1. Some Miles From Castle Inter Lucus
Ora Wooddaughter worked as hard as her brother; Father always said so. But in recent months, as Aethulwulf grew as only boys-becoming-men can grow, Attor Woodman had begun favoring Aethulwulf with heavier work. Today, for the first time, the thirteen-year-old man-child had taken his father’s place in the bottom of the sawpit. The more experienced father could thus guide the ripsaw as he and Aethulwulf cut a plank from a pine log. Aethulwulf strained to push the great saw from below, and he coughed often to clear his throat of wood dust. The three long braids of his black hair swung to a fro as he worked. As often as he could, he wiped sweat and dust from his face with the back of his forearm. Yet he made no complaint. To the contrary: Ora could read pride in Aethulwulf Woodson’s fierce long face. He was doing a man’s work. Soon men would name him Woodman as they named his father.
Ora would never be asked to work the bottom of the sawpit, because her size limited her strength. Though two years older than Aethulwulf, she was a foot shorter and much lighter than her brother—half-brother, to be accurate. Maybe that explained things, Ora thought. Eacnung was an uncommonly large woman, whereas her own mother, Darelle, had been slight. At least, that’s what everyone said. Ora had no memory of Darelle.
When Attor took his turn on bottom, Ora guided the saw from above. She wasn’t as practiced as her father, but she was better than Aethulwulf at hewing to the line drawn on the timber. Turn and turn-about, brother or sister would stand by the old brown horse, Bley, while the other sawed with Attor. The Woodman worked steadily through the day, proclaiming himself satisfied to escape the downside of the pit half the time. In the late afternoon, sunlight slanted over the western lake, signaling the end of the workday. Ora hitched Bley to Attor’s lumber wagon while father and son finished the last cut. All that remained was to stack the green lumber in the drying shed two miles away.
Attor wiped his brow, a bit theatrically. “How’s a swim, Da?” His eyes motioned to the shimmering water of the western lake.
“As you like.” Attor tugged Bley’s lead to urge the horse into motion. “Just don’t make me load alone.”
“We’ll make the shed ’fore old Bley does,” promised Aethulwulf.
“We? Who are you speaking for, little brother?” Ora meant it kindly.
Aethulwulf frowned. “Me, then. Been workin’ hard, I have. Ya don’t gotta swim if ya don’t want.”
Ora hesitated as Attor and Bley plodded one way and Aethulwulf walked the short cut path to the lake. Lake water on a hot day . . . she followed Aethulwulf.
Fishing boats from Down’s End often crossed the lake; sometimes they even tied up at the little dock built by Attor’s father a generation before, Woodman’s Dock. Ora paused on the little hill to survey the horizon before descending to the lake. The nearest boats were far away, in the shadows of the western shore. Ora wasn’t surprised; she knew the Down’s End fishermen liked to cast nets early in the day or in the cool of evening.
The bit of shoreline for a hundred yards north of Woodman’s Dock was a sandy beach with clear, shallow water. Ora and Aethulwulf had built summer sand forts and swam here for as long as she could remember. She picked her way along the winding path through elderberry brush and emerged on the beach. Aethulwulf’s woolen tunic and linen under tunic were both hanging on elderberry limbs; his leather boots sat next to a log where he had sat to take them off. When she looked at the water, Aethulwulf was nowhere to be seen, but then his head exploded out of the water ten yards away. He shook his head and pushed his hair out of his face with both hands, sweeping the long black braids behind his head. Seeing Ora, he smiled widely and stood up tall. The water reached to his belly. He splashed with a cupped hand, throwing water onto his chest.
“Gods! It’s great. Come on!”
Ora put her boots next to his and hung her work tunic over a branch, but she waded into the water still dressed in her under tunic. The days when brother and sister could properly swim naked were long past, she judged. Her linen underclothes were due to be washed on the morrow anyway.
When the water reached her waist, Ora collapsed into it and let buoyancy take hold. She ducked under the surface and came up with her head tilted back, letting water run off her face and hair. It was deliciously cool.
“I am the great kraken of the deep!” Aethulwulf waved his arms and dived into the water, coming up inches from Ora. She could feel the heat of his body.
“In the stories I’ve heard, the krakens all have eight or ten arms,” Ora said. “Did the sailors of castle Tutum Partum chop off most of yours? And since when did krakens swim in sweet water lakes?”
Aethulwulf threw his arms up and back, twisting to one side to splash into the water. His body was thin, but Ora could imagine how in the years to come it would fill out with muscles and—if he prospered—fat. For now, he was a man-child, all bones and sinews.
Ora swam a few strokes into deeper water. Reaching down with her toes, she couldn’t touch the bottom. Still the water was so clear that she could see sparkles in the sand six feet below. The lake had been the right decision.
Something touched her leg, Aethulwulf’s hand. He was playing kraken again, swimming underwater. She brushed the hand aside and he came up for air. He put his hand behind her neck and pulled her close. His mouth covered hers.
Ora pushed him away. Aethulwulf frowned for a moment, but then swam away, powerful strokes to the shore. He turned around and crouched in shallow water. Ora eyed him for several seconds; he just waited.
“Da will want you at the drying shed.”
“Aye. Ya gotta come with, so’s ya don’t walk alone.”
“I can walk alone perfectly well, thank you.”
Aethulwulf made no reply. Ora realized he might wait long. After all, what protest would Attor make if they came late? Aethulwulf could bear his father’s displeasure. And Eacnung never punished her eldest son, whatever he did.
Ora swam toward the beach, angling a bit south. It was easy for Aethulwulf to sidle sideways and stay between Ora and the shore. She swam until her hands touched the sandy lake bottom and stood up. She was momentarily aware of her under tunic pressing itself to her breasts and hips, but immediately Aethulwulf, completely naked, wrapped her in his arms. His erection felt hot even through her wet clothes.
“No! I’m your sister!” Ora wrenched away, turning to her left, and for a moment she broke free. After two steps he tackled her from behind. He was on top of her, his arm forcing her face into the sand and water. They lay that way, his weight and strength holding her in the shallows, for several seconds. Ora was going to die. Even worse, she would die helpless because of a boy’s lust.
Aethulwulf pulled Ora from the water and turned her over. She was coughing and retching, but it didn’t stop him.
Copyright © 2012 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.