Over the next week Harl settled into a simple routine of helping with the chores in the day and then staying up into the twilight and just beyond to circuit the homestead with the women who were on guard. The irony was not lost on him; a woods-voln on guard duty with farm-voln who were watching out for woods-voln. The men and women of the woods only really came for small things. T At some time they’d gained a taste for the homestead’s honey and mead and might try to get into the stores for that. Sometimes they stole a chicken or a lamb, but they never took much, even in the movement covering spring-night fogs. Their larger raids would come in the deep winter when hunting was scarce for them and their bellies over-rode their sense.
Agnith approved of his adoption of the farmstead’s rhythms and made no push to return him to the crone’s camp at the clearing. She mumbled occasionally about him having other invitations he could take up, but then would then quickly press on him some more honey baked pie. Him and Simeon alike.
Simeon was also keen for him to stay, recognising the heathen in their midst as a more valuable target for his melodious sermons than the nodding women and young girls who sat in the chairs about the fire in the evenings. He read to them all from the ‘Light of Lios’, a hefty old book. The same history that Harl had sometimes watched young lads in the temple of Lios at Bara struggling to learn by rote as he snuck past their studies and onwards to the immense kitchens or orchards to steal his lunch. When Simeon read it became a background chant to Harl’s drowsiness at the end of the day, and he barely paid any attention unless Simeon referred to the bastard gods. Then Simeon might gain some animation, casting down the curses of Lios on the followers of those false creatures of impurity. But mostly he droned on and on about how the young Lios had travelled the lands for many years with his retinue of great warriors of true faith.
“At but eleven Lios met the great giant man of Delvenight pass and spoke unto him of the truth of his mission. And the others who followed with him, the archers, the swordsmen, and the great healers, they all showed the man of the mountains how to kneel and show obeisance to Lios, god of men.”
Harl’s head was nodding, and he felt a light tap on his elbow. It was Ethne, Agnith’s grand-daughter and the one who the older woman had drawn his attention to on his first night. Since then she had barely left his side, being set the same chores and hours of guarding as him. She was good enough company when they walked the boundaries of the homestead and there was no one else to speak with on their rounds. But those boundaries were also the limit of her knowledge of the world abroad, as well as her interest in it, and the few times Harl had asked her about anything deeper than her favourite way of making pie, or her plans for the development of their crop rotations, she had fallen into confusion. She had a sweet smile, sweet enough at first to have tricked him into thinking they were the same age when she was really a woman fully grown of seventeen years. Her shape was also interesting to Harl, but that confusion at his questions about what she knew of the rest of the world made him easily forget about her when she did occasionally leave him to himself.
“You aren’t listening, you silly. Perhaps it’s time for sleep?”
There was something in her voice he didn’t quite catch, or fully understand. But he latched onto the idea.
“Forgive me Master Simeon.” A yawn began to push at his jaw, but he held it in.
“I have not finished the account of the boy-king Lios’s quietening of the mountains!” Simeon began, a stern look growing there on his face.
“Let the boy to bed.” Agnith said, not even looking up from her knitting. “Ethne, make sure he makes it to the barn in the dark.”
Simeon began to stutter a response, but then Agnith silenced him with a look, and the man went back to his pages as Ethne took Harl’s hand and led him away from the circle about the hearth.
Crossing the packed dry soil to the barn he felt that hand in his squeezing tighter, making a small sweat appear in the places where his hand touched hers. He had been staying in the barn since he’d first came here, for ‘propriety’s sake’ according to Simeon, a word Harl didn’t understand. But this was the first time he’d needed to be escorted there in the dark. The women on guard even complimented him on his sharp woods-voln eyes, especially in the dark. Eyes which had spotted a pack of stray dogs to be chased away with sticks on pots and pans the first night they’d put him on duty. And now he needed her help?!
He followed her in, confused at the sly look she gave him as she opened the door. His bed was a mess of hay in the loft, and as he lit a small oil lamp to make the ladder up there clearer, he was surprised to see Ethne leaning her back there, against the lower rungs, preventing his passage up to sleep.
“Well… good night.” He gave her leave to go. She did not.
“You ever been with a girl, Harl?”
He fought the redness that flushed up on his cheeks. He knew what she meant of course, no child of a whore in Bara could possibly not know. But he was woods-voln raised in a city. The only city-voln girls who’d noticed him had been in the gangs that had beaten him for his sharp words and sharp bones.
“I’m woods-voln.” He shrugged, not wanting to explain the rest.
She seemed to lose her confidence for a moment. “Oh. Do you do it different, like?”
“No! No, I mean… you’re farm-voln. Your family won’t like…”
“Want to wed me off to a man thirty years older than me with five wives! He spends his days travelling between homesteads, visiting for a while to make more babies, and then moving onwards to sell his mead!” She pouted. “I don’t want him.”
Her fingers slowly moved to the laces of her dress. “Come here Harl.”
The slight moonlight in the barn lit her face and then the smoothness of her neck and chest as she uncovered her skin for him. Then he found himself following her command until he stood in front of her, not knowing what to do with himself apart from stand there with his arms by his sides and a wide-eyed look on his face as she revealed more of herself.
“You can touch if you like. Maybe I’ll touch you too.” She said with that same smile, though this time Harl wondered if he didn’t see something like triumph in it. But his hands moved to touch her anyway, just as hers found their way to his tunic, and then under it to rest on his waist. She was soft and warm, and when her lips touched his he was surprised to find that he liked them even more than her breasts. She whispered into his ear as he tried out touching his lips to her neck to see what that was like.
“Good. That’s nice. Yes. Hmmm.” Her encouragement excited him and he moved back for another kiss on her lips before smelling her rich brown hair and kissing her there as well.
“We could be wed… couldn’t we?”
Harl’s mind was completely engaged in feeling her and what she was saying barely registered at all. At the same time as he explored, her hands were working their gentle touch on him, running over his barely haired belly and chest under his tunic, and moving towards his back. And it felt so very good.
“My younger sister too? I would share you with her. We would make you such very good wives.” She murmured as he brought her closer to crush her bareness against his chest through his shirt. “I would make you happy Ha-”
She stopped suddenly and pulled away. “What… what is that?!”
“On your back. Something… ew!” She recoiled and Harl twisted and turned his head trying to see, forgetting for a moment the tunic and that it wouldn’t even be possible to see back there.
“Something dry and… scaly!” She was rubbing her hands against her rough spun clothes, ignoring her half nakedness for a moment before pulling the parts of her dress back together and starting to retie it. Harl twisted his arm up his back and felt about with trembling fingertips. There, almost between his shoulder blades, there was a line of skin that had creases and crevasses like… like the skin on Eris’ ankle and foot. He ripped off his tunic and turned his back to Ethne.
“What does it look like?!”
“Get that away from me!” She shrieked. “You aren’t pure! You aren’t pure!” Her voice was getting louder, and suddenly she was trying to dart past him. He grabbed at her, catching her skirts and pulling her off balance and hard onto the ground, crouching over her quickly. He was younger, but they were of a size, and he was used to brawling. She shrieked until he got his hand over her mouth. Then suddenly he was crouching on the woods-voln girl again, the short sword in his hand, about to hurt her, to kill her.
He whispered urgently in Ethne’s ear. “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m just going to go. I’ll let you go to put on my shirt, and then I’ll let you run back to the house. I’ll head back to the roads and you will never, ever, see me again.”
Her panicked eyes calmed and she nodded. All the while he put his tunic back on she was silent, just watching him with tearful eyes. Finally, he helped her up, her eyes never leaving him.
“You can go. And I will go too-” He started to say, but all she did was glare at him and hiss.
“Impure! Impure! Cursed by Lios!” She made the sign of Lios with her left hand and hitched up her skirts to run.
She screamed out her lungs all the way to the main house, where lights were still lit, shining out onto the path back to the road.
Harl took a deep breath, and began to run, into the darkness. The light and warmth of the house fell behind him as he made it to the boundary fences and scarpered over them towards the tree lined road beyond them.