The little village of Moreton was surrounded by a high stone wall, the gray of the stones casting a long, early-morning shadow over the many houses packed inside. Well-worn pathways connected the buildings, radiating out from the central position of the towering church and the tall white town hall. Now, in the dim light of the morning, a few dogs began to stretch, sleepy-eyed women lazily walked toward the town well and four men waited, with axes over their shoulders, while the gatekeepers opened the heavy oak gates in the stone wall.
Inside one house, a plain, narrow, two-story, whitewashed house, Alyxandria Blackett listened with every pore of her body for the creak of the gates. When she heard it, she grabbed her soft leather shoes and began tiptoeing toward the stairs, which were, unfortunately, on the other side of her father's bedroom, She'd been dressed for hours, waking long before the sun rose, slipping a plain, rather coarse woolen dress over her slight figure. And today, for once, she didn't look down in disgust at her body. It seemed that all her life she'd been waiting to grow up, to gain some height and, most of all, to gain some curves. But at twenty she knew she was always going to be flat-chested and hipless. At least, she thought with a sigh, she had no need for corsets. In her father's room, she tossed him a quick glance to make sure that he was sleeping, flipped the wool of her skirt over her arm and started down, skipping the fourth step, as she knew it creaked badly.
Once downstairs she didn't dare open a window shutter. The sound might wake her father, and he very much needed his rest now. Skirting a table covered with papers and ink and a half-finished will her father was drafting, she went to the far wall, gazing up with love at the two musical instruments hanging there. All thoughts of self-pity for what God had forgotten in her physically disappeared when she thought of her music. Already a new tune was beginning to form in her head, a gentle, rolling melody. It was obviously a love song.
"Can't make up your mind?" came her father's voice from the foot of the stairs.
Instantly, she ran to him, put her arm around his waist and helped him sit at the table. Even in the dark room she could see the bluish circles under his eyes. "You should have stayed in bed. There's time enough to do a day's work without starting before daylight."
Catching her hand for a moment, he smiled up into her pretty eyes. He well knew what his daughter thought of her little elfin face with its tip-tilted violet eyes, tiny nose and curvy little mouth -- he'd certainly heard her wail about it enough -- but to him everything about her was dear. "Go on," he said, pushing her gently. "Go and see if you can choose which instrument to take and leave before someone comes and complains they must have a song for their latest love."
"Perhaps this morning I should stay with you," she whispered, her face showing her concern for him. Three times in the last year he'd had horrible pains in his heart.
"Alyx!" he warned. "Don't disobey me. Now gather your things and leave!"
"Yes, my lord," she laughed, giving what, to him, was a heart-melting smile, her eyes turning up at the corners, her mouth forming a perfect cupid's bow. With a swift, practiced gesture she pulled the long, steel-stringed cittern from the wall, leaving the psaltery where it was. Turning, she looked back at her father. "Are you sure you'll be all right? I don't have to leave this morning."
Ignoring her, he handed her her scholar's box, a lap desk containing pen, ink and paper. "I'd rather have you creating music than staying home with a sick old man. Alyx," he cautioned. "Come here." With a familiar gesture he began to plait her long hair into a fat braid down her back. Her hair was heavy and thick, perfectly straight without a hint of curl and the color was, even to her father, very odd. It was almost as if a child had thrown together every hair color possible on one very small young woman's head. There were streaks of gold, bright yellow, deep red, a golden red, mouse brown and, Alyx swore, even some gray.
When her hair was braided, he pulled her cloak from the wall, put it about her shoulders and tied the hood over her head. "Don't get so engrossed you forget to stay warm," he said with mock fierceness, turning her about. "Now go, and when you return I want to hear something beautiful."
"I'll do my best," she said, laughing as she left the house, closing the door behind her.
From their house at the very back of the town wall, directly across from the big gates, Alyx could see nearly all of the town as the people were beginning to stir and get ready to greet the day. There was a matter of inches between the houses and in the tiny alleyway that ran along the wall. Half-timbered and stone, brick and stucco houses sat side by side, ranging in size from the mayor's house down to the tiny houses of the craftsmen and, like her father's, the lawyers'. A bit of breeze stiffed the air and the shop sips rattled.
"Good morning," a woman sweeping the gravel before her house called to Alyx. "Are you working on something for the church today?"
Slinging the cittern by its strap onto her back, she waved back at her neighbor. "Yes...and no. Everything!" She laughed, waving and hurrying toward the gate
Abruptly, she stopped as she nearly ran into a cart horse. One look up showed her that John Thorpe had purposefully tried to trip her.
"Hoa, now, little Alyx, not a kind word for me?" He grinned as she sidestepped the old horse.
"Alyx!" called a voice from the back of the wagon. Mistress Burbage was emptying chamber pots into the honey wagon John drove. "Could you come inside for a moment? My youngest daughter is heartbroken, and I thought perhaps a new love song might make her well. "
"Aye, and for me," John laughed from atop the wagon. "I have need of a love song, too," he said, ostentatiously rubbing his side where two nights before Alyx had given him a fierce pinch when he'd tried to kiss her.
"For you, John," she said very sweetly, "I'll write a song as sweet as the honey in your wagon." The sound of his laughter almost bid her answer to Mistress Burbage that she'd see her after evening mass.
With a gasp, Alyx began to run toward the gate. In another few moments she'd get caught and would never get her time alone, outside the walls, to work on her music.
"Ye're late, Alyx," the gatekeeper said, "and don't forget the sweet music for my sick babe," he called after her as she ran toward the orchards outside the walls.
Finally, she reached her favorite apple tree and, with a laugh of sheer happiness, opened the little desk and set about preparing to make a record of the music she heard in her head. Sitting down, leaning back against the tree, she pulled her cittern across her lap and began to strum the tune she'd heard this morning. Totally absorbed, working with melody and lyrics, recording on paper the notes, she was unaware of the hours passing. When she came up for air, her shoulders stiff, fingers sore, she had written two songs and started on a new psalm for the church.
With a long, exuberant stretch, she set aside her cittern, rose and, one hand on a low, bare branch of the apple tree, gazed out across the fields of crops, past them to the earl's enclosed sheep pastures.
No! she would not let herself think of the earl, who'd pushed so many farmers from the land by raising their rents and then fencing it and filling the space with his profitable sheep. Think of something pleasant, she commanded herself, turning to look the other way. And, of course, what else was there really beautiful in life besides music?
As a child she'd always heard music in her head. While the priest droned on in Latin at Mass, she'd occupied her mind with creating a song for the boys' choir. At the Harvest Festival she wandered away, preoccupied with songs only she could hear. Her father, a widower for years, had been nearly insane trying to find his lost child.
One day when she was ten, she'd gone to the well to draw water. A troubadour visiting the town had been sitting with a young woman on a bench, and beside the well, unattended, was his lute. Alyx had never touched any musical instrument before, but she'd heard enough and seen enough to know basically how to make a lute play. Within minutes, she'd plucked out one of the hundreds of tu...