Winter was late. The polar storms were late breaching the mountains of the High Ramparts and that meant that here in the south the winter rains had not yet started.
Everything that could be foraged had been gathered in before autumn had stretched to this unnatural length but Aunt Glythera continued to send Kalbae out every day to comb the woods until the reeve came to see Uncle Tomkin Thunderneath and he, in turn, spoke firmly to Aunt Glythera who was his wife. When Aunt asked what she was supposed to do with Kalbae until the wet work started with the rains Uncle had looked at Kalbae, looked at her cousin Gathay who’d been spending her extended autumn walking out with Mussel Brockman in pursuit of his Prospects, and asked what Kalbae was going to be wearing at the Midwinter formalities, “Because,” he said in a measured tone, “what she wore last Midsummer was a little embarrassing. She’s our niece, not an itinerant farmhand.”
Aunt had looked daggers at him, gone into her storeroom, and come out again with a neatly folded dress length of dark greeny brown cloth. She announced, “Kalbae, you can make yourself something for best out of this.” She practically smirked.
Kalbae looked at down at herself, she was filthy but the cloth was clean but said, “But I don’t know how to make a dress. I’ve only been taught a little mending.”
Aunt started, “That’s not-.”
Gathay interrupted, “I know how and Larissmee,” she pulled on their other age-mate cousin’s shoulder to get her attention, “is good at patterns.” Larissmee nodded in confirmation. “We’ll help you, you’ll learn something and we’ll have done something useful. First thing,” she threw a sharp glance at Aunt who was her mother, “we’ll heat you some water for a bath because now the foraging is done for the year there’s some point in you getting clean.”
Later the three young women were conferring over the fabric that Gathay had just finished measuring by arm lengths. She said, “So, it’s a short length and it’s got nap. Can we do it, Larissmee?”
“We’ll need to make the skirt narrower than usual,” replied Larissmee, “and we might need to piece the bodice more than usual but if we make a square neck to show off Kalbae’s collarbones and make sure we do symmetrical pieces, I think we can pull it off but,” she waved her hand at a set of very old sheets, “we need to make a test model first.”
“I’m glad you two are here,” said Kalbae humbly, “because I’ve got absolutely no idea about this sort of thing. Aunt never taught me any sewing beyond simple things for mending.”
“The actual sewing isn’t that much more complicated,” Gathay assured her. “The complications are in deciding what to sew. At least this colour will look good on you, my skin just looks yellow against it while you look warm and brown.”
Larissmee asked quietly in case the adults were closer than they thought, “Have Aunt and Uncle ever said anything about who your father is, Kalbae? We all know that your mother is Aunt’s sister but the only families we know with your skin are over near Procyi’s Falls and their cheekbones are sharp like ours, not shaped like yours.”
“They’ve never said who he is,” answered Kalbae, “but I don’t think Aunt likes him.”
Later, when they were coming quietly downstairs tired but pleased with what they’d achieved the three girls heard Aunt Gythera saying bitterly, “Winter’s late this year and he could be back at any time. I’ve been keeping her safe – look where pretty clothes and being able to balance the household accounts got my sister with that family.” Then Kalbae’s foot made a step squeak and the older woman stopped talking.
Dress making took the three of them a week, what with: making the pattern; tweaking it; tacking up the test run made out of too worn bed sheets; more tweaking; and finally the cutting and the actual permanent sewing. Gathay and Larissmee handled the jigsaw that was the front of the bodice but Kalbae got plenty of practice in tacking things together and sewing the long straight seams of the skirt. The morning they finished it Kalbae had gone out to help Gathay collect the eggs, looked at the sky and smelt the wind, and then said, “The rain will be here in three days. If there’s anything you want to do before that happens, now’s the time.”
“Are you sure?” Gathay looked where Kalbae had been looking and felt no wiser.
“Oh, yes.” Kalbae nodded. “The storms are coming over the mountains. If the rain is heavy enough the river might rise before the rain gets here.”
Gathay asked, “Does father know? Should we tell him?”
Kalbae smiled. “Uncle’s better at this than I am, but now could be a good time to find out how much weather sense the Brockmans have.”
“Kalbae!” Gathay was acting shocked, in Kalbae’s opinion, because she thought she ought to.
“Well, if you’re serious about Mussel, you need to know their weaknesses as well as their strengths,” pointed out Kalbae, “and being able to read the weather is important for a farm.”
“There’s that,” agreed Gathay. “We’ll get your dress finished and then we’ll see.”
They did finish the dress and the two other girls insisted Kalbae wear it downstairs to show Aunt and her gaggle of female visitors from the village and surrounding farms who’d gathered to start organising the Midwinter festivities. Aunt looked disapproving as Kalbae’s appearance in ankle length, sueded fustian distracted her guests but she thawed when her niece deflected their compliments on the gown to her cousins.
The meeting was breaking up and Kalbae was still showing off her dress to one woman who was examining how Larissmee had put the skirt together and was muttering, “So neat, and so economical!” when a horse drawn vehicle pulled up on the road outside. It wasn’t a cart or wagon and that was uncommon enough that everyone stopped to look. It wasn’t even a buggy of the type that some of the better-off locals owned, this was a four horse box carriage smart enough to be termed an equipage. It might even have had springs, but it certainly had a driver with an offsider who was currently opening the door and lowering a step for a passenger to alight. Aunt Glythera was all pursed mouth for a moment and then said, “Ah, I was thinking he might turn up. My sister’s brother-in-law.”
That pronouncement had the neighbours leaving faster than any of the girls had ever seen them move before. It was clear that the older women knew something that the girls didn’t. They were gone by the back door so quickly that by the time a tall stranger walked in with a cautious Uncle Tomkin it was just Aunt Glythera, Gathay, Larissmee, and Kalbae left.
The gentleman looked and smelt important, dressed in his fur-edged travel clothes and wreathed with scent of amberleaves. Uncle Tomkin indicated Kalbae and said, “Here she is, sir. Kalbae, this is your father’s brother, your Uncle Lovess.”
Kalbae bobbed an unpractised curtsey and took a good look at the new arrival. She shared her nose shape with her aunt and Gathay but this man had her olive skin and rounded cheekbones. He was taller than her uncle, so perhaps her height also came from her mother’s side because she and Gathay had only a finger’s width difference in their heights. She might have been staring but, to be fair, her new met uncle was looking at her as carefully as she was looking at him.
“Why are you here?” asked Aunt Glythera dourly.
“Now Kalbae is nearly an adult it’s time for her to come and live with me,” replied Uncle Lovess very simply.
“Why should I let her? Getting involved with your family did my sister no good,” replied Aunt Glythera bitterly.
“I agree with you there,” said Uncle Lovess soberly. “Associating with my brother did your sister no good at all, but Kalbae is my niece and my family’s only heir – there are things she needs to know that she cannot learn here. For all that you have raised her, albeit with help from the coin I’ve sent you every year, as her father’s only brother I am her legal guardian until she becomes an adult and this is my decision to make.”
“I’ve not trained her up to manage a household, the way you wanted,” said Aunt Glythera warningly. “Knowing only housework but with no household of her own to manage did my sister no good either.”
“So what does she know?”
Uncle Lovess’ attention was split between the two adults but it was Kalbae who answered. “I can turn my hand to most of the farm work but our foraging and the winter wet work are what I do most of. These days I’m the one Uncle Tomkin usually sends if the reeve needs help with a search or putting people’s beasts back where they belong.”
Uncle Tomkin added, “I thought that one day she might be the reeve.”
Uncle Lovess nodded slowly. “It wasn’t what I had in mind, but I don’t think I can fault it. Not when I’m fairly sure that some enterprising persons came up this way looking for whatever I brought up here just after my brother’s death. Whatever it is you’ve done with Kalbae, it seems to have provided an extra layer of protection, and I’m now well aware that my brother was not the least scrupulous researcher in the world.” Aunt visibly recoiled and Uncle Lovess agreed, “Exactly. It’s been some years since anyone turned up on my doorstep demanding access to my brother’s research notes and subjects, but there’s no guarantee I’ve seen the last of them.”
Aunt Glythera, reaching out a hand towards her visitor, said quietly, “My sister?”
“I’ve kept them away from her,” Lovess quickly assured her. “She too remains safe.”
Kalbae interrupted, “Wait, you mean my mother’s alive? Why aren’t I living with her? Why isn’t she living here or at Cousin Dale Bradeview’s farm where you two grew up?”
Uncle Lovess made an awkward, embarrassed throat clearing sound and the other two adults looked embarrassed too. Gathay and Larissmee looked as confused as Kalbae. “As to that,” Uncle Lovess shuffled his feet awkwardly, “your mother went to work as your father’s housekeeper when he set up his establishment near Amberfields, just off the pike road between Oles and Graffin. At some point she then became one of the test subjects for his magical and alchemical experiments. There were others, of which he himself was one, and something went wrong – as you would expect with such as arrangement. One fellow became monstrous and attacked the pike road traffic. That led to a delegation, including me, visiting my brother to check on his activities.” He paused and shook his head as if still disbelieving. “He attacked us. Accused us of, well I didn’t really understand what he was accusing us of. Afterwards we found your mother, who was heavily pregnant with you, resting in one of the bedrooms. I’m afraid her mind was already gone as a result of the experiments she’d been subjected to, but of course we had no way of knowing what she’d consented to because she couldn’t tell us.” He missed half a beat and added, “Or at least couldn’t tell us in a way we could understand. I found your parents’ marriage lines in amongst my brother’s papers, so I took charge of her and later of you. I found her a place where she can be properly and safely cared for and she is, I believe, happy but she cannot care for herself and she could never have looked after you.”
“We don’t mention her name,” put in Aunt Glythera diffidently, “or your father’s because your Uncle Lovess told us he was worried that harmful people would try to track you down by their use.”
“Names have power,” agreed Uncle Lovess, “and some of the people your father was in correspondence with have been very persistent.”
Kalbae asked quietly, “So, what’s my name?”
The three adults exchanged glances. Uncle Lovess replied, “You are Kalbae Ng’attawa Winterthorn.”
“Kalbae Ng’attawa Winterthorn.” Kalbae stretched out her hand and looked at it as it remained, unchanging, a completely normal human hand. “Well, using my full name doesn’t look like it’s going to turn me into a monster.” She smiled wryly, “But the first line of every Kuher beseechment in the temple lexicon, slightly rearranged, is my full name?”
“It was what your mother said every time we asked her what she wanted to call you,” replied Uncle Lovess, “and if anyone magically searches for a use of your name then they’re going to get distracted by half the temple services and choir practices in progress at any given time. It seemed a very good name,” and he smiled.