.. | angelika | chapter 1
Luca's mother died on a tenthday, the week's end-day of rest, where no man or woman would go to work, plow their fields, or even milk their cows if it could be helped. It was a day for family to gather, for fathers to spend the day teaching their boys to fish, and mothers their girls to bake, and all to gather for the dinner such things created.
But Luca's father had died almost five years ago, killed in an alley of the village apparently for the change in his pocket and the coat off his back, his body found two days later, bloated and festered near beyond recognition in the sweltering summer heat and sizzling cobblestone. In the dirtier part of their town there was a small twig of a stream and a bridge that crossed it, over which most of the citizens did not venture lest they were looking for something particular in nature. Luca and his mother had never spoken about why his father had been found on the wrong side of that bridge. They only came with a mule and cart to bring his body home and bury it themselves. Luca had been twelve, and his mother still quite young and natural. It was only in the years that followed she seemed to age beyond her years, to withdraw, and make her descent.
Now nearly seventeen, he labored on a tenthday to dig a grave for her next to his father's. It was a modest piece of land they lived on, large enough to support a family, and large enough to be difficult to manage by himself alone. The upper branches of the great oak he toiled beneath creaked in the gentle breeze, reminding him starkly of time, and how it had changed everything since he and his mother had buried his father beneath it. The air of late summer was moist and hot, it felt too close around him as he worked. He had cried already, for she had been dead since daybreak, but it seemed he was crying again as he worked, grunting his anger and sorrow, digging his shovel into the ground to force the ache of his limbs and blister his fingers. His mother's body lay behind him in a small cart he'd tried to decorate with flowers and branches, something to give her a decent wake from the house to this spot, just downhill on the edge of the woods she had loved. Their mule, Karo, stood quietly, obediently, idly flicking his tail and watching him work.
Finally it was done. He sat back on his haunches in his mother's grave, covered in the moist dirt, his nostrils full of the sourly sweet scent of decay and fertility. With a deep breath he wiped his brow and cheek free of sweat and tears and left a streak of dirt behind. This was the part he had dreaded- the end, the last thing to be done and then he would never see her again. Karo's long ears perked a little as Luca climbed out and made his way back towards him and the cart he was attached to.
"Easy," Luca said, absently petting his nose as he passed. He'd wrapped the body in the cart in her finest satin sheets, one vanity his mother had held on to since the days before her marriage, when she'd belonged to a wealthy family. Her choice of husband had been impetuous, however, based on carnal need rather than good family and fortune, and thus they'd left her to it. She had never seemed to mind though, and had seemed to live many years happily. She'd borne a son possessed of her beautiful black hair and her husband's handsome blue eyes, a child so fine she'd been the envy of all her friends. Even strangers had stopped her in the street to peer down at the small boy on the leash of her arm, touch his thick hair and coo down respects and good wishes at him. She'd watched the boy turn into a youth, grow taller than her but maintain his slender build. By the time her husband had died she could not complain or worry terribly much past the initial grief, for now she had a son who would look after her. But even as much as Luca loved her, he could not shelter her from the illness in her head, which had so drained her body of its vital light for years. From thence came the true illness and fever which had killed her. The bloody sickness that had taken her had done so quickly, within days of her first cough.
Luca lifted her from the cart easily- she'd been a petite figure always- and gently laid her in the ground. He wondered if he should have called on someone to be here for these last moments, but he could not think of anyone. Upon his mother's withdrawal into her own head she had but lost all connection with anyone who had cared about her besides her own son, much preferring to stay here at their keep than venture into town. Luca was old enough at that point to know the difference between his mother of years ago and the one he would know at the end- a simple, troubled soul, innocent to the core, wanting only a warm fire, her purple flowers and pine needles, and a son to kiss her forehead at night before he left her bedside.
Luca uncovered her face to have one last look, bit back a hasty rush of tears and covered it up again. It had not been a pretty or easy death; the cough had racked her lungs dry and cracked her lips. The crushing pain in her chest still echoed in the contortion of her face and lips, and her eyes had not stayed shut. He should not have taken that last look, for now he feared that face would be the image he'd hold of his mother, instead of lighter times when she had laughed and teased him as she picked flowers from her garden.
Luca buried her quickly to keep himself from looking again. The sun was setting into late afternoon now, and though it was still fairly light, its heat was almost gone. Finally he stood above the mound of dirt, unable to get the picture of her lying, no, decaying beneath it out of his head. Karo nudged his arm impatiently; it was time for evening oats.
He whispered her name once more, wiped his cheeks again and forced himself to leave that place. Weary with grief, he mounted onto the mule's back and let Karo turn of his own accord back to the keep, without bridle, reins, or even a rope, with the empty cart rattling along behind. Luca was content to let him go back on his own. Instead he looked up at the sky, a beautiful wash of blues, oranges and the occasional pink wisp of cloud. To the east it was almost night already, though the stars would probably be another hour in coming. Before him the expanse of their keep stretched out in the quiet evening, fallow fields for the most part but for the small patch he and his mother worked to feed themselves, and sell a little in town. The apple orchard beyond the house bore enough fruit to keep them in decent standing when it came time to pick and sell, and every day but tenthdays of the fall Luca took Karo and a cartful up to the main village to sell outside a shop where he worked. How he would do it alone this year he didn't know. Perhaps he would have to let the orchard go as well.
"Let the orchard go?" Dunnant, the owner of the shop he worked at, snorted as he shined a bit of leather two weeks later. He hissed at the shop's cat as for the fourth time in five minutes she jumped into the counter where he was working. "Your mother'd be heart-broken."
A small stab, but the man hadn't meant it that way. Luca stopped his stitching for a moment. "I just can't do it on my own, though," he said. "Last year we worked ourselves to death to pick through."
"But you made a pretty penny if I remember," Dunnant said. "And you know more than one or two folks have an eye on that plot 'cause of those apples. It could be raisin' three times as many if only you'd sell it."
"I live there," Luca said doggedly. It was an old argument. True, the land had come up ripe in the last several years, the trees sagged with their bounty, almost all of which dropped to the ground and rotted, wasted. Time and time again they been offered money for that land, but his mother had refused. The orchard aside, she loved her gardens and the woods nearby, often disappearing for hours at a time to be in them alone. Apples or not, he didn't care. He would let the whole place get swallowed by the encroaching woods, so long as he had it to call home.
"You could hire someone to work for you," Dunnant said, sharpening his awl in preparation for cutting his final pattern. It was a particularly ornate saddle he was working on, something Luca would never have attempted. But Dunnant was a seasoned saddle-maker, had been in the trade for thirty-odd years. He had only taken Luca on as an apprentice two years ago. "Better yet, take this damned cat-" he hissed again but she had long learned he would never hurt her, and only lay down on his pattern, tail flicking, large eyes quite wide and innocent.
"I could never pay them," Luca answered, reaching over and petting her. "And no one in their right mind would wait on a promise of payment, not off that little plot."
"Take on boarders then. And a cat."
Luca shrugged. "Maybe," he conceded. "But you keep the cat."
"Hn, there's no gettin' rid of her I suppose. Once had a whole pack of huntin' dogs run in here and she's clam-happy, sittin' on the counters watching them all. Ain't a thing that'd scare her away."
Almost in answer to his word, there were sounds of a commotion outside, though neither of them looked up. Dunnant's saddlery faced a small open courtyard off the main street, but near enough to it to have all kinds of noise come through. The cobblestones of the street tended to echo voices and the rattling of carts and hooves easily against the two-story buildings that enclosed it.
The commotion didn't seem to pass as usual however, and both were obliged to set their hand tools down and peer out of the shop windows. A crowd was gathering near the edge of the small fountain in the center of the courtyard. What they were about neither could see.
"Go on, have a look then. Best make sure they've not caught some criminal or such," Dunnant said with a wave of his large stained hand.
Luca wandered outside into the warm sunshine of the afternoon. People were still passing about their business but more and more were stopping to crane their necks to see what was going on. A few dogs were barking somewhere in the circle, and Luca wondered if they hadn't caught some animal and bloodied it to everyone's fascination, or some nonsense like that.
He caught snippits of conversation around him which were obscure enough to lead him closer into the center where, peering over a large man's shoulder, he could see someone sitting on the edge of the fountain. There was blood on the worn marble's edge.
"Attacked by a dog?" someone was saying.
"No, no, they just said the dogs won't let her alone. She came into the square like that, blood and all. Ain't no one's touched her."
Luca had slid in front of the large man now and he could see her, leaning wearily on her bloodied arm, clothes ripped almost to rags, and she was only covered by how her right hand and arm clenched them closed over her narrow chest. Somehow her tunic was still held closed over her lower body, though her legs, long and scratched and muddied, were quite bare as well. She had long chestnut hair, nearly down to the small of her back, disheveled and dirty with dried blood and dirt. She was fair, flat-chested and reedy,so skinny as to be nearly devoid of all traces of femininity besides her hair and smudged face, and looked as if she were going to collapse any second. She seemed to be paying no mind to the crowd or dogs, indeed, she only seemed interested in the water, which she was now feebly trying to bring to her mouth with the trembling cup of her hand.
Luca stripped off his heavy smock and elbowed his way through, kicking at the dogs to keep their distance and stood over the girl. She squinted up at him, her lips dry, light eyes vacant.
"Come on, I'll get you some clean water," he said, draping the smock over her and pulling her to get up. She didn't resist, but felt as if she would snap in two, as light and slender as she was. Her legs allowed her about three steps before they buckled, even with his help, so he scooped her up into his arms. The crowd made way for him, some people still talking about the odd girl covered in blood, but mostly now about the pretty youth, the son of that crazy woman, who had come out of nowhere to help her.
"Oy, you can't bring that in here," Dunnant protested as Luca kicked closed the shop door to keep out lingering on-lookers.
"Dim-witted street gulls, to just sit and stare at someone who obviously needs help," Luca was muttering, passing his boss through the junk-crowded shop on his way to the back where he could set her down in some privacy from those who were taking a last peer through the windows. Dunnant had followed, but he lingered in the doorway, holding the door drape open with his elbow.
"Somethin' odd 'bout her ain't there?" he said after a moment of watching Luca trade the smock for a blanket. The girl had started to shiver, and she looked quite pale. "Not all there and such?"
"Odd?" Luca poured a cup of fresh water from a jug they kept for themselves and lifted it to her lips. This she seemed to recognize and drank greedily. A moment later she vomited it back up onto his breeches. Luca offered the cup again, wiping her face with the blanket. "Slowly," he said.
Dunnant grunted. "Aye, odd,. Can't put me finger on it though."
"People in the streets were saying the same thing," Luca answered, holding the cup for her to make sure she didn't drink too ravenously. When it seemed like she could do it on her own, he stepped out of the back room into the shop again, his boss close behind.
"She's just a girl who's got into a fight, or attacked," he said quietly. "She needs to see a physician."
Dunnant grunted again. "Just a girl or no," he muttered, peering through the flap of cloth again. "Somethin's unsettlin'. Can't believe you don't feel it, you're the one always pickin' out people to be murderers 'n thieves."
Luca shrugged. "That was more my mother's influence," he said quickly. "Do you need me still today?"
His boss was still peering at the girl through the flap. "Nah, you go on, I can finish on me own. Oy, now where's that cat gone to?"
Luca squatted down in front of her again, having left Dunnant to search for his pet. The girl clutched her cup of water with both hands under her chin and lazily peered down at him. Her hands were bony, making him think of a bird's wings, and her knuckles were cruelly scraped.
"Can you speak?" he asked gently. "What's your name?"
"Aurel," she said, her voice husky and spent. "Thank you for the water."
"Do you want to see a physician? There is one in the high street just-"
"No, no physician," she said quickly. "I'll be fine on my own." She drank again, and Luca noticed a leather cuff laced around her bony left wrist. All other adornments she might have had were gone, and the one left was a strange one to see on a girl.
"Did someone attack you?" he asked, wondering if it was all right to ask her something like that. Judging by her state and the mild distrust in her large, amber eyes there was a good chance she didn't care to share something like that. Just so, Aurel shook her head in a hasty, non-committal sort of way, signifying that she would not answer one way or the other and he felt he should not ask again.
"Where do you live? I can take you back there-" he tried.
"No-where. No family," Aurel said, her voice trembling at the last words, and though no tears formed in her eyes, Luca saw the dirty streaks of previous ones down her cheeks.
No home. Something must have happened there- a fight, a rape, someone died and the rest of the family had tossed her out. It didn't matter the reason. He wanted to tell her that he too had no family left, but something made him hold his tongue. If she truly had no place to go surely he could offer one, for a little while at least.
He let several minutes go by before proposing it to her, unable to even explain to himself his reasoning beyond his pity for her plight. People had shunned her, and in some way he felt like he understood the feeling. While as a child he had never lacked for attention, not all of it had been favorable. In fact, in her last years his mother's reputation as being somewhat unstable had grown, which was what had ultimately led to her reclusion, though she herself had protested that she preferred it anyway. Several incidents were still quite fresh in his mind, and he had been involved in all of them, called from his shop to various parts of the town where she'd had one of her 'episodes' in full view of the public. Now, where once he had been noticed for his fine features, in the last years people knew him as the son of 'that woman' who had occasionally gone crazy in the streets, who dropped to the ground and foamed at the mouth like someone possessed. He would cry out that it was a sickness and nothing else, but had always worried about the day when they might begin to fear her as a lamia, one of those old crones who whispered strange words over bowls of water and set fire to their houses with their children inside.
"Come on, I've a place for you to stay, if you want," he said gently. Aurel raised her head a little, eyes searching his. This she mulled over, as if she were weighing some options he hadn't thought about.
"Why are you helping me?" she asked.
"Well, where else will you go?" He had torn a strip of clean polishing linen from its peg near her head and dipped it in her water bowl. Gently he reached to wipe her face off. She sat quietly for it, closing her eyes and allowing him a good study of her features. He let his eyes drop to her shoulders, slender and almost sharp, with the collarbones protruding, and the tender cords of her long neck. She had wrapped her blanket close around her, but he could still see the upper expanse of her chest and the gentle lines of the ribs that covered her heart which should never have been so visible. As he looked he began to feel a little of what others must have already noticed, that indeed there was something odd about her. Her voice, her long, almost boyish body. His mind lingered on a thought not quite formed in his mind, until upon his finishing she turned her eyes up to him again, and her dirty, pretty face held an open trust at last.
An hour was as long as Dunnant could suffer her being there, as such his cat had not returned and he was convinced it was because of that girl. But it was long enough in that Aurel was able to regain some strength quickly by her water alone. It appeared she had not had any or enough in some time, and the heat of the last few days had taken its toll on her, wherever she had been. Luca could not get an answer out of her as to where and how she had wandered, and where she had gotten her wounds, though her answers were not evasive. She was not trying to be cagey, but answered him with direct, though polite refusals. He finally gave up trying, lest he upset her, and as they finally left the shop to head home he bought her bread and cheese to eat for the journey, partly because she needed it and partly in apology for being importunate. Aurel never seemed to notice, though, and took his gift with graciousness and even a bit of charm.
"Are you sure you are all right to walk? It's a league at least; maybe I should hire a cart on its way out." They had reached the edge of the village, where buildings had become sparse and the vagrants fewer, but there was still the occasional mule-cart of a harker on his way home, or a sulky; the rich out for an evening draw in the peaceful countryside.
"You've spent enough on me," she said softly. "I have walked this far, I can go a little farther." As she spoke Aurel twisted her long hair into a thick rope and hid it beneath her cloak. Luca had bought it for her to wrap herself in, but she had refused any other clothing, saying she could make use of whatever he had at home he did not use or wear. She especially refused the expense of shoes, though her feet were perhaps in the worst shape of all.
They walked in silence a bit, eventually passing from the crushed gravel and sand of the main road to the padded down grass of a less-trodden byway. Aurel didn't speak much, but when she did she had a particular way of it, as if she had to put a lot of thought behind her words. Luca found that he liked her soft voice, if indeed this was her true voice and not a result of her hardships. Again something tugged at his mind, but like before she turned to him with a little smile that amid the remaining dirt and grime, spread a warmth in his chest he had never felt before when faced with a pretty girl.
"Come in, sit down by the hearth, I'll light a fire," he said, ushering Aurel into his darkened, empty home. Despite her earlier words the walk had taken a toll on her already taxed reserves, and she all but collapsed onto the rugs before the cold grate, arms clutching the cloak close.
"Where is your family?" she asked as he stacked wood into the grate. "You don't live all alone here, do you?"
"I do," he answered, trying not to make his words sound short. "My mother's only recently passed, you see."
Aurel sat up. "I'm sorry, Luca," she said, using his name for the first time. "You wouldn't rather be alone?" He had gotten the first kindling lit, and she inched closer to where he sat.
"No, I'm glad you're here," he said, but left it at that, refraining from finishing with, "I've been alone long enough." She didn't need that burden on her. They both watched the fire grow and light the large open living space. Outside the sun was beginning to set and with it the heat of the day was replaced by a sudden moist chill in the air. The fire was welcome and good, and Luca found himself looking at her again by the light of it. Its glow hid much of her bruising and showed hints of her true beauty behind the grime. She turned her head and caught him staring.
"I will heat some water for the bath," he said, getting up. "We've a neat little pump system for warm water, you saw the big tank outside? We call it a catchment- you won't find that in many country houses. I just have to go and light the furnace-" He shut his mouth and left after that, thinking he'd rambled on a bit too much about something she probably didn't care about. She looked very tired and he felt he might be contributing.
When he got back inside, she had fallen asleep in the warmth and safety of the hearth. He let her rest for a bit until he was sure the water would be warm enough, and gently touched her shoulder to rouse her. Aurel didn't stir at first, only groaned a little and turned her head into her arms, murmuring something he didn't catch.
He shook her a little harder, whispering, "Aurel?"
She shot up as if waking from a nightmare, eyes wide and searching. Her hands had caught his arm and pushed him back, nails digging into his skin. But within moments her breathing had settled and she calmed, even giving a little smile of admitted embarrassment.
"Sorry," she said. "Didn't recognize where I was."
Luca gave her an easy smile. "It's all right. The washroom is this way; I'll show you how to work the pumps."
It was an easy enough concept for her to get, and he left her to it. "Don't fall asleep in there," he said with a little laugh. "I do sometimes after a long day. It can't be helped."
Aurel was still clutching her cloak and delayed in returning his smile just long enough for him to notice. "Well, if I do, let me sleep, will you? I mean, you don't have to come in and get me. I won't drown." She then gave him the little smile, as if in apology for her words, and shut the door.
Aurel didn't fall asleep however; she emerged from the washroom fresh, pink and looking much more alive than Luca would have expected. She was still quite subdued, however, and immediately went to sit near the fire again, her whole body dragging with exhaustion, hair in long damp strands about her face. She had dressed herself in the clothing he had left by the door- some loose breeches and a linen shirt that hung off her shoulders- making her seem even smaller than she was.
"I am making some food if you're hungry," Luca said from the scullery den. "It's not much, I'm afraid. My mother wasn't very good at cooking, and unfortunately I learned everything I know from her."
"Neither am I," Aurel admitted, having wrapped herself in blankets he had stacked for her and nested down before the grate. "It's been a long time since I even had a brickstove to attempt anything."
Luca spooned out some dark meaty gravy he had been eating off for the past two nights. He wished he could have offered her something better, but there was no meat in the cellar, the vegetables he'd pulled last week were wilted, and it was too dark now to go out and trap. He handed her a plate and settled down next to her with two apples set aside for later. Together they stared into the fire.
"I suppose there's an excuse for boys not to cook," he said lightly after a few moments, "but a girl like you?"
Aurel's eyes were downturned to her plate and she gave a sad little smile. The more Luca watched her face the more he saw how expressive it was, but only when it seemed she forgot to keep control, in purely candid moments. Otherwise she kept it carefully schooled. It turned to that very expression as she said, "My upbringing didn't include womanly chores as such. I'm afraid you'll find me a bit different from the girls you know."
Luca chewed thoughtfully before saying, "I don't know any girls," he admitted. He felt Aurel's eyes on him, so he finished with, "My mother was not well for a long time, so I never really thought about much besides her, and keeping this place livable. Since she's gone though, I haven't done much with it."
The girl looked around. "But it seems very livable," she said softly, amiably. "A little dusty, but very cozy."
Luca, too, let his eyes wander up to the strong rafters that crossed the length of the house's underoof. He could barely see them, but their shadows leapt back and forth in neat dancing rows.
"There's plenty to do, sure," he said. Then, more softly, "I'm afraid I haven't wanted to think about it much since my mother left."
Aurel was nibbling a last bit of hard bread and set her plate down. She picked up one of the apples and held it between both hands, thoughtfully touching its shiny skin to her lips. "Luca." When he looked at her, she suddenly seemed a little shy.
"I wanted to thank you for your help," she said gently. "I know I haven't told you everything you want to know about me, but I hope you can understand that it's been a long time since… since I was able to trust someone completely."
He wasn't sure what he should say, so he tried to show understanding in his eyes, and let words lie alone for a while. It was enough for her in that she returned the little smile and they sat in silence for a while longer. Much longer in fact, until the apple rolled from her gentle grip and he realized she was dozing, her arm propped up on her knee, leaning against the large basket that usually held the stack of blankets and furs they both currently rested on.
Luca took their plates to be washed later, and arranged the padding around her as best he could, should she want to lie down later in the night. He threw one more log onto the fire and retreated into his own room for the evening. He crawled into his own familiar bed and thought about the girl in front of the fire until his own eyes closed and he fell into a dreamless sleep.
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