CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

Late that night

 

“Ariana, play something for me. I can hardly keep awake.” Rosemary tilted her head from side to side to relieve the pressure on her neck, and stared up at the full moon. It cast eerie shadows in the treetops that flanked the dark road, and a thick mist had risen which added to the melancholy feel of the forest around them.

“I am sorry, Rosemary. Thou knowest I would take the reins if I could.” Ariana was particularly susceptible to the soporific swaying of the wagon, and was usually asleep within ten minutes of their journey’s start. Twice before she had tried to relieve Rosemary of her burden, but as soon as she began to nod off, her grip on the reins loosened and Morley turned off the path to find a tasty mouthful of grass. So, with apologies, she left the steering to Rosemary, who could at least remain awake at the reins.

Ariana looked to her friend and sighed. “Mayhaps we should stop?” she asked, but Rosemary shook her head even as she shivered.

“Nay, I have no desire to sleep in this deserted forest.”

She looked at poor Morley, wearily dragging one foot in front of the other, and kicked at the floorboard in frustration. “How could both inns be full? Not an inch of space in all of Salisbury? And the next village with an inn yet another two-hour’s travel?”

Rosemary gritted her teeth and rubbed her eyes with the heel of her hand.

Bother,” she muttered darkly, and Ariana lifted her flute from her lap and brought it to her lips before her companion came any closer to cursing. Rosemary had run out of patience three hours ago, and neither she nor Ariana were in any shape to still be upon the road, but they had little choice. Ariana briefly reconsidered waking Pete and asking him to drive the wagon, but she still could not bring herself to relinquish that task to one whom of she knew so little. Permitting him to accompany them to the next town was one thing. Handing over Morley’s reins - and with it all control of their destination - was quite another.

Ariana hoped that the sprightly clip of Byrnes’ Hornpipe would be enough to cheer Rosemary, and she mustered the last reserves of her own strength to blow air into the flute. The late night air was chilly, and in truth, even a veteran of the forests such as Ariana would be spooked by the way the moon and mists seemed to swallow them tonight. Byrnes’ Hornpipe was the most chipper song she knew, and its happy, bouncing notes buoyed her somewhat as the wagon creaked slowly forward.

Rosemary took a few deep breaths of the humid night air, and gradually her jaw relaxed enough for Ariana to sense that the music was doing its job, both of relieving Rosemary’s stress and dissolving some of the gloom of their musty surroundings. Ariana was mentally going through her list of “happy” tunes, wondering how long Rosemary would need her to play, when from within the wagon they heard a guitar accompanying the flute with enthusiastic strumming. It had started tentatively at first, but as it progressed, it was clear that not only could the musician pick up a fairly complicated melody by ear, but that the playing was of a relatively high caliber. He was adding little grace notes and ornaments that marked him as someone for whom the instrument was more than just an idle diversion.

Pete plays the guitar? And like that? Ariana thought, and in her surprise, stopped playing. The strumming continued for a few seconds more, then abruptly halted as Pete realized that he could no longer hear the flute. Ariana and Rosemary were looking at each other in astonishment when the hinged flap at the front of the wagon flew open, hitting Rosemary sharply in the side.

“Ouch!” Rosemary clapped her hand to her rib and scooted over to give the door room to open.

Pete, who had let the door fall back as soon as he felt it come in contact with something solid, slowly re-lifted it and poked his stubbly, round face out of the slender opening.

“Er, apologies for th’ bump,” he said to Rosemary, and then turned his face to Ariana on the other side of the flap. “I ‘ave not played in quite a while, but I saw the guitar just lying there, and …”

He suddenly realized that Rosemary had stopped the wagon and that Ariana was staring at him like he had grown an extra head, which Pete thought an unnecessarily extreme reaction to his simply borrowing a guitar.

‘Od’s blood, these women were sensitive!

“I shall just put it back, then, shall I?”

He started to pull his head back inside the wagon, when he heard Rosemary say in an oddly strangled tone, “Pete? Whither… whither didst thou learn to play like that?”

She had moved ‘round so that she was standing on the footboard facing the door-flap, and Ariana was leaning over so that she too could see directly into the wagon’s interior. Pete felt a bit like one of those animals with an extra leg or missing ears that traveling showmen displayed for ha’pence-a-peek in the marketplace. Holy Saint Frances, it was just a guitar, he thought to himself.

“I meant nothing by it. Just be puttin’ it back then.”

“Nay,” said Ariana hastily. “We were just… surprised, ‘tis all. Wouldst thou… if it pleaseth, wouldst thou play again?”

Pete looked to see if she was in jest, but that did not appear to be the case, so he nodded bemusedly and sat back down on the floor of the wagon, cradling the guitar in his lap. Rosemary kept the flap elevated with her right hand so she could watch, and Ariana twisted in her seat until she was mostly facing him. She raised the flute to her lips, and nodded three times in quick succession to mark the time. On the fourth count she inhaled, and as she entered on the next beat, Pete came right in with her, the chord and his timing matching her with surprising perfection. Through several verses she played, and as she did so, she realized that - unlike a novice player who finds the correct chord progression and, like an obstinate mule, will not stray from it - Pete would change something with each new verse, playing either different chords that changed the tone of the song or adding in tiny ornamentations that gave the accompaniment a fuller sound. He was concentrating on the playing, his eyes shut tight and his jaw making little chewing motions in time with the strumming, and from within the darkness of the wagon he could not see the reaction he provoked.

Ariana’s wide blue eyes met Rosemary’s over her flute, and both women silently bespoke their wonderment at the level of musicianship displayed by their unlikely companion. What his performance lacked in smooth perfection, it certainly made up for in the creativity with which he approached the chord structure. He was a daring, innovative player, if a bit less than completely polished. Rosemary shrugged and shook her head, and Ariana stopped in mid-verse, slowly lowering the flute to her lap and staring at Pete, whose eyes flew open at the lack of sound and whose strumming slowly wound down to an unresolved chord. The unfinished sound hung suspended in the air, until Rosemary cleared her throat and ventured,

“Once again, if I might ask, whither didst thou learn to play so…unusually well?”

Taken aback by the compliment, Pete stammered, “Oh! Er…marry, I ‘ad an uncle who raised me when I got into trouble one too many times to suit me mother. Uncle Tycho. Not really an uncle, more like a second cousin, but I always called ‘im Uncle. In sooth, Mum ‘ad ‘er hands full with me older sister. Pregnant and no husband in sight, that was me sister, an’ in any case, Mum and I ne’er did get along. Used to box me about the ears and tell me I was wicked. Each time she said, ‘One more and ‘tis off to Tycho’s with you.’ In point o’ fact, I’m surprised I can still ‘ear at all, considering ‘ow many clouts she gave me. One time she even ‘ad me sent to the stocks. I was abou’ twelve, and -”

Pete caught Rosemary raising her eyebrows at Ariana, and realized that he had strayed from his original point. Scratching his head, he continued.

“Right. Uncle Tycho. ‘E ‘ad taken a formal education in Italy, and knew a great deal about science and music and such. ‘E was something of a scholar, an’ liked to teach me languages and such – anything to encourage me to sit with him an’ stay out o’ trouble. Mostly so that I might keep me ‘ands off his astrology charts and occupied with something else, ‘twas he who taught me to play.” Pete looked at the guitar in his lap, and thoughtfully stroked his finger across the wooden neck.

“I ’ave not e’en touched a guitar in several years, not since I ‘ad to sell mine to pay me tab at th’ pub. I did not realize ‘till now how much I ‘ad missed it.”

He looked so wistful that Ariana had the strangest urge to hug him, and, other than John – who was the closest thing she had ever had to a father - she had never hugged a man in her life. The thought shocked her, and she furrowed her brow.

But despite his size and the several days’ growth of beard upon him, there was something charmingly childlike about Pete: the way he made no effort to hide his every emotion, the way he took a simple, unaffected joy in music, even the way his eyes lit up at the slightest compliment. It made for a somewhat comical combination: the body and (judging by the ale stains on his jerkin) drinking habits of a man, and if one remembered his eloquent plea of forgiveness that morning, the rhetorical skills of a poet… all combined with the enthusiasm and raw emotions of a boy. In that moment, Ariana felt almost warm towards him, and the feeling was both pleasant and frightening at the same time.

“Then I prithee, friend,” she said, “repay thy borrowed ride with a song. For my fingers are weary, and e’en our horse could do with some cheer.”

Pete looked up, and she could see the pleasure in his eyes at being asked to play. He looked to Rosemary who nodded, then tied the flap of the door to the roof with the leather loop that hung from it, so that it remained open.

Pete interlaced his fingers and loudly cracked his knuckles, then bent over the guitar and began to play a lively Italian tune. Rosemary took up the reins, and with a soft “hup!” encouraged Morley forward. He was as weary as they, but Rosemary blessed him for his good nature when without protest he slowly lifted his hooves and plodded ahead. She leaned back into the wood as Ariana curled her legs beneath her and did the same.

With Pete’s merry chords to accompany them, the moon’s shadows seemed not nearly so sinister to Ariana, and she shut her eyes in contentment, drifting slowly off into the sleep that had eluded her heretofore.