Friday, March 16, 2012

Chapter 14

Chapter 14

“I won’t,” I told him. “I’d rather crawl through muck and scum. I didn’t resort to it last winter and I won’t now.”

No longer laughing Cor asked, “Last winter is when you lost your toe?”

“I didn’t ‘lose’ it. I know right where I buried it after I cut it off.”

He made a face like he’d bitten into something spoiled. “The place you came from sounds a real dream vacation.” He shook his head. “I know there are a lot of brutal places like that in the Outlands but none that I heard of would leave a woman helpless and alone in such condition.”

“I wasn’t helpless.”

He snorted, “Are you saying you found the experience pleasurable?”

I shook my head. “Of course I didn’t … but it didn’t break me and that is what the Headman was after. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. And for that matter I wasn’t alone either. My crèche sisters helped when they could at great risk to themselves. And Docia even sewed my foot knowing she could have wound up in the stocks for it, maybe even put on the strapping post and beaten for all to see. It might have meant her death but she wouldn’t abandon me.”

“Docia … she’s the one that married my cousin Robbie.”

I hadn’t even thought about that he was Robbie’s cousin. “Yes.”

I tried to keep the hopefulness out of my face but he must have seen it and told me, “I met her … it was before I found out about you. She … she seems …”

I nodded. “I know she’s a light weight sometimes in the thinking department but she isn’t stupid or silly and she’s a pleaser if folks give her half a chance. She’s good at doctoring … well, not the sort of doctoring that part of your family does but she was just about the only doctoring those of us in the crèche saw. Her grandmother was the town’s yarb woman.”

“Mmmm. Aunt Mona has already taken to her from what I can tell, says she’s good with the older folks. Aunt Winnie said that you might like to write to her. If you can’t write I’m sure Francine will help you.”

“Do you take me for …? Never mind, looks like you might. Yes. I can write, and more than just putting an X for my name. I can read and cypher as well. Da made sure of that even though I had to keep it hid for the most part. I taught my sisters what I could, it was one of the few ways we had to get back at the men.” Refusing to let the chance get away I asked him, “Did you mean it? About me being able to send a note to Docia? She was anxious about us being parted. Did she seem …”

When I got stuck looking for a word he said, “Happy?”

“No, happy is something that seems too much to hope for. I’m more interested in if she seems well. Your cousin didn’t strike me as a hitter but …”

“Of course Robbie isn’t a …” His outrage faded and then he said, “No. Docia won’t find that here in Kipling. And certainly won’t find it with Robbie. His mother would skin him like a savage. But to set your mind at rest, write your letter and I’ll take it with me to the fort when I leave in a few days. While I’m there I will stop in and perhaps be able to bring you a note back when I come.”

“You’re off on one of your barter runs again?”

He shook his head. “Not yet. I’ve some paperwork to file with the record keepers and … and a few other things. I hope to only be away a few days.”

We fell silent again and I tried to keep to my normal pace and ignore how tight and pain-filled my body felt but Cor walked slow which forced me to walk slow or look stupid, as if I was trying to run away from him.

Out of nowhere he says, “Mrs. Wiley says you need new shoes.”

I shook my head. “There’s nothing wrong with my moccassins. I wouldn’t mind the use of a piece of leather so I could patch the worn side but …”

“Talk to Jonah about having the cobbler out.”

Aggravated I asked, “Did you hear what I said?”

He looked at me and said, “The whole valley can hear what you say when you get agitated. But now I think of it I’ll simply tell Jonah myself so you don’t … forget.”

We had reached the destination I had realized he’d been making for. The cabin. “Sit before you fall. Your face is looking like moldy cheese again.”

“And yours is going to if you don’t stop making comments on what’s none of your business.”

I sat because it suited me to but instead of sitting on the bench as he had during our other talk he leaned on the trunk of a nearby tree. “Fel, I’ve given some thought to your proposal. I’ve also been told a few things by my uncle that I was not aware of when I first returned and was presented with this … this situation.”

Cautiously I asked, “What sort of things?”

“That my wife’s family is seeking more influence over the governing of the Council which could create threats of civil war. We haven’t had that since the Dark Days and that could be very dangerous for everyone as Kipling is already in a weakened position because of the things that were already explained to you.” He paused and then added, “Uncle Rob said that you were quicker to grasp the problem than I have been.”

I shrugged. “Well, they did kind of give me all the facts in one fell swoop rather than me having to gather them as I went. And it sounds like you’ve been busy trying to repair the damage that your … a … I mean that your family suffered from your grandfather dying so young. I saw it because that sort of thing is common where I’m from. Maybe not on a grand scale like you’ve got going on but it amounts to the same thing. There’s always going to be people that think they can do a better job at something than the next person can. Here people seem to inherit their … their power and position. I suppose that is OK if the person inheriting it knows what to do with it for the good of all rather than just his or her family or even just themselves. It sounds like Kipling has been lucky for the most part and that you balance out the rule by birth with a system of checks and balances so that everyone in Kipling has some say in things no matter what family they’re in. But where I’m from the Headman is elected by the elders and rules absolutely. When things are going well Da used to call it a popularity contest but when things go bad, it is more the strongest and wiliest that will be the one that gets picked to run things.”

Trying to explain I told him, “Our old headman that started the feud that cost my family their lives was popular for a while because he could be charming and make good treaties with other groups in the area; but he liked too much to have the women stroke his ego … among other things. It caused problems when he started doing it with the wives of other headmen. The headman that was elected after him is strong and finished the feud but he is stupid and unnecessarily brutal … the elders will have a time getting rid of him unless someone sees that he has an accident.”

“An assassination?”

I shrugged. “No one will call it that but I suppose that is what it amounts to.” When he continued to lean on the tree instead of talk I made to get up.

“Where are you going?”

“I can’t sit around all day Cor, I’ll get stiff and there’s more than enough work to help Mrs. Wiley with. Winnie’s babe can’t be much longer in coming and we need to prepare for that too.”

“I know. One of the reasons I am going to the fort is to see if Aunt Mona will send someone out. The plan was original to send to the village for the midwife when her time came but … Uncle Rob is worried. She’s suffering a lot more than she is letting on.”

I nodded. “I haven’t liked to go exploring too far in case I was needed.”

“You’re a midwife?”

“Me? No. Docia taught us all a few things and my old Gran knew a thing or three about birthing babes whether they were animal or human and expected me to carry it on after her. I helped my Ma with my brother and she had bad trouble with him … he came feet first. That was the only time I ever saw my Da cry, he was that thankful to God it just poured out of him. He never got the chance to cry at what the Lakesiders did to them … but I suppose I did enough crying for both of us when I realized I was left behind and alone.”

I hadn’t meant to be so free with my past. I tried to get up again but this time he stopped me by putting his hand on my shoulder. “Sit Fel. We really do need to talk.”

“About?”

“Your place here. It has been brought to my attention rather … er … forcefully that I … I’m letting my … emotions rule my head.”

I looked at him and saw an uncomfortable man that was carrying a load of responsibility that was bowing him … but not breaking him. He was still young enough he should have been able to enjoy being silly as young men are wont to be without it meaning life or death. Instead he had the care of not just himself but of a lot of other people as well and he had to learn how the long hard way as his Da didn’t show him how to be the man for the job. I had no idea just how many people he took care of but the way Jonah talked quite a few and even if the farm families were not directly part of his responsibility, what he did and how he acted influenced their lives greatly.

“You love her,” I said simply.

He sighed. “I do. But … but as Uncle Rob has pointed out love doesn’t fix everything and the people we love are rarely perfect. I love Francine. She’s not perfect but neither am I. I won’t see her hurt and I will not be unfaithful to her and no one can make me … but …”

I didn’t know what to make of that “but …”.

He straightened his shoulders. “I’ll ask once again if you are still willing to act … act … as …”

I didn’t like feeling bad for the man but I did. I certainly didn’t want him as my enemy but I wasn’t sure if I wanted some man, and him in particular, as my friend. I wasn’t the only one caught between a rock and a hard place. “Us being allies? Yes. Even if we get on like oil and vinegar I still think it is the only way to do this, to prevent those Lathrops from mucking things up for you and yours.”

Carefully he said, “I would like to know what you think you will get from this … this … treaty between us.”

Now that was a hard one. But it was pretty easy at the same time. “I hope to come away with my life.”

He arched a disbelieving eyebrow. “Your life? That’s all?”

“All?” I asked incredulously. “My life might not mean much to you but it does to me. And my life is more than I would have gotten had I remained in my town.” Letting him see some of my anger I told him, “I didn’t have a choice of being sold. I wasn’t given a choice between being a real wife to someone and this … this situation they handed me. I was told just to suck it up and too bad that what few foolish dreams I’d managed to hang onto despite it all would never come true. I certainly didn’t pick you to be in this situation with. And when I got here part of me wondered if my life was worth living anymore. But I’ve had time to think. I like the Captain … and Winnie too. Jonah is passing strange but he’s turned into someone I trust even if he is a man. He doesn’t lie to me and in his own way he is kind to me. I think I’ll like Mrs. Wiley too for she and Jonah are a lot alike. Maybe over the years, if it is years I get, I’ll meet others like that and I’ll get to see or at least hear from my sisters again and know that they did get a good life. I think that that can be enough. To you that might not be much but it is more than what those raiders left me and it is more than what the Headman wanted for me. It will have to be enough for it is all there is for me.”

I’d made him uncomfortable again and a little angry besides but I didn’t care. I might have cared if I was going to get hit but as prickly as he could be I haven’t seen any signs that he’d punch me just for giving him a little lip.

“What am I supposed to say to that?”

I told him, “I ain’t asking you to say anything. You asked a simple question and I have you a simple answer. Unless I’m as cross-eyed as a drunk porker I’ve seen you ain’t exactly had a lot of choice on this either. I swear sometimes it is enough to make me feel like walking into a hot zone to get away from all the people that want to order my life when they can’t even manage their own without making a mess. But now that they put me here I don’t plan on letting them make it worse. I know them Lathrops are the family of your precious Francine but I already don’t like ‘em at all.”

He just stood and stared at me.

“What?!”

“Sometimes you talk like … well you talk better and then sometimes you talk like … like …”

I rolled my eyes. “Oh fine, I’ll try and remember I have some education … but I can’t promise you it won’t come and go when I get aggravated or irritated. Da kept telling me I had to learn to speak properly so that when he took us back to his home I could make a proper marriage. He didn’t talk as fine as the Captain does but no one around here would look crosswise at his speech. It just seems sometimes I don’t feel like being his idea of what a lady is supposed to be. Sometimes I just can’t get my head to think any other way than how the words that come out.”

He shook his head. “You might want to watch that when Muriel arrives. She can be a stickler.”

I muttered darkly, “She better hope I don’t stick her.”

“Stickler not …”

Impatiently I told him, “I know what you said … and you heard what I said. I haven’t met her and I already know that I don’t want to spend any more time in her company than I have to. Now is that all you wanted?”

“No cranky, it isn’t.”

“Then what already. I feel like we do nothing but talk in circles going over the same ground time and again.”

He sighed. “Then let’s not. We need to talk about settlements.”

“Settlements? Is there more of them that just Kipling?”

“Huh? No no, not that kind of settlement. Settlements … if you are to be … be my …”

My embarrassment made me more belligerent than I might have otherwise been. “You know, if it sticks in your craw so much you can’t even bring yourself to say it …”

He hit the innocent tree with the flat of his hand in irritation. “Well, how easy is it for you to say it?”

“Not easy. And what’s worse I have to let other people call me something that I’m not and it makes me feel like a liar. But better a liar than a whore. So … husband … what kind of settlements are we then talking about.”

He calmed when he saw I didn’t like it any better than he did and answered, “For your care and upkeep.”

“For my what?!”

“Hush you looby! I came out here so no one would listen in. You start screaming and you’ll bring them running.”

Considerably more quiet I hissed, “I wasn’t screaming but if you think I’m gonna take money like some saloon girl you can think again!”

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