Verse 5

Bare Ne­ces­si­ties

Pulp Literature - - ALLAIGNA'S SONG: ARIA -

Dog clicked and whis­tled. The bitch, Edda, came and set­tled her hoary grey head on his knee, look­ing up­ward with pointed eyes while he scratched be­neath her col­lar, around her ears, un­der her grate­ful chin. They were a matched set, I thought: Dog with his bristly thatch of moul­der­ing straw for hair and beard, his eyes as kind and soft as Edda’s. They both watched the sleek brindled male pa­trol our rough camp­site with his in­ex­haustible blad­der.

It re­minded me of mine. I’d put it out of mind all morn­ing

and most of the after­noon, but now that we’d stopped to rest, and the fear cours­ing through my veins had slowed, it was im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore.

Rad­dick and Dog, like the hound, had sim­ply un­laced in front of me and wet the tree trunks. Dog, praise Bran­dis, had at least turned his back, but Rad­dick had barely moved away from where we sat. I had to pre­tend to have a cough­ing fit to avoid the sight and ac­count for my red face. And now how could I, pre­tend­ing to be a boy, find any pre­text for har­ing off into the bushes for some pri­vacy.

I un­tied Nag from the tree and cleared my throat. “I’m just tak­ing him off for more grass.” Which was ridicu­lous, as the patch he was cur­rently graz­ing was am­ple.

Rad­dick ap­peared about to say as much, but Dog clicked and mo­tioned to him. I led Nag off, grate­ful for the dis­trac­tion, not wait­ing for Rad­dick’s trans­la­tion.

I stayed a long while away from the others af­ter re­liev­ing my­self, the nu­mer­ous de­vel­op­ments of the day skir­mish­ing in my head while I tried in vain to quell and sort them. My over­rid­ing worry was over the sad­dle­bags, and the let­ters. Those stupid let­ters I should have left at home were now in Tiern Doniver’s hands.

Rad­dick broke through the un­der­growth and into my thoughts. He had his ugly, dirt-coloured cloth hat in his hands and was wring­ing it with­out mercy.

I looked at him clearly, in day­light, for the first time. He had brown curls that made a mat­ted car­pet over his head; wideset, per­pet­u­ally as­ton­ished brown eyes, at this mo­ment more as­ton­ished than usual; a high, broad fore­head, bi­sected top from bot­tom with a line of dirt from his cap; and no chin to speak

of. He was short but, I re­al­ized from the down of fuzz on his up­per lip, at least as old as I.

He gave the cap an­other vi­cious twist as a del­i­cate tide of pink rose up his neck and over his cheeks.

“Dog … He says …” He gulped like the perch in the fish trough at feed­ing time. “I’m re­ally sorry, miss. I didn’t know … I didn’t know you’re a girl.”

I won­dered how Dog knew. Prob­a­bly has a nose to match his name, I thought bit­terly. I drew my­self up to my full height, which, sur­pris­ingly, was on par with his.

“I don’t see how it’s any busi­ness of yours, but is that a prob­lem?” I asked, once more the daugh­ter of a duchess speak­ing to a sta­ble hand.

He shook his head mis­er­ably. His colour, now bright red, reached his broad and grubby fore­head.

“No, miss, I …” He floun­dered, no doubt won­der­ing as I did how any­thing in the last half-day might have dif­fered had he known.

And then I re­al­ized he was as em­bar­rassed as I had been about un­lac­ing his breeches be­side me. I laughed. It was a bit cruel, but I couldn’t re­sist. “Don’t worry, Rad­dick,” I said. “I didn’t look.” I handed him Nag’s rope. “Bring him back to the other clear­ing when he’s done here, would you?”

With my sad­dle­bags gone, and Dog and Rad­dick hav­ing left the com­pound in a hurry, we had no food. But at least my pre­cious sword and bow had still been at­tached to the sad­dle when Rad­dick and Dog had res­cued Nag.

I un­wrapped and re­strung the bow. Fa­tigue-haunted as I was, sleep was not in the cards yet.

“I’m go­ing hunt­ing,” I an­nounced to Dog. “Please keep the hounds close so as not to scare the game.”

Re­ally I would have liked one with me, but I doubted they’d leave his side any­way.

The low sun was al­most gone be­hind the hills by the time I re­turned with­out so much as a sin­gle squir­rel or spar­row and noth­ing more than a hand­ful of win­ter-dried haw­ber­ries.

We chewed the bit­ter things in si­lence for a while, un­til Rad­dick cleared his throat.

“Miss.” An­other throat clear­ing fol­lowed this timid ad­dress. “Is Nalen your real name?”

“No.” I looked him in the eye and lied. “It’s Merri. But you can con­tinue to call me Nalen.”

“Ah.” He nod­ded, mis­led com­pre­hen­sion light­ing his eyes. I felt ter­ri­ble about ly­ing to these two, who had been noth­ing but kind. More than that, they had put themselves di­rectly be­tween me and harm. But with my let­ters most likely in Tiern Doniver’s hands, the fewer who knew my name the bet­ter.

“Your sad­dle­bags, I’m real sorry we couldn’t get them. Ja­nis had al­ready taken them off — ”

I stopped him. “It’s all right, Rad­dick.” An­other lie, but this one for him. “It doesn’t mat­ter, and I am truly grate­ful.”

That last, at least, was true.

It was a mis­er­able night, with only wa­ter, berries, and the win­ter-skinny rab­bit Edda caught and deigned to share with us. It was cold as well, and my two blan­kets had gone the way of the sad­dle­bags. As I shiv­ered my­self to sleep, I wished I was brave enough to snug­gle up to Rad­dick, Dog, and their book­ends of furry hounds.

Though the loss of the let­ters proved a more se­ri­ous prob­lem in the long term, it was of less im­me­di­ate con­cern than the loss of my sup­plies. I hadn’t had much food, but what I did have would have lasted me an­other week or so, and much longer if the wretched pig car­cass were still with us. More im­por­tant was the wooden mazer, and the small open ket­tle I had been us­ing to cook por­ridge and heat wa­ter. I still had my hunt­ing knife and my fa­ther’s evil-look­ing dag­ger — not that I’d use that to eat or pre­pare food — but the spoon and the flat metal plate I’d been

us­ing as both trencher and skil­let would be missed. There were more personal items as well: a bar of An­ge­ley’s rose­mary-scented soap; my brush and comb; a dandy brush and rag for rub­bing down Nag, as well as one or two more feeds of grain; a sec­ond pair of breeches, a spare linen shirt; and most em­bar­rass­ingly, un­der­clothes that were not re­motely clean.

Af­ter spend­ing some time brood­ing and sulk­ing over these losses I re­al­ized it had only sped up the in­evitable. I still had my purse, and we would have to brave a town and do some shop­ping.

I hadn’t set foot in a town since my flight from home. Was it only six days ago? The smartest course of action would have been to send Rad­dick in with money to buy pro­vi­sions. Though he risked recog­ni­tion as a run­away ser­vant, he knew the town bet­ter than I and was less likely to set foot in the wrong place. But I didn’t trust him that far yet, nor was I about to have him pur­chase small-clothes for me. The choice of town was difficult too. We were, all of us, wary of Doniver’s seat, but it was the only city of size within two days’ ride. The smaller sur­round­ing vil­lages, though less likely to con­tain Tiern Doniver, were also less likely to con­tain the goods we needed in any quan­tity or qual­ity, and more likely to have res­i­dents who might re­mem­ber the odd sex­tet of per­sons and beasts we com­prised. Anonymity was far eas­ier in a pop­u­lous place.

Like Os­thegn in Teil­lai or the Bas­tion of Rheran, Doniver’s cas­tle, White Tooth, rises above the town, dom­i­nat­ing it. The tow­er­ing cen­tral keep for which the cas­tle earned its name is taller than any­thing on Os­thegn or the Bas­tion, though. A huge cylin­dri­cal chim­ney, it is win­dow­less un­til at least thirty yards above the ground. Soar­ing high be­yond that, its white stone seems to pierce the sky. It is ru­moured the dun­geons be­neath

run as high as the tower is tall. For­tu­nately I have not yet had oc­ca­sion to count the down­ward steps. As Rad­dick and I en­tered the lower gates of Doniver with the morn­ing traf­fic, the White Tooth felt like a sword wait­ing to fall upon us.

With lit­tle sleep, less food, and my head start­ing to ache from the com­bi­na­tion, Rad­dick and I bat­tled the crowds en­ter­ing Doniver that day.

“Food last,” I said to Rad­dick, deny­ing the com­plaint of my own stom­ach as my com­pan­ion veered to­ward the mar­ket. “It’ll be heav­i­est, and we don’t want to pack it around.” As I said it, my belly made dragon-like grum­bles, caus­ing me to avoid Rad­dick’s piti­ful stare.

“But maybe we should eat some­thing first,” I amended, feel­ing a pang of guilt for Dog, who, with the hounds and Nag, awaited us in a covey well past the com­mons.

Across the road was a tav­ern spilling noisy pa­trons onto the cob­bles and send­ing forth the aroma of stew­ing meat amidst the beery air. I grabbed Rad­dick by the el­bow and dragged him across the teem­ing foot and cart traf­fic to the open door of the Gosling. Such an in­no­cent name be­lied the tav­ern’s con­tents.

It was the first time I’d ever been to a drink­ing house, and I tried not to let my un­world­li­ness show as I peered around the mas­sive shoul­ders and backs of pa­trons. There was no place to sit, so we el­bowed up to the bar, both of us so short as to barely catch the tav­erner’s at­ten­tion. Rad­dick had been mak­ing strange em­bar­rassed noises all this time, and fi­nally, as we waited for our bowls of pot­tage and cups of beer, I asked him what was wrong. “I haven’t any coin,” he hissed at me. “I know that.” Was he em­bar­rassed at not be­ing able to gal­lantly treat me to a meal? “You can pay me back an­other

time,” I added, to as­suage his pride.

Hav­ing to feed two more mouths—four if I counted the dogs—was go­ing to di­min­ish my purse at bet­ter than three times the planned rate. Re­ally, I thought, I should aban­don both of them. But I couldn’t. It was not just be­cause I felt guilty for caus­ing the furore in which they’d lost their em­ploy­ment, and not just be­cause I was in debt for the risk they’d taken on my be­half. It was a lit­tle less lonely, a lit­tle safer than be­ing on my own. And in a strange way I found I was en­joy­ing the sen­sa­tion of be­ing able to pro­vide for them. It was, I was shocked to rec­og­nize, not un­like the sense of no­blesse oblige my mother and nurse had fruit­lessly tried to in­stil in me over the years. How ironic to have it sur­face at last, far from the vas­sals for whom I was sup­posed to feel re­spon­si­ble.

As a rule I never touched meat and sel­dom fowl, but to­day I gob­bled the stew, with its sparse and uniden­ti­fi­able lumps of brown mat­ter, as if it were pud­ding. The beer made my headache worse, but I drank it none­the­less, fear­ing to haz­ard the wa­ter, while Rad­dick told me a lit­tle of him­self.

He was from here, or rather Don­wych, the vil­lage just north­east. His family had been farm­ers till his fa­ther died af­ter be­ing tram­pled by spooked oxen and dragged by his own plough. It had been a lin­ger­ing death, and Rad­dick, though only five at the time, re­mem­bered it well. Lord Eiglin, Tiern Doniver’s fa­ther, had re­taken the lease­hold, as­sert­ing that Rad­dick’s mother and older sis­ter were un­able to work the fields. Both of them landed as scullery maids in White Tooth, and Rad­dick in the poul­try pens. When he proved dili­gent at that he was moved to the ken­nels, and then to the sta­bles. It didn’t seem so bad to me, the way he described it mat­ter-of-factly, but as I thought more it be­gan to bother me.

“But … your family were ten­ant farm­ers?” There were very few serfs in Aer­ach: serf­dom oc­curred only when a farmer was un­able to pay his rents. Even then, the con­di­tion was not hered­i­tary. No one could force a family into gen­er­a­tional bondage. “Aye.” “And not in debt? Your rents were paid up when your fa­ther died?” “So Ma told us.” “Then Eiglin Doniver had no right to seize your land!” I be­came aware my voice had risen, turn­ing the near­est few heads in the noisy room. I hunched over my beer.

“But with Da gone,” Rad­dick said, “we couldn’t work the land.” “Was that proven?” He looked at me with a blank ex­pres­sion. “Did they give your mother a chance? To try? To hire hands for the har­vest and sow­ing?” He scowled de­fen­sively. “I dunno. I was only a wee lad.” I leaned across the empty bowls, feel­ing like the older sis­ter I never was to my own sib­lings. “Rad­dick, if they didn’t give her the chance to farm it, then the seizure was il­le­gal. Your family could still have the right of lease­hold.”

He slumped over his beer. “Don’t mat­ter,” he said. “Ma died two sum­mers back.”

There was such a bleak look in those usu­ally soft eyes I didn’t press him for de­tails, nor even of­fer sym­pa­thy.

“Chessa,” he said, his look even more hope­less, “she wouldn’t want to be no farmer. Not now. And me … af­ter all this” — he waved his hand around, in­di­cat­ing our shared predica­ment — “it’s not like I’ll ever get it back from Doniver, will I?”

I dropped my eyes. “I’m sorry, Rad­dick,” I said, then of­fered words even rarer and more painful for me. “It’s all my fault.”

“No. No!” He straight­ened. “I couldn’t bear it there at the camp any­way. I woulda left soon—soon as I could fig­ure a way.” His face was as twisted as his cap, which was back in his hands and be­ing slowly tor­tured. “I couldn’t do it, keep tend­ing them poor crea­tures, and send­ing ’em off to fight to death. I just … just weren’t brave enough to fig­ure a way to stop it. An’ here you did it in just one night—” He broke off, giv­ing the cap an­other vi­o­lent wrench.

“M’lady.” He made a pair of bob­bing dips, and I thought he was about to go down on one knee here in the bar­room. For­tu­nately he pos­sessed the dis­cre­tion, or lacked the courage, to fin­ish the mo­tion. “M’lady, I’d rather pledge my­self to your ser­vice. If you’d have me, that is.” “Hst! Who says I’m a lady?” “You do, miss. When ye speak. The things ye know, like.” I couldn’t help glanc­ing around the room, though it seemed no one was in­ter­ested in the con­ver­sa­tion of a pair of ragged boys.

“Stop it. Stop call­ing me that. I’m just … I’ve been more for­tu­nate than most. I’m noth­ing. No­body.” Panic had be­gun to well up in me. I didn’t want him even spec­u­lat­ing on my her­itage. “And re­mem­ber: I’m a boy, like you.”

This time he looked around the room, then hunched over in so ob­vi­ously furtive a ges­ture it was lucky in­deed that no one seemed to care about or even no­tice us.

“Look,” he said. “I don’t know why you’re run­ning away from home.”

I hadn’t told him that. Was it that ob­vi­ous? The panic turned to a ball of ice in my gut.

“But you’ve bought my bread, and I’ve done you a ser­vice. If ye don’t want me I un­der­stand …I … I’d just rather serve a … a min­strel boy like you than the finest lord in the land.”

As much as I was touched, I was wor­ried. I needed to work on my dis­guise. It was one thing dress­ing as a com­mon boy, but sound­ing like a duke’s daugh­ter was giv­ing me away. I could al­ter my voice, that much I knew, and hav­ing Rad­dick around as a model—well, that would make it eas­ier. I had to ad­mit I liked the thought of an ex­tra pair of eyes, hands, ears, and a body at my back. But in re­turn? “Look at me, Rad­dick. What you see is all I have, all I am. I’ve got no lands, no funds past what’s in this purse to sup­port a vas­sal.”

“You’ve yer voice,” he said so softly I barely heard it amid the din of the tav­ern. “That’s worth gold and land and horses and armies right there.”

A sud­den warmth swept through me, at the com­pli­ment. But I wasn’t about to let prag­ma­tism be swept aside with pretty words.

“It barely puts a roof over the head for the night and a meal for the day. How many wealthy mu­si­cians have you seen?”

“None. But I’ve never heard any with a voice like yours, ei­ther.” He was blush­ing now too, de­fen­sive. “But that’s not here nor there. Point is, you oughtn’t be trav­el­ling the coun­try with none to look out for you.” I for­bore from rais­ing an eye­brow at the thought of this skinny, weapon­less boy, no big­ger than I, pro­tect­ing me. “I’m of­ferin’ my ser­vice in re­turn for no more than a roof when you have one, and a half-full belly so long as yours is full. You’ve ev­ery right to turn me down, but only if you think I wouldn’t be of aid to you.”

“I’d be an id­iot to turn you down.” I was try­ing for a ca­sual tone, but my voice was rough with un­ex­pected emo­tion.

I took a long swig of the wretched beer. In re­turn, I thought, I was go­ing to see what could be done about the decade-old in­jus­tice that had been done to his family. How, I didn’t know.

The more I learned of the Doniver family, the less I liked them and the more I thanked fate for the child­ish out­rage that had caused me to run away from home be­fore the be­trothal could pro­ceed any fur­ther. If mar­ried to Doniver, though, I could prob­a­bly af­fect re­forms in the land: stop the il­le­gal beast-bait­ing; main­tain wid­ows’ rights. If only I could stom­ach it.

I shook my head, re­mem­ber­ing the bru­tal, ugly look on Tiern Doniver’s face. I wouldn’t change him, and I couldn’t change his poli­cies any more than Mother could change Fa­ther’s. Was that what she had hoped when she’d agreed to marry him? Or had she sim­ply pre­ferred mar­riage to a Duke to a pauper’s life with my real fa­ther? I would not fall into that trap. But those prob­lems were in the fu­ture.

Ir­daign’s Cho­rus

Oh, how I wish I could take my daugh­ter’s pain away, take it as my own, the way I can ease a birth or heal a fes­ter­ing wound. Why is heal­ing the heart be­yond my skills?

Of course I knew of An­dreg’s lover, have known since … Well, I can never re­mem­ber how long I have known things. It is one of the many rea­sons I brought Ei­navar back into Lau­resa’s life, that know­ing. But even still, I haven’t been able to pre­vent or salve the pain.

I have watched help­lessly as she tum­bled into love with her hus­band, my at­tempts to warn or steer her away in­ter­preted as a man­i­fes­ta­tion of an­i­mos­ity

be­tween my­self and An­dreg. And that, as in any mother-daugh­ter-hus­band tri­an­gle, could serve only to push her faster into An­dreg’s arms. “I told you thus” would be worse than use­less. For now, all I can do is love her and feel her pain as if it were my own. Ei­navar has not vis­ited her in over a year. Whether he sensed her heart’s di­vi­sion, or whether Fate has sim­ply caused his du­ties with the Bran­dis­hear Rangers to keep him away, the ef­fect is the same. Lau­resa is dou­bly bereft, both of her hus­band, whose lack she had never felt be­fore, and of her lover.

But then I smile and rec­og­nize Fate’s wis­dom, if such a force can be said to have so hu­man a qual­ity. Hus­bands and lovers are not what she needs, but a mother and daugh­ter. Be­tween the sud­den dot­ing at­ten­tion she be­stows on Al­laigna, and the motherly care I can wedge around her when she isn’t look­ing, we book­end her, shel­ter her from the outer world, and re­mind her that, more than a Duchess, a wife, a lover, she is above all a mother.

Un­like what I feel for Lau­resa, I have no aching de­sire to take away Al­laigna’s pain. Per­haps it is be­cause there is a gap be­tween our gen­er­a­tions—a buf­fer that al­lows me to see her with no less love but with less in­volve­ment. Nourd told me once that a mother al­ready car­ries all her ba­bies within her, even be­fore she is born. In that sense then, I car­ried Al­laigna and Al­lenry and all Lau­resa’s other off­spring within my belly all the while I car­ried her. It is a sur­real yet com­fort­ing thought. It is not that my love for my grand­daugh­ter is any less; it is sim­ply that I am far enough re­moved from the type of pain she suf­fers that I can see it for the tran­sient, nec­es­sary, char­ac­ter-shap­ing an­guish it is.

And for all that — maybe be­cause of it — I am able to hold her hand and sup­port her through the first aw­ful trauma of her young life: the birth of her baby brother.

I am happy, de­lighted, and self­ishly joy­ful to be able to give my­self so en­tirely to her. If there is any thought my motherly at­ten­tions should be turned to my own daugh­ter, I re­al­ize my gift to her is to as­suage her own guilt and al­low her to give her­self fully to Al­lenry be­cause Al­laigna is taken care of.

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