Excerpt- Beneath the Cloak

The Minstrel’s Song

Spring

One morning in late spring, strange sounds echoed through the forests near Wynnewood. A shadow seemed to float between the trees, pause, bend, and float again. It is no wonder that new tales of spirits haunting the fearsome forest spread across the village and even up to the castle. Some thought it was the mystical creatures of the Sceadu—terrifying beings with fiery eyes strong enough to repel the mesmerizing gaze of the dragons. In fact, only one in Wynnewood could do that. Just one cloaked little girl— a girl they feared more than anything you could imagine.

Everyone had heard of the Ge-sceaft’s ability to resist the hypnotic eyes of the dragons of Wynnewood. The minstrels and bards told the tale of how she’d saved their local hero from a gruesome death at the claws of the mother dragon. Their songs and stories combined local folklore and a great deal of superstition until no doubt remained in the minds of the villagers that the small creature, the Ge-sceaft, drew her abilities from the devil himself.

Broðor Clarke’s sermons, private rebukes and admonitions, and even his attempts to befriend the small girl had been completely unsuccessful. The people of Wynnewood remained prejudiced against the one sometimes known as Dove, and she against them. No amount of support from Lord Morgan himself was able to rid the fears regarding the cloaked child from the hearts of the villagers.

 

 ***

Accompanied by a mandora, a tenor filled the Great Hall with music as he sang his tale. Philip sat near the fire, listening as the song told of the failed siege on Wynnewood Castle. Only Philip heard Dove’s disgusted snort as she hid behind a screen. Unbeknownst to him, Lord Morgan watched the amused expression on his face with curious interest.

Polite applause was followed by murmurs of the listeners’ appreciation and, if you listened closely enough, a derisive growl from somewhere near Philip. Ignoring it, Lord Morgan smiled at their entertainer and gestured toward the kitchen. “Perhaps you’d like some supper and a glass of ale or mead?”

“Thank you, m’lord. I’d appreciate that.”

“Follow John. He’ll show you to the kitchens. Perhaps you’d sing a few songs for the servants as well. I’m sure they’d enjoy your talents as much as we have.”

With a nod and a bow, the minstrel sauntered after John, leaving the silence in the room nearly oppressive as their footsteps echoed in the corridor. When John and the minstrel were out of earshot, Lord Morgan turned to Philip with a smirk on his lips. “So what amuses you this afternoon?”

“I do not understand, Lord Morgan.”

“Something amused you as our guest performed.”

Understanding lit Philip’s eyes with a similar light of mirth. “Oh, that was Dove. She was getting irritated at the song.”

“Come out here, little one. The minstrel is gone.”

Rustling sounds behind the screen sent a fresh round of amused glances between the others as they waited for her to appear. The young girl, taller after a year’s growth but still quite small for someone of twelve, stepped into the firelight, pulling on her gloves. She settled herself at Philip’s feet, stashing her embroidery basket under her cloak.

“What irritated you, Dove?”

Aurelia shifted on her padded bench, lounging on the other side and pulling her rolled pillow with her. “Did you get that section done, Dove?”

“Nearly.”

Visibly eager to avoid the subject, Dove jumped up and seemed to float across the room as she hurried to show Aurelia her progress. The two girls whispered about stitching and left the others to exchange smiles at her obvious attempt to divert attention away from her. “Since Dove will not share her feelings, Philip, perhaps you’d care to enlighten us?”

Philip glanced at his friend, and seeing the frustration in her posture, chuckled. “Dove doesn’t like the way the song exaggerates her involvement—in her opinion anyway.”

“You do not think you were heroic, Dove?”

Dove didn’t respond, but her hood shook impatiently. A few seconds passed before Philip tried to explain. “You know Dove has no false modesty about her, m’lord. She isn’t ashamed to admit when she has done well, but you have to admit the stories are a bit exaggerated. Why, this man’s song makes it sound like the mists whispered to her and told her that the kidnappers were coming.”

“True, but she did come warn us—as did you,” Lord Morgan added hastily.

“Dove’s objection,” Philip began again, “is that she did something anyone would have done, but the song makes her sound like she—we I suppose—did something extraordinary.”

“She risked her life. She let those horrible men take her and pretended to be me!” Aurelia protested. “Dove, how can you say that isn’t heroic?”

Dove’s hood turned toward Philip, and she nodded. He returned the gaze he couldn’t see until at last he shrugged. “Dove doesn’t think doing what anyone would have done in her position qualifies her as heroic. There isn’t a little girl in the village who wouldn’t have tried to do the same thing.” Philip tossed an apologetic glance at her and added, “I disagree with her that any of them would have been successful, but the bravery is in the attempt, not the success, and Dove believes that she did what any girl would have attempted.”

“Do you agree?”

“Father!” Aurelia’s exclamation brought smiles to the others’ faces, and even Dove’s posture showed that she too was amused.

“I didn’t say I agreed, dear heart. I simply want to understand their thoughts on the idea.”

“To an extent, I agree, yes. Dove expects people to give credit where it is due, but she is a hard taskmaster. She isn’t a master who would lavish praise on expected chores. She would reserve praise for truly outstanding work.”

“And yet…”

“Well,” Philip hesitated. “I just think that sometimes Dove forgets that her unique—um, situation—makes even simple actions heroic.”

“Oh, Philip, really!”

“No,” Lord Morgan agreed, “Philip seems to have put my emotions into words. If another girl, say Letty for example, had attempted to do the same thing, being caught wouldn’t have put her in the same kind of danger as you.”

“I think it is a whole lot of fuss about something that was more exciting than dangerous. How many little girls get to do something so fun and thrilling?” Unaware she’d proven the others’ point, Dove sat back, her entire body exuding the self-satisfaction she felt. Her smugness didn’t last long. Just as the others couldn’t hold in their laughter any longer, she threw her hands in the air. “Ok, so you think it was something extraordinary. I think the true hero was Philip when the Scots came from Bramburg. I had the easy job. Go get Aurelia and hide. Philip had to allow himself to be caught, beaten, incarcerated… He had to leave the more exciting and glory-filled tasks to others.”

Nodding as she spoke, Lord Morgan turned to Philip. “I agree with Dove there. I don’t think you give yourself credit for what I consider your bravest and most heroic deeds. Coming to warn us about the kidnappers couldn’t have been easy. I know how gruff my guards are when they’re wakened while they’re supposed to be working.” The twinkle in Lord Morgan’s eyes nearly set everyone laughing again. “Had you allowed the men to brush you off, we might not be sitting here today.”

“Father! Those horrible Scots were going to use me to gain control of the castle! I’d be dead if it were not for Philip and Dove!”

“That seems a bit melodramatic, dear heart. After all, with the heir alive, no one could question their right to the lands.”

The young girl tossed her blond curls and leveled a scornful gaze at her father. “We both know that as long as the king gets his taxes and the church gets their tithes, no one cares who claims what land as their own. We’d be dead and the villagers would likely be driven like slaves.”

Dove sat quietly through the exchange, listening even more intently than usual. When the conversation lulled for a moment, Dove turned her hood toward Lord Morgan and asked, “Was the first kidnapping attempt truly the original plan to take control of Wynnewood Castle?”

“Well, yes. I thought you knew that.”

The young girl shook her head. “I think I’d heard it, but until just now, I never quite understood that the two things were so closely connected.” The girl shoved her basket under Aurelia’s bench and sought the warmth of the fire by Philip again. “So Lady de Clare was behind the original plot?”

“No, Dove. Lady de Clare was brought in when the first attempt failed. They simply took over her castle, and her only hope to regain it was to help them infiltrate mine.”

Philip’s voice sounded irritated—furious even—as he growled, “I still can’t believe she was such a coward, leaving her own people to the mercy of those barbarians and using a cripple to betray a distant kinsman. Shameful.”

“She did look funny when Father’s men brought her in from the Heolstor all covered in twigs and mud.” Aurelia sighed. “I still think she was not punished adequately.”

“She had to go home to very angry people. As I learned by watching my father and grandfather, your people will serve you cheerfully and more productively if they know you will protect and defend them as much as you expect them to serve and honor you.”

“Just like Jesus said,” Philip mused under his breath.

Dove latched onto his words eagerly. “What did Jesus say, Philip?”

“He said that anyone who wanted to be a leader of people must first serve them.”

To everyone’s surprise, Dove laughed. “That sounds just like something I AM would say. He seems to delight in speaking wise things that sound foolish.”

Broðor Clarke’s voice joined the group from the door. “‘For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He captures the wise in their own craftiness.’”

“Are you saying that I AM deliberately allows us to think we’re wise when we’re truly foolish?”

The round minister settled himself and accepted the goblet of wine offered by the master of the castle. “Truly, I just threw out the first pertinent scripture that came to mind.”

“I wonder if Philip will do that after he goes to Oxford. He already finds a Bible story for almost anything that happens.”

The mood in the room became more serious—almost somber. Philip smiled at the realization that she noticed his attempts to interject the Word of I AM wherever he naturally could, but the reminder of his impending move to Oxford added a sting to his joy. There were just a few short weeks before it was time to make the two-week journey south.

“Isn’t it exciting?” Dove seemed oblivious to the change in tone around her. “He’ll come home knowing all the stories, all the verses, and even things like history of other places.”

“I don’t like to think about it,” Aurelia confessed.

“It—” Philip began, but Dove interrupted him.

“Oh, but think of the things he’ll see, the people he’ll meet, the things he’ll learn. Why, we’ll be grown women by the time he returns!”

The discouragement on Aurelia’s face slowly morphed into amusement. She exchanged covert glances with her father as Philip’s face slowly fell. It seemed obvious to them that Dove had chosen to focus on all the advantages of Philip’s university education and in doing so had left him with the impression that she wouldn’t miss him at all.

“I promised my modor that I’d fill the wood pile today,” Philip said at last, dragging himself off the floor. “I’d best be going home.”

“The dragon should be visiting his wife tonight. The clearing?” Dove seemed oblivious to the hurt she’d caused.

“I’ll be there.”

Aurelia latched onto the change of subject eagerly. “Hasn’t that egg hatched yet?”

“Bertha says a dragon’s egg takes fifty years to hatch.”

“How would she know? She isn’t even fifty years old yet.”

“True, Philip, but that doesn’t mean that she isn’t correct.” Broðor Clarke’s voice seemed to rebuke the young man.

“I think,” Lord Morgan added thoughtfully, “I remember my grandfather saying that they noticed the change in the caves about five years before he died. That would make the time close to twenty-five years since she laid her egg or eggs.”

Philip stood listening for a few more minutes before quietly slipping from the room, shoulders drooped and footsteps dragging. A little while later, Dove stood, retrieved her basket, and left, turning toward the kitchen entrance on the opposite side of the castle from where Philip had gone.

“I think Philip is feeling a little rejected,” Lord Morgan observed.

“Dove almost cried.”

The two men turned toward Aurelia, but Broðor Clarke asked the question on both men’s minds. “Why do you think that?”

“She wanted to finish that section of her embroidery. With Philip gone, she would have stayed to have me help her with the flower, but she’s gone.”

“Still—”

Aurelia shook her head. “If you knew Dove’s voice, you would have heard it. Seven years is a very long time.”

“Or eight, dear heart. Broðor Clarke has said seven or eight years.”

“I prefer to be optimistic, Father. Philip will do it in six if he possibly can. He’s intelligent, determined, and loves his home here. He’ll do anything possible to return early.”

“I think he is going to spend the first year studying various things, Lady Aurelia. He’ll start with the Arts and then make a decision as to whether he wants to stay with the Arts, or if he wants Medicine, Civil Law, Canon Law, or Theology.”

“He’ll choose Theology.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Oh, Father. This is Philip. He’ll choose the most difficult task because he’ll find it a challenge. He’ll choose Theology because of his love for I AM.”

“Your daughter is correct. Usually, he’d struggle within himself to know what to do, but in this case, the most arduous task is also his first love.”