This scene didn’t make it into the final version of Empire’s Reckoning, mostly because the book was already long, and while this added to character- and world-building, it didn’t feed the plot. But I awoke to snow today, and was reminded of it, so here it is. If you’re in the middle of the Empire’s Legacy trilogy, there are spoilers here.
“Teannasach, may I go?” I asked formally. He stepped forward, offering an arm and the kiss of farewell. Our lips brushed for the briefest of moments. I wondered if knowing what I was made him uncomfortable, but if it did, he did not show it.
“Go safely, Lord Sorley,” he said. I swung up onto my horse and turned its head south.
I’d woken with a scratchy throat, but we’d talked and sung into the small hours, so I thought little of it. But as I rode through the morning, I reluctantly admitted to a cold. My throat was painfully sore now, and my nose alternately running and blocked.
Ingoldstorp was some distance away yet, but they would give me soup and fuisce, and a warm bed, and perhaps a night’s sleep would chase the illness away. I found my hat in the saddlebags and wrapped my scarf a little tighter around my neck. The day was getting colder, I was sure.
An hour later the snow began. Big flakes, wet and heavy, at first: then, when the wind picked up, smaller and denser. The world around me turned white, and still the snow fell, thick and fast and rapidly shrinking the visible world to no more than a few arms’ lengths in front of me. I started to shiver. I couldn’t see the road now; all I could do was trust my horse to seek shelter.
I let the reins lie slack. The gelding plodded steadily forward, its head low against the wind. My fingers were numb, and my toes. The snow stung the exposed skin of my face. I closed my eyes.
Random thoughts: lambs would die in this. Had I wrapped my ladhar properly? Druise would be so angry with me. I drifted into a daze, time and the white world passing without sense or recognition.
My horse roused me, swinging his head and snorting. I looked around me, slowly realizing we stood in the lee of a building. I pushed myself up in the stirrups, my right leg dragging over the saddle as I dismounted, feet sinking into snow well over my ankles.
I fumbled along the wall of the building, looking for a door. I found one, but its latch resisted my stiff fingers. Swearing loudly, I pulled a glove off with my teeth and tried again. The horse pushed up against me, wanting cover.
On the fourth try I got the latch and the door open. I stumbled in, the horse following. A cattle byre, I could tell, from the smell and the heat, although almost no light found its way into the building. A cow lowed, and another. Probably the torp’s milk cows, I thought muzzily. I hoped so.
My hands were too cold to remove my horse’s bridle, or its saddle, even with both hands bare. He stood placidly enough, so I left him, moving towards the cattle. A warm, heavy body loomed in front of me. I put a hand on its side; it didn’t flinch. Slowly I moved around it until I was among the cows. I leaned up against one, almost hugging it. Apart from a flick of her tail, she didn’t object. Milk cows, as I had hoped, accustomed to being handled.
The heat radiating off the animals warmed me, even though the strong smell of urine in the byre made my eyes water. I would stink of cow, I thought, but I didn’t care. The cattle chewed and belched and shuffled, and one nosed me, its hot breath scented with hay. I’d never liked cattle much, before.
Warmed, I went back to my horse, removing his tack. He’d find hay and water, although the cows might kick him. By feel I found the bread and cheese in one saddlebag. Then I sat down to eat and wait.
The food tore at my sore throat, but I made myself swallow it, in small mouthfuls. I sat as close to the cattle as I safely could, and at some point, exhausted, I fell asleep.
A man’s voice woke me. Concerned, not angry: no torp or house would turn away a traveller in this weather. He knelt. “Are you well?”
I tried to speak, coughed instead. “Well enough,” I managed. “My horse brought me here. Where am I?”
“Ingoldstorp. Who are you?”
“Sorley.” A bout of coughing racked me. “Toscaire to the young Teannasach. I was riding south from Dun Ceànnar.”
“Well, sit quiet while I give hay to the kyne and your horse. I’ll take you up to the house, after.”
He was quick with the feeding. Then he piled the water trough high with snow, the byre door letting in blasts of cold as he went back and forth. It would melt soon enough from the animals’ body heat. Then he gave me a hand up, threw my saddlebags over his own shoulder, and took me to the house.
The snow and my cold ran their course together. Ingold—or rather his Konë—distractedly welcomed me, found me a bath and a bed, fed me, and sat me by the fire when I coughed. I had been lucky: I could well have died, had my horse not brought me to the cattle-byre. But my cold remained only a cold, preventing me from singing to repay my hosts’ hospitality, nothing more.
Not that the Eirën was often present. Ingold, a handful of years older than I, spent all the daylight hours out with his men and the sheepdogs, digging ewes and lambs out of drifts. I offered to help, but he refused. “I don’t doubt your skill with sheep, Sorley,” he said. “But you’ve work to do for the young Teannasach, and that can’t be risked.” So instead I fed the penned and stabled animals, and warmed half-dead lambs by the hearth of the house, with the Konë and the torpari women.
The weather changed on the fifth day, the wind shifting south, warm on the skin. Snow melted rapidly, turning the yard and the track to muck. “I’ll turn the sheep out in the morning,” Ingold told me, as we shared fuisce that night. I had played for them earlier; I couldn’t sing, but music of any sort was always welcomed. “You’ll be on your way, no doubt?”
“I will. If this weather reached south, the Casilani ships will have been delayed, but if not, they could be in harbour already. I have letters to go to Casil, from Ruar and the Raséair, and I must stop at the Ti’ach na Perras on the way.”
I had been gone well over two weeks. Ingold sipped his fuisce. “What are they like, these Casilani?” he asked.
“Wily. Sophisticated, and skilled with words and subtlety. At least the officials. The soldiers,” I shrugged, thinking of Druise, “are not so different from any men.”
“You’ll need all your wits about you, if you’re to ensure they treat us fairly,” he commented. “But the same was needed with the Marai. I suppose it’s no different. But we’ll be hard-pressed to pay tribute this year.” The talk drifted to the effect of this unseasonal snow, and how many lambs had been lost. “We’ll have been better off than most,” Ingold said. “I had enough men to rescue most of them. Some of the torps will have lost almost all, I’d think.”
“Why did the Marai leave you alone?” Had he supported them?
He snorted. “I’m a practical man, Sorley. I sent my wife and children to Dun Ceànnar, and then I went too, but later. I told the torpari I’d gone south to fight at the Wall, for the Marai, and I left them orders to cooperate. We lost a lot of animals to feed the raiders. There’s some pale-haired babies born this year, and they took a few girls, and a boy or two, as slaves, but they didn’t burn the byres, or the cottages. A small price to pay for our lives, I’d say.”
I couldn’t argue. I toasted him silently, and he grinned and drank his fuisce down. “Bedtime,” he said. “I’ll be out at dawn tomorrow, so I’ll say goodbye now. Safe travels, Sorley.”
(c) 2020 Marian L Thorpe
Featured Image: Beneath The Snow Encumbered Branches, Joseph Farquharson. Public Domain