The harsh rasp of a strange man’s voice woke her. Where was she? Dried scallas and peppers hung from the rafters of the -- loft? She put her feet on the rough wood floor. Memories surfaced slowly. She was Egeria and this was her home. She turned her head and stared at the huge empty bed. Where was Malara? Egeria had no memories of ever sleeping alone in the loft. Always her sister had been with her.
“Where is she?” the stranger bellowed. “Malara ails.”
“Don’t shout. Egeria’s moon-touched and slow, but she obeys.”
The sound of her father’s voice drew her to the opening where a ladder led to the lower floor of the farmhouse. She stared at the stranger. Who was he?
“She should be here to tend the fire and fetch the eggs for my breakfast.”
Egeria frowned. Why did this man give orders? The farm was Malara’s legacy from their mother. She smoothed the skirt of the dress she’d slept in and pulled on the fleece-lined ankle boots. As she climbed the ladder, a wave of dizziness nearly made her fall.
She glanced around the large main room. Fireplaces stood at either end. Around one was a circle of chairs. Near the second, a more massive one, stood a long table flanked by benches and chairs at the ends. On the wall near a door, an open cupboard held dishes. Pans and kettles hung from hooks on the stone wall of the hearth.
“What kept you?” A muscular man with red hair grabbed her arm. “See to your chores.”
“Who are you?” Only garbled sounds emerged. Where were her sister and her brother?
“Idiot.” The man pushed her toward the hearth. “The fire. The eggs. Can’t you remember anything from one day to the next?”
Egeria raked ashes from the banked fire. She added kindling to the glowing coals. When the flames leaped high, she reached for several logs. This return to a routine stirred memories. She donned her cloak and lifted the egg basket.
Outside she opened the door of the pullet house. Straw spilled from the waist-high shelves on three sides of the narrow shed. She collected eggs from beneath the squawking layers. Then she spread grain in the feeding trough. Her thoughts churned with bits of knowledge.
As she returned to the house, her brother hailed her. “You are late. Has he been at you again?”
She turned. “Who?” Her tongue felt less tight.
He stepped back and shook his head. “He wouldn’t dare take you the way he has Malara. No man would harm one touched by the Mistress.” He frowned. “’Tis foolish to tell you these things for you don’t understand.” He opened the kitchen door.
His words set off an avalanche of thoughts. Tave was her father’s name. Trag, her brother’s. There’d been trouble and many soldiers. Then the stranger had come.
She put the egg basket on the table. Malara stood at the hearth. Strips of shoat sizzled on the flat stone griddle that jutted from the side of the huge fireplace. Steam rose from a kettle hanging on a hook.
The stranger put his arms around Malara and stroked her abdomen. “Are you sure you nest my son?”
Daughter, Egeria thought. How did she know that?
Malara bowed her head. “The Mistress has withdrawn her blessings from me these past two lunars. What else can it be?”
He touched her pale gold hair. Tenderness showed in his light brown eyes. He released Malara and turned to the table where Egeria placed dishes. “One place only. The rest of you eat when I’m done.” He raised his fist.
“Radon, don’t strike her,” Malara cried. “She follows a routine and your coming has made a change. She’ll learn the new pattern in time.”
He rested his elbows on the table. “Should the coming child be a girl, will it be like her?”
“If the Mistress gives me one of her daughters, I’ll rejoice. Egeria sees things we don’t. Wait ‘til you see how her garden grows and the amount of honey from her hives.” She placed a full plate in front of him.
He caught her hand. “Be glad I’m only a former soldier and not a follower of the gray priests. You’d be beaten for speaking of the whore you worship.” He shook his head. “When I took this farm as payment for my time of service, I thought I’d have an inner court of two women. After my brother arrives I’ll visit
and choose a handmaiden from the pens.”
Tears filled Malara’s eyes. “Radan, you can’t bring a strange woman to upset the harmony of the house.”
“Fool. I’m allowed as many women as I have coins to pay the taxes. This farm is rich. In the spring, a women’s court will be built. Then none but my eyes can feast on my women.”