The Midsummer Fair
They say that if you suddenly wake with a shudder, a ghost has walked over your grave. I woke with a shudder on that Midsummer's Day. And although I had no way of foreseeing the evil that day would bring to all of us, it was as if in that waking moment, I felt the chill of it, glimpsed the shadow of it, as if something malevolent was hovering just out of sight.
It was dark when I woke, that blackest of hours before dawn when the candles have burnt out and the first rays of sun have not yet pierced the chinks in the shutters. But it wasn't the hour's coldness that made me shiver. We were packed into the sleeping barn too snugly for anyone to feel a draft.
Every bed and every inch of floor was occupied by those who had poured into Kilmington for the Midsummer Fair. The air was fetid with sweat and the belches, farts and stinks of stomachs made sour by too much ale. Men and women grunted and snored on the creaking boards, groaning, as here and there a restless sleeper, in the grip of a bad dream, elbowed his neighbour in the ribs.
I seldom dream, but that night I had dreamt and the dream was still with me when I woke. I had dreamt of the bleak lowland hills they call the Cheviots, where England and Scotland crouch, battle ready, staring each other down. I saw those hills as plainly as if I had been standing there, the rounded peaks and turbulent streams, the wild goats and the _wind-_tossed rooks, the Pele towers and the squat Bastle farmhouses. I knew them well. I had known that place from the day I first drew breath; it was the place I had once called home.
I had not dreamt of it for many years. I had never returned to it. I could never return. I knew that much on the day I walked away from it. And through all the years I have tried to put it from my mind and, mostly, I have succeeded. There's no point in hankering for a place you cannot be. Anyway, what is home? The place where you were born? The place where you are still remembered? The memory of me will have long since rotted to dust. And even if there were any left alive who still remember, they would never forgive me, could never absolve me for what I have done. And on that Midsummer's Day, when I dreamt of those hills, I was about as far from home as it is possible to be.
I've travelled for many years, so many that I have long since ceased to count them. Besides, it's of no consequence. The sun rises in the east and sinks in the west and we told ourselves it always would. I should have known better than to believe that. I am, after all, a camelot, a peddler, a hawker of hopes and crossed fingers, of piecrust promises and gilded stories. And believe me, there are plenty who will buy such things. I sell faith in a bottle: the water of the Jordan drawn from the very spot where the Dove descended, the bones of the innocents slaughtered in Bethlehem, and the shards of the lamps carried by the wise virgins. I offer skeins of Mary Magdalene's hair, redder than a young boy's blushes, and the white milk of the Virgin Mary in tiny ampoules no plumper than her nipples. I show them blackened fingers of Saint Joseph, palm leaves from the Promised Land, and hair from the very ass that bore our blessed Lord into Jerusalem. And they believe me, they believe it all, for haven't I the scar to prove I've been all the way to the Holy Land to fight the heathen for these scraps?
You can't avoid my scar, purple and puckered as a hag's arsehole, spreading my nose half across my cheek. They sewed up the hole where my eye should have been and over the years the lid has shrunk and shrivelled into the socket, like the skin on a cold milk pudding. But I don't attempt to hide my face, for what better provenance can you want, what greater proof that every bone I sell is genuine, that every drop of blood splashed down upon the very stones of the Holy City itself? And I can tell them such stories-how I severed a Saracen's hand to wrest the strips of our Lord's swaddling clothes from his profaning grasp; how I had to slaughter five, nay a dozen, men, just to dip my flask into the Jordan. I charge extra for the stories, of course. I always charge.
We all have to make a living in this world and there are as many ways of getting by in this life as there are people in it. Compared to some, my trade might be considered respectable and it does no harm. You might say it even does good, for I sell hope and that's the most precious treasure of them all. Hope may be an illusion, but it's what keeps you from jumping in the river or swallowing hemlock. Hope is a beautiful lie and it requires talent to create it for others. And back then on that day when they say it first began, I truly believed that the creation of hope was the greatest of all the arts, the noblest of all the lies. I was wrong.
That day was counted a day of ill fortune by those who believe in such things. They like to have a day to fix it on, as if death can have an hour of birth, or destruction a moment of conception. So they pinned it upon Midsummer's Day 1348, a date that everyone can remember. That was the day on which humans and beasts alike became the wager in a divine game. That was the cusp upon which the scales of Heaven and Hell swung free.
That particular Midsummer's Day was born shivering and sickly, wrapped in a dense mist of fine rain. Ghosts of cottages, trees, and byres hovered in the frail light, as if at cockcrow they'd vanish. But the cock did not crow. It did not hail that dawn. The birds were mute. All who met as they hurried to milking and tending of livestock called out cheerfully that the rain would not last long and then it would be as fine a Midsummer's Day as any yet seen, but you could see they were not convinced. The absence of the birds unnerved them. They knew that silence was a bad omen on this day of all days, though none dared say so.
But, as they predicted, the drizzle did finally dry up. A sliver of sun shone fitfully between the heavy clouds. It had no warmth in it, but the villagers of Kilmington were not to be downcast by that small matter. Waves of laughter rolled across the Green. Bad omen or not, this was their holiday and even in the teeth of a gale they would have sworn they were enjoying themselves. Outlanders had poured in from neighbouring villages to sell and to buy, barter and haggle, settle old quarrels and start new ones. There were servants looking for masters, girls looking for husbands, widowers looking for good strong wives, and thieves looking for any purse they could cut.
Beside the pond, a gutted pig turned on a great spit and the smoke of sweet roasting meat hung in the damp air, making the mouth water. A small _red-_haired boy cranked the spit slowly, kicking at the dogs that jumped and snapped at the carcass, but the poor brutes were driven to near frenzy by the smell and not even the spitting fire or the blows from a stout staff deterred them. The villagers cut juicy chunks from the sizzling loins, tearing at them with their teeth and licking the fat from greasy fingers. Even those whose teeth were long worn down to blackened stumps sucked greedily at wedges of fat and _pork-_crackling as the juices ran down their chins. Such a rare extravagance of fresh meat was to be savoured down to the last succulent bone.
Gangs of barefoot boys tore through the gossiping adults, hoping to distract the _scarlet-_clad jugglers and bring their clubs crashing to the ground. Lads and lasses made free, oblivious of the damp grass and the disapproving scowls of priest and clerk. Peddlers bellowed their wares. Minstrels played upon fife and drum, and youngsters shouted loud enough to wake the demons in hell. It was the same every year. All made the most of their fair, for there was precious little else to make merry with for the rest of the year.
But even in the jostling, noisy crowd you could not fail to notice the child. It was her hair, not blond but pure white, a _silk-_fine tumble of it like an old man's beard run wild, and beneath the snowcap of her hair, a face, paler than a nun's thighs, white eyebrows, white lashes framing eyes translucent as a dawn sky. The fragile skin of her bony limbs glowed ice blue against the _nut-_brown hides of the other market brats. But it wasn't just the absence of colour in her that drew my attention; it was the _beating.
Nothing unusual in a child getting a thrashing; I'd probably seen half a dozen already that day, a switch across bare legs for a carelessly dropped basket of eggs, a tanned backside for running off without leave, a cuff about the ear for no good reason except that the brat was in the way. All of the young sinners trying to dodge the blows and yelp loudly enough to satisfy the chastisers that the punishment had been fully appreciated; all, that is, except her. She neither yelped nor struggled, but was as silent as if the blows to her back were inflicted with a feather instead of a belt, and this only seemed to infuriate the beater more. I thought he'd whip her senseless, but finally, defeated, he let her go. She stumbled a few yards away from him, unsteady, but with her chin held high, though her legs almost gave way beneath her. Then she turned her head and looked at me as if she sensed me watching. Her pale blue eyes were as dry and clear as a summer's day, and around her mouth was the merest shadow of a smile.
The beater was not the only one who'd been enraged by her silence. A fat beringed merchant was shaking his fist at the man, demanding recompense, purple in the face with rage. I couldn't hear what passed between them for the shouts and chatter of the small crowd that had gathered around them, but at last some deal seemed to be struck and the merchant allowed himself to be led off in the direction of the tavern, with the onlookers bringing up the rear. The beater doubtless intended to pacify the outraged merchant with a soporific quantity of strong wine. Clutching the merchant ingratiatingly on the elbow with one hand, he didn't waste the opportunity to cuff the girl one last time with the other as he passed her, a practised blow, delivered without apparently glancing in his victim's direction. The blow sent her sprawling on the ground and wisely, this time, she stayed there until he was safely inside the tavern. Then she crawled into a narrow gap between a tree trunk and the wheels of a wagon and crouched, arms wrapped tight around her knees, staring at me with wide expressionless eyes, like a cat watching from the hearth.
She looked about twelve years old, barefoot and clad in a grubby white woollen shift, with a bloodred band about the neck that made the whiteness of her hair shimmer. She continued to stare, but not at my scar, at my good eye, with an intensity that seemed more imperious than curious. I turned away. Whatever had transpired had nothing to do with me. The girl had been punished for some crime, thieving probably, and doubtless deserved what she got, though she was obviously well hardened to it, since it had had so little effect on her. So there was no reason for me to speak to her.
I pulled a pastry from my scrip, broke it in two and tossed half to her, then hunkered down with my back pressed against the tree trunk to eat my share. I was hungry and it was a quiet spot to eat, now that the crowd had moved on. And I couldn't have eaten and not offered the child a bite, now could I? I gazed out at the bustle of the fair, chewing slowly. The pastry was as dry as the devil's hoof, but the salt mutton inside was sweet enough. The girl was holding her pastry in both fists as if she feared someone might snatch it from her. She said nothing, not even a thank-you.
I took a swig of ale to wash the dry mouthful down. "Do you have a name, girl?"
"Well, Narigorm, if you're going to thieve from his sort you'll need to learn your trade better. You're fortunate he didn't send for the bailiff."
"Wasn't thieving." The words came out muffled from a _well-_stuffed mouth.
I shrugged and glanced sideways at her. She'd finished the pastry already and was licking her fingers with fierce concentration. I wondered when she'd last eaten. Given the man's mood, I doubted he was going to feed her again that day. But I half believed her about the stealing. A girl who stood out so vividly from the crowd was not likely to survive long as a pickpocket, and it occurred to me that with her looks her father or her master, whichever the man was, might well have found a good living renting her out by the hour to men whose taste runs to young virgins. But she'd clearly angered the customer this time. Maybe she'd refused the merchant, or else he'd tried her and discovered he was not the first to come banging on her door. She'd learn ways to conceal that in time. More experienced women would teach her the trick of it, and she'd doubtless earn a good living when she mastered the art. She'd a good few years ahead of her in the trade, more than most I reckoned, for even when the bloom of her youth was gone there would still be plenty who'd pay handsomely for a woman who looked so different from the rest.
"You want me to do it for you now, for the pastry?" Her voice was as cold as her gaze. "We'll have to be quick before Master comes back; he'll not be best pleased if you don't pay in coins."
Her small icy hand tried to insinuate itself into mine. I put it back in her lap, gently but firmly, sad for her that she had already learned not to expect any gifts from life. Not even a crust comes free. Still, the younger you learn that lesson, the fewer disappointments you'll have.
"I'm past such things now, child. Much too old. Besides, it was only a bite of food. Take it and welcome. You're a pretty girl, Narigorm. You don't need to sell yourself so cheaply. Take some advice from an old camelot: The more people pay for something, the more they believe it's worth."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Company of Liars by Karen Maitland. Copyright © 2008 by Karen Maitland. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.