In The Forest
Through the narrow slit in the wall, Laure could hear the regular tapping of feet on the stone slabs of the courtyard below. It was dark, and the rain which earlier had threatened, had not yet started to fall. She could smell it, up there in the sky, waiting. The dancing had begun already and save for the duration of the banquet, it would go on all night. There would be minstrels of tabor, rebec, citole, flageolet, bag-pipe and hurdy-gurdy, and melding and inspiring the whole and setting it off against the massive chateau walls, would be the music of Guibert’s viol.
Suddenly Laure felt naked, there, on the broad inner ledge of the window and anger welled in her chest. Perhaps she should pull the skin over the arrow loop and shut out the sound of her lover-poet. He was supposed to have conveyed in words the sentiments of love from Le Comte to Le Comte’s chosen Lady in order to mimic, without mockery, the advances of the Knight toward the unattainable. But instead of skirting around the myth, instead of gilding and enhancing it, the troubadour had inserted himself into the orfrois, had attempted to become part of the weave. What could she, a poor woman, have done? She was innocent, chaste; the stone seat had been merely her place of remembrance of her lord, absent on Crusade. She had invited the minstrel to come and sing for her, in order to raise her love to the plane of faith. She moved away from the opening but did not pull the skin across it.
She looked at Marc’s crumpled figure. I am changed, he had said. But she had already known. Let me, she whispered and as he lay on the bed, gently she began to unstrap his armour, piece-by-piece, though she did not dare caress the jagged wound on the sinister side of his neck. The metal was black and cold, and seemed to give out a strange scent. Encased in metal, Marc had grown into a man. His frame had filled out during the long years of campaigning; it was no wonder that when it came to fighting, the Franks had the greatest reputation of all, save perhaps for the Normans. But then, there were Franks and there were Occitan, and Marc, Laure and all those beneath them saw their northern cousins as crude, unsophisticated barbarians who, like the Catalan barons (of whom Guibert had told her) cared only for blood and iron. Even their minstrels were known as trouvères who, when they were able to compose poetry at all, would spit out lines which were little better than those produced by swineherds. Laure had heard that the women in those parts, even those of noble rank, were permitted neither to own land nor direct estates - and assuredly not to sing poetry.
Once the metal shell had been removed, Laure wondered at how powerless Marc had become beneath her hands. And then, as she removed the last piece from above his heart, she discovered the source of the scent. Attached to the undersurface of the plate was a muslin pouch filled with some kind of herb. In a moment, the room was filled with an intoxicating sweetness. She recognised the scent as being similar to that of the single red rose which Marc had given her earlier. The flower lay where she had placed it, on the bed. She would have to make sure it had some water, or it would wither and perish before its petals had fully opened. Such a fate had befallen a baroness from an estate near Fraxinet who, the very next morning, as she had awoken, had found her lord, lifeless, beside her. Laure wondered at this power which women had over men. She wondered who had given her warrior the pouch. In her mind, she saw a dark-eyed maiden standing by an eastern shore, waving tearfully at the ship which grew smaller on the swell of every turquoise wave. She felt the lithe softness of her limbs as they clasped the body of Marc, and she heard the cries of a child as he wandered beneath the blossoms of an orange-grove. The boy had the woman’s black hair, but his eyes were those of Marc. Laure felt her face begin to sting and redden. She knew that she would have no issue.
Clad now in only a rough, linen tunic, Marc sank back into the tall chair and allowed his eyes to close. His face seemed newly-lined. More than three years have passed between us, she thought. One day, we will pass again into dust. And between dust and dust, what is there? Love? What is love? His breathing had grown deep and regular. Laure returned to the arrow loop. She was unable to make out the troubadour but could see the servants dancing to the music of his viol. She recognized the tune as a bawdy salterello and every time Guibert plucked a string, the girls would jump into the air and clatter down like heavy horses onto the hard stone of the courtyard. Each time he sang a verse, the preceding stanzas would be repeated, so that dance and song began to turn upon themselves as the stars whirled around the moon, and the loop of rhythm grew longer and longer, until it seemed that the words had begun to spiral like a staircase into the night. She felt the beat of his tabor pulse into her body, but with all that was left to her, she fought so that she might not be filled with its red violence, yet even as she fought, Laure knew that she would lose and that she would find joy in being vanquished.
The beats of his coeur were being ornamented (to ornament such a crude song!) with breathing, Guibert’s throat interrupting (as their love had been interrupted) and separating conjunct notes, and also by means of reverberation against the chateau’s tall stone walls. Why was he selling the gems of their love, to entertain those servant girls! How dare he! She felt demeaned, as though she had been reduced to a tiny part of herself, that part which had loved Guibert and which now ached with rage, as though it were a spool and the rest of the world, the fabric of a tapestry, unwound. But then she reproved herself for feeling anything - even hatred - for he, who twice had betrayed her; once, in insinuating himself into the love which lay between Laure and Le Comte and again, now, that evening (the encroaching darkness modulated by the fitful luminescence cast from great tallow fires) as he played music for the servants, music which he had denied her, his Lady.
Behind her, the music was speeding up, it bounced with the maids around the courtyard. Guibert was acting like a goliard! Strange, she thought, that I should feel jealous of those common women, their feet calloused and broken by decades of stone and dirt and idiot dancing. She turned back towards Marc. He was right up against her, his breath cold on her skin. His eyes shone in the dying light. Blue ice.
Laure, too closed her eyes, held the lids, tight at the seams. Taking other women was commonplace and she knew that over the years, Marc had lain with countless serfs and had fathered at least twelve bâtards. But for him to express guilt in this manner meant either that in the Holy Land, in the midst of sin, he had acquired a sense of morality, or else that for some reason, the episode had been of a higher order than any previous bestial encounters. There, behind the skin veil, she saw it.
The sea is deep blue. The woman is crying. By her side, a child, almost two years old. She stands there in the sun for hours, so that beneath the black gown, her skin is burning. The child begins to weep and the woman offers comfort, lifts it to her breast and shows it the white ship which is taking away its father. The child falls silent, and together, they watch the vessel merge with the horizon. Carrying the sleeping babe, the woman turns away. The sand eddies around her sandaled feet. As she crosses the last ridge of sand, she wipes her face with the elongated sleeve of her gown.
Laure opened her eyes. He stood before her, stock-still.
She felt that he must have thought about this return for months and that as he had sailed on that very ship which the woman had watched vanish over the western edge of the world and then, as he had ridden across the lands of Fraxinet and Toulouse, he would have rehearsed its geometries, as he might, those of a battle. But this baring of the heart was misplaced, otherwordly. Through Guibert’s music, amidst the torches and the stone and the sweating, big-breasted serfs, she sensed the terror of the real. The gentility of his voice unnerved her.
Laure felt as though she were being crushed by a giant’s limb. She sank down onto the small, wooden seat which framed the lower margin of the window, and gazed upwards. She could see only a tiny crescent of sky yet it seemed as though all the stars of the night had fallen into the arrow loop. She wished she were on the other side of the stone wall. Perhaps, at this moment, the woman in Acre also would be staring mutely into the black, trying to place her lover, herself, amidst the tableau of stars. Far below, the music had changed again. Guibert, the love-poet of her garden, was barking out the sounds of brothel-keepers.
The feet had grown rhythmic, pounding, it was a ductia gone mad, so that the combined effect was like the sound of drums, beating before an execution. Laure felt as though her head were turning to blood. She was unable to distinguish between Le Comte and Le Troubadour, between the darkness of the room and the black of the sky. From somewhere in the chateau, she heard the sound of a child, crying in its sleep. Perhaps, soon, the rain would come.
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