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The Widow of Stone Hall
Young Dalla brought her the news, dropping a clumsy curtsey. "The riding's returning, my lady."
Annis laid down the jerkin, flexing her stiff fingers; it was hard work driving a needle even through the thinnest of leather. "Any empty saddles?"
The question carried more, of course, and Dalla might be an empty-headed fool who insisted on calling Annis 'my lady', as if she was a queen in the distant city, but she understand that much, at least. "They're all alive, my lady, as far as I can see. They're coming in slowly, no-one chasing them, not driving anything before them."
"That's good," Annis said, remembering the time not so many seasons ago, when Hewkin had come in at a gallop, hotly chased by a furious party from Low Crag. There had been two widows by the end of that day, and the yard still bore its scars.
"But they have prisoners, my lady."
Prisoners? Annis pushed the jerkin from her lap, and stood up. She strode across the room and flung the door open, then hurried down both flights of stairs, Dalla trailing breathlessly in her wake. "The riding's returning, ma'am," said Rab, on guard at the main door, and she nodded a quick I know and took up her place in the yard to await them.
She knew how long it usually took from first sighting to arrival, but she had to wait a good long time, long enough to get wet and restless. Dalla had said that they were coming in slowly, but Hewkin was not one for slowness. He had been quick out of the womb, and had been quick ever since, racing his way into trouble from the moment he learnt how to walk. Dalla fidgeted beside her, so Annis snapped at her, telling her to go inside and do something more fitting for a house servant. Dalla was sweet on Hewkin, of course; all the girls were.
At length she heard Hewkin commanding that the outer gate be opened. The horn-bearer blew the traditional three notes ascending that indicated a returning riding, then two more to indicate that there had been good raiding. So prisoners counted as a fine haul of livestock now, did they? Annis smiled slightly to herself, then stepped forward to the worn stone flag where ladies of Stone Hall had stood for hundreds of years to greet their fathers and husbands and sons home from the riding.
It was the son now, of course, not the husband, and as usual he rode in laughing, waving a greeting to some unseen face at a high window. Graye rode beside him in the position of second, and there was a dark-haired man slung over the front of his saddle, seemingly unconscious. The rest of the riding followed them in, and with the stable-lads and their masters, the yard soon became crowded with people and merrilyn. Some of the riders sported scrapes and bruises, as if they had been in a fist fight, and Hob was white-faced, his left arm apparently useless, while Hugh's Ellis swayed in the saddle and blinked like a dazed sorel, although he had no visible injury.
The prisoners stumbled in last, each one with their wrists lashed to a rider's saddle. "Do you have any idea what would have happened to me if I'd fallen over?" one of them was saying, his voice audible even over all the other people in the yard. "I would have been flayed to death, because that ground was not smooth, I'll have you know. I think you should consider this next time you capture people and drag them to your lair for the hideous death thing."
Annis stood on her stone and waited for the gate to be drawn shut. Hewkin looked down at her, his face bright with smiles. "Was the riding good?" She asked the formal question, but didn't wait for the formal reply. "Livestock, Hewkin?" She nodded towards the horn-bearer, and Hewkin shrugged, just as he had shrugged aged seven, when he had come home with a branded dapple twice as big as himself, and had almost started a blood feud. Annis sighed, and prepared herself, once again, for the consequences. "What have you brought me this time, Hewkin?"
"Strangers," Hewkin began.
"I'm not blind yet," she told him sharply.
"Sorry, ma." She saw Graye smile to himself; saw, too, that Hewkin was aware of that smile, and didn't care one little bit that one of his men had seen him accept rebuke like a child. Gods! she thought, not for the first time. How could a boy like this spring from the same tree as his father? "We found them up at Sweetwater, just below the falls. They resisted." He looked almost hurt by that. For a man so good at accidentally provoking fights, he was always faintly horrified when people acted in the way that any provoked man would act, and fought back. "Fortunately," he said, smiling again, "we had the benefit of numbers and surprise. They were busy fussing over that one." He jabbed his thumb at the man on Graye's saddle. "He's sick with wound-fever. It's bad."
Annis looked at the prisoners. There was a boy there, fair-haired and terrified, and a young man of around Hewkin's age. There was a woman with the kind of beauty that, long ago, would have made Annis feel inadequate; a man with short hair; and a large warrior who was straining furiously against his bonds, as blood seeped from his hairline and flowed down his cheek, mingled with rain.
Annis took a breath. "I think you had better come in," she said, addressing them all, but her eyes on the injured man across the saddle.
Rain pounded against the window. Annis pushed back a strand of grey-streaked hair, then reached behind her head to tuck it into the twisted knot. I'm getting old, she thought. It looked like the hair of a stranger, and not the sort of thing that should be anything to do with her.
"Light more candles, Dalla, please," she said, because the light outside was failing. She heard Dalla move around behind her, and she watched how each new candle seemed to change the appearance of the man in the bed, casting new shadows on his face. He had not yet regained consciousness, but he was far from still, wrestling with unseen horrors in his dreams.
The last man who had fought wound-fever in this bed had died, of course.
"I wonder who he is, my lady." Dalla stood over the bed with the last candle, gazing down at the man's handsome face. She doubtless had fantasies of nursing him back to health. Well, chances were, Dalla would get her chance to mop his fevered brow, and perhaps some of the more unpleasant tasks of the sickbed. Unless the man died first, of course.
"Let's get some answers, then, shall we?" Annis straightened her aching back. "Bring me the other prisoners, will you, my dear? No, not the big one. I don't think I could cope with him. Not the dark-haired one, either." She hadn't liked the way his eyes had been all over the place as Hewkin had led them to their chambers. The woman and the big man had clearly been studying the place for signs of weakness and a chance of escape, which was understandable, but the dark-haired one had been looking at her valuables, such as they were, assessing them as a thief would do. "Take one of the men with you," she said, "in case there are… misunderstandings."
Dalla left, and once again Annis was alone with a desperately sick man in the heavily-draped bed. It had been winter then, her breath turning into clouds of steam as she sat at the bedside and waited for her husband to die. Only at the very end had he slipped into unconsciousness. Before that, he had raged, wanting to go out with the riding, cursing the hand that had given him this wound, screaming at her for killing him with botched medicine. When the light was right, you could still see the stain on the wall from the bowl of broth that he had hurled away, wasting precious herbs from her cherished store.
"What are you doing to him? Step away from him now, you… you… witch."
Wrenched suddenly into the present, Annis turned around to greet her guests. Ellis, he saw, was bringing his fist up, as if to strike the short-haired man silent, but she shook her head slightly at him. "Trying to save his life," she said.
"Oh. Well." With a nervous, resentful glance at Ellis, the man approached the bed. The woman followed, the boy hanging back uncertainly. "Is he… uh… you know…" The man shut his mouth, then tried again. "Is it going to work, whatever you're doing?"
Ellis was glowering in the doorway. "It's all right, Ellis," she told him. "You can go. I'm sure our guests will do me no harm." She emphasised the word 'guest' a little. "And Dalla?" The girl reluctantly tore her gaze away from the unconscious man. "Run along, would you, and help Bren with the broth."
So here she was, alone with three strangers. "A year ago," she told them, "you would have been thrown into the dungeon – which is a cellar, really, actually, but my husband always called it his dungeon, and these things are hard to forget – and you'd have been beaten if you objected to his kind of hospitality. My husband took a dim view of strangers."
"Oh," said the short-haired man. "We're not… I mean, yes, yes, we are strangers – visitors from a distant land, and all that – but we don't mean any harm. We come in peace, etcetera etcetera."
"We are travellers," the woman said, with a polite smile. Her eyes, though, were seldom off the man on the bed, and barely on Annis at all. "We owe no allegiance to any enemies you might have. We became… stranded, and are merely trying to return home."
"All six of you?" Annis asked, because she had always been good at judging people and their relationships – you had to be, when you lived always on the knife-edge of warfare, and a household depended on you – and already had opinions of her own.
"Four of us," the woman said. "I am Teyla Emmagen, and this is Rodney McKay. Ronon Dex is the large man you can hear throwing himself against a door--"
"And he's Sheppard," said the man called Rodney, pointing to the man in the bed. "Is he going to be okay?"
Whatever else she might be, she was head of the household, until she chose to hand it over to Hewkin or Hewkin chose to take it from her, and there were certain things that she had to do. "And the other two?" she said sharply, ignoring him.
"Nothing to do with us," Rodney said, even as Teyla replied more cautiously, saying, "Kit, the young man you left with Ronon, is our guide. This young man--"
"Jasper," said the boy, and Annis stiffened, very slowly letting out the breath she had sucked in.
"Jasper," Rodney said impatiently, "wants to see the world and has adopted us as his guides and mentors."
"Jasper," Annis said, when she could speak again. "Like the crown prince of Myr."
The boy blanched, like Hewkin as a child, caught out doing something that he thought he would be punished for. Annis decided to take pity on him. "I expect you've heard stories about the unscrupulous murderers of the Debateable Land," she said. The injured man, Sheppard, moaned, weakly pawing at the blankets, but she knew that the only thing he was responding to was deep within his own head. "You were probably told that we would kill you on sight."
"You won't?" Rodney said. "Well, yes, I can see that you didn't, but you might have been saving us up for something horrible. You're not? You're innocent and good-hearted, and it's all slander and rumour? Believe me, I know what it's like. When I was at school, Gary Kitson started a rumour that… Anyway, where was I? Of course, ruthless murderers always say they're misunderstood, and--"
"Many of the stories are true," she told him. "We have a harsh life here, and a violent one, and the laws of distant cities don't hold any weight. However," she said, with a smile, "we are not as hard-hearted as all that, and my husband is dead. I would never refuse to help an injured man, and neither would I treat travellers with anything other than courtesy, if I truly believed that they meant no harm to me and mine."
"Oh, that's us," said Rodney. "Mean no harm. Innocent as the driven snow."
Annis dripped a rag in water and wrung it out. "But if I discover that you are lying," she said, as she pressed the rag to Sheppard's brow, "then you will discover that not all stories are exaggerated." Raising her head, her eyes met Teyla's. "You understand, of course."
"We understand," Teyla said.
"Uh, just so you know?" Rodney raised his hand. "You should search Kit for valuables before he leaves, and if you find anything… He's not with us. I'm just saying."
Teyla touched Sheppard's throat, her expression grave. "It is only fair to tell you," she said, "that the king of Myr falsely believes that we are spies from Daryen, and we believe that we are still being pursued. At least one Whisperer is involved. We would not wish to bring the wrath of the king upon you."
Annis smiled. "My dear," she said – Gods! I even sound old – "the king of Myr is always wroth with us. Kings mean little here, for all that we live on the border, and the last Whisperer who came into these parts is just dust and bones beneath the Bitter Hill."
"Well, that's good, then. That's good." Rodney looked upwards, listening to the thuds from above. "Maybe someone should go tell Ronon that we aren't being messily killed before he breaks the door down?"
The rain continued throughout the night. At noon the next day, Annis stood at the window, her hands at the small of her aching back, and watched Hewkin ride out with three others. "I wonder what he'll bring me this time," she said. She had cautioned him to be careful, not to blunder anywhere near Low Crag. With fugitives in the house, it would not be a good time to be landed with the results of one of Hewkin's wilder adventures. "Merrilyn, I hope."
Rodney said nothing, and Sheppard, of course, was silent. Her guests clearly did not entirely trust her not to kill him with her care, and at least one of Sheppard's three companions was always with him. Or perhaps they trusted her well enough, just needed to be there themselves, to see him with their own eyes, to share his final moment, if it came to that. She understood that, of course. It was just strange not to be alone in the sickroom. Her husband's final days she had endured entirely by herself.
"As soon as he was big enough to ride one," she said, as Hewkin raised one hand in farewell, then rode laughing into the dark, "he's always loved merrilyn. His favourite game is to catch wild merrilyn and bring them home to tame them to the saddle. The stable's bulging with them, far more than I need. Because, of course, he loses interest in them once they bow their heads to him."
Hewkin rode out of sight. Although it was still raining, the visibility was improving, and Annis looked the other way, over to the lands that were theoretically in Daryen. The dark shape of Three Towers was invisible, hidden by trees, but sometimes she wondered if Gavin and his daughters were looking back at her. They were her nearest neighbours, holding lands that made them swear allegiance to a different lord.
"He says the tame ones are slower," she said, "and he's never happier than when riding as fast as the wind on a wild brute that's doing its utmost to throw him off."
"Sounds like Sheppard," Rodney said. "The faster the better, with him. I keep telling him he's going to crash one day, and, well, of course, actually, uh, he did, hence this whole sorry mess."
Annis turned her back on the window and moved back to the bedside, to the high-backed chair that had become her domain for so many days in the winter gone. Tell me something else about him, she wanted to say, but did not, in case Rodney thought her a foolish old woman taking an interest in a man at least a dozen years her junior. There was a strange intimacy about a sickbed. She had bathed him and changed his clothes, and she had heard his fevered moans and pleadings in the night, but she still didn't know what colour his eyes were, and what his voice sounded like when it was strong.
"Were you satisfied with your breakfast?" she asked instead. Foolish woman, she chided herself, hearing how stilted it sounded, how inadequate, when this man's friend was fighting for his life in the bed beside him.
"It was very… meaty," Rodney said. "It's Ronon's fantasy dream breakfast: half a cow to rip apart with his teeth. Teyla says the sauce was very good, but I didn't have any, on account of it looking suspiciously yellow, and I couldn't find anyone who'd even heard of citrus, let alone someone who could tell me if I'd die--" Sheppard clawed at the blankets, trying to push them off. Rodney froze, watching him miserably. "Can't you, uh, stop that?"
Annis covered Sheppard again, holding the blanket down firmly as she spoke meaningless soothing words. It wasn't good for Sheppard to struggle. His ribs were injured, and his breathing was shallow and fast at the best of times, rattling in his chest. His wrists were the source of the wound-fever, though, and she recognised the marks of shackles - rusty ones, no doubt.
Then Sheppard stilled abruptly, and Rodney sucked in a breath. "He isn't…"
Annis touched Sheppard's neck. "Still alive," she was able to tell Rodney. "Bad as it looks, I think he's actually better than he was in the night." She had poured callow-bark tea between his lips and had slathered his wounds with medicinal salves, and she thought that the heat from him was less intense than it had been.
The door burst open and Ronon strode in. "My husband used to open doors like that," she told him, "as if they were enemies that needed subduing." Her hands trembled minutely – hands that knew how to hold a sword, and hands that could end a life as well as save one.
"They won't let me go outside." At least Ronon didn't shout, so the resemblance ended there. "You say we're guests, but they won't let me have my weapons."
"You must surely understand," Annis said. "I have the safety of my people to think of. I cannot take trust too far. You will get them back when you leave, you have my word on that." She gave a mirthless smile. "If you leave as friends, that is."
Remembering how Ronon had raged the day before, and knowing how her husband would have reacted if anyone had taken his weapons from him, she expected an argument, but Ronon seemed to accept it. Perhaps it was just that his anger was deflected by the sight of Sheppard's condition, bleak and awful in the muted daylight.
It was that acceptance that made her say more. "You can have the run of the yard and the outbuildings, but Teyla tells me that you are fugitives. My people won't talk, but there are people outside these walls that might, not to mention enemies who might jump at a chance to spread the news that the widow of Stone Hall is sheltering strangers on the run."
Perhaps Ronon hadn't even heard her. "How's Sheppard?"
"Still here," she said, knowing that Ronon would not accept platitudes. "I have reason to believe that the worst is over, but…" She ended it with a sigh. Sometimes people woke bright-eyed and lucid after the wound-fever, but were dead by morning.
"I'll sit with him." Ronon nodded at Rodney. "There's seed cake in the kitchen, and something with a soft root in it, good and hot."
Annis stood up and headed to the window, and touched the glass, watching the rain. She had always felt restless when confined inside, and she wanted to be young again, romping across the moor, chasing merrilyn, going wherever she willed. She remembered the shy, smiling boy she had met at Sweetwater Falls, and how they had nursed an injured sorrel together. It had died, though, and then her father had found out, and then his, and she had learnt that history and family names counted for everything. They still did, it seemed.
The door opened and closed again, and she knew that she was alone with Ronon, a man who reminded her of her husband. But also a man, she reminded herself, who was very clearly worried sick about his friend. She wondered what to say to him, then realised that he didn't expect her to say anything at all.
Sheppard moaned in his sleep. "Hey, Sheppard," Ronon said quietly. "Buddy?" When Annis turned her head, she saw how gentle his large hand was as he touched Sheppard's shoulder.
For some unaccountable reason, it almost made her want to weep. She turned back to the window, watching as a rider emerged from the trees. "Another messenger," she said. There had been three in as many days – couriers and pedlars coming from Daryen with strange news. "The end of the world's coming, apparently." The rider drew nearer, his head bowed against the rain, and she saw the device he wore on his breast, and saw, too, the nervous way he rode, as if he was expecting at any moment to be torn to pieces.
Annis cursed under her breath. Not a courier from Daryen, but a messenger from the king of Myr, doubtless with news of certain fugitives, and blustering threats about the consequences of concealing them. She would have to lie, and she hated lying. Or tell the truth, of course, she thought.
The rain finally stopped shortly before dawn on the following day. Annis and Teyla sat together at Sheppard's bedside for several hours, until Annis found herself dozing in her chair. "I believe he is past the worst of it now," Teyla said, after Annis jerked awake with a start. "You have been more than kind, but you need sleep."
Of course she did. His friends were attentive, and Teyla and Ronon clearly had more than a passing knowledge of caring for the sick and injured, despite their unfamiliarity with the specific herbs. There was no need for her to spend her time so ceaselessly at the bedside. No need? she thought, as she headed for the door. Her husband had died in this very room, despite her care. Perhaps she just wanted to show the world that a man in her care could also live.
She slept, although she had not expected to. She dreamt, though, not of the strangers, and not of the news the messenger had brought, but of her husband in one of his rages. She woke up trembling, tears dry on her face. By then, night was fast approaching. Someone had entered her room and left a covered plate of food on the dresser. Downstairs, though, dinner was in full swing, Hewkin leading the men in loud singing. Before the year was out, she thought, she would be lord of Stone Hall in every way that mattered, and what would be her role, then, but to wait and watch and fade away?
She smoothed her hair – not fully grey, not yet – and dressed herself, pulling on a simple front-lacing day-gown, skirts kirtled up for easy walking. Dalla met her in the corridor. "Oh. I would have dressed you, my lady."
"I've been dressing myself since before you were born, girl," Annis said, a little tetchily. "You pay altogether too much attention to the courtly nonsense in the packmen's papers. How are our guests?"
Sheppard, she heard, was peacefully sleeping, his fever much decreased. The others were eating in their room, "on account of what the messenger said about them being wanted men. Master Hewkin thought it best not to allow them in the hall. Too many people."
All of whom had already seen them, of course, but wouldn't say a word to anyone outside family and hall. It was a sound enough decision, though – unusually so for Hewkin. Every riding man on the estate crammed into the hall for dinner one night out of three, and drink flowed freely, and many things could happen, and often did.
Instead of heading for the sickroom, Annis made for the room where her other guests were quartered. "…light must mean that someone's trying to make contact," Rodney was exclaiming excitedly. "That's how you know to touch it just there, to receive the message. They must be calibrated, connected to each other somehow. Is it one to one, I wonder, or one to many, and if it's one to many, how do you do you indicate which one you want to communicate with?"
The thief was sitting in the window-seat, his pose one of studied boredom. Teyla was listening to Rodney with the patient air of someone who had been listening for a very long time. The boy was writing something, his page covered with black scored lines, and Ronon was absent, presumably sitting with Sheppard.
Annis had intended to say many things – to politely enquire about their dinner, perhaps, or to share the good news about Sheppard – but instead she found herself saying, "You are heading for Daryen?"
The boy started in a way that might have been comical. Rodney pulled up a side of the tablecloth and dropped it over the thing he was studying, and even the thief stiffened. Only Teyla kept her calm. "It is unavoidable," she said. "Our way home lies through Daryen."
"Yes." Annis walked to the window, standing too close to the thief. "A messenger came yesterday with interesting news. He asked us to look out for an escaped prisoner, a dark-haired thief, and some others. They killed a Whisperer, I hear, and they also abducted a nobleman's son from his chamber. The way he told it, I got the impression that the boy was a child yet – a gold-haired lad, quite innocent of harm." She looked at Jasper as she said it; saw how tightly he was clutching his pen.
"We were honest with you from the start." Teyla held her ground. I like you, my dear, Annis thought, but let none of that show on her face. "You said it did not matter."
"Ah, but the messenger brought other news," Annis told them. "Yesterday morning, the King of Myr sent his army across the border. The Basilis of Daryen is bound to respond. As of today, we are at war."
"War?" the boy gasped. "Why?"
Annis sat down on the bed beside him. "Since when have those two needed a reason for war? The immediate cause, I would imagine, is this stolen boy. Noblemen do not, as a rule, react well when people steal their heirs away."
"Perhaps…" Jasper's voice came out as a squeak. "Perhaps he wasn't stolen, but left of his own accord."
"I am sure that he did," Annis told him, "or things would be very different."
"Are you…" Rodney stood up, chair scraping on the stone floor. "Are you going to hand us over? Not that it's us, of course. We didn't do anything. Mistaken identity, and all that."
"We need to get to Daryen," Teyla said. "If our presence here puts you in danger, we will leave tonight."
Rodney looked stricken. "But Sheppard--"
"I told you how things stood two nights ago." Despite her sleep, Annis felt deeply weary. "This is a border castle, and, yes, we spend much of our time trying to tweak the beards of the families that live across the border. The fact that they live in Daryen lands and we owe allegiance to Myr makes a good excuse. War will doubtless make that worse. However, here at Stone Hall, our worst enemies are those from Low Crag, firmly on the Myr side of the border." And my closest friend is in Daryen, she thought, thinking of Gavin, the gentle-eyed boy from Sweetwater Falls, he of a dozen snatched meetings over a lifetime of years. Now he was a frontier lord for an enemy state, and would be expected to send ridings against her own walls.
"The thing is," she said, heading for the vacant window, that looked not towards Daryen but back to the high peaks of Myr, "we understand each other, here on the border. We live the same life. Our so-called enemies across the border feel like brothers – brothers that we fight with," she added, with a smile. "Brothers that we sometimes hate and sometimes try to kill, but brothers all the same. People in the city, people in the towns and villages, don't understand us, and we don't understand them. If the King of Myr arrived with a battalion and started burning down halls on the Daryen side of the border, he would find that nothing unites the people of the borders as much as a common enemy."
Teyla touched on her on the shoulder, and there was comfort in the touch, as much as understanding. "We understand," she said.
"We understand?" Rodney echoed. "Do we?"
But as she left, she wondered if they really did – if anyone could.
"You want to be out there." Annis smiled. "I recognise that look."
Sheppard was in the high-backed chair, which someone – Ronon, perhaps – had moved to the window for him. Annis had missed the moment he had woken up, had missed his first lucid words. It was right, of course, that the people who knew him best should get to share his recovery. Her own care was needed less and less, now that Sheppard could drink the tea by himself, holding the cup in tremulous hands. She had missed him walking from the bed to the chair, too, though she understood him well enough to know that he had indeed walked, and not got Ronon to carry him.
"Yeah." Sheppard shrugged. "I hate being sick."
Annis was sewing one of her husband's old tunics, adapting it for Sheppard's slimmer frame. She wondered whether to say the thing that popped into her mind. "Graye tells me," she began – not Hewkin, of course; Hewkin would never think of such a thing – "that when they found you, you were busy telling your friends to leave you."
He shifted slightly in the chair. "I don't remember much. I was out of it."
She made another stitch, sewing carefully over older seams. "You are their riding captain? Forgive me. You are their leader?"
"They're my team," he said, "and the boy… well, he's my responsibility." He added nothing more, as if that said everything that was needed. Perhaps it did.
Annis said nothing, but her next stitch missed, the needle jabbing into her finger. You could tell a lot about a man by the way their followers behaved around them, of course. Her husband had been lord of Stone Hall for thirty years, but she had sat in his sickroom alone. Even Hewkin had stayed away, spending his father's last hours in a wild search for merrilyn.
"They wouldn't have left you," she said. "Not them."
"They should have." His faint smile was a cover for other things. "I think we need to have the talk again, the one about them following orders."
"I thought you didn't remember anything," she dared to say.
His hand was on the wooden arm of the chair, and she looked at the mottled sky beyond his profile. "We're on the run," he said, changing the subject as she had known he would. "Doesn't matter why. Doesn't matter that we didn't do it. There's a Whisperer, and…" He turned his head towards her. "We'll leave as soon as we can."
"By which you mean sooner than is good for you," she told him calmly, rubbing blood between her thumb and forefinger, "and undoing all my work."
The hand tightened. "I just need to get my team home." He said 'need', not 'want', she noticed. Just as you could tell a lot about a man by the way their followers behaved, you could learn a lot by how he behaved when sick, and what slipped past his defences.
"I know," she said. "Don't worry about us. We have our own loyalties here, that have little to do with distant kings. Family. Friends. Right. I am sure you understand."
His eyes met hers, still shadowed with illness, but bright. "I do."
How much of this would be said, she thought, if he was fully well? How much of this would be said at all if she was not a stranger?
She picked up the jacket again; tried to return to the seam. The needle jabbed in sharply, still stained a little with blood. "I didn't kill my husband."
"Oh." His eyebrows rose. "That's, uh, good to know."
"He took six days to die." In went the needle, in and out. "Six days in that bed, raving with the wound-fever. I hated him." She pulled the thread tight. "He was violent and he was a brute and he didn't care for anyone but himself. But I didn't kill him. I did everything I could to save him. I fed him what I fed you, and I salved his wounds as I salved yours, but he still died. He was lucid at the end, and blamed me, but I did everything. His constitution was weak from past wounds and too much drinking. It wasn't me."
Sheppard said nothing. What was there to say? She had never said this to anybody; would never say it again.
"But although I gave him medicine," she said, "I couldn't give him love. I sat there, in the chair you're in now, and watched him. I didn't…" And it was amazing that even now she could shed tears for it. "No-one sat with him, worried sick, like your friends did with you."
He said nothing. What could you say to a crazy woman who suddenly told you that? But if he hadn't come, would she ever have said it? If she hadn't nursed him these last few days, would she even have said it to herself? She had hated her husband, and now he was dead, and she had nothing to blame herself for – nothing. She had no need to stay loyal to his memory, and no need, either, to stay loyal to that distant king. She had said as much to Teyla and the others, but she had not truly believed it.
She was free, she thought. She was absolved, and she was free.
It was two more days before Sheppard judged himself ready to leave, but his friends dug in their heels and made him take another day. Annis would have had him take at least three more, but she knew that she had no more chance of persuading him than she had of turning back time. Every day brought in more tales of approaching war, and the roads were growing dangerous, and he felt the call of his distant, unknown home.
She knew so little about them, really, though she felt that she knew them in every way that mattered.
"Here," she said, leading them to the stables. Six merrilyn to help them on their way. "Have you ridden--?"
"Horses," Rodney said. "Once. Long ago. Not things like this, so big." He mimed hugeness with his hands. "Seriously, their ears are freaky."
"Freaky?" Sheppard was still pale, and he moved with the steadiness of the recently sick. He patted the nearest animal, his fingers raking through the long brown fur.
Annis thought he was going to say more – that he was going to say that they could not possibly take them. She patted the animal herself, her hand a long way from his. "As I told your friends, I have far more merrilyn than I need. They're bought with nothing more than my son's time. Besides," she said, smiling, "I won't have you undoing all my good work by walking all the way to Daryen. Take them." She lowered her voice. "You'll get your people home quicker this way."
His eyes met hers, and he nodded, a quick nod.
She watched them mount. Rodney protested loudly, and looked amazed when he found himself safely in the saddle, not falling off the other side. Ronon mounted quickly, and sat there watching the others, as if to say, 'Why aren't you ready yet?' The stable lads loaded up their packs, such as they were, and the few extras she had chosen to give them. She had also given them a pennant to fly. "Border code," she had explained, "for travellers that mean no harm and are not to be inconvenienced. Most will observe it, I hope, unless they are in argumentative mode."
Then there was nothing left but the goodbyes. The thief, she saw, was the most eager of all of them to be gone, and he rode his merrilyn in a way that told her he had ridden many before, and had had a good teacher. "That one," she said quietly to Sheppard, in the guise of straightening his saddle cloth, "is playing a game of his own."
He looked sharply at her, but merely said, "I know."
"And you need to make a decision about the boy."
He nodded at that, too, but said nothing.
What could you say to a man whose life you had saved? What could you say to a stranger who had seen you at your weakest and your worst? Nothing, it seemed, just a farewell and a thank you and a well-wishing, and no promises to meet again.
And so they rode away. But, afterwards, she lingered in the yard, and when Dalla called to her, she waved her hand and walked away. No loyalty, she thought. No loyalty to her dead husband, and no loyalty to distant kings. She had helped Sheppard and his friends, and she had harboured the crown prince of Myr, and had sent him on his way. No loyalty, except to those who deserved it. No loyalty, except to what was right.
Behind her, Hewkin came clattering out of the door, shouting orders to the boys. He was taking on more and more of the duties around the estate, and before very long, she would find herself with nothing.
"Saddle me Brown Rosie," she said to the nearest lad. When it was done, she mounted and went to the gate. "What are you doing, ma?" she heard Hewkin ask, and she turned, smiling, and said, "Something I should have done a long time ago."
Many years before, only eight years old, she had met a boy by the falls, but her father had deemed him unsuitable because his father owed allegiance to the wrong king. In time, she had married a brute and a bully who served the right one, and the boy, Gavin, had married a spineless lass. They had met so seldom over the years, but each moment had been golden. Now her husband was dead, and now his wife was gone… And now they were at war, two frontier chieftains facing each other over the border.
No loyalty, she thought, as she rode out into the green hills, beneath the sleeping peaks. Sheppard and his friends were still visible - distant specks on the far rising. Nothing to stop her from knowing him, except those barriers that had existed in her own heart. Nothing to stop her from loving him.
And soon, so soon – so close, he had been, for all these years – she arrived at the gate of Three Towers, and Gavin was there to meet her, and he was smiling.
end of interlude
On to chapter nine
Note: Interrupting once again with a note, on the grounds that I can talk for hours about this story. (Just wait until you see the length of my closing notes at the end: two pages so far, and growing by the day.) I was awaiting posting this chapter with huge trepidation, but also huge anticipation, because it's actually just about my favourite chapter of the entire story. With the other OCs, it took me a while to get into their heads, but with Annis, I instantly felt as if I'd been writing her for months. After Jasper and Kit, it was also quite refreshing to have a narrator who was both perceptive and honest. It was also refreshing to have a character arc that I could complete in a single day, without having to carefully pace developments over 200 pages. So hence the anticipation. The trepidation…? Because, of course, I'm really nervous that everyone will dislike the chapter that is dear to me, and go, "Oh no! Not another OC!" and want the regular two back. Normal Jasper-and-Kit service will be resumed in the next chapter, and continue until the end.
These Debateable Lands, by the way, are very strongly inspired by the England/Scotland border in the sixteenth century.