TimePaths

The Books and Writings of
Kurt R.A. Giambastiani

  Excerpt from Ploughman's Son
by Kurt R.A. Giambastiani

Ploughman's Son
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Chapter One

Face down on the cold granite boulder, Alain sought the power of the ley line. He knew it ran through the mountain's core with a great surging pulse, but he could not sense it. His pale hair fell across chestnut-colored eyes as he pressed his cheek to the cold, rough stone. He stretched his arms and legs out to their full, slender length, and with his fingers, he held onto tiny crevices in the rock.

Above his head, the twisted arms of ancient oaks shook their leaves in the morning wind off the Bretagne coast. Wadded clouds capered across the springtime sky, chasing their shadows over the moorland and on up the mountainside. The dappled sunlight came and went, and Alain was alternately chilled and warmed by its inconstant attention.

He wanted to feel the ley line, wanted to taste the power it held. More than anything else, that was what he wanted; that, and what would come with it. His thoughts dipped down through the granite and he plumbed the mountain's depth for the line of magic.

The wooded mountainside permeated his mind. He smelled the iron-tinged granite where his breath made it moist, and he could smell the damp, virile musk of the forest's leaf-strewn floor just a few yards away. He heard the groans of the heavy branches as they protested the wind's attention, and the flrr as a pair of sparrows flew by.

He opened his mind and let these sensations flow into him. He let them merge with his spirit, and tried to join his consciousness with the cold mountain. His mind looked down, deep into the stone, searching, searching. He imagined the slow thrum of power and envisioned the line's shimmering glow with his inner eye. Would it be warm? Or as cold as the stone beneath him? He clenched shut his eyes in concentration, feeling for the ley line of Dead Ox Wood and the magic that always eluded him.

"Where are you?" Alain whispered to the line beneath the silent granite. "Where are you?"

A stone sailed in and bounced near his head. He opened his eyes and scrambled toward the trunk of a nearby tree. He was not fast enough. Another stone followed the first and caught him before he got off the granite shelf, striking him in the forehead. His hand went to the wound and touched hot blood.

"Away!" came his attacker's grackled shout. "Go away, ye evil thing."

A thin old woman stepped out from behind an oak tree. Her ash grey hair hung in matted hanks past her shoulders, and her ragged clothes were coated with weeks of dirt and grease. A string of curved boar's teeth and glass beads hung from her neck, clattering as she moved, making her seem more like a puppet on strings than a human being. In her hand she held a stick thicker than her bony forearm and just as long.

"Go away," she snarled, and threw the stick with more force and accuracy than her thin physique foretold.

Alain batted the stick away with his hand and sat back on his haunches, the fingertips of one hand still in contact with the inscrutable granite. The woman took a small step toward him, shooing him away with hissed words and waggling fingers. Alain hung his head and stared at the ground, waiting for his heart to stop pounding and his impatience to abate. The woman picked up some fallen leaves and tossed them at him, muttering under her breath, "Evil one, evil one."

"Mother," he said in a firm voice, and then "Mother," as she continued to toss twigs and leaves at him. The woman froze, hands extended in mid-air, and she seemed to see Alain for the first time.

"Ach," she said, straightening in her stance. "'Tis only you." She spoke to him in the Old Tongue, the language of her Cornish ancestors. Alain didn't think she knew how to speak Brezhoneg anymore. "Well, don't just sit there. Come and move the sacks inside, Bastard Boy."

He ground his teeth together as he stood, but did not move to do her bidding. Still mindful of the blood that made its trail down past brow and eye, he let it drip as a sign of his contempt.

"I'm not a boy, Mother."

The woman stopped and turned toward him. She walked back and grabbed him roughly by the sleeve. He did not move.

"Ha," she said as she looked him up and down. "Married, are ye?"

"You know I'm not. Who would have a man who brings a mother-in-law such as you? But I'm not a boy anymore. I haven't been for some time."

She tugged on his sleeve. "Perhaps not. But you're still a bastard. Will always be." She tugged harder, and he jerked his arm from her grasp. She looked up at his face, and Alain felt the thin line of blood course down his cheek. She stared at him a moment more before she turned away.

"Come, Bastard Boy of mine," she said as she walked back the way she had come. "Come. Move sacks."

Alain pressed his lips into a tight, exasperated line and felt an ache in the clenched muscles of his jaw. He wiped his sleeve across his brow, smearing the impotent gesture of his disdain, and winced at the sting of rough fabric against his wound. Then he let out a growling breath and followed the old woman back to her hut.

His mother's ancient hut was built on an even older foundation—stream-washed stones piled in a waist-high circle, ten paces across the inside. Stripling trunks were bent over the foundation to form a dome, and thatch was laid over the lattice. Alain's mother, the Delphine of Dead Ox Wood, walked up to the twig and bark door and pulled it open.

"Back there," she said, pointing deep within the darkness of the hut. "Put them back there." She produced a withered apple from the folds of her dress and sat down at the base of a nearby oak.

"As if I haven't been doing this for years on end," Alain muttered in a quiet voice. He glanced over at the Delphine. She had not heard him, and would not have heard had he spoken more loudly. She was rocking back and forth, gaze intent on the old apple in her hand as first she whispered secrets to it and then held it to her ear to hear its replies.

Resistance had always been a fruitless exercise, but he had never learned how to let it go. Her barbs always hit, and his skin never grew tough enough to thwart their sting.

His walking stick was a few yards away, stuck deep into the forest loam. Reynald, the draft horse he had led up the mountain, stood placidly nearby, the thin halter rope looped around the walking stick. Reynald's size and the sacks mounded on his back spoke of the animal's strength, yet still he allowed himself to be ruled by the tether's thin length. He cropped disinterestedly at the scrollwork of a lace-leafed fern that grew near the root of one of the great trees, and raised his massive head at Alain's approach.

"She's in a state, Reynald," Alain said in resignation. He began to untie the ropes that bound the sacks of grain and fruit his father had sent up for the Delphine. "She's worse in the springtime, I think."

Alain was tall, but the horse was taller still—his head barely came up to Reynald's withers—and as he reached up to pull down the first sack, he felt the thin-fingered tug and stretch of the scars that laced his chest and arms. Behind him, his mother barked a laugh at some jest only she and the apple knew. A wild flash of anger shot through Alain, anger at the madwoman by the foot of the tree, the woman who had so mutilated his body.

Reynald gave a deep whicker and nosed the young man's shoulder. Alain smiled, and forced his anger to ebb away.

"You're right. No use quarreling with her when she's like this, is there? No use ever, really." He patted the horse's muzzle, and turned back to unloading. Settling a sack on each shoulder, he walked to the hut.

Inside, a clay hearth sent an arm of sharp, tangy smoke up toward the hole in the center of the domed roof. A pile of bedding and rude table served as the only furnishings, but hanging from the rafters, sitting along the ledge of the stone foundation, and lined up against the walls was the collection with which the Delphine made her magic. It was an amazing clutter.

Dried herbs, fruits and tubers, leafy branches, glossy pelts, the severed feet and extricated organs of animals, all lay in bunched piles between pyramids of shiny stones sorted by size and ranks of beetles arranged by color. Bundles of feathers bound by leather strips, dried flowers tied together with woven plaits of grass, and sewn cloth packets of seeds all hung like clappers in the bell of the hut's roof. Alain could smell the braid of drying garlic that hung near the door and the scent of pitch balls his mother had gathered from the far side of the mountain. The odors brought memories, harsh memories of his years as a boy in the Dead Ox Wood with the mad Delphine for a mother.

Memories of home.

He put down the sacks of grain in a clear space near the split log she used as a table. On the log lay the Delphine's only two items of iron: a small flat-bottomed caldron and a knife worn thin by constant use and incessant honing.

Next to the knife lay a piece of river-worn granite, scorched by the tiny hyssop leaves the Delphine had burned on it. So charmed, the stone would bring potency back to a failing husband when placed beneath the sleeping covers. When Alain had arrived, he had seen her working on the charm, and so he had gone up to the outcrop to try once more to feel for the ley line. One did not disturb the Delphine when she was casting.

But ley lines meant nothing to the Delphine, for she did not draw her power from them. Her magic was the magic of the earth. Simple but strong. She conjured and brewed, making amulets and warders and charms for the villagers down in Belvanetes. She concocted potions of great efficacy, too, and many times, exhorted by a frantic mother, Alain had carried a sick child up the mountain to be healed by the woman that same mother would never have deigned to visit on her own. All his life, he had seen the Delphine work her magic, with greater or lesser success, but it was not her sort of magic that he dreamed of wielding.

Alain wanted the greater magic, the magic of the ley lines. His mother had taught him of the lines, spinning tales of their strength and their connection to the mystical Summerland where the mysterious Fair Folk lived. But he had never been able to sense the lines, had never found the talent to cast such magic. To his chagrin, he had not even inherited his mother's baser skills. He looked about the hut with its conglomeration of scavengings and cast-offs, and suddenly envied his mad mother her tremendous affinity with simpler, earth-bound magics.

"What were ye doing over at the rock?" the Delphine asked when he emerged from the hut. Alain lifted a sack of winter wheat onto his shoulder and carried a sack of apples under his arm.

"You were casting when I got here," he said. The sackcloth was rough against his neck. "I didn't want to disturb you."

"Hunh," the old woman said around her leathery apple. "Good thinking, that."

Alain went inside, dropped the sack of wheat and put down the apples on top. The light inside the hut dimmed as the Delphine came to the doorway. "But what were ye doing is what I asked."

Alain felt a flush of rise to his cheeks and he paused to let his embarrassment cool before turning. When he did she was still standing there, framed by the doorway, a black and grey shadow-hag with bits of leaves stuck in her wild hair.

"What were ye doing?" she sang in teasing tones. "Were ye playing with yerself, Boy?"

Jaw set, Alain walked up to the tiny woman. "You know what I was doing," he said as he elbowed past. He walked back to Reynald and took two brace of rabbit and string of quail from the horse's sidebags. He carried them over to the Delphine and held them out to her. She made no motion to take them.

"You were feeling for the line again, weren't ye, Boy?"

He nodded.

She stepped closer and grinned up at him. Alain could smell the foulness of her breath. "Did ye feel anything?" she asked. "Was it warm? Or was it cold?"

Alain shook his head slowly. He lifted the strings of game toward her. "I felt nothing," he said.

"Ach!" she said with a disparaging wave. "Go back t'Marrec, Boy." She turned her back on him and went inside the hut. She squatted before the hearth and fed a few sticks to the coals. "Go back down the mountain, Bastard Boy. Marrec's been calling for ye, and yer no good t'me here."

Alain felt his hands shake with sudden rage. He tossed the quail and rabbits to the dust of her threshold and stormed back to Reynald. Yanking his walking stick out of the ground, he started down the mountain slope. Reynald whinnied as the halter rope came taut, jerking him away from his idle munching, but Alain pulled the horse along.

"It's not my fault," he said under his breath as he stomped down the slope, winding in and out between the boles of oaks. "I can't help it if I can't feel the lines." His voice grew louder with each step he took away from the hut, away from his mother, and away from her insanity. "I'm not to blame. Not for that." A moment later and his voice was louder still. "Nor for the other thing." A half-dozen strides later, he stopped and turned upslope. The hut was all but lost in the darkness of Dead Ox Wood.

"You're the one who wouldn't marry," he yelled. Reynald shied and pawed the soft ground with a huge hoof. "Marrec offered. More than I'd have done!" His shout died in the air, answered only by a raven's throaty caw. He stared at the hut a bit longer, but there was no response, no acknowledgment of his outburst.

"Ach," he muttered and started off again. "So I'm no good to you, eh? Well, I don't need you, either. So Marrec's been calling me, eh? Good. At least I'm wanted down there."

His frown deepened as he walked, recalling his mother's words. Above him, the heavy limbs of the Dead Ox Wood began to thin as he and Reynald neared the forest edge.

What was it she had said?

The boughs parted as Alain led Reynald out of the wood and into the gorse-brush of the uplands. Below him lay the rolling hillsides of heather, the meadows of wild wheat and waist-high grasses that led down to his village. Belvanetes sat on the valley floor next to the lazy southward bend of the river. He smelled the powdery sweetness of the pink and white blooms around him, and the sharp bite of woodsmoke from the village.

"Calling me?" he asked out loud. "Marrec's been calling me?"

Out at the far reach of the vale, he saw the white walls of the old Roman villa owned by Jessup, the owner of the land Alain worked with his father. Outside its walls were the huts Alain and the other workers shared. Then he saw the flames eating away at the thatch of his home, and saw men and women running from house to house in the village. Looking seaward, he saw the dragon boat that sat in the sheltered lee of the river's bend.

"Epona's Fillies," he swore. "She knew all along. She knew and said nothing!" He pulled Reynald over to an old stump and leapt up onto the horse's broad back. "Head up, Reynald," he told the horse as he twined his fingers in the coarse black mane. "You're not fast, but you're faster than I am.

"Home!"

Reynald trotted down the hillside. Alain drove him on, urging him to speed. When they reached the valley floor where Reynald had room, the horse broke into a heavy gallop and pounded across the sedge toward the village.

"Move, Reynald," he said into the horse's ear as he hunched over the beast's arched neck. Reynald's breath came in harsh snorts as they went up the low rise into the tiny village. Alain saw a man lying in the dirt in front of the travelers' inn. Farther on, he saw Anton, the Christian cleric, standing in the roadway in front of his small church. He held to his chest two young girls, while their mother wailed over the fallen body of her husband.

The smell of smoke grew stronger. Ahead, Alain saw the flash of sunlight on sword and shield, and it filled him with both fear and a terrible anger. The Viking raiders were straggling back toward the river and their longboat, weighed down by sacks of stolen provisions and whatever precious items the villagers had possessed.

Alain wanted to fight them, wanted Reynald to trample them into the ground. He wanted to see their skulls crushed under the Reynald's huge hooves like summer melons, but his mother's words echoed through his brain.

"Marrec's been calling," Alain said to himself, and rode on toward his home.

Two of the raiders walked across the pasture in front of his burning home, smiling and laughing. One carried a straining burlap sack over his shoulder while the other struggled with an overfull barrow-cart.

Alain's anger boiled up in a wordless roar and the Norsemen looked up in surprise. The first man had enough time to drop his bundle before Reynald plowed into him and sent him flying like a wind-blown leaf.

Reynald was not slowed by the impact and Alain tugged on the halter to turn him around. He slapped the horse's hindquarter with his walking stick, urged him back into a run, and steered him toward the second raider.

The second Viking let go the barrow and stepped to a clear space to draw his sword. Alain took the thin end of his walking stick in hand and swung the heavy end in a circle over his head. They closed. The Viking stood, sword up. The blade flared with sunlight like an angry tongue of flame.

With a jerk to Reynald's halter, Alain veered the horse out of reach of the sword and swung his walking stick in a low, rising curve. He caught the raider under the chin with a blow that sent him tumbling backward. Alain pulled Reynald to a halt, leapt to the ground, and dashed across the distance to the burning hut.

Smoke from the damp, flaming thatch was thick and acrid. Alain stepped into the one-room cottage and blinked away stinging tears. The place was a tumble, chairs and tables upturned, crockery shards on the floor.

"Papa!" he called through the smoke. He took a few steps forward but the heat kept him at bay. The roofbeams flared in a fire-fall of burning rushes, and Alain was forced back. In the hot light he spied a hand and arm poking out from beneath an overturned bench. He pulled the heavy bench back and found a Viking, his pale hair matted with dark blood. The heat surged again and Alain backed out of the cottage.

The two Vikings he had rushed in the yard were well across the pasture. They supported one another as they limped off, their booty left behind in a cluttered pile. Reynald stood close by, nervously eyeing the flaming hut. Alain stared at the burning ruin of his home. There was no saving it or anything within.

He walked over to the edge of the turnip field. The spring plantings had been trampled by raiders' feet, the clean furrows of dark earth broken and the seedlings scattered. Alain looked at the two retreating raiders.

"I should have killed you," he shouted at them.

A muffled scream broke through from the stable. It was a woman's voice and it screamed again, clearly, a hot and angry "No!" that tore at the screamer's throat. Alain began to run.

Beneath the fury of the shouted word, he recognized the voice of the landlord's daughter. He ran into the stable and found Josselyn, bare legs flailing, one of her arms pinned to the straw by a heavy hand. With her free hand she pummeled the grunting, red-bearded man who was atop her. The Viking's pale and hairy rear was exposed, buttocks tensing as he tried to position himself.

The man's sword lay near his feet. Alain grabbed it. It was heavy, but it was not the first time he had held a sword. He could stab, but he might miss and hurt Josselyn, so he dragged the point across the rapist's bare behind, drawing a red line of blood.

The man's grunts turned into a roar. He leapt up, only to be tangled by his leggings bunched at mid-thigh. He fell backward and roared again as he landed on his wound. Alain dashed in and pulled Josselyn away from her attacker.

The Norseman lunged and Alain struck at him with the sword. The clumsy blow was easily turned by the bronze plates sewn onto the Viking's thick leather doublet, but he did not reach for Alain again.

Josselyn was safely out of the man's reach, and Alain stood firmly between them, protecting his longtime friend. He held the sword in both hands as Josselyn's father had shown him. There was a moment of quiet as the Norseman got to his feet. Alain regarded the face of his enemy. He saw clearly the steadiness of the marauder's eye, the scars on his forearms, and the heavy breath of grey in his hair. Alain grew afraid, wondering if he could fight the man off if he charged.

The Viking snarled, gesturing and shouting. Alain did not understand him. They faced each other, the man raging on in his language of strange vowels, and Alain standing quiet and firm with upraised sword. The man was not as tall as Alain but he was heavier across the shoulders. He pointed to the sword Alain held and put out his hand, demanding its return.

"What?" Alain said, and shook his head. Indignation made him brave, and to punctuate his point he slashed the sword across the space between them. He held the sword as he'd seen the Count's soldiers do in practice. He took a step toward the raider and slashed again. The Viking stood his ground, watching Alain intently, looking for the best opening. If the man rushed him, Alain would definitely fail. He had to turn the tide.

Calmly, and with as much menace as he could muster, Alain spoke to the man. "I know you don't understand me, but I'll tell you this. I nearly killed your two friends out there with a walking stick. Now I have your sword, and unless you run right at this moment, I shall show you what I can do with it." He motioned toward the stable door with the point of the sword.

The raider's green-eyed gaze moved from Alain to the sword and to the smoky yard outside. The man's brow wrinkled and he took a wincing backward step. Then he nodded, hitched up his breeches, and ran out. Alain watched for a moment, knees shaking, as the Norseman ran unevenly across the field toward his boat.

"Alain."

Josselyn beckoned him from the back of the stable. She knelt down and Alain realized there was a man lying in the deep straw. It was Marrec.

"Papa." He dropped to his knees next to the old ploughman. His father's shirt was soaked with blood and a great deal more covered his face. "Does he live?"

"Yes, though maybe not for much longer. Give me the sword."

Alain hesitated. "What?"

Josselyn showed him an open hand and a fierce look, and he handed her the weapon. With it, she pierced the hem of her dress and tore off strips.

"We have to get him up to the house, and quickly. Can you carry him?"

Marrec was a large man, almost as tall as Alain himself and a good bit stouter. Alain considered the distance from the stable to Josselyn's homestead.

"No," he said, but remembered the raiders he'd knocked down in the yard. "I'll be right back," he said.

"Hurry," he heard her say as he ran from the stable.

Out in the yard, Alain saw the burning remnants of his home, the timbers of its windward wall stabbing the air with smoky fingers. He gave thanks to the White Goddess that the wind blew sparks out toward the fields and not toward the stable or Jessup's buildings.

Then he ran to the barrow-cart, righted it, and made haste back to the stable.

Alain and Josselyn struggled to get Marrec into the cart. The big man moaned once. Alain looked to Josselyn hopefully, but her terse expression gave him little hope. He wheeled the barrow-cart out with its unconscious burden, then headed down the path that led between the plowed fields.

The whitewashed walls of Josselyn's homestead—built by Gallic hands for Roman lords—gleamed as a shower of sunlight broke through the clouds. The front doors and the gates hung open, and Alain heard wailing as they approached.

"Where is everyone?" he asked. "Where is your father?"

"Father is dead," she said and Alain stumbled, nearly upsetting the barrow. He glanced sidelong at the young woman, startled by the news and by the calmness of her voice. Her home attacked, her body assaulted, and her father slain, why did she not weep? Alain at her lack of emotion. He felt that he should say something, but couldn't imagine what words to use.

Marrec moaned again, and Alain put his mind back on the task of saving his father's life.

"And the others?" he asked as they reached the gate.

"I do not know," she said. "Father told me to run as they struck him down. He wanted no hostages this time. Not like...not like Mother." Her stoic fa?e cracked, and Alain heard the grief and anger that roiled within her.

He understood. It had been springtime then, too, three years ago, when Jessup's ransom returned his wife to her family.

"Let's get Marrec inside," he said as he wheeled the barrow-cart through the garden gate. "Calin! Get your old bones out here."

The kitchen door opened a crack and an old, grey head poked out of the narrow opening.

"Get out here, Calin," Alain said. "Marrec's been hurt." The old steward opened the door farther and Alain saw a gaggle of kitchenmaids behind him, eyes red from weeping, necks craning to see what was astir. Calin turned on them sharply.

"Don't be standing there like hens in the road. Clear some room, girls. And get water."

The two men pulled Marrec out of the cart and carried him up to the kitchen. Inside, long planks were set up on trestles. On them and elsewhere about the large kitchen Alain saw the remnants of the interrupted preparations for the evening meal: broken jugs, overturned bowls, and scattered, half-trimmed vegetables. Bread dough sat on window sills to rise in the springtime sun and pots simmered untended over dying coals. The smell of stewing beans and the spirit of yeast were thick in the air, mixed with the stench of fear and blood.

Two of the trestled tables had been cleared, and they brought Marrec over to one of them. On the other lay the body of Jessup, Josselyn's father. Cold and grey, he lay unnaturally still. His torso had been bound with linen, but from beneath the wrappings Alain could see the bloom of blood, chest to hip. Beside him on the table lay his sword, the one with which he had instructed Alain the previous summer. Alain had thought it a thing of beauty then, all silver in the bright sun. In its shiny length Alain had seen the breath of gods. Now it looked different, an angry, earthly tool covered with clotted blood. Alain's hand went to his belt to touch the hilt of the Viking's sword he still carried.

Marrec moaned, and Alain turned his attention back to the other table. Calin was examining the wounds.

"It's bad," the old steward said.

"Will he be all right?"

Calin wrung out a cotton cloth and placed it to the cut on Marrec's head. "Hold that," he told Alain, and then tore at Marrec's tunic. Calin hissed as he saw the wound the tunic had hidden. Alain could only stare at the blood and the deep dark gash that cut from his father's neck across his chest and into his left arm.

"Will he live?" he asked, fearful of what the answer might be, for looking at the long, dark laceration, he believed only one answer was possible.

Calin emptied a pitcher of water Marrec's chest and neck. Reddened water coursed across the rough wood and down to the floor. "I've seen worse, much worse, at Jengland-Bresl?hen your father and I went up against bald King Charles." He looked up at Alain. "It's bad. But don't give up on the old ploughman yet."

"I won't," he said, and I can't, he added to himself. "What can I do?"

"Just hold that cloth to his scalp, for now. The wounds are serious, and'll take some sewing. We may need help from the Delphine."

Marrec's groaned and his eyes fluttered open. "Boy," he said as he looked up and saw Alain's face. The voice was cracked and weak, but his laborer's hand reached up and grabbed Alain's shoulder with a slow, urgent strength. "Boy," Marrec said again. Alain smiled.

"Yes, Papa. I'm right here."

Marrec pulled Alain down close. "By Epona's filthy tail, Boy, what were you doing up in the wood so long? I needed you."

Alain's smile died. "I..." he began, but could speak no more, caught in the tumult of his own emotions. He looked at Calin, then back at his father. Marrec squinted up at him, and Alain could see the old man's jaw working beneath the thick, grey moustache.

"Why were you gone so long?" he asked. "To deliver a few sacks of grain?" His grip tightened. Alain felt as if his collarbone would pop. "You're a foolish bastard, Boy. While you were jawing with that witch, our house burned and I've been killed." He pushed Alain away then, and turned to Calin. "Worthless, that boy. Worthless."

"Hush, Ploughman," Calin said. "And be glad he's here. I've got to send him back up to the Wood."

"You might as well kill me now than wait for him to do a chore."

"Hush, Marrec." Calin gave Alain a weak smile. "He doesn't know what he's talking, Boy. It's the blow to his head."

"I know what I'm saying," Marrec mumbled as his eyes rolled white and closed. "That boy will be the death of me. Mark my words."

Alain took a step back from the table, heart pounding and gaze gone hard. He stared at the ploughman on the table.

"Boy," the steward said. "Alain."

Alain looked up at Calin, silent behind his armor of hurt.

"I need a poultice. From the Delphine. To draw out the bad humours from this wound. It's too close to his heart. You must go up to the Wood."

Alain stood, caught between his love, his desire to help, and his pain-fed anger.

"Go," Calin said, tipping the balance. "Do not prove your father right."

Alain turned and left the kitchen, pushing the ancient door wide and walking out through the garden gate with long strides. He headed directly across the turnip field and was halfway to the stable by the time Josselyn caught up with him.

"Stop," she said as she ran up to him, breathless.

"What do you want," he said harshly. He turned to find her standing a few paces behind him, fists on her hips and a scowl in her eyes. The sharp scent of bruised turnip greens rose from the path he'd broken through the field. "Jos? I'm sorry," he said.

Josselyn walked up to him, the torn hem of her dress whispering through the calf-high greens. She said nothing, only reached out and touched his forearm with gentle fingertips. Bronze bracelets at her wrist caught the sun and winked.

"I just wanted," she began. "To thank you."

Alain saw in Josselyn the same proud features that had graced her mother's face. With intense eyes of iron-grey, a wide mouth now turned down in an angry frown, the strong sweep of her jaw, and a long, thick braid of sun-gold hair across her shoulder, she was the greatest thing of beauty he had ever seen. He did not know what to say to her now, however. After so many years of friendship, Alain found himself tongue-tied by concern and love.

Josselyn caught him looking at her. She made a small shake of her head. "Don't fret," she told him. "I will grieve. Later, when there is time."

"I should go," he said. "I know what herbs Calin needs. I've helped the Delphine prepare a hundred such poultices."

Josselyn looked up and pulled back a stray lock of hair that had fallen across her face. "Take one of the other horses," she told him. "Reynald is tired."

Alain shook his head. "The Wood is a strange place. Reynald knows it better." He hesitated before leaving her. "I am sorry," he said. "About your father, about our cottage. About...about everything."

"I know," she said. "Hurry back."

Alain turned and ran for the stable.


   

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