This was the first thing I wrote when I began working on An
Earthly Knight, two years before the book was finished. I quickly
decided to leave this section out of the book because I wanted the
whole story to be told from Jenny's point of view, but I thought
readers might enjoy this little dip into Cospatric's mind.
By his reckoning, the harper had been in these woods a day too long.
The leather wallet of food that hung so fat by his side five days ago
held nothing now but the rind of a salty cheese. His throat ached for a
swallow of good ale, and he began to think he must have taken a wrong
turn. A worrisome thought. For the first few days, he had been fearful
of wolves or brigands, but he had travelled with only birds for
company. A man lost in such a place might easily die before anyone
found him. He put more strength into his step as if trying to
out-distance his fears, not all of them as easy to explain.
The forest was huge and wild. Boulders bigger than houses climbed the
uneven hills. Among them, great oak, wych elm and hazel trees spread
their canopy, filtering out all sun. To someone who had spent his early
years on the open sea-washed coast, this place seemed too still, too
enclosed, to be safe. Once he happened on an ancient holly grove, which
was steeped in an air so hushed and scared he longed to lie down among
these dark green giants and sleep. But he hastened on instead, knowing
that a man who slept in such a place might awaken to find himself lost
in the land of fairies.
Now, the harper tried to shake the
feeling that prickled the back of his neck, a fear that had grown over
the last day and had little to do with hunger or death, but much with
enchantment. He could not help but feel many eyes upon him, just as he
did when playing in the great hall of some lord. Of course, there was
no one. It was, he told himself, the curse of his calling. The same
fancy that brought a harper a song that would win him a bag of gold
could just as easily send him terrors in the night or fill an empty
wood with watching eyes. He shook his dark head like a dog, then
brushed the curls from his forehead with a gesture of annoyance. He did
not need to be troubled by fancy now. The truth was harsh enough.
But the next hill showed a thinning in
the trees. As he approached, a breeze hit his sweaty face and he knew
the great wood was about to end. When the path sloped downward again,
the trees opened like a curtain and he caught sight of a great glen,
rich with fields, a broad river running through the middle with a small
village on the other side. High on the ridge across the glen was his
destination, a wooden palisade that he knew would encircle a collection
of buildings, a great hall, a stable, a bower for the noble family,
their chapel, and many smaller sheds and enclosures--the household of a
Six nights ago, by the light of a smoky
fire, the villagers who lived on the other side of the great forest had
told him of this fortress and the young noblewoman who lived there.
“The voice of an angel, she has,” an old man said,
and that had set the harper to thinking. For he had known such a young
noblewoman once before. Her father, the lord, had kept a warm place by
the hearth all one winter for the harper who could make his daughter
seem even more beautiful in the eyes of her suitors. The harper had
played at her wedding, and won himself a handsome fee to take away on
The townsfolk had whispered on of some
misfortune that had befallen the girl, words like “great
sorrow,” and “shame” spilling from their
lips, but the harper had scarcely listened, already busy forming his
plans. If she were in need of cheering, so much the better. Her father
might be more inclined to welcome him. The cause of her sadness was not
his concern. The harper thought only to avoid another winter spent
walking from village to village in wet shoes.
The folk told him the easiest route to
this place, a path that followed the winding river to the sea. When he
asked if there was a more direct route, they had shaken their heads at
first, telling him of the path through the great forest only when he
pressed them. “Not a place where folk go,” one of
them had said.
Now, at the sight of the bailey, the
harper sighed with relief and hitched his harp a little higher on his
shoulder. Tonight, he would sleep in a corner of the lord’s
great hall among men. The harp sighed in answer, deep within the oiled
linen cloth that protected it from the damp. And if there was a hint of
mischievous laughter in the forest behind him, the harper
showed no sign of hearing as he strode down to the glen that shimmered
in the summer sun.