I saw the Old Moon, yester'e'en
It was ironic, thought Duncan Ross, that the devil's work was supposed to be easy - work for idle hands. If so, why was he still in his workshop as the bells rang for Vespers, struggling to decipher the crabbed hand of some unknown scribe and produce a filigree of silver wire which would hold together long enough to be soldered. The dark night had long since turned St John's Kirk into a brooding shadow that seemed to enshroud the house on Sillergait.
There was no moon. So, it must be finished for tomorrow. For, the Abbess had said enigmatically, next month, the storms would come. For a brief moment he resented the fate which had brought him to this point, but then admitted to himself that he was indeed the right person in the right place at the right time. For Duncan could read and write Latin and French as well as Scots and, more importantly, he was a silversmith, which the forgotten scribe had evidently not been. He took his slate pencil and made a further set of notes which, blasphemous or not, would later be copied into his workbook. The notes were occult only in the sense that a good part of them had probably been copied incorrectly. He was determined that those who followed would have a better basis upon which to found their work.
A small scow took advantage of the new moon to approach the jetty unnoticed. The sculling-oar made no sound as the boatman deftly came alongside and a figure in the bows made fast. It was just possible to make out the looming mass of the castle and, smaller but no less imposing, the abbey. The figure stepped easily ashore and turned as a second figure rose less certainly, requiring the assistance of a strong arm to alight from the boat, before kneeling to retrieve a small box. The boat was quickly untied and, as quietly as it had come, disappeared once more into the night. Keen eyes indeed would have been needed to see that the figure holding the box was a woman, keener still to notice the braid of long, dark hair that escaped the hood. Looking about him one more time, the man strode confidently along the jetty. The woman followed - Madeleine, a fitting name for a priestess of the Lady Wisdom.
The town slept. Ross checked his work one more time with the callipers, finally satisfied that it would mate exactly with the tiny pegs embedded into blue glass. Heating a tiny iron, he worked methodically around the chalice, soldering the woven filigree to each seemingly random point in turn. It was indeed eye-catching, the whole greater than the sum of the parts. He felt a slight sense of anticlimax as the last of the work was accomplished. Briefly, Duncan considered sleep, then looked at the five slates on the bench. Sighing inwardly, he began to sharpen a quill, to assemble the ink. Then he paused. Now that the thing itself was finished, a draught of wine would make little difference to his ability to copy his notes. He considered using the blue glass itself, then instead retrieved his own beautifully figured onyx cup. Dark wine from Aix - a gift from the Lady Abbess, softening him up for the commission. Duncan suspected that there was perhaps more to the wine than met the eye, just as he knew there was more to the bowl. Probably, he would never know, would be left only with his pride in a job well done. He turned to his day-book and began to copy the notes.
Others, too, were writing long after Vespers. The Abbess herself waited, busying herself with correspondence whose contents she knew all to well. Disturbing news from the house at Aix suggested that across Bavaria and beyond, the church had turned the knowledge into simple debauchery and fornication. It was, perhaps, time for another figure in the dance. The plan had gestated all summer, to serve a double purpose. She drafted brief notes for a letter which, after Matins, would be turned into its proper form by her assistant. She was not quite finished when she heard faintly the expected rap at the outer door. Enough, however, for now. A sound of motion from the adjoining room was immediately followed by footsteps in the cloister. The Abbess extinguished the desk-lamp, donned a formal blue and silver gown over her simple robe, and hurried to the Lady Chapel.
Maybe it was the wine and the fatigue. But again, perhaps not. As Ross worked and his fair copy grew, a pattern began to emerge. A pattern of stars, of lilies, of lions and of maidens with sheaves of corn. A pattern not made of words; a mere fancy expressed in blue glass and silver filigree. A pattern so elusive that he would surely, he thought, have easily seen it fully, had he not been so fatigued. Duncan took another sheet of parchment - a sin to squander it for rough work, but his work on the slates were not clear enough. Carefully, he prepared it, taking comfort from the familiar processes. Then, pouring one more small draught of wine, he took the quill once again. Now, he worked more carefully, seeing that what was missing from the original manuscript was as important as what was present. Finally he was convinced.
He wondered if the glassmaker had also guessed, or known.
It was daylight once more by the time Ross finally finished. One complete set of notes were wrapped in linen and sealed for the Abbey. Another complete set was neatly bound into the workshop day-book; Ross was confident that the secret was safe. The bowl, in all its patterned finery, was wrapped, packaged in hay in a box and wrapped once more. The slates were washed clean, scrap metal in the strong-box and the workroom neatly swept. Duncan was unsure why he felt the need to do this.
By the same daylight, Mathilde, clerk to the Abbess, took last night's notes and set to work. First, she carefully drafted a letter to the Lord Archbishop at the King's court taking extreme care with the wording, adding formalities about the forthcoming wedding and then redrafting the letter so that the language flowed naturally and with just the right tone of reverence. Then, she carefully copied it, wrapped it in fine linen and sealed it with the Abbey seal. Summoning a messenger, she gave instructions for the letter's delivery. That task complete, she bent to the others, which were more difficult. For some, hopefully, life: for others, death. A task for which she had been fully trained, but one which she had never yet had occasion to carry out. And, as she discovered, whilst training can tell the mind what to do, no amount of it can fully subdue the body. By the time the letters were complete, one already on its way to Norway whilst the other awaited the response from the Archbishop, it was a somewhat shaken Mathilde who, on the verge of tears, retired to the Lady Chapel to seek solace in the familiar rituals of prayer.
The Abbess received Duncan in the Lady Chapel. She knelt in prayer and he placed the packages on the floor against the wall and joined her in front of the altar. He had been here a few times before, but on this occasion he saw it with different eyes. The statue of the Virgin; the stars and the crescent moon. How every detail of the blue robe was modelled in such a flowing manner. Votive candles burned bright on a crisp white cloth. Burnished bright, the robe appeared as glowing sapphire in the candlelight, surrounded by its own aurora.
And, amidst the candles, a blue and silver cup, obviously the same, but equally obviously by a different hand. For a single moment, Ross was bewildered but then, as the Abbess sensed that he had noticed, she rose and turned to face him. He approached her and reverentially handed her the wrapped package.
"I don't think I understand,." he said. "what need have you of a second cup? The cup is surely a symbol, of the heavens and of the earth and more, but a symbol nonetheless. If you feel that here you have the true cup, then I fear..." his voice tailed off, uncertainly.
"Of course both cups are modern. You measured well and crafted well; the simple act of copying would degrade the form over the years. Under Robert, men fought and died for Jerusalem, for the image of Christ, for the Grail. Yet, Jerusalem the golden is simply a city. The Mandylion a fake. You think they didn't know this? For certain, it was the idea for which they fought. And the idea of the Cup has passed from Cornwall with the tin to far Araby, and back with glass to Italy, to France. There is no True Cup, only the True Grail, the knowledge and the priestess, the Chalice of Maria. Observe closely the sleight of hand, like a fairground conjuror: first, there were no chalices at all. Then, two chalices. Now, one will remain here until need takes it elsewhere: yours has a long journey ahead of it, and a vital one."
Some of Duncan's sense of anti-climax and disappointment must have shown on his face. The Abbess smiled kindly.
"I see that you now possess a part of the mystery. Naturally you wish more. Did you think, Duncan Ross, that we would take your service and give naught but silver and wine in return?" Ross thought guiltily for a moment of the second manuscript in his workshop. "There have been many priestesses, many chalices. The cup passes, each to other, saving only that it passes. And, if you wish, you shall see its passing." Ross nodded silently. Listen, then, and I will explain more. If then you wish," she continued, "you may partake of the dedication. And after, well, who knows..."
The page who had just delivered two letters hurried away. Spens retired to his office and opened them. Taken by itself, the first was innocuous enough. Couched in formal pleasantries, it bore the royal seal and contained letters of marque to sail to Norway, thence to bring the young Lady Margaret and her attendants to the court in Dunfermline. The second came from a higher authority. In the fluid hand of a lady he had never met, it contained passwords revealed during his apprenticeship and long burned into memory. Two services were required of Sir Patrick. The first was his attendance at the Lady Chapel of the Abbey Church this night. The second would become obvious when he reached Norway. As taught, Spens loved and trusted utterly the unknown hand.
The Lion weds the Fleur-de-Luce; the Lion King and the Virgin brought to bed. For those with eyes to see, the arms could hardly make it more obvious. And some of the Romish persuasion had indeed eyes to see. They saw in their midst not simply the lusts of the witch-cults, but a resurgence of Cathars and other such. Nothing can so easily bind a body of people as a common enemy. The men of Christ knew the power of words, that the word heretic was so much more effective than gnostic. Tales were told of fornication with the Antichrist, and of sacrificed infants. The usefulness of such tales was beyond doubt; after all, they had been deployed equally successfully against the Turks and before them the Jews, gaining somewhat in effectiveness each time.
In truth, the second duty was as obvious to Spens now as it would have been to any who had been taught as he had. So, this was it. As bid, the mortal answered the command. Spens felt neither fear nor sorrow, only a bright stab of anticipation. In his youth he had heard tales of pagan sacrifices who, after a night of bliss with their priestess went willingly to be chained to rocks and drowned by the incoming sea. His children were well appointed in their own right. He had no lover, nor had he since the death of his wife. Many friends, but few really to mourn. Men would gladly have given up much more for such a task and yet fate had decreed that Spens had been chosen. He summoned a maid and asked her to clean and make ready a particular robe for the evening. Then he began to make a list of tasks for his sailing master.
As if in some stately occult Pavan, the cup and its secrets passed from place to place, measure by measure, sometimes two steps ahead of the watchers, sometimes one step. And sometimes, the pursuers needed to be allowed the reassurance of a success to report to the Vicar of Rome. Margaret of Norway would not be allowed to marry, that much was clear. Of need, one or two must die, that the knowledge be brought to safety.
It was a beautiful evening as Ross made his way once more to the Abbey. The sky was a deep, clear, blue-black, almost green where the setting sun left its last traces. He was unaccustomed to the feeling in the pit of his stomach, the sense, somewhere beneath the surface, that, if he were to return home, it would be as a very different person.
Madeleine, too, noticed the sky and felt much the same. She, however, recognised the feeling for what it was. Long since chosen by lot, she accepted whatever the Lady wished for her. She stood for a moment, imagining the faint sliver of the crescent moon that would soon rise, and made a silent reverence. She allowed the full depth of her feelings to surface and then, with the discipline of years of training, reached out mentally and grasped the emotions, drawing them down into a hard, bright core.
Spens dismissed his servants for the night. Now that the time was upon him, it took all of his willpower to put on the robe that had been laid out for him. Then he finally put a dark street cloak over it walked out of the door. He closed it firmly behind him, gathered himself and set off determinedly in the direction of the abbey.
Ross had helped Mathilde and the Abbess make the last preparations for the evening. He had swept and washed the floor of the lady-chapel. Now he stood enthralled as a dark-haired woman began the ritual. Clean rushes, mixed with fragrant herbs, were strewn deeply in the centre and fresh candles stood upright in piles of soft river-sand. The circle reached nearly to the edges of the chapel. The statue of the Lady, too, looked on as the woman poured wine into the cup and placed it in the centre. His cup or the other? He couldn't tell and realised that it didn't matter.
Another robed figure entered the chapel. Now Ross could see the thin crescent moon through the leaded lights. The two stepped out of their robes, bodies radiant in the candlelight. The woman knelt, holding the cup. The words, unexpectedly beautiful, obviously came easily to them both. The man and woman drank and then, to his surprise, the woman beckoned him over and held the cup for him to drink. Unbidden tears welled in his eyes then. Now, even as an onlooker, he was drawn into the majesty and rapture of what followed.
The next morning, with no fuss, the cog "Beloved" slipped from its moorings. It was a perfect day: the wind was from the west and the bows sliced through the almost flat calm waters as she headed for open sea. The crew busied themselves with the minutiae of setting sail and tried to avoid the well-dressed passengers who lined the rails and gawped at the view of the fast-retreating Scottish coast. Ahead of them was a three day voyage followed, as the sailing-master at least knew, by almost a month's stay in Norway.
As it had a month ago, the first crescent moon shone, this time holding the ghost of the old moon in her arms. This night, thought Spens, still somewhat surprised that he had, quite genuinely, no regrets. The Sailors' Church stood silent, its whitewashed walls a familiar landmark for returning locals and visitors alike. High above the typically Norwegian waterfront houses, it was a reassuring, rather than dominating, presence. Climbing the stepped alley-way, he thought of Our Lady of the Winds standing in the chapel, with her promise of a safe return. He smiled. There were, he knew, many depths of meaning within that dedication.
Some arrangement with the daughter-house of the priory would have made sure that the chapel was available and private. Spens was just beginning to understand the breadth of the unseen web supporting him. He could see the gentle candlelight through the windows. All doubts long since fled, he pushed the door ajar and went inside. In the side chapel, the candles cast a warm glow on a wonderful red and gold image of the Lady wreathed in stars and surmounting a crescent moon. Sir Patrick stood to one side, seeing the image with new eyes. Without shame he shucked off his doublet and hose. Behind him, unseen hands barred the door; before him was a woman, also naked, blonde ringlets sparkling in the candlelight. Magdalena, a fitting name for a priestess of the Lady Wisdom. Spens went to her then, and the dance began anew.
An ornate barge slipped silently alongside the cog lying at anchor in the bay. Many eyes watched as a woman stood, awkwardly reaching for the boarding ladder whilst holding a package she would not relinquish. A liveried page helped, but as she stepped nervously over the gunwale, she slipped. For a moment the issue appeared in doubt, but the page held her fast as she held on to the box. The priestess Magdalena was also a consummate actress. A young woman on the shore, now no longer a bride-to-be, had particular reason to shed a tear as Magdalena now reached easily for the first rung of the ladder.
Three horses headed South in the early dawn, a long journey ahead of them. Although their cloaks were tightly drawn, it was just possible to identify the riders as two men and a woman. The woman periodically turned to check a saddle-bag, as if its contents were precious beyond dreams. As she did so, the cowl slipped, and a wisp of long, dark hair escaped. Finally, satisfied that the box was still safe, she turned, face and hair once more obscured.
As he had known it would, the storm struck. Overloaded, the ship handled like a dog. On the stern-castle, Spens remained at the steering-oar, had the crew shorten sail, and resisted the urge to go below or to call for the lady. One night. It had been enough. Below, there would be candles. He hoped one would be lit for him, as he watched the lords milling. The waves broke against the side as he struggled to keep the head into the wind, knowing that it was futile, knowing what must be, yet still wishing to do the best job possible under the circumstances.
He imagined the crescent moon, unseen behind the clouds. The low centre-deck was awash now, the lords' fine clothing drenched and spattered with vomit. Spens was impassive as a wave took him from the oar. He hit the water and immediately felt his clothes fill and start to drag him down. No sense in prolonging the agony; he opened his mouth and felt the icy water fill his throat. His last thoughts were of the moon, of dark hair and golden ringlets, of the cup...
Below, the woman felt the change in the ship's motion as the head swung round. Not long now, she thought. One last time, she surveyed the candles as there came a pounding on the door. Undeterred, she raised her hands as far as the ceiling would allow, blonde ringlets cascading over her naked breasts. Finally, the pounding at the door ceased and running footsteps faded into the distance. As taught and as bid, she chanted. And as promised, when finally the water extinguished the candles, there was no pain, only joy as the Lady gathered her to herself for the last time.
There were, of course, claims that the ship had been un-seaworthy, that it had been overloaded. Spens had been a poor seaman, betrayed by the other nobles at court. All such were disputed in alehouses from Edinburgh to Perth. But finally, most agreed that Spens and the little queen had simply been fated to die. After all, the new crescent moon had been clearly seen in the sky, with the ghost of the old moon, on the very night before the ship had set sail. An evil omen. If only, it was said, they had waited. Then, all might have been different.
A lone messenger arrived at the gates of the Priory of St Bride and demanded audience with Abbess Hilda. He carried a wooden cask of wine and a sealed letter from Aix. The hand and seal were unfamiliar, the letter unsigned, but the type of wine-cask and its meaning, were both known to her. And the context was clear; the wine was to be used for the feast of the annunciation, which, as all knew, would be a mere day after the new moon. But maybe there was still more to the message.
"I'm sure that we will all appreciate the wine greatly, knowing whence it came." the Abbess remarked, selecting her words and her tone carefully. "Have you carried it all the way?"
"From Aix, aye, by sea and land and sea"
"A difficult journey, to make alone."
"But the Abbey at Aix is popular with the town; there was no shortage of volunteers. I was chosen by lot, my lady"
"Well, in that case," said the Abbess, smiling "I imagine that you will need to rest here a while. At least until the feast of the Assumption, perhaps to share in this gift so lovingly brought. And after, well, who knows..."
copyright ©1999, 2001 Pithukuf