The Berry Bride
The maids went on and on as they scrubbed and swept the great hall. “It’s out in the wilds.”
“Slieve Capall, such a name.”
“Near the Ardlands.”
“They’re half-savages out there, never set eyes on anything other than bogs and wasteland.”
They all laughed. “No decent clothes.”
I was beginning to regret listening but I knew of no other way to get information about my intended. I had positioned myself on a bench by the open window for that very purpose.
It had only been yesterday when I had first heard. I went straight to my parents’ chamber as instructed. I knelt in front of them on the kneeler with my eyes downcast and waited for them to speak.
It was strange to see them both together, sitting side by side before me on the heavy wooden chairs. The late spring light streamed in through the latticed window, turning the room to gold in patches and setting the dust motes dancing in the air.
“Daughter, we have found a suitable husband for you.”
“Thank you, Lady Mother.”
“The marriage will take place in Summer.”
“Yes, Lady Mother.”
“You may leave now.”
“Yes, Lord Father.”
I should have been pleased. Not every daughter of a minor noble house found a husband. Some were left to dwindle into spinsterhood, a half-life of exclusion and petty tyrannies. I rose and curtsied to both of them in turn and left.
My happiness has never been of any great importance to my parents. But while Blath my nurse was still here, that did not matter so much. I was her pretty, her pet pigeon, her flower, her lovely.
Sometimes when I was small, on Holy Days she would take me to her parents’ house in the Dyers’ Quarter. I sat and played with scraps of dyed cloth while the life of the house went on around me. Sometimes when it was time to go home I cried and begged to be allowed to stay.
I preferred the dyers’ house to my parents’. They were angry when they heard of that. Higher standards are expected of the daughter of a noble house. Or so my parents told me four years’ turns ago when they sent Blath away.
For years’ after that I watched for her in the streets, imagined seeing her walking smiling towards me. I still missed her.
The flood of chatter continued. My upcoming marriage was a great source of entertainment to the maids. “He’s old too. Nearly forty, I heard.”
“No, in his thirties.”
My sister’s husband was in his late fifties, even though she was only twenty when they were married. A fat, red-faced, bad-tempered man.
The two previous negotiations for a husband for me had come to nothing. Mother had aimed high with those two, hoping that the rumours of my beauty would tip the scales. But that was a forlorn hope, as both she and I knew. Only a young man would be influenced by beauty, and young men of noble families did not find their own brides.
The maids continued. I could hear their laughter as they beat the tapestries and rugs. “Not handsome either.”
“Plain as an egg, I heard.”
“All rough and scarred.”
I nearly laughed out loud at that. Only maids and the like had the chance to dream of young, smooth-faced men. Tall, brown-eyed men with long lashes, the kind of men poets write of.
I had known since I was a small child that I would be bartered away some day. In any noble family, there was no other purpose for adult daughters. But I had not known that I would be bartered so soon or to a place so very distant.
Linten is a berry that grows on mountain slopes far to the west. It is a small nondescript purple berry, bitter to the taste. However, it dyes cloth a fine, bright shade of blue. Dyers and weavers use it and it commands high prices. My father and his steward were well pleased with their linten contract.
A bride in exchange for a berry.
I have never liked the colour blue; a cold and treacherous colour; one that can easily shift to green, smudge to grey.
All went as I knew it would and I was married off, packed up and sent away.
My new home, Slieve Capall is full of bogs and high peaks, with the limestone bones of the land showing through the thin, acid soil. It is a place of bog cotton and stunted trees, small lakes scooped out of mountainsides, with herons nodding by their sides.
Out here in the wilds, so far from the cities, the noble families are less influenced by the norms of civilised behaviour. My lady mother would say that they lack piety, and even shame.
I was shocked by my new family’s behaviour within days of my arrival. Lady Cettling, my lord husband’s sister, laughed forwardly up in her husband’s face as she dismounted from her horse. Her husband is in thrall to her, his eyes rarely leaving her face. She accepts this as no more than her right.
Their children are fearless. They would horrify my mother. They think nothing of tugging on Lady Cettling’s skirts to gain her attention or wailing at their father to lift me up, lift me up high. It is clear that they have never been beaten enough to break their spirits.
But I was the only person who thought anything of it. My parents-in-law do not chide them, but instead smile fondly at their grandchildren as they race shrieking past, calling on me to admire their spirit and energy.
I would not have thought that people could be like plants, growing so differently depending on where they are. But I now see that this is so.
My lord husband clasps my hand under the table and smiles at me. I smile back.
Noeleen Kavanagh is an Irish writer currently living and working in Shanghai, China. Her publications include short stories in the Silver Blade, Another Realm, Moon Drenched Fables, Aurora Wolf, Swords and Sorcery, Misfit Magazine, Sorcerous Submissions, Fantasy Short Stories, Fiction on the Web, Aoife’s Kiss and the Luna Station Quarterly. She also has short stories in the print anthologies Dream and Screams and A Pint and a Haircut.