The Legend of Azurene, by Donna Rubino, © 2004
“…And so Abril the brook warren—m’lady!” Kate sprang from her chair, sending its wooden legs chattering along the stone-paved floor. She offered the Countess Drucilla a proper curtsey, but her sidelong scowl was aimed at Drucilla’s maid, Enid, and threatened reprisals for bringing the House down into Kate’s domain.
Tradition had woven this hour into the fabric of Stregmore House, binding the servants into family. For most, servantry was the only family they knew. Enid knew better than to make them uncomfortable by bringing a stranger—and their countess, no less—into the bosom of family. And the fact that Enid found such fascination with the floor just now said she understood her crime.
For a moment, Countess Drucilla’s pale gray eyes looked sharper than Kate had recalled, and then her smile disarmed. “Mistress Kate, Enid oft’ speaks of the wonderful tales you say.” She motioned Kate back to her chair with a graceful flourish that sent her veil fluttering like a sail in fair winds. “I did think you might not mind did I sit here on the stair and listen with the others.”
Her timid expression was more suited to a scullery girl than the lord’s new lady. From her shyness and the tentative way she had assumed control of the household, her training had not included such a competency. Doubtless ‘twas her dowry won his lordship. Kate had watched Lord John grow from a playful boy to a stalwart man, good and cunning, and he deserved a match in his mate.
But Kate was chief cook, not noble marriage broker.
She ducked her head to hide her embarrassment and irritation, thankful for the dim light and a wimple that hid her scowl in folds of wrinkled cheeks and forehead.
“ ’Tis not me place to deny our lady ana’thing, for it is her home and we are her servants,” she said and settled herself into the worn chair that was hers, inherited from the last head cook, Master Theodore. She could not be angry with Lady Drucilla. The countess had praised her talents for her workers to hear, and so she glowered once more at Enid, who fled after the countess to the stairs, where Lady Drucilla waved away one of the kitchen cats and sat in the shadows close to the wall. With little light in the basement kitchen, her lavender gown made the countess nearly invisible.
A torch sputtered as Kate stroked her chin. “Now, where were we?”
Ian, the youngest of the miller’s sons, piped up. He’d been fidgeting beside his older brother through the interruption. The lad could wait no longer.
“Not the tale of Abril the warren again.” The lad wrinkled his pug nose so hard his honey brown eyes all but disappeared inside his frown. “Will ye say us a tale of the outlaw Hereward?” His small voice was as hopeful as spring birdsong, and she had to admit, the story was a favorite, of a poor man cheated of his inheritance by a wicked and conniving brother.
“But that one I did tell ye only a sennight past!”
“What of Gamelyn?” Ian’s older brother, Marcus, asked.
“Aye, a good tale…” She had been putting together a new story, based on a tale that ancient Herriot the coal digger had told her when she was a young girl, and she longed to try it out. All she needed was a name for one of the characters.
She stared thoughtfully into the haze as a candle guttered. But for that name, the story was ready for the telling. A second candle flickered. It should not have, for it was new. She had told Bonnie to see to the trimming of the wicks. She must remember to speak with her. Bonnie, and the wick, she thought hard. Remember it for later, eh? Bonnie-wick. Bonnie-wick.
That was it! Bonwick! A good name. Exotic enough, common enough. She grinned eagerly from one face to the next as she cleared her throat. “As teller of the tale, I would offer one better.”
“Better?” Several in her audience came straighter as they sat on the cold floor, the two lads squirming closer to her knees, while others nodded, murmuring, “Ah,” and “Oh, aye,” and “Let us hear it, then.”
She drew out the suspense as she sucked in her cheeks, thinking how much they—and she—looked forward to this one afternoon a week when all the chores were done and they could relax together. She thought of old Theo, who had taught her to foster good cheer among her workers, to treat them with respect. After all, good help made the head cook look good; they pilfered less, too.
“Aye.” Her voice purred as a few in her audience began to fidget with anticipation.
Even Lady Drucilla shifted about on her step, hunched forward on her elbows like the young lass she was, watching the kitchen folk, eyeing Kate.
Kate shook off her air of smug satisfaction. The illusion would be lost if the others saw her overconfidence. She folded her hands in her lap and began, taking great care to stare into each face in her audience, an unexpected and practiced smile of timeless wisdom camouflaging the storyteller, rendering her invisible to her folk, inseparable from her tale.
“I shall tell ye a tale of our own woods,” she began. “The tale of a villein, a lass and a seer.”
“A seer!” Small Ian’s eyes grew wide. He nearly popped off his knees, wriggling as he was, tugging at his brother Marcus’s arm. “’Twill be a tale of a seer!”
His youthful enthusiasm earned him a rough cuff on the ear. “Silence, Ian!” Marcus whispered.
The small lad sat, chin wobbling as he scrubbed at the side of his head.
“Aye, in our own woods, then, well past the stone circle, there lived a seer in the auld weald. He was called Bonwick, and he lived alone in a grove, a grove made hallowed by the cedar brake that grew there.”
Countess Drucilla stirred. “Tsk! No cedar grows here.”
“ ’Tis that miracle what makes the place holy, m’lady.”
“Oh?… Oh, I see,” the countess said, though her frown said she didn’t.
“Now, not too far distant lived a villein named Culby. He was a short, thick man with a wart on his nose, and three more on his cheek.” Her fingertips fled across her cheek as if from something repulsive. “Culby was a mean, hard man who once did drive a team of oxen all days of the week, all weeks of the year, in rain and sleet and sun for seven years, until, from pure weariness, the beasties melted into pools of yellow lard in the field.”
Her audience gasped. “Nay!” and “Och!” some called. “Wastrel!” cried others.
“Aye.” She nodded serenely behind her mask of invisibility. “For that was the nature of auld Culby.”
Young Ian frowned. “Wicked man.”
“Even so, ‘twas seemly for the villein Culby to be so mean, for he had a hard life. His hectare of land was naught but stone and sand, and only nettle, and thistle, and briar grew there. His cow gave no milk, his hen no eggs.
“But one day.” She straightened imperceptibly, rounding her eyes. “Culby met a lass named Lisabetta. This lass took pity on Culby, seein’ in him some thing that no one else did see. And Lisabetta agreed to wed wi’ him. And she would smile as she rose each day, and singing, would milk the gaunt cow that had ne’er given milk, but for Lisabetta she gave a half measure, and she sang to the hen, who laid one egg each day for her.
And within a year, auld Culby’s lands were fruitful, and he grew enough of bean and turnip and barley for Lisabetta to cook a proper pottage, and in the next year, he bought a bull, and a sow and tusker as well. And Lisabetta fed them acorns from the wild oak trees and sang to them. And within another year, Culby had piglets and hams, and his land grew wheat enough that he sold that as well, and bought more land. And in the fourth year…”
Her audience held their breath, the Countess Drucilla included.
She allowed a smile to spread across her features. “And in the fourth year, his Lisabetta came with child.”
Her audience ‘ooh’ed and ‘ah’ed, satisfied with the tale so far.
“And Culby smiled.”
Her people chuckled, and one or two of the older ones clapped their hands, callused, horny palms popping hollow sounds that echoed in the dry, warm air.
“Which was no mean matter for a man what had ne’er smiled in his life,” she explained to the small sea of nodding, knowing heads, each able to see in Culby someone they knew. “And on the day auld Culby’s daughter was born, as oft’ happens, his Lisabetta did die.”
A few of the men shook their heads dolefully. One or two of the women dabbed at their tears with stained skirts or frayed sleeves.
“And things did pass back to the way they were.” She made her voice soft and mournful. “His land did become barren. His cows did dry up. The hens wouldna lay once more. His swine, they grew, but they wouldna sleek.
“Now, as she grew, Culby’s daughter—who was called Azurene for her eyes as blue as the sky—swept the earthen floor of Culby’s mean house, and mended her papa’s hose and spun linen from the small bits of flax she culled from a neighbor’s leavings. She cooked the few grains and paltry beans from Culby’s land into a meager pottage and baked horsebread from the wheat gleaned from adjacent fields after the master’s harvestin’ was done.”
“And what of the seer?” Ian cried impatiently.
The countess laughed behind her hand.
Kate fixed the boy with a narrow-eyed glare. “A’comin’,” she said so sourly that he cowered, leaning into his brother’s side, though the rest of the kitchen folk chuckled.
“Now one day, a stranger came into Culby’s yard.”
She paused. It was at this point in old Herriot’s story that his seer announced, ‘May the day bring ye joy,’ but the old-fashioned greeting was not familiar these days, and Kate would not have them ponder the words and grow deaf to her story.
“And ‘Good morrow to you this joyful day,’ the stranger does say.”
“And Culby says, ‘There is naught joyful in the world,’ and he stares at the man with ill will frank in his eyes.
“Whereupon the stranger does say, “Farmer, may I rest awhile?’
“And Culby sees him a’leanin’ wearily on his walking stave, and he says, ’Aye. Ana’where but here. ’
‘ ‘Tis unlike a northerman to give no respite to a weary traveler,’ the stranger says, a’shakin’ his hooded head.
‘I ha’ barely enough to feed me daughter and me. And who be ye?’ glum Culby asks hotly, not at all glad of heart to hear himself pronounced ill-mannered.”
‘I am Bonwick,’ the stranger does answer.
‘And what are ye that gives ye such claim to call me less of a man than my neighbor?’ Culby asks.”
She paused, winking. “And this Bonwick does smile and say, ‘Some call me ‘old one’, others say I am a seeker, still others call me ‘teacher’, ‘the old man’, ‘the finder’.’ ”
“Now, Culby knows of the seekers. He has heard stories passed to him from his father and his father a’fore that of men who worship the earth spirits, who by their words may cause seeds to sprout from the soil, and who can raise the dead from their pallets and render them whole.”
She whispered now, and as she expected, her people craned their necks and leaned in to hear the better, faces rapt.
“Aye. And who can speak wi’ animals.”
The countess snorted. “Enid!” She nudged her maid. “Unheard of!”
“Hush-a.” Enid waved her off, so eager to hear the story that she didn’t see Lady Drucilla’s jaw drop at her impudence.
Kate swallowed rising laughter. “And so Culby turns his mean eyes on the stranger. ‘If ye be a seeker,’ Culby does say, ‘Make me cow to gi’ milk, me hen to lay eggs.’
‘I shall do better,’ Bonwick pledges. And so he shakes loose his hand from his sleeve, and rubs the ring on his middle finger, a stone of amber as round as the sun, its golden rays a’flarin’ all about it like ruffles, and he lifts his stave and nods its head once, twice, thrice at Culby’s house, touching its other end to his ring. And right off, a sliver of lightning snakes through the door, and song—beautiful song the like of which Culby hasna heard for fifteen year since his Lisabetta died—comes a’floatin’ on the air.
‘ ’Tis me Azurene,’ Culby admits wi’ reverence in his voice.
‘Aye, your daughter,’ Bonwick does say to Culby. ‘She has the gifts her mother did possess. She does talk with the beasties, and husbands Mother Earth’s gifts where others trample them as waste.’
“And Culby looks at Bonwick as though he were a spirit long dead and come back to haunt him. ‘And how do ye know of my Lisabetta?’ Culby asks in a voice as brittle as the shedding bark of old Plain trees.
And Bonwick, he tips back his hood and smiles a sad smile, and tells the farmer, ‘She was my sister. ’
“And so!” She clapped her hands so hard that her audience jumped as one. “Auld Culby thinks his future is secured, for not only does his Azurene have the power to make him a man of fortune, he now has a brother who can do the same.
“But Bonwick knows Culby’s mind. ‘Ye shallna use the gifts of the Mother for thy own greed,” he says. “ ‘Twas why Lisabetta ne’er told ye her secrets. ’
“But Bonwick’s wisdom fell on Culby as words on a deaf man’s ears, for within a year, travelers did seek out Culby’s dwelling to beg Azurene to heal their children, and speak with their bulls, and lay her hands on them thinkin’ to bring them luck.”
Kate inhaled a long breath, drawing it out until she felt all of her people’s gazes bore into her. “Aye, and Culby did have his daughter do these thing… for a price.”
The kitchen folk grumbled. The Countess Drucilla leaned into the stair wall, wide-eyed at the malevolent echo that filled the shadowy basement kitchen. Yet pride filled her features, surely at the good hearts of her people.
“Aye.” Kate nodded. “For pieces of silver and gold Culby sold his daughter’s gifts and made of her a slave, and when Bonwick couldna change the farmer’s mind?” She shook her head sadly. “Tsk-tsk.”
“What?!—What did happen?!” young Ian shouted as he scrambled to his knees.
“Ah. Filled with woe, Bonwick betook himself into his weald of cedar.”
“And what did happen then?” Marcus hugged Ian to him.
Kate gazed beyond her audience, knowing it would unsettle them. “Why then, when Culby had silver enough for to live a life of comfort, anger came upon him, for he did realize his life would yet be empty, for his Lisabetta was not here to share in his fortune. And more greed came upon him, and when a knight in service to a cruel noble did offer Culby a bag of gold to betroth Azurene to his lord… ” She knotted her brows, leaving her listeners to wonder was it in anger or in pain. “He did give his consent.”
The cries of “Nay!” and “Fie!” and “Wicked man!” filled the enormous kitchen with its high ceilings and stone arches atop massive columns with as much lethal censure as any Catherine wheel or rack could.
“But Azurene would not go, and the knight who would take her did have her trussed and hobbled like a beast so not to escape him in the night.”
Again, Kate drew in a breath, long and slow enough so that her people fairly wriggled with anticipation.
She lifted her chin. “But she did escape.”
“How?” Every head turned to the sound. Countess Drucilla flushed scarlet.
Kate forced herself to be still until all stares returned to her, and resumed, her voice so soft that those in the back knelt up and leaned over their neighbors’ shoulders to hear. She liked the device, it brought her people closer, transferring their emotions from one to another.
“While she lay on the fragrant forest floor in the night, wrapped in her tattered brown cape, she called the beasties to her. Wee mice came and chewed through her bonds, while insects sang soft evensongs to keep the knight a’noddin’.
“And morn’ found her in her Uncle Bonwick’s woods.
‘Child, what ails thee?’ Bonwick asked her as she did stumble to his cave.
“’Uncle! Prithee. Help me, thy sister’s child!’ Azurene did fall to her knees and whimper and wail. ‘For a sack of gold my father has given me in marriage to a man I do not love. ’
‘Such a thing is woman’s lot,’ he countered sadly.
‘But this man does wed me only for the use of my gifts!’ Azurene cried, and did fall in a heap at Bonwick’s feet.
Now, Bonwick does grow angry. ‘Do you say your father did pander your gifts and that the price for lifelong use of the Mother’s generosity is one wretched sack of gold?!’
‘Aye!’ Azurene staggered to her feet. ‘Hark ye! The hounds! They search for me!’
‘Aye,’ her uncle Bonwick does say. ‘And woe is’t unto me, for if I hadna spoke thy mother’s secrets to Culby, ye would yet be safe at home. But so glad of heart was I to see my sister’s child,’ said he, weeping, ‘that I did betray the Mother and the Father. ’
“Now, the hounds’ were a’bayin’ the louder. And, ‘Uncle! Save me!’ Azurene did cry.
“Bonwick cried out also. ‘I will save thee and protect thee for all time. And your father shall learn a hard lesson, that the Mother’s gifts must be treasured and protected, not pandered and sold for a sack of gold coin!’
“And with that, Bonwick did raise his fist and strike his stave upon his ring and utter his magic. And golden lightning flashed, and thunder roared, and the winds whipped up and blew Azurene’s tattered cape o’er her head.”
Kate only took a moment to moisten her lips, but Ian and Marcus both cried, “Mistress! What did happen then?!”
She leaned forward in her chair. “As the knight did appear upon the crest of the hill, he did behold a bolt of lightning strike the slender Azurene. It froze her brown cape to her body, its tattered edges a’droopin’ from the top like tears.”
Kate’s arm shot out. “Another strike!”
Her audience gasped.
“And what is impossible did happen. The cape grew tall, its girth grew wide as Azurene did become a mighty tree. The tatters did sprout and swoll into thick, sturdy limbs that stretched high and far, tall and proud, but did bend ‘neath the weight of all her branches, until they swept the forest floor.
‘Mother! I am thy servant!’ Bonwick he bellowed into the angry wind. A thunderbolt clapped so loud that the earth ‘neath him did groan and split wide and Bonwick did fall into the cleaving. Azurene’s branches swept his cape o’er him, and Bonwick did sink into Mother Earth’s bosom.
“Now, the poor knight did think the grisly thing ended, but one more rumble of thunder did cause the ground at his feet to shudder, and a legion of lightnin’ bolts did mark the place beyond which the Mother wished no one e’er to pass. And the knight did watch, fearful and quaking, as the whole of the wood did sink down into a vale so deep that the Mother’s breath—”
Drucilla’s veil fluttered as her elbow nudged Enid. “What’s that?”
“Fog!” the startled maid said loudly.
Kate shot a withering glance at the two, then took stock of her audience. Their concentration had not been disturbed. She exhaled her relief silently. “So that the Mother’s breath, then, rose to keep safe the willow, Azurene, from common sight. And so, ‘twas ended.”
Everyone heaved a contented sigh.
Everyone except the Countess Drucilla. “Welladay, there is no fair end here,” she insisted as she wiped tears from her face and climbed to her feet. “What of Culby and his gold?”
Most everyone was polite and remained silent. The miller’s boys, however, laughed out loud, and a few others, who knew the countess couldn’t see their faces, chuckled, though they squelched their laughter as she swept past them.
Kate glowered them into silence. After all, she was responsible for their behavior.
“You see, m’lady,” she said, “certainly the knight couldna return to his lord wi’ neither gold nor woman, and so he would return to Culby’s farm and take back his sack of gold.”
The young countess nodded earnestly.
“Also, as talley sticks are oft’ reckoned, the knight would have ta’en from Culby all his silver as his cost for renouncin’ the settled bargain. And without the aid of Azurene or Bonwick, auld Culby’s lot would be what it was a’ the beginnin’. A fair and fittin’ end, I am certain ye would agree.”
The young Countess thought a moment, then smiled. At first, it was shy, but by and by it lit her face, until her limpid gray eyes froze, keen as an eagle’s a’hunting high in the sky.
“Aye. I do agree, Mistress Kate, and thank you for your patience.” She pushed her veil aside with long, graceful fingers.
It was all Kate could do not to gasp, for on Lady Drucilla’s thumb sat an enormous amber ring, carved to mimic a sunburst.
The Lady Drucilla’s mouth curled up, her expression at once ageless and knowing. “May the day bring you joy,” she said softly, and spun on her heel to go.