37th day of Summer, 1370 – Chromand Cycle
She was a fat goose, white feathered and thick around the middle, lazing just out of arms reach.
Aine stepped into the marsh, holding her tattered dress to her knees. Her feet sank into the muck. Mud squished between her bare toes. Tossing nuggets of cracked corn into the water, she was able to coax the great bird from her nest and into the shallows. The goose swam forward timidly, nipping at the kernels and darting away.
“Don’t be such a cailly,” Aine whispered to the goose. She tossed a few more kernels into the pond, just at her knees, and stepped backward onto the shore.
Having raised chickens on her father’s farm, Aine knew to move gentle and deft. Capturing poultry was always a challenge. She learned long ago that the trick was to ensure the bird never saw her hand darting towards its neck. If she missed, it was near impossible to catch the fowl that day. Birds were smart, and once they realized she was after them, they never let her get close again.
This was the first goose Aine had seen in the marsh in two days. The Suiri armies stripped the land of wildlife as they retreated north. If Aine was to survive the remainder of the summer, she needed this bird. She tried to remain patient.
Aine tossed the remainder of the corn at her feet in a small pile. The goose stepped onto land and ate. Once the bird was calm and relaxed, she lunged at its neck, gripping it tight in her hands. Aine felt a surge of pride and joy as her fingers wrapped around the bird’s throat. Her smile was so wide, her cheeks hurt. She wished someone near to share her elation.
The goose honked and hissed, lifting its wings high in the air and puffing out its feathers in an effort to make its body appear larger. The bird slapped Aine’s arms, legs and stomach with surprising force. Shocked by the brutality of the attack, Aine released the goose and turned her back as terror overwhelmed her. The goose never relented. The blows were painful and she almost fell over.
Aine fled. The bird followed, batting its wings and honking in anger. She ran up the bank and along the shore. The bird chased. She rushed around a tree. The goose snapped at her bottom. She leapt over a short creek. It flew. Wherever she ran, the goose pursued.
“Help,” Aine shouted. “Help me!”
There was no answer.
Aine rushed to the roadway. Her legs were tired yet the bird seemed to possess boundless energy. She tripped on a large rock, falling hard on her knees and wrenching her wrist. As she rolled over, the goose reached her. Aine tried to slap it away, but her efforts only made the bird angrier. It was on her legs, its neck jerked and twisted in anger as it assaulted her arms and chest.
“Get off me,” she yelped. “Help!”
Still, there was no answer.
The bird clamped down on her fingers, stomped on her stomach and slapped her with its wings. She tried to push the goose away or protect her face, nothing helped. “Stop!”
The goose snapped again, this time locking its beak on Aine’s breast. It felt as if she was stabbed. Instinctively she grabbed the bird’s neck in both hands, prying the beak from her chest. The goose beat it wings in an effort to pull free of her hold, but Aine was too terrified to let go. The neck felt like a thick branch in her hands, and Aine tried to snap it. The goose cried out. She bent the neck in another direction, then another. The goose was wild, thrashing and kicking in an effort to escape. Feathers flew, wings flapped. Aine got on her knees and pressed her elbow into the goose’s back while pulling the neck in an unnatural direction to cut off the bird’s breath. It gagged and choked. She pressed harder. Its body trembled. It went still.
“Horrible bird!” Aine yelled. She stood and kicked it twice.
After binding the goose’s wings and neck with a rope, she bundled it in a blanket and lugged it back into the city over her shoulder. Her entire body ached. Her dress was torn at the neckline and soaked below the knee. Burrs and twigs hung in her hair. Her flesh was purple and swollen.
Aine pretended to carry the goose like a swaddled child as she passed through the town’s northern gate. She expected to hear laughter from the guards at her tattered appearance, but none seemed to notice her. It made her want to cry, to be so invisible.
She took the long way through Eohla, in an effort to bypass the walled central district of the old city. She hated seeing the Suiri women and children starving in their pen. When she looked upon them, she saw her own future and her heart bled hope. I will not vanish, she resolved when her stomach raged against her crippling hunger, causing her normally boundless optimism to falter.
She hurried through the High Clan district, cradling the goose tight to her chest. The streets beneath Clan Harnabr’s gilded palace were a vast mosaic of many colors. The merchant quarter swarmed with people, bustling and hurrying about in silken gowns and linen robes. The mass of humanity parted as soldiers bearing the colors of Clan Harnabr marched past in a show of High Clan strength. Wealthy women flittered from stall to stall like gay butterflies, purchasing baubles and luxurious fabrics from foreign traders. Aine wondered what would happen, when their wings turned brown.
Aine turned into the tight, twisting alleyways, where the white-dressed servant girls gathered to share gossip of their High Clan masters. She passed beneath a stone arch carved of bright marble, a relic of more prosperous times under the Suiri king. Each block from the arch brought her lower in the social and economic pyramid that formed Aithairian clan life.
The streets of the Middle Clan district were nearly empty and served as the dominion of stray cats, wandering dogs and wild youths. The few adults Aine passed walked with their eyes cast down, following the cracks of the cobblestones. Most buildings stood vacant, the Middle Clans preferring the safety and prosperity of the Farwaeld to the war-torn and diseased stronghold of Eohla.
When she reached the district near the docks and the mouth of the river, the city transformed again. The empty, forlorn streets of the Middle gave way to the harsh energy of the Low. The din was almost deafening. Vendors hawked pomegranate, pipeweed, sweetbread, and a thousand other things from makeshift stands erected from driftwood or scrap. Shops spilt out into the streets. At the end of the piers, settlers bargained with Clan Harnabr representatives to purchase homes or businesses in the city. The filthy habits of drunken soldiers and sailors bred disagreeable sights and smells. Crowding all were the beggars, who forever begged yet never collected anything.
The Shorn Rabbit was near the docks, in an ancient Suiri longhouse. She entered the tavern through the kitchen door, hugging the massive bird against her chest and trying not to topple over.
Aine took a liking to the tavernkeeper, Dina, who spoke with her hands because her ears did not work. She was kind and generous, often paying extra when she thought Aine worked diligently. Her assistant and rumored lover, Berthr, was a cuss of a woman, however, that long held grudges for any perceived slight to her employer. During the winter, while dicing onions in the tavern’s kitchen in return for a handful of apples, Aine giggled at Dina’s attempts to speak with her mouth. The woman’s accent sounded muffled and strange. Berthr never forgave the insult and complained whenever Dina hired Aine to accomplish any task.
The Shorn Rabbit’s large kitchen smelt of spices and cased meats. Dirty dishes were stacked high on the rear tables, the remainders of breakfast likely thrown to the hogs in the walled yard. A fire blazed in the hearth, heating the room. A pot boiled.
Aine set the goose on a trestle table and unwrapped the blanket. She wiped the sweat from her brow with the dingy sleeve of her old dress before calling to the rear pantries. “Dina! Dina!”
Berthr appeared from the storehouse a moment later, carrying a tray of vegetables. “What are you shouting for? If she was here, you think you could actually summon her that way?”
It took Aine several moments to realize her mistake. She blushed. “I have her goose.”
Berthr approached, set down the tray and stared at the bird with a look of amused contempt. “No. No you don’t.”
Aine gasped. “Yes I do! She promised me two airgin for a large goose. I caught it in the marshlands after hunting for nearly two days.”
“Didn’t know it was you, that Dina contracted with.”
Aine pointed to the bird. “It was me. And I delivered.”
“No.” The woman cut the rope binding the bird and lifted its neck into the air. “This. Is a swan.”
Aine cried out in frustration.
“We can’t use this.”
“The meat is tough and gamey in young swans. With this aged hag, it would be inedible.”
“Do I have time to find another goose?” Aine heard the pleading in her voice.
“You haven’t found any goose yet.” Berthr moved to the far side of the kitchen, pulling down a bouquet of herbs and spices.
Aine clasped her hands in front of her and followed the woman. “Please. Just give me another chance. I’ll secure a goose. Somehow.”
“It’s too late,” Berthr said. “We need to start preparing for dinner shortly. By the time you return, we’ll be serving breakfast.”
Aine cussed. She planned to use the two airgin promised for the goose to purchase a barrel of dried corn to last through the summer. She was so very hungry. “Will you pay anything for this?”
Berthr shook her head. “Worthless fowl, swan. You can’t cover it in enough gravy to hide its horrific flavor.”
“Is there any other work?” Aine asked. “Please. I’ll wash dishes for an apple or a date. A sliver of rancid meat even.”
“No.” Berthr chopped the spices as she spoke. “You want coin? We’ll hire you as a whore.”
“I told you many times, I don’t whore.”
“Then you don’t have a place here. You are done working for us.” Berthr motioned to the exit.
“Then what will I do?!” Aine pleaded. Her stomach growled, as if it heard the conversation and wished to speak of its own plight.
“I don’t care,” Berthr said. She slammed the chef’s knife into the cutting board. Her finger pointed to the door. “Out! You can return when you are ready to be fucked.”
Aine flashed a profane gesture. “I don’t whore! And I’m taking the swan!”
She picked up the bird and turned to leave the kitchen. She startled when she noticed an old man sitting motionless near the door leading to the main hall. Shadow partially obscured his face, though Aine could feel his eyes appraising her. He must have been there before Aine arrived and witnessed all of her embarrassment. The old man laughed, a terrifying laugh deeper than a mineshaft. Aine shivered and, without speaking, she left.
I won’t vanish, she reminded herself through tears as she yanked handfuls of feathers from the dead swan.
She chilled. The weather was warmer in Eohla than home and she was sitting near a blazing fire, yet the sky misted and she possessed no covering save her dress and a thin apron.
The wind blew in from the harbor, carrying wet dirt and debris through the streets of Eohla and down the tight alley where Aine roasted her meal. A crumbled section of wall, collapsed years earlier from neglect during the burning chill, led to the ancient city core. From one of the shops nearby she could hear the haggling of a merchant and his customer. A few yards away a small dog licked at a puddle of vomit. The animal kept its eye on the bird.
“I’m not sharing,” she told the dog. It snarled in return as if Aine had an eye on its little puddle.
Once she plucked all the feathers, Aine ran a spit through the bird’s beak and out its backend. Whoever used the fire pit previously buried two forked branches in the ground. Aine laid the bird across the flame and curled her legs tight to her chest.
All sorts of people passed the main road at the end of the alley, young and old, ugly and handsome, rich and poor. None spoke to her and none entered the alley.
The fire hissed and popped as the swan’s juices dripped onto the hot embers. The aroma of roasting meat caused her stomach to cry out in impatient protest. Her hands shook and her mouth watered. She opened her knapsack and pulled out a long hunting knife, the sole gift from her husband after he banished her from his home. She sliced into the meat and found it was still pink in the middle. Leaning back against the cold stone wall, she wiped the tears from her eyes. At least she would eat. That makes today better than yesterday, she thought. It began to rain.
The sky grew dark as the sun slipped beyond the clouded horizon. It took some time for her eyes to grow accustomed to the black. The alley looked different at night – terrifying, narrow, obscure, dangerous. Everywhere there were dim obstructions. Some of the shadows were darker yet they all danced in the light of Aine’s fire.
The dog growled at some unheard noise toward the pile of stone and marble at the end of the alley. Aine froze. The tiny dog’s mane stood on end as he watched the opening into the ancient district. He yipped into the blackness.
“Hello,” Aine called into the dark. There was no answer. Aine’s body tensed.
Stone shifted unseen and the dog ran from the alley. “Coward,” Aine whispered as the animal rushed past. She considered running herself, but the swan was too important a meal for her starving belly. Her fist closed tight against the hilt of her blade. She would fight for this bird.
“Hello,” she called again.
Fear flooded her heart when the sound of footsteps slapping against wet stone filled the alley. The street beyond, once vibrant with passers, was now abandoned as locals and travelers alike sought refuge from the cold rain. All was still and quiet. All except the footsteps.
Aine stood slowly, searching the darkness. “Hello?!” Her voice echoed against the wet stone, answering only itself. Loneliness gripped tight at her heart.
The wet footsteps grew louder. From the darkness a child appeared, followed by a second and a third. They were scrawny creatures, dressed in tattered rags that hid little more than their genitals. A boy was in the lead, Aine guessed him to be no more than six. Two girls that looked even younger followed. Judging by their olive skin and dark hair, she guessed them to be Suiri. When the three stepped fully into the firelight, their lifeless eyes fixed on the swan.
“This is mine,” Aine said.
The children showed no sign of recognizing her words. The boy pointed to the bird and then his mouth.
Aine shook her head.
They were still for a long moment, and then they lifted their rags. The boy pointed to his member, short, thin and hairless. One of the girls lifted her dress before turning and bending at the hip, leaning her arms against the stone wall and offering her bottom.
Aine covered her mouth to stifle a cry, yet she was unable to control her emotions. The sight of the children giving up their bodies for gamey meat broke her. Slowly she crumpled to the stone.
“Take it,” she whispered.
The three showed no signs of understanding. The second girl went down on her knees, opening her toothless mouth wide and sticking out her tongue in invitation. She pointed to Aine’s crotch.
“Stop,” Aine shouted. “Stop it!” She pulled the spit from the fire. “Take it,” she cried. She held out the swan, but the children just stared at the bird with a mixture of fear and confusion. “Just take it!” She dropped the bird on the stone and removed her stained apron, using it to bundle the roasted swan. She pulled free the spit and stepped back towards the street, past the fire. “Go!”
Slowly the youngest stood from her knees. Her eyes fixed on Aine as she bent and blindly took the bird in her hands. It proved too heavy, so the boy lowered his shirt and helped. In an instant, they disappeared into the darkness.
Aine fell to her knees in despair and wept.
“You have only prolonged their suffering,” a voice said from behind her.
She turned to spy a soldier leaning against the corner. His gaze pierced through her and into the darkness. Aine thought his eyes must have looked out on tragedies far more painful than three starving children. He raised his hands up, in a sort of show of empty-handed peace that soldiers used to calm a foe. When he moved, his wet leather armor creaked and complained.
“Come with me if you hunger,” he said in a voice as cold as the rain.
“I don’t whore.” Her stomach rumbled as she spoke and Aine wondered if she actually the meant the words.
“I don’t have time for whoring,” he answered. The soldier stepped near and bent close to the fire. He pulled out a plank of dock wood that was burning on one end and wrapped a rag around it. The makeshift torch burnt bright as he stood, holding the flame close to Aine’s face. He appraised her with a thousand-yard stare that made her feel as if he were actually seeing into her soul. He reminded her of the city of Eohla – hard, unyielding, cold, battered, ancient. He was older than her nineteen years, most likely in his forties. The torch light shone off his freshly shaven head.
“You are Salach?” he asked.
Aine never thought herself as one of the forsaken, the clanless. The Salach were the outcast, the orphaned, the bastards and the forgotten. They were tasked with work considered polluting to the body – removing animal carcasses, waste or rubbish; whoring; butchering; tanning hides; fertilizing soil; laundering menstrual clothes; and preparing the dead for burial. Clan law banned the Salach from marriage, owning property, and bathing in water sources used by any clan. They could not approach the Ceithre Comhairle for redress of violations to their personal property or self. They were suppressed and broken, and found no protection under a clan banner or law. They were, alone. Aine was alone.
“I was cast out.” The words fell from her lips before she could give them thought. She crinkled her nose in disgust at her admission. “My husband turned me away.”
Though she could feel the heat from the fire as it blazed, his eyes burned hotter as he appraised her.
“You fuck another?”
There was a long silence. Aine stood shaking, unable to speak. Her hand slipped down over the flat of her mid-section below the stomach. When she looked up at him, his face was dark and impassive, waiting. “No. No. It was not that. I am…barren. Another women accepted his seed, so he turned me out. My disgrace in not bearing children was too much for my clan to bear. I was given coin and told never to return home. I wandered until I found this city.”
There was no pity in his expression. He turned towards the main road and beckoned her. She feared going with him, knowing men capable of horrific violence. But her stomach protested and she felt a strange security in the man’s presence, so she followed.
His heavy boots made no sound, even as Aine’s slippers slapped against the wet stones. He led her to an alley a few hundred yards past the Shorn Rabbit. They entered a short door that Aine had never noticed before and he used the torch to light a lantern hanging on the wall.
Two passageways led from the space, one each on the south and west walls. They went west. The floor, covered in red clay, descended sharply. The man knew his way, but to Aine the place felt like a labyrinth of stone and rock. She felt lost as the tunnel twisted and turned. They passed hallways both wide and thin, turning right and left at various junctions.
Eventually they entered a large opening into a natural cavern. From a low passageway on the right-hand wall, a large stream flowed and disappeared into a massive cleft on the left. An immense drip formation reached from floor to ceiling and was covered in shimmering mold. In the middle of the room was an elegant flowing cave drapery, translucent pure white in color and speckled with green stone.
“Jade,” the soldier said. He approached the drapery and held the lantern near. The stone sparkled in alternating colors of forest and midnight.
“Where are we?”
“This was a place of worship to the wealthy Suiri of this city. It was believed to be the gateway to the underworld, where winter sleeps and death holds court. This stone is sacred to the Siuri, though worthless to Aithairians. They believe it holds the promise of spring and renewal. When Aithair first took Eohla last summer, my company discovered the king’s brother hiding in this place. Here. Hold this.”
Aine took the lantern. He turned away from her and strung his bow.
With her free hand, she quietly pulled her long knife from her pack and pried a hunk of stone free about the size of her thumb. It was polished and smooth from the rushing of water down the drapery during heavy rains on the surface. She found it beautiful and slipped it into her pocket.
The man finished stringing his bow. “This way.”
Aine forced herself away from the magnificent formation as the soldier moved deeper into the room.
“You wonder how you will survive.” He removed an arrow from his quiver and tied a thin line to the fletching.
“I take on work.”
The man notched his arrow and approached the water, drawing back his bow. “But not enough to survive.” He released the arrow into the stream, laid his bow on the cavern floor, and pulled at the line.
Aine watched him reel in an albino cavefish the size of a decent trout. The fish thrashed at the end of his arrow. Once free from the shaft, he placed the fish in a sack and prepared to catch another.
Aine sat, tucking one foot under her bottom. Time passed. Once the sack teemed with fish, he filled another. Finally, he stood over her. She brushed loose strands of wet hair from her face and looked up into his cold eyes. Aine felt embarrassed that the linen dress she wore was tore at the neckline, exposing the top of her bosom. She held the material tight to her chest with the flat of her hand as she stood. The man was unmoved.
“Salt these and they will last several weeks.”
Aine nodded and took one of the sacks. “Why are you gifting me this?”
He would not answer, though she could see in his expression that it was no mere happenstance. “Do not come here again. It is our place.”
She nodded once more.
There was a long and awkward silence between them, as if he was awaiting something. Aine had nothing to give or say. Finally, he led her back through the tight corridors and to the main road. Aine offered thanks, the soldier never replied. She told him her name, he replied with his, Valdikr. She found the name fitting – hard, unyielding, cold, battered, ancient.
Aine returned to her fire, which was now a pile of smoldering ash. She hid the fish in the alley and spent time searching for dry wood. Once she scrounged a large enough pile, she reignited the fire using the hot coals and a strip of cloth. She gutted the fish. Spearing each through the center with the sharp spit, she cooked them all.
The children arrived when the fire’s smoke carried the smell of roasting meat into the Suiri district. Two teenage girls came first, followed by a few boys. Once the meal was fully cooked, Aine was able to feed fourteen children and eight women. The Suiri even ate the heads and raw innards. Aine never took a bite.
I’ll not vanish tomorrow, she promised herself.
When she looked out into the street, she saw Valdikr at the end of the alley. He was not alone. Standing next to him was the old man from the Shorn Rabbit. They watched her, speaking in hushed whispers. Guilt washed over her as she looked at the empty sack at her feet. She could not see Valdikr’s expression, but still she felt his disapproval. The old man pointed at her. She ran.