“Stay away from that door,” Trefan warned, his voice low and demanding.
But Eshe wanted to see what was the commotion. Someone was shouting outside, in the Two Boars’ courtyard, their words muffled by Trefan’s stone walls.
“It’s that wretched runman again.” Trefan stood back from the door.
“What is he saying?” It had to be something beyond a minor complaint. The look of perpetual amusement had leached from Trefan’s face.
Kalamite Runman had grown over-bold of late in following Eshe. He twice had stood on her kirtle. A wonder he hadn’t yet broken into her room at the Gardens. Everywhere she went, there was his stench, worse than walking past the tanneries. She’d had enough of it. If his intent was to drive her away he was a squeeze and a pip off succeeding. She would happily risk the walk through town if it meant being rid of that tattagoose. Once on Muzzle, mounted, riding, never stopping – her stomach clenched at the thought of joining the track from Chendani Pass, but if she rode fast she’d soon be safely past it. Trefan had mentioned the bandit Mallen. He was Trefan’s nephew, exiled when Breken Lafard-Legere had married again. Eshe kept quiet of the attack. Then, returned to Raselstad she would present her report and Ryal would be declared a citizen and everything would be fine for him.
But she would miss Trefan. Painfully. Miss his company, his friendship . . . those long talks late into the night . . . his kisses. Twice now. He was shy, he wasn’t a man who frequented the stews.
She looked at him. She didn’t want to be parted. And now he was shaking his head, his face the grimmest she’d ever seen it. “Trefan, please, what is he saying?”
“Nothing of you but—”He closed the balcony door. “Here, grab your cloak.”
She caught it but his switch from reassuring to pressing had rocked her. Her blood seemed to fizz as it roared through her body.
“Take the key. Now! Hurry, Femella—you need to be at the Woolpack before he stirs a search for you there.”
“But . . .” What was happening? She wanted to know more.
He grabbed her arm, bruising her as his fingers dug in. He steered her, roughly, across the room. Why? And why was he angry? Was it because she delayed? She had never known him like this – he all but dragged her to the recess and the door hidden there. She stumbled, her shoulder grazed against a marble edge. He opened the door.
“Please, Trefan, what’s the tattagoose saying?” It was no good his just getting rid of her; she needed to know.
“It’s less against you; it is against me. Now go.” His tone still was urgent but he sounded less angry. Yet he still hadn’t answer. Was that to protect her or . . . what was he hiding?
“No lamps this time—the light will show.”
He kissed her. Though hurried it was unguardedly passionate. Then he closed the door on her, shutting her into the darkness. For a moment she didn’t move.
She had heard men’s voices, before he’d closed the door on her, raised and calling for Trefan. Too close to be from the courtyard, those men must have been outside the chamber, on the stairs. Now she could hear them hammering the outer door as if they’d have it from its hinges. This didn’t bode well. She was breathless with fear for him. But he had said to return to her room. And that she must hurry.
She trailed her hand along the stone wall to steady and guide as, in the dark, she ran down steps worn low by centuries of stews. But there soon would be light; she now knew this passage that well.
“Hush,” he had said when he first used the warison path to smuggle her into his chamber. She smiled at the memory, how he’d appeared through the wall of her rented bedchamber and startled her into a fit of giggles.
“But what if the chamber had not been mine?”
He had smiled his amusement. “Why do you think Pertho moved you to here?”
But Pertho had said now the chamber was available she could prepare her own meals in there. So she’d thought the Garden’s cook had complained of her being always in the kitchen and fussing.
Trefan still was grinning when held the hidden door open for her. “Where is your cloak? Though not cold at this season the warison path can be dirty.”
It was day, and sunlight streamed through the high slits intentionally left between the stone blocks of the outer wall. And there was a well – he said another was over to the west. And corbelled cells where roots and grains and dried meats and fish were stored .
“Reserves – should a foe besiege us. Now, would I show you all this if I suspected you as our enemy?”
Possibly not. But he then showed her an iron doored cell, “For the holding of traitors until we are ready to deal with them.” And again she wondered.
The warison path was much broken by steps. They climbed up, they wound down. At the northeast corner the steps descended deep into coldness, the sandstone here replaced by the local limestone bedrock. Down there was the only place along the path it always was dark, no matter the hour. That first time, with him, she’d been able to make out yet more steps descending.
“Where do they go?” she’d asked in a whisper as he guided her safely away.
“There are caves beneath. If you listen you can hear the sea.”
She worried then of the amphibs.
“There might be Jacobs but they’re not able to venture. No, it’s the insects that are more of a menace here.”
She waited for him to say more. He coughed; she feared what he was about to say of them. “Sometimes we come across kirk-flies nesting. Just mind your head, they prefer to be high.”
She had heard of deaths caused by the kirk-fly. But was that notable when most of the indigenous life caused death in some way or another. The grass-seeds, the animals – even some of the plants brought from the Old World now were poisonous. According to the botanists it was something to do with the soil.
She had yet to see a kirk-fly nest in all the journeys she’d made – and she had kept a keen eye for them. However, it now was the height of the summer when the kirk-fly was breeding. She pulled the cloak over her head and kept her head low.
In her haste, her feet kept slipping on the smooth stone steps. She tried to be careful but Trefan had said she must hurry. She needed no urging, the very chamber itself had seemed to pulse with fear. All the same, she wished she knew what was happening.
For a brief moment the yellow light of Mathon-street-lamps filtered in from the inner wall. That told her without doubt where she was: now approaching the northeast tower; here there were no buildings adjoining. She heard men shouting. Was that to do with Trefan? She wanted to stop and listen but she was still only halfway back to the Gardens. .
Trefan had confused her with contradictory words. She was to hurry to safety, yet this wasn’t about her. And why go to the Woolpack if Kalamite was likely to go there looking for her? But Trefan cared for her safety. He cared.
Memories filled her head again, of the first time he’d brought her through here. How concerned he’d been. And she had laughed at him.
“When I’m not in my father’s office, I ride out to the Ridge and climb the cliffs and deep into the caves.” The warison path was nothing to her.
But he then had been curious of her life in Raselstad. What did she do in the judge’s office? And why had she not married? Was it because of her studies?
“Or are you widowed?” he asked as if the thought had newly struck him. He laughed, the crinkles deepening around his eyes when she’d answered him no.
“I am my father’s heir,” she said.
He no longer laughed. “An heiress?” He scarcely breathed the word.
Later, he had asked if she missed her life in Raselstad. And when she said yes he was quiet again. That was the night he first had kissed her.
But the Rothi were not at all like the Lubanthan. He treated her like delicate white lace, or the sheerest white silk: afraid to touch her lest his hands snagged and dirtied her. She tried telling him she would not break. Look at her, built more like a man. She ought to be a warrior not a woman.
“No, you are an heiress, a bel hade lafdi. You are much greater than I.” He had withdrawn, then, into his thoughts. Yet something had happened and again they were laughing.
If only he could be Lubanthan, else she a Rothi. But then would she be happy as a cloistered woman? And would he not be equally frustrated as a Lubanthan man?
With the door to her bedchamber just ahead, the realisation of danger finally trampled upon her. What if Kalamite Runman was waiting on the far side of that door? Would he believe she’d only been to the well? And still, those unanswered questions: What had happened? Why the clamour? What of Trefan? Her stomach was close to retching with fear for him.
She listened, an ear to the door. But it was a sturdy door, further muffled behind a thick tapestry. Even kneeling, to listen instead at the keyhole, she could hear nothing. And what a nugget, as if Kalamite wouldn’t know to be quiet while he waited.
The key in the lock loudly grated. She winced. But she couldn’t stay in the passage. Trefan wanted her back in her room. She had to be found there if there was a search. With breath held, she pushed on the door, knowing it would push against the tapestry and reveal her presence to any within.
No one spoke. No one pounced. No sword was thrust into her belly. Yet she could hear someone was breathing. It was Kilda.
~ ~ ~
Kilda leaned against the door as she closed it. It had taken two days for her to find out what had happened and bring Eshe the news. And now Eshe felt herself shrivel at the look Kilda gave her.
“Your ledhere is held on a charge of treason.”
Eshe’s mouth dropped. Not once had she imagined that. Her knees gave way; behind her the bed caught her.
“But why? What has he done?”
“Conspired with a Lubanthan spy against his own brother,” Kilda said, her chin jutted as if placing the dot at the end of a sentence.
“But that can’t be right.”
“No? Yet I had the word from Mikel Lafard himself. And you are the spy.”
Eshe nodded, she understood that; if that was the charge then she was the spy. But her thoughts were whirling, what could she do? To wrap her head in her arms served nothing. She thought of that cell he had shown her, for holding a traitor pending execution. Her head was swimming, her ears buzzing, the room was spinning; she thought she might faint.
“Understand this,” Kilda said. She had relinquished the door and now was pacing. “Though he rather would not, yet Mikel Lafard must betray you. His stew-house, his doors, his part of the passage, and he moved you in here. Now to clear himself he must declare against you. Ashlan, why all the deceit? And I’ve helped you, they’ll torture me too. You know? And I’ll have no choice, I will tell them everything.”
She turned her back to Eshe. It made no difference, still Eshe could see she was sobbing. It was the children; would the balgerof . . . ? Eshe couldn’t complete that thought. No wonder Kilda sobbed. But what could she say? Sorry? Sorry my being here has brought this on your family. And may your children die without pain. And that would help?
“But, Kilda, torture or not, what can you tell them? There is nothing to tell, there’s nothing to know. I’m not a spy. This is that tattagoose Kalamite again. As for Trefan, he has conspired against no one. Certainly not his brother.”
Kilda spun round, her face tear-reddened. “Nothing to know, nothing to tell? Ey, just listen to you! Betrayed by your own tongue. Trefan this, Trefan that, plain Trefan.”
“But that’s just jaw between we two. Need I say ‘lafard’ when talking to you? And we do not conspire, Kilda. That isn’t why Mikel moved me to here.”
”No? But you aren’t a stew and you aren’t a moldkin, and neither are you a holde’s sister – are you? You lied to me. And you say ‘Trefan’ not Trefan Lafard because I was right when I called you Lafdi Femella. Sneaking along the stew’s path, but not for a ding—to conspire with him.”
“No. Kilda. Kilda, you are wrong. Believe me, please, you are wrong. There has been no conspiring to anything.”
“Ey? But why believe you?”
“Because . . .Gods, Kilda, what must I do to convince you?” What could she say? She was exasperated. And while she wished no harm to Kilda, nor to her family, Kilda wasn’t her prime concern. She shook her head in weariness. “And now they accuse Trefan because of me. And it isn’t fair; I love that man.”
The words had tumbled out. She’d not realised it until it was said. But what of it, what could come of it? Only pain. Even if Trefan hadn’t been accused and arrested, they could have no future. She had to return to Luban, he had to stay here and play his war games – innocent men dying just so some arrogant man could sit on a stupid low chair and call himself lafard-legere. Such disdain she had for what he did with his life, how could they ever be together. Yet that same man, with one shy kiss, had mangled everything inside her. And now he would die. Because of her.
She shook her head, angry now. She couldn’t let that happen. She had to get him out of there, and ferry him away. Those warison cells had no locks, she had seen. The heavy iron doors had heavy iron latches. But where would she take him? To Luban with her? No-no-no, that was an impossible dream.
“You love him?” Kilda said.
Eshe blinked, caught forgetting Kilda was there. But her voice had changed, or rather the tone; it was softer. Perhaps to a stew, ‘love’ was a magical word. Eshe nodded, not trusting her voice now the word was out.
“And he?” Kilda asked, head atilt.
Eshe shrugged. Yet, yea, it did seem so.
“And why not so,” Kilda acknowledged. “You are a lafdi, if Lubanthan. Listen. I might be able to get you out – slip you unseen into town. At least . . . well, if you’re not found here that clears Mikel Lafard and also me.”
“Kilda, it’s not just me, though I thank you for your thoughts. There’s Trefan. I want him out of that cell and cleared of this war-song.”
“That might—Yea, it could be—Yea, listen.”
Eshe sat, attentive. But Kilda said nothing, she merely pulled on her lip. Eshe waited. Several times Kilda started to speak, only to return to whatever her thoughts. She sat herself down beside Eshe on the bed. It was a big bed, and soft. A lafdi’s bed, Eshe thought it, not a stew’s. But then most stews had been a lafdi before entering the profession.
“Let’s get you away first,” Kilda finally said. “But where to put you—you need to go to ground fast. There’s that woman where I buy the paints – you’ve been there with me, remember. Can you find it on your own? Brick house, South Town, down by the wharves. I’ll get Mikel to visit you there.”
“Mikel, plain Mikel?” Eshe mimicked.
“As you say, between we two. And if you’re truly innocent, then I’m sure he will help. But his first concern will be for our children. He’ll not have them harmed.”
~ ~ ~