There weren’t really any servants at Gravensteen...at least not in the way I originally thought of them when I first got here. The boy I sent on the needle stealing errand… the son of Matilda’s maid? Yeah, his mom was the daughter of Bruges’ sheriff and his dad was Hairy Henry...who besides being blessed in the follicle dept, also was the son of a Baron and would inherit a sizable chunk of Normandy someday. Most of the people who served, cleaned and rotated closest around the Comte and his family, were also nobles (and it went down from there). It would have been like saying the five busiest surgeons in a hospital were the “Lords” and everyone else was a peasant. It just wasn’t that straightforward. And like a hospital, everyone worked their butt off in this hulking pile of stone blocks. It was really disconcerting to find myself alone in my room.
I’d tried to leave for breakfast only to find Hairy Henry and another one of the Castle Mensie … Jakob if I remembered correctly. Jakob had put his arm across the door and told me in rather unladylike terms what he’d do to me if I tried to leave. Henry apologetically fluttered around him trying to explain that they were just doing their job. I sighed.
“Perchance did his Lordship mention anything about food or water...clean water?” I asked. There was no fireplace in my room, and I wasn’t sure what month we were in, but the days were getting chilly and Matilda’s wedding was scheduled for All Saint’s day which I was told would give her a month to set up her own household before Advent. I felt like an absolutely terrible person for not having the foggiest clue about the church calendar. Telling them I was raised Pentecostal would have been about as effective as telling my own pastor I was from the First Church Of Mars. Not that any of this made any difference if in three days I was six feet underground with a large stone slab marking the spot.
I shook the thought from my head, sometimes it was too easy to just go straight for the worst case scenario and laugh.
But both men seemed to take my questions as wily attempts to get them to leave their posts so I gave up and closed the door.
Food did eventually arrive a few hours later with Aimee who looked about to burst with excitement, she was also hugging the edges of the room and eyeing the candlesticks warily in case she needed to defend herself against a violent criminal.
“The real Emilie isn’t as demens as you, but she’s ever so much plainer…” She offered helpfully. “She has moon warts all over her face and Cateline says she’s so heavy her bottom is melting around her ankles.”
I shook my head at her, my mouth too full of boiled carrots and dried venison that tasted more like a shoe than the beef jerky at Trader Joes, but I wasn’t complaining.
“Everyone has gone completely énervé over this whole thing. Cook says she thinks you’re a lost “
Aimee looked scandalized.
Drat, I was doing it again...talking about worst case scenarios in the same tone one would talk about belly button lint. It was a finely honed talent. They didn’t teach it in med school, but they might as well have, it was a necessary skill.
“Sacrebleu! We’re not pagans--a whipping maybe or notch out of your ear or nose, but drowning? Gracious.”
No comment. Someone cutting a chunk out of my nose while everyone watched? I think I would almost prefer drowning. Which is probably why I hadn’t the tiniest tattoo or piercing despite my friend Natasha’s best efforts.
Which...oh gosh, what if I’d come through with a tattoo? I’d had a hard enough time explaining my navy toenail polish, if I’d had a tattooed heart or something with a chick on a surfboard in it like Natasha had gotten, I couldn’t even imagine what would have happened. I’d either be put outside the walls with people crying Devil or I’d be a diety. Now there was a happy thought.
Aimee left, and I thought I would get a chance to try on the cursed red kirtle and see if by some miracle of miracles I would wake up to the smell of burnt coffee and the trash truck. But no, one of the threshers had been stabbed accidentally with a pitchfork and my services were needed in the valetudinaria. As I hurried up the green hall, down the west stairs through the crofters passage, and over the great hall I thought that if I had any say in the matter the first thing I would do would be to move the valetudinaria outside to one of the thatched roof sheds in the courtyard.
The thresher in question turned out to be female. A sturdy looking matron who looked a bit shocked to find herself sitting down and missing a limb...her pitchfork. I couldn’t figure out at first where the injury was, until she lifted up her skirts and I saw to my dismay there was a rusty broken off tine going right through the third and fourth metatarsal of her right foot.
Her husband was there, and he was clearly the extrovert of the two. Nice man, but some people dealt with trauma by telling you about everything from their dog’s favorite brand of food, to how many sticks of butter their great aunt put in her famous brownies.
“We was just pulling in the second wagon, and Marie hollered at the boys to stop scairin’ the horses and the next thing I know she gets this funny look on her face and sets down, and I’m calling to the archangel himself...”
“The yengest dropped his pitchfork from the aft loft.” She said bluntly.
“I see.” I said, grimly assessing the wound. I’d seen worse in the past month, but the rust worried me. Tetanus wasn’t something I was adequately prepared to deal with.
The husband fluttered around me, trying to help...
“Now Jez says that he won’t be goin’ off with Sir William for another year at the veery least, but I says to him. ‘Son, you know your duty is here to Sir Nicolas’, and you knows what he says to me? He says ‘father, I den’t mean no disrespect but you weren’t there at The Bastards meetin’.’ ..and see, that makes me terribly uncomfortable because we ain’t allowed to call Lady Matilda’s betrothed The Bastard anymore, but Jez don’t care because Sir Nicolas still calls him ‘The Bastard’ ...Jez says I worry too much cuz seems his Lordship don’t mind even if he is a duke. He done decided he wants our Sir Nicolas as his big man…”
He finally stopped to take a breath, I handed him a bandage to roll.
“...Now I says to Marie here, we best get ready to slaughter the old brown sow, because the Lord Comte says hes son ain’t going with no Duke until he’s married proper with an heir all tied up like and I knows this castle can’t take another wedding so soon after her leddyships, and Marie, she ses we ain’t never going to slaughter that old sow cuz she’s the devil heeself...killed the butcher’s child a few yars back ye heard? Bit the babe’s head right off. Theer was a whole trial and everything. Very proper like it was, the sow was sentenced to death but no one could ever catch her so we’s eventually gave up.. But I tell Marie I have a new plan now.”
“Are ye the demens girl?” The ever stoic Marie interjected this question so bluntly it took me off guard. I’d been identifying too much with a pig.
“Depends on who you ask.” I said, trying to keep my tone even.
“You can come stay with us after her Ladyship gets married.” It was a super abrupt thing to say, but she didn’t seem like the type who offered this to just anyone, so I nodded my thanks.
“We can always use a healer in the village.” her husband agreed. “Normally the ledies go home or get married themselves after a big figgish wedding yeh know, but ye… ye’d be wanderin’ the countryside even if the Laird shows you mercy for the...you know what. He finished in the same hushed tones everyone did when they were discussing my incomprehensible decision to impersonate a noblessé. To be fair, I practically discussed it with myself in hushed tones, I’d laid in bed for hours last night replaying every word of the kitchen conversation and contemplating the luxury of being an ostrich and sticking my head in the ground somewhere...permanently.
By the time I finished doing what I could to Marie’s foot, her husband (who told me at least five times to call him “Lennie”) had me married off to the Ferrier’s widowed son...or his second born son who would have a great career as a thresher too. He was practically already bouncing his future grandchild on his knee and loudly proclaiming he would do all he could to make sure I wasn’t given a death punishment, when I ushered them both out and leaned against the closed door. I slide my back down the rough wood until I was sitting on the floor with my face in my hands.
Just as I took in some “get-a-grip” breaths, I was sent sprawling on my face as the door busted open and Hairy Henry and Jakob came barreling in, the silence convincing them I’d escaped out the window or something.
“Sorry mi’lady.” Jakob said, manhandling me back to my feet. His wide face and big hands made him look like a bear. He patted me on the head and looked so sheepish I gave him a gracious head bow as I tried to straighten my skirts.
When we got back to my quarters I opened the door to find my straw bed torn apart, and the trunk where I kept my few possessions had been broken open and hacked apart in spots. Matilda stepped forward, an axe in her hand and a determine expression on her face. Hairy Henry and Jakob exchanged looks before stepping between us, their hands on their swords. Matilda may have been the size of a modern day ten year old, but she looked capable enough to take out a whole South LA gang by herself.
“Oh stop” she said, waving them away “I have no intention of doing Lady Emilie harm, I lost something and am trying to find it.”
“Did she steal something from ye?” Hairy Henry asked in measured tones.
“Nay, I think I left it in here last epiphany...now please retire and tell Nicolas I will be happy to care for Emilie.”
The pair exchanged more glances. I didn’t envy them, you’d have to be an idiot who cared not one iota for your life to go up against her Ladyship, especially since she was marrying arguably the most powerful man in France in a few weeks. But you’d also have to be an idiot to disobey a direct command for the Lord and heir of the castle to whom they’d sworn their fealty. Sibling bickering was starting to take on a whole new meaning.
“Weel wait in the hallway mi’lady.” Hairy Henry said, but he looked concerned as he dragged Jakob out. “But she has an axe…” I could hear him whisper loudly as the door shut.
Matilda laughed and put the axe down. “I’m not apologizing cherié.” She gestured around the room. “It all belongs to me anyway.”
“Of course mi’lady” I said, because my momma taught me never to argue with people who had lethal objects in their hand.
“Where is the crimson kirtle?” she asked.
“I know you have it, I have to...see something.”
“I gave it to Madame Gilfre” I said, talking calmly and firmly like I would to a child. It was true, I had given the dress to the old healer despite strong misgivings. I’d been worried Matilda would look in my room...which turned out to be an understatement. Wow, was that the remnants of my pillow?
He stuck his head in, “Bring Madame Gilfre here please.”
He looked like he was about to say something then changed his mind. “Yes mi’lady”
“But she’s out of town.” I said, surely she didn’t expect poor Jakob to be able to conjure up the old woman out of thin air. I actually liked Matilda, I felt like I understood why she did some of the things she did. Lord knows I would have been the same way in her shoes. And I certainly couldn’t blame her for wanting the red dress, since we both knew… or heavily suspected it wasn’t a simple dress. I didn’t know what she wanted with it, but she was the closest thing to a celebrity this era had. She was Beyoncé, Scarlett Johannson and Peewee Hermon all rolled into one.
“She’s not out of town, she’s been doing something for me.” The surprise must have registered on my face because she smiled. “You aren’t the only one with secrets.”
Oh how I wished I didn’t have any secrets.
Madame Gilfre was ushered in, wearing a cloak so thick and deep it looked like it was carved out of ebony. “My dear…” she said taking my face in her hands and looking so sympathetic and happy to see me it was like finding ray of sunshine in a day where you’d forgotten your coat. “...I heard about what happened.”
“I’m afraid you’re going to need to take your physicker position back”
“Oh hush” She said “You’re fine, you just have a few bumps to sort out.”
A medieval trial, a mad noblewoman with an axe, and no way of getting to the one place I really belonged...yeah, you might say those were a few bumps.
“Do you have the kirtle?” Matilda interrupted, clearly having had enough of this display.
Madame Gilfre looked at me, and I shrugged. I couldn’t see what good the red dress would do me at this point. She nodded, undid her cloak and laid it on the bed. There was a leather pocket tied around her waist with a brightly woven rope. She undid that too and pulled out a familiar bundle of tattered red fabric.
Matilda grabbed it like a woman who’d just found her missing baby.
“It won’t work for you mon cherié” Madame Gilfre told her, not unsympathetically. “I already told you, it gets passed down mother to daughter.”
“I know.” Matilda said, “I tried already...I wanted her to use it.” she pointed to me.
“It doesn’t work for me either” I said, “at least not anymore.”
Madame Gilfre looked up as if she were petitioning God to grant her patience, “both of you sit” she spoke with an authority granted as the only one who wasn’t acting like an insane person. She gestured us to the only bench that had survived Matilda’s rampage . We obediently sat like schoolgirls called into the principal's office.
“There isn’t anything to say” Matilda wasn’t one to beat around the bush, “You were the one who pointed out the dress at the feast of St. Michaels and said it would bring luck to whoever wore it.”
I snorted at the hilarious usage of the word “luck”.
“When I saw her…” She nodded towards me, “...on the Urdés Road I recognized it immediately.”
“I wasn’t at the feast of St. Michael” I cut in “...I assure you.”
“Well then how did you come to posses such a thing?” she demanded. “Did you murder someone for it?”
“No! Of course not.” I was aghast she’d even think such a thing. “I was given the dress…”
“I see.” Matilda said sarcastically, she raised her eyebrows at Madame Gilfre as if to say I told you so.
“What do you mean nothing happens my cherié?” Madame Gilfre ignored Matilda and was frowning at me.
“I’ll put it on right now if you want” I pulled of the yellow tunic and shook out the red kirtle before slipping it over the blue one from Nicolas I still wore.
“See? Nothing.” I said, turning around feeling vindicated.
A strangled sound came from Matilda’s pale lips as she crossed herself.
Madame Gilfre took a step backwards an unfathomable expression on her face.
“What?” I asked, I looked behind me half expecting to see a ghost or something.
“Oh take it off...please take it off!” Matilda had both her hands over her ears and she look so shaken I struggled to pull the old red dress off over my head.
Standing there in my blue kirtle, messy hair hanging in my face, Matilda sank to the ground in relief babbling something incoherent.
I looked between her and Madame Gilfre in disbelief. Seriously, nothing had happened.
“She’s never seen cars before.” Madame Gilfre said, by way of explanation.
“Cars?” Maybe this was a Flemish word I was unfamiliar with.
“Probably the lights on top of them and your friend talking on a cell phone too…” Madame Gilfre added.
Matilda moaned and rocked back and forth, on second thought maybe I should join her.
“What are you talking about?” I asked cautiously. She was speaking words my ears thought they’d possibly never hear again.
“You faded right before our eyes…” Matilda shook a finger at me, “...you’re a...you’re a ghost!”
“Don’t be ridiculous child. There’s no such thing as ghosts.” Madame Gilfre stood briskly to her feet, looking like she was trying to talk herself into it herself. .
“You could see my friend?” I asked. Was it Natasha? Or maybe Sarah? Maybe Josh had stopped by to see where I was? Did time move at the same rate once you’d done...well...don’t whatever it was I had done?. “Were they worried?”
Before Madame Gilfre could say anything I pulled the dress back on, an untenable ache I couldn’t resist. Had I been close to going back?
Matilda covered her face with her hands, Madame Gilfre did nothing but cock her head like an attending surgeon taking notes with which to grade you on later.
Still nothing. I resisted the wave of frustration that swept over me, gosh darn it.... Why couldn’t I see what they saw?
“You’re standing between two buildings... next to a trash can.” Madame Gilfre said. “It’s sunny and there’s yellow crime scene tape everywhere and a police officer next to a girl in with dark red hair who’s on her phone...I think she’s crying but I can’t tell. Everything is quite faint.”
Natasha. So time had passed and people knew I was missing. Somehow that made everything so much worse. I felt drained. “How do I go back?” I whispered.
But Madame Gilfre was talking to Matilda, “Do you see mon cherié? The dress won’t work for you, your brain would be ripped up like soft bread.”
Matilda nodded tearfully, more subdued than I’ve ever seen her. “Oh take it off” she begged, “Please take it off, I’ll do whatever you want me to do.”
I took it off more carefully this time, the old threads and tattered edges seemed infinitely more like a fragile bridge, ready to tumble into the abyss and malfunction entirely if I held my mouth the wrong way.
Matilda was kneeling in front of me sobbing, I mean I knew it would be a rough realization if she ever found out who I really was, but it wasn’t like I was some sort of deity or avenging demon.
“What do you want from me?” She asked.
“Nothing.” I said, not knowing how to take this sudden personality change. “You were the one who wanted me to put it on.”
“Hush, both of you” Madame Gilfre, “I don’t know why you only fade Emilie...maybe God wants you to be here awhile yet.” I could feel she was lying...or at least holding something back. Madame Gilfre I got the impression, was one of those people who delighted in sounding mysterious. This however, didn’t mean I wouldn’t dissect her words into a million meanings in the middle of the night.
“In the light of a thousand moons, long ago the blessed Lord saw fit to save a young girl from a band of ravaging Visigoths...she passed the blessing on to her daughter with the firm admonition to keep it unto a thousand generations, and thus the troubled heart is tossed in a tempestuous line of incumbency”
“Panem et Circenses” Matilda murmured under her breath. I had a feeling she wasn’t going to be looking at me the same way ever again. Was that good or bad? .
“Bread and Circuses?” I asked, my Latin had gotten progressively better but I still didn’t understand half of what people meant.
“Both of you! Ei yi yi.” Madame made a clucking noise in her throat that everyone here did when they were shaking their head at someone.
But see? That was the problem...I never knew when I was doing something bad. Even if they didn’t do something terrible to me like dip me in hot wax, roll me in cinnamon, stick a wick in me and make me into an advent candle, it was only a matter of time before I inadvertently did something even more terrible. I suddenly pictured little Josef having his hand chopped off because I sent him on an errand for foxglove not realizing it was a civil crime to gather it. Cold chills wrapped around my heart. I had to figure out how to get home. Unfinished business with God my ass.
After they left, I laid awake and thought of the advice Dr. Attiva had given me on my first day in the hospital. “What we learn about our patients, we ultimately learn about ourselves.” At the time I’d been a desperate to please student and I’d tried to put it through a medical filter...but I realized now, (lying in a lumpy bed I’d had to re stuff) that Matilda and I weren’t really different. We were both trying hard to have some measure over our own destiny. And both of us were succeeding about as well as one legged wind up toy.
To my astonishment, my thoughts were interrupted by a shadowy figure over my bed and a face that popped into my vision. As I opened my mouth to scream, a hand clapped over it. I tried to roll away, kicking my feet out with all of my might. I had visions of Alard’s rotten teeth and hot breath on my mouth.
“Shush...Do ye want the lads in here too?”
That stopped me. It was Nicolas’s voice.
To read the next chapter, vote below and pray my kids take naps. :P
Incidentally, these two books have proved the most helpful lately. I can't believe I thought I could get by on just one or two books. (Which is to say, I now know just enough to write a novel that would piss off any real historian...ahem.) But so dang interesting.