There came three more definite knocks from the outside of the manor where a grey rain collected in the crevices of the roughly cut street. The Miss Vaur, dressed in a rough, homespun dress of thick wool, murmured something to the Madam Vaur and excused herself from her place at the hearth.
As she drew nearer the door, at which another three knocks rattled, the hot glow of the burning logs recoiled from her disappearing shadow and coiled their warmth instead around the Madam. Pulling her sleeves over her wrists, Milisandria opened the dank door of the Vaur Manor and pressed her body into the gap.
“Friar?” She smiled slightly as she stood in the door way. He brushed the rainwater from his sleeves. His jolly, rotund cheeks lifted and the aging skin at the edges of his evergreen eyes crinkled as he laughed.
“Oh, the little Miss Vaur!” Naturally a cheery man, he went on emphatically, shaking her slender hand when she offered it. “Such a shy young girl only just a summer ago!” The frayed hem of his robe brushed the surface of the dirt as he gesticulated and motioned to Milisandria (as if she couldn’t herself recall how small a child she had once been). And as he spoke, the Miss Vaur tried, with her most eloquent and practiced manners, to shorten the exclamations so they may each withdraw from the draft that tousled their garments.
“Milisandria! Milisandria!” her mother barked from the great hall. “You’ll have to forgive me, Friar; my mother calls.” Assuming the man had returned yer again on the usual occasion of collecting donations for the Welsh orphan, Milisandria produced a sparse handful of silver from the pouch at her waist.
“The little Lady Vaur, ever the charitable child of the manor, no doubt!” His eyes grew even larger and more crinkled and his cheers lifted even higher as he drank in the dull glitter laid in young Milisandria’s hand.
“If you will drop them into my pouch, Miss Vaur, I would be so obliged.” He flexed his fleshy fingers and rested the whitened knuckles. “Winter seems to have snuck her way into these old bones already.”
“Perhaps you should come to the fire, Friar. At least until the rain passes.” As the friar’s hands turned whiter, his joints stiffer, Milisandria grew absolutely chilled, the conversation turned to the rain and how the clouds were sure to freeze and form some sort of a blizzard, then to precisely how much the Friar longed for springtime, the things he lamented about fall, and ‘what a little thing the Miss Vaur had been but seven months ago’.
Another shiver went down Milisandria’s back and she suppressed a yawn as a dark figure emerged from the unlit room behind her.
“Milisandria!” With a small gasp, the girl’s eyes flew to the long, crooked face of the Mister Ener who’d snatched the coins from her hand with his own knotted fingers. “Mister Ener,” she gulped and ducked quickly into a shallow curtsey. He grunted in reply. “And what do we have here? A bit early for the vagrants to be begging, isn’t it?”
Perhaps it was the cold, or more likely, Mister Ener’s curt assumptions, that made the Friar’s wind-scathed complexion burn a little brighter. But, whether the weather or the company of the least appreciated individual in all of Wales, Friar chuckled lightly and extended a hand to the man. “I gather you’re Mister Ener,” he exclaimed. “I’m Friar…”
The stately man drew his beady eyes from the Friar’s outstretched hand to the top of his head where there blew few hairs in the wind and rain.“Milisandria,” he barked finally. “Return to the hearth. I cannot stand that woman’s squawking.” Dropping her eyes to the threshold and the spot where droplets of water had escaped the hem of the Friar’s frock and congealed on the stones.
“Good evening, Friar,” she murmured, bowed and retreated back into the Great Hall. The Friar’s mouth parted, as if to send some exuberant farewell echoing after her.
“Like I was saying.” The Friar’s eyes fell to the silver that dropped one by one into the pouch at Mister Ener’s belt. He chuckled lowly and the Friar’s mouth fell further open, though no words ventured forth. “It is far too early to be begging, Friar.”
The oak door rattled shut, concealing the snicker of Mister Ener along with it. The Friar turned away from the manor and trekked back through the mud and the rain emptyhanded.
“You mustn’t dawdle so when I call you, Milisandria.” “Yes ma’am” “I am an aged woman. I cannot stoke the fire as you able-bodied imps do. For goodness sake, Milisandria, I could have frozen to death from that awful draft you let in!” “Yes ma’am.”
Deep in thought (or simply above joining the conversation), Mister Ener let himself into the drawing room. Taking the seat closest to the fire’s glow, he returned to pouring over Vaurshire’s financial log.
Enveloped again in the crackling waves of light that covered the usually grey room in a yellow glow, Milisandria worked dutifully at folding linen from a basket. The Madam Vaur sat sourly hunched over on the furniture, her fingers at nothing. Sitting in her usual spot, her tongue moved more quickly that she had in months, reprimanding harshly the girl at her feet.
“You are just like your brothers, Milisandria. You will come to abandon me as well!” Before Milisandria could reply with her usual practiced ‘no ma’am’, several short knocks, followed by several harder thumps on the door, interrupted the developing spat.
With the nimbleness of a child, Milisandria stuck the linens back in the basket and leapt to her feet.
“Ener!” her mother bellowed. On cue, the middle-aged man with the hollowed eyes and grave face untangled himself from the table and stood between the archway and Miss Vaur.
“Sit.” Madam Vaur commanded, and her daughter dropped into the nearest seat. “Mister Ener will send our guest away.”
Leaving Milisandria’s quick-paced protests in the Hall, Ener set his face into a downturned expression and pulled the door wide open. “Friar, have I not been clear? I will not soil Vaurshire with such lowlifes.”
His fell on the empty doorstep, void of everything but the remains of the weather, which had indeed turned more foul. “Masters Vaur?”
The shadows dispersed into two larger silhouettes.
“Rhys! Madyn!” Milisandria knocked Ener to the side as she stormed out into the rain, her arms stretched and her skirts flapping in the wind.
Ener coughed slightly and righted himself. “Who is it?” Madam Vaur barked from the other room, her beady eyes peering around the back of her chair.
Half drenched by the rain, Milisandria led her brothers and their horses to the stables. In between her chattering teeth, she spoke rapidly and excitedly to her brothers.
“Madam, I’m afraid the Masters Rhys and Madyn have returned.”
She could make out only the contours of their faces in the feeble tufts of candlelight that spotted the absolute darkness. Rhys’ was covered in a thin beard that had grown in since the last time she had seen him.
“Awful? It’s been horrid!” she wailed. She was too excited not to laugh at every word that passed between her and her brothers. The insincerity this laughter instilled in her complaints provoked laughter form the Masters Vaur, and in turn made her giggle only harder. “I cannot think what I would have done if my letter hadn’t found you!” her icicle eyes glinted. “I knew father would protect us.”
Rhys chuckled in the deep voice that recalled the memory of her father’s laughter to Milisandria so easily. He patted the top of her head. “Not to fret, Mili. We shall try to stay until mother has been reasoned with.”
“Oh, but that’s just it! Ever since father died and Tuder left to join the crusades, she’s been absolutely unreasonable!” Her tirade was thus interrupted by a curt knock at the bedroom door. Here, Milisandria again laughed, though the noise was more a nervous one.
The conversation and laughter faded. They each turned their eyes to the spot in the darkness where the door stood. A second knock prompted the elder brother to answer. “Yes?” “The Madam Vaur requests the Miss Vaur join her in her chambers.” was the reply.
Milisandria went to the door while her brothers eyed each other with question. “Thank you, Gwen.” she said, moving as if in a dream.
She closed the door behind her and followed the housemaid in silence to her mother’s chambers.
The thick curtains that were usually drawn tightly around her mother’s bed had been tied back. Gwen opened the door for Milisandria to enter wordlessly and then left without saying a word.
Madam Vaur was situated on top of a warm blanket and looked far from falling asleep. Her eyes were fixed off into the distance and didn’t move, even when Milisandria brushed her hand and said ‘hello’.
They listened to the crackling of the logs in the fireplace. As the moments drew on wordlessly, Milisandria’s thoughts drifted to the hearth and the flames the blazed there. Discomfited by one of her fits, the Madam Vaur had temporarily lifted the usual fire ban, for her room only, of course.
When Madam Vaur’s emotionless voice did break the silence, it startled Milisandria. “You beckoned them?”
“I wrote to them, yes, but they came of their own accord.” “Yes ma’am or no ma’am,” she reminded sharply. In a smaller voice, Milisandria corrected herself, “Yes, ma’am.”
“You are aware they are not welcome, Milisandria.” “Not welcome?” she repeated incredulously. “They’ve only been unwelcome since…yes ma’am.” “Very well.” The air seemed to blow a little colder. “Then it is decided. Milisandria, you are just as I supposed. You are of the same mind as your brothers.” Here she turned her beady glare finally to rest on Milisandria.
“You are aware they’ve been discredited within this family and will remind them thus.” Milisandria flinched. “Disobey and you, too, will be unwelcome in my household.”
The threat had ceased to surprise or frighten her long ago. The familiar fears of her mother were inflicted in her last remaining child since the boys had become men and her husband an angel. And tonight, Milisandria only closed her slightly agape lips, stood and smoothed the wrinkles form the front of her nightgown in calm, graceful movements, and leaned over her mother so she might kiss the woman goodnight. “Why do you worry so?” she whispered, to which there came no response. “I do not worry. The boys will depart, I do not doubt this. But first, they are to bring us Christmas!”
A light snow rested on the property of the Vaur Manor. And while the world continued on outside in a volume muffled by the serene and quiet nature that was winter, the Manor house bustled warmly inside.
Milisandria devoted her mornings to the kitchen where she and Enith created scores of tarts and puddings until their fingers wreaked of desserts.
Gwen swept quickly through the house, polishing the wood and stones, cleaning out the chimneys, and re-hanging the long absent tapestries at the request of Madyn.
And even the book smart Rhys had lent a hand in decorating. The night before Christmas Eve, he joined Madyn at the top of a ladder in the foyer. For hours, they pinned fresh bundled of evergreen branches and boughs of holly to the stones and hung wreaths over the freshly trimmed candles.
Lastly, they tackled the Great Hall. They pushed evergreen trees into the corners and strung holly around the hearth. Christmas Eve morning, the three siblings brought in several more candlesticks and set thick candles atop them.
The soft edges of her slippers scuffed lightly over the edges of the stones that sat slightly uneven with the others. The velvet folds of her new gown brushed the door handle every time she passed her mother’s chambers.
She could hear her brothers below and the funny, wine-fueled songs they were belting. The jolly noises rang all throughout the Vaur Manor and still, like it had for the past several days, the Madam Vaur’s chamber remained silent and untouched.
On her hundredth turn past the room, Milisandria bit her lip and clutched the cold handle in one hand. She let herself in without bothering to knock.
Her mother remained in the same position Milisandria or her brothers found her in on the rare occasions they dared venture inside. She sat hunched in her armchair, staring into the ember-less, gaping mouth of the hearth and dressed in the same grey gown that seemed far darker and gloomier than before.
She spoke not nor addressed her daughter’s entrance.
“I have come to bring you downstairs,” Milisandria announced boldly, clasping her hands into fists at her site and jutting out her chin, as though this would give her confidence.
“To join your brothers?” “And me.” “Then they have not left and you have disobeyed me.” She waited for her mother to order her to leave. She waited with one hand fiddling with the other, not sure how she would react when the inevitable command for her to leave came.
And yet no one spoke. “Madyn has gone to the trouble to have a Christmas dress made for you as well. Gwen’s put it out on your bed.”
Milisandria, her instincts and sensibility drowning in the silence, pulled the door open. She could almost feel the warmth of the fire coming from the Yule log and almost smell the crispiness of the roast goose sitting on the table. It was all waiting just downstairs.
She thought of Christmas and how the celebration would fade by morning anyhow. She then thought of her father and imagined him sitting in front of the hearth, laughing and telling stories.
Milisandria dropped the handle and allowed the door to rest shut as she gathered her plump skirts in her hands and bent over for a kiss.
The Madam Vaur wandered the halls by candlelight that night. For the most part, her eyes remained downcast so that she wasn’t forced to return the stare of the decorations.
Finally she came to the archway that separated the Great Hall and the corridor. She remained silent and concealed herself in the shadows.
Her children had gathered around the last glowing embers of the Yule log to sing the final chorus of Nos Galen and recall the memories of Christmas past.
Touched barely by the very fringes of the fire’s dying glow, the Madam remained secluded behind the stone arch, peering at the festivities as if they were a world away. She thought first of January, and how the dismal days plagued by rain and snow storms would devour Wales again. She then thought of her husband and imagined his silhouette sitting in front of the flames, surrounded by the small bodies of their sleepy children.
Upon this thought, she turned quickly on her heel and disappeared from her position as ghostlike as she had arrived.
Milisandria had taken to a particularly cozy place on the hearth, leaning against her brother. The dogs were languishing in the warmth of the fire as well and when she tilted her head just right, when her brothers laughed she could close her eyes and convince herself it was just like old times again.
She listened with rapture to the story of the birth of Jesus, a tale she had heard a thousand times before but was glad to hear from someone else. As Madyn told about how there had been no room at the Inn, Milisandria’s eyelids grew heavy and she thought back to the confrontation yesterday between her brothers and Mister Ener.
After carefully examining the log book, her brothers had agreed with Milisandria when she had insisted that he was up to no good. Ener had been taking most of the profit from their Shire for himself and leaving the Manor with barely enough to get by. Madyn sent for a new steward for the estate and Ener was promptly handed over to the sheriff in a manner most fulfilling.
Milisandria smiled to herself and began listening to the story again.
As Madyn reached the part of the story where the wise men knelt before the baby Jesus, a woman in red announced her presence with a small cough.
Milisandria looked up in her sleep-induced daze. Perhaps the figure was nothing more than an angel from a dream that had begun to slip into Milisandria’s subconscious.
Still, she asked Madyn to place a fresh log on the fire and moved one of the dogs aside so she could sit also.
From far down the road, Milisandria could hear echo of the church bells as they announced midnight. She listened with her eyes still closed in disbelief to what sounded like her mother’s voice join the conversation.