The Orphan's Wedding {Mistress Dizzy & Justice}

Discussion in 'THREAD ARCHIVES' started by Justric, Jan 2, 2015.

  1. Kijani.png

    Our Story So Far... (open)

    Apples. Victor never thought he’d ever become so enraptured by the scent of apples. And pears. And the full and ripe blackberries that grew about in thick brambles around his farm’s orchard. For years he had been quietly despairing over the seeming fact that all he would ever smell would be the reek of sulfurous black powder, the stench of heavy coal dust and smoke, and the coppery tang of blood that always tickled the back of his tongue. Now, discharged and too lame to march, the young man reveled in the sweet smell of ripe fruit and loamy earth! Even the pitch and tar used for fixing his new home had been offset by the healthy aroma of fresh cut wood. Were he ever so disfigured or blinded, he could still be happy until death if he could just inhale these heavenly scents.

    It wasn’t that he was all that old. Some twenty and five winters, maybe? He didn’t rightly know himself, having no clue as to his Natal Day. The great Hall of Records in Verrun might have the details of his birth, the great city-state being run by such meticulous clerks and counters as he might ever have imagined… or despised. As an orphan and a medically discharge infantryman, he was scarcely the sort they would bother to place any sort of importance upon. Victor knew most of his letters and could read a little. It was not enough for him to work his own way through the labyrinth of archives that reportedly ran for miles beneath Verrun’s Library, though. So instead he simply ignored the passage of the years, guessing as to what his own age might be when pressed and refusing to delve further into it.

    He placed a scarred hand upon one of the trees. It was old and stout, with heavy apples of golden reds dangling among the autumnal leaves. Harvest time was soon. He couldn’t wait. Victor had been all too lucky to find the farm and orchard up for sale upon his discharge a year ago, lucky still he had been smart enough to save his pay instead of squandering it upon drink, doxies and dice like his comrades. Plunder had also filled his pockets. The dead soldiers of Poictesme (who in their own heathen tongue pronounced it ‘Pwa-tem’) had no use further use for their coppers and silvers, whereas Victor planned for a future. Having no home to return to, this tiny village far from the protection of Verrun and further still from the devastation of Poictesme was the perfect place to start a new life. He chuckled at the thought of his careless comrades who foolishly spent their coin and would be stuck sucking in the foul airs of factories and sweating at their masters’ forges. This small cottage and great barn? These hundreds of fruit bearing trees? These were all his. And if his shattered knee and twisted foot made the work harder, it made his apples all the sweeter to his tongue. There were no farm hands to help him, all off to war or in the service of some other master, so the work, and the rewards, would be his.

    Off he paced slowly towards his cottage to prepare his evening meal, his dark thatch of hair ruffled by the wind. He chuckled again at the enjoyment of his freedom. Victor had nothing but his life before him. Mayhaps he might find a woman that took pleasure in such a plain face marred by the single long scar along his jaw and with brown eyes as his own, or who appreciated strong shoulders on a middling frame but with a game leg. The chuckle became a laugh. He knew from his early days that farming could be a hard life, a life in danger from vermin and droughts. But it was his life now, now the regiments and not the Council of Verrun’s. If only his iron fisted and whip wielding commanders could see him now, happy and content far from their tyrannies while they still faced death daily.


    It was surprising, really, how easy it was. Now that she had the luxury of thinking time, she was amazed at how simple her escape had become. Good coin could grease a lot of palms, and make many a man turn a blind eye.

    Kijani sat in the carriage cab, musing as she was gently jostled on her journey. More than once, she nearly went to the window, to look out and backward at what she was leaving behind her. But self-discipline won out, and she kept her body still and her face hidden. The sunlight flickered through the trees as the road took her further and further out of the city. Reaching into the hidden pocket within her bustle, she checked her golden pocket watch. It had been a little over an hour. Her father was off at work. Her mother, at some grand lunch party. Neither of them would return for several hours, and it would be another hour besides that before they actually noticed she was not at home. By that time it would be incredibly hard for them to pick up her trail. Her parents were smart, yes, but she knew she'd been smarter.

    All of her reading had prepared her for her departure. The fantasy novels of the great detective Sherlock Holmes, solving crimes in a cold, machineless world, with nothing more than his wits and his senses. She knew what clues the police could find, so she made sure not to leave those clues. Her escape had been planned for months. She'd stored up her monthly allowance bit by bit, and brought bits and pieces of clothing. A skirt here, a pair of boots there. Nothing in large amounts, so there wouldn't be a signal that she was storing them away. The final part had been the hardest- her very nature made her leaving the house an occurrence by itself. She snuck out in the middle of the day, when the servants were busy with tasks, and she'd sent off her old aging made on some simple, yet time consuming errand. Then she'd simply walked out the front door, hailed a cab, and was gone.

    She wound one of her thin, black dreadlocks around her finger, an idle habit for when she was deep in thought. Unfortunately, beyond her getting out of the house unseen, there had been no further planning. When she handed the driver her money, she'd told him to take her as far as her coin would last. That had been several minutes and miles ago. With a sigh, she realized she'd have to settle into the journey. Removing her black touring hat, she set it on the seat of the carriage and smoothed the tiny flyaway hairs that always came with wearing a hat. Her dreadlocks were tidily pinned back in an elegantly twisted bun. Idly she tugged on her white silk gloves, lacing and unlacing her fingers. She was dressed head to toe in the latest fashions. Her white blouse was crisp and spotless, her vest deep burgundy and neatly pinstriped. Her skirt was the finest black taffeta with a ruffled edge, and her heeled boots were shined to a glisten. She was the very image of a city woman. Calmly, she shut her eyes and relaxed herself. The next thing she heard, an hour later, was a voice.

    “We're coming up to the limit of your coin, miss!” Called the driver. “We'll be stopping at the next town.”

    “Ah, yes. What is the next town, please?”

    “Little farming place called Arbordale, miss!”

    That sounded nice and quiet. She put her hat back on, smoothed her skirt and readied herself. Once the carriage stopped, and the door was opened for her, she stepped out and tipped the driver, before stepping out and simply observing the town.

    “Well. Now what?”


    Alderman Brown watched from his porch as the carriage rolled into village. Seeing such transports pass through the village wasn't uncommon as the road passed by their homes and towards the more popular seaside towns. Seeing someone stop now? That was strange. Especially in the evening! The coaches would normally stop over in the larger town of Applefell, where they might gorge themselves on meats and brews of the finest until morning brought them to the road again. There was no inn or hostel here, Arbordale being too small to support such services or even a coach yard. So the sight of the pretty young woman stepping out and down upon the ground with a bewildered air was puzzling. Still. No need to make her feel unwelcome, he decided. Pushing his ancient and amble frame out of his chair, he ambled down towards the road with his pipe leaving a fine trail of plumed smoke behind him. Balding and aged, Brown was alderman because he had six sons to work his lands, the wealth to show for it, a genial everyman's common sense that passed for wisdom and for the fact that he was the oldest man in or around Arbordale.

    "Good morrow, miss! Good morrow!" he huffed as he laboriously made his way up to her. "Not many travelers stop their stay here! Is there trouble with your coach or horses, then?" He braced himself for some acid response, the arrogance and surly attitude of even the lowest of the city dwellers well known even in this back-beyond. Yet the Alderman was of a mind that no one who passed or stopped in his village would find them lacking in manners or kindness, despite whatever passed for decency in the urban sprawls. "We've no inn here, but if you're parched or sickly we can open the public house early for you while you wait?”


    “Good morrow, sir.” Kijani smiled politely at the old gentleman, but was inwardly wincing. She hadn't expected to make a scene, at all. Now she was scrambling for a story. Luckily, she'd always been quite creative. “No trouble at all, actually. I am on holiday, and... I would appreciate your help in finding potential housing for the time being.” The coachmen set down her traveling bag at her feet, tipped his hat to her, and was off before she had the idea to call him back.

    Her story wasn't bad. It was simple enough to be believed, but open enough that she could add details as necessary. “If it's not too much trouble, that is.” She was used to being obeyed by people that dressed like this man did, but she wasn't completely fooled by her upbringing. There wasn't her name to back her up, here. She was strictly on her own merits, and it wouldn't do well for her if she started things off by insulting the only person to greet her so far.


    "Holiday, is it?" The old man's eyebrows shot up to his nearly nonexistent hair line. "Not many folks of quality like yourself come here for such! But as I said, you're welcome and I'll not be called a liar for it. I'm the Alderman here in Abordale, by Stone Brown I'm called. Only... we don't be having much room here. Not right sure where you'd stay. All I could offers is a stall of hay, and that wouldn't do! Not at all." He puffed on his pipe furiously as he tried to think of what to do with her. Pudgy fingers with gnarled knuckles ran through the remains of grey hair that still clung stubbornly to his head, his face a flushed rose hue. There was the Fitters family, young couple who might have a spare room but she was about due with their first; not the best of situations to place a lady of breeding in. Old Widow Nutt had a small room she might spare, yet her irascible nature made that option a last resort. Farmer Oak had too many of his acorns running about the place for anyone to relax. If only the Pearsons were still alive, them with that great big cottage and their orchard...

    "There... there may be something we can do for you, miss. Not exactly in town, like, but a not too far a walk if you're up for it!" He glanced down at her fine boots, dainty little things next to his rough worn farmers brogans. Talking of walking while she was wearing those things seemed a might silly, suddenly. The Alderman hurried on. "There's a young man with an orchard down the lane a ways, former soldier who settled with us last year. Nice enough fellow. Victor... what was it again? Oh, aye. Victor Croil. We just calls him Vinegar. Makes the best short batch as I've ever tasted here a bouts! Doesn't talk much but always has a friendly nod and smile for us in the village proper. He's got a fine cottage with lots of rooms I don't think he uses. We can take a stroll... or maybe I should say, grab my cart and take a ride over to him, if you'd like. If you're both agreeable, I'll have my daughter Feather comes as chaperone and maid servant to you. How does that sound then?"

    The Alderman was well aware she actually had little choice. The sun was setting, and it was doubtful there would be any other carriages along to whisk her away tonight. Or the next several days for that matter. Arbordale was scarcely on the beaten path for all that it was near the main road to the sea; it was a hamlet that travelers looked at and thought to themselves, 'Oh, how quaint' and then promptly forgot about it as they dealt with far more important matters. But Stone Brown was a kindly man, and the mercy within his heart wanted the young lady to feel as though she was selecting from a platter of options even if there was only one palatable one. She didn't seem that much older than his Feather for all that she was perfumed and scented. A paternal instinct tugged at his conscience, ensuring that he was of a mind to assist her.


    Kijani fidgeted, very slightly, as the old man took her story for truth. That had been easy enough, but the question of her lodging was an important one. She honestly hadn't expected the town not to have rooms to rent. How far out of town was she? When he mentioned the orchard, her eyes lit up. “That sounds like just the place. If your daughter agrees to it, of course, I am definitely in need of a chaperone. She would be well paid, as well, and honestly it would not be hard work. My usual servant is quite elderly so I don't like to tax her much.” She smiled warmly. “Mr. Brown, you are a true gentleman. I don't know anyone else who would help me so readily.”

    She looked around herself, just taking in her surroundings. There was something immediately different about this place. It was very green, for one thing. She was far too used to steel and stone, brass and bronze. Here, there were trees and grass, and ripe-looking fruit. Also, something else... that she couldn't quite put her finger on. It revealed itself all at once. “ you smell that? That... wonderful, loamy scent?” She inhaled slowly as if sniffing a fine wine. “It's so... rich.”

    The Alderman frowned for a moment, taking a tentative sniff of the air. He found nothing strange or out of the ordinary, at least nothing that would elicit such delighted reaction from the young lady. Then it dawned on his not too overly taxed mind that she was from the city. She wouldn't used to the scents and smells of the land and well might be experiencing some of them for the first time. And there was only one over-powering fragrance that he could make out at the moment. With his red jovial face and wide grin, he chuckled. "Why, miss! That's manure! You know. Pig shit! Nothing for good crops like pig shit!"

    -- -- --

    Victor eased back in the old wooden chair upon his porch. His porch. He chuckled. It was still hard to believe! Two years ago he'd been discharged as no longer fit for service and not fit for one of those new fangled artificial limbs that were all the rage; cheaper to give him his half pay and get rid of him than spend the small fortune those damnable devices cost. His leg might be weak and tremble at the knee when overly tasked, but at least it was still his own! He sat back and smoked his briar pipe in ease as he watched the sun set. Soon he'd head in, clump over to the room he'd made for his bed, and turn in for the night. There was no point in staying up late and wasting the precious lamp oil, and the reek of the tallow-fat candles tickled his nose too much to bother with. But in that moment, he paused to reflect his good fortune in life.

    Until the rumble of a horse cart disturbed his pleasure. Squinting down the lane that lead towards the village square, Victor could just make out old Brown at the reins, his wisp of a daughter Feather behind him. And someone else. Someone dressed in finery far too great for the farmlands of Abordale. The sight of her made him frown, memories of dandy ladies with all their fripperies laughing at soldiers returned from the front, brining men in the hospitals some small treat as though it were a great act of charity... The former soldier's ease was disturbed. In stony trepidation, he watched the comical show of the Alderman lowering himself out of the cart's driving bench (a sight sure to cure the worse of depressions) and ambled over towards the house. Victor said nothing as the old man approached.

    "Vinegar! Glad to see you awake still! I know you're a true man of the land, for all that rifle carrying you done. Early to bed, early to rise, and all that. A proper farmer. Should have been among us years ago." Alderman Brown waited for a reply that was not forth coming. Nervously shifting on his feet, he gestured back towards the cart. "I... er.... I was wondering if you might do me, and the village, a bit of a favor, Vinegar? Young lady there. She come into town, nowhere else to go. Want to have one of them there... er... holidays! That's it. A holiday here among us. Only we've got no rooms for her, least none as fit for such gel. You with this big cottage, and I know you don't have use for the second floor of it what with your leg. So... I was hoping...?"

    Victor still said nothing, although the scowl in his face said everything that needed saying.

    "Oh, come now," pleaded the elder, "I knows your not fond of the city, but she's just a gel! My Feather will take care of her, you won't even know she's here! And she's for paying, tis not a charity we're asking!"

    Closing his eyes for a moment, Victor fought the oncoming headache. Feather again. Chit of a girl, some sixteen or seventeen years old and in want of a husband that she wasn't somehow related to; that was the problem with small towns like this. Everyone ended up related to each other sooner or later. Brown had been trying to foist her off on Victor no more than a month after he'd purchased the orchard and lands, and this was no doubt another scheme of his to invest her into his home and thoughts. It didn't matter that he had no interest in the girl at all, even though she could arguably be called 'pretty.' She simply had no spine! No thoughts of her own! It wasn't that Feather was simple in the head, just... simple. No, if Victor were to ever marry, it would have to be a woman with strong will and determination, someone not afraid of work and full of life! It was tempting to utter a few scathing remarks to drive Brown and his flighty offspring off so they might leave him be.

    The mention of coin changed his mind. He was far from wealthy, nor was he exactly wanting. Still, new coin would buy a better pump for the washhouse, maybe hire some lads in to help with the harvest; prideful enough he wanted the work to be all his, the throbbing in his knee brought some common sense. And how long a holiday could it be? He let the Alderman twist in the wind for several minutes before heaving a great sigh of annoyance.

    "Fine," he agreed curtly. "Room and meals, morning and evening. She have to do for herself if she wants 'luncheon.' I'll trust to you to manage the coin, Alderman, and see me my fair share. But they both are to stay out of my way. I have enough trouble getting about without more underfoot.”


    Kijani watched as the Alderman discussed what was hopefully to be her lodging with the owner of the property. Even from where she was sitting, she could see he was less than pleased. That didn't bode well. A twist of nerves hit her stomach. If this Vinegar man didn't agree, she had no idea what she'd do for sleeping quarters.

    To try and distract herself, she turned to the girl beside her. Feather. A unique and lovely name, that spoke at something both beautiful and incredibly fragile. Something of use, too, if you thought about it. She smiled politely at the girl who was to be her chaperone for this "holiday" of hers.

    "Have you ever been a maid before, Feather?" She wanted to know what the girl knew- and what Kijani could perhaps get away with not telling her. "I am an easier charge than most, but I will still need help with the basics. Laying out my clothing, the wash... you know, usual things. Honestly, the rest of it I can handle, though I know it's not my station to do so."

    She paused, thinking. Since the whole 'pig shit' incident several miles back, Kijani had been more than reluctant to marvel aloud about the simplistic beauty of the town. She didn't want to sound like an idiotic city girl, though she was, if she really, really thought about it. But there were simply things that she didn't know. "What sort of places are there, in town? Shops, perhaps? A bookstore?" The second one was something wished for, but not something she wagered on actually getting. Good thing she'd packed plenty of books, and her journal, within her traveling bag.


    Feather sat besides the great lady in all of her finery, feeling small and mousy next to her. The Alderman was stout, wide and rosy cheeked, Feather was just the opposite: tall, thin, gawky and whey faced with plain features and flyaway blond hair that fought the attempt to braid it in even a single plait. Soulful grey eyes stared out in tremulous terror of saying the wrong thing or near anything at all. She was pretty, actually, in an underfed, country sort of way. A meek girl of seventeen, she feared offending the fine guest from the city. She had no idea what might offend such a person, but her father was taking great pains to tend to her so she must be important. Feather paused before and after each sentence. It was a halting way of speaking, but the farmer's daughter knew no other way to communicate; the words were there in her head, but she had to concentrate on getting them to come out in the right order.

    "No, miss. Never been a maid." Feather looked down at her own feet as she sat upon her hands to still them. Eyes darted to and fro as she worked out what to say next, and there was a small smile of pleasure as she said eagerly, "I can wash, though, miss! Me Ma and I, we do the washing at home! And I can sew and cook, too!" Pause. "I don't know about stations though, mum. No engines come out this way, Da says, they're for the army men."

    Her eyes lit up again as the next answer worked its winding way to her lips. "There's no shop, miss, but Master Bandleman comes with his cart every Seventh Day! He says he has wonders from all over the word for those of us with the coin! He might have some books, miss. And Seventh Day is only two days from now since this is Fifth Day!" Feathers eyes danced about again as if searching for anything she might have missed within her own mind. "Oh, and Da has a book!" she added helpfully. Feather looked up towards the city girl hopefully, watching for any sign of kindness or approval at her contributions.

    Alderman Brown, the meanwhile, was rubbing his hands and chuckling in satisfaction. Everything was going well. The young lady would be safe in the house of a soldier, even one as wounded as Vinegar; she would have her holiday and hopefully tell her friends of the delightful little village that was good for resting the body and soul; Feather and Vinegar would spend some time close together and might grow on each other; and... and... all would be right with the world! "Well and good, Vinegar! Well and good! And I promise you, promise you I will, that you'll scarce hear a peep! Er... if you might spend at least a little time... helping Feather? You know she can be a bit... well... She's a good girl! Knows how to keep a house! But..."

    Victor resisted sighing in annoyance again. This hardly sounded like he wouldn't notice the women living in his house. What it did sound like was that he was correct in thinning the Alderman was throwing his beloved daughter at Victor again in the hopes of a wedding and someone else to care for her. Brown loved his daughter, doted on her even! But declining years and sons who had families of their own to tend to made it harder to look after the simple girl. Having already given his word, though, Victor was loathe to go back on it.

    "Fine. Fine. She can have the grand room up and on the left, the door locks on the inside. There's a crib room off of that with a small bed that Feather can have. Feather'll need to clean the dust out of the rooms and put to fresh sheets. There's spare blankets in the cedar chest in my room. Spare comforter, too." He rose up with wince, leaning heavily on his cane and glaring at the Alderman when he started forward as if to help. Defiant against his pain, Victor stumped about. "You get her things in. I'll stoke up the fire so she had embers for the bed warmer. I just have to find the damned thing, first."


    Kijani was glad that the girl didn't already know how to be a maid. It meant that she would have more freedom, and could basically make her own rules. The pay she wouldn't shirk on. She had the money to make it worth Feather's while, and keep her father happy. It wasn't until the girl started talking about stations and engines that Kijani realized she was somewhat... outclassing young Feather, in a few significant ways. She opened her mouth to politely correct the girl, but then Feather spoke again, this time with more helpful information. No shops, but a traveling merchant. It would have to do. Thank goodness she'd packed books. And then Feather made her puzzled again, because of course Seventh Day would be two days after Fifth Day... everyone knew that, or could at least work it out for themselves. Once young Feather had finished her little speech, Kijani put a smile on. Poor young girl seemed desperate to please. Kijani could deal with that- Feather was sweet. Simple, goodness knew, but sweet all the same. Perhaps she could teach the girl a thing or two, starting with vocabulary.

    “Thank you, Feather, for all of your helpful information. We're going to get along quite well.” She paused. Feather seemed quite young, and unsure of the formal rules of class and station. Maybe this would be to her advantage. “I would appreciate to learn from you, Feather. Such things that I could not learn myself. Cooking and such.” She smiled, warmly. “I hope we can learn to be friends.” It didn't seem quite right for her to trick someone as... mild as Feather seemed to be. It would just be too easy, like playing pranks on a young child. It took most of the fun out of things. So perhaps she'd simply ask Feather for what she wanted, instead of sneaking around.

    Turning her gaze back to the two men at the house, she frowned slightly. The conversation seemed to be over, as the man known as “Vinegar” was up and moving around. Though he seemed to be doing that moving under some duress.

    “Feather, what do you know about our host?”


    Friend?? The country girl considered the word. She had a few friends that she saw now and then: Lilac from down the way, Wrenfly from over the way, cousin Brookfall... she hadn't seen any of them much of late, on account of them having already married. The lady was asking to be friends... but she was to serve the lady... She shrugged off the confusion, the thought too taxing for her mind to stay on top of. It was strange the lady not knowing to cook! What mother wouldn't teach her daughter such a needed task??

    Feather's eyes darted about again while she bit her bottom lip. "He was a soldier," she finally volunteered, "I remember Da saying he were a soldier. But they sent him home. On account of his leg, miss. He were wounded, Da said, but they couldn't put on one of them legs that weren't a leg for whatever reason. So he came here and lives in Master and Mistress Pearsons' home." The girl paused. "They're dead, you see, miss. Only he didn't kill them, even though he's a soldier. They died almost three years ago. Master Vinegar didn't come here until a year later, which was two years ago." Her eyes narrowed with the effort of trying to recall something that happened more than a year ago. They finally focused as though she was staring at something far, far in the distance. "He does't come into town much, miss, or so my Da says. He... tends to stay on his own, quiet like. Doesn't like Master Bandleman, though. They fought about something, I remember. Now Master Vinegar takes his cart into one of the bigger towns for his chandleries and the like." The focus was gone, and Feather shrugged happily for she thought she was being of use. "Da thinks Master Vinegar ought to be married, that it's no good for a man his age to live without a wife, and my Ma told me I should find my way into his bed while I'm here, which is silly." Feather laughed at the ridiculousness of the very thought. "If I slept in his bed, where would he sleep?!"

    There was a cough from the roadside, and Alderman Brown hustled his amble bulk towards the cart with his chest heaving. "Ah! Miss! Ah!" He stops before the cart, bent over with hands upon knees as he wheezed. Waving a hand vaguely in the direction of the cottage, he coughed again. "G-good new, miss! Master Vinegar'll take you in, right enough. Keep you safe, dry and fed. He's asked me to handle his accounts for him in this manner, but with night falling we should... we should get you settled! He's... ah... he's a busy man, though, so mid-days meals... er... you'll have those at our house, if you're willing. Or you can do as you like, well... of course you can, miss. A minute while I... catches me breathe, then... and I'll have your bags and such into the house." He gave another flutter of a hand wave towards his daughter. "Feather, sweets? Give your mistress a hand down and take her to Master Vinegar, would you, love?"

    -- -- --

    Victor closed the door behind him as he surveyed the central room, still trying to reconcile the idea of having people in his home after enjoying his solitude for some time. It wasn't that the large cottage was unkept or dirty. Far from it! Years of soldiering had left their mark upon him in many ways, including the discipline of keeping one's domicile and possessions in order. The large room of the stone cottage was dominated by fireplace and chimney that stood central and rose up through the ceiling beams; a clever design, its opposing hearths allowed for heating both sides of the room. The wider of the two sections served as a section for eating and crafting. It was homey, with a rag woven rug to keep the cold from biting the feet and simple but sturdy wooden chairs and tables; a narrow stairwell led up the second floor where the three bedrooms were located. None of them were used by Victor, though. He hadn't been up there more than a handful of times since purchasing the property. No, his bed he had wrestled himself to the far side of the fireplace. The space had originally been used for cooking and as a pantry for a large family; with himself as the only occupant, Victor easily had space to set up his sleeping arrangements to the back of the cottage while leaving the cooking area closer to the front door.

    People. In the house.

    Young Feather he could dodge. Victor had nothing against her personally, but he was growing tired of her family's machinations to see him married off. Some day he might well marry still, there being dances and festivals of one sort or another nearly every moon's passing, and those celebrations often bringing in folks from outside the village or taking the village to outside folks. It wasn't unreasonable to think he might meet some woman there to take to wife. Weary as his mind was, he was simply not ready for the venture.

    This lass from the city, now? That was a different matter! He knew what the gentry and nobles and well to do preferred, which was to be in charge. Victor had scars across his back from 'gentlemen' officers who asserted their dominance with lash and frame, who ordered men into the breaches to die by the hundreds so they could declare their superiority over 'gentlemen' that did the same to their rank and file. Why would he have any expectation to believe different of her?


    Kijani stayed quiet as Feather spoke, stopping and starting and thinking hard. She picked up more vital information from the girl's ramble than she'd expected. So, Master Vinegar was an injured veteran, and a homebody. Wanted to be left alone, and didn't like this Mr. Bandleman much. Kijani wondered if there was a reason for that- as a soldier Mr Vinegar would have seen plenty of the world. Mostly the worst parts. If he didn't like Mr. Bandleman, then maybe he'd recognized something in the salesman that he distrusted...

    She couldn't help but smile at Feather's innocence, even though her mother's suggestion made her own ears a bit red. Imagine, a mother telling a daughter to give herself away to a stranger... how awful! She found herself very glad for Feather's simple misunderstanding- that meant the poor girl could be safe. Kijani felt her stomach go cold, and twist with nausea. Even without her being willing, a man could take what he wanted from a woman and no one could be the wiser...

    Alderman Brown's wheezing caught her attention and drew her from her memory. She smiled politely and showed happiness at being taken in. She was good at the upturning of lips, but any smart soul who caught her eye would see the depth of the trouble within. But she stepped down carefully from the carriage, smoothing her skirt and looking to the Alderman. “Thank you, sir, for everything you've done. I promise you'll be well rewarded. Come along, miss Feather.” She gestured and smiled to Feather. “Let's go meet our host.”

    She squared her shoulders and started walking toward the house.


    The wayward bed warmer found and laid by the stair, Victor stumped back out the the porch in time to see the trio approach the steps. The Alderman looked as though he were about to explode from the way he gasped and wheezed as he struggled with the lady's baggage; Victor offered him no sympathies or help. Even if he had, the Alderman was the type to refuse and possibly even take insult at the idea that he was no longer a hale and fit farmer. Feather was... Feather. There was no changing that. The woman from the city was another matter, for she clearly was attractive and poised in such a manner that no one would ever mistake her for a local. His eye caught the the way the pinstriped waistcoat fitted to her torso, the skirt about her hips, and there beneath that ridiculous hat was a face fresh and angelic, framed by the the black dreads. It made the former soldier regretfully reflect on how long it had been since he'd lain with a woman.

    "Ah, Master Vinegar!" panted Brown as he mounted the steps. "Allow me to... to present Miss Kijani. Ah, Miss Kijani? This here's Master Vinegar. He'll see to your lodgings and safety." He nodes enthusiastically again as though it was because his words made it all so. He directed Feather inside and up the stairs, following after with the luggage and calling back over his shoulder, "I'll leave you two fine folks to become acquainted like! Me 'n' Feather? We'll set this all to rights, so we will!"

    And then it was just the two of them. Victor felt slightly uncomfortable as she looked up at him, then angry at himself for feeling that way beneath her scrutiny. His simple workman's shirt with its low collar and buttoned sleeves was far from being the same white as her impeccable blouse, and the faded forest green long pants with their leather patches and sewn up rents was definitely a far cry from the rest of her finery. Those and his stained leather vest of were all of local make. Only his knee-high black boots marked him as having any city connections; the were the boots of a rifleman and cared for with a soldier's pride. Leaning on the stout hickory cane, he gave Kijani a curt nod.

    "Mistress Kijani," he rumbled flatly. "You're as welcome as you may be. My salt and hearth are yours, your health and safety mine."

    The traditional country greeting done, he eased himself into his chair with out regard for offering her one. "Strange place for a holiday, if I might say. Not many folks stop in Arbordale." His accent was a strange mix of lower class city life and rural argot, a blend that tripped off the tongue and marked him as an outsider to either place.


    Kijani gazed up at her host with an air of polite curiosity, her yellow-brown eyes taking him in all at once, and then in pieces. The scar along his jaw made her want to wince, what had caused that? Perhaps the same thing as the scar on his hand... She deduced that the war had likely caused the cane, because he couldn't have been a soldier with a limp for long. His clothing was plain, obviously well worn and rough. His shoes, of all things, made her pause. These were shined to a pleasant luster, better than some butlers she'd seen. There was something in the boots he wanted keeping.

    Her eyes flicked back upward as he began to speak. He didn't sound happy to see her, and despite his words, she really did not feel welcome. There was a flatness to his voice, as if he was bored, or simply tired. His phrasing seemed rote, like an oft repeated saying, but she didn't recognize the words. His voice was odd- was it possible to have two accents? Once he was done greeting her, she let slowly spill the prepared story she'd concocted on the drive over.

    “Thank you, Mr. Croil, for allowing me to stay.” She'd pulled up his name from her memory with some difficulty and was proud she'd remembered. “I promise I will not be a bother. This is your domicile, I will obey your customs.” She paused, one hand subconsciously going to the hair, to spin a dreadlock around her finger. “I wanted a place far removed from Verrun's city life- this seemed like exactly what I was looking for.” No need to mention her budget for travel had simply run out here. The rest of her money she was saving, but she did not know for what. “I must say, it's beautiful here.” A faint, true smile quirked her lips upward. “Somehow I've had the luck of choosing the best scenery in town. Were those apple trees outside?” The trees were looking heavy with fruit, and she wondered for a fleeting moment what they would taste like. “Apples are my favorite...” That was actually truth and not just polite conversation. Kijani had always found something pleasing in the snap and crunch of a well-ripened apple, and she'd had many a young night cozied in her bed, with a novel in one hand and an apple in the other, the sweet juice dripping down her chin.

    She realized she didn't know what to say to him. “Is there anything... I should be aware of while I board here?”


    Maybe it was the mention of apples that softened his heart towards her just a bit. It was the apple trees that had snared him when he first found the property, the sight of them hanging untended and heavy upon their branches and the smell of those that had fallen to the ground fermenting and filling the country air with the sweet aroma. Upon his discharge, he knew he wanted a life in the rural hills that was far from either city or battlefield. Victor had never desired to be a farmer so much in his life, despite a childhood spent being shipped back and forth between the orphanage and the work fields. Yet with his senses lulled by ripe redness and intoxicating fresh fruit, he knew his place was working the land by his own hand. His softening towards his guest was betrayed to her by the way Victor's body marginally relaxed as he gazed at those same trees.

    "The trees in front there?" he finally offered quietly. "Those apples are free for the picking. Take any you want off of those. Pear trees 'long the far side of the house, too. They're all just as good as anything else I grow. Any one from Arbordale can do the same if they like, so long as they don't get cocky and strip them bare by the wagonload. Small enough price to pay to keep the neighbors happy, and it keeps most of the children from stealing outright from the proper orchard in back. Speaking of which? You can go walking back there if you want, makes for a nice morning hike, but leave off any of the fruit. That all gets sold to the City and towns."

    Turning his gaze from the line of trees that separated his property from the country lane that lead past it, Victor turned to look up at her. How long ago had he been the stranger here? True, the villagers of Arbordale had accepted him fairly quickly as one of their own. Most of them even acted as though he had lived among them all of his life instead of just a couple of years, especially once they discovered that despite having been a soldier he did know something of farming. But this pretty young lady was from the city, and while she might have been welcomed as a guest, there would be those in the village who would be far happier with her coin than with her. "Miss...Kijani, is it, then? Not sure if you'll understand, but... Folks around here tend to be a bit private. They like their quiet. And while they all love a good tongue wag to pass the time, they don't like to share that gossip too much with outsiders. So if a bunch of washer wives suddenly shut their gobs when you walk by, don't take it too personally."

    Victor looked away suddenly, busying himself with pulling out his pipe from a belt pouch and relighting it with a lucifer match. While trying to give her a kind word, he realized he had been gazing at her as though she were one of his trees. Like the apple trees, she was fresh and alive and healthy. This close to her, Victor could catch the faint whiff of day-faded perfume that came across as enticing as apple blossoms and pear leaves. To cover the sudden embarrassment, he coarsely struck the match and started to puff at the briarwood's stem. "Best advice I can give, Miss Kijani? Don't go poking about. And don't bring any trouble."


    Kijani noticed Mr. Croil relax a bit as he started to talk about his fields. No wonder, if she was in charge of something so wonderful and grand, she'd want to talk about it too. She was glad to hear that she could have some apples, as well. She hadn't had any with the skin on in years. Her mother had said the biting and crunching was not at all ladylike, and so she'd been forced to eat her fruit in small slices, with a knife and fork, ever since. Embarrassingly enough, she could feel her mouth filling at the thought of biting into the sweet delicious treat, feeling the glossy red skin snap under her teeth.

    She wasn't surprised as he told her that people would be quiet around her. She was used to it in the city. Her family wasn't the most powerful or wealthy, but they were still in enough circles of note to be noticed, and held higher than most. People spoke differently around her, as if they were afraid. What that fear was, she didn't quite understand fully. Something about upsetting people with power. She honestly couldn't stand it. No one spoke to her like she was just a woman. No, she was always and forever a Ryane, destined to walk and talk and be a Ryane, until she married and took some man's name but even then, she'd be a Ryane as well.

    The thought of marriage triggered a twist in her stomach, an ice cold pang that spread through her body. Mr. Croil's mention of bringing trouble only made her colder, and she started to twist her hands in endless motion, the silk gloves doing little to stop her. Her eyes had gone a bit dim, and distant, and she barely realized that her host had stopped speaking. Inside, she was simply begging herself: not now, not now, not in front of people. Her hands were starting to hurt but she was somehow detached from the pain. She inhaled a breath that shook somewhat and tried to smile. “No trouble at all, sir.”

    That was, after all, exactly why she'd left.


    Victor narrowed his eyes as he watched how she wrung her hands, the strange shift in stance and the distant look in her eyes telling the one time solider that she had become preoccupied with some weighty and worrisome matter. Even the smile that she tried to give him was a tad strained. He made note of it, then looked out towards his trees again to make it appear he'd either seen nothing or was disinterested in pursuing it. Another puff, and a plume of white smoke floated up and away into the air, the scent of rum enriched pipe weed sweetly carried upon the breeze. Vincent lowered the pipe to stare into the shadows cast by the setting sun.

    "There's a pot of stew bubbling on the heart," he finally offered. "Hard cider in the jug by the back door, and you'll find bowls and mugs on the table, miss. Not the fare you're used to probably, living in Verrun and eating... whatever you nobs eat. But it'll fill your belly and warm your toes. 'Specially the cider." Vincent said nothing more, instead taking a deep breath and relaxing back into his chair as though he was the only one there. All the while, however, his mind ran over how nice it might be to have a pretty face about the house, even if just for a little while.

    Alderman Brown struggled up the last of the bags before taking his leave. "You're all set then, Miss!" he huffed red-faced as he exited. "I'll be taking the cart back home now before the missus wonders where I took myself to. Good night to you both, then."

    Feather followed close behind, her pale face glowing happily as she came out onto the porch. "Oh, Mistress Kijani!" she bubbled. "I've got the rooms aired out a bit, Mistress, and the bedding's all changed out. I've never had my own room before. And I get my own bed with it, Mistress! It's smaller than the one I share with my Gram, but since she's pretty heavy it looks bigger! I don't know why me Mum told me to use Master Vinegar's bed!"

    At this last piece of news, Victor choked on his pipe smoke and began to cough violently in surprise, a wracking sputter that took him a bit to recover.

    Kijani's new maid continued onwards blithely, completely oblivious to their host's sudden convulsive fit. "I have your things neatly in the wardrobe, Mistress Kijani, and your unmentionables in the drawers by the bed." There was another bout of coughing. "If you'd like to eat, I can serve you now, Mistress!”


    Before Kijani could say that she appreciated Mr. Croil's offer of food, the Alderman and young Feather returned. “Thank you, Alderman, you've been an immense help to me. I promise I won't work Feather too hard.” He was off, and then Feather was so delighted about having a space of her own. She hadn't thought of things that way. Imagine sharing a bed! That must have been horrid...

    And then Feather's innocence nearly made her jaw drop open. Mr. Croil seemed to be choking to death in his chair, and she really could do absolutely nothing to aid him, as she was somewhere between hysterical laughter and utter pity. “Oh, dear Feather, you must show me our lodgings... A whole bed all to yourself, that does sound nice. I wouldn't want to share a thing with my grandmother, she's quite the bear and snores like my father.” She cast an apologetic, mildly worried at the still-coughing Croil, before she led Feather off.

    “Ah, Feather... you don't know what... being in someone else's bed means, do you?” She didn't know why she was asking a question when the answer had already been made plain, so she continued on. “That means you are that person's wife.” She paused, trying to figure out how to explain a wife's duties in a non-scary way. She could feel the cold creeping into her chest already, but she wanted to make sure Feather understood what her mother wished of her. The sooner she dealt with the subject, the easier it wold be for all of them. “Er... that means you are expected to lie with the man and... make children.”


    The look on Feather's face was one that would have made a dead man smile, so puzzled and turned about in thought as she pondered what her new mistress had just said. The words seemed to be working their way through to her brainpan. They were having a hard job of it, however. "Master Vinegar?" she finally half whispered to Kijani. "Well, that's even sillier! Why would he swive me? We're not even married!" There followed a girlish giggle. "Besides, he's so old, Mistress! Why, I've barely seen seventeen harvests, and he must have seen at least twenty five! Maybe even thirty! It would be like swiving with me Da!" That there remained a solid three decades or more between her father and Victor appeared to be a trivial gap compared to the different between her and the lame soldier.

    Feather sighed wistfully. "Not like the miller's son, Stone. He says the nicest things to me and brings me presents, Mistress!" She giggled again. "And when he kissed me-"

    Her new servant was interrupted as Victor entered his own home, stumping along towards the far side of the house where his bed lay hidden by the hearth. "I'm off to bed, Mistress Kijani. I like to rise early." He waved vaguely towards the pot where the stew bubbled and popped, filling the room with the scent of peppered meat and onions in thick gravy. "Bread box is on the table by the bowls."

    Vincent paused, sure he should say something more to her but having little idea as to what. His tongue seemed frozen even as his thoughts tumbled about disorderly, the discomfort of having someone else beneath his roof in close agreement with his distaste for anything or anyone that came from Verrun and yet clashing with the desire to be a good host, the knowledge of what it was to be the outsider and the damage a beautiful face could cause. Leaning on his cane, he teetered there just staring at Kijani and Feather. Finally, Vincent just nodded curtly and limped around the hearth. Finding his bed, he shucked off his boots and socks to ease his sore leg up onto the blankets, followed by the rest of his body. He would undress later, when they were upstairs. For now, Victor just wanted to close his eyes and relax in the dimness of the shadows.


    Kijani wanted to laugh at the look on Feather's face as what she said slowly took hold. She seemed to understand it, to a point. But what actually surprised her is that Feather seemed to have a beau of her own. That was sweet and unexpected. She wanted to hear more, but then Mr. Croil stepped up to the two of them.

    Once he'd gestured to the food, there was a space of silence, where she was simply looking at him, unsure of what to say. But before she could make up her mind, between thanking him or wishing him a good sleep, he nodded and was gone. He probably wanted to be free of her for the time being. She couldn't blame him for that- she hated having houseguests at home. Even if her home was big enough that she could avoid them.

    "Well, Feather, show me where we're to sleep." She smiled gently at her chaperone. "And do tell me more about this young Mr. Stone... he seems quite nice." She wondered if Feather's parents realized that she seemed to have her heart already set for someone else. There was certainly no hint of attraction to Mr. Croil, in any case. Maybe if Alderman Brown knew, he could let Feather have a happy coupledom instead of a forced marriage, and-

    She cut her own thoughts short with a slight inward flinch. There was no need for her to get so involved in the lives of strangers. These people had been living their lives just fine before she got here, and they would continue to do so when she left. They didn't need a city woman to 'fix' their lives. It made her someone upset at herself, knowing that she'd fallen into that pattern without even meaning to.

    "After that I suppose I should eat, and so should you, of course..." She realized she hadn't eaten anything substantial for hours, and was already feeling slightly lightheaded.


    The stew proved more onion and gravy than beef, yet settled in the stomach warmly and filling the belly after barely a half bowl. The bread, too, was thick and coarse. In sharp contrast, the cider was light and bubbling, expertly made by a soldier experienced enough to ferment nearly anything in a pinch. It cut through the grease and left the tongue clear and clean.

    The master bedroom conceded to Kijani had a wooden slat floor covered by a thick rag-woven rug. No artwork or decor graced its walls. Its bed was a massive affair that would have taken several sturdy men to even try and lift, much less actually move; its wooden canopy was surrounded on all sides by thick woolen curtains that were perfect for keeping out the chill, as were the heavy quilts and comforters that had been piled high upon the hay-filled mattress. The whole ensemble smelled of cedar and sweet heather, tainted only by the faint scent of ancient dust. A single dresser without mirror or decoration sat by the bed while a matching home hewed wardrobe took up the opposite wall. The furnishings were all stout and sturdy, broadcasting the message clearly: 'Here we are. Here we will stay.' A washstand in the far corner held a simple home-kilned pitcher and bowl. The low ceiling kept most of the heat from escaping too far from human use while a single window gave her a spectacular view of the orchard. From here, the boughs of a massive tree towering above all the others could be seen against the dying sun.

    Feather's room was smaller by a half, containing but a single narrow bed and small dresser. It, too, had been piled high with down filled comforters.

    the rooms may not have been used in some time, but Feather had chased away the ghosts of neglect and brought in a cozy feeling that was much needed with the cleaning. Or perhaps it was her simple cheerfulness that turned the unused bedrooms into homey retreats.


    Once Kijani was full of food and drink, she retired upstairs to see her new lodgings. “Oh... it's so... lovely.” Other people would have used the word quaint, but Kijani had always thought there was a bit of an insult in the connotation of that word. While the furniture was simple, it was also very functional. Not a bit of wood was wasted. The scent of the wood was appealing, as well. Now all it needed was a touch of decoration. A vase of flowers, perhaps, or a nice picture to hang on the wall. She didn't know where she would get either of these things.

    “You did a wonderful job tidying the place, Feather.” She smiled at the girl before settling on the bed, looking at the window at the setting sun. “What an incredible view.” She wished that there were trees outside her window at home. Instead there were buildings. It wasn't as cozy a morning, waking up to the view of the middle of a skyscraper.

    “Please help me get this corset off...” The buttons were in the back, and awkward to get to on her own. “And tell me more about this boy you're so fond of.” Even if she promised herself not to give advice, she still wanted to hear it.


    Feather nodded happily, another "Yes, Mistress" coming lightly off of her lips. The girl seemed quite content serving and even though she had no experience with the fancy clothes of the wealthy she deftly helped Kijani out of the corset and prepare for bed. All the while, she chatted excitedly about her heart's desire.

    Even from the girl's simple way of speaking and limited vocabulary, it was obvious she was very much in love with Stone. Tall, strong, handsome, and he carved little wooden animals from scrap lumber to give her as presents. Feather even paused to run to her one small bag and produce a finely crafted wren for Kijani's inspection, the bird's image so perfectly captured in wood that it looked like an actual fledgling about to take flight. Feather also had the grace to blush when she swooned over how well he kissed. Sadly, it was also obvious that Stone was not a suitable suitor for an Alderman's daughter from anyone else's point of view, even an Alderman of such a tiny hamlet! As caring and devoted as she made Stone out to be, he was the youngest son of three with no land or business to inherit; Stone would end up being dependent upon his eldest brother for his living his entire life. Any children from such a union would have even less chance of inheritance later on in life. Too old to apprentice (not there was anyone in the village for him to apprentice himself to), Stone's only other choices were factory work in the city or joining the army, neither of which would endear him to Feather's farmer father. Feather, however, was oblivious to this blatant stumbling block.

    As she finished assisting her new mistress for bed, Feather frowned slightly as she paused in thought. Something from earlier had finally worked its way through her head and was now bothering her. "I never thought of Master Vinegar in that way before. I mean... as a husband. I guess it's good he was a soldier, right? Defending us? And my folks both say it's a shame he's living here all alone. Maybe if he wasn't so old. And lame. And dour." She made a face. "It's odd how he's always willing to lend a hand but never wants thanking for it! Just before last harvest, he came to my brother Rye's barn raising without even being asked, brought cider for everyone to drink, put in a good share of work himself... but when Rye when to thank him for it, you'd have thought Rye had spit in his eye!"

    Cocking her head to one side, the teenager blinked rapidly. "What do you think, Mistress Kijani? Would Master Vinegar be a good match? And are all men from the city like him?"


    Kijani rather happily listened to Feather ramble blissfully on about Stone. It was sweet, how free she was with her feelings. She tried to think of a time that she'd been that way, but... nothing came to mind. It had been drilled deep into her that she wasn't going to marry just 'anyone'. The words were on her lips, as well, to tell Feather that it would never work out. The class difference, even here, would be too much. They would always be scraping and wanting and never having enough, and who wanted that? It wasn't like Stone could make a living from carvings, no matter how beautiful and real they were. It was a shame, really. She'd never heard people truly in love before, and it was... well, it made her feel sort of warm and fuzzy in the core of her chest. Even though the love wasn't hers. Funny, that.

    When Feather brought things back around to what they'd been talking about previously, Kijani took several moments to think. "While the match would bring your family some fortune, and you some security... from the way you speak about him, it's clearly obvious it's nothing you want. Even though it will make a stable life for you, if the mere thought of a man causes you to make such a face of disgust? You'd live a cold, empty life, in a big house and plenty of property, with children you never wanted." She stopped suddenly, realizing that Feather's question had dug a bit close to home for her. She wound a dreadlock around her finger and quickly switched topics, knowing it would be easy enough to distract the girl.

    "City men are nothing like what you're describing Mr. Croil as. They wouldn't want a verbal thanks for work, they would expect coin and plenty of it. Even if they are asked to do a task, they will not accept without something being in it for them. And they certainly wouldn't share the wealth, as it were." She let out a distant seeming sigh. "Profit makes the city gears turn, Feather. I don't think Mr. Croil is from the city at all- not in full." Which begged the question of where he was truly from.


    {{“Form on me! Form on me!" Victor leaned heavily on the flag's pole, the banner of Verrun hanging limping from it as though the enemy's bullets had torn the life from it. In many respects, it was no different from the hundreds of corpses that littered the glacis below. The sergeant tried to pull himself up again, slipping on the bloody mud beneath his boots. His one leg no longer obeyed like it should have. He suspected the spray of grapeshot and the accompanying pain had something to do with it. All the same, he gripped the slick wood with both hands while roaring to what survivors might hear him above the din of the battle. "Reform! To me! Onward!"

    Only a handful of soldiers rallied to his cries. The rest of the Forlorn Hope were little more than bloody chunks of meat scattered along the glacis and up to the breach in the fortress walls, the luckiest of them blasted into unrecognizable lumps covered in blood and earth. The unlucky screamed and weep where they had fallen. Despite torn bellies and ripped limbs, those men still lived... for a while longer. The army's engineer's had judged the breach practical, telling the Verrun generals that they should be able to take and hold the opening long enough to force their way inside their opponents walls. They had been... wrong. The besieged had mined the glacis leading up to the walls and then mined the breach itself, moving some of their steam cannons from above the walls to behind them so that the Verrun soldier's first view of the fortress's interior would the muzzles of the cannon. There were no officers now. As far as Victor knew, he was the only non-com still standing as well. It was a disaster, a bloody fucking disaster, and nearly all of the Hope had paid the price for the city educated engineers' mistake.

    Victor was not going down without one last effort, one last push to try and get into the fortress. Sheltered within the shadow of the wall's exterior, he could count less than a score of men still able and willing to answer his call and rally beneath the banner. They all looked to him now, frightened faces splattered with brown, black and red... oh so much red... Did they all have to look so damned young? Had any of them even learned to shave yet? Or had their wicks dipped by a whore? And why did they look to him now so eagerly with expressions that all said the same thing: 'We're not dead, are we, Sarge? We're going back now, right? You'll see us safe?' Those faces so desperate with hope twisted his guts, especially at the sight of them falling to despair as he spoke his next words.

    "One more push, lads. We give it one more go. If we can secure it, the Sixth and Seventh of Foot and Twenty-Third Sharpshooters are right over that ridge. If they can see the banner in the breach, they'll come to reinforce us. Ten minutes, lads. We just have to hold ten minutes." It was ten minutes Victor was sure they would never get to see the end of.

    "Sarge," some earnest young voice spoke up, "What about the cannons?"

    Victor wanted to throttle that earnest young voice. "I'll take care of the cannon," he reassured them. "I've still got a few fuses left for the grenades. We charge in on my say-so. Form two ranks, front rank kneeling and just. Keep. Firing. Don't worry about aiming, just fire straight ahead." Sparing a hand to adjust the black leather kepi on his head, Victor then pulled out one of the canister grenades before edging himself to the very edge of the wall. The men followed close, hunched over but with rifles at the ready. They were the Forlorn Hope, the 'forgotten heap'. In Verrun's army, they were the first onto the field and the last off of it; it was unsaid that the second half of that statement was correct because the dead were always the last to be cleared away after a battle. Victor's heart was in this throat, sweat making his bloody grip upon the battle standard all the more tenuous.

    Before he could change his mind, Vincent gave a roar born of fear, defiance and pain. The flag pole's butt end was shoved into the rubble at an angle, then used to lever himself around into the middle of the opening where he was clearly exposed to both the enemy and the reinforcements hidden below. Grimacing in agony, he reared back his one arm to throw the grenade forward even as his men swarmed around him and forward. *Ten minutes* he thought in desperate panic. *How long is ten minutes? A good beer can last ten minutes, can't it? A quick tumble with a camp follower could take ten minutes. Coffee takes around ten minutes to boil, right? That isn't long, is it, to wait for a good cup of coffee?"

    As the steam and smoke cleared in the late morning air, Victor realized that ten minutes was just the right amount of time for a score of men and a torn up sergeant to die as the cannons opened fire on them.}}

    Victor woke up with a scream that was cut off as though he was struck by a sudden seizure. He was in his bed. In his home. In the orchard. Abordale. He panted these facts over and over to himself as he sought to banish the memory. Ten minutes. Ten minutes had cost him eighteen men... boys... Two others had lived, although the definition of 'life' was going to be questionable for one of them. His leg throbbed. Each twinge and twang inside of knee reminded him that he could have suffered far worse. They had taken the breach, taken the fortress... because it had all been a feint. The fortress had finally fallen not to the reinforcements that had never been behind the Forlorn Hope at all, but to an ariel bombardment that had come a few minutes later. Victor still had not idea how many of his men had died by friendly bombs. The Hope had been used as part of a ruse, a distraction. To make it all the more credible, they hadn't even been told.

    Betrayed by his own leaders. Betrayed by his own duty to complete the job. Betrayed by the City of Verrun.

    Staring into the dark shadows of his home, Victor let silent tears fall.


    Kijani woke, the morning sun warming her body beneath the covers. Even though she was conscious, her eyes were closed and she had an overwhelming feeling of fear, deep in her stomach like ice. She could feel her skin reacting, too, going clammy and cold. Hands on her. On her breasts. Digging into her thigh. On her... She started to tremble, feeling her stomach ready to relieve itself of last night's stew and alcohol. "No, no..." Even though she couldn't remember the nightmare, she was still feeling the effects. She pushed a hand through her dreadlocks, feeling the beading sweat on her forehead. She was gone, she was away, it couldn't happen here...

    She needed a distraction. Quickly rising, she threw on some appropriate morning clothes, and crossed the hall to Feather's room. "Feather? Feather, dear, please, I need your help..." She tried to keep the shake out of her voice, but her palms were slick with sweat. She could feel it as she knocked.


    Feather answered quickly although from an unexpected direction: the stairs. She was already washed and dressed for the day, a simple blue country dress and white apron about her slender body. Bright eyes and smiling, it was clear the farm girl had been up for some time already and was ready to do whatever was asked of her. "Yes, mistress?"

    Only at the sight of Kijani's distress, her mouth formed a small 'o' of surprise. "Why, Mistress Kijani! You look all done in! Was your sleep not restful? Mother told me that sometimes sleeping in a new place can be hard at first, but I think I slept better than I ever might have before! It was a little colder than sleeping with someone else in the bed, but it was nice not to have Granny's snoring in my ears all night long! I have breakfast laid out for you below if that's to your liking? Bacon, sausage, sour bread and apple butter, a nice thick porridge, hashed tubers fried in salted lard. And there's tea and juice for the drinking, an it please you. Master Vinegar was already up when I arose. He did some chores outside and then laid down again. I did some cleaning and other chores while you both rested." Feather paused in thought, her staccato way of speaking halting as a notion came to her. "Come to think of it, he looked rather done in as well. I hope you both aren't coming down ill. But if you are coming down ill, I know lots of remedies for almost anything thanks to my Granny.”

    At hearing Feather's voice, Kijani whirled. Of course the girl would be awake already. She would have been up from dawn, likely as not. As Feather started to speak, and express her worry, Kijani slowly went down the stairs. Her hands shook on the banister.

    "Food sounds..." Like something she couldn't handle. Her stomach was ice on the inside, and she was certain anything she put on it would come back up. "Well, perhaps I'll have some tea. A nice cup of hot tea sounds wonderful about now." She tried to put a smile on her face, for propriety's sake. "You're lovely, you know that? So lively, and so hardworking. Could you prepare me some tea and bread?" Maybe if she could get a handle on her stomach, she could manage a walk outside. Anything to get out of her mind. Inwardly, she wondered about what Feather had said last. Had Mr. Croil had a bad night as well? She wondered why, but quashed the question. It wasn't her business. She was certain that the last thing he'd want was some spoiled city girl prying into his business.


    Feather shook her head in protest at Kijani's compliment. The fair skinned girl did her best to help guide her mistress down the narrow stairway and towards the table, filled with food and drink. "Oh, I'm not lovely," she replied in her start-stop manner. In many ways, Feather's way of speaking was much akin to the automatons in the great city: fully intelligent and capable of doing their duties as directed but having to pause and search their tightly wound magnetic coils for proper responses to any given situation. "Stone says I am pretty. So does my Da and Mum. Only pretty isn't beautiful, Mistress. You're beautiful. I am pretty." Her maid stopped for a second to cock her head to one side in thought before boldly declaring, "I wish I had dark hair like yours, Mistress, all nice and tightly wound in strands like that. Only my Mum said that's for city girls, and I should stick to simple braids and buns like everyone else here."

    Bringing forth a kettle held with the hem of her skirt, Feather poured a dark cup of tea out for Kijani. A plate of toasted bread and a pot of honey to sweet both quickly followed. "I could not find any butter," she admitted simply. "There is some bacon fat if you'd like that on your bread, though!"

    At this, Victor entered from the porch, a broad axe hefted over one shoulder while his other hand gripped his cane tightly. The orchard's owner was dressed more simply than the day before, in worn leather trews and plain work short that might once have been some shade of white. Still, there were the boots. Sturdy, black, well cared for if older. His hair was slicked back with sweat despite the morning coolness, and smell of fresh cut wood followed him into the room. For a moment, there was the look of surprise on his face at seeing the two women in the house, as though he had forgotten about them. The look was quickly replaced by a grim settling and nod of acknowledgement as he turned to hang the axe upon the wall by the door. "Hope you slept well," he grumped as he sat across from her at the table. The expression on his face was clearly that of a man glad to be off of his feet as he stretched his one leg out to the side.

    Before any reply could be made, Victor then did something quite unexpected for a man of his seeming nature. Bowing his head and closing his eyes, the ex-soldier grasped his hands before his face. Fingers interlocked, he muttered a short prayer of thanks in a hushed voice.

    After his obligations done, he proceeded to load a well worn wooden trencher with food. Without looking up, he address the younger girl. "Feather?" he said gently, "A little easier on the food, eh? There's three of us here, not thirteen. Thanks for the cooking, by the by. And the baking. And the dusting. And the sweeping. And the scrubbing. And the washing up." Victor shot Kijani a look as though to convey something to her by listing all the Feather had done that morning, and then he looked back to his plate. "I was out cutting wood in the back lots. Hauled it back just now. After breakfast, I'll stow it proper in the bins."

    He looked a hefty swig of his own tea before glancing back at Kijani. "So, your ladyship. What plans did you have for the morning?"


    Kijani had the grace to blush as Feather called her beautiful. She'd heard those words before, but never had they been said with such gentleness. Feather said it like beautiful was a good thing.

    "Thank you, Feather.." She settled at the table, trying to ignore the churn in her belly at the sight and scent of so much food. The food was set in front of her, and she smiled warmly. "You're so... prompt." She would have said more, but Mr. Croil entered. For a long moment, the three of them simply looked at each other. He carried a scent of wood and sweat, both of those pleasing, oddly enough. She nodded politely to him, not trusting her mouth to say anything.

    His prayer stunned her, for lack of a better word. She'd gone to church before, in the city, but it was a social gathering rather than any sort of religious meeting. Honestly, she had never really thought any sort of god existed. Evidently, Mr. Croil thought differently. She found herself dropping her gaze and bowing her head in imitation of him. Once he was done, she peeked up.

    At Mr. Croil's listing of Feather's chores, Kijani's eyebrows rose more and more. The girl had done all that since dawn? Impressive. Or, was it? Perhaps she worked that hard all the time, and this was simply another day's work. She couldn't have missed Mr. Croil's meaningful glance, and wondered what he meant by it.

    Finally, she had the chance to speak. What was she going to do today? "I..." She found her voice weaker than it should have been. She cleared her throat slightly and tried again. "I thought I might take a walk in the orchard. Perhaps eat an apple or two." She meant to smile, but couldn't make her mouth follow her command. "I... I just need some fresh air." She hoped she didn't look as awful as she felt.


    Victor shoveled a forkful of hashed root into his mouth and ate with gusto, hastily swallowing before speaking to her again. "You look it," he commented without heat. He wiped his mouth with the back of his work stained sleeve and took another hefty draught from his tankard. "It's probably the city smoke getting out of your lungs. It always puts up a fight 'cause it don't want to leave. Damn stuff's poison. You'll be right enough after a few days here."

    She did look pretty worn, he had to admit. There were bags under his eyes when he had awoken, darken folds that he had chased away with cold water and hard work even as Feather handled all the domestic affairs. Victor also had to admit that the girl was a pretty good cook. She could obviously run a household as well. Whatever her limitations, it was clear as day that her mother and her grandmother had taught her well. It almost gave him pause about the whole idea of her family attempting to set up a marriage between them. Almost. No matter what coat of paint you threw on the wall, Feather was still a girl to him. Far too young and far too innocent to have to deal with the likes of him! No, Victor knew that if he and Feather joined, she would have a meek and miserable life as his wife; anyone he married would have to have far more steel in their spine than poor Feather if they were to survive being married to the ex-soldier.

    Tearing his mind away from idiotic notions of weddings (and wedding beds, too, if he were honest), Victor glanced back up at his lodger. She really did not look well. Kijani had the all the markings of a person who had not slept much and what sleep there had been not being the sort anyone would want. Victor had a many nights like that himself in the army. Some few now that he was a civilian, too. Last night's flashback left him with a peculiar sympathy for whatever plight was afflicting the young lady. Her food was barely touched, too.

    "Tell you what," he added after swallowing a mouthful of eggs, "You got take yourself a stroll this morning in the back lots. About an hour's walk due south'll bring you to Grandfather Apple, biggest tree for miles around. Apple trees aren't supposed to get that big. Thing damn near rivals most oaks! But you hie yourself there. Get Feather to pack you a lunch, you can take it out of my larder for today." Another helping of breakfast was quickly polished off. "Grandfather Apple's a good place to rest. Clear your head and lungs, if you like. No one to bother you, either."


    Kijani let out a low, weak chuckle. "Yes. The air. That must be it." She tried to meet his eyes, but failed at that too. Honestly, she just felt worn out. The nightmares had yet to leave her, though the... incident had happened three weeks ago already. She should have been over it,, but she obviously wasn't. Sometimes it felt like it had happened just hours ago, or was still happening. Those nights were the worst...

    She picked up her head somewhat, as Mr. Croil suggested she take a walk. Perhaps he was trying to get her out of his house for as long as possible. Then again, was that a note of sympathy she heard in his voice? A faint, wobbly smile came to her face, fighting for life. "Ah... that sounds like a very nice idea, actually. Just to... get outside. That is what I'm here for, isn't it?" Another weak, half formed laugh. She pushed back a loose dreadlock and tried to look lively. "I'll do just that." Reading always made her feel better, and she had plenty of books. "Feather, if you could just... pack a light lunch out of what's left for breakfast?" They could be eating breakfast for days with what was on the table.

    It hit her a bit after the fact that she should thank Mr. Croil. "Ah, sir... Mr. Croil?" Her voice came out a bit higher and girlish than she meant it to. "I... thank you. For putting up with all of this. And..." She managed to meet his eyes, and was surprised to find them as weary as hers felt. For a moment, she forgot what she wanted to say. "...I... thank you for your concern."


    Victor didn't like being thanked. For anything. Thanks were but empty words, an acknowledgement that you had done something for someone. Verbal gratitude held no more value to him than the small pile of medals and awards he'd been granted for bravery and action upon the field of battle, than any of the citations and praises of his commanders who then took home that credit for themselves to parade before their peers. He still recalled how expressive Captain Messer had been many years ago when Victor had lead the remnant of the Forlorn Hope to capture a calvary unit's standard. To think of it! Light infantry in skirmish formation taking on heavy cavalry and winning! Not only winning, but shaming the foe by claiming their flag. Yes, Captain Messer had been very thankful. And Victor had discovered why many months later while on leave in Verrun: Captain Messer was being hailed as a hero for a feat that he hadn't even been present for. Captain Messer's name was in all the broadsheets, he had received quite the honors and prize money from the city and was in line for a promotion. What had Victor gotten? A pat on the back. That was life in the army. Thanks were short lived words that should die stillborn upon their owners' tongues as far as he was concerned.

    Only looking at Kijani, Victor couldn't find it within himself to sneer at her gratitude. Looking into those soft eyes, he felt his heart skip a beat as though in sudden recognition. She was no soldier, of that he was sure. But in that instant he was just as sure that she had seen something of struggle in her life, some horror whose memory would never be truly expunged away but only lessened with time. He didn't question what might have happened to her. After all, in Verrun anything could happen, it just happened to the poor far more often than to the rich. Instead, for the first time in years he found his mind following a different track altogether: What if he had met her under some other circumstances? Would he be attracted to the richness of her skin and brightness of her eyes if he met her at some country dance or festival? Would he feel the urge to attempt courting if he didn't know she was some wealthy lady from the city, with her fine gowns and golden rings? The cynic within him warning him off such thoughts. She was a city woman, for all her beauty, and Victor could not see what use she would have for a lame ex-soldier who dirtied his hands with honest labour.

    "You're welcome," he finally grunted much to Feather's surprise. The maid servant's eyebrows shot up at hearing him utter the words no one thought he could ever say, and if that were not enough what followed caused her jaw to gape. "Just remember to help the next fellow out," he added, "There's always a next fellow, of course. Trick is figuring out which ones are picking your pocket and which are actually in a pickle barrel."

    A final mouthful of food and he rose stiffly to his feet. His plate remained half full, as though he had suddenly lost appetite. "Time to be getting on with the other chores," he grumped, "I'll be back by the woodshed sharpening the ax heads if you need anything."

    A sharp nod, and Victor stumped out with his cane thumping heavily on the floor.

    Feather continued to stare after him as though she had never seen the man before at all, then turned to her mistress to exclaim, "He LIKES you!"


    Kijani was stunned to silence. Something about his eyes- there was a story within them. She could feel it. She'd made a lifetime of learning to read people's intentions, to read the subtlety within a gesture or a glance. In Mr. Croil's gaze, she read more than she'd ever read from anyone else, ever. Distrust, pain, weariness... and yet again, hope, contentment... and confusion. She wasn't sure what that last one was about.

    She was lost in discerning his emotions, and had no response to his advice, but to nod and smile. As he left the room, she felt the odd spell that had come over her break. There was a warmth in her chest that she didn't recognize.

    And then Feather confused her. The girl's excitement and shock was obvious, but Kijani had no idea what she was going on about.

    “What in the world do you mean, Feather? He was being a gentleman. It's only right to accept someone's honest thanks.” She milled about the kitchen, wondering what she would ask Feather to pack up for her walk. Somehow she was looking forward to it. “That doesn't mean he feels any particular way toward me.”


    Feather shook her head stubbornly. "Master Vinegar doesn't like being thanked, mistress. He never likes being thanked. Just as I told you about my own brother and the barn raising and the cider and everything. But he liked being thanked by you, mistress." The girl paused to look down at the floor, her eyes flickering back and forth as they followed her own internal thoughts. Whatever thoughts she was trying to express were clearly taxing both her vocabulary and her intelligence. Looking up again, she added simply, "He said 'you're welcome.' Master Vinegar never says that to anyone. And... and... and when he was looking at you, he saw how beautiful you are. Like when I look at Stone and see how kind he is." Biting her lower lip, Feather tried again. "Just now, Master Vinegar looked like Stone, mistress. He never looked like Stone before."

    Then, as though the conversation had never happened, Feather began clearing the table. "I will clean up now, mistress. I know how to save leftovers for another day. Leftover should never be left over for too long, though. That's what my Ma always says. Then I will get you washing water for you to wash in."

    -- -- --

    Victor continuously pumped the foot treadle on the grind stone, the rasping wheel squeaking on its axel as it went round and round speedily. Sparks flew up from the broad ax head as he moved it smoothly back and forth. Three axes down, five more to go. There were a lot of different types of axes and hatchets used in an orchard, not to mention the assorted saws and clippers. With all the care he had given to his weapons over the years, he liked to ensure blade was keenly sharp and ready to serve. Many of the villagers liked bringing him their farming tools for sharpening as only Victor could make them so sharp as to near last the entire season! A small payment, a little coin or a bit of trade, was all that he ever asked. Only now there was an additional aspect to the chore he hadn't ever considered: it gave him time to think. There wasn't much brain power involved in honing axes. Usually he thought about the next chore to be done or what he needed to buy next time he went out or which of his neighbors he might barter with. Now, he thought about a pair of eyes looking up at him from the table.

    Why had he told her to go out to Grandfather Apple? It was his own sanctuary, his own little place to rest and relax. When working the back lots, the many-times great-grandfather of the orchard's trees served as his half way point. Sometime in the distance past, someone had erected stone benches in a semi-circle about the ancient fruit tree as though to make it a meeting place. No one in town seemed to know anything about it. The benches (low tables almost) had always been there as far the townsfolk of Arbordale were concerned and there was nothing strange or unusual about them because... well, because they had always been there. Victor, on the other hand, could only wonder at who might have erected the ancient stones around the tree. And his imagination did not only extend as to what purpose the benches might have served, but to the foresight the planners must have had to put the structures so far out from the trunk in its infancy. It was as though in their plans they had expected the tree to grow as large as it had.

    He had no business that he could think of in the furthest rows of the orchard today, no trees back there that needed additional pruning or doctoring. Yet he found himself thinking that perhaps... just perhaps... he might load up the cart and head out that way. Just in case Mistress Kijani got herself lost. Yes, that was it. In case she got lost and needed assistance. She was a city woman, after all, unused to the openness of the outside world without its confiding skyscrapers and smog filled streets and skies. It could be disorientating. Victor set down the ax in hand to pick up another, resolving that as soon as he finished with the ax heads (just before lunch time or so) he would head out to check on her. Riding in the cart pulled by his newly acquired gelding would be far fast than walking, and she might be too tired to walk back anyway...

    And maybe... maybe she'd like an apple for lunch…


    As Feather packed away the food for later, Kijani deftly set about making herself a basket for lunch. She chose the thick bread and apple butter, a rasher of bacon and a jug of tea. Once that was settled, she headed back upstairs, to put on a sturdier pair of walking boots and a skirt that she wouldn't mind getting dust on. She donned her least fancy hat, and only put her loose dreadlocks into a simple, thick braid on her shoulder. While dressing, she could hear her mother's voice, as well as her childhood nanny's, telling her that she was wearing far too common clothing. Even though a good part of her wanted to obey those voices, she realized she wouldn't impress these people with her best clothing. In fact, she would alienate them even more.

    She picked up one of her favorite books, a volume of poetry that she'd had to have one of the maids smuggle into the house for her. Her mother didn't approve of Kijani reading such 'frivolous' things as poetry. Now she had the freedom to read what she liked, and she was going to enjoy it.

    Once she was prepared, she headed back down the stairs with the book tucked under her arm. Taking the basket in her free hand, she smiled warmly at Feather. “Well, I'm off to Grandfather Apple. Don't work yourself too hard, dear Feather.” With that, she exited and started strolling down the road.

    Before long, she was alone. Only the trees and the chirping morning birds were there for company. The scent of the apples and the leaves was rich in the air, and the light breeze carried the wonderful, far-away smells of bread baking, meat cooking. There were distant noises that she didn't recognize, but she figured them to be animals of some kind.

    Halfway to her destination, Kijani stopped, removing her hat to fan her face. Even though it wasn't particularly warm, she was getting tired. Her legs were getting sore, and her boots made her feet ache. Maybe Mr. Croil was right about the city air- she hadn't realized her body was this weak. Perhaps some time here would strengthen her. There was no carriage to carry her about. It was up to her own power to get her from place to place. She wouldn't let herself down.

    The massive tree came into view after the next half of the walk, and Kijani had to work to keep her jaw from dropping. “Ohh...” It was beautiful, with branches as thick as a man's arm, and utterly tall. She couldn't even see around the trunk. The benches took her by surprise. She wondered if the previous owners had put them there? Or maybe even before that? Someone had seen the beauty of this place, that was for sure. She gratefully settled onto a bench, uncorking the jar of tea and taking grateful mouthfuls. Once she wasn't parched, she pulled out her book, and tugged off a piece of thick bacon. Popping it into her mouth, she chewed on it. She opened her book, and within moments was lost in a poem.


    The cart rumbled beneath him as he sat upon its driver's bench, the bay gelding young enough to easily pull the orchard's flatbed along while being just old enough to not be frisky about it. The bed behind Victor was empty. His bad leg he kept propped up on the wagon's splashboard at an angle to keep the joint from being jostled too much; while serviceable and sturdy, the wagon's banded suspension springs needed to be replaced soon. Still, the access road through the orchard had been kept smooth enough over the years that Victor wasn't bounced out of his seat. In fact, the ruts were worn so completely into the path that he didn't even really need to guide the horse with the reigns! It would have taken a great deal of effort even for the three year old gelding to pull the wheels of course. He didn't really even think about that though. His mind was far too busy on other matters.

    Why am I doing this?? he berated himself internally. Am I really neglecting work to go look at a pretty girl?? There are things that have to be done! I need to hire folks to help harvest the apples, remember? That's what this guest's money is paying for after all, for me to pay workers to help out! The cider press needs cleaning, too, a good pumice stone scrubbing. And the preserves, I have to get over to one of the larger towns and order jars and lids and wax for the preserves! And let's not forget cutting wood for winter! I should be marking which trees can be harvested. And these are just the things off the top of my head! Am I doing any of them? No!! i'm off to see some chit of girl from the city!!

    Only as the cynic in him raged on with its tirade, Victor found a calmer and warmer flow of reasoning within him to answer. No. Not 'a pretty girl,' it said. A young woman. A beautiful young woman with thick, healthy hair and dusky dark skin and a soothing voice and eyes... those eyes... It was Kijani's eyes that drew him out of his work shed and into the orchard's rows. He could have allowed himself to be curious, of course, of that there was no doubt. Did she really come all the way out to the middle of nowhere for a vacation? To him it didn't matter. Victor had his own secrets and he wasn't about to begrudge Kijani hers. All he wanted in that moment was to see her.

    Victor spied her sitting beneath the great tree, reading. He knew how to read himself, enough to get by at any rate. Much like sums, he knew what he needed to know and didn't get much farther than that as there had far more important things to learn while growing up. The idea of books, that there could be so much worth reading as to bind it all between two covers, escaped him. Ledgers, charts, maps, inventories... these things he could understand. The rest? It was outside his realm of experience.

    The road did not go up the hill to Grandfather Apple, only by it. There were indications that at some point it might have, old stone markers half sunk into the earth that might once have outlines a path up to the tree and its ancient semi-circle of benches. Whatever importance the tree once had faded long ago as maintaining the orchard became more important, and so that road to the hill's crest was long abandoned. If it had ever truly been. Victor stopped the cart and set the break, leaving the horse in its harness to munch on whatever nearby grass it desired. Grabbing his cane, he stumped upwards to where Kijani sat with her book. He had no idea of what to say to her, how to approach her. Three years he had played the hermit and played it well enough that what little social graces he might have known were now faded like the hill's road.

    He stopped a little way from her, leaning on his stout cane for support as he looked upon her from the side. Had she heard or seen him come up the side towards her? Victor had no way of knowing, and as much as a part of him wanted to just stand there and take in the sight of her, he feared what the city woman's reaction might be if she found him hovering and staring in silence. Finally he gave a little rumbling cough. And the words that then came out of his mouth were words he would never have expected himself to say.

    "Would you... read to me? From your book there? Please?”


    Kijani startled as she heard the cough behind her. She whirled, her braid whipping and her eyes wide. She relaxed, but only slightly, as she saw Mr. Croil standing nearby. How long had he been standing there? She'd been so absorbed in her poem that she hadn't even noticed. The question on her lips was 'what are you doing here?' but she caught herself just in time. This was his orchard and his home, and she should be asking herself what she was doing there. Instead of that, she managed to hear his next question.

    “Read to you? I... yes.” She was surprised to find herself nodding. “I haven't recited anything in quite a while, but I certainly don't mind.” A faint smile came to her lips, and she stood a bit, stretching herself. Even after sitting for a good while, she didn't notice the mild stiffness in her legs. Moving to the edge of the bench, she made sure the page was made visible to him as she cleared her throat. Without waiting for nervousness to truly set in, she began.

    “Your children are not your children.
    They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.”

    Her voice came out strong and carefully articulated every word with practiced eloquence. Rising and falling, seeming to give proper attention to each word, every syllable. It was clear that she'd done this before. Even beyond the elegance of her speech, there was the life in her voice. She wasn't just reciting. There was something brewing just underneath her voice as she read, and it would probably go unheard if she were reciting for some school or event. But with Mr. Croil as her private audience, the hidden anger beneath Kijani's words was easier to detect. Something within the words or the meaning of this poem made her very upset. But... what could that be?

    “For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
    So He loves the bow that is stable.”

    Kijani let the last word hang in the air, as she slowly pulled her eyes from the page, and looked to Mr. Croil. “Ah... what did you think?” A flutter of nervousness whispered through her stomach. For some reason, she truly wanted to impress him. No. Impress was not the word, was it, because that would mean he would think she was better than he. That wasn't what she wanted. She wanted him to see that she, too, had just as many feelings and passions beneath her jewels and finery.


    Victor could make little sense of the words. They were... jumbled about. He was a simple and straightforward man, disliking it when words had more than one meaning. Yet while he could make little understanding of the poem, Kijani's voice carried the emotions beneath it all in such a manner as to ensnare his soul and captivate his attention. There was anger there, resentment, too. After having lived the life of an orphaned soldier, one betrayed at every turn by the state which had reared him and which he in turn had tried to serve faithfully, he knew those feelings right well. Standing there while he leaned on his cane, Victor was frozen to the spot as her voice rang out clear and melodious to him. His body was as still as stone while his soul was lost in her speech.

    When she had finished and lowered the book, he cast down his eyes as though in embarrassment. Her next words were not the words of the poet, but struck his heart all the same. What did he think? How was he to answer?! Victor was a man who had given up much on life's passions, happy just to have survived his ordeals relatively intact! No one had ever asked him what he thought before!

    "I think..." His voice faltered a bit as he tried to get the words in his head out. He glanced up at her as though wishing he could communicate all in his head and heart with but a single glance, that glance also containing the frustration over the fact that he couldn't and had to speak instead. "I think... you have a... a beautiful voice, miss."

    Abruptly, Victor lowered his gaze. "The day's pressing on, miss. Best we'd head back now if we'll make it to supper. Cart's down the hill if you'd like to ride back. Not much of a carriage for a fancy lady like yourself, but.. it'll save your feet the ache later, I'm thinking." Victor could not remember when he had uttered so many words at once since he had left the army. It made him feel uncomfortable, the fear that he might sound as though he was rambling inanely and idiotically to this dark and comely young woman. Yet all the same, he couldn't keep from speaking to her!

    "Would you... would you read to me some more later, miss? After supper or before we retire, maybe? I didn't understand all of the words or how they were... put together, but maybe if I listen to more...?"


    When Mr. Croil looked up at her, Kijani read so many things in his brief gaze. Confusion, fustration, possibly admiration? Her heart was beating in her throat, and she could hardly breathe. How could one look do that to her, so easily? Maybe she was just warm, from being outside. Yes, that was all. She was likely tired from all that heat. That prognosis was thrown into sharp doubt as he spoke. A simple compliment, not even elegant, or showy, or seriously flattering. None of it mattered, though, because the hesitation in his voice as the words slowly let themselves out was such a strong indicator that he was nervous, and that he was not practiced in smooth speech. His compliment was so honest, and Kijani realized she'd never had a man say nice things to her in such a way.

    She was wondering if he could tell how surprised she was, because her eyes had gone wide, and her face was starting to blaze with heat. Her lips moved, slightly, and she had no idea what would come out. Luckily he saved her from possible embarrassment when he offered a ride. She jumped on the topic gratefully.

    “Oh, yes. I would like a ride.” She smiled, quite happy that he'd thought of that. “My legs are not as strong as they should be. Fancy or not, wheels are wheels. Though, I know it's strange.” Gathering her things and putting a bookmark in her book, she smoothed her skirt and rose up. “I've never been in a carriage with an actual horse. They still have them in the... er... lower parts of the city, but my family always uses the autohorses.” Stepping close to him, she toyed with the handle of the basket containing what little was left of her meal.

    “I- I will read for you again, tonight if you wish it.” She felt flustered, and one hand lifted to twist a loose dreadlock around her finger. “I suppose I will pick something with less hidden meanings, and a bit more rhythm to it. I.. I would enjoy it, having someone to talk to about books. Even small books. Perhaps I will have to convert you and Feather into avid readers.”


    Victor coughed brusquely in embarrassment at the mention of turning him into a reader. Reading was clerks' work, something officers and quartermasters did and certainly not soldiers! Well, not most soldier, he had to admit to himself. There were always a few odd ones, here and there, men who had been running from something and hid in the ranks so they couldn't be found. Victor was far less interested in reading and talking about books than he was in simply listening to her read.

    "Yes, well," he grumped a bit, "We'll see."

    He helped her up onto the driver's bench and then climbed up to sit besides her to take up the reigns. With a gentle snap of the leather and a clucking sound, he urged the gelding to start moving again. The road had a turnabout a little ways further. Once around that and they would be headed back for the house. Victor quickly regretted the curt reply he had given regarding the idea of becoming someone who had time to read, and tried to make it up with what small talk he could muster.

    "Don't know if Feather even knows how to read," he abruptly announced after a few minutes of silence on his part. By then they had reached the circle and were turning about, the green grass in the center looking all the world as though it were made to be the perfect place for a family's day out; it was large enough for games yet small enough to be private. To Victor, it was just a wide circle of grass that needed mowing. "Most folks around here don't," he continued awkwardly, "Read for pleasure, that is. Or read at all. Not much time to spare for it. Some of the elders and richer farmers for contracts and the like, sure. And Vicar Parsons at the Church, of course."

    The creak and sway of the cart was calming, and as nervous as he felt he was around his guest the journey back helped to relax him. "Listening, now? Folks here about are great listeners, especially if they like what they're hearing. A beggar or tinker that can spin a good yarn or tell a tall tale won't ever be short of a meal and a place by the fire in Arbordale, miss, I can tell you that. Vicar Parsons says its part of the region's 'oral tradition' or some such. I don't know from 'oral tradition', whatever that is, but they do love a good story here about."

    As he spoke, the ex-solider was all too aware of her proximately and warmth as he drove them back. It made his throat dry. Every now and then the cart jolted a bit, causing Kijani and Victor to bump up against one another. It caused any number of pleasant sensations in him, dampened down by his expectations of reality. It was rather frustrating. He was starting to admit that he found her attractive, that he liked her voice. Only he doubted as fact that anything would ever come out of making a go of it. There were too many obvious obstacles to even admitting possibilities! She was a guest, one who would soon be returning to Verrun! And she was among the elite. Kijani had come right out and admitted her family used auto horses, the tireless automatons that pulled the wealthy and powerful about the city for pleasure and pursuits. What she called the 'lower parts' of the city, with its real horses and oxen, was actually where the middle class merchants and traders works and lived! Down in Verrun's bowels, where lay the rookeries and the orphanages and the soldiers' recruiting stations, down where Victor had been born and raised, a horse was a meal and one that had probably been stolen at that! Besides, he was quite clearly making her nervous. He could see it in the way she twisted her braid about her finger, the way she looked away now and then and stammered.

    If only he had seen those same mannerisms in the way he was acting, Victor might have better understood instead of trying to steel his heart against disappointment. To distract himself (and thinking he was giving her a way out), he changed topics.

    "So how long are you with us, Miss Kijani? Alderman Brown never said."


    Kijani quieted as the ride back to Mr. Croil's home began. She could tell he wasn't on board with the whole reading thing, and she was sorry she'd said it. It was maybe implying that readers were better than people who didn't read. While she was a touch surprised that Feather couldn't read, Mr. Croil's explanation made perfect sense. If the citizens of Arbordale were too busy for that kind of thing, to simply sit and dream, then... well, that meant they were working hard. Who was she to say that they were missing out? Maybe she was missing something by not having something more concrete to do.

    As they went along down the road, the cart bumping and rumbling, they would occasionally bump each other. She was getting more warm with each accidental touch. Part of her, a very unused part of her, was very aware of his solidity and strength beside her. Unfortunately she really had no idea what to do with that feeling. All she knew was that he probably thought her a silly, flighty city girl with all sorts of finery, but no real inner strength. She knew he was right- for all his outward... uniqueness, there was something deeply powerful within him, something that made her respond in a way she did not understand.

    She was listening through her discomfort and heat, though, and caught something that was quite interesting. “Stories, they like stories?” She thought about that, quite curious. The subject was shifted quite suddenly, back to her, and she tried to deflect. “Ah... tell me, the stories the people enjoy, are they real-life stories that happened to the people telling them? Or are they just... any kind of story? Because if you enjoyed me just doing the poetry, perhaps they would enjoy a full story...” She smiled, briefly and uncertainly at him.

    “As for how long I'll stay...” She hadn't yet considered that. She didn't want to lie and get called out for it later, but at the same time, she had to keep up the story. “Er... I was thinking about a month, if you'll put up with my presence that long. Although honestly, I'll stay as long as you and the other folks will have me.” She couldn't help but look away at that. Honestly, she didn't want to go home. Going back meant putting herself right back into danger. She could feel goosebumps running up her arms, despite all the heat she was feeling. “I... I truly hope we do become... tolerant of each other.” At this point, she was certain friendship would be too much to ask for.


    There wasn't much said for some time as the cart creaked and rumbled its way home. Victor was very much lost in his own thoughts while being all too aware of the young lady's proximately to him upon the bench. Tolerant. He mulled that word over in mind again and again. Was that how people saw him, as a person who 'tolerated' others with no room for friendship or understanding? The former soldier knew that he was not the easiest man in the world to get along with, not after years of what amounted to forced labor under deadly conditions, all topped off by callous betrayals from his so-called 'betters.' There were those foolish romantics who insisted that men in the rank of file made poor officers, not just because of their upbringing (or lack thereof) but because those soldiers wanted their officers to be full of grace. Better than them. It was nothing but strop. Soldiers did not want their own becoming officers because they would end up as right bastards, worse than those born to their station. Such living had made Vincent a hard man to get along with. But still... to be tolerated. To be thought of as someone who only tolerated others...

    He reasoned with himself as he drove the cart along. If he only tolerated others, would he have shown up at the barn raising without being asked and given free drinks to everyone? If he was merely tolerant of people, why would he have let it be known that the fruits trees in front and to the one side of his house were free for the taking? The idea that Kijani seemed to think that the best he could do was tolerate her presence? It stung in ways he hadn't expected.

    There was also the notion that she could so casually say that she was planning her holiday to last a month or more! As a soldier in the army, the best he could ever hope for was a week's leave once every two years! Once a month, soldiers were granted a three day leave, true, but since they were rarely stationed in the city or in any town of note there had been little to do anyway. Three days of freedom meant little when you couldn't do anything with it. And here she was, saying that there was nothing so great of import that she couldn't spare several weeks of time for her own leisure! It was an astounding revelation to wrap his mind around! Yet it also said so much more...

    A month away. If she had a lover or a fiancé, would she stay so long away from him? Or her, for that matter? Was no one waiting for her back Verrun, not even her family?? In fact, she seemed to imply that she was in no hurry to go back at all! It brought a queer hope in his heart that Victor did not quite know what to do with. Where his mind failed him, his body reacted on its own.

    "A month, huh?" He heard himself say. They drove beneath a low hanging branch, heavy with ripe and red fruit. Without letting go of the reigns, Victor stood up suddenly upon the footboards on his good leg and raised one arm to snag an apple. Even the snapping of the small stem from the limb brought forth a sweet, wooden smell that promised the fruit would smell and taste even better. The prize firmly in hand, he sat again and offered his guest the apple without looking at her.

    "A lot can happen in a month." There was no keeping the curious hope out of his voice.


    Kijani tried to relax in the silence of the outdoors, somehow soothed by the odd noises of the moving cart. She had a feeling she had said something wrong. Then again, perhaps it was just her own nervousness betraying her. She didn't know Mr. Croil well enough to gauge the silences to find his mood, and with that thought firmly in mind, she simply tried to forget. Meanwhile, she tried to think of what she would do here for a month. Perhaps her parents were scouring the city for her this very minute. A wry smile twitched at her lips at the very thought. Her mother hadn't scoured a thing in her entire life, and Kijani doubted she would start now, even for her own daughter. Her father would probably elict plenty of bustle from the city Watch, who were probably not going to gain much. She truly hoped not. The last thing she wanted was for her freedom to be cut short. This had been her entire plan, and she didn't know what she could do if it failed...

    Mr. Croil's murmurings brought her from the edge of a very dark series of thoughts, and she turned her head to ask him to repeat himself. Before she could, he stood up, so suddenly that she was a bit startled. But he was only going for... fruit. They'd passed under a beautifully scented branch with plenty of ready fruit. To her surprise, instead of eating it himself, he offered it out to her. He wasn't looking at her, and she doubted there was a smile, but... the gesture was clear. A gift.

    Kijani found a smile of delight suddenly growing on her face. "Oh! For me? Thank you, Mr. Croil." She took it from his hand, and for the briefest of moments, their fingers brushed in the handling of the apple. His hand was warm and rough, she could tell as much even from the few seconds of contact. To try and distract herself from the warmth that she was suddenly dealing with, she rubbed the apple with a clean handkerchief from her skirt pocket, until it was even shinier than it was. The apple was a brilliant ruby, with a scent more inviting than any perfume she'd ever worn.

    "...I beg your pardon for my upcoming lack of manners." With an eagerness in her eyes, she took the apple in both hands. She leaned down and bit right into it, enjoying the way the firm skin split under her teeth, revealing the sweet, juicy flesh beneath. It had a wonderful crispness to it, and she found herself letting out a little noise of pure delight. "Mmm..." Suddenly the city woman was gone, replaced by a young lady who wanted nothing more than the simplicity of being able to bite into a whole fruit. A bead of apple juice ran from the corner of her mouth down to her chin as Kijani chewed cheerfully. She made sure her mouth was clear before she spoke.

    "Mr. Croil, it's absolutely perfect! Just the right ripeness, sweet and yet just a hint of tart. So crispy! Honestly, the apples we have in the city are nothing so delicious as this." There was a warm grin on her face that was altogether different from the polite smiles she'd worn before.


    He couldn't help but look at her sidelong as she sank her teeth into the apple's flesh. It made him almost feel a tad uncomfortable, as though he were intruding upon a private moment as she savored every sensation that the fruit had to offer: taste, texture, scent, solidity... Victor's eyes followed the bead of juice as it graced her mouth to trail to her chin. There was the uncanny desire to lean over towards that drop and towards her chin, and then-

    Victor nearly had to shake himself physically from that train of thought. That way led heartache and trouble, no doubt. Yet he was certain that in that moment, he had seen Kijani in way that almost no one else had, if ever. The grin that followed proved it to him. Here she was, stripped of the city's veneer and the trappings of wealth and class and revealed to be... a beautiful young woman with a wellspring of passion. No one could eat an apple like that, he reasoned, and have a cold heart. Worse, the grin was contagious. Even as she complimented his produce, a small smile crept along the corners of his lips in response. Pride? No, more than that. It was... pleasing... that she enjoyed something he had a hand in growing, and it despite the dangers he knew lay along those lines he wondered how else to make her smile at him like that again.

    "Try eating it from the top down," he advised sagely, "Eat it sidewise like that, it's hard to get 'round the core. Pull the stem and go top down? You can finish off almost the entire apple."

    Hope was something of a stranger to Victor. Most of his life there had been just the one forlorn hope, the one his unit had been named after: the hope that you managed to stay alive. There was little room left for anything else. Now, despite however much he wished to stomp it down, another hope began to his in heart, a hope he didn't have a name for. That hope kept him talking long after he normally would have lapsed into silence with anyone else.

    "If you're going to stay a month... or longer... you'll be here for the harvest." They neared the house and barn, his hands guiding the reins expertly to let her off near the porch. Victor hazarded to keep the conversation going. "Usually a dance after the harvest, you know. Everyone celebrates for a good three days. And nights. Can't dance myself but... it's usually a good time. For the apples and cider, if nothing else."

    Before he could say anything else, Feather came out upon the porch. The young girl was wiping her hands on her apron, smiling sweetly at the sight of the two as they returned from the backlots. "Master Vinegar!" she called, "Me Da stopped by. There's to be a hiring fair in Brindlebank next Third Day, if you're interested in hiring help. And that Master Bandleman will be arriving in Arbordale tomorrow, if Mistress Kijani is still interested in some shopping."

    At the sound of Brandleman's name, Victor scowled fiercely. "Oh, he will be, will he?"

    "Yes, Master Vinegar," she replied dutifully. It was clear she completely missed the dark tones in which the ex-soldier replied. "He is arriving tomorrow, which is Seventh Day. He'll be in the village for all of Eighth Day. Then he'll be leaving the morning of First Day, that being the day after Eighth Day. Me Da is wondering if you can drive Miss Kijani in, Master Vinegar.”


    Kijani adjusted her grip on the apple after Mr. Croil's instruction. It was very nice to see him smile, even a little. She wanted to see it again- it made him look so much different, so gentle. She listened to him closer, wondering if she was only imagining the increase of warmth in his tone.

    The idea of a harvest sounded so very simple. Although her reflexive thought was to dismiss it as something simple and rustic, she followed that one with another, new type of thought. Simple and rustic was not bad. In fact, a dance party that was actually a dance party sounded very nice, considering all the other parties she'd ever been to were excuses for people to make alliances rather than friends, and to check out who was doing what. Dancing was less of a fun activity, and more of a way to gain favor with interested people. She wondered what that would be like- dancing for the sake of music and joy.

    They stopped near the porch, and she knew she should get off. It was odd for her to realize that she didn't want the conversation to end. Before she could ask more about the harvest dancing, Feather appeared and started talking. She smiled, hiding her disappointment behind a carefully cultured mask. She wondered what Mr. Croil had against this Mr. Brandleman, and what she should know. If she was to shop, she didn't want to get cheated.

    Once Feather departed back into the house, she turned to Mr. Croil. “Thank you for the ride back, and the apple. You truly are a wonderful farmer.” She smiled warmly. “If it's alright, I do believe I'll stay for the harvest. I haven't enjoyed dancing in quite a while.” Her gaze turned away from him briefly. “Erm... Feather didn't seem to catch it, but it's quite unmissable. There is obviously some bad blood between you and this Mr. Brandleman. Is there anything I should know about, before I give him any of my coin?”


    Victor clicked his teeth in irritation, his eyes glaring after Feather and the news that she had bore. Not that it was her fault, he knew. Never shoot the messenger, at least not unless you were a captain or higher... Still, he had felt that he and his houseguest had been shared what he had heard called 'a moment', and the lamed soldier was loath to end it. Even as he helped her down from the wagon from where he sat, his fingers lingered on hers but reluctantly let them go. Her questions, however, he could not dismiss. Turning his head to look towards the setting sun, he squinted his eyes.

    "Oh, his prices are good enough," he extemporized through his teeth, "I'll grant you that."

    Looking down at Kijani from his perch upon the wagon, he scowled. "Man was a quartermaster in the army. Stayed safely behind the lines for most of the war. Got the job by claiming poor eyesight, but he can count every coin in your purse from across the street in a blink. Anything but ammunition and rum had to come out of our pay before we even got paid, and you can be sure that he gouged us hard for every biscuit and bootlace we needed, damn the man. He wasn't the worst of them, not by a cannon's shot, but thank the Gods that I didn't have to see his smarmy face more than once a year at best. He did his best to be nowhere near where the action was, because he knew we'd shot him in the back before the enemy even opened fire. Only about five years ago, there was a bit of scandal with a lieutenant and a captain's daughter that he had a hand in, next thing we know Brandleman's cashiered out with pension. Didn't see that ruddy face of his again until he stopped in Arbordale not long after I arrived. Set himself up as a sutler. Buys goods from the city and sells it in the country. Usually has a band of tinkers following him to patch pots and pans, sharpen knives, and the like."

    He looked back out again at the horizon. "Maybe he's turned honest. I wouldn't say for sure, but I doubt it. What I would say is to check anything that catches your fancy with a close eye. Say... small mended tears? Maybe with dark stains about them? Or things that looks too fancy for a sutler's cart? Or things that might have fallen off a wagon?"

    "Then again, the folks of Arbordale don't know enough what to look for." Victor sighed, conceding the reality of the services that Brandleman brought to his neighbors. His voice was softer, resigned to how things were. "Even if they did know, it's not like they could afford any better than what Bandleman brings. So I keep my mouth shut and avoid the man. What else can I do? I open my mouth about Brandleman and my neighbors, honest folks all, would stop doing business with him. They're that good a folk around here. But if I do that, they have to truck to Miles Cross or Rail Yard or one of the there larger towns where they'll have to pay twice as much if they're lucky.”


    Kijani listened to Mr. Croil, lingering on the porch as he spoke. Even though his body was still, she could tell a lot from the tone of his voice. He and Mr. Brandleman would never be friends. Unfortunately though, from the way he put things, the crook was the better of two evils in this town. She only wished that there was some way to... fix things. But there she was again, trying to interfere. "I will be very careful." She smiled, and stepped closer to the porch. When there, she called out, letting her voice carry into the growing twilight. "Thank you, Mr. Croil. For... all of today." A sweet, secretive smile brought a touch of joy to her eyes. Without waiting for a response, she went inside to see what miracles Feather had performed for dinner.

    The next day passed with much more calmness. While she did have the same nightmare again, she was able to quell her reaction before she dressed and went downstairs. She was up much earlier, and so did her best to attempt to help Feather with the breakfast. To be honest, she was probably more in the way than helpful, but she did set the table without breaking anything. Next was to learn to cook. The morning and afternoonn were blazing hot, so Kijani decided to stay in and read. While part of her did want to go and see if she could just happen to run into Mr. Croil again, she figured he wouldn't want to be distracted from his work. So she stayed upstairs with her books. While she tried to stay quiet, eventually snatches of stanzas could be heard echoing down the stairs. She probably should try to stay quiet, but it was something purely reflexive. When she was the most excited about what was on the page, she wanted to hear the words in the air.

    The reading helped to quell her thoughts, which threatened to consume her every time she stopped doing something. By now they would certainly be looking for her in the city. Had she covered her tracks well enough? Perhaps she should have falsified a ransom note, to further muddy her trail. But no, that would have required more talent than she possessed. She would've had to distort her handwriting, invent a kidnapping, leave false evidence. No, this was better. After all, they didn't know which way she'd gone, or how far. Most likely they'd pass Arbordale completely and head to the next largest town.

    The day passed with minimal incident, and soon Feather was calling her for supper. She washed up and alighted down the stairs, smiling politely and inhaling deeply. "It smells like pure heaven, Feather. You're very talented, you know. I wish you could teach me.”


    As evening descended, storm clouds began to roll in to add a thick humidity to the heat and bring an early darkness to the sky. The wind was just starting to pick up when Feather let her mistress know that supper was prepared, and the breeze brought a chilling relief to the sticky weather. Feather, however, seemed oblivious to the discomfort. Hair plastered to her head, she moved spryly about and maintained her pleasant mood all the while. And when Kijani complimented her on the wonderful smells that came of her work, the girl could only smile happily.

    “I’m glad you have a liking for it, mistress! Ma always says that good food should smell how it tastes, and that if you can do that you’re halfway there.” She began to pour cider from a cool jug, a share for each of them into rough wooden tumblers. “Found this in the cistern, mistress. Don’t think it’s started to turn over yet so it might be softer on your tummy than the harder stuff the menfolk drink. I don’t remember seeing it there this morning though. I think it’s fresh squeezed.”

    A rumble of thunder rolled across the heavens just then, causing Feather to look up towards the ceiling. A soft patter of rain began to make itself known against the roof. “Sounds like it’ll be a sod churner, mistress. I hope Master Vinegar is alright. He hasn’t come back in yet. Working late, most like. I know he was up early this morning, too.”

    It was dark enough outside now that the next flash of lightning could be seen, and a second peel of thunder rattled the shutters.


    Victor was not having a good day. He had stayed up late the previous night in the mill house by the steam, pressing a fresh batch of soft cider for Kijani. It had probably been an… inefficient use of the water powered cider press, but the sight of how much she had enjoyed the gifted apple the other day and the memory of watching the juices run from the corners of her mouth had stuck in his head. His houseguest had savored the fresh fruit so much that he though it a little enough thing to squeeze fresh juice for her. Come morning, he rose early to bottle it and place it in the cooling cistern for her and Feather to find.

    Then after a quick breakfast, he had headed out to mark some of the older trees for cutting on the furthest lots. Apple trees were usually productive for about a hundred years, and after that would have to be cleared away for new saplings. Victor didn’t know the exact ages of any of his trees, having bought the orchards only recently, but he could tell by sight which ones weren’t producing as they should. The pear trees were worse. At best, he might get twenty years out of them. It was easy to go through the pear lots and see which ones had to go! Once the harvest was over, he could let the woodcutters in to take whatever he’d marked and (after setting aside his own share for seasoning) make a tidy profit.

    Only the further lots were upstream from the mill, and he could see by the rising waters that there must have been a storm upstream; the waters were fast and muddy. Victor knew he would have to hurry back to not only beat the rains that were surely coming, but to raise the floodgate on the cider mill’s damn. If the water was allowed to build up behind the stone embankment, the damn could easily burst and wreck the mill wheel in the process! The amount of water wasn’t dangerous so much to anyone downstream. The danger was to his livelihood. Without the cider mill, a good half of his work would be impossible! The press allowed for cider and juices and apple wines, provided pulps for jellies and jams and apple butters, and a destroyed mill and wheel would destroy profits he would need to help pay hired workers in the next season.

    So it was with all due haste that he had tried to drive his cart horse and wagon back. Neither were made for racing, however, and a bad rut caused him to bounce hard upon the wagon’s bench. A crack of wood echoed despair in his heart as Victor realized that the rear axle shaft must just have splintered in its moorings. The cart’s speed slowed considerably. The rains had just started as he turned about to see both back wheels canted upwards at odd angles, a sure sign that the axle had not only splintered but had outright snapped. There was no going anywhere at this point. The horse struggling in its harness, Victor snapped his head back around to see the beast suddenly go down lame. In trying to pull the shattered wagon, it had managed to throw a shoe and twist its own ankle in the process.

    Victor, frustrated and angry at fate, paused long enough to chuckle bitterly. A broken cart pulled by a broken horse owned by a broken man. Looking skyward, he scowled up at the heavens and yelled, “You know, you’ve got a weird sense of humor!”

    Shaking his head, he dismounted and limped forward to unharness the wounded animal before it hurt itself any more.


    Kijani frowned at what Feather was saying. The girl didn't seem too bothered, but then, she rarely was. Meanwhile, her own mind was working double-time. Mr. Croil was no fool; he had a respect for land and nature. He wouldn't stay outside in such weather. The burst of lightning across the ominous clouds, and the roll of thunder across the air made her stomach drop. Something felt wrong, here. She wasn't much for relying on her own intuition, but she felt, deep in her soul, that something was deeply amiss.

    "Feather... I need a lamp!"

    Without waiting, she rose up from the table, snatching up a thick cloth napkin from the waiting supper. That she folded rapidly and stuffed between her blouse and her corset. Certainly a garish place for a woman of good breeding to carry anything, but it would at least stay dry. She snatched an oil lamp from the table, and made sure the flame was strong and the cover was tight. "I'm going out, Feather. Stay here."

    She went out the door and two minutes down the path, hurrying with her skirts bunched up in one hand, and the lamp held tight in the other. Only when another crack of lightning and thunder seemed to split the sky did she question what she was doing. Why was she running out into the wrath of nature for a man she didn't know? Her mind turned over the question, going toward logic as usual. He was the owner of the house she was staying at. If he was truly ill or harmed somehow, then she owed him at least the kindness of worry.

    But she could worry from under a nice, sturdy, dry roof, couldn't she?

    This was something else. He'd shown her courtesy and respect without truly having to, hadn't he? Yes, she was a guest that was paying for board, but he could have gone about his business and not spoken a word to her. Yes, she was a woman of class, but that mattered little to these people-- she was so far removed from their way of life that she was more a novelty than a woman. Her station didn't make her respectable, it made her alien. But Mr. Croil had been kind, for no reason. Perhaps he was hoping for a better tip?

    Her mind called up a soft compliment, spoken with shyness and fumbling care. 'I think you have a beautiful voice, miss...' A sly man would praise her elegance, and do it with flowery language and gesture. But Mr. Croil had simply looked her in the eyes, as if his words weren't enough. No one had ever done something so simple, and yet, so truthful for her. Everything came with a price attached, hidden or overt, everything came with expectations in her world.

    But she wasn't in her world anymore.

    That much was clear, as she tried to shield the lantern with one arm, dropping her water-heavy skirts to the ground. She couldn't see him yet, and so, she called for him.


    She had taken voice lessons since she was ten. While her natural tone was a bit too low to be a chirping songbird, her voice was strong and bold. She inhaled deep, squared her shoulders, and let her voice carry across the orchard. "MISTER CROIL! SAY SOMETHING!”


    The buckles kept slipping in his hands, the freezing water making his fingers numb and the harness difficult to remove. All the while, Victor cursed and muttered under his breath as the cart horse neighed and screamed agains the flashing lightning and now ground quaking thunder. The beast was scared witless. In such a panic, it could easily lash out with a hoof to catch Victor in the thigh or chest to leave him in a heap upon the ground, only Victor did not want to see the animal further hurt itself as it rolled about between the wagon traces. “Damn you!” he shouted finally, “Be still while I-“

    A sudden blinding flash and explosive din, and Victor was transported back to the battlefield. In his ears the screams of the horse became the cries of the dead and dying about him, the cart nothing more than a cannon’s carriage. Victor slipped in the mud, his bad leg giving out beneath him. The storm began to reach its peak, the thunder and lightning becoming mortar and artillery fire all about him. The old soldier’s fear rose in his breast. Eyes wide and wild, Victor cursed again as he dragged himself forward through the mud away from the wounded animal. Where was the reinforcing regiments?! Where was his battalion?! What addled generation had commanded an attack in the middle of storm?! Every bilesome vexation he could call down upon the heads of his commanders found rebirth in his mouth as he crawled through the rain.

    Only the storm and memories became as one to him. A current set of strikes blazed down upon the orchard, setting fire to a nearby set of trees and adding the smell of ozone and smoke to the misery. Hastily, Victor scrambled back to the shelter of the artillery carriage as he glanced about in heart pounding terror. In the shadows between trees, he thought he could see men running forward, always forward. “Get back here, you idiots!” he screamed at them. “Reform! Reform, damn you!” The phantoms in his mind pushed forward though, ignoring him as he begged and pleaded and ranted at them not to through their lives away. Victor tried to rise only to slip once more as he knee buckled. Had he been shot on the leg or taken shrapnel? He couldn’t recall, he only knew he had been wounded and that it hurt like hell. Tears formed in the corners of his eyes as he watched troops in his mind charge off to their bloody, explosive demises… and he could do nothing to stop them because of his useless leg.

    The last of the soldiers were gone, vanished among the orchard’s trees and the heavy smoke from the rapidly smoldering trees; they had flamed briefly, but the torrents had quickly extinguished the flames to leave a haze of smoke and fog between the raindrops. Leaning weakly against the cart as the horse gave once last whinny before collapsing, Victor cursed the skies and the men beneath it who thought that land and wealth was worth more than other men’s lives.

    The his ears caught it. Someone was calling his name, calling out for him from the darkness. The sound brought confusion for it was a woman’s voice! How had she come out onto the field?! Didn’t the fool woman know the danger?! A sniper might well sight in on the spark of her lantern, his attention caught by the force of her voice over the roar of the battle in his head and in the heavens! An artillery shell could pick up and fling her against the landscape in bloody chunks across the landscape! Hell, their own side could order a charge and she would be run down by the hooves of the heavy cavalry before they ever saw her.

    Fearing for her, Victor screamed out to her. “Over here! Over here, quick like!” Another burst of lightning and Victor shielded his face against the blaze. “God damn it, woman, get down before you’re shot!”


    Kijani heard his voice, so much fear laced through it. She could have sworn he said something about being shot, but the thunder muffled his words. Her lantern swayed violently in the wind, and her dreadlocks whipped her face, her thick hair absorbing water like a sponge. She followed the sound of his voice, struggling against the rain.

    The cart seemed to come out of nowhere, with the unconscious or dead horse nearly tripping her up. "Mr. Croil?! Mr. Croil!" She was so sure he'd come this way. Then she saw it, his shape against the cart in the darkness. "Ah! There you are!" Moving toward him, she was startled by another burst of thunder. It took her off guard, and it was very close, so much so that her eyes were left with nothing but a purple afterimage. In her half blinded state, she tripped over her own soaking wet skirt and tumbled. "Ack!" She flinched in obvious pain, and then staggered to a crouch, making the rest of the way to him with a sort of dogged disdain for the storm.

    "Mr. Croil, are you alright? I was worried, so I came out!" She frowned, getting a good look at him as she raised her lantern toward his face. The flame was sputtering for life- she must have cracked the lantern when she'd fallen. Mr. Croil's eyes were dark with not just fear, but panic. "Mr. Croil... what's wrong?" Surely a man so tough couldn't be afraid of thunderstorms?


    The figure struggled closer, and Victor was filled with worry for her. Was it some camp follower out looking for her man, to see if he had fallen injured behind the advancing line? Or worse, was it a looter? There were those that followed armies in one role or another but whose true purpose was to rob from the dead, their deeds hidden by the fog of war. And should they find an injured man, he would be dead soon enough and riper for the picking. Fearing the latter, Victor scrambled up against the cart as his hand sought out his rifle. Where was it, where was it, where was it?! The only thing his hands could find was stout cane.

    Her voice came again, much nearer than he expected, and whirling about he found himself almost face to face with-

    "Miss Kijani?!" he cried in confusion. Victor whipped his head around, scanning the orchard rows about them and seeing no sign of the shell pocked landscape or dying men that had been there moments ago. He could still smell the smoldering smoke, his nose telling him that it was simply wood and not the lung choking stench of gunpowder and cordite. The explosions were in the heavens, not falling around them. He felt shamed, embarrassed by his lapse. Looking back at her, Victor grimaced. He was angry, angry at her for bothering to come after him and angry at himself for putting her in danger by dragging her out into what had to be one of the worst storms he'd ever seen. "What the hell are you doing out here?! You're going to-"

    The horse whinnied again and floundered. So close were they to the horse the Victor quite clearly heard the snap of the best's one rear leg as it stumbled in the mud and slipped once more. Victor forced back a groan. With a broken leg, the cart horse was useless to him now. The beast was of no use to anyone save as glue and meat, for being a gelding he couldn't even put it out to pasture. What he could do, however, was put it out of its misery. The storm still raged overhead. The lightning and thunder began to slowly die off and fade, yes, but the rains came down all the harder and began to bring hail. Small white balls of ice bounded off of them.

    Ignoring the pelting, Victor grimly drew his knife and dragged himself around Kijani. "Stay here!" he shouted, trying to push her into the lea of the wagon. There was no way of knowing if she had ever endured weather like this, and so Victor wanted to make sure his guest was as protected as she could be while he tended to a last mercy. Some sensibility also told him that she would not want to see what he was about to do. Crawling through the mud, he made his way safely to the horse's head from behind. There was no preamble, no warning. Victor murmured an apology to the normally obliging beast before reaching over and expertly slitting its throat. The blood fountained up to spray across the mud of the track. It soaked Victor's one arm, only to be washed away again by the heavy rains. He'd had to put horses down before, and it was never an easy thing for him; it was funny how he'd learn to kill men in battle so efficiently and yet felt such sorrow at the death of a simple beast. Closing his eyes, he murmured a small prayer for the creature before wiping off his knife and sheathing it again.

    For several moments, he simply sat there, exposed to the wind, rain, and hail as he leaned against the now deceased horse as tried to regain his senses.


    Kijani flinched at Mr. Croil's anger. She hadn't expected him to be entirely happy with her actions, but still, to be mad didn't seem right. Then again, he didn't seem entirely right at the moment. His eyes were elsewhere, it was obvious. He seemed to come out of it though, and before she could ask him what was wrong, a horrible noise hit her ears. At first, she thought a branch had broken from one of the trees, but the horse's screaming pain told her what it had been.

    Then the ice started to hammer down, nicking and pelting her with frozen, stinging pain. She was glad for Mr. Croil's quick thinking, as he shoved her into the small bit of cover provided by the wagon. "Wait, where are you going?" She reached out for him after he turned around and went back. He either ignored her, or didn't hear her at all. She couldn't see what he did in the dark and the pelting hail, but she did hear the horse's pained screaming and thrashing stop suddenly.

    Then the smell of the blood hit her nose. Even with the scent of the rain mingling with it, and washing away, that coppery stink was enough to overwhelm her. She gagged, low in her throat, suddenly afraid all the day's food would make a reappearance. Taking deep breaths, she forced her stomach to relax. The scent of the blood was still heavy, but fading. And yet, Mr. Croil hadn't come back.

    Peeking her head out of the cover of the wagon, she called out for him. "Mr. Croil! Please come back..." Her voice was shaking slightly. The cold was starting to dig into her bones now, her fine and tailored, soaking wet clothes doing nothing to help warm her. Figuring she wouldn't be getting any more wet, she slowly came back out, moving slowly in the direction the horse had to be in, until she nearly stumbled over the dead horse, and Mr. Croil leaning on it.

    "Ah! Oh..." She had to swallow back another rush of bile, and averted her eyes from the dead creature. With a paling face, she turned and stared at Mr. Croil. He was just sitting there, for reasons she didn't understand. "You'll get hurt, or freeze to death, sir. Please..." She knew her hands were likely ice cold, but that didn't matter as much as getting him inside in one piece. After coming all the way out here, she was not prepared to quit without the task being fulfilled. Grabbing his forearm with both hands, she gave him a little tug. He wouldn't be going anywhere even if she tried her hardest- she wasn't nearly strong enough to get Mr. Croil to move under anything but his own power.

    "Please, sir... At least come where you won't get an ice stone to your head.”


    The reek of the animal’s fear mixed with the harsh scent of its spilt blood and fast death even as Victor shivered against the heat of the body. He wanted to swear, heatedly, but found he simply did not have the energy. The cold of the hail had sucked it out of him. He felt weary as he sat there, simply beaten and tired. The gelding had been a loyal beast in its own way, and the ex-soldier regretted doing what he’d had to; it seemed an ill way to replay the horse. There was also the fact that the cart’s axle was busted, he might not get to the dam in time to open the flood gates and prevent the damage, his high paying guest had felt obliged to drag herself out into one of the worst storms he’d ever seen and on his account, and replacing the beast was going to be costly.

    Although, technically, he did not have to replace the gelding. There was another option, although it was one he was loath to think of.

    Victor was brought halfway to his senses by the feel of small hands ineffectually pulling at him, trying to raise him to his feet. Looking up, he found the frightened but capable gaze of Miss Kijani staring down at him. Her beautiful dark skin seemed far paler than it should have been, even in the darkness of the night. Sighing, he nodded to her and began to get to his feet. Victor had to swallow his pride in the process, realizing that even with the aid of his cane he would need her help to navigate through the mud, rain, and howling winds. In her soaked skirts and fashionable boots she would have nearly as much trouble as the lamed man. There was little choice but for them both to grab onto each other and start out.

    Torn between society’s expectations and the need for the help, Victor snaked his arm around the small of her back to rest his hand upon the swell of her hip and motioned for her to do the same. Hip to hip made their way through the storm. “Head for the mill!” he shouted over the thunder, and Victor pointed roughly in the direction they needed to go. “It’s closer than the cottage! We’ll be safe and dry there!”

    As if to emphasize his point, a larger chunk of hail struck the ground at their feet. It was about half the size of a chicken’s egg and would definitely hurt anyone it struck.

    It was a grueling journey in the darkness, punctuated only by the blinding cracks of lightning and deafening peels of thunder that rang across the heavens and shook the air. The oil lantern Kijani carried scarcely cut the gloom at all. Freezing to the point where his fingers began to tremble, Victor held her soft form close to try and shelter her smaller frame from the worse of the storm, even as he tried to ignore how soft her body was and how the faint scent of her perfume still seemed to linger about her. The desire to swear came back again. Victor clenched his teeth against it, determined not to vent. Not only might it offend his guest, but it would be a waste of much needed energy.

    After an eternity of cold, the silhouette of the cider mill could be seen against the flashes of lightning. The tall barn like structure was black against the light. Even as they descended the hill towards it, Victor could hear the great water wheel spinning far too fast for its own good. Within, the whirl and clunks of the mill’s heavy gears were audible even above the winds! That would have to be deal with, too, he realized. The sluice gate would have to be closed, the wheel locked, and the dam’s flood gates opened as quickly as possible lest the whole affair be wrecked.

    Only there were far more important concerns to be dealt with first. As cold and numb as he knew he was, his guest had to be suffering worse! The voluminous amounts of cloth and fabric that she wore were wet through and through with freezing rain water, and Victor had no doubts that she would be unused to such hardships. She had to get warm and dry as quickly as possible. He didn’t want to think about what would happen if she stayed cold and wet longer than necessary…

    “Inside!” he bawled out, trying to hurry them along. “The door’s unlocked!”


    Kijani was clinging to Mr. Croil for dear life. Despite the rain and hail, some stern governess living in the back of her head was berating her about being so friendly with a man that wasn't her husband. Luckily that voice was quashed when a rather large hunk of ice nearly smashed into her foot. It looked like it could have broken her toes, at the least. Improper or not, she was not going to break anything, and neither was he. Her cold hands felt frozen to the handle of the lantern. She wouldn't let it go, even though the flame was barely alive. Her fingertips felt numb and burned with cold, and she was having serious thought about at what temperature metal could freeze to human skin.

    She could feel Mr. Croil's hands shaking against her. Even through the cold, even through her fear, even though his hands were just as ice-cold as the rest of her- she still felt some trigger of warmth, deep in her body. That would bear thinking about later, though, hopefully when they weren't about to freeze solid!

    The mill, dark against the gloomy sky, was a welcome sight, even in it's eerieness. At Mr. Croil's insistence, she pressed forward with all of her strength. Something about his voice gave her courage, and she hit the door, yanking the handle open with stiff and aching fingers. Once they were both safely in, she shoved the door shut against the wind and weather, and slumped against it once it was fully closed.

    "...Are you alright?" She only spoke once she'd settled against the nearest wall, and caught her breath. It seemed her clothes had taken on ten extra pounds, as they were fully soaked and dripping with water. Her hair was plastered to her scalp, and ice cold. With a faint sigh, she took a fistful of her damp dreadlocks and started to carefully wring them out.


    Victor only paused for a moment of breath, leaning hard against a wall as Kijani wrung out her hair. Gulping another lungful of air, he launched himself away again to stumble up the wood stairs to the upper lofts of the cider mill. Thankfully he had remembered to disengage the press earlier. Even as the gears continued to rumble loudly and fill the air with the grindings of machinery, the wooden press remained thankfully still. There were other issues to deal with, however.

    At the top of the stairs, he limped across the causeway to where the controls for the sluice gate were. Shaking violently, Victor grabbed the crank and shoved the lever with all of his might around. Outside, he could hear the gate slowly closing off the sluice so that the water returned to its natural flow. The great water wheel slowly spun to a stop as the source of its motion ebbed away. Moving himself along hand over hand, he reached the axle break and push his shoulder against the heavy lever to lock the wheel in place. There was no helping the dam outside now. Victor was not about to chance running back outside into the throes of the storm to try and raise the floodgates; the dam would either hold back the water, the water would simply flow over it, or… the dam would break to send a tumultuous wave of water and stone pounding down the creek.

    Wearily, he struggled back down the stairs. He could feel the chills entering his bones and stealing the warmth from his chest, his reasoning starting to get cloudy. It was there, clear as day to him, that he was in trouble! Only he had no way of conveying it! His lips seemed to move independently of his mind as he looked towards the young woman and said, “Get your clothes off.”

    He said nothing more until he reached the bottom of the stairs. The he glanced up at the shocked look upon her face. “Oh stop that,” he muttered irritably, “Gotta get these clothes off, Miss Kijani. The water… the cold… seeps into your body. Can kill you. Need to get… warm and dry. Especially dry. There’s empty sacks over there. Bit rough, but they’ll do for modesty. I’ll be… I’ll be over there…”

    Without another glance at her, Victor limped his way slowly around the massive press to the far side of the mill. It seemed to take a very long time to him. By the time he reached an unobtrusive spot and started to pull off his own jerkin and shirt, he completely forgot why he was doing so. Worse, with his back turned towards the doorway, he had little idea that he was stripping to the waist in view of his guest across the building!

    Broad and muscular, it was clear that Victor had spent a hard life doing a great deal of work and manual labor. It was also just as clear that the war had left his mark on him. Here and there flashes of scars could be seen on his torso, but these paled in comparison to the criss-crossing pattern of welts that danced across his back. Some were raised and some were gouged, but all were purple-red and tinged with a silver-white around the edges.

    At some point Kijani’s host had been flogged. Badly.

    Victor, still unaware, lost complete track of what he was doing. His shirt and vest were in a sudden puddle atop his boots, and he was trembling a great deal. He knew it was cold, but… he couldn’t remember why… or where he was exactly… or anything else other than the fact that he was cold and light headed.


    “Get your clothes off.”

    Even though he was rather far from her by the time he said it, Kijani felt her stomach drop to her knees as Mr. Croil spoke those words. A violent shiver ran through her body, one that had nothing to do with the frostbite creeping into her body. He could hurt her. It was just the two of them, in this isolated place. He could easily overpower her, especially since she was so weak with cold. He could do anything to her, and no one could intervene... She found her gaze darting around, looking for something to use as a weapon. Something of her panic must have shown on her face, because Mr. Croil explained his comment soon after. The logic in it brought her back to thinking, instead of panicking. “Right. The cold. You're right.” As soon as he was out of sight, she slowly started to strip down. Her dress went first, and then she peeled away her underthings as quickly as she could. Her skin felt numb underneath, and her corset almost felt like it was frozen to her skin. She got it off, though, and quickly wrapped herself up in the burlap sacks. They itched, but compared to her icy clothes, they were luxury. Once she was sure she was properly covered, she looked up.

    What she saw made her nearly drop her handful of sacks. Suddenly she felt warm, blissfully warm from the core of her body. Mr. Croil... his body was so muscular, so sturdy and strong. Her heart hammered against her ribs, and she tried to avert her eyes. It was very improper for her to look at a man this way! Her head wouldn't lower, though, and she suddenly wished it had.

    At first glance, she thought he had some kind of skin condition. His skin looked awful; all sorts of sickly colors stark against the worker's tan of his skin. When she found her gaze tracing the lines of the markings, she realized that it wasn't a condition, but a mass of scars. Her stomach twisted in revulsion and she pressed a fist to her mouth. Who could have done something like that to him? Why?

    Speaking of why, why had he stopped moving? He would freeze to death without something to cover him... Something seemed so wrong with his movements. He looked disoriented. Like he wasn't there, in spirit. “Oh dear...” Kijani murmured to herself with half numb lips. With a burst of energy brought on by purpose, she gathered up the rest of the sacks and headed over slowly to his side of the mill.

    “Mr. Croil, please...” She held out the armful of sacks, and stared at her own blue tinged toes. “Put something on you. You'll catch your death, and that would be very unfortunate...” A faint smile graced her face. “I would be rather furious with you if you died, after all the trouble I went through to come get you.” She was deliberately trying to rouse him. Perhaps frustration would get his brain working again.


    Trouble. The word floated in his ears as though mocking him, for what had his life been besides anything but trouble? Kicked in the orphanage, enslaved upon the fields of the city’s farms, thrown into the army to die, betrayed by his own officers… Now Victor had thought he had escaped those sorts of troubles. The orchard and lands had been something fresh and clean and new that was all his, and had it been only the storm that threatened his crop and damaged his millworks that would have been fine. Only now his guest was in danger, too. Kijani was in danger. Kijani.

    Her name replaced the word ‘trouble’, and it was the sound of her voice that spurred him on. The dark skinned woman had come closer, and despite the overwhelming scent of apples and aged wood Victor was sure he could still smell her perfume. There was a vague notion that not doing what she asked would make her sad, disappointed. He couldn’t have that. It would look bad on him as a host if a guest was displeased, and there was also the fact that… that… There was a very important reason why he wanted to make her happy, something specifically and uniquely related Kijani, only he couldn’t think of it. There was a reason though, Victor was sure of that. His back was still towards her, what was left of his conscious mind not letting him turn around. Instead, he reached back and with shaking hands grabbed one of the burlap sacks. In halting motions, he dragged the rough material over his skin to whisk away what moisture he could. It seemed to take forever. His torso as dry as he could make it, his eyes flickered uncertainly about much in the same way’s that Feather did when she was trying to think hard.

    Trousers. He had to remove his boots and trousers. Only she was still there, behind him. “T-t-turn your back. Please. Nnn-not right. Proper for you.” It came out through chattering teeth and numb lips, his sentences fractured as he sought to protect her modesty and reputation.

    Once sure that her gaze was somehow averted, Victor fumbled at the button fly of his trousers. In the end, it was simply easier to pull down the fabric instead of trying to undo each of the bronze studs. The tough material of his work pants chafed and scraped the skin of his hips as he pulled them away, the cold thankfully erasing the pain of it. In the end, he had to sit upon the floor to finish shucking off his boots and removing the rest of his clothing. He worked as best as he was able to finish drying the rest of himself before eventually pulling the remaining sacks about himself to gather what warmth he could to his all too freezing body.

    “Horse blanket,” he whispered from his huddle against the mill wall. “Horse blanket somewhere around here. Need to… to… something about warmth… Can’t think… Think. Think! Cold bodies… cold bodies… one blanket…” Victor was frustrated now, but the energy to remove his clothing and dry off had exhausted him far more than he had realized and trying to wrestle with the memories of what to do in this situation was simply beyond him. His trembling lips just kept repeating the same word: “Share… there’s a blanket… blanket…somewhere… share…”


    Kijani was immensely relieved as Mr. Croil seemed to come back to the present. He snatched a blanket from her and started to dry himself. It seemed to take ages. Part of her wanted to help him, because he seemed to be having such difficulty. It was no wonder- his fingertips were a sickly pale blue. Hers were barely better, but at least she was alert. Helping him would mean breaking a cardinal rule, though. She couldn't touch him, not that way. It would be... unthinkable.

    Even he seemed to still be aware of that, as he mumbled for her to turn away. She did so with great speed, heat rushing to her cheeks. She could still hear him shuffling and trying to get out of his clothes, which lead to all sorts of thoughts and questions that a sensible, proper young woman should not be thinking about! Especially not at night... in the dark... alone with a man who was not properly dressed. Kijani rubbed her reddened face with both hands, trying to take the warmth of her embarrassment and give it to her fingers. She didn't move, and tried hard not to think.

    Mr. Croil's shivering voice pulled her out of herself, and she peeked slowly on one side to make sure he was properly covered. Once she saw that it was safe, she turned and listened to what he was trying to say. Something about blankets. A horse blanket? Why would he want such a filthy thing? Then she understood, all in a rush. “Yes, share the blanket, share the warmth! I read this in one of my novels! Stay there, just... don't sleep.” She rushed off, picking her way through the dim light and trying to find the blanket.

    It took her five precious minutes, several stubbed toes and more than one splinter, but Kijani came rushing back with the horse blanket billowing behind her. It smelled like animal sweat and hay, but it was thick, wool, and most importantly, completely dry. She knelt and pulled it from her own shoulders, wrapping it around Mr. Croil quickly. “There.” Leaning back once he was fully covered, her arms went reflexively around her body as she tried to keep herself warm. “A-are you still awake, Mr. Croil? Please don't... don't rest. I heard that if you sleep when you are this ill, you stand a chance of not waking up ever again.” Her hands moved in a fidgety motion that was strangely warming.

    “I really would rather you not die. So, as a request from a lady to a gentleman... don't.” She chuckled, but the noise of mirth was weakened by a bout of violent shivering. “I-if I tell you a story, will you s-ss-sss-” She let out a sneeze that racked her whole body. “Ouch. Will you stay awake?”


    He had started to drift off moment after Kijani ran off in search of the old horse blanket. It was getting harder and harder for Victor to stay awake, and the effort of keeping his eyes open was simply too much without some sort of stimulus. The former soldier couldn’t recall any time in his life where he had been so exhausted. With his back against the wall and the heap of burlap sacks over his body, Victor’s head started to loll forward sleepily. How simple it would be just to sleep… just for a few minutes… That couldn’t hurt, could it?

    The sound of Kijani’s voice jerked him awake again, his head snapping up to then wobble unsteadily upon his neck. It took several blinks before he could start to focus on the young woman. The itchy blanket being wrapped about him brought a little more warmth to his ice cold limbs, but it was not enough to fully rouse him once more. Kijani was saying something, that much was clear! But what?

    “Story?” Victor finally mumbled. The memory of her reading to him on the hill came floating back to him through the haze of the hypothermia, and he suddenly found himself longing for the sound of her voice. Kijani’s voice was nearly as beautiful as she was. The sweet sounds of her voice were sure to keep him awake; Victor nodded and gasped out, “Y-yes. Story, pl-please? About you. Something.., warm… and nice… in the sun…

    Lifting his head to meet her gaze, some remaining spark of rational thought saw her shiver and sneeze beneath the her own collection of burlap sacks. That was not good. Not good at all! He was her host, and he should be seeing to her safety and comfort! Instead, she was freezing as well. Perhaps not as much as he was at the moment, he wryly thought to himself, as she hadn’t been the one to keep pushing herself even after they reached the safety of the mill. But regardless, they both needed warmth. The mill had nothing in which they could build a fire, either.

    With a trembling hand, he pulled back one corner of the blanket for her. “G-get under first. There’s enough sacks b-b’tween us… Safe enough…” Victor gave a weak chuckle. “You’re more… more a threat to me… than me to you!”
    #1 Justric, Jan 2, 2015
    Last edited: Jan 15, 2015
  2. Kijani was surprised that she had enough heat left in her body to blush. Her face lit like a candle when Mr. Croil told her that she'd need to warm herself beside him. It was utterly wrong, and she should be ashamed. Then again, the cold was actually painful, and she knew that if she didn't warm herself soon, she wouldn't be able too remember that she had to. So, nervously, she settled beside Mr. Croil, trying not to look at him, trying not to imagine the solidity of his muscular form...

    "Alright, a story." Thank goodness she had an excellent memory for words. "Once upon a time, in a faraway Arabian land, there was a king. Every day, he would marry a virgin, and the next day, he would behead her. This behavior carried on for some time, leaving all the kingdom's families in a state of fear... One brave maiden, Scheherazade, took the place of her older sister when the king came to make her his wife..."

    So it began; Kijani became the legendary storyteller, weaving tales. Not to save her own life, but to keep Mr. Croil awake. Once she got going, she seemed to settle into the rhythm of it. Her voice and expression, her emotions rose and fell with each tale. Aladdin and Sinbad, Ali Baba, jinni and lamps and rings... It was near dawn before her voice started to crack and give, and she was nearly out of a voice. Still, she was afraid, so she reached across burlap and blankets to grasp at Mr. Croil's hand. Her fingers were shaking, but still she managed to give his hand a squeeze.
  3. Victor shivered under the layers of itchy burlap, savoring what warmth she had to offer even through the bundles of fabric he had wedged between them for propriety’s sake. Cold as they both were, so long as they remained so close as to feel each other’s breath upon the cheek, they might well live to see morning. Vaguely it did drift through his head what she might look like fully undressed, what she might feel like and smell like and… But it was all disconnected from his sense. The sleet and hail had frozen up much of any desire or imagination he might have. Beautiful as Kijani was, Victor’s concern was far more for her safety.

    What the storm had rendered useless with cold, Kijani’s voice stirred to life again. He grabbed onto those tales like a lifeline, her timing for the start of each one catching him just at the right moment before he might drift off to never ending slumber. The images that she painted of these legends and myths from foreign lands danced in his mind. With each tale, he became more and more engrossed until he completely had tuned out the storm that raged about them throughout the night, Kijani’s voice being all that truly mattered.

    When light began to weakly struggle through cracks and joints into the mill, Victor began to realized that the storm had ended at some point. Her voice was tiring. He was able to clear his own too dry throat and let her know that she could stop, when he felt a creeping motion across the burlap. A small dainty hand, dark and perfect, slid into his own and gently squeezed it.

    For reasons he didn’t understand, he smiled and squeezed back. Summoning up what strength had returned, Victor rolled to his one side to look Kijani in the eyes.

    They lay there, quietly and awake, for some time as the world came to life again around them. Huddled within their coarse nest, shaking still, they lay close without touching but feeling the returning warmth radiate off of each other’s body. The chirp of birds seemed oddly loud in the still air. He could hear the dripping of rainwater and melting hail from off the eves of the mill and from the surrounding trees, the rush of creek water running by the unmoving mill. Staring into her dark eyes, he felt compelled to say something, even if he wasn’t sure what. It was more than thanks for coming for him. Far more than telling her how she may well have just saved both their lives.
    Opening his mouth to try and speak, he got not further when he door to the mill opened.

    “Oh!” Feather’s light voice chimed out in worry at seeing them together. The blond girl had been crying, her pale cheeks flushed and spotted red and her eyes rimmed brightly with tears. She ran towards the couple, unaware of their state of undress beneath the burlap covers and smelly old horse blanket. She fell to her knees besides Kijani and took up her other hand. “Oh, Mistress Kijani! I was scared! The storm was fierce, and neither of you came back! I wanted to go out, but me Da said never to go out in that sort of weather and I didn’t know what to do. So I stayed. Like I was supposed to. But I really wanted to go for help!”

    She ran an eye over the improvised bedding. “You were smart. You were cold inside and bundled together. We had to do that for Cedar once when he fell into the creek by our house. He was cold inside and needed to be warm inside. So we all huddled with him. Like you two, Master Vinegar and Mistress Kijani!”

    Rising then, she made for the door. “I will fetch you dry things, for dry things are nicer to wear when you are wet and cold. Stone is here, searching the far side of the orchard, and I should tell him that you need clothes. He should know you two are here so that he will not search any more.”
  4. Kijani's voice was barely audible by the time the sun started to warm her. She couldn't remember how long she'd been speaking, but at one point, she'd run out of Arabian tales and had to step into African ones. She'd spoken of spider-shaped trickster gods, creator goddesses, animals that could talk, and anything else she could think of. She prayed and hoped that he'd listen through the night.

    When Mr. Croil squeezed her hand back, she felt a thrill of hope shoot through her. He was alive and so was she. Her lips were painful and cracked, and her throat felt like it would bleed. Still, she would rather feel pain than feel nothing. He turned his head to gaze at her, and she looked right back. It was odd, in that moment, like the whole world had gone quiet. She wanted to say something- something about how she was glad to see him alive, something about their ordeal making an excellent story. While she was still attempting to put the words together, the door opened. In came a burst of sunlight, and fresh air, and a wrought looking Feather.

    Kijani's cracked lips turned up into a weak smile, as the girl clutched her hand. The poor thing must have been terrified for them. Before she could work her lips toward apology, Feather had rushed off to tell her beau the good news.

    Exhaling as Feather departed, Kijani turned her attention back to Mr. Croil. Now that the danger was past, she felt her head getting heavy. Still, something in her fought for consciousness.

    She had to finish the story.

    Her voice was hoarse and reedy, a high squeak much less rich than her usual tone. But still, she concluded the tale with determination. “After one thousand and one nights, the king fell in love with his storyteller, his Scheherazade. He spared her life, and made her his queen. The women of the city were spared and Scheherazade and her king were happy forevermore.”

    Her eyelids were sliding shut now, and she didn't have the energy to carry on. Exhaustion took over, and she was in a half doze. She was vaguely aware of Feather's return, and a deeper voice that was probably Mr. Stone. Her body went through the motions as Feather seemed to be helping her into clothes, and somehow her legs remembered how to walk her back toward the house. The bed she'd thought was quaint was suddenly the luxury of a queen, and she dropped into unconsciousness before her cheek could warm the pillow.
  5. Victor did not have much of a voice either, although the cause of his muteness was far more related to the sheer exhaustion of fighting to stay awake and alive. It had been so tempting, so many times to let his consciousness sink into the darkness, and if it had not been for the wondrous tales that slipped from Kijani’s full lips…

    His gaze never rose to meet Feather’s face as the servant girl gushed in her own awkward way over their plight and her own fears. Instead, Victor continued to look upon Kijani’s smooth face and dark features in a sort of awe. There was far more than mere gratitude upon his face as he continued to watch her and only her. Beneath the scratchy burlap bundles, they were both naked; they were equal, then, without class or backgrounds to separate them, and Victor dearly wished he might have met her at a country dance or fair.

    When she lolled her head back towards him to finish her story, Victor’s eyes were waiting for her. He listened to the end of Kijani’s story intently. When the last of her words slipped out and her eyes sagged to nearly closed, he gave her delicate fingers a gentle squeeze once more.

    “I could use a happy forevermore, myself.” His words came out in a harsh whisper meant for her ears alone, if she could even still hear them. They trembled with dread and hope.

    Then there was Feather and the massive form of Stone, lifting them and separating them discreetly so that the maid might dress her mistress without scandal. Weak limbed as he was, Victor managed to stay awake as the younger man helped him into dry and clean trousers and shirt. Someone had been thinking, be it Feather or Stone the former soldier was unsure, but the garb chosen for both of them was simple and functional. It would serve for modesty and warmth, not fashion or temperament. Stone took Kijani’s arm to guide her back along to the house while Feather stayed close to Victor; simple as she might be, the little blond knew the man had a sore pride that would not allow him to accept help in daylight. Her common sense far greater than her intelligence, she had at least brought him one of his stout canes.

    Stone had to carry Kijani up the stairs to her bed with Feather following after anxiously, fretting all the while. Victor felt a pang of jealousy. Had he been a younger man, a whole man, he might well have been the one to carry the beautiful lady up those stairs to her bed even in his weariness. Left alone as the two younger people saw to his guest’s comfort, Victor felt an incredible pang of loneliness in his heart. Looking around forlornly, he stumped around the corner of the kitchen to his private quarters and bed.

    He sat upon its edge only for a moment, long enough to lace up his boots properly and struggle into a rough work vest. Then he was up, staggering towards the door.

    “You headed out?”

    Victor halted weakly and looked up towards the stairs where Stone looked back placidly. Dark haired, dark eyed, and coarse featured, there was no calling the olive skinned man handsome. Plain, perhaps. Very nearly unattractive. There was nothing unwholesome about his features when taken in their own right, but the combination still did not bring their owner any favors when so mixed. It was in his quiet consideration of others that Feather had found her heart’s true love. The whole village knew of Stone and Feather’s affection for one another, just as they knew the inappropriateness of just such a match. Seeing the young mill hand now with Feather just behind him, peering anxiously around his thick torso, Victor saw the truth. Stone and Feather belonged together.

    “Yes,” he finally gasped out. “Sluice and flood gate might be damaged. Trees limbs brought down. Have to save… save what I can of the harvest.”

    Stone headed down the stairs, the wooden steps creaking with the man’s great muscular weight. He shook his head. “I’ll check it. Repair it. I know mills and farms, Master Vinegar. You rest.”

    He paused and then looked over his shoulder at Feather, who nodded quickly as though to reassure her paramour that it was okay. Then, facing the lamed landowner again, he smiled softly.

    “Miss Kijani would want you to.”

    The whole of the ancient stone cottage became very, very still. Dust motes floated through the sunlight that crept in through the windows and open door, giving the whole of the interior a surreal quality. Victor’s shoulder’s slumped as though some great weight was removed simply by admitting defeat, and without another glance at the young couple upon the stairs, he turned about and slowly stumped back to his bed and then sleep the rest of the day away peacefully. The sleep was near dreamless, the blessed repose tinted only by the memory of the smell of Kijani’s hair.
    #5 Justric, Jan 17, 2015
    Last edited: Feb 19, 2015