Seryl 25, 1013
On most days, Dyfedshire was a placid, sleepy kind of place. The peasants worked in the fields, the nobles kept to their castle and grounds, the artisans (of which there were few, since most preferred to live in Port Finessa, Avilion, or the capital) plied their trades in the privacy of their homes. You could walk down the main road for hours without meeting another traveler, and those travelers you met were probably en route from Port Finessa to Lothianshire and its great forests, or perhaps all the way to Reme. Or the other way around. But those days were not market day.
On market day, everything was different. And this market day, Dilys was in the thick of it all.
And to make things even better, she had her best friend by her side.
This was hardly her first market day, of course. When she and Delyth were little, they used to beg Jeannie to take them out on market day. Sometimes they even got their wish. But while Delyth liked to run right for the lady who sold the sweet cakes, or the fire-eater, or the dancer, Dilys liked to walk through more slowly. She would wander over to the table where pretty cloths were laid out and wonder at the patterns. She would browse the pottery stall, wondering how the potter managed to take the hunks of clay and turn them into vases, jugs, and crocks. She would stand by the fruit stall for hours, fascinated by the different colors and textures of the apples and the way that each fruit was just a little bit different from its brothers. Delyth used to be driven quite mad by the way Dilys would stop and stare, and it probably annoyed Jeannie to no end, too, though she’d never show it.
Ravenna, Dilys thought, would probably be much more patient. Even if she didn’t quite understand all that Dilys saw, or tried to see, she at least showed more willingness to try. Delyth simply did not have the kind of mind that could stand rapt for hours, contemplating the drop of dew on a flower petal. If she wasn’t picking the flower, her mind would alight on something more interesting.
Still, Dilys ought to at least make some attempt at conversation — but she could talk and look and smell and even, to an extent, hear at the same time. “You know, I think it’s been years since I came to market day.”
Some girls their age might have looked at Dilys and gasped, “Really?” Not Ravenna. “I know,” she nodded. “My mother used to take me when I was little, but …”
“Not once you got older,” Dilys agreed. “We — so many things get brought to us. Food and beasts and cloth. And what doesn’t get brought to us …”
“You get from Camelot.”
“Or Port Finessa,” Dilys agreed. She gazed around her. “Not — market day.”
When she was little, the whole of market day had been an astonishing tapestry of color and light. Everywhere she looked, there was a new and glittering thread, or a cunning design, or a clever animal or gallant knight. Now that she was older, she could see the tawdriness of it all. The cloths that used to draw her eye were now loose-woven, dull, rough stuff of poor quality. The pottery was lumpy and misshapen — good enough to be functional, but no more. Only the fruits were the same, but to Dilys’s adult (or near enough) eye, there were fewer of them.
“Well, think about it like this!” Ravenna replied. “Now you’ll have a fresh eye to see everything!”
Dilys was seeing everything afresh, all right.
Still, she watched out of the corner of her eye as Ravenna looked around her, as if she, too, was seeing everything for the first time. “Er … is it just me … or did this place used to be bigger?”
“Aye,” Dilys agreed. Bigger, certainly, in a way that couldn’t just be explained by the inches of height that separated the Dilys of the from the Dilys of now. Bigger and bolder and brighter. What had changed since then? Was it the market?
Or was it Dilys?
She felt her hands start to twitch and twist around each other. This wasn’t what she had wanted. She thought market day would be the same. She was sure she would find something here to draw, some memory to tuck away and turn into a painting or perhaps an embroidered cloth. But so far, there was —
Dilys stopped. She stared.
That was different.
“Dilys?” Ravenna asked.
“Look at those flowers …” Dilys murmured.
Ravenna turned and looked.
Dilys, meanwhile, did not know where to look first. Perhaps the bouquets of wildflowers, those riotous bursts of color that had first drawn her eye? That was what she remembered market day being like; those were the colors of her memory. But how on earth would she ever paint them? Those pinks, those purples — she would have to mix her paints together until she stained her hands, her face, every dress she owned. Her mother would have a fit by the time she was done. But it would be worth it, when she saw the painting.
Or what about the roses? Such reds! Such pinks! Such — yellows? Was that a yellow rose? How could that be? Dilys had never seen such a rose in her life! She took a step closer without even noticing how her feet moved.
And there were other flowers too … tulips and buttercups and daisies … Dilys would buy a pot of each, she decided, and she would paint them all. Individually, and in a group. She would have inspiration until she left for Camford! She just wasn’t sure how she’d get them all home, but surely, between her and Ravenna, they would think of something.
Something — something green interposed itself between her and the flowers. Dilys blinked and stepped back. At first she was just searching for a better view, but then — then she saw what had blocked her.
So this was the Plantsim’s stall.
Dilys had heard of him. He was, through no fault of his own, a regular headache of her father’s. It seemed that almost every market day somebody was coming to Dyfed Keep to complain about him and his stall. His kind was dirty, people said. Smelly. People crowded around his stall to jeer and point, slowing down business for everybody else. (Pellinore had once muttered to Lamorak, not knowing that Dilys was in earshot, that that was likely to be the only complaint of the lot with a grain of truth in it.) There was something wrong with his flowers, his fruits. They looked different. They couldn’t be healthy. He was cheating people.
Now that Dilys could see the flowers and fruits in question, she thought it rather more likely that the problem was that the Plantsim’s wares made everybody else’s look bad. His apples and strawberries were easily twice the size of any that Dilys had seen on her table, and out of of season, too! And they looked so crisp (the apples) and juicy (the strawberries). Dilys had planned to buy a sweet roll or currant bun to munch on, but now she just wanted a basket of those strawberries.
As for the Plantsim himself, he moved so quietly and so smoothly that Dilys could not imagine what there was about him to cause complaint. He darted around the stall, leaving no more trace of his passing than a gentle breeze through the trees. He did not meet the eye of anybody else. He didn’t speak unless he was spoken to. It would not have surprised Dilys overmuch to find that he had quietly slipped away and taken root when her attention was elsewhere.
Ravenna suddenly gasped. “I know–” She slapped a hand over her mouth.
Dilys glanced to her. “You know what?”
“Who they are,” Ravenna whispered. “Those are the Thatchers. Ash and … Lyndsay, I think. Ash Thatcher is Uncle Arthur’s gamekeeper. And … and …”
“That little boy,” Dilys whispered back. “With … with … Lady Morgause.”
“Aye. He’s their nephew. My mother says they’re the ones who are taking care of him.”
Dilys thought that the Plantsim — Ash — did not move like a man who had endured such a fright. She looked to his wife.
She did not look like a woman laboring under a burden, either — well, other than the one she was carrying in her belly, since even Dilys could see that she was heavily pregnant. The most that seemed to be troubling Lyndsay was the sum she was doing in her head as she moved counting beans around the lid of the cashbox. Perhaps whoever was standing before her had a complicated order.
Dilys looked around again. She remembered what she had heard about the Thatchers, during Lady Morgause’s trial. They were poor, outcast, on the margins of the kingdom socially if not physically. They lived in a tree, for heaven’s sake! Yet here they were, running their own stall, as happy and prosperous as any other peasant family in Albion. Dilys wondered what had effected the change.
And then she realized. The complaints about the stall had started coming shortly after Lady Morgause’s trial. With the sentence of death had come a fine — a small one, by noble standards, but surely large enough to rent a plot of ground and pay for tables and pots and a cashbox. Was this what they had used the fine for?
If so … that had to be the best way to make beauty come of darkness that Dilys had ever seen …
“Hey! You! Barkie!”
Dilys came out of her reverie to find Ash being roughly shoved into his own display. He caught his balance soon, doing no more than swaying a bit in the breeze — rather like the tree for which he had been named. He ran a hand through his leaves. “Sir –”
“How many bloody times,” roared the guard, “do I have ter tell ye ter stay away from the market?”
“Hey! How many times do I have ter tell ye that we ain’t been told ter stay away yet!” yelled Lyndsay from her post at the cashbox.
“Ye! Shut yer hole, woman, before I go over an’ –”
“Leave her out o’ this,” said Ash, stepping between the guard and his wife.
The guard looked at Ash, looked at Lyndsay, and snorted. “Aww, look at the big, bad barkie, tryin’ ter defend his lady. Ye think ye’re a knight now, barkie?” The guard shoved Ash again; again Ash only swayed. “Look, unless ye want ter get hauled by yer leafy head ter Lord Pellinore’s castle, I suggest ye get out.”
“Hey now, what’s the problem here?” asked one of the customers — a woman with red hair and wearing what was possibly the most complex and interesting outfit Dilys had ever seen. There was a vague familiarity to her face, too. “They’re not doing anyone any harm!”
“Ye — stay out of this!” the guard roared at the woman. “Go back home ter yer babies and yer man, an’ stay out o’ what don’t concern ye!”
“My babies and my man? Oh, you have a lot of nerve!”
“Stay out!” the guard bellowed. He took a menacing step toward the woman.
The woman shot him a withering glance — then she openly rolled her eyes, took some coins out of her purse and gave them to Lyndsay. “I take one of the snapdragons, as well — and keep the change, please.” She glared again at the guard. “After all, people who run a good stall without bothering anyone else deserve every last copper they can get.” The woman then grabbed her snapdragons and stomped off.
The guard watched her go with a cruel sneer. “Bitch,” he muttered as soon as she was safely out of sight. Then he turned back to Ash. His hand went up —
Dilys couldn’t look.
But she heard the thwack and the cry of pain anyway. “I said ter ye once, I said ter ye twice, I ain’t gonna say it a third time — get out!”
“Ash!” cried Lyndsay.
“An’ ye!” the guard shouted. “Shut yer hole! If ye weren’t carryin’ a belly on ye the size o’ a house, I’d be beltin’ ye one, too! Lord! Ye stayed away all winter! What made ye so brave now?”
“Ye can’t sell flowers in the winter, du–”
“Lyndsay, don’t!” yelled Ash. Dilys finally felt brave enough to pull her hands away from her face.
After she did it, she wasn’t sure if that was a good idea. Ash was wiping something clear and sticky from his face. And the guard was walking away with a smug smile.
That — that could not be. She could not stand by and let that happen. Dilys gulped, squared her shoulders, and walked toward the guard.
“Dilys?” she heard Ravenna call after her.
Dilys walked past Ash and tried her best to smile at him. She kept walking until she planted herself square in the guard’s pathway. Ravenna trotted after her and placed herself right next to Dilys.
The guard scowled at Dilys — then he blinked. He looked her up and down a few times, and he blinked again. “Er … can I help ye, mi–m’l–”
“It’s Lady Dilys, kind sir,” Dilys replied, smiling even though calling this brute “kind sir” made her want to retch. Still, her mother always said that one caught more flies with honey than with vinegar.
“Lady …” the guard repeated, then his gaze went to the castle in this distance. His eyebrows went up. “Lady Dilys — Gwynedd?”
He looked Dilys over a few more times, seemingly checking her appearance against something — perhaps she had been described to him before. If he often did his duty on market day, she probably had been.
Then, once he had apparently looked her over to his satisfaction, his expression softened. The hard hate melted into respectful concern. The sneer morphed into a faint frown. “With all due respect, m’lady, this ain’t no place fer fine ladies like ye. Fine ladies like ye ought ter be stayin’ far, far away from the riff-raff.”
“What riff-raff, sir?” asked Dilys. “All I see here are honest stallkeepers.”
“M’lady, ye don’t see all that’s here –”
“I — I was watching them for a few moments,” Dilys interrupted. She could feel a blush starting and clenched her fists in the hopes of keeping it away. “I didn’t see them doing anything wrong.”
The guard sniffed. “There’ve been complaints, m’lady. Yer lord father will be hearin’ all about ’em at the end o’ the day. With all due respect, I can’t imagine he’d want ye gettin’ yer hands dirty with sort o’ business.”
“My father always says that it is the business of everyone to stand up for what is right and just.” Dilys tilted her chin up and did her best to stare down a man who was several inches taller than she was. If only she had the knack of it! “And — and I think I know him rather better than you do. I don’t think he would mind me asking a few questions. Not when, as far as I can see, these stallkeepers weren’t doing anything wrong and so shouldn’t be harassed.”
“Harassed, m’lady? That’s a powerful word ye’re throwin’ about! Ye know what that might do ter a workin’ man?”
Dilys gulped and took a deep breath. “Is it — is it worse than what a guard, d-d-drunk on power, might do if he d-d-decided to pick on some people who weren’t doing anything wrong but still c-c-couldn’t stand up to him?”
Dilys heard a gasp — Lyndsay had covered her face with her hands and was looking away. As for Ash, he was watching the exchange with what seemed like perfect passivity.
She couldn’t look at them long — the guard was standing and shaking before her, and Ravenna was making a twitching motion with her arm. Dilys only had a split second to wonder why before she saw the little nub of moonstone that was the end of Ravenna’s wand. She wasn’t — she wouldn’t —
No. This was Ravenna. She wouldn’t — unless she needed to. Dilys gulped and turned back to staring at the guard.
“Look — look, m’lady. Ye — ye’re a fine lady, an’ — an’ the stuff we workin’ folks do, ye don’t understand that. Ye can’t understand that. There’s complaints about those two,” the guard jerked his thumb to Ash and Lyndsay, “every week. I’m tryin’ ter save yer lord father a bit o’ work, I am, an’ get ’em ter leave before they cause any more trouble.”
“More trouble than what?” Ravenna interjected. “Dilys has said it — that other lady said it — and now I’ll say it. We didn’t see anyone causing trouble.”
“An’ jest who are ye?” the guard snapped, exasperated.
“Ravenna le Fay.”
The guard’s eyes went wide. Dilys heard someone — perhaps it was Lyndsay — gasp. “Ye’re … ye’re …” the guard started, eyes wide and hands shaking.
“The K-King’s niece,” Dilys finished for him, figuring that was the response least likely to cause another problem. Surely the guard would behave himself if he realized that not just Lord Pellinore’s daughter, but the King’s niece was watching? And surely he would only become afraid, not stupidly afraid, as he might have if he was allowed to fill in for himself a witch or Lady Morgan’s daughter?
Given the guard’s pallor, Dilys could see that he was afraid — hopefully he was intelligently afraid.
“Al-although, Ravenna,” Dilys hooked her arm through her friend’s, “I — I don’t think what you s-said was quite true. We did s-witness someone making trouble.” Dilys swallowed. “We witnessed a g-guard strike an innocent stallkeeper who was m-minding his own b-business.”
“M–m’lady,” the guard stammered, “ye — ye don’t understand all that’s gone on here … ye don’t know the history …”
“Every m-market day, my father gets complaints about the Thatchers,” Dilys answered. “I know that. And — and I know, t-t-too, that every m-m-market day, my father finds that they’re all s-s-spurious.” She took a deep breath. “I — I g-guess that means there’s a history of harassment here?”
The guard cringed away. “M’lady — ye don’t know what ye can do …”
“But if you go away and leave the Thatchers alone for the rest of the day,” Ravenna interrupted, “we might just forget that we saw anything!”
The guard didn’t answer. He just walked — no, ran away.
Dilys watched him go with a frown. She was about to tell Ravenna that she did not think that was wise. She needed to tell her father what she — well, not saw, technically, but witnessed. If they kept quiet, then this guard could come back next market day and harass the Thatchers all over again. And then where would they be?
She never got a chance. Ravenna was nudging her. Dilys looked up — and she saw Ash Thatcher standing in front of her. Dilys gasped and gulped, her throat suddenly closed over any words she might hope to say.
Ash Thatcher didn’t say anything, not at first. Instead, he slowly put forward one hand. Dilys, just as slowly, brought her hand forward to meet it.
He shook it once. He smiled. And then he spoke.
It was all that needed to be said.