Fantasy · Fiction · Novel · Serial

Chapter 16: War in the North

Sitting in Bragi’s bed, Gem put his arm around the older man’s shoulders. They rested in silence as dawn lit the room with peony light.

“Is she going to kill him?” Bragi asked.

“That’s what she said. Are you hungry?”

Gem left to heat water and returned later with porridge piled with peaches, raisins, honey, and milk. They shared breakfast.

“I need to milk the cow if I remember right,” Gem said.

“You’ll hear her lowing. She hates it when she’s not milked and turned out. She lowed a long time yesterday morning. I—” Bragi dropped his spoon into his porridge. His face twisted in anguish. “That’s when it happened! I couldn’t understand why Bumble was going on and on. I knew Tanuvia took the pail. Bumble wouldn’t shut up. That man raped Tanuvia in the dirt!”

“Bragi!” Gem shoved his bowl aside and reached. As strong as Bragi was, his paralysis and his love for his daughter made him vulnerable.

Gem said exactly what Bragi needed to hear. “She’s alive. We’re going to take care of her. We won’t let anyone hurt her ever again.”

He looked expectantly at the bearded man’s face, and Bragi drew a deep, shivering breath.

“That’s better. Now, we eat porridge, and then we have a wash,” Gem said.

 Bragi was numb with pain, his heart broken. “Ai. Eat our porridge.”

When they finished, Gem cleared away bowls and returned with pail and soap, which Bragi eyed warily.

“What are you doing?”

“Tanuvia said you need a bath. I’m going to bathe you,” Gem said.

“Nai.” Bragi shook his head.

“Sir, you’re in no position to argue. This will happen.”

Gem set his supplies by Bragi’s chair, advanced on the man, and grabbed. Though Bragi was as strong as a blacksmith above the waist, his dangling legs were unwieldy, and Gem had the advantage. He tossed the man from the bed to the chair, stripped his trousers, and strong-armed him out of his shirt. Fairly and manfully beaten in the wrestling match, Bragi never had a chance to be humiliated. Gem worked briskly with soap and talked companionably about daily chores.

“You churn the milk?”

“Every morning,” Bragi said.

“You’ve got the shoulders for it.” Gem said. He rinsed the man’s back.

Bragi smiled. Naked in his chair, his emaciated legs exposed and shimmering with a fresh wash, he was at ease, probably for the first time in years while he bathed. “I do what I can for Tanuvia. She works hard.”

“It’s plain you’re capable of hard work.” Gem guided a pair of clean smalls onto Bragi’s legs. “Seems you could do more if you could get out of this room.”

“Don’t know how. At least, not easily. I can get myself between bed and chair, but more isn’t worth the trouble. If I hurt my legs, I can’t feel it. I could bleed to death and not know it was happening.”

“Hm. I see the problem.” Gem rolled a pant leg to fit over Bragi’s foot. “What about wheels? A rocking chair, but with wheels instead of rockers. You could push with your arms. You’re strong enough.”

Gem hooked his elbow under Bragi’s arm, and the older man grabbed Gem’s shoulder. Together, they lifted, and Gem pulled Bragi’s trousers on without a hitch. Bragi incurred no shame in leaning on Gem as he did on his daughter, to whom he was a burden she could not lift.

“It’s an idea. But someone would have to design and execute it.”

“I’ve got the idea. If I had tools and materials, I could tinker.” He grinned broadly as he handed Bragi his shirt. “My Mam’s a carpenter. I learned watching her.”

Bragi, clean and well-fed, buttoned his shirt. “A carpenter! That’s a good trade. I’m surprised you didn’t take it up.”

“My sister was the one who liked it. She would have inherited Mam’s tools. I liked the sheep.”

“Your sister?”

“Aetref’s consort.”

Bragi let his confusion show, and Gem sat on the edge of the bed. “She left him, us. We don’t know where she is. It’s not as terrible as it seems. It is, but she had her reasons. She was fighting a war. Up north, where we’re from, things are different. There’s trouble no one knows about in the south. When Maven left—Maven’s my sister—Aetref and I tried to live in my old home in Shepton, but he couldn’t. Everything in our house reminded him of Maven. So we came south.”

“I’m sorry, Gem. It sounds like you’ve lived through hardship.”

“It’s been hard, but things are better here in the south.”

“Better? Tanuvia said you and Aetref weren’t doing so well.”

“Our house? Well, we’re on the boat all day and bone-tired when we stagger in at night. We usually eat fish off the boat. At least, down here, we’re safe. For a while, I didn’t think Aetref would stop running from the memories, but I think he feels far enough away now.”

“What about your folks?”

“I never knew my father. He was taken in that war after I was born. I don’t know where Mam is, but probably still fighting that war same as Maven. They could be dead, but there’s no way to know, not without going back, and that’s something we can’t do.”

“You poor men,” said Tanuvia. Both men turned toward the door in surprise. I cawed.

Absorbed in Gem’s story, I’d ceased to pay attention to the readings from her room. Shaky on her legs, Tanuvia clutched the doorjamb with both hands.

Bragi raised his hand, and she staggered toward him. “Da, you look good.”

“You don’t, Tanuvia. You should be in bed. Your head’s still bleeding.”

“Head wounds do that,” Gem said. “I’ll put a fresh bandage on so it doesn’t stain your bed.”

“Gem. I’m alright.”

“Nai, you’re not. You’re like your Da. Stubborn. Let me help you to your room and tend your wound. Will you?”

“Go on, daughter. Let the young man lend his strength. That’s what he’s good for,” Bragi said.

She leaned on Gem’s arm back to her room and sat quietly on her bed. Gem unwound the long linen strip stained with blood, washed the cut, and tried to staunch the fresh bleeding with a folded, linen pad.

“Here. Hold this. I saw a styptic in your cupboard.”

He lifted her hand to the cloth and pressed, then hurried out to find the herb he wanted. She was on her side when he came back, asleep. He swung her legs onto the bed, secured the pad while she slept, and crept out, leaving her to heal.

With the copper milking pail in hand, Gem stuck his head in Bragi’s door. “I’m off to do chores. Ring that bell if you need me. I’ll bring the milk to churn soon, and we’ll think about that rolling chair.”

“Ai!” Bragi raised his eyebrows. If Tanuvia had mentioned the bell, he would have chastised her. Not a mutter against Gem. I had the fancy Bragi might even ring the bell if he needed something. That’s how thoroughly Gem had won him over. I wasn’t sure who liked the young man more, Bragi or Tanuvia.

I, on the other hand, still harbored doubts. There was no war in the north, at least what I defined as war between armies with weapons and organized conflict. I’d heard rumors of violence with a sub-race of Goodfolk called Calderans, but these battles were restricted to a single city and were of limited duration, no more than a span. It could not account for Gem’s story that his father had been “taken” fifteen years ago or that his mother and sister had been at war for years. As before, the numbers didn’t add up. The brothers didn’t add up. I didn’t suspect Gem of lying; his unconscious body language, heart rate, and blood pressure were too regular. He’d told Bragi the truth as he saw it, but it couldn’t be the whole truth, not unless I threw out my entire database on the Goodfolk as false.

Continue Reading, Chapter 17

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