Friday, June 23, 2006

Episode 9: Burdens of the Past

I have shamed myself beyond redemption. What will become of me now?

The words echoed through Gundar's mind again and again, but his teeth remained clenched as if they had been magically glued together. He had not spoken since Lexa found him in the woods.

She was too depleted to heal his ankle, but she had eased the pain somewhat before she splinted the injury and found him a stick to lean on for the hard walk back to the hut. She had draped his free arm over her shoulders and supported him as he hopped on his good leg. She had eased him onto his bed, assuring him that the bone was not broken, and prepared an herbal infusion to ease the pain. Through it all, he had remained silent, dreading what would come once he opened his mouth.

In the morning, Lexa saw Petros and Marcelle off and fed the pigs while Gundar slept off his exhaustion. Later, he managed to struggle to his feet and hobble about a bit, but not enough to be helpful with the work. He maintained his bitter silence, watching Lexa carry the heavy buckets, jest with the slop cart driver, release the pigs from their pens and drive them in again, all with the easy rhythm of the experienced.

Shamed beyond redemption.

At noon, Lexa interrupted her work to heat some stew and start a batch of fresh bread dough. She brought Gundar his food where he sat, on a rock facing Rosalyn's pen. He was determined to watch over the old sow, although he had no idea what to do if she began giving birth.

Lexa handed Gundar his bowl and hunk of bread and sat beside him to eat. He played with his food for a while, devoid of appetite, searching for words that would change the unpleasant truth into something more palatable.

Lexa finished and stood up, looking down at his full bowl. She hunkered in front of him, searching his soul with her sky-blue eyes. He wondered how one with such dark hair could have blue eyes, and noticed for the first time that her tresses had a purplish sheen, like mulberries.

"Do you have nothing better to do than tend pigs?" he asked with a bitter edge on his voice, letting his anger spill on her.

She raised an eyebrow and cocked her head sideways. "Gaia be praised!" she said, with a soft snort that nearly missed being a laugh. "I feared that your fall broke your tongue beyond repair."

"Leave me be," Gundar snarled. "I can manage."

She stood and looked away, clearly considering her next move. Gundar's heart churned within him. If she turned to leave, could he restrain himself from calling her back?

Hard-headed, you are, and slow to confess to any fault, his armsmaster had chided him more than once. I fear you will end your days as an overgrown boy.

Lexa took a couple of hesitant steps towards the hut, then turned to look down at him. "Say that again, and I will take you at your word," she said, with an edge on her words. Before he could formulate a response, she spoke again in a softer tone. "Gundar Baldursson, we all need friends from time to time."

"Does your master not require your presence?" he asked, trying to hide his gratitude under gruffness.

"Stasi says I must be gentle with myself if I am to fully recover," Lexa said. "He has decreed an end to all studies, and commands me to fresh air and gentle exercise until the time of my emancipation."

"Emancipation?" Gundar asked. "You are bonded to him, then?"

"For seven years," she said. "My bond is fulfilled forty-one days from now. There will be a big festival in my honour. Most of my family will be coming to wish me well."

"And then?" Gundar asked. "Will they take you home to be wed?"

Lexa laughed. "Wed? After all I have endured to become fit to reach for something more? Nay -- I will go questing for two years, and then decide what to do."

"Questing?" Gundar said, his heart thumping. "Alone or in company?"

"I will see when the time comes."

"You will be better prepared for it than I was. . ." Gundar began, and then stopped, overwhelmed with emotion.

"I grieve with you," Lexa said. "It is hard to lose men, and a boat as well."

"I named the Lili after my heart's true love," Gundar said, no longer able to contain his tears. "She died in battle. I commanded her not to go, because I feared for her, but she went anyway, without my knowledge. I thought her safe until I found her among the corpses. We won the war, but I lost my heart forever. I thought to seek solace in adventure, but found nothing but . . . more . . . death."

Lexa came closer. Gundar wound his arms around her waist and wept, while she stood stroking his hair and chanting some ancient spell under her breath.

When his sobs had quieted, he unburdened his heart to her, ending with a heartfelt plea for pardon. "Arestasis did well to leave me here among the pigs," he said, in a flurry of self-recrimination. "I deserve nothing better."

"You are not here to be punished," Lexa said, sitting down beside him and putting her hand on his shoulder. "You are here to learn. If you will put your will to this work, you will see that it is honourable."

"You have spent time here?" Gundar hazarded. "You seem to know the pigs better than I do."

Lexa smiled. "Indeed. At first, it was under grave duress; but now I go for the sheer pleasure of an orderly existence uncomplicated by political scheming. The pigs' needs are simple, and I supply them."

"But you did not appreciate the finer points of pig herding at first?"

Lexa's laughter coursed like molten silver. "Indeed not. I thought it the ultimate humiliation, just as you do now." She sat, musing. Gundar kept his tongue in check, hoping to learn more.

"I was very rebellious when I came here," Lexa said. "My life at home was sweet and easy. I had no desire for arduous training. But my mother insisted on it."

"Your mother must be an unusual woman."

"Indeed she was. She was Stasi's first pupil. She left off questing because she was with child with me. I daresay she regretted it until the day she died."

"How did it happen?"

"A mindless accident. She was standing on her balcony with my youngest brother Telegon, and sent his wet nurse away to fetch a warmer cloak. It is not known how she fell. Telegon was found lying on top of her lifeless form on the rocks below, bruised and screaming. He was too young to tell the tale. When I went home for the funeral, Father was so distracted that he hardly spoke to me, except to command me to study hard and become the world's greatest warrior for my mother's memory's sake. I have never found it in my heart to return."

"I see that your life has not been without pain," Gundar said, his heart opening to hers in sympathy.

"When I first came here, all I wanted was to go home," Lexa continued. "I hoped that if I did badly, Stasi would despair of training me and send me away. But he saw through my ruse. At first he beat me, as any master would beat his apprentice, but to no avail. The more he punished me, the more defiant I became, thinking I was coming closer to reaching my goal. After almost two years of fruitless struggle, he brought me here and told me the choice was mine. I could spent the next five years tending pigs, or I could submit to him and learn what he had to teach me."

"And you chose to become Basilea Lexa rather than Lexa the Swineherd."

Lexa smiled. "That I did. But not without a struggle. I was here for more than a year before I finally realized that Stasi meant what he said."

"What think you?" Gundar asked. "Will Master Arestasis leave me here until my pledged time is fulfilled?"

"I cannot speak for my master," Lexa said, "but I believe it will depend on how quickly you learn."

"What is there to learn here, in a pig yard?" Gundar asked, exasperation creeping into his voice despite his best efforts to control it.

"That is for you to decide," Lexa said. "But I would advise you to pay more attention to the details of your work. Petros is not at all pleased with your progress. You only pretend to listen, and hear nothing of what he has to tell you."