The King's Roads
A Tale of Martin Pale and Francis Pevensey
For Kaesa, Yuletide 2012
He came out of the dark wood like a portent of doom, like the herald of an invading army.
She was not impressed.
"Martin Pale. Do not bring those foul boots across my threshold," she scolded. "Take them off and put on slippers. Or stay out in the mire. I care not."
"Sweeting," he said, "I am wounded by your cruelty. See, I obey your slightest whim." Off came the boots, on went the felt slippers (his own) that were waiting just inside the door.
"Sweeting indeed," she mocked. "I have been expecting you this fortnight and more. What alehouse or doxy kept you from me this time?"
"Neither alehouse nor doxy, as you well know, my Francis," he said, and paused to kiss her before removing his cloak (fine wool, but damp, and somewhat muddied about the hem). "I have been in Faerie."
"Then I suppose I must be grateful you were delayed only a fortnight, and not a hundred years," she said. "Sit and eat." She set bread and cheese before him, and a tankard of ale. "What took you to Faerie?"
He smiled slyly at her. "The King's Roads."
She tugged sharply on a lock of his hair. "That is not what I meant, and you know it. What business had you there?"
"I was visiting John Hollyshoes in his castle. And I saw many a wonder there, but the most wondrous of all was born not in Faerie, but in Bradford on Avon."
"Do you remember the tale of the Bloodworth family, mother, children, servants and neighbors, who were gulled into entering a magical cupboard and never heard from again, back in the days of the Raven King?"
"Yes. All but the eldest daughter, who suspected a trick and would not enter."
"Well, as I was leaving John Hollyshoes' castle," Martin said, "I nearly stumbled on a small dirty child, who was pouring out a bucket of foul water outside the scullery. I saw that she was mortal, and I asked her name. 'Anne Bloodworth', she said. 'What are you doing here, Anne?' said I. 'Faith, sir, I wash and scrub dirty dishes all the day long and all through the night, and I would I might go home, but I know not the way.' And she sniveled a little. A piteous little thing she was, pale as a wax taper. 'How long have you been here?' I asked, and she said 'Oh, sir, I know not. Two weeks or three.' And then someone inside the scullery shrieked 'Where are you, lazy slut?' and she scuttled away." He took a deep draught of his ale and busied himself with slicing the cheese.
"And you left her there?" Francis's dark brows drew down and her eyes narrowed. Her gaze was sharp as a dagger.
"Why, what else could I do?"
She glared down at him for a moment, then turned on her heel and strode briskly to her clothes-press. "Not a damned thing, Martin. I will do what is needful myself."
But she paid him no heed as she put on her shoes, threw her cloak about her and strode out the door.
"Francis! Wait!" He stumbled as he kicked off his slippers, struggled to pull on his own boots, and ran down the hill after her.
He had to work hard to catch up to her; Francis was light on her feet, and he himself weary with long travel, but eventually he drew alongside her and caught at her sleeve.
"Sweet, why so angry?"
"I am beyond angry. You saw a child in need, a Christian child, nay, one whose name and family were known to you, and you did nothing to help her. By God's bones, Martin, I am out of patience with you."
"What would you have me do? In the castle of a Lord of Faerie? Steal his servant away from him? How far do you think the two of us would have gotten before we were both in thrall to him?"
"If not steal, then buy, beg, trade, or win her. Anything. Did you even ask him how he came to have her? For it was not John Hollyshoes who stole the Bloodworths away. Fairy he may be, but he is a nobleman and does not soil his hands with work he may demand of others."
"No. I did not ask. And you are right; it behooved me to do so. I am sorry, Francis."
"Sorry mends no pots. We must go back and get her."
"You promised to teach me about the King's Roads, when the time came. I say it has come. Take me there."
"Not yet, Francis. We must make ready."
"Clothes we have. Food and lodging we may find with John Hollyshoes, if we bring something in trade, and I think," (here she smoothed her hands down the sides of her dress and let them rest on her hips) "I have something he wants."
"What?" she demanded. "Are you unwilling to share with your host, as a good companion should?"
Now it was Martin's turn to look daggers. "Some things are not meant to be shared," he said coldly.
"That is true," she said. "And as we are not married, I am not yours; and what is not yours you can neither share nor refuse to share."
"Whose fault is it that we are not married?" he cried. "I would have had the banns cried this many a day, but you were too proud to yoke yourself to a tanner's son. I have been good enough to warm your bed, and good enough to teach you spellcraft, and I flatter myself I have done an honest job of both. I have given way to you in all things. But to sell yourself to a Lord of Faerie-no. I forbid it."
"You forbid? Are you my teacher, or my gaoler?"
"I am your lover," he said, more quietly. "And I thought, your beloved. Was I wrong?"
"That remains to be seen," she said. "And it may depend on how you conduct yourself now. I will make a bargain with you, Martin. Take me to John Hollyshoes' castle, and help me bargain for the life and freedom of Anne Bloodworth, and if we both live and return safe to England I will marry you."
"Here is my hand on it," said Martin. "And may none of the three of us repent of the bargain."
Martin had, in the early days of their courtship, written poems to Francis's soft brown hair and sweet white breasts, but it was her clever mind, her iron will and her dogged patience that he needed now. She found the trick of entering on the King's Roads difficult, infuriatingly so, since to Martin it seemed as easy as breathing. Again and again he took her hand and led her through the peculiar little twist of light and air that was the door between our world and the Roads; and again and again, though she could follow him as long as they held hands, she failed to find the way back. He steadfastly refused to begin their journey until she had proven she could escape without his help.
"Like this," he said for what seemed the hundredth time. "You try too hard. It should be soft and easy, like dancing."
She sighed, and shook her head. "Give me a moment to breathe, love," she said. She rested a while, letting her eyes wander over the bleak, dark hills with their ragged crown of leafless trees. "Nothing is easy here," she mused.
"Not for us," he agreed. He watched with her as a swallow dipped and swooped along the ridge, vanished momentarily, then reappeared.
"Oh," Francis said suddenly. "Oh. I see it. Like-" she jumped to her feet and disappeared.
Before he could finish drawing breath to cry out her name, she was back, a triumphant grin on her face.
"I have it now," she said. "Let us go."
"Not yet," he said. "We need a plan. What are we to do once we come to the castle? For we cannot hope to steal the child. Even if we could get her back to England, we could not keep her safe from the fairies. They would take her back at once."
"No," she said. "There must be a bargain. Either we barter for her, or we win her in some sort of contest. And in either case, the terms must be as strictly devised as a thousand lawyers could make them."
"We have no treasure to buy her with," said Martin. "Even all your family's wealth would make a poor show next to John Hollyshoes' smallest trinket."
"What do we have, then, that he lacks?" mused Francis.
"Beauty is what the Fairies prize above all else," Martin said. "And while you are indeed beautiful, I will not trade you for Anne Bloodworth, no matter how helpless and miserable she may be."
"He does not keep Anne Bloodworth for her beauty," said Francis, "but for her work. And it seems to me, from all I have heard, that work is something no Fairy will abide if he can find other means."
"I believe that to be true," said Martin, "yet small work can he have from her, for she is young-no more than eight years old-and weak, and has no skill. She is but a wretched little waif."
"Perhaps it is her wretchedness that he prizes, then," said Francis. "The better to set off his own idle ease and pleasure."
"It may be," said Martin, "but would you set another in her place, to live in wretchedness here forever?"
"No," said Francis. "We must find something he does not have, that will not suffer in his possession." She shivered, looking about her. "Is it always this dark here?" For the sky was leaden grey, featureless, nowhere lighter or darker than the rest.
"Yes," said Martin. "It grows darker sometimes, and then sometimes the clouds will part and show stars, but never sunlight or moonlight falls on these hills."
"How can there be trees, then?" Francis asked, frowning.
"They are but the bones of trees," said Martin, "long-dead and withered. These lands must once have stood under the sun, but Faerie took them long ago."
Francis sat still, pondering. Then a sly smile lit her face. "I have it," she said. "I know what we can give in exchange for Anne, and how we can keep her in England to the end of her days. And her children's children's days as well."
"This I must see," Martin muttered.
"We must go home," said Francis, "and gather some things. Quickly." She smiled at him, winked, and vanished, and he followed, smiling with the satisfaction of a teacher whose pains have been repaid with his student's skill.
Back in England, she gathered a comb, her needle, some scraps of blue cloth and fine colored silks left over from a pair of cushions she had been embroidering; a small hand-spindle, thread, scissors, and half a dozen acorns. She turned these last over and over in her hands, selecting the two finest and heaviest, and put them in her pouch with the rest of her goods. "Very well," she said. "Let us be on our way. Anne has waited long enough."
John Hollyshoes's castle, like others of its ilk, was dark, forbidding, and huge, towering over the bleak landscape and sprawling out in endless halls and stairs and great, brooding rooms full of tarnished splendor.
Francis cocked her head at the grand entrance, regarded it for a moment, then shook her head and sighed.
"Does the lady find my home wanting?" asked the fairy lord, who had met them at the gates.
"Oh, no, my lord," Francis said, with a neat curtsey and a winning smile. "It is only… well, this is the Faerie realm, and things are done differently here, I suppose."
"What is lacking?" John Hollyshoes asked.
"Well, my father's house is none so grand as this," she said, "but at his gates stand two fine oak trees, like sentinels. They are the finest thing he has. Alas that there are no such trees here."
"Francis," hissed Martin, with well-counterfeited embarrassment, "you know that trees do not flourish here."
"Oh, well," she said, with a light laugh, "but that is easily mended, after all."
"How would you mend it, little magician?" asked the fairy.
"Oh, I would give each tree its own sun, of course," said Francis.
"If you can contrive this, I will grant you a boon of your choosing," said the Fairy, with a smirk.
"May I have a comfortable chair to sit in, in a well-lighted place, with food and drink to sustain me in my work?" she asked shrewdly.
"Done," said the fairy lord promptly. And he led her to a chamber with a small bright fire, and fine wax tapers to burn on her work-table.
For a day and a night Francis worked, skillfully and patiently, stitching the fine blue cloth into a cloudless sky filled with birds. And she cut off her soft brown hair, and spun it into fine thread, mixing it with white silk and golden silk, and stitched the sun in its splendor into the cloth. And she sang as she worked, weaving into the work the song of the birds and memories of the bright summer sky and the free wind.
And the sun glittered, and kindled, and shone out of the finished banner with a brightness hardly to be borne.
"Now, Martin," said Francis, stretching her weary limbs, "give the fairy lord his tree." And she handed him one of the two acorns.
Martin took the acorn and breathed on it, and whispered to it, and buried it in the soil outside the castle gate, on the house's left hand, and watered it with water from his waterskin, which had been drawn from their spring back in England. And the acorn took root, and sprouted, and put forth a pair of bright and ambitious leaves.
Francis directed John Hollyshoes to have his servants hang the banner above the young tree. And the light of the little sun fell on the leaves, and the tree grew, making a year's growth in a day.
"You must let it rest for a time," said Francis. "Take down the banner and let the little tree have its night's sleep; then hang it back up again and let it have its day's sunlight. The light will fade in time, for it is only the remembrance of the sunlight that fell on my hair whilst it grew. But once I return to England, the light that falls on my head will renew it, and it will shine as long as I live in the sunlit lands; and as long as my heirs live after me, if I am blessed with any."
"Name your boon," said John Hollyshoes, looking with gleaming eyes on the splendid sunlight falling on the young leaves of the tree.
"I have a fancy for one of your scullery servants," said Francis. "Give her to me, to be my own forever, to come and go as I bid."
"Choose any one you wish," said the fairy lord. Francis and Martin made their way down to the scullery, and they found little Anne dozing in the ashes by the cold hearth. Martin picked her up without waking her, and made the sign of the Cross surreptitiously over her head. She did not flinch, nor did her appearance change, and he looked up at Francis over the sleeping child, and nodded.
"Our bargain is kept," said Francis to John Hollyshoes, carefully avoiding any words of thanks or obligation. He nodded abstractedly back at her, but his gaze was still on the tree; the tree, and the empty space across from it, on the other side of the road.
"Martin Pale," said the fairy lord. "I would make a further bargain with you and your student."
"What does your lordship propose?" asked Martin courteously.
"Make me another such tree, with another such sun, to stand opposite the first, and you shall have another boon."
Martin looked at Francis. "Will you do this work?" he asked her.
"I will undertake it," she said, "but I must have the child's hair, for I have no more to spare. Let her be bathed and fed, and her hair combed smooth; but take care to treat her gently, for if she weeps, the sun will be hidden by clouds, and the banner will shed rain instead of sunlight."
And as Francis took a few hours' rest John Hollyshoes' servants tended the child, fed her, bathed her, and clothed her in soft bright clothing. Martin himself combed Anne's hair, gently and patiently, inch by inch and lock by lock, until it hung, pale and shining, down past her knees. When Francis arose from her rest, she carefully shore Anne's hair, brighter than her own though not so plentiful, and spun the soft tresses into thread, mixed with silk as before. Then she stitched it into the blue sky.
And the second sun kindled, but only dimly, beaming not much brighter than moonlight, as if the sun were rising through a thick fog. Martin took the second acorn and planted it as he had the first, but the second tree, though quick to sprout, grew more slowly, as if hesitant to trust this uncertain light.
"The light will grow stronger," Francis assured John Hollyshoes, "once the child is back in the sunlit lands. And this sun too will last as long as she and her heirs dwell and prosper under the sun of our world."
The fairy lord looked at her, a long, penetrating stare. She stood quietly and calmly returning his regard. At last he nodded.
"It is a bargain," he said. "Choose your second boon."
"Oh, as to that," she said with a smile, "at the moment I have all that I need. We will keep your second boon, Martin and I, until we have need of it." She turned to Martin, now holding Anne's hand. "Shall we go home, love?"
Martin smiled. "With all my heart," he said.
They took their leave of John Hollyshoes with great courtesy, wishing him joy of his two trees. And then Francis took Anne's other hand, and the three of them strolled down the King's Road, around the hidden corner of the air, and back into the sweet dawn of an English spring day.