3. Near Castle Inter Lucus
Eacnung completely rejected Ora’s account of the rape. She hurled anger at Attor.
“It’s your fault, even more than the little jade’s. You should have married her to some fisherman from Downs End. She’s fifteen years old, a grown woman. No wonder she wanted something between her legs.”
Attor asked Aethulwulf for his side of the story. So Ora had to listen while Aethulwulf lied. “She came up against me when we was swimmin’ and she kissed me and . . . I don’t know . . . we did it.”
Aethulwulf mocked Ora with his eyes at supper. Attor and Eacnung ignored both of them. Eacnung busied herself feeding porridge to her three-year-old son, Rand, while nursing baby daughter Rheda. And Attor seemed engrossed with the embers of the fire, blinking at it for a long time before going out to walk in the dark.
Later, when the summer night was fully dark and the small children were asleep, Ora had to listen to Attor’s heavy breathing as he expended himself into his wife. The Woodman’s one-room house had never afforded privacy, so Ora was no stranger to the sounds of sex. But tonight hearing Attor and Eacnung’s coupling reinforced her sense of helpless rage. Tears spilled silently down the sides of her face as she stared up into blackness. She waited, half expecting Aethulwulf’s hand to snake from his pallet to hers; she resolved to strike as hard as she could the moment he touched her. No doubt Eacnung would blame her, but it was not going to happen again. Not tonight, not ever.
Attor fell asleep, then Eacnung. The Woodman’s wife snored. Aethulwulf, too, seemed to sleep. Ora made herself breathe slowly, regularly, mimicking the sounds of sleep. Then, to test Aethulwulf, she held her breath for many heartbeats and waved her hand toward him. No response—though the dark was so thick she couldn’t see her hand any better than Aethulwulf.
Still Ora waited, worried that Aethulwulf might be feigning sleep. She formulated a short list of needful items and in her mind’s eye located each one: a knife, a flint, a cloak, a wool tunic, and a leather pouch that would hold all. In three steps she could collect them. Her boots were just inside the door, and a small fishing net hung on a sawed-off branch of a tree outside the house.
Aethulwulf turned on his bed, still seemingly asleep. Ora rose swiftly and as silently as possible. She snatched the knife, flint, cloak, and tunic and fumbled only a moment pushing them into the pouch. She lifted the bar of the door, thrust it open and grabbed her boots as she stepped out.
A voice from the house: “Ora!”
She bolted. Never again. Starlight was plenty after the dark of the house. Ora took the fishing net as she ran and stuffed it into one of the boots. Boots swung from one hand as she ran, leather pouch from the other. She wore only a light linen under tunic that reached to mid-thigh, hardly protection from branches or nettles. But she ran a trail well known to her, on tough leathery feet and sinewy legs. Neither Attor nor Aethulwulf could catch her in the dark, and if they waited for daylight to track her she would be miles away.
Of course, if she fled north, deeper into the forest, Attor would eventually catch her, if he made the effort. He was an accomplished tracker, and he knew all the woods between East and West Lake. If Ora turned south, she would come to farms and the villages of Inter Lucus and Senerham. Attor would expect her to flee there and come looking. But she would not stop at the local villages; she would follow the road around the south end of West Lake to Down’s End, a real city. A journey of four days, maybe five. Maybe some shop or innkeeper in Down’s End would employ her. Or she could hire on a fishing boat. Or . . .
Ora slowed to a walk and finally stopped altogether. What’s the obvious and most likely employment of a young woman with no husband, father, brother or uncle? Ora knew little of the world beyond the two lakes region, but what she knew promised nothing but trouble. She could fish with net or line, and she knew the use of a woodman’s tools. She could sew simple clothes, cook the meals of poor people, and clean. Not likely any of that will save me from whoring. And Eacnung will say, “I told you” to Attor.
Ora sat on the ground and wept. But she would not give in. Even as she cried, she pulled out the fishing net and put on her boots. Before fleeing to Down’s End, she would plead with the gods at castle Inter Lucus. Standing, she pulled the wool tunic over her linen under garment and folded the fishing net into her pouch. Now she need only carry the pouch. In the hour before dawn’s first light the forest felt chill, and the outer tunic would keep her warm.
Gray light came over the eastern sky. The forest path turned into the parallel ruts of a road. And where the road divided, Ora took the eastern fork, toward Inter Lucus. But she skirted the village, vaulting over stone fences and following cow paths. The sun was up by the time she came through the forest to the sacred hill. For a moment she wondered whether she ought to pray to the old god rather than to castle gods; the gods of Inter Lucus hadn’t protected the lords who used to live there. Many of the fisher folk of Down’s End worshiped the old god. Old god or castle gods? Ora felt no strong allegiance to either, but since she was here . . .
Castle Inter Lucus, from which the village had its name, was only a ruin. Haunted, everyone said. What would you expect, when the last lord died a hundred years ago? But in the morning sun Inter Lucus didn’t look horrible or frightening. Broken old apple trees lined the foot of the hill. Riots of flowering plants clambered over stone walls lining what might have once been a road. The gatehouse was fallen in; the gates themselves long since stolen for iron. The only “guards” were huge oak trees, growing here and there on the gently sloping hill.
Ora walked the lane to the castle itself. Moss covered the ancient walls; Ora couldn’t tell if they were made of wood or stone. All the roofs had collapsed. Inside the castle, green grass and a few small trees made the great hall look almost like a garden.
The gods answered prayers at castles; everyone knew that. Of course, most often they didn’t answer prayers, but who understands the gods? Sometimes they did. Everyone also knew that only a lord was welcome to speak to the gods, but there were stories . . . Attor called them stupid stories . . . The gods help needy folk. And who could be more desperately needy than me?
The stories she remembered said something about the god’s knob and the lord’s knob. Nothing in the north end of the greensward looked promising. There were a couple pits she wouldn’t want to fall into. Ora shook her head. The gods are gone and the lords of Inter Lucus are dead. But what will it hurt? I may as well pray anyway, now that I’m here.
The ground rose near the south wall; more decay had fallen here or the wind had blown dirt into the lee of the wall. Grass covered the slope right up to the wall, a strange wall, neither wood nor stone, she saw now. It almost looked like black glass, if there could be such a thing. To her left, a thick pillar stood, an incomprehensible statue, if statue it was. Atop the pillar something looked like the broken egg of some huge creature; all that was left were sharp shards of black eggshell.
At Ora’s feet, a stone—no, not a stone, but a perfectly round ball or egg—was half covered by dirt and grass. A smaller version of the broken one? She knelt on the cool, wet carpet to look closer. The egg might also have been made of black glass. Ora put her hand on the ball. It felt warm—why should that be?
“Gods of Inter Lucus, your servant has no right to beseech thee, yet she has no hope but thee. Look with favor on me and send a rightful lord to this fallen house. By your power give me protection.”
Brilliant light flooded over the wall, blinding Ora. For a moment, her heart soared, but then she thought: Oh. It’s just sunlight.
Copyright © 2012 by Philip D. Smith.
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