Every morning, while the sun was still cool and the light still the long half light of the Cruach hiding the sun, a pair of sisters from the Hrongar Stead made their way to the lake’s edge. They carried a basket, filled it with greens dripping from the waters, then returned as the shafts of gold were cresting the rock faces to signal mid-morn. He watched it all the early summer, his own business being the cleaning and refilling of the herd’s cisterns in the four meadows. He leaned on the old stone wall between Westfield and the lake, watching this morning’s cadence from spot to spot. Herb lore was an art of women and wizards, it was said. Ser Baynton usually gathered him for other tasks when the young girls went with Gram Gersron to learn poultices. But herblore meant foraging.
His stomach gurgled loudly.
Horses foraged grass and other things all day to supplement their hay and oats in the evening. Why didn’t any of them? He liked the porridge, nothing flavoured a bowl like hunger, and he took his time with every apple given him- even shared a few bites with Hersa when the great Stallion joined the table.
The decision to vault the wall was one of a moment- a flash of white calves freckled with pale rust and silver and he was making long-shank strides down to the water’s edge to great the sisters. They heard his calling, and returned his wave, so they didn’t mind company. They were wearing colourful yellow blouses, worn but well tended leather brassieres and their kilts were drawn over their shoulders and heads like scarves to keep the wind off their braids. Even their ghillies looked well kept and well used at once. His own shapeless, uniformly indiscernible brown robe and rope- used likely by no less than five other 11-year-olds who’d grown up in the abbey- was well cared for, but bore the marks of restitched holes more than most warriors. It was too large for him, meant to serve for an older sister or brother he thought, so it draped more than robed.
“You come from the Abbey, dress’d all like tha’ “ They both giggled, but had that sort of sad look he’d seen often enough when people found lost, orphaned creatures and were deciding whether or not they had the pity to take the creature in.
“I do. I’ve seen you come many days hence to the edge and gather your basket full.”
“They don’ give you a brassier there? Never find a man withou’ plaitin’ your hair, neither. Just a mare come from the fields wild as the bruthers.”
“Find a man?” He couldn’t puzzle why he should care about that. His hair wasn’t braided though, and the length of it bannered at a run, but looked tattered from too many days of horse spit and tangles down to his knees. “Well…I wanted to ask..what you gathered?…Rushed for threshing or …food? My jobs always deal with the horses or tending the Paladin’s gear, so I never get to go with Gram Gersron.”
“You don know what to garden or gather?” the more freckled one looked aghast. “They don want you leavin the Abbey is sure. Pretty one, Abbot wants not to wife out. If you knew what was proper, might even get a guardsmen, or one of the Sers.” They’d both stood to brush off and take slow circle around him. It was much like introducing new horses to the field – let the mares inspect first.
“I…thank you? I…like to think I’m not ugly.”
But they seemed to return to ease, deciding they wanted to take this kitten in. Each grasped one of his hands and pulled him down to the bank with them.
“It’s th’ reedmace we’re gatherin. No’on but the Righ owns the lake, an he don’ ever come to use it or want it. So it’s free for those who want to spend the time. Our farm’s all cabbages an barley, ‘cepting the small corner near the birds, so its good to learn to go out and find the variety you be wanting for on the table. “
“The reedmace? With the long brown ends that look like sword handles?”
“Oh aye, the straight flatways stem underwater are good as taters, or you can grind ‘em in your pestle to make a goodly flour. The bases of the leaves can be eaten cooked or raw if ye ‘ave a mind. “ She rummaged their basket for one of the cleaned, more delicate looking spears and offered it to bite. “It taste green, but no worse for tha’. “
He obliged, leaning over and biting the pale, still wet end. It certainly wasn’t any worse than the clover he’d eaten with the horses. Green was a good word for it, but it didn’t have any bitterness, nor linger on the tongue of anything unwholesome. “Can the handles be eaten?”
“Early summer ye kin remove the sheath from the green spike an boiled its nice with fresh salt and butter.”
“Will you teach me? I mean..” It was blurted out, excitement pushed out on a breath like he’d taken one of Maddox’s shots to the gut. “More than today…I can’t pay you. I don’t have money…or anything really. Just these robes and another pair the same. The rest is the churches, really, an this too if I die. The trade work, like ropes that the abbey sells all goes to the coffer, and that’s all in Cadfael’s keeping. But…I want to learn. “
The two conspired in a few short whispers, and the one with the larger, doe-like eyes and shortish nose smiled, “If you’ll be a friend and kin sing and dance with us sometimes, and we kin dress you up a doll proper, then we’ll glad to teach you how to gather reedmace or asparagus or chickweed or whatever you like. Jus’ wave when you’re comin down an we kin meet here to start. Da won’t mind you, he likes the abbey girls exceptin that they let you be wild. He’ll like us given back a little for all the crop blessings.”
The freckled sister laughed, coming behind and cupping his waist through all the robes, “An art you a little one! Might have an old brassiere from three year back to fit you up proper.”
“A brassiere? I’ll…wear whatever you want if we can be friends and you’ll teach me. “ his stomach growled again, punctuating the point and making them look pitying again.
“Issa true then? You don get not but apples an oats?”
“Well, we get ale and wheat sometimes. What’s good for the horses is good for the menkind, the cannon says. Anything else is just at festival or when someone donates. “ He wondered idly, not for the first time, how much was tithed for the abbey to take him, if anything. Had flesh been enough payment? It usually wasn’t so, if his reading studies and heraldry with Cadfael spoke true of how much great houses paid in tithe or bribe for the care of bastards, simple or insane family members by holy places or lesser towers owing fealty. Did the Warden’s house still tithe an extra pittance? Or did the Warden pay the Captain more, for troubling to teach him? In the few times Cadfael and Baynton talked to Maddox in his hearing, he never heard mention of fees changing hands. Maddox certainly didn’t seem the sort to keep stock with any gods and his own fate. Not pious, except to legitimate reason and sense. “I’m always hungry, though. The clover helps.”
“Like a sad horse innit you.” He was hugged from behind, heartfelt arms around his shoulders and the other came over to pet his hair and cheeks. “Eatin clover off the ground next to the whole herd, no doubt”
“Well…it’s safer near them then off further in the field.”
“Innit tho! Da dosn want either us alone in the fields, less Kyffirs come an ….be unspeakable. The stallions must protect you, anyway. How old are you?”
“Not even proper marrying age yet, at least, plenty of time to pretty you up. Soft as silk you are! Your hair, anyway. Hands are rough, but tha’s what a man needs. Sile’s thirteen and I’m fourteen. Even got some suitors maybe for the harvest dances. I kin teach you right before then though, an even if I’m married come winter I’ll still be vistin and we kin have a cuppa chicory an catch up. I want to warn Sile anyway what she can expect once I know the secret.”
The last was conspiratorial to both he and her sister. He was now part of the group, and remained so until before dinner when they finally tore themselves all away from a fast and new friendship, each with a basketful of foraged goods, though him without a basket and carrying it in a lifted bowl of robe like an apron and showing his calves. He’d saved all he gathered to be shared with everyone, however hungry he was, it would be shameful not to help the whole herd. Uma might laugh that he hadn’t thought about baskets. And there was practice late that night with Maddox, after his guards finished their duties and mess and changed posts with others fresh for the night.