The second day after the arrival of Yuwen Blue-Eyes dawns cold and clear, with a blanket of snow on earth and eaves and a deep blue sky that stretches for miles beyond the tops of the pines. As is his wont, Thorvald has gone with first light to cut wood in the forest above his home, leaving his strange guest in the care of his wife Gritta and of Sora, her slave.
When Gritta was told that Yuwen would not be leaving in the morning, her face had shown a mixture of confusion and subdued pleasure, for the man was surely charming company. When she was told that Thorvald would be helping the stranger ambush the armed Lakelander who was following him, her confusion had become silent worry. Today, with Thorvald away and no pursuer in sight, that worry is shading towards ill-concealed annoyance.
Yuwen, too, seems ill at ease. Waiting does not suit him. He lounges now by the morning fire, playing absently with the embroidery around the collar of his green tunic, watching as Gritta and Sora clear away the bowls emptied of breakfast stew. Every now and then he goes to the door, cracks it and peers out over the snow; then he returns to his place and flops down again.
Silence lengthens between the three in the little house.
As last, while handing bowls to Sora for washing, the matron Gritta remarks, “Another quiet day.”
To which the stranger, after eyeing his host, returns a sardonic, “Indeed, madam. May they continue so. No man of action I.”
“So my husband says,” Gritta answers. Guest and hostess smile briefly and thinly at one another.
Sora has had her own worry to cultivate, hand in hand with those that come with the dawn. Beyond the practical matter that she has agreed to help their charming guest with this dangerous matter, and beyond the temper of her mistress, there is the troubling matter of her belly. She was certain it was flat when she lay down to sleep yesterday and now it curves out from its former smooth concave, giving every indication that she is some weeks gone with child.
Again and again her mind returns to the previous night, not to the pleasure Yuwen had given her but to that cool tingling felt when he’d spent inside of her. At the time she’d taken it for imagining.
For once, she was grateful for the thin and shapeless fall of her shift. It concealed that bump from Gritta’s sharp eyes. But it did not erase it from her awareness, and as she rocks from knees to heels to rise, bowls stacked in her hands, she feels it again.
A definite curve, a slight shift in her body’s center of gravity.
As she squats beside the bucket of water in which she’ll wash the dishes, her eyes dart from man to woman. Yuwen was involved and so Yuwen she must question– but not in front of Gritta. How, then, to separate her mistress from the two of them so they might speak?
“…shall I bring you some hot stones for your feet and back, mistress?” Sora asks over the splash of water, the bowls dunked and rinsed vigorously. Worried as she is, it’s an effort to maintain her usual calm, quiet tones. “I will tend to the chores, I know the cold bothers.”
Yuwen, being the person she is most focused on in the moment, she ignores entirely.
The stranger crosses one boot over the other, legs outstretched on the furs in front of him. He regards Sora at her washing with idle interest.
Gritta stands from her place by the fire and presses her palms against the base of her spine. With a groan, she bends her squat body backward, eyes closing briefly.
“Mm. I am bothered,” she says. The stranger gets a glance, and then she swings her attention round to Sora. “Weather and old bones. Fetch the stones, girl.”
Yuwen smirks at the matron’s glance, but says nothing. His fingers run over the stitching at his collar, back and forth. The embroidery is a stylized representation of two wolves, their open mouths meeting below the man’s throat.
The girl studiously avoid Yuwen’s study. When Gritta assents, she ducks her head forward to mark obedience and continues with the bowls, hurrying through their washing until the woman has ambled off to take to her furs.
Only then does she rise and cast a return glance at the man. She says nothing but she passes her damp hand down over her shift, as if to dry it. The gesture pulls the fabric briefly taut over the swelling there while her eyes bore into him.
Accusation shows in those diamond-bright depths, and confusion and hurt as well.
Then Sora turns to fetch the rocks to place them in the coals at hearth’s edge. She swallows past the thickness in her throat as she silently works.
Yuwen’s gaze goes to that subtle rondure of belly, then lifts again to meet Sora’s. He raises one pale eyebrow, half curiosity and half challenge; secrets gather at the corner of his mouth when he smiles at her. His eyes dance like sunlight over the waves.
“Madam,” he says to the matron now carefully lowering herself onto her furs, “Rest you now your old bones. I’m thirsty; Sora and I will go for fresh water from the well.” He pauses, then adds, “I trust you won’t miss me too much.”
“I’ll try not to, sir,” Gritta says over her shoulder, on her side with her back presented to the man.
Yuwen grins, then leans forward and stands. “Be quick with those stones, girl,” he says to Sora, in the tone reserved for servants and slaves. “Then fetch your bucket and before me to the well.”
He goes to the door, cracks it on a wedge of blue sky and brilliant white snow. His smile lingers as he watches Sora, waiting for her to precede him outside.
Sora isn’t sure what she had thought to find in Yuwen’s expression but to see even a hint of potential amusement is acid in her stomach. While she silently lauds the man for his cleverness in finding a plausible excuse to slip away, she also finds herself fretting– as she carefully lugs the heated rocks over to Gritta’s furs– dreading what he might say.
What if he said it was Thorvald’s?
So it is with head bowed that she returns, having packed the stones around her mistress and fetched her thin cloak, and the bucket needed to draw up icy water for drinking.
She doesn’t look at him as she slips by him but neither is she silent, at least once the door is shut behind them.
“It isn’t the master’s,” she blurts in a whisper, almost immediately regretting the words as soon as she says them. “I know it’s yours. I know something happened last night so don’t… don’t laugh at me for knowing. But I do.”
Yuwen neglects to fetch his cloak before following close on the slave girl’s heels. As the cottage door bangs shut behind them, he slips an arm around Sora’s shoulders and tugs her against his side. His lean body seems to radiate a bear’s heat; it beats back the chill of the day.
“Of course it isn’t Thorvald’s,” he says, close to Sora’s ear, as he crunches through the snow towards the well. With his arm around her, he forces the girl to walk fetched up beside him. “Something did happen last night, and I dare say you enjoyed it, Sora. And if there are consequences…?”
Suddenly he barks a laugh.
“Consequences. Well, but what has changed?” His lips brush Sora’s earlobe, as warm as the hearth stones she’s just placed around her mistress. “Soon we’ll be gone from this place, you and I, and who’s to care then about the size of your belly? Just you do your part, as we’ve agreed. I’ll see to the rest.”
The heat is welcome even if Sora isn’t sure how to feel about his arm about her shoulder. It isn’t just the lash of cold that brings roses to her cheeks, nor his reflected heat that suffuses that color with warmth. This comes because he’s right, his remark bringing memories that would threaten to sweep away all– the day, Gritta, the bang of the bucket against her knees where she holds it before her. But…
“That isn’t what I’m talking about. It’s unnatural. I look… three, four months gone. How can that be?”
The girl cranes her head to seek a glimpse of Yuwen’s profile, his expression. Her own is troubled with a fear unsoothed by the caress of his lips. His laughter sees to that.
“How can I travel with a child coming?” And then a thought occurs to her. “Is it a child? Is it… what did you do? What magic?”
There. She says the word and this time doesn’t regret it. “What magic do you do, Yuwen Blue-Eyes? To make a man do as you bid and to make a baby grow in hours?”
“Magic,” the stranger scoffs. He dismisses the idea with a sidelong glance at Sora. Yuwen stares ahead, then glances back at Sora– less assuredly this time– and finally leans close to her ear.
“Say it is magic,” he murmurs. “Magic that compels your master to give me welcome, and to aid me against my enemy– and that will win you your freedom. Magic that quickens the offspring of our union.” Yuwen’s free hand sneaks under the slave girl’s cloak to brush the place where her belly subtly swells.
“Is such… magic, a thing to fear?” The stranger’s half-whisper breaks with the absurdity of such an objection. “Freedom and fruition for us, Sora, and confusion to our enemies. I do only what I must. And soon–” his palm cups and pats the girl’s stomach– “soon you will do what you must.”
For a moment it is all that Sora can do, to stare at him. Not a thing to fear? A growing babe overnight, and the power to make a grown warrior do as he was bid?
“If it isn’t to be feared, what is?” She asks him and in that question is all of her confusion, her bald ignorance and the anxiety that comes with knowing one’s self to be so. She looses one hand from the handle of the bucket and slips it beneath her thin cloak, first resting those icy fingers over the glowing heat of his hand– and then sliding them beneath, as if she could serve as barrier between whatever grew inside of her and the unknown.
Her face twists, almond eyes growing narrower still. “I didn’t want a child. I wanted to see my home, before I forget all of it.”
A child’s lament but she feels as if she were in the middle of deep waters, casting about for anything to cling to.
“And you will!” Yuwen assures her, with a smile that is no less chilling for being so beautiful. At the intercession of her hand, he gives the girl’s fingers a squeeze and lets his own fall away. “Sora, in a week of days this will all be a memory. A strange dream.”
The man casts a glance behind him, to be sure that the cottage door remains closed. He steers Sora’s steps through the new-fallen snow, towards Thorvald’s well.
“Then it will be you and I, together on the Grass Sea, loving as we will. No masters, no huntsmen. No worries for you and I.” Yuwen’s cobalt eyes look into the middle distance, as if he can see there the life of joy and adventure he’s sketched out for her. “This power you fear will make our beds of the finest stuffs, and hand us our meals of whatever we care to eat. It frightens you because it is new and strange only.”
The truth in that was evident and Sora tucks her chin low against her throat under the weight of it. But something else that he has said nags at her. Through the fringe of her lashes, with her own dark eyes, she studies what she can see of his face through the jarring of her guided steps.
“There are always worries,” she points out to him, striving to sound most reasonable. “It is never all just full bellies and good cloth against the skin.”
And there was the matter of the swell beneath her fingers, which she strokes beneath her cloak. As if the gesture might help soothe her fears. “If this is a child,” she adds, “and not some… unnatural thing,” and from her tone it was evident she was still uncertain as to that point, “there will be plenty of worries.”
She finally steps free of his arm– and his heat– when the well is reached. The bucket hefted, she fixes it to the rope and tosses it down into the cold dark where its arrival is greeted with a splash. “Have you meddled with my mind, my thoughts?”
When the girl frees herself, Yuwen looks after her for a moment, then goes to the edge of the well beside her. He leans forward with his palms on the stone lip and peers down into the darkness, as if curious about the bucket’s fate. His golden braids sway over the brink.
“Full bellies, good cloth.. for us, anything the land affords,” Yuwen promises her. “Perhaps a scrape here or there, with the odd ignorant Jarl–” the stranger glances at Sora and winks– “but nothing we won’t be able to handle.”
Of the child, Yuwen says nothing.
“It’s a hard question,” he muses at last, returning his attention to Sora’s work. “Your beauty meddled with my mind, my thoughts, from the moment you brought me mead.” He offers a sidelong smile, continues, “I think my story–” his voice softens– “and my lips on your throat, meddled with yours. That is how men and women meddle with each other.”
“But if you speak of ‘magic’… no. Your thoughts are your own.”
Thus far, at any rate.
It is a hard business drawing the bucket up again. It feels ice-weighted and makes her shoulders and palms burn, to haul it back up to the well’s lip. But Sora is practiced at this and it calms her to be in motion, to be doing something. Even a small thing.
With her breath puffing into steamy lace before her face, she says, “You seem to find many scrapes. The Jarl, the chief’s wife. Two you’ve told which means others you haven’t.”
It is the activity, hard, uncomfortable, that seems to return her wits and she casts the man another glance, this time not trying to hide it. The way she purses her lips, it’s an expression copied entirely from Gritta, who she’s watched from the time she was small. It is only slightly ruined by her being short of breath as she leans the heavy bucket against the stone edge of the well.
She wraps her hands in her cloak to protect it from icy splashing as she seizes the handle again. It doesn’t occur to her to ask their guest to do this service, stronger though he is.
“Your meddling is sweet, yes. That sort. But traveling with a swollen belly is hard. I don’t like this spell. And the mistress, when she sees, will think I’ve made eyes at her husband. A few days time is too much.”
Sora pauses and puffs out another breath. The look she gives him is plaintive. “Can you take it back?”
“Leave your mistress to me,” Yuwen says. “Thorvald is glad of my company, and Gritta will be as well. Come what may.” His blue eyes flick to the girl’s belly beneath her cloak, then back up to meet her eyes. He smiles to reassure her. “Now, I can’t take it back–
Stepping between Sora and the bitter wind, Yuwen stands before her and gently places his palm against her belly. The warmth of his hand radiates through cloak and cloth, tingling across her skin. “Even if I wanted such a thing,” he murmurs. “To unmake our joy’s fruit. But no. Power comes at a price, Sora, and this–” his fingertips curl and caress the swell– “is the price we must pay.”
“For love. For plenty. For freedom.” The man’s eyes are bright on hers as he speaks. “Would you go back now that this future lies open before you? Would you drudge the rest of your days for this woodcutter and his squab of a wife?”
Those words spill so easily from his lips but Sora doesn’t feel answering warmth in her heart. Instead, as his palm tingles against her unnatural belly, she lowers her chin. It’s a habitual gesture, so often used with Gritta to hide her own thoughts. With downcast eyes, she seems the perfect modest slavegirl.
The mistress takes it as submission. She can only hope that Yuwen will as well.
“I want to be free,” the girl murmurs, and that has the benefit of truth.
She adjusts the weight of the bucket in her hands, glad that it keeps them occupied. It provides an excuse as well, to be back inside the cabin, to be out from under the man’s hand. “We should go back. The mistress will wonder where we are. I should check on her.”
“And you will be,” Yuwen promises her. “Soon, Sora.” He smiles again, then lets his touch trail away down the slave girl’s forearm. Those deft fingers never reach the weight of the water bucket, however. Instead he walks backwards a few paces and turns, beckoning Sora to follow him.
“My pursuer cannot be far,” the man says as he walks, as blithely as if they were discussing the weather or the yield of the year’s crop. “But deal with that man, and we’ll have no further use for Thorvald and his hovel. Man and squab will wave us a smiling farewell and off we will be to better things. All unpleasantness past, and all we might wish before us.”
He speaks but Sora’s mind is turning over the problem of what lies growing now in her stomach. What was it? No infant, surely, and if it continued to grow as it did in just one night…
And how to explain it away to Gritta?
“It will be good if he comes soon,” she says when Yuwen gives space to offer a reply. Her head remains down, her eyes on the frosty tracks they’d left approaching the well, now retraced by their feet again. “And good to be away. To see the world.”
That seems insufficient enthusiasm so Sora hesitates before she asks, “What is it you wish me to do, when he arrives? Will you tell me again, sir?”
She dares an upwards glance to assess him, the set of his shoulders, the stamp of his expression. As she does, the girl is careful to shape her lips into a small shy smile. “I don’t wish to make any mistakes.”
Looking up, Sora finds the man watching her from the corner of his eye. It’s a keen glance, measuring, but as soon as she smiles he is smiling as well, his lovely face bright with gratification and appreciation for her.
“That’s a lass,” Yuwen says, touching her shoulder. “That’s a lass! Just keep watch for a rider approaching, and give me word before he comes in. Make the man welcome as any guest in your master’s home. If he asks of me, say you’ve not seen me, I haven’t passed this way.”
Yuwen reaches the door and puts his hand on the latch. He pauses there, glances back at Sora with a glint in his eye.
“And be ready to get clear.”
And then the stranger flashes his scoundrel’s smile at her and throws open the door, holding it against the winter wind so that Sora can precede him with her burden into Thorvald’s cottage.
Another chill goes through her. This one has little to do with the weather, or the loss of his body’s shielding heat. To get clear is to imply something large happening. It reminds Sora of those few times she accompanied Thorvald into the forest, and he warned her before a tree was about to come down.
To be told to get clear is to summon up imaginings of a threat to the lives of everyone in the cabin.
Sora forces her smile to sink a little deeper at the corners of her mouth, as if she were reassured by his confidence. Inside, she feels anything but.
“I’ll do as you say,” she promises. “Until then, you should rest. I will see to the mistress, sir, and then bring you some tea.”
So saying, she ducks forward and eels through the door past him, her haste sending dapples of icy water over her knees and shins. She would put the water on to heat and then go to Gritta.
But could she tell the woman what was happening?
“Good lass,” Yuwen murmurs as she passes. He gives her a hidden pat on the bottom, then carries his smile behind her into the shadows of the house.
“Such cold, mistress!” He calls amiably to Gritta, closing and latching the door. “Be glad of your slave today. I had like to freeze off my fingers between door and well.”
The matron has not moved from her place by the fire. She seems a small pile of burlap sacks fraying at one end, where her brown hair frizzles out of its bun in the dry winter air. Yuwen’s salutation doesn’t earn him a glance, nor does she roll over to face him. “Thank the Lady we are clear of that danger,” she drawls sleepily. “Long journeys are fraught with peril.”
Yuwen laughs, then plops himself down among the furs on the far side of the hearth from Gritta. He stretches his boots towards the fire, crosses his forearms behind his head, and closes his eyes.
Sora hurries through the chore of transferring the water into the pot to heat. She fetches fresh stones from the hearth next and moves to kneel beside the lump of fur and hair that is Gritta.
With Yuwen so near, she doesn’t dare speak aloud to the woman but she does position herself with her back to the golden-haired man. The better for him to not see how she lets her worry show as she studies what she can see of Gritta’s face, while leaning over her to tuck the stones at the small of her back and against her belly.
Usually she keeps her eyes averted. Now she focuses freely on her mistress’ face, hoping to catch her eye.
“How do you feel, mistress? Do you need anything else?” The question is a quiet one, though not so quiet that Yuwen won’t hear it. And all the while Sora’s mind spins uselessly. Tell her? Don’t? Seek out Thorvald, or question Yuwen further on what’s growing inside of her? Her helplessness, and lack of answers, shows plainly on her pale face, darkening already dark eyes.
At first the woman doesn’t stir. But as Sora replaces the stones around her, looming above her, Gritta makes a sleepy and unpleasant sound. She struggles half onto her back beneath the furs and cracks an eye to peer blearily up at her slave.
“Mm, what?” she slurs. The matron struggles for focus, then snaps, “What, what? Do you mean to bury me, girl? Have done…” And with that she trails off again, clearly sinking from the surface of full consciousness. Her eye closes slowly like that of some deep-sea monster returning to its slumber.
The weight of bosom and belly pulls the woman back onto her side.
No help from that quarter, then.
Sora catches her lower lip between her teeth as she resettles the furs around the old woman and the stones she’s placed, to catch their fading warmth against aging bones, the cooled ones set aside. If only Thorvald were here– and not under Yuwen’s sway.
If only her mother were still alive. She might know what to do.
With nothing left to do at Gritta side, the slavegirl rises and goes to brew up the tea she’d promised their guest. There was nothing left to do but wait and to watch for an opportunity, though Sora couldn’t put a name to what that might be– or what she might wish to do.