Meetings by the Fire
The wind outside rattles the door.
He takes her aside, his good wife, to the sleeping room in the back, but even with them trying to keep their voices low, I can hear them.
"It's snowing already, husband. To send him out would be to send him to freeze," she argues. "It'd be a sinful thing you want to do."
"It'd be a sinful thing if we starve to death here before the springtime with you taking in every waif who darkens our door," he replies.
Theirs was the largest house in this little bit of hard luck land I have stumbled in, but perhaps I have chosen poorly. I stare and look into the fire and pull my cloak closer, threadbare though it is, trying to suck up as much of the heat as I can before heading out into the night, trying to ignore the aching in my legs. It has been a hard year in these parts, between the weather and the troubles with blood and hard steel. I have passed more than one husbandless croft, more than one burned out ruin. I can tell in this little place between the sea and the mountain that they too have felt the pinch. The cows that they are overwintering look at me from their side of the house with sad large eyes and lean sides. The good wife's child squats near the fire, and stares at me. His hair is a dark mass of curls and eyes that seem too large for his face. The child, too, is lean from a hard year here, when most years are not easy. Perhaps I should choose to leave on my own. The monks down the way might give me a warm corner, and there'd be no burden on these good folk, struggling to make it through another night.
I sigh, and know I ought to be moving, but the fire lulls me and the wind rattles the door again, making me linger. I know I will do nothing unless asked.
"Do you know any stories?" the child asks, his voice thin.
"Aye, lad, I do,” I say, listening to the wind outside. “Any man who’s wandered like I do knows a story or two.”
He looks at me expectantly. “Could you tell me one? Ma and Da will come out soon, and Ma will serve the soup, but for right now, there’s nothing but wind and snow.”
I sigh, and shift my aching leg.
“Ma tells me stories sometimes, but you . . . you’re from the world outside,” the lad says. “You’ve seen things Ma never will.”
“A mixed blessing,” I mutter. “The world outside is much like the world here, but bigger, if you can understand that. Let me think a minute.”
He looks at me uncomprehending, but patient.
“Ah, I’ll tell you this story, then. Once there was a young lad who lived in a place far, far away from this land between the mountain and the sea. He used to dream of the world far from his father’s fields, and of the men with swords who made a name for themselves, and the legends he heard about a king in the southlands. One day, unable to stand it anymore, he kissed his mother, grabbed his cloak, and headed south.”
“Did they know he was leaving?” asks the boy. I look at him, and see the same dream in his eyes.
“No, he didn’t, the foolish lad. It wasn’t until much later he heard about how his mother had grieved herself sick, sure that the outlanders had got him, and how his father spent a month he should have spent on the fields looking for him. He left them behind not just a heartache, but a very sad and hungry winter, too.” I sigh, remembering the excited and foolish young man and the looks he had received from his sister and younger brother when at last he had showed back up at his father’s doorstep.
“What happened next?” the boy, looking doubtful at me, asks.
“It did not take him long to learn what a hard place the world really is. Hunger became his companion not long after his mother’s bread ran out, and fear, too, as he learned to escape from those who would take the little he had. It seemed to him that even though the Winter Queen with her snow and ice and wind only rules over the cold months in the turning of the year, she rules year long over the hearts of many men.” The leg aches, even with the warmth of the fire, and I struggle with how to rest it. “But not all of them were so. An old hermit taught the boy how to catch rabbits, and an herb wife, discovering him when he had a fever, both healed him and taught him about plants. She would have kept him with her, I think, and taken him as her son, but he was too hardheaded to know what was good for him, and refused to stay. The southlands, and the legend of the king called him on.”
The wind rattles again at the door as the day draws near its close and the storm gathers strength. The Winter Queen is more unhappy than usual, I decide, and know of a fact that if my host puts me out tonight, I might not make it to the good monks, not with a leg that is screaming and a storm at my back. A draft from outside makes the fire spark, and the boy makes a sign against bad luck.
He pats my hand. “Don’t worry,” he says. “My ma won’t let my da put you out, not on a night like this. She knows what the priest at the monastery would tell her if she did, and she fears his words more than my da’s.”
I believe him. The faint noises I hear from the back have little to do with bickering.
“Go on with your story,” the boy urges me as he stirs the soup pot long neglected, and tends to the fire.
“One day,” I continue, “the young man sitting by the fire, finally sick and tired of cold and hunger and fear, and longing for his mother’s bread and voice and kiss, had made up his mind, but fate had something different in mind.
“As he sat there, in late autumn, roasting a rabbit who had been too foolish and allowed itself to be snared, a man on horseback entered the clearing. The lad, too tired and footsore and heart sore didn’t run into the shadows as he had most times when confronted by those bigger and stronger than he was, but instead stood up and pulled out his dirk.
“The man dismounted and drew closer to the fire. His eyes were amused, no doubt to see this threadbare skinny boy standing guard over his supper, and he held out his hand and laughed.
“‘Valiant and brave hunter,’ he said. ‘I have no need for your rabbit, but thought to ask you if I could share your fire. It’s a dark night and it’s been three days since I talked to someone beside my horse.’”
“The boy looked at him carefully. He was wearing armor, and carried a sword, and looked well fed. There was a scar across one of his cheeks, and the boy noticed he was missing his left hand. ‘Who are you and what are you?’ the boy asked.
“‘Ah, as for that, I am a warrior of the king’s court, Bedwyr ap Pedrod. Perhaps you have heard of me?’
“The boy shook his head. The warrior sighed, then pulled a bag off his horse’s back. ‘Ah, it’s of no matter,’ he said. ‘I’ve got some apples and cheese you might like with your rabbit if you could put your knife away and sit down.’”
The good wife of the house comes out of the back, and walks over to the soup pot, stirring it around.
“Little did the young man realize but at that moment, his life would be changed forever,” I conclude.
“Go on,” says my listener.
“Now, now, Kynan,” says the good wife. “It is time for supper.” She looks up at me. “Please, sir, stay and join us for supper, and be sure you are welcome here the whole night.”
Kynan looks at me, cocking half a smile as if to say he told me so. “God bless you, Good Wife,” I answer. “May His blessing be upon all of the house tonight and always.”
She smiles at me prettily. Her husband strides into the room, looks at me darkly but says nothing, and takes his seat, and she brings out the bread and cheese.
Kynan sidles next to me. “You have to tell me what happens next,” he says.
As his mother hands me a hot bowl of thin soup, I nod.