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There was a sound in the night. The child woke suddenly, clutching the blankets. Someone was calling her, she was sure. Was it coming, then, the time they never mentioned? Were the Saxon invaders even now crashing down the gates, crushing her mother's flowers with their ugly, studded boots? Why else would anyone wake her in the middle of the night? She held her breath, straining to hear. The still moonlight poured between the slats in her shuttered window. A shadow passed, blocking the light for an instant. She bit the rough blanket to keep from crying out. It was only the guard, steadily pacing his watch from house to wall and back. Slowly her body relaxed. If the guard were still on duty she had no cause for alarm. There were no screams, no clashing of sword and shield. Nothing but the moonlight and the muted slap of the guard's sandals as he passed the window. There was no surprise attack, no invasion. But then who had called her? It had been so insistent, so urgent.
Fear had made her thirsty. She slid from her bed and tiptoed over to the pitcher on her dressing table across the room. Her bare feet caught a little on the tiles of the mosaic on the floor. In the semi-dark the pattern was only a series of blobs, but by daylight it was a great floral wreath with animals playing in the center around a giant tree. She loved it and stopped to pat with her toe the blob she knew was a fat baby rabbit. The picture was somewhat childish for her now, since she was past twelve, but she had slept in that room since babyhood and the mosaic was as familiar and comforting to her as the face of her nurse. Though the spring night was chilly, the floor was warm from the hot water pipes that ran beneath it. She reached the table and fumbled about for her cup. Her hand brushed against a pot of herbs and it crashed to the floor. In the midnight quiet the sound of the breaking pot seemed to echo through the house. Before the child had time to recover, a shape appeared at the door, an old woman, wrapped in a blanket.
"Lady Guinevere!" The girl jumped guiltily. "What are you doing out of bed, startling the entire household from their sleep?"
"I woke up, Flora, and wanted some water."
"And look at this mess!" Flora stooped and gathered up the shards of the pot. "Dirt everywhere, and my poor rosemary plant!"
"I'm sorry." Guinevere felt on the floor for the pieces. She stepped on the plant and a pungent aroma filled the room. "I didn't see it in the dark."
"That's why you should stay in bed in the dark, instead of roaming around. There, we'll clean up the rest in the morning. Here's your water. Now hop! Right back to bed. I don't want to hear a peep out of you until well after sunrise."
So Guinevere sipped her water and climbed back into bed. Flora bustled about, pulling up the blanket and tucking it in with the strange soothing noises people make to quiet sleepy children. Then she slipped out and down the hallway to her own room. Guinevere lay awake for a while. Now she had two mysteries: What had wakened her, and why, under her blanket, was Flora dressed in gold and scarlet robes?
There were no answers. She listened for a time, but heard nothing more. Finally, she rolled on to her side, her hands crossed under her chin, fast asleep.
When she next awoke, the sun was sending bright ribbons of light into the room. Motes were dancing through them settling on her bed. She had only a vague memory of waking in the night, a subtle feeling of disquiet. The sense that someone had called her was still strong. Who or what could it have been? She lay in bed a few minutes, considering. The clatter of the household preparing for the day's work intruded on her thoughts and cleared away her uneasy feeling. It must have been only a dream. The morning was bright and she suddenly remembered that her father had promised her a special treat todayto take her riding, just the two of them. She got up quickly, the last vestige of her worry gone.
Guinevere's mother, Guenlian, sat at her dressing table. She was watching her husband, Leodegrance, put on his riding clothes. She shook her head with disapproval.
"You are spoiling the child, my dear," she told him. "You have too many other duties to waste an entire morning out riding with your daughter."
Leodegrance grimaced as he pulled the lacings more tightly on his boots. "I promised her we would go riding today. She is bored here, now that her brothers are gone. She needs the exercise and so do I."
"You are bored now that her brothers are gone," she retorted. "You won't admit how much you miss them. They say the Saxons have sent over a hundred boats this spring to bolster their forces here. And the Irish raids on the west are getting more frequent."
She wasn't thinking of Guinevere then, but of her three sons all fighting together against the Saxon incursions in the north.
"My cousin Cador is a fine general, Guenlian. We could not have entrusted our boys to anyone better. Would you rather we had run away like the others?"
"Don't taunt me with that," Guenlian said, annoyed. "I have never been one to counsel flight. We have stayed and built and rebuilt our home when everyone else fled. Did I ever suggest that we would be happier or safer in Armorica? Britain is our home and I will live to see it Roman again. What else have we fought all these years for? Why else have we raised our sons to be warriors? Can't you allow me at least the luxury of worrying like a mother? I fear for them, and Guinevere, too. But I am not a coward any more than you!"
Leodegrance came to her, laughing at her indignation. "If only we could set you against the Saxons, my love. I'm sure they would abandon their huts and return to their own land in terror."
She relaxed and smiled ruefully. "After all these years, you still enjoy teasing me."
"After all these years, you still respond so quickly to teasing." He kissed her, still laughing. "Now I am going to spoil our daughter."
They were interrupted by a maid with the information that a messenger had come with news from Lord Cador. They both forgot the quarrel and hurried out to meet him.
Guinevere had finished washing and was dressed by the time Flora came for her. The older woman looked tired as she laid out the brushes and combs to arrange Guinevere's hair. Guinevere was making a point these days of showing Flora that she no longer needed a nurse to supervise her washing and dressing. But her mother said that a lady always needed a maid to attend to her hair, so she submitted to having it brushed and scented and braided into two long, golden chains.
"Some might say that this is Saxon hair," Flora would often croon. "But don't you believe them, my love. Their color is like old straw, left too long in the sun; but yours is true gold, burnished like a shield, red in the firelight. I could weave you a crown of it and you could find no better."
Guinevere hardly listened. She was accustomed to her hair being a source of wonder to those around her. She rarely thought about it, except when she had to have it washed or when it came undone and caught on branches while she was riding. She never even wondered why she should look so different from her family. Her parents and brothers were all dark of hair and eyes. To them she seemed a sort of changeling, a radiant gift. She didn't even have the Roman nose they were all so proud of, although there was still time for one to develop. But Guinevere wasn't of an age to care. She knew only that she was safe and loved and that was as it should be.
Even though she had gone with her family to the mountain refuges, she had never felt danger. Her existence was protected and she was kept apart from the rest of the society. Only occasionally did rumors of Saxons or tales of great battles and warriors enter her life, and then only as stories, told and sung by wandering scholars. She didn't know that their quiet, ordered, civilized way of life was already an anachronism. For a hundred years no true Roman citizen had lived in Britain, but her parents and their few remaining friends and relatives behaved as if the emperor would return any day, leading fresh legions to reinstate Roman rule.
These were not important concerns to Guinevere. Caesar and Saxon were equally distant to her. Already she had forgotten her fear in the night. It was high May, a glorious morning, and she was going riding with her father. Her joy at this rare treat was only slightly dimmed by the fact that she would first have to spend an hour in the chapel for prayers and then two more with her tutor. There was always a lot to look at during prayers and she had finally talked old Tenuantius into closing Cicero for the summer and letting her read Ovid. The Metamorphoses was almost as full of spring as the day outside. She hummed happily as she crossed the garden to the little family chapel. At the door, she carefully smoothed her robe and arranged her veil so that it covered her hair and fell across her forehead.
The stone building was far older than the others in the complex. It had been there when the Romans came. Guinevere's great-great-grandfather had found it, and the hot spring hidden in a cavern nearby. He had painted over the crude drawings of horses and men on the building's walls and tiled the floors with a mosaic of Apollo. Later, when the family had converted to Christianity, some of the tiles were removed and fish and the Greek letters Chi Rho added, as well as a nimbus about the god's head, making him into the image of Christ. The hot spring was farther inside the hill now, but it still provided the water for the heating pipes and the baths.
The rest of the household had already gathered around the altar. Leodegrance and Guenlian insisted that all the house and stable servants attend morning and evening prayers. There were also some young men and women who were being fostered in the house, and Guinevere's parents were very serious about their religious training.
Flora always stood between the family and the rest of the servants. Guinevere thought it was her way of telling them that she was almost a member of the family. But today she noticed that Flora didn't exactly face the altar but turned more to the west as if she were worshiping at some other shrine. Guenlian gently nudged her and she returned to her prayers.
As she had hoped, the lessons for that day were not hard. Tenuantius was preoccupied with a letter he had just received purporting to be an exact copy of a newly discovered epistle of St. Paul. It was all in Greek, a language the copier didn't speak, and Tenuantius was spending all his waking hours and most of his dreams trying to decipher the badly formed letters. He barely listened as Guinevere progressed from the Age of Gold to the iniquities of the Iron Age. He didn't even stop her for one of his lectures on the derivation of the proper names. So Guinevere enjoyed the story without interruption, until Tenuantius signaled that she might leave.
As soon as she was released, she rushed to her room and began to pull on her riding shoes, leather slippers attached to thick leather thongs, which were wrapped around wads of cloth reaching up to her knees. She tied them carefully so that there was no space at her ankle between the leather and the cloth. Then she hurried to find her father.
The air in the courtyard was still. The sunlight streamed in between the branches of the fruit trees or bounced off the dusty white walls. The rays were brilliant and seemed thick enough to hold. The only movement was that of the motes in the light, slowly twirling, spinning down. The only sound was the slap-flop of Guinevere's shoes on the stone walk. At first she didn't notice the strange silence. Then she stopped. She was almost to the stable gate and still there was no noise. She was vaguely annoyed.
"Where is everyone?" she muttered. "Have they forgotten that I was to ride today?"
She stamped her foot. "Very well, I'll just follow them myself."
The horses were all still in their stalls. The stable seemed deserted, too. Guinevere felt that someone was watching her. She swung around and saw the outline of someone standing in the shadows behind the open gate. She stared and then realized that it was only Caet, the stableboy.
"Caet, you frightened me!" she reproached him. "Where is my father? Where are the guards and the men-at-arms? Don't they know I am to go riding today?"
Caet stepped into the light, but the shadows seemed to come with him. He was truly one of the Old People, not Celtic or Roman or Saxon, but one who must have sprung from the earth itself. His hair was a dark, sooty brown and his eyes gray. He was small, hardly taller than Guinevere, although he was four or five years older. He rarely spoke and therefore was considered simple by the garrulous families who lived in the area. His ancestors had been slaves for three hundred years. Leodegrance had freed his parents and he had been born free, but only in name and he knew it. Guinevere had played with him when she was small. He had made her toys and steadied her when she first learned to ride, and she was very fond of him in her unthinking way. She knew he wasn't simple, but had never bothered to find out more about him. If she had paid attention, he would have given himself away many times. Even now he was staring at her so intently that it made her nervous.
"Caet, please go and find my father for me," she smiled politely. "Tell him I am waiting here for him. I'm not letting anyone leave without me."
Caet bowed and left.
Soon after, she heard the clatter of many voices. She ran to Leodegrance as he approached and hugged him reproachfully. "Father, you had forgotten me!"
"Not at all, my love," he replied. "But I can't take you with me today. A message has come from our cousin, Cador, and I must spend a few days riding to the villas of the other landholders to consult with them. Now, don't be disappointed. There is nothing we can do about it. Come to your mother and perhaps we can think of something else you can do today."
Guinevere didn't complain, but she wasn't happy. He had promised to take her out! She didn't understand how anything could be that urgent. He could leave tomorrow. Nevertheless, she trotted obediently beside him as he thought lovingly of his docile daughter.
Guenlian smiled at the pouting face. "I think it would be good for you to get out in the sun today, even if you can't ride. I was going to send the maids out to the meadow near the forest to gather herbs and wildflowers to dry for winter possets. You and Flora may go with them."
Guinevere looked at her imploringly. It was a poor change from galloping freely through the woods with one's father to primly picking flowers in a meadow with one's nurse! Still, it was better than nothing. They were so careful about letting her go out of the compound alone these days.
So, a short time later Guinevere and Flora with the maids and foster girls went off across the fields. They were dressed in light, loose robes with their arms bare and only a narrow fillet around their waists. The girls were laughing and swinging their baskets, for this was a holiday to them. Although she wanted to run with the others, at least, Guinevere followed with Flora.
"You stay with me, my dove," the old woman ordered. "I'm too old to trot around like that and I need your strong shoulder to help me."
Guinevere laughed at that. "Why, Flora, you can run faster than any of them. I've seen you. The time I fell from the walnut tree, you were across the court so quickly that you almost caught me. And when you found that Caet had pulled hairs from Sybil's tail to make me a ring, why, you chased him completely around the house and caught him, even though he had a good start of you."
Flora's lined face grew sharp. "Are you making fun of your old nurse?" There was a warning in her voice that Guinevere knew well.
"No, Flora," she answered meekly, although there was a teasing look in her eyes. "Would you like to lean on me for a while?"
"For a bit." And Flora rested her arm heavily on the girl's shoulder, causing her to stagger. Guinevere set her teeth and bore it. Sometimes Flora could be very aggravating.
Soon they came to the meadow. Tall, scented grasses and flowers covered a series of small hills. At the western edge of it, with no prelude, the forest began. It was as if someone purposely kept the area clear, as if the forest was not allowed to encroach on that spot. The flowers waved, blue, white, red, and yellow in the warm sun, and the young women happily began to gather them. They flitted through the grasses, singing and laughing, and then finally sat on a little mound near the center of the meadow, to sort the blooms and buds and tie them in bunches, gossiping all the while. The long-forgotten queen buried beneath them would have smiled to see their pleasure and rejoiced that the world had changed so little.
Flora spread her shawl in the shade of a large oak tree and sat down to rest. She looked very tired and Guinevere noticed the silver glinting in her hair with a pang of remorse. Perhaps the long walk had really wearied her.
"Now, my dear," the nurse told her. "You may walk a little into the woods if you like or stay with the serving girls and other ladies. But if you go, be sure to stay to the path and don't walk more than a hundred steps in. The sun doesn't reach very far into that forest and it's easy to lose your direction. I will rest a while, since I was robbed of my sleep last night. Now take your basket and your cape and bring me back something beautiful and rare."
Delighted, Guinevere gave her an apologetic kiss and skipped into the woods. Flora leaned her head wearily against the tree. She was getting old, she thought: too old to be leading a double life.
The forest started so suddenly that within a few steps it surrounded Guinevere. From the brilliant sun-drenched field she found herself in a cool, green opaque light. The path was soft with centuries of pine needles and spring rain. Here grew the tiny, shy flowers that Guinevere loved best, lily of the valley and star flowers. Others were delicate shades of red and lavender with clear yellow veins in their fragile petals. She had no name for these, which made them all the more remarkable and mysterious. She knelt so that her face was next to them and brushed one with her cheek.
"I cannot pick you," she told it softly. "I tried once, to take you home to mother, but you crumpled and died in my hand. Stay here, where you are fresh and beautiful. I will find something else for Flora."
And gently she left the little flower, safe among the ferns. Deep among the leaves, dark blue eyes shone approval.
Guinevere wandered here and there through the trees. She didn't even pretend to stay to the path, for she was sure she could find it again. She went far more than a hundred steps because she had long since forgotten to count them. She was intensely happy. She was alone, a wonderful event in itself, and there was something rare and beautiful to be found. The sunlight scattered itself about her in such giddy patterns that she hardly noticed its slow downward slant. It was late afternoon and she was far into the forest when a sound in the bushes startled her into awareness.
"Flora will be furious!" was her first thought. She piled together the herbs and flowers she had picked, along with a few smooth stones and other curious things she had found. They were dumped randomly into her basket. A wild perfume arose as the stones crushed the plants. She stared about her as if she expected the path to appear at her feet. It was then that she realized how far she had wandered.
"I've lost myself, how stupid!" Guinevere was not overly concerned, for in her whole life she had never had a difficulty that someone hadn't quickly helped her out of. Being lost in a forest with night approaching wasn't any worse than climbing too high in the walnut tree or having a horse run away with one. Someone had climbed up and carried her down and someone had raced after her and calmed the horse. Someone would soon come to find her. She wrapped her cape about her shoulders and composed herself to wait.
After about fifteen minutes it occurred to her that she might just as well walk a bit toward home and help those hunting for her. After an hour of walking she began to wonder if she hadn't missed them somewhere. A little later she noticed that the shadows under the trees were getting longer and darker.
"If they don't come soon," she reasoned, "it will be dark and they will have a lot of trouble finding me."
She began to feel a whisper of concern then, as shreds of tales about forests at night came back to her. As a small child, she had been warned that ghosts and monsters walked the woods after dark, hunting for children to carry away to the underworld to be slaves. Guenlian had informed her daughter that they were Christians and civilized Romans and didn't believe in such nonsense. In matters of that sort, Guinevere always trusted her mother over Flora. However, the dimming light made strange shapes among the trees and undergrowth. From the corner of her eye, Guinevere saw huge, scaly hands reaching out for her. When she turned to face them, they vanished into the shadows. She wasn't panicky yet, but nervous. She found what looked like a narrow path and stumbled onto it. Tree roots rose from it, and stones that were eager to trip her or bruise her feet. The twilight above her head was deepening to night and a few pale stars glittered.
She was beginning to give way to fear, stumbling, her dress ripped from encounters with branches, her hair dusted with bark and cobwebs. She sank down, tears starting. Suddenly a light shone before her. It was somewhere behind the bushes; a silver gleam. It couldn't be a lantern or torch, but perhaps the reflection of one off a shield. Guinevere plunged toward it, paying no attention to the stones and grasping branches. As she came to where she had seen it shining, the light moved on. Gasping with exertion, she tried to call out.
"Here I am! Wait! I'm just behind you! Please, stop! Wait for me!"
It was still moving away, becoming only a dim glow in the dark. She ran faster.
"Soldiers of Leodegrance! It is I, Guinevere!"
Still the light moved away from her.
On and on it went, always just too far away to be clearly seen. She was not aware of time or the forest about her, only the ache in her side and the dryness in her throat and the silver shining before her.
Suddenly, the light vanished. Guinevere gave a deep sobbing cry and dove through the thick stand of berry bushes where she had seen it last. Scratched and bleeding, she tumbled onto the main path, not far from where she had entered the forest that afternoon.
As she lay there, panting and coughing, her body numb with exhaustion and relief, she noticed something shining on a branch above her. Curious, she pulled herself partway up and crawled over to it. It was a long, thin strand of something silver. Guinevere couldn't tell whether it was reflecting the moonlight or if it gave off a light of its own. She reached up and gently pulled it down. It wasn't thread or wire.
"It's too thick for hair and too fine to be anything else," she thought.
Then, in spite of her pain and weariness, Guinevere smiled.
"Something rare and and lovely," she almost laughed. "Now I shall have a gift for Flora."
She started to put it into her basket and then realized that she had dropped it long ago. So she sat in the middle of the path, resting, passing the thin, silky light between her fingers.
A few minutes later she saw the good, honest gold and red of real torches and heard the worried voices of her father and the guards. With a joyful cry, she ran to them.
As soon as she saw her father's face, she knew she had done something terribly wrong. It was gray with worry. His normally firm chin was trembling as he gathered her up. He only trusted himself to whisper her name. He held her close before him on the horse, his free arm wrapped about her so tightly that it hurt.
At home, nothing was said beyond the exclamations of Flora as she saw the scratched and bruised arms and feet. Guinevere was given a warm herbal bath, and ointment was rubbed on the wounds. It was not until she was safe in bed that her parents came in.
"We don't want to hear any explanations, daughter," Guenlian told her sternly. "You wandered away thoughtlessly, and any fear or pain you might have had was well deserved. You caused your father and the guards to spend several extra hours of hard work hunting for you, when they were already tired from their journey today. Flora should not have let you enter the woods alone, but you are old enough now to know what you should and should not do and to observe the limits set for you. Flora will not always be near to tell you what is right or wrong. Obviously we have not taught you well enough where else to seek guidance. For the next two weeks, instead of riding with your father or playing in the fields, you may spend your afternoons in the chapel, praying for wisdom and maturity and studying the works of the Holy Fathers. Perhaps there you can find counsel."
Guinevere nodded mutely. She had never seen her mother so angry. Leodegrance said nothing, but the look on his face was enough. Her eyes pleaded forgiveness. Guenlian sat on the edge of the bed and held her closely. Leodegrance rested his hand on her head.
"Never frighten us like that again," he whispered.
They covered her tightly and blew out the light.
Later, in their own room, Guenlian reflected. "It doesn't seem right to make religion a punishment. Couldn't we have thought of something else?"
Leodegrance frowned, then kissed his wife gently before he spoke. "I think we have made her feel the enormity of her disobedience. She may be rebellious for a while, but it is necessary that she be put into a position where she must think about herself and her place in the world."
He sighed. "The contemplative life is not a bad one for her to pursue for a few days. Would that we lived in times when we all might retreat for a while into philosophy."
Guenlian had finished her nightly ritual of washing and creaming her face. She wiped the cream off with a linen towel. It was made of pounded almonds, oil, and herbs and the scent of it lingered through the night. She slipped in bed next to her husband and brushed her hand across his face.
"Our life was our choice, my love. We could have run to the mountains or gone to Armorica and lived in relative tranquillity. I am proud of you and of our children. Who knows, someday we, too, may have time for philosophy."
For answer, Leodegrance kissed her again and blew out the light.
• • •
Flora was angry with Guinevere, too. She had been reproved by her employers, gently but decidedly, for letting the child stray from her sight. That and her own guilt made her grumble under her breath as she came in to check on Guinevere before she retired to her own room.
Guinevere was still awake. She had been thinking.
"Flora," she asked timidly, "may I have a cup of water?"
Flora frowned and snorted but brought the ewer and cup.
"I don't know why I do anything for you, naughty child," she muttered. "Bringing all this worry and trouble to me and to your dear parents who love you more than you deserve. Why did you go roaming like that, when I told you not to?"
"I'm sorry, Flora," Guinevere sighed. "But I've been scolded and I'm going to be punished, so can't we be friends again?"
She stopped, remembering the gift she had found and leaped out of bed to find it, spilling the water.
"Oh no," she said, "I'm sorry for that then, too. But I just remembered. I found something for you, just as you asked mesomething beautiful and rare."
She had pinned it to the folds of her dress with one of her hairpins. The dress was still lying on the bench outside her door. Carefully, she unfastened it and came back holding the mysterious silver strand.
At the sight of it, Flora's whole manner changed. Her back straightened, her head tilted proudly, her carriage was all at once far different from that of an old serving woman. She stared in wonder and then lifted her hands, palms up to receive her gift.
Guinevere held it out to her. "I found it for you," she repeated. "I don't know what it is, do you?"
She asked because of the look on Flora's face. As she laid it across the old woman's hands, Flora gazed at the strand reverently. Her expression was one of awe and, perhaps, fear. Guinevere stared at her, puzzled. She hadn't expected such a reaction.
"Do you like it? Do you want it?" she asked. "Have I done something else that was wrong?"
Tears now flowed down Flora's face, but her voice remained steady.
"Of all the things you could have brought me, this is the one I longed for most. But if you have done the right thing, I cannot tell. Only the god"
She broke off. With a fierce gesture, she drew Guinevere to her and held her, much as Leodegrance had on the way home. Then, just as quickly, she released her.
"This is a great treasure for me, my dove, greater than you can imagine. But it is also a great burden. You did not do right or wrong but the only thing you could have done. It is part of the Design."
With this strange remark, Flora set Guinevere back in bed, and, taking her lamp, left the room.
Guinevere lay there, trying to make sense out of the events of the day, most of all Flora's part in them. But her thoughts wouldn't follow a logical pattern. As she tried to piece it together, the silver light would burst in, now bright, now dim, until it blurred everything into mist and she fell asleep.
Copyright © 1981, 1996 by Sharan Newman