It was Return Day, forty-seven days past Solstice, and the town of Riverside had been living in Winter Home for close to seventy. The worst of the winter storms has passed and herdsmen reported that the ewes were near lambing. The sun had returned to the sky with authority, neither hiding below the horizon nor veiling itself in clouds.
The people of Riverside were putting the finishing touches on the brooms they would use to sweep out the old dirt and dust from their houses and shops, as if scouring floors and counters had not been the last thing they had done before descending the ladders into Winter Home. They would walk softly into their homes so as not to disturb the dust that had settled over the winter, dampening it to keep it from floating back into the air, and carefully sweep and clean.
Rafe saw a vision of her parents sweeping out house and forge while she and Jenna toiled in the barn, hauling three months of manure to the garden pile. That last year, Ducky had been part of the crowd of kids too old for the corn husk dollies and too young to be forced into labor. They had run into the woods and fields looking for snow drops and bare patches of ground that had started to green with the coming spring. She supposed he had taken her place the following year. Without either home or place of business she would be back shoveling the shit. It had been one constant in her life whether living in Riverside or in the North with her troops.
Rafe found herself enjoying her role as an Auntie, helping the little kids with their dollies, some looking human, others, with four legs pointing down and long necks, seemed more like sheep, or horses, or dogs. She still knew how to tie a good broom and how to plane the blade of a shovel, freeing others to make the holiday treats they would eat under the noon time sun.
It was the first day someone could spend the night above ground without one of the gossips muttering “She’s no better than she should be.” Rafe knew she would be nestled down in the hay above the forge. Others would take advantage of well aired feather mattresses on newly tightened bed ropes. Breathing fresh air, no one’s snores but her own, freedom to wander the dark – Rafe saw heaven approaching and knew she was on her way to the promised land.
“Sleeping up top tonight?”
Rafe tugged on the twine binding the broom and looked up at Bors Pubmaster leaning on a barrel, waggling his great eyebrows. “I am.”
“Scared of the dark, up there alone? A tender wench like yourself?”
“Not so as you would notice. No, I am not.”
“Scared? Or a wench?”
“Both. Another time, Bors. Another time. My back is itching and I could scratch my hair out with just my fingers, I need to be alone so bad.”
“I would have thought soldiering as you have been, you would have gotten used to living cheek by jowl with the masses.”
“And that’s where you would be wrong. Soldiers know how to respect a person’s privacy. They stay out of your business and you stay out of theirs. Not at all like you lot, needing to know every little thing, story telling all night long. A soldier wants to sleep off alone or turns his back … You can’t see his eyes, he’s not there. Here, I turn my face to a corner, or pull a hat down over my eyes, then it’s ‘Everything all right, Rafe?’ and ‘Can I get you something?’ or ‘You want to hear what I just heard?’ or even ‘I got a nice soft bed I can share with you and a door that locks if you’d like.’ And if I did go to my quarters and lock the door, then there would be discrete knocking and inquiring all afternoon just because I may have locked it by mistake.” Rafe rolled her eyes and shook her head.
“Another time, then. I’ll get good mileage out of this little rant at the bar tonight, anyway.” He looked at the eavesdroppers who busied themselves as his eyes fell on them.
“And you won’t even have to say a word.” Rafe smiled and picked up another broom.
Taking over the job of tending her sister’s livestock had helped, giving her time to think and to hide a ditch bag, complete with bedroll and provisions.
The weather signs were good. While most of the people who tended the livestock kept well away from the dark and stormy windows, never opening shutters for a peep outside, there were a few in addition to Rafe who kept an eye on what was happening outside. Last night the evening sky had been red, and there had been no ring around the moon.
Early this morning, when she had gone up to feed the sheep and let the chickens out after having been cooped up for so many weeks, a warm breeze from the north had started to blow through Riverside. During the day there were traps where buildings abutted each other, that batted the warmth of the sun back and forth.
One of these heat traps, near the grain silos, was the traditional place for the picnic. Rafe, with some of the grumble of geezers from the warming bench, set up the tables and cleared out the fire pits. Some of them harvested greens that had been planted in cold frames along north walls, while others dug up the last of the root vegetables that had been planted near Marlon’s heat vents. This, Rafe thought, was a wonderful change from her youth, when the Return Day feast consisted mostly of grain and mealy potatoes. Only the meat was fresh thanks to the young rams sacrificed after doing their paternal duty. Now the current crop of rams was lined up near the freshly cleaned abattoir, ready to meet the next stage in their journey.
“How are you doing, Auntie?” Wilf waved his chanter as he approached.
“Fine, Wilf. Fine.”
“I bet you’ve seen finer things than this during your Sojourn.”
“I was just thinking how much this all irked me when I was young, and now I’m feeling as if I’ve come home at last.” Rafe adjusted a bench.
“Is this so grand then?”
“No, it’s more that I don’t have to think about it. I know in my bones what to do even though it’s been over forty years.”
“What would you be doing, then, if you were back with your Company?”
Rafe sat on the end of a bench, leaning back elbows on the table. Wilf straddled the opposite end. “We’d be preparing our battle gear. We’d have been cleaning and repairing all winter. Now is when we’d lay it all out and have one last look-see. Toward the end I’d be doing that and looking over the job petitions, seeing who was making offers, how much trouble they would be, would it be worth the money to take them on. That’s why I came back here, you know. None of them seemed worth the money for the effort of heading to battle against old friends – or their babies, really. The kids they’d had, gone into the family business, calling me Auntie, like you do, during the off season. It didn’t seem worth it.”
Wilf was fingering his chanter the whole while she was talking. “How about you, boy. How are you doing? Regretting spending the winter here and not going out on the road yourself?”
“That time will come. Fear not. I’ll be better prepared when I do go on my Sojourn. Something to bring to the table of them that may be willing to teach me. Stories, tales of the greatest commander the Guard have ever known.”
“You mean lies you can tell.”
“Lies, were they Auntie? Well then you told them first. What does it matter if I am just repeating what a venerable elder chose to use as an object lesson?”
“Who knows?” Rafe stood, leaning strategically forward as Wilf dropped to the ground, ducking as the bench flew over his head. She walked toward the abattoir.