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 you 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?

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?”