A/N: I know it's been a while, but here we are. I felt inspired tonight, and decided to get another chapter out for you. I can't guarantee when the next one will be ready, but hopefully it won't take as long as this one did!
Thanks for sticking with me.
By the time another cold had passed through Vale Piola, Janie had grown at least another three inches. Alec still towered over her and she still struggled to reach the tallest plants, but she no longer had to stretch to reach the tops of the grain grasses. She could support the weight of her heavy basket and pick at the same time, and she considered it quite a feat. It was here, while she was picking grains, that her mama broke the news.
"Janie girl, come over here," she called, poking her head out of the house.
"I'm almost done, mama!"
Alec glanced over at his mama, all the while looking suspicious.
"What for?" he called back. Both youngsters saw the flash of irritation on their mother's face, but in a truly unusual display of control, she masked it well.
"Come, children, we've got good news," she said, "but until you decide to come back indoors, you'll not hear it."
Janie wasted no more time, and darted into the house. Alec was not as enthused, but did not want to be left alone outside.
"Oh mama, what is it?" asked Janie. "Is my papa to come home?"
"Yes, dearest," said Felicity, laughing, "but that is not the whole of it. In a fortnight's time, your sister is to be wed."
"My sister?" cried Janie, looking around her mother. To her utter dismay, she saw Vera being fawned over by her mother and Rosamund, both women giddy and well pleased.
"A family from a village down the way," said her mama, gesturing vaguely to the east. "The man and his sons were here not four days ago, looking for a suitable wife for his eldest. He caught sight of our pretty Vera and could not be dissuaded!"
"But then she'll go away," said Janie unhappily, "and then we'll not see her."
"It is but the way of things, darling," said Felicity gently. "Vera will live just over yonder, in the next town over. Right close to the market."
Janie felt a strange tug in her middle, as she fought back the feelings that came with her mama's words. On one hand, Vera could be awful bossy. On the other, she was the kindest and most gentlest of her siblings, and aside from Alec, Janie loved her best.
"But what about Trudy?" asked Janie quietly. "Couldn't they take her instead?
"Magnatrude is not yet a woman, Jane," said Felicity gently. "She hasn't yet begun to bleed. She could not give a man children."
Janie stared, confused, but did not question it further.
"Oh, Janie-girl, isn't it lovely?" cried Vera happily, breaking away from the crowing women to clasp her sister's hands. "Oh, I'm very much pleased!"
"But you'll be just one woman," said Janie reasonably. "Won't he find another?" An uncharacteristic scowl lit Vera's face.
"Absolutely not, Jane," she said. "No more young men are taking many women. Only one woman, now. Our father is quite shameful for having four."
"Audovera!" gasped Hiltrude, her voice crackly from sickness. "I'll not have you scorning your papa, no matter how married you might be."
"Yes Mama," she said dutifully. Her voice said the words her mother wanted to hear, but her eyes held all the spite.
"Your papa will be back in not half a fortnight to discuss Vera's dowry," said Gisela pleasantly, waddling out from the sleeping pallets. "There'll not be a soul in our village who isn't in attendance!"
"Gisella," said Vera, turning very red.
"Your papa is an esteemed soldier, and to have his firstborn child married into a family of soldier men is a very grand happening, Mistress Bride," said Gisela smartly. "I think your papa will be quite proud when he comes home."
"Not very likely," said Alec lowly, speaking for the first time since entering the house. Janie was the only one who heard him, and responded with a scowl of her own.
"But you'll sleep at home here, right Vera?" asked Janie hopefully. "In the palette with Trudy?"
"No, silly girl," said Vera, kissing her cheek. "I think I shall sleep with my husband in his palette!"
All four women, including pious Rosamund, cackled wickedly at her words, and every child's head turned to stare.
"Have I made a joke?" asked Vera confusedly. "Is that a falsehood?"
"You won't be doing much sleeping in your husband's palette, girl," said Rosamund snidely, turning to face both Janie and Vera fully. Her face seemed even more scowling and sarcastic than usual.
"Oh hush, Rosa," scolded Felicity. "It's her mother's place to explain the doings of the marital bed."
"Do not scold me, Felicity," she barked. "I am not one of your demon children to boss about—"
"No one's bossing anyone," said Gisela easily. "It's just that…"
"My what kind of children?"
"Come outside with me, babies," said Vera softly, taking one hand from each child in her own. Jane held tight to the familiar softness and allowed her sister to lead her out of doors, into the warm, soggy heat.
"But Vera, what will happen now?" asked Janie worriedly. "Won't you ever come back home?"
"I daresay, no," said Vera rather sadly. Alec, who loved Vera second best as well, didn't like to hear her sad.
"Well then, what kind of a man takes his wife from her family?" he demanded. "A foul one, that's what."
"Oh, but they say he's ever so handsome, and great, and smart and strong," said Vera gently. "And I think we shall come into the village sometimes, for he must know how I'll miss my Mama."
"And us too, right Vera?" said Janie worriedly. "You won't forget to miss me?"
"Oh and of course my babies," said Vera indulgently, pressing firm kisses to each child's cheek. Janie threw her arms around her in response, but Alec, ever fighting for his masculinity, simply tolerated it.
"I'm not a baby," argued Alec. "Janie and I are six summers this time, and that makes me a man."
"Yes of course, Master Alec, our favourite before-baby," said Vera reverently. "Always the big grownup. But at least Janie's still just our baby, right?"
Janie had no argument like Alec did—she was not a boy, nor was she a lady—so she frowned and nodded her acceptance.
"There's nothing wrong with being little, Jane-girl," said Vera softly. "I daresay I'll miss being very little like you when I'm old and married."
"But you're not old, Vera," said Alec reasonably. "Just twelve summers."
"How do you count so high, boy?" she asked wondrously. "Mama doesn't count so high, and I'm sure no one else ever taught you."
"Well now, I don't know," said Alec evasively. "I just do."
"Well then, you're a very smart young man," she asserted. Vera was always full of praises.
Janie heard more raised voices from the house as the rest of the boys along with Trudy fled the house, traipsing into the fields.
"Will you get a new dress?" asked Jane softly.
"No," said Vera easily. "I think they shall hem your mama's wedding gown. It's the newest."
"What shall you do in your husband's house?" asked Janie. "Shall you cook?"
"Well now, no," said Vera. "Maybe for the first summers, but I expect my children shall collect, much as you do for our home."
"You're gonna have children?" said Janie, frowning. "I thought only Mamas had children."
"When a woman has children, she's called a mama," said Vera patiently.
"But how'd them mamas get children?" asked Alec practically.
"Well, I don't know," admitted Vera. "I expect my husband knows. He's a grown man, after all."
"Oh," said Janie, nodding. "I suppose so."
"What Trudy?" called Vera crossly, turning to stare at the soon-to-be eldest girl of the Baudry clan.
"I think that man's just marrying you so you'll please him," she taunted.
"Well that's my job, isn't it?" said Vera in return. "You must please your husband."
"I heard mama say that you're gonna please him in his bed," returned Trudy, giggling. Vera looked very startled.
"Well, I suppose I shall make it soft," she decreed. "And clean."
Trudy just cackled, looking very pleased with herself.
"Not that kind of pleasing," she said. "My mama explained it all to me."
"It's a secret!" cried Trudy, running back from the crowd. "Just keep the news away from the babies, 'cause they're too little!"
"Trudy, what did Rosa explain?" shouted Vera, jumping up. All thoughts of her two twin babies were left behind as she loped gracefully across the yard, demanding answers from her mischievous, conniving younger sister.
"Well, Janie," began Alec lazily, "I suppose Trudy shall be the eldest girl now. What say you to that?" Jane frowned and stuck her pink tongue through her lips, shaking her head.
"She shan't boss me," said Janie defiantly. "I'll not listen to her like I do to Vera. Vera's still oldest, even if she's gone."
Alec chortled mirthfully.
"I'll wager you've got to listen to her," he said. "After all, she's going to be the one watchin' over the gathering now."
"Oh hush, Alec!" cried Jane unhappily. "Won't you miss Vera too?"
"I suppose so," admitted Alec easily. "It'll be mighty strange having her away. But she'll visit, Janie, you'll see."
"No she won't visit," muttered Janie angrily. "Neither Mama, nor Hiltrude or Gisela or Rosamund visit their families."
"Well, Mama's people are a mite dead, aren't they?" said Alec reasonably. "And the other live so awful far away… and our Papa's right horrid."
"What?" asked Alec indignantly, sensing the beginnings of an argument. "There can't be a more terrible man than our Papa. Just look how he treats you girls, see?"
"He treats us just fine," sniffed Janie. "He loves all of his children."
"He didn't even speak a word to you last time, Janie, even though you were very little and new," Alec reminded. "There ain't no way he did."
"He did too!"
"Nuh-uh, Janie," said Alec knowingly. "He spent all his time bothering the women and hunting with the men. I heard him tell Bernard that he was ever so glad to have boys, b'cause there ain't no use for girls."
"He didn't say that!" wailed Janie. "You're a dirty liar!"
"I ain't, and you know it," he said sharply. "But don't worry, Janie. Even if our Pa don't love you much, our Mama loves you and so do I."
Janie frowned with distinct displeasure as Alec patted her light hair. In a demonstration of love that was very unlike him, he bent down and kissed her cheek, blushing bright red as he did so. Unable to stay angry with him, Jane put the anger and resentment away, and let it fester.
"Oh Janie-girl, hold this piece up, would you?" Janie took hold of the skirt with her newly-scrubbed hands and held it fast, letting her mama's deft fingers raise the hem two whole inches. Vera, it seemed, was shorter than Mama had been when she was married, and as such, her dress needed fixing.
"Whoops, sorry darling," said Mama softly, seeing Vera wincing as the needle stuck her. "Try and stay quite still now."
"Yes Felicity," said Vera dutifully, unable to hide her excitement even when she had a pin stuck into her leg. Janie watched with morbid fascination as her mama's deft fingers slipped the needle to and fro, the fabric clinging to itself along the seam. Vera's little toes could be seen beneath the gown as the hem began to rise, and Janie had a sudden urge to tickle them.
"Quit it, Janie!" squealed Vera, feeling the little fingers dancing on her feet. "You'll make the hem crooked!" Felicity laughed and held the needle still until Vera stopped wiggling and Janie's giggles died down.
"Now then, girls," said Felicity gently. "What say you to some fresh stew for dinner tonight?"
"Oh yes, Mama!" cried Jane emphatically. "New stew!"
"That would be wonderful," said Vera solemnly. "I shall very much like to help, if I may."
"Well now," said Felicity softly, appraising Vera with careful approval. "I daresay you can. You'll want to know all about stew making for your new husband, won't you?"
Vera blushed her agreement and looked down at the hem of her gown, refusing to acknowledge Jane's petulant scowl.
"What's his name, Mama?" she asked, looking up at Felicity.
"His name is Electus," said Felicity gently. "He's working to be a soldier, like your papa."
Vera's cheeks darkened even more.
"Or a blacksmith," said Vera gently. "Mama said that if soldiering doesn't work out for him, he'll take his father's forge."
"Yes, perhaps," agreed Felicity gently, continuing with her hemming. In a few short, quiet minutes, the skirt was the proper height.
"Well now, look here. Such a beauty, my girl." Hiltrude's voice croaked out from the doorway and three sets of eyes looked round at her. She looked more sickly than usual today, clutching a handkerchief to her chest and using the table to support her weight.
"Isn't she, Hiltrude?" asked Felicity gently, pinching Vera's cheeks. "Such a lovely lass I've never seen."
"Well, you might match her yourself," said Hiltrude gruffly, appraising both girls side by side. "Burchard picked you for your looks, that much is certain."
Janie saw her mama blush before she turned back to Vera's dress, fussing over the sleeves next. Unable to help herself, Jane kept her eyes trained on Hiltrude as she slumped and coughed.
"What are you staring at, girlie?" asked Hiltrude quickly, catching Jane's gaze. "It ain't good to stare."
"You're sick," said Jane, glancing up and down her hunched form.
"Yes, I know that," snapped Hiltrude. "Be of some use to your Mama, now, or away with you."
"Yes ma'am," said Janie dutifully, harboring secret pleasure as Hiltrude coughed again.
She was a terrible mean woman to Janie and her brother.
"Never seen so strange a child in all my days," said Hiltrude gruffly, coming closer to inspect Vera's gown. "I say, Felicity, I think that not having their Papa around to mind them has made them rough."
"Mama," admonished Vera, frowning. She looked between Jane and Hiltrude, noting the fierce stance of the former, and the hard eyes of the latter.
"Well I hate you," said Janie venomously, "and I'm awful glad you're sick."
"Jehanne!" cried Felicity, aghast. "You get right to that palette, missy, and put yourself straight to sleep. No new stew for you."
"Oh, Felicity, Janie didn't mean it, did you, baby?" pleaded Vera eagerly. "She's just upset with Mama, and Mama's fearful sick with cold. No one meant anything by it."
"Shut up, child, and don't you put words in my mouth," snapped Hiltrude. "I meant what I said, Vera, and I daresay so did she. Get away, girl." Her last words were directed to Jane.
"I hate you," said Janie obstinately, making her way to her sleeping place. She perched herself atop it and continued to stare at Hiltrude, knowing how it made her uneasy.
"Well, I best be going after Ingomer," said Hiltrude darkly, peeling her eyes from the glaring child. "Lord only knows how he'll make out in the field all by his lonesome."
"Oh Hiltrude, let me go," said Felicity imploringly. "You should be indoors where there's no drafts."
"No, Felicity," said Hiltrude tiredly, "I cannot stand another moment with those eyes upon me. I can only pray that its twin won't be lurking about outside."
"Alec hates you too," said Janie, fuelling Hiltrude's annoyance. "Be careful, or he might come for you."
"Nonsense, girl," snapped Hiltrude. "Get you to sleep before I send that red-eyed forest devil for you."
"He won't come for me until I'm older," said Janie smugly. "Said so himself."
"What do you mean, he said so?" demanded Felicity sharply. "Have you seen that devil, Jane? Has he spoken to you?"
Hiltrude crossed herself and Vera gasped audibly.
"However did you get away without being ate?" she cried. "Oh Janie!" Jane scrambled for lies, and in a heartbeat, they came to her.
"No, I spoke to him in pretend," said Janie. "Just pretend."
"Well, it ain't good to be pretending things such as that, darling," said Felicity sharply. "No more playing of that sort, you hear?"
"Good girl. Now make amends with Hiltrude and get off to bed in recompense."
Janie mumbled a half-hearted, insincere "sorry" before she flopped herself down into the hay, her heart beating in her throat.
Somehow, she didn't think the red-eyed devil would be happy if she told his secrets.
"Well, Janie, I guess it's over now, ain't it?" whispered Alec softly, ignoring his mother's admonishing look.
Father Alexander was blessing the meal set before them, and the table felt very empty without Vera.
"Yes, Alec," whispered Jane. "Vera's gone now."
That afternoon, the clans of Baudry and Fratter were joined through the union of their two oldest children. Vera had looked every part the blushing bride while her husband, nineteen year old Electus, had seemed very big and very serious. Janie hadn't been certain he wouldn't just gobble Vera right up.
He seemed quite the sort.
Father Alexander finished blessing the meal, and after a quick scan of the persons at the table, the dishes began to be served. As usual, Janie's food was served last.
"Janie?" asked Alec softly, nudging her side with his elbow.
"What?" asked Jane, swallowing her big mouthful of stew.
"D'you suppose we'll ever be married?" asked Alec softly. "Do you think I'll find a nice girl and marry her, just like that brute of Vera's did?"
"I don't know," said Janie nervously, picking at a tuber on her plate.
"Well, if I did, I'd be sure to take you too," said Alec vehemently. "You'd be my honored sister."
"Honored sisters are just spinsters," said Jane scathingly. "I'm not going to be a spinster."
"Well, I shan't let you marry a brute," said Alec decisively. "He shall have to be gentle and kind to you before I let him be your husband."
"It'll be our papa's choice," Jane reminded him smugly. "Not of your doing."
"Nuh-uh," said Alec easily. "I'll be the husband-picker for you, mistress Jane. If there is not a good one in sight, I shall let you come with me."
"Well, maybe," said Jane dubiously. "Do you suppose Vera's made it back to her new village yet?"
"Dunno," said Alec, shrugging. "Perhaps."
"Quiet, you two, and eat your rations," snapped Rosamund suddenly, eyes glued to the two youngest. Janie stuffed a large chunk of dry bread into her mouth alongside her stew, chewing carefully.
Rosamund was awful cross today, seeing as on the day of Vera's wedding, their Papa had sent naught but a few pieces of coin and a garbled message with a boy from his ranks. His great soldiers were due to fight the Saxons any day now, and he could not come back to the village at such a crucial time. Half of Vera's dowry was sent directly, and the other half would come when he was back in the springtime. He wanted to see her groom before he paid the full price, to ensure that the Fratter clan had not misled him about his quality and character.
"Yes," said Trudy suddenly, her back straight and her nose high in the air. "I'm the eldest girl now, asides from the grownups, of course, and I decree that you shall sit straight and eat your rations and not speak unless someone speaks to you first."
"Hush, Trudy," said Rosamund sharply.
"I ain't gonna be bossed by you, Trudy," said Alec smartly. "I'm a boy, see, and that means that I'll be saying what I do and don't do."
"Well, I'm older," she simpered. "That means I'm boss."
"You're just a stupid girl," said Bernard suddenly. "I'm the boss here, and Vera only got to boss the girls and the babies."
"I ain't a baby!" cried Janie crossly, her bread slopping messily in the stew.
"You eat like one," sneered Bernard. "And you look like one, and I say that you are. Baby."
"Mama, I ain't!" cried Janie, angry.
"Hush boy," said Gisela crossly. "Don't go upsetting the child for nothing."
"You be quiet, woman," said Bernard haughtily. "I see no Papa here, nor an elder sister. I'm the oldest man."
"You're but a boy yet, Bernard, and if you continue to conduct yourself in such a fashion, you shall be introduced to the cane."
"Papa would be awful cross if you caned me, mother," said Bernard smugly.
"Well your Papa's not here, is he, boy!?" boomed Rosamund, causing Bernard to falter. "You sit quietly at your seat and finish your dinner, or I shall introduce you to the cane, and my hand is much heavier than your mother's!"
Bernard slumped in his seat as Rosamund's venomous eyes shifted from himself to Janie, who was sulking.
"Eat your dinner, Janie, afore they take it away," said Alec lowly, seeing the greedy look in Rosamund's eyes.
"I ain't a baby, and I ain't hungry," sniffed Jane impetuously.
"Then get off to bed," snapped Rosamund passionately. "And take your brother with you!"
"I ain't done eating yet," said Alec simply, continuing to bite at his stew with simple determination.
"Let the boy finish, Rosa," said Felicity gently. "Janie, off with you if you're finished."
"Yes mama," said Janie softly.
"Yes mama," mocked Bernard. Before Janie could so much as turn to face him, Rosamund flew over the table and gripped him by his hair. With shouts and protests, Bernard was dragged to the front door and flung therefrom, Rosamund following suit with a large birch cane.
"I'm done now, Mama," said Alec quickly, scampering from the table before Rosamund could return and find him. He took Janie by the hand and brought her to their sleeping place, urgently pressing her down into the hay.
"She's gone mad," said Alec darkly.
"She's always been mad," said Janie simply. "She's Trudy's mama, remember? And Trudy's been mad since she was a babe."
"You didn't know her when she was a babe," said Alec.
"Well mama did and she says so too."
"When did she say so?" demanded Alec. "I never heard such a thing in my life."
"Well I did, so that's all there is to it," said Janie, closing off the conversation.
"Hush, babies, and close your eyes," said Mama suddenly, appearing over Alec's shoulder. She pulled the furs up higher on them and kissed them sweetly. "Rosa's a mite angry and she's got her cane out. If you sleep now, she won't be wanting to wake you."
"Yes mama." The two little voices rang out at the same time, and with a smile, Felicity let them be.
"Goodnight, Alec," said Jane.
A/N: So a lot has happened since we last met... I'm at university now, pursuing a degree in English studies. I've been busy, as you can probably tell. Since April, I've been working, studying, reading and studying some more... hopefully, I'll be able to cram in some time to write some more of this story while still doing well in my studies.
Be sure to let me know what you think!