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.
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.