“A story?” he repeated. She nodded. “And some food?” She nodded again, looking up to meet his eyes. She had the look of a puppy, almost, and it hurt his heart to consider turning her away.
Uallas shook his head slightly. Something about her prickled his senses, but everything he saw said otherwise. She was just a waifish girl, probably not more than fifteen years old, who had spent a very large amount of her life outside. Like him, she had simple shoes on her feet, the kind that would wrap around the toes and heels to keep the feet somewhat safe. In cold weather they could be stuffed with grass for insulation. She had a woolen wrap that made up the largest part of clothing he could see, and loose trousers that went down to her mid calf. She was slender, and almost seemed to shiver in the uncertain evening light.
“Well, it’s bad luck to turn away someone from your fire, especially if they ask,” he finally said.
She grinned at him and bounced a couple of times. He stepped back over to the fire stood for a moment, looking over the flock before he squatted down. Sealgair moved with him and settled nearby.
Miri stepped over to the fire opposite Uallas and Sealgair and sat down, crossing her legs, meeting his eyes from across the embers. In the red glow of the embers and the subtle light of the Eye her face seemed to glow as she waited.
“You know, first meetings by the light of the Eye aren’t always supposed to be the best,” he said.
She frowned and waved a hand dismissively. “Silly superstitions,” she said.
He shrugged. He generally believed that one. No one he’d ever met by Eyelight had been particularly nice. So far she seemed to be breaking the pattern, so Uallas felt somewhat relieved. Besides, Sealgair liked her. A lot. Dogs were great judges of character. He nodded and relaxed more surely.
“Food will be a little bit, it’s still warming up.”
“Sure, I don’t want to impose too much, I can wait.” She folded her hands in her lap, but as if on cue there came a small gurgle from her side of the fire as her stomach protested the wait. Her face fell and Uallas chuckled.
“It’s okay, it’ll come soon enough.”
She smiled brightly and briefly. Uallas dug in his pack for a bit of dried meat he had left over. Sealgair’s tail thumped firmly into the ground as he pulled it out. “You too, huh,” he joked to the dog. She shuffled in place and licked her chops. Uallas broke the piece of meat into three somewhat equal parts, tossing one out to Miri and one to Sealgair. The dog snapped her portion out of the air and loudly chewed it, while Miri caught hers and looked at it. Uallas tore a chuck out of the remaining bit himself and chewed.
Miri sniffed her portion and stuck out her tongue to taste it. Her face twisted up and she blinked her eyes a few times. “Ooh, salty,” she complained.
“Yeah, it’s jerked beef,” Uallas replied. Hadn’t she ever had it before?
“My grands didn’t use salt for this is all,” she apologized.
“Oh, sorry if it-“
“No, it’s good! I just surprised me is all.” She accompanied action to assurance and bit into the jerky. Sealgair looked on with a little disappointment. Uallas thought she might be hoping for Miri’s bit since the girl seemed initially to not like it, but then again Sealgair always wanted anyone’s bit–she was a dog after all. Miri chewed her mouthful with some concentration, and Uallas thought maybe a little bit of performance. He chuckled and offered his canteen.
Miri cocked her head and looked at the container he offered. It was covered in tightly knitted cloth, firmly stitched all around with a shoulder strap wrapped around it and a bright silvery metal top. Her eyes widened a little when she realized what it was and she reached out gingerly, mumbling an inarticulate “Thank you.”
The canteen was one of his prized possessions. He could probably get a lot of coin for it if he went into down one of the cities, but he’d found this a long time ago, before his mom had passed from the cough. She’d woven and stitched the covering, so like the linen cloth it was special. Miri took the lid off after examining it for a moment and then took a few sips of the water inside. She closed the lid and handed it back, giving him that brief, bright smile again.
“That was wonderful. Very clean.” She wiped her mouth off with the back of her hand and took another bite of her jerky, nibbling at it in that way that gave Sealgair ideas that the girl might not finish it and maybe, just maybe, toss the dog a morsel. The dog wiggled her rear end and her tail wagged while she gave Miri her best puppy eyes and lolling tongue.
“Easy there, girl. You don’t want too much, you’ll get fat,” Uallas said to the dog.
She looked up at him and he could swear he read disdain in her eyes. He imagined he could hear her saying to him, ‘No I won’t. I’ll just run it off. I’m a good dog!‘
“Yeah, you got yourself a vole this morning. Nice juicy fat one, too.” He countered the imaginary protest and scratched her haunches. The rear right leg immediately began thumping as he got ‘the spot’.
Miri giggled. “She really loves you, you know.”
“Ah, everyone’s dog loves them,” Uallas dismissed.
“No, no. You’re lucky. Lots of people have dog friends. Sealgair thinks you’re special. She really loves you.”
The dog’s head turned toward Miri and her ears perked up. Miri giggled again and the dog’s tail wagged once more. The girl took one last nibble of her jerky and tossed the remaining half of it across the coals to the dog. Sealgair immediately snapped it out of the air and chomped away at it, tail wagging victoriously.
“Wow,” muttered Uallas.
Miri shrugged, hitching her homespun around her a little tighter. “I have a way with animals,” she said, looking directly at the fire and away from his eyes.
“I’ll say,” he replied.
“What were you carving?” she asked.
He realized of a sudden that he’d let his whittling project get away from him. He looked around and found it on the trampled down grass near his fire pit, picking it back up and blowing off imaginary dirt and dust. He held it up to the light so she could see.
The back end was still a roughed out chunk of wood, but the front end bore the distinct resemblance of a wolf or dog. Uallas intended it to be a dog, at least. He hoped she saw that. He’d just begun carving out the gap under the belly when she’d startled him. Miri admired the wood and nodded. “You’re really good,” she said.
He blushed and murmured a thanks. He noted then that steam was escaping from the pot, so he pulled out from his back the little iron plate he used for a grill, unwrapping the somewhat greasy rag that covered it. He set it down on the coals and shrugged. Next came a little wrapped parcel of waxed paper. He unwrapped it, exposing a little bit of sheep’s milk butter, which he rubbed on the iron. “Sorry, I should’ve put that out sooner,” he apologized.
Lastly from the pack he pulled out a single loaf of flat bread, itselfwrapped in another linen cloth. He looked at it, and at his guest, then promptly tore the bread in half and put both pieces on the impromptu griddle.
While the bread began to sizzle Miri shifted in her stance, eyes bright as she looked at the food. Uallas sympathized. He knew what was in the pot wasn’t the best food he’d ever had, but darn it he was hungry. And now that he thought about it, sharing the anticipation of a meal with someone was a pleasant experience.
Soon enough he judged the bread to be done. He wrapped his hand in several cloths and fished the pan off the coals, laying it on the beat-down grass between them. While she gingerly snapped up a piece of the bread he used a pair of sticks to remove the earthenware pot from the coals and likewise set it down between them. He hooked the lid with one of the sticks and removed it, then fished inside with his utensils and pulled out a dollop of pottage to place on Miri’s bread and another somewhat equal portion to put on his own. He scrapped outwhat he could of the remainder and split that between them as well.
The food was essentially a vegetable mash, liberally seasoned, with some creaminess from sheep’s milk thrown in, and a few bits of chipped beef he’d bartered for on his last trip to the market. It was very savory and a little bitter, but it went well with the bread, and he was very hungry. He took a bite of his portion and savored it, lamenting only a little at the reduced portion. When he looked across at Miri and saw the simple joy illuminating her features, he felt fuller than the missing portion could have supplied.
Sooner than he’d have liked, the meal was concluded. Uallas leanedback against the ugly tree and licked his fingers clean. Sealgair thumped her tail so he laughed and held out his hand for her to lick off the rest. When she was done, Uallas washed down his dinner withanother splash of his canteen’s water, relishing the flavor. He’d filled it last at a natural spring nearby. Very crisp, and the metal of the container leant the water an even finer flavor. Certainly notthe dull tang of using a sheep’s bladder. He passed the canteen off to Miri, who took a longer pull from it than last time before she handed it back. A quick shake told him there were at least a few more pulls in it. He’d refill tomorrow while he moved the flock.
“That’s from one of the old places, isn’t it?” Miri asked. She nodded when he held up the canteen with his eyebrows raised.
“Yeah,” he admitted. “I found it rescuing Biddy over there.” He pointed to she sheep who just stared her level dumbest back at him. The sheep chewed absently.
“She got in trouble?”
“You could say that. Old dummy found a particularly juicy plant that she just had to eat over a small ledge. Kept going farther and farther, and by the time I noticed it she was down in the gully. I got down inside and found a bunch of old stuff, but lying under a rock was this skeleton.”
Miri shuddered, but he pressed on. “I know, really creepy. He… huh… now that I think about it I’m not sure if it was a he or not… anyway they were dressed in old scraps that must’ve survived for a really long time, but near the feet under some scrabble rock that Biddy had kicked up was this shiny bit of metal. Found some other tidbits too, turned those into some nifty coin. I really need that a few years later.” He stopped talking as a lump grew in his threat. He realized that he really didn’t feel like talking about how his mom died to Miri.
He glanced over at her and saw that she was looking down with her shoulders hunched up, and strangely Uallas felt that she might be reflecting his inner emotions. When he was quiet for a while she looked up at him and met his eyes. Those emerald green eyes dazzled at him across the fire. They were so alien. He’d never seen a person’s eyes do that. Of course, most people from the town didn’t like the dumb orphan shepherd boy, but still. She looked away.
“So, you said your favorite story was the Sword of Light, right?” she asked. She wasn’t looking him in the eyes, but rather away and at the sheep. Biddy stopped her chewing and locked eyes with Miri and sat still.
“Um… Yeah. My uncle used to tell it. About the Claíomh Solais. It goes something like this…”