Still no sign of Gerald Tinker. Half the men in the party have started making advances towards Charity. I have nothing to offer her—no money, anyway—so I’m staying away. I think she’s leaning towards Peddler. He’s got a cart full of goods, he’s most likely to be willing to leave the kingdom with her, plus he plays the lute and isn’t bad looking if you discount the eyepatch.
He’s also the best hunter of the group. Went out on his own early this morning, before the rest of us were awake, and brought back a deer before noon. Full belly tonight; I should sleep well.
Mother always said I’d have nightmares if I ate too much before bed. I guess she was right. Can’t really remember what happened, except that there were wolves howling and blood on the snow. Woke up sweating under my blankets. Wolves were howling outside the inn for real. Took a while to get back to sleep . . . .
“You really love that book, don’t you?” Charity asked me. “What are you even writing in it?”
“Everything that’s been happening to us.”
“Why? Afraid we’re gonna freeze to death out here and we’ll need to leave a record of what happened?”
“No! I just . . . .” I shrugged. “My master had me journal every day as an apprentice. It’s a habit.” I smiled at the red-haired woman. “How are you doing? I mean, are you all right?” Inwardly, I kicked myself. How could she be all right? An abandoned prostitute, surrounded by lecherous men . . . .
“Oh, don’t worry about me,” she said, fingering her bead necklaces. “Spent last night with Forest . . . .”
“The peddler. Given name’s Forest. He says we can go west together if I want. Best offer I’m gonna get—everyone else plans to go back east, and some of these guys have wives at home.” She chuckled. “I’m desperate, but not stupid.”
“What about, um, Mother Alys?” I asked. “I thought maybe she’d offered you a place in the convent.”
“Huh. And what use would I be there? They make books in that place. I can’t even read.”
“I . . . I could teach you,” I offered. “I mean, if you wanted me to. And I wouldn’t, um, expect anything from you. Because you know, Peddler. If you still want to go west with him. Where is he, anyway?”
“Got up before dawn again to go hunting I expect. I woke up and he was gone. He won’t mind if I spend time with you. Everyone knows you’re harmless . . . .”
4th Mansday, con’t.
Snowing hard again. Spent the day teaching Charity her letters. Smith, Potter, and the others asked me to go hunting, but I said no. Not sure now if I should have gone—Smith didn’t come back. Potter says he ran off after a deer he’d wounded, and they got separated in the snow. Everyone figures Smith’s a goner, considering Tinker never came back. People are starting to think we might be cursed or something.
4th God’s Day
No one, not even Peddler, went out today. Snow still falling. Wolves howling back and forth to each other in the forest all day and night. Mother Alys insisted on preaching all day, and no one had the heart to stop her.
1st Earth Day
37th Year of Harold the 4th
We’ve been stuck in this inn for ten days. The bread is all gone, the beer’s been gone, the onions and such are running low, and we might have a week’s worth of hay in the stable for our animals. The road is over two feet deep in snow and packed ice. We simply can’t get out, not with the beasts and carts. It isn’t snowing today, but it’s freezing cold and nothing is melting.
Mother always said “Snow on the ground is waiting for more.”
Hard to believe spring is supposed to begin in twenty days. It’s snowing again, but half the men went out hunting anyway. We’ve got to eat, after all. I’m going to keep teaching Charity her letters.
“So, Charity,” I asked, “are you going to go west with Peddler now?”
We were sitting at a table near the hearth, scrawling letters onto the tabletop with charred sticks.
She nodded. “He came from out west, he says. Had family there, but when his father died, he got in a fight with his brothers and left. But he doesn’t mind going back if I go with him. Maybe even start a family of his own.”
“Wait—he just met you, and now he’s asking you to marry him?” I asked.
Charity rolled her eyes at me. “I’m a whore. I sleep with strangers all the time. At least this fellow might be offering something permanent. He’ll take care of me for a while, if nothing else. Besides, what other choice do I have?”
“Mother Alys . . . .”
“Would take me in, but she’d pity me, and so would all the other holy virgins in the convent. My mama was a half-elf whore who named me ‘Charity’ because she knew I’d be begging all my life. I can take hand-outs, but not pity.” She narrowed her eyes at me. “Are you teaching me out of pity, or because you actually like me?”
I wasn’t sure what to say.
“Never mind, it’s something to do until Forest gets back from hunting,” she said, turning back to the tabletop and tracing the letters I’d modeled for her. “Somebody’d better bring some meat in tonight, because there’s pretty much nothing else left except a barrel of dried peas and a few withered turnips. I mean, you can live on peas, but there are eleven of us, and they won’t last but so long.”
But that night there were only ten.
The hunting party came back without any game last night, and without Mother Alys’ servant Peter, as well. The wolves we’ve been hearing startled the hunters in the woods, and they all ran. Peter got separated. It’s been a miserable time . . . .
“I cannot believe you just left my servant out there to be eaten by wolves!” Mother Alys protested over breakfast (cold pea soup). She had been saying the same thing, or variations of it, since the past evening, when the surviving hunters had returned and told their tale. “Shouldn’t you have shot them or something?”
“Hard to draw a bow when you’re running for your life,” Alf said. “There were near a dozen of them. Only five of us. I’m not especially good at ciphering, but I figure that would mean even if each of us shot and hit one wolf, there would be enough to jump and kill us while we were knocking our second arrow.”
“Never heard tell of so many wolves at once in my life,” said one of the Potters. “If I get back to the city alive, you can bet I’m not going to leave again!”
“You’re all a pack of despicable cowards!” Mother Alys went on. The bickering continued, off and on, for the rest of the day. I retreated into a corner with my journal. Charity left me undisturbed; she was occupied with figuring out how long she could feed ten people on the remaining peas.
to be continued . . . .