Clara trudged home, the sack of pots banging and clattering against her thin legs. The wind blew against her back, bringing with it the laughter and music of a festival she couldn’t attend.
As she walked, she passed fields of peas and beans, the work of her neighbors. She looked at the bright green vegetation with a wistful air as she imagined how the peas would taste after simmering with a ham hock. Clara couldn’t remember the last time she’d had something like that. She couldn’t remember the last time her father chose tending the peas over visiting the tavern.
Passing a meadow full of playing children, their enthusiasm overflowing at not having to spend a day in the fields, workshops, or among flocks, Clara paused a moment to watch them. One of the girls stopped in her play long enough to yell and beckon. It was the daughter of the local baker. She sometimes slipped Clara rolls after temple-worship. Shaking her head, Clara walked onward to home.
Home was an old cottage in need of new thatching, but it still stood straight and tall. She smiled, feeling proud of herself as she looked at the chimney. Clara had cleaned that herself last fall.
Stopping to catch her breath, she turned to look down the hill. The small, modest buildings of the village sat in the distance, peeking through the green trees. She could see the narrow streets teeming with people and bright, colorful flagging hanging from the homes. Outside the village, in a fallow field, sat the caravan that had arrived the day before, the bright wagons arranged in a loose circle.
Around them all, the broad-shouldered Larkspur Mountains rose. Not for the first time, Clara wondered what it would be like to climb to one of the peaks and look down on her country of Lorst. Would she be able to see the capital, Bertrand?
Hoisting the bag a little higher onto her shoulder, she turned away from the scene and rounded the house to the back. Her mother, a woman with broad shoulders and work-toughened hands, was hanging the laundry.
What took you?” snapped Mama. Da had come home drunk in the early hours of the morning, putting Mama into a foul temper.
“The mender was busy. It’s a festival day and he was closing and–”
“Never mind that. Go take them inside.”
Clara obeyed, ducking through the low back door and picking her way around broken bits of furniture, farming tools, and other odds and ends. She heard the soft snoring of her father from the corner where sat her parents’ bed by the fireplace. She carefully set the bag on the large rough-hewn table, taking care not to rattle the contents.
The sound of many horses’ hooves clopping along the road outside the cottage didn’t alarm Clara, until she heard them turn, the hooves suddenly softened by the grass surrounding their cottage. She hurried to a window and watched several horses pass as the riders swung around into the back yard. Clara ran to the back door and peered out around the jamb as the riders came to a stop before Lorna.
Mama curtsied and said, “My lord Errol, good day. What brings you?” A thin, nervous smile filled her face.
A young boy of no more than fifteen summers sat on a great black charger, dressed in a green tunic with gold embroidery. Clara’s eyes widened. She’d only ever seen him with his father, Lord Brockington, when he rode out to inspect the tenant farms. Errol always hung back, quiet and watching.
Clara’s father was one of Lord Brockington’s tenants, but the inspection wasn’t due until the harvest. What was Errol doing here, alone? And why so early? A shiver danced down Clara’s spine.
Arranged behind him in an array of greens, reds, and blues were other boys about Errol’s age, cousins from the nearby castle where Errol lived. They grinned at each other as if this was some sort of game.
“My father sends me.” Errol stuck his fist on his hip, sticking his chest out, imitating his father’s pose. “He says you have not paid your rent or produced a favorable tithe.”
“It was a hard season last, Lord Errol. Many of the farms have failed.”
“But you haven’t paid your rent in several seasons.”
“It-it’s been a hard several seasons.” Mama fiddled with her apron. “Would his lordship care for some ale?”
One of the boys behind Errol snickered, leaning to the side to whisper something to another cousin, who snickered as well. Errol shot a venomous glare at them over his shoulder and Clara clapped a hand over her mouth to keep herself from laughing. Poor Errol looked so put out over his friends distracting the situation from him. He turned back to Mama.
“Father says you have till the end of the month to pay the rest of your rent,” he declared, “or you’ll be put off your farm.”
“His lordship is very kind but you see how hard it is here.” She gestured toward the weed-choked field. “Surely we can be given more time.” Her bottom lip quivered and Clara didn’t need to standing beside her to know that her eyes filled with tears.
Lordling Errol’s face softened and he looked on the verge of agreeing, of retracting some of what he said, when the eldest boy in the group–or, the biggest, at least–cuffed him on the shoulder. Errol straightened up in his saddle and scowled.
“No. You have until the end of the month. Good day!” Turning his horse, he trotted away, his entourage close on his heels.
Mama didn’t move or make a sound until the noise of so many horses faded into the distance.
“Clara,” she screeched. “Come out here!”
Clara scurried out of the cottage to stand beside her mother. “Mama, what are we going–”
“Never mind that now.” She was pale and shaking and Clara almost reached out to hug her. “Here. Help me with the wash.”
Silence fell between them as Clara handed Mama clothing from the basket for her to hang. As Mama secured the third shirt on the line, her hands stilled, and a chill swept down Clara’s back. Recognizing the sign, she scrunched her eyes against it, hunching her shoulders, but the dream fell upon her like a wave.
She stood at the end of a long, long line, shuffling down a dusty road. Her feet ached and her ankles throbbed as something chafed against them. A chain connected her hands to a boy in front of her. The boy fell, suddenly, dragging Clara down with her and nearly pulling down the person in front of them. A man in chain mail and leathers rode up on a large horse, raising a cane and screaming. Clara was crying but no sound came from her throat.
Gasping, she jerked into the present. Mama stared down at her.
“What ails you, child?” She looked almost concerned.
Clara shook her head as the tremors passed through her. The waking dreams had never been that strong before.
“I want you to run another errand for me. Go find Haggard and tell him to come here straight away. Do you understand?”
She swallowed. “Aye, Mama. After I get him, may I go play?”
Lorna glared at her for a moment before her mouth and eyes softened a little. “All right. But Haggard might come get you later. Be home before dark if he don’t.”
“Well, hurry on!”
Clara turned and ran away, going full pelt until she came again to the field of children. She stopped and gasped for breath, her side pinching painfully. The walk from there to the village didn’t take her as long as it usually did, she walked so quickly.
Vendors lined the streets while jugglers, fire-breathers, and bards entertained wherever there was room to be found. Clara’s eyes widened as she caught a glimpse of a man juggling knives.
People pushed against her but eventually she stumbled into a small clearing in the crowd. Twisting her head around, she looked for Haggard, wondering if she should go into the tavern. Two people brushed past her, clearing the way to a small booth selling meat pies. Haggard stood by it, chatting with a pretty maid.
The grizzled old man had once been a warrior, having lost an eye in battle. He covered the hole with a scarlet cloth. Clara liked him very much because he said she was pretty and gave her candy.
“Ah, little girl,” he cried as she approached. “And did your Ma give you leave to come to the festival after all?”
“Aye, if I told you to go to her as quick as you could.”
“Really? I wonder what your Ma is up to, then.” He winked at her, which was more like blinking since it was his only eye.
She smiled up at him. He laughed and patted her on the head.
“You see this child, Kelli?” he asked. “She’ll grow up prettier than you, I warrant.”
The young woman looked down and smiled, showing only a few teeth. “I can see that.”
“Clara, would you like a sweet?”
She nodded eagerly. Laughing again, he took her to a booth selling candy and bought her a stick of taffy.
“Come. Let’s see what your Ma wanted.”
“She said I didn’t have to come back. She said I could play with the other children.”
“Did she? Well, I won’t stop you, then.” He squatted down next to her. “Did you know there’s a caravan in town?”
She nodded. Traders sometimes came through the town but it wasn’t often they came on a festival day.
Haggard pointed toward the far end of the village. “They’re a strange folk, from down South. Steer clear of them, Clara, as no one’s familiar with them. They seem like good folk but you never know.”
“There’s a good lass.” Tweaking one of her braids, he slipped into the crowd in the direction of Clara’s home.
Clara stuffed the candy into her mouth before pushing her way through the crowd toward where the mysterious caravan was camped.
“Lorna, have ya lost your mind?” Haggard stared down at the woman in front of him.
“We don’t have a choice,” she replied tightly. “It’s either this or we lose everything.”
“So, this land is worth more than your daughter?”
“We both know she isn’t my daughter. All I did was take in an orphan out of the goodness of my heart and look where it’s gotten me!”
He scowled. “What does Egbert say?”
“Egbert won’t wake ’til tonight, if not tomorrow.”
“He dotes on the girl in his own way, Lorrie. He’ll be upset when he wakes up to find her gone.”
“Never you mind that. When will I get the money?”
He sighed. “Not in time to meet your deadline, I’m afraid. The end of the month is only two se’ennights away.”
“There must be something you can do.”
He studied the little woman before him. “You sure of this? I can tell the slaver to keep her out of the brothels but that’s no guarantee.”
“I don’t give two farthings where he puts her. Let her be a whore, for all I care.”
“Mother in the Stars, Lorrie! The child is only ten summers!”
Lorna ignored his distaste, only saying, “I need the money soon.”
Haggard sighed as he thought. He and Egbert went a long way back, having fought together in many a battle. He owed him his life and to do this would be helping him, partially satisfying a blood debt that never could be really satisfied. Reaching into the purse hung at his belt, he pulled out a gold coin. He held it out for her.
“That ought to take care of your rent with some besides. I’ll take the money out of what the trader gives me.”
Lorna snatched it from him. “Fair enough.”
“When do you wish for me to take her?”
“As soon as you can.”
“I’ll wait for her to come home. No sense in ruining the festival day for her.”
She shrugged as if that made no difference to her, which it probably didn’t, dropping the coin into her apron pocket. She walked away, carrying the empty laundry basket under her arm.