Monday, February 15, 2010

The Mistleberry - Part 5

Nothing further WAS said to us in the morning.  
Since the Mass would begin at nine, we had no breakfast that morning. Uncle James behaved towards us exactly as he always did and washing, dressing and starting the fires in the workshop was dominated by Christopher and Harry and their chatter about the cathedral choir boys, who would draw straws this morning for the winner to be crowned as the boy Bishop to lead the Holy Innocents Mass. As soon as my aunt went upstairs I followed her, somewhere between anxious and angry, and caught up with her in the parlour.
“Aunt Anne? It’s not all Mark’s fault we went to the Three Shires last night, I wanted to go and I could have told him no, I knew we weren’t supposed to be there.”

”You hardly would have gone on your own though?” Aunt Anne said mildly, sitting down on the windowseat. I let her draw me down beside her.  
“No. But I didn’t try to stop him either.” I hesitated a moment, not sure of what I wanted her to say or what I was trying to say, then I blurted it out anyway. “Uncle James didn’t say any more about it because I’m blind, and that sounds like Mark took me because he knew you wouldn’t treat ME like you would him-“

”Lyn that isn’t it at all!” Aunt Anne sounded shocked. I lowered my voice, aware I was raising it, and at my lady aunt. There hadn’t been many women at all in my life so far, certainly not ones I liked as much as her, and I was well aware this was not how you were supposed to treat them.  
“I’m sorry. But Mark WOULDN’T do that, he took me because we both wanted to go, it was fun, and if that was wrong then it’s my fault as much as his.”  
“You and Mark are becoming very good friends, aren’t you?” Aunt Anne asked me gently. “Lyn, almost every young man your age and Mark’s have slipped out at some time or another to see something that strictly speaking they shouldn’t. Your uncle certainly did. It’s something boys do.”

”Mark said Samuel did exactly this when he was older than Mark is now, and he was thrashed for it.” I said grimly.  
“Sam did this kind of thing all the time.” My aunt said serenely. “He climbed over the courtyard wall for years, no matter what your uncle said to him. He never truly settled down until he married Jane - not that Samuel was in any way bad! You and Mark are both quite worryingly good. Mark always has been, even as a little boy. Lyn, I wouldn’t advise you to repeat this, or to make a habit of going to the Three Shires or slipping out of the house at night, but I think your uncle was simply glad last night to see you and Mark doing something so natural as misbehaving. It’s always been as though the two of you don’t dare to. And there is, for Mark, such a thing as TOO good and too responsible.”

I chewed on that in silence, somewhat surprised. My aunt’s fingers wrapped around my hand and held it.  
“He was so much younger than Sam and so much older than Harry that neither could really be a friend to him. You’ve made quite a difference to him.”

I heard Harry run upstairs, his voice lifted.  
“Mama! Sarah says there’s no more salt or apples in the house, can I go to the market?”  
“NOT on his own.” My aunt said cheerfully. “Lyn, would you like to come with us? There’s plenty of time before Mass. ”

I shook my head, unwilling but finding it hard to explain. Harry was a schoolboy still, his days spent there- every other man and boy in this house spent their day in the workshop, expected and kept to their daily round. Which left me, drifting in the stairwells, playing with a flute and trying to fill my time. At Hartford it had never occurred to me that it was not right for a boy my age to spend his days wandering in the garden. In this house - it no longer just felt lonely, it felt plain wrong. I much preferred the workshop where I actually felt like I might do something at all useful.  
When Aunt Anne and Harry went out together, I went into the workshop, waiting at the foot of the stairs until Mark called across to me.  
“It’s all right Lyn, nothing hot being carried and no one by the fire, come over.”

I found my way to his bench and heard the chink chink of a tiny hammer and chisel as he worked, his voice absorbed.  
“Tools in front of you and to your left. And try not to jiggle the bench if you can help it.”  
“What are you doing?” I asked, listening to the steady chipping sounds.  
“Engraving, and it’s tricky.”

I took the hint and kept quiet, taking the time instead to feel carefully for each tool on the bench and work out it’s shape and it’s possible use. I was racking them for him and memorising the patterns of them in the rack in their right order when my uncle and Christopher came in, blowing from the cold air outside, and came straight to the fire.  
“We have an order from the Town Hall for twelve cups and twelve plates.” My uncle said, rubbing his hands vigorously to warm them. “To be done before New Year, which means this afternoon. If we begin the casting as soon as Mass is over, we can trim this evening and Mark and I can begin the fine work tomorrow. What else do we have that really can’t wait?”  
“These rings and the locket.” Mark said near me. “I can do those in a day.”

”I’ve got the two neckchains to finish.” One of the workmen said, “they’ll be gifts, collected New Year Eve.”

”And the earbobs.” Mark added.  
“Do the engraving yourself.” My uncle decided. “Caleb, when the casting’s done, you finish the rest, and ask Mark if you need help with it. That leaves the rest of us with this order, and we’ll work late tonight and tomorrow if need be. Christopher, bring another stack of wood in, and clear back the benches. Lyn, if we’re to be casting in this amount, out you go lad. I don’t want you or anyone else drenched in hot melt.”  
I heard the heavy benches being moved as I found my way into the gallery off the workshop and through into the kitchen. New Year Eve. I was actually eighteen on New Year Eve, two days from now, although no one else in this house would know but me. Sarah’s snort welcomed me from the kitchen hearth.  
“I’ve got a stew on the fire here, don’t you come no closer or you’ll end up scalded.”  
“They’re casting in the workshop so I can’t go in there either.” I said somewhat shortly, staying by the door. Sarah didn’t sound sympathetic.  
“You’d be better up in the loft or the parlour then. That’s the spinning wheel there, don’t turn that.”

I lifted my hands away, remembering the flowers laid on it.  

”It won’t be your thread and luck they break if you spin that wheel today.” Sarah said darkly. “And it won’t matter neither how much cream I leave down on the back door, there’s not much worse than turning a spinning wheel at Christmas. And Holy Innocents Night’s the worst of them all.”

”DO you leave cream at the back door?” I asked, interested. Sarah sniffed.  
“A dish on Christmas nights, yes. Something to turn the wild hunt if they come by. Cream keeps the little people sweet.”

”What else?” I said, thinking of the horns on the bridge last night. There was a clatter as a heavy cauldron was heaved off the fire and down onto the table.  
“The greenery. There’s mistletoe and holly at every door. And I’ll take mistletoe with me to Mass this morning, although the church won’t let you leave it on the altar now. Paganism they call it.”

”What do you need mistletoe for?”  
“It’s an old spell.” Something was stirred vigorously, hissing as it touched the hot sides of the cauldron. “If you carry mistletoe through the streets to the cathedral and lay it on the altar during the twelve days of Christmas, it stands as pardon and freedom for a lost soul, for all crimes and wrongs done. When I was a girl we used to take boughs to the cathedral and the Bishop blessed it there, but Cromwell, rot him, put a stop to all that and anything else good or pretty. Whittchurch was always a good King’s town.”

”I saw the King when I was a child.” I told her softly. “In the garden at Hartford .”

”Did you now?” Sarah began chopping something with heavy, practiced speed. “I saw him too once, here in Whittchurch. Not long after I were first married. He stayed three days here at the town hall and came to the cathedral to Mass. A welcome and a half he got too, the town made as pretty as we could for him.”  
“I was seven.” I said, thinking of the tall man with the smiling eyes. There was the splash of vegetables dumped in the stew.  
“You must have been about that when the King came back to the throne. I remember that day too, we danced in the streets for the first time since I was a girl and Cromwell came to power. How old are you now?”

”Seventeen. Eighteen on New Year Eve.”  
I don’t know why I told her. It was safe enough: Sarah didn’t gossip, most of her talk was about her folk lore and stories.
“Born at Christmas?” she said now, and I heard the clack of her hands briskly brushed off. “They say those born at Christmas can hear the spirits.”   
“Lyn!” my aunt called from the workshop. I went through with caution, and found everyone crowded into the workshop and shop putting on cloaks and gloves and hats, leaving only Caleb to stay by the fire and make ready for the casting that afternoon.    

The Mass was spoken by one of the choir boys in at first a high and nervous voice, and then with speed as his confidence grew. I could hear the murmur and babble and occasional cries of babies and small children in the cathedral and after the mass, Mark softly described for me the procession of mothers with babies making their way to the altar for the Bishop’s blessing while the choir sang softly. 
Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Thou little tiny Child.
By, by, lully, lullay.
Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young, to slay.
Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Thou little tiny Child.
By, by, lully, lullay.
 At home, after the stew, Sarah served us a milk pudding with some of the bottled raspberries left from the summer: red on the white, Harry told me ghoulishly, for the blood of the baby martyrs.  
It was apparently the custom for the youngest child of the household to decide the rest of the day’s entertainments, and Harry was less than happy when his father explained that he and Mark and Christopher were all needed in the workshop and most likely would work tonight until bedtime. An attempt to argue was somewhat sternly quashed by my uncle, and Harry was only grumbling under his breath when the casting resumed.   
“It was fun when Sam and Arbella were at home, no one had to work then…”

”It’s too big and important an order to refuse.” Aunt Anne repeated. “And there is still me and Lyn. What would you like to do with the afternoon?”  
“There’s the marionette show in the market?” Harry said hopefully. “We could see that?”

”I’m not sure that’s really for children.” My aunt said as we left the house, Harry running ahead of us through the snow. “But it doesn’t seem fair to say no to that too.”

The marionettes were large, string puppets that told the story of Punchinello – or so my aunt said, she was not as good as Mark as describing to me what she saw. There was a good deal of laughing and from the mutters around us, a good deal of outrageous violence between the puppets, but although my aunt was doubtful, Harry and the other children in the crowd seemed to enjoy it thoroughly. When Harry tired of the puppets we walked into Draper’s Row and the confectioners where my aunt bought several sugar mice and sweet buns at the bakers, which were strongly scented with cinnamon and raisins.  
“It’s something they might eat in the workshop while they work.” She explained to me as we walked home. “I doubt they’ll stop for a proper meal tonight. I wish the Lord Mayor would decide in good time when he wanted new plate.”  
The heat in the shop when we came in from the street was blasting: my aunt caught Harry and held both him and me close to her as we went through the workshop. There was little talking going on but a lot of noise, and Uncle James barely responded to Harry’s call about the buns or the sugar mice.  
They were still working at dinner time, although Uncle James sent Christopher to eat with us. Sarah took the buns, bread, cheese and apples through to the workshop and came back to say that eight out of the twelve cups were cast, and four to be re cast as the moulds were damaged, and that Master James needed more candles.  
At eight, when Sarah had gone home and while Aunt Anne told Harry stories and sewed in the parlour, Christopher came upstairs, hot and tired, and said Uncle James had told him he might finish now. It was past nine when the shop door opened downstairs and Harry climbed onto the windowseat.  
“It’s Caleb and Ben going home. Do you think they’ve finished?”  
“I think it’s highly unlikely.” Aunt Anne said darkly. “Most likely that your father won’t keep Caleb and Ben from their families any longer.  
“Can I see?”  
“No. You and Christopher can go up to bed. Harry now please, without scowling. Lyn, run downstairs and see if there’s anything that your uncle and Mark need.”

The dark stairs made no odds to me: I knew almost every candle in the house had been commandeered to light the workshop tonight. We would be at the chandlers in the morning to re stock, Christopher had already been sent over twice today to buy more. I stood at the foot of the stairs in the workshop, going no closer as I was well aware with the benches moved my landmarks were gone.  
“Uncle James? Aunt Anne asked me to see if there was anything you needed?”  
“It’s too hot to be hungry.” My uncle said ruefully. “Just water Lyn, please. And ale if you can find it.”

They would be wanting to wash and to drink as they worked, the heat of the fire must be hard to bear. I went through into the kitchen, safe in the knowledge that the fire in there would be dying now, and found the last of the kitchen water in its bucket, and a jar of ale. I put them just inside the door of the workshop and went back for a second jar. There would be colder, fresher water from the well in the yard, if I dared to try to find it. I opened the kitchen door, hesitating, not at all sure if it was a wise thing to do. I was still debating, and shivering in the few flurries of snow falling in the courtyard, when I heard the hunting horns.  
No longer in the distance: these were in only a street or two away. Near the stables, I could hear the stamping of unsettled horses, and the soft rattle of the bells and the lanterns in the street beyond the wall.  
“Tom?” I said softly, trembling.  
But this time there were no voices to hear. No sounds from him and my mother: I’d heard him as a child, as a young man, as a grown man going with my mother- somewhere. Who knew where. And he had never come back to Whittchurch and the goldsmith’s house until the day he died. The hunting horns sounded again, nearer and louder, as if tonight they would reach the house itself in Gold street .  
Worst of all on Holy Innocents Day Sarah had said. The souls of the unChristened, those who died violently, or under a curse, they were the ones who ran with the wild hunt. Tom had been none of those. But I’d heard him, heard him clearly, and I knew, in some way, Tom was still here in this house.

”Do you know what Tom’s commission in London might have been for Sir John?” Uncle James had asked me.  
I didn’t know. I had no way of knowing. But Tom was still here, with his commission unmet and his word broken, and the wild hunt came nearer each day. I wouldn’t allow Tom to be taken by them. Whatever he’d done, I would not wait for that.  
The noise in the workshop covered any I might have made in finding the boughs above the door. I remembered clearly what Sarah had said. Mistletoe, carried through the streets to the cathedral and laid on the altar, was a pardon for a lost soul. Tom had died bringing me here, it was the least I could do for him. I found the mistletoe by the soft berries and the smooth leaves, tucked a piece inside my jerkin and felt my way to the courtyard wall.
I could understand why Mark and Samuel had found it easy to climb: the gallery rail put you at the right height to scramble over and drop to the ground. I found myself in the street, shivering, ankle deep in snow, and it took a moment to get my bearings. The courtyard wall was to the side of the house. Following the wall took back into the familiar walls of Gold street , and from here I knew my way. Counting my steps, keeping my hand trailing against the wall, I ducked my head into the wind and began to walk.  
The wind was rising by the time I reached Bishops gate, and it took effort to move against it. The bells and lanterns rattled in the doorways as I passed them, and the wind howled in the chimneys. Behind me, in Gold street , I could hear the hunting horn, high and blasting. I clutched the neck of my jerkin tighter and followed the wall of the Bishops gate houses until the wall stopped abruptly and I knew I was in the square. At this time of night, with the market gone, there was nothing in front of me now except a wide expanse of open square with the cathedral at the other side of it. IF I didn’t lose direction or walk in circles. Leaning against the wind, I counted the footsteps across the square. Fifty two should take me to the first cathedral step.  
The horn sounded again, closer, and I quickened my pace, fumbling one hand in front of me for the step.  
Fifty. Fifty one. Fifty two. I felt around carefully. No step.  
My heart then did start to thud painfully as I realised I’d made a mistake. Something was wrong: I’d miscounted, or lost direction- I could be anywhere in the square, near to any of the streets that led from here, and I could fumble for hours before I found a landmark I knew. Trying to keep calm I took another step and felt around in a wide circle. Then another. Then another. There was nothing.

I had no idea where I was.  
The wind rushed at my back, shoving, and the horn blasted again behind me, coming into the square. I clutched at the mistletoe and braced myself, but the gust of wind still knocked me over so I sprawled in the snow, and something rushed by me and over me- a dark, howling blast of wind and shapes and voices. I was dragged by it, and flung out a hand, seeking for anything to hold on to, anything to ground myself.  
What I found was a stone step.  
Gasping on snow, I clutched it and hauled myself to my knees, struggling up the steps. Eight of them, I counted all eight as the wind howled around me, and there was the door with its heavy latch. I wrenched at it and there was the sudden warmth and light from inside as the door opened and I stumbled through.  
The cathedral was shockingly quiet inside, and I heard an alarmed voice, quick footsteps coming towards me.  
“Boy? What’s the matter?”  
“I thought I was lost.” I explained, gasping for breath as I shut the door behind me. A hand took my arm, steadying me.  
“You’re Master Armitage’s boy, aren’t you? The blind one. What are you doing out here?”  
“I had to come to the cathedral.” I said, checking the neck of my jerkin. “Where’s the altar? Please, take me to the altar?”  
He must have thought I was either touched in the head or reckless in my devotion. He was possibly right. I’d thought any time through the last five minutes that I was mad, and I’d been muttering all the prayers I knew under my breath. He took me to the altar rail and I sank to my knees in front of it, reaching out a hand. The altar cloth met my fingers, soft, embroidered, covering the altar itself. I knew the man had moved aside to let me pray in peace. I bent my head and slipped out the mistletoe, apologising silently to the cross above the altar if this was in truth pagan, but pleading for understanding- I had loved Tom, he had been all the family I had known before he brought me here, and if this would help him I would risk it. Hoping no one saw, I laid the mistletoe down on the altar and grasped my hands together, repeating over and over again.  
“For whatever he did, whatever word he broke, forgive him. Please, forgive him.”
I don’t know how long I knelt there.  
I was stirred eventually by the heavy cathedral door opening, the last of the church clock striking midnight , and the night watchman’s voice, soft to who ever had spoken to me before.  
“Excuse me your Reverence, but Master Armitage’s boy has gone from the house, there’s some tracks in the snow but the gale covered nearly all of them-“

Then Mark’s voice, urgent and overwhelmed with relief.  
“LYN. Oh thank God!”
His footfall towards me was indecently close to a run considering where we were. I got up, stiff and cold, and he grabbed my shoulders, shaking me once and hard before he hugged me. Big, warm, snow melting on his cloak and in his hair, his arms strong around me, he was the most comfort I’d felt in years.  
“What ARE you doing here? Uncle James is near distracted, we saw your tracks leave the house and then nothing more- he thought you might even have run away!”  
“Don’t scold the boy for coming to pray.” The other voice said quietly. “He’s not the first to lay mistletoe on the altar tonight and he won’t be the last. If he came alone all this way to lay it, then it was for a soul well worth the saving.”

It took me a moment to recognise the voice, and that it was the Bishop himself who’d led me to the altar tonight. It was something of a shock. I felt the man’s hand on my arm again, heavy and kind.  
“Childermass is a sacred night to me, and one I always keep vigil through. I welcome others in their vigils too. Go home now, you’ve done all you can and I am very sure it will have been enough. God bless and keep you safe boy.”       

Mark wrapped his cloak around both of us as we stepped out into the snow, and I was glad of it, realising belatedly I’d come out in nothing more than my leggings and a jerkin.  
“I heard the wild hunt.” I told Mark as we hurried across the square. The wind was dropping now, the snow swirling less violently, but I had no wish to hear any more horns. “It came on me as I was at the steps of the cathedral.”

”We all heard it.” Mark said grimly, “Although everyone will swear that it was no more than a gale and a snowstorm. You’re lucky to be alive Lyn, we might have found you frozen to death in the snow tonight. Aunt Anne came down to send you to bed, and when we found you weren’t with her nor us nor in the kitchen we had no idea as to where you’d gone. We searched the house from loft to cellar before I thought to look outside.”  
“The hunt was looking for Tom.” I said raggedly, trying to keep pace with him on the slippery ground. “Every time I’ve heard it it’s been because of Tom, I didn’t know what more to do.”

”Why would they look for Tom?” Mark said with comforting exasperation. “He was a good man, led a good life-“

”Because he broke his vow. Or he thought he did.”

I couldn’t explain any more than that. My uncle met us in Bishop’s gate, I could see the glare from the lantern he carried, and the workshop was a hot blaze of lights, Mark’s explanations, my uncle’s anxious voice and my aunt in tears. Wrapped in a blanket, drinking the hot wine I was given, my teeth were chattering too much to explain, and I thought of the night Tom had brought me here, the last night of his life, spent bringing me to this house which he thought of as home, as the ultimate place of safety, before he set off to London.  
“This is Sarah’s fault!” Aunt Anne said hotly when some account of my reasoning was collected from my shivering and Mark’s translations. “Her wretched lore and pagan curses, I could cheerfully shake her! And she’s not the only one either. Lyn if you EVER run out like that again- how COULD you go out like that, in this awful weather and no one even knowing where you’d gone-“

”I think you and Mark need to go up to bed, it’s well past midnight.” My uncle’s deep voice interrupted. “I’ll be up shortly.”

I heard the stir of them moving, then my aunt’s arm around my neck and a kiss on my forehead as firm as it was admonitory. I’d heard her kiss Harry in much the same way when he was in disgrace.  
“Sleep well, there’s no wild hunt or anything else to harm you here in this house, I promise you.”

My uncle waited until they were gone. I was sitting on Christopher’s low stool by the workshop fire, which was still blazing even now it was being allowed to die down, and my uncle was sitting on something not much higher, drawn near to me. His voice was low, but stern.  
“Not one of us knew where you’d gone, Lyn. Three night watchmen, myself and Mark were out looking for you in a gale, with your aunt in tears, for fear you’d run off-“

”I wouldn’t run off.” I said, still puzzled by where they could have got that idea. “Why would I?”

My uncle didn’t answer for a moment. Then said, still quietly,  
“I know well you’re nearly a man grown, but as a member of this family you have a duty to us. You may not leave this house without someone knowing where you’ve gone and unless I’m certain you’re safe in where you’re going, one of us goes with you. If you’d have asked tonight, any of us would taken you to the cathedral.”

That was also somewhat of a revelation, I wouldn’t have expected to have been listened to or believed.  
“I know what Tom was to you,” My uncle went on, “We all do, and any of us would have understood. It’s not even a month since you lost him, and I know too you know nothing of living in a family or accounting to others. But however much I condone the reason, Lyn, I do not condone the means. You might have died and you frightened your aunt badly.”  
“I’m sorry.” I said and meant it. “I didn’t have time to say. I heard the hunt and I realised what it meant, and I just had to go, there and then.”

”Well the next time you’re tempted ‘just there and then’, think twice.” My uncle told me gravely, taking my arm to bring me to my feet.  
He took me across his knee like a child, and I wasn’t in the least surprised. He used nothing more than his hand either, and the blows were neither many nor heavy- I’d suffered far worse from Sir John as a much younger boy- but despite myself, the tears began somewhere in those few minutes, most of them for Tom and the first I’d let fall for him. When he stood me on my feet again, I fumbled with my leggings, dragging them back into place, and scrubbed at my eyes, but once started, the tears wouldn’t stop. My uncle stood for a while, his hand heavy and warm on my shoulder, then his arm moved around me and drew me against his chest.  
“I know lad.” He said softly and more than once. “I did love him too.”  
We were all late awake on New Year Eve, the one night of the year that Harry and Christopher were allowed to stay out of their beds, and we spent it in the parlour, cracking nuts on the hearth and taking it in turns to choose songs and carols. Christopher’s father was to arrive in the morning to take Christopher home to his family in Petersford for a three day holiday, and he was excited as Harry was tired. The orders in the workshop had been finished that afternoon, I’d gone with Mark to deliver the small jewellery items while Caleb and Uncle James took the plate and cups to the town hall. I’d handled one as Mark completed it- a beautiful, full bodied thing with ornate markings on the bowl and stem. Smooth and cold, and as near as I could tell, every cup identical, which my uncle said was the mark of a good craftsman.  
Harry and Christopher were singing ‘I saw three ships’ while my aunt played her lute, trying to keep pace with them, when Mark put a hand on my arm, his voice low for my ears only.  
“I wanted to give you this tonight, instead of in the morning. Sarah told me that today was your birthday- I told no one else, I promise.”

I felt blankly at the item he’d put in my palm. It was traditional to give gifts within the family on New Year Day, something which had worried me as I had absolutely no means to make or buy anything for any member of this family: it would be easier by far if they simply left me out of the entire ritual.

Whatever it was, was small, cold, and wrapped in thin paper. I unfolded it gently, exploring it with my fingers. It was a pin, long and smooth, with two heart shapes at its head, close together. When I felt their surfaces, they were veined with the edges slightly ragged and I knew at once.  
“They’re leaves.”

” Linden leaves.” Mark said, smiling. “It’s gilted, silver. Not quite a journeyman piece, but a start. Here.”

He took it from me and I felt him push the pin through my jerkin on my shoulder.  
The knock downstairs was loud and stentorian.  
My aunt lowered her lute, breaking off in mid song, and my uncle got up, opening the window to look down into the street.  
“Good evening?”  
A man’s voice called up, deep and authoritative.  
“Master Goldsmith? I’m here on order of the king.”  
“If this is another jewellery order,” Aunt Anne said, exasperated, “He might have waited until morning! And why on earth do they need to knock like that?”

Mark ran downstairs to open the door and let the man in, and I followed him, hearing not one man but several in the street outside, and the stamp of standing horses. Mark led two of them through the dark shop and workshop and up the stairs to the warmth of the parlour, where I heard them bow to my aunt.  
“I am Sir Giles Mayhew, equerry to his majesty.” The man with the deep voice said shortly. “Your pardon for disturbing you Mistress, but I’m sent on the King’s business.”

”And what business is it?” my uncle said patiently. “If the King’s Grace requires a goldsmith’s services so urgently-“

”I am sent to search this house for master Lynden Armitage of Hartford .” The man interrupted him, and his voice was so far from friendly that I heard Harry move from his place on the hearth to his mother’s side, in a frightened scuttle. I cleared my throat, working a dry mouth.  
“I am Lynden Armitage.”  
I felt the man come closer to me, then a heavy and unfamiliar hand on my shoulder.  
“Are you here of your own will lad? Are you harmed in any way?”  
“No?” I said, startled. “And yes I’m here of my will, this is my uncle’s house!”  
“Your uncle?” the man repeated. Uncle James moved and I realised he was standing at my side, his shoulder almost against mine.  
“Anne, take Christopher and Harry downstairs.”

There was a moment of scuffling and the door closed as they left, then my uncle said forbiddingly,

”I am James Armitage, Lynden is my sister’s son. He was brought to us when his guardian died. Sir John Maberly of Hartford .”  
“By the words of Mistress Maberly, now mistress of Hartford ,” the man said dryly, “Lynden Armitage was taken from her care by force and removed to a place unknown. It’s taken near three weeks to trace him to this door.”  
“She told Tom I was to be sent to somewhere that would take ‘charitable care of me’,” I said furiously, “And Tom brought me to my uncle by night before she could! We ran away together, FROM her!”

There was another long silence, then the atmosphere in the room tangibly eased and the man who called himself Sir Giles, chuckled.  
“Well that fits much better with my own opinion of the lady, master Armitage, and it’s no small relief. It’s my belief then that Mistress Maberly realised all too late who she had her hand on, and thought best to accuse your Tom Barton – the old man? Before anyone thought to accuse her.”  
“Well if no one’s bent on arrest or accusation or continuing in the belief that my nephew is a prisoner in this house,” my uncle said acidly, “Would you gentlemen care to sit down? And take a drink?”  
“A drink would be right welcome.” Sir Giles said cheerfully. “But to business first. I am commanded by the King to proclaim to all would-be claimants and guardians to this lad, that Charles Lynden Armitage is the recognised and acknowledged natural son of Linnet Armitage and his Majesty Charles Stuart of England . And as such, Charles Lynden Armitage is granted his Majesty’s protection and wardship. This role bestowed formerly upon Sir John Maberly in his Majesty’s name.”  
I felt someone’s hand against mine and gripped it, recognising Mark’s long fingers winding tightly around mine. My uncle’s shoulder against mine hadn’t moved.  
“Are you sure that Lynden is the boy you seek? Linnet Armitage was my sister-“

”And the boy conceived at Linden House in Whittchurch in the year of our Lord, 1653.” Sir Giles confirmed.  
“The King stayed at the town hall” I remembered Sarah saying in the kitchen. Linden House was the official name of the town hall and the apartments beside it, mostly used by the mayor.  
“Linnet ran away in the company of Tom when she was sixteen.” My uncle said bleakly. “We never knew where she went or what became of her, until Tom brought Lynden here to us.”

”Linnet Armitage took the protection of the King for herself and her child,” Sir Giles said kindly. “At Hartford , one of his Majesty’s houses. The King provides well for all his children. When his Majesty received news of Sir John Maberly’s death he sent for his son to be brought to his protection at court, save that when we reached Hartford there was no sign of the boy. And from Mistress Maberly’s word we had fears that the boy had been taken against his will.”

”Are you here against your will Lyn? “ Uncle James said quietly. “Speak openly, you need not be afraid.”

”Of course I’m not.” I said indignantly.  
“Then I am commanded to offer you escort to court, or to wherever you would choose to go.” Sir Giles said calmly. “His Majesty’s wish is for you to be well cared for, in safety and content.”

”I’m happy here.” I said somewhat apprehensively. “If it’s not a charge on my uncle, he took me believing I had nowhere else to go-“

”You’re Linnet’s son and welcome here.” Uncle James interrupted. “This is your home by right.”  
“Then I’ll stay here.” I said as firmly as I dared. Sir Giles laughed.  
“Then that makes things far easier all round. I’d welcome that drink now Master Armitage, and then I’ll carry word to his Majesty that master Lynden is here and happy to be here.” Sir Giles took the seat he was offered with a sigh of comfort. “By Christ, it’s bitter cold out tonight! Three weeks we’ve been searching for you lad. A mile from Hartford your trail went cold, your Tom Barton must have spirited you away like magic.”  
“We didn’t stay at inns- only rested in the yards.” I said, remembering those three cold nights. “And we hardly spoke to anyone.”

”Aye.” Sir Giles accepted a cup from my aunt and I heard the splash of wine. “Without word at one of those inns we’d be looking still; Tom Barton must have told one at least of his direction. There was an old man came to me in the yard when we rested, two nights ago. Holy Innocents night, near enough at midnight . And he asked at once if we were looking for a blind lad, and told us to come to the Goldsmiths house at Whittchurch.”  

The men stayed for some time, and when they left, Aunt Anne and the boys came up from the kitchen, the boys full of questions. Without a word between us to agree it, not Mark nor my uncle, nor I, told them what had been said, although I knew my aunt would know of it as soon as she and my uncle were alone.  
“They just brought word from Lynden’s father.” Uncle James said in answer to the boys’ questions. “To find out where Lyn was living now.”

”Will he come and see you?” Harry asked, handing me another hazelnut to crack for him. I broke the shell and picked the nut out, handing it back to him.  
“No, he’s too far away.”  
Downstairs in the street there was a sudden shout of voices and Christopher ran for the window, shouting “It’s the tar barrel race!”  
“Oh my goodness, NOT down by the stables!” Aunt Anne said, following Christopher and Harry to the window.  
“It’s the boatmen and farriers mostly,” Mark told me, “The barrels are filled with tar and set alight, and the men run through the streets with them on their shoulders, as long as they can while the barrels burn out.”  
“They’re all wrapped in rags and the barrel’s dropping fire on the snow!” Harry shouted from the window.

”I’ve seen them do it, no one’s ever more than singed.” Mark said reassuringly. “There’ll be a bonfire down by the river at midnight , they burn the last of the barrels there.”

Uncle James hadn’t moved from his chair and I listened to his breathing. Quiet, reflective.  
“Did you know Linnet had a child when she left Whittchurch?” I asked him, softly enough for only Mark to hear other than Uncle James.  
“I suspected.” My uncle said sadly. “There were few other reasons why she would have gone without word. Or why Tom would have gone with her. He adored Linnet.”  
“And she met the King here?”  
“He was here for three days. Before the battle of Worcester .” My uncle said quietly. “Before he re took the throne. There were crowds everywhere, and I wasn’t the only one good at climbing the courtyard wall, I don’t know where she met him or how. She clearly knew where to go to find him when she knew she was with child, and she was met with sympathy. At least I know that much.”  
“Tom’s commission to London must have been to find the King and give word of where Lyn was.” Mark put in, on my other side. I remembered Tom’s words to Linnet in the street the night they must have run away.  
“I swear to God I won’t let an Armitage wander alone and their own kin not know where they are.”  
If that was the vow Tom thought he’d broken, it was a vow made only to himself, and from love of this family. Sir Giles’s voice came back to me, cheerful and matter of fact.  
“There was an old man came to me in the yard when we rested, two nights ago. Holy Innocents night, near enough at midnight . And he asked at once if we were looking for a blind lad, and told us to come to the Goldsmiths house at Whittchurch.”  
As midnight struck I’d been on my knees at the altar rail.  
I thought of the mistletoe with its white berries, laid out on the altar in the cathedral for Tom, and wondered how many others like me had quietly placed a piece there for a soul they’d loved. My fingers wandered up to the neck of my jerkin and the pin thrust through it- the two, perfect little linden leaves.  
“It’s beautiful.” I said to Mark. “Truly beautiful.”

”When I’m a master craftsman I’ll make it again in gold.” Mark said, smiling.  
There was the crash of a burning barrel thrown down outside, laughter from men in the street, and then the church bells began to strike.  
“ Twelve midnight !” the night watchman’s voice shouted from Bishops gate. “ Twelve midnight on the year of our Lord Sixteen Hundred and Seventy One! Happy New year to you all!”  
From the direction of the square music struck up and we heard the cathedral choir’s voice on the winds, carolling to the crowd gathered watching the barrel race.  
The holly bears a blossom
As white as lily flower
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To be our sweet Saviour

O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir

The holly bears a berry
As red as any blood
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir

The holly bears a prickle
As sharp as any thorn;
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
On Christmas Day in the morn.
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir
 “Quick children, run down and open the doors,” my aunt told us, “Let in the New Year!”
 Harry reached the workshop first and pelted through into the kitchen to throw that door open while Mark and I went to struggle with the heavy bolts and latches of the shop door. He finally threw it open, caught my hand and pulled me into the street with him. All in the street I could hear doors opening, the singing from the square and shouts of everyone in Gold street and across the rest of the town.  
“A merry Christmas and a Happy New year!”
~ The End ~
Copyright Ranger 2010


Anonymous said...

What a lovely story--

Swetz said...

Truly.. it's sad to let it go now, at the end. Quite an experience.

lusiology said...

A thoroughly engrossing read and I'm quite sad it's over. Why it doesn't have more comments is beyond me. It may not have been your intent, but I do wish that Lynden and Mark would have shared one Christmas kiss.

Ranger said...

Thank you :) If you enjoyed this, do try the Children of Green Knowe and The Armourer's House, it was through loving those books I was inspired to write this! Happy Christmas to you.

Alder said...

Thank you so much for this beautiful story. I loved learning about all the old Christmas traditions.

crashedwaves said...

Absolutely loved this story! The Christmas traditions and also blossoming friendship Lyn and Mark have. I do find myself yearning for Christmas time now.

Naneki said...

That was truly beautiful!

Kathy said...

I love this story so much! I always reread it when the holiday season starts to creep in. Absolutely lovely.

Hayjude said...

I have come to this story late, but thoroughly enjoyed it. Such a sweet delight.

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