Clare stripped the tiny, prickly thorns from the wild white roses and handed the sprays to the village maids. She smiled at their chattering excitement, aware that many hoped to win a sweetheart today.
They will sing and dance, and some will leap through the flames with their lovers for luck. It will be a good day. She had already milked the cows, and as Lady of the Midsummer Revels, she had a free day today and tomorrow, so all was very well indeed.
"There." She passed the final stem to Mary, her cousin, who snatched it from her hands.
"I would not be you, Clare, stuck in that knobby wooden chair all day, paraded around the fields," Mary said nastily. A few of the other maids smirked, but Clare merely shrugged. She knew Mary and the others had not wanted to be the Lady today, to bear responsibility for the land and its harvest. Now that they had their wish, however, some envied her.
"I shall walk the fields and tend the bonfire, too," she replied cheerfully. "It should be a good burn."
Mary patted the rose stem into her straggly black hair, dislodging several white petals from her garland. "Watch that the wood-devil does not come for you tonight," she went on. "I saw him glowering at you yesterday."
Clare pitied Mary her bitterness even as she wondered at its root. Mary had living parents, a dowry, and a hard-working betrothed, and still she was unsatisfied. Clare had no father, a mother she was forbidden to see, no land, and a bed each night in a cow shed; yet to her, each day was full of promise, a blessing to be savored.
"Haakon spoke to me courteously, as he always does," she said, aware of the many listening ears. "He told me the trick with the rose stems."
"Oh!" gasped several of the village girls, bringing their hands up to their mouths, but none, Clare noted, tore the roses from their hair.
Leaving them to their confusion, Clare nodded to them and sped toward the high field to check on the unlit bonfire. She hoped she might find Haakon there. For devil's-mark or not, he was a big, blond fellow, and she liked him very much. Day-dreaming of being swept up in his strong, sinewy arms, of his falling sick one day and tending him herself in his cottage, of him talking to her all that midsummer day, she glided up the steep, rolling fields without a care in all heaven and earth.
An hour later and she was back in the village at the church door—a door from which a girl with no money, like herself, would never be married—but then she told herself firmly not to be sad. The day was blue and gold, she wore a new white gown, and the whole village had gathered here, watching as Father Peter sprinkled her carrying chair with holy water.
Mary was right. It was knobby, Clare thought, and knew at once if Haakon had made it, the struts would have been as smooth as water. Four men, chosen by lot, stood beside the chair poles, ready to bear her aloft.
"Who shall put the lady into her chair?" Father Peter called, his voice ringing as it did in church.
By custom it was the reeve, a wheezing though game old man, but now Haakon stepped forward, big as the church steeple, dressed in his best green tunic. "I will," he offered.
There was a silence which Clare filled before others did. "That will be most welcome, good sir." She stressed good, to remind Father Peter that Haakon was a godly man, and held out her hands to the woodman. In the bright June sun, he was as handsome as an angel but for the red birthmark staining his chin and right cheek. His green-blue eyes were warm, not cold, and his lips curved into a generous smile.
He may bear a devil mark, but by his actions he is a good man, an honorable man. She had asked after him around the village while she milked the cows and so knew that he had supported his elderly parents and given his sister a fair dowry. But for the accidental mark—which was no more than the stain on a beast's coat—Haakon could have had his pick of the maids.
And he has chosen me.
"My lady." To her surprise and secret delight, he strode to her and knelt at her feet. Now he looked up and a quiver of laughter furred his deep voice. "It will be my pleasure."
Clare bit her lip, aware that at this moment, birthmark or no, every maid in the village envied her. Impulsively, she brushed his broad shoulders with the oxlips she carried. "A lady's blessing," she said aloud and knew she had done right when she heard a sigh from the older matrons. She tucked a bloom behind his right ear, realizing that his color was suddenly more than the devil's mark: he was blushing.
At once she felt her own cheeks begin to burn. Had she been too bold?
"Thank you," he said softly and lifted her straight off her feet into his arms, sweeping her into the carrying chair an instant later. Clare closed her eyes at the giddy speed, feeling like a tumbling swift but also very safe, and then was sorry again once his warm, strong hands had left her.
He bowed and turned to Father Peter. "I shall walk with you, father."
"That is as it should be," the priest began. A loud cry made him break off, and the priest frowned at the vulgar interruption.