Lady of Angels - Part 1
Have you ever heard a song, so uplifting, so magical; sung by a voice that's so pure and so laced with with gold-dust and fire, so much sweeter than birdsong, gentler and smoother than honey? Have you ever caught a sound in the air, a hint of melody, and felt it draw you like a string pulling gently on your soul?
Arangof Humblehand had never heard such a thing either. Not until that one morning. It was Bakers Day of the year 1522, twelfth year in the reign of Great King Tarafgond. An ordinary day, as he pushed his cart to market – a day full of savoury smells and warm sunlight; the encroaching of pale clouds over a mildly blue sky; the laughter of children in doorways, on window ledges, riding on the backs of haycarts. Two wives were arguing in the street over firewood. Barefoot boys ran home across packed dirt streets. The city was speckled with the new and daunting Sunburst colours: orange and gold everywhere, clotted on street corners, fluttering from lamp-posts in the path of the wind. It was into that ordinary day that a trickle of unspoiled silver entered his life.
The voice he heard singing was a woman's voice. And the song was made of words he couldn't quite hear. But they invoked a sense of peace and satisfaction, which sat immediately and warmly in his heart. For a moment he stopped and listened. The notes came in eddies, caught in little packets and carried along in the wind. They would fade for a while and then start up again. After listening intently for a bit he was able to pick their direction – they were coming from the east, from the smarter, wealthier side of town.
Without having made a decision to do so, he turned his cart and started heading up that way. This part of the city rose on a gentle incline, and the better houses rose like cliff-faces. Their walls were made of cut stones, limewashed or polished, stark to the first floor, and then embellished above the balconies with finely carved stonework and multi-coloured roofing tiles. The greater ones had gardens and walls.
The song came from one such house, almost hidden behind the great trees that boasted of the
family's age and pedigree. Behind a wall, and a copper-covered gate: Eshelmay House. His reading was pretty scratchy, but with concentration he could made out the lettering that adorned the front gate. The song had faded, and now it stopped. But he thought he saw a figure on the balcony – a woman's by the frilly swathe of blue fabric that covered her – saw her turn and glide swiftly into the house.
And just like that, it was all gone.
I heard what I heard, he thought, that was more beautiful than anything I've ever known before.
He finished his day at the market and pushed his cart home to his wife. She had made an onion soup for them, which smelt hearty, if a little bit too salty. And she sat on a wooden stool by the fire, stirring it, waiting for him to come in. Her eyes were a pale green, and her hair was the light brown of almonds. Her face had always been strong, a peasant's; always lean and firm-boned, her strong chin sticking out like a shovel, her upper lip curled in what she'd always told him was an injury at birth. By nobody's account, any beauty. But that had never bothered him before, and it irritated him to be bothered by it tonight.
She greeted him with a warm kiss, with a mug of fresh ale, his soup, a crust of bread. She let him get comfortable in his folding chair, before she asked him how the day had gone.
“Well,” he said, more shortly than he'd meant to.
“Well? Did you find gold on the street then?”
“No. But the market was busy, and men were free enough with their coin.”
“And how about them lot?”
Them lot. The occupying garrison of Duke Assalian Brothken Momdorth. The men who wore the Sunburst, who had Trethfierron's mayor under guard and in chains. Them lot: who might do what they pleased with near impunity.
“No trouble.” He said. But they didn't pay for vegetables or ale.
“Memma's got a feeling for rain tomorrow.”
Memma. The neighbour. Whose simple magics the neighbourhood swore by. “Then rain it'll be. I'll go down to the garden tonight.”
She had no idea how to be flirtatious, she had no feel for it at all. But she tried. She turned her head, shrugged her shoulder up to her chin, made a brazen wink at him. “Don't be back too late. I'll be waiting to see you.”
He'd be glad of her in bed tonight all the same. Though none of their couplings in close to ten years had produced a child.
Fishwives Day – 1522
The music again. The song. He heard it as he made his way to the market. It was gone before he could start to follow it to the impressive Eastside house. He realised that he would have done, if it had gone on any longer, missing the bustle of morning, the thickest stream of customers. Instead he walked on, the echo of it humming in his blood, breathing a new, golden life into him that seemed to make the day brighter, to make him feel stronger.
“Good day is it not?” His friend, Dofbin, came to find him on his corner.
“Fine in fact. Good to be alive.”
“For those of us that have that. I hear Martic Pressgodden was hauled off for questioning last night.”
“He's clean though?”
“Of course. He hasn't got the brain for treason. He's as simple as they come. It'd take twice the moron not to see that.”
If it matters. The thought of Sunburst soldiers taking common men off the street was unsettling. It dented his previously boisterous mood. If they could find someone as harmless as Martic Pressgodden and see plots and treasons in him, what man could be sure of his safety? His change of the subject now was intentional: “Do you know of Eshelmay House?”
“Up on Eastside? One of the big ones.”
“Eshelmay? Wait – that belongs to the Tracegale family.”
The name resonated. He'd heard it before. “To whom?”
“Tracegale. Lord Tracegale. He lays claim to a couple of dozen manors. Town houses in all the major cities..., well, here and in Calmoth at least. Maybe in Milink, I can't remember. He's the sort that could afford to buy half the world.”
“What matter is it to you?”
“None. I heard a song up that way is all.”
“A song. It was beautiful. Sung by a woman. Tracegale's wife maybe?” He didn't know why that should be his first thought; there must be serving girls in plenty who could have been singing while they beat out the rugs. But what serving girl can wear that colour of blue, so thick and bright, full of scrunches and ribbons? A Lady's dress for sure.
Dofbin warned him: “Get that thought out of your head! He'd kill such a man with his own sword.”
“I had no such intention!”
“You can't see your own eyes.”
I can't, can I? And the song was still a gentle echo in the back of his mind, a tingling spot in the
base of his skull that his mind longed to touch. “You can credit me with a little more sense.”
“Good then. They say she's incomparably beautiful.”
“I didn't really get a good look.”
He hadn't. It was no lie. He'd only seen the outline of her, the vibrancy of her dress, a flicker of what might have been very dark hair. But now, as the day drifted on, he found himself contemplating her at every turn. He found himself trying to fill in the gaps, to create a picture in his mind of the woman he'd seen. Suddenly the idea that she was incomparably beautiful wouldn't leave him. That such a lovely song should be sung by a transcendent beauty seemed almost too much to bear. To think of her, there in that house, surrounded by all her servants and finery... for no reason at all it was the only thing he could think about.
His fantasising was interrupted by noise at the other end of the market. A group of men,
displaying Sunbursts as a peacock displays a tail, had gathered around a young woman. She was an innocent sort, selling roasted nuts over a simple brazier. She was pretty in a wide-eyed, owlish kind of a way, and she was flustered by the attention they gave her. It was taken as given that the men wouldn't pay for her wares, they'd take what they wanted.
That's the trouble, he thought, frowning while he watched it happen, they will take what they want. If it's more than nuts, they'll take that as well.
The men seemed eager. They were close around the girl, a couple of them pawing her, one of
them lifting her hair from her face, making her meet his eyes. It made them laugh that she shrank away from them, all the more when it looked as if she would cry. It was a little bit far to hear clearly what was being said, but the words exchanged brought more laughter to the men, and made the girl shrink even smaller.
We're not men at all, Arangof thought, feeling ashamed, but also not moving. The way of the world, wasn't it? The liberties that occupying soldiers could and did take. Nothing could be done. But we are still all cowards.
One woman wasn't. She was a stranger in a patched green dress, her feet covered in simple bark-and-cord sandals. Arangof judged her to be about twenty-five, to be apparently fearless as she marched over, planting herself between the soldiers and their victim, hands on her hips, voice shrill as she berated them. And it was a tirade that left no pause for breath, that left the men laughing, but also taking a step back. A couple of them reached at her, and she slapped them for their trouble. One returned the slap – hard – but the woman only stumbled, recovered her footing, and rose to meet that one's eyes. Her words barely faltered over the whole time.
She took another slap for her trouble, and hard fingers gripping her chin. But the men walked away, leaving the first girl unharmed, leaving her crying in the second woman's arms.
So there you go. She's the only man among us.
But there, beside him, Dofbin said “Fool.”
“She was brave.”
“And plenty stupid. You think they won't come for her later on?”
“They don't know who she is.”
“Then they'll find out.”
“Who's to say they care?”
“Mark my words about it. They'll be leading that one away in chains. And the other girl, they can come back for her any time they please.”
“What if she'd been your wife or daughter?”
“Give thanks she wasn't. I'd be at the stake for sure. Or I hope so. Maybe I would let myself be held back.”
I'd hold him back. Instead of wading in with him. That's what's become of this town.
BridgeCross Day – 1522
She sang again. He could hear it rising over smoking chimneys and sun-coloured tiles. The market was only a few blocks away, but he turned his cart and headed down Whiteacre avenue towards the East Side. He drew some attention here and there from people who wondered at his odd direction. A few of them stopped to buy vegetables. And he smiled at them – always mindful of a customer – but his head was really elsewhere.
Don't let it stop, he thought urgently.
And it didn't. She was still singing when the grand house rose from behind a small hill, still as he pushed his cart up to the gate. He could see her more clearly today, wearing white this time, embroidered in black or dark blue, her sleeves tipped with violet. She wore her hair loose in the fashion of the North, only a string of beads across her forehead to bind it. Nearly-black hair, as he'd thought she'd have, and a beauty just as Dofbin had described her.
Her song was made up of words he still couldn't make out – eerie and beautiful, and he felt as if they told a story that only his soul could hear. Images and colours seemed to float in his head, seemed to make his skin tingle, to make his feet almost leave the ground. Her voice seemed to fill him up inside, making inroads into the hollow, wounded places he didn't know he had.
He crouched in the shadow of Eshelmay's walls and let the sound wash over him. The sun had climbed the sky, peaking directly overhead, before the Lady's song faded.
Wait.... He felt so bereft just watching her turn and walk inside.
Fool, he reminded himself, she doesn't care about the likes of you. She wouldn't note your existence even if she did see you.
The Duke's men did note him though. He saw the six of them walking towards him before he could take a side road. Two amongst them were knights. He held his breath as he walked past them, eyes down on the ground, shoulders hunched. Coward's pose. But he wasn't a fighting men - these were, and they carried swords nearly half his height.
The best he could hope for was to be ignored. Second best was that they might take his vegetables without paying, might make a joke or two as they did, and keep walking.
Instead, two men grabbed his cart at each end. They looked him over, taking their time.
One of the knights came forward.
“Take whatever you wish, sir.” He resented the mumbled humility in his voice, the way he didn't dare look at the man directly.
The knight took him up on his offer. He poked at Arangof's produce. “These are barely fit to give my horse.”
“And you, hardly fit to be wandering these parts.”
“Let me see you.”
And so he had to raise his head, stand still, with his arms at his side, be meekly appraised like a child, like livestock at market.
“You don't look like the sort to be selling in these parts. The wealthy want better. What do you have to say for yourself? What are you doing here?”
Following a song? He could hardly say it. 'Lost' would be unconvincing. “I came to sell vegetables.”
“Uh.... no, not many. Not so many...”
“Huh. These carrots are no bigger than my finger.”
A soldier behind him said, “No bigger than my dick neither.”
Another said “Bigger by half than 'is one, I reckon.”
Let it pass, let it go overhead. Say nothing.
The knight ignored his men. “Do you like it up here, little man?”
“Amongst these fine folk?”
There was little to do but nod again.
And now he was sure that the knight turned his gaze on Eshelmay House. “You want to be careful my friend, there's treason in these hills, and I know you'd not want any part in that.”
He schooled his face. “No sir, I wouldn't. And thank you.”
“Indeed. Go off with you. Back where you belong.”
A man didn't argue with a trained knight. Much less with an occupier whose fingers were always itching towards his scabbard. A wise man didn't. All the way home he kept his visions of spitting in the man's face caged safely inside his imagination. He imagined it until the urge to do it was exhausted, and the man himself long gone.
“Was no-one buying at market?” his wife asked him.
“Few,” he stumbled. A part of him wondered why he couldn't say it, why he didn't tell her: no, I followed a song instead, it enriched me more than a sack full of gold. Surely he could tell her anything. And if she but heard it...
“We'll at least have enough to eat.”
“I suppose we will.” And most would keep until he went out again tomorrow.
After supper she knelt up to kiss him, to run her fingers through his hair. He could only think about the Lady, about what it might be like to kiss her.