1. In the beginning
Verdon made his way over to the visiting Saxon and his guards. Deirdre had just brought them their dinners and more ale, so he wondered what was yet lacking. "Yes, sir?" he inquired.
Thane Ederick nodded back toward the girl. "Her. I want her to keep me company during my stay. Two months is a long time to go without a woman, and Rennes is a long way from home."
Verdon fidgeted uneasily. "Sir, she...she's a Christian, and...and a virgin. She's been my servant girl here since she was a child. I...was hoping that my son would marry her when her term is over next year." Deirdre was certainly pretty enough, with her long blonde hair and blue eyes complementing a stately form, and she had a sweet temperament to match. She would make a good wife, Verdon thought with almost paternalistic pride.
The thane leaned forward on his stool. "I don't care what you hope. I'm a paying customer, and I'll have what I want. Be thankful I don't turn my guards loose on your establishment instead. That's not an idle threat." He sat back again, now with an unpleasant grin on his face. "A virgin, did you say? Nice."
"Sir, please. Rennes has many women who would be happy to serve you in that way. Let me send someone to bring you one."
Ederick brought his fist down on the table, hard, and the innkeeper jumped. Slowly the Saxon rose, until his face was mere inches from that of his frightened host. "No," he said. "I want her. No one else. Now, are you going to cooperate, or do I have to take what I want by force?" The guards stood, too, a silent, menacing wall.
Verdon crossed himself. "God forgive me," he murmured. He looked down then, ashamed of what he knew he had to do. "I'll go tell her to meet you in your room tonight."
At last, the two months were over, and the thane's business was concluded. He and his party left for home.
Verdon watched them go with palpable relief. "I hope to never see another Saxon as long as I live," he announced to the girl standing beside him.
She said nothing. Her eyes were sad now, haunted by experience she had never sought. She seldom smiled anymore.
"I'm sorry," Verdon confessed for the hundredth time. "I had no choice. Anyway, it's over now. Charles may yet want to marry you next year. He knows you didn't...that it wasn't your fault."
Deirdre just looked at him. Tonelessly, she informed him, "I'm already married. Thane Ederick is my husband now, by my people's custom. And, I may be carrying his child. There's been no issue."
"Here ya go, dear," the old peddler said. "The thane's estate." He helped her down from the wagon seat. She was seven months along now, and it was getting difficult to walk long distances.
"Thank you again," she told him sincerely. "I never would have made it without your help. I wish I had something with which to pay you for your kindness." She had spent it all in her search for Ederick, and relied on the charity of others ever since. Now she was here, finally, at his manor in Londinium.
The peddler climbed back up onto the seat. He smiled down at her. "Never you mind about that, miss. I'm just happy to help a fellow traveler in need-'specially a lady as pretty as yerself." She blushed, and he continued. "You take care now. Hope your husband appreciates you comin' all this way to find him, in your condition and all. Godspeed to ya, and good luck to boot." He clucked to his horse, and the wagon moved on down the road.
"Godspeed to you, sir, as well," Deirdre called after him. Then she turned her face toward the Great Hall, the main building of the manor wherein dwelt the thane and his family.
It was a large wooden rectangle with a thatched roof, similar in structure, if not scale, to the other buildings on the property. Like them, it had windows with shutters, but no panes. The shutters were open on this late October day to take advantage of the afternoon sunshine. Beside the door stood one of the guards who had accompanied his lord to Rennes seven months earlier. He recognized the visitor at once, and moved to bar her way. "Stop," he ordered. "You're not welcome here."
"I've come to see your master. I won't leave until I speak with him." She'd endured too much to be turned away so easily.
"Well, you'll have to wait, then. He's out hunting. May not be back until nightfall."
"I'll wait as long as I have to."
"Suit yourself," the guard conceded. "You can go wait by the churls' quarters. Just stay out of the way."
Ederick and his fellow hunters returned before nightfall, but just barely. The hounds ran on ahead. A deer carcass slung across the back of a pack horse proclaimed a victorious expedition. The men were in high spirits, and they made their way noisily toward the Great Hall. The shutters were closed now, but light still shone out around the edges from the fireplace inside.
Deirdre had to raise her voice to be heard. "My lord!"
The riders stopped, looking around in the dusk until they found the source of the call. Ederick stared at her in disbelief. He signaled the others to go on, then rode to meet her. From his perch high in the saddle, the lord of the manor glared down at the woman who stood before him. His good mood had vanished. "What are you doing here?" he growled. "I told you I wasn't bringing you back with me."
If she was intimidated, she didn't show it. Steadily, she answered, "I've come to take my place in your household. You're my husband now, and the father of my child."
He laughed. "Your husband? Woman, you're mad!"
"You've taken my maidenhood, my lord. In the sight of God, I'm yours now. For honor's sake, I must be. The child is yours, as well. Honor demands that you claim him as your own. Give him a name, sir, I beg you."
The thane wasn't laughing anymore. His hand closed around the hilt of the sword at his belt. His voice was low and dangerous. "I care nothing for your God, or your honor. I already have a wife and an heir. You mean nothing to me. Your brat means nothing to me. I reject you both. You will leave my estate immediately, or I'll have my men cut the babe from your belly and leave you both to rot. Is that understood?"
Deirdre was grateful for the dark then, for it hid her face from the one on whom she'd set her fragile hopes-hopes that lay now in ruins among triumphant fears. Broken, she replied, "I can't leave tonight. It's dark, and I don't know my way."
"Tomorrow morning, then. Maybe one of the churl families will let you sleep with them tonight. Be gone before breakfast. And don't come back."
The Feast of the Nativity came and went without much notice. Having reached Portsmouth after dreary weeks of walking and begging for sustenance, Deirdre could go no further. She searched for a midwife, knowing one would be needed soon. Christians were few in this land, and visits from priests even fewer. She found a suitable woman just north of town.
"I have nothing with which to pay you, Tabitha," she admitted. "All I can offer is my service, and my thanks."
The midwife smiled. "'Tis my Christian duty to help a sister in need. Call it my gift in honor of the Feast. You look like you could use a feast yourself."
Tabitha and her assistant were the only attendants at the baby's birth. Things went smoothly as far as they were concerned, though the new mother felt somewhat worse for wear. She watched as her son was bathed from a bowl of warm water, then wrapped in a blanket. The midwife informed her client, "I don't normally baptize a baby unless he looks to die before the priest can get here." She looked worried. "We haven't had a visit in almost two years."
Deirdre was too weak to reply in a voice much louder than a whisper. "Please," she begged. "There's no one else, and nowhere else I can go. We need you." She glanced at the lone tapestry hanging on the wall, a tapestry depicting the Nativity, which was the only reminder of the Feast that they'd recently observed. "Our Lady would understand."
"Well..." Slowly, the older woman carried her small burden to the dish of salt on a nearby table, set there beside a larger water bowl in preparation for just such an eventuality. She applied a pinch of the spice to the boy's tongue. To him, she intoned, "By my authority as attending midwife, in the absence of a priest or any man, I baptize you in the name of Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar." She removed the blanket and dipped the naked baby in the water. Then, lifting him up for her assistant to dry him off, she looked back at the mother. "And what shall we call this new Christian?"
Deirdre didn't answer for a moment. She hadn't thought about a name before, having convinced herself that the child's father would be the one to name him, as was his right. Now she stared, exhausted in body and spirit, as her newborn son, now swaddled in warm linen, was gently laid in her arms. She thought about the gift of life, and the gifts brought by those three wise kings, woven into the tapestry on the wall, to the one King in his blessed mother's arms. Her child fussed at the taste of salt on his tongue. She gave him a sad, sympathetic smile, then held him closer until he found mothers' milk. What was his future going to be like? What hope had he, or she, alone and destitute here in a strange town far from her home across the sea?
She looked up, finally, at the ladies waiting for her answer. "Balthazar," she said, "for this gift to me is naught but bitterness."
Winter was hard on them both. Deirdre had no place to stay, no food except for the little that kind strangers could spare, and no way to pay for either. She ventured to ask a shipmaster if he would take them across the Sea of Brittany.
"Why should I?" he countered. "What've you got to offer?"
Her pleas for Christian, or even humanitarian, compassion fell on deaf ears.
He did have a suggestion of his own, though. "You're a nice-lookin' lass, even if you're a little thin. I'd be willing to take ya across, maybe, if you, um...make me a happy man." His leer made his meaning obvious.
She hugged her baby tight. "I couldn't," she said. "Is there some other way we can pay for passage?"
"Oh, this is just for your passage, missy. The boy's another matter. Nope, can't think of anything else you got that I'd want."
"I won't leave him!"
The captain shrugged. "Your choice. An empty belly can make a person do things she wouldn't do otherwise. Think about it."
She left, but the seed had been planted. Slow starvation began to take its effect. When her milk failed and her child cried with hunger, the captain's words came back to her mind. What she refused to do for herself, she couldn't refuse for her son. She prayed that he wouldn't pay the price for her fall.
Along the sea shore a little way from the dock, a small child ran laughing in the afternoon sun. He was chasing the waves as they receded, and running from them when they came rolling back in. His bare feet had already been soaked many times, but he seemed oblivious to the cold salt water. The beach was rough here, full of gravel and sharp pebbles. He took no notice.
The boy ran after another retreating wave, but then stopped suddenly, as a sharp pain stabbed up from his right foot. He looked down. A thin but steady stream of blood ran from beneath his sole, onto the wet gravel. Distracted, he didn't see the incoming wave until it was upon him. The water's force knocked him onto his backside, then flat. Now totally drenched, he crawled up to the dry part of the stony beach, where he sat shivering with cold and pain. He started to cry,
After what seemed to him a very long time, his mother came to the rescue. "Balthazar," she admonished, even as she stooped to examine his wounded foot, "I told you not to go too far from the house. And where are your shoes?" The cut wasn't bad, but he wouldn't be running again for a few days, at least. She lifted him into her arms. He clung to her neck, his lower lip trembling and his blue eyes still full of tears. Burying his face against her neck, the boy let his water-darkened chestnut hair mingle with his mother's golden locks. She carried him back along the beach as she scanned it for the small leather sandals that her son had been wearing when he left the house. They were nowhere to be found. She shook her head and sighed. "Oh, Balthazar," she said, "must you always go wandering?"
Back at their house, Balthazar's mother sat him down on the bench that ran the length of one wall. The fire in its central, clay-lined hearth was burning low. Mother stoked it with a few faggots she brought in from outside, then suspended a water-filled cauldron from the iron tripod set around it. Turning to her son, she stripped off his wet shift and wrapped him in a blanket instead. She dipped a clean rag in the warming water and used it to wash his sore foot. A marigold poultice followed. Finally, another rag was wrapped securely around his foot and ankle, so that only his toes could be seen. She caught hold of his big toe playfully, smiling at him. "Better?" she asked. He nodded, a little unsure, but encouraged by her manner. "Good," she continued, and hugged him. She left him to check on the cauldron. "Warm enough," she said as if to herself, but then addressed the boy directly. "Bath time. Yes, that includes your hair. We need to get the salt water out of it." With soap and wet rag in hand, she attended to business.
When he was clean and dry, night had settled in. That was just as well, for Balthazar's adventure had left him too tired to stay awake much longer anyway. He was clad in a linen shift and carried to the woolen-covered mat of straw that served as his bed. His mother tucked him in, after which they recited their usual bedtime prayer together. "Good night, dear," she said when they finished, kissing him on the forehead.
Balthazar watched sleepily as his mother went back to the bench where he'd endured his bath. Under it was stored most of the household goods that weren't being used. Mother knelt before a stack of folded cloths and carefully pulled them out from their niche. She reached into the space to grab a small wooden box. Balthazar's eyes widened in curiosity. "What's that?" he asked.
She looked back at him. "You should be asleep, young man," she scolded, not ungently. "Well, I suppose there's nothing for it now but to show you." She brought the box over to him, and he sat up in bed. She lifted the lid. Inside were things he'd never seen before: a few ancient, well-worn coins, some colorful gemstones, and an armband traced with gold. She set the box on the floor. Reaching under the top of her dress, she pulled out a leather pouch at the end of the string necklace she wore. From the pouch, she removed her newest acquisition: a ring.
It wasn't particularly ornate or valuable, just a heavy silver ring set with amber, but Balthazar found it fascinating. He reached out a hand. "May I touch it?" he asked, the wonder evident in his voice.
She smiled. "Only for a bit," she replied. She let him hold it that long, but then took it back. "It needs to stay in the box now," she explained. "These are my treasures. When I get enough, we'll leave this place. We'll cross the sea, then go to my hometown and buy some land there. Maybe I'll even find a husband. You can have a father then, Balthazar. Won't that be nice?" She returned the box to its place under the bench and hid it once more behind the folded cloths.
Balthazar didn't know whether having a father would be nice or not. His mother was the only family he knew, and he wasn't sure he wanted to change that. Obviously, though, Mother wanted it, and he wanted her to be happy. "I'll help you find more treasures," he promised.
Her reaction wasn't what he expected. She frowned. "No. These are...gifts. Men give them to me sometimes when I work for them. They're secret. Do you understand? "
He didn't, but nodded anyway.
She pressed him. "You mustn't tell anyone about this, Balthazar. The box and the treasures are our secret. We don't want anyone to know, because he'll come and take them. Don't...tell...anyone. This is just between you and me. All right?"
Balthazar nodded again. "All right," he agreed. "I won't tell anyone." Then he yawned, suddenly overcome with fatigue. He lay down, and soon fell fast asleep. From that day on, he searched wherever he went for more treasure, but never told people what he was doing or why. As he was usually alone anyway, this didn't present a problem.
The rocky beach was well-populated, but not by humans. Balthazar discovered a clutch of three speckled eggs lying in a rude, shallow nest beside a tuft of grass. He retreated a short way, then lay on his stomach to wait for the mother bird to return. He didn't have to wait long. She was a handsome creature, black and white with bright orange legs and a long, blunted orange bill to match. This was an oystercatcher. There were many more like her on the beach, including her mate. She looked directly at the human observer before settling down to cover her eggs, apparently unconcerned by his presence. She knew he meant no harm. Balthazar adopted the family as his charge that summer, driving away predators by throwing small rocks at them with deadly accuracy. He became Balthazar the Great Defender.
He couldn't be there all the time, though. One day, even before he reached his usual lookout spot, he felt a sudden foreboding. There was something, an enemy, close by. He heard a commotion ahead, then a terrified squeak cut short. He shouted and started to run toward the noise, but he was too late. A hawk rose, the limp body of an oystercatcher chick in its talons. It was out of range before Balthazar could even pick up a stone to throw at it. The Great Defender had failed.
He stood watching as the hawk and its prey disappeared into a copse of trees beyond the end of the beach. "I need to throw farther," he said to himself. He had perfect aim, and could catch almost as well if his target had any sort of predictable path, but he lacked the power to throw very far.
To remedy this weakness, he made himself a sling. It was easy to carry, hung on his belt with a pouch of smooth stones tied next to it. He fancied himself as the shepherd boy David, killing lions and bears to defend his flock. Then the remaining chicks reached adulthood, and the family left. After that, Balthazar used his skill to procure game for dinner. Squirrel and hare, partridge and duck-none was safe when Balthazar the Mighty Hunter was on the prowl. He felt their minds, where they were and where they would be when his sling-bullets hit them. He shot accordingly.
Deirdre emerged from her tent after her latest customer had gone on his way. She carried in her arms the packet of linens and herbs he'd used as payment. Cloth, salt, herbs, or tools - these were her usual remuneration for service. "Treasures" were rare, only to be had from sailors who'd picked them up in distant lands.
Her son waited for her on the other side of the big elm tree by which her tent was pitched. He knew that this was her work place for most of the year, and he wasn't permitted to go any nearer to it. When she approached him, he held up for her inspection yet another of his finds.
"No, you can keep it," she told him. It was just a copper alloy clasp, a common item used for clothing. He always hoped to find something worthy of her treasure box, but she knew he probably never would. She let him have his own "box" instead. It was a shallow pit he'd dug in the ground here under the tree, lined with flat stones to protect his discoveries from sitting in dirt or mud. He'd started out with a pit behind their house, but the town children had found it and destroyed it, scattering the fruits of his labor with abandon. They didn't like Balthazar because he wasn't one of them. Their parents didn't allow them near the tent, either, though, so this was a safer place for a treasure pit. It held an assortment of small metal items, iron or bronze or copper mostly, and some pebbles collected for their pretty colors or hint of sparkle. The clasp joined the rest of the collection.
"Here, you can carry this back to the house." She gave him the packet, and they walked together in the deepening twilight. She removed the scarlet ribbon that held back her flaxen hair and advertised her profession. Only in winter, when it was too cold to use her tent, did she work at night, taking a room at the town inn, for which she paid the proprietor half her wages. Out here, it was too easy to lose one's way in the dark, especially for strangers.
Balthazar waited impatiently by the elm tree. It was getting dark already in these final days of Autumn, and he had something new to show to his mother. The customer came out of the tent first, as always. He paused to retrieve the satchel he'd left outside the door flap. He was a stranger, which wasn't so unusual. His hair was short and black, with a trim dark beard and mustache to match. The ebony eyes were stern, the body lithe and solid. He sported a leather tunic, wool trousers tucked into his boots, and over all a long mantle in brown velvet trimmed with silver. Balthazar noted with sudden interest that the man also wore a ring, one with a large red stone.
Mother appeared next. She looked worried; their session had lasted longer than normal. "I'm sorry," she told the man. "I need to go home now, but I can give you my lamp so you can find your way back. I know this path well enough to do without it."
He seemed pleased by the offer, but shook his head. "No need," he said. He held out his ring hand, palm facing forward. The ring glowed. From his palm, a ball of fire leapt and hovered a few feet ahead of him. It lit the area clearly.
Balthazar gasped in amazement. He stepped closer, forgetting the rule about staying back. "How did you do that?" he wondered aloud.
The adults noticed him now for the first time. "Balthazar," his mother scolded, "what are you doing here? And what are you talking about? Do what?"
Balthazar pointed at the fireball. "That." The man looked astonished, but his mother's face showed only confusion. "Don't you see it?" he pleaded. "He made fire out of his hand. It's right there." He pointed, but she appeared to see nothing but empty space.
Now she looked downright afraid. She quickly crossed the short distance between them, dropped to one knee and put a hand to his forehead. "No fever," she murmured. She examined his eyes, but found nothing wrong there, either. "You must be seeing things because you're tired," was her doubtful conclusion. He could tell that she was thinking something worse, but didn't want him to know.
Both of them were startled when a voice sounded from one side. "This boy sees things, eh?" The man had come silently near, and the fireball had disappeared, leaving only the dim flicker of light from Mother's lamp. He was studying Balthazar intently. His gaze wandered to the item clenched in Balthazar's hand, the one he'd brought to show his mother. "What do you have there, boy?" he asked. "Let me see."
Reluctantly, Balthazar held up the bronze spur he'd discovered. The man put down his satchel; then, taking the spur, he turned his back to the boy's mother, covered the spur with both hands, and concentrated. The ring glowed again. When he relaxed his grasp, a shiny gold coin lay upon his open palm. He smiled at the boy's reaction. With a bow, he presented the coin to Balthazar's mother. "For your services, madam," he said.
Then he straightened, serious again, and addressed her in a businesslike tone. "I've been looking for an apprentice. Your son will do nicely. He looks to be old enough, unless I'm greatly mistaken."
"He'll be ten in January. I was hoping that one of the local tradesmen would take him in, but I haven't found one willing." She sounded sad. "It's because of what I do. Even the ones who don't care about that would rather look for someone else. Balthazar is...different."
"How?" the man asked with keen interest.
"Well..." She hesitated, afraid to lose this chance for her son, but not willing to lie, either. That would only make things worse. "He...he knows things. Like the weather. And where to find animals, when he wants to. He says he can hear their minds." She stared at the ground. "And now he's starting to see things, too."
Balthazar listened to the conversation with growing apprehension. "I'm not going mad," he told them both firmly, but inwardly he doubted the truth of his assertion. Was it any wonder, then, that nobody wanted him as apprentice?
The stranger, however, didn't seem to be put off. Instead, he assumed a reassuring tone, and said to the woman before him, "I'm a physician, as I've told you. I can help your son. Once he's cured, he'll make a fine apprentice for me. His mother's profession is irrelevant."
Something wasn't right about this, Balthazar knew, but he couldn't figure out what. Was the man playing games with them? Had Balthazar really seen what he thought he had? All he knew was that he wanted this man to go away, now, and not return. "Mother," he begged, "please, let's go home. I don't want to go with him. We'll find someone here. Please, don't make me leave."
She visibly wavered. The man saw it, too, and scowled. He held the ring directly in front of her face. It glowed once again as he stared. "What do you want most?" he asked her.
As if in a trance, she replied, "To go home to Brittany. To find God's forgiveness, and marry, and see my children grow up well. I want my son to have a better life than I can give him."
He nodded. Without moving, he asked, "Boy, do you have any more trinkets? Any metal will do."
Balthazar the Great Defender was back. He stood a few feet away from the adults, his sling in hand. "Leave my mother alone," he commanded. "I've never used this on a person before, but I will if you make me. I never miss."
He cried out then, for the sling had burst into flame. He dropped it, and it burned itself to ashes. "No, I don't suppose you do," his nemesis replied calmly. "Now, if you're finished playing the hero, let's get back to business."
Balthazar was too scared now to think. "Mother," he called. She didn't respond. He ran to her, but the man grabbed his arm and kept him from touching her. "Let me go!" he demanded. "What have you done to her? Mother!"
A flash of anger came into the stranger's eyes, but just as quickly disappeared. "Your mother is fine," he said with firm control. "Answer my question, boy. Do as I say, and then you'll get your mother back. Have you any more trinkets?"
Balthazar stopped struggling. He looked down at the ground, which was nearly invisible in the black night. His voice was almost a sob. "Y-yes, sir. No more like the one you took, though."
"That doesn't matter. As long as they're metal, I can use them."
"I'll show you. B-back here, behind the tree." He led his captor to the nearby treasure pit, with another fireball moving just ahead of them to light the way.
"Ah, good." The man released Balthazar's arm. "Stay. Watch." He knelt and reached into the pit. Piece after piece was converted to gold, until the pile was enough to half-fill a cauldron. He stopped then, grinning. "I prefer to use the local resources when I can, rather than deplete my own. This should be sufficient."
Back in front of the tent, Mother still stood like a statue. A wave of the ring before her eyes seemed to wake her, and she blinked at the man standing there. "I can help you go home," he said smoothly. "I know a ship's captain who'll take you anywhere you want to go, if the price is right. You'll have plenty left over to start your new life in comfort." Slyly, he added, "Why, there's even enough for a dowry." He grinned again, clearly enjoying this. "But, only you. I keep the boy. I know how to cure illnesses of the mind. Don't worry-I'll teach him well, and he can come back to you when he's finished. He'll have advantages he could never have with a local tradesman. Who knows? Your home village may get a physician of its own."
So it was decided.
At the dock on the second day following the stranger's arrival into his life, Balthazar and his mother said their good-byes. The wooden chest in which she'd packed everything she'd need for the move was already on board the ship, and the captain was eager to depart. The trip across the Sea of Brittany would only take half a day, but there were other ports of call he wanted to make after that. He and the stranger were engaged in their own conversation while they waited.
Balthazar's mother held him in a long embrace. They were both teary-eyed, but she smiled for his sake. "You must be brave, my Balthazar," she said. "You're going to be a physician. You'll learn to read. You'll be an important man someday."
He wasn't convinced. He glanced toward his new master. "I don't like him, Mother. He frightens me. Can't I come with you? Please? I can be an apprentice there, where you're going, can't I?"
She sighed. "I wish you could, dear. I'm sorry, but we had an agreement. It's better this way." She brushed away the tears from his cheeks. "I know you don't like this, but you need to learn a trade. This is a good one. You'll get used to your master soon enough. He's going to help you. Be good, listen to what he tells you, and don't forget to say your prayers." She picked up the cloth bundle that lay on the ground beside them. "Here." She had to physically put it into his arms. "There are warm clothes in here for winter, and an extra pair of shoes. One more thing." Reaching under her hair, now free forever from the shameful scarlet ribbon, she removed her necklace with its little pouch. She opened it to show him what was inside. It was the ring he'd so admired years before. "It's yours now," she said softly. She slipped the necklace over his head. "May it bring you good fortune. God's protection be upon you, and me, until we meet again." Then, with a final kiss, and a final whispered "I love you," she rose and walked away.
Balthazar stood alone on the dock. He watched as his mother climbed aboard the ship; then, as it set out, he replied, though no one else heard, "Good-bye, Mother. I love you, too."
He never saw her again.