The Raven’s Wing, Chapters 1 and 2
1: As I lay upon a nyght for soth y sawe a semely sight
Dark of hair she was, and dark of eye, her gaze the depth of a star-spattered night. She peered up at John from beneath lowered brows, and crawled up his body. Her full breasts brushed his thighs, teasing upwards as she moved her weight from arm to arm, advancing along his supine nakedness.
Her gaze never left his as she slowed her advance. John was unable to move. He was held captive, shackled by her glittering eyes as a moth beguiled by the moon. The woman swayed leisurely from side to side, nudging his swelling tarse to follow her rhythm.
“Warm my womb, man,” the woman whispered, looking directly into his soul. Glory be to God, but she was beautiful.
No, no, this was wrong. This was not who he was. He was music, he was laughter. He was song, not lust. He knew no woman like this. Who was she, this predatory, arousing female? He … he was married. He was wed to Wynifreed. This voluptuous beauty was not his Wyni. Wyni was his little sparrow, skinny and bony, a result of growing up during the Great Famine. She had small, boyish breasts and thin, short brown hair.
The woman atop him, oh, this woman was endowed with a roundness that John had rarely seen. The full curve of her buttocks rose behind her. The dance of her breasts bestowed life to his tarse, lifting it from its resting place.
And her hair. Her hair was a deep blue-black, the colour of a raven’s feather, draped like a velvet curtain about her slightly amused expression, a stray lock only enhancing her beauty. The woman’s midnight-blue eyes sparkled. She began to move back and forth, bringing him to full alertness. John whimpered and watched her slow, erotic movements. Wyni had never moved like this.
Had never? Wait, there was something he was forgetting. Something important. Something about Wyni. What was it now? He tried to think. Where was he? He could not focus, his eyes held captive by those of the woman above him. The margin of his vision showed him the branches of a huge tree, spreading above them, and beyond it a dark purple sky paling to violet. This was definitely not his small house with its thatched roof, not his little toft. Not the place where he had fallen asleep.
The strange female crept further up his body, still locking his gaze with her bewitching deep-blue eyes. She lowered her head to drag her tongue slowly across his chest. His tarse twitched. He felt an urgency deep within. He watched enraptured as great dark wings unfolded behind her, black feathers stretching and curling around him, like a cocoon.
Her tempting mouth neared his, but she raised her head tantalisingly away from his hungry lips. He could almost taste the fennel on her breath. She stretched her nakedness along his body, thigh to thigh, belly to belly, chest to chest. Her voluptuous hips rotated against his overexcited groin and she bent her lovely mouth to his ear. She licked it wetly and warmly.
“Follow the night-raven. Be my champion. Find me,” she whispered, and vanished.
2: Of al this world ne give ich it a pesë
John cried out as he woke. “Clotpole!” he cursed. “You’ve been eating too much lettuce, John.”
He looked about him, bleary-eyed. Dimly he could make out a low roof, lime-washed walls, and the embers of last night’s fire. He was in his own house, stretched out on a pallet on the floor.
A chill breeze wriggled through the narrow shuttered windows. It was colder than moonlight. What had possessed him to throw off his blankets on a winter night? That dream had seemed so real. He looked down at his disappearing erection, rolled from the pallet and grabbed a handful of rough wool to wipe the stickiness away.
Shivering, he stepped over Ailred’s sleeping bulk, opened the door and looked out. The pre-dawn sky was a dull peach colour in the east, but overhead the stars still flickered. He reached down and took a faggot from the pile by the threshhold. Back inside he dropped the wood on the remains of last night’s fire and fanned the glow. When he was sure the flame was established, he dragged his rough mattress closer to the warmth and lay back down, pulling the blankets around him.
Ailred muttered in his sleep before settling into a deep, harmonious snore. It would take a lot to wake him after last night’s excesses. By God, the man could drink.
John stared at the curling flames as they grew, warming the chill room and the backs of his companions. They had made a fine wake, dancing and singing until the small hours, recounting tales of Wyni’s joyful laughter, her love of life and nature. She would have enjoyed last night immensely, had she been present in more than just body.
An image of the woman from his dream appeared in the dancing fire and shame pricked his mind. He screwed up his eyes, as if the physical action might itself banish the guilt. It refused to budge. He had betrayed Wyni. Betrayed her in the worst way a man could, in his dreams. How could he have imagined swiving another woman on the eve of his wife’s funeral?
He thought of Wyni, her infectious laugh lost to him now. He remembered how beautiful she had looked the day they had wed, a circlet of daisies about her brown head, her smile dazzling in the sunshine. When she had revealed her slim figure to him that night, he had thought he had never seen anything so beautiful.
A curve of the flame around the wood pulled his thoughts back to the woman in his dream, and the way she had moved her full breasts against him. He let out a whistle of delight at the memory.
“What?” piped a voice from the far side of the fire, beyond the snoring Ailred.
“Sorry, nothing,” John said, quietly. “Return to sleep, Ralf.”
“Tempting, but I’m about to burst. I need a piss.”
“Well, don’t do it on Wyni’s peonies like last time. Use the privy, you filthy sod.”
“Nag, nag, nag,” countered Ralf, rising to his feet with a wobble. “You should put your privy nearer the door if you don’t want pissy flowers.”
Ralf, a tall man with a shock of red hair, was still fully dressed from the night before. He stretched his long legs over Ailred’s bulk, and went outside. Moments later, John heard a stream of liquid hitting the cobbles just outside the window.
“Oi!” he shouted, “Away from the house too, you pisspot!” He was rewarded with laughter from outside.
“Hens!” shouted Ailred, waking suddenly. He sat up and looked around with a startled expression, resembling a bewildered owl in the orange light thrown up by the now merrily burning fire. Smoke swirled into the blackness of the roof.
Ailred scratched his black beard, dislodging a small bone, which he inspected closely. He descended into a fit of deep coughing. Eventually he achieved some sort of resolution with his lungs and spat copiously in the fire, which hissed a complaint. He threw the bone into the flames.
“What hour?” rumbled the burly smith, “Is the house awake?”
“Almost dawn,” replied John, “We have no hurry. We can spend most of Prime preparing ourselves before the procession.”
“Good. God’s teeth, my back aches. I’m glad Wyni was but a slight figure, for I doubt that I’m up to much carrying today. I blame that ridiculous dance with … what’s her name? The scary widow; the big one with odd teeth who laid Wyni out? She never shuts up.”
“Rohesia,” John answered, and a smirk appeared on his lips. “You know she’s looking for another husband, don’t you? A smith, probably.”
“Bugger off,” grated the big man. “That’s a disturbing thought. I’d better make shift before I dwell too much on those possibilities.”
“Yes, move your fat arse,” declared Ralf, striding back inside and aiming a kick at his friend’s backside. “Coming on to rain, John.”
“Balls,” cursed John. Just what they needed, a muddy road and a slippery bier to carry. Still, there was nothing that could be done about the weather. He took a deep breath against the cold and threw off his blankets again. He stood and stretched in the dawning light.
“Oh, may it please both God and all his angels, cover yourself up, man,” complained Ralf. “The last thing I want to see of a morning is your withered acorn.”
John threw on his clothes. He poured himself a mug of water to rinse out his mouth, spitting out of the window. He chewed a few dried herbs from a small bowl on the table.
“Wake the good baker,” he told the others, and picked up his gittern. He plucked experimentally at the strings, pleased that it had held its tuning through the cold night. While Ralf and Ailred merrily flicked water and small twigs at the yet slumbering fourth member of their vigil, John tried to think of a respectful rhyme for ‘Wyni’.
His wife’s soul would be in purgatory now, paying for the few sins she had committed in her life — and they were few indeed. She had been a loving, kind woman whom John had, although never consumed by the fires of great passion, loved and cared for deeply. A good song in her praise would help her neighbours and friends remember to pray for her through the month’s mind, and speed her passage through the torment of Purgatory and into heaven.
‘Skinny’? No, no, he must put his jester hat to one side for this song. He needed to be a true minstrel. Destiny, perhaps? Yes, yes, that might work.
“My good lady Wyni,” he tried, “Like the goddess Athene. Was … erm, was took by destiny … bollocks, that’s not good.”
As John worked on his song, the other vigilants prepared themselves for the funeral. Ralf and Ailred finally succeeded in waking Pentecost, the village baker, a lithe man who obviously did not overeat on the loaves and buns that were his living. He had said “I prefer greatly to sell bread than to eat it. Rather give me honey from the comb any day.”
“Did Wyni like horses?” asked Ralf, rummaging about on the floor for his shoes.
“Not particularly,” answered John, “Why?”
“Whinny,” explained the tall gongfermour. “My good lady Wyni. Like a horse she would whinny. Perfect rhyme.”
“Be still, gabbler. Your wit has as much joy and delight as your work.”
“Someone has to shift all the shit,” said Ralf. He yawned. “Lest my lord happen to see any when he graces us with one of his rare visits. Speaking of which, are you working tonight?”
“Not as far as I know, thanks to God. I don’t imagine I’ll feel very entertaining after the funeral.”
A deep bell rang once a short distance away.
“St. Giles calls for us, my worthies!” bellowed Ailred, handing John a black cloth. “It’ll piss down, I expect.”
John put down his instrument and tied the cloth around his left arm. He and his three companions squeezed through to the small back room. There in the gloom lay Wyni’s corpse, wrapped in a winding sheet and resting on the parish bier. The men positioned themselves at the four corners.
“Ready?” asked John. His companions nodded. They lifted the bier and manoeuvred it slowly outside, each gripping a handle at the corner of the stretcher.
A chill drizzle hit John’s face as he emerged into the pale light of the now grey morning. Perfect. It matched his darkening mood. While Wyni had rested in the bedroom at home, he had felt comparatively level-headed, but now that her corpse had begun its journey to interment, a hollow sense of permanent loss and sorrow stirred inside him.
The four men left John’s toft and carried their burden along the sodden lane towards the church of St. Giles. The dismal weather worsened, along with John’s mood. The bell of St. Giles sounded again, a single low, lingering lament.
As they picked their way carefully along the muddy, rutted track, the sexton, a bald little man named Pons, hurried towards them from the direction of the church. As he neared he shrugged an apology at John and shook his head. He had been unable to find the parish hand-bell, which would normally be used to preceed the funeral procession. The church bell alone would have to suffice to protect Wyni’s soul from any hungry demons lurking in the murky air.
Pons would be in trouble for losing the bell, not only with Father Ilbert, but also, if it was not found, with the manor lord himself, Baron de Leycester. No wonder the sexton looked worried as he took his place at the head of their little procession. Without a bell to ring he looked a bit lost, like a dog without its master.
To John’s right Ralf raised his russet hood with his free hand as the drizzle strengthened into full rain, soaking through their clothing. As the water dripped from the end of John’s nose, he examined his turbulent feelings about his wife’s murder. They kept changing, veering wildly between distraught acceptance and violent anger.
He had been horrified at the vicious act that had ended her life, but was sanguine about the fact that she was dead. Death was a normal part of life, reached by all. Wyni had lived longer on the Lord’s earth than many others, and had enjoyed her time here. He hoped she would not linger long in Purgatory, God have mercy, for she had been a good woman.
Well, mostly. She had giggled in church that one time during the service, interrupting Father Ilbert in his solemn reading. That had been John’s fault, though, for farting copiously after too much cabbage soup the previous night. Perhaps God would realise that.
John smiled at the memory, and was thankful he was leading the procession so none could see his inappropriate mirth. Wyni’s giggle had been infectious, and they had both been stifling helpless laughter by the end of the service. That night they had made happy love, the last time their bodies had come together.
Three days later, on Easter Sunday, Wyni’s corpse was found half-naked in a ditch. She had been visiting her cousin, who was with child, over at Wutton. When she did not return home by dusk, John had barely worried, imagining perhaps she had decided to stay away an extra night. Later he had discovered that according to the cousin, however, Wyni had set off for the three mile journey home at mid-day. The following day, the priest had knocked at his door. Somehow he had known immediately that his wife was lost to him. Priests do not routinely visit the houses of minstrels, particularly not priests as strait-laced as Father Ilbert.
The father had sat him down, and told him that a tinker had run into the church the previous night, breathless and shaken. The tinker had seen demons emerging from a ditch a mile outside Dichforda. After they had vanished into the trees he had investigated and discovered Wyni’s body in the ditch. Father Ilbert had been reluctant to give further details, and John had had no desire to hear them.
Behind the four men, villagers emerged from their houses and followed, maintaining a respectful silence. Many wore black cloths around their arm, while a few wore full mourning — a simple black dress, or a black cloak with a white lining. John was pleased to see Wyni would receive the prayers of some of the more well-to-do villagers. Both men and women wore hats or drew up their hoods against the weather. All were sodden in seconds as the rain became a teeming downpour. The water danced on the boggy lane, making the surface a swamp of dirt. It soaked the winding sheet tightly-wrapped around Wyni’s body, and it battered against the cloth that now clung to her face as if the veil of anonymity had already fallen.
After Father Ilbert had left him, John had stared blankly at the ground for a long time, trying, but failing, to cry. Then anger had grown out of grief and he had cursed and roared. He had sworn bloody revenge against those who had taken Wyni’s life, demons or not, although he had no idea as to how he might achieve that. He was powerless, a state which filled him with guilt. His eyes pricked and his heart howled inside, but still no tears would come. His emotions continued to be all of a muddle. He sniffed loudly. Ralf, alongside him at the front of the bier, gave a sideways glance.
“Steady, John,” his friend said quietly. Perhaps Ralf had mistaken the rain on his cheeks for tears. “Your wife will be smiling in the sunshine of Paradise now.”
“You are right, thank you. Wyni’s remains are not Wyni,” John said. By God, but his moods had been swinging wildly these last two days. Fury gave way to grief, to horror, and then just as quickly to acceptance and, occasionally, laughter at a happy memory. Father Ilbert said this was a good thing — that grief alone might imply a lack of faith in the deceased’s salvation. After all, Wyni was now on her journey to bathe in the wonder of God’s light, and who would doubt the wonder of that? John would rather her portal to heaven had been more easily opened, however.
The four friends splashed through noisome mud now, their boots disturbing filth, sticks, rotting leaves, small bones; all the detritus of village life. Hens, feathers spraying panicked droplets, clattered away from their feet as they plodded along. Just a few more yards and they would be at the church.
John tried to remember Wyni’s last words to him. He could remember her penultimate words clearly and perfectly: ‘Practice while I am gone, John! You do not want to disappoint with your performance!’ Always with the nagging, always wanting him to get in the baron’s good books, starting with his reeve in this village. Yes, the baron already had a minstrel in his retinue, a Frenchman named Jaufre, but there was always room for more; to cover for sickness, or to play at minor events the baron himself did not attend.
Wyni had grown tired of her husband’s long absences, as he travelled miles from fair to market to fair, all for the sake of a few shillings. His travelling would lessen greatly if he could only be accepted into the baron’s service. Wyni had helped his music a lot, with her pushing and prompting and (admit it, John) her help with setting the songs. Now she had wanted to help his career, too.
Try as he might, he could not recall her very last words. It had been a form of farewell as she left for Wutton, basket in hand, but as to the exact words? They were a mystery to him now.
He flicked his head to throw rain from his brow, and passed his free hand across his head to squeeze the water out of his thick blond hair. The bier wobbled as behind him one of the following two slipped on the slimy ordure beneath their feet before righting himself. They would have to clean their feet well once they reached the church porch. John hoped that Father Ilbert had made plenty of cloths ready for the task.
The procession turned right and entered the churchyard gate, a simple gap in the low stone wall that surrounded church land. The rain slashed into their faces. They walked on cobbles now, laid last year to provide the church with a proper path. The cobbles took them between the graves of the wealthy dead, mostly high officials who had paid the church good money for a prime position near the gate. The highest of the high, of course, would be in the church itself. John read one of the markers as they passed:
Here lieth under this grave Riche Alan, a bald man; God give his soul peace.
Such an exalted position did not await Wyni’s remains. She was just a minstrel’s wife, and John had little money with which to pay for such a plot. No, Wyni would be buried in the communal area of the churchyard, around the back. At least she would lay in consecrated ground, and as memories of her faded, so her body would decay into the earth, becoming part of the collection of Christian souls that lay there. Or rather, John corrected himself, the Christian bodies that lay there. The souls of the dead would be on their way to heaven, via the torments of Purgatory.
Father Ilbert awaited them, dry in the cover of the porch. He was wearing his ceremonial cope, and he was frowning. The procession paused in the small church entrance. John bowed his head, and smiled, but the priest’s stern expression did not waver.
“Gramercy for this, Father,” John said, “I know it was not an easy decision for you.” He cast his mind back to their meeting of the previous day, when the Father had called to discuss the arrangements for the funeral.
“John, you must know I respected your wife. She was a strength to the church, and her assistance with the cleaning and the flowers will be rewarded in Heaven. However. …” Father Ilbert had paused and looked uncomfortably at his feet.
“What?” John had asked. “However what?”
The priest had sighed. “However,” he had continued, “I cannot allow Wyni’s remains to enter the church itself. You will have to take her directly to the grave.”
“What? Why in the Lord’s name not?”
“In the Lord’s name indeed — and due to the manner of her ending. I am sorry about this, but—”
“Are you serious? I apologise, Father, but you cannot deny my Wyni — my good Wyni who was always respectful of God’s law — you cannot deny her the assistance of God’s grace through Purgatory.”
“No, you listen,” John had spat, his voice rising. “She helped you, she worked hard for the good of the church. You will NOT deny her this!”
“The body of a person who has died violently cannot be borne into the church lest the pavement become polluted with blood!” Father Ilbert had said. John had jumped to his feet.
“I care not a fart of my arse for your pavement. You ought rather to concern yourself with Wyni. How often has she helped you in the church? She assisted you for years; now it is your turn to assist her on her final journey.”
John had collapsed back onto his chair, all his strength gone.
“You have to,” John had said, dropping his head to his hands. Father Ilbert had rested a consoling hand on his shoulder.
“Be still, John,” the priest said, more calmly. “Perhaps I was a little hot-headed. Perhaps you have a point about your wife’s devotion to God’s house. Perhaps … perhaps I can make an exception for Wyni, in view of all the time she gave to God.”
“Please,” John pleaded, peering through his tears at the priest. Father Ilbert had sighed deeply, and leaned back in his chair.
“Do you have any ale?” he had asked, surprisingly.
“Then for the Lord’s sake, give me ale and Wyni can lie in the nave overnight. Do not expect me to be cheerful about it, however.” A wave of relief had washed over John, and he had shared a bowl of ale with the priest.
He dragged his mind back to the present. John, Ralf, Ailred and Pentecost wiped their feet on the rushes laid down on the porch floor. Father Ilbert gestured for them to follow, and they bore their burden a few yards into the narrow body of the church itself, and along towards the chancel. They laid it down on its short feet beside the hearse, the metal framework which would be set over the body. The bearers stretched the ache out of their arms. Rainwater dripped from the bier onto the church floor. John looked nervously, but thankfully the drops of water remained clear, and did not ‘pollute the pavement’.
The hearse was covered with the Parish pall, a black and gold hearse-cloth made of Italian velvet, donated by a widow from one of the few rich houses at the upper end of the village. On it, picked out in gold thread, were the words ‘Orate pro animabus Henrici Chester et Aliciae uxoris eius’ — ‘Pray for the souls of Henry Chester and his wife Alice.’ With such a gift the widow Alice ensured that her late husband — and eventually herself — would benefit from the prayers of everyone in the parish, at every funeral held there.
Even though it was dark inside the church on this gloomy day, once all the mourners had filed in, enough daylight managed to struggle through the open doors and the tiny windows that Father Ilbert decided to forego lighting expensive candles. The villagers mostly sat in the pews, though a few remained on their feet, nodding at John as they filed in. A few reached out to him, and gave a soft word of condolence. The widow Rohesia gave Ailred a sly wink as she passed. The smith’s mouth tensed.
John and his friends stood by the bier. Father Ilbert sprinkled the body with blessed water and incense, and commenced a short welcoming speech of his own devising. He had found that his flock the better observed proper rituals if first they were bound to the services by a few personalised words about the deceased.
“The proper liturgies will of course be observed later,” he declaimed, “but may it please you first to pray for the soul of our departed Wynifreed. Remember her and ease her suffering. She was known to us all here, and friend we called her. She cleaned and decorated our church. She made many of the clothes now you wear. The village is the poorer for her departure into the next world. Glory be to God.”
“Thank you,” John mouthed to the priest.
“The Office of the Dead will commence this day at evensong, and Wynifreed’s earthly remains will be interred after the Dirige tomorrow morning. Let those now present observe stillness for a short time, while we consider the departed and pray for her soul.”
Silence fell in the dimly-lit church, save for the hiss of rain lashing down outside. Many heads were bowed, but John looked about him. He would spend much of his life thinking of his wife, and it would not hurt to examine his surroundings so he could retain this moment as more than a fragment of memory. Deep shadows were cast between the dull illumination allowed by the tiny windows.
The respectful silence was disturbed as a voice skimmed the quiet calm. A woman’s voice, singing sweetly a song that John realised he knew.
When my eyes grow dim
And my ears hiss
And my nose gets cold
And my speech fails
Heads lifted and looked to the doorway, from where the song drifted. No-one was visible, just the grey rain pounding down on the churchyard outside; hard, squally showers drifted erratically across the entrance. The voice continued, lilting and pure.
And my face goes slack
And my lips turn black
And my mouth grins
And my spittle runs
Father Ilbert’s face twisted from shock into an expression of outrage. He took a stride forward and raised his voice.
“Break not God’s silence! You cannot—”
The unseen singer took not a jot of notice. The rain eased a little.
And my hair rises
And my heart trembles
And my hands shake
And my feet stiffen
The priest clenched his fists and made to march toward the door. John held up a hand to stay him. The rain lessened further to a light drizzle, shimmering now as the sun emerged. The doorway took on an ethereal quality, the dark, brooding skies now a backdrop to a beautiful, glowing mist drifting across the entrance.
All too late, all too late
When the bier is at the gate
“Aaaah!” Rohesia screeched loudly, shattering the calm of the gentle song. All eyes turned to the widow. She pointed, wild-eyed, at Wyni’s body, wrapped tightly in its soggy winding sheet. Nascent sunlight streamed in through the lancet window and lit up the bier and Wyni’s body. A dark stain had appeared at the throat. As John watched horrified, the mark spread, seeping into the linen and spreading slowly, a deep scarlet oozing from the body into the sheet that wrapped it.
A gasp escaped more than one villager as a second stain appeared between Wyni’s legs and began to grow, bleeding into the cloth. The song continued uninterrupted, though at a raised tempo, echoing hauntingly around the old church.
Then I must pass
From bed to flora
From flora to shroud
From shroud to bier
From bier to grave
And the grave will close
John whipped his gaze back to the doorway, startled to now see a figure, hooded and cloaked, silhouetted against the otherworldly glow. Mist-diffused sunlight shone around the form, seeming almost to emanate from it. The figure lifted its cloak away from its body, so it looked for all the world like wings being readied for flight.
“An angel!” whispered Rohesia, crossing herself.
Almost without thinking, John found his lips moving, his clear voice joining in harmony with the dying lines of the song.
All too late, all too late
And then my house shall rest upon my nose
I care not a piss for this world