Darid 25, 1015
Things had certainly gotten better for Anja since Erich turned twelve. It wasn’t that the family had more money now that he was old enough to go work on Sir Mordred’s fields. They didn’t. He barely made what she did. But since Master Barber didn’t like paying more people than he had to, and since their father wanted to teach Erich even more about hunting now that he was that much older, their father had hit upon a novel scheme: let Anja and Erich switch off days when they went to work in the fields. The family got the same amount of money, Master Barber didn’t much care who it was he had to pay, and Anja got more time to do things.
She got a lot more time to do things.
She was working on her dower chest now. There wouldn’t be nearly as much in it as she and mother always planned, but she ought to be able to make enough to not have her future mother-in-law and sisters-in-law laugh her out of the house. She’d have sheets, towels, blankets, maybe some baby things. And at some point she’d work on making smocks and kirtles for herself, as there wasn’t much point in doing it now. She was only sixteen! Marriage wouldn’t come for her for another two years — maybe more, since her father would probably still want her help to be dealing with the little ones. Who knew if anything she made now would still fit in two or more years?
And maybe, with all that time between now and when she would wed, she was a bit silly to be working on her dower chest. She hadn’t told her father that was what she was working on, either, just that she wanted to get some sewing done. And if he asked … well, her mending basket was empty, and Gretchen’s next little smock was all ready for whenever she decided to grow into it, so … what was the harm of working on her dower chest?
“Can ye be gettin’ that, Anja?” asked her father. He had come in from the back garden, Eldaron trailing him. Her father liked to use the time when the little ones were all in school to get the pups (now pups no longer) trained up. Sir Bors had already agreed to buy Yvanette; now they were just working on a buyer for Eldaron.
“Sure thing, Papa.” Anja wiped her hands and made sure there wasn’t anything left lying around that Gretchen could get into before she walked to the door.
“Hallo,” she started to say as she opened the door, “what can I be doin’ fer–”
He was standing there, in her front door, smiling and waving. “Hallo, sweetie.”
Anja blushed, and she couldn’t stop grinning. She loved it when George called her sweetie. It didn’t matter that they had been sweethearts for three whole months now. Somehow hearing the word come from his mouth made the sun start to shine and the birds start to sing.
“I, uh …” He pulled at his forelock. Anja resisted the urge to take his hand in hers. One of these days he was going to pull a whole chunk of his hair out, and then where would he be? “I hope this ain’t a bad time.”
“Oh, it’s never a bad time!” Anja slipped out the door and pulled it closed behind her. She kissed George on the cheek. His hand slipped to her waist, as it to stay her, but she pulled back. Even sweethearts could only do so much outside, where anyone who cared to look could see them. “What d’ye need?”
“Need!” George gasped. “Good Lord in Heaven, she’s axin’ me what I’m needin’. Who says I’m needin’ anythin’?” George reached for her hand and squeezed it. “Maybe I jest wanted ter see ye. Ain’t a man allowed ter want ter need his sweetheart?”
“Sure he is,” Anja giggled, “but she’ll think it awful sweet if ye say ye’re needin’ ter see her.”
“Oh! I see yer game,” George teased. “I spent too much time butterin’ ye up, I see.”
“Ye did. I’m so buttery now, I’ll be slippin’ right out o’ yer fingers if ye don’t treat me jest so!”
“Ach, Anja!” George put his hands over his heart and pretended to stagger backwards. “Don’t be sayin’ that! Why, if ye slipped lose, ye’d be takin’ me heart with ye!”
A month ago Anja would have gasped and sworn that she hadn’t meant it, and George would have had to reassure her that he knew that, that he was only teasing. Anja had never thought that a boy teasing her could be so pleasurable, not until she met George. Before that, she’d thought that boys teasing meant frogs dropped down the back of your dress, or your braid being dipped in mud, or your doll being stolen and thrown into a tree where you couldn’t reach it. Or, when she got older, she thought it meant leers and eyes glued to her arse and budding breasts, lewd remarks, and winks that made her want to go take a bath. George did none of those things. Even when his hands strayed somewhere Anja didn’t want them to go and she had to swat them down, she never felt dirty or used.
This, she knew, was how it was supposed to feel.
So, “Don’t worry. I won’t be goin’ far.” She patted his cheek. “I’ve left me heart with ye, ye know. I can’t be goin’ too far from it.”
“Ain’t that a relief.” George’s hand floated to hers, his fingers intertwined with hers. Their hands fell.
They stared into each other’s eyes, just smiling, content for that moment to just be.
Anja was the one who broke the moment, as she always did. But that was all right. Each person in a couple had their own role to play, and if one partner’s head threatened to rise up into the clouds, that meant the other had to keep her feet firm on the ground. “But ye never said what ye came by fer. Would ye like ter be stayin’ fer dinner? Papa got a deer yesterday, so we’ve still got venison.”
“Venison!” George murmured, shaking his head. “I swear, I never met folks what are our lot in life who ate venison half as often as ye did … or, well, ever.”
Anja shrugged. Their eating habits had set them apart in Glasonland, too. “Well, ye know the nobles here ain’t got half the time ter be huntin’ fer all the meat that they want ter be eatin’. So Papa has permission to huntin’ fer ’em, an’ if he’s huntin’, why not save a haunch fer the family?”
“An’ there ye go, bein’ all practical again. Goodness, Anja, can’t ye let a man be marvelin’ over the ways ye an’ yer family are so different an’ perfect?”
Anja chuckled and rolled her eyes. “Oh, fine. Marvel if ye’ve gotta. Though if I don’t know where ye’re gettin’ the perfect from!”
“The perfect’s standin’ right in front o’ me.”
Anja ducked her head. There she went, blushing again. At least George seemed to like it … heck, if she didn’t know better, she’d say he said things like that to make her blush on purpose.
Who was she kidding? She did know better, and he was doing it on purpose!
“But, Anja, before ye go blushin’ so hard yer face turns inter a big ol’ tomato,” George continued, “ye did axe a question, an’ ye’re deservin’ an answer. What am I doin’ here? Well, the long an’ the short o’ it is … Master Tanner let me off early today.”
Master Tanner — that would be the man George was apprenticed to. He seemed a decent enough master, from everything George said, and Anja supposed she would have heard really quickly if he wasn’t. “He did? That were right kind o’ him.”
“Eh, it’s a slow day,” George shrugged.
“Really? In the autumn?” Anja asked, mystified. “I thought ye’d be busy as busy in the autumn.”
“I thought the same thing,” George shrugged.
Anja frowned. Was this a bad sign? Was Master Tanner maybe not that good a master? There were more ways to be a bad master than just going hard on your apprentices. You could be a bad master by simply being bad at what you did, and not giving your apprentice chance enough to learn because you never had enough work.
“But Master Tanner says that the rush don’t really begin until Hybel at the earliest — often not until Jaban or Osgary, or even Radenth. Folks don’t want ter be slaughterin’ their animals until they’ve got ’em good an’ fat, an’ o’ course, if the cow is still out chewin’ the cud …”
“Ain’t much ye can do with it,” Anja nodded. “I see. I guess I’m jest a silly ol’ worrywart, then.”
“Ye can say that again,” George teased.
But she didn’t think she was that silly of a worrywart. Tanning was a good trade for George — well, it was a good, if smelly, trade for just about anybody. But George was good about cleaning up before coming to see her, and Anja’s mother had taught her all about chasing unpleasant smells away — it wasn’t like a huntsman came home smelling like roses. More importantly … wouldn’t it be a good match, a huntsman’s daughter and a tanner’s apprentice, a man who would someday be a tanner himself? Nobles tended to be choosy about just whom they allowed to hunt in their forests, and men who poached tended to do it for the meat. Meat was soon cooked and eaten; a deerskin could last for years.
But there was a market for good deerskin — and boarskin — and bearskin — and, really, just about any kind of skin that didn’t come off the back of a cow or a sheep. The nobles in particular loved to lay down the skins of their kills and use them as rugs, and so would lesser folk, if they were allowed to make those kills. Married to her, George could get first crack at all those skins, turn them into all different kinds of things, and make a good living. Let the other tanners make their living off cowhide and pighide and catskin. George could have his own market!
Or so Anja liked to imagine. Maybe she was getting ahead of herself. Marriage wasn’t to be in their future for a good long time. Her mother had always told her to be careful, to never lose her head when it came to love … and so Anja was trying to remember to be practical. Perhaps there was a way to be fancifully practical. Practically fanciful? Either way, Anja was getting more and more certain she’d found how to be it.
“Penny fer yer thoughts,” George whispered, leaning closer to Anja.
“Oh — oh!” Anja blushed. “I … um …”
“Aw, come on, ye must’ve have been thinkin’ somethin’. I know what a thoughtful look on that face … um, looks like,” George finished. “Darn. I wish I were better at words fer ye, Anja. A girl like ye ought ter have men writin’ poems fer ye.”
“Poems! Goodness! What would I do with poems, George Wylde?”
“Some women sleeps with ’em under their pillow … some women keeps ’em in their bodice …”
“Bah, that’s writin’ poems, that is, an’ anybody who is writin’ a poem can scratch it out an’ scratch it again an’ have a good long go at it until it’s perfect. That hardly takes anythin’!” Anja shook her head. “But what ye do, George …”
She smiled. “Ye’re witty an’ funny all in the moment. Who cares if ye’re usin’ the same words twice? It’s the idea what’s the funny bit!”
George grinned. “Ye keep talkin’ like that, Anja, an’ all yer words are gonna go straight ter me head. An’ what would yer ma say ter–”
He stopped, biting his lip. Anja blinked. “What?”
“Sorry. Didn’t–didn’t mean ter bring up yer ma like that.”
“I don’t mind.” She understood why George tiptoed around her mother. Plenty of folks their age had already lost their mas, but none quite like she had. With an illness, with losing your ma to the birth of a little brother or sister — you had some warning. Or at the very least, most people didn’t lose their mas, their homes, and their friends all at once.
“I really don’t,” she went on, because George’s face was scrunched up like a rabbit’s when chewing a particularly large carrot. “I like ter talk about her. Makes her feel … closer.” The word seemed to propel her along of its own force, nearer and nearer to George. “I think she would’ve liked ye.”
“Uh oh,” George replied.
“Uh oh? What’s that supposed ter mean, George Wylde?” She tapped his arm. “Ye mistrustin’ me ma’s judgment?”
“Aw, come on, Anja! We’re both young an’ happy. Half the time, me own ma ain’t approvin’ o’ me, an’ now ye’re sayin’ yer ma would have?” George shook his head. “I don’t like the sound o’ that. Nope, not at all. I’m too young an’ too much fun ter be the sort o’ young man what makes young women’s mas go all approvin’.”
“George! Ye’re a loon!” Anja laughed.
“Aye, an’ ye’re not thinkin’ clearly, neither,” said a voice from behind Anja.
Anja’s eyes went wide. She spun. “P-Papa!”
“An’ ye’re not thinkin’ clearly, neither, Anja.” Her papa winked at her, and Anja could breathe again. Sort of. “Us havin’ guests, an’ ye not sayin’ a word!”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Goodman Jager,” George said. “I got her all distracted when I come. I should’ve given her a minute ter go tell ye …”
Anja’s father rolled his eyes. “Good Lord, lad, an’ ye wonder how it is ye’re becomin’ the sort o’ young man girls’ mas approve o’. Apologizin’, takin’ the fall fer yer young lady — what next? Offerin’ ter help mas with carryin’ washin’ water from the river?”
“Well, I’ll be helpin’ Anja if that’s what she’s needin’,” George replied.
“Good answer.” Anja’s father winked at her. “Because the swiftest way ter get a girl’s pa ter be disapprovin’ o’ ye is ter be talkin’ about all the things ye’ll be doin’ fer other girls’ mas.”
“Even me sisters’ ma?” George asked, blinking like an innocent little child. Anja had to cover her mouth with both hands to keep from snorting out loud.
“Any ma whose daughters are too close blood kin ter ye ter be carryin’ on with is exempt,” said Anja’s father solemnly. “Though, George?”
“A word ter the wise, fer ye ter be passin’ on ter yer sons an’ younger brothers: any ma what won’t approve o’ a boy with a good heart, a good head, and what treats her daughter well ain’t worth botherin’ with. Now, I might be biased ter me Luise, but I think she would have been approvin’ o’ any boy who meant well an’ made Anja smile the way ye do.”
“Papa!” Anja gasped, feeling the burning blush make its way up her cheeks for — what — the third time today?
George even looked a bit pink around the ears. “Thank–thank’ee, sir.”
“Let yer sons be thankin’ me,” he replied, winking again. “Though, George …”
George swallowed. So did Anja. “Yes, sir?”
“Ye came by, disturbed me daughter from the work she’s got ter be doin’ ter keep this family fed an’ clothed, kept her chattin’ out here fer who knows how long …”
“Papa–” Anja started, but her father held up his hand.
“An’ ye ain’t even taken her out yet?” he asked, leveling the best glare he could muster at George.
George’s jaw fell. “But–but sir, I ain’t got no money on me terday …”
“So? Last I checked a walk through the woods was ‘out.’ The leaves are lookin’ right pretty, too. An’ walkin’ about an’ lookin’ at the leaves, that don’t cost a brass farthin’.”
George’s eyes lit up, and he looked from Anja to her father and back again. “Is–is that all right, sir? I can take her walkin’ fer a bit?”
“D’ye think I would have suggested it if it weren’t all right? An’ when ye bring Anja back, ye can be havin’ supper with us.”
“Oh — well, I’m sorry, sir, I can’t be managin’ that. Me ma …” He sighed, shot a pained look at Anja, and shrugged.
“Well, no use upsettin’ yer own ma. Off with ye, now.” Anja’s father reached out and shook George’s hand. “Ye two have a good time, now, an’ no funny business.”
“No, sir! Funny business ain’t even crossed me mind!”
“Liar. But remember, lad, I may be a gimpy old man, but I were the best shot in three shires back in Glasonland. An’ when ye’re gimpy, ye’re an even better shot, ’cause ye can’t be chasin’ yer kill all over the shire. Got that?”
“Papa!” Anja squealed, covering her face with her hands.
“Aye, sir. Got that, sir,” was the only reply George was brave enough — or clever enough — to make.
“Good. Now off with ye.” Anja’s father waved them forward. “Have a fun time now!”
“He didn’t mean that,” Anja muttered as soon as she thought they were far enough away that her father wouldn’t be hearing her.
“Which part o’ that, exactly, wasn’t he meanin’?” George replied. He kept pulling at his collar like it was too tight for him.
“Well, he weren’t the best shot in three shires, fer one,” Anja replied. “Maybe … maybe it were only two. Or one.”
“That’s real comfortin’, Anja.”
“Still, he ain’t gonna go shootin’ ye.” Anja elbowed his ribs. “Not unless ye do some real … funny business. Real bad funny business. Which ye wouldn’t be doin’.”
They started to climb onto the bowed bridge over the little stream. “So I guess that means no funny business? None at all?”
“Well …” Anja looked to the left. She looked to the right. She looked behind — but her father had already gone back into the house. Good.
She tucked her hands under George’s chin. “Maybe … maybe jest a little funny business …”
And she let her lips do the rest of the talking for her.