For the Least of My ChildrenIsland of St. Anne, Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord in the year 962
Rebecca Horne pulled on the reins of her Arabian mare as she drew her bastard broadsword. The horse circled smoothly even as she warily looked around at the dark encroaching forest.
"I feel you," she shouted, hoping the fear thudding in her heart did not reveal itself in her voice. One never knew whom one would meet out here. For immortals, those blessed with a long life and everlasting youth, chance meetings could be deadly. After all, there was the Game to consider; the taking of one another's head and Quickening—the life force and memory of all they were.
Her blue eyes detected a slight movement in the shadow of the old-growth trees.
"Face me!" she shouted, calming her horse with the hand holding the reins, patting the mare while she stared at the shadowy figure just barely visible beside one of the oak trees. "Show yourself or I shall attack!"
The shadow seemed to consider her words and then finally detached itself from the cover of the oak tree. A small dark-haired boy, face dirty, clothes ragged, and a long knife clutched in his left hand at last became visible. His gaze met hers without flinching and his hand gripped and un-gripped his knife.
Rebecca settled back in the saddle and lowered her sword. "Do you know what we are?" She had taken in many new immortals over the centuries and wondered if this child would be another one.
The boy nodded.
Rebecca sighed and urged the horse closer. The boy retreated once more into shadow. She stopped. "Listen to me; there's a bad storm coming, and my home is near. It's on holy ground. You'll be safe there."
The boy eased forward again to stare with pensive and startling green eyes. He glanced thoughtfully at the gray sky heavy with swollen clouds of impending snow. Finally he nodded. Reaching behind the tree to gather his bag of belongings, he slung it over his right shoulder. In his left hand, the knife seemed to retreat up his ragged sleeve. Rebecca sighed with relief. She'd learned to read the intentions of other immortals in their smallest moves. For the moment, this confrontation was settled. Silently the boy fell into an easy lope behind Rebecca's mare as she led the way to the ancient former abbey of St. Anne. By the time they arrived, the snow had begun to swirl around them in small icy pellets. This was going to be a bad one.
Wind blew the snow into small swirls that stung Rebecca's face with biting cold and already the snow skittered across the flagstones and piled in the corners. She shuddered within her fur-lined cape as her breath misted and frosted on the fur. Pulling up in the courtyard of the abbey she reined in her mare even as her groom came swiftly to her side, flapping his arms in the cold and stamping his feet.
As she alit from her mare, Rebecca glanced behind her, watching the cautious approach of the boy. He paused just within the abbey gate and held one hand out as if feeling the sanctity of the place. He shuddered.
"It's all right. You'll be safe here from the storm," Rebecca said again. She had a feeling the boy didn't truly believe her, but he nodded even as he followed her into the entrance hall of the old abbey. Rebecca shed her cape in the entry, handing it to Paulette. She turned to the boy. "Paulette, please set a fire and draw a bath in the south tower for…" Rebecca paused, her arm lifted as she raised an eyebrow at her guest.
"Beren," he mumbled at last, taking her hint.
"Beren," she completed. "Follow Paulette. She'll see to your needs."
The boy shot her a fearful glance, but swallowed and gingerly climbed the tower steps after Paulette. Rebecca, after checking with Jules about the anticipated holiday feast and noting the fragrant evergreen boughs already festooning the refectory, climbed the larger north tower to her room and, after changing for dinner, searched through a chest for some additional clothing. Guillaume, her last husband, had had a son by his first wife. Some of the boy's long outgrown clothing remained in storage. Rebecca thought surely something would fit the child immortal.
After selecting appropriate clothing, Rebecca swept the items into her arms and headed for the south tower of the abbey. She climbed the narrow winding stairs that came out on a platform at the top. Rebecca took a deep breath and opened the door. At the site that greeted her eyes, Rebecca's jaw dropped and a near breathless, "Oh," escaped her startled person. Quickly she shut the door. "I brought you some clean clothes to wear, but I don't guess they will suit."
"I don't require new clothing. Mine suffices," the immortal replied, those green eyes narrowed and piercing.
Rebecca nudged the pile of rags with the toe of her slipper. She shook her head. "They smell. They are filthy and need mending. I shall have them cleaned."
"No!" The immortal shifted a hand to raise the ever-present knife still held in one hand and now lifted from the dark, soapy water. Wet black hair streamed water in rivulets over the small pale body. The other hand covered two well-developed breasts. "They… it's…" she sighed and shook her head. "I'm safer if you don't."
Thoughtfully, Rebecca crossed to the bed and laid the clothes on it before sitting on it. She folded her hands in her lap before addressing the immortal. "How long have you been immortal? Who was your teacher? Did you have one?" She felt at a loss to understand the child… no not a child. Most definitely not a child!
"For some time." The young woman shook her head. "He's alive and he taught me not to mention living immortals. In fact, he taught me to avoid meeting any others and not to trust any I did meet."
Rebecca nodded. "He was right… but there are times when socializing with another immortal is not only possible but recommended."
The woman smiled. "Like on holy ground during a bad storm."
Rebecca chuckled. "I assume Beren is not your real name? Is it Berenice?"
The woman shrugged and then stood to get out of the small copper tub. Rebecca snatched up a thick bit of linen-woolen cloth and handed it to her to dry herself off. Wrapped in the towel, the woman fingered the clean clothing and cast a disparaging glance at her own rags. "Since I'm clean now, I suppose it really doesn't make sense to put the old ones back on."
A small smile crossed Rebecca's lips. "No… it doesn't." She watched while "Beren" dressed in the clean leggings, tunic, over-tunic, and soft shoes. The deep midnight blue of the tunic with its silver-thread stars gleamed in the firelight and fit perfectly. She began to towel off her hair.
"Let me help with that," Rebecca offered. "I may be able to fix it so that its length is disguised… something better than just pulled up under a hood."
The woman stared at her. Confusion and suspicion flickered across her face. She held one hand out and swallowed as if dizzy. "This is powerful holy ground," she finally muttered. "It doesn't really like me."
"But it will keep you safe," Rebecca assured her once more.
"Holy ground isn't safe… it's a trap," Beren whispered; but she allowed Rebecca to comb and plait her hair.
Even so, Rebecca noted the knife still in the woman's hand and even she could feel rumblings deep within the earth. She cast her thoughts about her, trying to ease the immortal's mind. "I knew Him," she finally said. "I wandered Galilee when Christ taught."
"Was he one of us?"
Rebecca shook her head as she secured the first braid to the top of Beren's skull and fluffed the unbraided hair over the hidden braid. Then she began the next one. "Not one of us… but someone truly remarkable. I was a widow at the time, and gave money for his ministry after I heard him preach. His words were powerful ones. So powerful that on this night when the world recalls his birth, I too celebrate."
"You are a thousand years old?!" Beren turned in surprise. "Can any of us last so long?"
"We can… and not by always hiding and running," Rebecca replied. "We immortals need to do more than survive… we need to live, and as I once heard Christ preach… we need to care for others."
The immortal thoughtfully settled back for Rebecca to continue. "Which words of his taught you that?"
"The ones about that when we care for, help, feed, and give water to the least of those around us… we do it for him."
"And when we don't, we deny him," Beren finished.
"Exactly. So I take in all manner of travelers… immortal or mortal… and offer them food and shelter."
"Do any of them turn on you?"
"Sometimes," Rebecca chuckled. "But most are grateful and then move on. Many of the immortals remain and become students." Rebecca paused. "Even those who have had other teachers. Someone of my age has a lot to teach."
Beren did not reply for a long time. "And you want me to stay."
"If you like," Rebecca offered gently. "The storm is bad and may last several days. Stay at least until it ends. Or until it warms up again. Or the snow melts. Or give me a year of your life to learn. You won't be sorry."
"I shall consider it," the woman replied softly.
"Now then," Rebecca said, changing the subject. "The plaits are finished and hidden. Your hair now resembles that of a young nobleman and all you need is a hat to help with the illusion." She picked up a soft, square maroon hat and pinned it on the immortal's head. "There! The illusion works!"
Even as she stepped away from Rebecca to turn and get the feel of the clothes, Rebecca saw the woman's moves, stance, gestures, and gait change to that of a young man again. Other than the soft expression on the face and the delicate hands, Beren gave no indication that instead of a young man on the verge of puberty, she was a woman in her late twenties. Whoever her teacher had been, Rebecca thought he'd taught her well the art of camouflage.
"Shall we?" Rebecca rose and offered her arm. "I shall enjoy being escorted to dinner by such a charming young man."
The immortal gave her his arm as together they descended the stairs. Halfway down, she paused. "Aella," Beren said.
"Elf-child. Changeling." Rebecca nodded.
"It's my name… and the only gift I have to give."
"And I shall keep its secret… Beren." Rebecca smiled gentl. She didn't know how long this immortal would stay, if she would let Rebecca train her, or if she would vanish into the world at large at the first opportunity. But she felt that for however long Aella stayed… she would be thankful. Beyond in the refectory, she could already hear her servants singing and celebrating the nativity of Christ and she could smell the food being brought from the kitchen. On this night all of her household would sit at table together and the strata of class would be abolished. Somehow she thought that the best testament of what Christ had taught her long ago… "We are all of us, the children of God. Together, we can make heaven on Earth. Do you for the least of my children… and you have done it to me."
Outside the snow continued to fall, hiding even the stars in the clouded sky. But above the clouds, far from the Earth, the stars shone brightly.