I had no takers on a $.99 short story on Amazon, so I took it down–and am posting it here. Perhaps I’ll continue the trend. Did I mention that it’s copyrighted? There, I just did.
Oh, and the second book of Cricket’s Song, A Cricket at Court, is free for the next few days.
©2014 by Michael A. Hooten
The pounding on the door roused Nan from a dream where her husband had stayed home instead of going to war. She wrapped a shawl about her shoulders and stumbled from the bedroom to main room. She lit a taper from the banked coals in the fireplace while the banging resumed. “Wait a moment,” she said mostly to herself. “My bones aren’t that fast this late.”
After lighting a tallow candle, she opened the door. The man outside filled the porch, even leaning on his sword as he was. “Shelter,” he said. “Please.”
“Of course,” Nan said, swinging the door wide and standing back. The man limped inside, and Nan wrinkled her nose. Even soaked with rain, he smelled of sweat and soot and blood, marking him as a warrior even more than his sword and shield. Three heads hung at his belt, swinging crazily with his stumbling gait. Nan bit her lip to keep from asking him what battle he had been in; there were rules to hospitality, and she would not break them.
After she closed the door and stirred the fire, she faced him again. He looked her up and down appreciatively, then caught himself. “Forgive me,” he said. “I’m tired enough to be rude.”
“Not just tired, but injured, too, unless I miss my guess,” Nan said.
“You’d win that riddle, although none of my injuries are serious.”
“Any time you lose your life’s blood, it’s serious.” She gestured to the one chair that sat in front of the fire, a wide seat with a thick cushion. “Sit,” she said, but he was looking down.
“I seem to be dripping all over your clean floor,” he said.
“I can clean it easily enough,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “Sit before you fall.”
“Are you sure?” he asked. “I don’t want to ruin anything with my filth.”
“Then stop ruining my patience,” Nan said. “There’s nothing here so fine that it can’t be scrubbed.”
“Thank you,” he said. She helped him take off his cloak and set his weapons aside. Swallowing the urge to gag, she took the heads and set them on the table. Ignorant of her reaction, he said, “Are you alone here?”
“…Yes,” she said. “But don’t get any ideas. My husband should be home soon, and he’s good with a sword.”
“Please!” he said, holding up his hands. “I was just curious. I am a guest here, and I would be risking more than just your husband’s wrath if I violated that trust.”
“Mind that you remember it,” she said as he settled himself in the chair.
“I will. But don’t you have any children?”
He hunched his shoulders. “I’m sorry. My father always said I should have been a bard with the way I always say the wrong thing. If I have insulted you, I will pay your honor price.”
“No, that’s fine,” Nan said. She put a footstool under his legs. “For this time, I will pretend that you are free of honor, just like a bard.”
“You didn’t have to put it like that.”
“I think I did.” After stirring the fire and throwing a couple of more logs on, she said, “Now then, do you have an animal, or did you ride in on the hurricane?”
“My horse,” he said, sitting up. “I can’t believe I forgot my horse!”
“Sit!” she said, pushing him back down easily. “You are my guest. I’ll see to the animal, and you will rest.”
The warrior sagged in relief and weakness. “Take care of him,” he said. “His name is Maboron, and he has saved me more than once.”
She threw a blanket over him and broke the rules of hospitality enough to ask, “Do you have a name, too?”
“I’m Kevin mac Tavish, of Caer Kinieren,” he said, closing his eyes. “And I must be the rudest man you have ever met.”
She had taken an involuntary step backwards when she heard where he was from, but she managed to keep her voice steady when she said, “I’ll see to your horse.” She lit a lantern and eased out the door.
Outside, she took a deep breath and tried to calm her heart. Pushing aside the fact that her guest was from the cantref her husband had gone to fight, she looked around for his horse.
She almost missed it; the gelding was several hands taller than she expected, and its coat was blacker than the storm. It stood patiently in the center of the yard, no doubt exactly where Kevin had dismounted. Lightning struck nearby, and the thunderclap made Nan flinch, but the horse remained calm. She hoped it would let her lead it to a stall, since she had no chance of moving it by force.
“Maboron,” she said, stepping into the rain. The horse pricked up its ears and turned towards her. “Good horse, good horse,” she said, approaching it slowly. The rain snuffed her lantern just as she touched its neck.
She had a moment of fear, but the horse just nuzzled her hair a bit and whuffed its approval. Nan got her bearings with the next lightning flash and led the animal to the barn.
Once inside, she used a piece of flint and steel to relight the lantern, and then wiped the rain off her face. The plow horse and the cow poked their heads out, curious about the late visit. “Don’t look at me,” Nan told them. “I didn’t invite him here, and he won’t be staying.” Both animals just stared at her.
“Now I’m starting to talk like you understand me,” she said, leading Maboron to an empty stall. She pulled off the saddle and saddle bags without looking too closely at either, and began brushing the gelding’s coat. “What is that man thinking?” she muttered. “If he’s here, he must be very confused, or very stupid. And if Gynri returns while he’s here… No, if he hasn’t shown up already, then he won’t be back before morning, surely. And I’ll send this little giant on his way at first light, and that will be that.”
She realized that she was brushing the same spot over and over, and she shook herself. “I’ve got to get my mind in order,” she told the horse. “If your master knew where he was, I might be in danger, although he seems honorable enough. Of course, Gynri seemed to be the picture of nobility when we married, too, and he’s turned out different somehow.”
She finished grooming the horse and went over to the grain bin. “He’s not a bad man, you know, he’s just a little colder than I had thought. And he’s always gone. It’s hard to be close to someone you hardly ever see.” She poured a bucket of oats into the trough and watched as the great black head lowered to eat. “Your master asks too many questions, and is impolite. Imagine, asking if I had children! But he seems more foolish than dangerous, despite those heads he carries around.”
Nan stroked Maboron a moment more, then left, closing the stall door behind her. She petted each of the other animals, and opened the barn door. The rain still fell in sheets, and she looked at the dark house across the yard. “It would be nice not to be alone so much,” she said. “I just wish I didn’t have the company I did.” She looked back at the animals and smiled. “And I’m just as happy that you don’t understand, otherwise you’d tell me what a foolish woman I’m being.”
When she returned to the house, she found Kevin sleeping deeply, just as she’d expected, and she relaxed a bit. She wanted to sleep herself, but the bedroom was cold and dark, and she didn’t quite want to let him out of her sight. She wandered about the common room, trying not to disturb him with her pacing, and trying to stay away from the table where the three heads huddled together like gossips.
She ended up on the corner of the hearth, as far away from Kevin as she could be, her head leaned against the fire-warmed stones. She promised herself that she wouldn’t close her eyes, but as she strained to keep them open, she could feel herself losing the battle.
Nan shook herself awake, but soon her head began to nod and her eyes began to close. She stood and stretched, wandering about the room, but her limbs felt leaden, and she soon returned to her place by the fire. This time she did not even notice when she fell asleep.
“Wake up, Nan!”
She snapped her head up, confused by the voice. The fire had died down, making the room a dim cavern inhabited by shifting shadows that blurred the edges of things.
She looked at Kevin, but the warrior sat still in the chair, his head rising and falling on his chest. Without turning her back to the room, she used the poker to stir the fire back to life.
The shadows retreated, but did not leave; instead, they broke apart and flitted about the room like moths. Nan pressed her back against the solid stone of the fireplace and forced herself to look at the table.
One of the heads had rolled over, and the eyes stared at her. She saw them blink once, twice, and a tongue darted over the lips. “As you love me, please, a drink.”
“As I love you?” Nan whispered.
“Have I been gone so long then that you have forgotten me?”
She narrowed her eyes and cocked her head. The fire helped by adding color to the bloodless cheeks, and her own imagination provided golden locks instead of the grimy hair stiff with blood. “Gynri? Is it you?”
“Myself indeed,” the head answered. “Or at least, what’s left of me.”
“Did this man kill you then?”
Gynri tried to answer, but only a croak emerged. Nan ran to the barrel and dipped out a cup of wine. “Forgive me, husband,” she said as she held it to his lips.
The wine spilled out of Gynri’s neck as he drank, but he sighed with relief. When the cup was empty and the floor wet, he said, “You have no idea how helpful that was.”
The other two heads whined at the scent of the wine, and Nan said, “Should I give some to them?”
“They are not important, my love. Nothing is important but you and me.”
“Tell me husband,” Nan said, “How is it that you are here? And where is the rest of you?”
Gynri closed his eyes. “The battle was fierce, with neither side willing to give an inch. I started in the reserves, but as men died, they sent more and more of us into the fight. Soon it was my company’s turn, and we rushed in with a fierce cry. Truth told, we had been aching to wet our swords since the start.
“But battle is a tricky thing, my love. Our arrival rallied our allies, but still men on both sides fell. And then this fellow here came at me with two heads already in his hand. He brandished them like boulders, and made me hesitate. Soon thereafter, my head also swung in his fist, and even though he was soon fleeing before my friends, it did me no good.”
“But why here?” Nan asked, crossing her arms across her chest and hugging herself tight. “Why did he have to bring you here?”
“I wanted him to,” Gynri said. “With his fellow warriors scattered, he’s been travelling mostly at night, afraid of what or who he might find in the daylight. I simply whispered directions to him when he was tired and confused. He doesn’t know which cantref he’s in, much less whose house.”
“And these other two?” Nan asked, pointing with her chin.
“Oh, them,” Gynri said, rolling his eyes. “They just mutter to themselves. I have no idea who they are.”
The two heads giggled at each other. Nan thought they looked like girls sharing a secret with the way their foreheads touched, but girls didn’t have shrunken eyes and bloodless gashes on their cheeks. She shivered again.
“But why?” she said. “Why did you come?”
“So that you can avenge me.”
“What?” She backed away, but the wall kept her from going far. “You want me to what?”
“Look at him. He’s exhausted, and he’s never really recovered from all the little wounds he received in battle. All you have to do is take the knife at his belt, and draw it across his throat, just like you were slicing a roast.”
“He’s not a piece of beef,” Nan said. “He’s a guest.”
The other two heads gurgled and mumbled, but Gynri told them to be quiet, and they were. To his wife he said, “There’s a man sleeping in front of my fire, in my house, and he’s my murderer, Nan. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”
She slid down the wall to the floor. “It means that I don’t want him to stay. It means that I will go to the caer as soon as he’s gone and get warriors to track him down and deal with him as they may. But I will make no move against him while he’s under this roof.”
“Blast it all, woman!” Gynri said. “This is no time to be soft!”
“I’m not being soft, husband. I’m keeping the law, the same law that you have fought for all your life.”
Gynri rocked back and forth on his neck. “The law doesn’t apply here. This is a special case.”
“In what way?” Nan said, tears streaming down her cheeks. “The law is that you may not turn away anyone desiring hospitality, and must treat them like family, even if their sword is dripping with your father’s blood.”
“I’m not your father, I’m your husband.”
“Don’t quibble with me over words,” Nan said. “You know that this law is more than just the opinion of men. It is a divine commandment.”
“People have broken it before,” Gynri said. “Kings and princes have ignored the law when it suited them.”
“And why should I, a simple warrior’s wife, presume the same authority? And besides, every one that did break it suffered horribly for it. So I tell you again, I won’t break it. If you loved me, you wouldn’t ask me to.”
“You are making me suffer more than that man ever thought to.”
Nan lowered her head and shook her head. “There is nothing I can do. I am helpless before the gods.”
Gynri closed his eyes, and when he spoke again, his voice echoed with the grave. “I regret that I ever married you.”
“I have never done anything but love you to the best of my ability,” Nan said, but he did not respond. She looked up at the table, but his head had rolled over again, staring at the ceiling blankly. The other two had also fallen silent. She wrapped her arms around her knees, hugging them tight, as the shadows returned to their rightful places. She rocked back and forth for a while, crying softly so that she wouldn’t wake her guest, but exhaustion finally overwhelmed her.
Early morning sun filled the house when she woke, and she stretched some of the stiffness from her neck before she stood up. Kevin mac Tavish still slept in front of the cold hearth, and the heads still sat on the table , one with a wine stain under it. She lit the fire, cleaned the table and the floor, and went outside to start her chores.
The storm had passed, leaving the air bright and clean, but she winced at the sunlight and cursed the mud. Feeding the chickens and milking the cow and goats were mindless tasks, for which she was profoundly thankful. She felt like her head would explode if it had to encompass any other surprises. Her heart, however, had already given out, and she went through the motions without hope of the future.
She returned to the house to find Kevin mac Tavish at the wash basin in the corner, trying to wipe the worst of the grime off of himself. “If you want, I can make you a bath,” Nan said.
“No, I think that I have imposed on you enough.” He smiled ruefully. “If those circles under your eyes are any indication, I have even robbed you of your rest.”
“It wasn’t just you.” Pulling a loaf of bread and jar of honey from the cupboard, she said, “If you will remove your trophies from the table, we can eat.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, setting them beside his weapons.
“And stop apologizing,” she snapped. “There is nothing you can do that will make this visit any easier, so just be yourself.”
He ate in silence, only nodding when she poured him a cup of fresh milk. Nan wanted to ask him about the battle, wanted to hit him, but in the end she just ignored him.
“Something happened last night,” Kevin said.
She nodded, then caught herself. “It’s nothing for you to worry about.”
“If it pains you, then it pains me. That’s my obligation as a guest.”
“You should be careful,” Nan said.
“Why?” he asked. “If your husband is late, then let me search for him. If someone is bothering you while he is gone, then let me defend you. You have been nothing but a perfect hostess, and I would help you any way I could.”
Nan stood quickly and turned away, trying to keep him from seeing the conflict in her heart. “There is too much that you do not know.”
“Then tell me,” he said. “Please. Let me help you.”
Taking a deep breath, she turned to him and said, “You are in cantref Korach, in the house of Gynri mac Rhodrick, whose head is the freshest in your collection. If you value your life, you should leave now and never return.”
The blood drained from his face. “I had no idea.”
“I know. That is why, if you leave now, I will tell no one of your visit.”
“You won’t believe me, but I am sorry. If there is anything…”
He started to speak, but finally just bowed his head. He gathered his weapons and the heads from beside the door and left without another word.
When Nan finally worked up the courage to go outside sometime later, she found a small stone cairn near the gate, and she knew that her husband’s head was under it. “My thanks, Kevin mac Tavish,” she whispered into the wind. “If my husband had been half as honorable as you, we would not have come to this. May your luck be as great as your honor.”