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Authors: Diane Stanley

The Silver Bowl

BOOK: The Silver Bowl
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The
Silver
Bowl

Diane Stanley

for

Nancy

and

Murray Bern

CONTENTS

 

 

Chapter 1

I Am Sent to Dethemere Castle

I WAS SENT AWAY TO WORK
when I was very young. I suppose it was not surprising. Father was poor enough already, having failed in the tailoring trade, without the added burden of a mad wife and the seven children she'd borne him. He could not possibly feed so many.

Nor did he care for us overmuch, being rather more a surly than a sentimental man. He kept Tucker on to help in the cutting room, and Anne to run the house and look after Mother. But excepting Robbie, who quarreled with Father and ran away, the rest were hired out as servants as soon as they were old enough.

Being the youngest, and of no account, I think my very existence slipped Father's mind much of the time. I was rarely at home except to gulp down some soup and curl up in the corner to sleep. Then I was off again in the mornings to run wild in the streets, where I played with the boys, and learned coarse words from them, and got into fights, and mussed my clothes, and came home with dirt on my face.

Then, around my seventh summer, I came to Father's attention. I'd been in particular trouble of late—and not for the first time, either. Of a sudden he was all on fire to be rid of me.

He thought I might find work up at Dethemere Castle. It'd been a heavy summer for plague in those parts. One of the royal princesses had died of it, and a good many serving maids, too. Surely they'd be hiring new people. They might even be so desperate as to take on the likes of me.

Once he'd decided to send me off, he couldn't wait another day. He called Anne and told her to make me presentable and to do it bloody quick: clean me up, he said, and dress me in my Sunday gown. If there was anything that could be done about my hair short of washing it, she was to do that too. We would set off within the hour.

When I was ready—scrubbed raw about the face and hands, my skirts brushed more or less clean of dust, my hair pulled back so tight my head was throbbing—I asked if I might bid Mother good-bye before we left.

“All right,” Father said. “But be quick about it. Anne, go let her in.”

My sister kept the keys now; Father did not go in to Mother anymore.

The room was cold, and close, and dark. I stood for a moment, blinking in the dim light, as Anne shut the door behind me and locked it again. I took a quick, sharp breath to steel my courage.

“Mother?” I said.

She was sitting on the bed, her hair all arranged; it was as if she'd known I was coming.

“Don't you look fine,” she said, “in your Sunday gown, and in the middle of the week. He must be sending you away, then. What are you now, child? Six?”

“Seven. Just.”

“That's young.”

I shrugged. “I'm a lot of trouble.”

Mother smiled at that. “Sit here beside me.” She patted the coverlet. “It hurts my neck to look up at you.” She draped her arm across my shoulders; it seemed to have no weight at all. Not like Father. When he touched you, you felt it, sure.

“So tell me, little Molly—what have you done that is so troublesome?”

I licked my lips and turned my head away.

“Still fighting with the boys?”

“Yes.”

“But it was something else.”

I nodded.

“You can tell me. I won't be angry.”

“It wasn't my fault,” I said. “It just . . . happened. Now Father says there's sommat wrong with me, and I'm too much trouble, and I must go away.”

“Ah,” she said as if I'd told her everything. I thought she sounded sad, or disappointed. “Let me guess: you heard a voice calling to you—only there wasn't anybody there.”

I shook my head. No.

“You had a vision, then, of something that was yet to be.”

“He told you!”

“No, Molly, he didn't.”

“Then how—?”

“I just knew, that's all. Go ahead. I need to hear it.”

I put my thumb to my mouth, then remembered that was a nasty, baby habit and took it away again. “We were playing Catch the King. We only play Touch now, since Jemmy got knocked down so hard that time and whacked his head on the cobbles.”

“Go on.”

“I was chasing Jack, and I caught him. I touched him on the shoulder, that's all.”

“And?”

I couldn't say it.

“Molly, you have to tell me.”

“I saw him dead of the pestilence, Mama. Just quick-like, but it was real as can be—he was all covered with purple blotches, and his mouth was hanging, and his eyes were open but they didn't move. And so I screamed, and ran away from him, and said he had the plague. They all laughed at me.”

“But then?”

“In the night he took sick, and the next day he died. Now they won't go near me anymore. They call me a witch. The neighbors are talking.”

Mama closed her eyes and sighed. “Your father is right to send you away. Such things will keep happening, and people won't understand. They'll say—”

“It was just the
one time
, Mama. I won't do it anymore!”

She gave my hand a feather-squeeze. “You can't help it, child. It's in your blood. You got it from me, and I from my papa—only he was clever and knew what to do with it, and I never have. Perhaps—”

“I don't know what you mean.”

“I see things, Molly, same as you. I know things without being told, and hear voices. They make me frantic sometimes.” She gazed out into the darkness, and for a moment I wondered if she'd forgotten I was there.

“Father says you're mad,” I said. “Are you, Mama?”

She turned and looked at me. “I don't think so. And neither are you. But people fear what they don't understand, so they think me mad and they call you a witch. Oh, how I wish you didn't have to bear this. I'd hoped it would end with me. All these years I've watched my children for any sign of . . . the
gift
, but it was never there. Except perhaps for Robbie; I did wonder about him. I guess we'll never know for sure, now that he's gone.” She drifted away again, and I waited. Then, without turning back to me, she almost whispered, “But there's no question that
you
are one of us.”

I pulled away from her, then, and got up from the bed.

“No,” I said. “We're not the same.”

“I didn't mean to frighten you, but I must prepare you for what lies ahead. And I'd best do it now, for there won't be another time.”

“You don't know that.”

“Yes, I do. Now listen to me and remember what I say: when these things happen in the future, try not to draw back in horror and surprise, or to cry out. It's natural to be frightened, I know, and it may be that you haven't the skill to hide it. If that is the case, then you must spin some tale. Say a spider bit you or that you are prone to fits. But whatever you do, don't tell anyone the truth.”

I nodded.

“Because, believe me, child: this”—she gestured with her hand, taking in the dark room and the lonely life she spent in confinement there—“this is not the worst that can happen to such as us.”

“Oh, Mama—”

“Anne!” I heard Father calling from beyond the door. “We need to go.”

“Quick,” Mother whispered. “I have something for you. Come here.” She removed her beautiful necklace and hung it around my neck.

I was thunderstruck, for it was her dearest possession and the only thing of value in our house. Her papa had made it for her mother long ago: a delicate disk of silver filaments, all twining about like threads in lace, hanging from a silver chain. He'd worked their initials into the pattern: a
W
for
William
, an
M
for
Martha.

“Don't let your father see it,” she said, “or it'll wind up in the nearest pawnshop. Tuck it into your bodice. Good. Now only you shall know it's there.”

“But don't you want it?”

“I've had it long enough, since I was a little child. And it has always comforted me, and given me courage, and protected me in dangerous times. Papa put some good magic into it, and . . .” She drifted away again.

“What, Mama?”

“I think that you might need it.”

“Anne!” Father shouted again. “Where are you? Get in here.”

“You mustn't show it around at the castle. It's not the sort of thing that servants wear. But whenever you feel sad or afraid, just touch it, like this.” She put her hand to her heart where the necklace used to be. “And it will—”

I heard the key scratching in the lock; then the door opened. There stood Anne, her face solemn. Father was right behind her, dressed in his traveling cloak.

“Time to go,” he said.

My mother died the following spring.

I'd been sent to the pigsty with a bucket of slops and had just stepped out into the yard. Suddenly all around me the air seemed to breathe a heavy sigh—
haaaaaaaaaaaa
—and in the dazzle of the sunlight I could make out my mother's face. Somehow I knew she was dying, though she didn't seem troubled at all. Quite the contrary, she looked peaceful, content, relieved, as when you lay down a heavy burden or come inside on a bitter cold night and kneel before a blazing fire. I was glad. I told her good-bye.

That was my second vision. It would not be my last.

Chapter 2

The Donkey Boy

FATHER TOOK POWERFUL
long strides for such a runty man. It was all I could do to keep up with him. And he never once turned around to see if I was still there.

What if I fell too far behind, I wondered—would he bother to come back?

Well, of course he would! He'd have to retrace his steps to get home. The real question was what he'd do when he found me. Thrash me senseless and drag me to the castle? Or say good riddance and leave me where I was, to starve, or be devoured by wild beasts, or be set upon by brigands?

As none of those outcomes seemed very appealing, I galloped along behind him, gasping and panting, my scrawny legs trembling with the effort.

We spent the night in a farmer's hayloft, without the farmer's consent. Father would not pay for an inn. Then we were off again before sunrise, and late that afternoon we came to Dethemere Castle—whereupon Father offered me up at the gatehouse like a loaf of bread at market.

He told them I was nine.

I can't imagine they believed such a lie. All the same, they took me on as a scullery maid.

It was a dirty job, the lowest of positions, though I didn't know it then. I thought myself very grand to be working at the castle, a servant to the king. Oh, how I planned to lord it over Anne when next I saw her.

I never got to, of course. Father left me there and never came back.

“Mind you, behave yourself,” he said. “And if they send you away, don't bother to come home.”

“I will, Father. I mean, I won't, Father.”

“'Cause if you do, I'll beat you within an inch of your life.”

“I know you will, Father.”

I was an ignorant child. I couldn't read or write. Nor had I any manners to speak of. No one had ever taught me to be pleasant, speak softly, listen patiently, and try to make people like me. My lessons had all been learned on the streets. And so I was loud, and coarse, and hasty with my fists, renowned for my cleverness with insults.

None of this was useful at Dethemere—even I knew that. I'd have to learn some new tricks, and learn them bloody quick, if I was to keep my place. And keep it I must, else I'd soon be sleeping in doorways and begging for my bread.

I was put under the charge of a big girl named Bertha, who'd worked there for several years. She enjoyed ordering me about as though she were a duchess and I was her lowliest servant. Yet she was just a scullion, same as me, except that she was trusted to handle the fine and delicate things, while I attended to the pots and the spoons, and whatever could not be broken.

On my third day she happened to go to the privy, leaving some goblets on the sideboard waiting to be washed. They were made of fine crystal, etched with cunning designs and rimmed with gold—worth a fortune I'm sure. I should never have touched them. But I thought to impress Bertha by showing how helpful I could be. Perhaps she would be kinder to me then. And so I picked up one with my soapy hands.

You've already guessed that I dropped it.

The donkey boy was standing in the doorway. His hair was in his eyes, his nose ran, and his mouth hung open. Naturally, I took him for a dimwit. Never did I dream he could be quick.

But quick he was. He saw the goblet fall; and suddenly there he was, upon his knees, hands outstretched. He caught it before it hit the ground, lost his balance, rolled over onto his side, then onto his back, all the while holding it safely aloft. At last he rose to his feet again and handed it back to me—after which, having spoken nary a word, he returned to his place by the door.

As ill luck would have it, Bertha came back just then. She took the goblet from my hands and carefully returned it to the sideboard. Then she grabbed me by the hair and dragged me into the kitchen, where she presented me to the cook, who gave me a proper beating and threatened to send me away.

“I won't do it again,” I wailed. “Oh, please let me stay! Just give me one more chance.”

The cook did not answer. He just gave me a look of utter disgust, followed it with a kick to the backside, then returned to his work.

It was the best I could have hoped for.

I went back to the scullery, red faced and shaking. Bertha had finished with the goblets by then and had put them safely away. Now she was waiting, her arms crossed, her piggy eyes smoldering with rage. First she slapped me across the face, then she shoved me against the sideboard and started pulling my ears and twisting my nose. All the while she threatened me with certain death if I ever did such a thing again.

And of course I couldn't fight back.

When she finally grew tired of knocking me around, she pointed to an iron cauldron—I swear it had been used for a hundred years and had never once been washed—and ordered me to make it shine. Then she left.

I wanted to weep. No, that's not true; what I really wanted was to punch someone. Either Bertha or the cook would do. But as that was not wise, I went to work on the pot.

“Don't mind her,” said the donkey boy.

I turned. Wonder of wonders, he had a voice.

“I don't,” I said. “But I dare not lose my place.”

“Then you'd best be careful.”

I glared at him. “You don't have to tell me that.”

I went at the pot with the soap and the sand. I was cross, though I had no one to blame but myself. And it annoyed me that the donkey boy just stood there, watching.

“Don't you have anything to do?” I asked.

“Not right now.”

“Lucky you.” I pulled my hands out of the greasy water and inspected them with dismay. My knuckles were scraped and bleeding.

“Try wrapping your hand in a dishcloth,” he said. “Then the sand and the rough parts won't chafe your skin.”

I stared at him.

“My mother used to do that. It's a good trick.”

I dredged a cloth out of the dirty water, bound my right hand in it, and went back to work. He was right. A good trick indeed.

“You're not really a half-wit, are you?” I said.

“No,” he answered. “Though I think you're the first to notice.”

“Doesn't that bother you?”

He shrugged. “It's what they want me to be—stupid and strong, the perfect donkey boy.”

“Why do they call you that? You don't work with donkeys, or any other animals, so far as I can see.”

He laughed. “
I'm
the donkey, didn't you know? I haul and carry.”

And suddenly I wasn't angry anymore.

“Do you have a real name, then? Besides Donkey Boy?”

“Yes,” he said. “Tobias.”

I turned the pot and went to work on a different section.

“You know, people wouldn't take you for a dullard if your mouth didn't hang open like that. Close it, and maybe they'll think you're a prince.”

“I can't.”

“What, close your mouth? Of course you can!”

“Not for long. Not if I want to breathe.”

“That's what you have a nose for, you numbskull.”

“I have a nose, but the air won't go through it. It's all filled up.”

“Blow the snot out. That's what other folk do.”

“I have, many a time, but it comes right back. There's something wrong with my nose, I think. I'm forever sneezing and sniffling, all through the spring and the summertime.”

“Well, what if you only opened your mouth a little bit, enough so you can breathe, and didn't let it hang down so far. That might work, don't you think?”

He tried it.

“And wipe your nose when it drips. Use your sleeve.”

He did.

“Brush the hair out of your eyes.”

He did that too.

“See? You are much improved. Not that I would actually take you for a prince. I just said that. But maybe a young gentleman or sommat like that.”

“How would you know? I bet you never saw a prince in all your life. Nor a gentleman, neither.”

“Of course not.”

“Well, I have.”

“Chaw! You're telling stories.”

“No, it's true. I mend the fire in the king's hall. Oft times the great folk pass by.”

“Truly?”

“Truly.”

“Then, you must take me with you. I'll help carry wood. I'm stronger than I look. I'll be your donkey girl.”

“You won't get into trouble with Bertha?”

“She left. And if she comes back and catches me gone, I'll make up some excuse.”

“All right, then. But you'll have to behave.”

“Oh, I will,” I said. “I promise.”

BOOK: The Silver Bowl
2.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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