(Originally aired 2023/01/28 - listen here)
I’m a firm believer in celebrating round-number anniversaries of things. With a podcast, it’s good to mark those milestones with something special. I have no idea how many episodes of this show I will have created by the time I decide to set the project aside. At the current rate of production I’d hit 500 episodes in another nine years, but that’s probably an unlikely goal. But if I celebrate the multiples of 50, that’s a milestone every two years or so, which feels like an appropriate rate.
I was casting around for an idea for a special episode and hit on the idea of posting my Arthurian fantasy short story “All is Silence” – which made me realize that I’d never done a regular episode about the medieval text that inspired it, the Romance of Silence. That gave me an opportunity to do last week’s show to set things up, not only in terms of content, but to make the episode number come out right. (This one’s a bonus episode outside the regular schedule.)
Medieval epics and romances continually re-worked existing material, adapting characters to new stories, revising the events and outcomes for new audiences, or moving the settings, either to make them more familiar or to make them more strange. I feel no qualms whatsoever in making my own adaptations to this story of a character caught between genders and struggling to find a path that will serve both honor and truth. Giving Silence two companions was a trivial change. The most drastic choice I made was to redeem the character of Queen Eufeme. In the original, she is a cartoonish villain: an adulteress, a woman who uses accusations of sexual assault for revenge, someone who will kill rather than be seen as less than a paragon. The original King Eban is less villainous, but he is weak, wishy-washy, and concerned more with his own reputation than the truth or falsehood of his wife’s claims. I have changed him only a little. It fits easily with his character that his jealousy and thirst for revenge are still unconcerned with truth or falsehood.
Silence, I feel I have changed very little, except in giving the character a different possible happy ending. Where the original text alternates between using Silence’s assigned gender and performed gender, I wrote the story in the first person specifically to allow Silence to tell the story without taking a stand on the question. My Silence is non-binary and most probably bisexual, though I think that aspect is still sorting itself out.
I love playing with these old stories and participating in claiming them for queer audiences. There’s a whole list of medieval texts that I’d love to write my own take on at some point. For now, I hope you enjoy my Silence.
This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.
This story was originally published in 2020 as part of the “New Decameron Project” curated by Jo Walton and available through Patreon as a fundraiser for Covid relief in the early days of the pandemic.
ALL IS SILENCE
by Heather Rose Jones
All is silence in the forest when the path opens from the realm of men to the other world. The birds hush and even the leaves make no sound underfoot. They named me Silence, thinking stillness would be my safety and my refuge, but I will speak. I first entered that waiting hush when I left the solid stone walls of Tintagel, in Cornwall, and rode out to seek my fate. That time, I sought answers and found only more questions. How could it have been otherwise? I rode into silence and found only Silence. So it had always been: I knew who I was, but not what.
King Eban had been the cause of that first journey, too, though not in the flesh, as he was today. Before my parents met and married, a quarrel at the court between sisters had provoked his judgment: women would no longer inherit lands and titles. And so, when it came to pass that a child was born to the Count and Countess of Cornwall, that child must be thought to be a son, raised to know the grip of a sword, skilled with courtly words and graces and all things that befit a noble knight.
When I first strayed into that otherworldly stillness on leaving Cornwall, the path led through the Drowned Lands and released me at last across the sea. This time I recognized it the moment my horse stepped off the road toward the dappled shadows. That first time I had been alone. This time Elider rode at my side, as he had in the tournaments in France and when we fought in battle beside Hoel of Brittany. This quest had been laid on me alone, yet he would not be left behind.
I glanced back before we entered into the trees and the towers of Herincestre could be lost entirely to sight. That was how I saw Rosete slip out through the postern gate and hurry along the paths of the pleasure-garden, separated from the margin of the wood only by a low hedge. I would not have waited but that I saw she carried my harp in its bag across her shoulder. I had thought it lost to me, left behind in the queen's chamber that fateful day.
"Did she send you?" I asked when she approached.
A flush crept across Rosete's cheeks where tangled dark curls escaped her veil. "Do not blame the queen, Sir Silence," she said softly.
Elider said what no one had dared to voice in the court. "The queen lied."
"Of course she lied." Rosete answered him impatiently. "What else could she do?"
The queen could have done so many things. She could have asked me to sing for her in the open hall, not in her chamber. She could have invited me on a day when King Eban had not gone hunting...or one when he did not return unexpectedly. She could have told the king his suspicions were foolish and insulting. She could have told him that it was Rosete I gazed at when I sang, and not at her.
She could not have told him what only I knew.
The king would not have believed any of the things that she could have told him. But he would believe that I pursued the queen against her will and so that was what he heard.
"Let it be, Elider," I said. "I will hear nothing against Queen Eufeme."
"And so you keep silence."
I laughed at that. "What can I keep but Silence? Silence is all I am and all I have. And the queen will keep her virtue and keep her life. If silence can serve her in that, then Silence will serve."
I leaned down to take the harp case from Rosete's hands and slung the strap across my shoulder. It was no burden--small and light for traveling and for singing in a lady's chamber. She offered up a pair of saddlebags as well. The aroma of fresh bread and roasted capon escaped the leather flaps.
"The queen sent this?" I asked.
Rosete looked down and blushed again. No, not the queen.
"Peace be on you," she whispered. Another might have said God keep you, but Rosete's sire had come from Saracen lands.
On impulse, I pulled off a glove and leaned down to give it to her. "To remember me by, if I don't return," I said. What harm could there be in the gesture now? I had seen her long for some such token when I sang Toute Ma Joie as I gazed at her. I'd felt no right to offer it before, even though the gift made no promise beyond what I could keep. Now there was no need to ponder what else I might offer if I could, or to whom.
The silence brushed against us as the path led under the trees. Soon we were enfolded on all sides. Elider reined in his horse and glanced around, as if trying to locate the source of that stillness. "Do you hear...?"
"We are crossing over," I said. Having felt it once before, I recognized the gate. "Do you want to turn back?"
His look was half affronted pride and half humor. "And leave you to earn all the glory of the quest?"
But there was something else as well: something more than loyalty and less than...less than what I dared not claim. Perhaps this quest was an answer to that as well--to wondering what I would claim if I dared. We had grown comfortable together in our travels. Shoulder to shoulder in battle. Wits sparring with the other courtiers at the French king's court. Voices twined above the strains of the harp when the queen commanded our presence. The queen. There was the end to our idyll.
We urged our horses forward into that stillness and through the slowly rising mist, but they whinnied in fear and danced sideways. When we dismounted to lead them, they fought as if in the presence of wild beasts.
"I cannot see the path," Elider said. "There's nothing but this cursed fog."
I could see it leading out before me: a clearer space in the shining brightness where the forest litter could still be seen at our feet. The sign was clear.
"Elider, this is for me alone." I tied a cloth over my horse's eyes so it could be led, but Elider still stared around wildly. Even at so close a distance, I was already beyond his ken. "Let your horse lead you back to the world of men. Wait for my return when I have found the wizard."
I reached for his hand and his fingers grasped mine where they touched. "Be sure you do return," he said. "You know what the prophecy says: no man can force Merlin to his will; he has never been captured but by a woman's wiles."
"I know," I answered as my hand slipped from his grasp.
Time passed like the mist on the path before me: in drifts and tendrils with no edges, no beginning, no end. My horse had quieted into trust after the first few steps. Its feet made no more sound on that ground than my own. An hour? A day? Not that, surely, for the body has its own means of counting time. When I judged it must be near to dusk in the world outside, we came upon a widening of the road where a narrow stream veered closely to it, kissing the roots of an ancient oak, with tufts of grass offering rest.
I turned the horse's blindfold into hobbles and relieved it of saddle and pack. There were fallen limbs enough for a small fire, though it only turned the surrounding mist into a wall of white, rather than beating it back. And Rosete's provisions, though cold now, made a festive board of the gnarled tree root I perched on.
King Eban had called it a quest, but we all knew it for something else: a sentence, a test, an exile. The crime I had been accused of called for death, but in this way Eban could pretend to mercy. He'd said, I have business left unfinished with Merlin. Capture him. Bring him to me and all this will be forgotten. No one sent to capture the wizard of Celidon had succeeded. The others, at least, had enjoyed the freedom to return. No doubt the court expected me to accept it as exile, perhaps to return home to Cornwall in quiet disgrace.
How could I do that? I am the deeds I perform, the renown I achieve, the name I make for myself. That name may be Silence but I will not let it be silent. The wizard was somewhere here within the wood and the wood had revealed itself to me and allowed me entrance. If it were a test, I had passed the first gate.
Between one moment and the next, a figure appeared at the edge of the mist. His dark hair and beard were matted and tangled with sticks. The mass flowed down over his shoulders to merge with the rough skin tunic he wore, making him look more beast than man except for the knobbed staff he leaned on. My hand measured the distance to my sword but I stayed it, recalling the value of courtesy in places such as this. The wildman's lips parted, perhaps in memory of speech. His tongue moved restlessly and he stared at the remains of my meal.
I gestured in welcome toward the food, and in a crabbed, suspicious, scuttling movement he snatched it up and crouched just at the edge of the fire's circle to wolf it down. By the time the last crumbs of bread disappeared, the wildman's movements had become more deliberate and his eyes more human as they darted across my belongings and came to rest on the harp case where it lay beside me. He pointed a bony finger at the instrument and his lips moved again. This time a croaking sound emerged from his mouth and resolved itself at last into a question. "Sing?"
I nodded and drew the harp out to test the tuning. Without Elider to take the lead, I chose a song best suited to my voice: one of the old lays I'd learned in Brittany. And as I sang I could swear I saw tears well up from the wildman's eyes, though if they did, they disappeared into the tangle of his beard.
At the end, when I set the harp down, he sighed and his words came more easily. "I had forgotten."
"Have you spent a long time here in Celidon?" I asked, thinking he might have seen something of the wizard I sought.
"A long time, yes," he replied, though he might only have been echoing my words. "I had forgotten there were things beyond this wood worth knowing." His fingers curled to rake through the knots of his hair, seeming only now aware of them. He frowned. "Would you..." He seemed to be searching for lost words. "Have you a razor?"
"I have a knife," I replied. "And a comb."
Though I shrank from what I might find within that tangle, I bent to his request and parted him from the signs of his wildness.
When that task was accomplished, he ran his hands once more over his head and face, then down across the filthy skins he wore for clothing. "Have you a garment suitable for a man?" he asked.
There was nothing in my bags but one spare linen tunic, but the wildman's emaciated body was slight enough that it would cover him. I offered it, then turned back to arranging the bag to spare him shame at his nakedness, should he feel it.
"Who may I thank for these gifts?" he asked, his voice more assured and no longer with the creak of disuse.
"I am Silence of Tintagel," I said. "Count Cador is my father."
He nodded and his eyes took on a crafty, calculating look. I might have thought the madness was returning, but he said, "I have been in Tintagel, long long ago."
In that moment I knew him. I should have known from the moment he appeared in the firelight, but I had been seeking a wizard, not a woodwose. Was I now bound by my hospitality? How could I draw a sword and compel his return after having fed and clothed him? After dressing his hair as if he were a youth taking service with me? And yet he too might be bound such rules. "Merlin," I commanded, "you owe a debt to my lineage for the wrong you did to Gorlois, my ancestor."
He laughed--a high-pitched giggle that was ill at odds with his new dignity. "And what wrong do you think that was?"
"You know well: when you set his face and his form on Uther the king, so that he could sate his lust for Ygraine, of whose line I come."
He smiled at some secret joke. "Ah yes, that wrong. I did indeed transform Uther. But tell me this: if the man in Ygraine's bed had the body and the face and the form of Gorlois, then who was it who truly sired Arthur the king? If we are not our bodies, what are we?" Merlin watched me closely, his mouth still crooked in mocking laughter.
Now I did pick up my sword. "King Eban has sent me to bring you to Herincestre. You have refused his command and his messengers before." And I told him of the quest that had been laid on me and the reasons for it. "Will you come easily or must I compel you?"
"I will come," he said and laughed again. "Oh, I will come indeed to see what nest of hornets Eban has stirred up."
When we came out of the mist I saw the towers of Herincestre far in the distance. The wood had released us in a different place than I entered and we walked along its edges by the high road until I came to where Elider sat waiting for me. Joy and relief mingled in his eyes. Together we escorted the wizard past the guards at the portcullis and into the hall where King Eban waited.
When we were announced, it was not the king, but the queen, who caught my gaze. She sat white-faced at his side, with Rosete and the other ladies clustered frozen behind her like hens when a buzzard passes over. But surely...
"Tell us how you captured the wizard!" Eban demanded.
He expected a tale of valor and peril. I bowed before him and told the truth while the other knights--those who had failed the quest before--looked on in disbelief. But though I told of the mist and the meal, the harping and haircutting, I did not say plainly that I had not captured Merlin at all. That he had come for some purpose of his own.
The wizard stood quietly throughout the tale, still with his secret smile.
"Have I fulfilled everything you required?" I asked. Would King Eban find some other excuse to be rid of me?
"In prevailing, you have proven your innocence before God," the king said. He turned to Queen Eufeme. "And what have you to say to that, my lady? Either you or Sir Silence were faithless to me and God has judged. How is it you caused me to send an innocent knight to what should have been his doom?"
Oh innocent indeed! How could I not have seen that my vindication must be her guilt? I thought to throw myself on my knees before the king, but in that moment Merlin began to laugh, long and loudly, as if at the greatest jest in all the world.
King Eban turned on him angrily. "Be silent, wizard! Do you see humor in my queen's betrayal?"
When Merlin could contain his laughter, he answered, "I see many things, my lord king, but I see no faithlessness unless there can be adultery among women."
The court fell silent in confusion but Queen Eufeme grew even paler than before.
"Speak plainly, wizard," the king demanded.
"Arthur's was not the only birth I attended at Tintagel," Merlin said. "I was there again to mark the birth of Count Cador's daughter Silence."
They all stared at me and I tried to read each face in turn: the king's affronted chagrin, Rosete's startled wonder, and Elider...his face alone told no story. But in Queen Eufeme's face I saw despair.
I could not have saved the queen. No one could have saved her. The false accusation was only an excuse. Everyone knew it was King Eban's jealousy and her barrenness that had condemned her. And I? For the first time in my life I was a coward. I fled to the farthest corner of the castle. There I sat stone-faced within the niche where the windows looked out to the west, with only Elider for company.
He stared at me as if with doubled vision. Did he hesitate to speak, not knowing what name to use? The silence that once had made us companions now stood as a wall between us.
"Sir Silence," he said at last, retreating into stiff formality. "You bear no blame in this. The queen is guilty--not of adultery, it's true, but of lying to bring about your destruction."
I shook my head. "The queen is guilty of nothing except wanting to live. We all share that guilt."
"Honor is more important than life!" he answered hotly.
"Honor is for men," I returned. Yesterday I would have added, like us. "For women, honor is a cage, not a banner to raise on the field." He wouldn't understand that. He would never feel the bars of that cage weaving themselves about him.
Elider's voice turned stiff again. "You have only to command me and my sword is yours. There will be confusion in the court. If we act quickly and have swift horses waiting..."
"And what?" I asked. "Carry Queen Eufeme off by force? Here in the heart of Eban's lands? Like Lancelot abducting Guinevere? Eban is no Arthur; he would not stand aside. His knights would cut us down before we'd gone five leagues."
Even so far away, I could hear the voices in the courtyard. Or perhaps I only dreamed I heard them. In my dream I watched while Rosete cut the queen's hair to leave her neck bare, and receive the gown that slipped from the queen's shoulders to leave her naked in her shift, and stand beside her, tight-lipped, as she knelt before the block. Today I was a coward, but Rosete was not.
I was summoned before the king three days later, after the queen's body had been laid to rest.
"The law is reversed," he said. "No longer will I bar virtuous and worthy ladies from receiving the legacy of their birth. You will be Countess of Cornwall after your father. Now take up again a woman's proper garments and habits and be counted among the noblewomen of this court." And he commanded Rosete to attend me, now that the queen had no need of her.
It was hard to face her--harder than facing an army at Duke Hoel's side. Her eyes were red from weeping and she obeyed Eban's command as if facing her own doom. I would have thought myself the cause of her sorrow but that I saw the glove I had given her still tucked into her girdle.
I fingered the fine linen and golden samite the king had sent. Take up again a woman's proper garments. There was no "again," all these were strange to me. Rosete's hands shook as she unfastened my belt and fumbled with the clasp at the neck of my tunic. A crimson blush spread across her face and she said haltingly, "I have never--"
She was a maiden; she had never undressed a man. And I had never undressed before a woman...or any other since I was a child among those who knew my secret. Would she ever look at me again as she had when I gave her that glove in token? I turned away and hurriedly stripped off tunic, chausses, and braies, down to my skin, and then wrapped my arms around myself tightly, feeling the air play over my bare skin.
"My lady--" Her voice was tender--as a lover's voice might be tender--but I took it for pity. "My lady, your shift."
I held out my arms but did not raise my eyes until the linen settled down to hide my limbs. The gown was next, well-cut and fitted closely with lacing. A fillet on my brow and shoes of red cordovan. But when she would have tied a girdle of woven silk about my waist I reached instead for the battered leather belt that had held my sword. It settled on my hips with a familiar weight.
"Thus am I girded for battle," I said in what I meant for a jest, and Rosete rewarded me with a hesitant smile. Oh, to see her smile again for me as she had when I sang for the queen! I would never again know that innocent pleasure. And innocent it had been, for I knew it even then for impossibility.
The time came when I could hide no longer. I stood at the entrance to the hall and everyone in the court turned to watch me enter. I felt the weight of their gaze. Beneath my skirts, I was conscious of my bare limbs as the air stirred around my legs. I felt that every eye could see those parts I had been accustomed to keep covered. In that crowd, the only face I sought was Elider's. But when he came toward me, his every line and movement spoke of change. The doubled gaze was gone. The man who once had been my brother and my friend (but nothing more--surely nothing more) now came a stranger to my side, bowing and reaching to kiss the hand I did not think to offer.
"What shall I call you now, my lady?" he asked.
Silence. "I am still Silence, as I ever was," I answered at last.
He led me to the high table where the king seated me at his right hand. And throughout the banquet King Eban praised me for my loyalty and my valor and my virtue and my beauty and I believed not a word of it. My face was too brown and weathered for beauty and my loyalty had been for Queen Eufeme. So how could I trust any word from his tongue?
At the end of the evening, Rosete led me again to the chamber I had been given. She unbound the fillet from my hair and unlaced my gown and whispered, "Lord Elider sees you in a new light now, I think."
"Yes," I said, my voice thick with misery.
"Surely it is cause for joy," she offered, "to have had such a companion who hopes to be so much more?"
How could I explain? My mind could trace no path within this wood. This much she might understand. "My mouth is too rough for kisses," I said. "My arms know only battle and not embraces. I would look a fool in any game of love. I cannot be the lady he desires."
And then Rosete took my face in her hands and pressed her lips against mine.
"Not so rough," she murmured when we both could breathe again.
Somehow my arms had found that they knew how to embrace after all. I tore myself away. "Rosete..."
"I know," she said. "And now it is I who look the fool."
With that, she left me alone to spend a long and restless night.
I spent the next day in an agony, not knowing whether I wished Elider to speak or to hold his tongue. King Eban took that choice from both of us when he called all the court together as witness.
"I will redress the wrong that was done to Lady Silence," he said, "by making her my queen. She will give me fine sons to rule after I am gone." And then he took a ring from his finger and put it on mine as a pledge before any chance for yea or nay to pass my lips.
I sat at the king's right hand again when we dined. When he dined. I could scarcely bear the thought of food passing my lips. From across the hall, Elider watched me. And from my side, King Eban watched Elider and then looked at me and back again. And even when I was released at last, I dared not speak to my former companion, but sent Rosete as my messenger.
"Tell him to leave the court as soon as may be. I will not have his death on my hands. I cannot escape, but he must."
"And if he refuses?" Rosete asked. "If he will not abandon you?"
"Then ask if he wishes to have my death on his hands!" I said. And more softly, "Take my harp to him. Tell him to remember me when he sings."
I had not meant to see Elider again, but Rosete had returned with his promise to go if he could but speak to me once more. And so I rose before the dawn and went to walk in the garden beside the road that led away from Herincestre. Rosete kept sharp watch as I went to meet him at the gate. He had my harp slung across his shoulder and led two horses, not one.
"Come with me!" he urged.
I shook my head. "Do you think King Eban's knights ride more slowly today than they would have on the day Queen Eufeme died?" I would not be his death. Cruelty was my only weapon now. "Why do you think I would leave with you when I could wear a crown?" My voice betrayed me and he reached to take my hand but at Rosete's soft call I cried, "Go! Go!" and hurried from the gate.
But it was only Merlin, come to disturb our solitude. Perhaps his years in Celidon had left him with no love of walls, but his days here at Herincestre had left me with no love of him. I turned on him, demanding, "Why did you come with me only to make trouble?"
He did not laugh this time, nor even smile. "I came because you asked and the king commanded."
"You could have held your tongue," I said. "It would have made no difference to the poor queen and every difference to me."
Merlin leaned on his staff and stared into me as if he could see my very soul. "I speak truth when I am commanded. That is my nature. And it is the nature of kings to be angered by truth."
"I cannot marry him," I said, allowing my dread to show.
"Because it is not your nature?"
Truth, he had said, and there was none but Rosete to hear. "Because he murders his queens when they fail to please him," I snarled. "And I will fail. I cannot help but fail. I do not know how to be a woman, much less a queen."
Merlin considered my answer. "Do you recall the tale of Blanchandine?" he asked.
I blinked at him in confusion, but Rosete nodded and told the story. "Blanchandine loved Tristan of Nanteuil, and because she would not be separated from him, she dressed herself as a knight and rode as his companion."
It was not a tale I had heard before. "What is that to me?" I asked Merlin.
Rosete continued, "When Tristan was thought to be dead, the disguised Blanchandine was loved by the Princess Clarinde and commanded to marry her."
Merlin took up the tale. "And knowing of my skills, Blanchandine came to me and begged my aid to make the marriage possible. I could do the same for you, this time to make your marriage to King Eban impossible. I could change you to be truly what you seemed before."
I thought of what he offered. To be safe from Eban's desire. To be again Sir Silence and know the easy companionship I had enjoyed with Elider. To see again the worship in Rosete's eyes and know I had a right to claim it. And yet...
"What then of the law?" I asked. "What of my honor and my renown?" I looked to Rosete as if she held the answers. "Whatever I may be, these are the arms that won in tournament against the French king's champions. These are the hands that defended the Duke of Brittany against his foes. I won the king's promise that this body could inherit. Should all that be held at naught?" Looking into Rosete's dark eyes, I remembered the touch of her lips against my own. These were the lips she had kissed. Would that too be lost to me?
I turned back to Merlin and demanded urgently, "Who was it who truly sired Arthur?"
Merlin shrugged. "When a man takes up Excalibur from the stone and claims the crown of Britain, does it matter who lay in his mother's bed?"
I looked back toward the gate. In defiance of my command, Elider still waited. And there Rosete stood before me, clutching my glove to her breast as if it were a holy relic. Behind them, I could see the edge of the forest.
"Merlin," I begged. "If ever you owed me a boon, let it be this: open the way to Celidon."
Merlin laughed, and with that laughter a mist began rising from the ground. I held out my hand to Rosete and together we hurried through the garden gate.
Rosete sat pillion behind me as we entered the wood. Elider still carried my harp for I could not have both at my back. The mist curled around us, leaving the path bare ahead, and our horses took it, sure-footed. Perhaps it would lead back to Cornwall, perhaps to Brittany. It scarcely mattered. We would be far from King Eban's reach. The birdsong grew faint behind us and the leaves ceased to rustle underfoot. For now the way was open, leading us I knew not where. I was content, for in the forest all is silence and Silence is all.
A bonus fiction episode to celebrate episode #250: “All is Silence” by Heather Rose Jones, narrated by the author.
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