I was told I must swear fealty to William the Bastard. He had taken England, made himself king, fealty was required. But I did not swear and none could make me. He could kill me, or rather order his men to kill me. But he would not, because he wanted to use me.
I was never loyal to King William. All my oaths I swore to Sir Gilbert.
Gilbert—he was fiercely, stupidly loyal to William, so it amounted to the same thing, but never mind. William used Gilbert as he used us all, for what we could do; for the curses we carried. The difference was William owed Gilbert. Gilbert was politic and knew how to ask for favors, such that William granting them seemed like generosity and not indebtedness. And Gilbert used those favors to protect the rest of us. I saw it from the first.
Other chronicles have written much about those times, when England ceased to be what it had been. The great apocalypse. I will not tell that history over again. Instead I will begin at my place in the tale, the moment I first saw Gilbert.
Mother Ursula brought me to the yard in front of the abbey. She stood apart, just out of arm’s reach. She did not want me touching her.
Three Norman warriors stood waiting. They might have been knights, even. I could not tell such things, but they carried swords and those domed helmets. Their belted tunics were worn, stained with mud and miles. I stopped just outside the door and stared at them. The nuns and novices had gathered in the yard to gape.
“You must come forward, Joan. Come!” Ursula jerked her hand as if she were calling a dog to be punished.
One of the knights stood a little ahead of the others. His hood was thrown back. He was clean-shaven, young. Not even crow’s feet at his eyes. He had a serious set to his mouth, as if he bore more responsibility than he expected or wanted.
Mother Ursula ruled the abbey of St. Edith, but she bowed her head to this young man, deferential. He spoke to her in Latin. I recognized two words: puella incendiara. The burning girl.
At a gesture from Ursula, one of the nuns ran back to the hall and returned with an unlit candle, one of the big beeswax ones used to light the chapel sanctuary. I knew what this meant: these knights had demanded a demonstration. At the sight of that candle, I nearly cried. I did not understand, did not want to understand, but I knew what was happening.
Ursula held the candle to me. “You must show Sir Gilbert what you are.”
“Mother Abbess, you said that I must never—”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“But you said that I would be damned—”
“Joan! If you do not do this for Sir Gilbert, the Norman army will destroy the abbey and all of us with it. Please.”
Mother Ursula did not have to beg for anything, particularly not from a low-born novice placed here out of charity and fear. A scrawny, awkward novice, coifed and shrouded in threadbare gray and carrying the Devil’s spark. But she begged now.
I held the candle before me where the Normans could see it. Its weight was potential; the wick beckoned. Already the spark rose up under my skin. Mother Ursula could not put a candle in my hand and expect I would do nothing.
I touched the wick. The candle lit, a tongue of fire flaring and settling.
“Mon Dieu.” This was whispered by the wiry, chestnut-haired man standing to Sir Gilbert’s right. The nuns made the sign of the cross.
Sir Gilbert smiled.
Her voice was taut with fear even as she sighed with relief. “Joan, you will go with these knights.”
I swallowed back my racing heart. “I cannot go with them, I cannot go alone with these men—”
Gilbert raised a hand and spoke softly to the knight on his left, who was tall and somber. This one pulled back a hood—and revealed braided hair, a beardless jaw, and a woman’s eyes. Then he spoke to me in thick and simple English. “You go with Ann. No harm to you.”
Ursula’s voice was stretched. “You must go with them, child. Or they will destroy us.”
Gilbert gazed on stonily. Yes, he would destroy the abbey.
I was being sold to Normans.
Mother Ursula had never been kind to me. I lived here alone in a stone cell, apart from all the others. No one ever came near me. I was cursed and damned already, whether I stayed with the English or went with the Normans.
No harm, this man said. I should not believe him, but I wanted to.
I blew out the candle, set it on the ground, and went to stand before Sir Gilbert. I came up to his shoulder; he seemed to fill the yard all by himself. Gilbert and Ursula exchanged more words in Latin. Then he spoke in Norman-French to the knight on his right, who nodded and ran. No, he did not run; he flew, racing away almost faster than the eye could see, leaving a burst of dust in his wake. A wondrous power. The Devil’s touch.
I was not the only damned one here.
Gilbert said in his thick English, “Felix tells army to pass by. No harm. My banner on your door. The abbey, safe.” Ursula’s shoulders slouched and a tear slipped down her cheek.
How was it that my small life should buy so much? Mother Ursula ought to be grateful, but she did not look at me. Never looked on me again. None of them did, all the nuns and novices. They seemed so cold, and none of them offered to say farewell. They sent me to the enemy with no remorse.
I had nothing to bring with me but my clothes.
There were three horses tied up outside the abbey’s low wall. I could not ride, I did not want to ride... But the woman, Ann, was already atop the big gray, and she reached down to me.
No one had ever been willing to touch my hand, not since I came to St. Edith’s. But she reached to me, took my hand, and pulled. Somehow, I landed in the saddle behind her. As soon as the horse started moving I was sure I would fall off. The big, rolling, jostling movements rattled my head and shook my spine. I wrapped my arms around Ann’s middle and prayed to the God that Mother Ursula had always said would not listen to me.
Felix came running back within the hour, meeting us on the road. At the abbey, we had thought the army was much farther away, several days’ travel at least, but this man had crossed the distance easily. The horses flinched at the rushing of air and dust that accompanied his skidding stop. He reported to Gilbert, then got up on the third horse, because even someone who could run so fast grew tired.
We went south and met the harrowing.
The last Saxon lords in the north had rebelled, rebelled again, defended poor King Harold’s would-be heir fleeing to Scotland, and finally William the Bastard had enough and sent his army to raze the land.
To the south and east, farmland and villages burned. We choked on the smoke that filled the sky. Hundreds fled. Whole families with all they owned on their backs or loaded on handcarts filled roads and fields; a river of people stumbled along, staring ahead with blank haunted expressions, the weeping long finished. Even the children were silent. They moved with no destination in mind, just trying to get away, away. We had been safe in the abbey, except there had not been enough to eat. That would get worse. With the farms burned, soon no one would have enough to eat.
On their big warhorses, Gilbert’s company, so plainly the enemy, cut right through the fleeing crowds. Folk scattered and were left stumbling, as in the eddy of a stream, staring in confusion and consternation. Sometimes, confusion turned to helpless fury and hurled curses. Sometimes, one of them hefted a pitchfork or ax they’d managed to rescue from their burning homes and charged.
They never came within an arm’s length of Gilbert’s horses. Somehow, they seemed to trip and fall back, or it would be as if they met a wall and stood with unnatural stillness, arms upraised, helplessly cursing. And so Gilbert’s company trotted on fearlessly through a sea of its enemies.
I stared back at these people who had Saxon features like me, not like these tall, fair Norman warriors. My people, dispossessed of everything, burned out by the Conqueror’s army and fleeing their lands. On horseback, I floated above them, borne away by some fate outside my control. I could fall, I thought. Slide off the back of the horse and run... Or I would break against the hard ground and be finished. I stayed put.
Ann called to Gilbert, who answered. Felix laughed. I understood nothing. Only that these people had gone to a lot of trouble to get me, and they must need me for some reason. I could not even ask them why.
At sunset, we stopped at a camp some ways off the road, by some trees near the bend in a stream. A trio of tents were pitched around a rock-ringed fire with a pot set up over it. The smell of cooking stew displaced the smoke. My belly spoke; I hadn’t thought I was hungry. I was also dusty, thirsty, exhausted, morose. Gilbert’s company had dared not stop among the refugees. Even a knight could be brought down by an angry crowd.
But now, at last, we stopped. Gilbert dismounted, then Felix, who took the reins and led off the horses. From Ann’s horse I looked down at the ground and wondered how I was going to get there. I could not simply swing my leg over the way they could. I tried, and tumbled. But Gilbert caught me and set me upright. Ann dismounted much more elegantly and gave me a wry look. As if I were a chore she’d rather not face.
I stood planted, uncertain, staring at the three who were already here.
Sitting with legs crossed was a man with brown skin, dressed in the wool and leather of a warrior. He wore his dark hair in a tail down his back, and a crow perched on his shoulder. Gilbert called him Ibrahim.
Next was a beautiful woman with cinnamon hair in a long thick braid, wearing a green belted tunic. Her mouth was full and smiling. She studied me closely, so much so that I looked away. For the last five years I had only seen women cloistered and veiled, somber and judgmental. They might have smiled and laughed, but they never did so around me. Rather, they furtively escorted me from my cell to chapel and the garden to work and back, avoiding my touch. As if they might burn just being near me. This woman’s openness was disconcerting.
The third was a monk of middle years, wearing a thick dark habit, his tonsure well trimmed, a wooden cross around his neck. He rose and came forward, arms wide, and he and Gilbert clapped each other on the shoulders.
The monk looked past Gilbert to me. “Is this all you found?”
I brightened. He spoke English.
“It is,” Gilbert answered, and the monk sighed with what seemed to be sadness.
“I had hoped... never mind. You are welcome, child. I am Brother Edwin.”
I tried to say my name, but my mouth stuck.
“She is Joan,” Gilbert said. “Is shy.”
The beautiful woman said something quickly and handed a cup to Gilbert. He passed it on to me. “Isabelle asks... thirsty?”
It was water. I drank it all down and blinked back, at a loss. Gilbert said a word—French for water. I nearly started crying, then. I had not asked to be brought here among strangers. But I did not want to go back. I didn’t belong anywhere.
“Rest here,” he said, and I folded right there, on the ground by the fire, blinking back tears. I pulled off my veil and coif, baring my head. My cut hair stuck out all over like a nest.
Felix glanced at me and said something merry. There were chuckles. Gilbert replied curtly, and they subsided. Listening to speech I did not understand made me so very tired. Even my mind became stiff and sore.
The monk, Edwin, said kindly, “You will have to learn French quickly so you will know when they’re teasing you. They like to tease.”
“What did he say?”
“That you look like a kitten thrown in a pond and pulled back out again.”
Isabelle began scooping stew from a pot into bowls, passing them around. The brown man, Ibrahim, took a piece and offered it to the crow on his shoulder, who snapped it up with a clacking bill. The talk went on around me and might as well have been birdsong. A noise in the air.
Brother Edwin sat nearby, but not too close. Like the nuns at St. Edith. “Have you taken vows, child?”
“I’m not a child. I’m fifteen.”
“All right. Have you taken vows?”
I thought of what would happen if I said yes, or if I said no, and how my answer might change my fate. I could not guess, so I told the truth. “I’m only a novice. I don’t think Mother Ursula would ever let me take vows. She says I am damned.”
He frowned. “You know you are not. You have only the sins that any of us have.”
“How do you know?”
“I believe God made us as we are for a reason.”
Us. We. What could he do? What power had damned him? I shivered. “God made us, not the Devil?”
“No, not the Devil,” he said firmly, crossing himself.
Gilbert studied me. He did not seem to believe I was made by the Devil, either. But he was Norman, what did he know?
“You, safe here,” Gilbert said. So confident in this declaration. “Belong here.”
“No one is safe! Your army is burning everything. Everyone will starve—”
Gilbert glanced at Edwin, who translated. Gilbert’s smile went crooked.
“I send you back? So they burn you, for what you do?” He broke a stick and threw it in the fire. It seemed to make him angry, that Saxons burned those cursed by the Devil. The Normans did not.
I stared at the stew in my bowl. I should eat. It smelled good and I was hungry. “They already tried. They put me in the fire, but...”
I reached into the fire, and the flames parted around my hand. A warm touch, a caress. I picked up the stick Gilbert had thrown in. Drew it out and held it in my palm, watching buttery flames melt harmlessly across my skin. Dropped it back and brushed off the ash. “They put me in the fire and I did not burn.” I had lived in a cell at St. Edith’s ever since, praying for salvation.
They all stared at me, and yes, there was the fear. Even from them. Just a bit, mixed up with awe and wonder. Except for Gilbert, whose expression softened to kindness.
The beautiful woman, Isabelle, asked something. Probably, “What did she say?” Edwin answered, and she put her hand over her mouth in horror. Such pity in her eyes. The others, they looked away. Ibrahim said something harsh that was clearly a curse.
“Child. You should eat, please.” Edwin nodded at my bowl. I only managed a few bites. My eyes stung and everything felt awful. After dark, Isabelle, who seemed very much to want to do something, anything, put a blanket over my shoulders. I flinched at first. She persisted, and so I hugged the cloth close without looking up. Curled up on my side, I stared at the fire that was like a comforting touch, a warmth brushing my cheeks, and fell asleep.
I awoke inside one of the tents. I’d been moved and hadn’t known it. The blanket was tucked up around me. I was alone. Calm, and... safe. A muted light painted the canvas, and the soft patter of raindrops fell against it. This promised to be a wet, chilled morning.
A cry of frustration sounded outside, along with a bit of laughter.
The rain stopped.
Scratching my bristly head, I pulled the blanket around me and looked out. The clouds parted as I watched, thick gray breaking up into a golden morning haze. Isabelle stood, arms stretched, a gentle wind flicking the loose strands of hair around her cheeks when no wind touched the nearby trees. She smiled up at the sky, and the clouds moved away with the gestures of her hand.
Isabelle commanded the weather. I was astonished.
Edwin saw me watching. “Wouldn’t want to pack up a wet camp, would we?”
I supposed we would not.
A small cart pulled by a mule had been drawn up. Tents were folded, cooking pots settled. A bundle of spears was visible under a length of canvas. Ann and Ibrahim were saddling horses.
Gilbert wore a simple tunic this morning but did not have on his belt and sword.. “Ah! Good morning, Joan. You are well?”
I scratched my hair again and shrugged. I did not know if I was well. Isabelle beamed and quickly brought over a dish of porridge. She fussed. She seemed so happy to have a thing smaller and more delicate than she was to care for. I gaped at her a bit.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“We wait. For message,” Gilbert said. “Then we know.”
“You go looking for others like me?”
He paused, his hand resting on the side of the cart. “There are no others.”
Brother Edwin had started dismantling the tent behind me, pulling down poles and folding fabric, all by himself with little effort, it seemed. He said, “Have you never met anyone else who had a power? A mirabile?”
Latin. A wonder. A miracle. I shook my head.
He took a knife out of his belt, a small and slender utensil for eating. Holding it in both hands, he bent the blade. Folded it on itself as if it were tallow, with no effort at all. He offered it to me, and I could not help but try to bend it back, but it was steel. Gilbert said something in grouchy French.
Edwin took the knife back and tried to straighten it, but a kink remained, a swerve in the metal. “He says I ruin a lot of knives. He’s right.”
Meanwhile, Ann knelt near the fire, took off a glove, put a bare hand on the ground—which split open. A small crevice appeared and traveled toward the remaining embers, swallowing them up. With a crunch and puff of dust, the crevice closed back up again, and the fire was out. All clear. She didn’t even glance over to see what I thought. This was just what she did: opened the earth to put out fires.
I was beginning to be frightened again. More frightened. Each of them... could they all work wonders? It was too much.
“What do you do?” I asked Gilbert, who was watching me.
“Never mind,” he said. His smile flickered like a flame and vanished.
“He’s shy, too,” Edwin said. “One thing our Gilbert does is collect people like us. Good of him, I think. Better than being burned.” Spoken like a man who had avoided being burned, and not the way I had.
A shadow passed over us—a crow, circling. A second crow; the first was still perched on Ibrahim’s shoulder. He reached up, and the bird tilted its wings and descended, swooping in on a rustle of feathers and coming to land on his gloved hand. He bent his head to the bird’s, murmuring. Speaking to it. That was his miracle.
Gilbert asked him a question, and Ibrahim answered. Edwin’s expression turned serious.
“The king has summoned us,” Edwin said. “Well, Joan. You will soon meet William of Normandy himself.”
William the Bastard. William the Conqueror, who had destroyed the England that had been, and whom Gilbert served.
What was to become of me?
I did not want to meet William of Normandy.
I also did not want to flee alone into a countryside being razed. Gilbert and his company fed me, at least.
I did not want to learn French, but I could not help it, the way one could not help but learn a bit of Latin listening to prayers. Especially when Brother Edwin was a good teacher, saying a thing in English and then again in French, all lined up, until the sounds became words and not noise. I tried, but I spoke badly. On my tongue, French words sounded like a goat bleated them, not watery and elegant the way Isabelle said them. But she lit up and praised me excessively whenever I repeated her, so it was hard to refuse.
Even though my shorn hair made me look like a wet kitten, I left the veil off. I was not a nun, I did not want to be a nun, but that left me a raggedy-haired, gaunt-faced girl, a thing to be pitied. But I was in the sun, at least. Out of the cell. If not free then at least not caged.
I did not want a lot of things. As for what I did want—how could I tell? I had never been allowed to want anything, and I did not know where to start.
William’s army was camped a short march away from York, which was still held by Saxon earls and their Danish mercenaries. The others rode, but Edwin walked with the cart, leading the mule, and I walked beside him. We soon encountered the first of the Norman camps. Hundreds of soldiers went helmeted and armored. Wary, they had posted guards, and Gilbert called to them. His banner, a black arrow on gold, hung from a spear tied upright in the cart, marked him.
The soldiers, Gilbert’s fellow Normans, did not smile at him. Did not banter. They watched him and the rest of us coolly and kept a good distance from us. Gilbert’s own company became somber, traveling among the army. Ibrahim’s crows flew off and stayed away. Gilbert seemed not to notice that William’s soldiers did not like him. That they looked at him the way the nuns of St. Edith’s looked at me.
Nervously, I wondered if I would know it when we came to the king. If I would recognize him from all the rest of the army. I shouldn’t have worried. The king’s own encampment was large and spread out. Many guards, many camp fires. A muddy road had been worn into the field leading up to it.
Edwin glanced at me and said to Gilbert, “Perhaps we should make camp and rest awhile before going to see the king.” As if resting would make this any easier. We were all muddy to our knees and smelled of smoke and ash.
“No,” Gilbert said. He would not delay; he would report to his lord immediately.
Gilbert’s odd company left the horses and cart with stablemen outside the royal encampment and continued on. Ibrahim and Isabelle hung back; Ann stood apart, glowering. Felix bounced on his feet a little as if he would rather run away. Edwin stood near Gilbert, his chin up. They put me between them, like a prisoner.
Gilbert said, “His Grace the king... will want to see your fire. You show him? Please?”
“I could do nothing. He’ll think you made a mistake and that I have no use at all.”
He tilted his head, an agreement. “I cannot force. And, how you say... I might still send you back. To the abbey. You want this? To go back?”
“No. Oh, no.” Even after just a few days in the air, I could not go back.
Brother Edwin said, “Joan, I believe there is... some joy in using this miracle God has granted us.” Gilbert nodded as if to say, yes, that was what he wanted to say.
He added, choosing each word. “If it comes from God or the Devil... is in its use. Do you help or harm? How do you say...” A string of French. I recognized the word for candle, and light.
“Have you ever done anything but light candles, he asks,” Edwin said patiently.
I had taken bits of straw from my bed and scattered them across my cell, then burned them up one by one to see how far I could throw my sparks, and how quickly. I could never do more without being discovered. Without burning down my own room, which wouldn’t have hurt me but would have lost me my home. I did not know how much I could do with my spark.
Gilbert nodded, understanding. “I want torches,” he said. “Bonfires. Beacons. To see... what is possible.” His tone was mischievous.
“What is your... miracle? I still don’t know.”
He merely raised a brow and shrugged.
We waited in the yard before the grandest tent, and the king emerged, pushing back a flap.
He was fair-haired, full bearded, broad shouldered. Arms made strong from wielding weapons. He moved with a sureness that obstacles would fall before him. His glare instantly found Gilbert, and he strode forward, unafraid. Conqueror, unconcerned that he was also Bastard. His clothing was rough and sturdy, stained with sweat, his boots scuffed. Not at all dressed like a king, but he did not need to be.
I shrank back and hid behind Edwin, but the king saw me, studied me.
Gilbert bowed low and spoke deferentially. William put his hand on Gilbert’s shoulder and raised him up. These two were close. I was fairly certain William said, “What have you found for me, Gilbert?”
Both Gilbert and Edwin stepped aside, revealing me. I met the king’s gaze. He frowned skeptically. They spoke so quickly that I could not hope to understand.
Then Gilbert turned to me. “He asks to see fire.”
William’s army burned the villages and fields of the north with mundane fire, brands and torches they must light themselves. If William ordered me to take part in the burning, I would refuse. Surely Gilbert knew I must refuse.
“A small thing,” Gilbert said. “Please.” He said the please in French.
I looked around the camp and all the soldiers staring back at me. None of them knew what I would do. I could burn the tent. I could burn everything. Well, no, I could not. I could start a flame that would be easily put out. I could start a dozen and cause an uproar. And I would be killed in the next moment. I could not be burned, but an arrow through my heart...
Gilbert’s expression was eager, his eyes alight. I could set fire to the tent and he might not even mind, because at least he could see what I could do. He nodded as if to say, go on, it’s all right.
It was all right.
Gilbert wanted bonfires. I wanted them too, I decided. A candle would not impress the king. I could do more than impress him. I could make him afraid.
Some ways behind the royal tent was a line of picketed horses and a cart full of sheaves of hay. Sheaves of hay were much like a candle, only larger. A spark flared in my palm, and between one thought and the next, a thread of smoke rose up from the top of the pile. Tongues of flame danced along a dozen stalks of hay, which burst into flames until the whole cart was engulfed.
Horses squealed and spooked, men cried out. Some ran away, others ran forward with buckets of water, but the fire burned very hot, and the hay and cart were quickly consumed and fell to ash, with only a few embers and stray flames remaining.
William crossed himself. Gilbert laughed, a big, triumphant sound. That of a boy showing off some great feat.
He was not afraid of me. He... was not afraid.
After that, William took Gilbert aside, near his great tent, to speak with him. His somber knights and lords stood intently at his back. Ignoring the flurry of panic as his soldiers put out the fire and calmed the horses, William made urgent gestures and seemed to be pleading with Gilbert, who shook his head.
The rest of us clustered together, a wide space around us. Any who passed us did so with wary, sidelong glances and often crossed themselves. It was tiresome. Edwin attempted a comforting smile. I was not comforted. A crow flew in and perched on Ibrahim’s shoulder. It squawked and muttered, anxiously kneading its claws on his tunic. As worried as the rest of us. He finally whispered to it and it flew off.
Their voices became shouts, in angry French. I recognized a few words. Gilbert saying now and then, But... if you please... sir... and the king replying, You must. You will. I command it. Gilbert gestured. The king stood implacably. Gilbert pleaded. The king touched his shoulder in a way that would have seemed like camaraderie, if Gilbert’s head hadn’t bowed the moment William turned away.
Felix cursed. Isabelle covered her face with her hands. Ibrahim and Ann merely frowned fatalistically.
“What are they saying?” I asked. “They speak too fast. What did they say?”
Edwin’s lips worked, uncertain, but finally he explained, “The king wants us to take York.”
The great walled northern city. The stronghold of the last Saxon lords of England.
I said, “He wants you to help take York...”
“No.” Edwin smiled weakly. “This task he has given to Gilbert’s company alone.”
The awful and astonishing truth of it was that Gilbert’s company might just be able to do it. Six people to break a siege and end any further opposition to William’s rule.
Without a word, Sir Gilbert led his company back to the horses and cart and brought them to camp apart from William’s army. I could not tell if he wished for them to be alone or if the rest of the army did not want them too close. Gilbert served the king, but he was not part of the king’s army, not really.
“Can you do the honor?” Edwin asked me, putting together fuel and kindling for the cook fire.
“You will forget how to light fires yourself.” I knelt and put my hand on the wood, breathed out, and felt flames rise up. Useful flames, contained, after a whole life of being told never to do such things.
Gilbert finally broke his silence when food was set to cooking. He spoke in French, but his tone was that of a man making plans. I understood some of it. Words like walls and river and fall. Gilbert said rain and wind while looking at Isabelle, and watch while looking at Ibrahim. Break the gate while looking at Edwin, who nodded somberly and did not seem to mind that he made war against his own people.
Because they weren’t really his people. His own people were here, with Gilbert.
I could imagine it. How Ann could undermine the walls, how Edwin’s strength could tear a gate off its hinges, how Felix could knock weapons out of the defenders’ hands and be gone before they knew he’d been there, and how Isabelle could bring torrential rains and fog. Ibrahim’s birds could watch from high above and carry messages to Gilbert about the city’s weaknesses and where to strike next. Gilbert himself... I did not know what he could do. After they broke open the walls and routed the defenders, William’s army would come to occupy the city. Simple, yes?
Gilbert did not look at me. He did not make me part of the plan. Even though... I could make so much destruction, if I wanted.
“What about me?” I asked finally.
“You stay with Ibrahim and Isabelle,” Gilbert said. Ibrahim’s sword would protect us while his birds scouted. Then he chuckled a little. “William, he thinks your fire makes us, how you say... invincible. But I will not ask you to fight against your people.”
Gilbert was not asking me to burn the city. I could. I had not seen York, but I had heard of its walls of stone, its stone churches and abbeys. However, the houses within would be wood and thatch, and I could send fire to them, too much fire for the people to put out, and Isabelle could send wind to fan the flames, and Ann build up earthworks and dig moats so that no one could escape—
It was too easy to think about. I did not want to burn the city. Gilbert did not ask, so that I would not have to say no. I hugged my legs to my chest and stayed quiet.
After some back and forth the plan was settled. We would set out in the morning, in secret. Gilbert urged his company to sleep. He touched my shoulder and smiled kindly before going off to his tent.
If I was going to run away, this would have been the night to do it. I could even make my way to York and warn the defenders... And then what? They could not defend against what was coming. And if they learned what I was, they would not be kind.
“You are uncertain,” Edwin said to me. In English. Strange, to suddenly understand every word in a sentence after feeling slow and stupid.
“I don’t know what to do,” I said.
“Gilbert thinks it isn’t fair to ask you to be part of this. You are so young, and your talents still untried.”
“I need to practice first, he thinks.”
“You need to learn your own mind, first.”
He and Gilbert seemed so different on the one hand, a monk and a warrior, age and youth. But they also, strangely, seemed to journey the same path.
“How did you learn yours?” I asked.
“I am called by God. My abbey... turned me out. Gilbert was there waiting. Saxon or Norman, I believe God’s message to me was clear. This is a good man and I do not regret following him.”
“Even if it means making war against Saxons?”
He chuckled a little. “I am from the south. Some would say the men of the north are barely my countrymen, their Danish blood is so thick and their manners so rude. But... I think we can take the city more quickly and more cleanly than William’s army, and I believe that would please God.”
“But how do you know?”
“Goodness, child. I don’t. I can’t. I pray a lot. But you know you are safer here, with us, than anywhere else in England right now, yes?”
I believed that, yes.
Gilbert led us cross-county on a route Felix and Ibrahim scouted to avoid burning fields and fleeing refugees. We left the camp and horses behind, traveling light. I got to see what it meant to live as a warrior in the world.
We crossed one of the rivers and found a small rise from which to view the city. The famous walls were a gray haze in the distance, so that the city seemed like a lurking creature. Ibrahim’s birds flew over and returned to tell him what they saw.
Gilbert altered the plan. Edwin would go first, approach the gate, tell them what was about to befall them, and ask for surrender.
“They’ll kill him! Even if he is a monk!” I said, in English. But I had understood enough of the French to be able to respond. Gilbert raised a brow at me, to acknowledge.
“Not with sword or arrow they won’t,” Edwin said, wearing a wry half smile. “What gives me my strength makes me so that weapons cannot harm me. I’ll be fine.” He could have been the greatest warrior in all the world. But he was a monk.
So he went to the city, and no one was worried at all.
He returned at dusk. The defenders had laughed, and he did not seem surprised.
“Tomorrow,” Gilbert said, and urged us all to get some sleep.
I could not sleep. We did not have a fire, to keep Saxon scouts from finding us. Our camp was in a small glen, but if I walked just a few paces up the hill, I could see the nighttime city, alight with the glow of torches. Soldiers on the wall were just visible, walking back and forth, blocking the light when they did. The orange light of flames, misted with smoke.
Too far to send the spark under my skin, but I imagined I could still feel the fires calling to me.
Ann was pretending to sleep. Isabelle was not; I could see her eyes gleaming in starlight as she lay, staring up. Ibrahim and Felix set a watch, though Gilbert had said it was not needed. Owls would tell Ibrahim if danger came close. Edwin had propped himself up against a tree and seemed to sleep, but I was sure he also was pretending. I sat hugging my knees, too afraid of what would happen if I closed my eyes.
Gilbert came and sat near me. He seemed so calm. He had probably been in battles before. “You... not tired?”
I was very tired. The world was tiring, and French was a muddle in my head, and I would never forget the smell of burning villages as long as I lived.
“Why do... this?” I asked.
“Do what?” he said wearily, and I thought, aha, he does feel the weight of this.
I could not think of how to say it in French, so I mixed up the words. But he understood me. “Fight William’s battles for him.”
“I swear to serve. Fealty,” he said, lip curled, as if the English word for it felt strange.
“To be a knight... is to serve.”
“And win lands and favor,” Edwin put in archly from his spot by his tree. So no, he did not sleep.
“Then you do it for the reward?”
Gilbert scowled. “You ask many questions.”
I sagged. “Because I don’t understand anything. Brother Edwin, why do you follow Gilbert and wage war against your own people?”
“We talked about this already. You should sleep.” He snugged more firmly against the tree and still did not sleep.
“Why does Isabelle follow you?”
She blinked bright brown eyes at Gilbert. “What does she say?”
That was French. I understood it. I had asked that exact question myself so often. The language was seeping into me.
“She asks why you follow me,” Gilbert said, and I understood that too.
“Gilbert is a good man,” she said, and continued with words I did not know.
Gilbert explained, “She say... she had nothing, before. Was lost. And... this is her family now.”
“And the others? Would they all say the same?”
“Do not know,” he said, picking at grass. “I do not know why. Why me, why... this. I do not know. But I do know—we are safer together than apart. We stay together, we are safe.”
How could he say he felt safe, how any of them could be safe, when he would lead them against the walled city in the morning?
Gilbert looked at me and spoke English. “You not trust me.”
“No. I don’t know. I don’t know what I should think.”
He chuckled. “Then... know what you want? If you could choose.”
I thought a moment. I didn’t know what was possible to want. I was such a child. “To grow out my hair,” I said finally, scratching my head, the nest that was still too short to brush out but getting too long to leave alone.
“Done. No one will make you cut your hair.”
He could declare it, just like that. “To see the ocean. I have never seen the ocean.”
“When this over? We see ocean.”
I considered. “And I would like a great hall with a hundred servants.”
He laughed. “I also like that.” And his smile fell. “Sleep, Joan. Sleep now.” He pulled a blanket over his shoulders and moved a little ways off. He closed his eyes but didn’t sleep any more than the rest of us.
In the morning, Edwin set aside his monastic robes and wore a warrior’s garb like the others. He, Ann, Felix, and Gilbert gathered to approach the city. Even knowing what they were, I still did not believe they could do anything against the walls and all the soldiers there.
They left Ibrahim, Isabelle, and me behind.
Gilbert gave instructions. I understood only a few words—signal, crows, and storm—but I did not have to ask what would happen. Ibrahim clasped his hand and nodded. A dozen crows perched in trees around us, cawing and muttering. He signaled to them, and they took to the air in a flurry of black wings. One stayed behind, taking up a post on his shoulder.
“Be safe, sir,” Isabelle said, and stood on her toes to kiss Gilbert’s cheek. Then she put her arm over my shoulder. “We watch. It is well.” She said more, but that was all I understood.
We stayed sheltered by a stand of alders. I had nothing to do but watch.
For the next few hours, we watched the city, which remained unchanging to my eyes. Whatever was happening, I could not see it. I had never seen a battle and could not guess what one looked like. The plain outside the city was hazy with a winter chill.
Ibrahim shaded his eyes suddenly. “There,” he said.
The haze shifted. A puff of dust rose, as when we shook out rugs and blankets in the abbey yard. Then, part of the wall that ran along the river seemed to fold. A crack broke the stone, and the whole thing fell inward, as if pushed by giant hands. The low rumbling sound of breaking stone reached us a moment later. The falling structure must have crushed a dozen men.
“Ann,” Ibrahim said with a smile, and it took me a moment to recognize he’d said the name and not some other word. The next thing that happened: a crow cried out as it flapped overhead. “Now, Isabelle.”
She stepped forward and raised her arms.
The wind came up so fiercely it brought a mass of dust that scoured the top of the remaining length of wall. I almost believed I could hear shouting, screams of men falling. It was my imagination, though, because the storm roared; I could hear nothing else. Isabelle stood serenely. The ends of her hair tossed a little; her skirt rippled. Her hand was upraised as if she greeted approaching travelers. She donned a small satisfied smile. There is some pleasure in being useful. Using what we could do instead of hiding away.
She was so kind and cheerful she could not be a tool of the Devil, but then this was exactly the sort of deception the Devil would offer, wasn’t it? So fair, so powerful.
What more Gilbert’s company did, we could not see from here. Ibrahim watched for crows that would return to tell him how things progressed. But the crows didn’t speak first. A chorus of chattering erupted, a dozen or more songbirds in the trees around us.
“Down!” Ibrahim shouted, grabbing my arm and pulling me to the ground. Isabelle dropped, and arrows flew over us, thudding into tree trunks. Ibrahim reached for her. She took his hand, and we lay still a moment, hiding, holding our breaths for what came next. The birds still screamed warnings; this wasn’t over.
Ibrahim tilted his head, looked, and cursed. I saw it, then. The arrows had traveled in the wrong direction; they did not come from the city but from the south. From the direction of the Norman camp. Soldiers—wearing domed helmets, dressed in Norman tabards—appeared soon after, a pair with swords and a pair with bows, trotting toward the copse.
“But why?” I exclaimed.
Ibrahim stood and drew his sword. “You two, run. Find Gilbert. Run!”
Isabelle got to her feet, clenching her fists at her side. “No, I won’t—”
Ibrahim tried to argue. “Isabelle!”
She joined her hands together and slammed them down as if swinging an ax.
Such wind. A terrible, ear-shattering, scouring wind rose up from nowhere and blasted through the trees. Ibrahim put his arm up to protect his face and sheltered behind her. The soldiers—they tried to keep their feet. They tried to press forward toward their quarry. The bow was ripped out of an archer’s hand. Another stumbled and tried to crawl forward on hands and knees.
Ibrahim hissed at me, “Joan, you run. Find Gilbert.” His crows could not fly in this storm.
More soldiers came up behind the first. They circled ’round. I did not know if Isabelle would be able to stop them all. Ibrahim would defend her with his sword, as much as he could—
“Run!” he said.
I ran, hoping the archers would not see me and take aim, my breath catching in my throat with every step. The wind fell away the moment I left the trees. Isabelle aimed her power like a spear.
Another group of Norman soldiers advanced up the river, swords drawn. They had waited until the city fell, until Gilbert’s company had done their work... and now, the army had no more use for such dangerous tools. Gilbert had said I would be safe...
Where was Gilbert? How could I find him? I glanced overhead, looking for crows, and saw none. Not until I came upon a dead one in the field, with an arrow through it. They were killing Ibrahim’s crows.
What could I burn? I had nothing to burn.
A burst of wind passed by. This one was brief, stopping abruptly as Felix skidded in a cloud of dust. “Joan!”
I cried. The tears just came out. “I must find Gilbert, where is Gilbert—” My jumble of English and French was incomprehensible, even to me, and Felix just stared. I asked, “Gilbert?”
“Soldiers hunt us,” he said, or I thought he said. “Gilbert is there, west. He tells me to warn—”
“Ibrahim and Isabelle!” I pointed back the way I had come. “They fight, they need help!”
He looked up the hill to our shelter, consternation twisting his features. The trees no longer bent in a fierce wind, and I did not know what that meant. What had happened to Isabelle?
Felix shuffled his feet, seeming torn between running back to Gilbert or helping Ibrahim and Isabelle. “Go help them,” I said.
“But you...” He spoke quickly, of course he did, though I only understood a few words. How will you be safe?
He barely knew me. None of them did. Why should they look after me?
I could not explain further than I already had. The spark was building under my skin. “Them, help them!” I said, and pushed him.
He vanished in wind and dust. I kept on toward the city.
Up ahead, near the break in the walls, I saw the signs of what must have been battle. The chaos I had looked for earlier. Dust and shouting, soldiers falling. All of it centered on one figure. I approached as if invisible, my gray robe part of the dust around me. As I watched, details resolved.
And I swear on my knees before the Blessed Virgin that Sir Gilbert was holding off an army all by himself, with no weapon.
He reached out his arm as if to stay stop—and they stopped. Soldiers fell back as if they had crashed headlong into a wall and then were dragged through the dirt away from him. He did not need a sword when his attackers could not get within thirty paces of him. He kept them away by will alone. This was his power: to move a thing without touching it. He kept a space around him, knocking down his assailants, over and over. He could have crushed them all, snapped their necks with a thought. But he was trying not to kill his fellow Normans. My God, why try to keep them alive when they meant to murder him?
At first they came at him in a melee, charging from all sides as if each raced to be the one to reach him first, to strike the killing blow, though none of them could. Then some commander shouted, and they organized. In clusters of three or four men, they circled ’round him. Gilbert turned this way and that, trying to keep them all in view, the group in front of him, the one to the side, the one behind. This one attacked from the rear, and Gilbert spun, slashed his hand in a shoving gesture, and the men fell back as before. But as he turned around, the second group struck, and as he flung them back the third group moved, and so he did not have time between one attack and the next to gather his defense.
He was growing weary. The power seemed like it came from air, as if made of spirit, but it took strength and effort to use, and he could not do this forever.
The plain outside the walls was littered with the remains of the old siege and past battles. Broken wagons, shattered barrels, half-burned timbers. The planks of the nearby wooden gate. The clothing of the men who attacked. Their bodies.
They did not see me approach because they were not looking for me. Why should they notice a scrawny girl with a nest for hair, in a place like this? The spark rose up from my bones, along my skin. It crackled across my palms, between my fingers. I sent it out.
A broken wagon exploded into a bonfire. The scraps of wood around it caught next, then the dried grasses around that. A path of fire grew up around me. So much fire. I shaped a wall of it between Gilbert and his attackers. Between them and me. For a moment, the fire wavered, reaching toward me, hesitating as if it resisted me. Who could ever tell fire what to do?
Me. The flames cowered from me, and I commanded Hell to give way.
I pushed it, as Gilbert had pushed back his attackers. I swept my arms out, as Isabelle did when she steered the winds, and sent it on two different paths, breaking like a river around a stone. Flames made a ring around Gilbert, then spread away from him, sparks jumping to spear shafts, to tunics, to beards. Men screamed and fled.
In the middle of it all Gilbert crouched, arms over his head. Sheltering, waiting for death to take him.
I ran to him through the wall of flame. He saw me, and understanding shone in his eyes. I thought he might command me to stop, to quell the flames, but he did not.
The fire began to die out on its own, when there was nothing left to burn. The roaring faded to a crackle, the oven to a mere throat-closing heat. But the noise of devouring flames and the screams of its victims seemed to linger for a long time, as if the sounds stuck in the air like a summer haze and could not settle.
The stench was awful. I had never smelled air like this, after fire had burned so much.
Gilbert unbowed himself and straightened. Across the length of just a few paces, we looked at each other. I could not move. I rubbed soot-scratched eyes and realized I’d been crying. Tears, stung by the smoke.
He crossed the space, put his arm around my shoulders and kissed the top of my head. The touch... calmed me. We were alive.
“You should not be here,” he said. “You should be safe, elsewhere.”
“But they attacked. Ibrahim told me to run—”
He held my shoulders and looked at me. “Ibrahim? Isabelle?”
“I don’t know,” I said, crying.
He swore roughly, using words I had not yet learned. He surveyed the field of battle, all the scorched bodies and the last of the soldiers still fleeing. I expected him to chide me for killing them, but he did not. His eyes had gone hooded, dark. As if he were looking upon another battlefield in the past.
I made a guess. “There was a moment when your power saved William, wasn’t there? And so he owes you everything. What did you do for him?”
Gilbert wiped a hand down his exhausted face, smearing soot across his skin. “Did you hear... how King Harold died? Exactly how?”
Stories came to us at the abbey three years ago about the arrival of the invaders, Harold’s flight to stand against them, and the battle. “There was an arrow...”
He spoke in English, perhaps wanting to make sure I understood.
“I made the arrow fly. Guided it.” He made a gesture in the air, following a wobbly flight. “Where it might... inspire awe and terror. I send the arrow... straight into Harold’s eye. So that people tell stories of it. So that they fear William forever.” He shook his head, said a phrase in French. Saw me uncomprehending and tried again. “William knights me... there on the field at Hastings. I was seventeen. So yes, he owes me... much. Too much, some think. They think to remove me. Forget the debt. The north beaten, they think... no longer need me. Us. Merde.“
I could guess what that word meant.
“You think... King William ordered his men to kill you here?”
“Him. His vassals. Anyone who thinks... William gives too much favor to such as us. I will learn why.”
Scorched Norman helmets lay scattered around us. Huddled shapes that were burned bodies if I looked too closely, so I looked away. This was what Mother Ursula and the others had always been afraid of, that I could burn them all if I chose. I looked at my hands. They tingled with the spark that still lingered there, and the soot and ash smelled like power.
And still, Gilbert did not fear me.
Gilbert sighed. “Come, we go find others.” He patted my shoulder and scanned the sky, looking for crows. “There.” He pointed to a black speck wheeling against the high clouds and waved. This meant Ibrahim must still be alive, and that made me glad. The speck turned sharply and flew off toward the river.
We met Ann and Edwin on the way. He was carrying her, in all her armor, as if she were light as a child. She had an arrow stuck in her right shoulder, and a river of blood matted her tunic.
“Ann!” Gilbert cried in anguish and rushed to them.
“I’m fine,” she muttered, but her breaths came shallow and she was limp in Edwin’s grasp.
“She will be if I can get water and bandages to take this out,” Edwin said.
“You should not move her!”
“Soldiers were coming,” Edwin said, his expression like stone. “I thought it best we move.”
“Yes. Up the river to the trees, come.” Gilbert patted his shoulder, murmured words I couldn’t make out, and Ann smiled.
Edwin blinked at me as if startled. “Joan, child, what are you doing here? You were supposed to stay safe with—”
“We were attacked,” I said. “They found us in the trees.”
“Oh dear God.” His face drew long and he suddenly looked old. “Ibrahim, Isabelle—”
“Talk later, come,” Gilbert said. He’d drawn his sword. We traveled up river, slower than Gilbert liked because of Ann.
There came a whoosh of air, a now familiar puff of dust, and Felix suddenly stood nearby. “I’ve found you! Thank God!” His eyes were wide, shining.
“Felix! The others—”
“They are alive. They’ll be along soon. Ann, oh God—”
“I’m fine,” she muttered, scowling. Felix looked as if he might cry.
We reached the first stand of trees along the river and could go no farther. Edwin set Ann down; she groaned. Felix knelt beside her and helped Edwin cut away her tunic. I looked away.
Felix said, “That’s a Norman arrow in her. Gilbert, what happened?”
Gilbert was keeping watch across the plain. There were soldiers moving toward the city; none were coming here. He spoke quickly, tiredly. I caught a bit: the king, and we are too dangerous.
None of them seemed surprised by what he said. They might have expected this for a long time. Since Hastings, even. His enemies had waited until the city was taken, the northern rebellion crushed, the last hard job done, before breaking William’s best tool.
Edwin explained to me in English, so I understood better: “Gilbert’s enemies could make it look like we died in battle. The king might question it, or might not.”
“What if it’s the king who ordered it?” I said.
Gilbert looked sharply at me. “I not believe it. I go speak with him.” Standing, he brushed the dust off.
Edwin said. “You cannot. You dare not.”
He spoke French slowly, because he was tired, not for my benefit. “Take care of Ann. Have Ibrahim send a crow to me when he finds you. If I am not back by nightfall, go to Scotland. Seek shelter there.”
He sighed. “I am sorry. I am... so sorry.”
“I’m going with you.” Felix stood, rolling back his shoulders, straightening his spine. Pretending he was not exhausted.
“No, I do this alone—”
“No, you don’t.”
“Gilbert. He goes with you,” Edwin said.
I wanted to go, too. I did not want to leave Gilbert’s side. But then Edwin asked me to make a small fire for heating water. For cleaning wounds. We made bandages from the hems of our tunics.
Ibrahim and Isabelle found us. Her dress was torn, and he had a bloody bandage around his arm in the same color fabric. The crow on his shoulders had ruffled feathers and a crooked wing, as if something had broken it. It snuggled close to his neck.
She saw me and ran. “Joan! Thank God!”
Somehow I knew I should stand and let her wrap me in a fierce, enveloping hug. I even let myself sink into her arms, and the muscles of my back unclenched, just a little. And I cried.
“Gilbert?” Ibrahim asked. Edwin explained, and Isabelle fussed over Ann.
As the sun sank west, we worried.
“How does he think we would get to Scotland?” I asked Edwin. I had stopped being able to speak French. I did not care.
“I do not know,” he said. Ann and Isabelle slept. Ibrahim kept watch. Crows flew to him, and away, over and over, and he did not seem to like what they told him.
“Ibrahim?” Edwin asked.
“He is with the king. Still.”
“We should have just left for Scotland. All of us,” Edwin muttered.
We waited. A hawk came and perched in the tree overhead; it held a rabbit in its talons, which it let loose into Ibrahim’s hands. He thanked it.
Far more useful than fire, to have birds bring you food. Edwin set to dressing and cooking it.
“Edwin. I don’t want to go to Scotland,” I said.
“It isn’t nightfall yet.”
But the sun was almost set.
Far overhead, a crow cried out—and Ibrahim looked up, listened a moment, and smiled.
Felix raced into our camp a moment later. He slid to a halt, breathless, and spoke too quickly for me to make out words. A blur of speech. He sounded annoyed. Ibrahim laughed.
Edwin raised a brow. “Felix always hopes to beat Ibrahim’s crows with news. So far the crows are winning.”
“What do they say?” I asked. The news can’t have been bad, if Felix left Gilbert alone.
Felix grinned. “Gilbert comes. He will tell you himself.”
Ann and Isabelle woke. Ann sat up and seemed in less pain, now that the arrow was removed. She scowled a lot, which Edwin took as a good sign. Ibrahim made Felix eat; he devoured a haunch of rabbit by himself.
We waited for Gilbert, who finally appeared as we were building up the fire to stand against the dark. We did not have to decide how to flee to Scotland.
Edwin stood to greet him. Took him by the shoulder, as he had done when Gilbert first brought me to them. But this time he almost seemed to be holding Gilbert up. Edwin guided him to the fire, and Gilbert looked around at each one of us, as if reassuring himself that we had survived.
“What happened?” Isabelle finally asked.
He asked for water; she handed him a flask and the last of the roast rabbit. He ate and drank in silence for a moment. Ann was even propped on her good elbow, watching. This small family. I felt safe here, and that was a wonder.
“William,” he said finally. “William...” I did not have enough French to understand exactly what he said, and he spoke so low. The others did not seem entirely pleased.
What I thought he said was that he had given King William an ultimatum: either reward Gilbert as he ought, for so much service. Or dispose of him openly, without subterfuge, if he feared Gilbert’s power. Gilbert had said that—or close to it—directly to the Conqueror. It was wondrous.
“And?” Edwin breathed.
Gilbert took a long drink and smiled. “I have been granted land in Wessex. With a great hall of our own.” He looked at me and winked. “No hundred servants, not yet. But we will be safe. For a time.”
And so we came to live in Wessex. My hair grew long, and Isabelle taught me to braid it up. Gilbert still went out to fight for William. Often I went with him. With practice, I learned to light a candle from a hundred paces and destroy a timbered hall in a single burst of flame. William’s enemies often laid down their arms, just knowing Gilbert and his company were present. My spark longed to be used, but I tamed it well enough.
Eventually, I learned French well enough to make myself a nuisance, but I mostly spoke English when I was angry, or sad, or willful. My new family gave me the freedom to be willful.
Brother Edwin is writing this down. He says that the chroniclers of the time are concerned with kings and battles, and they will say that Harold died with an arrow in his eye but not who made that happen. They will not write the name of a small Saxon girl with a spark under her skin, but that they should, and so he’ll do it. I do not know that it matters. What matters to me is no longer being afraid that I am cursed. If being cursed means living this life, and not being locked up in the lonely cell at St. Edith’s, then I will be cursed, and I will not mind it.
That is what Sir Gilbert gave to me, and I love him for it.