Authors: Jill Hughey
Copyright © 2011 by Jill Hughey
For my real-life love story
Books in the Evolution Series
Rochelle of Alda took her evening walk to close the storage building for the night and make certain the animals were secure in the stable. She used the time alone to make peace with the troubles of the day, and form plans to nullify them on the morrow. As the heat of the day gave way to a dusk that promised autumn, she paused in the courtyard to bask in the pride of another good day of harvest and breathe in the welcome chill of the evening air.
She turned to look at the house, the light from the setting sun glancing across its wood and stone exterior
. Narrow glassed windows were widely spaced across the front of the first floor, and a small portico welcomed visitors to the heavy wooden door. She scanned the lead roof, reassuring herself that it was ready to withstand another winter.
Satisfied, she turned to leave the courtyard. She knew each stone in the pavement, she knew the whisper of sound the gate in the thick stone wall would make if she closed it (though it was never closed)
. She could have found her way in the pitch black to the storage building just outside the wall and to the stable a little farther away. No sound, either of animal or weather, could surprise her here, for Alda was an extension of her own self. Her mind thrummed in tune with its needs, her hands worked to keep it thriving. Her very heart sang from spring to fall as she witnessed the prosperity of her land.
Disturbances to her well-made plans, including her nightly ritual,
irked her. The flicker of light under the door of the stable was just such a disturbance, aggravated by the distinct tinkle of giggling, and the cracking voice of a pubescent boy.
“Just show them to me, Ruthie
. I won’t touch, I just want to look.” More giggling. “You are the pretty one out of them all Ruthie, you know I fancy you best. Just show me.” The boy’s pleading carried an edge of desperation.
Rochelle rolled her eyes
. Involvement in her tenants’ personal lives was an important, yet delicate responsibility. Certainly the protection of one of her housemaids from the son of her vineyard manager warranted her attention. Yet, as Rochelle was an unwed female, these discussions were always awkward for all parties.
The stable had grown worryingly quiet
. Rochelle opened the door, its silent travel attesting to the skill of her carpenter. Through the dusty dimness, she could see Ruthie on her back in a pile of fresh hay, a young man on his side next to her, his lips to her lips, his hand fondling her breast through her tunic.
“Samuel!” Rochelle barked, pressing her fists to her hips.
Ruthie yelped as Samuel jerked away, leaping to his feet in a tangle of gangly legs and arms. “But it is late,” Samuel protested nonsensically. Obviously he thought Rochelle had already made her evening inspection.
Ruthie began to weep
with great hiccupping gulps.
“You, young man,” Rochelle lectured in her sternest voice
. “This is the second time I have caught you in here with a girl.”
Ruthie’s head snapped up
. Her eyes, still wet with tears, now spit fire at the boy she’d been kissing.
“That is right, Ruthie,” Rochelle affirmed
. “You have shown very poor judgment tonight in your choice of activity and your choice of companion. Return to the house. I will speak to you in the morning.”
The miserable girl rose awkwardly, bits of hay sticking to her wool clothes and veil
. She shot another hateful look at Samuel, sneezed, then disappeared into the twilight.
Samuel scuffed his bare foot in the dirt of the floor
. “Lady Rochelle, I –"
“Do not start with me, Samuel
. I told you the last time I would have no choice but to speak to your father if I caught you again.”
The boy cringed, and Rochelle suspected she knew why
. Samuel’s father was gentle and loving toward Rochelle’s vines, but he enjoyed their fruits too much at times. When he drank, his fists came out. Unfortunately, Samuel was the only family he had left and, on the bad nights, the only target within reach.
Even the owner of the estate could interfere only so much in such private family matters.
“I understand your not wanting to sit at home with your father, but you must stop preying on the innocent girls of my estate. You are not ready for marriage, and the activity I witnessed here tonight is only appropriate within those confines. You know that!”
Samuel ducked his head and nodded
. “I know, Lady Rochelle, I know. It’s just…."
“Temptation!” he burst out. “The priest talks about it and it is like he is looking in my mind. I have so much temptation in me, my lady,” he cried, beating on his chest with his fist. “Sometimes the urge, it just has to get out!”
Rochelle had no idea what he was talking about
. She’d never felt tempted beyond her control in her life. Still, Samuel was nearly a man. He had physically matured rather late and seemed bent on making up for lost time. She sighed. “Yes, but what else does the priest say to us about temptation? Where does temptation lead?”
“To sin, my lady.”
“Yes, Samuel. It is bad enough to commit sins that only hurt you, but you are leading these girls down the wrong path with you. You must stop meeting privately with girls, Samuel. It will ruin them and anger their parents. I cannot allow that to happen. I will not have you on the estate if I catch you again. If I cannot trust you to do what is best for Alda then I will release you from your service to me.” This was a serious threat, even more so than telling his father. “I will speak to your father about keeping you in at night. That should help to some degree, but you must learn to control your own…urges.”
“Now, go home.”
He slunk past her like a whipped dog and she watched as he quietly closed the door.
Rochelle sighed again then walked further into the stable to rub her gelding’s nose, adding two very unpleasant conversations to her mental list of plans for tomorrow. “Temptation!” she scoffed.
Alda had a fine hall, its walls decorated with murals of the four seasons, the floors covered in clean reeds. When needed, a fire burned in the center of the room, the smoke escaping through a hole in the two-story roof. The furniture was sturdy and plain, but well built. A large table sat to one side, and a sitting area to the other. The hall always smelled like cooking and smoke and her mother’s soap. Home.
, Marian, sat in the glow of a tall oil lamp embroidering a tunic. Dressed in layers of garments, as any country noblewoman would be, only her hands and face were visible. A few errant strands of frizzy red hair escaped her veil.
“Samuel’s been in the stables again,” Rochelle groused as she flung herself into a chair.
“Ah,” Marian replied, not even glancing up from her sewing. “That explains Ruthie’s entrance.”
“I suppose I will have to speak to his father.”
Her mother’s needle paused a moment, then resumed. “I am not sure that is a fitting conversation for a girl like yerself to have with a man.”
“It is my responsibility,” Rochelle answered.
Marian lifted her head to gaze evenly at her daughter. “Have Gilbert do it.” Gilbert was their aged clerk, who also served as a male representative for those tasks that simply could not be accomplished by two women in a man’s world. He dated from before Rochelle’s parents’ marriage.
. I cannot send Gilbert to have a conversation with one of our workers. Bertrand answers to me, not Gilbert.”
“I am thinking that everyone involved would rather ye make just this one exception
. Imagine how embarrassed Bertrand will be to have ye speaking with him about his son’s frolicking about in the stables. It will not do poor Samuel any good, at that.”
Rochelle narrowed her eyes
. “What do you mean?
“Bertrand will be angry that his son is temptin
g girls into the stables. He will be outraged at having to talk to ye about it.”
Marian was right of course
. Samuel’s punishment would be increased if his father felt any discomfort in the delivery of the news, which he certainly would if it came from his unmarried female superior. But Rochelle hated to give up any of her duties on the estate. Being a woman was so unfair!
“What if I bring Gilbert with me and let him speak on my behalf?”
“Oh, Rochelle….” Marian sighed.
“I will stand off to one side
. Just so Bertrand knows it is coming from me, but I was sensitive enough to not actually talk to him about it.”
“Girlie, why can ye not give up even this one wee job?”
Rochelle shrugged, then rose from the chair to circle restlessly around the room. She didn’t know why she did not want to let Gilbert speak for her. Well, actually she did, but she couldn’t admit it to her mother.
. She feared the erosion of even the slightest bit of her control on the estate, as if it would lead to a gradual undermining of her authority, or worse, a complete loss of it. If a good harvest was the reward, control was the path to it. The estate thrived due to her strong organizational hand, continued in the fashion of her father before her.
Marian took a shaky breath
. “Whatever ye decide, ye’d best do it soon. We have been summoned to Aix-la-Chapelle.”
Rochelle leaned forward
This raised so many questions Rochelle hardly knew where to begin. “Summoned by whom?”
“Louis the Pious, our emperor.”
Her mother might as well have told her they’d been summoned to the moon by God himself. She’d never been further from home than the town of Ribeauville, a trip that could be made in one long day on a good horse. “Aix?” Rochelle kept repeating stupidly. “Aix-la-Chapelle? Are you sure? But that is a week or more of travel from here. When does he expect us to get there?”
Rochelle sagged back into her chair. “Impossible. It is the beginning of harvest. I cannot go to Aix. It is simply impossible.”
“The emperor will not be thinking this is optional
. Failure to heed his call is grounds for his taking from us, well, everything!”
“We are neither soldiers nor noblemen
. What need can he possibly have for us?”
Marian shrugged noncommittally.
“How will we get there?" Rochelle continued. “We know no one on the way. We have no tents or other equipment for such a long trip.”
“Do you remember Theophilus, yer father’s young friend who used to visit at times?”
“Vaguely.” Rochelle remembered, as a young girl, admiring the worldly young man. He had dressed more audaciously than anyone she’d ever seen, and kept his dark hair trimmed to the perfect length. In her very girlish imaginings, he had been her husband. She’d last seen him at her father’s burial, after which she had completely forgotten about him and abandoned the idea of marriage entirely.
“He is the one who sent the messenger from Aix-la-Chapelle
. He has already asked his clerk in Ribeauville to send some protectors and the traveling supplies we will need.”
“Does he say why the emperor wants to see us?”
Marian’s expression became carefully vague. “Something to do with Alda, I think.”
“Mother,” Rochelle scoffed, “He must have been more specific than that when asking us to travel so far.”
Her mother sniffed evasively.
Rochelle knew her mother occasionally withheld unpleasant information to avoid unpleasant confrontations
. Marian once forgot to tell her daughter that Ruthie had accidentally caught Rochelle’s ledger on fire, preferring to have it discovered on a shelf beneath her father’s illuminated manuscript. Rochelle knew it was pointless to try to weasel anything out of her. “Perhaps we can send Gilbert.”
“Are ye listening to yerself, Rochelle? Ye will not allow Gilbert to speak on yer behalf to yer winemaker, but ye think to send him to the emperor?”
Rochelle pursed her lips. She certainly hated to lose an argument.