-- 1 --
Everyone in the canvas-covered cart is asleep. Four other travelers nestle into the deep straw bed of the cart--strangers, all of us, except for a father and his son of maybe nine or ten years. The old monk there’s a snorer, and it takes him the whole trip to get his bones comfortable. When I got into this cart, the only space had been next to the woman with the gray hair, the pink fleshy face, the gentle-eyed, reticent smile. She made as much room as she could, but someone’s knee or elbow is always in my side--
--like the proverbial thorn. That’s what Mam would have said.
“Tusmore village,” says the driver. “Everyone out who needs a piss.”
The monk needs help getting out, so I lend him a hand. From the gap in the cart cover, the white winter sun blinds me, and when my eyes adjust, it’s like I haven’t left Hartley Cross after all. They look the same, these villages, and each one makes me hurt for home.
I don’t dare leave my satchel in the cart for curious eyes or fingers. It wouldn’t be right to say that all of my worldly possessions are here in my stitched-up bag. Most things I had to leave behind. The blankets. The cooking kettle. Pounce barking me home, and Juniper winding around my ankles with that deep purr. The sheep, the trees, the forest trail.
Don’t forget the fort you built with Henry against that uprooted oak.
Don’t forget the scent of the fields in the rain.
Don’t forget the crack on the daub wall that looked like a fawn’s face.
I reach into the satchel and run my fingers over each item until I feel the drawings I made of my parents. What’s left is barely discernible, the fine lines made with the brass stylus on fire-browned parchment, burned in a moment of anger.
Don’t forget Da’s face. And don’t forget Mam’s face. And don’t forget baby sis’s face.
Nor even your brother Henry’s.
I would have stuffed the entire house into the satchel if I could. But I only took what fit--Mam’s cloak and dark woad-blue gown, the small clay honey pot Henry gave me, my best willow charcoal twigs, rolled in a piece of linen, to draw with.
I hold the stone cross from Mason and sense his impact on it, his hands shaping and smoothing it. And don’t forget Mason’s hands.
I may have to surrender all these things when I get to the priory, but it’s a risk worth taking--they’re all I have left of everyone I love.
It was only yesterday, midmorning, when everything changed.
“Edie?” Henry’s voice was alarmed. He shook me. Shook and shook. “Edie, wake up!”
I stirred, shoved his hand off my shoulder and looked sideways at my big brother. Suddenly everything came rushing back like a tempest:
Mam’s death, birthing little baby sis.
Mason avoiding me, just like the rest of the villagers.
The fear of starvation.
The intensifying fights with Henry as we got more and more desperate.
Death and loss and fury and hunger.
“Get away from me,” I grunted, rolling back over.
“You weren’t waking up,” he said. “Are you all right?”
Henry ignored me, grinning, almost dancing with excitement. I sat up slowly, suspicion gnawing in my belly.
“Edie, I know where you’re going to go!”
“Henry, we talked about this,” I reminded him. “You said we were leaving together. In the spring. You said that Lord Geoffrey would wait until then to evict us. Remember?”
“I know, but this is better. Brother Robert’s got a prioress friend up north, and she said she’d take you in. Lord Geoffrey agreed. It’s Saint Christopher’s Priory, in Thornchester. It’s all sorted. They normally only take noblewomen, but out of charity they’ll take you as a conversa!”
The word felt like a fresh, icy slap to the side of my head. And a conversa--a lay sister, a servant? So instead of being a wooler’s daughter with at least some dignity, I’d be cleaning the latrines of prissy nuns? How was that better?
“What do you mean, it’s all sorted?” I pressed him. “Who put you in charge of me?”
Henry looked stunned. “Da did, Edie. When they murdered him.”
Of course it was Henry’s decision; I knew that. The moment Da died, Henry became head of house, but that didn’t really give him options. He still had to answer to Lord Geoffrey Caxton, the very man who killed our father. We were bound to Lord Geoffrey, and I was bound to Henry. But I didn’t want to accept it. Henry was only two years older than me--my brother, not my lord.
“But don’t you understand?” he coaxed. “It’s better than we could have hoped! You and I would have been lucky to find a house half this size to let, in some strange place, scraping by on someone else’s land--we could have been beggars!”
I tried to be calm, but I just couldn’t. “This is it, then, Henry? Sixteen years old, and the best thing I can hope for is to rot away in some convent? Where they send the old hags and toady girls? And I should be grateful? Go to hell!”
The words singed my mouth as I spat them, and Henry flinched, all the optimism drained from his face in a moment.
He set his jaw and spoke with an unnerving softness. “Fine, Edyth. I tried to do my best by you. If this is your thanks . . . then we’ll say goodbye now. The wagon will be here for you at dawn.”
He opened the cupboard and grabbed half a loaf and filled his waterskin with ale. I had never been angry with my big brother before, my best friend, my hero--but my desperation lit one last flaming arrow on my tongue.
“Traitor! It’s you and me, Edie,” I mocked his childhood promise. “What a lie! You don’t care about anyone but yourself! It’s Henry and Henry, and to hell with little sister! Edyth, Edyth, Round and Red, might as well be left for dead!”
Henry turned and gave me a look I’d never seen. Something about the muscles in his face made him look much older than eighteen, like fate had cornered and caged him. He clenched his teeth and his muscles pulsed; he sniffed hard, walked quickly out of the house and slammed the door to my enraged scream.
I sank to the floor, skirts in a pool around me, and cried.
The day darkened early. A raindrop hung pregnant from the edge of the windowsill, all silvers except for a thin strip of rainbow edging its metal belly, and I could feel those colors on my tongue, like the time when I tried licking the edge of the cold kettle, just to see if it tasted like I thought it would: yes, like blood and ash, like the dark brown stripes that appeared at the outsides of my eyes. That was when Mam could stir things in the kettle, the green alexanders with the fresh spring butter. She could stir things in a kettle, because she was alive.
That was when Da was alive, too, and he would dip the hardest edges of the brown bread and sop up the iron-tinged butter, and it would drop in his beard and glisten there for a bit, until he’d grab the corner of Mam’s apron and wipe his mouth proper, like a gentleman.
But my father was no gentleman, much as Mam would have liked him to be. He was stout and red-bearded and loud and butter-drippy. Da, with a belly like the raindrop, with a belly rivaling Mam’s, carrying the child that would end her life.
Nothing can be done about it now. Come spring, Lord Caxton will turn Henry out, and someone else will be living in that house where I was born. Someone else will make their pottage on our fire, rise their bread dough in our proofing pot. But before the next family moves in, they’ll bring the priest to cleanse the house of the evil that once resided there, the scourge that caused a whole family to fail.
-- 2 --
Somewhere in Derbyshire, the road beneath us suddenly changes from packed dirt to bumpy stone and jostles everyone awake to a harmony of groans. Little lightning bolts shoot at my vision with every crash of the wheels. The stones of the old Roman way are at odd angles, and the driver eventually moves off to the grass just to avoid them. Days upon days have passed, and we are all road-sore.
“Stopping,” says the driver, pulling in through a town gate. “I’ll go find a tavern. Wait here.”
He’s taking a while, so I jump out and stretch my legs. The town’s not a large one. But it’s eerily quiet, except for some skinny horses and sheep in the streets. The driver comes back with a distant look on his face.
“Strange,” he says. “Town’s empty. Old man told me to stay out--everyone’s dead. Some kind of illness . . . he’s the only one left.”
Dead. That’s a word I’ve heard too often this year. I tuck my face into the hood of Mam’s cloak and will her to be alive for me, just for this moment, while we shake the dust of the town off our feet.
After Henry left that last day, the wattle gate crackled open and a pair of shoes shuffled on the flagstone. I was afraid of being alone in the house like that. No one could be trusted, and no one was asking for my trust, anyway. Henry and Edyth le Sherman were poison people, not to be pitied, only shunned.
Once I was sure the stranger was gone, I rose slowly from the hearth and cracked the door open. On the threshold, placed on a thin layer of fresh snow, was a wooden box. Inside was a kettle of just-made porridge, steaming hot. A loaf of bread, some dried apples and a cheese. A thick woolen blanket, a little moth-eaten. Two pairs of old knit mittens. A palm-sized cross carved from stone.
Is that sort of kindness even possible now, where I’m headed? I’ve heard about priories, vast and cold, where women go to hollow out and shrivel until their skin’s like the parchment of their prayer books.
A place where I’ve got to hear day and night about God.
After He took every good thing from me, to make me go to the very place I can’t escape Him? It’s like giving vinegar to someone dying of thirst.
At the edge of town, by a bend in the river, Mason and his da lived in a house smaller than mine. Mason’s mam died when he was very young, and not one to stand on ceremony or comfort, Old John chopped off a third of their house and burned the walls as fuel. Piles of different kinds of stone lay in the yard. A small barn barely held a horse and its tack. Mason’s people weren’t crofters like us; they earned wages or were paid in kind, so there was a meager kitchen garden but not much land. Besides, stonemasons travel where the work is, so home was a relative concept.
Just as I lifted my fist to knock on the door, Mason came out of the barn, clapping dust and straw off his hands.
“Edyth!” He started. “What are you doing here?”
I pulled my hood back a little; I couldn’t hide the despair in my eyes. “Could we go somewhere?” I asked flatly. “I need to tell you something.”
He searched my face with apprehension. “Let me tell my father.”
Mason came out of the house a few minutes later. We walked to Saint Andrew’s churchyard and sat beneath the yew tree, where we had talked for the first time in May.
“I made you something, Mason. Here . . . I’m your Saint Nicholas.” I placed the square of parchment in his palm, smiling to conceal the way my heart was being sliced in half. It was a miniature drawing of this yew tree, our tree, cut away to show two doves inside, with the tips of their beaks touching.
“It’s beautiful,” he said. “Did you draw this?”
He quietly traced the thin lines with his finger. “There’s so much I wanted to--” His voice caught, and he didn’t finish.
“Mason, I don’t hold it against you. Since Da was killed, I know you’ve had to dodge me, just like everyone else. But I wanted to tell you myself--I have to leave Hartley Cross.”
“What do you mean, leave?”
“Henry’s sending me away,” I said. “We can’t run the croft ourselves. We barely met Lord Geoffrey’s wool and grain quotas, just for the right to stay in our house for the winter.”
“What? Why would he--” Mason’s eyes narrowed. “Where is he sending you?”
“To some priory in Yorkshire . . . Saint Christopher’s.”
“A priory?” He shook his head in disbelief. “You’re going to be a nun?”
“No. No. I could never be a nun.” I shook my head. “Just a laborer. There’s a wagon coming tomorrow at dawn.”
“Tomorrow?” He unwittingly began to crumple the drawing in his hand. “He couldn’t give you more time?”
“No,” I said. “It’s my only chance to avoid begging or . . . or worse.”
Mason rubbed his eyes in frustration. I decided to risk an idea, one I’d been thinking of but never dared to say out loud.
“Mason, what if . . . I . . . stayed with you? And your da, I mean. I could help you take care of him--”
I pressed on. “Or we could leave together, like we always dreamed about. Go somewhere no one knows about my da’s murder. You’re a freeman, and a stonemason. You can find work anywhere--”
“It’s not that simple, Edyth!”
His shout rang in my ears, reverberating like white-hot coils in front of me, and I shut my eyes tight against the assault of noise and color.
“Of course.” I got up quickly and gathered my skirts to run home, away from the growing seed of shame. “You can’t be with an orphan from a cursed family. I’m sorry.”
Mason grabbed my hand. “Edyth, wait. I’m sorry. Please sit, please.” He turned my hand over. “I have something for you, too.” He opened my palm and placed there another stone cross, as smooth as glass, carved with a trail of oak leaves. Its color was just like the one in the box on our doorstep.
“You’re the one who’s been leaving us meals, aren’t you?”
“I couldn’t help it,” he said. “You don’t deserve all that cruelty. But I couldn’t come see you. Not because of these stupid Hartley Cross folks. Who cares about them? It’s because of Da, Edyth.” He drew a long breath and blinked, hard. “My father is dying.”