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Waking was the hardest part.
It never occurred to Tommy to tell anyone that -- in that other world -- he could see. Instead, he learned to relive his dreams during the day, matching sounds with imaginary sights then wondering how close he came to the real thing.
During what he came to call his times of darkness, he would trace shapes and features with his fingers then picture them in his mind. His mother's face was thin, her nose small and sharp, and her fine straight hair hung soft as silk around her delicate shoulders. She smelled of soap, baby powder and a delightful fragrance she told him was lavender. She kept a bar of lavender soap in the linen closet, and to the end of his life, its faintly peppery scent would evoke an instant memory of her.
In his sleep, Tommy became a boy his own age named Etienne, but that was where the resemblance ended. While he wasn't sure of the century in which Etienne lived, it had to be several hundred years in the past. There was no such thing as a paved road, and people lived close to each other as well as the land. Whenever they went somewhere they walked or rode a donkey or a cart; and they smelled powerfully of wood smoke, cooking grease, cows and horses.
Etienne slept with his brothers and sisters in a loft beneath their primitive farmhouse's thatched roof. Their parents occupied a curtained alcove next to the main room, and their only bathroom was a privy a few yards from the house. With a dozen mouths to feed and a new baby every year, the family's very survival was a daily struggle, and there was seldom enough to eat.
Since he was the oldest, the responsibility for thefamily's cow and half-dozen chickens fell to Etienne, and on bitter winter nights, he would bring them inside to keep them warm.
As Tommy grew older, so did Etienne.
At the age of twelve, Etienne went to work in the local inn. In addition to financially helping out his struggling family, this meant they would have one less mouth to feed.
Although the newcomer was tired, dusty and plainly dressed, Etienne recognized him as quality. After getting him a clean cup, he served the obviously weary man a jug of wine from the innkeeper's private stock instead of the standard thinned-out vinegar. Ignoring the tired gristly pieces the cook had specifically set aside for less-favored guests, he cut him a decent slab of meat from the joint on the rotisserie then found some bread that was miraculously free of weevils.
"You are a soldier, non?" he asked, setting down the trencher.
Between ravenous bites, the guest nodded. He reached for the wine cup, gulped the contents then held it out for a refill. "Ah, that's better. It's been at least three days since my last meal. I rode straight here from Rouen."
"...is in the hands of the Anglais. I know. Why do you think I was riding so fast?"
"You were fleeing from there, then."
"As any sensible Frenchman would. That is a fine vintage you have there. I haven't tasted its like since I left the royal court."
Etienne could feel the angry innkeeper behind him breathing down his neck, knew his hand was raised to strike.
Before the man could open his mouth, the guest slammed a coin on the table, and they both recognized the glint of gold. "This boy has more sense than you, and he certainly deserves better than this pigsty. What's your name, son?"
Etienne rode away with the baron that very night and had stayed by his side ever since. His master moved his family to a better life on one of his many estates and thereafter teasingly called him "Poitu," after the district from which he came. The nickname stuck; and adorned in fine livery, Etienne rode happily in the baron's train from chateau to chateau, helping his chief steward Henriet arrange one extravagant entertainment after another. All his days were filled with music and laughter, and as for the nights....
Nothing in Tommy's life even came close.
Bees hummed in the warm afternoon, and seventeen-year-old Etienne could smell the faint scent of roses and honeysuckle as they passed. Just ahead, Monsieur le Baron rode his great black charger, Agramant. The other lords who normally rode with him had been in the north and were to meet them at the chateau. In the meantime, the baron was in earnest conversation with Henriet.
He heard a soft giggle behind him. Accompanied by a jingling of the tiny silver bells adorning her white palfrey's fringed harness, Barbette had caught up with his patiently plodding mare.
"Will you sit with me at tonight's feast?"
Etienne flushed. While the sultry-eyed Barbette had been seriously haunting his dreams of late, he still considered her Monsieur le Baron's property.
"Er, certainement, if that is what you truly wish, demoiselle."
"Of course, I wish it, you silly boy. Otherwise, I wouldn't have asked you."
He suspected the rest of her troupe was watching, and probably giggling over his likely response. "Are you not dancing?"
"Of course. But I also like to eat, or had you forgotten?"
"You have not heard, then. Madame la Baronne will be present tonight, with their daughter. It would not be a propos for me to sit with his lordship tonight."
Etienne's hope died stillborn. "Ah, I see."
"Non, you do not see. My heart is my own, and I give it wherever and to whomever I please. Tonight, mon cher, it is yours."
The baron turned in his saddle. "Poitu!"
Etienne nudged his mount forward. "He summons me. Till later, then."
Barbette touched her mouth with the tips of her fingers and blew him a kiss.
"A bientot," he replied, smiling.
When Tommy awoke he could still smell the blossoms, feel the horse's movements between his knees and see the sky's reflection in Barbette's sparkling eyes. As he had for years, he got out of bed to record the dream in his computer while it was still in fresh in his mind, all the while wondering if Etienne actually lived in some sort of parallel universe.
Or was he only imagining him?
Copyright © 2003 by Kate Saundby