Yule Eve had arrived in Bleakbourne on Heath. All day and into the evening, Polcock did a brisk business at his backdoor, selling ale and cider for folks to take home for their feasts. This meant the tap-room was empty, forcing Leryn, the bard, to take his music to the street.
Standing on the stoop in front of the Ploughman’s Inn, Leryn entertained the passersby, managing to earn his coins despite the lack of customers in the taproom. His day was made more pleasant when the sound of hooves on the cobbles announced the return of Lancelyn, the knight. Riding on his shoulder was a small, tawny, tabby cat, with a distinctive ‘M’ emblazoned on her forehead.
Lance stopped his horse. “Leryn! It’s good to see you again. Meet Morgause, my wife.” The cat purred, rubbing her cheek against Lance’s sideburns. Absently he reached up and petted her. “I’ve grown quite fond of her now I’ve had a chance to get to know her better.”
Leryn laughed. “Who knew you were a cat-man? I’d have thought you more of a dog fancier.”
“Cats are more intriguing,” replied the knight. “Dogs are simple. Cats are subtle.”
Leryn agreed. “Cats will love you for life, but you’ll never own them.” The cat purred and nodded her head.
“That’s true. They own you, not the other way around. So, Morgause now owns me.” Lancelyn left the words “just as she always wanted” unspoken, but the bard understood, nonetheless.
By sundown the street was empty. Everyone was at home before their own hearth, celebrating the holy night with as much flair as they could afford, and making the final preparations for the next day’s Yule feast.
Polcock and Hannah hung out the seldom-used closed sign, which people would ignore. With Lancelyn’s return Galahad was happy. Ambrose was behaving himself. The six of them were a family, as Leryn had begun to think of the group. They gathered before the fire, with mulled cider.
The tabby was an enigma to Leryn. She was as independent and curious as any cat, but insisted on sitting beside either Lancelyn or Galahad, claiming them as her territory. She immediately proved an excellent mouser, earning her some respect from Polcock. Surprisingly, given his well-known dislike of cats, the innkeeper agreed she could sleep in Lancelyn and Galahad’s room.
Hannah took an immediate liking to her, and even Ambrose agreed she was an agreeable cat. He did say, “But Lancelyn, I’m afraid your wife is in this form forever, and you’re stuck with your magic-rebounding curse for the rest of your life. Morgause cursed you and she was the only person who could have reversed it.”
Morgause looked up at Ambrose, a sad, resigned expression in her amber eyes.
Lance looked away, regret marring his perfect features. “I know. Revenge isn’t as pleasant as I thought it would be. We’ll just have to live with the mess we made of our lives.”
Ambrose nodded. “Deeds done in the heat of the moment have a way of haunting you forever.”
Yule morning dawned cold and clear. Snow had fallen during the night. Unable to sleep, Leryn stood looking out his window, trying to feel happy. A few flakes of snow drifted on the breeze, making the scene ethereal. It would have been perfect if only Rosie….
He heard the muffled sounds of Hannah and Polcock downstairs in the kitchen, preparing the Yule feast. Their words were indistinct, two people laughing and enjoying each other’s company.
When he first entered the Ploughman’s Inn eleven months before, Leryn felt like he’d come home. And then, when Rosie dropped out of the sky and into his arms he’d been happy, truly happy for the first time, ever.
He thought that if he just tried harder he would get back the sense of belonging he’d lost when she left. If he pretended hard enough he would believe it. He heard a slight scratching at the door to his room, interrupting his morbid thoughts. On opening it Morgause entered, rubbing around his ankles.
“Hello, little one.” He reached down to pet her, but she jumped onto his windowsill, looking intently at him, as if trying to communicate something. The cat turned to gaze out the window, toward the stable, meowed and then jumped back down. She crossed to his door, and sat down to lick a paw. Looking up at him she meowed again and strolled down the hall.
Leryn had just turned back to the window when a sharp “Meow!” got his attention. Morgause was back in the doorway looking at him expectantly.
“You want me to follow you?” Nodding, she went down the hall. Wondering if he’d gone mad, Leryn followed the cat down the back stairs and out the door to the stable. It was too early for Lancelyn and Galahad to be up.
Inside the darkened stable, the cat walked past Applecore, Polcock’s donkey, and also Elsinore, Leryn’s horse. Beyond Elsinore was Trystan, Galahad’s horse, and then Bedivere, Lancelyn’s new horse.
Morgause kept walking into the shadowy recesses of the stable, toward the unused far back stall. Leryn’s heart leapt for joy. Huddled in the hay beside Brunhilde he found Rosie, looking terribly pale and far too thin, and apparently sleeping. Wordlessly, he threw himself down, his arms going around her.
Morgause sat for a few moments, and then quietly padded out of the stable.
The wizard stirred, slow to wake at such an early hour. Leryn shook him. “Ambrose! Rosie’s back, but she’s ill. I put her in my bed. She’s burning hot. Hannah is with her, but we can’t get her to wake up.”
Ambrose threw back the blankets. Pulling on his clothes, he said, “Send Galahad to fetch Bramblestein and Janet. Tell her to bring her medicines.”
Leryn held Rosie’s hand, as Bramblestein finished his examination. The dwarf looked at Janet. “What do you think, my dear? I would say the girl has pneumonia.”
“I sense something else, as if she encountered something…evil.” Worry creased Janet’s forehead. “Lungwort and lobelia—a tincture to be made into tea. We’ll add willow for the fever, of course.” She smoothed Rosie’s hair back from her face. “But, this day will be either the turning point, or….”
Leryn’s heart knotted up. He pressed Rosie’s hand to his lips. “She will live. She must live.”
Bramblestein laid his hand on Leryn’s shoulder, his rough features full of compassion. “Young man, she’s very ill. We’ll do our best, but whatever night-creature she did battle with has taken a terrible toll on her.”
Janet agreed. “We’ve a long fight ahead of us.”
Bramblestein looked toward Ambrose. “I’m not able to heal the demon-touched. Only Merli—Ambrose—has that gift, now that Morgause is…unable to work sorcery.”
Ambrose knelt beside the bed, taking Rosie’s other hand. “I haven’t done this in a long time. I can’t make any promises.” He met Leryn’s eyes. “And even if I’m able to cleanse her of this, I can’t be sure she’ll survive. Death has her in his sights, and he rarely relinquishes his quarry. We must do this a certain way.” He turned to Hannah. “Open wide the curtains, and let in as much light as you can. We’ll put the bed directly in front of the window, because light is the enemy of darkness.”
Turning the bed so that Rosie faced the window, Ambrose knelt at the head, one hand on either side of Rosie’s face. “Leryn, you hold her right hand. Lancelyn, you hold her left, because other than Leryn, you’re her closest friend. Both of you pray for my success with all your heart. Bramblestein and Janet will kneel at the foot and weave the spells of protection. Morgause…damn. Too bad you’re a cat. This was always your best talent.”
Morgause jumped lightly onto Rosie’s chest and settled there, staring intently at Ambrose. “Good,” said Ambrose. “You’ll help as you can.”
Clearing his mind, Ambrose opened his true-sight to Rosie. Immediately he was assailed by the taint of a vampire. “She did battle with a creature of the night—one of the undead. She must have slain it, or she wouldn’t be here. But in the process, she was wounded.” At first he feared she had been turned, but with great relief he realized she had survived her encounter with her soul intact. “I believe we can save her.”
Seeing the red glow of evil entangled in her life-force, he dove down, prepared to do battle for Rosie’s life and her soul. As he spiraled toward the poison, he felt Morgause’s spirit beside him, lending him strength, and showing him the way.
Working slowly but carefully, he removed the vampire’s dark taint, slicing it away and letting it drift away from Rosie’s body, to be absorbed by the light. Each time he came to an especially complex knot, the spirit-cat was there, guiding him.
Yule day passed, silent and tense as the battle for Rosie’s life raged on. Afternoon approached and a few customers entered the tap-room. Looking haggard, Polcock served them with grim efficiency.
Arriving in the tap-room from the cold, Scutter noted that the bard was not in his usual corner. He also saw that Janet’s cloak was hung by the fire but she was not in the room. Shaking his head, he said to Tom Tailor, “Sad thing, illness at Yule. Hope the bard’s not too sick. He makes good music.”
Tom stared into the fire. “I lost my wife and son two years ago at Yule, and my dad last year. I can’t feel the same about the holiday—it’s just one more day to get through.”
Scutter nodded. “Rebecca was a good woman, and your dad’s sorely missed.”
Hannah entered the room, greeting the two men, followed by Galahad. “Polcock, you’re needed upstairs.”
“I’ll handle the tap-room.” Galahad stepped behind the bar as Polcock followed his wife upstairs.
Tom Tailor said, “I see Widow Brown is here, but the bard is not. Is all well with him?” Despite her recent marriage to Bramblestein, Janet was still “Widow Brown” to the locals, and likely always would be.
Galahad shrugged. “He’s not ill, if that is what you’re asking. Rosie has come home, but she is unwell. Pneumonia. Bramblestein and Janet are caring for her”
Scutter and Tom exchanged glances. Scutter said, “Her sort don’t get ill very often. It must be bad, if the dwarf’s involved.” His thoughts turned inward for a moment, and then he said, “If they need any herbs, I’ve a few set by.”
Grim-faced, Tom said, “Rosie’s a dear girl, one who’s suffered enough in this world. We’ll pray.” Pulling prayer beads from their pockets, both men bowed their heads, saying the prayers of protection and healing in unison. They said the full cycle, returning to the moon-charm twice and then remained by the fire in silence, waiting for news.
Upstairs, Polcock helped Lancelyn carry Ambrose to the room next to Leryn’s. Polcock gazed at Ambrose, a mix of love and worry on his broad face. Bramblestein said, “Don’t worry. He’ll be unconscious for a day or two, but he’s retreated inward, now. It took all his strength, but he was successful. The girl has made a turn for the better.”
Leryn knelt beside Rosie, his head bent in prayer. Rosie slept deeply, and Morgause slept beside her.
Hannah took her husband’s hand. “Don’t worry, my dear. They’ve saved her life, and Ambrose will survive.”
Standing next to Hannah and Polcock, Janet said, “The rest of the cure will be time and medicine—two things we have on hand. Go down to your tap-room. My husband and I will see to it that everyone is cared for, including that very special cat.”
“Bleakbourne on Heath” © 2016 – 2017 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved
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Connie J. Jasperson is an author and blogger, and a regular contributing member of the Edgewise Words Inn staff.