Read The Usurper's Crown Online

Authors: Sarah Zettel

The Usurper's Crown (5 page)

“Thank you for your help, Mr. Avan,” said Ingrid, careful not to look back at him as she followed her parents and brothers. She realized absurdly that she did not know for certain if Avan was his Christian name, or his family name. One more small mystery of this long, strange night.

As they neared the yard, Grace moaned and stirred in her father’s arms. When they were all inside the front room, Papa set her on her feet and Grace stood, swaying in place.

“Take her upstairs, Mother,” said Papa softly.

“I’ll do it.” Ingrid moved forward.

“No, you will not.” Papa’s cold words stopped her in her tracks.

Mama, her eyes already brimming with tears, took Grace’s elbow. Grace offered no resistance as she was led away, but Ingrid thought she saw her sister’s eyes flicker back, looking for her, pleading for help.

Ingrid swallowed and faced her father and brother. They were both square men, fair-skinned and auburn-haired, as she was. Hard men, shaped by labor and by the expectation of hard work and hard weather for the rest of their lives. The stubble on Papa’s chin had gone gray, and his hands were thick with years of calluses.

Ingrid stiffened her spine, ready for whatever might come. It was then she saw the eyes of her two littlest sisters and their young brother peeping through the door to the back kitchen.

“Well there’s a fine thing,” she said. “All of you listening at doors when there’s work to be done. The kindling is not gathering itself, nor are the hens going to give up their eggs without asking.”

“Out into the yard, all of you,” added Papa without taking his eyes off Ingrid.

The door swung shut as the children retreated.

“Now then, miss,” began Papa. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

“I thought to see where Grace was trying to go,” replied Ingrid steadily, folding her hands in front herself like a child saying a lesson.

“You thought!” snorted Leo. “You thought to humiliate us in front of all our neighbors. There won’t be a man on the boats not asking me when you and Grace can come out again.”

“Such a trial for you,” snapped Ingrid. “I am so sorry that your sister’s illness has brought you to such grief.”

Leo took a step forward. “If she were ill, I would grieve. But she is either shamming, or she is mad, and you had to make sure the whole of Eastbay knew it.”

Ingrid did not even blink. “The whole of Eastbay does know it! What do we think we’re hiding in here? They’d help us if we let them, but no, we have to stay shut up in our house and deny our neighbors’ concern.”

“That’s enough.” Papa dragged the words out through gritted teeth. “You will tell me which of you the man Avan has to answer for.”

Ingrid said nothing. She had known the question would come, but now that hung in the air, anger sealed her mouth.

Is that all you think of us? Of her? Is that what you think of any woman who smiles?

“Answer your father.” Mama stood at the foot of the stairs. She wore her black hair pulled into a severe bun, and at the moment her bright blue eyes were dim with disappointment and resignation. She had been an Irish beauty once, Ingrid was sure of it. What had happened? In her heart, she believed she knew, but she had never been able to speak the words aloud.

“Answer him!” Mama clenched her fists. “Or has the Devil taken your tongue as well?”

Ingrid forced her chin up. She had only two choices now, she could either lie, or she could tell the ludicrous truth.

“It was a ghost,” Ingrid said. “Grace is haunted.”

Leo threw up his hands. “God in heaven!” he cried to the ceiling. “Are all the women in this family mad?”

“You asked what happened, and I’ve told you,” answered Ingrid, calmly and firmly. “You can call me mad, or possessed, or any other name your stubborn mind can conjure up, Leonard Loftfield. It changes nothing, so, you may as well save your breath.”

Hot, hard anger showed plain on Mama’s face. She was going to start yelling in Irish and Papa would bellow back in German and Ingrid would have to shout at them both, or retreat with the little ones out back, when what she wanted was to go up to check on Grace.

But Mama did not yell. She just collapsed on the reed-bottomed rocker beside the fire, and hid her face in her apron. “Mother Mary, help your daughter,” she whispered. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, help your child.”

“That’s enough of that, Bridget Loftfield.” Papa walked up to Ingrid, and all at once, Ingrid was a little girl again and she had to work hard not to shrink in on herself. “I’ve thought many things about my children, but I never thought you would be the liar.”

“You also can call me what you want. I’ve told you the truth.”

They stared at each other, neither one blinking, and Ingrid refusing to flinch. Behind them, she was aware of Mama in the rocker, her hands covering her face. Mama believed, and that was something. Surely that was something.

At last, Papa turned away. “Get into the kitchen. There’s work to be done. Leo, it’s time we were gone.”

Ingrid turned and marched into the back kitchen. Once there, she gripped the edge of the table so hard she felt that it must break off in her fingers. She listened to the tramp of the men’s boots as they marched out the front door. There was no other sound from inside the house, except the faint squeak of the rocker where Mama sat and wept her useless tears.

For a long moment, Ingrid let her anger burn. Then, at last, she willed it out of her, willed it through her hands down into the wood of the table, anything to get away from her. It did her no good. It was as useless as Mama’s tears. She had to think. She had to decide what to do.

A knock on the lintel made her jump. Her hand pressed against her chest, she looked up to see Everett Lederle standing in the threshold.

“Hello, Everett.”

“Hello, Ingrid,” he said, pulling off the battered, blue cap he’d worn since he’d come back from the war. “I’d heard Grace had a rough night. I wanted to see if there was anything I could do.”

Hard labor and time had worked their way with Everett, like they had the men of her family, but with him it was different. Him, they had polished, like a stone on the shore, making him strong, patient, willing to let all the world flow around him and ever able to wait. He was certainly willing to wait for her. Everett loved her. She saw it in every look and heard it in every word. The shame of it was, she found herself unable to return that love.

“No, I’m afraid there’s nothing to be done at present,” she told him. “But I thank you for stopping in.”

“I’m glad to, Ingrid, you know that.”

And she looked at him, earnest, steady, strong and thoughtful, and for her lack of love of him she felt suddenly, deeply sorry. “I do know, Everett, and as I said, I thank you for it.”

He waited a long moment for her to say something else, but she had no more words for him, at least, she had none he truly wanted to hear. But perhaps, after all, there was something he could do.

“Everett, there may be something.”
I
should not do this. I should not use him so. It will give him false hope
. Ingrid could not love. To love would mean to leave Grace to be worn down by the burden of caring for their hard family. She’d thought of it, of course, she’d thought of it a hundred times. Everett would at least take her to another house, but to promise him love when she felt none, that would be so much worse than what she did now. “I need you to speak with the fisherman Avan tomorrow. I need to know if he has any message or news for me. He knows what ails Grace, and I would know if there was … news.”

She saw the curiosity in Everett’s face, and she saw disappointment. He did not want to be running errands to another man for her. But he said nothing of that. “If that will help, that’s what I’ll do.”

For a moment, Ingrid thought to squeeze his hand in gratitude. But no, she knew how he would take that, and he would take wrongly. “It will. Thank you, Everett.”

Everett nodded, put his cap back on his dark head and stepped away across the yard. He was too late to catch the boats going out. He had lost himself today’s work to come here to her.

Why do I not love him?
Ingrid closed her eyes, and there in her private darkness, she saw Avan in the firelight, and she saw his long, graceful hands. Swiftly, she opened her eyes again, and went upstairs to Grace.

Grace lay still as a corpse under the faded quilts, her unbound hair spread out on the pillow showing the snarls the night wind had teased in it. Her eyes were open, but Ingrid had no idea what she saw.

Ingrid sat on the edge of the bed and picked up the comb that lay on the chest. Slowly, gently, she began to run it through her sister’s hair, singing softly.

“Hushaby, don’t you cry
.

Go to sleepy, little baby
.

When you wake, you shall have

All the pretty little horses.”

“Ingrid?” Grace’s voice was little more than a whisper.

“Yes, Grace. I’m here.”

“I didn’t mean to … I was under the water. It was so heavy, I was so tired. I was afraid I would drown. My lungs were freezing. He held me. He told me he would keep me safe. I cried to go home. He said I could, but that I must promise to come back. He was so lonely. I promised.” She paused, and her chest heaved in a silent sob. “I don’t want to go, Ingrid.”

“You will not go.” Ingrid gently teased out one more snarl. “I promise.”

“He calls me. He calls me by my promise and he is never quiet. I didn’t know before, but I do now, and he calls …”

Ingrid gripped her sister’s shoulder. “Do not listen to him, Grace. He had no right to bind you so. You must not listen.”

“So cold.” Ingrid bit her lip to hear how much her sister sounded like the ghost.

Ingrid wrapped her arms around Grace and held her close, rocking gently back and forth. “He will not have you, sister. I swear by God in Heaven he will not have you.”

Avanasy watched Ingrid Loftfield fall into step with her family, her back straight, and her hands gathering up her hems to keep them out of the way of her long, swinging stride. Her auburn hair had come loose during her night’s adventures, and fell in dark curls down the back of her neck.

“Well, well, the one that got away, eh?” A hand slapped him hard on the shoulder. He turned his eyes from Ingrid to see Roman Thorfeld, a bony, blue-eyed man grinning at him, showing all his tobacco-stained teeth. Avanasy cursed himself for staring too long.

“I was just thinkin’ about her poor sister,” he said mildly, falling into the lower speech the fishermen favored. “Gone right out of her head I figger.”


Ja
,
ja
.” Thorfeld, like a number of the men grown up on the shores of Lake Superior seemed to speak a blend of three or four different languages. He was not a vicious man, just of a coarse upbringing, and now he shook his head heavily. “ ‘S a shame too. They’re good people, the Loftfields. ‘S a sorry shame.”

“And we’re doin’ mithin’ ‘tall for ‘em by standin’ here,” announced Elias Ilkka, a squat, dark Finnishman, tough as tarred rope and the nominal leader of the itinerant fisherman who clung to the shore of Sand Island. “Let’s get to it, boys.”

The men voiced their agreement in their various tongues, and trooped to the docks in a mass. Avanasy stayed with them. It was not what he wanted, but he feared that if he begged off, it would direct more talk at the Loftfields and plenty of that already swirled around him. Every incident, every encounter or interaction, especially involving the unfortunate Grace, was remembered, kicked over, examined, and improved upon. It went on all through the day, even out on the gray waters with the sharp wind pouring over them and all the work of rope, sail, net and the great loads of silver-blue fish to attend to. Omens for the misbegotten voyage were remembered, and Grace’s wild ways. Her mother was a Catholic, it was said repeatedly, with many a sagacious nod, and her sister at twenty-three showed no signs of marrying, even with Everett Lederle hanging about her door like a hungry dog.

With all this gossip, all of it relishing its own stories, all of it essentially wrong, Avanasy found it hard to lose himself in the work, as he usually did. By the time they came in at late afternoon, it was all he could do to make himself help with sluicing the decks and hanging the nets up to dry. As soon as he was able he retreated to the shack on the shore where he lived amidst a cluster of other fishermen, each in their own summer shack. Come winter they would all head across to the mainland and turn to timbering for the season.

Come winter, what will you do?
Avanasy dropped into his rough chair and stared at the banked coals in his tin stove.

After a time, he got up, poked the fire to life, put the remainder of the morning coffee on to heat, and lit his pipe with a splinter. He’d acquired the habit of both the brew and the bowl shortly after coming here, observing them to be the norm for the men around him, and he had to admit he found them both pleasant enough, if harsh. Like the backbreaking work on the boats, there was a rough enjoyment to be had in them, along with the singing, the gossip, the drink, and the wild beauty of the islands. He’d thought himself content. Not comfortable, to be sure, and there were days when the easy familiarity of his fellow fishers could still slap up hard against his pride. But content. Content enough.

Until last night.

He’d lied when he told Ingrid he’d been awake for too much thinking. He’d woken because he’d felt a change in the air. Something unchancy, Roman Thorfeld would have called it, and that was as good a word as any. He’d felt such things before in this world on the far shore of the Land of Death and Spirit, but those sensations had been fleeting, momentary brushes with whatever spirit powers this world held. He’d felt nothing so strong and so steady since he’d left Isavalta. All his blood sang in his veins at the touch of power, real power, and he’d gone to meet it like a lover.

There he’d found Ingrid Loftfield facing down a dead man, and about to die for it.

He hadn’t even thought. He’d drawn his knife, and charged. Thankfully, the ghost had with him something of the living world it was using as an anchor, or else Avanasy would have done little more with his blade than annoy it.

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