It was finally, simply, too much.
The High Lord of Sneyd, and of the Rim and the Sandy-Reaches, raised himself up from his august seat, pulled back his fist and let his sassy fool have it right between the eyes. In a wonderful flurry of bells and motley, the clown went flying backwards down the stairs, and there was a terrible, dull thud as he hit the flag stones below, head foremost and then flat on his back—out cold.
“You’re fired,” roared the lord, wiping his hands as he scowled down at the pitiful jewel-colored mess “Steward—” he roared, “You—Elfrede— clean up this garbage and get rid of it.”
Steward Elfrede, hovering unhappily at the side of the dais, dipped a quick, perfunctory bow as his lord stalked past, across the wide stony floor, to disappear at last through the massive doors of the Royal Study.
Only then did Elfrede pick up his robes and trot worriedly over to the poor velvet pile at the foot of the steps.
“Jack,” he called sharply, “Come help me with this,” then went to his knees, putting his fingers to the blood on the young fool’s face with deepest misgivings.
“Ah, Thomas,” he said through his teeth, pulling up an eyelid to check for life. “You just don’t know when to quit, do you?” He pressed his fingers against the neck, searching out a pulse. “And you couldn’t have left his mother out of it.” He picked up a hand that lay sprawled along the cold floor, squeezed it, and folded it gently over the velvet chest.
“Clown caught it rightly this time, didn’t he?” Jack said, grinning over Elfrede’s shoulder. “He’s got true nerve, that one.”
“He’ll be lucky if he hasn’t got a broken neck,” Elfrede snapped. “Grab his feet. We’ve got to take him up to the lady.”
“His eyes gone black already, both,” Jack grunted, satisfied, and went around where he could get hold of the legs. “It was a good ‘un, right enough.”
“Lift,” Elfrede directed, doing so with his end. They got the fool up unevenly between them—head lolling to the side, blood still running freely out of his nose, down his shoulder—generally getting all over everything.
“Here,” Elfrede panted. Through the door to the tower steps they went, puffing and jerking and close to losing their load more than once as they toiled up and around, step by step by wedged step, then onto a landing, then up again till they could make their way down the long gallery to where the beauteous lady Avvin was standing in her open doorway waiting for them. Alf—another one of the hall boys—was beside her, breathless and unquestionably pleased with himself for being the first to tell.
“Hurry,” she said, herding them into her chamber. Red-faced and panting, they waddled across the vast stone floor, heading for the hearth rugs, meaning to put their burden down there.
But, “On the bed,” she told them, pulling them around with the words and sending them staggering across to the other side where there were a few more steps, and finally the gigantic bed.
Over his shoulder, Elfrede eyed the snowy counterpane with distress. “There’s blood all over him.”
Avvin waved them on with a look of mild disgust. “Just put him down,” she said, and then hovered as they did it, dispensing instructions.
“So he finally did it,” she said finally, shoving pillows into all the right places. She stood back, hands on hips, disgust deepening as she studied the face under the coxcomb. “Idiot. He’s lucky Roger didn’t cut him in half. What was it this time? No. Don’t tell me. I really don’t think I want to know. Get this off,” she said, tugging on one of the satin horns of the fool’s hood.
Elfrede quietly complied as she crossed the room to rummage around in a lovely teak chest. She came up with an armful of cloths and went to dump them into her water basin. The counterpane was by now soaked scarlet around Thomas’ head, and the eyes in the white face were indeed black and puffy.
“Keep his chin up,” she directed. “Make sure he doesn’t choke on all that.” There was the bright sound of water as she wrung out the cloths.
As Elfrede did as she said, Jack and Alf hung back, both a little green at the mouth.
“It’s just too bad isn’t it?” She was now at Elfrede’s elbow, leaning past his shoulder to dab at Thomas’ face. When Elfrede gave back, she sat down on the bed, careful of her skirt. “Do you think he’s really hurt?”
“I don’t know,” Elfrede said wearily. “I was afraid we’d kill him, lifting him.”
“Oh,” she laughed. “He’s tougher than that. Aren’t you?”
But when there was no answer from the face she was washing, her own softened with worry.
“He landed hard,” Jack put in from behind. “And on the back of his head. But his silly neck seems right enough.”
“And so does your silly tongue,” the lady said, reaching for another cloth. “If he only weren’t such an fool,” she sighed, scrubbing the drying blood off the still cheeks. The bright yellow hair that had spilled out of his hood now lay over the pillow, curled and clean. “Look at him,” she said sadly. “Asleep, he looks just like the boy he is—” Her mouth tightened, “—and nothing like the man he should be by now.”
“He was made for better than this,” Elfrede murmured, watching as she bathed the temples and neck. Avvin sighed, then frowned, having come to her last cloth. “I don’t like it,” she said, considering the still form. “He’s not coming around. Alf—go get Brigit.”
The hall boy went noticeably pale.
The lady turned to look at him, one eyebrow upraised.
Alf darted a nervous look at Elfrede. “She won’t come,” he warned.
“Brigit will come,” the lady said.
“She’ll say she doesn’t have to. And she won’t like it,” the boy said, very close to whining, jerking his head toward the bed.
“Alf,” Elfrede said quietly. “Tell her I asked her to come. Tell her I said, please.”
“All right,” the boy said, but not happily. “Just you remember, though—it’s me that’ll be in range of her. . .”
“Take Jack with you then,” the lady said. Jack immediately lost his grin. “Then bring me more water,” she went on. “Lots of water. And then the two of you find something to do. I’m sure your Lord would have you doing other things than gawking around in here.”
Elfrede remained standing until the boys had bowed themselves out, and then went and sat himself heavily in one of the chairs by the fire. “It’s only been a matter of time, you know,” he said.
He shared a look with the lady, who put her hand gently on Thomas’ chest. “If I could just be sure he was breathing,” she said. And then, with a pretty pout, “Roger didn’t have to do this.”
“As much as Thomas has to be what he is,” Elfrede said gently. “What’s nature in one, makes nature in the other. Thomas has always allowed himself too much.”
“It’s the melancholy,” she said. “Sometimes I’ve thought this was exactly the thing he was pushing for . . . .”
Elfrede silently agreed, staring into the fire and seeing old pictures there. The silence spun out between them, a comfortable sharing of distress borne of long, companionable years.
He had nearly decided that Brigit was truly not coming, when he heard the sounds of her in the hallway—keys chinking, skirts stiffly rustling—all bright business and quick step, Brigit.
“And what is so important, you would pull me away from an ox on the spit?” she demanded, standing in the doorway, hands on hips, eyes flashing. Not a bad-looking girl this, but full of thorns and thistles and not one to trifle with—as so many of the hold staff had found to their discomfort.
“I don’t know what to do for him,” the lady said, unruffled, touching Thomas lightly on the face.
“Dump him out the window on his head,” Brigit said, scowling towards the bed, “And do both yourselves a favor.”
“Brigit—.” The lady sighed.
Brigit echoed the sigh, just as long-suffering, and came on into the room. “You’ve ruined this counterpane,” she said crossly, lifting her skirts as she climbed the steps to the bed and showing a good bit of ankle in the process.
“I’m not concerned about the counterpane,” Avvin said.
“It was Roger Sneyd’s mother’s,” Brigit reminded her coldly.
“So is Roger his mother’s,” Avvin said, “and I’m not too keen on her for that just now.” She rose from the bed, giving Brigit room, and went to sit herself on the bottom step.
Brigit’s hands were deft, going over the limp body. “No bones broken,” she said, and then lifted Thomas’ head and felt the skull behind the way she might have done, choosing a melon. “Sound,” she pronounced—”as much as it ever was.”
“He won’t wake up,” Avvin argued. “His head can’t be sound.”
“Sound,” Brigit said firmly, “and perverse.” She gave the pale cheek a bright little slap. And then she waited. Lifted an eyelid, let it drop. She finally put a hand against the side of his head, her palm over his temple, and closed her eyes as if she were listening.
“He’s in there,” she concluded after a moment. “He’s hurting, but he’s there.” She folded her arms, glowering down at the patient. “All right, then,” she said. And after a touch more consideration, picked up one of the fool’s hands—holding it as if she’d rather not—and leaned over, fixing on the pale face a deep and pure concentration—enough to burn a hole between the bruised eyes.
Elfrede breathed out in relief, watching her.
“Thomas Trueson,” Brigit commanded. “Thomas Trueson,” again, and finally, “Thomas Trueson—you perverse idiot. I invoke you by your own silly name, and I call you here now, so that you will stop scaring these people who seem to care whether you live, though I hardly understand why.”
Then a tiny stirring beneath that scrutiny, a face no longer quite so empty.
Elfrede stood up.
“Thomas, damn you,” Brigit went on, “get back here and face life the way it is.”
The eyelids fluttered.
“You see?” the lady said happily. “I knew you could do it.”
“It doesn’t work on everybody,” Brigit said, dropping Thomas’ hand now that she was done with it. “My father would have told you, it’s just the peculiar few who can hear it. This was always the last thing he’d try. Once in a while, it works.” She shrugged and scowled down at her patient. “I knew this one would hear.”
Thomas’ whole body moved, shifted on the bed—face contorted with the hurt. He groaned and brought a hand up to find his eyes.
“I wouldn’t be groping around just now,” Brigit said, pushing the hand back.
“Giddy?” he croaked.
“Apt enough for you,” she said. “But if it’s me you mean, I wouldn’t be counting on it.”
“Gid,” he said, breathing out. Eyes still closed, he reached for her.
She batted the hand away, her face hard. “Keep in mind,” she snapped, “If anyone could ever hurt you, Thomas, it’s me right now.”
His hand went limp on the counterpane, and he subsided with something between a sigh and a sob.
“Do you have to be so hard with him?” Avvin asked.
Brigit glared down at her.
“I guess you do.” Avvin sighed. And shrugged. She stood and came up the steps to lean over the bed. “What did you do this time, Tommy?” she asked.
“Nothing,” he whispered, and he put his hand up to his face again. Brigit pushed it away, relentless. “. . .out of the ordinary,” he amended. And then he added, “. . . that I can remember.” He started pushing himself up— slowly—making an awful face.
“Headache?” Brigit asked, dryly.
He glanced at her with something like reproach, working himself into a half-sit, his head in his hands.
“Well, it could have been worse,” Avvin decided. She perched on the edge of the bed, and Thomas pulled air in through his teeth when the bedding lurched underneath him. “I swear,” Avvin told him. “You never learn a thing. You’re going to have to stay out of Roger’s way for a while, I guess. He’ll forget it. He always does.”
“Not this time, he won’t,” Brigit said.
Avvin looked at her.
“Robert Sneyd fired him,” Elfrede said.
“He did what? ” the lady asked.
“He what?” Thomas asked at the same moment, a wild sort of brightness leaping into what was left of his eyes. Elfrede saw that and was washed with misgiving.
“He fired you,” Elfrede said softly.
Thomas’ hand went to the thin silver collar he wore around his neck.
“Well, he can’t do that,” Avvin declared.
“He can’t?” Thomas croaked.
“No, he can’t,” she said, angry now. “You belong to me, remember? He gave you to me as part of the betrothal.”
“He did,” Thomas remembered, and the light went out of him.
“Aye, he did,” Elfrede said.
“Chattel,” Brigit said, one corner of her mouth slightly raised.
“And I am not giving you up,” Avvin declared.
Elfrede laughed quietly, looking once more into the fire.
Bridget, wiping her hands on her skirts, turned to go.
“No, wait,” Avvin told her.
“Dear Lady Avvin,” Thomas said with quiet irony, “you don’t want to keep me for a fool. You know I have no sense of humor at all.”
“None that anybody finds very comfortable, dear. No. You’re right.” Avvin stood up and pressed his shoulder comfortingly. “Lie down, Thomas. We’ve all been friends too long for that. I’m not going to turn you out now.”
“Turn me out,” he murmured. With a sigh and a grimace, he wearily allowed himself be pushed back against the pillows.
If nobody else did, Elfrede saw the lost look to him.
The lady stood thoughtfully by the bed for a moment more, then went down the steps to take a chair next to the fire, half facing the steward. “Do what you can for him, Brigit, won’t you?” she said as she sat. It was said just humbly enough, Brigit couldn’t have called it an order.
“Please,” Elfrede added for safety as he observed the dangerous look that passed between Brigit and Thomas.
“It’s not that we expect that much from you,” he heard Thomas murmur.
“Well, there’s wisdom,” Brigit answered with an awful irony.
Elfrede went suddenly still. He’d caught a certain look on Avvin’s face—a certain very familiar and terrifying thoughtfulness.
She was having an idea. Formulating a plan.
“I really should go,” he said, probably too loudly, pushing himself suddenly out of his chair. “Sneyd will be wanting me in the hall.”
“Your water, Lady,” Jack announced, puffing and quite crooked, waiting in the doorway.
“Here,” Avvin told him, waving a hand in the general direction of the window wall. And then, “Jack—I want you to go back downstairs and just—casually tell them that I’ve sent the steward here to on a little errand of my own. Understand?” Elfrede sank back into his chair, alarm mounting. “Further, you can tell them that I’ve decided to take this fool of mine for a lover and I don’t wish to be disturbed. Can you tell them that?”
“Not on my life,” Jack said grimly. The others stared at her, appalled.
“Better to take a sworn fool than one self-unawares,” she said, facing them down. “Well, tell them something that will keep them away from here the rest of the evening, will you? Tell them I have a headache. Tell them the fool has the plague. Something. Go. And thank you for the water. Out.”
“Oh, that was a wise thought to put into his head,” Brigit said, eyeing the retreating Jack. “You know he’s going to say exactly that when he gets to the kitchen.”
“I have an idea,” Avvin announced. It wasn’t in her to notice the chill that immediately spread over the room. “Brigit, my darling girl,” the Lady said, smiling to herself, “leave him and come down here a moment.” Which Brigit did, but warily.
“Grab a chair. Pull it over here. Do it. Sit, sit sit. Right there. Lovely. Now—“ Avvin sat back, taking them in with a sober look. “Would either of you marry a man who would do a thing like this to a servant who certainly couldn’t defend himself against it?”
“Something like what?” Brigit asked innocently.
Avvin, narrowing her eyes, waved a hand toward the bed. “He hit a man who’s half his size. A poor, helpless servant who’s never done that—bully of a Lord of the Manor—any harm.”
“We’re not counting Thomas’ tongue, then,” Brigit said.
“We’re talking about a powerful man with a foul temper,” Avvin said. “We’re talking about a man who just might knock you around if you make him mad enough. Would you marry someone like that?”
Elfrede cleared his throat uneasily. “Avvin, please,” he said. “You shouldn’t be talking about him like that to us. The fact is that things are as they are, and you are here, and the contract between you has been made up since years before your parents died, when you were only a child—and considering you have nowhere else to go…”
“Do you hear yourself?” Avvin asked him. “You sound absolutely…”
“Sensible,” Brigit finished.
“Hmmm,” Avvin said. “And I suppose you would do something you didn’t want to do, just because someone had made a contract for you without asking you how you felt about it.”
“They did ask you how you felt about it,” Brigit said. “And yes, I would. You know I’d do just that. Because I have.”
“Oh, have you?” Avvin laughed.
“I’m here, aren’t I?” Brigit pointed out, blinking rudely.
Avvin glared at her. “I think we may be forgetting,” she said stiffly, “that I am the Lady here—”
“Not until after Michaelmas, you aren’t,” Brigit reminded her. “And then, only if you marry Roger Sneyd.”
“Well of Hume, then.”
Elfrede cleared his throat again. “Officially, not that either. As long as the regency is in force—until you marry Roger.”
“Or whoever,” the lady amended.
“Roger, Avvin. Your parents always wanted it to be Roger. ”
The Lady put up one finger, and Elfrede stopped. She folded her hands, pressed her lips together and put on a ferocious look of patience.
“Oh, go on,” Brigit sighed. “Fine. You’re The Lady.”
“I am not going to marry Roger Sneyd,” Avvin said. “I don’t have to, and I’m not going to. He’s a hot-headed, unimaginative bore with no sense of humor, especially about himself. I can’t see spending the rest of my life trying to live with that.”
“As I recall, there was a time when you were quite poetical about him,” Brigit said.
“I was younger then.” Avvin flipped a hand a her. “And much more romantic-minded.”
“So, if you aren’t going to marry him, what are you going to do? Because frankly, I don’t see how you can get out of it. You’re his ward for heaven’s sake. You’ve been the ward of Sneyd since you were seven . Just how do you think you’re going to get around that?”
“It’s very simple,” Avvin said serenely. “We are going to leave. Escape. Run away.”
“Again?” Brigit asked. And then her mouth fell open—”What do you mean, ‘we’?”
“Tonight,” Avvin said, happily. Then, “Really, I’ve been thinking about this for such a long time. This—“ she waved her hand at the bed, “—is just the proverbial straw. I’ve been cooped up inside this mouldering pile for so long, I swear, I‘m growing old long before my time. I haven’t been anywhere since I came here to stay. Not really—aside from your odd fair days and tournaments. It’s unnatural for somebody my age to be so. . . ”
“Stable,” Brigit muttered.
“. . . dull,” Avvin corrected her. “And it’s nigh on winter—months and months of huddling by the fire, waiting for spring—”
“How can you take Thomas?” Brigit asked, tossing a look over her shoulder. “He’d be useless to you in any case, but bruised and stupid like that. . . .”
Thomas answered not a word of this. Still, they knew he was listening.
“Of course I’m going to take him,” Avvin said pleasantly, beaming at Brigit. “And I’m going to take you, too.”
“Me?” Brigit said, arching an eyebrow. “Here’s news, ‘Lady’: I do not belong to you.”
Avvin laughed. “But I’ve never needed you half so much.” She put her hand on Brigit’s arm. “I hate to dredge up those old commitments you referred to earlier, Gid, but I am wondering how you could possibly keep them when you’re here and I’m out there—”
Brigit closed her eyes and held up one hand.
The lady smiled to herself.
“Avvin,” Thomas croaked. Everyone turned. He was sitting up now, and there didn’t look to be much nonsense about him. “I hate to mention this, because I know how self-concerned it’s going to sound. But I am, after-all, the one good old Roger always holds responsible for these spontaneous little outings. And I think that, considering the circumstances, when he catches us this time—” he sighed, “—it’s not you he’s going to kill. And I’m serious about this. Especially if Jack repeats that little joke of yours downstairs.”
“He’s not going to catch us,” Avvin assured him. “Not this time. And even if he did, we’ll have Elfrede along. And Elfrede would never let you take the responsibility alone—would you?” She gave Elfrede an utterly seraphic smile, and that’s when the steward got the nastiest shock, finally understanding that she meant to take him, too.
“I’m too old,” he pled.
She waved it off. “Sitting around here makes you old,” she said. “Anyway, mother hen as you have always been to us, you’re not even ten years older than we are.”
“Oh, Lady,” he said, tempted to call her another name, more fitting.
“No,” she said. “Understand this. I mean what I’m saying. I’m going. And I’m going tonight. And what would Roger say if he thought you’d let me leave here without a responsible escort? No, no, my friends. This is going to be wonderful. Going on adventure, just like old times. It’s been utterly too long, too long-long-long.”
Brigit blinked. “And where is it you have in mind to be going, if I may be so bold?” she asked.
“Home,” Avvin said, happily.
“Home?” Thomas said, weakly.
“I haven’t been back to the old hold for years,” Avvin said. “And I really think I ought to check on that regent from time to time, don’t you?”
“This is the most idiotic idea you’ve ever had,” Brigit said. “If we show up at Hume without Roger, that regent of yours will surely bonk us all on the head and throw us in the river and swear he’d never seen us.”
“He won’t,” Avvin said.
“He will. Roger he may be scared of. You, he’s certainly not. And once you’re gone, since you’re not married to Roger, Uncle Regent and all his heirs and assigns forever will be the jolly Lords of Hume. So please don’t doubt that he’d do it. And in a heartbeat.”
“I’d do it,” Thomas said, desperately.
“I don’t doubt that,” Brigit said over her shoulder.
“I’d do it for less,” Thomas said.
“Very amusing,” Avvin murmured.
“All talk aside,” Brigit went on, ” you know Roger will catch us before we make it three miles down the road. How could you think he wouldn’t?”
“Oh, but it’s so very simple,” Avvin said dreamily, beginning to braid back her hair. “We’re not going by the road.”