She was stuck for the night on the wrong side of the river, its height had risen without warning in the time she’d been gathering mushrooms and now she couldn’t get home. She could eat the mushrooms raw, of course, but she would have preferred more in the way of clothes for the autumn night ahead, or a means of starting a fire.
She took a look at the rushing water a good two or three feet deep over the stepping stones and sighed. The shadows were beginning to get long and once it was dark the dew would begin to settle. She needed to start looking for shelter or somewhere she could make some. That meant going back towards the patches of fern and the saplings she could easily break, back into the woods and up the slope a little. The lack of a track didn’t make for easy going, but her family hoped to change that, that was partly why she was here on the unsettled side of the river.
The climb back up the slope took maybe ten minutes, much faster than when she’d been looking for mushrooms. The grove of pinuoids and kesuarids were where she remembered them, the ground beneath them thick with needle litter and the branches above interlocking to block out the sky. It wasn’t a blanket and it wouldn’t warm her up, but it would keep her dry. A few ferns might make it more comfortable, but-
“You’re looking lost, can I help?” The male voice when she was sure she was alone was so startling she yelped and almost dropped her basket. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” she turned round as he moved into her field of view, “I’m setting up camp for the night and I was looking for kindling. Most people call me Veld.” He was a few years older than her, she judged but only a few, and the striped, knitted beanie pulled down to cover all his head except his face made him look like a townie. The rest of his clothes though were practical for someone living rough for a few days and his overall cleanliness suggested that it was just a few days.
“I’m Iresu Trenchman,” she acknowledged, “We farm on the other side of the river. I was collecting mushrooms when the river came up – I can’t get back tonight.”
“I’m from down near Briarfell,” Veld offered, “Scavenging for fire sign, we’ve pretty much cleaned it up down our way. This side of the river doesn’t belong up to anyone up here, does it? Actually, I wouldn’t have thought you’d find mushrooms over here either.”
“No,” she blushed, “You’re not connected to the Khatsids are you?”
“They the first land holders up here?” She nodded in response to his question. “I think one of their daughters married one of the sons from our first land holders, the Weirbuilders, last year.”
“Yes, that was Awsta,” agreed Iresu, “We’re third land holders under them and we all had to pay a levy for the wedding and her bride clothes. That’s why we-“
“Seeded this side of the river with mushrooms?” His eyes danced in amusement, “You’re trying to prove the land by stealth and get first land holder over here before they notice,” he grinned widely, “You may have noticed that I’m flouting the rules on collecting fire sign myself.” He paused. “Look, you’re stuck for the night, I’ve got gear and I can make a fire. Why don’t you stay with me? I can lend you a blanket,” he offered as she regarded him uncertainly. He was even deeper in the chest and solider across the shoulders than her farm working brother about the same age. “No funny stuff, I promise. You’ll be my guest in my abode, such as it is for the night. Besides,” a wry grin, “Making out with me wouldn’t do you any favours.”
She ignored the odd comment and accepted graciously, then helped him gather kindling. He’d picked a good spot for his camp site, sheltered from the worst of the weather and positioned so it wouldn’t be visible from her side of the river. That would make sense if he was illegally searching for fire sign. She had to admire his camping kit too, he must have been a successful fire sign collector because the sort of gear he had wasn’t cheap – his nestling set of pans wouldn’t have been regarded badly in any kitchen Iresu had been in. Plus he had two oiled ground sheets in his back pack and an all weather jacket he assured her would keep him warm enough while she borrowed his blanket. Dinner was half her mushrooms, some of his cured meat, a dash of oil and two toasted slices of his bread. She curled up in the blanket after the cleaning up was done feeling far more comfortable than she had imagined she would be only a few hours earlier. As she drifted off to sleep Iresu realised that while she had told him a lot about her family while they cooked, ate and cleaned up, he had told her almost nothing about himself...
“Wake up,” it was being hissed at her by a silhouette against the stars. Her mind clicked over, that was Veld. “We have company coming, you might want to hide those mushrooms under the blanket.”
She could hear what he was talking about now. In the near distance and coming closer a man was saying, “If that girl of yours had free time to wander off exploring over here, then you must have labour and to spare at your place, Trenchman. If she’s as gradly as those other two of yours then I can think of at least three men who’re looking for a wife.”
A low murmur then another loud male voice, “Why limit yourself, Marthan, if she’s as gradly as all that and a wanderer, why waste her as some third tier’s wife?” The speaker guffawed loudly.
Marthan said in a disgusted tone, “Keep your mouth out of the sewer, Carlil, at least in front of her kinsmen. I’ve never heard that she’s that sort of girl. Besides we’re after that fire sign scavenger, remember that!”
At the same time Veld was asking, “What’s gradly?”
“Neat,” muttered Iresu, blushing in the dark, “Buxom, skilled in the wifely arts.” Where does he come from that he doesn’t know that?
“Ah,” Veld did some sort of rolling motion with his neck and shoulders, loosening up, “This could get messy, stay here so I know where you are.”
He moved to the other side of the camp, lightly and more quickly than Iresu would have expected, leaving himself half in the shadows from the view point of the approaching party. Indeed, when they rounded the shoulder of the hill she could see her father and four brothers clearly as they followed the three Khatsids. Marthan, Carlil and Thies administered most of this section of their family’s holdings while the Khatsids concentrated their efforts on a mountainward expansion by absorbing the independent Shobisu. They were known for a firm, sometimes heavy hand. They could all, she realised see her perfectly clearly in the light from the fire and their torches.
“Here’s your girl then,” Carlil looked her up and down, “Not bad. Had her own bed. So, where’s whoever was sleeping there?” He pointed at Veld’s ground sheet and jacket.
“I’m here.” From their startled reaction Iresu realised that their torches must be restricting the new arrivals’ night sight more than she had realised. “She couldn’t get home tonight, so she’s my guest in my home for the night, such as it is.”
“You’re that thieving scavenger we’re looking for,” Carlil accused as he swung his torch around to look at Veld.
“I understood that this land was not yet under claim,” Veld gestured protestingly with his hands, “Why shouldn’t I take a look around? Fire sign recovery is as good a grounds for proving a land claim as any other.”
“Not here it’s not,” smirked Thies, “And do you think you’re a first to be granting hospitality?”
“It’s a good custom,” Veld said mildly, his eyes flicking between them, “It deserves wider usage.”
“Bundle him and his gear up,” ordered Marthan, “And we’ll take them all back to the raft. We can double check in the morning if he really is the trouble maker the Weirbuilders are looking for.”
Carlil made a grab for him and Veld smoothly deflected it. Iresu anxiously clasped her hands together, all three of the Khatsids had crippled men without an apparent second thought. Her father, behind the Khatsids and currently out of their sight, was holding out his arm to stop her brothers moving forward... “Sorry,” that was Veld, “I don’t care to be bundled.” Carlil came at him again, using the heavy torch as a weapon then Veld was somehow inside his reach, made a jab and Carlil was reeling backward and the torch was in Veld’s hand. Veld tossed it in the fire as Thies came up behind him and got an elbow in the solar plexus but not before he grabbed the beanie. It came away to reveal a head of black tipped, red, gold and black banded hair.
“War slaver spawn!” It was Carlil who spat that as he barrelled in for another attack. Thies was catching his breath and Marthan was pulling out a proper weapon while shoving the end of his torch in the ground. Iresu didn’t know what to think Veld - Veld had been polite and kind and even funny, and he was this? Her father was still keeping her brothers back, they were shocked but...he wasn’t. Veld wasn’t just blocking now, a single blow to the face and Carlil was down, blood streaming from his nose. Marthan was aiming one of those rare hand guns that the first land holders kept to themselves, Veld pivoted and grabbed Thies as he came in swinging a billy, then somehow Thies was between Veld and Marthan just as Marthan fired. Thies collapsed into Veld’s arms and was then thrown bodily at Marthan. Veld followed, finishing the job of knocking Marthan over and there was a short, vicious tussle on the ground that ended with a cracking sound and Marthan going limp.
Veld got up, dusted himself off, and walked over to Iresu, stretching again as he went, passing Carlil’s no longer twitching form without a glance. “You okay?” he asked. She nodded. “Never met a demon before, huh?”
She shook her head then, “Have I met one now?”
“Well, I don’t think so, but I’m in the minority.” He took one of her wrists in his hand, “I’m sorry, but this is probably going to get worse before it gets better. Now I have to deal with your family. Come on.” He turned and tugged her after him, so she trotted for a few steps so as to catch up and not be towed in his wake. Veld stopped out of mutual arm reach in front of her father. “You didn’t join the fight or let your sons join it either. Why?”
Thoms Trenchman looked at him for a moment then said, “I’ve seen a man fight like you before. When I was a boy I went up to Lors Corner to buy cattle with my father. The first land holders up there had realised what the local midwife was, they’d caught her in the middle of the day when she’d been up all night birthing twins and was exhausted. They were starting to weight her to death when her husband turned up – someone had sent a boy with a horse to get him from where he was working. He went through them with his trenching spade, I’d never thought of that as a weapon before. She helped with babies and she fixed people up, she was helping and they still...,” the old incomprehension showed in his voice and on his face, “The women got the weights off her before the fight was over and the village got them on their way before they sent word back to the firsts’ family. I wasn’t going to send my sons up against that.”
“Fair enough,” Veld nodded, “Now, here’s what we’re going to do. You aren’t actually here right now. The Khatsids came across the river on their raft alone. In the morning when the river is down, you’ll make your way across, no need to mention your stepping stones I think, and you’ll find signs of a camp site and a fight. There won’t be any bodies and you won’t find Iresu. You’ll spend tomorrow and half of the next day searching but when the river comes up again about lunch time, whichever son you’re planning to set up over here and his chosen wife will be trapped by the rising waters. I’m sure that by the time the water goes down in about two weeks, they’ll have a nice little cabin and her family will insist on them getting married. After that you’ll have about three weeks before the water from the winter rains up in the mountains comes down – use that time to set up your other two sons and one of your other daughters on this bank at first land holder spacing. The water and the cold will buy you a season before the rest of the Khatsids pay you any attention, if they’ve finished with the Shobisu by then.”
Thoms was nodding but Blais, the brother Iresu thought was closest in age to Veld was asking, “How do you know the river’s going to fall and rise the way you say? And why should we do what you tell us?”
“I know what’s the river’s going to do because I know when the rain fell up in the mountains and when the flow peaks are due to hit here. You are going to do what I tell you, because your sister,” he held up Iresu’s wrist, “Is my hostage. And you are going to do it because I’m going to help you succeed in breaking the Khatsids’ grip on this border.”
“Why?” Thoms was keeping his eyes on Veld’s face.
“The first land holders now are all related to each other and all are, really, part of three families,” began Veld. “Those three families have been in charge ever since they overthrew what they call the Slavers and, frankly, they’ve boxed everyone into one, nice, convenient corner so they can keep things organised the way they like them. I think,” Veld smiled, “That it’s time we let everyone out of the box and this is a beginning.”
“So we go back across the river tonight and start bringing building gear over on that raft of theirs,” said her Iresu’s oldest brother, Ges. “You could fit a lot on that raft.”
“Wash it down after you’ve used it,” advised Veld, “Don’t want what you’ve done to show.”
“She’ll be safe with you then?” Thoms eyed him up and down.
“Yes, as much as anyone can promise that,” Veld nodded.
“Fine then. When can we expect to see you again?” Thoms asked.
“You’ll see me in the spring,” Veld answered, “Iresu - I’ll probably bring her by next autumn for the mushrooming if she’s not too busy.”
Thoms held up his hand to silence his sons, “Very well then. Come on boys, we’ve got a house to build in a day and a half.” He herded them back the way they’d come, taking their torches with them.
“And?” Iresu looked up at him questioningly.
“Now you hold the torch while I drag the bodies down to the river, then we break camp.” He smiled at her, “I think you’ll find things get better from about here.” He walked over to Marthen’s torch and pulled it out of the ground.
“Why might I be too busy to come back and see my family? And why are you taking me away anyway?” She took the torch when he handed it to her. She could quite see the need to get rid of the bodies, that she had no complaint with.
“In reverse order, to give me a hold over your family and to give them an excuse if the Khatsids do manage to come out on top.” He grabbed Thies by the wrists and began to drag him down toward the water. “Not that I expect them to.” Iresu, holding the torch high, walked beside him, watching for hazards he might find hard to see. “As for why you might be busy, you may well be knee deep in baby stuff by then.”
She stopped. “Why might I be knee deep in baby stuff?”
He looked up, away from the ground between his feet, “Uh, can you keep the light moving, please? Thank you. I didn’t explain that did I? Probably because it was obvious to me. I’m going to marry you. My mother’s going to insist on it,” he took another look at her face, “And my sisters and aunts and my grandmother,” possibly he gave just the tiniest shudder. “But I thought you’d like to know that it was my idea first.”