Read Percival's Angel Online

Authors: Anne Eliot Crompton

Percival's Angel (4 page)

“Her son will keep his word. I also know something from Merlin and Niviene about the Kingdom out there. Lili, will you listen to counsel?”

Very gladly.

Drifting, gliding slowly uphill, the Lady advises me.

“Pretend you live in a Merlin ballad. If the song ends, so do you. In this ballad, you are a spy in unknown country. No one may guess who or what you are.”

I understand.

“Firstly, then, never open your mouth.”

???

“Eat carefully. Smile and laugh close-mouthed. Humans notice filed teeth.”

!!!

“Second. You cannot be invisible out there. You cannot take cover, for there is none. But you can be unnoticed.”

“Next to Percy?”

Together we laugh, openmouthed, silent.

“Easiest next to Percy! For all eyes will be on him. Thirdly, then, remain chaste.”

???

“You are virgin, now.”

How can she be so sure? Ah. My aura tells her. Dark eyes unfocused, she gazes past me into Spirit. She says, “Stay virgin. Sex steals Power. The strongest mages are chaste.”

Chaste? Once more I pause, mid-step.

What of the Goddess? What of Her sacrifice?

“Time enough ahead.”

But Nimway is far from chaste! She lives with Merlin. She poles across the lake to every Flowering Moon dance. Mischievous at her age, she still waylays handsome Human men on twilit forest fringes, seduces and kills them.

But you, Lady?

She smiles, close-mouthed. “I choose not to use that method. Merlin tells me that if I did, I would be twice as strong.”

Then why?…

Hold yourself chaste. Fourthly…
We walk on. “Humans are proud.”

“Like Percy.”

“Heed their manners, their courtesies. Do nothing at all until you see how others do. Sit when they sit, bow when they bow, call them Sir. You speak the language?”

“Some. Percy and Merlin have taught me. Percy will show me the courtesies too.”

“Percy, hah! You must teach Percy.”

We pause at the edge of a sunny glade. Across this golden space rises the great Counsel Oak, King Tree of Apple Island. He casts a shadow like night.

Nimway says, “We will ask Oak-counsel.”

Have I not just received counsel?

But wait.

Her chin points downwind.

Undergrowth rustles.

Whiteness pushes gently out of a thicket.

I am reminded of the white horse Percy's first knight rode; but this whiteness is small, and careful.

Head and shoulders lift into sunlight; leafy ears flick. This is a small fallow doe.

Spirit-white, she steps out halfway into golden light. Wobbling nose smells us. Golden eyes blink at us. She looks away, waits a moment more, leaves her thicket altogether, and minces across the open space, twitching her tail at every step. Counsel Oak's deep shadow swallows her up.

Nimway finger-speaks.
Our guide leads the way.

But we wait a moment ourselves, looking, listening, testing air, before we dart across the space swift as swallows, into oak-night.

Here it is too dim for finger-talk. Birdsong above is lost in a constant, windy rustle of high leaves. The scent of magic drowns all scent of bark, bud, moss, or mouse.

Close to the trunk and its great black lightning-cave, Nimway asks me, “You truly will go on this quest?”

“I will.”

“Had I known you would leave us, I would have taught you more, and faster.”

I think myself well taught! I see the invisible. My spells work.

“I wish you had learned to make fire…Niviene tells me that Power is most valuable, out there.”

True, I have not yet learned that. Not for lack of trying!

“I cannot teach you quickly what needs years to learn. But, I have a gift for you.”

Nimway lays fingertips to the thong about her neck. From under her gown she draws up a dangling charm. Lightly held in fingertips it looks like not much, gray, metallic. The scent of Power flows from it.

Desire like lust floods me.

Nimway says, “Merlin gave me this ring.” She holds it with fingertips apart, so I can see it clearly in the dim light.

“Victory is her name. This is her song.” Softly, she chants.

“Sword for fight,

Feathers for flight.

Hound on trail,

Wind in sail.

Sing her those lines if you feel her Power ebb. Thus you strengthen her, and she will strengthen you, in every way.”

My hand reaches by itself, drawn to Victory.

The Lady steps back away. “Yet another virtue she has. Point her at another, and she will strengthen him.”

The ring calls to me. My hand stretches after her. The Lady steps back away, up against Counsel Oak's rough trunk.

“She is made to fit a Human finger, and would slide off yours. Keep her around your neck…Lili. Out there, you may meet my son. My Lugh.”

Ah, yes. The long-lost one. Give me the ring!

“Merlin and Niviene tell me he is well. They say he is famous in the Kingdom. Merlin sings me ballads about him.

“But you, Lili; you may see what they do not. When Victory brings you back here safe, come and tell me about my Lugh.”

“Lady, I will try.” I reach again for the ring.

“Wait.” Holding the ring away, the Lady takes my reaching hand and lays it against Counsel Oak's bark.

“Feel.”

Despite my urgent greed for the ring, I feel the oak's Power warm my palm.

“Listen.”

The constant gentle breeze that plays in Counsel Oak's shade rustles his leaves.

“Listen.”

Almost waggling my ears like the white doe, I listen.

The leaves whisper.

Dread stands close behind me in Oak-darkness. Dread reaches a long finger, taps my shoulder.

Nimway's dark gaze pierces mine.

“You hear, Lili?”

“I hear.”

“Enough to turn back most Fey!”

“Not this Fey.”

“You must have Human blood in you!”

“Who can ever know that?”
I know not my own mother, never mind my ancestors!
“Lady, give me the ring!”

Nimway lifts the thong and its ring from her neck. Carefully, she lets it down over my head. She even pulls my braid through and over the thong, and pats it down in place; and her fingertips set Victory dangling safe, between my breasts.

***

“Alanna!”

For a while, a voice had been speaking through a darkness where rushes flared, infants wept, slaves rushed about, yarn tumbled and tangled.

“Alanna!”

Once more the voice spoke, loudly, firmly. Behind closed eyelids Alanna came awake.

Don't want to wake.

Filtered sunshine waited behind closed eyelids. Something else waited, too, just behind the torn curtain of sleep. Something like…sorrow.

Sorrow? Once I knew sorrow all too well.

“Alanna!”

She opened her eyes.

What was this rough wicker wall before her? What was this curving, messily thatched roof, not much taller than herself? Birdsong from outside replaced the cry of dream-children. Instead of frightened feet scurrying on stone floors, now she heard and recognized the voice that called her.

“Sir Edik?”

Alanna sat up.

There in the doorway he stood, holding back the deerskin curtain he had hung for her. Sunlight silvered his gray curls and beard. Where she or Ivie, or dear Percy, God knew! had to stoop a little, he stood erect.

How easily he has fit into this enchantment! He has almost turned Fey himself since we came here to…to…Holy Mary! Now I remember.

Sorrow stepped through the unraveling rags of sleep and glared at Alanna.

Desperately, she wanted to sink back, pull darkness around her, and run stumbling down the long, stone stairway of her past. Away down there at the bottom, after many a turn and startle, after a thousand pains and griefs—away down there spread a sunlit garden where a small girl lay in lavender and squinted happily through leafy, flowery light.

But that small girl had been born—and would be very severely trained—to be a lady.

Alanna said softly, “Sir Edik, come in.”

Like Sorrow, he entered.

Alanna sat up straight and lifted her thick gray braid back over her shoulder, all she could do to tidy herself. Sir Edik sank down cross-legged beside her pallet. His shrewd, brown eyes sought hers kindly. “You are recovered, Alanna?”

“Recovered? I will never recover.” Fully awake, she looked ahead to endless, heart-squeezing misery.

Sir Edik spoke quietly. “My dear, you know it is the way of nature that Percy should leave you. In the way of the Fey he would have left you years ago. By now, you would hardly know which handsome young fellow he was—except that he stands out like a rose in a turnip field.”

Proudly. “You mean, like a white buck in a dun herd.”

“Say it how you will. You could not so well forget which young Fey he was. Even so—”

“We are not Fey, Sir Edik! We are Human. And in the Human way—”

“In the Human way Percy would have gone to be a page years ago. He would now be a squire, maybe a knight, fighting for King—”

“We escaped that! We came all this way to…to this!” Alanna swept a work-scarred hand around at the wretched, patched bower and all its wretched, mended mats and tools. “We came here to escape Kings and Chivalry! To keep Percy safe!”

“Aye. And you have kept him safe all these years. But not forever. Being Human, you cannot expect safety forever. Either way, Human or Fey, now you lose Percy.” Very kindly, Sir Edik spoke cruel words.

A great groan escaped Alanna. “I am alone!” Alone for all mortal time. And now, despite all training and practice, tears dimmed her sight. The homely curved bower-wall faded, melted, and dribbled down before her eyes.

“Not so, dear. You have Ivie with you.”

Mortified, Alanna wiped her eyes on her patched gown. “Hah!”
Ivie, indeed!
“Without Percy—”

“You have me.”

“You, Sir Edik?”

“Gladly would I stay beside you forever, even here in this bower, though I like not to sleep two nights in the same den.”

She stared into his small, brown face; his steadfast, mild gaze. “You…”

“You know I love you.”

Well, surely you do!

Alanna had always known that. It was easier not to know it, better to forget it. But underneath, in her secret heart, she had known it since…

He told her. “I have loved you since Sir Ogden brought you home as his bride.”

I remember. Too well I remember!
(Smoky torches; stamping, blowing horses; Sir Ogden's gloved hand hard on her horse's rein; and Edik's face—small and brown as now—at her knee. He gave her a long glance before he bowed.)—
I knew it even then.

“But…You dance with the Fey to the Flowering Moon.”

(Flowering Moon times, Alanna closed herself and Percy in the bower, and young Ivie. But Ivie had been missing, lately. Alanna and Percy now huddled alone, listening to three threatening drums throb from three directions, and the occasional shriek of a pipe.

“I have seen you on your way to dance!” (Once she had met him on a narrow trail. He was hurrying toward the Flowering Moon drum as she hurried away from it. She had been grieved and shocked to see him decked out like an amorous Fey in crisp, new-stolen shirt, and flowers flopping in his gray curls. Safe inside, she had murmured to Percy, “I thought Sir Edik was Christian, and our friend. But he dances to the Moon.” Sullenly, Percy had murmured, “He always did. You didn't want to know it.”)

Now, patiently, Sir Edik asked her, “Do you wish me not to dance because you do not?”

Ah! We can quarrel a bit. Forget this other matter…
“By now, you must have lain with every woman in the forest!”

“Alas, no.”

Alanna blushed hot.

“But if I had, what of it? I do not love every woman in the forest. I love you. I love you as I did when you were Percy's age, working with your women in Sir Ogden's castle garden. Alanna, you were a woman, then. You bore Sir Ogden's first son in your body. Now Percy is a man. But you will not let him go forward into manhood.”

Alanna bowed her head down, not to meet Sir Edik's reproachful brown gaze.

“Now, in the way of nature, take me into your bower. Let Percy go. Alanna, if the Lady of the Lake, a heartless Fey, will let him go, surely your mother's heart must do the same! For he must go, or the life in him will die like an unhatched bird.”

“Sir Edik, if Percy goes away from me, my heart will break in two.” Alanna folded protective hands over it.

“My dear, you think that love breaks your heart.” Sir Edik's hand stole onto Alanna's knee. She sat bowed, looking down at this small, brown hand. “It is not love, but fear. You think of yourself being alone, and fear burns your heart and ribs.”

“If I did not see Percy coming to me…” She imagined him bumbling toward her across her small clearing, swinging a hare for the fire. Like her dead husband he strode, strong and direct, caring not a pinecone that his footfalls echoed in earth. (Not like the maddening little Fey, flitting about like ghosts!) His broad shoulders were thrown back. His golden hair—Sir Ogden's hair, before it grayed—flamed sunshine. True, a cloud lay across his dear face, which should look fresh, honest, and open. Still, the imagined sight of him raised heart and head till Alanna looked Sir Edik in the eye again.

He was saying, “Fear rules you, Alanna. Love would bid you send Percy forth to be a man. Give him the tools, give him the knowledge he will need and let him go.”

“But…”
Aha!
“I have no tools to give him.”

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