Alabama did not ask for much out of life. She’d lived too long to be that silly. A place inside, out of the cold, to sleep — a cushion was a nice but unlooked-for luxury — a dish filled with food, a hand to pat her head from time to time. A nice, juicy bone to gnaw on. What more did an old dog like her need?
Alabama’s tail, generally wagging, slowed and stopped. The pups. Not her pups — her pups were grown up and gone, long ago now, and she would probably never get a chance to sniff them again. Still, that was the way of pups.
Sim pups were different. Sim pups didn’t leave, at least not for years and years and years. They didn’t grow to be full Sims until a dog was almost finished with her life. And while they might leave one at a time, dead, encased in pine boxes, they didn’t leave all at once.
Alabama’s pups had left. Now it was just her and Master.
She could smell master from here. He had the barley-smell. Not the smell of actual barley, growing in the sun, or the barely seeds gathered in the cupboards to be pounded down to make the Sims’ bread, but the drink they made from the barley. Sometimes, when Master poured Alabama a little of the barley-drink into her dish, if Alabama sniffed closely, she could smell the aftereffects of sun and rain and wind. But mostly she just smelled the drink of it.
She didn’t like it when Master poured the barley-drink into her dish. It made her dizzy and disoriented and sleepy. But Master always smiled and patted her head when he did so, so Alabama drank it. She could always go into the bedroom and sleep it off. And if she drank it, that meant Master wasn’t drinking it.
Master was drinking it more and more these days. And even when he wasn’t drinking it, he still smelled of it, along with other smells Alabama couldn’t identify.
Well, she could. It was rot, decay. The drink was eating Master from the inside out. And if Master died … what would Alabama do?
If she was a Sim, she would have shivered in the dawn light slowly filtering in through the windows. As it was, she could only gnaw and worry her bone more.
Then — then her ears pricked up, and she stood.
She heard something.
Footsteps — footsteps creaking on the wooden steps to the house. Alabama whined and her tail began to wag. Maybe it was the pups!
Then she listened more closely. No, it was only one set of footsteps, not three or four or even five, if the littlest pup was walking. And it was too heavy a tread to be any of them. Alabama sat on her haunches and whined — but quietly. Master didn’t like to be awakened.
Then came the next sound. The knocking.
Alabama’s fur bristled. But she didn’t bark. Not yet. There were some knocks that were good, and some that were bad. If Master woke up for a bad one, he would yell and stamp and maybe even throw things at Alabama. Alabama didn’t want that.
She slowly padded to the door to sniff at the crack.
Luckily the wind was with her. She could make out the scent of the man outside. Only one man — that was good. Usually the bad knocking was made by several men. And when the several men came, they would usually take something from the house. And they would push Master around, and when Alabama started to bark or growl, they would throw things at her or smack her if they could catch her. Unlike Master, when they threw things, they usually hit.
The man was Long-Tunic Man. Alabama moved back. She looked at Master.
Master wasn’t stirring.
She looked again at the door. As if she had summoned it, the knocking came louder. “Finley!” Another knocking. “Finley! I know you’re in there!”
Alabama whined, but that didn’t wake Master, either.
She considered, her tail twitching. Master tended to be grumpy after Long-Tunic came, but at least Long-Tunic didn’t make Master go for the barley-drink as soon as he left. Well, most of the time. Sometimes he would. But unlike when the other men came, he never clung to that bottle as if it was the only thing holding him to life. And he would never call Alabama over, bury his face in her fur, and cry.
He always drank more after he cried.
Alabama decided to risk it and barked as loudly as she dared.
Master started awake. “Eh?” He rubbed his head and glared. “What’s the matter with ye, dog?”
Alabama didn’t bark again, but she did sit back on her haunches and whine.
Then the knocking came again, and so did the voice. “Finley? Are you awake?”
“Bloody hell.” Master glared at Alabama and reached around the couch, probably for something to throw. But the only thing to hand was his bottle, and he wouldn’t throw that at her. “What’d ye have ter go an’ wake me up fer, damn bitch?”
Alabama whined again. “Finley!” shouted Long-Tunic.
Master sighed. “Guess I’d better get that — no thanks ter ye.” He kept glaring even as he made his slow and unsteady way to his feet. And once there, still swaying slightly, he stood as still as he could. Then he crept to the door.
Alabama couldn’t see Master’s face, but she could hear his growl when he opened it. “What the hell d’ye want?”
“Good morning, Finley. I hope the day finds you well?”
From her long years with Sims, Alabama knew they were not like other predators. They did not bare their teeth to warn each other away, but to welcome each other and greet them. It was sort of like a Sim’s sniff of another. But she never liked it when Long-Tunic bared his teeth. She often wondered if part of him was contemplating eating the other Sim whenever he did that.
But he was good to Master. He stayed and talked to him, which Sims seemed to need and the other men never did. And he often brought food, too. Good food, food that made the house smell like heaven and not like the barley-drink. He even usually remembered a bone for Alabama.
He did today, too, easily pushing past Master and taking a long bone from the sleeve of his robe. Alabama was too well-mannered to jump up and grab it — and her joints hurt too much — but she did yip and wag her tail until Long-Tunic patted her head and tossed it to the floor with a clatter.
“Who invited ye in?” Master snarled.
“Is not the servant of the Lord always welcome where his followers stay?” asked Long-Tunic. Master humphed and stumped over to the table. Long-Tunic followed, but he picked up the cups and plates from last night and brought them to the barrel for washing.
Master’s rear hit the stool with a thump. “What are ye, some kind o’ woman?”
“There’s nothing unmanly about cleaning up after oneself, Finley.”
“Maybe not, but there is about cleanin’ up after other folks,” Master snorted.
“And if I didn’t clean up, how long would you have let these cups and such fester, eh?” Long-Tunic lifted up one of the plates and examined it with a critical eye. “It looks like Alabama already got to this one.”
Alabama looked up and wagged her tail, but didn’t dare to whine. Master snorted. “I gave it ter her when I were through with it. Somethin’ wrong with that?”
“But there is something wrong with leaving it out all night, all the same. If you don’t take care of your house, your things, who will, Finley?” Long-Tunic asked as he sat down.
Alabama, sensing that the conversation would no longer mention her, lay down and began to chew her new bone. There was still some marrow left in this one!
Still, she kept an ear cocked for the men and one eye on the table. Because you never knew.
Master wouldn’t look at Long-Tunic. “Since me own kids have abandoned me, one an’ all, after their ma died, tell me why I should bother ter be takin’ care o’ anythin’. Let them get everythin’ ruined when I’m gone. See if I care.”
“They have not abandoned you, Finley.”
“Not abandoned me? Then where the hell are they? I work, an’ I slave, an’ I break me back ter raise the three o’ ’em, an’ where are they now?” Master’s hand pounded on the table. Alabama jumped, whining. “Where the hell are they, Brother? Tell me that!”
“I have spoken to all three of them.”
“What?” Master’s hand pounded on the table again, but this time Alabama didn’t jump or whine. “Who said ye could do that?”
Long-Tunic’s eye-whiskers slowly went upward. “I’m a monk, Finley. I have to watch after my flock. And you need help.”
“It’s Father Hugh who has ter be watchin’ the flock — not ye. Ye, ye do what he says. An’ no more.”
“Father Hugh is one man, and his flock is the size of a kingdom. I can’t be asking him permission for everything I do.” Alabama watched him bare his teeth and whined softly, so softly the Sims’ insensitive ears couldn’t even pick up on her. “And I doubt he would disagree with me trying to reunite a family.”
“He might if he knew my ungrateful offsprin’.”
Long-Tunic sighed. “Finley, the point is … well, the point is that there is some hope for you to get help. First of all, Grady gave me some money and told me to buy anything you needed.”
“Money?” Master asked, leaning forward. “Where?”
“Finley, you know I can’t give you any money. The rules of my Order clearly prohibit that. I’ve explained that to you before.”
He had — not that Alabama understood the conversation. But she could pick out words that were used often enough, and she knew well what “no” meant. And she knew when Master wasn’t happy.
“Ye give out the yearly dole. If that’s fine, don’t see why a couple coppers here an’ there ter folks in need would be any different.”
“It’s very complicated, Finley. But think of it like this. Even monks can be greedy, can be wicked, can have sinful hearts. What would be easier for a monk to say that he was giving out coppers to the poor — a few at a time — and instead hoard them until he can buy something nice for himself? It is much easier for the monastery to only give out money at certain set times, and for other things to give the goods that people need, not just money.”
“An’ what’s ter stop ye from sayin’ ye’re given some poor old man, abandoned by his children, clothes or food or what not, but instead sellin’ the stuff at market an’ pocketin’ the cash?”
Long-Tunic patted the top of his shiny, furless head. “When is the last time you saw a monk sell anything at market? We are a bit conspicuous, you know.”
Master shrugged. “Ye still could, if ye had a mind ter.”
“We could … but the Order of St. Pascal thinks that it is best to remove easier sources of temptation, and hopefully the natural laziness of Sims and their good moral characters will work together to ensure that the Sim will not succumb to the temptations that are more difficult and dangerous.”
“Hmmph. Still don’t see why ye can’t be givin’ me me money me son gave ter ye ter give ter me.”
“Because he did not give me that money to give to you, Finley. He gave me that money to buy for you whatever you needed. There is a difference, and I would be remiss in my duties to both of you if I did not carefully observe that difference.”
“Don’t see why. Ain’t like it’s his money. It’s mine. Everythin’ that boy has, he stole from me.”
Alabama had lived her whole life with Sims, so she was good at reading their faces. Long-Tunic’s face bespoke surprise and disbelief. And unlike most of the time, this time Long-Tunic actually held the expression long enough for Alabama to understand it.
Then he smoothly began talking again. Alabama never understood why it was that Sims did that. It was like a dog who had been giving off the fear-scent for quite five minutes, then proceeded to go back to his bone as if nothing had happened. Why? It wasn’t like there was anybody who didn’t know that the dog had been scared!
Sims, however, did not work that way.
“In any case, Finley, you see that your children have not all stopped supporting you. And I talked to Neil Porter, too. Your son-in-law.”
“Bah! That ungrateful ass! I let him marry me daughter, me best girl, an’ how does he repay me? Spurns me gen’rous offer ter make him me heir! An’ he’s now gonna be Ferreira’s man!”
“Well, yes,” Long-Tunic agreed. “He must do what is best for his own family. But he did say that he would be willing to take you in, on two conditions.”
“Eh?” Now it was Master’s turn to look surprised.
“The first is that Lord Pellinore would agree.”
“Like he would.”
“And the second is that you would cease drinking.”
“Ce–Lord bloody damn ‘im! Ye idiot! That’s no more than what he said ter me! As if a man o’ me years ain’t allowed ter enjoy a pint after a hard day’s — nay, a hard life’s labor!”
Long-Tunic didn’t say anything.
“An’ he don’t know.” Alabama looked up. Master’s voice was growing thick and growly. If this went on much longer, he would be calling her over and crying into her fur. “He don’t know what it’s like. Losin’ … losin’ the thing ye held most dear in the world …”
“No, he does not. But I think he knew your wife, Finley. And I think I did, too, and I know you did. And so we all know that she would not want you to drink yourself into an early grave.”
“She wouldn’t want ter be seein’ me again soon, is that what ye’re sayin’?”
“No, no, of course not.”
Alabama lifted her head and sniffed. Long-Tunic was giving off that scent again. It was close to fear-scent, but not quite it. It was unease-scent. He only smelled like that when he said something that might make Master angry, or else when he said something that Master would know was untrue.
That was another thing about Sims that Alabama would never understand. They talked so much, but they didn’t say things that were true. Wasn’t there enough true in the world to keep a Sim talking morning, noon, and night without having to talk of untrue things?
“Maybe she wouldn’t,” Master sighed. “I weren’t a good husband ter her. Put that woman through sore trials, I did.”
“Perhaps you did, Finley,” Long-Tunic agreed. The unease smell started to get stronger. “And if you did, you know why you did. And now that she is no longer here, do you not think you might owe it to her to stop doing those things which made her so unhappy?”
“Why? She’s dead.”
“But your children are still alive, Finley. And so are you. You have still so much time before you, time to make things right, make your wife proud –”
“Tell me what Berach said.”
Long-Tunic’s hands dropped to his sides. Alabama looked up and watched.
“Tell me. Ye said ye talked ter all o’ ’em — though I’m guessin’ ye lied, since it weren’t Ailís ye said nothin’ about talkin’ about, but her husband.”
“That is true; I did not speak with your daughter. I apologize for misleading you.” Smooth, oily. But Long-Tunic’s unease scent was growing. The fur on Alabama’s back started to bristle. “And … although I did speak with Berach, our conversation was not long. I … suggest that whatever you did to make him so angry, you amend it, Finley. Berach is an easygoing man, and I’ve never seen him so angry.”
“He won’t have nothin’ ter do with me, then.”
“Not … at the moment. But you know, strong emotions … Neil barely showed any when I spoke to him. Grady showed only guilt. Berach’s anger might stand you in good stead. If it can be soothed, it might open up into filial love –”
“You don’t –”
“I only told ‘im the truth, Brother. An’ Berach, he ain’t never been much fer hearin’ the truth.”
“Called little Leah a whore’s daughter, I did. Now, were what I said nice? O’ course not. I won’t deny it. But it were true. An’ I ain’t never said I were sorry fer sayin’ what was true, an’ I ain’t gonna start now.”
Long-Tunic’s jaw fell. “You — you said to Berach that his daughter is a whore’s daughter?”
“No wonder he was so angry …”
“Even more so, since he was hidin’ the truth from her.”
“Hiding the …” The unease smell became stronger, then morphed into — anger? Long-Tunic was getting angry? “Finley! You said something so cruel where she could hear?”
“She were misbehavin’. Showin’ her blood, ye might say.”
“You said that to her? That girl can’t be more than six years old! And you said something like that to her?”
Long-Tunic slumped on his stool, staring open-mouthed at Master. Then … then he stood up.
“This was not told to me under the seal of the confessional, so I cannot assign penance for it,” he said. “But you did something very cruel, Finley. And though it is impious and unfilial for your son to refuse to help you, I cannot say that I do not understand why he does. Finley, you should repair that breach with your son, and swiftly. It may be your only chance to get some help.”
“Are — are ye leavin’?”
“Yes. I have other duties to see to today.”
“But — but ye jest got here!”
“You are not the only man I must visit today, Finley. But I will come back tomorrow, if you would like. I would be happy to take your confession then, too, if you would like.”
“Speakin’ the truth is asin?”
“Not as such — but doing so in such a way as to wound a child, and your own grandchild? If hurting a child is not a sin, then, Finley, I am sorry, but I do not know what is.” He didn’t bare his teeth at Master, but the corners of his lips did turn up. “But I will return tomorrow.”
And with that, he left.
Master sat. Master sat and cradled his head in his hands.
Alabama dropped her bone, slowly negotiated her aching joints into a standing position. She whined softly.
Master looked up. Now it was time for one corner of his lips to go up — but it didn’t stay that way for very long.
“Alabama.” He rose to his feet even as slowly as Alabama would. He walked over to her, then just as slowly crouched to pat her head. “Me only friend.”
Alabama yipped and wagged her tail.
“Ye won’t abandon me, will ye? No, no. O’ course ye won’t. Ye’re a good girl, ye are, Alabama. Ain’t no bitch, like those others. No, ye’re me girl. Me only girl.” One last pat, then he rose, wincing and grunting and gripping the special table next to him for support. Master looked at the table once he was safely up, and gulped — it was the kind of sound he would make shortly before he would cry into Alabama’s fur.
But he didn’t do that now. Now, he shuffled over to the larder.
Alabama sat, because she knew what would be coming next.
He took out a barrel, hefted it onto a cupboard. From the cupboard he took out a cup. He turned the spigot on the side of the barrel, and the barley-drink fell into the cup.
Then Master shuffled over to the couch and began to drink.
If Alabama had been a Sim, she would have sighed. Since she was only a dog, she could only turn back to her bone and gnaw it quickly.
It was going to be a long day.