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.
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.
King Marc’s court was traveling to Tintagel for a “tournoi” (tournament). Whoever won the tournament would be deemed the most valiant knight and be prized with the golden sparrowhawk.
Isolde and I were at the front of the procession behind Tristan when a knight of unknown fealty blocked our passage through the woods.
“Ye must turn back. I am to be the most valiant knight at Tintagel. Ye cannot be allowed to pass.”
Tristan challenged him and the two began to fight, first with lances and then with swords. We could hear the clang of the metal in loud bursts. Crimson blood tinted broken chain mail.
This continued for some time, both knights taking hits and withstanding injury. Finally, Tristan dislodged the other knight’s helm and came so close to the bone of his face that he cut his hair with the edge of his sword.
The cowardly knight exclaimed,
“Vassal, ye have won. Do not kill me! Take my sword, I give it to ye.”
“I will not kill ye. But ye have forfeited your right to participate in the tournament and must come with me to Tintagel as my prisoner,” Tristan told him.
This meant he traveled next to Tristan for the rest of the journey and reveled in complaining every step of the way. Tristan ignored him except to make sure he took no missteps, but Isolde gave the false knight disapproving looks from time to time for his lack of decorum in the presence of the queen and her lady-in-waiting. Tristan did not ask me to treat wounds, but I understood that I was to keep an eye on the knight. If he took ill, he would be cumbersome to travel with. But by this point, we were not far from Tintagel.
Isolde and I brushed are hands along the tall grasses, looking for untame thyme. We needed to get out of the castle for fresh air.
Once the basket was full, I set it down and we lay back on the green blades and watched the puffy clouds sweep peacefully across the blue banner of sky.
“Brangien, my life sometimes feels like an interminable journey. What will happen to Tristan and me?” Isolde mused.
“Sometimes I like to imagine who or what I could have been and what I would get to do in that role; for example, if I were a sparrow, I would collect the most interesting materials for my nest and flee to the mountains when I needed to get away.”
“What materials would ye use?”
“I would sit near ladies embroidering and carry off their lovely thread scraps to build my home.”
“Ye know it was a swallow that carried a strand of my hair to King Marc. If I were a bird, I would be a different swallow and catch the golden hair before the king did.”
“Is that your pick? To be a swallow?”
“Nay, I would want to be with Tristan.”
“I don’t think this construct is helping ye.”
“Nay, ye are right.”
A companionable silence followed, the play of sun and shadow pulling on our eyelids softly so that we entered a kind of reverie.
A suspicious tickle of the nose woke me up, an inkling of humours awry. I rarely felt imbalanced except when it rained. I poked my head out the window. No rain yet.
“My lady, I will let some onions boil. Do ye want any hot onion water?”
Isolde raised her eyebrows at me.
“Where did ye hear of such a cure for when you’re ailing?”
“I found it myself,” I said.
The air still dry, I gathered a few onions, sliced them, and placed them in a pot to boil. Tears welled in my eyes as they rolled and turned. I kept the cottage door open and watched the rain begin to fall from the gray firmament and murky clouds drift in straight lines.
After boiling the bulbs several minutes, I poured a cup of onion broth as hot as I could stand it. My tears spilled onto the floor.
The clouds, at close gaze, looked like petals, the blooms an “abri” (shelter) in the sky without foundation. But here below, the rain weighed the rose blossoms, torn feathers floating down. A breeze kicked up, some kind of promise, carrying in a clean waft of earthworms who plodded up through the soil to the air and rivulets of rain.
I sat in my garden, resting on my feet, knees bent, to ponder effective combinations of herbs. What better place than amidst a patch of lavender? There were no sweeter scent and color to savour. A gentle spring coursed in me–a goodly theme–and I felt it in my elbows.
“What are ye doing, Brangien? Did ye eat raw savoury?” Isolde said to me, standing to one side.
Savoury was said to be an ingredient for a happy mind.
“Nay, Isolde. I feel content in my silent loquaciousness. Maybe the rumor was true. I am not related to ye. I came from some thoughtful soul and was sold by pirates to your mother.”
Isolde shook her head, laughed and joined me, squatting in the garden.
“Let me see why ye like doing this,” she said, then became quiet.
And we both sat still and hushed, breathing the lavender air and feeling the warm sun on our heads.
When Isolde looked over her shoulder, the king’s barons took note of where she gazed. If Isolde walked the castle grounds, the barons shadowed from a distance. And while they kept an eye on Isolde, I kept them in view. And while I watched the barons and listened for the gossip of everyone I passed, they saw me and heard me, too. I tired of being eyed–as Isolde’s companion, lady-in-waiting, foreigner, and healer. (There were worse names for the latter.)
One day after Tristan and Isolde met in their “verger” (orchard), I slipped in for a moment and laid down. Here, the green sky flowed, then pooled around bunches of fruit and scented flowers–red, violet, orange, and yellow, and the birds chirped and sang to each other. I became part of an ethereal choir’s song, almost disappearing within it. Judgment, like an ill humour, eased off my scalp, and my heart lightened. I had heard Isolde tell Tristan she thought maybe the verger was “merveilleux” (marvelous, supernatural), as though it might vanish like Tintagel (once in winter and once in summer). But I think the marvel was that for a moment I could become one with the beauty surrounding me and let go of things I heard around the castle and could not forget. Then I sighed, stood up, inhaled a delicious breath of honeysuckle and turned back.
“My lady, it is time,” I told Isolde. We walked to the garden cottage with candles on this eve of St. John’s Day and lit the yarrow we had gathered, placing it in a small pit I had made.
“St. John, guide us to the Light, to release us from what binds us, so we can turn to Him, and find in our faith a new hold. Amen.”
The scent of burnt yarrow drifted on the summer breeze.
The white dust had not truly disappeared from the hazel leaves, and the worry was getting to me. Where did it come from? How could I get rid of it?
In the great hall, I half listened to Sir Thomas of Dartmouth, a lackluster cousin of the noble squire Perinis, recount his pilgrimage tale. He had only just returned and spoke of his success expelling Moors from Portugal before arriving in the Holy Land.
The light played hide and seek on his face, and in the rays of light I could almost see a fine mist of white, which reminded me of the coat on the hazel tree. An odd connection, I reflected. Where had this white dust come from? I wrung my hands.
The next morning I awoke early to visit the tree. I fetched a vessel of water to douse it, knowing I would not change anything but feeling frustrated. I left my earthenware container to retrieve something in the cottage, and wandered back out to the vessel. But as I poured the water onto the tree, I noticed small bubbles. Why would there be bubbles? And I stopped pouring; my heart jumped. There was lye in this water! I saw Cecily the scullery maid from a distance, walking away. She knew the hazel tree and its honeysuckle were special to me, and she had switched my vessel for hers. I sat down and cried. I did not know how much she had used and what it might do.
Over days, I watched and waited. The white dust disappeared. In fact the lye appeared to have rid whatever ailed the tree. Cecily had led me to a discovery, albeit unknown to her. Lye could protect plants from the white powder.
At the outside of my herb garden, a hazel tree stood adorned by honeysuckle. The Queen of Ireland had said that the hazel tree could not live without honeysuckle once entwined. To me, this tree and this vine spoke of how well it went with the lovers’ love. I had let them be.
But now white dust had appeared on the hazel leaves. Oh dear, what ailed my tender companions? Perhaps they were ill of humor?
I gave their soil a drink of lemon balm tea, as I had found certain friends appreciated such spunk, and I showered the leaves with water. Benedicite.
The leaves dried anew by the afternoon and buoyed by the lemon balm tea, lent their ears again to the heavens.