The Knight Before Christmas – Diane Darcy

His mother screamed. His father, drunk, laughing, talking with his men, paused to look up at the ceiling before elbowing the man next to him. “The louder they scream, the stronger the child!” His father bellowed the words, as if intending his wife to hear them. His men laughed again, voicing their agreement. Thomas, seated one table over from his father, stirred the meat and vegetables on his trencher. He suspected they’d forgotten about him. As it was a warm spring evening, the great hall was only about half full, as many had gone outside after the meal. Some of his men had stayed to keep his father company during his vigil. A blonde serving girl filled Thomas’s drink, winked at him, and moved to the next table. When she topped his father’s cup, he pulled her onto his lap just as a screech from upstairs filtered down again. His father said something about his mother that he didn’t understand, and the men laughed again. Thomas should have been abed, and just when he thought he’d been forgotten, his father raised an arm and called him over. Thomas moved quickly, knowing that when his father drank, he’d best be fast, or get cuffed on the side of the head. “Look at what a strapping lad he is.” His father grasped his arm, pinching him too hard, but Thomas didn’t flinch.

If he did it would go the worse for him. “And he’s smart, too. He knows his numbers and can sit a horse as well as any page. As well as any squire twice his age!” Heads bobbing, cups lifted, the men murmured agreement. “He’s to go to Winchester, you know.” There were more murmurs of agreement. Thomas knew better than to protest that he didn’t want to live at Winchester. He met the gaze of the serving girl on his father’s lap and could see she did not wish to be there, did not like his groping hands. She was nice, gave him treats, ruffled his hair, and sometimes sang to him until he fell asleep. He wished he could take her from him.

His father should not treat her in such an honor-less way. The priest, his mother, his grandmother — they all spoke of honor, of the correct way to act, even as he noted his father did the opposite. His mother screamed again, long and loud, and Thomas winced. Heads tilted upward to eye the ceiling until the sound tapered off. She was having the babe that had rounded her belly these last months. She’d labored for hours, thus far, and Thomas said yet another prayer, hoping her ordeal would soon be at an end. His father forgot about him and Thomas wandered to the fireplace. The embers burned low, and he sank to the warm stones and pulled out the wooden knight and horse his mother purchased from a traveling tinker. Hurried footsteps and scraping furniture moved above them, and the room quieted. Thomas glanced up, and the slap of leather shoes against stone, had him looking toward the entrance.

Above stairs, someone started to wail, and he knew it was not his mother this time. Mayhap his grandmother? He wasn’t sure; as to his knowledge she’d never made such a noise as that. The girl came into the room, and everyone looked at her pale, frightened face. His father stood, dumping the servant from his lap, and she caught her balance and scurried away. The girl in the doorway shoved shaking hands into her crisp white apron and looked at the ground. She did not say a word, and moments later his father rushed past her and ran up the stairs, his boots ringing on the stones. The girl moaned and pressed her hands to her face. Thomas slowly walked out of the hall and dread slithered down his spine and he stopped at the foot of the stairs. His father bellowed. His grandmother came into view, the back of her hand pressed to her mouth, torchlight glancing off her face, wet with tears.

Her dark hair had come undone, leaving her braids hanging, something he’d never seen before. She gestured to him, and he clutched his toys and slowly climbed the stairs, one hand scraping along rough stone as gooseflesh rose on his neck. As his father’s anguished curses echoed down the hall, his grandmother clutched him with a bloody hand and hurried him to his room. He fought her, whimpering, tugging his hand away, not wanting that blood to touch him. Her grip only tightened. Inside his room she slowly shut the door, walked to a chair, and pulled him onto her lap. She wrapped him in her arms as if he was a child much younger than seven. He slowly relaxed against her, her quiet keening lulling him to sleep. Chapter 1 Present Day, England What was a girl from Tempe, Arizona, doing in a place like this? It sounded like the beginning of a bad joke, but Madison Holland really couldn’t help but wonder, what was she doing here? She’d grown up in Sedona where her parents owned a craft store on Main Street. She was a desert girl, with tanned skin, blue eyes, and dark hair perpetually streaked by the sun.

She was used to dirt, cacti, succulents, grass, and shrubs. Not this explosion of greenery. Besides that, it was autumn, her favorite season, and she was missing the red rocks, dried grasses, and pumpkins. This … all of this, just seemed so strange. Foreign. She looked out the window as the tour bus drove through Durham City Center with its shopping areas, hotels, and cafes. They passed a graveyard, and she could easily see the grand towers of Durham Castle and Cathedral perched on a hilly peninsula. An architectural marvel, the buildings loomed, large and intimidating. She thrummed with something; anticipation, or nerves, she wasn’t sure which. She’d read about the fortifications: high walls, entry gates, arrow loops, battlements and murder holes.

In fact, she’d read far too much about the place and watched way too many videos on YouTube. She shivered, and wasn’t sure if it was from the cold, or the fact that she was even there. When the tour bus hissed to a stop in the parking lot, she was the first one out of her seat, her long dark braid swinging in front of her as she gathered her backpack. The tour consisted of mostly older couples, and she’d made friends with a few of the talkative types, but she didn’t wait for anyone. She headed straight for the cathedral. She almost couldn’t believe she was actually there. She refused to call it a pilgrimage, like so many others who had visited this site over the years, but yes, it was something of an obsession. Dean, her ex-boyfriend, always had grandiose dreams about backpacking through Europe. He’d be furious to know she’d made it here before him. She’d dropped out of college at eighteen at his request, worked a slew of low-paying jobs, and now, nine years later — an entire lifetime — was finally on her way to success.

Why was she even thinking of him? His life wasn’t her business anymore, and vice versa. It hadn’t been for the last three years. Their relationship, and her mistakes, had left her older, wiser, and had fired her goals. She was determined to get the degree, the job she wanted, and to eventually grow a profitable interior design business. And why not? She was in charge of her destiny now. She’d make it happen by depending on herself this time around. She just had to get this bug out of her bonnet and visit Durham Cathedral and be done with it. The air felt crisp and damp, the sky filled with dark clouds, and with the tall buildings as a backdrop, a sense of impending doom settled within her. Just as it did in her dreams. She needed to get hold of herself.

She’d wanted to come here and had spent her precious savings to do so. She knew she looked like a tourist with her southwestern poncho, jeans, and the yellow guidebook pressed against her chest, and she didn’t even care. As she’d lived in tourist towns her whole life; Sedona, then Tempe, she considered looking out of place a badge of honor. Tourists made the world go round, and they usually tipped well, too. She should know. She worked hard at being pleasant, fast, and efficient, tried to remember names, and the patrons at Connie’s Café had come through for her and pooled some extra money together to give her a warm send off. She suddenly missed Tempe. Strangely enough, the big buildings, and the grass out front, sort of reminded her of Arizona State University. She was supposed to be there, getting ready to start the new semester in two weeks. Again, what was she doing here? She walked into the cathedral and, brimming with tension, had a hard time catching her breath.

This old chapel had featured in her dreams for a long while now, and just entering the building gave her a strange, eerie feeling. She was just in time to join a tour and, staying at the back, followed along. They walked past the square green, the cloisters, the monks’ dormitories with their wooden oak beams, and the library; admiring art, tapestries, and artifacts along the way. The history of the place was steeped with power and heritage, and while others in the group ranged from bored to impressed, she felt a deep sense of unease. They finally entered the nave, striking with its massive zig zag, and geometric columns which supported the incredibly high cathedral. The diamond ribbed vaulting on the ceiling, the intricately decorated tombs, and the huge clock were impressive to say the least. The pictures and videos on the Internet did not do justice to the sheer size and magnitude of the place. A curious tension filled the room, and she looked at the others in her group, saw curiosity, awe, boredom, but nothing out of place. She should be more excited to see the High Altar and the huge rose window — a stained-glass masterpiece — as she’d read extensively about its history, but what she felt was a sense of dread and expectation. Like something was going to happen.

Maybe something bad. Walking behind the High Altar, their group finally arrived at the simple marble slab on the floor inscribed Cuthbertus. She glanced around, expecting … something. She knew all there was to know about England’s best-loved saint. The patron saint of Northumbria: monk, bishop, and hermit, best known for his piety, diligence, and obedience. It was said healing powers and miracles were his specialty. She glanced around, studied the area, and with a spike in her heartbeat, waited for something to happen. One way or the other, she wanted whatever this was to be over with. She just wanted to stop dreaming about this place. She was a darned good waitress, a runner, a hiker, and an interior design student at ASU.

So, what was she doing vividly dreaming of a location so far away? It hadn’t been too bad at first. It had spurred her interest in medieval tiles, stonework, stained glass, and cobblestones. She’d revamped her apartment, then the café, giving them both a medieval makeover. The locals and tourists had loved it. The owner had adored it. As for herself, she’d just been incredibly confused. She’d finally looked up the cathedral online, and found it really did exist. She’d become obsessed, looking at pictures, studying the history of the area, and trying to figure out what was going on in her brain. She’d finally seen a therapist. When she’d shared that her mother, who’d died three years earlier, had researched her genealogy and found they’d come from Wiltshire, England, the therapist had encouraged her to look into it.

But her father had remarried and donated many of their previous possessions when he’d moved into his new wife’s home. He wasn’t sure he could find anything after all this time. She figured he’d thrown everything out and hadn’t wanted to say, so she hadn’t pressed too hard. Her therapist believed her family history was significant somehow. Maybe if she connected with her past, she could move on with her future. So, she’d planned a trip, saved all summer, and here she was, a couple of weeks before school was to start up again. Spending her money on dreary old England. The tour went on to see the Chapel of the Nine Altars, and she stayed behind. She’d traveled over five thousand miles so she could stand exactly where she stood right at that moment, and she still wasn’t sure why. “Ah, there you are.

” She turned to see a priest coming toward her, his brown wool gown sweeping the stones, the large crucifix at his neck glancing off sunlight. Short, white-haired, and with twinkling eyes, he smiled widely. She knew him. She glanced at the slab on the floor, and then at the man coming toward her. “Saint Cuthbert?” she asked, immediately feeling foolish. His smile widened. “It took you long enough.”

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