Unburdening

The next day passed quickly amidst preparations. Emma was delighted with the activity and threw herself into it, so much that her mother had to scold her and send her off with William, who seemed pleased to have the girl in his charge.

The two arrived at a home near the outskirts of the town in the early afternoon. Emma had long since coaxed her way onto Will’s shoulders. Given she was still too small to take her mother’s name, it was no burden to the large man to carry her.

Silence surrounded them as they approached the house. Even the wind seemed to steady itself. William of Parsh tried a greeting-song, but faltered and fell silent after a single bad note croaked its way out of his throat. He coughed, one hand holding onto Emma’s leg, then reached up, lifted her off of his shoulders, and lowered her to the ground. She frowned up at him, but he had already moved past her to the door before them.

Will rapped the Visitor and stepped back, reaching behind him for the little one, who squealed and ducked away from his hand. He turned and began to lurch towards her, arms splayed, grabbing at her and laughing, and giving slow chase as she spun away from him.

“Did you come here to play with children, then?” came a voice from behind him.

He turned and Anna stood in the doorway. Emma laughed and ran past Will, stopping just short of the formidable woman, the girl’s eyes suddenly wide and uncertain.

“Well, child, who might you be?” asked Anna after a moment.

“Emma,” said Emma.

“That seems a proper name for a little girl, Will. I’d not have thought you capable,” said Anna, shooing the little girl inside.

“She’s not mine, as you well know,” said William.

“No, she isn’t. So why is she at my door when it’s you I invited?”

“I’ve a need, Anna, that’s all. I thought I might cook two stews with one fire.”

“Useful, am I? Is that what I am, Will? A good lass to know?”

“You asked me to supper and to see your father and Saul. I’d not have come otherwise.”

“Well, I suppose I should have expected a lady to be joining you, after all. Though she’s small even for the likes of you, you wee-manned bastard.”

“Wee-manned and big-tongued, that’s me. It was you who said that first, as I recall.”

Anna turned away to check her hallway, bright red showing on her cheek.

“All right, come in if you have to. Welcome to the house of Saul o’Saul. Keep your shoes outside.”

“The girl’s gone in with hers!” William protested.

“And she’s not one tenth the filth on them,” said Anna. “If you were only so clean perhaps you’d be invited more often. Now get your shoes off and come in and say hello to my father before he dies an old man.”

“Will!” said the old man, trying but failing to lift himself out of the chair.

“Keep your seat, Perrill,” said Will, bending to clasp the other man’s hand. “How have you been keeping these long seasons?”

“No longer keeping, Will. Only waiting now.”

“He fell three harvests past,” said Anna, “and has not yet followed the instructions of the poor man who tried to fix him up.”

“Who might that have been, I wonder?” said Will, sharing an eye roll with the old man.

“It was Saul,” said Anna, “and if this one had just done as he was told no doubt he’d be in the field today.”
“Long years for short rest, Will,” said Perrill. “Ample work for sparse reward.”

“The one and only truth, Perrill,” said Will. “Each year teaches the lesson again.”

The door banged open.

“Whose shoes are those?” came a shout from the front of the house.

“Mine,” shouted Will. “And don’t dare clean em off, either.”

Anna hurried from the kitchen where supper was taking place to the front room. A whispered conversation drifted down the hallway.

“What are they saying?” asked Perrill.

“That I am, am not, am, am not welcome, mostly,” said Will.

“Tis my house til I die, Will, whatever those two may call it, and for that span you’ll always be welcome.”

“I don’t suppose I’d have come otherwise,” said Will.

Saul stomped into the room then and threw himself down beside his guest.

“Well, William. All tested and ready to make trouble for us are you?”

“More or less,” replied Will.

“What’s more or less about that?” asked Anna from the kitchen.

“I’m not exactly tested is what I mean,” shouted Will.

“How can you be not exactly tested,” asked Perrill. “Makes as much sense as being not exactly pregnant.”

“There’s tested, and then there’s tested,” said Will. “Two things that mean the same, but are not the same.”

“You haven’t lost your slippery tongue, William,” said Saul.

“Not lost, no,” said Will. “But perhaps tamed. I’ve learned in my travels to pay attention to my own words most of all.”

“What does it mean to be tested but not tested, William?” said Anna, standing over them with a bowl and a flour-covered spoon.

“It isn’t a story I like to tell. I left with one chorus, but I return with another.”

“We heard stories, you know. Some war somewhere on the far side, hundreds killed, maybe more. I suppose you think I should have tested, perhaps fixed up a few open wounds,” said Saul.

“You can’t sing, Saul, and you took no other work besides the needle. It’s not for you, the Crosslands.”

“I had the needle when I was still unseven, you know. It was my work. It takes all of me to do it.”

“That may be, my boy,” said Perrill, “But a man who makes nothing has no business where the Wild wind blows.”

“What would you know about it, father?” asked Anna absently, kneading yeast into her mixture.

Perrill turned a smile towards Will.

“Do you not know, then?” asked Will.

“Know what?” asked Anna and Saul. They laughed together, then, and Will turned away for just a moment.

“Your father walked the Crosslands,” said Will when he recovered. “There are songs on the far side that speak about Perrill the Lonely.”

“Never so lonely as they say,” said Perrill. “If you wanted a chorus then you could find one.”

“I’ve heard you spent more time alone than most,” said Will.

“That I did. Couldn’t keep a chorus. Got so bad, I just came home.”

Anna had stopped kneading and stood still, her mouth open.

“Why, what, when did this take place? Why did I never hear about this from you before? What possessed you to go across the bridge away from mother, for the love of all that’s right?”

“Your mother was the reason I crossed, my dear.”

“She didn’t cross the bridge! Tell me there are no songs of her that I don’t know myself,” said Anna, bowl entirely forgotten.

“Oh, she crossed. Untested, not even called. I was already made for her, but when I heard she crossed I waited. It was never long those days before they’d come to test again.”

“My mother crossed! She couldn’t sing a note!” said Anna.

“And she wasn’t called because of it. But she thought the Wild would respond to her work all the same,” said Perrill.

“Did it?”

“Who knows? She survived, so something protected her from the Wild.”

“If I’d known…I might have responded to the call myself.”

“I couldn’t have taken you anyway, Anna,” said Will.

“Why not? If my mother could do it, then surely there’s a chance.”

“The call is for choruses,” said Perrill. “It isn’t for anyone who can make. A chorus is easy to build. You can’t rely on other work to be the same.”

“It’s not a place to be alone,” said Will. “Not now. The Wild is worse and worse.”

“You’re my chorus anyway,” said Saul.

Anna stared down at her mate without expression. Saul’s grin slid away, replaced by a tight horizontal grimace.

“Why are you here, William o’Parsh?” demanded Saul. “I’ll not have you taking either of these two away from me.”

Anna turned at that, and Perrill barked a laugh, but Will was faster than either.

“Nor would I take them, Saul of Saul, and you’ve no worries of that. I’m here on a simpler mission. You know that I saw James of Kent last evening?”

The three nodded. Will pushed on, his eyes on his hands, tension filling up his shoulders.

“They’ve been called. Their youngest, Emma, is still unseven. Balenn was adamant that I find her a place on this side. I wouldn’t ask if I knew another way, but -“

“Of course -” said Perrill.

“No chance – ” said Saul.

Anna wheeled on the two. “And which of you would care for the child, I wonder? One old and one cold. No, it’ll be my word that settles this question. And I’ll not take a child I don’t know.”

“Please, Anna, it’s not for me – ” began Will.

“I didn’t say I wouldn’t take her,” said Anna. “But I’ll know her before I do. And if she proves a child worth knowing then that will be the end of it.”

“What, ah, makes a child so?” asked Will.

“I suppose we’ll learn that, too,” said Anna. “Now. I believe you came for a supper. If we’re to have one before the Thrum goes dry I might ask you three to make yourselves useful.”

The house of Perrill the Lonely and Anna of Jodeen and Saul o’Saul filled up with the scent of a meal well-made, and the men, to their credit, made themselves as useful as they could. Even the children came in and sat quietly, drawn by the promise of good food.

“You’ve a fine son, Saul,” said Will.

“I like to think so,” replied Saul, parceling fresh crusted-bread out to his father-in-law, his wife and his child and then, with only slight hesitation, to Emma Unseven.

“Your bread smells delicious!” said Emma. Anna shot a glance to Will, who waved off the implied question. He hadn’t told the girl anything.

“Tis a secret recipe,” said Perrill, “made with a secret ingredient.” He winked at her.

“And what would that be, I wonder?” said Will, grinning.

“We use only the fat of the finest unseven girls!” said Perrill, reaching out a hand at the wide-eyed child, who shrieked and started, then laughed as Anna laid a smack on her father’s hand.

“You’re worse than the Wild,” she said, laying a ladle of stew over the little girl’s bread. “Don’t worry about him, child. He’s croak-brained on his best days.”

“I’ll have you know I make a fine stew of older girls,” said Perrill. “I’ll show you the recipe if you don’t mind yourself!”

“Foolishness,” said Saul. “No need to believe any of it, is there Will?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Will. “I’ve heard many a song in my time in the Crosslands.”

“What’s it like?” asked the little boy, who now held Emma’s hand in his own.

“Never mind that, Saul,” said Saul.

Will hid his mouth for a moment, his shoulders shaking, and Perrill, catching his eye, stifled a smirk.

“It’s no story for unseven boys, I’m afraid,” said Will.

“I’m nearly not!” said Saul the Younger. “My Sevenday is at harvest-end!”

“My Sevenday is not until planting,” said Emma unhappily.

“No need to wish for that day early,” said Anna, ladling the last of the stew out for herself. “It brings many things, not all of them bright.”

“I’m going to be a singer!” said Saul the Younger.

“Perhaps you’ll sing for us now; I believe it is time for the blessing and for me to offer the Guest’s Price,” said Will.

“It is,” said Perrill. “I would hear your song first, if it please you, Emma.”

The unseven girl held up her little friend’s hand and they nodded at one another as if to confirm some private agreement. Emma’s voice emerged as high and sweet as it had the evening before, leaving her hosts agape. Saul the Younger waited for his part, then joined in with aplomb.

“That’s a fine song,” said Anna quietly after a moment. “Perhaps we could hear the rest of it later.” Will hid his mouth again.

“I fear you may take the needle as your father did,” he said to the boy, who beamed. “It would be a shame.”

Saul the Elder cleared his throat. “Your turn, William. Something to clear the palate, I hope.”

Will returned the man’s steady gaze. “Right. Maybe an old travel-song would be best, then. I happen to have picked a few up in my time. Could I impose so far as to sing the Offering for the man of the house?”

Saul’s brow furrowed, but Will turned to Perrill and smiled.

“Sing one if you must, my boy. I’ll not stop you this late in my days.”

Will opened his mouth and a wordless rumble issued forth, a steady sound less heard than felt. He allowed it to broaden and vibrate and the note transformed into the old man’s name.

Perrill he bested the Wild-er-ness
His heart was subjected to wild-er-tests
His song resounded, his love rode home
Perrill-No-Chorus was all alone

Perrill the Lonely roamed Wild-o’-land
In his heart only the child-o’-man
The news resounded, the babe was born
Perrill-Bridge-Crosser became forlorn

Perrill Un’compnied crossed Wild’n’Thrum
His heart had trump’ted for child’n’home
His heart resounded, he crossed back o’er
Now Perrill the Lonely is lonely no more

“Always thought that one was a bit clumsy,” muttered the old man, who did not meet his daughter’s astonished stare.

“Clumsy, perhaps, but still a comfort to every crosser these days,” said Will softly.

“Perhaps you could sing us a song,” said Emma to Saul.

Saul frowned and stared at the girl.

“Saul’s work is the needle, child,” said Will.

“I’ve a right to sing in my own house, William of Parsh,” said Saul.

“And in mine, for all that it matters,” said Perrill under his breath.

“No need, Saul,” began Anna.

“Need or not, I’ll sing if the girl wants me to,” Saul interjected.

They sat quiet around the table while the needleman stood and breathed loudly and deeply, eyes shut tightly. Will shared a look with Anna, who simply shrugged and poked at the cooling stew-filled crust in front of her.

After more time than was strictly comfortable, Saul ceased his preparations.

“I should tell you – “, he began.

“Bad manners to explain a dinner-song,” said Perrill.

“Right you are.”

Come listen to
The story of
The needle man
who lost his gloves
Hey diddleydum diddleydee –

“A chorus-song without a chorus’s not fit for offering, Saul,” said Anna, stopping her husband with a gentle touch, glancing round with a weak grin to her guests.

“Even I know that!” said Emma.

Saul sat and stared at the table, his face reddening.

“You didn’t give me time to join in,” said Perrill.

Saul looked up again, his expression guarded.

“Start again, Saul. I was a bit slow that time, but I’ll get in there this time. Here, I’ll start so you don’t have to wait for me.”

Perrill sang in a voice well-aged and well-kept.

Hey diddleydum diddleydee

Saul joined in with his uneven warble. Perrill’s voice seemed to wrap around it, to give it strength and lend it, if not exactly beauty, at least a kind of handsome quality.

Pricked once his finger
And twice his thumb
And lay down dead
Hey diddle-dee dum
Dee dum diddleydum dee

“A fine choice, for all that this crowd don’t appreciate it,” said Perrill, and popped a stew-laden wedge of bread to his mouth.

They all smiled in spite of themselves, and soon the air was thick with the crunching of crusts.

“She’s a fine girl, Will,” said Anna at the door.

“Does that mean you’ll take her?”

Anna checked the empty hallway behind her before responding.

“No, I don’t think so,” she said quietly.

“I thought you said she was fine?” said Will.

“She is a very fine girl. And very young. And I…thought it would be nice. To see you.”

“But it isn’t,” said Will, scanning her face.

“It’s strange.”

“It’s not for me you’d be doing it, you know.”

“If I did it at all, William of Parsh,” she said into his ear in a whisper, “it would have been for you.”

William of Parsh stood still while the girl he’d once loved stepped away and shut her door. He turned his face to the sky and let out a long, shaky breath.

“Emma! Come along, now, we’ve more to do this day.”