“Did you get the children settled, my lady?” Sir Bartholomew asked with a gentle smile, one that suggested he knew Eschiva bore the brunt of keeping the youngest members of the household happy. These, with the resilience of youth, were more excited by the prospect of Christmas treats and caroling on the morrow than worried by the continued siege and the repeated assaults on the city. The assaults took place far away on the eastern walls, after all—and only John, who had questioned his father mercilessly about it, seemed to understand the implications of the word “blockade.”
“As best I could, sir,” Eschiva answered, adding, “It’s kind of you to ask.”
“A grandfather’s indulgence,” Sir Bartholomew answered sadly, and Eschiva caught her breath. While the children might rejoice, Christmas was clearly having a melancholy effect on the adults. Evidently, Sir Bartholomew had been thinking of his own lost family on this high feast day. “If only I didn’t know what the Arabs do to slave children,” he added, confirming Eschiva’s intuition.
It was now her turn to offer comfort. Summoning her own waning courage, she laid her hand on Sir Bartholomew’s arm and declared firmly: “Hope is not lost, sir. The captain of that Norse snecka—that man over there—says that when he put in at Messina to take on water he heard that King William of Sicily is building a fleet to come to our aid. Furthermore, King William had personally sent messengers to his father-in-law of England, demanding a vigorous response. We need only hold out until next summer, and we are bound to be reinforced by the finest knights in Christendom.”
“You do well to remind me of it,” Sir Bartholomew answered, before sighing deeply and admitting, “But all I can think about is that my grandchildren will not even hear the bells this Christmas, much less see the mummers and dance carols. Nor will they sup on stuffed goose, baked apples, and frumenty,” he continued, waving in the direction of the platters being brought in from the kitchens. “Indeed, I can’t be sure they will not go hungry. On this sacred day they may be burdened with labor while their stomachs growl from emptiness. It takes my appetite away,” the old knight admitted, pushing his trencher away and sighing deeply.
Eschiva shuddered and was at a loss for words. She sympathized far too intensely to utter stupid protests or offer facile assurances that all would be put right. Even if they received help from the West, who was to say it would be sufficient to liberate the lost territories? And even if they retook Jerusalem, that did not ensure the restoration of the captives. These were now scattered across Syria and Egypt, the property of the men who had served in the Sultan’s army but often held land as far away as Alexandria or Mosul. As for Sir Bartholomew’s daughters, Eschiva knew that the damage had long since been done. They had by now been raped so often that even if they were treated kindly, they were effectively whores. Unpaid whores, she corrected herself, without even the dignity of wages.
“I’m sorry,” Sir Barthomew pulled himself together. “I have no right to ruin your Christmas dinner.”
“Yes, you do,” Eschiva answered, meeting his sad eyes. “That is what this feast is about: the birth of the loving Christ who teaches us to share our burdens and give what comfort we can. I will pray for your daughters and their children tonight. I will beg Christ to reach out to them and all the children who have been taken from Him against their will. We cannot help them tonight or in the short term, but perhaps He can. I’m sure He will find a way to at least give them comfort.”
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish