Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Afton, part 7

Wido stood before Hector’s desk and shuffled his feet uneasily. “What is it?” Hector snapped, looking up from his ledger books. “I’ve a full day planned, plowman, so state why you’ve come.”

“It’s about the lamb for my tribute,” Wido said, clearing his throat. “My ewe has died. I wondered if you would give permission to make a substitution at Michaelmas. My wife would gladly weave the lord a tunic or surcoat, or perhaps his lady would like a linen cloak? My wife does fine weaving.”

“So does every other woman in the village,” Hector replied, scratching in his ledger with his quill. “I’ll think on it, plowman, and we’ll arrange for a substitution.”

“I could capture a wild hog from the forest,” Wido offered.

“The hogs in the forest already belong to Lord Perceval,” Hector sneered, glaring up at Wido. “And hunting is prohibited there by the king’s order.”

Wido looked at the ground in embarrassment and Hector paused to dip his quill in the cow’s horn of ink. “I’ll make mention of your dead sheep in the ledger,” he said, “and I will decide later what you shall give at Michaelmas.”


Lady Endeline gave a curt nod to her maids. “You may leave my chamber,” she said, her tone sharp. “Lord Perceval is on his way.”

When the maids had curtseyed and left, Endeline slipped off her heavy fur surcoat, loosened her hair, and reclined regally on their bed. Her silk tunic clung to her slim body; perhaps Perceval could be distracted this afternoon. She had already bade Hector send two cows to the church, and the priest had promised to pray for her. As an afterthought she had quietly commanded one of the village women to buy a fertility charm from a carnival witch. The charm now dangled between her breasts, and Endeline smothered a smile. Her brother the abbot would threaten her with hellfire if he knew she had resorted to witchcraft. But whether through the powers of heaven or hell, she wanted another child. Three were not enough.

She heard the sound of Perceval’s boots on the stone floor and absently pulled all but one curtain down around her bed. She raised one knee, exposing the white flesh of her leg, and extended her arm to the door. When Perceval came in and saw her thus--

But Perceval was not alone. Behind him was Hector, and neither man even glanced at the bed when they entered the room. “I want a careful accounting,” Perceval said, tossing a ledger book on the table. “King Henry may visit in September and the stores must be replenished before then. Have all the manors sent in their due?”

“Aye,” Hector nodded. “And more is due at Michaelmas.”

“Perceval,” Lady Endeline interrupted.

“Michaelmas is not until the end of September!” Perceval fretted, pulling energetically on his beard. “Could we demand an earlier accounting? If we required the annual payment in August, would our store be sufficient to do the king honor?”

Hector scratched his bald head thoughtfully. “August is harvest month, my lord. The villeins will be hard pressed to harvest their crops as well as yours.”

“Perceval.” Lady Endeline’s patience was growing short. What if the witch’s charm would not last for more than the day?

“Why don’t we take the annual tribute in July? We could call for the rents on the day of St. Mary Magdalene.”

“Hay month, my lord? The villeins will be so busy--”

“All right, then, June.”

“Plough month?”

Perceval lost his patience. “Man, how long does it take for a villein to bring his required rent? The annual tribute is well-known and planned, so what difference will it make if we call for the rents early?”

Hector bowed his head in face of Perceval’s anger. “None, my lord, but in the unusual cases. For instance, Wido, a plowman in the village, must pay tribute of one lamb. But his ewe has died, and he will need time to come up with a suitable substitute.”

“And what is a suitable substitute?”

“I do not know, my lord. Perhaps you can tell me.”

“What does the man have to offer?”

Hector shrugged. “Chickens. A small garden plot. His wife, who weaves.” He smiled. “His wife’s best talent is producing children. A healthy baby every year, to serve you, my lord.”

Endeline’s temper flared. “Perceval!”

Perceval turned toward his wife in bewilderment. “What are you doing, woman?”

Hector bowed and left the room. Endeline rolled onto her stomach and kicked her bare legs playfully. “I want another baby, my lord,” she whispered, her voice husky. “Give me another child.”

Perceval shook his head. “For this you interrupt a meeting with my steward? I have given you three children, and I am not to be blamed for your barren womb.”

Perceval turned to leave, but Endeline ran to him, her bare feet skimming the floor. She flung her arms around his waist. “I gave two cows to the priest. I sent for charms from the witch at the carnival. I’ve done all I can, Perceval. But you must give me a child!”

Perceval scowled in impatience, but she would not let him go. For seven years she had longed for another child, but lately the feverish longing would not be denied. She clung steadfastly to his belt, perspiration dripping from her forehead, her hands trembling. She desperately hoped her body would convince her husband; her words had evidently failed.

Perceval lay his hand on her head. “Come, my dear,” he said, helping her to her feet. He walked her to the bed, and her eyes alighted in hope. But Perceval shook his head. “No, Endeline, I cannot stay with you now. But you should not carry on this way. If God wills another child, it will be. Didn’t your brother assure you of this?”

“I am barren because the first animal I saw after Lienor’s birth was a mule,” Endeline moaned softly. “A sterile mule. My handmaid said it was so, and I believe her.”

“You must not believe her.” Perceval sat on the bed and draped his arm around her thin shoulders. “You have three worthy children, lady, what others could you want?”

Endeline shook her head. “Would you be happy with only three horses? Only three fields? Only three manors?”

“That’s a different matter.”

“No, it is not.” She raised her head and looked him in the eye. “I am married to a great man. I should raise great and noble children, as many as I can bear in a lifetime.”

“Then raise noble children.”

“How?” Her voice was flat.

Perceval stood and smoothed his surcoat. “Wido the plowman has a wife who has a baby every year. He also owes me tribute. Go to him with my blessing and take what you desire.”

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