Before there was the novel, there were the stories...
by Nan Hawthorne, who also writes under Christopher Hawthorne Moss, Books and Stories b ChristopherHawthorne Moss at http://authorchristophermoss.vlogspot.com
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
A Special Story: An Involuntary Christmas
He rode on, his horse picking its way carefully in the ever-deepening snow. He could tell the animal, a descendant of his old horse, War-brother, was nervous for when he tried again to shout for help; it started and took a faltering step sideways. With difficulty he used the reins and his voice to calm it.
It was then he heard the voice, coming in wavering snatches as if from a boat tossed at sea. He halted the horse and listened. He leaned forward, cupping one ear with numbing fingers. There it came again, a woman’s voice, calling for help. He listened a moment more to discover from which direction the sound came. He urged his horse forward towards the source of the sound. Taking the chance, he called out that he was coming.
Lawrence picked his way as quickly as he dared through the snow to a stand of bare ash trees. The sound repeated, ever closer. At last he burst out of the trees to find himself in a clearing. There he saw a cloaked figure kneeling in the deep snow trying to cover a prone body with its own. The bent figure straightened. A woman called “Over here! Hurry!”
He slid off his horse, throwing the reins over a low branch at the edge of the woods. He was a very tall man, so his long legs allowed him to walk in the dense snow. He approached the woman, for the voice he heard with its lilting Celtic accent, was female. He wondered how long she had been there, kneeling by what looked like a man’s body, as there were no footprints near, just a slightly shallower valley in the accumulating snow.
“What is it? What has happened?” he called as he came to the spot. Under the hood of the mantle the woman wore he saw a dark face and very dark eyes full of distress.
“H-he fell from his horse, I think. It landed on him. His leg is broken. We must get inside or he will freeze to death.” She began to struggle to her feet. “I can’t lift him. Will you?”
She had no idea who he was. His rich clothing was coated in snow, like her own. But he barely noticed the omission of “my lord” or “your grace”. He was staring down into the blue tinged face of a bearded man. The man was still, his eyes closed. Lawrence was certain he was dead.
“Woman, this is a corpse,” he said.
“No, no, it is not! He has a heartbeat!” she insisted as she used his proffered arm to right herself.
Lawrence knelt by the man. Removing one glove, he put his fingers to a spot within the man’s cloak, to feel for a pulse. He was surprised to encounter chain mail as he tried to push his frozen fingers to bare skin. “My fingers are numb. I can’t feel his heartbeat.”
The woman started to protest but silenced when she saw his arms go under the man to lift him. She did her best to help him, mostly steadying him as he stood again with the limp but stiffening body in his arms.
“Where is your cottage?” he asked. He looked up as she pointed off to one side. “I will get my horse,” he explained as he turned back to where he had entered the clearing.
The woman had noticed his eyes when he looked to her for direction. They were a piercing blue, almost illuminated.
The horse with its burden stepped through the drifting snow as his master led it along behind the woman. The king could tell the woman struggled as if she was old, lame, or simply unsteady on her feet. She was short but corpulent. Either that or she had a dozen layers of clothing on against the cold.
He smelled the smoke of the fire pit before he saw her tiny cottage. At its crude plank door he tied his horse where it was under the overhang of the cottage’s thatch. The roof was so low that it was able to pull at the thatch by simply lifting its head. He assured himself with a glance that the thatch was full of dried grass and no noxious plants. He lifted the body from where he had draped it over his saddle. It seemed warmer now, as if the horse’s body heat had thawed it. He took the body in his arms and turned to follow the woman through the door into the cottage.
It was wonderfully warm inside. The single room was small. There was only one palette, and it was there the woman indicated he should place his burden. As soon as he had, she awkwardly got to her knees and started to strip the man of his snow-peppered clothing. “That chest there.” She flung an arm behind her and he followed her pointing finger, exposed in fingerless gloves, towards a wooden box against the far wall. “Get blankets,” she commanded.
He went to the box and raised the lid. There were indeed thick wool blankets. He enjoyed the warmth on his fingers as he pulled them out. Wool blankets in a warm room, like putting on thick gloves. He brought them to her. She began to tug at the dead man’s cloak. “Here, let me lift him for you.” She thanked him as first he lifted the body so she could pull the cloak out from under what he was beginning to suspect was actually a live man, and when he pulled off his own fur lined cloak, shook off the melting snow, and handed it to her to use as a further blanket. “Let me get my horse’s saddle off. I can bring in the saddle blanket and my saddle bags.”
When Lawrence came back into the cottage with the blanket and his other things, he could barely see the man under layers and layers of blankets and cloaks. On the floor nearby was a pile of chain mail. The woman was at the fire pit, melting snow in an iron pot suspended from a tripod over the flames. She put her hand to the small of her back as she got to her feet. His eyes widened. Now just in her dress and shawl he could see she was not fat. She was well gone with child.
“You certainly got his armor off quickly.” Lawrence asked, “Your man?”
“Dead,” she said dully.
He was confused. Then this was not her man, for she insisted the fellow he had carried here was living. “That’s not your man,” he responded as a statement of fact.
“No, I do not know who he is. I was outside watching the snow fall thicker and thicker when I heard a cry. His horse was gone, but I could see what was left of its prints. He was lying in the snow, moaning. The snow was pressed hard all around him as if a great weight was lifted from him. That’s why I think his horse fell on him. I did not know what to do. In my condition, I could not carry him. I could not even help him stand and hobble here.”
Lawrence helped her lower herself to her knees next to the man. “What can I do?” he asked.
She looked at him directly for the first time. Without his cloak, she saw how rich his chain mail and boots were. She raised her face to those blue eyes again. “Who are you?”
He grinned, “An angel from Heaven?”
A barely perceptible lift to the corners of her lips acknowledged the jest. “Are you.. a lord?”
He grinned more broadly. “Something like that.”
The man on the palette moaned, drawing her attention. “When that snow melts, put one of the stones from the side of the fire into it to warm the water. And hand me that rag.” When he had followed her instructions, she added, “Now wrap some of those other stones in more rags and bring them here.”
He came back and knelt at her side. She was wiping the man’s face and drying his dark curly hair and beard as best she could. He had divined the purpose of the rag covered hot stones and reached under the blankets to put them first at the man’s feet, then alongside him to his shoulders.
When he pressed the coverings back down to the man’s shoulders, he looked at the man’s face and drew in a sharp breath.
The woman looked at him. “You know him, my lord?”
A breath hissed between his teeth. “He is.. or was a mercenary. A Breton. Elerde of Leon.”
At the sound of his name the semi-conscious Breton opened heavy lidded dark eyes. He could barely make out the faces of the man and woman kneeling over him. He knew that voice however. An odd smile played on his countenance. “If it isn’t the hulking Saxon,” he essayed through cracked and bleeding lips. Then he started, looking sharply at the woman. “Josephina?!” he croaked.
Lawrence smiled thinly. “No, Elerde, it’s not the.. not my wife. It is the angel of mercy who found and saved you.”
The prone man’s sight was gradually clearing and he took in the dark hair and dark skin of the woman. “No, not the queen.”
The woman looked directly at Lawrence. “Your wife is the queen? Then you are the..” She stopped, her eyes wide. “The king?”
“Soon not to be,” he breathed. “In the summer I hand the crown to the King of Mercia.”
She stared at him disbelieving. “Why ever for? You are a good king!”
His smile was rueful. “I would like to think so, but part of being a good king is knowing when your kingdom needs protection you cannot give it.”
The woman was aware that raids by Northmen kept the king in the saddle almost constantly, trying to anticipate when and where the attacks would occur. Not content with harrying coastal villages, the dragon ships found the Wash and the Welland, giving them access to the towns upstream as far almost as Grantham. The same was true for the Humber. It was as a member of the fyrd trying to repel the raiders that her young husband had been killed.
She came out of her brief reverie to find the blue eyes fixed on her face. She realized he had asked her name.
“Tancogeistla,” (TAN ko GEEST la ) she replied. “And you are.. Lawrence.”
“King Lawrence,” came the thin voice from the head now propped on a folded cloak. Somewhere in his mind it registered that the woman’s name was a Celtic name. Not Breton like his, but probably Briton.
Lawrence looked at Elerde. Some color was returning to his face. There was a long scar that reached from just under the inside corner of one eye across his cheek almost to his jaw. His hair, now dry, proved to be streaked with gray. His beard was more gray than black. “Elerde, you look like an old man.”
The man looked up at him. “Have you seen your own reflection lately?” the mocking voice managed. One supercilious eyebrow went up, an expression Lawrence remembered from.. what?.. almost twenty years back?
Tancogeistla looked from one man to the other. There was definitely some history here. She was far too young to know much about the battle between these noblemen for the love of one woman. If she had she would have known that woman was the queen, and that the king had won that battle.
A deep groan issued from the Breton’s mouth. “My leg,” he moaned.
“The feeling is coming back to your limbs. I will have to examine your leg.”: The woman gestured Lawrence to get out of her way. In spite of her huge belly she managed to walk on her knees down to where the man’s legs were, lifted the many coverings off him, and Lawrence saw that somehow Tancogeistla had also gotten Elerde’s leggings and boots off. He was naked under the blankets. He looked at her and asked again, “What can I do to help?”
“It will depend on whether the leg is broken, and how cleanly. For now just bring me a cup of the hot water.” She scanned hanging plants on one wall. “Also that bit of white willow. Take your knife and scrape off some of the bark into the hot water.”
The king heard Elerde’s moans of increasing distress and knew Tancogeistla was squeezing his shin to find the break. He was glad to have a task that focused his eyes as he did not want to watch what she was doing.
He brought the cup with its brewing herbs back to the palette and set it on the floor. He gave the woman a questioning look.
“It’s a clean break, just the one, but it’s slightly out of alignment. I am going to have to ask you to help me set it, or it will heal wrong. Let him drink some of that first.”
“I have something better,” Lawrence said. He reached for his saddle bag and unlaced the closing. Reaching in he pulled out a stoppered wineskin. The look of gratitude in the woman’s eyes was trebled in Elerde’s. The king unstoppered the skin and helped the man suck down the deep red wine.
When Elerde had drunk the entire contents of the skin, Lawrence positioned himself at his feet. At Tancogeistla’s command, he put his hands around the man’s left ankle and at her signal, gave a sharp tug. Elerde in spite of himself gave a sharp cry. Lawrence could feel the scrape of the break transmitted through where his hands touched the man’s ankle bone. He looked up to see the Breton had partially swooned. The woman was smiling contentedly.
“Perfect. It will heal straight now, God willing,” she said. “Cover him back up. We will worry about a splint later. He’s not going anywhere any time soon.
The king and Tancogeistla sat on stools on the other side of the fire pit, bowls of ale warmed by a hot poker in their hands and talked. He heard of her husband’s death in his service, and his head bowed, he silently was glad that soon commanding the fyrd would fall to King Offa. He would have his own oath-men and men at arms, but somehow being only their lord felt less burdensome than being their king.
He hesitantly asked her how long it would be until she was delivered of her child. Her careworn face did not hide fear. “By the new year.”
He frowned, “Do you have anyone to help you?”
She looked up at the walls as if she could see through them to the snow that continued to pile up outside. “I do, but I don’t think she will be able to get through all that to help me deliver.” She sighed. “It’s in God’s hands.”
He gazed thoughtfully. “My people will be looking for me. If they don’t come in time, I will venture out to get your woman to help you.”
She gave him a wry look. “If they don’t come, methinks you will be the one to help me.” She chuckled as his face blanched.
Images flew through his mind, his wife’s mostly easy deliveries, but also the terrible death of his dearest friend Ansovald’s wife. She was too small for Ansovald’s child. The delivery had cost her her life and Ansovald the love of his own. The child was the boy Tavish, the quiet, earnest child he and Josephine had raised as their own after his father was murdered.
Then he thought of his daughter Caithness, the girl who looked most like her golden haired mother, and who lost baby after baby as the wife of the king of East Anglia. At least Elaine, who would be an abbess soon, would be spared that pain and grief. He knew better than to bring up Caithness. This woman had a fearsome enough fate to contemplate. And thereafter she would raise the child alone.
“My wife had three children, our son Peter and the twins. As tiny as she is, she had quick labor and the babies were bonny and healthy.”
Tancogeistla grinned at him. “Are you saying you had something to do with that?”
He looked at her surprised, but he saw the twinkle in her eye. “No, I was utterly without credit for anything but the getting.”
“The queen is a strong woman then?” she asked.
From the palette came, “Oh, yes. Very strong.”
Lawrence shot a displeased look at the man. His face softened. Wickedly he asked, “After all, she resisted your charms, did she not?”
The hooded eyes glared back. “Well, she had her children. They were the priority.”
Two sets of eyes, one blue and the other almost black, glared at each other.
The snow did not abate. Lawrence had to go out and climb up a ladder onto the thatch several times to clear the smoke hole. He grew restless, worrying about what the queen would think if he were not home for Christmas. The snow seemed never-ending and threatened to trap them all inside. It fell to him to use what tools he had at hand to keep the dooryard clear or the snow should have come to the top of the doorway. He knew Peter and the others were out there somewhere looking for him.
He remembered the time so long ago when everyone thought he was dead when in fact he had gone from being the prisoner of a small band of outlaws to the prisoner of his own liege-man, Earl Harold of Grantham. How surprised he had been when the outlaws were the ones that rescued him from his more highborn gaoler. He took heart remembering that Josephine alone had never accepted the news that he was dead. Glancing at the sleeping Elerde, he recalled that she had stayed steadfast even when spirited away by the Breton.
As the days dragged, the two men sat together in conversation. Elerde told the king how he had left the queen at Lindisfarne and gone to find a battle so fierce he would surely die.
“I see you almost succeeded,” Lawrence said, indicating the livid scar on his face.
“Yes, then and other times. Always something saved me. I could not catch a break.” He glared at the king. “I almost succeeded a few days ago, but you, damn you to Hell, saved me. How is that for irony?”
A stern word came from Tancogeistla. “Are you damning me to hell as well?”
Lawrence was surprised at the regret that Elerde showed in his face as he stammered an apology.
For the next few days he noticed that the woman sat by the injured man as much or more than he did. He came back from gathering what little wood he could to find them talking in low tones. It was he that insisted Elerde share the bed with her. In her condition she should not be lying on the floor wrapped in blankets as he was. Tancogeistla resisted, but finally one evening she relented and curled up, her back to Elerde, on the straw palette.
Lawrence awoke to relieve himself early one morning to see that the Breton was able to lie on his side now and had one arm over the woman.
A few more days went by. The snowfall slowed and ceased. It was still cold enough that the deep snow on the ground remained, at least four feet deep and more where it had drifted. Lawrence was able to go further to find wood, which he did not only to keep them all warm in the cottage but to make smoke that might lead rescuers.
Watching Elerde and Tancogeistla together, Lawrence became thoughtful, reflective. He had hated the man since he first learned of his attentions to Josephine. He even tried to kill him once in cold blood. He had realized some time ago that a large part of his resentment and antagonism stemmed from his own insecurity. He had genuinely feared the darkly sensual Celt would be too much of a temptation to his queen. He knew that he had been wrong to doubt her. If anything, Josephine knew her mind and never wavered from what she knew to be true. One of those truths was her utter devotion to the king and their family.
Looking at Elerde as the man’s eyes followed the pregnant woman’s form as she moved about the cottage Lawrence suddenly had a sharp painful realization of how empty Elerde’s life must have been. He ventured conversationally, “So, do you have a wife somewhere?”
Elerde’s dark eyes bored into him. “What do you think? Could you marry again once you had her?”
Of course the blasted man meant Josephine. “No, of course not.” He dropped the subject.
It was Christmas Eve when Elerde, now able to sit up, tentatively asked, “So, how is she?”
Lawrence looked up at him startled. “Josephine? She’s well. You know she is always well.”
“Is she.. still beautiful?”
Lawrence’s mouth fell open, but as he considered the Breton’s averted eyes, he softened. “She’s older. But yes, she is still beautiful.”
“No gray in that golden hair?” Elerde smiled, glancing at the king.
Lawrence just smiled, declining to answer.
“And as stubborn as ever?” Elerde was smiling wryly now.
Lawrence laughed. “Oh yes. More.”
“That’s not possible,” Elerde chuckled.
Their conversation came to an abrupt halt when Tancogeistla suddenly cried out. The two men chorused “What is it?!”
“The child,” she groaned. I think it’s coming.”
Lawrence spun to order Elerde off the palette, but he did not need to. Moving gingerly the Breton was crawling, wincing, off to make the poor bed available for the woman’s lying in. Lawrence sprung to his feet and went to Tancogeistla, put his arm around her shoulders and guided her slowly to the bed. “Lie down here,” he said.
As she settled down and he folded the cloak better to use as a pillow, she said in a strained voice, “Well, your grace, it looks like you will have to play midwife after all.”
The Breton accented voice inserted, “Oh no he won’t. You’ve never helped at a lying in, have you, Saxon? Well, I have. More than once. I’ll need your help but I will be the midwife.”
Tancogeistla’s eyes went to Elerde’s. “Oh my dear, can you? Will you?”
In a soft voice, he replied, “Yes, my love.”
Lawrence was too panicked about the birth to register what had just passed between the two.
He was about to ask for what felt like a dozenth time, “What can I do?” when he heard shouts from outside. “My god, it’s Peter.”
Elerde looked up. “Peter? Your son, Peter?” He was smiling with fond memories.
“Yes,” the king called over his shoulder as he threw open the door.
“Shut that door, you great lout!” the Breton snapped. “You want her to die of the cold and the baby with her?”
Outside Lawrence shouted to the small group of riders threading their way through melting drifts of snow. “Here! I am here! Hurry!”
Peter, Críslicland’s ætheling, at least until King Offa took over, was the first to dismount and run up to his father. The men embraced. “Father, I wondered if we would ever find you. We lost you in the blizzard!”
Lawrence laughed, “I know. I was there!” He noticed one of the men helping a woman from where she had sat behind him on his horse. “Who is that?”
Peter glanced back. “Oh that’s a midwife. We came across her hut early this morning. She wouldn’t let us go on looking for you until we brought her here. She said the woman inside was about to give birth.”
The woman bustled past the king and through the rough plank door, which she shut firmly behind her. Lawrence and Peter heard her sharp commands and then a woman’s protest. “He can’t. He has a broken leg.”
Peter looked back inquiringly at his father. “It’s a long story,” his father replied.
Lawrence would not leave with his son and their men until he was assured Tancogeistla and her child were well. As a result they had to build a fire and huddle around it waiting, listening to the woman’s cries of pain, a man’s voice comforting, and the midwife’s coaching. At long last they heard a hearty wail.
Peter looked at his father’s beaming face. “It sounds like they are well. Can we go now?”
“Be patient,” was all the king would say.
It was near dawn when the midwife came outside to fetch snow to melt. “Oh my lord, you are all still here?” she said incredulously.
Lawrence stood and went to her, taking the bucket from her hands. “How is the child? How is its mother?”
She looked from his face to the other men, then back to him. “Well, quite well. It’s a lad. She is sitting up in bed and nursing the little one now.”
“May I go in to offer my thanks and farewells?” the king asked.
“If you fetch me some snow in that bucket, you may. But then you should go. Tancogeistla needs her rest.”
Lawrence excitedly gathered snow in the bucket and hurried back to the cottage. Peter’s bemused glance followed his form through the door. He heard the midwife answer a question from the king, “She has named the child for its father.”
Inside the cozy room Lawrence stopped to let his snow-blind eyes adjust. Gradually he made out the two figures, three in fact, on the palette. The mother sat up against the man’s chest. He had his arms around her and the child who was at her breast. Elerde looked up and smiled.
Lawrence stood looking at the trio with a broad smile. “I have to go. It’s Christmas Day and we can just make Lawrencium before dark. I wanted to thank you. And to congratulate you.” He hesitated, “May I see him?”
Tancogeistla glanced up at Elerde’s face. The Breton nodded his head.
Lawrence knelt at the bedside as Elerde’s fingers pulled the blanket away from the little one’s face. It was red, wrinkled, and bleary eyed. “Merry Christmas, little Elerde,” the king murmured.
He looked up into his old nemesis’ face. “God be with you. I am happy now that you have what you always wanted.”
Tancogeistla looked puzzled.
Elerde answered her unspoken question. “What he has had all along. The love of a good woman.”
“I will leave a man to help you until you are both back on your feet.”
Elerde nodded his thanks.
The two men clasped hands over the mother and child. Then Lawrence stood and left Elerde of Leon alone with his new family.
Outside, Lawrence took in a deep lungful of the earthy smell of the damp leaves and grass under the melting snow.
“Who were they?” Peter asked him as they rode away.
Lawrence smiled. “No one special. But they did give me shelter, so I left them well stocked for wood and left a man to help. The father’s leg is broken.”
He made the sign of the cross and looked affectionately over at his son. “Merry Christmas, Peter.”
His son smiled. “And to you, Father.”
May you know the happiness you deserve in this world. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.