It was ridiculous to be nervous. Absolutely ridiculous. She’d fulfilled all of Sister Margery’s conditions. Sister Margery herself had said so, had promised to bring Wulf by today! Surely, the struggle was over. Surely all she had to do was wait in quiet and comfort. Her boy would be with her by noon.
But there was still so much that could go wrong!
Erin chafed her red, raw hands, fingers twining in and out of each other for lack of anything constructive to do. If Sister Margery had chosen any other day to bring Wulf to her, Erin wouldn’t be worrying so much. But no, Sister Margery had named this day specifically, the day after the royal wedding. She hadn’t said why specifically, just that “it would be best.”
It wasn’t even what she had said. It was the way she had said it, her head ducking so her veil blocked her face from Erin’s view, her knuckle popping, her voice with a slight quaver. “Nobody will notice us, I don’t think,” she had added, and then her eye had met Erin for a brief second before turning away again.
There was only one person Sister Margery could mean by “nobody”: Brother Tuck. Brother Tuck, who had played his part in the wedding and who had been feasted with all the nobles, and who would probably spend much of the next morning sleeping off the aftereffects. And not just Brother Tuck, either, but the kingdom’s thousand-and-one busybodies. The whole kingdom had partaken in the party atmosphere; the King had generously paid for all drinks and foodstuffs at certain taverns, and most of the kingdom had taken advantage of that generosity.
Marigold an’ the girls probably made a killin’ last night, Erin thought, and put the thought away. It wasn’t as if she herself was hurting from last night — the acting troupe had put on a pageant in the town as the wedding parties had passed by, and had been rewarded by a bag of silver from the Princess, the old one. Even though the owner had taken the lion’s share, there had been two silver pieces for each actor and actress, and a silver each for all the stage crew. She’d probably made more from that than she could have if she had still been with Marigold. And it surely left one much less listless and sore in the morning.
Erin sprung to her feet and ran for the door. Her mind tried to calm her feet — it might not be Sister Margery, it might be Sister Margery with bad news, it might be Brother Tuck —
She threw the door open anyway.
And she could not speak. There was something — a lump, her heart — lodged in her throat. So overcome was she, she had to grab hold of the door to keep herself upright. She could scarcely see ahead of her for the tears in her eyes. Sister Margery took advantage of the room that left by slipping in without a word.
Then Wulf turned his heavy head, and the smile he gave her was worth every ounce of trouble, every broken promise, every friendship she had smashed to get him back. “Mama!”
“Wulfie!” Her hands stretched out of their own accord and Sister Margery did not hesitate to place him in them. “Wulf! My Wulf!”
“Mama!” He reached to touch her face, and Erin held him closer to let him. But she could hardly let him rest a mere three-year-old’s arm’s length away from her without clutching him all the way to her.
“Oh, Wulfie,” she gasped, kissing his hair, and then his forehead, and then his chubby cheeks. Wulf jerked his face away and stared up at her with all the impatient scorn a three-year-old boy could manage. It was adorable.
She rocked him side to side, as she had when he was just a little baby, before he was taken away from her. Back when she thought that no one but the Lord Wright could take her Wulf away from her. That he was hers forever, or at least until he grew up.
She wouldn’t make that mistake again.
A faint click — just Sister Margery shutting the door. She smiled at Erin when Erin glanced over her shoulder. That smile said a good deal — Erin only hoped her answering, wavering tremor of her lips could say as much in reply. Especially when she could not look at Sister Margery for long before turning back to her beautiful boy.
She did not even realize she was crying until Wulf asked, “Mama, why are you sad?”
“Mama isn’t sad, Wulf,” said Sister Margery. For a moment roaring jealousy leapt up in her breast, but shame proved to be its slayer. How could she be angry with Sister Margery, who had brought them back together?
“Mama is very happy — aren’t you, Mama?” Sister Margery asked, glancing up at Erin. Erin could only nod.
Wulf glanced at Erin, then pushed himself up so he could trail a hand along her cheek. “But Mama’s cryin’.”
“Crying,” Sister Margery corrected clearly without a second thought, “and sometimes grown-ups do that when we’re very happy.”
Erin swallowed. “‘Cause — ’cause, Wulfie, sometimes when ye’re so … so happy, there ain’t nothin’ else ye can do.”
Wulf’s little nose screwed up halfway to his face, and Erin had to laugh. “Oh, look at ye! Ain’t he the cutest boy ye ever did see, Sister Margery?”
“You are certainly the cutest pair,” Sister Margery replied, probably to avoid insulting any of her other dozens of charges.
“What fun we’ll have, Wulfie! Jest you an’ me!” Erin cried out. “Ain’t ye so happy ye’ll be livin’ with yer Mama now?”
“Erin …” Sister Margery murmured even as Wulf squealed under the attack of her tickling fingers.
For a moment Erin’s heart froze. Sister Margery couldn’t have — she couldn’t mean to tell Erin now that Wulf was not to be hers, could she? Surely Sister Margery could not be so cruel, to bring Wulf to her and then take him away again!
“I didn’t tell him that he would be staying here,” Sister Margery continued in a rush. “In case — in case something went wrong. I couldn’t do that to him.”
“Stay here?” Wulf asked, looking from one to the other.
“Aye, Wulfie,” Erin swallowed, “ye’ll be stayin’ with Mama now. Ain’t that — nice?”
Wulf glanced at Sister Margery. “Jade? Tara?”
“They’ll stay with me, but you can visit them whenever you and your Mama can come visit. And I hope you will visit frequently,” Sister Margery added with a glance at Erin.
Visit? Right across the road from Brother Tuck? It had been harrowing enough when she was just visiting by herself, when she could have been any drab woman visiting the orphanage for any number of reasons. But to bring Wulf? What if Brother Tuck were to barge in and demand that the boy stay there? She couldn’t bear to lose him again —
“Pwease, Mama?” Wulf asked, his upper lip starting to quiver.
“Aye, Wulfie, we’ll visit,” Erin heard herself say. “Now — Mama has to talk a bit to Sister Margery. Why don’t ye go over an’ play with yer toys?”
Wulf’s eyes grew as wide and round as the fat coins Erin had been given the night before. “My toys?”
“Aye, lad!” Erin set Wulf down and pointed to the stained wooden box. “All yers!”
He wasted no time toddling over to the box and exploring it.
“Well,” Sister Margery chuckled, “I daresay he’ll forget to miss his little friends as long as he has that whole box of toys he doesn’t have to share.”
“My boy ain’t so selfish as that!”
“Whether Wulf is or will be selfish or not remains to be seen,” Sister Margery replied, turning to Erin with a smile, “but I will remind you that he is three years old.”
Wulf unearthed himself from the toy chest. “Horsie!” he cried out.
“Ye like the horsies?” Erin asked, crouching close to him.
“Does he ever!” Sister Margery laughed. “Wulf, tell your mama what you did when Tara thought it was her turn to play with the horse, and you didn’t agree with her!”
“I was bad,” Wulf replied with the sad solemnity of a toddler in trouble.
“He hit her with it, the poor dear,” Sister Margery chuckled and shook her head.
Erin was troubled — not because her son had a habit of hitting his playmates with wooden toys, because as Sister Margery had pointed out, he was three. But she was troubled because this was her son, and yet Sister Margery knew more about him than she did.
“Erin? Everything all right?”
Erin started. “Er — aye, aye.” Belatedly she remembered her hostess’s duties. “Er — will ye have a seat?”
“Thank you kindly.” Sister Margery sat herself down, and Erin sat down as well where she had a clear sight line to Wulf.
“Oh, you’ll be fine,” Sister Margery laughed.
She was smiling. “With Wulf. You’ve already mastered the most important part of caring for a three-year-old. Never let him out of your sight!”
It would not do to tel Sister Margery that she stared at Wulf not because she was afraid of what he might get up to — though perhaps she should be — but because she was afraid that he would disappear if she so much as blinked. “Heh.” She swallowed. “I guess that must make it right difficult ter keep up with six o’ em.”
“Ah, but we manage somehow. Generally, if you have many of them, they are so busy getting into fights with each other that they forget to make trouble for you. That, and keeping them in an area that doesn’t have any dangerous objects will work wonders.”
“To be honest, though, I don’t think you have to worry much,” Sister Margery continued. “Wulf is one of the … how shall I put this … more easy-going ones? Unless, of course, you mess with his horsie.”
At the mention of “horsie,” Wulf looked up. Erin smiled at him, and was rewarded by a crooked-tooth smile back.
With that smile to warm her heart, Erin could banish all the stomach-churning thoughts that Sister Margery’s information brought in its wake. After all, Sister Margery had far more experience with children, plural, than Erin ever would. It would be easier for Sister Margery to place Wulf in the context of many children his age than it would be for Erin, even if she’d raised Wulf his whole life. Wulf was all she knew; she could hardly contextualize.
Well, not all she knew … but she wouldn’t think of that. Not now.
Instead, she dragged her straying mind back to its duties. “I — I guess I ought ter thank ye — but — but I don’t know how.”
Sister Margery blinked.
“Fer — fer everything ye’ve done fer me — an’ Wulf.”
Sister Margery glanced at Wulf. “I don’t think I need that many thanks for only doing what was right in the end.”
“Oh, Sister, I know the amount of trouble ye took –”
“But it was the right thing to do,” Sister Margery whispered. “At the end of the day …” She brought her fingers up to feel her beads. “What kind of nun would I be if I did not do, as much as it was in my power, what was right?”
Probably the same kind o’ nun that Brother Tuck is a monk, Erin thought, but did not say. “It still were an awful lot o’ trouble. With — with everythin’ — on top o’ everythin’ else ye had ter do …”
Sister Margery shrugged. “I had help — my mother — Mother Superior — young Sister Angelique, some wives from the town who were kind enough to watch the little ones when I had to go out and do things.”
“Really?” Erin asked. In her experience of talking to the various goodwives of the town, most of them preferred to forget the orphanage ever existed. Oh, they’d send a copper or two or perhaps a bit of clothing that their own children had no more use for to the “poor motherless dears,” but beyond that? The orphanage contained mostly whores’ children, and respectable women simply didn’t speak of such things.
Though why was Sister Margery blushing? “Well …” She ducked her head. “Perhaps … perhaps most of them were encouraged to help out as a … penance …”
Erin’s eyes bulged. “Penance?” Then she laughed. “Sister! Ye didn’t!”
“Didn’t — what?”
“Lie in wait fer some poor wife ter confess a sin that deserved that kind o’ punishment!”
“You say that as if it were unethical, Erin!” Sister Margery gasped, or pretended to. “Goodness! It’s not as if I asked anyone but the worst sinners to help out when it was time to put the little ones down for their naps!”
“Oh, Wright! An’ who might that be?”
“Now, Erin, to tell you would –”
Huh? Who can that be? Erin glanced at Sister Margery, who was looking at her. “I’ll — er, I’ll get that,” Erin said, rising. She wiped her hands on her skirt as she made the short trek to the door.
“N-Nicole,” Erin stammered. She held again to the door, albeit for different reasons than she had the first time today. She shifted slightly, hoping — for some mad reason — to keep Nicole from seeing much into the apartment. For if she did —
Then what, Erin? Then what?
“I shan’t be a minute,” Nicole giggled — Erin narrowed her eyes. That sort of giggling wasn’t like Nicole. “I just have a quick question!” Neither was that kind of enthusiasm.
Nicole hiccupped, and some of that air wafted to Erin. It smelled of ale. Is she — drunk? Nicole? “Nicole, honey, are ye all right?”
“Oh, I’m fantastic! Roma’s getting married! Well, we knew she was getting married, but her Simon’s lord has finally approved, and –” Nicole grabbed Erin’s arm, “the date is finally set, and –”
Nicole stopped, staring at something beyond Erin’s head. “Is that — is that –”
Erin, with a pit sinking in her stomach, turned to look.
“– your son?”
Wulf chose that moment to look up, grin his widest grin, and giggle, “Hi, pwetty lady!”
“Oh, is he?!” Nicole turned back to Erin. “Is he? Tell me he is!”
“Er — yes, yes, he is. Me Wulfie.”
“Oh! You’re so lucky! He’s adorable!” Without waiting for an invitation — so unlike Nicole! — she bustled into the room to peer more closely at Wulf. Wulf put his horsie down to peer up at her.
“He has your exact eyes!” Nicole gushed. She started to bend to pat his head — or tickle his tummy — or play peek-a-boo, or any number of things — Erin could hardly guess which.
“Hi!” Wulf said again.
“Well, hello to you!” Nicole tousled his hair and Wulf giggled. “My name is Nicole, what’s yours?”
“Woof? Like what the doggies say?”
“No! Wulf! Like big, scawy dog! Rawr!” he pretended to growl.
“Oh, no! Erin! There’s a wolf in here!”
“No! It’s jest me!” Wulf laughed, reaching for Nicole.
“Just you? Just a little boy? With a wolf’s name?”
“Jest me!” Wulf nodded.
Sister Margery leaned forward and glanced through the bars separating the sofa from the rest of the room. Her look almost seemed amused.
But Erin panicked. If Nicole saw! If Nicole understood! Not only would she lose one of the few new friends she had made, everyone would soon know Erin’s past — and what would that knowledge do to her Wulf? If she was ostracized, then so would he be!
Sister Margery watched Erin’s face, frowned, and stood up. “Nicole?”
Nicole gasped and looked up. Wulf laughed. “Sista Muggie!”
“Sister — Sister Margery!”
They know each other? Erin wondered, but Nicole was scrambling to her feet and suddenly looking as contrite as a slightly tipsy twenty-year-old could manage.
Maybe more than slightly, Erin thought as she watched Nicole sway like a tree in a gale.
“My dear, are you all right?” Sister Margery asked, grabbing Nicole’s shoulder.
“Oh, yes! Oh, Sister Margery! We had the best time!” She giggled. “Did you know Lyndsay’s husband knows how to brew ale?”
“Lyndsay Thatcher, that is! I think her husband should go into business as a brewer! He’d be rich in no time!” Nicole grinned. “But maybe it’s because he’s a plantsim — you know? Oh! Oh, forget I said that!” she gasped.
Thatcher? Plantsim? Surely it can’t be — Erin gulped. Not Marigold’s brother?
“I don’t want you to think badly of me! I’m sure Master Thatcher would change if he could! And he’s such a nice man — er — plantsim!”
“Nicole, please, be calm. I certainly shan’t think badly of you for treating your fellow Sims with kindness and compassion. But, my dear …” Sister Margery sniffed. “It’s not even noon yet!”
“Oh, I haven’t gone to bed!” Nicole giggled. “Roma’s betrothed’s lord finally gave his permission for the two of them to wed! So after we got the Onion cleaned up, Roma and Lyndsay and I all went to Lyndsay’s treehouse and had our own wedding party!” She laughed so hard that she had to clutch her stomach and bend over. “They’re getting married in less than a fortnight!”
“Why, that is wonderful news!” Sister Margery replied as Erin slowly walked closer. “I shall ask Father Hugh if he can say some special prayers for them.”
“Oh, how sweet of you!” Nicole glanced around Sister Margery. “Isn’t it sweet, Erin?”
“And — and — oh! Erin! That’s why I came here!” Nicole tittered. “We’re going to be having another party in a week’s time! For Roma. A — a shower!” She laughed. “It’s something we do in Reme for brides! Lyndsay said she would host it, and I thought — well — Lyndsay said it was all right, and she’s hosting it, and Roma would love to meet you!”
Roma, Roma, Roma — “Roma Thatcher?” Erin squeaked.
“Aye! Roma Thatcher! Her mother is the midwife!”
An’ her sister’s the brothel madam! Erin gulped. “I — I don’t know, Nicole. I ain’t even met the bride-ter-be.”
“But Roma said she’d love to see you!”
“After how many ales, honey? An’ fer that matter …” Erin walked closer to Nicole and put her cheek near to hers, the better to smell her breath. “How many ales have ye had?”
“Oh, I don’t remember!” Nicole laughed.
“Nicole,” Sister Margery laid her hand on Nicole’s arm, “when you don’t remember how many ales you’ve had, that’s generally time to lie down, in a bed, preferably.”
“Oh … it is?” Nicole turned her head a little to one side, then turned to Erin. “Is ale that much different from wine?”
“Er — what?”
“Because,” she continued with the patience of a mother explaining something to a slightly slow child, “in Reme, my big brother Gaius said that when you can’t remember how many goblets of wine you’ve had, the party’s finally getting started!”
“Ale is different,” Sister Margery said, saving Erin the trouble. “Very different. Now, my dear, let’s get you to bed.”
“But …” Nicole protested as Erin and Sister Margery herded her to the bedroom, “but my cottage is just across the way!”
“I know, Nicole, but I also know there’s a latter between ye an’ yer cottage, an’ I don’t want ter see ye going down it until ye’re a bit more … er …”
“Steady,” Sister Margery finished as they finally got Nicole over the threshold.
Over the course of her career as a prostitute, Erin had dealt with many kinds of drunks. She wished they were all as easy to manage as Nicole. Nicole might have been a bit giggly still, but after they got her bodice and skirt off, she seemed all right with staying in the bed. She burrowed into the covers a bit, then, with one last titter, she started to snore.
Erin and Sister Margery backed slowly out of the room, shut the door behind them — and when all was said and done, started giggling themselves.
“Oh, dear!” Sister Margery gasped. “This isn’t very nice.”
“Aw, we jest won’t tell anyone what a state poor Nicole was in — then we’ll be bein’ plenty nice, I say. Thank’ee fer –”
The words stuck in her throat.
She threw her arms around Sister Margery. “Thank’ee — truly — fer everythin‘.”
Sister Margery squeezed her back. “You have no idea,” she whispered, “how much it was my pleasure, my dear.”