Endeline wasn’t sure what she would find at Wido’s house. The mud cottage with its freshly thatched roof looked neat enough for the house of a lowly villein, but out of it emanated odors and sounds she couldn’t identify.
She nervously jiggled the reins in her hand and nodded to Sir Gawain, the burly knight who had accompanied her to the village. He dismounted from his horse and called into the dusty courtyard of Wido’s house: “Lady Endeline is at your door, villein! She asks to see Wido the plowman or Corba, his wife.”
A woman’s dust-streaked face appeared at the window, then she hesitantly stepped through the doorway. “I am Corba,” she said, wiping her hands on her apron.
Endeline’s gaze froze on the woman’s belly, where the rough tunic stretched tautly over the round shape of her unborn child. “My husband Lord Perceval tells me that your sheep has died,” Endeline said icily, forcing herself to look into the woman’s faded blue eyes. Her horse stamped a hoof impatiently, and Endeline shifted in the saddle. “I have come to choose a substitution for your annual tribute.”
“Aye,” Corba answered, bowing her head respectfully. “What do you have in mind, my lady? I weave very well, and I could make you a nice cloak.”
“I would like to see your children.”
Corba blinked rapidly, but stepped back into the cottage. Endeline studied the sky, where a squawking flock of crows flew overhead. Troublesome birds. She ought to have Gawain kill them all.
Presently a boy stepped out of the house, then another, until five dark-haired children stood blinking in the sunshine. Endeline gazed at them hungrily.
The youngest boy was but a baby, a chubby bundle of delight. The next was dark-skinned. Two were of the same size and manner, both shyly studying the trappings of her horse, and the tallest stood defiantly, a challenge in his eyes.
Endeline bit her lower lip. Perceval would choose the tallest boy, no doubt, but she knew the choice was not simple. The child who would live with her noble children must possess a brave heart, adaptability, and charm. Most of all, he should reflect well upon her and Perceval.
Gawain interrupted her thoughts. “Are these all the children?” he called to Corba. “I heard there were six.”
“There is a girl,” Corba replied, her voice uneven. “She is with her father in the fields of the lord.”
Endeline lifted her reins. “I must see her, too,” she said, relieved that her decision could be postponed.
“I will lead you there,” Gawain offered, and Endeline pulled her horse’s head to follow Gawain to the fields.
Several villeins were plowing in the wide wheat field, but only one plowman was accompanied by a young girl. Endeline watched the pair from the edge of the field, carefully noting the child’s slender form, height, and agility. “She moves well,” she said, watching Afton leap from ridge to furrow as she goaded the ox. “She could be a beautiful dancer.”
“She would do well with you as her teacher,” Gawain answered, displaying the tact that had earned him the distinction of being Perceval’s most trusted knight. “But no child of a plowman will dance as well as a nobleman’s daughter.”
“How old would you say she is?” Endeline mused. “She’s about Lienor’s age, is she not? And the blonde hair will be more seemly in my household,” she added, thinking of the row of black-haired boys at Corba’s house. “She would almost be able to pass for Perceval’s child.”
“No child of a plowman–” began Gawain, but Endeline silenced him with a stern look.
“Go tell the plowman I’ve chosen his daughter,” Endeline said, turning her horse’s head toward the castle road. “The girl should be brought when the rents are collected next month.”