As some of you may know I have recently submitted to the New York City Midnight short story competition. While I do not yet know whether I have moved on to the next round I am allowed to share the story that I wrote.
Some of you were my beta readers and have already seen a version of it. What I’m posting today is the final version of the story for everyone to read.
Without further ado:
A Father’s Blessing
The smell of lavender clung to Liza’s fingers as she quickly sifted through the herbs hanging from the rafters. Her husband’s angry voice could be heard through the small vegetable patch outside their home. If she listened closely she could probably make out his words. For now, though, she blocked it out and added chamomile to the wooden mortar.
As she ground the herbs she closed her eyes and muttered the words her mother had taught her. The secret words that meant a fiery death if she were overheard.
Now she could hear her son shouting back and she whispered more urgently as she worked the pestle. She finished with her chant and quickly dumped the herbs into the boiling kettle by the fire.
She prayed to the Christian God and to the others, as well, that the tea would steep and be as strong as she needed it to be. Then, just as she remembered, she felt a surge of energy in her and a sudden faintness that nearly made her fall to the floor. She shook her head and wiggled her fingers and toes hoping that blood circulation would give her clarity of mind.
As the tea steeped she hitched up her skirts and ran toward the shouting.
She could see her husband, no longer the young lad she’d fallen for, but a weathered one instead. As he shouted at his son, his face turned a dangerous shade of red making his fine grey hairs stand out all the more. Her son, her Will, looked his father in the eye, his face the same shade, but his hair the fair blond of a younger man. They stood head to head, fists clenched at their sides.
“Gentlemen!” she shouted. Neither acknowledged her, but she knew they’d heard her. “I’ve made some tea and there is some bread and cheese for lunch.”
Her husband looked at her hard for a moment. “Liza–” he began.
“You’ve both been working all morning. Surely you’re ready for some food and a drink.”
Will took a step back and nodded. “She’s right, Da.” He turned abruptly and headed toward the house.
Liam took a step toward Liza, the red fading from his face. Tears threatened to escape, but she held them back and gave him a smile. He clasped her hand as he walked by and gave her a soft kiss on the palm.
As he walked to the house she looked skyward and whispered a soft thank you, not caring which ears it landed upon. Then she hurried after him.
Liza poured the tea and set it in front of them on the small table. She pulled up a third stool and sat with them. There was silence for a moment as both ate their fill. Butterflies flew through her and her skin itched as she waited for them to drink their tea. When finally Liam took a drink, her shoulders drooped in relief. There would be at least one level head at the table now.
“Listen Will,” he said as he took another sip. “This is not your battle. Let the nobles fight this one, son. It’s a war of their own creation.”
Will put down his bread and took a deep breath before speaking. “Da, I know what ye think of the Templars, but ye have to understand my duty to the Lord, to Pope Innocent II and to my faith. There’s nothing here for me.”
“Our farm isn’t good enough for you?”
“Liam,” said Liza, “Ye know that’s not fair. We have six sons to divide our land amongst. This is Will’s decision to make.”
“How can you say that?”
“It breaks my heart as much as yers, but we are all called to different duties. Will must listen to his heart.”
“Da, I’m not the only one who will be fighting. It’s the greatest service I can offer.”
Liza knew Liam wouldn’t argue that. God had played a large role in their family and, though it was not the god that Liza had been raised with, she’d come to appreciate his importance to her husband. Over the years she’d attended mass with him whenever they were able and they’d played host to many a priest passing by.
“Then become a man of the cloth instead. You won’t have any harm to you and you can still settle down with a wife.”
Will stared at the hearth fire for a moment before answering. “Da, I can’t read and I’ve got no patience for it. I can wield a weapon, though. I had a grand teacher.” A whimsical smile came to his lips.
Liam was having none of it. He’d enjoyed every minute of sparring with his boys, a skill he felt every young man should know, but he’d never imagined it would turn around on him like this.
“You’re not going. I won’t allow it.” Liam walked over to the door and leaned on the frame staring out into the yard, looking toward the stables and the rolling hills beyond. The land had been raw when they’d received it as a gift from Liza’s parents. Liam had built their home and the stables himself while Liza took care of a young Will.
“Da, I’m a man. I don’t need yer permission.”
“I will not give you my blessing!” Liza flinched at the shouted words. She grasped Will’s hand. He let her hold it for a second and squeezed it gently before giving it a quick kiss.
“Then I guess, Da, I’ll have to go without it. I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“Not with our horses.”
“Then by foot.”
Liam scowled and stalked out the door, limping slightly on his wooden foot.
Liza cleared the cups and gave the table a wipe with her apron. “Ye’ll be needing supplies, I best get on making some bread.” And she knew she’d make a few other things, too. She listed off the ingredients in her head as she looked for the leather strap that would make a good bracelet for her son. A talisman to keep safe. At least while he spent three days walking into the nearest village.
“Thank you, Mum.”
She spent the afternoon packing as much food for Will as she could spare while she waited for the bread to bake. Then she settled down to work on the talisman.
An old piece of worn leather had been stashed away when William was young. She smiled fondly as she ran it through her fingers. It had been the piece of leather she’d given him when he was teething. In the beginning it had been stiff and unforgiving, but by the time he was done with the worst of the teething the strap had been malleable and soft. It still bore the markings of some of his teeth.
Using a knife she scratched some runes on what would be the inside of the bracelet. She was careful to add other meaningless markings to make it look more decorative rather than pagan. When she finished she pricked the tip of her finger with the knife and smeared her blood onto the runes, giving Will a little piece of her to carry around with him everywhere. A mother’s love offered great protection to children.
Then she began to chant. She was quiet but she spoke the words with fervor as she held the leather tightly between her hands. With her eyes closed she imagined a web of energy surrounding the strap and then settling into the fibres of the leather. She was expecting the whoosh of energy this time and the faintness didn’t catch her off guard.
“Mum? What ye doin?” Jake, her youngest, had come into the house, no doubt hungry after spending the day dodging chores and playing when he could.
“I’m just praying, Love,” she said.
“Is it ’cause Will’s going off to war?”
She knelt down and let him run into her arms. His arms barely made it around her waist. He sniffled a bit and clutched her tight, but he didn’t cry. She let him hold on until he was done then she pulled back and looked at him. “Will is going to do God’s work. Ye should be proud.”
Jake studied her face for a moment and then wiped a tear from her cheek, “He’ll be back, Mum, don’t worry.” She gave him another hug before sending him to wash up.
As she expected, Liam was in the stables, tending to the horses. Spending time out there forced him to calm down so he could care for his animals. She watched him for a moment. The limp in his right leg was getting worse. The wooden foot sometimes rubbed the skin raw in spite of the tough skin on the stump.
“So ye’re really going to send yer oldest boy off to war without a blessing?” she said. He continued shovelling manure out of a stall and ignored her for a moment. “It’s almost like Will is his father’s son. Faithful… Dutiful… Pig-headed.”
“Now that’s just mean,” he said, but she saw a small smile tug at his lips. Then he sighed and leaned on the shovel. “How can I give Will my blessing to go off to a war that’s not his to fight? Especially when I know what the consequences can be?” He gestured at his foot, a reminder of his short time as a squire.
At one point Liam had come from a noble house. It was required that he participate in the Pope’s holy war and he had been excited to do it. He was a squire to one of the knights that bore the red cross and was in the camp one moonless night when it was attacked. Many had died that night and her husband had been grievously injured.
“It was lucky there was a family of healers nearby that could help.”
“And he may not be so lucky, Liza. He might be like one of the many others killed for no reason other than a greedy Pope.”
“Well that isn’t very Christian of ye, Liam.” She crossed her arms. “Ye know, had ye not gone to war and not been injured ye would never have met me.”
He rubbed a hand down his face and nodded, grinning at the memory. “Marrying a young pagan lass was worth losing every single bit of my inheritance, let me tell you.”
She smiled back and reached out for his hand. “Would ye deny Will that happiness?”
“That was coincidence, Liza, and you know it.”
“So ye know his destiny, then? Ye’ve spoken to the Lord personally and he has told ye what He has planned for Will?”
“No.” He said it softly. “That’s what has me worried. I don’t know what’ll happen. He may leave and we may never see him again.”
“He’s leaving whether ye give yer blessing or not. The road he takes is between him and God. Would ye have him leave thinking ye were angry with him?”
He took her hand and held it to his chest. “You’ll make sure he’s safe, right?”
Her other hand slipped into her apron pocket, her fingers wrapping tightly around the bracelet. “Of course.”
The next morning Liam and Will shared a teary eyed farewell while Liza stood back with the other children. They’d already said their goodbyes. The bracelet was wrapped tight around his wrist and she hoped it would stay there.
There was no way of knowing if her son would come back from the war; and if he did what irreparable damage would be done to him. But her boy was leaving with the love and blessing of both of his parents. She could only hope that would be enough.
Thank you all for taking the time to read, I hope you enjoyed it.
Until next time, Happy Reading!
The Beguiled Bibliophile