The Thread of Life, Part 1

Here’s the first part of a piece I’m really proud of, even now. It’s about Rhialle (Rose Daughter), who is Dingus Xavier’s maternal grandmother, and it’s the beginning of her story, or near to. I’ll have to explore the Rootbound more thoroughly soon; they’re an ancient order of sorcerers and fighters. I hope you enjoy the story.

***

You know what happens when you wrap a thread around your finger again and again, real tight? How it goes all purple and red, with white dents where the thread is if you leave it long enough. Rose’s heart felt like that, and the thread pulled so taut it was a wonder her ticker kept on ticking. It was Mouse drawing her that way, she knew. When she lay in her bedroll of a night, writhing sleepless with the torment in her chest, she knew it was Mouse. And it wasn’t like she didn’t want to be with him. She wanted that more than ever. It was just that Rose couldn’t bring herself to give in.

When the road wore her down so hard that her pain didn’t matter, and her lids drooped and fell on their own, she dreamed of him. Wild Mouse—Cabhan. She dreamed their life together, dreamed loving him body and soul. She dreamed his death, and his ruined face, and the blood in his soft brown hair.

She hadn’t even known until it was too late. Busy, she’d been, killing the other two. She couldn’t remember what for. That was how bad she’d gotten, and she knew that, too, even in her dark-shadowed corner of the drab, washed-out world. Everything felt as dry and knotty as her own unwashed hair. She couldn’t unwind a thing. So she walked.

“She should be dead,” they’d whispered at the chapter house. Behind their hands, as if she couldn’t hear it, and soon they didn’t take the trouble to hide it anymore, and the talk was all whether or not they should lash her to his pyre. She took off like a shot then, best believe, though now she wondered why she’d bothered. They’d been Rootbound, Rose and Mouse, twined together by magic so they were as much one person as two people could be, and from the moment he died she’d felt black, sucking mire around her feet. When they burned him, she felt it over the miles between. Not the flames, no, but the draw of his soul as it flew for the Garden. And that thread wrapped so tight she swore it sliced her heart to pieces.

She walked. And sometimes she thought she saw him, out of the corner of her eye, a flash of his hair, a glimpse of his sun-brown hand lifted to touch her, but his voice never sounded and his fingers never caressed.

Rose was alone. Her feet kicked up road dust in the hot afternoon. Sweat ran down her back inside stiff clothes, worn who knew how many days. She didn’t know where she was, but her shuffling dragged long furrows in the dirt behind her—shorter and shorter until she fell on her face. Why move? She lay there watching boots pass around her. “Drunk,” they said. The Traders’ tongue sounded like crows protesting. “Vagabond.” Sometimes, “Whore.” And they laughed, but why move? No point to it. No matter how far she got from the chapter house, one thought of sweet dead Mouse tore at the wound that never scabbed.

“Miss?”

She said nothing.

“Excuse me, miss?” There was a touch on her shoulder. She dragged gritty lids open to look on a fellow whose age she didn’t give a shit about. He had a sharp face and round human ears, and his hand on her shoulder was hard. “Are you all right?”

“The fuck you think?” she croaked through chapped lips.

“You don’t look all right,” he said.

“Good eye.” She turned her face away from him.

“Let me help you.”

She didn’t say no. She didn’t say anything. He lifted her off the ground and put her, rather gently, in the bed of a wagon, where she lay in damp straw that smelled of green salad. A few stray lettuce leaves wreathed around her in the bedding. She stared up into aching blue. Mounds of white drifted through it, across the sun sometimes, casting the world into shadow. Rose shut her eyes. Mouse was calling her with memories of mouth and hands. She curled like a child in the womb. Her rapier rested across her hip, tempting her.

Mouse wouldn’t have wanted it. He wouldn’t have done this to her if he’d had the choice. Even when she was angriest with him, she knew that. He had loved her, the same way she loved him.

It was down the road a piece, wherever the man was taking her. Took a while to get there. Way out in the middle of nowhere special. The only trees were in the windbreaks. Long way. But she’d come a long way from home already. When they stopped, she heard chickens. Sundown stained the sky hot orange and blistering pink. He came and took her out of the wagon bed, lifting her in thick farmer’s arms. He was big, she realized, big and dark and strong.

She could have killed him in a blink. Put steel through him. She had been good at that once. She didn’t know how long ago.

She didn’t kill him. She let him take her inside and prop her up in a hard chair pulled out from a round table. He tried to look into her eyes, but she looked away, and finally he wrapped his hands around both of hers and said, “It’ll be all right. Sooner or later.” And then he went away. She didn’t move except to let her hands fall into her lap.

Plain little house. He’d put on the cooler. It rattled, and the air from it streamed gently over her sunburn with that fresh, after-rain smell that coolers always had. Oval islands of braided rugs, once bright, now worn and faded, floated on the ordinary sea of floorboards. They crushed her. There were no flowers on the table, and it struck her as wrong. There should have been a vase of flowers.

When he came back she croaked it at him. “Needs flowers. The table.”

“My wife always had them there,” he said. “But—no more flowers.”

“Oh.” She looked at the floor, realizing what he really said.

“It’ll be all right. Sooner or later.” He took her hand and brought her a few steps to the bathing-room. “Here. It gets hot water,” he said, showing her the deep porcelain tub, and left.

Rose dropped stiff clothes on the clean floor and got in. The porcelain chilled her, even when she twiddled the faucet, lining up runes to bring hot water rushing out. She rested her forearms on her knees and sat, and when the tub filled she leaned back in it with her filthy hair spreading like seaweed.

“You’ve been in here a while,” he said, and she drew in a long breath, letting it out slow when he reached down and pulled the plug. The dirty water drained from around her. “Let me help you.”

She didn’t say no. She didn’t say anything. He filled the tub again, steaming water, and washed her. Hands on her body. They weren’t small and clever like Mouse’s, but big and rough—not ungentle, but callused. He washed everything, right down between her legs. She could have been angry, thought it might have made her angry before, but she felt nothing. While he rubbed soap through her hair he stopped, once, to stroke fingers over her ribs. “Thin,” he remarked. She guessed she was. Her joints stuck out in hard knobs, ankles, knuckles.

He gave her clothes. Probably his dead wife’s. A pink dress. The fabric had tiny red flowers all over it, like fairies had scattered them. He gave her food when he ate his own.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“Rhi,” she said. Rose. And then, like it had broken something inside her, she ate with her hands, ’til her concave stomach bulged. Cheese dumplings. They tasted of ashes. The beer was better. It prickled darkly over her tongue and warmed the inside of her, especially when he kept it coming.

“I’m Witold. It’s Muscodite,” he explained. “You’re in Muscoda.”

“Oh.” She hadn’t known it. She’d come farther than she’d thought. He said more, but she let it slide over her, just listening to the sound of his voice and drinking his good beer. Like a jay calling, raucous, the accent flat and unmusical. Not like Mouse. Oh, Mouse.

She went to bed when he told her it was time. He got in next to her and slept without trying a thing.

He snored.

In the morning he laid her sword on the cedar chest at the foot of the bed. It sat there unmoving in its sheath, the little rapier that was hers. He didn’t draw it, and only moved it when he needed something out of the chest. She never touched it.

Things went on like that. Rose shuffled through the motions. At first he asked if she’d cook, but she mostly sat there. The third time his supper wasn’t ready, he asked her to do other things instead. Chickens. She fed the chickens. And there was a cow. She milked that twice a day, lost in the tug-tug rhythm. Raking and mucking. Weeding. The work soothed her more than she realized. Routine soothed her. They went to market to sell produce—he grew vegetables in a two-acre garden. She gained weight, because when he put food in front of her she ate it, and he put it in front of her three times a day. At night he got in bed and went to sleep. The year began to turn.

(to be continued next Friday!)

 

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