Once back to the house it didn’t take long for all of my optimism to evaporate. It wasn’t just Cor who was home. He had brought about two dozen men with him … big, loud, noisy men. And though not a single one was outright mean, not a single one of them acted like their opinion of me was higher than the mark left on the ground where a frog bumped its butt when it hopped. I honestly can’t say they were like the men I grew up around … there was no pinching or name calling or trying to back you into a corner and manhandle you, no slapping or back handing or tripping to make all the rest of the menfolk laugh … but I can’t say they impressed me as being all that much better either. The menfolk fell all over themselves for Francine and even to a lesser degree for Winnie but me they treated like a slattern only born to fetch and carry.
Four days I was up before the sun had even started thinking about taking the curling rags from its hair, working all day as fast as I could move and still not keeping up, and then not putting the last clean dish away and trying to find my bed until well after the clock struck the first morning hour.
The men lay all over the place like hounds too lazy to do their master any good at all. They’d move for the Captain, whoooboy would they move. They’d even move for Francine and Winnie though they were rarely about those first days, both claiming to be feeling off. In Francine’s case I had my doubts but Winnie truly did get green every time one of the men lit up a smoke or puffed on a pipe. The only thing that would soothe her was mint tea and it was so hot that all she could do was lay around with her private bits barely hid behind a sheet; all splayed out trying to let as much of her skin get some breeze as possible. She was so miserable she wasn’t the least embarrassed about it at all when I’d bring her cool well water to bathe with.
That fourth night I was so tired I was stupid. Mostly it is my own fault for not being more careful. The stew was finished and on the stove staying warm, the dishes and such were out in the room they called the dining hall just waiting for the dinner bell to be rung, and then I remembered I needed to bring a couple of jugs of mead up from the cellar. I’ve got eyes like a cat for seeing in the dark for all they’re the color of a wolf’s but right then they were gritty with fatigue.
I had noticed one of the steps had been squeaking more and more but just never took the time as I should have to see why. That night I stepped on it and there wasn’t a squeak but a loud crack and suddenly I went flying. I don’t even remember hitting bottom.
Next thing I remember is Jonah’s voice saying, “You ain’t gonna find her room up there Young Cor. She sleeps on a cot in the pantry.”
Someone said something else and then he said, “Well, why else? You ain’t give her a space as her own, all you care about is getting under Miss Francie’s skirt to get yourself an heir. You seem to fergit you got another wife to take care of too.”
Some time must have passed because the next thing I remember is sensing I was in a different place and the Captain was telling me, “Hush Fel, Allow Mrs. Wiley to tend you without fussing. She needs to see how badly you are injured.”
Still later I finally came to and almost wished I hadn’t. I felt like I did that time I had when the Headman’s son had caught me and after he’d tried to give me slobbering mescal laced kisses I told him that I didn’t want his porky fingers on me ever again and then shoved my knee where it would do us both some good. I barely crawled away from that beating and I was half of a mind that I must have done something like that again.
My tongue was the texture of felt and tasted like clabbered milk. I tried to roll over and then someone was there trying to put a cup to my mouth. I pushed the hand away and said in a voice that didn’t want to stay on key, “Enough. I can tend myself. Leave me be.”
“Uncle Rob warned me you would be hard headed.”
With that I found my fight. Nothing hurt so bad that I couldn’t push and claw him away from me until my bad foot dragged across the bedding letting me know someone had taken the bandage off. My body went stiff and I bit the inside of my cheek hard enough to draw blood to keep from screaming.
“The fight gone out of you yet or do you wish to continue doing damage to yourself?”
All I could do was pant and mutter, “Go find a well to fall down.”
“I’ll consider it if it means I don’t have to listen to Uncle Rob giving me a lecture like I haven’t had since I sprouted hair on my chin.”
“When was that? Yesterday?”
An odd noise that sounded suspiciously like a chuckle preceded the words, “I suppose I deserve that … and worse. Jonah seems to think so anyway. I got a dressing down from him too. He’ll be relieved to know you are awake and aware at last.”
I was too tired to fight and didn’t want to talk so I just turned my face away but all it did was tell me that I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. I hissed, “How did I get all the way up here in the nursery?”
“Where else were we going to put you with the rest of the house full? In that mouse hole you made for yourself between the dried fruit and the cheese wheels?” After a moment he said, “Uncle Rob asked me why you didn’t have a bedroom of your own and I couldn’t give him an answer. You could have had your pick and saved me the embarrassment.”
Still refusing to look at him I answered, “Where’s the sense in that? All it would mean is traipsing that much further when I had to get up and cook and clean and there would just be more bedding to wash.”
I was trying to understand why I was where I was and why I hurt and most importantly why that man was there with me in the dark. I nearly slapped him when he put his hands on me to settle me back on the bed right. Would have too if I hadn’t felt like I had taken a dunking in the pond in the middle of winter. I started to shake and I felt another sheet pulled over me.
I groaned as I smelled fresh lavender. “Noooo. I just got the washing done yesterday. Don’t make any more work for me.”
“Hush, you’re shivering from shock and not thinking straight.” After I stopped fighting, more because the warmth felt so good than out of any kind of real obedience he asked, “Do you remember what happened?”
I tried to think but everything was jumbled. “I … I was cooking dinner. The stew … yes, the stew was done. I needed to go to the cellar for something … mead I think …” Irritated I said, “That’s all I can recall right now.”
“A stair broke near the top. You were laying there … a couple of hours. Some one finally asked when dinner would be served and that’s when it was realized you were missing. We looked all over for you but it wasn’t until Jonah thought to open the door that we finally found you.”
I sighed, “Well that’s a relief. I thought maybe I had said something to …”
“To what?” he asked.
“Never mind. It doesn’t matter.” I heard a raven and groaned again. “Move. I need to get up. I’m sure there is a mess left in the kitchen from last night and I’ve got to get breakfast started.”
“Whoa, you aren’t going any place.”
“And just how do you expect the Captain and Winnie to get something to eat? And I guess Francine and your men as well. You? Sorry, just not seeing it.”
He snorted in impatience. “One, it wasn’t last night you fell but the night before. Two, the mess was cleaned up. And three, Mrs. Wiley is organizing some help for here at the house.”
“Who’s Mrs. Wiley? More than likely she is just one more person that thinks I don’t belong here but it would be nice to know for sure.”
“Mrs. Wiley is Jonah’s widowed sister and doubtless my skin will grow back eventually where she’s lit into me more than once for not doing my duty. I’m here instead of in my bed just to keep her tongue from wagging any more than it already has. My head is sore from having to listen to Uncle Rob, Jonah, and that old beesom tell me I should know better. Tell me how I’m supposed to know better when no one’s been telling me just how bad things have gotten?!”
“I don’t know. I’m a newcomer to these parts. How am I supposed to know what you consider bad? The only thing I’ve heard is that it’s been like this for a long time.” After an embarrassed moment I said, “I didn’t ask them to say anything and didn’t ask you to sit with me. All I want is to be left alone.”
“Too bad, you’re stuck with me here. I’m not going to disturb Francine trying to climb back into my bed this early in the morning. She’s been upset enough as it is.” I would have given a lot in that moment for the strength to toss him from the room.
I was nearly asleep again when he said gruffly, “You could have explained about your foot. I’m not some monster, I would have had someone look at it when you hung it up in the root.”
“I don’t want anyone to look at it. There’s nothing that can be done. I’m not thickheaded enough to think there’s magic enough in this world to grow toes back once they’ve been chopped off.”
“Francine nearly fainted when she heard the story. Did you really have to …”
“Yes I did but if you expect me to talk about it all flaming day you can think again. It happened. It’s over with. And it isn’t your concern so leave off.”
“Ask me if I care what you think.”
He shifted in his chair and said, “I’m almost afraid to know what you think.” A moment passed and he said, “This could have been handled better … I could have handled it better.” He sighed like an old man. “We need to talk.”
“We’ve already talked.”
“Then we need to talk again. Things are moving faster than I expected. Trust me, I’d leave you alone if I could but there’s no time.”
My foot was starting to ache again which made me short tempered. “What have I done now?”
The chair scraped where he pulled it closer to the bed. “You’ve done nothing wrong Fel. This whole thing is a ridiculous mess but I can see now that not because you designed it to be that way.”
I muttered darkly, “Maybe I should have fallen down the stairs in the first place and saved us all the trouble of the other day.”
“No. I had my ears closed and wouldn’t have listened even had I been the one to take the tumble down the stairs. My anger is sometimes like that and it is nothing I’m proud of. And I’m sorry to say all I’m about to do is heap coals on top of the trouble you’ve already had.” When all I offered him was silence he said, “Francine was trying to be helpful I suppose when she did it.”
“Did … what … ?”
“She sent a runner with a note to her Aunt Muriel. I’m told the woman should be arriving tomorrow to take the estate in hand until Francine is up to it.”
I swallowed dryly. “And what does that mean exactly? Have they changed their plans? Will … will I be turned out?”
“No,” he said firmly. “That old dragon is mistaken if she thinks I’m simply going to hand the keys to the house over to her.”
For the first time I heard real steel in his voice. “No. She will not.” After a short moment he asked, “Did you truly mean what you said? Before? When we … er … talked the first time?”
“About being allies rather than enemies?”
“I suppose I must have.”
Quietly he asked, “Have you changed your mind?”
I sighed. “I suppose I haven’t.”
In the shadows that were beginning to form as the sun rose I saw him get up and pace. “Things must be different around here. The estate can’t afford to build you a new house but it can support repairing the cabin by the stream.” When I stiffened he said quickly, “I know Fel. But you said yourself that just because a thing is called something doesn’t mean that is what it is. Just because the cabin was something once upon a time doesn’t mean it has to be the same thing now.”
I really dislike having my own words used against me.
He continued. “People will expect it and I expect you’ll be more comfortable in that cabin than on a cot in the pantry. It will also make it easier to … to carry on our … our playacting.” He cleared his throat and then added, “And it will be easier if when I must spend time with you it isn’t under the same roof as my wife.”
I really, really wished for the strength to toss him from the room.
More than a little irritated I asked, “And exactly what am I supposed to do? Keep myself out of the way and hidden?”
He either didn’t hear the sarcasm in my voice or chose to ignore it. “No. People will expect you to be seen and take part in caring for the estate. We can work out the details when you feel better.”
“And what of the visit from the Lathrop spy?”
He paused. “I suppose that is how we should few the woman. Just use care when dealing with her. I do not wish to upset Francine any more than she already is.”
Outraged I said, “This second wife business was her idea. She has no business being upset.”
“Perhaps¸ but I suspect the reality of the situation is going to be more difficult for her than she realizes.”
Oh I’d give her some difficulties all right but I wasn’t going to tell Cor that. I was going to have enough problems to deal with without him getting so riled up he played right into their hands.
“Fine. But for now give me some peace if I have to take on the dragon sooner rather than later. I don’t need babysitting, go hold Francine’s hand. Likely she has another one of her sick headaches.”
He looked at me like a man that was fighting an uncomfortable truth. “I’ll leave, but only because Uncle Rob will wish to hear that you are awake. I’ll also send Mrs. Wiley up to you as she will no doubt want to see how you fare.”
Before I could tell him how I faired was no one’s business but mine he had already left the room. I could have been offended but in truth I needed the time; I had a lot to think about and a gorgon to prepare to face.