Authors: Cynthia Voigt
and Good Times Remembered
WYN STOOD CROWDED IN AMONG
the women. She held the hood of her cloak close around her head, covering her hair, shadowing her face. The basket she kept at her feet. Like the others, she kept her long dark cloak close around her, as if she too were cold.
Tad moved restlessly at her side, and she placed a hand on his shoulder, warning him without a word. She wished he had been willing to stay outside and play with the other children. But he stuck close to her.
They had been standing so for over an hour now. Gwyn's eyes smarted. The long, low-ceilinged room was stuffy. While the heat from the fireplace, back behind the polished wooden table, did not penetrate the length of the room, its smoke did. The door beside the fireplace was closed. Closed also was the door behind them, through which they had entered. The little windows up high on the walls were shuttered. The air in the room smelled of wood smoke and wet woollen cloaks drying out, of bodies gone long without washing, of damp hay spread over the dirt floor.
Low conversations flowed all around her, swirling like gusts of snow. The air in the room grew warmer, which increased the odors of smoke and bodies. Tad put his face in against her arm, burying his nose. Gwyn employed an old trick: she closed off her nose from inside, as if it were stuffed up with a cold, and breathed through her mouth. With her nose closed off she could not taste the stench.
Men didn't come to the Doling Room. The shame would be too great for a man to carry. So the women carried it, Gwyn thought. It was a hard thing to be a woman, her mother had often told her. Looking around her, Gwyn could agree. Why then should she marry? Because, her mother would say, there was nothing else for her. “Would you live always at the Inn, serving in another woman's house? Would you go with a widower and raise another woman's children and your own disinherited? Or live alone, like Old Megg? Or maybe you'll go to serve a Lord, perhaps, you with your proud tongue.” Her mother, Gwyn knew, gave practical advice. When winter broke, her parents would look about to see who had a good holding, good enough to last out the lean years. They would announce her dowry of four gold coins and wait to choose among those who might come forward. Cam, she knew, would not come forward.
In the spring, then, she would have to say yes to some man, or let Da announce her intention never to marry. One or the other, because service in a Lord's house was unimaginable. One or the other was her choice, and she liked neither; but she could do nothing about the hardness of that.
Gwyn kept her eyes on her basket; she didn't want to catch anyone's attention. There was no one here to recognize her, the Innkeeper's daughter from the Ram's Head, but between the bitter envy of those whom hunger held close and the danger of traveling without a man's protection, she preferred to be unknown.
Women of all ages had gathered in the low room, each bringing her basket to be filled. Some were young and straight, some older and beginning to be bent under the years, a few held infants, a few were swollen with unborn children. Allâyoung or old, fair or plainâhad hungry faces: eyes dull, skin stretched pale over hollow cheeks. All clutched their cloaks close and pushed as near as they dared toward the fire. And well might they seek warmth, Gwyn thought to herself, for hunger adds teeth to the bite of winter. She hung back, keeping Tad with her, for their cloaks concealed warm sheepskin jackets and heavy boots, under which they each wore two pairs of thick woollen stockings. In the same way, their hoods hid round cheeks made rosy by the long walk and their lowered lids covered bright eyes. It was not their fault that their family's luck held good; but this was not the place to display good fortunes. With nothing else to do, Gwyn eavesdropped on the conversations around her.
“And would you hurry out of a warm bed on this day?”
“Osh aye, and didn't I just do that, with the mouths to feed.”
“Steward'll have servants to make him his porridge. Or bread more likely. Steward'll have fine bread and rich cheeses.”
“And soft blankets to pull up close around his chin while the servants stroke the fire.”
“The Earl keeps his men well, they say.”
“Well, but not too well, is what I hear. It'll be down comforters.”
“âCould the Earl's storerooms still be full? There's more come each Doling Day.”
“âMore soldiers out on the King's Ways, think you?”
“Because there are more thieves out. Come hunger, come thieves.”
“âOne to be hung, as I hear, a young manâa highwayman, they say, with a way of taking the purses off of wealthy travelers.”
A quick attentive quiet all around greeted those words. Then:
“Young, was he? And handsome?”
“As I heard at market.”
“In the south, he was, and rode the River Way. It's Earl Sutherland's men who took him.”
The name no voice would speak rang loud in the thick air.
“Are things so bad in the south, then?”
“Osh aye, things are bad everywhere.”
“Worse in the south, as I hear. So long as the troubles stay south, I'll sleep contented.”
“The old Earl Sutherland had too many sonsâ”
“âThe sons have too many soldiersâ”
“Is he dark or fair, this young highwayman?”
“Hair dark as night.”
“Gold as the sun, I heard.”
“âThe new Earl's a greedy man, as I hearâ”
“A greedy man should not have brothers.” Somebody laughed, without humor.
“And likes his wine more than he should.”
“He'll die before his time then.”
“And leave a son too young.”
“The king'll have to name a regent then, unless the new Earl's wifeâ?”
“As vain and greedy as her husband.”
“Such Lords have a way of dying before their times, while their Stewards get fat.”
“And the brother takes the titleâ”
“If there's no sonâ”
“The sons of such men die in their cradlesâ”
“Osh aye, I'd never dare to take a meal in a castle. Better my own cabbage soup without fear.”
“Such things don't happen among the people,” someone agreed.
“The Lords and the law don't permit it. A man must name his heir before the given time. You'd think the Lords would govern themselves as wisely.”
“Whoever said the Lords were wise?”
“That same man who claimed that pigs would fly.”
“One of the Lords that was, wasn't it?” a bitter voice asked.
That was a dangerous envy to be spoken aloud, that envy of the Lords, warm and safe in their castles, well fed, with soldiers to protect them. Any one of the cloaked women in the room might be the Steward's spy. Somebody spoke loud into the silence: “They'll be journeying him around then, this highwayman.”
“They'll wait until the weather breaks. They wouldn't want him to take a chill and die before his time. We'll not see him until spring.”
“Some men they never do hang, you know.” A voice creaking with age spoke. “Some have friends to rescue themâ”
“He rode alone, they say.”
“And no sign of his booty about him?”
“No sign. No sign about him.”
They all wondered, silently.
“In my grandmother's mother's timeÂ .Â .Â .”
“Osh aye, now, those were bad times. Needy times.”
“When the King as then was began the Doling Roomsâ”
“Men with hope of food don't follow a highwayman into the forestâ”
“They hanged enough, then.”
, not as I heard.”
This caused another uneasy silence, a fretful quiet that pooled out. They all looked toward the door by the fireplace, as if expecting it toâat that precise guilty momentâswing open and fill with men.
“Where would we be without the old tales.” The creaking voice behind Gwyn spoke again. She turned to look at the speaker, a bent old woman whose white hair coiled in thin braids over her ears, whose cloak hung in folds over her body. “Tales of elvish folk, flying through the airâ”
“Aye, and dwarves mining under the mountains for stones as big as my fist.” A voice answered laughing, from the front of the room.
“As if there ever were a man could do such things.”
“Or even want to.”
“And never grow any older, not in the hundred years.”
There was none not of their kind to hear them, but still, newly hasty, they spun the room round with stories of disbelief. Gwyn knew, thus, that they must believe, or maybe merely hope, and she couldn't blame them. There was so little else in their lives to hope for.
Beside her, Tad tried to burrow his nose in under her arm and she elbowed him in protest. “It smells in here,” he complained up at her. Gwyn felt the rustle of interest among their nearest neighbors. She could have smacked him.
“Hold your tongue,” she whispered. His expression turned sullen. He was nine now, too old to whine the way he did. But Tad was the baby of the family, and spoiled.
The damage had been done; she felt hostility around her. “The Innkeeper's daughter, from the Ram's Head.” She heard herself identified. “The unmarried daughter.”
“That's the only son.”
“Too good to play with ours then, is he?”
“Too weak and mollycoddled to stand the cold, more likely.”
Tad's cheeks burned red, with temper probably.
“Do even the inns lack for food then?”
“No, no. Rest easy, they feed Old Megg. The Innkeeper at the Ram's Head lives like a Lord, fattening on the lean years. He knows no lack.”
“It's the youngest daughter came before. She's to marry her blacksmith.”
“Unless she's taken sick. And she has a burning not a wedding.” The voice didn't sound displeased by this possibility.