Tyves 18, 1014
Lukas stood up, really stood up for the first time in … how long? At least an hour. Maybe more than that. Weeds had popped up on practically every plant, and these weren’t ones that could be dealt with with a hoe or other tool. You had to crouch low and deal with the little suckers with your hands. His hands were now juice-stained, red and raw, but at least some of the weeds had been dealt with.
He leaned back and winced. He was only twenty-one years old; his spine should not be sending out tiny thundercracks with each movement. But that was the way of a working man’s life, wasn’t it? His father had always said so. The minute your body became the strongest and hardiest it would ever be was the minute that started to wear it down through constant work. Martin had been strong and hearty until the day he died, but who knew how strong he might have been if he’d had a nobleman’s cushy life?
He might have been able to swim out of the frozen river before the cold got to him …
Lukas shook his head. He wouldn’t think about that. Instead he would do as his father had taught him: work hard, try to stay cheerful, and be sure to always care for the people below you. That was how Martin had lived his life — and it was what had contributed to his death, for if Martin hadn’t cared so much about the people below him, he wouldn’t have gone with the men to make a delivery of timber on that snowy day. Sir Mordred had only ordered him to do what he had been about to do anyway.
So Lukas glanced to the side, to one of the only field workers who could be called subordinate to him. “Ye doin’ all right, Anja?”
Anja looked up with a tiny smile. “Aye, Lukas. I’m fine. Yerself?”
“Fit as a fiddle an’ twice as screechy!” replied Lukas, which made Anja laugh. Good. That little girl looked like she never got a chance to laugh at home, poor kid.
And then — interlude over — he got back down and continued with the weeding, keeping half an eye on Anja as he completed every row.
But it would be easier now. Lukas always tried to work as long as possible without stopping, and he was still young enough that he could easily eat up hours of the day that way. It worked best in the mornings, when he was fresh and full of his mother’s good breakfast. He could usually keep working until almost lunchtime, and then the rest of the morning was easy and short by comparison.
He’d be damned, though, if there weren’t some days when the quarter or half hour before lunchtime (or else sunset) wasn’t longer than those first few hours when the dawn was just beginning.
“Surprised ye ain’t in school terday, Anja,” Lukas remarked. Conversation could make the time go faster.
Anja looked up with a shrug. “Well … teacher is gonna be busy with the wee ones terday. They’re doin’ their readin’ tests. So, she told us bigger ones that if we don’t want ter come terday, it ain’t no harm done.” Anja bent down closer to the earth again. “An’ … a chance ter pick up a few more pennies … well, that don’t come along every day.”
“Savin’ ’em up fer somethin’ fun?” asked Lukas.
“What?” Anja looked up. “Oh, no. I give me money ter me papa.”
Lukas blinked. When he was Anja’s age, his money … well, not all his money. Half his money had been his to spend as he pleased. Now, of course, his wages were being used to support the family … well, his and Ella’s, and they were lucky that Master Wesleyan paid Ella as well as he did. They weren’t quite as comfortable as they had been just before Martin had died, when they had Martin’s and Lukas’s and Ella’s wages to pool together, but they were certainly almost as comfortable as they had been when both Lukas’s ma and da had been working for the Orkneys.
“Money’s that tight with ye?” Lukas asked.
“Huh? Oh, we’re doin’ fine. But … well,” Anja stood and made her way to the next plant, “ain’t that what ye do?”
Lukas would not say anything about that; at least, he wouldn’t say anything that would come to bite him in the rear someday. Heaven knew how much he was looking forward to Marty pulling the same stunt he had pulled on his parents many a time: coming home whining that so-and-so’s ma and da let them do whatever they wanted, so why were his ma and da so mean all the time? So he replied, noncommittally, as he had hated to hear people reply when he was Anja’s age: “Every family’s different.”
Anja laughed. “I’ll say. How’s yer ma doin’, by the by?”
“She’s doin’ jest fine,” Lukas replied. At least … he thought so. She was alone so many hours a day — well, Marty was with her, but while Marty was the cutest thing on two legs (definitely took after his mother in that department), he wasn’t exactly much in the way of companionship. Still, his mother seemed tolerably cheerful most of the time, and was talking and laughing almost as much as she had before Martin had died. Maybe she would look up at the great Orkney keep and shudder too often for Lukas’s liking, and maybe sometimes she would get quiet … but nobody could be completely unaffected by life.
Suddenly Lukas’s head perked up. It was a good day, and the wind was just right … so he could just hear the far-off church bells ringing for noon. “Hey, Anja,” he said as he stood up, stretching his aching muscles, “tell ye what — why don’t ye come home with me fer lunch? Me ma would love ter see ye. Ye two can have a girl-ter-girl chat, an’ I’ll feed Marty.”
“Oh — but won’t that be too much trouble fer yer ma?”
“Not at all! Ma always cooks fer an army. Comes of raisin’ three boys — plus Joyce,” Lukas replied. “She’ll be glad of the company.”
Anja looked hesitant still — then, without warning, she smiled. “Well, if ye’re sure …”
“Sure I’m sure. Come on!” He led the way beyond the fields to the little footbridge that spanned the stream that powered Sir Mordred’s mill. Anja was a bit behind him, straining to keep up. Lukas couldn’t be moving that fast, could he? He started to slow down.
But they never got a chance to cross that bridge, for a surprise was waiting for him on the other side. “Yoo-hoo! Lukas!”
“Ella!” Lukas called out. He trotted across the echoing boards. “What are ye doin’ here?”
“Master Wesleyan let me off early fer lunch!” Ella grinned and kissed him on the nose. “An’ look what I brought!” She bent and picked up a basket — a basket that smelled suspiciously like one of his mother’s pork pies, among other things.
“Ella! Lunch here?”
“A picnic!” Ella agreed.
Lukas grinned and kissed the tip of her nose. Ella laughed, as she always did when he tried that. “Ye get the best idea–oh …”
“Oh?” Ella frowned.
“I jest invited Anja ter lunch with us, so she could catch up with Ma …”
“Hmm. Well, she can picnic with us!” Ella replied. She ducked around Lukas. “Ye want ter, Anja? Picnic with us?”
Anja twisted her hands together. “I don’t want ter be no trouble …”
“Trouble? Fie! Ye won’t be no trouble. It’ll be fun!”
“But ye may not have brought enough food …” Anja pointed out.
“Don’t be silly!” Ella laughed. “Mama Betsy thinks that I eat as much as one o’ her boys — or Joyce! She ain’t cooked fer a normal person since Meg left home. I think she’s forgotten the knack of it.” Ella winked and practically skipped across the bridge to rest an arm on Anja’s shoulder. “So eat with us, Anja. It’ll be fun!”
Anja grinned, and with Lukas holding the picnic basket, they all headed across the bridge to a flowery patch of lawn where Ella could spread the blanket and Lukas could unpack the basket.
They didn’t speak much as they ate. True to form, Betsy had packed more than enough to feed all of them: there were four small meat pies, three barley loaves, and some carefully packed bottles of small ale. Anja had half a meat pie and half a barley loaf and some small ale and called herself stuffed; Ella managed to finish up a whole meat pie and the other half of Anja’s barley loaf; and as for what was left … well, Lukas couldn’t eat quite all of it, but he made a good try.
And when even he couldn’t eat any more, he patted his stomach — hard-packed muscle despite the meal he had just eaten — and said, “Well! Girls, if we were the toastin’ type, I’d be suggestin’ raisin’ a glass ter Ma!”
Ella leaned over and plucked one of the blue flowers. “A flower! Ter Mama Betsy!” She plucked two more and tossed one to Lukas and the other to Anja.
“Ter Ma!” Lukas replied, and Anja raised her flower, too.
Toast completed and flowers set down, Lukas turned to Ella. “So. Honey, tell me. What’d ye do ter get Master Wesleyan ter let ye out early?”
Ella tossed her hair — Lukas wasn’t sure how she managed that with it tied back in that ponytail, but she did — and giggled, “Nothin’!”
“What?” Ella blinked innocently. “I didn’t do nothin’! It ain’t me fault that there weren’t no customers this mornin’, so I got the studio all nice an’ clean … well, as clean as I could get it … an’ Master Wesleyan said that it would be a good thing fer us both ter take a long lunch an’ see what the afternoon brought.”
“Ye — ye didn’t get no customers this mornin’?” Anja gasped. “Ain’t — ain’ that bad?”
Lukas’s heart twinged in sympathy. How many times had he thought the same thing? But Ella only laughed. “Oh, don’t ye worry none about that! Master Wesleyan’s an artist, he is. He spends weeks an’ weeks on one thing — then he goes around an’ sells it, an’ he’s got enough ter keep his family an’ me in style until he makes the next thing! Though he’s been sayin’ he wants a ‘prentice or two, so’s he can make more things an’ more money …” Ella mused.
“More money?” asked Lukas. He shook his head. “What’s he need that fer?”
“To buy things, silly!” Ella nudged him. “What else would ye be needin’ money fer?”
Lukas ducked out of the way. “I jest think that there comes a time when most folks with sense stop needin’ … things. I mean, if ye’ve got everyone fed an’ clothed an’ under a strong roof, an’ ye have a little bit left over fer fun stuff … what else d’ye really need?”
“Hmm,” Ella mused. “Well, ye can do a lot more fun stuff if ye have enough money.”
“Not if ye’re workin’ like a dog ter get it — that is, ye might have the money, but ye don’t have the time.”
“Not everyone has that problem,” Ella replied. And, to make her point absolutely clear, she nodded to the Orkney keep behind her.
Anja gasped, and, “Ella!” Lukas hissed. “Not so loud.”
“Oh, stop, the pair o’ ye — there ain’t no harm in sayin’ what everyone knows.” Ella shook her head. “An’ all I’m sayin’ is that folk like them,” she nodded to the keep again, “have lots o’ money, an’ they have lots o’ time ter spend it doin’ what they like. Why, Lukas, didn’t yer ma used ter say that Lady Dindrane used ter spend all her pin-money on books — big ol’ dusty ones, too?”
“Books?” asked Anja, head tilted to one side.
“Books!” Ella agreed, and Lukas felt himself relax. Talking about Lady Dindrane was all right. He couldn’t claim to have known her, but all the servants at the keep had said she was a quiet lady, not too demanding, preferring to be left to herself. There had even been some quite praying for a hastening of the day when Lady Dindrane would be mistress of the the Orkney keep, not Lady Morgause. Too bad they had never seen it. Lady Morgause didn’t let go of the reins after Lord Lot died, and when Lady Morgause left … so did Lady Dindrane.
But there was still enough loyalty left to Lady Dindrane that nobody would report them to Sir Mordred if they heard them speaking well of her. And if they were speaking of her in a way that could be construed as ill … well, they wouldn’t get in trouble for that, either, given how Sir Mordred thought of her now.
“She had a whole big library full o’ ’em — ain’t that right, Lukas?” asked Ella.
“So I hear,” replied Lukas. He shrugged at Anja. “Never saw ’em meself.”
“An’ she probably took most o’ ’em with her when she left,” Ella sighed. “It’s almost too bad … I’d’ve liked ter have seen that.”
Lukas was not so sure — not that his wife would have liked to have seen the books, but that Lady Dindrane had taken them with her. Everything had been done so secretly and so strangely that she might have had to leave her books behind. Once they were left behind, would Sir Mordred have ever given them back?
“Why … why did she leave?” asked Anja in a voice so near to a whisper that Lukas barely heard it.
Lukas and Ella stared at her.
Anja flushed and picked at her skirt. “Nobody really likes ter say … they all say, ‘I don’t want ter talk about that,’ so … so all I ever hear are rumors, an’ they don’t say much …”
Lukas gulped. How — how in the world were they supposed to answer that? How was he supposed to answer that? With his family in it up to their ears?
Ella solved that problem for him by snorting and shaking her hair back like a filly. “Well! I sure as anythin’ ain’t scared ter say why!”
“Ella!” Lukas gasped.
“Why should I be? I didn’t let that horrible old witch scare me when she were alive — I ain’t gonna let her now that she’s dead, an’ good riddance to her.”
Lukas heartily agreed with the sentiment — but all the same, he put an arm around Ella’s shoulders and kissed the top of her head. Just to be sure she was safe. Just to be sure she was there.
Ella smiled at him and snuggled into his armpit — before breaking free and turning back to Anja. “It were that horrid witch, Lady Morgause. She tried ter — ter kill me nevvie, ter make her young an’ pretty again!” Ella shook a little when she said that, and Lukas smoothed her hair back from her face. “But it didn’t work. ‘Cause Lady Dindrane — an’ Lukas’s ma — found her, an’ put a stop ter her. An’ there were a big trial an’ everythin’, an’ the jury found her guilty, an’ the King would’ve chopped her head off had the old witch not killed her own self before he had the chance. That’s the only bit I’m sorry about … well, other than what happened ter poor Thorn …”
Anja stared at Ella with a fallen jaw. Then she stammered. “Luk–Lukas’s ma …?”
“Found Thorn — an’ — an’ she thought he were dead, though Lady Dindrane said he weren’t — I sometimes wonder if she didn’t pray him back ter life himself …”
Anja gasped. “But–but only saints can do things like that!”
“So?” Ella shrugged. “The only thing stoppin’ Betsy from bein’ a saint is that she ain’t dead yet — an’ I hope she don’t become a saint fer a long, long time!”
“Amen!” Lukas joined in. He loved his mother, but — well, he didn’t want to think about her becoming a saint. No son would.
He shifted closer to Ella, wrapped his arm around her waist, and pointedly looked up at the sky. “That one,” he said, pointing to a cloud at random, “that one looks like a rabbit.”
Ella giggled and raised an eyebrow at him. “Don’t think I don’t know what ye’re doin’, mister.”
“What?” Lukas asked, blinking as innocently as he could.
Ella kissed him on the nose — then she leaned back, and Lukas leaned back with her. “Ye loon,” she said, looking up. “That don’t look a thing like a rabbit. It looks like a mermaid!”
“A mermaid?” asked Anja, and she lay back, too.
This, thought Lukas, was a much better way to digest those meat pies than talking about things like Lady Morgause. Lady Morgause would turn an empty stomach, and Lukas wouldn’t insult his mother’s cooking by spoiling it with talk of that woman.
But Lukas should have known better than to think so pleasant a break could last.
“Pelles!” came the cry.
Lukas winced. Of course. Barber. His duties had been expanded when Martin had died to encompass most of Martin’s, too. But in Lukas’s mind, he was nowhere near as good … and that was not just because he treated Lukas like the scum beneath his boot.
“And Jager! Get up, girl! You’re usually a good worker — don’t be falling in with the likes of that!” He scoffed at Lukas while Anja scrambled to her feet and tried to apologize.
“I don’t want to hear it!” snapped Barber. “I said get back to work!”
“Aw, leave her alone, Ba–Master Barber,” Lukas muttered, rising much more slowly. “It’s me fault, it ain’t hers.”
“None o’ that from ye, Lukas, if ye still want a job!”
“Oh, pish!” snapped Ella as Lukas helped her to her feet. “Ye can’t be tossin’ Lukas out. Sir Mordred’s got ter give a job ter one o’ us if we need it. An’ we need a job, an’ lo! Here’s Lukas!”
“I’d watch what I said if I were you, girl,” snarled Barber. “The laws don’t say who would have to work for Sir Mordred. You could be spending all day out in the fields.”
“When I’ve already got a good job that pays more an’ is indoors beside? Ha!” fired back Ella. “I ain’t comin’ ter work fer ye. No way, no how. An’ if ye try ter make me, don’t think I won’t be goin’ an’ tellin’ all about ye ter Mistress Chevaux. She won’t like it if ye’re bullyin’ one o’ her friends.”
That made Barber shut up — at least, shut up to Ella and Lukas. Poor Anja was still left out in the open, though. “You! Jager! I said, get to work!”
Anja tossed a brief, apologetic glance over her shoulder at Ella and Lukas before scuttling off.
Lukas thought he had best do the same (there was no sense in antagonizing Barber), but Ella stayed him with a kiss. “I’ll get the picnic cleaned up,” she murmured, “an’ ye …”
She kissed him again and whispered, “Give ‘im hell fer me, Lukas.”