The Forest and the Court

Marie left in the morning to voyage to the next English court, I supposed, although she did not say where. 

“I hope ye have a safe journey, Marie,” I told her cordially and gave her a container of dried lavender for its soothing properties.

Isolde embraced her warmly, still without knowledge that Marie had pressed me to uncover her relationship with Tristan.

I studied Marie unobtrusively. Her eyes held a fierce light, which she had unveiled while storytelling. But in this moment, she seemed discreet and unthreatening, and her restraint intimidated me. And I still did not understand how she could travel alone. Perhaps she had someone waiting for her?

Marie vanished between the trees, and I shivered. An autumn chill reposed in the air. I would soon need to move the book inside, for the tree nook in which I kept it would not prove sufficient in winter. Perhaps I could find a new spot within my herb cottage, under a rock. But not now. I would wait until deep blue blanketed the sky. I headed to the hawthorn simply to work more on deciphering my precious book.

As I angled towards the treeline, Isolde followed. We padded softly on top of friends’ discarded verdant and umber wares, veering off in a slightly different direction.

“Brangien, what do ye do for so many hours here?” Isolde gestured around us. “Read? Gather herbs?” 

The tone of her words struck me as accusatory.

“My lady, this forest provides a sole freedom I am not allowed elsewhere. Ye know about that, too, I believe,” I replied, trying not to react. From where did this perceptible irritation stem?

We arrived at a hut in front of which an elderly monk, garbed in what appeared to be remnants of various fabrics, prayed kneeling on the ground. When he looked up, he spotted us.

“I keep ye and Tristan in my prayers, my queen. Be mindful of your path,” he emphasized, his eyes intense and his hand gestures erratic.

“Do not judge me, Brother. While ye abode in the wilderness, my path was decided for me amongst people.” Isolde’s hair flew behind her as she turned and wove back through the trees we had passed.

I ran to reach her despite her quick stride.

“My lady, are ye alright? Perhaps ye spoke a bit harshly to the brother. Do not let his judgement weigh on ye. God knows truths that human minds do not hold.”

Isolde halted, fighting tears and leaned into me. I wrapped my arms around her.

“There, there my lady. Let’s leave the trees behind us for now and bask in the sunshine by my garden. Ye can tell me stories from our childhood while I tend to my herbs and gather what is ready to be collected.”

We drifted slowly in silence on our return. Well, rather Isolde refrained from words, and I followed her lead.

Conteuse [Storyteller]

I couldn’t find an opportunity to speak privately with Isolde about Marie but kept a wary eye on her and stared forebodingly at Isolde.

“Why are ye giving me foul looks, Brangien?” Isolde asked, puzzled as we sat in the garden, embroidering. A waft of mint caught my nose.

I glanced at Marie a few feet away. She had not pushed further about Tristan and Isolde, merely planting herself and keeping watch of castle ongoings.

In the evening, we gathered in the great hall, everyone from the king and queen to perhaps the mice looking for crumbs from the table. Marie sat to play a melody on the harp, a tune that flew above like a dove and aligthed on the heart. She paused, pulling her hands from the strings and said to us all in clear yet hushed tones,

“I am going to share with you a story that took place in Brittany a long time ago.

Hoël reigned in a land that knew war as often as it did peace. Amongst his barons, one named Oridial, a courageous knight, was his favorite, and he had a son named Guigemar who became a handsome and valiant knight himself…”

I glanced around the hall, and saw how every man, woman, and child sat still with their eyes locked on Marie.

Marie continued her tale, saying that Guigemar was indifferent to love. He became injured and boarded a ship that took him to the garden of a lady imprisoned by her much older husband. She and her companion healed Guigemar. And his heart, like a battlefield, was struck with love for her. Although she tested his sincerity, she fell in love with him, too. But a chamberlain discovered them together. Guigemar had to leave. By the end of the story, Guigemar must lay siege to the land of a lord keeping his lady (who has traveled to find him) and prevailed.

Marie shared other tales, too–ones that contained exquisite fairies, magical animals, and painful hardship that led to joy, or human love that transcended.

When she finished, we quietly exhaled out the anticipation we had contained in our chests. Marie bowed her head in thanks and rose to sit back down at the table. The peaceful ambiance fled the room as soon as a baron led us in rowdy song. I glanced at Marie, but I could not read her face. I had misjudged her keen observation. It was not malice that drove her but a persistent thirst for stories, and perhaps marvelous hope she had not yet tasted?

Blanche-Rose’s Daughter

We reached the great hall, and Marie entered with a flourish.

“My lord, I am your cousin Marie. Your aunt Blanche-Rose is my mother,” she informed the king.

The king puzzled for a moment, pulling on his beard and studying Marie.

“Yes, yes…I see,” he mused, then introduced her to Isolde his wife and asked Cecily to move Marie’s possessions to the royal chamber.

Marie smiled winningly to Isolde and I, and came over to greet us.

“Bonjour, Mesdames,” she said to both of us. “We have already met,” she nodded to me.

“Ye must be tired from your travels. Would ye like to go upstairs to settle in?” Isolde asked.

“No, thank you, Madame. But I do have a terrible headache,” she said touching her forehead.

“Come with me, my lady. I will make ye a remedy,” I told her.

Marie followed me to the cottage, sitting on the doorsill, and I bustled around the small space, fetching dried rose petals, lavender, sage, and hay to brew a tea. I noticed her observing my garden and passersby.

“Madame, what did ye mean in the forest when ye said ye have an adventure to share?”

She stood and faced me, studying my countenance and what I was doing. I felt slightly unnerved by her close gaze.

“Tonight I will share my stories that I have gathered far and wide.” She glanced outside. “You don’t by chance have any local love tales of interest, do you?” Her eyes pierced mine.

I looked away to reach for the last ingredient. “No, we are quite dull here.”

“Truly? Nothing between the handsome knight that so lovingly looked at the queen, ready to protect her at any moment if needed?”

I blinked to cover my astonishment. How observant she was! I would need to be cautious.

“It is a duty for knights to protect the king and queen,” I said flatly.

Marie smiled slightly, not fooled.

“I need some water,” I said, almost a whisper and headed to the nearest bend of the stream, then returned to set the water to boil.

“Your tea will be ready soon,” I nodded at Marie, my lips pressed.

“Oh, I am sorry–I have offended you, my dear.” She seemed genuinely contrite.

“The grounds are so beautiful here. I think I will take a stroll,” she said gently.

“I will bring ye the tea when it is ready,” I told her.

She stepped out optimistically.

Once she left, I sighed worriedly. How would I warn Tristan and Isolde to be careful without Marie hearing?

The Lady

Perinis agreed to sleep downstairs in the great hall to keep a watch on the messenger, and as I passed by the visitor in the evening, I saw him eyeing Perinis with disappointment.

“Isolde, we must find a way to make him leave sooner,” I said out of earshot.

“How do ye propose to do that?”

“I could prepare him a terrible drink so he retches his next meal?”

“But that would be traced back to ye, Brangien. Let’s watch him to see if he acts foolishly, and if so I will talk to the king.”

Fortuitously, we did not have to wait long for the messenger to leave. He departed in a hurry come morning, riding off with the shield and additional horse. What had happened during the night? I looked at Perinis as the herald strode out the door but couldn’t read his features.

Once I decided the herald must be long gone, I sought out the hawthorn, located again near the Adventurous Ford, and clambered up. I shivered not from cold, but something weighing on me.

I opened the book and traced the elegant writing with my fingers, which tingled at the texture of the smooth, supple pages. I noticed where older text spilled through newer letters and wondered what ideas had been lost there. I placed my hand on the text and leaned back, closing my eyes and inhaling the scents around me to ground myself. Could I name which were present?

From the book, I smelled the musk of animal hide and a surprisingly light scent muddled amongst food stuff likely used in the making of the parchment. The ford tumbled forth and smelled fresh like spring leaves with a slight edge to it, perhaps due a mineral or metal present. Closeby, my nose detected a rich, minty waft, but I was unfamiliar with this tree, one that did not concede its green spokes seasonally. On the forest floor, compacted leaves proffered a heady, decaying mash. I sighed in this relief that could be reached through the concrete, the senses.

A gentle, female voice called out to me,

“Bonjour, Madame, what are you reading?”

My eyes flew open.

A woman stood there, dressed in azure, staring at me, and seated on a small, dappled mare.

“Bonjour, Madame. It is a Book of Hours, the only text I could obtain. May I ask who are ye?”

“I had not thought to meet anyone in these woods,” and she laughed, the sound merry like a quick-witted brook. “My name is Marie, and I have a much more interesting tale for you–an aventure. I can tell you would appreciate such a story.” She hesitated, looking around. “Could you tell me how far I am from King Marc’s court?” She requested earnestly.

“I will take ye there, Madame.” I hopped down from the tree and led the way, careful to take a direct route where the path was worn and the brush would not snap in one’s face. Something marvelous, magical lingered around this lady. And why did she not have a knight to protect her? I kept looking back to see if she had slipped away.

She smiled at me reassuringly, her eyes bright and deep with intelligent mischief. Was she a “conteuse” [female storyteller] ? Surely, not.

The Visitor

I hurried towards the great hall in the wake of the rider, my herbal brew in hand and my skirts whooshing around me. Inside, I paused as the herald bowed before King Marc.

“My lord King Marc, I come from the Earl of Brittany’s court. He would like me to share his regrets that he could not come in person. There is a particular matter he has asked me to settle. A certain knight of Brittany passed away during your recent tournament. The earl would like his coat of arms and horse to be returned for they belong to his lord the earl.”

“My condolences to ye and your earl. Yes, ye may retrieve the coat of arms and horse. And ye must be tired from your journey. Please stay at our hearth and in our hall for as long as ye need before ye return to Brittany.”

It was generous of King Marc to return this property, considering. The herald bowed and shared his thanks on behalf of the earl.

I skirted around the crowd, finding Isolde who looked not quite awake as of yet, and handed her the remedy.

“A ginger tea, my lady, as requested,” I offered.

“Thank ye, Brangien, but my stomach is not ill of humour today,” Isolde proclaimed, holding the drink uncertainly.

“Ye may need it…soon. The stomach turns at the likes of him,” I said, observing the herald leering at all of the women.

“Let’s retire to my chamber,” Isolde said, as I watched Perinis usher the Breton away, likely to the stables to see the earl’s horse.

That was easy for Isolde to say. The herald would not dare approach the queen. Although as lady-in-waiting, I had some protection, most of the female servants were at risk with such a lecher in close proximity. I felt sorry especially for Cecily. Still young, she would not be protected, even though the cook also slept in the kitchen.  

“My lady, I have a proposition. Could we not ask Perinis to sleep in the hall to protect the female servants? Ye know Cecily has not been kind to us, but I feel sorry for her and others who will be vulnerable to this stranger, as they sleep separately from the king’s chamber.”

Isolde paused, thinking.

“Ye are right, Brangien. Let me drink this down, and we will speak to Perinis.” She drank the beverage with swift determination and set down the cup then linked arms with me. We set off to find Perinis.

Tristan, still present in the hall, watched us pass and followed. I did not doubt he had observed the lewd messenger.

We took the a roundabout path so as not to meet the herald on his way back from the stables.

Tristan caught up to us.

“My fair ladies, where are ye going?”

“Tristan, we are going to ask Perinis to stay with the female servants in the hall to protect them from this Breton whose eye roves in a sinister fashion,” Isolde informed him.

“Let me pass along this message. I do not think it wise for ye to wander by the woods during his visit, though noblewomen ye may be. Please promise to stay close to the castle at all hours. That means no early morning visits to your garden, Brangien,” he stated in a beseeching manner.

He was right of course, but my heart fell at the idea of not being able to tend my garden and make herbs freely nor visit the forest as I wanted. How long would this fellow be at foot?

Tristan escorted us back to the castle, and on the way, we crossed paths with the herald. The visit to the stables had not taken long.

“Good day,” he said, his eyes raking Isolde and I. Did he not know she was the queen?

“Ye are speaking to the queen and her noble lady. Address them with care, herald,” Tristan said coldly. He did not mention our names. I wondered if he did not want him to know.

“My apologies, mesdames,” he bowed with a flourish.

Isolde and I scowled at him as Tristan escorted us past. It looked like we would be cooped up for however long this visitor decided to stay. Isolde tended to get grumpy with prolonged contact with the same people.

But then, what if we helped him leave earlier? A twinkle of mischief appeared in my eye.

Isolde was thinking along other lines.

“Why would an earl send a messenger all the way from Brittany simply to retrieve a horse and coat of arms?” She wondered aloud quietly so only Tristan and I could hear.

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?

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.

Tumult Rising

We arrived early before the crowds gathered, passing over the narrow path to Tintagel island on which the castle was founded. The servants bustled to make ready for entertaining. Tristan went to find the knight’s liege and to demand payment from him. He kept the knight’s armor and horse to ensure he would not fight. Some knights had already arrived and were clustered in tents by team, indicated by the shields they displayed outside. Merchants were beginning to set up their goods for sale in tents, and the patches of color embellished the field. Isolde and I watched from a window high above the festivities starting to unfurl. The painting made up of all the elements, human and otherwise, so small from afar, was my favorite part. I disliked the tournaments themselves for they were gruesome blood baths and knights tended to go too far in their merrymaking and showing off their skills, sometimes at the cost of the young knights or others they could bully. Tristan kept an eye out for such knights to keep them in line. He did not want Isolde or me to help heal the wounded. The surgeons would be on hand, and we would watch safely from the stands. But no fighting could take place until after Vespers tonight in the chapel. And the queen and I would not leave until the morning, escorted by Tristan and the king to the sidelines of the battlefield to keep the company of women enthralled by the spirit of the day. The clamor of voices would rise like the roar of a storm with knights, heralds, merchants, and the spectators all striving to be heard.