The rest of the day is a bit of a blur. I only saw my sisters from afar but they looked … content with their lot if not beaming like a bride from some pre Dark Days fairy tale. Docia was actually smiling and Hannah seemed pleased to have finally found a man she did not tower over or snap if she hugged them too hard. Daphne stood proudly between that pale, blonde Lem and his mother and I hope her fortunes don’t turn to ashes.
The men, what little I noticed of them, seemed a bit stupefied; sort of like they had walked into a closed door. Their new reality looked like it was a bit more overwhelming than they had expected it to be. I saw a few jealous pouts in the crowd milling about them but none that seemed dangerous. As bad as things are for those men I suspect they still have hopes of other women being brought in … or perhaps they will find the courage to go on a search of their own. Or perhaps they have been made promises that tide them over. Whichever way it is, it isn’t my place to care.
I had another run in with Mona when she demanded I submit to an examination. I all but told her to get stuffed albeit not that crudely. When she told me that all the brides had been through the routine I told her, “I’m not a real bride. I have the story Mona … I’m just going to be the real wife’s housekeeper or some such. What does it matter if I up and die tomorrow beyond the fact that you’ll have to start your hunt all over again? If I am contagious it is way passed too late to do anything about it as I’ve been traveling long enough and close enough with others that you couldn’t stop the spread of anything. If I am dying you can’t stop that either. What pains I have are my own and I will tend them as my own as I have for some years now.”
Mona, becoming truly irritated said in a strained voice, “I am not your enemy and resent being treated as such.”
“Perhaps you are right, but nor are you my friend. You have a hand in my predicament even if it is that you choose not to do anything about it. All I ask is that you give Docia a chance. She’s a good girl and will likely try and please you greatly if you will let her. As for me … it doesn’t matter. Just leave me be.”
“This … this … anger is not what any of us wanted.”
I rolled my eyes. “Then you should have picked some silly, witless maid that would have been grateful for the gilded cage you apparently find so attractive and useful as my prison. I’ll do my duty from my own sense of pride and worth and to keep my sisters from feeling the slings and arrows of my existence. Just don’t expect me to bow and scrape like it is really anything to feel blessed for enduring.”
Mona didn’t exactly stomp off – she was too much lady for that – but she wasn’t exactly skipping with joy either. Winnie slipped into the tent and stood looking at me a moment before shaking her head. “Mona isn’t the enemy Fel.”
“So she said.”
“She’s a good person.”
“I’m sure many of you are ‘good people.’ But that doesn’t mean that you are above buying and selling a life for your own comfort. And in this case it is my life, my body. I’d like to see how all of you ‘good people’ would feel if you walked in my footsteps.”
“Do you mean to cause trouble?” she asked with a warning growl in her voice.
“You must have learned that from the Captain.” Her eyes widened when she realized I wasn’t the least bit intimidated. “Look, I already told you I don’t want trouble and will not give it when possible. What choice do I have? All I really want is for this to be over and to be left alone. Or can you not understand even that small bit of it?”
Her lips thinned but she nodded. “The carriage is ready. Let us be off as it seems no matter what we try to do for you you will turn it on us.”
I shook my head. “No, you don’t truly understand do you. You aren’t doing anything for me … you are doing it to me and for yourselves. If your babe is a girl, you better pray her fate is different from mine or you may yet come to understand more than you would ever want.”
I grabbed my rucksack and moved to step outside only to view the receding backs of my sisters as they were driven away in much laughter and merriment. I shrugged, not even knowing if I would see Docia or the others again. I had my doubts. Even if they meant what they said, life had a way of souring even the best of intentions.
I then looked for the “carriage” Winnie had spoken of. Seeing the Captain standing over by a strange looking boxed-in wagon with high sides and a top I took my courage in hand and walked towards it of my own free will.
As I walked I realized there was a young woman already seated inside it. She was dressed simply but well and the closer I got the more of her I saw. Her skin was the color of the Headman’s best linens … light and fresh and unused to rough handling. My own bronzed skin told me she could not get out in the sun much or if she did it was with a wide brim and gloves to cover her hands. Her hair was every bit as blonde as Docia’s but to me it did not set on her faded coloring as well. Her brows and lashes were only slightly darker than her curls which is to say they seemed to nearly blend in with her skin. Her cheeks and lips were rose colored but not by nature; someone definitely used a coloring pot and without it her waif-like appearance would have turned to wraith-like. The overall effect was angelic and frail and I immediately saw myself in the opposite position. If she does indeed think that she won’t be the first to view me as more demon than damsel.
I stopped by the Captain who was watching me watch the young woman. Carefully he introduced us. “Fel, this is Francine. Francine … Fel.”
Poor Captain. He was even more uncomfortable than I was. The woman – though she was only a few years older than me she seemed somehow younger – turned to me and with great violet colored eyes asked, “Are you … you angry? I heard them say you were angry. My aunts said you would be grateful to be rescued, happy to come live with me and be my sister. I don’t understand. Don’t you want to come live with me?”
Oh glory. I didn’t know whether to call the ridiculous act a trick the way they would have been with Daphne or simply her way of trying to disarm me so that I wouldn’t consider her a threat. Until I decided I wasn’t going give her any more than I had to.
I told her quietly, acting as if I didn’t really want to scream at the top of my lungs at how bad I hated the world in that moment, “I don’t know what I am. Let’s leave it at that. From what I’m told this isn’t your doing so it would be stupid of me to hold you responsible for it.”
I felt the Captain relax whether her realized I sensed it or not and he bid me climb into the carriage. I sat as far from Francine as the sacks and bags already on the benches would allow. I helped to lever Winnie up so that she too could sit and she chose a place between the two of us but on the bench on Francine’s side of the carriage. A wiry and cranky looking man climbed into the driver’s seat and four other outriders joined the Captain. Leather curtains were dropped and then tied in place making the interior of the wagon dark and stuffy.
“Oh I hope I don’t get ill don’t you Winnie? Why ever do we have to leave this way? I wanted to say good bye to my aunts first."
I realized Francine had Winnie at least partially fooled when she answered like she was speaking to someone slightly slow witted. “We talked about this Dear. We are trying to avoid a situation. As soon as we are well away from the fort the Captain will lift the curtains and you will have your fresh air.” I almost snorted but didn’t want to let her know I could see through her game. At least not until I knew the lay of the land and could see her purpose better.
After a few moments a tremulous voice asked, “Are you really an Outlander … um … Fel?”
It was dark enough that I permitted myself a small smile behind my hand. If this was the best Kipling had to offer Daphne was going to be Head Woman before all was said and done.
Winnie asked a little sharply, “Fel, did you hear Francine?”
“Sorry. I was trying to figure out how to answer her without scaring her. She seems rather … young and … inexperienced. I have no idea if she even knows anything about what life is like outside the stockade fence.”
I heard a shoe scrape and realized if I wanted to keep the game going I would have to be careful how much I irritated the woman. She hadn’t liked the idea of being what she was trying to portray herself as; a contradiction that doubtless she would eventually trip over without my help. I wanted to get some of my own back but I didn’t want to live in a constant feud so I determined to control myself and eased up on my anger and said, “My Ma was an Outlander but my Da was from this side of the Mississippi.”
The Captain’s voice startled all three of us. “You didn’t mention that.”
For the Captain I would snort to my heart’s content. “Did you ask? My father was a young man on an adventure when he saw my Ma … the rest is worse than a sickly sweet fairy story. He saw her, he loved her, her father had no sons and welcomed someone that already knew the family trade and …”
“Which was?” he asked.
“Which was what?”
A small pause that told me he knew I was being stupid on purpose then he said, “The family trade.”
“My grandfather was a blacksmith. My Da was a fair hand at it himself. It all seemed to be … providential. At least until they were all killed for a man’s ignorant feud.”
“Do you know the name of the place he was from?”
I turned to give him a freezing look but realized he wouldn’t know it and instead asked aloud, “Why would you want to know that? I’ve never been there and no one would know me … Da thought that likely they had mourned him dead for some years because he hadn’t returned from his tomfoolery.”
I sensed more than saw the Captain’s irritation at having to admit, “Curiosity.”
I shrugged and said, “Oh well, so long as you’re being honest about it.” A light cough from Winnie was either a warning or appreciation at the small joke. In the dark it was too hard to tell. “He named the place Dover. I don’t know where it is at exactly, Da never told me that.”
There was an odd pause then the Captain asked, “Are you sure he said the place was called Dover?”
“Of course I am sure. I had to listen to enough stories of the people there growing up. The apple trees he would climb. His Pawpaw’s barn where they hung tobacco. How the church doubled as a school and the padre teaching him and swatting him in turn. The stories only matter to me so I don’t know why you are curious.”
Whatever his reply was I missed it as the wheel of the carriage bounced in and out of a deep rut jarring us and the goods enough to rattle my teeth. Francine gave a small scream and I felt Winnie slide from her seat just in time to lean forward and brace her.
“Hey! Captain! Tell the blind man driving this thing there is a woman with babe in here and she’d doubtless not like to land on the floor more than this once.”
The carriage jerked to a halt and the rear curtain was snatched back and the Captain was just in time to see me putting Winnie back in her seat and checking to make sure she was alright.
Before his mouth could form a word I added, “I’ll drive or ride if you’d prefer to brace her if it is going to be this rough the rest of the trip.”
He surprised me by only taking a moment to say, “Aye. Climb in my saddle but …”
“… no funny business. I’m being watched. You’ve said that before.”
He glowered at me but with no heat in it. I looked at his horse square in the face and told it, “I prefer mules. Don’t give me a reason to prefer them even more.”
I heard Winnie laugh at my words and a light twitter that had to belong to Francine. The bull sized snort could have been none other than the Captain. Of course he would add, “And don’t give my horse reason to prefer mules either Fel.”
Well, at least he could give as good as he got. We traveled for several hours this way until one of the outriders said, “We’ve reached the bridge Captain.”
“Well then stop and let us get these curtains up. It is as hot as Beelzebub’s Bellows in here.”
I could see that I had indeed gotten the better deal even if I had been left out of all conversation and forced to ride in silence being glared at by the outriders and occasionally by the carriage driver as well. The Captain was ringing wet with sweat and both women looked ready to swoon in real distress.
“This place is mad,” I mumbled as I grabbed my wineskin from my rucksack and held it so I could squeeze water into the mouths of Winnie and Francine. “Give me some cloths so I can dip them in that creek so that can cool off.”
“We’ll do better than that Gilly,” one of the outriders said. “We’re to have our lunch here under the trees and you can fetch ‘em a whole pan of water.”
“Then stop your jawing and give me the pan already,” I snapped.
A mildly respectful look replaced his sour puss expression as he watched me dismount without help and head to the creek bank and then bring back a full pan without spilling it.
I looked at the Captain fanning Winnie and then at the women. “Have them sit on that stump and take off their shoes. The pan isn’t big but they should be able to share enough to have one of their feet in at a time. I still want some cloths to dampen so they can spread them across their necks.”
The same outrider threw me some pieces of fabric and said, “Here Granny. And when you’re done see if you can lend a hand with this here blasted teapot as the ladies likes a cup with a little honey with their lunch.”
“It’s too hot for tea pots and tea and Winnie certainly doesn’t need to be drinking that sludge in her condition. Save the fire and hand that picnic basket to the Captain so he can make himself useful. I’ll make us all some drink that won’t roast our insides.”
I had spotted a crock of cider vinegar amongst the supplies I had crawled over and no one objected when I took it out and poured some into the wine skin then added a similar part of the honey that would have gone into the tea. I shook that up then used a dipper to pour drinking water from the barrel on the back of the carriage. I walked back to the creek and set the wine skin where its contents would cool and stood there thinking.
The outrider came up and stood there as well. “Ya aren’t what we expected.”
“I’ve heard that several times already.”
“Doubtless yer have. Mayhap things’ll work out after all.”
Knowing this man could be a friend or an enemy but likely nothing in between I said quietly, “I certainly don’t want to make things worse.”
“Nope. Don’t seem so anyway.”
At that he turned and left and the Captain called me over. “Sit and eat. We’ll leave the curtains up from here on out. If you’ve no objection I will continue to ride with Winnie, or at least until we are on estate lands.”
“Not a problem Captain. You’re bigger than me and can keep them from getting pitched around like loose barrel hoops.”
There was just enough sweetened vinegar that even the wagon driver and outriders could get a swig. I cleaned out the skin and refilled it for later use and the remainder of the ride to the Corman estate was uneventful. More than that though I was grateful not to be included in Francine’s endless nervous monologue of how she missed her aunts and family, of what she had gotten at the market, at how she would miss market days as there were none close by, of wondering when she would get the chance to do it all again, of wondering why her friends did not write more often, and on and on.
It appeared that the Captain and Winnie were so used to it that they had learned to ignore her but she made my ears go numb and she wasn’t even talking to me. What did strike me as passing strange was that not one mention of her husband was made leaving me without clues as to how he fit in with this strange circus troop I found myself in.