The Book Quest

I convinced Isolde to embroider in the great hall, even though there was little breeze. As I embroidered, I watched Cecily as she moved between the hall and other rooms in order to see which room she most visited. She seemed to pass through the kitchen often, which was unfortunate. There were few reasons for me to visit the kitchen. But I had noticed an oak chest that stood in the kitchen–perhaps she kept it in there? I sat down my embroidery, and approached her.

“Cecily, we are short on bedding in the royal chamber. We need to borrow yours until it can be replaced. Do ye keep it in this chest?” I gestured to it along the left wall of the kitchen.

Cecily’s eyes got big and her face forlorn. She could not say no, which meant she would have to sleep directly on the floor.

I felt terrible after I asked, especially as a ruse.

“Yes, my lady,” she whispered in an almost wistful, childlike manner and motioned for me to gather up the bedding kept in the chest.

I walked over and opened the chest. The bedding, atrociously stained, wore the smells of the food that had been cooked over the hearth for many years. I tried not to breathe them in as I touched it.

I spotted a key! I pulled out the bedding gingerly, wrapping the key in it. I nodded thanks to Cecily and brought it over to Isolde, who still sat embroidering, slipping the key to hide in my dress.

Isolde gave me a look as though to ask what I was doing with Cecily’s pungent bedding.

“Isolde,” I whispered. “Just play along. Tell me ye don’t think this bedding is fit for the royal chamber.”

Her voice loud and clear, Isolde said,

“Brangien, this bedding is not fit for the royal chamber. Please return it to the kitchen at once.”

I carried it back to Cecily.

“Thank ye, Cecily, but the queen does not want this bedding.”

Cecily, relieved, took it back.

I had little time to try the key on the locked book room before Cecily realized it was missing. But there were too many people milling about, and the bolted door was visible from the great hall.

“Isolde, could ye create a diversion, leading everyone outside? I need half an hour.”

Isolde laughed a little at me and shook her head. But she stood up, walking at an angle in the direction of the door as though she had one of her bitter headaches and stated loudly,

“I don’t feel so well,” swooning and then bracing herself on the entrance door and then opened it, falling just outside.

A host of people followed her out the door, fanning her and trying to assist. No one was looking in my direction so I strode quickly to the barred room.

The key worked! I closed the door behind me and inhaled with delight. There were not more than ten to twenty books. Isolde and I had learned to read in Irish and most of these must be written in English, or so I assumed. I flipped through them quickly. Many contained maps, which although interesting, were not as tantalizing as others. I found a Book of Hours with Isolde’s name on it. Could I take one book with me? I shifted from foot to foot, indecisive, and constantly looked at the door. I grabbed the Book of Hours, tucked it under my dress awkwardly, and cracked the door a bit so I could peek outside. Isolde excelled in her role–the path was still clear. I quickly locked the door and headed upstairs to the royal chamber where I hid the book under my own bedding. I then walked outside to where Cecily stood with the others.

“Cecily, I found this key on the floor. I think it fell out of the bedding,” I told her nonchalantly and handed it to her.

Isolde stood up gradually.

“Thank ye,” she told the crowd. “I feel much better.”

She put her arm through mine, and I “assisted” her in walking to the royal bedchamber.

“Did ye get in?” Isolde asked when we were alone.

“Yes, and I borrowed a book that has your name on it. A Book of Hours, I think. It might have been a wedding gift.” I didn’t show her where I stashed it in case anyone walked through the door.

“What now, Brangien?”

“I will conceal it in under my skirts this evening. We will go for a stroll, and I will hide it in the forest so we can read it another day. We will have to learn to read English since the text is not in Irish. But wait until ye see it. The pages are so lovely.”

Isolde lay down in case anyone looked for her and I sat by the window and continued my embroidery.

“Brangien, what does the Book of Hours contain?” Isolde inquired.

I wondered that myself. I couldn’t yet read the English words.


A Quest?

I followed Cecily from a distance as she headed to the kitchen in order to see where she kept the book room key. Before I entered the kitchen, from my skirts I took out fastidiously-wrapped, dried herbs over which one could pour hot water to make a tisane. I had noticed Marie the cook coughing of late and had made it in advance for an opportune time. While watching Cecily out of the corner of my left eye, I looked forward, waiting for Marie to notice my presence. Cecily still had not hung or placed the key anywhere! As Marie turned towards me, I greeted her,

“Marie, here is a tisane powder to make a tea to soothe your throat.”

Cecily left the room. Did she still have the key?

Marie gave me a snide look, her lips pressed and her nose turned up, but took the herbs anyway.

I wondered if Isolde knew anything about this book room? I found her yawning as she gazed out the window with an embroidery project in her lap.

“Isolde, did ye know that the king has a locked room of books?”

Isolde raised her eyebrows.

“I did not know that. That is odd.”

We heard a horse galloping nearby, and we both looked out the window. A messenger?

Isolde and I rushed downstairs to see what he brought, walking more sedately once we arrived in the great hall, and stood towards the back with other women.

The messenger had a letter!  He carried it to the king who then handed it to Father Pryor, the chaplain. Father Pryor broke the seal and unfolded the letter. He whispered the contents to King Marc who nodded his head, inviting the chaplain to read it aloud, and the king drew his barons around him. Father Pryor quieted his peculiar pretension for the moment, planted himself in front of the king, and read out loud in a clear voice.

The letter was from the Earl of Brittany, and he was requesting an audience with the king for a particular reason he did not name.

King Marc said to his court,

“I am your king and ye are my marquis. If ye have a good piece of advice to share, speak.”

All of the barons agreed to welcome the earl’s visit, and the king dictated a response that Father Pryor wrote tidily on parchment.

Isolde raised her eyebrow at me, and we walked outside to the garden.

“My lady, why were ye raising your eyebrow at me?”

“Brangien, the king must not be able to read and that’s why he needs a chaplain to read and write for him. And he locks up the books so no one can read since he can’t.”

“That is what I thought, too, my lady. It’s a shame we have nothing to read here. And by God’s bones, Cecily of all people has the key to the locked room of books. I followed her to see where she keeps the key, but I didn’t see where she put it.”

“Brangien, do ye remember when we snuck books into the field, and I taught myself to read and then you, too? We learned before my cousin Flann, and he was so mad!…I wonder if any of the books have maps in them. My father liked to study maps.”

“I’m going to follow Cecily until I figure out where she keeps the key so I can look at the books. Wondering what they contain is pure madness.”

“Nay, Brangien! What if ye are caught? Is it worth it?”


Before the merchants packed up their wares the following morning, I quickly walked through the aisles, finding a mix of smartly-dressed persons and soothsayer types, and spied a healer selling remedies. With long dark hair, she stood beneath a red-brown tent, fanning herself in the heat.  Always eager to find new uses for herbs, I side-stepped uncertainly to her booth and studied her jars and pots for sale.

“Hello, Madam, did ye come up with your remedies?”

“Nay, me mother passed them down to me and her mother passed them to her. Is there something yer looking for in particular?”

I noticed a ragged book sitting towards the back.

“Is the book for sale?”

“Oh no, ye wouldn’t want that. It’s me old herb book with samples stuck in the pages,” she said dismissively, but then looked back at it furtively and then at me as though I might take it.

“Thank ye, Madam.” I walked away wondering if other herb books existed.

“Did ye find anything?” Isolde asked me as I returned to sit beside her in the garden.

“Nay, I didn’t…have ye ever heard of herb books, Isolde?”

“Nay, my mother committed all of her recipes to memory. Perhaps you’d find that kind of book among brethren. Why?”

“It’s no matter, my lady.”

At the castle, we were settling back into our daily routine, which was a relief. Patterns and familiarity brought comfort.

I cut some pink peonies and brought them into the royal chamber for good cheer and looked out the window to see Isolde talking to Tristan. Even though I knew Isolde’s life was not easy, I felt wistful. I belonged to her and could never leave her side. I was her closest companion, but she was not mine. At least my herbs kept my hands and mind busy, and I believed that was worthwhile.

I saw Cecily head into the castle with a couple books in hand. Books! Where had they come from? I left the bedchamber and followed to see where she went.

She stopped in front of a small, bolted door and opened it. Beyond her, I could see more books on a shelf. She must have set them in there–she closed the door behind her after she entered so I couldn’t tell where. I watched her bar the room again as she left.

Why were books kept in a locked room? I felt foolishly jealous of Cecily. She could touch books and smell them and gander at the pages. But I didn’t think she could read nor would she have interest in peeking at them. Could I find a way to see one, up close?

The Sparrowhawk

The warriors started to return to the lists, many injured and on foot. Tristan galloped in with a group he had caught trying to ambush a knight from his team. The noble squire Perinis rode out to help Tristan find others who were stranded.

The herald, impassioned, tried to sell knights to the crowd.

“And what about Sir Tristan?” he asked.

A cry went up,

“Tristan! Tristan! Tristan won!”

The next time that Tristan arrived with a new group of injured knights, the king stood up and proclaimed,

“Sir Tristan of Cornwall, you are the winner of the golden sparrowhawk.” The golden sparrowhawk was in fact just a regular sparrowhawk, but it came with a pouch of gold coins. The sparrowhawk settled on Tristan’s shoulder, trying to get comfortable amidst the solidness of chain mail.

By late afternoon, knights were either celebrating, or bedridden in quiet rooms of the castle under physicians’ orders. There had been one death of a knight from Brittany, but many were deeply injured with wounds in the chest or some missing phalanges. Those invited dined at King Marc’s table, Tristan sitting next to the king and across from Isolde.

A few entertained the crowd, singing popular songs, but then Tristan was asked to sing and play the harp. He stood up and sang the story of a boy from Loonnois, Wales. Perhaps he had a little too much of the wine, because the song went on to tell of this man’s love for an Irish healer. Isolde froze in her seat, but King Marc did not know the details of how she had healed Tristan twice, once after he battled Morholt and once when he fought a dragon in Ireland.

A foot-stamping, hand-clapping bawdry tune followed Tristan’s, and Isolde and I, relieved, stood up to join the ladies dancing. Isolde kept turning her head to find Tristan, and he was smiling at her everywhere she went.


Next to the king, Isolde and I sat at the highest level of the stands. The queen mirrored the morning blaze as it climbed, golden glow hitting human form embellished in a gold on gray brocade bliaut.

After the Commencement, the grand charge rang out from the herald’s mouth.

“Tintagel!” Tristan shouted.

He moved forward with the other knights as though one arm.  After a loud clash of armor at the impact of the two lines, hooves thundering and trumpets sounding, the men traveled outward beyond the trees. All we could see was a glint here and there where the sun hit the arms and helmets of knights, then nothing. The herald, balanced atop a tall bank of earth, tried to comment on the action nonetheless, becoming creative about what he thought he saw, as though the angle at which the grass blades blew gave us any indication of how the fighting proceeded.

The ladies down below were gossiping about who might win and who they admired. Their voices wore a cagey glimmer. But Tristan carried with him linen Isolde had embroidered in green and buttercup, and if there was mention of Tristan, Isolde and I ignored it.

Dazzled by the glare and a state of anticipation, my hands fidgeted to be busy. I took out my needlework, squinting, and time passed less slowly.

Tumult Rising

We arrived early before the crowds gathered, passing over the narrow path to Tintagel island on which the castle was founded. The servants bustled to make ready for entertaining. Tristan went to find the knight’s liege and to demand payment from him. He kept the knight’s armor and horse to ensure he would not fight. Some knights had already arrived and were clustered in tents by team, indicated by the shields they displayed outside. Merchants were beginning to set up their goods for sale in tents, and the patches of color embellished the field. Isolde and I watched from a window high above the festivities starting to unfurl. The painting made up of all the elements, human and otherwise, so small from afar, was my favorite part. I disliked the tournaments themselves for they were gruesome blood baths and knights tended to go too far in their merrymaking and showing off their skills, sometimes at the cost of the young knights or others they could bully. Tristan kept an eye out for such knights to keep them in line. He did not want Isolde or me to help heal the wounded. The surgeons would be on hand, and we would watch safely from the stands. But no fighting could take place until after Vespers tonight in the chapel. And the queen and I would not leave until the morning, escorted by Tristan and the king to the sidelines of the battlefield to keep the company of women enthralled by the spirit of the day. The clamor of voices would rise like the roar of a storm with knights, heralds, merchants, and the spectators all striving to be heard.

On the Way to the “Tournoi”

King Marc’s court was traveling to Tintagel for a “tournoi” (tournament). Whoever won the tournament would be deemed the most valiant knight and be prized with the golden sparrowhawk.

Isolde and I were at the front of the procession behind Tristan when a knight of unknown fealty blocked our passage through the woods.

“Ye must turn back. I am to be the most valiant knight at Tintagel. Ye cannot be allowed to pass.”

Tristan challenged him and the two began to fight, first with lances and then with swords. We could hear the clang of the metal in loud bursts. Crimson blood tinted broken chain mail.

This continued for some time, both knights taking hits and withstanding injury. Finally, Tristan dislodged the other knight’s helm and came so close to the bone of his face that he cut his hair with the edge of his sword.

The cowardly knight exclaimed,

“Vassal, ye have won. Do not kill me! Take my sword, I give it to ye.”

“I will not kill ye. But ye have forfeited your right to participate in the tournament and must come with me to Tintagel as my prisoner,” Tristan told him.

This meant he traveled next to Tristan for the rest of the journey and reveled in complaining every step of the way. Tristan ignored him except to make sure he took no missteps, but Isolde gave the false knight disapproving looks from time to time for his lack of decorum in the presence of the queen and her lady-in-waiting. Tristan did not ask me to treat wounds, but I understood that I was to keep an eye on the knight. If he took ill, he would be cumbersome to travel with. But by this point, we were not far from Tintagel.

Gathering Thyme

Isolde and I brushed are hands along the tall grasses, looking for untame thyme. We needed to get out of the castle for fresh air.

Once the basket was full, I set it down and we lay back on the green blades and watched the puffy clouds sweep peacefully across the blue banner of sky.

“Brangien, my life sometimes feels like an interminable journey. What will happen to Tristan and me?” Isolde mused.

“Sometimes I like to imagine who or what I could have been and what I would get to do in that role; for example, if I were a sparrow, I would collect the most interesting materials for my nest and flee to the mountains when I needed to get away.”

“What materials would ye use?”

“I would sit near ladies embroidering and carry off their lovely thread scraps to build my home.”

“Ye know it was a swallow that carried a strand of my hair to King Marc. If I were a bird, I would be a different swallow and catch the golden hair before the king did.”

“Is that your pick? To be a swallow?”

“Nay, I would want to be with Tristan.”

“I don’t think this construct is helping ye.”

“Nay, ye are right.”

A companionable silence followed, the play of sun and shadow pulling on our eyelids softly so that we entered a kind of reverie.


A suspicious tickle of the nose woke me up, an inkling of humours awry. I rarely felt imbalanced except when it rained. I poked my head out the window. No rain yet.

“My lady, I will let some onions boil. Do ye want any hot onion water?”

Isolde raised her eyebrows at me.

“Where did ye hear of such a cure for when you’re ailing?”

“I found it myself,” I said.

The air still dry, I gathered a few onions, sliced them, and placed them in a pot to boil. Tears welled in my eyes as they rolled and turned. I kept the cottage door open and watched the rain begin to fall from the gray firmament and murky clouds drift in straight lines.

After boiling the bulbs several minutes, I poured a cup of onion broth as hot as I could stand it. My tears spilled onto the floor.

The clouds, at close gaze, looked like petals, the blooms an “abri” (shelter) in the sky without foundation. But here below, the rain weighed the rose blossoms, torn feathers floating down. A breeze kicked up, some kind of promise, carrying in a clean waft of earthworms who plodded up through the soil to the air and rivulets of rain.

Garden Reflection

I sat in my garden, resting  on my feet, knees bent, to ponder effective combinations of herbs. What better place than amidst a patch of lavender? There were no sweeter scent and color to savour. A gentle spring coursed in me–a goodly theme–and I felt it in my elbows.  

“What are ye doing, Brangien? Did ye eat raw savoury?” Isolde said to me, standing to one side.

Savoury was said to be an ingredient for a happy mind.

“Nay, Isolde. I feel content in my silent loquaciousness. Maybe the rumor was true. I am not related to ye. I came from some thoughtful soul and was sold by pirates to your mother.”

Isolde shook her head, laughed and joined me, squatting in the garden.

“Let me see why ye like doing this,” she said, then became quiet.

And we both sat still and hushed, breathing the lavender air and feeling the warm sun on our heads.