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Note: It doesn’t seem so long ago 2012, and yet it is a lifetime away. I’m not sure this is a good story. I’m not sure it’s finished. In fact, I know it’s not finished. So I’ll say that this is Giving Lancelot 1. It was inspired by a real event on February 14, 1349. Still, I wanted to share it with you.
Madeline Bessette had been strikingly beautiful once with pale blue eyes and silken hair that a lover had once swore he’d mistaken for moonlight. She’d never been a lady, though she’d slept in the beds of ladies, in the sparkling days of memory, sometimes a different lady’s bed each night. She’d never wished to keep those beds, for she wished to own one of her own, halls of her own, brushes and ink of her own, and she had. Fire crackled in her fireplace. She ignored the young man standing just inside her doorway for another moment as she used a small brush to add charcoal shading to the landscape she worked on.
“Mother,” he said softly, his voice barely louder than the crackling of her fire.
After a slow sigh, she lifted her head and motioned for him to come to her. “How is my darling?”
His eyes were as pale as hers, his hair, though shorter, was just as pale, without even the slightest hint of the silver that she found in her own brush. She reached out and tenderly brushed a strand of hair from his face, dusting charcoal over pale skin. “Have you considered what I requested of you, my darling?”
He closed his eyes. Still elegant, but smudged more deeply by time than by charcoal dust, the tips of her fingers caught swelling tears, warm and telling. She studied them where they caught the candlelight on her fingers, then picked them up with her paintbrush.
“I would die,” he said, face pressed to her knee.
“You are only eighteen. The heart always feels so much more powerful in partnership with youth,” she promised, wishing he’d see reason.
“I don’t know what to do.” His anguish tore at her.
Her own tears had no place in her art. His could be proof of his virtue, jewels of his precious heart, but hers could be only the fruits of sin. Her smiles she had given to many. The warm honey of her company had been tasted by man. Her tongue had tasted the fruit of many sighs, many cries, but her heart had opened the door only once. “Then my darling, you must take your love and you must run. This world ends what new world may begin. I want just one thing and that is for you to find all the joy a man may find. You are sure of him? Utterly and completely, my darling? Once done, there will be no path of retreat.”
“As if these wolves have given us a path of retreat?” Thybaut said. “Where will we go?”
“Anywhere your heart calls you, darling, but you must not tell me or any other member of the house, the city. Do not decide for sure until you are free of the city. If there is ever peace, you will write me.” She tenderly combed her fingers through his hair, soothing him the same way she had when he had been only a small boy. “You know if you stay here, in our home, the trouble will grow, doing no more damage. Do you love him so much? Do you love him so much that you leave home for him?”
Thybaut wrapped his arms around his mother’s legs, hugging her desperately, as he knelt at her feet, the soft linen of her gown warm against his cheek. “I can not live if he burns.”
Her gentle caresses did not change at all, even has her heart strings untied just a little. “It is said that such a love is to be truly alive.”
“Did you ever love in such a way, Maman?”
“I have loved you, my son, I could ask for no more. Time is short. I will send Wolf with you. You and he must bring your Crespin here to the house, and no more than one small child with him. Both will need to accept baptism.”
He tensed, holding tighter for a moment. “They can’t really burn men, wives, children... burn them alive. Even the Holy Father commanded against it. God will stop them.”
“Hungry men are known to eat what they can get into their hands, Thybaut,” Madeline said sternly. “If you are to build a life with this Jewish boy of yours, and not just throw your life away in some childish fit of heroics, you must realize that there is no god coming to save you and that heroes die before they are remembered. Dead heros are no more than dead men and pretty dark eyed men do not enjoy kissing dead men and if they do, you won’t enjoy knowing them, in any case. If there is any safety in this world, you will have to make it yourself.”
“If we must leave, why can’t you come with us?”
“Look at me.”
He lifted his head and she brushed her fingers over his face, brushing those flyaway blond away. “Do you remember the story of Lot and his wife?”
“Yes, Maman,” he said softly.
“That story is there for these moments. When danger chases you, you must choose your path, put your shoulder to it with all your will. I can not go with you my darling because I can not hold to the pace that you must keep. There is no place safer for me than right here. Do not be afraid. Be strong and do what you must.”
“He will be here, my precious darling,” she promised. “It will be as we discussed.”
“I love you, Maman.”
“So, go and bring this boy to me,” she said, brushing him off her lap, slender and aged fingers grey against the vibrant brocade of her gown. “I shall see to things here.”
He stood, straightened his surcoat. Nervous for a moment and in him she could see the boy who had been her heart, her life for so long, but also the man who had stolen her boy away too. Time ate all good things. His jaw set, blue eyes narrowed and he whispered, “God abandons us, truly.”
Madeline stood. She wore dark blue, ermine, well above her station, but fines were not a concern for her. Ignoring her son’s momentary lapse into theology, she summoned her most trusted servant. “Wolf.”
Wolf was a great man, almost too tall for the arched door into her room. Dressed in dark brown leather, a wolf pelt over his shoulder, long blond hair in a dozen braids over his shoulders, he gave little impression of being civilized. “My lady,” he grunted.
“Thybaut must go to the Quarter and bring back his betrothed. Go with him.”
The dane bowed. “My Lady.” His eyes narrowed, speaking to her of his disapproval.
She just gave him a very slight upturn of her lips, a touch of a smile that had moved many a man in its day. His expression remained unchanged.
The connection between his mother and the wildman had never been comfortable for Thybaut. He swept out of the room. His manservant waited in the hall for him, thick coat with hood and Thybaut’s sword belt held in his arms. “Is it true, Master Thybaut?”
The slender blond slipped into his coat, pulled the hood up so that it shaded his face. A dark green, though not black. The Bessette household had lost no family to the vapours, but there were only the two of them, which gave no reason to feel secure, but Thybault felt safe, in any case. It was still no small adventure to go into the Quarter, out of the safe feeling compound that was their home. He wished he wasn’t taking Wolf, for all that he expected he would need the larger man’s aid. The great wall of a man had been his tutor in both swords and horses, as well as a great many other things his mother might not have felt as positive about. The Dane was his mother’s closest companion.
“Master,” Acel said, head down. “I think it’s true about the god-killers. They poison the waters and god does not protect us because we let them live with us. It’s the god-killers, the whores, and the sinners. That’s why my mother and sisters are dead.”
Thybaut laid a gentle hand on the boy’s head. “Acel, Father Devery spoke the words of the Holy Father, that the Jewry has nothing to do with the sickness that does us so much harm. Our Lord Jesus does not act in anger, only in love. Do you not wish to obey our Holy Father?”
“Well, he ain’t here is he,” Acel said, chin trembling as he looked at the only master he’d ever known. “He don’t know what evil they do.”
“Acel, he is the Holy Father, holding Saint Peter’s throne. How could he not know?”
The boy broke away, anger and despair in his eyes. Betrayal and loss, dark eyes accused. “You are gonna help us burn’em aren’t you? They gonna kill your mother too, if you don’t. We have to protect ourselves.”
“I aim to protect what is mine, Acel. I would never willingly allow harm to come to you.” Thybaut tightened his sword belt another notch, resettled his blade in his hip. “You have trust in me, do you not? I have been here so I know what hurt we bear. I loved your mother and sister too. We are Christians. We act in love, not in fear. If it is God’s will that we die, then we go home to him.”
“Yes, master,” Acel said. “I know you to be a good master, gentle. My mother thought you might take the cross or the cloth.”
“I have considered doing so, but I feel as though I am called by God in a different path. Your mother was a gentle woman who cherished God’s Grace.”
“I am going with my father tomorrow, to arrest the demons. He says they might take their true forms and try to fly away, but we have archers. They won’t get far. The evil burning away. After we get rid of them, there will be clean air so you love people.” The boy paused, chewed his lip, trying to reconcile the words of his father and the words of his master. “But.. Love keeps us safe?”
“Indeed it does,” Thybaut said, wondering what form demons could take - perhaps such as sweet boys that one had known their whole life. “Give my regards to your father, Acel.”
“Master Thybaut. Sinners have to be burned, even whores,” Acel shouted defiantly. “Don’t they?”
Thybaut turned back to him, pushed his hood back, smiled as if he were indeed a priest giving his blessing. “God will see to all good. A man should turn his hand to god’s love and nothing more.” Quieter, he turned to Wolf who stood beside him. “Stay with my mother, your eyes on her.”
Wolf studied Thybaut for a moment, his jaw shifting as he thought, but then nodded in approval. “Ja.”
Thybaut nodded sharply and strode to the end of the hall, down the stairs and out to the stables. He saddled his own mount, a quick mare who would navigate the sometimes narrow streets of Strasbourg. He brought only one horse, as he didn’t mean to bring it back.
From the first day he’d seen Crespin, he’d dreamed of some similar adventure. Never had his imagination included unimaginable death, the coming of Armageddon. That first moment had been five years previous. He’d just begun to shave, to dream in certain ways that Wolf said a man was meant to dream in. He’d taken to drawing the dark haired beauty, the long silky hair, the eyes like a dark forest. He hadn’t known a name or even a sex then, but he’d searched the city for his love, walking the streets day-after-day. Crespin Elijah Gelernter had been found on a summer day, sitting in a garden, a scroll in his lap, his hair long, free around his shoulders. Thybaut had fallen from the wall and into the garden, an awkward blond, with wide blue eyes.
Crispen, several years older than Thybaut, leaned back in his chair, the scroll resting in his lap. “And what kind of little bird has God brought to me today?” His voice was deep, but deep like poetry touches the soul, smooth as melting honey, light as sunlight caught in that golden sweetness.
Thybaut’s voice had been dry as bones in that moment, his mouth hanging open, as he pushed up to his hands and knees. “You’re a man.”
“Why,” Crispen said, amusement lifting his dark rose lips in a unbalanced smile, “so I am. So seem you to be. It’s also summer and the afternoon is quite warm.”
“Uh,” Thybault rocked back on his heels, a hand over his mouth. “You’re Jew.”
Crispen touched the tip of a slender finger to his lips, looked up into the branches shading them. His finger slipped down just below his full lower lip. “Really? I thought I was an angel.”
“So do I,” Thybaut whispered. “My priest said my Lord Jesus said, ‘If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.’”
The smile that followed was the first breaking of spring for Thybaut. Not as if it were a perfect smile, a beautiful smile as one finds in portraits of kings. A tooth to the left had long since find a different place to be. His lips were a touch too dark to be what poets spoke of. A little higher on the right than on the left, perhaps to hide that missing tooth, but the light in those dark green eyes touch light in Thybaut’s heart and just like Adam eating the fruit for the first time, Thybaut knew he’d been alone for ever moment of his life until that one. He chewed his own lip, then inched just a little closer. “Tell me please, your name, fine sir, for I must etch it deep into my heart, least I lose my way forever in the world the moment you send me away from you.”
There was a fleeting moment of confusion in those green eyes. “Crispen Elijah Gelernter. Who are you?”
“I am Thybaut Bessette. Who must I ask for your hand in marriage?”
The laughter that rolled over him would recur in Thybaut’s thoughts many time after that day, but the first sting of Crispen’s laughter would turn to a balm that could sooth any injured feeling. The other laughter added from the side and Thybaut turned to find a taller man with dark eyes and an amused smirk.
“Well, hello little Christian,” Crispen’s older brother, Alain said teasingly, but not unfriendly. “Did my little brother tell you that he has been sickly all his life, that he barely leaves the house, that he’s a man? That my father will kill you dead as your Christ if he catches you here trying to corrupt his favorite son?”
Thybaut blew air into his cheeks, a blond eyebrow arching. “My Christ isn’t dead and he said all things are possible. I will ask your father. God gives love where He gives it.”
“God gives laws, which the Christians then make jewelry out of, when they borrow money from us for the gold. Penny, may I throw your Christian out?”
Crispen lifted his scroll, eyes on it, even if there was a slight blush on his cheeks. “Alain, if you please.”
The larger and rather amused Alain got Thybaut by the scruff of his surcoat, dragged him to the garden gate and thrust him out with enough force to land the young man on his knees.
“I shall be back!”
“Yeah? Bring scrolls. He reads Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and that dogrel the British call language.”
“Don’t tell him such things,” Crispen shouted. “Don’t encourage him! Papa will kill him.”
Alain winked. “All things are possible, little Christian?”
It had taken him three months and hand cramps that caused Wolf great amusement to copy the borrowed manuscript. If his angel wished for books, then Thybault would make books. His mother had fretted and sworn that if she’d known he wished to be an Irish priest, she could have made that happen.
In the end he had copied out all of Lancelot. So in the fall, he went back to the wall, for the longest time he stood there, leaning, wanting any sound from the other side that might let him know whom he’d meet should he slip himself back into heaven’s garden.
“Well then,” that sweet voice said, startling him so that he jumped and clutched the carved wooden box to his chest.
He stared up to find Crispen sitting easily on the wall, one knee bent. Crispen smiled and Thybaut’s heart fluttered.
“So what have you brought me,” he asked, hands on the curved surface of the wall.
Thybaut had swore to himself that his voice would not go dry and gone the moment he saw his love again. He’d practiced until Wolf had threatened to castrate him if he didn’t simply go deliver his poetry. “A book.”
“Lovely. I love books. What kind of book?”
He stared up and he was sure that there was an aura of holiness around the dark silky hair, that it was true that God Himself had declared their love.
“Reason, which warred
With Love, warned him to take care;
It taught and advised him never
To attempt anything likely
To Bring him shame or reproach.
Reason’s rules come
From the mouth, not the heart.
But Love, speaking from deep...”
“Chrétien de Troyes! You’ve brought me Chrétien de Troyes!” Crispen leaned slipped over onto his belly, arms reaching for the box. “You’ve brought me Lancelot!”
Thybaut held out the box, smiling shyly. “Lancelot.”
Crispen caught the box, smiled. “Come to the gate.” And then he was gone, back into the mysterious garden.
Trybaut felt his face, hoping he’d shaved enough, straightened his hair, his surcoat. He’d worn new tights, bright blue, with black leather boots, laced with silver painted ties. His cote-harde was also blue, embroidered with black roses, not quite illegal for his status, but just a breath below it. He laced his fingers behind his back, rocked up onto the balls of his feet, chewed his lip. He knocked at the gate, straightened, standing proudly, wondering what it would be like to touch his lips to Crispen’s.
The gate opened like thunder and there stood a tall man with short trimmed black hair, a small little cap on his head, a long and prim surcoat that went nearly to his feet in a serious gray. The only color was a belt of gold, and the red lips that pursed together as dark eyes tried to set the little blond Christian boy on fire. “What do you want here, boy?”
Trybaut swallowed slowly, feeling like the very hair on the back of his head was leaning, reaching to run away. “Hello, Sir, I am Trybaut Bessette and I have come to speak of love with Crispen.”
“Love. With. My son,” Malachi, low and quiet as if he were the snake in the tree, ready at the barest motion to strike the unsuspecting Eve. “Little Christian troll, if you so much as touch him, I shall kill you both.” He held up dark gnarled hands, fingers hooked like claws. “I shall strangle your scrawny little neck with my own hands. Mince you and sell you to the Saracens for camel food. I will suffer no dishonor before God.”
If he’d been pale as the moon before, now he was pale as the moon’s reflection on midwinter fresh snow. He shook his head rapidly. “I shall never dishonor you, sir. I shall touch him only when we are properly wed.”
The man turned his head, as if looking with his better eye. “Are you an idiot, Christian?”
“No sir, but I believe all things are possible through Christ.” Very slowly, Thybaut reached into his surcoat and pulled out a small silk draw string bag. “For your honorable wife, sir, the mother of my love.”
Malachi’s face went long, a frown and arched eyebrows. “My son is not for sale, Christian. He is not some horse to be bought and ridden.”
Then it was Thybaut’s face which went long, his mouth open as wide as God’s good will, eyes as wide as grace, cheeks every bit as bright as the forbidden fruit might have been. “I …. I... I...”
When Malachi bellowed in laughter, it sounded very like Alain’s laughter, but with less restraint. He reached out, grabbed Thybaut by the scruff of his neck and dragged him in, slamming the gate closed behind them. “Elijah!”
The willowy brunet was not more than a step away, hiding behind the inner garden wall. He wore a full kirtle with matching cotehardie in an embroidered brocade that if they hadn’t been Jews would have been about as legal as borrowing the Mayor’s shoes without asking. His long dark hair was pulled back and bound at his neck. The carved wooden box held tightly to his chest. “Father.”
“This Christian wishes to pay court to you, proof that Christians are fools for as you can well see, you are both men and he has sworn not to touch you until a priest of his church marries you both, which will never happen, because you are a Jew, but,” Malachi said as he scratched one of his hands. “All things are possible through his savior. So he comes to pay court to you, if you accept him. Do you accept this little pale fool of a Christian?”
Crispen bite his lower lip, refused to cringe when his father glared. “Yes, Father.”
“Very well,” Malachi turned and smirked at Thybaut. “Can you read and write, Christian?”
Thybaut nodded. “But only French,” he said, “And... a little Latin.”
“Can you work figures?”
“Fine, then the last day of the week you will spend in my service and in the evening you may see my son, always with a chaperon, because I really don’t want to have to strangle the both of you. Do you understand?”
“Then you’ll stay for evening meal with us, Christian.”
“My name is Thybaut.”
“A lovely name it is, Christian,” Malachi said, snickering as he went back into his house, leaving them alone in the garden for that moment.
Crispen moved to a small carved bench, sitting far enough to the side that there was room for Thybaut without any risk of them touching. “Do you really love me?”
“With all my heart and soul.”
A dark eyebrow arched, but he gave his attention to the box, which had a polished brass latch, beaten into the shape of a C and a T. He smiled and opened it. He reverently pulled out the small leather bound book. It wasn’t embossed or tooled, but the leather was thin, soft. He ran his fingers over it, then gently turned the first page. The letters, all done in dark ink were larger than was fashionable, very carefully written, several pages in, they were slightly smaller, more confident. Crispen tenderly moved to the stanza that Thybaut had quoted, traced his fingers over the nearly perfect letters. “This is in your hand.”
“Yes. I’m sorry it’s not better.”
Crispen closed it, pressed it to his chest. “It is the most beautiful book I have ever seen.”
“I will get you copies of all the books in the world,” Thybaut promised sincerely.
“Will you take me to the libraries in Rome?”
“Well, when your Christ makes all things possible. I have headaches, Thybaut, sometimes, so badly I can’t see, can’t walk. Father coddles me because the doctors tell him I won’t live. A doctor, when I was little, told him that if I grew my hair out, I would outgrow the headaches and find life. All it’s done is confuse you. You think I’m really a woman.”
“Not true,” Thybaut swore. “I know well that you are a man. Love is like the Holy Spirit. It descends upon whom it will. I am, but the page that God has written love to you.”
“That doesn’t really make any sense,” Crispen said, “But I like it. Are you really going to serve my father until your Christ makes a miracle and the world allows us to marry?”
“I shall serve him and adore you until My LORD returns and we meet him in the air and He, Himself tells you that the Holy Spirit wrote your name in my heart.”
Crispen’s eyes were very wide. “Christians believe the most fantastical of things. Have you seen dragons too?”
“No, but I would see the vile beast and slay it for you if you require.”
Crispen’s laughter was softer, bird song to his father’s thunder. “You’re an idiot, but I think I love you too.”
“Come to dinner,” Sophia said, peeking her head around the wall. “Crispen, the Christian is to come as well.”
Thybaut jumped to his feet, pulled his long sleeve down so that it wasn’t possible for any of his skin to accidentally touch Crispen. “Good sir,” he said gallantly, holding out his arm as he bowed.
Giggling, the back of his hand touching the tip of his nose for a moment, Crispen held his book over his heart, then shook his sleeve down so his skin was also completely covered, laid his hand on Thybaut’s arm and accepted the help to stand, as they made their way into the Gelernter household.
Older and wiser, if deeply shaken by the illness that had ruined so many lives, by the poisonous rage rising like clinging, burning fog, Thybaut pulled his hood down, leaned over his mare and urged her forward. At first the guard around the Jewish quarter had been placed by the Council to protect them. Then the shield had turned to bars in a cage.
In the years of his service to Malachi, Thybaut had grown into a stronger man, a more cunning man. As the sun waned, his feeling of being one of the Four Horsemen grew as well. The empty streets gave him free passage. The dead and the grieving all avoided him equally as if he were the specter of death, his job done with the one and feared by the other. The empty streets, the rain that touched stone did little to wash away rot, sickly sweet, clinging. Just as sweet and clinging, the air stank with violence, with what the houses planned for the morrow, loud and defiant of the Holy Father, of reason, of death itself as if by rage alone they could impose mortal will on the cold claws of fate by the sacrifice of innocents.
At the wall around the Jewish Quarter, Thybaut dismounted, chin towards his chest, his now damp hood hiding his face. He shifted his cloak back to reveal his sword as he strode towards the guards at the gate. They lowered their spears. He held up his empty hand, showing himself not to have a weapon in that moment. “Good sirs, I am a true Christian and mean you no harm.”
“What have you here, sir?”
“I have … accounts to settle with a rat before God’s good vengeance is carried through tomorrow, he said, lifting his head, revealing pale face, blond hair, a small tuft of nobel ermine at his collar. “I shall not be long.”
“We can’t let any pass, in or out, Lord.”
“Your honor and sense of duty are beautiful to behold. Perhaps I might just walk off my energy, if you sirs were to hold onto this fine horse.”
“A horse isn’t enough to sway us,” one of them said firmly, and less sure when he gave him his title, “Lord.”
“What honor you have. Perhaps I could also trust you ten gold coins?”
“What can you want so badly in there among the devils?”
“When a man’s family has been harmed, he will do a great deal to put that to right, by his own hand, not the hand of another. After I take my walk, you shall see me no more, good sirs.”
The looked at each other, then at him. “Show us this gold.”
Thybaut unhooked a small bag from his saddle, shook it. Gold clinked, soft and heavy. “Come and see.”
One of them came closer, held out a hand. Two gold coins were laid into the outstretched hand. “As a good Christian man, I tell no lies.” Which, as he was lying with the skill of an actor, made that statement patently untrue.
“Just a little walk, a little taking care of business early,” the man with gold in his hand said, “My lord.”
The other came forward, looking at the gold, eyes wide. “No harm can come of that, uh?”
Some person, willowy and fast, silent, moved like no more than a shadow out the unattended gate and off into the growing darkness of the city. Thybault felt no shame at all in helping at least one other escape the coming fires.
“I swear I intend no harm to the good people of Strasbroug,” Thybaut said, his smile charming. “To reward the good men, is my pleasure.”
A quick hand caught the rest of the gold. The other man accepted the reins of the mare. He placed a hand on the hilt of his sword and passed into the gates of hell. The streets in the Jewish Quarter were no more occupied than the streets without, but there were more sleepless lights lit. As soon as he was out of the sight of the door, he ran. The sound of his footfalls brought frightened shadows to the windows, then lights flickered out. He knew the path to Crispen’s home so truly, he could have found his way even if he’d been struck blind, but this darkness was nightmare compared to the many times he’d come since that one summer day.
He let himself in the same gate that Alain had once thrown him out of, lifting it just so, so that it was silent as he let himself in. He ran into Malachi just inside the inside garden wall. It had been two weeks since he’d been there and the change in the man who he’d come to regard as a father tore his heart. Ester and Alain had passed, taken by the vapors.
Much thinner, dark circles under his eyes, Malachi smacked a now bony hand on Thybaut’s shoulder. “Christian, you have no sense and your savior is out of time for his miracle. I had come to expect your miracle.”
Without a word, Thybaut threw his arms around Malachi, hugging desperately. “God has not abandoned us.”
“God will never abandon us, Thybaut. God’s ways are just not our ways. Death only carries us closer to him. How did you get in here? Why are you here? You know they intend to burn us tomorrow.” Malachi asked, leaning back the man who’d come of age working for him, acting like some foolish poet around the son he’d never expected to live as long as he had.
“I paid in gold. Malachi, sir, I,” he said, face tight with emotion he could not politely say. “I have a means to take Crispen and perhaps a small child, to get them out of the city. I mean no hurt to you sir, I would put a dagger through my own heart if I thought I could buy lives and safety. You know this, sir?”
“Yes, my boy, I know. Tell me how you accomplish this miracle?”
“If Crispen will accept baptism, there is a priest who will marry us tonight. We can get out of the city. Penny will have to dress as a woman, as my wife.”
“Would you lie to a priest, Christian?”
“No, sir,” he swore, “Father Blanc knows we are both men, but he understands and will marry us, give us his blessing. Crispen’s name can be changed and sir, I will lie to everyone else else. I intend to pass us off as nobles fleeing the sickness. I would take everyone, if I could.”
The embrace that Malachi locked him in knocked the breath from him.
Another small light joined them. “Malachi?” his wife whispered.
“Anna,” Malachi said, holding out his arm to draw her into the embrace. “Anna, Crispen and Mary are going to go with Thybaut. He is going to get them out of the city.”
Her sob was as quiet as a sob could be. She grabbed Thybaut from her husband’s arms and clung to him for a moment, her face buried against his shoulder. He rocked her, his hand rubbing her back, his hand soothing over her hair. “If I could, Mother, I would take all. There is a priest. He will baptise them and marry Crispen and I.”
Age had clawed new lines in her face since he’d seen her last. Dark green eyes stood out. “My babies. God will save us. God will send his angels to encircle us and deliver us.”
“Anna,” Malachi whispered, “this is our angel.”
“It’s possible that nothing will happen that reason will wake up,” Thybaut said gently. “When hearts are calmer, we will break bread together. You have yet to meet my mother.”
“It’s just for a short time,” Anna said, “You’ll watch my baby just until it’s safe again.”
“Yes, Mother,” Thybaut promised. “If there is fighting, it is better for her to be away from here. I wish I knew how to get you all to a safer place.”
“God will take care of us. He will watch over you as you watch over my baby. You won’t really baptize them, will you?”
“I will do whatever I need to do to keep them safe, Mother. That is what you would want me to do, isn’t it?”
She clenched her eyes shut, nodded. “God will forgive us when we can repent.”
He kissed her forehead, wishing the pain in his chest to fade. “God’s grace is more than men can speak.”
“Thybaut,” Crispen snapped, standing midway down the stairs. He wore only a long chemise of white linen, his hair loose and well past his waist. He held a small oil lamp, a bare foot tapping against the chill hardwood floor. “What are you doing here? Are you stupid? Do you know what kind of strife surrounds us right now? You dying isn’t going to prove anything!”
“I know,” Thybaut said moving to the stairs. He wanted to go to one knee, but he felt the pinch of time. “I have come to get you and your sister. I can get you out of the quarter. There is a priest who will baptise you, and marry us. He knows we are both men, but when we leave the city, you... will dress as a woman, as my wife. I will defend you with my life, if need be.”
“I will not leave my parents! I will not run from these dogs and cowards! As if I would ever accept the god of the people who lust every day for my blood! Is it true, Christian, that you eat the body of Christ and drink his blood? Do you dream of his cock in your mouth?”
Rage struck fast, using pent up fear and powerlessness as fuel. Thybaut closed his eyes, his teeth grinding. “If you will not come with me, I will sit here and claim to be a converted Jew. They will burn me, even if they burn no one else.”
Crispen took steps back up the stairs. “Where is your faith, Christian? You would deny your god?”
“What I know of God is that he wrote your name on my heart so that I could find my way and I right now, the world is too dark for me to know more than that.”
From the base of the stairs, Malachi shouted in a voice that was barely a whisper, “Crispen, you will go with Thybaut. You will do what you need to do to save your sister and yourself. I trust Thybaut not to hurt you, to protect you. He has come here at great risk. For now, you will go with him. You can not tell me that you did not long for his miracle.”
“Are you all insane? The dogs are going to burn us! If I could poison their water! I would!”
“You don’t mean that,” Thybaut said softly, standing one step below Crispen. “Come with me, please? Marry me. Who knows how long life may be granted to us, but let us hold to it as tightly as we can.”
“Thybaut! It is the end of the world! How can you talk of love like it’s something we could ever have had? How can you talk of love when death hangs in the air. The angel of death reaps us!”
Thybaut put one foot on the same step that Crespin was on. Crespin put one foot on the step above him, but didn’t move completely away from him. “I’m not a smart man,” he said, a feeling of peace settling over him. “I am not a charismatic man to lead and calm this city. The only goodness in me is that I love you and I have to believe that this love was a gift from God. I can not count who is to be spared and who is to suffer, but I will put my entire will to seeing that you and your little sister survive. Even if you have no love of me, must you drink death because some people must?”
“I do love you, you goat fucking idiot! Why are you not safe in your house? They will kill you as well as they will kill us.”
“Our candle grows smaller as you tarry,” Thybaut said softly. “Dress. Dark colors. Carry light.”
Pain flashed through Crespin’s eyes. Books are heavy.
“The dead care nothing for parchment,” Thybaut said firmly.
"I don't know how," Crispen whispered.
Thybaut caught his hand. They both stared at their hands, skin against skin for the first time. Shaking, Thybaut drew Crispen's hand to his chest, pressing the long fingers over his heart. "Use my heart as a beacon, as I use yours and we will find our way. We do what we can. We just go on ahead a little so that we may build a place for our families to join us in time."
"Your savior's miracles?"
Staring into the emotional green eyes, Thybaut could believe again in God, in His Grace, in all good things that come from God. "Yes, miracles, like the miracle of faith. Did not John the Baptist baptize Jews as signs of their repentance? For the coming of their Messiah? Jesus is gentle. If you can't believe that he was the Messiah, he shall still accept your repentance, your desire to please god."
Anna laid a hand on Thybaut's arm, her desperate eyes, the same dark green as Crispen's, which drew his heart to loving her more than he had, to count her as a mother. "Do you really think so? Prophets baptized. God would want us to live. We haven't killed anyone. You don't think we have, do you?"
Still holding Crispen's hand over his heart, Thybaut drew her hand to lay over her son's heart. "I swear on my life that the God I know loves, brings life, created each of us. He did not create us to suffer."
Malachi laughed, a smile more like his old self on his face. "You read the Torah with the same eyes you use to see my son as the ideal of courtly beauty. He's missing two teeth now, one eye doesn't always follow the other, thanks to the fists of good Christian men. His fingers are too long for his hands like the spindly legs of spiders and he reads so much his eyes are likely to fail him at any moment. Don’t let me deter you, go on and be happy for the moment you have.”
“You have a way out of the Quarter? Without hurting anyone?” Crispen slipped his fingers between Thybault’s.
“Yes,” Thybaut said. “But I can only get two people, maybe three out. You, your sister, and me. Time grows really short. Please, dress, Crispen.”
“Thybaut,” Crispen said softly, voice barely a whisper, “I will not leave my mother and father to die and I will not accept baptism to placate some frightened workmen. If they come for us, that is their sin. If I abandon my parents like a coward, that is my sin. You are not obligated to stay here with us. Likewise, my sister is too young to incur sin. Take her to your mother.”
The bluster and unbending knight in Thybaut broke. His hand closed into a fist over his heart. . “Is it not also a sin to disobey them? To abandon your little sister?”
“Listen to him, Elijah! Don’t be a fool,” Malachi growled, looking some part of the menacing patriarch he’d been the day Thybaut had met him. “We do not know what tomorrow brings, but it is every parent’s will to see their children as safe as possible.”
“No.” Crispen Elijah growled. “No! I have been as good and obedient a son as I could be! I have dreamed of touching Thybaut, of the day I would be brave enough to touch my lips to his. I have listened to the rabi tell me I am wrong, that the very core of my being disgusts my god. I will tell you what disgusts God!” He raised his fist, shaking it at the heaven.
They all watched him.
His lips twisted. His hand moved to take a fist full of long hair and he sank down to the stairs at Thybaut’s feet. “What would I know? I am a man of books, not a prophet! I know Plato and Lancelot. Lancelot loved the Lady Guinevere when the love was forbidden, but that did not make it less true. King David loved Jonathan and god did not send the death to reap the children of Israel. I will not abandon my parents nor will I say that god could hate me for desiring and loving. I will not yield.”
“There have been days,” Anna said, her voice rising slowly, green eyes narrowing angrily, “when I thought I had two daughters. Two beings of reason and practicality!”
She strode into the house, leaving the door open. Cautiously, they followed her. She glared at her husband as if it were his fault that winter lingered into February. “No! You are a man. Elijah is a man! How could we ever have doubted this fact?” She nearly shouted, her hand making an obscene gesture. She pulled her hair around winding and shoving it into her gown. “Malachi, put on water for tea!”
Thybaut could not have imagined the stricken look on the fierce old Jew’s face, nor the incomprehensible nonsense coming from Anna.
Malachi had that look of bargaining that Thybaut had come to know so well, but then, as if the deal was lost, he nodded to the crazy look in his wife’s face. Now bony hands together, he nodded in assent. “What do you intend?”
“Tea!” She grabbed her cloak from the hook by the door and stomped into the night, slamming the door behind her.
Thybaut looked up at Crispen, who shook his head, face pale lips light. The three of them stood there for a good ten minutes, the world just having ended, suddenly and unexpectedly early, until a sputtering commotion came back through the door. Rabbi Eli, still in his nightgown, yamaka held to his head with one hand. He too was thinner, dark circles under his eyes, a glazed look of half terror like he was dreaming still on his face.
“Marry them,” Anna demanded, pointing a finger at Thybaut and Crispen. She pulled the golden ring from her finger and slapped it into the dazed rabi’s hand. “Now. Right now! I want them married.”
“But he is your son and … the Christian boy.” Eli said, his palms up, plaintive and soothing, “Anna...”
“Are you blind? Do you see all that long hair? Do you? Are you insane? Do as I say! You need worry for no more than that! Marry them!”
Eli, clutching the ring to his chest, what color had been in his face, long, long gone. “Malachi?”
“This is my daughter, obviously. Only a daughter could bring out such wrath in a mother, don’t you think?”
Eli nodded, eyes of different sizes, unease making him twist like a shawl in the wind, genuine confusion twisting up his face. “If it’s what you wish, Malachi.”
“It is what I wish,” Anna snarled, slamming the door, barring with her body, hands on her hips. “This very moment. You two, down here. I am done with this foolishness!”
Eli nodded, cautious as as a frightened dog.
Crispen and Thybaut came down the stairs, Crispen still in his night clothes as well. They held hands flesh to flesh.
“It is … highly unusual. Is this Christian circumcised?” Eli hedged, trying to find some ground to argue from.
“Nonsense,” Malachi said.
The boys stood before the short little rabi, holding hands, such a soft look of utter adoration on Thybaut’s face that even the rabi stared. “Christian, you love this Jewish ... woman?”
Crispen opened his mouth and his father shoved him before air could make words.
“I do sir, with all that I am.”
“You must, if you’re out on such a night. You have... dishonored her, have you?”
“No, sir, I would never!”
“We haven’t time for all this, for the normal council,” Malachi said. “Eli, give me the ring.”
Eli nodded vigorously, eager to be as far away from this as he could get.
“Now, don’t go anywhere,” Malachi said softly, the merchant and manager in him, the skills that had made him rich.
Anna brought her lamp closer as her husband held up her wedding ring. It was worked in gold, a small replica of the Temple that had been in Jerusalem. “This ring is the first treasure I bought with money I had earned. Looking back, I was a boy, but I thought myself a man. The love I feel for my beautiful wife has never wavered. In her and in my Lord God I shall always find my strength. Thybaut,” Malachi said, taking hold of the younger man’s hand so he could put the ring in the center of his palm. “Before the authority of the rabi, my esteemed and old friend Eli, I give you the heart and life of my precious child. Do you promise that you will always live with an unwavering love for my beautiful child?”
“I do, sir.”
Malachai took Crispen’s hand held it out, the long slender fingers relaxed. “My child, as you have obeyed me, now obey this man that I trust to serve and protect you. Love with all your heart, serve the Lord your God and your husband.”
Malachi looked back to Thybaut who stood there shivering, eyes wide. Hands shaking, he took Crispen’s hand in his, the golden ring just at the start of his finger. “Will you have me?”
“Of course, idiot.”
Thybaut slipped Anna’s ring onto his finger, slowly. When it was all the way on, they both stared at it for a moment, then looked up at at each other. Thybaut reached to caress Crispen’s cheek for the first time, a strong hand wiping away a trail of hot tears. “Are you sad?”
Crispen shook his head, lips lifting into a smile under Thybaut’s thumb. “Rome? We will go to Rome?”
“We will go to Rome. I will give you so many books.”
“You will go now,” Malachi said, “Before it is too late. You are married. This is your husband. You will stop being a fool. Your mother and I are old. We can not run as fast as you and Thybaut must.”
“Hush,” Anna said, wrapping her cloak around him. “You can and you will. You will go just as you are. Take my shoes. I will get your sister.”
“My books! I want just a couple of them,” Crispen moved towards the stairs, but his father blocked his way and Thybaut held tightly to his hand.
“We must go,” Thybaut insisted. “Dawn will catch us before we get to my home and we will be ruined.”
A woman screamed somewhere else in the quarter, a horrible drawn out scream of anguish.
Malachi hissed something Hebrew that was unlikely to be a prayer.
Eli pulled a locket from around his neck, held it out to Thybaut. “Take it! They will let you go, Christian. Give it to my brother.”
Thybaut took it hung the golden chain around his neck. Keeping a hold on Crispen’s hand, he opened the door, peeked out. Lights were coming on in all the houses. There were armed men in the streets, groups of them, roving like packs of dogs. Quietly Crispen shut the door. One hand holding Crispen, the other fisted against his mouth, he contemplated.
“We must fight them,” Eli proclaimed. “God will stand with us.”
“With what shall we fight them, Eli,” Malachi snarked, “Our wit and the fire pokers?”
Eli pointed to the sword at Thybaut’s waist. “We have a Christian knight with us! Perhaps they will hesitate to strike him down?”
“I am hardly a Christian knight,” Thybaut said, eyes shifting to the side. “I am the son of a whore, a lovely and charitable woman with a keen mind and a courageous spirit, but a whore, nonetheless.”
“You might have mentioned that before you married my child,” Malachi snapped.
“As if it makes a difference,” Thybault said, arm around the smaller Crispen, holding him tight, pale eyes daring Malachi to ask for him back. “Perhaps if we hide they will pass us by?”
“I’m sure no one else thought of that,” Eli snapped. “Are you a coward? Defend your wife!”
“Perhaps if only Anna and Penny hide?”
“I would never,” Crispen snapped, kicking Thybaut’s shin.
“You are a man,” Eli growled. “I have sinned against God! I’m going to die!”
“Oh you were likely going to die anyway, Eli! Stop complaining and insulting. It’s their wedding day.”
“OH God preserve me! Maz Tov! By all means! Their wedding day. It is the end of the world!” Eli held up his hands criticizing and beseeching God in the same motion.
Anna came back with Mary in her arms, a blanket wrapped around the little girl who clung to her mother. “Do not fight,” Anna commanded. “Put these on,” she demanded as dropped a pair of her shoes at Crispen’s feet.
He was about to protest, when she leaned very close, her eyes glaring into his. “You will put them on and keep your mouth shut. We will not be in prison long. They will kill us quickly or expel us. They are unlikely to wish to satisfy their lusts on us so women are more likely to be treated more kindly than men. You can pass as a woman and you will use that ability to survive, Sophia.” Anna glared until Crispen lowered his gaze, nodding. “Good. Pride is pleasant only to the living. Dead fools don’t care.”
Their door broke in without a knock. The men there held clubs, sticks, one man stepped through the group with a sword, and a smaller man beside him with a sheet of parchment held on a thin block of wood. “Gelernter.”
Malachi stepped forward, head held high. “I am Malachi Elijah Gelernter. This is my wife and my only living daughter Anna. This trash,” he said giving Crispen’s face a smack hard enough to drive him to his knees, “was my daughter Sophia, but she has made a whore of herself and taken Christian baptism and married a Christian man. This bastard here! I wish to bring charges against him. He has seduced her into a love of your disgusting God. I want him charged with rape! The rabi will vouch for what I say. This trash of a gentile came in the night to steal my child away.”
Thybaut held Crispen to him, a hand in his long hair, half hiding him under his cloak. “I have stolen nothing! This is my wife.”
The men who had come to arrest them hesitated.
The nearest one reached out to touch the flowing linen of Crispen’s night clothes, a hungry smirk on his face. “I expect we’re to arrest everyone. If we don’t clean this disease out of the city, the curse will not lift.”
A round of approval flickered through them like a half dying light. The man with the parchment. “Fine, we take into custody Anna, Sophia, Malachi, and who are you?”
“I am Thybaut Bessette. This is Sophia Bessette. She should be listed as my wife.” Thybaut held him protectively, while throwing his own cloak back to reveal his hand on his sword. “You have no cause for arresting us. We are Christian.”
“Bessette,” one of the men said, sneering. “That’s the Count’s whore’s son. Whores and whoresons are to be expelled too.”
Mary screamed as they grabbed her mother.
Thybaut drew his sword. “Leave us. I will see these people out of the city. They will all take baptism and repentance.”
“I won’t!” Eli said, “I am a rabi!”
Thybaut thrust. The more experienced swordsman grabbed his slender elegant sword with a gauntleted hand and snapped the end of it. Thybaut growled. The end of the sword still in his fist the man punched Thybaut hard in the face. The blond stood there for a moment, blood dripping from his broken nose, then dropped to his knees.
“I am a knight of the king. This will be accomplished with a minimum of chaos,” he said sternly, dropping the sword tip to the floor.
Crispen dropped down next to Thybaut, pulling him into his lap, using a wide linen sleeve to soak up blood. Malachi, Anna, and Mary went out first, then Eli, then men grabbed ‘Sophia’ by the arm, rough and unforgiving. Two more grabbed Thybaut by the arms, dragging him out to the waiting wagon.
Wailing and begging did little more than attempts at flight. The curse of death made bodies in the streets common. A few more hardly mattered.
The people in the cart helped to lift the unconscious blond into the wagon, settled him near the front where Crispen knelt by him. It wasn’t like everyone hadn’t known. The brilliant warm summers before the curse had started, before death took people with no more care than a wife gathered eggs, if those days had continued, the people in the quarter might not have cared so much. When God smiles, all smile. When the wrath of God rips the skin of peace away from men’s hearts the whole world is ugly.
Before they reached whatever destination they were bound for, another group, better dressed with a priest among them waved the cart down. “We hear that you have a Christian and his wife with you.”
The driver scratched his head. “I guess. Just a whoreson and a Jewish whore.”
“If they are actually Christian, then harming them could bring the wrath of God,” the priest insisted. “Give them to us and we will give them a trial.”
The cart driver shrugged. “It’s the pale man with the busted nose. Idiot pulled a blade on Chevalier.”
Nodding, the priest moved to the back. A couple of his guys climbed up on the side and grabbed Thybaut, who was hardly difficult to pick out. Anna grabbed Crispen’s hand drew him to her, hugging him desperately, but he too was pulled from the cart. Barely steady on his feet, Thybaut found his hands bound behind his back.
“Bind the woman too. Skinny, ugly bitch,” the tallest man said. An eyepatch over his left eye, he seemed more mercenary to Thybaut than citizen.
Both of them bound, they found themselves in the garden of a house that perhaps had no owner now. So many people had died. The men encircled them, clubs in hand, but the priest stood before them. Thybaut thought he’d known all the priests, most of whom frequented the mayor’s dinners, and therefore his mother’s house, on the occasion. This one he did not know. His the hit to his face had left him dizzy, nauseous. His sword broken, barely able to keep his feet, he felt so small and worthless in that moment.
“Are you a Christian, boy?” The priest demanded, growling out the words with deep pride.
“I am, Father,” Thybaut said, remembering that he was his mother’s son. Swords might not be his great skill, but words he could manage.
“Recite The Lord’s Prayer,” the angry priest demanded.
He did, in Latin, knowing that Crispen had an easier time memorizing Latin than French, hoping that his love would just pick up the words, as their lives depended on it.
“Woman,” the priest said, “Now you!”
Crispen swallowed, terrified that his voice would give them away and they would meet a quick and brutal death. He did his best to make his voice sound more like his sister’s as he recited exactly what Thybaut had just said.
“That don’t prove nothing,” one of the men said. “Proves they’re smart, that’s all. Witches maybe. They sure ain’t a priest and a nun. Why they know Latin?”
The priest massaged his chin. “Boy, why were you in the Jewish Quarter? If this Jew is your wife, why did she not live with you? You both are baptised?”
“Yes, Father. She is an obedient and gentle woman. Her brother has recently passed, because of the great curse that is on us. She returned to her family, for a time of mourning and to encourage them to accept Christ’s Grace.”
“Is that true,” the priest looked deeply into Crispen’s eyes, who managed only a vigorous nod.
“I don’t believe you,” the priest said. “You’re lying about something. I find sin. I cure sin. Confess!” He roared.
Crispen stood taller, chin lifted, long black hair loose and tangled on the night air.
Thybaut stood up a little straighter, taking on the air of a nobel son, even though he was about as far from it as he could be. “I am a devout Christian man and this is my wife. God knows well our hearts.”
“I’m sure he does,” the priest said, eyes narrowing, voice insinuating, “but I do not and I am the shepherd of these good people. I will allow that she is a Christian, modest and blessedly homely, but you boy, are guilty of the sin of pride, at the very least and you obviously had no control over your wife. Do you know that as a husband you are commanded to lay down your life for your wife, as a good Christian?”
“I have been staying in this house and the well is shallow, about the depth of two persons standing one atop another. Now if you are a Christian husband, you’ll protect your lady. If you are willing to admit she is nothing more than a Jewish whore, then you have rid the city of contagion and we’ll let you go. Do you still wish to say you are a good Christian? Do you wish to take that lie to your death or repent and kill the god killer?”
“I am a good Christian, and so is she. If I prove that I am a good Christian, you are going to protect her?”
“If that is the case, of course.” The priest smirked.
“Please, Father,” Crispen begged, “Please, have mercy!”
“I am showing mercy,” the priest said, “Jewess can you bring back to life the dead? Can you show mercy to those good souls your evil kind poisoned? Do you not notice we die while your numbers are untouched?”
Crispen’s eyes widen, feeling like he’d been punched in the gut. Sophia and Alain were dead and buried, their bodies riddled with the agony of great black boils. Their cries would stay with him forever. It was just a miracle that the rest of the family had not died. Many whole families did die.
“That is the face of one found out,” the priest gloated. “Tie her legs, gag that lying mouth. Boy, do you not see what she is? She is the devil. This is God’s gift to you, to bring you repentance. Only when we all repent can we have the curse lifted.”
“What do you want to hear from me,” Thybaut begged, struggling against the ropes binding his wrists. “Don’t hurt my wife, please! Please do what you want to me! Beat me! Like the flagellates! Let me bleed to show my repentance, but don’t touch my wife!
“Where is your faith, boy?” The priest put another rope around Crispen’s chest, around his arms, tightened it behind his back. Crying, Crispen struggled, pleading around the cloth tied in his mouth. It took four men to hold Thybaut as the priest and two other men carried Crispen to the well and threw him in. Thybaut screamed, enraged, but held firmly.
The priest looked over the edge, the rising sun making pale dawn around them. “She sinks,” he said with a smile. “Maybe she’s innocent?”
Thybaut roared, his hands coming free, but he still didn’t win his freedom.
“Let him go,” the priest said smugly. “Accept it boy. When the killers of god are dead, we will no longer feel God’s wrath!”
“No!” As soon as he was free, he was over, the edge dropping into the cold water below. Under the water, into the dark, he desperately pulled the cloth from Crispen’s mouth, while lifting them, pushing against the deadly dark water. When that was done, they broke the surface. The space was narrow enough that he could brace one leg against the far side and be able to hold Crispen up with him. Crispen sucked air, sobbing, sobs that echoed loudly in the brick lined well. Thybaut spun him in the water, used his small dagger to free his wrists. Crispen threw his arms around Thybaut, sobbing, holding tight.
Above them, the priest and other men stared down at them. “Time for repentance, Jew lover,” the priest said, sneering. He laid a pole across the top of the well. “I have this pole and I am going to shove one of you under the water, if you don’t put the devil back under yourself. Drown the god killer, the murderer, and prove that you are a good Christian, or I will hold YOU under the water like the betraying dog that you are.”
Thybaut brushed a hand over Crispen’s face, remembered that first sunny day in the garden, the day when he’d given him his poorly copied Lancelot, a million small dreams warmed his thoughts, and he felt peace. “You are my heaven and God will see us together,” Thybaut whispered, promising.
It was only moments, the barest of moments, but a marriage deeper than time could ever be short. They kissed, shivering lips, warm tongues. The pole jabbed at them and they dodged. Someone threw a rock and it took Crispen in the head, dropping him back into the water. Thybaut took a deep breath and went under as well until his feet touched the ground and he lifted Crispen up above the surface.. Being stronger he was able to force the more slight man up, to get below him, untying his legs and using his weight to make it easier to stay under.
“Please, Father,” Crispen begged, “Please! Please let us up! Please? Do you see? Do you see what he is willing to do?”
“Do you hear the dead begging you for mercy in your dreams, Jewess?” One of the other men growled at Crispen. Another rock was thrown, banging against the brick walls as it fell.
“I swear on Mary the Mother of God that I have never killed anyone! Please, Father! Thybaut will die! Please don’t let him die! Please! He’s done nothing!”
“He loves Jews. Tis more than enough.”
“Help! Please! Please! Someone! Help!”
Another group of men wandered into the garden, armed and ready for the morning cleansing of the city. “Father?”
“Help us, Please! Thybaut is a Christian!” Crispen screamed, arms up reaching, trying to pull himself up a bit so that Thybaut would come up to get air.
“Leave us,” the priest said sternly, “I am having a trial of a Jew lover.”
“Master Thybaut,” Acel asked, then louder, his voice echoing into the well, “Master Thybaut!”
“He’s down here! Help! Please! He’s dying! He’s under the water to save me, please! Please!” Crispen begged, fingers bleeding from clawing at the bricks.
“Papa!,” Acel cried out to his father, eyes big, “Please. Thybaut! Please!”
Acel’s father was a big man, literally built like an ox, but he was also a leader of men. When he glared at the priest, he let go of the rope linking Crispen to the top end of the well. “No!” Crispen sobbed.
Thybaut went out from under him. Crispen shimmied out of the last rope and ducked under the water. In the darkness there was no time, no hate, not differences. Thybaut was limp, just fabric and chilling flesh in his arms. Arms around him he kicked, feet against the wall, trying to get them both above the water, something that had seemed so easy for Thybaut. They both broke the surface, but it was all Crispen could do to hold him up. Thybaut wasn’t breathing, lips blue in the rising dawn. Crispen hugged him tight, begging God for any miracles that could be had. Hugging him, clutching him brought a rush of water out of his mouth and Crispen cheered, relaxed his hold, then did it again, forcing cold February water out of him. Crispen forced him against the wall, legs pinning them there in the narrow brick space as he kissed him, pressing what warmth he had into his husband, offering him half his life if God would just grant his wish. When Thybaut drew breath, his tongue moving just the slightest bit, it was the best kiss Crispen had ever imagined. He pressed forward, his tongue slipping into Thybaut’s cold mouth, forcing warmth and life into him.
Then small fingers brushed his hair and he yipped. Looking up, he found a boy smiling down at him. Someone had lowered the boy by his legs to get the rope.. “Give me me the rope, Madam, if you pleases?”
The rope that had been around his waist floated beside him and he handed the end to the boy. “Thank you! Thank you! Thybaut is a Christian.”
“I know, Madam,” Acel said, “I am his servant, Acel. Who are you?”
“I am his wife, Sophia,” Crispen lied.
“I knowed he was up to something,” Acel said firmly. His father pulled him back up “Tie the rope around him, Madam Bessette. See, Papa! Master Thybaut is a good Christian. He’s married.”
Shaking with cold and fear, Crispen tied the rope around the still mostly unconscious Thybaut. He kissed him gently. “There my love.” The men above them pulled, hauling Thybaut up. As he rose, he blocked the light and Crispen wondered if that was his bargain, if he would stay in the dark, no longer any risk to his brilliantly brave and beautiful love. In the chill water, he wasn’t sure he really cared. Slipping under the water for a moment of peace in the darkness didn’t seem like such a very horrible idea.
So he was greatly surprised when he felt a hand grab a rough hold of his hair, then his night gown, then his arms. As he rose out of the water, real cold set in. He was shaking hard when they hauled him over the well’s edge. A warm dry cloak was wrapped around him. He swayed, but a strong arm wrapped around him. “Are you hurt, my darling,” Madeline said kindly. “I am Thybaut’s mother.”
“My mother,” Crispen said, confused, in shock and hypothermia.
“Don’t worry my darling, I have my ways. Wolf,” she said gently. Wolf picked Thybaut up from the ground. “To me, there is nothing more import than family.”
Before he knew it he was in a carriage, a brazier warming the space. Madeline worked on peeling the chilled linen gown from him, but he fought her, afraid she’d be shocked by the actuality of his body. “NO, no, please, I can’t.”
“Nonsense, boy,” she snapped. “The cold is only harming you. I have a warmer gown for you.”
“You know? You know that I am a man?” He whispered, eyes wide.
“Of course, I know,” she said, holding his chilled fingers in her hands. “I will protect you, my beautiful darling. Thybaut loves you, so you are my son as well. Now please, will you put on warm clothes?”
Crispen nodded, helping her pull the wet linen off. Sitting there between gowns, just a blanket on his lap, he saw his bare finger. “My mother’s ring.” It was at the bottom of that evil well, lost to the darkness.
“You are more important than a ring,” Madeline said. She pulled one of her own rings off, a small sapphire, and slipped that onto his finger. “Wolf, let’s get Thy dry now.”
The big Dane nodded, quickly stripping the still limp blond. Crispen tried to move across the carriage, but found the heat of the brazier and the small place blocking him. “Let Wolf. Soon it will be just the two of you. I have made arrangements for you. You will be well received, but you must not lose the illusion that you are his wife. When we can, we will move to someplace where you don’t have to live such a lie, but for now it is better to be alive.”
“My mother and father, my little sister.”
She took hold of his chin, pinning him with the same pale blue eyes that he knew from Thybaut. “They are betting on you. Your life. If it were in my power to raise the dead and save all souls, I would do so, but I am neither Christ nor the Madonna. Do not throw away what you have for what you can’t catch from the fire.”
Crying, frightened and lost, Crispen nodded. “Yes, Madam.”
“Very good.” Her face stern in sharp shadow, she turned to Wolf. “Wolf?”
“He lives. I think he will be fine.” The Dane set Thybaut down, dressed in a warm dry gown, a blanket over his lap.
Madeline banged on the roof and the carriage came to a halt. When she opened the door, flame and smoke colored the horizon. Crispen knelt in the doorway after she and Wolf stepped down.
“They stripped the Jewish Quarter of any gold and treasure that they could find. Now it burns,” she said, explaining.
“So fast,” he whispered. “They people are expelled?”
“Treasure inspires speed among men,” she said, gently pushing him back into the carriage and shutting the door. “Make haste!”
The carriage lurched and carried them forward. Crispen crawled up onto the bench with Trybaut and pulled him into an embrace. The scent of fire was like nothing Crispen had ever known. The carriage carried them away though, four horses pulling them far away from everything.
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