Silence

 

He bore the wedding night as a hero should. It was the morning after that nearly broke him.

They sent a woman to dress him. The gown was tight across his muscled shoulders, and he sat rigid in its stiff woolen embrace, imagining that the woman was his squire, and the embroidered overdress only his accustomed leather jerkin.

“A shame about your hair,” he heard her say, and felt a hand run lightly over his cropped head.

He looked up, and recognized her with a start. The bile rose in his throat. She’d changed her dress, but he’d know those close-set blue eyes anywhere.

“Lady Nature?”

“My dear girl, I am so… so proud of you. I always knew we’d win through in the end. And now” – her lip trembled, but he saw the smugness behind it – “now you’re the queen.”

If Silence was sure of anything, it was this: he wasn’t her dear girl, and what had happened was not winning. But he said nothing. Courtesy and discretion were knightly virtues. Now that the worst had happened, he would need them more than ever.

Lady Nature didn’t seem to expect a reply. She wrapped his head in a wimple, pinning the linen snugly under his chin. “Don’t worry,” she cooed. “It will grow.”

It took him a long moment to realize she meant his hair.

He sat still after she had finished with him. He was fully dressed, but he felt incomplete, stripped of the disguises he had worn every day since he was old enough to fear discovery. The sturdy leather codpiece, the bindings to flatten his breasts – these things had been with him so long they had felt like part of him. Now he was no longer the king’s knight, but the king’s wife, and their absence was like a missing limb.

A vassal must submit to his lord’s wishes. This past night gave that command a new and awful significance.

*

Silence’s skirts trailed on the floor. He had to kick them aside at every step. Lady Nature squeezed his elbow, digging in her nails.

“Careful,” she hissed. “Don’t stamp. A lady steps lightly.”

In the hall, King Evan sat in his high chair, his knights in little knots around him pretending not to stare at the new queen. The men vibrated with an awareness of the wedding night, of the strange events that had transformed one of their own into the king’s bride. Silence lowered his eyes and studied the heavy brocade pooled on the floor around his feet. Not before he’d glimpsed the cage of bent saplings near the throne. That heap of piebald cloth in it must be the wild man.

A hand gripped Silence’s shoulder, and he sprang away before he could stop himself, groping for the hilt of a sword that wasn’t there. But when he looked up, it was his father’s face he saw. Duke Cador of Cornwall wore his best tunic and the heavy bronze torque of his office. His eyes, sunken in the lined cheeks, were red.

“My son,” he said, then stopped himself. “My…”

“Sir,” began Silence, and faltered. There was no way even to excuse himself. He had been proud to be the son his parents so ardently desired, the one they’d raised him to be. Now his undoing was theirs: with no male heir to claim it, the duchy of Cornwall would revert to the crown. In view of last night, Silence supposed it already had.

“I came as soon as I heard,” murmured his father. Not soon enough, though he would have been powerless to stop the wedding in any case. Silence could only nod.

“We’re proud of you,” said his father.

Silence understood what this meant: his father didn’t blame him. Still, the words made his stomach lurch, because Lady Nature had said the same thing.

As his father moved away, Silence cast the lady a sidelong glance. She was there still, clinging at his elbow. Noting his mistakes, he supposed. Silence had resolved not to speak to her, not in public, where people might hear. But there was something he had to know. Out of the side of his mouth, he muttered the question that had been troubling him.

“Where’s Lady Nurture?”

Lady Nature smirked. “Hiding her sorry face like the hussy she is. When I think how she treated you, poor girl…” The lady caught Silence’s hand before he could jerk it away, and ran a finger over the callused palm. “Your poor tender skin. Don’t worry. I won’t let that witch Nurture near my girl again.”

Silence snatched his hand back and glanced around, hoping no one had noticed. He would have to learn to manage Lady Nature better, especially now. Queens didn’t talk to themselves. But the space around the wild man’s cage was clear. Gulping back the sick feeling in his throat, he gathered his skirts.

“Stop that!” snapped Lady Nature, tugging them free again. “Your ankles will show. Don’t you know that a lady… my dear, does one have to teach you everything?”

Silence ignored her. He stumbled forward, feet tangling in the fabric.

The wild man had been Sir Silence’s last great deed, and his undoing. He had trapped the creature and brought him to court to satisfy a whim of King Evan’s, never dreaming this would be any different than the great serpent he’d slain the year before, the falcon-headed lion he’d tamed the year before that. But the wild man had spoken, and told the king his favorite knight had a woman’s body. How could he have known?

From the tumbled mess a head emerged, gray hair and beard clipped short. Silence struggled to recognize the face. When Silence had caught him, the wild man had been dressed only in his own hair, his silvery tresses longer and thicker than a lady’s, a tangled beard hanging forked over his thin chest. Silence wondered why the king had had him shorn. Without his hair, the wild man seemed ordinary, no more than an old fool one might see begging on the steps of any church.

“How did you know?” hissed Silence.

The wild man leered, showing rotten stubs of teeth. His eyes were the color of moss, a green that was almost brown. “The Fairy Queen knows,” he said.

Silence’s hair prickled under the wimple. He leaned closer, lowering his voice. “The Fairy Queen? What—”

The wrinkles around the wild man’s eyes bunched into a smile. “You captured the Fairy Queen’s subject. She had her revenge. It was only fair.”

It was nonsense. Silence shook his head.

The wild man opened his eyes wide, staring at Lady Nature. “But aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?”

Silence swallowed a gasp. No one had ever seen the ladies Nature and Nurture: they were Silence’s private demons, tasked with torturing only him. But the wild man’s eyes, sharp with interest, were fixed on the lady.

She stiffened. “Don’t listen to him.”

The wild man raised two fingers to his forehead, doffing a cap that wasn’t there. “Lady Nurture or Lady Nature, I presume? The two of you look so very alike. I never can tell you apart.”

“Come along.” Lady Nature seized Silence by the arm, nearly lifting him off the floor in her hurry to get away. “Queens don’t talk to wild men.”

*

It was night. Moonlight made a pale square on the floor beside the bed. Beside Silence, the king snored.

Anyone could endure one night, or two. But every night? Silence knew kings eventually tired of queens. Perhaps, when the queen had so recently been a boy, the novelty took longer to wear off.

When King Evan had tired of his last queen, he’d had her drawn and quartered.

Silence had been considering. He had been trained to obedience, but not even obedience can turn a knight into a queen. He might run away, breaking his oath of fealty – but that would leave his aged parents vulnerable to the king’s wrath. He might ask permission to enter a convent, but that would hardly be granted, not before he had produced an heir.

He might die. That seemed the safest course.

The Fairy Queen, the wild man had said. Silence had been considering that, too. Surely the creature was mad. Still, there was the uncanny place Silence had found him: the goodman’s croft, where brambles grew thick and straying sheep were known to vanish. The preserve of the Little Folk, left fallow out of respect for them. Peasants would sooner freeze in their cottages than cut the Little Folk’s trees for firewood. It was a foolish superstition.

The Fairy Queen. They said she granted wishes.

Superstition or not, Silence had to know more. He sat up and touched his bare feet to the moonlit floor.

He was naked, of course, and his breasts swung maddeningly before him, like full udders. He looked for something to tie them down, but the room was dark, and his hands fell first on the king’s ermine-lined mantle. That would be warm, at least. Summer was running on towards autumn and the stone walls of the castle radiated chill. Silence pulled the mantle around his shoulders and left the room, stepping softly. His legs felt light with no skirts to weigh them down.

In the great hall, shadows stood like sentries. The cage was a tangled snarl of branches. Silence couldn’t see the wild man, but he smelled him: unwashed hair, stale breath.

“Wild man,” Silence whispered. “What did you mean, about the Fairy Queen?”

The bottom of the cage stirred. A head rose up, gaunt, with empty caverns for eyes.  It chuckled. “You’re asking me to tell tales of my mistress?”

“I’m asking…” Silence stopped, shaking his head. “Curse it, you’re not one of the Little Folk. You’re too…”

The shadow in the cage rearranged itself. The wild man might have been settling a blanket around his shoulders. “And you’re not a man,” he said agreeably. “You’re too…”

Silence winced under his mantle.

“It’s a wish you’re after,” the wild man continued. “Isn’t it?”

Silence clenched his hands together without meaning to, then let go and gripped the mantle instead. He’d always known what he would wish for, always. Ever since, as a very small child, he’d first understood the trick Nature had played on him. A man’s body would be armor against the world. In it, he would be safe from discovery, from indignity, from all that he suffered now.

“I…” he began.

But he bit the rest off short as something grasped the fabric at the back of his neck. It dragged him back, choking him. He dropped the mantle and twisted away, throwing his assailant hard against the floor. He heard the sharp intake of her breath, the muttered curse. He stood over her, naked, fighting the urge to kick. No knight kicks a woman – not even one who’s a demon of his own brain.

“Leave me alone,” he snarled.

Lady Nature sat up, breathing hard. “You’re not doing it right. You’re not even trying.”

“I can’t. It’s not in my Nature.” He spat the last word.

She laughed, though it sounded like a sob. “Look at you. You’re beautiful. Everyone desires you. Your body is perfect. But you… you…”

Silence snatched up the mantle and wrapped his shameful body in it, wrong side out, the brocade scratching his skin.

“I’m doing my duty,” he said. “Isn’t that enough for you?”

But the brief scuffle had made him ache for it: horse and tack and weapon, sun and rain and the grassy road leading away from the castle. Now, he sat in a room all day. A woman was teaching him to sew – endless small stitches around the edge of an altar cloth.

“I’ll tell you how to find her.”

It was the wild man’s voice, thin and eager. Silence turned to see his eyes glittering between the bars.

“The Fairy Queen?” Silence demanded.

“The Fairy Queen!” mocked Nature, struggling to her feet, straightening her skirts. “What kind of talk is that?”

The wild man looked only at Silence. “Yes. I can even arrange a wish, for a price. A favor for a favor.”

“What sort of price?” said Silence, trying to keep his breathing even.

“Set me free.”

“Set you free?” snorted Nature. “You’re the king’s property.”

“So is he,” said the wild man, jerking his head in Silence’s direction. “The key is under the cushion of the throne.”

Silence held the wild man’s eyes. “One wish?”

The creature nodded.

Nature wailed, plucking at Silence’s mantle. But Silence had always ignored her complaints when he’d been a knight. It was time to do so again. He found the key easily, fitted it in the lock, and turned it.

The lock clicked. Silence jiggled the latch free, ready to swing the cage door open. But the wild man snaked one leathery hand through the bars and laid it over Silence’s own, stopping him.

Startled, Silence looked up. The wild man’s face was in shadow, unreadable. “Thank you,” he said.

A thin shriek cut across his words: Lady Nature. But that wasn’t what made the hairs stand up on Silence’s bare arms. No, it was the muscular fingers that gripped his shoulder. The deep voice in his ear.

“What a charming surprise,” said King Evan. “My queen, and the wild man.”

Silence froze. The wild man smiled, as if he’d known all along. As if this were part of the plan.

*

King Evan, who preferred quick and showy endings, planned to burn his traitorous queen together with the creature that had been her downfall. Drawing and quartering his last queen had been messy. Burning would be clean.

Cross-dressing queens and wild men are not burned every day. It would be a fabulous display of wealth, like throwing jewels into the sea or distributing brocades to beggars. King Evan planned a feast.

Two stakes were set up in the great hearth at the far end of the hall, where a roaring fire burned from Michaelmas to Easter. Seasoned wood was piled high, pale curls of tinder trailing over the top like girlish ringlets.

There was to be roast peacock, and a marzipan castle.

Silence waited in the servants’ corridor, out of sight like an actor in a play. From the shadow of the low arch, he could make nothing more than a few of the revelers’ backs: samite and miniver, bent over golden plates. The cords dug into his wrists as his guard tugged him back. They hadn’t let him see the wild man.

Lady Nature was gone too, vanished as soon as Silence had unlocked the wild man’s cage. Silence found he missed her. She had been company, of a kind.

Silence was resigned to being burned. Better a quick end than long gray years as King Evan’s queen. He only regretted the dress they’d put him in for the occasion: flame-red silk, cut too scanty in the bodice and too full in the skirt.

No, there was another thing he regretted: his father. Duke Cador had vanished from the court as soon as his son was condemned. Would the old man attempt a rescue? It would be fruitless, Silence knew, but it would mean the duke’s life.

There were titters from the assembled guests, a hum of chatter. At first, Silence couldn’t see what caused the stir. Then, straining forward, he glimpsed the jesters. Smartly dressed in cloth of gold, carrying flaming torches, leading the wild man. The wild man didn’t struggle. He looked the way Silence felt: beaten, waiting for the end. His short hair was rumpled, pushed up on one side where he must have slept on it.

Silence knew his own turn would be next. He felt a tug at his sleeve, and took an obedient step forward. But a hand on his arm dragged him back.

“Your highness,” said a young man’s voice.

Silence turned and looked into the face of his guard. It was one he knew: Sir Tantris, a good-natured sort who never used to grumble when Silence knocked him down in the tilting yard. Tantris was doing something to Silence’s wrists, tugging at the cord, twisting. It hurt.

“Your highness,” he muttered. “I know you did nothing wrong. All of us know it. There.”

Silence’s wrists came free before he knew that Tantris had cut the cord. Something pressed into his palm: the hilt of a dagger. Fingers tingling as the blood rushed back into them, Silence nearly dropped it.

“Go,” said Tantris, gesturing back along the corridor, towards the kitchens. “Out through the pottage sheds. The servants won’t stop you. They love you. All of us do.”

Silence hesitated. After so many weeks in the women’s quarters, the dagger was strange in his hand.

“Your father,” said Tantris. “He’s in the goodman’s croft. Waiting for you.”

In the hall, the wild man was already tied to the stake. King Evan stepped forward and took a lighted torch from one of the jesters.

“There’s nothing you can do here,” snapped Tantris, his voice rising to a squeak as he realize what Silence planned.

Silence sprang forward, hearing his skirt rip and knowing he’d stepped on it. He knew now what was the honorable course. He should have known long before. He leapt towards the king. No one moved to stop him.

But Evan was a big man, a seasoned warrior twice Silence’s age. Silence was weakened and cowed by his time in the women’s quarters, his legs hampered by a small fortune in scarlet silk. Evan dashed the torch into Silence’s skirt, and pinned his arms in an instant.

“To me! To me!” the king bellowed, groping for his dagger, and finding it was only the ceremonial one with the blunt edge. “Treachery!”

But because it was King Evan who called for help, and because it was Silence who was the traitor, the court sat still. Only a moment, the space of an indrawn breath, but Silence felt himself borne up because of it. He kicked the torch away, still gripping the dagger in his pinned hand. If he could struggle free, he would use it. It no longer mattered that this was the king. In truth, it never should have mattered.

The wild man screamed.

Someone had tossed one of the other torches into the hearth, and flames were running up the wood. One of the jesters, it must have been.

Then the stillness was over, and everything began to move.

There was a shout at the hall’s entrance, a clatter of hooves. A herd of deer galloped under the arch, their pelts pale as moonlight. Pages and minstrels scrambled out of their path. The deer leapt over the trestles, sending platters of food cascading to the floor. Fleeing guests slipped in a tangle of brawn and poultry and steaming apples.

Leading the charge was a stag, and on its back a woman whose silver hair streamed behind her like a banner.

A rescue? But was it too late. The fire in the hearth burned brighter. The woman on her stag seemed not to notice. Deer filled the hall.

And the roasts began to come to life. A peacock shook out feathers from its ruined pores. A quail spread its plucked wings, splitting the crisped skin. A suckling pig spat the apple from its mouth and rose unsteadily on legs oozing with gravy. A calf lowed, grapes bulging in the empty sockets where its eyes had been. It pawed the ground, and charged the king.

The king gasped, released Silence, and ran. Silence wasted no time looking after him. He made for the hearth, beating at his smoldering skirts. The wild man’s silhouette was still visible through the flames. Horribly still.

The woman on her stag veered into Silence’s path, the roasted animals stumbling behind her. Silence raised his dagger, not sure what he’d do. But the woman knocked it easily from his hand and pulled him up in front of her. Silence, stunned, didn’t even cry out. His legs flopped hard against the stag’s side as the woman slung him over the animal’s back.

Head spinning, Silence raised his cheek from the deer’s rough hide to look back one last time. The figure in the hearth was no more than a charcoal man, past screaming now. Any attempt at rescue would have snapped his limbs like twigs.

*

The woman tossed Silence from the stag’s back like a bundle of logs. The ground he landed on was thick with dead leaves, and the sky above thick with branches. The air was dim under the trees, hot and wet as a lover’s skin: the goodman’s croft. Silence spat out cobwebs and animal hair.

“You left him!” he gasped when he could speak. “You left him to die!”

“Who?” The woman’s voice was so calm that Silence sat up and stared. She stood over him, her face expressionless.

“The wild man!” he exploded.

“A body.” She shrugged. “You of all people should know that a man is more than his body. And the wild man is no more mortal than I am.”

No more mortal than she was? Silence gazed at her. Her silver hair hung about her face in slender braids like the tongues of a whip, and her clothes were ragged and leafy as the canopy of the forest itself, but she seemed human enough. Silence frowned, clambering to his feet.

He knew he should recognize her before he did. He hadn’t seen her since the day he’d trapped the wild man. She’d changed. The green gown with its tattered skirt, like bearded moss. The scratched, bare legs. The waterfall of pale hair, the sun-darkened skin, the nose covered in a new bloom of freckles. Still, the face – those close-set blue eyes – he’d know them anywhere.

He’d missed her.

“Lady… lady Nurture?” he stammered.

She inclined her head, a smile blooming on her face. “You always did call me that, dear boy.”

A dry snout nudged Silence’s arm. Around him crowded the herd of snowy deer, glassy-eyed and staring. Their faces as dead as the roasts had been. Peering out from under them were the Little Folk, barely coming up to Silence’s waist, wooden spears in their hands. Their leader gripped Silence’s elbow.

“She is the Fairy Queen,” he said.

Silence glanced at Lady Nurture, confused. Her smile deepened.

He stepped back, and his foot slipped in something soft. A carcass. A roast peacock, fallen lifeless after its long run from the hall, one or two flies already buzzing around it.

“You captured the wild man near here,” said Lady Nurture. “Do you remember how?”

It had been easy: a tender haunch of veal, roasted to perfection, had been the bait. As Silence had guessed, the poor creature had been hungry, longing for cooked meat. For the comforts of civilization. It had been a long, weary night of driving wolves and vultures from the food, but at last the wild man had peeped from a tangle of ivy and come scuttling on all fours, snatching the meat and burning his mouth. Silence had fallen on him with a rope.

Silence stared at the ruined peacock, his stomach churning. What would be the just retribution for all he’d done to the wild man?

He didn’t remember what Sir Tantris had said about his father until the Little Folk drew back, melting into the trees, and he saw him. In a living cage of bent saplings, tops woven together, roots still anchored in the mossy ground, lay old Duke Cador. Curled up on a bed of leaves, asleep. Or perhaps worse.

“He is my prisoner,” said the Lady. “For trespassing here. And for your capture of my subject the wild man. It’s a fair price.”

The old man’s face was peaceful, unsettlingly so. When had Silence last seen his father like that? Ten years ago it must have been, after that poisoned wound the dragon had given him. When Silence was still a squire, before he’d gone to serve at King Evan’s court. Before everything had gone wrong.

Duke Cador’s shoulder twitched. He breathed.

And Silence drew himself up. A knight in the burned, bedraggled dress of a queen, but a knight all the same.

“A fair price, yes,” he said. “But there’s something you owe me too. A wish.”

Lady Nurture raised her eyebrows. “A wish?”

“When I released the wild man, he made me a bargain. The fairy folk keep their bargains. He promised me a wish.”

She laughed. “You mean that old wish for a man’s body? Even I can’t move the moon, you know.”

Silence didn’t argue. He didn’t have to. “But that’s not my wish any more. I want my father back.”

The Lady beamed. “That’s better,” she said. “That’s the sort of wish a fairy can grant.”

As the saplings of the cage crumbled to ash and drifted away, the old duke opened his eyes.

*

King Evan never got his queen back. Instead, Duke Cador of Cornwall declared war on him, allying himself with King Hoel of Brittany.

The duke made it known that the king had gravely insulted his son and heir. In a way too unspeakable to mention. Given such a circumstance, the duke’s oath of vassalage was moot.

King Evan’s knights, by and large, agreed. They began to talk darkly in corners. Some refused to ride into battle with him. One Sir Tantris retreated to the woods with a band of merry men, looting and pillaging as he went.

Silence went home to Cornwall, where his mother was wild with delight to see him.

Silence never saw the ladies Nature and Nurture again. But he was occasionally, and at the oddest times, visited by the wild man.

by

B.H. Findley

 

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