No matter how many she plucked, each morning there were more. Clumps of catweed which flung their nose-itching seedpods into the air at the slightest touch. Mushrooms that withered by dusk, but bloomed anew each dawn. Blades of serrated grass. She hardly felt the scrape of the grass when she dragged it from the ground fistfuls at a time—but always with her right. Her left rested in her lap or swayed uselessly at her side as she worked.
Numb fingers were treacherous. Sticking herself with stinging nettles, she wouldn’t realize until she saw the blood. In the early dawn hours dew still clung to the weeds, and they’d slip through the unfeeling fingers of her imperfect fist when she pulled. That frustrated her more than anything.
It could take most of the morning, tending to their little garden plot. Around when the summer sun began to bear down on Marisa’s shoulders like a weight, and the heat of the day truly began, Tana would rouse herself. She’d spring out onto the cottage porch with a spin, a yawn, and a smile. Swinging a pail for the ewes beside her, she’d chatter on about phantom bears heard in the night or heading into town to receive another of the endless letters from her brother, who had enough sense to remain a prince, not renounce it all to quell the anxieties of a now un-soldier.
But it seemed to suit Tana, this place. The work kept her strong, and the sun had coaxed a yet more beautiful brown from her skin.
Afternoons of pruning and plucking abused plants, for a handful of potatoes. It wasn’t just the weeds, but the rodents and vermin that took whatever they pleased. Some months floods. Some months drought. These things over which control was meager. In her hand, Marisa rolled the dirt-encrusted, craggy-skinned ball of a potato. For all that worry and work, it was smaller than her thumb.
Chopping them wasn’t so hard. Lumpy and malformed, they’d usually sit still. And if not, she didn’t mind chasing them around the cutting board. It was dull, repetitive work like everything else, but the weight of a knife in her hand reassured her.
What was there to complain about? She still had one good hand. If not her best one, it was still more than some who left that war could say—those who left it at all.
She didn’t realize she was daydreaming, staring out into the yard at the fence post the last storm nearly stripped from the ground, until Tana puffed a bit of air into her unguarded ear. Startling back to sentience, Marisa raised the kitchen knife in mock defense. A bead of sweat slipped down her neck and between the gully of her shoulder blades.
Tana wiped her hands against her apron, leaned forward, and braced her with a smile. Taking Marisa’s left hand in hers, and brushing fingers inadvertently along the threading of the scar that ran from the webbing of Marisa’s thumb clean past her wrist, she said:
“Let’s take a break for today.”
The heat clung to the night enough that even lying still in bed the sweat alone was more blanket than she could stand. Still, she embraced Tana. She held her casually, cooly, with a hook of her leg and a scoop of her arm, her nose tickling through Tana’s long, loose hair, enjoying her scent. Tana’s back shifted to greet the swell of her stomach. Fingers just as calloused as hers, but soft in their own way, roamed her arm. They shared a squirm. Her left arm pinned, hidden beneath her body, the numbness spread beneath her bodyweight. Flaring up from her wrist out through her forearm, it encroached upon her elbow and, eventually, her shoulder. As Tana’s breathing grew slow and even, Marisa thought back to the last time they’d kissed—really kissed—the lingering impression of Tana’s lips on hers, and and whose fault was it, that it’d been so long. She closed her eyes and matched Tana’s breathing. The pins and needles reached the muscles of her neck before she rolled over onto her other side and waited for her eyes to close.
Mist glinted on the windows in the hazy morning fog. Tana loaded the donkey out in the yard, and Marisa watched from the kitchen, and warmed herself by smelling her tea. Her fingers squeezed around the rough mug as if seeking deeper friction. She’d never grown used to the feeling of weight in the elbow but not in the hand, and she brought the mug closer to her face, for fear of dropping it.
In a fourth market stall, Tana haggling for a third time over the price of a second variety of strawberry seeds, Marisa practiced flipping a tomato from her palm to the back of her hand, and still she felt nothing, barely the jerk of her arm on impact. Something twinged between her shoulder blades, an instinct buried long enough to be ancestral. She brushed it off, this portent of nascent danger. She splayed her fingers and rolling the tomato on the back of her hand so its bulbous bits caught the sunlight and its mottled black-green skin gleamed. And behind her back, a shadow loomed.
“I know you.” Marisa said softly. “You’re the one they call Lark.”
Lark thrust her chin forward and shook the shaggy hair from her face. “So? What of it?”
“So I think you should find someone else to shake down.”
A quiver spread over Lark’s lower lip. Perhaps her beggarly colleague, glancing at Lark for guidance, saw it plain as Marisa did. Plain as the four of them could hear the grumble of Lark’s stomach.
Oh, Marisa remembered what that was like. Or perhaps she didn’t, those times were so far gone. But there remained some ancient imprint upon her being—that hunger, that perfidy—that cleaved to Lark’s hunger, rumbling awake inside Marisa’s blood.
The other one broke for Tana. Took her by the neck, and threw her back against the stone wall of the building behind her, patting down her sides and clawing at her neck, grubby fingers scampering for snatchable jewelry, a coin purse, anything quick, anything easy.
Lark yelped out a passable battle cry, Backing her comrade’s play. Marisa went for her hip on instinct, numb fingers closing around a sword that wasn’t there—that hadn’t been for quite some time, though the burden remained. In her hesitation, the brat clocked her across the jaw. Hit the sweet spot, and Marisa stumbled back against the stall. With her left hand she shielded her face, and the blows didn’t hurt until the spikes of pain started shooting up past her elbow.
With a cry Tana recovered her footing, got her assailant by the elbow, and deposited them in a barrel that burst on impact, spreading stinking fish across the cobblestones.
Foolish children. What did they think? That Tana was some soldier’s trophy wife? That Marisa, with those scars zagging her face and her taciturn demeanor, that she was the dangerous one? Callouses like Tana’s come from spear hafts, not tomato vines. And the way she moved; the impeccable gait of a woman who balanced upon the sky itself.
Marisa tasted blood roll over her lip.
Seeing her compatriot crumble, Lark’s concentration broke. The window opened, and Marisa was never a woman who let opportunity slip. She belted Lark across the jaw, sprawled her out over the cobbles. And that was just the beginning. Numb hand or no, she could hardly tell the difference between her right and her left, once her beating began in truth. Raining down rhythmic blows until her knuckles split in time with the amicable crumble of Lark’s nose.
Through the red haze, Tana pulled her out. “Marisa, that’s enough!”
Lark scrambled onto hands and knees and roses, stumbling forward on a first step. Marisa clawed for her escaping prey, almost gots a fistful of that scrubby hair, but Tana ratcheted her back in, arm beneath her armpit and around her breast, palm pressed hard into her throat. Fingers dig into her neck, like subduing a willful animal, until she slumps.
It just takes one arm, leaves a fist free for Tana to shake it after Lark’s retreat. “Scamper off!” She shouted, as the two filchers dashed straight into the swelling crowd brought by their disturbance. “And let that be a lesson to you: don’t come for a princess without an army behind you!”
“Whew!” Tana spun, her skirt flourishing in the air. “Been some time since we’ve had a row like that, eh?” She emphasized her prowess with a flex of her arms, a flick of her hips, and a slap of her palm against thighs not as firm from pegasus riding as they once were, perhaps, but still altogether fetching.
Marisa sat atop their wagon, leaning against a stout barrel of pickles, grounded by the pinch of the metal staves along the curve of her back. They’d retreated to the empty alley where the donkey was tied. This time of day, everyone was out on errands. Though the houses around them were only two stories high, with their shuttered windows and worn facades, they seemed to form a single, conglomerated spire, its chimneys scrabbling like claws at the distant sky. The bustle of the main streets was loud enough to hear even this far back.
Staring up into that cloudless sky, Marisa wondered if Tana ever missed her chance to soar.
She stared down at all those speckles of blood. Some was hers, some not. She touched her knuckles, smearing it into her skin, and her damaged hand offered no clear response, even as she watched it tremble.
With her skirt, wet from the horses’ water barrel, Tana washed her hands clean. “Does it hurt?”
Blood on a blade would dribble and stick. Left long enough, it congealed into rust.
They stared at each other. Marisa rolled her tongue against the roof of her mouth, as if she could taste the spectral lock that shackled her speech.
The hem of Tana’s skirt had grown murky with blood and dirt.
Tana turned to untie the donkey. Marisa bit her lip, fingers clawing the air with feckless desire. A sound slipped out of her. Tana looked back at her, head tilted, a mirthless half smile on her face, a prey animal bewildered by the purposeless actions of a starving predator. Ichor multiplied within Marisa, as she plaintively stretched that numb hand towards her distant wife. Shamed, her eyes begged to close. But then how would she know, without looking, if Tana even deigned to take it? Were they that far gone? How could she trust without—
Tana swept into her. Not for hands, but face. Nails lanced along her cheeks. Marisa craned her neck to close the distance between them. Tana groped Marisa by the armpit, to rein her in. Lips spread one another’s. Tana’s fingers tucked past the bindings of her shirt, cupping her breast, palm rolling over her nipple. The kiss had a weight to it, like drawing water from an ancient well.
Her head thunked against the wagon’s bare timber. Above, the sky was blue, clouds still sparse, and the sun flashed into her eyes. She confronted the blinding light, burning haloes into her vision and feeling the ripple of Tana exploring down her shape. Hands smoothing over the curves of her torso, then down to her waist and, finally, scooping beneath her hips, to draw them up. Tana’s touch was limitlessly slow. She opened the laces of Marisa’s trousers with a pinched finger and thumb. She encouraged Marisa’s knees to part with a fidget of her shoulders. A puff of agitated air escaped Marisa, and her cheeks swelled like a chipmunk. Her hips lashed the air, once, twice, until Tana stilled them, with a kiss upon her stomach.
“Marisa. I’m here.”
Looking down at Tana’s eyes over the small mounds of her breasts and the hills and valleys of her rumpled shirt, Marisa found her throat dry and her insides stilled.
The first warm breaths brushed between her legs. Tana’s hair shivered out throbbing patterns over her aching skin. Her breasts ticked the inside of Marisa’s thighs. Marisa panted, hard and once, into the air, like venting the heat of a tremendous furnace.
Tana lapped at her slowly, as if bringing her to bloom. It was how Marisa remembered it. Her hands jittered and shook at her sides, her toes curled, her knees flexed feebly into Tana’s arms. At the best of times, these were the worst of her symptoms. It wasn’t something she normally desired, this. Warriors were brave. Warriors were strong. Warriors cared for their women. That’s what was important. They handled things. They protected. They brought comfort.
Warriors… warriors served.
Tana’s tongue rolled into her, splitting her easily. Marisa stifled her cry by biting down on her thumb. The murmur of the street crowds seemed closer than before. But how could that be possible, with her heart pounding in her hears hard enough to overpower an army’s footfalls? Not the numb one, and it hurt. Tana dipped her head, rutting her nose against Marisa’s spreading labia, as if cajoling her, daring her to stay quiet. Another paroxysm of pleasure blurted all along the frayed web of her nerves, and she gripped her fingers against her sides, because the shaking had become too much.
Tana’s tongue speared within her, to places rarely touched. Marisa arched, releasing a yowl. Her numb hand slapped down, and, from the resistance—and the moan of gleeful passion—she thought she must’ve grabbed a fistful of Tana’s hair. For a split second, the world grew dim. She realized, after it happened, that she’d almost been able to close her eyes.
Tana’s thumb compressed her clit, rocked against it. It throbbed. She imagined it as a bead, a pearl, something precious that Tana had found. In simpler times, these abstractions were enough. She could shut her eyes, endure the throbbing, the readying, the embarrassment of her wife toying with a body that Marisa no longer truly considered her own. Ownership implied choices. It implied control over action. Sometimes, it even implied desire.
Herein was the lie, that times were ever “simple,” that her body was ever hers to command. That she hadn’t taken orders. That she hadn’t maimed when told to maim, killed when told to kill. That she hadn’t led a life with her nose ground into the dirt, snuffling along the trail of those in front of her. Her father, Gerik, and all the points in between. Anyone with coin and a want could make their purpose hers. She didn’t blame them; for a time, that seemed the sensible way of things.
She gasped into her bicep, as the calloused thumb ground her clit firmly into the flesh and bone beneath. Though her every muscle tensed with quaking worry, and anxiety sought to paralyze her with its leeching vines, she prayed the feline writhe of her hips would encourage Tana to try it again.
The thumb atop her was still. She quivered, struggling even to breathe, overwhelmed as Tana drew her labia into her mouth with exaggerated suckles. Her hips rolled, now begging the motionless pressure on her clit. A whimper escaped her before she could crush it in her throat. A vision of lust appeared between her closed eyes. Her beautiful wife toying with her, eking her up to greater and greater heights. She wanted to see it. She wanted to capture that beauty, burn it into her mind’s eye, this moment of their reconciliation.
Summoning all of her courage, she dared a look. Again, down over the shivering mounds of her breasts. And there…
…sat her own thumb. The bone-white scar all but gleamed in the sunlight.
She snatched it away, holding it against her stomach, half-buried beneath her shirt.
“Marisa?” Warm, wet air, as the question rumbled along her cunt. “What’s wrong?”
Agitating far past her control, Marisa’s fingers drummed sticky patterns against her flesh. Embarrassed, she jerked her head to the side. “I can’t.”
Plump lips glistened with her pout. The sheen of her own body spoke the lie of Marisa’s protests, reflecting the mockery of herself. Tana kept on playing her game, stroking a seductive touch along fine hair Marisa could not feel. Over split knuckles that did not hurt.
What good was a warrior who couldn’t even serve herself?
Tana played the coquette, twirling a bit of hair around her finger. “Not even for me?”
“Tana!” Marisa growled. “I can’t!”
With a snap, everything stopped. Marisa’s neck prickled with worry, that her shouting might’ve attracted the attention of passersby. But more pressing was the weight of her shame that resumed its roost heavy upon her shoulders, as she looked up at Tana’s wide eyes.
“I didn’t mean—”
“I’m not what you need.”
A penitent look had spread over Tana’s face, emphasized with a pensive flick of her tongue between her lips.
“What? How could you say that?”
Fear strangled her like creeper vines around the throat. Tana was slipping away from her, sliding back on her haunches, standing. Her hands reached plaintively for explanations mere words wouldn’t allow.
“Tana. You’re all I have. My everything.”
“Isn’t that the problem?”
A flash of memories clouded her eyesight. “I’m sorry, I’m weak.” Petty squabbles she’d started during dinner. “I’ll fix it.” Tasks left undone. “I’ll do better.” Nights where she’d turned away from her wife as they went to sleep. “I’ll—”
The touch of Tana’s fingertips against her lips, and the smell of her own musk, filtering into her nose.
“You will, if you can trust me.”
Tana stood tall above her, tall enough to eclipse the sun. Deific rays filtered through her hair, and shone off the sweat dappling her bronzed face. “Will you trust me, Marisa?”
Two hands, holding feebly to Tana’s wrist, both shaking with the toxin of her weakness.
Such a silly, croaking sound she made, hardly any sort of human speech. She feared, terribly, that her wife would not understand it to be a Yes.
They lay in the wagon bed, the privacy of a week’s provisions surrounding them. An old, comfortable blanket, moth-eaten in places and clung all over with hay, drawn over their heads. Tana spooned her, Marisa’s hand in her patient, loose hold. The pad of each of her fingers to the nail of each of Marisa’s. She wiled away the time, tracing patterns along Marisa’s tensing abdomen with Marisa’s own dead hand, as she waited for Marisa’s gulping breaths to slow.
With each gliding stroke and tickle of Tana’s hips against her rear, with each of her wife’s kisses against her vulnerable neck, Marisa’s shallow breathing calmed a little further.
The deeper her breathing became, the more the fusty old smell of the blanket suffused her. It was a simple sensation, edifying. It shared with her the slumbering memories of what they’d done together, on this blanket, around it, with it. Creekside picnics. Hauling hay. Wrapping the donkey in it on the coldest nights. Stringing it up, soaking, from the wash, and hurrying it back inside when a thunderstorm broke out of the blue.
Tracing her nose against the rough fibers, and following the scintillating flashes of the sun that snuck through its loose weave, Marisa reminded herself of what a terribly long time it took, for a blanket to absorb all those memories.
Tana’s hand guided hers downwards. Her nails caught against the coarse nettle-fuzz of her bush. It prickled pain along her pores, and she whimpered. Instinct compelled her to escape, but Tana’s elbow tensed around her.
“Do you believe I love you?”
Panicked pulses of her stomach.
“Do you believe I can take care of you?”
Ropes of tensing muscle in her neck.
“Do you believe I’m here for you?”
A cool sensation rippling over her skin.
“Then all you have to do is breathe.”
Tana had a whisper that stuck to your skin like honey.
She shut her eyes, concentrating on the queer sensation of Tana’s hand flexing against hers, gently coaxing her palm into the fat of her pubic mound. She felt a pressure grow, somewhere below her stomach, but above her crotch. It was… it felt…
The touch of a distant stranger’s fingers drew over her clit. Marisa resisted the shimmy building in her hips. That once good hand, her better one—now scarred, and numb, and as useless in part as she was in total—Tana stroked its quaking fingers slowly along Marisa’s labia. As her body opened, the suppressed shiver broke down her legs. Her toes bowed upwards in her boots, and her thighs tightened around her hand, struggling to clench down, to dam the flow, desperate to cling to that power and energy, to hold it inside her.
Tana’s patience was painful. Tana’s fingers, Marisa thought, must’ve been dancing upon her own. She yearned to see them, to confirm it. To watch her wife guide her motions like a puppet show, with Marisa herself as the medium of her own torment.
Controlled, she mewled.
Her body opened to new pressure. Tana guiding Marisa’s fingers inside herself. Her cunt burned. So furiously, even those useless fingers caught the most distant glimmer of its fire. A jagged pant broke out of her, and, desperate for air, she gulped a mouthful of blanket past her lips.
The coarse fibers scraped her tongue. The scent, and its bevy of shared memories, found her bloodstream. Her nose flared, struggling for breath, and yet Tana’s hand drove her fingers deeper into herself. She moaned, feeling her face heating as it pinked. Her foot hooked back around Tana’s ankle. Her shoulders seized. And still Tana drove forward. She couldn’t muffle her cry and, in panic, convinced herself that they’d be found, like this, her suffocating on a ratty old blanket, her wife plowing fingers into her cunt and…
It wasn’t until Tana’s hand touched upon her cheek that she realized it was no longer guiding her.
With knowledge, the fingers inside of her instantly slowed. They matched the gentle stroke of Tana’s along her face. The excitement quelled, but the energy was not gone, merely redirected. As Marisa resumed the reins of her body, Tana reciprocated each shiver with a gentle rock, or a squeeze of arm around stomach, or a feather-light kiss on nape or back of ear.
Her tongue forced the blanket from her mouth. She heaved in heady breaths of moist air. Her heart beat her ribs like a war drum. Anxious energy filled her; yet it lacked the frisson of impotence that she’d grown accustomed to. No longer was it that familiar weakness shackled by a directionless rise of spirit. That old power, that which stirs both love and service, finally returned.
No, it roused itself. It had not gone; it was merely sleeping.
Her abdomen corded itself into knots. Her buttocks clenched. Her hips bucked, slapping into the resistance of her hand. Tana’s cooling breath ran over her neck. A metallic pinch against her hip. The bite of a particular ring on Tana’s finger. Crafted of silver and muddied gold. The perfect twin of Marisa’s own band, almost forgotten, though it had never left its place on her left hand.
Tana squeezed her, ground a long kiss into her shoulder, and breathed hard enough for the both of them. Marisa stifled the sound building in her, restraining it to a soft, sharp whimper between chattering teeth. Not for shame, or fright of being caught. It belonged to the two of them alone.
“Who’s that new boy, anyway?” Innes asked.
Autumn had fallen splendidly, bringing milder days and blissfully chilly nights. As the season cooled, they’d cleared a much larger garden plot, to try their growing green thumbs at hearty autumn plants—spinach, radishes, beets, even coriander. It was still warm enough to sit outside for evening tea, and the smell of nearby orchards in bloom, Tana thought, was more than pleasant enough to make up for her brother’s company.
“Her name is Lark. She’s Marisa’s…” Tana tilted her head. “Protégé, I suppose.”
Out in the yard, Lark dashed her hatchet to the ground and shoved Marisa hard on the shoulder. Apparently, she didn’t appreciate Marisa’s suggestion how to best split fire wood.
Innes cocked a brow. “Well, tell your wife to put hygiene on the lesson plan. I could smell her from a mile out.”
At Lark’s passionate retort, Marisa smirked, responding with a cuff of her hand against the back of Lark’s head.
“Consider yourself lucky it’s just the one today. Usually she’s got a whole pack. And try some of that cheese, already. I’m telling you it’s not bad, for Marisa’s first attempt.”
Lark, ever the diplomat, tackled her mentor into a nearby mulch pile.
“Sister, are you sure you want to wile away your life in the hands of that—”
“Oh, it only looks poisonous.” She nudged her nose at the plate. There was a steely core, beneath the velvet of her voice. “Go on, before you hurt my feelings.”
Innes fidgeted with a biscuit on his plate. “You know, if you two have enough time out here to foster streetlings, you could do far more good back in the capital.”
Tana looked out to the yard. Though Marisa and Lark’s tussle was quickly obscured by the blooming dust cloud, Marisa’s raucous laughter rang out clear as a bell through the crisp autumn air.
“I don’t know.” Tana’s lips quirked behind her teacup. “I see a lot of potential here.”