Being Compline, Saturday, the Feast Day of Saint Valentine, Anno Domini One Thousand Two Hundred and Seventy-Six, somewhere in the Forest of Averoigne…
Pierre and Julien take deep breaths and stand up, in full view of the bathing maiden. “Milady?” Pierre begins.
The woman below them looks up, seeming unsurprised by the intrusion. She pulls up her hair. “My name is Brigid, good sir. Might I enquire as to thy intrusion upon my ablutions?”
Julien clears his throat. “Milady – Brigid – Mademoiselle, we have come to thee in search of…”
“Can it wait until I am out of the water and suitably garbed?”
“Of course, of course,” says Pierre.
“Our deepest apologies, milady,” says Julien. The two men turn their backs to her.
“Could thou also ask any of thy compatriots concealed in the underbrush to do so as well?”
Bruyant sighs. He and Marcel rise, putting their backs to the water.
“A priest and a friar – and both comely.” Brigid laughs. “I shall be but a moment.”
A few minutes pass. Julien catches Pierre begin to crane his neck, and puts a hand on his arm.
“You may look, gentlemen,” she calls out.
The men turn to see Brigid, now clad in pale robes that gleam in the moon. She bears an oaken staff in one hand, but no blade or other armaments can be seen. “So, who art thou, and what bringest thou into Averoigne on this cold night?”
Pierre bows, introduces the companions, and tells her the nature of their visit.
“I have brought this small piece of jewelry – “ Julien holds it up.
Brigid laughs. “Put away thy trinket, good sir. Thou needest not make a deal with me, for what thou seekest is not mine to give. Please, come this way.” She gestures downstream.
They wind through the bushes along the banks of the stream, companions on one side, Brigid on the other. Soon they find a set of low, mossy stones on which to cross. Julien’s foot slips into the cold water, but soon all are across, ascending a steep bank on a path that runs straight into the heart of the forest.
After a time which seems like hours (but, from Marcel’s count of the stars, can scarcely be minutes), the companions arrive at an intersection of paths. Each is as straight as one of Euclid’s lines, and is soon lost in the gloom beneath the branches.
Brigid stands at the intersection. “One of these paths is the way to that which thou dost seek. Each one of thee must choose thy own way.”
Bruyant glowers. “I like not thy test, milady.”
“It is not my test. It is that of the forest – and, by extension, thine own.”
“And I like not these riddles,” says Marcel. He gestures the men into a huddle. “My friends, this is highly unorthodox, not to mention dangerous…”
Pierre sighs. “Good friar, I am cold and tired. If going down a path alone at the request of some supernatural damsel on some dubious quest is what it takes to get what I need and go home, then so be it.” He tosses his spare torch to Bruyant, and walks straight up the middle. After a few paces, naught but his lantern can be seen.
Julien hefts his own light. “Agreed. I like it not, but time is of the essence.” He chooses the path on the left.
Bruyant lights his torch and looks at the path on the right. “It seems narrower than the others. Such a way seems appropriate for a man of God.” With trepidation, he walks into the darkness.
Brigid and Marcel look at each other for a moment. “There is no other way to go,” the friar says at length.
“Yes, father, there is.” The woman points toward the remaining path.
“But that’s back the way I came!” Marcel sputters.
“It matters not to me.” She gives a winsome smile. “Then again, thou art indeed a handsome one. Thou couldst tarry here for a while.”
“I fear that is impossible, milady.” Marcel hastens toward the stream. “Duty calls.”