I took to the Kingswood the midsummer after the Dame died. I did not swear a vow, but I kept myself just as strictly, living like a beast in the forest from one midsummer to the next, without fire or iron or the taste of meat. I lived as prey, and I learned from the dogs how to run, from the hare how to hide in the bracken, and from the deer how to go hungry.
I was then in my fifteenth year or thereabouts. I had been taken into the Dame's household as a foundling, and when I came to a useful age, she made me her handmaid. I was as close to her side as a pair of hands, and as quick to do her bidding without a word having to be said. I stood high in her regard; many a daughter of the Blood is not so well regarded, being counted more a debt than a gain to her house until she is safely married and gone. When the Dame died, and her nephew and his new wife inherited the manor, I became just another drudge. The world had its order and I my place in it, but I could not whittle myself small enough to fit.
In sorrow and pride I exiled myself to the Kingswood. I shunned fire for fear the kingsmen would hunt me down, and so by way of cold and hunger, I came near to refusing life itself. I never thought to anger or please a god by it. Sometimes I wonder if it was my stubbornness that caught the eye of Ardor, god of forge and hearth and wildfire. And sometimes I wonder--was it by my will alone that I fled to the Kingswood? Maybe Ardor had already taken me in hand, to test my mettle as armor is tested, under blows.
I was not such a fool that I could go hungry in high summer, when the wild plum waited for the touch of my hand before letting go of the tree. I could put a name to each useful plant, I knew its favored ground and the most auspicious season and hour to seek it. The Dame had taught me all this when we'd ridden to the Kingswood to gather dyestuffs for her tapestries and herbs for healing or the table. By root and stem, flower and leaf, seed and fruit, she'd shown me how every plant was marked by the god who made it, that we might know its nature, whether benign or malign or both at once. She'd taught me songs for many herbs, so I might keep in store what I'd learned: these songs were half riddles, half prayers. And the Dame's housekeeper, Na, and Cook had given me other names for these plants, in the Low tongue, and other uses as well. We mudfolk have a green lore of which the Blood know nothing.
When I fled to the forest, I gave up begging the gods for favors, for my prayers had been ignored; I threw myself on the mercy of the Kingswood. But turn away as I might, I couldn't turn my back on the gods, for they were everywhere before me. The Kingswood was their garden, everything named and known, fruitful and pleasing to the eye, ripe with signs.
What I couldn't gather freely I stole: grain from the fields, fruit from the orchards, beans and seeds from the burrows of field mice, bulbs hoarded by squirrels. At times I felt I had stolen the Kingswood itself, for there was a heady freedom in roaming where I was forbidden to go, in lazing when others were working. I walked for days and days, from the slate-bedded ravines to the mossy woods high on the mountains, where the trees are stunted and stooped, and never lost my way. I have the gift of knowing where the Sun is, even if the Sun is behind clouds and I am under a fir tree at the bottom of a narrow valley.
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