Ververe 14, 1014
It had been a long, hot day — scorching, in fact. The sort of day where even in the depths of the woods you felt the heat pouring down onto the earth. It was a wet heat, too: every breath brought with it something like a mouthful of wet cotton. Walk a little too fast, misjudge the pitch of a hill, or heaven forbid, run, and you would gasp like a beached fish, gulping and gulping but never quite getting the life-giving air you needed.
It was days like today that made Ash grateful for the little tavern in the woods.
Or was it a tavern? A lodge, maybe. It had been built ages and ages ago. The trees remembered when it had gone up, right on a busy road that cut through the kingdom on the way to Camford. That was back before there had even been an Albion, back when this land was still firmly in the bosom of Glasonland. It was before even the first of the Reman incursions, though the trees didn’t call them that. But when the Remans came and order broke down and Albion became a lawless hinterland, the lodge remained. Woodsmen and hunters still traveled through these forests in pursuit of game and other resources. And even thieves needed a place to eat. So the lodge had set up an unofficial policy that all were welcome inside its doors, unless you made trouble inside. That was the only reason, Ash suspected, that he was welcome inside.
It didn’t matter. Today, it was a place in the cool. They would have water and ale there. Every step made Ash break out in sweat, and unlike a tree, he didn’t have a system of roots to pull up water from deep in the earth. He would get dangerously overspent if he kept going without some rest.
But the best part of all? This was the middle of the afternoon. Men usually filtered into the lodge starting in the late afternoon and early evening. Nobody would bother Ash today, unofficial policy or no unofficial policy, because he would be the only one there.
Or so he thought.
Ash stopped short with one hand still on the door, eying the other man at the bar. A hunter — nobody else dressed in skins like that. Even worse. Most of the hunters of the kingdom dealt Ash a grudging respect and courtesy because only an idiot mistreated the royal gamekeeper or called him barkie. And Ash did his best to be fair to all of them and manage the King’s game in a way that let all the hunters feed their families while still making sure the King had plenty for sport. But at the end of the day, he was still the gamekeeper — the man standing between the hunters and all the game or skins they wanted. And he was still a Plantsim.
More importantly than any of that, he realized, he was parched. He would start off with small ale, which still had enough of the sun’s sweet energy from the hops and barley to give him a bit of a jolt. And then … well, once he was a little bit cooler, he would go back out, take a drink from the well, and be on his way.
Feeling better for having a plan of action, Ash took a seat on the far end of the bar.
The man heard him, glanced in his direction in the casual way of one bar patron to another. He even started to nod. Then he blinked, did a double take, and his jaw slowly opened wide.
Ash tried not to squirm. “Emilia …” he murmured, intending to get his small ale quickly and be gone. He’d never seen this man in the lodge before. Best not to take the chance of trouble, be blamed for starting it, and never be let in here again.
“Hey, friend,” called the man on the other end of the bar. Ash almost did a double take himself. Friend? Was the man calling him friend? “I know it’s hotter than the blazes out there, but ye don’t have ter sit all the way down there by yerself if ye’re not wantin’ ter. I don’t bite.” He chuckled. “Even me kiddies’ll tell ye that the bark is much worse than the bite.”
Ash blinked … then he did something that he would have thought was unthinkable, had anyone told him he would do it. He blamed it on the surprise.
He slid off the barstool and took the one next to the man.
“Thanks,” Ash murmured.
“Don’t be thankin’ me, friend. Barstool’s free to whoever wants it.”
“As long as it’s a drink ye’re gettin’,” put in Emilia. “Small ale, Ash?”
“Aye, thank’ee, Em,” Ash replied. Then he looked awkwardly at the other man and wondered what the hell he was supposed to do next. He liked to come to the lodge so he could watch the people. But despite years and years of watching, now that he was actually in the position of interacting with another Sim at a bar, he couldn’t remember what he was supposed to do.
He almost sighed. This had all been so much easier when he was younger, greener … and frankly, stupider. He’d met Lyndsay at this lodge, when her family was camped out front and trying to figure out which way to go next. She’d walked up to him, bold as brass, when he’d been nursing a small ale in a corner by himself and asked him what a man as handsome was he was doing hiding his face in a dark corner.
“By the by,” the man coughed, “I–I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Roy Jager.”
Ash gulped. The man was actually introducing himself? What was the world coming to? “Ash Thatcher,” he replied.
Roy blinked once or twice, as if he knew the name — but he was a hunter, so of course he would know the name. His only real reply, though, was to stick his hand out for a shake. Ash met it halfway and shook.
Then it was back to awkward silence while Ash desperately tried to think of some small talk. He finally came up with something and spat it out. “I–I know most o’ the hunters around here, Goodman Jager — but ye’re lookin’ new ter me.”
“Ah. I only moved ter Albion ’round a year an’ a half ago,” replied Roy. “An’ I’ve been doin’ most o’ me huntin’ around me home — not on Royal lands.”
Ash nodded. Technically all the game in the kingdom was under his purview, but he was only one man and could only walk so far. So he had a territory stretching from Camelot to Avilion, where the King did most of his hunting (on the rare occasion when he hunted), and the other woods were left to the control of the local lords. “Where’s home fer ye?” he asked.
“Lothianshire,” replied Roy. Ash almost choked.
Lothianshire? Ash had avoided that area even before Thorn had been kidnapped and nearly killed. The trees there sensed the darkness that was Lady Morgause and quietly urged Ash away. And then in ’95 something — evil had happened. Ash could think of no other word to describe it. He knew Lord Accolon had died and been brought back about then — maybe that was all it was. If “all” was the word for it. Either way, he had stayed well away. He should have warned the kiddies away, too, but by the time Bran and then Ginny and Thorn had come along, staying away was such an ingrained habit he hadn’t even thought to bring it up with the kids.
Betony, Cicely, Dilla and any other children he had would know differently. But in the meantime, he was saved from having to reply to Em coming back with his drink.
“Thank’ee,” Ash murmured, taking a sip of the small ale. It was bitter and heady — but sunlight swam just under the surface, and a few sips would have him feeling much better.
“So,” Roy murmured, “where’s home fer ye?”
“Eh …” Ash hesitated. It wasn’t just because of Roy, or because he didn’t want the location of his home getting about. There was no point in hoping for that anyway. But it was a hard home to pinpoint. “Right in the borderlands o’ Camelotshire an’ Avilionshire. Near Apple Keep.”
He did not mention that his home was a tree.
Roy had his head cocked to one side. “Apple Keep?”
“Lady Morgan’s home,” Ash replied.
“Lady Mor–ye mean the … the witch?” Roy whispered.
Amazing. This man didn’t so much as look at him funny — well, maybe a little funny, but he was doing his best to be friendly anyway — but he got all discombobulated at the mention of a witch?
“Aye. But she’s a good witch,” Ash replied. “An’ a good neighbor. She’ll leave ye be if ye leave her be. An’ …” Ash swallowed air, then took a swallow of ale. “She did a right good turn fer me nevvie Thorn once.”
There. That ought to end any questions from that corner. Roy Jager hadn’t been here long, but surely he would have heard that story by now.
He must have. He blinked. “Yer — yer nevvie Thorn? Would that be the Thorn Thatcher what …?”
“Aye,” replied Ash, praying that would be the end of it.
But maybe the monks and nuns had a point or two about the Lord. They’d say things that if the Lord didn’t answer a prayer, it was for a reason, because He had a larger plan in mind. Ash used to think that was bull, but … well. You just never knew.
Because Roy asked, “Really? ‘Cause me daughter — Anja — she’s got a friend what says Thorn is her nevvie … Ella Pelles? Is she yer …”
“Ella?” That was all he wanted to know? “Aye. She’s me sister.” Ash caught himself. “Well–half-sister, if ye’re bein’ persnickety about it.”
“Ah!” Roy nodded. Then he laughed. “Ye Albionese — ye’re all so connected. Even though ye’re flung out all over the kingdom. Back home …”
“Back … back home?” Ash asked.
“In Glasonland,” replied Roy. “There … well, ye got ter jest about any village, an’ aye, most of the folk are related someway, somehow … but the most that somebody’ll have is a cousin in the nearest market town. Not sisters an’ brothers every which way.”
“Oh,” Ash murmured. “Well … there’s only so many o’ us … an’ most of the folks what come from Glasonland — a long time ago, that is, not so recent as ye did — they’re tight, I think. Ye know Ella is married ter Lukas Pelles — me other sis Roma is married ter Simon Chevaux — an’ Simon’s brother Pierre is married ter Lukas’s sister Meg, and their sis Joyce is married ter Berach Brogan, an’ his brother is married ter Pierre and Simon’s sister Toinette …”
“An’ ye’re all in different shires?” asked Roy.
Roy shook his head and took a sip of his own ale. “Amazin’,” he murmured. “See, back home, ye’d get a family tree all twisted an’ tangled like that, easy — but it would all be in one village. Not even a whole shire.”
“Goodness,” Ash murmured.
“But then, here an’ there ye find families what ain’t in the tangle — not families like mine, either, what just got here, but families that have been here fer a while …”
“Aye, like mine,” Ash said without even thinking about it — at least until Roy looked at him funny.
And then he heard what he had said. Of course his family was in the tangle — at least, through Ella and Roma’s marriages it was. But it wasn’t really. He could manage to wrangle recognition from Simon Chevaux, but his family was no more than a distant connection to the Chevauxes. They were closer to the Pelleses, but that was more because of Thorn than Ella. Their roots might lead back to that tangle, but the Thatchers were a branch of their own.
“Er … that is …” Ash could only shrug. “We keep ourselves ter ourselves …”
“Ah. Well … livin’ out near the woods will do that ter ye.” That was an understatement if Ash had ever heard one, but it was kindly meant. “Me … me wife used ter …” Roy sighed and swallowed. “She got lonely. Used ter say that if I didn’t bring her inter town every now an’ again, she’d start givin’ the deer names an’ makin’ them her gossips.” Roy laughed. “I always wondered what she would’ve called ’em … I should’ve asked her …”
Would’ve. Should’ve. Ash guessed that the wife had passed on. He barely held back a shudder, putting himself in Roy’s boots with barely any prompting. What would he do without Lyndsay?
He wouldn’t think about it — too hard. “Me wife is much the same. Only … she’s got lots o’ friends, an’ she’s the one what keeps draggin’ me out, ’cause she says if she don’t, I’ll get wilder an’ wilder, until one day, I’ll go out inter the woods an’ … not come back.”
Ash turned back to his ale. “But I wouldn’t do that ter her. Ter the kids.” Still, he could see her worry. It wasn’t any secret between the two of them that she and the kids were the only things tying him to the larger Sim world. He’d have melted into the woods long ago if it wasn’t for her.
“No real father an’ husband would leave,” replied Roy. “Not when they’re countin’ on ye.”
“Aye,” Ash agreed. They both took a swallow of ale — or whatever Roy was drinking — in unison.
When Roy put his down, he changed the subject. “Ye know … a … a friend o’ mine mentioned yer wife. Ye–ye know Erin Shepherd?”
“Erin?” Ash asked. And she mentioned Lyndsay? Not Marigold? Why–
Oh. Of course. She was respectable now. Ash kicked himself. Why did have to be so slow and stupid when it came to these things?
“Aye, I know her. Lyndsay an’ me have known her fer years.”
“She’s — she’s a good woman,” Roy murmured. “She’s … she’s got her little boy.”
“Wulf,” Ash agreed. “He’s close ter Thorn, age-wise.”
“Ah,” Roy murmured. “He’s me Torben’s best friend. An’ she’s real good ter Torben — an’ me daughter Anja, too. An’ she’d be good ter me other kids, if she acted with ’em much,” Roy chuckled.
“Others? How many ye got?” Ash asked.
“Five,” Roy replied. “Anja, then Erich, Torben, Matthias — and lastly me baby Gretchen.”
Baby Gretchen. Well, it wouldn’t take a mathematician to put two and two together and divine what had happened to Roy’s wife.
“An’ ye?” asked Roy.
“Oh–I’ve got six. Well–five plus Thorn. We’re raisin’ him fer me sister,” replied Ash. Then, before Roy could ask about Marigold, Ash hurried, “There’s first Bran, then Ginny, Thorn, then Betony, Cicely, and Dilla.”
Roy blinked. “Plant names, all o’ em.”
Ash swallowed. “Aye — aye.” He ran a hand through his leaves. “That were Lyndsay’s idea …”
“Clever one,” Roy murmured.
“They ain’t like me,” Ash stumbled on. “Not–leafy.” He ran a hand through his leaves again, as if the point needed underlining. “But Lyndsay … she says she always wants our kids ter remember where they came from. Hard ter ferget if yer name points back ter yer roots like an arrow …”
Roy had his head tilted to one side, then he slowly nodded. “I wish yer Lyndsay could’ve met me Luise. I think … I think they’d have gotten on.”
Ash wondered what there was in the little he had said to make Roy so sure about that. Then again … why should he wonder? Lyndsay had plenty of friends. She would have had a lot more if it wasn’t for him.
But she chose ye, ye loon, remarked the voice of reason in Ash’s head. She could have twitched her skirts fer any gypsy boy with a brain an’ he’d come runnin’. But she picked ye.
That was the knowledge Ash clung to when he was certain that all he was doing was dragging Lyndsay and the kids down.
He had to say something, though, so he scrambled for anything that would sound remotely appropriate. “Aye,” he finally spat out. “Me …” He looked away. “Me Lyndsay could always use more friends.”
“Can’t we all,” murmured Roy. He took another slow, meditative sip of his ale.
Ash looked at his glass, but it was empty. Not that there should have been a surprise there. That was what happened when you drank it all.
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He was feeling … better. Definitely cooler, and a little less sluggish. He didn’t need more ale. When he left, he would take a few good, long drinks from the well, and he would be good to go for another couple of hours.
Roy put his mug down on the counter, stretched, and stood. “Well, friend, it’s time fer me ter be leavin’,” he said, stangind. “Kiddies’ll be worried sick if I ain’t home soon.”
“Oh,” replied Ash. He glanced at Roy. “Well–it were nice meetin’ ye, Goodman Jager.”
“Same ter ye, Goodman Thatcher.” Ash almost blinked — when was the last time someone had called him Goodman? Even the hunters at their most respectful could never get out more than Thatcher.
Roy took a few steps closer to the door, then he turned around. “Ye — do ye come here often, by any chance? It’s jest, I’m tryin’ ter be in this neighborhood on Thursdays, fer the huntin’ … an’ no offense ter Em, but it can get mighty lonesome drinkin’ by yerself …”
Ash blinked. Was — was he requesting companionship? From him?
Ash swallowed. “I can be here on Thursdays — I wander here an’ there throughout the day. But I usually end up here in the afternoons.”
“Good. I’ll see ye then?” He stuck out a hand to shake.
Ash swallowed, then he stood and shook Roy Jager’s hand. “Aye. Aye, I’ll see you then.”