Such dancers could be athletic and graceful or tumble in a jesting manner, playing for laughter. They could also be well paid and respected - Richard II paid John Katerine, a dancer from Venice, over £6 for playing and dancing before him, a sum not far short of £3,000 today.
However jugglers were also held in affection, even by the church, and many illuminated manuscripts show jugglers. From the time of William the Conqueror, a 'King of the Jugglers' appeared at the court and would continue to appear through the Middle Ages. Whoever held this title had many rights to go with it. There is also a medieval legend of a juggler who, having nothing else to give, made an 'offering' of his juggling skills before a statue of the Virgin and Child in church. According to some variations of this story, the Madonna or Jesus caught one of the balls.
Balls were commonly used for juggling but other things could also be used. In the Irish story of Cuchulainn, the hero juggles nine apples. The later Viking sagas also mention juggling and sometimes with weapons - Snorri Sturluson writes in one saga, "In the doorway of the hall, Gylfi saw a man juggling with knives, keeping seven in the air at a time.", a trick also mastered by Sunniva in "A Knight's Captive" (99cents or 99p on Amazon, free to read with Kindle Unlimited)
She glided out into the hall, blue and gold, her hair uncovered, unbound and falling halfway down her back, as soft and wild as a mermaid's tresses. Marc put down his plate and cup to stare, lust hardening his loins in an instant.
She was Sunniva, yet not. Instead of her usual loose, long-sleeved gown she now wore a robe with sleeves that came only to her elbows, revealing her slim shapely arms. Such skin she had, smooth and flawless, pale and glimmering in the fire-light. He thought of bracelets to place on her narrow wrists, rings to adorn her graceful fingers, and yet in truth she needed none: she was a jewel in herself.
"Her feet are bare!" Alde hissed, kicking off her own shoes, while Marc could only nod, his eyes busy. The light blue robe Sunniva had changed into skimmed her lithe figure, fitting snugly about her breasts and narrow waist, then gently flaring at her hips, its skirt made in two colours, blue and red, that flickered and tumbled together as she walked.
With a tense, painful pleasure he revelled in her approach, in the lush, spectacular beauty that was enhanced by movement. He thought of moving with her, the ancient dance of woman and man, and only the presence of the three girls stopped him from taking her now! On the table. Over the table. By the table. His body and head ablaze, he joined in Alde's furious applause.
Cool and gold as a mermaid, her sea-green eyes flicked over him and then she smiled, bowed from the waist like some saucy page and came up grinning.
It was impossible not to smile back, not to gasp, like Alde and Isabella, as she rippled her empty fingers through the waves of her red-gold hair, clapped her hands twice and held them up, showing the five glinting daggers that had not been there before.
Thrice, she whirled them about her head and around her body, so close that Marc found himself clenching his teeth lest she cut herself. Up her arms flew and the daggers flew higher, spinning, flashing in the fire-light, coming down, point-first -
She caught them point-first, flipped them again, high and this time they soared in a curving arch, dropping like tired birds, bouncing handle-first on her wrists, then her elbows, then her wrists, then swooping off and aloft again.
"How does she do it?" howled Judith, her square jaw working in frustration as her eyes widened and narrowed.
Laughing, Sunniva threw what seemed to be a tiny bolt of lightning, and now Judith was giggling as she found her head-square pinned to the beam at her back and before she could free it, another bolt issued from Sunniva's nimble fingers and the small dagger was knocked from the beam by a second, heavier blade and Judith's head-rail was free again and she had a small dagger lying, flat and harmless, in her lap.
"I want —” Isabella began, and then she and Alde were both bemused, touching shiny blades that had just appeared and fallen safely onto their knees, a dagger for each girl.
From the very edge of his sight, Marc glimpsed a falling gleam of light, like a shooting star, and jerked backwards. The small dagger bounced flatly off his knee to land under the table, and by the time he had retrieved it, Sunniva was moving again.
Smiling still, Sunniva raced forward, running, juggling three more blades, turning a cartwheel that flashed her skirts suddenly from blue to red and back again. Bouncing lightly on her bare feet, her ankles kicked up slight puffs of dust and ash from the fire as she made a handstand — on top of two stout knives.
"King Christ!" Marc was hollering and on his feet but the slippery mermaid was already down again and demure, showing no sign of pink toes or shapely calves as her skirt swished into quietness down her thighs. Smiling, she hefted the two daggers again, high over the central cross-beam, caught them and then showed her bloodless palms.
Before he could draw breath to praise or reprove her she sank into another low bow, tucked her knives somewhere into her gown and said breathlessly,
"Now, who will fetch me a drink, pray?"
As one, all three girls rose from their bench and scampered off.
A moment later she was sitting across from Marc, pouring herself another ale, while Isabella nagged to see the daggers again. Prudently, Sunniva had retrieved all of them while the girls were distracted finding her a cup.
"They are gone, child, that is part of the magic," Sunniva replied, as Marc scowled at his youngest. "Is that not so, Marc?"
Feeling himself relax at her careless use of his name, he answered at once, "For sure it is and I for one am dazzled by it. Well done!" He applauded her again, clapping harder as her flush of pretty colour deepened.
"Will you show me how to do it?" Alde asked, tugging nervously on the sleeves of her own gown.
"For sure when you are older."
"And you will show me, too?" demanded Judith.
"None of you will grow to be older unless you get to bed," Marc broke in, pointing to the three pallets ranged at the other side of the fire. He was eager to have Sunniva to himself.
The abbot and Yolande both had long legs and Geraint was glad he was supple as they stalked away, serious and tall together. Then, before he felt reduced to no more than a sideshow, Yolande glanced round at him, haunted and anxious, and he swore again to protect her.
Good, said a new voice in his mind, a woman’ s. I like that in a man.
Geraint knew there was only one person it could be. “I carried your cross here,” he whispered in Welsh. The abbot and Yolande gave no signs of hearing his latest companion.
I know. No tests for me, juggler? Should I say the Creed to prove who I am?
“No, Magdalene.” The presence of her, the risk of it, exhilarated him. There was a challenge in her that reminded him of Yolande. She was still a little ahead of him, tilting her head up like a flower seeking the sun as they emerged into the twilight.
A prickle at the base of his neck recalled him to the other presence inside his skull. Even saints hate being kept waiting for an answer. “No, I know you Marys have a soft spot for jugglers.”
Very good, Geraint. Indeed, I am Mary the Magdalene and this is in part my church. Now fall back a little as those two holy warriors rush on to the tower. Michael can speak to them, if he chooses.”
He sighed. “Tempting as your offer is, I cannot accept it. Speak to all of us, or none.”
The presence within his mind withdrew. One instant it was there, the next he was alone and lonely inside his skull.
Yolande turned. “I can smell violets.”
Geraint groaned—he could smell them too. The saint had truly been with him and he had spurned her.
Outside, strolling to the tower by way of the abbey orchard, Yolande felt less oppressed. Abbot Simon was also less haughty. He even approved when Geraint recounted an amazing story concerning the female saint of the monastery. The Magdalene had spoken directly to him.
“‘Tis true, jugglers have held a special place in the favors of the Virgin and the Magdalene,” Abbot Simon said, looking the wiry Welshman up and down as if seeing him afresh. “Let us pray she will return to guide us.”
“Or Saint Michael,” remarked Yolande. She did not want to meet Geraint’s knowing eye. I am not jealous, not really, and if I were, I would never admit it. He already thinks a good deal of himself.
“Why those two saints?” Geraint seized the mood as he so often did as a performer.
The abbot cupped a green apple on one of the trees. “No one knows. Our founder left no record, only the instruction that both should be honored.”
“I have one thought,” Yolande began softly, unwilling to tell the holy father his business.
Abbot Simon nodded encouragement and Geraint said, “So have I.”
“You first,” said Yolande instantly, curious and exasperated together.
“One a warrior for fighting, one a redeemer, for sinners. Both apt, I would say, in a place that needs more guarding than most against the rise of evil.” He cocked a black eyebrow at her as if to say, I have shared, now it is your turn.
“They are both beloved,” Yolande said at once, stung into explaining and no longer reticent. “Saint Michael is beloved of God. Mary Magdalene is beloved of Christ.” She knew she was blushing and hoped it did not show too much.
Geraint smacked his thighs with a noisy, eye-catching slap. “I think you have something there, my girl, to be sure. Two favorites, working together, to protect.”
And perhaps that is a sign for me, too, that Geraint and I should work together, Yolande thought.
[Illustrations from Wikimedia Commons.]