One of my favourite scenes. I’m very pleased with the way this has turned out.
* * * * *
When the plates and cups were cleared, the table and the leftover food packed onto the cart, Lady Scrope opened a book and began to read.
Ailie’s breathing slowed. The Countess’s head fell back and she closed her eyes. The children settled down around Mistress Kendall. Maud was halfway to sleep herself when Alison jumped up.
“Blackberries! We’ve forgotten the blackberries!”
The Countess opened one eye. “Don’t take them too far, Kendall.”
Baskets were fetched from the cart and the girls’ hands and faces cleaned. Maud stood up and stretched her back.
“I’ll come with you. If you’ll not think me in the way.”
“Not at all, Lady Willoughby,” Mistress Kendall said. “The best ones are just along the hedgegrow. Master Palfreyman was telling me.”
The Countess opened the other eye. “Was he now?”
“Come, girls. Katie, you can show Lady Willoughby the way.”
Maud followed them away from the river to the border of a meadow.
“Let’s see who can get the most,” Margaret said.
“Don’t forget to whistle while you pick,” Katheryn said.
Alison nodded solemnly before making an attempt that reduced them all to helpless laughter.
Despite the lateness of the season, there were berries aplenty, hidden deep in the bramble thickets. Maud pulled aside the thorny branches, catching her sleeves and scratching her hands. She filled her basket and her belly quickly and sat down in the grass, watching the girls, their mouths and hands stained with juice.
“Don’t forget,” she said, “we have to take some back for the others.”
“This might be the last time Katie does this,” Mistress Kendall said.
“It’s the way of things.”
“It is, my lady. And I’m pleased for them, of course, just a little sad for myself. I’ve been with them fifteen years. A nursemaid comes to love her charges.”
“Thomas was eight,” Maud said. “I try to imagine the child he must have been.”
“A wicked boy!” Mistress Kendall laughed. “They all were, thinking they could get around everyone with a smile and a kiss. Fine young men now, so we must have done something right. I wasn’t much more than a girl myself. I’ve known Meggie since she was a baby. I shall have to stop calling her that soon, I suppose.”
They watched as the girls drifted further away, moving together, methodically stripping the fruit before moving on.
“Like a set of steps,” Maud said. “Katheryn up high, Alison low and Margaret in the middle.”
“You’ll be blessed soon, my lady. Perhaps if you would think of me…”
“I shall be advised by the Countess.” Maud smiled at Mistress Kendall. “Fifteen years is a fine recommendation.”
She stretched her legs out in front of her and leaned back on her elbows, tilting her head up to catch the sun on her face. The men would be back soon, whole and safe, their enemies vanquished. Or Salisbury would have his sons by the throat, one in each hand, chastened and subdued. Ailie would take Fitzhugh aside and question him mercilessly, tearing the whole story from his lips, word by word. The Countess would greet the Earl with an affectionate kiss and Maud… Maud would take Thomas by the hand and lead him to their bed.
A cry from one of the girls, and she opened her eyes and sat up. They were on their way back, Margaret in the lead, holding up an arm and crying. Katheryn was behind her, burdened by two baskets, looking over her shoulder to make sure Alison followed. Mistress Kendall ran to her charges and inspected Margaret’s wounded arm. Alison skipped over to where Maud sat. She put down her basket and dropped to her knees.
“That’s a lot of blackberries,” she said with a deep sigh.
“It certainly is!” Maud looked at her face. It was stained with sticky juice. “Looks like you’ve eaten a lot as well.”
“There were so many! And my hands just wouldn’t listen.” Alison spread her arms wide and shrugged her shoulders. “Put them in the basket! I said, but they just kept on popping them into my mouth.”
“Like this?” Maud took a handful and ate them.
“No!” Alison snatched the basket up so quickly that she spilled several berries onto the grass. She looked at them in horror, then at Maud in accusation. “I’ll have to go and get some more now!”
Maud scooped up some of her own berries and dropped them into the child’s basket. “Here, that should make up for what I stole.”
“And Grandma will be cross with you!”
“That’s all right. I can deal with Grandma.”
“Margaret hurt herself.” Katheryn dropped the baskets she carried and sat down beside Alison. “Such a baby!”
Margaret’s sleeve was pushed back to her elbow. She peered at the wound, her brows furrowed, as Mistress Kendall attended to it.
“It must have hurt,” Maud said.
“I thought she was half dead, the way she squawked,” Katheryn said.
Her tears dried and the pain almost forgotten, Margaret ran to where they sat, her nurse close behind.
“Just a scratch,” Mistress Kendall said. “We’d best get her back to her mother so she can chide me.”
Margaret showed Maud her arm, wrapped in a kerchief, the blood already starting to seep through. “Mother won’t chide you, Kendall. She’ll just tell me I should be more careful. It does sting!” She looked at Katheryn with accusing eyes. “You’d have squawked, too!”
Maud picked up her basket and Margaret’s and they started back. It had been a lovely afternoon, the cares of the world lifted from the women’s shoulders. A feast of blackberries would be its perfect end.
“Just look at your faces!” the Countess said when she saw them. “Did you bring any for us?”
“There’s plenty.” Maud set the baskets down. “Sweet and juicy.”
“Meggie hurt herself,” Katheryn said.
“Not too badly, my lady.” Kendall said quickly. “No more than a scratch.”
The Countess glared at Margaret, once again close to tears, this time at the depth of her sister’s betrayal.
Her feet dragging, Margaret obeyed her mother. The Countess pushed the child’s sleeve up and unwrapped the kerchief.
“You’ll live,” she said. “Next time be more careful. I’m sure Kendall will be.”
Alison distributed the baskets among the women, making sure that her own ended up with her mother. The Countess took the handful Katheryn offered and ate them slowly, one at a time.
“We should start back soon,” Ailie said. “They might be home.”
“Take the girls to the river, Kendall, and wash their hands and faces.” The Countess looked at Maud. “And do the same for Lady Willoughby while you’re about it.”
The men weren’t home when they got back to the castle.