EPISODES ONE AND TWO
By the time Renault comes back with the witch, Alya has broken two ceramic bowls and is working to strip the sheets from the bunk beds. The dark-haired woman stares at my daughter, her steps slowing as she reaches the middle of the room.
“Mama,” my youngest whimpers, and I open my arms to her. From her hiding place under the kitchen table with her sisters, Fayette flies to me and latches onto my waist like a white-striped treejumper. She’s never been comfortable around the magic users, but we have no choice.
“Are you all right?” Renault asks, his voice low in my ear. I nod. It’s a lie. I am so far from that state, I can’t even speak.
“No one understands!” Alya screams, trying to rip the sheets with her bare hands. Six years has not given her enough strength to do so, thank Woz. “No one loves me! None of you! You’re ruining my life!”
“Cherie,” the witch says softly. At that endearment, Alya turns to look at her for the first time, chest heaving, angry tears still streaming down her face, steaming.
“Valerie, take the children outside,” Renault murmurs, but I shake my head. I will stay this time. I will not leave her alone with another stranger. I need her to know that while her first statement may be the truth–I don’t understand her–her second is not. My heart is for her, whatever she might think. I lift Fayette into his arms, as if to say, “Take them if you want to.”
“Why do you rage, little bird?” the witch asks.
“Val,” Renault repeats insistently, but I ignore him. You married a nightstallion of a woman, Renault. You knew that. You could’ve had petit Léa or pretty Sylvia, but you chose the blacksmith’s daughter.
“No one understands,” Alya repeats, but I see the storm in her waning. My heart falls; if the witch cannot see the full effect, will she still be able to help us? I needn’t have worried. Alya kicks at a fragment of the bowl, sending it flying toward us. The witch stops it in the air with a lifted hand.
“Do you want to hurt your family?” the witch asks, and Alya’s temper ignites again.
“This isn’t my family,” she shouts. “A family loves you, a family respects you! A family does not work you like a slave.”
The witch pivots to me. “What did you ask of her?”
“I asked her to wash the soup bowls. Just the bowls, not even the pot or the spoons.” The offense in it still mystifies me, but it is always like this. The tiniest request prompts a hurricane. I am tired of being wrecked, inside and out. I am so tired. My gaze goes to the window; it’s dark now. She won’t try to run away; she fears the forest at night, like the other girls. At least she is like them in that.
Alya slumps into a chair and puts her head in her hands with a sob. Slowly, I pick my way through the sharp shards to her. I put my hand on her blonde head, feeling my own lower lip tremble. Even though she’s two years older, like Fayette, she turns and buries her face in my skirts, wrapping her arms around me like a vise, her body shaking. I rub her back in slow circles. Behind me, Renault and the witch are speaking in low tones.
“Mama.” My heart pangs that Alya’s voice is hoarse from her exertions. “I’m hungry.”
The storm is over. There is still the aftermath, but the worst is done. Her sisters know it, too; I can hear them crawling out from under the table. I cross carefully back to the kitchen and find her some soft cheese with herbs in it, the kind she likes, with a little crusty bread.
“Thank you, Mama,” Alya says with a watery smile. “Do you know where my paper dolls are?”
She’s all sunshine or all storm, in the blink of an eye.
“I do,” Margot pipes up, and I give her a grateful pat on the head as she leads the girls into the closet. Even Fayette wriggles from my husband’s arms to scramble after them. So forgiving. I would like to think I’ve taught them that, but I don’t know.
“Is it always like that?” The witch asks as Renault offers her a chair.
“Sometimes worse,” I say, relieved that I have found my voice again.
Renault speaks up. “Every day. Or nearly that. She is bankrupting us with broken pottery.”
I peek into our bedroom; Alya is giving Clothilde a bite of her snack.
“And you have spoken to the priest?”
I nod. “He says it’s not spiritual. He recommended a firmer hand with her.”
Renault snorts, and the witch raises an eyebrow.
“He recommended that we spank her,” I admit. “It hasn’t helped.”
“Only made things worse,” my husband agrees.
“And the doctor?”
“The one in town, Monsieur Garnier, did not know of any affliction that might do this.”
The witch sighed. “Well, it’s not the magic. It was nervous around her, sensing the emotions, but it wasn’t interacting with her at all. I’d have been able to feel that. And I don’t see any marks of a curse.”
Tears burn behind my eyes, but I won’t let them fall. The girls could come back in at any moment. I save them for tonight, tucked in bed, with Renault like a wall behind me, arms wrapped tight around me. Stay closed. Just for now.
“There is another person we haven’t considered: Madame Montagne. She specializes in many things. I have sent families to her before, and many came back helped.”
“But isn’t she expensive?” I ask, twisting the edge of my apron.
“Not always. It may be that you have something else she would want.”
“A Favor,” Renault murmurs, and a shudder goes through me when the witch nods. I have always avoided magical debt, but for Alya…
“The journey is far, though,” the witch says. “At least two weeks each direction.”
“We can’t take them all with us,” I whisper to Renault, and he just looks at me sadly. “And what about the animals? We can’t…”
“Thank you for your time,” he says to the witch, getting to his feet and offering his hand. He pays her at the door and wishes her a safe journey home. He sits back down next to me, and I take his hand, twisting our fingers together, tipping to rest my forehead on his shoulder.
“What should we do?” I feel his voice rumble through his bones.
“If we do nothing, nothing will change.”
“Or it may get worse.”
I sit up, wiping tears I hadn’t held back after all. “I can’t handle that.”
“So I say again: what are our options?”
I reach out and stroke his dark beard, sprinkled with gray like dandelion seeds. “You should take her and go. We’ll sell Foxy. I think she’s pregnant, we’ll get a price.”
He scowls. “What will you do for milk, then? The goat doesn’t give enough…”
“We have cheese. Maybe someone needs help with washing…”
“You’re stretched too thin already, and it’ll be worse when I’m gone. We can’t–”
“Renault, please.” My voice breaks, and I put a hand over my mouth to try to take the sound back. His face softens, and he pulls me into a hug. “She’s our daughter. We have to help her. We have to prove her wrong. We have to.”
“I know,” he says, squeezing me tighter. “You’re right. Of course you’re right.”
Clothilde wanders in then, and I quickly wipe my cheeks.
“Yes, cherie?” The way she’s rubbing her eyes tells me what she wants; it’s been a long day. I lift her into my arms so she doesn’t cut her feet. Renault will sweep while I bathe them, and soon, it’ll be like it never happened. Only it did happen, and it will happen again. Beyond Renault’s love, it is the only thing I’m sure of.
They bathe as children do, with silly bubble beards and flicked splashes and happy shrieks, the rest of the evening already forgotten. But I know they’re exhausted when Clothilde and Fayette fall asleep before I’ve finished The Cat Who Caught the Moon, one of their favorites. I kiss Margot on the top bunk, still reading her own book in the dim firelight, and she gives me a smile. When I kneel next to Alya, I tuck the covers tighter around her, because I know she likes the feeling. I do know you, darling. I know you won’t touch broccoli, and I know you hate the feel of stiff church dresses around your neck. I know you could recite all our bedtime stories by heart. I’m paying attention, I promise I am. I’m sorry I haven’t figured this out yet. I am trying. Please believe me.
“You’re going on a trip soon,” I tell her with as big of a smile as I can muster.
I nod and kiss the top of her head, lingering a bit longer than I did with the rest of them. “You’re going to see a friend of ours. Someone who can help.”
Her eyebrows dance in confusion. “Help with what?”
The words catch in my throat. “Never mind. Sweet dreams, little one.”
Two days later, the whole family comes out front to see them off. Her cloudy breath mingles with the horse’s as I help her up in front of Renault.
“I wish you could come, too,” she pouts, and I try to give her a smile.
“Me too. Be good for Papa.” It’s so deeply wrong how thankful I am to have a break from her, and the guilt of it cuts me like a hunting knife, a new one.
“Send me a letter everywhere you stop,” I tell Renault sternly, and he gives me a grin, even though I know he’s hurting, too.
“Just don’t let the children see their content.” I whack his leg, and the horse thinks I’m prompting her and lurches forward. The other girls wave with me. But by the time the horse disappears around the bend in the road, I’m alone in the yard. There are chickens that need feeding and dishes that need washing from our hasty breakfast. It’s accomplishing nothing, watching the empty road. It doesn’t even make me feel better. But standing there, I send my heart after them.
EPISODE THREE AND FOUR
“Papa.” Someone’s small hand is shaking my shoulder gently. “Papa, I want breakfast.”
“Valerie…” I mumble, reaching for my wife, but the bed next to me is empty. I open my eyes and look around. Right. Another inn. Another day on the road with my daughter awaits me. The child sleeps like an angry rock marten in our shared bed, burrowing in the sheets and thrashing and talking to the people in her dreams.
“She’s not here, Papa,” Alya explains patiently, as she has for the last week. “And I’m hungry.”
“All right,” I say, forcing myself upright. “Give me a minute and we’ll go see what the offerings are.”
Alya begins to bounce with excitement, and I cringe; it’s barely light. I scoop her up and plop her on the bed, tickling her lightly. At least laughter is a better wake-up call than jumping feet against wood.
“Shh, little bird, we have to be quiet, remember?”
“I forgot,” she giggles. She begins to bounce on the bed instead, so I try to stay close by as I change out of my pajamas into clean trousers and pray it doesn’t break.
I miss Valerie. Not just because she gets up with the children, but I miss the scent of her on my pillow and the warmth of her in the morning…and at night.
She wasn’t one of the girls frequently gathered around the gate, wanting to buy eggs from me, when I moved to Beauchamp as a bachelor. Their pretty wicker baskets, their hair-tossing, and their tittering any time I said anything even remotely amusing made going to the gate something I began to dread. No, Valerie never came to the gate. But her mother did.
“You’re new in town, yes?” Albertine seemed to be assessing me every time she came, but no time more than that first one.
“Yes. I just moved here from La Vallée des Regrets.”
“Ah.” Here, most of the women started asking why I’d left, where my wife was, and all sorts of other nosy questions I can’t abide. But Albertine just lifted an eyebrow and looked down at my girls.
“I ask because of your hens. I have not seen their like around here.”
I launched into the kind of explanation Valerie chides me for now–no one wants so much information about the hens, cherie. Just make it less. Not so much.–but she was not there then to stop me, and Albertine smiled, nodding, listening, asking a few questions. She bought ten speckled eggs and left. It was most pleasant interaction I’d had in days.
When she returned the next week, I mentioned that I hadn’t yet gotten a haircut since I came to town. Several of the gate women had commented on it, touching my prematurely gray locks before I pushed their hands away gently in annoyance.
“I’ll take you to Feline, if you like. She’s my sister’s girl. She’ll give you a good price.”
“I’d appreciate that, thank you.” Since I didn’t know the way, she walked me there. The dust from our feet and passing horses floated up, exposed in the slanted sunshine, and I marveled again at the beauty of the place, still so new to me. The quivering birches and little mossy streams were enchanting, and every cottage seemed to have a thatched roof growing seeds that squirrels had buried, but no one minded. We passed through the middle of town, and the scent of fruit in the sun wafted to us. Apples and cantaloupe, peaches and figs. I was watching for cranberries; I love them dried in the wintertime. The butcher’s wife was out, waving off the flies from her products with a once-white apron, and I angled away from two of my gate women who were buying a roast.
The farrier was working on a horse’s shoe; their smell was less nice than the fruit, but it was still an honest smell. Animals were rarely capable of falsehood, and I admired them for it. Smoke billowed from the blacksmith’s chimney, and a huge dark-haired man with a big beard was working at the anvil on a plow blade that need repairing.
“That’s my Gaël,” she said, waving. And the man stopped to wave back, then came over to the fence.
“Is this our egg man?”
“That’s right,” she said, and I shook his hand.
“Best omelette I ever had,” he said, nodding at the memory. “I don’t know how you get the yolks so bright yellow.”
“Good nutrition. It’s simple, really.”
“Well, it was delicious. My compliments, truly.”
I found myself shifting my weight from foot to foot, uncomfortable under the man’s sincere praise. That’s when she came out of the forge, her face smudged with dark dirt the same color as her raven locks.
“Papa, are you done? I need to go home in case Rielle comes by.” She ignored me completely, which was strange, because if I saw a man whose soul had left his body, I think I’d notice.
“Come over and say hello to the egg man,” Gaël prompted, and her lips went flat with apparent displeasure. But she did as he asked, picking her away across the yard littered with bent metal and various hammers, her hand extended. The gate women wanted me to kiss the back of their hands; not this one. She gave me a firm handshake, then turned back to her mother, who licked her thumb before she attempted to clean her face. My dark-haired angel squirmed away, shaking the dust and soot off her skirts.
“That’s fine; go wash your face, and you can walk with us. Renault and I are headed that way as well…”
“Very well.” She turned on her heel and headed back toward the house. I won’t say it damaged my ego to have her dismiss me so out of hand, but it was certainly not my typical experience, and I did take note.
“And who was that?” I asked as we waited for her by the slatted wooden fence.
“Oh!” Albertine laughed. “We didn’t introduce you, did we? My apologies. That’s my Valerie. She doesn’t much like people. Books far more, weapons somewhat less than books, but still more than people.”
“I like her already.” The words flew from my mouth before I could stop them, and my cheeks pinked as Albertine and Gaël laughed.
“Yes, she is like you, I think,” Albertine agreed. “You prefer a simple life, uncomplicated. Unencumbered.”
“I don’t mind being involved with others, as long as the expectations are clear.” The couple exchanged a look I couldn’t interpret.
“You know, I forgot to start my bread for tonight, so I’ll have to go to the bakery; would you mind if Valerie showed you the way? She can show you as well as I can, if she’s going that way regardless.”
I hesitated. If I was seen walking through town with a young woman, was it going to bring more women to my gate? I needed the business, but not the annoyance. Still, I did need a haircut. Albertine would take me if I asked, but why would I make her? She’d been so kind to me. And she was a customer. I shouldn’t put her to any trouble for my sake.
“That would be fine.”
If I was seen walking through town with a young woman, was it going to bring more women to my gate? I needed the business, but not the annoyance. Still, I did need a haircut. Albertine would take me if I asked, but why would I make her? She’d been so kind to me. And she was a customer. I shouldn’t put her to any trouble for my sake.
“That would be fine.”
“You had to think about it a long time,” Gaël rumbled, lifting an eyebrow in my direction, but Albertine shushed him.
“Careful consideration is a wonderful quality. Here she comes now.”
She’d tied her hair back in a simple style and cleaned up her skin except for a smudge on her forearm that I noticed as she unlatched the front gate. I smiled, and she just stared at me.
“Could you please show Renault the way to Feline’s? I have some things to do in town.”
“Of course. Come on.” She started down the road without waiting to see if I was following, and I hurried to catch her. Her strides were as long as mine, and I fell into step next to her as we continued through town. There wasn’t much left, and soon, we were beneath the trees again.
“Is it far?”
“No. Just a bit past our place.”
That surprised me. “You don’t live in town?”
Her quick smile was there and gone before I’d appreciated its beauty as much as I wanted to. “No, Papa thinks it’s better to breathe fresh air and sleep with the creek lulling us. He doesn’t like the hustle and bustle.”
“I’m with him on that one.”
“You live on Monsieur Cartier’s old property, don’t you?”
I nod. “He was my uncle, my mother’s brother. When he died, he left it to me.”
“And you raise chickens? Is that lucrative?”
My heart sank a little. Was this conversation moving toward my eligibility to marry her? I wouldn’t mind just making a friend, and I certainly didn’t need any more hassle at the gate.
“I do all right.”
“Have you tried feeding them shell fragments? I read that it would increase their egg output and strengthen the shells of the new.”
I turned my head slowly to look at her. “You read about chickens?”
She shrugged. “Nothing else to read that day. You can only read fairy tales so many times.”
I thought about this and found I agreed, though I wasn’t sure it was a popular opinion.
“The chickens don’t dislike it? I think it would disgust me if I were them.”
She laughed. “You don’t like the idea of consuming something that came from you?”
I screwed up my face. “No.”
Valerie laughed again. “You’re likely not alone in that. But no, they don’t mind. You should give it a try, see if you can continue to make your enterprise more profitable.” She stopped by a gate, and I stopped with her. I would’ve followed her much, much farther, and I couldn’t actually remember why I was following her in the first place. That’s how I should’ve known I was infatuated.
“Well? Aren’t you going inside?”
“Oh! Yes. Could you perhaps introduce us? I don’t want your cousin thinking a stranger is breaking into her yard.”
Valerie smirked at me. “My cousin is fairly unflappable, but as you wish.”
She wasn’t wrong. Feline was kind and had the same kind of force of character as the rest of her family, and the haircut she gave me was serviceable. Valerie sat and chatted with us while she worked, waiting for her to finish before parting ways with us, which I appreciated. As I walked home that day, rubbing at my short hair, I thought about what way I could possibly come up with to see her again. Uncle’s farm was old; surely there was some piece of broken equipment I could bring to Gaël to fix. But I didn’t need to.
When I went out to the gate the next morning, Valerie was waiting, her mother’s basket over her arm.
“Is everything all right with your mother?” I asked with concern, hurrying as well as I could without jostling the eggs too much.
Valerie’s smile was bright. “She’s fine. I just volunteered. My father was in the mood for ice cream tonight, and we thought your eggs would make a fine custard.”
“They will,” I said, picking out the best ones for her. “I’ve made it myself. It’s excellent.”
We chatted, I can’t remember about what now, but when I went back inside, I’d spent the better part of an hour out there with her. The next time, I invited her inside for a croissant. She returned the favor and invited me to their house for lemon cake, made with my eggs. But I didn’t kiss her until several months later, after I asked her father if I could marry her. Those lips would be mine and mine alone.
“You’re getting married?” Sylvia was one of my most consistent gate women, touching my arm and laughing nasally too much. Today, though, there was no flirting in her, just anger.
“Yes.” I held out the basket so she could choose, but she didn’t.
“What do you want with her? She’s strange. Everyone says so.”
“I don’t care much for public opinion.”
“You never even called on me,” the woman whined. “You didn’t give me a chance. My papa has money, land. You’ll have it all. He has no male heirs.”
“Then he ought to give it to you. I don’t know how you don’t see that.” I shook the basket insistently, clacking the eggs together dangerously, and she finally chose the ones she wanted.
“You’ll regret it,” she promised as she left. “You’ll be an outcast with her in your house.”
The inn had a nice breakfast, as it turned out. Alya crunched happily on crisp bacon, wiggling her backside in the worn wooden chair as I wrote to Valerie.
Could you, do you think, send your response on to one of the inns farther down on our journey? I am hungry to hear your words, to know how you are. Even if I missed it on my way up, I could receive it on my way back. Please let me know if the children are being good. There’s no carrier here, so I don’t know when this letter will reach you. I hate that. I do take comfort in the fact that your family is nearby if you need them, but they have their own responsibilities, and every day, I think that I should’ve brought all of you with me.
I miss holding you. I miss your sharp mind and your wit. I miss listening to you read to our daughters. You’re a good mama. I’m sure you’re tired; please try to rest and take some time for you as well, as I am not there to take the broom away from you. Take the children to your mother if you need a break, she’ll be thrilled. I miss your quiet. I even miss our arguments. And I definitely miss the making up afterward…
Do you know, when I asked you to marry me, Sylvia told me I’d regret it? The gall of her. It’s no wonder she ran off with that soldier. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to her. We will get through this, beloved. You and me. Even though we’re not together, you are in my heart and on my mind.
Be good to the girls. And to our children.
I have just finished my kneading and set the bread to rise by the woodstove when the knock comes at the gate. I cast a glance to the grandfather clock, ticking serenely in the corner; it’s far too early for the children to be home from school. If Clothilde has spilled that inkpot on herself again… Wiping my hands on my apron, I stick my head out the top of the front door. A man I don’t recognize stands at the gate, tapping an ebony cane against the sunbleached wood. His maroon wool overcoat and green cap don’t seem like something anyone I knew would wear. Renault told me firmly to refuse any strangers while he was away, but I’m fairly sure he knew I was going to ignore him.
With light steps, I check on Fayette, still sleeping deeply on my bed, snuggled under the down comforter with a persistent winter sun still trying to warm her through the window. Then I gather my boots, my knitted wrap, and the egg basket. He turns before I make it all the way there.
“Ah, I was beginning to think you were out! Good morning, madam.” He extends a hand. “I am Philippe Cartier; your husband is a cousin of mine.”
Since the gate is still firmly shut, I take his hand and squeeze it in greeting. “It’s nice to meet you, Monsieur Cartier, but I’m afraid you must be mistaken. My husband has no cousin.” I have been informed by my mother many times that I am overly suspicious of strangers due to reading too many suspenseful tales, but at moments like this, I do not regret a page of it. This man’s hands are too smooth and beautiful to be related to my Renault; the backs of his are marked by scratching chickens and dark hair, freckled from too much sun. I know them like I know every divot and knot in our kitchen floor. And he still has not said my husband’s name.
“Ah, yes,” the man replies easily. “He thought me dead. I was recruited for an errand by the duke of our province, and I was sadly taken prisoner. But when I was ransomed, I was able to complete the errand to his excellency’s satisfaction, and voila! Here I am today, a rich man, as you can see.” He’s peering past me now toward the house, and it has the hair on the back of my neck standing up. “Is he at home?”
“Who?” I ask innocently. “The duke?”
“No, madam,” he laughs. “Your husband. Renault.” So he does know his name; that means nothing. He could have gotten it from anyone in town; we’re well-known.
“I’m afraid he’s sick in bed and can’t receive visitors. Where are you staying, cousin?”
His frown makes him seem truly disappointed. “Well, I had hoped to stay here in my childhood home, but I don’t want to impose if he’s ill. What an unfortunate turn of events.”
“Indeed,” I agree, straight-faced. “But there’s a woman in town who rents rooms: Madam Tortouf. Her home is across from the butcher. Perhaps you’d find it to your liking.”
“Perhaps,” he says, but his gaze is on my house again. My home. And it is the way the horse looked at the bucket of oats this morning, knowing it’s for her.
“Would you give him a message for me, my dear? Would you tell him Philippe needs to speak with him as soon as he’s well? It is a matter of some importance.”
“Certainly, cousin. Good day to you. Take a few eggs for your breakfast tomorrow, if you’d like.”
He seems amused by my offer. In fact, he’s lucky I have any left; I’m usually sold out before the midday meal. But he makes a show of oohing and aahing over them, not realizing that he’s praising Renault’s work, not mine. I give him the faux smile I used with my teachers to make them think I was embarrassed that I hadn’t been listening to their explanations instead of daydreaming, and he leaves with three speckled brown ones.
It’s after supper when I finally sit down to reply to my love’s latest letter.
I am sending this farther along your route, as you suggested, so I hope it gets to you. Your letter made me smile; I can just imagine you two spending your mornings together in a strange place. You, of course, have more experience with strange places than I do, being from a foreign place like Valle Des Regrets…I used to laugh when the girls in town would gossip about how exotic you were. It turns out even exotic men snore after too much beer. I hope you are able to enjoy the journey a little bit. You did not say whether Alya is behaving herself, and I am hoping that means she is. I’m praying for you every time I think of you.
“Mama, how do you spell disappointed?” Margot asks at my elbow. I tell her as I stare into the dying fire, too tired to get up and stoke it again. I’ll have to cut more wood tomorrow unless my father comes by to check on us. The thought of who else might come by makes my stomach churn uneasily.
“What are you writing, cheri?” I lean over to look and feel the blood drain from my cheeks. My father took my sister and went on a long journey. I miss them both. I don’t know when he will be back. I am worried about them and disappointed I didn’t get to go. I want to see
I meet her gaze, dipping my head to see her better, and tuck a wisp of dark hair behind her ear. “What do you want to see?”
“Everything. Papa’s valley. The mountains. And…” she hesitates, and her voice drops to a whisper. “The ocean.”
“That’s a very long way.”
“I wouldn’t mind. I would bring a book.”
I can’t help but laugh, and I kiss her forehead. “I believe you will see it someday. Now finish quickly, and let’s get the little ones into bed.”
The girls are well. Clothilde started school and likes it fine. Her teacher says she is quiet and well-behaved, but you know that won’t last long. We went to my mother’s for dinner on Sunday and it was a nice change of pace.
But nothing is right without you. I forgot how much I hate shoveling dung. All your work and mine together is heavy, but even if you couldn’t work beside me, I just feel lighter to talk with you, to hold you in the dark, avoiding going to sleep. Telling each other stories we both already know by heart. You are a comfort, my love.
And I tell myself that my eyes are too fatigued to write more in the dim light, that I ought to save the oil for Margot’s schoolwork, not my own selfish pleasures. The girls need me to sing them to sleep; that’s why the letter stops there with no mention of the rich cousin. There’s no reason to worry him. No reason to tell him…yet.
“No!” The word is a howl, like a cold wind whipping between the space where the house and the shed don’t quite meet. I duck before the shoe she throws meets my head, and its hard, flat sole slams against the door behind me.
“Alya. Calm down.” If her words are a howl, mine are a snarl, an animal backed into a corner. Because I love my girl–I love her–but tonight, I just cannot take her antics anymore. I need Valerie.
She puts her hands over her ears, wincing as if in pain. “Stop YELLING at me!”
But I’m not. I didn’t. I wanted to, but I didn’t, because as it is, the innkeeper was giving me wary looks at dinner, perhaps sensing the growing storm in her that I, her papa, was somehow unaware of.
“You cannot scream like that,” I say sternly, but it provokes her all the more. Like a creature possessed, she tears into my leather satchel, and I catch her around the waist, picking her up, wrenching her fingers off it with my free hand as she wails.
“Sir!” A fist pounds at the door. “Sir, others are trying to sleep!”
That sounds like the other man who’d glared at us, muttering something about chatterboxes who didn’t know when to be quiet. How little he knew of it then.
“I am aware,” I bellow back. “She’ll quiet down soon.”
“I will not!” Alya kicks my shins. “This is what you get for SCREAMING at me! You’re an awful father! You never listen! It would be better if I was dead!”
Never will she speak those words that my heart doesn’t lurch, wounded. She finally wriggles out of my grasp and scurries into the corner, weeping, hands covering her face, wedged into the small space between the bed and the beadboard wall. I shuffle slowly toward the door, unsure if she’s even aware of me in her fugue state, but not wanting to anger the man any further. I open the door quietly, but my words are a rush.
“I’m so sorry we kept you awake. My daughter is not well, as you can see.”
I expect anger, frustration, anything except the contempt I see in his eyes.
“What kind of man allows his child to speak to him that way? If she were my daughter, I would–”
I hold up a hand, and to my surprise, he stops. “To answer your question, the kind of man who values honesty over artifice. If that is what’s in her heart, I would hear it. And in that vein, I do not wish to hear what you would do in my shoes. Now, I will do my best to keep her quiet for the sake of your rest. Again, my apologies.”
“What kind of illness is it?” If I were not a mountain, he could likely see past me, the way he cranes his neck.
I stifle a sigh, his nosiness sucking all the rest of the patience out of me. He’s a salesman, I think. Watches. The new kind that use magic instead of simple gears and springs. If I buy one, will he go away? Valerie isn’t here to laugh at the joke, and it makes the situation all the worse. She does this for me, talking to strangers, dealing with conflict. I’ve never appreciated it more.
“Papa? Are you leaving?” She’s not hysterical now; Alya almost sounds meek, which can’t be right. But maybe being here in this strange place has put her off-balance. Perhaps she does truly think I’d saddle Dandelion and ride away without her.
“No, little bird. Now please–pajamas. You don’t have to wash first.”
The salesman makes a face, and I grimace. Does he think I don’t know it’s disgusting? I don’t want either of us to climb into bed still filthy, reeking of horses. If I’m brave, I’ll wait until she’s asleep, then sneak down the hall for a bath. But if I’m smart, I’ll wake her before dawn so we can slink away, avoiding any lingering resentment from other travelers or worse–advice.
Still disgruntled, the man turns and marches back down the hall. I close the door and pivot to find her sitting cross-legged on the white sheets, her cheeks rosy and scrubbed, having washed a little after all. Her nimble fingers stroke the fringe of the blanket. “Papa, will you read me The Prince’s Pony, since I’ve been so good?”
I’ve never been to war, but this is what a minefield feels like, I imagine. “To be honest,” I say slowly, “your behavior just now is not what I’d call exemplary. But,” I rush on, “I will read you one chapter of our book.”
“Two chapters,” she haggles, snuggling down into the goose-feather pillow with a yawn, hands under her cheek. It doesn’t matter; she’s asleep before I can even read five pages. It’s too easy to blame myself–perhaps we traveled too far. Perhaps I didn’t feed her the right foods, give her enough water. I should have taken her to the tavern that would give her fried chicken instead of making her eat the porridge here. But the truth is that even at home, it’s a dance, and I never know when her moods will strike like an adder. I stare down at my girl, then push her mass of hair back from her face. My fingers catch, and I realize why people were staring–she has a tangle like a rat’s nest near her face, hidden under her hat all day, but revealed at the inn. If I cut it out, her mother will kill me, but I have little to bargain with here. I drag myself from the bed, afraid if I read Valerie’s letter there, I’ll drop off before I’m clean like my hurricane girl.
Thank you for sending it on ahead, I’m pleased to hear more recent news from you. It’s strange how even the sight of your handwriting make my heart beat faster, like I’m catching sight of you across a crowded room, just a glimpse. I want to chase you through a copse of trees and wrestle with you in the meadow. I want to sneak behind the shed and kiss you until the children coming looking for us. I want to walk with you under a winter moon, hand in hand.
I’m thankful all is well with you; the Woznick guard and keep you, beloved. We are well, too; Alya tried a new food at supper and she didn’t spit it out until she found a table linen. Perhaps just removing her from her environment at home has helped; have we checked the house for spirits or illness hidden between the floorboards? I’m not blaming you, but she’s been better this trip.
And here I paused. Because as a rule, I do not believe in lying to my wife. But also, I don’t want her to know that we nearly got ejected from this establishment–she will worry. She’ll lie awake at night, fearing for our safety, that neither of us will ever come home. The dangers along the road are very real; I felt the tip of a knife in my ribs just yesterday when a man tried to rob me until Alya screamed, drawing such attention to him that he ran. To sleep outside would be foolish beyond description, especially with a child. So I will protect my darling wife from this knowledge, my beautiful stick of curved steel. She’s still fragile at the joins, at the places where we’re bonded, from what I can tell.
Our next stop is Fairfield, and then the Red Moss Inn. I hope to see your letter then, too.
“Mama, count my jumps.” I’m still trying to finish reading Renault’s letter when Clothilde tugs at my sleeve. It’s smudged from feeding the chickens this morning, but it hides where the cow kicked me. She’s usually so gentle; she must be testy because of the cold. “Mama. My jumps. You count.”
Dutifully, I look up from the paper, and start the count. “One, two, three–”
“Wait, wait. I need to start over.” Tucking the precious letter back into my apron pocket, I take a step into the kitchen–the soup is nearly boiling over. I shift it to the back of the stove, farther from the heat, but the bread basket topples before I can catch it. I frown as I brush ash from the dry surface of it.
“Middle of the room, please,” I remind Clothilde, who was too sick to go to school, but not too sick to skip rope in the house, apparently. I should bundle her up and send her out into the chilly morning, but it’s easier to watch her in here. Ever since Renault’s relative came by, I’ve been on edge. Sleep has been elusive, even with his trusty crossbow by the bed. I won’t need it, I don’t think. But I also can’t blow out the lamp unless I know where it is.
“Mama,” cries Fayette from my bedroom, but the effort sends into another round of coughing. I hurry toward her, but slip on the colored pencils someone left on the floor.
“Clothilde, pick those up, please.”
“I didn’t play with them.”
“Not relevant, cherie,” I call over my shoulder. Unlike Clothilde, who definitely should have gone to school, Fayette is actually sick–her little forehead is burning up when I press my lips to it. Use your wrist, I can almost hear Renault grumping, but he’s not here, and my lips are better. I think maybe Margot was too, but she was too proud to say so and trundled off to school by herself.
“I’m cold, Mama,” she whines, sniffling. “It’s cold in here.”
It’s not. I’ve been stoking the fire all morning to make sure it’s not, but I pile another quilt on the bed over the first two, tucking her in tighter. I make her drink a little water before her eyes flutter closed again, her breathing growing shallower, as I stroke her curls tenderly. Perhaps I should get her some broth. It would have more nutritional–
“I was in the middle!” The desperate cry comes.
Wincing, I rise from the edge of the bed, not wanting my shouts to rouse my little girl, but I stop short in the hallway when I see what broke. “Oh, you didn’t…”
Her lower lip quivers as I bend to retrieve the pieces of my best teapot, the one I keep on a high shelf…but not high enough to keep it away from stray jump ropes.
“I didn’t mean to. I was in the middle.”
I never thought I would think this, let alone say it, but when I open my mouth, I say, “I miss Alya.”
Clothilde does not seem to know how to take this. She stares at me from above, her big brown eyes doe-like and innocent, then walks over and puts her arms around my neck.
“I do, too.” Sisters can be difficult; I don’t have any, but I do have some very close cousins, so I know it’s complicated. These two are always enemies at war or best friends. There’s no in-between. Margot is too level-headed and serious for their silly games and much more interested in mothering Fayette and reading, so Alya and Clothilde are stuck with each other. Except now…Alya is gone. And with all the strife of her wild tantrums, I had not expected to miss her creativity, her beautiful drawings and love notes, the way she could pull us all into a story she was telling.
“What do you miss most of all?” My balance is precarious now, with her hanging on me, but I touch my left hand to the wood floor for support and squeeze her with my right arm.
“Oh yes, she tells excellent riddles.”
“And the game we play in the barn where we are princesses and everyone does what we want.” She giggles. “Even you and Papa.”
“No!” I say, faux serious. “Us too?”
“Yes,” she says, pulling back to see into my eyes. “Everyone.”
“Are you benevolent rulers, at least?”
“Most of the time. But we are very stern with the goats when they nibble our dresses.”
That makes me chuckle. “Well, goats need a firm hand, I think. They have no respect for anyone, let alone princesses of such importance.” I touch her foreheads together, and she smiles. “From now on, let’s skip rope outside, shall we?”
She nods, then swallows hard, like she’s about to ask something serious. But she must change her mind, because when she moves away, she goes directly for the dustpan and broom silently.
As I stand up, I get a strange feeling, and I know that my mother is at the gate. She wouldn’t bother waiting for me to open it, but I open the front door and stick my head out just the same.
“Hello, Mother! What a pleasant surprise.”
Her face is still mostly smooth despite her age, except around her eyes and mouth, and they crinkle when she smiles at me. She’s wearing the soft purple wrap I made for her last solstice, dyed with summer frasselberries, and she picks her way carefully down the path. “I saw Margot on her way to school and she mentioned you could use a hand today.”
“I certainly could. Papa doesn’t need you?”
“No, he’s not in the shop today. His hip is giving him trouble again with this cold…”
Clothilde is nearly done sweeping up her mistake when she hears her voice. Broom and dustpan forgotten, she runs and leaps into my mother’s arms.
She grunts, a pained laugh slipping out. “Lala’s back is getting too old to catch such a big girl like you,” she reprimands gently, but she squeezes her all the same when she sets her down.
“Yes, thank you. There’s frost in my veins from the walk.” I nod sympathetically, but I can’t bear to linger on the weather as a topic of conversation. That just leads to worry that the snow will come before my loves come back. I would have nothing delay them. I put on the kettle, glancing toward the bedroom. Fayette’s still quiet, thank Woz.
“Hildy,” my mother says, beckoning my daughter over with a crooked finger, “look what Lala brought you.” I recognize my father’s work–he’s made her a small, covered pan, just right for small hands.
Her eyes are bright. “For chestnuts?”
My mother smiles and nods. “Why don’t you go gather some, and we’ll make a snack for the four of us?” Clothilde allows us to bundle her up before she darts out the door, a small wicker basket clenched in her bare fist. I’ll be able to see her out the kitchen window. The kettle is singing, so I hurry to pour the tea before Fayette wakes.
I turn. The last time my mother used that tone, it was to tell me my father had collapsed in the shop from heat exhaustion; he’d needed three stitches in his chin where he met the anvil as he fell.
“What is it?”
She pats the seat next to her. “Come and sit. She’s fine.”
I bring the tea with me, but I’m not sure if I want it anymore. “What is it?”
“There’s a man in town, asking questions about you and your house. Does your husband really live here? Things like this.” She leaned closer. “He even cornered Margot by the apple cart. She was shaken when I intervened. I nearly sent her home.”
From some sleeping place inside, rage surfaces like a whale cresting in the ocean my Margot wants to see. “I’ll walk her to school tomorrow. I’m sorry you were put in that position.”
My mother shakes her head slowly. “That is not my concern. I was glad to be present to help her. But who is this man? What right does he have to question you?”
“He says he’s a cousin of Renault’s. He knew him, knew the house. It was his father’s, but the family thought him dead. Philippe Cartier.”
“There was a Philippe Cartier who lived here in Beauchamp, but it was so long ago…I don’t know if it was the same boy.” Her eyes go unfocused as she looks out the window toward Clothilde. “And now he seeks to reclaim it?”
“I believe so.”
Her attention comes back to me, watching me carefully, the way she does when she inspects my father’s work for cracks and fissures. Then she nods once, as if something’s been decided.
“Shall I send your father to speak to him?”
“No. I don’t think it wise to alert him to Renault’s absence, but he may discover it for himself if he’s asking questions. He says he’s rich now–I don’t see why he can’t buy another home.”
Mother picks up her tea and blows across the surface. “Maybe he wishes to buy it from you.”
I watch the steam curl up from my own cup, just letting it warm my hands, even though I want to throw it to watch it break like the pot that matched it. “We could use the money to pay off Madame Montagne.”
“Don’t know if someone like that has much use for money. Favors matter more.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” I murmur, unable to sit still, fidgeting in the chair like I’m back in church as a child. She puts a hand on my head, rubbing it a little.
“You’re always welcome with us. You know that, don’t you?”
I manage a weak smile. “Of course. Thank you, Mother.”
“As it happens, I brought you something, too.”
I lift an eyebrow, and she just smiles warmly. From the inside pocket of her cloak, she produces a small knife, small enough for my apron pocket. It flips open and closed fluidly when I pick it up, and the handle is carved with butterflies. One might mistake it for a writing plume, if they were unaware…
“It’s beautiful, but it’s not my birthday.”
“This is not for opening wine bottles. This is something more subtle than your favorite pieces to have with you when you go to the gate. In case this ‘cousin’ comes back.” I can’t hide my surprise; I’ve given her the impression that I stopped practicing with the big throwing knives Father and I made when I was a teenager, but apparently, she knows better.
I can hear Clothilde talking to herself as she approaches the front door, and we both get to our feet. Then, impulsively, I give her a hug. She seems stunned, because Clothilde has the door by the time she returns my embrace–and before this moment, I believe the last time I hugged my mother was when Fayette was born. A moment of weakness. I don’t think this is–this is just gratitude. Overwhelming, thorough gratitude for who she is and how she understands me.
“I found lots! Let’s stoke the fire, Lala!” We shush the girl, but Fayette wakes anyway, and I have to lie down with her for a long time before she goes back to sleep. I don’t get a chance to write until lunchtime when Mother takes Clothilde to go meet Margot along the road.
My darling Renault,
It’s getting cold here. If I had magic to hold back the snow for you…if you need to purchase warmer clothes, please don’t hesitate. Be careful as you travel. Not much is new here–Fayette has a fever, but my mother is here to help. Clothilde and I spoke of Alya today–the girls have talked little about her since you left, but I think we all miss her. And you, too, of course. She said they play a game where they’re princesses in the barn. Maybe I’ll ask Father to make them crowns for Solstice; I would see them revel in their power before the world reveals itself as cruel.
I am still hoping against hope that she won’t ask a Favor of us when you reach Madame Montagne. Be careful with her, too. If half her reputation proves true, she is nothing to trifle with, my love. Be wise. Ask too many questions. Put that wonderful mind of yours to work. Sweet dreams and easy travels.