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After she fainted a second time, Norman picked Anicia up and carried her inside. On his knees, anxious for any sign of recovery, he and Father Benedict watched from the side of the bed. Norman's anguish surpassed anything he had ever experienced or imagined, and he had seen his share of misery.
Norman's voice trembled as he spoke about another dark period in his life. Holding his wife's limp hand, he said, "Five years ago, durin' the worst of the famine, my parents starved to death."
"I remember," Father Benedict replied. "Your father never lost his faith. I never met a better, more god-fearing, Christian man. A good friend to me and the church. I recall that your mother used to make the finest meat pies. What a delightful woman - always smiling, always singing."
Norman nodded. "They stopped eating and wasted away so that their grandchildren could have the food they would have eaten. I begged them to eat, but they wouldn't. We harvested wild roots, plants, grasses, and nuts. We even ate bark from the forests to stay alive. I thought the worst was over . . ." Choked with emotion, Norman shook his head and gasped, "Now this." fresh tears pooled in his eyes and began to spill down his ruddy cheeks into his thick, reddish-brown beard.
Father Benedict patted Norman's back, "God bless you, my son. I heard that the King stopped for sustenance at St Albans seven years ago, near the beginning of the famine, and not so much as a loaf of bread could be found for him. Can you imagine that? For the King? You know we would have helped you financially if we could, Norman. We simply have no money in our treasury. I'm not ashamed to admit I might have taken the amount you owed to Lord Blackstone from the money collected to pay his accursed taxes, but he no longer trusts us to collect taxes from the parishioners."
"I know, Father." Norman sniffled and wiped his nose with his sleeve. "We weren't able to pay because I purchased a new hog. It took every penny we had. But I felt we couldn't go into the winter without havin' a hog to butcher if we ran out of food. If only I'd waited another month to buy that hog . . .we mighta been able..." Shaking his head, Norman fought to retain control of his emotions and lost. His shoulders shook as he lapsed into heartrending sobs.
The priest nodded sympathetically. "I can't imagine how anyone could fault your logic on buying that hog. Come now, Norman, you have to remain strong for your children and for Anicia when she awakens."
After a few minutes Norman managed to regain his composure. Again, he wiped his nose on his sleeve, and said, "We tried to sell this place, Father. So many homes are empty now, we knew it wouldn't be easy. But our place is bigger and sturdier than most of the huts. We started trying to sell as soon as we realized we weren't gonna be able to pay the tax. Right up to the day Albert Bigge put Rebecca in that carriage and drove away, we still believed we'd be able to sell it, pay our debt, and get her back. Tom Wainwright promised to buy it, but then he backed out. That's when we came to you for help."
"You would have sold the home your parents built?"
"Gettin' Rebecca back was the only thing that mattered. That and keepin' the family together."
Father Benedict grasped Norman by the shoulder. "You're a good husband to your wife and a fine father to your children, Norman Gardyner. In these hard times, I've seen many children abandoned by their parents and left to fend for themselves."
Barnard came in quietly from the other room, where his sister's shrouded body rested on the bier. Looking wistfull, he gazed up at the loft where she had slept. He didn't say anything, but his father noticed. More than once they had argued about why Rebecca got to sleep in the loft, while he slept with Guy.
Knowing his son would soon be asking again, Norman decided to settle the issue and give his son something positive to dwell on. "Since your sister won't be comin' back, you can go ahead and move up there, Barnard. No more sleepin' with your little brother."
Barnard's eyes widened, but the news didn't seem to satisfy him as much as he or his father expected. In fact, the boy's shoulders sagged slightly. He whispered, "Thank you Father."
"I'm here, Anicia." Norman continued to hold her hand, squeezing it to show his concern and devotion.
Her eyes fluttered but remained closed. Her brow wrinkled as if somewhere behind those closed eyelids, a battle raged.
Why wake up? Norman tried to imagine her pain. He found himself thinking, It might be better if she remains unconscious until her soul can come to terms with her loss.
Anicia loved the boys, but her relationship with Rebecca had been so strong, so special. Rebecca grew to be such a help and such a friend to her mother. They would chat for hours on end. Without her daughter, Anicia would be the only female in a house filled with men. Memories were all she would have when she needed the sweet sensitivity her swashbuckling boys and husband could not provide.
"Norman?" Her voice sounded thin and pitifully weak.
Brothers Michael and Stephen came in with Guy from the other room where they had set candles in the holders on each of the four corners on the funeral bier.
As their children, Father Benedict, and the monks looked on, Norman scooped Anicia into his arms and held her. Confirming what she already knew, he said, "Rebecca's gone, sweetheart." In the midst of their grief and guilt, Norman and Anicia clung fiercely to one another. Love and the priest's promise that Rebecca would be waiting for them in heaven were all they had to soothe the pain of their loss.
~ ~ ~
Not much later, Father Benedict discussed the funeral arrangements. In the other room, Brothers Michael and Stephen recited prayers with Barnard and Guy.
"Rebecca's body should remain here through tomorrow," the priest suggested. "You have friends and neighbors, no doubt, who will want to come by. Have you arranged for a coffin?"
"We can't afford one, Father." Clearly pained by the admission, Norman glanced at his wife, who teetered on the verge of breaking down again. "If we had the means to pay for a coffin, we'd have paid something to Lord Blackstone, and our daughter might still be alive."
The priest stared at the straw-covered floor. "We have a coffin at the church that we can use for the service. But we can't bury her in it when it comes time to lay her in the ground."
Anicia flinched. "You mean, she won't be buried in a coffin?"
"We only have the one," Father Benedict winced as he peered into Anicia's pleading eyes. "We offer its use to less fortunate families, who can't afford to buy one. It's not a metal coffin, Anicia. It would decay in the ground." The priest shrugged and said, "We all go back to the earth from which we were formed."
The embarrassment of not being able to afford a coffin for his daughter, and seeing the pain it caused Anicia, made Norman furious. He balled up a fist and shook it. "Here we are, planning to bury our Rebecca, while Lord Blackstone plans to celebrate his birth. He is the one who should be returned to the earth!"
Norman turned to face the priest. "Many will attend his celebration at the castle. I have a gift I'd like to give him." He made a thrusting motion as if sinking a sword into an adversary. "Do you think it possible that I might, due to the large numbers in attendance, slip in unnoticed?"
"Don't be foolish, Norman." Anicia warned, grabbing and holding the hand he used to make the stabbing motion. "How could I provide for the children if you're caught and executed?"
The priest raised a hand. "I cannot condone violence. In chapter twelve, verse nineteen of the book of Romans, we read, 'Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.'"
Anicia nodded, gratefully. Norman nodded as well, but not as readily.
"It makes no sense to risk forfeiting a second life," Father Benedict advised. "Lord Blackstone's vassal, Albert, relayed the message that your debt is paid. Best to let sleeping dogs lie."
"We can't let him get away with what he's done," Barnard insisted. He turned toward his father and said, "Mothers and priests are always against fighting and killing. Let me go. I'm not afraid of Lord Blackstone."
Turning her son around to face her, Anicia explained, "Your Father isn't afraid, Barnard." She glanced at her husband and back at her son. "He wants to go, but we can't risk losing him. It would mean the end for all of us."
"They mightn't be suspicious of a boy," Barnard suggested.
Norman offered a weary smile. "You're as tall as me, son. They wouldn't see you as a boy. They'd think you're a grown man. . . and, you know, you pretty much are." He squeezed Barnard's shoulder, his eyes glistening with pride and love.
~ ~ ~
Lizzy held a silver serving tray, upon which were piled several plates of fine china littered with chicken bones and bread crumbs. She closed the heavy wooden door to Lord Blackstone's bed chambers with her foot and turned to see Albert standing in the wide, torch-lit hall, waiting for her.
Albert noticed a rip in her blouse. "What?" he pointed at the tear. "He couldn't wait for you to unbutton it?"
Lizzy glanced down and shrugged. "He gets impatient."
"So am I," Albert declared, his face a picture of disgust.
"Well, what am I supposed to do, Albert?"
"I don't know, Lizzy, but I wish you wouldn't encourage him like you do."
"Do you want me to end up like the Gardyner girl and the others? Should I say, 'I'm sorry, Lord Henry, you'll have to put your red rooster back in your britches. I can't do it with you no more because Albert gets jealous?'"
Albert couldn't find the right words to express his feelings, but his grimace said plenty.
"I don't do it because I want to, Albert," Lizzy professed. "You know that. I can't stand the pompous bastard. I'm scared to death of him!"
With both arms, Albert reached out, wanting to hold her, but stopped because of the tray she carried. Pointing towards the door to Lord Blackstone's bedchambers, he said, "Knowing what goes on in there is killing me, Lizzy. I can't take it no more. I've got to do something."
"And what might that be?" the chambermaid demanded. "He's got guards outside his door, day and night. But hold on . . ." Scanning the hallway, Lizzy didn't see the guard that should have been on duty. "I can't imagine where Oliver is right now. Where'd he get off to?"
"Piss break," Albert replied. "I told him I'd watch the door."
"He'd be in a piss pot full of trouble if Lord Henry found out he left his post," Lizzy vowed.
Albert shrugged and replied, "He said he wouldn't be gone more than a few minutes."
"So is that your plan?" Lizzy asked. "Wait 'til the guard goes to make water and then sneak in and kill Blackstone? Albert, they'd hunt you down and string you up, after which you'd be drawn and quartered, or castrated and disemboweled!"
"I don't fancy castration," Albert grinned. "Wouldn't be much good to you then."
"Don't be funny," Lizzy frowned. "They'd kill you and you know it."
"Maybe not. Everyone hates him. Even Oliver hates him. They might give me a reward."
Lizzy shook her head. "The only reward you'd get is in heaven."
Heavy footsteps on stone echoed from the stairwell as Lord Blackstone's guard returned.
Still carrying the tray, Lizzy headed for the stairs to return the dishes to the kitchen. Greeting the guard as their paths crossed in the hall, she asked, "Feelin' better, Oliver?" and added with a mischievous smirk, "Lord Blackstone's askin' for you."
~ ~ ~
Picking their way through the mud that afternoon on the way back to the church, Father Benedict and Brother Stephen grew weary of Brother Michael's complaints. "I hope we make it back before dark. I can't wait to wash my feet. Aaaah!" He cried out as he slipped, "Did you see that?" Michael pointed to where he nearly fell. "I can hardly walk. Every time I take a step, I sink so far into the mud that I can barely pull my foot out. I've lost my sandal twice, already. If we had taken the wagon, as I suggested, we could be riding, instead of walking in this —"
"I'm not going to carry you, Michael," Brother Stephen announced, not entirely in jest. "You're too heavy."
"I didn't ask you to carry me, Stephen." Feeling a single drop of rain on the shaven crown of his head, Michael squinted up at the sky. "When is this depressing rain ever going to stop? Day after day, it keeps —"
"Talk about depressing," Stephen groaned. "When are you ever going to stop complaining? Day after day you —"
"I'll stop complaining when I see blue skies and —"
"No you won't." Stephen wagered. Pointing at Michael, he said, "You'll find something else to complain about. You'll say it's too hot, or that you're getting burned by the sun."
"Look," Brother Michael shot back. "I'm not like you. Just because I don't keep everything bottled up inside of me —"
"We're monks, Michael." Stephen stared. "We're supposed to be long-suffering and content to be in the service of The Lord. We aren't supposed to whine all the time. Didn't anyone ever tell you that?" Stephen shook his head in dismay and turned towards Father Benedict for support. "Can't you do anything about him, Father?"
His patience wearing thin, the priest began to pray. "Let us give thanks to the beneficent and merciful God, the Father of our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ, for he has covered us, helped us, guarded us . . ."
Father Benedict smiled. Through the power of prayer, so much could be achieved. In this case, it put a stopper in Brother Michael's whine bottle. The priest prayed all the way back to the church, which they reached as the autumn winds picked up and the rain began to fall, once again.
~ ~ ~
At Blackstone Castle, Lord Henry gazed out from the tower window of his bedchambers. The eastern exposure afforded a grand view of the Tyne River winding its way toward the village.
"Look at those dark clouds." Vigorously scratching the side of his head, with one hand, he pointed with the other. "Another storm seems to be brewing over the village. This rainy spell had better run its course before the weekend."
Sighing, he turned away from the window and resumed his review of the festival's scheduled entertainment. Each item appeared on the scroll handed to him by his steward, the oldest and most trusted person in his employ, Rylan Fletcher.
Fletcher, who recently celebrated his forty-sixth birthday, labored as Steward under the young lord's father for ten years. When Lord Aldred died, young Lord Henry saw no cause to terminate or revise the duties of his father's loyal, trustworthy servant.
Pleased that preparations for his birthday celebration were going well, Lord Henry appeared to be in high spirits. "Jugglers, acrobats, and strolling minstrels, yes, yes, yes. I want the very finest jugglers. I hope we've spared no expense. Tell whoever is screening them, to make sure they can sing and recite poetry whilst they perform."
"Yes, my lord."
"By the way," Blackstone inquired, "who is responsible for hiring the entertainers?"
"My nephew, Albert."
Lord Blackstone's left eyebrow arched. "Really? What does Albert Bigge know about entertainment?"
"Albert happens to be an accomplished singer, my lord. He sings, recites poems, and plays a number of instruments as well." Fletcher's chest swelled with pride.
"What a surprise. And all this time I thought his primary talent consisted of indiscriminately spreading confidential information. What instruments does he play, Rylan?"
"Mandolin and the dulcimer, among others."
"He's never played for me," Blackstone pouted.
"Perhaps he suspected your lordship might deem his interest in music and poetry as frivolous."
"Oh, I do, indeed. No worthwhile result is likely to spring from the pursuit of such triviality."
Redirecting his attention to the list, Blackstone said, "I haven't seen anything about whores on this list, Fletcher. Have you procured a suitable number for my guests?"
"What number would your lordship deem suitable?"
Blackstone gazed briefly at the ceiling and said, "We don't have enough prostitutes in the village, so you'll need to recruit the majority from the brothels on Gropecunt Lane in Newcastle. Let's see, twenty should be . . ." He paused, adopting an amused expression. "Twenty should be plenty." Laughing gaily, he drew a white kerchief from the breast pocket of his orange silk vest and waved it in the air. "Seems as if I may have an undiscovered talent, Fletcher. Perhaps I should recite poetry to my guests."
Fletcher said nothing and, while being stared at, conveyed nothing regarding his opinion of Lord Henry's still undiscovered talent.
Further unraveling the scroll, Blackstone spied a point of particular interest. “Dancing, by all means." Executing a graceful bow of greeting to some imaginary damsel, he continued to speak as he practiced his steps. "Lively dancing and a sumptuous feast to be remembered by all. But . . ." Stopping as abruptly as he had begun dancing, Lord Henry made sure Fletcher understood. “Those events should take place on Sunday, after the jousting tournament champion is crowned. Speaking of which," his lordship sounded concerned, “I don't find any mention of the tilting matches."
"It should be just a bit further down, my lord."
Blackstone's brow furrowed until he reached the details of the jousting event. "Ah, yes . . . Let's see if everything is in order . . ."
"We've already roped off the tilting area, my lord. The barrier between the two lanes has been erected.”
"After the tournament," Blackstone suggested, "have that area preserved. A tiltyard would provide an attraction of interest to many nobles. We might receive more visitations from the high court if we construct a permanent venue."
"Duly noted, your lordship." Fletcher nodded. "You'll be pleased to know we've expanded the stables to accommodate the coldblood destriers that are favored by several of the expected knights."
"Destriers are so heavy and slow." Lord Henry's expression underscored his disdain. "I much prefer a warmblood charger. They’re faster and more maneuverable."
"Not to disagree, my lord, but to what advantage is maneuverability when a straight line must be maintained? Destriers are slower, to be sure," Fletcher admitted. "But they offer a wider and steadier platform from which to aim a lance. Your father preferred a coldblood destrier."
"So he did," Blackstone nodded. "Not our only area of contention. Had he levied higher taxes before the famine, we'd be in better shape now. I don't believe Father raised taxes more than once over the past five years."
Blackstone wandered back to the window for another look at the storm to the east. "Damn this weather!" He stamped his booted foot on the sturdy oak floor. "Am I to be cursed this weekend? I ask you, is there somebody up there," he pointed skyward, "that wishes to punish me?"
Fletcher changed the subject. "My lord, I've recently compiled an estimate of what your celebration will cost. If I may inquire, how do you propose to pay for this extravagant event?"
Lord Blackstone's eyebrows rose, "Why, through the same method we've always used, Fletcher - taxation of the vendors who participate in the trade fair. Additionally, we should again raise property rents and taxes on everything. The recent increase simply won't sustain us."
"Hmmm," Fletcher reached up to stroke his beard. "I realize you hadn't inherited the realm five years ago when the incessant rains and the resulting famine struck, but surely you're aware that the majority of your subjects have been reduced to hollow-eyed, walking skeletons.”
Blackstone shook his head as if ashamed of the peasants. "They are an embarrassment."
”Most of your subjects are falling behind in payment of their taxes. I fear they have nothing more to give."
Blackstone appeared concerned. "How can they not rise above the meager challenges they face? I provide them with everything they have a right to desire."
"At a price, my lord. You require payment for the milling of grain, fishing from the Tyne, hunting for game, you tax the wool, you tax —"
"I didn't invent taxation, Fletcher." Blackstone placed his hands on his hips. "Must I offer charity to all and receive nothing?" Not waiting for an answer, Lord Henry continued. "One thing is certain. If I gave away my entire fortune in some magnificent display of benevolence, those benefitted by my generosity would expect even more, and would curse me when they didn't get it."
Blackstone scratched the crown of his head again. "What in the devil is causing this infernal annoyance? My scalp itches as though I've worn a wig for the past week! On my dresser," he pointed. "There's an ivory gravour. Fetch it and take a look for me."
When Fletcher returned with the tool used for parting the hair, Lord Henry bent forward to allow the examination.
Squinting, the steward took a close look. Using the long, slender instrument, he parted his lordship's black hair, which hung to the middle of his back when he stood erect, and peered at various areas of his scalp.
After a few moments of bending over with his dark locks brushing the floor, Blackstone growled, "Well?"
"Dry skin, your lordship. Tsk, tsk, tsk." Fletcher shook his head. "I advise you to don light colors this Saturday. If you wear something dark, the flakes will be made more noticeable and will undoubtedly draw unflattering attention that you won't appreciate."
Horrified, Blackstone stood erect, his face red from frustration and the amount of time he remained bent over. "Th-there must be something that can be done!" he sputtered. "My costume for the celebration is royal blue!"
"Oh dear," Fletcher shook his head again. "I suppose you could try washing your scalp with goosegrass."
"Goosegrass?" Blackstone's brow furrowed.
"Goosegrass - stickyweed . . . Boil the leaves to extract the medicinal properties. Then wash your scalp with the liquid. Soak a towel in the residue, wrap it about your head, and leave it on overnight."
"I don't like the sound of that. Can you guarantee that it will it work?"
Fletcher shrugged. "I lost most of my hair before I turned forty. But goosegrass is the remedy my wife uses when she complains of dry scalp."
"Tell Albert to collect whatever is required. I'll have Lizzy help me apply it, tomorrow."
Dismissed with a shooing motion, Fletcher turned to leave. But before reaching the door, he heard his name called. "Fletcher?"
The steward turned around. "Yes, my lord?"
"Don't mention this to anyone."
"Of course, Lord Henry. You may always rely upon my discretion, as did your father." Fletcher spun back around and opened the door to leave, sporting a thin smile.
Lords and ladies, Chapter 4 is waiting to be perused.
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George R. Lasher
"Welcome to my imagination."