May 30, 2009

In Which Nora Is Offered a Warm Hand

January 3, 1158

"You know, I can cook every once in a while, Nora," offered Ceidrid from the other side of the kitchen. "I know I'm not as good at it, but you can't do everything, you know; it's not good for you."

Softly inhaling the soup's aroma, Nora shook her head. "You're busy enough with the farm. With Grandpapa's back as it is, I don't want you stressing yourself over anything but that."

She expected Ceidrid to reply, but he didn't; perhaps he had just given up protesting.

"Cheat!" snapped Alsina as Rifden sprung backwards, away from her. "I hit you!"

"Nuh-uh!" Rifden argued. "You missed by a mile!"

"Did not!"

"Did too!"

"What are you two doing?" demanded Nora, not turning her back on the pot of soup.

"We're being archers," Alsina explained, "and I hit him, but he's still up, because he's a cheat."

Rifden pouted. "Am not!"

"Just shut up, both of you," sighed Ceidrid. "I'm tired. Nora's tired. It's nice that you're trying to keep up morale here, but you're both tired too."

Nora bit her lip--'tired' wasn't the right word, and her brother knew it. "Ceidrid..."

Before she could tell him off, however, someone knocked on the door.

"Who is it?" she called, welcoming the arrival of an outsider; the only joy the house had known in the past few weeks had come and gone with those who lived elsewhere.

"It's Jothein," replied the carpenter from outside. "Is this a bad time?"

"No, come in," Nora insisted.

"Jothein!" Rifden squealed as the carpenter made his way into the house. "Alsina's trying to shoot me!"

Jothein gave a half-hearted smile as his gaze fell from Nora to the playing children. "I hope you're good at dodging, then."

He'd called on them nearly every day since their mother had died. Oftentimes, he brought things--food, cloth, toys for Rifden--but more than anything else, Nora appreciated his company. It was good, being in the presence of someone who had not watched her mother decay over the past several years; someone strong, someone who could keep her from falling apart. If it hadn't been for the kindness of others, she may not have found the will to press on, to care for her siblings as best she could--there would have been nothing else left for any of them.

Today, however, he had nothing with him but a sense of purpose. With a devout resolve, he locked eyes with Alsina and requested. "Perhaps you would like to step outside and enjoy the fresh air? It's unseasonably warm."

Alsina frowned. "But..."

"Go on," Ceidrid urged, "both of you."

Jothein turned and glanced his way. "Actually, Ceidrid... I'd like a word with Nora alone, if that isn't too bold."

"It's fine," she assured him. "Get out, all of you."

With a chorus of grumbled "Fine"s, the three of them filed out, Alsina slamming the door behind her.

"Sorry about that," apologized Nora, giving the soup one last stir before setting down the spoon.

"It's quite all right," Jothein insisted as he sat down at the table. "I suppose I could have been more polite myself; I shall apologize to them later."

Forcing the largest smile she could--which was not particularly large at all--she turned away from the pot and made her way to the seat across from Jothein. "Anyway... what is it you wanted to talk to me about?"

Jothein was normally a man to begin a conversation with a joke, she had learned, but this time, he merely made eye contact; whatever it was, it was serious.

"Firstly," he began, "I'm terribly sorry about your mother. You and your siblings are all old enough to remember her, but not quite old enough to have spent as many years with her as you all deserved. I know that nothing I can say can change anything, but I am simply stating my sympathies."

She would not cry, she reminded herself; no longer had she any tears. "Thank you," she choked, somehow managing to meet his eye as she coughed out the words.

A somber expression glazed his face, from his wintery eyes to his bearded chin. "It is never someone who deserves it, it seems. That husband of poor young Thetis is in perfect health, there is nothing wrong with the baroness, and your hated sister-in-law and her father prosper--and in the end, your sweet, gentle mother is the one to go."

"At least we knew it would happen," she whispered softly as he stood and began to make his way to her side of the table, "if nothing else."

Jothein sighed. "In either case... well, your grandfather is getting up in years; who knows how much longer he will be with you children? Your older brother has a cruel wife, and now two babies of his own, so it is doubtful that he can care for you in the event of some unexpected tragedy. And as for yourself... you are only sixteen, not a day older, even. You have a good job, and a kind employer, but regardless, you would not leave a ten-year-old, an eight-year-old, and a five-year-old alone--at least, not all day, every day."

"No," agreed Nora, pulling herself to her feet. "They need someone here, or at least Alsina and Rifden do. Ceidrid's doing a lot of the farm work now, so they'd be practically alone if anything happened to my grandfather."

Suddenly, he took her cold, trembling hands in his own. They were rough, as any skilled craftsman's would be, but both strong and gentle at the same time, as well as a pleasant sort of warm she had not known since her father had died all those years ago now.

"What if I was here?" he asked her.

Stunned, Nora looked up at him--never had there been eyes so clear. "But your shop..."

"I can work from here," he told her. "I can be at the shop a few days a week, and that will be enough. If I am needed on other days, my customers can come to me here. Or perhaps I can take Ceidrid--or Rifden, when he's a little older--as an apprentice, and when I feel he is ready, he can run the shop for me some days."

She tried to piece together exactly what he was saying. She thought she knew--she knew she knew--but at the same time, she wanted to hear him say it outright, to spell it out as he would have had she been a more stupid girl than she was. There was something more definite in that.

"Are you... asking me to marry you?" she blurted out bluntly; she had never been one for phrasing things delicately.

Jothein smiled slightly. "Are you saying you would?"

"Well, you would have to ask first," Nora informed him with whatever grin she could muster.

He nodded. "All right. Leonora Wythleit... will you marry me?"

For a moment, all she could do was press herself to him, burying her face in his shoulder. A thousand thoughts flew threw her head, and at the same time, her mind was empty--empty except for his face, and those of her siblings, and that of their poor mother.

Finally, she managed a quiet reply of "Yes."


May 26, 2009

In Which Florian Recieves a House Call

January 1, 1158

That noise was getting quite annoying. Florian could deal with the occasional thud or bang, but there was no way he would be able to sleep through that frequent thumping. The sounds were disturbingly close together--either Goodwife Noth was awake and partaking in some form of activity that Florian preferred not to imagine her doing, or someone had broken in. If, by some ill fortune, it was the latter rather than the former, that meant that his children were very possibly at risk.

Not to mention, he wasn't going to get his beauty sleep if that noise continued for much longer.

He made his way to the bedroom door and cautiously stepped into the corridor. The sound was louder now, and much clearer--whoever it was had to be in the front room.

Oh God, what if it was some convict? Or a beggar? Or some whore giving him a booty call--Good Lord, what if it was the missing queen?

Well, whatever Florian had been expecting, he'd certainly been wrong.

"What in the hell...?"

It was a naked kid, jumping on the couch.

"Uh... what are you doing here? Who are you?"

The kid turned in mid-air, revealing a strange marking on his face, like some sort of tribal tattoo; either he was a young pagan from some local group of natives Florian hadn't known existed, or some little scamp running around with paint on his face.

"'Allo, Dovan-man!" he exclaimed. "Feel better?"

Surely the latter. "Look, I have two babies sleeping upstairs!" Florian hissed at him. "Can you keep it down?"

"Oh. Sorries."

The boy bounced a final time, then settled himself down on the couch--Florian made a mental note to tell Goodwife Noth to wash that particular cushion.

"You no 'member me, yes?" asked the child in his strange vernacular.

Florian raised an eyebrow. "Remember? When the hell did we meet? I think I'd remember some painted, nudist midget with God-awful grammar if I met one."

His visitor shrugged. "Thought sos." He then pointed to the other couch. "Sits."

Confused, Florian sat. "All right. Why are you here? What do you want?"

Maybe he was dreaming. That would have explained everything. Or maybe he was hallucinating--that or stark, raving mad.

"Squirms gone, yes?" the kid began; Florian could honestly say he had no idea what he was talking about.

"Uh... squirms?" he repeated, squinting slightly.

The boy began mimicking some sort of writhing movement with his finger. "Squirms. Dirt-eaters. Long, pink slimies. Tastes good in pies."

It suddenly occured to Florian that this brat was talking about his previous illness.

"Worms," he corrected the boy. "And what do you know about that anyway? Christ, can't a man suffer a life-threatening parasitical infestation around here without everybody and their dog knowing about it?"

The kid shrugged. "No knows. But I helpded you better, 'member?"

Florian shook his head; this feeling of stupor and oblivion was growing rather vexing. "No, I really think I would have remembered something like you..."

"Maybe you was 'lirious," the child reasoned matter-of-factually, "or hallucitating--but I helpded, promise! So I want know if you better, yes?"

The urge to make fun of the boy's language was becoming stronger by the sentence, but at this hour, Florian just wanted to sleep; he would have to get the kid out of the house soon.

"Yes, I'm better," he assured the youngster. "Thank you for asking. Now, go home."

Sighing, the boy propelled himself off the couch, his eyes closed in defeat. "Maybe that for betterest. I go home fast, yes? If Papa know I come here, maybe he eat my other kidney."

Florian's eyes bulged.

"Joke!" cackled the kid as he hurried outside. "Gull'ble, salty Dovans!"

The sky outside was growing fairly light--he remembered that the baron wanted to see him at dawn. Quickly, he calculated how much time he had before he had to be awake...

Damn kid. Damn naked, grammatically-challenged kid.


May 23, 2009

In Which Riala Looks Twice

December 1, 1157

"Mama!" called Rifden as he ran into the house, toddling along as quickly as his five-year-old legs would carry him. "Mama, Falidor's here! Falidor's here!"

Riala pursed her lips, caught somewhere between hope and disbelief. "Is he?"

"Uh-huh," her youngest son insisted. "He's outside talking to Nora and Grandpapa."

Stepping away from the water bucket, Alsina sighed. "Great. He probably brought stupid Ailede with him."

"Alsina, don't call your sister-in-law stupid," Riala scolded softly, though privately, she did not blame her daughter in the slightest.

"Why not?" demanded Alsina. "She is."

Rifden bounced indignantly, as if worried that his family had forgotten his very presence. "Ailede didn't come!"

Ceidrid, Riala's middle child, gave a sigh of relief as he lowered his nose to the pot of soup Nora had been preparing. "Good. I hate her."

"Ceidrid!" exclaimed Riala. "Don't you dare say that when your brother comes inside!"

He shrugged. "You know, Ma... I think some part of Falidor hates her too. It's not like he married her out of love or anything. She's just some hussy who was looking to take advantage of some drunken idiot, and it turned out that the drunken idiot was him. Besides, have you seen the way she talks to him? It's obvious that there's no respect there whatsoever."

Riala sighed. "You shouldn't talk that way in front of your little siblings."

"Rifden's heard worse, Ma--and Alsina says worse."

She opened her mouth to ask exactly what sort of things Alsina was saying these days, but before she could, the door opened to reveal her firstborn... and someone else.

"Falidor," she addressed him, not fully capable of saying much else. "Oh, Falidor..."

"Hello, Ma," Falidor replied with a nod. "Ma... this is Fenrick."

Riala took a moment to cough, then smiled. "Fenrick? Your father..."

"I named him for Father," he confirmed. "He looks just like him, doesn't he?"

"And just like you," she added, her dark eyes meeting the baby's blue ones. Those were the most beautiful eyes in the world, she realized all over again. She had married those eyes... her three older children had those eyes... and now, her grandson did as well.

Falidor beamed at her fondly, as he had as a small child, fully in awe of his mother. "Do you want to hold him, Ma?"

She nodded. Gently, Falidor lowered the baby into her arms; the little boy was the spitting image of his father at that age, she saw only too clearly.

"He was born on the fifteenth," admitted Falidor sheepishly, "but he was sick, and I didn't want to take him anywhere until he got better."

For the first time in a week or so, Riala let out a slight laugh. "He's beautiful, Falidor."

"I know."

"How are you liking Fenrick, Mama?" asked Nora as she strode inside--Riala had to look twice.

"Oh my," she gasped between frantic blinks. "That baby looks just like Fenrick."

Falidor nodded. "She's his twin, Ma. Her name... is Riala."

She felt herself smiling again--she had to cough, but she resolved to keep it in while she was holding the baby. "I... don't know what to say, Falidor."

"You don't have to say anything," he assured her--God, he looked so much like his father.

Beside him, Nora nodded. "Sometimes words aren't enough, Mama."

Riala's grin only widened. "No, but oftentimes, they are all we have. When these two are older, you will understand."


May 20, 2009

In Which Aldhein Meets an Angel

November 14, 1157

"No, don't cry..." Aldhein urged his baby daughter, biting his lip in frustration. He was not cut out for this sort of thing--he loved the little girl to death, but for the Christ's sake, he just could not take care of her on his own! If the king was planning on sending the child away with Aldhein whenever a new steward could be found, then the poor baby had absolutely no chance at a decent life at all.

But how could Roderick be so cruel? It wasn't as if it was Eilyssa's fault, how she was made. Sure, the king could punish Aldhein as he pleased--and, Aldhein himself had to admit, rightfully so--but must he make the baby suffer in the name of her parents' sin?

But really... how would she have a future? She was the bastard child of a disgraced queen and a dishonorable steward, and her stepfather--the only party involved equipped to raise the girl--wanted nothing to do with her.

And other than simply being born, she had done nothing.

Maybe he could find someone to raise her. Perhaps a lonely young widow, or a woman who had birthed a stillborn. If he searched long and hard enough, surely he could find someone...

No. Eilyssa was the daughter of a queen, and the niece of both an earl and a future duchess; she could not be raised by just anyone.

Oh, but what to do! Maybe he was better off just getting a new job and finding a wife...

"Well, Aldhein, I had no idea you liked to spend your days in the kitchen."

Startled, he looked up to see none other than the duchess herself--the highest-ranking woman in the kingdom, now that Geneva had vanished--make her way into the kitchen.

"Your grace," muttered Aldhein after a moment of shock. "I, uh... this is the one room the king never sets foot in."

A hint of understanding in her brown eyes, she nodded. "Is that Geneva's baby?"

"Why... yes," he answered hesitantly--how would she react to seeing the child she had feared might have been her own husband's? "This is Eilyssa."

"That's a pretty name," Celina mused. "May I see her?"

"Uh... if your grace insists, I suppose..."

To his great surprise, however, she greeted the baby with a smile--and Eilyssa beamed right back at her. "Hello, Eilyssa. Don't you have the prettiest pair of emerald eyes I ever saw?"

Eilyssa giggled happily as Celina gently tickled her stomach; Aldhein was suddenly very aware that the girl hadn't smiled since before her mother had left.

"I think she likes you, your grace," Aldhein informed her.

Celina's smile widened. "I like you too, Angel," she told the baby. "Such a sweet little baby!"

"She is," he agreed somberly, "poor child."

The grin on the duchess's face vanished. "Sorry?"

"Well... I can't provide for her once Roderick throws me out."

There--he had said it aloud. He'd imagined he would have been able to come to terms with the situation more easily once he'd voiced it, but now that he had, it only seemed all the more real, all the more urgent.

"Aldhein, surely with a steward's wage, you must have a little bit of money set aside," Celina tried to assure him, but he could only shake his head.

"My father spent most of his adult life sitting at a bar," he sighed. "I'm up to my neck in debt to almost every tavern-keeper back in Dovia. All I can give this girl is love, and we all know love doesn't feed a mouth or keep a roof over a head."

But surely she would not understand this--a duchess, and the niece of King Farilon! She had never been deprived of anything in her life--and yet, she nodded, gazing upon the child with pure, undiluted empathy. "May I hold her?"

"Of course, your grace," answered Aldhein, gently placing Eilyssa in the duchess's arms. "She seems to like you well enough."

In fact, she seemed more at ease with this stranger than she did with her own father--he had to admit, he was rather jealous.

"She's going to be a beautiful woman one day," sighed Celina. "If you want to ward off all her future suitors, you're going to have to start training any day now."

Aldhein nodded, smiling slightly despite himself. "I already have."

"The poor dear," she whispered as she held the baby close. "My own mother died giving birth to me--perhaps you knew that?"

"The king told me that, your grace. My mother died giving birth to me as well."

"At least we know that our mothers loved us," voiced the duchess thoughtfully. "Little Eilyssa here will never know if Geneva cared about her at all."

It was true--her mother had abandoned her, and her father could do nothing for her. Wherever, she ended up, the girl would know neither comfort nor love.

"I only hope that she will know that I care," he breathed at last. "She will probably end up in the orphanage, or a nunnery, or..."

"Aldhein, if you can't raise her yourself," began the duchess, dismissing his thought entirely, "perhaps I can raise her for you? I have a daughter only a few months older than she is--I'm sure they will be fine friends."

Aldhein blinked. Several times. "You... you'd do that?" he finally choked, completely caught off-guard. This woman was the one person in the world who had any reason to hate little Eilyssa--how could she possibly be so kind, so selfless?

"I would be honored," she insisted, "and you may visit any time you like. In fact... Dalston is thinking about firing his steward--perhaps you'd be interested in the job?"

There were many things he could have said. Perhaps, if he were a more poetic man, he would have said something handsome, the sort of thing that the occasion merited. But at that moment, all he could muster was a simple "Thank you, your grace."