Saturday, May 16, 2015

Family -A Short Story

I hate being woken up by shouts. It’s bad enough when they’re my own, and Jack is whining and licking my face to bring me out of the nightmare.

But when it’s outside, it means the screaming won’t end when I wake up.

Jack spent the night wandering the woods, searching for signs of spring, so at least I don’t trip over him as I roll off the mattress and grope for the bucket. I get confused for a minute, thinking I’m seeing double in the pre-dawn light.  But no, the second bucket is for my piss, which the tanners find delightful. Frankly, if anyone had told me a pregnant woman’s piss had alchemical properties a year ago, I’d be thinking they’d been working on their hides too long and needed more sunlight and fresh air.

But it means the tanner’s guild sends a poor young apprentice loping up the road every morning to collect it, which saves me a job, so I’m not complaining.

I barf into the proper bucket, because anyone who says morning sickness ends when you start to swell has not been blessed with my anatomy and can take theirs to the nearest boghole. With or without the assistance of my boot.

Another muffled yelp, and I am up and pulling back the bolts on the front door while three figures are still dragging themselves into the courtyard. The goat lifts her head, but she’s almost as gravid as me so watches this morning’s entertainment from the comfort of her straw bed at the east side of the clearing.

I’m not sure what I expected, but this isn’t it. Usually if I’m woken up in the middle of the night it’s a white faced young man who’s about to be a father… or, more often, a white faced young woman who does not want to be a mother. Not… Well, two strapping young lads dragging their friend between them, and even from here I can tell the embroidery on their cuffs could feed our little household for a month of feast days.

I glance down at my own dark red apron. On the one hand, the cloth is nothing much, and I haven’t seen fine embroidery up close in over ten years. On the other hand, my dark red apron means I promise not to turn three bloody strangers away at my door, and that is its own kind of respectability.
A warm hand on my shoulder, and I don’t need to turn around to know that Bram is awake, too, and will stand with me in this as he does in all things. He is another kind of respectability I never thought I’d find, and I lean back just a bit, to feel his warmth across my whole back.

“Sister!” one of the men shouts, slightly shorter than the other two but still holding up his friend as high as the taller man on the far side, “We beg your mercy!” The man slung in between has stopped shouting, and gone limp. Another sort of mercy, that.

I nod, “You are welcome,” and prop the door open with the nearest heavy object. Ah yes, the bucket. Something about the formality of their greeting and our… modest… surroundings makes the smile on my face less serene and more twisted than it strictly should be, under the circumstances.

They bring their burden in and lay him down on our mattress. I’m relieved I filled it with fresh straw a few weeks ago, when I realized the goat’s bed smelled better than my own.

And now, all other thoughts are set aside as I go to the work, “What happened?” I ask, because what they don’t tell me and what the poor fellow’s body does will bring me different sorts of truth. I hear Bram going to the fire and stirring the coals to coax some heat into the kettle of water positioned there. I hope we will only need tea.

The shorter one coughs. He has knelt down on my right side, hovering protectively but not yet in my way so I don’t move him. “He… was injured.”

I raise my eyebrows but keep facing the young man before me. I carefully pick out bloody fabric pressed into the shallow wounds on his forearms. The blood makes my nose tingle, and I wonder if I’ll need one of the buckets. But no, my stomach stays settled, though the tingling extends across my cheeks and scalp and then down my spine.

His skin is paler than mine used to be, and I was a swan swimming in milk or moonlight, depending on the wandering poet’s gift for metaphor.  It is soft, too, to match the elegance of his very fine embroidery. I frown a little; the design is familiar… but not quite right. Certainly not the red and gold of our baron, long may he benevolently neglect his people, nor the silver and black of the next closest barony on the other side of our dark mountain.

“Were you there when he was injured?” I ask, though from their drawn faces I doubt he would be so far gone if they had.

“No,” the taller one steps forward and kneels on my other side. His hand drifts forward, but only hovers above the silk and velvet. His hand is much darker even than Bram, marking him an outlander. The golden signet ring on his hand shows he is high ranking—perhaps a foster child between high houses, for I know in my bones these are more than prosperous merchant sons. “We found him thus.”

I find what I was looking for, then… head wounds bleed, but the damage is inside his thick skull. This is what even the best priced blood sucker in the city could not heal, the wounds deep inside.
I turn to Bram, and he’s already pouring the tea, “Thank you, my love,” I murmur, and take the cup he offers me. The other two wait until I’ve sipped from my little mug before they sip from theirs. 

Yes, more than merchant sons, if they live with that sort of fear riding their shoulders. I smile to myself, or maybe I’m paranoid in my old age and they were just being polite, letting a lady drink first.

The tea has a refreshing quality, stimulating the blood, and is my own special recipe. The young men’s eyes lose a little of their haze and they watch me more intently as I put my cup down and start humming. It is a small weaving song I learned two lifetimes ago, and it helps me find my center before I venture out.

I press my hands against his bare chest, with the elegant bones sticking out a little more than is fashionable, and I wonder at someone who wears velvet and goes hungry.

And then I stop wondering, and bite my tongue. I might have pulled out a silver blade forged by the full moon’s light if I were more ambitious or catered to other people’s fancies. But there is something primal about tooth and bone that appeals to She who gives the gift and provides the work, and I try to keep her amused above all things.

I stop humming and spit my blood into his shallow arm wounds. They aren’t the source of his head injury, obviously, but they are the quickest way to them.

I feel the tingling across my whole body, set it aside as one notices the rising and falling of a pale, skinny chest. Natural and noted and politely dismissed. My blood in his body, his body becomes known to me like my own. I’m suddenly grateful he’s gone unconscious; while it’s only a shadow of what I feel, I know that my patients get a sense of my own body in this moment of transition, and I am not sure what he’d think of feeling briefly but thoroughly pregnant.

His body… hurts. Oh yes. I send the tingling through the connection between us and feel the pain soak it up and ease. I dive deep, dodging the old scars and knots on his back, and inside his poor skull. There I pause, and wait for Her guidance. Perhaps I wait one heartbeat, perhaps one hundred.
Slowly I feel Her love for this young man bone deep, and begin shivering. Bram brings my body a blanket, but I can’t speak thanks. She takes him to Her heart and lets him rest his burden at Her breast, and then… he gasps, his eyes flying open all unseeing, and we both are stunned by the pain of Her sudden, terrible absence.

Tears leak from our eyes, then, before the young man slips into a deeper, healthier sleep.
 Bram wraps his arm around me and shuffles me to the table, where my mug of tea awaits me. The tall, dark man stays at his friend’s side; the shorter one follows us diffidently.

“Thank you, Lady.”

I smile crookedly into my mug, but only shrug, “It is Her gift, and it flows freely or not at all.”
He is too well trained to shift his weight from foot to foot, but his eyes are bright, “Simeon will be …alright?”

I put my mug down, and glance at Bram. His eyebrows are furrowed. We both know what the visible wounds mean—he was defending his head, while someone thrashed at him with a blunt, narrow weapon. Not a cut purse, not a highwayman, not the duels that young men of spirit sometimes find themselves falling into against all odds and carefully away from where the city magistrates might stop them.

Bram opens his hand palm up towards me, and I nod, “He needs to stay here to finish healing. She has taken him to Her bosom, I cannot release him into the wilderness until he has the strength to bare it without Her.”

The young man bites his lower lip, unsure how much of what I’m saying is pious nonsense or gods’ truth. Frankly, I don’t know either but She hasn’t withdrawn Her blessing from me yet, so I smile placidly and sip my tea again.

“George,” says the man still at Simeon’s side, “Let him stay here as long as the Blood Sister allows.”
I take pity on the young men, now, “I can keep him safe from whatever hounds him while he rests within my walls. When he is strong enough to leave, I suggest he goes on a pilgrimage to give thanks to Her who healed him. A very long pilgrimage, very far away from …here.” My oblique gesture takes in my cottage, the woods, perhaps even the person who dealt those wounds.

They glance at each other, their dissimilar faces twinned by their obvious relief. I lean briefly against Bram, wondering if he and I were ever that young, ever that relieved an adult would handle things from this point on.

They nod and Bram and I finish our tea and go out to do our chores. The chickens are unimpressed that She visited us this morning and merely want their feed. If ever I feel the need to be humbled, I spend time with our handful of hens.

Bram works on repairing the fence around the rabbit hutch, while I move through the yard. I think I have some neck bones I can make a broth out of; that will do nicely for our injured guest when he wakes. Homemade cider and cheese will have to do for our other guests; I meant to bake fresh bread yesterday, but the child growing within me had other ideas.

I pause in the doorway to see if I will be rewarded with a kick or punch, the life inside me bursting out in spasms of joy. Instead of the quiet roiling in the deep I feel the earth vibrate with iron-shod hooves. I look back over my shoulder but Bram is already turned towards the path in the forest; hammer slung casually over his shoulder but his knees bent slightly, ready.

“Come to me,” I murmur past the knot in my throat, and for a moment I fear he doesn’t hear… but then Bram turns towards me and smiles and I am relieved of my doubts. He strides through the yard and puts his left arm around my waist, holding me snug. He holds his hammer loosely at his side, but he doesn’t put it down.

The friends of my patient notice the commotion outside, and I can feel their nervousness fill the space between us. They don’t seem surprised, which tells me what I need to know.

I take what pride I can from my reputation: if someone is in dire need of medical attention, they know they can seek it in my clearing in the woods without question or fortune. Unfortunately, that means everyone else knows where they likely went, too.

Bram murmurs in my ear, “Do you need to face them alone?”

I shake my head no. Not that Her presence in my veins ever leaves me truly alone; my tongue is still tender from this morning’s work. My voice feels as thick as my sore tongue, but he deserves words, “I don’t know yet what She will ask of me, but I would like your help with it.”

He nods and gives me a little private squeeze and my veins thrill with more than just Her glory.
The riders, in matching green and gold livery, finally come up the path. The modest company of a dozen or so guards make no effort to still their noisy harness or protect themselves from unseen attackers. Their horses, wiser than they, stop at the edge of the clearing. The riders’ careful formation stumbles and I tamp down my own childish glee at their consternation.

They get themselves back in order professionally fast, but despite surreptitious spurs and then more obvious urging, the horses brace themselves and take no further steps within the clearing.

Finally, one of the guards accepts things as they are and calls, “Greet you. We seek your assistance.”
My eyebrows rise, and I consider my options. Frankly, I feel tired, and that is what settles me on my path. Perhaps others would be filled with righteous anger or pity or something more appropriate for the ballad makers, but I just shake my head, “I’m sorry, but we cannot help you.” I turn towards Bram and we both go inside the cottage and close the door, latching it firmly behind us.

Bram stirs the coals in the fire again, while I prepare the broth. I don’t recognize the crests on the guards’ tabards, though that shouldn’t mean much to a hedgewitch who’s never left her hedge. Lani, the  tanner’s apprentice who is most often sent to gather my morning bucket, has been full of the gossip from the Baron’s keep. He recently called a noble hunting party there; that gathering would certainly explain the interesting collection of velvets and signet rings before me, and that will have to do until one of the young men divulges more.

“Um, Lady…” says George, his face a complicated mess of barely repressed confusion and dismay, “What are you doing?”

“I am making soup for your friend… Simeon, was it? Yes,” I feel pleased I remember my patient’s name, and smile warmly at George, “Once that’s sorted out, I’ll put together something for you and your friend. I don’t think I caught his name…”

The tall one unfolds from the floor and stands up. His thick crown of tiny braids almost brushes the crossbeams of the cottage, but he holds himself straight after his deep bow of formal greeting, “Isidore Bellencamp, my Lady. But… perhaps you don’t understand? Those guards at your gate… they have come for Simeon.”

“Yes, well, they can’t have him,” I smile as I chop onions. Bram chuckles behind me, and it warms me to my bones.

“Lady,” George’s voice turns patient, almost coaxing, “They are of Simeon’s household. They will claim you have no right to keep him.”

I shrug and smile again, “It’s true, I don’t. He is his own and he has a right to sleep undisturbed and that is what I shall do until he asks me for assistance in some other way.”

George opens his mouth to argue again, but Bram interrupts him and gestures at the wall, “They cannot see inside, with the lantern turned low and it bright out there. Go, see what they are doing if you cannot trust the Lady.”

Isidore stands still, watching my knife flash. George goes to the window and looks out of it. I hear him suck in his breath.

“Are they all still bunched up like nervous sheep, or have they spread out?” I ask.

“The ones I can see are spread out around the edge of the clearing.”

“Testing for gaps they can push their poor horses through,” says Bram, brushing off his knees,

“Eventually they’ll find that nothing passes into our clearing without Her permission, and they’ll either all leave or send back a runner for new orders.”

I finish preparing the soup and Bram pours out the cider. He also finds some smoked sausage in the loft and a few green peas from the back garden. I suspect he enjoys going out the back door and pointedly ignoring the outriders lurking in the woods there. I do like peas, though getting them before the pigeons and deer do can be a fierce battle. She may keep out armed men, but She welcomes deer and pigeons and squirrels and rabbits, curse their velvety pink noses.

I check on my patient, but he still sleeps and I hope his dreams are restful.

We sit down to lunch, and George launches into some complicated story in which he is the butt of every jest and we can’t help but laugh until our sides ache. We are about halfway through the cheese, and more than halfway through the cider, when I hear Jack’s happy bark outside.

He is a curious dog, and horses hold no fear for him. I stand up, but Bram is faster. He opens the front door, but a quick soldier grabs Jack by his collar. I clench my fists, prepared to do what I must—but the thin collar breaks in the soldier’s grip and Jack runs to us, eager for an easy lunch after all the forest squirrels were too fast for him.

I exhale and Bram rubs Jack’s ears.

Isidore breaks the silence, “We are grateful for your hospitality, Lady, but we cannot stay here until the guard grows bored of their assignment. We have already put you in unexpected danger, our continued presence risks too much.”

“Will your family—can your family—protect you from whomever gives orders to those guards?” Bram asks them. They look at each other, then down at the floor.

“Do the guards know what part you played in getting Simeon here? If you were to get home safely, unseen, would you be pursued past your family’s walls? Would there be repercussions for your families if you were discovered here?”

Isidore frowns, but George shakes his head, his mouth wide open to deny, when I hear another shout outside—a child’s yelp, and I’m at the doorway as the soldiers lift the poor tanner’s apprentice into the air. Unfortunately, the child’s tunic is made of thicker hide than Jack’s collar, and Lani looks white with fear though some native intelligence has made her go silent as her feet dangle in midair.
“Maybe I can talk to them,” says George, and I’ve no doubt his golden tongue has talked many an explosive situation down, but… no.

I am done.

The blood in my veins burns.

And so, ten times fiercer, does the blood running in the veins of all the soldiers that ring my home.
The child gets dropped, finds her feet, and pauses for a moment, unsure which way to bolt.
“Go home!” I shout to her, for the fewer folks they have trapped in my cottage the safer we all are. Her eyes grow big, but she knows what all those fancy matching uniforms mean as well as I do, and disappears into the woods along rabbit runs and deer paths that only the local children know.

The horses, sensible beasts, decide that I mean this command to them, as well, and run off with their riders dangling helplessly as they beat at non-existant flames burning their bones. Eventually the heat will dissipate, but hopefully they will remember not to harass helpless children long after today is but a warm memory.

I grab the doorframe to steady my own feet, suddenly unsure under all the extra weight I carry, and turn to face these familiar strangers.

The young men look at me as if I have all the answers. Their faith makes me feel wretched, for I only know how to live my own life, not save theirs.

Bram breaks the silence, putting a hand on George’s shoulder, “If you wish to return to your homes, now is the safest time to do so. Whether they return to their barracks for new orders or come straight back here once their horses are calmed, the guards will take some time to regroup.”

Isidore looks out the empty window, desire flashing over his face, but then he closes his eyes and shakes his head, “Lady, we brought him here, we cannot abandon him—or you—and call ourselves honorable men.”

George blinks, but nods silently a moment later.

I nod slightly at his adorably noble words, then go back to my cider. Burning soldiers to almost-death takes a lot out of a person.

The men lean together, murmuring tactics between themselves, and I settle into myself in my chair by the hearth, humming.

I do not know the name or face of the person who hurt Simeon, but I know the outline of them: physically weak, or the welts would have cut deeper, but holding some great power over the boy so that he doesn’t fight back or run away. What that power is—filial duty, a younger sibling, a lifetime of harsh words and weak faith—will tell me much. As it is, though, I fall asleep while pondering this face in shadow.

I wake up from a vague dream of of searching for something precious I’ve lost, when Simeon suddenly coughs and looks around himself blinking. His friends leap up and go to him faster than my hips will let me, but that’s fine. His healing is less about potions and tinctures, at this point, and more about comrades anyway.

I do bring him a mug of my good tea, and he sips at it cautiously. His friends say something teasing about not holding his liquor, and color—a good, healthy color—springs to his cheeks. I dump out the bucket Lani was unable to collect, then I wander around the table, gathering dishes, but I feel restless and leave them behind only half stacked.

I find Bram outside, chopping wood we don’t need. I wait patiently until he finishes splitting the log into kindling, then hand him a mug of tea.

“It’s cold,” I apologize.

“It’s good cold,” he says, shrugging.

“Are you well?”

He gulps the rest of the tea, “No. But I will be. I… I thought it would help if I cleaned Simeon’s wounds while he slept…” he shakes his head, and I put my hand on his arm to give what comfort it can. He doesn’t shake it off. He just stands looking blankly at the empty road until a chuckle escapes him.


“The guard who held Lani… did you do it on purpose?”

I frown, “What?”

He laughs properly, now, and I have to grin even though I’m not sure why, “Oh, it’s Her own sense of humor, then, or the worst bad luck a pauper can buy. Lani must have stopped at Becca’s house first, which would explain why she was so late to ours…”

I giggle, now. Becca’s so big she suspects there are two little babes wrestling inside her, though considering her other children take after their mountain of a father, it’s no real surprise she’s so much bigger than me. She also is the best baker this side of the river. No doubt Becca was making a big batch of something so delicious that Lani thought it was worth lingering overlong by her oven, for the chance at a fresh baked treat.

I wander over to the edge of the clearing, and sure enough there is a very empty bucket lying on its side, much like the one I emptied into the midden earlier.

Bram follows close behind me, and nudges the bucket with his toe. The ground is dry beneath it, and we giggle like children, imagining the haughty guard covered in a bucketful of piss.

Isidore and George find us leaning against each other, wiping the tears from our eyes. We explain our good humor, and they chuckle too, though not quite as gaily.

Bram’s voice is still filled with mirth when he changes the subject, “If you’re going to be staying with us, then I insist you let us extend our hospitality a little further—My spare shirts won’t fit you at all, but they will smell better than your crushed velvet does.”

They grin abashedly, and suddenly my heart opens and they fall into it. Oh, I may barely be a mother but I know that fierce love and anyone who intends to hurt my little, temporary family, should tremble in fear.

They duck back inside the cottage and play dress up in the rag bin, until all three young men are clothed in more comfortable clothes.

Simeon chuckles weakly at his faded, patched tunic and insists on getting up from the mattress. I set a place for him at the table chopping the last root vegetables from the back of the cellar while I start making journey bread. Bram raises an eyebrow when I get the biggest bowl out, but turns to the other young men and announces it’s time for them to earn their keep.

Bram sets them to chopping wood, while Jack watches from the doorway with his tongue sticking out, laughing at their near misses. I can hear a lot of swearing and not many clean breaks, but it keeps them out of mischief while I knead the dough and hum my baking songs.

While the dough rises I make more tea. I show Simeon how to shape a knob of dough into a snake or the sun, little childish games that my aunt played with me. His smile is polite, but there is too much tension around his eyes for bread to fix.

The wood thunking takes on a different quality, and when I peek out the window I see Bram is pulling one of his throwing axes out of a tree next to the road. Simeon has finished all the little tasks I’ve set him, so I suggest we go outside and watch my man show off. He smiles agreeably enough and after I set the bread in the oven we join the others outside.

It feels good in the sun, and it feels better to watch the men play. Simeon is offered a chance at the ax, but waves off his friends and sits down on the chopping block before I have to embarrass him by insisting he is still too weak to try.

Eventually, laughing, Bram hands me the ax and I throw and miss the target by such a wide margin even Simeon chuckles quietly behind his hand. I take that as my cue to check the bread in the oven, and leave Bram to his work.

The bread is a lovely golden brown color, like my hens’ feathers in the sun. I set the bread to cool and make a quick pie from lunch’s leftovers and some greens from the back garden. I finish the abandoned dishes and sweep the floors. The men show no sign of coming in. I feel unsettled, still.

I rummage in my chest at the bottom of the bed and find old paper and older ink. The oxblood needs just a touch of water, though, and it’s fine enough to write out the various messages I suspect need to be written. Hopefully my precautions will be unnecessary, but hope is a thin soup to rely on.

With the last heat of the oven warming more broth and the last sun lighting their way, the men stomp into the house. Bram clucks at me for doing too much, and I admit I’m tired. Abashed, the boys—for the afternoon has wiped any signs of age from their faces-- insist I sit down by the fire and then serve up dinner themselves. I am tired, it’s true, but I also feel content with this day’s work. Simeon still does not move as carelessly as his friends, but I’m sure some clarity has settled upon him, or at least some comfort. She leaves a mark, invisible to the eye, that still can be seen.

Our stomachs full, we sit quietly enjoying the peace for a bit. Then Bram sets the others tasks to put the animals right before bed or to scrub the dishes. He insists I stay by the banked embers and I don’t feel like arguing. I close my eyes, as my mind goes over the day’s events, seeking patterns or explanations.

The face in the shadows draws closer, and I consider the old scars on Simeon’s body. Of course, just as Her passage leaves no mark but still affects us, the dark’s power is just as real even if there isn’t a scar for every golden chance the shadow devours.

I am not as old as I look to Simeon and his friends, but I have studied the dark and the shadows it casts as deeply as any scholar with a beard as long as his robe. It has sent soldiers to scare us, and we showed no fear. It will send at least one more creature to try and bend our wills before it comes itself, I think. There are variations on the tale, of course, and maybe the shadow will cloak itself in a mask or three, to trick or seduce us itself rather than send a minion.

But I consider the velvet, and the weakness of the arm that dealt the blows, and I think the face in shadow will wait a little longer, safe in its shadow. We may have unexpected guests for a week or longer before the shadow gives in to curiousity or is consumed by fear and lashes out with its bejeweled hands.

The young men sleep on pallets on the floor, and Bram helps me up the ladder into the loft, where we make a cozy bed below the garlic and herbs, hanging from the roof beams. We whisper between ourselves, just as the young men do, and fall asleep content we are of one mind.

I almost knock over my bucket, and bite down a curse when a snore below reminds me we are not alone this early morning. Bram squeezes my hand but lets me do my business before pulling me back to bed. Maybe the chickens can wait a little longer for their breakfast.

I wake again when someone trips over a bench, and Bram and I grin at each other in the morning’s lazy light. He is out of bed first, and I smile to see the peace on his face. If I do no other good thing, I think rescuing his soul from the dark future he thought was his fate will be enough to grant me a star in the sky. A small one, but especially shiny.

Bram shimmies down the ladder while I’m still addressing my morning bucket. I wonder if I should save it for Lani, or if she will stay away for fear of what new monsters my clearing might have attracted. I peek out from under the eaves, but there are no soldiers pointing swords in my direction, so I shrug and go carefully down the ladder.

George has mastered the fire, and is pouring out tea with a great sense of accomplishment. Simeon, Isidore and Bram have gone out to deal with the livestock. This leaves me at loose ends, so I pull out a small blanket I’d saved for the baby and hem it by the fire. All the doors and windows are open wide, and the day is bright and fine, so when the men come back I suggest we build a big fire and boil the dirty clothes that have been piling up. The young men’s velvets I never did learn to clean, between one thing and another, but their underthings can be boiled and scrubbed as neatly as mine.

We usually get our drinking water higher up the stream, where it is a little sweeter, but for wash water there’s no reason to leave our clearing; the swimming hole at its southern end will do fine. With all the extra help, Bram doesn’t mind hauling the fire wood or the water, and I avoid answering his raised eyebrows when I instruct the young men how to wash all the fabric in the house.

Isidore has no trouble taking down the curtains, and George and Simeon strip the mattresses and collect the wash rags, too. I throw in some of the good soap flakes, made from last autumn’s butchered pig and scented with lavender I grew myself.

Bram laughs and scrounges up extra rope from the lean-to, as our regular clothesline is just right for two. He hangs a temporary rope from the back door to the apple tree I hope to sit under when the babe comes.

The men are damp and sweating, and for once on wash day I feel bright and cheerful. I take the scrubbed clothes and hang them out to dry, and promise them that their clothes will be ready to wear again, after they spend the afternoon swimming in the pond.

Bram collects some rabbit snares and fishing nets, though he grumbles the boys’ noise will chase off any game that might otherwise stumble his way. I give him a hamper with wrinkled fruit and fresh cheese and a jug of cider and shoo them off. I have work to do.

I use the warm water to wash the windows and scrub the floors. Jack decides that, lovely though the patch of sun by the front door is, it would be wiser to seek a drier bed and dances towards the men at the pond. When the floors are scrubbed I make my own hamper, and include an almost-dry change of clothes and follow the forest path until it meets the stream, a good ten minute walk away from my cottage.

I lay the clean clothes on the bank to finish drying, and place my short boots next to them. Then, with a brave breath, I march into the stream. The water here is cold, but I’ve worked up a sweat and don’t mind its bite as much as I did a month ago, when the air was colder and my ankles weren’t as swollen. I wade out to the middle of the stream, where it’s just past my knees. I plop down in the water with a handful of soap flakes and scrub my hair and all the rest of me, including the underdress and smock I’m still wearing.

They get a bath too, and then with a quick shy glance around me for appearance sake, I strip all my wet clothes off and lay them on the bank, too.

I ease myself back into the water. My stomach’s roundness still surprises me, and I rub it gently when I wash it. I duck my hair under the water a few times, and when it’s clear I sip the sweet water from my cupped hands. I can feel the baby swim in me, as I swim in the stream, and I wonder what She thinks of all this life in life.

There’s a rustle in the bushes, but it’s just Jack come to check on me. His other human found he whuffles off and I sigh. My fingers are wrinkled, it’s time to leave the water.

I dress in my clean clothes, and stretch out on the bank with a slice of leftover pie from last night. The water’s soft music almost puts me to sleep. Instead, I roust myself and walk back to the cottage, humming a lullaby the water reminded me of.

I pause on the forest path when my cottage is in view. I can’t remember if I left the door open or shut, but I’m sure the windows were open when I left. I wanted to make sure the fresh air did its part to dry out the floor. Now, everything is closed tight as a miser’s purse.

I listen, but I don’t hear anything but birds and the wind through the fresh green leaves. I get about ten feet away from the cottage and call out, “Hello the house!”

Bram opens the top half of the door, and motions me closer. I trust him, but I also trust my blood and it isn’t buzzing like a bees’ nest of warning, so I come close.

“We weathered an attack, but I think it would be good if you give us more time before you return,” he murmurs, softening the parting with a kiss. I smile and nod. I don’t need to be part of every significant moment, after all.

“There’s some weeding I need to do,” I say, and kiss him back. I toss my other clothes on the branch of the apple tree to finish airing out among its blossoms, and take my empty lunch basket with me to the garden.

I weed around the herbs, the occasional bruised leaf’s smell entertaining my nose. When the bed looks good enough, I gather a few herbs for a treat for the hens. They cluck and scratch and I check on the goat but she’s got a few more days to go and just blinks at me as she chews her feed.

I’m leaning on her fence, wondering if I should try to find something else useful to do when Bram comes out and leans next to me.

“Safe to come in, yet?”

“Soon,” he says, staring into the darkly green woods, “Soon. She sent his brother.”

“Which she?” I ask, considering the woods as well.

“His mother. She sent his older brother to check on him, make sure Simeon was alright. He couldn’t get into the clearing, though, which seemed to shock him.”

“He probably needed a good shocking. I expect he hasn’t had many ways blocked to him.”

“He is the oldest son of a great lord.”

“Of course he is.”

“And he insisted she was worried and then he warned that she was angry.”

“Of course she is. And I wonder if, without Simeon to take her anger out on, she’s treating her older son less well.”

Bram shrugs, “I didn’t see any marks on him, but he certainly wasn’t happy that Simeon didn’t immediately pull his forelock and follow him home with his tail between his legs.”

“What about George and Isidore?”

“They had gone back to the cottage for more lunch, so they missed most of the encounter.”

“But you were there.”

“I was.”

I sigh, “Oh, Bram, don’t tease me.”

He chuckles and bumps my shoulder with his, “When coaxing and warning didn’t work, he lost his temper a bit. Started shouting that Simeon was a worthless baggage and not worth all the money his doting parents had invested in him.”

My lip curls up into a snarl. As if people—one’s own children, even—are only as valuable as their usefulness.

“So I turned my back on him and smiled at Simeon and said, ‘Isn’t it interesting how, for someone so worthless, your mother is spending so very much trying to get you back.’ And Simeon laughed. It wasn’t the greatest guffaw I’ve ever gotten, but it will do.”

My eyes gleam with pride, “And how did his brother take that?”

“He took himself off, after he threw some words about blood being thicker than water at us.”

I harrumph a little, “It may be, but if I was wandering in a desert, I know which I would rather drink.”

We glance at each other and smile, and one of his hands reaches over to caress my belly, “Of course, our family will be different.”

I sniff, “Of course. And we’ll make mistakes and our children will get angry at us and we’ll get angry at them. But they will be their own people and we will apologize when we are wrong and they will always know they can laugh.”

“Children, eh? How many are you thinking of, my love? Am I going to have to build another room on our house?”

I lean into him, “We’ll figure it out as we go along, I expect.”

We spend some time figuring things out, until George coughs and we pull away from each other slowly.

“We’ve been talking. Simeon seems much better, now,” says George, his voice a little rougher than the golden tones I’ve already become used to, “And Isidore’s family of birth wouldn’t mind if he came home a little early from his journey, especially if he brought a friend home. And they live far enough away that they wouldn’t care what Simeon’s family thought about it.”

“That is a good plan,” Bram says slowly, after I squeeze his hand, “Simeon is much improved and has Her blessing, but one more night under our roof will be very important for his ongoing health.”

George frowns, so I put my hand out, “Come inside and at least have another meal with us before you go.”

George acquiesces as we each take an elbow and propel him back into the cottage. I collect all the journey bread I made yesterday, and wrap it carefully in waxed paper parcels. The young men gather their clean dry clothes from outside. Their movements are not urgent, but they are firm in purpose. Bram and I catch each other’s eye many times, but all we can do is shrug. They will find their path with or without us, the least we can do is not throw broken glass in their way.

We have spare bags from market days that we give them, filled with bread and Bram’s old clothes. It isn’t much, but it certainly is better than what they came with. The sun will set very soon, and Bram gets them to agree that heading out once the sun has set and the full moon has risen is the safest thing.

We fill their bellies up on thick rabbit stew and sweet bread and make sure they know how to get from here to the next town big enough they can trade some of their smaller rings for fast, sound horses. We pull benches outside under the apple tree, to watch the sun set beyond the woods, and Isidore pulls out a reed flute he made while the men paddled in the pond. The music he plays for us is not like the simple songs I sing to myself, but it has a beauty that calls to me nonetheless. The baby kicks as it dances inside me. Jack howls along with the song, and we laugh a little sadly at the parting that comes too soon.

Then Jack’s howl is taken up by other, darker voices, and we stop laughing.

George stands up from the bench first, but I’m happy to see that Simeon is right behind him, while Isidore and Bram flank the other two, scanning the woods. The howls get louder, and clearly come from the forest path that the guards took this morning.

I sit where I am, and watch.

Grey and white and tan hunting hounds tumble to a stop at the edge of the clearing. Even by the tricky light of the setting sun, it’s clear their ribs stick out as much as Simeon’s do. I don’t growl, but Jack does and I don’t shush him.

A few guards and masters of the hunt, in matching green and gold livery, pull up on either side of the path. Perhaps other guards wander around the edge but I know we can safely ignore them. I watch the path, and finally the face I have been waiting for comes out of the shadows.

She is here; the way Simeon’s back stiffens in front of me I know who she is.

One of her guards helps her down from her huge white horse. She marches to the edge of the clearing and glares at our little party.

“Simeon, come,” she orders, in the same tones I’ve heard masters of the hunt use on their hounds.
He breathes in sharply, and I hope the apple flower scented air steadies him. I have to believe something does. Maybe the nearness of his friends, or maybe the last whisper of Her passing. She feels close to me this evening, and my blood sings like the songs Isidore played on his pipes.

“No,” he says. Bram has turned slightly toward Simeon, so I can see the big smile on his face and I silently cheer the young man on, “I will not. I will stay here until I am ready to go elsewhere, and then I will go there.”

Her mouth would drop open if it were not so well-bred. Her eyes flash, and I know that she may be thwarted but she is not done, “Simeon! You owe it to your family to return. You owe me, your father, the luxury you have grown up in, the tutors we have thrown at your feet!”

“No,” he says again, and I can feel him savoring the word like a fine wine in his mouth, “I did not ask for luxury. I did not ask to be your child, and I did not want the things you gave me.”

I hear the unspoken words, the ones asking for love and care and gentleness, the birthright of every child. The things I doubt he got.

She stiffens and looks around her at the silent audience her grand ego required. I hope she regrets them now.

“You… must…” I can’t see his face, but clearly she can see that this line of attack won’t work any longer. Quickly she shifts, because she is not actually stupid. Just the wrong kind of clever, “Simeon, I am your mother. I need my son with me by my side.”

Her voice has changed again, sweet and loving. Simeon’s arm twitches, and then I see that he has grabbed George’s hand. Or maybe George has grabbed his. Either way, their hands hold each other tight.

“You have a son, Lady Caroline, and a daughter, too. They will have to be enough, I want no more of you and your mothering.”

Her eyes flash, and her arm also twitches. There’s movement behind her, in the gathering dark. I can’t see well, but Bram’s eyes are trained well and I feel frightened when I see his dear face go cold.
Then I see. I see a small figure, even smaller than Lani. Her robe is long and dark green, more like the guards than the woman’s court garb.

“Iris, Simeon doesn’t love you any more.”

The girl trembles, staring at Simeon with dark eyes.

The woman’s arm comes down, and her riding crop hits the girl’s narrow shoulder right where the seam of her gown would dig in most, “If he loved you he would make the pain stop. He is making me hurt you because he has hurt me. He is a bad son and a bad brother.”

Simeon’s back is unreadable. The tiny girl, Iris, does not weep aloud but I can see tears running down her cheeks.

Thwack, thwack. The crop comes down. We watch.

The woman pauses, I think more because her arm is tired than because the moment is right. She calls softly to Simeon, “You can make it stop.”

I hear his shuddering breath, and I wonder if Iris was the only one crying silently in my clearing in the dark, “No, I cannot. I could never make you do anything you didn’t want to do. Something in you wants to hurt me, to hurt all of us, and I can’t understand that. I… I will not understand that. I will not let you turn me into a monster like you. I do not give you permission.”

This doesn’t sound like a magnificent battle cry to me, but he knows his mother better than I do.
“Kill!” she screams at her hungry dogs, and they lunge… but they cannot come past the boundaries of my clearing, “Kill!” she screams again, and they do what they have been trained to do.

The guards still on horseback do best, as their horses decide to run away and take them with them. The handlers who keep their wits about them, and perhaps who also were kind or maybe just lucky, manage to calm and control the animals who turn towards them.

I get up and Bram takes my elbow and we approach the edge of the clearing. The young men rush ahead of us, all three focusing on Iris. The girl ran away from her mother, as soon as she could, and made it most of the way into my clearing before the dogs got her. Her right foot is barely a foot anymore, though.

Simeon looks at me, tears in his eyes, “Sister… Lady… please.”

I take his hand, for blood calls to blood, and place it on her leg. She is with him, as I suspected, and we feel Her pass through him and into his sister. I remove my hand, for it is a gift She has given him, now, and none of my doing. We all stare as the skin under his hand knits together over sinew and bone.

“What,” says George.

Iris’s eyes are huge in her face, and she stares up at her brother with something firmly between fear and relief.

“I…” says Simeon, and then he collapses next to his sister on the ground.

“Take them inside,” I say, “She has given Simeon her blessing, twice in two days. They need to rest. And I must clean up this mess.”

Isidore frowns, “Is he now a Blood… Brother?”

I shrug, “Ask him when he wakes. Now he needs to rest.”

Bram coaxes the others along and they all go in while I survey the damage.

There are only three dead, their throats ripped out, and I see that none of their fellow handlers have made any move to cover their faces or offer the smallest death blessing, so I must assume the dogs chose well. The handlers have certainly moved on past any blessing I can give.

“Sister, I beg your mercy.”

I glance around at the handlers still standing, but none of them are bloody enough to chance my touch. I turn, and look down at her broken body, and the mess she has made. So much blood on her hands, and she would still seek more.

I kneel down, but do not touch her bloody skin; I shake my head, “No.”

Her eyes widen in shock, but I get no thrill of pleasure in seeing her surprise.

“But, Blood Sisters cannot take a life!”

Her breathing slows, gutters like a candle almost out.

“It’s true, we do not take life. But sometimes, Lady Caroline, we give death.”

I watch in silence as her last breath leaves her body and whatever is left after that steps into the last great merciful dark. Someone must watch and make sure, to give what comfort this certainty can give to those she has hurt.

I hear footsteps and Bram’s familiar breathing, “Is she gone?”

“Yes," I sigh. 

Bram tugs me by the elbow, and I rise slowly to my feet, facing her corpse. I wonder if we should build a bonfire, to throw the bodies on before they stink. That might do for the dead dog handlers, but the Baron might frown at us burning up his guest, even a dead one. I glance at the carnage around us, and wonder what the Baron will think of it all. I sigh again.

Bram squeezes my elbow, “Iris will heal.”

“Skin heals much faster than hearts,” I reply absentmindedly. Maybe just a little fire, on her right foot.

Bram wraps his whole arm around me, though gives up trying to drag me away. Finally his warmth burrows through my dress and skin and reaches my heart. I inhale, and lean against him.

"I don't know what to do with all these... people."

He chuckles and murmurs into my ear, “Does our babe need an older sister?”

I laugh, and finally let him turn me away from the dark woods, “I did say I wanted a big family.”

“Come into the house, my love, and I will make you tea.”

I lean into him, and see the bright lanterns burning through the windows of our home. There are people inside the cottage waiting for us. Maybe they will have bright ideas, or maybe they will just tell us jokes and make music and the dark will listen and laugh along with us.

“Yes, it is definitely time for tea.”