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.”
“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