By the time Greta got home, her attention turned back to her tasks. She needed to sew the tear in her little brother’s pants. This was not the first time she had to sew it, but Mama said the way he kept growing, he would need new pants soon enough. They needed to make the old ones last as long as possible.
Greta pricked her finger with the needle. She made no sound, but tasted the blood when her finger jumped to her mouth. She would be seventeen in only two more days, and she missed her father and her older brother, Bragi. Father went to the council in Ravenshold and he said that Bragi, nearly twenty, could go as long as he kept his mouth shut. The council got called to elect a new high chief, but Papa had been gone three weeks and the people could not imagine what might be taking so long—unless there was war talk. That talk had been bandied about for some six years, ever since the people found out that Hadrian died and Rome had a new emperor in Antonius Pius. No one, however, had spoken such words seriously. For one, there had been plenty of rebellious days since Trajan conquered the land some forty years earlier. The last time, however, the people had been mauled so badly, some wondered if Ravenshold would ever recover. And then, the last high chief would hear none of the rebellious talk, so people kept their opinions in check. Now, with the ascension of a new high chief, Greta feared that might change. Some people seemed convinced that only war talk could delay the council so much, and they were beginning to fear that the Romans might find out.
Greta did her bit. She learned that Lord Darius was escorting this Marcus to the capitol. Unfortunately, they had left within an hour of her encounter, so there was not much more she could learn. And she still did not know who this Marcus might be.
Greta mended Hansel’s pants and caught him as he came bounding into the house. “Hansel.” She stopped him. “Try these on.”
“Not now, Greta,” he protested. “The gang is waiting.”
“This will only take a minute,” she insisted and held the pants out to him.
Hansel rolled his eyes and huffed, but he dropped his one pair of pants to try on the others. “You will make a great mother someday,” he said, in his most annoying voice. Greta imagined it was the worst insult he could think of.
“Thanks.” Greta took it as a compliment, and felt rather pleased with herself, as she sat down to check the stitching.
After another huff, Hansel spoke again in his most serious voice. “Sis.” Greta knew it was serious because he never called her that unless he wanted to lean heavily on the familial relationship. “Could you maybe call me Hans and stop calling me Hansel? It’s embarrassing.”
Greta smiled. “Mama will never stop calling you Hansel,” she said, and it was true.
“I know.” He understood. “But it’s different for grown-ups. You expect that kind of thing.”
“Why is it different?” She teased a little. “I’ll be seventeen day after tomorrow and that is practically all grown up.”
“And I’ll be fourteen in three weeks,” he said in a loud and exasperated voice. “Please, Sis. It makes a difference when it is someone who is close, I said, close to your own age.”
Greta stared at him for a moment. He had such puppy-dog pleading in his eyes it made her want to hug and squeeze him like she did when she was seven and he was four. Time seemed frozen in that moment. He waited ever so patiently for her response, and she loved him so dearly.
“All right,” she said to his relief. She handed back the pants he had been wearing and took back her work. “I will try to remember, Hans.” She had to say it out loud because it sounded so strange to her ears.
“Thanks Greta. Pact?”
“Pact,” Greta said and she spit on her first two fingers while he spat on his. They touched fingertips.
“And you will be a great Mama someday,” Hans said. This time he meant it as a compliment.
Greta smiled. “You just be a great Hans, and everyone will be happy.”
“I will,” he spoke again in his flippant, teenage voice. He let out a shout as he burst out of the door to join his friends.
But Greta could not be entirely happy. She would turn seventeen and her Papa would not be there.
When that special morning came, Greta felt determined to make sure someone knew it was her birthday. She had a certain someone in mind and because of that, she kissed Mama good-morning, had a hurried breakfast, kissed a sleepy headed Hansel, and left. Hans, she corrected herself, as she slipped on her red cloak and went out the door.
“Greta.” She heard the voice but did not stop. “Greta, wait up.” Greta stopped and frowned. Vanesca and Yanda caught her; the ones she sometimes secretly, though not unkindly, thought of as Bubblehead and the Village Vegetable.
“Where are you going so early?” Vanesca asked.
“Market.” Greta gave a one word answer. She turned and resumed her walk as the girls came up alongside.
“Going to see Drakka?” Vanesca prodded.
Greta’s frown deepened. “No,” she said. “Mama wants some warm muffins and eggs that aren’t all picked over and cracked.”
Vanesca nodded to Yanda. “She’s going to visit Drakka.” The words were matter-of-fact.
“No,” Greta protested. She pulled up the hood of her red cloak while she tried to think of something to prove her case. “I am going to buy some sausages.” It was the most outlandish thing she could think of. Naturally, she had no money with her. All she had was her basket, and as she thought of it, she was not sure her family had any money at all. It did not matter. Greta had made up her mind. She would get some sausages. Vanesca, however, took Greta’s outlandish statement as confirmation of her delusion.
“Oh, Drakka, definitely, and it must be important.” Vanesca nudged Greta in the side.
Yanda’s words came from a half-step behind. “Why would you visit the blacksmith’s son?” she asked.
Greta and Vanesca came to a complete stop. Yanda bumped into them before she stopped herself. The girls gave Yanda a look before Vanesca spoke. “I’ll explain it to you when you are older,” she said, and Yanda screwed up her face. They could almost see the water wheel working overtime, trying to pull the water all the way to the top.
“But I am older,” Yanda said. “I’m eighteen and you and Greta are only sixteen.”
“I’m seventeen today.” Greta smiled and turned to Vanesca. “It’s my birthday.” She said that to suggest that this was the real reason for her early trip to the market and for her sausage buying. Vanesca did not quite buy it, but she said, “Happy birthday,” and they kissed like sisters.
“Ah!” Yanda got excited. “We have to get sweet sausage and some of those little cakes at the bakers.”
“Careful Yanda.” Greta spoke over her shoulder. “You will be eighteen and weigh a hundred stone.”
“What’s wrong with that?” Yanda asked, and in some strange way it seemed a reasonable question.