Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Holiday Stories: THE GIFT

I want to share a beautiful story with you. Like Christmas Joy, it's a favorite. This one was written by a dear friend, Rand Phares. It's setting is in England during King John's reign and I love it because it's thought provoking and I can relate to the last monk. 

I hope you enjoy his story.

Abbot Timothy and Brother Samuel stood just inside the main doors of the monastery, swirling snow filling the dark night around them.
Samuel adjusted his hood and leaned closer to the abbot. "Are you sure you don't want me to wait for you?"
The abbot shook his head. "No, Samuel. I have one last chore before I can leave. I'll be along shortly, before the town road becomes impassable. You go on ahead before they've run out of room at the inn."
Samuel frowned and peered across the courtyard at the monastery's church, its windows lit with a wavering glow. "A pity it's come to this, after all our years of service."
The abbot laid a hand on Samuel's chest. "Though the abbeys are being dissolved and we're being evicted, you can always hold to your faith and continue that service here, in your heart." He turned to the doors, slid aside a wooden bar, and—with Samuel's help—tugged the doors open.
Samuel adjusted his robe. "You're sure you won't come with me?”
The abbot nodded. "Go."
Samuel went through the doorway, hesitated for a moment, and then continued on, his dark form melting into the storm. A moment later, drifting snow covered his footprints and it was as if he'd never been there.
The abbot shook his head. The king's decree had arrived a week ago: The Order was dissolved, its members to renounce their ways and leave the monastery no later than Christmas Eve. Tonight. The monastery, its grounds, and its treasures would revert to the people. Even now, two of the king's men were in the counting room, reviewing the monastery's records.
One by one, the monasteries of the land were being dissolved, taken over by local governments, monies and lands distributed to those in power. Monks had been expelled, left to fend for themselves, which meant hardship and death more often than not. Friendship toward fellow man seemed to have dissolved in the face of hard times and the king's decree.
As abbot, he would be the last to leave. How had the others fared? Emanuel, the infirmarian? Ethan, the sacrist? What of the troubled brothers, especially James, gifted with a lyre, but unable to form a single sentence?
Where would he himself go? He had no family, no friends outside the monastery. Would he simply starve, sharing the same fate as the others? After all this time surrounded by these walls, he did not look forward to leaving. The king's decree guaranteed a lonely, destitute, and painful end beyond the monastery.
He shut and barred the doors, then turned and looked at the church, at the rise of its steeple. Was its symbolic gesture toward heaven still meaningful in these times? Across the length of the roof sat the silent bell tower, oddly enough even taller than the steeple. He knew it spoke of a long-ago time when the monastery—sitting atop a 200-ft cliff overlooking a great road—had served as a lookout against enemy hordes sweeping in from the north.
He stared at the bell tower until his eyes stung.
So lonely . . .
So high . . .
So . . .
Painful? Perhaps not.
The tower stared down at him.
Will you follow the path the king has set down for you?
Or is there another?
He blinked, rubbed his eyes with icy fingers, and looked back at the barred doors.
The king's path lay beyond.
He stared at the doors for a long moment. Then, his mind made up, he crossed himself, turned away, and trudged off through the snow toward the church.
Snow had piled against the great door leading into the church, and the door complained as the abbot struggled to open it. He stepped into the front nave, escaping the storm, but not the bone-wearying cold.
With the door shut behind him, he made his way toward the choir at the back of the church, eyes adjusting to the thin light of candles burning in side chapels. A statue of the Saviour seemed to shift slightly in the flickering light as he neared. He crossed himself and started off toward the dark door near the east transept; the door that led to the bell tower.
He reached for the door's latch, but a coughing sound stopped him. He turned and found a robed figure sitting in the choir pews. Why had he not noticed? Wasn't everyone supposed to be gone by now? This was certainly not one of the king's tallymen, with their fine purple tunics.
"Can I help you?" the abbot asked.
The figure stood and tossed back his hood. A thin young man, dark hair, bearded, but not someone the abbot recognized.
"Are you Abbot Timothy?" the man asked.
"Yes. And you are . . . ?"
"Forgive me, abbot. I'm Sebastian. Innkeeper Thomas sent me with a sack of food for your journey." He held up a dark bag. "Some mutton, cheese, a small flask of wine."
The abbot looked at the bag. "That's quite kind of Thomas. And kind of you, of course, for bringing it here in this storm. Tell me, how did you get in? We keep the main gate locked."
"I slipped in when one of the brothers was leaving."
"I see." The abbot gestured toward the bag. "Well, thank Thomas for me." He put a hand on the latch beside him. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to extinguish the chapel candles before I leave. You'd better let yourself out and return to the inn before you become stranded."
"The snow is blowing very hard. You've no fear of being stranded yourself?"
The abbot glanced at the latch in his hand, then back at Sebastion. "I won't be long. You'd best not wait."
"That door leads to the bell tower?"
"Are there many candles in the tower?"
The abbot frowned. He opened his mouth to reply, but Sebastian waved a hand. "Forgive my impertinence, abbot." He looked around at the statuary and tapestries. "It's a pity the church is being stripped of its treasures. But isn't it a greater travesty that the countryside is being stripped of its faith?"
The abbot sighed. Would this young man not leave? "Yes, it's true, what you say about the country. But when I step outside these walls, the king says I'm no longer a man of God. So my days of worrying about the country's faith are over."
"That may be, but what about your vow of service to Our Lord? True faith is difficult to drive from a man's heart, even in the face of kingly decrees." Sebastian nodded at the tower door. "Are you like the countryside, abbot? Have you been stripped of your faith?"
The abbot blinked. Had he?
Sebastian laid a hand above his heart. "In spite of what the king says, you can always hold to your faith and continue that service in your heart."
The abbot stared at Sebastian. How did he . . . ?
Sebastian set the bag on a pew and looked up at the window. "It seems the snow has finally stopped. That should make your journey easier." He looked back at the abbot. "One last word of advice, though." He smiled and nodded at the tower door. "Be careful putting the candles out up in the belfry. It's sure to be slippery up there, and I hear it's a long drop to the road below."
With that, Sebastian turned and walked up the nave, pausing only to cross himself at the statue of the Saviour. A moment later the shadows of the front nave swallowed him. In the snow-encased quiet of the church, the great door was particularly loud when it closed.
The abbot's gaze returned to the statue.
A thin bearded face, arms outstretched, a crown of thorns. From this angle, the candlelight made it look as if the statue stared back at him.
Abbot Timothy pushed open the great church door and took in the courtyard and the far shadow of the main gate. The young man had left the church after the storm died, but a silent mantle of white lay unbroken in all directions. And the air was still; wind no longer blowing snow across any newly laid footprints.
What was the hour? Was it Christmas yet?
He lifted the bag. Mutton, cheese, wine. A Christmas gift, perhaps?
He stared out at the night, and thought of the young man's words.
All of them.
And decided those had been the real gift this night.
Then, with a last glance back across the nave at the distant bell tower door, he shouldered the bag and walked out of the church. Heading toward the gate, the abbot was secure in the feeling that wherever the young man had gone, he was following.

Rand Phares's first foray into writing was at an early age, on a neighborhood "newspaper" he published with his brother. After a successful career in software engineering, he now focuses on psychological thrillers, and is within nanoseconds of completing his first novel, The Feast. Rand lives in NC with his family.

Sunday, December 25, 2011


I've had so many lovely stories contributed this holiday season. I hope you've enjoyed them all. At the end of this story I will give you the links to each story again. In the hustle and bustle of getting prepared for the holidays and family, not many had time to really do much but extra reading.

This Holiday Short story is written by Anna Small. Anna writes historical romance and shares a story about two of her characters, Cassie and Jed Hazard.

If you enjoy the story, do share it on the networks.

            Cassie Hazard looked out her bedroom window and blinked rapidly to clear her vision. Surely, she was dreaming, for there could not be snowflakes on the ground. Wrapping a quilt around her shoulders, she hastily left the bedroom and rushed outdoors. She gasped in delight. Speckled on the ground like shimmering dust was the first snowfall she had ever seen since arriving in the New Mexico Territory.
            “I’ll bet you never expected to see snow in the desert, city gal.”
            She turned around and smiled at her husband. Jed looked like a snowman himself, bundled up in a heavy coat and a muffler wound around his neck. She was grateful when he stood behind her, wrapped his arms securely around her waist, and hugged the quilt to help keep her warm.
            “I didn’t know it would snow. How beautiful everything looks.” Tiny flurries of snow whipped around the horse paddock. The ground sparkled, reflecting the sunlight so she had to squint from the glare.
            “It always snowed at Christmas back home. Ty and I would have snowball fights until our pa caught us avoiding our chores.” He laughed at the memory, and she turned around in his arms to face him.
            “Boston will be beautiful this time of year. They have sleigh rides on the Common, and Uncle Abe always took me to the Parker House for dinner on Christmas Eve.”
            “Sounds like a nice time. I hope you don’t mind cornbread for this Christmas Eve.” His head lowered and he was just about to kiss her, when someone called to them from the road. Jed glanced up. “Looks like old Busybody Ames is bringing someone out here. Maybe it’s that cattle buyer I met at the House of Diamonds a few weeks back.”
            “I’ll go inside and dress,” she said, reluctantly pulling away and walking toward the door. She watched from the step for a few moments as Jed walked to the gate to let the driver in. Jed was right. The driver was Mr. Ames, the schoolteacher, and his sole passenger looked familiar. He was out of place in his black stovepipe hat and fur trimmed coat. His full white beard made her almost think of Santa Claus, except she only knew one man who wore a red silk scarf over his top coat.
            Her breath caught in her throat as she tried to call Jed, to warn him, but it was too late. He’d already reached the gate, and the wagon was pulling up. Jed was talking to the two men, and he glanced a few times back at her, as did the others. She gulped, then held her head high. She had nothing to fear from anyone, and certainly not this man. She was a married woman now, for goodness’ sake, and could make her own decisions.
            Jed swung the gate open and the wagon came through. She stood on the porch, her shoulders back and her chin stuck out, waiting.
            The wagon stopped at the house, and Ames gave her a smug smile. He touched the brim of his hat with a slender finger. “Good morning, Mrs. Hazard.”
            “Mrs. Hazard?” The old gentleman beside Ames scowled so deeply she thought his thick, bushy eyebrows would knit themselves together. He climbed off the wagon with some difficulty, and walked slowly to where she stood on the porch. “Well?” he demanded, and she felt her knees wobble, “are you not going to say hello to your own uncle, missy?”
            “Hello, Uncle Abe,” she said, cursing herself inwardly for sounding like a little girl. Suddenly, she was no longer the capable rancher-woman Jed always called her, but the naughty little girl who’d painted all over her uncle’s desk and had gotten caught. “What are you doing here?”
            He puffed out his chest, and cast a sardonic glance around the ranch. “I wanted to make sure you were still alive. Mr. Ames has been good enough to inform me of what shenanigans you’ve been about, young lady.”
            “That’s my wife, sir. I’ll expect you to be polite in my presence,” Jed said, his voice firm but pleasant. He climbed the stairs to the porch and grasped her shoulder. “Sweetheart, let’s all go inside and have some coffee. I’m sure your uncle doesn’t want to stand outside in the cold all day.”
            Grateful for Jed’s steady, practical nature, Cassie led the way into the small house, instinctively wishing she’d cleaned better the night before. But they’d had an early supper, and Jed had smiled at her in that special way that she’d foregone housekeeping in favor of their big, soft bed.
            “Is this all there is?” Uncle Abe said gruffly, surveying the small house and cramped kitchen.
            Jed pulled out their best chair and smiled pleasantly. “Won’t you sit, sir?”
            Uncle Abe hesitated a moment, then sat down carefully, as if he were afraid the chair would break. He glowered at Cassie, but she kept up her air of strength, even though she was afraid she would settle back into the role of obedient child again.
            “I came to make sure you were still alive, Cassandra,” he said, removing his hat and placing it on his knee.
            “As you can see, Uncle, I am.”
            Jed brought three mugs of coffee to the table and set one before Uncle Abe, then took the chair opposite him. “How was your journey, sir?”
            “Long. What are your prospects with my niece? She’s my only family, and I want to make certain you are not toying with her.”
            Cassie’s cheeks burned with the heat of her blush, but she bit her tongue to keep from speaking her mind. Jed’s jaw tightened, but he was polite.
            “As I said before, she’s my wife. It was all done up nice and legal. Charles Ames married us a few months ago.”
            One white eyebrow rose up into his forehead. “I have not heard a word about love, Mr. Hazard. Did you marry her for love, or was it a business proposition? Mr. Ames seems convinced of the latter.”
            “He’s both a liar and a fool,” Jed said, pushing out of his chair and rising abruptly. He stood beside Cassie and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “I love this woman with all my heart. Yes, I wouldn’t have the ranch if she hadn’t married me, but that’s not why I did it.” He faced her now, and it was as if they were alone. She stared up into his sky blue eyes, so earnest and filled with all the hopes and dreams they both shared. “I’ve loved you from that first day, Cassie, when you walked down that dusty road and demanded I leave your ranch.” His eyes twinkled with amusement at the memory. “I wanted you then as much as I want you now. The o-nly reason I suggested we marry was that I couldn’t imagine a life without you. You’re my partner and my friend. My best and truest love.”
            Her eyes filled with tears, and she placed her hand on his chest, over his beating heart. “I love you, too, Jed. I always have.”
            Uncle Abe cleared his throat, then reached into his coat pocket. Cassie almost feared he was going to take out a pistol and challenge Jed to a duel, but he withdrew a fat leather pouch, which he handed to her. “In that case, you may have this.”
            She hastily brushed the tears from her cheek. “What is that?”
            He heaved a sigh. “My dear sister was not destitute when she ran away from home with your reprobate father. She had some money put away, and I wish you now to have it.”
            “If you think you can pay me to change my mind, you’re wrong,” she said fiercely. “I don’t care if it’s a million dollars. I’m staying here. My home is with my husband.” Her limbs trembled as if she were feverish, but she kept her gaze focused on him, so he would know she spoke the truth.
            “My dear child, this is not a bribe to take you out of this place, although,” and he glanced meaningfully around the room, “it could use some sprucing up. It is your inheritance. You may give it to your husband, keep it for yourself, or throw it to the wind – I don’t care what you do with it.” He rose from the table and put his hat on. “Now, if Mr. Hazard will be so kind, I require a ride back into town.”
            “What for?” Jed asked.
            Uncle Abe frowned slightly. “I am not welcome here, that is evident. Cassandra and I have rarely seen eye to eye. She is happy and well; that is all I wanted to see. I’m going back to Boston at week’s end.”
            He started for the door, but Cassie was quicker. She gripped his arm. “Wait.”
            “Yes, my dear?” His eyes swam with tears, and she had to fight to keep her own emotions in check.
            “That is why you came all the way out to New Mexico Territory? Not to persuade me to come back to Boston with you or to take the ranch from Jed or…or any of those things?”
            He shook his head. “Is it so impossible that I would want your happiness, Cassandra? I am the only family you have left.”
            “That’s not true,” she said softly. “I have Jed, and I have a brother, Tyler. I have Laughing Crow and Two Rivers, and Marianna and Miss Lavinia.”
            He covered her hand that remained on his arm. “You are the only family I have left, Cassandra. Please, forgive an old man’s foolishness. I have always wanted your happiness. If this is what it takes, then….” He sighed, and smiled through his thick beard. “I can ask for nothing more.” He kissed her forehead, then looked at Jed. “And now, sir, if you please….”
            “You’re not going anywhere,” Cassie said suddenly. “You’ll spend Christmas with us, Uncle Abe.”
            “We insist,” Jed said, standing beside her.
Uncle Abe shook his hand, then embraced Cassie warmly, the long beard tickling her cheek as it always used to on the rare occasions he did show affection. She realized now that he had been too worried about keeping her safe all those years that he’d forgotten to enjoy the time they’d had.
“Well,” he said gruffly, pulling away and straightening out his coat, “if I’m to stay here, we must have a proper Christmas dinner.”
            “We’re having beans, cornbread, and rabbit,” Cassie said.
Jed grinned. “And maybe some venison. Our friends, Laughing Crow and his family, will bring a deer, and our sheriff, Wade, makes the best apple pie you’ve ever tasted.”
“As I said,” Uncle Abe replied, “a proper Christmas dinner.” He removed his coat and hat and rolled up his shirtsleeves. “Get me an apron, missy. I’m going to tidy up around here so you may get ready for your friends.”
She tied her apron around his waist, her throat full of unshed, joyful tears. When she was done, he cupped her cheek in his warm hand and gave it a little pinch.
“How I’ve missed these freckles. You must come out and visit me in Boston.” He nodded at Jed. “Both of you.”
“We will.” Jed winked at Cassie as he headed for the door. “I’m going to chop some more wood and see to the livestock. I’ll come in when Laughing Crow arrives.” He paused and looked at Uncle Abe. “Merry Christmas, sir.”
“I find sir a little stuffy. Call me Uncle Abe.”
“Merry Christmas, Uncle Abe.” Jed grinned at both of them and went outside.
Cassie embraced her uncle. “Merry Christmas, dear Uncle Abe.” She kissed him on the cheek.
“Merry Christmas, Cassandra.” He indicated the table. “Are you not going to open that pouch and see how much is in there?”
She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. I have everything I want right here.”

 You can find Anna:
Story links:

Christmas Joy, Beth Hill, Secrets Of Christmas, Carol Kilgore,
Husband For Miss Trent, Anne Gallagher, On The Outside Looking In, Yvonne Lewis

WEDNESDAY(4th): Mia Marlowe And Connie Mason
FRIDAY(6th): Tawny Weber