Cakes, in Lyndsay’s experience, were always tricky. You had to keep an eye on that batter every damned minute. It was half-impossible to keep the oven at an even enough temperature to ensure a good result. And then there was the icing of the cake, and the adding of fruits or flowers or other garnishes. It wasn’t enough that the cake tasted good (and Lyndsay was only half-sure it ever did, because her children were the main connoisseurs of her cakes and they wolfed it down too quickly to give her a measured opinion), it had to look good as well. Her own persnicketiness, combined with the finicky nature of cakes, were the main reason why Lyndsay had opted to become a simple tavern cook and not a baker.
But today she had more important things than mere cake to be looking after.
“I don’t think,” Erin huffed slowly, letting out a breath after every word, “that I’ve been half so rattled in me life.”
“I hear ye, hon.” And how could Lyndsay not hear Erin? She’d lost Thorn once, and even now, two years later, her heart started beating fast at the very thought. And she and Ash had only lost Thorn for a day! Erin had been without her little boy for months and months. Maybe Wulf hadn’t been in anywhere near the danger Thorn had been in, but that was cold comfort to a mother’s heart.
“If Brother Tuck finds out who I am …” Erin leaned forward, her head in her hands, whimpering.
“He won’t,” Lyndsay said firmly, because that was the only thing to be said. It was the only thing she had found that would chase the demons away when Ash or Marigold sat on the sofa, asking themselves, What if Morgause, what if Sir Mordred … They wouldn’t. They couldn’t. Lyndsay would gut either or both with her bare hands if they tried.
Still, as her cake came out of the oven, smelling as good as it looked, Lyndsay was faced with the unpalatable fact that while she might be able to get off if she gutted Morgause or Sir Mordred in the process of an attack on her home … she doubted a jury would be quite so sympathetic if she gutted Brother Tuck for trying to hurt her friend’s child.
And they would, sadly, probably be even less sympathetic if Erin was the one doing the gutting.
“Mother Julian says she won’t let Brother Tuck take Wulf from me,” Erin added. “D’ye think … d’ye think I can trust her?”
Damn, Lyndsay thought as she brought the cake over to the counter for icing, she had ter axe me that, didn’t she? How was Lyndsay to know if this monk or that nun could be trusted? She liked to keep as much distance between herself and the church-folk as possible. There were too many of them who had nothing good to say about her man, and by extension herself and — what was worst of all — her kids. Oh, sure, she took the kids to services on Sundays, so as to not look suspicious, but they sat in the back and got the hell out of there as soon as the opening notes of the closing hymn sounded.
She cast a quick glance at the cake, then decided to go for a plain chocolate icing design. The kids wouldn’t care as long as there was lots of it. And, glancing over her shoulder, she decided that the first Sim who would be tasting this cake wouldn’t care much, either.
Lyndsay iced the cake as quickly as she could, and Erin didn’t even seem to notice that she wasn’t answering. She did start, though, where Lyndsay swung by and deposited a slice in front of her. “C-cake?”
“Well, I’m hopin’ that’s how it came out,” Lyndsay replied. “Once I fergot ter put eggs in, an’ it came out … odd. Kinda like a cross between cake an’ a cookie. Weren’t much good, although part o’ me is tempted ter try it again, see if I can make it come out better.”
“No — I mean — won’t the kids be wantin’ it?”
“Sure they will, Erin! An’ they’ll be gettin’ their cake, don’t ye worry none. What, ye think we’ll be eatin’ it all? Fie! Some o’ us have ter keep our girlish figures!” She slapped one ample hip and winked.
Erin only blinked, her jaw slightly fallen.
Lyndsay nudged Erin. “It’s a joke, honey, I know there’s only one Sim — two if ye count Cicely — in this room that can have a girlish figure, an’ it sure as hell ain’t me.”
That finally got Erin to chuckle. She took up her fork but still looked askance at the cake. “I still can’t believe ye eat cake before ye let the kids have at it.”
“Ah, well!” Lyndsay cut herself a slice and thumped theatrically into the seat just across from Erin. “That’s easy enough ter manage, that is. Me an’ the kids, we’ve come ter an agreement. I can have the first piece o’ cake an’ any pieces in the middle, so long as I don’t eat the last one.”
“Ah!” Erin laughed. “So all is explained.”
“Darn right it is, honey. An’ think o’ it this way — eating the first piece, we’re doin’ those kids a favor.”
Erin paused, her second forkful en route to her mouth. “Oh?”
“We’re makin’ sure this cake is good an’ fresh, we are. We can’t be feedin’ our kids stale cake, now, can we?”
Erin snickered. “Lyndsay! It’s jest out o’ the oven!”
“Now, now, ye can tell ye’ve never been a cook professional-like, honey. Ye should have talked more ter Nicole. She’d tell ye that ye can never be too careful.” Lyndsay clucked her tongue and wagged her finger even as she effortlessly loaded another forkful of cake.
“Aw, ye’re too much!”
“Darn right I am. An’ if ye’re still feelin’ guilty, think o’ it this way: if somethin’s gone horribly wrong with the cake, chances are we’ll be dead or dyin’ before the kids come home, an’ we’ll spare ’em that like the good mothers we are.”
Erin didn’t answer, but that might have had more to do with her mouth full of cake, that second forkful having finally arrived at its destination, than a lack of a witty retort.
“Good?” Lyndsay asked as soon as Erin seemed to have swallowed.
“Oh, aye!” Erin grinned. “It’s great, thank’ee, Lyndsay.”
“No trouble. I’ll wrap ye up a slice ter bring home ter Wulf once we’re done.”
“Oh, ye don’t have ter do that!”
“O’ course I do. Ye think I’ll let a little boy go without cake on me watch?”
“Ye still don’t have ter do that,” Erin murmured to her plate.
“Then let me try another reason: what are friends fer, if not ter stuff yer kids full o’ cake, an’ then have a pressin’ appointment when the sweets hit ’em an’ they go runnin’ around like little banshees? Don’t tell me Nicole didn’t used ter do the same thing with Wulf!”
Erin didn’t reply — her shoulders only slouched, and she sighed.
Oh, bloody hell. Good job, Lyndsay! She’d tried to steer the conversation away from the pothole-studded road that was Brother Tuck and ended up wheels-first in the bog that was Nicole. “Ye miss her,” Lyndsay said matter-of-factly.
“Aye. I do. It’s as hard as it were, missin’ Marigold an’ the girls. I feel right pathetic, I do.”
“It’s always hard ter say goodbye to friends,” Lyndsay answered. “Ain’t no shame in that. An’, Erin, it ain’t like she’s dead — Wright ferbid an’ knock on wood,” she added, suiting the action to the word. “Ye can go visit her anytime ye like. I’m sure she’d love yer company.”
“No. She can come see me anytime she likes — an’ I pray she does! But I won’t be goin’ ter see her. I can’t — I can’t risk that on her, Lyndsay. What if someone recognizes me? I’m sure all them fine ladies think her a whore anyway. I won’t risk makin’ that worse fer her.”
Lyndsay frowned. “Does she … does she know who ye are? I mean, who ye were?”
“I think she might guess,” Erin replied. “I’d — I’d be right surprised if she didn’t. But I ain’t told her straight out.”
“Hmm ….” Lyndsay attacked her cake, but the crumbling chocolate gave her no answers. “Well, I guess I see yer point. If she knew, an’ axed ye over, then I’d say on her head be it, but if she don’t know … no. No, that could go two wrong in two many ways.”
“An’ she’s in Sarras, too,” Erin added glumly, “an’ her little square, it’s right close ter the cathedral, ter the abbey …”
“I hear ye,” Lyndsay replied. Of course, the tree wasn’t as far from the cathedral as Lyndsay would like. But Lyndsay didn’t have a reputation to lose. Hell, her sister-in-law owned the brothel! Her reputation was already halfway into the piss-pot as far as the nastier-minded gossips were concerned. Besides, if Brother Tuck saw Erin coming to the tree, he might merely assume that she was still a whore and still living that old life, and thus he wouldn’t go sticking that nose of his where it didn’t belong.
“Ye — ye heard from her recently?” Erin asked. “Nicole, I mean?”
“I’ve not, but Roma has,” Lyndsay replied. With Roma’s baby due to come any day now, Nicole had been going over there almost every other day, bringing the kinds of tasty morsels only a nobleman could afford and only a gifted cook could produce. That baby was going to be mighty disappointed once he — or she — got on solids and wasn’t getting the kind of grub he’d gotten used to in the womb. “She’s over there all the time, ’cause o’ the baby bein’ near due,” Lyndsay added before the hurt shadow in Erin’s eyes could get more. “I think she’ll be turnin’ up on ye’re doorstep as soon as Roma’s baby comes an’ things calm down a bit more on that front.”
“Ah!” Erin replied, and actually looked tolerably cheerful. Well, and why not? Nicole had a husband to look after now, and both Erin and Lyndsay knew husbands took a lot of looking after. Add that to a friend due to pop soon, and it was no wonder Nicole had only time for so much visiting. “How is Roma, by the way?”
“Fairly well, fairly well,” Lyndsay replied. “Good an’ ready ter get that baby out o’ her, I’d say. And she’s done it before, so ye know it’s bad!”
“Don’t I — heh — know it,” chuckled Erin, although a bit unsure. Well, she only had had two kids, only half as many as Lyndsay. And she was unlikely to have more. “But — but ain’t it always like that? No matter how many times ye’ve done it?”
It was a question, a real question, and so it deserved a real answer. “Yes,” answered Lyndsay. “Because no matter how many times ye’ve done, ye’re eager as eager ter meet yer new baby, an’ ye’re very eager ter get yer body back.”
“I remember that,” Erin nodded, but weakly. Probably because she wasn’t just remembering wanting to get her body back, but being eager to meet Wulf … and all that had happened afterward.
So a change of subject was in order. “Anyway, ye know what Roma said about Nicole?” Lyndsay asked. “Seems she an’ her new sister-in-law hit it right off! They’re tradin’ recipes an’ everythin’!”
“Tradin’ recipes?” laughed Erin. “That must be some sister-in-law, ter have recipes worthy o’ tradin’ with Nicole!”
“Ah, see, ye’re no cook if ye’re sayin’ that,” replied Lyndsay. “Ye always take recipes if they’re on offer. Worst case scenario, they’re fine jest the way they are an’ ye’ve got a new dish ter add ter yer collection.”
“Worst case?” Erin half-gasped, half-laughed.
“O’ course! Because the best case, they ain’t much good at all, but ye can improve ’em a bit, do yer magic, an’ hey presto! Ye’ve got a new recipe that ye can call yers, fer all it were based on someone else’s … not-so-perfect attempt, shall we say.”
“Lyndsay! That ain’t no better than stealin’!”
“Bah! That’s cookin’! How many different ways d’ye think there are ter cook a chicken, really? But every cook has got one. An’ they’re all built off each other, ’cause that’s how it’s done.”
“It still feels like stealin’,” mumbled Erin.
“It ain’t. Honest. An’ bein’ a good cook … well, that’s more than followin’ some recipe someone laid down or told ter ye. Lord! Half the cooks can’t describe what they do, ye know, at least, not in a way that makes sense. They’ll ferget a step or two that’s jest natural ter them, that another cook — especially one who ain’t so good — won’t know ter do. An’ then, ye know what ye get?”
“Aye, that’s it! A real good cook, she — or he — has got ter know what ter do with a recipe. That’s what makes good food good. Not words on a piece o’ paper.”
“That makes sense,” Erin replied. “Kinda like … actin’ is more than jest readin’ the words on the page. Ye got ter — mean ’em, and make the audience think ye mean ’em.”
“Aye, aye!” Lyndsay jumped, glad of an opening that would help take Erin even more out of herself. “An’ speakin’ o’ that — I know ye act, but ye barely say a word about it! Come on, Erin, how is that goin’? Ye know Marigold an’ the girls are dyin’ ter know.”
“Oh,” Erin laughed, “ye know, I ain’t the girl they’re all comin’ out ter see. But I think I do a good bit in the funnier plays. Master Henslowe, he says I got good expressions fer bein’ the schemin’ maid.”
“A schemin’ maid? Ye, Erin? Never!” Lyndsay pretended to gasp. “Ye know, I ought ter bring the kids — well, the older kids — one o’ these days up ter see one o’ yer plays. They’d love it, ye know. How much do it cost?”
“Well, if ye want ter sit down, that’ll be a few pennies. But standin’ room is only a penny fer ye an’ each o’ the kids.”
“A play fer all four o’ us, fer only fourpence? That sounds like a fine bargain ter me!” Lyndsay grinned.
“Four o’ ye?” Erin asked. “But … wouldn’t ye take all the older kids? Bran, Ginny, Thorn, ye an’ Ash — that’s five.”
“Oh,” Lyndsay said softly, “Ash wouldn’t go. He — he hates crowds.” She shrugged and tried to smile, but the attempt that came out was halfhearted at best.
“Does he,” replied Erin. “I lived fer ten years an’ more with Marigold, ye know.”
Lyndsay sighed and shook her head. Yes, Erin would know, if anybody would. “I keep tellin’ him,” she muttered to her cake, “ter buy himself a hood. A nice sturdy hood. He can tuck his hair under there, an’ his clothes — he don’t dress like Marigold, so’s ye can see the leafy bits on the back. No, he dresses … sensible-like. Ye wouldn’t even know he were a Plantsim, if it weren’t fer the hair.”
“The eyebrows,” Erin replied, then winced as soon as the words were out of her mouth.
“Thought o’ that,” Lyndsay replied. “Erin, how many folks d’ye think look at a Sim’s eyebrows? I’ll tell ye: nobody. A nice sturdy hood, an’ Ash would be able ter go wherever he wanted an’ chances are nobody would think he were a Plantsim. He could — enjoy himself, really enjoy himself, an’ not have ter go hidin’ in the woods all the time.”
“But is that what he wants, Lyndsay? Ash seems ter like the woods jest fine.”
“He do — he do. Sometimes … if it weren’t fer me an’ the kids, I’d be afraid he’d jest go wanderin’ off inter the woods an’ never come out again. But he won’t. He’d never do that ter us.” Lyndsay shook her head. “He’s lonely, Erin. I know it seems mad, bein’ lonely when ye’ve got a wife an’ five kids jumpin’ all over ye, but he needs friends. Men-friends, not jest tree-friends. But he’s been burned so many times by men-friends …” Lyndsay suddenly bit her tongue. “Goodness, look at me!” she laughed, or tried to. But the result rang hollow. “Ye came over here ter unburden yerself from some o’ yer problems, an’ here I am, throwin’ all o’ mine on top o’ ye.” She bit her lip. “Ye don’t … mind, do ye?”
“Mind? Mind? Lyndsay, sometimes the best medicine fer yer own worries is somebody else’s. Helps ter put things inter perspective, aye?”
“Aye,” Lyndsay replied mechanically. But that didn’t work here, did it? Because Erin’s problems weren’t the sort that Lyndsay’s could put into perspective. Quite the opposite, really. What was the worst Lyndsay had to worry about — really worry about, not just what-if on nights when she couldn’t sleep? The mobs against Ash, the idea of Sir Mordred coming after them … those were the stuff of nightmares, true, but like most nightmares, it only took a does of daylight to dispel them. Erin’s worries? She could have a power-mad monk take her son away any hour of the day or night. Maybe she would get that son back in a trice. Or maybe she wouldn’t.
That was the kind of nightmare that it took a lot more than daylight to dispel.
As if she had heard her thoughts, Erin rose and marched to the window, then paced back, scowling. “Erin?” asked Lyndsay, rising as well. “Erin, what’s wrong?”
Erin cast her a stricken look — then she exploded, “It’s jest not fair!”
“Ye an’ I — Ash an’ Marigold — the rest o’ the girls! Nicole! We’re all jest tryin’ ter do the best we can, aren’t we? Gettin’ by, doin’ harm ter nothin’ an’ nobody? And what’s the thanks we get? Yer husband, he gets jeered at an’ harassed wherever he goes; Marigold gets that an’ worse. There’s scarcely a woman in Albion other than ye an’ me who will be seen in public with the rest o’ the girls. An’ ye an’ I? I only escape that treatment because nobody knows what I am — an’ ye? Ye get the same kind o’ treatment Ash and Marigold get, sidelong! It just ain’t right! I know I sound like Wulf, but it ain’t.”
“Maybe that’s because kids are the only ones what can see certain things for how they are,” shrugged Lyndsay.
Now it was Erin’s turn to ask, “Eh?”
“Well, kids … they’re the first ter cry, ‘No fair!’ ’cause they ain’t learned that life ain’t fair yet. An’ sometimes … ye know, I think we could all stand ter listen ter them. Because how much o’ life bein’ unfair is jest life … an’ how much is us? Stuff we can help?” Lyndsay shrugged. “But ye know what, Erin?”
“What?” she asked with a sullen shrug.
“We’re survivors,” Lyndsay replied flatly. “Ye an’ me. What the world throws at us, we can handle. An’ Wright Willin’ …”
Lyndsay grinned. “We’re gonna go on survivin’ fer a good, long time.”