Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Merry Medieval Christmas

courtesy of wikicommons
Instead of writing a post on middle grade historical novels, I thought I'd give you readers a Christmas story. This excerpt is from On Fledgling Wings, my novel set in England during the time of Richard the Lionheart. I hope it will bring some holiday spirit to you.

  “They say that at midnight on Christmas Eve animals receive the gift of speech. I plan to lie awake to hear them,” Nathan said, wriggling with excitement.

“If you do not eat your dinner, it will be your stomach talking,” Agnes the nursemaid answered. Nathan was far too old for a nursemaid, but she had been a part of his life for so long that letting her boss him around was comforting, especially on Christmas Eve, when traditions were so important. It had been half a year since he had seen her or any of the members of his childhood home.

The church bell tolled the faithful to Vespers. Nathan hastily crammed one last piece of bread into his mouth and followed the crowd toward the church.

Torches cast skittering shadows across the walls of the darkening courtyard. Nathan stepped aside for a gang of children dragging a sheep, a donkey, and a half-grown calf toward the church. Others in the crowd shouted encouragement and slapped the animals’ rumps. The beasts balked against their halters, bleating as if they were being led to slaughter. Nathan felt sorry for them. They could not know that they were only going to keep the Christ Child warm.

The crowd surged through the double doors. Nathan caught sight of his father scanning the crowded nave on tiptoe. He grabbed Agnes’ hand and pushed through the people. He was almost next to his father before Amren saw him. Delight flickered in the knight’s eyes and a smile flashed across his face, then his face went rigid.

“I thought the snow might hamper your return.” Amren turned a critical eye on his son and Nathan felt his own belly grow cold. How foolish he had been to hope for a warmer homecoming. He bent in the low, formal bow he knew was expected of him. “You have grown.” Though his eyes were now directed toward the altar, Amren Marshal clapped his hand on his son’s shoulder. Nathan felt as if his heart would fly from his chest. He wished to ask about his father’s new bride, but dared not, lest his father remember where his hand was and withdraw it.

The crowd cursed and shoved as if unaware they were in a church. Sir Terence’s arms jerked. He shuffled from leg to leg like a restless child. Isabel and Maude gossiped. Babies cried. At the altar, sheep bleated.

But the other Glastonbury, the spiritual one, was also there. Nathan turned his eyes upward. Painted frescoes of the saints looked down from the clerestory with sad, serene eyes. If his mother were dead, she would be numbered among the saints. Was his mother watching him from heaven? Or was she alive, gliding silently over the pure, moonlit snow on the lonely moors?

The torchlight had caused shadows to leap in the courtyard. It made the paintings seem to sway and bend in a mystical, slow dance. Did his mother dance among the saints? Did the earthly tumult bother her?

The Abbot entered and the crowd fell silent. The monks chanted, the sound gathering in intensity.

O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum jacentem in praesepio.

‘Oh, how great the mystery, how wonderful the covenant, that simple beasts should behold the Christ-Child, as a babe newborn and lying in a manger stall.’ The beasts and children in front of the altar were quiet now, but their eyes remained white-ringed and uneasy. Nathan’s throat tightened with gratitude that Brother Dominic had forced him to learn Latin. He looked at the sea of faces turned towards the altar, their eyes and lips round with wonder. Birgitta blotted the corners of her eyes with her veil.

The Abbot began the kiss of peace. It spread through the congregation as people turned and kissed each other lightly on the cheek. Agnes’ eyes were moist as she passed it to her young Master. “Peace be with you,” Nathan murmured to a boy with a thatch of straw colored hair. The boy looked vaguely familiar and Nathan momentarily wondered if he had been a stable boy at Staywell. But before Nathan could place him, the boy jerked aside. He glared at Nathan, then slipped through the crowd and was gone.
By the time the service ended, Nathan had forgotten the boy. Worn from the day’s journey and from his anxiety, sleep overtook him. If the animals did talk at midnight, Nathan was not awake to hear. 

Jennifer Bohnhoff is a 7th grade Social Studies teacher and the author of three middle grade historical novels, the ebook versions of which will be Countdown Deals, offered at a discount on Amazon from December 30 to January 6. You can read more about her writing or sign up for her email announcements (including upcoming titles and special discounts) at her website.

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