[This short story is based on an unpublished medieval novel I wrote many years ago.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