Warning: As holidays are sensitive for some readers, you may want to check the detailed warnings, some of which are spoilers. This poem includes a quasi-surprise Christmas party, people feeling overwhelmed in crowds, parents not knowing how to handle a gifted introvert, and other minor tensions. But mostly it's domestic fluff. Consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.
"The Gentlest, Loveliest Festival"
When Victor and Shandor pulled up to the castle,
they found the area crowded with wagons.
In the corral by the barn, a small herd of horses
milled about, mostly light draft horses but then
Jozefa's lovely Westphalian mare cantered past
with her jaws clenched around a hay wreath,
the heavier cart and plow horses lumbering
behind the chestnut in hot pursuit.
Pale smoke poured from the castle chimneys,
redolent with scents of oak and roast pork,
far more fragrant than Victor would have expected
from a Christmas ham and a few side dishes.
Glancing aside, he saw that Shandor
had melted away somewhere in the face
of all this unexpected activity.
Victor unharnessed his horse,
gave the mussed parts of the coat
a quick swipe with a brush, and turned
the bay mare loose in the corral.
As soon as he opened the castle door,
sounds of merriment spilled out and
the mouthwatering aromas intensified.
"Ah, you're home at last,"
said Reznik the butcher.
"Did you bring the extra food?"
Victor wondered, looking around.
Reznik clapped him on the shoulder. "Everyone
brought some extra food, my lord," he said.
"I put a whole pig in your big kitchen hearth,
for as I have told Igor, you won't be feeding
half the village on one ham. Anne and Cornel
baked a basket of pastries, Katalin made balmoș,
and the vegetable hodgepodge is from Gyuri.
Dénes is brewing mulled cider. I don't
even remember all the rest."
As they went into the great hall,
Victor saw that someone had lit
the candles on the Christbaum so
that all of the metal ornaments on it
twinkled and gleamed in the golden light.
Cheers went up all around them
as people noticed Victor and Reznik.
Lóránt promptly turned Victor around
and pointed him back toward the door.
"Now that you're finally here, we can
do the presentation," he said. "I hope
that you and Igor won't mind this, but
aside from a few tidbits for Adam, we all
pitched in to get one big gift for your family."
Someone pushed Igor to the front of the crowd
so that he kept pace with Victor as Lóránt
led them outside and flourished a hand.
"Here you go, and merry Christmas!"
Igor poked tentatively at the wagon bed,
peeling back the canvas cover to reveal
a thick pile of folded brocade fabric with
wide stripes of yellow and cream.
"Curtains?" he murmured.
"Those actually are the curtains,"
Dorottya said. "Underneath you'll find
a comforter and pillowcases to match,
along with a straw tick and feather tick
and some good felt pads to go between."
Victor's gaze snagged on the wagon
in front of him, full of dark wood
although he couldn't guess what
it was meant to be. "These carvings
are beautiful," he said, tracing a hand
along the glossy walnut curves.
"What on Earth is all this?" Igor said.
"Two wagonloads full of curtains
and ... some kind of furniture?"
"It's a bed," Dorottya said gently.
"We know that the castle didn't have
a proper bed in the master chambers,
and you two curl up with other people
so often, those tiny beds can't be
big enough for comfort. So we
made you a lordly bed."
"I did the woodwork," Lóránt said.
"Imre made all the hardware.
The women have been collecting
feathers and fabric for the bedding."
"You must have worked on this for months,"
Victor breathed, stroking the fine wood
with renewed admiration.
"Ah well ... perhaps a few," Lóránt said,
rubbing the back of his neck.
"Thank you all," said Igor. One hand
petted the fine fabric, its coloration
reminiscent of the silver and gold
that the two of them enjoyed in jewelry,
a design overlain in darker brown.
"However will we get everything indoors?"
"Teamwork," Lóránt said with a chuckle,
and directed the small crowd to unload
the wagons and carry the various items
to the bedroom for assembly.
Even with plenty of willing hands,
it took a while to fit the pieces together.
A wide platform supported the frame
of the enormous bed, from which rose
four corner posts that held up
the wooden canopy.
The box frame enclosed a rope net
anchored with springs, over which
went a pad of wool felt, a thick straw tick,
another layer of felt, the feather tick,
then finally the sheets and comforter.
Curtains hung from the canopy
to enclose the whole bed, both for
privacy and holding in body heat.
Victor had never meant to lord it
over anyone, and would not have
suggested anything so extravagant.
Yet on closer inspection, this was not
an ostentatious bed -- the carvings
were skillful, but simple squares
along the cabinetry and a row of
trefoil holes in the platform.
It wasn't meant for a single person,
but for a family, and Victor thought
that his friends had also accounted
for times when they might need
to pile people together to warm up
a chilled victim, as when Dénes and
Dorottya helped him revive Igor.
They returned to the great hall, where
Victor claimed a place by the hearth.
Jozefa brought him a plate full of roast pork and
winter vegetables, while Crina's mother Évike
offered cașcaval cheese surrounded by
dried fruit, so Victor could sit in his chair
and watch the children playing.
Adam sprawled on a rug
with several of the other toddlers.
He had a set of three metal chimes
cleverly suspended on a wooden base,
and a handful of farm animals made
from different colors of felt.
Some of the mothers sat around trading
baby clothes, trying to figure out the order
of sizes to determine precisely whose
hand-me-downs should go to whom.
"I'll get the things that Adam has
outgrown," Igor said as he left.
Reznik was telling the story of how
they all but turned the kitchen upside down
to find the hardware for spit-roasting, since
Victor and Igor had not used it before.
Then Évike bustled into the room
and said, "Béla and I can't find Crina
anywhere. Could you help me look for her?
She may have wandered somewhere she shouldn't."
Victor set aside his almost-empty plate
but then hesitated, looking at Adam.
"Go, Victor, I'll watch the little ones,"
Dorottya said with a wave of her hand.
Victor hurried away, already thinking about
the knives in the kitchen -- but Évike would
have checked there and people were cooking
all day, so Crina must be somewhere out of sight.
The lab, with all those colorful chemicals and vessels
of strangely shaped glass, would be an attraction.
Heart pounding, Victor forced himself to stop and think
about where Crina would most likely go that
she would not be found quickly.
And then he knew.
With swift strides he went to the tower that they had
done up as a library, all dark red oak on the floor,
the wall panels, and the floor-to-ceiling shelves
with a round wool rug in the center.
Sure enough, he found Crina curled up in
one of of the armchairs, a leatherbound book
spread over her skinny knees. "What's myrtle?"
she asked without looking up.
"It is a bush or a small tree that grows in the south, but
it doesn't live this far north. Myrtle oil is used to treat
various skin conditions and --" Victor broke off his
automatic answer. "Never mind that for now.
Your parents are looking for you. They're worried."
"Oh," she said, a low mournful note. Slowly Crina
set the heavy book on the table, her fingers tracing
the gilt letters on its brown leather cover. "It was just
so nice and quiet in here, I wish I didn't have to go ..."
"As the owner of this library, I give you permission
to read my books. As the mazil of the valley, I can
tell people what to do," Victor said. "But I am not
your father, and it would be very rude of me to meddle
in the rules that your parents have made for you.
Did you tell them where you were going?"
A small shake of her head, barely enough
to stir the springy brown curls.
"Mmm, I thought not," Victor said. "I am going
back to the party, where I shall have a word with
your mother. You should follow after a few minutes.
I believe you owe her an apology for disappearing."
He slipped out through the door and went to find
Évike, drawing her aside for a private conversation.
"Crina is in the library," he said. "I have asked
that she rejoin us shortly, and pointed out how
her unexplained absence upset you."
"That girl," Évike said, throwing her hands up.
"I am sorry that she is such a bother, my lord."
"She is no bother. I quite enjoy her company,"
Victor said. "Would you care to know what book
she found more interesting than a Christmas party
with sugared fruit and candy on every table?"
"Books are books," Évike said blankly.
"She was reading one of my professional herbals,
Culpeper’s English Family Physician," he said.
"I imagine she made more sense of the illustrations
than the text itself, but she managed to sound out
'myrtle' and asked me what it was -- it's a shrub."
This land had changed hands so many times
over the centuries that it left the little valley a jumble
of languages and cultures, Romanian and Hungarian
and German and others all flung together.
Victor's texts were mostly in English, French, Latin,
or Greek with a scattering of other languages,
but the only children's primer he had at the moment
was in English, so he'd been showing that around
and trying to figure out what the equivalent
words would be in the local dialects.
He knew that Kálmán had given out Bible verses
in Latin to some of the more curious children,
so it was only a small surprise that Crina had
proven adventurous in the library. Victor was
more surprised that she had not abandoned
the big book after a few pages in favor of
Adam's collection on the bottom shelf.
"What are we to do then?" Évike said.
"I have tried everything, but Crina --
she just isn't like my other girls,
she won't behave, nothing works."
"Crina is never going to be content as
some farmer's wife, and you will only
make everyone miserable by trying
to force her into a mold that does not fit,"
Victor said. "Instead, let us look for ways
she may be herself without distressing
others too much in the process."
At that moment, Crina slunk back
into the room, sidling along the walls
as she looked for her parents.
Victor curled his fingers to summon her
to his side, and when she came, he
folded a hand briefly around her shoulder
before directing her to her mother.
"Sorry for running away," Crina mumbled.
Évike hugged her tight. "You mustn't
do that again," she scolded.
"Because ...?" Victor prompted softly.
"We had no idea where you were and it
scared us that you might have gotten lost,"
Évike said. "If you come to a party and then
hide like that, people will think you don't like them."
"I like people," Crina protested. "I just
don't like them all jammed together.
I only wanted to find a little space."
"Sometimes a quiet corner will let you
meet a friend who likes the same things,"
said Victor. "Why don't you go see what
Dénes is doing? He is down at the far hearth,
making mulled apple cider for everyone."
"What does mulled mean?" Crina asked.
"It has spices in it," Victor said.
"What spices?" she asked,
trying to watch from a distance.
"I have no idea. Go ask Dénes and Igor
what they decided to use," Victor said
with a gentle nudge at her back.
Within moments, the girl had struck up
a lively conversation with the two men
leaning over the enormous cauldron of cider,
their hands waving with enthusiasm as they
discussed whatever flavors had gone into it.
"See now, Crina will learn all the spices
used for mulling cider or wine," Victor said.
"We can't often afford such luxuries," said Évike.
"Oh, I'm sure they will teach her the whole list from
cheap to dear," said Victor as he watched them.
Crina had settled smoothly into the little team,
holding cups while Dénes ladled out the cider.
"How did you get her to do that?" Évike asked.
"Stay in the room without arguing or sulking?"
"I simply found something worth staying for
that would hold her interest," Victor said.
"If I had wished to engage you instead,
I should have set you up to discuss cheese
with Igor -- the castle has a cheese room
that we have never even used."
"Oh, my mother used to talk of that,"
Évike said, her voice brightening.
"I've been making do with a rootcellar,
but there's not enough space for much aging."
"Talk to Igor," advised Victor. "There is no point
letting the room go to waste if you want to make
some hard cheeses. Put them up on shelves
and label the batches by the date."
Victor's mouth watered at the thought.
He liked the soft and semi-hard cheeses
well enough, but bold red wine called for
a hard, sharp cheese aged to complex flavor.
Besides, if Béla and Évike brought their bulk milk
up to the castle for processing, they'd bring
the children along for Adam to play with,
and afterwards Victor could read to them,
which would make Crina happy.
"Why are you bothering with all this?" Évike asked.
"I'm just trying to give Crina some opportunities that
I wish anyone had afforded me as a child," said Victor.
"I cannot blame her for disliking loud parties when I never
cared for them myself. It took me years to overcome that,
after I grew old enough to choose my own entertainment.
I think that I should have reached an accommodation
much sooner had I been granted the freedom to come and go
as I pleased, instead of feeling trapped by the boisterous crowd."
"Should we not have intruded on your holiday, then?"
Évike said, twisting her hands in her dress. "You seemed
to like the tree ... we thought it would be fine ..."
"It is fine," Victor said. He looked around the room
full of happy revelers and bright decorations. "This is
the gentlest, loveliest festival I have ever seen."
Of course Adam chose that moment to try and climb
the Christbaum, so that Victor had to snatch him up
and settle him on one hip. "That is not a tree for
climbing," he told his son. "That is a tree for looking."
"Candy," said Adam, pointing at the twists
of colorful fabric that held sweets.
"Not while you're trying to nick it off the branch
without asking permission," said Victor.
When Anne came around with a platter
of sweet pastries, though, Victor took enough
for everyone to share, enjoying the filling
made from chopped sugared nuts.
"Sorin has outgrown the coveted sweater,"
Igor announced as he joined them, displaying
the garment striped in dark blue and beige
with two shiny steel buttons at the shoulder.
"Everyone agrees it should go to Adam."
He helped their son put it on, although
the sleeves flopped over his small hands
so that Igor had to cuff them up a bit.
"He will grow into it," Victor said.
"Merry Christmas!" Adam chirped,
flapping his arms to make
the sleeves unroll again.
"It certainly is," Victor said,
kissing the top of his head.
* * *
"Christmas is the gentlest, loveliest festival of the revolving year — and yet, for all that, when it speaks, its voice has strong authority."
-- W.J. Cameron
The Westphalian Horse is a German warmblood, popular for pleasure riding and dressage. It is sturdy enough to withstand rigorous conditions, but considerably faster than the light draft breeds, an excellent choice of ambulance mount for a village midwife.
Horse toys include a wide variety of amusements. Traditionally, farmers would make them from hay or other edibles, most often for festive occasions. Providing proper toys will help discourage the tendency of horses to misappropriate other things to play with.
Christmas celebrations have long included a feast and the exchange of gifts. There are tips for surviving Christmas parties and hosting a good one. Know how to have a happy holiday season.
Romanian Christmas traditions include slaughtering a pig. There are other special foods too. Ghiveci de legume is a vegetable hodgepodge. Balmoș is cheese polenta. Baked pastries include cake with quartered apples, walnut panettone, and sweet rolls. Cașcaval is a cheese which may be fried.
Here is the master bedroom complete with new bed. The history of mattresses includes straw and feather ticks. The villagers have simply used extant technology, boosted a bit by their new scientific knowledge, to compile a particularly comfortable bed.
Toys for 18-month-olds include chimes and felt animals. There are tips on needle felting.
See the tower library.
Culpeper’s English Family Physician, Volume I, dated 1792, is a historic guidebook. Myrtle appears on page 25 and has a variety of uses.
Mulling spices are chief among the winter spices, which tend to have warming qualities. Enjoy a recipe for mulled apple cider.
The castle has a capacious cheese room, although at this point it needs some work to be usable after years of neglect. You can read more about that cleanup in "Borrowed Thyme."
Wine and cheese go well together. Here are some good combinations.
Here is Adam's sweater handed down from Sorin.