This is the story I wrote for the NYC Midnight Short Story Competition 2021, just in case anyone is interested in reading it. Here was my prompt:
Genre – Romance
Subject – A rehearsal
Character – A stewardess
2500 words or less
Hope you enjoy!
“Have you counted all the linens, Mary?” asked Katherine.
“Yes, ma’am. 24 sheets and 15 coverlets.”
Katherine made a notation in the ledger. At the other end of the table, the cook grumbled: “Are you going to ask me to count each individual turnip that I’m about to pop in a pot?”
Katherine looked up with half a smile. “No, Robert. But I might need to deduct those that go into your belly,” she said and poked his round center. Robert rolled his eyes but smiled.
Just then both Robert and Katherine were aware of a new stillness in the room and were surprised to see Charles Tupper standing in the doorway.
“Why hello, Charley,” said Robert. “What brings you to the castle?”
Charles had shoulder-length dirty blonde hair, a boyish face and scruff on his cheek. His usual soft smile had turned taciturn and serious.
“Katherine, might I have a word?” The words fell out of him in a rush, as if he could not keep them back any longer.
Robert raised his eyebrows and swiftly waddled out of the room, but Katherine knew that he would eavesdrop in the corridor. Charles likely knew it too.
Katherine stood in front of him then, feeling the warmth of his body blocking the cold air that snuck in through the edges of the door. “Is everything all right, Charles? Is it the farm?”
He simply shook his head no. Charles was not much one for words, so when he did speak, she listened: “Katherine,” he said, not quite meeting her eye. “I know I’m a simple working vassal with not much to offer and your position is far above me. But…” He started to wring his hands. This usual stone of a man was nervous indeed.
“I would like to ask your hand in marriage.” He finally turned his sky-blue eyes up to meet hers.
Now it was her turn to look away. She wasn’t exactly surprised at this proposal. After all, he had proposed a few months ago, just before her father’s death. But that had been communicated to her and refused for her by her father who hoped for a more advantageous match. But as an illegitimate child of one of her father’s servants, she knew no other offer was likely to come. Had she been able to answer then, she would have said yes. Charles loved her, had loved her since they were children playing in the field. But with her father’s death and such an uncertain future ahead, she was no longer sure of her answer. Did she have to marry at all?
She smiled into his blue eyes. He smelled of heather, contentment, and home.
“May I have time to think about it?”
“A ‘course,” he nodded then walked out the kitchen door as silently as he’d come.
Robert slinked back in from the corridor with surprising agility for such a large man.
“Charles is a good man. Would make a good husband. My Lord was a fool not to secure you a husband before his death.”
“Watch your tongue, Robert.” She calmed herself. “Who says I even want a husband?” But they both knew that time was running short and the wanting of a husband was not the reason for acquiring one.
Katherine and Robert worked in silence for a while, both trying to forget these unspoken truths.
“Do you have word when our new Lord will arrive?”
Katherine’s smile fell. “Lord Calthorpe should be arriving in a fortnight.”
As if her words were a summons, she and Robert heard the pounding of horses’ hooves and the slosh of a wagon’s wheels outside the drafty stone kitchen walls.
Katherine and Robert locked eyes. “No, it must be someone else,” but she stood, smoothing her green woolen dress, trying to rub off the inky black stain from her forefinger.
Cook laid his roughened hand closer to Katherine on the table. “All will be well. He’ll have heard of you and your position, surely. Your father did not match you with a husband, so I suppose he thought you’d be able to stay on.”
Katherine made a forced smile, and then patted the bulky hand.
She gathered up the ledger and walked swiftly down the corridor to the Great Hall. Philip, a scrawny boy of seven, was clearing the trenchers from the servants’ meal. “Have you seen who it is, Philip?”
He quickly shook his head from side to side. “Go, tell everyone to come to the Great Hall. I’m afraid it may be our new Lord.” Philip’s eyes went wide with surprise, and he swiftly moved down the corridor.
But before Philip could gather any more of the servants, there was a loud knock at the great wooden doors.
It was not Lord Calthorpe after all, but Sir Thomas Cranmer, his Lord’s seneschal come to inspect the property. Of course Lord Calthorpe would arrive with numerous horses and carriages, not a single wagon. Since her father’s death, her thinking had been muddled.
Sir Thomas had muddy brown hair and friendly brown eyes that crinkled at the edges. After he introduced himself and his servant, he asked, “And you are, I presume, Katherine Little? Steward of Land’s End?”
Her nervousness melted away, and she confidently said, “Yes, sir. Or stewardess, if you rather.”
“Well, stewardess,” a playful smile on his face, “please show me around the castle.”
In the next few days, Katherine showed Sir Thomas every nook and cranny of the estate, from the castle’s hidden rooms to the grazing lands. Each day, they would visit a farm, mark its progress, and come in muddy and tired from their journey. Katherine nearly forgot about Charles’s proposal until they visited his farm. He stood, looking silently on as he patted a cow, sizing up the man with Katherine. Charles saw the steward’s fine clothes and shined boots, and the way he gazed at Katherine when he thought she wasn’t looking. Instead of talking with them as the other vassals had done, he walked back in the barn to get on with his work.
“That’s rather rude,” commented Sir Thomas.
Katherine, equally wanting to avoid speaking with Charles and Thomas together, claimed, “He has much work to do and knows I can explain better than he the goings on at the farm.”
Later that afternoon, Sir Thomas and Katherine sat near each other in the Great Hall, inspecting the ledger by the light of the window.
He leaned back in his chair. “How old are you, Miss Little?”
Katherine met his gaze, but then looked down at the ledger as if the answer were there. “I am not yet one and twenty, sir.”
Thomas knew that she was in the prime of her bloom, but he had not guessed she was so old.
Katherine could sense the hesitation before he finally asked, “Why is it you are not yet married?”
Katherine looked up from the ledger and stared off into the Great Hall, gazing fondly at her father’s sigil. “My father…I mean, my Lord, did not desire it. He preferred to keep me home.”
“Is that what you prefer?”
What an extraordinary question. One that she had never been asked. She looked at the steward full in the face. “Since my father had no other heirs, he educated me, and upon seeing that I had a keen mind and was eager to learn, sought to install me as his steward when I came of age. Land’s End is my home. My true love.”
She looked down, embarrassed at her hyperbole, but could sense the smile climbing on Sir Thomas’ face.
“How very fortunate you are to find the thing that you love.” Katherine saw a flush creeping up his neck.
In the lull, Katherine saw an opportunity: “Now it is time for me to ask you a question, if you’ll permit me.”
“Anything, Miss Little.”
“Do you think Lord Calthorpe will keep me on? As stewardess, I mean?”
Sir Thomas knew his master to be easy-going and fair. He also knew that his Lord would appreciate having a beautiful woman under his roof. But he knew all too well what his Lord was like with the young women in his household, much to the consternation of Lady Calthorpe — and now Sir Thomas. His answer was then of two minds: “I think his Lord could find no one more competent than you to steward his possessions, except possibly me,” he smiled.
“But you might find the castle changed once he arrives, and not be so eager to keep on.”
Katherine barely heard the caveat. She only heard that it was possible to stay.
A few nights later, Katherine lied on the small cot in her room, flat back atop the coverlet, thinking over the last several days. Sir Thomas Cranmer was like no other man she had met. He treated her with the respect a steward afforded another steward. He listened patiently to the report of her father’s estate and asked intelligent questions. She imagined though that Sir Thomas did not furtively stare at other stewards when they thought he wasn’t looking. But she had to admit that she often looked his way as well. The edges around his brown eyes crinkled pleasantly when he smiled, which he did often. His muddy brown locks seemed always tousled. She had noticed his nervous habit of smoothing the hair on the back of his head. Katherine imagined herself reaching out to brush it back. It would be soft, and her hand might graze his neck as she brought it back to her side. In that moment, she also had another thought — combing her fingers through Charley’s long, blond locks. He would smile at her and cup her hand to his face, and she would smile back.
She had never been with a man though she knew what went on between men and women in the dark. You can’t spend your childhood sleeping in the Great Hall and not hear the muffled moans and movements under blankets. Did she want that intimate life? Did she want that with Charley? With Sir Thomas?
Her father had meant well by uplifting her from the position of her servant mother, but that also meant she existed in this in-between place — not quite a servant and not quite a lady. Her household accepted her as the stewardess, but now that her father was gone, she had heard the grumblings of not a few farmers being made to heed the advice of a woman. Sir Thomas’s recommendation that she keep her position could only go so far.
Katherine thought again of the question Sir Thomas had asked her.
“What would she prefer?”
Did she want marriage with Charles? It would be a good life, but not as ambitious as the one she had set out for. She remembered the one time she had gone unaccompanied to his farm, how they had stood in silence before each other and felt the pull to each other’s bodies. It was a fleeting moment, but the next day Charles had asked for her hand and been refused by the Lord. Was that pull still there?
Or did she want to remain as steward to Lands’ End? She knew every inch of the castle, took pride in ensuring the tapestries were hung with care, the coin that came in was more than went out. And more than that, she was good at this job that was reserved for only men.
She turned on her side, shifting her view to the stone wall. She screwed up her nerve to see her situation plainly. Even if she were to remain as stewardess, she honestly did not think it would be long. Lord Calthorpe might appreciate the novelty of a stewardess but would soon succumb to the pressure of replacing her with a man. Would she be forced into marriage then? Or worse — would she go back to the life of a mere servant?
Katherine placed her cool palms over her face to stop the tears. Not for the first time had she found herself in this position, wishing to stop time, or to go back to before her father’s death. Why could not everything remain as it was?
No, no more, she thought as she swung her legs down to sit up right. I must think properly about the future. Her days as stewardess were numbered. “I must marry,” she said aloud to the room. Voicing it, she knew it to be true. She would accept Charles’ proposal, or did she dare hope for something more, a way to keep her position and find love? Sir Thomas had certainly flirted with her, but would he want her for a wife?
The next day, Sir Thomas asked if they could rehearse the formal ceremony to bind the vassals to his Lordship when he arrived next month. Katherine knew this rehearsal was mostly a farce. Sir Thomas could organize a ceremony like this blindfolded, but she humored him and sat in an ornate chair at the end of the empty Great Hall. She hoped he was finding an excuse to be alone with her, her stomach churning from excitement or nerves.
Katherine calmed herself and found her voice: “These tables would be cleared, and the vassal would walk up to the Lord, hands behind his back.”
Sir Thomas preceded to slowly walk up to her, his boots gleaming in the sunshine, hips swaying ever so slightly, reveling in his role play.
“You should stop just there to pronounce your fealty.”
Sir Thomas looked her straight in the eye. “I promise myself to you,” he said in almost a whisper. Katherine’s breathing quickened again. Was he toying with her or was this something more?
“You would then come kiss the Lord’s hand.”
He stepped forward and lightly cupped her hand with his own, and she felt its soft warmth. He looked her straight in the eye and then bowed to float his mouth over her hand. She could feel the hot breath and then, lightly, delicately, the cool touch of his lips.
“The Lord would say I offer you my protection,” she said in a gust of breath.
Thomas knelt then. “Katherine,” he said, “You are a most uncommon woman. Would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”
Her body heaved with the word “yes” on her tongue but could not make her mouth form the sound. She looked down at her slippered feet, her hand gripped tighter by Sir Thomas. Instead of joy, a rush of anxiety filled her. Envy of all women, Katherine actually had a choice. If only she were a seer and could peek into her future. In which life would she be happy? She looked back into Sir Thomas’s face, but a new image came before her — Charley’s sky-blue eyes. In those eyes she felt home. And she knew her answer.