The fenland was disturbed.
Dark the way, dark the wood,
darker still the sky...
It echoed across the black, melancholy marsh: the sound and the song and the wild, brave music. Strange foreign cadences bobbed on the air - courtly and heroic music from pale-blooded France, dance tunes from the warm, distant Italies and far exotic Spain.
A single light shall show the way
to where my true love lies.
A wavering circle of pale yellow light was reflected on the murky waters. At the edge of the marsh a thin column of smoke rose, wraith-grey against the dark sky. A tiny fire burned languidly in the centre of a chance-met group of travellers.
Beyond the listening ring, a mist waited, white as silk, silent as a shroud, to challenge the small golden fire for possession of the silence. The whiteness brooded heavily by the water’s rim, watching the flames. There amongst the reeds, wild molten shapes writhed and flickered as the firelight strewed leaping shadows onto the black, turgid waters. A sliver of moon, low in the south-western sky, thrust shafts of silver light past the mist-veil, but clouds came scudding to obscure its forlorn face. Even the stars, pale with autumn solitude, winked bleakly.
The music finished.
The mist settled in the silence.
The minstrel raised an undeterred eyebrow at the quiet. “Aha!” he announced, wagging his finger cheerfully at his unmoving companions, then running his hand lightly across the courses of his lute, “I perceive I have fallen in with a band of philistines!”
He waited, then sighed with resignation. Arrogant the French when they want to be, he thought. And he had chosen his tune deliberately to appeal to his aristocratic audience - it had been a teasing little ballad from Provence, and was a favourite in half the courts of Europe. He had played the same piece only last week to the Emperor Rudolf and had been more than adequately recompensed for his effort. But this evening not a single copper had been flung his way, not even a solitary clap of applause.
The red-haired minstrel looked over his court with an experienced eye. There was the long-nosed cleric, face bent over his books, who lifted his eyes occasionally to stare, in withdrawn intensity, at the distant stars. Then back to his books and his scrawlings on thick paper.
There was... oh, he could hardly keep his eyes from drifting to her... there was the woman. She reclined on the far side of the fire, and her sad, porcelain-perfect face was incomparably fair. Her face, her figure, her gentle manners would be a dazzling constellation in even the court of Venice where beauty was as common as dust. A fine wool hood fell over her ivory-smooth brow, and her cloak lay negligently over her silken gown, folding onto her daughter’s lap. The daughter was a thin, consumptive child, her skin the dead-white of advanced sickness. A lonely, deep mystery seemed to cling to the woman as she arranged her mantle over her daughter’s shoulders.
Then there was the husband. He was hunched, scowling into the distance, between the daughter and the long-nosed cleric. A gruff man, he was attired in unrelieved black, with a sword as long as a staff. The minstrel was afraid of him, afraid of his glittering blue eyes with their depths of cold obsession, afraid of his harsh face with its pinched look of long hunger, afraid of the mouth that never smiled. The blond hair and alpine eyes proclaimed him a Teutonic knight, but the minstrel recognised the husband’s accent at once as pure French. From the south, the Pyrenees, if the daughter’s unusual name were anything to go by.
The woman never once during the evening looked at her husband, though his eyes had a frequent habit of straying in her direction, his expression unreadable. The minstrel too found his eyes being drawn constantly and irresistibly back to her face, and a thought, a question, began to haunt him. Here was, by any sighted man’s reckoning, the loveliest woman in all Europe – what was she doing here in the fenlands of Bohemia contemplating a dying fire?
Another question rose. How could he enchant this bewitching siren to his side and wreath her mouth in smiles? “What song would you favour, Lady?” he ventured with a roguish twinkle.
The woman turned to her daughter. “What would you like to hear, Valasquita?” she asked.
The girl gave a throaty cough. “The White King’s Ride,” she managed.
“Too sad a lay for one so young,” returned the minstrel, smiling at the mother.
A growl emanated from her husband’s feet. “Quiet!” commanded the knight with a snap, and the wolfcub curled against his boots fell silent. But it sat up on its small black haunches to view the minstrel with bared teeth.
“’Tis a pretty tune,” said the girl quietly to the wolfcub, her thin lank hair tumbling over her face.
Her words were followed by a racking cough, and she fell back heavily against her mother. The wolfcub, slumping into the hollow of the knight’s boots, ceased its small fierce grimace, but never shifted its slitted gaze from the minstrel.
Surprisingly the cleric looked up from his books briefly. “Sing ’Moon of the Hawk’,” he said, as he put down his quill.
“Ahh!” breathed the minstrel. “A wondrous tale! But I had not thought it had reached this part of the world yet.”
The cleric looked up. “It is well-known in the court of Prague,” he offered.
The minstrel began to pluck lightly on his lutestrings. “With your permission,” he said to the girl. The song was a poignant one, ever bringing a tear to the eyes of the ladies, for it was a romance, with elements of tragedy, but with a sweet ending.
The girl coughed again. “Is it sad?” she asked the minstrel.
“Not this,” answered the minstrel. “A most magical lover’s tale. A song of hope for all trapped in impossible tangles. But best of all, a true story.” He smiled winningly.
The girl returned the smile shyly. She bent down to the wolfcub at her father’s feet. “Listen to this, scoundrel!” she admonished the tiny beast. “A happy ending!”
The minstrel nodded vigorously in assent, and drew his hand across the rosewood fretwork of the lute. Then gently, he plucked the first few mournful notes. I am Sorrow, he sang, and he heard a sudden gasp from the beautiful woman. He looked up for a moment, without pausing, and watched a shudder shake her body. She stared at him, her eyes strangely resonant with pain. His face fell instantly to his strings, but he went on singing.
I am Sorrow,
wings misting in the dawn,
golden eye against a fledge of sky;
pinioned in this form I die...
The wolfcub snarled.
...again each morn.
I curse the hour we met, but yet,
I would not trade
these broken days
for all of heaven
unless when I am free...
The wolfcub’s snarl deepened to a persistent growl. The minstrel sang on.
...the Sun is high in a magic sky
you stand by me.
The minstrel dared a brief, upward glance. A wild, trapped horror showed on the woman’s face and the sickly girl was trembling with distress as she watched her mother. A cold and savage tension marked the black knight. There was an ominous second of quiet, before the minstrel embarked upon the second verse, comforting himself with the thought that minstrels were often pounded with rotten fruit for theirefforts, but never murdered. So, even as he observed the knight’s taut, frozen face, the minstrel did not hesitate.
I am Sorrow...
The wolfcub growled in its throat. Attack was written in its stance.
I am Sorrow
Companion to the Moon...
The wolfcub leapt, snarling, a bolt of black fury. The sickly girl burst into hysterical, passionate screaming, punctuated by violent coughing. The lute spun out of the minstrel’s hands, flying across the fire as the wolfcub set upon the redhead with its vicious little jaws, snapping down upon the minstrel’s playing hand with a hunting growl.
But the black knight had gone to the daughter. “Valasquita!” he was urging. “Hush!”
The minstrel tried to shake the wolfcub off, and looking up, saw that the man’s attention was not for his animal and no word of command was likely to be given the beast to desist.
“Valasquita!” breathed the man again and the word was almost a croon. She was cradled in the knight’s arms and he rocked her like a small child. “Hush, my love, my darling. Hush my little one.”
The minstrel picked the wolfcub up by the neck and bit it on the haunch. For a moment the slitted yellow eyes seemed startled, then it leapt at the minstrel with demon ferocity. The minstrel fought back, but the nuisance was shredding his jacket, tearing at his flesh. “Get this hell-beast off me!” he yelled at the knight, “or I shall batter its brains out!”
The lighting look he encountered from the black knight stopped him. “Your own brains will be mush,” thundered the knight like a poisoned oaken spear, “before you are half-finished.”
The cleric picked up the minstrel’s lute from the edge of the fire.
“Let go of the hand!” ordered the knight. The wolfcub, with a snarl, obeyed, and trotted back meekly to its master.
The minstrel gasped with relief and, trembling with delayed shock, went down to the water’s edge to wash his bloodied hand. The black knight simply rocked the weeping girl in his arms. After a little while, her sobbing stopped, and the man rose, saying gently, “I will fetch your blankets for you.” The wolfcub scrambled from beneath his feet, gave a snarl in the minstrel’s direction, then padded after the knight.
The man had only gone a few paces towards his wife’s litter, when the woman, wan as a statue, turned immeasurably sad eyes to watch him. Pain was etched in that look - pain and a hopeless yearning.
“Etienne,” she called softly.
The man spun at the sound of her voice. It was the first word she had spoken to him all evening. “Yes?” he inquired.
“Would you bring the litter to the fire? And kindle it higher? Valasquita should be warm tonight...” The man said nothing in reply - but his eyes and those of the woman were held in some unfathomable bond. The wolfcub had set itself on his left boot, and it was tilting its tiny head back and forward as if in puzzlement. At last the man turned away and strode
over to the litter. His wife did not observe him kick it
viciously, before dragging it closer to the firelight and the dying warmth. The wolfcub followed, like a shadow, and as he passed his tethered horse, he drew a riding blanket from the saddle and threw it on to the litter.
The minstrel returned to the fire and retrieved his precious lute from the cleric. He examined it, finding only a few scratches on the woodgrain. He pulled a piece of linen from his bag and dabbed at the still-seeping blood on his hand. It looked worse than it was - he knew that. The tiny teeth had been sharp, but they had not penetrated very deeply.
The knight placed the litter close to the fire, and stooping he picked up the frail girl, and carried her to the bed. He pulled the blankets carefully over her, then caressed her brow lightly. “Go to sleep, little one,” he whispered. “God will grant you honeyed dreams.”
Without a word, the woman went round to the far side of the litter, slipped in beside her daughter, and pulled down the thick drapes against the night. The knight stayed a moment, staring at the closed curtains, then whirling, he went slowly back to his horse.
The cleric tossed a branch onto the fire, then retreated to the mossy verge of a tree.
The minstrel began plucking on his lute delicately and idly, anxious that his damaged hand not stiffen, and that real harm come to his playing fingers. Barely audible, he sang,
“I am Sorrow, I am Sorrow,
Companion to the Moon,
My only light the stars at night -
they witness my half-doom,
My plight. The shadow of my wolf is nigh... ”
The dagger whistled so close to the minstrel’s ear that he dropped the lute, shaking, to his knees. A black shadow loomed like some sudden demonic apparition. The grim black knight towered over the minstrel. “If ever,” the man spat, “if ever you sing that tragedy again, my blade will not miss. It will find the space between your eyes.”
“Trag - tragedy?” spluttered the minstrel. “’Moon of the Hawk’ is no tragedy.” He was shaking. “It has a happy ending.”
The wolfcub howled suddenly.
“There are no happy endings,” said the black knight coldly. He turned abruptly, walked round the
fire, and came at last to his horse. The wolfcub met him, and, jaws high, padded in his wake.
The cleric watched him speechlessly, the minstrel in faint-hearted terror.
But the man merely listened for a moment, and hearing no sound come from the litter by the fire,
he lay down on the hard earth, and pulled his cloak over his face.
The wolfcub crawled into his arms, and together they fell asleep.
“Be careful, Phillippe!” The subdued whisper of male voices, a distant splash of water, a crack of tumbling wood-ash as fire licked at a dry branch: all isolated sounds filtering into the minstrel’s waking thoughts.
He had been dreaming of a woman - a woman more lovely than the moon, a supple sensuous goddess with pool-deep eyes and hair streaming in silver threads to the stars. She glided down to him, on a pale moonbeam, but as he reached out to her, she, like quicksilver, ran away like startled fawn. He pursued her into the fenland, and...
The minstrel’s nose tickled. He sniffed, huddled into his patched woolen cloak more closely and opened one wary eye. A white diaphanous mist swirled before his sleepy gaze. He closed the eye.
There was a thunderous splash not far away, an odd bubbling and gurgling, followed by choked spluttering, a crash of papery reeds and several indefinable tearing noises. “How many times have I told you to be careful, Phillippe?” It was the unmistakable voice of the black knight, but the tone was strangely full of scolding affection.
“But I got it, father!” A child’s voice. A boy. Odd, thought the minstrel sleepily. I don’t remember any boy.
“So you did!” The black knight sounded approving. A long pause followed, broken by a number of peculiar thuds. “Got it...”
The minstrel opened one eye again, and saw a small boy by the edge of the water, dripping wet. He was triumphantly holding a huge, squirming eel.
“Phillippe!!” It was the voice of the beautiful woman - it was also the voice of a shocked mother.
“You’re wet!” The minstrel watched the woman emerge from the litter like Venus awakening on the shore, then she glided into the mist, and down to the marsh’s edge. A shapeless dark mass was clinging to her shoulder.
“How could you, Etienne?” she asked, apparently annoyed. “He’ll have a chill by nightfall.”
The man was sour in his reply. “The boy’s come to no harm,” he stated flatly.
“I only wanted to catch breakfast for Valasquita!” offered the boy, eyes wide and appealing. He displayed the eel for his mother’s benefit. She wrinkled her nose, but looped her hand into her husband’s arm. “Will you break your fast this morning with us?” she asked him quietly.
He looked into her eyes. “I have made a vow,” he said simply, his tone one of chiding reminder. But a thin smile was on his mouth, and he touched his lips to hers fleetingly.
“Come on Valasquita!” said the boy, and he reached up to the huddled mass on his mother’s shoulder, and something squeaked onto his hand. The minstrel peered closely, and rose to observe the peaceful domestic scene.
A tiny bedraggled hawk was sitting on the boy’s wrist: its thin, sickly feathers poking awkwardly from its wings. The boy touched the bird’s beak softly in faint pecking motions and grinned, “I hope you like roasted eel, little sister, because it’s all we’ve got!”
He went towards the fire, but before he was half-way there, there was a crashing sound in the marshes behind him, and a loud complaining voice: “Is there no end to this infernal bog? Lord, for what am I being punished?
This track of endless murk must be the borderlands of
purgatory, Lord, but...”
“Uncle Phillippe!” squealed the boy in excitement, jumping up with delight. “Uncle!”
“Hark, Lord, is that an angel I hear?” There was another crash in the reeds. A splash and... “No, it’s but a demon sent to lure me to destruction in this trackless waste. I could be going round and round in circles, Lord, but do you...”
“Over here, Uncle Phillippe !!” shouted the boy. “We’re over here!”
“A ministering angel, no less, sent to guide me with my sainted nephew’s voice...” Another crash.
The black knight rolled his eyes heavenwards. “Phillippe,” he bellowed. “You are not about to enter your eternal reward... more’s the pity,” he added under his breath. “Cease talking to yourself and get over here!”
“Aye, aye, Captain!” returned the owner of the voice, emerging at last from behind some far bulrushes. “I’ve traversed half of Germany to find you, you know...”
The boy ran and took a flying leap, flinging himself into the newcomer’s arms. The newcomer turned a happy face on the black knight and the woman, bundling the boy forward and giving his mother a light kiss on the cheek. “I had despaired of finding you, Isabeau,” he smiled. Then he ruffled the thin rutched feathers under the hawk’s neck. “And how are we, little Valasquita?” he asked. “No better, it seems,” he answered himself sombrely.
“What are you doing here?” asked the boy joyfully. He turned to his father. “I told you we must be much nearer the river than you thought, father,” he went on happily.
The newcomer looked over the boy’s head and met his father’s eyes questioningly. “It’s a long way still to the river Oder,” he said, and he bent down to tap the boy on the shoulder. “I expected you two weeks ago,” he said with a wink, “so I thought I’d better come back and find out what was taking you so long.” His eyes met the black knight’s again.
The minstrel stared. It was at least ten days journey east to the Oder, and who would want to go there anyway? A primitive desolate region.
“Phillippe,” the mother suggested to the boy, “why don’t you roast your eel?” The boy scampered off with the hawk on his shoulder, and the couple were alone with the newcomer. Only the minstrel looked on with any interest - the cleric was just now rising for the morning.
There was an urgency in the newcomer’s voice now as he spoke. “I have found out many things,” he said rapidly, and for the first time, the minstrel was conscious of the fact that only French was spoken by everyone this strange morning. “Good things.” The man paused. “And bad.”
The black knight seemed to be carved in stone as he waited. “The river,” went on the newcomer, “does indeed go to the northern sea. But the sea freezes in winter. No one can cross it then.”
“But there are ships that know the way north?” the woman asked urgently.
“Yes,” the newcomer admitted. He turned to the black knight. “But, Navarre,” he revealed, “we cannot reach the northern sea before winter...”
The black knight turned away. “I know,” he whispered, despairingly, and walked to the water’s edge.
The minstrel stood transfixed. Isabeau? Navarre? Sure not... it could not be possible... but...
He made his way cautiously round the fire where the boy was preparing his eels and came up closely to the newcomer. “You are Phillippe the Mouse?” he asked, awe-struck.
“The very same,” said the slight man with a quick bow. “I’m honoured to make your acquaintance... err...”
“Karl of Amsterdam, but more recently of Prague,” smiled the minstrel and stared. What a story to tell when he reached Linz - if anyone would believe it!
“My Lady Isabeau,” he went on with an enormous flourishing bow, “forgive my intrusion last eve. Had I known, had I even guessed you were Ladyhawke, I would have cut my tongue out before singing that song.”
Isabeau of Anjou smiled sadly. “You are forgiven,” she acknowledged, inclining her head. The unearthly radiance of her beauty evoked wild devotion in the minstrel’s heart. He wanted to wipe away her sorrow, sweep its unknowns into an abyss.
Then he stared, as knowledge flooded to him. He whirled to find the wolfcub, knowing, and knowing with appalling certainty, there would be no wolfcub to see. And no pale and sickly Valasquita reclining in the curtained litter. “But why?” the minstrel asked. “How could this have happened? The curse was broken!”
Isabeau looked at him with infinitely weary eyes. “And so we thought,” she replied evenly. “But we did not know the nature of the curse the Bishop of Aquila had bought from the powers of darkness.”
She closed her eyes, and pressed her fine tapering hands together in grief. “Too late we learned how the demons laughed when Navarre killed the Bishop - for therein, our children’s doom was sealed. They cannot face the Bishop as we did and undo the evil done to them. The Bishop no longer lives.” Her hands suddenly became white fists, her eyes flicked open. “Never did we suspect that the curse lingered on until the midwife screamed as I brought my children into the world. A girl-child and a wolfcub.”
Tears shimmered in the corners of her eyes now, but they did not fall. “Navarre and I can have no more children.”
Her hands rose up to cover her face. When she composed herself, the cleric had joined the minstrel and stood calm. “Aspects of your story have always interested me,” stated the cleric, blinking his dark eyes. “Tell me, Lady Isabeau,” he asked, “why have you come to Bohemia?”
It was Phillippe the Mouse who answered. “There was a man came to Aquila, late in the winter of the year gone. He spoke of a magic land, far, far to the north, where the sun shines at midnight.”
The cleric looked thoughtful.
“...and,” continued Phillippe, “there is everlasting snow in this land where the sun shines at midnight. The man said he had been there, and the way was easy enough to find - go north and north and ever north.
Navarre pressed him for the route he had followed, and
he said that, if one were mad enough, one would travel east to the river Oder, then follow it to the northern sea, take sail north, traverse the endless forest until the fields of everlasting snow began. This was the border of the land of the midnight sun. And in this magic place, we hoped to break the curse.”
“How?” asked the cleric bluntly.
The Mouse shrugged. “Navarre believed the answer would come to him at the time. Yet, in all the years we’ve waited for a sign, this was all we heard. For a curse half-broken by a day without a night and a night without a day, a land where the sun shines a midnight seems the right kind of magic to reverse the evil.”
Isabeau trembled. “If it can be.” She sighed. “I believe that Navarre does not hope any more.”
The Mouse caught her hand and stared at her. “Navarre will never give up,” he asserted with confidence.
She shook her head. “You have not seen him these past weeks, Phillippe,” she said brokenly, “his quiet desperation. I think he has given up. He has made a vow, but what it is, he keeps secret from me. He has fasted for nearly a week, and he will not tell me why...”
Phillipe grinned suddenly. “It looks like I turned up just in time,” he smirked. “What he needs is a good shake. His brains are curdling.”
There was a hail from the fire. “Meat and bread to break your fast!” called the boy. “Come on!” He beckoned his mother over to the centre of the encampment.
“I,” said the Mouse, looking around and noticing that Navarre had disappeared, “will go and find the elusive Captain, and...” He raised his eyes and palms to heaven in an attitude of prayer. “...if necessary, I shall force-feed him like a weaned child.” He smiled. “And if he resists, I shall spank him.”
He strode off in the direction Navarre had gone, and Isabeau and the minstrel and cleric returned to the fire. “Forgive my curiosity,” muttered the cleric, as they sat down by the fire, “but tell me of this night without a day and day without a night. How does it appear?” Isabeau watched her son’s unusually dainty fingers attempting to press tit-bits of eel at the tiny hawk. She understood Navarre’s despair: Valasquita would probably not survive the winter. If they could not reach the magic northern land before the northern sea froze over, it would be too late for Valasquita, the beloved of her father.
Isabeau turned courteously to the cleric. “A strange shadow covered the sun,” she answered.
“A cloud?” asked the cleric.
“No,” said Isabeau, absently reaching for the bread. She tore a piece off. “It was like a dark circle covering the sun.”
“Ah,” said the cleric thoughtfully. “What time of the month was it?”
Isabeau thought briefly. She could remember the day well, but before she answered the cleric corrected himself, “Not the date,” he said. “The phase of the moon.”
Isabeau smiled thinly. That was easy. The moon had been her only companion for so long, she had no trouble recalling its phase. “It would have been a night of no moon,” she said.
The cleric smiled. “Of course,” he nodded to himself. “As I suspected. An eclipse.”
“A what?” asked the minstrel and the boy together.
The cleric was beginning to repeat his words when a scream came out of the marsh. “Help!” It was the Mouse bawling. “Isabeau! Help!” The woman ran, fleet as a deer, towards the voice. The minstrel and the boy sped after her.
The Mouse, wet and filthy, was sitting astride Navarre’s back and thumping him passionately.
“Phillippe!?” Isabeau’s gentle voice was full of uneasy query.
Water, dark and tepid, was streaming out of Navarre’s slack mouth at every thump of Phillippe’s.
“My God!” Isabeau was horrified. “What has happened?”
The Mouse, seeing his name-sake hurrying up with the minstrel, said nothing. His eyes were all the message Isabeau needed. “He’s not dead?” she asked tremulously after a few seconds.
“Would I be doing this if he was?” muttered the Mouse through gritted teeth.
Isabeau knelt down by his side, and tapped the side of Navarre’s face gently. “Etienne,” she pleaded. “Etienne.” Dirty water continued to come out of his mouth, but no sign of life was apparent. Isabeau was afraid.
The Mouse saw her frightened expression, and announced, “He’s fine, my Lady.” Then he paused, and his mouth twisted into a determined line. “For the moment. But he won’t be when I’ve finished with him. I’m going to kill him.”
Isabeau smiled, with a gulp. This was the Mouse of old, always ready to make light of a painful moment. “Do you have a blanket, my Lady?” Isabeau nodded dumbly, and gestured at last to little Phillippe to fetch one from the litter. As soon as the child was gone, she looked up bleakly at the Mouse’s face. “He tried to kill himself?” she asked.
“Remarkable as it seems,” the Mouse returned darkly, “I think so.”
Isabeau hid her face in her hands. The boy was back instantly, and they wrapped Navarre with difficulty in the blanket, and with even greater difficulty, negotiated his unconscious body to the fire. “I’m going to kill him when he wakes up,” announced the Mouse once more.
He was angry. Isabeau, even in her fear, noted how well anger sat with the Mouse. It gave him a maturity, a presence she had never seen before.
They placed Navarre in the litter, and fussed over him like hens over a single-brood egg. Neither the minstrel nor the cleric gave any intimation that they would be on their way as the hours passed.
About noon, Navarre stirred. “Hell,” he said with a thick, slurred tongue, “is not as I feared. Dark - but it is not hot here!”
The Mouse stuck his head inside the curtains at this mumble. “You deserve worse than hell!” he spat.
“Are you here too, Phillippe?” asked Navarre slowly. “Surely you too have not made a bargain with the
“Bargain with the Devil!?!” screeched the Mouse. “Bargain with the... !!?” He was speechless, and for several seconds his mouth worked up and down vigorously, but no sound came out. He rolled his eyes and beseeched heaven. “Lord,” he pleaded, “let me knock some sense into his skull. Just one hard thump between the ears, Lord. Maybe two.” He glared ferociously at Navarre. “I think I’ll do it, permission or not!” he said through gnashing teeth.
“You fool!” said Navarre weakly, “why did you save me?” He tried to rise.
“And now I get abused for saving his life!” announced the Mouse, brows flexing skywards. “There’s gratitude for you!” He placed his palm in the centre of Navarre’s chest and pushed him slowly back down onto the bed. There was a glint of satisfaction in the depths of his eyes as he poked a finger at Navarre, and said, pulling his hood down like a cassock, “Bless you, my son. Would you like to tell Father Confessor Phillippe all about it?”
“Let me up!” said Navarre.
“Not a chance,” stated the Mouse.
“Let me up!” snapped Navarre.
“Over my dead body,” answered the Mouse.
“If you insist,” returned Navarre coldly, and he reached for the dagger at Phillippe’s belt.
The Mouse darted away and stared at Navarre with appalled eyes. He fell backwards into the dirt, sprawling awkwardly on the ground, and noticing that he had an interested audience. “Would you like to talk to him?” he whispered to Isabeau. “Please?”
Her frantic eyes shone brilliant with unshed tears. “No, Phillippe,” she said, “you continue. Find out what’s wrong.”
Navarre was tumbling with difficulty from the litter. Phillippe took his dagger from his belt, threw it to the minstrel for safekeeping, then yanked the knight up to a wobbly stance. Seeing the icy determination in the stark blue eyes, the Mouse decided that he wouldn’t try to dissuade Navarre from his present course of action – he’d just, for the moment, try for an explanation. “It’s terribly unfair of you, Navarre,” he said, “to leave us all in suspense for the rest of our lives. Monstrous of you not even to allay our curiosity. If you must kill yourself, at least have the common decency to explain why.”
Navarre leaned heavily on his shoulder, trying to focus his blurred vision. “God has abandoned us,” he said. “He has answered none of my prayers - neither to smooth our way to the Oder, neither to make Valasquita well, neither to help us make haste to the north. When God did not answer, the devil did. And I must keep my bargain with him...”
Out of the swirling dimness behind Navarre, the minstrel’s voice asked, “What is the bargain?”
Navarre swayed, but did not answer.
“Etienne...?” Isabeau’s voice was fragile, pained.
Navarre turned away.
The Mouse was now in a passion of fury. He spun Navarre round and exploded, “What was the bargain, you scrammy-brained son of a scarper-skulled half-wit?”
“The devil will give the children freedom from the curse in return for my soul,” replied Navarre quietly.
“You idiot!” yelled the Mouse. “You weak-witted, addle-headed, beetle-brained, folly-muddled, clod-polled, dunker-skulled... arrgh! ...simpleton! I wouldn’t believe what the devil said if it paid me!” He heaved an angry breath. “And even then I’d check every five seconds to see that the money didn’t disappear out of my pocket!”
“There was nothing to lose by the bargain,” stated Navarre, placid in the face of the Mouse’s outburst. “I asked God to give me a sign by this morning, and none has come. The devil has been more courteous - it is a risk worth taking for the children’s sake.”
“Etienne...” Isabeau’s face was diamonded with tears. “You cannot...”
“How can I do other?” asked Navarre quietly.
“Why the sudden rush to abandon hope?” asked the Mouse. “If we get to the land of the midnight sun and nothing happens, then, why then you can negotiate a deal with his satanic majesty.”
“The devil said it would not wait forever.” Navarre sighed. “The deal had to be finalized by today or not at all...”
“NAVarre ...!” began the Mouse, only to be interrupted by the loud observation of the cleric, “Now that is the most incredibly suspicious aspect of the whole bargain!”
The Mouse turned to him. “Suspicious?” he queried.
“Why the now or never?” asked the cleric. “Unless the devil is under some urgency. Some that we know nothing about...” He was thoughtful for a moment. “What kind of sign did you ask for from God that you never got?” he asked Navarre.
The knight looked up, less reluctantly than before. “I wasn’t specific. Anything would have done...”
“Then how do you know you didn’t get the sign then?” asked the cleric.
Navarre paused, finally answering carefully, “I have seen no evidence of an answer.”
“Would you recognise evidence if you saw it?” asked the cleric. He stared speculatively at Navarre and at Isabeau. “I wonder...” he said at last. “The good Lord is subtle, but not mischievous...” Then he turned on his heel and went to his pack. “Promise me,” he demanded, “vow to me that you will do nothing until I finish my calculations...”
Navarre shook his head. The movement was barely perceptible, but the Mouse saw it. “He promises,” said Phillippe through gritted teeth. He called to the boy, his name-sake. “Watch your father like a hawk,” he ordered, “and if he makes a move, yell. Yell like all the demons in Europe are after you.”
“Yes, Phillippe,” said the boy, biting his lip.
“Navarre,” threatened the Mouse, “you make one untoward move, and I will sit on you, Phillippe will sit on you, my friend the minstrel will sit on you, and Isabeau and Valasquita will sit on you. Is that clear?”
“Perfectly,” said Navarre, his eyes wary and full of planning.
The cleric was already in his books, quill out, scratching symbols in the dirt. He caught his mouth in his fingers and expelled a puzzled breath. He shook his head. Everyone watched intently for five minutes, but is was too hard to keep undivided attention on a man scribbling incomprehensible notes on paper and in the dust. After an hour, the boy wandered over to the cleric and presented him with a portion of bread. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“It seems strange to me,” said the cleric, chewing the bread ponderously, “that the devil comes to your father and proposes a bargain that must be taken up during a specified time. Suppose the reason were that an eclipse of the sort that freed your mother and father from the curse were to occur just after this time?”
Isabeau had been listening intently to this explanation. So had the others, but they were too puzzled to ask the question she did. “What makes you think so?” she asked.
“First,” stated the cleric, “as we all are taught, the devil is known as the Father of Lies. I would not trust it. Secondly, it revels in torment. What better torment than to just miss out on the thing you desire most, and by your own folly? To torment all of you with the knowledge that you were once so close to freedom, but missed out?”
Navarre was listening deeply now.
“Thirdly, the sign. It seems to me that, if there is a sign, then it must come from your friend, Phillippe the Mouse, Karl the minstrel or myself - since we are the
only folk you have met this morning. Perhaps you were delayed on your way to the Oder just so you could meet me, so I can tell you where an eclipse will occur in years to come.”
“You have the art of astrology?” asked the minstrel.
The cleric laughed. “I am an astronomer mathematician,” he answered. “Though I cast horoscopes, when pressed. It is an occupational hazard.” Then, finishing his last mouthful of bread, he laid out a map in front of him and went back to his scribbling.
Navarre showed no sign of rebellion after this conversation. He never took his eyes off the cleric for a second. The Mouse never took his eyes from Navarre. Neither did Isabeau.
The silence was awesome.
After three hours, the cleric looked up and asked suddenly, “How far is it from here to Moravia? In time, I mean.”
The minstrel considered briefly. “Four day’s journey,” he answered reflectively, “three day’s hard ride, perhaps - south-west...”
The cleric stood up stiffly and stared at Navarre. “You must make it in two. You must try to get to the town of Znaim in Southern Moravia, but that is not absolutely essential. On the day of the new moon, you must be as close to it as possible. You must be in the path of the eclipse with both the children.”
Navarre was already half-way to his horse. Little Phillippe he had picked up like a bundle on the way, tucked him on his hip, scooped the tiny hawk into the fold of his cloak and vaulted onto his horse.
“Follow me...!” he called as he plunged away across the marsh.
It was dawn, the second day. Isabeau had not slept, anxiety keeping her awake the night long. In her mind’s eye. she had seen Navarre racing through the darkness, fording streams by starlight with Valasquita in his arms, the wolfcub sprawled across the saddle. There had been ravines and scree slopes, dangerous places where his progress had almost halted; grim forests and mist-shrouded valleys, but he had passed them through undaunted. And still he was riding.
The sun came up, shafting light across the grey hills, tipping the peaks of the mountains rose-gold. Isabeau turned at the sound of a twig snapping. It was Phillippe.
“Be of good cheer!” he said. “Look!”
He pointed at a silver birch tree half-way up the slope in front of them. A wolf was standing, majestically, before it, while on a branch above, a golden hawk perched. The wolf seemed to scrutinize them a moment, before loping off. A moment later, the hawk took wing.
“Together!” Isabeau breathed. “In the light of day, at the same time.” She smiled. “It is a good omen.”
Toward nightfall on the third day, there was a column of dust on the road ahead. In the light of the setting sun,there was a bulky silhouette, black against the flaming sky. Voices were raised in a distant melody. Isabeau strained to pick it up, unsure...
It was the Mouse who was certain first. He spurred his newly-acquired horse on, crying, “Navarre! Navarre! Holla!”
Then they were all hugging each other, the Mouse and Phillippe, Navarre and Isabeau, Valasquita spinning like a dancer in their midst. “It worked!” called the Mouse, tossing Valasquita gently in the air. He had had his private doubts that it would. “It worked!” he repeated ecstatically.
After they had set up camp and eaten, Navarre and the children fell asleep almost instantly. The others continued awake, the minstrel plucking tentatively on his lute, starting and then pausing again.
The cleric came up to where Isabeau and Phillippe were sitting.
“I thank you, again,” Isabeau said graciously.
“Thank rather the Lord who put me in your path,” the cleric answered. “If you should have any trouble with your future family...” and here his eyebrows said everything as they rose and fell to the twinkle in his eye, “if there is any similar difficulty, I would be honoured to calculate any required eclipses for you.”
The Mouse laughed. “I predict I shall become a seasoned traveller to the strangest parts of Europe this way...”
“Not just Europe,” warned the cleric.
The Mouse’s brows flew up in consternation.
“You think finding an eclipse would work again?” Isabeau asked.
“You need not fear on that account, I am sure,” the cleric declared. Then he sighed. “But I fear a greater curse has befallen you and your husband,” the cleric said.
“Greater curse?” the Mouse asked. “What can we do?”
“Nothing,” The cleric shook his head, before glancing back over his shoulder. His voice dropped to a whisper. “The minstrel has already composed the first verse. The rhyme is inept, the tune abysmal.”
“Oh,” Phillippe said.
The cleric nodded, looking pityingly at Isabeau. “The rhythm is... unspeakable. The man actually asked me for a rhyme for “Valasquita”.”
“Oh,” Isabeau said.
“Oh no,” said Phillippe.
“I fear,” the cleric said, “this is one tragedy that cannot be avoided.”
Phillipe and Isabeau exchanged horrified looks. “Not all the way back to Aquila?” they said together.
Ten centuries alone would crush a mind,