The first time he emerged from the lean-to he was almost convinced he was a Lios-cursed ghost after all, the way the women stared at him. Agnith, the woman who’d looked after him in there, shoo-ed the rest of the crones away, but they still watched him from careful distances as they worked at their chores. Some were carting wood for the firepit, some were airing ragged clothes, or coming back from their homesteads with more supplies.
“Why do you stay here?”
Agnith stared down the road as she peeled potatoes beside him. “There’s coin in feeding travellers. Not so much in the Harvest these days.”
“Even in feeding the carts and their drivers?” Asked Harl, remembering their brief stop here.
Agnith grunted, picked out an eye from a potato and flipped it into the fire. “Aint proud of that. But the homesteads need supporting.”
“It aint just that, you’re still waiting, all of you.”
“S’pose.” She said begrudgingly. “Seems we were waiting for you, woods-voln.”
He’d been thinking on Fysiwon’s quest and Cole’s prophecy since he’d woken from that second darkness. There was only one word for it all.
“Mind your tongue! You’re not too old to go over my knee!”
“I’m just saying there aint no fate at hand here. The bastard gods… or fucking Lios for that matter… aint behind me surviving. Aint nothing in me numbers, the length of me forearm aint the reason I got out and others… didn’t. Thinking like that… well, it’s just like swallowing mother’s milk stories whole and asking for more.” Cole’s words were light on his tongue, flippant.
Agnith looked at him scornfully. “And didn’t your mother’s milk make you strong before you could chew your own damn food, boy?”
“Well, yes, but… I aint special. That’s all.”
She shucked out a nasty bit of potato and cackled. “Let me take you to my homestead where me daughter and me daughter’s daughters will fight for your attention and then tell me you aint nothing special!”
Harl felt his traitorous cheeks burning red.
“Oh, but don’t be letting it be go to your head. Its just that there aint many males in these parts. Get yourself back to your woods-voln and you’ll be just another man in the making. One o’many. But best you be getting back to your own I s’pose.”
Harl felt sadness grip his heart. Fysiwon had wanted to get back to his voln, to find his father and the other Briarknells. And now he was gone.
Harl clamped down on the memory of Fysiwon falling over the cliff. Instead he thought the poor creature’s last words through. Were there others waiting still there for the woods-voln boy, like the farm-voln crones were waiting here for their own? It was nearly a hundred year later though. But perhaps soe great-niece or nephew would welcome word of their voln’s lost child. But could he find the Briarknells? Or should he just head back to Bara and hide there?
“You’re thinking on it. Roads lie before you and you can’t see the crossroad marker telling you where to go.”
“Time’ll tell. The farm-voln have a saying… you ever hear a farm-voln saying before boy?”
“I was raised in Bara. Don’t even really know what the woods-voln say.”
“Hmmm, is that so? Well, among the wheat sheafs and the lambing blood the farm voln tell the world, ‘there is a season for this’. Do you understand boy? There is a season for this.”
“I… I don’t know if I do.”
“It means that what will happen will happen when it is meant to, and not before. It aint fate. Its how the world needs to be run. You can’t reap the corn before its sown. You can’t go down one road before you’re ready. Or before the road is too.”
“I don’t know if that’s really the way things are Agnith.”
“It’s how the world needs to be run. Lios.” She spat at the name of the god-king. “Lios don’t understand that. He wants strawberries in Winter and men without there being any boys left to make them.”
Fysiwon’s quest would take him to Lios… if he followed it. He muttered a prayer to the bastard gods. Agnith chuckled.
“I said my prayers to Lios every day for nineteen years. I aint let a prayer touch my lips since my boys were taken. Tell me about the bastard gods, boy. Should I be giving them my words and praise?”
“The bastard gods…” he thought on what his mother had told him over the years. “The bastard gods don’t ask for anything. No prayers, no devotion. Nothing. But those who believe in them will praise and curse them… sometimes in the same breath.”
“That aint how you should treat a god.”
“They aint like Lios. They’re impure. I don’t entirely understand myself.”
“They ever done anything for you?”
“No more or less than bloody Lios I suppose.”
Agnith’s cackling laugh rang out, and the other women looked, their eavesdropping losing its subtlety for a moment.
“My youngest daughter’s second daughter would love you, woods-voln or not. She got a woods-voln sharp tongue. A few hundred years ago she’d have gone husbandless for it. Now she’s going to marry one man with five others. And he’s damn old for her. Lame as well. So will the bastard gods bring her a husband with strong arms and a good heart if I ask them nicely?”
Agnith went to stand and he helped her up.
“Come back with me to my homestead. The others want to ask you to theirs but I got first refusal since I bathed your sweaty brow when you screamed in the night.”
He flushed red again. He looked quickly to where Merlat was watching them. She was the first crone, the one he’d spoken to when they’d stopped here with the cart. The one he’d promised coin to. The one who’d reminded him of the bitch guard dog in Bara. The one who’d thought he was her son, come back from the dead.
“Oh, ignore her. I got beehives… you ever had honey boy?”
He bit his tongue. He had, but only at the castle. “I would be honoured to visit your homestead, Agnith.”
She smiled, showing her worn gums. Maybe it was cruel, finding the trick of her and wrapping her about his fingers so easily. Maybe it would be crueller to say no with no good reason. Until he decided where the road should take him… until he knew which season this was, perhaps staying with Agnith and the others weren’t such a bad idea.
It was still a two day before he was strong enough in his bones to walk with the old woman along the road and to the fields again. They left early with the dawn light, and still the sun was high by the time that they made it to Agnith’s ramshackle house and lands. He was amazed that she made this trip on her own, or even with supplies in hand. But farm-voln women seemed to have incredible strength even at incredible age. When he mentioned something in passing about her taking it easier and not making the journey alone any more, Agnith told him the far-fetched story of having a mule that was so lazy she’d had to carry him along with the supplies some years back.
“Willard we called him.”
“After me husband. Lazy bugger. Oh don’t look at me like that, it’s a farm-voln turn of phrase, you gutter rat! He were! Had five wives and never lifted a finger but to sometimes try to make more children. Heard once that Lios’ favourite creature, the lion, was like that too. Never seen one so far north until I knew Willard a few minutes into our marriage! Buggers dead now, and gets to rest up all he cares to!”
She pulled herself carefully up the steps to the wooden building, leaning on a bannister and refusing Harl’s help this one time.
“Day I can’t walk into my house alone is a day when I give up and fall down on the ground for the worms to take me.”
They went in, the warmth of the fire making up for the sparseness of the main communal room. Harl saw adults and children altogether, sitting on a variety of wooden chairs of many sizes, all looking toward the orange flames in the hearth. Several cats lay on several laps, and a baby was trying to fit its chubby foot in its mouth as it lay near naked on a crotched blanket on the floor. As one the women and the girls looked about to Agnith and Harl. Harl went red again, and a thin man in too large trousers held up by braces stood from his rocking chair and came to his aid.
“Women-folk, don’t scare our guest!” He smiled. “Mother, where did you find this young lad? By the looks of him, in some deep part of the woods?”
Agnith smiled. “Harl, this is Simeon. He’s wed to at least one of my daughters.”
“Three of them, mother.”
“Insists on calling me mother, no matter what I say. Good man. Stupid, but good.”
Simeon laughed at her comment.
“Stu-stupid?” Harl stuttered.
“Daft man worships Lios as like to a priest. If he were city-voln no doubt he’d be in one of those fine temples, making himself fat on repentances.”
“Mother…” there was warning in Simeon’s voice. “Lios hears all.”
Agnith just rolled her eyes and took a chair that was vacated for her by a sweet round faced girl with brown hair, who was of an age with Harl. Another, younger, let Harl take her seat by Agnith, who leaned in to whisper conspiratorially. “My youngest daughter’s girl is the one who gave me this seat. What think you?”
Harl paused, what was the trick here? What best to say? “She’s very pretty.”
Agnith nodded, and Harl watched her eye catch those of a woman whose swift hands were rapidly knitting on shining needles as she watched Harl. The woman nodded, and Harl had a sneaking suspicion that fell in his stomach like lead. But it was warm by the fire, so he lounged in the chair, sitting up only to accept some honey smeared on thick slices of bread when it was brought to him. He ate quickly, feeling himself grow sluggish in the warmth of the low house. The cats were purring near him and sleep began to creep upon him in the sound.