…and time for him to go.
Again this year he had been fortunate. A minstrel could not take bread and board for granted, even at ġéol, that most festive of seasons. Twelve days of feasting, drinking and song. A roaring fire in the Great Hall, so many logs piled into it that the sparks flew high. Not infrequently these decided to nest in the tapestry hangings that lined the walls. Such hangings were priceless and must be swiftly beaten out by the two servants appointed to that task, who were armed with a ladder and damp cloths. Minstrels were much in demand over ġéol, but there were many minstrels on the roads nowadays, roaming from castle to castle and trying their luck.
You needed to be young to cover such immense distances on foot. You needed to be healthy to survive the in-between nights sleeping in barns and ditches, stealing apples from orchards and turnips from fields in passing – the occasional steaming pie from a window-ledge; the in-between days performing in market squares and taverns; the likelihood that at any time you would be attacked and robbed of the coins you had earned.
But then you also needed to be old, for the songs to be in your head. How many days and nights of walking for just one song to be born and committed to memory? How many losses and loves and close escapes for the germ of a song to expand into one of the many-versed ballads beloved of the Lord and his lordlings on winter evenings? How many days of adventuring among hedge-sparrows and serving maids, to give the songs their unique colour and beauty? How long for a complex, unforgettable tune to be born out of joy and sorrow, sunshine and snow? How many days on the road?
Sometimes, even now, there were women. This time it had been Moire, one of the kitchen girls. A brown girl, he thought with a smile: brown hair, long and horribly tangled, brown eyes, brown skin – though most of that was dirt. She had been kind to him, and he to her. He had sung for her before to lure her to his pallet in one corner of the kitchen, and sung for her afterwards, to lull her to sleep. She was weary. Kitchen girls were perpetually weary. It was a life, he supposed, but not much of one. Like him, she had survived.
He had not said goodbye to little Moire, though he knew he would be leaving when the first snows fell. He never said goodbye. In any case he would not be coming back this way. He felt it in his bones.
Felt death in his bones. He shivered, wrapping his furs more tightly around him, and hoisting onto his back the pack containing all he had in the world, including that most precious possession of all, his lute, wrapped in silk, then wool, then oilcloth. On the turn of the stone stair, through a slit in the stone wide enough to fire an arrow but narrow enough not to receive one, he felt an icy draught. The early morning sky was aflame with yellows and pinks as the sun attempted to rise and warm the earth. But the ground was frozen hard. Any snow would be bound to lay.
Soon, all would be white…