Way of Lost Children

by llamajoy

o sisters too how may we do
for to preserve this day
this poor youngling for whom we do sing
by by lully lullay

They whispered of him in tones of pity, that poor young Duke of the Graylands. (Lost his family as just a child, here he's the last one in his line. A terrible fire, and some hushed-up business about his father's illness, wasn't it? Twenty-odd years ago and still no one kens for certain what happened. And lost his wife, too, so young! Childbirth too much for her, frail thing. Just a few years ago, but doesn't he still sigh when you mention her name? Still sits up nights reading, too, when any sensible man would be abed. Daft, maybe, that whole Bardorba clan. For a surety, his son--) And here the hissing tongues would halt, the speakers shake their heads and turn away.

But when the first layer of Valendian snow had fallen and the nights grew long and longer, no one refused the invitation to the Yule festivities at the Bardorba manor.

All the world was cold grey snow beyond the sashed and shuttered windows; that midwinter evening, the Bardorba hall shone bright and warm and welcoming. There was little whispering, save idle murmured gossip at the fireside, news traded over the clinking cups of wassail. Children scampered underfoot, wondering noisily to themselves where Saint Verona would hide their Yuletide presents, wondering what gifts she would bring them this year.

And Joshua Bardorba himself was there, and smiling mildly, such that even his neighbors might forget to pity him.

At perhaps eight o'clock, before the feast, a stranger came in alone on a burst of wintry wind. No one paid him any mind. In gloves and riding coat, his hair dusted with a silvering of snow, he looked as if Joshua should have recognized him, somehow. His profile-- there, stomping the slush from his boots-- seemed to Joshua like a charcoal sketch of a well-loved oil painting, missing the color and texture, but all the lines familiar.

Joshua did not realize he stared. He only started back to himself when the young Lady Heldricht sighed and curtseyed herself out of their (albeit one-sided) conversation. Half thinking to introduce himself to the newcomer, and half not thinking at all, he worked his way through the milling guests towards his front door.

He sought to catch the stranger's eye, if only for a second--

There was a slow-motion meeting of eyes, it seemed, themselves the only two people in the chaos who were still for just that moment, their surprised smiles like a shared secret. In the crowd, they stood close enough for Joshua to catch the spice cinnamon smell on the other man's coat, the pinesmoke chill still in his hair. Come in, Joshua wanted to say. Take off your coat and come in; there are warm mugs of mulled cider and the promise of good cheer, to shake the sheen of snowfall from your edges.

With a turn, the man was backlit against the brightness of the party, and Joshua blinked against a scattering of brilliance, as panicked fireflies in July, or the sparks of an ill-tended fire--

All told, the encounter hadn't taken more than a handful of heartbeats... and now he could catch no glimpse of the man, even as everyone began to file into the dining room for supper. His eyes flicked back to the door, but one coat hung there looked just like another, and any trace of fresh snow had melted into invisibility. Perhaps-- yes, he'd been imagining things. Stranger things had happened, on a midwinter night.

Trying to compose an apology that wouldn't sound premeditated, he moved back into the circle of firelight to find Lady Heldricht, and to propose a proper toast for the meal.

herod the king in his raging
charged he hath this day
his men of might in his own sight
all young children to slay

They whispered of him in tones of awe, the littlest Bardorba. His nurses tittered around his trundle bed when they thought he was asleep and could not hear them. (Smiles at things that aren't there, doesn't he? And more than a bit too old not to speak, anyone could tell you that. My old mother used to say that was a sign of something worse, you know, a four year old who won't call for his da. Deaf, you say? May be, though he's quick as a wink to look your way if you make a sound. More like he's touched, a little something like they used to say of his father's--) And here the sibilant tongues would hush, the speakers glance about them and fall to suspicious silence.

But when the snow had flurried thick about his windows and the night grew cold and late, not a one of his nurses was awake still, to chide him for creeping out of bed.

The halls were dark and chilly; that midwinter midnight, the Bardorba mansion seemed murmuring full of Yuletide secrets. There was little whispering, save the rustle of bedding as the guests and their children tossed and turned, eager for the morrow, for the morning. Surely Saint Verona herself was afoot, gliding silent through the manor with her gifts for the good girls and boys.

And Corrin Bardorba thought perhaps he'd find her, this year, this famous woman who wasn't like his nurses, this tall shining saint-lady, who smiled on children and might forget to fear him.

At perhaps midnight, before the tolling of the clock, he crept into his father's library. Quiet as always, the little room seemed to echo with the soft rush of snow falling outside, full of nighttime's hidden silences. With cold fingers, he pulled a book from his father's shelves, flipping the oversized pages until he found the face he was looking for, the children's saint, peering back at him from her engraving.

Even to his child's mind, there was something not quite right about her image. More than just her stillness, for he had always imagined her blithe and smiling. The water-pale colors of her robes and skin and hair all seemed too wan, almost frail. Especially her eyes, flat and empty-- like looking up expecting sky and seeing only ceiling.

Corrin had watched his father painting. And so he closed his eyes and imagined himself, blank canvas before him, choosing colors. For her robes, a shining black like night sky, with flashes of silver like stars. For her skin, something warm, like gold. For her hair, copper, to catch the light and shimmer as she moved.

And for her eyes-- fire, to chase the wintry shadows away, as she danced for him.

He fell asleep in his father's chair, with his fingers curled around the book, his heart full of dreaming.

that woe is me poor child for thee
and ever morn and day
for thy parting neither say nor sing
by by lully lullay

They whispered of him in tones of scorn, the nameless bastard child that Grand Steward LeSait had taken in. (Don't waste your breath on greeting that one, merely a common by-blow. Never mind what other good his ward has done, damn fool thing to take on a child, this late in his life, I'd say. And letting him take over his affairs, ridiculous! Only a simpleton would let an unnamed upstart like that inherit all his--) But here the disparaging words would cease, the speakers cluck their tongues and discreetly leave the rest unsaid.

But when the snow had stopped, resting silverwhite and sharp across the Graylands, and dawn drew nigh, there was no one yet awake in the Bardorba mansion to cast aspersions.

It was if the whole world was swaddled in sleep; that midwinter dawning, the sky still hard and grey in the east. There was no sound at all in the manor, the quietest the house had been for hours. Each windowpane was marked with crazy crisscrossed patterns of frost, each fire burning low.

And Jonathan LeSait rose from his bed, thinking to leave, such that the other partygoers might forget to hate him.

At perhaps an hour before the sunrise, he dressed, meaning to saddle up his horse before anyone could find him. The host hadn't spoken two words to him, surely he would not be missed.

He was nearly to the foyer when something at the end of a long hallway caught his eye. Upon closer inspection, it was a painting, a family portrait, hung by the doorway to his host's library. He shrugged, thought to head back-- but something about the painting held his attention. It was as if he had been to this manor before, had seen this very same image. There, by only the faintly-cast light of one hall torch, he found himself wondering why that little boy's not-quite smile seemed so familiar. Almost as though he knew what the child's voice would sound like, and just what he would say--

"Who goes there?"

Jonathan spun around, guiltily.

There, scried dimly at the end of the hallway, was a young man with pale hair, standing silent with a candle in his hand. For a moment world seemed to revolve without them, caught at either ends of the corridor, neither speaking nor moving. Finally, Jonathan's brain caught up with him-- the Duke, of course.

"Forgive me, sire."

Joshua startled visibly, as if he had not been expecting him to speak. "Hello," he said, bringing his flickering circle of candlelight nearer. "Is... is something the matter?"

"Nay," Jonathan busied himself with putting on his gloves, reminded again of his resolve to leave the manor. "My lord, I thank you for your splendid hospitality, but I am called to return to my home. I beg your leave."


Jonathan hesitated, right hand stilled in the act of tugging on his left glove. "Sire?"

Joshua was looking at him, oddly, eyes moving over his face. "Forgive me, sir," he said, after the silence had already stretched too long, "but I did not catch your name."

He nearly winced, that too-familiar game of names and invitations. "Jonathan LeSait," he said, stiffly formal. "My uncle was unable to make it to your gathering."

The other man relaxed visibly. "LeSait, of course. Will you give the Grand Steward my regards?" His gaze did not falter, roving still over his features, as if looking for something. "Forgive me, Jonathan, was it? It is only that I... did not remember your face."

It did not sound like an untruth, and Jonathan found an uneasy smile surfacing. He sought to still the restless movement of those eyes. "Have we met, before?"

Joshua looked away, selfconscious. "No, perhaps not."

There was a soft noise beyond them, coming from within the shadowed library.

Jonathan raised his eyes warily to look behind his host into the darkened room, feeling slow shivers moving down his spine. ...There was a child there, small and fair-haired, curled in the leather armchair by the fireplace. His small hands were clinging to a large book on his lap, and his eyes watched the men in the hallway, eyes that were bright and wild. Jonathan thought, quite rationally, that he was seeing a ghost. Stranger things had happened, on a midwinter night.

"Joshua?" he managed, his voice dim, although he were not speaking to the man before him.

His host turned to follow his gaze, before Jonathan could prevent him from turning around. Much to Jonathan's surprise, though, the other man smiled.

"Corrin," Joshua breathed, not too loudly, as if afraid of startling him. "There you are! Your nurse said you'd run off."

"Corrin?" Jon echoed, weakly, watching Joshua set down his candle and lift the boy playfully, watching the young lord's tiniest smile. Suddenly Jonathan wasn't feeling at all steady on his feet, and he chided himself for too many cups of wassail. The boy's hair was the same flaxen blond as Joshua's, his eyes the same winter-afternoon blue. "Your son, of course," he heard himself saying, with a certainty he did not feel.

Joshua tucked the child's head beneath his chin, kissed the pale hair. "Yes, yes, my son. Jonathan LeSait," he said, with utmost formality, turning to him, "Corrin Bardorba."

Corrin ducked his head against his father's shoulder, seeming not shy, as a boy of his age might have been, but rather inquisitive. He nodded at his father's guest, politely.

Obscurely pleased at the greeting, Jonathan dipped his head to the child. "Pleased to make your acquaintance, young sire." His eyes flicked up to the boy's father. "But I am afraid I should be leaving."

Joshua was shaking his head, to protest, when the little boy reached out a hand, small fingers fisting in Jonathan's sleeve. "No," he said, quite clearly. "Stay here. Don't go."

For reasons he could not name, Jonathan was shaken to the core of himself. "Such an earnest young man," he began, hesitantly putting a hand on Corrin's fingers, and almost missing the look on Joshua's face. The Duke's eyes were far too bright, regarding his son as if he did not recognize him. Jonathan echoed his host's words, without thinking. "...Is something the matter?"

Joshua shook his head too fast, unconvincing. "No, indeed," he said, thickly, unconsciously smoothing his son's hair. "Nothing the matter at all." He cleared his throat. "So-- will you stay with us? Corrin speaks for both of us, you know. There has always been something altogether too cold about dawn, I thought. An occasion better kept-- with friends."

"All right," Jonathan said, not just to stem the awkward flow of words. The road from the Graylands to his uncle's lands seemed suddenly long, and bitter cold. "I will stay."

The child nodded solemnly, letting go of Jonathan's arm, and Jonathan felt sure, now, that he recognized that look. He turned to the littlest Bardorba with a wink, putting the boy in the painting behind him.

"Da," Corrin said abruptly, yawning into his father's collar, "'m sleepy."

Surprised into a laugh, Joshua rocked the boy against his hip. "Well, of course you are. Back to bed with you, my young lord, or Saint Verona won't be hiding any gifts for you."

Corrin's only answer was to narrow his eyes and smile.

And perhaps they had all forgotten the day, for each of them looked up when the churchbells rang out for dawn-- a scattering of notes heralding the ending of the longest night of the year. The morning outside had deepened without their notice, gold breaking over the grey-touched hills, lighting the shadows like the fresh color of fire on an age-stained canvas.


author's notes: Zeno of Verona is the patron saint of children learning how to speak.

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