Thistles and Barley

Issue #18

I’ve seen him deal killing force with a casual swipe, but what I fear is his silence and the wounded looks he gives me when we can’t agree. He values peace so much, but my heart is turning to mud.

He has a swordsman’s heavy shoulders, thick chest, and equally thick waist. No one would mistake my husband for a farmer, but we’re both out in the barley field pulling thistles, farming. We’d rather yank them young than deal with thickets at harvest. I keep glancing his way, hoping to catch his eye so I can smile at him. He doesn’t look over. I give up on the casual lead-in and stretch my back, gathering strength from the cool blue sky.

I take off my gloves. “Merald.”

He finally looks up. His large hazel eyes smile at me. The bright red scratches on his arms have attracted a fly and he swats at it. I snatch it out of the air when it zips my way and crush it. Its blood is cold and sticky.

“I’ve been thinking.” I look away, but not in time to miss his shoulders sagging. “It’s been ages since we’ve seen Seraf. I hope he’s doing all right.” I wipe the fly bits off on my work skirts. I hate working in skirts. I wear them for him.

Merald lets out a sigh and gets back to work. He always does this and I’ve always given in.

I won’t let his ‘we’ve had this talk before’ wall stop me this time. “Besides, it’s been forever since we’ve been to Edina. I’d like to do some shopping in a real city.”

Merald keeps working. He’s not ignoring me because his breath is working hard and this isn’t hard work, not for him.

“Our neighbors can watch the animals. The fields are set.” I look around at my land. Our land. There’s more work than two can handle. I used to work the farm alone and it was a mess. Now it looks half-decent. I wonder what Merald sees when he looks around the place. He was noble born, only a third son, but still he wasn’t raised to this life.

I’ve been terrified to ask, but I’m tired of keeping my thoughts in my purse. “Are you ashamed of us?”

He stops and looks up at that. “No. Of course not.”

I’m relieved that he’s offended by the question. “Good.”

“Why would you even ask that?”

“It’s just that we’ve been cooped up here for years and—”

“I love it here. The way you spoke of the farm and the river and the village caught my heart well before I ever saw it. I’ve never regretted trading silk pillows and glass windows for fur rugs and a stone hearth.” His gaze drops and he reaches for a thistle, changes his mind, and pulls work gloves off of hands made to fill gauntlets. “I don’t understand why you don’t love it. This is your home.”

“Our home.” I brush the sweat off my face. “I’ll always come back here. But sometimes I have to chase the wind. That’s how we met, you know. I was a long way from home.”

“There was a war.” He looks away, toward the river.

The war was horrible, but I don’t want to forget the friends I made, or the places I’ve seen. I need to get away from the village that I love and despise in the same breath.

Merald used to be a knight. He became a war hero the day he rode in defiance of the emperor to stand alongside a country lord against the conscription to build another pointless monument. I can tell by Merald’s expression, set like an angry man’s but with sorrowful eyes, that he’s thinking about the hopes his parents once had of winning the emperor’s favor. They claim they’re proud of him, but he told me they mourned when the Court of Song collapsed.

I used to be a troublemaker, that woman. Well, I’m still that woman, the one who took up fighting rather than become a proper victim. The council hated my competence and cheered at my darkest moments, despite the fact that my successes ultimately became theirs. They cared more about appearances than victory. I cared about who lived and died.

Even before the war I wasn’t exactly respectable. The man I loved got married and didn’t tell me. The people in the village think I seduced him. Women still grab their husbands’ arms and glare when I go into town. That and my unapologetic nature are the safest things for them to hold against me. If they accuse me of bringing the war here it might sound like they hadn’t been willing to fight for their lord, the very one who protected them from hardship.

I guess if Merald let himself notice their gossip then he’d have to throw down his gauntlet, and neither of us wants that.

I shake off my sour mood by thinking back to better times. “You know what I miss?” I grin. “Sir Raffinel’s Stop Me song.”

Merald’s mouth twitches into a brief smile.

“I bet he’s made up a thousand verses by now. Last time in I heard someone in the village singing a few.” That’s what got me thinking about Seraf, and spying, courier work and forest battles, and helping refugees during the war. Raising good barley matters, but not like that.

“The council wants to forget about us.” Merald pulls his gloves back on.

“You want to forget about us.” I wince at the harsh accusation in my voice and pull my gloves back on. My hands are shaking.

“What are you talking about?”

I can’t look at him. I yank out a thistle and fling it to the ground, step on it so that it’s flat. “Farming isn’t all that I am. This isn’t who you fell in love with.” There’s a thistle thorn stuck in my glove near the wrist. I try to ignore the pain and pull more thistles.

“Erylis, you’re exactly who I fell in love with.”

“So you wouldn’t mind if I went on my own, then? Strapped on some weapons, took Longfellow, and rode off to Edina. I’d be gone three weeks, maybe.”

His back straightens hard and his chin lifts. “You’re not twenty anymore.”

My temper gets the better of me. When we argued during the war and his back went up, I was stubborn enough that I could endure it if he didn’t talk to me for a week. I feel stubborn like that again. “So?”

“You could run into trouble.”

“Trouble comes here. Just last year we fought those brigands.”

“It’s asking for trouble, a woman traveling alone.”

“I used to travel alone all the time. I lived here alone for years.” I have a nasty scar along my spine from that time, proof that I can survive, a reminder that it’s not easy.

He turns his back to me.

Late in the war Merald held my retreat point when I went out on especially dangerous missions, or rode with me when I needed an escort. I loved it when he served as my guardian, and I feel blessed to have him as lover, friend, and protector. My temper falters as his silence smothers me. Is what I want really worth the vexation I’m bringing to both of us?

I almost give up, but then I think of a compromise. “I could visit Parke and Jannis.” They weren’t as far off as Edina, about three days on horseback.

“They have a family to see to. They can’t take on guests.”

“Is there anywhere I can go?”

He doesn’t answer.

He doesn’t talk to me the rest of the day, or at dinner. After we eat he washes the dishes and I sit with my chamomile tea. I usually write in my journal while I have my tea. The sweet, hay-like scent makes my hand itch to write, but I have nothing to write about.

I get up and go to my old war chest. I wipe down the carved top once a week, but when I open it dust wafts up from the inside. My weapons are all well put away, but the metal looks dull from dust sticking to the oil. I kneel. The scent reminds me of an attic, of things forgotten. I pull a sleeve over my hand and wipe the dust away. It leaves a shiny spot and a greasy stain on my cuff. It’s just a work shirt but the stain bothers me. It’ll always remind me of this argument.

Merald comes out of the kitchen and stands in the living room doorway. He’s wearing an apron, rubbing a plate with a stained checked cloth.

I lift my sword from the chest and pull it free of the scabbard. “I don’t want to fight. I just want to live.” There’s no rust on the blade, but time has made the dents, nicks and scratches on the metal more apparent.

“This is living.”

I’m surprised that he spoke. I want to talk to him, but I can’t come up with anything that doesn’t sound ungrateful.

His eyes are sad and his mouth is drawn down. “I don’t know why you want to go to Edina. All those loyal to the council will try to embarrass you and our friends. Why do you want to see Seraf at any rate? He has no honor.”

“He has plenty.” I huff and sheath the sword.

“He was cast out of the knighthood well before—”

“Yes, well before you resigned the emperor’s army. Maybe Serif shouldn’t have left his post, but at least he knew something was wrong before people started starving.” That was too harsh, no matter how true, and I regretted saying it. “He saved your life,” I remind him.

“I don’t trust him with you.”

“But do you trust me with him?” I smile, but I realize I’ve put my foot in my mouth because he didn’t take that remark well. Has the village infected him with mistrust?

He retreats to the kitchen. I set my hands on my hips, determined to get us both out of here. “Let’s go the day after tomorrow, together. We don’t have to flaunt around as a couple if you think that’s going to irk the council. Even if we did I doubt anyone would notice us.” I wait, hoping, though honestly it’s unlikely we’ll go unnoticed and he knows it. Between the legend that is us, his height and my preference to go around armed like a man, people will gawk and talk even if I wear dresses, which I won’t, not on the road.

So we’ll stand out, so what? We won’t be invited to elegant dinners, but plenty of soldiers and knights will want to talk and remember the war as all of us fought it, not as council historians were told to rewrite it. All the council cares about anymore is legitimacy, in the eyes of the neighboring empire, in their own eyes.

I want to talk to my comrades in arms. I felt like I belonged among the soldiers, as much as I’ve ever felt I belong anywhere. Are they restless in peacetime like me?

Our lack of official welcome in Edina isn’t all my fault, though sometimes it’s easier to blame myself than to point at Merald’s own stubbornness. He could have sworn fealty to the council, but instead he turned his back on them. They didn’t like that. They shouldn’t have been surprised. He didn’t want to put himself in a position to have to break an oath again.

Dishes slosh and clink against each other in water. A rag makes squeaking noises on porcelain.

The dishes were a gift from his mother. They arrived with a formal letter of congratulations a full year after we’d settled in. They’re the only fine things in this stone house besides the weapons and horses, and none of them fit on a farm. I’m too aware that Merald and I don’t fit together either, by law or right. The reality of a commoner marrying a noble makes him appear cheap and me look like a thief.

I don’t want to, but I care about what Merald’s parents think of me. The fear makes me want to visit them, to poke at them, see if they’ll smile or spit. I’m pretty sure they’d spit, maybe just after I leave.

“I’ve fought hard all my life for everything.” I doubt he can hear me over the dishes. “Is that why I’m so restless?” I listen, but there’s no stop to the washing. I think about leaving without him, now, just take my sword and daggers and some money. It hurts. Maybe it’d be considered abandoning my post, so to speak. I don’t know if Merald would have me back if I did that to him. What would honor dictate? I’ve lived with him long enough to answer a lot of questions about his code of honor for myself, and even challenge the sense in some of it, but this one I can’t answer.

I’m chilled by the thought that he might call for my arrest if I left. Would he? He might consider it his duty. I don’t want to force him to it, or shame him.

Merald didn’t have to marry me. I smile, remembering how he put it. He wanted to do me the honor. The implied arrogance made me mad at the time, though thank goodness I held my tongue. It really was an honor.

He goes to bed and I stay up late. He’s not asleep when I join him, just quiet. I’m tired enough that I fall asleep right away.

When I wake I’m rested and happy until yesterday returns behind my eyes. I clean up, weighed down. I can’t do it to him, never mind the legal absurdities. I can live without our friends. I could never live with hurting him. Yesterday frustration drove me to the edge, but in a quiet house with the late morning light reminding me that I’ve shirked my early chores, I refuse to ride away while he works alone in the barley fields. We belong together. He wants to stay, so we’ll stay.

I pull on my shirt and skirt from yesterday, don’t bother to tuck anything in, and go out to the living room. And I stop.

My bags are packed.

My stomach lurches and I think I’m going to be sick. I rush out the back door into the barley field. There’s Merald knee-deep in green, pulling thistles. He sees me and starts wading toward me.

I nearly run him down. “Merald—”

“What’s wrong?” He looks past me. His face is smooth and his eyes make winter look warm, like he’s expecting an army to charge us two alone.

I’m gasping, confused now. “My—you—are we all right? Or are you throwing me out?”

His gaze falls to my face. His brows rumple up, and then he crushes me close. I’m tight and afraid but he’s warm and holding me. I relax though my heart is still tripping fast. He smells like home and safety and love and I can’t lose him.

“I love you,” he says. “Do you love me?”

“Forever,” I swear.

“Come back to me.” He kisses my hair. “Just three weeks, Erylis?”

I smile, though I’m not glad. I’m scared as badly as I was during the worst parts of the war.

As hard as it’s going to be for me to ride on alone, I know it’ll be harder for him to watch me ride away. He hasn’t packed his bags, which means he isn’t ready to ride with me. I don’t know if he’ll ever be ready again.

He looks so fragile. It’s not just the trust he’s giving me. I think he’s afraid that I don’t need him anymore.

“You’ll be safe while I’m gone?” I smile at him, teasing, but I’m serious. “It seems I need you to hold my retreat point, once again.”

“I’ll hold.” Merald kisses my hair again. “Give my regards to our friends. Even Seraf.”

Joy at the thought of seeing Seraf again makes me laugh. “I’ll invite him to come visit us.” He pulls away and I hastily add, “if that’s all right with you.”

His hesitation is so brief anyone but me would have missed it. “Invite them all. I do miss them.”

I feel so awful and selfish, but I can’t wait to ride into Edina. I pull him along by the hand toward the house. “Will you send me off with a reminder of the warmth of our bed?”

He turns pink. It makes me laugh and love him all the more. He’s so shy about that, even after all this time.

As we walk out of the barley I can tell that his mind is too full to indulge in simple pleasures, and honestly, so is mine. He’s quiet, his head bowed, but when he looks my way he smiles. “You look so happy to leave,” he says.

I halt and hold him close. “I’ll be even happier when I come back home to you.” I hope he believes me.

Merald takes my hand and we walk to the stables. He helps me saddle Longfellow. I rub the scar on Longfellow’s flank, remembering hard fights and nights wondering if I’d live through the next day. Longfellow looks at me, curious, maybe even knowing. Does he remember too?

Merald and I load the saddlebags, make certain they’re balanced, and he helps me into the saddle even though I don’t need it. I bend down and we kiss, the kind of kiss where the warmth leaves too quickly but the memory lingers. I’m drawn back in time as I ride away, looking over my shoulder at him as I always used to. There are no words, have never been words between us in moments like this. I raise my open hand. He raises a fist, and we turn away, one toward home, and one toward the unknown.


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Kamila Zeman Miller lives with her family on small acreage in the Columbia River Gorge, where she paints and writes speculative fiction.  She has the obligatory large number of rescued cats, as well as dogs, goats, rabbits and a very raccoon-savvy but consequently lonely chicken.  "Thistles and Barley" is her first published story.

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6 Comments on “Thistles and Barley”

6 Responses to “Thistles and Barley”

  1. Selene says:

    06-05-2009, 12:19 AM
    Selene

    I love the characters! So when do we get the novel? I’m already hooked….

    Love the title too….

  2. Renee Stern says:

    06-05-2009, 01:07 PM
    Renee Stern

    Great story with a rich backstory and a nicely evoked mature relationship. Count me as another vote for more stories with these characters.

  3. Jill says:

    06-06-2009, 08:19 AM
    Jill

    Thistles and Barley

    Is there a novel coming out?

  4. kzmiller says:

    06-06-2009, 11:29 PM
    kzmiller

    Thank you everyone for your kind comments!

    I will either have a series of stories or a novel from these characters, or both. When? That’s always a good unanswerable question. I write every day, and short stories or a novel (or novels) could be produced relatively quickly. Clicking with an editor/agent that has room on their list once the story is written … that’s hard. I’ll do my best on my end of things!

  5. SFAnn says:

    06-06-2009, 01:44 PM
    SFAnn

    Your portrayal of the raw emotions and inner struggle were magnificent. Good job!

  6. J.M. LeClerc says:

    I feel as though I’ve lived this story sometime in my own life. Though the time maybe different, I feelings are the same. The longing to be as I once was, knowing the glory will not be as grand this time. The journey home will always be the grandest adventure. I really love this story.

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