Fair Upon the Tor #21 (updates Mondays)

It was difficult to find a mental path back to her cosy sphere of relaxation, with the biloko standing there, hissing their small sad noises. She supposed that she could have told them to be quiet, and maybe they would even have obeyed her, but the thought of giving them commands made her feel damp and cold inside. The decision soon made itself up in her mind; the best thing to say was nothing. Instead, she sank into the hot water, tried to block out the noise of the angry biloko, and listened to the rain. Eventually their unhappy pipes and trebles faded off into fragmented breathing. A fragile quietness resumed. Time passed, and the steam rose. The glow of the embers below the tub started to fill up the space in the tent, reddening the air as the rain drummed on the fabric above. She had thoroughly lost track of time when the curtain ruffled, and a familiar, irritated voice said, “Are you not done in there yet?” It was Pel.

“Sorry. I was just soaking.”

“Can I come in? I need to collect some things.”

Caewen felt a bit exposed in the water, but the sides of the bath were tall, and she was able to sink down a bit. “Yes. Please do.”

Peloxanna pushed her way through the curtain with a scratchy sounding sigh. She glanced past Caewen, uninterested, but looked back again, her brow lining. “Haven’t you even washed yourself yet?”

“Washed myself?” She looked down. “I’m in the water. What more washing can I do?”

An expression of frustration fomented, then leapt and dashed through Pel’s eyes. “There are no suds in the water. You’re haven’t even picked up a piece of soap.”

“Soap?” said Caewen, looking around.

Pel walked over to her, picked up a rose-tinted, unevenly shaped lump from a side-table, and thrust it towards Caewen’s face. It finished up poised right in front of her nose. “Soap, you barbaric yokel.”

Skin prickling, heat rising in the base of her skull, Caewen scowled back. A tension ran up and down the length of her arms. “I know what soap is. We make soap. I just wouldn’t use soap on my skin. It’s for washing hard linens. It would burn skin, wouldn’t it? Soap is caustic. I’m not an idiot.”

“What in the name of all twelve deserts of the world…? What kind of soap do you people make?” Pel seemed to deflate then. The energy went out of her. “By the temples of flame and water, I think your whole village must be nothing but mud-huts and hovels. It’s like talking to a badger. Do you people live with animals in your houses too?”

“Only when it is cold out,” said Caewen, ruefully. “In winter. Or if the spring turns harsh, the lambs have to come indoors. Otherwise, they’d freeze to death.” After a pause. “Wouldn’t they?”

“Or your could build barns.”

“We have barns! Of course we have barns. But a barn has no hearth fire,” said Caewen. “If you leave a newborn lamb in a warmthless barn, under a hard frost, it’ll be dead by morning, and then the ewe will be all a-kilter and miserable. Bleat, bleat bleat. On and on.” The breath she took was hard to keep steady. “Look, I’m not some bogle, wearing pelts, or living in a hole dug out of the ground,” she waved a hand, angry, “…eating moles and earthworms.”

“Well, you’ve certainly fooled me. Here, lean forward. You haven’t even wetted your hair, or combed it. I honestly don’t know.”

Caewen obeyed, feeling the unpleasantness lining her face and cords of irritation, like hard twisted strings, running through her. Pel sat behind the bath, on a stool, then splashed water into Caewen’s hair. She then emptied some of a bottle of liquor onto her head. It smelled faintly of rosehips. Then, Pel started lathering the stuff in, more roughly than was strictly required in Caewen’s opinion.

She was trying to shepherd some calmness together inside herself, but her blood only felt hotter and angrier with the passing moments. She shut her eyes, stopped the thoughts. The raking of Pel’s fingers on her scalp was sharply unpleasant, but she tolerated it. As she listened to Pel breathing in short, irritated puffs, she came back to wondering why the woman was so enraged at her. Finally, she asked, “Pel, why are you angry with me? I haven’t done anything to you.”

Pel pulled at Caewen’s hair, causing a sharp bite of pain at the scalp. “What makes you think I’m not angry at everyone?”

Caewen was about to say something mean-spirited, but took a breath, stared into the rippling and now quite pink-and-yellow foamy water, and instead, said, “I’m sorry. For whatever it is that happened to you. I’m sorry for it. But it can’t have anything to do with me. Being angry with some random stranger from the north doesn’t make sense to me. And it isn’t fair, either. We’re not all night-worshippers, and most night-worshippers I’ve met were decent people, besides. No more or less decent than most folks, anyway.” She held onto a silence for a moment, allowing Pel to say something, anything, but got only another equal and balanced silence in return. That, and the continued rough ministering of fingers against her skull. She tried another tack. “I grew up in a village that was ruled by a nasty old warlock. Mannagarm, by name, and just as filthy and dirty an old man as you can imagine. Everyone in the village was afraid of him, and he was afraid of everyone. He took people from the village to be his servants, and he killed folk’s wits with magic, and he stole people’s dreams, and made them into dull beasts that could barely remember their own names.” She twisted a little to look at Pel. “But you know what? He wasn’t a worshipper of Old Lady Night. He wasn’t a worshipper of the Day Queen, neither. He wasn’t out for anyone or anything, but for his own self. And he was quite capable of being malicious all on his own. I’m not in any divine camp either. I’m not thrown in with one goddess or the other. I’m doing my best to be a halfway good person, all on my own.”

“And what happened to him?”

“Mannagarm? He got what he deserved. Maybe worse than he deserved. But you know what? I don’t hate him, not anymore. I did, I think, and for a long time. I was definitely afraid of him. My brother and me had to hide in a cellar for most of our lives,” she didn’t seem to be getting anywhere with Pel, and giving up a little bit, she added, “Oh, I don’t know. There can be a time for anger. But it has to pass. Otherwise you become the anger. Nothing but anger all the way down.”