Making an Acquaintance

Chapter 2: Anything is Possible

That was a long winter. Keening winds brought snow and more snow, and the fields and roads were buried until it was a struggle to walk even the short distance from Whitcrowe to Granton castle, much less to Camberton. With the gardens lying fallow under snow and ice, Cecily spent her working days cleaning, cooking, and serving food at table, while Alis remained at home, often gathered with her friends for company. In the evenings the cotters came together in one another’s houses for the old men to tell tales, the younger men to whittle, the women to sew, and the little ones to sit staring into the hearth flames. 

medieval fireplace by hans s
medieval fireplace, a photo by hans s on Flickr.
Cecily spent many hours kneeling at her mother’s feet, her hands doing some kind of work while her mind was miles away, following the trail of a valiant knight perhaps, the adventures of a princess in disguise, a curious sailor bound for the world’s end, or glorious battles from ancient times. These were the stories that her father had told her in front of winter fires long turned to smoke and ash. She remembered begging him to tell her the same tales over and over again until she had memorized them and could repeat back his every word. Every winter, as soon as the flurry of the Feast had ended, she brought back the Old Tales from the corners of her mind and dwelt upon them, spinning her own dreams like spiders’ webs through the long, frosty nights. She wondered what it would be like to be truly great, to have lords and ladies bowing in homage for the wonderful things you’d done, to be able to tell wide-eyed children about your fabulous adventures across icy oceans, to be talked of in solars and dining halls across the country—across the world. Cecily would stare into the embers until her golden bubble was burst by some outbreak of laughter or a careless foot. Then she would be back in the cottage again, and her fingers would work once more.

Though springtime was reluctant she finally arrived in Carrellshire—her coming signaled only by the fact that it rained more often than it snowed—and the cotters began the work of a new year: mucking out the mill pond, preparing to shear the sheep of their winter cloaks, and sharpening their plowshares to till the clotted soil and make way for crops of oats, barley, vetches, and peas. On one of the first days without a drop of rain, Bess ran up to where Cecily stood examining a broken bit of lattice work. “Cessy! Can ye come to Camberton with me on Stoatsday? Not just the two of us, of course, but Papa’s needed to see a really good blacksmith for some time and I've convinced him to put it off until a market day.”

“Isn’t there a caravan from the Coast that was supposed to arrive this week?”

“Aye, that’s the best part. If we go early enough we could be the first in Whitcrowe to see the goods! Only imagine the things they’ll have, all the way from the City, I hear.”

“Goodness, it must have taken them months to get this far west.”

“What with all the stuff they’re carryin’ I would’na be a bit surprised. They’ve had to work their way up the river and I don’t envy ‘em that.”

“They’re probably loaded with all kinds of silks, and jewels, fine leatherwork, spices, fruits…maybe even a dignitary or a battalion.”

“Tapestry thread and smoked herring, more likely. But it’ll still be exciting! Can’t ye go?”

“Oh yes, I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I’ll tell Rivens and he’ll make a way somehow. You don’t get to see a caravan every day, do you?”

“Goody! Now if I can jest figure out how to keep Milo at home, everything’ll be perfect.”

By the time sunbeams struck the hillsides golden on Stoatsday morning, a creaky cart was jolting Cecily, Lander, Bess, and Milo over the road to Camberton. With warm rye rolls cupped in their chilly hands and thick scarves wrapped around their faces with only a slit left for the eyes, the four of them didn’t hold much conversation on the way. They arrived in town after a couple hours of bumping, clambering out of the cart with aching muscles. Lander’s injunction to “keep an eye on the little ‘un” was grimly heeded by Bess, who grabbed hold of one of Milo’s mittened hands, while Cecily took the other and immediately began to look about her.

viking market by hans s
viking market, a photo by hans s on Flickr.
Camberton—a town with nine or ten muddy streets and nearly as many horses as people—was the largest town that most of the Whitcrowe cotters had ever known, and though it lay only a few miles from the village, Cecily only ever visited on the three or four largest market days of the year. She was always impressed by the busyness of the place, with merchants and farmers rushing from stall to shop to home, wagons and peddlers rumbling through the streets, the church’s great bell tolling the hour, magistrates draped in fur-lined robes walking majestically through the crowds carrying on important business, and every now and then the sight of a man in full armor clanking atop his warhorse. Milo dragged the girls over to a baker’s shop where a wide window propped up the counter of wares, an astonishing variety of puffs and buns and creamy, jammy things that made the mouth water just to look. Cecily was half-tempted to buy a dozen of the tiny fried pasties when Bess called her to see a cloth merchant who was just setting out his wares—lengths and breadths of silky yellow fabric that looked as though it had been woven by fairies, and bolts of a thick, fuzzy cloth for a good price that would be just right for shawl-making. The next few hours were spent moving from stall to shop to handcart, examining the glorious variety that the Eastern caravan had brought to town. Cecily was amazed by the tiny gnomes, no taller than her kneecap, that strutted about the marketplace with surly, shrewd faces, holding up the trays that were fixed to their shoulders by straps, piled high with sweets and sandwiches. One or two old hags were selling cheap good luck charms on the street corners, a greedy vintner was being punished on the pillory by having his own sour wine sloshed over his head, and everywhere Cecily looked she could see men and women from foreign parts speaking in strange, broad accents and wearing outlandish clothes.

Cecily and the Walpoles weren’t the only ones who had come to see the caravan. Several other Whitcrowe cotters could be seen blending in with the Camberton citizenry (except for the Cobblers’ large family, which couldn’t blend in even if it wanted to), and even a few nobles from the castle were wandering the streets. Most of the visiting gentlefolk had returned to their homes after the Feast of Sages, but several had stayed, including Lord Warin, Lady Leticia and her clumsy maid, and two or three other ladies of poor circumstances but prestigious lineage. Even the earl and countess had arrived for the occasionlate as usualin a gilded carriage. 

Lander had finished his business with the blacksmith and now stood talking to the farrier, while the girls hurried through the streets to make their final purchases, quickly, as the darkening sky promised a storm. Bess picked up a sweet little basket, a delicate knife, three small fish, and a bag of spiced nuts (“Robbie told me he likes nuts. Do ye think he’ll like this kind, Cessy?”), and Cecily found a beautiful new spade and a leather needlecase of tooled leather, as a gift for her mother. Bess and Milo had gone to sit by the well to wait for their father while Cecily finished her purchase. She was still admiring some of the goods when she felt a slight pressure on the small of her back. She jerked up to see Lord Warin standing very close beside her, apparently very interested in something on her bosom. He looked up and she blushed, without reason it seemed, then gave a low curtsy and stepped away from the table so that he might do his business. Apparently he was not interested in leathergoods, because he left the stall to follow a few paces behind her. She couldn’t imagine that this was anything but a coincidence, but then she stopped for a moment beside a barrel of pungent shellfish. Warin stopped as well. Picking up the pace, Cecily threaded her way through the crowds, throwing back frequent glances to be sure that she wasn’t imagining things, until she finally lost sight of the gentleman. He really had been following her, though she couldn't imagine any reasonable explanation for it.

She found herself in the poultry market, surrounded by half-plucked chickens and crates of eggs, and was about to sit and rest her legs when she felt a few drops of water on her hand, then on the back of her neck, and she was soon looking about for shelter of some kind. Everyone else must have thought the same thing, because in a moment the market was cleared of shoppers, and merchants were pulling slick cloths over their wares. The shops were suddenly full, and it was difficult to find a few square inches of dry ground under a house’s overhanging second story. Cecily ended up squashed between two fat dames right in front of a butcher’s shop just as the heavens were split open by a flash of lightning, and rain poured into the streets in torrents. A few startled screams were heard at, and much pushing and shoving and squawking, but eventually the wind and water drowned out all other noises. Cecily settled in for a long wait.

Mud Season by sskennel
Mud Season, a photo by sskennel on Flickr.
As she looked down the street to her left, Cecily caught sight of what appeared to be a straggler who had yet to find shelter. It was a man on horseback, but from that distance she could not tell whether he was a native of Camberton, a stranger, a cotter, or a gentleman. He was certainly not in a hurry, guiding his horse around the puddles and often slowing down to examine a building or speak to one of the huddled shoppers. It was as if the rain did not concern him in the least; he might as well have been clopping along a paved highway in the afternoon sun. Cecily kept watching him, wondering when he’d finally realize that it was raining and seek a dry spot somewhere, but he continued up the street. As he drew nearer, she could see that he was a tall, vigorous man with dark, slightly waving hair falling down to his shoulders, and narrow, piercing eyes that made him look like he was staring at something very far away. He was dressed simply, but expensively, in a close-fitting leather jacket and cranberry doublet. Cecily had never been on a horse herself, but she could recognize the marks of an experienced rider. He had all of them. The horse’s reins lay slack on its neck, but the man obviously had full control of the animal and was able to move it to his every whim.

As the downpour increased it became evident that it would not be letting up anytime soon, and Cecily felt the crowd around her begin to get anxious. She felt something brushing up behind her and she looked down to see a small, dirty boy brandishing an egg, looking pointedly at the rider who was coming closer. “Get back, you!” Cecily hissed, attempting to shove the miscreant back into the crowd, but he wriggled free and threw back his arm just as the rider drew level with them. Cecily grabbed onto his arm but not in time to stop the egg from sailing straight for the horse’s head. The horse let out a shriek and reared up, just as the little boy jerked away from Cecily and caused her to lose her balance. She stumbled into the street as the horse’s hooves came slamming down into a puddle, spraying her dress from collar to hem with black, stinking mud. The horseman let out a sharp curse and grabbed at the reins, hauling the frightened animal to the opposite side of the road. Cecily looked up to see his handsome face twisted in anger as he spat out, “You'll watch where you are going, miss, if you know what’s good for you.” With that he galloped up the street and around the corner.

Everyone's eyes were on Cessy as she hauled herself back under the protection of the overhang, and a well-meaning woman attempted to help her scrape the mud off her skirts. “There, now, what was that fer, I ask ye?” The woman’s high, nasally voice rang out unnecessarily loud. “Why I’ve never seen such rudeness in all my life. He's not from around here, I’d warrant, or he’d ‘ave some common decency about him.” Cecily gave a nod of thanks and squeezed the water out of her hair, heart still pounding from the sudden encounter, and wished that the crowd would stop staring. The woman continued to fuss. “Don’t ye worry, girl. There are some people who ‘have their noses so far up in the air as they can’t see nuthin’ below ‘em.”

When the rain finally let up enough for walking, Cecily found Bess, Milo, and Lander at the blacksmith’s shop, and they slogged their way back to the wagon and started for home. Bess immediately noticed the stains, exclaiming, “Cessy! What on earth ‘appened to ye? Did ye fall in a puddle?”

“No, I…” Cecily was about to tell her about the strange horseman, but then imagined how foolish it would sound. Being embarrassed in front of a street full of market shoppers was far worse than being thought clumsy. “Yes, actually, I did fall into a puddle.”

“Aye, I knew summat like that would ‘happen! Ye wore yer best dress, that’s when yer bound to get stained up.”

“I couldn’t wear my worst dress to a market day, now could I? Besides, Mum’ll have the stain out before you know it.”

“Ye ought to ‘ave my mama have a look. She’s a wonder at gettin’ out stains. Jest has to touch up and whoof, out they come, new as could be. Don’t know how she does it, I never can.”

“Really, it’s all right! Mum will take care of it.”

The ride home was rather miserable, as all of them were wet and cold and Milo was shivering so that Bess and Cecily both gave him their own scarves. They were extremely glad when the dark lumps poking out of the twilight on the road up ahead showed Whitcrowe to be close. However, there should have been the dim flicker of a rushlight in every window, and the whole village was dark. The wheels of the Walpoles’ cart made the only sound to be heard outside the snuffling of a few hogs.

“Where ‘as everyone got to? Not to bed at this time, surely.”

Cecily expected the cart to stop at the Walpoles’ cottage, but when the darkened house came into sight Lander passed by in silence. As they neared the Locktons' cottage, also dark, the wheels finally ground to a halt. Lander's gruff voice came out of the dimness, “If no one’s here they’re bound to be at the castle. Bail out, lasses, and I’ll stable the horses. Ye go and see what’s appening on yonder.” Bess and Cecily jumped down into the road and began to walk away. “And take the little ‘un wid ye!” Bess groaned and grabbed Milo by his collar, hauling him down the road toward Granton.

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Constructive criticism is welcome! Please remember, though, that nearly every excerpt posted here is my first rough draft.