A Price to Be Paid by Darcy Armstrong
With a grunt, Lilidh wrapped her arms around the cauldron and lifted with all her might.
It was filled to the top and incredibly heavy, and the water sloshed and spilled as she straightened her legs. Her knees wobbled as she walked towards the sink in shuffling steps and tried desperately to keep her balance. The short distance felt like an epic journey as the cauldron slipped lower in her arms to send water running over the sides. It mixed with her sweat to make the iron slick and slimy, and her steps became more urgent as she raced against her own body’s capacity to keep a grip on it.
With a heave, she arched her back to lift the cauldron onto the wooden bench, pushing it forward with her stomach. Spots danced before her eyes and Lilidh turned around to lean back heavily on the tabletop, sucking in deep breaths. Her arms ached from the effort and her legs felt strangely supple. After a few minutes her heartbeat slowed, her vision cleared, and Lilidh pushed herself off to stand on her own two feet once more. One pot down.
And only nine more to go.
“Hurry it up, widow,” Cora snapped, “before the water’s cold and we cannae use it for anything.”
Lilidh bit back an angry reply. Even after a few weeks, she was still only the widow to them. Not a name, not even a person, just the widow. She sighed and rubbed her lower back and wondered if it would ever change.
“Aye,” she said. “Just give me a moment.”
“Hear that?” the woman said to the others, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “Widow needs a moment. I know plenty of people who didnae get a moment when MacBrennan came for them in the night.”
Lilidh sighed softly to herself. In the last few weeks she’d heard stories like this more than once; it seemed that most people had a tale to tell of someone they knew, or a friend of a friend, who had found themselves at the terrible mercy of Mathe MacBrennan. She tried to ignore the woman and turned her attention back to the task at hand.
The second cauldron was similarly filled to the top, and Lilidh wondered if they were doing it on purpose. It was hot water boiled from the kitchens next door, and the arrangement was for the cooks to carry them halfway, to the open archway that separated the main kitchen from the washing basins, and then for Lilidh and her coworkers to haul them over to the sink. It was normally a two-person job, and difficult even at that.
Except for the days that Lilidh was assigned to the task.
On those days, for reasons that differed each week, the other women simply couldn’t help, and to make matters worse, she was sure that the kitchen staff filled the pots extra full. In only a few short weeks, Lilidh had already come to dread the cauldron days. She’d return home at night almost unable to walk, and would wake up the next morning as stiff as the wooden boards underneath her.
“Now, widow,” Cora said. She was older than the others and seemed to be some sort of matriarch of the washing basins. There were two others, little more than girls, who appeared happy for Cora to speak on their behalf. The woman was cruel and taunted Lilidh incessantly, often encouraging the others to join in.
“I have a name,” Lilidh said.
“Aye, ye do. Widow.”
Cora stared at her with a challenge in her eyes, and Lilidh breathed deeply and calmed herself. For Fynn. It was a ritual that she found herself repeating day after day, saying her son’s name like a mantra. She reminded herself that she wasn’t here to quarrel with the others. She was here to work hard and start building a new life, and after everything she’d been forced to endure, the attitude of one woman would never break her.
Lilidh dropped her eyes, and in her periphery saw Cora’s satisfied smirk. No matter. There were other things to think about, like the fact that the cauldrons wouldn’t move themselves. She sighed and crouched down to wrap her arms around the next one and was about to heave, when a voice called through the room.
“Lilidh MacBrennan, a word.”
She stood and turned to see the chamberlain walking towards her. The woman moved as she always did; briskly, and with a purpose. She paused in front of Lilidh and looked down with a frown.
“Who’s helping ye?” she asked.
Lilidh looked down. “It’s fine, really. I can manage on my own.”
Margaret’s lips drew into a thin line. “No' today, ye cannae. I need to speak to ye. Hang up yer apron and come to my study.” She turned to the others. “Ye lot can finish up here.”
The chamberlain swept out of the room, and Cora shook her head darkly. “Sounds like widow is in trouble, and I sure hope she is,” she said. “Imagine leaving us here to clean up her mess.”
Lilidh pushed away a surge of indignation at the statement; her mess, indeed. But as she hung her apron on the wall, she couldn’t suppress a small shiver of fear. It was highly unusual for the chamberlain to pull one of the girls out of work, and in most instances it was because they were in trouble. On more than one occasion Lilidh had seen grown women reduced to tears, fleeing the castle in shame after receiving a verbal lashing from Margaret. She’d kept her head down and worked hard, but perhaps she’d made a mistake without even realising it.
“It was nice knowing ye, widow,” Cora said almost happily, giving her a sarcastic wave. Lilidh looked back to the cauldrons, then back to the woman.
“Did ye no' see Margaret standing in the corner for the past ten minutes? She probably just wants to know who was rostered on to help me shift the cauldrons,” she said, before turning to walk away. As she did, she saw the brief flash of panic that crossed Cora’s face; they both knew the older woman was supposed to be helping today.
It was a small thing, a petty lie, but Lilidh still had her pride, and would take any victory she could get. After all, she hadn’t entirely forgotten the woman she used to be.
To Cora’s stricken stare, she swept out of the kitchens and hurried to catch up to the chamberlain, following her into the study. Lilidh sat and stared at Margaret across the polished table, and wondered if she would only ever feel trepidation in that room.
“How goes it?” Margaret asked.
Lilidh did her best to smile, but it felt plastered on her face. “Fine, I hope.”
The chamberlain nodded. “Aye, fine. It’s going fine from where I’m sitting, too. As a matter of fact, that’s why ye’re here. Do ye know what day it is?”
“Nay,” Lilidh said with a frown. Unless… “How long have I been here now?”
Margaret’s face creased into a smile. “One month today.”
Lilidh felt her heart beat faster. Today marked the end of her trial, and she hadn’t even realised it. The days had all seemed to blur together. “And?” she asked tremulously.
“And?” Margaret asked, her face a mask of confusion. “Why, ye come in tomorrow, like ye have every other day.”
Lilidh leaned back and smiled, and this time it was both real and genuine. “I’ve passed my trial?”
“Aye,” Margaret said. “Ye've passed yer trial. Ye're a hard worker and ye dinnae complain; two things I value highly.”
“Thank ye,” Lilidh said, and then laughed. “I thought I was in trouble.”
“No' yet. Now, tell me. How goes it in the kitchen with the others?”
Lilidh looked down with a small frown. For a moment she considered telling Margaret the truth; she was certain honesty would be another thing the chamberlain valued highly. Except that the truth wasn’t quite so simple, and getting any of the others into trouble would only make things more difficult. She knew that as hard as things already were, the last thing she needed was to give herself more problems to deal with.
“It’s fine,” Lilidh said.
“Is that so?”
“Aye. We haven’t warmed to each other yet, but I’m sure that will come in time.”
Margaret’s face left no doubt as to what she thought. “And they treat ye fairly?”
“I’m the new girl,” Lilidh said with a shrug. “They all know each other. Things will get better, I’m sure, but even if they dinnae, I’m here to work.”
Margaret leaned over the table, her face suddenly intense. “So ye have naught to tell me?”
Lilidh held her eyes for a moment, but then looked down. “Nay.”
There was silence for a moment and Margaret shifted back in her seat. “Fine,” she said. “If anything changes, ye know ye can speak to me.”
“Aye, I know, and thank ye,” Lilidh replied.
“Now,” Margaret said. “I know putting ye into this trial wasnae fair to ye, what with the uncertainty that it entailed. So I have a small gift to make up for it.”
“A gift?” Lilidh asked, her eyes widening. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been given a gift.
Margaret stood and twisted behind her, then turned back with a silver tray. It was laden with cheese, small cuts of meats, and various fruits and nuts; a veritable feast of exotic food, some of which Lilidh had never seen before in her life. Margaret pushed it across the table and she pulled it before her. The smell was heavenly, and she breathed deeply.
“My thanks,” she said. “This is wonderful. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
“Ye're welcome. Now go on,” the chamberlain said, gesturing down to the food.
Lilidh hesitated. It was indeed wonderful, but seemed to be too much food for one person. She thought of the dinner she was going to prepare when she arrived home and compared it to the feast spread out before her. Fynn eating turnips again, while she dined like a laird. She tried to reach her hand out but couldn’t; it was almost like she was physically unable to take it.
Margaret frowned. “Are ye going to eat it?”
Lilidh shook her head. “I’m sorry, chamberlain, but I cannae.”
“Ye cannae? But it’s yer gift.”
“And I’m so verra grateful. But I just cannae eat it while my son goes without.”
“If it’s mine, would it be possible to please have it wrapped so I can take it home for Fynn?” Lilidh asked in a small voice, wondering if she was displaying poor etiquette. She didn’t have much recent experience in the receiving of gifts.
Margaret looked at Lilidh for a good long while, and she did her best to meet the woman’s gaze. Finally, the chamberlain nodded. “Aye, of course. And because it’s a gift, and just this once, I’ll make up enough for the both of ye to share.”
Lilidh felt herself relax and thought of Fynn seeing the food, and what he would say. If it was a surprise to Lilidh, then to the boy it would be as if he had stepped into a dream. “Thank ye,” she said. “Fynn will be the happiest lad in all of Dun Lagaidh tonight.”
Margaret waved her hand. “He’ll certainly be one of the most well fed. Why dinnae ye wait for me at the front gate? I’ll get a sack made up, and ye can get home early to yer boy and fill yer stomachs.”
Lilidh nodded. “Aye, and thank ye again, chamberlain.”
“Enough of that, Lilidh MacBrennan. Ye've worked hard and earned it. And if ye continue to work hard, then ye’ll always have a place in this castle.”
Lilidh beamed at her words and felt a sudden rush of hope. She would work hard. She would carry cauldrons every day and look Cora in the eye and smile as she did so. For Fynn’s future, and for the chance at a better life, Lilidh would do it all.
Nothing would take this chance away from her.