The Blight of Muirwood (Legends of Muirwood #2) by Jeff Wheeler

CHAPTER ONE:

Whitsunday

Someone threw a stone or a spoiled fruit at the man perched atop the maypole and he nearly lost his balance. After ripping his cap from his head, he shook it at the offender, probably a young man dashing through the crowd. Then grumpily, he planted the cap back on his head, made a gesture of frustration, and continued tying the sashes to the rings crowning the maypole. One by one, the colorful sashes tumbled down.

“He almost fell off that time,” Sowe said, wincing.

Lia could not help grinning. “Every year someone tries to knock him down. Every year. What would happen if they did? He would probably break his neck and then there would be no dancing.”

“Maybe that is why the boys do it.”

“Not all of them hate dancing. What color sash do you want, Sowe?”

“It does not matter,” she said, looking down. “No one is going to ask me to dance.” Her shoulders drooped. Dark hair veiled part of her face.

“Only if you hide up here in the loft. If you go to the maypole, someone will dance with you. I know it.”

“I do not think so.”

“Thinking that will surely make it so.”

Sowe just shrugged and looked back out the window to the maypole in the middle of High Street. “What color do you think I should choose?”

“Blue,” Lia said. “It matches your eyes as well as our dresses.” She also looked back. The maypole was taller than the walls surrounding Muirwood’s grounds. It was a tradition of sorts, these many years they had spent in the kitchen together, to watch it hoisted up and festooned with decorations. But this year was different. They were both old enough to dance around the maypole. The thought brought giddiness and jittery nerves. Both Duerden and Colvin would ask her to dance, so she did not have Sowe’s fear of being a girl lacking a partner. But she did not want to embarrass herself by tripping on her hem or squashing someone’s foot as they skipped around the circle, holding hands. As she imagined the dance, a sudden pang of sadness struck her. The man who had taught them the maypole dance was dead and it was her fault. Even the smallest things reminded her of Jon Hunter.

“What is wrong?” Sowe asked, seeing the expression on Lia’s face, and studied her with concern.

“Just remembering when Jon taught us the dance.”

Sowe’s smile wilted. She reached out and gripped Lia in a tight hug.

Pasqua’s voice bellowed from below. “How long does it take to fetch a bag of milled flour, I ask you? Stop watching the window, the pole will still be there when your chores are finished. Do you smell the honey cakes in the oven? Mind you do not forget the sugarplums, the tourtelettes, the sambocade. And I need you to carry out the Gooseberry fool before you change. If you spill and make a mess of yourselves before the dance, you will regret it. Get down here, girls. If I have to come up there, I will bring a switch. I will. Or a broom.”

Lia and Sowe grinned at each other through their tears, for they both knew that Pasqua was totally incapable of climbing the loft ladder. They hugged each other fiercely a moment longer, saying nothing, then brushed their eyes and hurried down, moving through the kitchen as if preparing for battle. Every open space on the tables was crammed with trays already spilling over with sweets and delights that only emerged the week of Whitsunday. Lia snitched a tiny Royal cake and stuffed it into her mouth. Sowe looked shocked and then tried not to giggle.

Pasqua’s sleeves were rolled up and she was everywhere at once, stirring pots, poking loaves in the ovens, cracking eggs, and ladling honey. Lia balanced the trays on barrels and chests, while Sowe scrubbed pots clean so that other dishes could be started.

“Lia, take the pizzelles to the manor house,” Pasqua said. “They are for the Aldermaston’s guests this afternoon. Hurry back, girl. Do not dawdle and gawk! There is much to do.”

As Lia approached the door with a tray of pizzelles, it opened from the outside. Sunlight blinded her for a moment, and she did not recognize the man in the doorway. Though she did not know him, he walked in as confidently as if he had entered the kitchens a hundred times.

He was shorter than Lia, but as old as the Aldermaston and Pasqua. He had a cropped beard that was well salted, matching the rough tangle of hair atop his head. The leather hood was pulled down about his dirty neck and shoulders, and he wore stained leathers beneath as well, a rough-looking tunic black with sap spots and a sheathed gladius belted to his waist. The sight of the weapon struck Lia like thunder. If that did not, the bow sleeve around his shoulder would have. The wild look of him, the oil and leather smell of him, reminded her fiercely of the man she had buried in the Bearden Muir.