Just after matins, December 15th, 1001
Kingdom of the Franks, Paris, Île de la Cité, a large family home
Gabrielle found herself descending the creaking, narrow, stair to the shop. The snores of her sisters, Elodie and Twila, faded with every step down the creaking stair. Though it was dark her feet easily found each step and before her still sleep muddled brain registered what she was doing she stood before the barred door to the street. Her hand was already grasping the smooth handle, shoulder muscles bunching, preparing to lift the heavy, iron reinforced, oak bar. Her eyes blinked, staring at her hand holding the bar-handle. She stopped, a tight feeling at the back of her skull.
Something had awoken her. Something outside? How had she gotten here without waking already?
The young woman stared at her hand resting upon the bar handle which held the main door closed. Papa used this heavy bar for a reason. It was there to keep people out of the shop at night. There were too many poor folk in this city who might be tempted to enter and steal the valuable ores, refined metals, and jewelry inside, if it were not there. What if there was a brigand or two standing outside seeking entry? What if it were the sounds of their approach that had awakened her? They would be all too delighted to have the door opened for them. Shaking her head to clear the remnants of sleep, she took control of her own body, and forced herself to stillness.
The soft whisper of her own shuddering breath was the only sound Gabrielle heard as she listened for any indication of what might have woken her up. Desperately trying to detect sound outside of herself she leaned against the door, ears straining, only to be drowned out by the strangely staccato rhythm of her own heartbeat and the roar of her breath. Her entire body trembled and her chest shook with increasingly ragged gasps. After a few moments there came a light metallic chiming as the bar rattled in its seat until, finally, she gritted her teeth and forced her quivering hands to stillness. Cheeks puffed out and lips blew open as she released first one, and then another, long breath.
Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed. There was no fire alight yet she could see fairly well in what should be almost complete darkness. Her eyes scanned back and forth, trying to find the source of whatever light was helping her see, until she noticed a greenish-blue glow emanating from under the doorway.
The moon was only days from new and the sky had been filled with cold winter clouds when she’d gone to bed, with no wind or any indication conditions would change. It should be pitch black outside. There shouldn’t even be starlight. Yet the longer she stood there the brighter the light seemed to be.
The pounding of her heart faltered, and a chill raced across her skin, when a fine mist began rising from the floor. Her lips thinned to a tight line, trying to hold back the contents of her twirling stomach. Despite her rising fear, she felt a deep curiosity, almost a need, to see what was happening outside.
Two voices inside her head argued against one another. The cautious one said it was madness to open that door with no one else to know what she was doing. It was the other, curious voice, that appealed to her. It counseled against the cowardice of timidity.
The desire to know filled Gabrielle. She needed to see what was going on. What was making that light? Why was it so quiet? The timid voice inside her urged to at least go and wake Papa before opening the door. But if she went upstairs to Papa, he would only see a silly girl asking for him to open the door for her in the middle of the night for no apparent reason. It would be embarrassing. Curiosity finally overrode her caution. With a trembling hand she lifted the bar. Silent, on its well-oiled hinge, the heavy iron bar rotated into its unlocked position. Taking a deep breath, Gabrielle pulled open the door.
“Blessed Virgin!” she gasped, hand leaping to her own throat, momentarily stunned by what she saw. Tingles of fright prickled her skin, causing the fine hair on her arms to raise up on the tips of goose-bumps to weave into the fabric of her woolen night dress. Her fingers found the silver crucifix she wore around her neck, instinctively grasping it. “Oh, Blessed Virgin.”
Again, Gabrielle felt the influence of two different voices arguing inside her head. The child, curious with wonder, told her to step further outside, to explore what she saw. The adult voice counseled against such foolishness. In fact, it screamed at her to slam the door and run, to hide somewhere deep inside the house. Instead, she stood stock still, feet rooted to the ground, paralyzed with indecision and awe. Slowly she looked back and forth, but it was the same everywhere she looked.
Outside, the world was cloaked in a blanket of mist. Growing up a stone’s throw from la Seine, she had experienced plenty of fog in her life. Summer nights gone cold sometimes meant thick mists choking the streets of the Île de la Cité but, It being Winter, this was the season for fog. She should not be surprised to see it now, but tonight’s was different from any she had ever seen. Within the general gloom, were thick, rope-like, tendrils of fog, somehow separate from the greater mass, writhing in a confusing disarray.
Most unsettling, of all, were the lights. Along the squirming ropes of haze floated the source of the illumination that had drawn her outside in the first place. Countless greenish-blue glowing orbs meandered along the lengths of thick brume as if they were ants raiding the pantry. Each individual orb grew brighter, and then dimmer, with every few heartbeats creating a visual cacophony of pulsing illumination.
The combination made for a dizzying display, causing her to reach back for the solidity of the doorframe, and brought visibility to near nothing. Even in the worst of times past she could look down the street to the west and see the church tower. Now she could barely see the building two doors down.
Her other, trembling, hand rose up to cover her open mouth touching the cross to her lips. Gabrielle’s back was tight, her body rigid. Breath came in wheezing gasps, hot breath collecting on her palms to give a cold, clammy, sensation. There was a tingling at the back of her tongue, and an uneasy feeling in her stomach. Without willing it her fingers curled into claws. She pulled in a lungful of air, chest straining against the dark wool of her dress, ready to scream. Only at the last moment did she stop herself from letting out a full-throated wail. If she gave in to her fear she might never stop. Quaking with the effort, Gabrielle let her breath go in halting gasps. Her eyes scanned back and forth through the mist, tracking individual lights until they became lost in the chaotic knots.
Knots. In that moment the chaos of ropy tendrils coalesced in her mind as something she could understand. Not long after Papa began planning Martin’s trip to England she had asked Mama to acquire a few examples of English jewelry for her to work from as inspiration. In her observations of Martin and Papa selling pieces she’d noted that people liked things they were familiar with. Perhaps if she could copy English techniques she might make something more attractive to them. The ropy tendrils around her were much like the interlacing knotwork she had begun integrating into her work ever since. Some of the new pieces had already sold to lords of the King’s court.
Though totally surrounded by the knotwork fog and the lights, none were any closer than a couple yards. She reached out and took a step, trying to touch one, only to see the rope of mist smoothly shift away from her, very obviously avoiding her touch. She snatched back her hand and retreated into the doorway. A cold shiver slid down her spine when the lights immediately followed her movement, chasing her back towards her home, yet keeping the same distance. The desire to scream rose up again.
Papa! Mama! She had to wake them!
Gabrielle’s mouth snapped shut. A strangled whimper escaped her lips and she finally turned to scamper back into the house, slamming the door, and letting the bar hammer down behind. She bounded across the shop floor and took the first two steps on the stairwell in one leap. The young woman was gathering her breath to call out, when she heard Papa’s gruff voice from above.
“Who is there?” He said. She heard the scrape of his heavy club that he kept by the door of his bedroom.
“Just me, Papa,” she replied quickly. Her father was strong and she had no desire to find out how hard he could hit with that thing first hand. “Something is happening outside. I’m scared.”
“What do you mean something is happening?” His wide frame eased through the bedroom door and descended the stair as he spoke. “How do you know what’s going on outside? What are you doing awake in the middle of the night?” He stopped for a moment at her hesitation. “You didn’t open the door did you?” A heavy sigh accented by a rumble of exasperation emanated from his chest, before he continued down the stairs, the wood groaning under his hefty frame. “By God, Gabrielle Madelaine, I didn’t think you would be one I had to tell why that bar is in place.”
She fidgeted, unable to answer his questions, sure that he’d already seen guilt written plainly on her face, even in the darkness. Papa set the cudgel upon his shoulder and gently pushed her aside, stepping between her and the door. Gabrielle was too distraught, too fearful of what she’d seen, to protest. And yet her father’s mere presence calmed her fears, allowing her to breath more evenly. He visibly relaxed at the sight of the door shut and barred. A gentle squeeze from his meaty hand upon her shoulder gave further reassurance. Papa would know what it was. He would know what to do.
“There are lights Papa,” she said after taking a breath. “And heavier fog than I’ve ever seen. Lights floating in the fog.”
“Nonsense,” he snapped. “It’s been too cold for heavy fog.”
Even as he spoke she could see his eyes flicking back and forth, his brows furrowed in thought. Papa stepped up before the door and gave her a look of chagrin as he clapped his hand over a knob. He shoved it to the side, opening an iron shuttered portal to the outside.
Gabrielle blushed with mild shame. She had forgotten the portal was there, and that there had been no need to open the door in the middle of the night.
The light emanating through the slot illuminated his neck and chin, drawing his eye. Papa frowned more deeply. He bent his neck a bit to look, and gasped, his hand reaching up to grip the rim of the portal, standing completely still for a short while, head twitching side to side, before stepping away.
“What in God’s good name is all of that out there?” He gasped.
His face had gone slack, jaw dropped open, a finger pointing accusingly out the portal. Gabrielle’s fear instantly returned greater than before. Her unflappable Papa was scared too. If he didn’t know what it was, or what it meant, who would?
“What is going on down there, Abram?” Her mother demanded from upstairs. “Can’t whatever it is wait until morning?”
“What do we tell your mother?” Papa rasped.
“I don’t know!” Gabrielle hissed, foot stamping on the floor, fist clenched at her sides. “You’re supposed to know what to do!”
Papa cleared his throat, hand rubbing the back of his neck.
“I’m not sure Elenor,” Papa replied with a low voice, setting his club against the door. “I… don’t know how to describe it.”
“What…? Don’t…? Augh!”
Steady footsteps approached down the staircase. Gabrielle exchanged glances with her father, knowing that the unease painted on his face was reflected in hers. When Elenor Lefevre reached the bottom Gabrielle could see plainly what she‘d already guessed.
Mama was irritated. Her pretty features were creased with frowns. Golden red hair, normally very well brushed and arranged, stood out in all directions. She stalked across the floor toward them. Her glittering green eyes drilled into them both for a few moments, but then lost focus and drifted past.
Papa stepped aside, and Gabrielle did the same after a brief hesitation. Being the tallest member of the family present, Mama had to bend at the waist to glare through the slot in the door. Gabrielle watched, and waited, to see what the formidable matron of the family would say. The muscles of Mama’s jaws bunched, her lips gone pale in a tight line and nostrils flaring.
“What?” Mama gritted out, stepping back and pointing. ”What is it?”
“I don’t know, my dearest,” Abram said stepping in and enfolding his tall, lithe, wife in his burly arms. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen or heard of anything like this before.”
Gabrielle timidly stepped up beside them. She desperately wanted to ask her father to include her in his comforting embrace. Her desire to be treated as an adult, now that she had seen her fifteenth winter, gave her pause. She should be able to stand on her own. Yet her feet moved of their own accord. Another hesitant step took her as close to them as she thought she could get away with. She gazed out through the slot. Being so intent on focusing her view out the portal, and not looking as though she were seeking comfort from them, caused the girl to miss her parent’s knowing look between themselves.
Abram and Elenor’s worried expressions softened, and they opened their arms, pulling Gabrielle into their embrace. The family stood together finding comfort in each other and for a few moments ignoring the outside world.
It was the muffled sound of lowing cattle from out of the fog that brought them back to awareness. Gabrielle gazed out the portal trying to find the source of the sound, but it was still so far away.
“Oh, it’s you sir,” Geoffrey’s voice penetrated the darkness of the shop. “What are you all doing down here? And what was that? Some damned fool let their cow loose on the street at night?”
The dark-haired warrior was in his woolen sleeping tunic, securing his sword belt as he emerged from the room that he shared with Papa’s other guards. Even as he spoke the noises of the cow outside was joined by an odd, rhythmic thump. Geoffrey stopped, staring at the strange light illuminating the room through the portal. The second noise drew Gabrielle’s attention back to the portal and she screamed as the thumping sound grew more rapid and loud and close, accompanied by vibrations that she could feel through the soles of her feet.
The door reverberated with a heavy impact, timber frames squealing in protest, and a long shiny black horn punched through the portal.