After we ate full and plenty a high supper with Sire and Dame Carpenter, it was time to saddle Magdalene again, and ride for Upton. again when I arrived outside my old home, I was struck by both how little the scene had changed, and how different it all felt, to be long away. But my brother Simon met us and took us indoors. Davis, my father, lay back in his bed, complaining as that his back ached sore, each morning on many days, he barely moved from his bed, yet. Simon looked to me and shrugged.
“It is like this for him. The years wear upon him mercilessly.”
“Aye, my boy, that they do. And you do what you can, yes, but all I am is a burden to you.”
“You are not my burden, Father! More that it is my duty to pull the plow and bend to the scything!”
“But then you still do that, Simon, and you are strong yet.”
I looked from one to the other, not able really to tell what the issues were. I knew of Simon’s wound, and would fain he showed it to me soon, but as for Davis’ problem rising each day from his bed, I knew no cause, but perhaps, weary of living, he had taken to it out of torpor. For there was still spite in his voice and some vigor to his emphatic gestures. I decided not to speak, yet, and pulled the last gift of brandy from the pack. I set it beside Davis on the bed.
“What is this? You bring me an elixir?”
“Indeed, an elevating elixir,” I laughed. “This brandy came from Normandy, where it is cider, distilled from the best pressed apples, and a delicacy to the kind.”
“When have you been to France?” he asked, a skeptical cast now to his eye and tongue.
“Ah, but good father, we traveled there last year, as we were married here and then driven south by good Stephen of the manor...”
“Ah, him. I forgot. And so you had yourself many interesting journeys?”
“Just that it was, a few fortnights away from our home, yes.”
Simon bade Mary to sit at the table, where there were laid out on it towels, rags, and bandages for the old man.
“Every day I need wrap my legs in these, hot and damp, that it might sweat out the vile humors that occasion my mornings. If you think I like this...”
I waved my hand, and Davis was quiet.
“Simon, how have you fared? I left you and you were yet healing.”
“I still walk with a staff, Julian. And when I plow, I must lean with the force of it, yet that it takes me twice as long to pull what I did a year ago, it still can be done. it must be done! for who else have we to care for this? Most days he will not even arise, and at that, I must prepare the hot cloths.”
“And you have had no call for muster?”
“No, none at all. Of course I did go, when they called it out, but the men reviewed all and said I was not fair sturdy to soldier. I kept silent about my plowing and sheep-droving. But they would not have me, and for that, we are glad. I fain would not fight for this Prince Henry besides. I find him wretched, headstrong, and bellicose.”
“He is yet his father’s son.”
“Yes, he yet is, and apple fall not far from tree, does it now?”
We looked deeply to each other, Simon clapped me on my shoulder, and bade pay attention to our brandy.
“Let us then drink again, and a toast to good Julian and Mary! How kind they are to bless us with their presence.”
Simon poured each of us a cup. Now, just like yesterday, we had both had more of the brandy than those we had gifted of it! And were feeling it warmly, too, for all that.
Davis sipped it, and remarked, “This is indeed extraordinary. Made of cider, you say? By what process this?’
“Father, it is a chemist’s magic, with coils and kettles and flasks, I am sure. It is a magic all right! A most good, beneficent magic...”
“Would that I had more food for you all, Julian. Tonight, we are eating the rest of our lamb stew...”
“It is fine, sire, whatever you serve us. We have supped, at Mary’.”
“But you are both welcome to sleep here, yes!”
“Oh that we had planned on. just lie our blankets out in the yard...”
“In the yard? No, I meant beneath my roof!”
“All the same, good Father, we would fain be close together, and under the sky will suit us both fine.”
“As you wish it, then. Simon, heat up the stew, if you would.”
The old man leaned back and swigged off his brandy cup. I could tell that the taste of it rang some far-off bell in his mind, for he smiled, quite satisfied, swigged again, then set the cup down, closed his eyes, and leaned back against his pillows.
Simon took the pile of rags which Davis had been used to swaddling his legs for the night, and had heated some in boiling water, and Davis groaned mightily from the heat applied to his limbs. As he lay back, he pointed to a picture on the wall. This picture had been there, on that wall, for my entire life, and barely registered with me for many years. It was so commonly seen each day all that time, I never paid it much mind. It was a painting of a place not far, actually, from our farm in Upton, a place on the sea at the top edge of Wirral— probably, much closer to Roger’s first home, than it ever was to ours. It was a cove which was often used for smuggling, and had high cliffs, it was hidden from the upper ones by a small forest, and the painting was just that— cliffs, trees, shoreline, sea.
I leaned over so I could hear Davis trying to speak. His voice had sunk to the level of a whisper, for he was feeling for his sleep, and would soon be tapering off.
“There, Julian! There it was that I met your mother. It was so many years ago... We were so much younger, and she so beautiful...”
But he said no more, and was soon in slumber. I would look longer at that picture, and in a much different fashion than I had before, but I was happy to know there still were thoughts my father held of her. For she was still in some way, ever always, a mystery yet to me.
And so, we turned in that night in blankets wrapped snug and tight around us both, while the weather was yet still pleasant, and we slept beneath the moon and stars, feeling good in that we had honored our parents all in returning for this visit. We planned to stay another two days, with another day with my father, another evening and day with Alexandra and finally, another day with Stephen and Porcull. But that night, while I slept, I had the strangest of dreams, and it shook me through and through.
For I dreamed I was in the presence of my mother, whom the plague had taken when I was not yet four. And it was as if she were alive. This shocked me, and I spoke to her shade, crying out even: “But you are dead! How is this that you speak to me?” and even in my dream, my soul was darkly afraid, and I shuddered.
But she spoke to me calmly, that I might cast aside fear.
“I see now you are not ready yet, then Julian. farewell, until we will meet again. Bless you on your path, and your wife and child...” And then, she was gone, the spirit which had spoken to me was as if it were one with the trees and the stones and the music of the earth I had trained myself a year to hear and recognize, and I woke up, it was not yet light, and I pondered what all it was to mean, as Mary slept at my side.
“Not yet ready?” Whatever did this mean? Was she indeed telling me to have no fear of dying, that death was not an end to our lives and our minds’ hearts? “Not yet ready?” Did this mean she would be back again, at some point, to impart to me all which was implied in that? Was I wrong to reach out, panicked, in my dream state, crying to her return thence the shadow of which she manifested? What was I missing?
Surely the monks would have their own answer to this, but I was unsure that it might satisfy me, and I was left with these questions, lying by my wife. “My wife and child?” I had no child, yet! Was I to gain one? What manner of talk was this? Yet I had no plan for it, even if it might be a dream of Mary’s. We were still in the early phases of our tavern- we had not established ourselves to the degree we should, lest we found our family prematurely; and as she stirred beside me, I considered all that might mean too. A child? What, that I may have a son, who may yet grow up himself to stalk the hills and valleys for Owain Glyndwyr under the banner of the Prince and the King? That he might learn of taverns and minstrels and places spied from the bulwarks of boats, and dream of sunsets unknown, horizons I might never taste of? Or if I had a daughter, for whom I must provide a trousseau and dowry, and all things good and profitable, that it might all go to some young man whom I had not even a fraction of a fantasy of himself? That I might thereby hold to the land my fealty— to Baron Anselm or others— knowing that all must one day end in her taking my leave, and going her way, off on some strange fairground undreamt of?
All these things I reflected upon as I lie there. And then, Mary awoke, it was close yet to the dawn, but we began the very thing that might have been the start of the next generation of Plectrums.
After we breakfasted with dear old Father and Simon on eggs and chops, we had a tearful farewell. I had a feeling, and I knew this deep in my gut, it was the last I would see of the old man. He had tried to do well for me, only my place in the family had been set quite so much by fate, and not accident. He hugged me— such a thing that he might not have done in my younger years, but there was something in his eye that made me feel this time, after all which had transpired, and after the time I had spent living out on my own a free man, that he had some sincere regret of a sort he could not put in words.
I felt this, and yet I was silent.
Simon handed me a felt hat, with a long feather in it, and told me that it was for me to wear, now that I was a man of the town. I nearly protested, but yet, did not, that I did not live in the town, but this made no difference, really. Davis took Mary’s hand and she helped him walk to the door of the cottage.
“My son, I wish only one thing of you, and one thing for you. That is that you never forget this place, this house, this love which might have been so small, and yet, was the most I could do for you. Be you healthy, and happy, and God bless your little wife, for she is fair, and kind, and I know in my heart now, so are you.”
Simon led Magdalene down the road and walked with us.
“Where are you off to now, Julian?”
“We have business yet in Chester. We need to see Mary’s parents again, and to stop at the home of one of her friends, and we need to pay respects at the grave of a dear friend— Richard, who was the father of my friend Stephen, who was killed last year. And when we are done with all of it, by eveningtide we should be traveling south on our way again homeward. That is, if we are not waylaid, nor come up against any calumny.”
“I too wish you two well, Julian. Good it will be for father to know that you are up in the world, and you never ran afoul of the laws of our shire, nor took to arms like me. For my wound still pains me, especially on the days when the sky is grey and a storm is on the way. As though the bite of metal is a bite to tell me how the weather sits! And yet I limp, and ever shall. But enough of me! Good health to you, and fair journey!”
He shook his hand in a gentle wave, and as Magdalene began her lazy trot away, I looked back over my shoulder to see Simon, silhouetted on the short roadway against the cottage, with its pleasant trees, and I noticed only then that I was crying, too.
We got to Robert’s just as the Carpenters were finishing up their own late breakfast, and Mary put aside any thoughts of them forcing us to remain for their lunch. By now, the questions she had for Pamela’s mother had weighed upon her for weeks, and the closer we got to the time we could see her, the more antsy she became about getting on with that. So while she was not rude to her parents, now though she did seem to have preoccupation.
Alexandra took me aside and told me what a good thing it was that Mary had met me when she had.
“Otherwise, all the rogues of Chester would have come out, and given Roger and I no peace, being the Queen of the May, and all. But with you she has her destiny, and we will look forward to your visiting us again. I always have loved how you play the lute, Julian!”
When she said that, I had near half forgotten that Luisa (as she ever did when I was horseback) was yet strapped over my shoulder, and that I had not brooked to take her from my back when we entered the house and had climbed up the stairs. The table of their dining room was filled yet with the dirty plates and cups, and there was the ever present bowl of fruit there as well.
Alexandra forced on me a plum, which I took, and half heartedly munched on. It was a little bitter and had been pulled too soon.
“We have an interesting place, Alexandra. I had some help getting started a nobleman who is now away at war.”
“A nobleman! And he is your friend?”
“He is my patron, in as much as he is my friend. But he is off at war, as I said. In his place, some other people have come south from another shire, and are ruling his castle in ways we feel are most underserved by the people—like us! Who are the pledges of the baron who is gone. They are a troublesome sort.”
“And the war, it does not fail to touch us in other ways, as many of our people who eat there are miners, and they themselves... have resentments. I see us, however, as providing a place that allows tensions to blow off gently, for the better fed the people are, the less they do complain.”
“I think that is a fair estimate of much, Julian, But even the well-fed can find reasons to carp on these days...”
She got a rather dreamy look on her face, and then her attention passed back to Robert and Mary.
Robert held Mary as he must have done many times in her young life, sitting half on his knee, and with one arm around her. He drew on a piece of paper with a pencil, something I could not see, and Mary was watching him.
When he had finished he held it up. A map, showing us the path of his travels when he left Glyndwyr’s lair at Harlech.
“I rounded Llangwyllen and passed by Ruthin. Then after Denbigh, I came back by Flint. The road was heavy with mud and ice, it was midwinter. And there were few friendly faces on the road. I returned to find Alexandra struggling with the last few barrels. It was good I came back before they really suspected me. But the Glyndwyr paper, it’s behind the wall, there.”
He pointed to a picture of the philosopher Erasmus, hanging on the kitchen wall.
“And there it shall stay, lest I hear these things trouble our house again.” He got up, leaving Mary to somehow make her way as graceful as possible from his lap, and gave me a pear from his table.
“So when we see you again, Julian, I hope there will be progress in your own little world. We would love to come to se it, but alas, again, we have our contract, now with the Welshman, and that takes up a fair bit of time. We are using friends in the guild to ship things west, so as not to arouse any suspicion.”
When we left Mary’s we headed straightaway to the home of her friend Pamela. Her mother Kenwec had been widowed in the plague, herself, and Pamela and her brother Theodo had been her sole source of comfort, for as long as they had remained at home. She welcomed us however, and we walked into a first floor home which had seemed to have seen better days, itself. There was indeed a spirit of emptiness there.
“Mary Carpenter, oh so how good it is to see you! How is my daughter doing?”
“Well, Kenwec, she has come to stay with us...”
“Oh yes, she has written me letters, in fact I get one a week from her!”
“Then you know how”—
“I know only what she chooses to tell me. So how is she?”
“She works for us at our tavern, nightly, afternoon to about two...”
“Yes, this I know.”
”Then she walks, about near to half an hour, back to Penzance, where she keeps a room...”
“Yes, I know this too.”
“She reads a lot and she writes...”
“Well she writes you letters!”
“My husband Julian here has convinced her to begin a history.”
“Well, I am encouraging her. I have no idea what she may say in it.”
“A history of what?”
“About Cheshire. About us. About how things are, and how they ought to be, how they might become. About Henry. About the battle...”
“Oh!” We could hear her sharply intake her breath at the word ‘battle.’
“I’m sorry, Kenwec” said Mary. “I forgot.”
“Well, things are different now that Theodo has gone. Yes. We think it was the battle. For he never came back, after he ran off so fast and quick. “The usurper must be driven off!” he shouted, grabbing his long knife and his bow and things, and running off. A fair week or two or so before, it was. I could learn very little later, since there was really nothing to learn, and all the dead were piled into one big grave, who weren’t the nobles, those of the common folk. And even a church cannot make me forget it, this loss. They eventually told me they had found him and buried him, all without a word to me. And then Pamela took off! Left me here with nobody! I was sore, yes, I was upset. But when she wrote to me again it was to say she had found you, and I figured that if she were with you, then she might be fine. So far away from home, at her young age.”
“Well, it is something we all have in common this way,” I said, trying to be polite.
“You are all welcome then to stay with me the night should you choose to.”
“We are sorry to say but no we cannot, we have another errand this afternoon.”
“At least let me bring you a pot of ale, and please, speak to me of Pamela!”
She was off, turning her back, and returned with the promised cups of ale, which we drank as we sat on stools in her drafty big room.
“Now, she does say many things about you, sire, to be true. How you have given her a job and means of supporting herself, and that she fair likes it, and that your tavern is growing its business with good food and drink, and that mostly it is good people that come there.”
“Yes, mostly, they are.”
“And she says you yourself are a minstrel and entertain everyone, late nights, and that she has heard you play the songs of the forests and hillsides...”
“Such as they might come to me, I try, yes.”
“And she tells me that she has hardly had any time to feel sorry about Theodo but she oft thinks of him, and of me, and she misses me...”
“Indeed, you must miss her too, we know,” said Mary, considering the poor widow’s lack of company was bringing her to a point of clinging to what either of us had to tell.
“I believe Mary will eventually find someone in the town there. I do not think she feels quite safe returning here. She feels she must build up her fortune and will feel sure of it before she seeks someone to court her. By y considering, it would not take her long to find someone Many of our men guests pay her fair mind, but all of us feel a bit like outsiders down there, so we to keep our seeming fair distance when we can yet make it.”
“We did want to see you, and I wanted to keep you in my thoughts, and to share with you that yes, she really is doing well and fine with us.”
Mary sipped from her cup, set it on a small table near us, and folded her hands in her lap.
There was a silence, then and in that silence, you could nearly feel the presence, or the loss of the presence, perhaps, of her son Theodo and what it had meant. A full year had passed and the woman yet wore a black smock and wimple, and you could see that some of the lines in her face were care, worry, and grief-born.
As I finished my own cup I wished her good health, and Mary did as well, and we left the poor lady to what could be yet another year of her sorrows, and it felt a little cold, even with the warm summer day outside the house. Magdalene rose her hoof and stamped, and she seemed to be aware of the moment, herself! We mounted her and made our way to the church of Saint Stephen, where we had heard Richard lay buried.
Finding Richard’s grave was a bit difficult, since I had not been there when they buried him, and the business of our wedding had been enough to keep me really from thinking on visiting. Of course, Stephen’s trip to France had also occupied us, so there had been not a lot of thought given to paying respect to his father, when all was underway. But now, a year later, we had come to do just that. I broke off a flower from a branch of dogwood and held it between my fingers, thinking. Mary was the one who discovered it. It did have a stone, that had been placed by Roger, in the year past, and there we did also find it by not only the inscription “Richard Westchester, 8-7-1361—7-11-1403” and a cross of the old-fashioned kind, but the scallop pendant which Albertus had given Stephen that day at the harbor when we had parted from him, the day we had sailed back in from France.
I let the dogwood flower beside it, and considered, again, Richard’s place in my life.
I had come into his as a trespasser and a poacher, I suppose, sleeping in his barn, eating the fish I took from his stream, nibbling on the sparse gifts his son had brought to me from out of the manor in the little loft hidden from sight by all the hay. I thought of how magnanimous he had actually been toward me, but I recognized- I knew that he knew I was Stephen’s friend, and I suppose I had done them both the greatest favor in pulling Stephen from the river, although to me it had been nothing, I would have done that for anyone.
Then Mary called to me. She had found Theodo’s name on a gravestone! It was not far away from Richard’s, and shaded by a blooming aspen. I knelt and took the feather from the cap that Simon had given me that morning, and hoped it might be a small token, of course, for this brother of a friend, whom I had never met myself, but who Mary had known, and who had been as much a victim of the ugliness at Shrewsbury as my own brother. There is a sadness at attending the grave side of those whom one knows were taken before their rightful time, and when the sadness is considered, often, one is left thinking “well, how might have things had gone for them, had then been allowed to live so long?” And what of us whom they leave behind- they are freed from all the troubles and woes, but perhaps they are freed from any need to care about them too. Perhaps where they are is joy and light and infinite grace, and what we know here is the true taste of hell.
Remembering what we had promised Pamela, we went into the church. There was no mass being said, but instead, we sat in silence and together prayed. What all Mary had to say in her prayers, I knew not, but I prayed for the souls of Richard and Theodo and I prayed for our continued good fortune, and I prayed for free Cheshire and Wales, and an end to the Henrys, and I prayed that as any as who might fall yet in the wars were fast taken up to heaven and suffer not.
We emerged from the church into brighter sunlight. We had been inside near to a quarter hour, and were relieved to have turned our hearts back south at last... Before we left, I felt one more duty to pay the mind of the dead.
I took Luisa to my breast and I kneeled and began to play. What came out was a feeling I could not have put into words, but melody n a minor key that was plaintive, and expressed the emotion of gratitude. For had I not meant Richard (even had I not met Stephen or Master Porcull!) I would yet be knocking about on the road, between Bristol and Penzance, probably I could have been robbed at Exeter, or even somehow, caught up in the battle myself!
Mary took my hand when I had stopped playing, and I set the lute back strapped over my back. We saddled Magdalene, and were off again. Our last stop would again be Westchester Manor, where Stephen took us in, fed us, and kept us for the night.