Oaths

“Careful now, lass, you’re sloshing cream all over the floor!” shouted Tildy. Whether she was in good mood or foul, her voice was boisterous and seemed to shake the walls. Gertrude cowered and spilled more milk on the ground. The pail was far too heavy for her to carry, she knew, but she was a headstrong girl, and refused to make two trips to the kitchen from the barn.

With some panting, Gertrude set the bucket down, and found a rag under the long table where Brigid, Tildy’s daughter, was cutting turnips and onions for stew. Brigid smiled reassuringly at Gertrude, and gave her a wink. Despite the aches and pains she felt with her big, round belly about to burst, Brigid was a ray of sunshine in the smoky room, and Gertrude was grateful for her.

Gertrude cleaned up the cream and walked over to Tildy with her head low. Tildy turned her attention from the brick oven she was raking coals out of, snorted, and smiled at the young girl.

“Oh Gertie, you’re all right,” she said, lifting Gertrude’s head with a coarse finger. “Will you help me put the bread in?”

Together, they picked up the large wooden peel and put twelve loaves of fine white bread for the lord’s table, and unusual amount of bread that left no room in the oven for the 10 loaves of barley bread the servants would eat at their supper.

“Now then, go get back to the your chambers. You’re in no state to enter the hall as you are!” said Tildy as she shewed the girl out the door and into the yard.

The yard was vibrant with men-at-arms, squires, and servants of all types. Three carriages and fifteen men on horseback stood in the center of the bailey. As the coachmen leapt from their seats to begin unpacking the carriages, footmen of the keep came out to direct the horses to the stables. The men on horseback, all in dark blue cloaks with silver embroidery, were looking over at the steps of the great hall. Gertrude followed their gazes.

William Harrow, the lord of the castle, stood at the door. He was an old man by any man’s opinion, but strong and proud in stance and stature. He stood a head above the four men that flanked him—the Lord’s Constable, Chief Guards, and Cleric. He wore a cream doublet to match his eyes. His hair, white as lamb’s wool, was thick, and made him look older and younger all at once.

As Gertrude crossed the yard, the great old man’s eyes fell on her and caught her. She smiled at him, and he smirked back. With his eyebrows he motioned her toward Emory’s Tower, and the ladies’ chambers inside it. She nodded, bowed her head to hide her features from the crowd, and walked on.

Climbing the stairs of the tower had been a great task years before when she had arrived at her grandfather’s home; each step had been a mountain. Now, as a lady grown, whose chambers had been her mother’s when she was a girl, she skipped whole steps. She wished she could remember her mother telling her stories of her home—this home—but she could not. She had been too young. Gertrude couldn’t even remember her mother’s voice now.

Pudgy, wonderful Adelaide sat in an armchair in Gertrude’s chamber, asleep. Gertie tried to close the large wooden door softly. But as the latch caught, Adelaide sat up with a start.

“You said you’d only be away a short time, Gertrude,” she said groggily.

“I’ve been gone less than an hour,” Gertrude replied, striding across the room. When she reached Adelaide, she turned her back to the girl and held out her arms like a scarecrow.

“Please unlace me, Adie. Guests have arrived and I need to change.”

“Yes, I know that!” Adelaide replied. “Your grandfather’s already sent word for you.”

“Well, then, I’d best change, hadn’t I?”

Adelaide unlaced Gertrude’s rough wool dress, wrinkled her nose, and tossed it in a basket of soiled clothes.

“You’d best take off that shift and put on a new one, too” said Adelaide as she walked to the large redwood wardrobe. “It smells like sour milk.”

Gertrude pulled off the shift and threw it into the basket. Picking up a small blanket from the chair, Gertrude wrapped herself up and sat down.

Adelaide returned shortly with her hands full. Laying her lady’s garments on her lady’s large bed, she brought each piece over one at a time to dress Gertrude: first the shift, then the whale bone corset, and then a gown of green muslin. Afterwards, Gertrude sat at the vanity and Adelaide freshened her hair with rose oil, new plaits, ribbon to match her gown. Finally dressed, Gertrude rose from her seat, and made her way down to the great hall, where her grandfather and his guests awaited her.

~

As Gertrude reached the last steps of the stairwell leading to the hall, she heard shouting. Unused to such tone in her grandfather’s presence, who never raised his voice to any, Gertrude stopped and turned around. Ten steps up the stairwell was a small door that led to a passageway servants took to bypass the hall and reach the kitchens on the other side. Along the passage were small peepholes that the more curious of servants could look through during private affairs. Gertrude went through that small door, and looked through one such hole. She saw her grandfather and his advisers speaking with five men she did not know, but recognized from the bailey. They were all clearly related, with the same olive skin and sharp jawline. The old man amongst the five was stout, where the younger men were toned and lean.

“My lord, the reason we have come should be of no surprise to you,” said the fat man. “You granddaughter is a woman now, and my sons seek wives.”

“Would you have her marry them all, then, sir?” the Lord replied smiling. The fat man seemed quite exasperated, but smiled in return.

“Of course not, my lord. I would give to her whichever son she favored most.”

“That is very—thoughtful of you, sir, but my granddaughter is too young to be married off just yet.”

“Too young?” retorted one of the sons, tall with flaxen hair.

“That is what the Lord said.” Cut in Sir Philip, the Lord’s Constable.

“Has she not flowered?” replied another son, with the same flaxen hair. The Lord’s Cleric, Reginald, coughed loudly at this. He took a drink of water to find his voice. “That is no concern of yours, Sir.”

“Sir Arnold, I am sorry you have traveled such a long way in vain, but in vain is has been. My granddaughter shall remain here at Cardlin Castle, unmarried, for—”

“By the Gods, you are an old, crotchety bastard, William Harrow!” The Lord’s men stiffened at these words.

“Sir Arnold. You are a rat, as are your sons. You shall not have my granddaughter. And you shall not have this castle or the land on which it stands.”

“I think we will.” Arnold sneered as swords were drawn by his four sons. Lord Harrow’s men drew as well, but too late. The tall flaxen boy cut down the Cleric Reginald easily, stabbing him as he lay on the ground in anguish. Arnold’s two sons with their father’s darker features slayed the Constable.

The Lord’s Chief Guards fought bravely. They slew the three that had taken the Constable and Cleric, but each fell in turn.

Lord William did not flee. He fought. But the young men brought him to his knees before Sir Arnold in the end. “My Lord, we will have this land and your granddaughter.”

“Not while I live.” William Harlow croaked.

Tears fell down Gertrude’s eyes as her grandfather’s throat was cut. “We must find the girl quickly,” said Sir Arnold to his son. “We do not have much time.”

Arnold and his sons left the great hall, and Gertrude flew down the passage, down the stairwell, and to her grandfather as quickly as she could. She held him in her arms, but he was gone. Gertrude was startled in her weeping by a cough. She turned and saw Sir Kenwood, one of the Lord’s chief guards, move on the floor. She crawled to his side and lifted his head into her lap.

“Sir?” she said hopefully.

“Gertrude,” he coughed. “Sweet child.”

“Yes, I’m here.”

“You must—”

“What is it?” she asked.

“You must kill them.”

“Sir?”

“Kill the bastards.”

“Sir?”

“Swear it.”

“I will.”