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A Mystic’s Prayer

By Kai Calo





          Gab, being the spirited girl that she was, once told him she thought a Mystic’s prayer the most beautiful thing in the world. The memory returned to him as he rode beside her and their father, her short legs swaying, her blonde head bouncing as the piebald trotted along under the changing autumn leaves. As their father guided the horse ahead of the wagon, steering it through the shadows, she turned and waved. He waved back.

          The family traveled that dark, winding road as might a cloud of frightened sparrows, migrating without purpose, without prospect, without destination. Evenings meshed like lacing fingers, becoming one long, endless hour as he slept by day and squirmed on his pony by night. They slipped through the darkness, riding in clammy, covered wagons with other head-tucked refugees of the plague—some on horses, most confined to their seats. Jews, Mystics, Lutherans, Calvinists; they all fled. After a fortnight, the family came to stay with Sir John Stonor, once Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer before his removal, and a distant cousin of their mother. Hesitantly, the quiet man offered his family shelter in the vast storage under Wallingford Castle before the winter of his tenth year.

          He soon realized Thistleswade Manor was a home to be missed. He longed for that warm fireplace, its frame towering high with base and mantel in white marble and onyx, able to swallow him whole if it so pleased. Thistleswade was life; it was the wet smell of the dew-spun earth after the rains, the fresh-pressed cranberry and apple cider in summer, bakers at dawn building bread, their horses in the yard, the orchards, the mill; all that and more. Yet, most of his grief came from a beautiful, gold-encrusted crest that had once hung over his father’s manorial court with the image of a cornfield stretching on for miles. It was the crest of his family, the Milnes. Those were pleasant times, but all that remained became scattered fragments left to clutter his head.

          The family moved from Warwick down through Oxford and Berks, staying with households of trusted political and local relations that swore the family’s secrecy. Though he knew their escape was a blessing from the Ornate God, he could not help but yearn for home, even if that home was now ash. Searched and pillaged, Thistleswade was taken by religious fanatics entrusted with the task of rooting them—and those ‘like’ them—out, and all the suspected witch-worshipping farm folk were set to flame that autumn of yore. Everything, from the orchards to the crofts, became smoldering ruins among the fallen, broken stone. The family learned of this tragedy as they sought shelter among a nearby village in Northampton, only to leave again at dusk, and when they reached a haven that lasted longer than a day, he stopped asking to go home and buried the remnants of their past life along with his hopes of return.

          Gabriella, his younger sister, sat with their mother on a linen cloth in Wallingford’s cellar surrounded by casks of aged wine, her pale shoulders hugged by a dark, wool cloak. As she sat, she entertained herself with a prayer. Her small hands twirled in the gloom, mixing the air to form bright dandelion seeds that danced as if blown in the wind, a juvenile creation of an advanced enchantment any mature Mystic would smile at seeing. Mother took notice and scolded her, saying she ought not to pray like that anymore, even behind the confines of closed doors, for they never knew who could be watching.

“Stones have eyes too, my darling,” she said.

          Bridget, the eldest of the girls, nodded. Cynthia, the youngest, gaped at the stones of the wall behind her in fright.

          Father was aboveground in the audience hall speaking with Sir John, and he knew it was only a matter of time until they were told to leave. It seemed the honest Sir John Stonor, a previous King’s Serjeant, was frightened of exposure to the pious zealots who sought all social deviants and alleged bringers of the plague upon the kingdom. Though harmless, his family’s presence was dangerous to any and all that provided them aid. 

          Before the plague, Mystics were regarded as innocuous shamans, similar in social standing as those who read palms or told fortunes. Not until the outbreak did the few known Mystics of the realm go underground into darkness, into hiding; those who stayed in clear sight would perish, but not from the plague. Their once harmless and often entertaining use of prayer became a mark of evil, and they were burned, hanged, flayed, or crushed.

          Mother told them to be brave, that soon they would cross the channel into le royaume de France, and through the foreign countryside would journey horseback north-eastward in search of lands said to be free of disease. He hoped never again to see the horrible, blackened fingers of the afflicted, or to feel his throat choke at the thought of his sisters burned at the stake, and accepted the idea of fleeing the country without hesitation.

          A slight squeal from the trap door of the storage cellar alerted them to their father’s return, and his three sisters clambered to their feet to gather at the bottom steps in waiting. Cynthia was picked up and cradled against their father’s side, her plump legs casting long shadows from the candles on the wall, and Bridget was patted on the head whilst he and Gab were given a wink. After the girls were granted their father’s paternal blessings, their mother was kissed and taken aside for discussion. His parent’s voices were like wisps of silk sliding against one another, near silent, but unlike the girls’ oblivious ears, he could make out everything they were saying. Tomorrow night, after the children were fed and the wagon stocked, their family would vanish again under the moon.

          His heart began to sink, but he noticed Gab, cross-legged on the floor, twirling her hands in defiance of their mother’s earlier admonition to conjure a small, pinkish bubble of mist for her own delight. He went to her side to stop her, but before he took her hands to make the bubble disappear, he weaved his own back and forth, invoking tiny painted butterflies to flutter about the girl’s face, their light reflecting in her eyes. After a moment he dropped his hands and the butterflies vanished into the void of space where they belonged. Kissing both her cheeks and forehead, he whispered to her that he would never let anything happen to her as long as he lived, and she smiled up at him, her cheeks a pale, flushed rose. She kept her hands at bay for the rest of the night.  




          Wyeford Castle was located south of Winchester—a day’s ride from Portsmouth—and was home to Lord Brian Briscoe and his sweet wife, the Lady Eloise de La Noue, who was originally born in France and betrothed to his lordship at the age of eleven. Briscoe was a wealthy name, having many investments in wool and grain exports along Portsmouth’s harbor, thus ensuring his wife’s extended family much needed financial stability throughout the growing war between England and France.

          Lord Brian was also a friend of the Milnes, for the family had employed Brian’s late cousin as page before the boy’s untimely death. They came seeking shelter from his Lordship after their arduous trek from Sir John Stonor’s estate a fortnight past and settled to stay with the Briscoes until spring. Come March, the Lord’s merchant galley, Le Faucon Dieu, would sail to France, whereupon the family would board as crew until they hit port. Once there, they would ride horseback to the nearest village, then travel by wagon northward. He was sick of wagons, but mother told him to be strong.

          As they entered Wyeford Castle, there hung a large painted crest with the image of three white birch trees cutting vertically through a sphere of azure, the Briscoe coat of arms. When passing to the family’s temporary chambers under the donjon, he gazed up and thought how different the emblem was from his own, that gold cornfield forged as if a shield from a miller’s dream, and cried for the first time since their perilous nightmare had begun.

          Mother hugged him close, shushing him, and tried to nudge him along, but he would not budge. Father assured the Lord Briscoe of the family’s appreciation and apologized for their son’s unexpected tears, but the Lady Eloise told him to hush and waved one of her porcelain hands as if to say “nonsense”. She turned to a servant girl, telling her to fetch a plate of crepes coated with honey and some épices de chambre from the kitchen, along with a carafe of port wine. He sniffled then, his crying temporarily assuaged by the mentioning of sweets.

          Despite the hour, Lord Brian told them to sit. They relaxed in the hall as a cold rain began to pour outside, sending shivers along the castle’s lofty walls. A few servants came and fed the dying fire more wood and it leapt in a blaze, alive. Gab was hunched nearest to the fire, warming her mischievous hands, and Bridget helped their mother by holding Cynthia against her girlish hip. Lady Eloise decided to wake her and her husband’s two children, Isabelle and Edgard, to join them as they nibbled on honeyed crepes and dried fruit. The adults relaxed into their wine, conversing about the last year’s winter, whilst he, his sisters, and the young Briscoe children played marbles on the floor next to the glowing hearth.

          Dawn approached, the rain stopped, and the sun peeked past the horizon. Father let out a yawn and rose from the main table, thanking both Lord and Lady for their generous hospitality, while mother ushered him and his sisters to their chambers. He lay in a bed of downy, goose feathers with Gab while Bridget shared a bed with Cynthia, and when the soft sounds of their father’s snores could be heard he weaved his hands in the air to conjure Gab’s favorite of their childhood prayers. She closed her eyes with a smile, and when she fell asleep he let the butterflies fade. They petered out, letting the nearby shadows creep, and he shuddered as the ache in his stomach worsened.




          A sheet of stark white soon blanketed the land, covering the reds of autumn with ashen pallor. The hills crested as ivory waves, the pines drooping with snow. The drabness of it made him feel tired.

          Sighing, he put a hand to his cheek while his elbows rested on the stone sill of the eastern tower. A meal of fresh cooked eggs, bread, meat and cheese was to be served for the two families, so he made his descent to break his fast despite his desire to remain alone. He was not hungry. In fact, he had not been hungry for days, as the growing ache in the pit of his stomach had intensified. Plus, sitting with anyone besides Gab made his deliberate silences all the more awkward. Of course, if there were a phrase that might end his family’s continual hardship he would gladly shout it out until his voice went raw, but no string of words, no incantation, could help alleviate their turmoil, not even the most powerful Mystic prayer.

          The girls had their own means of coping; Bridget flitted about their chambers, cleaning and brushing Cynthia’s long, chestnut tresses, plaiting ribbons in with the girl’s braids and humming as if nothing were wrong, while Cynthia laughed and made amusing faces, upturning her nose and distorting her eyes with her tiny fingers, though he suspected more underneath that playful mask than she let on.  

          With Bridget and Cynthia huddled in their own world, oblivious to anything outside it, sweet Gab became his savior. She did not pretend, but instead placated herself with her colorful prayers, twirling her hands before their mother slapped her knuckles and hissed for her to stop. Gab’s face scrunched in anger, but she would abide the rebuke, at least until mother turned away.

          A loud gust of wind sounded outside the tower window, pulling him from his thoughts. He turned to continue but bumped into something. He jerked and sucked in a startled breath, but regained his dreary expression as the girl giggled.

          “Forgive me, my Lord Milne,” she said as she covered her smiling mouth. “I was sent to fetch you.”

          It was the young Lady Isabelle, eldest to Lord and Lady Briscoe. She had dark, dark hair, near black, but in contrast to those curls her face was pale as starlight. The way she looked at him made his throat tighten so much it became hard to swallow, and he blinked in response as she giggled some more.

          “How old is my Lord?” she asked as she took his hand. They started down the stairwell, palms clasped. “I am but ten.”

          He opened his mouth to reply but nothing came out, so he stared at his feet.

          She gave him a puzzled look. “You have not spoken a word since coming here,” she stated and paused. “Will you not speak for me? Just this once?”

          At first he did not answer, but after a moment stopped, and she stood waiting, motionless, by his side. He pulled his hand from hers, and with practiced ability gestured his fingers about as if he were playing some unseen musical instrument in the air. A budding rose flourished out of nothing before her, and she stared, astonished, no doubt having heard of such magic, but never witnessing it with her own eyes. He flicked his wrist and the rose’s petals opened. She leaned in, her lips puckering to kiss the center, but his hands dropped and the flower disappeared. She blinked as if coming out of a daze. He gave her an awkward smile and she quickly planted a chaste kiss on his lips.

          As she sprinted down the steps, giggling uncontrollably, he followed after her with a strange sensation, as though he were soaring above his troubles to look down on them and laugh.




          “Non, Gabriella, ‘s'il vous plait’.”

          Isabelle sat with his sister in their chambers, teaching the girl phrases for when they arrived in France. It would be another two months at least, but the time was passing them quickly.

          He watched as Gab tried to form the words on her lips, but the fluidity of the foreign language did not come easily to her. “Sil ver play,” she tried.

          “Non, non, Gab,” Isabelle said and giggled. The young Lady of Wyeford had been schooled in both languages since the time she first learned to speak, so the words naturally slid from her tongue as if she had lived in France her entire life. “Non, Gabriella, like this. Listen. Seel voo play.”

Gab repeated the phrase, better than before, and glanced at him with a shrug.

Isabelle clapped. “Oui! Much better!”

“What did I say?”

“You said ‘please’.”

Gab’s nose crinkled. “All that for please?”

“Oui, petit chéri.”



“Why do you not just say please?”

          Isabelle laughed and Gab simply stared, confused. The corners of his lips pulled upward but he kept his silence.

          “Lord Milne, it is your turn now.” The young Lady shifted to face him. He gave her a smile and took her hands.

          Gab ran to their chamber door and inched her blond head past the frame to check for any potential witnesses, and upon seeing the hall empty, shut it and flipped the iron key sideways. Racing back to the bed, she scrambled up the side and sidled next to him.

          When his sister was settled he positioned Isabelle’s hands in the air as he would his own, arranging her fingers in the way the prayer required. He paused and looked to Gab for a voice; she spoke to explain.

          “This prayer is not hard,” she said, her voice small. “But the air will not come alive unless you believe.”

Isabelle stared, entranced. “How?” she asked breathlessly.

          “Listen. Do like I do,” Gab replied. Curling her fingers, she twirled her hands dramatically, yet slowed to let Isabelle follow.

          Isabelle watched, attempting to mimic the movements, from the way the wrist curved to the way her knuckles needed to bend, but soon grew frustrated at her lack of success. “Why is it not working?” she asked. She threw up her hands in defeat and heaved a sigh. “Why can I not do it?”

          Gabriella opened her mouth to speak, but before she could utter a word he scooted in front of her and took Isabelle’s arms, forcing them up. He flexed the young Lady’s fingers, paying no mind as she tried to catch his gaze. When he was satisfied he took her wrists and moved them in figure eights around one another, over and under. The awkward and ill-practiced prayer yielded nothing at first, but he kept her wrists firm in his grip and continued, even when she told him she would never be able to do it.

          “Do not think,” Gab commanded in her puerile voice. “Let your hands be free. If you let them they will make something and you will not even known it.”

          Isabelle nodded and took a deep breath, glancing up to see his face. His smile was small as he continued to orchestrate, and as she stared at him past the thick of his blond bangs he felt a sense of peace he had not felt since Thistleswade.

          A few minutes more and an orange glow began to take shape between Isabelle’s opened palms. Her breath hitched as she watched it expand, and he let go of her wrists. She went on as Gab did, as he did, and the glimmer expanded outward in the way that a ripple would in a still pond—a mere wrinkle in the fabric of space and time, a Mystic’s harmless prayer.

          Isabelle giggled loudly as the shape began to transform, surging and swelling like a wineskin about to burst. As it grew, forcing her palms back, her smile began to fade. “H-how do we stop it? It is too big!”

          “No, let it go!” Gab yelled, losing herself in the swelling glow. He nodded quickly in agreement.

          With the help of their six hands the shape grew so big it ruptured without warning and sprayed a pulpy liquid as viscous as the yolk from an egg in their faces. Isabelle screeched and shot to her feet, bunching her skirts in her fists, while Gab clutched at her sides and rolled in laughter. He would have laughed too, but the young Lady looked so shaken he had to stifle himself to save her the embarrassment. It was not her fault she had never seen a prayer in the works—or its sometimes unpredictable aftermath for that matter.

          “What is it?!” Isabelle shrieked. She wiped the yolk-like spatter from her face. “Will it harm us?! Oh no, it has ruined my dress!”

          True, the orange had stained Isabelle’s finely woven skirts, and he suddenly felt bad. He reached forward, took her by the shoulders, and returned the chaste kiss she had given him on the stone stairwell of the eastern tower that day. Her eyes were wide, and she blinked like a frightened doe, but then giggled despite herself. He sat back, playfully pushing his little sister while wiping at his brow, but Gab’s laughter was so infectious he and Isabelle soon joined in.




          It was freezing. He sat against the stone wall near Wyeford’s inner curtain at the southern end of the bailey, extending his hands. He paused in the brief silence between his mother’s shrill howls, but he was not in prayer; he would not dare capture colors and useless butterflies while his mother’s sobbing could be heard. Several cases of outbreak had been reported from Winchester and Southampton, and further down still from Chichester and Selsey, whereupon community doctors and priests were employed to treat the victims through herbal cures and bloodletting. Some said the outbreaks were caused by exposure, others said sin, but he did not know from either except for the loss they brought.

          Lord Briscoe insisted on moving Gab to the southern tower when the fever had come upon her, and against his father’s will their mother moved to stay with the girl, requesting for the castle’s priest to come and pray in the Catholic faith while the physician had her bled. Most, if not all, of the servants and workers of the castle stayed clear of the family, terrified of exposure, and the young Lady and Lord were forbidden by their parents to go anywhere near. Of course it was understandable given how quickly the plague spread, but he had nothing to fear. He was far from fear.

          The air seemed dead and his heart was frozen in his chest. Through the haze that fogged his senses, he felt something wet slide past his nose, pooling for a moment in the corner of his lip until it fell from his chin. The tear left a trail that froze on his cheek, but he wiped at it with an angry hand so it could not be seen.

           “Lord Milne…” a soft voice said. His head shot up to see Isabelle standing over him, grasping at a bulky, sapphire colored cloak she wore about her shoulders. The large hood covered her dark hair, and her cheeks were tinged red from the harsh winds. Her expression made him climb to his feet, but she stepped back. “Forgive me,” she said, her voice cracking.

          He gave her a questioning look and tried to take one of her mittened hands, but she jerked away as if he had slapped her. Her face was a mixture of sadness and guilt.

          “It was me,” she said, tears streaming from her brown eyes. “I should never have played with your prayers. I have offended your Gods. Had I not… she would be alright… Gab would be alright!” She ran from him then, sprinting in her high boots, the snow kicking up from her heels.

          He chased after her, following her as she ran through the courtyard toward her family’s stalls. Inside, the palfreys whinnied as she darted towards the end, and one giant, blue roan reared up on its back legs with a nicker so loud it near made his ears ring as he hurried past it. She came to a halt when reaching the other side and fell to her knees in the snow, her mittened hands covering her face as she wept. He approached her, biting his lip, wanting to say something—anything—to comfort her. She looked at him, and he sank to his knees. He could see her breath in the bitter air.

          “It is my fault,” she whispered.

          “No,” he replied unexpectedly.

          She stared up at him in disbelief.

          “It is not your fault.” He shifted, moving to sit on his rear in front of her, the bottom of his pants already soaked and freezing. He rubbed his hands, cupping them to his mouth to warm. Isabelle watched as a cluster of butterflies trembled in the air, flapping their fragile wings in the cold, dancing and fluttering as would pieces of paper in a breeze. The horses let out another round of frightened neighs, and when one landed on the roan’s snout, it burst into a shimmering cloud of speckled pastels. The giant horse snorted and bobbed its head.

          He paused for a moment and she hesitantly raised her hands to follow. They made painted butterflies in the snow until their hands were numb and their fingers could no longer move. Afterward, they retreated inside where Isabelle ordered a servant woman to fetch them both hot broth, and they huddled near the fireplace with the clayware cups, watching as the fire slowly ebbed.




          Gab’s death marked the beginning of spring, and with it came new life. Before long a spell of flowers grew from the ground, shying towards the sky like timid children in their idol’s presence, and butterflies—real butterflies—wobbled under the sun as they hatched from their delicate chrysalides. His mother’s skin had paled significantly since the previous month and she laughed less, but she did not discipline him when he comforted his sisters with prayers of playful newts and snails that leapt when he snapped his fingers.

          Isabelle and Edgard were ordered to keep their distance by their Lord father’s command, but the Lady Eloise promised the family that in a week’s time they would board her husband’s ship for France, just as they planned. In the meantime, the family was quarantined to the southern tower, but they could not blame his Lordship for his vigilance. They were lucky; after all, it was Gab who had brought the plague near.

          Holding a ceremony one night in the Mystic faith, his father prayed for colorful spirits to guide Gabriella’s soul to the Ornate Kingdom, and lit a small fire in the hearth of their chambers. His mother cried as she witnessed the smoke rise from the ashes, her hair done in intricate braids, dyed wonderfully bright, and her mourning dress worn in the vibrant, customary shades for their lost child.

          In the evenings he readied himself for sleep, changing from his tunic and linens in exchange for a night gown before slipping into bed, but on the last evening before the family’s departure there came a soft knock on his chamber door and he, being the only one awake, crossed the darkened room to open it. Tip-toeing, his shadow cast long, jagged shapes from the single flickering candle atop the chamber’s oaken chest until he came to the heavy door. He rolled the sleeve of his night gown over his wrist and took the handle.

          Outside stood the young Lady of Wyeford. She wore a sky-blue gown of woven silk, and her hair was tousled from the endless nights of tossing and turning, but the sight of her made the awful void in his chest lessen.

          “On the morrow, you shall be gone,” she said with sad eyes.

          He nodded.

          “Will you pray for me, like you prayed for her?”

          He guided her towards the center of the room, putting a finger to his lips for her to be silent. They sat on the floor while the flame from the candle burned brighter than any single flame could ever burn, and she prayed with him, a Mystic’s prayer.

          Morning came, and the family traveled by wagon on dirt tracks from Wyeford to Portsmouth, taking shelter for the night when they reached a dockside inn. Beside the wagon, he and his father rode horseback, his father on a tall, sick rouncey, while he rode a short palfrey that limped as it walked. Cynthia soon became restless and cried before falling asleep in their mother’s arms, while Bridget coiled a lock of curly hair around her finger with a sigh. She looked to him as the wagon creaked, her expression soft and sad, and he knew her thoughts. They all missed her.

          When they reached the inn his bottom was sore and his shoulders were stiff, so he trudged up the stairway to their room where he crawled into a large bed the family would have to share. He huddled on the edge against the wall, falling asleep the moment he shut his eyes.

          The next day Lord Briscoe’s servants hitched the wagon to ride back to Wyeford, leaving the family with money for food and fare. He ate a bowl of cold porridge with legumes and garden vegetables, then, with his parents’ permission, sipped from their cup of spiced port wine. Bridget requested her own cup and drank the diluted liquid down heartily, while Cynthia drank goat’s milk with her bread and cheese.

          Shouting could be heard from the wharf where stalwart men were loading the ships set to sail with provisions and other cargo. At the end of May he would turn eleven, three years from adulthood, but still considered grown, so he told his parents he wished to walk along the docks and see the ships by himself. They agreed he was old enough to wander unaccompanied, but warned him of cutpurses and kidnappers and told him to keep his eyes about.

          As he exited the inn and walked the dockyard, he observed the men filling the ships; some spit and swore while others barked commands. The air smelled salty, and he could hear the soft lapping of the sea against the ships. He came to a large cog and stopped to admire its main mast reaching high, as if to poke the heavens, and noticed a small girl standing near the wooden rail. She had a few stones in her hands and tossed one from the dock, watching it sink into the dark murk of the shifting water below. She looked up and caught his stare.

          With an impish grin, she let the other rocks fall and curled her fingers in the air. Her hands twirled, twisting colors, and from the delicate movement came tiny wisps of dandelion seeds that drifted from the brackish docks. A woman in threadbare rags rushed to the girl and grabbed her slim wrist. She smacked the girl’s knuckles and grasped her by the shoulders, shaking her while hissing something in a low voice. The girl pouted, but obliged. He watched as the girl was dragged away, but before vanishing in the crowd, she waved.

          He waved back.




© Kai Calo 2012

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