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Excerpted from the hardcover edition
Winter was comingI could smell it. Even so, we headed north, following a cow track across a barren field, away from all the lawless soldiers.
Onward. I shifted little Gaston onto my right hip and set my eyes on the far horizon . . . Onward toward Poitiers, where we might earn a meal performing for crowds. News had spread that the King and Court were there, mobilizing for yet another battle.
We had seen the aftermath the day before, corpses rotting in the sun, pickers crawling over the leavings like flies on a harvest table. A sparkling brass buckle, a dagger with a carved hilt, a hat plume, three bone buttonstreasures that could be traded for food.
“We are players, not scavengers,” my father said gravely, turning me away. “There are things we do not do, things we will not do.”
His reproach stung even now.
I pulled the patched woolens up over Gaston’s head to protect him from the cold. He hummed in sleepy protest, sucking on his thumb. Father was right, I knewwe were players, and proud of our calling. We might be hungry, but we would never beg.
I glanced back to see Bravo pulling our cart of costumes and props, our kettle and precious embers. The donkey never stopped, but he never increased his pace either, even when wild dogs threatened.
My parents lagged far behind, hands linked, singing their favorite song, “Le Beau Robert.”
My belly cramped, but not from hunger. Was my time upon me?
My courses had started some moons before. Father and Mother had been jubilant. I must make a formal vow! they theatrically declared, as knights had done in days of old.
I’m a girl, I objected. The ceremonial swearing to uphold the code of chivalry marked a boy’s transition into manhood.
My parentsloving any excuse to performinsisted that it was a perfectly suitable rite to mark their daughter becoming a woman.
So Father and I had acted out the ritual before our audience (Mother, with Gaston in her arms)first the silent prayer, and then the sermon. It had all been pretend, but we were players: we took pretend to heart. I wore a red robe of nobility over a white tunic, symbolizing purity. My hose and shoes were black, symbolizing death.
“Swear not to traffic with traitors or give evil counsel!” Father recited the Code in his booming player’s voice. “Swear to observe all fasts.”
“I so swear,” I vowed. We were often without food. I was well accustomed to want. Ours was a life of fasts.
“Swear never to betray a trust.”
“I swear.” Thinking of Gaston, so credulous and sweet.
“Swear to do what is right, whatever the cost.” This last Father said gently.
“I so swear,” I answered, my hand over my heart.
He tapped my shoulders with our stage-prop sword, dubbing me the Good Knight Claudette, binding me to my vows. A burden, and a blessing.
The clouds cleared as we came to a valley. The sun lit up a meadow dotted with frosted marigold. I lowered Gaston to the ground, my arms aching. He was small for five, but even so, carrying him was heavy work. Giggling, he teetered on his feet. I caught him before he fell.
“Careful, Turnip,” I said, pressing my face into his neck, inhaling his sweet scent, so curiously like fresh bread (making my stomach rumble). Mother and Father fanned out, foraging for dried berries and grasshoppers, which we ate greedily after removing the heads, legs, and wings. I kept Gaston near. It was a relief that he’d finally learned to hold his water and hinder-fallings, but he was still a baby at heart. I worried that he was so clumsy, spotted with bruises, worried that he’d yet to talk the way other children didchildren who teased him cruelly, calling him an idiot, a simple, a fool.
Yet Gaston was far from simple. I’d never won a game of Mill against him! On our wanders, he always seemed to know the right direction to go (when the rest of us were lost), and although he couldn’t talk, he knew when we misspoke a line during a performance. He was a puzzle I couldn’t solve. Mother feared a witch had put a spell on him. Father suspected that the worms we suffered now and again had gotten into his head. But I thought otherwise. I worried that it was something I might have done to him myself, looked away when I should have been watching.
We forded a river at a crude plank bridge, coaxing Bravo over with a bit of parsnip. In the shallows, we drank and splashed our faces. Mother caught minnows and we gobbled them down live. She chewed one for Gaston, making it soft, luring him to eat.
The land was made of chalk and limestone, forgiving and malleable. “There will be caves in these parts,” Father said, kicking his toe into the dirt. It was time to think of shelter for the night. In a cave, we would not be so exposedto wind, wolves, men.
A narrow path led up to a ridge, which was surmounted by an enormous cross. Its surface gleamed in the fading light.
“Compliments of the Company, no doubt,” my father said, frowning.
The Company of the Blessed Sacrament.
The Company of the Devil, he’d once dared to call it. The secret society did good works by day, but attacked Jews, Romas, and players by nightall demons in their view, enemies of the One True Faith. Even some priests were of their number, preaching the stoning of players on festival days.
We were goodly Christians, so why did the Church scorn us? Why could we not take Communion or be buried in hallowed ground? Why were we excommunicated, forbidden the comfort of Heaven?
I lifted Gaston into my arms and began the climb up the mountain. He hummed, one long high note, fixing his moon eyes on me, unblinking. His voice was plaintive and high, enchanting to hear. I hummed along with him, the notes vibrating through my head and chest, twining with his. My sweetlingmy very own treasure.
The sun was about to set when we found the opening to a cave. Remnants of a wolf carcass, charred logs, and a sharpened stick were evidence that the site had been home to humans before. An overhang offered protection from inclement weather.
The slope was wreathed in frost-withered vines, clematis, and primulas. On the far side of the valley, atop a rocky height, I could see the city of Poitiers. Church steeples rose above a cloud of smoke.
“Perfect,” Father said, regarding the vista. At the edge of a steep incline, we wouldn’t be taken by surprise.
The floor of the cave was wide and dry, the walls smooth. Holding a rush candle, I saw crude images of large animals painted onto the stone.
Gaston made echoes in the cavern as I hauled in the basket of bedding. “Come help, Turnip,” I sang, for he understood words best when put to tune. He ran to me, stumbling. “Doucement, mon petit!”
Outside, Mother set the tiny wood statue of the Virgin in a rock nook and arranged her tokens around it: a bouquet of dried carnations, a corn-husk doll, a chipped teacup, a rusty key. “How delicious is pleasure after torment,” she recited in a deep and melodic voice, quoting a line by the great playwright Corneille.
The familiar words rang out across the valley. We might suffer from want, but at least we had poetry.
The next morning, Father and I set out back down the mountain, picking our way around boulders and rugged outcrops. “Tracks,” Father noted as we passed a pond ringed by trees and bushes. Deer tracks: we would be back.
Our intention was to go into the city and approach the Court, offering to perform lofty passages from the Great Corneille as well as some light entertainment. The young Kingno older than Iwould likely be bored and desirous of amusement. If we succeeded, we would be rewarded well.
As we got closer to Poitiers, we saw caves much like our own, many of them occupied. Some had gardens and plank doors, but most were hovels. Bone-thin children held out their hands. I delighted them with a flip; at least I had that to give.
Soon the path widened and we were joined by otherspeasants going to market, three youths on a mule. We followed a road edging a river until a bridge came into view. Six heads were set on pikes at the top of a tower.
Father hung a tin cross conspicuously around his neck. “I’ve only five deniers,” he told menot much in the way of a bribe. We pushed through the mewling beggars to join the long line of people waiting to get into the city.
“Where are you from and what business do you have here?” a pudgy guard asked when we finally got to the gates.
At least that’s what I thought he said. Every town and village spoke a different patois.
“French, Monsieur?” Father suggested as the guards took our satchel for inspection.
Another guard, this one with a thick black moustache, made a so-so gesture. “This Christian town is,” he informed us in broken French, regarding us suspiciously. “No beggar, no Jew, no Roma.”
Father explained that we had come to the fine town of Poitiers to visit his old aunt, who was breathing her last. He made a sad face and pressed the cross to his heart, miming grief. His best shirt of embroidered cambric showed under his jerkin.
The moustached guard shrugged at his partner, who had opened our satchel. He held up my slapstick with a puzzled expression. My heart jumped, fearing he would take us for players.
“To amuse my cousins,” I explained. The wood slats, held together at one end, made a splendidly loud noise, perfect for comic skits. I demonstrated the motion with a snap of my hand.
The guard copied my gesture and jumped at the clack the sticks made. He laughed and gave it to the other guard to try. Clack! Clack! Clack!
The plump guard wanted to do it again himself. Clack! Clack! He laughed like a child with a new toy.
I was relieved when he put the sticks back in the satchel and waved us through.
We headed up the hill, through the narrow, congested streets and into the heart of the ancient city. I paused at a stable yard. “Should I change?”
Father nodded. “I think we’re close.”
I slipped behind a wall, taking care where I stepped. My breeches were baggy around my hipsI stuffed my skirts into them and slipped on the short jacket, pulling up my stockings and tightening the twine on my big boots. Last, I applied a cream of chalk powder mixed with egg white to my face, then patted on just a bit of (precious!) flour. I secured the wig under my chin with a frayed ribbon.
I did a duck walk back out to the cobbled street and saluted my father. He grinned, every part of his face smiling, his brows lifting like the outstretched wings of a bird. Mother told me I looked just like him. I had his thick auburn hair.
“Don’t move,” he said. There were three men standing in front of a tavern across from the stable yard. They watched as Father shaped my smile with some of the red clay we’d found near Roussillon. Then I did a flip for them.
“Chapeau! Formidable!” they cheered.
A line of hooded men in black appeared in procession, carrying crosses and chanting like droning bees in a hive. The Company? Big, ragged holes had been cut in the cloth for their eyes. One man turned to stare, his eyes rolling ghoulishly. I lowered my head and signed myself, praying in fear as they passed.
The Palais de JUSTICE opened onto a crowded square with a scaffold at its center. I clambered after my father, heart racing.
The vast guardroom was like a church: dark, cold, and echoing. Thick tree trunks were burning in four enormous fireplaces at one end, yet they gave off little heat. A long plank table was heaped with the remains of a feast. A wave of longing came over me as I gazed at the leavings: a fish stew, something that smelled like partridge and cabbage potage, a platter of beignets (Mother’s favorite).
Two spaniels and a greyhound snapped and growled under the table. The greyhound’s snout appeared, and a beignet was gone.
Hunger made warriors strong, Father said. Swallowing, I stepped back.
After inquiries, Father was directed to a city magistrate who in turn told him to speak to Monsieur le Duc de Mortemart, charged with arranging entertainments for the royal family. We went through a small courtyard where a number of soldiers were smoking pipes and passing an earthenware crock between them. I stayed close behind Father, following him through an arch into yet another courtyard, and then another. On the far side, four guards leaned beside a double door.
“I wish to see Monsieur le Duc de Mortemart,” Father announced in his aristocratic voicethe voice he adopted for playing the parts of kings.
Yawning, a young guard with a hint of a beard opened one door. I made an exaggerated clown bow, but he didn’t smile.
Flushing, I climbed two steps at a time, joining Father in a dark antechamber off the landing. We waited beneath a tall window of Venetian glass; covered with soot, it let in little light.
One Ave Maria, two, three . . . On the fourth, a footman appeared and ushered us into an elaborately furnished room with a high ceiling and a great hanging candelabra. Candles had been lit despite the hour. A coat of arms was painted on a china vase: a shield with a menacing blue snake curled in the lower quadrant.
A man in velvet and old lace looked up at us from a desk covered in papers and scrolls: the Duke. The coat of arms must be his, I surmised. His shaved head was covered with a skullcap; a wig hung over the back of a chair. I wondered if he was a knight.
The footman gestured: step forward.
Father put down our satchel, bowing and greeting the mighty Monsieur le Duc de Mortemart formally, in Latin.
“Spare me,” the Duke groaned in French. His lips were stained red and his cheeks rouged. From the cracks in his face powder, I suspected he’d been napping. He had the manner of a man under water.
Father explained in his most melodic French that we were players, members of an acclaimed acting troupe. The tragedies of the Great Corneille were our specialty, but we also excelled in comedy, skits perfectly suited to engage the interest of the thirteen-year-old King.