Rain fell all night and into the morning. Wearing the oilskin Tanuvia had loaned him, Gem walked swiftly into Ruski before dawn.
For once, Tanuvia didn’t have work in the vegetable plots. She spent the day inside cleaning the cottage. Around noon, the inevitable happened. The thatched roof, in need of repair, now thoroughly soaked, leaked onto their dining table. Pails came out, with which rain played percussion, pinging, splishing and plopping.
I’d expected Gem to remain in Ruski, but he walked to the farm in the rain and showed up in muddy boots, dripping on the freshly mopped floor.
“Curly,” he crooned, pleased at her obvious delight to see him. Then he noticed the pails on the table and peered up into the rafters and the soaked thatch. “Hmm.”
Tanuvia stood with her fists on her hips and teased him. “That’s helpful, Gem.”
He chuckled while stripping off the oilskin, shedding more water. Tanuvia yelped, rushed to take the cape, and shook it over the tin-legged sink.
“Sorry, Curly. The house looks nice. I’ll clean the mud.”
“Ai, you will!”
Though he’d worked all day on a sparling boat, hauling net in the rain, then walked over an hour in the mud two ways, Gem willingly mopped. He cleaned his muddy boots and dried the floor until they could walk across in stockinged feet.
While Gem worked and Bragi rolled back and forth preparing supper, Tanuvia rocked with a cup of mint tea, watching the men at their chores. Because the table held rain pails, they sat around the hearth to eat while Gem gazed at Tanuvia with pale eyes, eyes of dew, liquid and cool.
Watching and listening from a rafter, I wondered if any of Tanuvia’s careless swains had ever elicited such a blush. She couldn’t meet Gem’s liquid glances, significantly altered overnight. Had the kiss done this to him? Wakened these storms? She briefly met a look then flicked her eyes away. A moment later, drawn again, she’d sip, perhaps forbidding herself the intoxication of too deep a draught.
Appearing sage while hiding a smile in his shaggy beard, Bragi watched sidelong as Gem courted Tanuvia with his dark-lashed eyes.
After dishes were put away, Bragi revealed the mare he’d finished. He’d sanded her smooth and oiled the wood until the “toy” gleamed. Carved of cedar, the mare’s glossy coat swirled with bands of sorrel and blonde, a work of art in any realm.
Gem and Tanuvia were properly impressed, and I flew down from a beam to express my appreciation for his skill. Satisfied with himself and his mare, Bragi retired behind his closed door, leaving the budding lovers alone. Gem added another log to the hearth fire against the damp and chill brought by the rain.
“When this lets up, I can repair your thatch.” He pulled a chair close to Tanuvia’s rocker.
“You’d fall right through, you big bear! I always do the thatching, and I can do it this year.”
“At least let me help on my free day.”
“I have to go to Ruski to purchase thatch. You can help me unload the bundles and lift them to the roof.”
Then they fell silent because Gem had gazed into Tanuvia’s eyes. The fire cracked and popped but neither flinched. I supposed they were speaking as stones do in silence because Gem’s hand crept to hers resting on the rocker’s arm, and they twined their fingers together, his like a bear’s and hers like a bird’s.
“Curly…last night…before the rain…”
“Ai?” She rocked gently.
“Everything changed. All the dread since I’ve known my Da was gone, all my own fears, gone, healed. I felt like a man for the first time in my life.”
She smiled. “Do you want to kiss me again?”
“I want to kiss you the rest of my life, and never stop. Is that selfish and greedy?”
“Not if I feel the same way.”
“I’m not sure. Kiss me again so I can decide.”
Exasperated, he cried out softly, “Curly!”
“Ssh, just kiss me, Gem.”
The first time, Tanuvia had kissed him. This time, Gem leaned forward, stopped her rocking, and kissed her. She cupped the back of his head, and he laid his heavy paw on her shoulder. When he sat back, clearly kindled, his breath came heavily. He dropped his eyes and muttered a strangled apology while hiding his face in his hands.
“Gem, why are you sorry?”
“Curly, I shouldn’t!”
“But I asked you to kiss me.”
“Not that,” he muttered. “It’s how I feel now.”
She laid her hand on his shoulder. “Did you think it would never come to that?”
“I did. Just not so soon.”
“I wasn’t afraid. Were you?”
He dropped his hands. “I wasn’t! And you were not?”
“Not at all. For a moment, it seemed like there was no one else in the world but us, and everything was just as perfect as I’ve dreamed.”
“That’s how it felt!”
“Well, I’ve decided if you’re interested in knowing.”
“Mhm. Didn’t you kiss me so I could decide if I wanted you to never stop?”
“I’ve decided I could do this the rest of my life…if you’re willing.”
“Oh, Curly. I’m willing. So willing.”
“Then I should ask you properly.”
“Properly?” Gem seemed to have lost his mind. So addled, he scarcely followed the conversation.
Tanuvia giggled, and Gem’s mouth gaped. “Curly, you laughed.”
“I used to do that a lot as a girl.”
“Shush. You’re distracting me. I have something I need to say.” She paused and licked her lips to formally speak. “Gem, I accept you as my consort and promise to love you through every sorrow and joy. I will comfort, tend, protect, and shelter you all the days of my life. I promise to honor your divinity in seed and soul. In the spirit of goddess and god, I swear. Will you share my life and love? Will you be my consort?
“Curly!” Gem slid from his chair to kneel beside the rocker. “Tanuvia, I accept your offer and vow. I promise to share your joys and burden and to honor your divinity with my seed and soul. Before goddess and god, I swear my love and life as your consort.”
It seemed premature to me. Tanuvia still could not sleep in a room with the window open, and Gem had no more experience bedding a woman than most boys of ten and was burdened with demons he’d not fully disclosed to his new consort. How did they expect to mate and have children? They thought two kisses had somehow healed all their fears and prepared them to share their lives as man and woman. I wondered if Bragi had dreamed, when he went to his room that night, that he’d wake to a bonded couple.
“Gem,” she began quietly. “We cannot sleep together tonight.”
“I know.” He hung his head. “I’ll work on a bed tomorrow.”
“But the boat…”
“Can wait. We’ll ask Muninn to take a message to Aetref.”
“About the boat…”
I hadn’t understand this last exchange in the least. What was the reason they wouldn’t share a bed? He raised his eyebrows expectantly, hanging on what she might say about the boat.
“I want you here. Not just at supper or at night, but all the time. It’s time you added your labor to mine and Da’s.”
Goodfolk women were head of households. Lineage was determined through the mother’s line, which was, biologically, the sensible approach. If Bragi had been any other relation than her father, land and cottage would have belonged solely to Tanuvia through her mother. When he was gone, the farm was hers alone to be passed to a daughter. None of this prepared me for the decision Tanuvia made or the ease with which Gem accepted it.
“Alright, Curly. I should work out the span to give the captain time to find a new hand, then I’m all yours.”
She smiled and placed her hand over his on the arm of the rocker. “And about the coin you say you need…I still don’t know the reason, but we’ll make it up with your work here. We’ll break ground for a new garden plot.”
“You’ve thought about this a lot, haven’t you?”
“All the time, Gem. You haven’t made it easy with your secrets, but I’m going to do right by you.”
“Thank you, Curly. I’ll start early in the morning on the bed. I may need to take the wagon to Ruski if I can’t find what I need in the barn.”
She clicked her tongue. “You should have been checking the supplies in the barn. What? Did you think I’d never ask you? Silly goose!”
“Oh, Curly! I didn’t think so far! All I thought was how to kiss you!”
She tsked again, and stroked his hair back smooth from his forehead. “If you go to Ruski, you might as well purchase the thatch while you’re there. I’ll give you coin.”
“If I go. If not, I’ll work on the bed.”
The bed? Evidently, the bed they’d share as consorts, more than a piece of furniture, something to do with their bonding. I assumed I’d learn more.
Inside the front door, Tanuvia looked up at her new consort, and he looked down, his pale eyes liquid with love. She placed her hand lightly on his forearm. “Goodnight, Gem.”
“Curly, I…” He dropped his chin.
“I know.” She nudged him toward the rainy night beyond the door, sending him to sleep in the loft. As he left, he plodded with hunched shoulders under the oilskin, more despondent than I’d ever seen the hearty lad.
Perplexed by their rapidly shifting relationship, I followed to speak with him. He went straight to his blanket and curled up in his clothes to sleep.
I cawed from the loft railing. What is the bed for?
“What?” He rolled and sat to talk in the dark.
The bed. Why is it important?
“A couple needs a place to sleep, don’t they?”
You couldn’t share Tanuvia’s bed? It’s not that small.
“That’s her bed.”
And she can’t share it with you?
“That wouldn’t be right.”
Maybe you’re unaware how new I am to the Commonweal. In what way is it not right?
“I’d look like a slattern.”
“A man a woman beds without vows, Muninn. Have you learned nothing about Goodfolk at all?”
But you shared vows. I was witness. How does the bed change that?
“A man must come humbly, Muninn. Surely you’ve learned that. The bed is an offering. If a woman accepts, she joins him in the bed. They can start their new life in the same fashion they’ll live together. If I joined Curly in her bed, she brings me there—a slattern. No one would think twice if she kicked me out just as easily. Even our children wouldn’t be bound to me. Clear enough?”
No, but I’ll work on it. Goodnight, Gem. Best wishes upon your consortship.
“Thank you, Muninn. Can you get back into the house?”
Tanuvia leaves the kitchen window ajar.