“I can’t believe we’re doing this. Sister, he ain’t even gonna talk to me!”
“Erin, please, calm yourself. I assure you, Lord Pellinore knows we’re coming. He’s only too happy to speak to us.” Sister Margery patted Erin’s shoulder as they mounted the steps of the drawbridge of the Gwynedd keep. “He’s a good lord, you’ll see.”
Erin drew her cloak around her and shivered. “I hope ye’re right, Sister.”
That, Sister Margery thought as she sent the other woman a reassuring smile, makes two of us.
But not a word of her doubts did she voice, instead ushering Erin along the drawbridge. Sister Margery was the one to knock, to state their business to the door porter and to shoo Erin inside before she could bolt. The porter first offered to take Erin’s cloak, which she refused to give up. If she was wearing underneath it what she had worn the day they met, Sister Margery could well understand why. Then the porter went off to announce their arrival to — someone, Sister Margery neither knew nor, to be honest, particularly cared whom — and Sister Margery focused her attention on trying to ignore the clack-clack-clack of Erin’s teeth chattering.
“It’ll be all right,” Sister Margery said. “You’ll see.”
Erin tried to smile, but didn’t get very far with it.
The door porter came back with another servant, a superior-looking servant, who in turn led them down a long, narrow corridor to what Sister Margery guessed was Lord Pellinore’s study. The servant knocked on the door once and poked his head inside. “Sister Margery and … a Mistress Shepherd to see you, my lord.”
“They’re expected. Send them in.”
The servant turned to them and bowed. “His Lordship will see you now.”
Sister Margery shooed Erin inside and followed. The servant withdrew, and the two women stood alone in the presence of Lord Pellinore.
“Sister Margery — Mistress Shepherd — welcome. Please, sit.” He gestured to the chairs before his desk. “Might I ask–er, Mistress Shepherd, did no one offer to take your cloak?”
“They did!” Erin squeaked. “But I — er — get cold easily. Sir. My lord!”
Lord Pellinore’s eyebrows went up, but his smile remained pleasant. “I see. Well, however you are most comfortable.” He glanced at Sister Margery. “I do hope this is not some sort of belated disciplinary call?” he joked. “Neither Delyth nor Dilys have been in your class for almost a year now — and Aglovale for quite a bit longer than that!”
Erin looked confused, but Sister Margery laughed. “I assure you, my lord, while I will not go so far to say that your girls were angels all the time — no children are — they were both, on the whole, a delight to have in class. No, I am not hear about them.”
“I notice you say nothing about my boy.”
“Ah, well, boys — as the old saying goes — will be boys.” Sister Margery chuckled. “But Aglovale was always decently-enough behaved — at least once he and Prince Kay were no longer in the same class.”
“And then they proceeded to — er — make Mother Julian’s life a living nightmare. She must be thanking her lucky stars that the Prince leaves for Camford in a few weeks.”
“I am sure she is.”
“Indeed. However — pleasant as this discussion is — I doubt you came here for idle chit-chat. So. How can I help you, Sister — Mistress Shepherd?”
Erin’s eyes went wide and Sister Margery knew she would have to start the conversation. “Actually, it was Erin — Mistress Shepherd — who truly wished to speak to you.” Sister Margery sent Erin an encouraging smile. “Erin, why don’t you tell Lord Pellinore exactly how you need his help?”
“M-m-me?” Erin squeaked. “I — I –” She glanced at Lord Pellinore. “I’m a whore,” she finally blurted out.
“I’m very happily married!” Lord Pellinore answered, pushing back on his chair and throwing his hands in front of him.
“Oh — no, no, my lord, I ain’t propositionin’ ye! I don’t want to be a whore no more!”
” … Oh?”
“I — I — see, it — I want me little boy back, an’ I …” If Erin’s stumbling and faltering didn’t say, clearly, help!, the pleading look she sent to Mother Julian surely said it.
“Mistress Shepherd is, as she said, a woman of — ill repute,” came Sister Margery to the rescue. “She bore a little boy almost two years ago. Generally, women of her — class give any children they bear to us to be raised; however, Mistress Shepherd chose to keep this child.”
“I … see,” Lord Pellinore answered, in a tone that made it very clear that he did not, in fact, “see.”
“But … she was not allowed to keep this child. A member of …” Oh, hell, how to say this without letting Lord Pellinore know who it was who had taken Wulf to the orphanage? “Let us say, a citizen of Albion with … a certain amount of authority, and more piety than compassion, thought Mistress Shepherd was unfit to raise the child. I should add that, while this may be true in a moral sense, in a material and emotional sense, it was patently false. The baby was as clean, healthy and well-cared for as any child I had ever seen.”
“I see. Go on.”
“I took the child into the orphanage, of course, not fully aware that it was taken without the mother’s permission. Things proceeded in a stalemate, until Mistress Shepherd came to me a few weeks ago and told her side of the story. I believed her — and I should note, that we did record the child’s mother, so that we know the child is Mistress Shepherd’s, everything checks out in that regard — but I cannot simply give the child back to her. The rules of my order do not permit it, given her — er — current profession. So I told Mistress Shepherd that, if she were to procure for herself … well, it’s not quite respectable, but work that does not involve — well, you know — and procure for herself lodgings fit to keep a child in, and work for a year and prove herself able to keep and feed herself and the child, she can have her boy back.”
“I — see,” Lord Pellinore replied, furrowing his brow. “Er — please do not take this wrong, Mistress Shepherd, it is quite lovely that you are — er — putting your life back in order, as it were, but … what does all this have to do with me?”
“I ain’t got no money,” Erin answered. “I got — I got a job, but it don’t pay much. And in the meantime, I’ve got no money, no place to stay, no furniture or fixin’s … no clothes, either, for the new job.”
“Er … I am not in the business of lending money, Mistress Shepherd.”
“But — but ye’d want another peasant indentured family, wouldn’t ye, m’lord? If — if I indentured myself to ye — wouldn’t ye then …?” Erin glanced at Margery. “He — he would, wouldn’t he? That’s what ye said …”
It was Lord Pellinore who replied. “Ah,” he said, leaning into the green cushion of his high-backed chair, bringing his fingers before him in a steeple-shape. “I see. I see. Now I understand.”
He said nothing for a long moment, tapping his index fingers together as he stared into space. “unfortunately,” he began, “much as I would like to help you, I, at present, have no available cottages on my estate.”
To see Erin’s face crumple! Sister Margery could have sworn that she could see, in Erin’s eyes, Wulf being torn from her arms all over again! Sister Margery put a hand on her shoulder, ready to tell her not to fret, that there were other lords, there was still hope —
Lord Pellinore spoke instead. “Of course, if you would be willing to live in one of the royal village complexes, that is immaterial,” he continued. “The accommodations are small, but if it just to be you and one small boy … that is, I take it that you will not be having more children?”
Erin laughed. “I doubt it, m’lord. Wulf — an’ Jean — were half-miracles as it is.”
Sister Margery glanced at her and frowned, Erin had not mentioned any problems with fertility — and surely, as she had two children only a year apart, she was as fertile as anyone!
Lord Pellinore looked at Sister Margery, who could only shrug. Then he turned back to Erin. “Oh?”
“I — I was told, m’lord, way back, that it’d be hard fer me ter have children,” she said, glancing at the table. “Y’see, I — I had a bad miscarriage, about, oh, fourteen years ago. Midwife who saw ter me told me she’d be blown if I ever con–conceived again, let alone bore a healthy babe.”
“Perhaps,” Lord Pellinore murmured, “it might be wise to seek a second opinion.”
“Oh, I did, m’lord — after Jean, an’ when, when I knew Wulf was on his way. I told Kata Thatcher what had happened with the miscarriage, and she was just as blown as Mistress Larkin — the midwife who saw me first — said she’d be. Said — said the only way she could account fer it was …”
“Was?” Sister Margery asked.
“Lord Wright’s Will,” Erin whispered to the tabletop. “Seems — seems as He ‘ad some sort of purpose fer makin’ me have babies.”
Sister Margery and Lord Pellinore exchanged glances, but his expression was just as startled and confused as hers.
Erin’s gaze snapped up. “An’,” she said, “I don’t think neither of them were wrong. I was — I was a workin’ girl fer almost ten years before Jean. I was with two, three, four men a night, sometimes. An’ in all that time, there was nothin’. Not so much as a late bleed. Tambu an’ even bloody Mirelle, they had kids in all that time — but not me. So, y’see, the midwives weren’t wrong. There is some reason fer Jean an’ Wulf. It ain’t jest healin’, neither. Trust me. The damage he did … I was lucky ter be alive, after he was through.”
“He … the child?” Lord Pellinore asked.
“The child? Ye mean the one I was carryin’? Oh, Wright, no! Me husband!”
“… Husband?” Lord Pellinore squeaked.
“Aye, I had a husband — but he don’t mean nothin’ now. He was back in Glasonland, I ran away from him, oh … between twelve an’ thirteen years ago, now. I ‘spect he thinks I’m dead. Anyways, he ain’t goin’ nowhere without permission from his lord.”
“… His lord?”
“Aye, he was an indentured man, same as me,” Erin replied. “That — that ain’t gonna be a problem, ain’t it?”
“It … oh, dear. It might.”
“It might?” Sister Margery echoed.
“But he’s in Glasonland! Surely that don’t matter in Albion!” Erin protested.
“It is not so much the question of the husband that matters,” Lord Pellinore replied, “as the fact that he is an indentured man. You see, when you married him, you became indentured to his lord.”
“But he’s in Glasonland!” Erin repeated.
“Unfortunately, the common law of Albion is much the same as in Glasonland. And you cannot indenture yourself to me if you are indentured to another man.”
Erin’s hands started to shake. Sister Margery put a hand on her shoulder. “Lord Pellinore, please. Erin hasn’t set foot in Glasonland for over a decade! What are the odds that her lord — or her husband, for that matter! — would be seeking for her now? Even escaped slaves, in Reme, are legally manumitted if they evade capture for a certain amount of time!”
Lord Pellinore’s sharp gaze turned to her and he blinked. “What did you say?”
“Even … even escaped slaves in Reme are legally manumitted if they aren’t captured within a certain amount of time?”
“Yes, yes, of course … manumission … excuse me just a moment, ladies, I must …” Still muttering to himself, Lord Pellinore rose and padded to one of the bookshelves. He ran his finger along the leather-bound spines, finally finding a book — more like a tome, impossibly heavy and huge — and dragging it over to the table. He flipped through the pages, the tip of his finger barely touching the pages, still muttering — “Ah-ha!”
“Ah-ha?” Sister Margery asked.
“There’s quite a bit of legalese involved, but in essence, what this statute says — Statute 331 of King Cador, promulgated in the year of Our Lord Wright 744, to be precise — anyway, what it says, is that should a serf manage to flee his lord’s estate, run to a city, and remain there for a year and a day without being captured and brought back, he is free … though he forfeits property left behind, his wife and children, should he have any, remain indentured, etc., etc., but!” he said, closing the book with a slam that made both Erin and Sister Margery jump, “the point remains that he is free. Now, if Mistress Shepherd was gone for over ten years, as she claims — well, I very much doubt that her lord would have the legal authority to bring her back, even if she were in Glasonland, which she is not. Her husband would be another matter …”
Erin went white and Sister Margery grabbed her hand.
“… but after all these years,” Lord Pellinore continued, not looking at either of them as he replaced the book precisely in the position which it had left, “he has probably obtained an annulment in absentia — not very difficult for a man to do, I’m afraid, though for a woman it would be much harder — and if he has not, and by some bizarre chain of coincidence manages to track Mistress Shepherd here …” Lord Pellinore paused. “Well, that would be intriguing. If Mistress Shepherd is guilty of adultery — which you admitted as much — but if that post-dates …” Lord Pellinore glanced at Erin. “He did beat you, did he not?”
“Lord Pellinore!” Sister Margery called as Erin gulped and gulped and gulped. “Please, stop! You’re frightening her!”
“I’m — oh, Mistress Shepherd! I am sorry, where are my manners — of course this is not mere academic debate to you, this is — oh, dear. Please, accept my apologies. I assure you, if by some horrible chance, your husband were to find you here — I find the possibility of that to be extremely remote, after all these years — well, I would do everything in my power to make certain you were never put under his power, ever again. As your lord, that would be well within my power. And even if he were to come up with some ancient statute that gave him a claim over you, well, King Arthur would never permit a man who killed his own unborn child and nearly killed his wife to go near said wife again — never mind try to take her out of the country! You are quite safe here, please believe me.”
Erin stared up at him. “Does this mean, m’lord, that ye’re willin’ ter take me on?”
“Aye — aye, if you are willing to agree.”
“Aye, aye, I am.” Erin stood up. “Shake, m’lord?”
They shook, and Sister Margery stood behind them, and beamed.
Erin was one step closer to getting her son back.