Roma was riding. The wind was in her hair, the smell of horseflesh in her nose. Simon’s hand on her waist. She knew it was Simon, even though she had yet to turn around to see him. Just as she knew that this gentle undulating was what riding a horse would feel like, though in her waking life she had never ridden anything faster than an old, half-dead donkey. If she leaned back, she knew that she would feel Simon’s chest, his hard breathing, his heart beating beneath her. Perhaps she would lean back … Roma did so, and felt everything to be just as she expected, and her smile carried forward to her physical, real face.
The only thing that could possibly disturb this perfect picture was the sound. It was not the thunder of great warhorses, the sound that Sir Lancelot or Sir William or Sir Galahad’s horses made when the lords would gallop past their cottage. Nor was it the prancing of the sweet mares and ponies that the Princess and the Princess-to-be and their friends would ride as they passed the cottage. Nor was it even the in-between gallop of Lady Leona’s great gelding.
No, it was a smaller sound, a sound like pebbles being thrown against a wall … or a window …
In her dream, Roma frowned. There were no pebbles in the dream-scape for her horse’s hooves to scrape against. She and Simon were not riding on a road. They were riding … on a beach. The long line of sand stretched before her, a ribbon of moonlight between the dark ocean and the purple of the moor beyond. The waves crashed nearby, and the spray splashed up to her face. It was sweet, not salty. Sweet waves.
“Roma!” came the whisper of her name.
But it was not a whisper appropriate to the dream. It was not spoken against her ear, soft as a caress. It was not said in a tone of undying longing. It was not pleading for the slightest favor —
Nonetheless, it was said in Simon’s voice.
Roma’s eyes popped open. And she heard it again: “Roma!”
She elbowed Ella’s side. “Ella! You hear that?”
Ella mumbled something that sounded to Roma suspiciously like, “Ten more minutes.”
Oh, for Wright’s — As usual, if she wanted anything done, she had to do it herself. Her head still fuzzy with sleeve, indeed dizzy, she kicked her way loose of the blankets and few precious furs, and knelt on the pillow.
She was just able to manuever her nose over the sill of the small window.
She gasped. Simon!
He stood beneath the window, one hand full of something that glinted like pebbles in the moonlight. His mouth was pursed in a whistle.
And he was motioning for her to come down!
Roma gasped. He was here! Here, in the middle of the night! And he wanted to see her! It was no dream —
Or was it? She pinched herself, good and hard, on the arm, twisting the skin for good measure. It hurt! She wasn’t dreaming!
She grinned and practically bounced off the bed, ready to fly down the ladder and out the door, into her lover’s arms —
She almost yelped when her feet hit the freezing floorboards. Perhaps some shoes would be in order, first. And a cloak. Yes, a cloak. Not only was it cold out there — Simon was her betrothed, and it was the middle of the night. She didn’t want to be giving him any ideas … perhaps he might have ideas already, but she wouldn’t have it said that she gave them to him …
It was her barely-stifled giggle that made Ella lift her heavy head an inch or two from the pillow. Her curly brown hair spilled over the blankets. “Roma?” she whispered.
“It’s nothing, Ella.”
“You’re in your cloak …”
“I need to go to the privy.”
“Oh!” Ella murmured, then her head hit the pillow again, eyes already shut.
Roma shimmied down the ladder thanking her lucky stars that she was the practical one. If Ella had been the practical one, she might have pointed out that there was a chamber pot in the room precisely to prevent nighttime trips to the privy — and then where would Roma be?
Certainly not slipping through the front room as swift and silent as a ghost, pushing the door open, and rounding the corner of the corner of the house to practically barrel into Simon.
“Shush, sweet, not so loud!”
“Simon!” Roma whispered. She buried her head against her shoulder and inhaled. He always smelled different whenever he came to her. Tonight he smelled like … like school? No, like the vellum and parchment that came from the few books they had at the school. Ink, too, and the wax they used for their writing assignments. Below that was the sweet smell of woodsmoke, below that, sweat. A man’s sweat. But the sweat-smell did not hang so thick and cloying around him as it used to hang around her father, back when Roma could throw her arms around him and bury her head in his shoulder. It was lighter, thinner — the sweat of a sprinter versus that of a marathon runner. And below the sweat, there was only Simon.
Roma trusted to the cloth and his body to keep anyone from hearing her little squeal of happiness. Then she tilted her head back and whispered, her voice unnaturally high and breathy, “What are ye doin’ here?”
“Oh, Roma!” Simon murmured, laying his chin on her head, “I’m goin’ mad!”
He was going mad! He couldn’t wait for the wedding! He wanted her, really wanted her!
“I’ll do somethin’ real stupid sooner or later, if I don’t have yer bright little head ter help me out!
Oh … he only wanted her advice, like everyone else.
“Oh?” Roma asked, hoping the lack of volume would mask the disappointment in her voice.
“It’s like this, ye see …” Simon began.
Roma tilted her head to one side and did her best to look interested and unconcerned.
“Oh, hang it all — this is gonna take a bit ter explain. Ye’d better sit down.”
Was it Roma’s imagination, or did he shudder at the word “hang”? But Roma sat at his feet all the same, looking up at him with the expectant expression of a dog begging for a scratch behind the ears.
Simon sat down a few feet away. Roma pursed her lips, and realized that was a mistake, for the moonlight fell between them, illuminating her face as it easily as it illuminated his. She tried to mask her disappointment by turning her expression into one of interest.
Simon sighed. “It’s like this,” he repeated. “I — I came into a lot of money.”
“It’s … er … it’s complicated,” Simon sighed, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand. “It’s — I should jest start at the beginnin’, shouldn’t I?”
“It’s usually the best place ter start!” Roma giggled.
“Aye, see, that’s why I go ter ye fer advice. Ye give out good stuff,” Simon chuckled. Roma was unsure whether to be glad or disappointed that the silver moonlight would not allow him to see the blush that spread over her face.
“So what is it?”
Simon leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “A couple o’ months ago,” he began, “me an’ me — me crew were tryin’ ter get some good cloth inter Reme, when we came across another crew, doin’ the same thing as we were.”
“Don’t be ‘oh-noin’ me yet, sweetheart. I ain’t even mentioned that the Reman guards, they had the other crew.”
It was only by stuffing her hands against her mouth that Roma was able to keep her cry of fear from reverberating over the silver-washed fields.
“But don’t ye fret none, ’cause the border guards were gettin’ themselves drunk on their wine — ye know all Remans are right drunks –”
Nicole ain’t, Roma thought, but said nothing.
“– an’ so it weren’t no work at all fer me crew ter leap on ’em, an’ bash ’em over the head, an’ tie ’em up, an’ let the other crew go free.”
Roma gasped. “Ye did that? Oh, how brave, Simon!”
Simon’s teeth flashed white as he smiled. “Glad ye think so. Anyway, ’twas but a minute before we had that crew rescued, but them, they was so scared, they said they’d give us their cloth fer what they paid fer it — they was a new crew, they was, and gettin’ caught scared them right out of the business.”
“Aye, aye — but don’t ye worry none, because me an’ me crew, we ain’t gonna get caught by no Reman guards anytime soon.” Roma nodded. “Now, anyway — we had all this purple cloth, lots of it, an’ we got it fer dirt cheap too. So we escort our merchants an’ the cloth ter the border, and they sell it, all o’ it. An’ we’re gonna go back with ’em. But the merchants, they been talkin’ amongst themselves, an’ they decide, they don’t want the extra money goin’ back ter their big bosses in Glasonland, who didn’t do nothin’ ter earn it. So they split the extra money between all of us. Me share — me share came ter sixty silver pieces.”
Roma heard the number, then gasped — and smiled. “Simon! Simon, oh, Simon! Ye could buy yer freedom from yer lord, an’ mine from Sir Lancelot, an’ still have plenty ter spare!”
“But Roma,” Simon asked, “would Sir Bors believe I got it honestly?”
No, no, he never would! Not Sir Bors. Sir Bors had balked when her mother named her fee for attending to Lady Claire’s bedside — delivering twins! — and all the care she had given beforehand. “Foolish peasant! What would you do with such a sum? No man would believe you came by it honestly! Your lord certainly won’t!”
“Oh, goodness,” Roma whispered. “He — he’d think ye stole it, or somethin’ awful like that!”
“I know, I know, sweetheart.”
“But — but what’s the use of havin’ all that money, if ye don’t spend it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Hmm,” Roma mused. “What ye need is some way ter explain the money.”
“I know,” Simon replied. Now it was time for his eyes to look, in the moonlight, like a pleading puppy’s.
… Simon was pleading with her?
“Oh, Simon!” Roma gasped.
“Ye don’t — ye don’t expect me ter tell ye how …”
“Why not?” Simon asked, tilting his head at her, his smile small but beguiling. “Ye’re a smart lass, ain’t ye? Surely ye’ve got somethin’ fer me …”
A smart lass. He thought she was smart. Even if she couldn’t be pretty, even if Simon only came to see her to get her to solve his problems for him … in the middle of the night … she could be a smart lass, for him. She could be his smart lass.
Roma took a deep breath and tried to attack the problem. How could an honest man procure that kind of money? The first thing she could think of was that somebody had died and left a farm to Simon, and Simon sold the farm — but that sort of thing could easily be checked, verified.
She closed her eyes. Ever since Simon had told her of his ultimate goal to win his freedom, and hers, and their children’s, she had listened extra close and careful whenever her mother came back from her gossips with Lilé Brogan. Mistress Brogan’s son was trying to win his freedom from Lord Pellinore with his little shop. And though progress was slow, he was earning the money for it. He’d saved up quite a bit, too! Now, how had he done it?
“Oh, Simon! Oh, Simon! Ye need — ye need ter start a shop or somethin’! That’s how ye can explain the money away!”
Simon made a face. “Roma, sweetheart, I ain’t got no time fer a shop.”
“Oh …” That was too true. Master Grady Brogan spent all of his time running his shop. But there had to be something … Master Brogan made his money selling his surplus crops, but was only vegetables and fruits, and it was taking so long …
So long …
“Simon! What if ye bought pigs?”
“Pigs, Simon! Ye could breed pigs!”
“Ye want me ter become a pig-farmer?”
“Pigs is meat, ain’t it?” Roma asked.
“Last I checked,” Simon chuckled.
“An’ meat is expensive, ain’t it?”
“Wright knows that.”
“So, if we bought ourselves some pigs, an’ got some piglets, an’ sold the piglets from fall to fall, when they were nice an’ fat … we could sell the best ones ter Sir Bors, or ter other lords, an’ charge top copper fer ’em. An’ the ones that weren’t so good, we could sell ter our friends an’ neighbors.”
“An’ that would accomplish what?”
“We’d have a lot o’ money comin’ in, right?”
“Aye, an’ a lot goin’ out, ter keep ’em fed an’ taken care of …”
Roma leaned forward, her arms on her knees. “But Simon — Sir Bors don’t have ter know that.”
“Those first few pigs,” he murmured, “would cost a lot o’ money.”
“More than ye got?”
“Oh, no — but enough fer it ter take some time ter earn it back. An’ how am I gonna explain where I got the money ter buy those first few pigs, an’ keep ’em, an’ such?”
That was more difficult. But perhaps, if she thought hard enough … how had her father explained it, those days when he suddenly had money to buy his mother a new dress, or cake for all of them?
“Ye’ll say ye won a bet!” Roma whispered.
Simon’s eyebrows went up. “Some bet.”
“They was very long odds on that bet.”
He grinned. “Longer odds than ye know, sweetheart.”
He suddenly arose, his long legs unbending like a tangled skein of yarn fell into straightness when you finally found the one knot that was holding the rest of them together. He held out a hand to her, and Roma rose herself.
“Now, my sweetheart,” he whispered, “I know it’s late … an’ I know I’ve tired ye out, with all this thinkin’ … but ye’ll forgive me if I can’t let ye go, jest yet.”
Considering what Simon did to her before he let her go, Roma was certain she could forgive him — she could forgive him easily.
She knew not how it was that she was able to go back in silently, how it was that she opened the door and crossed the front room and climbed up the loft ladder without waking anybody. She knew not how it was that she was able to get her cloak and shoes put away without Ella so much as lifting her head. Perhaps that floating feeling in her stomach — liquid happiness — spread to her feet, and she truly did float. She did not know. Looking at the ground, to see if her feet truly touched it or if they hovered a few inches above it, would have spoiled the illusion.
Ella, in fact, only opened her eyes when Roma finally sat on the bed and tried to slip beneath the covers.
“Ye were gone a long time,” Ella murmured. “We’re ye?”
Roma froze. Then she whispered back, “I had — er — issues.”
“Aw, poor Roma. Ye feelin’ all right now?”
“Good … good …” Ella gave a tremendous yawn, then rolled onto her back and began to snore again.
As for Roma, she slipped her feet beneath the blankets and thanked her lucky stars, once again, that she was the practical one.