Read Percival's Angel Online

Authors: Anne Eliot Crompton

Percival's Angel (7 page)

And God and Mary know, we have fled. We have deserted hall and King and Sir Ryan Ironside already. How to explain our absence, should we turn back now?

And my babe there, sleeping on Ivie's shoulder; Knight he must never be! Nothing has changed.

Edik dismounted and came to help Alanna. She could almost step to the ground off the little donkey; yet with the encumbrance of gown, pain, and modesty, dismounting took a few awkward moments. By the time she stood squarely, looking up at budding trees and into dark forest depths, Ivie was on her feet jiggling whimpering Percy; and herself a-jiggle, wildly eager to enter their new, mysterious life.

Edik murmured, “If you are sure, I'll unpack the donkey.”

“Aye,” Alanna told him firmly, quietly, “we're sure.”

She studied the darkness ahead.
A new life awaits us here. Edik warned us it would not be easy. My own soul warned me. I have worked hard all my life. Now I will need to work harder than ever, and watch out for our defense. Ivie and I will be entirely responsible for ourselves—and for Percy—from now on forever. Amen, so be it.

“Ladies, I am turning the donkeys loose.”

“What?”

“Turning the donkeys loose. Since you are determined.”

Alanna turned to Edik. He had the baggage on the ground. Mary stood by Herself on Her feet like a fifth person, a near-grown child. “Surely, not all the donkeys.”

“Yes, all.”

“But Edik, how will you return to the hall?”

“I will not return.”

Edik stepped from one donkey to the next, slapping each lightly on the rump. In no rush, the donkeys ambled a short way and stopped to graze.

I should have realized…Edik could no more explain our absence—and his—than we could!

“But do you mean to enter the Fey forest, yourself?”

“Even so.” Very calm, Edik scanned the sky above the trees.

“But you said…once in, we can never come out!”

“That is the rule.”

“Edik!” Alanna's thankful astonishment overflowed; two or three tears coursed down her cheeks. “You carry loyalty too far!”

“Not so, Lady. Not so at all. Don't weep. You'll need clear eyes for this night's work.”

“I cannot believe…”

“I do this for myself, Lady.”

“For yourself?” Alanna dried her eyes on her sleeve.

“Now Sir Ogden is gone and you are content with your choice, nothing holds me to this land. I may as well make myself a new life, even as you do.”

“Ah…”
Edik wants a new life?

“Twenty-five years I have lived to serve. Now I am free. And remember, Lady. Once we enter this forest, I owe you no further service.”

“I understand.”
With difficulty.

“You cannot understand yet, but you will. In there, all are equal.”

He's right; it is a hard thought. All equal!

“Mark me. Any service I do you there, I will do only for love.” Still, Edik scanned the sky.

“I understand.”

“Once you set foot under those trees, Lady, your life, your being, will change forever.”

Take a deep breath!

“Aha!”

Alanna lifted her eyes to the treetops.

There rose the full moon, a silver grail.

Thump! Thump-thump!

“Edik!” Startled Alanna croaked. “What is that sound?”

Percy thrashed briefly in Ivie's grip. Ivie swayed like a windblown birch and joggled him.

Thump! Thump-thump!

“That drum will beat all night. That is why we can enter the forest, almost safely, on this one night.”

“What…who…”

“Good Folk beat that drum.”

“Holy Mary!”

“I can still catch a donkey for you.”

“Oh…no. No.” Faintly, Alanna reminded herself, “Never, never, Knight!”

“Then follow in my footsteps. Now is the time. Stay in tree-shadow. Out of moonlight. Ivie, will Percy be quiet?”

“When we move, he'll be quiet.”

“One moment more.”

Facing forest and drum, Edik raised and swept his arms about.

A signal.

He let his arms sink, and sighed deeply. “There. Now, we move.” He shouldered a small sack, one he himself had added to the load, unnoticed. Turning to wooden Mary, he caught Her about the waist and lifted Her in his arms like a heavy child.

Edik strode forward.

With no breath of hesitation, Ivie skipped after him.

The baggage! Clothes, tools, cook pots!

Edik disappeared into the night forest.

Alanna gathered up the three sacks. She slung one sack over her shoulder, and clutched two with one fist. At the new weight, she bled harder. Burdened and bleeding, she struggled into forest shadow.

Moonlight struck down between great trunks. That fluttering movement ahead must be Ivie, with now-silent Percy.

Slowly, painfully, Alanna skirted moonlight from tree to tree. Each tree passed was a new barrier placed forever between Percy and Knighthood. At first she glanced back often toward the open, silvering space left behind. Quickly it shrank between trunks, behind fern and bracken, and disappeared.

Flitting, stumbling, they passed one distant drum, and approached another. Far to the side, they could hear yet a third far, faint drum.

This is a new world. Who said it would be better than the old? Only Edik. Why was I so eager to believe it?

Too late to wonder, now.

Tree by tree, shadow by shadow, Alanna passed into mystery.

***

Before they built their own bower, Alanna and Ivie built Mary's bower. On Edik's advice, She stood by the trail they soon trampled from their small, sunny clearing down to the river. He said, “She will help keep you safe.” Alanna never doubted it.

Edik showed them how to bend saplings over Her, and weave branches and rushes between; and they used this same method to build their own shelter. Only, with his help, they made it stronger.

Edik found them seeds—they never asked where—and they spaded the clearing and planted peas and onions against the winter.

Edik had said, “Any service I do you there, I will do only for love.” Alanna chose not to wonder, nor to question the love that moved Edik to help them build their bower; to show them new methods of fishing and trapping; to teach them which wild plants and mushrooms to eat, and which to avoid; and to bring them meat.

She was only glad that Edik never suggested sharing the bower he had helped build. He came and went, appeared and disappeared like a songbird, or like a Fey; quietly, she and Ivie rejoiced in this.

Alanna found herself calling him Sir Edik. At first she said this only when speaking with Ivie. Then, one day, the “Sir” slipped out in conversation with him.

She blushed warmly and stepped back away.
Maybe
he did not hear…maybe he will ignore…

He turned to her, startled, pleasure bright in his face. “Have I been knighted, Alanna?”

Confused, surprised at herself, Alanna explained slowly to both of them. “I…I knight you myself, Sir Edik. For what that's worth.”

“I'd rather you than Arthur, High King! But why?”

“Because…because you have shown me such good courtesy!”
More courtesy than Sir Ogden ever did!
“You do not object?”

He laughed. “I do not object! But how will you explain that ‘Sir' to Percy, as he grows? You don't want him to know about Sirs!”

“Oh, Percy! Percy will simply take it for your name.”

“Then so do I, Alanna. With thanks.”

Percy commenced loud and demanding, and grew more so. He kept Alanna and Ivie both running to rescue him several times a day. Sir Edik made him a basket, in which they laid him down to sleep as they tried to work at their new skills. But their main task continued to be changing moss diapers, feeding, bathing, and entertaining Percy.

More than once, Ivie sighed. “If we were back at the hall now, Percy Lamb would have a nurse.”

“And you would have a husband.”

“Mary and Martha! I forgot!”

“That's why you came out here.”

“But you know, Lady, a nurse wouldn't run to Percy every time he bawled! She would have other things to do, even as we have here. She would swaddle him tight against his cradleboard and leave him to yowl.”

“And she would not worry that his yowls might call interested…Others…to him.”

Ivie signed the Cross on her forehead and shoulders, and then on Percy's.

Their first fears of the Fey had calmed, somewhat. Always they watched with wide-open eyes—in their clearing, on the trails they made to the stream, to their traps and wild herb patches. Using all vigilance, they saw no Fey. No Good Folk appeared. And only the drums that throbbed on full-moon nights reminded them that this forest was Fey.

Sir Edik explained the drums. “When the moon flowers, the Good Folk dance and mate.”

“Mate?”

“Like pagans at Midsummer fires.”

Evil walks when the moon flowers—I mean, when the moon is full. Then Satan rules his forest. Holy Mary defend!

Alanna issued her first command. “We must all be safely inside the bower by the first drumbeat, and stay there till sunrise!”

She meant, all four of them. But when she turned to Sir Edik, he had vanished.

By midsummer Alanna and Ivie settled into a routine. They gardened, fished, and trapped, taking turns with Percy's constant care. While learning new skills, they had lost their former major occupation. “It feels so strange,” Ivie said once, “to never spin, or weave, or sew!”

Alanna agreed. “Any time my hands are idle they reach for distaff and spindle.”

“At this rate, Lady, we'll soon be wearing skins.” The clothes they had brought were showing serious wear.

“I wonder where we will find skins!”

“I know where.”

Alanna also knew where.

When they first set up housekeeping in the clearing, wild creatures avoided it. Slowly, they drifted back in. Dawn and dusk, small roe deer browsed around Mary's bower. Sir Edik suggested guarding the peas with a line of evil scent—filthy clothes, Percy-moss, even feces. Alanna shuddered. But Ivie took his advice. The stink worked, more or less.

Once a red fox appeared among the peas, pouncing here and there on dormice. He paused to watch Alanna and Ivie with interested, curious eyes, even as they watched him. Satisfied they were harmless, he went back to his hunting. “We'll have more peas for that!” Alanna said happily. “Fewer mice, more peas! How can we lure him back here?” But they never saw him again.

Once a wildcat crept up on Percy where he lay in his basket in the shade. Ivie and Alanna had turned both their backs in the garden; but Percy's roars brought them both running in time. The wildcat paused, hissed, then streaked away into a thicket.

Rocking Percy to sleep in her arms that night, Alanna whispered, “Ivie, have you thought? That cat might as well have been…”

“Lady! Shush!” Ivie swiveled frightened eyes toward the dusky bower entrance.

But Alanna could not shush. Whispers and murmurs spilled over from her rising fountain of fear. “You know, I have sometimes wondered if
they
might want to steal Percy.
They
do steal babes, that is known.”

Watching the doorway, Ivie agonized. “Lady! Hush!”

“And I have wondered if
they
might come in the night, any night, and cut our throats while we dream. But as yet we have seen no hair, no whisker—”

“I have!”

“What?” Alanna stared through deep, indoor dusk into Ivie's wide, fear-glinting eyes. “What have you seen?”

“I think. Yesterday.”

“In Mary's holy name! What?”

“As I brought water from the river…”

Alanna leaned nose to nose with Ivie. She breathed, “Speak, girl!”

“At the steep place in the trail…no breath left in me…I thought I saw…something…” Ivie made a graceful, bounding hand gesture. “Like that. Cross the trail ahead of me.”

Hopefully, “Squirrel? Hare?”

“Two legs.”

“Aaahh…”

“Brown breeches. Tunic. Cap.”

“How big?”

“Maybe like a…wolfhound.”

“Mary defend!”

A few days passed; then Alanna, standing carefully among prickly blackberry vines, felt…watched.

She had grown used to this feeling in the forest. Eyes watched, always and everywhere—bird eyes, mouse eyes. Maybe wolf eyes.

But this time, she paused in her work. With purple-stained, bleeding fingers she dropped three plump blackberries into the reed basket slung from her neck. Then she stood like wooden Holy Mary, feeling the forest around her.

Sunlight slanted down between giant oak trunks into the blackberry clearing. Birds chirped and hopped in branches high and low. A dormouse perched on a blackberry tip, still as herself, watching her. She looked back at it. Thought,
It's not you. Not you I feel…

The watching came from…she felt it most strongly on her left side.

Quickly, abruptly, she turned her head.

And saw only green and golden light; orange and brown oak trunks.

She looked lower.

There.

Alanna breathed in, and not out again.

Down among blackberry vines, knee-high to Alanna, brown eyes gazed up at her.

The eyes were set close together in a small, brown face; the curious, interested gaze reminded her of the fox in the peas.

Black braids poked from under a dun skin cap to brush frail shoulders. Mouth and chin were purple. With dried blood? No.
Blackberry juice.

The mouth gaped briefly. Fox-sharp incisors peeked out.

Alanna struggled to breathe.

The face vanished.

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