The doctor was interrupted by a short series or raps upon the chamber door. "Who is it?" he cried.
"It's me," said a doleful voice. There was a long pause. "Me, Inch," it finished.
"Bones of Anaxos!" swore the doctor, who favored exotic expressions. "Open the door, then... I am too old to run about waiting on fools."
The door swung inward. The man framed against the glow of inner hallway was probably tall, but hung his head and hunched his body forward in such a way that it was difficult to make sure. A round, vacant face floated like a moon just above his breastbone, thatched by spiky black hair that had been cut with a dull and clumsy knife.
"I'm sorry I... I bothered you, Doctor, but... but you said come early, now didn't you?" The voice was thick and slow as dripping lard.
Morgenes gave a whistle of exasperation, and tugged on a coil of his own white hair. "Yes, I did, but I said early after the dinner hour, which has not yet arrived. Still, no sense in sending you away. Simon, have you met Inch, my assistant?"
Simon nodded politely. He had seen the man once or twice; Morgenes had him come in some evenings to help, apparently with heavy lifting. It certainly wouldn't be for anything else, since Inch did not look as though he could be trusted to piss on the fire before going to bed.
"Well, young Simon, I'm afraid that will have to put an end to my windiness for the day," the old man said. "Since Inch is here, I must use him. Come back soon, and I will tell you more—if you like."
"Certainly." Simon nodded once more to Inch, who rolled a cow-like gaze after him. He had reached the door, almost touched it, when a sudden vision blazed into life in his head: a clear picture of Rachel's broom, lying where he had left it, on the grass beside the moat like the corpse of a strange water bird.
He would say nothing. He could collect the broom on his way back, and tell the Dragon that the chore was finished. She had so much to think about, and, although she and the doctor were two of the castle's oldest residents, they seldom spoke. It was obviously the best plan.
Without understanding why, Simon turned back. The little man was scrutinizing a curling scroll, bent over the table while Inch stood behind him staring at nothing particular.
At the sound of his name the doctor looked up, blinking. He seemed surprised that Simon was still in the room; Simon was surprised, too.
"Doctor, I've been a fool."
Morgenes arched his eyebrows, waiting.
"I was supposed to sweep your room. Rachel asked me to. Now the whole afternoon has gone by."
"Oh. Ah!" Morgenes' nose wrinkled as if it itched him, then he broke out a wide smile. "Sweep my chamber, eh? Well, lad, come back tomorrow and do it. Tell Rachel that I have more work for you, if she will be so good as to let you go." He turned back to his book, then looked up again, eyes narrowing, and pursed his lips. As the doctor sat in silent thought, the elation Simon was feeling changed suddenly to nervousness.
Why is he staring at me like that?
"Come to think of it, boy," the man finally said, "I will be having many chores coming up that you could help me with—and eventually I will need an apprentice. Come back tomorrow, as I said. I will talk with the Mistress of Chambermaids about the other." He smiled briefly, then turned back to his scroll. Simon was suddenly aware that Inch was staring across the doctor's back at him, an unreadable expression moving beneath the placid surface of his whey-colored face. Simon turned and sprinted through the door. Exhilaration caught him up as he bounded down the blue-lit hallway and emerged under dark, cloud-smeared skies. Apprentice! To the doctor!
When he reached the gatehouse, he stopped and climbed down to the edge of the moat to look for the broom. The crickets were well into the evening's chorale. When he found it at last, he sat down for a moment against the wall near the water's brink to listen.
As the rhythmic song rose around him, he ran his fingers along the nearby stones. Caressing the surface of one worn as smooth as hand-burnished cedar, he thought:
This stone may have been standing here since... since before our Lord Usires was born. Perhaps some Sithi boy once sat here in this same quiet place, listening to the night....
Where did that breeze come from?
A voice seemed to whisper, whisper, the words too faint to hear.
Perhaps he ran his hands across this same stone....
A whisper on the wind: We will have it back, manchild. We will have it all back....
Clutching the neck of his coat tight against the unexpected chill, Simon got up and climbed the grassy slope, suddenly lonesome for familiar voices and light.
Birds in the Chapel
"BY THE Blessed Aedon..."
"... And Elysia his mother..."
"... And all the saints that watch over..."
"... Watch over... ouch!" A hiss of frustration. "Damned spiders'" The whacking resumed, curses and invocations laid on between. Rachel was cleaning cobwebs from the dining hall ceiling.
Two girls sick and another with a twisted ankle. This was the kind of day that put a dangerous glint in Rachel the Dragon's agate eye. Bad enough to have Sarrah and Jael down with the fluxion—Rachel was a hard taskmistress, but she knew that every day of working a sick girl could mean losing her three days in the longer run—yes, bad enough that Rachel had to pick up the slack left by their absence. As if she did not do two people's work already! Now the seneschal said the king would dine in the Great Hall tonight, and Elias, the Prince Regent, had arrived from Meremund, and there was even more work to do!
And Simon, sent off an hour before to pick a few bundles of rushes, was still not back.
So, here she stood with her tired old body perched on a rickety stool, trying to get the spiderwebs out of the ceiling's high corners with a broom. That boy! That, that...
"Holy Aedon give strength..."
Whack! Whack! Whack!
That damnable boy!
It was not enough, Rachel reflected later as she slumped red-faced and sweaty on the stool, that the boy was lazy and difficult. She had done her best over the years to thump the contrariness out of him; he was certainly a better person for it, she knew. No, by the Good Mother of God, what was worse was that no one else seemed to care! Simon was man-tall, and at an age when he should be doing nearly a man's work—but no! He hid and slid and mooned about. The kitchen workers laughed at him. The chambermaids coddled him, and snuck dinner to him when she, Rachel, had banished him from table. And Morgenes! Merciful Elysia, the man actually encouraged him!
And now he had asked Rachel if the boy could come and work for him every day, sweeping up, helping to keep things clean—hah!—and assisting the old man with some of his work. As if she didn't know better. The two of them would sit about, the old souse guzzling ale and telling the boy Heaven knew what kind of devil's stories.
Still, she couldn't help considering his offer. It was the first time anyone had asked for the boy, or wanted him at all—he was so underfoot all the time! And Morgenes had really seemed to think he could do the boy some good....
The doctor often irritated Rachel with his fancy talk and his flowery speeches—which the Mistress of Chambermaids felt sure were disguised mockery—but he did seem to care about the boy. He had always kept an eye out for what was best for Simon... a suggestion here, an idea there, a quiet intercession once when the Master of Scullions had thrashed him and banished him from the kitchens. Morgenes had always kept a watch on the boy.
Rachel looked up at the broad beams of the ceiling, her gaze traveling off into the shadows. She blew a strand of damp hair off of her face.
Starting back on that rainy night, she thought—what was it, almost fifteen years ago? She felt so old, thinking back this way... it seemed only a moment....
The rain had been sheeting down all day and night. As Rachel went gingerly across the muddy courtyard, holding her cloak over her head with one hand, the lantern in the other, she stepped in a wide wagon rut and felt the water splash her calves. Her foot came free with a sucking sound, but without a shoe. She cursed bitterly and hurried forward. She would catch her death running around on such a night with one foot bare, but there was no time to go digging about in puddles.
A light was burning in Morgenes' study, but it seemed to take forever for the footsteps to come. When he opened the door she saw that he had been abed: he wore a long nightshirt in need of mending, and rubbed his eyes groggily in the lantern-glare. The tangled blankets of his bed, surrounded by a leaning palisade of books in the room's far corner, made Rachel think of some foul animal's nest.
"Doctor, come quick!" she said. "You must come quick, now!"
Morgenes stared, then stepped back. "Come in, Rachel. I have no idea what nocturnal palpitations have brought you, but since you are here..."
"No, no, you foolish man, it's Susanna! Her time is here, but she is very weak. I'm afraid for her."
"Who? What? Never mind, then. Just a moment, let me get my things. What a dreadful night! Go on, I shall catch up to you."
"But, Doctor Morgenes, I brought the lantern for you."
Too late. The door was closed, and she was alone on the step with rain dribbling off her long nose. Cursing, she splashed back to the servants' quarters.
It was not long before Morgenes was stamping up the stairs shaking the water from his cloak. At the doorway he absorbed the scene in a single glance: a woman on the bed with her face turned away, big with child and groaning. Dark hair lay across her face, and she squeezed in a sweaty fist the hand of another young woman who kneeled beside her. At the foot of the bed Rachel stood with an older woman.
The old one stepped toward Morgenes while he shed his bulky outer clothing.
"Hello, Elispeth," he said quietly. "How does it look?"
"Not good, I'm afraid, sir. You know I could have dealt with it otherwise. She's been trying for hours, and she's bleeding. Her heart is very faint." As Elispeth spoke, Rachel moved nearer.
"Hmmm." Morgenes bent and rummaged in the sack he had brought. "Give her some of this, please," he said, handing Rachel a stoppered vial. "Just a swallow, but mind she gets it." He returned to searching his bag as Rachel gently pried open the clenched, trembling jaw of the woman on the bed and poured a little of the liquid into her mouth. The odor of sweat and blood that suffused the room was suddenly supplemented by a pungent, spicy scent.
"Doctor," Elispeth was saying as Rachel returned, "I don't think we can save both mother and child—if we can even save one."
"You must save the child's life," Rachel interrupted. "That's the duty of the Godfearing. The priest says so. Save the child."
Morgenes turned to her with a look of annoyance, "My good woman, I will fear God in my own way, if you don't mind. If I save her—and I do not pretend to know I can—then she can always have another child."
"No, she can't," Rachel said hotly. "Her husband's dead." Morgenes of all people should know that, she thought. Susanna's fisherman husband had often visited the doctor before he drowned—although what they might have had to talk about, Rachel could not imagine.
"Well," Morgenes said distractedly, "she can always find another —what? Her husband?" A startled look came to his face, and he hurried to the bedside. He seemed to finally realize who it was lying there, bleeding her life out on the rough sheet.
"Susanna?" he asked quietly, and turned the woman's fearful, pain-clenched face toward him. Her eyes opened wide for a moment as she saw him, then another wave of agony shut them again. "Ah, what has happened here?" Morgenes sighed. Susanna could only moan, and the doctor looked up at Rachel and Elispeth with anger on his face. "Why didn't anyone inform me that this poor girl was ready to bear her child?"
"She was not due for two months more," Elispeth said gently. "You know that. We are as surprised as you."
"And why should you care that a fisherman's widow was going to have a baby?" Rachel said. She could be angry, too. "And why are you arguing about it now?"
Morgenes stared at her for a moment, then blinked twice. "You are absolutely correct," he said, and turned back to the bed. "I will save the child, Susanna," he told the shivering woman.
She nodded her head once, then cried out.
It was a thin, keening wail, but it was the cry of a living baby. Morgenes handed the tiny, red-smeared creature to Elispeth.
"A boy," he said, and returned his attention to the mother. She was quiet now and breathing more slowly, but her skin was white as Harcha marble.
"I saved him, Susanna. I had to," he whispered. The corners of the woman's mouth twitched—it might have been a smile.
"I... know..." she said, voice coming ever so softly in her raw throat. "If only... my Eahlferend... had not..." The effort was too much, and she stopped. Elispeth leaned down to show her the child, wrapped in blankets, still attached by the bloody umbilicus.
"He's small," the old woman smiled, "but that's because he arrived so early. What is his name?"
"... Call... him... Seoman..." Susanna croaked out. "... it means... 'waiting'..." She turned to Morgenes and seemed to want to say something more. The doctor leaned closer, his white hair brushing her snow-pale cheek, but she could not make the words come. A moment later she gasped once, and her dark eyes rolled up until the whites showed. The girl holding her hand began to sob.
Rachel, too, felt tears come to her eyes. She turned away and pretended to begin cleaning up. Elispeth was severing the infant's last tie to his dead mother.
The movement caused Susanna's right hand, which had been tightly tangled in her own hair, to sag free and drop limply to the floor. As it struck, something shiny flew from her clutching palm and rolled across the rough boards to stop near the doctor's foot. From the corner of her eye Rachel saw Morgenes stoop down and pick the object up. It was small, and disappeared easily into the palm of his hand, and from there into his bag.
Rachel was outraged, but no one else seemed to have noticed. She whirled to confront him, teardrops still standing in her eyes, but the look on his face, the terrible grief, stilled her before she breathed a word.
"He will be Seoman," the doctor said, his eyes strange and shadowed now as he moved closer, his voice hoarse. "You must take care of him, Rachel. His parents are dead, you know."
A swift intake of breath. Rachel had caught herself just before she slipped off the stool. Nodding off in bright daylight—she was ashamed of herself! Then again, it only went to show the criminal length to which she had driven herself today, all in an effort to make up for the three girls off... and for Simon.
What she needed was a little fresh air. Up on a stool, swatting the broom around like a madwoman—no wonder a body started in getting the vapors. She'd just step outside for a moment. The lord knew she had every right to a little fresh air. That Simon, such a wicked boy.
They'd raised him, of course, she and the chambermaids. Susanna hadn't any kinfolk nearby, and no one seemed to know much of anything about her drowned husband Eahlferend, so they kept the boy. Rachel had pretended to raise a fuss over it, but she would no more have let him go than she would have betrayed her King, or left beds unmade. It was Rachel who had given him the name Simon. Everyone in the service of King John's household took a name from the king's native island, Warinsten. Simon was the closest to Seoman, and so Simon it was.
Rachel went slowly down the stairs to the bottom floor, feeling just a little shaky in the legs. She wished she'd brought a cloak, as the air was bound to be nippy. The door creaked open slowly—it was such a heavy door, needed the hinges oiled, most likely—and she walked out into the entry yard. The morning sun was just nosing over the battlement, peeping like a child.
She liked this spot, just underneath the stone span that connected the dining hall building with the main body of the chapel. The little courtyard in the shadow of the span was full of pine trees and heather, all set about on small, sloping hills; the whole garden was not more than a stone's throw in length. Looking up past the stone walkway she could see the needle-slim thrust of Green Angel Tower, shining white in the sunlight like an ivory tusk.
There had been a time, Rachel remembered, long before Simon came, when she herself had been a girl playing in this garden. How some of those maids would laugh to think of that: the Dragon as a little girl. Well, she had been, and after that a young lady—not unpleasant to look at, either, and that was only the truth. The garden then had been full of the rustle of brocade and silk, of lords and ladies laughing, with hawks on their fists and a merry song on their lips.
Now Simon, he thought he knew everything—God just made young men stupid, and that was that. Those girls had nearly spoiled him beyond redemption, and would have if Rachel hadn't kept her eye out. She knew what was what, even if these young ones thought otherwise.
Things were different once, Rachel thought... and as she thought it the pine smell of the shaded garden seemed to catch at her heart. The castle had been such a beautiful, stirring place: tall knights, plumed and shiny-mailed, and beautiful girls in fine dresses, the music... oh, and the tourney field all jewel-bright with tents! Now the castle slept quietly, and only dreamed. The towering battlements were commanded by Rachel's kind: by cooks and chambermaids, seneschals and scullions....
It was a little chilly. Rachel leaned forward, hugging her shawl tighter, then straightened up staring. Simon stood before her, hands hidden behind his back. How on the earth had he managed to slip up on her that way? And why did he have that idiot grin smeared across his face? Rachel felt the strength of righteousness come surging back into her body. His shin—clean an hour before—was blackened with dirt and torn in several places, as were his breeches.
"Blessed Saint Rhiap save me!" Rachel shrieked. "What have you done, you fool boy!?" Rhiappa had been an Aedonite woman of Nabban who had died with the name of the One God on her lips after being repeatedly violated by sea-pirates. She was a great favorite with domestics.
"Look what I have, Rachel!" Simon said, producing a tattered, lopsided cone of straw: a bird's nest. It gave off faint chirps. "I found it underneath Hjeldin's Tower! It must have blown off in the wind. Three of them are still alive, and I'm going to raise them!"
"Are you utterly mad?" Rachel lifted her broom on high, like the vengeful lightnings of the Lord that had surely destroyed Rhiap's ravishers. "You are no more going to raise those creatures in my household than I am going to swim to Perdruin! Filthy things flying around, getting in people's hair—and look at your clothes! Do you know how long it will take Sarrah to patch all that?" The broomstick quivered in the air.
Simon cast his eyes down. He had not found the nest on the ground, of course: it was the one he had spotted in the Hedge Garden, partially dislodged from its seat in the Festival Oak. He had climbed up to rescue it, and in his excitement at the thought of having the young birds for his own he had not given a thought to the work he was making for Sarrah, the quiet, homely girl who did the downstairs mending. A wave of gloom and frustration washed over him.
"But Rachel, I remembered to pick the rushes!" He balanced the nest carefully and pulled from beneath his jerkin a meager, bedraggled clump of reeds.
Rachel's expression softened somewhat, but the scowl remained. "It's just that you don't think, boy, you don't think—you're like a little child. If something gets broken, or something is done late, someone has to take responsibility for it. That's the way the world is. I know you mean no real harm, but must you be so By-Our-Lady stupid?"
Simon looked up cautiously. Although his face still showed sorrow and contrition in proper measure, Rachel with her basilisk eye could see that he thought he was through the worst of it. Her brow re-beetled.
"I'm sorry, Rachel, truly I am..." he was saying when she reached out and poked his shoulder with her broom handle.
"Don't you come to the old 'sorry' with me, lad. Just you take those birds out of here and put them back. There'll be no flapping, flying creatures 'round these parts."
"Oh, Rachel, I could keep them in a cage! I could build one!"
"No, no, and once more means no. Take them and give them to your useless doctor if you want, but don't bring them 'round to trouble honest people who have work to do."
Simon trudged off, the nest cupped in his hands. He had made a miscalculation somewhere—Rachel had almost given in, but she was a tough old stalk. The slightest error in dealing with her meant swift, terrible defeat.
"Simon!" she called. He whirled.
"I can keep them?!"
"Of course not. Don't be a mooncalf." She stared at him. An uncomfortably long time passed; Simon shifted from foot to foot and waited.
"You go work for the doctor, boy," she said at last. "Maybe he can squeeze some sense into you. I give up." She glowered at him. "Mind you do what you're told, and thank him—and what little luck you have left—for this one last chance. Understand?"
"Yes, certainly!" he said happily.
"You're not escaping from me all that easily. Be back at dinner hour."
"Yes, mistress!" Simon turned to hurry off to Morgenes, then stopped.
"Rachel? Thank you."
Rachel made a noise of disgust and marched back toward the stairs to the dining hall. Simon wondered how she had gotten so many pine needles stuck in her shawl.
A gentle mist of snow had begun to float down from the low, tin-colored clouds. The weather had turned for good, Simon knew: it would be cold right through to Candlemansa. Rather than carry the baby birds across the windy courtyard, he decided to duck through the chapel and continue through to the western side of the Inner Bailey. Morning prayers had been over for an hour or two, and the church should be empty. Father Dreosan might not look kindly on Simon tramping through his lair, but the good father was undoubtedly entrenched at table with his usual large midmorning meal, humming ominously at the quality of the butter or the consistency of the honey-and-bread pudding.
Simon climbed the two dozen steps up to the chapel's side door. The snow had started to flurry; the gray stone of the doorway was dotted with the wet residue of dying flakes. The door swung back on surprisingly silent hinges.
Rather than leave telltale wet footprints across the tile floor of the chapel, he pushed through the velvet hangings at the back of the entry chamber and climbed another set of stairs to the choir loft.
The cluttered, stuffy loft, a steaming misery-box during high summer, was now pleasantly warm. The floor was strewn with bits of the monks' leavings: nutshells, an apple core, scraps of slate roof tiles on which messages had been written in petty contravention of the silence vows—it looked more like a cage for apes or festival bears than a room where men of God came to sing the Lord's praises. Simon smiled, threading his way quietly among the various other oddments strewn about—bolts of plaincloth, a few small, flimsy wooden stools. It was nice to know that those dour-faced, shaven-headed men could be as unruly as farm boys,
Alarmed by the sudden sound of conversation, Simon stopped and edged back into the wall hanging that blanketed the rear of the loft. Crushed into the musty fabric, he held his breath as his heart raced. If Father Dreosan or Bamabas the sexton were below, he would never make his way down and out the far door unobserved. He would have to sneak back out the way he had come, using the courtyard route after all—the master-spy in the enemy's camp.