Samhain in the fourth year came only two months after the trouble with the ogres of Banner Bein. Margueritte found that some garbled word of her and Elsbeth’s exploits had already reached the ears of people so when they arrived at Vergenville, there were more than the usual number of people that watched the Franks parade in. A few even pointed at the girls and whispered. Elsbeth, surprised, pointed back at the people, but Margueritte took it all in stride. In her world, there were precious few entertainments apart from malicious gossip among the women and unendurable bragging among the men. When a real adventure happened, that was worth holding on to and telling, and retelling, even if no one ever got the story quite right.
Lord Bartholomew found the ambassador from Africa, the Lord Ahlmored, at the door to the inn in anticipation of their arrival. Both men appeared willing to pick up where they left off four years earlier.
“Lady Brianna.” The Lord Ahlmored spoke with an air of slime about him. “I must say, you look even lovelier than when I last saw you.” He offered his hand to help her down from the cart, but she wisely refused it.
“I see your grasp of the Breton tongue has improved.” She tried to keep to pleasantries.
“I see your manners haven’t,” Sir Barth mumbled rather loudly. “Tomberlain. See to the men.” He waved off his son.
“Yes, Father,” Tomberlain said, and turned his horse to ride a little too fast back to the open field.
“Now, Lord Bartholomew. I had hoped any un-pleasantries from the past might be forgotten,” Ahlmored said. “Let us make a fresh beginning. I came only to welcome you to the king’s court, sorry as it is. I have prayed to Allah in the Holy Prophet on whom be all peace, that you Franks might bring a finer wit, a keener intelligence, and a more graceful beauty into our midst, even if only for a short time.”
“Bygones be bygones.” Baron Bernard spoke up from the doorway where he held a flagon of hard cider and had clearly already started on the festivities.
“At least the beauty has come.” Ahlmored bowed in his Arabic style to Lady Brianna. Sir Barth, now dismounted, thought nothing of butting in and shoved the Saracen a couple of steps back. Lady Brianna quickly grabbed Bartholomew’s hand before he could make a fist.
Ahlmored stayed ever the diplomat. “Your pardon, but I was speaking of your most beautiful daughters who I hear have ridden on the purity of Heaven and mastered the very demons of the earth. Why, your eldest with her long, dark hair nearly to her ankles and her skin as white as the cream from a goat, were it not for her fascinating green eyes, I would call her the very model of an Arabian princess.”
Margueritte grabbed Elsbeth’s arm just like her mother who held tight to her father’s arm and she poked her nose straight to the sky. “They’re ogres, not demons,” she said. Elsbeth imitated her sister’s haughty stance, though stuck out her tongue first before the two marched into the inn.
“Your pardon, Lord Ahlmored.” Brianna spoke quickly before anyone else could speak. “But we have duties to attend to and gifts to distribute.”
“Ah, yes. The Prophet Mohamet who is worthy of all praise, speaks highly of those who care for the poor and the wretched.” He bowed again and backed away before he turned to walk off.
Lord Bartholomew relaxed, a little.
“So, I would guess then the worthy Prophet never speaks highly of Ahlmored,” Bernard quipped from the doorway.
“Damn African can insult you even in the form of a compliment,” Sir Barth said.
“He’s a diplomat,” Lady Brianna pointed out, but Bartholomew was not so sure. They went inside.
“You, I will defend with my life,” Sir Barth said, and Brianna smiled and laid her head to his shoulder. “But if he is beginning to have such thoughts about my daughter, I’ll kill the child molester.” Brianna removed her head and slapped her husband’s shoulder instead.
“I understand they marry very young in that land.” The baron spoke between sips of cider.
“Oh!” Lady Brianna shot him her sharpest look. “You’re not helping.” But Baron Bernard already started laughing. He knew full well he was not helping.
That year, Margueritte and Elsbeth got to go with their father and mother into the fens where the miscreant serfs, criminals, and debtors worked off their debts, by scraping a living from the rocks and sand. The normal hard life got made nearly impossible, with never enough to eat, particularly for the women and children who went into purgatory with their men, and who often went without so their working men could have the strength to go on.
Brianna felt loathe to bring the girls into that place, not the least for the diseases that often raced through the fens and kept the population in check, but Bartholomew insisted on keeping his daughters with him. He did not like the girls being pointed out and secretly vowed to find out which of his own serfs or peasants opened his or her big, fat mouth. Most of all, he felt terribly disturbed and almost violent at the sight of Ahlmored’s eyes all over Margueritte.
“Good timing.” Aden the Convert met them. “There has been a birth today and you’ve come just in time for the celebration. Most of the people have already gathered.
“That will simplify things.” Sir Barth commented, always being practical about such matters. Lady Brianna said nothing, but Margueritte believed there was something about going from home to home and from woman to woman that she would miss.
For all the bad reputation, the Fens was really a tight-knit community. Most of the folks were good and decent folks who simply fell on the wrong side of life. In those days, the real, hardened criminals were put to death, so at least they had no chance of running into some murderer or the like, and as long as you held on to your purse, you would probably be all right.
Lady Brianna got right up into the cart and began to hand out packages. The women all seemed to know her and respect her, and she knew most of them by name. She apologized for the lack of woolen things, but with glances at Elsbeth and Margueritte, they all said they understood.
Father Barth rolled out a barrel of hard cider and tapped it for the men, most of whom he also knew. It felt like Christmas, and a celebration indeed.
“Elsbeth!” Margueritte suddenly scolded her sister who stood by a young lad to measure her hand against his. “He may be diseased or something,” Margueritte said in the Frankish tongue, so as not to offend.
“He is not,” Elsbeth shot back in Breton. “Just dirty.” She turned to the boy. “Don’t you ever take a bath?” The boy shook his head, not sure what a bath was. “I do.” Elsbeth said, sweetly. “Mother bathes us every Saturday night before the Lord’s Day. I hate the water and all that soap, but I must say it feels good after it is over.” She backed up to the boy to judge their heights.
“Oh.” The boy understood. “But we haven’t got any soap.”
“Mother?” Elsbeth looked up to where her mother was not unaware of what her children were doing.
“Given out,” she said. “But I will save a bar next time for your friend?” She made it a question, and Margueritte saw that the boy was at least not without wits.
“Owien, son of Bedwin,” the boy said. Then he remembered to take off his cap and added, “m’lady.”
“Yes, I believe your mother has some soap. Perhaps she will give you a sliver, Owien, son of Bedwin,” Lady Brianna said.
“Yes. Thank you m’lady,” Owien said, and he turned and gave Elsbeth a look so cold and hard it made Margueritte laugh. Elsbeth did not look fazed at all as the boy ran off. Margueritte laughed again and took her sister over to be under the watchful eyes of their father. Then again, she was not altogether sure if perhaps she did that as much for herself—the way some of the older boys seemed to be looking at her.