Some character names, to keep you straight. The family's name is Bede, and the sons and daughters, with their ages, are:

Khalon, 27 (married Andra)
Kostya, 23
Gilbert, 21
Hoffen, 20
Amadeus, 19
Hayden, 17

Karla, 25Fiana, 25 (married Granger)
Verda, 22 (married Mercer)
Ceri, 19
Asha, 18Rhoslyn, 16


Rhoslyn raced across the darkening fields. How had she lost track of the time again? It would be the third time this week she was late for the milking, if she couldn't beat the sun home tonight. She glanced to the west. Only a small sliver of sun still shone above the horizon. Ahead, across the field, the house and barn glowed orange in the last rays of dying daylight. She gathered her skirt in her hands and ran faster. A figure emerged from the barn, still halfway across the field but recognizable from the slick hair and angry stance. Rhoslyn groaned. Of course it was Hayden in charge of bringing the cows in tonight. The youngest of her older brothers always seemed to be frowning at something, and never had a good word to say to anyone, least of all his only younger sibling.

"You're late again!" Hayden shouted to her as she reached the yard fence. "Three times in a week, and you're delaying supper, which means I'll be late getting to town tonight, and I have important business to take care of."

Rhoslyn rolled her eyes, but said nothing, hoping ignoring him as she hurried into the barn would make him go away.

No such luck. Hayden followed her into the barn and stood with his arms folded, watching her as she fetched the milking stool pail and hurried to the first of their six cows.

"What are you up to, anyway?" he asked, "staying out till all hours of the evenin? You should've been home from school hours ago. What will people think? Do you have any consideration for the rest of us? If everyone didn't know you had your head buried in some book instead of a man's lap, then Khalon'd be forced to whip you into line. Wish he'd do it anyway," he added.

Rhoslyn shoved the first pail of milk at him. "Make yourself useful and take this in to Andra. She'll want it for the babies," she said.

Hayden took the pail but made no move to leave, glaring at her as she moved over the second cow in the line. "Where were you?" he asked again.

She grimaced at him. "At the school, where do you think? Old Master Keene wanted my help with a translation he's doing, to see if it sounded well." It was only half a lie. She had finished with that an hour ago, and had just been dawdling and reading in the meadows, but Hayden didn't need to know that. Maybe if he thought she was doing something useful to someone, he wouldn't mind as much.

Her brother snorted. "That old fool of a schoolmaster? No one'll ever read whatever he's translating anyway, except the students he forces it on every year, and none of them care."

"Dad cares," Rhoslyn said. "He said I should help out the Master anytime I want, and glad of it." She was on the last cow by now. "If you're not going to bring that milk in to Andra, then help take these to the cold cellar. They're all for the butter Karla wants to churn tomorrow."

Hayden took two of the buckets and left, grumbling under his breath. Rhoslyn finished with the last cow and took that bucket as well as the two others and headed for the house. She dropped the milk off in the cold cellar and then hurried into the great dining room.

The room was full of people and noise. Khalon, the oldest, paced back and forth trying to quiet his and Andra's newest baby, who never seemed to stop crying. His wife, Andra, shouted orders at their older two children to sit down and be quiet, while simultaneously directing the placement of food. Karla, the oldest sister, was talking to Hayden with a frown on her face, while her twin Fiana sat nursing her own baby. Kostya, the next oldest son, was carving a ham and putting it on plates that Verda, the next oldest daughter, provided. Gilbert and Hoffen, the next two oldest boys, were deep in conversation at one end of the table while Amadeus and Ceri, the next oldest siblings and also twins, tried to engage the quiet attention of Khalon and Andra's children. Asha, the youngest girl but for Rhoslyn, sat quietly waiting for dinner to be served. Their father sat at the head of the table, absorbed in some book. Rhoslyn made directly for him.

"Hullo, Da," she said, putting a hand on his shoulder.

The old man looked up and beamed. "Rhoslyn! There you are. We were beginning to worry."

Rhoslyn grinned. "I doubt you'd miss me in this mess of people!" she exclaimed. "What is everyone doing here tonight?"

Mr. Bede looked about, as if noticing the crowd for the first time. "I'm not sure. Fiana came to show off the baby, I think, and everyone else seemed to follow." He shrugged. "I guess it's a bit hectic, but no more so than old days."

The twelve Bede children, six girls and six boys, had grown up together in this house, but as the older ones married off one by one, the household had dwindled until only Mr. Bede, Rhoslyn, Hayden, Asha, Karla, and Khalon, his wife, and children, remained.

Rhoslyn sat next to him. "What are you reading there, Dad?" she asked.

"Oh this?" the old man's face lit up. "It's this wonderful book all about machines. Look at this picture, here," he said, showing her a convoluted and detailed drawing full of springs and levers and pulleys. "This guy Flugen thinks that a machine made to this scheme could actually make a man fly. Can you imagine that, Rhoslyn? To fly through the air like a bird!"

Rhoslyn shook her head in wonder. "That'd sure be amazing," she said, "but I can't make back nor front of the drawing."

Her father chuckled, but just then Khalon shouted for him to say grace so they could eat, and they turned to their meal, the flying machine forgotten.

It was good to see all her brothers and sisters again, Rhoslyn thought. She rarely saw any of them anymore, for they were absorbed with their own lives and families. With only Hayden around for a brother (for Khalon, eleven years older than she was and the acting head of the farm, seemed more a younger father rather than a brother), she tended to forget how nice some of her other brothers were. Of course, with only Asha and Karla around for sisters, she had almost forgotten how strange her other sisters were. Karla, though her younger twin Fiana had four children and her older brother Khalon three, had never married, preferring to stay and help run the farm with Andra and Khalon. Khalon took care of the fields, Karla of the animals, and Andra of the household itself. The arrangement worked nicely, for Karla had an affinity with and a firm hand for animals that her brother and sister-in-law lacked, and Andra, Rhosyln thought, was a much better cook than either of her eldest siblings. Asha, on the other hand, was as shy and sweetly retiring as Karla was bold and rough, and though Karla lost patience with her for her meekness and Rhoslyn lost patience with her for her total lack of interest in schooling, she was a great help to Andra and they all still loved her dearly.

The rest of the sisters were a different matter. Though their temperaments varied from each other greatly, they had all taken a greater concern in social life than either of the other three. It seemed that as long as Rhoslyn could remember, Verda, two years younger than Karla and Fiana, had been walking out and flirting with the boys of the town, while Fiana had always been surrounded by a fluttering, perfumed crowd of girlfriends. Ceri, along with her twin brother Amadeus, had always been up to great pranks at school and had been great favorites among the young people of town of both sexes. Though Asha had been too shy to make the same social splash as her siblings, she had submitted to all of their teachings about dress and make up and hair, and so the girls still adored her. Karla, who snubbed her nose at them in favor of work out of doors, and Rhoslyn, who had always been too dreamily immersed in a world of fantasy to pay attention, however, got a bit of a cold shoulder from the other three. Still, they had all had their part in raising her, Asha, and Hayden after their mother had died when Rhoslyn was six.

The brothers, on the other hand, were all impressed with Karla's work and amusedly tolerant of Rhoslyn's dreaming, and so the youngest had found herself something of a favorite pet to her brothers, except for Hayden. She missed their laughing interest in her books now that she had only Hayden's constant grumbling.

After they had all finished eating, the men withdrew for the parlor to catch up on the news. The women scattered about: Asha and Ceri helped Fiana put her baby and Andra's brood to bed, while Andra, Karla, and Rhoslyn washed the dishes and put the food away, and Verda, five months pregnant, sat at the long table with her eyes closed. Tasks finished, her sisters joined her.

The latest news of all of the nieces and nephews had to be exchanged first, from all the details of Fiana's latest infant to Andra's oldest's first horse ride without the guiding rein. The conversation meandered on from there, touching on aggravating neighbors, a new delivery at the store in town, which Verda's husband owned, the dry weather, and the sundry other topics that made up the concerns of the family of village women. Eventually the topic turned, as Rhoslyn had feared it might, to the subject of marriage.

"We all know Karla's a confirmed old maid," said Verda, laughing, "but really it's about time you and Rhoslyn get yourselves settled down, Asha. Got your eye on any man in town?" she winked.

"Oh! No," said Asha, blushing. "So many of the boys are nice, but I could never bring myself to—no, but when Father or Khalon decide for me, I'll of course obey. I hope they do soon," she added anxiously. "Your children are so darling, and I'd like some of my own."

"Old George Cooper's got a son that just finished up school, I think," said Fiana. "He's a nice boy, I always thought, and the Coopers are set up nicely in town."

Verda made a face. "All of the Coopers have huge noses," she said. "Ugh! I wouldn't want to marry one of them!"

"That whole family was real nice," Karla countered, "and that's what Asha'd want, not some handsome drunk like the ones you hang with, Verda!"

"Which reminds me," said Ceri. "You've sure been seen an awful lot with that Andres guy, the innkeeper, Verda," she said, raising an eyebrow. "You sure that baby belongs to Mercer?"

Verda smirked. "He thinks it does, and that's all that matters. Too many sales have made Mercer fat and slow, but that innkeeper's lean and strong and good for a lonely girl sometimes." She shrugged. "But it could go either way, I'll admit."

"You wouldn't!" exclaimed Fiana. "Verda! That's awful."

"You saying you ain't never found a handsome bit of flesh to warm your bed at night when Granger's in the city for the fair, Fiana?" Verda asked with a leer.

"Certainly not! At the very least, I know that all my babies are my husband's," Fiana said.

"You've always been entirely too concerned with men, Verda," said Karla. "But the truth always outs, and I don't think Mercer'll be too happy when he finds out."

"I've got him under control, don't you worry, sister," she said with a shrug. She turned suddenly to Rhoslyn. "And what about you? You don't think Dad will let you stay dreaming with books all your life, do you?"

"Maybe not, but I'm certainly not marrying anyone around here," said Rhoslyn, frowning.

"What's wrong with the men around here," asked Andra. "They've done well enough by us."

"I want to marry a man with a house full of books, who'll let me do nothing but read and study all the time, and who will read and study with me," said Rhoslyn. "I want someone sweet and charming, who loves me, someone not tied to this dusty little village but who's been out in the great wide world and seen a thing or two. Someone who's battled dragons and forged rivers and gone on exciting quests and who will swoop in and sweep me off my feet all in an instant." She sighed, visions of white chargers and tall men dancing before her eyes. "Well, maybe not the dragon bit," she said, realizing her sisters were all staring at her.

Karla laughed. "Life's not one of your fairy tales, little one," she said. "You'll settle for some local boy soon enough."

"You could marry a trader," Asha said, "they've been out and seen the world."

Rhoslyn blushed. Why had she said those things? She knew they were silly, and she knew how her sisters would take them. She frowned. "I know it's just dreams. But then I'm not going to marry anyone. I'll learn and be a school teacher and take over for Old Master Keene when he retires."

"If Father and Khalon don't force you on someone first," Verda agreed. "After all, it's not like someone'd take you voluntarily."

Fiana hushed her, and then the men of the family returned to the room, and it was time for the sisters to leave. Hayden left with them and his brothers, saying he'd go have a drink with Hoffen and Gilbert.

Rhoslyn followed Asha upstairs to bed, but she didn't go to sleep. The conversation with her sisters boiled in her head, and she knew only one thing to help calm her mind. She left the candle burning and pulled a book from her pocket, settling in for a long night's read.