"Plain, aren't you?" said the squire. He wore a tunic with long dagged velvet sleeves, and a circlet of vine leaves in his curling golden hair. His hose were all embroidered with compasses and peacocks. For all that, he was probably only about fourteen, ten years at least younger than Ragnell. She felt like reaching out and putting the circlet straight, and possibly then spitting on her sleeve and cleaning behind his ears for him.
"I'm a good worker, sir," said Ragnell, and curtseyed. "I can bake and brew and sew, and I used to tend my old master's fishponds. I can't say I've ever cleaned armour or tack before, but I'm willing to learn."
He shook his head, and gave her an apologetic smile out from under the curls that reminded Ragnell of the brother she had lost. He had gone to be a squire, too, but had fallen in with brigands on the way. "I'm here to find a maid for my knight's mistress, and you won't do."
"Tell her she'll look all the prettier by contrast," said Ragnell. It had been a long day. She'd risen before dawn to walk to the hiring fair. There weren't as many people here looking to hire a maidservant as she'd hoped - someone said that the gentry had all gone to a tournament in the lands of the King of Malahaut - and of those who were here, the squire was the kindest so far.
He shook his head, and walked onward.
"Plain, aren't you?" said the city woman with her outer skirts kilted up around her buttocks and the hair on her brow plucked back, and her embroidered handkerchief covered in French perfume. "Then again, there's some men have a taste for plain..."
She paused, looking at Ragnell with her head tipped covetously to one side like a crow sighting the sparkle of a fallen coin in the grass. "Particularly plain with a strong right arm, if you comprend me. Does it hurt you much, one side of your shoulders being that much better-grown than the other? I can't keep you if you're going to be taking to your bed all the time." She sniffed the handkerchief. "Taking your bed alone, is what I mean à dire."
Ragnell frowned, trying to keep up. She'd never moved in circles where people larded their conversation with French. The closest she'd come to French before was when a knight called Sir Sagramore Le Desirous stopped to ask her directions, and unsurprisingly enough, he hadn't been desirous of Ragnell. She decided to ignore the question of her health altogether and cut to the heart of the matter. "I've never had much desire to be a whore, ma'am, and I don't think I'd do well at it. If you need someone to bake for your fine ladies, though, or wash their clothes, I've good strong arms for that."
"They don't keep the clothes on long enough for them to need washing," snapped the city woman. "You won't do. I need someone with an idea of the business."
She teetered off down the line on her high wooden shoes, waving the handkerchief and muttering to herself in fractured French as she went.
"Plain, aren't you?" said the young yeoman in the buckram jerkin. He reached out to push Ragnell's gown off her shoulder, his fingers pinching at her uneven flesh with about as much emotion as if he were testing the merchandise on a fruiterer's cart. He had the sort of face that would pass as pleasant enough whilst it was still young and rosy-fleshed, but his mouth was covetous and his eyes were cruel.
Ragnell knew his sort. He'd talk as if swiving her was doing her a favour, and then he'd turn round and call her a harlot for being fool enough to give in to him, and probably accuse her of imperilling his immortal soul into the bargain. "I already told that woman with the handkerchief that I wouldn't be a whore, and she'd have paid me better than you," she said stoutly. "I'll work hard in your kitchen or your dairy or I'll mind your geese for you, but I won't help scratch the itch in your britches."
The yeoman looked as if he couldn't possibly have heard her right. His brows drew together. "What did you say your name was? Ragweed, Ragwort...?"
"What kind of a name's Ragwort?" said Ragnell innocently. "My name's Lynette, like the damosel."
"I'll call the steward on you for your insolence." said the yeoman with a glare. "I'll haul you up before the Court of Pie-powder."
He reached out and twitched her gown back into place again, with a disgusted little movement that was almost a slap, and stomped away.
Ragnell thought that now might be a good time to go and relieve herself; and when she got back, she took a different place, right at the end of the line.
"Plain, aren't you?" said the woman with the face like a cosy baked apple tied up in a starched white wimple. "Eh, poor lass. I couldn't have you about the place. My husband's old mother lives with us, and she'd think you were a goblin. Fright her to death, it would."
"Sorry," said Ragnell, looking down at her own misshapen feet on the dusty grass.
"Eh, it isn't your fault, poor child!" The woman leaned in to take a closer look at the rash on Ragnell's neck, and made a clucking noise that was probably more sympathy than disgust. "Is that the King's Evil?"
"If it is, he can come and take back his property any time he likes, ma'am," said Ragnell wryly.
"Now, you shouldn't speak wantonly of our good King," the woman chided her. "Have you thought of taking a pilgrimage, and begging the holy saints to cure it?"
Ragnell's mother had taken her on a pilgrimage once, to the shrine of the King's blessed mother in Camelot. On the way they both caught lice from sharing a pair of sheets with a with a pardoner's body-servant, and when they got there Ragnell fell down a holy well and had to be fished out by some passing masons on their way to work at the cathedral. At the end, after the bishop's blessing, Ragnell's mother said it hadn't done any good at all. It certainly hadn't stopped the rash recurring in the years in between.
As far as Ragnell was concerned, it was a shining adventure. Because when the masons wrapped her in a blanket and sat her on a half-made wall to dry out, she'd seen some of the King's knights go by. There was one who was taller and broader-shouldered than the others, and people said he was the King's nephew. He'd looked at her and nearly fallen off his horse.
That made Ragnell laugh and kick her legs so hard that she fell off the wall. The handsome knight had looked a bit ashamed, and sent his squire over to make sure she hadn't bruised herself. Which she hadn't; no more than falling down the well, at any event.
"There, you see, the thought of it's cheered you up," said the woman with another motherly cluck. "You go on a pilgrimage. It'll do you the power of good."
"Hire me," said Ragnell desperately. "I've turned my hand to everything from dairymaiding to burying the dead. I'll work hard for you. I just need a hot meal and a warm bed that doesn't have someone else's greasy husband in it. I'll work at night, if you like, so your husband's mother won't have to set eyes on me."
"Oh, I couldn't do that," said the woman, and passed on along the line with a smile as smug as if she'd put Ragnell in the way of tending the Queen's own robes and being paid in gold and rubies.
"Plain, aren't you?" said the factor from the Abbey of Beale Valet, and moved on down the line of waiting would-be maidservants with a sniff frozen on his handsome face without waiting for Ragnell to reply.
His clothes were even more impressive than the squire's. His sleeves reached almost to his knees, his shoes turned up at the toes to such an extent that they were held up by little chains wrapped around his kneecaps, and his outer robe was embroidered with angels and something that Ragnell thought might be the City of Jerusalem. To top it all off he was wearing a hat that looked like some deranged craftsman had caught sight of a dog's deposit and decided to render it in swirls of white velvet.
"You could afford to hire me for less than you paid for your pomander!" Ragnell shouted after him. "And I'd work hard for your master the Abbot, which is more than the pomander does."
"Did you address me, girl?" said the factor, turning back to her with disdain. He was still very handsome even when he was sneering, though Ragnell had liked the squire's fresh-faced open looks better.
"What, me?" said Ragnell. "I wouldn't dream of raising myself so far as to speak to your holy eminence. Sir."
"Hmph," said the factor, and elevated his nose still higher in the air as he waddled away down the line. Ragnell wasn't sure whether the waddle was part of being in fashion, or whether he was just having trouble with his shoes.
"Plain, aren't you?" said the lady.
Ragnell blinked, because she was sure that the last time she looked the lady hadn't been there. There had been nothing in that direction but the noisy, squawking chaos that marked the end of the goose fair, and a man selling hot pies from a stall. Ragnell had been giving the hot pies a very covetous look, and wondering whether there was any way she could afford one.
Now, however, there was a lady standing in front of her, and regarding her with much the same attention that Ragnell had been giving the pies. She was definitely a lady. Her wimple was made of fine silk, so fine it almost seemed to float like thistledown on the cold evening air, and the circlet holding it was silver and carved with moons and stars.
Ragnell's belly hurt in a hard tight knot where she hadn't eaten since the day before. Her hands and feet hurt with a soggy cold prickling that she knew wouldn't get any better this side of dawn. She was so tired her eyes were trying to glue themselves shut. And now here was some fine lady who'd probably slept in good linen every night of her life staring at her as if she were a peep show.
"Yes, I am plain," she said, throwing back her crooked shoulders. "Let me guess, it's your lucky day, because what you really want is to hire the plainest woman in five counties. Well, here I am. You've found her. Hire me."
The lady looked into Ragnell's eyes. Cold as she already was, Ragnell felt an additional chill, like a shadow running over the surface of deep water.
"Tell me what you want most in the world," the lady commanded.
Ragnell felt a buzzing in her head like a swarm of bees in a rotten log. She couldn't answer untruthfully even if she wanted to, with that buzzing distracting her.
"I wish I was the master and not the maid," she said honestly. "I want to be the one who gets to make the choices for once, rather than waiting to be chosen, and I want the clout to make the choices stick. I wouldn't make bad choices, I don't think, or at least no worse than anyone else's. I'd just like it, if what I want mattered. To someone that isn't me, I mean." Her stomach churned emptily. "Also, I really want a pie. A good big one with gravy in it."
The lady smiled. "I believe you'll do," she said, in a soft cultured voice with an up-and-down cadence in it like chimes. "Come with me. I shall explain to you the job that I wish you to do and the payment I will offer for it, and I do not think you will find either wanting."
"Do they include a pie?" said Ragnell, still not sure she wasn't being mocked.
"A pie, fine clothes, a palfrey, and the best knight in England's heart," said the lady gravely.
"I don't know whether I've got room for a whole heart," said Ragnell. She felt so giddy that she might say anything. The fine clothes and the palfrey were most likely just talk, but a pie, that you could use to warm your hands and fill your belly. "I'll let you know when I've finished the pie."
The lady laughed. The laugh had a chime to it too, like bells. "Oh, you will do," she said. "You will do well, indeed. Come with me."