Announcing The Needle of Avocation
Free sample chapter
The Needle of Avocation, book three of my historical novel series, Cuthbert’s People, is now available for pre-order on Amazon, with a release date of January 31. The Needle of Avocation follows The Wistful and the Good and St. Agnes and the Selkie, but Elswyth, the protagonist of the first two books is now out of the picture, though not out of anyone’s thoughts. The new book takes up the story of Hilda, Elswyth’s painfully plain sister, who readers will remember from The Wistful and the Good, but it also features Abbess Wynflaed and Eardwulf the King from St. Agnes and the Selkie and introduces Eardwulf’s petulant child bride, Claennis of Mercia, and Anfaeld, Hilda’s enigmatic fiancé, who seems to care for nothing but falconry. Edith, Elswyth and Hilda’s scheming mother, is still on the same quest that drove her in The Wistful and the Good, but now she is trying to make Hilda the instrument of her ambition and is driving her towards a marriage that nobody but Edith seems to favor, least of all Hilda.
You can preorder the book here: https://mybook.to/TheNeedleOfAvocation
Here’s the opening, to whet your appetite.
Day 1 The Journey
By the time that Hilda of Twyford was of age to marry, she was already considered the finest needlewoman in Northumbria. When told this, she would say, “Have you seen every piece of needlework in Northumbria? Then you don’t know, do you?”
Hilda did not repose great faith in the sincerity of her species. As a child, she had seen her older sister, Elswyth, kidnapped by vikingar, screaming in terror as they carried her away. Except Hilda was utterly convinced that Elswyth had not been kidnapped at all, but had planned and executed the whole fake vikingar raid herself because she had fallen for a Norsk trader who had dawdled on their beach on some pretext or another while he had stolen her heart. The two of them had then conspired to bring about the death of Drefan of Bamburgh, Elswyth’s intended husband, who had died with a Norsk axe in his brain. Elswyth and her paramour had then staged the kidnapping using a boat stolen from her father.
All of this seemed perfectly plain to Hilda. When she challenged her mother and father on the subject, however, they had combined bribes and threats to wring from her a solemn promise never to speak of it to anyone. Not once, though, had they actually declared, on their honor, that it was not true.
People told different tales about Elswyth. Some said that she was now the vikingar queen of Norway, others that she was the favorite slave in the palace of the Caliph of Cordoba. It was typical of Elswyth that no one would think she wound up an ordinary kitchen slave or courtesan to some minor Norsk jarl or sold on to a Dane or a Friesian for a cow and six chickens. No, Elswyth was the star in everyone’s firmament, and even kidnapped by vikingar she must still suffer the most romantic fate possible. If she climbed a mountain, it must be the highest mountain in the world. If she fell into a pit, it must be the deepest pit in all creation.
Hilda reckoned that Elswyth was probably dead. Drowned most likely, for the boat they had stolen to carry her away was old and was never designed for the open North Sea. Or perhaps she was dead in some quarrel between vikingar. Or dead at the hands of jealous Norsk women. Or dead from birthing giant Norsk babies. Dead anyway. Almost certainly dead. Dead in some prosaic and ordinary and forgotten way. And Hilda’s heart pinched at the thought, whenever it came back to her, because Hilda loved and hated her dead, missing, deceitful, beautiful, all-enrapturing, and apparently murderous sister more than she loved or hated anyone else in the world.
And Elswyth had been beautiful. Not just beautiful, but vivacious, capricious, infuriatingly making everyone—man or woman, young or old, free or slave—fall completely and fatally in love with her. Oh, the weeping there had been at her loss! If the vikingar had taken Hilda as well—fat chance of that with Elswyth in charge! —they would have mourned Elswyth for a month and at the end of the month someone would have said, “Has anyone seen Hilda lately?”
No one thought Hilda was beautiful or vivacious or capricious. Hilda was good at needlework. Ask anyone to list Hilda’s virtues and they would frown a moment and then, with relief, mention her needlework. Pay a bard to sing Hilda’s praises and he would scratch his head a while and then compose a hundred lines on the glories of her needlework. Hilda of Twyford, you ask? Yes, I’ve heard of her. She’s good at sewing. No, not sewing, you dolt! Needlework. Embroidery! What did they take her for, a seamstress? Sewing was slave work. Hilda did embroidery! The finest in Northumbria, some said. Though what did they know?
Hilda’s marriage prospects were assured. Not to her liking, but assured. She was to marry Anfaeld of Bamburgh, brother to the dead Drefan and heir to Kenric, Ealdorman of Bamburgh, the third nobleman in Northumbria (or the fifth, depending on who was doing the counting). A grand match, by anybody’s reckoning but her own. But it had to be done. The alliance was important—important for her family, not for his—and so Hilda must pick up the stitch that Elswyth had dropped, as she had had to do so often in the past.
As for Anfaeld, he was tall and stringy like herself. Rather pinched in his features, and awkward in his limbs. Plain marries plain. That seemed to be the order of things. Worse, Anfaeld was the same age as Hilda, which was wrong, for men marry later than women. It was Hilda’s time to marry, but Anfaeld should have been off proving his worth in battle, and Hilda should be marrying someone who had already done so. Someone who could grow a beard.
As for sharing a bed with him, well, it must be done, thanks to Elswyth. Hilda did not have high expectations of the marriage bed, not Anfaeld’s, and not any other man’s. It could not possibly be as wonderful as you were told it would be. A sloppy, grunting, undignified business, as far as she had been able to observe—so ridiculous that those involved always seemed to laugh afterwards. What were they laughing at? Themselves or each other? Or perhaps at God for creating such a messy and awkward means of procreation? If the whole glorious creation were God’s great embroidery, the marriage bed appeared to be a dropped stitch.
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The marriage bed was much on her mind because she was on her way with her family to the ealdorman’s hall in Bamburgh where she was to be married. And, once married, to be taken to bed by Anfaeld. There were, she supposed, a hundred thegn’s daughters in Northumbria that day who would jump at the chance of sharing a marriage bed with Anfaeld of Bamburgh, and not for reasons of either pleasure or affection, but for prestige. She was not among their number, but it was she, nonetheless, who tramped towards Bamburgh.
By the sun, they had been on the road some three hours and had just left Longhoughton behind them—which meant that her father’s confident assertion that they would be at Bamburgh in six would prove to be as absurd as she had said before they set out.
“She’s waking up,” Moira said. Moira was riding in the cart next to the sleeping form of poor mad Whitney. Blissful witless Whitney who could never keep her feet still but must be always running and, when she had run herself to exhaustion, must throw herself upon one she trusted and fall immediately asleep. Whitney was either sleeping, eating, staring up at you with blissful adoration, or running. If she was waking already, she would have to run.
“Well get down and let her run then,” Hilda said.
“It’s your turn to watch her.”
“I’ve been walking the last two hours. It’s my turn to ride in the cart.”
“Nuh! I watched her the last time.”
“Then you should have let me ride in the cart.”
“I needed to ride after chasing her about all over. It’s your turn.”
“Oh, all right, hand her down then.”
Whitney was already standing up in the back of the cart, beaming at Hilda, and bouncing with anxious energy.
“Couldn’t you just walk for once?” Hilda asked the witless child as Moira handed her down.
“Uh. Uh,” was all the utterance Whitney ever made. It meant “run” and “food” and “love”—or perhaps it meant nothing at all. At eight years old, Whitney was growing heavy. Though the growth of her mind had long since ceased, the growth of her body proceeded apace. Moira, who was twelve and small for her age could hardly lift her and so she almost dropped her in Hilda’s arms. Immediately Whitney’s legs began to whirl, her knees thudding into Hilda’s hip.
“This way,” Hilda said, putting her down facing the direction that their small column of four horses and two donkey carts was traveling. But at that moment, the cart wheel clipped a stone in the road which sprang away with a sharp crack. Whitney took fright, turned, and pelted off down the road the way they had come.
“Wait!” Hilda cried, running after her.
Her cry had been intended as much for the slave driving the cart as for the witless child, but neither paid her any heed. Hilda followed the fleeing child as quickly as her feet would carry her but was horrified to realize that Whitney was faster than she was. With every year that passed, Whitney became more of a challenge. Always in the past it had been possible to chase her down and catch her. But Whitney’s legs had grown wiry and strong from constant running and her energy was, as it always had been, bordering on the inhuman.
“Wait, wait,” Hilda cried again, fruitlessly. She turned to look back, hoping someone had noticed and that her mother or father would have turned their horses and come galloping to her aid. But the column still trudged on.
“Wait! Stop! Help me!” she cried after them, but by this point they were too far away for her voice to carry.
She turned and looked back toward where Whitney was running, hoping that she had realized that she was alone and had stopped or turned back, but her small figure was still flying away from her down the road. If Whitney did stop and find herself alone, she would be absolutely panic-stricken, and God knew what she would do then. Hilda turned and ran in pursuit, knowing she would never catch her, hoping that Whitney would tire or realize she was alone before she got completely out of sight.
But while Whitney was hard and wiry and tireless from her constant running, Hilda spent most of her time bent over her needle. She had neither the strength nor the stamina for a long run, and soon she found herself completely alone on the road, her heart hammering and her breath coming in gasps. Behind her, the caravan had disappeared around one corner, and ahead Whitney had disappeared around another.
“Come back,” she cried, helplessly, dropping her pace to a walk because she could no longer run. “They’ll never forgive me if I lose you.” She felt tears coming to her eyes, but hated them and brushed them aside. She set off walking down the road in the direction that Whitney had gone, looking around all the time in case she might have turned into a field or fallen into a ditch. Why had her mother insisted on bringing Whitney with them? Whitney wouldn’t know what a wedding was anyway. She could have been left at home. There were many people on the estate that Whitney loved and trusted. Hilda was convinced that the child had no idea who was her family and who was not, though her mother had been furious at the suggestion when she made it. Without Whitney, they could have gone by ship, but Whitney would never have survived a sea voyage without the chance to run. Well, this was the fruit of her mother’s stubbornness, and it was she, Hilda, who must suffer for it, and she, Hilda, who would be blamed if Whitney came to any harm.
And then suddenly on the road ahead of her, Whitney came flying. Something had spooked her, for her usually blissful face was painted with fear. What have you roused up, child, that I am supposed to protect you from, by myself? Whitney, of course, could not answer that question. Hilda stopped and waited for the child to come to her. She crouched down and opened her arms to receive her. Whitney cannoned into her, nearly knocking her onto her back, and then clung to her, trembling as she only did when she was badly frightened.
“What is it, child?” Hilda asked. It was impossible to break the habit of talking to Whitney as if she understood. Whitney had the form and figure of a creature of reason, and yet this strange vacancy where reason should be. Hilda could never shake the idea that one day Whitney would speak and answer her as if she were any other child.
“It is all right. I have you now. It is all right.” She stroked the child’s back, and then her hair, and began to feel the trembling subside. Hilda wondered if the child would run again as soon as her panic abated, but Whitney looked up at her, blank and adoring, and collapsed into her arms. Hilda lifted her and settled her on her hip, but when she turned to look back down the road, she realized the utter futility of trying to catch up with the caravan with Whitney’s weight in her arms.
It was not safe for a young woman to travel alone on the roads of Northumbria. If there was one idea that her father was at pains to drum into his daughter’s heads it was this one. Lawless men. Picts. Vikingar. Wolves. Boars. Badgers. Demons and fair folk too, when he was in his cups and forgetful of his catechism. They had been passing between fields, but here the woodland pressed close on either side of the road. She and the child were utterly alone, but there was no comfort in that.
“How long before they realize we are missing and come looking for us, do you think?” she asked the child.
“Well just you rest until they do. If you start running again we’ll only be in worse trouble.”
But even as the words “worse trouble” passed her lips, she heard the clop of hooves and the jingle of harness, and a group of horses came into view around a bend in the road. In the lead there were three young men, richly dressed, with swords at their sides. Behind them—it was a considerable relief to see them—rode three women. Two of them were young, beautiful, and dressed in great finery. One of these was visibly with child, perhaps a season from her confinement. The third woman was older, plainly dressed, though she carried herself like one accustomed to authority. From a cord around her neck there hung a cross, the mark of office for an abbot or abbess.
“Don’t worry, poppet,” Hilda whispered to the child, whose arms and legs had tightened around her as the riders came into view. “Nothing to fear. They have women with them.”
She stood in the road with Whitney wrapped tightly around her until the riders came up to her.
The young man in the lead swung down from the saddle and made an exaggerated obeisance to her, his knee dropping all the way down into the dust of the road, and his hands sweeping through the air as if he were trying to take flight. Though he was slim and athletically built, he seemed to have a talent for taking up all the available space. Even in the middle of an open road, he seemed to block the way by the force of his presence, much as Elswyth had been able to render all around her invisible with a laugh and a smile. Though not much past twenty, by his looks, he moved and carried himself as if he were the first of men in every company, a man who could condescend to the greyest of warriors and be loved for it. His clothes were of fine quality, but too rich for the road, chosen more for display than practicality.
“Fair maiden,” he cried. “What wonderous luck to have chanced upon you on this lonely road. Pray, fair one, tell me your name.”
“My name is Hilda,” she replied. “Who are you?”
“Your servant, Lady. Your humble and obedient servant.”
“But what is your name?”
The young man turned back to his companions. “I think I am losing my touch.”
“Serves you right,” the woman dressed as an abbess said. “My dear, this buffoon before you is Eardwulf, the King of Northumbria. In a moment, he will reach into his pocket and give you a ring to make up for having embarrassed you.”
“He hasn’t embarrassed me,” Hilda replied.
“No, in this case, it is you who have embarrassed him. But he will give you the ring, nonetheless.”
Indeed, the king—if he were indeed a king—was fishing in his pocket and he pulled out a small plain golden ring, which he gave into Hilda’s free hand.
“My apologies, gentle maiden,” he said. “I am rebuked.”
Hilda took the ring, tasted it on her tongue, and tried it between her teeth. Gold, but not solid. If it were a king’s gift, it was a mean one. But a king is a ring-giver. Perhaps he was the king then. After all, an ealdorman’s son was getting married at Bamburgh and she had been told that the king would attend. She handed the ring back to him.
“No, thank you, Highness,” she said. “I can’t accept a gift when I have nothing to give in return.”
The king’s companions burst out laughing at this. The king looked crestfallen and said, “Well, now I am properly rebuked. I thought there were only two women alive who could put me in my place, and now I see there are three.”
The woman dressed as an abbess got down from her horse and came to them. She looked to be between forty and fifty. Her dress was plain but well-made, as was the cross that hung about her neck. Her face was both regal and kindly, but somehow touched by pain. It was that touch of pain that was convincing. This was no minstrel play, but an abbess indeed. Hilda would have made an obeisance, were not Whitney still wrapped tightly around her.
“Is the child not well?” the abbess asked.
“She’s perfectly fine,” Hilda replied, haughtily.
“Odd, to carry a child of this age, though,” the Abbess said. “She was certainly fleet of foot when she saw us on the road. I fear we startled her. But she should be over that fright by now, when she sees that you are not afraid of us and we mean you no harm.”
The abbess stepped behind Hilda to look at Whitney’s face.
“This child is touched by God,” she said.
“Yes, Mother,” Hilda admitted.
“Does she have speech or reason?”
“But she loves you very much.”
“And you love her.”
“She has a wondrous pair of legs,” the king said. He too had circled around to look at Whitney’s face. He put a hand out and gently stroked the child’s wild yellow hair. Hilda felt Whitney’s grip tighten for a moment and then relax again at the king’s touch.
“May I give her my blessing?” the Abbess asked.
“Yes, Mother,” Hilda said, wondering at the tenderness that the King and the Abbess showed towards her sister. Most who knew Whitney regarded her as a token of good luck, but strangers tended to be skittish of her.
“May the protection of Saint Hilda, and of our Lord, be with you always,” the Abbess said, laying a hand on Whitney’s forehead. Then, without asking, she did the same to Hilda.
“Saint Hilda, Mother?” Hilda asked. Blessings in her part of Northumbria were usually given in the name of Saint Cuthbert.
“I am Wynflaed, Abbess of Whitby, the Monastery of Saint Hilda, and I bless in her name. But you are Hilda also. Saint Hilda is your patron, as well as mine.”
“Mother Wynflaed?” Hilda asked, not quite believing the coincidence, for while they had never met, Mother Wynflaed of Whitby was her client and had commissioned several pieces of embroidery from her over the last three years. “I am Hilda of Twyford, daughter of Attor. The stole for the Bishop of Hexham is almost finished, but I have not been able to get the blue dyes I need.”
“Hilda!” Wynflaed exclaimed. “Well, this is a strange place to meet. I had meant to call in on Twyford to see you on our return from Bamburgh.”
“Wait,” said the king, “This is Hilda of Twyford. That Hilda of Twyford. Sister…”
“The finest needlewoman in Northumbria,” the Abbess said, cutting off the king’s words.
“Sister of that girl who was kidnapped by vikingar,” the king continued, ignoring the interruption. “What was her name? Agnes, wasn’t it.”
“Elswyth,” Hilda said. “My sister Elswyth was taken by vikingar three years ago.”
“Yes. And Drefan of Bamburgh was killed defending her.”
“That is the story they tell,” Hilda said.
“And now we go to Bamburgh to see his brother wed. But, as Mother Wynflaed says, we shall come and visit you in Twyford on our return.”
“I won’t be there,” Hilda said.
“I’m the bride. I shall remain in Bamburgh with my husband.”
“You’re the bride?”
“You are the lady that Anfaeld of Bamburgh is marrying.”
“Gycsa,” the king said, turning to one of his companions, who was still on horseback. “Why did I not know who the bride was?”
“When I gave you the news that Anfaeld of Bamburgh was to marry, Lord, you said, ‘Oh, good. Then we shall call at Twyford on the way back.’ I thought that meant you knew the bride’s name and meant to call on her father, to pay him your compliments.”
“Why should you care to visit Twyford, Highness?” Hilda asked. “It has been twelve years or more since we have had a king in my father’s hall.” A royal visit was a great honor, but a much greater expense. Her mother and father could not afford it.
“Why?” The king seemed puzzled for a moment. “Why? Mother Wynflaed, why was I so keen to visit Twyford?”
“I think it must have been for my sake, my Lord,” the abbess said, smoothly. “You knew that I wished to meet the finest needlewoman in Northumbria, but that, according to my vow, I must stay within my own walls unless I am summoned on the king’s business. I am grateful for your consideration.”
“Yes. Yes. That must have been it. There, girl, does that satisfy you?”
“Yes, Lord,” Hilda said, a little abashed at his sudden gruffness, but also mightily puzzled by it. She felt that the king was now staring at her face as if seeking to recognize something in it—which made no sense since he had never seen her before.
“Why are you alone on the road carrying this child?” Wynflaed asked.
“She runs, Mother. She can’t stop running. It is why we couldn’t go to Bamburgh by sea like I wanted to. She got startled and ran the wrong way. It was my turn to watch her. I told them to wait, but they didn’t listen. They never listen.”
“So they are ahead of us on the road?” the king asked.
“Gycsa, ride on will you, like a good fellow, and tell Attor of Twyford that the bride and the God-touched child will ride to Bamburgh with the king.”
“Gladly, Highness,” Gycsa said, and he put heels to his horse and was cantering away up the road before Hilda could protest the arrangement.
“Bring the lady a horse,” the king cried—there was a long train of baggage behind the front six riders, which included several carts, twenty or more men at arms, and several spare horses. “I don’t suppose the child can ride?” the king asked, turning his attention back to Hilda. “Will you carry her before you on the saddle?”
“She’ll kick if she can’t run. And I don’t like horses. I have a pony, but Father said he was too old for this journey.”
“Will you ride in a cart then?”
“Until she has to run again.”
“Never mind the horse!” the king bellowed to the train. “Come then,” he said, turning back to Hilda. “You will ride with my wife.”
He led Hilda to the first in the train of carts that followed them. There was no baggage in the cart. Instead, it was filled with blankets, furs, and embroidered cushions, on one of which sat a girl who looked about thirteen years old, with the outwards signs of her womanhood barely upon her. She was certainly queenly in her dress, which was as unsuitable for the road as the king’s was. Her dress was fine linen, bright green, trimmed with fur, pinned with gold brooches rich with precious stones. Her belt was of richly tooled leather trimmed in silver with inlaid gold. Her wimple was of silk with fine embroidery around the edges. The face that it framed might have been pretty, if it were not fixed in a furious scowl.
“If she can have a horse, why can’t I?” the woman-child complained at once, without waiting for an introduction.
“The queen must travel in comfort,” the king snapped at her. To Hilda he said, “Hilda of Twyford, this is Claennis of Mercia, daughter of the late and much-lamented Offa of Mercia, and my wife. Claennis, this is Hilda of Twyford, the finest needlewoman in Northumbria, and the bride-to-be. And she brings with her her sister …”
“Whitney, Highness,” Hilda said.
“Whitney, a God-touched child of no wit but much love, I am told. You will be gracious to them and keep them company until we come to Bamburgh.”
“I can ride as well as any woman,” Claennis said, “and better than most.”
“But your duty is to my guests,” the king retorted. Turning again to Hilda, he said, “Give Whitney to me while you climb on the cart.”
“She won’t go to strangers, Highness.”
“Oh, she and I will be famous friends. Don’t you worry, I have great charm with the ladies, especially those touched by God.”
Hilda did as he directed and placed Whitney in his arms. To her surprise, the child went willingly and placed her arms around the king’s neck.
“Up you get,” the king said. Hilda climbed up and then opened her arms to receive Whitney from the king.
“Do you want to ride in the cart, little one?” the king asked the child, “Or would you rather come and ride in the van on the king’s saddle, first lady in all the land?”
“Uh. Uh,” said the child.
“Is that yes or no?” the king asked.
“It’s no, Highness,” Hilda said firmly, reaching out to take Whitney from him.
“Then alas, maiden, we must part,” the king said. He kissed Whitney on the forehead and handed her back to Hilda.
Hilda laid Whitney down in the cart and put a pillow under her head, ignoring a resentful look that Claennis gave her when she touched it.
“Let her run when she must run,” the King said. “But rest easy. She will not escape our vigilance.”
“He hates me,” said Claennis of Mercia, suddenly, after they had ridden in silence for a while.
The proper response to this was, I’m sure he doesn’t. Those were the words Hilda’s mother would have said. Elswyth would have said them with such warm conviction that Claennis would have believed her wholeheartedly. Hilda was aware of the form, but still she could not say the words, knowing she would lack any conviction. How could she possibly know if Eardwulf hated Claennis or not?
“He didn’t want to marry me. He was in love with some girl, but she was taken by vikingar. Her name was Agnes. She was a kitchen slave, I think. I’m not supposed to know anything about it, but I do. People talk. People don’t all love him as much as he thinks they do.”
“He seems kind,” Hilda said, trying to speak in the womanly way without being dishonest. Eardwulf had seemed kind, once he had stopped trying to tease her. She rated any man kind who was kind to Whitney.
“He’s good at seeming kind,” Claennis replied.
A girl taken by vikingar? But that did not make any sense. Hadn’t he said the name Agnes before, when he was trying to remember Elswyth’s name? Perhaps that was why he had muddled them up. Two girls taken by vikingar. One Elswyth. The other Agnes. Both dead now, probably.
“When was this?” she asked.
“I am the queen. Address me properly.”
“Sorry. When was this, Highness?”
“Two years ago. At Whitby.”
“My sister was taken by vikingar three years ago, at Twyford.”
“… Highness,” insisted Claennis.
“Yes, Highness. Sorry, Highness. May God keep you well, Highness.” If Eardwulf did hate Claennis, Hilda was beginning to see his point.
“What was your sister’s name?”
“Never heard of her.”
“No reason you should, Highness. She wasn’t important.”
“Have you heard of Angharad of Powys?”
“It’s confusing. The stories about Angharad of Powys get all mixed up with the stories about this Agnes. But Agnes was a kitchen slave and Angharad of Powys was a princess. Except no one in my father’s court had ever heard of Angharad of Powys. I wrote and asked.”
“You read and write, Highness?”
“Of course. Don’t you?”
“I’m just a thegn’s daughter, Highness.”
“But you are marrying an ealdorman’s son?”
“Why? What’s special about you? Do you bring land or arms to the alliance?”
“I am the finest needlewoman in Northumbria, Highness.”
“I am the finest needlewoman in Northumbria. Ask Mother Wynflaed if you don’t believe me.” And then, after a pause, she added, “Highness.”
“Do you love Anfaeld of Bamburgh?”
“No. I don’t know him very well.”
“Does he love you?”
“I don’t suppose so. What does that have to do with it?”
“Does he hate you?”
“Why should he?”
“Why should Eardwulf hate me?”
Hilda felt for a moment like telling Claennis why she thought Eardwulf might hate her. But she did not.
“Aren’t you too young to be married, Highness?” she asked.
“How old are you?”
“I’ll be fourteen, soon.”
“The king doesn’t…”
“No,” Claennis said, haughtily. “I don’t think he ever means to.”
This was not a point on which Hilda felt willing to give any assurance. Nor could she guess what assurance Claennis might want.
“Have you kissed Anfaeld of Bamburgh?”
“Do you want to?”
“It only causes trouble.”
“He kissed Agnes. Lots of times. They were seen. In public. People say he cuckolded the husband of Angharad of Powys. I expect he lay with Agnes as well.”
“Men are like that. Men and kitchen maids.”
“I hate kitchen maids.”
“So do I,” Hilda said vehemently. But then she blushed and turned away.
“What’s the matter?” Claennis asked, the sharpness going out of her voice for the first time.
Hilda blushed even deeper red. For as long as she could remember, she had wished for a friend who did not know her shame. And now here was Claennis, and she had just seen a glimmer of kindness in Claennis that made her think that she might be a friend after all. (And a fine thing it would be to have the Queen of Northumbria for a friend.) And now, on the very cusp of that friendship, she must confess her fault, or else lie by silence. And Hilda did not lie.
“My mother was a kitchen maid,” she said.
“Welisc?” Claennis asked. “Agnes was Welisc, they say. Angharad too, of course. I think he has a taste for Welisc.”
“But you’re proper Anglish,” Hilda said. This was true. Claennis was as Anglish-looking as anyone she had met, and quite pretty in her way.
“So are you,” Claennis replied. “Or you look it, anyway.”
“I’m not pretty.”
“Who told you that? You’re all right.”
“Not like my sister.”
“People were always on about how beautiful Elswyth was. Do come and see Elswyth. Isn’t she gorgeous? And oh, this is Hilda. What a pity. But I hear she is good at needlework. Elswyth looked pure Welisc, though. Just like my mother.”
“My father built a dyke to keep out the Welisc.”
“Did it work?”
“It might keep out warriors. It doesn’t keep out kitchen maids.”
“I’m sorry about your mother.”
“So am I.”
“No, I mean, I shouldn’t have said if I had known.”
Hilda could not think of anything to say to this. Part of her had an urge to hug Claennis out of sympathy for all Anglish ladies neglected for Welisc kitchen maids. But Hilda was not a hugger, and Claennis was, after all, a queen.
The silence dragged a minute or two, but then Claennis began to fidget, as if she could not bear company without talk.
“Does she bite?” she asked.
“Whitney? Of course not!”
“There was a servant in my father’s hall, a freewoman. She had a daughter who bit people.”
“Whitney runs. You have to watch her or she’ll knock you over when she’s done.”
“Doesn’t she scare you?”
“She scares Daisy. Daisy is just four, and Whitney is so much bigger than her.”
“I meant, her being like that—touched by God. Doesn’t it make you feel… I don’t know. Like it could happen to you?”
“I do wonder what goes on in her head. Does she know I am her sister? Does she know what that means? I don’t know. But she’s happy all the time, unless she is frightened. I’ll never be that happy.”
“Why does she run?”
“I don’t know. It makes her happy. Or she just has to. I don’t know.”
“What will happen to her?”
“I will take care of her, once my mother and father are gone.”
“Do you love her?”
“Of course. She is my sister. And she never lies to me.”
“Are you really the finest needlewoman in Northumbria?”
“I don’t know. People say so, but people tell such lies all the time. I’m sure they say it about lots of other women as well.”
“Do you want me to ask people, to see if they all say you, without knowing who I’m asking about?”
Hilda considered this carefully. “I just want to be left alone to do my work in peace,” she said.
“Oh, look,” Claennis said, pointing ahead. “Your family has stopped to wait for you. But Eardwulf told Gycsa to tell them you would ride to Bamburgh with us.”
Hilda looked and saw that Claennis was correct. Her family caravan was stopped ahead of them. “That will have been an argument,” she said. “My father will have wanted to obey the king’s command. My mother will have insisted on having Whitney back at once. She will have said, ‘You can go on if you like, but I am going to stand here in the road by myself until they come.’ And he would never leave her, even if she wasn’t with child again, which she is.”
“But can’t you stay and ride with me?”
“Oh, I can. She won’t care about me. It’s Whitney she wants. Besides, if the Queen of Northumbria asked her, she couldn’t say no.”
“Shall I ask to keep Whitney as well?”
“No. My mother would be upset, and then I would suffer for it later. Besides, she’ll want to run soon, and it’s Moira’s turn to mind her.”
“But you’ll stay, won’t you?”
“If you want me too, Highness,” said Hilda, suddenly feeling a little confused to find her company so ardently wished for. It was always Elswyth whose company people begged for. Oh, and your sister can stay too if she wants to.
“Don’t you want to?” Claennis said, suddenly sulky again. “Sit in the cart, Claennis. Keep quiet at table, Claennis. No, you can’t come hunting, Claennis. Back to the nursery, Claennis. No friends for you, Claennis.”
Hilda was astonished at this outburst of self pity. “I can stay,” she said.
“But do you want to?”
“Yes. My mother’s going to be furious over Whitney, even though it wasn’t my fault. I’ll stay away from her as long as I can.”
“But you don’t want to talk to me, do you? Go back with her then. I don’t want to talk to you either.”
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