This is the first readable draft of the sixth chapter of Emma’s Story. Previous chapters can be found on the Stories page if you haven’t read them yet.
As usual, this is not the finished story. Changes and tweaks can and will be made before the story is eventually done. All chapters will be published here in their First Draft versions. Once all chapters are completed the entire story will be edited, polished, and finally published as an e-book.
This week’s musical accompaniment is a set of tracks and remixes by Hybrid. They have a rather distinctive sound, with breakbeat rhythms that aren’t too edgy, and with a lot of orchestral soundscapes to go along with the beats. They’re a band/act that’s been with me for a very long time and I can’t recommend them enough if you’re in any way interested in electronic dance music.
Emma’s Story – Chapter 6
At the inn, in the village between the hills, a young woman eats alone. She is warm and comfortable, with her back to the wall, right next to the fireplace, and the kettle with the stew.
All around her, the ritual of evening plays out. Villagers eat and drink and talk. In the warmth of the fire and the light of the candles they enjoy the company of each other, in groups, or in pairs. Only a young woman eats alone.
It does not matter. She is tired and hungry, with no interest in conversation. All she needs is within arms reach. A spoon. A bowl of stew. A comfortable seat and a fireplace warm.
The woman with the braid brings another helping. She asks no questions and says no words. She just smiles and is on her way, leaving her guest be. It is as it should be.
A young woman eats, and life comes back to her. Roses return to her cheeks. Her shoulders rise, and her eyes fill with curiosity. When she sees the little cat peering down on her from up in the rafters, a smile blooms on her face.
– – –
“Hey girl, mind if I join you?” Trula set down two small cups on the table, pulled out the chair opposite Emma and sat down. Grinning, she leaned forward with her elbows on the table and raised an eyebrow.
Emma looked at her and frowned. Eventually she shrugged. “Sure, no, go ahead.”
“Here.” Trula straightened up and pushed one of the cups over to Emma’s side of the table. “You must have had a long day. Rastebo is quite a ride, isn’t it?”
With a sigh, Emma pushed her bowl of stew to the side and reached for the cup. It had been a long day. It really had. “Well, it’s not so bad.” She lifted it to her face, and it’s rough surface warmed her hand. “The roads were fine and the weather was nice.”
Once more the fumes invade her nose.
Hot whiskey. She let her head fall back, closed her eyes and let the aromas have their way with her. That was the best part – almost better than the taste. The breath that escaped her came close to a moan, but she just couldn’t muster up the energy to be embarrassed about it.
“Sure, sure, but still,” said Trula. “You’ve been on the road all day. It’s okay to be tired.”
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t” Emma opened her eyes a fraction and gazed across the table. “But it’s not that bad.” She smiled, sipped her whiskey, and let out another satisfied breath. “I’ll last a while longer. There’s rock under these feet.”
“And apples in her cheeks.” Trula grinned, and raised an eyebrow at her as she too sipped her whiskey.
Emma’s face heated up and she giggled. “Oh you ain’t that bad yourself woman.” To have a braid like that, long and black and thick. She’d love that. And so shiny too. “Cheers!” She held her cup out.
Eye’s locked, as custom demands of a formal toast, they touched their cups together over the table, careful not to spill a single drop. Eye to eye, they drank, and eye to eye, they set their cups down. For a long drawn-out moment they faced each other in silence.
Coughing into her fist, Emma tore her eyes away. Custom be damned; you could only stare someone in the eye for so long. She cleared her throat, fidgeted for a moment, and took another sip of the whiskey.
“Seriously though.” Trula cleared her throat and leaned back in her chair. Her cheeks too had taken on a faint rosy tint. “It’s okay to be tired. I’ve prepared a room for you upstairs. You’re free to retire whenever you feel like it.”
Emma stiffened. “Upstairs?” She smoothed out her face and tried to look casual – unbothered.
“Yeah. Stairs are over there.” Trula pointed at a door next to the counter where she’d been wiping dry the dishes earlier. “Your room is at the end of the hallway and on the right. Blue door with a number six on it. You can’t miss it – well, unless you get stupid drunk that is.” With a grin she raised her cup in salute and took another sip.
“I’ve got a room? Here?” Her back very straight, Emma swallowed, not taking her eyes off the other woman.
“Yes, of course.” Trula beamed at her. “Only the best for our guests. Crawling distance from the bar.” She touched her cup to Emma’s on the table, winked at her and had another sip.
“Yes, sure, that’s nice.” Emma held up the cup in front of her eyes, studying it closely but not really seeing it – mostly just hiding her face behind her hands. “Thanks… It’s just…” She sighed, and without drinking she set the cup down, clasped her hands in her lap to keep from fidgeting, and averted her eyes.
“Oh… I see… You’ve never…”
Blushing, Emma looked up. “No…”
“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.” Trula tilted her head, and her voice filled with sympathy. “And I’ll be in the room next to yours. It’s fine.”
“Really?” Emma’s mouth fell open. “You don’t have a burrow?”
Trula’s face turned serious. She narrowed her eyes and slowly shook her head from side to side. Then her mouth began to twitch and she burst out laughing. “Of course I do, silly.” She took a deep breath and composed herself. “But it’s my turn to get breakfast going this week. We always have a few old ones coming down early for a meal this time of year. I gotta make sure it’s on its way when they arrive.”
“Oh, I see…” Emma nodded.
“Yes, so don’t you worry your rosy little cheeks about that.” Smiling, Trula held up a finger and wagged it back and forth in front of her. “You’ll be fine.”
Emma smiled her most confident smile. She probably would be. It wasn’t like it was dangerous or anything anyway. Not really. Houses were safe too. You could sleep in them. It’d be fine. She’d be fine. Really.
Trula giggled at her – a sparkle in her eye and whiskey in her hand.
“So, anyway…” Emma shrugged and tossed her hair. “Will you need help with anything? I’ll probably be here all day tomorrow to.”
Aye, yes.” Trula nodded. “The bear and the meeting and all that, right?”
“Yes. That won’t be until tomorrow afternoon, and then it’ll be too late to leave, so I’ll be here another night.” Maybe there would be time for a hot whiskey then too.
Trula sighed and turned to have a look around the room. Nothing seemed in need of attention. People at their tables drank and talked, but there weren’t that many of them, and no one seemed in any hurry to get more. An older woman – rounder, but with the same braid – had appeared behind the counter. Trula raised an arm to wave, and the old woman smiled and nodded in return.
“Well, tonight’s all sorted for chores.” She turned back to Emma. “And you being just arrived and everything, I won’t have you work.”
“But I can–”
“No!” Trula jerked her head back and forth so fast her braid flew wide and disappeared behind her back. “I won’t have it.” She raised a warning finger at Emma, and pinned her with a glare. For a moment she sat stock still, and then her face cracked up into a smile. “Tomorrow though. Tomorrow there will be plenty to do. I’ll knock on your door when I need you.”
“Of course.” Emma sat up a little straighter and pushed out her chest. “I’ll be ready. It’ll be fun to see how you do things here in the big village.”
“Pfft…” Trula stuck out her tongue and made a face. “Big village my dirty toes, this place ain’t so big.”
“It’s bigger than Rastebo.”
Trula swallowed and gazed at the little cup in front of her on the table. “You…” She swallowed, gazed up into the ceiling, and her hand reached over her shoulder and pulled the braid back in front. “You’re not here to poach yourself a man, are you?” Her eyes narrowed and she fixed Emma with a stare.
“Oh, no no, not at all.” Emma held out her hands, palms up, and shook her head. “I’ve got all the men I can handle. I don’t need anymore.” She stopped, paused, and as her mind caught up with her words, her face caught fire. “Err… I mean… I didn’t mean…”
Trula burst out laughing. She rocked back and forth and slapped her hand against the table. “Easy there girl, easy. I’m not judging.” She took a deep breath to try and compose herself, but couldn’t quite stop her shoulders shaking. “You’re welcome to all the men you can handle for all I care, but if you’ve got any to spare, send them over my way.”
“It’s not like that!” Emma crossed her arms over he chest and pouted. “Not!”
“Sure, sure, of course it’s not.” Taking another sip of the whiskey, Trula raised an eyebrow and winked at her. “Lucky girl. All the men you can handle.”
Emma crossed her arms even tighter over chest, hunched up her shoulders and scrunched up her face. She threw Trula a glare, rolled her eyes, and heaved a really big sigh.
“Geez, I’m sorry. I’m just kidding.”
“I know. It’s okay.” Emma leaned back against the wall, relaxed, and a tired smile sailed up on her face.
Trula sighed and stared down into her cup. “Seriously though. If you know any single men, I’d really like to meet them.” Her fingers played with the tip of her braid. “We’re way short here.”
“Really, but I thought this was a big place?”
“Sure. It’s big.” Trula waved at the room behind her. “We’ve got loads of young people here, only there’s way more women than men wanting to get married.”
“Oh, I see.” Emma stroked her chin and nodded. Maybe she could grow her hair long and wear it in a braid too. “I guess that’s not so nice.”
“Yeah.” She let go of the braid, grabbed her cup and drained the rest of it all in one go. “If I want to get married in the village I’ll have to wait three years until Graham’s Hektor comes of age, and even then I’m not guaranteed a burrow here.”
“Oh no. That sounds awful.” Emma leaned forward with her elbows on the table and tilted her head to the side, smiling her most sympathetic smile.
“Way!” Trula slammed her cup down into the table with a bang. “I’ve waited long enough. I want me some kids and a burrow of my own.” She tugged at her braid – hard. “Last spring I want it.”
“I hear you.” Emma sighed and gazed over at the fireplace, where the flames now struggled to reach the kettle. “I’d like to get started too,” she mumbled.
“What? Really? I thought you said you were sorted?”
Emma squirmed and kept her eyes on the fire. “Yes, well, technically…”
“Technically? Wait. This calls for a refill.” Trula’s chair scraped against the floor. “You just stay right there girl and I’ll get you what you need.”
As the woman walked away, Emma sat back up and leaned her head against the wall. All the men she could handle. She stared at her cup for a moment, snatched it up and drained what little was left. Barely even one, she could. Yeah, this called for another. He’d better not have gone talk to the winters. Lady’s rosy butt cheeks wouldn’t save him if he had – or her. She’d be so embarrassed. Not even married and already couldn’t keep her man in check. Useless fool of a man. She’d marry the crap out of him.
– – –
“There we go.” Trula set down two mugs on the table. Big ones. Proper rainy-day tea mugs. “This’ll last us a while.”
Emma raised an eyebrow at the mugs. “That’s a lot. Are you sure?” Even half full they held more than twice the whiskey the small cups from earlier did.
“Way!” Trula leaned forward, pushed one of the mugs over towards Emma, tapped it against the table, and grinned. “There. Let’s hear it now. You’re all sorted, but you’re not getting started. What’s wrong? Spill it!”
“Wrong?” Emma pulled out her most innocent smile – puppy eyes and everything. “There’s nothing wrong.” Not even she believed it.
Trula leaned forward with her elbows on the table and her chin in her hands. “Mmm… sure…”
Emma took a sip of the whiskey and stared down into the mug. “No, really, it’s fine.” She took a deep breath, let it out, and set the mug down on the table. “I’ve got this man back home: Torkel, son of the village, burrow of his own and all that. He’s proposed to me.” She tucked her hands in under her hips to keep from fidgeting and rocked back and forth, chewing on her lip.
“Ah, I see, well…” Trula closed her closed her hands around her mug and leaned back in her chair. “That’s great isn’t it? When’s the wedding? Spring sometime? Can I come?”
“Oh, ehm… I…” Her shoulders slumped and she hung her head. “I don’t know…” When would she get married? “I haven’t said yes yet,” she whispered.
Would she even get married? Ever?
“You what?” Eyes wide and mouth hanging open Trula stared at her. “Why in the world wouldn’t you?”
“Ehm… I’m just not sure… I don’t think I’m ready.” Maybe she should just become a monk instead?
“Nonsense.” Trula snorted. “You’re tough enough. If you can drive all the way here on your own, you can raise a family.
“How would you know?” Emma glared at the woman across the table. She didn’t know what it was like. “And it’s not the same. It’s not like that.”
“Well, how is it then girl?” With her elbows on the table and a smirk on her face, Trula leaned forward. “Tell me.”
Emma reached out and wrapped her hands around the mug. “It’s not me. I’m good. It’s him…” She lifted it to her face and looked down into the darkness of the liquid within. Her eyes itched, and she blinked a few times. “He’s a bit of a wild-brain. I’m just not sure he’d make a good burrowman.”
She sniffled, took a big gulp of the whiskey, and wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand.
“He’s always out running in the forest or off on some stupid errand he’s made up on his own.” A big lump formed in her throat. Deep breaths. Keep calm. “He doesn’t help to prepare our burrow, and now he’s probably gone off to ask the winters to come and help kill the bear before we all even get back.”
Her throat ached. It was hard to breathe. “I just don’t know what to do…”
A tear ran down her cheek.
“Aww, Emma. Poor girl.” Trula leaned forward and took hold of her hand across the table. She smiled and gave it light squeeze, cradling it in both of hers. “You do realize you’re being an idiot, right?”
Emma looked up. “What?” She rubbed her free hand against her face.
Trula’s hands were warm against her skin. Soft and reassuring. Friendly. Torkel had held her hand like that last night. It seemed so long ago now. Just like that he’d held it, only not at all. Not like this. A small thumb moved back and forth against one of her knuckles, gently stroking it. Smooth. Warm.
“You’re being silly.” Trula squeezed her hand and looked her in the eye. “You worry too much.”
“You think?” Blushing, Emma pulled her hand back and rubbed at her eyes. She sniffled, swallowed, and took a deep breath. Back in control again.
“Yes.” Trula lifted her mug and drank. “You’ll be fine.” With a thud, she slammed the mug down, splashing whiskey on the table. “Even if he’s away most of the time, you’ll still have your family around, and his.”
“Yes, but…” Emma grimaced, blinked a few times, and stared down into her mug. “But he should be there too,” she mumbled.
“Well, make him then.” Trula swiped at the spilled whiskey on the table with her hand and then licked her fingers clean. “You’re not some garden ornament, are you? You’re not just gonna sit around and watch the grass grow.”
“No! Of course not.”
“Well, there you go then.” She crossed her arms over her chest and leaned back in her chair. “And once you have a child on your hip, things will change, you see. Things like that changes a person.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
Trula sneered and reached for her mug again. “Guess my dirty toes. He’ll change. They all do. It’s the way of the world.”
“You’re right. It is.” Emma shrugged, and forced a smile on to her face. “It’s only…” She leaned forward on the table and warmed her hands on the mug. “I can’t help but worry.” Her voice cracked and she hurried to have a drink – something to soothe her throat, or something. She couldn’t start crying again.
“I know, I know.” Trula reached out and placed a hand on hers.
Emma closed her eyes. She focused on her breathing. In. Out. She would not start crying again. She was just tired. It had been a long day and she’d been up since before dawn. It had been late the night before that too. A long day, and not enough sleep. Of course she’d be tired. It was only natural. Whiskey too.
She’d go to bed soon and sleep and when she woke up tomorrow everything would be fine. She had a room upstairs. Don’t think about that now. Long slow breaths.
Upstairs. Breathe in. Breathe out. In a house. She’d never get married. She’d be weak and take too long and he’d go find someone else in another village. She should just go to Storvak and become a monk and never get married and never have a burrow and her mother would be so disappointed and everyone would talk and she’d never have any children of her own.
Soft warm fingers wrapped themselves around her hand and squeezed. A moment later, another hand found her free one and held that too.
– – –
Time passes, and two women sit in silence.
Breaths become easier. Thoughts slow down, and tears stop running.
At the inn, at the table, by the fire, a new friend’s touch calms a young woman’s heart.
– – –
Emma swallowed, cleared her throat, and opened her eyes. Trula’s eyes met hers, full of sympathy and understanding. Blushing, Emma straightened up and pulled her arms back, her hands chill where the warmth of her friend’s touch had left them.
She tossed her head, wiped the tears from her face, and reached for the mug. Much of the heat had left it, but the whisky still burned as she swallowed it down – one big gulp, and another.
Red faced and sniffling, Emma raised her head and smiled across the table. “You know. I might just have a man for you.”
Trula raised an eyebrow, pursed her mouth, and nodded. “A man you say? Tell me more.”
Grinning, Emma sipped her whiskey, savored the taste, and waited just a moment longer – just for the sake of it. Then she sat down the mug and leaned forward on the table. “So, this Torkel, my useless, wild-brained, future husband, has a younger brother, Burje, who’s looking to be a real good catch.” She bobbed her head, raised an eyebrow, and winked. “Round, sensible, good with the garden. You know the kind – comfortably plump. You should meet him.”
“Oh, I like the sound of that.” Trula leaned forward, resting her chin in the palm of her hand, a big smile on her face. “Does he have a burrow in the village too?
“No…” Her smile faltered, but she pulled it back on and perked up. “But he’s got a hand for carpentry, so even if you have to take over some old hole out in the middle of nowhere, he’ll be sure to do it up real fine in no time.
Grinning, Trula heaved a big sigh. “Oh, I don’t know about that…” She drummed her fingers against her cheek and gazed up into the rafters. “I’m expecting a central burrow, with a stable full of horses and a pen full of pigs.”
“Well, of course, and a stream with a mill…”
“And a hillside full of apples…”
“Yes, of course, and a little lake with a gazebo on the island.” Emma sipped her whiskey, set the mug down with a thud, and stabbed an angry finger in the air. “Why should you settle for anything less?”
Trula straightened up and rapped her knuckles against the table. “Of course! Can’t forget about the lake.” She crossed her arms over her chest and gave a stiff nod.
“Indeed, where would you wash your feet?”
“Ah, well, if he hasn’t got a lake I’m probably not interested, but I might have a peek anyway.” She tugged at her braid and then leaned forward to wrap her hands around her mug. She glared down into it for a moment and heaved a really big sigh, not at all exaggerated. “I mean, I don’t want to seem dismissive of unqualified suitors. It’d be bad for my reputation you know.”
“To be sure.” Emma stroked her chin and put on her most serious frown. “It wouldn’t do to discourage the poor lad just because of his, uh… material shortcomings.”
“Oh, indeed not sister.” Trula drank deep from her mug, a small trickle running over at the side of her mouth. She wiped at her chin with the back of her hand and grinned wide. “Just because he’s not good enough for us doesn’t mean he won’t make a good catch for a less discerning… uh…”
Emma raised an eyebrow. “Candidate?”
“Bacheloresse? No…” Something wasn’t quite right there. She thought for a moment and then had another sip of whiskey instead.
“Connoisseur?” Trula frowned.
“What?” Emma hit her mug down on the table a little too hard. “No, silly, that doesn’t work.” It was almost empty anyway, and nothing had splashed out. It was fine. “Lesser wench! That’s it. He’ll do great for a lesser wench!”
Trula gasped. “Sister! I’m shocked.” She raised her hand and waved a warning finger in Emma’s general direction. “That’s no way to speak of your future husband’s brother’s potential future wife – especially as it could be me.”
“Whatever.” Emma stuck her tongue out and emptied the last of the whiskey down her throat. “Potential future wenchever.”
“Wenchever! Sister!” Trula’s mouth fell open and she slammed her fist into the table. “I’m outraged!” Eyes wide she stared at Emma for a moment, and then she toppled over, almost falling of her chair, roaring with laughter.
“And I’m outboozed.” Giggling, Emma raised her mug, turned it over and stared up into it. Not a drop left. “Sister! Bring me more.”
– – –
And so, a long day fades away in a blurry fog of bad jokes, big smiles, and rosy cheeks. Two young women tell lies, hold hands, and drink more whiskey than proper young women should, but what business of ours is really that?
Candles go out, a fire burns low, and when the time comes to retire, no young woman is bothered by sleeping in a house. The stairway however, is a different matter.
This is all for now.
Chapter 7 is available here.