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1st Day of February

    Morwenna's charm did not help Peppercorn (the dog) so we sent for Father Huw, but he refuses to work miracles on dogs. My father says he cannot stand the howling and running and digging, so he has sent Peppercorn to Rhys from the stables to be killed. I convinced Rhys to Let Perkin take her. Dogs are much like goats -- mayhap Perkin can help her.

3rd Day of February

    I am locked in my chamber this day for my rudeness to Fulk, the fat and flabby son of the baron Fulk from Normandy. It was like this: Yestermorn my father received a messenger from Baron Fulk, saying the baron would be here by noon to discuss further betrothal arrangements between the younger Fulk and myself. By cock and pie, I swore, I will not be given in marriage against my will! But I again hid in the privy to watch their arrival since I thought not to refuse right away if the young Fulk seemed clever or funny.

    When you mix flour and salt and yeast and water to make the dough for bread and put it in a warm place, it swells, growing white and soft and spongy. That is what the young Fulk looked like. God's thumbs! No wonder the baron was willing to consider an alliance with a knight's daughter. 

    I stayed in that privy until Morwenna, seeking to rid herself of her breakfast ale before dinner, found me. Marched into the hall, I sulked through lamb cooked with raisins and two kinds of fruit tart. I frowned through the dancing. I scowled through the minstrel's songs.

    After dinner, my father and the baron went to play chess, my mother to take a nap, Morwenna to the solar, the young Fulk to the stables, and myself back to the privy. Soon, though, I heard the rubbing and bouncing of too much flesh approaching and looked out. Young Fulk was coming. I sneaked out without being seen and he took my place on the privy seat. So I set fire to the privy.

    By the bones of Saint Wigbert, I swear it was not intentional. Hoping to make flabby Fulk uncomfortable by filling the privy with foul-smelling smoke, I set afire a mound of wet hay nearby. Mayhap too nearby, for the privy soon was ablaze.

    I did not intend the privy to burn. I did not intend the door to stick. I did not intend that the billowing smoke and Fulk's bellowing would bring most of the manor to help. I did not intend that when he finally did get out, it would be without his breeches. God's thumbs, his backside was the size of the millpond!

    After the laughter and the joking and the dousing of the fire, I, of course, was caught and blamed. Morwenna and my father never even asked if I intended to do it. I was smacked and sent to my chamber. The two Fulks left without a betrothal. Rhys, John, and Wat must build a new privy.

4th Day of February

    Peppercorn is back at home! Perkin found not a demon in her head but a candied fig in her ear. The fig is out and Peppercorn is herself again.

    My mother took advantage of my merry spirits to speak of young Fulk and the privy fire. I knew it was coming. First was a lecture on courtesy to one's guests. Then obedience to one's father. Finally, the familiar talk about ladylike behavior -- moderate in speech and laughter, discreet in word and deed. Corpus bones!

    I said, "I am truly sorry, lady, that Rhys and John and Wat were put to the trouble of a new privy. I am sorry I disappointed you. But I would not wed the fat and flabby Fulk and would probably set him afire again."

    "In truth," she said, "the baron Fulk left without a betrothal not because of your fire but because your father bested him at chess. I think your father would not humble himself before God Himself. Even to secure a baron's son for his daughter."

    Then she sighed. It is good to know that I have my father's pride as well as his beastliness to help me avoid this marriage business.

5th Day of February

    My mother is with child again. My father smirks and pats her swelling belly and already toasts to his son. My mother said children are gifts from God, even though they sometimes seem like penance, and that as God's gifts we must welcome them. 

    "I also like the sweet, milky way they smell," she said. "And how they twine their arms about your neck and leave sticky kisses on your cheek."

    I myself like dogs better.

    What if this time God takes her as well as the babe? I am sore afraid.

6th Day of February

    This might become my favorite feast day if we could celebrate it each year as we did today. First we heard a special Mass, which meant it was twice as long and my mind wandered twice as much and my knees got twice as tired.

    After, we all gathered in the hall to eat, feasting on pig's stomach stuffed with nuts and apples, herring with parsnips, and a disgusting peacock, stuffed and roasted with his tail feathers stuck back on. 

    There was abundant wine as well as ale and cider and perry and we grew quite rowdy as we played Hoodman's Blind. The shallow-brained Lady Margaret, whenever it was her turn to be blindfolded, whiffled here and there around the hall and then wandered into the pantry, whereupon all the young men would follow her and none return to the game for minutes. Corpus bones! What an odd way to play!

    Suddenly there was a commotion as two of my father's men pulled out their swords and started slashing at each other, each accusing the other of sneaking peeks over the blindfold. Everyone moved aside as Richard and Gilbert, cursing and grunting, swung their terrible heavy swords at each other. Up on the tables, where they overturned cups and goblets and stepped in and out of the plates of meat. Onto the benches, which splintered as they swung and missed each other. Over to the walls, where their sharpened weapons cut new rends in the already tattered hangings. 

    All afternoon they swung until finally they were near too tired to lift their heavy weapons again. Gilbert heaved one last swipe at Richard, which knocked him off his feet. Bellowing about who did what unfairly to whom, their friends joined in, shouting and cursing and grunting along. Then we all joined in, even the cooks and servers swinging their ladles and pothooks. I with no weapon hurled food at whoever was near, pretending I was a crusader battling the heathens with leftover pig's stomach and almond cream.

    One group of fighters stumbled into the fire, scattering the burning brands and smoldering ashes into the rushes, which burst into flame. Suddenly the hall was ablaze, as the dry rushes caught fire. Even William Steward's shoes were smoldering. William and Gilbert grabbed flagons of wine to pour over the blazing rushes while Richard stamped on the stray sparks and my father, the genius, pulled down his breeches and pissed most of the fire out. The hot fire seemed to cool our tempers, so everyone sat down to drink again amidst the ruins of the table and argue over which side got the better of the other. If I become a saint, I would like my day to be celebrated in just such fashion. 

8th Day of February

    I spent yesterday doctoring ale head, grumbling guts, and various cuts, gashes, scratches, and burns including my own. Then just before dinner we found Roger Moreton lying unconscious in the black soggy rushes near the buttery. He sustained a grievous injury in the fight and lay untended all night while we slept. Now he lies in the solar in my parents' bed, still asleep, with cobwebs packed about his wound, his fever raging.

9th Day of February

    Roger's wound has grown black and smells bad. My mother and Morwenna and I do all we can, but his head is no better and his fever no less and his eyes still closed.

10th Day of February

    Roger died this morning. He never woke up. he was seventeen. 

11th Day of February

    Today is Roger's funeral ale, and our hall rings with noise and music and fighting and eating and drinking just as it did the day our brawling killed him. This will go on all night until the funeral Mass tomorrow after which there will be more feasting. I am in my chamber, for my head aches and my heart grieves, and I have no appetite for food, merriment, or company.

13th Day of February

    I told Morwenna that my hands were too cold for embroidery. She now watches me like a chicken hawk to make sure they are also too cold for writing. No more now.

14th Day of February

    Today being the day birds choose their mates, I watched my birds all morning to see if I could spy them pairing off but they are acting just the same as always, so I must have missed it. Mating is definitely in season, however. Meg from the dairy giggles as she carries the milk pails and leaves a trail of spilled milk from here to there. The cook spent the forenoon teaching Wat's yellow-haired daughter to stir a porridge. Half the kitchen boys have disappeared with half the serving maids. And my father stopped blustering enough to lay a kiss on my lady mother's head. 

    As we wove cloth this day, Morwenna and I talked of mating, love, and marriage. I told her I thought it all silly and a waste of time and if I were king I would outlaw it.

    "Even the king would have trouble enforcing that law, Birdy," she said, "for one stick won't make fire, and God's creatures dearly love to warm their hands on a fire."

    She laughed and snickered so to herself then that I could not get a word of sense out of her. God's thumbs. Mating season has soddened even Morwenna's wits.

16th Day of February

    I am to go to Castle Finbury to visit the duchess of Warrington -- the lady Aelis that was. She is there at home while she waits for her husband to grow up. I will be with her for fourteen days! My belly is quivering with excitement and a little still with remorse. I will take with my plenty of remedies.

18th Day of February

    Just before dinner, Morwenna and I and our escorts arrived at Aelis's castle. Clattering over the moat bridge, we passed through the main gate into the castle yard. The castle seemed like a small stone city. Huddled against the great curtain wall with its stone towers were buildings of all sizes --  a slope-roofed storage shed, a kitchen with a chimney like a church steeple, the great hall, a brewhouse, thatched barns and stables, a piggery, a smithy, and the chapel. 

    The yard teemed with sights and sounds. Great snorting horse coming or going or just milling around stirred the rain and snow and dirt into a great muddy slop. Peasants held wiggling, squawking ducks and chickens by their feet, shaking them in the face of anyone who might buy. Laundresses stirred great vats of dirty clothes in soapy water like cooks brewing up some gown-and-breeches stew. Bakers ran back and forth from the ovens at the side of the yard to the kitchen with great baskets of steamy fresh bread. Masons chipped stones and mixed mortar as they continued their everlasting repairs. Everywhere children tumbled over each other and everyone else, stealing bread, chasing dogs, splashing and slopping through the mud. 

    As we draw near to the great hall, the smells overpowered even the noise -- the sour smell of the sick, the poor, and the old who crowded about the door, waiting for scraps of food or linen, the rotten sweet smell of the garbage and soiled rushes piled outside the kitchen door, and above all the smell of crisping fat and boiling meat and the hundreds of spices and herbs and honeys and wines that together make a castle dinner.

    The great hall seemed larger than our whole manor at Stonebridge, and the tables were laid with enough golden plate to make my father die of greed were he but to see it. Dinner was festive, with wine and musicians and minstrels and much laughter. And food such as we see at home only for a fest, and never in winter --  eels in quince jelly, hedgehog in raisins and cream, porpoise and peas, spun sugar castles, boats, and dragons -- but I noticed that many of the dishes had snow on them, for the kitchens are outside in the yard and food must be carried through the snow to the hall.

    After dinner Aelis and I walked about the castle yard for a few minutes, but it was too cold, so we ducked into the kennels to see her new hounds. A stable boy not more than ten years old sleeps there to see to their needs -- how thin and cold he looked. The dogs were cleaner and better fed. I gave him some cheese and bread I had concealed in my sleeve for later, for I did not relish crossing the yard in the middle of the night to steal food from the kitchens the way I do at home. 

    Aelis, now that she is married, wears her hair tied up in bunches over each ear but she still gossips like the old unmarried Aelis. She wanted to talk about George but I was pricked with guilt and tried to talk about anything else. She said she sent him a message and although he never responded, she will love him until she dies. Prick. Prick.

19th Day of February

    The night sounds in a castle are so different from home. I could barely sleep for the clanking and calling of the guards as they passed one another in the night, the laughter and shouting of the guests still drinking in the hall, and the loud, sharp sound of footsteps on stone, unmuffled by dirt and rushes.

    The castle was abustle early this day with cooking and sweeping and the mucking out of privies. A messenger had arrived to say that the king's cousin, Madame Joanna, will stop here to rest on her way from York to London. She is but two or three days away!

    Aelis and I have been hiding from all the activity so that no one will think of something for us to do. We are guessing what the great lady is like. Aelis imagines she is tall like the king, slender as a weasel, and white as whale's bone, dressed in cloth of gold and sea-green velvet, with jewels instead of keys hanging from the belt at her waist. So says Aelis.

    I think she is clever and funny and writes songs. And that she will grow to love me and not wish to be without me and will take me with her to London to the king's palace where we will dance every night until morning and have adventures and many knights will love us and even wish to die for us, but we will have none! If we wish to be puppeteers at a fair or skate on the ice or be strolling players, we will, for who could refuse the cousin of the king and her beloved friend? And I will never again have to spin or weave or comb wool or stir boiling vats of anything! And no one will be able to marry me off for silver or land. I cannot wait until she arrives, friendly and kind and beautiful as summer.

    I have brushed and smoothed my best green gown and Aelis will let me wear her lavender surcoat over it to hide the worst stains. I washed my hair and near roasted my backside at the fire trying to get it dry. My shoes are cleaned and my fingernails also. I must be at my best for this opportunity.

20th Day of February

    All is ready but Madame Joanna has not yet arrived. Aelis and I are huddled beneath the bed covering trying to keep warm while I write. There are icicles on the walls of her chamber, on the side away from the fire. I thought great barons and their families lived in luxury, but this castle is much wetter and colder than Stonebridge Manor. The fleas are the same as at home, although the wine is better.

    Two villagers and a goat froze to death last night.

    Where is my dear Madame?

21st Day of February

    Madame Joanna arrived this day while we were at dinner. The baron hurried out of the hall to greet her and bring her in. I was taken greatly by surprise. She is a hundred years old, gray and puny, smaller even than Robin Smallbone's sister, who is not yet eight. Her face is all wrinkled and brown and covered with gray hairs, her eyes are round and red, and she is missing all her teeth but the front two on top. God's thumbs, I thought, Madame Mouse.

    I watched her closely during dinner. Her veil and wimple were crooked and stained with crumbs and gravy from her attempts to straighten them. When she talked or ate, which she mostly did at the same time, she lisped and whistled so no one could understand her at all. A tiny dog who looked like a hairy beetle sat on her lap all through dinner. She fed him the best pieces of meat picked from the serving bowls. Sometimes the dog sniffed or licked a piece of meat and then would not eat it, so she'd put it back in the bowl. No one dared chide her, her being the cousin of the king!

    Was this the beloved friend, beautiful as summer, who would rescue me and take me to court where we would dance and frolic? Disappointment grumbled my guts and made my breath sour.

    After dinner Madame Joanna told fortunes. It was hard to know what she said, for she talked in riddles and proverbs while lisping and whistling, but those who thought they heard of love left blushing and giggling and those who thought they heard of riches grinned, so most seemed pleased.

    My turn came and I near fainted when she said, "Come closer, Little Bird." How could she know that name? She peered intently into my face, her mouth so close her whistling tickled my chin.

    Finally she said, "You are lucky, Little Bird, for you have wings. But you must learn to master them. Look at the baron's hawk there on her perch. Just because she doesn't flap her wings all the time doesn't mean she can't fly."

    I was impressed with her knowing Little Bird but could make little sense of the soothsaying. I went to bed.

22nd Day of February

    The sun came out fiercely this day and warms the world. After dinner the baron took a party out hawking although it is early in the year, for they said they could not waste this glorious day. They will spend the afternoon setting birds to hunt and kill other birds. You can imagine what I think about that. Aelis has gone with them.

    After dreaming in the sun a while, I wandered into the hall and found Madame Joanna there, eating boiled cabbage and bacon at the great table, all alone except for her dog. She called me over, bade me sit, and fed me bits of bacon just as she did the dog. She said I reminded her of her youngest daughter, who is now a queen in some German country, so we talked about her children. She tries to be kind to them, she said, but on the whole prefers her dog.

    And we talked about me. I told her about Stonebridge and Perkin -- she agreed he sounds quite superior for a goat boy --  and Morwenna and my father and the endless business of learning to be the lady of the manor, the spinning, embroidering, hemming, brewing, doctoring, combing, marrying, and on and on. I told her of my dreamings about her and going back to court with her where we could have adventures and do exactly as we pleased.

    "Adventures!" she squeaked. "I am a woman and cousin to the king. Do you truly think I could be a horse trainer or a puppeteer or even be friends with a goat boy? Do you think I have adventures instead of duties? There are many worse chores than spinning, Little Bird."

    "But, my dear," she went on, "I flap my wings at times, choose my fights carefully, get things done, understand my limitations, trust in God and a few people, and here I am. I survive, and sometimes even enjoy."

    She smiled then, a lovely smile except for the cabbage stuck between her only two teeth. "You," she added, "must learn about wings, my dear."

    And then, before I could ask what she meant, the bird killers returned, tables were laid for supper, and my time to charm the king's cousin was over.

24th Day of February

    I did not see Madame Joanna again, for I was called home all unwilling to celebrate the marriage of the abominable Robert to the little heiress of Foxbridge. They have been handfast for two years and were to have been married in two more when she reached fourteen. Robert promised not to bed with her while she was of such a tender age, but from the looks of her, he paid no more attention to his promise than a cow at Mass. Either the girl has overfed herself on honey cakes or the child is with child.

    Her father is too angry with them to risk letting them go to Foxbridge, so we will have the wedding here. My father, Sir Nip-Cheese, objects to the cost, saying it is obvious that they are already husband and wife. My mother in her quite way does as she wishes. Robert and his bridge will have a hasty but real wedding and we will get all the meat eaten before Lent begins.

26th Day of February

    The wedding feast still rollicks below, but I have had my fill of merriment and have escaped to my chamber to write this account of the day's events.

    The morning started out gray and drizzly, with a mist that wet our faces and our clothes and made the rushlights hard to fire, a poor omen for a wedding. We dressed the bridge in her second-best gown (Morwenna let the seams out) and on her hair put a small veil held with a golden band. 

    The musicians came at dawn, yawning and scratching, smelling of the sour wine they had drunk half the night. On bagpipe and crumhorn they played us to the church.

    Robert and his bridge exchanged vows at the church door and we all went inside for Mass, a lengthy affair with priest droning and candles hissing and flickering. The loudest sound was the musicians snoring. I think Robert fell asleep himself but was jostled awake by my father's sharp elbow.

    I watched the early morning light pass over and through the windows of colored glass, leaving streaks of red and green and yellow on the stone floor. When I was little, I used to try to capture the colored light. I thought I could hold it in my hand and carry it home. Now I know it is like happiness -- it is there or it is not, you cannot hold it or keep it.

    We walked back to the manor for the ale feast, showering the bride with rose petals, the musicians playing and tomfooling. Gerd the miller's son fell into the river as we crossed, but Robert waded in and pulled him out so his wedding day would not be ruined.

    The dark and smoky hall looked festive for the feast. The rushes on the floor were last year's but were new strewn with mint and heather. Tables were laid with our best linen cloths. Torches blazed in iron brackets on the wall and their light gleamed off the gilt and silver goblets, candlesticks, and spoons. I have seldom seen these -- what has not been sold is usually locked up. 

    After dinner, the men all danced with the bride. She looked smaller and paler as the day wore on but bravely let every man there step on her feet and call it dancing. 

    I was partnered for the feast with an ugly shaggy-bearded hulk from the north. My father sought to honor him because his manor lies next to my mother's, and my father lusts after it. I fail to see how sitting next to me and sharing my bowl and goblet honored him -- and it certainly did me no good. The man was a pig, which dishonors pigs. He blew his red and shiny nose on the table linen, sneezed on the meat, picked his teeth with his knife, and left wet greasy marks where he drank from the cup we shared. I could not bring myself to put my lips to the slimy rim, so endured a dinner without wine.

    Worse than this, he proved himself a murderer. As the dogs burrowed under the rushes for bones and bits of the wedding meat, Rosemary (the smallest and my favorite but for Brutus) mistook his skinny foot for a bone and nipped it. The shaggy-bearded pig howled and kicked the dog, who, of course, defended herself by biting. Then Shaggy Beard, pulling his knife from the table, tried to skewer the dog as if she were a joint of meat. 

    Robert left his wine cup long enough to knock the knife away with his. "The dog belongs to Lord Rollo," he growled, "and is not yours to kill."

    The bearded pig sat down, shamed before our guests, and began to eat and drink again, smiling at me with meat stuck between his horrible brown broken teeth. I think he ate too much, for he made wind like a storm and sounded like a bladderpipe left out in the rain played by a goat.

    The worst part is that now I must be beholden to the abominable Robert. As we passed later, I thanked him -- prettily, I thought. He pinched my rump and grinned. "So I am none so bad as you thought me, little sister?"

    I said, "Even the lowest of beasts is not vile all of the time."

    I felt better. We are now back on the old footing -- hate.

27th Day of February

    Today my father questioned me about the bearded pig. I said he affected my stomach like maggoty meat and my father laughed and said, "Learn to like it."

    It bodes not well. Shaggy Beard has a son, Stephen, whom he spoke of with loathing, calling him "Sir Priest," "the clerk," and "the girl," because the boy thinks and bathes and does not fart at Mass. I fear they are planning a match between me and Stephen. I will not. To be part of Shaggy Beard's family and have to eat with him every day! If my father does not drive him away, I will, as I have done the others. 

28th Day of February

    First day of Lent. We are but dust and to dust shall return. I tried to be thoughtful and morbid on this day but spoiled it by skipping in the yard after dinner from pure joy. I am not dust yet!

    Shaggy Beard is with us still. When I see him, I call "Hoy!" as if I were calling a pig. His face gets even redder. I am hoping he will burst and we can sweep him out with the soiled rushes.

Next Chapter: April