A de Russe Christmas Miracle


Part One:
A Bright and Shining Star

Wiltshire

December, Year of Our Lord 1520

It was bright enough, with a winter-white landscape spread out before them like the frosting on a sweetcake. White as far as the eye could see, but in the sky above, the blue was the most vibrant of blues. It was the holiday season, and Dane de Russe, Duke of Shrewsbury, and his lady wife, Grier, were traveling south to Deverill Castle to celebrate the season with Dane’s family.

The seat of the Duke of Warminster, Gaston de Russe, was a vast complex of buildings, men, and animals, and even now, Dane knew it was stuffed to the gills with his brothers, sisters, and their families. All told, there were more than two dozen of them, as he’d been trying to tell his wife on the ride south.

Grier was bundled up against the cold, wrapped heavily in furs and wool, and her beautiful face was pinched red from the cold. But she was radiant, happier than Dane had ever seen her. She had been talking up a storm for most of the trip, too, which had taken seven days so far because Dane had wanted to take it slow. He didn’t want his pregnant wife jostled around, but Grier was made of iron. Nothing bothered her, and she didn’t care if the road was muddy or icy and they were forced to take a precious hour to go around it.

She was joy personified.

“Tell me again,” she said, her head sticking out of the heavy carriage she was riding in as Dane rode alongside on his big-boned rouncey. “Your eldest sisters and their families?”

Dane signed heavily, an exaggerated gesture. “Again?”

“Again.”

“But I told you not two hours ago,” he pointed out. “I swear, you do not remember anything I tell you these days.”

She grinned and sat back in the cab, her hand on her belly. At six months along, she was healthy and rosy. “This child sucks all of the thoughts straight out of my head,” she said. “I cannot remember anything that anyone has told me, so do not feel as if you are special in that regard.”

He cocked a droll eyebrow at her. “One more time,” he said. “If you do not remember this time, then I shall not tell you again and you can fumble your way through your first conversation with my family and look like an idiot. Everyone will say what a beautiful dolt I have married.”

She giggled. “I will remember. Go on.”

He growled again, which just made her giggle more. “My brother, Trenton, is married to Lysabel Wellesbourne,” he said. “You already know that.”

“I do.”

“You know that Lysabel has two daughters from her first marriage, and she gave birth to my brother’s firstborn son during the summer.”

“Aye, I remember. His name is Rafael.”

“Correct,” Dane said. “My sisters, Adeliza and Arica, are twins, and Adeliza is married to Gaspard de Ryes, a knight in the service of King Henry. I cannot imagine Gaspard will be at Deverill, as Henry keeps him quite busy, but Adeliza will be present, no doubt. They have six girls – do you remember their names?”

Grier thought very hard. “Madalene, Marguerite, Remy, Cassandra, Nynette, and Rosemarie?”

He grunted. “You can remember the children’s names, but nothing else?”

“That is because I have my own child to name. A name means something.”

Dane fought off a grin as he looked away. “His name will be Dane,” he said. “There is nothing to discuss.”

She simply lifted her eyebrows. “I like the name Brandt,” she said. “You said that all of the men in the de Russe family have the same name – Brandt, Hugh, Braxton, Gaston, Trenton, and so forth. And I like Brandt.”

“We shall see who wins this battle.”

“Aye, we shall see.”

He turned to look at her, thinking to give her a threatening glare, but she stuck her tongue out at him and he started laughing. “Saucy wench,” he said, sounding resigned. “Shall I continue? Arica is married to Sir Damien Delamere, a knight with the House of de Lohr. I am not certain he will be here, either, but it is possible. They have three boys and two girls. Don’t tell me you remember their names.”

Grier nodded firmly. “Bryant, Etienne, Henry, Elise, and Nicola.”

“Very good. Cort has no children, nor do Boden, Gage, and Gilliana, but my brother, Matthieu, does. He has four sons.”

She hung her head from the carriage again. “I know,” she said. “Braxton, Hugh, Gaston, and Lucien.”

“But remember that his wife died two years ago, so unless he brings it up, do not speak of it.”

“I will not, I promise.”

Dane’s eyes glimmered at her. “You know everyone who will be there,” he said. “Although I have a feeling Uncle Matthew and Aunt Alix will be there as well, and if they bring their brood, then it will be a crowd like you have never seen before.”

Grier watched as the warmth faded from his features, replaced by the same concern and grief that seemed to fill his expression whenever the subject of his father came up. The man was sick, and had been for some time, with a cancer in his throat. At least, that’s what the physics said. But Gaston was a strong man; stronger than most. Cancer or no cancer, he refused to let it slow him down. But over the past year, no matter how hard he’d tried, it was evident that he was slowing down a great deal.

But his sons, like Dane, simply couldn’t take it.

The strongest man they knew was fading.

“Do you think it will be too much for your father?” she asked quietly. “Surely all of those people will overtax him.”

Dane shook his head before she even finished. “It is the best medicine in the world for him, being surrounded by those he loves,” he said. He looked to his wife as she sat in the cab, her hand on her belly. “And we’ve not told him about this child. It will be the best Christmas gift that we can give him.”

Grier smiled timidly. “I hope so,” she said. “I worry that it will be too exhausting for so many people to be at Deverill.”

Dane sighed faintly, his gaze moving over the winter-white landscape. “No one wants to miss this Christmas,” he said. “It may be the very last one my father ever has. I, for one, wouldn’t miss it for anything.”

Grier could hear the pain in his voice. “And we shall not,” she said confidently. “I am very much looking forward to telling your father of our Christmas present to him. But most importantly, he must be here when it is opened. I should like for him to be one of the first ones to hold your son.”

Dane smiled bravely at her, but the tears were there at the thought of his father holding his grandson for the first time. It was like an arrow to his heart, so bittersweet he could barely stand it.

“As would I,” he said hoarsely.

Grier reached a hand out to him from the cab window and he took it, bending over to kiss it sweetly before letting it go. The feeling, for Dane’s father, was mutual between them.

After that, the conversation fell silent for the most part as they neared the town of Warminster. Deverill Castle was to the south of the town, but not very far away. The day was waning and dusk was approaching, but Dane was certain they would make it by nightfall, if not just before.

Thankfully, the sky had remained clear in spite of the snow and cold temperatures, but the travel hadn’t been uncomfortable in the least, which was a good thing. It could have been a blizzard and Dane still would have fought to make it home this time.

One last Christmas with his father.

The sky was darkening as they entered the northern outskirts of Warminster. The land was relatively flat here but for a few hills now and again, rising out of the greenery like silent sentinels. To the east, a few clouds were starting to show and the further they traveled, the more the clouds seemed to gather. They hadn’t quite moved in their direction yet, but Dane suspected they soon would. Still, they would be at Deverill Castle and the weather gods could bring all the snow they wanted to at that point. A white Christmas was a beautiful thing to see.

Entering the town proper, the smell of smoke from cooking fires wafted in the air. There were a few homes on the outskirts, all of them preparing for the coming night. As the party continued on, a church rose up on the bend of the road, a stone structure with moss growing on the walls. A churchyard spread out around it, with the tips of gravestones sticking up through the snow.

“Dane?”

Grier was calling him from the cab and Dane reined his horse around, trotting back to the carriage where she had her head out of the window again. She was smiling.

“Warminster, I presume?” she asked.

He nodded. “Indeed,” he said. “Deverill Castle is less than an hour away now. We are very close.”

Grier nodded as she looked around, her rosy face the only thing visible beneath the fur hood she wore. “It does not look like a very big town,” she said. “Not as big as Shrewsbury.”

Dane was looking around, too. “We are on the very northern edge,” he told her. “It becomes much bigger the further south we go.”

From the window on the opposite side of the cab, Grier had caught sight of the church and she moved across the bench, sticking her head out so she could view the church in full.

“What church is that?” she asked.

Dane came to the other side of the carriage. “That is St. Denys,” he said. “In fact, my younger siblings were all baptized there. Deverill Castle does not have its own chapel, so this is where the family conducts its religious business. My mother and father, though not particularly religious people, are nonetheless great patrons of the church. Since my father is the duke, it is expected.”

Grier’s gaze was still on the mossy-stoned building. “It looks as if it is very old.”

“It is.” Dane took a second look at the building. “In fact, I should stop in to see the priest. He is a good friend of my father’s, a brother of a priest who was a dear friend to both my mother and father many years ago. His name is de Tormo.”

Grier looked at him. “De Tormo,” she repeated. “Where have I heard that name?”

He grinned. “From me,” he said. “That was the priest who helped my mother and father get church approval to wed. You remember the story; my mother was married to the man whose blood I carry, Guy Stoneley, and my father was in love with her. It was Father de Tormo, who had been a papal envoy at the time, who helped my mother and father finally marry. Because my parents owed the man so much, they gave his younger brother this parish with their rich patronage. He has been here for at least twenty years.”

Grier smiled at him. “Then go in and see him,” she said. “I shall wait for you here.”

“You do not wish to go in with me?”

She shook her head. “I have so many furs on me that I could not possibly get out of this cab,” she said, watching him laugh. “I am warm and content. Go in and see the priest. I shall wait for you here.”

He nodded as he dismounted his steed. “I shall only be a minute.”

Grier watched her handsome husband, deeply in love with the man from the top of his cropped blond head to the bottom of his booted feet.

As the heiress to the duchy of Shrewsbury, she’d been an oblate pledged to St. Idloe’s Abbey last year when she had received word that her deceased father had pledged her to a powerful young warlord. It hadn’t been the life Grier had wanted, nor had it been the life Dane had wanted, but the two of them married out of obligation. After a rather rocky start, they were happier now than they’d ever been, and Grier knew how important this trip home was for Dane. She also knew that there were, perhaps, some things he’d rather do alone, like visit a church where his father was a patron and, perhaps, say a prayer for the man’s health.

If he needed her, he would let her know.

So, she sat back in the cab, blowing a kiss to her husband as he winked at her before making his way through the snow and into the church. Dane had brought a big escort with him from Shrewsbury, so he didn’t worry for his wife’s safety as he trudged through the snow, through a path that had been cleared by the acolytes. Tomorrow was Christmas, after all, and tonight, the faithful would be coming for Christmas Eve mass.

But Dane had a very special reason for visiting the church on this eve.

There was something he had to do.

Pushing open the doors of the church, Dane was met with the strong smell of rushes, as pine boughs lined the walls and floor on the perimeter of the church. Passing through the nave, he entered the chapel proper, with its dirt floors and tall windows inlaid with precious colored glass.

He remembered the church from his youth, and from the years he’d spent as his father’s captain of the army, and the place held fond memories for him. He was on the hunt for Father de Tormo, seeing acolytes further forward in the quire, but not seeing the priest. He was heading for the acolytes, preparing for Christmas Eve mass, when a round figure in heavy robes came in through the door that led outside to the small cloister. Dane immediately recognized the man he sought.

He was in for a rather enthusiastic greeting.

Ferdinand de Tormo was a man on a mission. He’d seen the Shrewsbury escort outside the church and was hoping that he might catch sight of the new duke. He’d heard all about the man from his father and mother, and he was quite excited that the stalwart young knight who had so ably commanded Warminster’s armies was now a duke in his own right. He came flying in through the door, as fast as his legs would carry him, rushing right at Dane.

“My lord!” he said, gasping for air because he was quite heavy. “You have returned! God be praised!”

Dane had to grin at the round priest as the man shuffled in his direction. He caught a distinct whiff of foul body odor as the man drew near, and even tried to step away, but the priest wouldn’t hear of it. It wasn’t exactly protocol to hug a duke, but Father de Tormo did just that. He hugged Dane so hard that the man grunted.

“It is good to see you, too,” Dane said, discreetly pulling himself away from the slightly moldy smelling priest. “It has been at least two years, hasn’t it?”

De Tormo nodded eagerly. “Two years and a few months,” he said. “How goes it in Shrewsbury? It is all your mother can speak of. She tells me that you have married.”

Dane nodded. “I have,” he said. “In fact, my wife is with me, but she is in the carriage outside. It was too cold for her to come traipsing in here through the snow. We are on our way to Deverill to see my family for Christmas.”

De Tormo beamed, a gap-toothed smile that was infectious. He was a genuinely kind man and his flock adored him.

“Your mother and father will be so very happy,” he said. “Do they know you are coming?”

“They do.”

“Excellent. I have mass tonight and tomorrow, but I thought to go out later in the morning to visit your father.” His smile faded. “Your father does not come to church any longer. I go to the castle a few times a month to hear his confession and speak with him. He is as sharp as ever.”

At the mention of his father’s fading health, Dane could feel his good mood fading. “I have not seen my father in almost a year,” he said. “I stopped here because I thought you could give me a truthful answer on his health. My mother will make it sound not too terribly bad, my brothers will make it sound horrible, so I thought you could tell me the truth. How is my father?”

De Tormo drew in a long, slow breath. “I am not a physic, Dane.”

“I know. But you have been around him.”

De Tormo averted his gaze. “From what I have seen, he is not well,” he said with regret. “Your father was always the biggest man I’ve ever seen, tall and proud and strong. Fearsome in battle, I am told.”

Dane nodded reverently. “He was,” he murmured. “I had the privilege of fighting with him a few times. There is no one fiercer. Men flee from my father as if the Devil himself has just appeared on the battlefield.”

De Tormo had known Dane for many years. He knew how much Gaston de Russe’s sons loved their father, and how much respect there was. To see the old knight fading away was truly a tragedy, in many aspects, but the tragedy was never more evident than it was when he looked in Dane’s eyes.

That was where the true sorrow was.

“Then he has a fine legacy to remember and great sons to carry on his name,” he said, trying to be of some comfort. “I have seen Trenton. Your older brother was here only yesterday along with his wife and children. I had much the same conversation with him. And Cort and Matthieu, Boden and Gage – I have seen all of your younger brothers here as of late, at one time or another. They are all worried about your father, Dane, and I will tell you what I have told them – go home and be with him. No man truly knows how much time he has left in this world but, with your father, I suspect his time will come to an end soon. Make sure you are there when it does. Tell him how much you love him and tell him you will carry on the de Russe name with pride.”

By that time, Dane was fighting off tears. That’s not what he had wanted to hear, but it was not unexpected. When he looked at de Tormo, it was with great mourning in his expression.

“I stopped here on my way to Deverill because I want to light a candle for my father and ask you to pray for him,” he said. “I… I have not prayed in years, Father. My wife is a former oblate, and she prays regularly, but I do not. I have not since I was young and I suppose it is because I saw the evil of this world at a very young age. Often, I saw my mother pray for the evil to stop, but it never did. I learned long ago that God does not listen to my mother or to me.”

De Tormo knew of Dane’s past, mostly because his own past was rather intertwined with it to a certain extent. His brother had been a papal envoy who had ended up befriending Gaston at a time when he’d met his wife, Remington. Dane had been very young, and Remington had been married to Dane’s father, a man more vile than words could express. When he wasn’t beating his wife and her sisters, who were his wards, Guy Stoneley was raping them and otherwise degrading them.

Indeed, vile didn’t quite cover the deeds of the man who had fathered Dane. That was where de Tormo’s brother had come in, and although he’d died before he finally saw Gaston and Remington wed, his work on behalf of the couple, to obtain a divorce for Remington, was something Gaston had never forgotten. That was why Ferdinand had received his post at St. Denys – it had been Gaston’s way of thanking his brother for everything he’d done, and everything the couple had put him through.

But the fact remained that the de Russe family and the de Tormo brothers were inexorably intertwined, for better or for worse, and that was how Ferdinand knew so much about the family.

It was his duty to guide them in matters of religion, whether or not they were religious.

“My lord, I understand your relationship with God has not been a strong one,” he said after a moment. “I understand that you believe God does not listen. I assure you that He does, and He does, indeed, answer prayers, even if the answer is sometimes ‘no’. I have told your mother that, many times, for she still does not have strength of faith, and that lack of faith has rubbed off on you. How can I tell you that your prayers to God about your father will be heard far more strongly than mine?”

Dane’s brow furrowed. “How is that so? You are closer to God than I am.”

De Tormo smiled faintly. “But you love Gaston, and love is very similar to faith. You believe in its strength; it has never failed you. Jesus said that if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can move mountains. And I believe love is just as strong as faith – it can move mountains. It can bring about change. It can make miracles happen.”

Dane pondered that for a moment but, ultimately, he wasn’t comfortable with prayer. “Mayhap,” he said quietly. “But I still do not believe God listens to me. Would you please say a prayer for my father tonight? On this most holy of nights, mayhap God will listen particularly close.”

De Tormo put his hands upon Dane’s armored forearm. “Listen to me, Dane,” he said with quiet assurance. “Say a prayer for your father yourself. Do not trust something so important to others. Your love for the man will cause God to hear you loudly. Please try.”

Dane was starting to waver. Doubtfully, he looked at the front of the church, where the altar was, and the he looked to the prayer nave against one wall, the one that held dozens of candles, some of them lit. He knew they were prayer candles and each one represented a specific prayer from someone in great need. Well, he was in great need, too.

He needed his father to be healed.

With the greatest reluctance, he nodded his head at de Tormo and headed over to the banks of candles against the wall. There was no one around, and it was only his footsteps falling upon the fresh boughs. He stood there a moment, unsure what to do, before finally picking up an already-burning candle and lighting a dark candle in the front row. Once the flame ignited, he put the other candle back into its holder and took a deep breath.

“I do not know where to begin,” he muttered. “I have not spoken to you in many years. I grew up believing you did not care for me or my mother. Will you listen to me now? I do not know why you should. I have never blasphemed you, but I have never sung your praises, either.”

He fell silent, looking around the church, noticing that de Tormo had disappeared. Knowing he was alone made it easier to say what needed to be said.

“God, I hope you hear me,” he said. “I have never asked for anything, but this time, I am. I am asking you to heal my father. He is greatly loved, God. He has children and grandchildren who need him and love him. My father was not always a man of love and peace. I am sure you know that; he was a man of war. But my father was never deliberately evil. He was a man with principles. I know he has a reputation as the Dark One, and that has followed him around most of his life, but he is not dark. He is not wicked. I know that because he saved my mother and me from a man who was truly wicked. He risked everything for us and, to me, that is the mark of a fine and decent man, no matter what others think of him. God… there are many men in the world, but only one Gaston de Russe. I know I am a grown man, but I cannot stomach the thought of losing the only man who has ever loved me unconditionally. I would gladly trade my life for his. Please… heal him.”

By the time he was finished, he was choked up. The tears were on the surface and he swiftly wiped them away. Feeling somewhat foolish that he’d been speaking in the dark, to a God he didn’t have a relationship with, he stepped back from the bank of candles, looking around to see if there was anyone in the chapel who might have heard him. But it was still dark and empty.

Dane knew that Grier was waiting patiently for him outside and he didn’t want to leave her in the cold too much longer, but something was keeping him in the church. He just couldn’t seem to leave. He stared at his prayer candle as it flickered before impulsively dropping to his knees and making the sign of the cross over his chest. He hadn’t done that since he’d been a small boy. On his knees in front of the glowing bank of candles and their warm light, he folded his hands and closed his eyes.

“Please,” he whispered fervently. “God, I kneel before you as a sign of respect. I cannot promise that my faith will ever be strong, but I do have faith in my love for my father. There is no stronger bond than that between a man and his son, and since you had a son, you understand what I mean. I ask you to heal my father and to make him whole or, at the very least, let him live to see my son when he is born. My father means so much to so many. We need him, God. Please… please give us that gift. On this night of nights, give me my father’s life.”

With that, he suddenly lurched to his feet and blindly turned for the church entry. There were tears clouding his vision and he blinked them away. He was embarrassed and, perhaps, even a little bewildered. He’d prayed, and that was so very alien to him. Perhaps it had even been stupid.

He was almost in a panic to leave.

He looked around, briefly, to see if de Tormo was lurking in the shadows, but the priest remained missing. Dane continued out into the snowy church yard, passing by a man wrapped in a heavy, white woolen cloak who was heading into the church. He brushed the man because the snowy path kept them from moving too far out of the shoveled path of travel, but the man didn’t waver. He merely lifted a hand as if to apologize for the brush. Dane also lifted a hand, simply to be polite, and continued on his way.

The land was settling in for the coming night, and everything was becoming quite dark now. The Shrewsbury escort had begun to light torches to see their way through the coming night, since it would be dark by the time they reached Deverill. Dane’s boots crunched on the snowy path and he could see Grier as she stuck her head outside of the window again, now looking up at the night sky. As Dane walked past the front of his escort, he signaled the men to begin pulling out. Horses began to move forward as Dane went straight to the cab.

“We should be to Deverill shortly,” he said. “Bundle up, sweetheart. The air is getting colder.”

Grier watched him as he moved to collect his horse, which was standing right next to the cab with a soldier holding the reins.

“Did you find Father de Tormo?” she asked.

He nodded. “I did. He will come to Deverill tomorrow, so you shall meet him then.”

As Dane mounted up, Grier turned her attention back to the sky. “I look forward to it,” she said. “Did you notice what a beautiful night it is tonight?”

Dane was gathering his reins. “Probably not,” he said. “But I did notice the clouds off to the east. It looks as if we may have snowfall for Christmas.”

Grier could see the clouds, too, but her attention was on the clear sky above. “That would be nice,” she said. Then, she pointed. “Look at that star, Dane. Have you ever seen anything so bright and shining?”

Dane glanced up as he moved his horse forward. Almost directly above them was a very bright star with a backdrop of deep blue sky. There were other stars around it, and the sky was rather brilliant with them, but that star in particular was quite bright.

“Lovely,” he said, returning his attention to his wife as the cab began to move. “It seems appropriate, since this is Christmas Eve. Didn’t the Magi follow a bright star to Bethlehem where the Christ Child was born?”

Grier nodded, her gaze on the sky for a few moments longer before settling back in the cab. “Indeed,” she said. “They followed it to a stable where our Lord lay in a manger.”

“Must have been scratchy.”

“Dane!”

He grinned. “Sorry,” he said, turning to wave a big arm at the escort behind him, men who were cold and a little slower to move. “But when you think about it, that must have been very stinky and uncomfortable.”

She frowned at him. “That is sacrilegious!”

He was trying not to laugh. “It is realistic.”

“Our Blessed Mother had no other choice but to give birth in a stable and you will not judge her for it.”

Dane shook his head. “Never,” he said. “One has to do what is necessary, I suppose.”

That only brought a long look from his wife, who did not appreciate his sense of humor. Dane wouldn’t have thought anything of it had he not remembered that not a few minutes before, he’d been begging God to heal his father. Perhaps God didn’t appreciate his humor, either.

Casting a rather sheepish look heavenward, Dane hoped his heartfelt prayers weren’t just negated by his humor. As he said, his faith wasn’t particularly strong, but his love for his father was.

Musty mangers aside, he hoped God understood that.