Book I - Strands of Yellow and Blue

Chapter 1

 

Grace

These are the words I cannot speak. These are the words no one knows. These

are the words I carry alone.

I run through a black forest. Branches tear at my face, grabbing my

hair like hands. I am breathing fierce and hard, making rasping sounds

in the back of my throat, which burns with each inhalation. I focus upon

one thing: speed. All other considerations are but tiny specks at the back

of my mind. “Faster, faster,” I chant. “Faster, faster still!” I lose myself

in the motion of legs and arms and lungs. Me disappears, pulling away

from I. Me is floating above, watching a child dressed in white running

through the night.

From above, she can see the obstacles I cannot. I dodge trees and

leap ravines, using her vision. She sees the gap widening. My pursuers are

slowly losing me. I am running until…suddenly, I am not.

She is guiding me. How else could I stop in this ring of pines, with

soft needles to cushion my falling and underbrush in which to hide? She

is watching my body collapsing to the ground. Our eyes close. We see

nothing.

Awakening in the grey light of early morning, I am aware of a strange

warmth along one side of my body. A harsh chill numbs my other side.

I am afraid of moving as the terror of the night floods my mind. Yet,

strangely, I feel at peace. A rough tongue licks my forehead. A voice fills

my head without flowing through my ears.

Awaken, my child; the huntsmen come.

My eyes fly open. I clutch at the body of the stag with whom I am

lying in the pine bed, seeking comfort. I do not wonder all the things I

will wonder later: Why is he protecting me? How can I hear him speaking?

I cling to him in terror. I barely notice when he stands, pulling me

upright as well.

Suddenly, six bows are strung. Six arrows point at my Stag. He does

not move. I am splitting myself, again. My body freezes while my mind

spins upward, seating itself in the high bough of a pine.

An order is given in a language I do not understand. The men lower

their bows. I wince at the leader’s commanding voice, closing my eyes.

When I open them, my mind and body are together on the ground with

my Stag. The man with the commanding voice hands me his cloak, my

Stag is still between us. The Stag seems to be speaking to the captain of

the huntsmen, but words are not filling my head or my ears. The Stag

turns to look full into my eyes.

They mean you no harm, Small One. The leader wants to take you to their

women. I cling still more closely to the Stag.

Look into his eyes, the Stag commands me.

I cannot disobey. Turning slightly, I face a man who is tall, at least

eighteen hands high. His shoulders are broad; his hands are large. His

nose is prominent and straight. His chin is firm beneath sensitive lips.

His eyes are somewhere between blue and grey. Concern and a strange

kind of pain live in the blueness. He is speaking words I cannot understand

and indicating the cloak, which he is still holding out in front of

him.

Do you trust him, Small One? The Stag’s question fills my head. I nod.

Before I can thank him, the Stag bounds away through the pines. Bows

are raised. The captain barks an order. I flinch. No arrows fly after my

Stag. My heart is grateful.

I find I cannot stand alone. My knees buckle and strong arms catch

me before I hit the ground. I am swaddled in a huge cloak. I like the

way it smells, of smoke and of something clean and deep that I cannot

describe. Water is held to my lips. I gulp until his voice speaks and the

flask is moved away. Some kind of bread is offered. I bite ravenously, and

the man holding me smiles; he seems pleased by my fierce appetite. The

flask returns and the water flows down my throat. I am lifted upon his

horse; his arms encircle me. He smells comforting, like his cloak. I try to

sit upright, but I cannot. I sag against him, drifting as we ride south. No

part of me is floating above watching. Me and I have come back together

in the arms of this stranger who feels like home. The rocking motion of

the horse is comforting and I slip into sleep.

 

Chapter 2

 

Grace

Looming castle walls flood me with fear, and I can feel my eyes growing

wide, my muscles tensing. He murmurs soothing words in my ear,

his breath stirring my hair. I feel frozen, my hand unable to touch him,

though I find myself longing for the feel of the curly, golden-brown hair

covering the muscles of his forearm. Keeping my focus upon the markings

on his arm keeps my fear at bay. A scar as wide as my hand runs

crosswise, parallel to the crease of his elbow. A sword wound? I wonder.

Another scar looks angry. Purplish in color, it is raised and puffy.

Though short in length, the wound must have been deep, caused perhaps

by a dagger. Curiously, the man has no markings from animals’ hooves or

teeth. Pondering the arms of this huntsman, who is scarred like a warrior,

keeps me still as we approach the walls of the great structure. Never have

I seen such uniformly grey stones built into such an enormous edifice.

How can men lift such stones?

After we pass through an archway in the outer walls, I notice solid

hardwood gates. These gates are in position to be lowered, covering the

opening completely. These gates are thick, with black metal latches and

hinges.

Strangely, I find I cannot remember any buildings further to the

north, in the land from which I come. Too many sights are meeting my

eyes for me to wonder about my lack of memories.

I am lifted down when we enter a dirt courtyard. Orders are given,

and the horses are led away by stable boys. Curious glances are cast my

way and I fall again to studying the arms that hold me. He is carrying me

down a long passage paved with flat stones. The heels of his boots make

a ringing sound that bounces off the stone walls and beamed ceiling. He

seems to be hurrying; I worry that I am a heavy burden.

Presently, a maidservant leads us. A door is flung open, and I am set

gently upon a richly carved chair with a velvet cushion. The room seems

large, with a fireplace and mullioned windows. A canopied bed is hung

with purple curtains that match the seat cushion. I become aware that he

is speaking with a woman of ample girth and merry eye. I study the few

faint freckles visible under the tan upon his forearms. I wish those arms

were still wrapping themselves around me. The woman seems kindly, but

the Stag had entrusted me to him. She calls him “Sir Tristam”, which

seems to anger him. He repeats merely “Tristam” but she repeats both

words. He shakes his head at her before turning to me. Speaking foreign

words, he indicates the large woman. “Addie,” he says repeatedly, “Addie.”

When he places his hand upon the door latch, I feel panic rising up

in me. Glancing back, he sees my widened eyes. He stops, comes back

and lifts me. Addie is hovering, making soothing noises. He sends her

away and lays me upon the bed. My hand brushes against his as he moves

to a chair by the bed. He clasps my hand. The pressure of his fingers is

reassuring, though I cannot return it; instead my hand lies limp in his.

Somehow that simple act is more intimate than anything we have yet

shared and I can make no sense of it. I lie on the bed, eyes wide, not moving.

We are in the same positions when Addie returns with another

woman who is carrying a large tapestry bag. She places the bag on the

floor and I can see the intricate needlework and the rich colors of the

pattern. I lose myself in the minute stitches of blue, green, amber, and

yellow. Conversation floats above my head.

The newcomer, whom Tristam calls Geneva, is pointing at my feet.

He leaves my side and begins unwinding the bandages covering them.

The pain of the cloth tearing away from the scabs is sharp enough to take

my breath away, but I will not cry out. Tristam comes to my head again,

stroking my brow. I steal a glance at his face. His eyes hold a glowing

light I cannot look upon. Returning my eyes to the tapestry bag, I lose

myself again in the colors. A particular shade of blue, clear as the summer

sky, draws my eye. I focus on the blue. I hold my tears at bay, tears caused

by kindness in the eyes of the foreigner, Tristam.

Geneva mixes herbs while Addie boils water over the fire. Tristam

urges me to eat, but I do so only to please him. Fear is knotting my stomach;

swallowing is difficult. I sip the herbal tea Tristam holds to my lips,

and I suddenly feel incredibly tired. Sleep yawns like a beast and swallows

me whole. Tristam still holds my hand.

I awake in utter darkness, my feet throbbing. A sharp intake of breath

is the only concession I make to fear, though my limbs shake. I push the

pain away. Tristam comes to me. He offers food and herbal tea. My arms

and legs stop shaking. For a long time, I drift in sleep with brief periods

of wakefulness. He is always there, keeping my fear at bay.

Chapter 3

TRISTAM

I will never forget the day we found Grace. The year was 1122 and the

feast of the spring equinox had depleted the palace stores of meat.

Game near the castle is scarce at this season. During the harsh winter, we

over-hunt near our home. We were traveling far to the north for wild stag

and although the creatures are lean after the long winter, they are large.

Even a lean stag will fill the king’s board.

Farther to the north, the forest is mostly pine, though here and there

a broadleaf seedling struggles for light. On this day, our horses’ hooves

crush the needles of the forest floor and send the fragrance of pine upwards,

masking the scent of game. We leave our horses behind after picking

up the scent of a stag. I lead a party of five men.

Daniel-the-Younger is my best marksman. Torquil is my most seasoned

hunter. Wee Thomas does not require dogs to track a scent. The

other two are new; I watch them closely to determine their level of skill.

It is early morning, three days after the night of the equinox. Snow is

still lying in patches on the moist ground, and mist rises from the snow

and shows our breath as we track in utter silence. My men are ready for

the kill that will allow them to return home to warm beds.

A dozen or more tall pines of equal height form a tight circle. In the

clearing, a stag faces us and our bows. Though six arrows point at it, the

stag stands motionless. One of the new men, Mark, draws back his arrow

without waiting for my signal. Quickly and silently, I raise my right arm,

giving the command to wait. Mark’s breath comes out in an angry hiss as

he relaxes his grip.

For a moment I hold my breath, not believing what I see. Two small,

white arms cling to the stag’s neck. One hand is slightly bluish in color;

the other is extremely pale. The golden head of a young girl is just visible

behind the creature, her eyes wide with terror. Dropping my bow, I

remove my cloak in one motion and hold it out in front of me; I face the

stag. The creature seems to be assessing me, trying to read my intentions.

We mean her no harm. She will be taken to the women. The words form

themselves in my head and the stag relaxes as if he hears and understands.

The creature then looks deep into the eyes of the child. A silent conversation

takes place between them, I know it. The small one looks deep into

my eyes, as if she is reading my soul. She is older than I realized, almost

a young woman, not a child. The stag suddenly bounds into the forest. I

hear movement behind me and repeat my order, “Hold your arrow!”

“That is meat you are letting get away,” Mark mutters as I step forward

to catch the child. Her legs cannot support her without the stag to

lean upon. I lift her gently; she weighs almost nothing. I wrap her in my

cloak and cradle her.

“Daniel and Torquil, fetch water, food, and blankets. We need herbs

and bandages,” I call after them. I see lacerations upon the child’s arms,

legs, and feet.

“I will get them, Sir,” Wee Thom says.

I nod at him.

“You others, get the horses.”

Daniel returns quickly and hands me a flask. I support the girl with

my left arm and I offer her the flask with my right. She drinks with relish.

“Slowly, child. Your body needs time; too much at once will cause

vomiting,” I caution. Daniel offers her flatbread. She snatches at it greedily

when he pulls it away to prevent her from eating it too quickly. Her

ferocity makes me smile. Though frail, she has some fight in her.

“Captain, her feet are bad; those cuts are deep. The green poison’s setting

in,” Torquil informs me. “It will hurt her greatly if we touch them.”

“Can you bind them gently, with the herbs that will draw out the

poison?” I ask.

“Yes, Sir. I have bandaged my little sisters,” Wee Thom tells me.

I look up into the face of this young man who, ironically, stands several

hands taller than me. “You are poorly named. Thank you, Thomas.”

His face flushes.

“Aye, that might help until we can get her to Lady Geneva,” Torquil

says. “She is the one to do the cleansing of the deeper wounds. If we try

now, we will frighten her more.”

“Captain, how did she get here? We are leagues from anywhere,”

Daniel interrupts.

“And why…why is she here alone, freezing, injured, and terrified?”

Thomas’s voice joins in.

The men have all come closer. The child’s eyes have widened so that

white can be seen all around the amber irises. Her tension is palpable.

“Back up, men; give the girl some room,” I order. “Torquil, I will need

your help to hold her while I mount.”

“Yes, Sir,” he replies.

“Sir, could it be that those rumors we have heard are true?” Mark

asks.

“Hold your tongue, Mark,” I command.

Torquil raises his eyelids and widens his eyes. “You can silence Mark,

Sir, but people will wonder…and talk.”

“That is not silence, Torquil. For now, let us simply get her to safety.”

Torquil, wisely, responds with a nod. I heave a sigh as I lift the waif

onto my horse. We have a long journey ahead of us.

Chapter 4

TRISTAM

The child lies in a weakened state. Fever wars with the poison in her

wounds and it is too early to tell which will win. Lady Geneva’s

herbs are supposed to ease her pain, but even with a sleeping draught,

the child tosses in the bed. Though she never cries out, she is clearly distressed.

I worry. She needs all her strength to fight the green poison that

fills the cuts upon her feet.

I feel responsible for the child. No…the feeling is stronger and deeper.

I feel a connection forged by the fear in her eyes as she hung behind

the stag. She was terrified, yet only her eyes revealed her fear. Her body

was held strongly erect. She has courage, this small waif. She touches

a chord in my heart I thought was dead. When she studied my face to

decide if she could trust me, she read my soul. She saw my darkest deeds,

yet decided I was kind. When I caught her in my arms, she sent feeling

into the frozen places in my heart.

Sitting beside her sickbed, I have time to reflect. This strange child

needs me. She is a gift, a grace bestowed. I think of her as “Grace.”

Grace is not the first child I have nursed through sickness. I once

had a wife named Constance. She bore us a daughter we named Faith.

Two summers ago, they went missing. Though we searched for months,

we never found anything but pieces of the fabric of their clothes. The

thought of my wife and daughter lost in the woods is an ache I cannot

assuage.

Had Constance and Faith been here, I would simply have taken

Grace to my home, but now I am merely a huntsman, dependent upon

the king for my livelihood. For the first time, I question my decision to

relinquish my holdings. I have no lands or house in which to raise a child.

Thus, I need to secure Their Majesties’ permission to house Grace in the

castle.

Knowing I stand in need of the king’s favor for Grace, I hunt alone

before dawn. I return just after sunrise with a stag that had wandered

south. Although smaller than Grace’s stag, this creature will provide meat

for several meals. I give thanks for this good fortune.

After looking in on Grace, I seek to gain an audience with the king.

King Stefan and I had been raised together; he had become a page my

first year as a squire. Stefan had been a good page who never took advantage

of his relationship with King Leopold to ease his path through

training; he had taken his share of abuse from the older pages and squires

without complaint. The respect he had earned from his peers in those

years had been of great benefit to him when his father died suddenly

in a hunting accident. Only now, in light of the uprising, do I wonder if

his death was truly accidental. King Stefan had taken over with authority,

yet he displayed tact, showing respect to the older lords and ladies

who looked upon him as a mere child. He had maintained peace during

those first few turbulent years when the nobles were jockeying for power.

When we found Grace, King Stefan was maintaining peace at home and

abroad.

King Stefan had chosen a bride from Chantrell, to the south. A wise

move politically, this marriage sealed our amiable relations with our

southern neighbor. To the west, we are guarded by the river Boldengarth;

to the east lie the mountains. To the north are vast expanses of forest

through which armies cannot move quickly, but to the south we have no

natural protection from invasion.

King Stefan and Queen Laurel seem genuinely happy together, their

only sadness being the lack of a child. It is too early to declare the queen

barren, but a longing for a child can be read in her eyes. I believe both will

welcome Grace if only they do not fear her.

Chapter 5

TRISTAM

My audience with the king and queen has been granted and I am at

Grace’s bedside when Addie informs me that a page is at the door,

summoning me before Their Majesties. Grateful for so quick a response

to my request, I find myself smoothing my hair and straightening my

tunic while following the page to the Great Hall.

I approach the dais and kneel before the king and queen.

Kin Stefan says, “My man tells me you returned from yesterday’s

hunt empty-handed, and with another mouth to feed.”

Raising my eyes, I seek his face. Though his expression is solemn, his

eyes are kindly. “Rise up, Sir Tristam. Tell us about the mysterious princess

you rescued in the woods.”

News travels fast in the palace; already my Grace is a princess. For

once, I am grateful for servants’ gossip and for Addie’s kind heart and

rattling tongue. Telling my tale quietly and simply, I do not speak of my

heart’s reaction to the girl.

“Now she is quite ill, Sire. Her feet were badly cut. The green poison

is causing her fever,” I finish.

It is the queen who speaks next. “You are quite concerned about this

child, are you not, Sir Tristam?”

“Yes, Your Highness; I fear for her life. She must have been alone in

the woods for several days. She is terribly thin to be fighting such a high

fever.”

“Where did you find her, Tristam?” the king asks.

“She was north of the east branch of the Boldengarth River, in a

stand of pine trees.”

“There are no kingdoms in that vicinity,” the king replies. “She must

have traveled a great distance.”

“The cuts on her feet and legs would indicate she ran barefoot a long

way,” I reply.

“Yet the nearest populated area must be at least a three-day journey

to the north,” King Stefan exclaims.

“Yes, Sire.”

“Could she have traveled that far?”

“It seems most unlikely, Sire, but she was driven by fear. If she was

frightened enough, she could travel that distance.”

“Tristam, why do you say she was driven by fear? Could she not simply

have cut her feet walking?”

“No, Sire. The cuts are too deep to have been caused by walking; she

had to have been running. She would never have kept on unless she was

too terrified to stop. Her fear must have masked her agony.”

“Do you think an animal chased her?”

I shake my head. “An animal would have caught her, Sire.”

“So, what is it you fear?” the king asks.

“I do not know, Your Highness.” But I do, though I do not give voice

to my fears.

The queen makes a startled sound in her throat, but does not speak.

I find myself nodding.

King Stefan glances back and forth between us. A look of disgust

crosses his face. “Let us not imagine far-fetched conclusions. There must

be some reasonable explanation. Perhaps she wandered away from a royal

hunting party. Inquiries should be made.”

The queen lays her hand upon the king’s arm. “Please, let us proceed

cautiously, My Lord, in case someone means the child harm.”

“Well, Tristam?” King Stefan demands. I can tell he is not pleased.

“I believe our queen speaks wisely, Sire. We found the child alone,

three days after the equinox. She was richly clad in white. She was terrified.

There were leather straps upon her wrists and ankles, My Lord.”

The king pauses before speaking. “It seems you may have brought us

trouble, Tristam.”

“Nay, My Lord,” Queen Laurel interrupts, “he has merely brought

us a child. All children are a gift.” Her voice is wistful. “Maybe she is an

answer to prayer. What do you call her, Tristam?”

“‘Grace,’ My Lady.”

“Aye, Grace; a gift of Grace…’tis very well,” the queen smiles.

Again, she lays her hand upon the king’s arm and addresses him. “My

Lord, may she stay? May we give her shelter?”

“I cannot say ‘no’ to a child in need, My Lady, or to you.” Turning to

me, the king continues, “You will be responsible for her, Tristam.”

I kneel and say, “Thank you, My Lord…but she cannot live alone

with me in a huntsman’s cottage.”

“You left the castle of your own free will, Tristam. No one requires

you to live in that cottage.”

“But I am the head huntsman, My Lord. I belong in a huntsman’s

cottage.”

“Speaking as such, how fares my table, Sir Huntsman?”

“I had a stag this morning, My Lord.”

The king’s eyes brighten. “A stag? This day? Tell me!”

“I was hunting before dawn. I spied him drinking at Wildcat Creek.”

“So near the castle?”

“Aye, Sire.”

“That is truly amazing. It must have been seeking fresh greens. They

rarely travel this far south.”

“A good omen, My Lord,” says the queen. “Taking in the child is

already bringing us good fortune.”

King Stefan laughs out loud and smiles at her. “Perhaps you are right,

my dear. How many arrows did you use to bring down the stag, Tristam?”

“Just one through the neck, Sire.”

“Ah, well done, Tristam….I miss the days when you called me Stefan.”

“Aye, My Lord, that was before you became king.”

“And when you were still a knight, Sir Tristam,” the queen adds. I

nod, affirming her statement. “We would welcome you back in the castle,

knight or huntsman,” she says. “Is that not true, Sire?”

“Of course, my dear, you are correct, as usual. I never wanted him to

leave us.”

I bow before speaking. “Thank you both, not only on my behalf, but

also for Grace.”

“We will pray for the child’s recovery, Sir Tristam,” the queen says,

“and your own.”

The king nods his agreement before dismissing me.

As I fall asleep in a chair next to Grace’s bed, I ponder the queen’s

words.

Chapter 6

TRISTAM

I awake sensing danger. A deadly silence has crept into the room. Grace

lies perfectly still, her breathing shallow and rapid. Gone are the restless

movements I have witnessed for the past two days. Upon the battlefield,

I have stood by seriously injured men; I know the look, the sounds,

and the smell of death. Death is present here, filling my nostrils with its

pungent sweet odor. Death is slowing her breathing. Grace opens her

eyes and stares at the upper corner of the room where a ceiling beam

meets the wall. The expression on her face is glowing, almost eager. She

reaches out her arms to someone or something I cannot see. She smiles a

shy smile of greeting.

“No!” I shout.

My voice summons Addie from the antechamber where she sleeps

on a trundle bed. She assesses the situation at a glance and speaks gently.

“My Lord, she is dying. You have to let her go.”

“Not without a fight. We need towels, a tub, and extremely cold water.”

Addie stares at me with pity in her eyes. She does not move.

“Move, Addie! Now!” I speak in my commander’s voice, a voice I

have not used since my days in battle.

Addie moves.

 

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