- Rachel Rossano
Once Upon 2021: Grace by Contract - Chapter One
That fall the rains came early. A quarter of the crops rotted in the fields as my tenants dejectedly measured their meager harvests against the tributes due at the season’s end. My personal fields fared no better, constraining me to demand the whole portion from the people required by law.
As I predicted, come nigh the end of Octen, the assizes were filled with grim faces as they tried to bargain with my bailiff. Though, to be fair, the rain relentlessly beating the dirt into the churned mud just beyond the village’s open-air pavilion didn’t help. I was thankful to be sitting in the back corner, in the shadows behind the bailiff and out of the rain.
“I have seven mouths to feed, Bailiff. Every bite means the difference ’tween life and death,” the wheelwright’s rotund wife pleaded with a babe in her arms and twins of barely two clinging to her ragged skirts. All four were soaked to the skin from standing in the rain, waiting their turn to meet with my bailiff. She made a pitiful sight, but that was her purpose. Why else would she bring three such little ones along when she had two elders perfectly capable of watching their siblings?
My bailiff, Rambler Foreman, didn’t need any prompting from me to see through her scheme. “Your husband never lacks for work, Madam Wheeler, and the duke pays him well. He will be guaranteed income to buy food all winter long.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed. “Only if there is food available for purchase.”
My bailiff pointed to the scales for weighing the produce. “There will be.”
With evident reluctance, Madam Wheeler crossed to the scale to place her goods—apples, turnips, and a significant portion of squash—into the shallow pan on one side of the scale. With more finesse than I expected, she attempted to tip the scale in her favor with her knee while scolding the twins for getting in her way. The maneuver earned her a glare from the man overseeing the weighing. He signaled the closest guard, who shooed her away before the weights were added to balance the scales.
“Short by half.”
Rambler noted it in the ledger. “What do you offer to make up the balance due your lord and master, Madam Wheeler?”
“I have nothing.”
“Not true.” Rambler lifted his disconcerting gaze to assess the woman for the barest of moments before he pulled a square of rough paper from the block of similar scraps next to his ledger. He scribbled a bit on it before extending it in her direction. “The balance due of seventy silver flans has been noted in the official ledger. The sum in whole will be due upon the fifteenth of the next month. If your husband wishes to negotiate a payment arrangement, have him present himself at the duke’s castle gates on the first of the month.”
The woman snatched the square from Rambler’s grasp with a sneer. “I will see he gets it, Master Foreman.”
“My title is Bailiff Foreman, as you well know, Madam Wheeler.” Rambler closed his ledger with a bit more force than necessary. “If by some chance he does not appear at the first of the month or does not pay the balance on the date due, you can be as certain as the rain that he will be jailed. An imprisoned husband cannot earn money to fill stomachs.”
Madam Wheeler didn’t bother to stick around to hear the last of Rambler’s warning. She bustled her children back out into the rain without a farewell.
“You were a bit hard on her,” I commented. I never interrupted the collecting of goods. It fell under Rambler’s purview as bailiff.
Rambler rolled his eyes. “I wasn’t hard enough. She drinks the tavern dry every weeknight and steals her husband blind.”
“But the children.”
Rambler waved away my concerns. “Do they look like they’re starving?”
As I considered the matter, the tavern keeper’s wife, a strong woman with a ready smile and a matching demeanor, dashed across the village circle from the inn. Guarding her burden with an oilskin cloak and hood, she ducked under the roof of the pavilion.
“Marvin said you two were beginning to look peaked out here in the cold.” She grinned at us both as she uncovered her overfilled tray. “Mulled ale for the lot of ya, and a hefty slice of barley-and-bean mush for our lord and master.” She nodded respectfully in my direction without truly looking at me.
I didn’t mind the way her eyes avoided my face. It had been nearly a decade since anyone other than Rambler or Faramond had met my gaze. How could I blame them when I hated the sight myself? Ignoring the last throes of my already mortally wounded vanity, I accepted the gift with grace.
“I thank you, Terida. By the looks of it, this will be the best eating of the year.”
“Are they even edible?” she asked in a horrified whisper as the last of a long procession of bruised produce was stowed beneath the oiled canvas on the cart.
“They will be appetizing come the end of winter,” I pointed out. “Starvation makes the barest of sustenance palatable.”
“True enough.” She sighed heavily, a rare solemnity passing over her features. “Hopefully it will not come to that for any of us.”
We all agreed and raised the lukewarm wine in salute. As I downed the required gulp of liquid, someone behind the tavern keeper’s wife cleared their throat.
“Pardon, is this where tenants meet the bailiff?”
I lowered my cup to find two women had joined us beneath the pavilion roof. Rambler coughed on his wine. Our guard blinked back tears as he swallowed awkwardly. Only Terida answered them.
“Yes, it is. And who might you be?”
“I am Grace Eldon, and this is my sister Beauty.”
Grace assessed us all with dark eyes far too keen and bright for my comfort. She was sturdily built despite her diminutive stature and slender frame. Her second-most remarkable feature was her full head of dark hair. Bound as it was and tucked beneath her thin woolen cloak, its texture remained a mystery, but the thickness of it made me wonder what it felt like. Her sister was as fair as Grace was dark, with a hungry look about her that made me fear she would fade before my eyes.
“We come on behalf of our grandmother, Patience Faye.”
“Ah, Madam Faye.” Rambler opened his ledger and leafed through the pages.
“Would you like sustenance while you wait?” I indicated the mush that Terida had brought me.
The fair sister eagerly reached for the bowl, but her sister stopped her. “We are not here to accept charity; we are here to barter.” The dark-haired sister frowned as she eyed Rambler’s ledger. “Our grandmother owes five measures of barley meal and half the harvest of honey from her bees.”
“As well as a half measure of ground oats for each adult living on her land.” Rambler leveled an assessing gaze across the table at the sisters. “How many live in your grandmother’s house now?”
“We are seven.”
Rambler nodded to indicate she passed the test. “And how much of this payment do you bring with you?”
Grace straightened her shoulders and tightened her grip on her sister’s hand. “None, my lord.”
“I am not your master,” Rambler replied, as though he corrected people several times a day. “I am no nobleman, merely a servant.” He marked something in his ledger. “So, how do you wish to pay what is owed?”
Again the young woman stiffened her back. “We have no money. Is there a way to work off the debt? My sister and I are strong and hard workers.”
Rambler frowned. “The usual arrangement is financial compensation, not labor.”
Beauty reached again for the offered food.
“We have nothing to offer except labor.” Grace tugged on Beauty’s other hand, and the fairer sister hid her fingers in her skirts. “My father requires my remaining sisters’ help to care for our grandmother and keep the house while he works the land. We have hopes of being able to pay what we owe next year, but there is no chance of that this year.”
“Not even a small payment?” Rambler asked. His eyes assessed her with the narrowed intensity that brought rough and belligerent farmers all over the area to account. However, they had no effect on the diminutive pair before him.
Grace’s jaw clenched as though bracing for a blow, but her gaze never wavered. “As it is, we will starve with seven mouths to feed. Beauty and I need to find work even if Lord Brackenhurst forgives our debt.”
“Indenture.” The word passed my lips before I intended to speak. Rambler turned to regard me with a puzzled glare. The pair of girls looked up with matching expressions of surprise. However, their responses to my scarred features were completely different. Beauty turned away, hiding her face in horror. Grace, on the other hand, recovered quickly, meeting my gaze directly.
“I hope our difficulties will not become the latest topic for the gossip mill.” She glanced at Terida, who was clearing away the now-empty mugs. The tavern keeper’s wife ignored her, leaving the shelter of the pavilion to dash for the tavern across the road.
“Are you sure you want to go that route, my lord?” Rambler asked with an emphasis on my title.
I inclined my head slightly, avoiding what was certain to be an awkward realization of who I was on the young women’s part. “Seems the best fit, considering the needs on both sides.”
“One or five year contract?” Rambler asked as the two of us turned our attention back to the young women.
The younger sister had maneuvered herself behind Grace, completely ignoring the awkward angle of her sister’s arm in her efforts. Grace regarded the pair of us with a mixture of horror and pain. I hoped the source of her discomfort was more her sister’s arm-wrestling than Rambler’s suggestion. Then, she blinked and all emotion drained from her face.
“What benefit would a five-year contract be?”
“A greater length of reprieve from the yearly tributes,” Rambler suggested. “A wage, perhaps, could be negotiated, especially considering there are two of you.”
Grace’s already pale features turned almost white. For a moment, I feared she would faint. Was the prospect of being indentured to me that horrible? Or perhaps it was the thought of signing away five years of her life?
“Who would be required to sign the contract?” she asked.
“Your father.” Rambler sat and reached beneath the table into the strongbox of documents he lugged to and from each assize. “Here.” He produced a thin piece of vellum and reached for the pen and ink. “I will list the terms.” He scratched a swift summary of the usual agreement before sliding it across the table. “If the length of the agreement is five as opposed to one year in length, a wage will be added to your earnings to offset the lack of debt.”
“So, one year and my grandmother’s account will be debt-free?” Grace asked as she stepped forward and picked up the contract. Her sister squeaked and hurriedly hid behind her sister again.
After a few moments of Rambler spouting numbers and figures, Grace nodded. “Might I bring this home to my father? He will wish to consider the options.”
“Have your father bring the signed contract to the duke’s gate by the first of the month. Then, we can discuss the details.” Rambler began packing up his strongbox.
“If your father doesn’t appear, he will be held accountable for the sum in full come the fifteenth of the month,” I clarified.
Grace avoided my gaze as she tucked the contract beneath her layers of clothing. Taking her sister’s hand, she guided her out into the still-pouring rain.
“Why did you add that last bit, fool?” Rambler nudged my arm with his elbow as he hefted the strongbox up onto the tabletop. “She is clearly set on working.” He glanced out through the rain at the retreating women, and I allowed myself a second look as well. Their forms were gray blurs in the deluge. I doubted that the contract would be still dry by the time they reached their destination. Hopefully, Grace Eldon was as bright of mind as she appeared and would be able to remember all the particulars when she reported to her father.
“I wonder what kind of home life they must have to make a woman consider indenturing herself for any length of time.” How could she look so equally determined and afraid at the prospect?
“I care not at the moment. She reads.” Rambler snapped the latch on his box closed. “You do realize what that means, right?”
I grimaced at him. “Surely our nightly reading sessions are not that cumbersome to you.” Despite my protest, I knew they were. He had been bellyaching about not getting nearly enough sleep for weeks. I suspected it was more that he couldn’t woo the miller’s daughter in the evening if he were keeping company with me instead.
Rambler snorted. “I have no wish to work all day and all night as well. If it weren’t for our friendship, I would have said nay long since.” He locked the box and pocketed the key. “Besides, you obviously already prefer her face to mine.”
“I did not stare,” I protested.
“Ah,” Rambler crowed with far too much amusement, “but she did.
“You are reading too much into her actions. Many have stared at this.” I indicated my ruined face with my whole right hand.
“Ah, but she didn’t turn away in disgust.”
He had a point, but I had no intention of giving it to him. “Do you ride with me or the box?”
“The box, of course. As much as I value your company, I don’t value it more than my position. There is far too much of value in there to leave it to a lackey’s care. A ride in the wagon is to be my fate.” He flinched dramatically at the prospect.
I laughed. “I will see you there, then.” A signal to the livery boy across the square set my mount’s preparations in motion.
Rambler lugged his strongbox over to the pavilion edge and handed it off to the closest guard. He pulled his cowl up around his ears and tugged a matching hood over his dark hair. “Don’t linger on the road, my lord. We don’t wish to have to delay the evening meal by too long.”
I peered out at the rain. “Clearly this is not the weather for riding.” I was already regretting my choice of transport, but I wasn’t about to join Rambler in the unsprung wagon. The ride home would be long and wet. At least mine would be shorter than his.
“My lord.” The lad from the livery approached, leading my horse, a sorry-looking but pleasantly smooth-riding nag. “Your horse.”
I accepted the reins and tipped the lad a copper flan before mounting and riding off toward home.
The rain slowed and then stopped as we trekked over the first rise beyond the village.
“Wait until I tell Amity.” Beauty jostled my shoulder as she gripped my hand with both of hers.
I pulled the sack with our purchases out from between us, praying that she hadn’t squished the bread. We hurried along the muddy path, sidestepping the deepest puddles and avoiding the soaked knee-high grasses as best we could.
“Lord Brackenhurst is a giant.” Beauty hissed the word in my ear like a child, marveling with equal parts wonder and horror. “He stands at least four hands taller than Father.”
“He is tall,” I admitted, hoping that would be the end of it. I didn’t want to dwell on our difficult conversation with our new lord and master. Our new home, the tenant-holding my mother grew up on, lay beyond the next hill and about an hour’s walk from the village. Our middle sisters would have dinner prepared and the table set by the time we arrived home. If we hurried, there might still be enough to blunt the sharp emptiness of my stomach.
“Is he taller than any man you have met?” Beauty shoved at my shoulder so hard that I stumbled to the side of the path in my effort to keep my balance and avoid a particularly deep puddle. The bread and the apothecary’s small pouch of herbs for grandmother bounced against my hip.
“Aye. Please don’t jostle me so.”
“And his hands!” She sucked in a great breath in awe. “The one we saw was the size of my head!”
“You have a small head.”
“No smaller than yours.” She dragged at my arm so that my joints ached. “Come and admit it, Grace. He was a sight to behold.”
I wasn’t willing to admit anything. I just wanted to go home, back to Braulyn and the great port of Mayfair. I longed to breathe the tangy scent of the sea air and feel the sand beneath my toes. Not even the impressive, hulking sight of our new master could overcome that longing.
“My, was he ugly! Those scars! I have never beheld such a mangled visage—”
“Cease!” I yanked my hand free of Beauty’s viselike grip. “Leave the poor wretch alone.” I took three steps further along the rutted path before I realized Beauty no longer walked with me.
Stopping in the center of the path, I turned back to find her crouched in the grass with her arms about her knees.
“Oh, do stop pouting.” I crossed my own arms. We had more important things to discuss, like whether or not we mentioned the contract to our father. The strangely intense bailiff and the far-too-watchful eye of his master had made the terms clear enough. Still, part of me rebelled at signing away half a decade of my life. Not that it changed reality. Father would happily bargain Beauty’s and my freedom for such a prize as a regular income for which he didn’t have to work. He would see it as a chance to turn his fortunes around.
Beauty lifted a prettily damp face to stick her bottom lip out at me. “I only spoke the truth.”
“Hurtful truth,” I pointed out. “A person’s character isn’t based on their exterior. Neither of us knows the measure of Duke Brackenhurst’s character. He is to be our new master, and we need to show respect.”
“I would prefer a handsome husband.”
I stared at her in shock. “Who said anything about you marrying Lord Brackenhurst?”
“Father and Sir Webb were discussing it last night after you went out to milk the cow.” Beauty sniffed. “Webb commented that he thought we would be a comic pair. Father said my beauty paired with the duke’s ugliness would be a tragedy, but it couldn’t be helped.” She regarded me with tear-filled eyes. “I don’t want an ugly husband.”
I sighed. It sounded as though Father was up to his old tricks. “The agreement isn’t a marriage contract. It only means we will work for him—muck out his stables, scrub his floors, or wash his laundry, something like that. I doubt he will even know we are there. We will just be two of the many ants who work to keep his household functional.”
“I won’t go.”
“Go where? Home?”
Her nose scrunched. “No. I want dinner. Home has food. I won’t go to live at the castle.”
“Then let us go home and deal with tomorrow’s trouble in the morn.”
To my great relief, Beauty nodded and willingly rejoined me in the road. She once again grabbed my hand, but this time her clasp lacked the desperation. As we continued on our way, I thanked the Kurios that my youngest sister was so easily distracted.
As she began singing a silly song to herself about mice and fairies, I worked through what I would say to our father. Not that there was much to say beyond explaining the terms of the contract as the bailiff had outlined them to me. I knew all too well how desperate we were.
We topped the last rise just as the sun disappeared below the horizon. Grandmother’s house was barely more than a hovel of two rooms with a dirt floor below. Still, it was dry and relatively warm when the fire was going strong.
At the sight of the hovel, Beauty squealed and abandoned my hand. Running off down the hill, she yelled a greeting at the front door. No amount of explaining that young women of eighteen don’t go running about hollering had any effect on her. Thankfully, we no longer lived where she would be ostracized for such behavior.
Amity answered Beauty’s cries by opening the door and waving her inside. She then stood in the doorway, letting the dim glow of the lamp and fire spill into the yard.
“Welcome home,” she greeted as I handed her my shopping.
“The cost of bread has risen, and there was no produce to be had. Everyone was paying tributes today.”
Amity nodded, her amber curls escaping her braid to cluster about her round, even features. “We must try to be content with turnips then.”
“Did Father find work today?”
My sister shook her head. “Charity found late berries to add to the barley mush, though.”
The mention of barley mush brought to mind Lord Brackenhurst. “Where is Father?”
“Gone off with Sir Webb. They said not to expect them until late.”
We both knew what that meant. They had gone seeking ale, most likely in the next village. Father had already worn out his welcome in Brackenhurst.
“Are the chores finished?”
“Verity tried to milk Tilly but had to give up. That cow only cooperates for you.”
“Well, she is going to have to comply for someone else soon. Duke Brackenhurst’s household was the only household hiring on, and it will be a live-in job.”
“Beauty and you both?”
“Yes. If Father signs the five-year contract, we will earn a wage as well.”
“Praise to the Kurios,” Amity whispered. Then realizing how callous that sounded, she immediately laid a hand on my arm. “I am sorry, Grace, it’s just—”
I waved her explanation away despite the dread settling in my heart. I knew the facts. With Mother dead, Father ruined and refusing to work, and Grandmother ailing, that left the five of us girls to manage for the family. That meant Verity, Amity, and Charity would run the farm and seek a way to marry into a better situation. I was too old and plain to attract a husband, so working my life away in the service of our liege lord made sense. Beauty just needed to be safe, protected from men who would take advantage of her trusting nature; she would have to go with me.
The plan made horrible sense.
“Grace!” Beauty bounded out to greet me as though she hadn’t just walked home with me. “Do you want the last cup of milk?” She offered a tin cup almost empty of milk, a few crumbs of something sloshing around in the dregs. Matching crumbs adorned her upper lip along with a bit of tell-tale white.
“Beauty, did you drink some of it?” Amity asked.