Friday, March 16, 2012

Chapter 5

Chapter 5

“I know this must all be overwhelming to you but we really do mean you no harm.” I moved slightly in front of Docia and Hannah in front of her little sister Nel. The other women bunched up in their own groups and it is wasn’t missed by the Midwife or her mother … or the few other older women that stood not too far off. “Please, sit and give us a chance to explain before you judge us.”

Hannah and I looked at each other and we knew that as nicely as it was phrased by the beautiful lady that in reality we had no choice. It might have sounded like a request but it was really an order.

After we had all arranged ourselves on the stools and benches that had been placed for us to use the Midwife said, “My name is Mona … Mona Uhl. My husband is the brother of Captain Uhl that brought you here and as I said, my only child is Robbie Uhl who cared for your injuries on the road. I see at least one or two of you have wondered why a large, thriving settlement like Kipling would go to such lengths to bring women in to what should be a healthy population.” At my nod she said, “And you would be right, it is passing strange that we have been forced to these lengths. But I assure you it isn’t because of death or disease or abuse or anything of that nature … or at least not for Kipling. Our practices have been clean and careful since the Dark Days. Unfortunately we cannot say the same for the territories on our other sides. Warring and natural disasters kept their practices hidden or without consequences until the last few years. There is now a horrible imbalance and the number of males far outnumbers the females in the lands around us.”

It was Hannah and not I that asked, “Was it disease that carried their women off?”

“No.”

Surprisingly it was Daphne who had the answer, “They were baby killers. Girl children were destroyed so that families wouldn’t have to support them and take the food and resources away from the boy babies.”

We looked in shock as Mona confirmed it but she asked sharply, “Who told you? Did one of the men …”

Daphne was quick to say, “No. My uncle was the Headman of our town. He had heard stories and rumors. He thought to get one of the peddlars to broker a deal with those groups for a good price to provide women but no peddler ever came, only the men from Kipling. He was angry thinking that you would be selling us off at a good profit on top of the high price the town had to pay for grain and mead.”

I tensed but Mona snorted in anger. “As if I would see any female delivered into the hands of those … those … Never, not even over my dead body. Those beasts have nearly ruined us all.”

Docia asked, “How Lady Mona?”

The title startled her enough that she was able to regain control. “I’m no lady child. Mona is good enough. And the how takes … takes some explaining. Any population can only stay healthy as long as there is sufficient diversity. Kipling had been bringing brides in from these other groups since the Dark Days. As a result birthrates were relatively stable in Kipling and any instability in the other populations was put down to poor diet, their constant warring, lack of ethnic diversity, and many other factors … except the unexpected reality. Then a dozen years ago they became less welcoming to the idea of Kipling men coming into their territories. They claimed we were stealing their women but we both knew that wasn’t true. They tried to steal ours and it was eventually discovered what was happening. Our healers were outraged … as much at the practice as at their stupidity. Their leaders tried to stop the practice of infanticide but it was ingrained by generations and culture and could not be eradicated. Then ten years ago a plague came from the south. It was mild for adults but for children it was devastating. All our peoples lost so many.”

She paused and I could see the grief of a mother on her face. Robbie was likely not her only child … he was her only living child. “As bad as it was for Kipling it was worse for the genetically undiverse populations around us.”

I found my voice and asked, “Were all the girl children killed?”

“No, not all but too many … far too many. Kipling for whatever reason has a high percentage of males born each year in our families … more brothers than sisters are born. We always balanced that out by being able to find brides for our sons amongst our neighbors. For the last five years though … the gap has been unable to be closed. Now fewer than a third of our men of reproductive years has a wife to share those years with. Social unrest is imminent and will weaken Kipling and make us vulnerable to attack by our neighbors who become more desperate with each passing season. Some of our young men have chosen to emigrate and go adventuring as they call it, being unwilling or unable to settle down. That has taken some pressure off but not enough. Some have even gone and come back with wives they’ve found for themselves. Again this is only a stop gap measure.”

Seeing it I said, “Somehow you made sure you were the only ones that would trade with our town. You made sure they were in a position that they were forced to give in to your demands. But how did you make the crops fail?”

Quickly she shook her head, “The crop failures were real as were the plague and the war. None of those were of our making … but we did shall we say … take advantage of what was providentially provided.”

I wanted to tell her that God had no hand in such workings but since I couldn’t absolutely know that I felt safer keeping the words behind my teeth. God worked in mysterious ways according to the Book and He could also seem ruthless … but I was no Padre and the one that had been brave enough to continue to visit our town despite the Headman’s threats had died in the plague. I decided I would have to think long and hard before I would dare call such events providential regardless of whether they were or not.

Seeking another piece of the puzzle I asked, “So you mean to match us up in some kind of lottery? Is that the list your mother spoke of?”

Quietly but firmly Mona said, “Not a lottery, not exactly. For Kipling to survive our families must be able to thrive. For our families to thrive there must eventually be enough of them so that we no longer are dependent on other territories for the bulk of our women. That means that all the families must thrive.”

“That diversity you keep talking about.”

Nodding she said, “That’s correct. Some of our families are doing better than others at this time. Our leaders are doing their best to see that no family dies out. The list is of men who are ready and able to be responsible husbands and fathers from each clan or family within Kipling. Fourteen of you will be brides to men on this list.”

Nel, still trying to catch up and slightly confused said, “But there are fifteen of us.”

“One has already been spoken for but rest of assured she will be just as well taken care of and will be a wife … not a … um …”

Having a feeling I was the fifteenth I said laconically, “The word you are looking for is whore.”

Slightly annoyed and embarrassed Mona gave a small nod. “I wish to …”

I was slightly annoyed myself but mostly at myself for having forgotten what I had already learned … that I was slated to be a “Second Wife” whatever that meant. But I didn’t let my annoyance – and bitterness – get in the way of keeping my promise that I would protect Docia and see her properly settled. I interrupted Mona by saying, “What I wish is to know how you mean to match up my sisters with these … men … on your lovely list.”

A rusty sounding laugh came from behind us. I turned to see the pregnant woman I thought to be Captain Uhl’s wife. Looking at Mona she said, “She has you there Sister.”

Obviously uncomfortable Mona tried to take control of the conversation back but I asked another question first. “Will you do it by looks? By talents? Did the men pay a fee for the right to have a bride? Where any of the men on the expedition to get us on that list because I can tell you that some of them already have preferences.”

“That wasn’t supposed to happen,” Mona snapped.

“And children don’t think they will get belly aches from little green apples either but they do.”

The Captain’s wife snickered again and came to look me over. “I hear you are good with a bow … and a few other things as well.”

I nodded, not sure of her game or just how deep it ran. “Good.” Giving me an appraising look she asked, “How would you determine which man got which bride?”

“You mean if I thought this lunatic scheme would actually work?” At her nod I gave it some thought. “First off I would want to know if any of the women had any particular talent that could be matched up with the men’s family. It would be silly to landlock a fisherman’s daughter into a miserable marriage to a baker. Sillier still to expect the blacksmith’s daughter to want to sit around tatting lace all day with a family of tailors.”

“Second, the men must be someone the women can stomach as well. Can you see Hannah there with some little squirt who prefers counting the Headman’s gold rather than working out of doors with his hands? Or Daphne there trying accept in her bed a herdsman that neither knows nor cares anything about manners and socializing?”

Nodding the woman asked, “Anything else?”

Shrugging I said, “A girl with no dower will not be welcome in a family that expects one regardless of what talents she may have. If you wish a productive marriage to occur, you can’t expect a girl to be harangued by a mother in law or aunties who treat her as a slave because she has added no value to their family coffers.”

Mona said, “Do not speak so roughly about our people. They are not so … so barbaric as the Outlanders are.”

I snorted, “Barbaric? Baby killing went on for generations beneath the noses of your own midwives. You seek to take advantage of downtrodden people so that your own might survive. You are willing to purchase women for the men unable or unwilling to seek out their own because it would mean cutting the apron strings that tie them here. Barbaric? Outlanders? I suggest you take a look in your mirror. I don’t blame you for the desperation you find yourselves in, but call it what it is and don’t try and dress it up. That’s like putting a silk dress on a pig … it is silly and without purpose.”

The pregnant woman barked another laugh and I remembered Robbie had called her Aunt Winnie. “Oh, I like you girl. No wonder you made the Captain uncomfortable. He could see what he was doing through your eyes.” She sighed and shook her head. “Be that as it may, the dye is cast. All any of us can do is make the best of it. There will be a feeding frenzy if we don’t stick to the agreed upon plan. You saw how it was out there.”

I clenched my jaw in anger. “Yes, I saw. Why on earth didn’t you pick a neutral place to bring a man and woman together without the rest of the settlement looking on. Of course they’ll be jealousies if what you’ve said is true. It would have been safer. At least if they take an instant dislike to each other because the match was poor no one has to be embarrassed to death.”

I saw Mona blanch. Winnie said, “It was suggested.” And the way she said it I suspected she was the one that had done the suggesting and been ignored.

I shook my head. “No doubt you expected us to be ever so grateful of your rescue. But I have to tell you all you’ve done is exchange one prison we were in for another. We had no choice. We were never offered any choice. The least you could do is give my sisters some say in what man they get tied to.”

Suddenly Daphne started crying and saying, “I want to be with Lem … he’s cultured and refined … like a real man should be. Don’t make me go to one of those others. Please.”

A little irritated at the drama queen I opened my mouth to tell her to knock it off before she ruined it for everyone else when one of the older women from the sidelines rushed forward and put her arms around Daphne and said, “There, there. It’s plain as day you’ve fallen for my Lem and who could blame you. There, there now. So few truly see his worth and certainly none so quickly as you have.” Looking at Mona she said, “Mona, I demand this young woman be allowed to be my daughter in law. She’s simply too lovely to go to any of those others on that list. I won’t have it. They’ll … they’ll … Well it is too horrid for words.”

I shut my mouth and had to look away before I made a muck of it. Trust Daphne to land on her feet. Mona, shocked and unaware of the tricks Daphne could get up to stuttered, “You’ve … er … really … er … formed an … an … er … attachment for Lem so quickly?” Rather incredulously she asked, “Are you sure we are speaking of Lem?”

The mother dragon said, “Of course we are talking about my Lem. Who else would we be talking about?!”

Mona just cleared her throat and changed the subject. “Have any of you others formed … ummm … attachments?”

Hannah surprised me by saying boldly, “Carter.”

A wizened old woman stepped forward, she was bent with age but still seemed capable and looked Hannah up and down. “Well … you seem a likely girl. You’re certainly big enough he won’t break you should he get to horsing around. He’s brother is going to be disappointed though, he was hoping for a bride this time.”

Hannah all but hefted Nel up and said, “This is my sister. We could come as a pair.”

Mona started to say something but then looked at her list and admitted, “Both of your sons are indeed on this list Marjorie.”

Marjorie slapped her thigh and said, “Then it’s settled. Sisters for brothers. Like as not it will make it easier on the whole lot of you.”

There were a few others that had already made their choices and then the rest of them were paired off with the most likely partners. The number of women were dwindling and with each name Docia squeezed my hand tighter and tighter. Finally I had to sit and put my arm around her but even that was not enough and she started to fold upon herself.

I whispered urgently, “Docia, say something.”

“I can’t. She’s his mother,” was her miserable reply.

I shook my head and then looked up for some wisdom and courage to save my crèche sister from herself. I pulled her forward with me and Mona stopped, startled as I asked to see the list. “Why?”

Ignoring her I looked at the list and sure enough Robbie’s name was on it. I shook my head in irritation. “Look Mona, you may not like me and that’s fine, but don’t punish Docia and keep her in suspense. Your son is the only man I’ve ever seen my sister even able to speak to without squeaking and he looked like he was pleased with her company as well. She has sewn more than a few people up and leaves barely a scar. Though you wouldn’t know it to look at her she’s not the least bit squeamish and she knows a thing or three about what herbs to use when there’s no healer around.”

Mona got a blank look on her face and then consideringly looked at Docia. “Is this true?”

Finally Docia looked up, “He’s just like Prince Charming in that book Fel used to read us.”

Ugh. She would bring that up. I thought life would have taught her that no man was a prince but for some reason Docia always kept that little flicker of hope alive. And by God, I was going to see that she had her chance if it was the last thing I did.

But surprisingly Mona just smiled and said, “I thought the same thing when I first met his father.”

And then it was over with. Except for me. It was Docia’s shocked face that warned me that she had noticed. “But … but …”

I hugged her and said bracingly. “Didn’t you hear what Mona said in the beginning? There’s not the first thing to worry about. Do I look worried? All I care about is that you’re fixed up. Now go … I’ll let you know how it goes. Besides you’ll have Nephew … I mean Robbie … to look after you. No need to be scared. He doesn’t seem like the hitting type.”

I watched them all as they were led away by their new families leaving me behind. It was then that Winnie said, “Liar. You hate this. I can see it even if no one else does. Were I in your shoes I’d be cursing the unfairness.”

I turned to look at her and sneered, “Fairness is for children’s games. Life … you’re born, you live, then you die. If you’re lucky there are a few good memories in there to take with you to the grave and beyond. If you don’t …” I shrugged. “That’s life too.”

She crossed her arms above her large belly then sighed. “I wish it wasn’t like this. I like you too much.”

“So is it you that I’m to play underwife to?”

I had surprised her and she started laughing so hard she had to sit down. Finally she caught her breath and said, “I dare not tell the Captain what you just said. Likely he’d dig a hole and try and pull it in after him.” She hiccupped a few more laughs and then added, “No, the Captain hates every bit of this business. He thinks the men should take care of their own business and if they can’t they have no business being wed to begin with.”

“Then … then who?”

“My nephew and his wife.”

“Robbie?”

She shook her head. “No, my other nephew. My other sister’s son. But we have to do this quietly as there will be some grumbling.”

“I go no where until I get at least a bit of explanation of what I’m being forced into. I may have helped ease the way for my sisters but I’m not fool enough to really believe there was ever any choice in this matter.”

She looked at me hard and then said, “It is a shame. You would have been so much better married off to a man who could …”

“Are you saying there is something wrong with your nephew?”

She shook her head then sighed. “No. Come and let us sit down. Better you hear the unvarnished truth from me rather than trying to piece it together with bits and pieces from everyone else I suspect will try and take a hand in how things work out.”

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