Thursday, December 11, 2008

An Epiphany Gift for Robin

[This short story is based on an unpublished medieval novel I wrote many years ago. The boy, Robin, grows up to be the hero of his own story. I've toyed with the idea of writing the story of his parents' romance, but only time will tell if such a project ever comes to fulfillment.]

A Village in Wiltshire, England — 13th Century

“Why, Arthur, what is this?”

Marriot stared down in surprise at the large, thickly wrapped bundle her husband placed in her lap.

The Christmas season was drawing to its close on this, the twelfth day following the nativity of the Lord. The extra rents of eggs, bread and a fine speckled hen they’d been forced to pay to help supply the baron’s Christmas feast had been somewhat offset by Lord Beckford having selected her husband as one of two peasants he traditionally invited to the castle on Christmas day. Arthur, representing the poorest of Beckford’s poor serfs, had carried away as much food and ale as he could balance in one cloth, a cup, and a wooden trencher, while the second tenant, a free farmer on the manor, had been allowed to take two friends and feast for two days at the baron’s own table. Arthur had returned all a-grumble at Beckford’s “stinginess”, claiming he’d heard that on many another manor, the lord or abbot invited all his serfs to a Christmas feast.

Still, he’d managed to return with enough good food to make a fine, if modest, Christmas dinner for their family

The food was long gone now, along with the merry games played by the villagers to keep warm in the winter snows. The ivy and holly so gleefully gathered and hung by the children to brighten their tiny thatched cottage, had grown dry and crisp, crackling off their garlands and crushed by shoes to form a fine, fragrant dust on the earth beaten floor. Today, Epiphany, the day the Magi had presented their gifts to the Christ Child, was the last day of respite her family would have from the backbreaking work in the baron’s fields.

“What foolish thing have you done?” Marriot demanded of her husband. “Whatever this is, we can’t afford it. I’m sure that we can’t!”

Gifts were only given to small children on Epiphany, especially among the poor.

Her husband’s dark eyes danced with that mischievous gleam that had won her heart ten years ago. “Sometimes a bit of foolishness is just what a man needs to bestow on the woman he loves.”

She heard a trio of high-pitched giggles from the children.

“Open it, Ma, open it!” little four-year old Lottie trilled.

“Aye, Ma. Da’s been ready to bust for days, waiting for you to see it.”

She cast a suspicious gaze at her middle child. He bounced excitedly on the balls of his feet, the exact image of his father at the same age with his black hair and bright dark eyes.

“Do you know what this is, Robin?”

Robin smiled slyly, but neither shook nor nodded his head.


Her eldest son grinned but refused to speak.

Marriot slowly drew the cloth wrapping away. A large wooden instrument lay in her lap, it’s flattened top shaped like a very large teardrop, with strings stretched over a grille carved in a twining knot. The strings’ ends wound around wooden pegs set along the long neck, also of wood. Shifting the object a bit, she could see the long, curved strips of wood that formed the rounded, drum-shaped base.

“A lute? Good heavens, Arthur, you’re as mad as milord says you are! We cannot afford something like this! Unless… Tell me you didn’t…”

“I didn’t buy it,” Arthur said, quelling her sudden fear. “I made it, with some help from that minstrel who wandered through the village last spring.”

“But the wood… Where did you find so much wood?”

He shrugged. “The minstrel was a game fellow and helped me gather it deep in the woods late at night, when there was no one about to see. He’s long gone now so his tongue won’t wag. Beckford will never know I’ve taken more than my daily quota.”

“And I went with them, Ma, and helped,” Robin said earnestly, “so the gift is a little from me, too. Will you teach me how to play it? Please?”

Also like his father, seven-year old Robin had a restless, curious mind, always eager to learn something new. Marriot feared for him when he grew older...old enough to balk, as Arthur still did, at the limitations placed on a serf who’s sole purpose in life was to work his own narrow strips of land along with the lord’s demesne.

“And what will milord think when he sees me with this?” she demanded. “He’ll want to know how one of his serfs came to possess such a thing.”

“I’ll tell him I’ve been saving for years to buy it,” Arthur said. “He knows I raise and sell excess grain at market. He must wonder what I do with the extra money I earn.”

Their eyes met for a meaningful moment of silence. They both knew exactly where that extra money went.

“What about me?” little Lottie squealed. “Did you make me something this year, Da?”

“Indeed I did, Lottie.”

Thanks to her husband’s clever hands, this day of gift giving never went unfulfilled for their children, as it did for so many others. Arthur could carve nearly any wonder from a piece of wood.

Arthur scooped his daughter up in his arms and carelessly mussed her tangled red locks with one of his large, calloused hands, then perched her atop their trestle table. Marriot, despite her misgivings about her own gift, began plucking gently at the strings. She had never played a lute before, but she was as gifted at music as her husband was with carving. She would soon discover the right combinations of sounds to accompany the lullabies she sang at night.

She smiled and glanced briefly up at the coo of glee her daughter gave as Arthur placed the new wooden doll he’d made into her plump little hands. Marriot had sewn a tiny dress from some scraps of a gown that Lottie had outgrown, and had snipped off some of her own dark brown tresses to make the doll a mop of hair.

Gilbert’s gift came next. Marriot nearly laughed at the delight on his face when his father handed him a fresh-made spade, irresistibly carved with some stalks of wheat on the handle, just sized for a sturdy boy of nine. Only her practical minded older son—a trait she reluctantly admitted he’d inherited from herself—could possibly have glowed with pride to receive such a utilitarian tool for his very own.

“What about Robin?” Lottie piped. “What’d you make him, Da?”

“Ah, Robin.”

Marriot tried to catch her husband’s eye, as curious as her daughter. Robin’s was the one gift, besides her own, that Arthur had insisted on concealing from her. She watched him reach around Lottie to pick up the threadbare cloak he’d dropped on the table when he’d come in earlier from the winter’s cold. Until now, she hadn’t wondered about why he’d rolled it up, instead of hanging it on the peg inside the doorway.

He unfolded it now and removed the object it concealed. A dull green cloth, fraying a bit at the edges, stretched tightly over a stiff rectangular frame.

Arthur placed it in his younger son’s hands. Lottie jumped off the table and ran to her brother’s side to look. Gilbert drew near, too.

“What is it?” they echoed together.

Marriot had only seen such an object once before, much, much larger, chained to the altar in the village church. By the flush of excitement that ruddied Robin’s cheeks, she realized that he, too, knew exactly what it was.

“A book!” Robin whispered the words almost reverently. Marriot set the lute aside and approached her son as he flipped the object open. “It’s a book, like the big Bible in the church! Da, is it really mine?”

Marriot gazed at the meaningless scratches of ink on the parchment pages. She could not make heads or tails of the marks. Why would Arthur give Robin such a thing?

“Nay, Rob,” Arthur said, “Father Elias only let me borrow it. Would you like to learn to read it, though? Would you like to study half-days with Father Elias?”

“That would make Robin a priest, too” Gilbert said, “wouldn’t it?”

“Eventually,” his father answered. “Well, Rob? What do you think?”

A small fire sputtered and smoked on an iron plate in the middle of the room, inadequately keeping the cold at bay, but the chill that smote Marriot had nothing to do with the drafty cracks in the cottage walls. She whirled and dashed into the bedroom.

Scattered about another iron plate, this one covered with a pile of dead ashes, were the thin pallets they slept on at night. Once one of the wealthier serfs on the manor, Arthur had given up nearly everything he’d owned, including his much larger house, to marry her, the daughter of a drunken, money-squandering cottar. He’d sold everything, his father’s bed along with his house, to raise the marriage price the baron had set for her hand, leaving them to raise their children in her father’s two-room hovel.

Aside from the pallets, only a large wooden chest that held the family’s clothing occupied the room. Marriot shoved at it desperately, but it was too heavy—intentionally so—for any but a strong man to move.

“Here, let me,” her husband spoke from behind her. “I think you know what you’ll find, though.”

Marriot’s heart hammered. Or not find.

“It’s gone, isn’t it?” she whispered.

When he’d sold nearly all for her hand, he’d saved a single coin and buried it deep beneath this chest. A symbol of all he had fought so hard to achieve before they’d fallen in love. A symbol of what he’d yet sworn to achieve for them all. But now—

“Our freedom money. You said you were starting over for us—for all of us. You slave in the fields, plowing by moonlight to raise more crops than other men. You sit by our precious kindling on moonless nights carving items to sell to our neighbors for extra coins. And I’ve seen how you count and count and count before you bury them here—” she pointed at the base of the chest— “each coin bringing you closer to your dream.”

“A dream I will never reach,” he said quietly. “Not for all of us.”

Her tears fell freely, her emotions a mixture of guilt and relief. “Because of me. Because of the children. There are too many of us to ever raise enough…but oh, how I feared you might kill yourself trying!”

He took her in his arms. “If we had a fairer lord…but Beckford never intended to let me go, with or without you. He proved that when he demanded so high a marriage price for you. And our entire family? No. I could never raise enough to persuade him to give up the labor he would lose from us all.”

“But why Rob?

“Gilbert is like you, content with the security of the manor despite the cursed rents and services. And Charlotte is too valuable for the future serfs she will one day bear.”

“But he agreed to lose Rob’s half-day labor, and if you have your way, he will lose him entirely when he is twelve. How did you persuade milord of that?”

“He agreed to the half-days’ labor because he knows I will make it up myself. And five years is a long time. He undoubtedly trusts that I’ll find I need our second son full time to meet all the week works and boon works he lays upon us. Or that I won’t scrape together enough money to purchase his permission for Robin’s vows when he turns twelve. Either way, Beckford will keep the money I’ve paid him for this day’s boon. He’s the richer for it either way.”

“But you will scrape the money together, won’t you? If it kills you, you’re determined to set at least one of us free. You’ll work twice as hard to sell more crops than ever. You’ll carve yourself blind by the fire.”

“And when I do, I’ll have your nimble fingers on the strings of your lute to bring peace to my restless soul. Five years is all I need to see Robin free.”

Free. What was it she’d heard her husband repeat so often? When Adam and Eve first walked the earth, who then was lord and who was serf?

Her husband was right. The security of manor life contented her. But even she knew that Robin’s quick, bright mind required more. Free. One day a priest. Teaching peasants like herself the story of the Magi and the gifts laid before the Christ child on this day.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Picking Herbs

[Poitou was an area of France under the rule of King Henry II of England in 1167. This scene is based on a comment made by the old nurse, Sybil, to Heléne on page 31 of Loyalty’s Web: “I taught you what you know of healing, milady, but sometimes you are careless in your preparations. It is not wise to forget the ancient ways, to disdain the spells and chants…” and by then eighteen-year-old Heléne to the Earl of Gunthar on page 147: “Well for you that one is required to recognize the noxious so as not to mistake it for the benevolent.” Here we see young Heléne as a child, beginning her learning of the healing arts under the tutelage of her old nurse, Sybil.]

Poitou — Spring 1167

“I swear, I’ve never seen so much hair on a woman-child’s head. Your mother’ll be using my own switch on me, if I let you return to the keep like this.”

Nine-year-old Heléne, entranced with the delightful vision of this reversal of the switch’s role, tried to dodge the gnarled old hand that reached for her, but a sharp snap of the aforementioned switch across the back of her legs froze her into place. The pain stung through the skirts her long linen gown. She stood reluctantly as Sybil, her ancient nurse and companion, tugged roughly at her flaxen locks. Heléne never remembered a time when Sybil hadn’t appeared a hundred years old. The aged servant’s features looked as though they’d been blasted by eons of winds and storms, leaving behind juttings and cracks vaguely resembling a human face locked in cold brown stone.

Heléne tried not to look at the filthy, talonlike nails at the ends of Sybil’s knotted fingers. They yanked more than plucked out the leaves and twigs that had gathered in Heléne’s hair during her mad dash through the fresh air of the castle’s herb garden. Her older sister, Clothilde, had languished in their bed with a case of the sniffles for the past sennight, and whenever Clothilde was ill, their mother confined Heléne to their chamber as well. Heléne might be all arms and legs and thin as a rail, but her health was as robust as Clothilde’s more curvaceous twelve-year-old frame was frail. Nevertheless, she’d frequently overheard their mother remark to their father that one could not be too careful with children’s health, and besides, a few days locked in the bedchamber with Clothilde might help to tame their younger daughter’s froward spirits.

Heléne was not quite sure what “froward” meant, except that her mother’s voice always dripped with disapproval as she said it just before she locked Heléne up or had Sybil turn the switch on her. Usually whenever she said something that her mother called “pert”, or when she did something “unladylike”, such as when she snuck back from fishing with her brother and their neighbor’s son with a grass-soiled gown and tangled, twig-snarled hair…rather like today’s impulsive romp through the garden.

But after so many days shut up with her sister, Heléne had not been able to resist spinning around with her arms flung out, face turned upward to the bright spring sky, even if it had caused her hair to fly out like a silky web to snag the leaves and petals off a nearby fennel bush.

“Hold still,” Sybil scolded, as she jerked free another fragrant petal. “I do not know why your mother does not cut your hair. It catches on everything.”

Heléne flinched, her eyes watering from the force of the pull. Sybil would never have been so rough with her delicate sister. She watched with a blurry sideways gaze as the old nurse dropped the petal into a leather pouch tied about her stout waist, along with the others she had already pulled free.

“Father Dominic will be furious if he finds any more of those petals stuffed into the castle’s keyholes,” Heléne said.

She gasped as another sharp whack from the switch landed across the back of her calves.

“Don’t you be pert with me, you young minx,” Sybil said in a voice that bit almost as keenly as the switch. “These petals are what keep us all safe from the malicious spirits that roam the nights. Your father’s chaplain should know that it takes more than aves and paternosters to keep evil at bay.”

“What sort of evil?” Heléne queried, as Sybil left off de-petaling her hair, and began to divide the long, thick tresses into three strands.

“The sort that turns some children into uppity little hoydens, and tries to rob others of their frail innocence with mortal illness.”

“Clothilde didn’t have a mortal illness. She didn’t even have a cough or fever. She just had a tickly nose that sneezed and sneezed and sneezed.”

“Exactly. Father Dominic ordered all the keyholes cleaned, and immediately your sister’s nose began to twitch. His foolishness left her defenseless for the evil spirits that wanted to steal her pure, sweet soul.”

“It wasn’t immediately. Clothilde didn’t start sneezing until nearly a fortnight after the servants dug all the fennel leaves out of the keyholes.”

Heléne half-expected another smack of the switch for her “pertness”, but instead, Sybil jerked the three strands of her hair into a braid so tight that Heléne felt her eyes pull into painful slits.

“This is my last warning,” Sybil said as she worked. “If you do not want me to send you back to your mother and tell her you are completely unfit for…”

“No, please,” Heléne begged. “I do want to learn from you, I do.” She spoke with complete honesty, but also with the knowledge that failure to heed Sybli’s lessons would result in worse than a few smart strikes across her calves.

“Very well, then.”

Heléne could not see what Sybil tied her braid off with, but she suspected it was one of the soil-stained ribbons she kept in her leather bag.

“Now leave it so,” Sybil said sternly. “I have more important things to do than pick leaves and petals and who knows what else out of your hair all day.”

The old nurse let go of the braid and shuffled over to a plant with long, oval shaped leaves of a dark green shade. The stalks shot up a good three feet. Heléne half expected to hear the pale white, bell-like flowers tinkle in the breeze, but the entire plant only rustled softly, like the others in the garden.

Sybil snipped off one of the bells between the talons of her thumb and forefinger, and turned to face Heléne.

“Tell me what you know of this,” she demanded.

“Comfrey,” Heléne said promptly. “In nature cold, dry and earthy. The roots are the most useful part. When their juice is boiled in water or wine, it makes a draught that heals all inward hurts.”

“And when applied outwardly?”

“It is very good for staunching blood.”

“Including nosebleeds?”

Heléne hesitated. She knew the answer that Sybil wanted. She thought of the switch, and hoped her reluctance did not sound in her reply. “Yes…but only if a thread of scarlet is tied around the neck with nine knots before the comfrey is applied.”

Heléne had used the remedy successfully on herself without any scarlet thread at all, but the smug smile on Sybil’s face suggested a triumph won.

The nurse next bent down to a plant that spread thick across the garden ground, like a mat. Tiny yellow flowers peeked through the leaves, but it was a leaf this time that Sybil plucked. The wedge-shaped leaf was thick and fat, green on the top, but purple underneath.

“And this one?” she asked, holding the leaf out towards Heléne.

“Purslane,” Heléne said. “Excellent for treating hot complaints.”

“Such as?”

“The juice mixed with rose oil is most effective for treating burns.” She saw the eyebrows rise in Sybil’s withered face and added, barely concealing a small sigh, “After applying the mixture, one must blow on the burn three times, then say—”

She hesitated while Sybil waited. The words were always difficult to remember, because though some of them bore some resemblance to the French she spoke, most of the words twisted her tongue in unfamiliar sounds and shapes, as if they belonged to another language completely. During her brother’s last visit home from their uncle’s, where their father had sent him to train for his future knighthood, Heléne had stuttered out the words to him and asked if he knew their meaning. After multiple repetitions to her puzzled brother, Therri had at last pronounced that they sounded like some corrupted version of the Latin he was learning, mingled with some equally wayward form of French. At length, he deciphered the phrase as possibly meaning: “Three angels sitting on a stone, named Fire, Wind and Frost. Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”

His interpretation made as little sense to her as the mangled sounds, but she stammered them out now to Sybil, who once again looked satisfied.

Sybil shuffled over to another low growing plant, this time one with thick, fat, shiny dark green leaves. Small nicks along the sides ending in a point lent it a rough appearance. Though no blossoms adorned it now, Heléne knew that in winter it sprouted pure white five-petaled flowers around a large, pale yellow center, winning it the holy nickname, Christmas rose. But there was nothing holy about this plant. Its deceptive purity hid the numberless black strings that formed the root and gave it its ominous true name: black hellebore. And black its nature was indeed.

Instead of gathering the leaves to hold out to Heléne, this time Sybil merely prodded the plant with her switch. Heléne did not understand why Sybil insisted on keeping this herb in the garden. It was a dreadful plant, useful, perhaps, as a purgative, but piliolerial and hyssop also helped with stomach complaints, with far less risk to the sufferer. She remembered one of their scullery boys, groaning of a stomachache, who ate a fistful of leaves as a remedy. Soon afterwards, he fell into horrible convulsions which ended in his death. Father Dominic said he’d eaten too many of the leaves, but Sybil had insisted….

Heléne started, her hair pricking up on her arms as Sybil spoke the unlucky boy’s name now. Was the old crone the witch she looked, that she could read Heléne’s thoughts?

“Wat from the kitchens,” Sybil said, in her surly way. “What mistake did he make with this plant that cost him his life?”

He did not realize that we kept such an evil plant in our gardens and unwittingly poisoned himself. Heléne dared not repeat Father Dominic’s opinion aloud, at least not to Sybil’s face. Not when that switch could whip so quickly from tapping the leaves to smacking searing welts across her calves. And from the glint in Sybil’s tiny eyes, she knew the next blow would do exactly that, if she did not answer as Sybil expected.

“He carelessly…”

Stupidly,” Sybil muttered.

“…carelessly,” Heléne repeated with a small surge of stubbornness, “cut it with his knife, when the herb is only safe when plucked with the right hand. Then under cover of one’s robe, one must pass it secretly to the left hand. For one must wear a white robe when harvesting black hellebore to offset its dangerous effects.”

Not that Heléne had any intention of touching the stuff with either hand, if she could avoid it. Father Dominic frowned on what he called Sybil’s “pagan credulity” and declared the plant safe enough if used in moderation, but memory of Wat the scullery boy still haunted her. Black hellebore would ever be an evil thing in her sight.

“Why must we keep it?” Heléne protested, in spite of her fear of the switch. “Why can we not just dig the horrible thing up, and use hyssop or piliolerial instead?”

“Because, milady, it is not enough to understand only the benevolent. One must be acquainted with the noxious, as well, that one might avoid and protect as well as heal. And that,” Sybil said, stabbing her switch almost viciously into the center of the plant, “is why this hellebore will remain in this garden.”

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Update on Whitney Awards

I’m back from my trek to Salt Lake City, Utah, where I had to switch my wardrobe from Arizona short sleeves to Salt Lake City long sleeves and sweaters while I was there. Brrrr! As if that weren’t bad enough, it actually had the nerve to SNOW one day. My deepest sympathies to those of you still suffering from frigid weather, but there’s a reason I live in Arizona, after all, and it doesn’t include seeing snow outside my window at the end of March.

Nevertheless, I had a wonderful time soaking up knowledge to improve my writing skills at the Storymakers Writers Conference and attending the very elegant Whitney Awards Gala, even though my novel, Loyalty’s Web, did not win an award. However, Loyalty’s Web was nominated in the largest category (over 80 entries in the Women’s Fiction/Romance Category), so I remain very pleased to have landed among the top five finalists.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

In the News: Loyalty's Web

Loyalty's Web is a finalist for a Whitney Award!
Click on the banner below for more information.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Christmas Eve in Poitou

[This scene is based on the comment on page 47 of Loyalty’s Web: “We have scarcely seen one another since that last Christmas we all spent together three years ago, just after Triston returned from Jerusalem.” Here is what happened that day...]

December 24, 1172

Heléne stumbled through the arched, stone-carved entryway to the great hall of Vere Castle, nearly tangling her feet in the heavy, wet hem of her gown before she caught her balance. The handful of people who filled the hall blurred before her eyes as she whirled about with a little shriek of triumph and hurled a handful of icy mush—the nicely spherical snowball she had formed at the edge of the woods having melted between her gloved hands with the speed of the chase—straight into the face of the dark-haired youth who pounded across the threshold behind her. She doubled over with laughter at his stunned look of surprise. Her brother, Therri, trailing at his friend’s heels, roared with hilarity as well, as Etienne, recovering from his shock, if not the cold, began wiping the dripping ice crystals away with a reluctant grin.

A woman’s voice, French with a lilting Welsh accent and chill as Etienne’s stiff face, sliced across their laughter.

“By Saints Lucy and Agnes, Heléne, what on earth do you think you’re doing?”

Oh, drat. She had thought her mother still touring the changes Vere’s new mistress had made to the small, stolid castle. She turned towards an assembly that included her parents, their host and his wife, a half-dozen other guests who had arrived early, as they had, for the morrow’s festivities, as well as her father’s chaplain, who would be conducting all three of this year’s Christmas masses. All of them stared at her with various degrees of amusement or displeasure. But if she’d hoped her father might be counted among those who found humor in the young people’s frolic, it was dashed the moment she saw her mother catch his eye.

“Indeed, young lady,” he said with a frown, “you are dripping wet and like to catch your death.” A sharp clearing of throat from his wife reminded him of the more important point. “Besides being too old to be engaging in such foolish behavior to begin with,” he added hastily. “A man does not want a romp for a wife, and you are of an age to marry now. You must learn to conduct yourself accordingly.”

Heléne barely managed to avoid rolling her eyes at her father’s rebuke. Although she’d had friends who had married at fourteen, even the plainest of them had been more comely than she, while her sister, a head-spinning beauty, had waited until the advanced age of seventeen before she’d finally wed last month. “All arms and legs, and thin as a reed”, that’s what her mother had bemoaned of Heléne after she’d been forced to summon a seamstress twice in a six-month following yet a second growth spurt o’er the past year. In this, as in everything, her sister had been much less trouble, having maintained the same delicate height and luscious curves she’d blossomed into at Heléne’s age right up till the day of her marriage.

Heléne glanced ruefully down at the hem of her winter cloak, hanging several inches above her ankles. Her mother had refused to replace a perfectly good fur-lined cloak, then contrarily had ordered her daughter several new gowns as overly long as the cloak was too short. Heléne could well grow into them, she declared, as she vowed not to pay a seamstress again for at least another twelvemonth. Hence Heléne’s difficulty in not falling flat on her face in the snow as she’d hurled missile after missile at her brother and friend. That she’d beaten them both back to the castle without breaking either her neck or her melting snowball could only serve as a matter of deepest pride.

At least her Christmas gown tomorrow would fit. It would be the finest gown she had worn in years, with its brilliant red and blue embroidery setting off the cloth of straw colored silk, a fabric finer than anything she had ever been allowed to wear before. She knew her mother had ordered the garment only to impress their neighbors, with whom they were passing Christmas and the twelve days till Epiphany this year. Had they been celebrating in their own home at Pennault Castle, she knew that gown would have been as ill-fitting and prosaic as every other year’s had been.

Heléne saw her father—and more importantly, her mother—waiting for a “proper” response to their rebuke. She dropped a respectful curtsy. “I beg your pardon, Papa.”

But a spray of cold water on her cheeks, as Etienne shook the melting water from his dark curls like a dog, set her irresistibly giggling again, echoed by her brother’s chuckles.

“And you, young man,” her father snapped at Therri, any hint of amusement vanishing from his abruptly stern face. “If this is the irresponsible way you behave at your uncle’s, ’tis no wonder he found no need for your squirely services at his table this Christmas. Were you a few years younger, I would box your ears for leading your sister into such mischief.”

Heléne opened her mouth to protest that it had been her coaxing that had lured her fifteen-year-old brother and his best friend to engage in a snowfight in the woods, but before she could utter a word, Therri and Etienne spoke simultaneously.

“Your pardon, sir, I vow it won’t happen…”

“Nay, Lord Aumary, it was my ide…”

“Enough,” her mother snapped. She swept up from the chair where she had been sitting in comfortable gossip with their neighbor’s new wife and a few other women. The exquisite blue eyes which rumor still whispered had seduced Lord Aumary eighteen years ago, glared without softness or warmth at her youngest daughter. “Your father is right. We must get you out of these wet clothes at once. You, too, Therri. If you think I am going to give your father another heir at my age, merely because you’ve no more sense than to get yourself carried off by a lung fever for your imp of a sister’s sake, you may well think again.”

Sir Damian de Brielle spoke from behind his own wife’s chair, where one beringed hand rested possessively on her shoulder. The indulgent smile that engulfed his still-dripping son posed a stark contrast to her parents’ frowns.

“Come, Aumary, I think we were not always so circumspect ourselves as you would pretend at their age. I seem to remember a time when we were fifteen, serving as squires to Lord de Vaumâle, when a dare by our lord’s pretty daughter sent us both scaling an oak tree in a shockingly undignified manner to see who could be first to fetch an egg from a robin’s nest for her pleasure.”

Heléne grinned at Sir Damian in gratitude for his defense. She saw his wife send a sultry smile up at him, too, followed by a cross twitching together of her lovely black brows as she followed the direction of his gaze across the room to where it continued to rest fondly on his younger son.

Etienne returned his father’s regard with a warm smile of his own.

“If you’ll excuse us, Father, Lord Aumary…” he bowed respectfully to each man… “Therri and I will go change. I, for one, am chilled to the bone.”

Despite having drawn near to the stone hearth with its fire, built into the whitewashed wall near an exit Heléne knew led to the kitchens, he had not stopped rubbing his gloved hands together since they had entered the hall. His face was drying, but his hair still looked wet to the skull. Heléne had knocked his hat off with a well-aimed snowball in the woods, and had bombarded his bare head with several additional snowy projectiles before exasperation had finally persuaded him to return in kind. He and Therri had become altogether too stuffy for her liking the longer each of them served their respective “masters” as squires. She had missed her former playmates sorely, as sorely as she now missed her sister. Aside from being deprived of their company, becoming, for all practical purposes, her mother’s “only child”, had been far more trial than joy.

Vere Castle possessed three bedchambers, the hall serving as shared quarters for most of the castle staff and Christmas guests, as well. But as the highest ranking of Sir Damian’s guests for the upcoming celebrations, Lord Aumary and his wife and daughter had been lent Etienne’s chamber, while Etienne and Therri had taken up quarters with Etienne’s dutifully hospitable, but clearly reluctant, elder brother, Triston. Heléne could hardly blame Triston. After having been absent from home for the better part of the year, it must have been shock enough to return to find his father remarried, without having the privacy of his chambers invaded as well.

It was small wonder that Triston had spent so little time at home since they had arrived. But he was in the hall with yet another of their neighbors, when she and her mother rejoined the company after having changed her into a dry gown (though equally dull and shapeless as the one that now lay drying before the fire in Etienne’s chamber). Her moisture-frizzed hair had been ruthlessly brushed until it lay smooth and sleek as silk once more. Her long, pale, luxurious tresses were the one feature that ever won her compliments, though even those were rare, as her mother insisted on her always keeping her hair tightly braided.

“Flax. A lackluster flax,” her mother insisted, when Sir Damian’s wife, Osanne, ventured to murmur a word of admiration of Heléne’s locks. She had excused herself from her other guests to offer her assistance to Lady Laurant and her daughter. “If only you’d known my daughter, Clothide. Hair like liquid gold, brighter than those flames there on the hearth. Such a breathless beauty. Every man in Poitou was smitten with her.”

But old, fat, wealthy Lord Merval outmaneuvered them all to win her. Heléne dared not speak her thought aloud, even though she knew herself safe from her mother’s rod at Vere Castle. ’Twas why she could laugh so easily here with her brother and Etienne, far away from chastisement for such offenses as unladylike larks in the woods or pert opinions.

Or boldly approaching two men six years her senior once they’d returned to the hall and her mother had resumed her seat and gossip on the dais with their hostess and the other women. Etienne and Therri must still be changing, for they were nowhere to be seen.

Heléne had to approach their host’s eldest son and his companion carefully, lest she draw her mother’s attention and frustrate her goal. She began by leaving her seat at her mother’s side to pretend to examine the hangings that formed a background to the dais. The four brightly painted shields that usually framed a central green banner bearing the insignia of the House de Brielle, had been moved to other walls. Replacing them were draperies of white and gold: white to symbolize the purity of the Holy Child, gold to recognize in that Child the King of Heaven. Garlands of holly with their bright red berries lay coiled in baskets on either side of the dais. Servants would add the greenery to the hangings between the Angel’s mass at midnight and the Shepherd’s mass at dawn.

“Yes, indeed, it was a splendid marriage,” she heard her mother remark to Osanne, “blessed by the Bishop of Poitiers himself. I could not be more pleased that Lord Merval chose my daughter for his bride. His first two wives were quite barren, you know, but I’ve not the least doubt that Clothilde will fulfill her duty to him. I expect to have a healthy grandson by this time next year.”

Heléne thought her mother’s voice carried unnecessarily piercing above the low roar of the circle of men that included her father and Sir Damian, now standing near the great hall’s hearth. Piercing, but never strident. The soft Welsh lilt always softened the edge, if not the thrust, of even her mother’s most stinging words.

“As for Heléne,” her mother continued, her voice lowering now, “I fear we must bide our time. I pray every morning and night that she might develop just one small charm that might appeal to a man. My lord husband can offer a generous dowry, but I fear even his best offer might not be sufficient to persuade a suitor to overlook her total lack of beauty or grace.”

“She is young yet,” one of the other women murmured.

Heléne kept her mortified face directed carefully towards the wall and inched sideways to step off the dais before she could catch any of the women’s pitying looks or hear her mother’s reply.

Relieved that none of the women appeared inclined to betray her movements to her mother, Heléne stepped as unobtrusively as she could across the hall towards the tables that had been set up, but not yet dressed, for the last meal of Advent. Come the morrow, she knew they, too, would be draped with evergreens: holly, ivy and mistletoe. The hall would ring with music, while rich meats, luscious sauces and delectable puddings would replace the tedious dishes of fish they had subsisted on for Advent’s four weeks fast. Her stomach fairly growled in anticipation.

She held her breath as she passed her father and Sir Damian, conversing with the other knights and nobles who had arrived to share the Christmas festivities with them. But as she’d learned was usually the case with men, they appeared too engrossed in their own conversation to so much as register her presence.

“There can be no peace while our Duchess and Queen remains imprisoned in England”, she heard Sir Damian growling. “Lady Eleanor and her ancestors understood our ways. We are not English slaves, but proud Poitevins. If Henry the Angevin thinks to tame us, we will shatter his iron fist with our steel and wash his forces out of our lands with our blood.”

“There was a time,” her father said, “when Henry was not so arrogant, when he was glad to have a Poitevin sword at his side…”

“That time has long past,” Sir Damian stated. “You are not suggesting, Aumary, that you…”

“No, no,” her father interrupted. “I will stand with my Poitevin brethren. There can be no doubt of that.”

War. The men were always talking of war in Poitou, but Heléne had seen nothing in her lifetime but petty squabbles, mostly between the Poitevins themselves.

At last she reached the tables. She slid along one of the benches to sit beside the larger of the two young men, each knighted less than a year ago, seated across from each other. Before either man noticed her presence, she overheard one of them say to the other, “It was not your fault, Triston. I have never blamed you for it. My father accepted my version, not Raynor’s…though, of course, I never told him the entire truth, and even Raynor held his tongue on that delicate matter, for our sister’s sake.” The man, a good head shorter than his companion, round-faced and plump as his friend was muscled and lean, gave a rueful groan. “Who’d have thought Father would die and leave me ‘Master of Belle Noir’ at one-and-twenty!”

“Who’d have thought a great many of the evils that befell us would do so, o’er this past twelvemonth,” Triston muttered.

His voice slurred slightly. Though hours yet from dinner, Triston had retrieved two bottles of wine from the cellars and seemed well on his way to draining the first. Despite his progress, he could not have been long at it, since she had not seen him in the hall when she had returned from her escapade in the woods.

She followed his glare towards his father. Sir Damian’s hair, beneath the fashionable Phrygian cap he wore, was a nondescript brown, his face more pleasant than handsome. Triston had inherited his father’s muscular build, though he surpassed his father’s above-average height. Triston was the tallest man that Heléne knew. He was also that handsomest. Both Sir Damian’s sons had their late mother’s beauty, the elder more strikingly than the younger, as well as her raven-haired coloring, though ’twas Etienne who bore their mother’s green eyes.

The flush of wine and a tight mask of anger marred Triston’s handsome countenance now. Heléne shifted her gaze as he turned his glare towards the dais. Sir Damian’s new wife was a raven-haired, too, but none of the gentleness or kindness of his former mate’s spirit softened the beautiful planes of Osanne’s face. Her dark head had bent close to her mother’s of burnished gold, the one’s tinkling laughter mingling with the ringing of the other’s.

Heléne should not have been surprised that Sir Damian had taken such a young second wife. Clothilde’s new husband was more than three times as old as his bride. She tried not to shudder at the thought. Yet still, it unsettled her to see the sultry young woman sitting with such languid self-assurance in Sir Damian’s former wife’s place. Etienne, she knew, felt the same, and what Triston must have thought when he returned home a fortnight ago to greet a new step-mother no older than himself…

Well, it was plain what Triston thought by the way his head snapped back to his goblet and the speed with which he gulped some more wine down his throat.

His companion, who had also been trying to follow his friend’s thoughts, caught sight of Heléne now. He nodded at her, then started to rise, as if just remembering she was no longer the small child he had once known.

“Lady Heléne.”

“Oh, pray, Sir Drogo, don’t get up. Mamma is not looking, and I think Papa will not care. He only remembers I have turned fourteen when Mamma reminds him.”

Sir Drogo de Molinet laughed, but since neither of her parents were looking their way, he obliged her and sat down again.

Triston turned his head and blinked blearily at her. She saw the thin red lines standing out like scarlet threads against the whites of his eyes, and blamed them on the wine, too.

“I heard you gave Etienne a good drenching today,” he said, a small smile softening the lingering anger in his face. “Your father was still chuckling about it when Drogo and I came in.”

“I have very good aim,” Heléne replied, with a proud toss of her head that quite failed to dislodge her heavy braid from its place hanging over her shoulder. “And he should have known better than to think I’d take up the delicate, shrinking role that Clothilde liked to play in her bower.”

The smile abruptly left Triston’s face. “You were in the clearing today?”

“The trees block the snow too much everywhere else.” They had named the clearing “Clothilde’s Bower” when they had all been mere children, Therri and Etienne playing at being knights, Clothilde the fair princess, and Heléne her lady-in-waiting, despite the fact that she’d longed to take up a wooden sword and show she could fight as well as her silly brother.

The goblet was at Triston’s lips again. Hoping to distract him from the wine, she asked the question that had brought her to his side to begin with.

“When are you going to tell us about your travels? You have been all the way to Jerusalem this past year, and still you have not shared a single story with me and Therri!”

The goblet was empty, so he filled it back up. “Later, Heléne. Not now.”

“That’s what you keep saying, but… Tomorrow? ’Twould be splendid to tell us of Jerusalem at the Christmas feast. Did you see Bethlehem, too?”

“He’s spending Christmas with me tomorrow,” Sir Drogo said.

“No, I’m not—” Triston began in a slurring splutter.

“I told you, he won’t be there. He’s playing squire to Lord Vaumâle at his estates in Aquitaine this Christmas. Unlike Etienne…”

“Whom my father could not bear to not have at his side, despite his new wife’s charms,” Triston muttered. He shot a look of drunken loathing in the direction of the women on the dais…surely aimed at Osanne!...then shot to his feet so unsteadily that Heléne sprang up to grab his arm.

“Let’s be off, then. Raynor can go to the devil. Father!” he shouted across the hall.

Sir Damian’s head snapped up at the hail, and Heléne saw him return glare for glare with his heir.

“I’m off to Belle Noir with Sir Drogo.”

“Fine,” Sir Damian roared back. “This castle was a more cheerful place while you were on your wretched pilgrimage. Etienne and I will note your absence only for the good.”

“Nay!” The protest came from Osanne, who swept from her chair and the dais to glide to her husband’s side. “Do not send away your son in anger on Christmas Eve, my lord.”

She took her husband’s arm tenderly, but Heléne tilted her head to the side. Osanne was looking not at Sir Damian, but at Triston in a very odd way. Almost in that odd way men had looked at Clothilde before her marriage…

“Let him go!”

This shout came from behind her. She turned about and saw Etienne and Therri, both in fresh, dry tunics and hose, standing at the foot of the stairs they had just descended.

“You abandoned us when Mother died,” Etienne continued, his face as flushed with sudden fury as Triston’s was flushed with wine. “You may as well abandon us now, as well.”

“’Tis scarcely an abandonment,” Sir Drogo said, clearly attempting a gesture at peace. “I only wish to borrow him for a few days. To support me as I attempt to appear ‘lordly’ before my father’s men. I’ll have him back well before Epiphany.”

“You can keep him for eternity, for aught I care,” Etienne said.

“Etienne.” This was too much even for Sir Damian, who sent a rare frown across the hall at his younger son.

Etienne spun on his heel and stomped back up the stairs. Heléne slid off the bench to run after him. She had never seen such stark antagonism towards anyone on his face, certainly not towards his own brother.

Her mother called a sharp rebuke to her, but it was Therri who caught her arm and prevented her from following Etienne up the stairs.

“Leave him alone, Heléne. This is none of your concern.”

“But why would Etienne say such things, to Triston, of all people?”

“They quarreled about Triston leaving eleven months ago. Etienne hasn’t told me the details, and I’m smart enough to keep my nose out of another family’s business. Keep yours out of it, too.”

With Therri’s hand gripping her arm, her mother calling her sternly back to the dais, and Triston stalking out of the hall with Sir Drogo, with more steadiness than she would have credited after his bottle of wine, Heléne had little choice but to obey. A chill silence hovered for several unpleasant minutes before first her mother and Osanne, and then the men resumed now rather stilted conversations. But with the pall of Triston’s awkward departure hanging over them all, Heléne feared this might be one of the least jolly Christmases she had endured in a long time.