No poll for this chapter...I haven't quite caught up to the last poll, but thought I'd put this chapter out anyway so it doesn't get too long.
I don’t believe in accidents. There either was a God who was completely in charge, or there was no God at all. At least that’s what I decided when I was eight. I’d been standing on a wrinkle of imitation grass wondering how close I could get to the edge without falling into the hole in the middle. I wasn’t entirely sure I didn’t want to fall into the hole even though I decided it was deep enough I would probably break at least one leg. People were throwing roses into the hole and I couldn’t understand why. Didn’t they know my mother couldn’t see or smell them anymore? Didn’t they see the yellow bulldozer behind the tree waiting to pour dirt over all their roses? Why would you waste roses like that? My Aunt Lynn had told me they cost $14.99 a dozen and that it was highway robbery.
People kept patting me on the head and giving me hugs. It was like being attacked by an army of octopuses, but I didn’t ask them to stop. Another set of arms went around me in a quick squeeze. “Everything happens for a reason...” I looked up to see it was another person who had forgotten to use their waterproof mascara. Aunt Lynn said you always had to remember waterproof mascara for weddings and funerals and I worried my mom was up in heaven feeling gypped I wasn’t wearing any.
“You know they say not to tell people that anymore!” My aunt Lynn stepped in indignantly shielding me. The woman froze and then scurried off...which was the usual reaction to my Aunt Lynn.
“Don’t pay any attention to them, they’re idiots.” she said patting me on the head. I wondered if that was also in the book she’d read on “Ten ways to talk to kids about grief”. I had wanted to ask her why there were only ten ways, and why there weren’t any pictures in the book, but Aunt Lynn had already walked away to yell at the harpist.
I inched my toes a little closer to the hole and whispered defiantly “There’d better be reason.”
And that’s when I pretty much figured out that my brain was broken and didn’t work like everyone else’s.
There’d better be a reason, I thought both twelve years later and nine hundred and sixty seven years earlier as my brain registered Graventseen’s heir had his calloused hand over my mouth.
I yelled at him as loud as I could with my eyeballs since that was all I had available.
“I’m not going to touch you.” he growled, dropping his hand as if he realized a bit late he was contradicting himself. “Don’t think I came up here to ride the crupper with ye.”
Well all right then. He looked so fierce and determined, I almost felt slighted. I scooted as far away from him as possible, sitting up as straight and as dignified as one could in a thin linen shift. I’d definitely been in the eleventh century too long. I felt more naked covered head to toe than I did waltzing around in a bikini all day at the beach. “Why did you come up here then?” I asked.
“I came through the window...there’s stuff that needs to be said, and there doesn’t need to be anyone else who hears it.”
I swallowed. He didn’t seem to feel nearly as uncomfortable as I was...but then again, he was standing on his stones in his castle, and he wasn’t the one being accosted in his bedroom. He was only wearing leggings and shirt that billowed around him like the cover of a bad romance novel. The chest was undone and the sleeves were rolled up, I could see the thick sinew and muscles on his forearms. He should have looked absolutely gay, but somehow managed to look more like a tired CEO with his sleeves rolled up and tie askew.
“First of all, I’m having honey and wine sent up for you and I expect you to drink it so your chances are better…”
So that’s what the sludgy black stuff had been? Apparently he’d also noticed I’d sent it back down with Hairy Henry.
“...second, let me know what you need stocked up in the way of healer sewry for yourself and I’ll see to its end. Third, I’ve sent mad Frank away on the water circuit so at least you’ll be spared him…”
“Wait, what?...” I tried to find my voice because my brain couldn’t keep up. I felt like I must have missed part of the conversation...maybe he’d climbed through the wrong window.
“I jest need to know what ye think ye can handle.” He said, and for the first time I could see a little bit of desperation creeping in around the edges of his eyes. Eyes that looked way older than the rest of him.
“Handle?” I repeated, “Handle what?”
“My ordeal?” Evidently I had turned into a parrot in my disorientation. I gave a sort of hysterical laugh that tried to turn into a sob on its way out.
He didn’t seem amused.
“They are building the wooden court-leet down there right now.” He ran his hand through his hair, “in two mornings hence you’ll be standing on it in your wee feet and I’ll be sitting in my Grandfather’s chair while God and everyone else watches to see what I’ll do with you!”
Oh right, my date with death. See, that was the problem. I’d already given up. Moved on.
It was a failing of mine. Once I’d decided there’s was nothing to be done, my brain moved on to other problems. Dr. Attiva would have poured some Dr. Pepper down my throat and made me go think of three new labs to draw or something else to snap me out of it… but she wasn’t here and it was much easier for me to persevere for a patient than for myself.
“I’m sure you’ll think of something.” I said.
He stood by the bed, arms crossed. The tiny bit of moonlight hitting his face made me suddenly think of the scandinavian cheekbones of my Finnish surgery resident friend. I wondered how much Norse blood went into the making of the budding Lord in front of me.
"Well cherié, I’m afraid it’s not as easy as that, and I’m not leaving until we’ve settled it.” A scampering chill of foreboding went down my spine. I really didn’t want to talk about this.
He studied my face, not answering right away. He stood facing me and I could see I wasn’t the only one fighting with myself.
"Do ye realize" he said softly, "that you put everyone’s livelihood in jeopardy with your pretendin’ antics?”
I looked down at my tapestried bedding that featured lots of deer being shot by crude bows. I traced one with my finger “I didn’t mean to" I said shamefaced. I really hadn’t, but of course that was exceptionally difficult to explain..especially in your nightgown in the middle of the night with a man who you didn’t know very well.
“Do ye not realize that before my grandfather drained the swamp lands, more babies died than lived? More chillen starved to death than had food? This land is a harsh tutor...do ye want to go back to that?”
I shook my head.
“Well since you’re clearly a foreigner of some kind…” He trailed off and raised an eyebrow as if inviting me to finish the sentence. I almost sarcastically replied “San Luis Obispo” just to see what he’d say, but the mood was too serious. “…I don’t want to punish you too harshly. I think most would be willing to let ye get off with a whipping or dunking unless you want a manorial trial by ordeal?"
“What kind of ordeal?” my voice sounded faint and strangled even to my own ears.
“…of course ol’ Pierre doesn’t like you and he’s likely to rile up the rest of thee falconers and huntsmen. So if we have to live off bread and carrots, the rest of the folk will blame me for you. He says you put a hex on his best bird, gamekeepers are leetle vindictive like…”
“I did not!” I said, finally finding something I could unequivocally say as true.
“He says ye’ve been stealing lots of lamb gut… for spell catchers to wile people with?”
Oh gosh. “Yes, it’s in your chest right now, lot of good that’s doing me.”
He paused, looking down at his billowy shirt a look of surprise on his face.
“It is my devoir...my responsibility...so help me God.” He crossed himself. “If a man had done what ye did, your bones would already be hanging on the old church spire as a warning.”
I swallowed hard at this.
“I didn't know. I'm sorry.”
Nicolas dismissed this with a snort. “Aye I can see you are, and I’ve been trying to think of how I can smooth it all out, but ye’ve shamed the law and will have to deal with the consequences.”
I wish I could put the dress on for him and let him see for himself, but Madame Gilfre had folded it back up and tied it in the pocket around her dress. I desperately wanted him to understand.
After a long moment of silence, he sighed and took out his knife.
I scrambled backwards towards the furthest corner of the bed. “I will scream.” I said in what I hoped was a calm voice. I knew for a fact Hairy Henry and Jakob would pluck out their pubic hairs to make a rope with which to hang themselves if that’s what Nicolas asked them to do, but I was hoping he still didn’t want them involved.
"I told ye I’m not going to hurt you cherié.” He said, “I mean only to show you something.” He walked over to the one square of moonlight in the room.
"Now, our options are trial by boiling rock, trial by dunking—" he began, making marks on the stone floor. “Trial by hanging in a cage, trial by a notch out of yer ear.”
"I've said I'm sorry!" I burst out. "And I am. I'll never do such a thing again!" I was gripping the bed now, so hard I was surprised it didn’t splinter into a hundred pieces.
"Well, that's the problem," he said slowly. "It doesn’t matter. I think you don’t quite understand how things work here. I’ve decided maybe life is a lot easier wherever you’re from--it must be. Tis perhaps not so big of a deal to play something you’re not. But here, the safety of the castle and these lands only work if everyone dez their piece. A Lord can’t do what he wants without inadvertently getting people killed in the long run, do you see?” He looked so imploring and yet so wicked with that knife in his hands I felt lightheaded.
"It's the hard truth that something like this can have serious consequence—especially a man in my position." Seeing I was close to panicking, he put the knife down and held his palms out like someone trying to calm down a hysterical mare.
"All right," I said, forcing my heart to act like a sane part of my body and slow down.” I understand.”
"Good." He picked the knife back up "Now then, get off the bed, and choose what punishment ye want?."
My mouth dropped open in horror. But I shut it again. He thought he was being nice! He was treating me as if we were equals-- as if I were every bit as high ranking as him. Granted, he couldn’t do that in public, but whatever everyone else thought, the Count’s firstborn son had evidently decided I really was highborn. But how was I supposed to pick a barbaric punishment? I don’t think I could conjure that level of masochism. It was insane! Deranged!
He sighed, exasperated.”Look, I know this tisn’t exactly pleasant conversation, and believe me when I say I’d rather be fondling yer white breasts in private rather than flaying them open with a whip with ye naked it front of everyone ye know...which is why I’m here.”
I nodded. Welted flesh would need arnica and spruce sap boiled into a gel if I could get it. A notch in my ear or nose probably couldn’t be repaired, but I could keep it from getting infected. These people viewed infection as a sign of guilt, and I intended to keep the possibility as far away as possible.
“Ok,” I breathed “Any compound fractures or third degree burns are out.” The medical part of my brain was taking over, even though I felt like I was planning a crime scene. “I would prefer anything that is psychologically traumatizing vs physical, but if it has to be physical…” I paused shuddering “Then I suppose a whipping is probably my best bet.”
I was more talking to myself, I’m sure the modern vocabulary was lost on him, but he looked at me not unsympathetically as he watched me struggle and try to rally. “Unfortunately, I worry they’ll think whipping too common, that’s more for petty crime, not an unusual one like this. And even if you’re not a lady, you look like one and your punishment has to fit the crime. There’s such a thing as justice.”
I had strong objections to this conversation on so many levels, but I wasn’t too illogical I couldn’t see the reason in it.
“You tell me then what you think.” I said.
He raised his eyebrows. "Well, I think I could manage hanging ye in the wimmers basket over the moat for a few days but I’d worry you’ll die from the elements….some do.” He eyed me critically as if to judge my hardiness. I wasn’t sure what my odds were with dehydration, but I really didn’t want to find out.
“How bout the dunking?” I said “What does that mean?”
“Never. No one ever survives that.” He said vehemently. “Ye’ll drown. They drop you in the moat with a stone tied to your ankle.”
“Well I can swim, and if you gave me a knife... “ I said pointedly
“Ye can swim?” He looked like I’d just told him I could fly or walk on water. “I’ll tell you what….I think the hot stones would be the best, I can make sure the water is more tepid than boiling.”
“Hot stones?” It was my turn to query.
“Yeah, do you not have that? You pluck stones from a boiling pot, and your hands are bandaged...if after a week you’re hands are healing then God has had mercy, but if they’re festering then he’s found ye guilty.”
“You’re kidding.” I was trying to calculate the odds of infection setting into the burns was probably directly related to how dirty the bandages were. This whole thing was too barbaric for me to grasp. “I can’t...I can't do this.”
He grabbed me roughly by both arms. “Ye can and ye will.” He said giving me a small shake. My eyes welled up with tears, having reached their max capacity of insanity. In one swift motion he pulled me to his chest and held me tightly like I was a wounded bird. "You can, you have to." He whispered.