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.

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 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?”

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.