Hesh stood at the door of his farmhouse and looked out at the dawn. He was twenty-four, a tall man and well-built with sandy hair his wife insisted on cutting shorter than most wore it. His kind face was relaxed in a smile. The elders had predicted that the weather would hold clear and crisp for at least another four days. Just time enough to cut the rest of the hay and get it and all of it stacked or into the barn. He was a small freeholder, proud of his land and animals, contented with his wife and three year old son. She was at his side now with a flask of water for him to take to the fields and he put his arm around her affectionately.
“When will Brene be here?” Ilthea had been up for an hour, making sure Hesh had hot cereal and setting bread to rise. She would rest a bit before Nyen woke then get the bread baking and milk the cow.
“I expect him shortly. First we work our seaward field then continue to his.” It was easier for two to work the hay and Brene’s wife was heavy with child. “And there he is now.” Hesh bent and kissed his wife, picked up his water flask, haying tools and went out to meet his neighbor. He waved to his wife and saw her smile before she turned back to the house.
“Perfect weather,” Brene commented as they strode downhill toward the first field. “Not even a hint of dew. All’s well at your house?”
“All’s well. And your wife?” Hesh was enjoying the brisk walk, long legs eating up the three quarters of a mile to the field.
“Great and round,” he pantomimed, laughing. “I sent her to stay in the village with her parents for the birth.”
The men crossed the already drying hay they had cut the day before and began to wield scythes, cutting the standing hay in broad sweeps. They had worked the field for about an hour when the hilltop alarm started to sound. Both men looked up from their work.
“Someone playing?” Brene asked anxiously. Hesh was scanning the land that sloped toward the sea.
“I don’t think so. There, coming up from the beach.” He pointed toward the figures in the distance, still indistinct but moving toward them.
“Holy Light,” Brene breathed. “Thea?”
“She knows what to do. We have to slow them, give her time to do it. Flint and steel and set the hay alight.” The men threw down their scythes and began to strike sparks. This was all according to a plan, one everyone who lived by the coast knew what to do if raiders were sighted. Bolt-holes for women and children, well-concealed and safe from fire, but the men to light the fields if they could. The sea raiders would fire the houses and barns in any case but the smoke from setting the fields alight would signal a raid before the houses could be reached. They sparked the fields quickly working in opposite directions putting an inferno between them and the men swarming up over the edges of the low cliffs.
“Horsemen!” Brene called from forty paces away. “Run!”
Hesh didn’t have to be told twice. Grabbing a haying fork, he ran for his barn trusting that Thea was already away. He heard shouts from pursuers then a scream from Brene and chanced a look to his right. A bolo had wrapped around Brene’s legs taking him down. Hesh coughed in the smoke from their fires but pushed himself harder. Nearly panicked now as he ran for the barn, clung to his haying fork and pulled his knife from its belt sheath as a rope settled around his torso and he went down hard. As his captor approached, he sawed at the rope, cutting the last of the strands as the grinning raider reached him. He dropped the knife and, taking the hay fork in both hands, thrust it up at the man catching him full in the abdomen. The raider’s gasped in astonishment at the blood spurting from the wound. One hand went to the handle of the fork and he stared at it as he collapsed to the ground. Grabbing his knife, Hesh struggled to his feet and managed two staggering paces before a second rope found him. This time his fall jolted the knife from his hand. He grabbed at the rope but found a cutlass pointed at his throat.
“No moves now,” a rough voice told him. “Cap’n won’t like you killing a crewman.” A second man joined the raider. He looked at the dead crewman then back at Hesh and kicked him hard in the ribs.
“So we’ve a trouble maker.” A second kick and Hesh groaned as he rolled on his side fighting for breath. “Face down scut.” He pushed Hesh over with his foot, forcing him face down in the sweet hay. “Tie him hand and foot. We’ll bring the other one here.” He signaled a horseman and Brene was dragged over and thrown down next to Hesh. Both were securely bound.
“Now then, two men, two houses, evidence of women. Where are they?”
Hesh hadn’t the breath to answer but Brene spoke up, almost sobbing his answer.
“In the village. My wife went for birthing and Thea went with her to handle the cart.” The captain studied him a moment then nodded to one of the crew.
“Get the pigs and cow down to the ship. Burn the rest.”
There was a sudden shout from up the hill as three raiders came toward them.
“An’ look what we’ve found trying to run. Makes the trip worthwhile.” He was pushing a roped man along. Another man was dragging a teenaged girl by the arm.
“A tasty bit, this one. An’ I claim first right.” He rubbed his crotch and coughed at the smoke. The roped man began shouting objections, obscenities and was fisted in the gut, knocked to his knees and forced down.
“None o’ that. First rights it is,” the captain leered. Now the girl, suddenly realizing what was going to happen, began screaming for her father’s help but a foot was on the man’s back holding him down. She struggled against the man holding her as her captor dragged her away and out of the smoke. The raider kept his foot on the man’s back as another tied him. Both were laughing.
“Just a bit o’ sport,” he told the girl’s father. “Call when ye’ve done with her. Second rights be mine,” he shouted to his friend.
“Gorem, lie still,” Brene cautioned. “Nothing we can do.” The men tried to close their ears to the girl’s screams as Gorem wept bitterly.
In the hollow tree trunk where they were hidden, Thea had her hand firmly clamped over Nyen’s mouth as she waited, clutching him desperately, silent tears leaking through closed eyelids. There were men searching the woods. She could hear them shouting to one another but Hesh had chosen this hiding place well and the men combing the area had passed by. Now she could hear them passing again and held her breath squeezing Ny even more tightly but no one stopped, no one searched near the tree.
She must have dozed briefly, exhausted by fear. Shouting woke her, her father’s voice, her brother’s, shouting her name and she scrambled up clutching Ny, pushed aside the shrub that blocked the entrance to her hiding place and stumbled out into her father’s arms. He clasped them close shouting for his son. He came and took Ny from her as she sobbed on her father’s shoulder.
“Hesh?” He asked.
Thea looked toward the smoldering ruin of their home in a daze and screamed, tried to tear herself from her father’s arms.
“If he’s not with you, he’s gone. The watcher in the alarm tower said he could see him light the fields, then he took to his horse and headed for the village to make sure we had the full alarm. The raiders didn’t get that far.” His face was grim and he smoothed her hair and turned her from the fire.
“Look at me!” He demanded, his voice full of pain. “Your mother is waiting. We can’t keep her waiting, wondering what’s happened.” He half-carried, half-dragged her to his horse and pulled her up behind him while her brother took Nyen. Her arms went around him and she wept bitterly.
1 – Leaving Obreth
Obreth was behind them with its crowd of well-wishers, its flags, the friends they had made. The road ahead was familiar; they had passed this way before. There would be no real stops for them save two. They had quickly agreed on that but they wanted to say a farewell to Uldic and Tila and thank Olina and Brekk again for their help with the children. Once that was done, they would circle around the towns they had visited and go directly to Ǣlfainhome where they would return their horses.
Sandar had warned them about the approach of the rainy season. While the mornings were warm and pleasant, the afternoons became increasingly overcast and rain began to fall in the afternoon or early evening. He had insisted that they take a waterproof tent from a storeroom and a canopy for the horses.
“Inns and barns may not be available when you need them,” he cautioned.
Lanhkar had taken the items from storage to air out then showed them how to set them up.
“I know the tent may seem over-large,” he told them “but if the rain continues for a full day, you’ll be grateful of the space. There’s even a small canopy where you can start a fire without worrying about burning down the shelter. And we know how much you enjoy beginning the day with something hot.”
He and a soldier had assembled the tent for them and then both had to smother their laughs when they tried it erect it themselves. It had taken several tries but Lanhkar had finally declared himself satisfied with their efforts.
“Just be sure you set it up before it rains,” he told them, forgetting that they could dry both themselves and the tent with spells. Elden bundled the tent poles and rigged them to his saddle with the tent in a pannier. It was, he decided, easier than having to open a foldbox in the rain.
They were soon out of sight of Obreth’s walls riding slowly and contentedly waving at passersby and greeting those they knew by sight if not by name. Obreth was truly alive now. Merchants and farmers had returned to the inns as they traveled from eastern towns to the ones further west. Many of the fields had already been planted to take advantage of the rains.
Elden pointed out that many of the local farmers used the ridge and furrow method of farming allowing for good root growth and ample drainage.
“Are you a farmer now?” his bride asked in amusement.
“If we are going to have a new House here in the south, I thought I would learn a bit about the land. After all, you ladies insisted on a kitchen garden. You wouldn’t want what you plant to drown, would you?”
Their friends had been correct about being caught without a farmhouse in sight. In the late afternoon, they decided that the clouds blowing toward them were very serious about a drenching rain. They stopped on the road and chose a small opening in a hedgerow to set up tent and canopy. Once inside they spread blankets on the tent floor and spent the rest of their time in loving recreation. They had been married only a week and were enthusiastic newlyweds.
“I wonder,” Elden remarked that afternoon while tracing her thigh with his fingers, “why I always insisted on finding an inn when this is so much more pleasant.”
“What would they have thought, uncle, for you to behave this way with your niece?” she said in pretended shock.
“And the Houses,” he mused. “The Brotherhood takes a dim view of a Master taking advantage of an apprentice. Totally inappropriate.”
“Then I will have to explain that the apprentice seduced the Master, and accept punishment from my House for the transgression,” she teased.
“So you did, and so you shall, but not now.” He pulled her close and kissed her.
Morning found them on the road to Brekk’s farmhouse and they decided to move a bit faster to reach it in mid-afternoon. They clicked the horses into their walking pace.
“Anxious to see them again?”
“I didn’t have much chance to talk with Uldic at the Remembrance ceremony. Tila seemed confused but Uldic? So much grief and anger. Understandable of course, but I don’t like seeing children in pain.” She shivered involuntarily and Elden gave her a sharp look. The Waters had healed her physical injuries but he worried about her nonetheless. He quickly changed the subject.
“I wish one of our Ǣlfain friends could have been at the wedding.”
She only laughed. “Sandar and the others certainly wanted to invite them but the distances were too great, and” she grinned wickedly, “we were too anxious.” That brought a chuckle from her husband.
“Two weeks did seem to be a long time. I got the impression that they thought our idea of ‘waiting’ for marriage was scandalous,” and was rewarded with another laugh.
Glancing at the road ahead, Elden took the lead and they rode single-file to allow for the increased number of people on the road as the day drew on. Noon found them at a wider space in the road and they stopped for a quick meal. Cedelia had made sure the foldboxes held food for their entire trip.
“Her heart’s certainly in the right place,” Elden mused munching on bread spread with a soft cheese, “but if we try to eat all this, we won’t be able to ride let alone walk through the Wild.”
“If I recall the foods in the Wild, we might as well enjoy it while we can. How long for crossing do you think? I didn’t mark the days last time.”
Elden pretended to be deep in thought. “At least a month and a half if my apprentice takes no side trips, more if she does.” He managed to dodge the piece of fruit she threw at him.
Even with their stop, they managed to reach Brekk’s gate in mid-afternoon. Dismounting, they shouted a hello toward the house as they approached. The door was opened by Tila who looked at them with round eyes and ran back into the house. Olina was suddenly at the door, but hesitated, a dark look of worry in her eyes as she stepped out and closed the door behind her.
“Oh! You haven’t come to take them, have you? Have their relatives been found?” Her anxiety was palpable.
Brillar embraced Olina quickly. “No one has been found; Uldic and Tila are truly yours. We only thought to stop and say our farewells before we go north.” Olina sagged with relief. “And to ask for a place in the barn for ourselves and the horses before the daily rains.”
“Begging your pardon then. Oh I have come to love Tila so much that parting with her would break my heart. And Uldic! What a fine lad and there he is, Uldic come greet our guests.”
The lad had peeked around the corner of the house to see who was there. When he saw Brillar, his face went blank and he turned and ran away.
“Uldic?” Olina called after him but got no response. “What has gotten into the boy?” She shook her head. “But come in, come in, I’ll put water on for tea and there you are Brekk, see who’s come to visit!”
Brekk came around the corner of the house and smiled hugely at his guests. “Elden,” he clapped the mage on the shoulders, “and my lady Brillar.” He seemed a bit shy and she stepped forward to take both his hands in hers.
“It’s good to see you again, Brekk. Did you see Uldic? He seems to have run off somewhere.”
“Ah, that Uldic,” he responded, “a fine strong lad with a good sense for animals. But let me put your horses in the barn for you before the rains.”
“You do that, husband, then come in for some tea. We can have a nice long chat with our guests. I’ve a fine stew on the stove as well and a fine guest room, oh yes, we heard about the wedding.” She opened the door and called for Tila. “Come on, my lamb, nothing to worry about, they’re not here to take you away.”
“I’ll go with Brekk to see to the horses and leave you women to your chat.” He gave them a slight bow and followed Brekk as Tila came out from behind a chair where she had been hiding as Brillar went into the house.
“Mama?” the child asked Olina. She gathered the little girl in her arms.
“It’s all right, these are just visitors. You come now and help me with the cups.” Olina gestured for her guest to take a chair and Brillar sank down and looked around the room. The farmhouse was quite large and the room was a similar generous size. The wide windows were curtained, there were woven rugs on the shining wood floor and the furniture was comfortably soft. There was even a bookcase in the room with well-filled shelves and oil lamps on the walls would provide good light for reading in the evening. Brillar nodded in contentment as Olina came back with mugs of dark tea.
“Tila went out to see the horses. My yes, that child loves animals just as her brother does.” She settled comfortably on a chair and stared at her mug. Sensing her mood, Brillar was silent, waiting. Finally, she looked up.
“She and Uldic have made a change for us, a great change. We…we wanted children so badly. We wanted a family. This house,” she gestured, “it was made for children, but it had so many empty rooms. It was Brekk’s family home and now just Brekk and I are left.” She shook her head. “We had a child, a little girl, but she was . . . she only lived a few days.” She looked at her guest with tears in her eyes. “I’m sorry. I thought you’d come to take them from me, from us. She is already like my own. Uldic now, Uldic is grieving and it hurts him when his sister calls me ‘mama.’ I know it hurts him and his pain grieves me, but it’s such a joy for me to hear the word.”
Without thinking, Brillar cast a soothing spell at Olina and saw her relax with a smile. They sat in silence a few minutes until Brekk and Elden came back in from the barn.
“Well, the horses are settled and we think we heard Uldic in the barn but he won’t come out,” Brekk told them. “Shall we have some tea then, wife?” Tila had come back into the room and he pulled her into his lap. “And you, my lass, have you eaten all the sweet rolls that mama baked or are there some left.”
Brillar raised an eyebrow at Elden and he nodded.
“I think I’ll go out to the barn. I may be able to induce Uldic to join us.” She gestured for them to remain seated.
“It will rain soon, so come back quickly,” Olina put in.
It was a short walk across the yard to the barn. A few chickens scattered across her path heading for a coop as the rain began to fall. Brillar pushed the barn door open a crack and squeezed through.
“Uldic,” she called taking in the fresh smell of new cut hay, the pungent odor of the horses stabled there. Light shown through the open door and the windows of the large stalls but she needed no light to find Uldic. She could feel his presence with far-sight and crossed to the ladder leading to the hay loft. Even there, there was some light from small casement windows.
“Uldic?” she called softly seeing him hunched in a far corner.
“Go away,” he answered, his voice tremulous. Instead she crossed the loft and took a seat near him lowering herself gently onto the loose hay.
“We’ve been looking for you,” she said quietly. “Elden and I are going north and wanted to say good-bye.”
“I don’t care!” he said sharply. “Go away!”
“You’re very angry with me,” she could feel his anger, sorrow, fear; it washed over her in waves. She waited, feeling his emotions build. Then he raised his head, eyes haunted and accusing.
“You said you’d go to them! You promised and you let them die!” He was shouting and his voice was choked with anger and sorrow. For a moment she waited for more but there was nothing but waves of anger.
“I did go to them, Uldic,” she said quietly. “The Street of the Dove was one of the first I walked, calling out for anyone who needed me. There was no answer at your house but I went in anyway. I went through the shop and up the stairs even though no one called for me.”
Uldic crumpled and began to cry, silently.
“They had gone into the Light long before I found them,” she continued softly. “I think that your mother was already sick when she took you outside the gate. She knew it and took you and Tila away to save you. She was very brave.”
Uldic’s silent tears turned to sobs and he hurled himself into her lap. She stroked his hair gently.
“Your mother and father were very strong, courageous. All they wanted was to know that you and Tila were as safe as they could make you. That’s why she took you out the gate.”
“I miss them so much,” he choked out. “Papa and Zev were already sick when mama took us away. Why did they have to die?”
She was silent for a moment. “No one knows why death comes to one and not another, but the man who did this evil thing was punished.” She was silent once more, stroking his hair, sending out only low level spells for soothing; he needed to rid himself of this burden not have it fully soothed. He needed to feel his grief or it would follow him forever.
He sat up and wiped his eyes.
“Tila’s so happy here. She follows Olina everywhere like she followed mama. She even calls her ‘mama.’” There was anguish in his words.
“Tila is very young and the young forget pain quickly. Young ones also need to know that the things around them are real, are solid. It isn’t her fault that she looks for comfort and Olina is in need of comfort as well.”
“She is?” he was wiping his nose and sniffling.
“She has been very sad here, alone with Brekk even though she loves him. She’s always wanted children, but her body was too weak to carry them. She had only one, a little girl, who died when she was only a few days old. She has been so unhappy and Brekk has been sad as well, a double sadness, both for her and for their lost child. She knows how you feel when you think of your parents; she has the same feelings for her own loss. It’s why she came to love Tila so quickly and so deeply.” She reached over and put her hand gently under Uldic’s chin, raising his head to look at her. “She would like to share that love with you as well but she’s afraid.”
“Afraid of me?” he asked frowning, perplexed.
“Afraid that you won’t accept her love. Afraid that you might feel as if you were betraying your parents if you accept her love. She doesn’t want to replace the ones you lost, doesn’t ask that you love her, only that you let her love you. Can you understand that?”
“She thinks I would stop loving mama and papa if I liked her, loved her, too?” There was wonder and a growing understanding in his voice.
“That’s what she thinks, deep in her heart. But you and I know it isn’t true. One of the things they taught when I was in school, what the teachers of healing there explained, is that love can be endless. The more people you love, the more people you can love. Your love just grows to bring more people close to you. It’s how your parents could love each other but also love you, Tila and Zev all at the same time.”
“But I miss them so much sometimes and it hurts.” There were a few new tears in his eyes.
“It’s alright to be sad when you lose someone you love. It’s alright to miss them and think about them. But it’s also alright to be alive. That’s what your parents wanted for you; to be alive and grow and, someday, to love again.”
At the last words, Uldic’s tears welled up and he threw himself back on her lap to sob out his pain. She sat and let him cry until he exhausted his grief. His tension eased and he fell into a weary sleep. Around them, the light dimmed as evening came on. Brillar leaned back against the sweet hay and listened to the sound of the rain. There was a crash of thunder and Uldic jerked up. In the faint light from the windows, she could see that his face was calmer. He wiped his eyes and gave her a small smile.
“Are you hungry?” she asked. “I think Olina said something about a fine stew on the stove.”
He nodded, stood up and brushed the hay off his clothes. “Let me go down first. I can hold the ladder for you so it won’t slip. And be careful on the hay.” He wiped his face with the back of his sleeve. “I think I need to wash before supper.” She was warmed by his suggestion that he hold the ladder. He was showing her the same caring he had shown Tila and Rauf outside Obreth
“A fine idea. I think a splash of water would do me good as well.” She was brushing stray strands of hay from her clothing.
Uldic made his way to the ladder and down, holding it as it took her weight.
“Be ready to run through the rain. You first, because Brekk will want me to shut the barn door.”
She dashed across the yard and into the back door holding it open for him. Hearing her, Olina came out with a basin and cloth. When she saw Uldic’s face, she instinctively dampened the cloth and reached out to wipe it, then hesitated.
Uldic looked at her shyly for a moment then leaned forward to accept her help. The joy on Olina’s face wasn’t mirrored on his, but it was a beginning.
Breakfast the next morning was an easy meal that featured a few quiet smiles from Uldic before they went out to saddle the horses. Olina hugged Brillar and whispered her thanks; then it was Uldic’s turn. He shook hands with Elden then hugged Brillar fiercely.
“I’m sorry I was angry,” he told her but she stroked his hair softly.
“There was much to be angry about.” She bent and kissed his cheek. “We will always be your friends.” Uldic released her and ran for the barn.
“Good friends, be well and happy,” Elden said as he swung up on Chauk and she mounted Suoma.
“We will meet again,” she called as they turned the horses for the road.