Chapter 20

The village was rebuilt with good broad streets that met at a crossroads by the church; and the crops were busy ripening in the fields. And a good crop it looked to be too, dense and every head of corn heavy with seed. Voltan had built a storage barn too, where surplus might be stored, that could be taken quickly into the castle in times of siege or given out in times of failed harvest; for good years should not be wasted.

"We could sell the surplus and buy more for our people, that their lives be more comfortable" suggested Hawk when he visited.

"We could; but what is the use of gold or excess buildings built with it an we be in need of food?" said Voltan "I know you itch to rebuild our rude church; but it is no less the House of God because it be wattle and daub with a thatch roof; and methinks perhaps even closer to His own dwelling than the magnificent monuments of marble and carven limestone that remind me more of the glory of whichever archbishop dedicated them. The church is not a building, brother; it is the congregation. And I had rather take care of the bellies of my people than worry about a fancy stone church. One day this village will be a city, walled and defended; then perchance it will be time to build big stone churches to impress barbarians forced to trade, not raid. Our church, like our priest and our people is simple, uncomplicated; and uncorrupted."

Hawk bowed his head.

"Sometimes your profound insights astound me so much, Voltan" he said "I often think that you are the doer of the two of us, and I the dreamer; but you think so deeply."

"I think it's what I'm paid to do" said Voltan dryly "As part of the oath of fealty my people give me. We are not safe yet; nor should we think ourselves so. We have more people here now than when I took this castle, not merely the soldiery but there are those who have flocked to what they see as a safe haven in the village; refugees looking for a place to stay, skilled men driven past endurance by the demands of other less douce lords; displaced people looking to settle where they might be protected. And their numbers mean that we can till more land; and there are now an increasing number of artisans. And their skills will bring visitors from other villages that need such abilities; and in no time this will be a small town not a village. 'tis why I made the square at the crossroads large; as a market square. At some point the grain growing will have to move to a new village as we enclose the town and make it a place with more artisans than peasant farmers; and then it will but grow at its own pace. In the meantime we may have to fight; and not just brigands and barbarians" he smiled grimly "But with my neighbours too."

"Why is that?" asked Hawk.

"More than one reason" said Voltan "One being jealousy that I grow large in my demesne and powerful; for taking those lands others cannot hold; but this they forget when they see prosperity as soon they will. Another reason is that I have let word spread that I have no serfdom on my land; that I count any man who comes to me as free" he went on "Serfs are fleeing the lands of others in droves to work for me as free men. It gets a lot of work done; and methinks a free man give better value for his pay than a serf for his minimal keep in any case, that I be the gainer in the long run though I pay more gold. And THAT is funded by the spoil from the jewellery so many of the barbarians wore" he added "That I sent men out to gather up to the ends that we have a store of gold to pay more men."

Hawk laughed.

"You're a big fraud, my brother; you dress it up in terms of how it makes economic sense because you will not admit to hating slavery in any form!"

Voltan grinned.

"Why should I admit it? Save to you, perchance, quickly and in hope that none overhear such sentimental rubbish! I'm the wicked warlord, remember, as Annis dubbed me; a title I have preferred to the melodramatic, but nebulous 'the dark one'. And my reputation for ruthlessness keeps as many people hesitant of attacking me as my well tried army."

Hawk nodded.

"I'm afraid that's true enough" he said "Hast serfs from Peter Haldane's lands?"

Voltan gave a lupine grin.

"Dozens" he said "And they were the first to start coming; all clamouring to serve the Lady Annis and her Lord who rescued her from the wicked Baron Marfey by eloping with her. Not quite truth, but it suffices. Damn, had I known about her ere she fell haply into mine hands by running away I wager I SHOULD have eloped with her!"

Hawk laughed.

He did not bother to contradict his brother; whose own views at the time had not been so sanguine about being attractive to any woman for his scarred face; and would have scorned to elope with and marry an unwilling bride.

"Think you it will be war with Haldane?" he asked instead; a pressing enough matter.

Voltan shrugged.

"I think he may swallow it – at least up to a point – because he fears me enough. The Captain of all his guards is, however, another matter. He is the man's bastard, Annis' half brother, and by her description as crass and brutal as their father with a hunger and ambition in addition. I have no doubt that when Haldane dies, that may indeed be at any time for his hot apoplectic temper, this fellow will assume the right to inherit the castle. And on behalf of Annis then I go to do war on him. As I have little choice over; for she is Haldane's only legitimate offspring"

Hawk pulled a face.

"Is it worth the trouble?"

"It is the principle as much as anything else; and an I do NOT press that point this Kort Haldane will see it as weakness and will try to steal from my lands and hope I sit back and ignore his depredations" said Voltan "And so yes, it is worth it. And I'd then too have a castellan of mine own choosing holding it on Annis' behalf that would be a better neighbour; and another demesne on which to impose law and order on the side NEAREST the capital; instead of the caprice and whim that rules under Peter Haldane's lordship."

Hawk nodded.

"Aye; you make much sense" he said "And better to take the initiative than wait for him either to declare war on you or goad you to make war at a time of his choosing, as he might do an he be a canny warrior."

"I have agents in the demesne to bring word the moment Haldane dies" said Voltan "Including the adult son of a serf returned, brave and dedicated man, to serfdom knowing his parents and siblings be free. And when I so hear, I will ride straightway with Annis and make her claim immediately her father is dead; before this captain gets himself in any wise entrenched" he grinned "And before he have the castle on a war footing. For he'll not dare prepare while the intemperate fool of a father of his is alive; and I want to avoid giving him time to prepare once the old fool is dead."

Hawk nodded. His brother's strategic reasoning was faultless.

"And too the church must needs support a legitimate heir unless there be any reason to deny such" he said "It were well thought out, brother – as usual. I hate to admit it, but I fancy you be both a military and political genius."

Voltan snorted.

"Military – possibly. Political? Not at all! I understand something of manipulating people – and I've learned a sight more of that from my clever wife – but acquit me of the black sins of such city dwellers as play politics!"

Hawk laughed.

"My apologies" he chuckled "Aye, art too straightforward to play such foolish politics as they play for the sake of it. I am glad of that."

"Florian will give such short shrift when he becomes king" said Voltan with satisfaction "though learning to manipulate them too might not be a bad idea; that I hope he have time to study with Cardinal Cordo ere the king dies"

"Yes; that may teach him much. I see that you want not the trouble of ruling thyself, brother, so you create the boy in your own image to be the sort of king you think we should have!" laughed Hawk "And all without having to conquer or subdue the kingdom"

"Think you not that he is what we need?" said Voltan. "Though I'll not deny that you are right that the thought of ruling for myself fill me with horror for the amount I should doubtless be trammelled by custom and etiquette at every turn!"

"The boy will do a good job" said Hawk "And will not forget to whom he owes the good training."

It was high summer when Annis went into labour several weeks early.

She awoke to the pains rippling through her belly and knew this was no longer the practice contractions Pauline had explained to her.

Annis concentrated on breathing slowly and not panicking; and counted between contractions. There was, after all, no point in rousing anyone until she had reached a point that there was less than three hundred heartbeats between them. That too Pauline had explained.

Voltan awoke anyhow; as he had the uncanny knack of doing if Annis was in any way perturbed. He sat up and saw the contractions run across her belly under the light linen sheet that was all they needed in the summer's heat.

"You are early!" he was filled with consternation.

"Aye; Pauline warned me that I might be so" said Annis in a voice that sounded calmer than she felt "since I be small; that a baby be like to come when he is big enough for my belly and no bigger."

"Should I wake her?" asked Voltan anxiously.

"Not hardly worth it yet" said Annis. "I'm still at four hundred heartbeats or so between contractions….aaah!" she winced and panted as the contraction came, then smiled wanly up at him. "An you will ask servants to heat water for a warm bath, I should like that" she said.

Voltan nodded and pulled on a robe.

Pauline stirred; she had moved into a second bed in their chamber, to be ready for Annis when her time came, and because it was good to be close, whilst being too hot really to all sleep together.

Voltan went quietly from the room. Annis was right; Pauline should rest while she could, for first labours could be long and protracted and there was no sense in tiring out the midwife!

Soon servants were bringing warm water; and at their clatter Pauline awoke fully.

"Annis! Is it time? Why did you let me sleep, foolish girl?"

"You might as well sleep all the time you may" said Annis "I'm only just down to every three hundred heartbeats so I'd be thinking of rousing you right now. I've been walking about a bit too; and a bath will be pleasant."

"Get on the bed first" said Pauline in a tone that brooked no demur. She produced a bronze speculum that she warmed in the bath water.

Annis pulled a face but submitted to the examination.

"You're not fully dilated yet" said Pauline briskly "I should break my fast; an it not upset you I'll have something sent up here."

"I don't mind in the least" said Annis "I could murder a bowl of pottage myself."

"Annis! You're not supposed to feel like eating when you're in labour!" said Pauline.

"Well I don't care; I'm hungry and between contractions my belly growls and I'd not mind stopping one of them" said Annis.

Pauline sighed; and issued orders to the servants. If Annis fancied something to eat it would do the tiny girl no harm to keep her strength up. And an she managed but a mouthful or two it were still better than nothing. The worst that could happen would be that she would bring it up again.

Annis polished off a bowl of pottage in rather hasty gulps between contractions.

"They're getting more frequent" she said, sounding thoroughly scared.

Her comment coincided with Voltan's arrival, for he had felt it best to eat with their people.

"What do I do, Pauline?" he asked.

"Men at a confinement? Not to be thought of!" cried Pauline.

"Satan's bollocks!" said Voltan "We started this together, Annis and I, and I'll not quit on her as she fights this tough battle!"

"I WANT him here" said Annis.

"Mother Superior would have forty fits" said Pauline.

Voltan kissed her absently.

"Mother Superior would have forty fits an she knew what a passionate little thing you be too, Pauline" he said "Nice woman. Not very much connected to reality. Anyway, she isn't here to complain."

"Art masterful and managing" said Pauline. It did not sound that much like a censure.

"It's the – ow – way we like him" managed Annis.

It was about the last coherent thing she managed for a long while.

The labour was long; but Pauline was well satisfied with the rate of Annis' cervical dilation and pointed out cheerfully that first babies always take the longest.

Annis pulled a grimace and Voltan muttered that an he had prayed for Pauline to regain her abrasive sense, he hadn't necessarily meant it and he took it back.

Pauline touched his arm.

"She's doing very well" she said "Soon she might push; and then it will not be so long. The head is there; I saw a lock of hair, that we know the baby at least is not breech."

"What do you do an it be breech?" asked Voltan, wanting to take his mind of Annis' agony.

"Get the hands up inside her and turn it like peasants do of an ewe or a cow that have offspring trying to birth the wrong way round" said Pauline.

Voltan winced and wished he had not asked.

At last Pauline was encouraging Annis to push hard; and into the world, squalling in protest came slithering the baby, a tuft of chestnut hair on his head and red in the face from his own sufferings; it was a little boy!

"Here, make yourself useful and hold him" said Pauline, thrusting the baby at Voltan as she cut off and tied the placenta, encouraging Annis to push again to expel the afterbirth.

"We have a son!" said Voltan, wonderingly "I am a father!"

"It does tend to follow certain acts" said Pauline tartly; relieved into the realms of sarcasm.

"No Pauline, it does not; any male can sire a child but it needs a man to commit to being a father" said Voltan.

She looked up at him.

"Aye; and a man indeed to be father to another man's child. And if any man is a man, you are."

"I want to see my baby" said Annis.

Pauline took him from Voltan and laid him to Annis' breast.

He fastened on to a nipple straight away.

"Hasty and impatient as all the family!" laughed Voltan.

"Aye; and a labour of only nine hours; fast enough that way too" said Pauline.

"Nine hours? I thought it was an eternity!" cried Voltan.

"Not half as much as I did" murmured Annis.

Pauline washed her efficiently and ruthlessly, whipped out the sheets she had laid down for the blood and fluids of birth and replaced them with clean sheets deftly and around Annis' sleepily protesting form.

"And now shalt rest, and sleep with thy son" she said gently.

"We have not named him" said Annis.

"I wanted to name him in some respects after Hawk an you had no objection" said Voltan "I thought to name him Peregrine."

"Peregrine; yes, I like that" said Annis; and promptly fell asleep.

Voltan took the baby from her as soon as he was sated; and went down to the courtyard with his protesting bundle.

"I HAVE A SON!" he called "His name is Peregrine; and he is mine heir!"

Loud were the cheers of the men; and Voltan called for a feast, to include the villagers too; and sent horsemen to take the news to the nearest watchtowers that might be relayed by riders from each to the edges of his demesne.

His lands had an heir; and Annis was alive and well and no concern on Pauline's face to suggest she lay in any risk; for he had looked to ascertain that.

It was a good omen for all that was to come; and Voltan rejoiced.

Then he took his squirming offspring back to Pauline's care and Annis' breast.

A wise father did not antagonise his son too much even at this age!