Authors: Nicole Burr
“Oh, my,” she murmured, transfixed. “Grandmother, I cannot…”
“Ye will,” her grandmother interrupted sternly. “Ye will say ‘thank ye grandmother and grandfather’, ye will put on yer cloak, and ye will go spend it on frivolous things. If ye do not do as I say, I swear I shall order Meshok to attack ye, and I daresay she will comply.”
Esra raised her eyebrows at her grandmother’s sudden outburst and laughed, giving her a fierce hug. She sat down at the table and hastily gulped down the rest of her breakfast, leaving a small amount for Meshok. Placing the bowl on the floor, her legs bounced in excitement as she waited for her Wolf friend to inhale the leftovers with a few long licks of her tongue. Esra wiped her chin with her hand and grabbed her cloak, stuffing the pouch carefully into one of its hidden pockets as she stepped out into the early morning. Grandfather was hiding in the stables trying to console one of their Horses, who seemed to be very close to giving birth. She kissed his plump cheek twice and darted off towards the main road, feeling light and carefree. Even Meshok trotted along with her tongue lolling about her mouth, sensing that something exciting was about to occur.
The day was rather warm, but there were still cool gusts of air pushing its way across the fields, the last shred of winter feebly attempting to mask the newly green world, and Esra was glad for her cloak. A thick coat of morning dew still clung to the soft ground and she smelled the sweet blooming of Lilacs. There was a plow left unattended in her neighbors’ field, as if the excitement of the festival had allowed a frivolous departure from the meticulous and demanding responsibilities of farming.
Esra let her mind wander, as it usually did without her consent anyway, to imaginings of the Shendari and Unni she had read about last night. Daydreaming was a blissful escape for her, where she could be anyone she wanted, go anywhere. There were no limits, no confines like the reality in which she actually functioned. Sometimes she felt guilty for being such a dreamer, as if she were showing that she was unsatisfied with the life she had been given and would do anything to get away from it. And she worried that eventually she wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the fantasy worlds she created and the one that was truth. But the way Esra spun vast stories in her mind seemed to be as natural to her as breathing, so she accepted it as just the way she was born. After all, one couldn’t possibly find happiness if they were always fighting the nature of who they were.
After walking briskly in her reverie for only a few minutes, Esra could hear the faint sounds of Trader’s Day; the shouts of merchants in the square, children chasing each other with yelps of joy, the music that floated above the town. She took a deep breath and felt her shoulders relax. She was not fully aware until that moment just how hard she had been working. Her physical chores had not increased; in fact, since Baelin was there he seemed to do half of hers anyway. He was now a regular attendant at their house, and even though he was always invited for noonmeal and dinner he rarely came inside. Fariel was growing strong and lean now that there was someone to ride him more regularly, and most days his grey coat shone with sweat.
Lately she had sensed Cane’s urgency in the matters of her education, and she knew it was a gravely important matter that she take these teachings seriously and learn as quickly as possible. She was haunted with the thought that maybe Cane meant to leave Sorley soon, and so he was teaching her all he could in the time they had left. Esra tried not to think too much about it, but the idea plagued her. She was torn between wishing that if he was leaving he’d take her along but hoping that it wouldn’t come to that. She could not picture a life without her grandparents nor her lessons with Cane. But today was not the day for such serious musings, so she pulled herself back from her reverie and tried to think instead of what she planned to buy at the festival.
Meshok slunk away from the road to avoid the crowds as Esra made her way into town, the noise and colors of the day increasing until she was right upon it, dodging the merchants and their bartering calls and skipping around the children playing in the street. She slowly made her way through the hordes of people to the general store, where Lara was standing on the front steps, tapping her foot along to a jig some musicians were vigorously playing in the center of the gathering.
“Lara!” Esra yelled to her from the bottom of the steps, waving to catch her attention.
“Esra!” Mrs. Sturik gestured for her to come around the back of the steps. By the time Esra arrived next to her, the song had ended and they both clapped enthusiastically. Before the silence could fully settle over everyone, another lively tune began.
“I’m glad to see you out,” Lara said loudly over the song. “I feel this winter has been a particularly long one, especially for you.”
“Aye, it has.” She looked around for Lara’s husband and saw him dancing with a young child near the musicians. His cheeks were flushed red with exertion as he bounced up and down, trying his best to entertain his partner, who Esra determined to be a young girl of about seven. The girl could barely dance with her laughing, and was bent over with her hands on her knees. Mr. Sturik smiled wickedly as he continued to jump in circles and flail about like a rabid Chicken.
Lara caught sight of him then as well, and they both laughed heartily.
“There’s no controlling him, I’m sure,” Esra teased.
“Oh, my dear, imagine me having to dance with such a man at our wedding. I could barely stand for my sides were cramped from all the laughing.” Lara dabbed at the wetness that formed in her eyes. “We’ve decided to take her in.”
“The little girl, Treta. She lost both her parents to an accident three fortnights ago and has no other family to speak of.”
“Oh dear,” Esra shook her head sadly. “I’m so sorry that she had to lose her parents, but I think it’s fitting that she will be with ye and Mr. Sturik. Yer both wonderful with children.”
“We are very glad to have her. She’s a sweet young girl.”
They both stood for a moment trying to suppress a fresh wave of laughter as they watched Mr. Sturik crawl on all fours, spontaneously thrashing out his legs and arms. Lara turned to Esra and shouted above the music, “I hope you will stop by later to say hello to us all.”
“I will,” she promised, turning to make her way back into the overflowing street.
After wandering about for a while, enjoying the energy of the crowd, she found a trader selling Herbs and bartered for some Mitroot to make tea. Esra had tried countless times to make the comforting drink that Lara brewed, but had no luck with it in the past. It always tasted similar, flavorful and minty, but it just wasn’t as comforting. She placed the parcel in one of the pockets of her skirt, hoping to ask the shop keep’s wife later that day to help her prepare the Herbs, thinking it must be a secret ingredient Lara added.
She wandered farther through the town, looking at the various merchants that had set up tents and tables with their wares. There were bolts of fine cloth, dyed every imaginable color and in every conceivable texture. The smell of delicious roasted sweets and baked goods wafted temptingly through the air and she stopped at a display of sugared Raisins to purchase a treat. There were artists of varying degrees of skill exhibiting their sketches of a wealthy family or a beautiful painting of a landscape. Slender poles had been propped horizontally to string rows of clay and wooden beads in a dizzying array of colors. There were tents for bowls and Water jars, readymade clothing, thick woven rugs, hand crafted furniture, even Horses and carts. The animated shouts of vendors struck through the air like bolts of thunder, imploring each passing person to stop and have a look at this one of a kind item, specially priced. It was almost too much to take in, and Esra was glad that she still had two more days to explore it all.
Making her way down one of the side paths by Cane’s house, she found Baelin carefully studying a massive leather saddle, thinking of Fariel, no doubt. He was so involved in examining the item that he was quite startled when Esra touched his elbow in greeting.
“Esra!” His face broke into a smile after the brief moment of surprise. “How are ye enjoying the day? Finding much te buy?”
“Aye, it is lovely weather fer a Trader’s Day, and I think I’m enjoying the atmosphere more than I’m attempting to buy things. Usually I make sure I purchase all that I want and then relax, but today I cannot seem to find the concentration fer that task.”
“I think many people are glad te be out after such a rough winter. Did ye see that I am an official merchant, now?” He gestured proudly towards a tent at the end of the path where various weapons and trinkets were displayed on tables covered with a dark velvet cloth.
“Are ye? Ye must show me,” Esra exclaimed. “I’m glad that ye have finally decided to set up a space. Ye are in very high demand, on these days especially.”
He seemed to blush a little with the compliment, a strange sight for such a sizeable man, and he walked her slowly over to the tent to describe each group of items. There were swords and daggers, other weapons for fighting she had never seen before, shields with battle scenes etched into them, and decorative items like carved goblets and plates. Although Baelin was used to having something to do with his hands when he spoke to others, Esra noticed he seemed to relax a little from his shyness as he spoke of making these things. She listened with true curiosity as he spoke of the difficulty in forging this or that, and couldn’t help but think that of all the time she’d known Baelin, this was probably the most she’d ever heard him say. They were good friends, but relatively quiet ones.
She picked up a small knife, only about the length of her hand, with a Great Wolf head carved into the wooden handle. It was improbably light and smooth, as if it may float away at any minute. She carefully pulled it out of the sheath and turned it over in her hands, admiring it.
“Ye like it?” Baelin asked.
“Very much,” Esra nodded. “It’s so light and soft. I’ve never touched anything like it. And I didn’t know ye carved wood.”
“I don’ usually,” he admitted. “I decided te try it one day after Meshok had visited me.”
Esra looked up at him with surprise. “Really? It’s very good then, no excellent fer a first try. When did Meshok come to see ye?”
“Oh, she comes now and again. Quite often, actually.”
Esra was somewhat amazed at this revelation. Although Meshok seemed to like her grandparents and Cane, she had never, at least to Esra’s knowledge, gone off to visit someone on her own. It made her wonder what else her friend was doing when she wasn’t around, what kind of a secret Wolf life she was leading.
Baelin leaned against the table and chuckled. “Though I think that it’s the Fire she likes more than my company, I’m afraid. She curls up right next te it every time. Once I tripped over her and she just sighed at me like a mother would a tiresome child. ”
“Aye, sounds like Meshok.
were getting in the way of
nap,” Esra laughed. “So if ye are willing to part with it, I would love to be a buyer of the new Trader’s Day merchant and his fantastic assortment of wares. How much would ye like fer the knife? I must say this is good luck, since the other knife I usually carry has been lost somewhere in the forest. Although this one is much more decorative, I trust in the craftsmanship fully. ”
Baelin blushed in full now, and took the knife from her hands. He carefully returned the blade to its sheath and laid it back into her hands. “Then I would like ye te have it.”
“I would too, Baelin, but I have the coin to pay fer it. And ye can’t say no, since ye do so much fer me and my grandparents already.”
“No,” he declared in his deep voice. “It is a gift. Unless, well…ye feel that it is inappropriate, since, um…well, we are both unwed…err, some people would talk… not that I care, mind ye…I mean, I do care, but not in that way…it is not my intention te make ye uncomfortable…”
Esra interrupted his clumsy rant with a wave of her hand. “Baelin, I know what ye mean. It is a gift to a friend. Thank ye, I will take it, and I am very grateful.”
She closed her hand around the knife and tucked it into the sash of her dress. Poor Baelin was more awkward than she, which was quite a hard thing to accomplish. Esra knew he was not interested in her for courting. But she fully understood how some people in town would see the gift as an exchange of more romantic intentions, especially when he worked in such close proximately to her family, now. They had made stories of much less. His discretion in this matter was appreciated, and she hoped he knew that.
They said their farewells and Baelin turned towards a small cluster of new customers as Esra went in search of noonmeal. She decided to go to the inn and sit at a table rather than trying to find a spot outdoors. After a refreshing meal of fresh bread and cheese with a glass of cold mead, she spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the merchants, sampling some sweets. She was able to pick up a few new books, one of which she was sure would impress Cane, as she had not seen it in his personal collection. She also found a merchant who was selling various bolts of cloths and readymade clothing. Esra selected a handsome blue handkerchief with a small golden Sun embroidered in the corner for Baelin. She felt better being able to give him something in exchange for the beautiful pocket knife and rushed back to the stand where he was tidying his merchandise. She pressed the cloth into his hand and turned quickly before he even had a chance to respond.
Before long dusk was beginning to fall, and she hurried towards the general store to see if she could find Lara and her husband. She had also forgotten to ask the couple again about the rashes on her arms. True to Muriol’s word the infection had spread from both of her wrists up to the crook of her elbow, but no further. Lately they had almost constantly burned with a ferocity Esra had not encountered before. Strangely, it seemed to be the worst during her lessons with Cane.