“Her Ladyship is not in. She will grant audience after she has returned from falconing.” The serving man eyed the smith and his two boys with distaste.
Oswy, Corwin, and Carl stood at the head of the line of villagers come to the castle to have their disputes judged. They had scrubbed themselves in the washtub, worn their Sunday clothes and even combed their hair, but there was no mistaking their station in life, or Oswy’s trade. Black grime clung to his fingernails and the ridges of his knuckles and his shirt of homespun linen fit him ill across the shoulders and the arms. He followed the servant through the castle gate and into the courtyard.
A herd of nervous pigs milled in a temporary pen in front of the stable. Three muscular servants wrestled a fat sow to immobility while a fourth swung a massive hammer and stunned it. Nearby more serving men hoisted another pig onto a scaffold, while a boy held a bucket beneath the gash in its throat to catch the blood for sausage making. Further on, a vast cauldron bubbled with rendering lard. They waited before a dais, set to one side of the courtyard. Steps led up one side, and a thronelike chair was set in the center, a footstool before it and a small table beside it with a flagon and a cup on top.
They had not long to wait before Margaret, wife of Eustace, Lord of Northumberland, rode in at a trot on a fine bay mare, followed by her ladies and an assortment of falconers, huntsmen, and guards. She wore an elegant riding dress of green velvet. The sleeves of her linen underdress were crisply white and embroidered with a motif of vines and leaves. Her wimple was no less spotless. Rings gleamed on every finger.
If she would part with even one of those rings, thought Corwin, even the small one on her little finger, that would pay my father’s debt.
A groom ran up to hold her horse’s bridle and help her dismount. She climbed the stairs, the servant following. He poured wine into the cup and whispered in her ear, glancing toward the line of petitioners. She nodded, but her eye roved the courtyard, catching errors as they were committed.
“Not too deep, now, Herbert,” she she said, her voice effortlessly filling the courtyard, to the man about to slice the pig’s belly open. “You don’t want to slice up the entrails. Cook will need them for sausage casings. You there, Winifred. There’s not enough salt on that. We’ll want bacon this winter,” she said tartly, “not mildewed meat.”
“The blacksmith, my lady,” the servant bowed and indicated Oswy. Her eye appraised them. Corwin doffed his cap and stood beside his father, fidgeting like a choirboy. He was surprised to see that she was beautiful. She was tall for a woman and full bosomed. Her eyes were as blue as cornflowers, her skin smooth as ivory and her jaw as solid as the castle keep that towered behind her.
“They tell me you wish payment of me.”
“Payment for the work I did to prepare your husband and his men for the Holy Crusade.”
“And what was that?”
“Five hundred pike heads, twenty-five shields, the shoeing of fifty horse and repairs to his armor and that of your son.”
“It seems a lot of work for one man.”
“I and my sons,” the smith said proudly. “We did little else for seven months.”
“My lord said nothing of this to me, nor is it written in the accounts.”
Oswy stood dumbfounded. “But I did the work! And payment I must have or Sommer will have my house for the iron I bought of him!”
“Sommer,” she said, her nose wrinkling, “That distasteful shoat. Still, I cannot pay you without proof. I will send word to my husband. If he says it is so, I will pay you without question. With luck you will have your reply by Eastertide.”
“But my wife, my nine children! We will be turned out of our home into the depths of winter.”
“Only ten to provide for?” She looked at the bustle in the courtyard around her. “Gertrude, for God’s sake, singe the hair off the hide, don’t burn it to a crisp!” she bellowed at a young woman across the courtyard. “I have three hundred to provide for here, most the wives and children of those gone to fight the Saracens. I cannot open my purse to everyone who asks.” She saw the despair in his eyes. “But there must be a way.” She eyed Corwin, his outgrown jacket and leggings serving only to accentuate his stork-like build. “Surely this reedy young man cannot be of much use to a blacksmith.” Corwin blushed crimson, but no one argued with her assessment. “Send him to the merchant to work off the debt. When my husband sends word that I may pay you, there will be that much more in your pocket.”
“But my lady, I think he means to take my house. I don’t think he will agree.”
She turned to the servant, who had waited patiently throughout the exchange. “Fetch a scribe.” She turned to Oswy. “There are other merchants in Alnwick. Sommer will understand that if he is ever to sell another cask of wine, another yard of cloth, another trinket to this castle, he will accept your son’s service. You may go now. I will hear no more of it.” Corwin looked at her blazing eyes and had no doubt that the merchant would agree.