“You were sleeping when I awoke.” she observed, stepping over a fallen branch. “Your eyes were closed, at least. I wish I had known you long enough to tell if it is the season or my company that moves you to such a measure.”
“It is the season.” Kala'amātya replied. She had become accustomed to his use of abridgment against investigation, and was no longer discouraged by it.
“When I am weary of myself or my companions, I ride for the horizon.”
Helaine paused and lifted the mantle on her shoulders. Her breath became a pall of steam that curled back about the trim of her hood.
“Sage advice.” she admitted, watching him disguise his own bare footfalls in the confusion left by the harried beast, so that they were indistinguishable amid the riven mud. His black braid was knotted at his nape to keep it clear of the lunate wood and dappled horn slung across his shoulder; her speculation could not resolve it into any utile shape, though she had guessed its purpose. A long receptacle of leather, dyed deep green, hung from his hip, full of thick, dark-shafted arrows. “You have not yet told me anything of the East.” she reminded him. “A swineherd’s daughter knows more of Cathay than I.”
“What would you know?”
“What is the first difference that strikes you?”
Her companion devoted himself to the problem.
“That it surpasses the West, both in freedom and constraint.”
“And what else?”
“There is no shame accorded the flesh, nor to acts of desire... they are considered wholesome enough to attract official exhortation, a far greater deterrent than hellfire.”
“Why then do the merchants return with such prudish tales?”
“They confuse shame with discretion.” Over the bare heads of the trees a flight of fractious crows, black satin cyphers against the sky, croaked and clapped at one another as they passed by.
“I have heard that women are collected like tulips by princes and burghers alike... whoever can bear the cost of the venture.”
“It is common enough outside the Christian kingdoms.”
“I cannot imagine success in such an exploit.”
“The ancients remarked that you amass the haram you deserve. Anyone envying a house of fifty concubines need only return a day late and a gift short.” They smiled to each other briefly, and she lifted her sleeve to her face, breathing warmth against it.
“And you have contrived this arrangement on your own behalf?”
“I attempted, and greatly desired, to live alone inside a town upon my exile, but was soon enough convinced that I had erred.” he replied. “What is a house without women, the women asked of me.”
“As well they might. These women... were they not slaves?"
"Where does one purchase the most beautiful girls?”
“Why do you ask?” His guard, lying latent, rose at her inquiries like the stiffly-drawn posture of some rankled beast rising from repose.
“Idleness...” she admitted.
“Byzantium, Cordoba, Tripoli. In these times, the bazar excels the suq.” Kala'amātya related. Helaine's gaze departed him toward the most distant trees.
“Strange sport, to choose flesh from a yard amid cattle beasts." She slid her hands into her cloak. "It is no easy thing to live as a chattel."
“It is not my taste to lie with slaves.”
“You think yourself above such practices...”
Her contention earned her the full measure of his stare.
“I was born the least of a race raised to serve another's will, and I do not flatter myself on that account. But I care not for whatever I might compel from someone to whom I am fearful or loathsome... and I am both, more often than not.”
Helaine perceived the offence she had given and regretted it.
“Thus I know you to be something other than a male of my own race, and far more than the stars of your birth.” she told him. He was not sure how to receive the commendation amid the defence he had already ordered; his eyes found hers briefly before he returned them to the trail.
"Your friend does not believe it."
"Petrouchka regrets far more than my regard for you."
They walked on, climbing a slow rise over which the trail laboured visibly.
"What of your husband?" Kala'amātya asked.
"What of him?"
"It is told to me that he does not treat you kindly when he learns I am gone.” His knowledge of this private trouble was greeted with a frown.
“Do not concern yourself with him. He has loathed the sight of me since finding the sign upon my face...” Helaine touched a hand to the black line on her forehead. “Though I own that his people did contract for me in ignorance of it. He does not lately brave the threshold.”
“I will dispatch him for you.”
She shook her head.
“It would please his family too well. It suits my purposes to have him drunk and foolish and fearful in town, where he can best be heeded.” The memory of her betrothal aroused unwelcome reminiscences, and she was glad of the hood that shaded her face. That she had not convinced him of the merit of her designs was declared by the set of his shoulders as he walked before her. “Men have taught me to cherish their dread over all other forms of their regard." she reminded him. "Even Petrouchka would allow that I had no great love of either sex, before your advent.” That he was again affected was a thing he struggled mutely to disguise, and they walked for some time in silence. "I can only wonder what you were seeking when you brought yourself to me."
“A wrathful, unquiet spirit.”
“Such is your curse.” she chuckled. “Do the unquiet spirits of your haram await you somewhere, lamenting the alluring horizon?”
“The women of my Bukhara house had their throats cut in my absence, and since then I have kept none who will suffer on my account.”
“I am sorry for them. But I treasured the notion that I had charmed you from the trees, when in fact you merely adjudged me sufficiently formidable and infamous...” she said with a smirk as she lifted her skirts to step across a fallen sapling. “You do woundeth vanity, Kala'amātya.”
They had followed the path of man and beast to the edge of the wood, where it crashed over the cusp of a tall bank sloping to the edge of a frozen river, the trees on its far side a dark redoubt against the sky. The ice-choked water had formed a blank and tacit plain footed with great swathes of windblown, frost-scoured floes. Her companion drew the length of wood over his shoulder, slid twisted rawhide from his belt and strung the span, transforming the nameless instrument into the recurved bow that he had carried since his service in the Eastern steppe. Thus configured, it was two thirds as tall as he; she reached out and took it from him, finding herself barely able to draw the stiff line between the two siyah, her fingers burning with the effort.
“Infamy is not the whole of my requirement.” he replied, belatedly.
"I would give much to know the rest of it."
"I cannot think why."
"Because I may call the dead from a fathom of earth, but after three seasons and though you honour my bed, I awake to find you dreamless, I partake of food you will not taste, and I question devils on your account who shrug at my demands as though already beholden to you. I am not accustomed to elusion." She watched him select seven arrows and set them head-first into the snow, shaking her head at her own confoundment. "Do I please you, Kala'amātya? What would you have from me?"
He looked to her from inspecting the crane feather fletches, and spoke with oracular candour.
“You please me, and my tastes are simple. We are all Narcissus. In you, I find myself.”
She handed him the bow, her cold hand closing on his own; all the disparities between them, the colours, shapes and origins, could not belie his answer.
“I never thought to say this, in this flesh nor any other, but I would have you if it blackened the ground beneath me.” Helaine told him. "If not you, then no one." He considered the elegance of her unpainted face, the echoing simplicity of the slender black insignia upon her forehead. Her lies were sweeter than her honesty, the latter like the taste of his own blood in his mouth, but infinitely dearer to him.
“Then it is well that we are suited.” he replied.
Where the frozen bank and ruined reed beds met the water, five fur-swathed figures were too engrossed in the speedy commission of their task to perceive their discovery. Having cut the muddy trail through the wood in driving the stolen cattle beast, they had slaughtered it where it had fallen, cast in the uncertain river ice, hacking at its steaming flesh with blood-slicked axes while its legs still kicked and stuttered. The poachers holed the carcass and dragged its entrails over the snow preparatory to their division, the colours matching the stench arising from them, swept back up the bank toward the trees. Two men began to quarter the hind legs with swords while another stuffed a sack with the rough, warm chunks of meat tossed back toward him, scolding the crows that had drifted down from the trees to stand behind them like an audience of minor devils.
“It would please me to see why you are so feared.” Helaine suggested.
“It is superstition.” he replied modestly. She smiled at the arrangement of his arrows, and drew the last two from the row, tucking them beneath her mantle. Turning from her, Kala'amātya plucked the first arrow from the snow and nocked it swiftly, adjudged the breeze and drew the rawhide to his jaw, a taut clap sounding as he released it, all the more sinister for its stiff attenuation. She raised a hand against the sky and followed its arc with her gaze, watching it bow its fatal head toward the ground. The impact was a thing she almost felt in her own flesh as it punched into the spine of the tallest poacher and dropped him face down into the bloodied snow, where he thrashed, his cries turning his companions toward him. One by one they arose from their crouches, frozen in place by the mysterious throes that had grasped their fellow; Kala'amātya sent an arrow into the neck of the youngest, a tall, blonde boy in a goatskin cloak, and another through the chest of his father, felling them beside the heifer.
“You will remain here into summer?” Helaine inquired, kicking the snow from her skirt. At the foot of the slope the fallen trio were abandoned by the remaining poachers, who sheathed their swords and began to surge through the drifts along the edge of the river, their deep blue cloaks flapping on their backs. A shaft drove through the thigh of the foremost, slowing him to a standstill in time to see his companion pierced at the hip, screaming shrilly and dragging the disabled leg in his desperation to escape the unseen archer.
“I am betrothed to the Duc d’Orleans from May. We are to chastise Huguenots for their unchristian conduct.”
“But I have fed you all this winter... surely I and not Gaston should have the benefit of that. I shall write to him and have you released from this odious duty. Were I less infamous, you might have something of a care for my welfare in your absence.” She handed back the superfluous arrows. “Your brother’s wife would murder me, given the chance.”
“And Petrouchka Belyaev would hang and quarter me."
"Would you not feel the same?" she reminded him.
"I would... and therefore favour discretion. And I fear I would not survive my attempt to subject you to the auspices of a fond protector." Kala'amātya turned another of his rare smiles toward her, and she replied in kind. "Though after so long unlamented, it is a fine thing to be missed.” he confessed, manually directing her attention to the second brace of victims. “Militia scouts.”
“It seems I have fed them too.” Helaine observed, noting that while the first trio were tenant farmers, the other pair wore the winter garments issued by antagonistic magistrates. He slung his bow in favour of his shoto blades, each as long as his forearm and as bright as shards of mirror glass.
“How would you have them?”
She raised a hand and tapped her chin.
“Take a hand and an eye from each. I will call up the wolves... if either of them stumbles home they’ll have a tale to tell, if nothing else.”
Down by the river his living victims espied him as he descended the bank, and made a desperate change of course, scrabbling over the frozen reeds and out onto the ice, where they scurried and toppled over, driving the arrows into their flesh. Passing the dead lying in silent arrangement around the heifer, he paused to wrench the shafts from their stiffening flesh and replace them in his quiver.
C O N T I N U E D N E X T W E E K
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce