Imsdyn 24, 1013
“This is the place, isn’t it, Papa?” asked Anja, waking Roy from his walking dream.
He took a deep breath, rolling his shoulders as discreetly as he could. He wondered, not for the first time, how and when Anja had gotten that talent for asking the right question — or saying the right statement — or yelling at one of the boys — all at exactly the right time. The time just before his mind shut off, perhaps permanently, and went to wander somewhere else.
Luise would be so proud of Anja, if she could have seen. And she would be so disappointed in Roy, so perhaps it was best she never would.
Roy pinched the bridge of his nose and looked around. “Aye. Seems ’tis.” He looked around. Yes, there was the umber-stoned castle perched on the hill, looming over them like a … well, like a bloody big castle. Several of the people from whom Roy had gotten directions had sworn it was like a crouching beast or waiting wyvern or snake coiled and ready to strike … he’d lost track of the outlandish comparisons. But all Roy could see was a big castle overlooking several well-kept, new-seeming cottages on a beautiful early spring day. It was like something from a storybook.
“Ow! Torben! Not so hard!” whined Matthias.
“Torben, why are ye beatin’ up yer brother?” Roy asked, not daring to turn around.
“It were his idea!” called Torben.
“But I didn’t think ye’d hit that hard,” argued Matthias.
“Welcome ter playin’ with the big boys, sonny!”
“Ye are not that big,” put in Erich, the oldest of Roy’s boys, rolling his eyes, no doubt. He was only ten, but sometimes Roy thought he was going on forty. Nobody who had just started his second decade ought to be that cynical.
“Erich, stay out,” Roy warned. “Torben, stop hittin’ Matthias so hard. Matthias, if ye’re gonna start some kind o’ hittin’ game, fer Wright’s sake, don’t start complainin’ after it starts hurtin’.”
“But Papa –” came three groans at once.
Roy turned around with a glare that somehow managed to encompass all three boys at once. All of them quailed under it — at least until Torben nudged Matthias, and Matthias was quick to avenge his honor. Still, neither of the boys looked ready to jump on the other and do anything that was likely to draw blood, so Roy felt safe enough taking his eyes off them.
He tickled the underside of Gretchen’s chin — she laughed her happy-baby laugh, the laugh she had had since the day she was born and had only been quieted for a few weeks after Luise’s death — and winked at Anja. “Why couldn’t ye all have been girls?” he mockingly sighed. Anja paid him the compliment of laughing, even though the joke was as worn as the hand-me-downs Luise had first made for Erich.
And it was only half-told. When he used to complain about the boys — running around like hooligans, antagonizing the dogs, skiving off work to jump in the river or run through the woods or whatever it was boys were doing these days — Luise used laugh at him. Really laugh at him, holding her sides in, bending-over-double kind of laughing. “Ye think these kids are tough?” she would gasp. “Wait until our Anja gets a bit o’ womanly shape ter her an’ an eye fer boys! Oh, Lord! Ye’ll be wishing they was all boys then!”
But Anja was fourteen already, and so far there hadn’t been any sign of —
“Papa!” Erich called. “Someone’s comin’!”
Someone was coming indeed.
Roy breathed a sigh of relief. It was only the man — what was his name — Barber. John Barber, steward of Sir Mordred. For all that the man was a duke, for some reason he seemed to prefer the honorific “sir” — Roy couldn’t understand it. But then again, he supposed he didn’t have to. It wasn’t for the likes of him to deal with lords and their ilk.
Barber ate up the rest of the distance with his long legs. Roy glanced at the steward’s tunic — finer than anything he would ever own — and barely avoided wiping his own sweaty hands on his tunic, adding a new level of dirt and grim to it. He took a deep breath and tried to walk toward Barber, putting his good leg forward first.
But as soon as he took a second step, there was no disguising the old limp.
“Goodman Jager?” asked Barber. “We spoke at the camp?”
Roy barely restrained a shudder, even though he knew that it wasn’t the camp that Barber was referring to — that hellhole on the wrong side of the Albionese border where Roy had been forced to park his kids while they waited for permission to cross. He still didn’t know why they had been given it so fast — well, maybe he did. He was a man past his working prime, with that old limp besides, with a passel of kids who wouldn’t hit their working prime for a few years yet, and four prime hunting dogs. Two now. He’d miss Braun and Schwarz, but he had at least given them up for a good cause.
Still, that was neither here nor there. He nodded. “Aye. That’d be me.”
He could feel Erich padding along behind him, drinking in everything with his wide eyes. Roy did his best to ignore him. It would only make him nervous, and the last thing he needed right now was to be more nervous.
“Good! So,” the man smiled, “what do you think of the village?”
“It’s right nice,” Roy replied, looking around the village again. Well-kept, clean … the buildings looked new! Actually new! But at the same time, there were enough trees around to provide shade and some nice scenery. He had to wonder how that worked out.
“It’s brand-new, this year,” Barber replied, “as I promised. These lands used to be wooded. Sir Mordred has been harvesting the timber, and some of the land cleared he decided to use as a village. Which, of course, brings us to where we are now.”
“Aye,” Roy replied.
“Would you like to see the home Sir Mordred and I think would be best for your family?” Barber asked.
Roy nodded. “Aye, sir.” That, after all, was why he was there with all the kiddies, wasn’t it?
“Then come this way,” Barber replied. He strode off between the two big houses, away from the lane, leaving Roy and the kids to follow as best they could.
“Papa?” called Matthias, from the very back. “What’s that?”
“What’s what?” Roy called over his shoulder.
“That!” He pointed to the … well, it looked like a little house up on stilts, built onto a tree. Roy narrowed his eyes at it. He’d never seen such a thing before.
“That is a tree fort,” Barber answered for Roy. “It was made for all the children of the village to play on it.” Barber glanced at Roy. “These are all of your children?”
“And how old are they?”
“Well … Gretchen’s jest a year,” Roy replied; Gretchen chortled as ever when her name was mentioned. “Matthias is four, Torben’s seven, Erich’s ten, an’ Anja … well, she’s old enough, I reckon.” No use saying exactly how old Anja was until Roy got a better feel for the situation, and what this lord was like.
“Seven,” Barber murmured. “The Pelleses — they live in the largest house,” he gestured, “have a boy that age. There is also a younger boy, about three, I believe. And a newborn infant, too.” Barber turned to Roy with raised eyebrows. “Bu the other two are just an age to be friends with your boys, I would think.”
Roy shrugged, unable to understand why a great lord’s steward cared who his kids found to be their friends.
Barber led them across the small bridge to a … Roy blinked and craned his neck back, back, back. That — that was an enormous cottage! Two whole stories, not just a mere loft on top!
And the bottom floor was made of sturdy stones … Roy stepped forward and laid a wondering hand over them. They were snug, too, or at least, more snug than any other stones Roy had felt on a peasant’s cottage.
Who was kidding? He’d never seen a peasant’s cottage built of stonework. Usually it was just a wooden frame with mud thatch in between. Who would invest that kind of money and labor into a peasant’s cottage, bound to be burned down the first time the neighbors got antsy?
Roy closed his eyes and winced — he could see his old house, the home where Anja and Erich and Torben and Matthias and Gretchen had all been born, on fire whenever he closed his eyes, the flames leaping into the darkened sky … it was the last memory he would ever have of the place …
At least he had kept Luise and the kids from looking back. At least they wouldn’t have to remember that.
“Shall we go in?” asked Barber — quite unnecessarily, for he was opening up the door and ushering them all inside. Roy went first; the kids followed on his heels.
They were nearly literally on his heels — he stopped dead when he first walked into the room before he remembered himself and took those last few steps. Then he stopped dead, for real this time.
He gulped twice. This house was furnished — they wouldn’t have to sleep on their cloaks, as they had been for months, until Roy figured something out. But it was more than just that. Windows were carved into the walls, allowing plenty of light and air when the weather was good. The shudders outside looked tight and snug, so when the weather was bad, they’d be easily closed and the house kept snug. There was a big fireplace — a fireplace! With a chimney! — along one wall. There was even spit and a pot hung up in it!
He took another wondering step forward and ran one finger along the back of the sofa. It was smooth. The smoothest sofa he’d ever felt. He wouldn’t even have to sand it down to keep the kids from getting splinters! Roy —
“Papa, look! There’s a play table!” gasped Matthias, running toward it, dropping to his knees and skidding the last few feet. “Can we play? Can we, can we?”
Roy glanced at Barber, who nodded. “Of course.” Torben and even Erich were quick to join their brother, and Anja even put Gretchen down to investigate what was in the big chest on the wall.
Matthias bounced to his feet. “Papa! That box is full of toys! Real toys!”
“Toys …” Roy muttered under his breath. He turned a shocked glance onto Barber.
“Sir Mordred anticipated that he might be able to indenture some families of refugees,” Barber said, answering the questions Roy couldn’t begin to ask. “He ordered this house to be furnished — cheaply, of course, but all the same, if you choose to become indentured to him, everything in here would become your property.”
Roy gulped and looked around. “It’s … it’s too good ter be true, it is …”
“Papa?” Anja tapped his shoulder. “I’m gonna see the upstairs — is that all right?”
“O’ course, lass,” Roy nodded, then turned to Barber. “He’d give us all this furniture? Jest give it ter us? An’ the house?”
“Hardly the house,” Barber snorted. “You would have to pay rent for that, of course. However, provided you were indentured to him, Sir Mordred might be … persuaded to let you have a month or so to get onto your feet before he starts charging rent.”
“That’s madness!” Roy replied. The only reason he kept his voice low was because of the kids — and the only reason he remembered to keep his voice low for the kids was because of all the practice he’d gotten keeping quiet for the kiddies over the past few months.
“Madness? Not at all, Goodman Jager. It’s an investment.” Barber gestured to Roy. “Put yourself in my lord’s shoes, sir. You have five strong children — three of them sons! All of them will, Lord willing, grow up and have children someday, all of whom will be indentured to Sir Mordred. For a little outlay now, he gets a great deal of payoff later.”
“Perhaps, but …”
“And let us think of you yourself. You said you are a hunter, Goodman Jager?”
“I — I was …”
“In spite of your injury?”
Roy barely avoided a wince. He’d thought he’d gotten over the worst of the sensitivity about his injury — and so he had, back home, where everyone knew that Roy walked with a limp. It was just as much a fact of life as the fact that the dirt was underfoot or the sky above, and folks gave it the same amount of thought. But here …
Well, sooner or later everyone would get used to it. In the meantime, Roy shrugged. “It ain’t the quickest hunter what gets the kill, sir. It’s the smartest.”
“Indeed. Indeed. And you have dogs, I noticed.”
“Aye …” Braun and Schwarz had been passed along to a guard to get them over the border, but he still had Blue and Rona.
… How much would he rather have had Luise …
“Male and female?”
“Aye …?” Roy asked, wondering where this was going.
“And they’re hunting dogs, too? Good ones?” Barber smirked. “Perhaps you were your lord’s kennel master? And perhaps–”
“No,” Roy snapped, not meaning to — but the snap came nonetheless. He could never have been the kennel master, cooped up in the four walls of the castle, having to deal with lords day and in and day out. The woods, the outskirts of the village, that was where he belonged. He’d be happy to breed the best dogs, though, and sell them back to Master Hund. Hell, he’d train the lord’s dogs. Just don’t ask him to live with his lord.
And that was probably what had saved his and his family’s lives. Except Luise’s …
“Very well, if that is how you wish to put it.” Barber shrugged. “But you must admit, a man with skills such as your own, some good dogs fit for breeding, children, the possibility of more –”
“What?” Roy snapped.
“You’re a young man, Goodman Jager!” Barber clapped him on the shoulder. “A steady man. Surely, before a few months have passed, there will be a young woman who –”
“I would not be so sure of that — with all of these children, surely you will need –”
“Goodman Jager, please allow me to finish–”
“No.” Roy ground his teeth. “Me wife — I lost her not three months ago.” Roy could feel his nails, always jagged and torn, digging into his palms. He could still see her as he had last seen her, pale and wasted, sweat from the fever plastering her hair back against her forehead, her skin waxy and translucent though she had only been dead a few moments. At peace, finally, from the infection the arrow-wound had left behind. Luise and Gretchen had both been hit by that arrow. And they had worried so much about Gretchen! But Gretchen’s would had healed fine and clean, though she’d always have a scar, while Luise … Luise …
“I ain’t thinkin’ about remarryin’. Not now,” Roy continued.
Not ever, he thought. If he ever caught the soldier who fired that arrow, he would show him how it felt to have your heart ripped from your chest — literally, if he had to.
Barber blinked. “Oh. I had … I had not thought it was so recent. I thought …” He glanced over his shoulder, to where Gretchen played. “Well … never mind that.”
“Aye,” Roy swallowed. “Best fer all concerned, I’m thinkin’.”
Barber nodded. His eyes wouldn’t meet Roy’s. “My sympathies for your loss.”
Roy jumped. “I … thank’ee, sir.”
Nobody … nobody had offered him sympathies, or condolences, or any of that. When Luise had died, they had been alone in the woods in the camp Roy had made when Luise grew too sick to go on. And afterward, when they met other refugees making their way toward the border … well, nobody had asked. Roy didn’t ask any questions of them, either. You didn’t ask, because if you asked, you might have to answer.
“Well … in, in any case,” Barber continued, “surely you see the many advantages …”
“What’s the catch?” Roy interrupted.
Barber blinked, taken aback. “I’m sorry?”
“Yer — yer lord. He’s offerin’ an awful lot, fer not a lot. A man what can’t work as hard as other men, who has a lot o’ kids who won’t be grown up fer a long, long time yet.” He glared extra-hard, thinking of Anja as he spoke. There had to be a reason why so many people didn’t like Sir Mordred, and a string of spoiled girls seemed like as good a reason as any.
“Well, the taxes are a bit high,” Barber shrugged.
Roy almost relaxed; this was more like it.
“However, if one of your family — you, or perhaps your daughter — were to work for Sir Mordred on his lands — and be paid, of course — the taxes would be considerably lower.”
Roy blinked. “Er …” He narrowed his eyes. “Master Barber?”
“Folks don’t have much good ter say about yer lord — beg yer pardon, but that’s what I’m hearin’. Can — can ye tell me why?”
Barber blinked. Then a hauteur better suited to his lord settled over his features. “All you need to know, Goodman Jager, is that if you deal properly with Sir Mordred, he will deal properly with you. If you do not, then … well, he will treat you as you deserve.”
Roy winced and backed away. But he had no time to process that further before a voice came from on high. “Papa?”
It was just Anja, coming back down from the upstairs. She scurried down the ladder. “Papa, can we talk for a moment?”
He glanced at Barber, who nodded generously. Roy put his arm over Anja’s shoulders and drew her over to the other side of the room. “Aye, lass?”
He hoped to hear that the upstairs was just a big empty room — that there were mice — that there was something, anything, that would justify him talking to the other three lords, or even make this place no longer too good to be true, but just good enough that there wouldn’t be any catches waiting to jump out and bite Roy.
“Papa, there’s five beds up there,” Anja replied. “Real beds. Off the floor!”
Roy’s jaw fell. He gulped. “Oh …”
Aye, this place was too good to be true. He glanced over his shoulder. What was so bad about Sir Mordred that he had to entice potential peasants with so very much?
He turned back to Anja. “But –” He tried to smile. “Where’s Gretchen gonna sleep, eh?”
“There’s a crib, too! It’s just her size!”
“… Ah …”
“This place is perfect, Papa. Can we stay here?” Anja smiled. “Please?”
Roy rubbed the back of his neck. “Anja … it’s complicated …”
“The taxes are too high?” Anja sighed, her shoulders slumping.
“Well … they’d be lower if ye or me were ter work fer Sir Mordred …”
“I could do that!” Anja gasped. “In the fields? I could do that!”
“No, no, Anja, don’t be makin’ those kinds o’ offers until ye know all the facts …”
She didn’t say anything at first. She just tilted her head to one side and looked at him expectantly.
And that reminded Roy — he didn’t have any facts. Just feelings. Just a hunch he couldn’t get rid of. A good hunter learned to listen to his instincts … but … but …
What did he really have to go on, other than a hunch and some cagey behavior from Barber?
“Is it because Sir Mordred’s a wizard, Papa?” asked Anja.
Roy blinked. “What? He is? Where’d ye hear that?”
“Oh, everywhere!” Anja replied. “I listened ter some of the guards in the camp — the Albion camp. He’s a wizard, all right. But it’s his mum what done the bad things, an’ she’s dead. Sir Mordred ain’t done no harm ter no one, not magically, at least.” Anja smiled. “An’ ye know that in Albion, they don’t mind witches an’ wizards. So if they say he’s done no harm, it’s probably true.”
“This place is perfect, Papa,” Anja murmured. “Where are we gonna find another perfect place?”
It don’t have ter be perfect, Anja! Roy wanted to protest. It jest has ter be good enough!
But … but …
Where else would he find a half-stone house? Who else would let him go a month without paying rent because he couldn’t afford it? Who else would be willing to cut the taxes for just fulfilling their obligations to their lords? Where else was he going to find a house that was furnished — with toys, even?
And what the hell would he say to the kids when they asked him why they didn’t stay at that nice house they saw first?
He took a deep breath and kissed Anja on the cheek. “Thanks, lass. Ye … ye got me thinkin’ straight again. Aye. This is a good place.”
And if there was a catch … well, there would always be a catch. He’d just have to make damn sure he was the one catching it, that was it.
He walked back over to Barber, who was watching him expectantly. Roy gathered his courage in and stuck his hand out.
“We’ll take it, Master Barber,” he said.
“Excellent, Goodman Jager!” Barber grinned from ear to ear. “You will not regret this!”
I hope not, Master Barber — I really, really hope not.