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brown seashell - ornamental icon Until that Time

Until that Time

“The date and place of my death are written. Until that time I am invincible.” *

The new priest did not like that saying. Especially when a woman said it. She could see in his eyes, so watery green and shifty, how it made him feel uncomfortable. Had she forgotten her place, ordained according to God’s will? According to the plan that connected king, duke, the steward of the demesne, the coloni, the freemen and the serfs? This holy, indissoluble, inevitable plan?

But what did it matter? What did it matter now?

She tightened her grasp on the wooden shaft of the rake, the palm of her hand slick with sweat. She looked at the dusty ruts that sliced through the wilting grass of the hillside. Her gut wrenched. Not with fear. With cold certainty: This road. It led up to the Duke’s men, waiting for their signal on the summit. It could be the road towards the place of the saying.

And the date?

It was summer. The wheat was almost white with sunshine. It was July. A new contingent of knights were about to be sent to the Holy Land. They would need young men, as pages and servants. Young men from the village. Young men, who were needed, needed in the fields and in the homes. And they would need money, to ease their way. Soon the taxes and tithes would be due, the rates higher than ever. Eggs were part of the tithe she owed, and chickens. But the winter had left her with only one hen and one cock. She needed the eggs to hatch new chickens. She needed the hen to lay those eggs.

When the second week of July arrived, the villagers were edgy. After a hard winter, the taxes the Duke demanded meant hunger even at harvest time, and almost certain starvation come winter. In the third week of July a thunderstorm struck and destroyed one of the best fields with showers of hail. Now even the mayor, always the owner of the best field, was desperate. Mothers were talking about hiding their sons, boys that had been left behind the last time the crusaders passed through the village, just now on the verge of becoming fine men. Meanwhile those same boys were whispering about finding riches and glory in a land they described to each other as paradise. “Kingdom of heaven” – it had to be paradise! There would be no fields to till there, no herds to watch over.

The last week of July came. The tax collectors set up their stalls in the village. They had the scribes draw up new documents, asking for more and higher tithes and for harder and longer labour from the serfs. Collection week ended and the tax collectors were not satisfied. But they proclaimed a most generous offer: instead of paying the full amount of tithes and taxes, the Duke would accept one man from each family taking up bondage willingly to join the new crusade.

If these conditions were not met, they would be driven from the village: men, women, children.

It was thirteen years since her youngest had run away to join the crusaders. Ten since the knights had taken her oldest away when they passed through the village. The family owed a fighting man. They could not afford to pay for his freedom. Seven years since the fever had struck. Since her daughter’s dance had stilled. Three since her husband did not wake one morning.

She had no one left she could send.

She was not the only one. She could not say how the revolt had started, or who was the leader. Anyone who still had something to lose had left. Who was left? A scattered group of men and women, gaunt-faced with a thin summer, eyes cold after a spring that had not kept its promise, too cold and too wet. Summer had left them with only their homes, only their hopes hope that this harvest would yield enough to see them through the winter. Desperation, not faith, was their shield, and their weapons were not the rakes and shovels they carried, or the rocks in their hands, but the fact that death was no threat to them anymore.

She stared up the hill. The August sun glinted on shields and swords. What were they waiting for? A white butterfly fluttered across the road, dancing to the song of summer. Once upon a time she would have spent the evenings at this time of the year preparing her gown for the harvest dance, stitching lace to her one good dress. Now her daughter wore that dress, dancing in the meadows of the Lord. An acrid smell of smoke drifted down from the hill. Her heartbeat deepened and quickened, heavy and painful with fear. The date and place…

A gap opened in the phalanx of soldiers up on the hill. The villagers moved closer together. This was their home. This was all they had left on this earth. They would defend it. That small house which held the memories of her life. Kisses and tears lost between the butter-churn and the pigsty. Laughter and pain twined together between the row of beanpoles and the clothesline. It had held life, and hope: her sons, her daughter, her husband. Her chickens, at least, before last winter. No more. But still the memories were sweet.

They were rolling wagon wheels to the edge of the summit, she realized. Huge wheels, with metal nails embedded in the spikes, and tons fastened to their centre. The tons were open and filled with fire, pitch and shards. Shouts and screams of triumph filled the air: the first wheel was shoved over the edge. It hurtled down the hill, spewing fire and shards, gaining speed, rattling faster and faster towards the straggling line of villagers frozen in place. Widkind suddenly jumped forward. A wisp of a man, a tailor, a miser; his wife had died last winter, but he would not leave the village and his small shop. Compared to the wheel-spikes he seemed frail and bent, but he reached right into the wheel. The wheel lurched, jerked him straight up, halted, fell, and buried that miserly man – long before it could reach the wavering line of defence the villagers had put up. A generous end, she thought.

More wheels, and behind them, finally, the soldiers, yelling and running. She ran, too. Ran without looking, flinging her rake this way and that. Shouting, screaming. Suddenly she was face to face with a soldier. She raised her rake, ready to strike, even as the sword came up – then she saw his face, and stopped.

A boy.

He was only a boy. Huge dark eyes in a thin summer-brown face, fluffy hazelnut hair with highlights like a halo in the summer sun, and a cute triangular chin with a dimple. Only a boy. A boy just like her sons, those awkward angles and lanky limbs, and such a sweet young body, all ready for smiles and desires. The age her Hanno had been, before the crusaders had taken him. Just a boy. But his eyes… There was fear in his eyes, fear and pain.

She dropped the rake. Dropped the rake and opened her arms. Opened her arms and pulled him into her embrace. In her arms, and sword, rake, fiery wheels, rebellion were all forgotten. She held him as he cried, sobbed, wept. He felt as if his heart was breaking, as if he knew he would never see his mother again.

“I will tell you my secret,” she whispered and smiled. Encouraging. Comforting. The way a mother smiled at her sons. “It brought me here. It keeps me beyond fear.”

He drew back a little, stared at her, face wet and hot, eyes wide.

“The priest doesn’t like it,” she said. “Especially not when a woman says it. But I will pass it on to you.”

The one gift she had left to give.

“The date and place of my death are written. Until that time I am invincible.”

She held on to him, this thin boy-body, brittle but tough, full of promise, full of hope. Her voice a gasp, quickly blown away into the din of fighting all around them, she repeated, “The date and place of my death are written. Until that time I am invincible.”

It was subtle, but his gaze changed. It grew cooler, calmer, older. New resolve stiffened his shoulders, a first hint of the strength he would have as a man. Drawing a shuddering breath, inhaling smoke and blood and screams, she released him, stepped back.

She did not smile now.

It was the date.
It was the place.

And still she was invincible.

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Wise Words

“The earth laughs in flowers.”

—  Ralph Waldo Emerson