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I watched for the Midsummer's eve bonfire from my lair on Bald Pate. I meant to return to the village a year to the day I'd left for the Kingswood. But why should the day matter? The seasons go round the year and never come back, for, as everyone knows, time moves in a spiral, not a circle. To persist in folly made me no less a fool. Once I'd counted myself brave for venturing into the Kingswood alone; now I wondered if it would not have been braver to stay among people. Solitude had withered around me like a husk. Yet I stayed until the bonfire released me.
On Midsummer morning I walked down through the ripening fields to the croft of Na's sister, Az. I carried my sheepskin cloak under one arm and shaded my eyes with my hand. A great humming and chaffering of insects rose around me as I walked, as if the fields had a voice under the Sun.
When I stepped through the gate into the mud-walled yard, the croft seemed deserted save for the hens scratching around the stone feet of the granary and a sow sleeping in the Sun. But I saw smoke coming from the summer kitchen, a lean-to built against the hut and roofed by the huge leaves of a golden hopvine that clambered up the poles. The yard smelled of dung and dust and meat cooking.
I stooped under the pitched roof of the lean-to and peered inside. Az was squatting by the fire pit in the scattered yellow light that came through the leaves. She was smaller than I remembered, and I wondered if she'd dwindled since I saw her last. I hadn't thought she was so old. Her head grew forward from the rounded hump of her shoulders, and she had to strain to look up at me. I couldn't bear for her not to recognize me, so I called out, "Az, it's me, Luck, that used to come by with Na. Are you in health? How is Na?" After a year in the woods without speaking, the words stuck to my tongue.
Az got to her feet, steadying herself on my arm, and came into the light. "Ah, Luck, did you think I wouldn't know you and your red hair? You look to be on fire with the Sun behind you like that. Come and sit." She led me to the croft's guardian tree, a rowan, and we sat on the ground in its shade. Az pulled her shawl close around her, though it was a warm day. The pattern was the loveknot; I'd made the shawl myself as a present for Na. I thought of the Dame, how she never could make a weaver of me. My mind would go wandering and leave my fingers to fumble, and mistakes unnoticed had to be picked out later. But Na had treasured the shawl. I wondered why Az wore it.
"How does Na fare these days? I don't want to go to the manor, so I hoped you might send one of the boys for her."
Az shook her head. "Na is gone. Carried off by the shiver-and-shake this winter. Others too: Min and two of his daughters, and some of those Herders who live off by themselves and never get along with anybody. Dame Lyra caught it too and miscarried. It was bad this year, with all the snows and the cold."
I was silent for a while, and wouldn't look at her. "I should have been here. With the Dame gone you were in need of a healer."
Az said, "Nothing to be done, it was that quick. I know Na missed you, though. She'd come to visit Peacedays, and we'd talk of you living on white bread and cream at the king's court."
A year ago, I'd stood beside Na watching the dancers around the bonfire, and told her I was going to the city of Ramus, where the king lived, to find work as a dyer. It was a likely lie, likelier than the truth. I lacked patience as a weaver, but I'd been drawn to the mysteries of dyestuffs and mordants, the transformations in the dyebaths. It was a kind of green lore, and all such lore came easily to me, as if I had only to recollect it rather than to learn it for the first time.
Now my lie came back to shame me. How could I admit I'd been in the Kingswood, so near at hand when Na was dying?
Az cocked her head and looked me over with her shiny black eyes. I'd taken care to wash before leaving the Kingswood, but my hair was a bramble thicket, my dress a rag, and my feet bare and hard as horn. She sighed. "But I see you were never at court. I wouldn't bother to kill a chicken as skinny as you. Wouldn't be worth the coals to cook it."
She fetched me a slab of unleavened barley bread and a bowl of greens stewed with bacon. I dipped the bread into the stew and crammed it into my mouth. Tears ran down and salted it. I was too full of sensation, I was drowning in it: the taste of meat after long fasting, the smell of burning wood, the flood of words coming up from underground, the sweet welcome and sad news.
Az let me eat and cry in peace until curiosity overmatched her courtesy. "So where did you go, then? You look wild as a bog wight come to scare the children into bed."
I said, "I've been on a hard road, truth be told, and I gained nothing from it but a new name. I'm called Firethorn now." I'd never spoken my new name aloud before, and I felt as though I overreached. But for certain Luck did not fit me well anymore, and sometimes one must grow into a name.
"Firethorn suits you," was all Az said.
She didn't ask again where I had been, and I was grateful for it. She spun a thread of gossip around the manor and the village, saying Sire Pava had sent away the old priest when he grew forgetful, and the new one was a Sun priest and not a priest of the Heavens, and what use was he? He had no notion of how to read the weather or the stars and birds, how to tell by signs which day to plow and which to sow, when to dig a hole or breed the ram to the ewes; he never looked up at all, as far as she could see. The crops and flocks had suffered for it -- twenty lambs stillborn and another taken by an eagle, and a blight on the rye too.
And there was talk of war. It was said Sire Pava himself was going on campaign, and refused to wear hand-me-down armor from his father. He and the steward were squeezing the village hard to pay for his new harness and weapons. To be sure, a lot of coin stuck to Steward's fingers. "Rooster thinks he rules the henhouse, but Fox knows better," Az said.
Thinking of Na, I lost the thread. It was bitter to me that I'd turned my back on her before I left, had found so little to say to her in the way of farewell. Shouldn't I have known her time was short, or felt her need of me, even in the Kingswood? I put my head on my knees and Az fell silent. We sat like that for a time, under the rowan tree, while the chickens pecked for grain and a chiffchaff sang above our heads.
I'd fed on my pride a twelvemonth and it was near eaten up, but I didn't intend to go back to the manor and beg for a place as a scullion. Az let me know that I'd be welcome to stay, and gave me Na's second dress to wear and a rag to wrap around my head. The dress hung loose and left my calves bare. Still, it was more proper than what I wore out of the Kingswood. Soon her youngest son, Fleetfoot, came home to fetch the midday meal for the men in the fields, and I went to help him.
Az had borne ten children, and five boys had lived. The two married sons had built their crofts next to hers. Their huts shared the same wall and the gates were always open between the yards for the children to run in and out. Three sons still lived at home, but all five liked working their shares of the commons together.
It was a long walk to the field where they were haying, across the river ford and the valley to a high and stony meadow. One of the wives, Halm, came with Fleetfoot and me, with her baby slung in a shawl on one hip and a great basket on the other.
"I'm glad there's a rill up there," she said as we climbed the steep path. "I get so weary carrying the water bucket."
We called the men from the pool of shade cast by a great beech, and they came laughing and shouting. They'd stripped to loincloths, and the sweat shone on their brown shoulders and legs. Their bodies gave off heat, like horses. They ate and drank, tossing a few japes back and forth. One asked me where I'd been and I couldn't think how to answer. Another said, "Looks like her tongue swam away," and they laughed. I sat with my head averted, pretending not to watch. They drowsed until the shade moved away. The smell of sweat and cut hay and earth baking under the Sun went to my head like hard cider and made me dizzy.
And so I went to live among the villagers. Their houses were of mud mixed with dung and straw, daubed on a frame of poles and withies and thatched with reeds. They slept in one room and their animals in the next. Dirt was ground into their skin. Their clothes were as drab as peat and stone, fir and straw; the Blood reserved the most vivid dyes for their clan colors. Drudges spoke the Low among themselves, but they knew enough of the High to placate their masters. Now I saw that the villagers had another face than the one they turned to the manor. They never forgot that they were there first, before the Blood, born from the earth of those very mountains.
A cock belonging to the old alewife, Anile, was always the first to crow in the village, long before dawn. I rose at his summons to grind barley, oats, and rye for bread and porridge. Wheat went for taxes, so we never had the fine, leavened bread of the manor. The brothers complained until I learned to grind fine enough. We hid the mortar and pestle in a hole in the wall, because Sire Pava enforced his monopoly on milling. We'd take the miller a scant measure to make him think it was all we had, and he'd be sure to cheat us in turn.
Sometimes in the dark I heard the rhythmic scraping sound of other women grinding, and I wondered if in time I'd be worn smooth enough to fit in, smooth as an old mortar. A mudwoman's toil never ends and never lasts: clean clothes are dirtied, meals are swallowed, and there are always new weeds in the garden. I remembered the Kingswood, how I'd risen when I pleased -- forgetting how restless my sleep had been, and how I'd longed for even the humblest porridge. The tedious chores wore away at me, but I was glad to spare Az the worst of them. She was not as frail as she looked, but there was so much that needed doing. She said we pulled well in the same yoke, and whatever had she done before I came?
I learned to tell her sons apart. The youngest was called Fleetfoot because he won all the village races. He was still a smooth-cheeked boy, with a deep chest and lean flanks like a gazehound. The second youngest was Ot; he was proud of his new blond beard, roaming out of the house at night to show it to the village girls. I started calling him Wheatbeard and the name was apt, so he kept it. Maken was the eldest still at home and in no hurry to be wed, for girls and widows (and wives, Halm said) were fond of his merry hazel eyes and his wide shoulders, and many had found him a sweet nut come cracking time. I found him unsettling, myself, and it made me shy of him.
On Peacedays, the one idle day in every tennight, I'd watch the green youth of the village go courting, with their banter and raillery, forthright stares and sly glances. No one looked my way. I'd been fair enough before the Kingswood, I suppose, fair enough for Sire Pava. Now my ribs showed plain as those on a stray dog; my hips had hollows instead of dimpled flesh. When I looked at my face in a basin of water, my cheekbones and chin were too sharp, my eyes too deep and too dark.
I found I couldn't sleep under a roof and within walls, next to Az and her boys when they unrolled the pallets at night. I slept under the rowan tree, and even there I rested uneasy. Carnal's female avatar, that fat voluptuary Desire, sent me dreams, and with them her itch and tickle. Better if she'd come when Sire Pava wanted me; now she was too late. I ate as much as I could, but Az's sons were hungry, and I never had my fill.
I saw old friends from the manor on market days and on Peacedays, before the village shrine. Cook was shocked that I was so gaunt, and brought me savories from the manor table. She said Dame Lyra could curdle milk with a look since her miscarriage, and no wonder: Sire Pava had brought his mudwoman right into the manor, and she'd started another bastard with a daughter just off the tit. I dreaded seeing Sire Pava about the village, but he heeded me no more than the dirt he trod underfoot. I didn't want his notice, but it angered me to know I didn't trouble his mind in the least, while he troubled mine.
When I lived in the manor, I thought the villagers dull witted, with their lazy way of talking. They lopped off the end of every word, as if they couldn't be bothered to pronounce it plainly, and yet they used so many: they dawdled all around a tale when a straight path would have been quicker. But when Az and I would go visiting, words went galloping past and I'd stumble after.
They said they were living like toads under a harrow since Sire Pava had claimed an extra day of labor every tennight, leaving them only five for their own fields. They said Steward was always watching, prying. Nothing was beneath his notice; he'd skin a flea for its hide and tallow.
And some went on to say that although the old Dame had been too meddlesome by far with her herbs and potions -- being something of a cannywoman, after all -- and too strict to wink at even a little hole in a grain sack, she'd never stolen the food from between their teeth. It rankled me, this backward praise. I thought of how the Dame and I had gone into their crofts, bringing remedies for their ills, how she'd tended women and children with her own hands, how they'd blinked and looked away in the darkness of those stinking huts, shuttering the whites of their eyes. I'd supposed them shy, perhaps bewildered by her kindness, surely grateful. Now I heard their ingratitude and distrust. But I said nothing.
They talked about me as well when my back was turned. Az was too kind to tell me what they said, but Halm and Betwyx, the wives of Az's sons, told me how the tittle-tattles clucked that Sire Pava had tried me and found me lacking -- though a few said I'd run off to bear his child and bury it. I felt shame that such tales were bandied about. Perhaps they wanted my own account of it, good currency among the other wives, but I wouldn't oblige.
I gave the gossips another cud to chew, for I never said where I'd spent the year away. Neither the truth nor a lie would do, and that left only silence. Some took offense, saying I supposed I was too good for them. But all agreed that wherever I'd gone, I'd come back strange.
Word got about that I was god-bothered and the questions ceased. The Blood who are touched by a god are sent to the temples to serve as Auspices, or, if their wits are too addled, to be tended with care. Among the mudfolk, the god-bothered may become wandering Abstinents, pleasing their god by mortifying their flesh, or revelators who tell fortunes in the marketplace, or servants at a temple, drudging for the priests of the Blood. Most stay in their villages, sometimes shunned, sometimes sought after for their gifts of healing, hexing, or foretelling. Always pitied. It's said the gods most love those they most afflict. This I doubt.
As one of the god-bothered, I might have done anything -- raved of voices and visions, fallen down in fits or gone naked -- and no one would have been amazed, save Az and her sons. But I wished only to be unremarkable. If Ardor spoke to me now, it was no more than any woman might hear when she roused up the fire for the morning porridge: the fire song of Ardor Hearthkeeper.
A few women came to me for help, and then a few more. One pleaded for a blight to mar the smooth skin of her rival, and I sent her off with my rage at her heels; another asked for a charm to make her next child a boy, and I turned my back on her. But I did my best to soothe those who came to me with pains. I filled Az's hut with drying herbs, and her kitchen with tinctures and salves, and daily I brought home beneficial plants from hedgerows, fields, orchards, anywhere my duties took me.
I'd been mistaken to think the Dame was the only healer in the village. Every mudwoman knew simples and the charms that went with them to treat everyday complaints, but there was also a midwife and a woman who could cure a baby's colic with her spittle. The men had their own healer, of course; a woman could ease a man's aches, bruises, and fevers with a poultice or tisane, but if she touched his open wound, she'd sour his blood and cause the wound to fester. The men's carnifex, named Fex for short, came to his calling by way of gelding calves, colts, and hogs; his remedy for everything was leeches and more leeches.
They called me a greenwoman. I only did as the Dame had taught me, but they trusted me more now that they thought I was touched.
One morning Az saw three crows land in the yard while she was weeding the kitchen garden. The one on her left flew away over the wall; the middle one preened; the one on her right went into the byre and came out with a beakful of straw. I was next door with Halm and her baby and her daughter Lilt when Az called us to come and look. By the time we came, only one crow remained, strutting in the dust.
Az was shaken. "I must go to the Kingswood today. Will you come with me?"
Halm made the sign to turn bad luck away. "Why must you go there? Knock on Mischief's door, he's sure to bid you welcome." Like Na, like most of the village folk, she thought the forest was full of menace, and not just from the kingsmen. Those who thought otherwise were not inclined to speak of it.
I said I would go, and gladly. "We'll be back tomorrow," Az told Halm, and she gave me a basket to carry loaded with barley and a flask of goat's milk.
We followed the river toward its source in the mountains. The path climbed gently at first, then steeply, and I matched my pace to Az's. She panted as she climbed under the hot Sun, so I forbore to ask her questions until we stopped to rest in a field of blooming flax. Swallows darted over the field, the undersides of their wings catching the blue of the flowers.
"What did you see, Az? What does the omen say?"
To my surprise, Az began to cry. "The crows told me I'll have but one son left in my croft by wintertime, for one will fly and one will marry. We'll be begging the woodward for the king post to raise a new roof soon. Ah -- change is hard for an old woman! Even good news comes like a thief."
"You think Maken will marry? Who will he marry?" It was a question I pondered often at the time.
Az shrugged her humped shoulders. "The crow flew right over the village with the straw, and there's no telling where he came down. Plenty of women in his path. I worry more for Fleetfoot. I fear he might not live to grow a beard." She rubbed tears from her face with both hands. "Come, we have a ways to go."
There is a path the fallow deer use when they come down from the woods to nibble on the heavy heads of ripening grain. We followed it through the wall of brambles, out of the Sun and into the shadows under the trees, and then Az left the path and led me deep into the forest to the great oak, Heart of the Wood.
I knew where she was leading me, of course; every step was familiar. Yet I wondered at how I could have forgotten -- or put out of my mind -- the sense of presence that fills the Kingswood. I had been a creature of the wood, one among many, so enfolded in that vast life that I'd lost myself there for a time; now I was touched by awe and dread, like any trespasser who strays too far within those precincts.
Az did not seem afraid. She had me put the basket with the barley and goat's milk in a crotch of the great oak high above her head. Then she began a low chant, standing between two roots as thick as a man's thigh, rocking back and forth. I sat on the ground nearby, and after a while I fell into a shadow dream with my eyes wide open. Before me a green veil stirred in the wind, woven in a shifting pattern of leaf and branch, light and shadows. I looked at it sideways and caught a glimpse of a black horse galloping, its rider cloaked in a green flame. But soon I became aware of other shadows crowding close, at the edge of vision. I felt we had a multitude around us, and it raised the hair on my nape.
Az was still murmuring, rocking. She wept again.
Late in the afternoon she came out of her trance. She cut a green branch with a fine spray of leaves from Heart of the Wood, giving thanks as she did so, and led me away, sure of her steps even without a path. We climbed a steep slope and then descended into a ravine between two long ridges, where one of the streams that feed our river had cut deep into the rock. The shale walls of the gorge were covered with ferns, sprigs of twinflower, and brilliant green mosses lush from seeping waters. The stream was shallow, swift, and cold. We scrambled on slippery rocks and clung to roots and saplings. Az's breathing was harsh and her limbs trembled. I begged her to stop and take some food, for I'd gathered mushrooms and starchroot and berries on the way. She shook her head and we went on, unspeaking.
Darkness comes early deep in the mountains. By the time we reached our destination, the bright blue ribbon of sky overhead had turned cobalt. Az had led me to the headwater of the stream. Where the two long ridges joined, the waters of a spring tumbled out of a fissure in the cliff face into a pool littered with great boulders. One side of the ravine was a wall of pure gray clay. It had been mined over the years, and the diggers had left a wide shelf of clay next to the pool. We piled up leaves in a hollow, and Az and I curled up to sleep.
I spoke in a dream, and woke myself, though both word and dream escaped me. I saw three lights moving near us and shook Az in a panic. "No fear," Az said. "They're here to keep us from harm," and she went back to sleep.
In the morning she was more forthcoming. "Our dead are all through these woods," she told me. "We buried them here to keep them close, so they'd look after us, each one under a sapling according to their nature. Many of these trees are our people. Then the Blood came along and made us burn the dead. We've lost six generations since they came from Oversea, six generations wandering who knows where. But those who are left here still come at need, if they are not forgotten. I think soon they may be forgotten."
She pointed at the ridges. "In the beginning our people were fashioned from this clay, right here between the Thighs. You'll not come into your strength till you know what clay made you. This isn't your place."
Tears started to my eyes as if she'd struck me.
She leaned over and took my hand. "Don't take it hard. I'm only saying I don't need an omen bird to tell me you'll fly away again."
I went to find food while Az worked all morning, digging and shaping clay. By the time I came back, she'd made a clay woman about knee high, forming it around the oak branch so that a topknot of leaves sprouted from the head. She smoothed the clay until it was like skin, and incised spirals over the round breasts and belly. Last of all she scratched eyes in the featureless oval of the face. I was amazed and afraid to see how the clay woman looked back at us from her new eyes, and I wondered if Eorõe Artifex had been surprised, when she shaped our forebears, the first people, to feel the clay come to life in her hands.
We left the woman behind rubble in a dry niche in the rock. Az said Maken would come to fetch her when he was ready to build his house, and hide her in the wall to bring blessings.
Az was in good spirits on the way home, for she'd heard under the great oak that Fleetfoot would not be dying just yet. She knew he'd be leaving, but not where he'd go or whether he would return. She'd made him a clay man the size of two fingers, with an acorn for a heart. She wanted him to keep a bit of the earth he came from, to keep Mischief from crossing his path. But some fates are beyond our power to avert; the more Az fussed over Fleetfoot, knowing she'd lose him, the more surely she sent him away.
When harvest came we reaped daylong in the fields and went to sleep with straw in our hair and grit under our lids. The work hardened me, until I could keep up with the fastest reapers. Everything smelled dusty. The stone granary within the manor walls filled up while Steward and the priest, Divine Narigon, stood at the door making the tallies, watching each other like two cats.
I pinched my arms and legs to feel the fat under the skin. Az made me a new dress from cloth Na had left her, dyed a dark blue with woad. My tongue got quicker, and keener too. Laughter came hard to me, but Fleetfoot liked to tease me and make me smile. Life with the Dame was like a tapestry locked in a chest; I stopped taking it out to look at the colors. Nor did I think of my year in the Kingswood, though sometimes I dreamed of it.
All this talk of war: rumors flew like chaff above the threshing floor, and it was hard to find a grain of truth in all the dust. King Thyrse had campaigned nearly every summer of his reign, and he'd reigned since before I was born. People said he loved war nearly as well as hunting, and better than women (for he hadn't found the time between campaigns to take another wife after his first died barren). His battles meant no more to me than a rumormonger's songs, so long as he kept war from our gates and took it to others.
The Dame had filled her levy with horses instead of men: she had an old battle-scarred stallion that bred true, and a fine horsemaster to train his get. A good warhorse was worth five times his weight in foot soldiers. And if, every year, a few younger sons among the mudfolk were hungry and restless enough to run off to war, well then -- it made for peace in the village with the mischiefmakers gone.
This year was different. The king had summoned the troops to meet after the fall harvest, which meant a winter campaign. Nobody knew why but everybody made surmises. And it was true: Sire Pava was going to war. He'd called for four drudges from the village to serve as foot soldiers. Perhaps he wouldn't come home. Well rid if he didn't.
Messengers had gone back and forth between the master and his father, and Sire Pava had gone to Ramus to be fitted for his armor -- and very fine it was: a helmet topped with a crest of gilt steel feathers and armor covered in silvery scales like a fish. They said his horse's barding alone cost enough to feed us all for a year. He was spending money in the village too, buying leather fittings, cloth coarse and fine, hams and preserved ducks, cheeses, dried fruit, grain, a thousand things. But what he paid the armorers he took from us, in new taxes and fines for every small offense. It made for quarrels, as some drudges had coins for the first time and others said the granaries would be empty by midwinter, and famine would come calling. But the boys liked to sneak off and watch Sire Pava train for war, his new armor flashing in the Sun.
Fleetfoot and I went to see him too, climbing a tree that overlooked the outer court. He'd cut down the manor's guardian tree. Until I saw it with my own eyes, I had not believed it. That tree had been beloved, fed yearly with libations of ale and pruned into a perfect dome. As a child I used to hide in its branches and eat plums and cast the pits at Na when she came looking for me. Its leaves were dark, but when the Sun came through, they'd shone red as wine. Now there was nothing left of it but a bare trunk and two limbs to make a quintain for jousting, standing in a muddy field where once there'd been a garden, with paved paths and lavender and roses and benches of turf.
It had rained after tennights of cloudless skies, and turned chilly. Sire Pava and Divine Narigon chased each other on foot, whacking away with wooden swords weighted with lead. They slid in the mud, grunting and cursing. I turned my head and spat on the ground, but I could tell Fleetfoot was taken with the sight.
A little before the UpsideDown Days that mark the autumn Equinox, a company of men came to the manor on the way to the king's new war. I was in Az's croft pulling turnips from the kitchen garden when I saw the banners over the wall and heard the boys yelling. I ran with the other drudges to see the warriors, and stood at the back of the crowd to watch them enter the manor gates.
We were dazzled by the sight, for the Sun, which had hidden behind massy clouds all week, chose that moment to send her rays to gild the metal of armor and weapons. Each rider bore, on a pole strapped to his back, pennants of cloth-of-gold for the king and grass green for the clan of Crux, that streamed and fluttered in the wind; the men held the reins tight to make a better show, and their horses pulled at the bits and stamped and neighed as they jostled before the gate. Far down the valley road we could see, still in the shadow of the clouds, a convoy of foot soldiers, a train of oxcarts and baggage mules and spare mounts, and a pack of war dogs with their handlers. Two boys, pushing between legs to get a better view, slipped into the ditch beside the road and had to be pulled from the muddy water and then roundly cursed for their folly.
I mistook this troop of the Crux clan for an entire army. I couldn't count them all, for they moved about, but I guessed there were near a hundred horsemen and about the same number of men afoot. But as the Blood count, there were only sixteen in the company -- so I learned later -- for that was the number of cataphracts, and Sire Pava was to be the seventeenth. Seventeen is a strong number, not easily divided. Each of the cataphracts had an armiger, also of the Blood, to carry arms and fight on his shield side. These men were warriors who'd fight for the glory of it -- some of the glory being the plunder they'd bring home. Then there were the soldiers, mudmen who went to war at their masters' bidding: every cataphract had seven or eight armed varlets, several mounted, the rest on foot. But the Blood don't bother to number mudmen in a troop, neither alive nor among the dead on a battlefield.
The cataphracts were at the front, but we'd have known them anyway by their warhorses, which stood a good hand taller than the other mounts, and by their bright breastplates. Their helms were strapped to their servants' saddles. We could see their faces as they greeted Sire Pava and Dame Lyra at the outer gate. The eldest had a grizzled beard, though his hair was brown. His face was weathered, with a puckered scar running across his brow and down over the corner of his left eye. He dismounted first, moving as easily as a young man. He said, "Sire Pava, I bring you greetings from your father."
Sire Pava and Dame Lyra were kneeling right in the road before him -- though they had a drudge lay a piece of cloth on the ground first. Sire Pava had donned his new armor for the occasion. "We are honored by your visit, Sire Adhara dam Pictor by Falco, First of Crux," he said. "My manor is but a hovel, not worthy to shelter you, but you're welcome inside. I wish we had a better feast to set before you, but the food we have here is more fit for swine than people." Dame Lyra said something I couldn't hear for the noise. She looked fatter than when I'd last seen her; her complexion was pasty.
We onlookers could read the meaning of this pageant, for it's the custom to mouth such humble-tasting words to our betters. But it wasn't all false courtesy. This man was titled the Crux, the First of his clan, and he was the living representative of the god Crux among the god's descendants. He led the clan's Council of Houses, and when the need was dire, he was the Intercessor who summoned the Council of the Dead. His prayers reached the god when others failed. Furthermore, as little as we knew of the court, we knew this, for Sire Pava boasted of it often: Sire Adhara dam Pictor by Falco, First of Crux, had the king's ear.
I stared at him, this man who stood so near a god and a king. We all stared and were not beaten for it. Sire Pava likewise descended from Crux, who long ago visited the mudfolk in the avatar of the Sun. She mated with mortal men and bore sons, the forefathers of the houses of the clan. God's Blood ran in Sire Pava's veins, sure enough, but I'd never seen a spark of radiance in him before. Yet that day the Sun parted the clouds and shone on the Crux with such brightness that I had to shield my eyes, and I was in awe of him and all his company, even Sire Pava. No matter that she shone on us onlookers too: we were dull and did not partake of her glory, as they did in their armor.
The First of Crux bade Sire Pava rise and gave him the kiss of peace. We lingered, after they went inside, to watch the rest of the company straggle in: foot soldiers and oxen and mules and horses and dogs. At last a manor drudge came out with a broom and barrow to collect the dung from the road. She was too proud to share a crumb of news with the likes of us. I could imagine the feast and the bustle in the manor in every detail, but I was outside now, looking in with the rest of the village folk. I went home in a bad temper.
I found an excuse to go to the back gate of the manor, though I'd stayed away before; I took tart striveberries and purse nuts to Cook and asked her what tidings had come with the newcomers.
"I can't stand here nattering," she said. "Come keep me company."
I stepped just inside the back gate and leaned against the wall by the kitchen garden. "Well, what news?" I said.
"Will you look!" she said. "The worms are at the coleworts again." She knelt and began plucking greenworms from the leaves and crushing them under stones. She said the king meant to cross the Inward Sea and make war on Incus, and it was his sister, Queenmother Caelum, who begged him to do it, and in winter too. Who ever heard of warring in winter?
In my lifetime King Thyrse had campaigned to the north against surly, sheep-stealing clansmen, and strewn the stones of their keeps over their stony lands. To the south he'd conquered a tribe of little men who rode small, quick horses; they used bows and arrows, and for this profanation of killing at a distance the king had slaughtered them without mercy when he could catch them, man, woman, and child. To the east he'd won and lost and won again a fertile river valley. Never had he gone west to war against Incus, and I said so.
"Ah, but he did," Cook said. "Maybe it was before you came along. It was a matter of the border, I think, or some island or other. Afterward he married his sister to the king of Incus to keep the peace. When the king died she ruled as queen regent until her son, Prince Corvus, came into his age. They say he married a serpent woman and she has him tight in her coils (and her forked tongue tickling his ear besides), and since she couldn't abide Queenmother Caelum, he turned against his mother and locked her up in a northern keep. I heard the Crux say at table that the queenmother led her garrison all the way around the north shore of the Inward Sea and south to Ramus, and she lay on the ground before King Thyrse and rubbed dust in her hair, and begged him to restore her due. How could he deny his sister?"
"I don't see the sense in it. She'd go to war with her own son?"
"She says he's bewitched, and unfit to rule. But I don't know. The Crux's cook told me she's more clabber than cream, however sweet she seems, and he wouldn't blame the prince for hoping she'd catch her death of cold and damp up there in the north country."
Cook moved to the next row of coleworts. I followed her a few steps farther into the courtyard and asked about the troop staying at the manor, for that interested me more than this talk of a far-off kingdom. She said the Crux had been granted the right to take five hinds and a stag from the Kingswood, and as many fallow deer as he could drive; it showed how high he stood in the king's favor. He'd promised them to Sire Pava for the UpsideDown Days and the Equinox feast, and Pava was wagging his tail fit to break his back for pride at the honor.
And one of the younger cataphracts was said to be a by-blow of the king, fathered on a Crux woman to strengthen the clan. He stood to gain a fief if he did well in battle. Iza had been coupling with his jack, and Dame Lyra caught her and gave her a beating, said she should at least have picked an armiger if she was going to make a fool of herself.
I laughed so hard at this -- Iza was nearly thirty and too old to be chasing men -- that my headcloth came undone. As I tucked my hair back under it, I saw Sire Pava come out of the stables with some of the visitors. I hugged Cook hastily and turned to go.
"Luck, bring me some spicewort and jenny-o'-the-fields, if you can find any," she called out. She could not get used to my new name. "And come to see me in the kitchen sometimes so I can fatten you up."
I shook my head. I had not yet set foot inside the manor. I was waiting for the UpsideDown Days.
In the hand of days each year called the UpsideDown Days, five days belonging to no month or tennight, anything can happen. Low is high and high is low, and people seize chances they've been waiting for all year, or are seized by chances unlooked for. Many children are born nine months later, and are counted fortunate, though perhaps they get more than their share of beatings from the father in the house.
On the third of the Days, Sire Pava was hooked to a plow and driven with a switch by the oldest drudge. He plowed half a furrow and swore he'd do no more. One mudman called out, "Your furrow is short. I hope you don't flag so quick when you plow your wife," and another said, "Oh, he likes to plow well enough. It's the sowing he shirks." Sire Pava made some light answer, but he was displeased. Everyone knew he'd scattered his seed all over and had but two bastards to show for it. Dame Lyra squatted down and watered the field, holding her dress up so it should not get dirty. There were other rude japes for her, and I was glad to see how they chafed.
The third night was given to the god Carnal. Women wore their hair uncovered, all maids again, no shame in it. Men roamed from village to village, and any woman who didn't want a pricking stayed home and barred her door. We danced our way to the center of the spiral fields along the plowed strips, to make them ready for the winter sowing, and back out again, round and round until we were dizzy. We called the god, and the god came among us in the avatar of Desire. The Sun went down; we lit the pitch-pine torches, and the torches drifted farther apart, dipping and swaying and going out, as the dancers chose partners for a different dance.
A man with a torch came running up behind me and threw my shadow flickering ahead over the furrows. He seized my shoulder, turned me around, and kissed me. Not having much time to think about it, I bit him and pushed him away.
He laughed. There was a drop of blood on his lip. "I was hoping I'd find you," he said in the High, a language I'd not used for more than a year. "Red hair is lucky."
"Might not be lucky for you," I answered back. My heart was pounding hard enough to shake me. I held myself still, thinking: if I run, he'll catch me anyway, and believe I am playing coy. And thinking: maybe I don't wish to run.
He was one of the Blood. He'd shaved his beard, the better to show off his clan tattoo. Such was the fashion in Ramus -- or so we'd heard when Sire Pava had shaved too, and revealed his weak chin. This man had no such fault. He was breathing fast, and I saw the pulse jump in his neck. His long, curling hair was damp from dancing. He wore no surcoat, only a shirt and leggings, but those well made: his hose cut to the shape of his leg and gartered above the knee with jeweled ribands, and a shirt of linen so fine it was nearly transparent. A cataphract, then. An armiger was unlikely to dress so well.
He said, "Well, seen enough?" He held the torch high in one hand. With the other he caught my skirts and pulled me closer. He laughed to see me considering his question so seriously.
rdI liked his looks and his laugh that came so easily. I put my arms around his waist, stood on tiptoe, and kissed him. The taste was salty. "I'm not too skinny for you?"
He laughed again and replied with another kiss. He took my hand and we ran, far from the other lights. Behind a hawthorn hedge he drove the butt of the torch into the ground.
I asked, "Why don't you put it out?"
"Because I want to see you," he said.
We lay on earth turned and softened by the plow. He pushed up my dress, unlaced his hose, and I took the weight of a man willingly for the first time. There was not much pain, or pleasure either. I don't know why he wanted the torch. He kept his eyes shut most of the time.
When he was done he rolled off and lay on his side with his head propped on his hand, looking at me. The torch wavered and smoked as it burned low, casting shadows under his brow and cheekbones.
He asked my name.
"I'm called Firethorn."
He smiled and rubbed his lip where I'd bitten him. "I daresay you earned your name by being prickly," he said.
"It seems to me you have the prick," I retorted. He lay on his back and laughed. He had heavy eyelids, drooping at the outer edges. I began to like the shadow left by his shaven beard. I pushed my dress down around my legs and turned to look at him.
"What is your name, Sire?"
"And your mother's house?"
"Gods! Are you Sire Pava's kinsman, then?"
"Our mothers are sisters." He looked at me under his lids.
"Give me the rest, then -- your father's house?"
"Falco." This time he laughed at me, because my jaw hung open. He took a lock of hair that had fallen over my face and tucked it behind my ear.
"The First's son?"
"No, his nephew. Aren't you pleased? They'll make much of you in the village."
"Why should they? You'll be gone soon enough. Besides, what's done on the UpsideDown Days must not be mentioned." Now this Sire Galan dam Capella by Falco of Crux put me too much in mind of Sire Pava. The Blood think we should be honored by their touch, as they were honored when the gods mated with their ancestors. They don't imagine we might disagree.
The torch guttered out. I could see the bright road across the sky and the twelve godsigns in the stars. In the sky each sign writes a god's name. But arranged one after another, in dots of ink on sized linen, with marks above, right, or below to indicate the avatars, the signs can be made to mean almost anything. So the Dame had taught me, when she'd taught me to read.
I didn't need to wonder what she'd say if she saw me lying with a man in a field. Perhaps she did see me.
"Look, there's Crux," I said, pointing. I was glad of the dark, for blood had risen to my face.
"I'm surprised you know the stars," he murmured.
I bit back a short reply.
He said, "I saw you at the gate the other day. When your red hair got loose it was hard to miss. And I thought to myself: that one's mine, come Carnal Night." He put his hand between my thighs and I felt a pulse start under his touch. "I see you're red here too." His voice was not as sleepy.
There was balm in this. I was glad to be sought after. Better that than to think I was all he could catch. I pulled my dress over my head and persuaded his shirt to come off, and then his hose. I wanted the heat of his skin on my whole body.
The second time, I touched him wherever I pleased, wherever he pleased, and I marveled that we each had ceded to the other the right to wander freely in so much new territory. I found him embellished with scars: a long, thin line under his jawbone; a weal on his shin; a crescent-shaped ridge on his back; nicks and scratches everywhere. They were pale against his skin in the dark, and they gave my fingers something rough over which to linger. I said, this one? and he said a horse had kicked him. And this? He didn't remember, or had other games in mind.
We lay in the field all night. In the morning I was sore and covered with goose bumps. Under the Sun my tongue was tied. He said he'd find me again, but I didn't believe him. We parted on the hill where one footpath leads to the manor's front gate and the other to the crofts in the village. He flashed a grin at me and said farewell.
UpsideDown Days are fickle days. I'd found a man who pleased me well for a night beside a hedge. It was Carnal Night, and no wonder Desire's lamp had burned for us. I hoped to remember the hollow of his throat and the taste of his sweat, the feel of muscles shifting under his skin, his fingers digging into my haunches, for such are gifts of the festival.
For the rest, I meant to put Sire Galan out of my mind easily, and most of all the way he looked before the torch burned out, when I was first under him. He'd raised himself above me with his weight on his palms, and reared back his head and closed his eyes and plowed me deeper into the furrow. I could have been anyone, or no one, the earth itself, like the clods that crumbled under my hands.
But I was a fool to think Ardor was done with me. Surely a spark of Ardor Wildfire had kindled Desire's lamp, and showed me the unexpected path at my feet.
That evening Sire Galan found his way to Az's door and asked for me. I was surprised to see him, and glad in a way that worried me. He lifted me up for a kiss. It was the UpsideDown Days, so Az shrugged and shut the door, leaving us out in the yard.
"Come back to the manor, where there's a bed," Sire Galan said.
"I can't. I'll be seen."
"What does it matter? We'll have a whole bed to ourselves. Sire Alcoba and I have been sharing one of the cabinets, but I offered to let him ride my black courser for the hunt tomorrow if he'd go elsewhere for two nights. He would do anything to ride Semental -- and besides, he'll have no trouble finding a soft maid or two to pillow him."
I hadn't planned to go back to the manor that way. I was going to wait for the feast at the end of the UpsideDown Days, so I could see Sire Pava and Dame Lyra bend their proud necks to serve us mudfolk sitting at table. But this had a good savor to it: cabinet beds were for guests, not drudges. I'd never slept in one in my life. I ducked into the hut for my shawl. Az made a face and waved me out.
The hall of the manor was dim and smoky and smaller than I remembered it. There were men everywhere, some sleeping, some pricking women in the corners, and others dicing and drinking and gnawing bones. The place stank like a fox den. The Dame would not have allowed it, not even during the UpsideDown Days. She would not have used torches, either, for they cast sparks and blackened the tapestries. She never stinted on candles when the occasion called for it, thrifty as she was.
Sire Pava was sitting before the fire with Dame Lyra, the Crux, and two of the other cataphracts. They had a low screen about them to set them apart from the revels. Dame Lyra sat stiff and quiet with a wooden smile, and she kept her best gown tucked about her as if a flood of dirty water swirled around her slippers. Sire Pava was flushed, exalted by the honor or too much wine. He called out, "Look what Galan has dragged in. You worry me, Cousin, if that's the best you can find on a night when every woman in the village will flip her kirtle over her head."
Sire Galan answered back, "I have all the luck tonight. She fits me to the hilt." He put his hand on the small of my back and pushed me forward into the hall, through the crowd of men sitting on the floor. He wore an easy smile, but I noticed his other hand was on the dagger at his belt.
I'd have killed them both at that moment if I'd had the means -- or less sense.
Sire Pava said, "She's a dry well, Cousin. I know because I've plumbed her. Don't waste your time. You ought to be doing your duty instead, begetting half-breeds to improve the drudges' blood."
Sire Galan took two steps toward him, saying his manners should be mended.
I grabbed his arm and found my tongue. "Everyone knows Sire Pava needs help siring bastards."
Such was the license of the Days that this earned me a laugh rather than a beating. I saw the Crux lean forward and touch Sire Pava's knee to turn his attention. Dame Lyra glared and I lifted my head high and went past her. There was nothing for it but to be as brazen as I was thought to be.
Though the feather bed was soft, I did not do much sleeping. When Sire Galan tired I goaded him on. Our bodies were greased with sweat, and the curtains held the smell of our musk close. When I cried out, sometimes I thought of Sire Pava and hoped I was keeping him awake. Rage can lend its own heat to desire, and that night I mastered Sire Galan more than he mastered me. I left before daybreak, stepping around the pallets on the hall floor.
That was the morning of the last UpsideDown Day, the day of the feast. I came back with the villagers in the evening. Plank tables were crowded into the hall, spread with white linens. They'd scrubbed and sanded the floor, and put out tallow lamps and candles. The master and mistress of the house and the rest of the Blood -- even the Crux himself -- brought our food, poured the wine, did our bidding. The centerpiece was a roasted stag, crowned with gilded antlers and stuffed with songbirds; they had hunted well. We were forbidden to kill the deer that fattened on our coleworts and stole our grain, and the venison tasted all the better for the salt of revenge.
I'd looked forward to the feast, but I'd never imagined Sire Galan, or how he'd steal my thoughts and make Dame Lyra's fetching and Sire Pava's carrying less important. Their humility was hollow anyway. When Sire Pava came around the table and bent his knee, offering a platter of pigeons baked in clay, he didn't keep his head down as was proper; his eyes promised that tomorrow we'd serve him again.
I watched Sire Galan. He had a walk like a stalking cat, and could carry a brimming cup so smoothly not a drop of wine would spill. Once he stood close behind my bench and pressed my back with his hip. I thought the feast would never end. Though I gorged until my belly was tight, I'd not had my fill of Sire Galan, and we had but one more night.
The next day was Equinox. The priest would start the count of tennights and months. At the feast tomorrow, we would take our proper places, and the villagers would kneel and swear fealty again. Balance would be restored. But when the world has been shaken and cast at odds, only the gods know what is balance and what is chaos.
That night I lay in the cabinet bed looking at the ceiling, tracing the carved and painted vine on the panel above in hearthlight that came through the curtains. The walls were too close, the air too still.
I could feel Sire Galan watching me, and my face stiffened. The Days were over, and he'd be going soon. I would not show I cared. I turned over in my mind what questions to ask, so I might hear his voice: if I asked whether he'd been to war before, and he had not, then I'd be more afraid; and if I asked how long the campaign would last, he might think I hoped to see him on his return, but I was not vain enough for that. There was mischief in every question.
He said my name twice, as if he liked it on his tongue, and turned my head toward him with his hand. "Come with me," he whispered.
I turned my face away, and tears came against my will, sliding down my cheek and into my ear. I'd heard what kind of woman followed a man to war: a sheath. A cataphract might share her with his armiger or lend her to a guest, and if he was not too particular, he might let his drudges have her now and then. If she didn't begin as a whore, she usually ended as one, wearing a striped skirt and opening her legs for any man with coin until she was clapped out.
He went on whispering. "You can ride the chestnut mare. She's steady. I'll get another mule for the baggage."
"I won't be shared," I said.
"Never. You shall be my own." He said this so fiercely I believed him.
"What of the Crux? He won't welcome me."
"Many a sword brings his sheath along; he won't blink an eye. Come with me, I'm intent on it. I'll care for you well, and you'll bring me luck."
I said nothing, only looked at him.
He laughed low in his throat and raised himself over me. "I can offer you better reasons, since you're not convinced," he said.
While we coupled, my thoughts went wandering. Sire Galan would tire of me someday and leave me standing by the roadside with a few coins and a new dress, and Sire Pava laughing to see it. And suppose he did? I'd lived a long year alone in the Kingswood. I needed no man's help.
But that was all bravado. Already -- how had it come about so quickly? -- desire had begotten need. A few whispered words (perhaps he didn't mean them) and I was ready to follow. It was worse to think of staying behind, to grind one day upon another. Nothing to hold me here. None to regret my leaving, save Az.
I wrapped my legs around him and gripped his shoulders and pushed back.
Copyright © 2004 by Sarah Micklem