the loom and the thread will hold
Ash smoothed her skirts down over her knees with steady hands; she had never really realized before how easy it was to wrinkle silk when one was wearing it. It took some getting used to.
Kaisa stilled her with two fingers to the inside of her wrist. “You look lovely,” she said, fond amusement crinkling the corners of her eyes.
Ash resisted the urge to duck her head. “Thank you,” she murmured instead, and caught Kaisa’s fingers in hers. Kaisa’s hands were rough and calloused, but in different ways: from years of bow and sword, instead of broom and mop.
“They’ll love you,” said Kaisa, squeezing her hand.
Ash drew a deep breath and nodded, and did not allow herself to be nervous. She spent time in the presence of royalty now; Kaisa’s parents were not so intimidating, relatively speaking. They were making their yearly visit for Imbolc to light the hearth; Kaisa had wrinkled her nose and looked embarrassed when she told Ash, for it was a custom abandoned by all but the most superstitious country dwellers. But Ash knew well the value of such superstitions, even though Kaisa had shaken her head in fond exasperation when she spoke of her mother’s yearly insistence. But then her eyes had softened and she’d touched Ash’s hand and smiled, and said it would be a good visit this year.
Ash resettled the pillow on the sofa behind her. Kaisa’s apartments in the palace were sumptuously decorated, more to the royal taste than to her own, as Ash had discovered. The furniture was delicate and often uncomfortable, as if it was designed to keep those sitting on it edge. Kaisa had tried to soften the place with pillows and blankets, but she could only do so much. Ash felt the hard edges acutely as the clock ticked on.
Kaisa passed the time with a story about the first time her parents had come to visit her and their misadventures in the palace. As she spoke, she smoothed her thumb over the inside of Ash’s wrist; the movement was tiny, perhaps unconscious, but Ash bit her lip on a smile anyway.
Perhaps she was not as good at hiding it as she thought, because Kaisa stopped mid-sentence. “What?”
Ash shook her head. “Nothing. “
“You were giving me a look,” said Kaisa, undeterred.
She let the smile show, a touch embarrassed. “It’s just you, is all.”
Kaisa laughed then, a bright delighted sound that warmed Ash from the inside out, in the hollows of her chest that had so long been cold she forgot when they had first been frozen. Kaisa’s laugh sounded like snowmelt inside of her.
A clatter in the hall made Ash jump and Kaisa spring to her feet. It was very ill-mannered, but Kaisa flung the door open before the footman could announce the arrivants and embraced her parents out in the hall. Their greetings were boisterous, Kaisa’s voice bright and her father’s deeper amidst the rustle of cloaks and boots being removed. Ash stood, smoothing her skirt down, uncertain whether to go into the hall or wait until they came into the sitting room. Manners dictated they should be shown in, but Ash did not want to seem aloof; but perhaps to join their greetings would be intrusive.
Before she could make up her mind, the door opened again and Kaisa led her parents in. “I’d like you to meet Ash,” she said, coming over to take Ash’s hand
“Ash, this is my father, Cahal, and my mother, Lilias.” Kaisa’s father was a short, barrel-chested man with features well weathered by the sun; he shook Ash’s hand with a vigour that surprised her. Her mother was taller than Kaisa and her husband both, her hair liberally streaked with grey. She had a severe look about her that made Ash falter, but her eyes crinkled on a smile when Ash greeted her, and she felt her anxiety ease somewhat.
“We’ve heard a great deal about you,” said Lilias; her voice was deep and pleasant. It sounded like a voice that was well suited to telling stories.
“Only good things, I hope,” said Ash. Kaisa knew as much of the tale as would fit into words, and Ash trusted her not to betray that confidence, but she still felt the sense of all the letters Kaisa had sent home looming over her.
“The very best,” said Cahal, and Ash wondered what stories Kaisa might tell about her to put such warmth in her father’s voice, but she thought she might like to hear their endings.
Dinner was hardly sumptuous by palace standards, but it was still a far cry from the fare Ash had long been accustomed to. There was roast meat and soft bread and the crumbly cheese she had mentioned offhand to Kaisa that she favoured.
Beside her, Kaisa murmured her thanks to the servant who refilled her wine glass; it was a habit she had picked up from Ash. Lilias’ eyes widened at the familiarity, but she said nothing. Still, Ash felt her cheeks heat in embarrassment, and hoped the high shadows cast by the candles would hide it. Underneath the table, Kaisa bumped a leg against hers.
Kaisa and her parents did most of the talking at dinner, gossiping about the marriages and babies of the men and women who had been children with Kaisa. She laughed heartily at the stories of her young cousins and their escapades and Ash thought that perhaps in the half-light, Lilias looked wistful.
“And how is the wild Hunt?” asked Cahal, when the stories of Kaisa’s home had run into silence. Lilias frowned, and Ash almost dropped her knife, for to name the Wild Hunt, even in jest--or perhaps particularly so--was to invite it. Ash remembered well those spectral riders.
Kaisa laughed though, as if it was some private joke with her father. “Wild indeed! I think too much time in the wood is beginning to leach the civilized manners out of some of my hunters,” she said, and launched into an abbreviated, expurgated account of Gregory’s latest misadventures.
“Don’t make such a face, Mother,” said Kaisa when she was finished, for Lilias was frowning. “He’s a good man, really. Getting married in the spring too. His husband-to-be is a scholar of exceedingly gentle temperament.”
“Perhaps marriage will gentle him,” said Lilias with a pointed look at Kaisa.
Ash pursed her lips, holding an impassioned defense of Kaisa behind her teeth. Kaisa was gentler and kinder than anyone Ash knew; her eyes sparked with warmth when she came in from the Wood with mud on her boots and leaves in her hair. She huffed out a breath and was about to say as much, when Kaisa touched her wrist under the table.
“I am sure they will be very happy together, gentle or not,” she said with a shake of her head and a wry smile at the corner of her mouth.
She met Ash’s eyes, and the smile bloomed soft across her face.
Lilias sighed heavily, and the lines around her eyes and mouth looked very deep in the candlelight. “I hope so. It’s all a mother could ask for, for her children to be happy.” She shook her head and added emphatically: “and safe.”
It had the cast of an old argument, and the tone of Lilias’ voice made Ash think of her own mother; her chest ached sharply with the loss. It happened sometimes, the sudden awareness of grief that stole her breath; for a moment, the candle in front of her that lit her meal became the candle that warded her mother’s grave. Time was supposed to make grief less, but to Ash’s thinking the years only made it more infrequent, not less intense.
“I know, Mother,” said Kaisa, her voice somewhere between fondness and annoyance, and Ash envied her for it, just a little.
It was near to midnight by the time they lit the hearth. Cahal yawned expansively as they moved back to the sitting room. The room was very dark and cold around them, for all the lights had been extinguished. Ash shivered and moved closer to Kaisa.
“If you would rather go to bed, we can always do it tomorrow,” said Kaisa.
But Lilias shook her head sharply. “Indulge your mother’s country superstitions. It won’t take a moment.”
Kaisa sighed with the aspect of the long-suffering, but she knelt to help her mother arrange the logs in the hearth all the same.
When they were arranged to Lilias’s satisfaction, she nestled a brigid wheel of straw in the centre for tinder and reached for the matches, but Ash interrupted.
“If I could?” she said, and drew her own brigid wheel from where she had set it on the mantle earlier. It was a plain, simple thing of woven straw, little bigger than her palm, but it had taken her several tries to make it; she had done it from memory--of Imbolc when she was eleven, and her mother had woven the wheel with her, hand over hand. This time her fingers had been clumsy, and the wheel uneven, but she was pleased with it in the end.
Lilias took it with both hands, as if Ash had handed her something very precious. “I didn’t know you kept Imbolc.”
Ash shrugged awkwardly. “Not for many years. I guess you might say I’ve not had a hearth worth lighting for some time.” Kaisa squeezed her fingers, and her mother nodded solemnly. “But my mother was a greenwitch.” It felt true in spirit to say, and Lilias smiled warmly.
“We will light it with her memory in mind, then.”
When she struck the match, it flared bright and sudden in the dark room; she set it to Ash’s straw wheel and knelt before the hearth, nestling it in the centre of the logs next to her own. The flames jumped and danced across the tinder, and Lilias murmured a blessing as the kindling caught: for the quickening of spring, and for the light of the hearth to guide them safely home out of dark places.
Then she stood and kissed her husband on the mouth, and her daughter on both cheeks. Ash panicked for a moment at the thought that Lilias might kiss her too, but thankfully she did not; instead, she grasped Ash’s hand, and Ash squeezed back, the warmth of the fire seeping into her skin.
Kaisa’s parents retired soon after, but Kaisa and Ash watched the fire burn down together. The spindly sofa seemed almost comfortable with Kaisa leaning into her side and the warmth of the fire on her face.
“Your parents are lovely,” she said eventually.
Kaisa blinked sleepily at her. “I’m glad you think so. You quite charmed my mother, I think.”
“Really?” Odd manners and humble origins aside, thought Ash, not without some relief.
“She liked your wheel. She’s looking for someone to civilize me, I think,” said Kaisa with a purse of her lips. “Still.” As she spoke, she unwound her hair from its braid with careful fingers, letting it fall around her shoulders.
Ash laughed. “That’s a shame. I don’t think I’m the person to do that. Nor do I think you’d take particularly well to being civilized,” she said, flicking a strand of Kaisa’s hair out of her face.
Kaisa grinned brightly. “No. Certainly not. She wants me to find someone who will keep me out of the Wood. But instead I brought the Wood home with me.”
Ash ducked her head, a flush springing to her cheeks. “It’s a good home,” she said; and in saying it, could not pinpoint exactly when it had become true--she only knew that it was.
Kaisa’s fingers were warm on the back of her neck, and when Ash leaned in to kiss her, she tasted like spring.