The Tale of Gwyn Chapter 1
GWYN STOOD CROWDED IN AMONG the women. She held the hood of her cloak close around her head, covering her hair, shadowing her face. The basket she kept at her feet. Like the others, she kept her long dark cloak close around her, as if she too were cold.
Tad moved restlessly at her side, and she placed a hand on his shoulder, warning him without a word. She wished he had been willing to stay outside and play with the other children. But he stuck close to her.
They had been standing so for over an hour now. Gwyn’s eyes smarted. The long, low-ceilinged room was stuffy. While the heat from the fireplace, back behind the polished wooden table, did not penetrate the length of the room, its smoke did. The door beside the fireplace was closed. Closed also was the door behind them, through which they had entered. The little windows up high on the walls were shuttered. The air in the room smelled of wood smoke and wet woollen cloaks drying out, of bodies gone long without washing, of damp hay spread over the dirt floor.
Low conversations flowed all around her, swirling like gusts of snow. The air in the room grew warmer, which increased the odors of smoke and bodies. Tad put his face in against her arm, burying his nose. Gwyn employed an old trick: she closed off her nose from inside, as if it were stuffed up with a cold, and breathed through her mouth. With her nose closed off she could not taste the stench.
Men didn’t come to the Doling Room. The shame would be too great for a man to carry. So the women carried it, Gwyn thought. It was a hard thing to be a woman, her mother had often told her. Looking around her, Gwyn could agree. Why then should she marry? Because, her mother would say, there was nothing else for her. “Would you live always at the Inn, serving in another woman’s house? Would you go with a widower and raise another woman’s children and your own disinherited? Or live alone, like Old Megg? Or maybe you’ll go to serve a Lord, perhaps, you with your proud tongue.” Her mother, Gwyn knew, gave practical advice. When winter broke, her parents would look about to see who had a good holding, good enough to last out the lean years. They would announce her dowry of four gold coins and wait to choose among those who might come forward. Cam, she knew, would not come forward.
In the spring, then, she would have to say yes to some man, or let Da announce her intention never to marry. One or the other, because service in a Lord’s house was unimaginable. One or the other was her choice, and she liked neither; but she could do nothing about the hardness of that.
Gwyn kept her eyes on her basket; she didn’t want to catch anyone’s attention. There was no one here to recognize her, the Innkeeper’s daughter from the Ram’s Head, but between the bitter envy of those whom hunger held close and the danger of traveling without a man’s protection, she preferred to be unknown.
Women of all ages had gathered in the low room, each bringing her basket to be filled. Some were young and straight, some older and beginning to be bent under the years, a few held infants, a few were swollen with unborn children. All—young or old, fair or plain—had hungry faces: eyes dull, skin stretched pale over hollow cheeks. All clutched their cloaks close and pushed as near as they dared toward the fire. And well might they seek warmth, Gwyn thought to herself, for hunger adds teeth to the bite of winter. She hung back, keeping Tad with her, for their cloaks concealed warm sheepskin jackets and heavy boots, under which they each wore two pairs of thick woollen stockings. In the same way, their hoods hid round cheeks made rosy by the long walk and their lowered lids covered bright eyes. It was not their fault that their family’s luck held good; but this was not the place to display good fortunes. With nothing else to do, Gwyn eavesdropped on the conversations around her.
“And would you hurry out of a warm bed on this day?”
“Osh aye, and didn’t I just do that, with the mouths to feed.”
“Steward’ll have servants to make him his porridge. Or bread more likely. Steward’ll have fine bread and rich cheeses.”
“And soft blankets to pull up close around his chin while the servants stroke the fire.”
“The Earl keeps his men well, they say.”
“Well, but not too well, is what I hear. It’ll be down comforters.”
“—Could the Earl’s storerooms still be full? There’s more come each Doling Day.”
“—More soldiers out on the King’s Ways, think you?”
“Because there are more thieves out. Come hunger, come thieves.”
“—One to be hung, as I hear, a young man—a highwayman, they say, with a way of taking the purses off of wealthy travelers.”
A quick attentive quiet all around greeted those words. Then:
“Young, was he? And handsome?”
“As I heard at market.”
“In the south, he was, and rode the River Way. It’s Earl Sutherland’s men who took him.”
The name no voice would speak rang loud in the thick air.
“Are things so bad in the south, then?”
“Osh aye, things are bad everywhere.”
“Worse in the south, as I hear. So long as the troubles stay south, I’ll sleep contented.”
“The old Earl Sutherland had too many sons—”
“—The sons have too many soldiers—”
“Is he dark or fair, this young highwayman?”
“Hair dark as night.”
“Gold as the sun, I heard.”
“—The new Earl’s a greedy man, as I hear—”
“A greedy man should not have brothers.” Somebody laughed, without humor.
“And likes his wine more than he should.”
“He’ll die before his time then.”
“And leave a son too young.”
“The king’ll have to name a regent then, unless the new Earl’s wife—?”
“As vain and greedy as her husband.”
“Such Lords have a way of dying before their times, while their Stewards get fat.”
“And the brother takes the title—”
“If there’s no son—”
“The sons of such men die in their cradles—”
“Osh aye, I’d never dare to take a meal in a castle. Better my own cabbage soup without fear.”
“Such things don’t happen among the people,” someone agreed.
“The Lords and the law don’t permit it. A man must name his heir before the given time. You’d think the Lords would govern themselves as wisely.”
“Whoever said the Lords were wise?”
“That same man who claimed that pigs would fly.”
“One of the Lords that was, wasn’t it?” a bitter voice asked.
That was a dangerous envy to be spoken aloud, that envy of the Lords, warm and safe in their castles, well fed, with soldiers to protect them. Any one of the cloaked women in the room might be the Steward’s spy. Somebody spoke loud into the silence: “They’ll be journeying him around then, this highwayman.”
“They’ll wait until the weather breaks. They wouldn’t want him to take a chill and die before his time. We’ll not see him until spring.”
“Some men they never do hang, you know.” A voice creaking with age spoke. “Some have friends to rescue them—”
“He rode alone, they say.”
“And no sign of his booty about him?”
“No sign. No sign about him.”
They all wondered, silently.
“In my grandmother’s mother’s time . . .”
“Osh aye, now, those were bad times. Needy times.”
“When the King as then was began the Doling Rooms—”
“Men with hope of food don’t follow a highwayman into the forest—”
“They hanged enough, then.”
“But never him, not as I heard.”
This caused another uneasy silence, a fretful quiet that pooled out. They all looked toward the door by the fireplace, as if expecting it to—at that precise guilty moment—swing open and fill with men.
“Where would we be without the old tales.” The creaking voice behind Gwyn spoke again. She turned to look at the speaker, a bent old woman whose white hair coiled in thin braids over her ears, whose cloak hung in folds over her body. “Tales of elvish folk, flying through the air—”
“Aye, and dwarves mining under the mountains for stones as big as my fist.” A voice answered laughing, from the front of the room.
“As if there ever were a man could do such things.”
“Or even want to.”
“And never grow any older, not in the hundred years.”
There was none not of their kind to hear them, but still, newly hasty, they spun the room round with stories of disbelief. Gwyn knew, thus, that they must believe, or maybe merely hope, and she couldn’t blame them. There was so little else in their lives to hope for.
Beside her, Tad tried to burrow his nose in under her arm and she elbowed him in protest. “It smells in here,” he complained up at her. Gwyn felt the rustle of interest among their nearest neighbors. She could have smacked him.
“Hold your tongue,” she whispered. His expression turned sullen. He was nine now, too old to whine the way he did. But Tad was the baby of the family, and spoiled.
The damage had been done; she felt hostility around her. “The Innkeeper’s daughter, from the Ram’s Head.” She heard herself identified. “The unmarried daughter.”
“That’s the only son.”
“Too good to play with ours then, is he?”
“Too weak and mollycoddled to stand the cold, more likely.”
Tad’s cheeks burned red, with temper probably.
“Do even the inns lack for food then?”
“No, no. Rest easy, they feed Old Megg. The Innkeeper at the Ram’s Head lives like a Lord, fattening on the lean years. He knows no lack.”
“It’s the youngest daughter came before. She’s to marry her blacksmith.”
“Unless she’s taken sick. And she has a burning not a wedding.” The voice didn’t sound displeased by this possibility.
They could say what they wanted, Gwyn decided. She brushed back the heavy hood and looked boldly around her at curious eyes. Besides, they’d say it anyway. And she didn’t blame them, she thought, as pity closed its hand around her heart.
The crone behind her spoke up again. “Osh aye, it’s never the child to blame for who her father is.”
Gwyn’s head turned. Murmurs of agreement met that statement, but she would not hear people suggest such things about her father.
Little dark eyes met hers and one eyelid lowered slowly: Why should the woman wink at her, Gwyn thought furiously. The crone added then, “For good or ill, it’s not the child’s doing.”
Gwyn stared at the aged face, the mouth sunken into folds of skin, the hooked nose, the body bent so badly that the old woman had to tilt her face sideways to look at Gwyn while the voices around took up the idea and carried it away.
“Nor a woman to blame for her man.”
“She’s in the right about that, no woman to blame for the good or ill of her man.”
“More ill than good is what I’ve seen.”
Gwyn thanked the old woman with a smile. Then she whispered to Tad, “Ask if she’d like you to hold her basket while we wait.”
He shook his head.
“Do as I say.”
He shook his head more vehemently. His hood fell off and his bright red curls, looking as warm as fire, ruffled as if a wind had blown over them.
“Or I’ll tell Da you wouldn’t play with the others,” she threatened. That wasn’t fair, she knew. The boys would have pummeled him, if their mother’s feelings gave any hint of how the rumors ran. Still, if she’d been Tad, she’d have stayed outside—and given as good as she got.
Sulky, he moved over to speak to the old woman. She shook her head, holding the handle tight in gnarled and knitted hands. But she pushed over to stand behind Gwyn, following Tad’s path through the crowd of bodies. “Steward was late last fortnight too,” she said, to nobody in particular.
“Because he doesn’t have the long walk back to his own fire.”
“—Women who live in the city should let the others go first—”
“Until the Lords say it has to be done that way I’ll not—”
“What brings you to the Earl’s Doling Room, Innkeeper’s daughter?” the crone asked.
“Da told us to,” Tad answered her shortly.
Gwyn resisted the urge to kick her brother. Instead, she explained more politely, “Lord Hildebrand’s messenger came around at the start of winter. He told us his master’s storerooms were not over full. There are many of us at the Inn to share out the journey, so Da decided we should come to the Earl, who has more.”
She kept her voice low but the ears around her listened to her words.
“You’ll have a long journey back,” the crone observed.
“Yes,” Gwyn agreed, because it was the truth.
She looked again to the door behind the table, at last becoming impatient. She knew that many of the women in the room were also thinking of the long walk home, to get back to their families before dark fell. Even to the poor and especially for women, there were dangers—from thieves, and after dark, from the soldiers too. They were right. The women from the city, which lay within circling stone walls just beyond the Doling Room, ought to let those with longer journeys go first when the Steward came. They would not, she knew, even though they ought. Three hungry winters made everybody less willing to look to her neighbor. And the dangers of city streets were worse, she’d heard. A man might die between his own house and his neighbor’s, killed for the clothing he wore. The people of the cities suffered worse in lean years, when fevers came, when the land was uneasy. If she were a man, and a Lord, she thought angrily, she’d find a way to keep the people safe. But there was no way to change the way things were, any more than you could change the weather. All she could do was get home safely and advise Da that they shouldn’t send again to the Doling Room, even for Old Megg. That was all she could do, just see that the people of the Ram’s Head were kept safe.
“They say the Innkeeper at the Ram’s Head pours a fair measure,” the crone said to her.
“He does,” Gwyn agreed, thinking of her father’s heavy voice and the stolid temper that belied his red hair.
“Your sister is dark.”
“Like my mother. Only my brother and I have Da’s hair,” Gwyn said. Her hand went to the braids coiled over her ears, in the fashion identical to every other woman in the room. “And mine is growing darker. But do you know our father?”
“I knew him,” the old woman answered. “Long ago.”
Gwyn was about to ask her about that, but the door at the front of the room clanged open, giving them a glimpse of low gray skies before it filled with men. The entire long room fell silent. Every eye in the room watched the Steward enter, peel off his heavy gloves, take off his cloak and hang it over the back of the chair. He turned to the fire and rubbed his hands before its warmth. He stood there with his back to them, in leather leggings and a blue woollen overshirt belted about the waist. Three soldiers entered after him, in shorter cloaks and high boots, their swords sheathed at their sides. They lined up behind him as he sat at the table and opened up his long book.
The open door let a blast of icy air blow down the length of the room, while servants in sheepskin wraps hauled in the great baskets of turnips and the barrows of grain. There was no sound in the room now except the scrape of feet and the drag of baskets. A baby fussed somewhere ahead of Gwyn and was quickly put to its mother’s breast to quiet it. The silence held itself tense while the Steward, without looking up at the crowd of women, slowly turned the pages of his book. He lifted his head once, to call for a cup of hot wine, which one of the servants scurried away to fetch to him. Slowly, the Steward sharpened his quills with a little silver knife, laying them out in a row before him, ready to hand. He uncapped the jug of black ink. He put beside this two thin sticks of charcoal. The soldiers stood motionless behind him, their eyes fixed above the heads of the women, their hands ready at sword hilts.
As if, Gwyn thought angrily, anyone in this room would be a danger, all women and weak from long hunger, all standing in patient and humble obedience until they could step forward to be given the food that would keep their families alive for the next two weeks. She was shamed to be here, standing so. She would rather be home in the kitchen, under the lash of her mother’s voice. Even knowing it was for Old Megg, not for themselves that they came, she was shamed.
Gwyn and Tad waited, as silent as everyone else. The men at the front of the room might as well have been alone from human company. They could have been standing before a herd of cows, preparing to pour fodder into the troughs. Gwyn felt her throat close up in pity for these women, who had worked—she knew it and their hands and backs showed it—worked so hard for such poor crops, for such long hours, and who were now come hand in hand with hunger and shame because the rains in the spring had been too hard and the summer too hot and dry. Gwyn knew that without the Lords’ food, many would die, even more than winter claimed by right. She thought, then, that the women had reason to be grateful.
At last the Steward allowed the women to come forward, one at a time. The servants put into their baskets the measures of grain and the turnips, while the Steward wrote the record into his book. The crowd shuffled forward, in that unquiet silence.
Gwyn moved steadily with the crowd and at last stood before the Steward. She identified herself and watched his hands turn the long pages over. Each page was ruled into columns, each column headed with the lines and circles that those who knew could interpret. When he found the column he wanted, his slow quill scratched marks in black ink. Gwyn gave her basket to be filled. Tad stood behind her.
The Steward never looked up once at her, and while she stood there before him she studied the top of his head, where a pink scalp showed through thin blond hair. The firelogs crackled behind him. His pen ceased moving. He reached to dip it into the inkpot. His hands were white, the nails smooth and clean. The Earl’s signet was on his finger, the sign of the bear cut deep into the gold. Gwyn’s basket was returned to her, heavy now. She and Tad moved out of the room.
She pulled Tad aside by the doorway. For a while he was content to breathe deeply of the clean cold air. Ahead of them, women called their children out of the group now huddled together for warmth, then moved quickly off, looking at the low sky with worried faces. Gwyn too hoped the snow would hold off. The King’s Ways were all bordered by rail fences, so you wouldn’t get lost in a snow, but they had ten miles to walk, long enough in good weather.
These women had wrapped their felt shoes around with woollen rags and probably lined the inside with straw as well, uncomfortable to walk on, but it gave protection against the cold ground. Unfortunately, when the felt footwear got wet, as theirs had with melting snow, while they waited the long time in the Doling Room, their feet would be colder still on the journey home. Gwyn looked down to where her own feet were covered by the cloak, glad her heavy leather boots were hidden.
But why should she feel badly to have warm, dry feet? Or guilty—because she felt guilty too—that she had good fortune and did nothing to share it. Even if she did give her boots away, that would be only one pair of feet, out of the many, kept dry and warm. Only one pair of feet out of the many. Still, she half wished she had the heart to give them, even though it would do only a little good.
What her mother would say, though, and her father too if he were told, if she did that!
“Gwyn, let’s go.” Tad pulled at her arm.
Gwyn saw the old woman. The door slammed quickly shut behind her, and she hesitated in the pathway, her basket pulling her body lower, like an aged apple tree over-laden with fruit. “Which way do you take, Granny?” Gwyn asked. The face did not look surprised to see her. “We’re going east and could carry your basket.”
She smiled up at Gwyn, showing a mouth where few teeth remained. “Osh aye, I’d be glad of the help and of the company,” she said. “It’s not so far.”
“Tad”—Gwyn fixed him with her sternest expression—“you can carry our basket. It’s lighter,” she added quickly, as he opened his mouth to object.
“Let’s just get going,” he muttered.
Behind them the city walls rose up into the sky, the stone as gray as the clouds. Women and children moved between the oval gatehouses to enter the city through the narrow gate. Thinking of what might lie waiting for them in the narrow, empty streets, Gywn didn’t envy them their briefer journey home.