Mairyn looked at Lauryn’s glossy, blonde hair and her clean smock. She ran her hands through her own hair, so similar to Lauryn’s but tangled and slightly dull. Mairyn knew that Lauryn kept herself clean and neat because Lauryn didn’t do any of the work. Mairyn scrubbed the floors and got her dress wet with dirty water; Mairyn swept the cobwebs from the ceiling corners and pulled her hair from its braids; Mairyn scrubbed the fireplace kettles getting smudges of soot on her face and hands.
Lauryn sat by singing nonsense songs she made up as Mairyn did their chores. Mairyn listened to Lauryn sing and added her sweet voice to the list of fine traits Lauryn had received from the Gods in excess while Mairyn only received a strong broad back. No one cared who did the work as long as it got done. The mistress didn’t look very closely at who accomplished the tasks and since Lauryn always had a ready and pleasant smile for those she met, most people did not look beyond her white even teeth and her blue eyes and clear skin.
Mairyn went to her pallet at night too tired to feel the inequities of her life compared to her sister’s life, but she did feel the unfairness of the situation. Her dreams showed her what life would be like if Lauryn helped with their work or if Lauryn were not the pretty one or the one who made people laugh and smile. Occasionally Mairyn dreamed of what life would be like if Lauryn were dead.
Mairyn dreamed she had Lauryn’s beauty and personality. She didn’t understand why or how they could be so different; they were after all identical twins. Well, they had been identical when they were younger, but at some point Mairyn had become a drudge and Lauryn had become a special being. Lauryn liked to say it was because she was the older of the two. That one minute seemed to make all of the difference in their lives.
Mairyn dreamed that Lauryn would die a horrible death and that upon her death her memory would fade from peoples’ minds and then Mairyn could take her place. In her dreams, Mairyn told stories and sang love songs and danced enchantedly. She no longer had to scrub the stones or rake the filthy rushes from the hall or carry buckets of water for the bathhouse. Mairyn dreamt that someone would come along who could see her beauty under her work worn face and sweaty dress; someone who would like her quiet ways and think she was special. She often dreamt she was a princess, hidden from people who would do her harm because she was secret royalty, a princess that would get a strong, brave knight on the throne when he married her, although he would only be marrying her for love.
Mairyn knew she was almost sixteen because Madame Gertrude had told Lauryn she was almost sixteen and Madame Gertrude was considering marrying Lauryn to their clan Chief’s son who was besotted with Lauryn. Sixteen was the perfect marrying age and Madame Gertrude would get the best price for Lauryn then. Girls were not allowed to marry any younger than sixteen but the older they got the less valuable they were, so Madame Gertrude was negotiating with Wulfgard daily.
He was not really happy with his son’s choice since no one really knew where Lauryn and hence Mairyn came from as they were orphans that Madame Gertrude had acquired when the girls were but two years old. Madame Gertrude claimed them to be her nieces but no one believed her. There was no family resemblance and most people thought Madame Gertrude was barely human. People whispered that Madame Gertrude was part troll. Her heavy brows with dark hair that met over the bridge of her large and bulbous nose topped thick wide lips set on a square protruding chin and straight jaw line. Her body was squat and like a barricade that she used to block walkways and entrances. Her hair stood in small curly tufts that seemed never to have been brushed and children wondered if small animals were hiding in the wiry rusty mass. One of the favorite games of the children in town was to see who could toss the smallest bits of twigs and acorns and branches into her hair before she would turn on them, raging and waving her thick wooden walking staff, rarely fast enough to catch any of the urchins harassing her.
Madame Gertrude enjoyed her reputation as a tough woman. She was able to amass a nice stock of sheep and cattle and pigs and goats through her tough bargaining abilities and also when she confiscated animals from people who could not pay coin for her services. She placed her stock into pasture during the spring, summer and fall and then sold them between the Grain and Fruit moons for slaughter and then smoking when the air is cold. She only kept a few for breeding into new stock when she began collecting more animals during the winter months for payment. Mairyn enjoyed the times she was sent into the pastures to care for the sheep during the summer. Shepparding was so much easier than the endless cleaning and carrying she had to do most of the time. When she was in the pastures, alone except for the animals, she sang to them and they would gather around her, lowing quietly and occasionally rubbing up against her in a comforting way.
Madame Gertrude owned the only Guesthaus, named Lindwurm, in the village. Their village was not on any main travel route but when people were bunked at the Haus, Mairyn spent much of her time waiting on the visitors and cleaning up after them. She did not cook, but she did peel turnips and chop cabbage and core apples. She also was engaged in cleaning the kettles when the fires were put out and the hearths shoveled and swept. Madame Gertrude had a large cold cellar under the Guesthaus where she stored beer and ale and wines, cheeses made from her goats and cattle, apples and cabbages and sacks of grain. During the winter months, Madame Gertrude sold these stored items to the village people for animals in some cases, but she also bought finely woven cloth and intricately embroidered and sewn clothes which she trade throughout the year. On some occasions, Madame Gertrude received gold and silver coins, which she horded in the cellar for future use. No one was supposed to know about this secret stash of valuable metals, but because of all of the time Mairyn spent stocking the cellar and retrieving items for sale, she had come across Madame Gertrude’s pile of riches. Mairyn did not tell anyone about Madame Gertrude’s secret. Mairyn just watched the pile grow. She would check on it once every other moon just to see if it were still there and not only was it there but it grew steadily and as far as Mairyn could tell, Madame Gertrude never removed any of it. Mairyn only looked at the coins; she never touched them, afraid that Madame Gertrude would know, in that odd way she seemed to have, if the coins had been touched.
Madame Gertrude owned several of the boats that plied their way back and forth across the lake that their village sat on. One of the boats was a ferry. Madame Gertrude’s ferry was the only one that could carry horses and other animals across the lake. Most animals came over the mountains at the back of the village, but occasionally they needed to come across the lake in an emergency. The other three boats she had were fishing boats. She sold fish in the Guesthaus Lindwurm, salted fish for travelers’ packs and smoked fish were put up in her cold cellar for winter food.
The only food Madame Gertrude was not involved in were herbs and berries and mushrooms and other items that were collected by the old wise woman who lived above the village in the mountains. Because Madame Gertrude had no involvement in that commerce, most of the food she served was without the additional flavoring. When Madame Gertrude needed the healing abilities of the old wise woman, Flora, it was only ever an emergency because she never wanted to pay Flora what she asked and Flora asked for some odd things, things no one knew Madame Gertrude had, but some how Flora knew and Madame Gertrude always paid but with a very sour look upon her face.
Once, Lauryn had a grave fever when she was eight. Madame Gertrude was quite beside herself with fear. She sent one of the scuttle boys up the mountain to fetch the old woman. He had met her on the path. She was already on her way down. She had the canny ability to be places where she was needed. The boy carried her pack down the rest of the way to the village. Flora arrived just in time with her medicinals. She brewed a pot of willow bark tea and poured small amounts down Lauryn’s throat. She heaped feather stuffed quilts and sheep skins upon Lauryn as she slept. Lauryn’s fever broke before the sun finished moving across its zenith.
Flora left instructions for light broths to be feed to the sick child for two days along with the same time of bed rest. She whispered into Madame Gertrude’s ear, who immediately lost all color from her normally ruddy complexion, and then Flora proceeded out of the door. Flora caressed Mairyn’s face as she passed her, pausing briefly to look into her eyes without speaking. Mairyn felt an odd shiver down her arms and legs at which Flora smiled a broad toothless grim and left.
Two days later, Mairyn saw a cart pulled by two boys head up the path to the mountain. Mairyn ran over to the boys, Haas and Petre, and asked what they were doing. Haas, being two years older than both Petre and Mairyn, told her it was none of her business, but Petre couldn’t contain himself. He told Mairyn they were on their way up to Flora’s hut with two feather quilts, an intricately embroidered wool cloak, a ham and a copper mirror, all in payment for the healing of Lauryn.
Another time, Madame Gertrude had sliced her own leg open while butchering a hog (something she enjoyed doing every autumn.) The bleeding would not stop, but Madame Gertrude was reluctant to call for Flora. She tried packing the gash herself with honey and moss, topped off with some fresh shorn sheep’s wool, but the bleeding would not stop for two days. Finally, after taking to her bed in weakness, the blood stopped but soon a rank smell rose from the cut and the edges had a faint tint of green to them. In agony, Madame Gertrude had Mairyn send one of the boys for Flora. Mairyn tended Madame Gertrude in her illness. Lauryn pled a weak stomach and was granted leave from waiting at Madame Gertrude’s bedside.
When Flora came, she dowsed the wound with some of Madame Gertrude’s most expensive wine, poured a generous portion down Madame Gertrude’s gullet. Flora had Mairyn put a kitchen knife in the fire to heat up. Flora scrapped out the mess of pussy honey, moss and wool, tearing the flesh where everything was stuck together along with the gangrenous flesh. Once this was done, she had Mairyn fetch the knife from the fire and used it to cauterize the wound. This time the only thing Flora wanted was the knife Madame Gertrude wore on special occasions but never used for cutting. The knife was kept in a soft kid leather sheath. It had a large green gem as a pommel and the scales were of a black wood that Mairyn had never seen before. Madame Gertrude moaned when Flora asked for it, but gave it up none the less. This was one of the few times when Mairyn had ever seen anyone look upon Lauryn with anything but pleasure. After giving Mairyn instructions to care for Madame Gertrude’s leg, Flora passed Lauryn on her way out of the door. Flora paused and looked into Lauryn’s eyes. Lauryn smiled as she usually does but not as usual, Flora did not return her smile. Flora made some sort of sign in front of Lauryn’s face, snorted and hobbled out. Lauryn looked frightened.
Some of the other things Flora received from Madame Gertrude over the years were a white quartz bowl with side so thin and smooth you could see through them, a small amphora and stopper made of the same material and oddly enough, a child’s sling shot. Mairyn knew there were other things but she did not know what they were and while most of the items were lovely to look upon, Mairyn had no idea what an old lady living alone would do with them. She did not think Flora sold them but kept them for some future purpose.
Sometimes, Madame Gertrude would go away on trips to sell her sheep and goat wool and to buy some of the things they did not make in their own village. During these times, Mairyn had more free time and she usually spent these moments with Petre, the only other person besides Flora who was openly unimpressed with Lauryn.
When they could, they ran off to the fields on the west side of the village where a waterfall dropped into a pond at the base of the mountains and ran in a quick stream down to the lake. In the summer, they would dare the icy water and run through the waterfall into the cave hidden behind the down pour. A shaft of sunlight pierced into the cave from above and warmed the space enough to be tolerable when the sun was high in the sky. The light revealed stone benches running along the walls and a passage that went into the mountain. They never went further into the cave under the mountain, fearing a dragon lived inside.
When it was too cold to jump through the water of the waterfall, they laid in the grass looking up into the sky and watched the clouds pass by, enjoying the peace of no one telling them what to do. Petre worked with the animals, herding them, shearing them and slaughtering them. He was about Mairyn’s age, but where Mairyn was quiet most of the time, Petre talked, telling Mairyn stories of what life would be like some day for them. Petre told wonderful fantasies about adventures in other places and the heroic acts they would be involved in.
Petre was Mairyn’s age and both of his parents were dead too but he lived with an aunt and uncle. By the time they were both almost sixteen, Petre stood four hand widths taller than Mairyn. He too had blonde hair which he wore braided down his back but where her eyes were blue, his were an uncommon shade of dark green with golden flecks around the edges. He was lean and taut from all of his labors, but fast and nimble in his actions and in his wit. He often made comments under his breath that made Mairyn giggle and she would receive odd looks from anyone who might be near as people rarely heard her laugh.
He had done this to her on the day that Madame Gertrude announced the betrothal of Lauryn and Wulfgard’s son, Gideon. Petre wondered in Mairyn’s ear which of the cattle Wulfgard had given Madame Gertrude for her brood mare.
Mairyn received the back of Madame Gertrude’s hand when Mairyn laughed at Petre’s comment. Madame Gertrude did not want anything to interfere with the betrothal of Lauryn to Gideon. If all went well, Gideon could be the next Chief when Wulfgard died, thus placing Lauryn and Madame Gertrude in a good position, or so she hoped.