A Tale of Two Maidens: A Novel
by Anne Echols

Published: 2023-09-19T00:0
Paperback : 256 pages
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Fifteen-year-old Felise, an apprentice scribe in medieval France, is in a desperate situation. She yearns to find a way to become a writer and a book shop owner, but in order to achieve her dreams she must first escape from her cruel guardian, who is plotting an arranged marriage for ...
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Fifteen-year-old Felise, an apprentice scribe in medieval France, is in a desperate situation. She yearns to find a way to become a writer and a book shop owner, but in order to achieve her dreams she must first escape from her cruel guardian, who is plotting an arranged marriage for her.

As the Hundred Years’ War rages all around Felise, Joan of Arc blazes into history, claiming God-given powers to set France free from English control. Her courage inspires Felise to run away, but every day of the journey that follows draws the young scribe further into the underbelly of a world she has never known?a world of burning villages and terrified peasants left behind in the path of war. She soon encounters a young man from home who begins to pursue her, and she is drawn to him despite her quest for freedom and distrust of men. But following after the army, she meets Joan face to face, and finds herself torn between her heroine’s single-minded sense of purpose and her own desire for love and personal fulfillment.

A Tale of Two Maidens brings to life the story of an ordinary medieval girl on an extraordinary adventure?one that will require her to dig within herself to claim her own true, independent, and heroic destiny.

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Chapter One: The Chess Game

March 7, 1429

Troyes, France

I could not bear it a moment longer. The headpiece dug into my scalp, forming the same groove that it always did by the end of the day. As soon as we finished washing the supper dishes, I took off the stiff linen coif and unpinned my hair. I shook my head, my unruly curls tumbling across my face and down my back.

“Every evening you unpin your hair at the same time. You are just as predictable as evening bells,” my sister Ameline teased.

“I would set myself free earlier but then I wouldn’t be able to see the dishes. Besides, you are predictable too,” I teased back, tucking my hair behind my ears. Her own amber tresses would remain neatly in place until just before she went to bed.

“Come, let’s put the game table closer to the fire.”

The night was bitter cold as Ameline and I moved the table and chairs. Filled with a heaping bowl of her fish stew, I felt warm inside in spite of the wind whistling through the cracks in the shutters. The house still held the pungent scent of ginger that she used to flavor it.

While Ameline added logs to the fire, Aunt Charlotte warmed her hands at the hearth and I set up Father’s chessboard. Tonight I would play with the ivory pieces and Ameline the jade.

I saved my favorite pieces, the knights, for last. I loved the odd way they moved: one square diagonally and the other straight. They were tricksters, especially when they worked in tandem with one another like two pickpockets. I picked up my last knight and looked at it closely. The piece was carved to resemble a knight on horseback, pressing his thighs into the flanks of a stallion that reared up on his hind legs. His face was hidden underneath a helmet, but I imagined his look of determination to control a beast twice his size.

Goosebumps rose on my flesh as I remembered what I heard on the streets today when I walked home from my apprenticeship.

Ameline returned from the fire and sat in the chair across from me. Her cheeks rosy from the fire, Charlotte came to the game table too and sat between us to watch us play as she did every night.

“You look as if your mind has journeyed somewhere far away,” Ameline said.

I lifted the knight closer to the candle. “Today I heard that Jeanne the Maid has been outfitted with a suit of armor. Also she’s learning to ride a warhorse. I was trying to imagine what she looked like. What do you think?”

For two weeks, rumors about this mysterious peasant girl had spread throughout our town, each day with embellishments. At night Ameline and I discussed any new tidings about her. “Father says that people from the east of France are dark-haired and stocky,” Ameline replied. “Maybe her hair was dark and unruly like yours before she cut it off.”

“I imagine that she is tall for a woman and strong like a man,” I said, moving the queen’s pawn two squares forward.

“It’s her visions that I wonder about the most,” Ameline said as she moved the knight’s pawn. She wrapped her black wool shawl around her thin shoulders. “Does Saint Michael the Archangel have flowing white robes and wings? And do Saints Margaret and Catherine smile at her as her own mother would?”

“I would be frightened if they came to me and told me what they told her,” I said. “Cut your hair and dress as a boy. Leave home. Embark on a long journey to the Dauphin’s court and tell him that God wants you to help him fight to regain his lands. You must help put an end to the war that has ravaged France for nigh on a hundred years.”

“I suppose I would too,” Ameline admitted. “But maybe I would welcome the saints’ appearance after a while. Maybe she does too.”

“I don’t think I would ever welcome them.” I shuddered and returned my attention to our game. After we had both moved half a dozen times or more, I felt a prickling of excitement as I saw a very good move. I remembered Ameline’s advice and considered the consequences before moving my queen across the chessboard and placing her in a square that threatened Ameline’s knight.

“Good move, Felise,” she said with a smile. “It won’t be long before you defeat me.”

I grinned back, proud of my improvement over the past few months. “You’ve taught me well.”

Charlotte circled her arms around my neck and hugged me. “Good move,” she echoed Ameline in her high-pitched voice.

I hugged her back. Charlotte never remembered how to move the chess pieces, just as she never learned to write the letters of the alphabet in spite of all the times I tried to teach her. Her mind was a child’s although she was twenty-five years old.

I expected Ameline to move her knight out of danger, but she surprised me by putting my king in check at the same time. “How did you think of that move? You are clever enough with battle tactics to be a captain in the Dauphin’s army. You could help the Maid go to battle for him.”

“Felise,” she began in a tone of voice that I knew well. Today was my fifteenth birthday, and I wondered if I would ever outgrow the need for advice.

“First, you are just as clever as I am and you will soon be able to think of such moves,” Ameline said. “Second, I know you are eager for this Maid to win the Dauphin’s approval and lead his army into battle for the first time. But I beg you to temper your enthusiasm.”

I sighed, knowing we were about to disagree about Jeanne again. Our family, as well as most of the other fine-blooded families of Troyes, supported the Dauphin Charles, the rightful heir to the French throne. My grandmother had even named Charlotte after him. The English had placed their own false king on the throne, with the help of their French allies the Burgundians. These nobles were cousins of the royal family, but were estranged from them because of a bloody struggle for power. By joining forces, the English and the Burgundians had captured most of the Dauphin’s lands in the northern part of France. I yearned for this Maid to bring us victory and end the war at once, but Ameline was more cautious than I was.

“You know how I feel about this Maid,” she said. “And you know that I want the Dauphin to win back his throne and that I desire our land to be at peace. But I do not believe that we, and the other Dauphinists in our town, should throw our support to this Maid when all we know of her is from rumors.” She fingered a pawn on the first row of her pieces. “Let us withhold judgment until we know more of the truth about her.”

“Do you fear that Satan binds her to him through false visions of saints?” I asked, making a hasty Sign of the Cross. That was what the Burgundians said about her on the streets.

She shrugged. “Who can say? Maybe God didn’t send her saints either.”

“Who else could have sent them?”

“Maybe she conjures them herself.”

Her boldness startled me. “So you think that she’s lying about her visions?”

“I don’t know. Maybe she wants to have fame and power through them. Or maybe she isn’t self-serving. Maybe she believes with all her heart that she must take action to end this war. And because of her strong desire for peace, she herself conjures the saints.”

I clasped Ameline’s small hand in mine and stared into her clear brown eyes. “I fear what the Dauphinists would do to you if they ever heard such an idea.”

She brushed back a strand of my hair that had fallen across my face and dangled onto the chess pieces. “Don’t worry. I won’t speak of this to anyone but you, here in the safety of our home where no one else can hear.” Her voice had that tone that she always used to lift my spirits. “Jeanne is a girl like us. She has her desires and we have ours. Instead of waiting to find out the truth about her, we should work to make our own vision come true.”

“But we don’t see saints as she does.”

Her eyes shone in the firelight. “True, but we do have a vision.”

“What do you mean?”

“Come now. We’ve talked about it many times.”

Suddenly I realized what she meant and my heart began to beat faster. Our vision was a dream in our minds. It wasn’t ghostly like the Maid’s saints but real. We had a plan.

“In the months that Father is away on his merchant journeys, we live here alone and take care of ourselves,” Ameline reminded me. “We are learning to find our own way in the world, Felise, without husbands.”

I stared at the glowing embers that created caves and hollows in the wood and said, “And you, sister, can earn your living by owning a cloth shop and I by owning a bookshop. You will make beautiful clothes and I will copy beautiful books.”

She took my hand and raised it skyward with hers. Charlotte clutched each of our arms with one of hers. She had taken off her coif and unpinned one side of her hair, which glowed amber in the firelight. “Me too,” she exclaimed, her crescent-shaped eyes sparkling with excitement.

“You too, Charlotte,” Ameline reassured her. “May God hear our prayer and allow us to live by our own handiwork.”

“As femmes soles,” I added, my eyes on the shadow of our arched hands against the wall.

“And sisters who always -- ”

A loud knock on the door interrupted her. It couldn’t be Father because his signal was three quick knocks. Night had fallen and it was past the proper time for visits. Ameline and I looked at each other as Charlotte tried to wriggle loose from me and go to the door. But I held her tight.

Ameline reached for one of the candles illuminating our game and gripped the handle of the holder. “Who’s there?”

“Pietr Wervecke of Flanders sent us,” a man’s voice boomed, thick with an accent that I didn’t recognize. “We’ve come to collect your father’s debts.”

In Father’s desk, Ameline had found a scrap of paper in Father’s hand mentioning a moneylender named Wervecke. I shook my head, trying to grasp what was about to happen.

“Just a moment,” Ameline called as she rose from the table, her eyes intent upon me. “Don’t speak,” she whispered. “Just do as I say.”

She flung her shawl over my head, and I hid my hair as best I could, ashamed that strangers would see it tumbling down my back. As soon as she unbarred the door, a fat man with a jagged scar on his face pushed past her, followed by two other men. Reeking of ale and horses, the stench of their unwashed flesh filled the great room as they unfurled parchments.

“See for yourselves what your father owes our master,” the leader announced in his harsh Flemish accent, pointing to the loan and interest amounts listed on the scrolls.

Charlotte started toward the table, for she always took commands literally.

The men drew back and the scar-faced man turned to Ameline. “See that the idiot stays away from the table,” he snarled. “I don’t want her looking at us with those strange eyes, in case she puts a curse on us and brings us misfortune.”

Ameline nodded and he turned to me, his gaze resting too long on my breasts. “You girl, get us some of your father’s wine,” he commanded.

Ameline motioned that I should take Charlotte with me. I hurried over to the wine barrel with her hand in mine. “Those men smell bad,” she complained loud enough for them to hear.

“At least we’re not as ugly as you are, idiot,” the red-haired man yelled.

“Hold your tongue, simpleton,” the scar-faced man barked, “or we’ll tie you in a sack and throw you in the river.”

Charlotte’s chin quivered, a sure sign that she was about to cry. I put my finger to my lips and she imitated me, barely holding back her tears. After pouring wine into three cups, I carried them on a tray back to the table. Charlotte followed me, stopping when she reached Ameline.

The thin bald man leered at Ameline and the redhead swatted me on the rump as I served him wine. “If you and your sister wore yellow knots on your sleeves, I wager you would soon earn the money to pay back your father’s debts. Especially you, girl.”

The other men laughed so hard that I hoped they didn’t notice the blush spreading across my face at the thought of turning to harlotry. Before I could stop the scar-faced man, he pulled the shawl off my head and stroked my hair. “Men would pay extra money to bed a girl with such beautiful hair.”

I drew back, spilling wine on his hand.

“Why such a hurry to leave, girl,” he teased, yanking a strand of my hair. The others came closer and reached out their hands toward me as the first man had. I tried to get out of their way, but the redhead pinched my breast and I yelped in pain.

“Leave her alone,” Ameline commanded.

“You’re feisty,” laughed the bald man as he turned toward her. “Let’s see what you look like with your hair down.”

The three of them shoved me out of the way and strode over to Ameline. I retreated in terror to Charlotte’s side and pulled the shawl over my hair again.

Ameline drew herself upright, her eyes glinting fiercely. If she was afraid, I couldn’t tell. I would try my best to be like her and hide my trembling hands behind my back while Charlotte buried her face in my bodice.

The scar-faced man stood before her. He downed his wine in one go and tossed the cup on the floor, shattering it to pieces. He yanked the coif off of her head and pulled out as many pins as he could find. Still she didn’t flinch. The three men stared open-mouthed as a cascade of her thick amber hair glowed in the firelight.

Ameline looked the scar-faced man straight in the eyes. Never had I seen such power emanating from her, like that of a warrior just before a battle raged. “If you touch my sister or aunt again,” she said, her voice transformed into a low growl, “I won’t give you a sous. If you return to this Pietr Wervecke empty-handed, you will no longer be in his employ.”

The scar-faced man gaped at her and shook his head slightly as if he had awakened from dozing. His bald companion snickered as he strode forward. “It’s you I want,” he breathed into Ameline’s ear, his eyes glinting with lust. He drew out his knife and held it to her neck, but still she held steady.

My eyes darted around the room and found the poker at the hearth. I almost ran for it, but Ameline had commanded me to do only what she said. I stood rooted to the floor.

“You can have your way with me, even kill me, and I’ll curse you from beyond the grave,” Ameline said, her voice filling the room, “but I won’t give you the money if you harm us. And I’m the only one who knows where it’s hidden.”

No one moved. The only sound came from the hearth where the logs shifted in the fire.

“Damn you, whore,” the bald moneylender seethed, pushing the flat blade of his knife against her neck.

The scar-faced man grabbed him by the arm and yanked the knife away. It clattered to the floor. “You fool, don’t you see she’s serious? Sit down.”

He shoved the bald man toward the table where the redhead sat white-faced, making the Sign of the Cross. “She bewitched you,” he muttered to his companion, “and almost made you forget why we came here.”

With his arms squared against his chest, the scar-faced man turned his body so he could keep an eye on his underlings and address Ameline. “A pox on Henri and his whore daughters and his half-wit,” he bellowed. “On behalf of Pietr Wervecke, I demand full and immediate payment of his debts.”

Ameline directed her gaze at him. “I don’t know when Father will return, but he left me with instructions,” she began. “I am to pay the first half of what he owes Pietr Wervecke. He told me to assure Pietr’s messengers that the second half of his debt will be paid in full by Midsummer.”

What a good liar she was! Father hadn’t left any instructions.

“My sister will fetch the payment as soon as I tell her where it is,” she continued.

She turned to face me with her back to the men. “Jewels,” she mouthed.

“Even the amethysts?” I mouthed back.

She nodded and my heart sank.

I forced myself to hurry to the hiding place, the oldest of the ragbags lying neglected in a dusty corner. I opened the drawstring and groped underneath the mountain of rags until I felt a satchel at the bottom, heavy with jewels, including the amethyst ring and necklace that Mama had bequeathed to Ameline and me. I wanted to take the amethysts out of the bag and hide them, but knew I could not. I settled for pressing them against my heart, certain that the moneylenders were growing impatient.

As soon as I returned, I handed the bag to Ameline. “Do you have a jeweler among you?” She asked the scar-faced man.

He nodded at the bald man, who pulled out a pair of spectacles from his moneybag. “I need more light,” he grunted when Ameline handed him the jewels.

She set candles closer to him as he inspected Mama’s jewels. After some figuring on a scrap of paper, the jeweler turned to the leader. “300 livres tournois,” he declared.

“No, they are worth 400,” Ameline insisted. “A jeweler in Troyes appraised the jewels for that amount and I have a receipt to prove it.”

I marveled that she thought of everything while the bald man spluttered that he wanted to see the receipt. She fetched it from Father’s desk and gave it to the scar-faced man. “400,” he grunted, “but that’s still not enough for the first half of your father’s debt. What else do you have, girl?”

She looked around the room. “Take Father’s chess set,” she said. “It is made of the finest jade and ivory. I’ve had it appraised too.”

A moan escaped my lips. Not the chess set. But we had nothing else.

“It serves Henri right,” snickered the man with the beard. “His debts have checkmated him.”

The jeweler set to work appraising the chess set and soon grudgingly admitted that it was worth a bit more than the needed amount. As the men packed the board and pieces in burlap and thrust them into a satchel, Ameline told the scar-faced man that she wanted two receipts of her payment, one for him and one for her.

“Your father taught you a thing or two about doing business, girl,” he said, narrowing his eyes. “But it won’t do you any more good. Mark my word; we know of your father and he won’t pay his debt by July. You and your sister and the idiot will suffer a terrible fate.”

I secretly wiped sweat from my forehead while the leader ordered his clerk to write the receipts. After rolling up the scrolls, the men stood and raised their fists at us. They left without another word, slamming the door as if they would break it. Ameline and I collapsed into each other’s arms, with Charlotte wrapping her arms around us, all of us trembling violently. It was a few minutes before I was able to speak.

“What are we going to do?” I whispered, too frightened to raise my voice.

“I don’t know,” she said grimly, and the terror in her voice turned my blood cold. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

From the author:

1. What did you learn about medieval life from reading the novel?

2. How was Charlotte both a burden and a gift on Felise’s journey?

3. Discuss Felise and Georges’ relationship throughout the novel.

4. How does Felise change over the course of the novel?

5. Jeanne (Joan of Arc) was a fifteenth-century celebrity. Compare being a celebrity then to being one now.

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