Red Gold Bridge was no longer at war, but the stronghold still felt like a barracks. The courtyard was full of men and horses and oxen. You had to be careful where you walked, and the stench of unwashed people and manure overwhelmed Joe. He was used to the forest, not this. The stronghold was a major port on the river, and it attracted everybody who wanted to do business throughout Aeritan. There were merchants from other holdings, many of them women with their hair neatly tucked under kerchiefs, and farmers, waggoners, coopers, wheelwrights, armsmen. Everyone fell back to let the guardians walk through, but this time it was different. The forestholders respected and liked the guardians. The strongholders mixed their deference with suspicion. Guardians were neither lords nor smallholders, and their relationship to the woods made everyone uneasy. The stronghold had been built as a way to hold off the gordath, after all, and its denizens never got over their wariness.
The kitchens were full of bustle, too, the business of feeding the stronghold never ending. Joe and Arrim threaded their way to a table, grabbing fresh flat bread, puffed and golden from the skillet, and bowls of the rich, spicy poultry stew that the Red Gold Bridge kitchens were famous for. The stew was like vesh, in that the combination of herbs and spices were exotic yet familiar, comforting in their fullness. He piled soft smoked cheese on top of the stew along with some sweet onions that reminded Joe of the 1015 onions the Aggies grew back home, and odds and ends to round out the meal. Corinna looked up from the dough she kneaded and smiled in greeting.
“Good day to you, Master Guardian,” she said. Arrim, not subtle, elbowed Joe. Joe ignored him.
“Hi, Corinna,” he said. He nodded at the bread. “Looks good.” She beamed. She reminded him of the folks back home; her hair and eyes had a Hispanic look to them. She could be one of his cousins. And just like he felt nothing for his cousins, he felt nothing for her. Not her fault; she just wasn’t Lynn.
Joe and Arrim stood at the hearth, scooping up stew with their flat bread as spoons. They weren’t the only scavengers in the kitchens. There were a few kids and a handful of Captain Tal’s guard, sitting by themselves at the old scarred wooden table over by the wall. They gave Joe and Arrim hard looks and turned back to their beer and soup. That was another thing. He reckoned he could do with friends about as much as anybody. It was hard to be either looked up to or distrusted.
He ate, thinking it would be good to get out of the stronghold and back to the woods, even though they had just arrived. That’s where, after all those years of being on the move, he felt he belonged the most. He could feel the restlessness of the gordath even now, like an extra heart beating alongside his. As soon as he concentrated, the thrumming ceased. Sometimes he wasn’t sure what the gordath wanted from him.
He glanced around and saw Corinna looking at him. She smiled and ducked her head a bit shyly.
“Should we prepare a handfasting?” Arrim said, half teasing, half in earnest. “She’s a pretty one, a good cook, give you good babies.”
Once he had thought about that with Lynn. She was the first woman he ever imagined he could settle down with. The gordath had other ideas though.
“I guess I should get my footing first, before I think about marrying,” Joe said evasively. Arrim snorted.
“Marrying, now? You’re a guardian, not one of the lords.” At Joe’s blank look, he said, “Marriage is for the Council, not us. We handfast—promise, before the grass god.”
“Yeah, I don’t know that I get the difference, Arrim, but no, I’m not planning that far ahead.”
One of Tal’s guards got up, and with an ostentatious look at the two guardians, he went over to Corinna, giving her a winning smile. She smiled back, blushed, and they had a conversation over the bread, with him swiping a loaf from the oven, tossing it to take the heat out of it, and her giving him a mock scolding.
“She’s trying to make you jealous, that one,” Arrim said, and Joe rolled his eyes. He had enough.
“Jesus, Arrim, give it a rest. You like her, you talk to her.”
Joe pushed past the guards more roughly than he had to and left the kitchen behind. Almost immediately the temperature plunged. Joe made his way through the stone fortress, automatically heading back to the outer walls. He was restless, the thought of the mountain overhead oppressing him. He paused on the top of the stairs that led up to the walkway on the wall. The air had turned thick with twilight, the barest of sunsets filtering through the shadows. He could hear the rush of the river like a distant wind. He turned south to go down the other set of stairs, his boots tapping softly on the ancient stone. He was the only person on the walls.
The walkway led around the rose tower, which jutted out from the mountain, its own winding stairs carved out of stone and patched with mortar. Climbing rosebushes trailed up along the wall. In the spring they were thick with small white wild roses. Lynn had been imprisoned in that tower.
Joe stopped along the gallery, leaning on the wall. It was his favorite place in the stronghold. Here a series of columns faced out toward the river, light and air entering in through the arched openings. The setting sun made the river sparkle until his eyes hurt. Across the river the Aeritan headlands rose above the banks and faded into the distance. He could see the barest line of a road, white against the dark hills, dipping and curving along the line of the terrain.
It was hard, missing Lynn. They had only had a few short months to get to know each other. Sometimes he dreamed about her apartment over the barn at Hunter’s Chase, its white curtains wafting in the breeze from the open windows while they made love in the evening after the day’s work was through. He told himself not to think about it, but it was no good. She was an ache that was ever-present. Only the gordath had more of a hold on him, and he knew that the gordath would use his yearning for Lynn as a wedge to pry itself open.
Can’t see her, can’t hold her, he thought. But he could still go visit an old friend.
Red Gold Bridge’s stables were in twilight except for a couple of glowing lanterns secured firmly by the main barn doors and the last remnants of the sun coming in through the high windows. A few grooms played a complicated game of cards and dice near the entrance, where the sun still lit up their table. They looked up.
“Guardian,” one said in greeting. They were used to him.
“Evening,” Joe said. He jerked his head at the big box stall on the side with the best light and the best air flow. “Just going to have a talk with Pride.”
“One of these days you’ll have to sit in with us,” another groom said, as he always did.
To be fleeced within an inch of his life, for sure. Joe knew he would be lucky to come out of a game with his boots, his belt, and his shirt.
“On payday,” Joe promised, as he always replied. They laughed and let him be.
Pride. They didn’t call him Dungiven here. The town the big Irish hunter had been named for didn’t exist in this world, so the stallion had been rechristened Pride. Dungiven had heard his voice, and the big horse turned around in his stall to greet him, his liquid eyes catching a bit of light. He snorted out, whuffing gently against Joe, his oaty breath warm and thick. The horse’s muzzle was dark, the black turning to gray and then almost white. His nostrils flared, and his ears pricked. Joe rubbed his big cheek, and the horse snorted again.
Mindful of the grooms’ presence, he didn’t say aloud what he was thinking. I miss her, too. He didn’t know horses the way Lynn did, but he sometimes thought that Dungiven looked over his shoulder first before looking at him, as if expecting Lynn to be right there beside him.
Dungiven snorted again, and his ears cocked forward, just as the grooms exploded out of their seats. Joe turned as Mrs. Hunt came in.
She acknowledged the grooms and their startled cries of “My lady!” with a graceful nod, but she came straight over to Joe and Dungiven.
Joe tried to keep his expression neutral. If she were here, Lord Tharp wouldn’t be far behind, and he didn’t want to have to deal with the man and his jealousy. Hearing them fight or watching as they punished each other with icy silences was bad enough. She never should of come back. He wondered why she did. She could have just pointed him and Arrim in the right direction, after all. Likely it had been out of guilt for opening up the gordath all those years ago and causing a war over her disappearance. He and Arrim had talked about it and decided that they better keep her away from the woods in case she had a change of heart and started things up all over again.
She stopped a few feet away from him. He didn’t know if she had come here to talk or just to take in the horse, like him, so he waited for her to make the first move.
“Joe,” she said in her even voice.
“Ma’am,” he said courteously.
She didn’t say anything for a while. He studied her, her face lost in the dim light. She came up on Dungiven’s off side and laid her hand against the stallion’s neck. The horse’s skin quivered, but he stayed still, one ear tilted back—not flattened, as when a horse is angry, but attentive.
“You come here often,” she said. It was a statement, but it was so close to a come-on he almost laughed. She couldn’t have known that. Or maybe, since she had lived seven years in New York, she knew exactly what it meant.
“Yes ma’am,” he said. “I just like to keep an eye on him.” Dungiven was one of them, after all. He didn’t say that to Mrs. Hunt though. He didn’t think she would like being lumped together with the barn handyman and a horse.
She gave a small laugh, and he could sense the grooms’ shock. “He reminds me of home as well.”
Busted, he thought. She knew exactly why he came to the stables, and it wasn’t just to check on the big horse. But her words bespoke a dangerous homesickness. Aware of the grooms’ interest, Joe tried to be tactful. He kept his voice low.
“Ma’am, best you don’t think of New York as home.”
She looked at him over the horse’s mane. “Perhaps,” she said, and he knew that would be the most he would get. She gave the horse a final pat and turned to face Joe head-on, her expression lost in the darkness of night.
“I should go. Eyvig will wonder where I am, and I know you are not comfortable with me here.”
He was about to protest, even though she had the right of it, when she forestalled him.
“Sometimes, I just need someone to call me Mrs. Hunt. Or ma’am.”
He heard the smile in her voice, overlaid with the faintest of tears, so he gave her what she needed.
“Good night, Mrs. Hunt.”
“Good night, Joe.”
He watched her go, the grooms so shocked at the familiarity of their conversation that their card game was forgotten. Joe sighed. Their meeting would be all over the stronghold in no time; the only thing that ran faster than the river in Red Gold Bridge was gossip. God only knew how Lord Tharp would take it. Well, he and Arrim would be out in the woods soon enough, and Tharp would just have to stew.