Clatan 9, 1015
“There’s my chubby little lad,” said Simon as he bent to pick up the baby. “Good mornin’, Andre. Did ye sleep well, m’lad?” He hesitated. “Well — other than those parts when ye were wailin’ fer yer dinner.”
Roma yawned as she got the knife out to begin to chop the peppers and shred the cheese for their morning omelets. Having a newborn in the house somehow never got any easier, even though this was the third time she’d done it. Maybe it was because only one party in the equation ever had any experience in the matter. Roma might think she knew what she was doing — but the baby never did.
And not for the first time, Roma was glad that she worked evenings and nights, not during the daytime. There never were enough hours in the day to get anything done — that was a constant. But during the day, she could let the washing slide or hurry through the mending to catch a quick catnap when Andre and Jemmy were down for their naps.
And … as much as she hated it … maybe there was something to be said for the odd hours Simon kept, too.
Roma was never sure why it was that Simon had to do most of his smuggling at night. She could understand why they might want to do that to get things over the border to Reme, but as far as Roma could determine, Simon had mostly been working on the Glasonland/Camford border. What, she wondered, was it that they needed to smuggle into Camford and Glasonland? Simon was always vague, and when he wasn’t vague, he would tell her bluntly that what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.
He would look so fierce when he said that, too … not at all like he looked when one of the boys was in his arms …
Roma felt herself lean forward, her head begin to droop — she snapped back to focus and rubbed her eyes. “Good Lord …” she murmured …
“Rough night?” Simon asked, and Roma realized he was talking to her.
“Aye — well — ye heard …” Roma rubbed the back of her neck, wondering, as she often did these mornings, just which of her daily chores could she afford to skip, to put off for another day or so.
“Hmm.” Simon bounced Andre up and down. Andre was too little to giggle, but he did coo.
She started to sway again and barely caught herself. “Simon … ye know …” She rubbed the back of her neck. “Maybe … maybe it’s time fer me ter think about … about stoppin’ the waitressin’. Ye know–”
“Roma, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“I don’t hardly make nothin’!” Roma interrupted. “Ye’re pullin’ in more than enough fer all o’ us. Maybe if I jest stay home with the boys –”
“Mama stay home?” Jemmy piped in. “With us?”
Oh, no. She should have realize that Jemmy would pick up on that. He was a clever little lad, hearing and understanding more with every day that passed. It used to be that she and Simon could talk about just about anything with him in the room, and he’s scarcely notice. Now — now he wanted a part in every conversation that happened in his hearing. And it was amazing, just how many conversations he could manage to hear.
“Not yet, little laddy,” said Simon. “Maybe someday, when Papa’s made a whole barrow full o’ silver an’ gold coins, yer ma will be able ter stay home an’ play with ye two all the day long. But fer now, she’s got ter go work, so we have money ter be puttin’ food in yer belly an’ clothes on yer back.”
“Money,” Jemmy repeated, as if he was tasting the word, turning it over in his mouth even as he turned it over in his brain. At least, until he seized on something that would be easier for him to understand. “Food? Brekkie?”
“Aye, lad,” replied Roma. She swept the mixed omelets into the pan and hurried with it to the stove. “Won’t be long now.”
It was hard not to smile when your son was as happy and as carefree as that.
But it was hard to keep the smile for very long when exhaustion threatened to wipe it all away. Roma rubbed her eyes again. She didn’t know how Lyndsay did it: a new baby every other year, keep up the treehouse, work at least as many hours as Roma did at the Onion, and then there was the flower stall.
The flower stall … Roma looked over her shoulder at where Simon was laying Jemmy’s bowl out for him. Maybe if she clarified how she wanted to scale back on work … say she wanted to run a market stall with the pigs and all the products that came from them … surely Simon would see some sense to it then. And market day was only once a week. That would be a good compromise.
And if Simon was serious about wanting it to look like their prosperity was coming from the pigs, shouldn’t they be doing more than slaughtering one every now and again and selling it off to the butcher?
As she was wondering this, a sudden brisk knocking at the door woke her up with a jolt. “Who dere?” asked Jemmy.
“Dunno, lad!” said Simon. “Let me go see!”
The knocking came again. Roma saw — just out of the corner of her eye — how that made Simon start, stare sidelong at the door, hesitate. He touched his sleeve, just once. Then he hurried to the door.
Whatever it was that Simon was expecting, though, it couldn’t have been what he found — for if he’d been expecting it, he wouldn’t have jumped back from the door with a gasped, “M–m’lord!”
Roma was just turning with the finished omelets in her hand. She almost dropped her plate. “M’lord!”
“Good morrow, Goodman Chevaux, Goodwife Chevaux.” Sir Elyan nodded once to Simon and once to Roma. “I have important business to discuss with you, Goodman Chevaux. I have just imparted this news to your brother at my lands.”
And there he stopped, not another word said. Not a “Is this a good time?” or a “I apologize for disturbing you” to be heard. He simply stood in front of Simon, waiting … for what?
“All right, m’lord,” said Simon. His hands had moved to his hips. It wasn’t, Roma thought, too threatening a gesture — but there was something of the bull in the set of Simon’s shoulders, in the way one boot absently scuffed the floor. “What is it ye’re needin’ ter say? I’m sure ye’ve got a lot ter do terday — no sense drawin’ this out.”
Sir Elyan’s jaw dropped. “Er … well … yes, of course.” He fidgeted with his cloak — then started something. “I say — is it not rather drafty in here?”
Simon only shrugged. But Sir Elyan was right — it was often drafty inside the cottage, because Simon never saw much use in making everything tight and snug. “We ain’t gonna be here long,” he would always say whenever Roma brought it up. “An’ when we leave, this house’ll be fer Sir Bors or Sir Elyan ter be usin’ as he sees fit — so why should I be breakin’ me back ter make a nice house fer the likes o’ them?”
“It might seem a bit drafty now,” Roma piped up, “but it’s nice an’ cool an’ breezy in the summer. An’ there’s plenty of time before winter is comin’ ter make things warmer an’ less drafty — ain’t that right, Simon? Ain’t that one o’ yer plans fer this fall?”
After all, Roma thought, even if the plan ain’t ter be makin’ life easier an’ cushier than the nobles than it is already — we can’t be tellin’ them that.
Sir Elyan narrowed his eyes at Roma, puzzled. Then he turned to Simon. “Actually, that was what I meant to discuss with you. You see, come winter, you will not be living in this house.”
“What?” asked Roma.
“What?” snapped — there really was no other word for it — Simon.
“What?” asked Jemmy, and giggled, eager to join in on the fun. Roma grabbed him and hurried him up to his nursery, complete with his bowl and his toy pony, for company. He would be fine up there — and while there were plenty of men, even lords, who understood that the words of a child as young as Jemmy weren’t to be taken seriously … Roma somehow doubted Sir Elyan was one of them.
When she came down again, Sir Elyan was still speaking to Simon. “Yes, it has all been decided. My father and I have determined that the best route for the estate is not to continue the perpetual lease on this cottage, but rather to build new cottages and have you rent directly from us. I assure you, this will be better for everyone.”
Oh Lord! Roma could see Simon starting to tremble, and while Sir Elyan might assume it was with fear at being faced with his lord, Roma knew better.
Somebody needed to step in. “Sir–Sir Elyan,” Roma interrupted, “might I be pressin’ ye ter join us in breakin’ our fast? I made omelets,” she said, gesturing to the laid-out table. “I’ve been told I make awful good ones. An’ it would be a real compliment ter me, m’lord, if ye’d consent ter break yer fast with us while ye explain everythin’ ter us.”
Simon stared at her, his eyes asking, Have ye gone MAD? while Sir Elyan looked Roma’s offering up and down. Then he turned to Simon. “You are only breaking your fast now?”
Before Simon could say anything stupid — like What’s it to ye? — Roma hurried to say, “Oh, don’t be judgin’ Simon fer that, me lord. He’s been up an’ tendin’ ter the pigs an’ such fer hours an’ hours. But I work nights, an’ with the baby …” She nodded to Andre. “I can’t be gettin’ food on the table as soon as I ought, I know.”
“Ah.” Without another word — such as, for instance, “Thank you for your kind offer” — Sir Elyan took a seat at the table. Roma and Simon hurried to follow suit. “You are a very indulgent husband,” he remarked to Simon.
“We-ell,” Simon replied slowly, exaggerating his drawl to almost comic proportions. Roma sighed out, relieved. If Simon was doing that, making fun of Sir Elyan, it meant he’d gathered enough presence of mind that he wouldn’t be decking him. “Well, m’lord … when a man only has one wife ter be cookin’ an’ cleanin’ an’ takin’ care o’ ‘im, an’ not a staff o’ twenty that can all be sacked at once if he pleases, he learns ter keep his wife happy, ’cause that’s the way he’ll be kept happy.”
Sir Bors would have scowled and scolded Simon for his slackness, Roma knew. But Sir Elyan, though his eyebrows went up, seemed to at least listen. “Well. That is one way of looking at it.
“But,” he went on, “doubtless you will wish to know when you are expected to report for work on what is to be your new home. I will expect–”
“Come again, m’lord?” Simon interrupted.
Sir Elyan blinked. “The work you will be doing on your new home. I will require your assistance in order to complete it to … to the desired specifications.”
“An’ how much will ye be payin’ me fer it, m’lord?”
“Paying you?” Sir Elyan’s eyes goggled. “Goodman Chevaux, I do not think you understand what it is that I am saying. I am — well, my father is — your lord. This is the labor we are requiring you to do.”
“Ah–so if I do this work fer ye, ye’ll be axin’ fer less from us fer the taxes? Is that how it’s going to go?”
“What? No! That is only for full-time labor in the fields, not for — incidental assistance.”
“But I guess there must be somethin’ I’m not understandin’, then, m’lord,” Simon went on. “Because if what ye’re sayin’ is right — that a lord can jest make his men work fer ‘im, whenever he likes, an’ not give ’em anythin’ in return — well, that sounds like Reman slavery ter me, sir. An’ I know bein’ a serf is so much better than bein’ a slave, so I must be gettin’ somethin’ wrong.”
“Well–well, when you put it that way–I suppose I cannot require to you to work,” Sir Elyan hedged. “But you will, nonetheless. It is, as I said, the only way your cottage can be completed to specifications.”
“Ter–ter specif … M’lord? I’m not understandin’.”
But Simon did understand. Roma could see that in the way his hand was tightening on the fork. He’d be bending if not breaking it soon. She rested her hand on his knee, trying to calm him down, but Simon didn’t even look at him. He stared at Sir Elyan, green eyes wild with barely-banked fury.
Sir Elyan didn’t appear to notice. “To specification. You see, the plan calls for nice plaster on the walls — far nicer than this, to be honest — wooden floors, the best cabinetry you can purchase or make — etc. But this work cannot be completed without your doing it.”
“But I don’t understand, m’lord. This is yer house. It ain’t mine. Why should I work ter make it nicer?”
Sir Elyan blinked. “You’ll be living there. For the rest of your days.”
“Not necessarily, m’lord.”
“No, I assure you, that is the plan. This is vital to the long-term health of the estate. You will not be permitted to move again. And there will be no more freeholds, either.”
“With all due respect, m’lord — ye can’t say that I won’t be allowed ter be movin’. Ye can’t say I’ll be livin’ there ferever. Things can change, ye know. Why, me own sister –”
“I am surprised you bring her up in the company of your lord!” Sir Elyan snapped.
Simon blinked. “Me good sister Toinette, Mistress Brogan?” he asked.
“Either of your sisters! What one did — cannot be spoken of in polite company. The other — what she and her husband did was ungrateful, Goodman Chevaux. Most ungrateful.”
“Ungrateful?” Simon repeated, and there was no hiding the disbelief and anger in his tone.
“Yes! Ungrateful! I know for a fact that Lord Pellinore was the making of that family! The first Goodman Brogan was a sot, a useless drunkard. Had Lord Pellinore not intervened and brought the family to Albion, I have no doubt that he would have drowned in his own vomit in some gutter, reducing his widow and orphans to perpetual penury. Instead, beneficent Fortune intervened in the person of Lord Pellinore. He plucked the family out of poverty, provided them with a good farm, skills to earn their bread in spite of Goodman Brogan’s shiftlessness — and what did Goodman Grady do? Why, at his first opportunity, he decided that such a heavy obligation could be cleared with a bit of silver and moved his young family from the shire! That is what I call ungrateful, Goodman Chevaux. And if you cannot see it, then I very much fear that something is entirely askew with your morals.”
“M’lord, if ye’re gonna be talkin’ about askew morals–” Simon forced through gritted teeth.
“But I will not be.” Sir Elyan stood — and then he glared at Simon and Roma until Simon, at least, slowly did the same, Roma following even more slowly. “This is not a conversation, Goodman Chevaux. I came here to relay a simple message. I thought I would favor you by doing so in person; clearly, that was a mistake. However, my message remains: At the start of next year, you and your family will be living in a new home which you will be renting quarterly. If you wish it to be as fine as this house, you will have to work to make it so. I am only required to make it habitable, not luxurious, and I assure you, Goodman Chevaux, that is all I will do.” He extended his hand; Simon reluctantly shook it. “Good day, Goodman Chevaux. I expect to see you on the work site in the evenings, working on your new home.”
He left. Simon didn’t bother to see him out.
Roma took a deep breath. “Well, Simon, let’s look at the bright side–”
“The bright side?” Simon shouted, wheeling to face her.
“The bright side that we’re getting our house ripped out from under us? The bright side that I’m supposed to work, unpaid, to make his bloody property better? The bright side that not gettin’ on me knees to kiss his lily-white arse means that I’m ungrateful? Where’s the bright side in all this, Roma, ’cause I ain’t seein’ it!”
“Ye want ter know who’s ungrateful? That stupid little shit!” Simon roared. Roma winced. “He lives in luxury off the sweat o’ our backs an’ then he has the gall ter be callin’ us ungrateful when we decide we won’t be doin’ no more sweatin’ fer him! Did ye see that hood he was wearin’? Pure ermine! An’ he calls me ungrateful, when I can only afford one bloody tunic!”
“Simon, please don’t –”
“Don’t? I’ll tell ye what I don’t–won’t–be doin’! I won’t be workin’ a damn minute on that house o’ his! ‘Cause it’s his house! I ain’t usin’ no more o’ me sweat ter put money in his pocket than I gotta!”
“Simon!” Roma snapped. “We’ll be livin’ in that house! I don’t want our kids in some barely-standin’-up shanty!”
“They won’t be there fer long! Can’t ye see that?” Simon shouted back. “If ye think I’ll be puttin’ meself an’ me family under that mealy-mouthed–”
Whatever else Simon might have called Sir Elyan was mercifully lost to history, cut off by Andre’s wail.
“Argh! Simon! Lord above!” Roma swore. “Ye’re worse than Jemmy when ye throw a tantrum! At least he don’t wake the baby!”
Simon’s face had gone ashen as he stared at Andre. “Oh, Lord–ye don’t think I scared ‘im, do–”
“Oh, jest sit down an’ eat yer food, Simon! Ye’ve already said enough fer one bloody mornin’!” Roma snapped before hurrying to Andre. And once she had him, she stormed into their bedroom to get him calmed down.
Luckily it didn’t take long. A few pats on his back, some whispered soothing nothings in his ear — a few minutes for Roma herself to take her own deep breaths and let the anger pass — and Andre’s sobs degenerated to sniffles, then whimpers, and finally snores.
Roma put him into his crib to sleep the rest of it off. But she had forgotten to reckon with the fact that anger passing from her would take all her energy with it. Sighing, she trudged to the bed and sat down on it.
Just when she thought she had reached the end of her rope — of course Sir Elyan had to show up and add another twenty feet for her to climb.
And there was no way Simon would hear of her quitting the tavern now. Not when he wanted their freedom or bust. He’d want to put every last spare cent she made into the freedom fund. There would be no resting for her, no break for her now.
And then there was all the trouble and work that would come from moving … Roma sighed.
Well, look at the bright side, Roma, said the impish voice in her mind. At least ye’ve got three-quarters o’ the year before ye have ter be movin’.
She snorted. Then she laughed.
It wasn’t much of a bright side. But at this point, she’d take what she could get.