“Rafe, tell us a scar story.” The three little girls, eyes fastened on her face, wore, much as Rafe and Jenna did when they were that age, loose fitting trousers, buckled at the waist. Laces hung from the knees where they could bind the legging close in for warmth or work in the woods.
Rafe kept on with her knitting but looked at her own legs. The cuffs were drawn in tight against her ankles and tucked into the heavy woolen socks worn indoors; the legs were loose to her waist. She missed her leather breeches.
“A scar story?”
The little girls nodded and Rafe pulled off her left sock. She pointed to the puckered line of skin snaking along the top of her foot into the space between her middle toe and the pinky. The fourth toe was missing. “Like that?” she asked.
The girls clutched hands and leaned in for a closer look. The one in the middle (was that one of Healer’s granddaughters?) dropped her friend’s hand and reached out a finger. “Can I touch it?” She looked up at Rafe, who nodded. The girl bent nearly double and ran a finger lightly along the scar from foot ridge to toe gap.
“Can you feel it?”
“No.” Rafe shook her head and smiled. “The skin around the scar, yes. But not the scar itself.”
“Did it hurt?” The girl looked up at Rafe again.
Rafe raised an eyebrow.
“I mean,” said the girl, “did it hurt to have the toe cut off. Nanna says that sometimes, when something on the inside is badly cut, there’s no feeling. Did that happen for your toe?”
“No. It did not. It hurt like a…” Rafe looked at the young faces and struggled for a word to use. “Like a beezer,” she finished.
“Inchy Foal says ‘son of a houley,’ but Ma says I mustn’t say that,” observed the little girl on the left. “She says that Inchy Foal is no better than he should be.” She paused as her attention was recalled to the missing toe. “Inchy Foal’s got three missing toes. On one foot.”
“No one cares about Inchy Foal’s nasty old foot,” said the other little girl. “He got his foot froze in the river, face down drunk on the ice,” she informed Rafe before turning to instruct her cronies. “But Rafe’s a soldier. How’d you lose yours Rafe?”
Rafe watched the little girls, now squatting around her foot. They had attracted a little knot of boys who were feigning boredom while sauntering nearer. “I lost it just after joining Graven’s Guard. I’m surprised they let me stay”
“For being wounded in battle?” asked the girl who had quoted Inchy Foal.
“For being stupid. I lost the toe in a game of mumbledy-peg.” There was no trace of a smile on Rafe’s face as she looked from girl to girl.
She had been young, just weeks away from Riverside. The Guard were the first official looking command Rafe had encountered. They had taken her on, sworn her in, and sent her off to be billeted with a troop of young women, The Ragged Range. After dinner she had joined a group playing near the fire.
Rafe had grown up playing mumbledy-peg. At home she was among the best and won as often as Marlon or her sister Jenna. She hadn’t counted on the cutthroat nature of the game here. She was balancing the point of her knife on her middle finger when a searing pain pierced her foot to the sound of a solid “thwack.” She screamed as she looked down. The knife exploded, pieces shooting between the legs of her opponents and burying themselves in an ale barrel on one side, and a tent pole on the other. The other players shifted nervously, but from exactly what aspect of this event, Rafe could not tell. The others distanced themselves from both Rafe and her opponent.
“Wait,” the Healer child snapped Rafe back from the past. “You took off your own toe? To, what? Prove how brave you were?”
“No.” Rafe sighed. “I got cocky and the other soldier put her knife in my foot to teach me to mind my betters.”
The girls drifted off after a final squint at the scar. Rafe pulled on her sock and picked up her needles again
“Nicely played, Sister.” Jenna stepped out from behind one of the pillars. “You know they really wanted to know about the scar on your face?”
Rafe nodded her head.
“I’d like to know, too. You said nothing the whole time you were in bed. Nor later when you were up and about. Nor even ever wrote home about it.”
“You’re right. But I didn’t know what had happened. The crack on my head addled my brain. Knocked any real memory of battle clean away.” Rafe counted her rows and started to turn the heel in the new sock as Jenna pulled out her own knitting.
“But you remember well enough now.”
“Gods, Jenna, will you let it rest?” They knit on, side by side. Rafe felt Jenna’s eyes on her from time to time, but said nothing.
Finally Jenna drew her finger along the scar. It was the same gesture she’d used when she’d applied salve when it was first healing. “It’s mended well.”
Rafe nodded, counting stitches. She knew Jenna was thinking about the months of convalescence, when the source of the wound had remained a mystery. Jenna had pushed, her whole family had pushed, to find out what had happened. Healer had held firm that Rafe would remember when she did, and that being badgered would only slow down the process. Rafe had taken that as a mantra and stuck with her story that she remembered nothing. The fleeting images she saw when on the edge of sleep or waking, images of blood cascading over her, of screams, the clash of metal, would help no one. They certainly didn’t help her. What she knew of that battle was only by hearsay.
The following spring she had caught up with Curion, who had commanded her opposite cohort in Graven’s Guard. He had been the one to drag her to Riverside. It had been the usual story of blood feud, armies hired, and villages trampled in the onslaught. She and her Ragged Rangers had ridden into a knot of foot soldiers, unaware that the enemy’s mounts lay under them, camouflaged under piles of straw and brush, prepared to rise in ambush. Rafe had been slashed by a pike from the left, only to be lifted up, mid-fall, by another pike coming from the right. As she soared over her own horse, a battle axe had slashed her face, brow to mouth. She had fallen, wound down, with her head pressing the wound closed, or she would have died right then. She would have died anyway if her Rangers had not encircled her, facing the enemy shoulder to shoulder, gutting horses and soldiers alike in their berserker rage.
“There was nothing you could have done. Nothing any of us could have done except learn the trick for next time. I remembered you talking of Maurphin River, what you called ‘Riverside,’ and your father’s forge. I hoped you still had people there. Anyway, better to die in your homeland than in a foreign abattoir. So I dragged you. And I came back to fight.”