A Glibertarians Exclusive:  Season of Ice IV

On the Trail

The two remaining days in the journey followed much the same pattern; arise in the morning, wash in cold water.  Hengist would hitch the horses and the pair would set off, walking the horses through the day.

The second night found them camping in high pines along a small, bubbling brook.  On the third day Hengist took a road branching off the main thoroughfare, bound more or less north into low hills.  In the late afternoon they came to a low hill overlooking a lake to the east, the forest to the north and a vast sweep of grassland to the west.  On this hill sat Hengist’s house.

The house was larger than Mabinne had expected; a long, low, rambling U-shaped structure with connected barns for stock and a stone-paved trail from the courtyard enclosed by the U to a small dock on the lake.  The house looked warm; it was built of native stone up to window height, with heavy squared logs on up to the high-peaked roof.  Four chimneys emitted pale woodsmoke.  Whoever had built the house clearly intended it to be sturdy and warm.

The windows, Mabinne was surprised to see, were glass; an expensive commodity in Beretan, Mabinne had never thought glass-crafters worked in what she had always thought of as a barbarian land.

Mabinne also noted stock; a flock of white ducks was scattered about the place, and behind the house she heard the distinctive lowing of a milk cow.  He wasn’t just bragging, she thought.  This isn’t the home of a poor man.  It’s more estate than homestead.

As they approached, the door to the house opened and an odd-looking youth emerged.  He was short, shorter even than Mabinne, but squat, and something about his head wasn’t quite right; it was misshapen, somehow, as though his skull had been somehow compressed.  He had large eyes set a little too far apart, and his jaw was set slightly off-center to the left.  But his eyes were bright and his smile radiant when he saw Hengist.

“Gerd!” Hengist called to the boy as he brought the wagon to a halt in front of the house.  “All is well, I presume?”

Gerd nodded vigorously.  He made a series of gestures with his hands; Mabinne half expected some magic to emerge from the gesturing, but instead an entirely different sort of wizardry was in play.  The boy can’t speak, she realized.  This is how he communicates.

“Good, then,” Hengist answered.  Obviously, he understood the boy’s gesturing, which meant nothing to Mabinne.  “How is your father?  Your mother?”

More gestures.

“Good.”  Hengist dismounted.  From a small pouch on his belt, he counted out ten gold coins, which he handed to the boy. “For your summer’s work.  The place looks fine.  Well done.”

As the boy disappeared back into the house, clinking the coins happily in his hand, Hengist turned to Mabinne.  “My sister’s son,” he explained.  “Something went wrong with his birthing, and as you can see, he isn’t quite normal.  Never make a raider or farmer out of him, but he is able to look after my place in summers while I’m away and take care of the stock and so forth.”  Hengist walked around the horses, patting their noses and stroking manes as he went.

“I see,” Mabinne replied.

Hengist continued to explain as he walked. “His father lost an arm several summers past.  Good man but farming to feed my sister and their children is about all he can manage.  They count on Gerd’s coins every summer.  I help them with elk and bear meat now and then, as I can.  Family, eh?  Not always easy.”  The big Ikslunder offered Mabinne a hand to help her down from the wagon.

“I’m sure they appreciate the help,” Mabinne agreed.  She took Hengist’s hand and climbed down.  This was another surprise; the prevailing wisdom in Beretan was that the big Northmen were savages.  She hadn’t expected the kind of compassion Hengist showed towards his sister’s family.

A thought occurred to her.  “You have much room here,” she asked, “wouldn’t your sister’s family be better off staying here with you?”

Hengist smiled down at her.  “You haven’t been around us long, my sweet,” he explained.  “We Ikslunders, we’re a proud folk, and my sister and her husband no less than any.  They won’t accept not being able to keep their own farm, their own home.  And I can’t blame them.  My brother-in-law, he would roundly be seen as something less than a man, were he to do so.  I’d gladly have them, but, well, that’s how things are here in Ikslund.  So, I give them what help they will accept.  In fact, since I can’t be arsed to grow vegetables – I hate grubbing in the dirt – I buy from them all they can spare, which again helps them get by.  Farming turnips, carrots and beets is something a one-armed man can do well enough.”

Mabinne didn’t comment.  She stood, looking all around; she had to admit, the homestead was set in a lovely location, and Hengist hadn’t been just bragging when he spoke of his prosperity.  She had to remind herself that a good part of it came from raiding and banditry.

“I’ll be some time putting the horses up.  Go inside, sweet, and look around.  This will be your home henceforth.  I want you to be comfortable.  If you don’t like the way anything is arranged, let me know and we’ll set it to rights.”

“As you wish,” Mabinne said softly.  She headed for the front door.

Mabinne went in the front door and found herself in a small entry room.  She saw Gerd’s shoes placed on a rack to one side, so she removed her shoes and went inside in her linen foot-wraps.

Inside, the house was spacious and airy.  Even in the mild, sunny late-summer day there was a small fire crackling merrily away in the large hearth on one side of the room.  The floor was covered in rugs, the walls with cloth hangings; the house looked as though it would stand through any winter and still stay warm.

Gerd emerged from a back room, evidently a sleeping room.  He was carrying a cloth sack over one shoulder; he grinned at Mabinne as he passed on his way outside.  Mabinne heard him shuffling about in the anteroom with his shoes, then the outer door; she could just make out the muffled tones of Hengist’s voice speaking with the lad.

So, this is home now, she thought.  It’s not a poor home.  I wish I could forget where much of this came from.

She walked slowly around the big main room, looking at some of the odds and ends that decorated the place.  The wall-hangings were embroidered, and there were small decorations on shelves on the walls and the tables alongside the big, well-upholstered chairs – bits of agate, polished stones, carvings of bone and ivory.

A thought occurred to her:  No man living alone put this place together.  A woman did this.

That, she felt certain, was a story that Hengist wasn’t about to tell her.  At least not yet.

Mabinne spent some time wandering about the house.  One wing housed a small bedroom that looked long unused and a large, well-stocked pantry.  The other…

Hengist found her examining the main bedroom in the second wing.  He walked silently up behind her as she was examining the bed; it was huge, with a large spread of wolf furs, and large, well-stuffed pillows.  She had laid back the cover to find sheets made of a dark, smooth, incredibly fine cloth…  She recognized it; the same material made up the nightgown Hengist had given her.

“Silk,” Hengist explained softly.  “It comes from the land of the Manchin, far to the east.  Trade comes in across the Northern Ocean.  I’ve never been there, but I’ve heard tales.  Great cities of yellow sandstone, a great wall to the south that protects the Manchin from their unfriendly neighbors, whose name I forget…  Anyway.  I bought two sets of silk bedsheets for…  well, it was a long time ago now.”

“I’ve never felt anything like them,” Mabinne admitted.

Hengist shrugged.  “Gerd has set off for home.  Did you see the trap door in the floor of the panty?  It leads down into a small cavelet in the stone on which the house sits; there is ice in there, all year long.  I’ve brought up some bison meat to cut up for stew.”

“Do you have some yams?  Carrots?  Onions?” Mabinne asked.  Hengist’s implication, she thought, was obvious.

We have carrots and onions,” Hengist replied, stressing the first word just enough for Mabinne to notice.  “No yams, but there are some turnips and leeks from my sister’s garden.”

“I’ll get started,” Mabinne said softly.

They ate just after sunset.  The stew turned out better than Mabinne had hoped; the bison meat was fatty and rich, and the vegetables were of fine quality.  There was no bread, as she would have had in Beretan, and when she inquired about wheat or barley, Hengist just shook his head.  “What barley we grow hereabouts goes into making ale.  I’ll see if I can get you a sack or two when next we go to the trading post.  Yes, there is a small town and trading center about a half-day’s horseback ride from here, a day if we take the wagon.  I’ll take you there before the cold weather comes.”

When the time came for bed, Hengist went to one of the two large wooden wardrobes in the bedroom.  He opened the door briefly; Mabinne caught a glimpse of what were plainly a woman’s clothing within.  He extracted a warm-looking woolen nightgown and handed it to her.

“Whose…?”  She began.

Hengist just shook his head.  “Not now, sweet.”

Hengist made no demands on her that night.  She slept soundly.