Lady of Angels - Part 2
He wasn't a fool. Of course he could never have a woman like that. Aside from anything else he could not have afforded to keep her. But that didn't mean she wasn't on his mind. While he assessed the market with one eye, while he bandied words with customers, and kept his fingers busy with turnips and copper coins, the other half of his mind flowed with images of her, with extrapolations from his brief sight of her into a kaleidoscope of coloured images. He found himself constantly at attention, waiting to hear a few notes, a carried voice, a rustling and whispering voice that would embed itself deeply in his head.
Instead he heard gossip.
There were traitors indeed. There were traitors after all. Ordinary men and women, who one might look at and never think to name traitor. Men for whom treason made no sense. Women, whose lives could give them no opportunity for such thing. But still, they were coming out of the woodwork. It was just as he'd feared – more suspects were taken away, more questioning, more glaring light shone on the minutiae of common lives: and these strange, dappled patterns had inevitably emerged.
Said a customer: “It had to happen. An example, you know.”
Any wrong word was dangerous. It was certainly dangerous to label the matter a scandal, an injustice, a criminal abuse. He only asked “How many?”
“Can't say as I know. A lot, I think.”
“Who are they? Do you know that?”
“Maysif Hurrel, Logot Tifween, Sandon Grafnee....” the customer was well-informed, and amongst them were names Arangof knew, if only slightly.
“That's...” He didn't know what he dared say. Sandon Grafnee was barely eighteen, and his mother: as gentle a woman as one had ever been. How could any fool think she the kind to get involved in conspiracies and plots? It's madness. And of course, he mustn't say it. “What'll happen?”
The customer looked like he wanted to spit, like he didn't dare and was doubly angry on account of it. “What do you think will happen? They'll fuel the New Year's fires, and we'll stand in the smoke and
cheer it on.”
And we will too.
He felt the walk home far more than he usually did, and when he reached his door he was sore and disheartened. His head was throbbing.
When his wife came to him with his soup and bread he brushed both of them aside, and drank fitfully from his ale-mug, listless, irritated.
“What is it?” She asked him.
“The mood you're in.”
“You've heard people talking. It's begun hasn't it?”
She looked sober. “So they say.”
“This was a fine city once.”
“No. Not any more. No. The mayor's in chains in a one of his own dungeons. He's likely to join these other innocents when the New Year comes. All we can do is shrink away from it, camouflage ourselves amongst our neighbours and hope it's somebody else who has to face the flames. I used to be proud to come from Trethfierron. I can't say the same now.”
She knelt in front of him. “Any city, anywhere. It'd be the same.”
“I saw a woman stand up to rapists the other day.”
Her face knitted in puzzlement. “Well, good...”
“Did they take her away?”
“Then good. Gofling,” - the name she sometimes called him alone in the dark - “why is this eating you so much tonight?”
He was tired. So tired that his limbs were stone, his eyes weighted down, and his bones refusing not to ache. “Maybe I'm sickening.”
“I have warding honey, I'll boil some up.”
“No. Enough. That's old witches remedies. Daft talk amongst wives...” But he was taking his sour mood out on her now. As simple and plain as she might be, as unbrilliant, as ordinary, she was still his rock, and his compass. “I'm sorry, love. It's dark news, that's all. And this city has had enough darkness of late.”
“Happier times will come.”
Because you say so? The trite phrase annoyed him unduly.
“If you won't drink honey, at least have some rest. It's not too early to sleep.”
His body gave in to that. His mind drifted in midnight hair and bright dresses, while his body sagged and sunk in the ground, and his wife's arms held him and kept that ground from swallowing him up.
KingsWrath Day – 1522
When he heard her singing again, he knew that there was something magical going on. There was no way a song without words – or words he could make head nor tail of – should be able to make him feel these things; no way it should be able to feel its way into his soul, to leave diamonds behind there, to fill him with images of peace and plenty, with feelings of floating, laughing, dreaming. When her voice found its way to his ear, through it, into his heart, he was instantly full up, and instantly craving – there were images in his head of women dancing, angels in white, skirts fluttering, eyes blue like sky, flowers blooming instantly beneath their golden feet.
How could she do this? He had to know. And he had to know her....
It was a madness. Him – Arangof Humblehand – standing at the gate of a fine lady's house, collar up around his ears, ringing on the bell, while his feet moved impatiently beneath him. He, who had probably never spoken two words to such a creature in his life, who'd be tongue-tied in front of such a vision, who might not even really speak the same language – his street-tongue, his ordinary, uncorrected words might have only an origin in common with the ones she spoke.
And a servant was there at the gate.
“Please, miss,” - and she seemed a little startled to be referred to as 'miss' - “I have to see the... the lady of the house. Can you help me?”
“Her Ladyship?” The girl sounded appropriately doubtful.
“Yes. Yes, please.”
“Are you expected, sir?”
“No. That is... no I'm not...” the song had all but faded, there was just a flicker of it left amongst the sunset, amongst the waning songs of birds and insects. “I was hoping she would see me...”
“Arangof Humblehand. She might not know it...”
“Have you a token? A letter?” Her eyes were sceptical.
“The Lady can't just see any tradesman comes ringing on the bell.”
“No. I know.... but I heard her singing.”
“You don't have business with her?”
“Not business...” It was unravelling quickly.
“Then what could....?” The likes of you. What does the likes of you want with one such as her?
“The song, she sings so beautifully.”
“I will pass that along.”
“Yes. You'll only get yourself into trouble.”
“I just want to know how she can do that. How she can make music like that. I've never heard anything like it.”
“She has a fine voice.”
“An angel's voice. A voice like the King's own harp. Like the rain over deep water.” He didn't even know where these words were coming from. They didn't feel like his own.
The girl stepped closer, she was eye to eye, tips of noses nearly touching. She hissed “Be quiet! You'll attract the Lord's notice. Or somebody not so sympathetic as I am. Some other servants would turn you over to him.”
“But I'm not...”
“A common workman... you can't presume. Don't you know?”
He did know. It came down on him avalanche-hard. He knew very well. He was courting a flogging, or a night in a cold, damp cell. What on earth had he been thinking?
“I'm sorry.” He whispered.
“You should go.”
“I should. Thank you. You must be so honoured, working for her, hearing her sing.”
“Her voice is good. She's... she's not an unkind mistress. But you'll still have your shoulders bared if he takes you here the wrong way.”
He nodded, squeezing her fingers before taking off.
“Be careful,” she said to him, “a patrol comes by this way not long after sunset.”
The headaches began coming. They came on in the mornings, usually, not long after he'd left home to stock his cart. And at times they were horrifying, so deep and strangling that they had him on his knees, waves of agony shuddering down his spine. He'd see red, his eyes would burn, the world would turn grey. It lasted at this level for only a minute or two, but the pain left him shaken, afraid that he was dying.
Memma, his neighbour, knew a girl who dealt in such things. She swung crystals over him and filled her tiny cottage with pungent herbs.
“I don't know,” she admitted, and gave him herbs that should help ease the pain.
But the song did.
He'd been heading back home again from the market, on Harlot's Day, feet like lead, his skull feeling splintered, even his hands looking pale and wrinkled. He was trying to imagine how his wife would live without him, about how best to tell her what he feared was happening. He was thinking these things when the Lady took up her singing. It took him away from his troubles almost instantly, let him into a world of bright, layered colours, of spicy smells, the teasing flicker of images that might or might not bear a woman's shape – shadows in green and blues, woven in with firelight. And the pain
lifted from his head.
He almost abandoned his cart to run towards the sound. He followed it to the grand house, and crouched behind the cart, watching, listening, waiting, until it finally faded and there was only silence, only those threads of song that still rested on his memory, too delicate by far to examine. Too barely formed, too fragile.
Redeemers Day – 1522
They brought the traitors out. Common men, dressed in the debris of common clothes. Their faces told a story of long, hard, bloody questioning. Their backs, their wrists and ankles, would tell the full story, if these were not covered and shackled. Arangof noted their lank hair, their dirty faces, bull-strong men whose faces bore tracks of tears, whose heads were bent now, as their captors lead
them into the street.
Arangof's head thumped with pain. He was thinner than he'd once been, he was beginning to notice. Skin flaked off the back of his hands.
I don't know, the girl had said, and nobody else seemed to be able to offer better.
The traitors were ordinary men – and a couple of women – there was nothing about them that spoke of dark plots and overthrows. The mayor still languished in chains, and Arangof doubted that any of these would have thought to free him, would have known how to begin. Their crimes – read from long, withered scrolls, newly inked and smelling so – told stories of clandestine meetings, association with political outcasts, inflammatory speeches made in marketplaces, serious gatherings in houses too small to fit more than a third of who were supposed to have been present.
And here they are for our education. This is what happens if you look the wrong way at the wrong man, if you don't pay, don't bow, don't step quickly enough out the way. This is the fate that awaits
any such fool.
The fate was burning.
The crowd was full of people who knew these unfortunates – there was sympathy there, though it didn't dare be spoken aloud. But there were others in the crowd who taunted – who reached into their basest natures to pull out cruel jibes about the fire, and how slowly it would eat them, how it'd lick their flesh, layer by layer, taking its time with them. Hours.
There's enough of us. Between us, we could hit those few guards like a monster wave. We could carry these people away with us. We could save them.
Only a few sharp, bladed edges, and that was enough to stop such a thing.
Dofbin said, “They pay them.”
“Those men back there, talking up the fire. The Duke's men pay them in silver.”
A sudden burst of lightning ripped through his head.
He'd staggered, all but falling.
“You all right?”
“Yes. Fine. Do men need bribing now to glory in other men's suffering?”
“Not exactly. But its convenient that they're in that mood today. And that they'll still be in that mood on the Cusp of the New Year.”
He'd been to executions before: even if what Dofbin said was true, he'd seen first hand that there was usually real excitement in the air, that the atmosphere was charged, suffused with a strangely
otherworldly tension, that it only became sombre once things were over. Once the reality sank in. Right now it all just made him sick.
“I'm heading home.”
“Those men will all burn in a week. Those men, they're as real as either of us. It's not-” and he couldn't really find the right words for it. He kicked the ground in disgust, which brought a new jolt of pain through his head, and he stalked off, angry at the universe, and at his own part in it.
Until her song soothed him.
He'd learnt by now that it would. And that nothing else would. It went without saying now, and without thought, to follow it to its source, to sit in hiding, drinking its magic, repairing himself from the inside out.
Ah, but when did I first become broken?
She was out on her balcony today, and his position afforded him a clearer view than usual. She was standing with her hands on the railing, gripping tight, rings sparkling on nearly every finger. She wore a darker blue today, full of soft, luxurious folds, embroidered in a colour that mixed orange/red/pink and made him think at once of the setting sun. A circlet around her head rested on hair that was ebony-dark and slightly curled. A light, lace shawl hung over her shoulders.
It looked to Arangof as if she saw nothing that was out there, her attention was all inward. She stared across her garden with intent, unseeing eyes; her entire self wrapped up in the strange, foreign words she sang. Words that brought forth the sea in storm, the rainbow that followed it, the gulls taking flight, children running down to play in the wet sand. He could smell the salt, he could taste it on his tongue.
When a passing stranger looked at him oddly, he protested: “How can I help it? Listening to her?”
“To what?” The man asked.
“Her. Her singing.”
The man shrugged. “Can't hear her from here.”
“Friend, you must have far better ears than I have.”
Arangof tried not to stare, he tried to bid this stranger a polite farewell. What about the waves crashing? What about the salt mixed with soot, mixed with pepper and beef – dinner cooked over a fire in a cottage beside the sea? It had never occurred to him that anyone else would hear her differently. And it didn't make sense. Why would a woman like that sing only for his ears? An ordinary pedlar of common vegetables. Why would she sing to someone so coarse and simple?
I'm listening, he swore to her, tell me what you want me to hear.
It tortured him into the darkness, after her voice had gone quiet, after he'd set off for home, the last sunset long submerged into night. He couldn't believe – and yet couldn't not believe – that this song belonged to him alone. That was why the streets weren't lined with people aching to hear her. There should have been a crowd outside the walls – but instead, only him. She spun worlds for him alone to share, to drown all five senses. Why? Could it be that she cared for him? The prospect jolted him like a sudden touch of ice or heat. But what if she did, if she somehow could? That her song was a serenade, calling him into her arms?
The thought was so fanciful, but once he had it in his head, there was no way to shake it. And no way to resist. Would he take her in his arms if he could, defying the law and Lord and the conventions of decent people? He was near-to-certain that he would. He would risk everything. He would lose everything. He knew it.
His head was pounding when he got back home. It felt as if something hot and jagged was trying to force its way through from the inside. He found himself stumbling, found his vision blurring. He found himself realising that he needed the song.
His wife was there to help him when he staggered in the door. Brewing anger at his late return was forgotten when she saw the state he was in. “Gofling. Gofling, what is it?”
“... head...” He mumbled.
She had his face in her hands, studying his eyes, looking him over. “Are you hurt? Did you fall?”
“No. No. Just a headache.”
“You can hardly walk.”
“Just need-” her song “to lie down.”
“Here. Come.” She guided him over to the bed. “Rest there. I'll fetch you herb honey.”
“There's no need.”
“Hush. Leave the healing-craft to me.”
“I only need sleep.”
“Yes. But this will help you. Trust me.”
He should. And he should take such pleasure in her kindly hands stroking his forehead, her kiss on his cheek, her gentle voice telling him “Hush, hush, the herbs will take effect soon. The fire's warm. I'm right beside you.” Those things were more than a lot of men had, and more than he deserved. So he was a traitor in his heart, dreaming of the Lady, imagining how soft her hands might be, knowing that her voice could drive away any pain or any sadness. He should not – and yet he did – imagine her naked flesh beside him, her pristine body sliding in amongst the rugs, her round breasts rubbing up against him, her arms sliding under his back, lips like silk just barely touching his own.