Midwinter

The child cried at the castle gate, and nobody knew how it had come there. One road only lead across the high moors to Castle Crome and the lookouts on the battlements could see down it for miles, past the forest of dark pines and clear across the lake. There had been no boat on the lake – and no boatman worth his oars would have set forth in this weather. There had been no sound of hooves to indicate that a horseman had brought it here and, inexplicably, abandoned it. And twisted as it was it could hardly have walked. It was as if it had dropped from the sky.

Rain blew in in icy sheet and the winds were such that a grown man would have struggled to make headway against them, yet the child’s cries could be heard over all the storm’s fury. It sounded more like a bird than anything human. There was something inhuman about the pitch, the raucous, pitiful strength, such that all those within were afraid to open the gate to this creature, twisted and spavined as it was. The rough-hewn stick it must use to support itself was sprawled on the wet stone beside it. The child looked half dead – as if not expecting rescue. And yet its cries continued.

From the spy-slot beside the portcullis Gatekeeper Marek observed his latest problem. His life had seemed to be all problems recently. Shreds of black hair were plastered to its face by the rain. It looked as if someone had hacked it off fairly recently with a knife. Its clothes were ragged too. Not even a cloak, or skins for protection. The storm had been raging like this for hours. Why was it not dead already?

Gatekeeper Marek found the hoarse cries distressing. He was a merciful man with children of his own. ‘We must put an end to its misery,’ he muttered. Either let it in and feed it or go out and slit its throat.’ It was like watching a stag die, too slowly, after a hunt – something appalling about it. The twisted child’s cries grew weaker but did not stop.

The cries were carried up on the stormy air and forced Lady Anne to rise from her couch, where she had been attempting to pick up her embroidery where pain had obliged her to abandon it three days before. She had never been physically strong. The birth of her first child had left her bloodless it seemed. No matter: the boy that would both perpetuate her husband’s blood-line and, mercifully, secure her position – always somewhat tenuous for a childless wife in ruthless times. She swayed as she stood. An embroideress hastened to her side.

Take my arm, my Lady.

But Anne shook off the woman’s help. She must be careful to show no weakness, even excusable weakness, now Tervil was gone. The castle was full of ambitious men – women, too – and such authority as she might, for the while, possess as his wife could easily be forfeit. Though weakened by childbed, too young and in no way qualified to rule, she must be Lord in his stead until his return from the Wars – assuming he did return, and in one piece. She shivered, chilled both by the dank, midwinter air and the responsibility and by what the future might hold – for him, for her and for her son. She made her voice stern, unconsciously imitating Tervil.

‘What is that unholy racket?’

A child, my lady. A girl, I think. A-crying outside the gates.

It was the first snowfall of the year…

…and time for him to go.

Again this year he had been fortunate. A minstrel could not take bread and board for granted, even at ġéol, that most festive of seasons. Twelve days of feasting, drinking and song. A roaring fire in the Great Hall, so many logs piled into it that the sparks flew high. Not infrequently these decided to nest in the tapestry hangings that lined the walls. Such hangings were priceless and must be swiftly beaten out by the two servants appointed to that task, who were armed with a ladder and damp cloths. Minstrels were much in demand over ġéol, but there were many minstrels on the roads nowadays, roaming from castle to castle and trying their luck.

You needed to be young to cover such immense distances on foot. You needed to be healthy to survive the in-between nights sleeping in barns and ditches, stealing apples from orchards and turnips from fields in passing – the occasional steaming pie from a window-ledge; the in-between days performing in market squares and taverns; the likelihood that at any time you would be attacked and robbed of the coins you had earned.

But then you also needed to be old, for the songs to be in your head. How many days and nights of walking for just one song to be born and committed to memory? How many losses and loves and close escapes for the germ of a song to expand into one of the many-versed ballads beloved of the Lord and his lordlings on winter evenings? How many days of adventuring among hedge-sparrows and serving maids, to give the songs their unique colour and beauty? How long for a complex, unforgettable tune to be born out of joy and sorrow, sunshine and snow? How many days on the road?

Sometimes, even now, there were women. This time it had been Moire, one of the kitchen girls. A brown girl, he thought with a smile: brown hair, long and horribly tangled, brown eyes, brown skin – though most of that was dirt. She had been kind to him, and he to her. He had sung for her before to lure her to his pallet in one corner of the kitchen, and sung for her afterwards, to lull her to sleep. She was weary. Kitchen girls were perpetually weary. It was a life, he supposed, but not much of one. Like him, she had survived.

He had not said goodbye to little Moire, though he knew he would be leaving when the first snows fell. He never said goodbye. In any case he would not be coming back this way. He felt it in his bones.

Felt death in his bones. He shivered, wrapping his furs more tightly around him, and hoisting onto his back the pack containing all he had in the world, including that most precious possession of all, his lute, wrapped in silk, then wool, then oilcloth. On the turn of the stone stair, through a slit in the stone wide enough to fire an arrow but narrow enough not to receive one, he felt an icy draught. The early morning sky was aflame with yellows and pinks as the sun attempted to rise and warm the earth. But the ground was frozen hard. Any snow would be bound to lay.

Soon, all would be white…

snowfall