A Relic Most Rare

by Rebecca Birch

Albrecht lifted the pouch fastened to his belt and felt for the small, hard object within. He couldn’t believe his luck—that he should possess a finger bone of the revered Saint Thomas á Becket. A shiver ran through him from crown to sole, despite the late afternoon heat. Such a holy relic would surely bring relief from the endless days of drought. No more withered vegetables in his mother’s garden. No more hogs and sows panting in their pen, too parched to bother with rising. The relic would be more than worth the coin he’d spent to get it, no matter that his father’s blind packhorse’s bags were nearly empty.

Albrecht tugged the animal’s lead rope, urging it down the dirt path toward Westhumble. Their feet kicked up clouds of dust that clung to Albrecht’s sweat. His linen tunic itched and he was tempted to do away with his hose, but he was a freeman and his father would reprimand him if he returned to the cottage with his legs bare like a villein. There were standards to uphold.

If it didn’t rain soon, though, Albrecht wasn’t certain the family would be able to uphold much of anything. He might not be the smartest lad, but even he understood that if the rye and barley didn’t grow, there wouldn’t be much to save, let alone to sell at the market cross in Guildford.

“Hurry up, you,” Albrecht said, giving the rope a sharp pull. “Let’s get this relic home to Father.”

The packhorse groaned and flicked its ears, but ambled ahead a little faster. Albrecht grinned. For once, he was sure he’d done something right.

***

Albrecht’s father, Geoffrey, reminded him of Sir Hadler’s warhorse—powerfully built, with broad shoulders, a barrel chest, and a thick, reddish-brown mane—and the similarities didn’t end there, Albrecht discovered, as he stared at Geoffrey’s flaring nostrils and wild eyes.

“A holy relic of Saint Thomas?” Geoffrey said, grasping the precious bone so hard, Albrecht feared he’d crush it. “And you gave him a shilling for it? The shilling meant to buy lampreys and salt haddock? What shall we eat then on the days of no meat? Nothing more than pottage and brown bread? Thirteen summers you’ve seen. You’re a sworn man of this tithing. When are you going to find even a pinch worth of sense?”

Albrecht saw the slap coming and closed his eyes. Geoffrey’s open palm struck his cheek with a wet smack and a burst of bright light behind his eyes, but Albrecht bit his tongue and didn’t cry out. It would only anger his father more if he couldn’t bear chastisement like a man.

A sharp breeze blew through the open door, bearing the smell of pigpen and hay. Albrecht opened his eyes and found his mother shaking her head, red patches on her face as if she were the one who’d been struck. She kept her face turned toward her mending, but glanced his way with a look of such profound disappointment, Albrecht felt his stomach turn end over end like the tumblers who came through Guildford during the harvest fair.

“He was just returning to Winchester from pilgrimage to Canterbury,” Albrecht whispered. “A miracle, he said, that he walked now on his own two feet, since until the moment he prayed at the site of Saint Thomas’ martyrdom and touched that very bone, his right leg was so palsied he needed a crutch even to stand. When I told him about our troubles, he said that since he’d already received his miracle, he was willing to part with the relic, so we could have ours.”

“God’s teeth, boy!” Geoffrey bellowed. “And you believed him? Just how did he come to possess this relic? Did you think to ask? Do you think the Archbishop simply lets any who wish it wander off with the saint’s bones?”

Geoffrey stalked to the door and looked back over his shoulder. “Out of all the children you bore, Eaglyne, this had to be the one who lived. Less sense than my sheep.”

Eaglyne flinched and pressed a pair of newly patched hose to her face to stifle a sob.

Geoffrey hesitated in the threshold. His gaze settled on his wife and the wild flush on his ruddy cheeks bled away to chalk pale, as it always did when Eaglyne inadvertently became the target of the barbs intended for his son. “I’m sorry, love. I shouldn’t have…”

Turning back to Albrecht, Geoffrey narrowed his eyes. “Here, boy. If you wanted this so badly, you keep it. Maybe when your belly is crying for something more than bare pottage it will remind you why you should try to think on occasion.”

Albrecht leapt forward to catch the bone his father tossed his direction. Despite not being quick of wit, he was quick of foot, and his hands were nimble. His fingers closed around the relic before it could fall to the rush-strewn floor.

When he looked up his father was gone, and Eaglyne turned pointedly away, humming tunelessly.

***

No matter what his father said, Albrecht couldn’t disregard the pilgrim’s words and the way his weathered face had brightened at the memory of that moment in the great cathedral when suddenly his limb was made strong. He’d leaned down so close that Albrecht could smell the anise and ale on his breath and whispered, “I swear by Saint Thomas, by the Blessed Virgin, and by all the stars in the firmament, this relic has the power to bring about miracles. All you need to do is pray hard enough. And one other little thing. Like Christ gave his blood to redeem us, you must be willing to offer your own blood for what you desire. Are you brave enough for that?”

Albrecht assured the pilgrim that of course he was brave enough. He was a freeman of Westhumble—bravery was his bloodright. With a father like Geoffrey, he wouldn’t dare to be a coward.

So that very night, Albrecht crept out of the cottage, past the snoring forms of his mother and father on their hay-stuffed mattress, into the light of a full moon and a sky full of stars. With his hood pulled up to hide his bright red hair, he snuck past the privy, the chicken coop full of softly clucking hens, and toward the stand of trees between the garden and the fields.

His cheek throbbed, but really, that was nothing new. He knew he was a disappointment and, though he tried to do the right thing, more often than not he ended up on the receiving end of his father’s frustration. Maybe if the drought broke it would help to dull the edges of Geoffrey’s ire and release some of the tension that kept him as taut as the string of a longbow.

Maybe Eaglyne would smile again.

Albrecht settled himself at the base of a beech tree, pulled the bone from his pouch, and unsheathed his belt knife. The surface of the bone was worn, pocked here and there with tiny holes. Had the pilgrim offered it blood? There in Canterbury Cathedral? Now that he thought about it, Albrecht had never heard of such a thing. Praying, yes. Touching the holy ground, yes. Bleeding on relics? Never.

Perhaps he really was as much of a fool as his father said. Wasting hard-earned coin on wishes and dreams. What kind of man would do such a thing?

A desperate man, he supposed. One who wanted something enough to be gullible.

Well, if he was going to be gullible, he supposed he should do it wholeheartedly.

Albrecht sucked in a breath, bit his lips shut and, before he could lose the bravery he’d professed to, jabbed his knife into the palm of his hand. The blade bit cleanly. Albrecht watched a dark line well up, gray in the moonlit shadows. It was a poor offering, this blood of his. Like as not, he was only adding a second folly atop the first.

In the distance, what little remained of the River Mole burbled a weary tune—hollow, like many bellies would be in the coming winter. A sharp, bitter taste bloomed on the back of his tongue. He swallowed. If folly had even a chance of making a difference, then so be it.

His mind formed a wordless prayer. If he tried to give it voice, it would only come out wrong. He prayed for relief from the drought. For respite for those who would suffer. For the miraculous hand of Saint Thomas to reach out and rain comfort and blessing on the village of Westhumble.

Albrecht closed his bleeding hand around the finger bone, letting his blood coat the relic in slick warmth. His eyes fell shut and his lips moved soundlessly. Every heartbeat throbbed through his palm, thudded in his ears, on and on like a minstrel’s tabor.

He lost himself in the hypnotic pulse, drifting on a carded wool cloud of fervent prayer, until a light exploded behind his lids, brighter than the sun. The crash that followed startled him so badly his head smashed back against the beech tree. Albrecht yelped and touched the knot already forming beneath his hair.

Something cold and wet splashed off the tip of his nose and Albrecht froze. Another followed, and another, each drop as musical and welcome as church bells tolling the hours, until rain sluiced down over the countryside.

A joyful shout erupted from Albrecht’s lips. He bolted to his feet and stumbled blindly through the downpour toward the sounds of startled chickens squawking and ruffling their feathers.

Albrecht found the cottage door, pulled it open, and ducked inside. His father’s snores, as loud as the miller’s stone, filled the bower. For a moment, Albrecht hesitated to wake him, but pushed the thought away. Geoffrey would want to see this.

“Mother! Father! A miracle! See what Saint Thomas’ holy finger has brought us!”

Barely visible in the darkness, his father rolled up onto an elbow. “Albrecht, what are you shouting ab—” Thunder crashed a second time, cutting off Geoffrey’s words.

A broad smile plastered itself to Albrecht’s face. “It’s real, you see? The relic.”

Geoffrey flopped back down onto the mattress. Something scurried from beneath and vanished out a tiny hole in the wattle and daub wall. “Storm’s been brewing for days, boy,” Geoffrey said in a low voice, pulling the blanket back up and tucking it around Eaglyne’s still drowsing form. “This is no miracle. Back to bed and shut the door or the rushes will molder.”

All the glee that had built up in Albrecht’s slight body ebbed away, leaving him weary and worn, and suddenly aware of the pain in his left hand.

“Yes, Father,” he said, and felt his way toward his own pallet, stopping to pick up a small handful of wool from one of his mother’s baskets. He clenched his hand around the soft clump to stem the flow of blood.

Lying in the darkness, listening to the splash of the rain on the thatch roof, breathing in the scent of damp earth and brightening mint, Albrecht scrunched up his nose. He knew what he had seen. There hadn’t been a cloud in the sky.

But Geoffrey’s voice rang in his ears—think. After a long while, Albrecht finally began to understand. Think, really meant, what would Geoffrey do? What would Geoffrey believe?

Albrecht knew the answer. The only thing left to do was convince himself. How long had he sat beneath the beech tree, eyes closed, lost in supplication? Long enough for a storm to form without him seeing it? It was possible. He’d had no feeling for the passage of time.

Sadly, Albrecht wiped the relic clean on his handful of wool, then slipped it back into his pouch, there to remain untouched, but not forgotten.

***

Three years passed. Years of, if not plenty, then at least enough. Streaks of silver now laced Geoffrey’s auburn hair and beard, though it remained as thick as ever, and while his energy and temper still ran hot, the broad shoulders had begun to stoop, the barrel chest to soften with a layer of fat.

Albrecht took on more of the work, growing into his lanky body, his arms and legs still thin, but strong with corded muscle and sinew. He always did his best now to think things through before jumping into action and he’d grown adept at knowing the answer to the unspoken question. Finally, after so many years of feeling like a failure, he’d managed to gain his father’s respect and win his trust, although he felt as if he was constantly battling back the impulsive dreamer he’d once been.

The harvest fair in Guildford had come to a close the day before, and Albrecht once again made his way homeward, leading the blind packhorse, laden with bags filled with square-headed nails, salted haddock, a new head for the scythe, and a small white sugar loaf wrapped in muslin. A flock of sparrows chirped and flitted among the rust and copper autumn leaves still clinging to the trees beside the path.

Albrecht enjoyed the autumn. He felt as if he belonged there, with his own flame-colored hair and the comfort of cool breezes to ease the days of hard toil. He scratched the packhorse behind the ears. “It’ll be good to be home,” he said. “Mother will be pleased with the sugar loaf. She’s always talking about wanting one.”

This time he’d made his illicit purchase with funds of his own. He had a knack with woodcarving and had sold a set of spoons with the crest of Guildford on the handles for eight pence. Eaglyne had not been well of late, pale and weary with aching, swollen joints. It would be worth the work to give her a little bit of pleasure.

The familiar smell of smoke rising from the chimneys of Westhumble hung in the air. Albrecht was almost home. He grinned at the thought of his mother’s surprise.

William, a young lad from the neighboring farm, barely eight summers old, burst around a corner, caught a glimpse of Albrecht, and gave an inarticulate cry. His green hood hung askew and one of his hose had slipped down to pool over a worn leather shoe.

Albrecht’s hand tightened in the packhorse’s mane. “By God’s breath, what’s the matter?”

The boy trotted toward him, waving his hand back down the trail. “Your mother…” he gasped. “Hurry. I’ll bring the horse.”

Albrecht’s insides went cold. He handed William the horse’s lead and raced down the path. His nimble feet deftly avoided ruts and roots and pungent animal droppings. His lungs clenched with effort, but he forced himself to keep running. They wouldn’t have sent William if the situation weren’t dire.

Geoffrey’s toft lay on the outskirts of the village, the cottage surrounded by Eaglyne’s garden and the outbuildings, the fields stretching westward. Albrecht had already brought in the crops, leaving the fields bare save for the short, sharp stubs left behind by the scythe. He cut through the remnants toward the open cottage door and raced through, sucking in air.

Geoffrey knelt beside the mattress, grasping one of Eaglyne’s hands and running his other through her hair. Sweat beaded on her ashen skin and Albrecht could hear her wheezing breath from where he stood.

“Mother?” He crossed the rushes and dropped down on the opposite side of the pallet.

Geoffrey slid his thumb over Eaglyne’s brow. “She can’t hear you. I sent for the priest. He said her humors are out of balance, that God’s punishing her for some sin and nothing but a miracle can save her.” His voice cracked like dry bark. “There’s never been a godlier woman, Albrecht. Never. Why would He take her from me?”

Albrecht could barely swallow past the lump lodged in his throat. He smoothed his hand over her damp brow. Eaglyne shivered, twitched, and went still.

Geoffrey bowed his head, hiding his tears. “I can’t do without her,” he whispered. “I can’t.”

Albrecht couldn’t take his eyes from his mother’s unmoving form. Her lashes, soft and curving against her pale cheeks. Her knuckles, swollen and bent, so different from when he’d been a child and she’d stroked his back to lull him to sleep.

“Do you still have it?”

Albrecht almost didn’t hear Geoffrey’s voice, it was so quiet. “What?”

“The relic. Saint Thomas’ finger bone.”

Albrecht glanced at his father’s bent head. “You said it wasn’t real.”

“I know what I said. I don’t care. Use it. Save her if you can.”

Albrecht didn’t hesitate. He pulled the worn relic out of his pouch, drew his knife, and sliced a line in his palm beside the scar he’d left three years ago. He felt his father’s gaze on him, but Geoffrey didn’t speak, just wrapped his hand around Albrecht’s. Together they prayed, listening to the silence where Eaglyne’s breath should have been.

After nearly three full paternosters, Eaglyne’s chest rose and her eyes fluttered open. “Geoffrey?” Her voice was as soft as a spring breeze. “Albrecht? Why are you crying?”

Geoffrey’s gaze caught Albrecht’s and held it. “This fool’s eyes have been opened. I’ve seen a miracle worked this day.” Turning away, he touched his lips to his wife’s brow. “The Lord bless you and keep you, my love.”

***

Two years later, Albrecht woke to young William pounding on the door and shouting that his parents were dying and please God someone help! Pulling a hood over his tunic and tying on his hose, Albrecht stumbled into the night, Geoffrey and Eaglyne just behind, his father carrying a lantern.

A foul stench hung inside William’s father’s cottage. Pained groans rose from the corner. Geoffrey drew nearer, lifting the lantern to give some illumination. Both Roger, the freeman, and his wife lay propped against the wall, a bucket filled with dark liquid between them. Black spots mottled the freeman’s face and both bore bruised egg-like swellings on their necks.

William huddled close against Albrecht’s side, trembling like a shrub in a strong breeze. “Are they going to die?”

Geoffrey backed away, the lantern drooping at the end of his arm. “Eaglyne, get out. Take William with you.” He covered his mouth and nose with a bent elbow. “It’s the pestilence the traders warned of. Don’t breathe the air, Albrecht. We have to board up the house.”

Eaglyne grabbed William by the long lirpipe on the back of his hood. “Come away, lad. You shouldn’t see this.”

A pitiful moan rose up from Roger, then he bent and vomited thick, dark blood into the bucket. Albrecht stood frozen, hardly able to understand what he was seeing. He’d heard the tales up from Canterbury and Bristol. Men and women cut down in days, the pestilence turning their fingers to blackened husks, fever that raged like a smith’s fire, and coughing blood as if it were bile.

They said God had forsaken those who were afflicted. Death would come quickly once the fever took hold or the buboes appeared, but not quickly enough for most. There was time for suffering before the release.

“Father, we can’t leave them like this.”

“We must, or we risk succumbing ourselves. You heard how quickly it spreads.”

The sound of William’s muffled tears rose from the door, where he clung to the frame, one foot inside the threshold, the other in the yard. Such a young lad to be left alone. A good lad. Steady and kind.

For so long now, Albrecht had done as Geoffrey bade. Thought and acted as he was told. But not this time. Not with the holy relic waiting in his pouch, and the slightest chance there was something he could do.

Albrecht straightened his shoulders. “If you must, then leave,” he said. “Take the others with you. I’m staying. If ever there was a time to beg for a miracle, this must be it.”

Geoffrey hesitated. Albrecht watched frustration, fear, and finally acceptance flash across his father’s face. Geoffrey closed his eyes and blew out a breath. “You’ve the right of it. I’ll pray with you.”

The pain of the knife in Albrecht’s palm felt distant, almost unreal. He knelt in the center of the room, his father beside him, Saint Thomas’ holy finger bone clasped to his chest. Through the long night they prayed and finally, as the sun crested the horizon, William’s father spoke. “The fever … it’s gone.” He reached for his wife’s hand. “Alys?”

Alys leaned against the wall, sweat trailing down her neck, soaking into her linen undertunic. “Yes,” she whispered. “I feel … cooler.”

William fell to his knees. “It’s a miracle,” he sobbed. “I’ll tell everyone I see that Albrecht of Westhumble works miracles.”

Albrecht creaked to his feet and helped Geoffrey to rise. “Not me,” he said. “Saint Thomas á Becket.”

***

The pestilence rampaged through the Surrey countryside, from the cities with their mass graves, to the towns and villages, touching folk of all station, from the lowliest villein to the highest lord. Not even the clergy escaped its grasp. Rumor spoke of monasteries where every last brother had succumbed. No place remained unscathed.

No place save Westhumble.

Others had fallen ill, but through Albrecht’s diligence and the power of Saint Thomas, none of the sickened had died. Word spread and soon a steady stream of men and women appeared in the village, begging for Albrecht’s intercession.

Pain and weariness dogged Albrecht’s every step. His palms and the soles of his feet had been sliced so many times the wounds never fully healed, slowly weeping blood and, now, a foul yellow ichor. He considered cutting himself in other places, but the pilgrim had been clear—like Christ gave his blood to redeem us—and had he not been nailed to the cross? How could Albrecht consider offering less, when so much rested on the power of the holy relic?

Word arrived that Guildford had fallen under the plague’s hold. Many were dying. Albrecht made up his mind to go there and do what he could.

Geoffrey tried to dissuade him. “Look what it’s doing to you,” he said, taking Albrecht’s trembling hands and holding them palms-up in his own. “You’ve given so much of yourself. What more is there to give?”

“As long as I draw breath, there is more. I cannot hoard this blessing. I will go to Guildford.”

“How will you walk so far? Look, you can hardly stand.”

“And yet, I will go.”

It was strange to be at once so weary and so strong. There was no choice. He stared back at his father—they were now of a height, though Albrecht would never have Geoffrey’s powerful build—and waited.

Geoffrey’s jaw twitched beneath his thick beard. “Then I go with you. You can ride the packhorse. Save your feet. We’ll get William to help your mother.”

***

Rain fell steadily, sometimes drizzle, other times a deluge, turning the already wet road into a puddled mire. The blind packhorse, now elderly and plodding, ambled carefully forward. Fields of grain lay flat and rotting, releasing a sickly sweet scent. There would be little to harvest come fall, even if there were men to do it. A flock of sheep grazed in the shelter of an oak tree, far from any paddock.

Albrecht’s hands and feet throbbed with both pain and heat. The warm, damp air bent his spine, and heavy lassitude made it difficult to keep his head raised, his eyes open. Despite the wet, his tongue felt thick and dry. He licked his lips, catching the rain that had pooled in his peach-fuzz moustache.

Wordlessly, Geoffrey handed him a skin of ale. Albrecht swallowed, grateful for the moisture, but his mother’s familiar brew tasted strange. He glanced down at his hands. Feathered red lines traced from his injured palms up into his forearms. A wave of dizziness washed over him and he grabbed for the horse’s mane.

“Almost there,” Geoffrey said. “I can smell the cesspit and the smoke.”

They came around a bend and Geoffrey pulled the horse to a halt. A handful of men labored with picks and spades just off the side of the road beside a cart laden with corpses.

One of the men, leaning on his spade and wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat to keep off the worst of the rain, glanced over at them, an empty look on his gray face. “Best pass by Guildford. There’s pestilence here.”

Geoffrey tugged at the leads and led the horse nearer. “That’s why we came. This is Albrecht of Westhumble.”

The man with the hat straightened fully. “The one they say works miracles?”

Geoffrey led the packhorse forward. It shied when it drew near to the cart with its stench of death. Albrecht struggled to focus. Everything kept moving in erratic patterns, but then his gaze landed on a familiar face among the corpses.

He pointed at the dead man. “I recognize him,” he said. “The pilgrim who sold me the holy relic. Was he returning to Canterbury again?”

One of the laborers snorted. The man in the hat shook his head. “That’s no pilgrim, though he played the part often enough, until the bailiff brought him before the borough court and fined him for his chicanery.”

“Chicanery?” Albrecht repeated, testing the word on his tongue.

“The man sold old pig bones, claiming they belonged to Saint Thomas á Becket. Said they cured his palsied leg in Canterbury. Old cur had never been past the River Wey, nor ever suffered a palsy, but there were always bumpkins enough who’d take him at his word.”

Albrecht reached for his belt pouch and the familiar shape held inside. A pig bone? How could that be possible? “But … I don’t…”

The dizziness he’d been fighting reverberated through his skull as if he’d put his head beneath a church bell. He groaned, swayed, and toppled, barely aware of his father’s arms around him before there was nothing but darkness.

***

The smell of dank rushes and old smoke filtered into Albrecht’s awareness. He tried to sit up, but his arms wouldn’t lift his weight. The pale light of a westering sun filtered through the watery sky and a pair of shutterless windows.

“Father?”

“I’m here, boy,” came Geoffrey’s voice from the shadows.

“Where are we?”

“After you fell, the men turned us away. Thought you’d been plague-struck. I found this place not far back up the road. Abandoned. Carried you in myself.”

Little chinks of light shone through holes in the thatch overhead and a steady drip plunked onto the rushes nearby. No fire. No firewood.

Albrecht’s head throbbed.

“I’m sorry, Father.”

Geoffrey strode into Albrecht’s line of sight and sat down beside him. “Sorry for what?”

“You were right, all those years ago.” Albrecht snorted and winced at the pain that blossomed in his skull. “Relic of Saint Thomas. What a fool I was.”

“Maybe,” Geoffrey said, “but if it wasn’t the bone, then you worked those miracles yourself. Eaglyne. Alys and Roger. All the afflicted souls in Westhumble. You saved them, Albrecht. By your blood and intercession.”

Geoffrey laid his broad hand on Albrecht’s shoulder. It felt heavier than it should, as if it were wrought of river rock. “Now it’s time to turn those prayers to yourself.”

“Prayers on a pig’s bone?”

“It’s what worked before. Does knowing the truth make what came before any less real?”

A sensation of vast emptiness settled in Albrecht’s chest. He didn’t know what to believe or what to feel. All he knew was the pain in his hands and feet that now radiated to his shoulders and thighs. The shivers that coursed down his spine and the damp rushes soaking through his tunic.

He contemplated reaching for his belt knife, for the false relic, but the effort felt too much, the hypocrisy too high. “I can’t.”

“You must. Look.” Geoffrey held up his own broad, callused hand. Blood smeared over his palm and trailed in a thick runnel down his arm, soaking into his sleeve. “I tried. Bled like you. Prayed like you. Nothing. It has to be you. Think, boy. If you die, how many more will follow after? How many that you could have saved?”

Think. How many years had it been since he’d heard that word from his father’s lips? Could he disappoint Geoffrey all over again now that he’d finally gained his respect?

Albrecht’s eyes drifted shut. He was so weary. He fumbled for his knife, but his fingers felt like deadwood. “I can’t do it alone.”

“You’re not alone.” The burr in his father’s voice wrapped the hollow deep inside Albrecht’s chest in warm wool. Geoffrey eased the knife from its sheath and gently touched the blade to Albrecht’s palm.

Albrecht clenched his teeth against a hiss of pain.

“Your earthly father is with you,” Geoffrey continued, placing the bone in Albrecht’s hand and curling his fingers around it, “and your Heavenly Father hears your prayers.”

Albrecht struggled to concentrate, pleas of intercession forming in his mind, but there was no reply. No wave of peace and healing. And why would there be? Why would God listen to the prayers of a fool, offered on the bone of a swine? “It’s no use,” he whispered, his lips dry and cracking. “What faith I had has flown.”

“Then use my faith.” His fingers tightened around Albrecht’s. “I believe, boy. Not in the bone. Not the dream of Saint Thomas. I believe in you. My son, who has made me so proud of the man he’s become.”

Albrecht’s breath slipped out on a sigh that bore away the weight of eighteen years of striving to hear those words from his father’s lips. For the first time, the answer to the question—What would Geoffrey believe?—was to have faith in himself.

Albrecht clutched the pig’s bone that had swept him onto this branch of life’s river, suddenly desperate to remain afloat. To live in the sunlight of Geoffrey’s love and acceptance.

A sweet chill slipped over his hands and feet. The scent of spearmint danced on the air, and in the distance a resonant bell pealed the hour of Vespers. Geoffrey’s voice hummed a litany of paternosters at the edge of Albrecht’s awareness. An insect crawled over Albrecht’s brow, its feet a tickle like the goosedown Eaglyne had teased his feet with as a child.

The pain faded until it was nothing more than a vague memory. Albrecht’s breath slowed … hitched … slipped to a shallow flutter. Was this what dying felt like?

But now his father’s hand felt more solid against his own, the calluses thick and rough, and new light streamed in from the east, golden as ripe wheat. His lungs drew in one full breath, then another, and another.

Albrecht’s eyes blinked open. He gently pulled his hand from his father’s grasp and held it up in front of himself. The red runnels were gone, along with the oozing ichor. Fever no longer clutched at his body. New strength surged through his limbs. He flexed his fingers.

Geoffrey smiled down at him, past the pallor of exhaustion and slumped shoulders. “I knew if you prayed for your life, you’d be granted it.”

Albrecht let his father help him up, hardly able to believe he was still among the living. “It wasn’t my prayers that saved me,” he said. “It was you.”

Geoffrey led him out into the brilliance of the new day, the world glimmering with dew and awash in the songs of sparrows. He wrapped his arm around Albrecht’s shoulders. “You, my boy, are a blessing greater than any relic. Come,” he said, walking toward a barn across the toft where the packhorse waited, “let me bring you home.”



Rebecca Birch is a science fiction and fantasy writer based in Seattle, Washington, where it really doesn’t rain all the time, but there is a coffee shop on almost every corner, and you can often find her writing in one. She’s a classically trained soprano, holds a deputy black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and enjoys spending time in the company of trees. In her other life, she works as a secretary at a Presbyterian church.

Her fiction has appeared in markets including Fireside Magazine, Cricket, and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. Her first short story collection, Life Out of Harmony and Other Tales of Wonder, was released in 2017.

You can find her online at wordsofbirch.com.

“A Relic Most Rare” by Rebecca Birch. Copyright © 2017 by Rebecca Birch. This story first appeared in Life Out of Harmony and Other Tales of Wonder.


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