Vixen woke before Tylla arrived with breakfast, as she'd told herself the night before to do. More dreams about her past, but that wasn't so surprising, given the surroundings. The thought of the old physician, someone she'd seen only once yet who had made such a decisive change for the better in her life, made her feel warm inside. Was he still alive? Would he be horrified by her now? Her parents had argued vehemently with each other, but the book list had appeared, and the books not long after, and as soon as she was old enough, she was shipped off to the University—a relief all around. After all, being a physician was a respectable calling, one that would allow her to support herself without disgracing her family. And she'd had a new personal goal, to be able to help others the way that one conversation had helped her.
She stretched lazily, and slid out of bed. Checking under the table, under the bed, and in the window for Anna turned up no trace of her; well, she could find her once she got dressed. She pulled back the sliding door of the wardrobe, and found a pair of amber eyes gazing up at her accusingly from the shadows within.
“Oh, there you are. Sorry, little one, but I can't have Jared's household catching me with no clothes on.” She took the plum-coloured dress Alys had first provided, the only outfit she had at present that was clean other than her shyani clothes, which she spotted lying neatly folded on the wardrobe's shelf. What did Tylla think of those? she wondered. Carefully, she slid the door across again, noting that it wouldn't shut tightly. She left it open a little wider than necessary, and turned her attention to getting dressed.
Well, it didn't flatter her as well as the green one, or her own, but it was clean and wasn't too bad. Amused by her own vain thoughts, she picked up the brush from the vanity and started on the knots in her hair. Her small things from her pack, her own comb among them, lay on top of the vanity. Among them was her wide choker of bright blue and green beads, made from glazed pottery and dyed shell, with three dangling copper discs. Shyani women's clothes left so much of throat and chest bare that elaborate necklaces were popular, and this one had been a gift, made specifically for her.
Without pausing, she called, “Come in,” in response to the knock on the door.
“Good morning, milady.”
Vixen greeted Tylla with a distracted smile, working on a particularly obstinate tangle.
“Here, milady, let me do that.” Tylla picked up a folded piece of paper from the tray, and hastened over to her. “His Grace asked me to give this to you. Please, milady, sit down and let me do your hair?”
Vixen surrendered, sat on the nearest chair and curiously unfolded the note, while Tylla's gentle hands teased out the tangle.
I hope the morning finds you well and rested. It has come to my attention that you're lacking in the clothes appropriate to your station, and Alys' efforts to remedy this have been less than adequate. These keys are for the storerooms, I've taken the liberty of asking Lyris to show you where they are and assist you in choosing anything you might wish. All the resources of Hyalin, including our seamstress, are at your disposal. You will, I hope, have a pleasant morning, and I'm looking forward to seeing you this evening.
Vixen glanced at the tray on the table. Along with her breakfast and the promised bowl of meat for Anna, it held a ring of heavy iron keys.
“Am I so very disgraceful to Jared's house?” Vixen laughed. “He just offered me free access to the storerooms.”
“Oh, no, milady, you aren't at all disgraceful, but a lady should have more to choose from to wear.” Was it imagination, or did Tylla sound rather satisfied, somewhere under the careful neutrality?
“Hmm. It will be easier, I suppose, especially if I keep making a mess of my clothes. Was the green dress terribly hard to clean?”
“Not so bad, I think, milady, and it will be dry for you to wear soon, I'm sure.”
“Well, I'm quite content with what I'm wearing now, and with any luck I can stay clean for the day. Please don't open the wardrobe, it's Anna's new hiding place, although now that I've found her there, I'm sure she'll choose another.”
“Yes, milady.” She moved away briefly to the vanity, searching its drawers quickly. Vixen closed her eyes, enjoying the attentions as Tylla parted her hair and braided each half smoothly, then coiled the two plaits and pinned them neatly. “There, milady, that's much more fitting and very flattering.”
“You're very welcome, milady. Anything I can do for you, you only need to tell me.”
“Hm. Then don't be afraid to speak up and give me advice and suggestions. There's too much that I don't know and too many mistakes I can make. For that matter, I'd like to have you there while we go through the storerooms.”
“Certainly, milady, it would be perfectly proper for me to be with you in most situations.”
“Good. Then, please, do what you can to keep me from utterly scandalizing anyone.” She placed Anna's bowl under the table, then seated herself, to discover that today's breakfast was sweet bread rolls with slices of fine milky cheese, slices of ham roasted in some rich sauce, and a bowl of berry preserves of some sort. That should be more to Dayr's tastes than the oatmeal.
Dayr. She'd have to think of something to occupy him, while she was busy.
“Do you know where and when I'm to meet milady Lyris? His Grace asked her to show me the storerooms.”
“Quite likely she will allow you time for breakfast, then come here, milady,” Tylla said, flipping the quilt so it settled smoothly on the bed.
Another tap on the door, and Vixen called, “Come in,” less surprised to see Dayr than that he'd bothered to knock, though it was probably in deference to her not being alone. He nodded to Tylla, and settled himself facing Vixen.
“Hiding in the wardrobe, but don't tell her I told you that. She moves to a new hiding place every time I find her. She seems to be doing as well as we could expect. I'm going to be busy for a while after breakfast.”
“Going through the storerooms with Lyris to see what we can find me by way of clothes.”
Dayr frowned. “How many clothes do you need? For that matter, how many do I need? They keep leaving me new ones.”
“You're much of a size with His Grace's elder brother, All-Father rest him, milord,” Tylla supplied. “It's little effort to alter his clothes for you. Milady Vixen is, well, more of a challenge.”
“More work,” Vixen translated. “Dayr, for highborn ladies, how they look is always highly important, and they typically have more different outfits than you'd believe if I told you. While we're in the lowlands, we play by lowland rules.”
The weyre shrugged. “Oh, I know, but it seems silly. There are more important things than dressing up every day like it's a holiday.”
“Yes, but for a highborn lady, not many. Are you going to be bored without me?”
“I'll go check on Sparrow and Dove, maybe take them out to get a little exercise.”
“Good thought.” She pushed the plate with the rest of her cheese and ham towards him, and started on the berry preserves. They finished off the food between them, and relaxed together in companionable quiet. Vixen knew she'd never hear a word from him about last night. Catlike, he would pretend it never happened.
Yet another tap at the door; Tylla glanced at her for permission, and answered it, to admit Lyris and Mirain. Vixen rose, politely, and Dayr followed her lead.
“Good morning,” Lyris greeted them cheerfully. “I hope you slept well?”
“Very well,” Vixen said. “I appreciate this.”
Lyris laughed. “Oh, I'm expecting us to have quite a lot of fun. I asked our house seamstress Karela to meet us there in about an hour, that will give us time to take a look around first, is that all right?”
Mirain chuckled. “Well, I'm going to escape while I can. I thought I'd stop by and see if you'd like to join me? For a ride, perhaps?” That last was to Dayr.
Dayr nodded promptly. “This having lots of clothes thing is too weird for me, and Sparrow and Dove need to stretch.”
Vixen picked up the ring of keys, and ushered everyone out of the room, closing the door behind her to keep Anna inside and safe.
Mirain and Dayr parted ways from the three women at the end of the hall, turning in the opposite direction; Mirain wished them a merry and productive morning.
“Jared's grandmother was nearly as tall as you are,” Lyris said. “If we can find the trunks with her clothes, I'm sure there will be a few things in them that would be suitable and easy to alter quickly. I believe that's where the green wool one came from. And there's plenty of material that can be made into more clothes. Karela is never happier than when she has a lot to keep her busy, especially if it's more interesting than house livery over and over.”
Exploring the storerooms, with Lyris and Tylla, was actually rather fun. Karela soon joined them, a large, dark woman whose richly-embroidered, perfectly-fitted clothes spoke a great deal about her skills.
“Come in, Karela,” Lyris said promptly, if somewhat distractedly. “I think we've found all of Lady Riane's clothes that are still here. Some of them will work, I'm sure. Styles change, but some things always look good. Oh. Vixen, Karela. I don't think we need to stand on formality with only the four of us here, do we?”
“I'd be very grateful if we didn't,” Vixen said in relief.
Karela chuckled. “Then we won't. Now. What do we have in the chests that we can modify? And if I can get some proper measurements this morning, that would help a great deal.”
Much later, Tylla recruited a couple more servants to help them carry everything to Karela's workroom.
Near the stairs, Vixen stopped, raising a hand to halt Karela's planning-out-loud. “Listen.”
In the sudden quiet, muffled sobs were clearly audible. Vixen turned slowly, wishing for Dayr's hearing, and decided that it was coming from a room to the right. Should she involve herself?
On a hunch, she strode towards the door. “Lyris, Karela, why don't you go on? Tylla can show me where.”
Karela looked disapproving, but held her tongue.
Lyris smiled. “You'll have every hurt in the house healed in no time, at this rate.” She gestured to the confused servants, who had paused at the stairs. “Karela's workroom isn't getting any closer.”
“Milady, perhaps...” Tylla began, and trailed off, visibly divided, as the others departed up the stairs.
“Perhaps there are some things you can't fix, milady.”
“You know who it is.”
Tylla looked down, biting her lip.
“Unless you can give me an excellent reason not to, I'm going to go in that room and do whatever I can to help. Is there something you'd like to tell me?”
“There's nothing you can do, milady.” Tylla tangled her hands in the folds of her blue skirt, eyes still low. “And Lady Alys, if she knew...”
“You let me take care of Lady Alys.”
Tylla sighed. “Ilsa's husband beats her. Calls her horrible names, too, all the house servants have overheard it now and then. She hides up here when she's supposed to be cleaning, sometimes, it's the only place she can cry that he won't catch her. He works in the stables, he has no business up here.”
“And according to law, he can do it,” Vixen said softly. “As long as he uses only his hand or his belt. And doesn't interfere with her ability to work, I suppose, because that would lose him her pay and might annoy Alys or Jared.” She leaned against the wall, scowling at the door across the hall, arms crossed. If she could rescue a cat from pain and abuse, surely she could find a way to rescue a woman.
Except that no one claimed the cat as property.
First aid immediately. Long-term solutions once you have the time and details.
“I'm going to see how badly she's hurt,” she said, keeping her voice much calmer than she actually felt. “She may feel safer if you're with me, since you're familiar to her.”
Tylla stifled a second sigh, and nodded in resignation. “Yes, milady. Will you let me go first?”
Vixen nodded, so Tylla moved over to the door, opened it, and slipped inside without closing it behind her. Vixen gave her long enough to speak to her friend—and gave herself time to master her anger—before joining them.
The room within was another storeroom, but this one held linens, as near as Vixen could tell by the light of a single lamp in the windowless space. Tylla sat on a large wooden chest, next to a woman in her late forties or so, in the same blue and white uniform. The older woman had her arms wrapped tightly around herself, still weeping, though she tried to stop when Vixen entered.
“It's all right,” Tylla said reassuringly. “Milady Vixen is the healer from the hills. She wants to help.”
Vixen knelt in front of Ilsa, the folds of her skirt cushioning the cold stone floor, but not much. “Tell me,” she said gently.
Ilsa shook her head mutely.
“Are you in pain right now?”
That got her a bitter laugh. “When not?”
“Give me your hands. I'll make it stop.” She offered her own, palm up.
The ache of bruises old and new, the anguish of helplessness and hopelessness, echoed through Vixen as Ilsa tentatively laid her hands over Vixen's. It made her want to turn the full force of her power in revenge against the one who had inflicted it, or cringe away from the rawness and let someone else deal with it. Instead, she took a deep breath, centring herself, and began to sing.
As she sang, she concentrated on healing and health, peace and painlessness, allowing nothing else into her thoughts—a hard-won discipline, that, for one with as active a mind as she. Her own strength flowed into Ilsa, aiding the servant woman's body in its own struggle against the damage, accelerating the process.
And, as she sang, she saw in her mind a long-legged graceful mare, her red bay coat glossy-sleek, her mane and tail flowing like midnight silk. The mare shied skittishly, but kept inching closer before dancing away again, ears flicking back against her skull, then forward again uncertainly. A red fox sat near her, white-tipped tail curled around his feet, watching the mare with his ears forward.
Come home, Vixen entreated, with her thoughts and her song. Come home.
The mare half-reared with a snort, but came down firmly on all four hooves, and paced delicately nearer, lowering her head to sniff at Red Fox, who raised his own narrow muzzle to touch noses. Vixen sang welcome to her, and a promise that she would do what she could to make things right, and the mare came closer yet and bowed her head, still now.
Interesting. Matilda at the farm was chosen by a hound I've never encountered, and I've never met a spirit-horse of any sort before either.
Vixen let the song end, and released Ilsa's hands.
Ilsa blinked dazedly at her. “What did you do? I feel...” She stopped, evaluating, and finished slowly, “I don't hurt, and something feels... right.”
“I called your spirit animal to you,” Vixen said, too weary to think about what the two servants might make of the explanation. “It isn't really so hard to do, a shaman does it for every shyani child. If you dream of a bay mare who tells you something, pay attention to her, you can trust her absolutely. And I healed your bruises.” She started to get to her feet, and stumbled, dropping to one knee painfully hard.
Tylla jumped up and leaned down to help Vixen rise, but steadied her only to her own abandoned seat. “Are you all right, milady?”
“Just tired. Help me get back to my room for a nap?”
Ilsa stayed close on Vixen's other side, and shooed away any of the other household staff who came into sight. In her own room, Vixen collapsed gratefully across her huge soft bed.
“I'll tell milady Lyris and Karela that you won't be coming,” Tylla said softly, “and ask the kitchen to save you some lunch.” She deftly unlaced Vixen's boots and drew them off, and tucked a lightweight blanket of soft wool over the exhausted shaman. “There, that'll be more comfortable.”
“Thank you. Best tell Dayr, too.”
“I will, milady. You rest, I'll see to all that.”
Vixen let her eyes close, snuggled under the blanket, curled into a tight ball. Once she woke up, she would have to see what she could devise to protect Ilsa from any further beatings, but for right now, she was going to be no use to anyone until she rested.
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