Chapter One: An Ending
Long ago and far away, on a morning that was not quite winter and not quite spring, Lord and Lady Dunston bade all who lived at the manor to a gathering in the great hall. The farriers and stableboys, the dairymaids with their pails, the weavers and spinners and serving girls set aside their work and hurried along the stone corridors, gossiping all the way. Mayhap Lord Dunston was off to war again, they whispered. Mayhap his lady soon would bring forth a new child.
When the summons reached the kitchen, Cook dropped his spoons and mopped his shiny red face. "Make haste, Fenn," he said to the ferret-faced baker, who was at that moment taking a loaf of bread from the fire. "We must not keep them waiting."
The scullery maid, a skinny, sad-eyed girl in a dirt-brown tunic, gazed longingly at the golden loaf, her belly tight with hunger. But the bread was not meant for the likes of her. She ignored her rumbling stomach and hurriedly tossed the turnips she'd just peeled into the black kettle bubbling in the hearth. In all her years at Dunston Manor, she had caught only fleeting glimpses of the lord and his lady. Her days were spent peeling onions, washing pots, and carrying Fenn's pastries from hearth to table. At night she slept on the stone floor among the fleas and vermin, surrounded by the odd bits of beauty she had collected in her short and somber life -- a scrap of purple ribbon rescued from a branch in the orchard, a blue glass bead found on the path to the privy, a sliver of polished metal that gave back her reflection, large dark eyes in a thin and determined face.
Sometimes, when Cook was too busy to notice her absence, she stole away to her hiding place near the solar. There, with her ear pressed firmly to the damp wall, she listened to snippets of conversations of the serving girls and chambermaids, to the tales of passing visitors, or to the solemn voice of some visiting priest reading from a holy book -- wishing she could read such comforting stories for herself, wishing she had someone with whom she could share her secrets, wishing she might travel to faraway places. But she was not thinking such thoughts today.
Today, something important was astir, and she longed to be a part of it.
"Not you, Mouse!" Cook cried when he saw the expectant look on her face. "Stay here and tend this pot. And clear those turnip peels off the floor. If Lord Dunston's news has aught to do with you, you will know it soon enough."
Taking up his flesh hook, he poked the slab of venison simmering in its soup of leeks and cabbage. "See this meat does not burn, else there will be the devil to pay."
"Drat!" the girl muttered. "Why must I be left behind to sweep and stir?"
"What?" Cook growled, mopping his face again.
"I merely said, 'Yes, sir.'"
Satisfied, Cook nodded, hung his apron on its peg beside the door, then set off toward the great hall, Fenn trotting like an obedient puppy at his heels.
Mouse intended to obey Cook, but the air of mysterious excitement permeating the very walls of the manor house, and her own considerable curiosity, soon overcame her better judgment. She gave the pot another stir, tossed more wood onto the fire, then scurried up the dark stone steps just in time to see Cook's ample rump, and Fenn's skinny one, disappearing down the corridor. Following at a safe distance, she hurried along the hallway, past the weaving room, then up more stairs, till she came to the tall doors guarding the great hall. There, she pressed herself into a dark corner.
Above the iron bolt, where the wooden door had split, was a crack just wide enough for Mouse to see everyone who had assembled behind long wooden tables where the morning meal had recently concluded. Mouse spied Cook and Fenn and the rosy-cheeked chambermaids, all whispering together. Lady Dunston's attendants stood by her side, resplendent in their embroidered gowns and headpieces. Lady Dunston herself wore a gown of blue velvet and a gold circlet on her head.
Lord Dunston tapped his silver-headed cane upon the floor, and the room went still.
"Lady Dunston and I are happy to announce the betrothal of our daughter, Penelope, to Sir Geoffrey of Fairfax," he said. Everyone applauded. From her hiding place in the shadows, Mouse clapped too.
"Where is Penelope?" one of the ladies asked. "Bring her here so that we may give her our good wishes."
"She is so overcome with joy, she has taken to her bed," Lord Dunston replied. "But a day of rest will put her to rights."
"Taken to her bed, is she?" murmured one of the serving girls to her companion. Mouse pressed closer to listen.
"She is overcome, but not with joy, I trow," the other replied. "Wrinkled as a prune, that Geoffrey is. Hair like a haystack. And none too bright, either, from the looks of him."
"But he owns half the land twixt here and the sea, or so they say," returned the first. "And Penelope is getting on in years herself. Twenty-three last summer, if I remember rightly. Lord Dunston is wise to arrange such a match before she is too old to be a wife to anyone."
Lord Dunston tapped his cane again. "The wedding will commence in a fortnight," he said. "You must begin preparations at once. Lady Dunston and I wish it to be the finest celebration in the realm."
A wedding! Such a celebration meant musicians with flutes and lyres and tambourines, or so Fenn said. Jesters there would be, and dancing and merriment and a feast fit for the king himself. Mayhap the lord and his lady would invite even Mouse, the lowest of the low. She would wear her purple ribbon and a flower in her hair. She must learn to curtsy, she thought, and to speak a proper greeting. A delicious shiver traveled down her spine.
Inside the great hall another round of cheering and applause erupted as the lord and his lady bowed their heads and took their leave by the doors at the far end of the hall. Then the door next to Mouse's hiding place opened, and everyone spilled out, laughing and chattering all at once. Mouse crouched in the shadows and waited for them to pass. She dared not show herself and risk Cook's vile temper. More than once he had cursed her, or cuffed her cheeks till her ears rang, for even the smallest of mistakes. If she dropped a bowl upon the floor or forgot to add salt to the bread, he called her an addlebrained clod, a muddleheaded lout, or worse. It was best to wait till the room was empty, then return to the kitchen through the far doors, well ahead of Cook and Fenn.
At last the hall was deserted. Mouse hastened inside, pulling the heavy door closed behind her.
If only she had kept to her plan, everything that happened later would not have happened at all. But as soon as she entered the hall, her gaze was fastened to the gleaming tapestries on the walls and she could not move. Colorful birds, angels, and flowers, scenes of knights on horseback and ladies in gardens seemed to spring to life before her eyes. She could almost hear the ladies talking quietly as they bent low over their needlework awaiting the knights' return. She could just imagine the stories the men would tell, stories of adventure and noble deeds performed in the service of the king.
Then on the long tables, amid empty goblets and a forest of candlesticks dripping wax, Mouse saw the remains of the morning meal. Here was a half-eaten meat pie and a bit of peacock, shiny with raisin sauce; there a morsel of fine white bread sticky with honey. Mouse's stomach rumbled, for her breakfast had been nothing more than a crust of stale bread and a bowl of cold cabbage, slick with grease. Almost before she knew it, she gobbled the last of the meat pie and a handful of figs and tucked another pie inside her tunic. On her way to the doors leading to the courtyard, she spied an apple tart and ate that, too, in three quick bites. She licked her fingers clean, then pushed open the doors and went out.
"You there! Stop!" A man carrying a bucket and a sack grabbed her arm and twisted so hard, Mouse yelped. The meat pie she had hidden in her tunic landed with a plop on the cobblestones. "Aha! Just as I suspected! Stealing from the poor."
It was the almoner, whose job it was to collect table scraps for the needy. Cook said such charity was one way the lord and his lady kept themselves in the good graces of the villagers.
"Leave me be!" Mouse yelled, struggling with all her might to break free. "I am no thief, but Cook's own helper."
Just then Cook appeared, brandishing his flesh hook. "So there you are, you miserable wretch! Did I not tell you to tend the meat? Now it is burned black as tar, and I will get the blame!"
The almoner tightened his grip on Mouse's arm. "She has stolen food, too. Right off the lord's own table. Caught her, I did, stuffing herself like a Christmas goose, while the poor in the village have neither bread nor ale to stop their hunger." He glared at Mouse. "Mayhap I should take her to Lord Dunston. He will know how to deal with the likes of her."
"Lord Dunston has more important things on his mind," Cook said. "Leave her to me."
The almoner flung Mouse onto the hard cobblestones. "Next time I will flog you myself! Thief!"
He stomped into the great hall, his boots ringing on the stone steps.
"Well?" Cook loomed over the cowering Mouse.
"I am sorry." Mouse's voice trembled. Her stomach squeezed with fright. "I was hungry."
Behind her the kitchen door creaked open, and Fenn dumped the ruined venison into a slop pail, where it floated, black and crusty, among rotting turnips, browning apples, and gray meat full of squirming maggots.
"Hungry, are you?" Cook mocked. "And my bread and cabbage are not good enough, I suppose. You may be a mouse, but you have the manners of a pig!"
Before she could reply, he twisted her ear, jerked her to her feet, and propelled her toward the stinking slop pail. "Eat, pig!" he commanded, pushing her face into the pail.
"I will not!" Mouse pulled and squirmed, but try as she might, she could not free herself from Cook's viselike grasp.
"Oh, yes, you will." With his meat hook, he speared a slab of maggoty pork and pushed it into her face. "Eat, if you are so hungry. Eat every bite!"
Mouse's stomach pitched and roiled. Feeling hot and cold all at once, she twisted her head away, but not before spewing vomit over Cook's white apron and the tops of his shoes. Bits of meat pie clung to his hair, his eyelashes, his wiry black beard.
Bellowing with rage, he raised his meat hook and raked it savagely across Mouse's cheek. The spoiled meat fell to the ground.
At first she stood there, stunned, while a warm, sticky trickle of blood ran down her face. She wiped her cheek and stared at her bloody hand, too full of shock and fear to feel pain. Cook raised the meat hook again. But before he could land another blow, the wall of fear and loneliness that had been building inside Mouse all her life suddenly broke. And she ran. Across the rain-slick courtyard, then out through the great stone arch and over the newly plowed fields to the road.
"Stop her!" Cook yelled, but the planters did not hear and went on with their sowing and raking.
Mouse ran until the house disappeared from view. Then the pain began, so hot and fierce, it nearly stole her breath. But she went on until at last her legs buckled, and she stopped beside an icy stream. With the dampened hem of her tunic, she bathed her wound. As the cold water numbed her pain and her breathing slowed, the full weight of her plight filled her mind.
"Saints in heaven! What have I done now?" she said aloud.
Many times, after one of Cook's thrashings, she had thought of running away. Once she had actually tried it, but she'd soon been returned to the scullery. And mayhap it was just as well, for where could she go, a girl with nothing? No family. Not even a proper name.
Abandoned as a babe on the steps of Dunston Manor, she had been called Mouse all her life. She could not say how many twelvemonths had passed since her birth. Once, when she had begged Cook to tell her when and why she had come to Dunston Manor, he had said, in his exasperated way, that mayhap she was eleven. Or twelve. As to the reason she had been left to the mercy of strangers, Cook said it was obvious, was it not? She was not wanted. And no wonder. She was scrawny and ugly and clumsy as a cow. Not the kind of girl anyone was wont to keep. It was only at Lady Dunston's insistence that she had been taken into the scullery in exchange for her unceasing labor.
At first Mouse had refused to believe him. She imagined she was lost or had been left at Dunston by some horrid mistake that soon would be righted. At night, listening to the scrabbling of the rats in the kitchen, she pictured a beautiful princess with golden hair searching the realm for her lost daughter. But as time passed, each season sliding into the next, she realized such thoughts were useless and accepted her lot. At least she had a roof over her head and a scrap of food each day.
Now she was alone, without any prospects in the world, without a single coin in her pocket, nor anyone to help her. Lying on the ground while the cold wind tore at her thin tunic, Mouse felt exactly like her namesake, small and despised and unimportant. Another girl might have wept at the hopelessness of it, but Mouse had learned tears would not change anything.
"I will not cry," she said aloud to the shivering trees. With one hand pressed to her wounded cheek, she looked around for shelter from the cold rain that had begun to fall and at last burrowed into a pile of rotting leaves beside the road, where she passed a long, sleepless night.
The next morning the weather was still cold and damp, and Mouse was still hurt and alone. Her cheek throbbed. Her stomach felt as if it had stuck to her backbone, but there was nothing at all to eat. She broke the thin film of ice that had formed on the stream and filled her groaning belly. Then, because she had nothing to do and nowhere to go, she scurried back to her bed of leaves and lay there trying to decide what to do.
Presently an oxcart brimming with straw and cabbages trundled down the road. Mouse watched as the driver halted the cart and led the ox to drink, poking the ice with his staff till it broke with a faint tinkling sound. While he was busy, she stole into the cart and hid beneath the mound of dry straw. Still she had no plan for her future; she knew only that she could not go back to Dunston Manor.
The cart squeaked and shifted beneath the driver's weight. The ox snorted as the cart lurched along the road. Mouse poked a hole through the straw and breathed in the cold morning air. Beneath her fingers her wounded cheek oozed and burned fiercely, as if she had strayed too close to Cook's hearth.
She peered out across a field of brown stubble. Beneath a stand of rain-washed trees, two farmers were mending a stone fence. The cart rolled on, past a woman tending her geese, past a goat boy with his herd, past a man on a prancing horse.
Late in the morning Mouse spied in the distance a scattering of thatched roofs and a few stone buildings of a village. Her old life was at an end. A new one was beginning, though she could not yet imagine it.
Copyright © 2003 by D. Anne Love