If there was anything that Kata had learned in her fifty-odd years of living, it was that it was never good when one’s lord requested a special meeting.
If there was anything else that Kata could add to that, it was that if one’s lord requested a special meeting, it was best not to keep him waiting. So even though she was almost dead on her feet, she’d waited only long enough to clean herself up before setting out on the trek to Sir Lancelot’s keep.
At least she had something good to show for her exhaustion. Barely six hours ago, Ailís Porter had been safely delivered of a healthy, bouncing baby boy. Both mother and father were joyful, the grandparents were ecstatic, and little Jake’s sisters … would get used to the new arrival eventually.
Everyone was so happy, in fact, that Kata had taken advantage of the obligatory coo-at-the-baby time to park herself down at the end of Ailís’s bed and have a bit of a chat. “Ye’re lucky, ye know,” she’d said. “It’s three beautiful, healthy children ye’ve got. An’ right close in age, too, so they’ll be good playmates fer each other.”
“That’s always nice, ain’t it?” Ailís, normally so sharp, was still coasting off the high that came from having a brand-new baby. It’d be a few hours yet before her body’s startled reaction to having just forcibly ejected a baby kicked in. For now, she was leaning back on her pillows, her feet moving in time with some tune she could only hear in her head.
“Aye, ’tis. Except when it isn’t.” That made Ailís blink and focus her dreaming attention on Kata. “Josie ain’t much more than a year old, ye know. Ye’re lucky ye were able to carry this one so easily. But now that ye’ve got a son, ye should … strongly consider takin’ a bit of a rest. Or that is, ye should tell yer husband that ye need a rest — I’ll do it if ye don’t feel comfortable.”
In the course of Kata’s profession, one quickly learned how to diagnose the health of a marriage. There were some women, she knew, who were trapped with husbands who would not even consider giving their wives a much-needed rest. They’d want a spare on the way as soon as their wives were up and walking around again. Kata had thought Neil wasn’t that type, but now, with the time (or lack thereof) between Josie and Jake’s births … well, she’d been wrong before, and Wright willing, she’d live to be wrong again.
“Oh, we were plannin’ on takin’ a break anyway — well — as much as ye can plan,” Ailís waved her hand as one who was hearing old news would.
“So long as the baby was a boy, ye mean?”
“No, no, either way.”
Kata let her raised eyebrow do much of the talking. “Really? I mean, with Josie an’ Jake bein’ so close …”
Ailís’s pretty freckled skin flushed. “Oh! Oh, well, Jake weren’t really … er … well, he weren’t tried for, if ye know what I mean. It’s jest … Josie was an awful good sleeper right from the get-go …”
That told Kata all she needed to know about that.
She was still smiling a bit as she crossed the bridge and then reached the stairs leading up to the keep’s main entrance. Wright, but I’m getting too old for this.
With a sigh, though, Kata trudged on. And a small smile poked at the corner of her lips. As hard as these stairs were on her aching knees and hips, she could rest assured that they’d been just as hard on old Lord Ban’s knees, and would someday be just as hard on Sir Lancelot’s, and Sir William’s, and whatever heir of Sir William’s that she (Wright willing) brought wailing into the world. This was a hard world, often a cruel one, and almost always unfair, but some things, at least, were constant between peasant and peer.
However, it did make Kata wonder what it was that Lord Ban and Sir Lancelot had been thinking when they designed these steps, knowing full well they’d be sentencing themselves and their progeny to walk up and down their punishing length. Perhaps it was some nonsense about defense. Kata personally didn’t understand why it was that all these nobles were so concerned about walls and towers and siege engines and what-not. She’d travelled all over the length and breadth of Albion, delivering little ones, and she had yet to see something in it that would make a foreign power want to conquer it. Oh, Albion was a pleasant enough place, there was no doubt about it, but Glasonland must have already had about six Albions nestled within its borders. What need did it have for a seventh?
As for Reme — well, Reme had conquered far less pleasant places for the sheer hell of it. But Reme was on its way out and everyone knew it. They’d abandoned another couple of forts by the border. The chances of their coming back were remote. So what was all the fuss about?
Kata was still wondering this as she knocked on the great wooden doorway, and her mind was distracted enough that she was startled when she heard Sir Lancelot call, “Widow Thatcher! My goodness, I wasn’t expecting you so soon. Please, have a seat.”
Kata blinked. “Right — right here, m’lord?” She glanced sidelong at the benches. They were made of finer wood than had ever supported her rear. Sit-down times after she’d cared for noble mothers excepted, of course.
“Wherever is most comfortable for you,” Sir Lancelot said with his puppy grin plastered over his face. “I can have some cushions brought in, if you’d like.”
“Oh, no, m’lord, this is fine.” Kata thought of the sheets she had sat on, the dirt floors, the straw pallets. Whatever she might have picked up on her skirt, she didn’t want it ending up on Sir Lancelot’s (or Lady Guinevere’s, rather) cushions.
So Kata sat, brushing off her knees and waiting for Sir Lancelot to take the other bench, or even her own.
He did neither. Instead, he stood directly before her, still smiling.
Kata blinked. In her fifty-odd years of experience, this was not how the world worked. In the world in which she had grown up, peasants stood and nobles sat. Maybe, every now and again, they both sat together. But for Sir Lancelot to stand before her … like an inferior …
It was practically unheard of.
“I’m very glad that you were able to get here so quick …” He trailed off, his head turning a little to one side.
“My — m’lord?”
“I’m sorry — this is probably impertinent — but, Widow Thatcher, you look very tired. Are you all right?”
“Er, well … I’m fine, m’lord.”
He narrowed his eyes a little.
“Well, I am tired, I’ll admit it. Jest got back from a delivery, m’lord.”
Sir Lancelot’s eyes went wide. “Just — just got back? As in …”
“As in …?”
“You went home and came straight here?”
“My Ella did say ye wanted ter see me at me earliest con-veen-yence, m’lord … did she speak out of turn?”
“Well, no, but — but I meant at your earliest convenience!” the lord sputtered. “I didn’t — well — I didn’t want you to put yourself out like this!”
“Ye … ye didn’t?”
“Of course not!”
“Oh,” Kata murmured.
“What is it?”
“Well,” she admitted, “I thought — that is, I was always told — that ‘at yer earliest con-veen-yence’ were polite, sir, fer ‘pretty da–pretty quick.'”
Sir Lancelot stared at her, then burst out laughing. “I suppose it usually does mean that! However, I truly did wish you to come as soon as — er — as soon as you had the time and energy to do so.” He grinned, his face crinkling up like a boy’s. “Tell you what, madam — we shall make a deal, you and I. When I need you to come right away, I shall say so — or better yet, I shall come to you. When, however, I would like to see you soon, but without putting you out unduly, I shall ask you to come ‘at your earliest convenience.’ Does that suit you better?”
“Yes, m’lord.” Not for the first time, Kata wished she hadn’t just let Jeremiah take charge of all matters that had to do with lords. She would have been so much better prepared.
“Anyway, now, are you not curious about what I called you here to discuss?” Sir Lancelot asked — but his smile quickly fell away. “I … er, I fear that the news may not be … entirely welcome to you.”
“Oh?” Kata’s voice quavered.
“Er, well, to begin at the beginning,” Sir Lancelot began, pulling at his collar with one finger, “you are aware that my eldest, Will — Sir William — is to be married to Princess Jessica soon after their mutual graduation?”
There wasn’t a soul in the kingdom who didn’t know that. Well, maybe little Jake Porter hadn’t heard the news yet. Other than that, though …
Kata, however, only smiled and said, “Yes, m’lord, I knew that.” She’d seen Sir William and Princess Jessica out and about, too, before the two of them had left for Camford. Unless things had changed drastically in the past four years, she was expecting a fair bit of business from those two. Not as much as from the Crown Prince and his lovely bride, but a fair bit all the same.
“Ah. Good, good. Well, part of the marriage settlement includes a sizeable tract of land along the northern coast. You’ve heard of the building project I have going on it, have you not?”
“Originally, I was going to have Sir William and Princess Jessica live there — to, er, accustom Sir William to being a lord, and to … well, to let them have their privacy in the early days of their marriage.” Poor Sir Lancelot’s ears were turning bright red. Did it truly embarrass him to think of his son doing what boys do? “But, er, political … matters have made it necessary for the King and me to decide that I should cede my lands here, be granted a somewhat — larger — tract of land to the north, and to, er, move.”
Kata felt her stomach sink as the implications set in.
“An’ — an’ us, m’lord? Me an’ me family?”
“It would — er — that is — I was hoping you would move too.”
That was a polite way of putting it. Kata heard herself murmur, “Of course, sir,” as she slumped against the seat.
“If you do not wish to move until after your daughter — Roma? — is married and settled, I understand. Believe me, I understand. You’re more than welcome to stay until then.” Sir Lancelot smiled, then frowned. “Er — I did offer you my congratulations on Roma’s marriage, didn’t I?”
“Aye, m’lord, ye did.” He had when Kata and Roma had first come to seek his permission for it. Sir Lancelot had treated them both to a cup of heady, bubbly wine in celebration, and he had called to Lady Guinevere, who surprised them both with a hearty embrace.
“Well, congratulations again! One can’t hear enough of them, I’ve found.”
It was impossible not to smile in reply to a grin as infectious as that. Kata felt her lips turn upward before dropping down just as quickly.
“And — and I intend to make the move as easy on you as possible,” Sir Lancelot babbled on. “I understand it’s just you, your girls and your young son, so I shall be sending some strong young men to help you out with the packing and so forth. And loading, and unloading, and unpacking. And you shan’t have to pay for a thing, either. As far as moving is concerned, that is. I take the expense upon myself.”
“Oh, m’lord, ye don’t have to …”
“Yes, yes, I do,” Sir Lancelot nodded. “It is because of me that you are moving, therefore, you should not have to shoulder the costs of it. I will insist upon this, Widow Thatcher.”
“That’s very kind o’ ye, m’lord,” Kata heard herself murmur.
Sir Lancelot bit his lower lip. “I — I know it is very hard, leaving your home, the place where you raised your children — and — and I am aware this is the second time that I, or rather my family, is asking you to do this.”
Kata shook her head. “We volunteered, Jeremiah an’ I did.”
“Er — well, true, you did. However! I still know how hard it is.” He glanced around the hall, and for a moment Kata almost thought she heard the boistrous laughter of noble children, the pounding of well-soled boots or fine slippers along the stonework. “Believe me, I do understand that.
“But! This place I am fixing up for you, I will see to it personally that it is very nice! Far nicer than your current home! … Not that your current home isn’t very nice too, it just, er …”
“M’lord,” Kata murmured, “I don’t doubt that ye’ll do right by us. Ye always have.” One corner of Kata’s mouth poked up. “It’s one thing ye an’ yer family have always been good with.”
“Then, Widow Thatcher, why do you still look so sad?”
Kata blinked up at him.
“M’lord, d’ye — d’ye mind if I’m honest?”
“Of course not!”
“I’m an old woman,” Kata replied. “An old woman, an’ a widow. An’ I don’t know how much time I’ve got left in this world.”
“I pray a very great deal!”
“Thank’ee, m’lord, fer sayin’ that, but … prayin’ an’ hopin’ ain’t being certain. Ye know?”
“An’ I’ve got three young kids. Now, mind, Roma’s almost grown. An’ as soon as she’s grown, she’ll be married.” Kata frowned. “There’s a reason, sir, why I wanted her married so soon.”
Sir Lancelot tilted his head a little to one side, nodding.
“I want ter make sure that, if somethin’ happens ter me, there’s someone ter take care o’ me kids.”
Sir Lancelot blinked.
“An’, see, Simon Chevaux — the man she’ll be marryin’, one o’ Sir Bors’s men — kindly said that he’d be willin’ ter step in an’ take care o’ me kids, if it … if it comes ter that. Me stepson, Ash, an’ his wife, they said they’d help, too.”
“But if we’re up north … well, it won’t be easy ter to do that.”
“It’s barely an hours’ ride, though!”
“But, y’see, m’lord, that’s jest it. Ride.”
“An’ then there’s the matter o’ me business.”
“Midwifery,” Sir Lancelot. “Oh — oh, I see.” He frowned. “If — if I were to set aside one of the faster horses in my stables for you to use, would that help?”
Kata blinked. She was a good horsewoman, she was, but she hadn’t been expecting that kind of generosity. “Well, m’lord, if ye’d — if ye’d be willin’ ter do that …”
“I would indeed! The work you do is far too important for me to impede it!”
Kata thought about that. Labor generally took a long time. And most older women, who naturally were around to help out at a birth, could keep a handle on things for two hours. If someone was having a difficult pregnancy, Kata could stay with her as her time drew nearer. Ella was old enough to watch Billy for a few days or even a week. And Marigold and her girls were up north — they (or rather Marigold) could certainly check in from time to time, make sure that Billy hadn’t burned the house down and Ella wasn’t serving up sweets for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The neighbors might complain, but rather that than leave her kids without any supervision for days and days.
Her kids …
“M’lord,” Kata said, rising, for she was tired of Sir Lancelot towering over her so, “that still don’t answer the question o’ what me kids will do, if somethin’ were to happen ter me.”
“Would Simon or your stepson not still be willing to take them?”
Kata blinked. “Ye’d — ye’d allow that? Bein’ so far from yer lands an’ all?”
Sir Lancelot opened his mouth and shut it again. “Oh. That … would be a problem, wouldn’t it?”
“I think it would, m’lord.”
His tongue made an awkward swipe across his lower lips. “Widow Thatcher, as long as your son returned to me when he reached adulthood, I would — that is, if it was what you desired — I would be willing to to allow him to go wherever you wished him to, if — Wright forbid — the worst should happen to you.”
“Ye — ye would, sir?”
“You are his mother,” Sir Lancelot shrugged. “I imagine you would know where your son — and daughter, of course — would be best cared for, far better than I would.”
There wasn’t a lord in Glasonland who would have said that, Kata thought — at least, not if it involved children being removed from their lands. She had to swallow to push the lump in her throat back where it belonged. “Thank’ee, m’lord!”
“Oh, Widow Thatcher, it’s no trouble!” he smiled and patted her shoulder. “It’s only my duty!”
Kata tried to smile back while blinking the water out of her eyes.
The water dried of its own accord.
“If — if you would desire — I could act as your children’s guardian. I mean, I hope it would not come to that, of course, but –”
“What?” she gasped.
“I could be the children’s guardian,” Sir Lancelot repeated. “That way, they could stay in their home, and I could care for their property and such, and I could either have someone — someone you would interview and choose, of course — stay with them and care for them, or stop in from time to time if you think they are old enough to live mostly on their own. How does that sound?”
“Ye’d — ye’d do that, m’lord?”
Kata took a deep breath, and to hide it, she stuck her hand out. “I think — I think, m’lord, if ye’ d be willin’ ter do all that, movin’ won’t be nowhere near as bad as I thought it would be at first.”