Oh kindly Jesu for the wound of your left foot keep me from the sin of envy…
(From Dame Agnes’ Book of Hours)
My sister’s sweetheart gave me the hawk. I was six months home from the convent, and struggling to live under my father’s rule.
‘Look,’ Henry said. ‘For you. May said you wanted one.’
He lifted the lid off the basket and two huge eyes peered up at me, shiny as beads of jet.
‘It’s a merlin. To hunt with. Larks and things. You can train her yourself.’
I cupped my hands round the ball of grey fluff and lifted it out. Its heart throbbed against my fingers, too huge for its tiny body. My own heart turned over unexpectedly. I love you, I thought.
Henry said, ‘I’ve brought you all the things you’ll need.’ He reached under his fur-trimmed gown and brought out a pouch. ‘There’s a hood, a glove and some jesses to tie her up by. When she starts to fly, give her a reward every time she comes back to your hand. She needs to think you’re her only way of getting food. Take care when you start to fly her free. If she finds out she can hunt for herself she’ll be gone.’
I brought the merlin close to my face and stared into its fierce eyes. It opened its beak and squeaked angrily at me. ‘Ki-ki-ki-ki-ki!’
Henry beamed. ‘Do you like her? She’ll need a name,’ he said. ‘What are you going to call her?’
May rolled her eyes. ‘She’ll probably call her Alcelda after the Saint.’
She was baiting me, but I called the hawk Alcelda anyway. The nuns had venerated St Alcelda. She was my friend and protector and I loved her like a mother. The baby bird had been torn from her nest as I had from the safety of the nunnery, but I would be her mother now, and teach her to hunt.
The first time she landed back on my outstretched hand of her own free will, my spirit rose. Now her hunting could begin.
By September, Alcelda was fully fledged. Her fluffy grey doublet and hose had given way to sleek feathers, like a brown velvet gown with a speckled forepart. I loved to walk about with her on my hand, her jess strings wrapped firmly round my fingers. When I took her hood off her head would bob up and down as she looked from left to right, beginning to sight prey.
Last week she had nearly made her first kill in the watermeadows near my father’s manor house. She had chased a kingfisher back and forth along the stream while May and I shrieked in excitement. My bird made contact, but the kingfisher found an extra burst of speed from somewhere and got away. ‘She tapped it on the arse!’ May was practically jumping up and down. ‘Did you see? She’s touched her prey. She’ll kill in no time now.’
Today my hawk and I climbed the hill alone. Skylarks twittered above our heads. Today, I was sure, she would taste her first kill. No bird in the world could fly like my pretty falcon.
I pulled her hood off, stretched out my arm with her at the end of it and let go. She took off and rose above the treetops, the leather jess strings trailing behind her. I held my breath with excitement. And then she wheeled round and landed in a tree.
‘Oh, you–’ I stood under the tree and spoke to her sternly. She began to preen.
I tried wheedling. ‘I can hear skylarks.’ She looked at me blandly. ‘You can too! You’re just pretending not to listen.’
Alcelda put her head to one side, shook her tail feathers at me, took off again and soared.
I watched her go, and in my mind I soared with her. We gazed down together at the sheep grazing on the hillside, the farmland hacked from the forest, the heather-thatched houses clustered around our little stone church.
My sister was scrambling up to me, holding up her skirts so her scarlet petticoat glowed like a jewel against the tufty grass. ‘Father wants you. You need to come now.’
‘I can’t!’ I called.
‘You must.’ May stood panting next to me. ‘He’ll be angry if you don’t come at once. Come on.’ She tugged my sleeve.
‘If I’m not there for her to fly back to, she might not come,’ I said desperately. ‘I could lose her.’
My sister laid her hand on my shoulder. ‘Give me the glove. She’ll come to me.’
I pulled off the gauntlet and handed it to her, but I did not take my eyes off the merlin.
‘Go on.’ She gave me a push, and I stumbled down the hill, watching the hawk rather than my footsteps until she was out of sight. As I crossed the bridge over the moat I turned and squinted up into the watery sunshine. She had sighted prey!
The skylark flew round in circles, and she flew after it. Faster and faster. She was gaining on the little lark! Then, with a sudden change of direction, the lark slipped out from under her.
I walked backwards towards the house, still watching as Alcelda recovered the chase.
A third dark dot was moving towards them. I clapped my hand to my mouth. A bigger bird, a kestrel, come to harass my little falcon and steal her prey.
The kestrel was heading for them, straight as an arrow. It swerved. It was not after the lark. It was after Alcelda.
A quavering voice sounded from inside the house. ‘Nan? Are you there?’ My grandmother. The kestrel dived. Alcelda spun out from under it but the kestrel took aim again, flying faster than she could. I bit my lip. There was nothing I could do. With a last, hopeless glance at the sky, I straightened my cap, smoothed my skirts and plunged into the darkened house.
The particular smell of my father’s study made my chest tighten. Candle grease, spilled wine gone sour, the leather of his sword belt. He sat behind his table. In his gown with padded shoulders he was a square dark shape against the window, blocking out the light.
‘Father.’ I kneeled for his blessing.
From my place on the floor I could see a patch of sky above the hillside, but the duelling birds were out of sight.
‘Get up, daughter.’
I scrambled to my feet, still breathless from my run down the hillside, and waited for what was to come. A scolding? A beating? My heart thumped.
My father leaned back in his chair and looked me up and down, a smirk of satisfaction at the corners of his mouth.
‘Well, girl. How would you like to marry Lord Middleham?’
Lord Middleham? I must have misheard. The most powerful man in the next dale. A baron. Wealthy. But how old? My mouth opened and shut, and no sound came out.
‘Are you stupid? Yes, Middleham, you know who I mean.’ He was beaming, triumphant.
I clutched the edge of the table, dizzy with shock. ‘Sir, I had hoped to go back to the nunnery when the trouble is over. I’ll be sixteen in a year. My aunt said I could take my vows then.’
He snorted. ‘You’ll never make a nun. Too disobedient.’
‘This will be good for the whole family. You’d be a noblewoman. No one in our family has ever risen so high.’
‘How old is he?’ I asked. I could hardly get the words out.
‘Old enough. He doesn’t need an heir, he’s already got children, older than you. Married three times. That’s a good thing, to my mind.’ My father stroked his beard. ‘An older husband is good for a rebellious girl. Rules her better.’
My head whirled.
‘Here, read this.’ He unfolded a letter and held it out. ‘I’ve been hunting about for a match for you for a while. Never thought I’d find one as good as this. Want to know how I did it?’ Without waiting for an answer, he went on, ‘He wanted to buy the parcel of land we’ve got in the other dale. You can see it from my lord’s own window. So I told him I wouldn’t let it go, except as the marriage portion of one of my daughters. Never thought he’d bite. But he said he was looking for a new wife and he’d heard my girls were young and pretty.’
My grandmother would never allow me to be married against my will! ‘Is the contract signed?’
‘As long as the country stays quiet we’ll ride over to Beldon Castle next week. It’s the best part of a day’s travel. If he likes you we’ll sign the betrothal papers then.’
‘What if he doesn’t like me?’
‘Then he can have May.’
‘She’s already betrothed to Henry Hutton,’ I objected.
‘Contracts can be unmade, if both parties agree.’ He took the letter back and folded it.
Not May and Henry! She lived for him. It would break her heart.
‘It’s a love match,’ I said. ‘You can’t unmake it.’
‘Don’t say can’t to me. By God, girl, remember who you’re talking to.’
I shut my eyes. I needed to be a nun.
I had to be with the Sisters, to serve God. To pray, help the poor, maybe even–I swallowed–rule a convent as Abbess myself one day. Then, because I had spent my life being holy, I would rise to Heaven, with the Saints and my mother. How could I give all that up to spend my life bearing children and answering to a man who might be even harsher than my father?
But May. My only sister, sweet as honey and sharp as vinegar. My ally and friend against my father.
I clenched my fists, and remembered May a long time ago, running towards me, screaming, blood splashed on cobbles like scraps of red silk. She had saved my life. After what she had done for me that day, how could I let my father send her to Lord Middleham in my place?
I knelt down again and took my father’s hand. ‘Please don’t make May break off her betrothal. I’ll marry Lord Middleham if I must–’
‘If you must!’ He shook my hand off his. ‘I make you the best match in the whole of Yorkshire and you talk as if I’m selling you to the Turk. God’s blood, you have a nerve.’ He picked up a silver wine goblet and took a swig. ‘Upon my honour as a knight, any other girl would be kissing my hand in gratitude.’ He banged the goblet down and wine slopped onto the table.
‘It was a surprise. I am grateful.’
‘Aye, so you should be.’ He tucked the letter in his sleeve. ‘It’s more than you deserve. May wouldn’t be fighting me. She’s a proper daughter.’
I flinched. It was true May wouldn’t fight him. She was older than me but more cowed. The betrothal to Master Hutton had only come about because Henry was rich and charming and had set himself to persuade my father with presents and flattery.
‘May’s prettier, too,’ my father muttered. ‘Men always like her sort of looks better. The yellow hair. You’re darker and not so womanly. Perhaps I should let him have May. Less likely to cause trouble.’ There was a warning in his voice.
‘No, please, sir.’ I tried to sound eager. ‘I am ready to marry Lord Middleham. I’ll do my best to make him want me.’
My father’s eyes narrowed. ‘You’d better please him, wench. This is the best chance we’ve had in all my life. We’ll be connected through this match with all the powerful families in the north. With you as Lady Middleham, every door in Yorkshire will be open to us.’ He eyed me coldly. ‘You’ve let me down before. If you fail at this I’ll put you out of doors without a penny.’
She was sitting by the fire in the parlour, sewing my father’s shirts. Surely she would talk to him? Surely she would be on my side?
My grandmother laid down her sewing. ‘He’s told you, then?’
‘Know? I suggested it.’
My hope of help drained away. ‘You?’ I said weakly.
She gave a cunning smile. ‘I knew that land would come in useful. It was the first piece I bought for myself. His Lordship cares more for his estates than he does for money or preferment. He could have made a better match than our family without lifting a finger. Half the widows in the North Riding set their caps at him when his last wife died. But my bit of sheep run sticks into his estates like a finger up his arse. He’s wanted to get his hands on it for years.’ She yawned. ‘I little thought when I was working at the tannery that I’d one day be grandmother to Lady Middleham. How the wheel of fortune turns.’
‘But– ‘ I began.
‘But what? Your heart’s not elsewhere, is it?’
‘No, I swear. How could it be?’
‘Then what? I thought you’d put aside that silly idea about being a nun.’ She smoothed the linen out with her gnarled hands. ‘I don’t think he’s a bad man. I’ve never heard ill of him.’ She lowered her voice to a whisper. ‘The Duke of Norfolk has taken a mistress and locked his wife up. He’s given all her clothes to his lady and when his wife complains, he beats her.’
‘I wasn’t aware the Duke of Norfolk had asked for my hand,’ I said.
My grandmother poked me. ‘You’re a saucy baggage, Nan. Granddaughter, I’m seventy-one years old. God could take me at any time. I want to go to my rest knowing you’re safely wed. If there’s trouble afoot there are worse places to be than behind the walls of a castle. Besides, it will raise you in your father’s eyes. Don’t you want that?’
I couldn’t answer. A little voice like a demon on my shoulder whispered in my ear that I did. It would mend the harm I had done to my family. It would make things right with my father again.
I picked up some heads of dried camomile that lay on the table next to her sewing basket and began to crumble them in my fingers. They smelled like the nunnery garden in sun.
She swiped at my hand. ‘Stop fiddling, Nan. They’re to keep the linen sweet when it’s packed away. I don’t want them broken.’
‘Father said if Lord Middleham doesn’t want me he can have May.’
‘Did he?’ A flicker of concern appeared in her eyes. ‘I don’t expect he meant it. You do your best to please him, and all will be well.’
The sun was setting when I came back up the hill to find May. I sighed with relief. The hawk was back on her wrist and she was feeding her with pieces of chopped coney.
‘Guess what? She fought the kestrel off! She turned on it and chased it away. And then she got a lark! I’ve kept it for you, here it is, look–’ She saw my face. ‘Nan, what is it?’
I took the bird’s jesses and let her hop straight onto my hand. Without the glove her talons dug into me. When I told May what my father had said her mouth fell open in horror. ‘You can’t do it. I’d die if I had to marry someone I didn’t love.’
I avoided her eyes and busied myself with picking out a morsel of liver for the hawk. I had reported my father’s command to me but not what would happen if I failed to obey it.
May said, ‘I’d probably hang myself with my girdle if it was me.’
‘Then you’d go straight to Hell. It would be a mortal sin.’
‘I know, but–oh, Nan. You don’t know what love means until you find it, and then…’ She smiled vaguely up towards the trees, her lips parted and her eyes faraway, as if she were having a holy vision. ‘I know that every moment I’m going to be with Henry, I’ll be happy. I can’t imagine not having that. Of course, you don’t know about love. You don’t understand, living in the nunnery you never had a chance–’
‘Now I never will.’ A chill came over me.
The bird snatched the meat from me, her sharp beak nipping my fingertips, and golloped it down.
I had never thought about earthly love before, locked away from men in the convent. The only love I knew about was the ecstatic devotion to Jesus of some of the nuns. When they talked of it their faces had worn the same blissful expression as May’s.
Standing here on the hillside, I understood what I had never realised in the convent. Why some women became nuns and others wouldn’t in a thousand years. Love for men or God was the same. It drove everything, and I would never have it.
I turned away and stiffened my shoulders. I might not know love but May had. I couldn’t ruin it for her.
‘Nan.’ She pulled me back to face her and put her arm round me. Her eyes were wide with sympathy. ‘You don’t have to do it. You could come and live in Kingston-on-Hull with me and Henry, after we’re married. Henry wouldn’t mind.’
‘I can’t break the betrothal once it’s made,’ I said. ‘It’s a solemn contract. And Lord Middleham is too powerful. He has armed men. They’d come after me with horses and swords.’
‘Oh, Jesu,’ May said. She looked across to the church spire that pointed up from behind the trees, as if we could hope for divine help. ‘You need a miracle.’ Her lips twitched. ‘Maybe you could grow a beard like St Uncumber did when she didn’t want to marry the pagan prince.’
I grimaced. ‘Or put my eyes out like St Lucy and hand them to him on a plate.’
There was a painting of St Lucy in the village church. She held the plate with her eyeballs in front of her. Her lips were fixed in a beatific smile, even though she had empty sockets where her eyes should have been and her cheeks ran with blood. Two more virgin martyrs stood beside her: St Catherine, painted above the spiked wheel that broke when they tried to crush her on it, and St Agnes, wreathed in the hair that grew miraculously when they sent her naked to a brothel. They were serene and happy, haloed in gold leaf.
They had resisted what their fathers had planned for them, and were sainted for it.
But I was ordinary and sinful.
And if I disobeyed my father it was May, not me, who would pay the price.