Every oil lamp in the cabin burned brightly, and Cruce was startled when he finally saw Rayden’s state. Drying red-brown blood smeared into the mud paint on the left side of his face.
The woman of the house hastily spread a thick gray felt blanket in front of the crackling fireplace. Cruce hovered anxiously as Hance and Gehr laid Rayden down.
“My wife be fixing up your man,” the barrel-chested farmsteader declared confidently. He hung his axe over the door and slammed it shut.
Gehr looked earnestly at the woman who knelt beside Rayden. While tying up her loose sandy hair, she sought to reassure him. “I be from a long line of fleshmenders,” she said.
“Who was your mother?” Gehr asked.
“Nalene of Ufessa,” the woman replied. “I am Ajel.”
Gehr nodded with recognition. He knew most fleshmender women on the frontier, including now its newest daughter grown to womanhood. “Well met, Good Wife,” Gehr said. “I fear that the militia shall often be in your debt.”
They shared an instant of grim agreement and then Ajel turned to the defender of her land fallen upon her hearth. Gehr stood up and the master of the household was waiting to greet him properly.
“I am Duvek,” he said in his deep voice. “I see that the savages have had a go at you.”
“We struck them,” Gehr corrected. His satisfaction at taking blood was obvious. “Just after nightfall across the river.”
Respect brightened Duvek’s face.
Gehr now noted three other men standing around the table. He recognized one of them from Upella. “I see you have been brought warning of the savages,” Gehr commented.
A sinister gleam lit the dark eyes of Duvek. “Aye,” he said. “We be plotting our own strike on those miserable animals.”
Gehr stepped past Cruce to address the civilian men more directly. Knowing to be diplomatic with his advice, Gehr reminded the men that he recommended that they guard the village instead of hunting the savages.
“Commander, we knowing your advice to be good,” Duvek said. “But this time, I’ll be having my blood before the sun sets again. That I swear by the Great Divinity. My kin was among those three butchered shepherds. A nephew.” Duvek stopped. He seemed about to say more but a tender grief shut his throat and his blunt bearded face revealed his struggle against emotion.
Gehr did not argue the point. The duty of the militia was to defend the frontiers of Nufalese civilization. Usually that meant placing themselves between the citizens and the savages, but Gehr knew when not to get in the way of people. “What’s your plan, Duvek?” Gehr asked.
Duvek gestured for Gehr to join them at the table. “I’d be glad of hearing your advice on this,” he said. Gehr took a seat and the other men settled onto the benches as well. Duvek started to lay out his plan to ambush the raiders next time they crossed the river.
Cruce noticed that Ajel had paused in her examination of Rayden to eavesdrop on her husband, and he gently asked her about his friend’s condition.
She murmured an apology and returned her attention to the semi-conscious young man. She dabbed a wet cloth at the clotting blood that stuck Rayden’s helmet to his hair. She gently pushed back the helmet. After wiping away more mud and blood, she tenderly parted his hair and exposed an ugly cut that started at the base of his skull and cut into his left ear. The cut stopped where the weapon had met the edge of the bronze helmet, but the scalp was bruised and swelling from the blunt force.
Ajel hurriedly folded some absorbent cloths and pressed them against the cut because it was still bleeding. “Be holding these firm for me,” she said. Cruce moved around behind Rayden’s head and sat on the warm flagstones of the hearth. He took off his gloves and pressed on the wound as she directed. Ajel examined the rest of Rayden’s body. Carefully she removed Rayden’s gear and clothing. Cruce had to raise Rayden a little so she could get off his cloak, armored vest, and shirt.
“This is nice armor,” she commented as she set it aside.
“We just got it. This was our first battle,” Cruce said. His spirit still seemed to be shaking like a small flag in a high wind.
Ajel glanced up at him. Her brown eyes contrasted strikingly with her blonde hair and fair face, speckled by a few freckles. She studied Cruce a moment and then assured him that his friend would be all right.
The door opened as the two men who had been tending the horses came inside. The fire snapped irritably at the rush of cold air, and the door was quickly shut. They looked with concern at Rayden but did not bother the fleshmender with questions.
Ajel unfolded a large cloth kit on the floor and removed a few sprigs of dried plants and crushed them into a nearby kettle to boil. As the strange aroma rose from the brewing herb, she continued undressing Rayden. Once he was down to his underclothes, she located another small wound on his thigh. She cleaned it quickly and bandaged it. Next, Ajel wrapped him in a soft felt blanket trimmed on one side with lambs’ fleeces.
Sometimes Rayden would try to speak, but she hushed him with an authoritative tone that seemed beyond her youth. Cruce supposed that her commanding presence came from her fleshmender training.
Ajel poured a cup from the kettle and blew on the pale green tea. A simple gesture from her told Cruce to sit Rayden up for a drink.
“For the pain,” Ajel murmured, tender as the best mother, and held the cup to his lips.
After Rayden was settled back into his blankets, he became drowsy and no longer squirmed feebly beneath the bloody cloth Cruce pressed against his head.
Ajel strung thick black thread onto a glistening sharp metal needle.
“What metal is that?” Cruce asked. It did not look as bright as silver, but it seemed precious.
“It be of tabre making. They call it loter. They not be sharing its crafting with humans, but we fleshmenders have a relationship with the Nebakarz in Kahtep, and they make these fine instruments for us,” Ajel explained.
“Do you think Rayden will need a tabre healer?” Cruce asked.
Ajel shook her head confidently. She traded places with Cruce and brought an oil lamp close to Rayden’s bloody head. She eased away the bloody cloths that Cruce had been pressing against the cut. The bleeding had slowed to a weary oozing of red.
As she began stitching, perfect concentration drew her face into a scowl. Her fingers worked precisely without any sign of squeamishness. With so many people in the house, it grew hot and stuffy and sweat shone on her forehead. Cruce obligingly obeyed her terse commands to cut a thread or move the light.
When she was done, she finished cleaning the blood from Rayden’s face and hair. Although sleeping fitfully, he appeared restored to life except for the angry cut swelling against the perfect black stitches. The cleaver of butcher Death had been put away this time.
After wrapping Rayden’s head in clean cloth, Ajel sat back and the serious mask of a fleshmender slipped away and she was a young woman again. Tired and a little frazzled, she rubbed her eyes and looked wearily upon militiamen hunkered on the floor.
“I’ll get you a drink,” Cruce offered, glancing around for the water jug.
“Kind of you,” Ajel murmured and pointed to the work table tucked beneath shelves of pans, dishes, ceramic jars, and racks of cooking utensils.
Cruce spotted the water jug and rose stiffly from the floor to get her a drink. It was the least he could do after she had applied such amazing skill to his friend. He found a drinking gourd and placed it under the spigot. When he gave her the water, she drank it done with obvious thirst.
She thanked him but Cruce shook his head. “No, Good Wife, thank you. I was very worried for Rayden. But I’m not any more,” he said.
A lovely and well-practiced veil of modesty slipped over Ajel’s face. “You be welcome, warrior of Nufal. Your efforts to be protecting us settlers are appreciated,” she said.
Sudden and sick concern for her twisted in Cruce’s gut. Her small home upon the plains jutting into the domain of brutal savagery was so vulnerable. “You will go to the village in the morning, right?” he asked.
The subject seemed to disgruntle her. Instead of answering, she glanced at Duvek without any wifely tenderness.
“Don’t be worrying about me,” Ajel reassured him and got to her feet. She announced that Rayden had been tended and should heal in due time and then asked if anyone else had been hurt. Two men responded. As Ajel beckoned them to her, she turned to Cruce and asked him if he would show his comrades the water jug so they could all get a drink.
“Of course, Good Wife,” he replied and noticed an appreciative twinkle in her brown eyes before she turned from him.
After Cruce distributed all the mugs and cups that he could find, he sat next to Rayden. Only a little blood had seeped into the bandaging, and he seemed to be resting comfortably. Cruce tucked the blanket around Rayden’s shoulders and then allowed himself to relax against the thick cabin wall. Along his neck he could feel a cold draft coming through the logs. He took off his helmet and pulled up his hood.
The cutting excitement of battle was beginning to dull, and a tremendous weariness consumed his body as if he had drunk some of Ajel’s herbal painkiller. His brain was still processing his violent episode with the savages and finding new details from the encounter. He had killed. He was sure of it, but he felt no moral revulsion. The savages were awful, and he felt proud of defending Nufal. Glad to have survived his first test, he succumbed to fatigue and his chin dropped onto his chest.
Rayden’s voice roused him in the morning. “Get off me,” he croaked.
Cruce opened his heavy eyes. He was cuddled up to his wounded friend and stealing half of his blanket. The cabin was empty. Although wondering where everyone was, he was happy to see Rayden awake and asked him how he felt.
“My head hurts and I’m about to piss myself,” Rayden complained.
Stiffly Cruce stood up and searched for a chamber pot. He felt bad about it, but he had to go into the bedchamber of his host and hostess to find one. He called for Duvek or Ajel before drawing back the curtain but no one answered.
Coming back to Rayden with the pot, he helped his friend up so he could relieve himself.
Rayden sighed, pleased that he had not suffered the indignity of wetting himself. “Where are we?” he asked.
Cruce explained as he headed to the door to look for the others. Just when he reached the door, Ajel opened it from outside. Behind her, fresh snow was falling gently.
“Good morning,” she said and smiled, which was pleasant to see.
“Good morning, Good Wife. Where is everybody?” Cruce asked as he moved out of her way.
“They be hunting savages with Duvek,” she replied.
Startled, Cruce felt like he had just overslept on his wedding day. He meant to rush outside as if to catch his comrades before they left, but Ajel set a hand on his chest. Shutting the door behind her, she explained that his commander had decided that he should stay with Rayden until she deemed him fit to travel. Then Cruce was to escort her and Rayden to Upella and await his company’s return.
Cruce was shocked and apprehensive about being left on the isolated farmstead.
“Why didn’t your husband take you to Upella this morning?” Cruce said.
“He has his kin to avenge,” she said dismissively. “And your friend be needing me here in case he took a bad turn, but I see that he be livelier already.” She peeked around Cruce and smiled to Rayden.
Cruce felt an unhappy feeling of abandonment. There were savages to kill and his desire to fight stirred like his sudden hunger for breakfast.
“I’ll get some water heating so you can wash up, warrior of Nufal,” Ajel said.
Realizing that his mud face paint was still on him, Cruce was embarrassed by Ajel’s comment about his griminess.
He went outside and fed his horse and Rayden’s horse with fodder from Duvek’s barn. By the time he was done, Ajel had a warm basin of water waiting for him and breakfast. While he washed himself clean and noticed the light stubble of his beard on his chin, Ajel opened her baking pan on the fireplace and removed golden biscuits that she then set afloat in a boat of gravy and venison sausage.
When she gave him his bowl she told him brightly that he looked much better. “Thank you, Good Wife,” he said a little shyly.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Cruce Chenomet from Kwellstan,” he replied and then sat at the table and dove into the breakfast with eager purpose. As he chewed, he watched Ajel tend Rayden and feed him the same breakfast. He did not eat as much as Cruce because now that he was sitting up the head injury made him a little queasy. Ajel tucked him back beneath the blankets and told him to rest.
With her charge well tended, she filled a plate for herself and joined Cruce at her table. She ate quietly although she often looked thoughtfully across the table at Cruce when she dipped her spoon into her bowl.
“Are you worried?” he asked.
“About the savages?” she said and he nodded.
For a moment her youth and femininity allowed her to look vulnerable before her confidence took back over. “They say the savages be afraid to enter a proper house,” she said and gestured with her spoon to the sturdy roof. “They fear our magic.”
Cruce considered that and then said, “They have no houses?”
Ajel shook her head. “They camp upon the land in tents or nothing the year round. It be true,” she explained.
As she had, Cruce now regarded the roof. It seemed not enough magic to keep back the bloodthirsty.
“When can Rayden travel?” Cruce whispered.
Ajel said that she expected him to be well enough to move the next day. Cruce was not sure if he should be glad that he only had to be their single guard for one day or if he should dread the prospect of the three of them venturing out on the open land the next day.
“Perhaps your husband will return tonight,” he said hopefully.
Ajel gave that possibility careful thought but then rejected it. “He and your commander settled on plans to cross the Smet and be hunting out savage raiding parties between here and the hills. Duvek told me he would be swinging back to Upella to meet us. That’ll take them two or three days for certain,” she explained.
Cruce resigned himself to the situation and popped the last of his breakfast into his mouth. In his opinion, Duvek should not have left his wife in such a vulnerable situation, but Cruce decided against saying anything. It was not his place to criticize her husband. Gehr had been right to leave someone with her and Rayden, and Cruce decided to attend to the responsibility as best that he could.
He cleaned and sharpened his sword and knife and often went outside to observe the horizon. The snow continued to fall. To the east, the Tabren Mountains glowed in the fresh layer of whiteness. To the southeast the craggy hills of the Burlip blocked his view of where the prairie met the Valley of Nufal. He thought of his home and family. He imagined them warm at home, admiring the snow. He wondered if the lake had frozen over yet.
Cruce also wondered if his family was thinking of him. Before going on frontier duty, he had received a letter from Dayd and one from his mother. According to them, life was fine at home, but the absence of a letter from his father had been a stinging omission.
Before going back in the cabin to warm up, he shook off the distraction of home and carefully examined the trees along the nearby creek. He saw nothing and went inside.
Ajel was checking Rayden’s stitches and applying a fresh dressing. His head still hurt and she prepared another herbal tea for him.
“Any savages?” she asked cheerfully.
“No,” Cruce said a little uncomfortable with her carefree humor.
“When I be done with your friend, play me a game of dotty tiles,” she said.
“Thank you, but I need to keep watch,” Cruce said.
“You’re going to make a fine militiaman,” she remarked.
Still sipping his tea, Rayden said, “Cruce is going to be a commander.”
“Yes, I be seeing he’s estate class,” Ajel said. “Now play some tiles with me. Bar the door. When the savages get here, you can fight them.”
Her cavalier attitude astonished him.
“Relax. If this be our last day on Ektren, let us be enjoying it,” Ajel declared.
There seemed to be no defying her, and Cruce privately admitted she made some good points. Besides it was cold out.
He joined her at the table and played dotty tiles all afternoon. Rayden even joined them in a few games, until his head hurt too much. Ajel brewed him a stronger cup of painkiller and bade him to rest.
As Cruce studied the lines and dots on the tiles looking for his best move, the threat of the savages receded. He did relax and even enjoyed himself. Ajel was pleasant company. She made a challenging opponent and an attractive one although he was trying not to notice.
After a string of losses, Cruce finally beat her two games in a row. Ajel sighed and declared that he had worn her down.
“My chores need doing,” she said.
Reaching for his helmet and cloak, Cruce told her that he would tend the animals for her. He wanted another good look around outside before the dark came. She smiled appreciatively and set about preparing dinner.
Candles were lit throughout the cabin when Cruce returned and the fireplace snapped with a big hot fire.
“Bring in more wood,” Ajel said quickly before he shut the door. Cruce went back out and gathered as much wood as he could carry from the pile of split logs. As he unloaded them by the fireplace, Ajel added that she could feel that this night was going to be colder than the last.
Cruce thought of his comrades out upon the open land. When they were not on the move or fighting, they would be huddled with their animals in a hollow. Although he did not envy their exposure, he still wished that he was with them, serving in the fight as he should.
Ajel had another hot meal prepared. Beef stew with winter vegetables and rye bread managed to sate Cruce’s young appetite. He sighed when he was finished and remembered to thank his hostess for her attentive care.
“My pleasure,” she said and cleared the dishes.
Cruce sat on the floor next to Rayden, who was tucked in comfortably next to the banked fire. Since the other militiamen had left, he could have all the spare blankets so he was warm and well padded now.
“I won’t mind sharing a blanket tonight,” Rayden said.
“Thanks,” Cruce said. He spread his hands toward the fire to warm them. The domestic quiet and coziness were relaxing. His life had been so intense and lacking in luxury since he had gone through militia training and then started his frontier duty. Two nights out in Kahtep had been all the leisure he had known since leaving home. It was nice to pause and sit still in a real home. Looking at Rayden’s bandaged head, Cruce only regretted the cause of this respite.
Ajel kneeled before the fireplace and crushed herbs into a steaming kettle. The fire glowed warmly on her skin, like a spring dawn on a white rose. She contemplated the brewing tea as if meditating. When she deemed the moment right, she retrieved the kettle from the fire and poured a cup for Rayden. She blew on it before handing it to him.
“This is a strong cup. It’ll keep the pain back so you can sleep well tonight,” she explained.
After thanking her, Rayden sipped diligently. Ajel rose and serenely blew out half the candles. With one candle in her hand, she then slipped away to the other room. Cruce got up to check that the door was properly barred and that the windows were tightly shuttered. Frightening thoughts of savages swarming over the cabin and breaking in to butcher them all besieged him. He wondered how he would get any sleep this night. When Cruce tried to console himself with Ajel’s opinion that the savages feared to enter buildings, he only imagined the savages starting the cabin on fire and bringing hideous death.
I’d go out to fight them, Cruce told himself and meant it.
Although he was not prone to prayer, he silently asked the Great Divinity to spare them such awfulness this night.
He turned and saw that Ajel had come out of her bedroom. Her hair was freshly brushed and the golden tresses were spreading carelessly over her flowing linen nightgown.
“Would you be liking to stay in my room?” she asked.
Fear, uncertainty, confusion, excitement, and joy slammed together in Cruce’s core. The chill of winter that infiltrated the room was driven back from his suddenly flushed body. Deciding that he must have misunderstood her, Cruce said that he would stay where he was. He then looked over to Rayden urgently, but his friend had slipped away into blissful sleep.
Ajel walked up to Cruce and put a hand on his shoulder. He was wearing his heavy shirt and armored vest, but the light pressure of her hand on his body was intensely stimulating. He could not stop looking into her playful brown eyes.
“You ever been with a woman?” she asked.
Her questions made his mind reel with forbidden possibilities. He swallowed and then managed to whisper, “Not entirely.”
She came closer and he tentatively set his hands on her hips. Her sweet face and parted lips reached up toward his face that was compelled to lean closer to her. The reality of her body against his finger tips invited him to appease his natural lust.
But she was married. That fact traveled through his body like the shock of quaking land. Adultery. It was a crime declared by the Great Divinity. Adultery made disorder and it led man astray from civilization. Duvek could even kill him, and rightly so. And part of Cruce just wanted to be truly honorable and rebuff the advances of another man’s wife on principle. Cruce would not commit such offense on a fellow man. Surely not.
Of course Cruce rejected all moral arguments in an instant. To escape what was happening was impossible and certainly not desirable. Ajel was desirable. She was all that was possible at that moment.
They kissed tentatively. Ajel pressed closer into his embrace that tightened happily. Her nightgown was thin beneath his hands and he could feel her hot flesh beneath.
Cruce liked kissing her. The intensifying pleasure of it drove the ugly demons of fear from his mind. Each hungry suck of their lips against each other made Cruce bolder. He kissed her face and her neck. He grabbed her left breast. She gasped, and that sound aroused him fully.
“Come,” she urged breathlessly drawing him into her bedroom. They shuffled through the curtains to her private chamber.
Once inside the colder bedroom where candles burned in sconces along the walls, Ajel made Cruce let go of her and she began to undo his armor and clothing.
He stood still as she stripped him, more than a little amazed to suddenly find this lovely woman taking off his clothes. Excited as he was, the cold air did not cause him to shiver. It only enhanced the sensitivity of his skin. Naked before her, he was not embarrassed. He felt fully proud of his unleashed masculinity. Such vitality had never rushed through his veins before, and he felt like the most powerful man in the world.
“Let me see you,” he dared to say and reached for her nightgown.
Ajel allowed him to lift it away. As her naked body was revealed to him, he told her she was beautiful. Her full breasts with hard dark nipples and smooth curving hips and light curling pubic hair called him to take his final step into manhood.
With nothing to restrain him, Cruce grabbed her. His hands went everywhere on her body. He kissed her breasts and her stomach before picking her up and falling with her into her bed. Ajel’s legs parted with a willingness he had certainly dreamed about, and his inexperience as a man went away with only a bit of guidance from her.
As a young and eager man, he climaxed soon.
“I be hoping to get more from you than that,” Ajel told him as she lay within his grateful arms. Cruce was more than committed to obliging her in any manner.
“I can teach you about loving a woman, Cruce,” she said.
Through the night they made love. Ajel showed him pleasures that he had never known and she showed him how to please her as well. He gladly learned of her womanly mysteries, and took much satisfaction from pleasing her. Each time they joined in carnal totality, her cries of ecstasy came louder. Her musical outcries thrilled him and encouraged him. Animals knew the lusting rut, but humans knew passion, and he was so happy to bask in its energy.
Never had woman known such freedom in her marriage bed, and her male companion indulged in her wanton bliss with unjudging enthusiasm.
Just before the dawn came, Cruce twirled her tousled hair around his fingers. Only a couple of the candles remained burning. The others had gone to puddles of tallow as they had worked their bodies in the flickering light. Her face was satisfied and happy.
“I love you, Ajel,” he whispered.
She smiled. “No, Cruce. You cannot,” she whispered back without opening her eyes. Then the fact of their adultery dropped back into his mind like bird dung on the wind. Cruce snuggled up against her thoughtfully.
At length he said, “You could leave him. Be mine. I am a man of means. You would give up nothing. You would gain from it, I promise.”
Ajel opened her eyes now. She kissed him but then grew serious. “Cruce, I know you be meaning what you say, but in time you be knowing that your offer be foolish. Duvek not be deserving such humiliation and my place be here. I am a fleshmender and serve my people happily. This night was for pleasure. If you love me, be accepting my gifts as they are.”
Cruce did not reply. Perhaps, as he had accepted her other lessons this night, he should take this advice as well.
Knowing that an inevitable confusion was descending upon him, Ajel sought to dispel the unpleasantness. She rolled on top of him and slipped her sweet thighs over his loins for another sporting romp before they finally took some sleep.
Cruce woke after the sun was up. Ajel was gone, and, alone in her bed, he felt the slap of guilt finally strike. But it left no mark. Tired but suffused with contentment after so much release, he could not really summon any regret.
After putting on his pants and boots, he gathered the rest of his things and went out in the front room. Ajel was not there. Presumably she was at the barn doing chores, but Rayden was propped up on his bedding eating breakfast.
He grinned broadly at Cruce. “How was all night guard duty?” he joked.
Cruce felt his face turn red. “I thought you were drugged,” he said.
“Not that drugged,” Rayden laughed. “You showed her a good time.”
Putting on his shirt, Cruce said, “Rayden, you can’t tell anyone.”
Growing serious, Rayden said that of course he would keep the secret. Adultery was no light matter in addition to defiling the hospitality of Duvek’s house.
Changing the subject, Rayden told Cruce that Ajel had left breakfast for him in a pan by the fire. Cruce dished it up. He was truly ravenous. While scooping food into his mouth, he asked Rayden how he was feeling.
“Much better,” he replied and did sound like himself more than the day before.
Cruce was glad and said so, but as he heard Ajel banging around the wood pile outside the door, he reached a decision quickly.
“Rayden, could you have a relapse? It would be a pity if we could not stay here another night,” Cruce suggested.
Flashing with playful resentment, Rayden declared, “I’m who she should be nursing so carefully.”
“Are you feeling dizzy?” Cruce said.
Rayden rolled his eyes and slumped dutifully onto the blankets. “You owe me, Cruce,” he said as Ajel came through the door.