The market of Slatten sang as the vendors tried to sell, the Bards tried to judge, and life ambled through another late summer day. Silent Monks, talking to each other with the language of the hands, gave out charity and aid to the poor while the rich bartered for fine goods. Even though it was past mid-day and the freshest and best had already been sold, there were still plenty of people with money to spend.
by Helen E. Davis
Talandrea rearranged the collection of amulets on her sale table. Her mistress, a Warlocker of high renown, allowed the girl to sell her trinkets in front of the shop. To attract business, the Warlocker claimed - though everyone knew that it was Talandrea herself who attracted the attention of the buyers, and not her offerings.
She flipped her long black hair - thick and curling in the summer damp - and stretched out her back. Men stared, as she meant them to.
A silk merchant walked past, dressed in layers of sashes and robes. Tassels of all colors hung from his hat, and woven cords crossed his arms and waist, all bright against his golden skin. He had come from the Silklands to sell his wares, and he advertised them on his person. "Have you any thread?" Talandrea called out.
The man stopped. He looked at her carefully, then plunged his hand into pocket. It came out dripping in skeins. "Have I thread? All you see and more. What do you wish? Royal trim for your pretty dress? Bindings for your lovely hair?"
She smiled freely and reached for a red skein. "Thread. For my charms."
He pulled his hand back. "And has my fine young lady gold to pay for this silk? I have traveled long and hard to sell it to you. I cannot give it away."
She lowered her head and looked at him through her lashes. "I have no gold."
"Then how will you pay me for the silk?" His smile widened to a leer.
"You may have your choice of my charms - the ones on the table." As her hand passed over them, she gestured a spell.
He looked back at her, his eyes now wide with desire. "Which would you suggest?"
She would have that silk, and for almost nothing. Picking up a piece of oak with a waxing moon carved on one side and a leaf of St. John's Wort on the other, she said, "This will protect you from thieves and pickpockets - surely a worry for a merchant such as you."
"I have a charm like that. It works quite well."
She took a deep breath, smiled, then bent deep over the table to fetch a waddle of feathers and seashells bound up with a sprig of Feverfew. She held it close to her chest. "This one will keep bad weather from you."
"Sea storms?" he smiled hopefully.
"Sudden showers that might spoil your wares, and sudden gusts that might blow your things away." She paused and looked deep into his eyes. He was thinking of her drenched in rain, or with her skirts blown high by the wind. "You could have both for just a skein of the red silk."
He swallowed hard but found the strength to stand against her magic. "Two small charms for one skein of thread. It hardly seems a fair trade."
"Then have this one as well. It will protect your health." Catching his hand in her own, she traced a shape on the back as she placed the charms in his palm. She closed his fingers, then lightly ran her palm over the top. "That would be a fair trade, right?"
"Yes." His breath was quick and shallow - she could have taken all she wished. But she was not greedy - she needed only the red silk thread. Young Bards would pay well for charms made with the strong magic of silk. She put it away.
Then the merchant, with a deep breath and a dreamy eye, turned back to the busy market.
***Treble waited until the silk merchant left the table before going up himself. He poked at the various charms, all too aware of Talandrea's gaze on him. He was also far too aware of the Bardhall in the street behind him, and that the Master Bards might look over at any moment and see him, a Bard-in-training, standing before the Warlocker's shop. Bard and Warlockers did not mix, Master Meiltung often said - though even the old dragon wore health charms beneath his shirt.
And where else would Treble get a love charm, if not from the Warlocker? Without a love charm, what hope had he of ever getting a girl?
"What do you want today?" asked the Warlocker's assistant.
Treble's heart slammed against his ribs.
She was only a year or two older than he, but far more experienced. He often saw her charming men, and showing them the outer stair that led to her room. They gave her trinkets; she gave them smiles. Hours passed before they were seen again. Treble did not want a woman such as she, but when she smiled, he could not look away.
She was smiling now. "Well?"
"A love charm," he blurted out. A girl of his own would cure him of his obsession with Talandrea.
"My specialty." Her hand hovered by tiny bags stuffed with violet and mint. "But I should make you a special one - you'll need something extra strong."
He swallowed, all too aware of his greasy hair, dusky skin, and ragged clothing. The lute slung over one shoulder was battered and borrowed. Bards-in-training did not live in comfort, lest they forget the hard road that lay before them, but with no family to help supply his needs, he had less comfort than others. Further, Master Meiltung was more critical of Treble's mistakes, swifter with his judgements, and harder with his blows.
No love charm was strong enough to help him. Treble turned away.
"Well?" Talandrea's voice turned him back. "Will you buy one or not?"
"How much are they?"
"Only a small part of what you would spend one night in a tavern. A mere silver coin."
Treble snorted. "A silver? Talk to a merchant if you want silver. A copper is all I have."
Instantly he regretted the words that let her know that he had a coin in his possession.
She flipped her hair back. "Did you know that you will be a powerful Bard someday?"
He snorted again.
"Truly. I'll sell you a love charm for a mere copper if you promise to not forget the Warlocker who did you a favor." With that she lowered her head and looked up through a fringe of dark lashes.
Treble felt himself spinning while standing in place. "I'll never forget you," he promised.
"Come next week for your charm," she whispered. "It will be wrapped in red silk."
***Pierre strode happily down the street, his silver coins dancing in his pocket. He had done well with selling his harvest, and even better with his buying - two new oxen, half-grown but full of promise, would return from the market with him. With his own oxen he would look better as a husband, and there might be a bride in house by spring. What a boon that would be to his mother, to have a pair of young hands to take over the duties that taxed her old ones. And he would have a warmer bed and the pleasures that went with it.
Of course - and here his eye passed over the pathetic figure of a barefoot Bard - there were those who claimed that warmer bed without accepting the duties of a husband. The wastrel had probably spoiled a half-dozen or more honest women with his wiles - and he seemed to be working on one more. The poor shopgirl with the lovely smile was no doubt falling for his lies.
Pierre touched his silver crucifix, a birth-gift from the lord of his holding, and prayed that she be protected from his temptations.
The boy moved on. Bolstered by his success, Pierre smiled at the girl.
She smiled back. Plucking a few herbs from her table, she began to wrap them in red thread. All at once Pierre saw her beside his own fire, mending his shirts and sewing for their babe. A red-cheeked babe, plump and healthy. In the fire, a hearty dinner simmered; his mother slept contented in her chair. And the girl was telling him cheerfully that there would be more children soon.
He found himself standing in front of her table, her green eyes looking deep into his. She smiled, and said in a voice sweeter than the palest honey, "How are you, this fine day, sir?"
"Quite well." This close, she was lovelier than he had thought. "And you?"
"Business has been poor." Modestly she tilted her head, and smiled at him. "Are you new to the market?"
"My first time here. I am Pierre, a Freeman of Lord Wellcome's holding, and I have come to better my place in the world. I have my own house and three fields to harvest from, a cow, a pig, and five chickens. And now I have two oxen."
The girl smiled, obviously pleased by his wealth. "And what do you wish from me?"
"Something to cheer my old mother's heart."
"Ah - is she plagued by an affliction? I have just the charm to ease her suffering."
Pierre stepped back and clutched his crucifix. The poor child did not know what she was selling. "I could never take such an evil thing to my mother. Heathen wickedness, that is."
Her fingers danced as she picked up a sprig of greenery and wrapped red thread around it. "Are Heathens so wicked? Many great lords have Bards to play for them, and fill their castles with Warlocker charms."
"Not my lord," Pierre boasted. "Lord Wellcome is a pious man, and will abide no Heathen in his holding."
"Not even the serfs who till his land?"
"We are Christians, every one. He gives charity to the Bards who travel past, and lets them stay one night, but they must speak only of their news and keep their music quiet."
"No music?" Her eyes widened, their deep green color filling him with thoughts of spring and new life. "No songs? Is it as dull as Songless Castle?"
"We have songs - wholesome songs based on prayers and scriptures. And music to honor the One God and his suffering son. You will be content there, with your own hearth to tend, and family to raise. You'll find my mother an easy person to love. Despite her demands and blows, she is a righteous, good-hearted woman."
The smile faded from her face, then returned, as he knew it would. She took his hand and drew on his palm. "Not for your hearth, am I, but you are for my bed tonight."
He yanked back his hand. "Do you mean that you and I should, without the blessings of matrimony..."
She tossed back her hair and lifted her chest. "Just for one night. Then you can go to serve your God as ardently as you wish."
Horrified, he ran, throwing aside anyone who stood in his way.
***The mud puddle was a poor reception for Treble. He glowered darkly at the yeoman who had knocked him down, muttered a small curse, and pulled his lute around to see how badly it had been damaged. Poor thing, this instrument, never able to stay in tune - but Master Meiltung would take any damage to it out of Treble's hide.
"Treble!" Talandrea called from her table. "Did you see that man?"
"Felt more than saw." Treble scraped mud from his shirt. Master Meiltung would beat him for this, if nothing else. "Did he steal from you?"
"Yes and no. But never mind that - will you do me a favor? I'll give your charm for free if you do."
Nymph of the marketplace, she was. Dangerous. Yet only a minor Warlocker. A bargain with her could do little harm. Turning his back on the Bardhall, Treble nodded.
***Pierre's last night at the White Fish Inn was seasoned with mixed feelings. The fowl was gamey, the ale was sour. It would be good to eat his mother's cooking again, proper Christian cooking. But he would miss the freedom he had found at the fair, to go as he pleased, curse as he wished, and drink to his heart's content. There was no mother's scolding or priest's scowling to bother him. He could even stare at the girls who served in the White Fish, tawdy things with unlaced shirts and loose skirts. As one was pulled into the lap of a Heathen soldier, she laughed and wriggled instead of shrieking in shame. They were wenches, far too sinful to make a good wife.
He stared and they giggled.
Far too loose, well beyond salvation. But the girl at the herb-shop - she would make a good wife, if she only took the cross to heart. Still fresh and young, she was not beyond salvation. Perhaps he should talk to her again, and show her the joys of a faithful life.
He drank deeply. After three tall mugs, the beer did not seem so poor.
By the fireplace, a sweet tenor voice was accompanied by a lute. That would be one of the bedraggled, barefoot Bards that roamed the city at night, playing for drinks and coins. They never sang decent songs, but love ditties and ballads of great Heathen warriors. This one was telling a sad story of lovers whose hopes were as split as the river that ran between them. Deep it was, the river, their love hopeless.
Pierre thought of the herb-girl standing on the far side of a rushing river, begging him to swim to her. He replied that it was her place to swim to him.
He ordered another drink.
The ragged Bard sang again, this time a ballad of war and love. A young soldier braved weapons and fire, great floods and long nights of hunger, just to win gold and glory to pour over his sweetheart. When he finally came home, however, he found her dead, and he cried that he had waited so long to return to his love.
Once more the herb-girl seemed to stand before Pierre, smiling. Her dark green eyes gazed into his, and he felt warmth, like a flame, in his belly. Come.
He drank deeply to drown that flame.
Now the boy sang a third tune, this one in the strange old language that the Heathens sometimes used. These words burrowed into Pierre's brain and wrestled with his thoughts. Carnal images flowed from dark recesses, taunting him. Pierre reached for his crucifix, to drive the demon thoughts away.
Then he saw the herb-girl dancing before him, in scarlet veils that flickered like flames. Her hair was loose, cascading like a dark river over her shoulders. The silver in her eyes sparkled as her crimson lips opened, and shaped his name.
"Come," she said. "Come to me now."
The White Fish faded into a dream of streets, then a set of stairs, and last a door that opened before him.
***Mint, violet, acacia, and tansy, all sprinkled with almond oil - these Talandrea crushed between her palms and sprinkled into the brazier while chanting a prayer to Dreamer, a goddess of love. Jasmine burned on a plate adorned with amber. Two pots of cyclamen stood guard over the bed.
Talandrea waited, her heart pounding.
The door slammed open. The Christian boy stood there, completely under her spell. She opened her arms to him, and let drop a bundle of cyclamen bound in red silk on her bed. He followed in a rush, and she laughed.
***Morning light woke Pierre. He smelled incense and a strong perfume, felt a soft bed beneath him and warm limbs over him, and saw the face of the herb-girl next to his own. Naked he was, with the herb-girl naked beside him. Her arm curled over his belly; his hand was between his thighs. Dreaming, she smiled.
He realized what they had done.
Flesh to flesh, but without the blessing of lord and church. Heathen joined to Christian in a sin that would drag him to Hell, where he would thirst and die, then die again, his flesh pierced and burned, then restored only to be rent by demons. He was damned, completely damned, for defiling his body with this unclean act with an unclean thing. Damned for all time, for the act, for the shame to his mother, for the dishonor to his lord, for his faithlessness to his God, for shaming his mother.
His mother. If she, kind saint of heaven, should learn of this, he would be damned for her murder, for the destruction of her innocent heart.
The weight of his sin crushed him, and leaving only grief and raging anger.
***Treble opened his eyes and lifted his stiff neck from his knees. The sidewalk made a poor bed, even on a summer night, but the Bardhall had been shut when he returned from his evening at the White Fish, and he did not care to raise the ire of the Masters by banging on the doors. Besides, if there were any Bards-in-training to be fingered in the workings of an apprentice Warlocker, he did not want it to be known that he had been out late at the taverns.
Perhaps there would be no trouble. Perhaps the Christian would be grateful for what Treble had done.
He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall, then was struck by the certainty that there would be trouble. Was this sight? No, only a certain knowledge of how his life ran. Only the greatest Bards had sight, and nothing about Treble hinted that he would ever be a Master, much less a great Bard.
Yet the feeling persisted, like a toothache.
He struggled to his feet and looked uneasily around the market. The shopkeepers were just now opening their stalls and windows, and the itinerant vendors were spreading out blankets for their goods. A baker's apprentice pushed a handcart laden with pastries and trailing the scents of cinnamon and spice. Beside Treble, a Silent Monk signed a blessing, then held out half a loaf of bread.
"I'm not a charity case," Treble snapped. "Just a fool who doesn't know the time. The Bardhall closed me out."
The Silent Monk nodded, and the bread slipped back inside his sleeve.
A scream rent the air.
Wild-faced and naked, a man ran from Talandrea's room. He brandished a knife stained with blood. Treble's heart hammered until he saw Talandrea running behind the man, wrapped in a thin blanket.
"Stop!" she screamed. "Help him!"
Talandrea's Christian, Treble saw from his silver crucifix around the man's neck. So the meek could bite, after all. Jumping forward, Treble grabbed the man's arm and tried to block the blow - but instead of attacking the Bard, the man turned the point on himself. He'd already tried once, from the shallow cut on his chest, but this time seemed determined to succeed.
Not knowing what else to do, Treble pulled the man down, and fell himself. Something smashed beneath him, but the man's knife missed its target.
Snarling, the Christian turned and stabbed at Treble.
Brown robes flew above the fight, and now the monk was holding the Christian's hand. Talandrea continued to scream, waking anyone who might have missed the fight. Two vendors hurried over and pulled the Christian off of Treble, and pinned him with his hands behind his back.
Treble struggled to his feet, and looked with sorrow on the scraps of wood that had been his lute. He turned to Talandrea. "What happened?"
"He went crazy!" she sobbed. "He jumped out of bed, grabbed my knife, and tried to stab himself!"
"I don't know! I gave him my best!"
"Sinner!" the Christian wailed. "I have broken God's laws! I am damned all to hell, and must die for my sins!"
The monk frantically shook his head.
"There is no grace for the wicked! There is only eternal damnation!"
The monk moved his hands through the air in frantic gestures.
"This is no time for blessings!" Treble snapped.
"I am beyond hope or salvation," the Christian moaned.
Now the monk looked around. He grabbed up a shard of Treble's poor lute and wrote in the dirt, "Give penance for redemption."
"Read that!" Treble shouted, pointing at the words.
The Christian calmed for a minute, then sobbed. "A yeoman has no use for letters - he might as well talk with his hands."
The monk let the stick fall to the ground and hung his head.
What fool would refuse to learn to read? "It says, 'Give penance for redemption.' How - go on, write more."
Picking up the stick again, the monk spelled out, "Make a Pilgrimage."
"He suggests you make a Pilgrimage - go to Seliece, or even Bartiese, if you think your sin is great enough."
The Chrisitian cried out, then moaned, "Bartiese is too far! I cannot leave my sainted mother along for all that time - she will starve, with no one to plant or reap the harvest!"
And your being dead would be better? Treble thought.
The monk was writing again, carefully spelling out a long passage. "Become a Silent Monk for a time. Our order will care for the old woman."
Treble read that aloud, thinking that such a path was not one he would have chosen for himself. It may have been forced upon him by circumstance, true, but he would not choose it freely. Still, the Christian calmed as Treble read aloud.
"I will do this," he stated. "If my mother need never know why I had to."
The monk nodded eagerly, and held out his hand to the young man. The two vendors released their hold, and then the monk and the crazed Christian walked off together.
Treble took a deep breath of relief, then bent down to gather the remains of his lute. What story could he invent to explain the damage? A robber perhaps, or a bar fight? He was safe along as no one in the Bardhouse had seen any of this.
A familiar set of boots stepped in front of him. Treble looked up into the cross face of Master Meiltung, who was not smiling. "Well now. What was that all about?"
***While others celebrated the yule season with feasting, singing, and swapping tall tales before the Grand Fireplace, Treble scrubbed the floor of the kitchen. This was his punishment for his role in the summer's disaster, a crushing load of menial labor. Also, he was restricted to the grounds of the Bardhall, and kept from sitting for his Journeyman's string, until such time that Pierre finished his penance. Further, as punishment for ruining the lute, he was not to be trusted with any new instrument.
It should have been a trial of only a few months, but Pierre had not returned. And during the last half year visions had started to come to Treble, visions that showed Pierre contented in his new life and unwilling to leave. Visions that had been proved true by a letter smuggled to him from the hot-blooded Warlocker.
Treble threw his brush into the bucket and knocked it over. Water flowed everywhere.
"Could you be more careful?" Master Meiltung spoke with an edge that promised a heavy blow if Treble did not heed him.
Quelling a defiant look before raising his head, Treble muttered. "I'm sorry. I thought I was alone."
As he would have been, if the Master had been where he should be, enjoying himself while Treble worked.
Master Meiltung crouched, bringing his face closer to Treble's. "Why the anger? Do you feel yourself undeserving of this punishment, which you brought on yourself through disobedience?"
"I just had a thought." He stared at the floor. "It was a daydream, nothing more. I will now forget about it."
"Tell me about it," Master Meiltung said, with more interest than he had ever shown before.
"I saw Pierre, ecstatic in his piety, taking permanent vows. If this happens, I'll be scrubbing this floor for the rest of my life." He snatched up the brush and returned to his chore.
"Not to worry," Master Meiltung laughed. "He'll be home and you'll be in trouble again before the spring. Unless..."
"Unless what?" Treble knew, somehow, that the Master was wrong. The vision was true.
"Tell me - did you see this happening in a place? Where did you dream it was?"
"A church." Treble shrugged, then described what he had seen in his vision: the altar, with its white candles and golden cup, the ornate carved screen behind the altar, and the images worked in stained glass on either side. As he described the gravestones in the floor, the Master paled.
"Have you ever been to Saint William's monastery?"
Treble shook his head. "Is that where this is?
Master Meiltung rose to his feet. His face hardened. "Finish your work, Wizardblood, and join us."
"Wizardblood?" Treble cried out before he could stop himself. "What do you mean by that?"
The Master looked as if he had revealed something he had not meant to. He spoke carefully. "If you truly are sighted - and you may well be - then we must watch you even more closely than we have been."
Treble closed his eyes and lowered his head, and waited until the Master's footsteps echoed beyond the door. He picked up the brush and started to scrub again, now slower than before. That had not been the vision that made him angry.
It had been Talandrea, dressed in red and crying in anger against the Christian who still spurned her, while Treble suffered for her tricks. And with the knowledge that he would never, could never, forget her.
Years stretched before him, vast and empty like the floor waiting to be washed.
Helen E. Davis