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Ad Festivum Ignem

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1229 Artois

“Chop these up,” Fleur ordered. The newlywed Countess of Artois gestured at the fresh load of oak logs stacked outside the kitchens; she quickly pulled her hands back into her sleeves, and her arms back into her cloak. She could still see her breath in the air, even with the sun now as high as it would reach this shortest day of the year. “These stumps and trunks are too large for the woodsheds, never mind the firepit and ovens. And they are too heavy to carry conveniently, if one is not as strong as—” blast! she could not recall their names “—you two good men.”

“Yes, my lady.” The woodsmen bowed, but their bleak expressions looked less like those of adults caught shaving their duties than children denied a promised treat.

Fleur wondered what she had done wrong this time.

Inclining her head, Fleur continued her daily circuit through the bailey, looking in on every craft and labor, with her youngest lady-in-waiting, Margot, at her heels, and one of the squires at Margot’s. Nothing in Artois was quite what it had been in Brabant. Fleur wondered whether she would ever fit her place here. Her challenge seemed less marriage itself, for her husband had been kind thus far, than presiding as mistress of so many strangers who silently, respectfully, implacably, thought and planned and hoped differently

She wondered how Nicolas had done it, first in Cambria and then the Levant, and now across Christendom as a free-lance. Perhaps the divergence was that her dearest brother could continue moving ever forward, outpacing any errors, while she had been planted here for the rest of her days.

“My lady?” Margot’s soft voice almost drowned in the bustle of the courtyard.

Striding briskly, Fleur glanced over her shoulder at the girl. Then she stopped, turned and felt Margot’s forehead. Her face was flushed despite the cold; her lips trembled. Fleur said, “Let us return indoors. I have some herbs—”

“No, thank you, my lady. But we must give forewarning that there will be no logs for the feast fires this year!”

Fleur raised her eyebrows. Here it was, whatever had distressed the men at the woodpile. Well, better to learn this lesson now, from Margot, than later, from her husband’s steward, as she had in the matter of the waterwheel, and the incident at the pinfold, and, goodness forbid, the fuss when she corrected the curé’s Latin. “And why will there be no logs?”

The squire behind Margot turned a laugh into a cough.

“Oh!” Margot’s eyes grew wide. Her flush banked down to a blush. Fleur watched the realization blossom that, about some things, the Count’s clerkish bride knew less than a babe. Margot said, “Between now and Epiphany, once the largest log is set aside for the great hall, and the next largest for the curé, then every household may come and, um, fetch one from my lord’s pile.”

“She means steal, my lady,” the squire said. “One log, and only one, is overlooked for the sake of the season. It is a mummery. Each must act his role as if truly a thief to make off with his prize.”

“Thus the size,” Fleur closed her eyes. “Both better to burn through all the nights and easier plunder for once-a-year bandits.” She had known a tradition of the Yule log at home, and another mode at the convent school, but if mock theft had been part of the seasonal misrule at either, no one had told the Duke’s youngest child. Fleur bowed her head. It would be unseemly to admit error in her charge to the woodsmen, yet it would be unforgivable to violate custom. What could bind her order to their observance? Her eyes flew open and her chin up. “Basket reeds! Margot, have we a stock?”

“Yes, certainly.”

“Squire—” Fleur could not muster his name, either “—ensure that those men correctly understood my charge to cleave only some of the trunks.”

The squire spun on his heel and leaped into a run.

“Guide me to those reeds, if you would.” Fleur took Margot’s arm. “We shall tie up the already-cleft wood into easily carried bundles of slats, sticks and wedges. The sportive raiding of my lord’s woodpile by his men will not be the poorer for tame gifts of kindling to their wives.”

“Is that how they mark the feast fires where you come from, my lady?”

Fleur looked up at the faint but fighting sun that shone on Brabant and Artois alike. “It is how we shall mark them here from now on, I suspect.” Someday, Fleur vowed, she would write a treatise for novice chatelaines transplanted to alien estates.

As soon as she finished living it.