Arrangements

Title: Arrangements
Time Period: January, 127 A.E.
Characters Appearing:

Summary: Aislinn comes to Edmund with a request regarding her separation from her son, Colm.

There is an old saying that time heals all wounds. Whether or not it's true, only a few weeks under Edmund's protection have brought about a dramatic change in Aislinn's physical appearance, and although there are still traces of bruising along her right cheekbone and jaw, the last of the crust has come off her mouth and the lacerations on her arms she received in self-defense. The dark circles under her eyes are now paler shadows of what they once were, likely never to fade in entirety as long as she continues to keep the hours she established shortly after her arrival in Dornie.

Even the most civilized settlements have a need for men and women like Aislinn, who is early to rise and late to return to the stable's loft and its heavy woolen blankets reeking of damp hay, and the time she spends away from where she sleeps has more to do with her role than it does her feelings toward the man who lets her sleep there.

A week ago, a boar goared one of the local boys whose mother called on her to close him back up again. Last night, she eased the passing of an old woman on the settlement's fringe after a lengthy illness that left her bedridden and without the use of her legs. This morning, it was a farmer whose wife showed signs of going into labour more than a month too soon, and these are only the cases Edmund has heard about in passing.

She has yet to return, but there are still a few lingering hours of daylight left — what little is able to penetrate the clouds and make it all the way down to earth. The herd stands out in the green, spread over a quarter mile of squat, rolling hills interpersed with old, leafless oaks that resemble stout giants in the dead of winter. When the snow touches their pelts, it turns to water glistening between their fine hairs and in loose, windswept manes. It retains its form when it drifts to earth, though not for much longer.

The horses resemble one another in mannerisms, behaviour, interchangeable markings and white legs, roan scatterings of silver and the same liquid eyes as the herd idles together. When you spend much time with them, it's easier to pick them apart, and know how to act, how to approach, and when Edmund moves up on the grey gelding with his head down, he does so in a practiced stride. Neither slow nor fast, and within view of the eye set into the side of the horse's head, allowing him to see his approach. This will be his sixth attempt in the past two hours, boots sinking into the soft, damp, snow-scattered field of green and black earth, stripped down to the relative minimum of cotton-wool trousers, a sweater, his coat discarded and slung over fencing for later collection.

He makes it all the way to the gelding, his ears a-twitch with idle attention to Edmund's hands splayed against his side. This is more success than he's achieved lately, and it doesn't take Edmund long— perhaps a matter of a minute— for him to gain his confidence and swing himself up onto the bare back of the spirited young gelding, a fist gripping wiry mane and the other splayed and set for balance.

The beast moves off to the side in sudden jerk, as if timing it carefully himself so that Edmund's foot goes out from under him and he's laid to stumble and tip over into the slushy grassland and watch the horse canter off with a flick of tail.

Better luck next time is also an old saying, though Aislinn is not the type of person to express it. She becomes visible after the gelding has crossed her path, which leads her through the herd rather than around it, past foals with dense, wooly coats tottering around on legs that they're still learning how to use but will still carry them swiftly away at the first sign of danger, and past their mothers, never approaching anything less than a respectful distance from the large, dark-eyed animals she is coming to know.

She is coming to know Edmund, too, and his place typically isn't on the ground. Her hands bunch around the fabric of her skirts, heavy and multi-layered, and she hefts them to keep from getting caught up herself as she clips on over to him at a brisk walk. Aislinn lacks furs for warmth or leather gloves to protect her hands from chill, but the weather has been mild enough that she also doesn't need them; the working dress and oversized cardigan sweater she arrived to Dornie in provide adequate protection against the elements, and as long as she washes them when she is able, there is little else her body demands except for food and shelter, which is more than many people have outside the settlement's borders.

Lying down in a horse field is a dangerous thing to do, and Edmund isn't going to risk it for all that it's the kind of evening you want to stare at from a loose-limbed sprawl in the meadow, for all that it's cold with wet. Less to do with the seemingly docile creatures that herd here, and more to do with comes out the end opposite to the one that feeds from the grass.

But he does stay as he is for a moment, a sigh exhaled shivery and thickly steamed as a small push of blood pressure sees his heart squeeze and frustration cloud out the corners of his eyes. It's gone in another second — mostly because he sees Aislinn in her busy skirts darting towards him in between cakes of horse shit and where the winter has made the ground trecherous. He moves, then, rolling up onto a knee before pushimg himself up completely. Not embarrassed — this wasn't a case, after all, of falling off a perfectly rideable horse, although there are some stable lords who would have sneered at him some twenty years ago.

Sensing that he isn't hurt, Aislinn slows and lets her skirts drop in as dignified a manner as she can manage, bare hands wiped off on the front of her cardigan where mud transferred from fabric to skin has left dirty streaks on her fingers and palms. The difference in their heights requires her to lift her chin and look up at him once he's back on her feet and she's close enough to take his hands in hers and inspect them for injury even though she knows in her bones the worst he'll be is sore. This is a temptation that she's able to resist, and instead her hands form a tight clasp at her abdomen as she comes to a stop a few feet away from Edmund, giving him the same courtesy and space as his horses.

"Eamonn," is her equivalent of a hello, and today she isn't quite looking him in the eye when she says it, either because she is embarrassed on his behalf, or because today there is something different.

His hands are dirty anyway, which is not something that bothers him. But even around a captured refugee woman, Edmund— or Eamonn— knows some measure of decorum enough that he wipes his palms off against one another to move the worst of the slush, a cursory glance at his fingernails for which there is no rescue, really.

"You know much 'bout horses?"

If Edmund can sense that there's something on her mind, then he is blatantly trampling over it with his own topic in mind, or maybe finding his own way to coax it out of her apart from out wit' it, which he's growled at many a stablehand over the past two decades and doesn't seem an appropriate thing to do at Aislinn when his ire has little to do with her right now.

That, or he truly is oblivious to her shifting eye contact.

"My father onced owned an Icelandic," Aislinn says. "He was very small. The horse, not my father." She looks past Edmund, then, to where a smoke-coloured cat with pale fur has perched on the fencepost beside his discarded jacket, its blue eyes like lanterns made of ice and the tip of its silky tail flicking back and forth to a rhythm that only feline ears are sensitive enough to hear.

"I know how to ride and to pick a hoof. When I was a little girl, I used to braid his mane with primroses — he never seemed to mind much, so I suppose I must have been doing something right." The cat doesn't hold her attention for very long; a glance and her focus has already returned to Edmund's face, though she continues to hide her own eyes behind the safety of their lashes. "I don't want you to think I'm ungrateful for all that you've done for me, but there's something I must ask."

He's moving, but not in a manner that expects her to leave or allow him to head away mid-sentence. Signalled, at least, with a cue of him glancing back at her, and his steps trudging. Long barreled pistols trapped in leather swing to brush as low as his knees until he can readjust the strap to hike them higher, before casting his eyes to his effects. Prickling tension doesn't manifest physically save for a narrowed look to make sure that the feline shape he sees is not bigger than a housecat, although anything bigger than a housecat would be supremely unlikely. That said, the coat it sits next to is partially made of kelpie skin, so anything is possible.

He can't think of any omens, either, and so doesn't extract one of his guns and risk the threat of stampeding hooves to scare it away. "The gelding. The grey." He was saying something, and seems determined to say it even after she sets the stage for her request. "They make 'em that way to be good. Obedient. And he is, with the others, no hasslin' the mares or fighting the stallions, but he won't let anyone near 'im. A gelding like that is fit to be shot for its meat.

"What's your request?"

Aislinn falls into step a few paces behind Edmund, good and obedient, but also like the gelding she understands what it means to want not to be near people — unlike the gelding, she needs them and no amount of grief will change that. "My boy Colm," she says. "He's only five years old, six in the spring. If your brother needs his hands at the factory, so be it, but if that's where he's to stay then let me stay with him.

"I'm as a hard a worker as anyone," she adds in anticipation of an argument that she's rehearsed many times in her head, "and I can learn about weapons the same as medicine and horses. He's not like other children. I don't say that because he's my son — I say that because it's the truth, and I've never told you anything different. Please. I'll do what I can for your gelding."

"You'd rather be under Duncan's employ and care?" This isn't asked with indignance — cynicism, mainly, an attempt to call a bluff added to her desire to be close to her boy. "Your son'd do better there than you would. He do well, he might get an education out've it, and good trade. You, though — I don't ask much of you. Duncan demands the world of everyone. Good for a young boy, not so for a lady. It's good, how it is now."

Moving closer to the fences, Edmund's hand wanders out to gently touch the flanks and shoulders of the horses he knows would welcome it, pausing by an older looking female who could well be pregnant despite the season, although it takes a trained eye at this stage to pick it out. She's patient and tolerant when he takes her head in his hands, palm sliding up long nose before he glances back at Aislinn to see how she's taking this argument.

Caution is written in the lines of Aislinn's face. The corners of her mouth are turned down into something that seems too gentle to be a frown, but her eyes are too solemn for it to be mistaken for anything else. "He needs someone to protect him," she insists. "Colm won't be able to meet Duncan's demands unless he can understand them, which he won't. Not without an interpreter."

She does not say the word please again, but presses the palms of her hands together for emphasis. So far, she's been incapable of raising her voice in Edmund's presence; this is the closest she's ever come to ending a sentence in an exclamation point. "I know what your brother is, Eamonn. It is exactly why I ask."

Reading people is a significantly different task to animals. Humans are better at deception, and it's for this that Edmund searches in a too-quick glance back beyond the profile that the chestnut mare makes. The subject of the doomed gelding has been set aside and he keeps it that way as he draws his attention reluctantly to the problem being put to him, irritation making him bridle, a flinty blue glance to her hands pressed like prayer.

"What's wrong with him?" he finally gruffs out when he realises that stony silence isn't going to make the problem be dropped, not in any meaningful, long term way. "Your son, not my brother."

The breath Aislinn draws in next has an edge to it. When she lets it back out again, it has a shakier quality. "He's deaf," she says, "and still too young to read lips, but he's learning — he's a quick learner." Her hands spread in demonstration, showing Edmund her open palms, and as she speaks she uses them to gesture and perform signs that correspond to what she's telling him.

"I've been teaching him to talk with his hands," she says, and this involves some delicate pointing that alternates between two index fingers and communicates an exchange between Edmund and herself as an example, swift as a pair of birds in a courtship flight. "Five is not old enough to be alone when all you know are some of the words you need to live."

Edmund's expression doesn't change. Edmund's expression doesn't change often in any case, save for flashes of anger or twists to his mouth that can count as both grimace or smirk and sometimes does. His actions are easier to track, stepping back and around the mare to set it between them as he moves for his coat, feline nearby or no feline.

It wouldn't be difficult, to hand off the woman to Duncan. Enduring a little bit of teasing is something he's used to over the long years, especially when he can follow it up with a fist in front of a right hook that even irritating younger brothers, at any age, can learn to respect. There are never too many workers at the munitions factory — a young boy of five cleaning shells and the woman left behind in jest or seriousness or some strange mixture in between. He sets his hands on his heavy coat, dragging it off the fencing, as if taking a mind not to answer her at all as he swings it back around his shoulders.

Then: "I'll talk to him and find an arrangement that suits all of us. And whatever it will be, you'll be happy with it." That doesn't sound like warm promise — more like instruction.

The flap of Edmund's coat startles the cat off its post. Front paws first, followed by the back, it spills fluidly from the fence onto the grass and disappears into the undergrowth at a trot with its tail flagged up behind it. Aislinn places a hand flat across her heart. It is impossible for her to be happy as long as she's separated from her child. Negotiating with him further is equally hopeless when she lacks the currency or power with which to do it.

"I will abide by it," is the only compromise she is any position to make, and it represents a desire to be honest with him more than it does her need to be close to her son. "Thank you for hearing me."