye, Madam.” I walked away wondering if other herb books existed.

“Did ye find anything?” Isolde asked me as I returned to sit beside her in the garden.

“Nay, I didn’t…have ye ever heard of herb books, Isolde?”

“Nay, my mother committed all of her recipes to memory. Perhaps you’d find that kind of book among brethren. Why?”

“It’s no matter, my lady.”

At the castle, we were settling back into our daily routine, which was a relief. Patterns and familiarity brought comfort.

I cut some pink peonies and brought them into the royal chamber for good cheer and looked out the window to see Isolde talking to Tristan. Even though I knew Isolde’s life was not easy, I felt wistful. I belonged to her and could never leave her side. I was her closest companion, but she was not mine. At least my herbs kept my hands and mind busy, and I believed that was worthwhile.

I saw Cecily head into the castle with a couple books in hand. Books! Where had they come from? I left the bedchamber and followed to see where she went.

She stopped in front of a small, bolted door and opened it. Beyond her, I could see more books on a shelf. She must have set them in there–she closed the door behind her after she entered so I couldn’t tell where. I watched her bar the room again as she left.

Why were books kept in a locked room? I felt foolishly jealous of Cecily. She could touch books and smell them and gander at the pages. But I didn’t think she could read nor would she have interest in peeking at them. Could I find a way to see one, up close?

The Sparrowhawk

The warriors started to return to the lists, many injured and on foot. Tristan galloped in with a group he had caught trying to ambush a knight from his team. The noble squire Perinis rode out to help Tristan find others who were stranded.

The herald, impassioned, tried to sell knights to the crowd.

“And what about Sir Tristan?” he asked.

A cry went up,

“Tristan! Tristan! Tristan won!”

The next time that Tristan arrived with a new group of injured knights, the king stood up and proclaimed,

“Sir Tristan of Cornwall, you are the winner of the golden sparrowhawk.” The golden sparrowhawk was in fact just a regular sparrowhawk, but it came with a pouch of gold coins. The sparrowhawk settled on Tristan’s shoulder, trying to get comfortable amidst the solidness of chain mail.

By late afternoon, knights were either celebrating, or bedridden in quiet rooms of the castle under physicians’ orders. There had been one death of a knight from Brittany, but many were deeply injured with wounds in the chest or some missing phalanges. Those invited dined at King Marc’s table, Tristan sitting next to the king and across from Isolde.

A few entertained the crowd, singing popular songs, but then Tristan was asked to sing and play the harp. He stood up and sang the story of a boy from Loonnois, Wales. Perhaps he had a little too much of the wine, because the song went on to tell of this man’s love for an Irish healer. Isolde froze in her seat, but King Marc did not know the details of how she had healed Tristan twice, once after he battled Morholt and once when he fought a dragon in Ireland.

A foot-stamping, hand-clapping bawdry tune followed Tristan’s, and Isolde and I, relieved, stood up to join the ladies dancing. Isolde kept turning her head to find Tristan, and he was smiling at her everywhere she went.

Tournament

Next to the king, Isolde and I sat at the highest level of the stands. The queen mirrored the morning blaze as it climbed, golden glow hitting human form embellished in a gold on gray brocade bliaut.

After the Commencement, the grand charge rang out from the herald’s mouth.

“Tintagel!” Tristan shouted.

He moved forward with the other knights as though one arm.  After a loud clash of armor at the impact of the two lines, hooves thundering and trumpets sounding, the men traveled outward beyond the trees. All we could see was a glint here and there where the sun hit the arms and helmets of knights, then nothing. The herald, balanced atop a tall bank of earth, tried to comment on the action nonetheless, becoming creative about what he thought he saw, as though the angle at which the grass blades blew gave us any indication of how the fighting proceeded.

The ladies down below were gossiping about who might win and who they admired. Their voices wore a cagey glimmer. But Tristan carried with him linen Isolde had embroidered in green and buttercup, and if there was mention of Tristan, Isolde and I ignored it.

Dazzled by the glare and a state of anticipation, my hands fidgeted to be busy. I took out my needlework, squinting, and time passed less slowly.