Saturday, 20 December 2014

The Buccaneers' Christmas - Part Three


Part Three:

“Bartholemew!” Their grandfather barked. “You will watch Harm like a hawk, you understand?”
“I said I will, so I will,” Bart gave a petulant scowl, and was rewarded with a slap around his ear by the old grizzled naval officer.
“And less of your cheek young man! You watch your little brother out there, or do I have to send the servants with you?”
“No sir,” Bart winced at the throbbing pain, and frowned at Harm waiting eagerly by the large door.
“Very well,” their grandfather gave a curt nod. “Be back for the evening meal, we’ll be holding the vigil as a family; and don’t you dare stray from the main waters!”
“Yes sir.”
Their grandfather patted him forcefully on the shoulder, then returned to his study.
“Are we ready?” Harm smiled, swinging his new skating boots excitedly.
Bart didn’t even bother to reply. He strode past his younger brother, past the waiting servant in the hall, and stepped out onto the frozen streets of Old Haarlem.
The snap of cold stalled his breathing, and he immediately drew his thick woollen coat closer.
“Stay warm young masters!” The servant called after them, closing the door.
Eager Harm was behind him, and within moments was trying to make patterns with his billowing clouds of breath.
“Can I have a sweet pastry when we get there?”
“No,” Bart said with a tut.
“Why not?”
“I don’t have money to spend on pastry.”
“You have money – I’ve seen it.”
Bart ignored him, concentrating instead on the freshly laid snow atop the icy cobles, and picking his way carefully to the large waterways. Haarlem was already busy with workers adapting to the white landscape: Sleds were pulled through the streets instead of carts, hauled by sure-footed animals; men and women were dressed in thick wool and furs, and others on the smaller waterways wore the skating boots like the boys carried in their hands.
The cake-like smell of steeped barley from one of the many breweries wafted on the frozen air – all was normal in the Dutch hub of trade – save for the colossal sheet of ice that covered the whole city like a slick oil. Icicles hung from the eaves, the trees were white and feathery with crystals of both frost and snow, and the hungry crows skittered on the frozen earth, desperate for some morsel of charity.
“Here?” Harm pointed to the closest canal – a steep sided ravine between red brick homes and warehouses.
“No… you’ll break your neck. Come on.”
They passed a sled of firewood hauled by dogs that yapped noisily, and through a winding alley between hot workshops where men beat iron with hammers. Bart wondered if they were making blades for the ice boots.
Finally, beside one of the older churches in the district, they came to a gentle slope that led onto the waterways. In the summer it was green grass occupied by courting couples, now it was as frozen as everything else.
Harm skipped ahead of him, already pulling his skating boots on. Bart rolled his dark eyes at his little brother’s enthusiasm, before leaning against the frosted trunk of an ancient lime, and tried awkwardly to put on his own boots. Their grandfather had bought them in a rare show of kindness. He was doubly angry with the old man, for making him look after Harm, and for hitting him around the ear.
He looked onto the busy waterways. It was packed with couples skating together, laughing with glee; with groups of youths playing with kolf sticks, and families being shuttled around on sleds. Everyone seemed to be having fun…
He cursed his brother under his breath. All he wanted was to be alone. Well… not alone exactly… just alone enough so he could tell Cornelia at the wine stall how beautiful she was.
“Come on!” Harm stepped onto the ice, sliding away.
“Not that way!” Bart called, slipping ungracefully down the frozen hill, and stumbling onto the thick ice.
Harm was already showing off, weaving between a group of thatchers on their way to repair some snow-damaged roof.
Bart skated after him, almost tripping over a richly dressed merchant.
“Watch out you fool!”
“Harm, come back!” Bart shouted, but his little brother only laughed at the chase, twisting on one foot, and looping around in a wide arc. “Will you stop?”
Harm did as he was told – about fifteen feet away, his annoying grin spreading from ear to ear.
Bart frowned at him. “You are going the wrong way.”
“You want to see your girlfriend?” Harm pretended to blow a kiss, and performed a quick pirouette.
“She’s not my girlfriend!”
“I don’t blame her, who would want to be the girlfriend of grumpy face Bartholemew Bloed?”
Bart frowned. He wanted nothing more than to push his little brother arse first upon the hard ice, and watch him cry. That would wipe the smirk from his face. Fortunately for Harm, he was just out of reach. Instead, Bart pointed up the waterway to where many market stalls stood on the edge of the ice. “I’m going that way.”
“We can go that way…” Harm said slowly, “so long as you buy me a pastry.”
“I’ll buy you a mug of hot wine, if you’re lucky.”
Harm seemed to ponder the offer for a moment, dipped his head in agreement, and took off towards the market.
Bart had trouble keeping up, and despite the cold he was soon hot with the exercise, and the muscles in his thighs and calves began to ache.
The closer they came to the stalls, the more rutted the ice became, and the busier it was too, and the more difficult it was to pick between them. He nearly slipped over a few times, and it wasn’t long before he saw another man crunch painfully onto his face, much to the hilarity of his unhelpful friends.
People were already drinking beer, spirits, and wine from the various portable bars that had sprung up, and others stuffed their faces with pastries or freshly roasted nuts.
He had lost sight of Harm in the thickening crowd, but he knew where he was going. They’d skated through the stalls nearly every day since the ice had been thick enough, and stopped at the wine merchant on each occasion. They hadn’t been out on their skates since last Wednesday. The weather had been bad for two days, and yesterday they’d been made to study arithmetic and letter writing.
As they neared their destination Bart couldn’t help but feel nervous. The churning in his stomach had started, just like the first time he’d set eyes upon Cornelia.
He had been thinking what to say to her since their last meeting, where he had clumsily offered her the gift of a small poetry book.
He pushed through the crowd of drinkers on the ice, hastily looking for her beautiful pale face by the steaming pan of wine. She was by the woodpile, and so was Harm. He had just said something, and she was giggling.
If Harm had told her anything rude, he would give him a thick ear—
“Bart!” Cornelia turned at his approach, her full lips parting into the warmest of smiles.
“He-hello,” he fumbled, the butterflies still deep in his belly.
She stepped towards him and took hold of his cold hands. Even with the blades of his skates, she was still taller. “It’s good to see you both, I worried you wouldn’t come back!”
“Huh,” Harm said with a grin, “little chance of that. You are all he talks about! Cornelia this, Cornelia that.”
Bart scowled in his brother’s direction, and felt his face reddening in a combination of anger and embarrassment.
Cornelia squeezed his fingers with her gentle hands, giggling again. It was a lovely sound – like the trilling of a spring marsh bird. “Is that so? Well… I think that’s very sweet of you.”
Bart was too shy to reply properly, but he did feel his anger soften at her words.
“Oh – I have a surprise for you two actually. Wait here…” She let go of his hands, disappearing into one of the tents behind the busy temporary bar.
Harm was looking between him and the tent, a quizzical look upon his face.
A few minutes passed before she re-emerged, sliding on the ice.
She had her own pair of skates!
“Come on!” She laughed, pushing between them both, and back through the crowd of drinkers.
The whole time they had known her she hadn’t had skating boots of her own. They had taken her out sometimes on a wooden crate, punting her along as she trilled with her wonderful giggle. The time before last, a dog had joined in, chasing them across the ice, skittering on all fours.
“Where did you get them?” Bart chased after her.
“Been saving up haven’t I?” She looked back with a sweet smile, “Oh, and I sold a nonsense book of poetry some gentleman’s son gave me.”
His face must have changed, because she giggled again, “Oh Bart! I jest! I’ve read that book every single evening before bed!”
He relaxed, allowing her to take him by the hand and drag him away from the crowds. Hand in hand, just like all the other couples, they skated together. She was slightly unsteady, and they nearly fell a few times, or collided with players from a rowdy game of ball and stick. He laughed with her, and all the nervousness he had felt at their meeting disappeared.
When they were away from the market, and out onto the wide flats, she brought them to a sudden stop. “Well?” She asked.
“Well what?” He looked back, seeing Harm moving effortlessly in wide figures of eight. He felt her cold fingers touch his cheek, and she pulled him back towards him. She was so close he could smell the spiced wine on her breath.
“Well aren’t you going to kiss me?”
“Kiss?” His heart quickened; the churning in his stomach returned.
She pressed against him, their skates clashing together first, and then their chests met in the embrace. Lastly it was their lips, softly and sweetly…
He had never felt the touch of a girl before, but she seemed to know what she was doing. She parted his lips with her own, and they kissed—
“Oh that’s disgusting!” Harm called.
But it didn’t matter what his annoying little brother thought. He was lost in the moment, and wanted it to never end…
A while later, and the kiss did end. Cornelia squeezed his hands and stuck her tongue out at Harm. “I say we carry on down the canal…  I hear the ice is better down by the harbour.”
“We can’t go to the harbour,” Harm said, still skating around them in circles, “we have to go home for the vigil.”
“Oh come on,” Cornelia smiled, “it’s Christmas! What’s the worst that could happen?”
The worst? Well… their grandfather would beat him blue. Harm would get away with it though, as per usual…
“Well Bart?”
He looked at the beautiful girl before him, and couldn’t help but break out into a grin. “We’ll come to the harbour.”
“But—” Harm started.
“We are going – together. And I’ll buy you a sweet pastry on the way!”

***

“That was beautiful!” Molly sighed, “I’ve never skated on the ice before.” She had sneaked back to their fire just as Bart had started his tale.
“We were lucky,” Bart nodded in agreement. “It is a wonderful pastime, but these past few years I hear it hasn’t frozen as well as it did in my youth.”
Jacob smiled at the tale. He felt a pang of jealousy of his cousin’s childhood. Bart had known the love of a brother, and had grown up with their grandfather. He’d even been surrounded by servants in their city townhouse. Like Molly, he had never skated on the ice. He guessed they had one thing in common.
“What happened with Cornelia?”
“What happened? We met nearly every day… We kissed. We laughed. We cuddled… And then spring came, and the ice was gone.” Bart gave Molly a sad smile.
“Pah,” Roy spat, rolling the flaked fish into patties. “Sounds like a rich man’s folly.”
“On the contrary, in Haarlem it was everyone on the ice – from the humblest labourer to the richest of merchants, and beneath the fur and wool you couldn’t tell who was who. All drank together in the tents, and all ate together from the same fires. Not too dissimilar from what we have here…” Bart waved to the various fires of the buccaneers.
His cousin was right. Colour, religion, politics… none of it mattered to the pirates. If you could work well, shoot a musket, and swing a blade, you were welcome to share the plunder. He looked over at Molly. Even a whore was welcome… well, she was exceptionally welcome at times, and no doubt she’d find a paying bed for the night once she’d filled her belly with Roy’s cooking.
“How long until we eat?” She asked of the one-legged man.
“Done when it’s done Miss O’Failin.”
“In that case I’ll have a sup of that rum. Jacob?” She was smiling in what looked like an attempt to be nice, but he could still see her anger hidden beneath her Irish eyes.
He took a large swig and handed it over with a bow of his head. “So Molly, no doubt you have a festive tale for us?”
“Of Christmas?” She half-snatched the bottle, sitting a little closer to the spitting flames. “You all think Christmas is about feasting and giving and being together? Well you are all wrong.” She sipped from the bottle, and her eyes seemed to flash darkly. “When my mother died I grew up with nuns, and with the Holy Catholics you soon learn Christmas is about being pious, and the best way to be pious is to accept your beatings graciously… But one day, I didn’t…”

***

Thanks for reading the third part of a free online exclusive piratical tale written just for Christmas. I hope you've enjoyed it!

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This work was written primarily as a result of the fantastic Google+ group SaturdayScenes. Look for the work of new and exciting authors every weekend under that hashtag.

If gritty historical fiction is your thing, you could do far worse than look for my published nautical tales ROGUES' NESTGENTLEMAN OF FORTUNE, and SMUGGLER'S HILL...