Sunday, January 27, 2013

Rosemary, Chapter 7

Letha swung around. Before her stood a man in rough clothing, his leggings bound to the knee. He smelled vaguely of manure. His head was bald, his chin and jaw were covered with grey stubble. His eyes were squinty, but kind.
“Did you wish to ride, Mistress?” Coll asked, giving her a respectful bob as he spoke.
“I…Yes, I would like to try."

She followed him into the stables. The air was full of dust, and there was the strong smell of horse, manure and hay. There was a wide central hall with stables lining it on either side. The roof was low and thatched. Curious equine heads came over their stall doors, ears perked toward her.
The groom unfastened a stall door and led out a quiet, grey dappled mare. He saddled her, tightening the girth and securing the bit. He led the mare out into the main courtyard, though the front stable door.
Letha followed, watching the horse’s tail swish. Its hooves sounded very loud when they landed on the cobblestones. The man led the mare over to the mounting post and waited.
“Come here,” Coll said, after a moment, gruff. “You mount her here.”
When Letha stepped up to the block, Coll instructed her, step by the step, how to get on the horse. Letha tried, failed, tried again and suddenly found herself up much higher than she had anticipated. The mare shifted her weight and at the movement, Letha looked for something to grab and ended up with two handfuls of stiff mane.
It was a side saddle, and it took Letha a bit to figure out how to arrange her legs and knees. The whole thing seemed very precarious to her. She felt oddly as though she were about to slip off one side or the other and kept bending forward, wanting to grab the mare around the neck.
“Sit up, then,” said the groom. He grabbed her right foot and arranged it so the ball of her foot rested on the stirrup, instead of wedged up into the arch of her foot.
“Oh my,” breathed Letha. “I won’t stay on,” she said, louder.
“Oh, now, good Ellen here won’t let you off. She’s a quiet girl, aren’t you?” he asked the mare, slapping her lightly on the flank. She bobbed her head in return and blew a horsy snort.
“Off you go,” he said, grabbing the slack reins.
He led the horse at a walk around the edge of the courtyard, the clacking sound of the hooves echoing off the walls. Letha kept tight hold of the mane. Looking down, she saw the stones blurring far below her dangling left foot.
“Here now,” protested Coll. “Look up, Mistress, between her ears. No good looking down, can’t see where you’re headed that way. And straighten your shoulders.”
Letha tried to straighten her back.
“That’s right,” encouraged the man. “Chin up. Hold tight with the right leg there, and trust Ellen. That’s all there is to it. A good horse won’t let a rider off. Let go of the mane now, that won't do. Here, take hold of the reins.”
He stopped the horse and handed them up to her. “Lift them, lean forward and she’ll go, won’t she, good Ellen? And to stop, pull forward, she’ll feel the bit and stop. Sit back in the saddle too, she’ll know. If you tap her neck with the reins on this side her neck, she’ll know to turn that side. Now, around you go on your own.”
He slapped the mare fondly again and she started walking away from him, carrying a newly terrified Letha.
“Back straight now, my lady,” he called. “Chin up. That’s right, lift the reins now. Off you go.”
Letha did as he said, though her legs were trembling. She began to get used to the feeling of being on top of a living, moving platform. The saddle did manage to hold her securely in place and the pace of the mare’s walk became soothing and steady.
Letha rode all morning, even getting to where she could endure a faster walk, loving the feeling of the chill air moving on her face, and the small, fumbling connection she felt to the horse below her.
“She is a good horse, isn’t she?” Letha said happily, as they stopped at the block for her to dismount.
“That she is,” agreed Coll. “Unhook your right leg now, stand on your left foot, turn toward the horse now, that’s right, hold the saddle if you must…step…all right…I’ve got you,” he said gruffly, as she slithered down, awkward and frightened again at the huge space between her reaching foot and the ground.
“Oh, I ache,” she breathed, leaning against the horse for a moment, once she had reached the ground.
Letha ate her lunch with renewed appetite and spent the afternoon hard at work in the study, laboriously copying out words into wax and sounding out the letters, for Cederic had given her the rest of the alphabet the night before, and she was eager to fix them further into her memory.
When it began to get dark, she stood by the window, looking out. During the afternoon, the clouds had thickened and now fat, white snowflakes were starting to drift down.
Letha went quickly down the stairs to the first floor, where there was the smell of fish and fritters frying and cheerful voices from the kitchen. When Cederic came home a short while later, he found her there on the stairs.
“Well,” he said, pleased. “So you’ve discovered the first floor, have you?”
He wore a heavy vest with a high neck edged with fur and a shirt of grey lamb’s wool. He smelled of snow and pines; his skin was cold, snow still caught in his hair.
Letha’s smile lit her whole face in a way he had not seen before.

“Good evening,” she said, rising up on tiptoe, hands behind her back.
He walked quickly across the hall and pulled her into his arms.

"Good evening to you, good wife," he said with a smile. "Your day must have been a successful one."

"I think so."
“What did you learn today?” he asked, taking her hand and leading her up to the second story.
“I rode Ellen.”
“And how was that?” he asked, settling before the fire.

Cederic stretched his legs out to the fire, the light moving over the polished leather of his high boots. He felt chilled to the bone and glad to be home.
“I stayed on.”
“An excellent place to start. How stand the kitchens?”
“They are well stocked. They have everything anyone could want," Letha said, her tone of voice serious. The abundance and variety of the food stored in the kitchen rooms had left a strong impression on her.

"No trouble with the servants, then?"

Letha shook her head. Cederic sat looking into the fire, relaxed and absorbed in his own thoughts.

"But how was your day, husband?” Letha asked wistfully.
He looked up from the fire and gave her a brief smile. “It was cold, dear wife,” said Cederic. “My day was a cold one.”
That evening, he corrected her mistakes and coached her until she knew the letters by rote. He began teaching her to sound out words. They worked at this until her hand cramped up, though Letha still wanted to continue.
The meanings of the words were just beginning to peek through the individual letters as she sounded each one out. It was like looking at a picture unfold, watching the mist clear away to reveal an entire, hidden landscape.
Later that night, when he lay quiet beside her, her questions pressed in on her. They beat at her heart. Why did you marry me, she longed to ask him. She lay poised, the question just at the tip of her tongue, her fear of the answer keeping it caged at the last minute. All that came out was his name.

“What, my most persistent one? How pleased with you my old teacher would have been,” he mumbled, turning onto his back and throwing an arm behind his head. “No more lessons, you have worn me out.”
“Who was your old teacher?” asked Letha eagerly, welcoming the distraction from her intended question.
Cederic groaned. “Goodnight,” he said, with finality.
As winter deepened, Letha grew in confidence and ability. She mastered the alphabet. It became easier and easier for her to sound out words as she copied them. The more she learned, the more she realized she had yet to learn.
Many of the books were in a language she could not read. Often times the style of writing differed so greatly that it was a laborious process for her just to figure out what the word was, let alone what it meant. Her vocabulary was growing, but even in her own language, she found there were hundreds of words whose meanings eluded her.
Eventually, she got so good at copying out the letters that Cederic put away the wax tablet and introduced her to parchment and ink quills, teaching her how to cut the quills so the ink would run smooth. The scratch of the quill across the paper caused her no end of delight. It was much lighter to hold than the stylus and needed only the slightest of effort to make a mark, compared to the wax.
She couldn’t help but think that the orderly, meaningful lines of black ink were a thing of beauty against the whitened parchment. She began to copy out pages from the massive Bible Cederic laid open for her on the desk. After that, when she greeted Cederic at the end of the day, it was usually with ink-stained fingers.
She grew in confidence on horseback as well, going out to ride any day that the weather allowed. She began to explore the woods beyond the courtyard gate. There were no roads, but there were narrow paths that twisted and turned through the woods. She always rode good Ellen, the groom beside her, guiding her along the paths and occasionally reminding her to sit up straight and put her chin up.
A month after she had first arrived at the tower, she and Coll rode all the way to her village. She felt a strange dread as she rode up the last hilltop, and saw the village in its valley. She stopped good Ellen at the top of the hill.
It was here that Cederic had beckoned to her through the twilight, and the firewood had fallen from her back. The horse shifted a little under her, tipped her ears back curiously. But Letha did not continue on for a long time.
Patient, the groom waited on the horse he was exercising that day, taking his own silent measure of the land. Everything was covered with a blanket of white, the snow disturbed by the tracks of deer, hare and fox.
Down the hill the village lay quiet. In this month there was little work outside, and most villagers huddled with their animals in what shelter they had, hoarding their food, repairing furniture, perhaps or sharpening an iron tool as they sat in the smoke filled dark rooms.
“I can’t go down there,” Letha whispered. “Will you go? My father’s hut is the last one there,” she pointed. “On the left, it would be. His name is John. Just tell him…Just…send him my greeting.”
“Certain, Mistress. I won’t be long,” said Coll, and set his horse at a canter down the snow covered fields, the snow flying up from his hooves.
Letha waiting, trotting Ellen back and forth across the top of the hill to keep them both warm. In a short while, the figure of the mounted man appeared again, small, from between the cottages. He cantered back up to Letha and drew his horse in.
“He’s well,” said the man, curtly, quieting his horse. But he could not look her in the eye.
“What did he say?”
“Naught,” answered the groom, squinting at her. “But he’s well enough, with wood to burn and vittles to eat.”
Letha watched his face and knew he lied, knew her father had said something, and knew that the man would not tell her.
“Very well,” she said, feeling fond of the gruff, older man. “I thank you.”
He merely nodded and looked away. Sometimes then, when the weather was good, she would ride again that way and send the groom down into the village with some gift; a half a smoked hog or a small jug of ale. The groom never returned from handing off the gift with any word from Letha’s father, but Letha was content enough to let it be.
Every morning before her ride, Letha inspected the kitchen. She began to know what it took to make each meal, became familiar with the purchasing of food stuffs and even went along on one such occasion, riding behind the small cart on good Ellen.
Letha had never seen to a town before. The thick stone wall that surrounded it, the narrow houses that stood two or three stories tall, each leaning into the street, blocking out the light and the bustle of the open market place amazed and frightened her.
The townspeople stared at her in return, with marked curiosity and even a furtive fear. Everyone knew of the lord’s new young wife and her obscure pedigree.
Passing through one of the narrow streets, Letha’s eye was caught by a girl her own age. Her hair was dirty, her feet wrapped in rough wool, soaked and soiled by the foul mess on the roads. She was lugging two heavy buckets of milk. Trailing after her was a small, grubby child, dressed only in a short smock, his nose running into his mouth.
Never had Letha been so aware of the warm boots she wore, the fine wool hose on her legs and the warm, clean linen she wore under her gown of silk, a heavy, embroidered mantle over all. She looked down at her hands holding the reins, and was ashamed.
When Cederic came home that night, she looked at him with new eyes. She reached out to him eagerly as he came to the step. She held him tightly, breathing in the good, clean smell of him.
“Thank you,” she said, lifting her head.
“What’s all this?” he asked, cupping her face with his cold hands.
“Thank you,” she repeated, then, before she could think twice, stood on tiptoe and kissed his mouth.
“What happened today?” he asked, his face still close to hers.
“I went with Marta to Town."
“Ah,” he said, understanding.
“I saw a girl there, with a sick child…” she asked, following him up the stairs.

Cederic poured water into the copper bowl and began to wash his hands.
“They’re freemen living in a charter town, not serfs," he said. "They make their own fate, collect their own taxes and care for their own poor.”

"But you own it..."

"The taxes they collect come to me."

Cederic poured the dirty water into a waiting bucket, poured fresh water for Letha. Their eyes met as he gestured her over.
“What would you like me to do for them?” he asked evenly.
“Couldn’t we… We could give them warm clothes.”
“Letha. How much do you think it costs to clothe a town?”
“I don’t know," she admitted, angry all of sudden. "But... I just want to help that one girl!”
Cederic laughed. He pulled her close and kissed her mouth.
“I don’t think I’ve seen you angry before,” he said, grinning. “For the love of God, don’t turn shrew on me. It would be too bitter after all the sweet.”
“Cederic! I don’t understand the things you find funny."
“Finish washing up,” he said, with a tender amusement. “You cannot change their fate, that was fixed long ago. But if you must, the next time you go to Town, go to the church and tell them that from now on, you’ll bring them a stipend to help cover the cost of the meal they serve to the poor each day.”
“Thank you,” she said again, tossing the linen towel aside and throwing her arms around him.
“Only you would bestow kisses in reward for charity. It usually requires jewelry of some sort,” teased Cederic.
“My fate was not fixed,” whispered Letha into his ear.
“But it was,” he answered softly. “Your fate was fixed here.”