THE TALE OF THE BESTOWER
By Aimee L. DuPré
She arrived alone at the tournament, side-mounted on a stocky palfrey. Her deep emerald-green gown of finely woven linen was embroidered with red roses and light green leaves on the low neckline, at the shoulders, at the ends of the sleeves, and at her waist and hemline. Braided into her waist-length coppery-tinged hair was a simple golden chain, and it and her thick hair swayed gently from side to side with the gait of the horse.
She was noticed as she rode to the edge of the crowd -- noticed, but unrecognized. She dismounted gracefully and held the mare's reins as she searched the crowd. She was looking for someone . . . a kindred soul, perhaps . . . or an old friend she had not yet met. She had to find him soon or she would have to return empty‑handed to her land far away, and failure was not a word she relished to have associated with her long journey.
She recalled, with a panic borne of frustration, the last conversation with her Bestower.
"And you must do it," he had said. "Without speaking a word to him, or to anyone, for that matter. They will hear your accent and know something is amiss."
"I have studied their language many years," she had replied. "My accent should be most similar."
"Not a spoken word!" he reiterated his command. "We have no native speaker. Perhaps your lessons have taught one vowel sound incorrectly -- or one incorrect combination of sounds. They will know!"
"They are not that smart."
"They could be -- especially him. He's intelligent or he would not survive as he does. Just find him and bring him back. Be sure to bring him back."
And bring him back, her thoughts echoed. But first, find him -- no easy task when she had no idea what he looked like.
He would be strong and witty, this she knew, and a leader of men. But short or tall, ugly or comely, thin or stocky, she knew not. He would be blond, though. This she knew. And blue-eyed.
She would know him if she ever saw him, and this was the place to see him . . . if he were here this day. The tournament was the right place.
There were blue-eyed blonds everywhere, all beginning to look identical, dressed the same in forest green, armed the same. It was hopeless.
I will fail, she thought. Or he will be hideously ugly. Perhaps he is ill this day and is not here.
She led her mare through the crowded field on the edge of the tournament grounds. The people made way for her as they believed her royalty, from her bearing.
Across the now-empty field she saw a double row of wagons. Merchants with their wares were taking advantage of the crowds. As she drew closer, she saw one wagon with a large crowd of women around it.
She came up from behind the row and got nearer before she saw the wagon held only loaves of bread; but the merchant did a thriving business, and with each sale, the women, young or old, gave him a kiss squarely on the lips. Though unfamiliar with all the customs of this foreign place, she knew this was not one.
Two merchants nearby were speaking loudly.
"The man is crazy, selling loaves for a penny and a kiss, or for two pennies without the kiss."
"And to charge a hundred to a Jew, and but a kiss even to the oldest women! These, my friend, are stolen loaves."
"Nay," said the other. "He is a clean-looking youth, not an outlaw. Perhaps his father passed on and the son sells his stock."
"Nonsense. Bread does not long keep fresh, and no son smiles so soon after death. He must be an outlaw. I have never before seen his face."
Thus she listened as she walked nearer the young merchant. Then of a sudden, he turned around and saw her staring. His smile seemed to fade momentarily and he appeared to catch his breath sharply when he saw her, but he recovered himself and began his spiel at her.
"And now, my finest lady. Would you be in need of a loaf for only . . ." he paused. "Well, now," he continued, playing to his audience. "I charge a penny and a kiss to all fair young maidens, but to you, . . ." He then tossed a loaf gently into the air, and it made a slow arc. She caught it with her right hand alone, as it was passed so gently and ably.
"A free loaf to the beautiful lady, for I could not shame her by requesting a princess to kiss a toad."
At this even the surrounding merchants, previously peeved, laughed aloud, and the other women giggled more.
A toad, the young merchant was not. He was as tall as she, and she was tall for a woman. His long blond hair was streaked nearly white from the sun, as were both his mustache and closely cropped beard. His face was brown as a hickory nut but not leathery, and his eyes . . . oh, his eyes . . . were more blue than possible, and they sparkled with a liveliness borne of unfettered laughter. He was so beautiful to her world-weary eyes that her heart skipped a beat as he gazed at her.
Then his look was gone, and he went about his business of getting rid of his loaves, a penny here, a kiss there, until all were gone.
She slowly walked to a new vantage point and saw that he looked around for a time, scanning the crowd. Then he deftly sold his empty wagon to the merchant next to him. He briskly walked away with a smile on his face, and from the looks of him, a song in his heart.
"We have found him," she whispered to her mare.
She ate her loaf of bread that night just inside the great forest into which she followed him. She lay down to sleep underneath a large oak tree, her mare tied to a small sapling nearby. She slept deeply, knowing he would find her in the morning.
Before the sky was little more than light gray, the birds began their morning songs and she awakened. She was stiff, and she spent a long while stretching and groaning before she untied the palfrey and, sharply striking the mare's rump, set her loose on the well-worn, wide path leading deeper into the forest. She watched as the frightened mare kicked up long pine needles and old leaves on the path. She watched until the mare disappeared.
Her stomach told her she was hungry, but she was too excited to bother with gathering the wild blackberries lining the path. She walked along slowly and enjoyed the sights and sounds of the woods. It had been a long, long time ago -- the last time she walked in peace with nature.
She heard the brook before she saw it -- the proverbial bubbling brook. Coming upon it suddenly after a sharp turn in the path, she went to its edge and drank deeply. It aided in slaking her hunger.
She remained and watched the water tumbling over the rocks until the sun rose straight overhead, and she had just stood up to travel deeper into the woods when, from downstream, she heard a voice. She crept close to the sound, as silently as she could, and then she heard a snort and a loud neigh from her mare, for what other horse would be here in the deep woods? She hid herself behind a bush and listened to see if it was he.
"And where, pray tell, is your lovely mistress?" the deep voice asked the palfrey.
She peered through the leaves and caught sight of him. The mare stood fearfully in the middle of the brook. He stood on the bank, half of an apple in his hand, attempting to lure the mare to him so he could grab her dangling rein. But the mare backed away, ready to gallop away, for once free the wildness in such a beast makes it long more for a future of foraging than an assured well-tended captivity.
"Have you thrown her off, bad mare? Does she lie in my forest untended, hurt . . ." his voice choked and he stopped. "Where is she?" he suddenly yelled at the mare, who, at that, finally did turn and trot off into the woods. The frustrated expression on his face made one wish the horse could speak and ease his fears.
As she imagined such a scene, she tried to suppress a giggle, but lost her balance and fell slightly into the bush in front of her. It wasn't a loud sound, but enough that the young forester knew he was not alone. Before he got his hand on his knife, though, he saw the sun glint off the gold chain in her hair, and, feeling in his heart she was well, decided to pretend not to notice her.
"Then, evil palfrey," he called after the mare. "Go your own way, and I go mine."
He threw the apple into the deepest part of the brook, and it bobbed for a while before following the current.
"I am soon to follow you, dear apple, for there is no more reason for me to live, now that the mare's fine mistress is lying dead on some path."
He is rather melodramatic, she thought. But as she continued watching him, she thought perhaps he had lost his senses.
Crouching behind the sparse leaves of the bush, she watched him. First he unarmed himself, then he undressed to his loincloth in the deep shadows of the spreading oak branches, more as if to cool himself in the pool than kill himself in it.
The patchy sunlight played across his body as he walked to the water's edge, just as her glances played, never staying more than a heartbeat at any one place. And those heartbeats were quicker than what she normally felt. She memorized his every movement, as his muscles rippled in plain sight with his walking. Ah, so they must move even underneath his clothing.
This seemed nearly inspirational to her, and her sharp intake of breath made him turn, quickly, agilely, and he caught her watching. He laughed easily at her embarrassment, not with malice but with pure joy.
She felt her face grow hotter than her looking had made it, but his query, "Join me?" made her smile.
And his lack of embarrassment made her nearly bold enough to speak. That she knew could not be.
"No? Alas, must you stay on shore and guard me whilst I am naked? . . . meaning unarmed, of course." He laughed with great sport, then, and pulled his tunic back on.
He reached up into the apple tree and plucked a ripened one to offer to her. She nodded and approached him.
They sat under the tree, and he cut the apple in two with the knife he always carried at his side. He handed her half on the point of the blade. It was tart, and he laughed at her soured-up face. He used the stem to pick his teeth as his finished eating, and leaned back against the trunk.
Then he grabbed his hunting bugle and blew one loud, long note on it. Birds scattered from the branches above them and shrieked noisily at him as he broke their peaceful stillness.
Startled, she looked at him out of the corner of her eye and picked a long, wide blade of dark green grass from beside her. She deftly tore it down the middle crease, and, placing it between her thumbs and pulling down tightly, she cupped her hands and blew strongly. It was a piercing, high‑pitched banshee's wail, mournfully long, and unlike any sound he'd heard before. His eyes twinkled with that impossible blueness.
"The deaf man would hear such a sound!" he exclaimed. "And the birds will never return to this place." He paused. "You have outdone my bugle, m'lady." He leaned forward and towards her. "Show me how it's done with such a tiny piece of greenery, for you have a hunting horn wherever you go." He seemed as anxious to learn as a child.
She merely pointed to another wide blade, which he cropped quickly and split down the middle. But his large hands did not know, yet, to have the blade of grass tight between the thumbs, and such a pitiful squeak emerged with all his strength of breath that she laughed until she cried.
Then she showed him by example how to get the grass tight between his thumbs, and his next note was louder than hers had been. Next she showed him how to change the pitch by the cupping of the hands, and they spent a long while blowing tunes to each other. Never before had such musical cacophonies been heard in the great forest.
Of a sudden, a giant of a darkly bearded man appeared in the clearing. She arose so quickly that he reached up and grabbed her wrist, afraid she would run away.
"Sit again, lady. This is a friend of mine; though frightful looking, he will not harm you."
He pulled her back down beside him and patted the back of her hand.
The big man began laughing at them.
"Master," he said, when he caught his breath. "I knew not you could be so easily amused. I've been watching you until I could stand the noise no more. Wait until the others hear of this!"
"It shall be a long wait," he said with sudden anger in his eyes, and the big man looked sullen. "And why," he continued, rising to his feet and placing both hands on his hips. "Did you not come at my bugle call?"
"Why . . . why I did, Master," he stammered. "And quickly, when I heard the banshee. But I saw you were in no danger, excepting of going deaf, and I waited in hiding until, as I said, it seemed you would go on forever and never end the noise. And so I interrupted your sweet music to see what you wanted."
This was said in such condescending tones that the young hunter broadly smiled.
"Tiny, this lady was lost in the woods until I espied her by the brook, or rather till she espied me," that said with a meaningful side glance.
He reached out to her and held both her hands in his.
"We shall entreat her to join our feast this even." He released her, took a step backwards, and beckoned her to follow.
The two men led the way on a little traveled path, and she followed several steps behind. Thus they went for a time until "Tiny" called back to her.
"So, lady fair, what is your name?"
"She cannot speak our language, my large friend, or hasn't yet. Yet by her dress she is more a lady than a pauper, and I trust you will remember such manners as you have not been called upon to use in quite a while."
Chastised again, and this time without understanding why, the large one kept his silence the entire length of the journey.
The feast was cleared by women, some old, some young, with wearied but smiling faces. None were pretty, and she noted with a shock that none, even if dressed regally, could ever have been made pretty with the exception of one dark haired youth, barely sixteen, if that. She was clean, her long hair was brushed and braided with brown ribbons of cloth, and the girl gazed at her, with her piercing brown eyes, until she felt most uncomfortable. But with the proper clothing, with a strand of pearls braided into her hair, with a little more assurance in her steps, she could be considered pretty, if never beautiful.
Thus she thought without really thinking, until she realized that with her staring in return, the young girl flushed red and, dropping her eyes, scurried away with the other women.
"Master," Tiny broke the silence of ample food and drink. "How would it set with you to have some music?" he asked with a twinkle in his dark eyes. "By Daniel, of course," he finished after a pause.
"Yes. Where is Daniel?" asked the Master, ignoring his attempt at wit, just as a young man appeared with a guitar.
This Daniel, she thought, was indeed a beautiful youth. His hair was long and brown, and he was mustached and bearded, but his beard was as closely trimmed as his master's. He was as handsomely dark as his master was handsomely fair. His dark brown eyes were as deep as a doe's eyes, and when he looked at her, he saw her soul. His long fingers touched the strings, and such wondrous harmony of man and instrument was rare.
He sang of love lost and love found, and she watched him as each tune and tale came from his heart. His voice was high, a tenor, and she smiled as she thought that in her land his gentile manner would have been considered such an oddity that he would have been laughed at. He seemed peaceable and kind, and she was enraptured. If she had never met the Hunter, then this man could have commanded her love.
As he began another tune, the others lounged lazily. Almost as if in a dream or a trance, her thoughts wandered in myriad directions, with fantasies both of the minstrel and the Hunter.
I long to join my lips to his. She thought this about the minstrel. And if this should offend my hunter, then how can this be my longing? Yet, when they look at me, their eyes sparkle. But the hunter's are bluer than any eyes should have the right to be. Do I read more into his sparkle than I should? Perhaps, for his eyes sparkle often: when he enjoys a fine story from his comrades; or when he tells a fine tale of his own; or when he enjoys the wit of others -- most especially when he enjoys his own wit, which so often passes unnoticed by others . . . but not by me. And which would I love the longer: this minstrel or the hunter?
She felt a tap on her left shoulder, and the Hunter leaned close and whispered, "Which is it my lost lady loves the most -- the man or the music?"
This was asked in all seriousness, and could not have paralleled her own questioning thoughts more nearly. She felt an unaccustomed hotness in her cheeks as she slightly smiled in answer.
"Enough, Daniel," he said abruptly, interrupting him in mid song. "Else our lost lady shall lose her heart in addition to her way."
The initial disappointment of his men gave way to scattered laughter.
"Lady," he softly said as he arose. "Allow me to show you to my quarters for the night."
This hunter, she thought, was hardly subtle in ending her evening's bemusing. Neither were the calls after him subtle. They were suggestive regarding his motives in sharing his quarters with her, which was what she had gathered from his words, also.
But he turned in fiery rage to his band.
"How dare you disgrace the lady's virtue," he told them loudly. "I lend her my quarters this even for her single bed. I shall return swiftly to teach you some manners, if you can be taught."
He turned back to her and took her arm to lead her gently away to a cave's opening covered by the tanned skins of some animal, probably deer. He was shaking with a passion she did not understand.
"Forgive them, m'lady. You must know they are not accustomed to chivalry in these woods of ours. I apologize for them and for myself, for this . . ." he said as he pulled back the skins, "is all I have to offer you."
Inside was a lit oil lamp on a rough hewn wooden table, casting dimly flickering shadows on the cave walls. It was a small cave, and the straw-filled mattress on the ground nearly filled the right side.
"I only hope you can be comfortable here. Good even, lady."
Less comfortable, she thought, I shall be than had your men's
taunting words been correct.
Before taking his leave, he reached for an unopened container of ale from the table, and she got it for him and uncorked it. The contents of the tiny phial hidden in her hand slipped unnoticed into the drink, and after handing it to him, he was gone in a flash.
It was not long before dawn when she awoke and silently arose. She crept past the sleeping men outside the cave, and seemed, almost with a second sight, to know where he would be found.
She made her way quietly down a narrow but well-traveled path and suddenly came upon the young hunter, sitting underneath a blooming dogwood in a small clearing. In his hand was the container filled with strong ale, and he drank lustily. Her foot stepped on a twig, and he, startled, tried to rise, but fell back.
"Who is it?" he softly called, getting to his knees, and then, staggering, to his feet.
"A dream," she called back in a whisper. She stepped out into the clearing.
"A dream, yes," he replied when he saw her. "A most unusual dream, whose eyes . . ." he paused, still stooped over, and he looked first at the ground, then at the bottle still in his hand. ". . . in whose eyes," he continued. "Perhaps I read more into than I should."
He raised the bottle to his lips and drained it empty in one last gulp. He spoke into its emptiness. "And an ale more potent than any I have ever known."
She walked close to him, within an arm's reach, and it nearly killed her that she could not speak to him, but she had given her Grantor her promise.
He threw down the container and rose to his full height.
"Am I a lecher, not a lover? How can I see you without wonder?" He reached for her hands and took them in his. "Should silence keep us apart?"
He searched her eyes, and she nearly spoke then, but did not.
"I burn with love for you. Is love supposed to be so alone? I fear losing your love before I even have it."
But deep within her eyes, he saw her love for him, as he had at the brook -- and this time he did not laugh at her. He took her in his strong arms and kissed her passionately; and soon her longing was not to speak to him, but that her child should look exactly like him.
And within her mind came thoughts: I have loved others before thee. Shall I love after? Is love so brittle, as glass, that with age it becomes more delicate, more fragile? Yet, of all whom I have loved, I want my children to look like you -- to act like you -- to have . . . you. As I would like to have you. Is this so wrong?
Later, she left him sleeping soundly at the dawn, as would a dream. She left the woods behind; she left her friend behind; she left behind her kindred soul -- never to return.
And he never spoke of her again to any of his men; they knew not to question their master of the forest. Though he, in time, regained his natural good humor, and later even wed another lady, he was never quite the same.
But in a far away land, after a long journey home, her first words to her Bestower were, "I have brought him back."
This page was updated Tuesday, April 11, 2006 03:34 PM