Lukas was insisting on singing a silly song to his baby; Ella was gamely pushing her stomach forward and laughing all the while; Davy and Bert were in the middle of a rousing game of peek-a-boo. The dogs lounged here and there, a tail beating against the floor or a low whine inviting a pat. A fire burned in every grate, keeping the house and dinner equally warm. Yet Betsy’s gaze rarely left the door. Why?
Martin. He was expected home this evening. Any minute now, really. Betsy merely kept her eye on the door so she could have a hope of greeting him once he walked inside it, soon to be mobbed by Davy, Bert, the dogs, and maybe even Ella’s stomach if she was in a teasing mood. Yes, that was all it was.
That had to be all it was.
Leroy, their oldest dog, cocked his head and whined at Betsy. Betsy could only smile at him. At least nobody had noticed the dog. Usually he only had to shift a little on his pillow for Davy or Bert to come running, Davy to scratch him behind the ears and rub his belly and Bert to pull on his ears and tail. But today Davy and Bert and all the rest of them were too occupied to notice poor Leroy. Or Betsy.
Leroy crawled off his pillow, each shaky movement of his arthritic joints sending a shudder up his spine. He padded closer to Betsy, whining again. Betsy scratched him behind the ears, and he laid his head on her lap, eyes closed and giving every indication of doggy bliss.
“Oh, stop, ye,” Betsy murmured. “I know it’s jest cupboard love. Ye know who feeds ye, that’s all.”
Leroy’s tail thumped against the ground.
Betsy chuckled and continued to pat the dog. Usually she was ready to chase any of the dogs off with a broom if they so much as looked at the sofa funny, but not tonight. Tonight, she wished Leroy wasn’t so old, that he could climb up on the sofa and lay, if not his whole body, then at least a good portion of it on her lap. She wanted to hold onto something the way she hadn’t since she was a child, when the plague hit her village like a champion wrestler and then walked off, laughing. They had been so afraid — whenever plague had hit a house, they burned the house and everything in it. The plague had claimed Betsy’s grandmother that year. And the fire afterward had claimed the little cloth doll Betsy’s grandmother had made just for her.
Betsy started and shook herself. What was the matter with her? There was no reason to be so maudlin! As much for something to do as for anything else, she gently shooed Leroy out of the way, rose, and went to the window.
The snow had started up again, though the day has been as clear and cloudless as the sky was wont to be in the middle of summer. The sun dancing off the snow had been blinding. And now? There was more snow to blind. Betsy’s arms ached for something to hold, to cuddle, as they had not since that awful winter that had claimed her grandmother.
But that winter hadn’t been entirely awful, had it? Because the village had come together. Betsy’s family had been one of the lucky ones; they had only lost one member. But all the same, luckier families had opened their doors to the stricken ones, giving food and shelter and supplies until a new house could be built and furnished. Betsy’s family was too big for any one other family to take them all in, so Betsy and her sister had been sent with one family, her elder brothers with another, and her parents and the baby with a third family.
That was how she had met Martin. Maybe “met” wasn’t the word; you didn’t “meet” people in a village like Betsy’s. You simply always knew them. But that was how they had gotten to know each other. He had been her rock, her protector, even then.
The ache to hold something grew too strong, and Betsy found herself swooping down and clutching Bert to her breast before she had even consciously decided to do so.
“Ma!” Bert called, his little fists trying to grab her hair as they always had. Betsy closed her eyes and sighed. This was bliss, this was contentment … as long as she had a baby to hold to her in the daytime and Martin to hold by her side at night, everything would be just fine.
When she looked up, though, she found that Lukas and Ella were staring at her, Lukas’s jaw fallen and Ella trying to cover up her blinking with a nervous grin.
“I …” Betsy started, and stopped. Did she really have to explain herself? Wasn’t she allowed to hold her littlest boy whenever she damn well pleased?
Bert yelped without warning, and that was Betsy’s only indication that maybe she was holding him a little too tightly.
So she loosened her grip and smiled at the young ones. “Ye know, maybe we should get dinner fer the little ones,” she suggested. “Ye know yer da wouldn’t want the little ones goin’ hungry.”
“Ma! I don’t mind waitin’!” Davy scrambled up to tug on her skirts. “I want ter hear how Da’s trip went! An’ how it was, stayin’ in that nice inn!”
“Ye an’ yer inns!” Betsy laughed. “O’ course ye can stay up, lad, at least for a little while longer. But tell me, d’ye want ter stay up hungry?”
While Davy pondered that, Betsy brought Bert over to his chair and settled him in it. Ella, meanwhile, went over to the larder to grab the last seasonings for the kasha, to be put in just before it was served. Davy followed her and sat without a word.
Well, not quite without a word. “I’m not eatin’ jest yet,” he announced. “I want ter wait fer Da fer jest a little bit longer.”
“Ye might as well eat, squirt,” Lukas replied, even as he crouched and gave Ebbie a good rub. “That way, when Da comes, ye can axe him questions an’ questions an’ never give him a minute ter eat, while not havin’ ter worry about eatin’ yerself.”
“Lukas! That would be mean!” Davy gasped.
“What? That’s what ye used ter do ter me whenever I did somethin’ halfway interestin’ durin’ the day!”
“I did not! Ma! Tell him that I didn’t!”
“Lukas,” Betsy warned, rolling her eyes. “Ye should know better than ter tease yer brother by now.”
“I do, Ma, but it’s jest so much fun!”
Betsy smacked the back of his head — which, in terms of force expended, wasn’t much different from ruffling his hair, even if she had to reach up to do it these days — as she walked past to get a little bowl for Bert. She filled it and brought it back to him.
“Ma Betsy,” Ella asked just as Betsy set the bowl on Bert’s tray, “are ye sure Martin said he’d be back terday?”
“He … well …” Betsy rubbed the back of her neck. She knew he would have to take that load of timber down to Port Finessa. Sir Mordred might have no love lost for her, but he still needed and appeared to trust Martin. But she had thought he would be back the day after. She never imagined that Sir Mordred would have paid for him to stay in Port Finessa if the weather was too bad to return, never mind in a fine inn. He never had before. Nor had Lord Lot.
But Lord Lot wouldn’t have made the men take the shipment in weather like this …
“Aw, Ella, he wouldn’t stay away fer that long,” Lukas answered for Betsy. “He’ll want ter be gettin’ home.”
“But the weather’s been awful,” Ella replied. “He might be ridin’ the worst o’ it out. An’ if he is …” She swished the kasha in the pot. “Dinner’s all done.”
Betsy bit her lip, for Lukas looked about ready to tease. “Let’s all sit down,” she decided, “an’ Ella, ye can serve, an’ if we all get hungry enough, we can start. Yer da won’t mind.”
Ella nodded and began to serve, even as Betsy and Lukas sat down.
But Lukas was not going to give up an opportunity to tease that easily. “Admit it, Ella, ye’re hungry.”
“I’m not hungry if ye ain’t hungry,” Ella answered, “but Jeremina might be hungry enough fer the both of us.”
The remark produced the effect intended, which was to say, Lukas groaned. “Ella! Ye can’t be still talkin’ about that name!”
“Why not?” Ella pouted. Betsy wondered if she was the only one who could see the sparkle in her eyes. “It’s such a pretty name! Jeremina. We can call her Mina or Minnie fer short.”
“Ugh! Ella! Ye’re not givin’ me daughter — assumin’ it is a daughter, which is more than I’m willin’ ter assume — a name like that!”
Ella tossed him a frown over her shoulder as she put the remnants of the kasha back upon the counter. “An’ why not? I want ter name a baby fer me pa, is that so bad?”
“O’ course not! An’ if the baby’s a boy, we can name him Jeremy!” Lukas replied as Ella sat down.
“Roma took that name,” Ella replied, narrowing her eyes at Lukas.
“She didn’t take the name. Ye can’t take a name,” Lukas retorted.
“Aye, ye can!” Davy interrupted.
“Thank’ee, Davy! See, Lukas, yer little brother is right smart, he is.” Ella winked at Davy, making him sit up and beam as he always did.
“Traitor,” Lukas grumbled. If he hadn’t been smiling, Betsy would have had to nudge — just nudge — him under the table.
“Well, they said ye could at school,” Davy mumbled, his spoon trailing in his kasha. “They say sometimes monks an’ nuns do it. They don’t want ter be called the same their mas an’ das gave ’em, so they take a new one. That’s what teacher said.”
“Ha!” Lukas crowed. He poked Ella’s shoulder. “See, see? I’m right!”
“Huh?” Davy asked.
“Aye, Lukas, how d’ye figure that?” Ella replied, her ponytail swinging from side to side as she tossed her head and cocked an eyebrow at him. Lukas grinned, and Betsy suddenly had a premonition about those two planned to spend their evening. If Martin wasn’t back yet, she would have to take Davy into bed with her if she wanted to give the two of them some privacy. And if Martin was home … well, she could always let Lukas and Ella sleep in the big bed downstairs, and take the smaller one upstairs.
She could do that either way, she decided. In fact, the worst possible scenario was that Martin would come in late and perhaps get an eyeful of more than he ever intended. Imagining her husband’s face after walking in on that was the first thing that made her giggle since the sun had set.
Lukas heard the giggle, had no idea it was at his expense, and grinned at her before turning back to Ella. “It’s like this, lass. That’s a different kind o’ take. Ye can’t take a name an’ let no one else have it. Even lords can’t do that. Don’t stand ter reason.”
“Even St. Robert didn’t do that,” Betsy agreed softly. “D’ye remember, the story of the — the scarlet woman who came ter Wright thanks ter St. Robert an’ wanted ter name her son fer him? The son got in sin? An’ the elders told her she couldn’t, she shouldn’t, but St. Robert stepped in an’ said every name was free fer the takin’, an’ he hoped that no folks were afraid ter name their babies Robert ’cause o’ him.”
“But, Ma Betsy,” Ella wheedled, “that’s different. St. Robert were a grown man! That ain’t the same as namin’ two babies, born within a couple o’ months o’ each other, an’ cousins ter boot, the same thing! An’ think o’ all the time they’ll be spendin’ tergether! Roma an’ I will always be callin’, ‘Jeremy — no — other Jeremy!'”
“An’ how will callin’ our daughter, born a couple o’ months after her cousin, ‘Jeremina’ gonna make things better?” Lukas asked.
“I told ye! We’ll call her Mina or Minnie fer short! Ain’t no way ter confuse ‘Jeremy’ and ‘Mina.'”
“Ye know,” Davy asked, his voice holding all the wisdom of a questioning sage, “I always wondered, Ma — what’s a scarlet woman look like? All the women — an’ men! — I’ve ever seen were brown.”
“Eh, that ain’t quite true, Davy,” Ella pointed out. “Think o’ Lady Dindrane with her red hair! If that ain’t scarlet, what is?”
Davy frowned. “So — she’s a scarlet woman?”
“NO!” Betsy and Lukas yelped at the same time. Davy jumped and Ella flushed. “That is,” Betsy remarked in a much calmer tone, “a scarlet woman ain’t a woman who happens to have red hair. Even hair that is pretty near scarlet, like Lady Dindrane’s. A scarlet woman … is not a nice woman, let’s put it like that. An’ I’ll tell ye more when ye’re older, Davy.”
Davy looked unconvinced, as he always did when an adult trotted out the tried-and-true “I’ll tell ye more when ye’re older.” To change the subject to something — anything — else, Betsy turned to Ella. “Ye should eat, Ella. Martin wouldn’t want ye goin’ hungry on his account.”
“Aw, Mama Betsy, I’m fine fer a little –”
“He doubly wouldn’t want Jeremina goin’ hungry on his account.”
That did it: Ella started to eat, even as Lukas called, “Hey! Ma! Ye’re not supposed ter take her side!”
“I don’t see anythin’ wrong with Jeremina, Lukas. I think it could be a pretty name. I don’t know why ye don’t like it so much.”
Betsy may not have know, but Martin, she knew, had a theory. Every time Ella brought up “Jeremina,” it started a fight. Not a real fight, a half-teasing fight, but a fight all the same. But you had to make up from a fight, since it didn’t do to go to bed angry. And there was only one way a healthy young couple like Lukas and Ella made up.
Still, Betsy thought, there had to be easier ways to arrange for a pleasant night … at least, so she wondered until she remembered what it had been to be that young, that carefree and happy.
“But what if it’s a boy?” Lukas pressed. “Ma, d’ye want yer grandson — the eldest son o’ yer eldest son — ter know ye were callin’ him Jeremina when he weren’t born yet an’ couldn’t defend himself?”
“Oh, as if what a babe is called before he comes out matters!” Betsy laughed. “D’ye remember what we used ter call this little fella?” she added, nodding her head at Davy.
“What?” Davy asked. “What did ye call me?”
Lukas snickered. “What?” Davy asked again.
“Fido,” Lukas replied.
“What?” Davy gasped.
“Lukas Pelles!” Ella chimed in. “Ye naughty lad! Callin’ this sweet little boy a name like that when he couldn’t defend himself!”
“Hey! An’ ye callin’ our boy Jeremina is any better?”
“Aye! Because he might be a girl!” Ella nodded, her pointed chin slicing through the air. “An’, even if he isn’t, it’s a Sim name an’ not a dog-name?”
“How come,” Davy asked, “ye called me Fido?”
“Because when Ma an’ Da sat us down over dinner an’ said they had somethin’ ter be tellin’ us, Joyce axed if Sic were havin’ puppies,” Lukas replied. “So Da called ye Fido until ye were born an’ he decided he ought ter be callin’ ye Davy.”
“An’ speakin’ o’ dinner,” Betsy murmured, “ye should start eatin’, Lukas. Ye don’t want it ter get too cold, now.”
“Aw, Ma, I’ll be fine.”
“Lukas.” Though Lukas was a man now — at least in theory — Betsy was still his mother. That one little word still did the trick. Lukas stated to eat.
“An’ what about ye, Ma Betsy?” Ella asked.
“When are ye gonna be startin’ ter eat?”
“Oh … by an’ by,” Betsy hedged. She didn’t think her stomach would settle to the idea of food until Martin came home.
But she needed to turn the conversation before her eating habits became too much the subject of it. “Have I ever,” she began, “told ye kids the story o’ how yer da an’ I met?”
Lukas, Davy — they both nodded. Even Bert did, calling, “Uh HUH!” for all to hear. But Ella looked wide-eyed and curious. That was enough of an audience for Betsy to tell her story.
“It were winter, a hard winter, jest like this one,” she began. “Cold an’ fierce an’ — ugh! — nasty. There were a bad plague, too, that came through me — our — village. It … it took a lot o’ people. An’ when it hit a house, when someone died, the villagers were so scared that they burned the house down. That … that happened ter me family, me house. A bunch o’ us caught the plague, though only me grandmother died o’ it. We all went ter stay with different places until me da could rebuild the house, an’ I went ter stay with Maggie an’ Amadeus — Martin’s parents.”
Betsy sighed. “Lukas, Davy — Bertie, ye too — ye never met her, but yer da had a sister. She died the next summer. But …” Betsy shook her head. “Well, I was eight, an’ she was ten, an’ she never let me ferget it. She was just outgrowin’ dolls an’ such, an’ I lost me favorite doll in the fire. I would a given me right arm fer one o’ her dolls — she were great at sewin’, so she made all kinds o’ dolls from her ma’s scraps — jest ter sleep with at night, she could have had it durin’ the day. But she wouldn’t let me. She — oh, I don’t like ter speak ill o’ the dead, an’ ye mustn’t tell yer da I said this about his sister, but she were mean!
“Well, like I were sayin’, it were a hard winter on all o’ us. But somehow or other … yer da caught me cryin’ one day, out in the barn. I had a lot ter cry about, we all did. But one day it all jest got ter be too much. Well, yer da — he must’ve been about twelve at the time — instead o’ doing what most twelve-year-old boys would do, which is run away an’ pretend he hadn’t heard nothin’, he sat down with me an’ axed me what was the matter. An’ I ended up blubberin’ all in his lap.” Betsy laughed. “I blubbered a lot! But he must’ve understood about the doll, even if he didn’t understand much else. Because, about a week later …” She smiled, feeling a little teary just to remember. “I were goin’ ter bed, an’ under me pillow, there were a little rag doll. Not much — the sewin’ weren’t great, it were a boy’s sewin’, it were, an’ she was stark naked, poor dear — but I swear, I wouldn’t have traded that doll fer the finest wooden doll in Ludenwic or Reme. I think — I think from then on, even if we were both too young ter be understandin’ it, Martin an’ me both knew we were meant fer each other.”
“That’s so sweet!” Ella cried. “What happened ter the doll? D’ye still have it?”
Betsy shook her head. “I gave it ter Meg when she were born. Now, I must say, yer da never admitted givin’ that doll ter me, an’ he won’t even if ye axe him ter this day — but when I put that little dollie in Meg’s hands, that were the first time I saw tears come ter his eyes, so ye can’t tell me he didn’t give that doll ter me. An’ when Meg got married, she gave it ter me again, an’ told me ter give it ter the first granddaugther. An’ then …” Betsy sighed and smiled. “The day after Joyce an’ Berach got married, me an’ Davy,” she ruffled his hair, “went ter their house, an’ we gave Leah the doll — didn’t we, Davy?”
“Aye!” Davy agreed. “Ma let me give Leah the dollie!”
“That’s so sweet!” Ella gasped. “Oh, Lukas, isn’t that the sweetest thing you ever heard?”
“Did we lock the door?” Ella asked, glancing at Lukas. “We would have left it open fer yer da, wouldn’t we?”
“I –” Lukas started.
“I’ll get it,” Betsy murmured. “Ye all keep eatin’.”
She rose and bustled to the doorway, opening it. “Mart–”
It wasn’t Martin.
“Goodwife Pelles?” asked the man in the guard’s uniform before her.
“Ye-es …?” Betsy whispered. Her heart was pounding in her ears and her palms were sweating. A guard at her doorstep, at this time of night — that could never be good —
“I’m afraid,” the guard started, “I have some –”
“Please — please, won’t ye come in?” Betsy interrupted. Anything, anything, to stave off that moment. That moment when he spoke. Because nothing would be the same afterward. “Get warm?”
The guard sighed, but he nodded and came in. Betsy could only smile nervously at him. “So … what is it?”
The guard’s eyes went to Lukas. Lukas made to stand up — she heard the chair move back — but Betsy waved her hand and he stayed still. She was still his mother, even if he was a man now. There were some things she ought to hear first.
The guard looked to Lukas, to Betsy, and sighed. “Goodwife Pelles, there’s been … an accident. The Dyfed bridge over the Firth — the weather has been hard on it. It hasn’t been stable. And unfortunately, we weren’t able to get guards posted there until two days ago. By that point, it had collapsed.”
Dyfed Bridge … collapsed … And Martin would have been crossing it three days ago —
“Oh, no,” Betsy gasped.
“Aye. This — this morning, we found … I’m terribly sorry, Goodwife Pelles. But we found –”
“Don’t say it!” Betsy gasped, her breath hitching on a sob. “For the love of Wright, don’t say it!”
But he had to say it. He had to say it, and Betsy knew what he was going to say anyway. Saying it wouldn’t make it true. Not saying it wouldn’t keep it untrue.
At least she was crying too hard, by the time the guard stumbled his way to that point, to hear what he was saying. At least she didn’t have to hear him say the words.
Martin was never coming home.