Melchior felt the sneeze pulsing through his head like liquid fire. Squeezed under his bed, arms lodged tightly against his body, he had no opportunity to stem the rushing tide.
“Agh! If-only Chloe-dusted more-thoroughly! Slovenly house-maaaaaid! Achoo! Achoo!”
The smarting pain to his head when he smacked his skull against the wooden frame definitely checked the relief of the explosion. Melchior grimaced. The real object of his interest lay just out of reach. He stretched as far as his short stature would allow; the vellum roll merely sat there, completely indifferent to his struggle.
“Aw! Hairy hedgehogs! Why can’t I do this one thing? Why does everything have to be so…damnably difficult?”
Melchior’s head smashed against the underside of his bed one again as he struggled to extricate himself before his daughter entered the room and found her noble father’s backside peeking out from under the bedstead. He had his reputation to protect…among other things. But Melchior’s respectability could hardly cloak his body at this crucial moment. Although he wiggled backwards as fast as he could, the sneezes grew in proportion to his anxiety.
“Oh, Mother Most Holy, I’ll say my devotions more regularly if only—”
“Father…? Father! What in Woden’s name are you doing down there?”
Melchior’s whole body slumped against the dusty floor.
“One more incident like this,” his eldest daughter had warned him just yesterday in her most despairing tone, “and I’ll have to send for Aunt Martha.”
Yes, yes! Roaring rabbits! He was getting old, and perhaps a tad bit forgetful, but that wasn’t what led him to squiggle under the bedstead. He had a perfectly good reason for getting down on all fours and lodging almost his entire body between his hard bed and the dusty floorboards. It was all because of that treacherous roll of vellum. He needed it. He must have it! Who cared for dignity when the whole world waited on the brink of despair for this one piece of momentous news?
Angels above be praised! He had discovered the most amazing thing. He, Melchior, son of Jeremiah and Freda, simple thane, wordsmith, and inventor, had discovered, well, it had been revealed to him in a dream – the one unifying principle of reality! He knew it, and he knew he knew it….or at least he had known it last night when he woke up in the pitch black with the vision still clear in his mind. So, he had done what any intelligent, honest, decent man would do. He struck a flame to his candle, retrieved his quill, and, snatching his precious roll that contained all his inspirations, he wrote down this most amazing bit of universal truth. Why, the world would never be the same once he shared what he had learned!
Unfortunately, after having scribbled down the vision in its entirety, he was exhausted. He carefully rolled the vellum and placed it beside his bed. When he awoke this morning, he remembered his great good luck, but to his horror there was no sign of his treasure. He searched frantically all over the room, tearing it to pieces. Not that there was much to tear apart; his personal possessions consisted only of a bed, a desk with one leg slightly shorter than the others, and a single straight-backed, armless chair. He had tossed his clothes upon the floor in his desperate search…or were they there already? Never mind that!
Perhaps the roll had merely fallen and rolled under the bed? When he got down on all fours, which was no easy feat, he could see the edge of what looked very much like his precious document. Without premeditated thought, he began to squiggle…and thus…here he lay…bare legs sticking out from under his bed. What else might be laid bare; he shuddered to think.
“Father? Are you ill? Having some kind of a fit?”
“Harry! Come here! I think father’s had a fit and died half under his bed! Hurry!”
“Hurry, Harry!” mimicked Melchior under his breath. “Hurry and save your already dead father! Bah!”
Before either Harry or his eldest daughter, Adele, could rescue him, Melchior managed to squiggle backwards the last bit and fully extricated himself from the humiliation he had plunged himself into. He sat there, his head propped on his arm, which was propped rather casually upon his knee. He stared at his two children, rather surprised that the whole brood hadn’t followed them up the stairs into his little sanctuary. After all, their house only had a few rooms, and every squirrel and bird knew exactly what went on inside each. He blinked like a cat as he waited for the inevitable.
“Father, what were you doing? You scared me half to death! I thought…well…I don’t know what I thought, but—”
Melchior put up his hand wearily. “Don’t say another word. I know what you imagined, and I must say, you have a deplorable lack of faith in your father. Do you think I’d die in such an unceremonious way? When I’m ready to die, I’ll let you know.”
He looked at his son, whose mouth hung slightly open. Although Harry possessed a kind and gentle soul, he was not the brightest candle on the lampstand. But he was strong, and that was worth something. “Help your father to his feet, Harry.”
Melchior surveyed his eldest daughter and then his son. His shoulders slumped. They were truly the kindest people he knew, but times were hard and there was so much decency being lost from their everyday world that his heart nearly broke when he thought of it. He remembered the stories his father and grandfather used to tell of the Roman days and how things used to be. But now, all was rot and ruin. There was so little of the old grandeur left.
If only his wife, Edwina, had not passed away, leaving him to manage everything. He still owned a small portion of his lands. As a full-fledged thane, he maintained five hides as the law demanded. And he possessed a name and reputation as an educated man. He was considered wise in a land of ignorant, inarticulate…. Oh, never mind! He must not think of it. If only Edwina had been able to pass along more of her own noble strength. But she had been so busy raising the babies and maintaining the household that she had had little time to speak about the past and what they had known…their honorable name and stolen inheritance. Melchior forced himself into the present moment. “Where are the others?”
Harry’s mouth hung open, but Adele spoke up in her usual brisk fashion. “They’ve gone to the festival. Don’t you remember, Father? You gave permission last week. Lord Gerard is holding a feast in honor of his daughter’s betrothal to Lord Marlow with games and races and food and drink. You promised everyone might attend.”
“At this hour? Why the sun has just risen!”
Adele studied her father, one eyebrow raised. “You’ve been up half the night again, haven’t you? Oh, father!”
Melchior grimaced at the reproach for he had been up half the night; undoubtedly the morning had flown by while he slumbered, but still…. Melchior fell to his knees again.
Adele shrieked. “What now, Father?”
“My roll! My parchment fell on the floor―that’s was why I was half buried under the bed when you found me.” Melchior struggled to his feet and, carefully appraised his two children, eyeing not only their size but also their agility and mental acuity. He pointed to his daughter. “Adele, get under there and retrieve my roll. It’s very important, and I must have it!”
Adele shook her head one last time before she got on her knees, wiggled under the bed, and returned with the roll pinched daintily between two fingers. She held the dusty vellum out to her father. “What’s it this time?”
Melchior pursed his lips although his eyebrows furrowed anxiously. What if he had imagined the whole thing? What if he had dreamed that he had discovered the one great unifying principle of the universe? What could he say?
“I’ve discovered something very important, but I’m not ready to reveal it yet. Besides, the world, as it stands today, isn’t ready for what I have to offer. We live in a land of fools ruled by barbar—”
“Father! Don’t speak so loud! King Radburn is very powerful and has many spies. Besides, we owe him our allegiance.” Adele’s gaze fell, her cheeks flushed.
Melchior lips stretched back with a slight hiss. “Yes, they are rather treasonous words, but they have meaning―at least they should.” He had more intelligent conversations with merchants than with lords, and the Saxon king was one of the most loutish men he had ever met. King? Why, Melchior could name three hunting dogs with more sense! But that was none of his business. All he had to do was manage his own estate, keep his children alive, and stay out of trouble. He snatched the roll from his daughter’s outstretched hand. “Yes, well, this will help to keep my mind on better things.” A sudden frown crushed his heavy brows over his eyes. “Why aren’t you two at the celebration?”
Adele ran her fingers through her hair, a sheepish grin replacing her serious expression. “Ahh, we’re going…but there were things to attend to. You want something to eat? Some bread and meat?”
Melchior rubbed his lean belly. Yes, food would definitely help. Hot food and a mug of warm ale would go a long way toward improving his mood. Then he could read over his work in the quiet of an empty house. Peace and quiet? Why this would be a prize! “Is everyone going?”
“Not Selby. I’m leaving him behind to watch over things―in case you need something.”
Melchior put on his most benevolent face, a wide smile to match his wide eyes. “Ah, let the poor man go. Even if he can’t partake, he can watch, and you might slip him a little something.”
Adele’s pursed lips and scowl disagreed. “I don’t know if Lord Gerard would like that. Slaves aren’t invited to such things. Father, what can you be thinking?”
Melchior could feel his quiet time slipping away. Selby had an uncanny ability of finding him alone when he least desired company. The old fool would sidle forward with a ridiculous complaint or some “momentous” news (the cow had calved, the oats were up, it looked like a storm was coming), and then the garrulous codger would start to chatter. Why he could chatter a man’s two good ears right off his head.
Melchior aimed his gaze and spoke so clearly, that no one, not even Harry, could mistake his meaning. “Adele, I order you to take Selby and the rest with you. Say that they’re to help with the children. Say that they’ll help with the cooking or the cleanup. Say whatever you wish, but take them away and stay a good long time! You understand?”
Adele nodded and sniffed. She understood all too well. Her father was up to one of his schemes again, and he wanted to be alone. Well, she wouldn’t get in his way. She had better things to do than fret about an old man’s foolishness. It would break her mother’s heart to see him now. He never took care of himself. He never bothered to dress neatly and he was so reclusive that all their neighbors were saying that he was mad. He was an old man, it was true, but Adele knew her father better than anyone, and she knew that he was as wise and crafty as ever, but he obsessed over strange secrets.
In a fit of lonely desperation, he once recited some notable quote to Lord Gerard but Lord Gerard had only laughed, pounded him on the back, and said that he had drunk too much strong wine. Melchior, who already hated the man, hated him even more and avoided him after that. Adele winced at the memory. Though she had no love for the conquering Saxon, she did like the look of Lord Gerard’s nephew, Robert. She dearly hoped that her father’s eccentricities wouldn’t make her less attractive to her neighbors.
“As you say, Father. We’ll be leaving in a few moments. I just need to get my cloak. The night will surely be chilly.” Adele left the room with one final direction to her brother. “Get father’s food, will you, Harry? See that Selby carries in the tray and a flask of ale.”
Harry, used to obeying his sister’s commands, turned away.
Melchior watched him go with a slight ache of regret. He hardly ever spoke to the boy in kindness for there was so little to praise. Suddenly his heart smote him, and Melchior called out to his son’s retreating figure. “Have a good time, Harry! Dance with one of the pretty maidens for me.”
Harry turned and gazed at his father. He knew when people were making fun of him for the sting bit deep, but he realized with an indecipherable sense of sadness that his father was not taunting him but wishing him well, saddened all the while that it would never happen.
As soon as everyone was gone, Melchior picked up his scroll and carefully began to unroll it by the window. He stared wide-eyed, anxious to uncover its marvelous contents. First, there was the part about the stars alignment, which he had begun to chart five years ago after he had seen a propitious sign leading him to believe that his future was exceedingly bright. After a bit, he had become frustrated with the clouds forever covering the night stars so he began to record his family tree, and, although it wasn’t particularly detailed, it pleased him to have the whole family in one place. Then, of course, there was that bit about animal husbandry…but his interest had faded after a disease nearly carried off all the cows. In the margins, he printed quotes of learned men that he soon memorized. He used to recite them at gatherings to amaze his family and impress his friends.
Finally, here it was. Why? What had happened? The first few words were clear, for he had still had some ink on his pen; he must have wet it with his tongue as was his usual habit but…. Oh, flummoxed foxes! He had forgotten to dip his pen in ink. All that remained of his vision were some scratches and stray marks where his fingers had smudged the material. Just a few faint words were all that bore testimony to his vision, his wonderful knowledge that would save the world from disgrace and utter ruin!
Melchior stepped away from the light and fell heavily onto his bed, his hands hanging at his sides. How could this have happened? How could he have both been given such a gift and then had it snatched away all in one pitiless day? Did God not care for him? Did the Heavenly Host laugh at his attempts to understand his mighty world? Or was this the work of the devil to send him straight into the arms of the mistress of despair? If so, Beelzebub almost won.
Sighing, Melchior rose off the bed and went back to the light streaming through the window. There were a few readable traces upon the parchment. Melchior considered throwing the whole document into the fire, but then he remembered that such costly vellum was hard to obtain, and he would have nothing to write upon if he threw this away.
“Bah! What does it matter? The greatest knowledge in the universe has just slipped through my fingers. I am not likely to have that vision twice! And I can’t even remember the first thing about it other than it was lovely, and I was happier thinking about it than I had ever been in my life. But it’s gone now. The treasure has been stolen not only from my grasp but from my mind as well. Oh, Lovely Mother, have you no pity for your servant?”
Melchior heard the song of a bird just outside his window. It was a perky sparrow bouncing about from branch to branch as if it had nothing better to do than dance away the day. But as Melchior stared, the light fell on the vellum in such a way that the first scratches were discernible and Melchior bent in closer. “What’s this?” Melchior peered at the vellum and the words were suddenly quite clear.
“And he showed me a river of water of life, clear as crystal….”
Clenching the velum in utter frustration, Melchior shouted, “What in eternity does that mean?” Yet his heart was lightened, for although his entire vision did not come back to him, he did sense the unspeakable joy he had known when he had first sat upon his chair in the blackness of night and wrote the message he was sure had come from God. Well, if God did not want him to know the whole message now, so be it. God was a mystery. He still had hidden within him this marvelous secret, and when God wished him to remember, he would recall the vision in full. And next time…he would dip his quill in ink!