By Jennifer Rockwell
Concerning a significant opportunity afforded a young gardener.
It was raining the day the Beast came to Lord Kyffin’s manor. Rainy days were the worst, for there was no reason for Jane to be out in her garden, and her schedule then became a series of mad scurryings from place to place in an effort to remain hidden from both her Lord and his Lady.
If her father was still alive, she thought, darting through the screens passage and into the buttery, it would not be so. He had been the finest gardener in three shires, perhaps in King Rhodri’s entire kingdom, even if he did say so himself, and he would never have allowed what was happening to her now to go on. But since his demise some eight months ago, Jane’s life had become one alarming chase after another, and her Ma was not as particular as that.
Lord Kyffin, she often reminded Jane, had long been their family’s benefactor. Besides, Lord Kyffin was married and more than twice Jane’s senior. Clearly any attentions he would show her little daughter were of a paternal nature and could only prove beneficial to the girl. But this was not Jane’s experience with the gentleman.
The buttery was cool and smelled comfortingly of oak and ale as she settled among the casks. If things weren’t as they were, she might have remained in the great hall beside the fire during the rainy days. Most of the outdoor workers would remain there today, enjoying the enforced break in their work. But it was just such a day that Lord Kyffin had first requested her presence in his chambers.
The plump and balding Lord had made no pretense about his intentions, and merely ordered her to comply at once with his lusty demands. A chambermaid’s unanticipated intrusion had ensured the whole household, save her Ma, knew what had become of her. Thereafter, she was treated with scorn and disdain.
“No! Not doves, but capon!” Jane started as she heard her Mistress approaching from the great hall. The young woman looked around herself, but there was nowhere to hide.
“But we have no capon, Lady,” the cook was pleading with her and the footsteps passed Jane, hidden in the buttery, and hastened into the kitchen. “I thought merely that dove might accommodate the wish for fowl—”
“The wish for fowl!” The matron cut off the cook in her agitation. “As if he will not be able to tell the difference between a fine capon and the straggly doves from the cote? There must be something edible in this house, heaven knows we have most certainly paid for it!” They were well enough past her now and Jane scurried out of her hiding place and back through the screens passage into the great hall.
Lady Eilwen Kyffin was a pretty maiden not far from Jane’s age, with flowing blond hair and a fair figure. She did, however, walk with a blackthorn cane due to a slight limp from a minor birth defect, which the lady had forever feared made her ugly. Though her marriage and Lord Kyffin’s attentions had assuaged her for a time, her husband’s lecherous leanings had intensified the lie and she had become bitter and cruel.
It was Jane who bore the brunt of her displeasure. Lady Eilwen’s blackthorn cane, the handle of which Lord Kyffin had ordered elegantly carved into the shape of a duck’s head for his pretty bride, had come to be regularly used upon poor Jane at every conceivable excuse. Lord Kyffin remained diligently oblivious to the bruising upon the backside of his unwilling toy. Indeed, it seemed to invigorate him. And so both Lord and Lady assuaged their varying passions with her at every opportunity.
There was a new restlessness in the great hall. The women whispered in nervous congregations as the men who had been singing beside the fire strode sternly between the groups.
“Jan!” Jane turned reluctantly and hastened to her mother, curtseying to the women sitting with her. “Oh Jan! The Masther retoorns! An’ several oof the men are sayin’ they’ll be roonin off to join that taistril the Beast’s army! Canst tha imagine wot’ll coomb of oos if they go?”
“No, Mum,” Jane said, looking over her shoulder at the screens passage.
“Doon’t ‘un haf enow t’worry oos! If thy faether were livin’ he’d be talkin’ them into feaghtin fer t’maesther an’ t’poor Prince…”
“Yes, mum,” Jane said, glancing once more to the screen’s passage where her Mistress was just returning at a swift gait, trailed by the cook and several of the other household staff.
“I swear thot mon knew loyalty, ‘e did. An’ noo ‘e’s–”
“Excuse me, Mum,” Jane curtsied again and darted for the front entrance to the hall.
“God’s blood, I doon’t know wot’s got into t’lass!” said her mother to the ladies surrounding her, who hid their titters behind their hands, knowing precisely what had gotten into Jane.
“Jane!” Lady Eilewen’s voice rang out as Jane vanished through the door. Hurrying toward the entry hall she slipped into the little used guest chamber, shutting the door behind her.
The falling of King Rhodri’s kingdom months ago had made not a wrinkle in Jane’s life. The days continued the same as before, save the increased fretting of those around her. The gardens still needed tending. The master still prodded and invaded. The mistress still whipped and scolded. Wars were the province and the bane of greater folk than she.
The solar was well appointed with a feather bed and chairs before the hearth. The shutters on the narrow windows were open, and the fresh, spring rain pattered and splashed upon the sill. Grateful for a quiet moment, Jane went and stood at the window.
The front gardens stretched before her, lush and green and trembling with rain. The beds were beautifully manicured, the rich brown earth soaking and swollen. Even in the grey light the immaculate beds shone with the vibrant colors of crocuses, daffodils, feverfew and iris. The sweet scent of heartsease, which she herself had planted along the wall, filled the room.
Her father had called the front gardens The Pleasure Garden. Its aromatic flowers, trees and shrubs were all designed solely to tickle and excite the senses. The more utilitarian Kitchen Garden stretched behind the manor to the orchard and beyond. But to Jane, The Kitchen Garden was also a marvel of horticultural achievement, containing everything from food for both men and livestock to aromatics used to kill insects or perfume toilet waters. There were medicinals for poultices and teas and a sprout or shrub for any other household purpose imaginable.
Though there was chaos and unpredictability elsewhere in her life, Jane always found order in her gardens. Everything had its place. Everything had its season. Everything had its use. If something didn’t grow properly, one could take measures to right the wrong. Struggling plants were fed with any number of secret concoctions her father had taught her. Weeds could be uprooted easily from the healthy plants as long as one knew what to look for. Unruly plants were clipped back. Every wrong could be righted, or at the very least explained.
The door opened and Jane threw herself to the floor at the far side of the bed.
“Your chamber, my Lord.” It was her master’s voice and Jane shrank beneath the bed. “A humble lodging, but the best my poor home can offer. Why this fire’s not lit! Trevor!”
She had never heard Lord Kyffin sound as nervous. From her spot beneath the bed she counted three sets of feet. The man who stood beside her master wore muddied, charcoal grey boots, nearly twice the size of Lord Kyffin’s feet which were clad in his usual ox-hide slippers and hose. Behind them was a second set of muddied boots, black and only slightly smaller than the first. She wondered who these men were to frighten the man who most frightened her.
“I trust you will be comfortable here. Your man–” her master turned from the colossal boots to the smaller set. “Ahem. That is, you, Sir, shall be housed elsewhere– and very well accommodated too!” Lord Kyffin’s nervously rocking slippers turned again to Big Feet. “Had I been aware of your visit we should have been far better prepared to receive you… Trevor!” A fourth pair of slippered feet scuttled into the room and Trevor began to light the fire.
“I am sure the cook is preparing something spectacular for your supping,” Lord Kyffin continued, still rocking. “And on the morrow perhaps you would allow us the honor –”
“My time is short,” Big Feet interrupted. “You forget I am here upon business only,”
“No, no, my Lord—” Lord Kyffin backed up a pace. “That is, yes, my Lord, of course. I merely meant to–”
“Ingratiate yourself to me. Perhaps in lieu of paying what you owe me.” Big Feet backed Lord Kyffin toward the fire. “But it shall not be so.” The ox-hide slippers jumped as Lord Kyffin bumped against the mantle, and beneath the bed, Jane found herself smiling at his distress.
“My Lord,” he squeaked. “Your jest wounds me! I have nothing but the highest respect-”
“I am here but to one purpose.” Big Feet spoke again. “My advisors have two different opinions on a matter only you can settle.”
“My Lord it would be my honor to answer any query–”
“One of my counselors insists your weak tithes are a result of incompetence. Another tells me you are nothing but a petty thief.” He paused. “Which is true?”
At this there was a snorting laugh from Big Feet’s black shod companion, and even from beneath the bed she felt Lord Kyffin blanch. His rocking ceased abruptly.
“Muh– my Lord, upon my soul and honor I assure you–”
“I am here to decide the truth for myself.” Big Feet interrupted. “Whichever is the case, one thing is certain. You would do well to clear your debts with me before I leave.”
“Of course, my Lord. Of course! And I assure you, my Lord, you will find a friend in me—”
“Tell me not. We are men who understand that Love and Lordliness go not together.” Big Feet turned to the window. “Leave us.”
“Yes, my Lord.” Lord Kyffin’s slippers tapped at the mention of departure. “If you should require anything– that is to say– Yes. Would your man– that is to say would you, sir, like to be shown to your quarters?”
“Go. We shall rejoin you presently.”
“Certainly, my Lord. Trevor!” With that, Trevor rose from the hearth, passing Lord Kyffin whose dainty feet departed backwards.
The last two pairs of feet remained.
“Did you see his face?” asked Big Feet, with a deep chuckle. “Already it’s clear there’s more here than justifies what’s been sent.”
“Scared,” replied Black Feet, and spat.
“Good.” The bed was oak, but there were only ropes across the bedstead and as Big Feet sat his weight pressed the mattress down so suddenly Jane could not help but utter a little squeak. The weight came off her just as suddenly, and both sets of feet faced the bed from either side.
“Mouse?” Big Feet grinned to Black Feet who drew his spear. “Come out of there, Mouse, before I have my man run you through!”
Steadying herself Jane crept forward and out at the end of the bed. Keeping her eyes on the floor, she stood, brushing away little blobs of dust and curtsying clumsily.
“Spy.” Black Feet said and spat again.
“No Sar, I’m not!” Jane retorted, hating for anyone to think her allied with Lord Kyffin in anything. Catching sight of the long scar which practically divided Orson’s weatherworn face she gasped and looked back at the floor. Clearly these were not men to trifle with. Big Feet chuckled, seating himself again before the fire.
“And a fierce mouse it is! Come and look at me.” Jane faced the seated man.
Her first thought was that he must be a king.
His size matched his feet, for he was taller and broader than anyone she’d known in her short life. His hair was the rich red-brown of chestnuts taken from their burrs, and fell to his shoulders, his curling beard resting atop a deep blue gambeson. But most striking were his eyes. Beneath a thick, strongly arched brow, they were so startlingly blue that they made the gambeson seem dull. She blinked a little in surprise, but held her ground. What, after all, could he do to her that had not been done long before? He studied her for a moment.
“Not a spy,” he said at last to his comrade. “Be more careful of your next hole, Mouse. Now off with you.” Jane curtsied quickly and departed.
The great hall was bedlam with preparations for the banquet. Her Ma was in the middle of a throng of children, arming them with slingshots and drums to frighten away the mockingbirds that had been nibbling the newly planted seed. The slings, she was explaining, were to be used on any birds except the Lord’s doves. Killing the Lord’s doves brought severe punishment to both the child and those in charge. Thus the drums must be used to scare them.
Impatiently shooing away her small army, the lady called to Jane with a cry and a wave. The man visiting the manor today, she explained with all of her usual flair for the dramatic, was the very same ruthless Beast who had brutally deposed King Rhodri to the north. After slaughtering the king and most of his family, he had left the nobility largely alone on the grounds that they offer him their loyalty. His visit was rumored to be an honor resulting from a particular respect for Lord Kyffin’s managerial style and the opulence of his manor.
Jane had already gleaned from her short time beneath the bed that rather than being honored, Lord Kyffin stood accused of being scanty with the tithes he was owing. This misunderstanding on the part of the castle was not out of keeping with her own unwelcome knowledge of how her master’s public and private personae differed.
That night, curled upon a pallet on the floor beside her mother, she found herself again watching the Beast in her mind’s eye as he supped, relishing the memory of her master’s giddy fear. She smiled to herself and turned over, snuggling against her mother for warmth. Could he really be the infamous and bloody Beast about whom so many stories had been told in the great hall late in the evenings? As she finally drifted to sleep, she imagined his brilliant blue eyes smiling at her.
The next morning was sunny, and though Jane’s thoughts went immediately to the manor’s strange guest, love and duty called her to her gardens at dawn. Her Ma would work in the Pleasure Garden and she in The Kitchen Garden, where several beds were still to be raised and lined before they could be sown. The earth was soft after the rain and the air smelled sweet as she organized her crew and began to work.
It had only been an hour when Lord Kyffin’s plump frame emerged from the back door and strode to her where she knelt beside a bed.
“Jane, I have need of you.” She rose, good humor banished, and followed her master back to the house. Into the kitchen they went, passing the cook and her staff and turning sharply into the pantry. The instant the door was shut he pulled her against himself. She had long since learned to remain silent, and closed her eyes and mouth tight as he kissed her.
“Jane! I have missed you!” he cried, pulling up her skirts with one hand and pushing her against one of the tables lined with meatpies and roasts. She felt herself moving up and away, as though watching herself from some distance, when the pantry door opened, bringing her back into herself with a crash.
“Kyffin. I have been looking for you.” She recognized the deep voice instantly and opened her eyes. Big Feet stood in the doorway.
“Yes, my lord,” Lord Kyffin babbled, adjusting his tunic. Jane stared at the floor, her skirts falling back into place and white-knuckled hands gripping the shelf.
Big Feet stepped back, revealing two companions. The scarred warlord leered knowingly, but Lady Eilwen’s face was ashen. As her husband meekly departed, the lady stepped into the room, closing the door behind her.
Never before had the master’s transgressions been revealed so directly. Lady Eilwen had known, but until this morning she had never seen. Nor had she ever come face to face with the disgust and fear so evident upon his conquest’s face. Somehow Jane’s unwillingness only stoked the lady’s humiliation and her rage. She raised a hand and slapped Jane across the face. Jane did not cry or even move. Had this been another day she might have cowered or wept, but overwhelmed that the stranger had witnessed her shame, she had no room for other sadness.
“Could you not have stayed away from him, even for one day?” Tears starting in her eyes the mistress slapped Jane again, and again the door opened.
“Lady.” It was the brawny Black Feet and Lady Eilwen whirled, her face wet. “I thought that’s what I heard,” Orson said. “Go on then.”
“Get back to work,” Lady Eilwen told Jane through her teeth.
Avoiding contact with her crew for the time being, Jane threw herself into her work at one of the far beds. It had always been good to have her hands in the earth. Though her predecessors had merely piled the shank bones, or old tiles, around the outside of the raised vegetable beds, Jane had wanted something ornamental as well as practical. Over the past few years she had discovered a way to make the sheepshank bones into a kind of latticework around the beds which she now found more attractive than her mother’s willow panels in the Pleasure Garden.
Still, try as she might, Jane could not forget her most recent humiliation, nor could she take any pleasure in the simple work the way she always had. The sun was bright and strong, and after a while her head began to ache. Wiping her dirty hands upon her skirt, she was blinking away sun-blindness when a shadow fell across her. Big Feet towered over her where she knelt in the earth.
“Mouse, these people are beneath you,” said the Beast. “Come and serve me.”
Jennifer Rockwell is a Toronto based author, born in the United States. She writes vividly populated, richly detailed historical fiction and very dark fairy tales. She has recently completed her first novel.