Darid 4, 1014
“ARGH!” called Torben. He clutched his heart and stumbled back. “Ye got me, Wulf! I’m dyin’!”
Wulf pretended to put his bow away. “That’s what outlaws like ye ought ter get, Torben the Terrible!”
Torben, meanwhile, fell to his knees, hands still folded over his heart. “This is it! I can see the light! Argh …”
And as Torben acted out his death scene for the ages — Erin found herself wondering how soon she could get that boy on a stage — Erin and Roy watched from above.
But there was something else that Erin was wondering as she watched Torben finally fall to grass and Wulf double over with laughter. “Ye know,” she remarked, “I ain’t never understood what it is with boys an’ pretendin’ ter kill each other all the live long day.”
“Hmm,” murmured Roy. Erin glanced sidelong at him. He was a man of few words, was Roy. Erin had learned more about him and his life from Torben’s chatter and Anja’s conversations than with everything he had said about himself.
Not that it was any of her business. Lord knew that Erin had her own reasons for being vague about her past. She ought to be the last person to criticize or pry into another’s circumstances.
But curiosity was the very devil itself sometimes, and Erin was more than a bit in its thrall. So she turned to him, blinking innocently, trying to get him to say something through sheer force of will alone.
“Well …” Roy finally continued. “It’s — it’s somethin’ most boys will do natural-like. An’ Lord knows me lads have seen me with me bow since they were wee.” He sighed. “Jest wish I knew where they got the idea that it were a good idea ter be aimin’ those bows at other folks. But … I guess it’s good that Torben is … playin’ as he’s playin’. Shows … shows he’s gettin’ ter normal again.”
Erin’s stomach plummeted. She had forgotten, with her offhand remark, just what it was that Torben and all of Roy’s children had seen. Sometimes she thought her life had been tough, but whatever Walter had done to her, whatever the johns had done to her, whatever Brother Tuck had done to her — at least she hadn’t had to suffer her entire village, her family, her friends, her life being destroyed in one day of senseless violence.
… Wei Li had suffered that …
She had to change the subject. She knew what Wei Li had been through; she had an idea what the Jagers had been through, and none of that was a fit conversation for a sunny summer afternoon. “Well, kids will be bouncin’ back right quick — even after horrible things. But ye ain’t mentioned recently, how are yer other kids doin’?” asked Erin.
“Oh … well. Very well.”
Erin glanced at Roy to see him beaming. “Oh?”
“They’ve all got their letters down now — all o’ ’em. An’ Erich is showin’ himself ter be real good at cipherin’. I think it’ll be good fer ‘im — knowin’ how numbers work. Ye’ve got ter work with a lot o’ numbers in her head when ye’re huntin’.”
“Numbers?” Erin asked, eyebrows going up. “I never thought huntin’ was much ter do with numbers.”
“Sure it is. Well … maybe numbers ain’t how folks always see it. But ye got ter know how fast yer animal’s movin’, how fast the dogs is movin’, how fast yer arrow can move, an’ how ter make ’em all hit each other in the right way.” Roy turned to Erin with a shrug. “Numbers.”
Numbers indeed. It took a man of unusual intelligence to figure that out. She guessed that what they said was true: still waters did run deep.
“An’ Matthias an’ Torben are caught up ter jest where they should be,” Roy went on, “not that Matthias ever had much chance ter get too far behind … an’ Anja … well, Anja’s ma taught her well …”
“Her letters?” asked Erin, surprised. The only reason she had learned her letters as a child was because there was an aged nun in the village who was too old and infirm to do much else than teach the youngest children. Her parents had scrubbed their youngest children and sent them to school every day, so they could read the Book of Wright. And as they got older, they all had to practice reading the Book, the most prized possession in the house. Erin had hated it when she was younger, but she was glad of the knowledge now.
“Aye,” Roy smiled. “Luise … Luise was a smart woman, she was. She were the one who’d read from the Book of a Saturday evenin’. An’ she taught Anja, ’cause …” Roy’s smile turned wistful, and he stared off the balcony, into the blue distance. “She always said a wife’s got ter have somethin’ ter hold over her husband’s head. Makes things more even-like.”
“Yer wife sounds like a right clever woman.”
Roy sighed. “She were.”
She wanted to say something to help get rid of the black cloud floating over his head — but what could she say? What could anyone say? All that came to mind were worn-out, useless platitudes that Roy had doubtless heard before and hadn’t gotten much use out of. It had been over a year, but he was still hurting.
… Well, maybe that was all for the good. Wouldn’t it have been sadder if Roy had lost his wife and had been able to go about his business as usual a day or two later? Grieving was just the price you paid for having been allowed to love deeply in the first place.
All the same, there was no reason to devote every second of every day to if. If Luise had cared for Roy half as much as he cared for her, she wouldn’t want that. So Erin, once again, sought to change the subject. “So — how long can ye be stayin’ this afternoon?”
Roy started. “Oh … I don’t want Torben ter be imposin’ on ye …”
“Nonsense, he’s no trouble. An’ I’m always happy ter see Wulfie with a good friend.” She sometimes wondered if Wulf was getting enough interaction with children his own age. He didn’t have … well, he did have siblings, five of them by her count, and some quite close in age. But he didn’t know about them, and he couldn’t be spending all his time tousling with them and playing with them and learning how to comport himself around peers with them. Children like Wulf — only children, with little hope of changing that state anytime soon — were rare enough that folks often wondered how they would turn out.
“Besides, I meant ye,” Erin added. “I don’t suppose I can be temptin’ ye with some tea?”
Roy started. “Oh, no, I couldn’t be puttin’ ye to no trouble. ‘Sides, I should be gettin’ back …”
“Should ye?” Erin asked, one eyebrow arching.
Roy blinked. “What’s … what’s that mean?”
“Well, I’ve talked ter Anja, I have,” Erin replied, “an’ she tells me that ye’re a mighty fine father, always tellin’ her ter relax, take it easy, don’t be jumpin’ all over everythin’. But, d’ye ever take that advice yerself, Roy Jager?”
Roy stared at her like she’d suggested running naked through church on a Sunday.
“Ye need some time ter relax, rest up a bit too,” Erin went on. “It don’t jest count fer Anja.”
“I …” Roy sighed. “I got five kids ter be raisin’, Widow Shepherd, an’ keepin’ a roof over their heads, an’ feedin’ …” He smiled. “I got no time ter be relaxin’.”
“Aye, an’ if ye keep up that attitude, the only thing ye’ll be doin’ is workin’ yerself inter an early grave an’ leavin’ yer kiddies ter raise an’ feed an’ house themselves. Trust me, that ain’t a road ye want ter walk down. I’ll get the tea on.”
“No, Widow Shepherd, I really couldn’t impose …”
Erin clucked under her tongue and pushed past him, then shot him a glance over her shoulder with eyebrows raised. “I’ll be makin’ tea. I’ll be drinkin’ tea. If ye want ter join me … all ye gotta do is follow.”
She entered the house without another word.
It was not ten seconds later that Roy followed. Erin smiled to herself. It was good to know, after all this time, that she still had it.
… Had it?
Good Lord … she wasn’t thinking about that, was she?
Well, of course she was. She’d reformed, and there were plenty of things about the old life that she didn’t miss one bit. The pushy, abusive, angry johns, for one. The johns who wouldn’t pay, for another. The way the goodwives sneered at her, for another. Brother Tuck and his ilk, for yet another thing.
But … she did miss some things. The easy companionship of the girls. And … well, not all the johns were all bad. Working on your back did take a lot of the fun off being on your back, but Erin had gotten herself in trouble in the first place because she’d had desire and she hadn’t known how to live without fulfilling it. With time, patience and forbearance had come. But the desire had never left.
And now she was stuck in the awkward position of a respectable widow who did her best to avoid entanglements with eligible men, and so went through cucumbers at a rate that would make a rabbit blush.
Well, there was nothing wrong with tea with a good-looking, kind and decent man. Erin would tell herself that. And she would tell herself, too, that tea was going to be just that: tea. He was still raw and wounded inside; it wouldn’t do to offer anything more. To say nothing of what might happen if things started on that path … where would they go? She couldn’t keep a pristine reputation if men had a habit of disappearing inside her house for hours at a time. And …
She wouldn’t think of it. She couldn’t. Brother Tuck was muzzled now; he hadn’t preached a sermon in months —
And surely Sister Margery wouldn’t … she was too kind-hearted …
But Erin couldn’t risk it.
Erin shook the thoughts away — any ardor she may have had was now effectively cooled — handed the mug to Roy with a smile, and led the way to the sofa. They both sat without a word.
It was some moments later, after a few sips of Marigold’s raspberry-leaf tea, that Roy turned to her. “Er — me condolences, by the way. Fer yer lord.”
“Oh.” Poor Lord Pellinore. Erin sighed. She would miss him — the only lord she had ever met kind enough to help a peasant woman who just needed a chance, and needed it more than anything. “We’ll all be missin’ him. He were a good, good man, an’ a good lord.”
“I’m sure,” Roy murmured. “Ye …” He hesitated. “Ye all seem so close here … ter yer lords …”
“How–” But Erin didn’t have to ask what he meant, did she? She remembered. In Glasonland the lord was a distant personage, a figure on horseback or behind the closed curtains of a carriage. You pulled your forelock or curtseyed when he went past — you grumbled about his taxes — and other than that, he might not have existed. Here … well, here your lord knew you, he saw you, and he might well ask after your children when he met you on the road.
“Aye. I know,” Erin nodded. “I think it’s ’cause we’re so small. We ain’t got time or enough folks, ter be honest, ter have us all be hidin’ out an’ only talkin’ with folks at our own level. We’d all run out o’ folks ter talk ter right fast if that were true!” Erin laughed. “But … well, I’m a bit surprised ter be hearin’ ye say that, ter be honest. I didn’t know that Sir Mordred were as … warm an’ fuzzy as some of the other lords.”
Sorry, m’lord, Erin added to Lord Pellinore, wherever he was. “Warm and fuzzy” probably wasn’t the best way to describe him. It certainly didn’t leave him a lot of dignity. But … in its own way, at least in comparison to the vast, vast majority of other lords, it was true.
“Oh, he’s fine,” Roy replied. He took a long sip of his tea. “This is mighty fine tea, by the by. Where d’ye get it?”
“Oh, a … friend grows the best raspberry bushes in the kingdom. She gives me the leaves,” replied Erin. “But–if ye want some that’s almost as good, ye can go ter the Thatchers’ stall in the weekly market. They sell right fine … everythin’ ye can get from a plant.”
“The–the Thatchers? Ye mean … the Plantsim an’ his wife?”
Erin held her breath. She was going to have to huff and take offense in a minute. He was going to say something stupid about Plantsims, and she was going to correct him, and he was going to be annoyed about being corrected … it would all spiral into a mess, and Erin wasn’t even sure she was going to be sorry about it.
But … she had to answer him. Even if it started the spiral, because to not answer would be rude, and any other mess that would start would be her sole responsibility. “Aye.”
Roy didn’t say anything at first, but Erin would not allow herself to hope. He was probably just getting over his shock.
He took another sip of his tea. Then, finally, he spoke. “He must be the bravest Plantsim ter ever walk the earth.”
Erin blinked. “Pardon?”
“Well … ye know how folks’ll treat ’em,” Roy replied. “Kick ’em, an’ shout at ’em, an’ call ’em barkie … ye don’t wonder why so many o’ them go off an’ live in the woods.”
“In — in the woods?” Erin asked.
“Aye — ye don’t–” He stopped. “Oh. O’ course ye wouldn’t know, would ye?”
“No,” Erin agreed, “I wouldn’t. The only Plantsims I ever knew — well, Ash Thatcher lives in a tree, but he’s the King’s own gamekeeper an’ his wife keeps him social. The other one lives in a regular house an’ everythin’.”
“Amazin’,” Roy shook his head. “Brave folks. So brave.”
“Aye,” Erin agreed, because it did take a certain amount of raw courage to live as Marigold and Ash lived while being what they were. “But — ye were sayin’? About the woods?”
Roy hesitated. Then he asked, “Ye … ye won’t tell no one, will ye? ‘Cause … Well, I’d hate ter think o’ it gettin’ around. Those folks don’t do no one any harm, an’ all they axe is ter be left alone.”
“Lyndsay Thatcher — Ash Thatcher’s wife — is a good friend o’ mine,” said Erin by way of reply. It was easier to point to Lyndsay than to Marigold.
Roy smiled. It was a nice smile, a kind smile, a warm one, even if it was there and gone in a flash. He ought to smile more often. “Well … if ye’re a woodsman … ye begin to realize, right fast, that … that there’s more in the woods than boars an’ bears an’ outlaws. I … I think, near me old village, there were a … a colony o’ the green folks. Sometimes ye’d see things in the woods, or hear things … an’ they’d do ye a good turn, ye know, if ye were kind ter them an’ let ’em be. Leastaways, I can’t …” Roy stopped and shook his head. “It wouldn’t make much sense if ye weren’t a woodsman.”
“Ye saw kindness. Ye responded in kind. ‘Cause — ’cause that’s the right thing to do,” Erin replied. “Do it need to be more complicated than that?”
Roy hesitated, thinking. Then he shook his head.
Erin grinned. Then she bit her lip. Should she …? Aw, what the hell. “Ye know, Goodman Jager — ye know what I think, if ye don’t mind me bein’ impertinent? Ye ought ter head down ter Ash’s treehouse, someday, an’ have a chat. Betsy Pelles could introduce ye, if ye’re feelin’ shy.”
“Eh?” Roy asked in some surprise.
“Ye’re both good men. Kind men. Family men,” Erin went on. “Ash has got five kids o’ his own, ye know. Plus he’s raisin’ his nevvie. An’ … well, Lyndsay worries about him. Says he’s lonely.” An’ I believe her, Erin added mentally. “Ye’re probably one o’ the few men in the kingdom who ain’t gonna despise him jest because he’s got leaves growin’ where hair ought ter be. Poor man could use someone in his life like that. It’d be the Wrightian thing ter do.”
What Erin didn’t say was, I think ye could use a friend, too. But she thought it hard enough that Roy must have heard.
He looked thoughtful. And when he answered, he replied, “Well, I don’t like ter force meself on nobody … but … maybe I’ll be stoppin’ by his stall on market-day. Ye jest have ter promise me, Widow Shepherd, ter tell Anja how ter make that raspberry tea, an’ I’ll buy the leaves, an’ … well, we’ll see how that goes.”
Erin laughed and stood up. Roy stood with her. She stuck out her hand. “I think, Goodman Jager, that we’ve got a deal there.”
He laughed and shook her hand. “Good! Otherwise I’d have ter bring Torben over every day, an’ that would be hard on ye, Widow Shepherd. I …”
He stopped without warning. He stared at her hand, which he was still clasping in his own. He dropped it.
Erin only had a brief moment to stare at the space where their hands had been joined, wondering if she’d done something wrong, when Roy spoke again. “Well–thank’ee, Widow Shepherd. But I’d really best be goin’. Got–got a lot o’ work ter do terday.”
Erin swallowed and nodded. “I won’t be keepin’ ye then, Goodman Jager. Ye have a nice day now.”
“Aye. I will. Thank’ee.”
And Erin stood where she was for a long time, still staring at her hand … wondering …
She was being a fool. She shouldn’t have wished for more — “more” was something Roy wasn’t ready for, and if he was, it would only land her in a mess of trouble. Cucumbers might leave a lot to be desired … but cucumbers never told of their adventures, and no respectable woman ever got sidelong longs for consorting with a cucumber without any talk of marriage.
… But cucumbers couldn’t be kind … or thoughtful … or careful …
Bloody hell, Erin thought. She needed to get her mind off this. Luckily, she had just the ticket.
She walked outside, to her balcony. “Yoo hoo! Boys! What is it ye’d be wantin’ fer lunch?”
It wasn’t as good as a cold bath — but for now, it would do.