An Excerpt From Chapter Eight of Huntsman

From Chapter 8

 

The manse fairly sparkled in the torchlight. Aila puffed a stray lock of wheat-brown hair from her face and lowered herself to the bench by the hearth.

For but a moment, she told herself. It had been a busy day and for just a breath or two, she allowed herself the luxury of sitting. There was time before the guests began to arrive and if she did not admire the work of her labors now, she knew she would not.

Armed with her mother’s exacting lists, and her small army of servants behind her, Aila had waged the week-long battle against the busyness of the harvest time and the year’s hold on the keep. All chores suffered until the harvest was in.

Rushes, newly pulled from the bales stored away, gave an herbal scent to the hall before her. The hearthstones, newly scrubbed, looked bright, cleansed of the accumulated soot of the summer’s fires.

She had seen to the whole house, not just the hall, while her mother had tended the servants lifting the pole into place in the garden, and ordered the grounds cleared of the autumn’s debris.

The maids aired and refreshed their few guest rooms as well. Most beds would lay empty tonight. The food would be laid out when the steam was thick in the saunas and their guests would arrive soon after their own baths.

Their home was as ready for their Kekri Night guests, within and without, as she could make it.

Aila had gained a new perspective on her mother’s many tasks.

She rose from her bench as an elderly servant entered through a door just behind Aila. She could hear the wheezing breath, a chest cold the older woman had been unable to rid herself of, and could smell the poultice she wore to fight the ragged cough.

“I am ready, Helmi. Please have Riikka lay out my clothes.”

“I beg your pardon, my lady but he would not wait…” Helmi’s voice held ill-concealed annoyance.

“You look even lovelier than I remember, Aila.”

She felt a flash of warmth as she heard his voice, the rush strewn hall around her seemed to grow dimmer.

Aila turned slowly to meet his gaze. Haste to do so would be unseemly.

No! Helmi, why did you bring him now? Aila could see herself in her mind, dirty, tired and unkempt. She thought to excuse herself, to flee the hall as quickly as she was able then refused the idea. She felt a surge of indignation.

If you are so bold as to arrive this early and insist upon entering my hall, then you shall view me disheveled, sir!

Eyulf stood before her, bowed slightly at the waist as was fitting for such an occasion.

He was leaner than she remembered as well, not unwell, to her eyes, simply thinner than last winter. His clothes were over-large for him and had the look of being recently unpacked from a chest; creases and lines across his frame.

Deep shadows surrounded his eyes and he met her look with rather more wariness than before. She had the image of a deer in her mind, poised to bolt though as she took in the guarded look of his features. Her thoughts toward him softened at that.

She smiled as warmly as she dared. He rose from his bow and took the fingers she proffered in his hand. He raised them for a moment and brushed them with his lips. He also squeezed her hand slightly as he did, highly improper but unnoticed by Helmi’s rheumy eyes. She tried to keep her smile from widening while the old woman watched them. He had thought of her. She could sense it in his touch.

He released her hand slowly, more slowly than he ought. He held himself with more confidence than he had before his journey to the Mages.

“Eyulf, you flatter me. I am exactly as I was before you went away, though slightly more soot-smeared. I wish you had waited until I was more presentable.” She lowered her hand to clasp both at her waist, as proper as her mother could wish.

He drew back a step and smiled at her, although it still held a wary look that she disliked. His gaze darted about the room between glances at her.

“I could not, Aila. I have been away far too long and I refuse to wait. The soot is lovely.”

She narrowed her eyes at him.

“I wonder, Eyulf, how you have gained such a honeyed tongue. You were not so well-spoken the last time we met.”

His smile faltered for an instant, then crept back across his features. She saw her Eyulf once more in that smile.

“I learn much, Aila, not just magic,” he said. He raised an eyebrow at her and grinned.

Aila could sense Helmi’s indignation growing behind her with each moment and she turned halfway to face the older woman.

“I will come presently, Helmi. Please, see to my clothing.”

Helmi’s eyes widened. Aila’s raised hand silenced her protests. She waddled from the hall as quickly as she was able but Aila had no doubt that the old woman would head straight to her mother and report Eyulf’s early arrival.

He looked over his shoulder for just a moment to see Helmi depart and held out his hand to her once more.

She took it and entwined her fingers through his. She raised his hand to her face and pressed her cheek against it.

“I have missed you so, Eyulf!” She felt the finger of his free hand brush the stray hairs back from her face. Her mother would be appalled should she hear of it, and would see for herself soon enough if Helmi had her way.

“And I you, Aila. You have no idea how much.” His eyes shifted, taking in the room again and then his head twisted to the door. He gently drew his hand back from her grasp, and she sighed.

He is right to show caution. He has indeed grown from the brash boy I knew last summer,  she thought.

A devious thought passed through her mind. How had his lessons changed him?

“I thought you had little time to spend on aught but your studies, Eyulf, dear. Now I find you skilled in secret meetings. What am I to think, my love, but that you have another woman of the court in keeping somewhere?”

His laughter rang across the hall. It changed her mock pout to a smile as he threw back his head at her jest.

He has not grown so refined after all, she thought.

Shadows on the wall outside the hall warned her. She stepped back from him and composed her face a moment before her mother strode through the arch, followed closely by a scowling Helmi.

Her mother wore her blandest face, one that Aila knew well, and dreaded. Stray strands of her gray streaked brown hair that had come loose from the long braids she habitually wore and the gray woolen dress she wore spoke of her labors in the gardens.

“Eyulf, what a surprise!” The look on her mother’s face showed no surprise at all that Aila could see. She hoped that Eyulf knew enough of her ways by now to realize it. Always, her games came first.

Her fears proved unfounded as Eyulf turned and bowed.

“Lady Sirpa! It is always a pleasure to see you.” Eyulf fairly gushed at the older woman. His bow and clasping of her hand were perfectly timed. Aila hid a smirk behind her hand at her mother’s surprise.

She, too, remembers the Eyulf of ten winters ago. This evening’s entertainment has just grown far more lively,  Aila thought. Eyulf rose from his bow.

“I apologize for my intrusion this early, Lady Sirpa. My mother sent a cart ahead with provisions she wished to share with your household over the Kekri night.” Eyulf gestured at the hall. “My remembrance of your hospitality last summer hastened my steps, Lady.”

Sirpa’s eyebrows arched at his words and skipped to Aila for a moment before she could catch herself.

“I regret not having the welcome cup ready for you, Eyulf. We are just finished with our tasks for the Kekri night celebrations.” Sirpa reached out to take hold of Eyulf’s arm and began to walk, steering him deftly out of the hall and into the passage beyond as she spoke.

I want more time with him!

He spent most of each year in the north with Mage Arnett but he had come home from time to time. Aila had spoken with him a mere handful of times in ten years.

And only twice in the two years we have been betrothed, she thought with a grimace.

“How have your studies fared through the winter? I hear shocking things about the Mages and must know if they are true.”

Eyulf seemed to falter at the question and for the first time since she had heard his voice, he seemed to lose his composure.

Helmi stepped to Aila’s side as her mother drew Eyulf away, and tugged at her sleeve. She slipped her arm free from the maid’s stiff fingered grip on the cloth. She wished to hear his response.

Eyulf had stopped in the center of the passage and looked everywhere but at her mother as he answered.

“I… my studies go well, uh, Lady. I am… pressed… to excel. I know not what you have heard, Lady Sirpa,” he stammered.

The maid grabbed her arm once more. The subtle movements of her mistress were lost on Helmi as she hauled Aila in the opposite direction.

“Come, mistress! Come away and let me make you presentable! Your young man does not want to see you this way,” Helmi grumbled, as they made their way to Aila’s room. “He did not come all this way to court a drudge. You have cobwebs in your hair, mistress!”

Oh! The scandal, Helmi. What will people think if they knew…?  Aila wailed to herself.

She turned before they turned the corner and could make out the shadowed forms of her mother and Eyulf as they walked. It looked as if Eyulf turned to watch her departing as well.

You are wrong, Helmi, she thought. My Eyulf loves me more than that.

She passed the hobbling Helmi and sped along the hall, her weariness of moments ago forgotten now. She burst into her room to find Riikka twirling in front of the dressing table with Aila’s gown held up against her body, head cocked in an effort to view herself in the small mirror in its stand that rested atop the table.

The maid paled at Aila’s sudden entrance and began to sputter apologies. Aila cut off her words with a rushed embrace and half twirl with the dress pressed between them.

“Eyulf arrived early and came to me in the hall,” she whispered to the girl. She could share this with Riikka. Aila was only three years older and found the younger woman easier, by far, to confide in than Helmi. She wanted to share the moment with Riikka before Helmi entered the room and scolded them for their silliness.

“Mistress! What did he say? Is he much changed from last summer?” Riikka’s muffled squeak from within the gown’s folds sounded as excited as Aila felt.

Even Helmi’s entrance and reprimands did not dampen their excitement as Aila dressed for the evening.

//

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