Mare

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

Summary: Edmund receives a gift from his younger brother on the eve of his return from negotiations with settlements to the south.

Dornie winters are wet.

If it does not rain then it snows and if does not snow then it rains, but in the dark with only gas lanterns and the residual light of a cloud-bruised moon to illuminate the stables belonging to the settlement's resident horse lord (who is not in fact a lord at all), an individual would be hard-pressed to identify what the winds bring in across the frozen grasslands from the lochs. What might be sleet slants against the roof and the eastern side of the structure, filling the stalls with a sound like building thunder.

Moisture brings out the smells that the cold otherwise keeps locked away: good straw, damp hair and the thick, cloying kind of mud that cakes as it dries, which it never fully does. A clean stable reeks of horses, not their manure, and even that is reminiscent of the earth they feed from.

The same weather had an opposite effect on what Edmund's brother brought back to Dornie on his skin and in his hair and clothes, leaving only faint traces of blood and smoke and a bruise under one eye to hint at where he'd been, and when he told him that he left him a mare tied in one of the stable's empty stalls, the pink stain on his teeth as he'd smiled made no claim that he came by the offering fairly.

It better be good.

Strong and in her prime, relatively young, who can contribute to the herd without killing herself or the young sent spilling into the world. Edmund's thoughts brush against this checklist every now and then, dully slide away into shallower contemplations, of a warm room and cold wine, the air beginning to thicken with smoke and windows condensed with steam. But he doesn't trust Duncan to put away the horses in any way that would satisfy Edmund, and even apart from that— curiousity and a certain amount of keenness despite himself and his brother's grin had finally driven him from the warmth to go see for himself before lights are out across the town. The stuff that falls from the sky is snow and rain, seems to hold both qualities, but beneath his furs and his kelpie pelt, he remains a semblance of warm.

The barnyard door of the stables whines open, bringing in a fresh gust of winter air before it's sealed off again. The deep hood of his coat is flung back, almost dry beneath it even if moisture shines his face. Fingers grope after the lantern kept by the door, matches striking a new source of light spilling golden through the stalls.

There are no horses here that Edmund doesn't recognize.

Either Duncan is worse at securing livestock than he feared, or there was more behind his smile than just blood-stained teeth. One seems much more likely than the other; firelight scatters the stable's shadows and drives them into the tall wooden crossbeams above Edmund's head. It lifts away the dark and exposes what the night had hidden beneath it, which is neither mare nor foal.

She is a woman who might or might not have been beautiful at one time; the swelling around her face makes it difficult to make any judgements about its true proportions or bone structure, and the filth painted on thick to her skin blemishes her complexion as badly as the contusions along her cheek and jaw.

Whatever fight Duncan came from, so has she, though she seems not to have fared quite as well. The one thing he was honest about is the rope that binds her hands at the wrists, and this is more symbolic than it is functional; if there was any rebellion in her to begin with, it has either been beaten out of her or left of its own accord.

Her hair is the colour of straw when it's wet and her eyes are blue. She is exhausted but alive and watching him like a dog with flat ears watches a raised hand. He can be certain of little else.

When his eyes find her, something crosses by beneath them in the time it takes for them to widen just a little, but it's gone again when he takes another glance around the stable, as if Duncan hadn't just tricked him and had only accidentally left a wench where a horse might be. But there is no such fortune, and steam comes pluming through Edmund's nose in a snort of disapproval, irritation, disappointment. He is still in awkward silence, not overly large but not not merely average either in height or the span of his shoulders, but his shape is mostly hidden in the coat of oily, leathery short-fur that makes up its shoulders, sleeves, and over-large hood — treated wool and ordinary cow leather after that. His hands are bare but hidden in long sleeves, the tips of his fingers just visible.

He isn't young or old, a middling age of thirty-something, and no nobility in his stance, or even soldier discipline. A farmer's capability instead, or more accurately, animal handler. Shepherd. The horses are quiet in their stalls, ignoring the noise and light at this hour.

He turns to leave. Stops. Makes a sound of annoyance, and moves towards a work table covered over in burlap. It's peeled back to show off the ongoing construction of horse tack, and picks out a knife from the wooden box that keeps the required tools. Reluctance doesn't end there, though, setting the edge of the knife against the already grooved and marked up edge of the table as he sneaks a glance back at her, his jaw taut with a curse word— for his brother— kept to himself for now.

By the time he is looking back at her, some of the fear has ebbed from the woman's expression in spite of the knife Edmund holds in his hand; she is docile but cautious, her eyes on his eyes rather than the weapon or the glow reflected in it.

She sees that it is a tool and puts her faith in good intentions. Horses have a way of knowing what he means to do, and maybe she does too, whether through his body language or some other means. The tips of her fingers curl into her palms without nails biting the skin. The tension in her shoulders makes them shake instead of her hands, and if he listens for it he hears the rasp of her breathing in rhythm with the shallow rise and fall of her breast beneath her clothes, which are covered in too much blood for any significant amount of it to be her own.

If it was, Duncan would have left him a corpse.

The knife is dragged off its bite into the wooden work bench with a serrated sounding scrape, before Edmund is moving for the woman. His eyes only meet hers once, a fleeting kind of glance over that has more to do with seeking out her health, mental or otherwise, than attempting empathic connection — but he can't disguise his own discomfort. The source of it remains murky.

A hand goes down to wrap around the knuckles of one of hers, warmer than her own digits, rougher, with his fingertips and palm callused to a leather. The knife is better treated than his hands, probably, and saws cleanly and efficiently through the fibres of the ropes binding her wrists together, making twist work of it until they come apart with a final tug if blade to resisting threads. There are still knots until her hands are completely free of rope, but she has her mobility and common sense, and the blade any closer stands more chance of harming than helping.

He reeks of unwashed clothing and smoke, but possibly a better alternative than blood and horse manure. The knife rotates where he grips it by the hilt.

"What did— "

Edmund's head twitches a little in a tilt, restless. More discomfort. "What'd he tell you?"

The woman responds to the touch by stilling as much as her body allows. There are things beyond her command like trembling, which is itself a byproduct of her trying to maintain physical control over something she that has no control over at all. The air in the stable is only a few degrees warmer than the air outside, her clothes are soaked through with rain and melted snow as well as blood, and she does not have the benefit of a kelpie pelt to keep it off her skin or furs to lock in the heat because furs are valuable — if she had any before Duncan, then they were taken from her at the same time everything else was.

Old tears leave tracks in the dirt and grime plastered to her cheeks. The threat of new ones cause her eyes to shine as she lowers them, removing her focus from his face and placing it on his hands. It takes effort to overcome the obstacles of a mouth numbed by the cold and chapped, split lips — when she succeeds, it's in a thin, reedy voice frail from recent disuse, and with a soft musicality that makes her accent sound strange, but not so alien to suggest English is a second language.

"Very little," she says. "Listen and obey."

He backs up from her and sets the knife back down again, loosely recovering tools and projects with the burlap before his hands seek beneath his coat. Not immune to the discomfort of other creatures— finely tuned to it in the ways that Edmund isn't necessarily always responsive— he winds up shedding the heavy garment, as wet on the outside as it is bakingly warm on the inside, from his own body heat. It lands in a small mountain of leather, wool and fur within easy reach of her, the gesture too casual to be anything short of a temporary lending gesture. For now, he is warm enough inside the stable from left over heat and the woolen sweater worn beneath, the tighter weave of trousers and work-worn boots.

From a pocket, the tools needed for smoking are extracted — a pipe, in the name of conservation and re-usability, the tobacco in a pouch, matches. He doesn't waste the one he used — lights the end of it to the flame of his lantern once the glass is twisted away, and charges the packed tobacco with lazy breaths that puff smoke into the air.

"What do you do?" is asked, coarsely, as he does this practice. His accent is that of Dornie, as if he's never wandered far for much of his life.

The coat dwarfs her, and she is tired enough from the journey that wrapping it around her narrow shoulders presents more difficulty than she probably anticipated before picking it up off the hay. It's very heavy, her limbs thin and bones weary; when she has it on, she holds it shut with a clasped hand, the other laid across her chest under the dense, sopping fabric.

It gives her ample time to consider her answer as she curls tighter into the corner of the stall she chose for herself, back and shoulders resting against the wooden divider, legs folded beneath her. She doesn't have to be standing for Edmund to see that she's small.

"I tend to the sick," she tells him, "and mend what needs mending."

The shudder of the smoke out mouth and nose portray what is otherwise an inaudible reaction — somewhere between grunt and chuckle, without any mirth to back it. Basically: she probably isn't even a prostitute. This, apparently, is all he immediately needs to know, as no question follows, but he does invite her to; "Talk."

Edmund moves across the mouth of the stall, reach over to take up a small stool that's been roughly constructed but done well enough to withstand several seasons of use. It's set down into the opposite corner, and rather than gesture for her to take it, he takes a seat to enjoy his pipe and maybe the dryness of the building before he has to go back out into the sleet coming down horizontal when the wind howls the worst.

"What would you have me say?"

The woman's tone is absent of even a trace of impertinence; her mouth gentles the words, too deferential to sound purposefully insolent, though there is purpose in her question as much and there is sincerity — very quiet. Feathers whisper in the stable's rafters where an owl with milk-pale feathers and dark eyes studies the top of Edmund's head from its perch, and there is nothing unusual about that. Nocturnal predator birds are common in and around Dornie, especially in winter when the mice and rats are congregating where it is warmest, driest and food is easier to come by than it is outside of human settlements.

"Dunno."

This muttered around the stalk of his pipe and the cloud of smoke that leaks out the corners of his mouth, a fresher version of the staler scent that clings to the furs of the coat the woman has wrapped around her. "Y'could ask what happens to you now. Ask my name. Say your name. Ask where you are, say where you came from. You don't seem to have many choices left to you, lady, so I'd take the opportunity to make some decisions now, aye?" It's the most he's said since he's come here, and one gets the impression that he probably isn't a big talker, day to day — impatience edges each syllable, and they get rougher and rougher as the words continuing. That could also well be the strength of the smoke he inhales, drying his throat, and the length of the day behind him.

"I know who you are, and I know where I am." What happens to her is something she's apparently made peace with insofar as it being beyond her immediate control; wherever she comes from, it's far enough away that she's had plenty of opportunity to think about her future and the possibility that she might not have one at all depending on the whims of other people.

"My name is Aislinn," she says. "I was born across the Irish Sea. I have two children: a little boy sent to your family's factory and a baby girl sent to heaven with their father. My son's hands are small and your brother says he needs them to polish the inside of his shell casings. Asking what happens now cannot change it. You will do what you will do, Eamonn Rowntree.

"Iron does not bend."

Aislinn's chosen way of speaking his name accepted as easily as her accent, or deemed as irrelevant. Maybe he doesn't plan on hearing it much more than just now. Whatever the reason, Edmund doesn't correct, or say anything else immediately. A glance upwards towards where he last heard that rustle of feathers, more excuse to evaluate something other than the bruised and beaten woman in the corner of the horse stall, before he's standing, a lift of cloudy smoke going with him. "There's a spot in the loft where the stable boys'll sleep, when I have 'em. If y'can make it. There ain't any rats t'worry about, not in my stables. Ehm."

He sniffs, scuffs his sleeve against his nose as he thinks, irritation drawing lines in his forehead. "There's blankets but y'can keep the coat for warmth. If you make off with it, you won't get far in this weather an' I'll throw you in the tri-lochs when I catch up in the mornin'. If you stay, I'll see you get fed.

"I was expecting a horse," he adds, at last, as if to excuse himself in some way.

"A reasonable man would," says Aislinn. "Thank you." She looks toward the ladder that leads up to the loft and makes the climb first with her eyes. If she attempts it with her hands and feet, it will be after Edmund is gone and she has summoned the physical strength with which to do it. The owl in the rafters takes wing, disappearing into the dark where he promised the blankets would be.

"You'll have your coat again with the sun," she adds. "I would much rather be fed than drowned."

"A wise choice, for a healer." This, on paper, is a joke. In person, it's delivered with too much dryness, spoken without enough thought to be one in any obvious way. Oblivious to the swift flutter of night predator wings, Edmund looks over her once more, then back towards the horses tied segregated in their stalls, the sounds of their presence familiar and warm. If his glance is a means of signalling departure, then he means it more for them than for her, as he turns without a word for the large doors that could fit a herd of horses through them. He only opens it enough for one man, slipping through.

He shuts it again, bolts it from the outside, with only a brief spray of sleet slithering its way through before sealed off from the inside.