He seized me up like a carrion bird and like a dead thing I let him. Then I came alive again.
“Oh no,” Reinhardt purred — defaming the language of cats — “oh no, my girl. Under Heaven you swore to your bargain; you can’t go back on it now.”
Does Heaven demand fidelity to an evil pledge?
I was green with retching and sick to be caught this way now my man was dead.
When Reinhardt promised shelter and board, and to take the child, when it was born, and leave me free — in my black despair I thought without irony that he was my deliverer.
“Here’s that stray for you, Mechthild!”
Reinhardt paid her to keep me but she wasn’t his creature. You can’t buy such kindness as she showed me, as I felt in the touch of her hand. If Reinhardt’s shadow hadn’t darkened everything, I’d’ve been glad in her care.
She was honest; she fed me fresh meat, and cream puddings, and took naught herself til I couldn’t hold back my shame.
“Mechthild, you keep me too fine — and he’s not counted his coin so close that we can’t both share.”
“It’s all for the child, isn’t it?” she said. “Think of the child.”
I thought of the child all the time. When it quickened — when I felt it alive within me — I grew into something new myself.
Here Reinhardt’s called the king’s back-gate man. Harsh-boned, he might have annealed into more noble shape had a different heart driven him. But he has a taste for the dirty work.
We’re all the queen’s people, here.
They say the king loves her, though he shames her even with her own ladies.
They say she refuses to dance the tricky minuets of court; when she’s up at her father’s Jagdschloss, she leaves her ladies behind to play as they will, and summons our own village women if she wants someone to hand her her linen.
They say she has no luck. “Drops ’em too early, like a cow poisoned by bad pasture,” said Waltrun, who has daughters in service.
The king has plenty of sons, they say, but the queen’s not their mother.
I puzzled it out and went cold all over. Why such care of me by a man like that?
“Mechthild — he wants my child for the queen.”
“He wants it for someone, surely, but that is a far jump!”
“I am no one, Mechthild, and have nothing, and a bit of ham in the pea soup would be a treat to me. But he bids you give me roast squab and butter cake?
“God knows,” I said, “I didn’t welcome this child, but He knows I love it now, and I will break that bargain though Reinhardt agree or not.”
“What will you do? He has a long reach.”
“If I can’t hide, I must go full in the open.”
I kept to forest paths til I was clear to the Jagdschloss gates. The queen held audience on Wednesdays; they said she was open-handed but not a fool, and had her brothers at her back.
In the great chamber, no one would deny me my moment. But when I drew close enough to see clearly, I felt fingers from the grave seize me.
Reinhardt had no intent I should ever rise from childbed.
I clenched down on myself but my knees went anyway and cold sweat soaked me. Women caught me before I hit the floor.
I kept pleading, “I can’t lose my place, I must speak — ”
They tried to ease me, til the queen herself came walking down the long room, stooped and gave me her hands, and the women either side of me helped me curtsey in decency.
Then I fainted.
“You needn’t fear anything here, child. Seek you justice against he who dishonored you? You wear no ring.”
She had a good countrywoman’s face despite her lace and jewels, and didn’t scorn to speak as we do.
I looked around but there was only one more besides us — Waltrun’s Heike, who’d told her my name and village. This must be the Queen’s dressing room, quiet and snug.
“Your Grace,” I said, feeling thick and clumsy now I was in her presence, “the only dishonoring I did to myself, after. He who got me with child — he was forward — in love and in death too — but there was no wrong in him.”
“What do you ask of me?”
“Absolve me from an ill-made pledge; I have damned myself otherwise.”
“Isn’t that for the priest — ”
“No! None but you, and perhaps not even you either.” I swallowed. “This my treasure was purchased for you.”
Slowly she went the color of cold skimmed milk.
“A man found me,” I said, “who has power in these parts; he offered me the Devil’s bargain and in my weakness I took it — I sinned against my child and pledged it away.”
“Herr Reinhardt,” she said.
“Who will come to you, perhaps in four months’ time, with a tiny bundle wrapped against the cold, and say ‘look what Christ God has sent you on His own birthday!’ And will tell you that the poor nameless girl who bore it had not blood enough left in her to live on and be its mother —
“I entered your hall thinking Reinhardt’s only evil against me was keeping me to my pledge; but we know little outside this place and you know, Your Grace, how far we are from court.
“I have never gone beyond my own village, but my man was born elsewhere; his mother in her widowhood returned to her own people. So he thought, and so he told me. And why should we have thought different?”
“Think you different now?”
“I think my man wore his father’s face, as I have just seen in the portrait of the King that hung on the wall behind you, and I think I carry in me the King’s own grandchild.”
Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine.)