It felt like I had barely lain down when I realized Gid was wrapping us both in his cloak. “Ease that hand and leg where I won’t bump it. Now rest your head here.” I sighed trying to accept the inevitable when I felt him untying the string that held the neck of my blouse closed. He rested his hand inside and that seemed to be all he wanted because as soon as he did it he was asleep. It was not at all what I was expecting and it took me a few minutes to wonder at the strangeness before I followed him back into slumber.
I shivered in the morning when he withdrew his warmth. He mistook it for something it was not however and pulled me tight against him before whispering in my ear, “Aye. I want more as well. We’ll have it soon enough, have patience.” I was very glad he crawled out and then walked away or he would have seen how mortified I was by his words. Was it so easy to mistake me for a loose woman?
The wagon master came through at that moment reminding everyone, “Fill up all yer water containers here. There’s no more safe drink for man nor beast for two days’ ride. We cross the river this morning and will camp in the old-city tonight. Hopefully the next day we will camp at the gateway to the valley and be in our real beds that night.”
Travel across the river was by ferry though in places you could cross by horse and wagon because of the drought. The wagon master preferred the ferries because bandits hung out around the easy crossing spots; the ferry companies provided security on their boat ramps on either side of the river. And this company was a good one; there were no accidents, none lost overboard, and no wet belongings.
Once on the other side of the river the road broke off in three different directions. I had travelled all three but the one that the train took for their direction was my least favorite. A little after mid-day we came to the outskirts of an old-city. All you could see at that point was foundation marks in the dry vegetation where what used to pass for buildings had once stood. Another league on and bits and pieces of the buildings themselves rose from the ground though it was in a haphazard pattern and none higher than a man’s knee.
I was walking and trying not to wince every time my slip brushed the burn on my shin when a misting rain began to fall. Gid rode up beside me. “Get in the wagon.”
I shook my head. “I don’t want to disobey.”
“But you plan to.”
“Only because I’ll just have to get out again unless I want to be tossed out upon my head. The wagon is not packed for a passenger to ride and from here on the road is in terrible shape. This rain will only make it worse.”
He reached down, being careful of my burned hand, and pulled me up in front of him. He arranged his cloak so that the worst of the wet rolled off both of us. His closeness in public made me nervous and I tried to get him to see reason. “Your horse is tired. Let me walk.”
His hand put pressure upon my waist as if to say stop my wiggling though I could barely bring myself to move I was so frozen and stiff in discomfort. “We’ll both walk in a bit. Right now I want to know how you know this road.”
I shrugged. “After the raid that killed most in our community, the Brothers and Sisters that were left paid the man my aunt called husband at the time to use his wagons to carry those of us who had survived to a nearby refuge, a small offshoot of our community the raiders had missed. That husband died along the trail after drinking bad water. Once at the refuge Aunt took up with another who was a well-known traveling bard. They used me to get them in places … the Brothers found it convenient and safe to send messages around in my care since I knew the codes from helping Papa. Then the bard decided he’d rather have me than my aunt but I wouldn’t give up my brother, and my aunt … she got rid of him instead. It was a dangerous time because the Bard was well-liked and Aunt decided she wanted a change of scenery. By then I’d figured out my life would never return to what it once was and had learned to accept that. We were far along the trail and Aunt … and well there were other men, some she called husband and some she didn’t, and then she met Wash.”
“The one you call the tavern keeper.”
“Yes. Only it wasn’t the kind of tavern that my aunt had assumed from his stories. His is a mobile tavern that follows the barter roads between the Buy n’ Sells. I have not stayed in one place longer than a week since my parents died and there are only so many roads fit for a wagon group of any size out this way so I’m familiar with the routes and condition of the roads at the different seasons.”
He was quiet for a moment as the rain decided to pelt down a bit harder and grow colder. “You’ve mentioned this brother before. The one … the one you … cut … from your mother.” Startled I turned and glanced at him full in the face and he caught my eyes. “Aye, I remember your words though you’ve kept them to yourself since.”
It took me a moment to break eye contact and turn around. “His name was Jubal.”
“He was some younger than you.”
Gid sighed. “Do not make me pull the story out of you in bits and pieces.”
I shuddered and it must have surprised him as much as it surprised me. “You ask so many questions,” I whispered pulling my cloak forward to hide my face.”
“Never have had to before. Most females volunteer more information than a man can digest. You … I’d starve on what little you let slip here and there.”
Trying to make him give up whatever his game was I told him baldly, “Jubal is dead.”
I sighed and shook my head.
Slowly and carefully he asked, “Your … you aunt or that man Wash?”
Despite my best effort I wiggled a littIe but all he did was say, “It’s all right Yulee. Just say it.”
“He … he was small for his age … and … and different. He wasn’t ready to be born but it was either take him or he’d die the same as Mam. And living as we did … I couldn’t do for him like was needed. He would have always been different, but it wouldn’t have been so hard on him had I been able to tend to his needs better. I carried him in a sling until he was three, he couldn’t seem to figure out how to walk before that. He finally learned to walk and he was so proud. I was proud of him too as most everyone had thought he never would. But the other children … slum kids that run around with the traveling companies … they saw his weakness and never failed to pick on him. Once he started walking Aunt wouldn’t let me keep him with me all the time any longer; she said he had to work for his feed the same as the rest of us. There was a woman … Old Annie …”
“I remember you mentioning her in passing.”
“The three of us tried to be a real family but Old Annie was … old, growing frail though she was strong in spirit and feisty like Miz Lana. Still, she had no business being on the barter road any more than Jubal did. Aunt would give them work she knew that they couldn’t finish. The rule was if you didn’t finish your work you didn’t eat so I would do my work and then try and do theirs as well. Most of the time it worked out and those times it didn’t … well, we survived the best we could. Despite it all it felt like God was looking after us. Life was bearable. When I didn’t think I could go any more energy would come to me from some place, or the train would have to stop, or Aunt would get distracted by some new scheme and forget about tormenting us for a while. Then came that night.”
Thunder rumbled and a piece of old ruin tumbled in the distance giving off a weird echo. “Finish your story Yulee.”
I sighed. “There isn’t much left to tell. It was raining that night as well only harder and colder. Aunt had grown tired of all the squalling being done by the children and had confined them to one wagon. That only made it worse. They began to pick on each other, then … then they all sort of ganged up on Jubal. No one would say which did the pushing but I knew from the look on his face it was one of the slop bucket boys.” My head hung so low I could see nothing but the edge of my own cloak. “He fell from the wagon and his head struck a sharp rock and the angels carried him away from me.”
My hands were clinched so tight it didn’t register until I felt the blisters popping from the burn. I gasped and held it tightly to me. Before he could ask I told him, “Old Annie tried to keep us going but when she died earlier this year …” I snorted. “Tad is correct, you got a bad bargain for your coin.”
Carefully he asked, “You think you’re cursed?”
I shook my head. “I don’t believe in curses … at least not the kind you mean. It just seems that … that God must think I am too hard headed to learn His lessons any other way and because of it those around me suffer.”
I tried to slide off the horse but he tightened his arm and thighs around me. “Do you know why I picked you?”
“Do you know why I picked you?” he said more slowly.
“Because you need a woman.”
“I could have had any woman in the cages and many out of that place if that was all there was to it. Besides, I had more than five silvers in my purse. Why do you think I picked you?”
After a moment I answered, “I … I have no idea.”
“Because I watched you from the moment you walked in the cue. I saw that fat buffalo you’ve said is your aunt; she was bickering with the auctioneer. I heard her say you fell out of a wagon. I knew it was a lie as soon as it crossed her lips and it made me want to see what was under the bruises to make her so mad, still do for that matter. But there was trading to be done and I was sure that you would be gone by the time I got back and had time to look. But every time I passed by you were still there. And you were different. You didn’t cry or curse, didn’t moan or complain, didn’t act frightened at all, and didn’t try and advertise your wares like a whore. As a matter of fact you didn’t make any noise at all. I thought at first perhaps you were deaf or mute or both. Tad and Ern were positive you were simple, dim. I wasn’t sure.”
He pulled me deeper into his cloak when the rain started blowing a bit. “Tad kept pointing out other women for me to look at and sure they would have served but for some reason I kept coming back to the silent girl who just walked the line. Every time an auctioneer would step in to tap someone I was sure it was going to be you, but it never was. Eventually seeing under the bruises didn’t matter. Tad and Ern both … they kept at me, trying to persuade me to some other girl, woman but then there’d be you. I had made up my mind to have you, then they began to complain of their stomachs being empty and we went off to eat just so I could shut them up. You see how they are when they are hungry, like rabid wolverines. They were driving me mad. When I hesitated they said if it was meant to be you’d still be there when I got back. It was almost too late when I realized they had lied and told me the auction was ending an hour later than it was. I rushed back thinking that you’d be gone to someone else but there you were, still just walking. But they were shutting things down. I decided to see if they’d be willing to make one more sell. Surprisingly I didn’t have to ask, they were willing to take half your price if I’d take you off their hands.”
Quietly I said, “You could have been out ten silvers for me?! That would have bought you a better woman from one of the other cages.”
“That’s what Ern said but I didn’t want any of those. For some reason it had to be you.”
I shook my head. “That makes no sense.”
He shrugged. “It didn’t to me then. Still doesn’t. Especially when I didn’t know if you could even speak. I was grateful when you opened your mouth and your words weren’t garbled and saw you had all of your teeth.”
Flummoxed how to respond I stuttered, “I … I suppose that is something.”
“Yeah. And your morning brew is as good as Lurna’s if not better but we won’t be telling her that. She’s overly proud of her brew Lurna is. Father used to say her brew is why he married her.”
There wasn’t anything to say to that at all so I didn’t, simply filed the information for later.
“And you can cook. I don’t care what Tad said, those oat cakes weren’t rocks. I’ve never had them with fruit in the center.”
“The Sisters made them like that for the hunters to take when they’d be away for the day.”
“Well they’re good. And that rabbit you fixed went further than I thought it would. Means you know how to make much with little.”
I shrugged. “Waste not want not.”
“I’ve got a maiden aunt that says that a lot. Her name is Verna, she’s my stepmother’s twin. She lives at the block house too since Lurna’s parents died.” A moment passed and then he said, “I … I’ve got a favor to ask.”
I thought that a strange thing for a master to say to a slave.
“Tad … Tad is a pain. He needs to be beat senseless. I nearly did this morning after he … but he isn’t normally like he’s been. And … Lurna is partial to him. So was Father. As the oldest son from Lurna’s prior marriage he could have made their marriage hard. He could have made my life hard when I came and tried to find a place in the house. But he didn’t do either thing. We were like brothers from the very beginning. He’s more like Father than I ever was even though they don’t share a drop of blood.”
“He changed? Over this Vaniece you’ve mentioned?”
I felt him nod. “Only no one knew what it was at first. He wanted Jace and I to be happy whoever wound up with Vaniece … he’s a good man.”
Thoughtfully I said, “I still don’t understand what you want.”
“It’s Lurna. And Aunt Verna. And all of the girls in the house for that matter, but Verna especially. See she was an enforcer of the court when she was younger and still has some pull and no mercy. She was the one that lashed men when they were found guilty of crimes against women. None in the house are man-haters. None of them wish men harm … but there … there are certain unforgivables in their eyes.”
Then I understood. “I wouldn’t have ever used this morning against him.”
“P’raps not. I’m seeing that … that you see things differently. But …”
“I’m asking you not to mention it and if … if it comes up to …”
I sighed. “I won’t lie.” I felt him stiffen. “But that doesn’t mean I have to answer anyone’s questions either. Tad and Ern want to believe me to be dim, let them go on thinking it. Let everyone think it.”
Troubled he said, “That’s not what I want. It’s cruel.”
Shrugging I told him, “You said yourself they aren’t likely to care for me at all. You said that you would only be staying just long enough to finish your business. Who needs to know that I am anything other than what they want to believe I am?”
Cynically he asked, “That’s not lying?”
I shook my head. “No, that’s letting people think what they want to think.‘
“And you’re fine with that?”
I sighed. “Gid, I’ve lived that way for a while now. If … if you … if you … maybe …”
Quietly I said, “It would be … nice … to have one person think I’m something other than turned in the head. If you’ll … if you’ll be that one person then what others think doesn’t matter.”
A huge clap of lightening parted the sky and then parted what passed for a scrubby tree less than a quarter league from where we road. The sound was deafening and the light blinding if you had been looking in that direction. Every horse in the train came unglued and it took all the riders’ and drivers’ skill to calm their mounts.