Hybel 6, 1014
Anja should have known that she’d be edging closer and closer to George Wylde the moment she caught a glimpse of his bright red mop-top.
She shouldn’t have even been at the market. Well, maybe that was the wrong way of putting it. There was no school this month — they called it the Agnestide break — and her family certainly did need eggs and fresh-ground flour. Plus Gretchen would probably be outgrowing her smock soon, and while Anja’s mother had managed to make almost all the family’s cloth herself, Anja just couldn’t find enough hours in the day. So there were plenty of reasons to go to the market. But Erich could have done it just as well, and Anja could have worked the whole day in Sir Mordred’s fields. She could be earning money this break, not just spending it.
But whenever Anja — or anyone, really — showed up for more work, Master Barber scowled when they showed up and scowled more when he handed out the wages. Her father said she didn’t have to deal with that every day if she didn’t want to. And he wanted to use the Agnestide break getting the boys into the forests and learning their trade. So maybe …
Maybe it wasn’t so bad that she was here.
And the view, certainly, was one that wasn’t to be missed.
Of course, as soon as the thought crossed her mind, Anja blushed and looked down at her feet. But George looked so good from behind, especially when he was getting ready to throw the ax! Anja couldn’t believe she was the only girl here, watching him. Sure, he was lean and wiry, and she knew that some girls preferred the bigger boys, the broad-shouldered and barrel-chested ones. Sometimes Anja thought she did, too. But those boys didn’t have George’s smile, or the freckles that dotted his face, or his hands that flew up into the air as he talked whenever he got excited. And besides … surely none of those bigger boys would have quite the same lines to their calves as they leaned back, ax over their head, and prepared to throw.
They were such nice calves, too …
Anja Jager! Ye stop that right now! What are ye, a harlot?
“YES!” came the cry from George, and Anja’s head jerked up, mortified.
Then she saw what he was celebrating. A bull’s-eye! It was almost a perfect throw!
Anja gasped. “Wow! That’s perfect, Ge–”
George had frozen for a moment in a pantomime of celebration, then he somehow managed to make his stylish turnshoes pivot as he spun. “An–Anja!” he said. He rubbed the back of his neck and smiled sheepishly.
“I–I didn’t know ye were there,” he stammered. He couldn’t hold his gaze in one place. It would alight on Anja’s face one moment, then the ground, then a spot somewhere behind her left ear.
Not that Anja was doing much better. She kept staring at her hands, twisting and turning together. “I should’ve said somethin’. I didn’t mean ter startle ye.”
“Ye–ye didn’t,” George replied. Anja looked up with a slight gasp — but he was smiling! He really looked happy to see her! “Well–not really. I guess ye might have if ye’d said that when I were still holdin’ the ax!”
“Oh! That could be bad!”
“Aye,” George sighed. “I’d hate ter have ter explain ter me ma why me tunic was torn in the back — an’ what happened ter half me arse.” He winked.
Anja laughed — then wanted to slap a hand over her mouth. Girls didn’t laugh like that, full laughs right from the belly! They tittered behind their hands, making sure that all the boys saw were their fluttering eyelashes and delicately pink cheeks. George would think she was such a hoyden!
But maybe he liked hoydens, for the full laugh made his grin spread so widely that it looked like it might split his face. “Well, if ye’re gonna watch, why don’t ye watch from up here?” He gestured to a place by his side.
Anja slowly walked forward. “I don’t want me ye nervous …”
“Well,” George picked up his second ax from the ground by his side and swung it back and forth slowly, “I already got a bulls-eye on the first try, so’s even if I miss the next two, ye’ll have that ter remember.”
“Ye won’t miss the next two,” Anja replied, in that moment as sure as the sun rising in the east.
“So ye say,” George muttered, but it was with a wink. Then he grew serious. “‘Sides, it’s safer if ye’re up here if ye’re gonna watch. That way I can keep an eye on ye an’ make sure the ax don’t go nowhere near ye.”
Anja tried not to shudder. She’d watched her father practice with his bow — and watched her brothers practice with their little bows, too — often enough that she knew how important it was to keep a safe distance. But an arrow couldn’t be shot directly behind its shooter — at least, not if he was trying to aim for the front. However, if the ax slipped out at the wrong moment …
This ax didn’t. Which was a good thing. Because when it left George’s hands, he wasn’t watching it — he was watching her.
And it still hit the center of the target!
“Oh, wow, George! That’s amazin’!” Anja gasped, looking at the two axes perfectly side-by-side. “How’d ye do that?”
“Magic,” said George smugly.
Anja gasped and turned to him. “Truly?” George was a wizard? Anja knew that they were allowed to be out in the open here, but she never thought she’d meet one.
George blinked. “What? No!” Then he cringed and started to flush. His pale skin showed it so easily. It was the cutest thing Anja had ever seen — maybe even cuter than Rona’s pups, Yvanette and Eldaron. “Sorry. I fergot — ye come from Glasonland-way, don’t ye?”
Anja nodded. “Sorry … I guess I shouldn’t be such a right ninny …”
“Naw. Me ma always cracks me head with her thimble when I say stupid sh–stuff like that.” George laughed. “She says someone’ll believe me sooner or later, an’ then where will I be? But I never thought it would be ye!”
Unsure whether it being her was good or not, Anja giggled — being sure to titter properly this time, although she was pretty sure she hadn’t achieved quite the right kind of blush — and watched as George prepared his third shot.
This one … wasn’t quite as perfect.
“Hmm,” George murmured. “D’ye think I could get away with blamin’ it on the wind?”
“Oh, I think it were a fine shot!” Anja did her best to reassure him. “It’s jest about in the middle o’ the target width-wise — ye see? It jest needed ter be up a few more inches!”
George shot her a wide-eyed, slack-jawed look. “It–what?”
“It jest needed …” Anja tilted her head to one side. “Wh–”
And then she realized what she’d said. “Oooh, no!” She covered her face with both her hands.
George burst out laughing.
“I didn’t mean it that way!” Anja moaned. Oh, Lord, he’d never look at her again! He’d think she was fast for sure! When clearly her problem was the opposite!
“Up … a … few … more … inches!” George forced out between laughs.
“Oooh! Stop sayin’ that! Ye’re makin’ me sound so dirty!”
The laughter suddenly stopped. “Aww — Anja, ye ain’t hurt, are ye? I didn’t mean ter tease.”
“Ye say somethin’ that stupid an’ hear someone laughin’ about it an’ see how ye feel!” Anja retorted.
“It weren’t stupid — aww, Anja, look at me.” George touched her shoulder and then her chin, tilting her face up. “Ye think I ain’t said right dumb things before?”
He had his head tilted a little to one side and was wearing a wide grin that was as desperate to please as it was to comfort. Anja tried to smile. “Not that dumb.”
“Says ye! Ye know what I once said when I were real little an’ jest learnin’ ter lace up me shirt?”
George coughed, and blushed, but he gamely went on. “Well, I were havin’ a hard time with it, an’ me ma finally tried ter figure out what were the matter, an’ I blurt out, ‘I jest can’t get it to fit in the little hole! It’s too floppy!'”
Anja gasped, and then she burst into laughter.
“Aye,” sighed George lugubriously. “That’s what me da did. I think it were the first time I saw me ma smack him over the head with her thimble.”
“Oh no!” Anja laughed.
“I know, it weren’t her brightest moment.” George winked. “If she were smart, she woudln’t’ve done nothin’ — an’ then I’d never realized that what I said could be … well.”
“I dunno. With yer da laughin’ like that? Ye think ye wouldn’t have caught on?”
“Ye never met me da!” George laughed. “He laughs at everythin’. Especially when I were little, I swear, every other thing outta me mouth had him in stitches.”
“That’s what little kids is like, though,” Anja replied. “Me little brothers are always sayin’ things that jest make me want ter laugh until I cry.”
“Dirty things?” asked George, eyebrows waggling.
“Naw, not really. Jest — ye know. Little kid, silly things. The other day, Torben ate the last o’ the strawberries, an’ Matthias told ‘im–” Anja stopped, remembering just what Matthias had said — and why she might not want to share it with George.
“Told ‘im what?”
“Come on, Anja! Ye can’t leave a man hangin’ like that!” George gasped, then turned a face on her that was just like one of the puppies when they were begging for a treat.
“Well …” Anja blushed, and stammered, “he said–he said he hoped that the next time Torben were outside, that a bird … did his business in Torben’s mouth …”
“HA!” George laughed.
“An’ he hoped that Torben, er, vomited, an’ that would be what he deserved …” Anja scuffed her shoe against the dirt, not even brave enough to peek through her lashes at George’s face.
“Little kids are the best! Aw, I’m jealous, Anja! Me youngest sib is eleven, so she don’t say things like that no more — an’ me oldest ain’t gotten around ter getting married an’ havin’ little kids that say funny things! Man, I wish I could meet yer sibs!”
Anja looked up. “Ye–ye do? Oh! Maybe ye could–”
“ANJA! Hi, Anja!!”
Anja looked around. “Oh! Hello, Wulf!” Widow Shepherd was coming up, too. She waved at her and smiled apologetically at George.
George was looking around her. “Ask an’ ye shall receive?” he asked.
“What? Oh–no, Wulf ain’ one o’ me brothers. But he’s a friend o’ Torben’s.”
Wulf was able to skid up to her in that moment, and Anja bent down to give him a hug. “Hello, Wulf!”
“Hi, Anja! Where’s Torben?”
“Wulf!” Anja looked up to see Widow Shepherd smacking her forehead. “At least axe how Anja is before ye go an’ axe after everyone else.”
“Whoops! Sorry, Mama.” Wulf smiled at his mama, then turned back to Anja. “How are ye, Anja?”
“I’m doin’ good. But Torben ain’t with me terday.”
George laughed. “Gotta love kids.”
Wulf cocked his head at him; Anja realized belatedly that she might be expected to perform some kind of introductions. “Er–er, Wulf, this is George Wylde — an’ George, this is Wulf, an’ his mama Widow Shepherd.”
George was halfway bent to shake hands with Wulf, but he stopped midway and stared at Anja incredulously. Wulf Shepherd? he mouthed.
Anja didn’t have time to do more than share a small smile before Widow Shepherd was by her side and giving her a kiss on each cheek. “How ye doin’, Anja?”
“Well, well! An’ yerself, Widow Shepherd?”
“The same,” replied Widow Shepherd.
They didn’t get any farther before Wulf looked between Anja and George and asked, “Are ye Anja’s sweetheart?”
“Wulf!” Anja gasped, feeling the blush started to cover her from her head to probably her feet.
George didn’t blush, though. Anja wished he would. “Am I her sweetheart? No, sorry, buddy, I ain’t.”
Anja’s heart crashed. He said that so easily! Like he didn’t even care!
“But … I like ter tell meself that the only reason that is is ’cause I never axed her. Ye can’ be a girl’s sweetheart unless ye axe her first, real nice — an’ ye’d do well ter butter her up a bit, first.” George’s ears started to turn pink as he cast a glance at Anja. “I’m still at the butterin’-up stage.”
Anja could hardly breathe, and if her smile grew any wider, she’d need to see a surgeon to have her face put back together. She turned to her companion to share the amazing news —
It was Widow Shepherd who was standing next to her. And she didn’t just look happy. She looked amused.
Then she saw Anja’s face. “Aww, sweetie, don’t look like that.” Widow Shepherd nudged her with her elbow. “Wait until ye get ter me age, an’ if ye can get that far an’ watch two young things like ye two without smilin’ an’ chucklin’, ye’ll have more lemons in yer soul than old Sister Agnes.”
“Sister Agnes?” Anja gasped. “Ye mean like St. Agnes?”
“Probably named after her, or named herself after her,” replied Widow Shepherd. She cocked her head to one side and watched Anja. “Ye ain’t never heard o’ her?”
“She’s an old bi–wi–bat what lives in Avilion-town. Dresses herself up as a nun, an’ if ye’re doin’ anythin’ the least bit improper in front o’ her, why, she’ll give ye a lecture an’ whack ye with her purse if ye get in range!” Widow Shepherd laughed and shook her head. “Ye’ve got ter be right careful when ye’re out an’ about with her around.”
“She says she’s a nun?” asked Anja.
“But … she ain’t in an order?”
“I know, it’s odd,” replied Erin. “But when ye’re dealin’ with crazy like that … well, ye jest don’t argue with it, mean as that might sound.”
“Hmm,” Anja murmured.
“Though I hear old Mother Hildegard tried ter bring her ter the nunnery once, but Sister Agnes, she got all mad an’ beat Mother Hildegard with her purse — an’ that were the end o’ that!”
Anja gasped. “She — she what?”
“I hear it were almost funny,” Widow Shepherd remarked.
“But — but that’s assaultin’ a churchwoman! She weren’t arrested fer that?”
Widow Shepherd jumped and looked closely at Anja. Anja just bit her lip. Then Widow Shepherd shook her head. “The poor old woman’s mad. Ye can’t arrest a madwoman fer bein’ … mad. The most ye can do is try ter put her in with an order what will take mad folks … an’ we ain’t got any o’ those in Albion.”
“Still, it’s sad, ter think o’ an old lady, all alone, an’ not right in the head, an’ nobody’ll help her … though I guess she weren’t so old when Mother Hildegard — she were Mother before Mother Julian, weren’t she?” asked Anja.
Widow Shepherd was blinking very quickly, then she shivered and plumbobed herself. “Er–er, yes, she were. But it … well …”
Widow Shepherd shook her head. “Never mind that. So. This lad ain’t yer sweetheart yet?”
Anja blushed and shook her head.
“Well. Enjoy the chase, Anja. An’ don’t let it end too early or too easy.” Widow Shepherd winked. “Make ‘im work fer it.”
“Oh … oh, I don’t know … he’s awfully nice — an’ funny too!”
“Well, unless ye’re wantin’ it so bad ye think ye’ll burst if ye don’t get it, I still say make ‘im work fer it.” Widow Shepherd cocked her head to one side and gave Anja a good going-over, head to toe. “Ye’re a sweet girl, ye know, an’ a pretty one. No use sellin’ yerself too short.”
A sweet girl. That had to mean something. “Thank’ee.”
“Don’t thank me, honey. It’s nothin’ but the truth.”
But it being the truth didn’t matter much, did it? Anja wasn’t a fool. She knew how these things worked. Unless a girl was devastatingly beautiful, she didn’t have much of a chance of attracting a lot of boys … or at least, of attracting more boys than the size of her father’s farm would deep appropriate. Her father hadn’t had a farm in Glasonland, but since he was the best hunter in the village, the one who tracked all the animals and made sure that the lord could find them easily when he went hunting, that hadn’t really mattered. That was worth at least a mid-sized farm. And she and her mama had been working on her dower chest ever since Anja was seven and could hem a sheet reliably, so there was that to consider, too.
But the dower chest had gone up in smoke with everything else in their Glasonland home. They had a home now, but they still didn’t have a whole farm. And her father’s reputation was gone, too.
“Well … maybe,” Anja murmured.
Widow Shepherd narrowed her eyes. “Somethin’ wrong?”
Wrong? Nothing ought to be wrong. George was funny, and nice, and awfully cute. And he said he wasn’t her sweetheart because he hadn’t asked her yet. But self-doubt didn’t bend to logic that easily. “Well … ye know it ain’t good ter string guys along too long. They start callin’ ye a tease …”
“I say any boy what calls ye a tease ’cause he ain’t gettin’ what he wants fast enough ain’t worth yer time,” Widow Shepherd snorted — but then she caught another look at Anja’s face. “But what do I know? It’s been way too long since I did this fer meself. An’ who knows? Times may have changed.”
Anja could only shrug.
“Anyway, I’ll leave ye two back ter get back ter what ye were doin’.” Widow Shepherd held her arms out for a hug Anja was only too happy to give her. “An’ have fun, lass. That’s what it’s all about, when ye’re as young as ye are.”
“Thankee,” Anja replied, because it seemed to be the thing to say.
Widow Shepherd smiled and winked. Then she called to her son. “Come on, Wulfie! Say goodbye ter George an’ Anja, we’ve got ter get goin’!”
“Awwww!” Wulf sighed. But he was quick enough to say goodbye to George, and then to Anja. Then he skipped off with his mother, Widow Shepherd only paused to wave and wink back at Anja.
And Anja and George were left alone.
“So,” George asked. “Where were we, Anja?”
“I–I don’t know,” Anja laughed. “But …”
A sudden inspiration struck her, and she thought — why not? It was supposed to be fun, if Widow Shepherd was to be believed …
“I think,” Anja added, “ye were buttering me up ter be yer sweetheart …”
“Oh? An’ was it workin’?” George asked.
“Well … why don’t ye keep tryin’ an’ see how well that works?” Anja replied.
And that was when she knew that Widow Shepherd was right about one thing at least: this was going to be fun.