by Merlyn MacLeod
A Christmas candle is a lovely thing.
It makes no noise at all,
but softly gives itself away.
“I ask ye, is it too much for a good man to ask for a bit of warm comfort on a cold Christmas Eve?”
Hastings raised his hands about chest high. His squeezing motion, and his companions’ coarse laughter, left no doubt as to the ‘warm comfort’ Hastings was referring to.
I turned my gaze from the small group at the great chamber’s fireplace and looked out on the falling snow outside the window. The window seat made for a chilly place of repose, but it was preferable to the gathering by the fire. The wind outside moaned like the voices of lost souls, but the whinging of the living in the great chamber this night almost drowned it out.
My brother Edward and his closest friend, Lord William Hastings, had begun drinking that afternoon. Always, they were attempting to lay the ghosts arising from any number of things, including having to spend Christmas in exile; our unwilling dependence upon the generosity of Louis, Seigneur de la Gruuthuse; and the most recent, alarming rumor that Charles, the Duke of Burgundy would soon order Louis and everyone else in Bruges to cease extending credit or offering any sort of support to us. What would be the fate of three hundred impoverished soldiers and their dethroned king if we were driven out of the town and into the winter cold?
It was no wonder Hastings was suffering, but his becoming as drunk as a sow was making me suffer as well.
“Why does he behave like this?” I had asked my brother the first time I’d seen Hastings growl more than a few unwelcome words at the king before taking his surly self—and his wine—off to bed.
“He doesn’t much care for Fortune’s Wheel at the moment,” said Edward.
“The wheel in Chaucer’s tale of the monk?” I asked with some bewilderment, “or the ones portrayed in the rose windows of our cathedrals?”
“Either. Both. Or all, if you wish.”
I shook my head. “I don’t understand.”
“Did our lady-mother not explain to you the meaning of Fortune’s Wheel?”
“If she did, I’ve forgotten.”
“The Wheel illustrates four stages of life. Beginning at the left, each stage depicts regnabo…” Edward gestured in a circle to the right, “regno, regnavi. And…sum sine regno.”
As the youngest son of the Duke of York, I had been destined for the church before my father and older brother Edmund had fallen at Wakefield. So it was that my mother had insisted upon seeing me well-schooled in Latin. So well, that I had no trouble translating it.
I shall reign; I reign; I have reigned; I have no kingdom.
Edward regarded me mildly as I stared back at him in horror.
“Hastings has told you he’s upset with how closely an allegorical wheel is—seems to be—following….” It seemed betrayal to actually voice the words, so I didn’t.
“Hastings has no need to tell me what is true. I am a king in exile, I have no kingdom. I know William’s fears well enough, for I share them. Do you not share them as well, Dickon?”
“I do not. I have every faith that God will return your throne to you.”
“Then I shall depend upon you to restore my faith when it falters. As for William, he seeks to bury his fear in drink and welcome the oblivion of dreamless sleep. Eventually.” Edward leaned forward to squeeze my shoulder. “It would go better if you offered him compassion, rather than judgment.”
I knew the wisdom of my brother’s counsel, but Hastings didn’t make it easy for me to practice it.
The two of them had been quietly mourning and pining for home over their supper when Lord Rivers and I had departed for the Christmas vigil mass at the Church of Our Lady. Upon our return, we discovered that my brother and his boon-companion had drunk so much, their manners had become course and the subjects of their discussion even worse.
How I hated this.
Leaning my shoulder against the cold stone supporting the window, I stared into the snow flurries as night claimed the day and braced myself for the sullen, caustic meanness that inevitably came to possess Hastings whenever he drank too much.
I missed England as much as did the others. Missed the familiar comfort of being at Baynard’s Castle in London with my mother, or safe with old friends and mentors at Middleham. I missed the frenzied Christmas preparations, the warmhearted camaraderie and excitement shared by the entire household, the hunting and the laying in of all we’d need for the feasts. I even missed the overly cheerful minstrels, the players and their familiar entertainments. I missed warming myself before a blazing hearth, smelling the meat roasting in the kitchen, sharing mulled wine and bantering with beloved friends while fierce winds and bitter snow hurled themselves about the battlements.
At least the vigil mass at Our Lady had been comfortingly familiar, for the Latin was the same no matter where the mass was celebrated. But the faithful men, women, and children standing in the crowded nave had been whispering in incomprehensible Flemish until the hand-bell was rung and the priest elevated the Blessed Host—which had only served to remind me how very far I was from home.
Once again, my brother had opted not to leave Gruuthuse palace and cross the few yards it took to reach the church. I worried for Edward’s soul, but knew better than to mention it. It was folly to push him. The harder one urged him to do something—even God’s will—the deeper Edward dug in and refused to comply.
Such was the lesson in determination that Warwick had taught him. I knew that Edward, in his turn, dreamed of showing Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick exactly how much determination an exiled king could have to destroy a betraying cousin and reclaim his throne.
Would that God would soon grant Edward his dream. Waiting with our exiled king while traitor Warwick held London was not improving anyone’s mood.
Our exile was difficult and awkward enough, but we English had done nothing to endear ourselves to my brother-in-law the Duke of Burgundy, nor to the merchants of Bruges. In the place of good will, we had accumulated debts and the certainty of more debts.
Language was also a barrier, for none but myself claimed to speak any Flemish. I knew only a few phrases, regardless my mother had sent me as a child of nine into safety in the Low Countries. Eventually my brother George and I had come to Bruges, but we had remained less than six months—far less time than was necessary to learn Flemish.
Fortunately, many in Bruges also spoke French, which meant that while communication could be awkward, it wasn’t impossible…if one spoke French. But when Edward and I had ventured into the marketplace, we had discovered that language wasn’t necessary for us to understand the contempt the local merchants and tavernkeepers have come to feel for “rude engelsen uit”.
We and the few hundred knights and soldiers with us had all escaped England with empty purses. We were all living on Gruuthuse’s generosity and the paltry stipend extracted monthly from Charles, the Duke of Burgundy by his kind duchess, our sister Margaret.
Margaret loved and welcomed us with without hesitation, as had Louis. But once I’d witnessed a furious encounter between a group of drunken English knights and a sober Flemish tavern-keep who expected payment at the end of his night of service, I couldn’t blame the honest merchants of Bruges for their malice toward us. I wasn’t enjoying my countrymen’s company, either.
My mind was brought back to this Christmas eve as Hastings growled a reply to something Anthony Woodville had said.
“Aye, that’s all well and good for you, but you didn’t leave a wife and little children behind, did you?” He went on to interrupt Anthony’s attempt at a soothing reply. “Some men miss a soft bed with a soft woman in it. Miss good coin in their pocket, too, and a good meal when they ask for one. A bit of respect, even. I’ve seen none of that since I followed Edward here.”
“You can always go home.” My brother’s voice was low and deceptively mild. “There’s no sentence of death on your head, after all. I would not hold your going against you, nor against any who followed me out of England. You know that.”
Hastings made a rude noise. “You know Warwick’s ruled by that bitch Anjou and the spider-king behind her. They’re the ones wanting you dead, Eddie. The rest of us made the choice to follow our liege-lord. You know that Anthony and I would do it again, so how well d’you think Lord Rivers here would fare with Margaret d’Anjou. God’s bones, his sister’s your queen and the mother of your new-born heir. And how d’you think I’d fare if I were to go kneeling and groveling before Warwick as he did before the French bitch?
Said Anthony, “You would fare better than I, William. You’re married to Warwick’s sister, after all.”
“Aye, that I am. That’d save me my life, but Warwick would take the rest, he would. I’d lose my home at Ashby, my Kirby Muxloe and the other beauties Edward’s given me. It’s certain I’d live—be allowed to exist in a dirt-floored hovel with my poor wife and half-starving little ones…but then again, there’s that small matter of loyalty. We all of us followed our king to protect him, and that’s what we’ll do, my boy. At least, I will. Can’t speak for the buggered men beyond these walls.”
Personally, I was delighted at the prospect of Lord Hastings taking ship in a storm-tossed, winter attempt to reach England. It would be so much the better if he and his vessel were lost in passage, for his scolding criticism would then be silenced. But so, too, would the lives of his shipmates be snuffed out.
A quick examination of my conscience revealed that I didn’t wish anyone ill. Not really. I just wanted the man to go away, and stay away.
I needed to confess the sour, malicious thoughts I harbored against Lord Hastings. I also needed to work hard to regret those thoughts, else my confession would be for naught. What, I wondered, would my penance be for wishing death—however briefly—upon one of my brother’s liege-men?
Given half a chance, I could easily take Hastings’ place at Edward’s side, could defend my brother and king every bit as well as the drunken noble now sprawled before the fire, nodding into his cup. Wasn’t it past time Edward dismissed the man to his bed?
“I would not hold you, William. You’ve always been free to come or go.”
Edward still didn’t sound upset. More than likely, he recognized Hastings’ griping as nothing more than a drunken tantrum from someone who wouldn’t mean it in the morning. Would Hastings even remember saying such terrible things to his king?
“Richard and I would be fine without you.”
Edward’s words gave me a moment of hope that this Christmas Eve would see the sharp, final edge of a wedge set between them. Hastings would be banished—at the very least he would be sent out of Bruges. My hope, quickly kindled, died just as swiftly under Hastings’ mocking laughter.
“Am I to leave you and Rivers with that scrawny excuse for a knight? Nay, Edward. The lad’s useless to you. I’ve no idea why you brought him with us, for he’s nothing but a drain on our resources—one more soul to support and watch over. Dickon can’t do a thing to help you. Anthony and I can, and we will.”
Hastings raised his goblet in a solemn, if wobbling, toast. “No threat will ever get to you through us.”
Oh, such arrogance, Lord Hastings.
Always pompous on good days, the man was beyond unbearable when any host’s wine flowed freely. His insolent pride was then evident every time he opened his mouth.
Hastings should be made to confess that mortal sin among others, but I knew it was unlikely. He hadn’t attended mass in months. I doubted very much that he’d make an honest confession even if we were kept in Bruges until Easter.
I personally thought the man was a doichle—a churlish idiot whose immortal soul was in peril for any number of damned reasons, but my brother still considered this ass a good friend. Why Edward felt that way had ever been and would likely ever be a source of bewilderment to me. I couldn’t stand being near the man, for to be near Hastings was inevitably to become a target of his mockery and contempt—for no more than my daring to exist and my size, it seemed.
I knew I was small, but who wasn’t, when compared to Edward? I also knew that I was not yet experienced in battle or in life as were the other men who shared the warmth of Louis’ great chamber and his wine tonight. But my brother had told me weeks before that Anthony Woodville had not yet won honor in battle, either.
Regardless Lord Rivers was the same age as Edward himself, and well-trained in the art of war, it seemed that Anthony preferred to stay well behind the main fighting of any battle—which behavior had unfortunately resulted in his being captured twice by Yorkist soldiers. Anthony was, however, a solid tournament champion, as I had seen for myself a few years before, when Anthony had fought a two-day dual against Antoine, the Bastard of Burgundy.
“He has some skill with the battle-axe,” Warwick himself had declared after my brother the king had thrown down his baton—at the queen’s panicked urging—to prevent one of the men from killing the other during their second fight.
So the man could fight. He just didn’t want to do so on a battlefield.
Anthony and Edward each had twelve years on me, while Hastings had twenty. Hastings never ceased pointing out my youth and my inexperience, but Warwick had trained me, and some day I would have my chance to prove my quality and serve my king in battle. In the meantime, I was determined to honor my oaths as a Knight of the Bath and a Knight of the Garter—which, I was proud to remember, was one more Order than Hastings had to his credit.
As a boy, before knowing what exactly a knight’s oath meant, I had sworn most solemnly to serve God and my king. As the years passed, I had slowly come to understand exactly what responsibility my oaths entailed. I was more than eager to take the field and aid my king in the recovery of his throne.
Edward believed me. More than that, Edward believed in me and my callow abilities. Or so he said.
“Richard is my brother. He shares our lot, and I don’t hear him complaining.”
As quickly as that, I became the focus of the conversation. Three heads turned toward me, three men eyed me where I sat.
My skin prickled as Hastings narrowed his eyes. I felt his frustration redirect itself to a far more direct and tangible target: me.
“Aye, he’s your brother, Eddie, and he spent the evening at mass. Holier than the lot of us, aren’t you?”
Rising to his feet, Hastings swaggered toward me, wineskin in hand. Edward had long ago removed the delicate Venetian glass from Hastings’ clumsy grip. We drank up a great deal of Gruuthuse’s wine. We didn’t need to break his imported glasses as well.
“Did you pray for us tonight, little priest? Did you beg the Holy Mother to ask her Beloved Son to send us a miracle? Get us home again? At least that would be something useful from you. ‘Tis pity your blessed mother couldn’t see her youngest safe into the church. If she’d done that, you wouldn’t be a burden to us now. Because praying is about all you’re good for.”
The black look on Hastings’ face hinted at the possibility of his moving beyond mere words this time, for his ever-building frustration seemed to have made him meaner than usual.
Dread and a strange sort of excitement raced through me, though instinct told me not to move. I sensed that to stand or to turn away would only feed the man’s fury, make him determined to physically demonstrate the power he thought he had over me.
Coming up behind Hastings, Edward caught the man’s arm, turned him toward him. “I suggest you leave Richard alone.”
“Ah, there you are.” Hastings thumped Edward in the chest with the back of his hand. “Big brother come to rescue the wee piglet.”
The tirade would continue until Hastings left us, but at least Edward had turned him away from me. Part of me was disappointed that Edward had interceded, but another part was grateful, for I had no wish to demonstrate my skill with a dagger against my brother’s closest friend.
At least, not when Hastings was as pissed as he was this night.
I took advantage of the momentary break in the man’s attack to get to my feet and stride across the chamber to make a grab for my cloak. Someone came up behind me as I finished buckling the clasp beneath my throat. I spun round with my hand on the hilt of my dagger.
He was a decent enough fellow, but sometimes more oblivious and gentle than he should have been for his own safety. He had never joined in the taunts aimed my way, and I had long ago forgiven his inability to stomach the uncertainty and the bloodletting of war. Some men earned honor at battle, some at tournament. While the former gained a knight more honor than did the latter, Anthony’s skill in the lists was not to be scorned.
His gaze held sympathy. He knew I was leaving, and he knew why. It suddenly occurred to me that Anthony made a habit of evading one sort of fight, I another. He handed me my sword.
“We’ll be past this tomorrow,” he murmured.
“Until the next time.” I kept my voice low and glanced toward the door, then back at him. He might come with me.
Anthony looked over his shoulder at my brother, who was still occupied with Hastings. Turning back, he shook his head. His blue eyes were filled with longing.
“Take care, Dickon.” He stepped back.
I understood. Anthony’s had to remain with Edward, he couldn’t shift his loyalty—not to the outcast, runt piglet of the group.
I could but nod and edge toward the door. Not swiftly, mind you. Not with any speed that might attract attention. Just a step and then another. Smoothly, quietly, until I could lift the latch and slip outside, into the cold corridor.
It was dark beyond the great chamber, save for a single torch burning at the top of the winding staircase leading down to the ground floor.
Our few servants had been dismissed hours before, and the great house felt strangely empty. I knew Louis and his family was nearby in their separate, private wing, but I had no desire to intrude upon their Christmas eve.
I was halfway down the hall when Edward flung open the door of the chamber I had just vacated. I instinctively shrank back into the shadows and shook my head ruefully to realize that childish habits learned as a squire in Middleham were more to blame for my reaction than was any true need to evade Edward. Whenever Francis Lovell and I had returned from some forbidden adventure, we snuck back into the rooms we shared with the sleep-loving knight who mentored us. I now suspected that Sir Harold had not been as sound a sleeper as he seemed. He had been a squire once and so likely tolerated our craving the freedom of a midnight ride unescorted.
Turning, Edward braced his hands on either side of the doorframe and leaned back into the room. His face was cast into shadow, while his body reflected an ease I suspected he was likely far from feeling.
“Our wine is gone, our fire burned to embers. Anthony, I know you can’t wait to read Caxton’s new book, so I’ll bid you a good night. Hastings, you make piss-poor company tonight. Let’s explore the generosity of the women keeping rooms above the Old Bull, and see if we can’t change your mood this holy night.”
Hastings swaggered forth. Ducking beneath Edward’s arm, he turned to toss the now empty wooden cup back into the room.
“I’ll willingly join you in the hunt, Eddie.”
Whoring on the eve of Our Lord’s birth? I could but sigh inwardly as they linked arms and proceeded past me, down the winding stairway.
“A man needs his comforts—”
Edward pushed Hastings out into the cold and closed the door quietly behind him. Stepping back into the torchlight of the hallway, I stared after them.
Whoring had never held any interest, for I preferred to come to know the girl lying beneath me before I…knew…her. My obstinate unwillingness to join in the night hunts at Westminster had given Hastings even more kindling for his mocking fire after I had left Middleham and joined my brother in London, but I couldn’t care less. The meaningless caresses of a debauched female could never enticed me because I had only ever desired the touch of one women who was forever out of reach.
Let my brother and his coarse friend take their lusts and their meager coin out for a walk this night. Let them offer insult to God and further antagonize the whores they could not pay the price previously agreed upon. Let the night’s antics amuse Louis and further antagonize our brother-in-law. Let us all see what happened upon the morrow to make our situation in Bruges even more precarious.
I retrieved the long-empty saddlebag I’d stubbornly kept during our flight from England and headed downstairs, toward the kitchen. I hoped a quick visit would provide the few provisions I needed to take with me, as I had no intention of returning to this great house until I absolutely had to.
The light from the glowing kitchen embers revealed a score of servants sleeping on the floor, but no one stirred as I made my careful way between them. A stealthy search amid the wine casks in the cellar behind the kitchen revealed a fat skin of wine that no one had yet claimed. Loaves of bread were stacked like bricks very nearly to the ceiling in one corner of the kitchen, no doubt waiting to be used in the Christmas feast tomorrow.
I took the liberty of tying up two loaves and a small wheel of cheese in a worn towel before stuffing them hastily into my leather bag. Thusly fortified with everything a knight might need for a siege—or to run away—I made my way to the kitchen door leading to the outside.
Running away was something I had sworn this knight would never do, for fears were always to be faced and thereby conquered. I reasoned that I wasn’t afraid of Hastings. I’d simply had more than enough of him for the moment.
I slipped outside of the kitchen and leaned against the stout wooden door. An icy wind stung my cheeks and eyelids, and the night was shrouded in that eerie glow that seems a part of every new-fallen snow. The wind was made even more bitter by its containing the damp of the town’s canals. The searing cold penetrated my thick cloak, wormed its way into my very bones beneath my wool doublet and breeches.
It was far too cold to linger outside for very long, and it took only a moment’s reflection for me to decide my direction this night. There was only one place I would feel comfortable, one place where I wouldn’t intrude on anyone. Heading into the icy wind and swirling snow, I made for the one place that had always shown me refuge, no matter my years.
Once I’d reached the stable, I managed to pry a side door open far enough to slip inside. The gust of wind and snow accompanying me made the horses stir. No doubt they were irritated by the sudden blast of frigid air.
I slammed the door behind me and stood still, enjoying the absence of the wind and savoring the relative warmth. My years at Middleham had shown me that every winter’s stable was surprisingly warm with the body heat of so many animals contained within. I had strong hopes of passing a comfortable night amid the horses.
A glowing lantern was suspended well out of reach of clumsy men, incendiary fodder, and ever-curious horses. Mounted on a thick iron chain set high in the center of the roof, it cast enough light for me to make my way down the center aisle.
Horses in their stalls were the same in any land. Their quiet companionship offered me comforting nickers of welcome, curiosity, and unabashed hope for treats.
“Good evening, my friends,” I called.
My own horse’s stall was the third from the far end, on the right-hand line of stalls. My horse? That was far from the truth, and my heart ached to acSknowledge it.
My own stallion was far away in England, abandoned on the northern shore of the Wash when our party had to commandeer whatever small watercraft we could and steer for our lives through a storm to Lynn. I could not ride him any farther that night, nor could I protect him. In truth, I could not even protect myself, outcast as I was, even among the other outcasts. With no warning, no provisions, I had left behind my beautiful, bold Ashtail with our other horses. I could only pray that he had ended up in kind hands.
I located the old horse Louis had generously given me leave to use upon our arrival, and opened his stall. He sidled to the back of the stall, eyed me warily, and tried to look small. Clearly, he was concerned that I would take him from his shelter and demand that he go out into the icy night.
“No, lad. We’re staying in. I hope you don’t mind overmuch if I join you?”
The horse, being a Flemish mount, had no idea what I was saying, but he knew how to ask if I’d brought anything good in my pockets. Regardless our limited association, it hadn’t taken him long to figure out that I usually brought treats with me.
His carefully casual sniff of my hand made me smile, and I set my saddlebag down in the straw to uncover the side of one of the loaves of bread and tear off a bit for him. My offering was eagerly accepted. That, and a pat on the neck, reassured him that I had no wish to bring any hardship upon him this evening.
A quick kick at the bedding showed me that someone had taken the time to bed my horse’s stall with a generous amount of clean straw. That was well, as the weather was obviously going to be unpleasant for some time, which meant the horses would have to stay inside. Clean, deep bedding was a kindness and a cleanliness issue. Louis, it seemed, employed only the best grooms.
Who was it that had taken such good care of my horse? A quick lad, as I recalled—one of those thin adolescents that always try to stay out of sight in any noble household.
I didn’t know his name, and any attempt at conversation would have been hopeless anyway, as he likely didn’t speak French. If I got a chance, I would try to find a way to thank the groom, but I didn’t really know how.
I set my wineskin down in the corner of my horse’s manger, only to just as swiftly reclaim the skin as my horse stuck his whiskered muzzle in the middle of it and lipped the leather in an attempt to claim whatever might be tasty inside.
Scooping up my goods, I dropped them safely out of reach against the outside wall of the stall before going in search of additional bedding for myself. A couple of armloads of straw for my bed, and another bundle of hay for my companion, and I felt we might be set for the night.
Other animals shifted in their stalls, looking intently down the aisle at the hay going by. I couldn’t bear to leave them without a Christmas treat, so I forked more hay to all of the horses and followed up with a quick check of their water. The long troughs running the length of the stalls were mostly frozen, but accessible to all who might need a good drink after a second ration of dry hay.
It comforted me to be among the horses, who desired nothing more than the simple tending of a competent groom. The learning of those tasks had come to me along with the gift of my first pony at Fotheringhay. Months spent as a page at Middleham had reinforced the lessons well. This night, the irritated donkey who tried to bite me for my generous efforts only made me feel all the more welcome, for horses belonged to a society I knew well. I understood them, I trusted them. I was more than contented to spend my Christmas eve with them.
Returning to my own horse’s stall, fluffed up my extra straw in the corner, wrapped my cloak tight about me and settled, with a somewhat improved mood, into my nest. My wineskin and saddlebag were tucked close at hand in the corner at my head, just in case I should want something to eat or need to defend them.
Silence settled over the stable as the horses dozed, safe from the wind howling outside. I could hear the icy flakes tapping against the wooden boards of the stable in the stronger gusts, hear the moaning voices in the wind as it sought the small cracks and openings to force small eddies of chill air inside.
I felt as though I was hearing the voices of ghosts this Christmas eve, hearing their wails buried in the storm. Were parts of Bruges haunted, as parts of Yorkshire were?
I shook my head and drove away the thought. I had enough ghosts in my memories to torment me tonight. I needed no other, borrowed ones.
This was, without doubt, the strangest Christmas eve for me. I ached to be back in England. I missed my mother and sisters. I longed for the glad company of my good friend Francis, who was much more a brother than those given to me by God. Most of all, and not for the first time, I missed Anne. My darling Anne, whom Warwick had dragged away from home against her will to ruthlessly give her in marriage to….
No, I wouldn’t think of that.
The most I could do was offer prayers for Anne and all the rest of my loved ones from whom I was parted. Even Ashtail should have a prayer, no matter the church fathers had declared that animals have no souls and exist only to serve men. My deserted stallion was as helpless a victim to Fortune’s Wheel as was all of mankind. I certainly had the time, if not the candles, to ask a few saints and archangels to intercede for all of us, to beg our most sweet lord Jesus Christ to save us all from the perils of body and soul.
All, except Hastings. He would have to ask for himself.
Another sound reached me then. One not normally associated with horses.
I had heard rustlings in the loft earlier and tried not to think about what vermin might be up there. Mice, yes, even rats were common enough where horses and grain were to be found, but neither were the best of companions.
The newest rustling made it clear that the noises were not in my imagination. My horse-friend—whose name I had not learned—also turned his head and pricked his ears as the sound came again.
If a horse heard it, it was real. If a horse thought it out of the ordinary, it must be so.
I sat still and tried to quiet my breathing. New sounds reached me then. Someone caught their breath in distress, was trying to suppress their weeping.
The wind’s moaning had turned to weeping?
I felt a chill up my spine that had nothing to do with the weather. Could there actually be a ghost in the stable with me this night?
I then heard what sounded like a sniffle—the sort that accompanied a running nose. A decidedly non-ghostlike sound.
So I wasn’t the only person inside this stable tonight?
“Who is there?” I called into the darkness.
I tried to sound friendly, but the sniffling was followed by a gasp, and sharp silence.
Perhaps they did not speak English? I called upon my fractured Flemish in an attempt to reassure.
“Wie is daar?”
“Wat is er mis?”
No one answered, but I did hear a bit more rustling overhead.
I left the stall and headed toward the ladder that led upward. Climbing quietly, I paused at the top and scarcely breathed. The lantern light was soft and diffused across the loft. I waited for my eyes to adjust to the shadows.
After a long moment of silence, I heard another, quieter sniffle from someone who seemed buried beneath the straw.
It took but a moment to cross to the softly weeping pile of straw. Reaching down, I grabbed what I hoped was an arm. A quick pull upward parted the straw, and my ghost proved to be a wide-eyed, very frightened boy who fought me not at all as I dragged him upward.
“Ah, you’re just a lad.”
Letting go his arm, I sank down to rest on my haunches and watched him. He wiped away his tears. Scooting backward, he eyed the sword at my side.
“You’re one of those English knights, aren’t you?” Scrabbling to his feet, he straightened his tunic and offered a hasty bow. Bits of straw scattered around him. “I’m sorry, m’lord. I mean no offense, really.”
“You speak English?”
“Yes, m’lord.” He offered another bow and shoved his hair from his eyes. “My mum is from Bruges, but my da is from England. He had me learn, what with all the trade hereabout.”
“What are you doing in the stable so late? And hiding in the loft? Surely you weren’t hiding from me?”
“I work in the stables for the Seigneur. I meant no trouble, m’lord. Really, I didn’t.”
“I know you mean no trouble, and certainly no harm.”
It was then I realized that my new companion was trying to balance on one foot.
“Are you hurt?”
“Nay, m’lord. I didn’t mean to disturb you. Oh, please, m’lord, don’t tell Master Piet.”
The child—for he couldn’t have been much over ten years—was looking at me with wide, desperate eyes. He raised a hand and pushed back his hair to cover an ear that was obviously swollen and sore.
“Let’s sit down, shall we?” I carefully settled myself into the straw and gestured that the boy should join me. “Now, I heard you crying up here. I think you must be very sad or hurt very badly. Which is it?”
Rather than answer me, the boy looked down, so that I could no longer see his face.
“Is it both hurt and sad? I suspect that Piet the stable-master boxed your ear today. Is that so?”
The child nodded with some reluctance.
“Why is it he hurt you?”
“Master Piet was very angry that I didn’t clean out Rivier Voet’s hooves this morning,” came the quiet admission. “But I was busy, what with all the people going out and coming in for Christmas, and the bad weather and wet horses and all. I didn’t forget to do his feet. I just hadn’t done them yet.”
“I understand how you can become overworked at such times. Piet must be a very impatient man.”
He looked at me, wary and almost suspicious, but with a hint of curiosity as well.
“Oh yes, I had my ears boxed when I was a page, and also when I was a squire, over just that sort of thing.”
“More than once. So I understand very well how it happens.”
I smiled at the memories. Right now, even my memories of being punished at Middleham for misdeeds were happy. Once more, I found myself wishing I was still in Yorkshire.
“But that doesn’t explain why you were hiding in the hay,” I continued. “Would Piet not allow you to go home this Christmas eve?”
He shook his head. I heard another sniffle before the thin shoulders began to shake.
“Tell me, please?” I urged gently. “Maybe I can help.”
“Can’t help? Is it that bad?”
He shook his head, and more bits of straw sifted from his hair.
“Can’t get home. It’s my foot. A man came in on a big, big horse. It wouldn’t stand still for me to rub it down and get the wet off. It kept wiggling around and tried to bite my…um.”
The boy squirmed and snuck a look at me. I dared not laugh, though I wanted to.
“That horse nipped and nipped, and then it stood on my foot. It was such a big horse, and it weight a lot, and it wouldn’t get off, and tonight it hurts so bad that I can’t walk. Master Piet said it was my fault for being so stupid, but that my foot’s only bruised, and it’ll heal up quick….”
“But not quick enough for tonight.”
I saw the problem clearly now. I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t go home for Christmas.
“It’s a fair walk to home,” the boy went on. “I don’t mind it usually, but it’s so cold and wet, and my foot hurts so much, I just can’t even try. My mum and da will be worried when I don’t come, but…I just can’t do it.”
He wiped his eyes on one sleeve and used his other sleeve to wipe his nose.
“Not complainin’, m’lord. I’ve a good place to stay out of the storm, and I’ll be first one here come morning to tend the horses. That should please Master Piet.”
His smile was brave but wobbly, and his lower lip trembled before he ducked his head again. I could hear his empty belly growling its hunger, as well.
What a miserable night for such a little boy. I may have been lonely and feeling sorry for myself, may have been missing my loved ones and a warm hearth and a good meal among friends, but I knew those things would be out of reach even as I chose to follow my brother into exile. This child’s family was waiting anxiously for him in a house that was surely filled with love and a good dinner.
There was no way I could mend my woes, but I could end his.
“Come with me,” I ordered.
Going to the ladder, I began backing down into the stable aisle. The boy poked his head over the loft floor and peered down at me.
“Come with you to where? Does your horse need more hay or water?”
I laughed. I didn’t mean to, but I did, for my joy for the plan I’d made began to eclipse my own sorrows.
“Come with me on my fine horse that you take care of so well for me. We’re going to take you home.”
“Me? On a horse?” He sounded horrified, positively scandalized. “In the snow and the storm?”
“Yes, you on a horse in the snow and the storm. We’ll ride together. It won’t hurt your foot a bit, and your mum and da will be happy to have you home safe and sound. If you walk back and forth every day, your home can’t be more than a couple of miles, can it?”
“Nay, just about that. But you out in this storm? And me on a horse…it’s not allowed.”
He’d climbed awkwardly down the ladder and was creeping slowly ever closer to me in spite of his reasonable refusals. I’d offered to create a Christmas miracle for him, and I could tell how badly he wanted to say yes.
The boy’s sincerity and innocence reminded me so much of my early years among strangers in the north, when I’d wanted nothing more than a hug from my lady mother and the comfort of my own bed, that I found myself forcing back my own tears.
That clinched it. This lad was going home tonight.
I handed him the wineskin and my saddlebag. “Hold this for me, will you please?”
I then headed for the tack room and returned with my mount’s blanket, saddle and bridle. “I’m sorry for lying to you about going out, old fellow, but we’re needed. You can manage a bit of snow to save this young man’s Christmas, can’t you? I promise if you do this for me, you’ll have a rubdown and extra grain when we get back. And we’ll travel as swiftly as the storm allows.”
The horse sighed, resigned to his fate as I tightened the girth. Retrieving my provisions, I tied them to the saddle. After leading the horse from his warm stall, I pulled the stable boy beside me.
“Give him a pat on the shoulder and tell him thank you for me.”
“Bedankt, vriend paard Gelovigen.”
The horse turned his head to touch the child’s shoulder with his muzzle, as close to a caress as you’d ever get from most horses. It was clear the animal horse trusted—maybe even loved—this boy. It made me even more determined to see the child safe home.
“What did you call him?” I asked.
I’m sure my confusion showed on my face.
“It’s his name.”
“I don’t know much Flemish. What does it mean?”
He gave a lopsided grin. “It means faithful. Gelovigen is a good horse, he’s just a little bit old now. I’m told he used to be our lord’s favorite mount years ago.”
So Louis had given me the best of the worst? I supposed that was some sort of honor. Or Louis thought so little of me that he made sure I was given a horse safe enough for small children and grandmothers to ride. Either way, I liked this horse. And I was sorry to ask the old fellow to journey out into the cold.
“And what is your name?” I asked.
“Well met, Kees.” Laying my hand across my heart, I gave a shallow bow. “You may call me Dickon.”
His eyes widened in fear. Surely my name couldn’t mean anything to him, or be that frightening?
“You are one of the Seigneur’s guests—an English knight with much honor. I dare not call you by name, m’lord.”
If only he knew how much honor I did not have, and how much honor I’d likely never get the chance to earn. I was lord of nothing. Nothing but a nuisance, no one of any value, only the baby brother of a king in exile. I had a death sentence hanging over me, and I would never see home or family again if I wished to continue living.
My heart ached as I acknowledged the harsh truth of my situation, but I pushed away my sorrow. I was still a knight, and tonight I was determined to see Kees safely home.
“You can call me Dickon if we’re friends, and I have asked you to do so, yes? Are we not friends now?”
Kees answered with his silence.
I pushed on. “I would like to consider you my friend. Jelly here is the only real friend I have in Bruges. I’d like a friend who can talk.”
“Jelly?” Kees’ snicker was a wonderful change from tears.
“I can’t remember what you called him, but it started with Jelly, didn’t it?”
“Gelovigen,” I repeated carefully. “My horse-friend’s name is Gelovigen, my people-friend’s name is Kees. And my name is Dickon. Please use it?”
“All right…Dickon,” he repeated softly.
“Thank you. Now, up you get.”
I tapped him on the thigh, prompting him to bend his leg at the knee. When he did, I tossed him up into the saddle. I then led Gelovigen, who seemed resigned to his fate, to the stable doors. I opened the doors just enough to let the horse squeeze through, then carefully closed them tight.
A foot into the stirrup, a hop, and I was seated behind Kees. The light accumulation of snow already on the saddle melted into my wool breeches. That fast, and I was cold and wet—the two conditions I most loathed.
Ah well, sooner started, sooner finished, and then Gelovigen and I could return and settle down in our warm straw beds.
I pulled up my hood, tucked my cloak close around Kees and myself. Gelovigen walked across the courtyard and beneath the stone archway fronting Gruuthuse’s palace. I nodded at the miserable guards on duty, who had nothing more than a freezing halberd and a flickering lantern to keep them company.
Once clear of the archway, Gelovigen halted, and I gathered the reins in front of Kees. Already, my fingers were frozen. Bowing my head, I spoke into the boy’s ear against the bitter wind.
He pointed down the snow-covered street, and I nudged Gelovigen into motion.
A quick glance around the area, and I realized that I could no longer tell street from bank from canal in the soft-glowing night. It was a situation that could turn deadly if I misread landmarks I didn’t know to begin with.
“You will guide us carefully, yes?” I asked Kees, who had covered his head and face with the woolen folds of my cloak and was pushing back against me for added warmth. “We don’t want to end up on the canal ice.”
The boy nodded. He wrapped the cloak over my hands before covering them with his own to keep the warm wool in place.
Kees was true to his word. At every turn and drift, small, white fingers emerged to point to the left or the right—or to wiggle in a particular direction, which I came to understand meant, ‘Further over that way, please.’
I obeyed without question, and faithful Gelovigen trudged calmly through the deepening snow. He paid no mind as he passed the intermittent torches that hissed and crackled as snowflakes hit them, though he did shake the snow from his head frequently and carried his ears back in displeasure. Eventually, there were no more torches.
Kees’ directions took us into the merchant section of Bruges, an area where I had never felt comfortable since my brother’s men badgered the merchants constantly for more credit…and other things. I didn’t know exactly what those other things entailed, and felt no need to be kept informed of such details. All I knew was that the merchants didn’t like us, and neither did I. But I had no control over any of them, or the situation, and I suspected Edward didn’t, either.
Light and shadows moved behind some of the windows, muffled laughter drifted on the cold air occasionally, but we met no one else on the stormy streets. I felt as if the three of us had been entirely cut off from the rest of the world.
I soon lost myself in the snow coating my cloak, my freezing face and aching ears, in the wearisome, trudging misery of the journey. I hoped that Gelovigen knew his way home, because I could not remember most of the turns we’d made and had visions of wandering about in the storm until the three of us froze to death.
I tried to take heart in the knowledge that I was doing a good deed for young Kees, as a good knight should. I continued turning Gelovigen as the boy bid me, but our entire journey was made in deathly silence until we reached midway down a narrow, silent street that looked like every other dark street we had ridden down.
“This one! This one here!”
A skinny arm appeared from under the cloak and began to wave wildly at a window with lights flickering behind the wooden shutters, and a small, brave candle burning on the sill outside.
I closed my stiff fingers. Gelovigen willingly came to a halt, switched his rump around toward the wind and lowered his head.
“This is home?” I asked.
The question was unnecessary, for young Kees had thrown off my cloak and was about to leap from the horse, his bruised foot and injured toes forgotten in his excitement. Or perhaps they were completely numb from the cold. Mine certainly were.
“Moeder! Vader! Ik ben thuis!”
I managed to catch his arm and lower him gently to the ground, rather than see him jump down and land hard on the snow-covered cobbles. I feared a deep ache would follow such a landing once his feet were warmed, but I only managed to slow his descent.
He was off and running toward a door that burst open before he reached it. A careworn woman with a blanket around her shoulders ran out into the storm to catch and hug him close. Their delighted chatter and obvious love for each other warmed my heart, if not the rest of me.
I reached down to give my patient, miserable horse a pat on the neck. “That’s what this was all about, my friend. Let’s go back to our stall, shall we?”
A large, strong hand closed over my wrist before I could shift my hand on the rein to turn Gelovigen.
“You must come with me, out of this storm,” said a deep voice in most welcome English.
A big man who had to be Kees’ father stood at my knee, and he did not seem inclined to release my wrist.
“No, I’ll be off home again,” I told him, “but I thank you. I just wanted to see your young son safely home.”
“The weather is foul, and I wish to thank you properly for bringing our lad home. His mum was beside herself with worry, and now that he is here, we can have a happy Christmas. You come join us.”
Kees and his mother were waving from the warm glow of the cottage doorway, beckoning me inside.
“We’ve warm drink and a fine supper for tonight,” the father continued, “and a goose on the spit for tomorrow. You must come inside where it is warm.”
I was tempted, but at the same time I knew how lean things were for many of the citizens of Bruges. I’d not be eating their Christmas meal, as I’d come empty-handed and had nothing to share. Secondly, I had no wish for them to know I was one of the hideous English. Once they found out, my reception would likely be as chilly as the weather. Besides, I had made promises to Gelovigen; a horse his age couldn’t be expected spend the night out in this weather. All were very good reasons why I should turn the horse and hope we could find Gruuthuse’s palace again.
“We all want you inside with us. I heard Kees tell his mother you’re one of the foul English knights, but only a good man would show such compassion and care for a stable boy. You are most welcome in our home, and at our table. We’ve a fair stable out back, if your beast wouldn’t mind sharing shelter with our cow and pony.”
The big man beside me grinned widely and clapped me on the thigh, as though he would not let go until I agreed to do as he wished.
To be welcome? To have someone smile at me and mean it? To be wanted somewhere? I had not felt such hope since before I had left England. How could I turn away such an invitation? And old Gelovigen deserved to be out of the wet and wind.
I had to accept.
“I believe my horse would grateful for any shelter right now. He has been faithful to a fault, carrying us through the storm. For his sake at least, I would be glad to accept your offer.”
“Then come down from there and let us tend him together. Tritje already has a place at the table set for you. She weaves woolen socks and other clothes for our stall in the market, so at the very least there is a pair of dry socks waiting for you beside our fire.”
Now there was an appealing notion. Dry socks and a warm fire to share with friends, a cup of wine…
Wine? Yes, we could have that.
My heart leaped at the realization that I need not come empty-handed to the family’s gathering.
We were inside the small stable now, and Gelovigen favored us by shaking like a dog and showering us both with melting snow. I began stripping off the saddle and bridle and paid special attention to my saddlebag and wineskin, while Kees’ father twisted a handful of straw into a wisp to get the wet off of Gelovigen.
The horse sighed deeply and buried his nose in the pony’s hay rack. The pony squealed at the indignity, but otherwise seemed to welcome Gelovigen’s company.
We rubbed my horse until he was mostly dry, steaming in the relative warmth, and obviously contented with the extra hay and company. Kees’ father shoved more hay past the noses buried in the hay rack, then gave them both furry necks a pat before pushing me toward the door.
The icy wind and snow was much like a blow when we stepped out of the comforting warmth of the stable. I blindly followed the broad back of the man in front of me through the swirling flakes, trusting him to lead me back to the house. It seemed to take an eternity before we reached a door, which swung open into a small bit of heaven.
The tiny house truly was a home, and Kees greeted me with a shy smile while his mother bustled about. Taking my saddle, Kees thumped it into the corner and hung my bridle on a nearby hook to dry. I set my provisions beside the saddle.
The boy’s mother checked the goose roasting over the fire, while I was urged farther into the room. Oh, how I’d missed such a scene.
Without asking permission, another, nearly grown woman pulled my wet cloak from my shoulders and draped it over a bench near—but not too near—the fire. Kees’ mother threw a towel over my head and made me bend over without ceremony, the better to vigorously scrub my wet hair.
My startled eyes met Kees’, who gave me a lopsided grin.
“Mum did the same to me while you and Da settled Gelovigen. It’s best if you just give in and let her.”
I eventually escaped the determined buffeting, only to be pushed into the chair closest to the fire. After seeing me settled, Kees’ mother went after her husband to give him the same treatment. Placing his hands on his thighs, the big man bent over without argument. I couldn’t understand much of what was being said, but the mothering attitude and open affection were all too evident.
“I’m James,” he said, winking at me from beneath the towel. “Welcome to our home, m’lord.”
“None of that, please,” I heard myself protest. “I’ve just gone through this with your son. I have no rank or position in Burgundy. Please, just call me Dickon?”
“Dickon it is, then. Best we get your fine riding boots off and drying, or your toes will be terrible sorry by morning.”
James moved to help, but I managed to wave him off.
“I can manage my own boots, thank you. Please see to Kees’ foot? A horse stepped on him, and he cannot walk well for the pain. That’s why he didn’t make it home earlier.”
Tritje was immediately at her son’s side.
“My wife understands more English than she can speak,” said James. “She’ll see Kees’ right. The boy needs to watch the big beasts when they’re restless. Maybe this time he’ll learn.”
James’ words indicated he was shrugging off Kees’ injury, but it was obvious from the worried glances he threw toward his son that he wanted to stride over and turn that frozen, bruised foot between his own hands and see the damage for himself. Eventually, as I exchanged my wet socks for the ones provided by Tritje, James did drift away and join the tending of his son’s injuries.
The younger woman appeared at my side and shyly offered me a bowl of something liquid and warm. I realized it was some kind of soup, though I did not recognize the scent of it and had no clue what it might be.
Would be nice with a bit of bread, I thought, but would never have been so rude as to ask for more than these generous people had already offered. Then I remembered what I had helped myself to this evening in Louis’ kitchen.
“Hang about, could you bring me my bag? The bag from my saddle? Please? And the wineskin?”
I waved toward the tack, but the girl only stared at me in bewilderment.
I knew should just get up and get the things myself, but my toes were beginning to thaw, and I was reluctant to get the new, warmed socks wet by walking in the melting snow we’d tracked in.
From across the room, James rapped out a quick sentence in Flemish and nodded toward my saddle. His daughter hastened to carry out my request.
I smiled my thanks when she handed me my things, and set about trying to untie the wet, swollen leather ties on the saddlebag. My warming fingers succeeded, and I drew out my offerings. They may have been meager, but I felt much better having something to contribute.
I held out the wineskin as well as the cloth-wrapped bread and cheese to the girl. She took them with a silent smile and set it all on the table. The next moment, she exclaimed in delight after lifting a corner of the cloth.
James got to his feet and was beside the girl in a couple of long strides. By then, she had the cloth completely folded back and was staring at the bread as if she’d never seen it before.
“There are two loaves of good demain bread here? And an entire wheel of cheese? I can only imagine the wine you’ve brought us.” James looked at me as if he thought I should take it all back.
I gestured toward the wineskin. “It’s a full skin, and I think you’ll find the wine within is surprisingly good. I’m sorry about the missing bit of bread, but I fed it to my horse.”
I felt rather silly confessing that, but it brought smiles from James and Kees, and from the rest of the family once it was explained.
“I told you he was a kind man,” Kees said with some pride. “And he’s my friend. He said so. Didn’t you, Dickon?”
“I did indeed, and I’m proud to have you as my first friend in Bruges. My horse likes you too, and you know that says a lot. Animals always know a person’s quality. And James, before you protest, I want you to have the bread and the wine as gifts for your table. I’ve nothing else with me and little else to share, but if you can use what I’ve brought….”
I could think of nothing else to say, but it seemed more words weren’t necessary. Tritje was clasping one of the loaves of bread to her ample bosom, as though it were a child or a treasure long lost. Her daughter was holding the other loaf of bread in quite the same way. Apparently they were pleased with my gifts.
The wheel of cheese was discussed with equal excitement, while James carefully poured out the wine into small wooden cups.
“Thanks to our new friend and unexpected joys, we’ll all have a fine Christmas this year. We thank you, Dickon.” James raised his cup in a toast, first to me, and then to the heavens. “And we thank you, our dear lord Jesus Christ, true God, on the eve of this, your birth.”
The little spark of hope in my heart burst into a steady glow as we gathered round the table. Kees reached for my left hand, his mother for my right to complete the circle as James continued his prayer.
I knew then that it truly was Christmas. The people might be different and the home unfamiliar, but this humble family was just as welcoming and loving as the one I’d left behind. I understood now that kindness and joy were the same, no matter what part of the world I might find myself in.
Bowing my head, I gave thanks that this night, in spite of Fortune’s ever-turning wheel, I had come home for Christmas after all.