Chapter 2 of The Holy Lance, a fantasy thriller

Chapter 2 leaps forward about 650 years from chapter 1 to chronicle the birth of the illegitimate child of the Tsarevich Alexei Romanov, the first son of Peter the Great. This child has been lost to history, as they say, so I can take a few liberties here, which I do. Comments again are welcome.

CHAPTER 2

The snowfall is heavy. Winter will, by the calendar, end soon, but on the rutted and frozen dirt road south of Riga, Latvia, there are no signs of spring. A small roadside encampment is lighted by lanterns hanging on posts driven into the frozen earth by the Russian soldiers charged with guiding and guarding a trio of travelers: two nurses and woman more than eight months into a difficult pregnancy.

A rectangular canvas tent, no more than two by three meters, and less than two meters high, is all that shelters the laboring woman from the elements. Gusts of wind buffet the frail shelter. A small fire burns in one corner of the tent, but much of the meager heat it produces escapes through a flap opened to keep the tent’s interior from filling with smoke. A pot of water hangs on an iron frame above the fire. The only other light in the tent is provided by a single lantern hanging from the tent’s wooden frame.

Three horses hitched to the back end of a snow-covered coach stand patiently in the cold. Thick woolen blankets cover them. Their nostrils emit thick columns of steam as they exhale. A soldier brushes away the snow that quickly accumulates on the blankets. The muffled sounds of winter silence are suddenly overwhelmed by the desperate yell of a woman about to give birth.

The woman is Afrosina Federova, a serf of Finnish descent who was given as a present to Alexei Romanov. The child she is about to bear is Alexei Romanov’s son, and thus the grandson of Peter the Great.

A captain in the Russian cavalry canters up to the encampment. Following closely behind is a wet nurse, also on horseback. He dismounts, ties his horse up next to the other horses, and heads for the tent’s entrance leaving his companion behind.

The captain nearly fills what little remaining space the tent’s interior has to offer. Afrosina lies on a cot flanked by two women, a midwife and her apprentice. At the foot of the cot two soldiers immediately come to attention.

Afrosina, her face gaunt and pale, sweats heavily under the pile of bedding protecting her against the cold. She suddenly bolts upright, groaning and pushing through a severe contraction. The midwife looks up at the captain.

“You! Another soldier? Get out! Can’t you see this is no place for men? Get out!”

The captain waits to respond until another exhausted groan from Afrosina expires.

“They have their orders.”

“As do I. Wait outside. What is it you are guarding? Idiots! You can see she’s no danger, and she surely is not going to flee, not in her condition.”

“How much longer?” the captain demands.

“Any moment now. Please, why can’t you wait outside?”

“Did you search her for weapons?” he asks the soldiers.

“Yes, sir,” they respond simultaneously.

“God in heaven, what do you take me for?” the midwife exclaims.

“I know nothing of you. But I do know the child must live. Your life depends on it.”

The cavalry officer nods to the soldiers to indicate they are to follow him out of the tent. As they are leaving, Afrosina lets loose a prolonged groan.

“The Finnish whore groans on her back. Just another day on the job,” the captain cracks contemptuously.

The soldiers’ brief, mandatory chuckle of underlings is suddenly interrupted by the sound of a slap followed by a newborn’s wail from inside the tent. The three men stare at each other. The captain, after a frozen moment, bolts back into the tent.

Afrosina, her hair matted on her forehead in a sweaty mess, holds a baby wrapped in wool and cotton swaddling in her arms as she lies on the cot. The midwife and her apprentice kneel on either side of the cot, their sleeves rolled up, one of them wiping her hands and forearms clean on a hot towel. As she cleans, she addresses Afrosina with a matronly affection.

“It’s a boy, ma’am. A healthy baby boy. It’s a miracle in these conditions.”

“An heir,” Afrosina weakly claims as she stares at the infant held close to her breast.

“Well, yes, ma’am. An heir.”

Afrosina holds the infant so she is looking directly into his squinting face.

“A son of the first son of Peter the Great, the Tsar of all the Russias. May God help you!”

“Allow me, ma’am,” the midwife offers as she stands.

She takes the swaddled infant from Afrosina who weakly resists. The midwife walks briskly out of the tent with the infant cradled in her arms.

“Where are you going? Come back! Bring back my son!” Nearly dead from the exhaustion of travel and childbirth, Afrosina struggles to get up from the cot.

The midwife pulls an edge of the swaddling loose to cover the infants face against the snow and wind. The two soldiers stand to the side of the tent’s entrance, and beyond them are the captain and the woman on horseback he arrived with moments earlier. The nurse approaches the captain.

“A son,” she informs him.

The captain waves her off, pointing to the wet nurse. The midwife hands the infant up to the wet nurse who takes the child with great care, covers him entirely with a blanket that was draped on her shoulders, and, certain that the infant is as secure as possible under the conditions, nods to the captain.

The captain grabs the reins of the woman’s horse and begins to mount his own horse. Before he is in the saddle, Afrosina staggers barefoot out of the tent, barely able to stand, clutching the flap of the tent for support, a cotton nightgown the only garment protecting her from the elements.

“My child! My son! Where are you going? You have no right! He’s the Tsarevich’s son. You have no right!” she cries.

The midwife comes out of the tent and Afrosina faints in her arms. She addresses one of the soldiers.

“Help me get her back in the bed. Come on.”

The soldier looks to the captain for approval. He nods at the soldier as he settles into his saddle. The nurse and the soldier carry Afrosina back to the cot, out of the harsh winter night.

The captain reaches under his buttoned overcoat and pulls out two small envelopes each with a wax seal on it.

“She said a son?” he asks the wet nurse.

“A son,” she affirms.

The captain chooses one of the envelopes.

“Deliver this message to the palace, to the Tsar,” he commands as he hands the envelope to the other soldier.

The soldier examines it briefly before asking, “What about his son’s mistress? What’s to become of her?”

“Deliver her as well.”

The captain and the wet nurse holding the infant who is less than an hour old, the infant who could one day ascend to the throne of the Russian Empire, the infant Peter the Great has vowed will never see the light of day, slowly ride off into the snowy Baltic night.