Season 4, Episode 7
Written by Tof Eklund
Read by Tawn Krakowski
I awoke to the sounds of a crackling fire and hushed conversation. A ruddy glow and lumpy dark shapes greeted my gaze. I’d escaped, hadn’t I? The darkness and the searing pain, the hateful voice and the stench. I shuddered.
“Yelen?” Kaye’s sleepy voice came to me from very nearby, and I turned toward it. My eyes focused and I saw him, lying in bed with me. Beneath a woolen sheet, his fingers touched my palm. I closed my hand around his, or tried to, but sudden pain stopped me.
“Don’t pull at the dressings,” Kaye said. “You don’t want to aggravate your burns.”
Burns. Right. I was loosely wrapped in cloth, not clothing, just strips covering my tormented skin.
I heard a shuffling sound on the side of me opposite Kaye. As I turned to look, I caught my first clear glimpse of the farmhouse. It was a single room, with the pallet I lay on in one corner, and a hearth along the opposite wall. The red glow came from a banked fire. There were two dim lumpy shapes by the fire and a third slowly walking my way.
“I can’t give you much for the pain,” Lily’s ma said, “seeing how you’re with child.”
As she drew near, I saw that the old woman’s head was uncovered, and shaved clean.
“Your hair,” I said.
She handed me a warm cup of rough-fired clay. I sniffed the brew.
“It’s only a crime to show your hair,” she said, “nothing unlawful about a bare scalp.”
I head a choking noise from over by the fire.
“You’ve got no call to be shocked, Lil,” the old woman said. “I’ve been threatening to shave my own head since you were little.”
The choking sound stopped and Lily spoke up. “That’s why I figured you never would!”
“She’s got some of the other women doing it, too,” said a bland, almost dull, male voice I didn’t recognize. That had to be Lily’s father.
“Chicken scratch!” Lily replied. That was an expression I’d never heard her use at the palace.
“No, it’s true,” he said, “several of the widows have taken to it.”
“Not just widows,” Lily’s ma said. “Midwives from three counties are shaving their heads now, and Missus Edna as well.”
“Edna?” Lily asked, then burst into laughter. “I doubt Cyril likes that very well.”
“He don’t get a say no more,” Lily’s ma replied. “She went back to her mother after he broke her arm.”
“And he didn’t come to take her back?” Lily asked.
“Your ma put her foot down,” said Lily’s father.
There was a brief pause, and I saw my chance.
“What is in this tea?” I asked.
“Just spiderclaw root with mint for flavor,” Lily’s ma said.
I wasn’t familiar with spiderclaw. I took a tiny sip of the tea and slurped. It was bitter, as expected, but the nuances were familiar.
“Is spiderclaw a ground-covering with red flowers and tiny fruit covered in hooks?” I asked.
“That’d be it.”
“Hookweed,” I said. “In the south we call it hookweed, and you shouldn’t give it to a pregnant woman.”
“Not on an ongoing basis, no, but a cup or two is safe enough.”
I placed the cup on the bare floor. “Lamentation flower would be better.”
“Those white jobbies? Got some seed once. They won’t grow up here.”
“Hookweed just isn’t appropriate under normal circumstances.”
“Burnt like a dumpling dropped into the cookfire isn’t normal.”
I paused. What would I do if a badly burnt pregnant woman came to my door in the middle of the night? Try to save her life first, then worry about the pregnancy. I felt the tears come to my eyes.
“How bad is it?” I asked, forcing the words out.
“Oh, sweet duckling,” the old woman said, “it’s not half as bad as it should be.”
I had no reply to that, so she continued.
“Seems more like you’ve been branded than burned. Some of the burns are deep, but they’re so very narrow. Anything that hot ought to have spread about more. And such queer patterns all over you. This is beyond my ken. Speaking of hair,” her claw-like hand swept some of mine into my field of vision, “not a one of yours is singed. Well, maybe. Was it always like boar bristle?”
“That’s the way my hair is,” I replied testily.
“Good, good,” she nodded. “You’ve got fight in you, but now you need to rest. I can leave the tea or take it away and bring you boiled water.”
“Water’s fine,” I said.
I hurt all over when I woke up. I’d rolled onto my side in the night, a better position for a pregnant woman, but one that placed more pressure on the burnt sigil on my left hip. The farmhouse was bright, daylight streaming in between drawn curtains. The farmhouse consisted of the hearth I’d noticed last night opposite my straw pallet and a long table, cluttered with pots and plates and labeled jars, in the far corner. A narrow bedroll was stretched out in front of the hearth, and there was an open door leading to what looked like a combination bedroom and pantry.
“Aowwww,” I groaned.
“Lily!” Kaye’s voice came from behind me, uncomfortably loud. “She’s awake!” He then lowered his voice. “I know it hurts. Is there anything we can do for you?”
“I’ll take that cup of hookweed tea now,” I said, swallowing my pride.
Lily came in from outside with a bundle of kindling. “Kaye? What’s the word?”
“She wants the tea.”
“Huh,” she said, before shouting, “hey, Ma, you win!”
“Too loud,” I groaned, and rolled onto my back.
“Oops,” said Lily.
“Sorry,” Kaye echoed.
From my new vantage, I could see Kaye sitting up against the wall, wearing an overlarge tunic.
“Told you, didn’t I?” Lily’s ma said as she came in from outside with a couple handfuls of fresh herbs. “Figured her for headstrong, not stupid.”
Lily brought me a cup as her mother hung the herbs to dry next to others in various stages of dehydration.
“It’s cold,” Lily said. “Will that do?”
“Yes,” I whispered. I felt like I could sit up, so I did so. That hurt a lot, and I screamed.
“I take back my words,” Lily’s ma said, “that was stupid.”
“You…” I grated, then sipped the tea to give myself a chance to think. “We haven’t been properly introduced,” I said, “I only know you as ‘Lily’s ma’.”
“Most folks round here call me ma, or Ma Niall, but my given name’s Lilika, just like my daughter.”
“You’re Lilika junior?” I asked Lily. “I didn’t know.”
“No-one calls me Lilika,” she replied. “It’s just one of Ma’s things.”
Lily’s father came in hauling a heavy load of firewood on a sled.
“And this is Lily’s da, Carrig,” said Ma Niall.
“He’s not my father,” Lily muttered.
Carrig’s shoulders slumped slightly. I took another sip of my tea.
“Now, dear Lil,” said Ma Niall, “no need to pick nits.”
“It matters, ma,” Lily turned to address me. “She only married him because I wasn’t a boy.”
I didn’t know what to say to that.
“I don’t even know my father’s name,” she continued. “He was a stranger passing through.”
“Not any stranger,” Ma Niall said, “I picked a healthy, smart one for you. I wanted good stock for my child.”
“For your son, maybe,” Lily said.
“No, Lil. I wanted you, a child of my own. You know that,” Ma Niall hugged her daughter, and Lily relaxed a little.
“If’n I’d been a boy, you wouldn’t have had to marry.”
“Wait, what?” I asked.
“Oh,” Kaye said, “because women can’t own property.”
“Right,” said Ma Niall. “I’d held the farm ever since my pa died, because there was no claim on it. Then that witless horse’s ass of a prefect finally got his prick up to challenge my claim.”
“So you married Carrig,” Lily said.
“Lil, our hands were fastened for our mutual benefit.” Ma Niall turned to Carrig. “Your folks were using you pretty ill when we first met.”
“That was years before we married,” Carrig put in. “They hitched me up like a plowhorse and I was about ready to die.”
“You’re still used as a pack animal,” Lily said.
“That’s different,” Carrig replied. “Lilika cares for me, and hauling’s about the only thing the curse left me able to help with.”
“The fields are a wreck, Ma,” Lily said. “Not like when I was here.”
“We do what we can,” Ma Niall said. “‘Sides, you know that most of the food on the table comes from births and sick care. Someone’s got to see to the babies and lance boils.”
“There’s stinging nettle all over the north field! It shouldn’t even be alive in this cold!”
“That showed up last winter, and you’d best leave it alone, Lil. There’s something different about that nettle, and I won’t have it disturbed. Now look here, what’s the real issue? You’re rattled about something, and Carrig deserves better than for you to take it out on him.”
Lily took a deep breath and shuddered as she exhaled. “I won’t get married, Ma.”
Ma Niall took this with a calm that said this was not a new topic. “Everything in its time, Lily. A few marry for love, more for convenience, and most because it’s expected of them.”
“Never, Ma,” said Lily, tears streaming down her cheeks. “I can’t stand Carrig because I can’t bear the thought of him touching you, an’…an’ that’s because a man’s touch turns my stomach.”
I saw Carrig shoot a knowing look at his wife.
“I know, dear,” she said.
“No, you don’t, Ma,” Lily replied. “I love women.”
“Oh, lumpkin, I know.” Ma Niall tightened her embrace of her daughter. “Saw the way you pined over Brinna, I did, and before her that other girl, the dusky one. It may be my fault for not marrying sooner, thinking I could raise you alone.”
“No,” I said as firmly as my strength would allow. “It isn’t like that, Lilika. Some men just love men, and some women, women, and some people fancy both. Trust me, it has nothing to do with how a child is raised.”
I paused, noticing that all eyes were on me.
“Knowing Lily, you raised her aware of her own worth, and that might have made it easier for her to follow her heart, as she should.”
Ma Niall’s eyes narrowed a bit, and she said, “Sounds nice, but what did following your heart get you, Regent? Some of us can’t afford to topple kingdoms.”
“Love,” Kaye said. I’d almost forgotten his presence behind me. “We found love, and that is more than enough.”
Ma Niall sighed. “Just so long as you young chickens don’t think that love is the only thing worth living for, that’s all.”
Then it was Lily who hugged her mother. “You love plenty, Ma. You love so much that you don’t worry about getting loved in return.”
Lily looked up at Carrig, and beckoned him over. “Come here, Carrig,” she said, “I’m sorry for what I said.”
The three of them embraced, and Kaye gently caressed my unburnt cheek. I felt more comfortable and safe then than I had since the day King Lycius died.
© 2014 Copyright Tof Eklund
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