On the day he could stand he crept out of his bed and felt the sores on his back and legs from the mattress. They were raw and itchy and he desperately desired a bath. Tani washed his upper body when she thought he was sleeping. The water always woke him and she scurried off instantly.
His stink was unbearable and he hobbled to the water bucket she fetched for him and knelt, slowly, to rinse off his hair and splash it on his arms and chest. He looked about for a bar of lye but found nothing. He’d go ask for some, and perhaps a tub if they had one. Perhaps she can fetch hot water too. Delighted by the thought of a hot bath, he walked gingerly to the door of the house and opened the latch.
He heard voices the moment he creaked the door open and paused there, suddenly afraid. Have they come looking for me? Has she given me to the Mossfields? I bet they will pay plenty for my hide then ransom me back to my father for twice that. He wondered if his father would pay the ransom. His stomach turned and he had the sinking feeling he would not. “I have no son,” he’d say. “I bore a coward instead.”
But these voices were not men’s. He soon realized one of them was Tani, speaking in soft whispers to a much older woman. The girl sounded worried, her voice shaking like she’d been crying. Leaning against the wall for support, he listened, trying to catch their words. Are they plotting to sell me? Send me off?
“…needs them more than I,” the older woman said before a violent cough erupted. He wondered how he had not heard that cough before.
“He’s a stupid boy, I’d rather… I’d rather give him boiling oil!” Tani’s voice was a whisper but he heard its anger. “Please nana, take the potion. I mixed it good, like you show me. It will make you strong.”
“He is a noble, you owe him your best.”
“He’s not no noble, I found him under a hedge.”
“You told me his name little one,” the old woman coughed again and her wheeze took some time to return to normal breathing. “His is the blood of Gareth Halloway, lord of these lands.”
“You’ve said nana,” Tani said with a sigh. The older woman made a groaning sound. “Did I now? How many times, child?”
“Four,” Tani replied. “We’ve said this all four times.”
“My mind is old and weak. Soon I will be gone.”
“Stop that nana, you will get better. Drink the potion.”
The words became so soft and muttered that Paul couldn’t hear any more. He frowned and felt his neck and cheeks redden. Is there no man in this house? Is there only a sick old woman and the girl? Who does all the work? He thought of how Tani came in to his room to feed him, change his bandages and how she would carry out the feed bags. She couldn’t possibly do it all herself. She would never sleep. The girl always looked tired to him, with permanent rings beneath her eyes. More shame burned in his chest and heated his cheeks. He remembered her mentioning chores and his balking refusal. I was too weak then, that’s all. I was too weak. Does she really do all this work herself?
Paul heard Tani begin to move about inside the house and he went back to his bed as quickly as he could. He only managed to sit when she got to the door and opened it. For a moment she looked at the latch, realizing the door was open. She gave him a careful look and chewed on her cheek. “You been up and walkin’ then?”
“Just to the door and back,” he said. Lying felt stupid and so he added, “And to the water bucket. I… am in need of a bath.” Tani’s hard-edged eyes twinkled with amusement for a moment and even smirked. “That you do, Thegn Stinky.” The jibe made his cheeks grow hot and he opened his mouth to scold her but she bowed her head first. “Pardon.”
Paul felt his heart sink. “Tani,” he said, realizing it was the first time he spoke the name aloud. It sounded pretty to the ear. She blinked and looked at him. “Are you alone here? Just yourself and your…”
“Nana,” she said but took no step towards him. “It was her and grandfather’s farm. After me da died, ma died in childbirth you see, I came here with them.” Died in childbirth, like my own mother. He looked at her again, more closely this time. She had a strong jaw and her shoulders were muscled, her arms taut and corded. Her hips were thin and bust small, a laborer’s physique. She’s a tough girl, he realized. Tougher than I am.
Silence pervaded for several long moments before Tani shifted her gaze to the water bucket and the twisted her mouth into a thoughtful frown. “I’ll draw a bath for you. Water won’t be greatly warm I imagine.” She didn’t ask him if that was okay but simply stalked back inside the main house and pulled the door shut. Paul found himself waiting for almost an hour before Tani came back. Her hair was wet and tied into a knot behind her head with a cord and she looked rather miserable. “What happened to you?” he asked as she walked towards him, leaving the door open.
Her gaze felt sharper than the wood that had pierced his arm. She said nothing and took his arm in both of her hands. She wrinkled her nose. “You smell like the cow’s udders.” His face reddened and anger brewed beneath but deflated before he could really be mad at her. He did smell. He was having trouble standing it himself by now. Washday must have come and gone three times as he lay abed. With the girl’s help he was able to hobble his way to the door and then up over the single step that brought him into the main house.