STAR TAKER:UNDER THE SHADOW OF THY WINGS
Copyright © 2013 by Marian Goddard
All rights reserved
‘And in the shifting of the winds and in the clouds that are pressed into service betwixt heaven and earth, are signs for people who can understand.’
In the Year of Our Lord 1383
THE BOY PULLED the rough blanket around his bony shoulders and dreamed of hot soup, conjuring up turnips and onions and cabbage, hot and peppery, his mouth watering in anticipation. He’d already eaten the hard cheese and the two apples the driver had given him yesterday and his stomach ached with emptiness.
His cheeks burned and his thin, fine boned hands trembled from the icy draught that had settled on him like a grave shroud, but the horses galloped on, jolting and bouncing the wagon along the muddy, rutted tracks.
They were not on the main roads. He knew because he’d been sitting with his face pressed to the crack in the wood and they’d passed no one all the days they had been travelling. And now, as evening cast its solemn wintry pall like a dark shadow over the sky, he could see no tallow-light in windows; smell no hearth-fires burning.
He needed to make water but the howling of the wolves stopped him calling for relief. He could hear them now, sometimes far off, sometimes close as if they were following. In his five year old imagination, he saw their slinking grey shadows, smelled their blood soaked fur. He put his hands over his eyes and then moved them to his ears to stop the eerie, curdling sounds.
The driver had spoken not a word since giving him the cheese and apples and a swallow of bitter wine from his own skin.
It seemed to him an age ago that the old man with the long scrawny beard and watery eyes had lifted him into the foul-smelling wagon and tousled his hair. “Fear thee not, lad. The monks will take ye.” Then he’d pointed a stern finger at the darkly cloaked driver as he handed over the bag of coins, both men’s voices rising in anger as they bargained for his fare.
He’d squashed himself into the corner, retching from the stink of rotted meat that had soaked into the wood all around him. His father had not been like these two rough men. His father had been big and strong …and tender with his words.
He remembered curling up in front of their small hearth and trembling with anticipation as father spun him wondrous tales; of drinking tea with an emperor atop a painted war elephant, or riding camels in Arabia, a land with no water or trees. He’d never seen a camel or an elephant, couldn’t imagine a land with no trees, but father had made him laugh at the idea of beasts with humps and giant ears and long noses, had kept him warm with tales of faraway places, where the sun burned the ground to sand, and you could only travel at night by the light of the stars.
He could hear the horses braying as their ears pricked and their nostrils caught at the scent of danger. He understood their terror. He knew what fear was.
When he’d found a magnificent wonder of nature and been too restless and excited to sleep, his grandmother could always frighten him into obedience with her legends of the nightbeasts … About how a wolf-bitch would watch the house and if a child was being disobedient or had failed to kneel before bed to pray, she would steal in through an open window or unlocked cellar and drag the miscreant away into the night, to feed her own hungry infants.
Grandmama didn’t like him finding wonders of nature. It upset her day, she said. Little boys should learn their manners and their duties and not concern themselves with filthy vermin and even filthier peasants. But he’d lie awake in his small bed by the fireside and try to remember the feel of the velvety green caterpillar he’d found in his shoe that morning, it’s tiny black eyes shining like jewels, or the village children stick thin and starveling, their upturned faces grimed with dirt, unaware of their matted hair and bare flattened feet.
How he would have loved to play with those children, listen to their strange thickened voices, join in their games. They’d stared at him open mouthed as if he were a beautiful bird escaped from its cage or a painted puppet at the market fair.
He heard himself crying for his mother, but his sobs were lost in the rattling of harness and the beating of hooves.
Heaven was a long way from Germany; his father had told him gravely when he’d asked when she was coming home. It might take a whole lifetime before he saw her again.
A tear slid down the boy’s cheek. His mother was a distant heavenly presence, like the beautiful angel statues he’d seen in chapel, but he could still feel father’s rough whiskers on his face, still smell his warm father smell.
He wiped the tear and the memory away with a shaking hand. He was so cold and hungry and his need so urgent that he found his voice at last, thin and reedy over the rattle and bump of the wagon “ Sir, please… stop!…I have to make water…”
A sudden lurch threw him back against the hard bench and the silence of the cracking whip told him his plea had been heard. “Shut it whelp!…Shut yer trap or I’ll leave yer to the dogs! We’ll be there soon enough and there’ll be plenty of ‘oles to piss in…and hot willin’ cocks to keep yer warm.” The driver’s guttural laugh echoed through the trees, leaving him cringing in fright.
He didn’t want a new home. He wanted his home. He wanted to be back in his own home to eat hot soup and curl up like a baby in his father’s strong, warm arms.
Tears began to course earnestly down his soft cheeks now. He didn’t try to wipe them away.
There was no-one in the whole world to see them.
He’d slept restlessly, hunger pangs twisting his insides and turning fitful dreams into snatches of nightmare; wolf cubs’ tumbling and growling, fur soft and warm, their puppy smell joyous in his nostrils, oversize paws batting playfully, until their tiny sharp teeth began to gnaw at his flesh. Then the howling wolves merged with Granmama’s admonitions and he turned into meat for another’s children.
A watery light seeped in through the basketweave over his head, casting gloomy shadows in the small space. He felt chilled and sore from the journey and his head was hurting, but he realised then there was no rattling and bumping, no lightning crack of a whip to make him jump.
He pressed his face to the split in the timber but couldn’t see the driver, couldn’t hear the whinny of the horses. He pushed away the threadbare blanket covering his shoulders and climbed down on to the frozen ground. His feet were bare and icy pain crept up his legs, making his knees knock together.
The first thing he saw was an abbey looming up out of the mist. He knew it was an abbey; his father had once taken him to watch a pageant outside the walls of a place just like this, as a special Yuletide treat.
He’d sat on a high wooden bench eating hot roasted chestnuts, wrapped in a sheepswool to keep out the cold. And then the play started and baby Jesus lay in his straw in the manger, with the wise men in their jewelled robes nearby, and father laughing when he’d begged to take his lovely blanket to give to the Holy Child, because the snow had started to fall and he was all uncovered.
He could hear gentle voices singing, separate and yet blending together, a soft comforting song. It was what the monks did to call to God, father said. He hoped that if the monks were successful then God would see him too and give him something to eat.
And as the warm piddle soaked through his breeches and onto the hard wooden seat, shame welled up inside him like the tears standing in his pale blue eyes.
He heard a man calling out and then two, a gruff voice lowered in servility, wheedling and snuffling and another’s, deep and full of authority. He peered again through the cracks. The driver, horsewhip coiled in his gnarled hands, head bent in deference, stood in front of a tall man dressed in a grey, many patched monks habit.
“Driven’ all through the night I ‘ave father. And the night before. Used every bit ‘o me strength to bring the littl’un safely. Poor little mite, only a babby. And me with me own tots at ‘ome to feed and times is hard.”
He couldn’t see the monks face as he stood erect and calm, listening to the driver’s whining voice, but he heard the sharpness in his tone as he pointed an accusing finger.
“Do you think I have no eyes? I saw you whip the boy. And you have been paid already; else you would not have made this journey. Be gone with you, you foul creature or I will whip you myself!”
The driver straightened up and flicked the whip, lank grey hair falling across his pocked face, lip curled into an ugly sneer. “No money…no goods change hands. I’ve a’bin two days on the road gettin’ here. Pay me or I’ll be tekkin the cargo elsewhere.”
The monk moved closer and stood towering over the driver, and his voice rang out like a Matins bell, low and clear in the frosted morning air. “Have you no shame?”
The man hawked again and spat on his sandalled feet. “Shame? Don’t think I don’t know what goes on behind them walls and you so high and mighty? Want him for yerself ? Well pay… or the load’l be goin’ back with me.…and I’ll get a good price fer a little morsel like him.”
The monk let out a cry of rage, seized the horsewhip from his hand and lashed out in fury. The barbs caught the man below the chin, opening the flesh and causing a sheet of blood to course down his neck and onto his dirty grey jerkin. He howled in pain and reeled away.
The boy watched as the monk turned slowly toward him, still holding the handle of the whip, the lashes trailing limply on the ground.
His parched lips cracked into a smile, the first for many months. This man reminded him of his father. The strong, deep voice, the surefooted way he walked and the strength in a body that could not be hidden behind a tattered robe. And white, even teeth, smiling out of a sun burned face.
Everything about him seemed big. He could see large, flat feet encased in rough hide sandals, a thick neck and startlingly fair hair ringed around a freshly shaven tonsure. And something about his mother too, an unearthly grace he was too young to articulate. He could hear the driver cursing, but the sound was muffled and a long way off.
Wiping the snot from his nose and the tears from his swollen eyes with the edge of the dirty blanket, he clutched his small leather satchel and waited.
There were no wolves here.
Paul Andre de’ Langue felt a surge of mortification at what he’d done to the wagon driver. The outrage he felt at the vicious words burned like a brand in his guts, but his quick and unruly reaction had been unforgivable and against the rules of this Order. He could still feel the hot blood of anger coursing through his veins; still feel the sweat standing on a head he prided on keeping cool.
He had become unused to such violence, being cloistered these many years, but he had been no stranger to it once. He closed his eyes and asked forgiveness for his actions. For the sin of pride he would answer to the Almighty. The abbot’s anger he would deal with later.
The morning was cold and the ground crisp with ice as he’d crossed the path to the herbarium and that’s when he’d seen the driver strike out with his whip at a ragged bundle. It was only as he moved closer to the weather-beaten wagon that he saw it was a child. He thought perhaps it was the man’s own and walked over to rebuke him for his brutality, until he’d turned to him a pair of cloudy, slitted eyes, the almost black pupils staring malevolently out of lids crusted with sores, and said he’d been told the abbot would pay him well to deliver the boy, as his family was of the nobility.
It was then that he’d seen two tear filled blue eyes peeping through a gap in the wood.
He walked slowly toward the back of the cart making an effort to smile. He pulled aside the hide covering and there, swathed in filthy rags and trembling in the frosty air, was a small, exquisitely beautiful boy.
A thatch of badly cut blonde hair, loose fitting ragged clothes and small shoeless feet blue with cold did not go with the well-formed face, the intelligence evident in the soft blue eyes and the mannerly bearing. This was not a cringing peasant child.
He held out his hand and the boy reached to touch his, the skin clammy, the tiny fingernails edged with grime. A spot of flaming red stood out on each cheek, feverishness evident as Andre held his small hand, smiling encouragement.
The whip had been cruel. A gash ran from the top of his cheek to the bottom of his chin, blood oozing slowly from the wound. But it would mend. If miasmas and fetid air didn’t penetrate the wound.
Andre shuddered to think what else had felt the bite of that pitiless lash. The horses stood beaten and cowed, their sweat covered hides a mesh of scars, some weeping with pus, eyes dull, breathing hard and shivering with cold. He knew diseased animals like he knew diseased people. He’d spent many years ministering to the sick. These horses had been ridden almost to their death.
He shook his head in disbelief. What would possess a man to treat innocent creatures so? He looked around the dim interior. There seemed to be no food or water set for the child, no warmth for the icy winter. Yet the man said he’d driven two days and nights without stopping for rest.
Not thinking to look for telltale swellings or discoloured flesh, he gathered the small bundle in his arms and carried him from the wagon. He mounted the steps to the infirmary, wrapping the boy as best his could against the morning chill and nodded to Gaspard, the apothecary, as their eyes met with the understanding of long friendship.
“Get something warm brother, this child is near frozen to death.”
He hurried away to the kitchen for broth as Andre laid the boy on the nearest pallet and covered him with a coarse woven blanket.
He looked down into the little face and the bright eyes regarded him steadily. “What is your name, child?” The reedy, lisping voice was unwavering, the answer swiftly given, even as his lids fluttered closed with exhaustion.
“Christian sir, my father called me Christian.”
The monk laughed. “Well, many of us are Christian, young fellow. Did your father not give you another also, like Rupert, or Hermann, or Manfred?”
“Sir, my father gave me that name because he said I was a ‘magnificent wonder of nature, Just like Our Lord.” And as sleep overtook the child he said, so quietly that he had to bend close to hear “And father said I was to come here… and take up the light.”
Andre’s breath caught in his throat and his heart began to pound. These last years, alone in his cell in the darkness, his dreams… a small boy, his bright eyes blazing, carrying a beautiful, golden torch too heavy for his frail arms, but struggling to hold it aloft. Calling for help.
Calling to him.
“For just a little while” he begs. “Until I can carry it alone.”
Andre unwrapped the filthy peasant rags and saw a battered satchel held tightly against the bony chest. He pried it from the thin arms. Th
“Mistress, could you look to the boy for a little while? This poor waif surely needs the care of a good woman.” She leant over the small figure in the bed and felt the feverish brow with her quick bony fingers. Andre could see pain in the deep lines of her face, the droop of her shoulders. He’d known her before grief turned her skin grey and took the strength from her limbs. Her last son had been lost to the pox at the last quarter moon and since then she’d haunted the halls like a wraith, weeping and sighing. Seven children borne and all gone, her husband too.
“Ah, the poor little mite, ‘tis surely a loving mother’s arms he needs. Has the child no family?” The monks kept her there out of Christian charity. Women such as she were common enough in the towns, scuttling like rats in the dark alleys, dying of want and cold. The plague had left a swathe of destruction behind it as it crawled across the land, and with their menfolk dead and tithes and taxes a terrible burden, none could spare food for a useless mouth.
“I know not. But I know that with God’s will and your tender care he might live to be a hundred.”
She chuckled and showed a wide, toothless grin. “God’s will? Hah! The Almighty is too busy reaping souls in these terrible times.” She blushed at the blasphemy. “Mayhap He won’t have the time to worry about this little ’un? Mayhap hot broth and a warm blanket will have to do.” She crooned a low tune as she bent to examine the boy, wrinkling her nose and clucking in disgust at his thin arms and dirty, spindly legs.
She brushed her hand across the seeping wound. “Ugh, it’s as if the child has slept in a midden and lived on air. He’s a whisker away from starvation, poor thing. Why, he can’t be more than four or five of these dark winters past. And what has happened to him to get such a hurt as this?” Berthilda’s tears threatened to overflow onto her sunken cheeks but she wiped them away with the back of her hand and pulled the blanket up to the boy’s chin. Her eyes met his, and Andre saw for a moment the practicality of motherhood behind the sadness.