It is a warm and sunny day. The new apple trees are to our backs. They have pink and white blossoms. When I was small I wanted to pick the blossoms but that’s not allowed because blossoms turn into apples eventually.
Seog is with me. From waking to sleeping, she is there. She sleeps in my room, but she is not my maid. She is my bodyguard. Her real name is Fuinnseog Ni Tire. She is an Ardlander, born and bred, and their names are always long and strange. The Ardlands are far, far away outside the Empire. It is a place of high mountain slopes and bogs that could swallow a horse, a clean, high emptiness. I know this because Seog has told me so.
I have made a daisy chain. It is hard to split the stems neatly but Seog helps. Her fingers are long and nimble and her knife is sharp. But I am bored with that now.
“Seog, are you really an unnatural Ardlander witch-whore?”
She looks up, one eyebrow raised. I knew that those were bad words. Marl in the kitchen was pleased and happy as he whispered them.
“Has Marl been talking again? Why would you listen to anything he says, little one? He’s half-way to being a fool already.”
Everyone says that Ardlanders are proud and quick to anger, but instead Seog laughs. I am relieved and laugh too. Seog is like a cat, she walks where she pleases with no regard for what others think or say.
“Tell me a story,” I ask her to distract her.
“Have you not heard them all a dozen times already?”
I have but every time they are different. Seog will tell me one. She always does. I wait.
“So which story do you want?”
Seog changes to her storytelling voice.
“Long, long ago and far, far away, up in the high peaks of the Ardlands there was a little girl. She lived in a big, round house with red doors and windows with all her aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters. She had a black pony that came when she whistled and a grey wolfhound that followed her everywhere. One day her mother came to her. Her mother said,
“Daughter, the Binder wishes you to be her apprentice.”
The little girl was silent and listened to her mother. But she did not want to be the Binder’s apprentice. The Binder dressed in black and lived in dark rooms filled with scrolls and runes, herbs and potions. So the little girl said,
“Mother, I do not want to be the Binder’s apprentice!”
Her mother was angry and went away.
The next day her youngest aunt came to her and said,
“Niece, the Binder wishes you to be her apprentice.”
The little girl was silent and listened to her aunt. But she did not want to be the Binder’s apprentice. The Binder spent her days at people’s beck and call, forever hurrying along like a wagtail in a yard. So the little girl said,
“Aunt, I do not want to be the Binder’s apprentice!”
Her aunt was angry and went away.
The next day, the Binder herself came to the little girl. She was tall and dressed in black and her power muted and hidden, still radiated from her like the heat from a stove. Then, the little girl was afraid. The Binder said,
“Child, I see power in you and I wish you to be my apprentice.”
The little girl did not answer.
“A Binder is a person of power. She is respected. It is an honour for your lineage.”
Then the little girl spoke politely, respectfully.
“O Binder, I do not wish to be your apprentice.”
“Why not, child?”
“I do not want power that will tie me like a hobbled pony. Snared with a thousand strings of need and obligation.”
“Child, with power, comes duty. It can be no other way.”
“Then, I do not want power, O Binder.”
The Binder frowned.
“Power cannot be put aside like a pair of old shoes.”
Then the Binder looked at little girl and the little girl trembled in the web of the Binder’s power.
“So be it, child, I see that your duty lies down a different path. But need and obligation will find you there, no matter how far it may be.”
Then the Binder rose up and went away. She never asked the little girl to be her apprentice again. The little girl was pleased. As time passed she forgot what the Binder had said. When she grew up she took her black pony and her grey wolfhound and travelled across the face of the world having adventures.”
I have heard this story from Seog before. The first time I heard it, I asked question on question, like “What is a Binder?”, “What is a wolfhound?”, “Where was the little girl’s father?”, “Is it a true story?” But this time I just listen as the story unfurls in my head.
Lord Fuill and his retinue arrived today. He is my lady mother’s nephew by marriage. I heard the hooves of their horses clattering on the cobblestones by the main entrance. I look out the window at them. Below my lady mother greets them. She is wearing her good blue silk so I know that they were expected. Around me I can feel the webs of power shift and tremble. Seog stands behind me.
“So that is Lord Fuill.”
It has been four years since he visited, before she arrived here.
“He is big for a terrier.”
Sometimes Seog speaks in riddles to see if I will guess her hidden meaning, but this riddle is too easy for me.
A badger is a peaceable creature until her home or her pups are attacked. I have seen a badger defending her tunnel against dogs, claws out, blood on her striped muzzle, gripping a terrier by the neck at the mouth of her sett, refusing to yield or withdraw. My lady mother is like a baited badger. If I was a badger I would creep away in the dark and dig a new tunnel where the dogs could never find it.
“My lady mother will not submit and give up her power, Seog, nor mine either.”
“Why should she? From mother to daughter, blood and bone to blood and bone.”
“Is that the way it is in the Ardlands?”
“Aye, the natural way.”
That may be the way it is in Seog’s mountains peaks, but it is not the way it is here, and here is where I am. My lord father is long dead and I am his only issue. If I ceased to exist, then Lord Fuill would inherit and my lady mother could be pushed aside.
Lord Fuill looks up. I duck back from the window for fear that he will see me. I can feel a hard knot in my stomach. It is Seog’s job to guard and protect me, but I am afraid, nonetheless.
My lady mother will be busy for as long as Lord Fuill is here. She will soothe and placate, evade and lie, praise and admire, all layered with assertions, falsehoods, secrets and half-truths. She will never yield her sett to this terrier.
During the night I am woken by men’s shouting and clattering, hooting and jeering. They will be puffy-faced and red-eyed tomorrow, slow to leave their beds.
In the morning, me and Seog go to the kitchen to get our breakfasts. It is very quiet. I watch from the door. The scullions are speaking in whispers and the chief cook is standing with her head bent, ladling soup. Lettie is chopping turnips. Her knife is long and sharp and her face is red and angry.
Then I see Lettie’s younger sister, Maury. She is crying quietly in the corner by the fire. Her face is all scrunched up and smeared with tears and snot. Something bad has happened to Maury.
Seog steps in front of me and looks around the kitchen. She sees Maury and her eyes meet Lettie’s. Lettie looks down and hacks at the turnip before her. I can feel Seog’s anger rising.
Seog walks over to Maury and crouches beside her. She puts her hand on Maury’s shoulder and her mouth close to her ear. They talk for a while and I am left standing in the middle of the floor by myself.
I have heard that voice from Seog before. Last year when I fell from my pony and broke my collarbone she spoke like that till the healer arrived. While she spoke my pain receded into the distance. Maury’s crying is quieter now. Seog unfolds herself to her full height and says, “Lowlander scum!”
I do not know what she means. We are all Lowlanders here, except for Seog. Seog strides out and I follow her at a half-run as she makes her way to the great hall.
My lady mother is standing in the middle of the hall. Her mouth is turned down in disgust and she holds the hem of her long skirts up to avoid the puddles of spilled beer and pee.
They move to the dais and I want to go there too, but my lady mother raises a hand to indicate I should stay where I am. I cannot hear what they are saying so I edge closer behind the long table. I creep along the seat down low where they cannot see me.
Seog is speaking in a low voice, calm and even. My lady mother slams her palm down on the table.
“They cannot strike at me, so instead they torment my people! Enough! Lord Fuill thinks that I must swallow this insult to me and my people.”
My lady mother’s hands are clenched in tight fists on the table.
“But I cannot challenge him or his man directly. My position and that of Lady Deoch is too precarious for that.”
“But I cannot let it pass, my Lady.”
“I did not know that you were so careful of my house’s honour, Seog.”
Seog’s eyebrows rise as if dragged on a string. She has never learned to disguise her emotions.
“I have no choice, my Lady. The Great Mother would surely turn her face away from me if I allowed such an obscenity to go unpunished.”
My lady mother presses a finger to her lips as she thinks.
“I can have no hand in this, but a personal quarrel between you and Lord Fuill’s man cannot be denied.”
“Ardlanders are hasty and proud, quick to take offence, my Lady. Everyone knows this.”
“See that it is so then.”
Seog bows and leaves. I follow her. When I look back my lady mother is still seated in the wreck of the great hall. She is staring into the distance, the hem of her dress trailing on the flagstones.
We go back to the kitchen. Maury is nowhere to be seen. I’m hungry now, so I sit down and start to spoon up the porridge set before me.
Across the table the kitchen workers crowd around Seog, the scullions and the spit turner, the pastry chef, the potier, the chief cook and her assistants. They speak urgently, rapidly, tugging at Seog’s sleeves.
Lettie is pushed forward but she does not speak. She looks away, her face twisted with anger. I do not know what the kitchen people want from Seog, but I can feel the strength of their desire. Seog listens and listens and finally nods once. The tight knot of people breaks apart.
I watch closely. Dish after dish is laid before Seog, the finest of food. A bowl of duck broth for strength and eggs beaten with yellow wine for endurance, quince jam in a red dish for fortitude and the first new loaf of the day for good luck. Seog nods gravely as each dish is placed before her.
She says nothing and starts to eat. I frown. This is another riddle but I cannot work out the answer. I will think on it a while. My porridge is getting cold, so I eat it up.
I am trussed up like a chicken ready for roasting. Mistress Leall stands back with her hands on her hips to admire her handiwork. She smiles and says,
“Now, you look very fine.”
I roll my eyes and she pretends not to see me. Seog smirks in the corner.
“Yes, very fine indeed, Mistress Leall,” she says.
Seog’s clothes are the same as always, except that her leathers from top to toe are shiny and supple with grease. Her hair is tightly bound up at the nape of her neck.
But I am like a doll, all done up in satin and silk. My dress is stiff and uncomfortable and I can hardly breathe. Even my scalp hurts from how my hair is scraped back into a net.
Lord Fuill and his people are leaving tomorrow so tonight there will be a farewell feast. My lady mother has said that I must attend and take my place at her right hand as befits her heir. I am the doll that must be displayed.
I sit high up on the dais. Seog sits further down. The great hall is crowded. I see Lettie standing in a far corner in the shadows. Surely it is too busy in the kitchen for her to be here. She is quiet and still and does not take her eyes off Seog.
This early in the evening it is all decorum. I rise and curtsey and greet Lord Fuill and his entourage. This dressed up doll is all that stands between him and his desire. I remember all their names and do not stumble over their titles. My tutor, Master Eaglis will be pleased.
My lady mother’s face is set in a false, polite smile. Nothing will cause it to falter or shift. The noise grows louder, drinking and toasting, shouting and spilling.
There is nothing to do but listen and look around me. The conversations are boring and I am not included. They talk of dead people and people I have never met and people who are far, far away. The names and information are all muddled in my head. I notice I have spilled soup on my dress. I try to wipe it off but it smears and gets worse. Mistress Leall will be annoyed.
I look up. Seog walks past. She does not look at me. She walks towards Lord Fuill’s men, her long stride loose and heedless as a cat’s. Her eyes are bright and feral. She seems to quiver and twitch with suppressed excitement. Her teeth flash in the torchlight. I have never before seen her so joyful.
My mother nods to Mistress Leall and I am suddenly led away to bed.
I wake up. It’s late. There’s no sign of Seog. I grow fearful and dress quickly. Down in the kitchens the fires are roaring. The kitchen people are talking and laughing as they work. The conversation ebbs and flows above my head between the clatter and slap of their work.
They do not notice me slip in. I stay hidden in the corner by the bread oven, like a leveret in long grass. The bread oven is warm against my back.
“Gutted like a fish, I heard. Holding his guts in with his hand,” said the spit boy, laughing aloud.
“Just so, just so,” said the cook’s assistant as she thumped and kneaded dough.
“Bleeding like a stuck pig and calling out for mercy!”
“Lucky he wasn’t gelded!”
“Might be better if he had.”
“No more than he deserved!” Lettie cries out. “He’s been paid in full for what he did to our Maury!”
“The lady was merciful to intervene.”
“What else could she do? See Lord Fuill’s man slaughtered like a pig in front of her?”
“As much as she might want to.”
There was more jeering and laughter then, the spit boy bending double with it. I lean back against the bread oven, thinking. Then, Seog is at the door and all the talk falls silent. She spots me straight away and I rise up and follow her. As we leave I can hear the conversation and laughter in the kitchen welling up again.
We sit in the herb garden with our backs to the rosemary hedge. Honeybees are busy on the spikes of lavender. I watch them for a while.
“Do you remember the story of the little girl with the grey wolfhound and the black pony, child?”
I nod. I remember the little girl and how I wished I could be her. But I was only a child then. I turn to Seog and smile.
“We are all bound, Seog, you, me, my mother. Power cannot be put aside. I understand that now.”
Seog smiles and we stay sitting there in the morning sunshine and watch the bees as they labour away.