March 17, 2024

Maiden, Mother, Crone

If Elodie Bayford was a cold fish, her mother was a lady of stone.

Lady Alinor Bayford was dressed in a long black gown and adorned with wooden jewelry painted black. Gabriel had heard a few things about the Widow Bayford, that she was a woman of great age and beauty, and despite having lost her husband almost a year ago, she refused to remarry.

Standing in her main hall by the fire, she was reading a letter. After making a small of noise distaste, she tossed it into the fire.

"Morning, Mother," Elodie greeted. Mother and daughter looked nothing alike, on account of being stepfamily. "Sleep well?"

"Of course, not," came the weary reply. "You?"

"Never. Another proposal, I take it?"

"Worse," another older woman cackled, as she devoured a large steaming platter of sausage and bacon. She was clad in blue, like the priestesses, but her robes were finer, and she wore furs, her neck and fingers adorned in gold and gems.

"You know, I sorely miss the days when no one knew who we were," Alinor sighed deeply, rubbing temples. Like her daughter, she had the look of one who didn't sleep. She shot the other older woman a look. "But then Mother Dorgan had to go and open up that damned temple."

Gabriel's eyes widened. So...this is the famed temple mother.

Elodie turned to him to explain. "With the temple, as you've seen, came lots of people from far and wide."

"And they brought their treasures," Mother Dorgan cheerfully added, wielding her knife and fork with glee.

"The Bayford family has held these lands through war and famine for centuries, without so much as a thank you from the crown," Alinor grumbled. "Word of our fortunes spread, and now we're suddenly drowning in invitations to court." She paused, looking over their guest. "And who might this be?"

"Lord Gabriel Walling, nephew to the King of Liria," Elodie introduced.

"My lady," Gabriel bowed.

"You are welcome, Lord Walling," Alinor nodded. "Lirian jasmine is quite popular here in Bayford...if recently expensive."

"That would be due to the war," he replied.

Alinor gave a brisk nod. "So we've heard."

"My, you're a gallant one, aren't you?" Mother Dorgan grinned. "A real, actual lord for a change."

Gabriel blinked, confused. "For a change?"

"With the temple came lots of people," Elodie echoed, gesturing for him to sit. She sat next to him and poured him a cup of wine. "Charlatans. Frauds. You see, when Queen Isabelle of Aurea made a fool of my family, others thought they could follow suit. They came with stolen clothes and crests, falsified papers of nobility and the like."

"I'll never forget the first," Mother Dorgan shook her head. "Osbert, was it? Claimed to be a baron, turned out to be a common hunter, and an incompetent one at that. Couldn't even bring down a simple boar. The townsfolk love singing about that one."

"But you don't hunt boars with arrows, " Gabriel raised an eyebrow.

"What's that?" Alinor asked exchanging looks with the other women.

"The song says, 'Ten little lords, all in a line,'" Gabriel recited. "'One stray arrow, down to nine'--you don't hunt a boar with arrows. You wield spears."

"A lesson Osbert and his hunting party learned after the fact," Elodie scoffed.

"Are there many boars here?" Gabriel asked. "Typically they dwell in forests, yet I didn't see much forest on the way here."

"Alas," Alinor sighed, "our forests are much further away."

"Mm, let's not forget Edmund the Pious," Mother Dorgan cackled, moving on. "Claimed to be a man of the gods and fasted himself into an early grave to prove it."

"And Osgar, and Hildred, and Alfred," the Dowager Viscountess sighed loudly. "Yes, my dear Bess...we remember them all."

Gabriel was stunned. " many--"

"Eight, so far," Elodie answered, her voice leaden. "Thorley is my ninth betrothed since I returned home, and I can already tell he won't be the charm. He drinks like a common sailor, which I suspect he is."

Gabriel's brow furrowed. "Then why follow through?"

"To save face," Alinor said, taking a seat. Gabriel noticed no one was sitting next to the temple mother, but chose to ignore it. "The most heinous of courtly graces, but the betrothal has been announced and now we must all forebear. Besides, it would be nice not add another verse to that hideous little song."

"Can we offer you something?" Mother Dorgan suddenly asked him. "These ladies bemoan their exalted station, while I prefer to simply enjoy the perks. For with the right amount of money, you can hire the very best of cooks."

"I've had breakfast, madam, thank you," Gabriel nodded politely, smiling.

"It wouldn't kill you to enjoy a second breakfast," the old woman shrugged.

"No more than it would kill you to eat an apple for a change," Alinor snapped.

"And why would I do that?" Mother Dorgan blinked. "Sausage, cured to perfection. Bacon, cured then fried to crispy yet chewy perfection. And that steak from last night...marinated and herb-crusted to perfection." She turned to Gabriel. "My temple ladies choose such an austere living, which I've never enforced. They take vows of poverty and chastity, which serve no one and only rob them of time."

Gabriel was astounded. "You don't think temple maidens should remain chaste, Mother?"

"For what?" the old woman exclaimed. "It's like I always tell my little birds--"

"They hate when you call them that," Elodie pointedly reminded her.

"But they're all so flighty!" Bess scowled. "And did you know most of them are bastards?"

"Why is why they don't want to repeat their parents' mistakes, Mother," Elodie said, slightly impatient. "Your lack of religious decorum, much like your absence, has not gone unnoticed. Some members of the order suspect you have a lover hidden away."

"If only," Bess groaned. "You know, I can understand when widows and crones join the order. They've had husbands, lovers, borne children--they've lived life. But the little birds? I don't understand them. They still have time to become anything, anything they want, and they choose to take the veil instead. I walk into my temple, Lord Walling, full of young women--some even blessed with beauty--and it's all bastards to the left of me, spinsters to the right."

Gabriel laughed aloud and Mother Dorgan cackled along, while the Bayfords merely groaned.


"I've never met a temple mother like Dorgan," Gabriel beamed later, when he and Elodie walked back to the temple. "She's quite a character."

"Yes," Elodie murmured absently. "Quite."

"I can't imagine she was ever a Red Priestess," Gabriel frowned slightly. "Though...she probably just did it for the food."

Elodie laughed shortly, with a snort, but said nothing else. It was the closest thing to a genuine smile since they'd met.

It was now afternoon in Bayford. The sun was high, the air still chilly, and the streets still full of people.

"I've never been in a city made of stone," Gabriel confessed, noting the beauty in the dreary architecture. "Lirian cities tend to be open, flat."

"Your capital lies next to the great western ocean, does it not?"

"Mm," Gabriel nodded fondly. "My uncle's castle sits on a cliff. I miss watching the sun rise over the waves."

"How long have you been gone from home?"

"Seven months, three weeks, four days and this day."

"My," Elodie's eyes widened. "Well, your cousin should be well enough for travel in by the end of this week."

"Why the delay, if his wounds are healing so quickly?"

The viscountess's eyes darkened. "Healing the body is the first step," she said somberly. "Healing the mind takes longer. It could be years before your prince is able to get over an experience like this."

"Eight little lords, praying to heaven
Hungry one faints and down to seven
Seven little lords, carrying picks
One cave-in and we’re down to six...."

Gabriel watched the little girls skip down the street with a raised eyebrow. "Picks?"

"Pickaxes," Elodie explained. "Little Lord Brandyn. Claimed he owned a large mine; tried to trick us with a chest of fool's gold."

"What happened?"

"Well, he was a miner; that part was true," Elodie sighed. "Brandyn thought if he went digging through our northern caves, he might actually stumble across some valuable ore. He was wrong."

"How did you break the news to him, that you weren't going to marry?"

"I didn't have to," Elodie shrugged. "He died in a cave-in. The recklessness of young men ought to be studied, Lord Walling. It's why I keep Thorley locked up at the temple. He might be a drunk, but at least that's the worst of it."

"You don't have to marry him, you know," Gabriel said gently. "After everything, I think your people will understand."

"After everything, I still need heirs," Elodie shrugged again. "My sister Floria has sworn off men and marriage in favor of temple life, and I will not let the Bayford line end with me."

"I respect that," Gabriel nodded, conceding. This was none of his business, and he had more pressing matters at hand.

"We're celebrating my new betrothal tonight, by the way. You are invited to the celebration," Elodie told him, then added with a snicker, "You can meet Thorley."

"At the temple?"

"At my home," she replied. "Festivities begin when the sun goes down."

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