Wed Sep 27, 2017 4:53 am
One did not consider peaceful while it was happening. It was, in general, one of those ephemeral experiences that could only be recognized in hindsight when contrasted to ongoing turmoil, and she had a lingering superstition that to name the feeling risked dispelling it. But she was willing to concede a sense of brief perfection: things were going according to her predictions, no better but yet no worse. A sense of knowing precisely where the world lay and her own place in it. Contentment, if not happiness. It was good enough to remain here and let things be for a time. Mayhap she might have picked a less-oozy spot for it, though.
When the raven arrived, she was lying half-submerged on her back in a shallow rectangle of mud, limbs spread into an X, with her eyes shut—not asleep, only taking a short respite before tackling the endless back wall, or so she kept telling herself. The day had turned a little chilly to be lolling about in mud, but it was comfortable, and it wasn't as if she could get any filthier unless she took the initiative to bury herself in it. Working in a frenzy while the weather held, she’d been able to get the stable just about finished, even after losing two days to the damn tultharian jail, with nothing left but the roof, the gate, and a mud-clay chimney pipe in the back. The black horse’s hooves crunched the ground very near above her head as he passed, oddly quiet for the size of him, to stick his head through the empty gate and snuff the bare interior with all the indifferent ingratitude one would expect of a horse.
The loose hairs on her temple ruffled in the light wake of the raven's landing. Its shadow fell across her eyelids as it leaned forward to peer at her face. “Hey. You dead?”
“You would know.” She turned her head away from him and squeezed her fists tighter, mud squelching pleasantly through her fingers, as she dolefully regarded the prospect of hauling herself out of this muck and getting back to work. “Don’t tell me. I’ve slept for a hundred years and he’s already come and gone.”
“Not even close. He’s on the road. I don’t know how long you been asleep, though.”
The skyward-side eye opened. Even in trying to pass herself off as apathetic, a thin tickle of nervous excitement, like a black vine, uncoiled itself in her stomach. Which was just silly. He wasn’t even there yet. Probably days away. There was plenty of time. She propped herself on her elbows to look at the raven directly. “He’s alone?”
“Looks like it. Hope you plan on washin’ your hair before he shows.”
“Why should I do a thing like that? He already thinks me some kind of savage. Let him have the full experience.” Peeling herself out of the ditch, she managed to get her wobbly knees under her to push herself back to her feet before she began skinning her sopping tunic off her back.
The raven clucked in alarm. “He ain’t that close.”
Tangled in her own tunic with both arms trapped over her head, she chuckled. “He’s not that lucky, either.” She reached up to get her braid uncaught from the collar before shucking the garment over her brow and straight to the muck, then groped behind her back to unravel her binder, which she’d stupidly worn even though by now it was a mere sodden-grey collecting bag for gravel. The only clean article of clothing she still possessed were her boots, and those survived solely because they had been sitting side by side atop a tussock ten yards away. She'd been right after all: pause a moment to reflect, and it all caught up with you again. Such was life.
The raven watched, but was more or less indifferent to the display; she was, after all, hardly his type. “You want anything else outta me?”
“Mm. Let me know when he’s about a day away. Meanwhile, you watch him like a hawk.”
“Scream and dive at him?” he asked, baffled.
She heaved an exasperated sigh. “Watch him like a raven, then. A very quiet, unobtrusive raven. Don't let him know you're there. And keep an eye out for trouble.”
“Trouble?” the bird asked incredulously. “What the fuck am I supposed to do if there’s trouble—shit on its head? Hey!” He hopped after her as she ambled down the slope to the waterside. “Don’t just walk off! What do you mean by trouble?”
“Anything. Anything that strikes you as off or strange. Anyone joins up with him, accosts him, tries to snatch him off the road. I mean it.” She turned and leveled a stern finger at him. The right half of her face was a mask of mud. “If that man farts in his sleep, I want to know about it.”
“Not my job,” the raven mumbled.
“Maybe I should start paying you in rum cakes,” she teased.
The raven ruffled, indignant. “Since when do I get paid?”
She ignored him, but he followed her down to the lake, where, kneeling, she scooped up a double handful of water and scrubbed at her arms, then splashed more on her face. The water was still warm, nearly brackish, with enough of a bite to warn her that it would not be so for much longer. The raven snapped at a cloud of darting crane flies. “You sure you want to be in the same room with this wanker?”
The bird’s insinuating tone made her pause. Her hands lowered from her face as she side-eyed him suspiciously. “I am, unless there’s something someone isn’t telling me.”
“Oh, I’m sure there’s plenty of stuff he ain’t tellin’ neither of us, but I wasn’t talkin’ about him. You took a good look at the moon lately?”
She hadn’t, but instinctively she glanced upward and over her shoulder. The morning was cool and cloudless, the sky a perfect beryl blue in which the waxing crescent, a ghostly chalk drawing half-erased, hung low on the horizon. Her lips parted as her thumb tapped silently against her fingertips, counting backwards to the last full moon, then forward to the next. Then recounted, just to be certain.
“Oh, shit,” she all but spat.