Saturday, December 8, 2018

Vast and Perilous Estates ~ How to Win a War

Plan for what is difficult while it is easy,
Do what is great while it is small.
The most difficult things in the world must be done while they are still easy,
The greatest things in the world must be done while they are still small.
For this reason sages never do what is great,
And this is why they can achieve that greatness.
Sun Tzu, The Art of War

            If ever a man loved his daughters, it was Wilfred’s father, Lord William of Northumbria. They were the delight of his life, and each one held a special place in his heart. Hilda was the eldest and was tall and willowy like her mother, Lady Elspeth. She had inherited her father’s flaming red hair, which she wore like a crown. His second daughter, Averil, was born with her father’s stocky build as well as his temperament. She loved the hunt and was as comfortable in the saddle as she was at the loom. Next was Eliva, whom Lord William called his “wood sprite.” Petite and delicate of build, she was a busy bee about the castle, pattering hither and yon, her nose in everyone’s affairs. Her hair was dark gold, with auburn highlights. The youngest was Alowyn, Wilfred’s twin sister.  She was a quiet child, having learned early on that she could never compete for attention with three older sisters and an adored twin brother. Nonetheless, she was content because her father always reserved a special place for her on his knee. 
            Had Lord William not fathered a son, he would have lived a satisfied life, but, oh how boundless was his joy when his wife gave birth to Wilfred, born a full five minutes after Alowyn was born. The three elder children, Hilda, Averil, and Eliva, quite doted on Wilfred. His designated position in the family hierarchy was that of the family pet. No child was more coddled and cooed over. Were it not for Lord William’s determined intervention, Wilfred might have grown up insufferably spoiled and selfish. During Wilfred’s childhood, Lord William often worried that his daughters might be exerting too much influence over Wilfred’s social and mental development. One event, when Wilfred was a toddler, made him nearly apoplectic.
            Lord William had been out inspecting the new foal of his favorite mare. It occurred to him that Wilfred would enjoy seeing the animal. He went to the nursery in search of his son. When he entered the room, he saw his daughters but no sign of Wilfred. He was about to ask the girls where their brother was when the words died on his lips.  His jaw dropped and his face turned purple. 
            “MORFYDD!” he bellowed.  “WHERE ARE YOU?”  The children’s nursemaid scurried from the room across the hall.
            “Yes, my lord,” she panted.
            “Where is Lady Elspeth?  Send someone to fetch her—tell her she is wanted immediately in the nursery!”  Lord William waved his arms to emphasize his point.  “AND MAKE HASTE!”
            Lord William paced back and forth in front of the door while waiting for the arrival of his wife. After a few minutes, Lady Elspeth came running down the hall, followed by Morfydd, flapping behind her like a giant bird.
            “My lord, what is it?  Has something happened to the children?” she asked anxiously.
             “Look!” he cried, gesturing wildly at the nursery. “Look at what your daughters have done to my son!”
             Lady Elspeth looked into the room. There were the children: Hilda, Averil, Eliva, and Alowyn…and Wilfred?  Lady Elspeth took a second look. Yes, it was Wilfred, but a Wilfred stuffed into one of his sister’s gowns, her best gown at that. His red hair had been braided and plaited and ornamented with every kind of ribbon, bead, and feather imaginable. His feet were encased in a pair of dainty embroidered slippers. Lady Elspeth took in the scene and laughed.
            “Oh, so it’s your son and my daughters,” she remarked dryly to her husband.
            “Well…and what are you going to do about it?” fumed Lord William.
            Ignoring him, Lady Elspeth walked into the room and over to her daughters, who were protectively grouped around Wilfred like a tableau.
            “Oh, mother,” Hilda said gushingly, “doesn’t Wilfred look beautiful?  He could be one of us girls.”          
            “You and Father have another daughter,” crowed Eliva and Averil in unison.  Alowyn said nothing but gazed adoringly at Wilfred, who beamed up at his mother with an angelic smile.  Then all of the girls crowded around Lady Elspeth and began speaking at once.
            “At first we tried one of Alowyn’s gowns but it was too small.” 
            “Eliva said we could use one of her gowns but they were also too tight around the chest, you know.” 
            “But we managed to get him in Averil’s best gown, although it was too long in the arms and legs so we had to tuck in the ends.” 
            “The hair took the longest to do—most of the morning, I expect.” 
            “I did the beads.” 
            “Isn’t this a nice braid, Mother?  It was ever so complicated.  But it was worth it.”           “So what do you think?  Maybe he could dress this way at the next feast.” 
            “I wanted to put in the purple ribbon but Hilda said that’s only for royalty, but I said that Wilfred is royalty.”
             “Mother, why is Father’s face so red?”
            Lady Elspeth gathered her brood in her arms and kissed each upturned face.
            “Girls,” she said, “I think you did a lovely work on Wilfred. You have shown remarkable good taste. However, Father would like Wilfred to be put back the way he was.  Now, now (this to the sound of groans), I know you made a great effort, but Wilfred needs to wear his own clothes. And please unbraid his hair.”
            Turning to her husband she asked, “Will that suffice?” 
            At her words, Lord William was ashamed of his temper. The last thing he wanted was for his daughters to avoid company with his son. There was no harm in them; they were only playing at what they knew. Nonetheless, if Wilfred were to inherit the title of Lord of Northumbria, he would have to learn things beyond the nursery. That day, Lord William decided it was time to introduce Wilfred to the world of men.


            Almost ten years later, Lord William was pleased to see his son surrounded by his brothers—a decided contrast to his life among his sisters. He glanced their way and was surprised to see Hilda, Averil, Eliva, and Alowyn looking longingly at Wilfred and casting baleful looks at Rhino, Elbert, Trevor, and Skandar. 
            By the Light, they are jealous, he thought. William pitied his girls. Wilfred had been their world for many years but as of late, his world had grown larger. He now walked a path divergent from theirs, and his sisters grieved his departure.
            The brothers had arrived in York the previous day, after a four-month sojourn in the province of Essex. While they were there, Skandar and Wilfred both celebrated their twelfth birthdays. Their stay in Northumbria would coincide with the winter training exercises for the knights, soldiers, and volunteers who safeguarded Albion. The lads were excited about the exercises and had high expectations for their part in them. Sir Arlan and his knights had accompanied the prince and his brothers and would oversee their participation in the war games. Father Caril had also made the journey to York; he was in charge of the brothers’ religious instruction and intended on making the most of it. During their journey, Father Caril happened to catch bits and pieces of conversation among the boys. He was shocked by what he overhead and he decided that there was no time to lose—their souls were clearly in danger of hellfire.
            “Hilda, get the girls and come join us,” called Wilfred, motioning and waving at his sisters.  “Come and meet my brothers.  Come on, now; it will be great fun.” 
            Hilda and Averil exchanged looks and then took Eliva and Alowyn by the hand and threaded their way through the tables to where Wilfred sat with his brothers.
            “Well, now, ain’t this a fair sight!  Four sisters and four brothers! A regular army, that’s what it is. Rhino, Trevor, Skandar, Elbert, this is Hilda, the oldest, Averil, the second oldest, Eliva after her, and my twin, Alowyn.”  Wilfred proudly made the introductions.  The girls curtsied as they had been taught, and the boys bowed like they needed more practice. Then both parties proceeded to stare at one another in silence.
            “What’cha lookin’ all frog-eyed for?  Sit down and have some food.” Wilfred grabbed Alowyn’s arm and plumped her down next to him.
            “Wilfred, where are you manners?” said Elbert. He walked over to the girls and bowed.  “Well met, ladies.  Would you allow us the honor of your company?” 
            So saying, Elbert offered his hand to Hilda and escorted her to the nearest chair, which he pulled out for her. Then he looked pointedly at Wilfred. The other boys leaped up with alacrity and followed suit, offering one of the girls an arm and an escort until all were comfortably seated.
            “Thank you,” said Averil. “I think Wilfred could learn something from you—like how to treat a lady.”
            “Lady!” snorted Wilfred. “You lot are my sisters.”
            Ignoring him, Averil turned to Rhino. 
            “Your Royal Highness,” she began but was interrupted by Elbert.
             “My lady, I beg your pardon for interrupting, but there are no titles among us.  Isn’t that true, Rhino?” he said.
            “Yes, that is true,” answered Rhino.  Addressing himself to Averil, he said, “You may call me Rhino. This well-mannered prig (jabbing Elbert in the stomach) is Elbert.  Now, you were saying?”
            Averil preened herself while Hilda smothered a laugh. 
            “I was going to ask, ‘Rhino’, if you are looking forward to the training exercises.  I have seen them myself and I can assure you they are very exciting to watch.”
            “I am certain they will be. However, my brothers and I are going to be taking part in the exercises, so we may not have time to see all of them,” drawled Rhino. “It will be tough going, I can tell you that. I almost envy you having the opportunity to merely watch them. At least that way, you are assured of leaving the field unscathed.”  He looked at the other boys who nodded their heads.
            Averil looked annoyed and made as if to retort when Hilda intervened. She smiled sweetly at Rhino.
            “With all your knights protecting you, I am sure you and your brothers will play the war games in peace and safety. After all, who would allow any of you to be in real danger? Why, it could mean someone’s head if you were damaged.”
            Her words provoked a flood of protests from the boys. What did she mean, no danger?  Didn’t she know these games were serious?  Of course, they are going to get knocked about. What can you expect from my sisters? (The last comment came from Wilfred).
            Rhino raised his hand. 
            “Brothers and ladies,” he said. “It seems that there is a difference of opinion between us. We lads hold that the war games are a dangerous exercise for all who participate in them, including us. Wilfred’s sisters seem to think that our part in them is merely play-acting. Have I stated it correctly, ladies?”
            Averil and Hilda looked at each other and then at Eliva, who nodded vigorously.    “Yes!” they said in unison. 
            “Then I suggest a wager to settle it,” said Rhino. “If we return from the winter camp with cuts and bruises, then you will acknowledge your error in thinking them safe.  If, however, we return without a scratch, then we will bow to your superior wisdom.  What do you say, lads?”
            “I don’t rightly know as that’s a fair wager,” replied Wilfred.  “O’ course, we’ll come back bloodied; there’s no help for it. My sisters might be ignorant, but I’ll not have them took advantage of.”
            To which Eliva replied, “It most certainly is unfair. What assurance do we girls have that you boys won’t inflict bruises on yourself before you return? After all, we’ll not be there to witness.”
            “My lady,” puffed Elbert, “are you implying that we would behave so dishonorably?”
            Eliva, Hilda, and Averil made no response but rolled their eyes. Alowyn looked scared out of her wits.  Hilda shook her head. 
            “It’s no good trying to prove your bravery at winter camp where you are so closely guarded; Sir Arlan will keep you from harm, even from yourselves. I propose a private war between us, here at York. After you return from the training camp, we will pick a day to wage battle, the girls against the boys, through the streets and byways of the town. Whoever subdues the enemy are the champions. Agreed?”
            Rhino paused a moment and said, “I want to confer with my brothers for a few minutes.”  Then he, Trevor, Elbert, Wilfred, and Skandar left the table and huddled together at the other end of the room. In their absence, Alowyn immediately turned to her sisters.
            “Have you taken leave of your senses?” she said. “What on earth compelled you to make such a challenge? What were you thinking? This is madness. We shall surely be humiliated in defeat. Oh, Hilda, you are such a bother!”
            “Hush!” whispered Hilda. “You do not suppose that I would have struck such a deal without a plan. For all their arrogance, they are only boys. They do not know…never mind.  Keep still. Here they come.”
            The brothers returned and bowed. 
            Rhino said , “Ladies, we accept your challenge. So be it. On the day after we return from winter camp, we will have a war through the streets of York. The army that captures its foe will be declared the victor.”
            “And just to make it fair, we will use no forged weapons.  Alright, lads?” said Trevor.
            “Just so!” they all agreed. 
            Then the enemy combatants shook hands and sat down to enjoy the rest of the feast. Lord William noticed the gesture and remarked to Lady Elspeth, “It looks as though the young ones are getting on well.”


            It was the week before the departure to winter camp for the training exercises.  Knights, soldiers, and squires, bowmen, merchants, artisans, and peasants were daily arriving at York and reporting to Sir Coenred, Lord William’s master at arms. The brothers eagerly awaited each new arrival, which underwent a thorough inspection under their critical eyes. Thus it was that one day, Skandar spied a familiar face among the newcomers. He walked over to him and held out his hand in greeting.
            “It’s Finn, isn’t it? Your mother is Beryl, the woman who healed me at the inn.  You’re Amalia’s cousin.”
            Finn clasped Skandar’s hand warmly.
             “Lord Skandar, well met,” the young man replied. “How came you here?”
            “My brothers and I are participating in the training exercises…and by the way, its just Skandar—no title yet.”
            By this time, the other boys had made their way to where Skandar was talking with Finn.
            “Hoy, lads, this is Finn. Remember my telling you about the rash I got from the stinging nettles? Well, it was Finn’s mother that took care of me. Finn, these are my brothers:  Rhino, Elbert, Wilfred, and Trevor. Wilfred’s father is William, Lord of Northumbria.”
            The boys all shook hands with Finn.
            “So, Finn, what brings you here to York?” Skandar asked. 
            “I am here for the war games.”
            “But why would you want to join in the games? Don’t you have responsibilities at home?”
            Finn smiled.  “I would not be here if I did not consider this one of my responsibilities. But see here now, I would be glad to give an account of myself but not standing about in the street. I must go presently and report to the master at arms and find out where I am assigned.  Would you care to join me later at the soldier’s quarters?  There we could swap tales at our leisure. I could tell you why I am here and you could tell me all that has befallen you since you left the inn. That is, if you are willing.”
            The boys were more than willing and agreed to meet Finn later in the evening.

            The Proud Rooster rang with loud laughter that night. The local folk turned their heads several times to smile at the five youths and their companion. Finn was nearly in tears at the riotous account of the brothers’ sojourn in Essex among the brine pits. While in Essex, the boys also worked at the ceramic kiln, the tanning works, and the refuse pile.  Skandar was concluding his anecdote of a near disaster at the tanning works.
            “…and when I opened my eyes I saw four faces bending over me.  ‘What happened?’ I asked.  Trevor burst into tears and cried, ‘he’s alive!’  Wilfred pulled me into a suffocating embrace and Rhino and Elbert sat back, looking greatly relieved. All in all, I think I got away with only a few scratches and a large bump on the side of my head.  But I tell you, Finn, those tanning drums are not the fun I imagined they would be.  Rolling in a barrel might be a bit bumpy, but at least it eventually stops. That tanning drum spun me around for ever so long—I do not recommend it.”
            “I will follow your recommendation. I always thought Amalia was a great one for getting into scrapes but I think you have her beat,” laughed Finn.
            “Well enough,” said Skandar. “Now, Finn, you have heard our tales; now tell us yours. Why have you come to the training exercises?”
            “Do you want the long or the short version?”
            “Oh, the long one, by all means,” said Trevor.
            “Well, lads, the long version begins with the legend of Cincinnatus.  Have you heard of him?”
            Five heads shook no in response.
            “Well then,” said Finn, settling himself more comfortably, “It was early in Rome’s history before the time of the emperors when Rome was fighting with two nearby peoples called the Aequi and the Volsci.  he Aequi were about to invade the city, so the Roman officials sent a message to Cincinnatus that he had been appointed commander of the military. Legend says that when the message came to Cincinnatus, he was plowing a field on his farm.  Although he had no taste for war and conquest, Cincinnatus recognized his duty.  He left his plow that day and took charge of the army. His military strategies and tactics won him a victory and secured Rome. After he defeated the enemy, he marched his army back to Rome and then returned to his farm. His entire campaign lasted sixteen days.”
            “Cincinnatus is an example of someone who does what he must to safeguard life and peace. He sought neither glory nor political power; he did what he had to do for his three acres of land. While no one is asking me to be a commander or even a foot soldier, I still recognize my duty to protect Albion and my small parcel of it. That is why most of the volunteers come here to the training. We are not paid or coerced or threatened. Love compels us. The love I bear for my father, my mother, and my sister demands that I do what I can to protect them.”
            “In this the authors of the covenant showed a fair amount of wisdom. They knew that when a man is allowed his own bit of earth to work and sweat over, he would establish roots that spread in an ever-widening circle to the land around him. That is why there are no vast estates belonging only to the nobles; neither is there the hateful and hated ‘Forest Law’ that plagues other countries. The precepts of the covenant forbid it.  Whether I fight for my land or fight for Albion, it’s all one to me.”
            “You lads have been seeing what it is like to live by calloused hands and bent back. Those that labor for that which they love will swear fealty to the lord that lets them do so in peace. So as long as I, and others like me, can stand in our own place on our own feet, then the king will always have loyal hearts and strong bodies ready for his service.”
            Rhino felt humble before the nobility in this simple, honest man. It was men like him that he was going to rule; he felt overwhelmed by the prospect. Would he be worthy? 
            “You honor us by your presence here,” he said. “I hope to learn more from you while you reside at winter camp.  Do you know other tales of history or stories of battles?  I am sure my brothers join with me in wanting to hear more.”
            “Oh, yes, please, tell us more.” The boys clamored.
            Finn smiled and nodded.  “If it please you, I am sure we can find some time around a friendly fire. I have been to these war games the last two years and can assure you, a tale or two is always welcome. Perhaps Trevor can be persuaded to sing. From what you have said, his voice is worth a hearing.”
            Finn and the boys continued in pleasant conversation for another hour. They were unaware that they were being closely observed by one of the patrons who sat in the shadows of a back corner. Hooded and cloaked to hide his priestly robes, Father Caril watched them in dismay. Earlier in the day, Father Caril had been at the gates of the city to see the new arrivals for the training exercises. He noticed Skandar shaking hands with one of the newcomers. Curious, he moved closer for a better look. As he gently probed Skandar’s thoughts, the priest had a swift vision of a woman with healing herbs at the inn. The wise woman, Beryl! From what he could gather of Skandar’s mind, the young man appeared to be her son; he was one of the villagers. Father Caril felt the familiar and hated sense of a power beyond his own. It disturbed him to see Skandar on such easy terms with the young man, but when Caril saw the other boys, Trevor, Elbert, Wilfred, and Rhino shake hands with the man, he was incensed. That such a one might influence the prince and his brothers was not to be borne.
            He lingered long enough at the gates to learn that the young man, whom Skandar addressed as Finn, had arranged a rendezvous with the boys for the later that evening.  Father Caril determined that he would be there also. Thus it was that he found himself at the Proud Rooster, alone at a quiet table, undisturbed by no one except an occasional servant to replenish his tankard. Father Caril did not have to sit close enough to hear the actual conversation; he could perceive their thoughts well enough. That is, he could discern the thoughts of Rhino and his brothers. The mind of Finn was as closed to him as any of the villagers. At the thought of this, Caril’s gorge began to rise. How he despised this feeling of powerlessness! 
            But I am not entirely powerless. I have the gift of God and the office of the priest and the support of the Archbishop. I also have the power of the pulpit. 
            Father Caril determined to sow the seeds of doubt and distrust at the very next church service.


            Wilfred had scarcely tumbled into bed that night when the door to his room opened, and someone stole quietly into the room. 
            “Hoy!  Who’s there?” called Wilfred.
            “It’s me, Freddie,” whispered Alowyn, bounding on the bed. “Quiet, please.  I don’t want anyone to hear.”
            “Wynnie! I am so glad to see you. I ain’t seen you in ever so long.”  Wilfred hugged his sister. Being twins, Wilfred and Alowyn were especially fond of one another.  “What are you doin’ here?”
            “Oh, Freddie, it’s just been awful since you went away. I have been that lonely without you. And now you come back and you’re with those…those boys all the time.”  At this, a small sob escaped Alowyn.
            “There, there, love. It’s all right as rain. You still got me and four more brothers besides.  It will be like before, only better.  You’ll see.”
            “But I don’t see. How can it be like before you left when the first thing you do when you come back is go to war against your sisters? How can you do such a thing?”  The small sob turned into a torrent of tears.
            Wilfred gulped. Now what sort of fool thing was this now? He clumsily patted his sister’s shoulder. 
            “And it’s five against four!” Alowyn wailed. “I’ll be murdered!”
            “Hush, Wynnie, hush. Do you want to wake the whole mucky town? See here now, if it will ease your mind, I’ll ease off the battle. I mean, who’s to say a fellow has to make war against his own sisters? When the time comes, I’ll just wander off until it’s over. I’ll even help you hide, if you like.”
            “Would you, Freddie?” Alowyn’s eyes were shining. “You always were such a good brother to me. Remember how you used to protect me when Hilda and Averil tried to order me around?”
            Wilfred grinned at the memories.
             “Aye, I do,” he said.  “Now don’t you worry about this here war. I’ll take care of you.”
            Alowyn gave him a kis,s and the two of them settled in for a good talk. And hour later, Alowyn peeked out the door of her brother’s room. The hall was deserted. She hurriedly tiptoed back to her own room. 
            One down, three to go.

            The next morning, Averil approached Skandar at breakfast, where he was sitting with the Trevor. Rhino and Elbert had left with Wilfred, who was going to show them the stables and the kennels. 
            “Good morning, Skandar. Good morning, Trevor,” she said. “I was wondering if you would like to visit the armory. Sometimes one of the engineers is there, constructing model of war machines.  It’s really fascinating to watch them at work.”
            Skandar immediately leaped from his seat, ready to go. War machines! He turned to Trevor, who looked decidedly unenthusiastic.
            “Come on, Trev. It will be great fun,” he pleaded. 
            “Skandar, I have learned that you and I have different ideas about what is fun,” was Trevor’s rejoinder. “I prefer to wait here at the castle until you and the others return.”
            “Trevor,” said Averil, “you do not have to wait here alone. My sister, Eliva, is in the garden and would be ever so glad for your company.  If you walk with us, I can point it out to you.”
            “I accept your offer.”
            Averil walked arm-in-arm with Trevor and Skandar out of the room.

            Trevor followed the path Averil showed him and followed it to a small, curiously wrought gate. He tested the gate and found it swung open easily. When he stepped inside, he drew his breath. What an exquisite place it was!  A reverent silence hung in the air as if the flowers and trees themselves dare not disturb the serenity of their environs with an untoward thought. So profound was the silence that Trevor was startled to discern the sound of a voice on the breeze. He followed the sound until it led to a fragrant bower.  Sitting on a grassy knoll was Eliva, humming a quiet melody. At Trevor’s appearance, she ceased.
            “I beg your pardon, my lady. I did not mean to disturb you. Your sister, Averil, directed me here; otherwise I would have never invaded your privacy.” At these words, Trevor made as if to leave.
            “Oh, no, Trevor, you have not disturbed me. Pray, please stay.”  Eliva accompanied her invitation by a light touch on Trevor’s arm. Greatly pleased with the situation, Trevor seated himself on the grass beside Eliva.
            “This is a beautiful garden,” he said.  “And that was a beautiful melody you were singing.  Pray, what is it?
            “It is the story of a noble lord who lived in the early days of Albion. Would you like to hear it?”
            Trevor nodded enthusiastically. This was much better than listening to a boring lecture on engineering.
            Eliva smiled and began.
            “Once there was a brave and noble knight, a mighty lord of the land who was never defeated in battle. He could wield any weapon formed, be it bow, knife, spear, or sword. It was whispered that a goddess had enchanted his right hand so that it would overcome any foe. Men flocked to his banner for the honor of standing by his side in battle.”
            “One day, as he was sitting at meat, a messenger came to him with a challenge from the king across the water. 
            ‘I defy you this day to meet me in combat,’ the messenger said. ‘Come and fight against me in the designated place. If you defeat me, then I will give you all that I possess, even to my life. If I defeat you, then all that you possess will be mine, even to your life.’
            “The knight arose at once and sent his acceptance of the challenge. It was agreed that they would meet seven days from hence on the battle plain. On the day of the combat, the knight and his men at arms went to the battle plain to meet the challenger.  They spied him from afar and dismounted from their horses to wait. The challenger rode up and fell from the saddle. He staggered over to the knight and knelt before him with his head bowed. 
            ‘Oh noble knight,’ he said. ‘I have come to forfeit the combat and my life. Alas, I cannot fight you.’  At these words, the challenger showed the knight his hand, which he had cradled to his breast. His hand was wrapped in a bloody bandage.”
            ‘What is this,’ cried the knight.  ‘How came you to be in such a state?’
            ‘It was an accident,’ the unfortunate man replied. ‘I was sharpening my sword when the stone caught roughly. My hand slipped on the blade, and it cut off one of my fingers. I can neither bend a bow nor wield a sword with only four fingers. I must admit defeat and cry you mercy.’
            The knight was distressed. Although he was quite willing to lop off the fellow’s head in combat, he could not accept the terms of such an unworthy victory.  After a few moments thought, he drew his sword and cut off one of his own fingers.
            ‘Now,’ he said. ‘You and I are evenly matched, four against four. Let us have our combat.’
            “And so it was that the knight and his challenger met in combat. They were so evenly matched that the battle lasted for days. Eventually, the knight called for a truce.         ‘For, in truth”, he declared’, I have never before met such a worthy foe. Loth I am to defeat you. Let me be your brother instead.’ The challenger agreed and he and the knight swore fealty to each other from that day forth.”
            Trevor was much moved by the tale. It resonated with his keen sense of justice and fair play. He sat with Eliva in silence, reflecting on the story. After a while, he took leave of her and went to his room—he needed to think!
            Two down, two to go.


            The armory was a bustling place, full of weapons and tools. Bellows continually drew breath, and anvils rang throughout the day and sometimes into the night. Behind the armory was a large hangar, which housed catapults, trebuchets, and war wagons. Averil led Skandar through the main building and past the hangar to a smaller building next to it.  This was the workroom of Lord William’s engineers and architects. On the walls were floor-to-ceiling shelves that displayed all sorts of scale models. Skandar’s fingers itched to pull one off the shelf and examine it. Along one wall was a long bench full of hammers, awls, saws, knives, and other tools used by the designers. Averil walked straight to the workbench and began handling the various materials and implements on display.
            “What are you doing,” asked Skandar. “Are you looking for something particular?  Perhaps we should go back and look on the shelves.”
            “Oh, I already know what is on the shelves, but you may go there if you wish.  I need to find something here.”
            “What is it?  Maybe I can help.”
            Averil regarded Skandar with a slight frown. “I don’t know if that would be fitting.”
            “Why not?”
            “Well…it’s like this. I am trying to find something that will help us girls when we have our battle with you boys. I know that forged weapons are not allowed, but I was thinking that maybe there was something else I could use. After all, it is five of you against four of us. So it seems doubly unfair if I find a weapon to use, and you use it also.”
            Skandar was taken aback. He never quite thought of the numbers involved. He was conflicted. On one hand, he longed to get his hands on some of the tools and make something interesting with Averil. On the other hand, he wanted to support his brothers.  But on the other hand, what good was a victory unless it was achieved fairly? After a few minutes, Skandar made up his mind.
            “Lady Averil,” he said, “what if I do not actually join in the battle? Then it would be four against four. Would you still consider it unseemly if you and I both made an instrument of war, if I did not actually use it?”
            Averil smiled and clasped Skandar by the hand. “I think that’s a splendid idea.”
            Averil and Skandar spent the remainder of the morning designing and making a wonderful contraption, which they used later to frighten the birds. 
            Three down, one to go.


            Father Caril surveyed the congregants before him. Lord William and Lady Elspeth were in the front pew along with their daughters. Behind them sat Rhino, Wilfred, Skandar, Trevor, and Elbert. Caril searched the crowd for the face of Finn and was disappointed to discover that he was not in attendance at mass. Father Caril’s sermon was especially intended for his ears.  He opened his text and read these passages from the writings of Saint Paul.
            “’Finally my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.’”  When he finished the reading, he admonished his audience.
            “I say to you, that the words of Paul the apostle are as true today as they were when he first wrote them. We must always be on our guard at all times for the enemy is very subtle and disguises himself as a friend. Beware, I say, for unless you shun friendship with the devil and all who hold to his ways, you cannot be worthy of anything less than the damnation of hell.”
            His sermon continued at length along this theme. The boys began to get bored and started counting the days when they would get to winter camp and the war games.  Elbert, however, listened attentively and with growing concern.  Thanks to his mother’s teaching, Elbert thought if the devil had a name it would be E-l-b-e-r-t. While the others were growing restless, Elbert decided that he had better remain after the service to pray.  When the congregation was dismissed, Elbert mumbled something about a rock in his boot and waved the other boys on. Then he addressed himself to kneel.
            However, he discovered that he was not alone in the chapel. One of Wilfred’s sisters had also remained behind. It was the lovely auburn-haired one, Hilda. Elbert felt a sensation of delight intermingled with his feelings of damnation. Her regal head was now bowed before him; he could see the back of her neck and the tiny ringlets of hair that escaped from her braid. Elbert cleared his throat to announce his presence. At the sound, Hilda raised her head and looked about. Seeing Elbert, she smiled hesitantly and then lowered her head, blushing.
            “I beg your pardon, my lady, for startling you,” said Elbert. “I will be on my way.”
            “Please do not remove yourself on my account,” Hilda replied.  “This chapel is open to all who wish to seek solace and guidance…or repentance.” Hilda looked troubled.
            “Lady Hilda, what is it that disturbs you?  If I may, I will offer what comfort I can.”
            “You are most kind. However, if anything, I must seek your forgiveness. Oh, Elbert, how could I have been so foolish as to agree to a war between you and your brothers and me and my sisters! I can only confess that my actions were the result of pride. How right was Father Caril in warning us against the wiles of the devil. Why, I do believe it was the wicked one that tempted me to make such a wager. What person in a sound frame of mind would agree to a battle in which one was outnumbered five to four?  I can only hope that the upcoming humiliation will serve as a warning against future arrogance.”
            At her words, Elbert felt immediately convicted of conduct unbecoming. Lady Hilda was right in pointing out the unevenness of the combat. Could he with a clear conscience take advantage of the situation? Would God be on his side in this undertaking? Elbert knew the answer almost as soon as the question was formed. His prolonged silence prompted Hilda to speak.
            “Oh, dear, I am afraid I have offended you. How can I even think of our small battle when I should be mindful of the great spiritual warfare being waged even as we speak?  It seems unfitting to think of wrestling against flesh and blood when all Christians should have their minds fixed on the heavenly battle. I must truly repent.”
            Elbert had been listening to her words with increasing agitation. At length he burst forth.
            “Lady Hilda,” said he, “I, too, have been guilty of attending to the things of the earth rather than the things of heaven. In good conscience, I cannot join in the battle with my brothers. Better it would be to face their disappointment than incur the wrath of God.”
“Perhaps we should pray for wisdom and guidance…together,” suggested Hilda.  Elbert agreed whole-heartedly.

The battle was won!

Next Week: How to Say Farewell

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Vast and Perilous Estates ~ Why Hedgehogs Need Names

Serenely let us move to distant places
And let no sentiments of home detain us.
The Cosmic Spirit seeks not to restrain us
But lifts us stage by stage to wider spaces.
If we accept a home of our own making,
Familiar habit makes for indolence.
We must prepare for parting and leave-taking
Or else remain the slaves of permanence.
– Herman Hesse, The Glass Bead Game

            Franna, Lammet, and Amalia were making preparations for baking day at the inn. They had just finished setting out the pans and flouring boards when Anna pattered into the room. 
            “I want to help, too,” she declared.  She ran over to the sack of flour on the floor and attempted to drag it over to the table.
             “Anna,” exclaimed Amalia, hastening over to her sister, “You may help only if you promise to do as you’re told and not get underfoot. Isn’t that correct, Mother?”
            “Yes, dear.” replied Franna.  Turning to her younger daughter she said, “Anna, attend to Lammet and Amalia; they will tell you what do to. We have several dozens of loaves to bake.”
            With that, the women fell to their task. Franna opened the bag of flour and began measuring it into the bowls.  Lammet and Amalia added the warm water, the leaven, sugar, lard, and salt in each bowl.  Lammet showed Anna how to mix the ingredients with her hands until it formed a sticky mass of dough.  Franna scooped a large measure of flour onto the table, which the women added to the dough to make it easier to work with.  Amalia helped Anna with her dough until it was suitable for kneading. 
            “Now, Anna,” said Amalia, “you need to knead the dough until it is smooth and shiny.”
            Anna laughed. 
            “We need to knead,” she sang.

            “Over and under, around and around,
            We need to knead; we need to pound.
            With fingers and thumbs, with hand and with fist,
            We need to knead through shadow and mist.
            In sunlight and moonlight, by night or by day,
            We knead to work and we knead to play.
            Now pat it and slap it; now push and shove,
            We need to knead like we need to love.”

            The women laughed and joined in singing Anna’s little song. The time passed quickly and soon the inn was filled with the aroma of baking bread.  It was late in the evening when the last batch of loaves was removed from the stone oven and placed in the pantry to cool. They were all tired but pleased with their labors. Anna stayed with the task to the end and was now comfortably asleep in a chair. Amalia smoothed a stray hair from Anna’s cheek and kissed her forehead.  Her simple action, sprung from love, gave Amalia pause.
            How long has it been, she thought, since I shared my time with Anna or with Cyril? In her mind, Amalia saw her life as a gently rising curve, increasing in steepness in imperceptible degrees. Indeed, so gradual was the slope it defied detection unless viewed from a great distance. Once she was a young child, and once she was an older child, but still a child.  However, due to the events of the last few months she was a child no longer. The gentle slope had become a daunting mountain. Time held her, and in its fierce chains, bound her to the ascent. She felt that in her journey, she was leaving Anna and Cyril behind. 
            The inn had a fair amount of guests in the waning days of summer. Merchants were making final rounds with their wares and farmers were gathering stores before the winter. Amalia worked at the inn every day, mostly in the common room with Lammet. Under Lammet’s skillful supervision, Amalia was growing adept at serving tables. Moreover, she was learning how to make each guest feel welcome and how to attend to their needs without making the guests feel like a bother. Even when a visitor was rude or surly, Amalia found ways to deflect their bad temper. After a while, Amalia grew so proficient at her task that her resilient cheerfulness overcame any disagreeable tempers.  She never forgot her vision of the multitude of sad and lonely people and was determined to show kindness to each person she encountered.  Without her realizing it, Amalia’s spirit was taking her to the next level of growth—to love the unlovable. 

            The night of her twelfth birthday, Amalia had a teaching dream. In it she was in the forest sitting under a weeping willow tree. The leaves in the branches overhead swayed in time to a playful breeze and once in a while, dropped a kiss in the form of a leaf on Amalia’s head. Her reverie was suddenly disturbed by the sound of a low grunt. The sound came from behind the tree so Amalia peered around its trunk. She spied a hedgehog grubbing for snails at the base of the tree.
             “Hullo,” she said, “My name is Mole.” 
            At the sound of her voice the hedgehog jumped back, its spines stiff and menacing.
            “I don’t care to know your name. I will not be tamed. Now leave me be!” it said.
            “I have no intention of taming you.  I just want to be your friend.”
            “Well see here; you are not my friend and will never be,” growled the hedgehog, and with that, it plunged into the forest.
            Amalia shrugged and settled herself back against the tree. Presently she heard the coo of a dove. As she watched in wondering delight, a small grey dove fluttered down from the willow tree and landed in Amalia’s lap. 
            “Well met,” said Amalia.  My name is Mole.”  The dove spread its wings in an embrace.
            “Well met, indeed.  My name is Dove.  Thank you for the use of your lap; it is very comforting.”
             So saying, the dove cooed in appreciation and settled itself in the folds of Amalia’s skirt.  It nestled its tiny head against Amalia’s hand, and she responded by caressing its satiny feathers with infinite tenderness. Amalia and Dove passed the hours in contentment until Dove stretched its wings.
             “I must fly away now as I have other willows in my care,” it said.  It gave Amalia a fairy kiss with its beak and flew away.
            “Oh,” said Amalia to herself, “That was a much nicer encounter than with the hedgehog.  I wonder what happened to it?”  Her words were barely uttered when Amalia heard a low growl. Out from a bush sprang the hedgehog, snarling and bristling.
            “Are you still here?” it said. “Don’t you have anywhere else to go besides this willow tree?”
            “I do have anywhere else to go, and I have everywhere else to go, but it happens that right now, I am here at the willow tree. My name is Mole, by the way.”
            “And, by the way, I care nothing for your name. I will not be tamed, I said. Leave me in peace!”
            “As to that,” said Amalia, “I was here long before you arrived so if you leave you will be left in peace.”
            “I WILL be left in peace!” roared the indignant animal.  It crashed through the underbrush, tossing up clods of dirt and moss in its haste.
            At this, Amalia scrambled to her feet as if to pursue the mad creature and then thought better of it.  Before she sat down again, she shook the folds of her skirt and brushed her fingers through her hair to rid herself of bits of dirt and moss.
             “What a mess!” she exclaimed. “I hope I’ve seen the last of that fellow. Now, where was I? Oh, yes. I was having a bit of a thought under this willow tree.” 
            Amalia sat down again and closed her eyes. The willow entertained her with its amusing stories; it wept with laughter. Amalia laughed, too, through her tears. Suddenly she felt something soft brushing her arm. She opened her eyes and beheld a rabbit snuggling against her. But such a rabbit! Its fir was silky and the color of grey with faint highlights of blue. Its dark eyes bespoke intelligence and knowledge born of experience.  Without hesitation, Amalia introduced herself.
            “Good day,” said she. “My name is Mole. I am so pleased that you have chosen to abide for a while.”
            “Good day to you also,” said the rabbit.  “My name is Rabbit. I am pleased to abide by your side. Together we can listen to the willow tree’s stories.”  Rabbit put its head on Mole’s lap.
            “Oh, by all means,” replied Amalia.  
            And so it was that Amalia and Rabbit passed the time in conversing with the willow tree and weeping at its stories. After a while Rabbit twitched its ears and took its leave. 
            “I have other willows to attend to and must go my way.” 
            Amalia bent her head so that Rabbit could touch her nose with its nose. Then it trotted away.
            No sooner had Amalia said goodbye than she heard a deafening roar. It was the hedgehog, snarling and hissing and digging its claws through the dirt.
            “YOU!” it said. “You persist in being here; you persist in being. But no matter how you be, I will not be tamed.”
             At this, Amalia rose in haste and pounced on the hedgehog. The nasty creature extended its spines, and Amalia’s hands were cut; but she did not release her hold.
            “My name is Mole,” she cried, “and I have had enough of this.  I am not going to tame you, but I am going to hold you until you know my name and I know yours.” 
            At these words, the hedgehog shrieked and squirmed and bristled. Amalia held it close to her breast, and soon the front of her blouse was covered in blood where the spines of the hedgehog had pierced her skin. The spines pierced her arms, her hands, and her face. Blood dripped on the forest floor around the willow tree. Still Amalia refused to let go.  She closed her eyes against the pain and said repeatedly, “My name is Mole.” 
            In response, the hedgehog intensified its cries and buried its spines deeper into Amalia.    
             “I don’t care how much hurt you inflict upon me,” Amalia whispered, “I will not abandon you. I tell you again, my name is Mole.”
            How long this continued Amalia could not tell. Her entire world was reduced to a red haze of piercing pain, and fiery needles. She was on the verge of relinquishing her hold when she noticed the pain lessening. The spines of the hedgehog were no longer sharp and piercing. They began to feel almost soft. They were soft. Amalia’s eyes were still closed so she felt rather than saw two arms surround her in a warm embrace. On her cheek was laid a gentle kiss. Amalia opened her eyes and, oh the wonder of it, the hedgehog was no longer there. In her arms was a young girl close in age to Amalia. The two looked at each other, the girl smiling, Amalia questioning.
             “Hello, Mole,” she said. “My name is Hedgehog. I am not tame; I never will be, but I will be your friend. Thank you for clinging so tightly; I was nearly lost but for your persistence. I had almost forgotten my name until I remembered yours. We all need our names.”
            Then Amalia saw the girl envelope herself in her hedgehog furs. Hedgehog turned and ambled down a path behind the willow tree. On either side of her were Dove and Rabbit, on their way to another willow tree. Amalia awoke.


            The weather was turning crisp and dry. The autumn harvest was at hand. Amalia, Cyril, and Anna were busy with preparations for the autumn feast in the village. There were special cakes to bake for offerings of thanks, the common room needed to be decorated with garlands of leaves, and every hearth had to be swept clean in anticipation of the symbolic flame. As Amalia made ready the common room, the refrains of a familiar song danced in her head.

I will sing for the dawn of an October sky;
I will wait for the hand of a friend.
I will sigh for the love of a mem’ry gone by;
and I will walk with my heart to the end.

            Assisting Amalia were Cyril and Anna. She had sent them on a hunt for floral decorations, and they returned with their baskets full of leaves of bright gold, rich mahogany, forest green, and deep auburn. 
            “These are beautiful!” Amalia exclaimed.  “Let’s place some of them on the mantle. On each table will be white candles so I think we should make a ring of leaves around each candle. Agreed?”
            Cyril and Anna nodded their assent so the three siblings began arranging the leaves as Amalia suggested.
            “Cyril, what animal are you going to be at the festival?” asked Anna. “I am going to be a frog, a great, green, goggle-eyed frog.”
            Cyril snorted.  “I am not going to be any animal.”
            “But, Cyril,” Anna protested, “if you do not wear a disguise, then the unfriendly spirits will haunt you!  I don’t understand. You have always dressed as an animal at the festivals.  Why not this one?”
            “I don’t believe there are any spirits, friendly or not, so I don’t care whether they haunt me.  Anyway, you can’t be frog; all the disguises have to be animals with horns, hoofs, or fur.  The spirits will not be fooled by a frog.”
            “If you think there are no spirits, then Anna is safe from them, however she is dressed,” observed Amalia, who had been listening.  Cyril opened his mouth as if to retort when Virgil entered the room to observe their work. He nodded in approval.
            “It looks well,” he said.  “But take care that the leaves are not touching the candles; we do not wish to kindle an unexpected bonfire.”
            “Fa, Cyril doesn’t believe there are any spirits,” said Anna. “Is that true? Are there spirits or not?  If there are spirits, and Cyril doesn’t believe they exist, what will they do to him?  If they don’t exist, then why do the people in the village observe the autumn festival by wearing animal disguises?”
            The look on Virgil’s face told quite plainly that he was not prepared for such a discussion. Wise man that he was, he took his time before responding to Anna’s questions.
            “Anna,” he said  “do you believe there are spirits?”
            “Yes, Fa, I do.”
            “And do you want to wear a disguise?”
            “Yes, I do.  I want to be a frog.”
            “Then, I think that you will be a great and wondrous frog. Cyril will observe the festival in his own way, and the Great Good will be honored. The important thing is that we all bid farewell to the summer and acknowledge the blessings we have received from the Great Good’s hand. Can you accept that for now?”
            Anna pursed her lips as she thought on Virgil’s words.
             “Yes, Fa, I can.”  She then leaned over and whispered in Virgil’s ear. “But I am going to stay close to Cyril tonight so I can keep the unfriendly spirits away from him.”         

            Boards placed on trestles blazed with white candles and were laden with platters of meat, bowls of roasted potatoes and apples, and baskets of breads. There was a display of offering cakes, decorated with seeds and nuts. Fruits and vegetables arranged in neat rows bore witness to the bounty of the summer. At the center of the village a great bonfire reached its fiery fingers to the sky as if beckoning heavenly observers to the feast.  This was the autumn festival, a time to honor the change in seasons. Since people first began to sow and reap, they had found ways to celebrate the harvest and prepare for the winter. The Celts called it Samhain which means “summer’s end”, the Romans called it Feralia, in honor of the dead, and the Christian church called it “Hallowed Eve” in an attempted to absorb a pagan tradition into Christianity.
            To the people of the village it was simply the autumn festival. Some of the villagers, especially the children, carried on the tradition of dressing in costumes.  o the younger children, such as Anna, the costume was a serious affair; its disguise afforded protection against any unwanted and otherworldly visitors. Virgil himself always wore a pair of magnificent antlers and wrapped himself in a deerskin cloak, to the delight of the children. Some of the older children, like Cyril, were abandoning the costumes for the first time, having reached an age where it was no longer considered peer-appropriate.  Cyril felt somewhat exposed without his usual costume, despite his boast to Anna that he did not believe in the spirits. However, he did savor a newfound feeling of maturity without it and would have enjoyed the evening’s festivities a good deal more were it not for Anna. To his great annoyance, his little sister dogged his footsteps wherever he went.
            The night was reaching its apex of darkness. The boards had been cleared of the remains of the feast, and the candles had been extinguished. The only light in the village came from the bonfire, around which the people were gathered. Virgil, antlers and cape put aside, stood in front of the fire. He raised his hands, and when all was still he spoke.
            “The Light is our light. It leads us before and behind. In the darkness, it directs our way. By the Light, we do justly and love mercy. The Light by wisdom founded the earth and by understanding established the heavens. Where you go, the Light shall lead you. When you sleep, the Light shall keep you. And when you awake, the Light shall commune with you.”
            “Take you, now, the Light into your hearts and into your homes. Let its love blaze anew and bring warmth and light to dispel and cold and darkness.”
            At these words, Virgil thrust a torch into the bonfire and started singing the song of the autumn festival. Then he stepped back so that the others could light their torches as well.  As they did, they joined in the song.

Walk the ancient way with me.
Walk the way of cold majesty.
Touch the morning sun; touch the evening sky.
Touch my hand and I will sigh as you walk away from me.
Open the door; open the door.
Take your companion with you once more.
I gave my love and I gave my world to you.

            Amalia joined in the singing, savoring the familiar words that she had sung so many times before. She had always loved its message of bidding farewell to the summer in anticipation of the winter. In her mind’s eye, she had always pictured two gracious ladies, one clothed in greens and yellows and the other clothed in reds and browns, meeting in a meadow. The ladies curtsied and embraced and then parted by opposite paths. Tonight, however, the words evoked a different vision. It seemed to Amalia that there was not really a “here” or a “there.” What appeared to be coming and going was in reality “being.” Amalia sensed the presence of a countless multitude who, generations ago, had lit the bonfire and had sung the autumn song. She felt herself joining hands with ghostly hands in the warm fellowship of the moment. In that instant, she entered the place, between breath and breath, where holiness is forever being created.


            A few weeks after the autumn festival, a man and his family visited the inn. The man’s name was Malcolm, who with his wife Edith, son Wade, and sister Merion, was on his way to Bath from Tyne. Malcolm was a musician and an artisan whose specialty was making stringed instruments. He had earned a satisfactory living in Tyne, but the harsh northern winters were taking a toll on his health, so Malcolm decided to pull up roots and head for a milder climate. He and his family had never traveled their home in Tyne, so they were making the most of the journey southward to see the sights of Albion.  Husband and wife were delighted with the inn and the village and decided to stay two days at the very least. 
            Malcolm and Edith proved to be a jovial couple, full of ready wit and laughter.  Their son Wade, a strapping lad of fifteen years, was similar in nature to his parents.  The first evening of their stay, there was a constant stream of banter from the three of them, as each tried to outtalk the other. However, the woman Merion spoke not a word. While Malcolm regaled the guests in the common room with comical tales of life in the music business, Merion sat apart from the others with a dour look on her face. As soon as she finished her meal, she left the company and made her way to the family’s rooms. Edith and Wade seemed impervious to her manners and joined in the discussion with anecdotes of their own. Between the three of them, it was a merry evening.  
            “Father,” said Wade. “Remember the Christ Mass service last year?”  Wade turned to the group of listeners. “If there was ever a time when everything could go wrong, it happened to Father.”
            “Oh, must you remind me of my failures?  My friends, if you take it upon you to grow a son, take care that he has a weak memory.”  Despite these words, Malcolm beamed warmly at Wade as he began his tale.
            “As the lad said, it was the Christ Mass service at the church. I had been hired to play and sing, which I was glad enough to do. I chose my songs with care and tuned my best harp. But as ill luck would have it, it was fierce cold that night. As you know, the priests teach that God is all knowing and that he is the creator of all that is and that Jesu is his son, but for the life of me, I cannot understand why he would choose the cold of December for his son’s birth. Why not pick a nice sunny day in June?
 But I digress.”
             “So here I am at the church with my harp and my fingers half frozen. They get so numb with cold that I drop my harp. Now if you have never dropped a harp before, I tell you they do not go down quietly. No, a harp wants all the world to know it’s being mistreated, and in the quiet of the church, the sound echoed around from altar to nave.  I’m all flustered and hastily pick it up and take my seat for the song. I play the opening chords and produce the most horrible sound you can imagine; when I dropped the harp, the strings went out of tune. I apologized to my audience and began to quickly retune the instrument. In spite of the cold, I felt a warm trickle of sweat make its way down my back.”
            “Now it so happens that the screeching sounds I made on the harp, while not fit for humans, is music to the ears of dogs. So while I’m sitting there in front of a silent group of congregants, a great black hound comes bounding up and leaps in my lap. It hit me with such force that I fell over, with the hound on top of me, and I tell you that beast was not about to move for love or money. Try as I might, I could not push the great hulk off me. The priest came running over to help and nearly lost his hand for it, the dog was that determined to stay where it was.”
            “So what could I do?  I placed by harp under my neck, and with the dog still on my chest, I began to play and sing. Now I don’t know about the congregation, but that beast was in ecstasy.  ts tail thumped on the floor in time to the music. When I was finished, it drenched my face with a great slobbering lick and trotted down the aisle and out the door. I managed to pull myself from the wreckage and bowed myself out of the church. That very night I made plans to remove myself from such inhospitable weather.”
            Such was Malcolm’s story. The actual narrative took nearly twice as long because Malcolm was interrupted several times by Edith and Wade, who added their own embellishments. By the time they were finished, those gathered in the common room were roaring with laughter.

            After most of the locals had left for the evening, Virgil remained to keep company with Malcolm by the fire. Amalia was seated nearby doing some sewing.
            “I hope that you and your family find everything to your liking,” said Virgil.
            “We do indeed”, said Malcolm. “You have a decent establishment here.  Good food and plenty of it (He patted his paunch.)  And the rooms are clean and warm.  I’ve had enough of the cold, I tell you.”
            “And what of your sister?” asked Virgil. “I could not help noticing that she left soon after supper. Is all well with her?  If she is displeased with something, I will do what I can to make it right.”
            “Oh, you mustn’t mind Merion.  She has had a sad enough time and does not take to much company. You see, about fifteen years ago, when Wade was just a babe, Merion and her husband and her little girl all took sick with a fever. Merion’s husband and daughter died from it, which was a great grief, I can tell you. Merion survived, but her hearing was permanently damaged. It was then that she came to live with us. At first she could hear fairly well, but as the years went by, her hearing loss grew worse until she went completely deaf. As her hearing faded away, so did Merion. Over the years, we have found ways to communicate with each other, by hand signals and such, but it’s not the same. It used to be that Merion always had a song for everything, and she never let a good joke go by. Oh, she was a great one for puns and fancies. And the stories she used to tell —I could sit and listen to her for hours.”
            Malcolm’s eyes filled with tears as he shook his head.
             “But now that’s all been taken away from her, and she feels the loss most keenly, not only of her husband and child but of the world of laughter and music.”  Virgil commiserated with his guest and skillfully directed the conversation to another topic.
            Amalia sat transfixed. She was deeply moved by what she had heard. How dreadful to live in a world of silence! Amalia bent over her work to hide her tears. After a few minutes, she quietly stole from the room. In the privacy of her bedroom, Amalia flung herself on her bed and sobbed.  She felt as if her heart would break for the woman. After a while, she arose and splashed water on her face; its icy touch helped Amalia regain her composure so she could think. She wondered if there was something she could do for Merion—some way to penetrate her silent world with a show of kindness. She remembered her vision of the multitudes crying out. Here was a poor soul who, however loudly she cried, could not hear the sound of her own voice. 
            I must think of something. Confident that the morning would bring new insight, Amalia curled up in bed and promptly fell asleep.

            The next morning Amalia bounced into the common room, looking for Malcolm and his family. She saw them seated at breakfast, but Merion was not with them. She walked purposefully to the table.
            “Good morning,” she said.  “How may I serve you? Is there anything you require?”
            “Thank you, miss,” Malcolm answered.  “We have everything we need for a good meal except an extra stomach or two. That way when one fills up, you can start to work on the other one.”
            “Malcolm never misses a meal,” said Edith, with a twinkle in her eye.
            Amalia continued.  “I do not see you sister. Would you like for me to take her a tray?”
            “Oh, no, dear. That will not be necessary. Merion prefers to eat alone; I will take something up to her when we are finished,” said Edith. “It is kind of you to offer.”
             At these words, Amalia smiled, curtsied and left the room. She made her way through the kitchen and out the back door of the inn. Then she took the path that led to the river and, once there, sat down under the large oak tree. It was under this same tree that Amalia first learned about evil, the not-good.
            As she remembered that night, Amalia wondered if it was possible to discover what was inside Merion’s heart and mind. 
            Is there a door through which I could enter? A door that would open up to Merion? 
            She closed her eyes and pictured such a door. She felt in her pocket for a key and, lo, there it was.  She put the key in the lock and slowly turned it until she heard a satisfying Click.  The door was unlocked.  Amalia turned its handle with care and pushed it open.  She was inside—but where was she?


            Franna was just putting the kettle on to boil when she paused as if listening to a faint call. Putting the kettle aside, she went upstairs to Amalia’s room. It was empty; the bed was made. Franna then went to Cyril’s room; it was empty also. Her brow furrowed, Franna went back downstairs and encountered Cyril heading out to the stable.
            “Have you seen Amalia this morning?” she asked.
            “I saw her earlier in the common room talking with Malcolm’s family,” answered Cyril.
            “If you happen to see her, would you please let me know where she is?”
            “Yes, Mother. Why? Is she in trouble?” 
            Cyril looked at his mother questioningly.
            “No, son. I just want to speak with her.” 
            Then Cyril left the room. When he was gone,Frannae sat down and thought of all the places Amalia might be. 
            What am I thinking? She thought to herself. Amalia is too young; I am just imagining things. 
            However, rather than subside, her uneasiness grew. After a moment’s hesitation, Franna began searching her heart for Amalia. Several minutes passed when suddenly Franna’s eyes widened.
             Oh, no!  Great Light, it cannot be!
            Franna rushed from the room and ran to the back of the inn, along the path to the river. There by the oak tree she found Amalia, eyes clsed in a dead-white face. Franna touched Amalia’s hands; they were clammy and cold.  She breathed on them and clasped them to her breast.  It was there that Virgil found her an hour later, bent over Amalia, weeping.
             “Franna, what is it?”  Franna looked up with a face filled with sorrow. 
            “It has happened, Virgil.  She has gone through the door.”


            At first, Amalia thought she was at the inn looking down the hallway on the second story, but the hallway was much longer with many doors on either side. She noticed a curious sound, like the sound of rushing water, but there was no sign of its source. She crept quietly down the passage and paused before one of the doors. It was a bright color of green, carved with bas-relief animals that were painted in rich colors of auburn red, golden yellow, and twilight grey. As Amalia drew nearer for a closer inspection of the designs, she discerned the sounds of laughter were coming from the other side of the door. She laid hold of the handle to investigate, but the door was locked.  The sound of the water drowned out the noises beyond the door, so Amalia continued her walk down the hallway.
            A second door caught her attention. It was sky blue and was sectioned into smaller panels. Each panel depicted a bird. But such birds! Birds in the air with wings of purple and gold, birds on branches displaying their plumage of crimson and black, and birds nesting on the ground in soft grey and beige! From the second door issued the sound of their songs. At least that is what Amalia guessed it was; the sound of the water was making it difficult to discern the music of the birds. This door, too, was locked so Amalia moved on.
            She came to a third door that was immense in size, like the door of a great cathedral. It was covered with rich carvings and scrolls and pillars and columns.  Between the pillars and columns were crowds of people from every walk of life. There were masons and blacksmiths and coopers. There were butchers and bakers and farmers.  Peasants walked alongside nobles. Artisans displayed their crafts, and merchants held aloft their wares. Mothers suckled their babes, and fathers blessed their children. All of humanity was in a great celebration of life, and its mighty, joyous hurrah rang behind the door—but the door was locked. The sound of rushing water increased to such intensity that Amalia could not hear herself think. 
            Where is the water coming from?  She said to herself.
            Amalia followed the source of the sound down the passage to the end of the hall.  There, with her back to Amalia, stood a woman in the midst of a swirling vortex of water.  The water was a torrent gone mad, raging and heaving and crashing against itself; it noise was deafening. As Amalia watched in horror, the woman was caught in the vortex and was struggling against its pull. Amalia ran to the edge of the vortex to help the woman; she reached out her hand, but it was too late. The foaming, churning waves sucked the woman into its black abyss. Amalia stood looking in vain over the edge of the water for any sign of the woman. So intent was her gaze that she did not notice that the water was encroaching. Suddenly she found herself fighting its inexorable pull into the belly of the vortex. As she was spun around in a sickening whirl, she noticed another door beyond the water. With a last surge of strength, she grabbed at the doorknob and held fast against the suction of the water. 
            If only I had a key, she thought. You do have a key; now use it! 
            Amalia felt in her pocket—there was a key! She pulled it out and with shaking hands just managed to insert it into the lock. She turned the key while turning the knob.  The door opened and she beheld the faces of her parents, bending over her.
            “Mother! Father!” she exclaimed. “I have had the most amazing dream.”
            “Dearest Mole, precious child,” cried her mother, embracing her tightly. “That was no dream.”

            Amalia, Virgil, and Franna were sitting at the kitchen table, where Amalia was partaking of hot soup and tea. From her parents’ manner, Amalia knew something was amiss; however, she did not fret about it. She was confident that her mother and father would enlighten her in good time. At length Amalia finished her supper and pushed her bowl aside. She looked at her parents expectantly.  Franna leaned forward and caressed Amalia’s face.
            “Mole, my love.  We would like to talk about what happened today—about your ‘dream.’ Can you describe it for us?”
            “Of course,” Amalia replied.
            Then she gave an account of what had transpired, beginning with the conversation she overheard in the common room between her father and his guest, Malcolm. She walked them through her thoughts of compassion for the deaf woman, Merion, and her desire to help her in some way. She ended with her vision of the locked doors and the torrent of water.
            “But it was only a dream, wasn’t it?” she asked.
            “No, my dear,” replied Virgil.  “It was very real—only it took place in someone else’s reality. From your description and the events leading up to it, it appears that what you experienced was the consciousness of the woman, Merion. It was her inner world you entered today and in which you walked for a time. I am guessing that this is not the first time you have had a waking vision. Mole, dear, has this happened to you before?”
            “Why, yes,” answered Amalia, “once with Lammett, once with Skandar, and once with Alanar. All three times the vision or dream just seemed to come about when we joined hands. I saw no harm in it; in fact, it was a wonderful experience. Why should this time be different?”
            Franna answered her.  “You asked me once why your father and I never spoke of the covenant. It is because of its history and our part in it.” Franna paused, searching for words. Seeing her hesitate, Virgil spoke up.
            “You have heard, no doubt, the story of the covenant—that it was the work of a group of wise women, who representing all of the warring tribes, came together for the purpose of peace. After many days of labor, the covenant was forged and when each woman went back to her own people, all the men and women of her tribe embraced it without reservation. That is indeed true; all pledged fealty to the covenant, but it is not told how it came about. No one, except their descendants, knows why this group of women achieved their goal. It was because they willed it. In defiance of truth, in violation of holy vows, the sisters of the Great Good invaded the will of the people and made it their own, and we who are their descendants know of their terrible deed.”
            Amalia eyes widened.  “You mean that we…I mean, that I…?”
            “Yes, Amalia,” said Franna,” you were born into a noble bloodline. Your ancestors are the wise women of the covenant. Your inheritance is spiritual power and understanding beyond the ken of most humans. You, like your ancestors, have the gift of perception beyond the senses. It is more than what some people foolishly call ‘mind-reading.’ It is the ability to share the consciousness of another human being. It is an awesome and fearful gift, one that we do not use lightly and without pain. When the children of our village come of age, they take their first steps into this larger world, this vast and perilous estate. It usually begins with the awareness of evil, the ‘not-good’. That is what has happened to you. But like any mighty gift, it must be used wisely and with great discretion, and the one thing it is never used for is power over another human being.  We never knowingly intrude on another person’s heart, mind, and soul.”
            Amalia hung her head.
             “I am so sorry,” she whispered.  “I thought I was helping her; I just wanted to be kind.”
             Franna and Virgil put their arms around her. 
            “Peace, child,” said Virgil. “You did nothing wrong. I don’t think it could be helped. The fact is, your mind, soul, and body have taken charge of your growth and are taking you to unexpected levels. Your mother and I have been unprepared for the depth of your increasing maturity; it has taken us unawares.”
            “Amalia, everything in you is reaching out and saying ‘yes!’ to knowledge. We feel that you have arrived at the place in your development where this village and your life in it are restricting rather than enhancing it. You need to have a deeper understanding of your ancestry and learn how to master your gift. At some time in their lives, usually around fourteen years of age, the children of the village spend time in the wider world in order to gain a richer understanding of who they are. In the light of this recent event, your mother and I think it is time for you to leave here and abide for a season with your Uncle Hosten and his family. It is not by any means a punishment or because we do not love you. It is because we feel inadequate to the task of teaching you all that you need to know. My brother Hosten is the eldest and the wisest of our family and will guide you on this path your spirit is determined to take.”
            Amalia didn’t say a word. The meaning of the autumn song was made clear to her.  She was being drawn into another path; she had set foot on an ancient way and though her heart wept against it, she knew she must tread its path to its conclusion.  
            “Search your heart, dear,” said Franna. “Ask what it wants you do to and to be. When you find that you are ready for the journey, we will leave for London.”

Next week: How to Win a War