Imsdyn 15, 1013
“It’s big!” said Davy. It was the first thing any of them had said since coming upon the little village and looking at the home they were told would be theirs. “Real big!”
“Aye …” Betsy agreed, shifting Bert on her hip. She really should have taken up Meg on her offer to watch Bert for the day — keeping him out of trouble was going to be a source of trouble in and of itself, since he was already squirming against her, just short of demanding to be put down, now. But if Ella had insisted on bringing Marty along — not that she could do otherwise, what with having to nurse him and all — Betsy figured she could deal with Bert.
“Two chimneys,” Ella remarked, looking up at the house that towered over them. “Means it’ll be warm, aye? Nice an’ toasty, I’m wagerin’.”
“Aye, more than like!” Lukas replied. He patted his mother’s back, then Davy’s. “Well, come on! What are waitin’ on, eh? I ain’t even seen the inside o’ this place yet, an’ I’m jest across the lane every day!”
Betsy looked over her shoulder and shuddered. Across the lane were Sir Mordred’s lands, the fields from which he derived most of his income. It was where Lukas worked now, and where Martin had worked every day until the day he died. But more importantly, just across the lane was Sir Mordred’s own castle. It crouched on its hill like a lurking monster, waiting for just the right opportunity to jump down and devour them.
Betsy gulped, but as her family was already heading into the new house, she had little choice but to clutch Bert even closer to her and follow.
“Ma, lemme down,” Bert insisted as soon as Betsy darkened the threshold.
But she couldn’t. Absolutely not. She was too busy stopping dead.
So. It was as she suspected. This new house was a punishment, for all that it was a punishment dressed up in fancy packaging.
Ella, Lukas — they had been so excited! Lukas had seen the house as it was going up, and had sworn that it was big. He said it was pretty, too, and Betsy supposed it was pretty enough from the outside. But the inside was a different story. The walls were of unfinished stone, with only enough mortar to hold them together and the house up, not enough to hold back the winter’s chill. The windows had a latticework frame of lead in them, but no glass, not even horn or wax to hold out the breeze. There weren’t even shutters on the lower level, for all that Betsy had seen them on the upper. And the floors of the new house … well, there weren’t any. Just dirt. She could still see hobnailed footprints from all the workers who had been in and out over the past days and months, getting the house ready. She had just better hope she didn’t find anything growing in the dirt …
“What the hell?” Lukas demanded. “The place ain’t even finished yet! What was Barber thinkin’?”
“Lukas! Not in front o’ the baby!”
“Ella!” Lukas smacked his forehead. “Marty’s not a month old–”
“He is so! A month old today! Don’t ye remember yer own son’s birthday, Lukas Pelles?”
“O’ course I remember, Ijest — argh!” He groaned. “Either way, he don’t know what that means yet!”
Ella brought Marty up to her shoulder, patting his back and shushing him although he hadn’t made a sound. “But he will, if ye don’t learn ter –”
“Children.” It was about the only word that got through to Ella and Lukas in a bickering mood. Betsy barely refrained from rolling her eyes. After all, she remembered what it had been like after Meg was first born, didn’t she? She and Martin both had been short on sleep, short on time, short on patience — short on everything, except love for the new baby. They’d snapped and snarled at each other over silly things, too. And they hadn’t been dealing with half the stressors Lukas and Ella were. They hadn’t had to pack up a whole house and move. Their lord hadn’t developed a vendetta against the family. No one had died.
Betsy closed her eyes, shifted Bert, and headed toward the stairs. At least the wood looked smooth and stained; she wouldn’t be pulling splinters out of Bert’s and Davy’s hands every other day. Or their bums, she thought, giving those twirling railings a second glance. “Come on, Lukas,” was all she said, though. “Let’s have a look at the upstairs before any o’ us get too upset.”
“But Ma, the downstairs clearly –”
“Come on, Lukas,” Betsy snapped. She hadn’t meant to snap, but, well, snaps were coming more easily to her as well as to Lukas and Ella these days. Newborn babies didn’t just wake their parents, after all. And even when Ella got right to Marty and quieted him down, Betsy had plenty to keep her awake regardless.
After all, not only were the sheets and the bed underneath them as frigid as a block of ice, they didn’t even smell like Martin anymore. She’d had to wash them before the move.
“Ma … can I come too?” asked Davy in a tiny voice. She could hear him padding along after Lukas.
“O’ course ye can, sweet. Ella, you comin’ up?”
Thanks to the curve of the staircase, Betsy was in just the right position to see Ella shake her head.
“All right, then. Come on, me lads.” Betsy hurried up the rest of the stairs, only to breathe a sigh of relief once she reached the top.
There was a real floor up here — well, of course there was a real floor up here. Betsy shook her head at her own idiocy. It wasn’t like you could have a dirt floor on a second story. True, it was dusty and dirty from all the workmen, but all it would only take some good scrubbing to fix that. It would be all home-like and happy in a jiffy, she knew it.
But best of all, in the upstairs, there were rooms — rooms plural, not just the one room.
She opened up the door to her left first. It was big, open, even airy. There was a big window that looked out onto the Orkney keep and several smaller windows on the other walls. The walls and floors were identical to the ones in the hallway outside.
“Ma, down!” complained Bert.
“Not yet, sweet, not yet.” The floor in here looked a sight dirtier than the floor in the hallway. There would be no keeping Bert and Davy and, someday, Marty off the actual dirt floor, but for the first day she wanted to at least try to keep her lads clean.
Besty bustled out of that room, having looked her fill, and opened the second one, the room closest to the stairs. She breathed a sigh or relief. It was small — tiny, even — and it didn’t have a window … but there was room enough for the bathtub, privy and washbasin that they had brought with them. At least they wouldn’t have to be traipsing out to the bathhouse every time they wanted to do their business or Betsy needed to get Davy or Bert clean.
She hurried out of the small room and opened the last door.
It was another big room, fundamentally identical to the first one, except for being on the opposite side of the house. And the floor was cleaner. Betsy let Bert down.
“I like this room, Ma!” said Davy as he wandered inside. “Can we sleep in here?”
“If ye like,” Betsy replied, glad to give at least one of her children something he wanted. It didn’t seem as if she’d be able to do that for Lukas for a long time to come. She tousled Davy’s hair. “Keep yer brother busy fer a bit, will ye?”
“Which one?” asked Davy.
“Bert, o’ –” Betsy started, then her gaze snapped to Lukas. He was surveying the plasterwork on the walls, his hands on his hips, head thrown back just like she had seen Martin, so many times, when he was overseeing the other men in the fields. Her heart and her breath both caught in her throat.
Then Lukas clucked his tongue, shook his head, and Betsy heard herself say to Davy, “Bert. Keep Bert busy,” just before she went and grabbed Lukas’s elbow. “An’ Lukas — let’s talk in the hall, shall we?” She grabbed his elbow and half-escorted, half-dragged him out.
Lukas might have been the man of the house now, the man responsible for keeping them and the one who was supposed to deal with the lord — but Betsy was still his ma. Lukas came.
He even managed to keep a hold on his temper until the door was shut. But afterward —
“Ma! This place isn’t even finished!”
“I think it is, Lukas,” Betsy replied.
“No it ain’t! Ma, there ain’t no floor downstairs! I don’t want Marty crawlin’ on bare dirt, once he gets to crawlin’!”
“I understand, but –”
“But nothin’! What if he tries ter eat it? Davy an’ Bert would always put stuff in their mouths –”
“He’ll survive,” Betsy said flatly. “Come on, Lukas,” Betsy tried to laugh. “Don’t ye remember the time ye ate a whole pie o’ dirt, with Simon Chevaux an’ Berach Brogan laughin’ all the while?”
“I remember ye about had a fit!” Lukas replied. “An’ ye expect me ter be less–”
“Well, ye were seven,” Betsy interrupted. “An’ it were a whole dirt pie. Ye should have known better, ye should have. But … ye were fine, weren’t ye? Oh, ye had a bit o’ a tummy ache, and I know ye didn’t have much fun on the pot fer a few days there, but ye were fine in the long run.”
“Marty’s only a baby, though!”
“An’ he won’t be eatin’ a whole pie. Ella or me — or ye! Or even Davy, since in some ways he’s a sight brighter than ye were at his age — we’ll stop him before he gets too much in his mouth. Don’t ye worry about that.”
“Still,” Lukas growled. “This place ain’t done. Will ye look at the plasterwork here, Ma? Will ye? Crumblin’ an’ pitted –”
“So it were at the old place, Lukas.”
“The old place is twenty years old!”
“Perhaps, but –”
“An’ Da an’ me are–” Lukas stopped dead.
Betsy stopped, too. Stopped thinking. Stopped breathing.
Lukas looked away from her, his lashes falling low against his cheeks. “We were gonna fix it,” Lukas murmured. “Once — once spring came ’round.” He rubbed the back of his neck and glanced sidelong at her, a wordless apology for a deed left undone.
“Ah,” Betsy croaked. “Well … that …” What was she supposed to say? That would o’ been good o’ ye? It wasn’t that it would have been good or wouldn’t have been good. It would have been what Martin did. He took care of them. He always took care of them. And now Betsy had to figure out how to take care of this family all by herself.
She would start by reining in Lukas. “Lukas,” she took a deep breath and squared her shoulders, then started waggling her finger for good measure, “if — if yer da was here, ye know what he’d say? He’d say, since ye were gonna spend the spring plasterin’ anyway, ye can spend it plasterin’ this place.”
“What? But Ma, it ain’t –”
“No buts. Look, Lukas — we’ve got two stories, two real stories, on this place! Not just half a house below an’ a bit of a loft above. It’s got two fireplaces, so it’ll be nice an’ toasty.” Well, it would be if they plastered the downstairs, to make sure their toasty fires didn’t just end up warming up the outside. “It’s got a brand-new roof, an’ from what I can tell, that looks tight and snug, too.”
Lukas instantly looked up, squinting at the underside of the thatch, as if he could tell here and now where any leaks might come from.
“An’ if it ain’t, well, ye an’ Berach an’ Pierre an’ any o’ yer other friends can get on up there, one fine day, and put right whatever needs to be puttin’ right. Because that’s what we gotta do, Lukas. Sir Mordred had this house built up, jest fer us, an’ we’ve got ter show him how grateful we are fer it.”
“An’ it looks so nice from the outside …” Lukas sighed.
Oh, I’ll bet it does. That dark tone wasn’t Betsy’s, it was Joyce’s. She could just see the way Joyce would say it, too: squinting slightly, head tossed back, arms crossed over her chest. The problem wasn’t that Joyce always assumed that Sir Mordred was up to no good and meant their family nothing but harm. The problem was that Joyce was starting to make more and more sense. But Betsy couldn’t let that on, not to Lukas.
After all, it wasn’t Lukas Sir Mordred was angry at, was it?
“Ma — Ma Betsy!” called Ella. “Lukas! Master Barber is here!”
“Barber!” snarled Lukas. “That little ingrate, I’ll –”
Betsy laid one hand on her son’s shoulder. “Let me handle this.” She hurried down the stairs before Lukas could reach a decision about minding her.
She knew Barber. He was Sir Mordred’s man through and through. Even when she’d been housekeeper at the Orkney keep, he’d always looked down his nose at her, treated her as he would treat a lesser being. And maybe she was, a serf and a woman both. One couldn’t expect one such as Master Barber to take her seriously. Still, as long as Betsy kept to her place — which was to say, minding the household, and not getting her nose buried in estate business — she and Barber had always gotten along fine.
She hoped that would carry her through this conversation. “Master Barber!” Betsy tried to make herself sound as merry as a robin in spring. “How can I be helpin’ ye terday?”
“Where are your things?” Barber asked, looking around the bare lower story.
“Ah, they’re on wagons, sir. They should be here right soon, though!”
“And everything will be cleared from the old place by sundown?” Barber asked.
“Sundown?” Lukas started. “Ye want us out by –”
Betsy made shushing motions behind her back even as she grinned at Barber and replied, “Yes, sir.”
“Excellent. His Lordship’s men will begin to demolish the property tomorrow. So you would be well advised to claim all of your personal belongings before then.”
Betsy couldn’t help it — she flinched.
“Something wrong, Widow Pelles?”
“Aye, something’s wrong!” Lukas protested. “Ye expect us ter live here when –”
“Fergive me son,” Betsy moved herself more firmly in front of Lukas, “but — but Master Barber, remember it weren’t that long ago I lost me husband, an’ Lukas his father. An’ Lukas was born an’ raised in that house. Even — even though we know it’s all fer the best, an’ this place is much nicer — please be tellin’ Sir Mordred we said that, sir — it … it still hurts ter think of the place where all those memories were made …”
Barber lifted his nose and sniffed — he wasn’t fooled. Of course he wasn’t, only a dunce would have been fooled. But was he willing to pretend to be fooled? Betsy would settle for that.
He must have, for he changed the subject. “There are some … peculiar features of the village Sir Mordred wishes for me to show your family. Can you spare Goodman Pelles?”
What, Martin? Betsy almost asked, before remembering, no, not Martin. Never again Martin. Lukas was Goodman Pelles now, and Ella Goodwife Pelles. Betsy swallowed. “I’d rather he stay here ter wait fer the wagons, sir. Can I come instead?”
Barber looked past Betsy, to Lukas doubtless fuming behind her. He nodded. “That would be best.” Then he turned on his heel and exited as unobtrusively as he had entered, leaving Betsy to follow.
They hurried into the cold embrace of early spring, Betsy struggling to keep up behind Barber. “Sir Mordred wants to be sure you have a good look at the barn, and the orchard. And the chicken coop, of course.”
“Ch-chickens?” Betsy asked. And indeed, there was a hen house for them.
“Sir Mordred plans to invest in more livestock,” Barber added. “It will be your family’s responsibility to care for them. It is one of the conditions that go with the new house.”
Conditions. Betsy nodded glumly. Moving hadn’t even been their idea — certainly not so soon after losing Martin. But there were still conditions.
At least the house was bigger. Betsy would cling to that.
They entered the barn — the huge, echoing barn, with its double row of stalls upon stalls upon stalls. “Sir Mordred intends to purchase more cows and pigs. You and your family will be responsible for their upkeep, as well as the chickens’.”
“Aye, sir,” Betsy murmured, sighing. What else was there to say?
“However …” Barber nodded to a butter churn thoughtfully placed in the corner. “You will be allowed to use a certain … proportion of their products for yourselves. As payment, if you will. The rent on your house is also less than it might have otherwise been.”
“Thank’ee, sir.” Betsy gulped. “How … how much is that proportion?”
Barber shrugged. “We will see once the animals are purchased. Sir Mordred has placed the business entirely in my hands. Doubtless we will be able to come to a reasonable arrangement.”
“Doubtless,” Betsy agreed softly.
“Now, let us see the orchard.” Without a word, Barber led her out of the barn and around the back of it, to the orchard.
Betsy looked at it and sighed. She looked, too, across the street, where Sir Mordred’s fields had an orchard easily four times the size of this one. “Let me guess, sir — we’re to care for this, too? An’ give the fruits ter m’lord?”
“Actually, this is to be a communal orchard for the village as a whole,” Barber replied with something like a faint smile. “You and the other families will determine who cares for what, and thus, who gets what proportion of the harvest.”
“Oh — oh, tell Sir Mordred we thank him, sir!” Yes, it would be best to lay the thanks on thick and plentiful. It wasn’t hard, either, given relieved she was.
“Between the stream and the well, your families should not lack for water,” Barber continued. “And there is the latrine and bathhouse for all of your use. Sir Mordred expects that you will keep it clean and tidy, and all the tubs and privies he provided good condition.”
Betsy barely bit back a sigh. More work. Briefly she entertained the notion of keeping her family using their small privy closet, no matter how cramped and crowded it might get and letting the other families be in charge of the bathhouse, but … no. If the bathhouse was not kept to Sir Mordred’s exacting standards, then it would be the Pelleses who would pay. He had probably seen to it that their home had a privy closet just to tempt them into negligence. Betsy couldn’t let her family fall for that.
“Aye, sir,” Betsy nodded.
“That should be all … unless you have questions, Widow Pelles?”
“I — actually, I do,” Betsy replied. “Are — are we permitted ter make improvements ter the house?”
“Improvements?” Barber snarled. “It is a brand-new home, Widow Pelles! What improvements could it possibly need?”
“I — oh, I’m sorry, sir, that came out wrong. What I mean is — is make some changes, so it fits our taste a little better. Ye know, some cheery plaster on the walls, maybe some wood fer the floors … paint the plaster upstairs … ye know, those kinds of things.” Betsy shot him a hopeful grin.
Barber did not look deceived. But all the same, he did not look unsympathetic. “If you and your family were willing to pay and perform all labor, I see no reason why not,” he shrugged. “However, you must also be willing to set things to rights again if and when Sir Mordred requires it.”
Betsy nodded. “Aye, sir. Of course, sir.”
“Is that all?”
Betsy nodded again and thanked Barber. Barber took his leave, and Betsy began her slow — perhaps intentionally slow — trek back to the new house.
She found Lukas still in the fury in which she had left him. “Did ye tell ‘im?” Lukas demanded. “Ma? Did ye tell ‘im that this house ain’t even done yet, an’ axe him–”
Betsy sighed. “Lukas –”
“I wouldn’t put one o’ the dogs in a doghouse this unfinished, Ma! It ain’t fair! It ain’t right! An’ I ain’t –”
“Now ye listen here, Lukas!” Betsy yelled, almost surprising her own self by the force of her voice. “What’s wrong with this house? I’ll tell ye what’s wrong with it: nothin’! Aye, that’s right, nothin’! We got ourselves sturdy stone walls, two stories, lots, lots o’ space! So what if it don’t have floors or plaster on the bottom floor? Lots o’ houses don’t! Those folks manage ter survive, an’ so will we!”
“Ma! This isn’t Glasonland, where yer lord gives ye a pittance an’ ye’re supposed ter pretend ter be happy with that. This is –”
“Albion!” Betsy finished for him. “This is Albion! Where we’re under a wizard fer a lord, whose ma killed yer uncle — turned him inter a bloody zombie — an’ the King did nothin’! An’ Sir Mordred is of the same cut o’ cloth as she is, I’d wager!” Betsy surprised herself with this — but why should she think or say otherwise? After all, she was only saying things she’d known for years — decades, really. “An’ we’re at his mercy. So ye know what we’re gonna do, Lukas? We’re gonna be quiet, an’ we’re gonna behave. Because even if the lords o’ Albion are, on the whole, better than the lords o’ Glasonland …”
She took a deep breath. “At least when the lords o’ Glasonland killed ye — ye stayed dead, and they couldn’t trouble ye no more. We don’t got that luxury in Albion. So we gotta be careful, Lukas. We gotta be careful — ’cause if we ain’t careful, we ain’t gonna be able ter be anythin’ else, neither.”