“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments”
Catherine placed her briefcase in the nearest available chair and stared down at the bed’s lone occupant. “Oh, Vincent,” she sighed. “What have you done to yourself?”
Vincent sat up a bit stiffly. “I fell in the Great Hall.”
“Father sent me a message,” she replied, sitting next to him on the big bed, careful to shake the snow off her coat before she sat down. “What on earth happened?”
“I was hanging a tapestry, and Mouse chased Arthur under my ladder. Arthur climbed up the ladder onto my back, and---“
Catherine pressed one hand to her mouth to hide the smile at his description. The accident must have been worrying for Father to have sent for her, but the image of Arthur skittering up Vincent’s back, chattering as he went, refused to leave her mind. “Oh, I see.” She glanced at the thick white cast encasing his lower left leg. “Is your leg broken, then?”
He nodded. “Father says it could have been worse; I was on the top step of the ladder when I fell.”
She shuddered a bit, picturing it. “Are you in pain? Is there anything I can get for you?”
“I’m in some pain,” Vincent said, “but it’s bearable for now. I’m just sorry I won’t be able to go with you to Winterfest this year.”
“You won’t?” Catherine asked. “You have crutches, I see. Why couldn’t you go?”
“The only path to the Great Hall is through the Chamber of the Winds,” he replied, shifting on the bed and wincing slightly as the movement jarred his left leg. “It’s too dangerous a path to tread on crutches, and there’s no one here strong enough to help me get there. So I won’t be able to go.”
“You could be carried,” Catherine suggested, casting about for options, knowing how much he loved Winterfest.
“I’m not an invalid,” he replied. “Once was enough.”
She nodded, knowing he referred to his illness just a couple of months before, when he’d been carried out of a dark cavern far below, near death. Small wonder if he wanted no reminders of that particular experience. “Well, then,” Catherine said, “we’ll just stay in. I’ll come here and we’ll spend it together.”
“I don’t want you to miss it,” Vincent said.
“Vincent,” she replied firmly, “I won’t go without you. It wouldn’t be the same.”
“But the music, the dancing…”
She took his hand, feeling the strength of bone and tendon under the fur. “Vincent, do you want me to stay here with you? Don’t tell me what you think I should do. Tell me what you want.”
For a time, he didn’t meet her eyes, fighting, she thought, against the impulses that wanted her close by his side. Since his illness, they had become much closer, their relationship stronger, and Catherine could tell when there was an inner struggle between his desires and what he thought was best for her. At length, Vincent looked up. “Of course I want you here, but---“
“Then it’s settled,” Catherine said briskly. “We’ll have Winterfest here.”
Catherine gazed down at him. “Vincent, do I have to…convince you to agree?”
The stubborn, almost mulish, look in his eyes changed abruptly to a wry, speculative one. “I suppose I could use some more…persuasion.”
She grinned and leaned down to kiss him on that strange, beloved soft mouth. “Convinced yet?” Catherine murmured.
“Kiss me again,” he said, “and I just might be.”
* * *
“Ah, Catherine,” Father said, looking up as the young woman crossed into his chamber. “I see you’ve seen Vincent.”
“I did,” she said, sitting down. “He broke his leg pretty badly didn’t he?”
“Yes,” Father replied. “Fractured it in two places. Thank goodness his reflexes are as fast as they are and that he knows how to fall properly, or it might have been quite a bit worse. Mouse and that dratted raccoon… I kept telling him to keep Arthur out of the Great Hall, but every year he manages to get in, and every year the chaos he creates is worse than the year before.”
“Arthur or Mouse?” Catherine asked dryly.
Father chuckled. “Both, on occasion; there have certainly been times when I’ve wanted to ban both of them from the festivities.” He gazed at Catherine, seeing her as she had been only a few short months before, in the long nights of Vincent’s recovery. He had sent for her after Vincent’s fall, obeying the instinct that told him that nothing would speed Vincent’s healing like the nearness of his Catherine. “How was Vincent?”
“Resigned to missing the Winterfest festivities, I’m afraid,” she replied, pulling her coat closer against the omnipresent tunnel chill. “And I don’t see much of a way around it.”
“So what will you do?” he asked, pouring her a cup of hot tea. At her startled look, he chuckled. “Come now, Catherine, I've known you long enough to know that you'd not let this...impediment prevent Vincent from enjoying Winterfest.”
He was struck immediately by the mischief dancing in her green eyes. “I do have a plan…I was wondering, would you mind…”
* * *
The nights grew darker and colder and the Winterfest celebration inched closer. Knowing that Vincent’s labor was sorely missed in the preparations, Catherine descended Below each night and pitched in where she could, then spent the night in the guest chamber and returned Above early each morning. “Just call me Persephone,” she teased Vincent as she left, and watched as he hobbled back to his chamber where---she was told---Father had threatened to sit on him if he didn’t rest his leg and let it heal.
Vincent, for his part, was clearly unaware of her planning, and Catherine took great pains to keep it that way. He knew when she came Below---it was impossible for him not to know---and he knew she was working with the work crews in the Great Hall, and if a little planning and improvising took place then, who was to know any better?
Or so she thought.
* * *
“Catherine,” Vincent said two days before Winterfest, as they were eating dinner in his chamber, “something very strange is going on.”
She just managed to avoid choking on her soup. “What do you mean?” Catherine asked, keeping what she hoped was an innocent expression on her face.
“Mouse is on his best behavior.”
“Well, I should hope he would be, after causing you to fall off that ladder,” she replied. “What else?”
“I passed Samantha and Geoffrey, and they were talking, peaceably.”
Samantha and Geoffrey had been fighting like the proverbial cats and dogs shortly before Vincent’s accident---some tiff about a book borrowed and not returned. Catherine had conscripted them both in her plans and knew she’d have to remind them to be a little less obvious. “Well, maybe their quarrel is over.”
“Catherine,” Vincent said, “Father has been smiling at me.”
Catherine swallowed her tea before she choked on that too. “Doesn’t he usually…um…smile at you?”
“Not like that,” he replied. “It looks like he’s up to something.”
“I wouldn’t put it past him,” she agreed. “But maybe he’s just planning something for Winterfest?”
“But why smile at me like that?” Vincent asked, perplexed and, Catherine could tell, beginning to be just the tiniest bit grumpy because of it. He was not a compliant patient in the least, as she well remembered, and now his restless energy chafed at the crutches, the constant itching of his leg as it healed, his inability to even get up and pace. Lacking any other outlet, his agile mind had seized upon a collection of fairly random events and come up, somehow, with the right conclusions.
She reached across the table to take his hand. “Whatever it is, I’m sure it’s nothing dangerous. So relax.”
He gazed at her, looking not a bit mollified. “Catherine, our classes are on recess because of Winterfest. I can’t do anything because of my leg. I can do nothing but relax.”
“Well, how about not worrying, then?” she responded. “Whatever it is---if there is something going on---I’m sure you’ll find out soon enough.”
* * *
It was snowing Above the night of Winterfest. Vincent could tell by the smell of and ice and fresh winter breezes that filled the air as people began arriving for the celebration. He busied himself by getting ready; even if he could not join in the festival this year, he would be spending the evening with Catherine, and this Winterfest---their second together---rated some special efforts.
He wore an ivory linen shirt and a vest of green brocade that Marisol had given him in the tunnels’ gift exchange. Pulling on dark trousers, Vincent wondered what Catherine would be wearing. No sooner had he thought of her, though, than the warm light in their bond told him she’d arrived Below. Hastily, Vincent pulled on his boots and ran a wide-toothed comb through his hair.
The soft step at the entrance to his chamber alerted him to Catherine’s arrival. She was dressed in a soft cranberry colored dress, a dark shawl around her shoulders and hair in an elegant twist. “We certainly look festive tonight, don’t we?” she said, planting an exuberant kiss on his mouth.
As always, the sight of Catherine---the feel of her, in his arms---made his mouth go dry. “You look so lovely,” he managed.
She blushed just a little. “Thank you. So do you. I don’t think I’ve seen that vest before.”
“It was a gift,” he explained. “Please, won’t you sit down?”
“Well, you probably should---Father won’t like it if you stay standing on that leg.”
He tilted his head, studying her, and sat down on the bed. There was a certain mischievous air about her, something quite other than the usual excitement and anticipation around Winterfest.
“What are you planning?” Vincent asked finally.
Catherine’s green eyes sparkled as she came to sit next to him. “What makes you think I’m planning anything?”
Vincent reached out and touched her face gently, in a way he wouldn’t have dared even three months ago. She turned into his touch, and something about the trust, the love, in that simple gesture set his heart to racing. “Because there are people out in the corridor, my Catherine, when they should have left long ago for the Great Hall.”
She sighed. “I should have remembered how well you can hear.” Pressing a quick kiss to the inside of his palm, Catherine turned her head and let out a piercing whistle. “Okay, everyone,” she called. “You all can come in now.”
Geoffrey and Samantha, returned to their cheerful bickering, lead the procession into Vincent's chamber carrying two of Rebecca's Winterfest candles. They were followed by Father and Mary, Peter and Sebastian, Rebecca and Pascal, Daniel with his guitar and Aurora with her recorder, and bringing up the rear, Mouse and Jamie. Arthur, mercifully, was absent. “What is this?” Vincent asked, looking at the assembled gathering.
“You can't come to Winterfest,” Samantha said, handing him one of the candles she carried. “Catherine said we could bring it to you instead.”
“Mouse helped,” Mouse said. “Arthur's fault. Felt I should help.”
“No large crowds tonight,” Father said, “but Daniel and Aurora agreed to play some music, and I do believe William will bring you and Catherine some food for your Winterfest meal later on. And Samantha and Geoffrey have been working on some readings from Shakespeare---your favorites, I'm told.”
“You planned this?” Vincent asked, looking at Catherine.
Catherine nodded. “I couldn't bear the thought of you missing all of Winterfest because of a stupid accident. And when I mentioned the plan to Father, suddenly I had more help than I knew what to do with.”
“We have enough people here to do the opening ceremony,” Father said as Mouse and Jamie pushed various tables and chairs aside to form one long table. “And I think there's enough room for a little bit of dancing, if you're careful on that leg.”
“But what about the others who are coming? Surely they'll mind waiting?” Vincent asked.
Father coughed. “Well, they would...if we hadn't asked them to come down an hour later. They'll have their Winterfest too, but you'll have yours as well.”
Vincent looked at Catherine, at the family all around him, and his eyes misted. “I don't know what to say.”
Catherine touched his face and the love in her eyes nearly undid his tenuous composure. “Say you'll dance with me?”
Seeing Father's gimlet stare, at odds with the small smile on his face, Vincent fought down a grin of his own. “I'll dance with you. But just one waltz, right, Father?”
Father nodded. “Then it's settled,” Catherine said, looking back and forth between the two of them and smiling.
At her nod, Samantha, Geoffrey and Mouse extinguished all but one of the candles in the chamber, using the last one to light the large Winterfest candle that Father carried. When they were all seated around the collection of tables, Catherine took Vincent's hand and sat down as the last candle was blown out.
The feel of Catherine's hand in his, her eyes, large in the dimness, made him realize how foolish he'd been for so long, believing all the impediments, the obstacles to be impassable and impossible. If this much was possible---that they should still be together, healthy and whole after all they'd endured---what else might be? Contented, Vincent gathered Catherine close as Father began the ceremony.
“Our world began in darkness...”The End