Early in the morning, I gathered the eggs from the chickens while my sisters milked the goats. The talk was of the tax patrol, or more specifically, of the men in the patrol. I tuned it out for the most part, as it was silly to moon over soldiers that would be gone in days, and not a peţitoare in sight to negotiate a betrothal contract. I was counting the eggs, noting there were just enough for the guests and my brothers as I found the last of the usual hiding spots. It would be a relief to have them in a proper coop soon, but the building crew had not gotten to ours yet.
I took the eggs upstairs to Mamă, who still had her worried frown from last night, but it did not look as if she were more upset than before. Tată and my brothers were coming in from hauling the hay from the cobbled shelter, noting they might need to take the herds to the summer pastures sooner rather than later. I took my griddle cake to my usual morning niche in the shadow of the door, which just happened to be near the assessor.
Unchi Costin seemed slow to wake. I would later learn it was because in the village, we rose with the sun, not with the clock-tower as was done in the schloss. He was blearily sipping his tea and nibbling a griddle cake, and nodded his thanks to my mother as she put a plate of egg and mititei before him, before continuing his quiet conversation with his second. "We should have the numbers by this afternoon, and we can get everyone's tallies squared tonight, I hope." Her eyes flickered in my direction and she said something I did not understand to Unchi Costin, but it sounded musical. He chuckled, but did not respond to her. I waited as long as I could, but they did not drop any more hints.
While the building crews were at work in the morning, the youngest of us took care of the herd. We had to be careful in clearing the stalls, as the chickens were hiding their eggs in all sorts of places. Mamă had said we should be grateful they were still laying after the fright they had during the wolf attack. Since we had lost our rooster in the attack, the ones found in the rake-out were generally part of dinner. That day we found six, which was a bounty! We left them in the kitchen, and had piled the rake-out in the compost heap. Then my sisters began that day's laundry and I dashed down the lane to help Mătuşă Ecaterina with her chores.
Mătuşă had been mustered out when she lost her foot, but had remained a merry sort. She was quite able on a stalking hunt, but there were some household tasks that were easier with four hands. Taking care of the pigs was one of them. Ecaterina had come from a family in the lowlands, and when she had married, they sent her dowry in pork on the hoof. It did mean another source of food for the village, as she traded the spring piglets with the rest of the family for that season's goat milk and cheese for her household. She also managed to trade some for flour from the village in the foothills. Truth is, she did not need the help, but I needed her advice. I ran up to her house and she called to me, "Ho, Leetle Bord! Hyu timing is goot, Hy chost feenished der rake-hout! Hyu help mit der straw, ja?"
I helped her carry the new straw in for the sows, and I asked, "What's it like to be at the schloss?"
She shrugged, and said, "Hit's like henny odder post. Hyu gets to hunt de t'ings what hunt de farms, or hyu gets to fight bandits. Vhen hyu don' fight bandits, hyu fight in der pub, and hyu giff hyu pay to der beitzerin to pay hyu bar tab. Hwy?"
"I might get t' go if Mamă and Tată decide t' let me get 'dentured."
"Ho, hyu don' like us no more?" Mătuşă gave a friendly grin that only showed half her fangs.
I shook my head and the floodgates opened, "I wanna help with the taxes, and Unchi Costin liked that I understood about there being less this year, 'n' that I explained it. I got t' help, if I can, I mean, there are enough of us in the house that me being gone won't mean the chores are not done, 'n' If I'm not here, 's one less person to feed, so Sandu 'n' Petre 'n' Vali won't have t' go on short rations in the summer meadows this year, 'n' Unchi says I will get clothes as part of it, so Crina can get my hand-me-downs straight from Lenuta without me puttin' more holes in the knees, 'n'..."
"Henof, henof!" Mătuşă laughed, interrupting my torrent of words. "Hyu got de right hydea, hyu chost needs to calm down when hyu sez dis to hyu Mama und Papa." She patted my shoulder gently, "So we gets hyu organized now, und hyu tell dhem et lunch. Now, forst, hyu gots to stay calm. Hyu gets wound up, und they see de keed, not the happrentice, ja?"
I took a breath and nodded, "Da. So's I have to show them I can act right. What else?"
The family trooped in for the noontime meal, with the assessor and his second joining us. The quiet murmurs seemed genial, and for the most part relaxed. Mătuşă told me to wait to ask for my apprenticeship after everyone ate, because hungry people are more apt to argue, and full people might take more time to think. Looking back, I think my aunt Ecaterina might ought to have been an officer, the way she knew how to manage people. I was able to eat enough that Mamă did not get that worried look again, without making my stomach upset from my nervousness. As everyone was finished, but before everyone left on their afternoon chores, I went to stand beside my father's chair. "Tată, I want to ask everyone something." His eyebrows raised, and he nodded for me to speak.
I took a deep breath and started to give my request, speaking slowly so I could be clear. "We send goats to the schloss to feed the ones that defend the pass. Magistrat Horatiu Loewenstein trains the soldiers that defend us and serve with Lady Heterodyne's Jaegermonstern, and she and her lord protect us from the Madboys that have more smarts than sense." That part was easy enough, it was part of the civics lessons all the children got, and it was the beginnings of the tales the old aunties and uncles told about the Lady's adventures before she settled down. The next part was harder. "Goats aren't the only things the villages like us send. Sometimes there are soldiers that go to train, 'n' sometimes there the ones who make sure the soldiers get paid. Unchi...Portărel Grigorescu said I might could train up to be one to help, and Miss Tarkeshwari said I would train for a job. But Mamă and Tată have taught me that we serve the best we can, in everything we do, because we are stronger together. Our village, with the schloss and the Lady and her lord... we're all working together to take care of everyone." Builder bless Mătuşă Ecaterina for helping me with the words. I knew this was part of the duty, but I did not know how to say it.
Mamă's face started to crumple, like she was going to cry, but I went on. "If I go, there'll be one less pair of hands to work in the dairy, but there'll also be one less mouth to feed. I only eat about half what Sandu, Petre or Vali eat, but they each do more that twice the hard work I can do yet. If I go, there is that little bit more they can take with them to keep up with the goats in the summer meadows. They need all the energy they can get to protect the herds." My oldest brother smiled thoughtfully, but Petre and Vali looked confused. I looked away from them before they made me giggle and ruin it.
"Part of apprentice agreements is that I would get clothes as part of the training. That means Lenuta's out-grown clothes would go to Crina, and last longer 'cause I dinna wear them first." I did not promise to send clothes home, because I did not know if I would be allowed that. "Besides, the girl's side of the loft is getting awful crowded, and that might have been good this winter, but until the peţitoare comes around, it is going to get worse." There was a rumble of chuckles from the old aunties at the fireside, as my sisters blushed.
"We have not hunted anything but the wolves that hunted us, because the elk are not ours to hunt, and poaching is wrong..." I said, and was interrupted by Mătuşă Oana. "Bah, honor - ye can't eat honor!" she querelously declared, but then Unchi Boian shushed her, "We honor the agreement, and it is an honor to serve the Magistrat and the Lady."
I looked at Mamă and Tată, and said, "I just want to help." Mătuşă Ecaterina had been solid on my instruction here, I had to stay quiet and let them talk, or they might change their minds later, thinking others had decided this for them. They looked at me, and then looked at each other for what seemed to me to be a very long time. It was hard to stay quiet and wait, but finally, Mamă sighed, and nodded. Tată kissed her on the forehead, and said to me, "You will write to us."
Mătuşă Oana creakily stood up and dusted her hands off, saying, "We need to get to work if we are going to have the belting feast ready by sundown! Sorina, get you to the others and let them know." My oldest sister nodded and dashed out. Tată and Mamă had not risen from the table as the rest of us cleared the dishes, when Unchi Costin and Miss Tarkeshwari sat with them. Mătuşă Selena had me help her with the kitchen duties, so I was not able to hear the conversation.
Portărel Grigorescu addressed the village in the nearly finished community barn, standing on the broad hearthstone that would eventually support the summer ovens. We usually had a communal dinner after his assessment, but this year the buzzing conversations died down faster than usual when he stood to address the village. "The usual taxes for the village are around five thousand leu. However, the heliograph and hunting reports have made the district qualify for the Dire Need reductions. That would reduce the entire village's share to send to three thousand leu." The elders smiled, and relaxed a bit, but there were some nervous shuffles with the younger set. "A son of the village has also contributed: this year's pelts from Plutonier Decebalus have been, at his insistence, counted in the tally towards the village's share." A cheer went up from Mătuşă Ecaterina and the Jaegermonstern in the patrol, which explained why I had not heard anybody talk about him going to serve in the schloss - he had left the village ages ago, but still remembered us. "That brings the total of the reckoning still owed to two thousand, one hundred, seventy leu."
There was some shuffling in the group, and a few glares at my father at this point, which confused me. Unchi Costin went on, "However, because of a new development, there will be a bounty returned to the village." The people glaring at Tată stopped, and turned their attention to Unchi Costin. He beckoned me to stand with him, "Alesander and Ştefania Hâjdău have agreed to allow Mara to enter the Baronial Apprenticeship contract, and have requested the balance of the contract bonus be returned to the village in flour and iron." Mătuşă Ecaterina cheered again, and picked up Unchi Radu in a bear-hug. Now he would have more metal to work at his forge! I hugged Unchi Costin, and everybody seemed to be ready to celebrate.
He held up his hand and waited for everyone to settle down. "As a representative of Magistrat Loewenstein and Lady Heterodyne, it is my joy and my duty to pass along my knowledge and skills, and to foster and encourage those with talent. To this end, I would take Mara Elisabeta Hâjdău as apprentice, to encourage her skills in the arts, sciences and crafts of government and in service to the people of Transylvania and the lands of the Baron's Peace. Do you, Mara, wish to take on the responsibilities as well as the rights that come with this bond?"
"Yessir," I responded. He took my left wrist in the gentle grip of his left hand, and I wrapped my hand as much as I could around his wrist in the same manner, and repeated the oath Mătuşă Selena had taught me this afternoon as we had worked. "I, Mara Elesabeta Hâjdău, in the presence of my village, swear m'self to the service of my land with the guidance of you, Constantin Grigorescu. As your sworn student, I promise to study and faithfully apply m'self to the dev... development of my skills in the arts, sciences 'n' crafts of the government and in service to the people of Bihor Judete, Transylvania 'n' the lands of the Baron's Peace."
He smiled, and squeezed my arm a little, letting me know I got it right. "In return I, Constantin Grigorescu, Portărel for Bihor Judete, out of friendship, fidelity, and fealty as come to me from the Lady Heterodyne, swear before these witnesses to teach and encourage you, to listen and to learn from you, and to support you in your quest for knowledge. I further swear to protect and to foster you as my liege-person, aid you in your time of need, and pursue justice in your causes to the highest levels. I pledge to reward your fealty with love, loyalty with honor, and oath-breaking with vengeance. In return for your service I will owe to you the hospitality of my table at any time that you might call upon it, and six bani a year, payable at Yule and at May Day. This contract shall bind us both for the period of seven years, at which time you will be released to seek a lucrative contract as a Journeyman." He grinned, and I was dumbfounded - I got pin money on top of the training? No one had mentioned that part! He then turned to the village and asked,"You who are our witnesses, do you affirm this bond that we have made?"
The village elders barely got out their assent before the rest of the village cheered. Unchi Costin leaned forward to tell me, "You did good, Pitulicea! I promise we will take care of you, me and Sorina, and if the weather is good next year, you will be back to visit."
I hugged him, and the aunties started calling the children to help serve, as the food had been prepared at all the hearths in the village. The ones that had glared at Tată went to him and congratulated him and Mamă. I found out later they had thought my parents had been withholding money for my apprentice fee, instead of sharing it out when we needed supplies to rebuild. Primar Lupescu shook hands with Unchi Costin, and me, and then went to talk to my parents. Miss Tarkeshwari, who had been standing by with the oath book in case I needed it, stepped forward, smiling. "Very well done, Miss Mara. I am glad you will be joining our ranks." She then stepped to say something to Mamă and Tată. After that, the pattern repeated with the flow of the elders and other adults congratulating me, and then my parents. We were not a large village, and most of us family, so it did not take long, and soon we were sitting down to as great a feast as we had been able to muster since Yule.
Ending the feast was a surprise of hazelnut cakes and blueberry tea, my favorite treats. My aunt Ecaterina had been sure I would convince my parents, and had started baking as soon as I had left her house. Throughout supper, small packages appeared on the table near me, and I soon had a pile of treats such as maple candies, a small bouquet of spring flowers, a bright headscarf and a bead work belt-pouch. Then when Mătuşă Oana put a small hand saw by my plate, I finally felt a twinge of fear of leaving home. This was a saw for fretwork like what Mamă and the aunties used to rough out the decorations for the houses on long winter evenings, something I would miss this year, because I would be away.
I looked up at Mamă, and she still had that worried crease between her eyebrows. The twinge grew a little, and I asked, "You aren't angry, are you? I just wanted to help." She hugged me and whispered, "I am proud of you Mara, I know you will do well. I know you will all leave the nest eventually, I did not know you would be the first of my children to fly."