She awoke to the strong, comforting hand on her back.
A glance over her shoulder gave her a glimpse of him propped up on an elbow, his wiry frame just visible against the early morning light that filtered through the ragged curtains. A haze still hung in the air from the previous night’s cookfire, clinging to the rafters of the tiny house even as the cool spring breeze drifted through. In the far corner of the house, the children slept on their own straw mattress, the dog curled between them, wrapped in the arms of the youngest, and one of the cats at their feet. From somewhere outside, she heard the contented clucking of one of their hens.
“Eira.” Her name passed his lips, a low rumble in the silence of the house.
“What?” she asked, her voice low to match his.
“You were shifting around in your sleep,” he said. “Were you dreaming again?”
“This was a new one,” she said. She broke from his touch and turned onto her side to face him, so close that she could feel the warmth of his breath on her cheek. “We were on a boat, all of us. You, me, the children, even the dog. All around us was water, as far as the eye could see with no land in sight. It was calm, hardly even a ripple, but there was a darkness on the horizon, a storm. As you woke me, the wind was beginning to pick up.”
“A sign, do you think?”
“A dream,” she said. “Nothing more.”
“The priests say that dreams are the Prophet’s way of speaking to you.”
“I have never had a dream of mine come true.”
“They also say that you cannot take them as they appear, that the Prophet never speaks directly, only through signs that we must interpret.”
“I’d say the priests are full of shit.”
She could almost see the red that filled his pale, freckled cheeks, and she let a giggle slip as she pulled his head toward her and kissed him.
He broke off the kiss and turned away, tossing aside the blanket. The straw mattress crinkled beneath him, loud, but not enough to wake any of the children. She sat up, allowing the blanket to fall to her lap, feeling the cool against her skin. He was pulling on his pants and tying the string that held them on his waist, the wool stained with dirt from the tilling of the fields and planting of the seeds.
“Gwil.” He did not respond at first, so she raised the volume of her whisper. “Gwil, what’s wrong? Did I upset you?”
He turned toward her and gave her that smile, that easy smile that had stolen her heart at the harvest festival so many years ago. “Never,” he said. “Though you may have upset God and His Prophet with your doubting of His priests.”
Eira managed to keep from rolling her eyes. “When we are fed as well as the priests, perhaps I will speak better of them.”
Gwil leaned over the bed and kissed her. “Sleep a bit longer. I want to get an early start on the fields.”
“Alright,” she said. “You should take Keiron to help.”
“The boy should sleep as well.”
“He has slept for long enough, and you could use the help.”
“As you say.” Another kiss. “Sleep well.”
Eira lay back, watching Gwil as he roused their eldest from his slumber. The boy seemed a bit lost, even as Gwil led him to the tiny shrine to light the tallow candles and say their morning prayers to God and the Prophet. Over on the bed, the cat gave an annoyed mew while the dog lifted his head for a moment before separating himself and plodding after them. Tegan, the youngest, felt the cold on her side, but did not wake, instead turning and snuggling closer to her other brother, Wyn.
It was only when the pair had disappeared through the curtained doorway that Eira closed her eyes, once more seeking out sleep. She could feel the fatigue that clouded her mind, her body crying out for more sleep, but none came. Still, she lay there, listening to the calls of birds from the trees, the stirring of the hens in the yard, and somewhere in the distance, her husband and son planting their fields. She waited for the house to brighten a bit more, then pulled herself from bed to begin her own day.
The woolen dress was where she had left it the night before, and she picked it up and pulled it over her head. The cat rubbed at her ankles and purred, but she ignored it, stepping over it and walking to where the other children still slept.
“Time to get up,” she said. “There’s work to do.”
Tegan was the first to rouse, blinking as she sat up, her light red hair standing out in all different directions. Wyn only pulled the covers over his head.
Eira grabbed the end of the covers and snatched them away in one move. “I said, get up. Now get moving before I get the switch.”
The threat got the boy moving, reluctant and grumbling but moving nonetheless. Morning was a time for chores, and they each had their own to do. The chickens needed to be fed, the garden tended, breakfast made, and much more.
Before they could go too far, she herded them toward the shrine, making them light their own candles even as Wyn grumbled and Tegan tried to light more than just her own candle. Eira took her daughter’s hand to keep it steady, saying the prayers aloud with them. Once they had given their blessings, she shooed them along outside, then turned back to say her own.
Her candle was the one at the far left end, opposite Gwil’s with the children’s between theirs. She took the dried twig Tegan had been using and used one of the lit candles to relight it. She carried the flame over to the wick of her own, the fight casting light over the tiny figurines that surrounded it - her mother, her father, her older brother, all passed on into the Prophet’s waiting arms. Their effigies stood there, small wicker figures propped up on the shrine.
“Watch over me, Father, Mother, Aidan. Carry our prayers to the Prophet’s ears, that he may hear our plight.”
She made the sign of the Prophet, then turned away from the shrine, allowing the candles to burn until they eventually drowned in the melted fat. Neither of the kids had moved to do anything on their own, so she kicked them into action. She shoved a pot into Wyn’s hand and steered him in the direction of the stream, then gave a basket to Tegan and sent her to get some grain to feed the chickens, as well as to collect any eggs that had been laid. With them gone, she began to rekindle the fire that had burned out overnight.
By the time Wyn was back, she had the fire going again, the smoke drifting toward the ceiling and the flames lighting the haze. Eira set the pot over the blaze, allowing the pot to boil while she sent the boy out to join the others in the fields. Gwil and Keiron would be able to use the help keeping the birds away while they sowed the land.
Eira mixed the porridge in the boiling water, creating a thick stew of peas and beans. At some point, Tegan returned, a couple of eggs in the basket, and Eira took it from her, exchanging it for the spoon and leaving her youngest to stir the mixture while she put the eggs away. There was a nice collection now, enough that she could trade in town for something, perhaps some mushrooms from a forager or even some meat, a nice treat for the family.
Not today, though. There was more than enough to do at the homestead today.
Tegan looked up as Eira took the spoon back from her, smiling a crooked smile, absent a couple of baby teeth. “Did I do good, Mama?”
“Yes, you did, sweet pea,” she said, planting a kiss on the girl’s head and rustling her light red hair. “Now go fetch your father and brothers, tell them that breakfast is almost ready.
Breakfast was over quickly, eaten from wooden bowls around the fire, pieces of bread from yesterday’s bake used to soak up the rest. As soon as they were finished, the boys returned to the fields while Eira wiped out the bowls and stored the remaining porridge in the pot off to the side. With that done, she gave Tegan the basket and led her to the patch of land on the side of the house that formed the garden.
The small apple tree had begun to flower, though it was not quite large enough to yield fruit yet. Perhaps by the next year’s autumn it would be ready. At the very least, it provided her with shade in the morning, allowing her to pick weeds free from the heat of the sun. She knelt in the dirt, picking with precision between the squash and cabbage, garlic and onions, chives and peas and all the herbs. She pulled the weeds by the roots, careful to keep them from entangling with the garden plants and dumped the remains in the basket her daughter held.
It was work that was easy to become lost in, and when Tegan’s voice finally broke her from her concentration, she realized that the sun had already begun its midday climb into the sky.
“Yes, sweet pea?” Eira stood, stretching out a knee that ached from too much time resting on it. She wiped sweat from her pale brow with a dirty hand, moving aside a thick strand of blonde hair.
“There are men coming,” Tegan said, holding the basket in one hand and pointing with the other. “On horses.”
“On horses?” Eira made her way around the side of the house, resting her hand on the mud and straw wall. She saw them immediately as she turned the corner, a group of five men, all mounted, approaching the house from the road. Even from a distance, she could see the glint of chainmail on four of the riders, the swords that hung from their sides, the lord’s sigil proudly displayed, the sparrow present both on the breast of each of the armed men and on the red and white banner that one carried on a tall pole.
But it was not the soldiers that drew her eye. No, it was the man who rode in their midst, dressed in a simple woolen frock with a thick golden chain hanging loosely around his neck. He had his own sigil draped over his horse, a sigil even more unmistakable than the lord’s. It was a golden eagle against a blue sky, its body encircled in a white halo. The sign of the church. The sign of the Prophet. The sign of God.
“Tegan, honey, go fetch your father.”
The girl looked up at her with big blue eyes. “But I want to see the horses.”
The girl frowned, but took off all the same, dashing toward the field. Eira drew in a deep breath, never taking her eyes from the approaching horsemen as she wiped the dirt from her hands onto her dress. She had heard nothing about the lord’s men going around, but she could only imagine that they would bring nothing good with them.
She could see the faces more clearly as they grew nearer. The priest was fairly young, a few years older than herself, she guessed, with thin dark hair cut short, a clean-shaven face, and sharp eyes that focused directly on her. The man to his right appeared to be the leader of the soldiers, a bulky man with a conical helm atop a mat of greyish hair. The other soldiers were younger than him, a skinny one with a patchy beard, one who seemed not even old enough to shave, one with long hair and a wide frame. She recognized none of them.
The horses drew near, pulling to a stop several meters in front of her, all five looking down at her. She chose not to wait for them to make the first word. “What’s this about?”
The priest’s lips twisted into a sour look. “Where is the man of the house?”
“I sent my daughter to fetch him,” she said. “Is this business that concerns only him? It is my house as well, after all.”
“Is your husband the only man, or are there sons as well?”
Eira could feel her own lips twisting into a frown. “What matter is it to you?”
It was the old soldier who spoke, bringing his horse forward a couple of steps as he did. “This is by order of the king and the Grand Vicar.” He spoke with a calmer voice, the accent local, almost kind. “Any lad over sixteen is being conscripted.”
Eira felt her jaw drop. “Conscripted? Conscripted for what?”
The priest cut off the soldier before he could answer. “That is the business of your husband and any sons you have. Now answer the question.”
Eira crossed her arms. “If it is only his business, then you will have to wait for him to arrive to get an answer.”
There was snickering from the younger soldiers, but the older one remained stoic and the priest only glared at her. “A man who cannot keep his woman in check will no doubt fare poorly as a soldier,” the priest said.
“Then perhaps you should leave us be,” Eira said.
“I should have you thrown into the dungeon,” the priest said. “That would quell your insolence.”
“You will do no such thing,” the older soldier said. The priest’s glare turned on him, and he added, “I warned you when this began that the women here are a different breed. These are not your soft courtly ladies.”
It was Gwil’s appearance that saved the irate priest any further embarrassment. Her husband’s clothing and skin were stained with mud and soaked with sweat from the day’s labor, his red hair plastered to his freckled forehead. “Can I help you men?” he asked.
The attention turned toward him, though Eira kept her own glare focused squarely on the priest.
The older soldier was the one who spoke. “My name is Teige, and I am a captain in Lord Kearney’s army.” He reached into his saddlebag and produced a small scroll, holding it out towards them. “Can you read?”
“No,” Gwil said. Eira broke off her gaze at the priest and glanced at her husband, though he did not return it. If he was concerned, he did not show it.
“I see,” Teige said, withdrawing the scroll. “Then I will inform you by speech. I am here on behalf of King Emyr, First of His Name, and Lord Paramount Padraig, Grand Vicar of the Northern Lands. A Holy Crusade has been called, and all men of the faith have been summoned to fight in the name of the Prophet to reclaim lands that have been set upon by the heathen tribes who have pushed their way up from the south.”
Gwil watched the soldier, saying nothing, giving only the slightest nod of acknowledgement. Eira, however, was less inclined to stay silent. “Hold on, fight who?”
“Heathens,” the priest said, turning his head and spitting off to the side. “Those beasts have crawled out of their holes in the southern wilds and moved into the lands of the Prophet. They’ve taken cities, burned temples, and tainted the holy lands with sacrifices to their bloodthirsty false gods.”
“What matter is this of ours?” Eira asked. She could feel something seeping into her voice, anger perhaps, or maybe helplessness. The look that Gwil gave her said that he thought she was pushing too far, but she did not care. Who were these men to come to their home and demand this of them?
“It is the matter of all believers,” the priest said. “If you were a true Creid, then you would be knocking us over for a chance to fight to take back the holy land.”
“Silence, Cathair,” the captain said. “By the king’s order, all able men are to join the crusade. Your husband has no choice. He will be going to war.”
It was as though she had been slapped. She wanted to be angry, to scream at these men, but she could not muster the strength. “No. No, this can’t be.”
The captain nodded, the look on his face one of sympathy. “It is the king’s command. We are to take back the lands of the Prophet from the heathens.”
“No,” she said again. She turned to Gwil, but his gaze was locked on the soldiers. She turned back to them. “No, you cannot take him. You cannot.”
“If you refuse, we will have to use force,” Teige said. “It is not our wish to do so, but we have our orders.”
Eira took a step forward, moving to place herself between them and her husband. “You cannot take him. You will not. I won’t let you.”
“We can and we will,” Cathair said. He was sitting up straight, his chin lifted, his eyes turned down toward her. “We can take you as well, if you choose, but I understand women do not do well in dungeons.”
Her fists clenched. “I would like to see you try…”
Gwil’s voice came from behind her, soft but firm. “Eira.”
She wheeled toward him. “What?”
“I will go.”
“I will go.” He looked up at Teige. “Just tell me what I need to do.”
The fight suddenly drained from her. Her own voice came out quiet, meek. “Gwil. No.”
“Eira, I must. It will be better for us.”
“And your sons?” Cathair asked. “If they are of age, then they are to come as well.”
The captain gave the priest a look, then turned back to the two of them. “He speaks truly. Do you have any sons that are of age?”
Eira watched her husband, but he did not match her gaze. “Our eldest is thirteen,” Gwil said.
Teige nodded. “Just you then.”
Eira felt tears begin to pool at the corners of her eyes, and she forced them back. She could not remember the last time she had cried, and she was not about to start now, not in front of these men. “Gwil.”
“It will be alright, Eira.”
The captain reached into his saddlebag and removed a small iron coin. “This is your summons,” he said, handing it down to Gwil. “Bring it with you to the town church tomorrow, and you will be given orders when you arrive. Do you have any weapons? A sword, a spear, a bow?”
“No,” Gwil said.
The captain nodded. “I expected as much. You will be given armor and weapons before the march.”
“When will he be back?” Eira asked.
“When the Prophet sees it fit to bring him back,” the priest said.
Teige ignored him. “The Holy Land is many leagues from here, and there is no telling how long the war will last.”
“So you are saying it could be months?” Eira said.
The priest gave a chuckle behind that smirk of his, but the captain kept his face even as he spoke. “I am saying that it could be years.”
Eira kept her own face still, but inside, she could feel her heart drop. Years. How could they possibly survive years with him gone? Even with how much her sons did, they still had so much to learn, so much they did not know about running the farm.
By the time she had come back to the present, the men had turned away, their horses already continuing down the road, leaving her and Gwil standing alone in front of their house. The sun was still shining, but a veil seemed to have passed over the day. There was a rustle from behind, and she turned to find the children standing at the side of the house, not quite hiding, but not quite coming around the edge of the corner.
Eira drew in a deep breath and steadied herself, then snapped at the kids in a raised voice. “What are you looking at? There’s lots of work to do and the day is getting on.”