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A Bird in the Hand

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26th day of September

I had not thought to write again, leastaways not until after the wedding, but then James my father’s clerk came to me with a big stack of very fine paper, almost as good as the vellum I had been stealing (and a great deal more even around the edges) and said if I wouldn’t tell my father, he wouldn’t.

As it is very nice paper (though it does run a little) I have determined to make use of it.

 

28th day of September

Previously the wedding was to take place in October, but Stephen cannot return to his seat at Lithgow immediately. It seems Shaggy Beard’s death has left Stephen’s duties as tangled as my spinning, and he must see to all of his holdings before we are wed, and has declared that the bumps and troubles of travel would make me an ill honeymoon. So instead the betrothal is set for the middle of October, the proper wedding and bride-ale to follow next year at Lithgow.

 As sure as I was that my beast of a father would force Shaggy Beard upon me, now I fear equally that some mishap will prevent my betrothal to Stephen. Having been saved from Shaggy Beard—by his own vile nature, I will add, though as he is dead I should bear him no rancor—I am as cheerful about my future as I ever have been. There are a great many advantages to marriage that I had not seen before. Even if Stephen is dull, ugly or stupid, being his wife will certainly be better than being Rollo of Stonebridge’s daughter. For one thing, in his barony are five holdings, each of which requires regular visits from their great-lord. If I do not like him, undoubtedly I can convince him that I am delicate and should be left home at Lithgow. Noblemen always expect ladies to be delicate.

But I hope that I do like him. Of all my suitors, he has pleased both my father and myself the most, loath though I am to admit to anything in common with the beast. My father likes him because he is rich, many times richer even than Fulk. And I like him because he is not Shaggy Beard, and because Shaggy Beard did not like him.

I have imagined him a thousand times since the joyous news of Shaggy Beard’s demise. I hope that he will be tall, broad-shouldered and muscled like John Swann, but with the cleverness of Perkin, the bearing of George (before Aelis), the golden hair and angelic features of Geoffrey, and the kindness of Edward. I can hardly wait to meet him.

 

5th day of October

I have no time to write anymore. As soon as I begin to sidle away in hopes of penning a few words, Morwenna pulls me by the ear back to the solar, where I must submit to all the teasing and gossiping of my mother’s ladies. I am determined that when I am chatelaine of Lithgow my friends will love what I love, and will not needle me endlessly about this and that. God’s thumbs! If another tittering lady babbles to me about my virginity, I will stuff her mouth full of feathers.

 

7th day of October

At least this endless weaving and sewing will benefit me, and not merely the chapel altar. We are stitching clothes for me to take into my new life, though thankfully my mother and the others do the fine work. As tedious as it is to sew endless seams down the sides of new kirtles, shifts and surcotes, I would mislike still more to embroider endless flowers and vines and birds onto my wedding clothes. So the ladies-in-waiting do that. Are they good at embroidering birds because they are, themselves, as full of meaningless tweeting as a bird? Or do they grow to be like the birds they embroider? I think I will ask them.

 

8th day of October

I asked them. They did not think it funny, nor did they answer save to turn my gowns back over to me so that I can embroider them myself. Curse my too-free tongue.

 

9th day of October

My mother has made me apologize for my rudeness, and a full day’s awful embroidery has been unpicked and redone by the lady Margaret, who glares at me the while. Oh, how I long for Stephen to arrive! I am sure he will be a much more pleasant companion than these ladies, who cannot take a jest.

 

10th day of October

Margaret’s embroidery really is much better than mine. She was somewhat appeased when I told her so, and has since ceased to scowl at me over every stitch.

 

13th day of October

Have left off sewing today to help clean the hall. We do not ordinarily clean the manor so thoroughly until spring, but my father has it in his head to impress our coming guests. He mislikes that I am underfoot, covered in ashes from the fireplaces and dirt from the floor, but he would like even less for the manor to be sooty upon Stephen’s arrival, and so I am let to wield a cloth alongside the servants.

 I have found out a little more about our visitors today. Stephen will arrive with several of his men, including his cook and squires, for while he will not need his travelling household under our roof he will need them as he tours his other holdings. He also brings with him horses, hounds and provisions. We will perform the handfasting the day after he arrives, and then spend the next fortnight in feasting and celebration, after which he will continue on his journey. Those two weeks are the only wedding-feast our household will enjoy, for the wedding itself will be at Lithgow, and my family will not be present. My father does not like to travel, and my mother is yet too delicate from Ella’s coming. Instead, when spring arrives and it is time for me to journey to my new home, Robert and my new sister Aelis will accompany me, to see me settled in. I rejoice to the heavens that Aelis shall start me on my new life, for I will know none at Lithgow. I am afeared that I will be disappointed. Morwenna tells me to think more on what is in my hands than what is in my head, as idle fears are just that—idle.

But I have always given my imagination its way, and cannot reign it in now. I hope I like Lithgow. I hope I like Stephen.

 

14th day of October

Stephen arrives tomorrow.  Can think of nothing else to say except I hope I like him.

 

16th day of October, after compline

I have met him, and we are betrothed.

Stephen and his retinue arrived at nones yesterday. First came an outrider, at whose appearance my mother and Morwenna positively accosted me, stuffing me into my third-best new kirtle, which is yet nicer than my first-best old kirtle. My hair, freshly-cleaned, was combed and dressed with flowers and ribbons. I consider I am fortunate to be fine-haired, for while it often makes the hair atop my head unmanageable, it means too that my eyebrows are so wispy as to be near invisible, and I was spared a painful plucking.

Soon came the full company, Stephen at the fore. My father, mother, Robert and I greeted him at the door, where I had my first good view of my future husband. I find that he is both better and worse than I had hoped. Better, because he is inoffensive in appearance and manner, unlike his father; worse, because in the last month I have allowed my fancy to run away, and could hardly help but be disappointed when he did not look like Geoffrey. But I will endeavor to describe him.

He has dark hair which neither curls nor lies straight, and unfashionably heavy eyebrows which dominate not just his light grey eyes but the rest of his face likewise. A long nose, a small mouth, all his own teeth. So tall that I stared at his shirt through much of the handfasting. Hands clean, but face stubbled from travel. Breath neither sweet nor foul. I would place his age between fifteen and eighteen; I cannot guess better than that, for although his face is unlined and his limbs hale, his eyes are grave and serious.

He is too broad of shoulder to be called effeminate, too lean to be called rugged. His features are too regular to be called ugly, too unusual to be called beautiful. He is too dark to be angelic, too clear-eyed to be beastly. In short, although he is far from the handsomest man I have ever met, he is none so hideous. As I am, myself, caught between ugly and beautiful, I think it only fair that we should match. Even if he were uglier, at least he would not be Shaggy Beard.

The handfasting was done quickly enough in front of the church where all could see. Stephen gave me a ring of gold with a blob of emerald in it, but it is too big for any of my fingers and I have wound a string around the back of it until it can be made smaller. Then everyone adjourned to the great hall for wine and meat. I of course sat beside my betrothed, and found all so overwhelming I confess I could hardly think of what to say. Stephen asked me politely about my home, and I just as politely answered him—indeed, I fear my mother didn’t recognize me for how civil I was. In truth, I was too petrified to say very much at all, and quite by accident slipped into a fine lady’s role: quiet, meek, with eyes downcast and hands folded. After a while, as Stephen’s questions failed to spark a conversation with me, he turned to one of his men and spoke mostly to him the rest of the evening. I was glad for the reprieve and spent the rest of my meal trying not to drip grease onto the tablecloth, though in general I would not take so much trouble. You see what being practically married has done to me!

 

20th day of October

I have hardly seen Stephen at all these last four days, though on one occasion he happened upon me playing with one of his hounds in the yard and even spared me a smile. Smiling much improves his features, I think. Can the same be said of me? I will have to check.

Our conversation went like this: 

“Do you like Hector?” he asked, indicating the very fine boarhound with whom I was playing tug-of-stick.

“I do,” said I. “He is a gracious dog and begs at table most genteelly.”

“He does, does he not?” A silence. Then, “Are you fond of animals in general?”

“Some,” said I. “I adore dogs, tolerate goats, and used to keep birds until I let them all go. Now I have nineteen empty cages.”

“Why did you set them free?” asked Stephen. “Did you tire of their song?”

“I could never tire of birdsong,” I answered, “but I let them go when I thought I was to marry your father.”

Another silence, even longer. “Would you have let them go if you knew you were to marry me instead?” he asked, nothing in his voice save polite inquiry. I could not tell if I was insulting him, or what it might mean to him if I did, because he does not show very much on his face.

“Perhaps not,” I admitted. “I was distraught. It was an impetuous act.” Most of mine are.

“You were not eager, then, for the match?”

“It was not my decision,” I said very meekly. “I am told what to do and rarely have a choice in doing it.”

“And so you freed your birds instead,” said he thoughtfully.

“Yes. I wish now that I had kept one or two, though. Their song was very cheering.”

“Yes, of course,” said he distantly, and soon after left. Now I am sure he was offended, and have no idea how to make amends. I do not like our first real conversation to be an insult to his family, but then again, why should he not know Shaggy Beard was not my choice? It is not as though I pretended to be in love with either of them, father or son. Still, my guts are in a turmoil and I have slept but ill the last few nights. As severe as he may be, I do not dislike Stephen. He is kind to animals and servants, and well-spoken—for a Northerner.

 

21st day of October

Stephen has a very poor singing voice. I heard him singing an ale-song with his men at dinner. My ears still ache. But he looked up and saw me laughing at him, and stopped abruptly. Now my gut aches as well, for guilt. Will I never say or do the right thing?

 

22nd day of October

A travelling merchant came to Stonebridge with his cart and pony today. My father gave me a ha’penny and told me to buy something to make me pretty. I spent it on a carved horn cup for Ella. When my father found out, he roared at me for disobeying him and wasting his money, to which I retorted, “What does it matter what I look like? You’ll have your rich son-in-law whether I am comely or not. It cannot be undone now.” Then I ran away before he could box my ears. I am glad I spent the money on Ella, for she will grow up without me, and ought to have something to remember her elder sister by.

 

24th day of October

Spent the day hiding in the pasture with Perkin. When I returned, my mother asked crossly where I had been, and I lied and said I was in the dovecote. But she smelled goat on me and I am now locked in my room for the rest of today and tomorrow. I don’t see why she should be so angry about it. It isn’t as if I spent the day rolling about with Perkin. But when I said that, she said it didn’t matter what I did, it matters only what I seem to do. That is when she locked me in.

 

26th day of October

Stephen said he’d missed me, and asked where I had been the last few days. I was surprised, as I had not thought he took any notice of me. I told him I was outside and then in my room all day, painting on my walls.

“I did not know you painted,” he said with some interest.

“I wanted to run away to my brother’s abbey to paint manuscripts, but I waited too long and can no longer pass for a boy.”

“I wanted to run away to an abbey, too,” he said, looking surprised. “When I was younger, at least.”

 “Why did you not?” I asked. “You at least would not have had to disguise yourself as a boy.”

 “My father had no other sons,” he said. At which I felt very foolish, and also a little sorry for him—neither of us is as free as we should like. “I am glad you waited too long,” he said seriously. “Perhaps someday you will paint the walls at Lithgow. They are very bare at present.” Then he went off to talk to his men.

My guts are in a turmoil again. I do not know what to think. I will go soothe myself with almonds.

Chapter Text

28th day of October

I feel as if Perkin’s popinjay is caught in my belly, beating at my ribs like the bars of a cage. Am I ill? I think I ate too many almonds.

 

31st day of October All Hallow’s Eve

Even the stern Stephen rollicked with the rest this eve. I saw him hollering and dancing with his men and Robert in the yard. With his men he talks more like a Northerner, all full of broad tha’s and thee’s . It might as well be Abbyssinian for all I can make of it. I watched the revelers from the solar, where I was coddling little Ella. The shouts and booms from outside startled her, and she wailed incessantly save when someone held her. My mother is not yet strong enough to pace the floor endlessly, patting a baby; and the nurses are all celebrating.

But I lit a small bonfire in a brazier for just Ella and me, and threw sage and thyme on it to make the room smell sweet and to ward off spirits. No witches will take her while I am around. I held her by the window so we could watch the festivities—well wrapped of course, for we have no glazing on our windows (I am told that Lithgow has glazing on all the bedchamber windows and in the great hall). Then Robert began shouting at me about something I could not understand (he was very drunk), and then one of Stephen’s men (Henry, I think, though it was hard to tell in the dark) asked why I did not disport myself with everyone else. I held up Ella to the window, and told them she was in need of constant tending, whereupon Stephen tossed an apple through my window. By the time I extracted it from under my mother’s bed where it had rolled, it was dusty and bruised but still plenty good. I tossed the core back down to the yard and said it was for the pigs to eat, and that Robert could help himself. Everyone laughed but Robert.

 

1st day of November, Feast of All Saints

As I spent most of last night with Ella instead of drinking and reveling, I must now nurse everyone else who overindulged. All Saints Day indeed.

 

2nd day of November, Feast of All Souls

Stephen leaves tomorrow. Though I have spoken to him only a few times and, I fear, acquitted myself none too well, it will be a dreary winter, for there will be no more feasting till Christmas. Now that he is leaving, I am still not sure what I think of him. There are far worse men I could be married to, but I wish he were not so serious always. He is still a stranger to me, and although I have not seen him act rough or cruel or vulgar, I also have not seen him laugh freely. I have no idea what he likes, other than (apparently) dogs and writing.

 

3rd day of November, nones

They have gone, and all is quiet. Sorry though I am for the feasting to be over, I am not sorry to have respite from our guests. I can never be entirely easy when Stephen is about. He is too grave.

 

3rd day of November, sunset

I have had a great shock this evening. When I came to my room I heard a chirping, and thought at first a sparrow had flown in and not been able to find its way out. But then I saw a flash of yellow in my row of empty bird-cages. A lark, with a rolled-up bit of paper stuck between the bars of its cage that said only “Orpheus.” No one knows how it got here, and there is no name to the note (except the name of the bird). Did Stephen leave it? And why?

 

5th day of November

Aelis has gone back to her family until she is wed to Robert after Christmas, when she will live here at Stonebridge. It seems cruel that the dearest wish of my heart—to have Aelis for a sister true—should be fulfilled just when I am to leave forever.

 

10th day of November

The days grow short and the nights bitter. I must thaw my ink by the fire before I can use it. It is too much effort. I will leave off writing until I feel better. And warmer.

 

25th day of November

Feast of St. Catherine. The last feast we shall have before Christmas. My mother gave me a length of ribbon embroidered with my name in red thread, and said that it was from Ella. I shall miss her—my mother and my sister.

 

29th day of November

Advent is begun, and I am resigned to naught but fish for a month. I shiver through chapel each morning, shiver through dinner, shiver through games of chess with Morwenna and shiver in bed.

 

6th day of December

Still shivering. Can think of naught to say.

 

12th day of December

I feel very dull. I began my monthly bleeding last week. My mother says she would have had a special pudding made for me, only we are still fasting for Advent. I know that she worried that I did not begin it, for I am sixteen already. Morwenna says I started late because I am too contrary to do anything by another’s laws, even the laws of nature and God. My mother says it is because I lack sufficient flesh to spare each month, although I do not see why Robert’s first wife Agnes could conceive when she was so much smaller than me. I suspect Morwenna is right after all.

 

26th day of January

I have not written in well over a month! And even now I have only a few moments, so I will have to sum up.

This Christmas Odd William found the bean in the king’s cake and was crowned Lord of Misrule. At first all went along with it in jest, for he is the dreariest person we all know, but when he made his first proclamation that all should be quiet for Christmas so he could get on with his texts, we held a mutiny and lorded Andrew the muckraker’s son instead.

On the fifteenth we celebrated the wedding of Aelis and Robert (she looked exceedingly lovely, but they disappeared almost immediately and were not seen again for a whole day, so I could not tell her so).

Other than that, there is little new to report. You see, diary, why I do not write more.

 

3rd day of February

I wish my monthly bleeding had waited forever to commence. It is such a waste of blood.

 

20th day of February

All I ever do is sew wedding-clothes.

 

18th day of March

The ground begins to thaw. It is decided that Robert, Aelis and I will journey to Lithgow just after Easter. As busy as we were preparing for Stephen’s visit and the betrothal, we are twice as busy now. I have been riding Blancmange near constantly, to get her pudgy body in shape for the journey, which is expected to take at least two weeks.

 

22nd day of March

Got caught by my mother wading in the duck pond because I saw something shiny at the bottom and thought it might be a piece of fairy gold. She called me a magpie and asked when I will ever grow up. I said never if I can help it, whereupon she sighed and turned away. Sometimes I think she does not know what to do with me. I will miss her.

 

25th day of March

My wedding dress is finished and packed away for the journey. It is exceedingly lovely, the loveliest thing I have ever owned. I saved a scrap of fabric to tuck into these pages safe from the sun. It is the only kirtle I have all of silk, and I know that my father grumbled at the expense, but my mother convinced him that we should not shame ourselves before the Baron Selkirk. I think it is exactly the color of the Virgin’s veil, although from what I have seen few brides are truly virgins, and I cannot think why they all wear blue.

 

26th day of March

I tire of fish and dried apples. What I would not give for a bit of bread pudding with raisins!

 

1st day of April

I have not written much because I spend nearly all my time with Ella, trying to paint her little face on my memory as I would paint it on my wall. She loves me best of anyone except my mother and her wet-nurse, Aeldrid. I know because she claps her hands when she sees me, and fusses if I do not pick her up at once. I will miss my mother and Morwenna, but they will not change as quickly as little Ella does. She is bigger every day, and smarter too. She knows how to point to Orpheus when I say his name (though sometimes she gets confused and points to Brutus instead).

 

5th day of April

Easter tomorrow. The day after, we depart. I tremble all over to think on it. It seems years since I met Stephen, and though now I know what he looks like and how his voice sounds, he is still a mystery to me. I think on last October, when I wrote that I hoped I would like him, and I still hope I like him, for I don’t know him at all yet. I have learnt not to let my imagination run away, for it will only lead to disappointment (as it did when he didn’t look like Geoffrey). I am resigned to his unremarkable looks. Should I resign myself to an unremarkable man?

 

6th day of April

Easter Sunday! The Lord is Risen! And for once on Easter, the sun shone, but it could not thaw my worried heart. I leave all this behind at dawn. I have not let Ella out of my sight all day, which could not make her happier. How I will miss her! I am drawing a picture of her to remember always, for the next time I see her she will likely be half-grown. Lithgow is far from Stonebridge.

Why must everything good end so quickly?

 

17th day of April

I have hardly written at all, for my inks have been in my trunk and not easily reached. But we are at the Inn of the Silver Egg two nights, so that Aelis can recover from a grumbling gut, and I have decided to dig out my paper and pen.

Travelling so long a distance is less pleasant than the comparatively short journey to Edward’s monastery. I am bumped and bruised all over. At least the countryside is pretty, though after a while it does tend to run together like a page caught in the rain.

There was some excitement a few days ago—on the 12th or 13th, I do not remember. Highwaymen accosted us, but they were not quite the vicious, daring pirates I might have hoped for. They mostly looked like draggled shepherds which I think is what they were before they turned to robbery. They wanted to go through our things, and Robert wanted to fight them, but then very cunningly Aelis cut through the cords holding our ale and wine to the back of the cart. They rolled away with a thunderous noise, first startling the highwaymen and then drawing their attention, and while they were giving chase to the runaway casks, we made our escape.

I have twisted Stephen’s ring around and around for luck every hour since then. It is beginning to wear a groove into my finger.

Aelis is cleverer than one would expect of a girl who chose to marry the abominable Robert.

 

21st day of April, after complines

Have arrived at Lithgow Manor. Too late and tired to write except to say we are here. Wedding tomorrow.