"That's really good but I think there is still something missing..."
Lera took a few steps back, eyeing her young comrade speculatively. There was indeed something missing but she couldn't pinpoint what precisely at this instant. In front of her, Kiddo was sulking, looking awkward and pissed.
Lera snapped her fingers and grinned, small wrinkles of merriment crinkling the corner of her bottle green eyes.
"I know! The hair!"
"Can't I just keep my hair up? It's bothering enough as it is..."
"No, Kiddo. Farm girls do tend to like to have their hair braided, it's less bothersome that way. Here, let me show you."
Nimble fingers started to weave through the thick mane of the girl who barely sighed, resigned now to what seemed like an ineluctable fate.
"It's true that you have had no one to teach you about this, Kiddo. Generally it's the mothers that teach that to their children. A four strands braids for the young woman seeking a companion, the hidden braid for the secret lover, the twisted braids of the bride to be and so many other..."
"I did wonder about those but never really paid attention, I guess."
"It's okay, Kiddo, it wasn't a reproach..."
Lera's voice was soft as she finished by pinning the braid up with a bit of ribbon that fell back on Kiddo's neck, barely brushing her shoulders. Seen from back, the effect what one of a butterfly with its wings half closed, the deep burgundy of the silk setting perfectly the pale skin tone of the girl. She looked down at the whole attire and smiled. It was the first time since she had known Kiddo that she was seeing her in a dress.
"There we are. A perfect little farm girl."
Kiddo grimaced briefly, looking down at her outfit: instead of her usual, plain uniform she was clothed in a long dress, tied on front and covered with an apron. The fabric whispered against her legs when she took a few steps, tickling her.
Behind her Lera was divesting from her Guard outfit with precise movements, folding each item of clothing before laying it on a nearby chair. Soon enough she was in nothing but her undergarment, her skin glowing with health in the early morning light. Kiddo noticed the scattering of freckles on her shoulders, matching the one across her cheeks and nose. Lera had picked a flowing dress in a green half a tone lighter than her eyes and with a silky grey trim, dragging attention to the creamy swell of her cleavage. With the same ease she had demonstrated when she had braided Kiddo's hair she tied her own up in a elaborate nest of curls held by two four strands braids that were falling graciously along her neck.
"I am sure it will be all right. You heard what the plan was, we will dispatch on the various locations and impersonate farmers and such to hope to catch and stop the tribes from raiding the frontiers outposts. You were among the best choice to accompany us, because of your size and skills."
"I know, Lera. It's a honour to be allowed to go with members of the Guard."
Kiddo smiled. She was genuinely proud to have been chosen, one among the few regulars soldiers to go and join the Keeshir Guard on this mission, even if she had the distinct feeling that despites her friend's words it had been more her size than her skills that had helped her to be picked out this time. Several times already she had been under Lera's orders during field missions of minor importance and didn't mind it in the least, she totally trusted the woman, a member of the Keeshir Guard but also a friend. She hesitated when she reached the door, suddenly overcome by a wave of self consciousness at her attire and it's Lera's gentle push that made her turn the doorknob and exit the room.
She stopped as soon as she had crossed the doorjamb, lowering her eyes to the floor in a sudden wave of self consciousness. Had Beeren been the only one out there it wouldn't have been a problem but Aeran, Drefen, Dreven were there too along with several others members of the Guard, men or women she barely knew. The only thing that helped was that she wasn't the only one disguised, all of the others having already put on various outfits to better mingle among the farmers and wood workers of the frontier.
"I told you she would be perfect for this."
There was no mistaking the pride in Beeren's voice and her head whipped up to meet his gaze as he smiled at her. So it had been him that had suggested her to accompany them? She wasn't even surprised and she cast a brief look around. It was weird seeing all those people she knew to a small or bigger extent being dressed in such casual clothes. It was making them all look like normal people, for lack of a better word, while she knew every single person in the room was surely among the strongest and best soldiers of the whole Keeshir's army.
Aeran surveyed them and gave the briefest of nod, signalling their departure from the mayor's house. They had travelled in one of the numerous caravans that travelled the roads to the north, bringing manufactured goods in exchange for the pelts, ore and various resources of the northern areas. All along the frontiers small groups similar to their, composed of regular soldiers and members of the Guard, were stealthily settling, readying a trap to crush the incursions of the Sybinius plunderers that were getting too bold and aggressive for the Keeshir's tastes. A little looting from time to time was to be tolerated but those constant, bloody raids were unusual even for the area and he had decided to put a stop to this by sending some of his best troops.
The farm was set out of town, near the fringe of the forest. It was a good sized but tidy estate and Drefen murmured appreciatively at the way the small stream had been harnessed to carry water straight into the house by an ingenious system of gulley that relayed it toward the barns too. The farmers were waiting for them and started immediately to fill the small group on what were the tasks to be accomplished daily on the farm. The patriarch was a strongly set man whose dark brown hair had receded but who was sporting a pair of eyebrows so bushy it looked as if his hair had merely shifted down from his scalp. He had the same no non sense attitude that was common in Dendroa and even more in the north, respectful but not fawning over the heir to the crown and soon the two men were discussing calmly in a corner of the room while the rest of his family was showing the soldiers around.
"Her name is Blossom, m'lady. She is a very nice cow. She is smart too, you will see. I cared for her since she was a calf and she is very well trained. You will be able to ride her to the fields with no troubles and the other cows will follow you."
"Ride? The cow?"
Kiddo was alone with the elder daughter of the family, a vivacious young girl named Saen that bore some kind of resemblance with a mouse: small with a high pitched voice and shiny black eyes, she had hooked her arm across hers to drag her toward the barn, chatting incessantly on the way. They were in front of a big paddock inside which a dozen cows were milling. One was pressed against the wooden barrier and had wedged her head under the girl's hand. On her horns two wide bands of brass, polished and oiled, glowed in the sunlight.
"Yes, m'lady, to get them out in the pastures but don't worry, I told you, I trained her myself. I also trained Bucky, the bull, but he is a damn big stubborn beast and father forbade me to try and keep on riding him, he said it would be too dangerous, but I know it wouldn't be. Bucky is a good bull. You should see him pull at the plough, there is no bigger and more beaut beast than him all around."
Saen pointed her finger at a huge, looming silhouette in a corner of the paddock and Kiddo almost stepped back despites being on the other side of the barrier. The bull was huge, almost twice as high as the cow that was so busily trying to be petted by the young woman, and with long, curved and above all sharp looking horns. Saen was absent mindely scratching the cow's nose as she was speaking and there was no mistaking her pleading tone or her shy looks and Kiddo smiled, trying to look reassuringly confident.
"Don't worry, I will take good care of them."
She extended her hand, timidly letting her fingers brush the side of the cow's snout, surprised at the velvety softness of the skin. The beast leaned her head in the caress and Kiddo's smiled at that, scratching more boldly and lifting her hand to the ear, eliciting a deep sigh of contentment that ended in a spatter of fine drool as Blossom snorted her happiness in her face, making Kiddo step back with a brief disgusted scowl twisting her features that melted into a snort of self derisive laugh.
"Does that mean she likes me?"
"Ho, Blossom likes everyone. Here, I'm gonna show you how to rig her."
The girl clicked her tongue as she opened the paddock and Blossom trotted forward smartly, entering the barn without hesitation. The cow wasn't that tall, her shoulders being at the same level than Kiddo's. She was of those rustic breeds found in the north with short sturdy legs, wide shoulders and a thick brown pelt in which Kiddo buried her fingers curiously. The hair was rough and coarse and the cow reacted eagerly to the caress, pressing against the young woman who braced herself to avoid the fall.
"She loves being scratched, m'lady, but be careful, she is strong, stronger than a horse. She will upset you down without even meaning it."
It was true that the cow looked docile enough, turning to allow Saen to throw the leather straps across her back and around her chest. The contraption was totally different from the horse saddle's Kiddo was used too but it looked easy to set on and the girl jumped atop it with ease to show her. She extended her arm to the young soldier who grabbed it and scooted too on the cow's back. The two of them then started inside the farm's yard, the young girl still chattering away about what Kiddo would have to do. She left her the reins after a while as they made their way and back to the pasture and the two of them ended up giggling like kids when the cow, stirred by hunger of by their communicative joy, started at a brisk jostling trot on the hard packed earth of the road.
Once back in the barn the two girls were joined by Drefen and Dreven who had already toured the farm. Beeren and Aeran had gone on exploring the surroundings along with Lera while the family was packing their last minute stuff before leaving their farm for a few weeks. Together they fed the animals, the bull being as calm and patient as the cow despites his impressive stature, following the orders Saen called out in good cheer. Kiddo noticed three of the beasts standing patiently in a corner, one of them calling in a low, patient way. She came closer to the animal, trying to find the source of its distress. Dreven was filled the auger with water fresh from the stream, brought in a constant supply by the same ingenious system of gulley that was supplying the house and Kiddo called out aloud.
"Why is she moo-ing?"
"She needs to be milked, m'lady."
"Please, Saen, I told you to call me Kiddo. How do I do that?"
"You don't know that?" Dreven grinned hugely, leering at the young woman in front of him "You will have to carefully grab the fleshy parts and gently tug and rub until the creamy white liquid squirts out... Maybe you want me to show you?"
Behind him Drefen sighed and walloped the back of his twin's head, more for the gesture than for the possible result. He knew very well that nothing could stop his brother from making inappropriate jokes even at the worst times, so here when such an opportunity was offered to him, trying to stop him would be like trying to spit in a storm in the hope of appeasing it.
"I'm sorry, Saen."
"No, it's okay, m'lady. Not everyone was born on a farm, I guess. Where did you grew? In Alero?"
The sudden wave of uncertainty that flared from Kiddo made the twins wince. Saen hadn't noticed it, too busy fetching the pails and hobbling the cow to the milking station, a slightly raised platform of sturdy wood that allowed her and the cow to be set comfortably. All trace of irony left Dreven face as he reached to gently press Kiddo's shoulder who dodged his gesture of comfort without even realising it. There was still a ghost of her pain visible in her eyes as she settled next to Saen, carefully watching the young girl moves.
No one, not even her, knew where she was born and where she was from. From across Rodeth sea, that was certain but other than that, her past was a foggy mystery, bits of images, fragments of sounds and nothing else. Kiddo's hand lifted to the scar that marred the side of her neck, that deep, still shiny mark that looked as if some feral beast had lunged at her, tearing the flesh, breaking the bones, marking her forever. She shook her head, willing herself to come back to the here and now and scooted even closer to Saen, focusing on her explanations.
"See, that's easy. Just pinch the top gently and then press your fingers down. The first squirts should never go in the bucket anyway, and the soap to wash off the teats before hand is just there. Then a layer of goose grease to keep the skin nice and supple and she is good to go. Now your turn, give it a try with Blossom."
"Ho.. okay. I won't hurt her?"
"It would take a lot to hurt them, m'la.. Kiddo."
Following Saen's moves, Kiddo washed off Blossom's teats and her own hands, before dragging the pail under the cow's udder. She squirted the first milk, the cat's milk as Saen had called it, in a shallow saucer without too much difficulty and then settled to milk Blossom. It was surprisingly physical, and she found herself rolling her tense shoulders before she finished, wincing at the unusual tension in her arms and wrists. Fortunately for her, Blossom was every bit the gentle, tamed beast her young mistress has described and she put up calmly with Kiddo's clumsiness before being led back to the paddock.
Drefen and Dreven helped the girls bring the pails of thick, creamy milk to the main house where Saen's mother showed them where was the ice house to stock it before making either butter or cheese from it. Lera and the brothers were coming back and it was time for the farm owners to bid their goodbye to the place they had built for some and been born into for the others. Saen restrained her tears with difficulty at leaving the only home she had ever known and turned one last time to wave at Kiddo and the others.
"Beeren and Dreven will go tomorrow work at the dam. Lera, you will stay here and ready the house shall they try a direct attack. Drefen and I will go in the forest, near the pastures where Kiddo will be set. No visible weapons at any times. As far as raiders are concerned, we are farmers. Our goal is to catch the scouts and get the location of their main camp."
A chorus of approbation echoed his words. The plan had been processed carefully, and they were only a small part of a much bigger regiment that had been set in the surroundings, but their position at the outskirts of the town set them on the first line. They were at the end of autumn and the biggest chores of the year were behind them but it also meant that for the marauders of the moors it was the best time to attack, their preys lying there ripe and ready for the picking, the barns filled with goods and foods.
"Will we have to establish a night guard?" fluted Kiddo from the corner of the room where she had settled, battling inefficiently with her braid that had started to come loose.
"I don't think that will be necessary. They never attack at night."
Beeren's voice was thoughtful as he finished settling the logs in the fireplace. The days were still warm but the nights were starting to get cold and he liked the comfort of a sparkling, dancing fire almost as much as Kiddo.
"They used to never kill either and you heard what they did, Beeren."
To the mutual stupefaction of both Lera and Kiddo, Dreven stepped behind Kiddo and parted the young woman's mane of hair before starting to rebraid it with ease as he spoke.
"What? Shall I remind you I have five younger sisters?"
"No, no. You're good at this."
Kiddo had flinched at first but hadn't try to escape him as she had instinctly done earlier and even flash him a brief smile of thanks before turning to their leader, awaiting like them his opinion.
"Night guard of one person, two hours set seems the most logical thing to do."
"What about that no weapons visible? How am I supposed to fend for myself if I see them coming at me?"
"You will have your cowherd pike, Kiddo. Trust me I think you're going to love this, and you won't be alone. We will be just the other side of the forest edge so if we see something, we whistle and you come back, if you see something, I trust you to warn us and make way to the farm too. I saw you run. On short distance you're almost as fast as a horse."
"On short distance, faster actually." commented Beeren, a wide beaming smile making his teeth glint in the light of the fireplace. "Ask Dreven, he lost a bet about this not two weeks ago."
"And a fair price it cost me. One full night of drinking at the Ruby Wren."
Since he was done with her hair he stepped back from Kiddo, smiling too as he looked down at the small woman.
"I never saw anyone bolt as fast as you did there."
"She just had to imagine you running after her. That would be enough to have anyone run as if their shoes were on fire."
Lera had stopped her sharpening of her dagger just long enough to throw her barb and resumed her careful work of polishing as if nothing had happened, leaving Dreven for once mute in stupefaction.
High and lilting, Kiddo's laugh echoed in the room, immediately followed by all the others, Dreven included. They all started to get set for dinner and Kiddo proposed to help but Lera diverted her from coming near the kitchen by asking her to go instead check on the chicken and gooses. She, like Beeren, had tasted at several times Kiddo's cooking and had absolutely no wish to repeat the experience.
"So, what will the sleeping arrangements be? There are only three rooms and no way I will be the one sleeping with Beeren. No offence, but you snore like a hippopotamus."
They were all around the big table and eating in good cheer. The food was plain but plentiful, the atmosphere relaxed and even Aeran had relaxed enough to sit with his back against his chair, one arm slung back as he distractedly lifted his mug to his lips. As it had been happening regularly, Kiddo found herself staring at the way his Adam's apple was bobbing up and down, at the way the light was highlighting his cheekbones and when he looked at her she gave a little twitch before turned her head away, blushing. They hadn't talked since last time they had trained together and she had been declared apt to serve in the dendroan army, several weeks ago and she didn't want to remember how it had ended, the scornful, almost hateful glare he had cast her before leaving the room, letting her gasping and panting for breath after having thrown her against a wall to end up their fight. It had been Beeren who had rushed at her side and scooped her up, muttering apologies and insults mixed, for his brother.
So lost she had been in that introspective moment she didn't really register what was happening around her until Beeren reached out and pulled at her braid.
"So, is it good with you, Kiddo?"
"Ha, hum, yes, yes of course."
"You didn't listen to a single word, did you?"
Lera's eyes were twinkling with merriment and the young woman felt her cheeks flame under the looks of all the group.
"No. I'm sorry. I guess I was daydreaming."
"The room repartition. You and I are going to have a room, Aeran and Drefen another, the last one for Beeren and Dreven if they manage not to smother each others in their sleep and you're first guard."
"Yes. Fine by me. No problem."
"Perfect, now, make yourself useful and grate me a little bit of this."
The auburn haired woman handed a slab of something brown and grainy to Kiddo while Drefen tossed several handfuls of chestnuts, glossy and plump, in an earthenware pot he settled on the side on the fire.
Seeing Kiddo look at the mysterious thing she had been handed, Lera reached again, breaking a smallish corner between her fingers.
"Open your mouth."
She tossed the fragment between Kiddo's lips and grinned at the sudden rapturous expression that spread on the young woman's face.
"Tasty, isn't it? it's maple sugar. It's almost only found in the north but it's one of my favourite things. Now grate away. You will see it's even better over warm fire roasted chestnuts."
Kiddo wasn't particularly sweet mouthed but the maple sugar had a strong, wild taste, at the same time sweet and deeply flavoured, a primal earthy aroma that was making her mouth water in anticipation for more. She grated at the slab enthusiastically until Lera motioned for her to stop and put the slab back in one of the cupboards, but not after Kiddo had managed to snag another small piece she let melt in her mouth with eyes half closed in contentment.
They spent the rest of the evening like this, chatting around the fire while nibbling at the chestnuts. Beeren sang, accompanied by Drefen while Lera whistled along, mimicking various birds and even the sad accents of the dendroan flute to perfection.
The first round of guard was easy for Kiddo who used that time to oil and sharpen her own blades. Aeran had been very specific and she would only be allowed her short dagger, hidden under her skirt, along with the herder's pike and she didn't want to take any risks. Going out without a weapon at hand was ever harder for her than going out naked would have been. The pike was a seven feet length of hickory wood, one end capped in steel, the other ending with a crescent shaped blade she filed until the edge was razor sharp. On a second thought, she picked some ashes she smeared over the blade to dull the newly acquired glint of the metal: better have it now to her taste, but not visibly.
Once she had finished she went to wake up Aeran who had decided to take second turn. As usual, she had barely rasped at the door when he opened it, not a hint of sleepiness visible on his face.
"I made some infusion, if you want."
That was probably one of the few things she couldn't mess up when she tried to cook and even that wasn't guaranteed, but this time it had been good, aromatic and rich with mint and peach leaves flavours. She smiled timidly at him but he only nodded. She couldn't understand his late change of attitude. Even if she hadn't shared with him the same complicity she immediately had with Beeren, she had always felt a deep connexion with the young man that had found her wounded in that fire ravaged clearing and carried her to safety. True he had always been stern and harsh with her, pushing her to her limits as his father did but he had been there, visiting her at the hospital, assisting her when she slowly learned to use again the broken shell of her body. Now, since she entered the army, he was ignoring her while she on the contrary had found her thoughts wandering more and more toward him. She couldn't even define precisely why, but so it was.
"Go get some rest, Kiddo."
"Yes, my prince."
Having been thus dismissed, she heard him get down the stairs to go set near the door for his vigil. She forced herself to shrug off the feeling of dismay that was gnawing at her heart, trying to rationalise what she was feeling. The room she shared with Lera was small with one bed and the auburn haired woman was already tucked under the covers when she entered, barely stirring, only blinking lazily to acknowledge her presence. Lera had the thoughtfulness of leaving a candle lighted and Kiddo rapidly stripped before donning an oversized shirt she used as a nightgown and sliding under the covers. Next to her Lera's breathing was slow and regular, appeasing as she muttered her goodnights to her friend.
Neither of them did mind sharing a bed like this. On the field accommodations were much more sparse and this comfortable bed was way better than many others they had encountered. Though Kiddo still had problems being touched, especially by strangers, she didn't mind at all the somehow inevitable lack of intimacy that went with being in the army. For Lera and for her, comrades were brothers and sisters at arms and they had no qualms with such situations. The only reproach Lera could have against her friend was her tendency to hog the covers mercilessly during her sleep, wrapping herself until only half her face and a random tuft of hair could be visible. To avoid ending the night shivering, the auburn haired woman had developed a technique of hitching a corner of the blankets under her elbow and clinging to it fiercely. It was the only option anyway as it was damn near impossible to get Kiddo to release her grasp on her prize once she was asleep. As next to her the young woman was falling asleep she felt her move and couldn't hide a small, somehow melancholic smile: only when she was asleep Kiddo would seek a human contact, as faint as it was. As she felt the featherlike press of Kiddo's back against her own she leaned into it, offering her warmth to her friend before joining her in slumber.
Downstairs Aeran poured himself a cup of the still warm drink, his brow still pinched in a frown. It had taken a lot not to let his hand wander on the pale expanse of Kiddo's neck, that bare flesh that had appeared golden under the light of the lamp as she had bypassed him after his dismissal. He had taken his father's words to heart and wouldn't let any feelings he may have for the small stranger interfere with his mission.