Duncan Grave in The Sun and Moon
by Sarah Ann Watts
part 1 of 2
It was growing late in the Sun and Moon, and as the nights grew longer, the villagers drew closer to the fire while the candles guttered in the drafts that chased dead leaves across the flagstones.
‘I don’t pay any mind to them old tales,’ said old Duncan from his seat beside the door. The Harbinger was a grim-faced man, weathered by the sorrows that shaped him to his calling.
The villagers endured Duncan’s presence like blight upon the crops — a sign of their Lord’s displeasure. His work set him apart, and while none would begrudge him shelter, few courted his company willingly. At the sound of his voice they shivered and turned back to the warmth of the flames and the storyteller’s genial presence.
Keridwen reached for the tankard that was her due. She wet her lips and then poured some of the foamy milk into the bowl that, by tradition, rested on the hearth. A young cat roused herself and made her way through the crowd to lap at the libation.
The babble of conversation died into a hushed expectancy. The storyteller pushed back her hair and firelight danced in her eyes. ‘Shall I begin?’ she asked.
Duncan shook his head. The others turned their backs on him, closing the circle, and clamoured like children for the tale.
Keridwen laughed and drew out her lyre, tuning it gently with a lover’s hands. The notes fell like pebbles into the silence and cast ripples of sound that spread like water, drowning out the voices on the wind.
‘The Lord and his lady’ she began. ‘There was a time long ago when you, grandfathers, were young; and you, grandmothers,’ here she smiled a secret smile, ‘were casting runes to find your true loves’ names. Our Lord, who gives light and comfort, was young and strong. Come the spring, when all thoughts turn to love, he grew restless and pale. It was noted that he gave up his usual pursuits, dismissed his gentle companions and spent long hours in his observatory in the old tower, his vision fixed on the night sky.
‘In the depth of winter, when the earth was cold like iron, he left in the dead of night and travelled to a far-off land to seek his fortune. He was away for a year and a day, and the earth mourned his passing; and his people did not starve, but they grew lean and hungry. There was no joy in the land and many sickened and died.
‘On St Agnes Eve he returned with a pale bride. The servants waited in the courtyard to greet her, but she covered her face with her cloak and spoke to no man or woman. The Lord took her by the hand and led her up a winding stair to the rooms prepared for her in the south tower.
‘The young maid, Jenny,’ Keridwen smiled at an old woman with withered cheeks who was rocking in her chair and drooling, ‘said that a glow lingered where she stepped and her footprints filled with the moon’s rays and dissolved.
‘The stable boy, Thomas,’ Keridwen nodded to a crabbed old man who knocked out the ash from his pipe on the fender to avoid her gaze, ‘said that she was weeping and pearls fell from her eyes and rolled away into dark corners.
‘Later the servants went looking for the pearls, and those who were fortunate found them.’ Here Keridwen glanced fearlessly into Duncan’s eyes, ‘stashed them away in purses and pockets; but come the morning, the pearls had faded like tears. It was said that the thefts brought ill luck, and certain it was that several who hid the pearls woke to find the first silver hairs on their pillow.’
Keridwen paused, savouring the moment. ‘There was no wedding feast to welcome her, for she slept by day.’
Duncan sighed. He remembered that night well. Like the others he had scrambled to recover the shed pearls and had kept one in a pouch against his heart. Unlike the others he had watched and waited until three nights later the bride stole down the stair to the starlit garden.
Loitering in the shadows, he watched as she ran across the bleached lawns, her pale hair streaming behind her like a comet. She knelt by the lake, leaning forward as if she yearned for a lover’s embrace.
Looking down, he thought he saw the moon in the shadowy depths, though the sky was dark. When she dipped her silver cup in the water to drink, light streamed from her hand.
Later, as the blush of dawn rose in the east, she returned slowly to her tower. He waited for her with the single pearl on his palm and held it out to her, averting his gaze. She shook her head. ‘Keep it, thief,’ she whispered. ‘It is dead, like me.’
‘That is an ugly name you greet me by, and untrue,’ he said.
She lifted her face to his, blank, uncaring like the face of the moon.
‘One day, you may repent of your harsh words to me. I thought to be your friend.’
She made a quick gesture towards him, of apology or regret. He felt a fleeting touch upon his hand, but already the sun was rising and she fled from him, leaving silver footprints in the dew.
Her touch lingered like frost and, looking at his hand, he saw she was right — the pearl had withered to a dry seed and lost its lustre. Yet his fingers closed upon it as if it were the most precious of jewels. Later, even when sorrow stretched out its hand to claim him, he still wore her pearl against his heart.
As Duncan heaved himself to his feet — his rheumatics were playing him up something cruel this winter — and lumbered over to the door, he felt a tinge of apprehension that was not entirely due to the disquieting memories provoked by Keridwen’s tale. She was no friend to him. He’d always been one to let things be, blind and deaf when it was wise, knowing that his master at the big house would see him right, come Samhain with a generous cut off the roast and a purse of silver to keep him through the long nights of winter. Unnoticed by those who hung suspended on the storyteller’s lips, he lifted the latch and let himself out into the night.
His passing cast a sudden chill that caused tapers to flicker in the gloom. The potboy came forward with a basket of logs that he tipped onto the glowing embers and the flames roared up the chimney as if exorcising an unwanted presence. Neighbours glanced at each other as if released from some constraint.
The heat of the fire gave out a brighter glow that illumined careworn faces. ‘Hey diddle diddle,’ said the storyteller carelessly and when she came to the end of the old rhyme, ‘the dish ran away with the spoon,’ laughter echoed the voices in the wind.
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Copyright © 2009 by Sarah Ann Watts