Ravenwood (Tanyth Fairport Adventures), p.1Nathan Lowell
by Nathan Lowell
This book and any parts thereof may not be reproduced in any form, stored in any retrieval system, or transmitted in any manner except as authorized in writing by the author.
All characters, places, and events in this work are fiction or fictionalized. Any resemblance to actual people, places, or events is coincidental.
BISAC: Fiction / Fantasy / Historical
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Copyright © 2011 Nathan Lowell, Greeley, CO
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES
First printing: October, 2011
You always knew there was magic in the commonplace.
Thank you for helping me see it.
Table of Contents
A Wide Spot in the Road
Willow Bark Tea
A Temporary Delay
An Unexpected Invitation
Realities and Realizations
A Wing and a Prayer
A Cheeky Bird
Skunk in the Woodpile
After Madness, Laundry
A Feint and a Fire
Shadows in the Dark
Another Moving Day
Room and Boards
A Wide Spot in the Road
Somewhere up in the canopy, a jaybird greeted the dawn loudly and with the vigor usually reserved for mating and feeding. Tanyth sighed and turned over in her bedroll. The cushion of last year’s pine needles provided a comfortable enough mattress and she didn’t really want to crawl out, but her brain betrayed her body by insisting that time dripped through her fingers while nothing useful happened. She groaned and sat up, hips protesting and shoulders already flexing to try to stretch out the overnight stiffness. Cold morning air tickled down the neck of her shift and chilled the fabric while a second jaybird joined the first from somewhere down the draw. Together they filled the hollow with challenge and response. She rummaged down in the bedroll and pulled out her knit top, warmed and cozy from her overnight body heat. With a shrug and a wriggle the comfortable wool slid down over her head and around her torso. The cool air and movement reminded her that mornings required certain activities. She crawled out of the bedroll, gave the coals of her small fire a stir, and padded across the clearing to squat behind a bush.
“I’m gettin’ too old for this,” she muttered as her left knee creaked painfully.
Returning to the bedroll she lowered herself onto it, successfully battling the urge to crawl back into it as the dawn light stole silently between the trees and birds and bugs began a soft counterpoint to the song battle being waged high above her head. She added a few sticks to the fire and leaned down to puff life into the coals. In her head she said a prayer to the All-Mother and watched as the grayed ashes took on golden life. The sticks caught, sending a thin tendril of smoke into the chilly late summer morning. She added a few more sticks and pulled the lid off her kettle in order to add enough water for a cup of tea. She gave her oatmeal a nudge and a stir and slid that closer to the small warmth as well. She’d set it to cooking in the dying coals of her fire the previous night and was looking forward to a warm breakfast of the rich grains flavored with some fresh apple.
While her breakfast warmed, she levered herself up from the ground once more and rummaged around in the bedroll, drawing out her pants and last clean small-clothes. She hurriedly slipped them on and buckled the solid belt around her, making sure her belt knife was clipped securely. The buckle locked in the last notch and she frowned a bit, trying to remember if it had been four weeks or five since she’d left Mabel Elderberry’s tidy cottage. Time tended to blur for her on the road–each day much like the last, a seemingly endless cycle of rise, eat, pack, walk until the light began to fade, find a safe camp, bed down, and do it again the next day. An occasional, nerve-wracking encounter on the road and the periodic passage through hamlets and towns along the way punctuated the cycle only rarely. One last fishing expedition in the bottom of the bedroll produced a pair of well-worn boots and a clean pair of socks. Chilly toes welcomed the warmth and protection afforded by both.
She could hear the water boiling in the kettle and tossed a handful of aromatic leaves into the water before pulling the kettle back from the fire with a handy stick. While it steeped, she straightened out her bedroll and quickly rolled it up into a tight traveling package. She lashed it to the bottom of her pack and settled down to her traveler’s breakfast, savoring the soothing spice tea as it warmed her belly while the comfortable bulk of the softened grain and apple filled it. In a matter of a few minutes she finished her breakfast, cleaned and stowed the cooking gear, and scuffed out the fire. She slipped a bulky tunic over her sweater, tucked her hair up into her wide-brimmed hat, and shouldered the pack with a not quite grunt.
“Shouldn’t be feelin’ heavier the longer I go.” She grumbled to herself. Still, she smiled and forgave herself the grumble. She took up her walking staff and, after another scan of the clearing to make sure she’d left nothing, pushed through the screen of underbrush to find the short trail to the Kleesport Pike.
In a few days, she’d pass through Kleesport and she looked forward to a warm bath and a chance to resupply. She mentally weighed the few silvers left in her purse and nodded in satisfaction. The couple back in Maplesboro had been grateful for the poultices she’d done for their cow and given her a few coins in addition to a hot dinner of mutton and fresh bread. Another few weeks on the road should see her safely at Gertie Pinecrest’s cottage before the Solstice.
Whether Gertie Pinecrest would welcome her or not was another question and one that troubled her even as she went. Folks called Gertie Pinecrest the Hermit of Lammas Wood for a reason, but Tanyth needed to learn from Gertie. She’d been on the path for twenty winters and Gertie was the last of the old Witch Women. Gertie kept the Old Knowledge of the plants and seeds and Tanyth desperately wanted that knowledge for herself. Whether Mother Pinecrest would share it or not, Tanyth didn’t know and couldn’t know until she went there and asked in person.
The low, easterly sun raked claws of light and shadow between the trees and across the packed surface of the Kleesport Pike. Tanyth held back in the last cover of the forest and checked the Pike in both directions before exposing herself at the verge. It wasn’t a dangerous area, as roads went, but prudence dictated caution and prudence was a teacher that it paid not to ignore. The morning stillness hadn’t yet broken and sounds traveled well in the quiet morning air. The two jaybirds back up the trail ended their squabble with matching squawks that receded as the birds took wing. The soft chipping of a sparrow in the weeds was punctuated by the periodic dee-dee-dee of a pine-dee in the copse behind her.
She heard nothing, saw nobody, and slipped quietly through the weeds, parting them gently with her staff to walk between them without breaking the tender stalks. Her so
Tanyth turned her face northward, and with the sun warming her right side as she strode through the bands of light, soon fell into the easy cadence of a ground eating stride. At fifty-three winters, if the spring in her step was not that of a younger woman, the ready economy of her movements and the long years of walking the paths of Korlay gave her a stamina and resilience to travel that few people could match, save perhaps the King’s Own. Even they traveled on four hooves more often than two feet.
Thinking of the King’s Own brought a familiar pang of regret and longing, dulled from much use and long habit. Her own, young Robert left home and hearth to enter service to the Realm as soon as he’d been able to convince the garrison commander at Fairport to take him. At fourteen winters, he lacked his full growth, but years of dealing with the physical and emotional challenges meted out by his father had matured and seasoned him ahead of his time. She could see his glowing face in her mind’s eye as he spoke quietly but earnestly to her.
“It’s for the best, Mother. When I’m gone, you won’t need to protect me. You’ll be safer.” He’d smiled encouragingly, looking to her for reassurance, for acceptance of his choice.
She’d given a Mother’s Blessing–catching a tear from her cheek and pressing her moistened finger to his brow, sealing it with a kiss.
She treasured the memory of his lanky frame turning at the gate to wave and smile, his face already alight from the excitement that the road ahead lured him with. There really hadn’t been a golden light of morning that framed his glowing youth, she knew, but over time her mind insisted on adding the aura, burnishing her memory of the battered, haunted, child who left her ineffectual protection for the tender mercies of King and service.
He’d been wrong, of course. Infuriated by Robert’s escape into service, no doubt aggravated by the loss of extra hands around the cottage, Roger Oakhurst turned his entire fury upon the only target remaining to him.
A squirrel scolded her as she passed, the sudden noise returning her to the road and the present.
Ahead, an ox cart emerged around the bend in the distance. Tanyth slowed her ground-chewing pace to regard the drover walking beside the animal as well as she could in the slanting light of morning. She paused and glanced behind herself to make sure the road was clear before walking to the side in preparation for moving out of the cart’s way.
As they closed, the drover paid more and more attention. It wasn’t that lone travelers were unheard of, but he eyed her uneasily and she kept the brim of the hat tilted forward as if looking at the road right in front of her feet, glancing up irregularly to judge their progress and to keep him from getting a good look at the trousered figure approaching. When they were a few yards apart, Tanyth stepped off the east side of the road and leaned on her staff to allow the ox-cart the full width of road. As the drover drew even with her, the sun was almost at her back and she stood firmly in a band of bright morning sun.
The drover–a strongly shouldered man of adult years–nodded politely as he passed and offered no more offense than a brisk, “Good morrow, traveler.” The strong odors of working beast carried on the morning breeze and were matched by an undercurrent of healthy male.
Tanyth nodded and raised her hand to the brim of her hat without speaking. Dressed in baggy, men’s clothing with her graying hair hidden under a floppy hat, she was as nondescript as any artifice might afford without drawing attention to herself by being unusual. If she were to speak, her clear alto would give up the illusion of “poor old man” and leave her revealed as “unattended woman.” She sighed inwardly at the necessity but while most held elders in esteem, there were those too young or too callow to afford anyone the respect they desired for themselves. She wasn’t too worried about the drover, but it never paid to take things for granted so far from town and witnesses.
The cart rumbled by and in the bed a pair of axes and a bow saw explained why he headed away from town with an empty cart so early in the day. No doubt, he’d return at dusk, his cart loaded with firewood. Tanyth realized that she must be closer to a village than she thought. She focused on the immediate tasks ahead and stepped back onto the smooth surface, turning northward once more.
After another mile or so, the smoky scent of village came on the breeze and she quickened her pace a bit, hoping some fresh water and perhaps a bit of cheese might be had for the price of a little casual labor, perhaps an hour on the butter churn should the village have a milch cow. As she turned a final bend, the small gathering of huts filling a clearing carved out of the forest beside the road gave her some pause. Each hut sported a small vegetable patch behind and a grassy verge provided rough grazing for a couple of goats. A gravel track led from the Pike up into the cluster of huts. She could hear children playing somewhere behind the village and a small flock of chickens scratched and clucked in the gravel of the path.
Her eyes tracked back and forth across the area looking for the reason this particular location had grown up. Usually hamlets grew on crossroads or river banks, traffic providing a rationale and travelers’ coins pollinating prosperity until the hamlet grew to village and became more self-sufficient. The unprepossessing collection in front of her looked like little more than hovels, but she sniffed none of the sewery smell of mismanagement even while the rich aroma of ripening animal dung came to her clearly along with clean wood smoke and the laughing shrieks of children.
A lone yellow dog guarded the road’s edge where the main path out of the hamlet joined the Kleesport Pike. The path was wide enough for a cart–indeed she noted an ox-pie and some fresh stripes in the hard-pan to tell her where the woodcutter had come from. A woman’s voice shouted something unintelligible and strident from the direction of the laughing children and a pack of five came belting out from behind one of the huts, the oldest looking to be about ten winters and the rest ranging down in increments that were barely discernible. Their general looks were sufficiently different to suggest they weren’t all siblings which meant more than one family with children.
Not a bandit camp, then. Tanyth relaxed marginally. There was still a lot that could go wrong but where there were children, there was less likelihood of violence. It wasn’t a fool-proof test as her own life served to illustrate, but the probabilities of a peaceful encounter were greatly improved by the presence of young ones.
The small tribe skidded to a stop at the apparition of this stranger almost in their midst and the eldest of the group shouted, “Ma! Traveler’s here!” He didn’t sound alarmed but the low door of the hut they’d just run out from behind swung open almost immediately and a youngish woman bent head and shoulders to get out through the opening. She straightened with one hand to her brow and the other at the small of her back.
She regarded Tanyth for a moment before speaking. “Can we help you, traveler?” Tanyth recognized her bright soprano from the earlier shout.
Tanyth took off her hat and brushed a hand through her short gray hair. “Fresh water?” she asked preferring to take things one step at a time until she got a better lay of the land.
The eldest of the children perked up as she spoke and they all gaped a bit as their notions realigned with a new reality. “Ma, that’s a woman!” The eldest said it with some surprise.
The woman blinked slowly and turned her attention to the boy for a moment regarding him with an arched eyebrow and a small grin. “Thank you for that report, Riley. Would you fetch a bucket of water from the well, please?”
Tanyth smiled a bit herself and spoke up. “I can get a bucket of water if you’ll just show me where...?”
The younger woman shook her head slightly. “That’s alright, traveler. This rapscallion and his vagabond band have been under foot all morning. Maybe if I give him a few more chores he’ll decide
“Would you sit a spell? We don’t get many travelers who stop...” The woman smiled tentatively but there was still a hint of reserve, a mutual weighing that passed on the morning’s wind.
“I don’t want to be any trouble, mum.” Tanyth hesitated. “I thought maybe I could get a freshening of my water-skin and maybe do a chore or two in return for some bread?”
“Naught but woman’s work here, I’m afraid.” The younger woman twisted her mouth in a wry smile. “You know the kind of work I mean?”
Tanyth snorted in reply. “Cookin’, cleanin’, and unpaid.”
The younger woman nodded with a small laugh. “You know very well, then.” She regarded Tanyth once more, her head cocked to one side. She shook herself suddenly. “Where are my manners?” She stepped forward and held out one smoothly tanned and callused hand. “Amber Mapleton.”
Tanyth took the offered hand in her own. “Tanyth. Tanyth Fairport. Pleased to meet you.” She answered the younger woman’s smile with one of her own.
“Come inside, Mother Fairport. If you’ve the time to help, then you’ve time to tell me what’s a foot in the world while I mend.”
“Just Tanyth, Amber. I’m not that old yet.”
The younger woman’s glance took in the crow’s feet and gray hair but she offered no comment except to quirk her mouth a little sideways and nod at the house.
Tanyth felt welcomed by that half smile and the two women ducked low, Tanyth slipping out of her pack before trying to pass under the lintel. Inside the hut sank down into the soil about two feet, and woven grass mats covered the floor. Tanyth admired the handiwork.
“We weave these mats and sell them in Kleesport.” Amber made the announcement quietly but proudly as she saw the older woman admiring the flooring. “There’s a slough filled with long grasses just up the hollow a piece.” Amber nodded westerly, toward the forest side of the hamlet. “We gather it in the fall, weave it all winter, and sell it in the spring. It brings in a few extra silvers for the village.”
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