Looking down, she saw she still gripped the sprig of rosemary in her right hand. Grimacing, she dropped it onto the towels and closed her eyes a moment. She put her hand timidly into the water. It was hot and silky.
She knew that to bathe was a sin. As she stood there, torn by indecision and shivering in her filthy clothing, a very old memory, long forgotten, came back to her.
She remembered her mother taking her down to the river, where a bend caused the water to spread out wide and slow, where the bushes grew down over the banks. The sunlight had turned the water amber. She remembered the slender shape of fish down in the shady places, their limber bodies undulating in the current.
Her mother had carried her into the warm water and they played there together in the late afternoon. The girl could remember the feeling of being submerged in the current, the water combing through her hair, the sun and water washing her skin. She could remember the sound of her mother’s laughter.
Taking a deep breath, the girl undid her handkerchief and with a quick movement, threw it into the fire. The flames leaped up saffron and white, the dirty linen turned gold, scarlet, turned to ash, leaving a bitter smell in the air. Her shift and smock shortly followed and terrified at her audacity, the girl stumbled into the bath.
The water was brown and greasy by the time she pulled herself out. Her head swam with water, her ears clogged with the many times she had dunked her head, trying to remove all the grit and dust from her hair.
There was clothing waiting, a shift of fine linen, and an overdress of silk, a fabric she had never in her wildest dreams imagined. It was colored the same pale pink as the soapwort that grew around the cottages all summer long. There were grey shoes of soft kidskin leather. She slid her feet into them, suddenly aware of the rough calluses on her feet and eager to hide them.
When she had dressed, she noticed the sprig of rosemary laying where it had fallen to the wet floor. Stooping, the girl picked it up and looked at it a moment. She went to the windows and after fumbling with the latch, got one to open. A gust of cold air rushed into the warm room.
Leaning against the sill, the girl looked down into the darkened courtyard, her head dizzy with the height. She held the rosemary out of the window and let it go. The wind caught it; it fell from view. She swung the glass window shut.
Her hunger drove her through the heavy door and into the empty hall. Across the hall was another room, seen through a great stone arch. The lord sat at a round wooden table that was placed before a trio of windows. He sat reading, but at her approach, he put the book down and beckoned her closer.
“Much better,” he approved. “Sit.”
The smells coming from the table caused the girl’s mouth to fill. Nervously she brought her hand to her lips as she sat down across from him. He carved the roast pork and placed roasted root vegetables flavored with butter and cinnamon, and thick slices of white bread and butter on a plate for her.
His hands were long and clever, and on the middle finger of one hand was a peculiar ring of gold that was twisted around from base of his finger to the second knuckle. The girl kept all her concentration on the ring, to keep herself from tearing into the food before he was done serving her.
“Eat,” he said, placing the food before her. “But not too fast, or you’ll surely regret it later.”
With great effort, the girl forced herself to take one slow bite at a time, marveling at the rich taste of the food, the way the fat coated her tongue with flavor. Despite her hunger, she ate neatly, using her fingers. She never lifted her eyes as she ate, and the lord watched her, his chin in his hand.
When she had finished eating all on her plate, she lifted her eyes to him, realizing again where she was. A bent old woman came into the room, pausing at the steps. The lord gestured for her to come in; she curtsied and began gathering up the plates and platters, another servant girl coming in behind her.
Both of them sent curious, resentful glances at the peasant girl. In the silence, the clatter of plates, knives and spoons and even the rasp of the old woman’s breathing seemed loud and tense. As the girl waited, she felt her shoulders begin to rise again, hunching up against the unfriendly silence.
When the servants cleared everything and had left the room, the lord sat back in his chair. The girl kept her eyes down, her damp hair falling partially over her face in tangled strands.
“What are you called?” he asked.
“Letha the cripple's daughter."
The lord’s eyes flared up with a quick emotion, his eyes narrowed thoughtfully.
“Do you know the meaning of your name?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“It means oblivion. You are well named.”
She looked at him then, her fear flaring up hot and bright in her chest.
“I have no intention of killing you," he said flatly. "I do plan to take you to wife. I will take you in payment for what you took from my wood.”
For a moment she could not understand what he said and then her eyes widened and all the blood ran from her face.
“You need not fear me,” he said, impatiently. "I won’t hurt you. Moreover, I will marry you in truth; you need have no fear of me tiring of you and then casting you out. Though I will not require a dowry of you, as that would be merely to pay myself back the cost of what I already own,” he added dryly.
“But why?” asked Letha, her astonishment overcoming her fear. “Why marry me?”
“Perhaps I took a fancy to you. Though I would have reconsidered if you hadn’t bathed.”
The lord led her back into the great hall. At the very back of this was another arched opening, and steps down into a chamber. Letha saw that it was a chapel, all lit with hundreds of candles set upon the high ledges. At the carved white altar stood a priest with the tall, peaked hat of his office.
“This cannot be happening,” whispered Letha, holding back. “This must be a dream.”
“Would you prefer to wake, and find yourself back in your own life again?” asked the lord.
Letha thought of her life as it had been: the endless toil in the fields during the summer and autumn, the biting cold and hunger of winter, when the animals were drawn into the cottage to add to the meager warmth. She thought of her father, hunched and muttering at the hearth, his small eyes watching her with some secret, smoldering resentment.
The best she could hope for, in her waking life, would be a marriage made to another peasant, perhaps to the butcher, if she were lucky, or the farrier’s son. She would lie in childbirth once a year or every couple of years. If she were lucky, she would live; if she were very lucky, so would her child. Those that survived childhood would live only to help in the fields or at their father’s trade. Others would be buried without tombstone at the edge of the woods, or in the grounds outside the small church.
“No,” she whispered. “I don’t wish to wake.”
“Then go in."
They were married before the altar, though Letha did not understand the language the priest spoke. She did understand when the priest took her hand and put it into the man’s. She looked down at their hands; hers, she saw to her shame, was the darker, thin and wiry from labor. The lord’s hand, though larger and masculine in bone structure, was white and smooth.
There was a scar across her hand, running under the thumb and up to the back of her hand, left from when she had mishandled the sharp blade of the sickle one harvest season. The scar shone white against the darker skin around it.
She felt the priest put his hand upon her head and knew he must be praying. The stone around them picked up the tones of his sonorous voice and sent it echoing all around them, as though the words were weaving in the air some faint music of their own. When prompted, she spoke the words the lord gave her to say, and her own voice and then his joined the echoes.