Helaine came to the entrance in the midst of the half-frowning gravity that was her custom, clearly skeptical of the girl’s announcement. Her dress of fitted black wool was a sombre, widowed contrast to the scandalous flamboyance of her winter attire, her fair hair drawn up in a coronal braid. Her hands came together in an unconscious gesture of delight that was quickly dismissed, though her smile escaped the strictures of dignity, and she wore it down the steps toward him.
“Are we in September already?”
“I regret to trouble you out of season.” Edward admitted. Taking his arm, Helaine felt the stiff catch in his stride and released him, standing on tip toe to pull back the neck of his tunic, then letting it go with a frown.
“But of course.” she sighed, solemn once more.
The evening was briefly admitted to her darkly-paneled chamber by the final rays of sunset, its soft gilt settling on the crimson of the counterpane. Outside, the rose-crowded garden was barely familiar to him, the swaying green and the staring, luminous blooms dimming slowly through the open window. When she cut his tunic from his shoulders and eased it free of him his skin glowed in answer to the fading sky, the brightest element beside the mirrored lantern that she lifted from the sill. Helaine murmured at the sight of the misfortune that had returned him to her. In grotesque opposition stood the broken stubs of two smooth yew bolts shot from siege bows into his left shoulder from high overhead; as thick as two fingers, they seemed curiously inert for all the force that had driven their quatrefoil heads, shafts snapped by the leg of his horse as it had shed him, forming a stubborn nexus where they crossed each other deep in his flesh. She dried her hands, perfumed by the sharp herbs floating in the basin at her feet, and then leant over him, reckoning the intersecting passage of the wood. Her fingers tapped at his back, seeking the peculiar, flattened sound of buried iron.
“Your corps are in Lombardy?" she asked quietly. He nodded. "Were there not wolves amongst them to draw these? Where is your brother?”
“Sachiin bade me bring them to you.” he admitted. She concluded her exam and sat down on a stool, considering his condition gravely.
“Rest first. If I am to do this, you will feel it.” That he was weary from both his wounds and journey was only dimly apparent in the indifference with which he greeted the news; the sight of her doe-soft skin through her shift in the low, square neck of her dress, and the down on her arms where she had rolled back its sleeves added the darker ache of longing to the pain of his injuries.
“I cannot rest as I am.” he sighed.
Both novice girls hove through the door bearing the tools she had sent them after; the heavy smith’s tongs and butchering blades, and a basket of smaller appurtenance. Helaine dismissed them when they had lain the implements out on the bed and fallen to staring at his condition. Their disappointment at their exclusion lingered after their departure.
She found the slim junction between two plates of bone armouring his back and marked the place with a thin stroke of kohl, then sat back down on the stool, selecting a knife and trimming the ragged end of the lowest shaft, brushing away the splinters.
"Try to be still.” Helaine set a smooth, doweled length of chestnut to the end of the shaft and chose a heavy mallet, allowed him time to compose himself, and then struck quickly, driving the dowel deep into the wound after the retreating bolt. Rising to glance over his shoulder, she corrected her aim and struck the dowel three times more, directing the pointed head between the intervening bone and watching it break through the skin of his back, where she drew it out with forge tongs, their grip skidding along the buried wood.
“How are the fields?” he asked, closing his eyes and propping his elbow on his knee as he recovered, watching her drop the broken bolt into the basin.
“They were planted, but I can find no hands, and the swine root in the barley. More than that I cannot tell you.” The relief allowed him to settle a little more easily while she stood between his leg and the down-stuffed mattress, rehearsing a succession of holds upon the object remaining in his shoulder with the cumbersome tongs. “You will come north for the trouble in Vienna?”
“I fear so. We are poorly supplied.”
"Kneel.” she told him, giving him a cup of bitter liquor and waiting while he drank it. He let himself down onto the floorboards before her.
“I do not mean to grieve you by serving so long.”
“I do not believe you know how to live with another for the whole of a year.”
“No one has ever desired such a thing of me.”
“I have desired it.” she assured him, resignation dulling its reproach. “But I see now that you do not enjoy me as I do you, and such things will be, if I abide or do not abide them.” The knife blade cut down through his skin on either side of the embedded wood, creating an extra inch of purchase in the knowledge that he would not object to the expedient. She set the tongs, clamping their jaws into the yew with both fists.
“How did you come to this wisdom?”
Helaine glanced down at his inquiring gaze.
“You are an excellent tutor. Once I begin I should not stop... if you cannot bear it you must tell me.” she advised.
With all the strength in both arms she dragged the buried shaft backward through his flesh against the direction of its barbed head, expressing her disgust as it caught on the bone spanning his shoulder and refused her. She changed her grasp and made another attempt, twisting it sideways until he stayed her and leant against the wall with his eyes closed. Her hand found his forehead and stroked it slowly, and his own closed on the fabric of her skirt, finding obscure solace. When she had amended the angle of extraction the bolt tore quickly free, its departure leaving a star-shaped hollow in his skin that closed with the movement of his arm.
The peace that returned was felt by them both, lying as cool as melt water in the darkness, the candle burning low inside the silvered glass, the sound of her black silk slippers on the boards as she cleared the tools from the quilt as much comfort to him as any articulate consolation. A tall ewer of painted tin stood on the far side of the bed, filled with a great sheaf of cloud-white roses.
“Lie quietly." she sighed, drawing back the bedclothes for him. "You will be well enough to vanish in the morning.” Emptying the basin from the window, she left him alone.
An hour of her absence passed unmarked into another, her chamber standing around him in implacable witness. A clean shift hung airing by the door, the thin garment moved now and then by the breeze that encircled the room. The bed held the scent of her skin, and he lay a hand on the side that she favoured, the memory of her slow breathing, her body lying by his own tormenting his injury with the unfailing desire that arose from any such thought of her. He rolled slowly onto his side, found no relief, and sat back again, staring at the dour oak and cursing the house's thickly-partitioned scale for keeping all sound and knowledge of her private, as though in active conspiracy. The suggestion of darkness was replaced by its reality with the approach of midnight, the proud basso calls of the owls that quartered the woods drifting in over the sill with the lingering smell of the forge, a thin ribbon of steam still ghosting from its doused furnace. In the rooms below his own, Adelle and Agathé offered chanted prayers to the deities and elements invoked in the course of the vernal cycle, striking bells, lighting little pressed cakes of cedar dust and rose oil, and offering blood from holes stabbed into the heels of their palms.
Edward set his feet upon the boards at the side of the bed, looking down to see the small Melas rug that he had given her laid out beneath them. Behind the bedside cabinet he glimpsed the toes of a pair of boots, and lifted the cloth laid over them against the dust; they had been commissioned to satisfy the eccentric requirements of his own physiology and executed with the exquisite, almost pitiful care demanded by Helaine’s patronage.
He found her seated at the table in the midst of the dining hall occupying the rear third of the ground floor, her face and neck overpainted by the colours of the candle lamp beside her book. Her lonely station and the dullness of the text had worked together, as she had hoped, to tire her. Edward sat slowly and set the boots on the table between them. Still nursing his shoulder, he reached across for the slender pipe that she had left at her elbow amid the soigné lacquer suite to which it belonged. The act brought her gaze to him; she took it back and tipped its brittle ash into the bowl beside the lamp, tempering a new bead of tar before returning the loaded implement.
“The time we lose is lost to us both.” she told him, resting her chin on her hand. “I have no thousand years to wait for you, nor have I words to slow or speed the days. They bleed from me when you are gone... one evening, sooner than you imagine, you shall come here from Lombardy, or Paris or Navarre, and find no one to meet you.” The sight of the boots drew her hand to them, and she slid them toward herself, blowing off the dust they had collected in awaiting him. “I thought if you were to wear these, the christians would believe you were saved, and not guess that they were meant to tread them under.”
He smiled at her saturnine rationale.
“A week in them and I will be too lame to leave in any case.”
“Stay with me, Kala'amātya. I will not ask again. What do you say?”
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce