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Englandlate summer 1388
The smell of the birthing room was smothering her.
A crackling fire kept the water boiling, adding to the August morning's heat. She pulled aside the dark curtain cloaking the castle window and grasped a breath of fresh air.
She looked with longing at the sunshine. Perhaps later, she might borrow a horse and ride.
She dropped the curtain. 'Yes?' Had her mother called before?
'This pain has passed. Solay needs something to drink.'
Jane walked to the basin in the corner and scooped cool water into a cup. She should have noticed her sister's need and answered it. It was as if she lacked some inborn instinct that other women had, something that whispered to them and told them what to do.
Her sister's pet popinjay paced on his perch, green neck feathers stiff and ruffled. 'Jane! Jane!' His screech sounded like an accusation.
She turned back to the bed where her sister lay, belly big as a mountain. The pain had come in waves all night and after each one, Solay had less time to recover. Her long, dark hair was tangled and matted, her deep violet eyes red-rimmed.
Justin, Solay's husband, pulled aside the curtain covering the door, but did not step in. 'How is she? What can I do?'
Solay opened her eyes and waved a hand she barely had the strength to lift. 'Shoo. I'm not fit to be seen.'
Her mother went to the door and gave him a push. 'Go back to the hall. Play chess with your brother.'
He didn't move. 'Is it always thus?' Jane could barely hear his whisper.
'Solay's birth was much like this,' her mother answered, not bothering to lower her voice. 'They said it was the shortest night of the year, but it was thelongest I ever spent.'
Her reassurance did not wipe the fear from his face. 'It's been hours.'
'And it will be hours more. This is women's work. Go wake the midwife from her nap if you want to do something useful.' She touched his arm then, and whispered, 'And pray to the Virgin.'
Jane took a step, wanting to follow him, but he was a man and free to do as he liked. She wished she could go wake the midwife, or play chess, or rummage through Justin's legal documents as he often let her do.
She wished she were anywhere but here.
'Jane! Where's the water?'
She returned to the bed and held out the cup. Solay, too weary to hold her eyes open, reached for it, but her hand knocked Jane's and the water spilled across the bed.
Solay yelped in surprise.
'Now look!' her mother barked, her worried glance on Solay.
And Jane knew she had failed all over again.
'Look!' the bird screeched. 'Look!'
'Quiet, Gower,' Jane snapped.
She grabbed some linen to mop the spill, but she bumped Solay's swollen belly and her mother whisked the cloth away. 'Lie back, Solay.' She dabbed the soaked bedclothes without jostling her daughter. 'Just rest. Everything will be well.'
'Is it always thus?' Jane whispered, when her mother handed her the spent cloth.
She shook her head and answered in a whisper, 'This babe is coming too soon.'
Jane squeezed the soggy linen not knowing what to do, fearing she would do something wrong, wanting only to escape. 'I'll get fresh linen.'
'Don't leave.' Solay's voice surprised her. 'Sing for me.'
With a warning glance, her mother stepped into the corridor, looking for a serving girl and clean cloths.
Jane tried the first few notes of 'Sumer is icumen in', but they caught in her throat. She gazed at Solay, helpless. 'I can't even do that right.'
'Don't worry. I just like having my little sister here.'
Solay stretched out her hand and Jane grabbed it. She looked down at their clasped fingers. Solay's were slender and white, tapering and delicate. Like the rest of her, they were everything a woman should be: beautiful, graceful, deft, accommodating.
Everything that Jane was not.
Her own hands were blunt and square. The short, stubby fingers were free of the smell of dirt and horses only because the midwife had insisted they bring clean hands into the birthing room.
Her grip on Solay's fingers tightened. 'Are you all right?'
'The pain is bearable,' she said, with a slight smile. 'But I think you'll have to greet your future husband without me.'
Husband. A stranger to whom she would have to surrender her life. She had forgotten he was to arrive within the month.
She had tried to forget.
'I don't want to marry.' A husband would expect her to be like Solay or her mother, to know all those things that were more foreign to her than Latin.
Solay squeezed her hand in sympathy. 'I know. But you're seventeen. It's time. Past time.'
Jane felt a pout hover on her mouth.
Solay reached over to pinch Jane's lower lip. 'Look at you! The popinjay could perch on that lip.' She sighed. At least meet the man. Justin has told him you're '
Different. She was different.
'Does he know that I want to travel the world? And that I read Latin?'
Solay's smile wavered. 'He's a merchant and so you may be able to do things a noble's wife could not. Besides, those things may not be so important to you soon.'
'You've said that before.' As if marriage would turn her into a strange, unrecognisable creature.
'If you don't like him, we won't force you, I promise. Justin and I just want you to be as happy as we are.'
Jane pressed Solay's hand against her cheek. 'I know.' Impossible wish. She would never be anything like her beautiful sister who tried to understand her, but never really did.
Solay slipped her hand away and tugged on Jane's short, blonde hair. 'But I do wish you hadn't cut your hair. Men admire long, fair curls and you' Her face stiffened. Eyes wide, she looked down. 'Something's coming. It's I'm it's all wet down there.'
Jane sat motionless for a moment. Then, she ran to the door and flung the dark curtain aside. 'Mother!'
Her mother, the yawning midwife and a servant carrying linen had just reached the top of the stairs. They ran the last few steps into the room.
The midwife put a hand on Solay's brow. 'How many pains did she have while I was gone?'
Jane looked down at the bed, ashamed to meet her eyes. Jane's job had been to count. 'I don't know.'
The midwife threw back the covers. The bed was soaked with more water than the cup could hold.
And it was red.
'Mother!' She could barely get the word out. 'Look!' It was less a word than a shriek.
'Look!' Gower squawked from the corner. 'Look!' He flapped his wings, reaching the limit of the leg chain as he tried to fly.
'I can see, Jane.' Her eyes held a warning.
Solay's eyes widened. 'Mother? What's happening?'
'Shh. All is well.' Her mother patted Solay and kissed her forehead.
Jane backed away from the bed, helpless. How did her mother stay calm and comforting? How did she know what to do?
Any minute her sister might die while Jane, useless, could do nothing.
I can't. The shriek in her head was all she could hear. I can't.
And when her sister screamed, Jane started to run.
She ran, but the screams chased her.
They followed as she fled the room and ran to her own, where she wrapped her breasts, shed her dress and pulled on chausses, tunic and cloak.
The screams did not cease.
They trailed her as she ran out of the castle gate and out on to the road, cascading, one after the other, as if the baby were clawing its way out of her sister's belly.
She didn't stop running until she realised the screams still sounded only in her head.
No one had seen her leave and it wasn't until she was clear of the house, breasts bound, men's clothing in place, that she realised she had been planning to escape for a long time.
Everything had been at hand. The tunic and leg hose, the food, the walking stick, the small stash of coins were all there, but when the moment had come, she had no plan but to run.
Scooping fresh air into her lungs, she battled her guilty thoughts. Solay would not miss her. The others were there, women who knew how to do those thingsher mother, her sister-in-law, the midwifeany one of them would be more help than Jane.
She didn't belong in that world of women, full of responsibilities she didn't want and expectations she could never meet. She wanted what a man hadto go where she wanted, to do what she wanted, without a woman's limits.
She squeezed her eyes against the sadness of losing her family, squared her shoulders and faced the future.
She could never pass as a fighting man, but she knew something of clerking from listening to her sister's husband. As a learned man, surely she could live among men undetected.
And as a clerk, she might find a place in the king's court. Not the place she should have had, but still one in which she could represent the king in important affairs of state in Paris or Rome.
She hoisted her sack.
Free as a man. Dependent on no one but herself.
If she had calculated correctly, Cambridge would take her three days.
Two days later, Jane woke, broke her fast on berries and headed again for the sunrise, squinting towards the horizon for a glimpse of Cambridge.
On the road heading east, the birds chirped and a placid, dappled cow turned to look, chewing her cud.
You ran away from your sister when she needed you, the cow seemed to say.
She turned her back on the accusing eyes. There was nothing she could have done that one of the others couldn't have done better.
Her stomach moaned. She should have stuffed more bread and cheese in the sack, but she was not accustomed to making plans for her own food.
Two days on the road already felt like ten.
After two nights of sleeping by the side of the road, she looked and smelled nothing like a lady. She had lost the walking stick in a tumble into a stream on the first day, walked in damp clothes for two, and then been stung by a wasp.
She itched her swollen hand, wondering how far it was to Cambridge.
Behind her, she heard a horse at a trot and turned, too tired to run. If it was a thief, he'd get little enough.
Unless he realised she was a woman. Then the threat would be much greater than losing her meagre purse.
She put on her most manly stance as the black horse and rider came closer. Good shoulders on them, both the steed and the man.
The man looked as rough as an outlaw. Perhaps in his mid-twenties, his face was all angles, the nose broken and mended, black hair and beard shaggy. The stringed gittern slung over his back was small comfort. Travelling entertainers were the personification of all vices.
He pulled up the horse and looked down at her. 'Where's t' gaan?'
She eyed him warily, puzzling over the words, run together in an unfamiliar accent. Yet his eyes, grey like clouds bearing rain, were not unkind. 'What do you say?'
He sighed and spoke more slowly as if in a foreign tongue. 'Where are you going?'
She cleared her throat. 'Cambridge.' She hoped she had pitched her voice low enough.
He smiled. 'And I. You're a student, then?'
She nodded, afraid to risk her voice again.
He studied her, running his eyes from crown to toes. She shifted, feeling something like lightning in his glance.
'Students dinna travel alone,' he said, finally.
'Neither do jongleurs.'
He laughed, a musical sound. 'I play for meself alone.'
She felt a moment's envy of his stringed instrument. To live as a man, she would have to abandon song, the only womanly thing about her.
'What's your name, boy?'
Boy. She bit back a grin. 'Ja' She coughed. 'John. What are you called?'
'Duncan.' He held out a hand. 'Where's t' frae?'
Frae? He must mean from. She swallowed, trying to think. She had planned to say Essex, where she'd lived until spring, but she was on the wrong side of Cambridge to tell that tale. 'What does it matter?'
Looking down at her from his horse, he didn't bother to answer. It always mattered where a man was from. 'You're not Welsh, are you? The Welsh are no friends of mine.'
She shook her head.
'Do I look Irish?'
'You look as if you have a drop of the Norse blood in you.'
She bit her tongue and shook her head. Her fair hair came from her father, the late King, one more thing she must hide. 'Where's your home?' she countered.
'The Eden Valley,' he answered. The words softened his face, just for a moment. 'Where Cumberland meets Westmoreland.'
That explained his strange tongue. He had raked her with his eyes and now she returned the favour. 'You eat your meat uncooked?'
She had never seen someone from the north lands. Everyone knew the people from there were coarse, uncouth creatures and he looked the part, except for that moment his eyes had been gentle.
They looked gentle no more. 'You've heard the stories, have you?' He growled, leaning down to bare his teeth at her. 'Aye, we do. We tear into the raw flesh like wolves.'
She stumbled backwards, as if blasted by the wind, and ended up sitting in the dirt.
When he laughed, she realised she'd been played with.
She waited for him to offer his hand to help her up, then remembered she was a lad and could rise on her own. 'Well, that's what they say,' she answered, brushing the dirt from her seat as she stood.
He shook his head. 'You're a south lander, that's certain. While you spent the summer growing pretty gardens and spouting poesy, we've been keeping the Scots from cutting across England like a scythe through wheat.'
Ah, yes. She would have to learn to relish talk of war. 'And you're a long way from having to face the French.'
'You think so, do you? And are you so ignorant you've forgotten that the last time the French set foot on English soil it was a Scot who opened the door?' His expression was grim. 'While you stand here fluttering like a woman, the Scots have delved our borders and burned our crops.'
Like a woman. The Scots were a less immediate threat than discovery. She lifted her hands and spread her feet. 'Come down from that horse and face my fists and we'll decide who's a better man.'
His grimace turned to laughter, a wonderful sound, and he leaned over the horse's neck to clap her on the shoulder. 'Well, Little John, I see you've much to learn, but I'll spare you a brayin' today.'
She tried not to look relieved.
'Come.' He held out his hand. 'Share my horse. You'll see Cambridge afore day's end.'
Caked with the dirt of her days on the road, she slouched and shrugged as if it didn't matter. Men, in her experience, were not good at welcoming help. 'Well, if you insist. I can take care of myself, you know.'