Hybel 11, 1013
“Well, Wulfie,” Erin began, “let’s see, what do we have ter get terday? I need eggs, an’ bread, an’ — oh, perhaps a new bolt o’ cloth fer yer shirt …”
She’d barely started on the litany, and Wulf’s eyes were beginning to glaze over already. Part of Erin couldn’t blame him. She’d been much the same way at six: a ball of energy and liveliness that didn’t want to sit still and be quiet. Trips to the market were always a horror at that age. It would have been one thing if she had been allowed to run around and shout a bit, like her brothers, but girls were supposed to stand still and be quiet, lest everyone in the village think Greta Shepherd was raising a little hoyden. And oh, what a long time her mother would take, hesitating over the apples or waffling over a dozen practically identical loaves! At least Erin didn’t subject Wulf to that, since she herself hadn’t the patience to take that long.
But there was no help for it; unless Erin managed to get time off from her rehearsals and afternoon shows on market day while Wulf was still at school, she had to take him with her. There was no one on the square that she trusted to watch him now that Nicole was married and ready to pop in the next few weeks. The man who had moved into Nicole’s cottage was a dark-haired, rather slow, but very strong fellow. He didn’t seem to have a normal job or keep regular hours. And while she liked to think that everything was all right with him, since she’d seen little Roma’s husband Simon Chevaux whistle his way into that cottage once or twice … well, you didn’t survive as long as Erin had without developing good instincts and paying heed to them. So to the market Wulf had to come.
That didn’t mean, however, that he didn’t come equipped with ideas of how to amuse himself when he was there. “Mama … if I axed ye somethin’, would ye promise not ter get mad?”
“Sweetheart, ye can axe me anythin’ an’ I won’t get mad.” Erin’s mother had never said that to her, in Erin’s memory, at least. That was why she made a point of bringing it up often to Wulf.
“Well … instead o’ followin’ ye around the market … d’ye mind if I go fishin’?”
“I brought me tackle an’ everythin’!”
Blast that Edmond Chevaux. Ever since he’d taught Wulf the knack of it, it was fishing this, fishing that, fishing something else. And Erin didn’t mind letting him fish in the stream by the mill, as long as he stayed a few feet from the water’s edge and stayed in sight of a window — or better yet, where there was a chair nearby where Erin could sit and watch him. Still, it did get monotonous.
“An’ Torben,” Wulf gestured to a young lad with auburn hair, “he’s fishin’! So can I, Mama, can I, please?”
She didn’t want to say “no” out of reflex, of some fear of spoiling him. On the one hand … was she spoiling him? She didn’t like to say no when she couldn’t think of a good reason to do so — was that bad? If only there was someone she could ask! She knew Lyndsay Thatcher had a similarly permissive attitude to her young ones, but it was different with Lyndsay. She was in charge of six children. There was no danger of any of the Thatcher children getting spoiled.
Still, it wouldn’t do any harm …
“All right, if ye want. But ye stay a good three feet from the edge, ye mind? An’ ye make sure that other little boy –”
“Tor–ye know him?”
“Aye, Mama!” Wulf nodded. “He goes ter school with me! He lives up in Lothianshire, right near Davy!”
“Ah,” Erin nodded. Had Wulf mentioned him before? He didn’t upset with her for forgetting — maybe he hadn’t. It wasn’t like there was any shortage of little boys at the school. “Well, ye talk ter Torben, make sure it’s all right with him, an’ if he says yes, then I say yes too.”
“Thank’ee, Mama!” Wulf launched himself at her and hugged her around the waist for a brief moment before skipping off. “Hi, Torben!”
Torben turned around and smiled. “Hallo!”
“Ye mind if I fish with ye?”
Torben’s gaze dropped and he scuffed at the earth with one toe. “I only got the one rod …”
“Oh, I brought me own!”
“Oh!” Torben looked up with a wide grin. He was a cute little kid — or maybe Erin just thought that because he was being so friendly to her little lad. “Then aye, sure!”
Wulf got his fishing rod and string out of his pocket (how he fit it in there was not a question Erin wanted to ask herself), and it didn’t take long for an enterprising little boy to find a worm, even if Erin did note that she’d have to see to it that he washed his hands before they left. Within a few moments he was standing peacefully by Torben, chatting up a storm.
“So why’d ye even axe, Wulf?” asked Torben. “Ter fish?”
“Me mama said I should.”
“Yer mama?” Torben looked over his shoulder. Erin saw him looking and waved. He dropped his rod, blushed, and turned away.
Boys, boys, boys, Erin thought, shaking her head. They were cute, no matter the age.
Still, she’d seen enough here. Wulf would be fine. Erin headed first to the produce stand, to see if those apples were as good as they had seemed from the corner of her eye.
But she didn’t go far enough to be out of earshot. “She’s pretty,” Torben said, just loud enough that Erin could still hear him.
“Who?” asked Wulf.
Erin did not stop. She did not look back. But oh, how she wanted to!
Still, she was able to hear. “Of course she’s pretty!”
Oh, if that didn’t put a spring in her step! Wulf said that all the time, but still, it felt good to be called pretty at her age. It didn’t matter that little boys did tend to think that their mothers were pretty, even if the mother in question was a pockmarked, hunched-over, hare-lipped hag.
“She’s the prettiest woman in the whole world!” Wulf went on. Erin had to chuckle to herself as she got close enough to inspect those apples. He was a sweetheart, her boy.
But even if she didn’t want to hear, was trying not to hear, there was no arguing with the way sound chose to carry — particularly in a relatively quiet marketplace. “Me mama was prettier,” Torben asserted.
“Was?” asked Wulf.
“She died. In Glasonland,” Torben added.
Erin looked up with a blink. The poor boy was motherless? A part of her heart that she didn’t even know existed before Wulf was born opened a little and ached in pity.
“Oh,” was all Wulf said in reply to that.
Erin took a deep breath. She couldn’t expect more. Wulf was so little, and men, in her experience, weren’t exactly the best at getting each other to open up about their feelings. It took a woman to manage that. Or a pint.
“She had red hair, too,” Torben murmured.
Erin needed to get out of earshot — now!
So she turned and headed to the cloth stall, where she wouldn’t hear every last bit of Torben and Wulf’s conversation and be tempted to jump in at every other response. It wasn’t like the apples had a patch on Marigold’s or Ash and Lyndsay’s, anyway. She’d just pop over to Lyndsay’s stall later and–
No, she wouldn’t. Lyndsay had a baby at home who wasn’t even a fortnight old! Lyndsay wasn’t running the stall today, and Ash wouldn’t run it without her. She’d have to wait until St. Agnes’s Day, four days hence, when she and Wulf would meet up at the Roadhouse next to the whorehouse. That was where all the folks without families to celebrate ended up, ready to eat, drink, be merry, and drink some more. There would be lots of other children for Wulf to run around with, and nobody would notice Erin laughing in the back with her girls — the only real family she had, other than Wulf.
So she headed over to the secondhand cloth stall and started flipping through the samples on display.
Wulf needed a new shirt, so she needed something that could be cut down … perhaps she could the white linen one? That would–wait, why would white linen end up in this stall, of all places? Surely anything that would end up in a secondhand stall like this ought to have been yellowed within an inch of its life. Was it bleached? But if so — why sell it? What could possibly be wrong with it?
Erin lifted the linen up and had a closer look at it. She wished, not for the first time, that she had paid attention to her mother a bit more, all those days at the market when she was wishing she was somewhere else. Maybe she would have learned something …
Although Erin could feel threads snapping under her fingertips. Goodness, what was wrong with this shirt? Had it perhaps just been worn down that much? Perhaps there was enough of it that was good that she could cut it down for Wulf’s shirt …
No, she couldn’t buy something that worn for an active little boy like Wulf. With her luck, it would come apart on the playground and land in a heap at his feet. And then his tunic would get the brunt of all his sweat, and then … no, it didn’t bear thinking of.
Erin meandered over to another rack. Surely she could find some undyed linen or wool that wasn’t in too rough shape. Or perhaps not wool. They were over halfway through spring, and Wulf would be wearing this shirt through the summer. Wool was a season of itchy discomfort and complaints just waiting to happen.
This cloth was already cut up. Damn. Life was harder now that she couldn’t trade sewing for cleaning with Tambu. Sometimes she woke up after a nightmare in which Wulf’s clothes had all fallen apart on the playground and the teacher sent for her, demanding to know why she sent her boy to school in nothing but his hosen and his smallclothes. Still, of all the things to have nightmares about … perhaps being called in by the teacher wasn’t so bad. Especially when she thought about Walter, about rough nights at the whorehouse …
Good Lord, how good had her life gotten! She had no right to complain, had she? She had Wulf — a steady roof over her head — good food on the table, put there by herself (and occasionally gifts of produce from Marigold) — nobody had hit her in … years! Well, except for Angie, that one time, in what was supposed to be a stage hit, but had been misaimed. And Angie had practically been crying, so sorry was she. That didn’t even count, really.
What else could she possibly need? Or want?
“TORBEN! YE STOP THAT RIGHT NOW!”
Torben?!? Erin spun around —
And shrieked. “WULF!”
She hitched up her skirts and ran.
What the hell had he been thinking? The log-rolling was dangerous! Grown men fell off it all the time, and if they hit their head on the way down — oh, Lord! A man had drowned that way when she was a child, having hit his head and swallowing too much water before he could be fished out. She could still remember him, his lips cold and blue —
“WULFIE!” Erin shrieked again.
There was another man running to the same place, albeit from the opposite direction. A man in the skins of a hunter, with brown hair and a brown beard, running with an odd limp. And he was shouting, too. “TORBEN! I said get OFF!”
The two boys were sheepishly edging their way off the log as Erin ran up to them.
They’d both had the sense to strip down to their braises, which was hardly comforting, all things considered. It meant that they had had time to plan this, and somehow had not thought better of it. And Wulf had even tied his floppy hair back! Good Lord, what was that boy thinking? What would he have done if he had fallen off? He could barely swim!
Wulf tip-toed around the log-rolling pond, wearing his, I’m-in-trouble-but-maybe-if-I-grin-it-will-go-away smile. If Torben had been thinking to try something similar, it wouldn’t work. The man was already laying into him. “What the hell were ye thinkin’, boy? I said ye could fish an’ that’s it!”
“But Papa, nobody else were usin’ it–”
“That ain’t no reason fer ye ter go near it!”
“Wulfie!” Erin gasped, holding Wulf as soon as he came into hugging range.
“Hi, Mama.” At least he had the brains to sound a little guilty.
There were a dozen questions Erin could have asked — all variations on the theme What were you thinking? or Have you gone mad? Instead, she asked the most important question. “Are ye all right?”
“Aye! I didn’t even fall in!”
How in the world Wulf had good enough balance to stay on top of a rolling log …
“But Torben did!” he added impishly.
“YE FELL IN?!” the man behind Erin roared. She winced, and she wasn’t even the one being yelled at.
“But Papa, I took all my clothes off before!”
“That don’t matter!”
“I only got a little wet! I’ll dry fast!”
“I don’t care! Good Lord! Torben, ye could have–what if ye’d hit yer head, eh? Answer me that!”
“But I didn’t hit me head, Papa!”
“What. If. Ye. HAD?”
Erin slowly straightened, keeping one hand on Wulf’s shoulder. She glanced sidelong at Wulf — he too was shrinking back from the man’s onslaught. Erin knew she ought to be going to town on Wulf herself — oh, he needed a good yelling at for this! And he wouldn’t be fishing for a week if Erin had anything to say about it! — but somehow, with the man yelling at Torben … it almost seemed unnecessary.
She wasn’t the only one to notice, either. They were drawing a bit of a crowd, they four. Erin could hear voices snorting and chuckling to each other.
“Goodness, they’re both all right, what’s the harm?”
“Aye, the lads even took all their clothes off! Tell me, how many lads remember ter do that?”
“An’ only one o’ em even got wet!”
“Well, the dry one’s ma ain’t yellin’. Maybe she’s got some sense, she has.”
Erin gulped and held Wulf closer. These idiots — they didn’t understand. If Erin didn’t have Wulf, she had nothing. Less than nothing. She had memories of what was — memories of a beautiful flower, just on the cusp of blooming, that had died and turned to ash in her hands. Didn’t they care for their children, these people?
Maybe they didn’t have any. Or maybe they had plenty. Too many. You never appreciated the beauty of one bud when you had a garden full of them. Perhaps this man …
Torben had said that his mother had died …
The man suddenly choked on something that sounded close to a sob. “Lord, Torben!” he gasped, holding Torben closer. “Don’t ye never do that ter me again!”
“Promise me! Ye won’t scare me like that again?”
“I … I guess not …”
“Good! Good boy.” The man kissed Torben’s hair. “Fer a moment there I thought — I thought –”
Erin knew exactly what he had thought. It was written all over his face. And it was written all over her heart, too. It was what she dreamed when whatever demon who sent nightmares was in a particularly vile mood and decided to mix the worst memories of her past with the brightest moments of her future. It was what she imagined when she looked out the window when Wulf was fishing and didn’t see him instantly. It was what flashed through her mind when he was a few minutes late, coming home from school.
It was more than Torben needed to hear.
“Don’t tell ‘im!”
The man froze and stared at Erin. So did Wulf. “Don’t tell ‘im what, Mama?”
“Er … never mind, Wulf. I’ll tell ye when ye’re older.”
The man swallowed, watching them, and seemed almost to nod. He hung his head and took a deep breath near his son’s tousled curls. Then he gave the lad a swat on the bottom that would have to stand in for a good spanking and barked, “Get dressed.”
“You, too,” Erin muttered out of the side of her mouth to Wulf.
Torben, doubtless knowing like all children when not to push it, dashed off. So did Wulf.
And Erin stepped forward. “Er — sorry about that,” she tried to laugh. “I didn’t mean ter …”
The man let her trail off, seemingly realizing only after a moment’s lapsed silence that he was expected to reply in turn. “Eh — don’t worry about it none. That is ter say …” He shrugged. “Kids — kids don’t need ter know that.”
“Aye. They don’t.”
“An’ Torben already …” The man looked worriedly at Torben. “They all …”
He didn’t say anything more. And Erin didn’t want to pry. So she changed the subject. “Thank’ee, by the way. Fer gettin’ ’em off that–contraption.” She shuddered. “I never even thought ter tell Wulf ter stay off the log-roller.”
“Eh, best not ter tell the kiddies not ter do too many things. Gives ’em ideas,” replied the man with something that could have, if Erin squinted her eyes and tilted her head just right, been a chuckle.
She laughed herself, then remembered her manners. “Oh, goodness! How rude o’ me. I’m Erin, by the way — Erin Shepherd.” She stuck her hand out, nervously.
The man looked at her hand, then, just as nervously, reached forward and shook it.
“Name’s Jager,” he replied. “Roy Jager.”