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2nd Day of December

   So troubled was I by events of yesterday that I did not write but sat long with my mother, who sang and stroked my hair as if I were a child. This is how it happened.

    The sun looked likely to shine yestermorn, so Gerd the miller's son and I left our chores undone and went to Wooton village where they were to hang two thieves. Never having seen a hanging, I could only imagine the huge hairy bandits with cruel scarred faces, snarling and growling fearsome curses, while we onlookers shrieked and shrank back in fear. I thought it sounded better even than a feast or a fair. Perkin could not be found, so I made the clay brained Gerd go with me.

    It looked to be a gay occasion, even though the rain started before we were far along, which dampened our spirits a little and our shoes a lot. The sheriff had just constructed a new gallows, so the whole village turned out to celebrate. People were packed all around the church square, villagers and strangers, priests and children, peddlers and players, and hawkers selling every kind of food and drink. I bought sausages, bread, an onion, two meat pies, and an apple pastry and ate most of it, for it was my penny, not Gerd's.

    We were all laughing and shouting when we saw the sheriff pull the cart in. I was calling "Dead bandits never rob again," which I thought quite clever, as the cart passed me by, carrying the two bandits, ropes already tied about their necks.

    The sheriff dragged them from the cart and up the ladder to the gallows. Corpus bones! They were no more than twelve years old, skinny, frightened, and dirty. Their scared stupid faces knocked the jolly right out of me, and when one leaned off the platform and grabbed my sleeve, slobbering and crying "Help me, noble lady!" I turned and run. I was near out of the village before the first was shoved off the platform, but I could hear the cheering and laughing behind me.

    Gerd caught up with me and we left Wooton, the clodpole rubbing his eyes with his grubby fists in sadness for missing the fun. I vomited up my bread and sausage but Gerd kept his. All the way back to the Stonebridge road, we could hear the laughing and cheering of the crowd.

    The wretched day grew worse still, for on our way home we saw a funeral procession ride down the road toward London. It was midday and the rain had slowed to a drizzle, but it was near as dark as dusk. Never have I seen so many men and horses so quiet, their bells and bridles muffled. The only sound was the thud of the horses' hooves on the wet ground.

    First came a crowd of men wrapped in black cloaks. I could not tell who they were but the tall man in front had the saddest face I ever saw. Following them, two horses--one before and one after--carried a sort of litter with the coffin. And in the rear marched hundreds of soldiers in battle dress, without a smile or a wave for us, without a sounds, except for the slow measured tread of their boots.

    Gerd and I ran home, trembling with fear that the king had died, for who else would be taken to London with such a company, such pomp, and such grief? The king has been king as long as I had lived. How could we have another? What would happen to us? Gerd went to the mill and I burst into the hall as if the Devil were pulling my hair. My mother was there, getting spices for the cook from the locked cupboard, and I ran to her, crying for the king and myself.

    "No, Little Bird," she said, "you weep for the wrong person. It is not the king who is dead, but Eleanor, his kind and gentle queen."

    On her way to join the king as he warred against the Scots, the queen took ill and died. The king, broken of heart, came from Scotland to take her back to London. He built a towering stone cross to mark the place where she lay at Lincoln Castle and will have one built at every stop from here to London. I knew then who the tall sad-faced man was. I had seen the king, finally, for the first time, and there was no cheering or celebrating or glee, only grief. I had cried with the king.

    I told my mother then about the little bandits and losing my sausage and seeing the sad procession, and she cooed and comforted me and forgot to scold me for running off. This made me feel some better, but what comforted me the most was the thought of telling it all to Perkin.

    Morwenna says that fairies have the faces of beloved dead and that some people who have seen fairies recognize their faces. I think I would not be afeared to meet a fairy with the queen's face, God save her.

3rd Day of December

   George was drunk again all day. Aelis has been taken to London for the king's Christmas court. He never says her name. Is it the curse?

4th Day of December

   My brother Thomas has come from serving the king to spend Christmas with us. Because of the rain he arrived so sodden and beslombered with muck that I did not know him. He is near a stranger to me, as he is much with the king, but does not seem as abominable as Robert, so I shall not overly vex him.

    Thomas says the king, still on his way to London with the queen, does not weep but rides with a face of stone, so deeply does he grieve. I wonder if the mothers of the two boy bandits hanged at Wooton grieve for them. I find I prefer fairs and feasts to hangings.

5th Day of December

    Thomas, very lordly in his patterned hose and pointed shoes, played the child long enough to coach the village boys in their fighting games. As I sat in the sun with my eyes closed, I could hear the thud of the dying and joyous shouts of the victors, the furious whinnying of those boys doomed to be horses instead of knights, and I pretended I was on crusade. I shall not tell George this.

6th Day of December

   There are no Jews left in England today, Thomas says. By order of the king they have all left the country. I find it hard to believe that the old lady and the little soft-eyed girl who stayed in our hall could be a danger to England. Is it blasphemy to ask God to protect Jews? I will ask Edward.

    Or maybe not. Mayhap I will whisper it just to God and trust it is all right. God keep the Jews.

7th Day of December

   Thomas says the king and the people of his court have chosen each his own special profanity so that they don't have to say "Deus!" or "Corpus bones!" or "Benedicite!" as we ordinary folk do. The king says "God's breath!" His sons says "God's teeth!" Thomas says "God's feet!" I, not being ordinary, shall choose one also. I will try one on each day and see what fits me best. Today it is: God's face!

8th Day of December

   God's ears, it is cold! The sun shines on a fairy world carved from ice. No one stirs outside. I think all of creation is huddled in our hall, so I have sneaked into my chamber. The fireplace is not lit, but I can pull the feather bed up to my chin and write in peace, even though the candle flame spits the sputters in the wind and I have twice overturned the ink.

    The magpie's water was frozen over this morning, so I have covered all the cages with kirtles and gowns and mantles to keep my birds warm. Mayhap they will think it night until God warms the world again.

9th Day of December

   God's knees! A person can only wear one gown and one kirtle at a time, so why are my mother and her ladies making such a fuss about my covering the bird cages with their spare ones! I cannot believe they would want my poor birds to freeze to death.

    I will have plenty of time to think on this, for I am imprisoned in the solar, brushing feathers and seed and bird dung off of what seems enough clothing for the French army. I see no deliverance. Perkin is busy with his grandmother. Aelis is in London with the king. George and Thomas are from home much these days, riding and drinking and amusing other people and not me. God's knees, I might as well be an orphan.

10th Day of December

    God's nails, Morwenna is in a sour temper today. Every time I open my mouth, she cracks my knuckles with her spindle.

11th Day of December

   Morwenna threatens to truss me like a goose and dump me in the river if I continue in my quest for the perfect profanity. God's chin! She treats me like a child.

12th Day of December

   I have chosen. God's thumbs! What a time I have had in deciding. I chose God's thumbs because thumbs are such important things and handy to use. I thought to make a list of all the things I could not do without my thumbs, like writing, plaiting my hair, and pulling Perkin by his ear, but now it seems to me to be a waste of paper and ink, for I can think of no purpose for such a list unless some heathen Turk came from across the sea and threatened to cut off my thumbs with his golden sword and I was able to convince him to spare my thumbs by reading him  my list of how important thumbs are, but since it seems unlikely both that a Turk would threaten my thumbs and that a list would stop him if he did, I shall save the time and the ink and not make a list.

13th Day of December

   Storm again today. George and Thomas are still gone, but we are cooped up in here like chickens in a hen house. I stayed out of Morwenna's sight so she would not set me to some lady-task. I used the time to wonder and have made a wondering song:

Why aren't fingers equal lengths?

What makes cold?

Why do men get old and bald

And women only old?

When does night turn into day?

How deep is the sea?

How can rivers run uphill?

What will become of me?

14th Day of December

   I am in disgrace today. Grown quiet weary with my embroidery, with my pricked fingers and tired eyes and sore back, I kicked it down the stairs to the hall, where the dogs fought and slobbered over it, so I took the soggy mess and threw it to the pigs.

    Morwenna grabbed me by the ear and pinched my face. My mother gave me a gentle but stern lecture about behaving like a lady. ladies, it seems, seldom have strong feelings and, if they do, never never let them show. God's thumbs! I always have strong feelings and they are quite painful until I let them out, like a cow who needs to give milk and bellows with the pain in her teats. So I am in disgrace in my chamber. I pray Morwenna never discovers that being enchambered is no punishment for me. She would find some new torture, like sending me to listen to the ladies in the solar.


15th Day of December

    I was seated at dinner this day with a visitor from Kent, another clodpole in search of a wife. This one was friendly and good-tempered, and had all his teeth and hair. But he did not compare with George or Perkin, so I would have none of him. Our talk at dinner went like this:

    "Do you enjoy riding, Lady Catherine?"


    "Could we perhaps ride together while I am here?"


    "I understand you read Latin. I admire learned women when they are also beautiful."


    "Mayhap you could show me about the manor after dinner."


    So it went until I conceived my plan, after realizing that the only thing my father would want more than a rich son-in-law is not to part with one of his pennies or acres or bushels of onions. So I grew quite lively and talkative, bubbling with praise for our chests of treasure and untold acres and countless tenants and hoards of silver and for the modesty that prompted my father to hide his wealth and appear as a mere country knight. My suitor's eyes, which had already rested kindly on me, caught fire, and he fairly flew over the rushes to talk with my father in the solar.

    The storm I expected was not long in coming. Poor Fire Eyes tumbled down the stairs from the solar, hands over his head, and rolled across the hall floor to the door and out while my father bellowed from above, "Dowry! Manors! Treasure! You want me to pay you to take the girl? Dowry? I'll give you her dowry!"

    And as the comely young man ran across the yard on his way to the stable and freedom, a brimming chamber pot came flying from the solar window and landed on his head. Farewell, suitor. Benedicite.

    Even now as I pity the young man in his spoiled tunic, I must smile to think of my own dowry. No other maiden in England has one like it.

16th Day of December

   My breath stinks, my gut grumbles, and my liver is oppilated. It must be all this fish. Would that Christmas come soon and bring and end to fasting. I am turning into a herring.

    After Vespers, Later This Day:

    My uncle George is leaving Stonebridge. He does not eat but only drinks his meals. His cheeks are dusty with unshaved whiskers. He has no stories or winks or grins for me anymore. Is it the curse? Do I have powers?

17th Day of December

    George has gone to York. He did not say goodbye so I do not know if he will be back for Christmas. I do not know if the curse worked. I will miss him but I liked him better before he loved Aelis. I think love is like mildew, growing gray and musty on things, spoiling them, and smelling bad.

18th Day of December

   The cold has trapped us inside again and I am grown full restless. This is how I have spent my day: I was awakened at dawn by Wat dropping the wood as he lit my fire. I put on my undertunic and stockings while still under the covers for warmth and then, breaking the ice in the bowl, splashed water on my face and hands. I dressed in my yellow gown with the blue kirtle over, my red shoes, and my cloak, even though I was not going outside. Morwenna helped me plait my hair, which we trimmed with silver pins.

    We could not hear Mass for we could not get through the snow to the church, so I breakfasted with bread and ale. The next two hours I hemmed sheets in the solar while I listened to my mother's ladies chatter about the Christmas feast. We ate dinner very quickly, for the snow falling through the smokehole in the hall kept dousing the fire. I then hurried back to the solar where it was noisy but warm, and here I am now, writing and wishing I were outside on the meadow and Perkin was playing the pipes and the goats were nuzzling one another and me. It is many hours until supper and bed.

19th Day of December

   The little book of saints never disappoints me. I have kept it with me since the abbot sent it. I showed it once to my mother, who exclaimed over the pictures, listened to a story or two, and then forgot about it. I therefore consider it mine. Or almost mine. Or near enough, for here it is in my chamber.

20th Day of December

   Too dull for writing.

21st Day of December

   The snow has stopped. Life begins again.

    Last night I tucked a pin into an onion and put it under my pillow so I would dream of my future husband. I dreamed only of onions and in the morning had to wash my hair. It near froze before it dried.

    We feasted this day in honor of my brother Thomas, whose saint's day this is. We had oceans of fish and acres of dried apples, and musicians and jugglers and tumblers, and so many guests there were no benches for the young men, who had to sit on the soiled rushes and grab at food as best they could. I am still dazzled by the acrobats and the magician who carried fire in a linen napkin and pulled roses from my ear!

22nd Day of December

   My chamber is full of visiting girls here to celebrate Christmas. They twitter and chatter louder than my birds, but it does not sound like music to me. I cannot think so I cannot write. No more to say. I miss Aelis. I worry for George. Did the curse work?

23rd Day of December

   The abominable Robert has arrived for the Christmas feast. He brought no gifts, as did my uncle George, and no tales of court, as did Thomas, but only his gross yellow-toothed self. He sows turmoil everywhere. Pinched me where I sit and threatened to roast my birds for Christmas dinner. Made one of the maids cry. Set the dogs to fighting until my father threw them out into the snow. Teased Thomas about his obvious passion for the daughter of Arnulf of Weddingford. Robert told him that every man needs a horse, a sword, and a woman, but he should love only the first two.

24th Day of December

   Another bright clear day so we were able to search the woods for mistletoe, holly, and ivy to hang in the hall. Thomas and his friend Ralph acted out the battle of the holly and ivy, arguing over who God loved best, bickering in high voices and shamming a tournament of plants. We all laughed and cheered them. It was a treat to be without Robert, who now that he is twenty thinks our games childish and beneath him.

    As I write this, I can see from the open window the parade of villagers leading a cow, an ox, and an ass to the manger in the church. Soon fires will be lit upon the hills, Wat will bring in the yule log, and Christmas will begin.

25th Day of December

    Waes hail! The hall was overstuffed today for the Christmas feast, with villagers and guests and Thomas's friends from court. Even my nip-cheese father forebore to complain about the cost, today being Christmas Day. We ate, of course, boar's head, which the cook's assistant carried about the hall on a platter decorated with apples and ivy. We also had herring pie, fried milk, onion and mustard omelette, turnip soup, figs stuffed with cinnamon and hard-boiled eggs, mulled pear cider, and more.

    We had hardly finished eating when we heard "Please to let the mummers in," and the Christmas play began. Perkin was a wise man, of course. Thomas Baker was Joseph, and Gerd the miller's son played the evil King Herod, although, like Gerd, Herod seemed more stupid than evil. Elfa the laundress was the Virgin Mary; it was to be Beryl, John At-Wood's daughter, but since Michaelmas she is breeding and no virgin in real life or in mumming.

    I was very stirred when John Over-Bridge carried in the gilt star on a long pole, which the three wise men and the shepherds followed to the Holy Manger. The villagers who played the shepherds thought to make the play more lively by leading real sheep to the cradle where the Christ Child lay. One began to eat the rushes off the floor and two others, frighted by the dogs, ran off, knocking into each other, the shepherds, the others players, the table, the torches. We all joined in a great chase about the hall after the bawling and kicking sheep. Finally Perkin used his best goatherd voice to calm the sheep and lead them outside, and the play finished with just two wise men. The shepherds were right. It was much more lively.

    After the play we played Snapdragons. William Steward burned his hand trying to snatch a raisin from the flaming pan. I anointed it with a paste of sow bugs, moss, and goose grease, although he said he suffered more from the stink than from the pain of the burn. My mother then bade us play a game where no one gets burned, so we changed to Hot Cockles, where people only get smacked.

    The hall is full of sleeping bodies tonight. I had to step carefully over those on the floor so I could snatch more figs from the kitchen. If there is sticky on these pages, it is from figs. I love them well.

    26th Day of December

   Perkin was chosen the Lord of Misrule, so he is Master of the Christmas Revels and we must obey him until Christmas is over. We made him a scepter wound with holly and a crown of pig bones, ivy, and bay and are hilariously following his orders. Even my father laughed at Perkin's fantastic fooling.

    He knighted the dogs and led them on crusade against the barn cats. He made me fetch him ale and pinched me for all the times I've pinched him. He sat Morwenna on his lap and ordered my mother to bring them hot wine. Then he set us to making riddles, promising a reward for the best. I won for my riddle: What is the bravest thing in the world? The neckband of my brother Robert's cloak, for each day it clasps a beast by the throat. I was quite proud until I learned the reward was a kiss from Perkin, so I pouted and left. Robert pinched me as I passed him.

27th Day of December

   Thomas, his friend Ralph, my father, two kitchen boys, and Gerd the miller's son all came to me seeking a cure for excessive wassailing. I doctored them with a tonic made of anise and betony and advised them to drink less and vomit more.

28th Day of December

   Morwenna says today is the unluckiest day of the year. She made me stay inside my chamber and won't let me sew or embroider for fear I will prick myself, so for me it is not so unlucky.

    It is also Perkin's birthday and I think he is not unlucky. He never sews or weaves or goes to bed when someone else says. On summer nights he sleeps outside with the goats, who loved him but never tell him what to do. I think Perkin is the luckiest person I know.

29th Day of December

   Our Lord Perkin declared a tournament for us and the chickens. Although the chickens had silver gilt helmets and twig swords, we won. Chicken for dinner.

30th Day of December

   More laughter and singing and arguing and shouting and noise tonight. I have come to my chamber to escape the constant chattering, although even here I am not alone. I am crowded by the visiting girls and their words, words, words.

31st Day of December

   It is not snowing today, so I took my mare Blanchefleur for a ride through the frozen fields. I felt great need of solitude and quiet. The manor is so crowded that the privy is the only place I can be alone, and it is too cold to stay there for long. Besides, with so many guests it is the busiest place on the manor.

    I brought Blanchefleur back to the barn before supper and stumbled over Robert and Elfa the laundress snuggled into the hay. It appears they will have to get another Virgin Mary for the Christmas play next year.

Next Chapter: February