The muse is feeling rather dark these days. This carries a domestic violence and strong language warning label.
Fremund remembered the night Forwin grew up. They sat around the table stiffly as their father smelled of yesterday’s mead and the hall’s smoke. Undeterred, he drank down mead like water. He was having more and more days like this, and fewer happy spells between. They all tried so hard to keep things happy, but no matter what they did, it was wrong somehow. Even little Hildild knew better than to make noise, and she couldn’t even talk yet. Bedric had been fed and bundled off to Begild’s new house. Mother had made sure the pets were out of the way and had left the loft door unlocked with the ladder handy at the window. They all knew if she said, “Rabbit,” it was time to take the baby and hide. That was the rule.
His father paused in his drinking and everyone held their breath. “Where did you get that ribbon, Gifu?”
The nine-year-old shrunk into her seat, only to snap bolt upright when her father’s fist came down onto the table and rattled the plates. He hissed, “I am your father and you will look me in the eye when you answer me! Where did you get it?”
“Feleogeld, it was a…” Mother stopped speaking as his hand raised, stopping within an inch of her cheek. She met his gaze steadily with only a flinch in her eyes, knowing where the line was and exactly how close she must tread.
“Did she take my coin?”
“Father, no! It was a gift from Lady B…” the plates rattled again, still closer to the table edge.
“Great ladies don’t give pretty ribbons to fat little sluts who sneak and steal. You’re lying to me. Either it’s from some man or…”
“Feleogeld, she’s telling you true. It was a gift for helping serve table.”
“Woman! You’re the reason why I’ve nothing but sneaks and lazy clods for children. You coddle them and let their mouths run until I have to beat them twice as hard to get the spite out of them. My purse is missing and that little shit has a new ribbon, and probably spent the rest on fair sweets, and you defend her with more lies! You poison them against me and you spend every last coin I bring in, and what good do I get of it? An empty purse and ungrateful children. The oldest bred first chance she got and I spent everything buying her a husband who’d overlook a belly on a bride. You couldn’t even keep my first sons alive, you’re so useless, and the ones you let live can’t brew worth a fart. If it weren’t for you, I’d be a man of worth by now with horses and land and not a broken-down nag and armour fit for Dunners.”
Mother watched him warily, then murmured, “I’m sorry, husband. I’ll try to do better.”
His nostrils flared as he leaned close. “You took it. I see that look. You sneaky bitch! You took my purse and hid it.”
Trembling, she tried, “Please, check the top cupboard. I put it there after you… got in this morning.”
He threw his pewter mug into her face, finally roaring, “You admit to it! You touched my purse!”
“Rabbits!” She said sharply. Fremund grabbed Hildild as the table went over, and there was a scramble of shoes on the old, smooth rungs of the stairs. They crouched by the window waiting for feet to pursue, but after another crash, there was an odd silence punctuated by odd, sobbing breathing.
“I’m going back,” said Forwin, his just-fuzzing jaw clenching tightly.
“No! Mother said we stay, or run to the kitchens.” Fremund heard his voice squeaking like a child’s over Cengifu’s sobs.
“Mind the babies, brother.” And he went, opening the door to his father’s regretful tears. Father was always regretful when they made him lose his temper.
“She tripped! I tried to grab her, but she was too fat.”
“You pushed her.”
“You weren’t here. She tripped. You saw her pick a fight, we argued, and she tripped.”
“I’m going for a healer.”
“No! She’ll be fine. She’s just faking. You know your mother and how she likes to be dramatic to get out of things.”
A cupboard door slammed open, and there was a rattle of coin as a leather sack hit the floor. “There’s your fucking purse, Father. You have a choice. Either you make me trip into the hearth, or you’re gone by the time I’m back with Ruthbert.”
“Don’t bring that quack into my house! I’ll go get a healer myself.”
“No. Not Uncle Egbert this time. You’d better go pay him a visit. Stay a while, perhaps with that woman you’re bedding.”
His father’s voice went soft as he said, “Nobody will believe you. You didn’t see anything. I’m a man of Rohan, and you’re my son, honor bound to obey. You’ll only shame your mother by telling all Nihtseld she’s so ugly and stupid I had to find a proper woman elsewhere. And you’ll be a boy testifying against his own father. I had no idea you were so disloyal and dishonorable as to turn on kin. You’ll look like the snake you are, and it’s you they’ll punish for making up filthy lies. But then, everyone here already knows all about my worthless family. My father will say as much under oath.”
There was a pause, then Forwin said tiredly, “I’m not letting you hurt mother any more. Either kill me, or get out.”
The coins rattled, and the door slammed. Forwin called up, “Fremund! Stay with her. Don’t let the babies see.”
Fremund braved the flickering darkness to shift his mother’s broken head into his lap. At first there was nothing, then she breathed. And again. Her blood plastered his trousers to his skinny thighs as he murmured, “Breathe, Mother. Forwin’s grown up now.”
Fremund paused, as he always did, to water the flowers Forwin had planted by the doorstep. They were daisies. Father thought them common and Mother loved them, so daisies it was. The disarray of the yard made Fremund smile in satisfaction still, each broken toy and half-finished project a small act of freedom.
Gifu ran up from milking the goat and hugged him, making him near drop the watering can. “Wait a moment! Mother left a basket for Ruthbert.”
“Gifu come on! You already baked him a pie. We’ll be out of stores before Spring after the King’s levy took the extra.”
He sighed. “Fine. But he’s going to give us beans and we’ll fart up the house all winter.”
She giggled. She’d started giggling lately, and it warmed him every time. He pulled a ribbon from his pocket and said, “Turn ’round, then.”
She eyed it uncertainly. “Isn’t it a bit flashy?”
“It’s pretty, like you.”
“You’re pretty, Sister. Nothing wrong with being pretty.”
“I don’t want to look like a… you know. Not with what happened with… you know.”
He thought for a moment of what Ruthbert would say. He imitated the older man’s grunt, then his lower voice as he said, “None of that, now. We don’t let bad men tell us what to do in this house. Not now…”
She giggled again. “Not ever. Ooooh, you’re getting better at that! Now do the glare.” At Fremund’s effort, she laughed even harder. He stepped over and tied the ribbon to keep her curls back from her face, then laughed himself when she redid his handiwork so there wasn’t one end longer than the other.
He carried on with the gruff voice, saying fondly, “There. Brings out your spots.”
“Nah. They are spots.”
“Oooh, I never! You take Ruthbert his basket now. Go on.”
Fremund lugged the generously packed basket of cheeses and preserves up the hill. Each was lovingly wrapped in wax, and there were wicks, of course, for when the wax would be rolled into candles. There were a pair of mittens knit with white horses on an indigo field under snowflakes. Trust mother to remember him mentioning the holes in Ruthbert’s old pair. Father would have said her stitches were sloppy and she was acting the whore behind his back. Fremund told his father’s voice to shut up, startling a passing pair of men into staring at him, offended. He grunted a gruff, “Sorry. Thinking out loud.”
Fremund glanced into the distance and frowned. “Soon, Forwin. Not yet, but soon I’ll finish it for you.” Vow made, he went to tidy the healer’s house and start on the winter chinking.