“Pox take you Callindra, what’s the holdup?” Cook yelled out the door, “You said you had a fresh brace of Coney’s for his Grace’s dinner, get em to me now or you’ll get a serious beating girl!”
Callindra sighed, wiping the sweat from her brow and tucking a wayward strand of hair behind her right ear. “Coming, I just need to skin them.” Her mouth watered looking at the fat rabbits, but she knew the Lord was expecting guests. It only took moments to hook the still warm animals on a skinning post and deftly shuck their skins off. Carefully wrapping the hides into a tidy bundle she set them in the shade so they wouldn’t dry out before she had the chance to clean and stretch them.
She walked through the back door with six naked rabbits, three in each hand. “Here you go Cook, fresh off the lines this morning.”
“About rotting time.” The large man snatched her morning’s catch from her hands, “Now get over there and wash those dishes.”
She complied, swallowing her anger for what seemed like the hundredth time today. “Yes Cook.” This was not what she had in mind when she made her decision to come to the Keep instead of going to work in the fields. She’d had high hopes of learning a trade or convincing someone she had the wits to attend the learning institute the Lord had created just outside the walls of his holding. She hadn’t even considered going to a nunnery, the Gods were a myth as far as she could see.
Instead of any of these she had been sent to work in the kitchens in the mornings and evenings and as a chambermaid for most of the day. The only breaks she got were the rare moments when she got to tend to the snares she had wheedled and begged the Lord’s hunters to teach her. Callindra knew the only reason they had shown her was they believed snares and traps were a lower form of hunting. When she had tried to convince Langmar to teach her more he had responded contemptuously.
“It takes skill to take down a running stag with one single arrow and I don’t want to waste the years it would take to train a girl how to shoot a bow when there are plenty of boys who I know will be up for the task. Women just aren’t suited for archery, especially not one as skinny and weak as you. I taught you how to set snares, be grateful I did that much.”
So for now she had to be content with what she was given and dream of greater things. Not always easy to do when you were up to your elbows in dirty dishwater.
“Hey there country girl. Yeh need someone ter help yeh cure them hides? I’m happy ter help yeh ou’ if yeh needs it.” Jed was likable enough despite his lack of teeth. The Lord’s Master Tanner had always been decent to her. She hated the smell of tanning hides but she loved working with leather. Besides, this was one of the only jobs they allowed her to wear breeches instead of skirts.
“Thank you sir, but I think I’ve got the hang of it, at least with these little things.” Callindra was scraping the bits of sinew and membrane from the rabbit skins with a sharp piece of flint. “If I ever catch something bigger I’ll be sure to enlist your help.”
“As to tha, I hear they’re lookin fer another set a hands nex offday fer tha bear hunt. I ken pu in a good word fer yeh if yeh like.”
She could hardly believe her ears, “Would you? Wow, thank you! I don’t know how to shoot a bow but I’d love the chance to skin a larger animal, or at least see it done.”
“Yeh got a bit a skill wi’ leather, not enough ter be trusted wi’ a bear yet tho. Could be I migh be lookin fer a prentice come fall if yeh wan’.”
Callindra was floored; it was almost too good to be true. “I’m flattered sir, but I can’t help but ask why? Aren’t there plenty of others who would be better suited?”
The balding man fixed her with a critical eye. “I got th eye fer knife skill girl. Yeh got a way wi’ blades, yer doin better wi’ tha’ bit a rock then mos’ does wi’ a real scrapin’ knife. Yeh wan’ ter learn from me or no?”
“Yes sir, I do!” Callindra grinned from ear to ear, “When can we start?”
“Now’s good a time’s any.” Jed took a worn but very well made hide scraping blade from his belt. “Here I got this ‘un from th one what showed me th trade. I allus thought it was better ‘n any other I used since.”
She took the knife from him and pulled it from the sheath. The blade was honed to a perfect service edge and the hilt was made of walnut worn smooth by years of use.
“I don’t know what to say sir.” Callindra swallowed a lump in her throat.
“Say thanks an’ show me what yeh can do wi’ one a them deer hides.” He gestured towards a small pile of skins, “An call me Jed I ain’t no sir.”
“Yes si- I mean yes Jed.” She grinned against the tears that threatened, “Thank you.”
The days passed quickly, and Callindra absorbed herself in the work, learning everything she could. Gradually she became accustomed to the unsavory smells of the tanning yard and the strange speech patterns of her teacher.
One thing she could not get used to was how she was treated as the tanner’s apprentice. The women ignored her, something she was already used to. The girls treated her with scorn, which wasn’t all that much different than it had been before, however the fact that she was doing what they considered ‘man’s work’ added acid to their attitudes. All the men assumed she had used her body to get the position, why did men always seem to think with their loins?
Callindra was stopping off at the kitchen to get some supper for her Trademaster. His lack of teeth required soft food, and she always managed to wheedle some tenderloin or chicken breast out of Cook. From just outside the busy kitchen she could hear some of the serving maids gossiping.
“She’s like an animal! Honestly her hair’s always tangled and she smells like she never bathes.” She overheard one of the village girls say. “I swear she gets more like that horrible old man every day.”
“I’d say it’s probably from bedding him.” Said a man’s voice, the girls erupted into titters and giggles of laughter. “You know how lovers tend to influence each other.”
“Don’t let them bother you too much.” Cook rumbled, surprising Callindra with a moment of kindness, “I’m glad Jed has someone to care for him, who you take to is your business.”
“I – we aren’t.” She paused under Cook’s scrutiny. What was the use? She gave up, “Thank you Cook. I’ll see he gets this.” Bobbing an inexpert curtsy she took the still-warm package of food and hurried out the door before more crude talk could reach her ears.
“Watch where yer runnin there runt!” Two of the Lord’s Huntsmen were carrying a wild boar towards the kitchen and intentionally swung the carcass to block her way. “In a hurry t’ get back t’ that old man eh? If you ever want a real man t’ warm yer bed lemme know, I’d tame th’ wild otta yeh.”
Without responding, she ducked under the boar and ran for the small shack she shared with Jed. Outside, she found him carefully scraping the boar’s hide.
“Here, I can do that, you have some supper. I brought a jug of cider too.” She set her package down and drew the scraping knife he had given her. Jed grunted his thanks and opened the cloth, inhaling the steam from the tender meat and fresh bread. Under his watchful eye, Callindra began carefully scraping the flesh and veins from the inside of the hide.
“If yeh wan’ th’ Lord says yer can go wi’ on th’ bear hunt.” Jed paused to take a drink of cider and smacked his lips in satisfaction. “Leavin firs’ light.”
“Really? Oh, thank you Jed thank you!” She gave the old man a fierce hug, “I just know I can do something to get the Lord’s notice. If I could just prove my usefulness maybe I could be allowed to learn more things.”
“Good luck.” He patted her shoulder awkwardly and then scrutinized the work she’d done. “Don’ dig so hard on a pigskin, th’ leather’s finer ‘n a deer. Needs a lighter touch.”
Callindra joined a line of boys, their job to walk through the woods making as much noise as possible to drive animals towards where the Lord was waiting on a hilltop with his longbow. The scope of his retinue astounded her; he had a pavilion set up with a kitchen to serve delicacies while he waited, a bower for his Lady and their children to observe his hunting prowess from the comfort of silk cushions, a shaded area for the other ranking men to sit, smoke and drink.
She could feel the boys watching her as they fanned out. Some smirked, others gawked; she was the only girl who wasn’t serving or lounging in the pavilion. They made their way through the forest and Callindra lost sight of the other drivers, although she could hear them crashing through the brush.
She stifled a squawk of surprise as a great stag jumped seemingly out of nowhere, setting her heart pounding. A short while later, she entered a small clearing and saw three of the Lords Huntsmen taking their leisure.
“About time yeh managed ter get here. We been gettin bored waitin fer yeh.” She recognized two of them; they had blocked her way with the boar the day before.
“I told yeh I was gonna tame th’ wild otta yeh girl.” He stood, and she could see a licentious grin split his bearded face.
“You’ll have to catch me first you sick bastards!” She turned and sprinted into the woods, listening to the laughter of the men as they followed, easily able to track her progress. The branches seemed to bend to lash her across the face and brush tangled her feet. Finally she emerged from the thick wood into an open meadow. She ran across, finally putting some distance between her and her pursuers, but fell to the ground with a sharp pain blossoming in her shoulder.
Callindra heard the laughter behind her change to shouts of alarm. Looking up, she gaped as a massive bear reared up on its hind legs seemingly from nowhere, roaring in anger at being disturbed. She stumbled to her feet, fumbling for her knife. The bear’s claws flashed and gore splattered into her face. Backing away, she flailed wildly, shouting her defiance and fear. The wind roared in her ears and consciousness faded.
“Here now, drink this youngling.” Glarian looked down at the slim girl laying in the guest room of his small stone house, “It will be bitter but setting bones was never my strong suit and it is going to hurt a lot less if you can manage to swallow a bit of this.”
She looked up into a face framed by graying tresses with an immaculately groomed moustache drooping on either side of a mouth set with worry. “Where?”
“Safe, I’m a friend. The Lord holds no sway here; whatever those men had against you means nothing to me.”
She relaxed and allowed him to help her sit so she could take a few swallows of the harsh brew. Once she had lapsed into a deeper, narcotic sleep, the man carefully sliced the leg of her breeches with a small knife. His brow knitted sharply; it was a bad break and beyond his real ability to set but he couldn’t afford to wait until the traveling Healer came, nor could he bring this slip of a girl anywhere the Lord’s men would frequent.
He sighed and with an inexpert hand jerked her leg back to as close to straight as he could; wincing as she cried out in spite of the drug-induced nature of her sleep. Before the bones could slide apart again, he splinted and bound the leg as tightly as he could. He leaned back and took out the wash leather pouch that held his pipe. Packing the bowl with tac he concentrated for a moment, conjuring a flame until it was lit to his satisfaction. What was he going to do with this girl?
Just a few hours before he had been stalking a large bear; bear meat was sustaining and the animals were at their fattest in the fall even if that was also when they were the most irritable. Also, there was the superstition that shooting a fat bear would mean a mild winter, but Glarian knew better. He had followed it to a clearing and was readying the bow he had forced himself to learn to use since leaving the Order when the lithe figure of a girl had sprinted into view.
The three grown men who followed laughing and cursing had intentions that were all too clear. One of the men hurled a stone from a sling and it struck her shoulder, knocking her to the ground. He ran forward but just before Glarian could have loosed an arrow at him the massive bear had appeared as though summoned from the underbrush.
The animal raked claws across the man standing over her with hideous force, hurling him to one side and splattering her with blood and worse. She backed away, rising to one knee and the bear turned its attention to her; the two other men having run back into the woods.
To his surprise instead of running away or being shredded by the beast’s claws she pulled a dagger from her belt and swung it screaming in fear and anger. Something within her resonated with him and instead of just being a scream he felt Power pulse through her body. Threads of Weave exploded out of the dagger’s blade in a wild uncontrolled arc. The dagger disintegrated; its mild steel and poor construction unable to handle the forces it was subjected to.
The majority of the blast blew the bear across the clearing, but the rest recoiled on the girl herself, breaking her leg in several places and hurling her unconscious form to the ground.
“What were you thinking you little fool? Why did you have to come here?” He sat and smoked, watching the girl whimpering in her sleep. “Hush now, you’re safe.” Glarian touched her tangled mass of hair, smoothing it out of her face. She murmured something and released a deep sigh.
He jerked his hand back in surprise. Motes of Weave leaped from her nose and mouth when she exhaled, fluttering around her like lightning bugs, playing with strands of her hair and ruffling the coverlet. No student, no Master, no Adept he had ever seen had ever shown this kind of aptitude for channeling Power.
“Gods preserve us, if she doesn’t learn to contain these forces she’s eventually going to destroy herself.” Glarian watched as the capricious little whispers of Power swirled his pipe smoke into fantastical shapes. “Well it’s not my problem. I’ve saved her once, that’s good enough.”