.. | the waterstreet mill | chapter 1
It was twilight when I stumbled off of the road and spotted a modest keep, nested comfortably on the outskirts of a patch of trees. It had all the makings of a house whose inhabitants lived off the land- a thatched reed roof, painted dark with a chalky substance that would lessen it as a fire danger; white washed outer walls of rough, solid clay; black vanes to all the windows behind whose glass glowed welcome firelight. All around it grew wild flowers and brush but for the cobble path that had been kept clear, which led down and around the immediate lawn. A low-slung, two-rung fence stretched far behind the farmhouse to encompass the fields below on a terraced hillside. It wasn't imposing, it was quaint and quiet. Lights burned in the windows, smoke rose from the chimney and cattle grazed peacefully in the front field, their sorrel bodies almost invisible in the disappearing light.
I remember just standing there for a moment, feeling the ache of my muscles, the grit of the road between my fingers and bare toes. This filth was bothering me almost more than my hunger and fever did at the moment. However it was my thirst that could not be ignored any longer. I think that was what finally drove me to muster up what courage I had left and resolve myself to count on the basic goodness of strangers- something I had never had to do.
But I still hesitated. When the wind blew from behind me I could still feel that wound between my shoulder blades; the one they had burned onto my skin for all the world to see. Even though it had already begun to scab over, my skin was still raw and oozing, and my shirt, thin as it was, stick to it painfully.
I felt close to tears. The basic goodness of people usually didn't encompass welcoming branded degenerates into ones home. The cool wind blew again, as if to agree.
I looked down the road, then back the way I had come. My mother had wanted to me to stay. To pray and to work, so that someday my corrupt ways may be forgiven in the eyes of her God. But the mark would never be forgiven, even when it healed. I would always have it. From now on people would always know what I was.
It was my father I had run away from. From those looks that were full of shame when his eyes rested on me. From his beatings and his ranting and finally, when his mind was well muddled in an ale-induced rage, his denying of me being of his blood. As if ordering my branding wasn't enough punishment for me.
I was still so young. It hurt so much to think on it, while my mind was still raw with the pain. And yet, even now it still hurts if I linger on it too long.
Clouds were building up in the direction I had come from, darker than the night blue sky. When the wind blew again I could smell the rain that would come with them.
The house beckoned and I took a step towards it. After all, as long as I could keep my shirt on, perhaps I would have no need to explain where I had come from. Not the truth anyway.
A young boy answered my knock at the door. He was dirty-faced, as if he'd been eating his food from the bowl itself, and stood unabashedly licking his fingers as he gazed up at me with large green eyes beneath a mop of curly blond hair. His simple tunic hung off one shoulder.
We just stared at each other for a moment before I realized he was waiting for me to say something.
"Um, is your family home?" I asked, finding my voice. From the open door wafted a smell of fresh bread and spices and my stomach churned half in eagerness, half in nausea.
At this he turned over his shoulder and bellowed, "Momma!"
Then he turned back at me. "Are you OK?" he asked, his little eyebrows furrowing.
I then realized what I must look like. I smoothed my hair back and tried not to let my exhaustion and hunger show so much in my face. "Just a little tired," I told him. And hurting and hungry.
"Cam?" A woman's voice.
She appeared behind the boy and brushed him back from the door upon the sight of me. He peeked out from behind her skirts. She was taller than I, but only by a bit, and very... well endowed by the cut of her dress and apron. Her chestnut hair was swept back in a thick bundle and piled atop her head with only a few wisps escaping, probably from the day's work. Her son had her large green eyes.
But she was also young and had a kind look, the one I had been hoping for.
"I'm sorry to bother you, my lady," I said with a habitual slight bow. "But I was wondering if I might trouble you for a bit of bread and perhaps some shelter in your barn."
Her lashes fluttered as she cocked her head, seeming to take stock of me. Behind her, her son did the same.
"Are you a criminal?" she asked blatantly.
"No," I lied, keeping eye contact with her so that she would be more inclined to believe me. Criminal or not, I certainly meant no harm to her or her family. In my mind that was what counted and that's why I lied.
She opened the door wider so that I may enter, or rather, stumble in. Her hands caught my arm and she steered me to sit on the bench of a large wooden eating table. The house was warm, and I could feel my fever burning up again. Her cool hand touched my forehead beneath my tousled hair and I looked up at her face again, imagining my own mother tending me, only ten years younger. I wanted to weep.
"Have you walked a long way?" she asked, moving into the adjacent kitchen and pouring steaming water from a kettle above the fire place into a wooden bowl.
"Three days," I said, wanting no more than to lay my head on the table and pass out. But I watched her instead as she brought the bowl back to me and told me to wash my hands in it.
"I don't suppose you've had a good meal in those three days?" she asked, handing me a cloth to dry my hands. She felt my face again. "Perhaps you shouldn't eat, you're feverish."
I coulnd't bear the thought of going longer without food. "It's just hunger," I said. Some food and a place to pass out was the only cure I felt I needed.
She smiled and brought a platter from the counter that was covered with meat cuts, bread and vegetables. "If you're sure, then you can eat this. I was saving it for my husband but I don't think he'll be back tonight."
I was so grateful she would offer me so much that I couldn't even find the words to thank her. Bringing a mug and pitcher of water to the table, she waved my attempts at thanks away and sat down across from me to make sure I ate every last bit. She was distractingly pretty as she sat watching me. So much so that I had to make a conscious effort not to look at her.
As I ate, I noticed she had the good grace not to ask why I had been on the road so long on foot, empty-handed and unaccompanied. My earlier resolve at lying to her came back and I felt all the more guilty because of her trusting and kindness. And with her husband not home either!
The small boy who had answered the door climbed up onto the bench beside me and put both elbows on the table to watch me.
"Camdyn," his mother admonished. He doggedly slid his elbows off the table, but didn't move from the bench nor take his eyes off of me.
She relented with a motherly smile.
"You've met Cam," she said, "and there's one other running around here, probably hiding. He gets a little nervous with strangers. If you see him, his name is Tanner."
I smiled as best I could as I chewed. "My name is Micah," I said after swallowing.
She fanned herself with a dishcloth. The kitchen was warm because of the cookfire in the grate, and even she had a sheen of sweat on her temples. It was a charming glow, wheras I felt beads rolling down my back. My vision blurred a little with dizziness; perhaps she'd been right, perhaps I shouldn't have eaten.
"Call me Aislinn," she was saying with a slight nod of her head. "Micah. That's a beautiful name."
"My mother thought so," I said, trying to blink away this new disorientation without her noticing.
Her little laugh was that of a young girl's. "Come, now that you have eaten, have a bath. The tub is still full and warm. Then you'll sleep."
"Thank you, but the food is enough-"
She pulled me by my arm and her hand was like a vice. "Nonsense. You're filthy and you must set a good example for my children at least." She all but pushed me past a living area and into a washroom where a large tub awaited. She pulled out some woolen blankets from a shelf.
"You've a fever and there's nothing better for that than food, a bath and then bed. No arguing."
Wryly in my head I though it strange. I thought I'd left my mother behind.
I just blinked at her as she handed me the blankets and exited with a smile, closing the door behind her. I looked at the welcoming water and hesitated should she decide to come back and scrub me herself. But finally I pulled my shirt over my head somewhat painfully and peeled off my trousers.
I sank into the water and felt like I could die right then. When my tight muscles began to loosen I found could even bear the sting of the water on my wound for such comforts. The dizziness lingered on the outskirts of my consciousness, long enough for me to rub the dirt and grime from my limbs and face, rinse my tousled hair and make myself feel decently human again.
Finally, though, I had to give in and shut my sore eyes. I leaned against the back of the tub, arching a bit so as to not rub my tender flesh against its side. Just for a few moments, I told myself.
When I awoke it was because a door somewhere in the house had opened and closed loudly. By the warmth of the water, I had only just dozed off, but I scrambled out of the tub. Perhaps it had been the front door. Perhaps her husband was home.
And I had eaten his food; she had given it to me. What would his reaction be? I know what my own father would have done- slapped me and then my mother for good measure. What had I done? Why had I come here? My heart began pounding as I hastily dried myself off. My nervousness was making my fever flare and I began to feel lightheaded, moreso now than before.
The washroom door opened just as I wrapped the blanket about my waist. Cam came in, bringing an armful of clothes with him.
"Momma says you can put these on, they're too small for Papa anyways," he said, pushing the pile into my hands. He smiled and scampered out.
What choice had I? The shirt was too large for me, it hung off of me very much like little Cam's hung off him, but the pants were loose and comfortable, with ties in the front to fit better. I flicked as much water out of my hair as possible and smoothed it down to try and make myself as presentable as I could. I pulled my sleeve up over my shoulder but it promptly fell again. Had I lost weight after such a short time on the road?
When I emerged from the washroom, Aislinn was kneeling on the floor amid her skirts with young Tanner on her lap and Cam playing alongside. She smiled up at me and set her boy aside as she stood.
"My husband is home after all," she said with a smile.
It allayed my fears a bit that she seemed to regard it as good news, but such things can be deceiving. I had seen many a beaten wife, nothing so out of the ordinary where I came from, who would still follow her husband to the ends of the earth. My own mother was one. So when her husband emerged from the kitchen area into the living room, I took an involuntary step back even before I had a good look at him. Tall was the first description that came to my mind, and the next, magnificent.
Although he still looked like an ordinary farmer- his shaggy hair, his unadorned clothing- there was something else to him that was quite, well, extraordinary. The color of his hair was like burnt ochre, all chestnut and dark copper. His face was slightly unshaven, and his eyes- they were large and lazy and kind. From where I stood I couldn't see their color, but I imagined they were some rare color as well. He was dressed as many farmers were too; simple shirtsleeves, breeches and heavy boots. His sleeves were rolled up to the elbows, revealing sinewy, sun-darkened forearms.
He was rustic, he was handsome, and my involuntary reaction to him was the kind of thing that had gotten me into trouble in the first place.
He also seemed to be studying me from where he stood, chewing on a chicken leg he had snatched from the kitchen. I waited, swaying a bit from my headache and shivering now from my fever that had flared again. Aislinn, having the trained eyes of a mother, came to me and tested my heated forehead with her hand again.
"Archer, for God's sake don't just stand there scaring him!" Aislinn admonished, holding my shoulders. "He's sick!"
My vision had begun to blur but I saw him smile and toss the rest of his meal to two large mastiffs that must have come in with him. He advanced across the room with only a few long strides until I stood face to face with him. Well, face to neck. And confronted with such an imposing man, I couldn't keep myself from averting my eyes, though I knew I should meet his. My nervousness was making my headache worse and I felt like I would lose my balance and reel to the floor in a moment. And I would have, had he not caught me in his arm.
Pain spread from my back where his arm had roughly abraded my wound and I cried out in pain, trying to wriggle out of his grasp. Even with me squirming, he lifted me easily from my feet, careful now of my back, and carried me off to a part of the house I had not been. The fever would not be held off any longer. In my deliriousness I closed my eyes and breathed in the smell of hay and leather and horses.
He set me into a bed and I rolled over instantly to my side, wanting to turn my back away from them. Vaguely I remember Aislinn coming around and pulling the covers over me. She exchanged a glance with her husband before I closed my eyes and drifted off, unable to fight the blackness anymore.
I spent the next three days in a feverish daze, of which I don't remember much. But during that time I had once heard Archer say in all practicality that the fever had come from my wound and the chill in the air, and that I should not have eaten. His wife had whispered back that it was because my heart had been broken, and the brand I had received was what burned me from the inside out.
I remember crying quietly into my pillow that night.
Sometime on the fourth day, I woke up. For real.
I came to lying on my stomach with my face buried in a pillow that felt and smelled of down. I could still feel the remnants of the fever I had been suffering from, and my head was too heavy to lift. With the warm, soft pillow beckoning me back to sleep, I sighed a deep, contented breath and closed my eyes again, never really giving any attention to where I thought I was.
Until I realized that my shirt was gone and someone was touching my back with something cold and wet. I would have shot straight up if not for a heavy hand placed on the back of my neck to gently hold me down.
"Stay still," he said.
I froze. Archer was applying something to my wound and for once, the pain was bearable. His touch was gentle, in respect for how horrible the still-healing brand must have looked. Surely he knew what the mark meant. I wanted to bury my shame into the pillow. I had not bargained for this. I hated that his wife was so kind, I hated that she didn't make me sleep in the barn. No, instead she had to feed me, bathe me, clothe and care for me.
And now her husband sat next to me on the bed, tending me as if it didn't matter that that mark meant I had been purposely cast out of my family and home. I steeled what was left of my pride and turned my head to face him. It looked as if he had just gotten up. His hair was slightly tousled and he was shirtless. He cocked his head slightly and looked at me with those lazy amber eyes.
"How do you feel?"
"Better," I croaked.
He smiled and went back to his medicating. "You don't sound better. But you look alive at least." We remained in silence for another few moments that were torture for me.
Finally, and I knew it was coming, he said, "Why did you lie to my wife?"
"I didn't mean to," I answered.
"But you did."
I pushed myself up on my sore arms. "That mark has nothing to do with me being a danger to your family," I bit out, more of my pride returning. "I am sorry for lying when you have been so kind. I'll leave-"
He pushed me back down to my stomach, gently but firmly.
"Nonsense," he said. "You're in no shape to go anywhere."
"Hush," he said, like a father reprimanding a child. "My wife would kill me if she knew I let you go in the state you're in."
He leaned down, his eyes serious. "But I want you to promise me now, in return for staying, that you won't lie to me again. I won't have it."
I gazed up at him, wondering at how his eyes and hair could be such a color. I nodded. "I promise."
"And I want you to promise me that whatever you were running from doesn't pose a threat to my family."
"Good." He set aside the little bowl of salve.
"Now while we wait for that to dry you can tell me your side of it."
I laid my head back on the pillow and stared at the wall. Who on earth would want to hear my side? There was a word for what I was, drawn from the old religious texts, ancient and evil-sounding to suit my kind well, as old priests thought fitting. Those three marks burned into my back were a symbol of the Geirahöd, the fey, the deviants, the unnatural who desired their own sex. Those who became pariahs of society and begged in the streets because they could not get work. Now I would be recognizable by everyone and cast out with the rest.
Did he not know what that symbol meant? I found it hard to believe.
He was waiting and I could feel his warmth next to my side. I shut my eyes tight. I could have lied to him. I could have told him that I had been wrongly accused. I could have.
"I can't deny what I am." I had said it over and over in my head a thousand times before. "I hadn't even meant for it to happen but my father caught us." My voice hitched in my throat.
Archer waited patiently for me to go on.
"We hadn't even done anything," I insisted, as if he was arguing with me. "But my father wanted to make an example of my punishment." I breathed a soft, demented laugh. "He dragged me all the way down through the town, shouting to everyone. Telling them to heat the irons, that I should be taught the error of my ways and pay my penance for all the world to see."
"So you ran away."
My fist gripped the pillow. "Because I couldn't stand living in that house after what my father had done to me. Seeing his face, knowing he is ashamed that I'm his son."
He was quiet for a moment, then asked, "What was his name? This... person you were caught with?"
My lover's name? My father hadn't even bothered to ask that.
"Byrne," I said. He had escaped unscathed, being a foreigner to the town who had been gone by the morning after my father had drug me from the mill rafters all the way home. I had barely known him.
"Did you love him?"
I looked at him, but only briefly. Archer was a family man; I knew his definition of love was different from mine. Perhaps he thought that if I loved Byrne then I at least would have some justification for what I would have done with him had we not been caught. But I couldn't lie to him. I had made him a promise.
"No," I said. I knew my answer surprised him, but he didn't say anything else on the matter.
Instead, he asked, "So what do you plan to do now?"
I wanted to sit up and face him, but my eyes were moist. "Go into the city," I mumbled after a moment. "Find work I guess."
"Good luck unless you have a trade skill," he said. To that I had no other solution. Never before had things looked so grim, despite that fact that I was lying in a warm bed with my wounds tended, and not in a cold ditch somewhere. It was a talent of youth to blatantly overlook those things I should have been thankful for.
After another silence, he said, "We had two men here who worked in exchange for their room and board. Both left last season for the city." He looked at me, I suppose trying to judge my reaction to what he was about to offer me. "The crop comes in after a few weeks," he continued, "and I could use a hand in the work. And Lyinn could use some help with the boys when I go into town."
I sat up and craned my head around to look at him. Was he offering me work?
"But you barely know me," I protested. Then, painfully, "Don't you know what that mark means?"
"Whoever you choose to sleep with has nothing to do with the work here," he said a little harshly. "And you said yourself it doesn't pose a threat to my family, and that is all that concerns me." He seemed irritated that I would linger on it so long after he had already expressed that it was of no concern to him.
"But I want you to know that if something does come to threaten us here, I'll break your neck," he added.
I swallowed and blinked at him, apprehension rising in my thorat.
But he had a good-hearted, challenging look to his eyes when he smiled and said, "You have to start over somewhere, Micah."
As the next few days passed I was allowed to rest up, regain my strength and heal. Aislinn would apply a salve every night that would take the pain away so I could sleep easier, and Archer would hold up a mirror for me to see how my mark looked as the days passed.
She slept with her children in a separate room while I shared a bed with her husband. It was awkward for me to share a bed with a complete stranger, but what was even more awkward was that he didn't seem to care. In the few conversations that I had with him during that time, he didn't seem to care about a lot of things except for what lay in the day at hand.
I had never met anyone like him.
Someone was shaking my shoulder gently, bringing me out of sleep. I opened my eyes to see that it was barely light outside. I rolled over and fixed bleary eyes on the figure leaning over me.
Archer smiled. "Get up, time to work."
I mumbled something incoherent as he stripped the warm covers off my body.
"Your days of rest are over, my boy," he said loudly, slapping my pillow to wake me again. "My wife the good doctor informs me that you're well enough to face a day outdoors."
I groaned into my pillow. How was I ever going to do this?
"Like this," Archer said, swinging an ax in a half circle and splitting the log cleanly on the stump. "It's heavy, but you can use its weight. See?"
I, of course, lacked the arm strength to even hit the log he set up for me.
Archer rubbed his rough-shaven chin. "Well, you can at least work on your aim before building muscle. Keep at it, my better half will need the wood for her oven this morning." He busied himself with a wagon that had a spiked wheel while I did battle with the damn firewood. In an hour my arms felt like pudding, and the sun had only just risen.
Archer squinted up into the horizon, then took stock of what I had managed to mangle out of the pile of logs. He didn't seem impressed. Raising and eyebrow, he actually seemed to be trying not laugh at me."Time to feed," he said.
We walked into a barn that was on the west side of the house a little down the gently sloping hillside. The main aisle was strewn with sawdust and hay and was busy with chickens that scattered in every direction as we walked. From stalls on either side came the hungry nickering of horses. I was in awe.
"You have so many!" I breathed.
Archer stopped to pet a fuzzy nose, nodding. "They're just work horses, one to rotate for each field. Except for these two."
We'd come to the end of the barn when he stopped at the last stall. Two beautiful equine heads emerged over the rail, much smaller and more delicate than the other brutes' down the line of stalls. Both were a deep bay color with black noses, mane and feet. They looked like exact copies of one another.
"Their dam was a gift from Lyinn's brother," Archer said, rubbing their foreheads. "On our wedding. We bred her to one of the field drafts and the twins are what we got." I was hesitant to pet them; I'd never really been around such large animals. "Their mother died from the birth, but these two are strong as oxen and a hundred times as fast."
He then proceeded to show me how to go about feeding each animal in that barn, then told me that it would be my task every morning to do so before anything else.
"If they don't eat, they don't work," he said.
"Fine." I stood up to stretch my back. "When do we eat?"
He let out a rich laugh. "After we work."
A little later, as Archer was showing me the shed he kept most of his work tools in, his wife emerged from the house with the younger child on her hip.
"Breakfast!" she called.
I ate in silence with a child on either side of me. They both stared at me as I ate, completely forgetting their own meals. It was unnerving. My only experience with children had been spending a few days once a year with my cousins' children from the city when they chose to visit and bring the brats with them.
Archer sat across from me next to his wife, looking amused as he chewed. Aislinn kept giving her children that look, but they soon ignored her. Finally she nudged her husband with her elbow.
He relented on my torture. "Boys, go get the firewood our guest chopped and put it in the stack by the grate."
Obediently they both clamored off the table bench and scampered outside. Archer still looked amused but was trying not to smile too widely, though his wife was not so easy on me.
"Don't you have any younger siblings?" she asked, leaning forward on the table.
"I'm an only child," I said politely.
"Well that would explain it," she said, leaning back.
Archer rolled his eyes with a bemused smile. "Why you are so terrified of children," he said. "They can smell fear a mile away, you know."
My eyes went wide. "They can?"
He laughed out loud as he got up from the table, taking dishes with him.
His wife put me out of my misery. She patted my arm. "Don't listen to him. He believes in instilling the fear of God in them, you know, the iron hand of a father, master of the house-" Behind her, her husband raised his chin and beat his chest with a fist. "But he's the biggest pushover and he knows it," she said, leaning in with a smile. "He'd rather roll over and play dead than tell them no."
Archer shrugged sheepishly. "I don't see you denying them too much," he replied. Then he pointed a finger at me. "And you, when they start creeping you out, your best defense is to stare right back. Gets them every time."
That night, after a torturously long day of working outside in the sun doing all sorts of odd jobs Archer would find for me, I finally got a chance to rest after the dinner his wife the cook had prepared. I wandered outside and sat on the back of the wagon Archer had fixed and looked up at the stars. My exhaustion was like a heavy weight on my shoulders, though half of it was in my head. This was going to be hard work both physically and emotionally.
I think it was finally sinking in; what I had done and how I could not go home, even if I had wanted to. Archer found me in such a state when he came outside to light his pipe.
"Everything all right?"
I lifted my head, not caring if he saw that I was about to cry. "I left the only home I have known to escape my own family," I muttered. "And here strangers are kinder to me than my own father. It... doesn't seem right."
He sat down next to me on the back of the wagon and looked up at the night sky. The herbal-sweet smoke from his pipe filled my nostrils.
"Right or not," he said after taking a long draw, "you are here. And you are welcome. I would expect you would do the same kindness by me, if the tables were turned."
It broke my heart that he was so sure of himself, and of me too. He truly believed people were inherently good. He would trust anyone until they gave him a reason not to. I didn't deserve his faith in me, I didn't. No matter what my pride dictated, I was still of the Geirahöd, the lowest of the low, almost inhuman. I didn't deserve him treating me otherwise and with such certainty.
I swallowed thickly and looked at him with a sad smile.
"I've never met anyone like you, or your family," I said. "How is it that you could take a complete stranger in, a criminal no less, and trust them with your home and children?"
He smiled and tapped his pipe, blowing smoke out his nostrils.
"I hardly thought you constituted a threat, half-starved and sick as you were," he answered truthfully. "Besides, Lyinn trusted you. She has a knack for knowing people." He tapped his temple with a finger. "Calls it her 'woman's intuition'."
I laughed through my misery. Then we sat in silence for a long time while he peacefully smoked his pipe. Finally he patted me on the back as he hopped down from the wagon.
"This too shall pass, as my mother used to say," he assured me, offering me his hand to help me down. I took it. He strolled me back to the house, taking a few last draws.
"It's what I'm teaching my children that is important," he said, amiably putting his arm loosely around my shoulders as we walked. "I don't want them to fear anyone or anything that is different. I don't want them to hate and I don't want them to know the grief that always comes with it."
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