The sacrifice had been chosen, nurtured, and cared for until it was perfect. The old sun god would be sated, the days would start to grow longer, and the people would be safe from the ravages of the harsh winter. Beautiful and strong this year’s chosen stood like a beacon within a sea of rolling white snow.
Evan Lawston smiled sadly at the old and massive fir. He ran his hand along the boughs and inhaled deeply enjoying the delicate musk aroma released by its sharp needles.
He had watched this tree grow and had in fact grown with it. He would miss its majestic presence, but he had to admit, it would make a wondrous Yule tree.
Though Christians at heart this was one of the old pagan traditions to which the village, the knights, and the King himself, still held. For the last twelve days, people had made the trek up the small hill to pay tribute to this tree during Christmastide. Its boughs bent and swayed beneath the weight of many gifts.
Evan walked around the tree and touched several objects as he circled it, a small cloth doll, a hardened loaf of bread, a silver chain with a medallion spinning in the breeze, and a pair of children-sized slippers.
Up and up the offerings went until Evan was dizzy from looking up at them and wondering how most of those items were placed so high.
Around the tree, amidst a bed of straw, were things too big to fit on the boughs, stacks of cloth, hides of animals, and various tools. Evan looked around at the wide space between this tree and the others. The meadow it sat within was new this year; trees had been removed from around the sacrifice, a space opened and the wood distributed amongst the villagers.
A loud crash, the sound rolling across the glistening snow, pulled him from his peaceful escape. He walked to the edge of the meadow, where the top of tall grasses swayed above their frozen prison.
The hill sloped away in a gentle arc and a beaten path, covered in freshly fallen snow, meandered its way toward the castle, toward his home.
Below him was an ocean of people bundled up against winter’s teasing grip. They made their way toward Grayweist castle, some riding in wagons, some on foot, and some on horseback, all loud and boisterously excited for the night to come.
“This celebration is going to be amazing.” He glanced back at the tree. “And you, my tall friend, will be the greatest attraction.” Like every year, people would come from miles around and it mattered not what status they held. His mother put on a spectacular celebration and everyone, from peasants to royalty, was welcome in her home. Today, if no other, all the people of her kingdom were equal.
He turned back to the tree, smiled widely, and held out a twisted bough of pine and holly, the evergreen to pay homage to everlasting life and health in this frozen wasteland of winter and the holly berries to draw good tidings and to trap evil spirits leaving the village that this tree overlooked protected. He dropped into a low bow and then placed his gift carefully on the highest branches he could reach.
The dark green and bright red made it feel like Christmas, like nothing else did.
A loud jangle of chain mail erupted from the castle and wiped the grin from his face. Frustration tinged his thoughts, and all joys of the Christmas celebration were unceremoniously stripped away.
The knights were making their way to the lists, getting prepared for the entertainment of the day. Sunlight glinted off shimmering chain mail making it impossible to see exactly who he was looking at and Evan wondered where his mother was. “Getting dressed for the tournament more than likely,” he grumbled.
Children raced through the crowd, weaving around their parents, and crashing into people. He could almost hear their laughter and he longed to join them, but he could not. It was hard to bear their teasing and this tournament was going to make things even harder, every tournament seemed to increase the teasing, the taunting, the misery.
He fell backward into the thick snow; the cold powder erupted around him, clouding his vision, and settling on his face and chest. He sighed. Above him was a wide expanse of brilliant blue, but he could still see the darkness that surrounded him.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
He had lived his entire life, all twelve years of it, under the shadow of the Dark Knight. The Dark Knight had reigned with power and fear, had grown into an infamous figure with a horrid reputation. Long since retiring that reputation had continue to grow, and the dangerous knight still held sway over the land. A parent with a reputation like that was great, what every twelve-year-old boy should dream of. “If it was your father,” he said, spitting the words as if they were a curse, and perhaps, he thought, they were.
For it was not his father who held this honor, it was his mother. Vanessa Lawston was the infamous Dark Knight. Growing up as Van Burgess to stay hidden from her father, a situation that Evan still did not fully understand, his mother had somehow become this dangerous and unstable creature that everyone still whispered about; loved though she was, Evan could still hear the fear in those whispers.
The cold snow was beginning to melt beneath him, and he realized he could not stay where he was, but he did not want to move, did not want to face the villagers or the children.
The tempting aromas of roasting oxen, poached salmon and savory vegetables rolled across the glistening snow and pulled him from his reverie.
His stomach rumbled in anticipation, and he opened his eyes. He did not want to return, but his stomach told him otherwise. With a growl he jumped to his feet.
He took one last look at the beautifully decorated tree and raced toward the castle and the lists. The noise grew almost painful as he approached; the laughter, the rattle of chainmail, the clang of practicing swords, the yells of warriors, all swirled into a maelstrom of chaos.
Children squealed with laughter; parents yelled for an obedience that never came. It was a celebration, and the children knew it. It was a rare occasion that they got to run wild, and they took every advantage of it.
Evan slowed, a stitch in his side screamed painfully. The snow along the hill had been trampled clear to the dead grass and his feet sang praises for the reprieve. Topping the hill, he came to a sudden stop. The lists were overrun with guests, both young and old. They were bundled in thick woolen blankets and huddled with loved ones.
Evan smiled despite himself, the festivities pulling at him, calling him out of his misery. He began to feel the spirit of the holiday weaving across his thoughts.
The joy of the crowd was contagious.
Suddenly the crowd fell still, and the ensuing silence was deafening. Unnerved by the sudden and complete quiet, Evan turned and followed their gaze.
His father, Peter Lawston, stood before them. His hand was raised, and a smile was on his lips. Evan made his way slowly into the crowd.
His father knew what they were waiting for, but he remained silent, waiting until all eyes were on him, waiting until the milling group was nearly trembling. The year-end tournament was looked forward to all year and excitement thrummed. Anticipation built and it was nearly palpable, ebbing and flowing against Evan like a wave.
His father dropped his arm and his smile widened. “The contestants are ready. We will begin shortly.”
The crowd erupted with cheers, hoots, hollers, and laughter.
Evan turned his attention away from the crowd and his father. He pulled a book from his jacket and found a somewhat quiet spot out of the way. He dropped onto a large rock that sat in the sun and opened his book, England’s history swam before him, and the warmth of the rock seeped through his wet clothing.
After reading the same paragraph three times and still not knowing what it said, Evan slammed the book closed, irritation tormenting him.
Glancing up at his father he tried to ignore the doubts that ate at him. He did not know how to communicate with his father, and he wanted to. His father thought that at twelve Evan should be up to his knees in weapons and war and while outwardly Evan acted as his father wanted, weapons and war did not hold his passion. Evan had always been more interested in books.
He glanced from his father to a large group of boys, not surprised to see his two younger brothers right in the middle of the fray. Casey and Bailey were twins of ten and even though they were younger and smaller than the other boys they made no excuses. They threw themselves into mock battle and pretended jousts, fought with the biggest of the boys and most of the time won, and when they lost they only sought to work harder and get better.
Evan practiced as well, with the sword and with the daggers, but where his brothers sparred with the other boys, Evan practiced with his father and with the men. He did not get along with the children and could not let the teasing roll off his back like his younger brothers did, though he wished he could.
Evan had always avoided boys his age and as a result he had grown better than all of them with his weapons and his fists, but the boys did not know it until they pushed him too far. He tried not to fight and for the most part he succeeded, but there had been many a time he had gotten the switch because he had let his temper get the better of him.
A horn blew announcing the arrival of the contestants. Evan looked up, surprised to see his father staring at him. Evan smiled nervously and relaxed when his father smiled in return before turning to take his seat amongst the onlookers.
Evan looked toward the knights, chainmail glittering brightly in the warming afternoon air. He had wished his father would be joining the tournament, but to his horror his mother had joined instead. His father had made some joke about sitting out as to not beat her.
As his mother took her spot in the first contest Evan turned his attention back to his book, A Dark History of Knights, and tried to pretend that none of this was happening.
He could hear the chanting; he could hear his mother’s name being called and the clashing of swords. He closed his eyes wishing he could close his ears as well. He told himself once again that, hungry or not, he should have stayed away.
“Evan, your mother is doing well in the tournament.” Evan heard the dark tone of Marcelino, the biggest of his childhood tormentors. He took a deep breath and opened his eyes.
Marcelino stood before a group of about ten boys, hands on fatty hips, and a grin revealing several missing teeth. The remaining ones, to Evan’s disgust, were yellow.
“Yes, from the sounds of it I believe she is.” He tried to get off the rock, his book clutched to his chest, but Marcelino’s booted foot shoved him back down, his thigh striking the rock before he slid to the cold, wet ground.
Evan jumped to his feet keeping his distance from the weak attempt that Marcelino made to keep him down. “Let me be.” Evan turned to walk away. He did not need to get in trouble for fighting, not again.
Marcelino grabbed his arm as he tried to pass, the other boys circled them, cheering Marcelino on, getting louder with the roar of the crowd as someone won the first round in the tournament.
Evan jerked his arm away. A boy gave him a hard shove from behind. Evan stumbled, barely keeping his feet beneath him.
“Your momma’s more of a man than your father is.” Marcelino said, a sneer wrinkling the corner of his nose.
Evan had to fight the urge to plant a fist in that bulbous nose. Instead, he smiled and said, “No, she is not, but she is more of a man than your father.” He drew some satisfaction from the look of dark anger that crossed Marcelino’s face.
“Your momma’s a man…your momma’s a man.” The boys began the familiar chant. It rang through the air vibrating through his ears and all the way to his toes. His innards tightened and he gripped his book tightly, his fingers growing numb as he forced himself to remain still.
“His mother is not a man, but she is a great knight.” The calm words of his best friend, Jerrad Burgess Puelo, sounded from right behind him. “And that great knight just beat your father.” Jerrad stepped beside Evan and the twisting daggers that had felt embedded in his stomach started to ease. Together they stood their ground before the tormenting boys.
“If she beat my father, it is because she cheated.” Marcelino shouted, his face turning an ugly purple.
Anger ripped through Evan like a volcano and the burning lava swept away all his good intentions and with it all his good sense. He swung his heavy book. It connected with Marcelino’s face, blood splattering across the thick leather cover, and he lunged at him.
Evan did not know what happened next, the moments were lost in a tangle of elbows, fists, and knees. Buried between the cold, wet, sodden ground and heavy, sweat laden bodies all Evan was conscious of was the satisfying feel of bones breaking beneath his blows and the taste of blood.
Suddenly a bright light pierced through the darkness and a sharp pain screamed through his head. Someone was jerking him out of the fray by his hair. He swung a heavy blow at this new attacker.
He felt his fist connect, but all that he got for his effort was a deep bellied laugh and a sharp pain splintering through his already bruised and bloodied knuckles. Sanity began to sink in at the laugh, and the disfigured face of Verges, his mother’s bodyguard, swirled into view.
“Verges” The words stumbled from him. “I did not mean…”
“I know.” Verges dropped him unceremoniously to the ground. “Where do you two think you are going?”
Evan turned to see who he was speaking to and was surprised to see Casey and Bailey, blood welling from their lips. He had not even known they were involved. He smiled, pain shooting through his split bottom lip.
“We are going back to the tournament to watch mother.” Casey tried an innocent look and failed.
Verges looked from Evan and the twins down to the four bleeding boys that lay in silent mouth-gaping awe as they stared up at him. Verges shook his head. “That is a good idea, all of you go.”
Evan opened his mouth to argue, but Jerrad, blood
trickling from a split on his cheek, shoved him along. “Just go. I must go to my father, but I will find you later.” Evan grumbled but trudged after his brothers.
Evan watched the rest of the tournament with nervous anticipation. He knew it would not go well when his parents discovered he had been fighting again. It was one thing to pretend battle, to get injured during practice, but it was unacceptable to fight.
The last contest came much too quickly for Evan’s liking, but it was, at least, a fun match to watch. Dagger juggling: the two contestants were his mother and Jerrad’s adopted father, Gary Puelo. Evan cringed, knowing his mother would more than likely lose.
He wanted her to lose so she would quit, but he knew that would not happen. Win or lose, his mother was much like her twins, she would never give up.
He wanted her to win because it was worse when she lost. The teasing grew—your momma’s a fake, she is not even good enough to win at fake battles.
He groaned not knowing what to ever wish for, it was bad when she won, and it was bad when she lost.
The late afternoon sunlight glinted off the sharpened blades of the daggers; four to each contestant. The daggers flipped and twirled, faster and faster as the competition drew on. His mother had gotten good, but Gary was the one who had taught her.
Evan closed his eyes, unable to watch, for her he prayed she won, for him he prayed she lost, and his mind whirled painfully beneath the storm of contradiction.
A clank of steel bespoke a loser. Evan jerked his eyes open, his heart sinking at the sight of Gary’s daggers hitting the ground.
The crowd went wild, and Evan turned and fled. He hated being the son of the Dark Knight.
He knew what he wished for, a normal mother.
Evan fled to his father’s library and gazed at the shelves, filled with books that he was sure he was the only one who ever touched. He walked to the closest shelf and ran his hand along the old and worn books.
He turned and slid to the floor. Closing his eyes he took several deep breaths, relaxing as the musty warm smell of the library overtook him. He was just beginning to calm when the door opened. “Damn.” His curse rang through the large room. Opening his eyes to the intruder he gulped.
“That is no way to speak to your mother.” Van stood before the door, still in her chain mail, her long black hair still in a tight braid.
She stood unmoving in the doorway and waited, one black brow arched, her patience at an end.
“Do not.” The door clicked shut with a finality that made Evans’ heart skip. “I spoke with Verges.
“They said you cheated.”
She shook her head and made her way to him. She sat gracefully on the floor beside him, her armor rattling as she leaned back against the wall.
“And you had to defend my honor?” Her stern tone did not soften. She laid his large England history book in his lap and asked. “Is that all there was to it?”
Evan looked at the big book, covered in blood and mud and snow. He took a deep breath and opened his mouth. He could feel the words dancing precariously on the tip of his tongue. He tried to speak, but the words would not come. They teased and tormented, pretended to comply only to retreat once more in a fear that Evan tried to tell himself was irrational.
“You can tell me anything.” She turned slightly to face him, chainmail scraping against the floor. Her black eyes reminded him of his own, as did her stature, her composure and, if the stories were to be believed, her temper. It was said that he was the very image of her.
A fact that pleased him absolutely none.
He opened his mouth to tell her the truth but sparkling deep within the black depths of her eyes was pride, that pride froze the words. How could he tell her he was ashamed of being her son? He could not; all he could do was shake his head.
“Tell me.” This time her voice was sharp, there was no question involved.
This was an order, and an order was something he could not disobey.
He pushed his concerns to the back of his mind. He opened his mouth and shoved the words from him. “I do not want you to do the tournaments anymore.”
“Are you worried I will get hurt?”
This was a question, at least, that he could answer honestly, and easily. “Yes.” He smiled at the surprise on her face. “I know you can take care of yourself. I still worry.”
She nodded as if she understood and he hoped she would leave it at that, but those black eyes seemed to see into his very soul. “Is that the only reason?”
“No,” he found the answers came easier now that he had begun. “The other squires and pages…they know who you used to be…” His words were lost in a storm of emotion and he fought against tears.
She placed a warm hand across his arm and the light weight of it threatened to be his undoing. He jerked away and jumped to his feet. He took several deep breaths. They did not help.
He could hear the chainmail jingling and scraping as she must have followed him to her feet. “You are upset because I was the Dark Knight?”
He spun on her. “No, I am upset because you still are.” Evan sucked in a breath surprised by his own words. He closed his eyes; the tears were beginning to win. He felt one slide down his cheek.
Her strong arms wrapped his shoulders and refused to release him when he tried to struggle away. “I understand. I never meant to cause you any harm.” She grasped his chin with rough fingers and forced his head
up. “Look at me so I know you hear me.”
He opened his eyes and was lost in the love he saw looking back at him. “I cannot change who I was, for the past is set, and I cannot change who I am. But I can do this for you. I will make this my last tournament if you truly believe it will help you.”
Before he could answer, tempting aromas announcing the closeness of dinner slithered in as the door was opened. His stomach growled, painfully reminding him that he still had not eaten. The echoes of guests’ laughter and chatter rang through the halls.
“I see you found him.” His father’s voice was nearly lost to the commotion outside the library. He pushed the door closed, cutting off the noise.
“Where else would he be?” His mother’s voice sounded strained, and guilt hit Evan, he felt better having talked about things, but now his mother felt worse.
Evan wiped the dreadful remains of tears away from his cheeks and turned to face his father.
His father ran his gaze over Evan and grunted, his eyes narrowing to slits. He shook his head in disapproval. “Shall we just do it now or wait until everyone has left the celebration?” His scowl deepened as he looked at Evan’s torn and dirty clothing.
Various punishments ran through Evan’s head from a public flogging to being drawn and quartered. He shook away these ridiculous notions; he was their son, not some war prisoner. He forced courage into his spine and stood proud and tall. He had defended his mother and if punishment came it was worth it.
“I see no reason to wait. The guests will understand the need to get it done quickly.” His mother was looking at him sadly, a concerned look on her face that Evan had rarely witnessed before. She shook her head, and he was sure he saw pity.
His heart dropped and settled somewhere in vicinity of his lower bowels; his stomach rumbled an uncomfortable complaint.
“Give me what?” His voice was weak and shaky, nothing like the aggressive demand he had been trying for.
She walked toward Peter. He wrapped his arm around her and together they stared at Evan, both sets of eyes showing pity now. It took everything Evan had to hold their gaze.
“Give me what?” Evan repeated, unable to keep the tremor from his voice.
“What you deserve.” His mother gestured around
the room. “Your present.”
“Huh?” Evan was confused at first, but as she continued to gesture at the wide expanse of books, her scowl at first faltering and then engulfed by a wide grin, he thought he was beginning to understand. A brilliant light made its way through the darkness that always seemed to be troubling him.
“The books?” Hope swirled within him. “You are giving me the books?”
His father shook his head. “The library.” His father said proudly. “You are the one who uses it most and you get more pleasure from these books than I do.”
Evan lost his well-maintained self-control and threw himself into his parents’ arms. “Thank you,” he whispered against his father’s wide chest. He could feel the sharp bite of chain mail against his back as his mother wrapped her arms around him, holding him tight.
Peter cleared his throat and broke away from the group. He smiled from his son to his wife. “You, my dear, need to get out of that armor. We will meet you in the dining hall. “He wrapped his arm around Evan’s shoulders and tugged him out of the room. “Come, let us eat.”
Evan barely took notice of the massive trays of meats and vegetables that kept coming out of the kitchen. Servants would stop beside him, he would nod his head, but he did not glance at what they were adding to his growing pile. Scarfing the food, and nearly choking, he could think of nothing but the wide expanse of books that were awaiting him.
A horn blared; surprise jolted through him when he realized it was announcing the end of dinner. He looked down at the mountain of food and shook his head.
Van stood and held her hand out to him. He smiled widely and took it. On the way to the door Evan stopped a servant and asked the young maid to save his food for him for later. She dropped her eyes, giggled, and said she would.
Evan followed the glow of torches through the darkness and out into the wide meadow that held the tall Christmas tree. He stared in amazement at the beauty of the night. Torchlight sparkled off the crisp snow throwing a warm glow across the decorated tree.
He took his spot beside his mother. His father stepped up to the tree and turned to the crowd.
“This winter has seen its shortest day, and with the grace of God the days will begin to grow long again. There is much winter left, but the crops were good to us this year and we had a prosperous summer. Tonight, we honor not only our past, but our future. If all would douse your lights.” One by one the torches were pushed into the snow, little by little the darkness returned to swallow the crowd until one torch was all that remained.
His father’s second in command, Grant Hestlay, stepped forward and handed him the torch. His father took it and turned, his gaze searching the darkness. “This year we are going to make a change.” The crowd rumbled, people whispering, wondering. “Most of you know my son, Evan please come join me.”
Evan took a deep breath but didn’t move until his mother pushed him forward. On legs that felt like pudding he made his way to his father. As he stepped into the circle of light his father smiled and offered him the torch. “My son, a soon to be great knight, has shown much promise on the lists with the men. He is growing into a fine man, an honorable warrior, and he is in line to be the next ruler of the castle. Evan, please light the candles.”
Evan’s hand shook so badly he was afraid for a moment that he would drop the torch into the snow and throw them all into complete darkness. A great knight, Evan thought cynically, he could hardly hold a torch, how was he supposed to become a knight, great or otherwise.
His father wrapped his fingers around Evan’s wrist and whispered, “I am very proud of you.”
Evan took a deep breath of frigid night air and forced his arm to still. His father’s hand fell away and Evan turned his attention to the small candles that sat perched upon the fir branches. One by one he touched the flame to the wicks, careful not to set the offerings alight as he did so. The candles sputtered and then flared to life throwing light upon the gifts and flooding the tree with brightness.
As Evan stood on tiptoe to reach the last of the candles his father began to speak.
“This year is coming to an end and the unknown lies before us like a serpent, ready to strike. We pray to the Lord that he will light our way and guide us through our trials and stand with us through our joys. To the sun god of time gone by we still give honor. Please accept this sacrifice to show our devotion to traditions and the ways of the earth as we move forward into our unknown futures.” He nodded to Evan.
Evan dipped the head of his torch to the damp straw beneath. It began to smolder as dry limbs and dropped pine needles began to catch fire. “Now is a time of renewal and hope and soon regrowth will overtake the snow and life will begin anew, as it will be with our heavenly father, from death comes life and the cycle, never-ending, begins again.
Soon soft wisps of musky smelling smoke wafted to Evan’s nose. His father took the torch and dropped it into the fire, one last offering. He walked with his arm around Evan to stand beside his family.
His mother wrapped an arm around Evan’s shoulder and her other around Casey’s and his father pulled Bailey in front of him.
Evan looked across the swarm of people, now lit by the rapidly growing flames and caught site of Marcelino and his mangy group of followers. Marcelino sneered at him, touched his swollen lip, and ran his thumb across his throat in a gesture that Evan could not pretend was anything other than a threat.
Evan knew his problems were far from over. He knew his life was just beginning its own time of trial, but he knew something else.
He knew his family loved him.
Copyright © 2023 Dawn Chandler - All Rights Reserved.