Choices and Consequences Series

Post-apocalyptic paranormal romantic fantasy

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Chapter 11

Christmas

Leonie

Pedro took advantage of my bread-making ability and I grew to enjoy our early sessions in the kitchen together. He was a great source of information.

“What do you know about Christmas?” he asked me one morning as we were shaping bread rolls.

I shrugged. “Not a lot.” That wasn’t quite true. When I’d lived with the Traders, Christmas had been another rest day, a day to cook special food, to take time with family, to sing and to dance. Amongst the Traders it was any excuse for a rest day – anniversaries, weddings, births, deaths, festivals, or just because there hadn't been one for a week. “But I’ve read the story, in a Bible,” I confessed. “And I know it’s a big festival, here.”

I’d often used old churches as a safe place to hide out and there were almost always Bibles around. With nothing else to do, I’d read them, not all the way through, but quite a bit of them. I’d be the first to say I didn’t understand that much of the Bible, but I’d always liked some of the stories.

“It’s not the big festival here, though,” Pedro said. “That’s Easter. Christmas is a lot quieter, because Lord Gabriel sends almost everyone home to their families, whatever part of the House they belong to. He keeps just enough people here to make sure everything works, that’s all.”

The word family always made me feel a little jealous, and a little lonely. I kept my eyes on my work as I spoke. “Will you be leaving?”

“No, not me,” he said. “I’ve got no family left outside. There’s a few others who’ll stay, too. Lord Gabriel and Lady Eleanor, of course, Benjamin, Edward – he’s got family but they disowned him when he came here. Andrew, because he was orphaned as a child and then his grandfather brought him up, but he’s died too. Prospero has family, but he always volunteers to stay—I don’t know why. I think he doesn’t like to leave Andrew.”

That seemed pretty odd to me. It might be thoughtful of Prospero to let others go whilst he stayed to provide cover, but if I had family I’d want to be with them whenever I could. Taking turns seemed fairer on everyone, and it wasn’t as if Andrew would be alone either. Pedro carried on with other names, but I didn’t know them.

“Just wait until Easter, though,” he finished, his eyes lighting up. “Everyone comes here then, we’re packed to the rafters—that’s the best time of all.”

After that I hadn’t expected much from Christmas and was quite taken aback when Edward brought a package for me to the evening meal on Christmas Eve. He seemed amused by my surprise.

“You knew we were making you some other outfits,” he said. “I’ve got this finished in time for you to wear it tomorrow.”

I managed to stammer out some words of thanks, but I didn’t open it until I got back to my room.

He'd said he would make me an outfit for special occasions and I remembered the fabric and the pattern we'd chosen, but this was far lovelier than I'd expected. The tunic was long sleeved and came to mid-thigh length over close-fitting dark trousers. In deep blue velvet, it had embroidered cuffs, neckline and hem and subtle embroidery continued across it. There was a matching cloak, fleece lined, with fur trim, and soft blue leather ankle boots, also fur lined. I couldn't resist, I had to try them on. I think Edward must have woven some magic into the whole outfit. I didn't normally bother much with mirrors; I knew I was nothing special to look at, and as Leon I'd used the mirror just to make sure I wasn't noticeable. In this room I had a full-length mirror and the girl who looked back at me was beautiful. Clearly well-made clothes could work miracles. I hung it up very carefully and went to find another favourite hiding place to think about things.

The floor-plan of the Abbey was in the shape of a cross, with different parts allocated for different purposes. But the building was tall, and there was a narrow gallery about halfway up the wall. There were recesses in it at the corners where the arms crossed the upright and I'd found that I could curl up there quite comfortably, unseen and undisturbed, when I had something I needed to think through. Sometimes I went there to sleep too because I seemed to be safe from nightmares in the Abbey, but it always left me feeling sluggish the next morning.

This time I must have dozed off without meaning to because I woke to the sound of people coming into the Abbey. I'd forgotten there was to be an extra, late-night celebration across midnight to mark the start of Christmas Day. Still, I was safe enough where I was and nobody would spot me if I didn't move so I stayed put to enjoy the service. It wasn't a long one, no sermon, just readings, singing and prayers. For once the monks, nuns and the public were together in the main part of the Abbey – usually they occupied separate areas. I could see Prospero near the front, next to Andrew. He was slightly taller than most of the others, and his striking dark head was bent over some sheet music. As I watched, he stepped forward, turned to face the congregation and started singing, unaccompanied. I hadn’t known what a beautiful voice he had. It sounded like a rainbow, like the voice of hope; I could have listened to him for hours. As the service ended, I took the opportunity to slip from my hiding place into the crowds of people and then back to my room.

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I woke early on Christmas morning and headed over to assist Pedro in the kitchen. I took the outside route and found there was a layer of snow on the ground and more in the air. In the past, snow had been a problem for me; it made keeping warm and dry much harder. I suddenly realised I wouldn't have to worry about that now so I spent a few minutes just enjoying it instead. It was still early, so there was no one to see me dancing and catching snowflakes. Pedro smiled at me as I entered the kitchen.

“You’ve got snow in your hair,” he said.

I just grinned back and got on with my work. About twenty minutes before breakfast was due, Pedro turned to me.

"I can manage fine here now—you go and get changed into your new clothes."

"You know about that?" I asked in some surprise.

"Of course," he said. "Edward's been working hard to get it finished. Now, go on, shoo!"

I went. When I returned to the dining hall, Lord Gabriel beckoned to me to sit next to him. I didn't recall having seen him at breakfast before today but maybe we'd just not overlapped. There were only a couple of tables in use anyway, with so few people around.

"You look beautiful," he said. "Merry Christmas."

He passed me a small box. I was already flustered by the compliment and I didn't know what to do or say. He smiled. "Open it."

Inside was a necklace, silverwork set with blue stones, which matched my dress perfectly. I looked at him, speechless, shaking my head.

"Indulge me," he said, understanding. "It's been a long time since we've had a daughter to treat." He lifted it from the box and fastened it round my neck to compliments and murmurs of approval from those nearby. "There's one slight catch, though," he said.

I should have known there would be. Was this it, the catch I hadn’t been able to spot? I glanced around the room, making sure of my path to the exits. Lord Gabriel touched the silverwork gently.

"This is in the form of the crossed keys of St Peter,” he said. “That's the symbol for our House. If you wear this, it will mark you as belonging to us, part of our House. I hope you don't mind."

Do I mind? Belonging? That was the opposite of trapped. I’d be there because I was wanted, not because I couldn’t leave. If that was what he meant—a welcome as a person, as an equal, then I thought that perhaps I'd never take it off. But some people used belonging to mean ownership; that I did mind. If he meant that, then I was out of here.

As I hesitated, I looked around and I realised for the first time that most people wore the symbol in some form. For the monks and nuns it was embroidered on the breast of their tunics, as it was for those who were dressed in hospital uniforms. Others wore it as a brooch or a badge. They seemed relaxed about it, and surely they were here because they wanted to be, and free to leave if they wished? For now, I decided to give them benefit of the doubt and wear the necklace with pleasure.

Pedro wouldn't let me help clear up breakfast, and he did have plenty of help. Not knowing what else to do, I curled up in a chair in his small office checking out a couple of recipe books he had there. He'd said before I was welcome there anytime and I'd spotted a couple of variants to bread recipes that I wanted to study. After a while he put his head into the room and said I should get over to the Abbey for the service because it would be filling up and I might not get a seat.

I put my book away, then ran across the courtyards to the side door of the Abbey. Pedro had been right; it was packed with people from the town, a number of whom I knew, but I soon found somewhere to sit. It wasn't a particularly long service but I enjoyed it and afterwards I found myself chatting to someone I knew from the town. I told her about my change in circumstances and she seemed pretty pleased for me. She spoke very highly of the House and monastery. Maybe, just maybe, I'd landed on my feet here and there was no hidden agenda. I found that difficult to believe.

Pedro wouldn't let me help with the preparations for lunch either, but he did send me into the dining hall with Edward to set the tables. Edward was enjoying himself with festive cloths and decorations and I found his enthusiasm infectious. It wasn't just him, either. The meal itself was an informal, relaxed and happy event, loads of food, and loads of laughter too. And everyone was allowed into the kitchen to get involved with clearing up afterwards.

I stood with Pedro as he watched all these people invading his kitchen, doing things wrong, putting things away in the wrong place. I couldn’t believe how relaxed he was.

“Nothing’s going to happen that can’t be put right,” he said to me. “And I always find everything again in the end.” I shook my head in disbelief, but he just grinned. “It’s God’s kitchen, not mine. Everyone here has as much right to be in it as I do.”

That seemed like a very strange perspective to me.

Once the meal had been cleared, Lord Gabriel rounded everyone up for what he called ‘healthy fresh air and exercise’. In practice this meant a walk through and around the whole campus – monastery, House, college and hospital. It had been snowing whilst we’d been eating and clearing up, and it was perhaps ankle deep, or a little more. Everyone spread out, groupings of individuals changing from time to time as we walked. I stayed somewhere in the middle, quite happy to amble along without necessarily talking to anyone.

We had covered most of the campus and were heading back to the main courtyard when something shot past my ear and hit someone a few yards in front of me on the shoulder. Without thinking, I gathered the power around me, turning and forming it to defend us and attack whoever was attacking us. Almost in the same instant someone put their arms around me from behind, pinning my wrists to my sides and using their own gifts to dampen my power.

“Just a snowball, just a game,” they whispered in my ear and then I was released again, the power gone.

I looked round, but couldn't work out who it could have been; it had all happened so quickly I thought I could almost have imagined it. Around me all these serious, senior, respectable adults were gathering snow, forming snowballs, starting to throw them, ducking to avoid their colleagues’ missiles. Struggling with the aftermath of thinking we'd been attacked, I watched, bemused, for a few moments until Andrew nudged me.

“Come on,” he said. “You'll be a target if you stand still. Attack’s the best form of defence.”

He pushed a snowball into my hands and indicated Prospero some distance away, with his back towards us. Now that was a temptation I couldn't resist, no matter what the consequences. I got him square on the back of the head then ducked round Andrew, giggling at the look on Prospero's face as he turned. After that, the only possible choice was to join in wholeheartedly, so I did. The game continued until everyone was breathless and laughing and most people had snow in their hair and clothes.

Lord Gabriel herded everyone back towards one of the smaller recreation rooms near the main dining hall. I hung back a little, still trying to work out who had grabbed me earlier. I knew it wasn't Prospero simply because I'd have known if it was and anyway he'd been ahead of me. Neither Edward nor Pedro were gifted so it couldn't have been them; I realised that I didn't know who else was or wasn't gifted. Nobody gave me any clues by their reactions to me, so I followed the others indoors.

By the time I had dealt with my coat and boots and outdoor clothing, Pedro had arranged a table full of cold meat and bread and cakes for anyone who might be hungry. Lord Gabriel was making sure people got hot drinks after the cold outside. I collected something to eat and drink and sat down on the floor by the fireplace to watch over the chestnuts roasting there. Prospero came and sat next to me.

“Have you enjoyed the day?” he asked.

I nodded, touching the necklace, which he seemed to be staring at. “Lord Gabriel’s been very generous. I didn’t expect that.”

He smiled. “It suits you. You should wear it all the time—it looks much better on you than in a vault. Jewels are meant to be worn, the stones are happier that way.”

That seemed very fanciful to me and I must have looked at him oddly because he went on. “The touch of skin and the warmth of a body makes them glow, that makes them look better.”

I thought I was probably starting to glow at such comments and turned back to the fire in some confusion.

He passed me a paper bag and a toasting fork. "Marshmallows," he said but I looked at him blankly, never having heard of them before.

“What are they?” I asked.

“Sugar, mostly,” he replied. “You can eat them like this, but they’re even better toasted.”

He stuck one on a toasting fork and held it over the fire, twisting and turning the fork so it cooked on all sides. Then he held it out towards me, warning me it was hot. It was sticky and sweet, not quite solid and not quite liquid, and I liked it – I could eat a lot of these. Everyone else could too and we were kept busy for a while toasting marshmallows and roasting chestnuts. After the rush had died down Prospero stayed beside me talking quietly.

"We used to do this when I was a child," he volunteered, indicating the marshmallows.

He seemed relaxed, willing to talk, so I asked him what Christmas had been like for him then. His faced tensed up a little and his eyes went dull for a moment. Clearly there was some reason he didn't like to talk about his family. Maybe it was whatever that was, rather than Andrew, that was why he didn’t visit them at Christmas.

"I suppose it was pretty similar to this," he said slowly. "There'd be worship, small gifts, plenty to eat, extended family all around. And in the afternoon we'd go for a long walk across the farm, have a snowball fight if there was snow – I've lots of brothers so it'd be a pretty good fight. Lots of fun."

"So did you start the snowball fight today, then?" I asked him though I knew the answer. He'd been ahead of me and the first snowball had come from behind.

He grinned. "No, that wasn't me, not this time, and it wasn't Andrew either. I think it was Edward."

I looked at him in disbelief.

"Edward's a terrible troublemaker, you know," he told me. He seemed to be struggling to keep a straight face.

Anyone less like a troublemaker than Edward would be hard to imagine, and I looked around to see where he was. He was close by and he spotted me looking.

"Prospero telling you stories, is he?" he asked.

"Just what a troublemaker you are, and how you must have started the snowball fight," Prospero told him with a grin.

Edward smiled back. "Don't believe everything he tells you," he said to me and then carried on, "It wasn't me. I thought it was Benjamin."

That was equally unbelievable, and the banter travelled around the room, through a group of people comfortable and at ease with each other. It was entertaining to see who denied it outright and who parried the question. I was beginning to think it must have been Lord Gabriel himself who started it so I looked across at him. He winked at me and touched his finger to his lips.

As the conversation died out, Prospero turned back to me. "What about you?" he asked. "What's Christmas been like for you before?"

I shrugged. I didn’t want to talk about me. "With the Traders it was pretty much like any other rest day."

"What about before you jointed the Traders?" he persisted.

”I don’t really remember that time,” I said. "But I do remember Christmas being happy and warm and not hungry for once."

"Were you often hungry?" he asked.

"I'm used to it," I said shortly, annoyed with myself for having revealed more than I’d meant to.

"Are you still hungry?" he said quietly.

I deliberately misunderstood him. "After all the food there's been today? No way."

He just looked at me, like he was waiting for more.

I felt almost compelled to answer. "There are plenty worse off than me."

"Maybe," he acknowledged. "Do you go hungry because you share what little you have with those who have less?"

I didn't answer; I hadn't meant to let him get that close.

"You don't have to do that here. Anyone who hasn’t enough food can come here and we’ll help them.”

I looked at him. “Why would you do that?” I asked.

“I’ve told you before,” he replied. “We’re here to help those who need it.”

I shook my head. “Even if that is true, it’d be far too dangerous for them to come.”

“There’s nothing dangerous about it,” he insisted. “We’re not going to hurt them, or demand anything from them. Just help them.”

“They still won’t come,” I said.

“Bet they will. You tell them and we’ll see.”

Prospero was so certain, there didn’t seem to be any point in arguing further, even if I knew he was wrong. He leaned back a little and called across the room. “Pedro, Leonie has some friends who need more food. Make sure she knows where they can get it, would you?”

Pedro nodded at him, and Prospero turned back to me.

“Tomorrow,” he started, then corrected himself, “No, not tomorrow, the next day. We’ll have a session starting to work out exactly what you can and can’t do.”

Instead of responding I yawned, which rather took me by surprise.

“Am I boring you?” Prospero asked.

I tried to explain but I got caught by another yawn, blushed and got all confused.

He smiled at me. “I'm teasing you. Don't worry about it. Besides, just look around the room.”

I did—at least half those there were asleep where they sat.

“Warm, comfortable and well fed,” said Prospero. “You could sleep, too, if you want. You'd be quite safe.”

I shook my head, I wasn't sleepy despite the yawns. I didn't know quite what I felt like doing but it wasn't sleep.

 

Chapter 12

Prospero

Sitting by the fire with Leonie, Prospero found that he didn't want the day to end, although he knew it had to. This was unusual; normally the similarities between Christmas Day here and that of his childhood reminded him too much of his family. Even if it was his choice not to be with them, Christmas accentuated how much he missed them, which in turn reminded him of the damage he’d done. As a result he would be eager for the day to be over.

Now his mind drifted back over a day he had enjoyed from the moment Leonie had arrived at breakfast – was he perhaps seeing things afresh as she experienced them for the first time? She’d almost danced into the dining hall, radiating pleasure at her new clothes without realising it. The sight of her had taken his breath away again. Of course he'd seen the outfit already. All the monks had because Edward had brought his work into the private area in the evenings to be sure he would complete it on time. But seeing it then on Leonie, he had realised how well Edward had crafted it to suit her. And with just a few days of eating properly, sleeping, and being accepted as herself, she’d started to relax, put on weight, and she really was very beautiful.

Her blush and confusion when Lord Gabriel had given her the necklace had been delightful, and had added to Prospero’s enjoyment. He hadn’t spoken to her at breakfast, contenting himself with watching her. In fact, he’d been so intent on watching her, Andrew had had to nudge him twice to get him to pass the toast.

“You’re being obvious,” Andrew had whispered to him, “Stop staring at her.”

He had taken Andrew’s advice, at least until they were in the Abbey for the morning service. Then his eyes had been drawn to her again, to the point of being a little distracted from the service which Andrew had noticed and which had earned him another sharp nudge.

The people Leonie had sat with in the Abbey were Settlers, Traders who had chosen to give up the nomadic life and stay in one place. That tied in with her story. She had inferred that it had been the leaders of her caravan that chose to leave her behind, but everyone knew that Traders took care of their own. If she was known to be connected with them, she’d probably be safe enough whenever she left the Abbey campus.

He was under no illusions about her potential behaviour; she might have agreed to stay but he expected her to push the boundaries to the limits, if not beyond. His mind drifted to a conversation he’d had with Gabriel about her.

“I think we should require Leonie to stay within the campus boundaries,” Gabriel had said. “She’ll be safer that way.”

Prospero had disagreed, “No, she’s already worried about being a prisoner. If we limit her movements, she’ll just run away.”

Gabriel had sighed. “Very well, then. But if she does disappear, it’ll be your job to find her and bring her back. Understood?”

Prospero had accepted this and decided that he'd have to get to know her better, partly to discover any clues as to where she might go if she disappeared, and partly to find a way of reassuring her and making her feel safe so the she didn't feel the need to leave. That had been his motive when he’d moved alongside Pedro on the after-lunch walk.

“After something, are you?” Pedro had asked, with a grin.

Prospero had nodded. “Have you got any marshmallows? I just fancy some, toasted over the fire, later.”

Just as Pedro had agreed to find some, a snowball had whacked Prospero on the back of his head. He had turned sharply, to see Leonie giggling and ducking behind Andrew. Andrew had held up his hands in denial, then grinned, ducked and hurled another snowball straight at him. That had meant war, and Prospero had thrown himself enthusiastically into the fight. Leonie had targeted him successfully at least once more, and he knew he’d returned the compliment. But she had proved surprisingly difficult to hit.

Thinking about it now, he realised she must have used telekinesis to divert his ammunition and the thought brought him both admiration and amusement. That pulled him out of his day dream to look at her once more, and his eyes rested again on the necklace Gabriel had given her. He’d recognised it immediately, although he thought he was perhaps the only person in a position to do so. At breakfast he’d assumed it was a copy; this close he knew it for the original. Either way, it was significant that Gabriel had chosen to give it to her, and even more so that he'd chosen not to tell her anything about it. If that was Gabriel’s choice, Prospero would follow his lead.

They’d been chatting on and off for a while, but now Leonie seemed to be fidgeting a little, unsettled and not sure what to do with herself. To be honest, he was feeling a bit restless himself. He stood up and held out his hand to her.

“I've got some chores to do over in the Abbey. Want to come over and help me?”

She hesitated for a moment, but then nodded and took his hand helping her up. Together they left the room and headed towards the Abbey.

They carried on chatting, about nothing very much as they fulfilled his chores in the Abbey – mostly checking on the floral arrangements and a little bit of tidying up.

Leonie touched the central jewel of her new necklace. “Why did Lord Gabriel give me this?”

He smiled and shook his head.

“I don’t know. He didn’t discuss it with me. Perhaps because he thought you’d like it? Or to welcome you as part of our family? Or both?”

“Does everyone have something like it?”

“Oh yes,” he said. “Everyone who belongs to the House has it in some form or another. Look—”He pointed to the logo on his tunic, then bent his head and lifted off the cross he wore around his neck and handed it to her. It was a simple design but it did incorporate the cross keys symbol.

“All the monks and nuns wear one of these, which symbolises both our calling and our House. Others might wear a brooch, or a pin, or a necklace or a bracelet.”

At the word bracelet, she rolled up her sleeve to reveal an intricate Trader bracelet.

“Like this?” she asked.

He nodded, taking hold of her arm to turn it this way and that to look at the workmanship and design, eager for the excuse to touch her.

“That’s beautifully made,” he said. “Does it represent the caravan you were with?”

He looked up at her as she nodded and then back at the bracelet. “Yes, just like that, then. A sign of where you belong. You don’t have to hide your bracelet round here, you know. Traders are welcome here; there are plenty in the community, even some in the monastery.”

He wondered if she was worried about that. He’d only ever lived in places where Traders were held in high regard, but he knew there were any number of places where they weren’t welcome.

She smiled shyly at him, lifted her arm from his hands and rolled her sleeve back down. But he noticed she didn’t worry about pushing the bracelet back up her arm, instead leaving it round her wrist, where he could still glimpse it as they worked. It wasn’t long before their activities were interrupted by Andrew, coming to help, or so he said.

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