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Margerite arose before dawn on Easter Sunday, shivering in the cold air as she slid from beneath her coverlets. Her serving-maid Gertrude had not yet come in to light the tallow candles and kindle the fire in the stove that served the chamber for heat, so Margerite had to fumble in the dark for the clothes that had been laid out neatly on her chair the previous night. The light woolen shift was unaccustomedly chill and a little damp against her skin: Gertrude usually lay her clothes over the stove to warm them in the morning before Margerite got up. Hurriedly she drew the thick wool gown over the shift, then climbed back into bed to warm herself before her maidservant came. It would not do for Gertrude to see her shivering, though Margerite's single castle chamber, even with the hangings covering the damp stone walls and the floor heaped high with fresh rushes and dried strewing-herbs, was colder than the crowded buildings of wood around the castle foot where most of the servants lived.
The servant's knock on the door was light, barely more than a brushing of knuckles. At once Margerite rose, drawing her cloak around herself, and went silently to open the door.
Gertrude hurried in, her shoes whispering soft over the worn rugs on the stone floor. "Mistress," she said as she set her basket of firewood down and began to walk about with her taper, "the first light of dawn is showing. You told me...."
Margerite nodded as she bent to tie her shoes on, then brushed back her long fall of ash-blond hair with the back of her hand -- Gertrude could see to it later. What mattered now was reaching Maria's Well before the first edge of the sunshowed over the horizon, so that she could wash her eyes in the holy water and see whatever vision the Virgin granted her.
A vision of my husband-to-be ... please, Mother Maria, show me a man young and kind. Trembling as much from excitement as from the cold, Margerite made her way hurriedly down the uneven stone steps and through the kitchen. The Paschal lamb, slaughtered yesterday, hung skinned, gutted, and beheaded from one of the great iron wall-hooks, little pools of dried blood on the stones beneath it; the scullery maid and pot-boy still snored beside the last ash-furred coals in the hearth. On another morning, she would have stopped to wake them, but she knew that she must not speak until she had come back from the Well, lest the enchantment of her prayers be broken.
Gertrude had been slower-footed than she should have, or else slept longer: the dawning sky was already gray, the rocky path down into the woods clear before Margerite. She went as quickly as she could, her cheeks reddening with warmth beneath the sting of the cold breeze. The first birds were singing, their clear voices calling through the green tracery of budding leaves above; it would not be too long before the deeper song of the Easter bell answered from the village's church. A sweet scent rose up from beneath Margerite's feet as she turned from the main road down a smaller trail, a trail overgrown with wood-master and wild strawberries. The white-flowering brambles at the sides of the pathway caught at her cloak, as if to snare her and hold her back, but she pulled the garment more tightly about herself and hurried on.
The gray sky had already lightened to blue by the time Margerite broke through into the clearing where Maria's Well stood -- a small circle of rough stones heaped to the height of her waist, with a rope running down from the well-tree into the dark water below. Hastily she hauled the bucket up, hand over hand. It came out dripping, tendrils of green moss streaming from the oaken sides.
Maria, she prayed silently. Show me -- am I to marry this year? Or will I still be here next Easter, the spinster daughter of a poor knight, still with little dowry and my father's land only held in fief? And if I am to marry, will he be ...?
But Margerite could not go on longer, for the brutal truth was as clear to her as to anyone. Since her childhood betrothed Joachim had died in the return of the plague, she had known that she would be married to whomever her father could find for her, another knight like himself if she was lucky, perhaps a burgher with enough money to make his breeding acceptable if she were not. And as for the chance that he would be young, or handsome, or treat his wife as well as horse or hound ... she knew the likelihood of that as well.
Yet I will see! Margerite said fiercely to herself. She dipped her left hand into the bucket, forcing her eyelids to stay open as the icy water splashed over her face. It stung sharply in her eyes, blurring her sight to rippled glass as she looked upward at the blue sky.
As she blinked the water from her eyes, a small gray turtledove fluttered overhead, its cooing call soft through the rustling of the leaves and the higher songs of the other birds. Margerite's heart sank in disappointment. A gray bird, a spinster -- the quiet life of a nun, perhaps? Surely it was no vision of a husband, unless perhaps her father married her off to a soft-handed city clerk.
Then, so suddenly that she had no time to blink or cry out, the great shape flashed down like a dark arrow cleaving through the brightness above. The eagle's scream of triumph scraped rough against Margerite's ears as his talons struck the turtledove, a few drops of blood spraying out red. The eagle's wings beat, lifting him high above the treetops again, and he was gone with his prey, leaving only three small gray feathers tumbling slowly to earth on the morning breeze.
Margerite stretched out her hand to catch the falling feathers -- soft as thistledown, yet the delicate brushing against her palm almost made her faint. Though she was not sobbing, her eyes were hot and her cheeks wet, her heart thudding furiously against her ribs. The first ring of the deep iron bell sounded from the valley below the castle, its clanging rising loud through the forest: the sun was rising, heralding Christ's rising from the tomb, and the time of vision was over.
I wanted to see -- and I saw. But what? A raptor, a Raubritter or highwayman? Yet the eagle had been so noble, so powerful, that he had taken her breath away even as he struck it from the turtledove's body; but Margerite knew that she could not dare to think the best. If there had been any doubt in her heart that all hopes must someday be dashed beneath the doom of mortality, she would have lost it two years ago, when the great plague that had spared her a year after her birth circled back through the Rhineland in 1361. Then, though she and her father still lived, Margerite had seen her mother and her little sister crying for water, the tender flesh of armpits and necks and groin-hollows swelling agonizingly with the grim black buboes; and she had lain out their bodies and sewn the shrouds herself, knowing that though God's mercy must serve for the afterworld, it could have little place on earth.
And I could not fly such a bird from my wrist, Margerite thought. For all the years that I have lifted hawk and falcon into the air, he would be too much for me. Better for each to hold what is fitting to their station: as the English book says, the merlin for the noblewoman, the gyrfalcon for the king, and the eagle -- for the Kaiser alone. Few heed that in their hawking, but does it not show how the orders of nature are ranked and set as those of men?
And still Margerite held the feathers tenderly, fingers closed over palm as if she feared to crush them; and held them like that all the way back to the castle, where she brushed past the rousing kitchen-folk without a word and hurried up to her own room. Only when she had tucked them away safely inside the carven chest where her best linens lay did she pay any heed to the presence of her maid, or to Gertrude's quiet question, "Did you see?"
Margerite sat down on her bed, letting her breath out in a great sigh and wiping the last dampness from her face with the trailing hem of a woolen sleeve. "Yes ... I saw. But do not ask me what."
"Ah ... well." Gertrude took up Margerite's little silver comb from her table. "The Easter bells are ringing, and your hair is still tangled. And what will your father do to me if you come uncombed to Mass?"
Copyright © 2006 Stephan Grundy and Melodi Lammond-Grundy