Read Percival's Angel Online

Authors: Anne Eliot Crompton

Percival's Angel (6 page)

2

Never Knight

In a ray of spring light from an arrow slit, Alanna sat nursing newborn Percy. He sucked manfully at her breast. His milky blue eyes wavered, chubby hands waved. She tucked his soft, kicking feet securely under one arm and cradled him in the other.

Percy was the ninth son whom Alanna had nursed herself. Always, the nurse brought the child to her swaddled, tight-bound to a cradleboard. Always, she undid the bands, lifted babe from board, and cuddled him, soft skin to softer skin. Now again, as eight times before, Alanna's heart enfolded her newborn, body and soul.

But this time, the heart beneath the milk-rich breast was broken.

King Arthur's messenger had left her…judging by the slant of arrow-slit light, an hour ago.

Sir Ogden, her lord for twenty-five years, was dead; and not in battle, and by no deadly illness. Unhorsed in a festive joust, Sir Ogden had broken his neck.

This milk may give Percy colic!

This brokenhearted milk.
But
—Alanna smiled a bit grimly at the thought—
Not this babe! This one could nurse on blood!

Percy was the biggest, strongest babe she had ever borne. He had cost her more pain and weakness than even her first; here he was a week old, and still she could hardly sit on the bench without cushions and folded cloaks beneath her.

Now, of twenty-five years' pains and loves, Percy was all she had left.

One by one, her little sons had grown into fighting men—Knights. What else could they be? Cabbage seeds grow to be cabbages, and Knights' sons, like dragon's teeth, grow to be Knights. But he that lives by the sword dies by the sword, and they all had died, not all directly by the sword, but all in the midst of knightly pursuits.

And now this sorry story will tell itself again. Another soft, sweet child will cut himself a sapling sword and duel with peasant boys till he gets his sword of steel…

If I could take Percy away to some far land! A land where men are content to spend their strength on field and farm, and are honored for it! But that land is farther off than I can think.

In the gathering shadows behind Alanna floor rushes rustled. Someone came softly, slowly, dragging a graceful hem.

Ivie.

Sir Ogden's ward, daughter of his murdered brother, Ivie was nearly fifteen.
For ten years now, she has been as my daughter. For God gave me none of my own. I have trained and taught, nursed and comforted like a mother. And now she learns her final fate. Now I must comfort again, biting my own grief back.

Ivie came gently into the arrow-slit light. She dropped her small curtsy and folded competent, square hands at plump waist. Only the long, fiery red braid looped down her shoulder warned of possible fire within.

When grief-heavy Alanna did not speak, Ivie murmured, “You sent for me, Lady.”

Alanna shifted Percy to her other breast and heaved a releasing sigh.

“You have heard the news.”

“Of Sir Ogden. The hall below buzzes with it. My Lady, I am sorry!”

Alanna glanced up sharply. Ivie's young face, smooth with innocence, looked back calmly.

Naturally. Ivie never spent any time with Sir Ogden. To her, he was ever only a strong, always busy figure striding past. She grieves not for him, nor, yet, for herself.

“Have you thought what this means to you, yourself?”

“Ah…?”
She's had little time to think.

“Ivie, fetch a stool. Sit here by me…There. You are well set?”

“Aye, Lady.”
Still the soft, docile voice! She has yet caught no clue, no thread to this tapestry.

“You will not fall off the stool.”

“Why, no, lady!”

“Ivie. The King's messenger told me of my Lord's death.” Ivie nodded, slow and sad. “He also told me that this hall will now belong to Sir Ryan Ironside.”

What! A glint of surprise? Maybe curiosity?

“You remember Sir Ryan?”

“Ah, yes. Somewhat.”
She has seen him stride past her with Sir Ogden, rumbling oaths and threats to unknown enemies. She has seen him dine with Sir Ogden, fast and furious. She had to lean over his massive shoulder to refill his goblet. Once, I remember, seven times in a row!

“You are to wed him.”

No response.

There. Percy is satisfied. His sweet eyes close…

Slowly, Ivie's smooth face froze.

“What think you, Ivie?”

Ivie licked lips, bowed head, looked up again.

“Speak.”

Ivie managed it. “I?
I
wed Sir Ryan Ironside?…I mean…why not you, Lady?”

Alanna shuddered so hard, Percy's blue eyes drifted open.

She counseled herself,
It is but a natural thought. Given Ivie's age, and my own…

She explained. “Ogden Hall remains with Sir Ogden's blood, Ivie. I am to wed, also; wherever the King decides.”
When does a woman rest?

“I…Ah…Oh!” Pure crystal welled in Ivie's blue eyes and rolled down paled cheeks.

“It may not be so bad, Ivie.”

“Sir…Sir
Ryan!
Holy blessed Mary, Queen of Heaven!” Tears flooded down Ivie's frozen face.

“Oh, come! You always knew—”

“But, but,
him!

“Ivie, we have seen worse men.”

“Not me! I've seen no one worse!” Hiccup.

Percy sleeps.

Rushes rustled back in the shadows. Alanna eased Percy down on her knees and drew a scarf over her breasts.

“My Lady Alanna,” said a kind voice at her shoulder, “I've brought you strengthening ale.”

Ivie wept on, head erect, face still frozen.

Edik stepped into the shaft of light.

Sir Ogden's trusted steward was small, dark, and ageless, but for occasional gray curls among the black. Thoughtful as always, he alone in the hall had come to offer Alanna solace in this hour of grief.

Unsurprised, she thanked him with a deep nod. “Leave it here beside me, Edik. I'll drink it if I can.”

Lithely he crouched, brushed rushes aside, and placed the full goblet by her feet. Crouched, he laid a bold, brown hand on Ivie's knee. “You have heard your own news, I see.”

Alanna bit back a comment on his forwardness.
He's been like a younger uncle to her. Now he can help comfort her.

Ivie gurgled, “I'm to wed…Sir Ryan Ironside!”

Edik patted her knee, as he might pat a sick dog. “So they say down in the hall. They are pleased, Ivie. They say, at least we will still have you here.”

“I wish…I wish…”

“What is your wish, child?”

Alanna breathed a feeble protest. “Edik, you reach too far!”

He turned soft brown eyes to her. “Lady, what if I could grant her wish?”

Ivie blurted, “I wish I could go somewhere! Where I could choose my own husband! Or none! None at all! If only there were such a place in the world…”

Pat, pat, pat. Edik turned back to Ivie. “I know just such a place.”

“Wha…what?” Ivie gulped back grief.

What can he mean?

Pat, pat, pat. “Not very far off, neither.”

Alanna's heart flopped over like a great, caught fish.

“Edik! What can you mean?”

He kept his face to Ivie. Over his shoulder he asked Alanna, “Lady, have you also a wish?”

Almost, she laughed.
What folly we talk in despair!

“Naturally, Edik. We all have wishes.”

He turned to her.

“And what is yours?”

“Why! That I could take my babe here to some far, unknown place, where he need never be Knight!”

“The same place Ivie longs for. It is not so far.”

“There truly is some such place?”

“Within sight of here.”

Oh, God! Can he mean what I think?

“Stand up, Lady. Stand up, Ivie. Look out the slit.”

Alanna laid sleeping Percy against her shoulder. Cramped from long sitting, weighed down by grief, she rose slowly to the arrow slit. Already there, eager Ivie leaned into light.

Edik said behind them, “On the horizon.”

Aye! What I thought!

Ivie whimpered. “Nothing there, Edik.”

They looked down across Alanna's garden, where Holy Mary's statue stood guard under a vine-laden lattice. With the servants, they had barely commenced to spade here. They looked farther down, across Sir Ogden's three villages, farmlands, pasture lands, bare-boughed woodlots, all shining brown and gold in spring light. Beyond all, shone the distant, pale orange smudge of the forbidden, Fey forest.

“See you not the forest, yonder, young Ivie?”

Ivie dried her eyes on her sleeve and looked again. “I see only the…the Fey forest.”

“There, you can choose your own man.”

“There!”

“There, Lady Alanna, you can raise your son to be a man, and never a Knight.”

Holy Mary! Help me now!

Alanna faltered. “But, Edik…How would we live, there?”

“You asked that not, before. You asked only for a land where Percy would not grow to be Knight. There is the land.”

“Nonetheless…” Alanna swallowed the spit of fright. “To raise him at all, anyway, I must live somehow.”

“There, you will live by your own hands and wits.”

Ivie murmured, “How would we enter there, Edik? I have always heard that none who entered there came out alive.”

“I can take you safely in.”

You can?

Alanna and Ivie turned round to face Edik. Spring light glinted in his graying, black curls, in his squinting, suddenly merry, brown eyes.

I thought I knew this man, my Lord's steward! I knew him loyal, dedicated, truthful…loving. What more may be there to know? What secret has he kept, all these years?

Ivie asked, “But…once in…how would we ever come out again?”

“You would not.”

“Not ever?”

“Not ever. Think not to go, young Ivie, if you will ever wish to return.”

Holy Mary!
“Percy!” Alanna cried softly, “Percy could never return from there?”

“He could not, Lady.”

“Then…the King's long arm could not reach him there!”

“It could not.”

New, unknown strength stiffened Alanna's arms. Sleeping Percy stirred and wiggled against her grip. “But would he hear tales, songs, of Knighthood and Chivalry?”
Well I know the power of such songs!

“Unlikely.”

“So he would never know what he had missed, I mean, what he had been saved from!”

“He would think himself a Fey, Lady, like those who live there.”

Fey. Good Folk. I must think again on this…The Good Folk have no goodness, no virtue, no Honor.

“Ah…I am not sure…”

“Your Percy will be Fey or Knight, Lady. That is the choice God gives you.”

“Never Knight! Never Knight!” Alanna kissed the soft, fuzzy head nuzzled in her neck.
Have I not seen enough of the virtue and Honor that breed endless Death, circling like ravens?
“Edik, I will go! I will take Percy to the Fey forest!”

“Whisper, Lady.”

“Ah, yes.” But no one had heard. The dusky room beyond Edik was empty.

Brightly eager now, Alanna turned to Ivie. “You will come, Ivie? Had I been offered this chance when I was young…”

But Alanna stopped there. When she was young she had been virtuous, honorable. She had always done as she was told. Her braid, now graying, had been a dark, rich brown, like fertile soil; never tinged with the fire of self-will, like Ivie's braid.

Is this truly a good choice for Ivie?

Till a moment ago Ivie had no choice. She faced rough old Sir Ryan's bed, repeated childbirths, likely death in childbirth; and there was no escape. Now…

After all, who knows what may await in the Fey forest? Magic castles? Frog princes? Maybe a truly better life!

“You can stay here and wed Sir Ryan if—”

“I'd go to Hell first, if I knew the way!”

“Not so far,” Edik said gently. “But fast. They are saying down in the hall that Sir Ryan rides here now.”

Holy Mary! And me just up from childbed, and all of forty years old!

All the same. “Edik, we will go with you.”

“Tomorrow night, then. Before the moon flowers full.”

***

Edik pulled his donkey up on a dark edge of forest. He turned to Alanna and Ivie, reining in behind him, and said very softly, “Ladies, this is your last chance to turn back.”

The four donkeys huddled together, waggling nervous ears and shaking heads. One was laden with the little baggage Edik had allowed to be packed. (“Take only what you can carry, walking.”) The only exception, Alanna's wooden Mary statue, lay strapped along the donkey's back. Alanna would not leave her garden without that. Down the donkey's sides bulged two sacks of tools and cook pots wrapped in clothes. Nothing clinked or jangled. For two nights they had traveled silent but for soft hoof-beats, muffled in soft earth.

Crossing the last pasture the second evening, they had steered toward the full moon hanging over the Forest ahead, the full moon which, for some reason, Edik considered so important. But now they had come to the forest edge; in forest shadow, the moon was hidden behind trees.

Last chance to turn back?

Saddle-sore, bleeding, and exhausted, Alanna was tempted.

She looked over at Ivie; at swaddled Percy, held against her shoulder. (If Alanna held him, he wanted to nurse continually. At Ivie's breast, he slept.) Dressed as a peasant boy, exuberant hair hidden inside her tunic, Ivie glowed in the dark. So excited, so rejoicing to be free was Ivie,
If I said “turn back,” she would go on in by herself!

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