The Beauty of Our Women (Part 1 of 2)
She gazes out the window. Something a little bit less than a silhouette. From the ground there is only the shape of her, silver against lace, the dark curve of burgundy hair, the rounding of her shoulder, the loop of her wrist around the curtain. She’s a barely-seen thing, a wisp, an image.
She imagines running like the wind. Hitching up her skirts and tying them so that they bunch around her knees, knotting her hair behind her neck, and just taking off like that, all alone, unfettered, unguarded. Running with all the strength in her, gasping and sweating like no kind of lady, leaving heavy footprints in the mud, snapping twigs in her headlong rush; more twigs snapped off in the forest, scratching her cheeks, snagging themselves in the mess of her hair. Until her soul rises up through her blood and transforms her into a rabbit, bounding along, heading for the horizon. Learning the taste of freedom.
She lets the curtain fall back into place.
The transformation into a rabbit is the least of why that can never be.
He arrives at dusk.
Firenight is the time for homecomings anyway. He’s a few days early, but there’s no surprise, scouts will have seen him and his men a day out from the castle. His mother will have ordered the making of a cream pudding and a haunch of venison, his sisters will be at the windows watching for his arrival. Maybe whispering amongst themselves and choosing from amongst his men the ones they might take a fancy to, might offer a smile or a token, maybe a finger’s brush of affection. More than that, and blood would have to spill.
Neskin reins his horse in as they break over the ridge. Castle Wollenfitch stands dark against a burning sky. The stone that makes it contributes to the darkness, dug red and hot from the plateau and hued into oversized bricks before it cools and is dragged to the walls, mixed with rubble and mortar, with straw and sand and mud, to become the protector of his family.
“Sir,” one the lowlanders rides up to his side.
“You like what you see, Marl?”
“Yes, sir. It’s magnificent.”
“That it is. And you’ll feel it when you walk out onto the deepstone. That area over there is as hot as an oven. It’d burn bare feet if you walked on it.”
Marl looks over at the plateau. It lives up to its reputation, rich with the unusual vegetation that grows above the warm, ashy stone. The stone itself is red – though it darkens, dusks, once it’s dug up and cooled – mixed with crumbling white, and a few sheer, shiny veins of black. Richly volcanic, likely magical; and it breathes an intensity of life into the land.
Into more than the land. Neskin thinks it with pride. And isn’t that the real magnificence these men are longing to see? He warns them: “The women here are free. They’re owned by no-one other than themselves. Any man who tries to take more than he’s offered is going to feel the whip on his back. At the least. And as far as my sisters are concerned…”
“Of course, sir.”
Marl nods, his gesture mimicked amongst the group. “Not so much as an appreciative look, my Lord.”
Neskin smiles. “See to that.”
And so, he rides through the main gate. Triumphant.
The servants come down to see him, the grooms to take away the horses and put them in the care of stable boys, the housemaster to fawn and bow, to move out of the way as Neskin’s mother sweeps into view.
“Oh, son. Oh, at last.” She forsakes the strictest formality for an embrace.
She’s breathtaking. She’s his mother, but he can’t help the noticing. She has hair like ebony, and deep, oversized eyes, a face that’s all ivory and alabaster, skin smooth as silk, her face a perfect, sculpted oval. There is something about her that holds the eye, that captivates and inspires. Should he have included his mother in the warning just given to his men? Men whose backs are the all of them right now, bent so low.
“I told you I would not be late.”
“That you did. Come inside. Come.” She ushers him through the small crowd, her arm in his, and he nods at the men that they might depart now. The castle will be crowded in the days to follow, makeshift barracks have been set up just below the walls to accommodate the excess. He’ll send bread and ale to them tonight, and tomorrow they can dine in the hall amongst great men.
“You are as beautiful as ever,” he tells his mother.
“Yes,” she says softly, “well, we are what we are.”
Marl stows his gear and he walks out into the village. He’s a young man, bred for war, but also for joy. Taught from his earliest days that a long life is not the goal of honourable men. A glorious death in battle would be better – but in the meantime there should be no moment wasted, no pleasure not sought, no experience, and no hesitation to enjoy the finest the world might offer.
Such as Wollenfitch’s women.
Infused with warm earth, incubated there in their mother’s womb. The women born here, conceived here, born of women who already have the earth’s blood. These are said to be the most beautiful anywhere in the world.
He’d be mad not to see for himself.
And yes, maybe to taste. Why not? There can’t be any harm in it; and what a tale to tell.
He walks out amongst fields lying bare but not snow-capped. The warmth of the stone here keeps the snow from settling. The fields crop two or three times a year, even in the hardest winter. Which is far less hard here than elsewhere. These should be the hardy people of a mountain life, but how can they be, when their soil is as soft and forgiving as the lands Marl grew up on?
He follows the lanes to where the wells stand in a line. There are plenty of women here, taking up water. And they’re as fine as he was led to believe. Maybe finer. Marl finds himself a spot on top a long rocky outcrop, telling himself that the women here are accustomed to such scrutiny from strangers, and he sets about watching them at their work. Be honest with yourself: he sets about choosing one he wants as if from a table laid with expensive, finely cooked delicacies.
Neskin sits down to such a table in truth.
There is tender roast pheasant, mutton soaked in a rum sauce, venison, baked giant mushrooms, nutbreads, and stripped fish stuffed inside hollowed out loaves. A cream pudding, with dried plums swimming in the middle, had been prepared in the kitchens with him in mind.
The favourite son.
Neskin admits that. He’s lucky. Beloved more than his brothers, who are more of mud and earth than of the fire that seems to claim him. That’s the way his mother would put it. That he’s more alive than the other two, a brighter, shining, blazing star. “You will blaze shorter,” she’s said to him bluntly, before he was quite fourteen, having a talent for seeing futures, “it’s important that you burn with all your fuel. Do you understand?”
He hadn’t. He doesn’t. But – although he isn’t the heir – he’s the one to be sent out on family business, the one to occupy a place on the battlefield, or on a hunting trip beside the king, or in negotiations with other families over land or over his sisters.
“Lord Othogrith for our Lyditha.”
His sister looks up at that. She’s been looking every way but at him since he’s returned, but he has her attention now. “What do you mean?”
“As a husband. What do you think?”
What does she think? Lyditha thinks about the rabbit, the free beast she will never be. She thinks about the darkened night huts of peasants, and the rugged sport that supposedly goes on in there. She summons her voice up: “Truly? Must it be marriage already?” She looks around at her sisters in hope maybe they can speak for her, can argue her side, see some stratagem she can’t. She sees the smoke of her father’s eyes from across the table.
He says: “Why not? You’re plenty old enough.”
“Shutha’s not married yet.” She speaks suddenly, regretting it the moment she speaks, because she’s throwing her sister to the sharks. Shutha, the most delicate of them. The gentlest soul.
Her father’s voice contains warning: “You will all serve your family in marriage.”
And she can only bow her head, only murmur: “Yes, father.”
While Neskin shakes his head. He understands, in a way. And yet… what else should a noble girl’s life come to? It’s natural to be a little bit afraid. He was afraid his first battle. This is something like the same. And he says, to comfort her: “It’s all right, I’ve met this prospective husband, and he’s nothing to be sneezed at. Do you really imagine I would permit you to go to someone horrendous?”
Yes and no. There are factors rating higher than her happiness. She looks Neskin in the eye: Let him read what he wants to read there. “No, of course. You wouldn’t be cruel.” Chew on that for a bit brother, give it some thought.
“Well, do you not want to hear about him?”
“I met him, once. Maybe you recall.”
“And you thought?”
“He was a grown-up. I was eight when this meeting occurred. So, what I thought was that he’s nearly a grown man. He was starting to grow a beard on his chin. I suppose it must be grown full and bushy by now.”
He ignores the barbs. “The man keeps it trimmed. But his beard is healthy and thick. He’s twenty-five now, and the beard becomes him. He’s the second son, but he holds two estates in his own name now, and will hold more when he inherits. They’re south coast manors, picturesque. He’s plenty handsome, he’s vigorous, he’s fine in the saddle, and good with a sword.”
“But-” her voice is a whisper.
“Personable. Generous. He laughs like a bear.”
“I’m sure he sounds very pleasant.”
“Oh come, Lyddy. He is. He’s an easy man to talk to; and you’d be his first wife. Some girls find themselves in the hands of greasy fifty-year-old men with two wives already dead behind them. This is good news.”
Her face betrays her doubts. Her voice is crystal, small, perfected: “Thank you for arranging it then. Will he be here, Firenight?”
“No. He and his brother have a matter to settle on the Drecsharni border. It’s nothing, but well, needs must… You’ll see him soon though. I’ll make arrangements.”
His father nods. “Yes. Indeed.” And there’s approval there. It seems to Neskin that such approval comes easily. At least from his parents. He sees a different look in his sisters’ eyes.
“May I go?” Lyditha asks.
Her mother permits her. She glances at Neskin. She’s still a girl, isn’t she?
He says: “There’ll be men coming for the feast, of course. I neglected to keep a list, but I should say at least a dozen noblemen will find their way here, which means a good couple of hundred bodies to accommodate. Are we well placed?”
His mother perfects a withering glance: “Are we ever not?”
Marl selects a woman from amongst those who come to the well tonight. She’s one who comes quite late, when the full weight of the night has almost fallen. He’s attracted to her by the way her skin reminds him of the earth itself, all tinged with reds and rich browns, while her hair is nearly a match for it, and her eyes are a burnt, burnished blue, and her limbs fluid as she walks the hill with her bottles harnessed to her back.
And, of course, she is beautiful.
He doesn’t want to frighten her, so he walks down in plain view, his fingers looped into his belt. He’s aware of his overly flattened chin, and the harshness of war-beaten complexion, of that scar on his lip, and the pallid hue to his skin. He has nothing about himself that seems to offer up an inducement.
She knows, of course.
He reaches his hand out. “Marl. I came in with Sir Neskin.”
“He’s back then?”
“Yes. In readiness, as it were.”
“Oh. Well, he always is. His mother’ll take it well.”
His hand lingers. “And you…?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she reaches to let his fingers touch hers. “I’m Ekitha.”
“Pleasure,” he intones, not much above a whisper. But it’s of little good to him if the pleasure is all his.
Lyditha sits in the courtyard, sewing along with Shutha and Tamlial. That’s where Neskin finds her. She’s bent over her work, and her shoulders form a smooth curve; her reddish, very dark hair flows out from beneath a yellow bonnet, and her fingers move with a flickering grace. Her head shoots up when she sees him.
“Lyddy.” He’s not really sure how to begin.
She glances at the other two.
“Garden,” Shutha says to Tamlial.
She wants to overhear, but Shutha’s hand in hers is not permitting. The eldest casts a glance over the second; it’s full of sympathy. A huge subtext of understanding exists between them – something he could never share.
Lyditha races up to him.
Neskin catches her in a careful embrace. He steps back from her a moment to take in how she’s grown and blossomed.
Her eyes right now are challenging. “Lord Othogrith.”
“He’s a good man, Lyddy.”
“Well, yes, but he’s a man.”
“Did you think you were going to marry an elephant?”
She seizes his collar: “Neskin, listen. I know what my duty is. I do. But men… they’re so… they can be so rough.”
“He won’t be.”
“Oh, he won’t mean it. I’m sure he won’t mean it.”
He should embrace her, wrap his arms around her shoulders, his palm against her cheek. There, there. He should remember that she is young still, more sheltered than other girls, more cut off from the world’s sharp edges. His sister most of all.
“Can’t there be an engagement? Some time… for him to be sure.”
“That’s for Father to say.”
“He might change his mind… He might die by some chance accident or fever…” Her eyes well up with tears.
Neskin, at a loss, strokes her hair. He pulls her in close and feel the warmth of her, and the tremble of her heartbeat. A prize beyond reckoning. A weapon of sorts. He doesn’t even mean to murmur this out loud: “We must all grow up sometime,” but he feels her stiffen against him as he speaks.
It’s one thing to choose, another thing to make that choice a reality. Ekitha may only be a common woman, but she is free, as his lord has said – she can choose or not choose a dalliance with some soldier boy riding into town and riding out again. He takes stock of what he has to lay at a woman’s feet: his martial prowess, his crooked smile, a small purse of silver, his scars. It seems very rough-hewn and lean against her beauty.
Marl takes a walk through the sudden market that has popped up since their arrival last night. The common has filled up with tents and awnings, with rugs spread over lumpy grass. Wares are spread out all over this hillside, a blaze of colours. Some of them are clearly setting their sights on the wealthy, offering elaborate jewels and fine silks and velvets. Pets and liquors to tempt the highborn.
Marl settles instead for fresh flowers. The likes of what maybe she could pick in the woods of her own volition – but there’s something in the mix of pinks and whites and pale, ethereal golds that draws his eye in.
And he waits for her along the road, not going directly to her doorstep as he could have. The implication is of courtship, not of paid services.
He encounters her against a backdrop of setting sun. Her hair is a glorious fire, and her flesh is gilded. It takes his breath away, and he has to concentrate not to stammer as he offers the bouquet.
“Thank you. There’s no need though.”
“There is. I want you to know-”
She touches his lip with her index finger. “Oh, I know. I have lived long enough.”
“The very opposite. That you mean something.”
She could have quizzed him. Called him out on what is and isn’t a lie. He who knows nothing about her and is enthralled only in the touch of her eyes, in the sway of her hips, and the fall of her hair. Instead she smiles, she takes the flowers. “You know, I suppose, that I live this way.”
“In a cottage in a dip, where a pair of bent pine trees grow, over a blue and white flower that exists nowhere else.”
She reaches a hand out to lead him.
He shakes his head. “I’ll see you again.”
She looks at him as if to say, yes, I know this game. This chase. Play it if you will. Though we both know where we’ll end.
But why? he wonders, walking back to the barracks; he knows well enough why he plays, why half the men-at-arms to come here will play, but you my lady, why do you want to play with us?
Picture Credit/Discredit: author's own work
Shameless marketing ploy: for more set in this world, check out my self-published novel on Amazon: The Price of Blood: Book One of the Golwerra Stories.