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The Chronicles of Claudia Labelle -- Part XXI
By
ZMahnke

The Chronicles of Claudia Labelle -- Part XXI

Claudia and Jovan traverse the forests of Sweden.

Entry XXVIII –

I awoke early in the morning to pack my satchel with a few traveling supplies. A small wool blanket, rope from the Priory Stables (I only borrowed, I have returned it now), a short canteen of water, and of course, my father's dagger. I was not sure of what else to bring for the upcoming expedition into the countryside, but from what Mr. Vukan said it would seem that I am a companion for simple company. Which, I do not mind in the slightest.

I was expecting Sister Agnes to come and make her rounds through my living quarters, but it was a surprise that she never arrived. I have come to assume civic duties performed by the faculty of the Priory have been suspended in honor of the 12 days of leisure. I placed a small note on the desk to inform her that I will be gone for most of the day, if she were to come into my room and wonder where I am.

Mr. Vukan had asked me to meet him outside just after dawn at the main entrance to the Priory, by the reinforced iron doors. And there he was; leaning against the stone slabs of the Priory exterior, his arms crossed along his chest and his feet planted into the hardened snow. He carried a satchel as well, made from thick leather and embedded with a brass latch that read “Serbia Alone Delivered Herself” in Latin. What that means to the Serbian people, I do not know. Nor did I ask.

“Good morning, Claudia,” he said.

“Good morning,” I replied. “Beautiful day for a walk, is it not?”

“Indeed it is. I could not have asked God for a more perfect day. The blue sky, the shining sun, and of course, my comely comrade. I assume you are ready for this little expedition?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Good. Now, to the east we go.”

I was not entirely sure why he wanted to travel east. It was my guess that we were to travel north; with the abundance of trees and mountains, I was sure there was more to experience. Nevertheless, I was not going to protest his ambition.

We stomped through the snow covering the coniferous forest, the crunch of our feet against the frozen ground the only sound to be heard. The branches of every tree bearing the weight of the glimmering frost. Apparently we were not the only creatures marching through the winter woods, as there were rabbit and deer tracks scattered about, and to the best of my knowledge, a few wolf tracks. Thankfully, there was not cloud cover; for the sun's rays made the air only a mild, yet bearable cold.

“You seem to walk with a sense of direction,” I said, commenting on the way Mr. Vukan would not stop for even a moment. “Perhaps the Grand Prince knows where he is going?”

He laughed, looking over his shoulder to peek at me for a moment. “You are a quick learner, Claudia. Indeed, I do know where we are going.”

“Oh? And to where will we be arriving?”

“You will see when we get there, and when we arrive I will explain everything. I promise you, it will be worth this short journey.”

We traveled for over an hour, or possibly two hours, because the sun was nearly atop the sky by the time we reached the destination. Or as he claimed was the destination. I was stubborn at first, believing that we were in the middle of the woods with nothing special to be found. Mr. Vukan knelt in the snow, and pulled a blanket from his satchel. He then returned to his feet and carried it in his arms as he stepped up a small hill further eastward. “Come now, just over this rise and you will see what we have come for.”

I did not move until he was out of sight above the hill. When he was gone, I took a deep breath of cold air and stepped up the rise. My legs were already worn from the trip, and the incline in the earth only intensified the pain.

But his words rang true after all, for a little pain was far worth the journey. He had brought me to a lake, one that was unfrozen. The glistening clear water untouched by the creatures of nature. The trees along its shores drenched in thick layers of sparkling snow, mirrored in the blue of the calm body of water. In fact, I was the one frozen; paralyzed by the sun raining down upon the wide open space, the cool air gently brushing the hair next to my ears. I was no longer cold, as my skin and bones rooted to the snow beneath my feet. And yet, my very core was weightless, as though my soul had ascended from the shell that is the body, and floated in the air above me. It seemed, within that moment that lasted for no longer than a minute, there was only peace in the entire world. No war, no destruction, no death, no harm to humanity. Serenity had grasped the world.

“Claudia? Are you to join me down here?” Mr. Vukan asked.

I looked down and saw a slope that lead passed a couple of trees, to the bank of the lake itself. He was standing at the edge of the bank, his hands placed at his hips as he waited for me to step down the slope. I did, and followed him to a large tree that had collapsed, and was surrounded by thick brush. He dug into the icy dirt, kicking up dry leaves and twigs as he searched the mounds of snow piled against the decaying log.

“What are you looking for?” I asked.

“You will see.” He swiped at the snow once more, and his hand smacked against something hard within the snow, something that appeared artificial. A long smile grew along his face, and he spoke again, “Excellent.” He wiped away the remaining dirt and snow to reveal a small wooden chest with an iron lock along the front.

“What is in there?”

He pulled a key from his satchel and inserted it into the lock, twisting until a distinct click was heard. “This, my dear Claudia, is the definition of the word revelry.” He opened the chest, and to my surprise, there were bottles of unfrozen liquid inside. He picked up two, and handed one to me. “Drink,” he said. “It will not hurt . . . at least, not in small doses.”

I took a small sip from the cold bottle, and was hit with a bitter sensation at the very tip of my tongue, soon overtaking my mouth and causing me to cringe as I struggled to swallow the potent drink, but it was quickly overlapped by a sweet fruity taste. “What is this?” I asked.

“In my kingdom, this beverage is known as rakia. It is a signature of Serbian culture and pride. One of our more precious exports.”

I took another sip, and another. The fruity taste was soon masking the bitterness completely. “So, you had placed this chest out here in the middle of nowhere? Just to come have a drink?”

He had sat down on the log and took several long gulps of the rakia, his gazed fixed on the untapped water of the lake. “When I arrived at Saint Ansgar Priory, I ordered my guards to explore the surrounding forests. I never go anywhere without sending men to investigate the area first. They reported that a lake exists to the east of the Priory, this very lake. The Priory does not allow hard liquor on the grounds, and so, I ordered my men to hide my stock of rakia near the lake. They drew for me a picture of where the chest was hidden. Since then I have been waiting for the opportunity to come and collect my treasure, but I did not want to revel alone. So I invited you, my perfect traveling companion. And now, here we are.”

I sat down next to him on the log. “Seems like quite a bit of effort on your part to simply drink a beverage that is not allowed on Priory grounds.”

“When I have the resources to complete such tasks as the prince of an entire kingdom, why would I not utilize them? Surely, the Labelle Noble Family would not at all disagree with me.”

He was right. My family uses servants to complete almost all of the interior and exterior work of the chateau. From cooking the meals, to making the beds, to dusting every nook and cranny within the luxurious walls. And I myself am no stranger to demanding gratuitous tasks of those my father employs. “No, I cannot disagree with you. My family does the exact same thing.”

“That is what is so glorious about you and I, Claudia. We can move the world at the snap of a finger, with an almost infinity power; like gods and goddesses.

“There is no higher power than Our Father,” I said. “You know that, Mr. Vukan.”

He chuckled quietly, taking another gulp of the rakia. “Let a prince dream of godhood, would you?”

The wind picked up for a moment, causing short ripples in the body of water that dissipated within a second or two. My hair had brushed across my face as I took another sip of the sweet drink. I placed the glass bottle in the snow between my ankles, having felt my core warm up enough, and when I looked up I saw a small herd of deer on the shore across the lake. There were four or five of them; each taking a turn to drink from the calm water while the others stood guard. Their movements were quick, precise, and rigidly vigilant.

Mr. Vukan took another gulp of the rakia, and then said, “What is your family like? Do you have any brothers or sisters?”

“No, I am the only surviving child of Antoine and Madeleine Labelle. My mother, as loving and supportive as she is, has always been quite extravagant. Every week she hosts a soiree to entertain the other Noble Families of France. On the other hand, my father is far more strict, always caught up in the political aspects of life. He is the kind of person that is too busy for Church services, beautiful sights, or even his own family.”

“What do you mean by that?” Mr. Vukan asked. “Too busy for his own family?”

“I have been questioning my own life's path as of late, and my father is so focused on what he wants for me, that he is neglecting what I actually want out of this life.”

“What is it that you want?”

It was a knee-jerk reaction to say that I want to pursue studies of the preternatural. To explore the gift I was given at birth, and to master a craft that so little have the ability to explore. But I held my tongue, unable to speak the words that I so desperately wanted to. “Music,” I said at last, a fat lie that I prayed he would believe.

“Oh? I did not know you are a musician. What instrument do you play?”

“I sing,” I lied again. My heart sank into my stomach for a moment, within an instant regretting to have used Gala's great gift at my own expense. But I was not sure what to say when he asked me.

“Sing for me, then. I would be delighted to hear your voice.”

“No, I cannot. The air is far too cold for proper vocal work.”

He shrugged his shoulders, taking another gulp from the rakia. “One day, you will open up to me, Miss Claudia Labelle. . . . You said your father is involved in the political; one can then only assume he is involved with the crusade to the Holy Land?”

“Yes. He has sent many French warriors to conquer the land.”

“Some crusaders have traversed through Serbian territory, most of which were Germanic soldiers from the Holy Roman Empire. I have considered sending my own armies into the Holy Land, but I do not believe it would be the best idea to send forces due to my absence from the throne. Commanding a war can be quite difficult while I am nearly 1,500 miles away.”

“I do not agree with the war,” I said. “War is not the answer.”

“I disagree. War is necessary, for it is good to be violent at times; a truly just cause.”

“Why do you believe that?”

He sighed, and took another long gulp of the rakia to finish the bottle. “My people's submission to the Byzantine Empire is still burned into the minds of every Serbian. We were second class citizens; taxed into poverty, sold as property, our villages pillaged and burned to the ground, and our men forced to fight in wars created by the Byzantine's. This is why I study them. This is why I spend my time at Saint Ansgar Priory learning all that I can of them. One day, the Serbs will have their revenge, and the capitol city, Constantinople, will burn.”

“Just because your people have suffered long ago, does not mean others need to suffer now,” I said. “They had no part in it.”

“It is necessary.”

The way he spoke reminded me of Edda, the girl from the story Prior Anders had told me. She had witnessed the slaughter of innocence from the past, all the heinous acts of violence that had taken place due to men like Mr. Vukan. It made my gut sick. “I do not wish to speak of war any longer.”

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“Yes, I just do not want to discuss death anymore.”

We enjoyed the view of the lake for only a short time after our conversation. Mr. Vukan had carefully hid the chest of rakia in the same place where he found it, covering it with thick layers of snow, dirt and ice. The sun was beginning to fall from atop the sky, so we packed up our supplies and headed home.

The sun was just above the horizon by the time we arrived at the Priory, just before evening meal was to be served. I have returned to my living quarters to unpack my satchel and write this entry before I head to the Great Hall to eat.

Sidenote: The short letter I left for Sister Agnes is gone. She must have come to collect it.

 

Claudia Labelle

13th of December 1097

 

 

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Copyright © 2017 ― Zachary W Mahnke

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