From the author: An unwanted suitor and an intriguing minstrel arrive a the manor.
My heart is steadfast, O God;
I will sing and make music with all my soul.
Awake, harp and lyre!
I will awaken the dawn.
He arrived in spring. It was three years since my hope had ended and, for the first time, I did not regret it.
All women are sinful and caused the Fall; this is common knowledge. At least it is since the new priest arrived to teach us correctly. Father Bartholomew only knew three tales – Our Lord walking on the water, Jonah in the belly of the whale, and the resurrection (and he confused those) – and spent most of his time caring for the infirm and tilling God's Acre, since he could not read. I think it was because of him that I decided to take the veil, even though I now know he was a pathetic, ill-educated excuse for a priest, unworthy to shepherd a flock. Now even the unlettered must learn their scripture and we must all confess our sins regularly. But I have never confessed the Visions. That, I suppose, is the sin that caused Roger's fall, and led the family into greater wrongdoing.
In our small manor there is little to cause them. Father Antony's masses all look like brown sludge. But Father once took me to the great Cathedral, years ago when Roger was still with us. The Kyrie Eleison was like gold rain and the Gloria was hundreds of pale blue triangles rising up to the beams. I thought at the time that they were pointing up to heaven. But the next Christmas, the songs of the wassailers became fiery darts. There is nothing heavenly about that. I do not even like to think the word witchcraft. I dread to think that I might be evil when all my desire is towards holiness, so I keep my mouth shut. I know what Father Antony would say.
Before Roger's misfortune, I think I had almost convinced Mother and Father to accept my vocation, even though it would have meant going right out to the coast to join the nearest abbey. Now new religious houses spring up like mushrooms. The new one beyond the wood lot will be finished before harvest; I see men going past to work on it. I expect it will not be long before the sisters arrive and a new cycle of work and prayer begins. That was the life I hoped for. I could not see myself happy as an ornament to a knight, supervising his kitchen and bearing his heirs. I wanted to educate myself beyond what I received at home (and certainly beyond my priest's three tales, which I had surpassed in the cradle!) I wanted to learn to write. I wanted to sing psalms and (yes, I cannot deny the sinful desire) to see what new forms and colours they would take when raised by the voices of the nuns throughout the changing seasons. But Roger's accident changed that and I knew the inevitable would arrive. That spring it did, in the form of Sir Rowland.
The manor was in uproar that morning. Mother was all fuss and flap ("Stand up straight, Eleanor. Remember what I taught you. Are you wearing the amber beads?") The household was assembled in the courtyard at the risk of ruining the dinner, and my back was itching where one awkward beam of sunlight shone straight at the seam of my woollen dress. Sir Rowland owned three hundred acres and was a favourite of the Baron. He was thirty years old (positively ancient to my eyes), rode a black horse, and I had not seen him for five years.
At first I thought he had brought a squire with him. But a squire better dressed than his master would be an unusual thing indeed. The cut of his tunic alone, the quality of the cloth, suggested a level of wealth that surpassed even what I remembered from Grandfather's castle in distant childhood, when Mother's family had been one of the first in the county. And such a squire! Father Antony had preached on the lusts of the flesh, but I had never imagined such a pleasant feeling as I got looking into those black eyes. Perhaps Mother had been mistaken about the arrangement? No, one with such fine features, such a lithe athletic form, would wed a princess at the very least.
My Mother's hissing command brought me to my knees in a deep curtsey. Father and Sir Rowland were bowing low to each other. I heard the knight murmur something about "escort", and then I felt his cold blue eyes boring into me. I hoped he would find my hips too slender, but even that thought could not hold me for long. The squire was dismounting. He leapt from the saddle with the lightness and grace of an angel, his hair blowing about his face in the breeze. He wore no mail of any kind; that was an unusual risk in these parts.
"Griffin, the steward will direct you!" boomed Sir Rowland from the entrance porch.
He silently assented and turned to hand the reins to the stableboy. I saw it then, the velvet bag on his back with drawstrings tightly closed, the sweep of the harmonic curve within quite evident. But by then I already knew who he was. And I could count the sins of the last five minutes on my fingers.
If a woman is sinful, a minstrel is doubly so. He cannot even correctly be called a Christian. But that does not mean a man cannot make use of him. Even in our quiet corner, we had heard tell of the Baron's minstrel. It was said he spent as much time in the saddle on his master's missions as he did at his harp strings in his master's hall. It was also said that he was sullen and secretive, but that could have been jealousy. Everybody likes to gain a great man's favour. He was certainly well out of the marriage market as far as any respectable person was concerned, especially the daughter of a pious knight. My heart sank. I had felt a forbidden desire in the presence of my future betrothed and I had rejoiced in it because, for the first time, I did not regret the cloister.
The fowl had gone dry and the jelly of fish was sagging when we returned to the kitchen. Mother was hollering orders above the clanging and hissing, and little Joan was crying in a corner because she had accidentally confused walnuts with hazelnuts. It was a relief to step into the cool of the Great Hall, on a quest for the spice box. Father and Sir Rowland were absent, perhaps temporarily inspecting the gardens. The menservants were busily preparing tables and moving furniture. I sighed as I bent down to stroke Gripper, Father's brachet, who was nuzzling my legs. I knew I must try to be engaging and virtuous tonight, but between the memory of dark almond eyes and the prospect of the Visions, it would not be easy.
The unfamiliar voice made me start, and I stood up, smoothing down my skirt and trying to look demure. Griffin was a span or so taller than I, so I could avoid his gaze without having to hang my head like a peasant, but the stitching at his collar transfixed me and even the tones of his speech produced tiny orange sparkles in the air.
"You keep the key to your father's treasure box, do you not?"
"I do." The tone was perhaps more curt than I intended. The servants would know it was unseemly for me to be speaking with a minstrel.
Griffin held something out in his white hand. "I carry this for my master. Release it to no hand but mine. It is of great value."
I would not have needed his word to recognise the worth of the book he handed to me. The clasps and squares were of gold, and I could detect the flash of gilding between the closed pages. The Baron's reputation as a collector is well known and his private reliquary is legendary. I'm sure our poor parish could use half the miracles he has stored away, but Father Antony says the distribution of wealth is ordained by God alone.
I looked at the boss. At its centre was what looked like a small fragment of bark.
"A relic?" I asked, forgetting to be detached for a moment.
Griffin hesitated. "It is a Psalter."
"I will deal with it immediately," I said. Father's Psalter had always been a great comfort to me; I read it every day when I could. This would lie alongside it for the duration of the stay. I secretly wondered if I might be permitted to chant at least one psalm from it.
My gaze had inadvertently risen to Griffin's face. He smiled and his dark eyes lit up.
"I thank you. Have good day."
My knees as I climbed the steps to the solar were trembling and, however much I blinked, orange sparks danced before my eyes.
I was not required to do much at the feast except enter behind Mother, speak when spoken to, and smile only at appropriate moments. Joan had to remain with Nurse, at which she protested loudly, but I would gladly have swapped places for anything.
I did not like Sir Rowland. Without his mail, I could see his figure more clearly. He had a chest like a barrel and great thick forearms. I tried to imagine them encircling me in private, and suppressed a shudder. The idea of slender arms and white hands embracing me was one I tried hard to put from my mind.
I could not see Griffin anywhere. Even the estate workers would not want a minstrel sitting beside them. I began to think he had retired to the barn or the granary, but when we finally reached the banquet, Sir Rowland stood up and boomed:
"Come, Griffin! Have you not a song for us?"
He must have eaten his morsels in the shadows with the dogs, but as he rose and brought his harp to the dais, he looked as fresh as if he had just dressed. There was silver stitching at his hems and the fore-pillar of his harp was carved with fruit and flowers.
"A ballad in the new style," he announced with a bow.
I thought he sounded affected when he said that, not at all as he had been earlier, but I suppose it was just a part he played. At any rate, as soon as he plucked the first string, I forgot it. Over the years, I had learned what to expect with the Visions, but that night all was changed. A shimmer of green cut through me like a knife on the first chord, and the sun seemed to rise out of the dark space above me, so warm I could almost feel it. And then he began to sing:
In days of old, in Holy Land,
The harp of David sounded sweet.
He played upon the king's command
And made his music at Saul's feet.
A miracle was David's harp,
With sound of healing in its strings,
It cured the mad, as clerks may carp,
And soothed the troubled hearts of kings.
A thing of strength was David's arm:
As doughty knight he knew no peer.
Yet devils sought to do him harm
And end his harping with Saul's spear.
It might have been considered in poor taste to sing about the Holy Land, but it was probably the sort of thing the Baron liked, and for minstrels to sing of minstrelsy was certainly high fashion. But that was none of my concern. His voice was inside my head. And something was taking shape in the air at every word.
"Come close, my brother Jonathan.
The time has come for us to part.
Now swear to me, as you are man,
My name is written on your heart."
So David spoke and made lament,
A final song of parting pain.
He wept as though his heart were rent
And Jonathan kissed him again.
As two young lions they had been,
But where they next met, who can tell?
Their tears dropped where the grass was green;
They parted where the arrow fell.
A golden age was David's reign:
He rested old and full of years.
The arrow lay upon the plain,
Once watered there by David's tears.
"Take up my harp of old, good man
And heal my soul with its delights.
My spirit aches for Jonathan,
Who once was slain upon the heights."
But none could tune the ancient strings,
And none the ancient tune could play.
The harp of old no longer sings,
The soul of David wastes away.
The swathe of green was becoming something. I had only ever seen shapes and colours before, nothing beyond the abstract. But this Vision had a form. It was a hill, perhaps? Maybe a forest? And something else; I couldn't quite see what. It would form any moment.
A poor young harpist, seeking shade,
Sat down beneath a tree new grown.
Its leaves a meagre banquet made.
He plucked his harp-strings there alone.
The king leans in the casement high;
His ears have heard an ancient song.
In peace at last he now can die,
And rest with those who loved him long.
Still, where the arrow's sapling stood,
Men yet may hear the lion's roar.
The king of old walks in the wood,
The soul of David sings once more.
"Eleanor, are you quite well?"
My mother had taken my arm and was looking intently into my face. The Vision had broken up; swirls of green were going round and round the candles and torches.
"Forgive me," I said. "I am a little tired. Perhaps I may retire now?"
Father and Sir Rowland had risen to their feet in courtesy. I saw them exchange glances and Father whisper something to his guest. No doubt they believed the words of the ballad had affected me. Father would tell Sir Rowland that I was still grieving for my dead brother. But this would be a falsehood. Roger is alive.