Here we go again. Shen the Skald. This is nothing like Tides of Fall, nothing like Honeysuckle, and nothing like (s)mall. It’s what I’m feeling most right now though, so it’s what I’m writing. The story will be told in three books that will be longer than any of the parts of Tides were. Flights, Shafts, and Barbs.
I’m still working on (s)mall, but it’s a tangled and lengthy process. It’s one of those things where you have to stop and ask “am I really good enough to be writing this at this point in my career?” and I think the answer is no. The various connections of the six characters have to be perfect and I’m not willing to deliver something substandard so those anxious to get back into it will just have to wait. I wish I could say I’m sorry for that, but I’m not. When it sees light, it will be amazing. For now though, here’s a new long spanning thing for you all to sink your teeth into.
Flights ~ Shen the Skald Book One
[i]This trail is obsidian,
The grip of winter uncoiled
A lover would follow me,
Cast down and sworn to the dark…[/i]
-Opeth, The Devil’s Orchard
I was born under the sign of Chiron in a temple of Zihn in the nation of Setia in the year 946 by the calendar of the King. My hair had never been shorn because even as a babe I had never shown fear and so it hung to my waist with only a single braid bringing order near my left eye while the rest hung loose and wild. That on my face had turned from fluff to scruff two years past when the leaves fell and so there was no reason for her father to deny me her hand…and yet he had.
For 19 summers I had been a proper man of the village of Marish, and now at the dawn of my 19th winter I craved a wife and knew that wife should be Chloe. Her father, a cooper, had seemed saddened by his denial of my request but had denied it anyways. He had told me I would make a good husband, just not for his daughter. To protest would have been weakness. As the temples of Zahn had gained ascendancy my bloodline’s place in the scrolls had moved from header to footnote and as such I did not wish to bring shame and heap it atop dwindled standing. Those born in the temples of Zihn were still proud enough.
I could not fathom it though. I had learned the ways of bow and blade like all men of Marish. I had an apprenticeship with Siven Ketch, the region’s best fletcher. I would inherit my family home when my father passed from his body into the stars. Perhaps he did not want his daughter chained to a waning star? The Harver family’s patriarch had not seemed overly pious to me, he barely kept the Days of the Temple, and so it seemed unlikely to me that his denial of my request would be based on lore from the Scrolls. Perhaps he had turned away my wish because I wasn’t one of the braggarts of the village, too occupied by my quill when I wasn’t occupied with my work? Chloe had never seemed to favor the contests the other men of the village engaged themselves in, never pining after those that could run faster or throw further. Was it that her father secretly wished for a grandson born of one of these men, instead of a poet languishing in the body of a warrior?
I should not be consumed with these questions, but I could think of little else.
“Shen Marth!” Siven’s voice jarred me from my reverie. “Pay attention to your work!”
I had scored the shaft in my hand too deeply with my knife. The nock was ruined. Wasted. I shook my head and looked at Siven with a curt nod of apology and took up a new shaft. Nocked, I handed it to him so he could attach the feathers to it in his jig. While he set them in place I nocked four more and laid them to wait on the workbench. Several of those he had fletched already were dry now, so I began wrapping them with linen string. It was precise work and not something to do while absorbed in other things and so I tried to push Chloe from my mind. I did not succeed.
“You are wasting our time today, Shen,” Siven said, looking over the rims of his glasses at me as I struggled to bind the flights evenly. “You are wandering the stars today. What is your distraction, boy?”
“I am no boy, old man,” I said to him, feigning my usually easy smile.
“Ha! I have forgotten more than you’ve known so to me you are a boy, still.”
His cracked and weathered voice spoke the truth, but I would hear none of it. I had been waiting inside for a chance to snap at someone and though Siven was not the one to deserve it I allowed myself the indulgence.
“Perhaps then you have also forgotten civility? Or is it just that you see your twilight upon you and so rail against those that are perched upon their dawn?” I said to him.
Siven raised his eyebrows, looking shocked before his ire melted to mirth. “I have been chastised by a poet? And this is to irk me?”
“Shut up old man,” I said, looking back to my work. The flights were messy, ragged from my repeated efforts to wrap the thin twine around them evenly. I threw the shaft to the bench and scowled at it. “You do not know me well enough to scold me so.”
“I know you better than you think. I know you as I know all young men your age. Still trying to prove your balls have dropped, anxious to leave your boyhood behind but still wet behind your ears.”
“Not me,” I said moodily. “I am not like these other boasters and swingcocks,” I grumbled.
“Oh no?” Siven asked, his hands following years of practiced motion while he looked at me and spoke. “So you are not upset over a woman? You are notdistracted by being between breasts as it were? Life is long Shen Marth; your mothers teat is not so far behind that you need to rush to replace it.”
I sneered at Siven. Sneered at what I saw as a cruel and barbed jest. My mother had died during my birth and so I had been reared on goat’s milk. I knew he was merely poking fun and had not meant any insult; indeed, the priests of Zihn had seen it as a great omen of my strength that I would slay my mother with my very birth. I did not see it as such. Priests would call any small thing an omen if they thought a courtesy would be paid into their coffer for it. I grunted and took a new shaft into my hand, bending to my task.
“I spoke quickly,” Siven said, taking his hand from the jig and putting it on my forearm. I pulled away but did not look at him. “My words were unkind though I did not mean them to be.”
“Let us just work,” I said quietly, spoiling another set of flights with my clumsy raveling of the linen twine.
“That would be a nice thing; to lose ourselves in the task, Shen,” he said. “But it is not to be for you today. I’ve not seen you foul so many shafts since you were just a small boy with oafish fingers. Go. Go and return tomorrow.”
“Hmph,” I grunted. “You would send me away, too?”
“I would,” he said. “Would and am. Go.”
“Fine then,” I said, tossing the arrow down. “If you don’t want me I will leave.”
Siven chuckled at my back as I left his workshop. He was a kind natured old man, and had not meant any harm with his words. They stung me though, salt in the wound left by Chloe’s father when he had rejected me the evening before.
Snow fell gently like soft ash from the sky as I put up the fur collar of my quilt lined leather jacket and stalked moodily through the streets of the village of Marish. The earth still held enough warmth to melt the flakes on the ground and the lanes were a brown muck of slush and mud. Overnight the cold would keep the snow and by tomorrow the frosts of fall would have turned into the first white of winter. The grey and the chill and the puffs of breath from the mouths of those I passed formed words in my mind and I wished I had somewhere to sit and write.
If I were to go home now I would be caring for my father. He did well enough on his own, but when I was around he gave some of himself up. At this hour he would be done with chores and sipping whiskey by the fire, a mist across his rheumy eyes as he walked the paths of his memory. Repetition was his savior; it is what allowed him to function. If I came home now he would think it to be hours later than it was and I would have to cook for him despite it not being time to eat. I shook my head silently at his mental infirmity and allowed my feet to carry me to the town’s tavern.
It did not have a name like the taverns along roads or those in larger towns or cities. It was merely the tavern. There was only one and so it did not need a name. Even half way between the midday meal and dinner there were some few people inside. Olsen, the old drunk, warmed his feet by the fire with his graying hound snoring beside him. Noen the smith with an alepot in his hand at the small bar in the back. Belver the tavern keeper turning a joint of meat on the spit. Two of Colm’s militiamen drunk off their stools in a corner playing at dice. I took a table away from the others and blew into my hands to chase the chill from my fingers.
“Where’s your blade, Shen Marth?” one of the militiamen called to me. “What good if we’re raided?”
It was not law, but it was accepted that all men of Marish carried a blade or bow. I rarely did. The village hadn’t been raided since before I was born. I saw little point in the custom.
“Perhaps he’ll spin a yarn and make them swoon!” the other militiaman joked.
They laughed, Olsen joining in. I shrugged and removed a roll of rough parchment from my jacket’s inner pocket. My quill was modern and out of place in the village. It had been my mother’s and my father had given it to me when I learned to pen words. The ink was drawn from the pot into a hollow place inside of it, flowing from the nib as you wrote with it. It was perhaps my most prized possession in all of the world. I recalled the drifting flakes from the sky and began scratching words onto the paper after Belver brought me a pot of ale and I nodded my thanks and pressed a coin into his hand.
[i]Flakes like ash from sky
Cold burnt immolation
Past under winter’s blanket
Passed over embrace
Face lost, drifted under soon
Life’s noon met and pondered
Soon squandered hastily
One loved wastefully
Life lived chastely
Price bid, false reckoned
‘Come now…’ winter beckoned me
‘Come now…” winter threatened me
“More poems, Shen?” a voice said, breaking my reverie.
I looked up to see my good friend Colm Ders, leader of the militia and son of the village headman. He had a warm smile on his face and an alepot in his hand, his cheeks rosy from coming in from the cold.
“Colm,” I nodded in greeting. “How fares the day?”
“It fares well,” he said, clapping me on the shoulder before sitting across from me. “And for you…not so well Shen?”
“I am fine,” I said defensively. “Why would you say that to me?”
“Instead of putting another braid in your hair you are at the tavern midday, penning your poems and sipping ale. I take it old man Harver said no?”
“You take it correctly, my friend” I said, taking a drink.
“I told you Shen, she does not fancy you,” Colm said to me with a large grin on his stubbled face. “Old Harver dotes on his daughter and would have her marry for love and not standing.”
“She would grow to love me,” I said. “I am a good man. I would be a fine husband.”
“Are not poets supposed to understand these things?” Colm asked me, laughing. “Perhaps she loves another?”
“Who?” I asked, sitting my alepot down heavily and leaning forward. “Who does she love Colm?”
“Ha! How should I know these things, friend?” he laughed. “I’m a militiaman, not a seer! I merely mean that you cannot know the heart of a woman, Shen. They are confusing creatures.”
“Hmph. Confusing, perhaps. Fickle, most certainly. I do not intend to give up my suit, friend.”
“Oh, that will work well!” Colm spouted. “A woman is not a hare or hart, to be pursued until you fell her with one of your shafts.”
“We will see. She will love me by the end of winter,” I told him, sipping again at my ale.
“Is that it then? You wish to pierce her with your shaft?” He leered and raised his eyebrows suggestively.
“Enough of your jokes, Colm,” I said, shaking my head. “She is not a harlot and you do her reputation harm with such words.”
Colm took my pen from my hand and put it in his pocket. “You dwell overmuch. And you brood, Shen!”
I made to roll up the parchment and return it to my pocket, but Colm snatched it up with a laugh and began to read aloud what I had written. He got to ‘drifted under soon’ before I grabbed it back.
“You mock me,” I said. “Are we not friends, Colm?”
“I only wish to see you happy, friend,” he explained, a natural smile dimpling his round cheeks. “It is very beautiful, but it is morose. Why don’t you write about something happy for a change? Or pen a bawdy tune to sing over drink?”
“Yeah!” Olsen yelled from beside the fire. “Sing us a tune of lusty women, Shen!”
All those in the tavern laughed and I blushed. Some others, finished their work early for the day, had entered. Amongst them was Farsh Hiven and his daughters Margot and Mavia. Both were comely girls, both of an age to marry, both besotted with me since the only time I had actually recited a poem of mine here in the tavern one night when I had passed my mark and slipped to deep into my cup. Farsh was selling eggs to Belver and his daughters looked at me, batting their lashes and being coy.
“You see?” Colm asked me, smiling. “There are more women in the village than skinny Chloe Harver.”
“I do not want to plant seed in a low born famer’s daughter,” I said to him. “As the son of a tradesman I should be wed to the daughter of a tradesman, Colm.”
“Poor Shen Marth,” he joked. “Spoiled for choice but sick with loneliness. Busty lasses with dark hair pine for you but you pine for a blonde switch of a girl that would probably break during child birth. I swear friend, I think you do this to yourself simply so you have something to write about.”
“Not without my pen I can’t,” I said, holding my hand out. He returned my mother’s quill to me and I put it in my pocket with the parchment.
As Farsh Hiven left with his daughters they both waved and worked their charms at me, poking and elbowing each other in rivalry. I waved sheepishly at them and they giggled loudly. Their father noticed and smiled, waving to me as well. He would do well to have one of his daughters married into my family and I could see he thought well of the idea.
“I must go, Shen,” Colm said, belching as he put his alepot down. “Are you staying for more ale?”
“I think I will,” I said. “I’m in no mood to go home yet. As you pass will you stop and see my father?”
“He is no doubt fine, Shen. But I’ll stop in on him for you. How is he doing of late?”
“He is well enough in body,” I told Colm. “But his mind slips further into dreams with each passing month.”
Colm nodded, pursing his lips as he clapped me on the shoulder again. When he was gone I went back to my writing, drinking perhaps more ale than I intended but thankful to be left alone with my thoughts.
The tavern had grown loud. Many were eager to celebrate the first snow of winter and someone had brought a lute. Two tables by the fire had been moved that those who wished to might dance, leaving old Olsen the drunkard where he slept in his chair with his hound at his feet. I do not remember when Mavia Hiven had sat at my table with me, but as my earlier focused melancholy turned to a tangled mire of general malaise I had welcomed her company. It is the nature of drink in one who feels wronged; an honest opinion is less welcome than a sympathetic one.
She was a very comely lass, Colm was right about that. Her hair was long and dark, her breasts strained against the top of her shirt, and the curve of her bottom under her skirt was not so small that I could ignore it but not too large as to be distasteful to me. She was young, just barely of an age to marry, and the light from the fire and the tallow candles played off her sparkling eyes like small stars in a room of brown and grey. Over the time she sat with me, listening to me lament my ill fortune, she had moved closer inch by inch until she was seated right next to me against the wall. Her hand was on my leg, I don’t know when that happened either, but her touch was soft and warm through my breeches. Her older sister, Margot, was not there; I was as glad of that as I was of Mavia’s company because I didn’t feel like watching the two of them compete for my attention. Margot was two years Mavia’s senior and in my mind somewhat past ripe; rounder, plumper, softer. One of her teeth was turned somewhat in her mouth and it harmed her smile. Mavia had nice teeth though, straight and white, and though I’d never noticed it before the afternoon of ale helped me see it now.
“Will you sing one of your songs?” Mavia asked me, leaning close. She smelled warm and welcoming, her breath on my ear moist and soft.
“I do not write songs,” I said to her.
She squeezed my leg with her small hand. “A poem, then. I have heard you before Shen! It would be beautiful.”
“I do not wish to, no.”
“Will you do it for me?” Her hand moved higher on my leg and her lips brushed my ear ever so slightly as she spoke over the noise of the full tavern. “Please?”
It must have been the ale. I could have said no and still had any way I wished with Mavia. I looked around the tavern and saw Chloe then. She was with her brother and sister and some others, talking at the bar and laughing and having fun without me. I do not know when they had arrived, perhaps somewhere between my sixth pot and my seventh. Perhaps jealousy would spur her affections where my desire for her had not.
“Okay,” I said to Mavia. “For you.”
Her eyes lit up and her smile grew as I stood. She followed me, taking my hand in hers. I let her. I wanted Chloe to see us. I went past her and her friends at the bar, trying to look like I didn’t know she was there. The man with the lute, Haim from the mill, was taking a break and smoking his pipe as I approached him.
“Haim!” I said. “We will do a number together?”
“I would be pleased!” Haim said, raising his alepot in greeting. He looked at Mavia holding my hand, then smirked and looked back to me. “Something pleasing to the ear? Not too sad?”
I nodded. “Just play something that can be danced to, Haim. I will do the rest.”
He finished his pipe as we spoke of nothing. The seasons, our families, the coming winter, that sort of thing. Mavia’s fingers twined with mine and her grip grew tighter. She stood closer to me, her breasts brushing my arm and lingering there. When I would look at her I could see the interest in her eyes turn to desire. I did not love her, I could never with my heart in the hands of another, but I was not immune to her feminine spell. As men do, I rationalized things in my mind. She was lusty and eager, I was a man and able. It would be an easy thing to lay with her and she would keep it a secret so as not to hurt her sister’s feelings. After all, Margot had kept it from her that we had lain together in her father’s loft two summers ago for the same reason. I had been drinking that night as well. I had rationalized it the same way. What harm then, a dalliance? And if Chloe should see us leave together so much the better.
Haim took up his lute and began to play a jumpy and fast melody. Stomping of feet, clapping of hands, a few danced. Freeing my hand of Mavia’s grip I stood beside Haim, and clapping my hands I began to recite one of my poems in the best voice I had. I was not a singer but few in Marish had any kind of gift for words and what would be laughed at on a stage or in the tavern of some city was to the people of my home a fine thing indeed.
[i]”Hair like the silk of corn
She danced the rite of spring
Alas, alas, oh to be the maypole
Soft like wool fresh shorn
Her feet did trace the ring
A lass, a lass, ode to she the foal…”[/i]
And so forth. I had written it about Chloe when first I saw her dance and I was happy to see her turn about on the floor of the tavern as I sang it. I watched her body wind and move about, her feet on toes and her hair on shoulders. She smiled wide and laughed and clapped her hands. When Haim had finished playing she went back to her friends, not even sparing me a glance. Mavia was at my side again.
“Did you see me dance, Shen?” she asked, taking my hand again.
“Hm? Yes,” I said, watching Chloe having fun with her friends. “It was beautiful. You danced beautifully.”
“Shen, I am tired I think,” Mavia said, her breasts touching my arm again. “My father said he heard wolves about last night. Do you think it is safe for me to walk home alone?”
I narrowed my eyes and looked at her. My family home was closer to the woods than hers and I had heard no such wolves. It was a pleasant fiction though, the kind that spares her reputation if any saw us leaving together. “I would think not. Perhaps I should walk you there?”
Her smile grew and her eyes were full of mischief. “I will get my shawl.”
I was bid farewell by some as I made my way through the crowded tavern. Haim was at the bar getting a drink and I went to say goodbye to him so that I could be near Chloe as I made it loudly known I was walking Mavia Hiven home. If she noticed I could not tell. I saw one of her friends pointing at me and saying something quietly to Chloe, something that prompted laughter behind hands.
“So it is just wolves then?” Haim asked me, elbowing my arm and winking.
“Perhaps,” I said loudly. “Or perhaps not!”
He laughed knowingly and I shook his hand before finding Mavia by the tavern door. The night had grown quite cold and I put my arm around her shoulders. She crossed hers and walked close to me. We were both some small bit unsteady from drink and laughed and talked as we walked.
When we reached her family’s farm she had grown quieter, telling me to do the same that we not wake her father or her mother or her sister. “Shen, the walk has woke me up. I am no longer as tired. Would you like to see our mare’s new colt?”
She was already opening the door into the small barn before I answered that I would. As I stepped in behind her she closed the door behind me and immediately was in my arms, kissing me with her lips wide and her tongue lashing about drunkenly in my mouth. She kissed like a girl who had only seen others doing it. There was a certain sultry sexiness to that and I put one hand on the back of her head and my other onto her round but firm bottom and pulled her closer to me. Through her skirt I could feel an ass that was far more pleasing in its shape than her sister’s had been two years previous. Mavia’s breasts were large but still firm with youth and they heaved against my chest as she breathed noisily around our kiss.
“Where should we…” she sighed, parting only slightly from me to say it.
“In the loft,” I said to her quietly, taking her hand and guiding her to the little stairs that led up.
At the top we collapsed into a pile of straw, legs and lips tangled together. She was frantic, breathing heavy and groping at me with her hands. The last time I had lain with a woman was in this same spot, and I felt a momentary stab of guilt at what I was doing. It was quickly washed away by the drink in my veins and her hand finding my hard shaft in my pants.
“Oh!” she gasped, feeling along its length. “Shen! You’re quite hard…”
I pushed her skirts up as she worked the laces of my breeches with her fingers. I knelt between her legs and as she freed me from the confines of my clothes I roughly untied the laces at her bosom. She had my cock in her hands and in the dim light from the moon coming through cracks in the roof I could see her face, her eyes heavy lidded and her mouth pouty and seductive. I pulled open her blouse and looked wantonly at her exposed breasts. She shivered slightly at the kiss of the cold air on her skin.
“It’s cold…” she whispered.
“Not for long,” I said, inching forward and lowering my chest towards hers.
“Shen…” she said nervously. “I have never…”
“Do not be afraid,” I breathed in her ear, stroking her long dark hair from the side of her face.
Mavia nodded and I felt her positioning my cock at the entrance to her womanhood. I pushed against her, reveling in the hot sensation of her entrance on my head as I tried to slide into her. It was tight and I was hard and she squealed in pain through tightly clamped lips as I thrust once to enter her. Only the tip had pierced her but she already had tears shining on her cheeks in the moonlight. I looked questioningly into her eyes and she nodded, both of her lips still between her teeth. I moved the head of my cock in and out of her, stretching her and spreading around the moisture gathering in her opening. I moved deeper, a fraction at a time, until I felt the barrier inside of her stopping me.
“Make me a woman, Shen,” she gasped, pulling at my hips with her grasping hands.
I pulled back to the opening of her and in one tightly gripped and slippery stroke I pushed all the way into her as she let out a little yelp of pain and grasped at me with the muscles inside of her. Her moans turned from those of pain to those of pleasure as I moved in and out of her wet and warm body. Mavia grew accustomed to the sensation and thrust back at me with her hips while I fucked her in her father’s loft.
I was up on my knees, holding her legs apart and looking down at her young body as my cock went in and out of the freshly penetrated place between her thighs. She grit her teeth together and watched me, leaning up on her elbows to watch my shaft moving in and out of her, her nose wrinkled and her brow furrowed. When I had done this with her sister I had been the virgin and Margot the teacher. Mavia was far more attractive to me, her body just full enough not to look too young and her face a primal mask of ecstatic torment as my thrust grew harder and faster. Her mouth hung open, her lips pulled back and her eyes set in a mean looking sneer. There was straw stuck in her hair as it hung around her shoulders. Her breasts bounced up and down in time with my now frantic fucking and she clamped her mouth shut tightly as she fell onto her back and screamed inside her closed mouth.
Watching Mavia lose herself like that in the throes of passion pushed me over the edge and I grunted as I came inside of her, driving deeply within and holding myself there while she milked my cock with her wet and tightly gripping pussy. I collapsed on top of her and she held me to her with her arms and legs wrapped around me. The undulations of her insides seemed perfectly timed with the pulsing of my shaft as I came and then grew soft inside of her.
“You should go, Shen,” she whispered in my ear. “We wouldn’t want to be caught here by my father.”
“Or by your sister,” I said to her, shivering as I slid back out of her tight pussy. She shook with the sensation of me leaving her as well and giggled.
“Margot would be displeased to know I got you before she,” she agreed with me, a note of proud triumph in her voice.
“Yes, that’s it,” I said, lacing up my breeches.
“When can we do this again?” she asked me, pushing her large cleavage back into her top and fastening it.
“Soon,” I lied. “Very soon I hope.”
“Shen?” she asked shyly. “Do you intend to ask my father for my hand now that we’ve…?”
“Maybe not right away,” I said, standing to leave and helping her to her feet. “Some saw us leave together, I would not want any to think this happened. Would you?”
“I suppose you are right,” she said, a bit sad sounding, as we stood by the exit from the small barn. “But we can see each other in secret? Until you think it is time?”
“Sure,” I said. Unless this makes Chloe jealous enough to notice me finally, I thought.
“I would like that very much,” Mavia said, standing on her toes to kiss me on the mouth. “Very much.”
“Good night to you, Mavia Hiven. We will keep this our secret until the right time?”
“And a very good night to you, Shen Marth,” Mavia said impishly. “And yes, we will.”
Apparently the ‘right time’ was the next morning. I was awoken with a very bad pain in my head by a man’s voice outside our cottage yelling my name. At first I thought perhaps it was Siven Ketch and that I had overslept and that he had come to wake me and drag me to the workshop. He would not do that though, he would only scold me when I arrived for the day’s work.
“Shen Marth!” the angry voice called again. “Come outside and speak with me now!”
I heard a banging sound inside, followed by breaking glass and the sound of steel sliding free from its sheath.
“Father!” I called out, springing from bed. I had slept in my breeches and pulled a shirt over my shoulders as I left my room. My father was standing near the door with an old sword in his hand, peeking past an old curtain covering the window.
“It could be raiders, boy!” he said. “Get your bow!”
“It is not a raider, father,” I said calmly, moving to take the sword from his grip. He resisted me, but I guided him away from the small window and looked outside.
“Shen Marth! Speak with me!” the voice yelled.
Sitting on his old plow nag in a thick wool jacket was Farsh Hiven. His face looked like a looming thunderhead and the horse fidgeted nervously. A wooden cudgel was hung from the old beat up saddle.
“Get your bow, boy!” my father hissed. “Radiers have come.”
“Father, it is only Farsh Hiven from across the hill,” I said, trying to calm him. His eyes were far away behind the cataracts that were slowly stealing his vision with each passing season and his hands shook.
“Farsh? Hiven? What’s he doing here, yelling?”
“I’ll see to it, Father. Put your sword away.” I shrugged into my jacket and stepped outside.
“Shen Marth!” Farsh Hiven was yelling again as I closed the door. My father was still peeking through the curtains. “There you are, lad. We must speak now.”
“What are you doing here yelling, Farsh? You have given my father a fright.”
“I’m here for you, lad!” he yelled down at me. His hand rested near the handle of the cudgel. “Tell me your intentions for my daughter, Shen.”
“Your daughter? Which one?” I asked him.
“You know what I speak of, Shen,” he said threateningly. “Do not play me for a fool!”
“Please explain, sir. I do not know what you speak of at all.” I held my hands out and shrugged my shoulders.
“Did you not walk my Mavia home last night? I’ve heard that you did.” His voice was gruff, his scowl and beard making him look like an angry bear on an old gray horse.
“I did, sir. She said you had heard wolves in the woods and I thought it best she not be unaccompanied. I thought you would approve,” I told Farsh.
“You’re a good lad, Shen,” he said, his voice still a rumble in his chest. “I would expect no less of your family. Now tell me the whole of it!”
“That is the whole of it, sir. I walked her home…no more.”
“She told me the truth, Shen Marth!” he yelled. “Do not play your games of words with me! What are your intentions for my daughter!?”
“Sir, Farsh, I have no intentions with your daughter. I do not know what she told you, but I assure you I walked her home and that is all.”
“That’s what she said after I heard in the village you’d wandered off with her from the tavern,” Farsh rumbled, his scowl deepening.
“Then what quarrel do we have, good Farsh?”
“What quarrel? What quarrel, Shen!?” he boomed, reaching in his pocket and pulling something out and throwing it at my feet. “This quarrel, lad! She’s told me the truth of it already, so now you’ll do the right thing!”
At my feet lay my mother’s pen. I patted my pocket dumbly through my jacket. Of course it wasn’t in my pocket, it was at my feet. It must have fallen out in the loft the night before.
“Farsh, it’s not what you think…” I started.
“Oh no!? You were writing poems in my loft by moonlight then? Is that is it!?” Farsh yelled.
“Okay,” I said calmingly. “I see, Farsh. What you say is true. I lay with your daughter Mavia. We were drunk, sir. It was a foolish mistake perhaps.”
“Now you say my daughter is a mistake of yours!?” he yelled, untying the cudgel and swinging his leg over the saddle to slide off the horse. “So those are your intentions? To spoil my daughter and not take her hand!?”
“Easy now, Farsh,” I said, taking a step back as he moved slowly towards me with the cudgel. “We can still talk about this…”
The door opened and my father stepped into the cold air with his sword in his hand.
“Father!” I shouted. “Go back inside, I will handle this.”
“You stay away from my son, brigand!” my father shouted, weaving the blade in the air.
“Your son is a man, Seril,” Farsh said, holding the cudgel out defensively. “This is between he and I!”
“Villain!” my father yelled, taking a step towards Farsh. “I’ll have you!”
“Father!” I shouted, but it was too late.
Seril Marth was once a name others feared in certain circles. In his youth he’d been a roadwarden, and had captained the village militia in his retirement before his mind started to go and Colm had taken his place. He was a mean opponent with a sword in his hand. Farsh took a stumbling step backwards and before I could do anything my father’s blade had its way; he slashed the back of Farsh’s hand before its tip found his stomach, piercing in before sliding out and crossing Farsh’s neck. The cudgel dropped and his blood spilled onto the dusting of snow covering the hard ground, red on white before he could even cry out in alarm.
“Father…” I gasped, grabbing his arm and twisting the sword from his hand. “It was just Farsh from over the hill…”
“Farsh? Hiven?” my father asked, squinting at the body bleeding out into the frost. “From over the hill?”
“Farsh. Hiven.” I answered numbly. “From over the hill.”
There was a shriek from near the woodshed where the path from the road came onto our land. I looked over to see Chloe Harver, bundled in wool skirts and a long quilted jacket. She had her hand over her mouth and her eyes were wide and as she turned to run I did not know what else to do so I ran after her. I did not compete in the contests, but that isn’t because I feared I would not win them. I was fleet of foot and able of body and I was upon her quickly. I grabbed her by the waist and spun her around.
“Let me go!” she cried out.
“No! You cannot tell anyone of this!” I pleaded. “He is just an old man! He did not know what he was doing!”
“I came here to speak to you of your suit for my hand only to hear you’ve bedded that man’s daughter and then killed him to escape your responsibility!” she shrieked, struggling to pull away from me.
“You heard!” I yelled, still holding her fast by her wrists. “That is not how it happened!”
“Let me go!” she yelled again, getting one hand free to slap at my face and pound her fist on my chest. “I’ll fetch the milita!”
“You will not,” I said forcefully.
I did not know what to do. I would like to have thought quickly and made a brilliant plan, or said something witty and intelligent to change what was happening, but instead I struck Chloe and knocked her unconscious then picked her up out of the snow and carried her back to our cottage.
My father was still squinting down at Farsh trying to figure out what was happening. I put Chloe inside on my bed and tied her wrists and ankles, gagging her mouth with a length of cloth. My head was spinning and any hangover from the drink the night before had been replaced with a frantic drive to do…something. I went back outside and my father looked at me with his clouded eyes.
“My son!” he said, patting at my shoulder and pulling on my arm. “Son, look! Someone has killed Farsh Hiven from over the hill!”
“Yes Father, I know,” I said sadly. “Go inside. I will see to this.”
My father went inside and I could hear him in the small kitchen, making tea perhaps, oblivious once more. The Hiven nag was nosing at Farsh’s body and I swatted her on the rump with the flat of my father’s sword. The nag fled then, running across our field. I went to the woodshed and got a shovel and hoped the ground was not yet too frozen to dig a hole deep enough for my shame.
“Why do we have this girl with us?” my father asked me from the back of his horse.
“We cannot let her return to the village, Father,” I replied. “She saw what happened.”
“What happened?” he asked. “You mean the brigand who killed Farsh? We’ll go to the militia, Shen. Colm will make it right. I will help him make it right.”
“That’s what we’re doing, Father,” I told him. “We’re going to the militia to make it right.”
We were not. We were going the other way, across the fields to meet the road some ways away from the village. I looked to Chloe, sitting bound and gagged on our third horse. She glared at me but had ceased struggling against her bonds hours ago.
“What choice do I have here?” I asked her. She mumbled something through the gag around her mouth. “I will not let my father be hung for a crime he did not intend.”
“Someone’s there,” my father said, looking back over his shoulder behind us.
He reached for where his sword should be at the side of his saddle, but I had it on my own so there would be no more accidents. I drew and arrow from the quiver at the other side of my saddle and turned my horse to see who was following. Even across the distance I could tell it was the Hiven nag by her clumsy gait.
“What new hell is this?” I mumbled under my breath.
“Is it the brigands again, boy?” my father asked. “Give me my sword! We’ll have to and make short work of them together!”
“Hush and be still father,” I said to him.
As the horse approached I rode to meet it. Mavia Hiven, bundled in her shawl and wrapped in a scarf.
“Shen!” she shouted as I put my bow away and she rode along side of me. “My father! I couldn’t stop him! He found out!”
“Oh?” I asked her. “What should we do now?”
“He will make you marry me, Shen,” she looked past me to my father and to Chloe. “Is that Chloe Harver? Where are you going Shen?”
“A ride with my father,” I tried to lie. “She is fond of him.”
“My father left to speak with you, Shen. But our horse came back without him. Did he speak to you? What did you tell him?”
“He did not,” I lied. “Perhaps he went to the village and forgot to tie up the horse. Perhaps she wandered back on her own.”
“Perhaps,” she said. Her voice grew more excited as she continued and her eyes sparkled. “What will you tell him, Shen? He knows now. We needn’t wait! We can be wed!”
“Mavia, I do not know how to tell you this,” I said. “I am leaving Marish. My father and I both. We are leaving the village.”
“For how long?” she asked, her voice still eager at the thought of marrying me.
“Forever,” I told her. Her face fell.
“Is this a joke, Shen?” Mavia asked me. “I don’t understand the joke. Good morning to you, Mr. Marth!”
My father had left Chloe on the rise of the hill and rode to join us. He said, “You’re very strong to be chipper on such a sad morning, young lady.”
“Sad? You mean because you’re leaving?” she asked him. “Why are you leaving Marish, Mr. Marth?”
“Oh, we’re not leaving, girl,” my father said. “We are going to the militia about your father.”
“My father? The milita?” Mavia asked. She turned to look at me again. “So he did come see you? What happened, Shen? Did he try to hurt you?”
“Brigands, girl,” my father said to her. “Brigands slew your…”
“Father!” I snapped. “Go back up the hill with Chloe.”
He nodded, smiling to Mavia and turning to ride back up on the rise.
“What’s he talking about Shen?” Mavia asked. That is when I realized she was not bright at all.
“I cannot tell you, Mavia. You must go back to your home now.”
“If you’re leaving I’m coming with you,” she said stubbornly, jutting her chin out.
“What?” I asked. “You cannot come with us, you need to go back to your home.”
“I will not. If you’re leaving the village you’re taking me with you. I’m your woman now, Shen. I should be with my man. My place is at your side.”
“Mavia, there are things…complications…” I sputtered lamely.
“Is it her?” she asked, pointing up at Chloe. I looked over my shoulder to make sure from this distance that I could not see her bonds or the gag. I could not. “Is that the ‘complication’, Shen? Have you chosen Chloe Harver over me?”
I thought as fast as I could and decided no matter what I said no hurt would compare to how she and her family would feel when they found Farsh’s body buried behind out garden. Wolves would dig it up in a day or two and by then we needed to be as far away as possible. No matter what I said it would be eclipsed by that and so I said whatever I needed to make Mavia go away.
“That is correct, Mavia,” I said. Her eyes went sad and her mouth turned down at the corners. “I only bedded you out of drunken lust.”
“That cannot be true!” she shouted. “I could tell by the way you touched me that you care for me! Am I not your first, Shen? Did our night not mean anything to you!?”
“It did not,” I said, feeling like a terrible person but needing to get my father away from his mistake as soon as possible. “Chloe and I are to be wed and we will have a life away from this little village. I care nothing for you.”
As I turned and rode, leaving Mavia crying on her old gray horse, she yelled after me. “I do not believe you Shen Marth! I know you love me!”
“Go home!” I yelled back at her.
We crested the rise and rode for more hours. We joined the road and put still more miles behind us. As nightfall approached we made a camp away from where other may pass in the night and I took Chloe’s gag off that she may eat with us. She was kind to my father and helped him prepare soup from the dried vegetable and meats in our saddlebags, but she glared at me like she would kill me in the night.
“There are brigands about,” my father was saying, spooning hot soup past his lips. “I heard a noise in the woods.”
“It is only an animal, Father,” I said to him. “There haven’t been brigands in these woods for years.”
“Clean your ears then, boy,” he said, putting his bowl down. “And give me back my sword. Danger approaches.”
I heard it then too, the nicker of a horse and the snap of a branch.
“Stay here,” I said to him, drawing my sword and handing him his. I pointed at Chloe. “Watch her.”
I stepped through the woods in the direction the sound had come from. I saw the horse between two trees, and saw the huddled form against the trunk of a pine. “Who’s there!”
“I was trying to stay hidden,” a girl’s voice said.
“I told you to go home!” I shouted. “What are you doing here!?”
Mavia, shivering and shaking in the cold, stood and blew into her hands. “You’re my man now, Shen. I am your woman. I can’t let you leave without me.”
“Blasted hells,” I said under my breath. “By the stars Mavia, you are a troublesome girl!”
“I am not a girl anymore, you saw to that,” she said with a silly smile. “May I come sit by the fire, Shen? If you insist then I will not. But my hands are so cold they are in pain…”
“Come then,” I sighed. “Perhaps the truth will turn you back…”
“The truth?” she asked as she huddled against me for warmth and I led her horse behind us.
“The truth of what happened,” I said. “What happened with your father.”
“What happened with my father?” she asked.
We entered the clearing and my father set his sword in its scabbard to the side and picked up his soup, smiling at Mavia in greeting. Chloe laughed at me, hard and severe, and Mavia looked around at us in confusion.
“Sit,” I said. “Sit and I’ll tell you the story.”
“You tell very good stories, Shen,” she said vapidly. “I am excited for this.”
“I bet you are,” Chloe said. “Your Shen is a wonderful story teller, isn’t he?”
“Please,” I said, rubbing my temples. “Both of you…be still.”
And I told Mavia the story of how her father came to be in our garden, Chloe came to be bound at the wrists, and we came to be in the woods at night on the first day of winter.