THERE was to be a fair in St.-Denis! The news was astonishing—there had not been a fair or a market in the entire kingdom for more years than most people could count. But some of the old ones—like Burchard, the tanner—remembered a time when there had actually been two or three fairs a year in Frankland. So they said, though it was hard to credit the truth of it. Of course, those were in the days when Emperor Karolus of blessed memory was in his prime, and the roads and bridges still well maintained, no thieves or charlatans plying the ways, nor yet—God defend it!—the swift, savage terror of the Norsemen swooping down without warning upon the land. Now travel was too hazardous to make fairs profitable; merchants did not dare to transport precious goods over the unsafe roads, and people did not wish to chance their lives on the journey.
Nevertheless, there was to be a fair. And it would be a wonder, if even half of what the herald who brought the news said was true. There would be merchants from Byzantium bringing exotic spices, silks, and brocades; Venetian traders with cloaks of peacock feathers and embossed leather; Frisian slave dealers with their human cargo of Slays and Saxons; Lombards with bags of salt piled high inside ships whose bright orange sails bore the signs of the zodiac; and all manner of amusements: rope dancers and acrobats, storytellers, jongleurs, performing dogs and bears.
St.-Denis was not close by—in fact, it was some one hundred fifty miles from Dorstadt, a fortnight’s journey, over crumbling roads and fast-rushing rivers. But no one was daunted by that. Everyone who could get hold of a horse or mule or even a pony was going.
Gerold’s entourage, as befitted that of a count, was large. Fifteen of Gerold’s fideles, well armed, would ride with them, as well as several servants to attend the family. Joan was to go, and as a special courtesy—Joan was sure it was Gerold’s idea—John was invited as well. Richild’s preparations had been exacting; she had taken pains to ensure they would want for nothing in comfort and safety for the journey. For days now, wagons had been pulled into the castle bailey and loaded with goods.
The morning of the departure, Villaris was astir with activity. Grooms scurried about, feeding and loading the packhorses; the pantler and his scullions sweated over the great oven, whose tall chimney belched huge puffs of smoke; the blacksmith worked furiously at his forge, finishing the last of a supply of horseshoes, nails, and wagon fittings. Sounds blended and rose in noisy confusion: maidservants shouted to one another above the deeper calls and whistles of the grooms, cows mooed and stamped as they were hastily milked, one overladen donkey brayed loudly in protest against its load. The bustling activity stirred up dust from the dry earth; it rose into the air and hung in a shimmering mist, lit by the brilliant spring sunshine.
Joan lingered in the courtyard, watching the last-minute preparations, enjoying the excitement. Luke pranced around her, ears pricked and opalescent eyes alight with expectation. He was going on the journey too, for, as Gerold had declared, the six-month-old pup had become so attached to Joan there was no separating them. Joan laughed and petted Luke, his white fur soft under her hand; he licked her cheek and sat back with his mouth stretched wide, as if he were laughing too.
“If you’ve nothing better to do than stand about gaping, give the pantler a hand.” Richild gave Joan a push toward the kitchen, where the pantler waved flour-coated hands in a frenzy of activity. He had been up all night, baking rolls and pies for the journey.
By midmorning, the household was packed. The chaplain offered a brief prayer for the safe deliverance of the travelers, and the procession of wagons and horses moved out slowly onto the road. Joan rode in the first cart, behind Gerold and his men, along with Richild, Gisla, and Dhuoda, and the three villein girls who served as the ladies’ personal attendants. The women jounced against the hard wooden seats as the cartwheels bumped over the pitted, uneven road. Luke trotted alongside, keeping a watchful eye on Joan. Joan looked ahead and saw John riding with the men, seated comfortably astride a fine roan mare.
I sit a horse as well as he, Joan thought. Gerold had spent many hours teaching her to ride, and she was now an accomplished horsewoman.
As if suddenly aware of her scrutiny, John turned around and gave her a knowing smile, at once intimate and malicious. Then he kicked his horse into a canter and rode up next to Gerold. They spoke; Gerold threw back his head and laughed.
Jealousy rose sharply within her. What could John have to say to Gerold that would amuse him so? They had nothing in common. Gerold was a learned man, a scholar. John knew nothing of such matters. Yet now he rode beside Gerold, talked with him, laughed with him, while she lurched along behind in this miserable dogcart.
Because she was a girl. Not for the first time she cursed the stroke of fate that had made her so.
“It is impolite to stare, Joan.” Richild’s dark eyes regarded Joan disdainfully.
Joan tore her eyes away from Gerold. “I’m sorry, my lady.”
“Keep your hands folded on your lap,” Richild remonstrated, “and your eyes turned down, as befits a modest woman.”
Joan obediently followed her bidding.
“Proper deportment,” Richild continued, “is a higher virtue in a lady than an ability to read—something you would know if you had been gently raised.” She stared at Joan coolly for a few moments before returning her attention to her embroidery.
Joan watched her now out of the corner of her eye. She was certainly beautiful, in the pale, ascetic, slope-shouldered fashion of the day. Her creamy skin rose to an extremely high forehead, crowned by lustrous coils of thick black hair. Her eyes, fringed by long, dark lashes, were so deep a brown they appeared almost black. Joan felt a sharp pang of envy. Richild was everything that she was not.
“Come now, you must help us decide.” Gisla, the elder daughter, beamed at Joan. “Which of my gowns should I wear for the wedding feast?” She giggled excitedly.
Gisla was fourteen, only a few weeks older than Joan, and already betrothed to Count Hugo, a Neustrian nobleman. Gerold and Richild were pleased, as the union was an advantageous match. The wedding was some six months away.
“Oh, Gisla, you have so many lovely things.” And it was true. Joan had been astonished at the size of Gisla’s wardrobe—enough to wear a different tunic every day for a fortnight if she chose. In Ingelheim, a girl had but one tunic, of strong woolen cloth if she was lucky, and she kept it carefully, for it would have to last many years. “I am sure Count Hugo will think you beautiful in any of them.”
Gisla giggled again. A good-hearted but somewhat simple girl, she erupted into nervous laughter every time her affianced’s name was mentioned.
“No, no,” she said breathlessly. “You cannot wriggle out of it so easily. Listen. Mother thinks I should wear the blue, but I say the yellow. Come now, give me a proper answer.”
Joan sighed. She liked Gisla, for all her giddiness and silly ways. They had shared a bed from the very first night, when Gerold had brought Joan home from the bishop’s palace, weary and frightened. Gisla had welcomed Joan, been kind to her, and Joan would always be grateful. Still, there was no denying that conversation with Gisla could be trying, for her interests were entirely confined to clothes, food, and men. For the last few weeks, she had talked incessantly about the wedding, and it was beginning to try everyone’s patience.
Joan smiled, making an effort to be obliging. “I think you should wear the blue. It matches your eyes.”
“The blue? Really?” Gisla’s brow furrowed. “But the yellow has the lovely lace trim on the front.”
“Well, the yellow then.”
“Still, the blue does match my eyes. Perhaps it would be better. What do you think?”
“I think that if I hear any more about that stupid wedding feast I shall scream,” said Dhuoda. She was nine years old and resentful of all the attention her older sister had been getting over the past few weeks. “Who cares what color tunic you wear anyway!”
“Dhuoda, that remark is unbecoming a lady.” Richild looked up from her embroidery to chastise her younger daughter.
“I’m sorry,” Dhuoda said to Gisla contritely. But as soon as her mother looked away she stuck out her tongue at Gisla, who smiled back at her good-humoredly.
Richild said, “As for you, Joan, it is not for you to offer an opinion; Gisla will wear whatever I think best.”
Joan flushed at the reprimand but said nothing.
“Count Hugo is such a handsome man.” Bertha, one of the serving wenches, spoke up. A red-cheeked girl of no more than sixteen winters, she was new to household service, having been brought in a month ago to replace a girl dead of typhoid. “He looks so fine on his charger, with his ermine cloak and gloves.”
Gisla giggled delightedly. Encouraged, Bertha continued. “And, mistress, from the way he looks at you, it cannot matter what tunic you wear. Come the wedding night, he’ll have it off you quick enough!”
She laughed boisterously, pleased with her joke. Gisla tittered. The others in the wagon sat quietly, watching Richild.
Richild put down her embroidery, her eyes dark with anger. “What did you say?” she asked, in a tone ominously quiet.
“Uh—nothing, my lady,” Bertha said.
“Oh, Mother, I am sure she did not mean—” Gisla tried ineffectually to intervene.
“Coarseness and filth! I will not suffer it in my presence!”
“I’m sorry, my lady,” Bertha said, chastened. But she still smiled a little, not believing Richild could be truly angry.
Richild motioned Bertha to the open back of the cart. “Out.”
“But, my lady!” Bertha wailed, at last comprehending the enormity of her error. “I did not mean—”
“Out!” Richild was adamant. “In penance for your impudence, you will walk the rest of the way.”
It was a punishing journey to St.-Denis. Bertha looked ruefully at her feet, covered with rough, hemp-soled buskins. Joan felt sorry for her. Her remark had been heedless and ill advised, but the girl was young and new to service, and obviously had not meant to give offense.
“You will recite the paternoster aloud while you walk.”
“Yes, my lady,” Bertha said resignedly. She clambered out of the cart, took up a position alongside, and after a minute slowly began to recite, “Pater Noster qui es in caelis …” She spoke in an odd singsong style that emphasized all the wrong words. Joan was sure she had no idea what she was saying.
Richild returned to her embroidery. Her black hair shone in the sunlight as she bent her head over her stitching. Her lips were tight, her eyes hard with anger as she drove the needle through the thick cloth.
She is an unhappy woman, Joan thought. This was difficult to understand, for was she not married to Gerold? Yet theirs had been an arranged marriage, and although many such matches turned out to be happy ones, this one obviously had not. They slept in separate beds, and, if the servants’ gossip was correct, had not known each other as man and wife for many years.
“Would you care to ride?” Gerold smiled down at her from astride his chestnut stallion. In his right hand he held the reins of Boda, a lively bay mare he knew Joan especially favored.
Joan blushed, embarrassed by what she had just been thinking. She had been so lost in thought that she had not seen Gerold ride back to retrieve Boda from the group of spare mounts and lead her toward the wagon.
“Ride with the men?” Richild frowned. “I won’t permit it! It would not be proper!”
“Nonsense!” Gerold replied. “It does no harm, and the girl wants to ride, don’t you, Joan?”
“I … I …,” she said awkwardly, caught in the middle and reluctant to further offend Richild.
Gerold raised an eyebrow. “Of course, if you’d rather remain in the wagon …”
“No!” Joan said quickly. “Please, I’d love to ride Boda.” She stood in the cart and reached out her arms. Gerold laughed and caught her about the waist, swinging her high onto the saddle before him. Then, keeping the horses close, he hoisted her sideways onto Boda’s back.
She settled into the saddle. In the wagon Gisla and Dhuoda looked on with surprise, Richild with glaring disapproval. Gerold appeared not to notice. Joan prodded Boda into a canter and rode quickly toward the front of the line. The smooth, rhythmic strides of the horse were a joy compared with the stiff jerking of the wagon. Luke ran alongside, tail held high, his laughing mouth registering a delight almost as great as Joan’s.
She pulled up next to John, who could not conceal his dismay. Joan laughed, her spirits soaring. The road to St.-Denis would not be so long after all.
THEY crossed the tributary of the Rhine with no difficulty; the bridge there was sturdy and wide, one of those built in the days of Emperor Karolus and still maintained by the lord of that county. But the Meuse, at whose banks they arrived on the eighth day, presented a problem, for the bridge there had fallen into disrepair. The planks were rotten, and there were holes where one or two had dropped out completely, making passage impossible. Someone had improvised a rough bridge by tying a string of wooden boats together in a line; a person could cross by stepping through each of the boats in turn. But the boat bridge would not serve for so many people, horses, and wagons laden with goods. Gerold and two of his men ranged south along the riverbank, looking for a place to ford. An hour later they returned to report a likely spot two miles down where the river widened into shallows.
The party set off again, the wagons lurching wildly over the dense undergrowth along the riverbank. The women clutched the sides of their cart with both hands to keep from being thrown out. Bertha still walked alongside, her lips moving in unending recitation. The hemp on her buskins was worn through to the skin, and she had begun to limp; her toes were swollen, her soles cut and bleeding. Nevertheless, Joan noticed that she occasionally stole sidewards glances at Richild and her daughters and seemed to derive some small satisfaction from watching them pitch about in the wagon.
At last they reached the fording place. Gerold and several of the other mounted men rode down into the river first, to test the depth and levelness of the bottom. The water quickly swirled round them; it reached the bottom of their kirtles in midstream before it began to recede where the riverbed sloped upward to the opposite bank.
Gerold rode back, motioning the others forward. Without hesitation, Joan headed into the river, followed closely by Luke, who plunged in and swam with sure, confident movements. After a moment’s hesitation, John and the others came after them.
The cold waters of the Meuse circled Joan. She gasped as the chill penetrated her clothes and reached her skin. Behind her the wagons slowly bumped down into the river, drawn forward by the mules. Bertha labored to keep up, pushing her way through the chilly water, which rose nearly to her shoulders.
Looking back, Joan saw that Bertha was in trouble. She rode toward her. The mare could carry both of them across with no trouble. She was no more than five feet away when the girl vanished, slipping beneath the surface of the water as quickly as if pulled by the feet. Joan halted, unsure what to do; then she urged her mount toward the widening rings of water marking the spot where Bertha had gone under.
“Stay back!” Gerold’s hand grabbed the bridle, halting the mare. He broke a long branch off an overhanging birch, dismounted, and walked slowly back toward the bank, probing the riverbed. An arm’s length away from the place where Bertha had disappeared, he stumbled and almost fell as the branch sank deep into the water.
“A hole!” He ripped off his mantle and dove in.
Suddenly everything was confusion. Men rode back and forth through the water, shouting instructions and beating the water with sticks.
Gerold was down there. They could be trampling him, hurting him, why couldn’t they see that?
“Stop!” Joan screamed, but they paid no attention. She rode to Egbert, chief of Gerold’s retainers, and grabbed him fiercely by the arm. “Stop!” she said.
Startled, Egbert was about to shrug her off, but she stared him down. “Tell them to stop; they are making it worse.” He drew up, signaling the others. They reined in, ringing the water hole, and waited in tense concentration.
A minute passed. Behind them the first wagon gained the far bank and bumped safely onto land. Joan did not notice. Her eyes were fixed on the spot where Gerold had dived under.
Fear moistened her palms, made her hands slip on the reins. The bay mare, sensing trouble, whinnied and shifted. Luke threw back his head and howled.
Deus Misereatur, she prayed. Dear God, take pity. Demand what sacrifice You will, only let him rise from this.
It was too long. He needed to come up for air.
She swung down out of the saddle into the cold water. She could not swim, but she did not stop to think of that. She began splashing wildly toward the hole. Luke leapt back and forth in front of her, trying to block her advance, but she shoved past him. Only one thought occupied all her mind—reach Gerold, pull him out, save him.
She was half a yard from the water hole when there was a splash and a plume of water. Gerold broke the surface in one leap and stood gasping, his red hair smeared across his face.
“Gerold!” Joan’s exultant shout sounded clear above the cheers of the men. Gerold turned to her and nodded. Then he took a deep breath, ready to dive again.
“Look!” The mule driver in the first wagon pointed downriver.
A round blue object rose and fell gently against the far bank. Bertha’s robe was blue.
They remounted and rode downriver. In the water, caught in branches and debris that had accumulated along the bank, Bertha was floating on her back, limbs thrown wide as if discarded, her lifeless features fixed into a terrible expression of helplessness and fear.
“Take her up.” Gerold spoke brusquely to his men. “We will bear her to the church in Prüm for a decent burial.”
Joan began to tremble violently, unable to pull her eyes away from Bertha. In death, she looked so much like Matthew had—the pale gray skin, the half-closed eyes, the slackened mouth.
Suddenly Gerold’s arms were around her, turning her head away, pressing it to his shoulder. She closed her eyes and clung to him. The men dismounted and splashed into the water; she heard the soft, wet rustle of the river reeds as they released the weight of Bertha’s body.
“You were coming after me back there, weren’t you?” Gerold whispered, his mouth close to her ear. He spoke wonderingly, as if the realization had just struck him.
“Yes.” She nodded, never taking her head from his shoulder.
“Can you swim?”
“No,” she admitted, and felt Gerold’s arms tighten around her as they stood together by the river’s edge.
Behind them, the men slowly carried Bertha’s body toward the wagons. The chaplain walked alongside, his head bowed as he recited the prayer for the dead. Richild was not praying with him. Her head was high, and she was staring at Joan and Gerold.
Joan stepped out of the circle of Gerold’s arms.
“What is it?” His look was warm with affection and concern.
Richild was still watching them.
He followed the direction of her gaze. “Ah.” Gently he lifted a stray lock of white-gold hair from her face. “Shall we rejoin the others then?”
Side by side they walked to the wagons. Then Gerold left to consult with the chaplain about the disposition of the body.
Richild said, “Joan, you will ride in the wagon for the rest of the journey. You will be far safer here with us.”
It was useless to protest. Joan climbed into the wagon.
The men gently laid Bertha in one of the rear wagons, moving sacks aside to make room. A household servant, an older woman, cried out and threw herself onto Bertha’s body.
The woman began the traditional keening wail for the dead. Everyone waited in a respectful, embarrassed silence. After a decent interval, the chaplain approached and spoke softly to the woman. She raised her head; her eyes, wild with grief and pain, fixed on Richild.
“You!” she screamed. “It was you, lady! You killed her! She was a good girl, my Bertha, she would have served you well! Her death is on your head, lady. On your head!”
Two of Richild’s retainers grabbed the woman roughly and hurried her away, still screaming imprecations.
The chaplain approached Richild, wringing his hands in nervous apology. “She is Bertha’s mother. Grief has driven the poor woman quite out of her senses. Of course the child’s death was an accident. A tragic accident.”
“No accident, Wala,” Richild said sternly. “It was God’s will.”
Wala blanched. “Of course, of course.” As Richild’s chaplain, a private “house priest,” Wala held a position little better than that of a common colonus; if he displeased her, she could have him whipped— or worse yet, cast out to starve. “God’s will. God’s will, lady, most assuredly.”
“Go and speak to the woman, for the extremity of her grief has surely placed her soul in mortal danger.”
“Ah, lady!” He fluttered long, white hands skyward. “Such heavenly forbearance! Such caritas!”
She dismissed him impatiently, and he hurried away, looking like a man who has been cut loose from the gallows just before the trap opens.
Gerold gave the command to start up, and the procession moved out, bumping along the riverbank back toward the road to St.-Denis. Behind them, in the rearmost wagon, the mother’s screams gradually subsided into a steady, heart-wrenching sobbing. Dhuoda’s eyes were moist with tears; even Gisla’s unflagging high spirits were quenched. But Richild appeared entirely unshaken. Joan studied her appraisingly. Could anyone be that skillful at hiding her emotions, or was she really as cold as she appeared? Did the girl’s death not weigh upon her conscience at all?
Richild looked at her. Joan turned her eyes away so she could not read her thoughts.
No, my lady.
THE first day of the fair was in full swing. People streamed through the huge iron gate that led to the open field fronting the Abbey of St.-Denis—peasants in ragged bandelettes and shirts of rude linen; noblemen and fideles in silk tunics crossed with golden baldrics, their wives elegantly bedecked in fur-trimmed mantles and jeweled headdresses; Lombards and Aquitanians in their exotic bouffant panta loons and boots. Never had Joan seen so odd or so large a conglomeration of humanity.
On the field, the stalls of the merchants crowded closely together, their various goods displayed in a gaudy, incoherent riot of color and form. There were robes and mantles of purple silk, scarlet phoenix skins, peacock’s feathers, stamped leather jerkins, rare delicacies such as almonds and raisins, and all manner of scents and spices, pearls, gems, silver and gold. Still more merchandise poured through the gates, heaped high on wagons or carried in unwieldy piles upon the backs of the poorer vendors, bent almost double under the weight. More than one of these would not sleep that night from the pain of muscles strained past endurance, but in this way they avoided the expensive tolls, the rotaticum and saumaticum, charged against goods carried in on wheeled vehicles and beasts of burden.
Inside the gate, Gerold said to Joan and John, “Hold out your hands.” Into each of their outstretched palms, he placed a silver denarius. “Spend it wisely.”
Joan stared at the shiny coin. She had seen denarii only once or twice before, and those at a distance, for in Ingelheim trade was accomplished by barter; even her father’s income, the décima tithed from the peasants of his parish, had been offered in goods and foodstuffs.
A whole denarius! It seemed a fortune beyond measure.
They wandered down the narrow, crowded passageways between the stalls. All around vendors hawked their merchandise, customers bargained hotly over prices, and performers of every kind—dancers, jugglers, acrobats, bear and monkey trainers—plied their trades. The din of innumerable deals, jests, and arguments surrounded them on every side, conducted in a hundred dialects and tongues.
It was easy to get lost in the jostling crowds. Joan took John’s hand—to her surprise, he did not protest—and kept close to Gerold’s side. Luke stayed right behind them, inseparable, as always, from Joan. Their small group was soon parted from Richild and the others, who had walked more slowly. Halfway down the first row of stalls, they stopped and waited for the others to catch up. Off to their left, a woman stood screaming at a pair of merchants pulling at either end of a piece of linen cloth laid out beside a long wooden ruler measuring exactly one ell.
“Stop!” the woman shouted. “You dunderheads! You are stretching it!” And indeed, it appeared as if the men would rip the cloth in half to make the most of its measure.
There was a loud burst of shouting and laughter from a crowd circling a small open enclosure a short distance ahead.
“Come on.” John pulled on Joan’s arm. She hesitated, not wanting to leave Gerold, but he saw what John wanted and good-naturedly shooed them in that direction.
Another great shout rose from the crowd as they drew close. Joan saw a man fall to his knees in the center of the enclosure, clutching his shoulder as if it were hurt. Quickly he got back up to his feet, and now Joan could see that in his other hand he held a thick, sturdy birch bough. Another man stood in the ring, similarly armed. The two of them circled each other, swinging the heavy sticks with ferocious abandon. There was an odd, high-pitched squeal as a blood-spattered pig ran frantically between the two men, its stubby legs pumping like matched butter churns. The two men swung at the pig, but their aim was wild; the one who had just fallen shrieked as he took a solid hit on his nether parts. The crowd roared with laughter.
John laughed along with the others, his eyes lit with interest. He tugged on the sleeve of a short, pockmarked peasant who stood beside them. “What’s going on?” he asked excitedly.
The man grinned down at him, the holes in his face widening as the skin creased. “Why, they’re after the pig, lad, d’ye see? Him as kills it, takes it home for his table.”
Odd, Joan thought, as she watched the two men compete for the prize. They swung their sticks forcefully, but their blows were random and undirected, falling on thin air or on each other more often than on the hapless pig. There was something strange about the appearance of the man facing her. She looked more closely and saw a milky whiteness where his pupils should have been. Now the other man turned to face her; his eyes looked normal enough, but they stared out fixedly into space, vacant and unfocused.
The men were blind.
Another blow found its mark, and the milky-eyed man staggered sideways, clutching his head. John jumped up, clapping his hands and shouting with laughter along with the rest of the crowd. His eyes glittered with a strange excitement.
Joan turned away.
“Psst! Young mistress!” a voice called out to her. Across the way, a vendor was gesturing at her. She left John cheering on the bizarre combat and went to the man’s stall, fronted by a long table displaying an assortment of religious relics. There were wooden crosses and medallions of every kind and description, as well as holy relics of several locally popular saints: a strand of hair from St. Willibrord, a fingernail of St. Romaric, two teeth of St. Waldetrudis, and a scrap of cloth from the robe of the virgin martyr St. Genovefa.
The man pulled a vial from his leather scrip.
“Know what this holds?” His voice was so low she could barely hear him over the surrounding din. She shook her head.
“Several drops of the milk”—his voice dropped still further—“of the Holy Virgin Mother.”
Joan was stunned. So great a treasure! Here? Surely it should be enshrined in some great monastery or cathedral.
“One denarius,” the man said.
One denarius! She fingered the silver coin in her pocket. The man held the vial out to her, and she took it, its surface cool in her hand. She had a brief vision of the look on Odo’s face when she returned with such a prize for the cathedral.
The man smiled, holding out his hand, fingers waggling to coax the coin from her.
Joan hesitated. Why would this man sell so great a treasure for such a sum? It was worth a fortune to some great abbey or cathedral in need of a holy relic for pilgrims to venerate.
She lifted the cap off the vial and peered inside. Halfway down the length of the tube, the pale surface of the milk shimmered smooth and blue-white in the sunlight. Joan reached down and touched it with the tip of her little finger. Then she looked up, her keen eyes scanning the area around the stall. She laughed, lifted the vial to her lips, and drank.
The man gasped. “Are you woodly?” His face was contorted with anger.
“Delicious,” Joan said, recapping the vial and handing it back to him. “My compliments to your goat.”
“Why, you … you …,” the man sputtered, unable to find the words to express his rage and frustration. For a moment it seemed as if he might come round the table after her. There was a low growl; Luke, who until then had been sitting quietly, moved in front of Joan, a deep line furrowing the length of his muzzle, lifted at the sides to reveal a row of menacing white teeth.
“What is that?” The vendor stared at Luke’s glittering eyes.
“That,” a voice said behind Joan, “is a wolf.”
It was Gerold. He had come up quietly during her interchange with the vendor. He stood loosely, his arms at his sides, his body relaxed, but his eyes were hard with warning. The vendor turned away, mumbling something under his breath. Gerold put his arm around Joan’s shoulders and led her away, calling to Luke, who growled at the vendor one more time, then ran to join them.
Gerold didn’t speak. They walked together in silence, Joan quickening her pace to keep up with his long strides.
He is angry, she thought, her high spirits quenched as suddenly as a smothered hearth fire.
What was worse, she knew he was right. She had acted recklessly with the merchant. Hadn’t she promised to be more careful? Why did she always have to question and challenge things? Why couldn’t she learn it: Some ideas are dangerous.
Maybe I am woodly.
She heard a low rumble of sound; Gerold was laughing.
“The look on the man’s face when you lifted the vial and drank! I shall never forget it!” He pulled her close in a warm hug. “Ah, Joan, you are my pearl! But tell me, how did you know that it wasn’t the Virgin’s milk?”
Joan grinned, relieved. “I was mistrustful from the first, for if the thing were truly holy, why would it fetch so small a price? And why did the vendor keep his goat tethered behind the stall, where it couldn’t be seen? If it was received in barter, surely there was no need to hide it.”
“True. But to actually drink the stuff”—there was another burst of laughter from Gerold—“surely you must have known something else.”
“Yes. When I uncapped the vial, the milk was uncurdled and perfectly fresh, as if produced this morning, though the Virgin’s milk would be over eight hundred years old.”
“Ah”—Gerold smiled, his eyebrows arched, testing her—“but perhaps its great holiness kept it pure and uncorrupted.”
“True,” Joan admitted. “But when I touched the milk, it was still warm! So holy a thing might perhaps remain uncorrupted, but why should it be warm?”
“A pretty observation,” Gerold said appreciatively. “Lucretius himself could have done no better!”
Joan beamed. How she loved to please him!
They had walked almost to the end of the long row of stalls, where the huge wooden cross of St.-Denis marked the boundary of the fair, protecting the holy tranquillity of the abbey brothers. This was where the parchment merchants had set up their stalls.
“Look!” Gerold spied them first, and they hurried over to inspect the merchandise, which was of very high quality. The vellum, in particular, was extraordinary: the flesh side of the skin was perfectly even, the color whiter than Joan had ever seen; the other side was, as usual, somewhat yellower, but the pittings where the calf’s hair had been rooted were so tiny and shallow as to be almost invisible.
“What a pleasure it must be to write on such sheets!” Joan exclaimed, fingering them gently.
Gerold immediately called one of the merchants over. “Four sheets,” he ordered, and Joan gasped, overwhelmed at his extravagance. Four sheets! It was enough for an entire codex!
While Gerold paid for his purchase, Joan’s attention wandered to a few sheets of ragged-looking parchment scattered untidily toward the rear of the stall. The edges of the sheets were torn, and there was writing on them, very faint and obliterated in places by ugly brown stains. She bent close to read the writing better, then flushed with excitement.
Seeing her interest, the merchant hurried over.
“So young, and already a fine eye for a bargain,” he said unctuously. “The sheets are old, as you see, but still good for their purpose. Look!”
Before she could speak, he took a long, flat tool and scraped it quickly across the page, effacing several letters.
“Stop!” Joan spoke sharply, remembering a different piece of parchment and a different knife. “Stop!”
The merchant looked at her curiously. “You needn’t worry, lass, it’s only pagan writing.” He pointed proudly to the page. “See? Nice and clean and ready to write on!” He lifted the tool to demonstrate the trick again, but Joan grabbed his hand.
“I’ll give you a denarius for them,” she said tersely.
The man feigned being insulted. “They’re worth three denarii, at least.”
Joan took the coin from her scrip and held it out to him. “One,” she repeated. “It’s all I have.”
The merchant hesitated, searching her face assessingly. “Very well,” he said testily. “Take them.”
Joan thrust the coin at him and gathered up the precious parchment before he could change his mind. She ran to Gerold.
“Look!” she said excitedly.
Gerold stared at the pages. “I don’t recognize the letters.”
“It’s written in Greek,” Joan explained. “And it’s very old. An engineering text, I think. See the diagrams?” She pointed to one of the pages, and Gerold studied the drawing.
“Some kind of hydraulic device.” His interest was kindled. “Fascinating. Can you provide a translation of the text?”
“Then I might be able to rig it up.”
They smiled at each other, conspirators in a fine new scheme.
“Father!” Gisla’s voice pierced the noise of the crowd. Gerold turned, searching for her. He was taller by a head than anyone around him; in the sun his thick, red hair gleamed like colored gold. Joan’s heart jumped unevenly in her chest as she watched him. You are my pearl, he had said. She grasped the papers tightly as she watched him, holding on to the moment.
“Father! Joan!” Gisla finally appeared, pushing her way through the crowd, followed by one of the household servants, his arms laden with goods. “I’ve been looking everywhere!” she remonstrated good-naturedly. “What have you got there?” Joan started to explain, but Gisla waved her aside. “Oh, just more of your silly old books. Look what I found,” she enthused. She dangled a length of multicolored cloth. “For my wedding dress! Isn’t it perfect?”
The cloth shimmered as Gisla displayed it. Examining it more closely, Joan saw that it was woven through with slender, perfect threads of gold and silver.
“It’s astonishing,” she said sincerely.
Gisla giggled. “I know!” Without waiting for a reply, she grabbed Joan’s arm and started toward a stall some distance ahead. “Oh, look,” she said, “a slave auction! Let’s go see!”
“No.” Joan hung back. She had seen the slave traders passing through Ingelheim, their human cargo bound together with heavy ropes. Many of them were Saxons, like her mother.
“No,” she said again, and would not budge.
“Aren’t you a goose!” Gisla tweaked Joan playfully. “They’re only heathens. They don’t have feelings, at least not like us.”
“I wonder what’s in here?” Joan said, anxious to distract her. She led Gisla toward a tiny stall at the end of the row. It was dark and sealed, every panel closed. Luke circled it, sniffing curiously at the walls.
“How strange,” Gisla said.
In the bright afternoon sun, with business in full swing all around, the quiet, darkened stall was an oddity. Her curiosity piqued, Joan tapped gently on the closed shutter.
“Come in,” a cracked voice spoke from within. Gisla jumped at the sound but did not back away. The two girls circled to the side of the stall and pushed cautiously on the planked timber door, which creaked and groaned as it opened inward, spilling slanting rays of light into the gloom.
They stepped inside. A strange smell pervaded the stall, cloying and sweet, like fermented honey. In the center of the enclosure, a tiny figure sat cross-legged—an old woman, dressed simply in a loose, dark robe. She appeared unbelievably ancient, perhaps seventy winters or more; her hair was gone, save for some fine white strands at her crown, and her head shook constantly as if she were afflicted with the ague. But her eyes shone alertly in the darkness, focusing on Joan and Gisla with shrewd assessment.
“Pretty little doves,” she croaked. “So pretty and so young. What do you want of Old Balthild?”
“We just wanted to—to—” Joan faltered as she searched uneasily for an explanation. The old woman’s gaze was unsettling.
“To find out what is for sale here,” Gisla finished boldly.
“What’s for sale? What’s for sale?” The old woman cackled. “Something that you want but will never own.”
“What?” Gisla asked.
“Something that is already yours though you have it not.” The old woman grinned at them toothlessly. “Something beyond price and yet it can be bought.”
“What is it?” Gisla said sharply, impatient with the old woman’s riddles.
“The future.” The old woman’s eyes glittered in the dimness. “Your future, my little dove. All that will be and is not yet.”
“Oh, you’re a fortune-teller!” Gisla clapped her hands together, pleased to have deciphered the puzzle. “How much?”
One solidus! It was the price of a good milking cow, or a pair of fine rams!
“Too dear.” Gisla was in her element now, confident and assured, a shrewd customer looking to strike a bargain.
“One obole,” she offered.
“Five denarii,” the old woman countered.
“Two. One for each of us.” Gisla withdrew the coins from her scrip and held them out on her palm for the woman to see.
The old woman hesitated, then took the coins, motioning the girls to the floor beside her. They sat; the woman clasped Joan’s strong young hands in her shaking grasp and fixed her odd, disquieting gaze upon her. For a long time, she said nothing; then she began to speak.
“Changeling child, you are what you will not be; what you will become is other than you are.”
This made little sense, unless it meant simply that she would soon be a woman grown. But then why had the old woman called her a “changeling”?
Balthild continued, “You aspire to that which is forbidden.” Joan started with surprise, and the old woman tightened her clasp. “Yes, changeling, I see your secret heart. You will not be disappointed. Greatness will be yours, beyond your dreams, and grief, beyond your imaginings.”
Balthild dropped Joan’s hands and turned toward Gisla, who winked at Joan with an expression that said, Wasn’t that fun?
The old woman took Gisla’s hands, her bent, gnarled fingers curling around Gisla’s smooth, pink ones.
“You will marry soon, and richly,” she said.
“Yes!” Gisla giggled. “But, old woman, I did not pay you to tell me what I already know. Will the union be a happy one?”
“No more than most, but no less either,” Balthild said. Gisla raised her eyes to the ceiling in mock despair.
“A wife you shall be, though never a mother,” Balthild crooned, swaying with the rhythm of the words, her voice singsong, melodic.
Gisla’s smile vanished. “Shall I be barren, then?”
“The future lies before you all dark and empty.” Balthild’s voice rose in a keening wail. “Pain shall be yours, and confusion, and fear.”
Gisla sat transfixed, like a stoat held fast by the stare of a snake.
“Enough!” Joan pried Gisla’s hands from the old woman’s grasp. “Come with me,” she said. Gisla obeyed, compliant as a babe.
Outside the stall, Gisla began to cry.
“Don’t be silly,” Joan soothed. “The old woman’s mad, pay no attention to her. There is no truth in such fortune-telling.”
Gisla would not be comforted. She cried and cried; finally, Joan led her to the sweetmeat stalls, where they bought honeyed figs and gorged themselves until Gisla felt somewhat better.
THAT night, when they told Gerold what had happened, he was furious.
“What now, sorcery? Joan and Gisla, you will take me to this stall tomorrow. I have some words to say to this old woman who frightens young girls. In the meantime, Gisla, you must not give heed to such nonsense. Why did you even seek such false counsel?” To Joan he said reproachfully, “I would have thought that you, at least, would have known better.”
Joan accepted the chastisement. Still, there was a part of her that wanted to believe in Balthild’s powers. Hadn’t the old woman said that she would realize her secret desire? If she was right, then Joan would achieve greatness, despite the fact that she was a girl, despite what everyone else believed possible.
But if Balthild was right about Joan’s future, then she was also right about Gisla’s.
When they returned to the stall with Gerold the next day, it was empty. No one could tell them where the old woman had gone.
IN WINNEMANOTH, Gisla was married to Count Hugo. There had been some difficulty finding a date suitable for the immediate consummation of the marriage. The Church forbade all marital relations on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, as well as for forty days before Easter, eight days after Pentecost, and five days before the taking of communion, or on the eve of any great feast or rogation day. In all, on some two hundred and twenty days of the year sexual intercourse was prohibited; when these, as well as Gisla’s monthly bleeding time, were taken into account, there were not many dates left to choose from. But at last they settled on the twenty-fourth of the month, a date that pleased everyone save Gisla, who was impatient for the festivities to begin.
At last the great day arrived. The entire household rose before prime to fuss over Gisla. First she was helped into her long-sleeved, yellow linen undertunic. Over this was placed the resplendent new tunic fashioned from the shimmering silver and gold fabric purchased at the St.-Denis fair. It draped from her shoulders to the floor in graceful folds that were echoed in the wide sleeves opening out at her elbows. Around her hips was fastened a heavy kirtle set with good-luck stones—agate to guard against fever, chalk to defend against the evil eye, bloodstone for fertility, jasper for safe delivery in childbirth. Finally a delicate, finely worked silken veil was fastened on her head. It billowed to the ground, covering her shoulders and completely hiding her auburn hair. Standing there in her wedding dress, hardly able to move or even sit for fear of crumpling it, she looked, Joan thought, like an exotic game bird, stuffed and trussed and ready for carving.
Not I, Joan vowed. She did not mean to wed, although in seven months she would be fifteen, a more than marriageable age. In three more years, she would be an old maid. It was incredible to her that girls her age were so eager for marriage, for it immediately plunged a woman into a state of serflike bondage. A husband had absolute control of his wife’s goods and property, her children, even her life. Having endured her father’s tyranny, Joan meant never to give any man such power over her again.
Gisla, simple creature that she was, went to her bridegroom with eager enthusiasm, all blushes and nervous giggles. Count Hugo, magnificent in a tunic and mantle edged with ermine, waited for her at the sacred portal to the cathedral. She took his proffered hand and stood proudly while Wido, the steward of Villaris, publicly recited all the lands, servants, animals, and goods that Gisla brought as dowry. Then the wedding party entered the cathedral, where Fulgentius waited before the altar to perform the solemn wedding mass.
“Quod Deus conjunxit homo non separet.” The Latin words issued haltingly from Fulgentius’s tongue. He had been a soldier before inheriting the bishopric late in life; having begun book study tardily, the proper forms of Latin were forever beyond him.
“In nomine Patria et Filia …” Joan winced as Fulgentius mangled the blessing, confusing his declensions so that instead of “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” it came out “In the name of the Country and the Daughter.”
Finishing with this part of the mass, Fulgentius turned, with obvious relief, to Theodisk.
“May this woman be amiable as Rachel, faithful as Sarah, fertile as Leah.” He rested his hand kindly on Gisla’s head. “May she bring forth many sons to bring honor to her husband’s house.”
Joan saw Gisla’s shoulders shake and knew she was repressing a giggle.
“Let her copy the behavior of a dog who always has his heart and his eye upon his master; even if his master whip him and throw stones at him, the dog follows, wagging his tail.” This seemed hard to Joan, but Fulgentius was regarding Gisla with a benign, even affectionate expression and obviously did not mean to offend. “Wherefore for a better and stronger reason,” he continued, “a woman should have a perfect and indestructible love for her husband.”
He turned to Count Hugo. “May this man be brave as David, wise as Solomon, strong as Samson. May his lands increase even as his fortune. May he be a just lord to this lady, never administering to her more than reasonable punishments. May he live to see his sons do honor to his name.”
They began the exchange of vows. Count Hugo gave his promise first, then placed a ring of Byzantine turquoise on Gisla’s fourth finger, which contained the vein leading to the heart.
It was Gisla’s turn. Joan listened to Gisla recite her marriage vows. Her voice was high and merry, her mind untroubled by doubt, her future seemingly assured.
What, Joan wondered, does my future hold?
She could not continue at the schola forever—at most, she had another three years. She let herself daydream, picturing herself as teaching master at one of the great cathedral scholas, Rheims, perhaps, or even the Schola Palatina, her days spent exploring the wisdom of the ages with minds as eager and inquisitive as her own. The daydream was, as always, intensely pleasing.
But—the thought struck like a loosed shaft—that would mean leaving Villaris. Leaving Gerold.
She knew she would have to leave Villaris one day. But over the past few months, she had put that thought away, content to live in the present, in the joy of being with Gerold every day.
She let her gaze rest upon him. His profile was strong and well chiseled, his form tall and straight; his red hair curled thickly to his shoulders.
The handsomest man I have ever seen, she thought, not for the first time.
As if he had read her mind, he turned toward her. Their eyes met. Something in his expression—a momentary softening, a tenderness— thrilled her. In an instant the look had vanished, before she was even sure of it, but its warmth lingered.
I am wrong to worry, she thought. Nothing needs to be decided yet.
Three years was a long time.
A lot could happen in three years.
RETURNING from the schola the following week, Joan found Gerold waiting for her on the portico.
“Come with me.” His tone indicated that he had a surprise in store. He motioned to her and started toward the foregate. Passing through the gated palisade, they followed the road for several miles, then abruptly turned aside into the woods, emerging a short time later into a small clearing, in the midst of which was a sunken hut. No longer inhabited, it had fallen into disrepair. But it must once have been a snug freeman’s dwelling, for the wattle-and-daub walls still appeared tight, and the door was made of sturdy oak. It reminded Joan of her own home in Ingelheim, though this grubenhaus was far smaller and its thatched roof was holed with rot.
They stopped before it. “Wait here,” Gerold commanded. Joan watched curiously as he circled the structure once, then returned and stood beside her, facing the door.
“Behold,” Gerold said with feigned solemnity. Raising his hands above his head, he clapped loudly three times.
Nothing happened. Joan looked questioningly at Gerold, who stared at the hut expectantly. Evidently something was supposed to happen. But what?
With a loud groan, the heavy oak door began to swing open— slowly at first, then more quickly, exposing the vacant darkness within. Joan peered into the hut. No one was there. The door had moved on its own.
Astounded, Joan gaped at the door. A dozen questions thronged her brain, but only one found its way out. “How?”
Gerold raised his eyes to Heaven in mock piety. “A holy miracle.”
He laughed. “Sorcery, then.” He eyed her challengingly, enjoying the game.
Joan took up the challenge. She marched to the door and examined it. “Can you close it?” she asked.
Gerold raised his hands again. He clapped three times. After a pause, the door groaned and began to swing inward on its hinges. Joan followed as it moved, studying it. The heavy wooden panels were smooth and tightly jointed—no sign of anything unusual there. There was nothing unusual about the plain wooden handle, either. She examined the hinges. They were ordinary iron hinges. It was infuriating. She could not fathom what was making the door move.
The door was fast closed once more. It was a mystery.
“Well?” Gerold’s indigo eyes were lit with amusement.
Joan hesitated, unwilling to forfeit the game.
Just as she was about to admit defeat, she heard something, a slender thread of sound coming from somewhere above her. At first she could not place it; the noise was familiar yet strangely out of place.
Then she recognized it. Water. The sound of trickling water.
She said excitedly, “The hydraulic device! The one in the manuscript from the St.-Denis fair! You built it!”
Gerold laughed. “Adapted it, rather. For it was designed to pump water, not to open and close doors!”
“How does it work?”
Gerold showed her the mechanism, located just under the decaying roof of the hut a full ten feet from the door, which was why she had not seen it. He demonstrated the complicated system of levers, pulleys, and counterweights, connected to two slender iron rods attached to the inside of the door so that they were barely visible. By stepping on a rope when he had circled the hut, Gerold had activated the device.
“Amazing!” she said when he finished explaining. “Do it again.” Now that she understood how the device worked, she wanted to observe it in action.
“I can’t. Not without fetching more water.”
“Then let’s fetch it,” she said. “Where are the buckets?”
Gerold laughed. “You are incorrigible!” He pulled her close in an affectionate hug. His chest was hard and firm, his arms strong around her. Joan felt as if her insides were melting.
Abruptly, he let her go. “Come on, then,” he said gruffly. “The buckets are over here.”
They carried the empty buckets to the stream a quarter of a mile away, filled them, carried them back, poured them into the receptacle, then returned to fetch more. Three times they made the trip, and by the third they were feeling somewhat giddy. The sun was warm, the air full of spring promise, and their spirits high from the excitement of their project and the joy of each other’s company.
“Gerold, look!” Joan called, standing knee-deep in the cool water of the stream. When he turned to her, she playfully slung the water from her bucket at him, wetting the front of his tunic.
“You imp!” he roared.
He filled his bucket and doused her in turn. So they continued, splashing each other in a flurry of sparkling spray, until Joan was hit by a stream of water from Gerold’s bucket just as she was bending over to fill her own. Caught off balance, she slipped and fell heavily into the stream. The cool water closed over her head, and for a brief moment she panicked, unable to find her footing on the shifting pebbles of the riverbed.
Then Gerold’s arms were around her, pulling her up, setting her on her feet.
“I’ve got you, Joan, I’ve got you.” His voice, close to her ear, was warm and reassuring. Joan felt her whole body thrum to its cadence. She clung to him. Their wet clothes stuck to each other, molding their bodies together in unambiguous intimacy.
“I love you,” she said simply. “I love you.”
“Oh, my dearest, my perfect girl,” Gerold murmured thickly, and then his mouth was on hers, and she was kissing him back, their passion fueled by the sudden release of emotions long held in check.
The very air seemed to hum in Joan’s ears. Gerold, it sang. Gerold.
Neither of them guessed that from behind the little copse of trees on the crest of the hill, someone was watching.
ODO had been on his way to Héristal to pay a visit to his uncle, one of the holy brothers of that abbey, when his mule had chanced to stray from the path in pursuit of a particularly succulent-looking patch of clover. He cursed the mule, pulling on its bridle and whipping it with a willow rod, but it was stubborn and would not be dissuaded. He had no choice but to leave the road and follow the stupid beast. Then he looked up, toward the stream, and saw.
A learned woman is never chaste. St. Paul’s words, or were they Jerome’s? No matter. Odo had always believed it to be true, and now he had the proof with his own eyes!
Odo patted the mule’s flank. You shall have an extra portion of feed tonight, he thought. Then he reconsidered. Feed was expensive, and besides, the beast had only served as God’s instrument.
Odo hurried back to the road. His errand would have to wait. First he must get to Villaris.
A short time later, the towers of Villaris loomed ahead. In his excitement, he had walked more quickly than usual. He passed through the gated palisade and was greeted by a guardsman.
Odo waved aside the greeting. “Take me to Lady Richild,” he commanded. “I must speak with her at once.”
GEROLD removed Joan’s arms from his neck and stepped back. “Come,” he said, his voice heavy with emotion, “we must go back.”
Woolly-headed with love, Joan moved to embrace him again.
“No,” Gerold said firmly. “I must take you home now, while I have the will to do so.”
Joan stared at him dazedly. “You don’t … want me?” She lowered her head before he could answer.
Gerold cupped her chin gently, forcing her eyes to meet his. “I want you more than I have ever wanted any woman.”
“Then why …?”
“God’s teeth, Joan! I am a man, with a man’s desires. Do not tempt me beyond my limits!” Gerold sounded almost angry. Seeing the start of tears to her eyes, he gentled his tone. “What would you have me do, my love? Make you my mistress? Ah, Joan, I would take you right here on this sward if I thought it would make you happy. But it would spell your ruin, can’t you see that?”
Gerold’s indigo eyes held hers commandingly. He was so handsome that it took her breath away. All she wanted was for him to take her in his arms again.
He stroked her white-gold hair. She began to speak, but her voice broke. She breathed deeply, trying to steady her emotions, sick with shame and frustration.
“Come.” Gerold took Joan’s hand, folding it into his tenderly. She did not protest as he led her back to the road. Wordlessly, hand in hand, they walked the long, comfortless miles toward Villaris.