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The Wolf Huntby Gillian Bradshaw
Afterward it seemed to Marie that she was born on the May afternoon when they told her that her brother was dead. Before that she had been cocooned in her own pretensions, a shapeless grub of a girl earnestly straining to be someone she was not. It was only when the fatal news destroyed all her dreams that she first emerged blinking into the real world.
She spent most of the day just as she'd spent a hundred others since her arrival at the priory, now nearly three years before--in copywork and in prayers. It was only after Nones, the midafternoon office, that she had the first hint of how everything would change. The prioress's serving girl hurried up to her as she was leaving the church and told her that the prioress wanted to see her.
"Me?" asked Marie with a mixture of puzzlement and dread. "Why? "Why?" She tried to remember if she'd actually spoken any of her many censorious thoughts about the prioress out loud. Prioress Constance was a worldly, aristocratic widow, and Marie, a passionate idealist of nineteen, had nothing but contempt for her.
"I wouldn't know, my lady," said the girl, unconcerned. "Some knights have arrived with a message, and my lady told me to tell you to go see her as soon as the office ended."
Marie's throat tightened with apprehension. Knights with a message that concerned her could only have come from her father, Lord Guillaume Penthièvre de Chalandrey, who was far away fighting on the crusade. Was he ill? Had he been awarded some honor by his overlord, the duke? Or--could he possibly have arranged for her to marry? For a moment she was standing in a cave at the back of her mind, smelling the stink that had filled the room at her mother's death: the scent of childbed fever, of sex, of marriage. She didn't want to marry, ever; she wanted to become a holy saint instead. She crossed herself and hurried unhappily to answer the prioress's summons.
She did not have far to go: St. Michael's priory consisted of a large house with a single small courtyard adjoining the church. It was not, of course, a part of the monks' ancient abbey that crowned the hill; it was situated in the town that clung to the rock below. It enjoyed the abbey's protection, however, and the same secure position above the waters of St. Michael's Bay kept it safe from the constant raiding and turmoil that plagued the Breton March. The nuns were all respectable noblewomen, and they accepted only well-born girls as novices--a respectability which had always frustrated Marie's ardent enthusiasm. The prioress's chambers were on the ground floor of the house. Even before she reached them she could hear Lady Constance's well-bred braying voice. It carried across the small cloister-court, punctuated by inaudible responses from the visitors. "No, no!" it exclaimed, just as Marie entered the dark porch. "She's a dear quiet girl, very modest and obedient; it's been a pleasure to have her here --do assure your lord of that! I'm sorry to summon her for such bad news, my lords, indeed I am, and I shall be very sorry to see her go."
Marie stopped dead, not listening for the still-inaudible reply. The oak door of the reception room before her was closed, while behind her the warm spring day continued smoothly in the sun. Bad news for her; so bad that she was expected to leave St. Michael's priory. She felt as though the threads that bound her heart to her mind had just been cut: she was aware that something had happened that would alter her life irrevocably, but it was an awareness without emotion. An onlooker inside her watched dispassionately to see what she, Marie Penthièvre of Chalandrey, would do in a crisis. The only conscious thought her mind shaped was a prayer: "Oh God, don't let my father be dead!"
She raised her hand and rapped upon the door.
The room was full of people. Lady Constance, a strong-featured woman of fifty, was sitting on the high-backed oak chair, dressed in one of the embroidered and bejeweled habits that drew scandalized fulminations from the abbey up the hill. Three knights were standing before her: they all turned to look at Marie as she came in, and with relief she realized that she didn't know any of them. Bad news from home would have had a familiar messenger. The knights were all young men and they all held cups of the priory's wine. Their conical helmets sat in a row on the prioress's table. Two of the men wore plain hauberks--knee-length leather coats stitched all over with iron rings--while the armor of the third was finer, forged of very small interlinked rings, with a gilded cross-harness on the breast. The hauberk sleeves, as was usual, reached only to his elbows, and one could see that the tunic beneath was dyed scarlet and trimmed with marten fur. He was evidently a man of some wealth, and she guessed he was the leader of the party. He was fair-haired and clean-shaven, a handsome man with wide blue eyes and even white teeth which he started to show her in a smile, before visibly remembering that he was bringing her bad news and looking solemn.
"Marie, my dear," said Constance gently, "thank you for coming so promptly. Child, you must strengthen yourself and trust in our Lord Jesus Christ. I'm afraid that these gentlemen have brought bad news for you."
Marie crossed her hands on her breast and bowed her head. Her heart was still cut off, but there was a sick taste at the back of her mouth. "Lord Jesus Christ have mercy," she said. "My lords, what is your news?"
It was the fair-haired man in the fine armor who told her. His name, he said, was Alain de Fougères; he and his companions had been sent by her father's overlord, the duke, to tell her that her brother Robert had been killed at the siege of Nicaea.
Marie had been braced for disaster, and its absence staggered her. She'd barely known her brother. He'd lived at the court of her father's overlord, Duke Robert of Normandy, since before she was born, serving the duke first as a page, then as a squire and a knight. He'd only returned to Chalandrey to bring home a silly wife who'd disliked Marie--and then he'd spent very little time there. She was shamefully aware that she felt a bitter jealousy toward him, the child her father loved, the heir all her world united to praise. But she'd prayed for him dutifully every day. He'd been a stout, cheerful man, fond of sweets and wine; she remembered him dancing the gavotte with his wife until his face was crimson. How could he be dead? She blinked at the fair-haired knight owlishly, and he looked back with an expression of dutiful solemnity. The silence lengthened. She realized that everyone expected her to say something, and, horribly embarrassed, she couldn't think what to say.
Into her numbed mind came one thought far too honest to be spoken aloud: if Robert were dead, their father would have to notice her at last. He never had, never, even though she tried to make herself modest and humble and pious, everything a gentlewoman should be; even though she had mastered the extraordinary accomplishment of learning to read. Marie's face went hot. It was wicked to be pleased at a brother's death. She pressed her crossed hands against her chest, feeling the heart pounding under the ridges of bone. One of the knights hurried over and set a stool down for her, and, dizzy with shame and embarrassment, she collapsed onto it with a thump.
Alain de Fougères coughed, with the air of a man who's completed an unpleasant preliminary and reached the point where he can do the business he intended. "Because of this sad loss of that good knight your brother," he said, "my lord the duke has sent us to escort you to his court."
"What?" asked Marie faintly, then, more sharply, "What do you mean?"
"With your father away you are the duke's ward," Alain said, as though he were explaining it to a child. "Now that you've lost the other members of your family, it's his business to provide for you."
Marie's face went even hotter. She knew the feudal law as well as he did. A man's overlord was always the guardian of his widow or orphans. But she was not an orphan and she didn't see--
Suddenly, she did see. Her brother had no children, so, under the marriage settlement he had made, his widow would not inherit from him. Marie herself was now the heiress to the manor of Chalandrey--and, as an heiress, valuable. An arranged marriage to an heiress was a fine reward for any knight a feudal overlord was pleased with. The sick taste swam back into her throat, and she felt herself begin to tremble. "My father provided for me already!" she exclaimed, too shrilly. "He sent me here."
"For your safety, child," said Lady Constance gently. "Your father arranged for you to stay here while he was on crusade, but he was very emphatic that you weren't to take vows without his permission. Now that your circumstances have changed, you should go to court."
Marie stared at her frantically, trapped, then whirled back to Alain de Fougères. "How could Duke Robert have sent you?" she demanded. "He's on the crusade with my father."
"I've come on the duke's authority," replied Alain. After a moment he added, "Duke Robert has left a steward, you know."
One of the other knights grinned. Marie looked from the grin back to Alain de Fougères, trying to fight off the horror and force her stunned mind into motion. She felt as though she had just missed something, something important. But it was impossible to think clearly. She was bound to obey her father's overlord. Bound to marry at his command some total stranger, probably a man much older than herself. Bound thereafter to regard her husband as her lord and master, to accept humbly whatever treatment he gave her--and most husbands beat their wives at least occasionally. Bound to lower her body, awkward and private and vulnerable, into the feverish, bloody filth of childbirth. Bound to lose herself utterly. Choking on a panic without outlet, she pressed her hands against her face and burst into tears.
She left Mont St. Michel that same afternoon. Lady Constance told her that it was best to keep busy. "You know that you must obey your lord as you would obey your father himself," she said. "And since you're bound to go, it's best if you go at once. It won't do any good to brood. I'm sure you'll be well looked after at the duke's court, and these gentlemen will treat you kindly on the way there. You go and pack."
It was the prioress's serving girl, though, who packed up the few belongings Marie had brought with her to the convent. Marie could only sit on the narrow bed, her hands folded in her lap, praying. She was still shaking, but now only partly from fear, and largely from shame. The onlooker within had watched to see how she would behave in a crisis. It had seen wicked thoughts, craven terrors, and childish bursts of tears. Of the firmness and faith that should have gone with that much-sought-after holiness, there had been no trace.
The sun was still well above the horizon when Marie climbed, dazed, onto the rawboned gray mare that had carried her to the priory three years before, and set out with the three knights.
Lady Constance had been right in one thing at least: the journey instantly wrested Marie's mind from her own concerns. Her mare Dahut was what her father had approvingly termed "a good horse": she was strong, fast, and enduring. She was also an iron-mouthed, bad-tempered bone-shaker, and for three years she had been used by a motley assortment of priory servants, which had not improved her naturally contrary disposition. Marie had learned to ride as a small child, but had not been on a horse since arriving at the priory, and Dahut kept her so busy that for some miles she had no time even to look back. She did notice, though, when they turned to cross the Couesnon River into Brittany. She could hardly fail to notice that.
For sixty years the Couesnon had formed the boundary between the duchies of Normandy and Brittany. Though both nominally subject to the king of France, the two duchies were in fact virtually independent nations, and they were at war almost as often as they were at peace. Many Breton families, however, had a foothold on both sides of the river. Brittany was poor and Normandy was rich: What could be more natural than that poor Bretons, second and third sons with no part in the family inheritance, should seek their fortunes in the north? And if they succeeded, what prevented the lords of small estates in Brittany from getting big ones elsewhere? The many branches of the Penthièvre family were the most eminent of all these allegiance-straddlers. Partly because of the glorious duplicity of more exalted Penthièvre's, Marie's own, more modest branch of the family was absolute in its allegiance to Normandy. Guillaume Penthièvre's father had left the service of the duke of Brittany and sworn fealty to Duke William the Conqueror, and that loyalty, Guillaume declared proudly, could not be retracted again without loss of the family's honor. He boasted of never having crossed the Couesnon.
Marie dragged her mare to a stop in front of the low wooden bridge. Dahut snorted and laid her ears back, jerking her head against the reins and shifting her feet in resentment. The three knights stopped, too, and turned back to fall in beside her. Behind her lay the empty expanse of salt marsh, and beyond that the pinnacle of Mont St. Michel, already four miles away but looking close enough to touch. The river before them flowed brown and smooth, the^ current so gentle that it seemed not to be moving at all.
"My lady?" asked Alain de Fougères, speaking for all three, as usual. "Why have you stopped?"
Marie looked at him in confusion. "You're going the wrong way," she said--and winced inwardly at how timid and unsure of herself she sounded.
He hesitated, and one of the other knights looked at him in exasperation. Marie thought the exasperated man must be some kind of kin to his leader: they looked alike, though Alain's wide-featured good looks were exaggerated in his follower to a peculiar resemblance to a frog--a gap-toothed frog with sandy hair. The follower's name, she'd gathered, was Tiher. "Tell her the truth, Alain," he urged.
Alain hesitated a moment longer, then nodded, "Very well. Lady Marie, we're going to Rennes."
Marie stared. Rennes was the capital of one of the three great counties of Brittany. Again her heart was cut loose from her mind, and she felt unreal, as though this were happening to someone else. "You said we were going to Duke Robert's steward!" she protested.
"No," said Alain, looking enormously pleased with himself. "I said we were going to the court of the duke. Duke Hoel is presently at Rennes."
Duke Hoel of Brittany. Marie stared in incomprehension. Dahut seized her moment, jerked the reins out of Marie's hands, and sidled stiff-legged toward the lush grass at the side of the road. Marie hurriedly drove her heels in to start the horse back the way they'd come--but at this the bad-tempered mare laid her ears back and balked. Tiher was right beside her: he leaned over and caught her bridle, a gesture that might have been merely helpful but suddenly was not. With a froggy grin he looped the trailing reins over his own arm. This is an abduction, Marie thought in amazement. That was why I felt I was missing something. It wasn't that I was stupid; it was that they were deceiving me. Duke Hoel! Oh sweet Jesus, I should have thought! Of course the duke of Brittany would jump at a chance of getting hold bf a fine rich manor like Chalandrey!
"You lied to me!" she exclaimed furiously to Alain.
"I didn't lie," answered Alain righteously. "I told you that I had been sent to escort you to the duke who is your rightful overlord. That's true."
"My rightful overlord is Robert of Normandy!" protested Marie. "You told me you'd come on the authority of Duke Robert's steward!"
Alain shook his head. "I never said that," he corrected her, smug at his own cleverness. "I said I'd come on the duke's authority, and that Duke Robert had appointed a steward--which he has. I never lied. You believed what you wanted to."
"You knew you were deceiving me!" Marie shouted, her face flushing with rage. "I was a fool, no doubt, to believe that you were a true and honorable knight, and to trust ..."
She stopped. The one she'd trusted had been Lady Constance: she'd assumed Alain was honest, because the prioress had urged her to go with him. It was inconceivable that the prioress, with her love of pedigrees and her knowledge of all the noble families of the Breton March, could have been deceived about the allegiance of any knight. And Constance, Marie now remembered, was a Breton Penthièvre, half-sister to the duchess of Brittany. Constance had connived at this.
Marie had devoted herself to holiness and humility, but she came from a long line of knights famous for their ferocity in war. The discovery that she had been betrayed into the hands of her enemies jolted her into a cold rage. If her inner onlooker had still been regarding her behavior, it would have found her accepting her betrayal with far more steadiness than she had found for her difficult obedience. But her inner self was no longer playing the detached observer. It was calculating, with a fierce intensity, the best way to escape.
She bit off her protest to Alain. Too much noise, too fierce an opposition, and the knights might decide to tie her to her horse for the rest of the journey. She drew her white novice's wimple forward to veil her face, as though she were overcome by emotion, bent her head, and locked her hands, which were trembling with anger; together in her lap.
Alain protested indignantly that he was a true knight, and a loyal servant of the duke, but, getting no response, spurred his horse to clatter proudly over the bridge ahead of her. Tiher hesitated a moment, then tightened his grip on Dahut's reins and gave the mare a sharp slap on the rump to start her across the bridge. The third knight, Guyomard, fell in behind, and they rode on into Brittany in silence.
* * *
Tiher felt sorry for his captive. Her brother's death had clearly hit her very hard--he had been touched by the stricken silence with which she'd received the news--and it was, no doubt, cruel to take advantage of her in her grief. It was also fairly deplorable to trick a novice nun from a priory, even though the prioress had turned a blind eye to the deceit. The cause might be just--Tiher had no doubt that the duke of Brittany had a right to the manor of Chalandrey--but it was hard on the girl. And she was a pretty girl, too, he thought judiciously, watching the downcast profile. Marie had a strong, clear-featured face whose fashionably high forehead owed nothing to the artifices of plucking and shaving, and her eyes under the straight brown brows were a dark gray. The plain monastic dress, black gown and white veil, was unbecoming, it was true, but Tiher had no objection to imagining her without them. Nice wide shoulders, nice wide hips, very nice in between.
Marie glanced up, and Tiher grinned at her in what was intended to be reassurance. She looked back at her folded hands at once, and he gave a sigh of rueful resignation. He never got anywhere with pretty girls--not with well-born ones, anyway. He was not merely ugly, but landless. Landless knights didn't marry. How could you have a wife when you had no house for her to live in, and your bed was in your lord's hall along with a score or two of your comrades in arms? Even Alain--who was, as Marie had guessed, Tiher's cousin--was unlikely to marry, and he was the second son of a lord and not just an impoverished nephew. Still, Tiher liked women's company when he could get, it.
"You'll come to no harm with us, Lady Marie," he told her. "Duke Hoel will treat you honorably."
She did not reply. Tiher sighed again, and they rode on in silence.
They traveled for nearly four hours that afternoon. The mare Dahut continued to misbehave, balking at streams, lunging at pastures, and occasionally kicking at Tiher's mount or trying to bite. Tiher cut a switch of willow and thrashed the horse each time she played up, but still found his arms aching from the mare's jerks at the bridle by the time they reached the abbey of Bonne Fontaine, where they were to stay the night. Marie by that time was pale with weariness, and she slumped painfully in the saddle. Her muscles had forgotten how to ride, and Dahut was not an easy goer. Nonetheless, when the abbot appeared at the gatehouse to greet them, she slid quickly off the horse and threw herself on her knees before him. "Help me, Father!" she cried loudly. "These men are abducting me. My father sent me to the priory of St. Michael, and they've stolen me away against my will!"
The abbot stared at her a moment, more in resignation than surprise. It was not unknown for knights to abduct pretty girls from convents. Then he looked accusingly at Tiher. A younger Tiher had once attended school at that same abbey, and he still thought of the abbot as able to fling God's thunderbolt at need. "It's the duke's orders, Father!" he protested hastily. "The lady is the heiress to Chalandrey, and Duke Hoel wanted her out of Mont St. Michel to keep her safe from the Normans."
The abbot's face cleared. He was a Breton of the March. He loathed the Normans, whose raids had often struck at his abbey's lands. He remembered nothing particularly reprehensible about Tiher, and he knew Alain de Fougères by sight. Alain's mother had been a great benefactress of the abbey. He had no doubts about whom to believe.
"You need have no fear, my daughter," he soothed. "Duke Hoel will see that you are well treated. And you must know, child, that whatever you've been told, Duke Hoel is your true overlord. In swearing fealty to a Norman, your father robbed Brittany of what was rightfully his."
Marie bit her tongue. It was clear that appeals would achieve nothing, and to persist in open opposition would only make her captivity harder to escape. She'd been ashamed of her tears and stunned stupidity at Mont St. Michel, but now she silently thanked God that she'd seemed such a fool. If they thought her weak and silly, they wouldn't expect her to do anything now but weep.
The abbot escorted them into the abbey guesthouse, where his servants prepared rooms for them: one room for the three knights, and one, next door but decently separate, for Marie. The knights took the precaution of closing the wooden shutter on the single window of Marie's room and barring it securely on the outside, and they locked the heavy door and kept the key. Marie sat down wearily on the bed and buried her face in her hands. Her limbs were still trembling from the ride, and she was so tired that she feared she would fall asleep where she sat. But she knew she must escape that night. Already they were twenty miles from Mont St. Michel, farther than she had ever gone on foot; after another day of riding the distance might prove too great for her. She didn't dare try to steal a horse. She had to go that night, or not at all. She must rest a little first, though, and eat to get her strength back. It would be best to leave in the early hours of the morning. She was used to waking before the dawn to say the office of Lauds, and she was confident that the deep-voiced abbey bell would rouse her as easily as the shrill jangler in the priory.
Now, how was she to get out? Marie heaved herself off the bed and carefully examined the room by the light of the single tallow candle the abbot's servants had left for her. The window shutter was not only firmly barred, but creaked at the merest touch: even if she could force it, it would be bound to make a lot of noise, and that would wake the knights next door. The walls of the room were thick mud and wattle upon a ground course of stone, the roof was tightly bound thatch, and beneath the rushes the floor was hard-packed clay. It might be possible to dig through one or another of them--but it would take hours of effort, and leave her too exhausted to go any distance.
That left the door. She went to it last. When she held her candle up she could see the bolt, slotted into a hole in the doorpost. Level with it, scraped into the wood of the post, was a small trench that must have been made by someone in the past opening the door with the bolt half in. Marie stared at that light scrape in the wood for a moment, her breath unsteady. She knew when she saw it that it was the way out, but it took a little time for her to understand how. Then, fumbling with excitement, she drew off her white wimple and jammed it in a wad between the bottom of the door and the stone threshhold, next to the hinges, where it would foul the door's swing invisibly.
A monastic servant came in a few minutes later, carrying a tray with a dish of pottage and a cup of wine for her supper, together with a ewer of water for washing, a basin, and a clean cloth. All three knights trailed behind him and stood in the doorway looking at her while the servant set his tray on the bed. Tiher was holding a candle, which made their shadows flap blackly about her room.
"Is there anything you require, Lady Marie?" asked Alain politely.
"Your absence," Marie returned coldly.
Alain looked offended, bowed stiffly, and left. Tiher gave her a froggy grin and followed, and the third knight, Guyomard, pulled the door shut behind the servant. The wadded-up wimple made it stiff, of course, so stiff that for a moment Marie stopped breathing, terrified that he'd look to see what was jamming it. But he didn't: he dragged it to, and through the thump of booted footsteps retreating, Marie just caught the click of the key turning in the lock. She leapt to her feet and rushed over. The bolt showed blackly in the crack between the door's edge and the frame, but it was impossible to see if it had stuck in the scraped-out trench or if it had gone securely into its socket. And she did not dare check, not yet. She leaned her head against the doorpost and prayed silently and passionately that the door was not locked. She thought of her father, camped before the walls of unimaginably distant Nicaea, grieving for Robert. I will keep your honor safe, she promised him inwardly. I will never give your lands to your enemies. You will be proud of me, Father: You will be proud of me at last.
Then she said three Paternosters to calm the thundering of her heart, and turned to wash before her supper.
* * *
When the bell rang for Lauds, Marie was up, three years of convent life taking her fumbling feet into waiting shoes even before she was fully awake. Then she stopped. Even in the complete darkness before cockcrow, the room was unfamiliar. This wasn't her little cell at St. Michael's; this was... Remembrance brought a flood of almost unbearable excitement.
She made herself sit still, listening. The bell stopped; the rustle of feet died away across the court, and the opening phrases of the office, thin and slow with sleep, whispered from the chapel. Marie took a deep breath, rose to her feet, and groped her way through the total blackness to the door. There. Rough frame, smoother planking; latch. She let her hands slip down, over the latch, along the edge, then along the sill. There was her wimple, exactly where she'd left it. Her first eager tug didn't shift the cloth, and she had to force herself to work it out slowly, patiently shifting it back and forth until, suddenly, it came loose. The door gave a screech as it did and pulled toward her. Marie felt a jolt in her chest as though her heart had tried to descend a step that wasn't there, and she froze, crouching by the threshold. But still there was no sound but the distant whisper of the monks saying the office. She got to her feet, clutching the wimple in one sweaty hand.
"Christ and Saint Michael help me!" she whispered. She wrapped the wimple carefully around the door latch, then pulled hard.
The wimple muffled the noise a little, but still the bolt gave another screech as it dragged along the frame--and then the door was open. Marie rested her palm against the post for a moment, listening, over the thunder of blood in her ears, for some sound of alarm. Again she heard only prayers.
She stepped cautiously out into the corridor. Now she could hear something from the room where the three knights were sleeping--but it was only one of them snoring. They, of course, were not in the habit of rising for Lauds, and they'd slept through the bell. Marie tried to stifle the rush of triumph: she still had a long way to go. Closing the door of her room carefully behind her, she hurried along the corridor, pulling the wimple over her head and tucking her hair under it as she went.
The forecourt of the abbey was deserted. The outer gate was barred and bolted for the night, but only on the inside, to keep out intruders, and the gatekeeper was asleep in his lodge. Marie had no trouble unbolting it and slipping out.
The moon had set, and everything was dark and strange. The road was visible only as a gray open patch against the shapeless blackness of the land. The silence was so deep that it numbed the ears, and little sounds--the rustle of clothing, the clumping of feet, even the rasp of breath--resounded hollow and vast. The roadside weeds were heavy with dew. Marie stopped after a few steps and stood motionless, hearing again the rush of blood in her ears. For the first time, she felt afraid. She had never before been alone out of doors at night, and in the darkness, beyond the strip of cultivated land beside the road, lay the forest. She had seen it the afternoon before, a shadow on the hills, sometimes coming close to the road, sometimes fading into distance, but never completely out of sight. The forest of Broceliande, the mystery that filled the heart of the duchy of Brittany as deep as the sea. There were wolves there, and other savage animals; there were robbers more savage still--and there were other things more dangerous than either, things that fled with a laugh and a ringing of crystal bells into hollow hills, or smiled up at you from wells when you looked for your own reflection. Things that could steal away your shadow and drive you mad; demon things.
Marie was a Breton of the March, where one spoke French; the forest belonged to the older Brittany, which spoke a more ancient tongue. But she had heard the stories. The country people left certain trees alone, decked certain springs monthly with flowers, built bonfires annually on particular flattened stones, and left little offerings of bread and milk. The church condemned it all, but the peasants stubbornly persisted, and few village priests had the courage to tell them to stop. Even priests could suffer if "the Good People" were offended. And the heart of the Good People's land was the forest.
Marie swallowed, crossed herself, whispered a prayer to Saint Michael. She had escaped: she would not let fear of things unseen keep her a prisoner now. But she started toward Mont St. Michel along the road. The afternoon before she had planned to make her way back through the forest in order to baffle pursuit, but she could no more enter the forest's shadow in that moonless dark than she could grow wings. The road would be safe until dawn. And in the daylight, she told herself firmly, the forest will seem safer, too.
As she walked, the land gradually, almost imperceptibly regained its shape. A hill humped itself up, black against the east; a brook followed a dip under a shadow that became willows. Then the silence was broken: a cock crowed from a farmyard as she passed, and her heart skipped a beat with relief. It was well known that all evil things retreated to their dens at cockcrow. Soon a few hesitant birds chirruped uncertainly; others called back. All at once the whole dawn chorus--the thrush and the warbler, the robin and the lark--sang full-throated from every bush and hedge, and the rest of Marie's dark fears drifted away on their tide of song. The light grew and the fields turned green, dappled with the white and yellow of meadowsweet and buttercups. Rabbits bounded for their burrows as she approached; a vixen ran across her path in a streak of red. Two swans flew low overhead, their wings booming. As the eerie quiet of the night receded, Marie found herself grinning with pure joy and walking with great bounding steps. This was no dream, no fantasy of holiness: this was real. She'd escaped! The knights had thought she was dull, timid, easy to deceive--but they were the ones deceived, and she was on her way home.
She should get off the road before they came galloping after her. Marie half-ran, half-skipped to where a farm track led off to the left beside a brook. Along a field, over a ditch, through a pasture, and there, closer than she'd expected, was the forest. There was nothing sinister about it now that the sun was up. The trees were covered with the vivid green of May, fuller than early spring's leaves, brighter than summer's. The morning sun had brushed their tops with a light as rich and yellow as butter. There were bluebells flowering under the old oaks, and the undergrowth had been coppiced recently, the straight young wood cut to be used and the rest cleared, so that the flowers carpeted a space open and airy as a hall, dappled with sun. The farm track continued on under the trees. The fear she'd felt before now seemed ridiculous: Broceliande was a beautiful place. Happily, she followed the path onward.
It was easy going for a while, and she was free to imagine what she'd do when she got back to St. Michael's. She'd go straight to Lady Constance. "Lady Mother," she'd say, "those knights who came to fetch me--they weren't from Duke Robert at all." And Constance, pale with shock at Marie's reappearance, would whisper faintly, "No?" "No," Marie would say. "They were from a duke, certainly, but not Robert of Normandy. Hoel of Brittany had sent them to abduct me. He meant to marry me off to one of his own men and steal my father's lands. But I managed to escape. I thank God and Saint Michael, who saved me from having to turn traitor to my sworn overlord. I hate treachery above all things," she would say pointedly. "I'm astonished, Lady Mother, that you didn't realize who that Alain de Fougères was and who he served--you, who know the pedigree of every knightly family on the Breton March."
Some of Marie's happiness vanished. Constance had certainly known. What would she do when the novice she'd betrayed turned up again on her doorstep?
Marie bit her lip and told herself that Constance wouldn't be able to do anything. She wouldn't dare admit that she'd connived at the abduction of a young noblewoman entrusted to her care; she'd have to pretend that she, too, had been deceived. The priory was safe, she told herself. It had to be. There was no other refuge within reach. She pressed on.
The path grew narrower, and soon she left the area of coppiced woodland behind. The forest floor became a mixture of brambles and saplings where there was a gap in the canopy above, and bracken shoots and bluebells where there wasn't. Eventually Marie noticed another track which left her path to the right. It was rough and half-choked with brambles, but it led north, the direction she wanted. She kilted up her skirts out of the way of the trailing brambles, and turned right.
The going became much harder. Last year's leaves covered the ground, hiding the fallen branches, the stones, the dips in the path, so that she stumbled often; in the sunnier patches there were nettles and thorns. The effort made her painfully aware that she'd already walked a long way on an empty stomach. Her muscles were still stiff and sore from the previous day's riding, and she longed to lie down and rest. She reminded herself of how proud her father would be when he learned of her daring escape, straightened her shoulders, and continued on. She walked more slowly, though, and watched for some sign of a farm or cottage where she could buy food. The night before she had filled her purse with all the money that had been packed into her luggage: it should be more than enough to see her home.
Two hours later, she'd come upon no sign of human settlement. Since she left the road she'd seen nothing but the trees, with the light slipping through them in bewildering patterns; heard nothing but the cries of the birds, and the scolding of an occasional squirrel. Her path had long since vanished into the undergrowth, and she'd struggled on along a series of deer tracks which ran a little ways into the forest, then disappeared without warning. As the sun climbed higher the day became hot, and midges and mosquitoes rose whining from black muddy patches on the forest floor. She found herself thinking longingly of--water but she'd passed no water since the brook where she left the road. Her legs were scratched by brambles and stung by nettles, and her face and hands had been bitten by mosquitoes. She wondered if the knights would already have passed her along the road. If they had, it would be safe to return there. She didn't think she could endure much more of the forest.
She sat down beside the trunk of a fallen tree, to rest and to check her direction by the sun. For a few minutes, though, she was too exhausted even to move, and she simply sat, leaning her cheek against the tree's green bark. At last she crossed herself and said a prayer, then looked up at the sun, which scattered light unevenly through the shifting leaves above her. It was noon, and the shadows were short. She looked down at the shadow of the tree beside her--and realized that the angle of the shadow was wrong. She'd been walking west, not north. West, into the heart of the forest. Worse, she could not remember when she'd last checked her direction, and couldn't say how deep into Broceliande she had come.
Her eyes stung, and sobs of panic pulled at her throat. The forest had lured her in, beguiling her with bluebells, and then closed in behind her. She felt an irrational certainty that something was waiting farther in among the shadows of the trees--something animal and rank and monstrous. She would be caught in the forest at night and then it, the thing in wait, would have her.
She told herself angrily that she couldn't have come far out of her way. She had not been walking fast: she couldn't be more than two miles from the road. If she walked due east, she would reach the road long before nightfall. There would be houses there, and people, and food. Meanwhile, she should try to find water. She would feel much better when she'd had a drink.
She sat up straight, set her teeth, pushed the heels of her hands against her eyes, and recited two Aves and her favorite prayer to Saint Michael. Then she climbed resolutely to her feet and began pushing her way eastward through the thick undergrowth, ignoring the tempting tracks that led in any other direction, and hoping she'd soon find a stream.
After a mere ten minutes or so of struggling through the bushes, she heard the sound of running water. A few seconds later, she broke through a screen of saplings into a clearing among the oak trees. A spring bubbled up into a deep green pool, then ran off through a sward of impossibly green grass as a little stream. Wood anemones, celandine, and the wild pansies called heartsease grew beside it, and the stream was half-covered with the shining white cups of water crowfoot. As she came into the sun, she paused first because of the beauty of the place--and then because of the wolf which lay on the grass beside the pool.
Eagerness and misery were lost together in the icy jolt of terror, and for an endless moment she stared into the animal's face. She found afterward that all the details of it had impressed themselves on her mind so perfectly that she could recall the whole picture simply by closing her eyes and remembering her fear. The wolf was sprawled on its side, its head up, as though Marie had woken it from sleep. Its coat was a dark gray, tipped with black at the tail and brushed with black along the back, but paling on the belly and legs almost to white; the muzzle and ears were masked with brown. The brown eyes were incongruously black rimmed, like a painted courtesan's at a fair; the mouth was open, black lips slack around gleaming white fangs, red tongue panting in the heat. It seemed enormous, staring at her with the grim confidence of a lord in his castle facing an offending serf. Marie remembered stories of the beasts: children disappearing in the forest, babies snatched from cradles, a pile of white bones and a few scraps of cloth all that anyone found of them. She wondered why she didn't scream.
The wolf moved first. It jumped to its feet, its hackles rising and its ears flattening. At once Marie, too, broke from her paralysis. She bent and grabbed the nearest branch. "Scat!" she shouted, swinging her stick so that it cut the air with a vicious hiss.
The wolf's mouth curled in an insolent doggy grin--and then it turned and loped off into the forest.
After a minute, Marie went forward and stood over the pool, nervously listening. There wasn't even a rustle in the undergrowth. The wolf had simply run away.
It was as frightened as I was, she told herself shakily. Humans hunt them more than they hunt us. She knelt down by the spring to drink.
The water was delicious, fresh and cold and sweet. She sat down on the grass when she'd finished drinking, pulled her shoes off, and soaked her sore feet and scratched legs. The water's touch seemed to take away all pain. A nightingale was singing from a tree nearby. Farther away a cuckoo called, and a woodpecker knocked intermittently: ch-ch-chunk...chunk and then a long pause, as though he were tired. The air was full of a heavy summer hum, a mixture of running water, insect songs, and the soft noise of leaves shifting in a breeze too light to be felt. Marie lay down in the sun and wriggled her toes. The weariness she'd struggled against for hours washed over her. She hadn't actually taken her rest, back at the fallen tree. She would take it now.
She didn't expect to fall asleep, not with the urgency she felt to get out of the forest, not after the encounter with the wolf. But the exhaustion she'd pushed back so determinedly drowned her, and within minutes her eyes had closed and she turned into the soft moss under the blanket of sun, and slept.
She dreamed, thinking she was awake. She lay on the moss in the sun, and saw the wolf coming back. Its mouth was still curled in the insolent grin, and its red tongue lolled. It slipped through the new shoots of bracken, and as it came it seemed to grow larger, heavier, more misshapen. Then it rose on its hind legs, and she saw that it was a man, a wolfish, savage man, naked except for long hair that covered his body like the bristles of a pig. His nails were curved yellow claws, and his teeth were fangs, bared in the same wolf's grin. His genitals were red and erect. Marie tried to cry out in horror, to run away, but she couldn't move. He came closer. Now the hair on his body had become rough hempen cloth, patched with hide, and he wore his wolf skin as a cloak and hood, its empty eye sockets staring above his own. He stood over her, still grinning, then turned and spoke to two others who had appeared beside him, his harsh voice framing words she could not understand.
Marie opened her eyes with a jolt, looked up wildly, and found that the man was there.
The nightmare horror of it was so great that for a moment she thought she would be sick. She couldn't move, and only stared up, round-eyed, white with terror.
The man laughed and said something to her. She still couldn't understand, but suddenly realized why: he was speaking in Breton. She recognized the language, though she couldn't speak it. In Chalandrey even the peasants spoke French.
The man said something else and offered her his hand to help her up.
Marie sat up, looking from the hand to the man, and then to his two companions, who stood a little behind him, grinning, leaning against their short bows. They were all heavily bearded, rough-looking men, fairly young, dressed in the hemp tunics and hose patched with hide of her dream. The man before her did have a wolf-skin cloak, but it was an old, tatty one, badly cured. She swam back to reality, weak with relief. These men were nothing worse than woodcutters or swineherds, ordinary peasants going about their own business in the forest. She had glimpsed them while she drowsed, and the wolf-skin cloak had joined the wolf she'd seen in a nightmare. Then relief gave way to alarm: she had drowsed, but for how long?
She glanced around at the sky, and saw that the sun was low now, slanting through the trees; it was late in the afternoon, almost evening. She pulled her heels under her and jumped up, then wobbled uncertainly on her bare feet.
"I'm sorry, good man, I don't speak Breton," she told the man in the wolf skin. "But if you can help me out of the forest this evening, I'll be grateful."
One of the other woodsmen laughed and said something. Wolfskin shrugged and replied. He caught Marie's sleeve. "Nan gallek," he said, and grinned again.
She understood that much: "No French." She pulled her arm away from him fastidiously--his hand and clothes were filthy. "I want to get out of the forest," she repeated slowly, then waved an arm at the trees around her, and pointed eastward. "Out of here. Brocehande forest--no, nan." She fumbled at her belt for her purse. "Here," she said, taking a coin from it, "I'll pay you for your trouble."
Wolfskin whistled and took the coin. The one who'd laughed said something else--a joke, because they all laughed. To her horror, Wolfskin reached over and grabbed at the purse, which was fastened to the belt. Marie clasped her hand over it.
"No!" she exclaimed angrily. "Take me to Mont St. Michel first. At Mont St. Michel, yes, you can have any money I've got."
"Mont St. Michel!" repeated Joker. "Eee--religieuse." He made another joke, which the other two found even funnier.
Wolfskin took Marie's hand and firmly pulled it off the purse. She protested angrily and slapped at his hand, and Joker slid behind her, grabbed one arm, then the other, and twisted them behind her back. The pain shocked her. Calmly, Wolfskin unfastened her belt, slid the purse off, and hefted it appreciatively in his hand.
"Thief!" shouted Marie in astonished outrage. Nothing that had ever happened to her before had prepared her for rough robbery by peasants in dirty hemp tunics. She struggled to free her arms, and Joker jerked them upward, stilling her with another spasm of pain. She stood still, blinking, choked by a white-hot fury of indignation. What would she do without money? How could she get home now?
The third woodsman held out his hands, and Wolfskin tipped the contents of the purse into them. Money-man hefted the coins, sorted them out, and made a comment: the amount. The other two grunted appreciatively. Joker nodded at Marie and made another joke. Wolfskin didn't laugh this time. He merely smiled, said something to Marie in a friendly tone, and pinched her cheek. His cheerfulness was even worse than his thieving, and Marie could do nothing more than glare wordlessly. Wolfskin said something more, then untied her wimple and pulled it off. He stroked her braided hair, traced the line of her jaw lingeringly down along her throat, and smiled. "Kaer;" he said, sounding almost affectionate.
It was only then that she realized she had worse to fear than robbery. She jerked backward in horrified disbelief, then gasped as the move twisted her arms. "No," she said, shaking her head wildly. "Nan. No, you don't understand; I'm a noblewoman, a lady novice--my family will pay a ransom for me!"
She realized as she spoke that, even if this were something that might have moved them, she didn't look like a lady. She was dressed for a convent, it was true, but the clothes were not so distinctive: any woman might wear a plain black gown and white wimple--and, for that matter, no particular vocation was needed to have a place in a monastery. The fact that her habit was good cloth wasn't very apparent now that it was covered with bark and moss scrapings and kilted up above bare feet. To these men she must appear simply a peasant girl, a monastic servant, perhaps, who'd run off on a private holiday and now wanted to go back to her employment. They'd found her alone in the forest. She plainly wasn't herding pigs or cutting wood or gathering herbs or engaged in any other honest occupation, and if three rough, healthy young men meet up with a wild, disreputable girl in a lonely place, what are they expected to do?
Wolfskin caught her head in both hands and kissed her eagerly. His breath stank, and his tongue was slimy. She remembered with the vividness of hallucination the scent of her mother's sickbed and the cold slime on the skin of her dead baby sister. As soon as his mouth pulled away from hers, she screamed as loudly as she could.
He was surprised. He slapped her, and said something angry and impatient. She screamed again, and he put his hand over her mouth. At this the fury she'd felt since he grabbed her purse boiled over: How dare this filthy peasant treat her like a whore? She straightened her arms as much as she could, threw herself backward, nearly knocking Joker over, and lashed out at Wolfskin with a bare heel. She caught him hard on the thigh, and he shouted, then slapped her again, so hard this time that her shoulder twisted almost out of its socket, and she screamed in pain. Wolfskin grabbed both shoulders and shook her, shouting into her face.
"No!" she screamed back, so furious that she had no room even for fear. "No! Even a stupid lout like you must understand that much French! You stinking brute! No! No!"
Money-man shoved past Wolfskin and tried to smother her shouts with another kiss. Marie bit his tongue as hard she could, and he jumped back, spitting blood. They all began to swear indignantly, as though she were deliberately teasing them, inciting them to lust by appearing in their path and now perversely refusing to satisfy them. Joker twisted her arms, and Money-man punched her in the stomach. There was nothing she could do to defend herself, and she sagged, retching. Wolf-skin elbowed Money-man aside and grabbed her. He dug his fingers into her buttocks and dragged her against him, moving his hips back and forth. He started to grin again. She caught her breath and screamed even harder, struggling to get away. Joker shouted at her, angry and irritable. Stop fooling, his tone said; get down to business. It all seemed unreal, a nightmare. This was not something that could happen to her, a girl of good family and enclosed life, a scholarly girl who wanted to be a nun. "No!" she cried again, shaking her head desperately. She kicked frantically at Joker's legs, trying to make him let go, but Joker hooked a foot about her ankle, tripped her, and forced her down onto her side on the grass. He said something else. Money-man laughed at it. Wolfskin nodded, knelt over, and began unfastening her gown with the same deliberation with which he'd stolen her money. Money-man hauled the bottom edge of the skirt up and sat on her legs, pinning her to the ground, while the other two stopped twisting her arms long enough to pull the gown off. She screamed again--"No! No! No!" But the only result of her cries was that Wolfskin shoved her wimple into her mouth to muffle them. Money-man pushed her linen shift up to her waist, and Joker caught it and pulled it over her head. It was tight, and he hadn't bothered with the laces. When he dragged it up it caught on her chin and twisted it back, and wrenched her arms in their tight linen sleeves above her head. Legs and arms pinned, stripped like a rabbit being skinned, half-suffocated, she heard, in anguished disbelief, the three men laughing.
She did not see what happened next. She only felt Money-man's callused hands dig convulsively into her thighs, then go limp. Someone shouted in horror. Joker finally let go of her arms. She tried to pull them protectively downward, couldn't, rolled onto her side and tried again. Then a hand grabbed her imprisoned elbow, linen and arm and hair together, and hauled her to her feet. Wolfskin's voice shouted something; he dragged her in front of himself and shook her. Marie flailed her free arm in the air, and succeeded in shaking the sleeve down and the folds of cloth off her face. She spat the gag out of her mouth. Wolfskin immediately twisted the arm he held behind her back, which at least shook the other side of the shift down as well. He put something cold against her throat: she realized it was a knife.
She looked in front of her, and saw Money-man lying face-down on the grass with an arrow sticking from his back. She blinked at him stupidly. It made no sense; she couldn't see how it had happened. Beyond him there were only trees.
Wolfskin shouted again. This time, after a pause, a voice answered him from among the trees, as calm and deliberate as Wolfskin's stealing.
Wolfskin swore. He pulled Marie backward toward the other side of the clearing. At once there was a hiss, and an arrow buried itself in the turf just behind him. He stopped and shouted something. The unseen other answered in a few calm, unemotional sentences, instructions, perhaps, or conditions.
Wolfskin shouted a question.
There was silence.
Wolfskin shouted another question. Again, there was no answer. Abruptly, Wolfskin shoved Marie aside so violently that she fell. She pulled herself onto her knees and started to crawl toward the trees. Wolfskin ignored her. He took the bow off his back and flung it on the ground. Marie noticed Joker for the first time, lying on his side with an arrow in his eye. Wolfskin faced the invisible archer and flung his arms wide, shouting defiantly--challenging the other, Marie realized, daring him to stop striking from hiding like a coward, and come meet his adversary man to man. She reached the edge of the trees and collapsed, shaking.
There was another long silence--and then the other man walked out of the trees.
Wolfskin gave a cry of triumph. The other set down the bow he was carrying at the foot of an oak, dropped a quiver of arrows beside it, and walked unhurriedly toward Wolfskin, pulling his own long hunting knife from his belt as he came. He was clearly of a higher class than his opponent: he was dressed in the standard clothing of huntsmen and foresters, a tunic and hose of plain green wool, rather than cheap hemp. His face was partly hidden, both by the hood of his tunic and by a chaplet of leaves which he wore, as hunters did, for concealment: all that could be seen of it was a black beard, clipped close to the jaw, and a pair of level dark eyes. He was a bit shorter and slighter than Wolfskin, but somehow looked more dangerous. As he came nearer, he pulled the twist of oak leaves off and dropped it.
Wolfskin's first triumph gave way to a look of surprise, then, all at once, of fear. As the other stopped, facing him, he suddenly spat out a single word which Marie did not understand, but remembered afterward: "Bisclavret!"
The huntsman's eyes narrowed. Wolfskin gestured toward the trees and spat out something more. Huntsman replied sharply. He dropped into a fighting crouch, holding his knife in front of him. Wolfskin matched him, but he took a step back, and his eyes were flicking frantically about, searching for a way out.
Huntsman lunged forward with a furious savagery, knife weaving from side to side as though it had a murderous will of its own. Wolfskin flung himself desperately backward--then lunged forward again suddenly. Huntsman whirled sideways, blocked the blow, catching Wolfskin's arm on his own, and stabbed violently upward. But Wolfskin had rolled with the block, and even while Huntsman was stabbing, he was tearing at his own skin cloak. He ripped it loose and, with a shout, flung it over the other's head.
Marie screamed, leapt to her feet, and stumbled toward the pair with a desperate and confused intention of helping. Huntsman dropped to the ground and rolled sideways to escape the anticipated blow, tugging clinging leather off with one arm. Wolfskin, however, wasn't attacking: he was running away. Head lowered, one arm clasped to his side and the other working like a pump handle, he thundered into the forest and was gone.
Huntsman pulled the wolf-skin cloak off his head and sat up. He shouted something after his adversary, something angry and contemptuous. He got to his feet, bunched the cloak up, and hurled it at the ground. Then he stood staring in the direction Wolfskin had gone with an expression of grim consideration.
"Are you hurt?" Marie asked him, then remembered that he probably wouldn't understand.
He glanced at her in surprise. "You speak French?" he asked.
She didn't know what to say. After the monstrous things that had happened, the simple question seemed unanswerable. How could she say what language she spoke, when she felt that she had become foreign to herself? She shoved the bent index finger of her left hand sideways into her mouth and bit it, a habit from her early childhood, broken many years before. She started to shake again.
Huntsman looked at her with concern. "Are you hurt?" he asked.
She shook her head and sat down, still biting her finger. Agonizingly wrenched shoulders, bruised face, bruised stomach and thighs: no, she wasn't hurt. Not as much as she could have been, not nearly.
Huntsman glanced about, then went to where her gown lay on the grass beside the pond and picked it up. "Here," he said, bringing it over to her. "You have nothing to fear from me, sister. I won't harm you. Put this on, and we will go." His French had a strong, soft Breton lilt: otherwise it was faultless. He was quite young, no older than twenty-five, and the air of danger that had come with him out of the trees was gone now. "You should not have been here on your own," he told her seriously.
She burst into tears.
Huntsman stood over her awkwardly for a moment, then knelt down beside her. He draped the gown over her shoulders like a cape. "Sshh," he said gently. "I know you are a brave girl. Be brave for a little longer. We must get away from here. Éon has run off, but he will think it his duty to kill me, to revenge his companions. He may have another friend nearby, with a bow; we cannot stay here."
Marie wiped her eyes, still biting her finger. She wiped her nose and stood up. Huntsman nodded approvingly. Marie pulled the gown off her shoulders with trembling hands. Her hair had come loose in the struggle and hung in thick brown tangles over her shoulders. Again she felt as though she'd been transformed into somebody else--a fairy, maybe, standing here in a forest glade in the fading gold light, dressed only in her white shift, barefoot, her hair loose about her shoulders. She fumbled the black woolen gown over her head and looked around for the wimple.
"We...we should hurry?" she asked Huntsman.
She saw the wimple, lying on the grass beside Joker's body, and went over to pick it up. Joker's face stared up at her sightlessly, one eye glazed, one bloody ruin. Numbly she bent and picked up the wimple. It was damp from its use as a gag and stained with blood: it slipped from her trembling fingers. She picked it up again, took it over to the pond, and rinsed it in the cool water. She knew that she must hurry--but she couldn't. She knelt, looking down at her reflection. The face was still her own, though it was blotched with bruises and there was blood on her chin. From her cut lip, or from Money-man's tongue? She started to shake uncontrollably again. She closed her eyes and said a Paternoster. Then she drank some of the water, splashed her hot face, wiped it with the scrap of linen, rinsed the wimple again, wrung it out, and pulled it over her head. Underneath it, her hair was still loose, but even if there had been time to braid it, she doubted that her hands were steady enough. When she tried to climb back to her feet, she found that her legs were unsteady, too.
"I...I don't know that I can hurry," she told Huntsman. "I haven't had anything to eat all day, and I'm not used to walking..."
This did not seem to worry Huntsman. While Marie was washing he'd dragged the two corpses to the very edge of the clearing and arranged them on their backs; her information merely made him take a wallet of supplies from one of the dead men. He picked up Money-man's purse as well, but didn't loot the bodies more than that, except to select some arrows from the quivers. Then he took the rest of the arrows, together with the three bows, propped them against a fallen tree, and broke them with a few smashing blows of his heel. With the same rapid deliberation he picked up the twist of oak leaves he'd worn when he first came into the clearing. He went over to the spring and dropped it in the water, muttering something, then tossed the purse in after it.
Marie swallowed. Even in her shocked state, she understood the gesture. It was that sort of spring. This place was sacred to the Fair Ones, and Huntsman was apologizing to them for staining it with blood. It occurred to her that most of the money in the purse must be hers--but after what the Huntsman had just done for her, she had no intention of asking him to fish it out.
Huntsman took the selected arrows back to his own quiver, still in its place under the oak tree, and slid them in. He picked up bow and quiver, and nodded his head in the direction he'd come from. "We will go this way," he told Marie, handing her the wallet of supplies. "You can eat as we walk." She nodded, though she no longer had any idea -what direction it was.
Huntsman hesitated another moment, glancing back at the clearing. Then he turned to Marie again. "I...do not wish to pry," he said. "But...would the person you were meeting in the forest still be anywhere nearby? Because if so, he may be in danger."
Marie stared in confusion, then realized that Huntsman had made the same assumption as Wolfskin: that she'd come to the forest to meet a lover. "I wasn't meeting anyone in the forest!" she declared angrily, her face going hot. "I was lost."
"Oh," said Huntsman, surprised. "Forgive me." He set out into the shadows under the trees.
There was bread in the wallet, a coarse black bread full of grit and bran; it had a strange bitter edge to it that made her teeth ache, and she suspected that its baker had eked out his flour -with acorns, but she ate it hungrily. Huntsman didn't share the bread with her, but walked with his bow in his hands and an arrow on the string, glancing from side to side. It was dusk now, and the forest -was dim and mysterious, gray tree trunks melting into the gray light, leaves whispering to one another. After a little while they reached a grass-covered track, and Huntsman turned onto it. An owl hooted, and Marie jumped.
"Do you really think that Wolfskin is folio-wing us?" she asked nervously.
"Wolfskin?" repeated Huntsman. "Do you mean Eon?"
"Was that his name?"
"Yes," said Huntsman seriously. "I suppose he would not have told it to you."
Marie wanted to giggle hysterically. She bit her finger again. "We weren't introduced, no. You seem to know him."
Huntsman shrugged. "I have encountered him before. But I would have guessed his name even if I hadn't. He is a very notorious robber."
"Haven't you heard of him? Éon of Moncontour?"
"Ah. Well, he has been a terror to the people for a year and a half now, but he moves about from place to place, and those the duke sends to catch him can never find him. I am sorry, by Saint Main, that he got away. I should have shot him from the trees."
"And...and you do think he's found some more of his followers, and is coming after us?"
"No," said Huntsman confidently. "I think he's run off. I wounded him in the fight and I broke his bow. He is afraid of me anyway: most likely he'll be far away by now. But he had three men, not two, in his company last autumn. Probably the third died during the winter, but perhaps he was simply some- where else when the others attacked you. If that was so, he could have armed himself again, and they could be tracking us. He will feel obliged to kill me if he can."
Marie was quiet for a moment. She remembered his considering look when the robber ran off, and she suspected that if she hadn't been there, he would have followed at once. And if she wasn't here now, battered and exhausted and needing help, he would follow still. It wasn't wise to leave a wounded wolf alive, free to attack you another day. "Thank you for saving me," she said at last. "I... that is, I come from a good family. We can reward you richly for what you've done for me."
He glanced at her sideways. "You are from a good family?" he asked, surprised again. "What..." He stopped.
What were you doing alone in the forest? Marie finished for him silently. That was a question she didn't want to answer, not before she was safely back at St. Michael's. Huntsman's French was very good, surprisingly good, but it was still plain that it was his second language. A Breton-speaking Breton was almost certainly a servant of the duke oi Brittany, either directly or through one of his vassals. From Huntsman's reference to the duke a moment before, Marie suspected he was one of the duke's own foresters. He certainly seemed skilled and brave enough for it. At any rate, if he knew that she was escaping from Duke Hoel, he'd turn from rescuer to captor in an instant. She wondered why he hadn't asked his question aloud. Probably because he still believed she'd gone to meet a lover and didn't want to pry.
"I am of good family," she repeated instead. "The Penthièvres of Chalandrey. My name is Marie."
He stopped short at that and stared at her hard.
"We're only a cadet branch of the clan," she told him, unsettled by the look of disbelief. "I'm a novice at St. Michael's priory. That's in the town of Mont St. Michel, under the protection of the abbey. I...I was on my way back there, but I stupidly left the road to...to avoid meeting someone, and I got lost in the forest. If you can bring me back there I'll pay you whatever you like."
He stared a moment longer, then seemed to decide that she was telling the truth. Even in the dusk she noticed his smile, a quick lift of one side of the mouth while the other side remained serious, and a tilt of the angled eyebrows. She found that she knew that his eyes were a light brown; she must have seen that at the spring, but been too shocked still to register it.
"So I have rescued a Penthiévre, a kinswoman of the duchess!" he exclaimed. "Indeed! I have done better than I knew. But you should not make such promises to strange men."
"You said I had nothing to fear from you," she replied.
"Nor have you. Well, I can bring you to a lodge belonging to a daughter house of the abbey of Mont St. Michel. There will be brothers there who can escort you home."
Marie bit her lip. "I'd prefer...not to go back to the convent by the public road. Couldn't you...?"
"I am sure the brothers at the lodge know ways to reach Mont St. Michel that don't follow the public road." He began walking again.
Marie hurried to catch up with him. It was growing very dark now, and she tripped over a grass tussock and fell. Huntsman turned back and helped her up.
"Hold onto my belt, Lady Marie," he told her. "The ground is uneven."
She slipped her fingers over the belt and walked behind him. Through the loop of leather she could feel the muscles of his back shifting. He picked his way through the night so sure-footedly that she wondered if he could see in the dark. If she echoed his movements, she walked without stumbling. A dreamlike peace slipped over her. She had been caught in the forest by night, and she had met the thing that lay in wait for her, but it was tamed, and there was no more fear. The darkness and the trees had no power to terrify her, for she "was joined to them, linked by the strap of leather over her fingertips. Body and soul, which for her had always been at odds, moved together through the night: two ends of the same yoke; two fish turning as one in the silk current of a stream. She realized suddenly that she didn't want to go back to St. Michael's with any anonymous brother from a lodge. Without Huntsman, her shocked mind whispered to her, everything will dissolve into horror and chaos once again.
"You couldn't go to St. Michael's with me yourself?" she asked. "I'd reward you well."
"I am sorry, Lady Marie. I have important business in Rennes."
She bit her lip. Her eyes stung. She told herself severely that this was nothing more than shock and exhaustion, and in the morning, everything would seem different. She found her own severity carried no conviction. She wanted Huntsman to stay beside her.
He would not. "Well," she said, after another long silence, "come to Mont St. Michel when you can then, and I'll reward you".
He made a small noise of amusement. "I am not a man that needs to be paid," he told her. "I, too, am of good family, Lady Marie. I hold the manor of Talensac, and some lands near Comper and Paimpont. My name is Tiarnán."
"Oh!" exclaimed Marie. "You're a knight?"
He nodded; she could feel the movement down his back, though the darkness made it invisible.
"Oh!" she said again, feeling her face grow hot. "I'm sorry."
"I...I thought you were a forester. I offered you money."
"So you did. And had I been a forester, I would have been pleased to take it. What else were you to think, meeting a man on foot and dressed in a plain green tunic? Everyone looks the same in hunting clothes. Just as a lay sister or servant, which I took you for, looks the same as a lady nun....Here. We have reached our destination."
There was a stink of pigs and a smell of wood smoke. A dog began barking madly. Huntsman--Tiarnán--stopped and stood still. "Salud!" he shouted and, after a moment, there was an answering shout, and then a light ahead, coming from an open door.
"Where are we?" Marie asked.
"At the lodge of some pig keepers, near the crossroads of Dol," said Tiarnán, beginning to walk forward again. A man was standing in the door, holding a branch of kindling for a torch in one hand, and a dog's collar in the other. Tiarnán's face appeared again from the darkness as they moved toward him; he gave her the sideways glance and the half-smile. "They are lay brothers of Bonne Fontaine abbey, Lady Marie," he told her. "A night spent here will do no damage to your reputation."
Copyright © 2001 by Gillian Bardshaw
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