Twixt the Tellin’ and the Listenin’
Written for the Academy of Bards Valentine’s Day Challenge.
My thanks to the Bardic Circle Writer’s Group, especially Mary and Dawn. Special thanks to Ann B and to Stephanie for the invitation.
Two of the characters belong to others, and this is not for profit.
It is dedicated to and inspired by, my partner, Lariel, on the occasion of our 10th Valentine’s and is to all that might be as blessed as I am.
So young‘uns. Seems like ye figgers yer too grow’d fer the tales o’ the Gods? Yer wants ta know about love, do ye now? But when ye looks up, and it’s yer old Gran about ta spin, well, all the giggles well up inside o’ yez. What would this old’un know about love? Ye looks at me an think, I wager, when she sucks on a lemon, the lemon makes a face!
And ye, wee one, I sees that the red roses on them cheeks have begun ta bloom. But, listen hard now, never look down on where’s ye learn. Be it a Lord or a beggar that does the teachin’, the knowin’s all that matters.
Now, I’ve told yer all more than once, a proper story is heard betwixt the tellin’ and the listenin’, and the best is heard long after. This isn’t a tale just fer laughing or fer smiles. T’aint like how yer Ma says if’n ye don’t pluck the fluff outa ya bellybutton, it'd turn into a black pearl!
So listen clear and careful, and ye’ll have this story fer more years than I’ll have left, and just mebbe, ye’ll know the secrets o’ love.
Ones that I learnt from two warriors.
Yes, I did say warriors. I may be old, I might even be crazed, but not that old nor crazed yet.
Now, this tale be a true one, and yer lookin’ at one that lived and seen it. Happened right here, right in our own wee village so long a time ago that yer grans and yer gramps were ‘bout the same age as most o’ ye and thinkin’ and dreamin’ same as yez do now. The village had yet ta reach the hill and ye could walk from one end t’other on one leg in half the time it would now take ya two. The great Lord’s house twern’t the grand place ‘tis now, but only as tall as the least o’ the houses at the back headlands.
Now, when I were a wee one, I believed in love, but as sumtin’ ta fear. Momma and Poppa were s’posed t’be in love, but that never stopped him from takin’ his hand ta her when the mood were upon him. Many’s the time I heard her apologizin’ at a neighbour, her with the black eye and bleedin’ mouth, apologizin’ fer him. ‘It’s me own fault’ she’d say, ‘I just wish I knew what it were I did, ta make ‘im so mad!’ And the mood would pass, and all would be flowers and light again and ye wouldn’t think he couldn’t peel an orange in his pocket.
Till the next time.
And when ‘twere over, I’d ask of her, ‘Ma, if’n he loves ye, why does he hurt ya? And she’d say, ‘when yer as old as me wee finger and a wee bit older than me teeth, ye’ll understand. Wait till ye fall in love.’
So should it be a surprise that I saw love as a curse? One that I fear’d ‘twould befall me some terrible day?
Now, as I told yez, this were a wee spark of a village, with little enough of our own. But that’s never been reason enough fer others not ta want t’have it. And so one day, a rovin’ gang o’ bandits come ridin’ out, ridin’ down the bergs, down out o’ these mountains, down through the old orchards, smashin’ the column o’ the old village gate, ridin’ down into these poor streets, crashin’ and yellin’ and cursin’ and demandin’ all of our food and cherished things. I were changin’ from a child then, yes, I see your eyes widen, I were once a child too, of eight seasons, and the women and we children hid, huddled away while our menfolk tried protect us and our homes.
But I were bold then, and a handful I been told, and I crept out t’watch. And glad I am that I did, fer as bad as it were and as bad as it would be fer a long time after, it changed my world. Ye see, the bandits had beaten us at that point, right into our own mud. The shanties were afire, our fathers and elders had fallen and even the dogs had no fight left in ‘em. When there were a yell, a cry, a sound half between a gurgle and a scream. And a tall, dark shape seemed ta swoop out o’ ther skies like the blackest o’ eagles.
Now I‘d seen warriors before. They were grizzled and scarred, missin’ limbs and as dull as the weapons they carried. But this one were all fire and movement, dark and slim, and a woman. She fell into the thick o’ the gang, her sword and eyes and teeth all flashin’ light, a dancin’ death. Even so, there were a moment when she were surrounded and about t’ be smothered like a spark under a heel, when a girl, light where t’other were dark, appeared out o’ the night’s flames and mist, swingin’ a staff and fellin’ men twice her size ta make her way t’ her partner. And partners they surely were, fer once the warrior were freed, they moved as though it truly were a terrible dance.
And me? I ‘d been taught and I’d learned t’ believe that girls din’t fight. But then, ‘twere so many things I were taught not to do. In some seat o’ myself, I’d known that ta be a lie, and watchin’ ‘em, the desire ta fight back burst from me like a song o’ joy. I saw the menfolk shake off their fears and begin t’ struggle back as well. An’ me, filled with the knowin’ that doin’ sumptin’ were a step up from bein’ just stocks of useless in the clutter I’d left, I began t’ scrabble on the ground fer rocks, and hurled ‘em bests I could at the dirty buggers.
Whilst I were doing that, I saw the blonde lass take a stumble, and one o’ the gang moved t’strike while she were down, and the dark warrior seemed ta move even quicker ter her side. And till the girl found her feet again, she defended that space like a wild cat protectin’ her litter.
Once she had, the wind did change. The whole gang o’ ‘em were soon tryin’ just ta get away, as fast as a one-legged cat on hot coals tryin’ ta cover up its turd. But likes as mebbe, someone weren’t gonna let ‘um flee, ‘cause the dark woman tore after ‘em, her drippin’ sword and all that she were, demandin’ more o’ their blood. ‘Twere only a sweet but piercin’ call from the girl that halted her advance, and she stopped, cursin’ and laughin’ at the stragglers, as they dragged and carried their wounded brethren away
Then, the dark one turned about and called in a voice that were akin ta her; silk coverin’ iron, ‘I told you to stay back.’ And I feared that tone, and the look in her eye, as I’d seen it before in Poppa. The young ‘un said nothin’, and with a scowl the warrior moved toward her. I saw in the flickerin’ o’ the fires that the girl were ashy white, and her breath were made in harsh gasps, a wee tricklet o’ blood seeping from bandaging on her shoulder. The warrior had seen this as well, and she roared out in a voice filled with such rage, “I can’t believe after what we just went through, it didn’t teach you anything. When I say stay back, I mean, STAY BACK!” She stalked towards the girl as like t’ make a meal o’ her, and though I expected the blonde t’run, she only stood straighter and bawled back “DON’T you yell at ME! I can’t believe after that all we’ve been through, you’d think I’d stay back when you’re in trouble.”
“I had everything under control,” were the curt reply even as she stomped closer.
But before she reached the girl, the blonde seemed ta faint forward, and the warrior moved ta stop her fall. But little one swivelled her legs about and caught the warrior unawares, trippin’ her with her stick, and that dark lady tumbled backwards into the mud. ‘Twere a moment of awe-struck silence and us that were watchin’, well, last time I’d seen faces like those, they all had a hook in ‘em.
“Had THAT under control, did you?” And the blonde, oh, so delicately, flicked a spot o’ the splashed mud off’n her nose.
“You tripped me,” growled the warrior at her feet.
“I think it was because you started on the left foot,” she said airily before extendin’ a hand.
Now can ye see ‘em? One, covered in blood and the mud o’ this town, the other grinnin’ down like she’d won the county fair with someone else’s pie, and yet this is where I learned about love?
But wait still, ‘cause there were more o’ ‘em stragglers, lyin’ and hidden, and this hardfaced scut made his move. Mayhap I had struck him with a stone, happen as not, likes as mebbe, he had scuttled back fer some settlin’ o’ scores. I turned at a noise and looked t’ see a sword raised high above me, slashin’ down, ventin’ his anger. I felt nothin’ at first, and so I had time t’watch him choke, his eyes all bulgin’, till he falls solid at my feet, a big silver ring in his back.
I stared at his body in shock, but soon ‘nuff came the pain. And then the blood. I gawked as my leg parted like as some supper roast, near crazed at the blood that began spurtin’, my head hazed n’ dazed. ‘Cause there are such things that the Gods in their mercy do not wish us ta remember or recall. But there were a voice, tellin’ me ta be strong, that I’ be a ‘right. And though the pain were still there, so was the wonder o’ the sight o’ the dark woman at my feet, somehow tyin’ the open flesh so’s ‘twould close.
I’d never seen stitchin’ o’ the flesh before, but she must have done a right job, fer as ye see, there’s only this wee trace o’ that scar here on my leg, nothin’ other than a keepsake. But at the time ‘twere known that such a cut meant death or at least the loss o’ the limb. An’ I must’ve been a terrible trial fer the two warriors; the one tryin’ t’ nurse me, and t’ other comfortin’ me.
It were not too much later, that it were them two what told me. That Poppa were amongst the dead. Fer all his hittin’ and yellin’, it broke me Mom, left her unable t’ care fer herself, much less what the village had already tagged a cripple. So with the lass havin’ tore somethin’ in the fight that were already tore, they said they’d rest a while. They set up camp, right aside where the new smithy’s forge is now. And I stayed with ‘em, and they stayed t’ heal me, and our town.
Now, I’d knowed that I’d been fed a fair meal o’ tosh in my days, but some I’d thought were truths, like that women don’t build. So when these warriors offered t’ help, there were snorts n’ smiles, but no buyers. Despite all they’d seen o’ these two, teachin’ the town’s menfolk new ways were like shovellin’ smoke. ‘Specially them two bein’ Queir and all. But them two bided their time. Just as happens that one might be there t’hold a board or t’other would make a support. Soon enough n’ given time, they were directin’ the men and then the women who volunteered. And their ways helped this town survive. Many’s the buildings ye look on now, are ones they built with their own sweat. Still standin’ strong. And none of the folk, not even the oldest, could remember warriors that stayed and worked with the people as they did.
As fer me? At night, I were forced t’ have my wound attended, and there were a fever o’ days I cannot call ta mind, where soothin’ words and bitter potions were swallowed. And as yer sees, I became well, to the surprise of all, specially meself. And I became hungry ta know howd it’d been done. Ya think of a starvin’ mole and that were how much I wanted, more than my life, t’ ask fer the knowledge o’ the magics they used. But even with all that need, I were still too scared. And the two o’ ‘em, they saw that, an’ they waited, and still I were scared t’ ask. And when one day the questions were about ta burst out o’ me, the blonde one gave me this golden smile and said, “How are you going to learn if you don’t ask?” It seemed so plain when they said it, and so I dared ta ask fer the secrets o’ healin’ and the herbs. And the warriors, they shared as if it were as cheap as a grin. Medicines and potions that I’ve used too many times since were imparted ter me, and many that think themselves in my debt, owe their limbs and lives ta those two.
But that twern’t the story yer here fer, is it? I were goin’ on about love, weren’t I? Well, here’s a secret that ye’ll find soon enough. When yer a babe, yer always breathin’ in the things ya hear and see. But ye don’t always knows what ye knows. And those days with them two, they were like gifts I’d be openin’ fer the rest o’ me life.
Like this once I saw. ‘Twere many days after the attack and I were lyin’ stillish, tryin’ ta sleep. The littler one would tell stories at night t’me, wondrous tales, greater than any I ever hope ta spin. But in the afterwards, she’d tuck me in and soon be lost in her scribin’. And one nightfall, the dark warrior, she called the girl ta come t’ bed, and there were no reply. I saw the nervous jitters in the lady till finally she declared that she couldn’t rest while the younger one were up and about.
“I’m not a child that you have to wait up for,” she called back. ‘Just once, can you trust me to be on watch? Can’t you?’
There were a grudgin’ knowing o’ this, and the warrior lay back, and t’all intents she were relaxed and sleepin’. After a time there were a huffin’ sigh from the girl, and I saw what I’d nowt noticed till then. That the tappin’ o’ the warrior’s fingers continued on the ground, even as her breathin’ seemed lost in the forty winks.
The girl, she rolls up her parchment, and undresses, and slips into the bedrolls beside her partner.
Now see, here is where I first saw love. ‘Twere in the moment that the girl were settled into the furs, and them long arms encircled her, that I saw the face o’ the warrior relax. And relax is not the word, ‘twere as like she’d found that kind o’ peace that stills yer soul, just in the holdin’ o’ that girl. Maybes, I thought, it were from the scent o’ her hair, ‘cause she seemed ta draw in a breath o’ the girl as though it were a fine perfume. And she squeezed her ever so gently, as if drawin’ more o’ the scent from the action. And though I now know o’ the pleasure o’ limbs entwined, this were none o’ that. It were peace. Fer both of them. I can still see, across the sparks of the fire, that peace on their faces, as clears as I can your’n. It were need fulfilled just by that one person, that one partickalor someone, being in your arms and nowt else, and the stresses and tensions that‘d wracked those woman, they were stilled. And they finally did sleep.
And left me wondrin.
Me Da, had more often than not, spent his nights out on the ale, and seemed not t’ care if Ma stayed with him or no. But seein’ this peace, I wanted it. Fer the first time, I saw love and I wanted that. Fer the first time, I wondered at how yer found it with someone.
Though their stories were ones o’ constant travel and wars far away, they stayed a whole season, waitin’ fer me ta heal. They could have left me any time, but there were never a word ‘cept comfort from ‘em. And as I said, the girl told stories. Each night. Stories that this wee girl should not have heard and yet I send a prayer t’ the gods fer each one. Cause they weren’t the stories fer dreamin’. They were their stories. Of making right and o’ daring. Of pain and betrayal, joy and trust. Their stories. And the lessons they’d learned and soon I were learnin’ too. And as if they could tell that I were yearnin’ fer what they had, and that someday I might be takin’ by that yearnin’ so hard, to where it makes yer rush ahead o’ yer eyes and brain, the stories became about love.
The stories came on how ‘tis better ta be on yer own, than to take on some who’ll make ya less that yer already are. That it’s better ye wait fer the one that makes ya more.
That I remember, and the eyes o’ the blondish one, eyes with almost tears and regret lit by anger, as she told the stories that dressed up that message; Love wisely and love well. But Never Settle. Not fer love. Better to be alone, than be less with another. Wait for the love that builds you. And all else will not matter.
Too soon they had healed us and they came away leavin’ us far the wealthier. And I pray they lived long and together till the end. That they would have died with each other at the back or in each other’s arms. ‘Cause only that would have been right.
Now, because o’ those women I grew older and strong, believin’ that bein’ a girl should make no difference as t’what I were or what I would do. But that meant I weren’t always welcome in the homes o’ many, and me Ma gloomed that I’d ever find a man and settle down. I were considered a strange one, but as I helped more than I hindered, I were admired by as many as I were sneered at, and I grew stronger in heart and body then most o’ me childhood friends.
Years passed as they do, and ye’d find it hard ter believe, but I grew out and in a way that men started t’ find pleasin’. Hard to tell, I know, but true. And they began t’ knock at the door. But all seemed intent ta capture and change the very things about me which drew ‘em in the first o’ their lookin’.
But in the time of it all, one o’ them presents those two had give me would open, and I’d know what was what. I’d still worry o’ what me Ma wanted and what money they might have and if’n I could stand t’ live with the cadger. But I’d hear ‘em stories behind me ears, and I’d hear them voices swearin’ me, Never Settle. Is this one going ta make ya more than ye are, or less? Because it be better ta wait, than ta sell off cheap what and who ya could be on yer own.
So I would dance and laugh and let ‘em go their ways.
There were a few temptations and ones I could have taken, and there were them that could have crawled under a snake with their cap on. But I had me own life, and t’wernt willin’ ta sell it fer scrap.
Sure’n, I were busy. I’d learned and studied the healin’ arts so well, that many began t’be brought ter me fer helping’. Yes, there were thems’ that called me witch, but I showed ‘em back with knowledge, and soon it seemed ‘twere accepted that I‘d found a craft.
The sick sometimes filled right up to the rafters o’ me mother’s house, and I began t’plan a place purely fer the sick. A building planned just fer their healing.
And that’s how I met my Rolph.
Maybe’s ye remember him as that hulkin’ old man at me side, with a nose like a blind cobbler’s thumb. Yet then, he were as golden as the harvest, with only the whisper o’ hair on his chin. He were just passin’ through, from a town farther away than any had been, and so a stranger, not t’ be fed or talked ta. But he were also a builder and I’d learned me lessons: How will ye learn if ya don’t ask? And never judge where the knowin’ comes from; be it a lord or a beggar on the street.
So I walks right up and asks him t’ teach me his secrets so that I‘d be buildin’ my hospice. I ‘spected him t’ laugh, or demand that he take charge. But no, not my Rolph. ‘Stead, he asks t’ see plans and before Sol was down we were arguing about the hows ‘n whys and the how strong ‘n how high.
And once more I remembered them two, how they’d argued and still taken their talents together and made things bigger than one could do alone. And Rolph and me, like ‘twere natural, split up the workin’. Twas clear as the miller’s stream soon enough that I weren’t no carpenter, but I could sit on a board to hold it still or fetch and carry as well as any, and he could do much the same fer the sick that I attended. And we soon laughed more than argued and before the next season we were findin’ other things t’ pass our time.
Soon ‘twere years that had passed, and Rolph and me had three children. Some others were lost and mourned along the way. We had our hard times, times when we had ta cut the bread thinner and thinner, but we stood together against ‘em. There were times I should’ve kept out o’ somebody’s business or just shut my flappin’ mouth. But once the words were out, Rolph were always a backin’ me.
Ye wish these things would last fer always, but if horse turds were dates, then none would starve. And when our time together ended, I says ta him, just before he had his last fart, ‘Ye should have married a wife who just farmed.’
He just gave that lazy smile that I will only see again fer dyin’, and told me, ‘I did marry a farmer.’ And he pointed at our littl’uns gather’d round, and our hospice where so many o’ the sick had walked away, and added, ‘Ye’ jus’ had different seeds.’
And so, Rolph were taken away from me. And such a loss, well, it tears yer guts out and leaves ya with weary limbs and empty innards. And ya walk about with a wide open cavern where yer heart and belly were, with yer skin feelin’ like it’s been flayed so that the slightest thought can cause yer t’scream. And ye ask, were it worthwhile t’ love like that? Ye remember the arguments, and times ya wanted t’ hit the sod right up the head, and the sacrifices made ta be together. And all fer the scattered moments o’ peace, and sweet laughter? How can that be worth all that pain, ye ask? To wait fer the one that makes ya more?
‘Cause in the centre o’ the worst cluthering o’ my heart o’er that loss, I could stand before the wealthiest man in this village, or even in the land, and declare: ‘I have loved, and been loved in return. I have been cherished and respected by one fer whom I did the same freely. I have planted my seeds from this love and if ye have not known that, then my life, for all its trials, has been richer than yers.’
So ye listen hard now, because this is what I’m here ta pass on.
As long as we love, truly love, love that is shared and builds, then what the world may call failure or success, praise or condemnation, is no more than snowflakes, that can only touch us before they melt away… if we truly love.
And one day, we too are gone. Ye, just as well as me. We are here ta love, but also ta plant seeds, ev’n if only in the sand with that love.
And that, me wee ones, ‘tis the secret I learned from two warriors.
And as I always tells ye,
Now my tale is finished, and the tellin’ has been done. And if I’ve done the tellin’ right, the listenin’s still ta come.