Friday, March 16, 2012

Chapter 6

Chapter 6

“My nephew’s name is Lee Corman though what you’ll hear most call him is Cor. He was named after his father … a man much …” She stopped and shook her head in disgust. “If I had to guess Lee would not have been out of place amongst the men of your town. He was hard, could be vicious.”

Stopping her right there I said, “I’ll fight when he hits me.”

She shook her head. “Let me explain things in order. Right now we are talking of Lee. And Lee wasn’t a hitter, at least not with his fists; words were his weapon of choice. Brilliant but troubled, that’s what everyone called him. It took a while to see how troubled, but none of us ever understood why. He had every advantage. During his childhood and before the Corman family had a lot of power and influence as they were one of the Originals.”

“Originals?”

“They rank even higher than the first families of Kipling. There was a Lee Corman that was the right hand man of the founder of Kipling but the family even pre-dates the Dark Days. Cor’s father has been the only bad apple amongst them. The Corman family was here before Kipling himself arrived. That’s what being an Original means; you’ll hear some refer to it as the pre-Kipling era, and there are few enough families from that time left that their influence still holds some weight today. Kipling brought men and weapons to protect the area but it was that first Lee Corman that helped to keep everyone fed. As the Dark Days continued Kipling remained the leader but it was Corman that rallied the locals to throw in with Kipling so that all could survive.”

Resigned to a history lesson whether I wanted one or not I said, “So? Do these Originals still hold some kind of sway over the area? Is there still a Kipling in charge?”

Winnie shook her head. “Kipling was a brave man and an honorable one. He died defending the people that he had sworn an oath to protect. He and his wife lost their only son in the Conflagration of one of the great cities. Their daughter married a son of that first Lee Corman but because of some of the sicknesses of the time was unable to bear children. In fact, many women of that time were unable to make children or if they could the babe did not necessarily stick in their womb long enough to live outside of it. There was also a problem in that so many men were dying … war took so many on the battlefield, learning to survive the new ways took many more, and pestilence even more than the first two put together. It left too few protectors and families were in danger of being obliterated. It was then that the First Families declared that the family lines that remained could not be allowed to die out and the … the practice of multiple wives came to be.”

I rolled my eyes. “And everyone lived happily ever after.”

She chuckled dryly. “Of course not. It created as many problems as it solved. Jealousy was rampant in the beginning. Some women were … well, they lorded their fertility over the women not so blessed. There were races to see who would bear a child to the husband first, who could bear the most children, whose child would inherit the bulk of his father’s estate. The first son was always given the greatest attention. In due course some men had too many wives and thus they all suffered the lack of care a wife should be able to expect as her due. And some men … yes some men became like the men of your town, taking advantage of the situation for their own ends and pleasures.”

Irritated at the chaos of it I asked, “Then why do it? Why allow such a thing to exist if it caused so many problems?”

She shrugged. “Because it served its purpose. Kipling survived and eventually thrived. Our population and reputation grew until we were a force to be reckoned with and other peoples stopped attacking us for our food and territory. But most of those that had participated in multiple wives gave it up as soon as their house was sufficient. Many of the settlement fathers went to their graves thankful to finally be free of all the responsibilities of so many wives and children. The practice had already mostly died out by the time of the plague Mona told you of. As the Dark Days closed there were more than enough men and too few women to continue it. Only a few families still practiced it.”

“The Corman’s I take it did.”

Cynically she said, “Given Lee’s … personality … you would have thought that to be true but it was the exact opposite. Lee had very little use for the human race in general and women in particular. All he wanted was his precious books and his rovings to seek out old tech to tinker with. If you could not assist him in that you were without use and purpose, at least in his mind. No, it is Francine’s family that made it their way of life and who were the last to give it up when there were not enough girl children to go around and even then only with a fight.”

“Who is this Francine?”

“My nephew’s wife,” she answered.

“So your nephew, this Cor, has gone out and procured another wife to keep his first one happy.”

Chagrined she said, “Not … quite. Cor doesn’t know about you. He is away on an expedition to the southern lands to bring back …”

When she fell silent I filled in the blank. “He’s bringing back another group of women.”

“That is not his sole purpose. His main goal is to trade for some exotics that our gardeners want to try and get started here if possible, to diversify our crops and fruit. But he has the authority to offer safe passage to up to a dozen females should they choose to come take a chance on finding husbands.”

“And may I ask why those women get the choice my sisters and I did not?”

“Because my nephew is even more dead set against the plan of the council of families than the Captain is and he would not agree if it in any way smelled of bartering bodies or slavery. Francine’s family has been after him to bring home another wife almost since the first week of their marriage. He has refused up to this point so they took matters into their own hands.”

I jumped up. “Are you mad?! You mean to not only make me … force me … to be a second wife and on top of that its to be by foisting me on a man that not only does not know of my existence but who will be … who will be … well, furious might not even describe it. A man who by your own account is the son of a man who is … Gah! Do I get to dig my own grave first so at least my corpse won’t be rotting above ground for eternity?”

Winnie was too big with child to move fast but she did grab my arm and pull me down beside her. Her strength, given her advanced condition, was surprisingly great. “Cor is not like his father, the only thing they share is a certain look and coloring. Cor can be ruthless but he is not by nature cruel. And there is more to this. Cor is the last male Corman. Not the last to carry the name but the last in the male line period. They were one of the few lines that had more maids than males born to them. Attrition and plague left Lee and his brother the last carriers of the Corman genes. His brother died without male issue and Lee’s only son is Cor. Cor had three sisters but they were all lost in the plague as was his mother, God rest my poor sister’s soul.”

A sigh preceded more explanation of the Gordian knot I was facing. “Francine’s family – the Lathrops – have a great deal of influence as they head up the farm that produces most of the fuel for Kipling’s large farms. It has taken decades for us to get the production high enough that plantation farming is profitable without resorting to slavery, a practice strictly outlawed in our land. We can thank the Lathrops for this advance and it is a credit they deserve. But now a few in the family have become … ambitious shall we say … and insulting them could create … difficulties.”

I was giving her words lots of thought. In fact never in my life had I been forced to use as many of the lessons and stories from my father as the situation I now found myself in. “You are picking your words carefully Winnie which says more than the words themselves do. These Lathrops want the Corman line on their side and perhaps under their thumb. How many of the other families have they done this to?”

A smile of pleasure lit her face. “You are more than anyone expected you to be. The Captain suspected as much.”

Not sure whether it was a compliment or not I told her, “I’m no one’s tool or weapon or … or some pawn in this deep game you play. I’m going to have enough trouble with Francine the Gorgon.”

Pleasure turned to true concern on her face. “You mistake the matter Fel. You are not part of the controls being put in place to maintain the balance amongst the families and Francine is no monster. She’s actually quite lovely and sweet most of the time. She and Cor are a true love match. She’s just a bit … silly and spoiled … and not up to the rigors of life on the Corman estate, nor of the position she is expected to hold as the wife of a family leader. She is used to there being a lot of people to share the work burden with and on the Corman estate she has no one yet is expected to provide as if she did. I did what I could but this babe coming so late to the Captain and I and … I simply cannot do it any longer. Both the Captain and Cor are off traveling so much and Mona has threatened to order me to my bed if I don’t ease up.”

“You live on this … this estate with your nephew?”

She nodded. “The Captain was named Cor’s guardian when Lee died several years ago. When Cor came of age to assume his role he asked us to stay. The Captain does not have the time or desire to cultivate his own plot of land and being cooped up inside the fort all the time is more than I can stand. I need the woods and wild things to keep me sane. You’ll learn I’m not much for housewifery myself. I used to do as much traveling as the Captain did before my sister died and Cor needed mothering. After Cor married Francine the plan was for me to again take up my place beside the Captain but then …” She just sort of lifted her hands and looked at her belly and shrugged.

“Hmm. Babes do tend to change people’s plans more often than not. Da had planned to take our family back to his people only Ma got caught with my baby brother and then Gran became bedridden. The move was being put off until Gran passed but … They’re all gone now and thankful I am too. I would hate for them to see the fix I find myself in.”

“So when you say these girls are your sisters … ?”

“Some of them are my crèche sisters … girls with no family or no family that wanted them thus were raised in a single long house to save trouble and have ready at hand workers for the town. The others are sisters by circumstance.”

“Even that Daphne girl?” she asked with a sardonic humor.

I shrugged, “God works in mysterious ways. We may be able to pick our friends but He is the one that picks our families for us for His own purpose.”

A cautionary look met me with the words, “Careful of the God talk Fel. The Lathrops can be sensitive about their beliefs.”

“And if they are sure of their beliefs they wouldn’t be so sensitive. I’ll not change just to suit the ones that are changing my life all out of proportion … but I won’t hurt anyone’s feelings on purpose about it either. My father taught me and his father taught him, so on and so forth back to before the Dark Days. My beliefs are mine and not even the Headman could make me give them up.”

Winnie shook her head. “You are going to stir things up. I’m not sure if that is good or bad. But you will certainly be a foil for Francine.”

Speaking my mind once again I said, “It sounds more like I am marrying this Francine than I am the man you call Cor. It is Francine this and Francine that … and further about her family. The only thing I really know about the man who will be a husband to me is that he will not want me and likely disgusted by it all.”

Winnie nodded, “I will not lie to you. Do not get your hopes up that Cor will seek out your company except as he has to. The situation is such that he will not be able to put you away from him or turn you out and he will not be happy about that. He has never looked at anyone but Francine and she at him so far as I know. This will be very difficult for all of us, but for Cor especially. His pride will smart.”

“And I have no pride?”

She shook her head, “That is not what I meant.”

“Perhaps not,” I said and left it at that. “So when do I get to meet this man that will hate me on sight?”

Winnie sighed, “You’ll not help anyone by thinking like that.”

“And I’ll not help myself by living in a fantasy either. My lot is what it is. It is either face it and live with it or … or …” Sighing in resignation I told her, “There is no alternative. The best I can hope for is that he will leave me alone and I him. I have enough pride that I won’t let this destroy me but I also have enough that I won’t go begging for scraps from a man who doesn’t want me. I didn’t have much hope of a good marriage with my people but at least if I had, the man would have been mine and mine alone to call husband. Your people’s way is not mine. I may have no choice in this, but I warn you in all else I will exercise what choice I do have.”

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