Chapter 2 – The Age of the Altram

I was thirteen and my mother hurriedly dressed me up in the best clothes she could find of mine, even though I was fully capable of dressing myself. I had a chemise with a bodice and skirt over top. Since it was a little chilly as would be expected nearing the autumn equinox in the month of Sedyfr, Mother insisted I also wear a scarf. I was rushed out of the house and taken along with her to the keep. It was barely a few hours after dawn and the air was especially cold with a northern breeze coming through the village.

“What are we doing, where are we going?” I asked curiously, scratching my legs. The skirt was made of wool and was itching. I just wanted the itching to stop. Even though I did have a chemise under it, I could still feel spikes every now and then from the coarse fabric.

My mother stopped for a second and gazed up at the sky. “There is still some time so I can tell you,” she said. She knelt down so she could look at me eye-to-eye. “Remember what the chief dame said about the next generation starting the new fosterage?” I nodded in recollection. “Her daughter Lunamae is the beginning of her new generation. She will be a dalta to me. You will be her foster-sister as well as her cousin by blood.”

The thought of my parents having another child through birth never crossed my mind. Even though my mother was not old, she seemed fine with the amount of children she had. Lunamae would be a foster-child, otherwise known as a dalta. My parents would care for her as their own until she was twelve. Then I would assume she’d live with another set and then go back to her mother. In our village we were never far from our parents even in altram. My parents always checked up on me so I didn’t think my foster-parents were my real ones. I expected my aunt, the chief dame, to do the same.

I was led up to the keep, a little unsure of the whole situation. As much as a sister would be nice for conversation, this was a baby we were getting. In our village we didn’t consider any offspring to be children until they could talk. In my opinion, babies were only good for crying, whining, and dirtying themselves. I hoped I didn’t get the duty of changing and cleaning the undergarments. I had never been taught how to do that of course as Mother hadn’t another child younger than I. Of course, she would have to teach me sooner or later as I needed to know to be a proper housewife for when the time came, but I wasn’t keen on learning.

The keep was very basic. It had four towers on each side, with staircases in those towers leading to the second level. The first level contained a living area, a dining area, and another room which was used for occasions such as this and aptly named the hall of duty. Like most rooms in the keep, there was a fireplace. Due to the temperature this time of year, I could already tell by the smell they were all lit. The air contained the scents of wood, pinecones, and cinnamon. Chief Dame Angharad always liked to add cinnamon, imported from Fanarion, as a special touch and make the atmosphere cozier. I would rather drink it in a cider than smell it mixed with smoke. The amount she put in made my lungs burn and my eyes water a bit.

We had walked through the doorway of the keep when I turned around to take a look behind me, the Humble Bridge was stretched out eerily in front although I could see some travelers going across and they didn’t seem to fall. There would be a time when I would need to use the bridge but I was hoping it would be later rather than sooner.

The door was closed by two guards and I turned forward to take in the familiar surroundings. My father would have been entitled to live here had he not married a woman from another clan, but it was perfectly fine with him. Since it smelled so much it was fine with me too. We were able to move about freely enough, and as my mother was a matron, we did have a small area in the keep where we could have a bit of quiet to ourselves. Most of the women there did needlework quietly or read the illuminated manuscripts delivered by the clergy at Bexweth. I of course had the gift of gab rather than sewing so my mother rarely let me go with her.

The entrance to the keep was quite wide since the staircases to the next level were spiral and contained within the towers. The entryway was a large room with a fireplace perpendicular from the entrance doorway. To either side of the fireplace was a door. One door led to the room for feasting and the other to the room for ceremony and other duties of the leader. The walls were of stone which might have explained why the cliff under the bridge is so deep. There were a few tapestries on either side that my mother along with the women had made over the course of five years. It was nice to see them actually completed and hung as I hadn’t been in the keep recently, mostly because Aunt Angharad and my mother were cranky. Most of the people in the keep were familiar to me as were also most in the village—save a few friars who had come from Bexweth to prepare a blessing. We were all related in some form. The clan made sure to marry outside the clan every once in awhile, like my father did, to keep the bloodlines strong. Intermarriage can cause issues with children. I heard that’s why the Rees who fostered me lost their first son. There were some issues with the lungs and he died a babe.

We entered through the door on the left into the hall of duty. Most of the room was full of my relatives. My father was standing beside Chief Dame Angharad and she had a small crib with the babe Lunamae nestled quietly inside, although she was standing up in it and using the rails as support. At her age she would almost be able to walk. I was happy they decided to wait slightly later in the year as I had my parents to myself rather than sharing them over the summer with this new little one who would most likely need plenty more attention than I. The month of Nachfyr was reaching ever so quickly and soon the winter snow would keep us all huddled together in our quaint house. We were prepared for the winter. My father shod enough horses to be able to provide for us, and given the fosterage of Lunamae, the heir, we had been granted a small allowance for extra care for her.

“Hello Muirenn, my sweet little niece.” My aunt waved me forward and gave me a light embrace. She was tall and slender and her solis-kissed hair swept over me when she put her arms around me. The air was thick from the amount of bodies in it but I overcame the atmosphere to reply.

“Not so little,” I said with a smile. “I have grown a bit this year, Father says.” My father beamed proudly at me from Angharad’s side. We had a branch with notches in it to track my progress and these past few years there were many new notches.

The chief dame let me go and then looked around the room. “Your brother Logan is not here I see.” She sighed in disappointment. “The battle has not been easy on any of us.” She looked at the ring on her hand. The one she had been given as she pledged a life with Chieftain Leofric years prior. The ring seemed lonely without its mate, buried underneath Moir Awin.

“But there are reasons to rejoice.” Angharad smiled widely, looking down on her daughter with loving eyes. “New life will always prevail through destruction. Let it be said.”

“May it be so,” all in the room answered. The friars moved forward, unveiling some precious holy water, a sign of the Creator, and the Text of Illumination that would be given to the new child in preparation of a life in dedication to the Creator. This was not only a ceremony of fosterage, but humility. Angharad would show her allegiance to the Creator by gifting the life of Lunamae to him. One of the friars—they called him Barri—took out a few drops of the water and sprinkled it on Lunamae. The drops touched her crystalline face but she didn’t care. She cooed with happiness and lifted her arms up.

“In the name of the Creator we give thanks for this child. We pray your protection upon the child and the family who will now care for her. Give them strength, hope, and patience.” The friar turned to my father and questioned, “Do you accept responsibility for Lunamae? Do you and your family promise to teach her in the studies of nature, reading, writing, and the good habits of women? Do you promise to protect her from all evils? Do you promise to teach her in the law of the Creator and help her understand the Text of Illumination?”

My father answered quite confidently, “We do.” Now I know the friar was asking the whole family and my father answered for us all, but in that moment I realized I would have to be more than just a foster-sister. I would have to be a teacher too. Logan didn’t have the sense to teach this babe. My mother would be too busy attending Angharad, and my father had his farrier business. At least I had a few more years before much instruction would be needed. The only thing Lunamae needed right now was care and love.

The chief dame lifted Lunamae up out of the crib and handed her to my mother, and the babe reached for the golden strands of Angharad’s locks.

“No my child,” Angharad said lovingly, taking the hand of Lunamae and gently removing it from her hair. “It is a new step in your life. You must go with them. You will still see me often and know I am still your mother.” The babe looked at her and an expression which could only be described as puzzlement crossed her face and she started uttering gibberish. My mother took Lunamae in her arms and smiled widely at her, the little one returning the gaze with a pout.

“It’ll be all right, tiny one,” I said, placing a hand over her head which was starting to be densely covered with delicate threads of gold as well, like her mother. The softness of the hair startled me and I quickly moved my hand away.

“Come now, Muirenn,” my mother offered. “Your father and I need to finish our preparations in the house. When she is bigger she can share the loft with you but for right now she must sleep and play in the main living area where it is safer.” Lunamae waved her little hand at Angharad as we left, my father trailing us (he had the gifts from the friars in his hands).

We walked out of the ceremony room and headed out of the keep. My mother passed Lunamae to me as she tried to help my father with carrying items. If she was any larger, I might have had trouble, but I had helped my father start chopping and stacking firewood behind our house so my arms had gotten stronger. Lunamae toyed with my scarf and brown hair and make nonsensical noises as I walked ahead of the rest of the family.

The house had smoke coming from the fireplace chimney as we approached so Logan must have been awake and tending it. The smell of woodsmoke from outside a building was what I loved. It wasn’t as dense as the keep. I shifted Lunamae on my hip and my mother got in front of me to open the door. Logan had a poker in his hand and was stoking the fire.

“Thought it’d take longer,” he mumbled. He put the poker down and sat nearby.

“It was quicker than most typical ceremonies. It is rather cold out and I’m sure the chief dame wanted Lunamae in a nice warm house as soon as possible,” my mother replied. She motioned for the babe and I set Lunamae down. She hobbled over to Logan and hugged his leg. He only sat there.

“What am I supposed to do?” he wondered. He looked a bit disgusted at the friendliness of this little girl and the forwardness of her affection.

“Just watch her while I make her something to eat. She is passed weaning and I can give her solid foods now. There is a bit of mashed pumpkin bits I used for a pie and some carrots I can soften up for her,” Mother said curtly. My father went into his room and shut the door.

“I can take her if you don’t want her,” I offered Logan, whose face softened slightly. He waved me off with his good arm and answered,

“No. It’s all right. She acts as though I’m normal. I like that.” I looked into Logan’s face and saw a glimmer of happiness I hadn’t seen in years. He had nut-brown hair like I did and dark brown eyes but the battle changed him somehow and those eyes always seemed different. I noticed his face was getting a little prickly. He was due for a shave. Father always helped him with that since he wasn’t quite so adept with his left. He had been working on it and every day he practiced using it. He tried to do it secretly. I always seemed to catch a peek through the floorboards in the loft when my parents went to bed.

A few minutes later my mother came back with mashed up foods and a small wooden spoon. I vaguely remembered that spoon from my time as a toddler. She ushered Lunamae to her and proceeded to let her try to feed herself. She did amazingly well, but she should at such an age anyway.

“It looks like she hasn’t eaten in a while,” I noticed. My mother brushed me off.

“She’s fine. I am glad she can eat properly. It will make our lives easier in the next few months.” My mother pulled out a chair from the table and sat down. “Muirenn, you will be required to teach her the necessary skills you have learned such as needleworking when the time is right. I know you are concerned with herbs and such and you can teach her some of those, but don’t go too far and make sure you watch what you say. Some medicinal herbs are well known in this area. Some are not. I would hate for people to confuse you and think you are more than just an interested girl getting prepared for being a wife someday. I wish I could help teach her but I haven’t the time. Angharad says she requires me as she trusts me more than some of the other women. She still has problems dealing with Chieftain Leofric’s death. It weighs heavy on her.”

“I understand Mother,” I said confidently. I had already come to the realization earlier in the day that I would have to help out with the training some. “Will you take Lunamae with you to the keep sometimes, so her mother can see her?”

“Of course, Muirenn. Her mother has so much to do that she will not be able to allocate much time to the rearing of a child—much less than in an ordinary altram.” My mother looked at me with her caring gaze. “I see where this is going. I will still make time for you. Your father will make time as well.”

“Or you could grow up. When I was your age I was already an apprentice,” Logan fired at me. I winced from his stinging words. He grabbed the poker again for the fire and laid it nearby as he took a nearby log and placed it atop the others while a few sparks whizzed out.

“You could still be one if you wanted,” I said quietly, watching him work the fire. He scowled at me. I tried to hold back tears. I had wanted him to get on with his life so bad after Wortha Hill.

“Who would want an old, one-armed apprentice? I can’t tool metal with one arm,” he retorted, recalling his previous work before he was called to serve in battle. My mother gave him a wary glance but didn’t interject. Instead she got up and went into the room she shared with my father and closed the door. I could hear them talking.

“Yes, but there are other jobs you’d only need one to do and because of the battle many of the shopkeepers are in need,” I said.

“Like what jobs?” he demanded. Ah! I had gained his interest. I didn’t think he ever thought of doing anything other than being an ironsmith. It complimented our father’s trade as my father made the tools and the shoes themselves for the horses at the ironsmith’s shop in addition to nailing them on and trimming and balancing the horse’s hoof.

“You could be a candlemaker. You don’t need two hands to dip the wick in the wax. Or you could be an apothecary. Talfrin always is in need of help there since he’s getting quite old in his years.” Talfrin was also very nice. I wouldn’t have minded being his apprentice, if I was male anyway. I was trying to think of other occupations but Logan silenced my mind.

“Apothecary? Candlemaker? Those are not honorable jobs,” Logan stated. “I want something worthy of my status—and most definitely not a cotter.” Even though he would fit the description of a cotter—someone old or impaired—he didn’t want to do menial tasks no one else wanted to do. It was demeaning.

“You could be a cordwainer. I think you could easily do it. I’ve seen you practice with your left hand and you are getting better. It would be easier to make new shoes than repair old ones being a cobbler. They make good money and everyone needs shoes. You could make more expensive ones for the maidens of the keep. Who knows, you might even start to fancy one. A maiden, I mean … not the shoe.” Logan cocked his head to one side and pondered the idea for a minute or two. All the while we hadn’t even noticed Lunamae who had decided to take an after-meal nap in front of the fire.

“That isn’t a bad idea, little sister.” The current cordwainer was Myrvin and he lost his apprentice in the battle. Myrvin was too old to fight so he stayed in the village. His shop wasn’t too far away from our house either, so Myrvin didn’t have much walking to do (his legs worked fine). “Maybe I should pay him a visit and ask if he is looking to replace Cedric.” He glanced at me and took note of my watering eyes. “I’m sorry for snapping at you. I should have held my tongue.”

“Girls my age are getting betrothed. You were right to call me out,” I said in submission. “I’m going to have a child to care for. It’s all going to be quite different now.”

“We are still going to be around. Remember it always,” Logan said. I nodded and my mother returned from her room with a crudely made crib. Father had made it for us and now it was to be used for the new child. I think he was storing it in the stables. I don’t know how he would have fit it in our house. As I looked at the crib, it was obvious carpentry was not his forte. Mother lifted the sleeping Lunamae and put her in the crib, making sure there were adequate amounts of comforting below her, and then wrapped her up tightly so she wouldn’t get cold in the night if the fire burned out. I went up to my loft and flopped down on my pallet, wondering what was in store for me over the course of Lunamae’s fostering.

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