Osgary 19, 1013
It was the sunlight creeping up her bed, finally reaching her face, that woke Anja up.
She was usually good about waking up when she had to. She tried to be — not the first up, usually her father beat her to that — but close to it. If she didn’t wake herself up naturally, usually Gretchen did so for her, calling, “Anja … Anja!” from her cot. But sometimes the body rebelled.
Besides, Anja was having a good dream. In the annoying way that dreams had, it would slip away from her the moment her eyes opened. But flashes remained. The clear babbling brook by their old house, splashing over Anja’s feet. Warm wind blowing through her hair. The smell of cinnamon.
Her mother’s laughter.
She remembered annoyance as the sun poked through her shut eyes, then — as they blinked open — the pang of loss. She wasn’t back home in their snug cottage in Glasonland. Her mother wasn’t laughing by the fireplace. Instead she was in this strange new country called Albion, and her mother …
Why was she still in bed?
The panic chased away the sadness as Anja gasped, swinging both feet over the bed, and–stopped.
Every other bed in the room (except possibly Erich’s above her head) was made. Gretchen’s cot was empty, the blanket neatly folded on the edge of it, the pillow fluffed and set to the side, ready for the day. And — this was important — nobody else was in their beds.
Panic well and truly set in, Anja stumbled to her feet and, not even bothering to get dressed, dashed for the ladder. Why had everybody let her sleep in? She knew her father could be insistent on Anja taking time to herself, but there were chores to be done — the children to see to — the dogs to continue to train — she didn’t have time to lay about like a lazy sot —
She was halfway down the ladder before she realized that the smell of cinnamon was not just from her dream: it lingered even in the waking world. And grew stronger with every step she took.
And it wasn’t until she set foot on the ground that she had the slightest inkling why she was not only allowed to sleep in, but why her family might have taken care to make the beds and get ready for the day so quietly that she didn’t hear it.
“Happy birthday, Anja!”
Anja reached the foot of the ladder and stopped dead.
There they were, her whole family, seated around the table. Pancakes in front of them. None of them — with the exception of Gretchen, who had already beaten her pancakes down to mush — eating. Her father was beaming from ear to ear. Torben was smiling, too; Erich had turned around in his chair to grin the smug, superior smile of a boy who had passed into double-digits and was now convinced that the world revolved around him; and Matthias was bouncing in his chair.
Gretchen spoke first, waving her little spoon. “Birdday!”
Anja didn’t answer. Not at first. She was too busy following her nose.
Cinnamon … and pancakes …
Her mother always made her cinnamon pancakes for her birthday … it was the one time of year that they were able to afford the spice …
“Come on, Anja, sit down!” Matthias bounced back and forth. “I’m starvin’! An’ Papa won’t let us eat none until ye start!”
“Matthias,” her father warned. But Anja just smiled, slipped into her customary seat, cut a slice and took a quick bite.
“It is good?” asked Torben, leaning closer to her plate.
“Torben! Ye’ve got yer own food!” replied Roy.
“I was just wonderin’ …”
“It’s very good,” answered Anja, jumping in before Torben could say something else. Or Matthias. Or Erich.
Or not Erich. For all that Matthias was the one who would complain about “starving,” usually, when mealtimes came around, it was Erich who dug in immediately and with the least semblance of table manners. He had always been like that, even when he was little and just learning table manners. Anja’s mother used to smack him lightly on the back of the head and tell him to slow down, he’d choke if he kept eating so fast, and if he didn’t choke, he’d make the neighbors think that they never fed him.
Roy looked at Erich, glanced at Anja, and sighed. He’s a growin’ boy, said the shrug he gave Anja.
Anja only smiled in reply. Roy had always stood up for Erich when Luise had tried to calm his table manners. Roy sometimes seemed to be of the opinion that they were lucky that the worst Erich did was make a little —
A bit of butter flew off Erich’s fork and landed on the table —
— a lot of mess when he ate. He seemed to be of the opinion, back when Luise was alive, that little boys were a walking pile of mischief, trouble, and accidents waiting to happen, rolled up into a vaguely Simmish form, and they were lucky that their boys were only as much trouble as they were. Anja wasn’t sure she understood where this opinion came from. She couldn’t imagine her father in any way other than the way she knew him: seasoned, calm, even a little dour at times. She could hardly see him as a hell-raising youth.
But now that Roy didn’t have Luise to tease and argue with … he didn’t seem to be of that opinion anymore. And Anja didn’t know what to think.
“Erich,” Roy sighed, “could ye, as a birthday present fer yer sister, try ter eat like a civilized person?”
Erich made a face. “I guess. But the pancakes is really good, Pa.”
“Well–thank’ee.” Roy smiled. He reached over to tousle Erich’s hair. As soon as the tousling hand was removed, Erich smoothed his hair. Anja ducked her head to hide her laughter. Erich could smooth as much as he wanted to, but it wouldn’t make much of a difference.
“Papa,” asked Torben, taking advantage of the lull in conversation, “can I go walkin’ over ter Wulf Shepherd’s house terday? He said we could go fishin’.”
“I don’t know … that’s a far walk, an’ I ain’t gonna have time ter take ye …”
“Anja can take me! Can’t ye, Anja?” Torben asked, making a pouty face at Anja.
Anja hesitated. Would she mind a walk to the Gwynedd lands and back? Of course not. But today was Saturday, and Saturday meant no work, no school, and no Church services. She could get a lot done today …
“Pleeeeeease?” squealed Torben.
“Now, that’s enough,” Roy broke in. “It’s Anja’s birthday, an’ ye’re not ter be badgerin’ her for favors. Ye know the rule.”
Anja blinked. “The rule” had been of Luise’s making, as far as Anja was aware: on any of their birthdays, they weren’t to do chores, or favors, or anything, really, that they didn’t want to do (except for things related to safety or personal hygiene — that was where Luise had always drawn the line). By some strange quirk of fate, all of the Jager children had birthdays in the last quarter of the year, and Anja’s was the first in the family since coming to Albion. She hadn’t thought that “the rule” would stick here. Certainly not for her.
“Papa,” Anja murmured, “I think I’m gettin’ a little old fer that …”
“Not on me watch, ye ain’t,” Roy said gruffly, albeit with a wink. “Ye ain’t never gonna be too old ter rest an’ enjoy yerself on yer own birthday.”
“But … the Shepherds’ flat is right near the market,” Anja protested. “I could–”
Roy shot her a half-bemused, half-warning glance.
Anja absently crushed a pancake with the side of her fork under the guise of cutting off a piece. “Well … it’s always nice ter go ter the market …”
She didn’t see the way her father blinked, taken aback. “Anja–if ye want ter go ter the market — an’ if ye’re kind enough ter put up with yer little brother — don’t let me be stoppin’ ye. I jest don’t want ye ter be bullied. Not on yer birthday.” He patted her hand. “It’s yer day. Spend it how ye like, that’s all I’m sayin’.”
“So ye’ll do it?” Torben jumped.
Torben shrank into himself. “Sorry, Papa.”
“Aye, ye’d better be,” Roy muttered into his beard.
He didn’t have long to mutter. And Anja didn’t have long to decide if she wanted to bring her brother to the market or not. “Papa?” asked Matthias. “I got a question. Are ye gonna tell the story?”
The story — there was only one story that could be. The story of how Anja was born. It was something Luise always told over the birthday breakfast, for all of her children. Well, with lots of the details cut out. Anja had been with her mother when Gretchen was born, after all, and she hardly imagined that the births of the older children had been less messy.
But Anja could hear the story in her head, just the way her mother would tell it. “Well, Anja,” she would say, “it were a beautiful day, a summer-Osgary day. It were the hottest Osgary day I could remember, an’ I were feelin’ slow an’ lazy that day, like a mill cat that is so full o’ mice it can’t be bothered ter hunt no more. An’ it didn’t help that I was this,” Luise would stretch her arms to their fullest extent, “big with ye! I remember that I wanted ter do somethin’ nice an’ easy that day, so I got meself a chair an’ set down in the door ter our cottage, ready ter do some mendin’ …”
Anja stared at her plate, blinking away tears. She didn’t want to hear the story. Not if Luise wasn’t going to tell it.
She didn’t see the way her father was looking at her. So she was surprised when her father spoke. “We-ell,” he said slowly, “I can’t be tellin’ ye exactly what happened when Anja were born … ’cause I weren’t there. Not fer the whole thing. But I can tell ye what I were doin’ when Anja decided she wanted ter come inter the world.”
Anja looked up. She hadn’t heard this half of the story.
Her father looked down, addressing himself mainly to his pancakes. “Ye see — before Anja was born, well, yer ma was gettin’ … irritable-like.” He winked at Anja, and Erich, and Torben — all of whom were old enough to remember their mother in the later stages of pregnancy with Matthias or Gretchen. “Ye know what I mean. So that day, when she got out o’ bed, why, she chased me out with a broom, said she didn’t want no men an’ no dogs hangin’ about ter mess up her nice clean house. So I took some o’ the dogs, an’ I went huntin’.”
Anja nodded. She remembered this part of the story, well, the way her mother would tell it. “An’ when I felt ye comin’, Anja, I were right scared! An’ I thought, drat, where is that pa o’ yers when I need him now?”
“What?” Roy would always reply. “Ye chased me out that mornin’ with a broom, woman!”
“Well, I were out till about midway between lunchtime an’ dinner,” Roy went on, “when yer Uncle Rufus came runnin’ ter me out o’ the trees — nearly got himself shot, too, the du–er, the not-smart man he were, an’ he says ter me, ‘Ye bloody dolt, where ye been all mornin’? Luise is havin’ the baby!’ An’ I went runnin’ back ter the house, I did, right quick, I’ll tell ye!
“But when I gets there,” Roy went on, “what should I find but …”
Anja could hear the way her mother would tell the story, for a moment, almost louder than her father’s living voice: “Well, the women were all there, an’ I were workin’ as hard as I could — an’ jest when it comes ter the crux o’ the matter, jest when I had ter be workin’ me hardest, who shows up at the door? Yer father!”
“Boy, yer ma weren’t happy ter see me!” laughed Roy. “Not that she did. The other women wouldn’t let me near ‘er. But I could hear her! An’ boy, were she sayin’ things that weren’t nice!”
“Right when he’s gonna do the least amount o’ good, too! Oh, I was mad! I gave him a piece o’ me mind, I did, yellin’ at the top o’ me lungs, ’cause the other women wouldn’t let ‘im come in an’ hear it in person!”
“Well, yer Uncle Rufus — since he’d been chewin’ me out the whole way back home — he took pity on me then, an’ dragged me off ter the inn fer a few good stiff ones.”
“An’ then ye know what that no-good brother o’ mine did? He dragged yer father off ter the tavern! Where he could do even less good!” That line, Anja remembered, always got a lot of laughs around the table. Especially from Torben and Matthias. They weren’t laughing now, though they were listening closely, and Matthias was watching Anja.
“So’s I waited at the inn,” Roy went on, “an’ I drunk way more than was good fer me, I was so nervous …”
“But after yer pa left, well, that was when I couldn’t worry about him no more. Or anythin’ else. ‘Cause that was when I had ter work real hard ter bring ye up inter the world, sweetie …”
“… an’ I think it were about an hour later when the midwife came an’ fetched me …”
“… an’ ye were born, an’ it were — oh — I think about fifteen minutes after it were all over, an’ I was givin’ ye yer first feed, when yer papa comes runnin’ inter the room, his eyes all wide an’ pantin’ like one o’ the dogs, he’d run so fast …”
“… an’ what was it that I saw lyin’ on yer mama’s breast when I dashed inter our bedroom, but the most beautiful little girl I’d ever laid eyes on ter that moment?”
“Ye know,” Luise would say at the close, her voice growing soft, eyes far away, “even when I told yer papa I’d marry him — up until that moment when he saw ye, Anja, I don’t think I’d ever seen him so happy he could burst.”
Roy smiled and patted Anja’s hand. “It were the best day o’ me life ter that point, lass.”
Anja smiled back as best she could. Then she glanced at Gretchen. She was a patient little girl — but there was no hiding from a big sister’s eyes that her little bowl was empty. “Oh, Gretchen,” Anja laughed, jumping from her chair. “Why didn’t ye say ye were done?”
“Story!” Gretchen replied.
“Ye were listenin’ ter the story?” Anja laughed, picking her sister up. “Ain’t ye sweet.”
“Good story! Hear ‘gain!”
Behind her, Anja could hear the clink of crockery as her brothers cleared the table. She kept looking at Gretchen.
“Oh, really?” Anja laughed. “Well, wait until yer birthday, baby. I bet ye’ll think that’s an even better story!”
“Gretchen birdday?” Gretchen blinked. “Anja birdday!”
“Aye — but someday, it’ll be Gretchen’s birthday, too!”
“When?” Gretchen gasped.
“Not ’till Endskel, lass,” laughed Roy. Anja almost gasped — she hadn’t realized he was standing behind her. “But don’t worry. We’ll let ye know when it’s gettin’ close.”
Anja laughed, and before Gretchen could say anything, she set Gretchen down and watched her toddle off to her toys at the far end of the room. She turned around and smiled at her father. “I’d better go get dressed–”
“Everythin’ all right, sweetie?” Roy interrupted.
Anja flushed, stared at her feet — then stared at Matthias, who was still fiddling with the plates and eating utensils. Roy followed her gaze. “Matthias! Ye get that done quick, an’ ye can go out an’ play.”
“Woohoo!” Matthias got that room done in a rush and dashed out the door. Torben and Erich had already disappeared, probably to the garden.
Roy looked at Anja expectantly.
Anja flushed and scuffed the floor with her bare foot. She’d regret it in a minute. “I jest … I don’t know.”
“Don’t ye?” asked Roy.
Anja flushed again. When he put it like that … “I jest get sad sometimes,” Anja muttered. “That’s all. It’s nothin’ –”
“Ye miss yer ma.” It was not a question.
If it wasn’t a question, it didn’t need an answer. But Anja nodded anyway.
“Sweetie …” He brushed some of her hair away from her face. “Ye don’t have ter hide it, ye know. We’re all missin’ yer ma. Ye know how Torben an’ Matthias — an’ even Erich sometimes — get. An’ what happens when they get sad?”
“We … we all …”
“Pull tergether,” Roy replied. “Like a family.”
“But baby … ye don’t get sad. Not where we can see. Not where we can help.” Roy tried to smile at her. Anja tried to meet his gaze. Both of them failed.
“Ye don’t either,” Anja mumbled to her feet.
“I’m yer pa. That’s different.”
No, it ain’t. Anja was fourteen — fifteen years old now. Some girls back home were married at fifteen. Some were having babies of their own. Anja could at least be strong enough to help her brothers and sister and father and not be a burden on them.
“Anja, ye’re only fifteen,” Roy went on, as if he could hear her thoughts. Maybe he could. He was her father, after all. “Ye’re too young ter be takin’ the whole world on yer shoulders. Slow down some, lass. Relax. Be a girl, not a woman with all her cares.”
“But someone’s got ter –”
“Yer ma wouldn’t want ye actin’ like this. She’d want ye enjoyin’ yerself. Havin’ fun. Ye’re only fifteen once.”
Anja blinked. Her father held the trump card there. For Anja to grow up too fast — that was the last thing Luise would have wanted. She’d always been the one telling Anja to slow down, to not take so much responsibility, to enjoy being young while she had the chance.
“I … I guess …”
“So have fun terday.” Roy leaned closer and enveloped her in a hug. “It’s yer fifteenth birthday. Ye only get one o’ those. Do it fer –”
“Mama,” Anja filled in.
“No, baby.” Roy leaned back and kissed her on the forehead. “Do it fer yerself.”