In the morning, there were jugglers and acrobats, men on stilts, little people, and people who told fortunes for a price. The cloth got a really good going over, and some actually got bought. The highlight of the day, however, came before the noonday dinner. It was a horse race that Constantus always won and in which Bartholomew always came in second. The thing seemed so sure the rest argued about who would be third. That year, however, there were some new entrants, and the one true unknown factor was how the Spaniard’s so-called Arabian might perform.
The course looked simple enough. First came a short stretch to judge speed, but then the real test began. Second came a field, newly flattened, as well as the people could get it, where a spear had to be put through each banner in the field. They were spaced like chutes on a ski slope and each miss deducted points. Third, one entered the obstacle course which involved jumps over various heights and widths with carefully measured distances between. Last came the endurance test and it involved a real race down a long stretch of road, around the distant post and back to the finish.
Sir Barth came in fifth in the speed portion, but that was normal since his charger had not been bred for speed alone. By the time he finished stabbing the banners, he stood in third place, but there he stayed. The Arabian surprised everyone and kept up with Constantus’ courser the whole way. There even came one point at the end, when they rounded the endurance pole, that it looked as if the Arabian might actually win. Constantus eked it out by a nose, and later, the king’s men discovered that the Arabian was in bad shape after the race, as if the rider pushed it almost beyond endurance. Some suggested it may have been drugged beforehand to perform. That did not mollify Lord Bartholomew however, who finished a whole length behind the other two.
“I would not have minded third,” he said after. “If it did not give that Ahlmored fellow something to brag about.”
“Come now.” The baron whose eldest son came in seventh consoled his friend. “I don’t think that will even register on his scale of brags. Didn’t you know everything among the Arabs is bigger and better than anything we poor backwards People of the Book have?”
Barth laughed. He had heard the man speak.
“But what I want to know.” Constantus smiled. “Is when will you give up this foolishness? You will never beat the Gray Ghost.”
“The man names his horses?” Lord Bartholomew made it a joke. “He names his horses,” he repeated for a passing stranger.
Back at the inn, they found Thomas of Evandell, king Urbon’s bard, entertaining the children during their noon meal with tales of King Arthur and his knights of the round table. Margueritte especially loved the story of Gerraint, son of Erbin, and how he won the hand of the beautiful Enid.
Sir Barth noticed that the bard carefully covered the fact that Arthur and his knights were decidedly Christian, but he did not cover it too well. Actually, it was masterfully done so no Christian would doubt, but no druid would have reason to suspect, or if they suspected, they would have no grounds with which to accuse.
Even Elsbeth, in her way, appeared fascinated by the stories, as was her brother Tomberlain, though he spent much of the mealtime holding his head and grimacing. After the meal, they had free time among the booths and plays. There were puppets in the afternoon while the men and boys were off in sport, having combats, or playing games which were very much like combats.
Finally, evening began to approach. Food got hastily prepared so the fires could all be put out. The adults were with the king, and Father Aden of Iona, known locally as Aden the Convert, came to the inn.
“No,” he explained to Maven, along with a great deal of the Christian religion, he was not welcome at the pagan festival. “The king hears many of my words and I like to think I am gaining some ground, but Duredain the druid still has the king’s true ear and Brian, the village chief here is a strong believer in the old ways.”
“Get up and help,” Marta yelled, but it did no good. Maven appeared glued to Aden’s every word. Margueritte imagined that as soon as the lights went out, Maven would find a corner for a quick nap. Meanwhile, she kept Aden busy with her questions, and would continue rather than work for as long as she could think of questions to ask.
“So, tell me, little one,” Aden said at last when Maven needed a breath. He turned to Margueritte, much to her surprise. “Why has your father not been baptized?”
“Because.” Tomberlain spoke up for his sister’s shyness. “Father says that Mother is a Christian and that is about as much religion as any given family can stand.”
Aden nodded, but his eyes stayed on Margueritte. “You have the Celtic look about you with your round face, big features, long, dark hair and sparkling green eyes. You are much like your mother, but I suspect Elsbeth will favor her father and bear the more sharp and angular features of the true Franks, and with plain brown hair and plain brown eyes as well.”
“And what am I?” Tomberlain asked.
“The perfect blend of two worlds,” Aden responded without hesitation, but then he verbalized the thought that rested in the back of his mind. “Curious. Of the three Frankish lords given Breton borderland, two chose to marry among the very people they were sent to guard against.”
Margueritte temporarily got over her shyness to speak. “Mother says, the better to tie two people together in peace and mutual succor, whatever that means.”
“Well said.” Aden the Convert laughed. “And a very diplomatic answer. Peace is always the hope of every right-thinking man and woman. Still, that other Breton wife, that Curdwallah woman, she even scares me a little. In Christ, I should have no fear of anything in this life, but there is something unearthly strange about her that clings to her like a demon.” He shook his head. “But this is not the time to speak of it. Cheer up, children. The fire will only be out for a little while and then soon enough it will be full day again.”
The fire got put out and the cold seeped slowly into the room. Margueritte and Elsbeth huddled. Maven snorted a little in her sleep. Marta sat as close to Aden as she dared, and everyone looked at the door and hoped the ceremony would not be too long. Only a deep glow of moonlight came in from the outside through the holes in the wood-board window. A cat cried and everyone jumped. Then the door crashed open and Margueritte and Elsbeth screamed; and Marta joined them. They knew who it was though her image appeared just discernible in the moonlight against the dark sky. Curdwallah paused in the doorway, with her eyes all aglow in the dark.
“What do you want here?” Father Aden spoke loud and clear. If the woman frightened him, he did not show it.
“What do you think? I have come to steal the children, to eat them,” she said, and the renewed screams of Margueritte and Elsbeth made Curdwallah laugh.
“In Christ, Jesus, you will not have them,” Aden said, not knowing exactly if she might be serious.
Curdwallah laughed again. “I live here, you dolt.” She pushed passed to the stairs, but not without one more look at the children with her glaring, glowing eyes. She went up, presumably to her room, and everyone breathed.
“Did I miss it?” Maven mumbled in her half-asleep state.
“I think not,” Marta answered just before a man with a torch could be seen through the open door going from house to house relighting the home fires.
Several hours later, Margueritte got awakened by the sounds of arguing. “The man was rude beyond words,” her father said. “Ahlmored.” He spat. “The man makes me want to become a Christian like you and my mother just so I can wish him into Hell.”
“Bartholomew!” Lady Brianna scolded with her voice, but her hands never stopped packing.
Sir Barth kicked the chair and Margueritte was fairly sure Tomberlain woke up. She was not so sure about Elsbeth.
“Shh!” Brianna tried to quell the volcano.
“No man should make suggestions to another man’s wife. And he touched you! He brought three wives of his own. Let him touch them, abomination though they may be. God knows how many wives he left home.”
“He comes from another world,” Brianna said, in her most reasonable voice. “Maybe they just do things differently where he comes from. He might not understand.”
“Understand?!” Her reasonableness only fueled his fire. “What is there to understand? He is a man. You are a woman. I had a good knife for the meat. The way he was looking at you, I should have cut his eyes out.”
“King Urbon will not be happy at our leaving,” she pointed out.
“The baron can speak for the Franks,” he countered. “And if his majesty is displeased with our leaving, then perhaps he should think twice before inviting a lecher into his court. Now pack. We leave at first light.” He stormed out of the room and Brianna sat down for a moment to collect herself. Elsbeth crawled up into her lap. Margueritte and Tomberlain stayed quietly in bed, but their eyes were wide open.
Margueritte faces trouble in the Banner Bein, the wild haunted woods south of her home where the Amorican kings of old were buried.