Authors: Christine Pope
his is a work of fiction
. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, places, organizations, or persons, whether living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
THE WOLF OF HARROW HALL
Copyright © 2016 by Christine Pope
Published by Dark Valentine Press
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down at the meager collection of silver coins as they lay on the worn surface of the kitchen table, then looked up at my grandmother in dismay. “This is all we have left? But where has the rest of it gone?”
She pushed a strand of graying hair away from her face. Sometime during her last fabric dyeing session, her hair must have come loose from the neat coil — still heavy and thick — at the back of her head. “‘Where has the rest of it gone’?” she repeated. My grandmother was not the sort to let the various blows the world had visited upon her weaken her spirit, but in that moment, I thought I could hear a weariness in her voice she couldn’t completely conceal. “Why, to patch the roof, and to purchase a new goat after the wolves got Sissi, and to pay Garrit for another load of firewood after the last storm, and — ”
“I see,” I cut in. Perhaps that was rude of me, but in that moment, I did not wish to hear the tally of our troubles once again. Truly, this past autumn and the beginning of the winter that followed had not been kind to us. And now, with the turn of the year rapidly approaching, so, too, approached the time when we must pay our tithe to the Mark of North Eredor, so that we might live yet another year here in the cottage where I had been born.
I had never seen the lord of our land, for his capital of Tarenmar lay several days’ ride to the south. Indeed, in all my twenty-one years, I had never seen much of anything beyond the forest of Sarisfell, which covered many leagues to either side of the village where I had been born. No doubt the Mark and his court would have thought our little hamlet of Kerolton small and mean, but it — and the people who lived there — were all I knew.
My thoughts churned as I considered what our next course of action should be. Our household was small, and consisted of only my grandmother and myself, for my grandfather had died of a fever some five years earlier, when I had barely passed into my sixteenth year. He had been an accomplished woodsman, and had hunted and trapped in the woods of Sarisfell, providing the merchants in Tarenmar with beautiful furs to adorn the ladies at court. Our worry over the loss of the income my grandfather had brought in was only exceeded by our grief at his passing, for he had been a cheerful sort, never one to allow a harsh winter or a meager meal to subdue his sunny nature.
In those five years since his passing, my grandmother and I had worked doubly hard at spinning and dyeing, transforming the wool from our neighbors’ sheep into sturdy fabrics. But often those same neighbors wished to trade their wool for the cloth we finished for them, or to barter for other necessities, and so we never had much in the way of ready coin, barely enough to purchase those items we could procure no other way, and to scrape together the ready for our taxes.
To most, those taxes would not seem so terribly onerous, for the Mark was not a greedy man and did not expect more of his subjects than they could comfortably give. Now, though, even that modest sum seemed to me more than a king’s ransom.
“Well,” I said, doing my best not to sigh, “I think I must go speak to Amery and see if he can find it in himself to loan us the necessary sum. His flock is thriving, and he is certainly not suffering for ready cash.”
Amery Willar was the richest man in our village. More to the point, he had once wished to marry my mother and give me his name. My mother had declined his suit, and had disappeared from our lives not long afterward, but Amery had never seemed to hold her betrayal against me. Instead, he always treated me with a rough kindness somewhat tinged with regret, as if he still wished that I might have been his daughter, even though he had been happily married these seventeen years or so.
At any rate, I thought he was the most likely person to approach about borrowing the required sum. There was one other in the village who was nearly as prosperous as Amery, but I doubted he would look kindly upon me asking him for a loan.
My grandmother appeared even more troubled after I made my suggestion. “I am not sure that is our best course of action, Bettany.”
“What else would you have me do?” I shot back. “I know you are too proud to ask anyone for money. I am not sure how well that pride would serve you in a debtor’s gaol, but I would rather not find out.”
She was silent then, her gaze not meeting mine. I looked at the heavy grey streaks in her dark hair and wondered when they had first appeared. The year Grandfather died? Truly, I could not seem to remember. She’d been beautiful and young-seeming for her age, and then appeared to age decades almost overnight. Not that I could blame her.
Our existence not been easy for me, either, although it had yet to cause any grey strands to appear in my hair, and my face bore no real signs of the heavy work that kept us occupied from the time the sun rose — and sometimes before — until it sank into the west each night. But I knew that time would eventually catch up to me, just as it had to her.
Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be terribly much I could do about it.
Taking my grandmother’s silence as tacit agreement with my plan, or at least as a disinclination to argue further, I went to the peg next to the door where my cloak hung and swung it around my shoulders. The weather had been brooding and grey, yet no storms had yet come, even though the clouds felt thick with snow.
Our cottage lay somewhat outside the boundaries of Kerolton, for my grandfather had always averred that it was better to be close to the animals in order to trap them. On fine sunny days, I did not mind the walk. Now, though, the ice in the chill air seemed to penetrate even the thick wool of my cloak and through to my plain bodice and skirt of wool and linen beneath.
No doubt the cloak I wore was an incongruous note in those somber winter woods, with their dark, snow-dusted firs and pines and the bare, slender branches of the birch and elm trees. The wool had dyed unevenly, so it was bright scarlet in patches and deeper crimson in others. We could not sell the fabric, and so my grandmother, who was a better seamstress than I, had fashioned it into a new cloak, as my old one had become quite threadbare. The red cloak was warm enough, true, but I thought it was far too conspicuous. I had already learned the bitter lesson that it was better not to attract too much attention.
Even on that bitterly cold morning, birds still sang from the barren branches overhead, and I heard rustlings in the dead undergrowth that could have been squirrels, or perhaps a fox. They had grown more adventurous over the past few years, now that my grandfather was not around to trap them.
Kerolton came into view after a brisk walk of a quarter-hour or so. Smoke streamed upward from numerous chimneys, a paler grey against the lowering sky. On a fine day, I would have seen people going to the well to draw water, or driving their sheep down the narrow lanes of the hamlet, or perhaps loitering around the doorway of Hamm’s tavern, but not today. Now, all the doors were latched, and heavy shutters had been closed over the windows as a barrier against the cold.
I heard rather than saw the light plodding of many hooves against the hard-packed snowy ground, and turned to see Amery Willar approaching, his felt hat pulled down low over his eyes and a scarf knitted in a bewildering array of colors knotted tightly around his throat. Despite his muffled state, I could still see surprise flicker over his features as he caught sight of me.
“Bettany Sendris!” he exclaimed, coming to a stop. His two great black and white shepherd dogs immediately ranged back toward the flock of sheep that had been following him, making sure they stopped as well and did not surround us. “What do you here, with this storm approaching?”
Storm? I flicked a skeptical eye skyward and shrugged. That snow had been threatening for the past two days and still showed no sign of falling. Perhaps it wouldn’t reach Kerolton at all, but would only pass over the forest, as these things often did around the turn of the year. It was in Janver that we would see the truly dangerous storms sweep through North Eredor.
“I fear it is not on pleasant business,” I said, hugging my gaudy cloak more closely about me. Yes, no snow had yet fallen, but still the wind had a bite to it I did not like much. “There is no easy way for me to say this, Amery, and so I must beg your indulgence. This past season has not been kind to my grandmother and me, and it seems we are far short in the count of what we must send to the Mark as our tithe for the year. I was hoping — no, I am praying — that you might come to our aid. I swear that we will repay you when summer comes, and I am able to range the forest and gather the ingredients I need to compound my dyes.”
A certain sadness entered his kind blue eyes. He was not a handsome man, but there was a pleasantness in his face that I had always admired. From the way he hesitated before answering, I knew his reply would not be one I wished to hear.
“I wish it were in my power to do so, Bettany, but I suppose you have heard that Vianna was betrothed this last Octevre?”
“Yes,” I replied. I already knew what was coming next, but it would have been rude for me to interrupt. Instead, I waited with an already sinking heart as he continued.
“Well, I must give six head of sheep as her dowry, and she must have a gown of fine-woven wool from Tarenmar, and none of this homemade — ” He broke off there and sent me an apologetic look. “That is not to say that what you and your grandmother produce is not good and sturdy, and worthy of many years of wear. But Vianna wishes for something more befitting the occasion.”
“Of course,” I said. Vianna had somehow turned out prettier than either of her parents’ looks might have promised, and so had acquired the airs to go with her beauty. Her betrothed was a handsome young man, the son of the local ironmonger.
Amery stepped closer and laid a gloved hand on mine, which was encased in a knitted wool mitten. We could not afford the fine leather gloves that Amery wore. “Believe me, it is not easy for me to say this to you, Bettany. But I am no rich merchant from Tarenmar, and I do not have the wherewithal to help you and still give my daughter the wedding she wishes. You do understand.”
“I understand,” I said clearly. “I am no daughter of yours, and you must do your duty by your blood.”
His forehead creased in a frown. “You know that I wish I could have looked on you as a daughter.”
“I do. But my mother’s whims prevented such a thing from coming to pass, and now I must think of some other way to keep us from the debtor’s gaol.”
That remark only caused his frown to deepen, and I saw his gaze flicker toward a house on the opposite side of the village square, a two-story edifice with real glass windows that had been brought in all the way from Tarenmar. “Perhaps you should reconsider your decision, Bettany.”
“No,” I said, my voice firm. “I think I would rather languish in prison than be Clem’s wife.”
“Surely you don’t mean that.”
Oh, but I do.
Clem Wisegrot was the second-richest man in the village, one who had a royal grant to cut the trees in the forest and turn them into lumber, although he employed several men to do the actual wood cutting. At forty-two, he was also twice my age, with three children from his late wife, who no doubt died young to escape his company. I’d long held the opinion that Clem’s proposal to me had everything to do with his desire to have a keeper for his unruly brood and very little to do with my own charms.
I let out a breath, which steamed upward in the frosty air much the way the smoke issued from the chimneys all around us. “Surely there must be something else I can do.”
Amery shook his head, his expression sober. “Short of taking your case to Lord Greymount, I can’t think of what that might be.”
Of course. Why hadn’t I thought of that?
Phelan Greymount, the lord of Harrow Hall, held sway over Sarisfell and all the lands around it. It was to him that we turned over our tithes, and, after he took his share, he would send the remainder to Tarenmar, to the Mark’s exchequer. As our
intermediary, he was the one I should approach with my suit. Surely he would be able to grant my grandmother and me some form of clemency.
Never mind that I had never laid eyes upon Lord Greymount. He was not one to venture forth from his castle, and so sent his servitors out into the countryside to collect the tax money, and also to ride through the forests and make sure all was well, that Clem did not take more wood than he was allowed, and that the rest of us did not over-hunt the region. Most of the people in Kerolton felt blessed in their absent lord, for it was far better to have one who took not enough interest in his vassals than to have an overlord who meddled in all their daily pursuits.
“That is an excellent notion, Amery,” I said, hope beginning to kindle within me. “I shall go to Lord Greymount and plead my case.”
His eyes widened in shock. “But you cannot do that, Bettany! For one thing, his castle is more than three leagues hence, far too great a distance for you to walk, especially with this storm coming on.”
Once again I looked heavenward, then shrugged. “I see no storm, only grey clouds that have lingered over the forest for the past two days. I do not think I have anything much to fear.”
“But Davyn’s bad leg has been paining him, a sure sign that snow is coming!”
“I would rather say that Davyn’s leg paining him is a sure sign that he didn’t wish to chop any more wood.” Davyn was Clem Wisengot’s brother-in-law, and a lazier man I was sure I had never seen. He had done well to marry Clem’s sister, knowing the the family’s wealth would keep him from ever having to put in an honest day’s work. Instead, he spent most of his time in Hamm’s tavern, offering his opinion on the weather and a whole host of other matters he knew very little about. I went on, “It is not yet noon, and if I set out now, I can be there and back before dark.”
“You do not know the way.”
“No,” I admitted. “But there is a clear enough path through the forest, one that leads directly to Lord Greymount’s castle. I know where the path lies, even if I have never had need to take it before now. The way is kept open by his lordship’s men, so I believe it will be an easy walk.”