Thirteen thousand, eight hundred and twenty seven words down...thirty six thousand one hundred and seventy three left to go (to win Nanowrimo)! Progress was made today. Nicolas is thusly named Nicolas. And I dropped some more crumbs about the red dress. Read on and vote so we can all find out what happens next!
Foreign dignitaries were flooding into Graventsteen from all over the place. France in my mind meant Paris... the Eiffel Tower, decadent food and cutting edge fashion, but apparently in the eleventh century it meant world super power. I did have to admit, my vision of the Middle Ages was much more famine filled and I don’t know...cold and dark? But France was the optimistic golden child that lived in the sun with wine and food...and apparently enough energy left over for all manner of manner of music and poetry.
Every night the hall was filled with some new bard who had tales to spin and melodies to weave. The native castle crowd seemed used to such events, but the visiting nobility couldn’t get enough of it. One night a Spanish princess laughed and laughed until she started crying and had to be carried to her bedroom. Four servants, one for each limb. Her blacked striped stockings and red kirtle plain for everyone to see.
Also? I had this idea half formed idea that the poor people worked hard, while the rich people sat around and ate bon bons or something. Maybe that was true somewhere, but it wasn’t true at Graventsteen. Matilda would put any CEO to shame. I mean, I was used to running thirty six hour shifts at well organized 21st century hospitals and even I was impressed at the level of organization. We all pitched in to ready rooms...and even build new rooms. A whole new wing was being added in lieu of the upcoming wedding. What was the saying “many hands make work light.”?
One day Matilda and I found ourselves hanging tapestries in one of the newly finished rooms. I wasn’t much alone with her. The nature of my suspicious heritage and rank (everyone was as confused as I was, as to where I came from and who exactly I was) meant that I wasn’t exactly at the bottom or the totem pole, but I wasn’t bosom buddies with the top either. I decided to take the opportunity to thank her for the invaluable fabric she invested in covering my skin. If I ever made it back to the twenty first century, I would never take my closet for granted again. I guess I hadn’t realized when you saw paintings of long flowing robes in a museum it represented a year’s crop of flax or that a simple cloak meant someone had to chase sheep around and babysit them (and then sharpen a knife, pin them down and wrestle wool off them). I mean I knew that, but I didn’t know that.
Well now I did, so as I stood on my tiptoes while Matilda leaned over my head and pounded a mallet into the wall, I decided to take advantage of our rare solitude.
“I’m most grateful for the clothing mi’lady.” I said around the wooden wedges I was holding in my mouth for her.
“Clothing?” She sounded bored and somewhat surprised. “What did I do?”
“You sent some clothing down with that young soldier….not that I was ungrateful for the donation from the abbey.”
“I didn’t send you any sech thing, although I should have I suppose. Wait… were you wearing a red mantle before?” Her sudden sharpness pierced my rambling thoughts.
“Well yes, that day on the road, when we first met...”
She stepped off the stool she was on and clapped her hand to her forehead. “Where is that red mantle, do you know?” It seemed to be a matter of great importance to her although I couldn’t imagine why. It was far rattier and older than anything she would be interested in, but I did have it. The patched hosiery and kirtle had gone to wherever Madame Gilfre had seen fit (the old woman and I had been like two peas in a pod since met the other evening) but I’d kept the dress. Even though it was old, it felt like the only thing still connecting me to my own time. Full confession, I had all kinds of fantasies about putting it on and somehow reappearing back in my house in San Luis Obispo. Unfortunately, so far, every time I put it on though, it had been exactly that: fantasy.
“I still have it… I wouldn’t throw it away.” I assured her, thinking that ‘waste not, want not’ was where this conversation was going.
“Maybe I should lock it up in one of the portmanteus.” I got the impression she was trying to keep her voice intentionally nonchalant and calm. She gave the tapestry we had just hung a whack, and a cloud of dust came out making us both cough.
"Come by my boudoir tonight," Matilda said conversationally, “and bring the old red thing.” she picked up the next tapestry with strong, calloused hands. I had noticed she didn’t shrink in the slightest from work or trouble… a trait that would probably serve her well when married to William of Normandy I thought dryly.
“Ok...er...yes mi’lady” I said.
I had promised Aimee and another girl Melisande I would help them comb the batch of wool we’d just died with the red gill’s I’d brought. It was one of the many hundreds of little steps that went into Matilda’s wedding attire and I didn’t feel like I could skip out on it. Everyone was so stressed about getting it down in time.
So I arrived a bit out of breath and without the red dress. I’d been thinking about it and had decided I really would rather keep it near me.
“Madame Johanne says that you’re keeping company with Mistress Gilfre these days, you mended the stable boy’s hand?”
“It just needed some binding and a bandage.” I said, trying not to make a big deal of it. I’d had enough strange looks in the stables when I’d asked for sheep gut and a needle.
She smiled. “Maybe not, but it does take a fair bit of skill to do embroidery on human skin I’d think.”
Drat. She’d already heard about the particulars then.
“And I heard you also delivered Mrs. Berger of a most unfortunate tumor.”
“She had gallstones.” I said “....nothing very difficult.” I amended when I saw Matilda’s confused expression.
“Are you a physicker then?” She asked. I remembered Nicolas’s soldier had asked me the same thing and I didn’t know how to answer. I hadn’t quite figured out the line yet between science and superstition and I really wanted to steer clear of any superstitious wonderings that might get me into trouble. I figured I had enough mystery surrounding me as it was, being a disenfranchised woman from a small manor. I still hadn’t figured out why people assumed they knew my father or where I was from. Especially since the Count himself didn’t seem all to sure who I was.
“No, what does a physicker do?” I asked, risking the shame of not knowing something obvious.
Matilda gave a surprised start. “Why you’ve been spending nearly every day with one. Madame Gilfre is the best in Gravensteen...and probably all of Flandres too.”
"She’s your healer?” I asked, somewhat surprised. For some reason I couldn’t imagine Matilda and Madame Gilfre in the same room together. “She seems very competent”. Which was putting it mildly. She’d put most internal medicine specialists to shame. Yesterday I’d seen her pull a croupy child back from a spasm that would have surely led to intubation at my hospital. I still wasn’t sure how she’d done it.
“Yes she is, but I see you’ve forgotten the red mantle!” She finally realized my arms were empty.
A straightened up and shook my head. “It’s so dirty mi’lady, I didn’t think you really wanted it with your things.”
She eyed me as I said this as if sizing me up.
“What if I ordered you to go get it right now.” If she was testing me, she’d probably win, but I’d already decided I wasn’t going to let it go without a fight.
“I would tell you to let me clean it first.”
“And after it was cleaned?”
“Then you might want it mended as well.”
She stared at me, then dropped her gaze pretending to be super entranced the next tapestry we needed to hang. She was repairing a picture of a boy in green breeches with a sickle in one hand and a bolt of lightening in the other. It looked very Norse mythology to me, and I reminded myself these swamps combined with centuries of ever pillaging Vikings had created a race of exceptionally stubborn people.
"Oh, I see.” And I had no doubt she did see, though what, I wasn’t sure. “May I ask where you got the mantle?” She asked.
“It was given to me by an old woman.” Which was true in a manner of speaking.
“She didn’t perchance have the name Madame Gilfre?”
I couldn’t tell if she was joking or not. “No?” I said, answering honestly which was what I usually did when I was caught off guard. It was a bad habit.
I’d been over that day at the fair so many times in my head I wasn’t sure now what was fact and what was fiction. I was pretty sure though, Madame Gilfre and her arthritic foot had not been featured anywhere in my twenty first century world. That I was even contemplating the question was beyond madness. I wanted to hold out hope that I would somehow someway get back, but considering I didn’t know how I got here, did nothing to give me hopeful odds.
All I remembered was that I’d put on the dress, there had been a loud crash, and I’d gone outside to find myself in medieval France with a raging concussion. It was possible, I supposed that the dress’d had something to do with it. I didn’t know if it had anything to do with the old proprietor or not, maybe it didn’t even have anything to do with the dress, but it was the only unusual thing that happened in my schedule. I was a creature of habit. I’d get up, eat cheese and olives for breakfast, go to hospital, and study. There didn’t seem any room in there for explaining my reality right now.
It had been so wholly cataclysmal, I was actually considering maybe there was some force at work I didn’t understand. I wouldn’t go so far to call it magic. I’d spent too many years studying medicine and cold hard science to believe in magic like Harry Potter or something. But a niggling thought in the back of my head reminded me that at one point everyone thought Galileo was bonkers for thinking the world was round and revolved around the sun. Maybe what had happened to me would make sense to some future generation. Not that it mattered what I believed or didn’t believe. As much as I wanted to be back home, the truth of the matter was I was sitting in the boudoir of a little person who was likely the most powerful eighteen year old female alive in the western world. ...and she was waiting for an answer.
“Do you not like Madame Gilfre?” I asked. It seemed that Matilda was definitely driving at something, but what I couldn’t tell.
“No, of course I like her…” She started to say something then stopped. “...I am not sure what to make of you Emilie of Durand who knows not French and wouldn’t know a zegedine if she stepped on one.”
Well yes, all that was definitely true. I held my breath, was I discovered?
“I might as well tell you...I don’t know why it’s so discomfiting.” She handed me the corner of the next tapestry because of course there was no such thing as just sitting around idly. That would have been as preposterous as using toilet paper.
“...I’ve seen that red mantle of yours before.”
That made me pay closer attention. I felt like something creepy had just put a hand on my shoulder and handed me a missing puzzle piece. My astonished look must have convinced her of something.
“You weren’t at the Chateau de Domfront for the feast of fools?” She asked sharply.
“No, of course not...you know I wasn’t!” I didn’t know where that last part came. Matilda looked surprised at my audacity too.
“I don’t trust you.” She said.
Apparently now we were being honest with each other.
“The feeling is mutually, I assure you.” I didn’t add that I couldn’t trust anybody, whereas she had such an intense network of handmaidens and servants she was like a long armed octopus controlling every piece of gossip and industry in Gravensteen.
She laughed, “Fair enough.” She shook the dust out of her dress. There was a smudge of soot on her nose leftover from whatever work she’d been doing, and it contrasted so much with the richness of the gold and blue birds woven into her gown I couldn’t quite come to terms this barely grown half fairy, half executive she-beast. She also wasn’t done with her surprises either.
“Madame Gilfre is leaving.”
“What?” This was astonishing as I’d just been cataloging stomach roots with her this morning. “Why?”
“I thought we agreed not to trust each other.” She said coolly.
Fine. I nodded my head in acknowledgement. I didn’t want to be at odds with Matilda, but I also wasn’t going to give up the red dress… at least not until I knew what she wasn’t telling me.
“Madame Gilfre is quite effervescent in her praises of your skills.” She took her enormous ring of keys out of some deep pocket I hadn’t realized existed. Seriously, people around here carried so much stuff all the time, they were like pack mules. She took off a small bronze key and handed it to me. “That is the key to the valetudinaria. Madame Gilfre was hoping you’d look after things while she was gone.”
I didn’t know what to say, it wasn’t posed as a question, and no wasn’t an allowable answer. This much I knew. But how much danger was I putting myself into by saying yes? Despite all of my map drawing, list making and studying, I could still barely eat a meal without committing some major faux pas. “Yes mi’lady.”
Oh, and there were all the foreign dignitaries and noblemen coming in from Rome and Gaul bringing in all kinds of new viruses and microorganisms to an already ingrown microbiome. It was a recipe for disaster.
But like it or not, it looked like Gravensteen had a new physicker.
To find out what happens next, vote because I need to know too!