Thursday, January 13, 2011

Afton of Margate Castle, part 2

The day dawned bright with rare sunshine. Wido and Corba hustled their children out of their hut and joined the other villagers on the road to Margate Castle. The air was filled with cries of merriment, and Wido noticed that even dour Friar Odoric seemed jovial. “Who knows but that even Friar Odoric will dance today?” Wido asked Corba as they followed the crowd.

“That’s not likely,” Corba answered, breathing heavily. She was carrying their basket of eggs on her right arm and balancing their youngest child on her left hip. Wido stopped and lifted the baby into his arms.

Corba was right, of course. The Church took a dim view of dancing and merriment, especially on religious holidays. Wido often wondered how God could create such wonderful things as animals and sunsets and babies and women and yet make work so hard and church so somber. Wido made a mental note to ask the priest for an answer.

The castle road led the stream of villagers out of the village and through the forest, where they gathered greenery and wild blossoms. The procession then wended its way to Margate Castle, home of Perceval, Earl of Margate, and his wife, Lady Endeline. Their village was one of many manors overseen by Perceval and his steward, Hector, but it was the only one directly affiliated with Margate Castle.

Wido had occasion to talk with plowmen from other manors and knew that his lot was often better than theirs. Lord Thomas of Warwick, a knight who had received his estate from Perceval’s father after the first mighty expedition of God to the Holy Land, charged his tenants three eggs per person at Hocktide. Wido understood the discrepancy. Those who held land owed tribute and service to their lords, and the tribute was ultimately paid by the villeins, the feudal slaves on the estate. The villeins of the estate belonging to Thomas of Warwick paid service and tribute to Thomas, who gave tribute to Perceval, who gave tribute to King Henry. “The more lords a man ‘as,” another plowman once confided to Wido, “the less a man eats.”

Wido and his family ate--usually--depending upon the land’s bounty. Wido wasn’t sure whether he held land or the land held him. As a villein on Margate Land he and the land could be bought, sold, or traded at Perceval’s pleasure. But within the Margate acres he had his own furrows to plow, a garden to plant, and a hut in which to shelter his wife and children. He had a bed, a sheep, a cow, four chickens, two pigs, four bowls, and two complete sets of clothing, gifts from Lord Perceval at Christmastide.

Wido’s time was more or less his own. True, he did owe three days of work each week to Perceval’s fields, and the call for boon work came frequently during the harvest. These days of work on demand were usually rewarded though, and the villeins had pet names for them: hungerbidreap, when the villeins were given nothing; waterbidreap, when they were given water at the end of the day; and the alebidreap, when each villein was allowed a long draught of the lord’s ale.

Corba was not exempt from Perceval’s service. Three days a week she left Afton to care for the little boys and went up to the women’s quarters behind the tall walls of the castle. In a private hedged area, the villein women and the female servants of the castle wove linen, wool, or vermilion. Sometimes they were dispatched to the sheep pens for shearing. Wido had the distinct impression that Corba enjoyed these days with the other women. She always came home with a secret gleam in her eye, and she would never tell him what it was women talked about. Wido finally stopped asking. Other men assured him that women were tools of the devil, and the less a man had to do with them, the better off he’d be. Wido could believe nothing bad about Corba, but still--better to be happily ignorant than wisely sorrowful.

The deforested pasture surrounding Margate Castle gleamed in the sunlight, and the castle’s imposing stone walls were gilded in a covering of early morning dew. Flags with Perceval’s family herald fluttered in the slight breeze from the imposing twin towers, and Wido idly wondered how a place built for battle could look so inviting. The gates were open and the drawbridge down, with the men, women, and children of Perceval’s manor, free and unfree, streaming into the castle for their annual reward.

The outer courtyard had been filled with tables, and soon the castle servants would serve the Easter feast. But first there was necessary business. Under a canopy near the gate, Hector the steward had set up his accounting table and was making notes in his ledger book. Hector was ruthless in his devotion toward Lord Perceval. Wido crossed himself and thanked God that the hens had come through. Not only were there sixteen eggs, but Corba, his wise wife, had set two extra eggs aside for their unborn child.

“If he asks eighteen, you will be prepared,” Corba had told Wido as she placed the basket in his hand. “And if he asks sixteen, the two extra will bring you favor in his sight. That favor may do us good in months to come.”

In her twenty years as a villein, Corba had learned the advantages of bribing the lord’s steward. Wido had to consciously smooth his face when he thought of her, so great was his urge to beam with pride. His friends would have considered him addled if they knew how much he adored his wife; their admiration was reserved for oxen, fields, and sheep. A young and fertile wife was something to be desired, but to adore a wife was mere foolishness.

But Wido adored Corba more fervently than he adored the Blessed Virgin. She had suckled six healthy children who all survived infancy, an unheard-of accomplishment, and she remained strong enough to carry yet a seventh. Best of all, five times she had born sons stamped in the image of dark-haired, wiry Wido himself. Lord Perceval would not have as many fine sons, probably not even King Henry.

And there was the girl, the first-born. Wido had been bewildered at her birth. What is this squalling, red-skinned creature? he had wondered when the midwife showed the child to him. Surely it is not bone of my bones! Time had not lessened his confusion. Eight years had passed and the girl had grown tall, blonde, and fair like her mother. Once as Afton trudged alongside the ox with the goad, Wido had studied her profile and realized that not one bit of him was reflected in the child, save perhaps his temper.

She was not a brawler, as Wido had occasion to be when he was under the influence of ale, but he had seen her eyes flash fire and steely determination when she was angry. Wido first saw her anger when as a babe she came naked out of the baptismal font, wet and shivering, and she glared at the priest before bursting into furious wailing. Since then Wido had been careful to keep those cool gray eyes from turning too often in his direction, but common sense told him his behavior wasn’t natural. A man should not be afraid of any woman, especially his own daughter.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lusciously intriguing!

Thank you1
Mary Kay