Tyves 2, 1015
Everything that could be done, had been done.
Ella had drunk nothing but yarrow tea since the moment her mother arrived. When the Pelleses had run out of yarrow, Rhoslyn had been sent to Ash Thatcher’s tree house to beg some off him. And when Ella began to sweat more drinking Ash’s tea, Kata had kicked herself and swore up and down that she should have gotten Ash’s from the first. Ash’s was the best.
But it hadn’t helped.
Nor had wrapping Ella in sheets soaked in cold water. Nor had putting cold, wet stockings on her. Nothing helped. Every time they thought they were seeing a break in the fever, it had come roaring back with a vengeance. When Ella had started to grow delirious, then Rhoslyn thought she saw Kata start to lose hope.
Or was it really hope she was losing? If Rhoslyn was any judge of her mistress’s face, then hope wasn’t something Kata had had much of when they walked into this. But there had been a determination there, stronger than steel, harder than stone. Rhoslyn had been the one to first see it crack.
Now it was gone. All of it. After five days of working around the clock to try to save Ella, there was nothing to do but sit, nothing to see but a prone, fever-wracked figure on a bed, nothing to hear but Ella’s every rasping breath.
They could only wait.
Rhoslyn wasn’t even sure how to do that. She’d never sat in at a death before. The nunnery had been rather short on them. She was the only one, though. Martin Pelles may have died cold and alone and far from home, but his parents had died snug in their beds. Roma had watched her own daughter breathe her last. And Kata?
Rhoslyn knew that Kata didn’t like to talk about it, but this wasn’t the first death from childbed fever that she had witnessed. Rhoslyn had even heard Roma praying that her sister wouldn’t die as her grandmother had, for all that Roma had never met that grandmother.
Rhoslyn tried not to shudder. She couldn’t imagine. Kata was the cleverest, most knowledgeable woman she knew. Even Mother Julian with all her book learning couldn’t hold a candle to Kata. But now — Kata was powerless. She knew more about childbirth and healing from it than any other woman in the kingdom, and she couldn’t save her own daughter.
That just wasn’t fair.
She couldn’t look long at Kata. She glanced hurriedly at Betsy Pelles and Lukas.
Lukas didn’t seem to know what to do with himself. He kept twisting his hands to and fro, especially his wedding ring, staring from those hands to the bed and then staring back at anything that would hold his gaze. Sometimes he paced back and forth; sometimes he stood in one place and rocked from side to side. He couldn’t sit down. When he tried, he popped back up again and started to pace. The longest he had remained in one place was when he sat on the end of the bed and held Ella’s hand.
Even that he couldn’t take for long. Not when Ella couldn’t hold his hand back. She’d slipped into a deep sleep already by that point. Rhoslyn supposed that was for the best. Dying so young — especially when you were like Ella, always laughing and full of life — was bad enough without having to be awake through it all.
And somehow — some way — being here, watching it … it felt wrong. It was bad enough that Ella had to go out this way. She didn’t deserve to have someone that was nearly a stranger, for all that Ella had been friendly from the first, watching the whole thing. Rhoslyn swallowed.
“Kata?” she asked.
It was the first word that had been spoken in a long time. It shattered the silence like a stone cast through a glass window.
Kata looked up.
“I’m — I’m going to check on Billy and the kids, all right?” she asked.
Kata blinked, then she nodded.
Rhoslyn nodded to everyone else in the room — even once at Ella — then, grateful, she slipped into the hallway.
The cool air rushed into her lungs, and Rhoslyn hurried to shut the door behind her. She leaned against it a moment, eyes closed, just breathing. Ella’s fever must have grown so high that it leeched from her body to fill the whole room. Rhoslyn couldn’t imagine any other reason why the outside would be so, so much cooler.
When she got her breath back, when she felt the last bit of fever rush out of her cheeks, when her hands finally stopped trembling, Rhoslyn started down the twisting stairs to the main floor of the cottage.
And if death ruled upstairs, downstairs was a different story.
“Where’s Marty? I can’t see Marty!”
You’d almost think nothing was wrong. And for two-thirds of the room’s occupants — well, half, if one counted Rhoslyn has being in the room — nothing was wrong.
Marty wouldn’t understand what had happened to his mother for a long, long time.
Rhoslyn slowly lowered herself down to sit on one of the stairs, her feet twisting to rest two steps down. She didn’t want to go all the way down, not just yet. She had said she would check on Billy and the kids, and she would. Just … not yet.
She wasn’t ready to step back into living. She didn’t want to acknowledge that as soon as you stepped over the threshold, there was the big world out there. People out there were laughing, fighting, drinking, eating, working, playing — going about their business like everything was normal. Somewhere a mother was nursing her newborn baby, counting her ten fingers and ten perfect toes, thanking the Lord and the stars and whoever would listen that both of them were alive and well after their harrowing ordeal. Somewhere a young couple was making love. Somewhere children were playing and laughing like they hadn’t a care in the world.
“Unca Billy! I’m here!”
Somewhere was right here.
Rhoslyn hurried down the rest of the stairs and went to finish her obligation. The baby would be sleeping in a little crib by the sofa.
She still didn’t have a name.
She was a cute little mite, though. Her face was ruddy still; Rhoslyn wondered if it would always be so. The brows she had were brown, darker than her brother’s, and her eyes, when she opened them, were Ella’s blue.
Rhoslyn had no talent for reading the features of a newborn baby. She had wondered aloud once to Kata if that was something that one grew better at; Kata had only laughed. “Eh, lass, there’s a reason why that is: think about where that newborn has jest come out of! That little face is all smushed ter heck an’ back; it’s no wonder ye can’t trace out a resemblance!”
When Rhoslyn had pointed out that mothers, aunts and grandmothers of newborns tended to have no problem finding resemblances, Kata had shrugged and said that Sims were capable of any amount of self-delusion. And when Rhoslyn had further pointed out that Kata had done that with her own grandchildren, Kata had raised one eyebrow at her and pointed out that she, too, was a Sim.
“Though,” she’d added, “ye’ll notice I’m careful about that. When I say, ‘Aw, the baby has so-an’-so’s eyes,’ I’m talkin’ about the color, which anybody can be seein’.”
This baby had Ella’s coloring all over her.
Maybe they ought to name her Ella.
But even as the thought surfaced, Rhoslyn recoiled from it. Being named for your dead mother — who died as a result of you being born — was hardly a good way to kick off a life. And just because Rhoslyn knew it was done didn’t make it any better. Being named for a dead relative — even a recently dead relative, like little Marty had been — was one thing. At least nobody could conceivably claim that little Marty had anything to do with big Martin’s death. This little girl …
Sorry you had to be born into all this, kiddo, thought Rhoslyn, reaching down to stroke the baby’s cheek. The baby’s lips moved like she was trying to suckle. Rhoslyn wondered if she ought to get Roma, who had been nursing the baby when Ella no longer could. But no — that was a natural response for babies, she remembered.
“It’ll get better,” Rhoslyn murmured to the baby. “It got better for me — and I got dumped at a nunnery door when I was only a day old. You’ve at least got two grandmothers and a dad who will take good care of you. So don’t worry. You’ll be –”
“Is there somethin’ ye’re needin’?”
Rhoslyn looked up. Billy was still playing with Marty. But he had to have been the one who spoke. Other than her and Marty and the baby, there was nobody else to speak.
Besides, it had been Billy’s voice.
Rhoslyn wandered over to where he and Marty were sitting. “D’you want me to be fixing you something?” asked Rhoslyn. “When’s the last time you ate?”
Billy shrugged, which was probably the way he got away with not admitting that he didn’t know when he had last eaten. “I’m not hungry.”
“Marty, tell your uncle to quit lying. The only time Billy’s not hungry is when he’s finally passed out after eating too much.”
Marty looked between the two of them and started to laugh. He looked a lot like his mother when he did that. Rhoslyn hoped that Lukas would notice it, and she hoped, too, that it would make him happy when he did.
“I’m not hungry,” Billy muttered again. “And even if I was, ye can’t cook fer sh–” He looked sidelong at Marty, who blinked wide innocent eyes up at him. “Sugar.”
Rhoslyn snickered. “You should have just said it. It’s never a bad thing for little kids to learn new words.”
“Ye say that. Ye wouldn’t have ter deal with yer ma whackin’ ye with her thimble, or yer sister–” Billy stopped.
Rhoslyn swallowed. “I think Ella would–would have laughed. Or blamed Lukas before she blamed you.”
“Shut up,” Billy said to his boots.
There seemed to be little she could do but comply.
But not for very long. The silence was too heavy and oppressing. Ella’s fever must have been creeping down the stairs. “Well, even if I’m a rotten cook, I can still–”
“I still ain’t hungry.”
“You should eat anyway,” Rhoslyn replied. “You don’t want to–”
Billy jumped up in a single, fluid motion that would probably serve him well if he ever came up against real thieves and not just rogue bucketeers. “What are ye, me ma? I said I weren’t hungry!”
Marty jumped, then, without warning, he scampered off to play with some of his other toys.
Rhoslyn, meanwhile, raised an eyebrow at Billy. “And I heard you. I’m just saying you should eat something. Because–”
“Because why? So’s I can throw it up an’ give everybody else somethin’ else ter worry about? No, thank’ee!”
Rhoslyn narrowed her eyes. Was that a sign? A sign that Ella’s fever was catching? Billy had been in the room with her, had touched her hand and her face, had even kissed her before he came down to watch the little ones. Had he …
But he didn’t look sick, or flushed, or feverish. Just pissed.
“If the choices are you throwing up or you fainting from lack of food, I’d much prefer you took throwing up,” Rhoslyn replied. “I can clean up after you if you puke. If you faint, I’m going to have to get your ma, and that’s the last thing she needs right now — isn’t it?”
“Wright damn it,” Billy muttered. “Can’t ye jest leave me alone? I don’t … I don’t want ter …”
“Want to what?” asked Rhoslyn.
“Eat,” Billy finally muttered. “An’ I don’t want ter talk. An’ I don’t want ter think. Wright–this was bad enough when Marie …” Billy swallowed and looked to the side. “At least — at least I had someone ter be angry with then.”
Huh? thought Rhoslyn. How could you possibly be mad at anybody when an infant died? Well, except the Lord Wright, but you weren’t supposed to be angry with Him anyway, even if it was all His fault. It was all part of the divine plan or something.
But if Billy didn’t have anybody to be mad at … Rhoslyn glanced over her shoulder, to where the baby still slept. Then that meant that at least he wasn’t mad at–
“D’ye really think I’m that mean-hearted?” asked Billy.
Rhoslyn looked up. “What?”
“The baby? Ye think that’s who I’m gonna be mad at? I saw where ye were lookin’!”
He could read her thoughts in a glance? Rhoslyn pitied the first thief or ne’er-do-well he interrogated. They wouldn’t know what hit them. “You wouldn’t be the first. Or last.”
Rhoslyn snorted. “You definitely won’t be the first or last of those.”
Billy stared at her. Then he started to chuckle.
When Billy saw her grin, the chuckles died away. “That … that ain’t right,” he murmured. “Laughin’. It ain’t.”
Rhoslyn’s jaw dropped. “Really?”
“Ye think it is? What’s wrong with ye?”
“Oh, I just met your sister, is all. If there is anybody who isn’t going to mind a little bit of laughing –”
“That’s ’cause Ella’s always been … well … flighty …”
“Goodness gracious, will you listen to yourself? You sound like you’re about sixty! Look, Ella is the last person who would be mad at you for getting a bit of laughter in, all right? And I say her opinion counts most around these parts. Anybody else who minds can go ha–” Rhoslyn looked nervously at Marty and the baby. “Stuff themselves.”
“That ain’t fair ter ’em, Rhoslyn.”
“Well, they can’t hear anyway, so who cares?” Rhoslyn challenged.
Billy sighed, shrugged, and looked away.
And Rhoslyn could take it no more. “Oh — come here, you big flipping moron.” She was sure not to give him any time to run away before she launched herself and hugged him.
“Rhoslyn — what –”
“You look like you could use a hug.”
“Just shut your hole and go with it, will you?”
“Hole!” called Marty.
Rhoslyn and Billy looked at Marty. They looked at each other. Then they looked at Marty again. “Well,” Rhoslyn started, “there’s nothing wrong with the word ‘hole’ … if that’s the worst he’s learned from us today …”
“Still … ye can pair a lot o’ things with ‘hole’ that’ll get a little kid in trouble …”
“No, the little kid won’t get in trouble, we will if we let those words slip. So we’d best be on our best behavior from here on out.”
Rhoslyn smiled. “Feel better?” she asked.
Billy smiled. Billy nodded. Billy lied.
The smile and the nod didn’t reach his eyes.
“Guess not.” Rhoslyn adjusted her hold and leaned closer to Billy.
“What–what are ye –”
“I’m not letting you go until you feel better. Or until my arms start to go numb.” Rhoslyn hugged him a little tighter. “And my arms can go a long, long time without going numb.”
This time Billy didn’t chuckle. He sighed. But he leaned a little closer to her. And for now, Rhoslyn supposed that would have to be enough.
They were still hugging when the stairs started to creak.
They were still hugging when Marty called out, “Papa!”
They were still hugging when Lukas came down.
And so Rhoslyn was made a liar. She didn’t think that Billy felt better, not by a long shot. And he was about to feel a lot worse. But she let go anyway.
There were some things that everyone had to face on his or her own.
Lukas stood and stared at the two of them for a long, long moment. Then, he croaked, “She–she’s gone.”
Just that. No drawn-out speeches. No cries of agony or wild protestations of grief. Just three — well, two really — simple words.
Lukas stood and stared at the two of them.
“They–they gotta clean her up,” Lukas stammered. Rhoslyn wasn’t sure who he was speaking to, or why he was speaking. “The women. Even though–she had a full bath not a week ago, when …”
Lukas looked over his shoulder, at the baby. “When Mina was born …”
Mina? Rhoslyn wondered. So he was calling the baby Jeremina?
Well … it’s better than Ella. No offense, Ella, if you can hear this. Nothing wrong with your name. But … in the circumstances …
Rhoslyn watched as Lukas walked to the cradle and lifted Jeremina from it. He brought the baby to his shoulder and began to whisper into her ear.
Sorry, Ella. Right now, giving the baby your name … it just wouldn’t be right.