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.