Sybille's Journey: "The Tale of Two Roses," by Meredy Amyx




In this excerpt, 15-year-old Sybille and her 13-year-old brother Arnaud, who is a bit simple-minded, have hitched a ride north on a farmer’s wagon along with several other travelers and pilgrims. The time is autumn 1308, and the place is central France.

     It was Sybille's turn to tell a tale. As the wagon rumbled along the ancient rutted road, she gazed off into the distance, as if the misty green hills at the end of her view were a stage on which she saw the scenes of her invention played out.
     "We have come from the south, from Catalonia," she began, consciously imitating the Catalan accent of her old nursemaid Martina and striving to make it sound more refined than that of a peasant woman. She did not know the speech of the nobles of Aragon and Catalonia, but she felt reasonably sure that her listeners did not either, and so she dressed her words in silks and satins dyed with rich hues, trimmed with fine lace and decked with jewels, pleasing herself with their elegant sound and imagined grace.
     We have come from the south, from Catalonia. Our father was a noble lord who had pledged his oath to the king of Aragon. I cannot tell you his name, for it could mean our lives. My father served the king both valorously in battle and wisely in peacetime, husbanding the lands and their fruits, the flocks and the herds, and adding to the wealth of the kingdom. He commanded a force of men who were sworn to him and served him as one, in loyalty and love.
     One fateful day my father angered the king. This is how it happened.
     My father's castle had a terraced garden in which grew a large number of dazzling native and exotic flowers. Among his many flowering plants and shrubs stood two perfect roses side by side, a white one and a black one, the jewels of his display. By some power they bloomed for a long season and did not fade. They were greatly admired by all who saw them, and some had offered him gold in exchange for these two flawless specimens that even the angels would have coveted. But my father refused to cut them.
     On the Feast of the Virgin, the king and queen of Aragon and all their retinue came to our castle to stay for three days and nights and enjoy one great banquet after another. My father had their chambers prepared with bouquets of wonderful roses of all colors from his magnificent garden.
     On the second day our royal guests asked to see my father's garden. "The fame of your beautiful flowers has reached our ears," said King Jaime. So my father obeyed. Queen Blanca was enchanted with the two spectacular roses, and especially the pure white one, for it echoed her name. A great fancier of roses herself, Queen Blanca allowed my father to understand that if he did himself the honor of offering these beauties to Her Majesty, she would condescend to accept them. With her imperious look she reminded him that her royal favor was not to be cast aside lightly.
     Now, my father had cultivated these two unsurpassable blooms with great and tender care as gifts for my mother, whom he adored. My mother lay ill and dying, and he wished to present her with one last gift of love on her birthday, which fell upon the next Sunday. So with some trepidation he answered the queen, "This humble pair of home-grown posies is not worthy of Her Majesty's notice. I have many extraordinary flora, sweet hibiscus from the East, purple roses from the wild Baltic lands, and blue lotus from the waters of the Nile." He waved his hand in a gesture that indicated all the tiers of his extensive garden. "Any of my choicest rarities from the world over, full of color and fragrance, some from the gardens of kings and queens in foreign lands, fit to grace a royal table, any of these and all of them will be brought to Your Majesties' chambers upon my order."
     But the queen had fixed her desire upon the incomparable roses, the white and the black, and so she spoke again to my father, and gave him to know that none but these two would do. And my father, resolute in his wish to delight my mother upon her last birthday on this earth, made so bold as to resist a second time. "Your Majesty," he said, "I beg you to spare these two blooms for the sake of my beloved Elena, who will be taken up to God before she sees another year on this earth. I had hoped to make her a gift of these Catalan beauties in true love of her and of our fair mother country."
     But Queen Blanca would not be dissuaded, so determined was she to have these priceless treasures: if he could not part with both, said she, the white rose alone would suffice. For royalty to suggest a compromise was a great concession, but in the strength of her passion to possess this thing of beauty the queen was ready to haggle like a fishwife.
     Here my father straightened his back and answered quietly but very firmly, "I regret, Your Majesty, that they are a pair and cannot be separated."
     And then the queen realized, too late, how she had embarrassed herself before her inferior, and fear struck the heart of my father, for he knew she would never forgive him for that.
     Then King Jaime, who would later be known as King Jaime the Just, spoke to my father and said, "In recognition of your faithful service to the Crown and in acknowledgment of your esteemed hospitality, we will accept the favor of your own selection from your garden to ornament our chambers while we are your guests.".
     But Queen Blanca was now so heated with anger that she dared to contradict her lord. One last time she addressed my father. "And does your good lady love God?" she asked with a crafty look.
     "My lady Elena is a true and faithful believer and a woman of great virtue, and loves God with all her heart," he said stoutly, fearing some reprisal and yet not knowing what else to do but speak the truth. In his private mind he saw his lady's purity of character stand as a silent reproach to the greedy demands of the queen.
     "Then, in faith, she will see heaven before we do," said Her Majesty.
     "She will be first among His angels," declared my father fervently.
     "And as God's loyal servant, my lord," said the queen, "surely you do not think that your pretty blossoms are superior to the glories of God's heaven?"
     "Surely not, Your Majesty."
     "Then," said the queen, with such finality that my father dared brook her wrath no further, "let her take her pleasure in the celestial gardens of the Lord, and we will content ourselves with these."
     In answer, my father bowed low, and withdrew from the royal presence.
     But he did not order the cutting of the flowers, and on the following day, a Thursday, when the king and queen departed with their company, many fine roses had been taken to their chambers, but not the two most special. Their leave-taking was cold, and when they thanked my father for his hospitality, the keen edge of royal displeasure cut through the gracious words of form and custom. For although His Majesty was disposed to leniency toward his loyal subject, he was bound to uphold the wishes of his queen.
     On the Friday, when the roses ought to have reached the peak of their perfection, my father went to his garden to fetch them by his own hand and take them to my mother's bedside, and they were gone. A cavity in the earth marked the spot where they had grown. To their very roots they had been stolen away.
     On the Saturday, my mother died, and my younger brother and I were left motherless.
     Now it so happened that the king and queen kept at court a number of royal pets for their amusement, and among them were two favorites. One was a bird, a rare black song thrush with a call like a voice in a heavenly choir, and the king liked to have its golden cage by him in his private chambers. The other was a little white dog with curly hair and a sweet disposition, and the queen loved to keep it beside her in a woven basket with a blue satin cushion.
     On the Sunday that was to have been my mother's birthday, the king's black songbird and the queen's white dog both fell ill and died.
     "Oh, my dear," said King Jaime to his queen, "this is our punishment from God for ordering the theft of the two roses." For indeed the two spectacular roses from my father's garden now stood in a fine golden vase set with gemstones on a table between the thrones of the king and the queen, and every visitor to the court remarked on their beauty and longevity.
     "Nay, not so, my lord. This is some sorcery." Queen Blanca now bore my father a deep and abiding hatred, once because he had denied her and twice because he had seen her doff her dignity to beg. She therefore commanded her chief wizard to make a spell of vengeance against my father. For royalty tolerates no challenge to its power, and justice begins only after vanity is satisfied.
     And so the wizard consulted his tomes of arcane lore and cast his divining stones and gathered his herbs and drew his magic circles and mixed his potions of devising, and presently he conjured a spirit. And the spirit was one of blind zeal and fanatical partisanship, which is one of the most dangerous and deadly forces on earth. And the wizard cloaked this spirit of zeal in the body of a comely, fair-haired youth, and armed the youth with the sword of duplicity and the shield of self-righteousness, and sent him out into the land of Catalonia to execute the vengeance of the queen.
     And the youth came as ordered to the castle of my father and gave his name as Celestino, but he was no creature of heaven. He was of the very devil. He was hale and strong and well practiced in arms, and so his lack of family was overlooked. He knelt before my father and offered him his fealty, and my father accepted his pledge of service, little knowing that he had just bought his own undoing.
     At Celestino's side as his squire and constant companion was a gnome with an unpleasant countenance known only as Ankle Biter, a rude nickname befitting his extremely short stature, for he was no more than half the height of Celestino and had a grizzled black beard that nearly reached the ground.
     Grieving for my deceased mother and lacking the counterbalancing wisdom of her calm, sensible counsel, my father gave himself over to the company of men and took his solace in their comradeship. Celestino became the most loyal of followers, daily proclaiming his devotion to my father and defying anyone else to serve him with a stronger arm or truer voice. And in constantly professing his supreme allegiance, Celestino began to cause murmurs amongst the other men, most of whom had joined with my father in battle through many long years and whose faithfulness and skill at arms were tested and proved many times over. But my father was beguiled by this young man's ardent admiration and affection, and he began to put Celestino before others, holding him up as an example of the knightly ideal. He bestowed upon him the epithet of Trueheart. And the more my father praised Celestino Trueheart, the more my father's men looked for faults in him, until they began to doubt my father's judgment, and the seeds of discord took root.
     Meanwhile, Ankle Biter whispered amongst the other squires and groomsmen, and this is what he said: "My master Celestino is not what he appears to be. I would not tell you this, but that he treats me ill. He insults me for his own amusement. It was he who gave me that derogatory name of Ankle Biter. He beats me when I displease him, though to the world he seems as fair a master as any under heaven." And he raised his tunic to exhibit the cruel marks of a whip across his back, to the disapproving murmurs of his peers. "And so," said he, "I would be pleased to see him fail his mission." Here he had them all rapt, for they none of them liked seeing their masters in his shadow, as it made them inferior to this ugly, black-bearded gnome. "He is secretly in the service of the king of Castile and has come here on his master's behalf to seek an alliance with the dominion of Catalonia against Aragon. And he will advise your liege lord to accept it because the king of Aragon is full of wrath against him on account of evil sorcery that your lord sent against the royal household. But once your lord has foregone the protection of Aragon, his lands will be seized and wrested from his line, and he will be cast into prison, because neither side will ever place its trust in him again, and those who follow him will be killed, or if not, they will be cut free to seek a new lord. And Castile will have gained a strong foothold against Aragon, and the pawns that served to place him there will all be cast aside." And this was all according to the plan between Celestino and Ankle Biter as it was put into them by the queen's chief wizard.
     I heard of all this through my maid Alicia, whose sweetheart was one of the stable lads.
     And Ankle Biter went on: "Even now he is scheming to forge a covert tie with Castile through matrimony with the daughter of your lord." Here he spoke of me, for even though I had been betrothed to the son of a noble of Roussillon since the age of six, I was now thirteen and old enough to wed. And my father was so besotted with Celestino that I saw he might indeed break his bond of trust to Roussillon and pledge me to his young protégé. My heart was filled with revulsion at this thought, for although Celestino was handsome, clever, and strong, he sought favoritism for personal advance and exerted an unwholesome influence over my father, and I knew he was not to be trusted.
     Disharmony and talk of revolt were spreading amongst my father's men. Those who believed that loyalty to my father meant blind obedience to his wishes were set against those who said that true fidelity meant opposing the harmful forces nearest him. Those who were faithful to the king of Aragon through their sworn fealty to my father were made to question their duty by those who thought that their best interests lay with the king of Castile in the face of Aragon's ill favor. Those who saw dishonor in breaking faith with Roussillon quarreled with those who hoped for advantage in securing a bond with the powers behind Celestino. In every way divided, the men could no longer stand, fight, or serve my father as a body faithful to his command.
     No one thought to question the word of the gnome, who seemed to speak truth because he dared to speak against his master.
     And no one was brave enough to speak to my father.
     The day came when my father asked me to walk with him in his garden. He had caused a stone bench to be placed on the spot where the two majestic roses had sprung, beside a little fountain, and there he asked me to sit.
     "Even though your mother rests in the family vault," he said, "this is where I like to come and think of her."
     "I miss her too, Father," I said.
     He looked at me tenderly. "You are growing into a fine young woman, my daughter. She would be proud of you." Presently he added, "It is time we thought of marriage."
     "I am betrothed to Felippe of Roussillon. He is only ten."
     "I have wonderful news for you, daughter, that will bring you great happiness. Celestino Trueheart has asked for your hand!"
     I said nothing.
     My father smiled. "Struck dumb with wonder!" he said. "Your modesty becomes you. But you are his choice, and I consented with all my heart. The marriage will take place following the Feast of the Virgin, when you have turned fourteen."
     "And Roussillon?" I asked. "Do we not need that alliance?" I did not care one way or the other about either Felippe or his family, but I did not want to wed Celestino.
     "Roussillon will not be heartbroken. A little gold will comfort him."
     "Father," I said, seizing his hand, "Father, I do not want to marry Celestino. He has deceived you and turned your men against one another. Your favorite is no paragon but a wicked man who prepares even now to turn your allies into foes and deliver you to your enemies."
     My father leapt to his feet, and his face was grotesque with anger. "Go from my sight, false child!" he shouted. "What demon has put such thoughts into your mind?"
     "You are bewitched, Father," I cried. "Do not put your trust in this traitor!"
     "It is you who are the traitor, daughter. You will be locked in a cell until you come to your senses."
     "No, Father, no, you must believe me! I am of your own flesh, and I am true to you. I swear on the tomb of my mother. Believe me, Father, please!" And I fell to my knees before him to plead.
     "Perfidious daughter, false to the memory of her sainted mother! Take yourself out of my sight before I disown you." And he raised his hand as if to strike.
     I ran from the garden, but before I had reached my bedchamber two of my father's men seized me and escorted me to a tower room, where I was shut behind a locked door.
     That night my brother came and whispered to me and wept outside the door, but he did not dare attempt to set me free. And if he had, there would have been noplace for me to go.
     Alicia was permitted to bring me food and drink, and I was comfortable enough, but I was a prisoner, held by force and bound to wed the man who would destroy my father.
     One night my mother came to me as a vision in a dream. She was dressed in flowing garments of shining silver from head to foot, and her face was so bright that I could hardly look upon it. But she spoke in the voice that I had known from birth, and her speech was gentle and mild.
     "Make a pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris," said my mother, "and pray to the Mother of God, the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the shrine of Our Lady of the Rose. I will come to you there and intercede for you with the Blessed Virgin. Listen with your heart and she will tell you what you must do. If you will promise to obey the word of the Blessed Virgin, your father will allow you to go. Give him this message from me and speak these words: no black without white, no white without black." And then she disappeared, but I felt her radiance around me all through the night.
     By my brother I sent word to my father that I had a message for him from my mother, and he had me brought before him, accompanied by my maid Alicia. His face was grim and without warmth or joy at the sight of me. But when I spoke the words that my mother had given to me in my dream, my father's face changed, first from sternness to shock and then to grief. He covered his face and wept. "Those are the true words of my beloved Elena," he said, "who spoke them to me a thousand times when my courage waned or my understanding faltered. It is for want of her wisdom that I have failed my daughter's trust. You may make your pilgrimage, my daughter, and I will give you a carriage with driver and footmen and a maid to escort you. When you return, you will wed whom the Blessed Virgin has named. Make ready to leave at once."
     I curtsied to my father, and Alicia with me, and we made haste to my chambers to prepare. But as we were laying garments in my trunk, and my brother was there to watch us and help, we heard shouts from the castle wall and a loud commotion in the forecourt. My window looked out upon the plain below the walls, and I saw a great company approaching rapidly on horseback, armed with swords and spears and devices of war as if to attack our walls.
     The alarm was sounded, and the horns called the men to the walls and the gate to defend the castle. And I saw Celestino upon the parapet, and Ankle Biter by his side. And Ankle Biter was holding out his arm as if pointing toward the approaching forces. Then there were shouts from the men: "Those are the banners of Castile—Castile attacks us!" And others cried, "They are Aragon's colors! We are under threat from Aragon!" And then I heard, "Aragon comes to our aid!" And last, "What need have we of aid if those are not the forces of Castile?" And my father's men began to shout and quarrel amongst themselves, and swords were drawn, and Celestino stood on the parapet and watched, and he wore a satisfied smile. And beside him Ankle Biter waved both his hands in circular motions as if he were the master of puppets and the men below him were moving to his will. And by the motion of his beard I saw that he was speaking words.
     Then I saw my father. He rushed out into the forecourt with both arms spread wide, as if to part his men. His hands were empty, his weapon was sheathed, and he was shouting, but the words could not be heard above the clash of arms as his men flew at one another and the red gore streamed. And someone raised a sword against my father, and another stepped in his path and slew him, and then two more sprang forward with a roar, and then others, and the last I saw of my father was the glint of the purple gem in the pommel of his silver-hilted sword as it swung high above his head. And then his hand sank below the press of men, and I knew I was an orphan. And Alicia screamed and screamed, as did my brother, and then I knew that I was screaming too.
     "Run!" cried Alicia. "We must escape! There is no time to pack. Hurry!" But I grabbed my little jewel-box, the one with my mother's gold crucifix in it, and Alicia ran with us to the barn. And there her sweetheart helped us into a hay-wagon, and we escaped across the fields while the battle raged.
     And when I looked back I saw Celestino standing upon the parapet, and then with a motion from Ankle Biter, he disappeared in a twist of smoke. And Ankle Biter, who was really the queen's chief wizard all along, turned into a raven and flew away.
     And that is how we come to be on this road, my brother and I. We are pilgrims, bound for the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris to honor the wishes of our dead mother and pray for the soul of our father.
     When Sybille finished her tale, she withdrew her gaze from the distance. Intoxicated with the magnificence of her own words, she looked around in immense satisfaction, expecting to see her listeners spellbound and waiting in breathless fascination to see if there was going to be any more. But the only one still awake was Arnaud, who looked at her with eyes wide and said, "Did that really happen to us, Sybille?"

Copyright © 2006 Meredy Amyx.
This excerpt appeared in the 2007 edition of the Sand Hill Review.