Clatan 23, 1013
It was nice to finally have a day to herself. Kata swung the bucket back and forth as she headed out to the well in the front of the property. She’d been run off her feet the past few weeks. If one thing wasn’t going wrong, it was another. And if nothing was going wrong …
Kata frowned a little to herself as she hooked the bucket onto the chain and started to lower it into the well. If something wasn’t going drastically wrong, it was going drastically right. And that was almost as bad.
It had been five days, and Kata’s head still didn’t want to wrap itself around Marigold’s new baby — Daisy. It shouldn’t be so hard. She’d seen it happen before, when Marigold and Ash were born, hadn’t she? What was there for her to wonder about, exclaim over? She knew that Plantsims could have little babies — sprouts — out of nowhere. She should have barely blinked.
What surprised her, Kata supposed, was that Marigold didn’t understand what had happened any better than Jeremiah did. Kata hadn’t expected Jeremiah to understand; other than Ash and Marigold, he had never met another Plantsim who might explain these things to him. But she had thought Marigold would know what had happened. Marigold and Ash seemed to understand instinctively things about being a Plantsim that Jeremiah couldn’t begin to guess at.
Or was it Marigold and Ash? The more Kata thought about it, the more it seemed that it was Ash who was the “Plantsim,” whereas sometimes Marigold just seemed like a regular Sim with leafy hair —
The words came just after the splash of the bucket hitting the water. Kata paused, looking up to see who spoke them.
It was that girl — woman, technically — from across the name. The eldest of the Ruskins. What was her name? Githa? Gertrude? Something with a G.
The girl stared at Kata, eyes wide and hardly daring to believe what they were seeing. Kata was reminded of why she never remembered the girl’s name, for all that she’d been living here over a month. It was because Kata had another name for her.
The Girl with the Haunted Eyes. And she was looking for Kata …
This couldn’t be good.
“Been lookin’ fer me, lass?” Kata asked, lowering the bucket a few more inches to let it fill before she started to crank it back up again. She watched the well and the bucket in its depths, not the girl.
“Aye — aye, ma’am,” the girl replied. From the corner of her eye, Kata could just see her twisting her hands together. Even better.
“An’ what,” Kata asked, drawing the bucket up to the top with a few good turns of the wheel, “would ye be seekin’ out the village midwife fer, eh?”
The girl didn’t answer.
Kata sighed under her breath. She could imagine — oh, she could imagine what the girl was here for. But was she right? If she had known the girl beforehand, she might have been able to tell — a slight thickening of the waist, perhaps, or extra heft to the breasts. But Kata had only known the girl for a month, and besides a neighborly visit or two, hadn’t had a chance to get to know her well. She had no baseline from which to begin to make an assessment.
And the girl’s eyes were so pleading.
Kata sighed. “Come on, lass,” she said, much more gently. “Come inside. We’ll chat in the warm, aye?”
“Don’t mention it.” The least Kata could do was get an expectant mother — if that was what the girl was — out of the cold. She just hoped that wouldn’t be the only thing she could do for her.
Kata led the way into the house, dropping the bucket off by the stove after she had hung up her own cloak and the girl’s. “Have a seat by the fire — I’ll get some tea on.”
“Ye don’t have ter do that …”
“Don’t be silly. Nothin’ goes better with a chat than a spot o’ tea.”
The girl didn’t argue.
Kata made the tea — it didn’t take long — filled two cups, and walked over to the sofa, where the girl sat. She stared into the flames, eyes vacant, unless you counted the fear. Oh, Lord, Kata thought. Whatever it was, it was bad. “Here,” she said, holding out a cup. “Have some.”
The girl took the cup without a word.
Kata waited for her to sip. She did. Kata waited for her to sip twice. It took longer, but the girl did take a second sip. Then Kata spoke.
“So … what’s the trouble?”
The girl’s eyes slid sidelong to Kata. She took a third sip of her tea. “I … I need a potion. I ain’t been … bleedin’ like usual.”
Kata did not nod. “I see,” she replied. It wasn’t the first time she had been asked for this. She doubted it would be the last. “Ye lain with a man since the last time ye bled?”
The girl jumped as if Kata had struck her. “What difference do that make?”
“All the difference, la–ye know what? I’m about to start axin’ ye a bunch o’ personal questions. Let’s get properly acquainted, first. Fergive an ol’ lady her fergetfulness — but ye’re the eldest Ruskin, aye? What’s yer name?”
The girl blushed and stared at her tea, but she answered. “Glenna.”
“Glenna. That’s a right pretty name. An’ ye can call me Kata. No ‘Widow Thatcher’ nonsense, or anythin’ like that.” Kata nodded. “Now, ye axed me a question … an’ I’ll give ye an answer. If ye ain’t lain with …” The girl was cringing away from Kata again. “Never mind,” Kata sighed. “Ye’re pregnant, ain’t ye, lass? An’ ye know it.”
Glenna jumped. “How’d ye know?”
With some girls, Kata might have had a snappish answer about it being her job to know. But this girl didn’t need anyone snapping at her. “Ye wouldn’t answer me,” she replied. “If ye hadn’t lain with a man, ye would have said so right away.”
The girl moaned and rested her head in her hands. “Can ye help me?” she whispered.
Of course Kata could help her. But that wasn’t what the girl was asking, not really. “That depends …”
“On what? What have I got ter do fer ye?”
“That depends on what kind o’ help ye’re wantin’,” Kata replied.
Glenna gulped. “The — the midwife in our village, Mattie — she’d give any unmarried girl what missed a course a potion ter bring the bleedin’ back. That’s all I want!”
“I don’t give out those potions to women with a babe on the way.” There. Kata had said it. Now all she had to do was wait for the girl to react.
She didn’t have to wait long. Glenna’s head snapped up. “What? Why?”
“Because they’re poison,” Kata replied. It wasn’t, she knew, the “right” answer. The right answer was that any such potion would kill the babe, and that was a sin. There were other things to add to the right answer — that babes were sent by the Lord Wright, and it wasn’t for Sims to meddle, for instance. Or that women who got babes out of wedlock were doubly to keep them, to do penance for their sins. Or that women who got babes in wedlock were to keep them as part of their duty to their husbands. But she never held any truck with those answers.
“P-poison?” Glenna asked, her lips going white.
“Not jest ’cause they kill the babe, if that’s what ye’re axin’,” Kata answered. “They’re poison, ’cause … well, poison is how they kill the babe. Ye poison yerself; ye hope it kills the babe. That’s how those potions work. An’ sometimes it helps ye get rid o’ the babe, an’ sometimes it don’t … an’ sometimes it jest kills ye with the babe, an’ that’s why I don’t give out those potions.”
“None … none o’ the girls in me village ever died. Ever!” Glenna protested.
Kata wasn’t so sure of that. The girl was only, what? Eighteen, nineteen? Twenty at the oldest. She would have only been paying attention for six, eight years or so — if that. Any midwife could be lucky for six or eight years. And if she wasn’t lucky or else good at getting the girls to follow her exact instructions, who would know? If the girl died and had parents, guardians, they’d never let anyone know that the girl had died of anything other than a normal illness. Pointing the finger at the midwife would only bring shame on the family and the poor dead girl, besides.
Kata ought to know that better than anyone.
“That’s as may be,” Kata replied. “Maybe she has a better recipe than mine. But I don’t go doin’ that.” Not anymore.
“Then — then can ye tell me someone what will?” Glenna pleaded.
Kata hesitated. Once upon a time, the answer would have been no. Not because of any moral objections Kata had, but simply because she was the only midwife in the kingdom who was any good. But now … now there were options … perhaps …
“Ye can! Ye can! Who? Please, fer the love o’ Wright, tell me who!”
“That … depends,” Kata murmured. “How far along are ye?”
“What difference do that make?”
All the difference. “The farther along ye are, the more ye’d have ter poison yerself ter cast the babe forth. If ye’re more than two, three months gone … it ain’t worth the risk, I don’t think. Especially since …” Kata hesitated. “Especially since the other option is a noblewoman, a lady what learned how to be a doctor at the university, an’ I don’t know how she’d feel about this.”
If only Lady Morgan was an option! Kata wouldn’t have hesitated to send Glenna along to her. But Lady Morgan wasn’t a possibility. She was a Light Witch, and as she had explained to Kata, there were some things Light Witches couldn’t do. They could prevent babes from happening every day of the week and twice on Sundays. Lady Morgan had even told Kata that if she ever got a girl who had lain with a man — or been forced to lay with a man — within the past three or so days, but who hadn’t taken any steps to prevent a babe, to send her right along. Apparently there was even still time then, for all Kata couldn’t understand how. But once a babe was there … there were some things a Light Witch couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do. Kata never asked which it was. She figured she didn’t have that right.
“A … a doctor what’s a lady?” Glenna repeated.
“I don’t get it, neither.”
Glenna leaned her head back. “I can’t go to a … a doctor. Not a … noble. They … she wouldn’t understand …”
Kata didn’t reply. She didn’t know Lady Clarice well enough to say one way or the other. She was a daughter of Sir Bors, and that could mean anything.
“Ye …” Glenna’s voice trailed off. “Ye said ye had a recipe …”
“Can’t ye jest give it ter me?” Glenna pleaded. “I’ll make it! I’ll take it! Ye don’t have ter have no part o’ it!”
“No,” Kata answered. She hadn’t done that for Marigold and her girls. No way she was going to do it for this girl — especially since she had all those brothers and sisters to be taking care of.
“‘Cause ye’ll kill yerself fer sure an’ certain that way, that’s why,” Kata replied, a little more snappishly than she intended. Maybe that was what got Glenna to say what she did said next.
“Would that be so bad?”
Kata’s head whipped to face the girl. “Eh?”
She didn’t reply.
Kata’s heart clenched. She’d … she wished she could say that she had never seen a girl look so lost. But she hadn’t seen one look like that in years. Decades. Since before she came to Albion. Even Lady Claire hadn’t looked that bad. Even Roma after Marie died hadn’t gone that far into despair.
But there had been another girl …
Glenna suddenly jumped up from the couch, flung her teacup into the fire, and shouted, “Why didn’t he jest kill me when he was done?!”
Kata set her own teacup down on the floor, slowly, deliberately. It bought her time to think. She always needed time to think, when things were … like this.
“Who hurt ye, child?” Kata asked.
“Do it matter?”
“Yes,” Kata replied. “If he’s here, in this land–“
Kata waited for her to finish, which she did, holding her sides in and panting. “We can catch ‘im, child. King Arthur cares about justice. If there were someone here what hurt ye, King Arthur will find ‘im an’ see that he gets what he deserves.”
“An’ if he were a knight?” Glenna shouted, turning Kata. “What then?”
“Me grandson was kidnapped, ’round about two years ago,” Kata replied. “He were nearly murdered, too. Ye–“
“What’s that got ter do with anythin‘?”
“Let me finish, Glenna. Ye know who did that ter me Thorn? Lady Morgause. The King’s own sister. An’ ye know what the King did ter her? He arrested her, an’ had her put on trial. An’ when she were found guilty, he had her sentenced ter death. An’ she never left the prison walls alive — nor dead. She were burned, after she died, an’ the ashes buried in the prison.”
Glenna blinked. “He did that ter his sister?”
“She were a Dark Witch,” Kata replied. “Once they’re dead, it pays ter make sure they stay dead.”
That didn’t make Glenna chortle, as Kata was half-hoping — or even smirk, which she rated as more likely. Instead, it made her wail. “The knight’s in Glasonland!”
Then, with any luck, what with the war an’ all, someone’s already cut off ‘is balls an’ shoved ’em down ‘is own throat.
But she wouldn’t say that. “Then King Arthur can’t do much, I’m afraid.”
“An’ ye won’t do nothin’ at all!” Glenna wailed.
“I need this! I need — I can’t be havin’ this baby! Oh, Lord! What if it looks like him? I can’t be raisin’ a baby what looks like him!”
“Lass, I never said –“
“Why can’t ye jest give me the recipe? If I die, so what? I’m ruined an’ damned already, ain’t I?” Glenna sobbed.
“Ye are not ruined. An’ ye ain’t damned, either.”
“How do ye know?”
“Because the monks an’ the nuns all say that the Lord is just. There ain’t no justice that I know of that punishes the victim o’ a crime what with the perpetrator,” Kata replied. “An’ ye know what would be even less just? Lettin’ ye harm yerself ’cause o’ what some horrible man, who will surely rot in Hell fer what he done, did ter ye.”
Glenna turned away. Kata stood up behind her.
“Ye know why I don’t make those potions no more, Glenna?” she asked. Of course Glenna wouldn’t answer. “I’ll tell ye.
“There were a girl once. Not yer age, younger. Fourteen, when it all started — if that’s when it started, she were jest fourteen when she come ter me. She had a stepfather. He were … well, most in the village said her ma were lucky, ter nab a man like that with so many kids as she had, all daughters, too. But they didn’t know what I knew. They didn’t know what that man did ter the girls.”
Glenna slowly turned her head, listening, her lips slightly parted in a soundless gasp.
“Aye, I’m sure ye can fill in the rest. Well, the girl — the middle one, the homeliest, as it happens — she came ter me. Axin’ fer what ye’re axin’ fer. An’ I … well, I axed some questions, but once I knew what was what, I give it ter her. Every time she come ter me, I give it ter her. She came ter me four times that year. An’ the fourth time she come …” Kata blinked and closed her eyes. It was amazing how clear Ebba’s face was to her, even all these years later.
“The fourth time?” Glenna whispered.
“She died,” Kata answered. “Two days later. I told ye, this stuff is poison. Whether she took too much, meanin’ ter kill herself, or whether her dyin’ were an accident … I don’t know. But after that … I said, I weren’t gonna be responsible fer killin’ no more girls. I lose enough just tryin’ ter help ’em birth their babes. I ain’t givin’ them stuff what will harm them.”
“So … ye won’t help me. An’ no one else can,” Glenna sighed. “Or will.”
“Won’t help ye? Glenna, I said I wouldn’t give ye what ye wanted. I wouldn’t give ye no poison. But won’t help ye? I never said that.”
Glenna looked up, blinking. “Seumas thinks I should get married.”
“Yer … brother?” Kata asked. “The one what’s near me Billy’s age?”
“He’s thirteen …”
“So’s me Billy. Well, let me tell ye somethin’. Gettin’ married ’cause ye’ve got a babe on the way — unless ye’re gettin’ married ter the father o’ it, an’ the babe jest is speedin’ things along some — is about the worst reason fer gettin’ married that I ever heard. Especially after what happened ter ye. Ye probably don’t want a man anywhere near ye, d’ye?”
Glenna’s eyes widened, but she shook her head.
“Then gettin’ married won’t do ye any good. No. What ye need … what ye need is a chance ter catch yer breath. Come ter some kind o’ terms with what’s happened. How far gone are ye?”
“‘Bout three months,” Glenna mumbled.
“Then ye’ve got six months ter decide about the babe, haven’t ye?”
“Decide? Decide what?”
“What ye’re gonna do. If ye’re gonna keep the babe or not.”
“There’s an orphanage up in Camelot,” Kata explained. “A good one. Run by nuns. An’ believe me — it’s a good one. I’ve taken …” She paused and counted on her fingers. “Ten babes ter the nuns. An’ one might come back ter me at the end o’ the year as a ‘prentice. Tell me that ain’t a good place.”
“An orphanage …” Glenna murmured.
“Or if ye decide ter keep the babe … well, I can help ye with that too …”
Glenna didn’t answer. Instead, she turned lost, sorrowful eyes to Kata. They were still haunted. But they weren’t looking halfway beyond this world, into the next, wondering if their lot there would be any better. Not for the moment, anyway.
They were looking around this world, but they were still very, very scared by everything they saw.
“Oh, come here, lass,” Kata murmured, holding out her arms. Glenna tottered into them. “Where’s yer ma, Glenna?”
“Dead,” Glenna mumbled into her shoulder. “The same day … I …”
“Oh, ye poor thing.” Kata held the girl even more tightly. “But don’t ye worry none. I’ll take good care o’ ye. We all will. I promise.”