“Wido.” Hector looked up appraisingly, seeming to weigh even the flesh on the plowman’s bones. “Six children, one wife, and yourself–that will be sixteen eggs.”

“If it please you,” Wido said, proffering Corba’s basket, “my wife sends eighteen eggs for you and Lord Perceval.”

Hector nodded and dipped his quill pen into the ink-filled cow’s horn attached to the table. His left hand took two eggs out of Wido’s basket and disappeared under the table. “Wido’s tribute is paid. You may sit at the upper tables.”

Breathing a sigh of relief, Wido moved away. Behind him, Bodo, another plowman, was explaining why he was five eggs short. It would not go well with him, for Hector did not appreciate shortages.

Wido led his family to a long table where they sat and waited for the food to arrive. In front of each of them was a trencher, a large, stale piece of bread that served as a plate, and each place had its own knife and fork. Wido was pleased. The upper tables were furnished with utensils, but the tables farthest away were bare. Poor Bodo would certainly be sitting at a lower table.

A flush of excitement lit Corba’s face; her cheeks glowed like roses. Afton squirmed next to Corba, the baby on her lap, and next to Afton Wido’s five sons lined the table like a neat row of growing corn.

The flourish of a trumpet silenced the restless peasants, and a barred wooden shutter on the second floor of the castle keep was thrown open. A handsome man in a white and purple tunic approached the window and held up his hand.

The crowd stilled as if God had signaled them. At twenty-eight, Perceval, the Earl of Margate, was a commanding presence. He stood taller than most men, his height accentuated by his straight carriage and regal bearing. His shoulders were broad and tapered neatly down to a trim waist, where his polished sword hung ever ready. Like his father before him, Perceval tolerated no ambition but his own.

“My people.” Perceval’s voice carried easily over the crowd. It was a voice accustomed to giving orders. “As a father welcomes his children for dinner, so welcome I you.” He smiled down on his tenants. “It has been well said that May is the joy-month. After dinner, select for yourselves a lord and lady of the May to preside over your games and dances. Perhaps we can even get Lady Endeline to crown your lady of the May.”

The crowd cheered, and Wido saw Endeline obediently draw near to the window as her husband gestured to her. Younger than her husband, she was tall, thin, and regal, but there was no trace of a smile upon her face.

Perceval clasped the hand of his lady and outstretched his free arm to the crowd. “Eat, drink, and enjoy the hospitality of Margate Castle,” he said. “And long live England’s King Henry!”

“Long live King Henry!” the people responded, Wido joining in with the others.

Perceval withdrew, the barred window was again shut, and Wido and his family set about enjoying the food set before them. The people did not need Perceval’s instructions, for this was their holiday, long established in tradition and mutual agreement. They worked for the lord all the year long, in return he gave them a feast at Easter and Christmas. They gave him three days a week; Perceval gave them a week’s holiday at Easter and a two-week vacation from Christmas Eve to Epiphany. They brought firewood for the castle, and Perceval allowed them to cut wood for their own fires from his forests. Each man knew his place in the scheme of things.

Wido caught Bodo’s eye at a table on the far side of the courtyard. “Bodo!” Wido called, waving a loaf of brown bread to catch his friend’s eye. “How did it go with you?”

Bodo grinned, his black teeth showing plainly. He walked over and folded his scarecrow frame to kneel in the dust behind Wido. “I’ll be cleaning the stables for a month now,” he said, putting a hand on Wido’s shoulder. “Would a friend like you be willing to join me?”

Wido took a bite of bread and answered while he chewed: “And who’s to finish planting my ridge and furrow?” He swallowed. “Corba wants oats, peas, beans, and barley this year.”

“That’s what it will take with another mouth to feed,” Corba answered quietly, chewing a piece of the rough bread. She took a chewed bit out of her mouth and gave it to her youngest. “You should have had a talk with your hen, Bodo.”

Bodo raised an eyebrow. “‘Twouldn’t do any good. But that reminds me, Wido, I have need to talk to you.”

“Talk.” Wido took a drumstick off a platter that was being passed.

“My son is ten, you know, and I want you to remember I’ve come to you first.”

“About what?” Wido turned a bewildered gaze upon his friend.

A corner of Bodo’s mouth slowly curled in a half-smile. “Marriage. Your daughter and my son. We could arrange it now and let them marry when you are ready.”

Wido was stunned for a moment, then erupted in a hearty laugh. “Are we putting on airs now, Bodo? Since when do we arrange marriages like the master? It is not our choice, anyway. Lord Perceval must agree to any marriage in the village.”

“You know full well the lord does not care what we villeins do. Did he object to your marriage? To mine? I do not think he will object to this, either.”

Wido shook his head. “I don’t understand your hurry. They are yet children.”

“Yours is a special child, Wido. Have you looked at your daughter?”

Bodo’s eyes had left Wido’s face and were turned toward Afton and her brothers. Wido turned to look over the head of his wife at his daughter, while Bodo spoke: “Straight nose, gray eyes, little red mouth, high forehead, pink skin–you have a beauty in your house, Wido. Men will pay dearly to take their pleasure in such a wife.”

Something in Bodo’s words and tone made Wido’s skin crawl. His hand grabbed Bodo’s tunic roughly and held the scrawny plowman in a fierce grasp. “I’ll not talk of this,” Wido snarled, the words hissing between his teeth. “You’ll not look at my daughter in that way. Now leave.”

Wido’s powerful hand thrust Bodo away, and the hapless plowman fell back into the dust. “‘Tis a pity you were not born a knight,” Bodo said, raising an eyebrow. He stood and wiped the dust from his rough tunic. “Such a sense of honor! But, my friend, if you don’t give her to wife, someone will take her, and then where will you be?”

Wido snarled and made a move to stand, but Bodo threw his hands up in defense and backed away, smiling. “Peace be unto you, brother,” he said, chuckling as if at a bad joke. “It will be as God wills it.”

1 Comment

  1. Sarah

    This was the first book I read by you… many moons ago. I need to re-read it!


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