THE PRICE OF THE CROWN


PART TWO: WAGES OF POVERTY


CHAPTER TEN


At the age of fourteen, Wil was old enough to work full-time on the farm. Six days a week, he toiled from dawn until dusk - planting, weeding, harvesting, or doing whatever else the crops and season demanded. On the seventh day, however, his father allowed him to find other, more enjoyable ways to occupy his time.

Wil had grown into a delicate young man. In fact, had he not been dressed in the rough, grubby clothing of a farmer, and had his face and arms not been smudged with dirt, he might have been taken for a courtier. Life in the fields had toughened him, however, and his lean form concealed a compact strength and hardiness that few strangers would guess at.

Wil's light brown hair, hanging well below his shoulders, was streaked blond from exposure to the sun, a condition which had also darkened the tone of his flesh to a deep bronze. A downy mustache dotted his upper lip, but he had not yet been able to manage a beard. A few wayward hairs would grow, but their appearance was neither flattering nor impressive, so they were quickly clipped off. Wil had clear gray eyes set well apart beneath thin brows, and a nose that was slender and slightly hooked.

Many times, Wil spent his day off taking short trips around the nearby countryside. Often, on fine summer days such as this, he would wander down to the North Vordi river and spend the better part of the day swimming and wading in its currents. Today, however, he had decided to venture into town and visit the market. After scrounging and saving the small earnings his father gave him, he had managed to accumulate enough money to buy his mother a present. It was something he had wanted to do for a long time, having never before given her anything.

It was still early morning, with the sun hanging low in the east, but the market was already jammed with buyers and sellers. The air was thick with voices advertising bargains that absolutely could not be passed up.

Wil had decided on a small piece of jewelry for Aya - currently, she didn't have any to wear - so he began to make his way slowly and as politely as he could through the milling, undulating crowd. Unfortunately, the jewelry hawkers were on the opposite side of the plaza from the one where Wil had entered.

Eventually, he reached his goal. A sizable crowd had gathered around the jewelers' booths, and, as Wil tried to work his way forward, he found himself effectively pinned between a row of people ahead and a growing number behind. There was much jostling, but no one seemed to be going anywhere. Wil stuffed his hands in his pockets to make sure no one attempted to relieve him of his small, hard-earned treasure.

"Isn't it impossible!" exclaimed a high-pitched voice to his right. With some difficulty, Wil managed to re-orient his body to face the speaker. At first, he was baffled, then he looked down. Standing there, her head barely reaching to his chest, was a girl wearing a petulant expression.

Head tilted upwards, she gave Wil a forthright stare, pure blue eyes meeting his grays. She raised an eyebrow in bemusement, a very adult gesture for one who could be no more than ten or eleven years old. She had long, shiny, straw-colored hair hanging loosely about her shoulders. Wil had always thought his mother had lovely hair, but this girl's tresses made Aya's seem coarse and limp.

The girl was dressed in a knee-length, emerald- green silk dress with considerable lace and frills upon the breast, which, surprisingly, she had begun to fill out. It was clearly specially-made, fitting her small frame perfectly, from the modest neckline to the tuck at her waist. Clothing of that sort was most definitely not typical of those who shopped the market. This girl came from a wealthy home.

"What are you staring at? Do I have a bug in my hair or something?"

"No," muttered Wil, turning a shade red as he realized he had been staring. "Sorry."

"Don't be. It doesn't bother me. In fact, I kind of like it."

This caused Wil to blush even more. Fortunately, his face was dark enough to hide most of the coloring and the girl was so short that she wouldn't notice anything unless she was looking for it.

Wil was aware that he wasn't good around people. Living the isolated life of a farmer's child had made him deeply introverted and his parents had discouraged his few attempts at friendships. He felt awkward enough meeting boys, but it was worse with girls. He could never find the right things to say or do, and inevitably made a fool out of himself. He wished the crowd would part so he could slip away, but the throng was without mercy.

"Mother says I should shop on Jewelers' Row, but the things they have there are so...ugly." She made a face then tossed her head. The hair rippled over her shoulders like stalks of golden wheat. "These peasants sell such nice little trinkets, but it's always a pain to buy anything."

Wil found himself staring at her again and tore his gaze away, turning instead to regard the ripped tunic of the burly man standing in front of him.

"Are you nervous or something?" asked the girl. Suddenly, her voice rose with excitement. "You're not going to try to steal something, are you?? I've never met a thief before!"

"Of course not," snapped Wil, turning back to face her. She seemed to be fractionally nearer than before.

Her face took on a sulky expression. "No need to get mad. I was just asking."

She was silent for a few moments, but it didn't last. "Do you like my dress? Mother said I shouldn't wear it here, but I have to get a necklace and earrings to match its color and I need to wear it for that, don't I? Still, with all these grubby people, she might have been right. She'll kill me if I get it dirty. By the way, my name's Lis. I'm the daughter of Baron Rig and Baroness Una."

When Wil didn't respond, she demanded, "Well, who are you? Didn't your mother teach you that when someone gives you their name, it's only polite to do the same?"

"Sorry. My name's Wil. My father's called Gav and my mother is Aya. We live and work on Lord Bur's farm."

"I knew you must be a peasant!" squealed Lis with delight. "As soon as I saw your clothing, I said to myself, 'This is a peasant boy, but I'll be nice to him because it's not his fault he doesn't have any money.' Don't you think that's nice of me?"

In fact, Wil thought it was exceptionally vain and self-centered, but didn't say so. He managed a grunt which she seemed to take for an affirmation.

"Wil," she continued. "That's a nice name. I like it. Maybe I'll call my first son that. Do you know I'm engaged to be married? The wedding is set to be in four years, whether I like it or not. On my fifteenth birthday. Of course Mother and I had a big fight over it. She wanted the wedding on my thirteenth birthday and I didn't want to marry him at all - not after I caught him picking his nose. Can you imagine that?? Picking his nose, and at the dinner table??? So, anyway, we made a compromise, although I got the worst of the deal, but of course I really didn't have much choice in the matter. I know it's a wicked thing to say, but I hope he joins the army and goes off to war and gets killed."

"We're not at war."

"Then I hope we get into a war. I just can't bear the thought of sleeping in the same bed and doing...that...with him. He's so disgusting." She made another sour face.

Finally, a space opened ahead and the smaller girl slipped in before anyone else could fill it. Wil watched intently as she sifted through jewelry, occasionally holding one piece or another against her dress to see if it matched. Finally, after haggling like someone twice her age, she produced two silvers and five coppers from a small purse she carried and purchased two pairs of earrings and a necklace. As she turned away to thread her way back through the crowd, she flashed Wil a smile, then, with a giggle, blew him a kiss before melting away in a sea of humanity.

Two weeks after his trip to the marketplace, Wil decided to spend the better part of his hot, humid day-off enjoying the cool water of the North Vordi River. He had a favorite spot that he frequented for swimming, but, upon reaching it, discovered a dead, rotting horse lying half-in and half-out of the water on the far bank. A number of water scavengers had picked most of the submerged carcass clean, leaving behind white bones. It was a bizarre picture, with fur and decaying flesh clinging to the hindquarters while the rest of the body was a bare skeleton.

The sight, not to mention the stench, sickened Wil. Deciding he would never swim here again, he moved upstream, looking for cleaner surroundings. He was now more interested in splashing water on his drawn face than in swimming.

Wil moved southwest, traveling along the riverbank. He hadn't gone more than several hundred yards when he heard the sound of laughter ahead. He slowed to a halt, debating whether or not to continue. He had no desire to intrude on anyone else's swimming, and he certainly didn't want to join them. Nevertheless, he was intrigued by the silvery peals of laughter, and this was open land, not owned by anyone. The worst they could do was yell at him... or so he hoped.

It turned out that there were only two people ahead - one in the water and one on land. The man standing on the bank was clearly some sort of household guard - tall, burly, and wearing a tough, iron-studded leather vest. His expression was bleak and his ever-alert eyes alternately darted between the surveying the surrounding terrain and watching his frolicking, waterbound companion. He had a sword scabbarded at his waist and his right hand hung negligently at his side, a mere two handspans from the hilt. Wil was sure the guard had noticed him long before the reverse was true.

With his attention arrested by the guard, Wil didn't immediately recognize Lis. Then a loud voice called his name. Turning to the river, he was more than a little surprised to see the totally naked, dripping wet girl wading towards him.

"Wil!" she called again, smiling and waving her arms. Obviously, she remembered him. "Come for a swim?"

Blushing furiously, Wil averted his eyes, looking back upstream towards the guard. The man had not moved, nor had his expression altered.

Lis, having nearly reached the bank and noticing that Wil was looking everywhere except at her, let out a giggle. "In the marketplace, all you did was stare at me. Now, you don't appear to want to look."

As in the marketplace, Wil felt keenly the desire to slip away. This time, however, there were no crowds hemming him in. He was free to go, yet he didn't move.

"You don't have any clothes on."

"So?"

"It isn't proper."

"Are all peasants as silly as you? There's nothing improper about being naked. Do you think you were born with a tunic and leggings? Now, why don't you join me - with or without clothing - I'm not going to bite you." So saying, she turned and splashed her way out towards the middle of the river.

Slowly and methodically, Wil began to unlace his tunic, scarcely believing what he was doing. What would his father and mother say if they found out?

When he had stripped down to his breeches, Wil took a deep breath and entered the river. The water seemed especially cool on this hot day, but Wil hardly noticed the temperature as he waded in hip-deep. Other thoughts and impulses crowded his mind.

"Will you look at me!" demanded Lis petulantly. "I'm not all that ugly, even with these things growing on my chest. Besides, most boys seem to like to look at them."

Reluctantly, Wil lifted his eyes from the water lapping around his midsection. Deciding that it was safer to meet her eyes than stare at other parts of her anatomy, he focused on her face. In the process, however, he did catch a glimpse of several rather interesting features lower down.

"That didn't hurt, did it?" asked Lis, meeting Wil's somewhat nervous gaze with one of frank openness. "You are a strange one. Not at all like Bek."

"Bek?"

"My husband-to-be. He's about your age. He likes to order me to take my clothes off and parade around the room naked for him. I don't do it, of course. The thought of being naked in front of him makes my skin crawl."

"But not me?" That slipped out. It was a thought that Wil hadn't meant to voice and as soon as he said it, his face turned scarlet anew.

Lis, however, shrugged it off with another of her soprano laughs. "No, not you. Then again, I'm not really afraid of you trying to grope or rape me under the water. I think if you accidentally touched me, you'd act like you were burned. Shall we try?"

Wil took two steps away from her, provoking a further burst of giggles. "Wouldn't your... protector... prevent him from doing something like that?"

"Nur? No. He'd break your head if you tried anything, but we're not promised to each other. In fact, if I went swimming with Bek, Nur wouldn't even come along. That's why I don't go swimming with him."

"He wouldn't really try...anything, would he?"

"He already has, on at least three or four occasions. I was a little too quick for him."

Wil could believe that. She already had his head spinning.

"Do you ever smile?" Lis asked suddenly.

"What?"

"You know...smile." She demonstrated, the corners of her mouth turning up, causing matching dimples to appear on either side of her face.

Wil shrugged. "I suppose. Doesn't everyone?"

"You're too serious. Have little fun for a change. I want to see you smile." Having said that, Lis cupped her hands in the water and proceeded to heave a fair amount of it full in Wil's face.

After several moments of restraint on Wil's part, which showed remarkable patience in the face of a continuing deluge from Lis, he finally gave in to the inevitable. A vigorous splashing war ensued which ended with both of them laughing, sputtering, and chasing each other from bank to bank.

Afterwards, they both rested on a well-placed rock, letting the sun dry them off. Nur continued to look on implacably, and Wil was beginning to find his presence more unsettling than Lis'.

Sitting up, his arms hugged around his knees, Wil gazed off across the Northern Vordi while his companion lay on her back, eyes closed, letting the sun caress her. For the most part, Wil kept his eyes from wandering below her neck, but during their play he had caught enough glimpses of her body to be more familiar with it than was proper.

"I knew you could smile, Wil," said Lis drowsily. "You just needed the right person to show you how."

"And you're the right person?"

"You smiled, didn't you?" There was no denying that logic. Wil had smiled, laughed, and generally enjoyed himself more today than in weeks.

"You're a good swimmer."

"I know. My first nurse Dya came from Xert, where they do a lot of swimming. She taught me. I nearly drowned the first time she threw me in, though."

"When was that?"

"When I was four. She died on my fifth birthday from some disease, but I kept up the swimming."

Neither of them spoke for a while. Lis seemed to enjoy the silence, but it was making Wil uncomfortable. Several times he looked over to his discarded clothes and considered putting them on, but the proper motivation wasn't quite there yet.

"Do you have a girlfriend?" asked Lis after a while. Wil was again caught off-guard; he had thought she'd fallen asleep.

"No. I don't have any friends."

Lis opened her eyes and sat up to face him. Impulsively, she declared, "Then I'll be your girlfriend."

"But you're engaged to be married!"

"So what? If Bek can sleep with half the maids in his parents' mansion, surely I can have one boyfriend. Besides, I don't intend to marry him."

"I thought you said..."

"A lot can happen in four years. I'll run away if I have to."

"You wouldn't."

"Think about living with Bek and you'll see why I will if the engagement can't be broken off." Abruptly, she changed the subject again. "The other day when we met in Vorti, did you say you lived on Bur's farm?"

"Yes," said Wil. Many boys wouldn't have admitted this, but Wil was ashamed of neither his class nor his profession.

"I was thinking..." began Lis. "My mother and father are going to Bur's for supper on the evening of Summer's End. Perhaps I could go with them and slip away to meet you."

"I don't know," began Wil. "My parents..."

Lis, however, was paying no attention. "I'll send a page to you with the details. I can't write, but my maid can and she'll keep the secret. Can you read?"

"A little," admitted Wil. Before his death, Mog had taught him the fundamentals.

"Good. I'll keep the words simple. Oh, this is going to be so exciting! I've never done anything this sneaky before!"

Wil was having difficulty summoning the same level of enthusiasm. If such a clandestine meeting took place and they were caught, the worst she would get would likely be a scolding. As a landless peasant, things could go much worse for him. Perhaps in the two months between now and Summer's End, she would forget about it.

"My Lady," rumbled a deep baritone, startling both Wil and Lis. In unison, they turned to face Nur, who had approached unnoticed. "It is time to go," he continued, his voice as even as his expression. "We must be home in time for My Lady to prepare herself for dinner. In case My Lady has forgotten, his Lordship Bek is attending tonight."

Her back to Nur, Lis made a face before asking the guard, "Do you have my clothes?"

Without a word, he handed them to her: a white shift, a pale yellow frock, and a pair of open-toed shoes. Lis quickly donned them, then bent over to wet her hand so she could flatten her unruly hair.

"See you...you know when," she said to Wil with a smile and a conspiratorial wink. Then, in the company of her giant protector, she headed north toward the road that would lead her to Vorti.

Wil watched her go, not knowing what to think. What would his parents say if they found out about this? His mother probably wouldn't care - she never seemed too concerned about anything he did no matter how hard he tried to please her - but his father would be upset. His father hated the nobility almost as much as he hated the king, and Lis, despite her youth, was a member of a baron's family.

With a heartfelt sigh, Wil rose, dressed, then headed home as the afternoon sun slowly descended towards the horizon.

As it turned out, Lis couldn't make the rendezvous on the evening of Lord Bur's Summer's End supper. Several days before the event, she came down with a cold. Using the services of her maid and page, she sent Wil a message which he received while working in the fields. It read:

"Wil -- I am sorry but owr meeting will not be able to hapen. I cawt a cold and the healer sayz I shood stay in bed for to weeks. I will not be going with Mothur and Fathur to Burs. We will meet some other tyme. Still your girlfriend,

Lis"

Wil was surprised at the unexpected disappointment that stole over him as he read the note. He had been marking the days until Summer's End even though it was not normally considered an important day among farmers. Now, there would be a longer wait - if a further meeting was possible. Apparently, some part of him had been trapped by the whimsical girl he had met in the marketplace.


© 2005 James Berardinelli

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