Inspired by Led Zeppelin's "No Quarter"
“Is daddy going to say goodnight?” My three-year old waits for my answer as I stroke his cheek with my hand. I can’t let him see me crying.
“Not tonight, son.” I hear my voice tremble as I take in his expression. I try to memorize every part of this moment. His soft face and innocent eyes fill my heart with pain and joy. I pull him in for a hug and hold him tight. I don’t want him to worry. I hope he doesn’t notice me lingering, but mostly, I hope the embrace is not our last.
I pull the quilt I’d made last winter up to his neck and kiss his forehead. No amount of blankets could keep tonight's cold at bay, but I will try to make him comfortable. Sleep is the safest place for him. I take the only blanket I’d left for myself from the chest at the foot of our bed and say a final goodnight to William.
The wind whistles through the empty fireplace as I step into the family room. I wrap myself in the blanket and turn my chair to face the door. There was no point in trying to sleep tonight with death so quickly approaching.
I watch the exit carefully imagining how the night should have gone. The cold stew hanging above the wet logs would have been consumed hours ago when it was hot and steamy. It was lucky I’d found some left over bread or William might have gone to bed hungry. I could imagine my husband’s usual complements had he tasted the dinner I prepared, and picture the smile he reserves just for when his flattery makes my cheeks turn red. William would have been asleep by now after coming out of his room several times for one last goodnight. At this hour, I should be sitting with Joseph next to the fire trying to convince him to stay awake a little longer. I should be holding his thick, rough hand.
I bury my face in the blanket as the tears begin to fall. I can’t stand the thought that he may not return. My chest aches as I muffle my sobs. It is a selfish thing to wish for us all to die together. The thought jolts me back to the present. I lift my head and wipe my nose. I cannot afford to keep crying. No sound is safe tonight. I hear howling and narrow my eyes. No amount of tears will return to me what has been stolen.
I walk to the fire and remove the ladle from the stew before returning to my chair. I harden my face remembering what tonight actually brought. Hours ago, Thomas Hughes was knocking frantically at our door. Joseph rushed to answer it before it disturbed William’s nap. “What on earth is the matter?”
The boy answered quickly, “Vikings.” He rushed to the next door.
The word hung in the air as I struggled to make sense of the news. Joseph scooped a bucket of snow from the yard and doused the fire. My head was spinning. Joseph held my shoulders firmly in his hands to keep my knees from buckling. “You mustn’t draw attention while I’m gone.” His voice was steady.
“We must gather the men from the surrounding villages.” He pulled on his boots. “If our message does not reach them…” I put my hands over my mouth. I’d heard the stories. Vikings had no soul and they left none alive. He must have seen that I was about to fall. He wrapped his arms around me like a steel cage before stepping out the door. “Give my love to William.” That was the last I saw of him.
I tighten the blanket around my shoulders and hold the ladle to my chest. His love I would give; and, if the time came, I’ll pay my life to avenge our son.
The cold is getting harder to ignore. Even with a blanket, my bones are aching. I wonder how far the men will get before winter claims their lives. I close my eyes and pray for Joseph’s safety. The words feel like a weak grasp at hope, but somehow it brings me closer to him. I can almost see his journey through the darkness. His chest aches with mine at the pressing need for success. He knows we will die without him and this keeps him moving forward.
I imagine what he would say if he were with me. “Love never fails.” The voice is so real that I open my eyes expecting to see him, but it was just a memory. All the strength drains from my body realizing I may never actually hear him again. I let the ladle slip from my hand and crash to the floor. I doubt the phrase is true. Thousands have died by the same dogs that hunt us now, was there no love among them? How many wives have sat as I do now, waiting for the door to reveal their murderer and the murderer of their children?
Footsteps startle me, but I recognize their pattern. “Sweetheart, what are you doing up?” I pull William and his thick blanket into my arms.
“I’m cold, mommy.” I wrap as much warmth around him as I can manage. “Where’s daddy?”
I swallow hard. “He’s marching.” Even as the words escape my lips, they feel empty. A tear rolls down my cheek and drops onto my shoulder. I know in my heart Joseph is gone. A few more howls ring through our window. They’re closer now. I pull my boy to my chest and cling to him. My mind races for a safe place to keep him, but I can think of none. “Try to get some rest.” I rock gently with him as I watch the door. I know what is coming, but what can be done?
I let my head rest against William’s as I close my eyes. My body is too cold and tired to keep being afraid. I take several deep breaths and feel oddly calm as I drift away. Maybe the cold will claim us before the devils come. Sleep is the safest place for us.