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Once upon a moonless night

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I was a solemn child, I think, eager to learn. I do not mean I was always obedient, or that I never played with my friends, running and laughing and forgetting decorum. But from my earliest memory, I was aware there were rules to learn, many of them, varying from place to place, so that a child or a washerwoman or a knight or a hunter must behave according to their varied roles, and also that the rules varied by time and place: one might forget decorum, playing at ball with friends, but the game had rules, all the same.

I was pleased by the orderliness of the world, and I liked to find my place in it: know what was expected of me and when, and execute it flawlessly. I can remember my father’s hand on my shoulder, the warmth of his smile, when my arrow struck true; my tutor’s quiet approbation when I answered rightly, or was exactly, correctly courteous when meeting important people. I liked to dress well and neatly, each thing appropriate, and rich, and just as it should be. I liked to know how I should speak, with what degree of deference or arrogance or sympathy; where I should be kind, or consolatory, or bold.

You might think this would have pleased my parents and teachers, and perhaps it did, so far as it concerned my daily life, but all in all I think they would have preferred me less consciously obedient, if it had meant I was less curious. For there was no end of rules that might be learnt, no end of ways I might fit into the world: I wanted to know how prayer worked, and blessings; how the hawk knew the moment to stoop, and why it did or did not return to the hand of its owner; why one servant worked hard, supporting his family, and another, with easier tasks, was surly and spent his pay on drink. I wanted to know what happened in the deep woods at night, and in our castle too, when everyone should have been abed, but people met in secret to kiss, to plot, to gamble, to talk of things I did not understand, but resolved to learn anyway. In short, for a child who liked to know his place, I went a good many places I should not have been, although I myself was convinced I could learn the trick of fitting anywhere.


I remember: the boy had big, solemn eyes. He was standing by the edge of the door, half hidden, unsure if he should come forward into the room, or run away. His instincts must have been telling him to run, to hide, but then again he was at home, where he should be safe. I kept myself carefully still, looking at him only from the corner of my eye. Suddenly he darted forward and poked me, then dashed back to the door, glancing back at me with the same big eyes. When he saw I hadn't moved, he started to giggle, and a moment later he was poking me again, laughing harder. No one paid any attention – they had already decided I was harmless, and also he was not the son of anyone important. I liked him though – I had seen him playing with his friends, all tumbling about together like puppies, like cubs.


The night was very dark, but I had learnt well how to hunt, how to move silently, drifting between the trees without rustling the leaves, my feet not breaking twigs or dislodging stones. Even on so dark a night as this, I could make my way through the forest, which I knew so well by day. I should, of course, have been at home in bed, but I had already learnt the forest paths in sunlight, and wished to know them too by night. Besides, the night was too dark to fear anything – I had been brought up to tales of that good shepherd who by his terrifying visage drives all who wander by night back to the safety of hearth and barred door, but it was hardly reasonable to fear a hideous sight when it was too dark to see even a hand before my face.

I could see nothing, but I was not truly blind: there was the feel of the path beneath my feet, the branches brushing my arm, my legs, the smell of damp soil, and all the sounds proper to the forest at such times: the owl, the scream of foxes, the sough of wind in the branches, the quiet gurgle of the stream ahead, which was by day filled with splashing and raucous jokes, where the old women soaked and scrubbed their washing.


Justice is another set of rules: injury for injury, hatred and fear meeting hatred and fear, an animal caught in a trap and biting savagely as it tries to escape. Or perhaps justice is a created thing, the work of men, a way of bringing order to the word, balancing wrongdoing and punishment, the duty of all. I had every right to demand justice, to mete punishment; every right to bring my injuries into the daylight, by whatever means were open to me. Why shouldn’t I injure one who once loved me, if they turned against me?

But once, when the night around me was dark, I myself received mercy.


Even a little used church is a church: stop always to pay your respects and pray. So my father taught me, and so I have always done. Give to God his due, and each saint in his degree, reverent and obedient. That is the correct way of things. So I was taught.

Is it worship when the hawk strikes the running hare, joyous with victory, vicious with hunger? Does the hare pray as it runs; repent as it dies? Is blood an acceptable offering still?


One must take small bites, neat and self-controlled. Compliment the dishes; expect no more than your share. Eat swiftly but not greedily, keeping your fingers clean. Or perhaps one tears at the meat, ripping it violently, and the blood is salt-sharp and warm, welling from a body that has only just ceased to twitch, to try to escape. What greater joy is there than to bite, to rend? Well, each thing in its proper place, and there are rules in the woods too: the lesser still gives way to the greater, the fox giving up its kill to the wolf, and there are ways to hunt, not rules perhaps, but ways to follow nonetheless unless you wish to starve. Other rules too, unspoken by dumb beasts, forbidden and cursed by priests, but old, old as the hills, older than the trees, older than the stream and the ford and the washing place, rocks worn smooth by water and years.


Here is the belt, stiff leather, and the brooch with its sharp pin (almost a dagger, if you were desperate); here are the shoes, and the leggings with their precise lacing; here is the well-tailored tunic, and the cloak. Here is a ring, heavy and carefully wrought, passed down from father to son. See the care that has gone into the working the leather and the metal, into weaving and dying the fabric. All, all of it well made and well chosen, elegant and appropriate. Time-consuming to take off and to put on.


The stone is rough and damp, part covered with moss. Perhaps once it served some purpose, hollowed out as it is, but now its use is at an end, and it is abandoned, part of the forest, sunk in the earth like a gravestone.


I am a good lord, as these things are accounted. Brave but not rash, kind but just, a man who behaves always just as he should, beloved by all. A man not easily swayed by foolish or self-interested counsel, a man who recognizes other men for what they are, for the parts they play, and treats all according to their desserts, never surprised, never dismayed. A man who does all things at the proper time, and in the proper way. If at times I leave (only briefly, always to return), well, what of that? Everyone must have a chance to kick over the traces, to have their day of carnival: just as a man removes his tunic, elegant and well-made, but tight, and heaves a sigh of relief, so must even the most decent and controlled of men break free of restraint at some time. Perhaps I have a lover, or merely a random girl; perhaps I go to drink or to gamble, or to make plans I would be ashamed to name in daylight, my words white wriggling things that hate the sun, like maggots beneath a stone. None of these are true, but they might be: they are true of other men. And so for courtesy no one speaks of it, and I am free to go as I please.


Love is a strange thing, and I do not think I quite understand it yet. Love is a cub playing beside the den, a child copying his father with serious eyes, mouth set in a determined line, as he practices the skills he will need as an adult (the cub, too, is practicing). And yet come next summer the den has new cubs, and the old are no longer welcome.

Love is a man and a woman, who have eyes only for each other, whose bodies exist only for each other, and who will one day go their separate ways, indifferent or angry, and find some other lover.

Love is a man swearing fealty, his heart high and true: and yet, how many men betray their oaths, betray their lords?

Love is two bodies together, warm and trusting, sleeping curled together against the winter cold, hunting as one, resting as one. Love is perfect trust and amity, and love is the thing that is betrayed.


There is a saying, to hold with the hare and to run with the hounds. It is a thing frowned upon by all worthy men, who prefer that other men be simple, having only one face, following only the one set of rules, with undivided heart. Although no man does so in truth: every man has a face for his friends, for his lord, for his wife, for his lover, and thinks nothing of it as he swaps quickly and cleanly between them in the time it takes to cross a threshold, or to turn from one man to speak to another.

But I wished to have a face for every hour, for every season. I wished to speak respectfully to the priest one moment, and be off to the greenwood the next, as it pleased me.


They say it is a curse; they say you may go out one dark night, young and hale and afraid of nothing, and return broken, or cursed, or dead. But many men speak empty words, ignorant and unwise: how can it be a curse when I sought it out? When it was my greatest joy to belong everywhere, change myself to fit every situation? If there was a curse, I cursed myself long before I walked by the stream at night: I cursed myself by watching too shrewdly, by learning too well, so that always, no matter how well I played my part, I saw the hollowness in it, saw how every man was an actor, following the rules laid out for his kind of life, for his type of character. I understood, even as a child, that I put on my position, my wealth and the promise of future power, my popularity and friendships, the love of my parents and of any future wife and children, like a man putting on a tunic.


It is tiring to have too many faces, to force your body and your soul into too many shapes. So even as I wished to go everywhere, a welcome shadow, never out of place, I wished also to have a place and a home, to love with a single heart, to be loyal always, and not only in the moment I swore.

Does it please you my lord? To know I chose you, wanted you from the depths of my heart? To know that just as I chose my wildness, chose to lose myself far from home and friends, I chose to beg for mercy rather than to run or to fight, chose to find someone, to find you, to whom I could be loyal? To pay you uncoerced service, freely given? But I know well it is the way of men to fear that a free choice can be freely revoked, and though I come now eagerly to heel, stooping to your hand, the night may come when I walk in other ways - will you then also hate what you cannot quite control, what you cannot quite bring yourself to trust?

Love is that which foresees its end, and loves anyway. A choice, a willing sacrifice.