I’ve spent the past week making my new place more like a home. I now have a mattress to sleep on and am no long on the floor. Half of my books are unpacked, the other half still in boxes or stacked up by author awaiting more shelves. There are paintings and degrees on my walls, and I now have a vacuum to clean up after my two cats, who, though cute, are not the best housekeepers. I’ve also been working and working out, had some down time and went to see a movie, and been binge watching a lot of CSI. I had forgotten just how much Grissom ended the first scenes of every episode right before the theme song kicked in with a bad pun or dad joke. All he lacked was a pair of mirrored sunglasses and he could have been David Caruso. All of this is leading up to the fact that I haven’t had any inspiration for the blog this week. I was hoping my reading for the week could have done it (Astrophysics for People in a Hurry), but not even NDT could inspire me. So, instead, I’m giving you the first chapter of one of the many projects I’m currently working on. This project currently lacks a title. As with all my books before they have a title, I refer to this one by the name of the main character. Hence, this is Chapter One of Sir Les. Enjoy.
In a kingdom and country no one of current memory remembers, lived a brave and loyal knight errant whom even fewer remember the name of. But, for the sake of telling you her story, I shall tell you her name, as one of the few people who do, in fact, know it. Her peasant mother named her Leslie, but through happenstance, bravery, and a right bit of lying, she became known as Les, loyal knight to her king, the renowned King Stephen. King Stephen was well known for his kind heart, fairness to all, and for being a bit mushy in the head. Even though everyone else in the kingdom knew the loyal Knight Les was, in fact, a woman, King Stephen never seemed to catch on. Neither her long, golden curls, nor her burgeoning breasts would dissuade him from his belief in her manliness. He was often heard to say that Sir Les was the best man he had. No one wanted to tell him the truth, least of all Les. He was a kind man, after all, a man she had often wished had been her father. His willful ignorance made it possible for her to woo many ladies of the court, at least, according to legend, who seemed more than willing to be wooed by her, and they all kept her secrets, as she kept theirs. Heard tell, anyway.
All of that changed in the summer of her nineteenth year. The good King Stephen had suddenly taken ill and died just three days later. His son Reginald assumed the throne immediately, and the good cheer that had been a staple of the kingdom up until then became a thing of the past. King Reginald was nothing like his father. He was, for all intents and purposes, a self-entitled party boy who didn’t take life too seriously and spent most of his time in the grape with his mates. Though he was not much to look at, he was a trifle vain, as no one dared to dissuade the young prince otherwise. His features were striking in the sense that he looked as if he’d been struck with something heavy and the features of his face had remained out of alignment ever since. No one was really sure if he actually lacked intelligence, or just refused to grow up, but either way, not being much in the know seemed to suit him just fine. He knew nothing of literature or history or music and refused to correct these lapses in his knowledge. He would often joke to his fellows that all one needed to know to run a kingdom was how to win a war and all one needed to win a war was to kill as many of the other army as possible. He wasn’t much wrong on this, but the degree to which he was wrong didn’t bother him in the slightest. In his heart of hearts, he knew his father didn’t want him to have the kingdom and had long suspected that his father would give it to his sister over him, should he ever need to give it to anyone. And Reginald was fine with that possibility. He planned to live out the rest of his days inebriated and occasionally being shot at by the husband of one or other of the many women in the village as he crawled out a back window. His bum bore many a scrape from a stray nail, and once, the tip of a dagger. But, when his father died suddenly not long after his step mother, who would have been a good queen, Reginald felt, his sister was too young to assume the thrown that should have been rightfully hers.
Alas, this is not a story about King Reginald, though he has a part in it. This is a story about Les, and we’d best get back to it. Before Sir Les became Sir Les, she was a young peasant girl by the name of Leslie, who lived alone with her mother in a little shack on the edge of the kingdom. She didn’t remember her father, but her mother spoke of him often and he sounded as if he had been a nice man. His death had left them even worse off than they had been, if that were possible, and her mother could barely work hard enough to pay their rent, let alone have any left over for themselves. As soon as she could walk, Leslie joined her mother in the fields doing whatever she could, which amounted to little more than moving stones out of the field. When she was old enough to pay attention to such things, she saw that the men made twice as much money as the women did, and she knew what she had to do.
Her mother came in from working in the fields one evening, dirt and sweat upon her brow, and saw her teenage daughter pulling on the britches of her late husband. She stood there, amused for a moment, watching from the doorway, as her daughter pulled them on, then the tunic. Amused, Amelia crossed her arms over her chest and asked her startled daughter, “Pants is one thing, but what about your curls?”
Leslie turned at the sound of her mother’s voice, startled, and almost dropped the bit of rope she was going to use as a belt. Her cheeks turned scarlet as she countered with, “I don’t know what you mean, mother.” She turned her back once more, hoping foolishly that if she couldn’t see her that meant her mother really wasn’t there and hadn’t really caught her.
“Child, I don’t know what you’re up to but it looks to me like youse a bit of adventurin’ in mind.” She moved into the little shack, trying not to stumble over the chicken that had wandered in, as they were wont to do. She came to stand next to her daughter and shook her head, lost in the memory of the man who used to wear the clothes that her daughter now donned. Sometimes she saw her late husband in her daughter’s eyes, or when she saw her in profile and noticed her chin or high forehead, all features of the man she once knew. It pained her sometimes to look at her daughter’s countenance, but there was nothing to be done about it. There was no denying her daughter was just as handsome as her husband had once been. Maybe moreso. As her face, though strong and determined, was also softened where her husband’s had been hard, and her daughter’s eyes often shone with a dancing merriment that was truly her own.
Leslie’s tone turned slightly harsh. “I don’t know that I’d call doing a man’s labor adventurin’, but if you’ve a mind to, go right ahead.” She busied herself with securing the rope and ignored her mother’s eyes.
“A man’s labor? Whatever are you on about?”
Leslie looked back at her mother now once she had the rope secured. “You know just as I do that the men make twice as much as we do and it ain’t right! We work just as hard and deserve the same!” Her cheeks were coloring and her blue eyes were hard as crystal.
Amelia chuckled again. “Yes, well, what you plan to do about it? You think a young girl in britches is going to change the way of things?” She scoffed and shook her head at the folly of youth.
“Well, someone has to! Anyway, I’m not looking to change anything other than our household. Let someone else change the world, I just want a decent meal every now and then. And this is the only way I know to get one. How do I look?” Leslie put her arms up as if presenting herself for her mother’s inspection.
Her mother took another look at her daughter, at how her husband’s clothes seemed to fall right off her frame and it made something click for her that she couldn’t name, other than to say that it looked right somehow for her daughter to dress this way. It suited her. But the hair was a problem. It was long, to the middle of her back, with loose curls the color of cornsilk and, if washed, would probably shine in the sun, though it hadn’t seen soap for a good long while. She tsked as she approached her daughter, then reached up with both hands to gather the hair behind Leslie’s head, then smiled. “You’re going to have to use some of that rope to cinch this.” Then, she tapped her daughter’s chest with a knowing finger and replied, “You should be glad you haven’t fully come into flower yet, or else they would never believe you.”
“What? It’s the truth. At least this way, if you want to be taken for a boy you should have no trouble. What shall you say your name is?”
Now Leslie hesitated, almost as if answering her mother’s question might shame her. “I was thinking Les.”
Her mother smiled. “Like your father. I think that would be fine.”
Les, as she now was, smiled at her mother, then allowed her mother to help her cut off a piece of the rope to secure her long curls. She had considered cutting it to hasten the male appearance she sought, but decided against it, as she didn’t expect to be playing this role forever. Someday she hoped to secure a position, somewhere, some way, that would make it possible to live better, and she would do it as herself, without pretense.
Les set out the next day in search of work. She tried the farms nearest where she and her mother lived, but they all laughed at her.
“Who do you think you’re foolin’ missy? Britches don’t make you a boy, or able to do a boy’s labor. Go back home to your mama and do as you’re told. And take off the pants, you ain’t foolin’ anyone.” The foreman of the farm down the way continued to laugh.
Les looked at him defiantly. “I ain’t tryin’ to fool no one! I just want to eat proper! Nothing wrong with that!”
The foreman laughed again. “Then go on and pick a husband, and let him do a man’s labor, while you go home and make the babies. Go on.” He waved at her with false cheer and all the nearby men joined him in laughter.
Les kicked the dirt. “You’ll see! I can too do a man’s labor, I’ll prove it to you!” She started to walk away.
To her retreating form, the foreman said, “Hard to do that when everyone knows youse a girl.”
Les continued walking, her cheeks flushed and her jaw set, fists balling at her sides. She walked on, and finally on the other side of the kingdom, where no one recognized her, she finally found a foreman who took her at her word that she was a boy, and hired her, though not without looking her up and down first and finally settling on a grin that made her uncomfortable. When she went home that night she was able to tell her mother the good news, then she searched the cabin for an old tunic, and after working with it for a few minutes, she had fashioned something that she could wrap around her chest, then was able to secure it with some of her mother’s pins. Then, she put her father’s clothes back on and felt her new flat chest and smiled.
Her mother saw her daughter’s new chest, or lack thereof, and the happiness on her face and just shook her head. A tear escaped her. “Where has my daughter gone?”
Les turned to her mother. “I’m right here, mama. I’ll always be your daughter. I’m just going to work and make things better for us.” Les took her mother’s hands in her own. “I’m going to make things better for you, mama. You deserve to live in a house with doors and windows. A house with a real floor. One where the chickens don’t come in and do as they please.” So saying, she pushed a chicken off the table onto the floor. It screeched in protest.
Her mother took her other hand back from her daughter and wiped her eyes again and gave her child a small chuckle. “What would I do with a real floor? It would just be something to keep clean. And doors and windows? What about the summer breeze? How would that get in?”
“We can open them for the breeze. But, wouldn’t it be nice to close them in the winter?”
Her mother considered. “I suppose it would.”
“Then, I have to try. For both of us. You deserve those things, mama.”
Amelia touched her daughter’s face and looked into the eyes that so reminded her of her long lost husband, then leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead. “The Lord gave me everything I needed when you were born.” Mother and daughter exchanged a smile.