Holiday Excerpt “Blackbird”

As readers of the Colplatschki Chronicles are aware, Christmas as such is not celebrated on Colplatschki, except by a few secretive Old Believer heretics. The feast of St. Basil-Pastor in early spring has become Christmas and New Years combined. In this excerpt from the book Blackbird, Elizabeth von Sarmas’s distant cousin Matthew Charles Malatesta and his family keep the feast. Kiara is Matthew’s wife, Barbara his mistress. (Blackbird will come out in late spring, 2015).

According to tradition, the Feast of St. Basil marked the beginning of the new farming year. Lambing season, calving, preparations for planting, all began around the saint’s day, and so it made sense to celebrate the new year then, even if the calendar disagreed. Matthew and Kiara had both shaken their heads at the description in a book from just after the Great Fires, claiming that the year began just after the winter solstice. “That’s foolish. The worst of winter is still to come, there’s nothing growing, nothing new, no major feast day then,” Kiara had snorted. “If this is true, the Landers were mad indeed.” She’d picked up her next piece of embroidery, declaring, “St. Basil’s day is the start of the new year, as it should be.” Matthew had not disagreed.

Now he stood beside her chair as the entire household and staff gathered in the great hall of Solva keep. Servants had moved the large table, normally in the center of the room, to the end, turning it sideways. Small leather bags with coins in them, bundles of fabric and lacings, some already-made garments, and assorted tools and small goods sat in tall piles. Between them, Kiara and Barbara had managed to stretch his coin so far that he suspected the eagles had squawked. Kiara, heavily pregnant, shifted a little in the wide-seated chair, trying to get comfortable. From the back of the room Kazmer Takacs gave a little wave, signaling that everyone had arrived. Well, everyone but Barbara and the children, but he’d give them their gifts later, well away from Kiara.

Why can’t women get along? For whatever reason, as Godown made them, they couldn’t, and that was that. He turned to Kiara. “My lady?”

She smiled up at him, then took a deep breath and began, “Welcome, on this blessed feast of St. Basil, patron of shepherds and of the coming of spring.” She took another breath. With the baby riding so high, Matthew marveled that she could speak at all, let alone make herself heard in the great room. “Truly Godown is gracious and generous with His gifts, as He was to our ancestors and shall be to our children. It is right,” she inhaled, “It is right that we should all share His bounty, starting the year as we wish it to continue.” She spoke a few more words, then called, “Father Andrew?”

The priest came forward. His hair had slipped back and turned grey, but he still reminded Matthew of a pole-arms instructor, with a temper to match. Fr. Andy gave Matthew a shrewd look, warning of a sermon looming at some point, but not today. Instead he turned and raised his hands. “Let us pray. Holy Godown, who sends Your bounty in season, we give thanks for Your generosity and blessings. Lord of all that lives, bless this land and the husbandsmen who work it, the women who tend it, and those who protect Your children and creatures. Grant us peace if it is Your will, great Lord, You who sent Your faithful follower Basil to serve as a model and guide. Bless these gifts, those who give them, and those who receive, and help us to do Your work, mighty Godown, lord of the land.”

“Selah,” rang through the hall. Fr. Andy turned. “Your grace,” he nodded to Kiara. She nodded in turn and he returned to the edge of the crowd. With that, Kiara began calling names. Matthew removed the appropriate items from the table and handed them to her, and she in turn gave them to the servant or staff member, with a murmured word of appreciation, thanks, or compliment. They in turn bowed and thanked her, many bowing to Matthew as well. He’d rather have distributed things by himself, but the ceremony made Kiara feel better, and let her play generous duchess, lady of the manor, so he gritted his teeth and kept his thoughts to himself.

The gifts had become a tradition by now. Almost everyone but the children got cloth and leather for clothes, and a sack with coins, little bits of jewelry, or other items that could be used for dowers and family expenses. The quality of cloth and amount of coin varied with the position of the individual servant, but even the pot-boy and the girl who carried out the slops got serviceable, sturdy material and a few little copper and silver coins. Some of the older boys and men also got knives, all-purpose tools for everyday use. Most of the women found bundles of ribbons and trim in their stack of cloth. That had been Barbara’s idea. “Just because she’s a kitchen drudge doesn’t mean a girl can’t like having a bit of color for holy days,” she’d pointed out the first year she’d assisted with the gifts. Servants with children got a few wooden toys, balls, and other things, while older boys received their first true weapons from Duke Matthew’s own hand at the feast of St. Michael.

Gifts distributed, Duchess Kiara said a few more words and dismissed the staff. They had the rest of the day off, although her maids and the herbwife wouldn’t go too far. Matthew walked around and offered his wife his hand, helping pull her to her feet and supporting her as she waddled along the hall and up to her receiving room and bedchamber. As planned, her gifts waited there: several meters of the finest shahma-wool velveteen in black and dark blue, lace and delicate white cotton so thin you could read through it, and a copy of Reverend Mother Mattia’s “Meditations on the Life of Saints Sabrina and Alice,” bound in deep red calfskin with gold lettering.

“Thank you,” she said, delighted by the book. “Will you stay the day, my lord?”

He didn’t want to. But neither did he want to ruin her peaceful, cheerful mood. Matthew nodded. “Certainly. I’ll be back in a moment.” He retrieved two books from his library, one about weapons and warfare on ancient Earth, and the other a collection of Turkowi children’s stories. He kept a cloth cover over the Turkowi books, just like the one on his most expensive religious volumes, and she didn’t bat an eye at them when he returned. He adjusted her footstool to her liking, added a log or two to the fire for her, and settled into the other chair. One of the smiths had devised a clever system of pulleys and chains extending from near her seat to the fire, and she could pull a pot of hot tea back and forth, adding water as needed then returning the pot to the edge of the fire. They used a larger version in the well and cistern within the keep.

Only when one of Kiara’s maids appeared with a light supper for her mistress and to light the lamps and candles did Matthew bid his lady a good night. She thanked him again for his gift and they embraced as he helped her out of the chair. The child seemed to rest a little lower, and he gave the maid a significant look, pointing carefully when Kiara turned her head to look at something else. The young woman gave a quick bob of her head before answering the duchess’s question with a compliment. I’d better have one of the men warn the midwife, then. Kiara dismissed Matthew and he went down to the kitchen and made up a meal of sliced meat stuffed into a bread pocket and slathered with meadow aglio, the earthy, pungent root that made roasted beef so good. Kiara hated the smell on his breath. Mistress Cevasco had, too, calling it farmer food. All the more reason to like it, Matthew gloated, licking a bit of extra off his fingers.

When he returned his books to his library, he found a letter with the imperial seal resting on the desk. He started to open it, then stopped. No, he thought to the twilight. If it is good news, fine. If it is bad news, I don’t want to poison the rest of the day, and whatever it is, it can wait until tomorrow. He removed a certain item from under his desk, double-checked the locks on the cabinet, and left.

Barbara, Anthony, Don Paul, and Sarah waited in their quarters, a snug pair of rooms not far from his sleeping chamber. I wonder what Barbara told them to keep them quiet? Well, quiet no longer: the boys bounded up to him, barely remembering to bow before pestering him with questions about the large bag in his hand. Sarah hung back, curtsying like her mother, beautiful blue eyes locked on the bag as well. For her part Barbara busied herself getting Matthew’s chair closer to the fire, stoking the little blaze into brighter life, and starting some chokofee brewing.

Matthew sat and handed her the bag. “Thank you, my lord.” She opened it carefully, removing sturdy black fabric suitable for boys clothes, then softer material in browns and dull gold for her and Sarah. Creamy linen followed, along with brown and black ribbons and a small purse which she set aside. Next came two fine iron belt knives for the boys, near copies of Matthew’s own.

“Thank you, my lord father, thank you!” Anthony exclaimed.

Paul still quieter, nodded. “Thank you.”

“You are welcome.” Barbara handed the boys whetstones as well, and leather belts that fit, at least for the moment. The boys had started growing again, and Matthew had a shrewd idea that Anthony at least would be as tall as his father, if not more so.

The bag yielded up three sheep and a shepherd doll for Sarah, who squealed with delight before clutching the sheep in her hands and throwing herself at Matthew’s legs, hugging him as hard as she could. He picked her up and held her in his lap, feeling the silky threads of her brown curls against his cheek. The boys began inspecting their knives. “Boys, if you decide to carve your initials in the table leg, or anything else for that matter, your mother has my permission to tan your hide until you can’t sit down,” Matthew warned.

She would, too, and Paul put his knife back into the sheath. “Yes, lord father,” he gulped. Hmm, already planning trouble I see. It’s time and past that you moved into the barracks, I can tell. The boys could read, write, and do basic math, spoke a little Turkowi, and spent as much time as possible with the soldiers. Neither shared their father’s bookish streak, and Anthony reminded Matthew very much of long-dead Leopold. He certainly had the same spark of temper. Not tomorrow, but very soon. Eleven years old is almost a man as it is, and if they are growing again, they’ll be better off where they can’t break anything when they get clumsy.

After a while Barbara took the children off to their room. When she returned and slumped into the plain chair by the fire, Matthew got up. “No, stay where you are.” He took a pouch out of his pocket and gave it to her. She opened it and inhaled, turning the black and gold brooch over and over by the firelight. He slid the matching ring onto the index finger of her left hand. Both bore his black eagle, in enamels on the brooch and carved into a signet-like black stone on the ring.

“Th—, thank you, my lord,” she whispered, eyes wide and damp. “These are beautiful.”

“This goes with them. Do not open it,” he warned, handing her a tightly folded packet of paper with his seal on it. “If, Godown forbid, anything ever happens to me, give it to the person specified in my papers, and only to him. This, and those gems, will keep you safe.”

Despite his orders she got up from her chair and kissed him. Their embrace grew warm indeed, and he put out the last candle as she banked the little fire in the hearth, then returned to his arms.

(C) Alma T.C. Boykin 2014. All Rights Reserved.