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[This short story is based on an unpublished medieval novel I wrote many years ago.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.