Rodric and Melisande, part 3 of 3

Have you gotten Melisande with child yet?”

“She would know better than I,” he said, flushing. “But she had her monthly bleeding a few days ago.”


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Rodric’s mother stayed a few days with each of her daughters before returning to his home. She was in worse health when she returned.

“Do you need me to go to the wizard again for medicine?” he asked, listening to her cough.

“Matilda’s husband went and got more just a few days ago,” she said. “It will do no good now. Let us speak of other matters. Have you gotten Melisande with child yet?”

“She would know better than I,” he said, flushing. “But she had her monthly bleeding a few days ago.”

“Well, keep trying; don’t mind my presence.”

Rodric fixed a curtain between his mother’s bed and his and Melisande’s, and they conspired to jostle the bed and give little cries of feigned pleasure for half an hour or so every night. This seemed to do his mother good; her spirits rose and she seemed to make a partial recovery. But when Melisande’s bleeding recurred as usual the following month, she drew her aside and gave her detailed instructions which left her blushing for the remainder of the day.

For Rodric, at least, it was becoming more and more difficult to keep their marriage a matter of appearance. To lie beside her was temptation enough; to see her squirming about so as to jostle the bed, and hear her utter cries of feigned pleasure, was almost too much for his self-control. But he had promised her, and by dint of frequent confession and communion, he managed to keep that promise.

Just after the harvest, they received a visit from Cedric.

“The wizard sent me with gifts,” he said, entering the house and beginning to draw things from a large bag.

“This is a reliquary containing a finger-bone of a saint — the wizard could not tell me his name, of course, he cannot pronounce holy names; but he gave me hints, and I’m guessing that it’s a relic of —”

“St. Gregory Thaumaturgus,” Melisande said, and then gasped, as if surprised that the enchantment allowed her to say that.

“However did you know?” Cedric asked, winking at Rodric. Rodric’s mother looked puzzled and suspicious, but said nothing.

“He also asks that for the next week, you keep it in the house, but not too close to the door; after that you may do what you like with it, put it anywhere in the house or give it to the church.”

“Give him our thanks,” Rodric said.

“Then this jar of sweetmeats,” Cedric continued, drawing an alabaster jar as big as his head from the sack; “he said there’s a beneficent enchantment on them, but would not tell me exactly what.”

“He is very generous.”

“And lastly, a gift for your firstborn son. Store it at the far end of the house from the reliquary.” This last gift was a book, bound in vellum with gold trim; Rodric wondered at the idea of giving a book to the child of parents who could not read. — Or could Melisande read? Sir Hugh had been an aristocrat; some of them could read, though by no means all.

“See,” Cedric continued, laying the book down on a stool and opening it, “it will teach your son to read Latin.”

On the open page was an illumination of a beehive, with many small bees and one larger one. The bees' wings fluttered, and the smaller ones moved in circles around one another. Below it was some text in large letters; moments after Cedric opened the book, there was a faint buzzing sound, and then a voice spoke: “Apis. Bee.”

“This is a princely gift,” Rodric said, trembling. The wizard had not lost interest in them; what did he plan for them? That they should have at least one son, obviously; what then? “But I fear it may be dangerous; the Duke does not like peasants to read.”

“The Duke knows better than to meddle with the wizard,” Cedric said. “Don’t worry.”

They pressed Cedric to stay and eat supper with them; after he left, Rodric’s mother asked Melisande: “How did you know whose bone is in the reliquary?”

“I — I remember to have seen it before. But I cannot say where or when.”

“So your loss of memory isn’t total.”

“No...”

“I could wish you had remembered how to cook and clean... Oh well.”

Melisande looked suspiciously at the jar of sweetmeats, and refused to eat any. Rodric thought he would try a small slice of one, to test the enchantment; his mother ate two of them, declaring them delicious.

As the evening passed, Rodric found his gaze lingering more and more on Melisande — she had already been the most attractive object in view by far, but now he could scarcely tear his eyes from her. He felt flushed, and the desire for her that was almost always present became stronger.

“I think I’ll take a walk,” he said.

“It is already dark,” his mother urged. She was restless, more active than he’d seen her in days, now poking the fire unnecessarily, now rising to putter around the house making things tidier than they already were.

“Not so dark; the moon is already high.”

He did not return until he felt the effects of the sweetmeat fading. By then his mother and Melisande were both asleep. Still not trusting himself to be too close to Melisande, he slept on the floor for a few hours, then crawled in beside her after getting up to use the privy early in the morning.

After that, his mother never ate any of the sweetmeats, but urged them on Rodric and Melisande; they pretended to eat one of them each evening, and afterward disposed of them discreetly in the midden.

* * *

Five days later, the wizard came to call one evening just after Rodric’s mother had fallen asleep. He found Rodric and Melisande sitting before the fire, not talking.

“Good evening,” he said. “May I come in?”

“Be welcome,” Rodric said. Melisande looked nervous, but Rodric didn’t think it safe to antagonize the wizard openly.

“Thank you,” the wizard said. The moment he stepped across the threshold, a pained look came over his face. “Ah, the relic,” he said. “I won’t be able to stay long under the same roof with it, but it will enable us to speak privately, and there are things I must tell you and ask you.”

“Speak,” Rodric said.

“Where to begin? First, I must tell you that I know of all your subterfuges. You can fool your mother for a time, but not me; I see that Melisande is still a virgin. That is not what I intended when I gave you my blessing to marry!”

As the wizard spoke, little red spots appeared on his face, arms and hands.

“And you despise my gift of sweetmeats, which I intended to help you overcome your discomfort with the idea of lying together. They would make you, Rodric, forget for a time that Melisande was once a man, and remind you that she is now a woman, and a very desirable one, and your wife; they would make you, Melisande, learn more quickly how good it is to be a woman, and the wife of so good a man as Rodric. But you despise or fear them, and you still entertain vain hopes of becoming a man again.”

The wizard began to scratch at the spots on his arms and hands.

“I will tell you plainly, now, why your attempts to break the enchantment have failed. Perhaps I should have done so sooner; but I hoped to spare you your good memories of your father.”

“What about my father...?” Rodric began, but the wizard interrupted: “I mean Melisande’s father. There is a simple reason why my enchantments on you, the binding on your tongue to keep you silent about your past and the binding to keep you from getting more than five miles from Rodric, were not suspended when you entered the church and did not break when you made a confession and ate the body and blood of my patron’s enemy. Your father never had you baptized; thus the other things could have no effect on you.” As he spoke these last words, many more red spots appeared and his face began to swell up.

“That can’t be —!” Melisande began, and choked. Rodric was silent, wondering why the wizard had mentioned the two lesser enchantments but not his changing her into a woman.

“You have spoken to your godparents, or those who thought they were your godparents, and they told you about the ceremony; very well. They did not lie, but they were mistaken. They did not know Latin. For reasons that seemed good and sufficient to him at the time, your father bribed a venal priest to give you an invalid baptism; he lit candles and poured water over your head while he recited random passages from canon law and the war-epic of Vergil.”

“But why?” Melisande said.

“Because baptism would have broken the enchantment he had gotten his friend, the Red Wizard of Green Hill, to place on you the day before. And if he had had you baptized first and then enchanted, then the enchantment would have broken some years later, the first time you confessed your sins and ate — you know.” The wizard was having difficulty breathing now, and gasping a little after each phrase.

“After begetting six daughters, and losing his wife in the birth of the last, he determined to have a son.”

“But I have only five sisters —”

“Yes; you were his sixth daughter, for the first three days of your life. Your mother named you Melisande with her last breath, but your father wanted to give you another name, and another state in life. And in making you a boy, the Red Wizard of Green Hill not only did a favor for your father, who repaid him with many other favors in the years that followed, but nearly thwarted my own long-term plans. Not quite, however. When you came to kill me, I perceived who you were and what enchantment was on you, and I broke the enchantment.

“I can’t stay much longer in the presence of the relic, but I must tell you a few more things here where my patron cannot overhear us. A hundred years ago I began trying to figure out a way to escape my contract with my patron. It should be as simple as receiving the sacraments; but my patron has ensured that I cannot go near holy things without growing sick. If I even begin to receive the sacraments, I will die almost instantly. I need not merely a priest, but a — a man who is very strong in the service of my patron’s enemy. One who can cancel my patron’s miracle with a miracle by the power of my patron’s enemy. And your son will be that man — assuming you beget him soon enough to do me any good. My contract with my patron expires in twenty-six years, and a man must be twenty-four before being ordained.”

These last words were uttered in little gasps.

“I beg you, be merciful; think of how I’ve been to the people of this district. I have tried to use my magic for good, though my patron gave it to me for bad ends. I have tried to make amends for the wrongs I did when I first acquired power; but it will be of no avail if you do not help me. Good-bye.” He dashed out of the house and vanished a few steps from the door.

* * *

Rodric’s mother did not wake all through the heated conversation which followed; in hindsight, Rodric realized that the wizard must have enchanted her to sleep soundly so she wouldn’t hear what he said about Melisande.

“How could he?” Melisande said, after sitting in stunned silence for a time. “Such a trick to play —” She paused, unable to speak.

“Do you mean the wizard,” Rodric asked, (Melisande shook her head) “or your father?” (she nodded). “Do you believe what he said, then?”

“I don’t think he could tell a lie in the presence of the relic,” she said. “And... it fits with what I —” Choked silence again.

“Does it explain things about your father you did not understand before?”

“Yes... Yes, I think what he said is true.”

“Then we must tell Father Jehan, and he can baptize you at once.”

“Yes.”

“And... I suppose it frees us, doesn’t it? The baptism will break the other enchantments — you’ll be free to speak of your past, and to travel as far from me as you like; you can go back to your family and tell them who you are. And we must ask Father Jehan to be sure, but I think it means our marriage was not valid, since you were unbaptized at the time.”

“But...” She paused. “I don’t want to —”

“No? Perhaps you don’t have to go back, but you’ll be free to go wherever you want.”

“If I — I can’t become — And if I did, I — If I returned, he would —” After choking on her words several times, she cursed, winced, made the sign of the cross, and said: “This is too frustrating. Let us make haste to have me baptized; then I shall be able to tell you what I want to say.”

“Very well,” Rodric said. “Tomorrow morning.”

Early the next morning, they made hasty excuses to Rodric’s mother and set out for the rectory. Father Jehan came to the door, listened briefly, and then led them into the church.

“I suppose you are going to tell me something about the wizard,” he said, “and it is wisest to do so here where he and his diabolical masters cannot hear us... Do you want to tell me in the confessional, or right here?”

“Here will do,” Rodric said. His last confession was less than a week ago, and Melisande could get no good out of the sacrament until she’d been baptized. He began to explain, beginning with the gifts the wizard sent by Cedric, and in a few minutes had told everything.

“This explains much,” Father Jehan said. “Indeed, if Melisande was never validly baptized, then of course the other sacraments could not break the enchantments she was under; it may even have made them stronger, or twisted them into worse shape, since her receiving the sacraments invalidly was technically a blasphemy — though not intentional and thus not sinful,” he hastened to add, seeing Melisande’s horrified, guilty look. “No, you are not to blame here; if we can believe what the wizard said, your father and the other wizard bear nearly all the blame in this matter. Our own local wizard is partly to blame, for not revealing these matters as soon as he discovered them, but I will leave that aside; it seems that if he ever makes a confession, it will be to another man than me.”

“Please, Father,” Melisande said in a small voice, “can you baptize me now?”

“I am not quite as sure as you are that the wizard was telling the truth,” he said; “the relic should have prevented him from using some enchantment to make you believe everything he said, but I am not sure it would keep him from telling ordinarily persuasive lies. Still, what he said explains much that we did not understand, so I think it more likely than not that he was telling the truth. Under the circumstances I think it wise to do a conditional baptism; that is, it will be a baptism if you are not already baptized, while avoiding accidental sacrilege by repeating the sacrament if the wizard lied and you were indeed baptized... We shall see.”

And he baptized Melisande at the font, with the abbreviated form of the rite, which he used upon sick babies who might not live long enough to go to church.

Melisande stood wringing out her hair, radiantly happy. “Let me see,” she said, “if the enchantment is broken... My father is Sir Carl of Green Hill. He named me Sir Hugh. I was knighted on the eve of Epiphany, the winter before last... It is broken!” She hugged Rodric fiercely.

“This is further evidence that the wizard told the truth,” the priest said with a smile. “At least in part. But now there is another matter I must speak of. Your marriage was not valid, though not for the reason I thought at the time.”

“I thought so,” Rodric said.

“What do you wish? You are free to part, though it may cause scandal; or...”

“What was it you were trying to tell me last night and couldn’t?” Rodric asked Melisande.

“I don’t want to go back to my father,” she said. “He will be wroth that the enchantment was broken. I saw how he treated my elder sisters; I suppose he may want to find another wizard to enchant me again. And in truth, part of me is afraid of being a woman, and wants to go back to being a man... But I would have to avoid holy places and the sacraments for the enchantment to last, and I would not do that.

“And if he can’t make me a man again, I’m sure my father will marry me off with no regard to my happiness, as he did all my sisters. I suppose the man he would marry me to must be rich, but the odds are poor that he would be half so good and trustworthy as you, Rodric.”

“I see,” Rodric said. “Then... will you marry me, Melisande?”

“I will,” she said.

* * *

After the secret wedding, reifying what all in the neighborhood thought had already been done, Rodric’s mother slept less well. She had become accustomed to the noises of her son and daughter-in-law dutifully trying to give her a grandchild, and had managed to sleep through them; but for some reason, after their hasty and never satisfactory explained mid-week visit to the church, they became so much louder that her sleep was disturbed. She made no complaint, however, as her health faded rapidly, whether for want of sleep or simply because the wizard’s medicine could no longer stave off the sickness that had been eating at her lungs since her second-youngest son went off to war.

She did not live to see the face of her youngest grandchild, the future St. Jehan of Southwood; but she did, a few days before her death, feel him kicking in Melisande’s womb.

* * *

On a Saturday in early summer, early in the reign of King Cyprian the Bald, the wizard began to discharge his servants. The women were sent home to their families first, bearing magnificent gifts, some for themselves, others to convey to various of the wizard’s former servants. All but one of the men servants were sent away after they had, under the wizard’s instructions, hauled a number of statues, busts, urns, and mirrors out of the various rooms of the palace they had adorned for years and placed them in various spots in the orchard.

“Now, Cedric,” the wizard said, when all the rest had gone, “there is one more thing I want you to do. It is something I have never asked you in all the years you’ve served me, as page and footman and steward, and I would not ask now if it were not of great importance.”

“What is it, master?”

“Don’t go to Mass tomorrow. I’ll need you here while I’m away. Once I leave, you must stay out of the palace, and not go too near its walls; at a certain time they will collapse. And when that happens, someone will need to be here to explain to these foolish knights what happened to them and how long it has been since they tried to kill me. They will need new clothes, too; let’s bring out a couple of trunks of clothing and set them in the orchard as well...”

* * *

So many people had come from miles around to hear the young Father Jehan preach that they could no longer fit into the village church; on days of fair weather, he would leave the church after Mass and address the people in the street outside, for half an hour or so, and then return to the church and resume hearing confessions, which he’d done nearly all day Saturday (the elder Father Jehan relieving him for a couple of hours at midday) and for several hours in the morning before Mass. As he preached, there was a stir at the back of the crowd.

Rodric and Melisande, standing near the front of the crowd surrounded by their younger children, turned to look. Jehan was so good that, when he preached, it didn’t take more than a few minutes for them to forget their fatherly and motherly pride and think only of the Four Last Things, of their sins, of God’s mercy... What was this? The crowd was parting, and someone was coming through.

Jehan didn’t pause, but when he saw the wizard approaching, he subtly changed course, moving on from Judgment to Hell a little sooner than he’d planned. The wizard stood listening respectfully, surrounded by a space as everyone who recognized him gave him room and those from further off who didn’t know him were soon informed by whispers from the locals.

When Jehan finished his sermon, summoning the people to repent, and said he would be waiting in the confessional, the wizard approached the door of the church.

“Is this where one forms the line?” he asked Rodric. “You see, it’s been so long since I’ve been to confession, and I think they do things differently nowadays from when I was a young man...”

The others queued up behind him. And, to audible gasps from the crowd, he followed young Father Jehan into the church.

* * *

Father Jehan had never heard anyone say, “It has been six hundred and sixty-six years since my last confession, Father...”

* * *

Half an hour after the wizard entered the confessional, the enchanted hair ribbons, bonnets and veils of the wizard’s various former servants suddenly ceased to shimmer and sparkle; some completely unraveled. At the same moment, there was a distant rumble, as of an earthquake. Rodric removed his hat and made the sign of the cross. Melisande began to cry.

“He was a bad wizard, but a good man,” she said.

“I hope he died well,” Rodric said, and squeezed her hand.



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