Workload here has defied belief. That’s a good thing, I guess, because it’s quickly refilling the corporate coffers, largely emptied in the Amazon venture. But it’s meant no time for dreaming away an afternoon over the next novel or three.
Below, a draft from another subplot of the proposed Fire-Rider sequel. In this vein, Kaybrel struggles with his private demons — possibly echoed by the real-world “demon” Caddy and Seth come up against? — and Jenna and Ani continue their love-bird routine. So many characters developed in the first Fire-Rider story, which ended up as not one but three novels, that I now have way too many ideas for what they might be doing with their lives now that they’re back home in Okan. I suppose I’m going to have to pick three or at most four sub-plotlines to keep the next effort in the corral. Whatever’s left over will have to go into some other, far future novel. 😀
Light snow sifted sporadically from a pearl-gray sky over Moor Lek, collecting here and there but not working itself up into any serious drifts. It was the first snowfall of the season to stick on the ground for any length of time. The people of Moor Lek, knowing what was to come, busied themselves at preparing for the deepest part of winter.
Aniel, Kay’s foreman, was working in the barn, adjusting the horses’ shoes for icy conditions. The big gelding draft horse, in particular, needed snowball pads and studs, since he would be pulling a sleigh through snow and also often pulled a wagon or small carriage over the frozen road between Moor Lek Keep and the town. Demon, the great war horse grievously wounded when Kaybrel drove him through the fire to lead the men of Okan and A’o out of harm’s way after the Loma Alda debacle, would go barefoot for the winter, as would the other horses Ani didn’t expect anyone to ride.
A few chickens strutted and clucked around the outbuildings, pecking for stray seeds and bugs. The children’s pet goat also idled about, never averse to a handout. The cows were out to pasture (what remained of it in the deepening cold), and the tame geese paddled in the stock pond, innocent of their destiny as centerpieces, some day, for some midwinter holiday feast.
In the workshop that abutted the barn, Kay tossed another stick of wood into the stove he’d fired up. It helped to keep the chill away. Cold air drifted in through the open door that let in most of the light by which Kay worked.
He was building a pair of snowshoes for Tavi, who had begun working in town for Jehm the weaver and his wife, Nina. The walk from the the defensive rise where the keep stood to the village below was a little over a mile, and if the boy was to walk back and forth six days a week, he would need the “big feet” come the first real snow.
These little domestic jobs were the kind of thing Kay liked. He had split ash strips, steamed them, shaped them into curves in a jig he’d made, and left them to dry. The crossbars were attached, the tail ends secured, and now he was ready to weave the rawhide webbing into place.
He could hear Ani, next door in the barn, whistling to himself as he went about his business, occasionally murmuring encouragement or gentle commands to a horse. One of the farmhands sauntered in through the wide barn door and spoke to Ani. Kay heard Ani tell the man to pump some more water into a horse trough and then go down the south pasture and repair a weakened stretch of fencing.
Kay took a great deal of pleasure in Ani’s presence at Moor Lek, as he had always taken pleasure in him, ever since he had acquired him as a young refugee some years before from Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos, Kay’s now deceased cousin. Ani, a farm boy from the outset, had grown into a strapping fellow, a more than competent manager for the keep’s farms and ranchlands.
Lengths of rawhide wrapped and tied in place, Kay began plaiting them across a frame. His thoughts wandered.
Pretty much against his will, they wandered back to the House of Puns and to the scene where he and Fol and the A’oan kubna Eddo of Bose had brought word of Rik of Puns’s death to his widowed kubnath, Larel. To what they had said, and to what they had left unsaid.
“How did this ambush come about?” she had asked. “And who were the raiders? Were they Roksandero troops who came after you? Or just some kind of random bandits?”
“We don’t know,” Kay said. “The town the woman decoy called Loma Alda, the one she claimed had been attacked, was abandoned. Had been for some time. We don’t think they were from Roksan, because none of them were wearing Don Consayo’s colors. But the band we encountered up-country, where Jag Bova brought the snow down, they were well equipped. The cavalrymen were armored and they had good horses. They weren’t a bunch of rabble.”
“I see.” She fell silent for a second, seemed to be thinking. Then: “And did the kubna of Puns die honorably?”
“He died defending his men,” Eddo replied. “He was shot off his horse during the hottest part of the battle.”
This, Kay reflected, had been a fuzzy truth. They had no idea how Rik of Puns had died. If anyone had seen him fall, they hadn’t survived to tell the story. Only after the battle had ended and the remaining men standing gathered the wounded and prepared to flee did they find Rik half-conscious in a ditch, the blood of his life soaking into the dirt.
Kay’s disagreement with Rik went unmentioned, as did his opinion of Rik’s idea of “honor” in battle. Nor did they tell her that Rik had died under Kay’s hands, that Kay’s knife digging for the slug in the man’s side may have dispatched him sooner than he would have died, one way or the other. Surely, he thought, by now that bit of intelligence must have reached her.
These kubnaths, the ones born to the rank, were powerful and often daunting women. A kubnath or a mayreth grew up in the same training as a kubna or a mayre, although the emphasis for a girl child would be more on administration, politics, estate management, and justice than on warfare. Still, they did learn to ride and to wield a sword and bow, to build a battle strategy, to take orders and give them, just as their brothers did. Maire, for example, could shoot an arrow as straight as he himself could. And a rifle, too.
The storytellers spoke of a kubnath who would lead her men into battle, way back in the mists of time. Could Maire do that? Would she? He wondered. Probably not. But that Larel…he wouldn’t put it past her. Not only did she run the large and prosperous cowndee of Puns, she also was a religious leader – not a dreamy votary but a pricha, overseer of the cowndee’s several churches and spiritual counselor to her people. That added to her power. Considerably.
In due course, Larel summoned her sister wives, Treese and Dodi, and in the men’s presence she passed their news to the two women. Kay caught a fleeting look pass from Treese to Larel. He wondered then and still wondered what that was about. Instantly, though, Dodi began to weep and sob, distracting attention from whatever was going on between the two older women. Treese wept, too. But Larel did not.
Weeping was not what a kubnath did. Not in front of anyone, at least.
He glanced up from his crafting and saw Jenna approaching the barn. She bore a tray with two pieces of pie and a big teapot from whose spout a delicate wisp of steam rose into the crisp fall air.
“Time for a break, gentlemen,” she called.
As Jenna entered the barn, Ani came forward to greet her, his face lit up with a smile. Married over three years, Kay reflected, and still in love with his wife.
Well, he was still in love with Maire, and they’d been together longer than that. Maybe it wasn’t so remarkable. Still, he found it good. It was one of the many things, sweet as honey, that made him want to retire from the field. He wanted to stay home with his family at Moor Lek for the rest of his life.
Kay set the snowshoe frame down and followed Jenna into the barn, where the two men sat down at a small, rough-hewn work table. Jenna set the plates of pie in front of them and poured hot herbal tea into a pair of tin cups. Then she pulled up a milking stool and kept them company while they ate.
“Are we going to the autumn rodeo at Silba Lek?” she asked.
“Well, sure,” said Kay.
“Fal is going to take those nags he picked up at Lek Doe,” said Ani. “I don’t want to miss seeing them in action.”
“No, indeed,” Jenna agreed. “Speaking of horses,” she added, “do you think you’ll be done with your chores while it’s still light out?”
“Could be,” Ani said. At this time of year, with the crops in, splits collected from and redistributed to the cowndee’s townspeople and farmsteads, and most of the winter’s wood chopped and split, the workload slacked off. Sometimes he could quit working early, though usually he would find enough to do to keep himself busy until sundown.
“How about we go for a ride this afternoon, then?”
“Today?” Ani mocked surprise.
“Today,” she said.
“We could probably do that,” he said as he finished up his pie and stacked Kay’s empty plate atop his own.
Kay noticed a little twinkle in Ani’s eye and remembered long, lazy rides through the countryside with Sellie,* so long ago, in a different lifetime. She rode a pretty paint with a smooth, easy gait, an animal she handled well and that, he thought, was almost as pretty as she was. In its way.
“If we’re going out this afternoon, then I’d better get back to work now,” Ani said. He stood, wiped his hands on his work pants, and gave Jenna a peck on the cheek.
“Good!” she said. “I’ll let Maire know.”
That meant, Kay thought as he ambled back to the workshop, he and Maire would have the kids this afternoon. But they might be napping, if Ani and Jenna got an early enough start. That could be interesting.
This distraction over and possibly a better distraction in the offing, Kay returned to his work. He had about completed one snowshoe—just a little more remained to fill in the webbing. He set it aside to attend to a still that gently percolated atop the wood-burning stove. The fire’s temperature needed to be watched and kept fairly steady. Too much heat could ruin the distillation; too little would cause it to fail.
The medicament this would make, when infused with three of the curative herbs that grew in his garden, could soothe rashes ranging from poison oak to impetigo and even, he’d discovered by accident, eliminate dandruff in one’s beard. He liked to have plenty of this dandy snake oil on hand.
Too bad, he thought, too bad he didn’t have some potion that would stanch bleeding. If the Bishop, his mentor during his too-short time within the walled stae’ of Uda, knew of any such thing, he hadn’t taught it to Kay. Maybe he could have saved Rik’s life if he’d had something that would work that way.
Not that Rik of Puns was one of God’s finest gifts to this world. Still…
Did Rik die, he wondered, because of what I did? Did he die because of what I didn’t do? Because of what I didn’t say? Like a dog worrying an old bone, he couldn’t let it go. Try as he might to bury it, the thing wouldn’t stay buried.
That old man who had come out of the bush to beg the Hengliss bands to spare his family’s farmstead…what had Kay been thinking to tell him to take his people into the hills after Lhored had ordered him to tell the man, in Espanyo, to send his young men down—to be killed, obviously—and then maybe the place would not be leveled?
Into the hills? For God’s sake. From the hills they would have been able to observe which way the bands went. They would have seen where the Okan and A’oan warriors were headed and by which route.
The horse tracks in the barn that Kay and Fal rousted…at least two, maybe three animals had been taken out of there very recently, probably as the Hengliss bore down on the place. The old man had come back on foot. So who rode those horses?
Did Fal realize that someone must have headed out from the farm on horseback shortly before the war party arrived? Did he sense that Kay had told the old man something different from what Lhored asked him to say?
Did Fal, even though he couldn’t understand enough Espanyo to ask politely for a roll in the hay, guess that Kay had lied about what he’d said, and about the old man’s response?
He had lied to another kubna. Worse, to his own brez.
Did that lie bring the disaster of Loma Alda down on their heads?
*One of Kay’s first wives, long deceased.
This is a work in progress from a new novel in the Fire-Rider series. To get the back-story, grab one, two, or (preferably!) all three of the stories in print now: The Saga Begins, Fire and Ice, and Homeward Bound. You can get all three at Amazon (live links in the right-hand sidebar →), or, if you’d like a print copy, get in touch through our Contact page. A tale of the Tale can be found here, and to see all the Plain & Simple Press offerings, fiction and nonfiction, visit our Books page.
Cows in snow, Clearview Stock
Larel Kubnath of Puns, Logvinyukyulla
Jenna and Ani, SolominVictor
Kaybrel the Healer, CaptBlack76