No Tale for Troubadours

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The messenger who burst upon my chamber favored me with the sort of worshipful gaze I hadn’t seen in years. I was not best pleased to see him or his starry eyes. At my breast, Matilda sucked placidly, undisturbed by the stranger’s entrance. I didn’t bother to cover myself; if this sight embarrassed my visitor, he was welcome to leave. Isabel kept her eyes on her embroidery, too world-weary at ten to admit any interest in a stranger. But the middle children, Trude and Robin, stopped chasing each other and shrieking long enough to stare at our guest.

“Mama, who’s that fuzzy-haired sheep?” Trude said. “Is he a messenger from Papa?”

“Trude! That’s no way to speak of a guest,” I scolded her, though the man did look a bit sheeplike, with light curls around a mild face. He was obviously younger than I, and prettier than I’d been even when troubadours were still writing songs about me. Surely, this angel-faced boy had no call to look on me so raptly—unless he wanted something. “Sir,” I said, “Who are you, and why did my steward let you in? Surely, you know Lord Stephen is away at war. What business can you have with me?”

“I—I am Gervase, parson of the village of Valabas, near the Hard Mountains.”

“I know that country,” I said. Hard indeed—poor, rocky land where little grew but tough grass fit for tough goats. My father, as one of his less amiable jokes, had given me a stretch of barren terrain in the mountains as a dowry.

Gervase said, “I was told I would have the honor of meeting the Maiden of Revie.”

“No such maiden lives here.” I avoided his eyes as I delivered this half-truth.

“No? But—but—” Gervase stammered, “Are you not Lady Ursula of Veronne, born Ursula of Revie?”

Reluctantly, I confessed, “Just so. But I imagine you’ve noticed by now that I’m no maiden any more.” As if to punctuate my declaration, Matilda abruptly left my breast and jumped down to toddle after her brother and sister.

My visitor blinked at me as I laced up my bodice, then resumed speaking. “Maiden or wife, you are renowned across seven kingdoms for your valor—rescuer of Prince Claude, scourge of the Northern Raiders, slayer of the Murderous Baron of Swansby, heroine of the Crusade—”

“Don’t talk to me about the Crusade,” I snapped. “If there’s a devil in Hell, that was his work. Robin! Trude! Put Tilda down this instant! Isabel, can’t you watch them for a moment while I’m dealing with this messenger? Excuse me, sir. What were you saying?”

“Good Maiden—Good Lady, I should say—we need your strong right arm and your brave heart to defend us from a host of foes.”

“What do you imagine one aging swordswoman can do against an army?”

“I—I don’t know, Lady, but such wonders are spoken of you! They say you have the perfect strength that flows from a pure heart.”

“You have been listening to the troubadours, haven’t you? Well, you can put their rhyming nonsense right out of your wooly head. In the so-called Holy Crusade, I waded in blood. Pure heart, indeed! Why should I stain my hands again with human blood—”

“These are not men but demons,” the priest said.

“I’ve heard that before.”

“Lady, I beg you! Our fighting men are gone; not only the lord and his sons, but the blacksmith and any plowmen fit for the infantry have gone to war.”

That I could believe. These days, Loegris was a land of women, children, peasants, and priests. Since our King Henry of Loegris had fallen out with his cousin, King Henry of Albis, his vassals had been called to arms—among them my Stephen, a lamb in wolf’s clothing, a man of peace and honor—bound to wage war. I nodded. “So has my husband. Fortunately, no one thinks to call the lady of the manor to arms—except you, it seems.”

“Where else can I turn?” said Gervase. “There are none in Valabas now but poor laboring people. We live in terror of hellish raiders, unnatural creatures with fangs and claws to rend and kill. Not content to raid our sheepfolds, these fiends dig up the dead from our churchyard and leave a mess of splintered bones behind them, so mangled only God can ever sort out one body from another.”

That caught my ear. “I have known fiends like that, fiends in human form, who desecrated the bodies of the fallen to heap misery and shame upon their foes. I wish I could say none of them had been on our side. I swore I’d never let anyone do that again.”

“Then you’ll help us?” said Gervase.

“I suppose I must,” I sighed. Did he speak truth? Could I trust him? His threadbare elbows suggested a humble parson living close to the people he would have me defend—a world of difference from the smooth preacher who’d played upon my pity for distant strangers in Jerusalem. “Valabas has a sort of claim on me, being near my dowry-land. But tell me truly, Gervase, were you being poetic when you spoke of fangs and claws?”

He shook his head. “That is no poetry, Lady, but stark truth. Our enemies are trolls of the mountains, taller than the tallest man, with sinews like iron and hides like stone. We’ve pelted them with stones and arrows, and we’ve never yet seen one bleed.”

“I hope I won’t fail you,” I said solemnly. “In my youth, maybe, I would have laughed at the challenge. I’m not young any more.”

“You will not fail us, Maiden.”

“To fight an uncanny monster, I’ll need my old companion—if she’ll come. If she can even be released from the Abbey of the Holy Name. If she consents to leave her cloister and take up sorcery again.” I looked up sharply at the priest to see how he would take this request.

Gervase’s shining eyes were undimmed. “She will come. Surely, God will send us aid in our darkest hour.”

I set my household in order as quickly as I could, committing the estate to the care of the frail old steward, the steward to the care of the tough old housekeeper, the children to the care of Eloise, most trusted of serving-women.

Then came the moment I’d been delaying. With Eloise’s discreet assistance, I went through the storeroom and dug out a heavy, dusty box—a coffin, the coffin of the Maiden of Revie. I wrenched open the lid and looked at the wretched remains inside: my steel-plated brigandine, still bloodstained and, I feared, a bit rusty.

I knew it wouldn’t fit quite the way it did before four childbirths. I expected it to be tight in the hips and belly. I didn’t expect to be unable to get it past my breasts. Had I really been so slim, when I was the Maiden?

“Would my lady like me to—” Eloise began, then stopped, her calm pragmatism defeated. She couldn’t take it out for me, like an old gown. And no amount of assistance would squeeze me into the metal-plated skin of my old self.

“Would you please help me out of this, Eloise dear?” I said with what dignity I could muster.

“Certainly, my lady,” she said, unruffled, and liberated me from the trap of ill-fitting armor.

“I guess I’ve grown fat,” I mumbled, shame-faced.

“So have we all. The manor has prospered since your husband came into his heritage,” Eloise said placidly. “The land is well managed, the harvests are good, and there is plenty for all. You cut a good figure for a prosperous matron of your years.”

“And an ill one for the maiden warrior Gervase hoped to find,” I said ruefully. “Well, this armor can’t help me now. At least the coif and helmet fit.” I put them on to be certain. Their unaccustomed weight on my head was like the drag of old habits.

“I’m afraid I haven’t sent your sword to be polished, my lady.”

“I never asked you to, Eloise. In fact, if I’d asked you to do anything with it, it would have been to throw it in the lake, like King Arthur’s sword. Ah, well, it’s a good thing I postponed that rite.” I tried on the sword-belt. Luckily, it had been a long one. My shield looked fine, the painted unicorn still fresh in its green field—all that paint, no doubt, had kept it from rust. I shut the coffin lid on the unwearable armor, straightened, and drew the sword, amazed at how easily my hand took to it, as if it had always longed for the hilt, all these years of peace.

A voice behind me nearly startled me out of my helm. “Is that all your armor?” Isabel said skeptically.

“It’s all I need,” I said, sheathing the sword. “Swift action will be more important than armor in this battle. All that heavy steel would just slow me down.”

“Let me come with you,” she said.

“No.”

“Were you much older than ten when you turned knight-errant?”

“Lots,” I said, though it crossed my mind that in no time ten would become fourteen. I wondered whether I should drop that old armor in the river so she couldn’t follow in my bloody footsteps. “Besides, I’m counting on you to hold this castle until I return. Be prepared to direct resistance in case of a siege.”

Isabel nodded, somewhat but not entirely mollified. Dumping the armor in the river would do no good. Maybe I’d do better to tell her the whole truth about the Crusade. Someday. Not today.

Dressed and packed for my journey, I kissed the children goodbye, lingering regretfully with Tilda. I had postponed weaning her; now she’d be weaned the hard way, all at once. Hard for me, too, I expected, but no use lamenting. I’d fought with a broken arm—the left one, thank God—and I’d fought with a head wound bleeding into my eye; if I couldn’t fight with aching breasts, I wasn’t the Maiden of Revie. All right, I wasn’t any sort of maiden, but never mind that: I would soldier on. “Be good, children. Don’t tease Tilda, or I’ll make you answer for it, however far I may be.”

They all stared at me open-mouthed like baby birds expecting to be fed. “When will you be back?” said Robin forlornly.

“As soon as ever I can. I’ll sort out this trouble in Valabas, never fear, and hurry home to you. You’re the best children in the world,” I said. I could hardly speak for the lump in my throat. “Be kind to each other while I’m gone.”

“We will,” Isabel promised solemnly.

Trude’s eyes darted mischievously at Robin, and she smirked in a way that boded no good.

Isabel noticed that smirk. “Behave, Trude!” She cuffed her sister—a light tap, but it started a four-way melee right then and there. So much for filial peace and loving-kindness. With a sigh, I turned away from one battle toward another.

It was fortunate that Gervase knew the way to the Abbey of the Holy Name, for I had never been there. When Isabeau the Wise retreated there after the Crusade, I thought she needed time alone, so I did not try to visit her. By the time she sent word that she was taking vows, I was busy caring for a baby and a manor. After that, whether from some prohibition of her Order or personal disinclination, she sent no messages. I could only hope she was still there.

It was early spring, when you still feel winter’s teeth in the breeze, even in the sunshine. I tightened my hood around my ears, glad that I did not at once have to put on the metal coif, which would be icy in this weather. As we rode, clouds advanced across the sky, and a cold rain assailed us. We arrived on the portico of the Abbey cold, bedraggled, and miserable. Gervase was sniffling.

I knocked on the door and waited. A young nun in a black habit answered the door. “God give you good day, travelers. What brings you here?”

As Gervase sneezed, I spoke: “I must speak to Isabeau the Wise. I was told she retired to this abbey.” My mind teemed with doubts. Was it possible Isabeau had stayed so long in one place? She had always been mad to push on, seeking adventure, following her curiosity. What if she had left so long ago that no one could find her?

The young nun stood in the doorway, unsmiling and unyielding. “If she is here, then she has come to escape the blandishments of the world.”

“Yes, well, fortunately, we didn’t come with any blandishments,” I retorted.

Gervase cut me off. “Good Sister, we come on an urgent mission of mercy. I am the Parson of Valabas, a village sore beset by hellish trolls. I have come with Lady Ursula, the Maiden of Revie, to implore her to help deliver my people.”

His sweeter tones stopped the young nun’s tirade as my anger could not. Still, she left us shivering on the doorstep while she sought an answer inside. It’s all for nothing, I thought as we waited. Surely Isabeau is long gone.

A few sneezes later, the young nun returned. “The Abbess will see you. Follow me.”

She did not say Isabeau would see us, I noticed. She will take me to the Abbess, who will tell me Isabeau left years ago. But when the young nun bowed us into a cell, one of the two veiled women within raised her head, revealing a face as familiar as the palm of my hand: arched black brows, piercing blue eyes, straight nose, high cheekbones. I cried in relief, “Oh, Isabeau!”

She did not smile. “I left that name behind with the arts I once practiced. I am Sister Agony in the Garden, and my life is here. If you thought to win me away, Ursula, you’re years late.”

The joyful greeting died on my lips. This was Isabeau, all right: Isabeau at her most difficult, choleric, and outright mulish. Once, I could have broken her mood with a joke or the promise of a new adventure. Now I glared in silence.

“I see you still have a dreamy-looking troubadour traipsing along with you to sing your praises, just like in the old days,” Isabeau commented.

“He’s a priest,” I said.

“Maybe,” she said, “but he’s got a troubadour’s eyes. Every time he looks at you, I can practically hear him trying out quaint phrases to describe your—”

“Hush, Sister Agony,” said the nun beside her. “Sister Ascension, you are dismissed. Lady Ursula, Sir Gervase, sit with us, if you please. I am Mother Sermon on the Mount, the Abbess of this house. Anything you would discuss with Sister Agony in the Garden, you may discuss with me.”

Discuss? I could hardly speak. To see Isabeau again—so unchanged, and yet so untouchable—was like cold steel in my heart. I hadn’t realized how I’d longed to travel with her again, as we had so many times, so long ago. The longing stuck in my throat and silenced me.

Gervase, however, grew eloquent. “Thank you, Reverend Mother, for your hospitality. I know how trying it must be for you to admit a man to your chaste house. We will be as brief as we can. Good Sister Agony in the Garden, our case is desperate, and we beg your mercy. Valabas, where I am parson, is grieved by dire enemies, trolls from the mountains. I begged the Maiden of Revie to come help us; though she was loath to part from her children, she had pity on us. But the enemy we face is unearthly, and she needs your own strength and wisdom allied with her own. Will you, of your kindness, come to our rescue?”

Isabeau drew herself up very straight. “My heart weeps for your people, Parson, but you know not what you ask.”

“Sister Agony,” said the Prioress sternly, “once again your tongue outruns your sense of humility. Be not so quick to tell the Parson what he knows or does not know.”

“But he can’t know, or he would refuse to come here! Ursula would have me take up the accursed Arts of Solomon again, to the harm of my soul!”

I snapped, “Accursed or not, you saved lives with your arts. Will you refuse to save any more for fear of mussing your nice clean soul? Who made your soul more precious than theirs?”

The Abbess gave me a look that would freeze fire. I took the hint and shut my mouth. Then she turned on Isabeau. “Your theology is ill-considered, my daughter. For all Solomon’s sins, he was the Lord’s anointed, and not accursed. His gifts were given for a purpose, as were yours. Did you think that, coming to this abbey, you left behind the temptation to misuse your gifts? I have seen you fall to new temptations: spiritual pride and a sort of overblown moral fastidiousness that easily turns to sloth.”

“I have not been slothful! I keep the Infirmary stocked with herbs—I labor at the lowest tasks for my penance—why, I rise before anyone in this Abbey! And as for pride—”

The Abbess gave her a hell-freezing glare, and Isabeau shut up.

I wondered whether I could learn how to do that. It would be useful with the children.

When Mother Sermon on the Mount spoke again, it was in a calm, measured voice. “Sister Agony in the Garden, for your spiritual improvement in humility and active charity, I send you forth under the command of this priest.” The Abbess looked at me again—not the quelling glare, this time, but something like the look I might give a skein of floss when judging whether it was good enough for the altar-cloth I was embroidering. After a few moments, she smiled almost imperceptibly. “And this lady. Obey Lady Ursula meekly, unless her commands conflict with those of the priest, until you learn true humility.”

Isabeau’s jaw tightened. “Yes, Reverend Mother.”

It was an awkward ride to Valabas with Isabeau behind me in the saddle. For a long time she was silent; when I could bear it no longer, I began to babble. “I half expected to find you gone beyond recall, Isabeau.”

“Sister Agony,” she corrected.

“Ah, yes. Sister Agony. Who would have guessed it! I never thought you could bear to stay in one place for a whole season, let alone ten years.”

She responded dryly, “It is humbling indeed to know that you thought me incapable of keeping my vow.”

“That’s not what I meant! Isabeau, you’re the last person I’d have expected to take vows in the first place. I could see you as a solitary anchoress, alone with God in the wilderness. But not within cloister walls.”

“Indeed, we have surprised each other in many things. I never would have guessed the Maiden of Revie would leave her sworn companion in the midst of a war to ride pillion behind a lesser knight—”

“Stephen is not a ‘lesser knight,'” I said hotly. “He is a man of peace, wise in many things. When he lost all his brothers in one day’s battle, and turned home, half mad with grief, I went with him, fearing he might do something desperate. But I needn’t have feared. All the way home he learned from the people we met and the lands we passed through: new ways of farming, of managing land, of ordering a village. He’s made a better victory of our little manor than any crusader will ever make of Jerusalem. Everything he touches turns out better than it seemed to be. He even explored the barren land my father endowed me with, that everyone said was worthless, and found gold there! His men are digging a mine, using methods he learned along the way home from the Holy Land.”

“So those wagon-loads of men and tools that passed through our village were yours?” Gervase said.

“Ours, yes—the mine must be fairly close to Valabas,” I said, then found myself answering Gervase’s questions about the mine, and Stephen’s improved crop-rotation patterns, and whether Valabas might benefit from a similar plan, while my once-inseparable companion fell silent behind me, closed up tight as an oyster.

She didn’t speak to me again until we dismounted to refresh the horses and ourselves. I took some time to exercise with the sword; I didn’t know whether to be pleased or frightened at how easily it came back to me.

“How swiftly you move!” Gervase marveled.

“Not up to your old speed,” Isabeau said with unwelcome accuracy. “Are you sure you’re ready?”

“I’ve got to be. If there were anyone else to send, I’d have sent them,” I said. “Hopefully I’ve gained in wisdom what I’ve lost in speed. And you? Do you still have your old power?”

I didn’t see the expression on her face, absorbed in my own practice; but I heard her voice falter. “I, ah, I haven’t had occasion to find out.”

Unlike Isabeau, I was not inclined to pick at that sore. Instead I sheathed my sword and uncovered the food I’d brought for us all.

Isabeau stared at my careful provisions in horror. “Cheese? During Lent?”

“What did you think, I had a pot of pease porridge in my saddle-bag?” I said crossly. “We had a dispensation for cheese during the Crusade. Why not now?”

“You used to be rather sarcastic about the dispensations offered for crusading,” she reminded me.

“Not this one. It made sense then, and it makes more sense now. I can hardly fight monsters on bread alone.” I set the loaf between her and Gervase; if they were inclined to be fastidious, they were perfectly welcome to it.

“Christ faced the Devil fasting,” Isabeau said sternly.

“Well, good for Him. Not being divine, I have to go about things a bit differently. But maybe you don’t share that limitation. Maybe you can multiply this loaf. Maybe the next time you and I make a disaster of our mission, you can raise all the dead back to life.”

“Don’t blaspheme,” she said.

“I’m not blaspheming, Isabeau—”

I’m not Isabeau any more. I’m Sister Agony in the Garden!”

“Oh, how could I forget? Sister Agony. Did you choose that name, or did you earn it?”

“It has meaning,” she said. “I thought you’d understand. Or didn’t you see what I suffered, back there in the Holy Land?”

“We both went through agony,” I said. “What I don’t understand is how you could have such regard for what the Church tells you, after that lying monk led us all down the road to Hell.”

“One monk isn’t the whole Church. That’s no reason to turn your back on God.”

“I haven’t,” I said. “Only on the men who claim to speak in God’s name. Present company excepted,” I added belatedly.

“Never mind,” Gervase said mildly. “Just what happened to you on Crusade to make you both so bitter?”

Sister Agony spoke first. “The last time I used my—the Arts of Solomon—I—I wrought too powerfully. A whole marketplace turned to one vast inferno. The very air burned, and as people inhaled it, they went up like firewood—Saracens and Crusaders together—men, women, and children—all but me and Ursula, who stood under my protection.”

“Was that why you would never look at me afterward?” I said, “Because you wouldn’t have done it, if I hadn’t been there to protect? Because I was your occasion of sin?”

Isabeau frowned. “It was you who wouldn’t look at me. As if I’d become something diabolical. And I had.”

“What had I become, myself, by then?” I said. “I wasn’t an innocent before the Crusade, but once, I could tell myself I only killed at need.

“That monk who preached the Crusade—he told us that if we didn’t beat back the Saracens, Christians in the Kingdom of Jerusalem would be forced at sword-point to sacrifice their first-born children to demons. When we reached the Holy Land, we were the ones committing blood sacrifice. I wasn’t a knight-errant any more, challenging killers to single combat; I was part of an army, one drop in a tide that killed anyone in its way. When an army does evil, your only choices are to murder your conscience, or to betray your comrades. Damnation lies on either path.” My mouth tasted bitter with the words that tumbled out. “I remember a sniper dealing death from a window. Her aim was inhumanly precise; she felled dozens of us, but our archers couldn’t touch her. So we set our arrows alight and burned her house, and then,” I swallowed bile, “then I saw the children she had been protecting leap from the upper-story windows to escape the flames.

“We were the ones sacrificing children, Sir Priest. I saw no demons among the Saracens worse than the ones I found in myself. When Sir Stephen left for home, I went with him—for his protection, I told myself, but really, I think I knew he was my only road out of Hell. He never forgot how to be kind, not even in the midst of the slaughter. He carries peace in him. Sometimes, by his side, I can even go to sleep without seeing those burning, falling children.”

I did not look at Gervase, but I could feel his eyes on me. “I see. I thought you two could not forgive each other, but I was wrong. It’s yourselves that you haven’t forgiven.” He began praying softly but audibly. I’ve knelt by enough deathbeds to recognize absolution when I hear it.

When he was done, I whispered, “Which of us was that for?”

“Whichever of you will accept it,” he said. “And for whatever a poor parson’s word is worth, I think you should eat for strength, Lady. We will need all your strength at Valabas.”

When we reached Valabas, the day was fast fading. “The trolls will come soon,” said Gervase. “They attack by twilight.”

“Where should we wait for them?” I said.

Gervase considered. “The shepherds have been defending the pasture and paddock with fire, turning the trolls back. It’s the graveyard that’s less defended.”

“Then lead us there.”

The graveyard lay sprawled over a hillock and valley behind a modest stone church. We left our horses at a neighbor’s stable; Gervase’s poor old nag would be no use in battle, and even my Greatheart could not help much either in a close battle over a grave, or in pursuit up the steep rocky heights that loomed beyond the graveyard, fit only for mountain goats and trolls. It was cold here in the hill country, with snow still clinging to the north side of each rise; night might bring a freeze, with treacherous icy patches hidden in the shadowy ground.

“Will you bring holy water from the font to douse the fiends with?” Isabeau asked Gervase.

He ducked his head sheepishly. “If it pleases you, Sister. But I’ve never seen that it daunted them in any way.”

“Ah.” She was silent awhile, pensive.

Meanwhile, I sought out a spot for an ambush. A thicket of brush offered partial shelter where we might hope to see before we were seen. I took up my post, then, and readied my weapons.

“A crossbow?” Isabeau said curiously. “You used to say they were unknightly—not to mention ungainly.”

“I used to believe everything old knights told me or troubadours sang. I used to be a fool. It’s a slow weapon, I admit. But Gervase said arrows wouldn’t pierce troll-hide. A crossbow bolt bites deeper. I keep them at Castle Veronne as siege weapons: unsubtle but powerful.”

She nodded solemnly. “All right. You have your weapons in place; now it’s my turn. I’ll have to cast a Protection on you.”

“Not this time. I can protect myself.”

“Then why did you drag me along?” she snapped.

“I don’t know—for the refined conversation?”

She didn’t get her hand over her mouth quite fast enough: I caught her smirk. “Listen, you stubborn steel-head—”

“No. I won’t be the only one shielded from the slaughter. Not again.”

“Don’t make me explain to Stephen how I let you go to your death.”

“Don’t torment yourself, Agony,” I said. “I mean to make good use of you. Can you sharpen my senses? I’ve been riding all day, I’m tired, and I don’t dare miss a single troll footstep.”

She thought, then nodded. “I’ll cast a Vigilance on your senses—and maybe on mine and Gervase’s, too. Even with a Vigilance, three watchers are better than one.” She drew a pouch from her cloak. “Gervase, I’ll need a fire to warm the elements in this spell—taken from the Sanctuary lamp, if you can, to bless our endeavors—and your prayers that my work will not turn evil this time.”

The priest bowed his head. “God guard you, body and soul, and bless the work of your art, Sister. I’ll get the fire for your spell.”

I watched Sister Agony in the Garden as she ground herbs in her hand-mortar, mixed them with oil, and set them over a little fire. She chanted over them, her hands perilously close to the flame, but I know it was not heat that made sweat run down her face like drops of blood. The name she had chosen for herself was apt. Again she tasted the agony of doubt: the fear that she did wrong, outweighed only by the fear of doing nothing. And again, she did so at my request. If she needed to hide herself in an abbey the rest of her life thereafter, I must let her pursue her peace. I had asked enough of her for a lifetime.

When her chant was done, she dug her thumbs into the mixture and anointed my eyelids, nose, lips, ears, and fingertips. Last she touched my forehead; with that, my senses sprang to new life. I could hear the heartbeats of my two companions, and the faster one of a crow perched in the thicket nearby. I could smell the slow waking of spring, the snow in the mountains, the ore in the rocks. Stranger still, I could understand what the sorceress did as she opened her own senses and those of Gervase. I could feel their readiness as I felt my own. And I felt the quaking of the soil as, somewhere behind a yew bush, quick claws scrabbled at a frost-hardened grave.

I drew my crossbow. With my newly sharpened senses, I knew just where to aim, how to send the bolt between the branches and strike my unseen enemy. A wordless cry rose from the stricken troll—but its companion leapt over the yew to attack me.

Gervase had not lied. The granite-gray creature that sprang toward me bore the claws and teeth of a bear, though its eyes looked human, the same angry eyes I’d seen on Saracen and fellow Crusaders. Too late to span my crossbow, I drew my sword and struck with all my might in the midst of its breast. The blade did not sink in. Still, the force of the blow drove the creature backward, gasping for breath. I struck again and again till the monster fled: not bleeding, but not invulnerable. Till then, it had only met frightened villagers, untrained in the arts of war; it did not know what to make of me.

I did not have long to enjoy the victory. At the opposite edge of the graveyard, another monster despoiled a grave. I spanned my crossbow and moved toward the soft sound of digging. This fiend had worked quickly while I’d been busy with its comrades. Already the hellish thing had a human thighbone in its mouth. With a hideous crunch, it bit through the bone to suck the marrow.

“Drop it, you hell-hound!” I shouted as I loosed my bolt. I hit it right where its heart should be, if it had one. It did not sink in, but it hit with a resounding smack.

The monster retreated, bruised if not bleeding. But this time, I thought I heard words in its cry: “Heartless fiend!”

I ran from one grave to another, surprising the trolls as they dug. Crossbow—bolts troubled them most, but I rarely had time to span the bow. Most often I was forced into hand-to-hand fighting, which was not to my advantage. The trolls had claws, fangs, and, in their tough skin, a sort of armor; I had none of these. My sword would not bite, even when I could reach to strike them; and that was not often, for troll arms were far longer than mine. But sometimes I won by sheer speed: Isabeau’s spell had quickened my senses, and besides, the trolls’ movements were slow and heavy, as if weighed down by battle armor.

Not until I hacked off a scale did I realize that what I had taken for troll-hide was, in fact, armor, or at least protective clothing of enviable quality. It looked as rough and gray as the troll’s skin, but he did not flinch when I broke it, and by then I knew my opponent too well to think him simply impervious to pain. This was not a beast fighting in his bare skin, but a cunning creature who had fashioned a covering for himself. I faced the trolls with new respect and new fear.

I lunged at the gap I’d made in the armor; this time, my sword bit flesh—not soft like human flesh, but less hard than the outer covering. Roaring, the troll raked my shoulder with claws like daggers. Now I missed my brigandine indeed.

I struck my foe in the face with my shield, wrenched my sword out of his thigh, and slashed at his arm. This time, I did not scratch the armor, but at least the weight of my blow confounded him for a moment. He released me, and I scrambled atop a gravestone from which I could survey the field.

I felt hot blood soaking the shoulder of my coat. What was on my sword was not like blood, but thicker, muddy. I could see nothing flowing from the troll’s thigh-wound, but he limped painfully backward away from me.

Another troll came running, and I braced for the attack; but this one only wrapped his arms around the wounded one, slung him over one shoulder, and carried him away. Yet another circled Isabeau warily, from time to time dodging the hot sparks she sent flying from her mortar.

Gervase defended another grave with a slingshot—valiant enough, but God knows, he was no David to these Goliaths. I leapt from the gravestone and rushed headlong at a troll that menaced him. In my mind, I could hear Isabeau commenting wryly that my hard head was deadlier than my sword. That at least gave me something to laugh about as my wounded shoulder resounded with the shock of the impact. Nonetheless, I accomplished my goal: I knocked the troll down where I could slash at his unprotected face. They had armor, but no visors. Thick, sludgy troll blood oozed from the wounded muzzle. I thrust through his mouth, and the troll lay still.

Bile rose to my throat; I forced it down. This is not a man, I told myself. That was not a sin. Nonetheless, I felt I would give my right arm to be out of that battle, at home, at peace, with Stephen by my side and my children around me. I belonged to life now, not death. I wanted no more of this.

Isabeau screamed when the next troll raced toward me. I saw a belt of sparks rise from her mortar as she cast a hurried protection, but such spells are chancy things without proper preparation. I was not entirely surprised when the shining belt encircled the troll instead of me. Sister Agony shouted a word entirely ill-suited to the cloister—or perhaps it was a spell-breaker, because the belt of light dissolved. I faced the troll, uncertain whether to slash at his impervious armor or grapple with his powerful arms. But he did not attack me: he simply hefted the body of his fallen comrade and ran.

I could have caught him easily, for the Vigilance sped my nerves, while his burden slowed him down. But I let him go. Good warriors don’t leave the fallen to the enemy’s mercies, nor do chivalrous knights hold dead enemies hostage.

All around, I saw trolls retreating. I was half-inclined to let them go, till I saw Gervase sprint off, shouting, after a troll who was making away with a human corpse.

What would he do if he caught the troll? Pray at him? I followed as fast as I could; Isabeau came on my heels.

The mountain troll, of course, made for the slopes; as running became climbing, our advantage of speed vanished. At times it was all we could do to keep the troll in sight.

“I don’t understand them,” I muttered as we climbed.

Gervase, panting and laboring on the steep rise, cast a weary glance at me. “What is there to understand?”

“Why do they attack the churchyard at all? They don’t act like those fiends who cut up the bodies of the dead and display them to horrify the living. They simply take them as a thief takes a coin. Why?”

Gervase grimaced. “To defile a sacred place—the devils!”

“But they don’t act like devils,” I argued. “They forfeit chances to attack us so they can rescue their wounded. They act like a good army, loyal and honorable.”

“Is it honorable to take the bodies of my neighbors from consecrated ground?”

“That’s the one thing that doesn’t fit,” I admitted. “I wish I could understand them!”

“I’d rather we could catch up with them,” Gervase said.

Isabeau, to my surprise, took my side. “You have to understand your enemies. Otherwise, they keep doing things you don’t expect. And even you must admit they don’t flee from the Name of God. They can’t be bound as one binds a spirit. Ursula is right: they’re not devils.”

“I can’t believe my ears. Did you say I was right about something? Ow!” My wounded shoulder twinged as I grabbed a rock to clamber higher.

“Be still and let me tend your wound,” she said.

“Where’s your promised obedience, Sister Agony?”

As I expected, this consideration swayed her not at all. She seized my arm.

“Ow! Let go.” I pulled away, slipped on an icy patch, then recovered and resumed climbing.

“You won’t be much use in battle if you bleed to death on the way up.”

“Or you, if you spend yourself too soon. How many spells have you worked today—after ten or twelve years out of practice? Remember how you swooned at the Battle of Feorgard?”

“How can I forget, when you never cease to remind me?” she growled. “But I needn’t use magic now. Just let me clean your wounds.”

“There’s no time,” I said, for the trolls sped ahead of us. Isabeau climbed nimbly enough, but I was sweating from the effort of hauling my fat body up the rocks, and spindly Gervase looked exhausted.

“But you have a chest wound!” Isabeau wailed.

“Eh?” I looked down at the damp spot near my breast. “No, no. That’s just milk.”

Milk? Really? Don’t you use a wet-nurse?”

“Wet-nurses are for cowards,” I said, though the jostling of my full breasts as I climbed certainly added to my misery, and I was starting to wonder whether I’d be in any condition to fight the trolls when and if we caught up to them.

“I wish you’d told me sooner,” Isabeau said. “I know some fascinating spells that call for mother’s milk. I’ve never had any to work with.”

“Then you shouldn’t have shut yourself in an abbey,” I said. “You should have come home with me and Stephen. If you wanted to avoid the blandishments of the world, I’m sure we could have found you a nice cave to be a hermit in.”

“Those claw-marks on your back should never have happened. Where’s your armor?”

“I’d hate to be climbing these rocks in a load of armor,” I said. “Why Isabeau, I might almost think you cared about my safety.”

She shot me a hurt look. “I always cared. You’re the one who left me, you know.”

“What do you mean? I begged you to come with us. You wouldn’t leave the war.”

“With you and Stephen casting honeyed glances at each other, do you think I believed for a moment that you wanted me?”

“What, I can’t have a husband and a friend at once? Of all the foolish things—”

Ssh!” Gervase hissed.

We stifled our argument and listened. Ahead and above us, we’d become used to the scrabbling sound of the troll climbing. Now we heard footsteps—walking, not climbing—and more than one pair of feet.

Isabeau drew a cord from her cloak and began twisting it, knotting it, muttering over it inaudibly. I recognized the ritual: someone was going to trip and fall. God grant it would not be me this time: it’s hard to direct a spell in a hand-to-hand fight. More carefully than ever, I scaled the remaining height of the ridge and vaulted the last rock to emerge on a small plateau.

The troll with the corpse over his shoulder wheeled around to look at me. “Foul fiend!” he shouted.

Beyond him, two trolls emerged from a cave in the mountainside. I drew my sword.

“No!” shouted my adversary as another, much smaller troll ran pell-mell from the shelter of the cave, tripped, and tumbled over the ridge where my companions were hiding. The big troll, lunging to protect the little one, slipped and fell face-down on the icy rock.

“It’s a child, a child!” I cried. I sheathed my sword and sped after the hapless youngster.

The claws that clung to the ledge were sturdy, made for climbing crags. But thanks to Isabeau’s spell, the little one had gotten himself—or herself?— dangling precariously with no ledge for the feet. I backed down the slope, setting myself between the trollkin and my friends. “Isabeau, it’s just a child,” I said.

Bless her, she understood. I did not see what she did, too intent on the child myself to look behind me, but I felt an invisible mantle of protection wrap around us both, me and the trollkin together. Trusting to her protection, I took my hand off the rock-face to steady the child.

The little one flinched away from me violently, and would have fallen but for Sister Agony’s spell. Gently but forcefully, I guided two small clawed feet to ridges and helped the little troll climb back to the waiting parents.

My adversary put down the corpse she carried—yes, she. How had I failed to notice? She clasped the child to her bosom for a long moment. Finally, she spoke to me. “I know not how to greet you, warrior of the Mud People. Are you my mortal enemy, or my daughter’s foster-mother? Why slay my neighbors, then save my daughter?”

“I want no war with children,” I said. “But your neighbors made war on my people first.”

“We craved no war with the Mud People till they sought to slay us as we gathered food.”

Gervase joined me on the rise. “Our beloved dead are not food.”

The troll drew her brows down. “You Mud People abandon your dead for mute worms to eat, but begrudge them to speaking people, bearers of souls? You kill living lambs for your food, but begrudge us the ones that die by mischance?”

I was too revolted to answer. But Isabeau, true to form, was curious. “Carrion eaters—like crows or bears—I see! And endowed with souls? Do you know who formed your soul, Troll of the Mountains?”

The troll bowed her head. “The One Maker, Shaper of the World, who molded your people of mud, shaped my ancestors out of rock and placed them in a fruitful grove. But they were exiled for their sins, and since that downfall, each spring we must eat the food of death until life blooms anew. When fruits abound, we give up carrion and rejoice.”

Isabeau turned to Gervase. “Surely these are not devils, but creatures of God like us, susceptible to both sin and grace. Surely we can parley with them for peace.”

It was a strange peace conference. The little troll, seated between me and her mother, kept stealing frightened glances at me, then huddling closer to her mother’s side. On my other side sat Sister Agony, Gervase, and the Elders of Valabas, who looked positively green with terror. All around us were trolls, great and small. The largest of them stood on a high rock before us. “I, Hrething, Queen of the Stone People of the Mountain, welcome the Mud People of the Vale under my protection to speak peace, by the bond of Ursula, warrior of the Mud People, now foster-mother to Gif, daughter of Edyif of the Stone People.”

“Foster mother?” I sputtered.

“Whoever saves a child’s life becomes another parent to that child,” the Queen said. “You were our mortal foe till then. Now we must seek peace, or dishonor that bond.”

“We seek peace, too,” said the Chief Elder of Valabas, his voice shaking, “but not at the price of our dead.”

“The eating of our dead is loathsome to the Mud People,” Isabeau explained. “Is there not enough carrion in your own lands? In these Hard Mountains, surely, many things die during the winter. You tell me that you eat carrion every spring. But you never needed to assail Valabas till this year.”

“It is too early,” said the Troll Queen. “So cold, so barren. The winter dead are still frozen in the heights. We should be asleep now, dreaming the Great Dreams of Wisdom and Foreknowledge, but for the devilish noise and clamor that woke us before our time.”

“What noise and clamor?” Isabeau asked.

The troll shuddered. “Mud Men have come to tear out the mountain’s heart with tools of iron.”

I put a hand to my head. “My gold mine!”

Everyone stared at me. “My father gave me a stretch of hill-country hereabouts—barren, dry, no one’s ever tried to live in it. But there is a vein of gold in the ground. My husband’s men have begun digging a mine.”

“That must stop,” the Troll-Queen said. “Without the Great Dreams, our children grow sickly and fretful, and we all grow hungry too early in the year, needing more carrion than these hills provide. Let us sleep as the Maker intended. Leave us in peace, and we will leave you in peace.”

And so the peace treaty was concluded, at less cost than any I had yet encountered. I would be sorry to tell Stephen the gold mine had failed—he’d been so proud of finding value in even the most worthless things I brought to the marriage—but that would be a small regret, if only I could see him home safe from the war with as little hurt as I’d taken in my return to knight-errantry.

After the parley was done, Isabeau remained deep in talk with the trolls. “Come on, Is—um—Sister Agony,” I said, “You must be anxious to get back to your abbey. As for me, I have to hurry to my husband’s miners and tell them to stop. And then find some work for them around the manor, so they won’t turn brigands on the road. My work is far from done.”

“I’m not going back to the abbey,” she said. “I’ve agreed to stay with the trolls for a season as surety of your promise. And besides, I want to stay. I want to learn from their Great Dreams of Prophecy and Foreknowledge.” Her eyes shone with wonder, curious, eager, like in the old days, when a new path unfolded at her feet and she could not wait to run and see where it led. “I want to dream with them, withdrawn in the dark till Easter flowers forth—a truer Lenten fast than the one in the abbey. I will teach them, in return, our own prayers and sacred scriptures.”

“This one has the heart of a troll,” the one she’d been speaking to said approvingly. “We have much to teach each other.”

“But—but—Sister Agony—Isabeau—will I ever see you again?”

“Come back here in the summer. By then, I may have found—how did you put it?—a nice cave as a hermitage.”

I wrapped my arms firmly around her. “You’d better be there. I’ll miss you. How I’ve missed you!”

“And I you. But take heart: we did gain some wisdom for the strength we lost with age. You did well, Maiden of Revie.”

“And you. Isabeau the Wise. Or Agony, if you prefer.”

“Wasn’t I always a bit of an Agony?” She squeezed me very hard, then released me. I felt the pressure of her fingers all the way down the mountain.

“What will we tell the abbess?” I fretted to Gervase as we set off with my husband’s miners as escort.

“Tell her Sister Agony is preaching the Good News of Christ to the mountain trolls,” Gervase said. “In truth, I’m not sure her abbess expected her back.”

“Now that you’ve taken part in one of our adventures, what do you think of those troubadours’ songs?”

Gervase took on that misty-eyed look again. “They fell short of the truth, Lady. They said you were beautiful, brave, and good—but they never told me you were wise as well.”

“You’re incurable,” I said. “At least no troubadour will be singing of this latest victory-saving a mountain troll! When has peacemaking ever made ballads?”

“Perhaps it’s high time it did,” said Gervase. He hummed to himself all the way down the road, no doubt composing in his head. How long before a highly-colored song of the adventure found its way to Veronne? I hastened home to tell my daughter Isabel what really happened, before minstrels turned all the blood and sweat and folly to poetry.

end article

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Pauline J Alama

About Pauline J Alama

Pauline J. Alama, author of the quest fantasy THE EYE OF NIGHT (Bantam Spectra 2002), studied medieval literature at the University of Rochester, but was ultimately expelled from academia for her controversial theories on the Klingon origin of Beowulf. Her short stories have appeared in REALMS OF FANTASY, SWORD & SORCERESS, ABYSS AND APEX, and various anthologies.