It was in probably the smallest wooden cottage on the wharf that a young woman's sharp voice called out.
Rustling the dulled sheets from around her grimacing expression, a young woman of 22 years scowled, rubbing her eyes with her hands.
“Don't call me 'Mattie'...” she groaned.
She sat up, brushing tousles of long tawny, bushy, wavy hair from her face. Noticing a few strands of particularly frizzy pieces, she grasped them and quickly twirled them around her fingers, curling them together. She sat for a moment, dazed, wondering what her mother wanted now. With a start, she swung her legs off the bed and groggily rubbed her eyes.
“I'll be right down...” Slowly, she stretched her arms above her head, then stood and smoothed her white nightdress before reaching over to grab the deep red and golden vest her mother had made for her several years before. Pulling it on over the gown, she made her way down the short wood ladder that led to a narrow hallway and to the kitchen and front door.
“Yes, mom?” Matilda leaned against the doorframe of the kitchen, spotting her mother tending the large black pot hung over the fireplace. She knew her mother not to behave as sharply as she could sound. Matilda owed it up to her mother having raised her daughter all alone. At least since Matilda had reached the age of 3.
“Could you go get the pails from out back,” her mother breathed, brushing a few stray pale hairs from her lean face, “And get us some water? I am sorry I had to wake you.” The slender woman pulled a ladle from the pot and laid it upon a brick placed on the dining table near the fire.
Matilda hung her head. “It's okay...”
“I would have let you sleep,” her mother went on, striding toward the modest cupboard above the makeshift sink across from where the pot continued to bubble and stew, “But I really need to get this made, and I have to run into town to catch the cart so I can pick up some more items for – oh no -” she huffed as she nearly dropped a small glass vial of basil. Matilda admired her mother's skill as the older woman placed the vial delicately onto the counter top besides the sink.
“Anyway – yes...” the pale woman glanced toward her daughter. “If you could get us some more water for cleaning up and drinking, that would be helpful.”
Matilda ducked her head, then backed into the narrow hallway. Whatever her mother needed to visit the cart in town for was usually nothing to fuss about. Curious but too tired to mind, Matilda returned to her room to add a long skirt over her nightdress. It was her favorite – another garment her mother had fashioned for Matilda quite a few years ago. Deep violet was layered over a dark green, and a few patches here and there had been closed with whatever had been on hand.
Matilda quickly clambered down the ladder once more then made her way back under her room and out the back door to fetch the pails. She smiled when she heard a gentle whiny from the opposite side of the cabin.
“I know, Disa... I'm up early today.”
Matilda always left the pails close to the door, so she would never have to travel far to find them in case it was dark. For all her love of the woods, it was when total darkness fell that Matilda found herself deathly afraid of the dark when alone.
Before retrieving the pails, she quickly braided her long hair behind her. Slinging a pail over each end of a long wooden piece made to wear above her shoulders, Matilda made her way around the right side of the cabin, making a mental note to bring her horse a piece of breakfast later.
Matilda and her mother had lived alone together in their little home at the sea-side edge of the little fishing village of Carlecroft for as long as Matilda could remember. She didn't remember her dad at all, and what memories she did seem to have were probably mental imagery of stories her mother had told her. Her father had been a Blacksmith, the finest in the community according to her mother, but he had died from a sickness. Disease seemed to spread rapidly through most of the larger villages, but Carlecroft only rarely concerned itself with such things.
Besides losing her husband and clearly her best friend, Matilda knew her mother had had it hard on her life ever since the incident. Mary-Cathryn was known to be a beautiful young woman – though past the prime age for marriage anymore, there had been a few approaches throughout the years, but all from gentlemen from out of town. Mary-Cathryn's way of life was something of a shock to most anyone, and only Matilda and a sparse few female friends of theirs knew of Mary-Cathryn's desire to never remarry or relocate and live her life as best she could, completely devoted to her late husband and their daughter.
Matilda grimaced and adjusted the heavy contraption over her shoulders as she felt a sharp pain shoot through her neck. She balanced herself as the pails swung about. Her old shoes still held up well even with daily use on the stone pathways. Stepping off the grass and onto the cobblestone street, she was grateful for few pedestrians. Only a small gray cat sat beside Matilda, cleaning its ears, and a few people milled about outside the baker's window, where Matilda could see a few fresh loaves of bread placed to cool and attract customers. A middle-aged man led a young horse past and the cat stopped for a moment to stare, paw in the air, tongue sticking out.
“You look ridiculous,” Matilda remarked. The cat stared after the horse, then looked up to her before returning to the routine. The cat was a frequent visitor of Matilda's cabin, though she presumed it was slowly on its way just to their right, to be ready for when the ships arrived with crates and nets of fish for trade and purchase. The town cats always knew where and when to be, to get a share of the discarded goods.
Adjusting the pails again, Matilda set off behind the horse. She was glad that the nearest well was actually quite close. Though she couldn't imagine why everyone still called it a well when it had been recently rebuilt to spout the water out of the top of a white statue of a mermaid. In recent years, they had been able to run fresh water through pipes under ground, even this close to the sea. It was much nicer to look at and use than a typical well. Mary-Cathryn had told Matilda it had been strategically placed close to the wharf to attract fishermen and sailors to visiting the town, and the fountain did indeed make the place look nicer.
The well was just a few moments' strides up along the cobblestone road, but there was much more activity here. Young and middle-aged men lead horses on rope and head halters to stretch their legs, and women were seen unpinning clothes from the back of their homes to take inside. Matilda loved the sound of horse's hooves clacking upon the stone ground. She found herself listening and trying to pick out individual horses' hoof-falls as she held each pail beneath the mermaid's spout.
“Hey, peasant!” a voice cut through her thoughts abruptly, and Matilda turned slightly to glare behind her. She recognized the voice, yet the face she pulled could have fooled anyone that she knew it belonged to her best friend. Her stomach tightened just a bit as well – an odd sensation that had only started within the past few months anytime she was around him.
The gentleman joined her side, but didn't bother to dismount from his tall, white stallion. Castor was only a year older than she. His short, dark blond hair was tied back in a tight braid at the base of his neck, and his bangs were parted on either side of his forehead. While he wasn't the handsomest of gents in the community, he was good looking enough to procure gaggles of giggling girls wherever he went, and it was often Matilda's source of amusement to mock them behind their backs. Now, Matilda made a show to roll her eyes at him as he narrowed his eyes at her.
“I noticed you came back rather late last night...” he began. His voice was deeper than he appeared it should have been. Matilda replaced the pails and the wooden board across her neck.
“So?” she teased, straining slightly under the weight of the heavy water pails across her back.
“Up to something again? Sneaking off to places you shouldn't be?”
“Oh, no sir, I was simply giving Disa some exercise.” She turned her nose up in the air and made her way back to the cabin.
“I thought you didn't like going into the woods at night.” Castor rode up beside her and Matilda found no trace of mockery.
“You've been spying on me,” she protested, furrowing her brow.
“Hey!” Castor put both hands up in mock submission, “I'm just doing what your mother's asked of me.”
“Ha,” Matilda whispered. “I knew it...” She also knew that he never told Mary-Cathryn anything that she did that her mother may not have liked. He did, however, take it upon himself to reprimand her in her mother's place.
She reached the cabin and turned to stroke the white stallion's face. “Hey, Balfour.”
“Well, since you don't seem to need any help...” Castor raised en eyebrow and began to slowly turn away.
“You wish. I can lift more than you, thanks very much.” Matilda snorted. Castor shot her a sideways grin. He never smiled symmetrically and it was one of many traits that Matilda had started to notice within the past year and secretly admired.
“At least let me get the door for you.” Castor dropped Balfour's reigns over the stallion's head and dropped to the ground. Matilda was proud to know that her friend's horse was so well behaved he wouldn't take off. He was also trained to respond to Castor only, so it was inevitably impossible for anyone to try and steal him – a skill castor said would be necessary in the field.
“It's okay,” Matilda began to protest. Not because she didn't appreciate the help but with Castor being the only resident Squire from Carlecroft, he worked hard enough and inside, she wished her friend would even allow himself rest for just one day a week.
“I insist,” Castor continued, and bounced in front of Matilda to catch the door handle. “Is Mrs. Solvig up?”
Matilda nodded. “Mhmm... yeah.... Thanks...” she blushed as Castor opened the door and ushered her in.
As soon as she was inside and the door closed, Castor grabbed the wood yoke and deposited it against the wall before Matilda could stop him. She pulled a face, but thanked him again as they each grabbed a pail.
“You back?” Mary-Cathryn called form the kitchen, before looking around the corner. “Oh! Hello, Castor.”
Castor nodded to her, then looked back to Matilda. “Horses, later?”
Matilda nodded. “Creek.” One of her favorite places to go into the woods behind the cabin was far back into the woods, where a small creek trickled over smooth stones. It was peaceful and quiet and no one else ever went there.
“Castor,” Mary-Cathryn called as he stood to leave, “you are welcome to stay for breakfast.”
The Squire ducked his head. “Thank you, Mrs. Solvig, but I have a fair few duties to accomplish before much later in the day.”
The two women nodded and waved as he backed out the door, offering thanks and good-byes.
“Such a nice lad,” Mary-Cathryn said, wiping her hands off on her apron. “Matilda, would you mind getting the cornbread out of the oven, please?”
Matilda did as she was asked, pulling the stone tray of bread from over the open hearth, as her mother took a pail and headed to the back washroom.
Castor was a nice lad. A gentleman. A Squire. Matilda's most recent thoughts had gone from simply acknowledging her longing to be with and around him more, to envisioning a long life of adventure with him. It was all silly though. She had nothing to offer him and his life would be far too complex what with traveling and working so hard. No, he needed a lass in his life who would be more than happy to live at their own home, become his wife and stay settled down. And, well... behave.
Sighing, Matilda sat at the table, breathing in the scent of cornbread mixed with the stew her mother had been cooking. Mary-Cathryn's cooking and knack for recipe invention was something to be admired, Matilda thought. She herself had favorite herbs – rosemary, oregano, some funny smelling herb that was unlabeled at the back of the cupboard – but she had no knack at all for knowing what went together, how much or how little, what you could use depending on the main portion of the meal and so on. It was all mystery to Matilda, and so she was thankful for her mother's skill. Maybe Mary-Cathryn had spent all those years while Matilda had no choice but to eat whatever she was given, experimenting with the herbs... but she didn't dare ask.
It was then that Matilda heard Disa neigh loudly and Mrs. Hammond's neighbor chickens squawking and clucking. Matilda stifled a giggle as she knew Disa had probably intentionally startled them. Her carrying on was, as far as Matilda was concerned, horse laughter.