Martin woke up alone.
He felt nothing other than a faint coldness, and a somewhat fainter stirring of guilt. The baby must have cried, and he had slept through it — again. Perhaps, now that they were on number five, his ears had grown so accustomed to the sound of wailing infants that he scarcely registered them anymore. It was almost a good thing, that. It ought to stand him in good stead when Lukas got married and started having his own babies a few years down the line.
He rolled onto his other side and prepared to drift back to sleep.
Except … something didn’t let him. Something that was stronger than a bit of hay sticking through the loose weave of the mattress, or a bedbug making a snack of his ankle.
Eyes still closed, Martin listened. Nothing but the deep sleeping breathing of his sons came to his ears.
His eyes snapped open.
Martin kicked off the covers and set his feet onto the rough wooden boards. He listened, now not for the sound of Betsy singing or softly talking to the baby, or the baby’s simple suckling, but for the sounds of the night. But even the crickets had gone to bed. It must have been only a few hours until dawn.
And where can Betsy be?
But he would not have been a father if he did not check first on the children. Lukas and Davy were still sleeping soundly. Somehow or other Davy had gotten relegated to the bottom bunk, which was odd, since he liked the top. Maybe he’d been too tired to climb the ladder. He’d spent most of the day running around with Paddy Brogan, so he was well tuckered out.
Next he padded over to the crib, hoping against hope that Bert wasn’t there, that Betsy had only taken him downstairs to feed him. She didn’t do that often, since the boys slept right through the late-night feedings and Martin wasn’t much better, but sometimes she did.
But Bert lay still and silent in his crib, eyes tightly shut and light lashes resting on his fat baby cheeks like two ladies’ fans. Martin cupped the boy’s head in his hand, feeling the soft heat and the downy fuzz of it. Bert stirred, bringing a finger up to suck.
Hope ye aren’t hungry, son, because if ye are, we’re both in trouble until I find yer ma. … Wonder how mad she’d be if I started ye on solids now?
Beyond sucking the thumb, though, Bert made no movement. Martin kissed the baby’s head and slowly backed away.
He still had one more place to check before giving up and going downstairs. The lavatory. He crept across the room, stuck his head in the door …
Nobody. At least he hadn’t woken up anybody other than Leroy, one of the dogs. Martin turned around to see the dog’s glowing eyes fixed on him.
“Don’t suppose Betsy was willin’ ter talk to ye when she got up, eh?” Martin muttered.
The dog whined and his tail beat against wooden floor.
“Shush — ye’ll wake the boys up, an’ then where will we be?” Martin whispered. Leroy whined again, but at least he stopped wagging his tail. Then there was nothing for it but to climb down the ladder to the ground floor.
He knew before he’d gone down three rungs that he had good cause to hope that she’d be there. He knew before his feet touched the ground that she was there.
It was, after all, hard to miss Betsy’s limp form slumped over at the table.
Aw, Besty, lass … Martin waited a moment, listening. He heard nothing but soft sleep-breathing. Thank the Lord. He made a plumbbob over himself, but could not find the courage to stride over to her, nudge her awake, and get her back up to bed.
This wasn’t the first night he had found her like this, after all.
Martin sighed. She never woke him when she couldn’t sleep, much as he wished she would. He’d gladly hold her until the shaking or the tears or even just the sadness stopped and they could both sleep again. But no, that was not Betsy’s way. She would say that since she was out of work and he still had a job, she shouldn’t wake him. He needed his rest; she could rest all day. And Martin had to be awake, had to be alert, had to do his best work each and every day. They were lucky that Sir Mordred had only fired Betsy. If he fired Martin and Lukas too, then what would they do?
He’d never say it aloud — not even to Betsy — but as far as Martin was concerned, Sir Mordred and his fields and his taxes could go hang. He’d feel better not to be toiling day in and day out to enrich the son of the woman who had killed his brother and done her damnedest to kill an innocent child younger than Davy. As for money — well, they’d get by, somehow. That same brother was now the King’s brother-in-law. Martin had never presumed upon that connection before, but he would now if he had to.
He took a few hesitant steps forward. “Betsy? Bess?”
She slowly sat up. “What …”
“Hallo, love,” Martin murmured, stroking her hair.
“Martin …” Betsy rubbed the bridge of her nose. “What — is it late?”
“So late it’s early.”
“Ye should be in bed …”
“So should ye.”
She shook her head. “I’ll be up in a minute.”
Liar, liar, skirts on fire. But he wouldn’t say that. Not to her. Not now. Not when she’d cried for hours after Sir Mordred called her the most pernicious liar he’d ever come across and then gave her the sack. Martin could almost forgive Sir Mordred for firing Betsy — he doubted he would have been willing to keep paying the woman who was one of the main Sims accusing his own mother of kidnapping and attempted murder. But he didn’t have to hurt her the way he had.
So instead of questioning her veracity, Martin sat himself down beside her.
“Don’t mind me. I’m jest keepin’ ye company until ye feel ready ter come to bed.”
“I said I’d be up in a minute.”
“We can go up together.”
Betsy sighed and rested her head in her cradled hands. “Oh, Martin.”
Martin said nothing, only waiting.
“What d’ye want from me, love?” she whispered finally.
“I don’t want nothin’ from ye. Jest ter sit by ye a while.”
It was in her power to end this now — to go up to bed with him and rest there until the dawn came and the rush to get two boys off to school started. Betsy didn’t move. Maybe it meant she was finally ready to talk about this. Or maybe it meant that she was too exhausted to move just yet.
Martin just hoped it didn’t mean that she was too afraid to go to bed — afraid to sleep, afraid to see what nightmares would claim her now.
At least he thought they were nightmares. He almost wished she would wake up shouting, just once, so he’d have proof. And then they could begin to deal with it.
“Martin,” Betsy murmured, “ye should get back upstairs. Ye need –”
“Don’t start that with me now, love.”
Betsy’s eyes went wide, then they dropped to the table.
He wanted nothing so much as to reach across the table and take her hand. If she wouldn’t let him comfort her heart, at least, he thought, she ought to allow him to take her hand. But no. His Betsy insisted on keeping her sorrows locked tight inside of her while she broadcast whatever brittle joys she could find to the world.
She was even doing that now. “Did I mention that I went an’ saw Meg an’ Felix today?”
It was technically yesterday that she had seen them, and she had technically told him all about the visit. But if she wanted to distract herself … what could he do but let her? “I think ye might have brought it up, but ye didn’t say too much about what was goin’ on.”
“D’ye think she’s happy?” she asked.
“Meg, I mean.”
Martin blinked. “I thought she an’ Pierre made up … er, Felix bein’ around would imply that … unless …” He narrowed his eyes. “Do I need ter take a cudgel to that stupid boy’s head?”
“No, no! Goodness, no … jest … I don’t know. Sometimes she seems much happier, an’ sometimes … I don’t know.”
Martin rested his chin on both of his hands, his raised eyebrows a mute invitation to continue.
“It’s jest … Lady Dindrane …”
It was all Martin could do to avoid snapping to attention. Lady Dindrane, eh? But if that was what it took to get Betsy talking … if she had to creep up sideways, spider-like, to the subject … well, Martin would have a whole new appreciation for spiders, that was certain.
“I’ve been watchin’ her since she first married Sir Mordred,” Betsy murmured. “She weren’t happy fer a minute. Not with him.”
Martin said nothing.
“What would we do, Martin, if she weren’t happy?”
“She’s welcome to come back here if ever she wants, Bess. She knows that.” Martin bit his lip, then murmured, “An’ — an’ I think, ye know, that Meg’s gonna be fine. If … if she weren’t fine, if she really were unhappy, an’ ye an’ I didn’t jest know, ye know Joyce would be kickin’ up a fuss. The only thing she’s been kickin’ recently are her heels when she dances … an’ Berach’s arse, o’ course, but that’s of no more account than the heels, I’d say.”
“Martin! She ain’t kickin’ Berach’s arse! She was jest by here with Leah a few days ago. Happy as a clam, our girl is.”
Martin raised one eyebrow. “… What does her bein’ happy have ter do with her not kickin’ Berach’s arse?”
“Ye’re makin’ it sound like — like — oh, like she ain’t happy unless she’s yellin’ at some–Martin!” Betsy gasped, giggling. “Stop lookin’ like that!”
At least she was laughing. He blinked, the way Joyce and Lukas had always blinked when they were in trouble and knew it, but were hoping that playing innocent would get them out of it. Davy hadn’t picked up on that trick yet, but it was only a matter of time. “Like what, dearest?”
“Like — like that’s exactly what ye’re meanin’ ter say!”
“Like what is?”
“That our girl ain’t happy unless she’s bossin’ someone about!”
Martin let his eyebrows slowly creep upward. “Betsy, honey, I hate ter be the one ter break it ter ye if ye ain’t noticed, but she is a woman …”
“Bite yer tongue, Martin Pelles!” Betsy smacked his arm. “I raised a good girl, not no Cerise Chevaux!”
“Oooh!” Martin laughed. “Them’s fightin’ words!”
“Oh, Lord!” Betsy gasped. “Don’t tell her I said that!”
“The thought hadn’t crossed my mind,” Martin replied truthfully. “Leastaways, not until ye said that …”
“Now if I could only determine which her ye didn’t want told …”
“Martin, ye wouldn’t dare!” Betsy cried, or tried to — between trying to whisper and laughing too hard to get a convincing yell out, it didn’t really work.
“Can’t be Joyce,” he mused, “she’d jest laugh. Must be Cerise, then.”
“Martin! Oh, Martin!” Betsy chortled, then broke off, shaking her head. “Lord, but it does me good to laugh.”
“Lord,” Martin replied, “but it does me good ter hear ye laughin’.”
Sorrow clapped over her face like a mask, and Martin kicked himself and his big fat mouth. “Don’t look like that,” he begged.
“Like — like what?”
“Like I jest killed all the joy in ye.”
“Ye could never do that.” Her hand darted toward him, but just as quickly darted back to her side.
“Then don’t look like I jest did.”
Betsy sighed and hung her head. “It … it ain’t nothin’ ye did, Martin, Lord an’ I both know that … I jest …”
“Ye jest what?”
“I didn’t know … it were so obvious.”
“Bess.” Martin raised his eyebrows and stared her down, as he would stare down one of the children.
It worked. “That — that these past few weeks an’ months have been … hard fer me.”
“We’ve been man an’ wife these past three-an’-twenty years, Bess. If I didn’t know when ye was sad, what kind of husband would that make me?”
“I don’t know.”
“Not a good one,” Martin answered for her. He began to walk his fingers across the table, nearer to her hand.
Betsy saw the hand coming and smiled, but made no move toward it.
“Not the kind o’ husband ye deserve,” he added.
Her lips parted slightly and her eyes filled with tears. “Even now?”
“… What’s different about now?”
“After this mess I dragged us all inter?”
“Betsy, Betsy! Ye didn’t drag us inter nothin’! Lord above — I shoulda been beggin’ yer pardon, after Accolon … we was already knee-deep in the mess, love, we’ve been knee-deep in sh–muck fer years.”
“This is different.”
“Because it ain’t Accolon this time. It’s us.”
Martin closed his eyes. “Aye. Aye, it is us. But …” He sighed. “Accolon dug his own hole, ye know. He … he told me some things, ye know, before …” Martin swallowed. “Before.”
“He told ye …?”
“He told me he were in love with Lady Morgan. That he couldn’t sleep fer thinkin’ about her. That he caught himself starin’, that he … aww, Bess, ye’re a grown woman, ye can fill in the blanks.”
He felt a hand come down over the top of his. “Aye,” Betsy murmured. “I can.”
Martin smiled, turned his hand over, and squeezed hers. “Well then. Ye can imagine what I said ter him.”
“O’ course. What else could I say?” Martin shrugged and Betsy nodded. “An’ ye can guess jest what he didn’t do, the blame fool.”
“Ravenna’s bein’ around makes it right hard ter guess wrong.”
“Aye. Aye, exactly.” He sighed. “So … like I’m sayin’, Accolon dug his own hole. But Bess … aye, we’re in a hole now, but ye jest stumbled inter it. An’ how could I be mad fer that? Wright, ye hurt yerself fallin’ more than ye could hurt any o’ us.”
Betsy studied him for a long moment, her lips starting to tremble. Martin found himself praying for tears, as he often prayed for rain.
It was always a roll of the dice whether the Lord Wright would answer the farmers’ prayers for rain — there was no question, however, that he ignored Martin’s prayers for tears. Betsy blinked a few times and the glassy look in her eyes was gone. “Ye — ye think so?”
“Bess, I know so.”
“An’ — an’ ye think I did the right thing?”
“Helpin’ that little boy? Good Lord, love, what kind of ogre d’ye think I am? O’ course ye did the right thing.”
“No matter what happens? With ye, with Lukas, with Sir Mordred?”
“No matter what happens.”
Betsy sighed and stared at their linked hands. “I hope … I hope this is the worst of it. Me losin’ me job.”
There were two things Martin could have told her, but he had the heart to say neither of them. The first was that he doubted the loss of Betsy’s job would be the end of Sir Mordred’s vindictiveness. The second was that the loss of Betsy’s job was nothing compared to the loss of her laughter, of her joy. Of her sleep. Sir Mordred and Lady Morgause could keep the bloody job. He wanted his happy wife back.
“Ye don’t think it will be,” Betsy sighed.
“I –” Martin gulped. “That’s — that’s not what I was thinkin’ at all,” he lied.
“I was thinkin’ …” he stumbled. “I was thinkin’ that there’s a right silver linin’ ter this cloud. We got back in with Accolon an’ Lady Morgan, didn’t we?”
Betsy tilted her head to one side and stared at him.
“An’ — an’, well, I got me brother back, sort of. That’s a good thing.”
She started to smile. “Aye — aye!”
“An’ … well, Sir Mordred would have ter be mad ter tangle with Lady Morgan, if she’s on our side. An’ she is on our side, ye know. So … so, we’re safe, ain’t we?”
“I — I guess we are …”
“We are. Trust me, love. We are.” Martin stood up. “An’ ye know what else we are?”
“Oh … I suppose …”
He extended his hand to her, as a knight would extend one to his lady. Betsy smiled and took it.
She wasn’t expecting him, though, to use it as leverage to swing his arms under her legs and sweep her off her feet. “Martin!”
“Hush, ye’ll wake the kids!”
“Ye’ll wake the kids when ye throw yer back out an’ drop me, old man!”
“Ouch! That was cold!”
“It’s the truth,” Betsy giggled into his neck.
Martin decided to prove just how not the truth that was by tottering across the room.
“Martin!” she hissed into his ear. “Martin, I ain’t the slender girl ye first carried across the threshold. Put me down!”
“Naw, ye only think ye ain’t, love. Ye’re still my skinny Bess.”
She laughed. “Ye ain’t gettin’ me up the ladder, ye know! Ye’ll have ter put me down sooner or later.”
“Eh, we’ll figure somethin’ out,” he replied. Maybe they’d make use of his parents’ old bed, down here by the fire. It had been too long since it was used for something other than folding laundry.
And if worst came to worst and he fell down the ladder … at least he’d fall to the sound of Betsy’s laughter.