A Christmas visit

He wasn't sure why he came back, after all he had sworn countless times, and in numerous places, that he wouldn't. The brand on his arm was a constant reminder that there was no returning and that it would be both painful and foolish to try; and, as he wasn't neither a fool nor a lover of pain, that had seemed to settle the matter.

But somehow his dying had changed things, and perhaps in more way than he yet understood, and the need to come back had appeared from the fading smoke of the battle and then refused to go away.

So he had come back though he still didn't know why.

It was Christmas and they would be here, his good fortune that it was also a place where no wandering military man was likely to recognise him. Not that he was inspired with any desire to see most of them, but Horry and the old lady were different; they were the ones who had drawn him here and he knew that he couldn't leave without catching a glimpse of them. He needed to be sure that all was still as it once was before he put them behind him again and this time forever.

Though he had been sure that he had done that once before.

***

The house was unchanged, the tall twisted chimneys reaching up to a cold and crying sky, their plumes of smoke fading into the mist of the rain that threatened to turn to ice. The leaded windows were dull and blind in the fading light and he could only imagine the brightness within, a world where fires were always burning and candles were lit as soon as day began to withdraw.

He waited beside the main drive, tense and still unsure of how to proceed. From here the house could be as dead as his past, a shell surrounded by a lifeless garden where the winter winds soon swallowed any bloom hardy enough to unfurl a petal. Even the crash of the seas against the cliffs were somehow drained and lifeless as of Calypso herself were in mourning, as perhaps she was.

With a sigh for something he couldn't have explained he squared his shoulders and drew a deep and steadying breath, then he strode out from the cover of the spinney and began the trek to the side garden gate.

***

Darkness was closing in as reached his objective. This close to the house he could see the signs of occupancy, and the markers of the season. From the stables the stamping of hooves and the whistling of grooms told their story of carriages and visitors. Tracks in the shingle spoke of recent arrivals, and the wreath of green on the doors signaled their welcome. Behind the heavy window panes he could just make out the flicker of fire and candle, and once, when the door opened for a moment, he caught the sound of laughter and a violin being played. But no one came out of the door and he remained concealed in the shrubbery and lost in memory of other times until the dying light and the closing of the heavy drapes separated him from the world inside.

As the evening shadow deepened he turned away and made his way to the kitchen garden wall; the gate was locked, just as he had expected, but it had presented no barrier in the past and it both pleased and amused him that it presented no more an obstacle now. It was the work of seconds to be over it and gliding though the shadows of that same wall towards the back door and his objective.

The kitchen garden was deserted now, the day time laborers gone to their rooms and cottages to eat and sleep, to draw breath in readiness for the mornings festivities. No servant would venture here now that dinner was prepared and there was none to challenge him; he moved a little easier and faster as he fixed his eyes on the tradesman's door, closed now against the thickening cold of the night.

In the shadow of the lintel he paused, for if he was to lift the knocker then there would be no turning away and he would have to see it through. Was he truly ready to face the past in this way a small part of him demanded? But the rest bade it hush, he had come a long way to do this and it would be done. Done for them and for himself, both for who he was and who he had been. There were those he needed to do right by and this Christmas Eve he would do it.

His hand reached for the knocker almost without his knowledge and the first thud sealed his fate.

There was a moment of panic as he realised that he had bare seconds now to change his mind. Then the latch was being drawn and the hinges creaked, as he suddenly remembered that they always had, and even that sliver of a chance was gone. The past was truly woken now and, for good or ill, he would have to see it through

***

The face that stared at him was young, too young to be known to him, and topped by a grubby cap, matched by the stained apron that bound the girl's skirts. 'A scullery maid then', he thought, and cursed, though he should have expected as much, 'the lowest of the low, in this place at least, and as like to scare as a hind surprised in a glade.' But easy enough to pass with the right words.

He pulled his hat from his head and swept it to his chest with the ghost of a bow. The child's eyes widened as they travelled over him, taking in the long topped boots and unfashionable coat, becoming saucer like as they slid over the long braids of his hair; his sash he had left behind on the pearl and his pistol was well hidden, but even though he had tied his hair back the uncurled length of it would be remarked by her. He saw the scorn start to form on her face and the wariness appear in her eyes and he could imagine the words forming on her tongue before she even thought them. 'No place here for such as you, be gone or I'll rouse them men to give you a beating.' But she'd not say those words for he spoke first,
"Is Mrs Jane here girl?"

Sure enough the scorn faded to be replaced by hesitant curiosity and the words that she did speak were polite enough though uncertain in tone,
"Yes, she is, what is that to you?"
Relief flooded through him, that she was still here would make things so much easier. He smiled at the child still half hidden behind the door, but only a half smile that didn't show his teeth nor warm his eyes, and a soft one at that, no call to frighten the little miss, not if he wanted to get indoors without a fuss.
"Just tell she has a Christmas visitor, someone from the past who is minded to make her acquainatce once again. For a short while."
"And would she be minded to see such as you. Mrs Jane is cook here and has no need of vagabonds." Her words were sharp now and her looks dismissive.
"That is for her to decide is it not?" he replied gently but with a hint of wrapped steel slipping into his voice.
He smiled again, more warmly this time as he saw the effects of his words and the sound and timbre of his voice go to work on her. In the dim light he though she dropped a half bob of a curtsey and wondered again at the power of the little things to sway such as her. Her eyes widened again as she stared back at him,
"Very well, who shall I say is callin'?"
Her tone was softer now and the challenge was gone from her look. Even so he caught her uncertain backwards glance and knew that she might yet bar his entrance.

He softened his smile and his voice was gentle,
"I'll wait her shall I? Until you have been given permission for me to enter."
He saw the relief as she bobbed again,
"If you please." The ghost of a 'sir' hung unspoken, but thought, in the cold air before she compressed her lips over such an unlikely deference and skipped back in doors to the safety of those who would know what to do.

The moments that followed seem like hours as memories attacked from all sides, this door he had known so well, the three legged stool, dark and wet in the winters evening, still tucked under the eaves for use when cleaning game and peeling vegetables in warmer airs, the smell of new hay drifting on the wind from the stables where the grooms were settling down for an evening of ale and cards, the scent of cooking drifting out from the still open door. Things he had once known so well but which he had lost and had never thought to see again. Once more he wondered why he had come back.

Then the door was pushed wider and a woman appeared with a lantern in her hand and two broad young men at her shoulders. She stood back from the edge of the door and raised the lamp high, the white cap tinged yellow by its light, the silver hair beneath that gilded too. Yet though it illuminated her, a familiar face despite the intervening years, it left him in shadow and what she could see of him her pinched expression told him she didn't like.
"The girl says you be askin' for me? What for? You may know my name but I know none such as you, nor want to. Be gone, or if it is a message that you bring then deliver it quickly for it canno' be good news if it's brought by the likes of you and at such a time."
Her voice was cold though polite enough.

He sighed and bowed low,
"Forgive me Mrs Jane. There is no message and I would not worry you for the world. Be easy, I am all the bad news that there is. But I need you assistance," he looked at her from under half swept lashes and smiled his most charming smile, "and you will say that it is not the first time and you will be right. Mrs Jane I need to speak to Honny. But I would see no one else if it can be arranged. I need you to fetch her for me, as you have done in the past," his smile widened, "as only we three know."
The woman came to the door stoop then, her brows narrowed in confusion, for he knew that she was feeling the familiarity of his voice though the shape of the man was unknown. The lamp was raised higher and shone towards his face. He straightened as her free hand came forward to grasp his arm stepping back slightly and pulling him towards the passageway behind her.
"Daniel, fetch more light." She said without turning.
There was murmured protest which she waved away,
"Do as I say boy, William here is protection enough for a moment and I do not think this man means me any harm."

The one called William moved closer to her shoulder as the one called Daniel scuttled to do her bidding,
Jack suppressed a smile, no boot boy or footman would risk the wrath of the cook and, while Mrs Jane had always been fair and kind, she ruled her domain with the threat of no second helpings, a dire threat to a growing lad. Sure enough the boy was back in short order with a branched candleabra in his hand and with the butler at his back.

The light was brought forward and shone into his face and he looked steadily from cook to butler and back again as they all stared at him. Then he heard a muttered oath and the butler took a step backwards and Mrs Jane's hand was on his arm again and she was stepping closer to stare at him. Her head bare met his shoulder but there was no fear in her eyes. Then her hand was withdrawn, going to her mouth as her eyes widened,
"Oh my lord, it can't be," she breathed, "by all the saints of heaven." She stepped backwards the menfolk hurried retreating before her, "by all the saints."
She took a deep breath and came forward again, tilting her head and looking at him first one way then another; finally her free hand came up to touch his face and he caught it, pressing the cold fingertips to his lips,
"I'm keeping you in the cold Mrs Jane," he smiled at her, "forgive me."
In the light of the candles he saw the sheen of tears in her eyes and closed his fingers more tightly around hers.

"By all the saints of heaven." She whispered again as the tears stared to spill down her cheeks, "you've come back, after all this time, you've come back."
"Just for tonight Mrs Jane, things to settle, then I'll be gone again I promise you."
She shook her head at that, though what it was she was denying she didn't say.
"By all the saints," she whispered again. Then she seemed to recall herself .
" Come you in, there's food and drink and a fire as there always was." She reached up and touched his face again, "you are cold, come and get warm."

A hand fell heavy on his shoulder and he half turned, hand reaching for his sword, he met the eyes of the butler staring at him as if Christmas Eve had suddenly turned to Easter Day,
"My pantry, lad. It's quiet there, no need for Miss Honney to face the stares of those who know no better."
A name suddenly clicked in Jack's mind.
"Mr Fletcher is it not? I thank you, 'twould be best perhaps."
The man nodded his recognition, the hand on Jack's shoulder pulled him forward,
"My pantry it is then Mrs Baker. I'll find some port if you can provide some victuals. Best keep this between ourselves, given what's gone before."
The cook nodded and wiped her eyes then turned for her kitchen, she cast one last look behind her and Jack her heard her say,
"By all the saints of heaven, I never thought I'd see this day." then she faded into the shadow.

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