Here it was again, the fat, grimy three legged pot and the peas, the second pot of oats or wheat, with whey and a drop of honey to dress it up a bit. A thin slice of sheep’s milk cheese and maybe a boiled egg, washed down with a swig of bitter ale, was, these days, a feast.
I constantly hungered for meat. Ah, I’d been born at Master Whitby’s house--and, lo, and behold--here I was back again, under the thatch which dripped in a hard rain, cold feet treading a floor of stone, the border of my plain rough dress permanently dirty, the barnyard smell filling my nostrils.
When I was feeling very sorry for myself, I’d make myself recall what I’d seen at Bosworth--all those brave comrades I’d known, lying blue and bled. At least, I wasn’t among their number!
At butchering time, I went to Naseby Manor to assist, though it had been years since I’d been near such work. The blood and guts and sorry bawling of the poor cattle made me weep and puke, but I kept at it. In the dark, I struggled home with my reward, offal, in a dripping basket.
Though ready to faint with weariness, I roused Bet and got her to help in slicing the best of my reward, a half a heart and a veiny chunk of liver. Later that night, we sat and gorged upon our feast, mopping up the juice from a drippings pan we’d carefully placed below. The taste of beef in my mouth made the day’s suffering easier to bear. Overhead, we hung my other prize, a tail, which, tomorrow, we'd reduce to a fatty, marrow laden soup. This would improve the endless porridge.
I’d lived long among the gentry, but how quickly, now that fortune’s wheel had turned, did I come to resent those in the castle. The bunnies, scampering across the windy heath, drew my attention. I knew they belonged to someone--the Usurper in London, the Manor of Naseby, the Bishop, someone, anyone, certainly to no meat starved peasant.
Still, I coveted them. I dreamed about ways to snare them, to cook and eat them without getting caught. The half-royal child growing within craved meat. He must be fed!
* * *
The poor creature was half strangled, and looked up with pitiful, bulging eyes too exhausted for any more terror. I took out my knife and with one blow almost took off it’s head. Then, I sat down and sobbed. It had been years since I’d killed or cleaned my own food.
As Hugh said, I’d grown soft. The killing was almost unbearable to me, the light going from the poor rabbit’s eyes as I knifed it. The rabbit and I seemed one, trapped, strangled, nothing to do but pray for death.
I nearly jumped out of my skin, for I’d had an audience. It was, luckily for me, none other than Alban Bart, the old shepherd. If it had been the gamekeeper from Nappa Hall, I might not this day have all my fingers.
“Blessed Mother! You scared me!”
“This is not a good spot to be poachin’, lassie.” Alban glanced over his shoulder, “nor is it a good place to repent of it, neither. Come,” he said, picking up my kill by the back feet. “We'll up to the rocks w'it.”
When we were better hidden, he cleaned my kill, a young blue hare buck. I watched his freckled hands neatly draw out the guts and then pull the skin from the flesh like wet hose from a leg.
My father’s hands, I thought, watching his nimble work.
“’Tis safest if you eat it here.”
“I meant to eat it myself,” I confessed, feeling ashamed. The risk I’d just taken had not been for my family, but for myself alone. “But let us share,” I added, thankful that he had helped me, but suddenly uncertain of how much of my ill-gotten meat my queasy stomach could take.
Alban studied me with his level gaze. “You’re breeding.” It was not spoken as a question or suggestion, just a simple fact.
“Indeed, yes, such a hunger your own mother had for meat when she carried. Stay, then.” He lifted his head and scented the wind, much as his dog might. “We'll be safe enough here,” he said, after a time.
We made a fire in that sheltered place, cooked and ate the hare, sharing out with the dog, in perfect silence. All the best parts were handed, without discussion or comment, to me.
“Don’t it risk it again.” He collected the hide and stuffed it into his bag. “Conyngham, old Metcalfe's gamekeeper has a bad temper. He don’t wait for the law to settle his debts, neither, but would have your fingers off right here. You send to me, an you get a taste for blood again, lass. Old Alban shall see you get what you need.”