“You say there is a valley in Margot Peak fitting enough for a village?” Mayor Schultz sat forward with interest at his desk.
“Not one as large as yours, I must fear saying, but one that could hold at least two dozen handfuls of families if not maybe a little more if the land is divided up properly. Apples and pears grow in it without assistance, and there is a free-running spring that has cut into it and waters the pasture. Properly fenced, it could house cows, possibly sheep, if they are discouraged from climbing. If not, fair weather crops may do well. That will need to be an experiment for this year, though.” I folded my hands in my lap to put them somewhere else other than on the Mayor’s desk, where I had laid out a map of the game trail and valley.
“What of a house, Warden Wilkinson? How long do you foresee it taking you to build a Cabin and establish a claim to the valley?” Clive Severance, Mayor Schultz’s secretary and gopher, leaned forward in his own chair, a mirror of his boss.
“I will not need to waste my days building and sawing more than just a courtyard this year. Instead, I can focus on food and mapping the edges of the valley. I found a Grand Cabin, one from the before times that was built by a rich man. Solar panels on the roof caused a chirping in a ground-floor closet. My conclusion is that the photovoltaic cells, at least some, are still operable. I have yet to find a key, but it gives me hope that I might be able to run the well-house and have indoor plumbing soon. I need to discuss a set of picks with Terry.” I watched this news cross both the men’s faces. Astonishment, then admiration.
“Well done, well done, Warden Wilkinson! We knew you were the man for the job. Will you try for the fire tower, then, in this season?” Mr. Severance asked before Mayor Schultz could formulate a new question.
“In mapping out the valley, I hope to flag a couple of spots and test which will be accessible come next winter. It will do no one any good if I erect a fire tower that cannot be ascended in the dead of winter, and it needs to be within line of sight to the next tower so that the bonfire can be seen. There is plenty of rock to build it with, at least.” I was not looking forward to picking it all out, but such was my task, and with two years, rather than one to accomplish it in, the prospect had become more palatable. Mr Severance nodded thoughtfully.
“Within short order, you have located us a new land to expect a village in, a Warden’s Cabin where people will be able to find you. Provided us a map. I must say, your cartography is beautifully done, by the way. I see no reason that we cannot send a wife and your livestock with you to help establish this place. Does it have a name yet?” Mayor Schultz held the map up to his failing eyes in an effort to locate some mark that would reveal a name.
“No, I’m afraid not yet. Not one that would be considered for official usage. I refer to it as Eden. One might come to me unless you have a suggestion, Mayor?” I waved off the map.
“Let us think on it. Something that will be obvious might arise in the coming seasons.” He nodded, thumb rubbing at a hairy mole on his chin. “Mr Severance?”
“Yes, Mayor?” The slim man stood, an obvious gesture that the conversation was over.
“Show Darius to the Husband’s Quarters and see about a meeting with Mrs Fairchild.”
“Yes, Mayor. Right away.” Mr Severance beckoned me out the door of the little office at the back of the town hall building.
I followed him through the streets, where one after another of the village people stopped to ask after my health and if I had found a place to establish a Warden’s Cabin. Congratulations were in order, and more than a handful of replies from the men of the town boiled down to a hope that I would choose their daughter to take back up the mountain with me.
Standing in front of The Husband’s Quarters, I came to grips with a realization of what was happening to me. Men of Cairn Valley looked forward to the day that they were recognized by the town and given the privilege of taking a wife. There were rumours of favouritism played by the Mayor as a way to reward or punish those in the community.
In the few instances where I had gone down from the valley into the desert fields below to trade produce with the villages there, a similar social structure had greeted us. Men were who we talked to, men were who we traded with. Never an eyelash or ankle had we seen of another woman save for our own mothers and those blessed with sisters. For me, only child to a widower that I was, this was a new and utterly terrifying experience.
The immense compound of adobe and cedar towered over the south side of the square that served as the mercantile and hardware stores. At the opposing end sat a long low roof where men would spread out their wares in hopes of a trade with someone else in the village on the weekends. A bell swung gently in the breeze above the entrance to The Husband’s Quarters, and eyes behind the store glass of the mercantile watched Mr Severance and I ascend the three steps to the massive double doors.
My guide lifted the immense brass knocker on the right-hand door. The booming thud echoed in the square, and I feared farther from it, announcing my presence there to the whole of the town. At that moment, I wished for nothing more than to be comfortably alone in my nice big house at the end of my quiet Eden valley. Alone was how I had been ever since my father passed, and it was comfortable in the village. A difference between alone and lonely played in my head as I counted a series of light footsteps echoing through the doors. I could be alone in my cabin, or if I chose poorly, quite lonely in my cabin.
The door creaked open just as loudly as the knocker’s plea for entry. “Mr Severance?” A higher-pitched voice than I was used to caught me off guard. The woman, Mrs Fairchild I presumed, was greyed about the temples beneath a white hair scarf, looking to be of a similar age to the mayor’s secretary. Curved and plump, she wore a broadly sweeping mauve affair that I had heard once described as a dress. Maybe out of nerves or a level of self-preservation, I took a step back, nearly slipping off the tile.
“Mrs Fairchild, allow me the honour of introducing Darius Wilkinson, our new Warden of Margot Peak. He has come to build a family.” Mr Severance introduced me.
“I had read in Mayor Schultz’s letter that a new Warden had been elected. Did he find a suitable house for a wife?” The woman’s steel grey eyes ran from Mr. Severance’s face to mine where they scrupulously studied me, a frown working the corner of her thin lips.
“One of the Old One’s mansions, to be exact. Potential for indoor plumbing has been assured along with the possibility of solar electric.” Mr Severance beamed, a sales pitch voice thick with enticement.
The woman’s face melted into an amiable smile. “Do come in and let us have a cup of tea.”
Tea? I had never had tea before. It was something that women were taught to grow and a secret from men. I followed along, surprised at the coolness of the large interior and intrigued with the prospect of tasting this elusive drink for once.
“I must say, it has been quite some time since Mayor Schultz has sent anyone to us. We had wondered if something dreadful had befallen the village. In here.” Mrs Fairchild waved us into one of several rooms that faced into an extensive courtyard. Patched upholstered chairs and a mine cart converted into a table sat at the edge of sunlight.
Standing before one of the chairs, I waited on Mr Severance to decide on a seat. Protocol had completely evaporated from my mind, and all I could think was to mimic the man who had obviously been here at least once before me.
“Please sit down, Wardon Wilkinson. Do you have a preference?” Mrs Fairchild’s smile left my heart at ease in a strange way reminiscent of the warmth my father’s voice brought to me during blizzard laden nights when he would reassure me.
“Preferences?” I swallowed. Surely there was only one type of tea. Having never had it, I would assume wet was the option I wanted.
“Yes, blonde, brunette, redhead, have a height like you like?”
I furrowed my brows, trying to understand what a blonde tea was, trying just to imagine it. Maybe it was a golden colour, in a tall cup, perhaps?
“A wife, Warden Wilkinson. What is your preference in a wife?” Mr Severance translated for me.
“Oh! Oh. Um. I’ve well, I’ve never truly given it much thought. My father was a widower, so I have not had much exposure to – to – to-” I caught myself in a stutter, heat blossoming across my face.
Mrs Fairchild nodded, a sympathetic look creasing into the wrinkles along her jowls. “Very well then. I will put forth my best for a nice tea time chat.” She twitched the edge of her skirt and left.
I sank into a chair and turned to look silently at Mr Severance, begging him with my eyes to explain what was happening, though I already was forming some ideas.
“Are you excited? Most men coming looking for a wife are. You look worried?” Mr Severance leaned back in his chair and raised an eyebrow at me.
“This is all a little new to me, Mr Severance. I mean, farming is usual, exploring the mountains is usual, trading is usual. I can’t say that I have given much thought to a wife save for the few times it occurred to me after receiving my Warden collar.” I fingered the large gold and garnet pendant lying across my button-up shirt.
“Not to worry, Mr Wilkinson, a wife makes for a happy home. You’ll see. Surely you must have talked about it with other men your age?” He buffed his nails against the knee of his wool slacks.
“It did happen, but being motherless gave me no impression as to what a woman was, let alone how to treat one or talk to one,” I confided.
“Mrs Fairchild is responsible for the women of The Husband’s Quarters and does a masterful job in training them to be excellent companions. I wouldn’t worry about it.” He dug out a bit of dirt from beneath a fingernail. “If you find one especially attached to another, you may just find yourself with more than one wife to keep you company in that cabin during winter.” His smile shifted butterflies into flight in my stomach, and a touch of nausea built up along with them.
“Mr Wilkinson?” An airy voice, soft and subtle at the doorframe, drew me from my conversation. Three young women stood next to Mrs Fairchild, each distinctly different and yet similar to one another. A tall one, a curvy one, and a lithe one all clothed in the same manner of white dress and white hair scarf, greeted me with serving trays of cookies, small sandwiches, and a squat, jade-coloured little pot reminiscent of a percolator.
“Isabella, Colette, and Fleur, Mr Wilkonson,” Mrs Fairchild introduced in order as the three women walked into the room and set their trays on the mine cart turned table.
I stood, hoping that the little bit of reading I had done in my school days would serve me a bit of etiquette here. Placing a hand to my chest, I bowed carefully, “It is a pleasure to meet you.”
They twittered and cooed, a small flock of turtle doves who all curtsied, at least, I think that was what they did by flicking a hand at the edge of their long skirts and ducking down a touch to cause them to balloon up, making a crinkling sound. They settled in the seats across from me and poured an amber-shaded liquid into one of the small cups that matched the kettle.
“Tea, Mr Wilkinson?” The brunette offered me the cup, dainty fingers distracting my attention.
“Um, than-thank you, Miss Colette?” I wasn’t sure if she was Colette or one of the other women and hoped I had gotten it right.
Ruby lips pulled up in a cupid bow smile, and brown eyes dazzled, pulling me into her world of floral perfume and soft skin. “We heard from Mrs Fairchild that you are the new Warden?”
A topic I could grasp. I could run with this. “Yes, Mayor Schultz has me stationed on the eastern face of Margot Peak. I found a valley up there with a grand cabin from the Old Times with an apple orchard and pasture for cattle.” Their faces continued to beam, and they nodded as I spoke. The first one, slim of build, sat taller than the other two women. Her eyes, a hazel green, held a serious glint to them, one that promised a hard-working intelligence. Isabella. Her name was Isabella. I tried to drill this into my head while exchanging a set of soothing pleasantries and small talk with Colette, telling her of my findings in the valley. Fleur kept me supplied with a steady plate of sweet jam-filled cookies the likes of which I had never experienced. If nothing came of this, I would think my life complete with those confections. She sat lithe and petite, but her flashing blue eyes promised a willpower that could rival a pair of plow horses.
Nearing the end of our conversation, and with the afternoon sun shifting shadows across the parlour floor, Mrs Fairchild brought us back from our conversation about the valley to the more pressing one at hand. “Have you made a decision?”
“I-um-” I looked to the women for direction in this, and the three exchanged fretted glances. Fleur slipped her hand into Colette’s, and Isabella patted the middle one’s thigh in reassurance. “You all are friends, right? Not something I would break up if I could help it. I am also not so selfish as to insist on having any right to take all three of you into the wilds of Margot P-“
“You have every right, Warden Wilkinson.” Mr Severance interrupted.
“Sir?” I stalled at that pronouncement.
“You are aware that a Warden is responsible for the establishment of a new village, yes?” He continued.
“Build the cabin, build the watch tower, establish the land for the village?” I rattled off my three duties.
“Part of building the cabin is building the family. Establishing a dynasty, so to speak, Warden Wilkinson. As such, with a dynasty to create, you have privileges similar in scope as the Mayo,” he explained.
“Surely, you don’t mean?” I drifted.
“Quite so, Warden Wilkinson. You aren’t limited in your wives. It is an honour granted to those who would live lonely lives toiling to set up a new village for the people. If you want to take all three with you, that is not outside of the question.” Mr Severance’s voice was reassuring, but his words twisted in my stomach. I had no clue what to do with a woman, let alone three. No one had ever taken two minutes out of their day to explain that one. Honour? What honour? This meant I had three mouths to feed and look after if they came along. They didn’t know me. I didn’t know them. For all I knew, they’d spike my coffee and bury me beneath the apple tree when we got back to my cabin.
“We are friends, Warden Wilkinson. Truth be told,” Fleur spoke up, her voice sending feathers dancing across my skin and a tension in my spine I did not need to be aware of. “We have several friends, and when we marry, none of us sees each other again, and it gets, well, it gets awful lonely not hearing from them, and we sort of made a promise-“
“Hush, Fleur, Warden Wilkinson is an important man. He does not need to be weighed down with your troubles.” Mrs Fairchild admonished the woman, who shrank back in her chair.
“Mrs Fairchild, a moment, please. I did ask if they were friends. I have watched enough of my livestock turn morose when a companion has left the herd to know better than to step into something like this without being aware of the situation. Not to call you livestock, Miss Fleur.” I ducked an apology.
“None taken, Warden Wilkinson. I myself have a small flock of chickens, and one poor hen lost her friend just yesterday to a hawk. She has been rather droopy. As I would feel leaving my friends. Sir, yes, there are, in fact, a shall we say flock? of us, all within the same age, who group up together. We are family, sisters even if you may, and to know that we would be parted one day has devastated us for years.” Fleur pulled a handkerchief from within her sleeve and dabbed at damp eyes.
I pondered, waiting for her to regain her composure, at just how many women she was proposing I try to sustain on my little plot of land. “Pray tell, Miss Fleur, how many of you would not be parted from each other?”
She brightened, a smile replacing her pout. “Why, Mr Wilkinson! There’s Odette, Aurelia, Desiree, Giselle, Solene, Chloe, Noele, Sabina, and Thea would never forgive me if I forgot her.” Fleur carefully folded her handkerchief and replaced it from whence it came.
“Tell me if my math is incorrect, Miss Fluer, but if I am to assume all three of you are also in league with this group, that is a total of thirteen?” I swallowed.
“Why, yes, Sir!” Her smile was enough to pull the very air from my lungs.
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
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