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Honey and roses

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"A prophet?" said Sir John. "Come, Hal – where's the profit in that? Religion is all very well for old men, but I hope that neither you nor I is so near death that we need to start thinking about God."

"But I've heard he's very amusing," drawled Poins. "Not at all the usual kind. He thinks God is to be found in wine and dancing. Most of his followers are women, and they don't wear anything other than their shifts."

"You must do as you please," said Hal, "but Poins and I will be riding to Hainault to find out what it's all about."

 

They all went, of course: Hal and Poins, Sir John, his page and all the others, staying the night at Woodford and leaving again – to Sir John's annoyance – at dawn.

"How will we even find them?" grumbled Sir John, as they broke their fast at the outskirts of the forest.

But the page was frowning. "Don't you feel it?" he said. "Something strange. I'm not sure I like it."

They all laughed, Hal too, though he had to admit he knew what the boy meant. It was something like how he felt at the end of the Easter vigil, when after a long night of prayer and liturgy the sun rises and the new fire is lit. And it was something like that perfect stage of drunkenness when care has departed and sickness not arrived, when the heart is filled with love and fellowship with all.

He licked his lips and tasted honey.

"Follow me," he said, leapt onto his mare and spurred her on to a gallop along the main path. He found he was laughing, though he didn't quite know why.

When the trees became too dense to ride, he tied the mare to a tree, and ran on. He didn't think he could have walked even if he had wanted to – there was too much energy. He heard the others riding behind, but paid them no heed. They would follow, or they wouldn't. It didn't matter.

The first thing he saw was two young girls, perhaps fifteen or sixteen, their hair unbound and dressed – just as Poins had said – in nothing but shifts. They were curled up together asleep at the foot of a great oak tree.

Then he heard the music: a glorious muddle of voices and harps, flutes and drums. At first he thought it was several competing melodies, but as he got closer, he began to hear how it all fitted together. It was quite unlike anything he heard before. He strained to hear the words, but couldn't quite manage it.

A handsome youth ran across his path, chased by a laughing girl crowned with flowers. When she saw Hal, she stopped and held out her hands. "If you love God, come hither," she said.

He paused, knowing he was in the presence of something powerful, but not understanding whether it was good or evil. He stared at her for a moment. "Which god?" he said, finally.

She laughed. "There is only one God," she said. "The one in three, three in one, he who died and rose again, who gives us his blood for wine. He who fills the hungry with good things."

Hesitantly, Hal held out his hands towards hers, and finally touched them. A shiver of delight ran through his whole body. Still laughing, she pulled him close to her and into a madcap jig. He was laughing too, and soon there were others around them, dancing round in a circle in a forest clearing.

He could hear the music better now, and recognised the words as lines from Ecclesiastes:

 

Vade!

Ergo et comede in laetitia panem tuum,

Et bibe cum gaudio vinum tuum,

Quia Deo placent opera tua.*

Faster and faster they whirled, until it was too much, and some of them began to fall away, collapsing into little groups of two or three, making way for those who remained. In the end it was just two of them: Hal and a taller man, whose closeness made his heart leap with ecstasy greater than he had ever felt with a woman.

Then the man suddenly stopped stock still, and Hal staggered to a halt.

He was dressed in white linen robe, Hal saw, embroidered with gold thread, and on his head he wore a garland of red and white roses. His face was pale, neither masculine nor feminine , and strikingly beautiful. Hal felt the urge to bow, but resisted.

"Prince," said the tall man. And there was something familiar about his voice, which Hal couldn't quite place. Something familiar about his face too, for that matter.

Hal only meant to nod his head in acknowledgement of his title, but he found himself bowing a little at the waist. "And who art thou?" he said.

The man smiled. He lifted off the garland of roses, and there was blood on his forehead from the thorns. "I am the king who gave up his heavenly crown."

Hal knelt down, certain now that this was a bodily vision of Christ, such as he had read about in the lives of saints.

"I am he who was betrayed by those he loved."

"Kyrie eleison," said Hal.

"I am he who died and rose again."

"Christe eleison."

"And I am he who comes again in judgment."

"Kyrie eleison." He bowed his head, afraid.

"And I will," said the figure. "I will have mercy on all who seek my forgiveness. For no longer will they say: 'The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.’ Look up, Prince Hal."

He did, and saw that the figure was bleeding from wounds in the centre of both of his palms, which he held out in front of him, glistening scarlet blood that ran in rivulets between his fingers and dripped onto the ground.

"Will you be my disciple?" he said.

"Yes, my Lord." Hal stared at the bleeding wounds with awe.

"And you know your bible?"

"Yes, my Lord."

"If any man come to me and hate not his father ... he cannot be my disciple."

"Yes, my Lord. Father and Mother, wife and children, brethren and sisters. A true Christian puts his duty to God before all."

"And you do this of your own free will?"

"Of my own free will, my Lord."

"Then drink my blood and be forgiven." He held out his right hand.

Hal felt afraid, but he pressed it to his lips and sucked. It wasn't blood he tasted but wine, mixed with honey. He drank deeply, and felt a deep, blissful peace wash over him.

"Stand, Prince Hal, and look around you. See the new Jerusalem!"

Hal did so. Everything seemed more colourful than it had before: the leaves greener, the patches of sky above them bluer, cherry blossom that bloomed all around them brighter and more abundant.

He saw that his companions were there, along with several dozen strangers, all dressed in white shifts. Sir John was drinking from an enormous goblet. Poins was devouring a honeycomb. The page was lying on the lap of a girl, alongside a small white deer who was sucking at her bare breasts.

There were other animals too: a wolf, a hare and a fox, all drinking together from the same pool. Hal saw the wolf turn round and lick the hare's ears affectionately. And there was a huge brown bear, who was letting both her cub and two human children lick honey off her paw.

"The new Jerusalem," Hal whispered in wonder. "My England."

 

* "Go, eat your bread with gladness, and your drink wine with joy, for God is pleased with what you do."