CROSSROADS ( I)
TOMLYN of Devereaux, son of the second Count of Devereaux, was walking with long brisk strides on the old Roman road leading to the Crossroads. Janet – he had to think hard to remember her name – was a fast talker and he had almost lost track of time. The sun was covered by dark lead-like clouds and flurries started to fall – unusual for late September. He had to hurry up, this evening he was meeting with Maegan! Very strange that woman! Supposedly she lived in the neighborhood, but he knew all the young ladies that lived within twenty leagues. She had showed up now and then and each time he had asked her about her lodgings, but she just smiled. Once he tried to kiss her full lips, but she avoided him so easily that he almost tripped. Honest to God, not too many girls avoided his advances.
Late afternoon was gathering above the Forest. The white butterflies that dropped from the ominous heaven above were melting on his face, blocking his far sight. The walls of the Village houses appeared infected with leprosy and shaking flakes. People lit their rooms behind their pig skin covered windows; the sickly yellow light reminded him of the eyes of wolves, when they came out of the forest during the winter nights. Then, just like now, no villager was out of his abode or the beer-smelling parlor. The Edifice by the road resembled a heap of boulders in the mauve tinged light, fighting the moving forest that appeared to be attacking the Village… Grandma had always been afraid to talk about the Edifice and the Forest, and each time he boasted about them she had lit candles, freezing in panic.
Tomlyn was not a handsome man, as the classic models went, but the girls liked him well enough anyway. Not too tall but built strong, with bulging arms and shoulders, narrow hips and strong legs, deftly movements, dark skin, icy blue eyes, long black curly hair and daily shaved, he had his share of lovers. The skin color came from his grandmother’s side, a small noble family in Languedoc, while his eyes were from his grandfather’s side. His great grandfather was a Norman gen d’arms fighting on the Bastard’s side. He had lost his life at Hastings, but his son got a fief in the new kingdom and became the first Count of Devereux.
Tomlyn’s chances to become the next Count were quite slim – he had three older brothers. The eldest was considered the inheritor and Tomlyn was his scoutier. The next eldest took his vows and was now a monk, secretary to the King’s chaplain. The third eldest went to Flanders, the fief of King Henri and was now a knight fighting over there. Alright, if the eldest, Guillaume, should die, as well as Bertrand in Flanders, then perhaps maybe… but he did not spend much time thinking of his future. He was not tempted by a career in arms, or a religious one, he was just fine being a scoutier without many responsibilities. He enjoyed mixing with the villagers and the humble people in the Castle. There were not too many noble families around; the closest was about a three days ride from the Castle. Guillaume had found his wife only just in Essex, east of Londres, and that was because her grandfather used to be a knight who fought side by side with his father in the King’s Army. His family would undoubtedly find Tomlyn a nice noble Norman girl in the end, but in the mean time he didn’t mind if a girl was Norman, Saxon, or Walsh. For him, a good ride was as good on a delicate Arabian horse as on a strong Burgundian one. His friends would laugh at his boasting, but let them laugh! He knew better than anybody what kind of mount he enjoyed…
The Autumn Equinox was only about a month away, and it was a time that most of the villagers dreaded. Both the old stock – the Walsh and the Saxons – and the new comers – the Normans – were not looking forward to it. They had learned soon enough the local traditions and superstitions about the Old Folk living in the Other World, who were more likely to touch this world during the beginning and end of the year. Now the elves, spirits, faeries, goblins and leprechauns were walking among people, pestering them with pranks. And there were rumored stories about young boys taken by the faeries to their world never to be seen again. And yet, the Walsh were looking forward to the Equinox, the time when the Foreigners started growing power to fight back the Long Night, to help the Sun renew itself for new Life. The priests frowned at the pagan superstitions, but the people, having only the Edifice between the Forest and the Village, were on their own. While praying to God and the Lord Jesus, they believed that the old Druids, the Magi, the Sages, and the Witches, although not friendly to the New People, were trying to save the Land. And that was good news for all! Grandma used to say: “Let them save the world, but keep away from them!” The Village Blind Man would pick up fragments of stones and lay them around the Edifice, or around the Village. “Let them come out”, he would screech, “the Good Ones will help us, God willing. But we have to help them, too!”
Tomlyn never understood who they were, “just fools talking” he would think to himself. If anybody tried to ask the Blind Man about them, he would screech louder than ever, showing his white glare and shaking until he spilled his dark bitter beer. Grandma wouldn’t say anything either, but would just glare at him murmuring under her breath. Yet, the day before she died, she did talk to him. She said: “Tom, take great care when talking about them! Make sure they don’t notice you! Your only chance would be if your good one wanted to help you! But the good ones rarely do, they like playing as well!” Grandma was a strange woman, married by the first Count in Brittany, over the Channel. She never said anything about her country, but Tomlyn sometimes heard her speak in a strange language to the old stock servants.
The Forest, however, wasn’t as forbidding as the tales went. The villagers often went there with their axes to clear new pastures and land for new crops. Old tales told of a time when the Forest was all around the Village, with people grazing their animals in clearings in the Forest. Sometimes Tomlyn wondered if the Forest was not angry at the people she nurtured and protected ever since the Romans were around. But some people entered it even more often than he did for hunting and for picking wild berries and mushrooms. There was also a time when some marauding knights attacked the Village and the people who did not have time to take to the Castle ran to the Forest; the knights didn’t have enough courage to follow them.
But not during the Autumn Equinox! During this time a villager would sooner cut his arm than a branch in the Forest; he would rather go cold and hungry than enter the woods. And an evening like this, with flurries falling at the time of year when a shower was considered a bad omen, and the Moon lurking behind the black clouds, scared most of them to death. If his grandma were still living, she would probably stop him from going out to meet some strange girl at the Crossroads. “Well”, he thought, “she would not know Maegan! For her I would go to that small cabin in the Forest, where nobody could see us…”
The Foreigners especially scared the shit out of the villagers. They came only once or twice a year, but the villagers gossiped the whole year long about strange caravans, strange Ferries with strange beautiful items displayed on strange counters. They also talked about young people disappearing during these times. Tomlyn believed that talk was nonsense; he never met a Foreigner, nor saw a ferry or strange caravan. He would go anytime to such a Foreigner’s Market, but once, on the Summer Solstice, when people were talking about the Ferry at the Crossroads, he found none.
Tomlyn was approaching the Edifice and thought absently about the talk of the town. People said that it always takes longer to get from the Village to the Edifice than from the Edifice to the Crossroads, although the Edifice was just as far from one than the other. He didn’t think so – he had tried many times to measure the distance – but not now when his steps took him to the Edifice in no time at all. “It is strange”, he thought watching the ruins, “that I never wished to enter the Edifice. I pass them daily sometimes, and yet… inside there may be mud, dirt… creepy crawlers… Ugh! No, I don’t want to go in there!” And he thought, passing the ruins and strolling toward the Crossroads, that he never met one single villager who really entered the Edifice and told others about it. He forgot almost at once about the Edifice, his whole mind concentrating on the Crossroads. Oh yes, he could already see the tall volutes-decorated, blue-gray stone Cross.
Nobody talked about that cross, especially not pater Duncan, the old priest serving the small Church of the Saint Virgin in the Village. Some old villagers said that the Cross was older than the Saxon people, even older than the Romans. That when the first Christians came to the land, the Cross has already been worn by rain and wind… That the Cross was older even than the Lord Jesus! That could not be, the Lord was in existence from the Beginning of Time, but maybe, just maybe, the Cross was not Christian. “Why is the cross inside a circle?” Tomlyn sometimes asked himself. Once he had asked Grandma and she said that it was the Sun, but he didn’t believe her. The Walsh used to have the same volutes on their objects, weapons and attire…
On the opposite side of the Crossroad, facing the Cross, was the Fountain. People often used the Fountain. No spring in the neighborhood has such good water: clear and cold, and somehow illuminated from behind. The women came even more often than the men, bringing with them cloth and dresses for washing, because they believe that a dress washed in the Fountain’s water was shinier, its colors stronger, and those wearing it are happier and luckier. Strangely enough, the animals refused the drink the water; they would only do so when overpowered by thirst, or were forced by their owners. Because the people observed that a cow that had drank the Water gave more milk, its calf was healthier. A horse would run faster and longer, never to trip… The local knights used to bring their mounting horses before leaving for battle. He who accompanied his brother to jousting would always do right. One way or another, the people connected the Fountain to the missing people.
He stopped short of the Crossroads. There was a Foreigner’s Market after all. It seemed that not all the people’s talk was nonsense. The market, in truth, looked plain enough. There were two or three wagons painted in strong colors, but nothing else to signify the people were strangers, yet he could not recognize any of them! Not the people walking around, nor those behind their counters with fare. Some were Jews for sure, by their dress, and two looked like the Saracens his grandfather had told him about. A few were women, not something one saw very often in a Christian market. And there was Maegan! She was behind a counter right in front of him, and when her eyes stopped on him, she laughed and made signs with her hand, inviting him to see her fares. With his knees shaking, Tomlyn strode towards her. “Why, she’s a seller”, thought Tomlyn and Maegan smiled. Her white perfect teeth shone on her dark face and, like giving her an answer, the sun’s last rays broke the clouds. The butterflies stopped falling and the Forest stopped breathing – but Tomlyn felt it staring at him through myriad of shiny eyes. With shaking shoulders, he stopped in front of Maegan’s counter.
“Glad to see you,” he smiled.
“Likewise,” she smiled back.
“I didn’t know you were a Foreigner,” he found his voice.
“A Foreigner? Why, I’m not.” She laughed again. The sound of her laugh passed through his heart like a fiery sword and the boy put a hand on the counter to steady himself. “I am around most of the time. Often enough. Just a simple girl selling a few trinkets.”
Tomlyn looked at the objects on display. They were beautiful in a strange way. He couldn’t explain how. “They are beautiful. Never saw such. Why don’t you bring them in the Market, in the Village,” he said.
“Why? Who would buy such a trinket? And wear it…”
“You have a nice hand”, said Tomlyn with double meaning.
“Sometimes when I have nothing to do, I look for these objects. Sometimes I make them. They’re not always made by my beautiful hands.” she laughed and then looked at him with her green eyes. “I like coming with them to these markets, where foreign people come and talk about foreign lands…”
“And yet, I know a few young ladies who would wear your objects,” Tomlyn said, taking one of them and looking closely. It was round, made with a shiny metal, perhaps silver, with a few flowers rotating inside at different speeds. Indeed, he had never seen such a thing.
“I bet you do,” smiled Maegan. “Why don’t you buy one of them some trinkets? You could turn her heart…”
“I would buy one for you”, he said, and Maegan looked him in the eyes.
“Would you? But I made them! Nobody’s ever offered to buy one of them for me…”
“You’d like my heart turn to you? I don’t think so.” She started to laugh again. “What do you want for your present?”
“A kiss…” Tomlyn found enough courage to say.
“A kiss?” Maegan stopped laughing and watched him seriously. “You want to buy one of my trinkets and to kiss me. Really you do?”
“With all my soul!” he said, and the wind dropped in the mud. Next to him, Grandma was sadly shaking her head. “They like playing, boy. Pray the good one will stand by you!” But Tomlyn did not pay attention to her and went around the counter to embrace Maegan. The girl tilted her head, raising her full shiny red lips to him, and everything seemed to stop.
(to be continued)