“Mama! Someone's at the door!” five-year-old Tammas called excitedly.
“I heard. You keep at it, lamb.”
Tammas nodded solemnly, and moved a stool out of the way so he could sweep the wooden floor beneath it. Matilda, regarding her youngest with a fond smile, wiped her potato-starchy hands on her apron.
Rap-rap-rap. Louder, this time.
“I'm coming!” Although, she reflected, she'd be impatient to get indoors with rain coming, too. She moved around the table, limping somewhat worse than usual thanks to the heavy spring dampness, and crossed the room to the door to open it. “Yes?”
Two strangers stood there: a tall woman, and a man behind her who was half a head shorter, the latter holding the reins of a pair of large ponies or small horses. Matilda took note of the gloominess of the sky, and hoped her husband and older children finished their chores in the barn quickly.
“I apologize for disturbing you, mistress,” the woman said softly. Her voice was low, and her faint accent odd, but the combination sounded pleasant to the ear. “Might we beg shelter for the night? I would not ask, save...” She gestured towards the low dark clouds.
There was something strange here other than the woman's speech; Matilda hesitated a moment, wary of possible danger. Yet they didn't seem threatening, and for no other reason would she refuse hospitality.
“Certainly you can stay, though we can't promise much comfort, milady.”
The woman smiled. “No lady, only Vixen. This is Dayr. Thank you. We can at least offer something in return, if you'd share the rabbits we intended for our dinner tonight.”
“Done,” Matilda said briskly. If this obvious lady, with her genteel inflections under the accent, wanted to pretend she'd never seen the inside of a lord's house, that was no business of Matilda's. “Come in, then.” She turned her gaze to the man. “The barn's 'round the back, my husband will show you where you can put up your beasts.”
The man Dayr nodded silently. Efficiently, he unstrapped the packs from behind both saddles and left them there, a brace of rabbits atop them, before leading the ponies away. No, those weren't ponies or horses at all. The longer ears and shorter face, the sturdy legs and the tail that had only a tuft of long hair at the end... those could only be donkeys, though she'd never seen one before, only now and then one of the mules that turned up sometimes from the area along the edge of the highlands.
The woman Vixen—unusual name—smiled again, and gathered up the packs with little difficulty. Matilda picked up the rabbits, and ushered her guest inside, indicating an out-of-the-way corner for the packs.
Tammas stopped sweeping again, staring in wonder at Vixen. Natural enough, Matilda supposed. He seldom saw strangers, and this one was quite striking. When she shed her dark russet cloak she revealed an oak-green wool divided skirt, pale linen blouse, and black-dyed leather bodice, all of simple enough style, and could perhap pass for a wealthy villager's festival best. Still, Matilda remained convinced that she was a lady: Vixen carried herself with an unconscious grace and... and pride, Matilda decided, grace and pride unlike any commoner woman learned. She stood as tall as many men, her skin healthy golden, her long neatly-braided hair deep brown. She couldn't be called pretty—her aristocratic face had too much strength, her shoulders were a trifle too wide, her hips a trifle too narrow—but there was a kind of beauty. Not, however, of the more curvy and comfortable kind that her husband and elder sons found appealing, which was rather a relief.
“My youngest, Tammas. I'm Matilda. Tam, this is Vixen. She and her friend Dayr will be staying the night.”
Vixen inclined her head. “Good evening, Tammas. Mistress Matilda, what can I do to help?”
“Any good at cleaning those rabbits?”
“I've had some practice.”
“Tam, fetch the cutting board and the mid-sized orange bowl,” Matilda requested. Tammas abandoned sweeping and scurried to obey. Matilda wished the weather would clear so her leg would stop aching, though her days of moving that easily were long gone even without that. She took both items from Tammas, and set them on the table. “Thank you. In bites, if you please, and we'll have it as stew.”
“It's all but done.” Vixen drew a bone-hilted knife from a sheath at her back, and set to work deftly.
“Finish the floor, please, lamb.”
“Yes, mama,” Tammas said dutifully, but his eyes kept straying to Vixen.
“Travelling far?” Matilda asked, picking up another potato.
“To the University,” Vixen said.
“That's still three days or so t'the south. Must be important.”
“Yes. There's something I absolutely must tell an old friend, as quickly as possible. When... when I last saw him, he was at the University. I'm hoping he's there still, or that they can tell me where he's gone.” That entirely charming smile came back. “Dayr wouldn't let me go alone, he's too good a friend for that.”
“I should hope so! The road is no safe place for a woman alone. I hope your journey goes well and you find your friend.”
“Thank you. I appreciate your hospitality. I don't mind sleeping under the moons, but I'm not fond of being drenched to the skin.”
“Well, who is?”
Tammas finished sweeping, and perched on a stool at the table. “Have you been to the University?”
“There are some forty to fifty men for every woman at the University,” Vixen said. “Not many women apply, and fewer are accepted.”
“Mama's smart. My sister's smart, too, even if she's a pest. Why aren't there women there?”
“Because women are too busy with practical affairs,” Matilda grumbled.
“Most women are dependent on a father, or a guardian, or a husband, for support,” Vixen explained. Her long-fingered hands continued to work efficiently on the rabbits while she spoke. “Many men refuse to pay tuition and living expenses for a woman. So few can apply.”
“Why won't they?”
“They say it's a waste, that a woman needs to know only how to bear children, please her husband, and manage his household. I think maybe it's because a lot of men are afraid of their wives and daughters knowing more than they do.”
Tammas giggled. Matilda frowned in proper disapproval, but privately agreed, and decided not to interrupt.
“Then, for anyone who applies, there's an examination. I've been told that the professors who give the test judge women more harshly. And for the women who are accepted, the rules are much more strict. They must live in a dormitory with the other women, they must be indoors by a certain hour, they may not be seen in certain places, and others. Men have none of those rules. Women who break a rule are usually expelled permanently, thrown out of the University in disgrace and not allowed to return. Men are usually suspended, not allowed to attend classes for a few days, and are expelled only after several suspensions. So you see, it's very difficult for a woman to study there.”
“That isn't fair,” Tammas decided.
“No, it isn't, but that's the way life works, here in the lowlands.”
“And where would you have us live?” Matilda asked. “Underground with the hill-folks?”
Vixen smiled faintly. “I'm sure their lives have good and bad aspects, like anyone else's.”
“Do you know any stories about the hill-people?” Tammas demanded. “Will you tell me one?”
Vixen looked to Matilda for approval. “May I?”
Matilda frowned. “I don't want his head full of nonsense.”
“Please, mama?” Tammas begged.
“Well... I suppose one story won't hurt.”
Vixen nodded acknowledgement. “Those who live in the hills were here in this land before humans. They aren't so very different from humans, except that they dislike bright light, like at noon. They can't see in complete darkness, although they can see in dim light better than we can. So they prefer to be awake just as the sky begins to grow light, and to sleep or rest in the middle part of the day, and then be active again until it grows too dark even for them. Then they sleep through the deep part of the night. Their real name is the shyani.”
“Shyani,” Tammas repeated carefully. “Why do they live in hills?”
“In their hills, they're safe from even the worst weather, and humans can't find them. The weyres often live with the shyani. Each weyre has an animal shape, like a wolf or a puma or a bear.”
Tammas shivered in delighted fear. “Do they eat people?”
Vixen considered that. “I suppose there might be a few, just like there are always humans who do violent and evil things. But most weyres would have no interest in eating a human. They'd rather have a deer or a rabbit. Or change to human form and eat meals with the shyani. So. I wanted to be sure that you understood the proper names, because those are what I use in my stories. It's not respectful to call them by other names—no offence, mistress Matilda.”
“None taken,” Matilda said, intrigued despite herself. How did this uncommon woman know such things about the University and the hill-folk? Or was she inventing it as she told it? And, on reflection, she hadn't answered Tammas' question of whether she'd ever studied at the University.
The back door opened, and Matilda's husband Aldan came in, followed by her daughter, her two elder sons, and Dayr. Introductions were duly made; Matilda noticed Aldan eyeing the rabbit meat with considerable, if surreptitious, interest.
“My story,” Tammas prompted Vixen eagerly.
Vixen laughed. “A moment, I pray you. Mistress Matilda, your stew meat. Is there anything else?”
“Only to give him his story,” Matilda said. “He'll let us have no peace until you do.”
Another laugh, and Vixen moved away, seating herself gracefully on a bench by the fire; Matilda had a brief vision of a queen taking her throne. “Well. A story about shyani and weyres, hm?”
Tammas sat at her feet. “Please, mistress Vixen?”
“Certainly. I always keep promises. I'm thinking which to tell you.” She paused. “Otherwhen and otherwhere,” she began, the traditional opening for a tale, “there lived a woman, on a farm, with her husband. Though they'd been wed near to ten years, they had no children. This saddened them, but over time their hope had faded. They even saved up enough coin to visit a physician, only to be told that nothing could be done.”
Matilda's other children drifted over, drawn by the story. Vixen welcomed them with a smile. Dayr settled himself quietly at the far side of the fireplace, on the floor and leaning against the wall, his face in shadow.
Aldan edged over to Matilda. “What's this?” he asked in an undertone.
“Just a story,” she whispered back. “No harm in it. Hush.”
“They lived a full day's travel from the nearest town,” Vixen continued, to all appearances unaware of the exchange. “A few times a year, the woman's husband made the trip, to sell what they could spare and buy what they could neither grow nor make themselves.
“One late spring, while her husband was away, there came a great rainstorm, much like the one I think we'll have tonight. This woman had seen many a storm, and their house was sturdy with a sound roof, so she thought little of it. She made herself a simple dinner and sat down to eat, hoping her husband had found shelter—perhaps with kind folk unwilling to leave a traveller out in the rain. The wind whipped around the house, wild as a falcon protecting her fledglings. Still, through the wind, she heard a high-pitched crying.
“She listened for a moment, until she was sure it was real. After all, who would want to go out in the rain without reason? But the noise continued, so she fetched her cloak and went out to investigate.
“The rain pounded her with drops as big as grapes, and the wool of her cloak was quickly soaked. She persisted, though, and finally tracked the sound to a small animal huddled against the wall. She gathered it under her cloak and brought it back inside. She hung her wet cloak on its hook, and fetched a towel, and carried the animal over to the fireplace.
“By the light, she could finally identify it: it was the size of a barn cat, but clearly a very young kitten, still all spots and fine fuzzy fur. That frightened her a little, because the only cats of that size on this continent are weyres, but the kitten was so cold, and mewing so pitiably, that she had mercy on it and towelled it dry. After lapping a bowl of crumbled bread in warm milk, it fell asleep in a blanket-lined basket she set by the hearth.
“She knew that if she were to throw it outside, it would die, even if the weather should clear. But how could she keep a weyre in her house, even such a small and helpless one? Greatly troubled, she finished her dinner, and cleaned up, and went to bed.”
Matilda glanced at Aldan, and suppressed a grin. He'd chosen a chair well away from the fire, but he was no less enthralled than were their children.
“A knock at the door woke her. She got up, still sleepy, and drew a blanket about her over her shift, and opened the door.
“A man and a woman stood there, and beside them was a great tawny cat, one whose shoulders would reach to mid-thigh on your mother. The human woman was afraid, because the man and the woman were both very beautiful and very pale, with eyes a little larger than those of a human and with very little white. The shyani woman had long pale gold hair, like ripe wheat, in a narrow braid on each side with beads in it and the rest loose, and wore silver in her ears, and leather trousers instead of skirts, and her eyes were the blue of the summer sky at noon. The man's hair was long, too, though a deeper gold, and it was tied back, and his eyes were a paler blue, like winter sky mirrored in water.
“'Don't be frightened,' the shyani woman said gently. 'We mean you no harm. We seek our sister's lost kitten.' She gestured to the cat at her side.
“That reassured the human woman. What mother of any breed would do less than seek a lost youngling? Had she children of her own, she'd have done the same. She went to the hearth and gathered up the kitten, and brought him to the shyani.
“'See,' she said, 'your lost one is here and well. I heard him crying and brought him in.'
“The adult puma's form turned blurry, like a reflection in water if you throw a stone, and suddenly another woman was there in its place, naked save for her tawny hair that fell loose to just below her shoulders. She held out her arms for the kitten, her expression full of pleading, and the human woman gave it to her, carefully.
“'Thank you for your compassion,' the man said. 'What gift can we give you to show our gratitude?'
“'I need no gift,' the human woman said, feeling embarrassed. 'All I ask of life is that our garden grow well and that our livestock and ourselves stay healthy.'
“'You've no other wish?' persisted the shyani woman.
“'My only other wish is that I might bear a child, but there's no hope of that.'
“'Perhaps,' the shyani woman said. 'But will you allow us to try? I'm a healer, my companion is a witch. Together, if the wrongness lies in you and not in your mate, we have a fair chance of fixing it.'
“The human woman feared what they might do, but her longing for a child was very strong, and she believed they truly meant only to even the scales. So she agreed.
“They came inside and closed the door. The weyre sat by the fire, nursing what was now a human infant, and the human woman could hear a sound that she realized was purring, like the barn cats when they were happy or nursing their kittens.
“'Lie down,' said the shyani woman, and the human woman obeyed, her heart pounding.
“Each of the shyani laid a hand on her belly, and the woman began to sing. The human woman laid still and trembled, feeling nothing save that light touch.
“She woke to find her husband there, and sunlight pouring in, and no sign of her visitors. Her husband, when she told him her adventure, insisted that she'd dreamed it.”
Vixen paused, and smiled.
“But nine months later, their first child was born. And every year while the woman lived, the garden flourished.”
She ended there, and looked to Matilda. “Might I beg a drink? Storytelling is a thirsty pastime.”
Aldan rose himself, filled their best pottery cup with their own currant wine, and brought it to her wordlessly. Vixen accepted it with thanks, and drank.
Tammas and the other children started pleading for another story. Matilda took charge, assigning them to set the table and other tasks.
Conversation until, during, and after dinner was innocuous, concerned with weather and farming and livestock and the like. The drumming of rain on the roof created a comfortable and familiar background rhythm. Matilda relaxed, letting go of her vague uncertainties about their guests.
Some time later, the children were sent to bed, and the four adults settled themselves around the fireplace.
“Mistress Matilda, please, do not think me rude,” Vixen said softly. “I could not help but notice your lameness.”
Matilda shrugged. “It's been sore a long time, never seems to heal. It's more painful in weather like this. No great thing.”
“I'm a healer. Will you allow me to try?”
“No!” Aldan thundered. “No witchery and superstition here!”
“Hush,” Matilda said. “You'll wake the children.” She met Vixen's eyes, and the other woman held her gaze steadily. Oddly, only then did she notice the small silver rings glinting in Vixen's ears. “I trust her. And I'm the one who lives with a limp.”
Aldan subsided, grumbling.
Vixen rose, and sat on the floor at her feet, to draw the lame leg into her lap and push Matilda's coarsely-woven dun skirt up to her knees. Nimble fingers, much softer and less calloused than any farmer's, probed gently.
“Is that where it hurts?”
“That's the place.”
Vixen closed her eyes, and began to sing, a song low in both volume and pitch, with no words Matilda could recognize. It made it hard to think; Matilda closed her eyes, too, feeling light-headed. For the space of a slow breath, she saw an image, of a red fox leading a speckled hound towards her; then it was gone, and she realized that Vixen's song had ended. She opened her eyes.
Vixen looked weary, but content. “There was a fine crack in the bone. It could not heal alone while you continued to use your leg. It would be best if you could put as little strain on it as possible for, perhaps, three days while the healing completes itself. Then it will pain you no more.” She made it halfway to her feet before swaying; Dayr was beside her, steadying her with an arm around her waist, before Matilda had hardly registered the problem.
“What are you?” Matilda asked. “Humans aren't healers.”
Vixen smiled tiredly. “I am human and healer. We mean you no harm, only gratitude for the meal and the shelter. I give you my word.”
Matilda studied her briefly, and decided. Whatever they were, their intentions were good.
“I believe you. I wish we could offer a better bed than a hard floor.”
“A hard floor is much better than the soft mud outside,” Dayr said. “Thank you.”
Matilda found extra blankets for them, delighted at the easing of the ache in her leg, and she and Aldan retired.
When they rose the next morning, their guests were gone, with their donkeys and gear, leaving no trace save the neatly folded blankets.
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