Cedric & Daffyd
moonset that same night, Cedric dropped to his knees and wriggled
through the small wooden door of an animal shed. The rain had stopped at
last, but there had been a misty ring of light around the moon,
presaging another storm. The temperature had dropped with the last of
the daylight, and if Cedric's country-bred weather sense meant anything,
the new storm would bring snow rather than rain before dawn. The
relative shelter of four walls and a roof was worth the risk of
discovery, even if the walls in question were old wattle and daub and
scarcely more substantial than heavy cloth.
Cedric almost changed his mind about the shelter when simultaneously in the darkness, his questing right hand touched what must have been a pile of old goat droppings in the straw and his nostrils took in the distinctive tang of many goats crowded into a small space. In his quickly conjured handfire, he could see a sleepy yellow eye in a long bearded face striped like a badger's with curving dark horns poking out of the creature's forehead. A touch of his hand sent the billy goat back to sleep. As far as he could tell, this shed was home to at least a dozen brown and white goats, each the size of a large dog. The shed had a low, sloping roof of thatching, the low end here by the door starting about eight inches above his head. There was scant level floor left over for two adults to sit, let alone lie down in any sort of comfort.
"Wouldn't you know we'd get a goatherd?" he muttered as Mireille passed their two small bundles in to him.
"Sheep wouldn't be much better," Mireille philosophized even as she wrinkled her nose in agreement. "Let's be grateful we didn't get a pig farmer."
She slipped inside and closed the little shed door after her. They could not bolt it again from the inside, and both knew they must leave this place before dawn to avoid discovery. "At least we'll sleep dry tonight. The straw looks fairly clean, too."
Cedric wisely said nothing. He started crawling toward the corner at his right, judging that would be the best place for them to escape detection should anyone come before morning. His teeth chattered, and as he sank to a sitting position, he was lightheaded for a moment. It had been their third day on the march without any food. In the steep wildness of the mountains with their narrow, ill-marked trails, they could go nearly as fast on foot as could men on horseback, and leave far less evidence of their passing. His family had always been hardy and tough as seasoned oak, survivors. After two years of living wild, Mireille too had toughened; her essential health and strong constitution had given her a hardihood she wouldn't have believed possible in her days of living in a proper house as the daughter of a prosperous Nyford merchant. They were both shivering hard as they huddled their frozen bodies together for the shared warmth, both of them warming icy hands in their armpits, teeth chattering hard. Youth and strength notwithstanding, they were both exhausted and footsore after the day of hard going, both approaching the limits of their endurance. Cedric knew they'd have to get food somehow and soon if they had a hope of keeping going.
**We'll need warm clothes, too,** he thought, huddling his bony knees closer to his chest for warmth. **Or any clothes at all.**
They had worn all the clothes they owned to keep out rain and wind in the last two days, and it hadn't been nearly enough. They hadn't so much as a spare sheepskin between them.
His shabby boots were soaked and he could feel his cold toes squelch within their envelopes of thin wet leather. If they lasted him the winter it would be a miracle. He was grateful that Mireille had had new boots last fall although at the time the price the cobbler had demanded had made him swear for days. Obtaining food with no money was hard enough, but clothing, he might as well pray to find a tree that grew cloaks, boots and woolen tunics. And with the whole winter of snow and bitter mountain cold before them.
Momentarily overwhelmed, Cedric slumped forward to rest his forehead and folded arms on his upraised knees.
"Ced?" Miri's voice was sharp with alarm.
"We can't keep on going, Miri. Sooner or later, they'll catch us."
She seized his shoulders and shook him with surprising energy, then.
"Don't you start talking like that! If we'd wanted to huddle up in the dark somewhere in hiding and just wait for the Custodes to capture us, we might as well have stayed in our old cave! We've come too far to just give up, or are you suddenly eager to start betraying our people to their deaths for the Custodes?"
He lifted his head and rested against the corner post. "Of course I don't want that. But look at us - we've no food or extra clothing, and we're both of us tired enough to drop with every step. I wager it will snow before morning. How can we keep going with no food or warm clothes?"
"We'll get food, somehow," she soothed. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and rested her cheek against his neck. "And if we can't get any warm clothes, then we'll go without. But I intend to keep going until I do drop to my knees. After that, I'll crawl if I must.
"And so will you. I'll even carry you if necessary," she added in a stern voice after a moment or two. "But you're not staying behind to hide in the dark like a coward, is that clear?"
"Oh Miri." Cedric lifted his hand right hand to squeeze her joined ones at his right shoulder. "My very dear. Even determination like yours won't keep us going indefinitely. If the Custodes don't capture us, the mountain winter may kill us, instead. We'll freeze without shelter and warmer clothes, and it's a bad time of year to try foraging for any kind of food. After yesterday, we daren't show our faces in any public place."
"Since we have no money, and there's nothing to forage for in the winter, that leaves our last option - stealing," Mireille answered calmly. "You're quite right that we must have food. And I intend to start now."
She rose to her knees and untied her dented tin cup from her bundle. Cedric watched her, and his mystification cleared up as she crawled on her knees to the first goat they'd seen right by the door.
There was a sleepy bleat of indignation, and Mireille swore as one cloven hoof made contact with her knee.
"Try a nanny goat," Cedric advised, doing his best not to laugh aloud.
"Cedric FitzHamon, I can tell the difference with no interference from you!"
"It must have been too dark in here, then," he told her. "Even the most determined person in the world would have a hard time squeezing milk from the backside of a billy goat."
She swore softly at him in Bremagni from the other side of the goat shed and his laughter started, not to be stopped. He was even more tired after his laughing fit, but his leaden discouragement was gone. After days of being in the open air, breathing the perfume of goats was not pleasant. To balance the closeness, it was a blessing to be relatively dry and out of the wind. Cedric stretched out his legs tentatively until his feet were braced against the back of the nearest goat, feeling the animal's warmth steal up through the soles of his feet. Cedric let his eyes close. His head jerked up with a start as he felt Mireille touch his hand.
"Careful," she whispered. "There isn't much milk. I expect they were all milked before being turned in here for the night, but I've got a little."
Cedric took the cup from her and sipped, making a face.
"Goat's milk tastes about as good as they smell," he grumbled.
"I wouldn't mind a dollop of honey to go with it myself," Mireille answered. "Now drink up."
Despite his complaining, Cedric traded sips with Mireille until the cup was empty. For all its sharp flavor, the goat's milk was warm, and by the last sip, he thought it the most delicious drink in the world. He felt as drowsy as he ever had after a full cup of rich Fianna wine.
Mireille wiped the last drops from the inside of the cup with her finger, then sucked on the finger. She curled down beside him, exhausted herself.
"We'll find some solid food tomorrow," she murmured. "Even if we do have to steal it."