Jaban 12, 1013
Kata had thought the cows would be a good idea when she bought it. What midwife wouldn’t like a cow or two on hand? It was always good to have a contingency plan on hand for emergencies. That was how she thought of them: emergencies. It had a much better ring to it than “professional failures.”
She’d gotten a bull, too, to keep the cows having calves, which would keep the milk production up. And then she could sell the calves once they were old enough to leave their mothers. When there weren’t emergencies and weren’t calves needing the milk, Kata would have plenty on hand for butter and cheeses. Altogether, she’d been quite pleased with the plan, sure it would lead to profit and plenty all around.
And so it had. In a way. It also led to a lot of work. Kata hadn’t properly reckoned with that. She was also getting rather sick of cheese.
“There ye go, Spots,” she said, patting the cow’s side and picking up the bucket. “Ye’re all set.” She put the stool away and left the barn, bucket still in hand.
She’d be glad when she got Rhoslyn at the beginning of the year. She and Billy were doing just fine financially, but Kata was starting to feel that the work was getting to be too much. When Rhoslyn came, there would be another hand on deck to help with everything. The work of training her would be nothing in comparison.
… Maybe not nothing. But Rhoslyn seemed like a likely girl, eager to be a midwife, and the Lord knew that the women of Albion needed more professionals on hand than a lady doctor and two monks with medical training. They needed a woman like them to help them through their pregnancies, births, and times when they wanted to avoid both. Lady Clarice meant well, and she’d be perfect for the wealthier ladies, but she didn’t understand a peasant’s life and a peasant’s troubles. And the monks? Forget about it!
Rhoslyn, even though she had been raised by nuns, would do very well. Kata couldn’t imagine a better caretaker for those girls than Mother Julian. Glenna might not want it for Seona, and Kata wasn’t sure she blamed her, but at the end of the day, Mother Julian gave those girls a strict moral upbringing and enough grit to keep those precepts nice and shiny. What more could you ask for?
A mother’s love, replied the voice in Kata’s mind. Fer people ter be less stupid. Those girls shouldn’t need that kind of grit. If it weren’t fer people who–
Kata stopped dead, catching sight of the brown-robed figure on her front porch.
Speak o’ the devil …
“Brother Tuck? Can I help ye?”
“Widow Thatcher!” Brother Tuck turned that dazzling, charming smile on her. Kata was not in a mood to be charmed. “I knocked and knocked, but there was no answer. I was just about to leave.”
A pity that she hadn’t taken a few moments longer with Spots. She might have gotten out of this. Because it wouldn’t be pleasant — Kata could tell that from here. She switched her bucket to her other hand. “Well, I were in the barn.”
“I see. Do you need help with that?” He nodded to the bucket.
“No, thank’ee, sir.”
“It’s Brother, of course!”
Brother Galahad did the note of surprise much better. Of course, it helped that it was genuine for Brother Galahad. The boy had a lot of talents, but acting wasn’t one of them. “As ye please, Brother.”
“Well, at least allow me to get the door for you,” he said, reaching behind him and groping for the handle. He pushed it open and held it for her.
No way to get out of that, then. “Thank’ee. Let me jest put this in the larder, an’ …”
Kata walked over to said larder and pulled the door open. We can figure out jest what it is in the bloody blazes ye want. But she couldn’t say that.
“If ye could shut that door, I’d be much obliged,” she said. “Don’t want every fly in Avilion findin’ his way in here.”
An’ if ye could manage to shut yerself on the wrong side, I’d be even more pleased!
“Of course!” Brother Tuck shut the door with a firm and purposeful click. Kata heard his soft sandals cross the floor back to her. He would be right there beside her in a minute.
So Kata made a great show of rearranging the larder to find the best place to put the bucket. It wouldn’t make a difference, really, she’d have to be taking the bucket out again before the end of the day — the milk would have to be turned into butter or cheese before it went off. But she could pretend. Brother Tuck probably didn’t bother much with the vagaries of kitchen storage.
Still, stalling would only take so long. So Kata turned around. She didn’t show a hint of surprise to find Brother Tuck at her elbow — it helped that she wasn’t surprised, of course, but all the same, she couldn’t go showing surprise. “So, again, Brother Tuck — now that ye’ve helped me, how can I help ye?”
“Widow Thatcher … you’re a very busy woman, so I’ll get right to the point. I’ve heard that there was a woman who gave birth to a child out of wedlock.”
Oh, dear Lord!
“I’ve every reason to suppose that you delivered that child, since, well …” He chuckled mirthlessly. “How much competition do you have, truly, Widow Thatcher?”
“Well, when ye factor in Lady Clarice — I’d say there’s plenty. Wouldn’t ye, Brother?”
Brother Tuck chuckled again. “Not for this kind of birth.”
“Oh, I don’t know …” Kata picked at her nails. “Ye know how Sir Lancelot an’ dear Lady Guinevere take such an interest. An’ Lady Clarice an’ Lady Leona were thick as thieves when they were little — an’ they’re still right close now, if the village gossip is right. Er — as close as they can be while Lady Leona is off in the Twikkiis, that is ter say. But ye know what I mean. The point is …” Kata looked up and laughed. “I wouldn’t put it past ’em ter hire Lady Clarice themselves if they thought she’d be needed fer someone!”
Brother Tuck stroked his chin. “Do you mean to say that the birth took place in this shire?”
Bloody hell! She hadn’t meant to give that much away!
But would it matter? Wasn’t it likely to keep Brother Tuck from sniffing all over where that fat nose of his wasn’t wanted? “Well, aye — it did. The babe’s indentured ter the du Lacs already. Lady Guinevere sent around a bunch o’ food fer the girl — little one ain’t eatin’ it yet, Lord knows! — an’ Brother Galahad already baptized the baby.”
“He what?” Brother Tuck gasped.
“Would ye rather the child grow up a heathen, Brother?”
“I–of course–Widow Thatcher! Are you making fun of me?”
“Would I do that, Brother?”
Brother Tuck’s jaw moved up and down, followed by his Adam’s apple. “I would much appreciate it if you did not. I would think that a woman of your years and wisdom would not need to be lectured on proper respect.”
“Guess I’m gettin’ forgetful in old age,” Kata shrugged. “‘Specially since Brother Galahad never had no trouble with a spot o’ teasin’.” At least–he didn’t once somebody explained to him that he was being teased. The poor boy could be a bit slow on the uptake with things like that.
“You’re getting forgetful in your … age,” Brother Tuck repeated, stroking his chin again. “Is that your story, Widow Thatcher?”
“Me story fer what?”
“Why it did not occur to you to take this — well, to be blunt, this bastard child to the orphanage, where it belongs.”
Kata put both hands on her hips. “Ain’t nothin’ forgetful there, sir. Last I heard, the place were called an orphanage, not a bastardage.”
“And what is that supposed to mean? The child has no father, is that not correct? Does that not make the child an orphan?”
“Perhaps it’s because I’m a bit oversensitive, bein’ a widow meself an’ all, an’ raisin’ me three on me own,” Kata replied, surveying her nails again, “but I like ter think that nobody’s an orphan until they’ve lost both their pa an’ their ma. This babe still has the one. An’ better one than none — that’s what I say.”
“You should know that the child would receive the best of care at the orphanage,” Brother Tuck replied.
“Now, that ain’t possible. Ain’t no substitute fer a mother’s love. Now, if the mother’s love can’t be had — fer whatever reason — an’ there ain’t no father in the picture, why, then I agree with ye. Orphanage is the best place for the babe. But that ain’t the case here, I’m happy ter say. An’ I’m not sure why ye’re takin’ such an interest, ter be honest. ‘Twould think this would be more up Mother Julian or Sister Margery’s alley than yers.”
“They are both so overwhelmed with their own duties — I’m merely trying to help. After all …” Brother Tuck flung both his arms out wide. “Who could blame me for trying to make sure that every child has a proper, strong moral upbringing?”
By raisin’ them yerself? Oh, Brother, if ye were only there when Tambu’s last little girl were born … She wondered if the Brother knew about that, about the little girl Tambu was sure was his. He couldn’t, Kata decided. He wouldn’t be half so smug if he did.
“Well, I suppose it’s sensible — after all, if the kids are brought up right, then they’ll probably turn out right, an’ that makes much less work fer ye in the long run. Which,” Kata held up a hand, “don’t think I’m criticizin’ ye fer. I always tell mas-ter-be ter take care o’ themselves when they’re expectin’ — makes life much easier fer me down the road.”
“I see I have met a kindred spirit.”
“Not really,” Kata replied. “Fer one, I ain’t sure why ye think that this girl can’t give her baby a proper moral upbringing.”
“Widow Thatcher, surely I don’t have to spell it out. A fallen woman–”
Brother Tuck sighed and rolled his eyes. “Sister Margery was saying something about a …” He narrowed his eyes at Kata. “Why don’t you tell me what you heard?”
He gasped, taken aback. “What?”
“No. I ain’t breakin’ me client’s confidence ter ye. We ain’t in no confessional, so who knows what ye’d do with what ye heard?”
Brother Tuck’s eyes narrowed. “And what — what is it that you mean by that, Widow Thatcher?”
Well, that was a shade more diplomatic than, And what is that supposed to mean? But only a shade. So Kata felt no compunction about rolling her eyes. “It means that I ain’t tellin’ ye nothin’ that will mean ye show up at that poor girl’s house with guards ter take that baby away — like ye did ter one o’ Marigold’s girls.”
“Really.” The word didn’t say much. Brother Tuck’s expression said much more.
“Aye, really. An’ if that’s all ye wanted — well, I won’t take up no more o’ yer valuable time. So, Brother Tuck, I’ll be wishin’ ye–”
“You know that’s a sin, don’t you?” Brother Tuck interrupted. “Withholding information of that nature from a monk?”
Oh, I doubt it. “Is it now? Fancy that. Well, thank’ee fer tellin’ me, an’ I’ll be sure ter confess it next time–”
“Your penance would be, of course, to tell me what it was I wanted to know,” Brother Tuck interrupted. “So we might as well not beat about the bush, and you can just tell me. Who is the girl, and where does she live?”
Kata narrowed her eyes. “Then I guess that’s one sin I’ll have ter take ter me grave.”
“What? Are you mad, woman? Do you hear what you’re–”
“D’ye see what ye’re doin’?” Kata snapped. “Are ye daft, man? Sorry, Brother. I already told ye — that babe is indentured ter the du Lacs! Ye think they’ll stand fer a minute ter have one o’ their indentured peasants taken off their lands?”
“Sir Lancelot is a reasonable man! Naturally we’d make arrangements to return the child as soon as it was old enough to work!”
“Reasonable? That’s what ye’re callin’ Sir Lancelot? He’s a big, warm-hearted man is what he is! What d’ye think he’d do once that girl came ter him in tears, heartbroken after ye ripped her baby out o’ her arms?”
“He would do what is in the best interests of the child, of course!”
“Oh, I know that!”
Brother Tuck’s nostrils flared and his eyes lit dangerously. “Widow Thatcher, I highly doubt you are in any way a competent judge of what is best for a child’s welfare — once it’s out of its mother’s womb, that is.”
“Oh, ye would say that, wouldn’t ye–”
“Given that you have, once again, refused to turn in a child sinfully born in the brothel to the orphanage — where it belongs!”
Kata’s heart dropped. Daisy! He knew about Daisy!
Wait. He couldn’t possibly know about Daisy. If he did, he wouldn’t have described her as “sinfully born.” There were a lot of words one could use to describe Daisy’s birth, but Kata was pretty sure “sinful” wasn’t one of them.
But … he thought he knew something …
“There have been rumors all over the kingdom about that baby up at the brothel,” Brother Tuck snarled. “Nobody’s seen it, I grant you that, but they’ve heard it. Now, you must have delivered that baby–”
“Widow Thatcher, don’t you dare lie to me–”
“Lie ter ye? Lie ter ye? I wouldn’t lie ter ye, Brother! If I don’t want ter tell ye somethin’, I’ll tell it ye ter ye right clear! I ain’t botherin’ ter lie ter the likes o’ ye — an’ fer what it’s worth, I ain’t delivered a babe at that place since Imsdyn, an’ that baby I brought right ter the orphanage–”
“Ah, so you do know where your duty lies!”
“Aye, I do! With the mothers I help!”
“The mothers! Beyond help, most of them! Save your efforts for the–”
“How dare ye, Brother! Ye want me ter start spreadin’ that story? Let the whole bloody kingdom know that ye jest wrote off every mother in it?”
Brother Tuck snarled. “I mean the fallen ones, obviously! Not the respectable married women!”
“As if that matters! An’ who are ye ter judge who’s fallen an’ who’s saved?”
“I’m a MONK!”
“Then ye’d best make sure yer house ain’t made o’ glass, Brother, before ye start throwin’ no stones!”
Brother Tuck blinked. “I don’t claim to be sinless,” he replied. “But I’ve seen my error, I’ve made a proper confession, and I’ve promised not to sin again. That, Widow Thatcher, is what separates the fallen from the saved. Tell me, how many of the women you champion have done that?”
“More than ye’d guess!”
“You mean one has?”
Glenna. Aye. An’ she picked the right brother ter do it with, too, ’cause he said ter her the only thing that makes sense! “Apparently so.”
“Will wonders never cease?” Brother Tuck scoffed. “But I’ve had enough of your — your recalcitrance, Widow Thatcher. Tell–”
“An’ I’ve had enough o’ yer busybody nose pokin’ itself in where it ain’t wanted! I’ll thank ye kindly ter leave, Brother!”
Brother Tuck gasped. “What? You can’t do that!”
“Want ter bet?” Kata bared her teeth. “This is me house — an’ ye’re on du Lac lands, ye are. They ain’t happy, that lot, with the Church as it is — not with what young Sir William saw over the border. Ye really want ter try ’em on this?”
Brother Tuck sputtered, gasped, then groaned and turned away. He made it most of the way before he turned back, too. “This is not over, Widow Thatcher! I will not stand by while innocent children are mistreated by their sinful mothers!”
“Ye want ter help those children, Brother Tuck? Then leave them an‘ their mas bloody well alone!”
Brother Tuck snarled, and his fists clenched, but he was kind enough to Kata not to say anything. He turned and left, slamming the door so hard that the house shook and bits of plaster dust floated loose from the walls.
Kata took a deep, shuddering breath, and gasped. Good Lord — she’d had no idea how much that would take out of her until it took it out. She staggered over to the table, leaning on it and breathing heavily.
She really was getting too old for this. Slowly, she lowered herself into a stool.
What the hell was she going to do? More to the point — what the hell were Marigold and Glenna going to do?
Glenna, that poor girl … and Marigold, convinced that Daisy was a miracle … if anything happened to their babies …
It won’t, said the voice of Kata’s better sense. The du Lacs won’t stand fer it. They weren’t in control all the way up ter here when little Wulf were taken. If — Lord forbid — if Brother Tuck tries somethin’ again, those babes won’t be in the orphanage more than a day before the du Lacs are raisin’ hell with the King.
But somehow, that thought was very cold comfort indeed. Kata rubbed her temple and tried to think of a smarter way out of this.
She was still thinking when Billy came home from school. “Ma? Ma, somethin’ wrong?”
He was smart, her boy. Clever as clever, he was. That was what came of being … well, half an orphan.
Kata took a deep breath, stood, and faced her son. “Aye, Billy, there is. I’d … I’d like ye, when ye go ter work, ter get a word in with Benoic. Tell ‘im that … that Brother Tuck is makin’ trouble. An’ ter come see me, soon as he can, so’s I can fill ‘im in on the details.”
“What sort o’ trouble, Ma? I can jest tell ‘im.”
“That’s sweet o’ ye, Billy, but …” But she wouldn’t involve her boy in this. She would not. “An’ after work, I’d like ye ter run ter yer sister’s — er, Marigold’s, that is — an’ tell her she … might want to send Daisy to stay fer a spell with Ash.”
Billy blinked. “Is — is this about what I think it’s about, Ma?”
“Oh, Billy.” Kata stroked her boy’s cheek. “Don’t ye trouble yerself with thinkin’. Not about this nonsense. That’s me job.”