Torghan, steward of Lindenscrag, was worried.
It wasnít his Lordís calling for the estate ledgers which caused him such anxiety, for he knew his accounting of the yields and harvests, as well as the annual custumal paid to their sovereign, to be correct. No, ítwasnít that which caused him such apprehension, but as he stepped from the little office onto the gallery to cross to the stairs, holding the thick, leather-bound volumes balanced against one arm, he had looked down into the Great Room below and there saw the object of his delight and his sorrow--Brunne, sister to his Lordís dead second wife, who had been brought to Lindenscrag with Lord Rivenís motherless infant son.
Looking at her, the feeling which he had kept at bay these two years, suddenly sprang again into being.
His first sight of her had been enough. She had appeared so small as she stood in the shelter of the Giarlís arm, eyes staring wide in wonder at the foreign place which was to be her home. Torghan had looked upon her and, with that one glance, lost his heart, and since that moment watched and wished and ached as the feelings within him grew.
Sitting on a tussock before the hearth, she was singing softly in her native Ghermian, oblivious to the emotional scrutiny above her. íTwas early autumn and still too warm for a fire to be lit, so the hearth was bare. Upon her lap, she held a small kitten. One pale braid fell over her shoulder to swing like a gilt rope against her breast and the kittenís dainty paw reached out to cuff the moving plait of hair, its claws entangling in the strands.
Today, Brunne was wearing a gown sewn in that wicked new fashion which was flourishing among the womenfolk. It had immediately been denounced by the priests and elders though greatly appreciated by younger men like Torghan and the Giarl himself. Cut from soft and clinging cloth, the bosom was fashioned with seams that formed little pockets into which her breasts rested, the fabric leaving their soft shape clearly visible just as the low neck revealed a swell of fair flesh suggesting a maturity of body beyond her true years.
Brunne cuddled the kitten to her breast, its furry gray head resting against the hollow of her throat.
Closing his eyes with a sigh, Torghan wished fervently that, however briefly, he could exchange places with the little cat, then abruptly opened them again, angry that he had allowed such a thought to enter his mind. Sheís a child! In spite of her bodyís growth, Brunne was still a little girl while he was many years man-grown and old enough to be able to curb his mindís caprices!
Tightening his grip on the spine of the heaviest ledger, he was glad of the weight against his arm; it forced him to concentrate on the forth-coming interview with the Giarl, reminding him to hurry to attend it.
As noiselessly as he had entered it, Torghan fled the gallery
While he hurried down the dark and narrow stairs, his mind continued to dwell on the predicament into which he had entrapped himself. As far as he knew, he was the only one aware of it. At least, he hoped so!
Once again, he was mindful of the solitariness of his position at Lindenscrag. Seneschal to the Giarl. Freeman.
There were few Freemen in the castle. The varls made up the majority of the labor force so there were none to whom Torghan might confide his feelings or ask advice.
Lord Rivenís White Shields were noblesí sons, but in the hierarchy of the castle, the Giarlís steward might not consort with the soldiery. Anyway, he knew what their advice would be, for heíd witness their behavior with the serving wenches many times--a cornering on the stairs, and a stealing of the treasures desired--and had often censured them for their conduct.
Besides, that wasnít what he wished for Brunne and himself.
Only Ynes, the Lady Barbaraís serving woman was even vaguely his equal in status, being both Freefolk and a house servant but he couldnít bring himself to speak of such to her. As outspoken as Ynes herself was at times, ítwould be too indelicate.
If only I could speak to my master! He was certain, however, that Lord Riven would be less than understanding if he knew the thoughts his steward had for his young sister-under-the-Law, for like most men who had been overly-free with his own favors before his marriage, now that he was wed, his Lordship was violently protective of the females of his household.
Torghanís gaze fell to the floor, and as his chin touched the stiff fabric of his collar band, snapped upright again. He disliked these new tunics with their wide, thick collars, which prevented a man from lowering his head. The fabric was so stiff that it chafed and scratched if skin touched it, as Torghan had very painfully discovered.
Raising his head again, he saw a serving wench at one side of the hallway, mop and pail beside her. She was dipping the mop into the bucket, then determinedly scrubbing the floor. Suds and water covered the path where he had to walk and suddenly, this little inconvenience angered him so that he turned upon the girl, giving vent to the frustration he felt.
"What do you call yourself doing?"
"Sir?" Bent over the handle of the mop, she looked up at him in surprise. "W-why, Iím cleaning the floor as I always do on this day of the week."
"Then do it! And make certain no suds are left to cause the Lady Barbara or one of the children to fall. Use that mop well to dry the floor!"
"Yes, Master Torghan." Under the force of his anger, she grasped the mop and wrung it with hands already red and wet, then dropped it to the floor again.
"Get on with it!" He turned and stalked off, hefting the ledgers.
Returning to her task, the girl didnít speak again but the thoughts in her mind were angry ones. She didnít understand the reason for the stewardís anger. I clean the floor as I always do. There had never before any complaints, and as for the Lady slipping, the floors were always dried afterward.
She was only one of many who had lately been the subject of Master Torghanís unreasonable wrath, and she didnít know why.
Lips compressed into an angry line, Torghan reached the Giarlís sanctum. Beside the door stood an armed White Shield. Across from him, a page leaned against the wall, arms folded, resting his weight on one foot. As Torghan paused before the door, he looked over at the boy who appeared bored and half-asleep.
"Why are you here?" His voice rapped out so sharply that the page jumped.
"I-Iím attending my Lord, should he need me to run errands a-and such!" the boy stuttered.
"If youíre serving the Giarl, then at least look awake! Stand up!" Straightening quickly, page pulled away from the wall. "Donít let me see you so lax again!"
Shifting the books, Torghan brought his fist down sharply against the door as the child nodded and bowed and snapped to attention again.
A deep voice filled with exasperation bade him enter. As Torghan disappeared into the sanctum, the White Shield and the pages exchanged puzzled glances and shrugs.
Riven kan Ingan, Lord of Lindenscrag, was leaning over a volume similar to the one Torghan carried. It lay open on the desk and his fair hair, which he had refused to crop in the new short style, fell forward to brush the open page as he went over the tiny characters, which covered the sheet in narrow, even black lines.
Straightening as the younger man came through the door, he exclaimed, "By my vow, Torghan! Had I known being able to read would lead to such tedious work as this, Iíd never have learned!" He slapped the book with a sun-bronzed hand. "How can you abide keeping these accounts without going mad?"
"íTis what I was trained to do, sir," Torghan allowed himself a slight smile. "When I was in service at Aljansur."
He set the books on the end of the table and stepped back, waiting for the Giarl to continue.
"íTis truly no need for me to check them for I trust you entirely. Didnít you handle my entire estate for the five years I was away?"
Neither expected an answer for they both knew that during his masterís absence, Torghan had indeed justified his Lordís trust in him.
"I was never happier than on that day when you rode through the gates and I was able to return my charge to you," Torghan replied truthfully. "Nevertheless, ítis the custom for the Giarl to review the books annually."
"In that case," Riven went on, turning the pages of the ledger before him. "Thereís one small entry I find puzzling and Iíd have you explain it to me, for it appears in none of the volumes before the year I went away."
"Sir?" Torghan frowned and stepped to the desk.
Searching the pages, Riven stopped further on in the book, finding the entry he sought and tapping it with a forefinger.
"Here--the village of Lovelady," he read. "Twelve dinar a year."
Looking down at the line of script the Giarl indicated, Torghan didnít have to read it. He knew well what it said, had written it himself, and truly never expected his Lord to see it. He was silent as Riven consulted two other volumes.
"Here...and here, also--the same entry."
Torghan didnít say anything.
"I realize," Riven continued, in the quiet that suddenly pervaded the room, "that Lindenscrag is unique in that in all Francovia, ítis the only domain which houses on its estate a village composed entirely of women who make their living with their bodies--"
He paused to look at the steward, his finger unconsciously tapping a tattoo upon the page. Torghan managed to meet his gaze without blinking.
"--but when I came to Lindenscrag, I informed the inhabitants of Lovelady they would receive my protection and justice but no tribute was expected from them." He frowned at Torghan. "Now I find that in my absence and even since my return, my steward has accepted an annual payment from them!"
The amber eyes regarded him somberly.
Rivenís voice was quiet but Torghan wasnít fooled. He knew his Lordís silences were more dangerous than anotherís howling rages could be.
"I think I need an explanation, Torghan, as to why youíve made me a man who profits from the labor of whores!"
Torghan swallowed loudly. In a panic, all thought flew from his mind. In the space of a moment, things had taken a very serious turn.
"Yes sir," he said slowly, "and you shall have it," and fell silent again.
"When?" Riven demanded, into the quiet which threatened to last forever. "As soon as you can think some lie? Now, my steward!"
"Sir--" he began and stopped again.
"Well?" Rivenís frown wasnít encouraging, anger hovering behind it.
In sudden dismay, Torghan wondered if his Lord would accept the truth.
He decided to chance it.
"íTwas because of the Lady Barbara, my Lord." The words came out in a rush.
"Barbara?" Rivenís frown deepened. "What has my wife to do with Loveladyís whores?"
Torghan remembered well the night he had disobeyed his Lordís orders and gone to his Ladyís aid, finding her already delirious from fear and pain as she lay on the floor of the chamber where sheíd been thrown by the Giarl in his rage.
She was a limp bundle as he lifted her, her blood and that of her child staining his stewardís robes as he carried her quickly from the room. She wasnít aware when he hid her in the caretakerís hut, didnít know that not daring to be absent from the castle long enough to fetch the midwife from the village, he had gone to Lovelady and brought back one of the whores to stay with her while he returned to Lindenscrag.
Once back, he washed away the blood and changed his robes before going to find the tormented man who was already regretting what he had done to the wife he adored.
Thinking of that, Torghan lifted his chin defiantly. "They offered the Lady Barbara shelter after y-you turned her out."
Rivenís face darkened at the reminder of his cruelty.
"Even when they learned who she was, they wished to help. A month after you left Lindenscrag, a woman appeared at the gates and left a dinar. íFor the babe,í she said. I returned it but they sent it back and each month thereafter."
"So," he concluded with a shrug. "I kept them. At first, I thought to make no record but then, I felt it best to make a notation in the ledger."
Torghan stopped, waiting for Rivenís reaction. The silence deepened as his Lord studied the open book before him and Torghan became bold enough to demand, "Did I do wrong, sir?"
Riven smiled. "I think...under the circumstances, you did right, Torghan." He sighed. "We canít keep the money, of course. Itíll have to go back, but in a way that wonít insult them. In spite of their profession, these women do have a sense of honor."
"Aye sir. Youíve ever been fair with them."
His Lordship looked up, diverted by a memory. "Do you remember the day I served as Magister when Benia of Lovelady brought one of Leontilfís soldiers before me?"
Glad that Riven had been distracted, Torghan was only too glad to further it.
"He gave her a single dinar for three daysí pleasure. You took one look at her and said that just to sit in her presence for an hour was worth a dinar and ordered him to triple the price!"
Riven laughed at the memory of the soldierís discomfit and haste to comply with the Giarlís command. His anger gone, he shook his head.
"Once again, youíve disobeyed me and done whatís best. Some day, however, I fear your luck wonít hold."
As he bent over the ledger again, Torghan, heartened by his abrupt good nature, thought, Iíll tell him now! Iíll speak of my feelings for Brunne.
When he said, "Lord Riven--" however, His Lordship, without looking up, answered detachedly, "Is there something more?" his resolve failed.
"No sir. By your leave then, Iíve other chores to attend."
At the dismissing wave of Rivenís hand, he turned and made his escape. The page sprang to attention as he came through the door, and he and the sentry were startled to see their Lordís steward strike one fist angrily against the wall before continuing down the hallway.