There was no wood to secure which to me was a sign of a band that only had a short distance to travel or didn’t know the area very well. Miz Lana’s cooking gear was put into a wagon by a young man she said was her nephew. I went to stand by the wagon I had slept beneath.
Tad walked up and sneered, “You expecting to ride like the rest of the bought goods?”
Risking his wrath I said, “I’ll do as the one that bought me bids.”
The one called Ern called over, “Lay off Tad before you put Gid in a mood.”
“He’s always in a mood,” Tad said taking a step closer to me, crowding my personal space. I hadn’t considered this problem and had no desire to get caught between brothers. There had been stories of it in the antique books in the library and they never ended well, especially for the female caught betwixt and between.
I clinched my fists that were hidden in my cloak but was saved from having to do something by Miz Lana who waddled over and poked Tad with her walking stick. “Go.”
“Don’t tell me what to do old woman.”
“You’ll mind me or else you’ll not eat at my cookfire and if it comes to that I’ll make sure no one else will have ya either ya wicked sprat. You’re cementing trouble we don’t need.”
“She’s nothing but a dimwit and so much uglier than Vaniece that she makes me want to puke. I told Gid to pick a different one if he had to have it regular but he was some set on her for some reason. What do we need her for? Just another mouth to feed when there’s little enough to go around as it is.” He would have said more but Gid showed up and with barely any effort threw his brother in the direction of his horse.
“I have a right to have a say in this!”
“And you’ve said it. Now your say is over.”
Almost beseechingly he said, “Gid …”
“I said move. When we get back to the village you can go on about your way. You’ll have your place. I’ll have mine.”
“There’s no need for this. Surely another, less ugly, would …”
“Enough.” His voice was terrible and forbidding and I realized the man who had bought me could possibly be more frightening than any of Aunt’s men had been.
Tad seemed to gather some sense finally and brushed himself off like he was washing his hands of the whole situation. He walked over and gathered the reins of his horse in hand and then mounted, treating us all like we didn’t even exist. Gid turned to me and I swallowed and held onto my composure despite shaking on the inside.
Instead of the bloodletting I had expected he said calmly, “The horses are overworked and should not be asked to pull more than what they are already doing. Can you walk or do I need to take you up behind me?”
Quietly I answered, “I can’t gather wood from horseback.”
After a moment and a searching glance he nodded and then turned to talk with the brother called Ern who was sitting on the wagon seat as driver. Soon enough the call was given and we headed out. I walked beside the wagon but saw little of Gid or Tad during most of the morning and Ern thankfully desired to avoid any conversation with me. After I ate one of the mush patties I began picking up wood and slinging it into a bundle I was building on my back. It was nothing but small wood fit for little more than kindling but it was all there was. Travelers before us had stripped the ground of anything bigger than that and in fact the limbs that remained on the trees were well above the heads of even those riding in the high wagons.
The wood bundle was getting awkward when a horse came near enough to cause me to move tight against the wagon. I felt the bundle being pulled and made to grab it. “Easy. This must be getting heavy. Tie it to the wagon with the straps that hang over the side.”
“Not heavy,” I told him yet complying.
“Then you’re stronger than you look,” Gid said eyeing me as I walked and worked at the same time.
I shrugged since it didn’t really matter if I was or wasn’t, it was a job that had to be done if there was to be a fire to cook over.
To fill the silence since I wouldn’t Gid said, “Ern saw you use a sling against the dogs.”
Ern, from his seat on the wagon said, “I had just spied them from my spot in the trees. I was drawing my bow when I saw ya let go at the one that tried to take that babby.”
Disliking their combined attention I merely said, “There’s wild dogs everywhere. If it isn’t dogs it’s some kind of cat. If not that then bears, or boars, or raiders, or some other beast. Something is always out to eat you when you are on the trail.”
Gid nodded in agreement then asked, “How good is your aim?”
It was not my intention to show off. He asked a question and I was merely going to answer it via demonstration. I pulled out the sling, put a small stone in the cradle thinking to knock down a pine cone but just then movement off the trail caught my eye as a rabbit bounded for cover deeper into the woods. My projectile caught it in the head and the jackthumper tumbled and came to rest all in a heap. I went to walk to get it but a dog zipped out and scooped it up. I thought the meat lost until it trotted back to me and offered it up.
The dog was huge, the top of its head coming to my chest. It could have easily been mistaken for a small pony. Not wanting to do anything to set such a large monster off I froze. Gid told me, “Take it and then tell him good dog.”
I cautiously stuck my hand out and the dog laid the carcass across it and seemed quite pleased as if he wanted to play the game again after I had told him he was a fine specimen. Once I was over my initial fear I realized the look on the dog’s face reminded me of the dogs my father had kept for hunting though none were near so large as the one that now walked beside me.
“Roof seems taken with you.”
“Not me … the game. Papa’s dogs were the same. They lived for hunting. They preferred playing the game with Papa but they would accept me if he were busy. Papa called them beagles.”
“The village Huntsman trades with a man who raises beagles from the next valley over. Noisy dogs. Roof is quiet; a cross between a nagazi and a wolfhound.” When I just looked at him he added, “Those are breeds of dogs. We use them to keep the wolf population down, especially during birthing seasons. Roof was mated and there was a large litter. I will get one of the puppies when we arrive in the village.”
I nodded and Roof consented to my hesitant attention, making it easier for me to scratch an itch he had behind his ear. “Yes,” I admitted as I did Roof’s bidding. “Beagles can be noisy; excitable. They use their voices to call each other and flush their prey. Roof is so big he doesn’t need to be noisy. His size alone probably shocks what he is after into insensibility.”
Then I sealed my lips, realizing that I had inadvertently dropped my camouflage. I thought Gid hadn’t noticed it but then after a moment he reached down and pulled me up behind him sending Roof to look for his attention elsewhere. Gid took the rabbit from me and deposited it in Miz Lana’s wagon then and walked his horse off road. When we reached the brush trail that ran parallel to the road we could still see the wagon train but were far enough away to speak privately.
He asked me harshly, “Is your name really Yulee?”
Knowing it could be nothing but the truth I told him, “Yes sir.”
He snorted. “Save your sirs. I’m immune to feminine wiles.” I shook my head and though he couldn’t see it he must have sensed it because he snorted. “All females have them. They’re packaged that way in the womb.”
I sighed, already disappointed that I hadn’t been out from under Aunt a full turn of the day and I was already in trouble. Quietly I told him, “That’s not the way I was raised. Even had I been so inclined my Mam and the Sisters would have punished me for that type of behavior. There’s too much danger in being misunderstood, too much danger of someone getting hurt.”
He grunted then did some more fishing. “Miz Lana said you were raised by the church.”
“Not by the church; within the church. Papa and Mam still raised me, I wasn’t an acolyte. Our church wasn’t run that way. We were … um … I don’t know what they are like where you are. Our church was a community church. The Word was most important, but so was serving and bearing fruit. We looked after each other and took care of those too young or weak to care for themselves.”
He chuffed a biting chuckle. “One of them communes you hear tell of?”
Calmly I answered him, “No sir. We didn’t live all together on top of one another and share in the ownership of everything. We worked together but we stewarded and were responsible for what God gave us to care for as individuals and families.”
He was silent for a moment. Then with less antagonism asked, “I said enough with the sirs. Answer me this … That woman was truly your aunt?”
I tried not to shudder as I answered, “Truly.”
Unfortunately some of my feelings escaped into my voice. “That was the way of things was it? A bad life?”
After a moment of thinking how to phrase it I wound up simply saying, “Yes.”
He was silent again. He must have decided I wasn’t the threat he had worried I might be. “My name is Gid.”
“So I heard.”
I could hear both frustration and curiosity in his voice when he said, “You are strange for a female. You ask no questions.”
This time the silence was mine before saying, “I’ve learned it is safer to listen. There is an old saying; better to stay silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and prove it true.”
“Heard that one myself.” He gave another sigh before saying, “Fine, then listen. I … I bought you because I need a woman. You’ll hear I nearly had one before you but that she changed her mind. That parts true. You’ll hear it was my brother that she chose over me. That part is true as well. You’ll hear my heart is broken. That part isn’t true. You’ll ignore it hear me?”
His forceful question demanded an answer. “Yes sir.”
“Last time … enough of that sir business; save it for the elders who’ll appreciate it. You’ll call me Gid. Or Gideon; that’s what my stepmother and sisters call me.”
“Yes … Gid.”
“Good enough so here’s more. You’ll hear that because of my so-called broken heart I’m destroying my life and running away. That’s another untruth, or wishful thinking by some. I’m going away but not running away and it isn’t to destroy my life but to make something of it. I have land; it’s mine from my mother’s brother. Father left the block house in the village to my brother as there was too little to piece out to each of us. He is the head of the family and for the last three years has been responsible for caring for all of the family same as Father was before him.”
“Uh … Tad or Ern?”
He snorted, “Neither. Jace. He is the oldest son from my father’s first marriage. Jace then Sabrina, then Heather. Jace’s mother died of childbed fever after birthing Heather. Then Father married my mother. From that marriage there was only me and a sister buried in the village lot after getting born backwards. My parents didn’t get on after that and decided to go their separate ways. But when I was five my mother sent me to live with Father because she said I needed a man’s hand and he was it since she wasn’t in the mood to have another man in her life when Father could do his duty to me for free. Mother died the following spring when she was thrown from her horse. By the time I moved back into Father’s home, he had remarried yet again and there were enough babies in the house that you had to wade through them as the widow Lurna came with several young children from her first marriage. Together Lurna and my father were pretty prolific. Tad was the only son from Lurna’s first marriage and Ern the first son that Lurna bore my father. Don’t even bother trying to remember all of the names of the others because even Lurna forgets who is who on occasion. Most of the time they’ll answer to whatever name you call them so long as you are looking at them when you talk.”
Hesitantly I said, “It sounds like the church orphanage … only … only perhaps noisier.”
“Aye, it’s that and then some. By rights there’s too many for the block house to hold. There’s kids everywhere including in hammocks slung between the rafters of the attic like wreaths of garlic and onions and just as noisome. Jace is like father; he loves the controlled chaos and does his best to make them even noisier and louder when he is in the mood for a good time. He’s a gun smith by trade, same as father was, and most of the young boys are apprenticed to him though the blacksmith who has nothing but daughters has taken on a few since he and Father were cousins. Lurna is a spinner and most of the girls are apprenticed in textiles save for the oldest ones who are married with homes of their own.”
He snorted. “Neither trade interests me beyond the necessary. I take after my mother’s family and like farming and hunting and wild places. The village is getting too crowded and the block house doubly so. It is time that some spread out before we starve ourselves out or bring in some plague that runs through it like wildfire. But too few are willing to live outside the wall.”
Curious despite myself I asked, “Your village has a wall then?”
“Aye. Built during the Great War but it has been added to since then. It gives them a false sense of security.”
I nodded. “Our community had a wall as well, but it didn’t stop the raiders from sending over plague ridden corpses when they found that a siege would not work fast enough to suit them.”
He reached back and startled me when I felt him touch me. “Is that how it happened? How you wound up with that woman?”
I sighed. “Yes. Father was a guard. He tried to explain to the Elders what could happen. He’d heard stories of that particular group of raiders. But sometimes the horrors are just more than people want to believe. And by the time they understand they must believe or perish, it is too late.”
He was silent for a moment. “I have obligations at the block house that will take a day or three then we’ll head out. The land lies a half-day’s ride from the village. You’ll hear … stories. You … you may not …” He stopped and sighed, once again in irritation. “Lurna, Jace … all of them … they’ll try and turn it into high drama and you’ll be the center of it. They’ll set on you and … and try and draw you in. I don’t want to see my family hurt.”
After a moment I said, “You’ll need to tell me what your wishes are.”
“My wishes?” he barked. “I wish none of this need be, but it is. I wish the pages in my life would have turned as I planned them to. I can live with the way things are so long as I don’t have to listen to it day in and day out. Their managing grows wearisome, their pity … unacceptable.” He gave a discontented growl that told me more than words could, whether he meant to or not. He shook himself then said, “Ignore them if you can but I doubt a dead man could. But I warn you, do not hurt them. They don’t deserve any pain from this. Vaniece made her choice and I’m not so broken or vengeful that I want it to split the family. Not to mention it is going to be hard enough for them to accept an outsider like you especially with the stories Tad is probably going to tattle. You’re too different from what they know, what they had planned for me.”
I blinked and realized I was making a mistake opening up to this man as much as I had. I’d shared more words with him than I had with anyone since Old Annie had died. I wanted to snap then why chose me if he had known it would displease his family but instead closed myself back off and calmly spoke, “It will be as you say.”
“It had better.”
I expected for him to take me back to the road but he did not. I tried to ignore the unease between us. I realized I preferred Aunt’s open hostility to the strangeness of a man who did not relish his seeming dislike of me. He broke my reverie by saying, “Your shoes are serviceable for now but you’ll need winter boots.”
I swallowed, uncomfortable with him noticing something so personal. “I … I have fur lining for them for when the cold starts blowing.”
He grunted. Then, “You’ll need warmer garments.”
“I layer what I have and trade off from inside to outside until it is warm enough for a wash day.”
He said impatiently, “Lurna will see you dressed properly. I won’t be shamed but I won’t be delayed either. You don’t need a whole wardrobe like a debutante.”
Feeling the pinch of my pride, something that I hadn’t let happen for a long time, I told him, “I need no one to make my clothes for me. This cloth may be rough and thin but the stitches are strong and sure. My mam was a seamstress and taught me the skills of cutting and sewing.”
He nodded in relief. “At least that is something.” There was a pause like he was ticking off items in his head. “Cloth it is then. I’m due that much from the coffers at least. But we take no more food than what I was able to trade for at the Buy n’ Sell. There is none for wasting so don’t think there will be banquets as you are used to.”
Again I felt the pinch of pride, so strange after being absent for so long. If he only knew. I drew my mind back to practical matters. “This place you say we go. What is it like? Forest, prairie, rocky moraine?”
“Forest except for the fields, though there are areas of rocks where they tumbled down from the mountains during the Great War. For two years I’ve fought to keep the sprouts from encroaching and reopen fields that have lain fallow for nearly a generation. Why? Ye’ve got a preference?”
I ignored his question as his tone said he could have cared less even had I preferred one over the other. My lot in life was chosen. I had agreed to be a good slave and servant. But something had awakened in me. I may hide myself from others, from his family, but if he knew I was not dim then maybe it was time for him to find out just how not dim I was. “I’ll have to see the lay of the land and see how the season goes once you take me there but if there is a wild edible to forage I’ll find it and put it on your table. I kept the caravan from starving from point to point even when on first glance there was nothing to be had but lichen and limewater and yet did it so that no one ever realized how I pieced out the meager scraps in the food baskets or what I did it with. I can keep illness at bay but not if death is determined to have the patient … but that angel will have to fight to win for I’ve seen him too often to fear him any longer. If you’ve animals I can care for them as well as I do a person. I can help prepare your meat and season it so that it will last longer and not spoil to make you and yours ill. I’ll mend your clothes, scrape your furs and hides, clean your hearth, cook your food. And I’ll do it without yapping you deaf with complaints.”
I snapped my teeth together. It had been too long since I’d allowed anger to ride me this way. I calmed myself with a deep breath and then thinking of a distraction said quietly, “We’ll be coming to a large flat area of tall grass. This time of year it is all brown and grows right up to the road bed.”
He let my previous comments pass without a slap and agreed, “Aye, we passed through it coming while it was still green.”
“But do you know it? Do you know the dangers it holds this time of year?”
“I’ve heard stories. What stories have you heard?”
“Not stories,” I told him. “Actual experience. There are great cats that hunt in the tall grass. They are called lions. A huntsman from a village on the outskirt of the grassland saw the carcass of the animal we killed and told us that before the Great War there were men that paid large sums of money to hunt for sport what were then called exotic animals. Other men, seeking to earn coin from such wasteful insanity imported dangerous animals to places they had no business being and called them hunting preserves. When the Great War came the fences fell and those animals escaped and became truly wild, migrating to the lands that suited them best. With no natural predators and too few men to hunt them, such animals grew in number; sometimes they are so numerous they over hunt the local prey and turn to men to hunt as man once hunted them.”
“You claim to have seen these monsters?”
I sighed then tapped his shoulder. He looked to see me lift the hem of the leather skirt I wore to protect the cloth one beneath it and then the slip that lay between those coverings and my skin. There on my thigh lay four parallel scars where I had barely escaped death before the bouncer for Wash’s tavern had speared the animal through its chest and pinned it down until it finished its death throes.
Tad’s sneering voice came from behind us. “Shoulda figured she was trying to bed ya. Taking a little longer to entice ya than it normally does Gid, must be her pretty face. What decent female lifts her skirts in full view of a wagon train? This should show you …”I jerked the leather down to cover myself but suddenly slid from the back of the horse then had to scramble out of the way of the hooves when Gid and Tad ripped at each other from the saddle. Disgusted with the both of them I turned my back and started picking up wood and making my way back to the wagon train.