Under a cavernous, velvety sky with a gibbous moon floating like a silver dinar above the mountaintops, a travelling minstrel and his small pet monkey stopped at a crossroad. A cool breeze bearing the scent of the Blush tree tickled the minstrel’s nostrils. There was a remnant of a stone wall near the crossroad, and Argeaux – that being the name of the minstrel – sat down upon it and unslung a battered old guitar from over his shoulders. He picked out a chord, and another. He hummed a little melody. Wondered if he’d heard it before. The little monkey chittered its approval. Perhaps, Argeaux thought, this was an original song he could well use in his travels. As soon as it was light he would make a note of the tune using the secret notation of the travelling brotherhood.
It seemed to Argeaux quite fortuitous that he could come up with a new song under such a sky at such a place. He played the chords and sung a verse out loud and looked up at the signpost, the destinations being just visible in the moonlight. On the sign pointing North was written: Le Doré. It was the way to wonders, the road to ruin, the path to pleasure, the highway to hell. It was filled with fell and dread creatures of the night and beautiful women with hair the colour of the midsummer sun. Well, so he had heard it sung. To the east the sign said: The Lilac Mountains. It was a beautiful place but somewhere he would rather not go back to. The sign for the road to the west read: Castle Rouge. This was another place he’d only heard in song. A great castle. Fantastic riches. A port full of sailors from across the seas, where an honest minstrel might make a pretty dinar, and a dishonest one much, much more.
Argeaux sang a verse of his new song. It sounded good. The chorus eluded him though. It was if he was searching for the centre of a set of ripples on a lake. He hummed a few bars and experimented with different chords. He looked up at the indigo canopy studded with dewy stars and listened to the wind as only minstrels can. Is it the song of the mountains? No, it is the song of the salty sea.
’Alright, Vezzo, I know which way we shall take,’ the minstrel said to the monkey. They headed left to Castle Rouge.
* * *
Argeaux woke up just as the sun peeped over the Lilac Mountains. He rolled up his blanket and looked with pleasure at the rolling valley he was in. It was a gentle purple in the dreamy light of the morning. Tendrils of mist rose silently from the fields. Argeaux pissed against a willow near a fast running stream, his hot golden arc inconsequential against the valley’s cold clear waters. Two streams. Maybe that could be the name of my song.
He whistled. The little monkey hopped down out of a tree with a nut firmly locked in its jaws. The minstrel sat on a stone and listened to the babbling stream. Very musical. He sung a tune over the rhythm. Out of his travelling pack he pulled out a satchel of nuts and raisins and ate, tossing some to his pet.
‘Vezzo! Finish your breakfast. Hurry now. The road to Castle Rouge awaits.’ He watched the little monkey wolf down his food. Vezzo clambered up Argeaux’s arm and perched on his shoulder.
The road followed the stream that soon broadened into a sizeable river. People pushing barrows, riding horses and carts and others on foot were all headed in same direction. To the famed castle on the coast.
Around noon they came upon a small village and stopped at an inn. Argeaux sat down at a table, happy to rest his aching feet. A tankard of ale and a hot pie soon had him feeling in much better spirits. He spied troubadour, the neck of a lute poking out from his rucksack.
The man came over and pulled up a bench. He was young, red-haired, with little tufts of a ginger beard clinging to his cheeks.
‘Have you been this way before? What’s business like for our sort?’ asked Argeaux, taking a swig from his tankard.
The young man spoke earnestly. ‘Haven’t you heard? There’s a Royal Gala concert on the Eve of Christ’s Mass. If you play in that you’ll earn more dinars than you could carry.’
‘And how do you get to play at that concert?’
‘You have to work the inns and the taverns. There’s always scouts connected to the Royal Gala watching. Get their attention and you might obtain an invite.’
Argeaux and Jeremy, for that was the other minstrel’s name, shared another ale and spoke about life on the road. Jeremy, had only just started out as a travelling minstrel and was eager to hear some of Argeaux’s tales.
Jeremy finished his tankard and said, ‘Don’t walk to Castle Rouge. Come with me. A group of us have hired a wagon with a driver.’
‘What’s my fare?’ said Argeaux.
They shook hands.
Argeaux soon found himself lying in hay in the back of a wagon, swapping songs and stories with a bunch of like-minded men. It had been a long time since he had shared the company of such a group.
A little further on, Vezzo made a chittering noise and became very agitated. He gripped Argeaux’s shoulder with sharp claws.
‘What’s up Vezzo…’ His jaw dropped. Dangling from a Blush tree on a hill by the road was a man with a noose about his neck, his face a deep shade of purple, eyes bulging, tongue lolling. There was a guitar slung around his shoulders.
‘Aye, aye, aye,’ said Argeaux. The others murmured among themselves, making the sign of the cross.
‘Driver,’ cried Jeremy. ‘Do you know what happened to our friend here?’
The driver turned slowly in his seat. ‘Why, that man was foolish enough to have tried to court Princess Rosalee.’
‘That’s harsh penance for a heartfelt crime,’ cried Argeaux.
‘It’s not so much that,’ said the driver, ‘it’s that him being a minstrel, the King was much aggrieved. Begging your pardons sirs, but the King don’t take kindly to minstrels. He says they are lazy, indolent, good for nothing, troublemaking…‘
‘That’s quite enough driver,’ said Jeremy.
All in the cart removed their hats. They played a tune that none were pleased to sing. It was The Troubadour’s Lament. They all joined in, belting out the chorus with tears streaming down their faces.
* * *
At a distance Castle Rouge showed itself like a giant lobster. Turrets and battlements towered over a massive wall, all in a pinkish red that was truly one of the marvels of the world. The minstrels sat up, packed their instruments and stared at the looming red presence. Ahead were days of performing, trying to catch the ear of one of the Royal Gala scouts. They entered under the great portcullis and hopped down from the wagon.
The minstrels all shook hands and headed to various parts. Argeaux walked briskly along, Jeremy trying to keep in stride. Castle Rouge was even more beautiful inside. Walls in shades from pink through to maroon. There was a glorious park just down from the central courtyard with all varieties of birds including peacocks that strutted past. In the pools were ornamental fish in a kaleidoscope of colours. In the streets of the well-to-do, stately houses with sumptuous gardens pleased the eye no end. Argeaux and Jeremy passed a number of churches all decorated with banners proclaiming the upcoming Mass of Christ.
At an intersection of two streets they came upon a crowd of men jeering and cursing loudly. At first they couldn’t see what was going on. Argeaux spied a small crate outside a shop and took it over and stood on it. Above the heads of the crowd he saw two men standing on a platform. In between them was a woman tied up to a pole, her face a picture of disgust and terror. Her dress had been pulled down to reveal a bare and bloodied back.
Argeaux flinched as one of the men struck the woman on the back with a riding whip. The woman shrieked. Some in the crowd cheered. Many were silent.
‘What in God’s name are they doing?’ Argeaux said.
An old man in front of him turned and said, ‘Broke the decency laws, she did.’
‘In what way?’
‘Was out in the street without a chaperone. Twelve strokes is the punishment.’
‘That’s madness. It’s no way to treat a woman.’ said Argeaux through gritted teeth.
The old man said, ‘It’s not that most of us agree with it. But our betters make the laws and it’s better we just go along.’
A roly-poly man in a leather jerkin said, ‘As long as they don’t speak without first being spoken to and ‘service their husbands and your higher class royals whenever they so desire, then they’ll be looked after.’
‘That’s outrageous,’ said Argeaux.
‘Says who? A dirty minstrel!’ said a man dressed in a smart doublet. He gave Argeaux a shove. Argeaux fell to the ground then sprang to his feet and squared up like a boxer from the travelling circus. The man in the doublet laughed. Then someone dragged Argeaux back by the collar.
‘Sorry, Argeaux,’ said Jeremy letting go of him after they had moved some distance from the crowd. You can’t sing a sweet lullaby with broken teeth.’
‘You are right,’ said Argeaux, dusting himself off. ‘Thanks Jeremy, let’s leave this ugly exhibition.’
They kept walking until they came to the harbour. Lively entertainments were being held on all the street corners. A juggler of fire-sticks, a conjurer on a stool pulling small animals from his hat, a huge man lifting a barrel of coal above his head near a fishmonger’s store.
Argeaux enjoyed the performers but watched with some concern. They were competition after all. If the scouts were watching maybe they had already made their selections. Slightly disheartened, he followed Jeremy into a tavern, named The Mermaid’s Delight. They were in luck as the inn was holding an open show. They both entered their names on the list and sat back with a tankard each and watched the performances. Some of the acts were very good. Some very bad. Jeremy’s name was called.
‘Good luck,’ said Argeaux, with a wink.
Jeremy sang with a beautiful voice and his lute playing was mesmerising. But he could never meet the eyes of the audience. Oftentimes he would close his eyes or look up to the ceiling. That was one advantage Argeaux had. He had the ability to reach right inside the audience and stroke their beating hearts.
The innkeeper called out Argeaux’s name. Butterflies glided across his stomach like they always did but as he stepped onto the little stage and unslung his guitar, he felt that old surge of blood, that life force, flowing through him. The innkeeper set a sand glass upside down at the front to indicate how long he had to play. Argeaux ignored the stool and stood and picked out a ditty that was always popular among sea-faring folk. There was a certain theatrical style to Argeaux’s movements, something he’d picked up from the mummer’s troupes he’d been in as a child. People stopped their chatter and paid attention.
He cleared his throat and called out in a loud voice, ‘If you appreciate my tunes, and I’m sure you will, please be free with your loose change and my assistant here will be happy to take it off your hands.’
Vezzo skipped down off Argeaux’s shoulder and stood on one of the tables in the middle of the patrons, holding out a little pouch. One drinker laughed and tossed a coin in.
Argeaux sang the song about Jason the juggler and the well-built washer woman. Some people tapped their feet while he played. A few more coins clinked into Vezzo’s pouch. Next, he sung about the randy fisherman and the mermaid, changing the title as he played to The Mermaid’s Delight. When he finished there was a burst of applause.
Argeaux had the crowd where he wanted them. With the sand in the glass nearly running out he played his final song. It was The Two Minstrels. It was a bawdy song about freedom and the forbidden love between men. The crowd sang along. Vezzo scampered about from table to table, his pouch filling fast with coins.
The sand in the glass ran out.
‘Time,’ called the innkeeper.
‘MORE-MORE-MORE,’ yelled the crowd.
‘Time’s up my friends,’ Argeaux said, making a very slow show of going back to his table.
‘Should I sing one more my friends? It’s a good song, one that I have written this very day.’
‘YES! YES! MORE!’ The crowd stomped and bashed their tankards on the tables.
‘What do you say innkeeper?’ Argeaux called over the heads of the crowd.
‘Alright. One more it is then.’
The crowd cheered. Argeaux then waved them silent. ‘Alright, alright,’ he said. ‘And don’t forget to spare a coin for Vezzo. His pouch looks pitifully empty.’
Argeaux called out each line of the lyrics before he sung them. The crowd, enthralled, liked nothing better than to sing along. When he came to the chorus they sang at the tops of their voices.
* * *
. BRAVO! BRAVO!’
The cheers of the spectators were ringing in Argeaux’s ears as he sat back down. Out of nowhere tankards were thrust under his nose. He supped at them slowly, enjoying the plaudits from the audience. A heavily tattooed man with a bushy beard came up to his table, his jaw set firmly. The man’s scent was a mixture of rotting fish and cheap brandy. Argeaux prepared to duck in case the man swung a blow.
‘All I want to say is…thank you,’ said the man, shaking his hand violently and wiping a tear from his eye.
‘Remarkable,’ said a soft voice behind him.
Argeaux turned around and saw a slender youth standing there in the raiment of a squire.
‘May I?’ asked the youth, motioning to a chair.
‘Why, of course, friend, take a seat,’ said Argeaux, putting on his charming voice. He was captivated by the youth’s appearance. He had sensuous green eyes, curly blond hair under a green cap and had pale cheeks like snow. A thin moustache grew above thick cherub-like lips. Argeaux felt a stirring from somewhere deep within. The youth looked completely out of place among all the sailors and ne’er-do-wells at the inn. Perhaps he was one of the Royal Gala scouts?
The youth stretched out his long, delicate fingers. ‘That song you sang about the women of Rouge. I have never heard it before.’
‘Why, it is true I only composed it today.’
‘I mean, I’ve never heard words like that before. No-one has ever sung such a song in Castle Rouge.’
‘It’s about time someone did.’ Argeaux studied the squire’s flawless complexion and asked, ‘Did you like it though?’
‘Oh, yes, yes. I’ve heard many songs and poems, I’ve listened to thunder in the mountains, waves breaking on the beach, I’ve heard the owl at midnight and the herring-gull at dawn but never have I heard anything that has both vexed my mind and lifted my spirits quite so much as your song.’
Argeaux smiled and raised his tankard to the young squire. ‘Thank you, good fellow. Argeaux’s the name. What’s yours?’
They spoke for some time then the squire made his farewells and expressed his hope that the minstrel would perform at the Gala concert on Christ’s Mass Eve.
‘I hope so too, Rodney,’ said Argeaux, watching the delicate figure depart the inn. Just then Vezzo came back with another pouch of coins. Argeaux fed him some raisins and scratched him behind the ear.
Argeaux sat for a while sipping his ale and watching the door where Rodney had just left. How can this youth entice me so? In truth he knew any number of male troubadours who had taken men for lovers but never felt an attraction himself before. Rodney. He liked the name. Rodney the fair. Rodney of the sweet-cherub lips. His mind spun. He felt a lump in his breeches. Maybe it was just the ale.
He turned towards the bar where the innkeeper was waving him over.
‘What is it?’
‘This,’ said the innkeeper, reaching under the counter and handing over a small metal pendant. The letters RG were inscribed on it. ‘This is your entry to the Royal Gala concert on Christ’s Mass Eve.’
Argeaux smiled half-heartedly. ‘Why thank you, good sir, but I don’t really wish to attend.’
‘It’s not a token for watching the show. I am a scout for Royal Gala. You are going to be on the bill.’
‘Aye, aye, aye,’ said Argeaux staring dumbfounded at the pendant. He leant over the bar and planted a kiss on the innkeeper’s bald head.
* * *
In the great courtyard of Castle Rouge there was barely space to swing a lute. The Christ’s Mass Eve concert had drawn in all the super wealthy and very wealthy inhabitants from near and far. Anyone who had any pretensions in society had come out to be seen. Out of sight, in the maze of streets beyond the courtyard, the lower classes milled about, listening as best they could.
Torches dipped in incense from the Blush tree glowed red and their flickering light gave the walls the appearance of dripping blood. From red-topped Marquees at the back of the courtyard patrons could buy ale, porter and warm brandy. Dozens of richly decorated Blush trees ringed the courtyard, drawing gasps from the crowds. When it was nearly time for the concert, it was a merry throng that took their seats, men at the front and women at the back as was the custom.
From the stage Argeaux peeped through a gap in the curtain. He whistled. ‘That’s quite an audience,’ he said to a large-bellied man standing next to him with a python draped across his shoulders.
The audience were getting to their feet. Argeaux followed their gaze to the side of the stage where several well dressed figures flanked by guards took their places in the Royal Box. There was a cardinal, members of the nobility, and the King himself.
‘Oh, my,’ said Argeaux, ‘who is that earthly angel near the King?’
The snake charmer looked through the curtain, the python’s darting tongue disconcertingly close to Argeaux’s nose.
‘Why, that’s Princess Rosalee. But don’t go getting any ideas. Any suitor from our class ends up swinging from a rope.’
‘Isn’t that the truth,’ said Argeaux, removing his hat at the memory of the minstrel he saw a few days before.
The show began and it was clear the crowd was not easily pleased. If they didn’t like an act they hurled rotten fruit from buckets conveniently placed among the audience.
There were a few cheers, many more boos.
The big-bellied snake charmer was called to the stage. Argeaux wished him luck although avoided shaking his hand. Something about that serpentine smile of the python he couldn’t quite trust. Poor Vezzo had made himself scarce when he realised he might be on the menu.
A few moments later there was a scream and a burst of laughter from the audience. The snake charmer came back howling in pain after his act had gone awry and the python had plunged its fangs into his arse.
The crowd were getting restless. ‘Boring! Amateurs! Was much better last year!’ Argeaux grimaced. Then he heard someone say something very peculiar. ‘We want the minstrel from The Mermaid’s Delight.’
A murmur went through the crowd. More people took up the call. A slow hand clap started. Feet stamped. When Argeaux stepped out from behind the curtain thousands of voices roared in unison.
He teased the crowd with a busy guitar solo that he had learned from a band from the Heavy Metalworkers’ guild. Then he played a toe-tapping tune made famous by Axle and Rose. A medley of Christ’s Mass carols was well received.
‘And now,’ announced Argeaux, ‘I’ve come to my last song for the night. I want to hear you sing it from the rooftops to the harbour jetty.’
Argeaux turned to the Royal Box and bowed, keeping his eyes on Princess Rosalee. Never had he seen such beauty. He winked. The Princess winked back.
‘Here we go folks.’
He sang the song that had first come to him at the crossroad. The melody glided seamlessly over the chords. The words came out just right, just right.
Just as at The Mermaid’s Delight, Argeaux led the audience in a singalong. When he got to the chorus it seemed most of them knew the words already:
‘We swear to the sun and on our mothers’ graves,
That the women of Rouge are treated like slaves.’
The crowd hushed. Then bedlam broke out. Some sang the chorus again. There were boos, cheers, shouts of delight, voices raised in anger. From the Royal Box Argeaux caught sight of gleaming pikes. Guards were marching down towards the stage.
The King stood up and bawled, ‘Stop the music. Stop the concert now!’
Then there was another voice. Princess Rosalee was also on her feet. She shouted at her father, ‘You cannot arrest a man for telling the truth.’
The King pointed a trembling finger at her. ‘You are confined to your chamber. You will only be allowed out to witness this minstrel’s execution at dawn tomorrow.’
As Argeaux was dragged away by the guards he had the pleasure of seeing the King’s twisted ugly face, as red as the castle walls, cussing like a sailor. In the courtyard groups of people were overturning chairs and singing his song while they avoided the blows of the guards.
* * *
In the dungeon beneath Castle Rouge, Argeaux sat in his cell in almost total darkness, tears rolling down his face. ‘Oh misery, misery, how has it come to this?’ he said aloud, pondering over the only decision his captors had seen fit to grant him – whether to be hanged or guillotined.
His face had been a key into many a woman’s bed. If his head was lopped off it would still be intact, he supposed. Maybe better than an ugly bloated face like the minstrel hanging by the river. Well, ’tis better to die for the truth than run meekly to the next town.
‘Aye, aye, aye,’ he said, wiping the tears from his face.
Argeaux stopped and listened awhile to the jailer’s snores. The long slow intake like a hog on heat, an extended pause, then the expulsion of air like a whistle. A perfect rhythm. He started to hum a little melody in his head over the top of it. What was the use? He would be dead in just a few hours at dawn on Christ’s Mass Day.
He became aware of a break in the rhythm. No, just my ears playing tricks. Hog’s breath – pause – whistle – hog’s breath – pause – whistle – click!
There was a scurrying sound. Dozens of rats shared the dungeons with him. This one just sounded bigger. Claws scratched against the thick oak door of his cell. He stepped back, fear slowly rising inside. Then a noise. Chitter! Chitter!
Argeaux had never been so pleased to see his companion. He came to the door and reached through the jailer’s peep hole and scratched Vezzo behind the ears. There was a jangle and Argeaux reached out and Vezzo dropped a set of keys in his hand.
‘Aye, aye, aye,’ whispered Argeaux, his heart leaping to his throat. He tried the key. Click. The door unlocked and with a very loud creak swung open. He stopped and listened to the guard snoring. He wasn’t sure what was louder, the snoring or his pounding heart.
From behind the jailer a chink of light appeared. A door! Should he follow? Better to keep his head for now than in a gory bucket at dawn. He stepped slowly around the snoring guard. The chink of light spread. He made a dash for it.
Opening the door he caught sight of a leg that quickly disappeared up the stairs. Argeaux followed as fast as he could go. After a few turns of the spiral staircase he was out into the cold night air, the outbuildings at the back of the castle casting suspicious shadows under the milky moonlight.
‘Come,’ said a soft voice.
He heard a neigh of a horse. And another. Following the voice he came to a rail with two horses tied to it. A person sat astride one of the horses.
‘Rodney, is that you?’
‘Yes, it’s me. I could not leave you.’
Argeaux could barely keeping himself from shouting with joy. Instead he said, ‘These are fine horses. How did you manage to get hold of them?’
‘Contacts at the Palace. Come on, Argeaux. Time to fly.’
In a heartbeat Argeaux mounted his horse and followed Rodney, who expertly led the way through the narrow twisting streets.
After a short ride Rodney dismounted. Argeaux did likewise. They had come close to the outer ramparts of the castle. They knelt down behind a thick hedge.
‘There’s a postern gate just over there. It’s guarded. Wait for the signal,’ Rodney whispered.
‘Right,’ said Argeaux, staring ahead, his heart still thumping madly.
The wait was unbearable. An owl hooted and Argeaux gasped. Rodney hooted as well. Then a deep voice said, ‘Come. Bring your horses.’
They walked their horses over to the voices.
‘Good to see you, Argeaux.’ It was Jeremy, a smile beaming across his face.
‘Why?…How?’ Argeaux spluttered.
‘None of us could bear the thought of singing The Troubadour’s Lament again.’ It was not only Jeremy but all the minstrels who had travelled in the wagon with him to Castle Rouge were there. Argeaux embraced each one and thanked them profusely.
Two guards lay slumped on the ground. ‘How did you overpower them?’ asked Argeaux.
Jeremy held up a broken lute and one of the other minstrels held a sad looking guitar with a snapped fretboard.
‘Ouch! Vezzo, take our pouch of coins and give it to these loyal comrades. It’s the least we can do.’
‘It’s fine,’ said Jeremy, ‘young Rodney here has seen to it already. And it looks like he is eager to be on the road.’
Argeaux saw that Rodney was already leading his horse through the postern gate, beckoning him furiously.
‘Farewell troubadours, may the Muses always be fruitful for you.’
Argeaux led his horse through the gate. Vezzo took a firm grip on his shoulder. Argeaux spurred the horse on behind Rodney who was already at a gallop some distance ahead.
They came at last to the crossroad.
Rodney began taking off his cap. Under it his hair was tied up and when he loosened a ribbon, long, curly blonde locks shone silver in the moonlight.
Argeaux’s eyes widened.
Rodney then pulled at his upper lip and ripped his moustache clean off.
’Ye gads,’ cried Argeaux. ‘Rodney? You’re…Princess Rosalee?’ Argeaux’s mouth was so far agape he could have swallowed an eel.
‘Don’t look so disappointed, Argeaux. You can still call me Rodney if you so desire it. I’m quite partial to wearing trousers if you like.’ Rosalee steered her horse towards him and leaned over and kissed him full on the lips.
‘Aye, aye, aye.’ Argeaux threw his head back and laughed. ‘Now Princess, which path shall we take?’
‘Princess no more. It’s plain old Rosalee now. Let’s see. We certainly can’t go back. To the south is where you came from I take it? Should we not go there?’
‘Perhaps not. There’s a tavern there where myself and Vezzo are not so welcome.’
‘To the east then? Where the Lilac Mountains reach into the velvet sky?’
Argeaux shook his head. There was a certain merchant’s wife he would prefer to avoid – and her husband.
‘So, it appears our road lies to the north. What sayest thou, my handsome minstrel?’
‘North it is.’
Argeaux nodded and wheeled his horse and followed Rosalee down the road less travelled.