I stood on the outer wall of the fort looking over the fallow fields and the sheep pastures to the darkly wooded hills beyond. The strings of blue glass beads on my arms caught the sun as I raised my spyglass to survey the horizon. I saw no one on the dirt road or any raised dust to indicate travelers.
“The roads clear!” I yelled down to the small group waiting beside the main gate with saddled horses.
“Then let’s get going,” my half brother Tobias called up.
I scrambled down the ladder and landed with a thump, jarring the rifle that I had slung over one shoulder. The ten women waiting with Tobias were all equally armed. We were not taking any risks, not when we were traveling with a man.
I nudged Tobias playfully, “Someone’s eager to go courting.”
He snorted, “I just don’t want to miss the festival.”
My full sister Rebecca laughed, “Right and the lovely O’Connor twins don’t have anything to do with that.”
Tobias gave her a wide smile, “Maybe they do. Be nice to me and I’ll get them to put in a nice word for you with their older sister.”
That made our audience laugh and Rebecca blush.
“Children!” snapped our father from where he was waiting with my mother to see us off. His sun-darkened face was creased with worry. “Now is not the time for joking. You need to travel quickly and get to the Western fort before dark. Stay focused and keep your eyes sharp, we’ve heard more than enough reports of bandits.”
He’d have forbidden us to go today, if he could have, but as head of the fort my mother had overruled him. The road might be dangerous but this was not an idle social call. Courtship was a serious matter for the survival of the forts.
We were a small enclave less than a hundred and fifty people and most of us were related in one way or another. If we didn’t want to end up inbred, like the weird people over in the Juniper Enclave to the East, we needed to find partners from the other forts. There were few enough chances each year for courtship, just the festivals and the occasional trading trip.
“We’ll be careful Papa, we promise. This isn’t the first trip I’ve lead.” Rebecca told him shouldering her rifle and vaulting up onto her mare. At twenty-seven she was the captain of the fort guard and my mother’s expected successor.
My mother shook her head. “You had better, and Rebecca do not forget about buying those rams, I want at least three good breeding ones. Have Kate pick them out and don’t pay more than ten silvers each.”
“Of course,” she promised.
My mother came over to me and kissed me on the cheek. In spite of her years she still moved with an easy grace and her long dark braid was just beginning to show streaks of grey. She looked down at my wrists and ran her hands over the cool beads that she had wound on for me the night before. She spoke softly enough for just me to hear, “And you be careful sweetheart. This is you first festival wearing a conceiver’s colors. Women will act differently towards you now.”
“And don’t get seduced or share anyone’s bed during this festival, any woman who’ll tumble before courting isn’t the kind you want.”
“And if anything happens… well there’s a bundle of herbs in your pack and you know how to make the tea.”
I blushed even darkly, “I won’t need that.”
She patted my shoulder, “I’m sure you won’t, but I know what it is like to be young and foolish.”
We all climbed up onto our horses and the women on guard duty opened the heavy wooden gates and we rode out, ten riders and three pack horses. The morning was clear and bright and Rebecca set a quick pace, giving the horses a chance to stretch their legs. The riding horses were too valuable to be left vulnerable in any of the outer paddocks and spend most of their lives within the fort’s stables when not being exercised or used for travel.
We passed through the fields, now fallow from the harvested corn, beans and squash. It had been a good harvest and we were well provisioned even if the next year brought a late spring. Two of my cousins were watching one of the forts flocks of sheep as they grazed what remained in the fields. When that was gone they’d take them back up into the hills to graze as much as they could before the first snow forced them to bring them into the fort.
Past the fields we rode up into the hills and the road began to wind. Some in the fort thought we should clear the trees on the hills for the lumber and to prevent the danger of ambush. My mother had always refused. She said we’d have worse problems if we left the hills bare and caused landslides.
Soon we were in dense forest. We made good time. We were all skilled riders and young. We rode with my brother at the heart of our formation. He wore a cloak that hid his face, so that it wouldn’t immediately be obvious from a distance that he was a man. If bandits struck, they’d be certain to try and kidnap him.
I kept my wrists covered. The blue bracelets were a risk to wear while traveling but they took a good hour to wind on and I couldn’t do it without help. I would probably not wear them on future journeys to the same fort.
Rebecca never wore the red and orange bracelets of a kindler, although she was open about being one. I wasn’t sure if her refusal to mark herself was because she wasn’t looking for a wife or simply because she didn’t want to make her nature clear to potential kidnappers.
In our group there was one other conceiver, Maggie my cousin. The other women were all ungifted. They would all faced with the much harder choice than I ever would. If they were seeking a husband or gifted wife they would probably have to move to another fort to marry. Men and gifted seldom left their own forts to marry, truth be told some forts even forbid it.
As for me, I didn’t feel ready to marry yet and certainly not to have children. I did want to go and dance and be treated like a full adult for the first time at a festival. I wanted to flirt and kiss and be wanted. If I didn’t find a lover in River fort there would be the spring festival in Ash Fort and the midsummer one in Western Fort. I had all the time in the world.
We reached the fort by early afternoon. River Fort sat high in the hills at the place where to rivers joined. They grew a rich crop of grain every year from water they diverted from the river and traded well in salted fish caught from the river.
They had a high pine wall that circled their fort and were up on the hillside above a large dock. They ran sheep and horses in a series of sloping pastures around the fort.
Their real livelihood deepened upon their docks and the boats in them. They did very, very well in trade and fishing. Their dependence on the river and the vulnerability of the dock made them richer but more at risk of attack then any of the other Five Forts and they took precautions.
They also had a set an archaic cannons they could use to level any hostile boats that came up the river or raiders that came down the road. At least, that was the official story, I had never witness either of the cannons fired during my lifetime and sometimes wondered if they actually still worked. They had a larger guard than any other fort I had ever visited and their fort had been carefully built to overlook the curve of the river. If I were to find a wife here willing to leave her own fort, she’d likely be one of their fort guard. Any woman trained as a guard in River Fort would be welcomed back in my own as a new addition to our guard.
We rode in through the great gates of River Fort and a group of young girls hurried forward to take out horses and stable them for us. We were one of the first groups to arrive and most of the adults in the fort were running about madly finishing the preparations.
The inside of the fort was made up of one great central hall ringed by important smaller buildings such as the kitchens and the smithy. Beyond them were the houses where families lived and the guard’s dormitories that made up the rest of the fort. I had more than a few ungifted cousins living in the dormitory, there was good silver to be made working as a River Fort guard.
The forts leader, a graying haired man named Marcus greeted us graciously and pointed us in the direction of the traveler’s quarters to set down our things and then the kitchens to grab something to eat. The travelers quarters were really just one of the side rooms off the great hall with enough space to throw down some bedding but they were the best we could hope for during a festival with so many people coming.
When I put down my bedroll too close to the door, Rebecca pointedly picked it up and relocated my bedding to the space between our brother’s and hers well against the far wall. I got the feeling that she’d made certain promises to our mother about keeping me out of trouble during my first festival as an adult.
We didn’t change out of our traveling clothes as the festival proper wouldn’t start until that night. We made our way to the huge kitchens of the great hall. We sat at one of the side tables as several of the women busy cooking efficiently ladled out bowls of soup to us. We ate quickly and then those of us that didn’t have other business made ourselves useful.
Tobias went off to find the twins, Rachael went to go help construct the great trestle tables that would hold the food that night and I soon found myself enlisted to carry water from the well to the kitchen. It was hot, tiring work but I didn’t mind. I enjoyed waiting at the well and listening to the gossip of the other girls helping.
I’d been to River Fort often enough over the years when the roads were safe, visiting with either my mother or my sister. I had friends and family there. One of those friends, Suzy a golden haired ungifted girl my own age had all the good gossip. She knew who’d taken a lover, been unfaithful to the lover they had or fallen pregnant over the four months since the last festival.
She nearly squealed with joy when she saw my bracelets. “You’re a conceiver! I knew you could do healing but I wasn’t sure you were fully gifted. Why didn’t you tell me before?”
I shrugged as I lifted up the bucket I had just filled, “Because you can’t keep a secret and my mom didn’t want anyone to know until I was of age.”
“Yea but…this is big news Katie! We need to find you a wife.” She told me as she filled her own bucket
I rolled my eyes and turned towards the kitchen, “It’s my first festival wearing the bracelets I’m not looking to marry yet.”
She hurried after me, “Then we should find you a lover.”
“Like who?” I was half afraid Suzy was going to suggest herself. I liked her but not in that way. We’d played at kissing games when we first coming into our early womanhood but not much more, she’d been ready for a lot of things before I was. She’d gone off to find a proper lover and we’d stayed friends. In truth she was too much like a sister and a little too hyper for my tastes.
“My sister Jen has always kind of liked you.”
That was news to me. There was no way a woman as attractive as Jennifer Harper, who was already captain of a river boat at twenty-two, wanted me. I set down my bucket halfway across the courtyard and turned to look at her. “Really?”
Suzy brushed her wavy hair out of her face with her free hand. “Well yea, you didn’t notice?”
“I guess not.”
“Dance with her tonight. You’ll see.”
All afternoon the groups from other three forts, Acorn Fort, Northern Fort, and Western Fort. I greeted old friends and helped more with the preparations. When the sun started to set I went with Rebecca and the other women from our group to the fort’s bathhouse. It was about three times bigger than the one in our own fort, but then again River Fort had about three times as many people. There wasn’t time or room for a hot soak, just a quick scrub down with cold water and soap. A dip into the warm tubs would have to wait until after the first night of the festival when all the women from that fort and the visitors from four others weren’t trying to get clean all at the same time.
Back in the room I dressed quickly in my best boots, a pair of clean un-dyed hemp trousers and well woven lambswool shirt of a dark blue.
I had spun, woven, cut and sewn the shirt myself but my mother had given me the rich blue dye to stain it. She’d traded for it from a traveler and just the small amount of the powder necessary had cost her three sheep skins. The shirt was the finest thing I owned.
I put a set of copper hoops in my ears, again from my mother, and a brightly colored quartz set in colored thread about my neck. I wore my dark hair lose about my shoulders, although no matter how many times I combed it a few strands refused to stay in place.
I didn’t need a looking glass to know how I appeared. I’d gotten my father’s leanness but not his height. I was a half head shorter than Rebecca and barely reached Tobias’s shoulder. I still didn’t understand how Rebecca had turned out so tall and me so short when we shared both parents.
My modest curves had also failed to ever fill out as much as I’d hoped they might. I wasn’t flat chested but it was a good thing that I had an attractive heart shaped face because I wasn’t going to have any problem getting women to look me in the eyes.
Tobias ruffled my hair when he saw me step out of the room,
“You look good sis.”
He was dressed more simply, his shirt and trousers both made of un-dyed hemp. His hair, the same dark brown as my own was tugged back into a queue. He didn’t need to dress up, he was a young man in a world where they were increasingly rare. Anyway, He was handsome in his own right, tall and dark eyed like our father but of a stronger build. His skin, like mine, was pale by nature, although his far more frequent time in the sun had worn it to a rich tan.
Rebecca emerged from the room a minute later, dressed much as my brother was, although she’d carefully braided her own hair. We walked out to the bonfire together. Long tables had been laid out in the late afternoon with all manner of food and drink. It was the host’s duty to handle all refreshment, and our own fort would do the same for the next festival.
I sat with my siblings at the long trestle table and the clatter of so many people. We ate salted green corn and fresh venison and fish. The woods beside the river were good for hunting and the game was fat for the coming winter.
There was hard cider that the fort had made itself and wine from much farther down river. There was also strong corn liquor that Rebecca counseled me not to touch. I drank the cider, watered with the cold clear well water.
When the food was gone and bottles were being passed around, the head of the fort, Marcus, stood up and gave a fairly long winded speech. Suzy, who was sitting across from me kept making faces the whole time and it was all I could do not to laugh.
The old man finished with a ceremonial blessing and at last the fire was lit and a fiddle struck. Suzy grabbed my wrist and pulled me into the swirl of bodies on the cleared green about the fire. It was a tradition of ours as old as our friendship. If we were in the same fort for a festival we always danced the first reel together. Suzy was an enthusiastic, if not terribly skilled, dancer. We had fun though, whirling around the circle to the quick steps of a reel.
We danced the second and the third song as well and then returned to the tables breathless and laughing in search of water. I had just raised a tankard to my lips when Jen approached our table, her attractive face flushed from the dancing.
She was tall and lanky with the strong arms and shoulders of a woman who made her living on the river. Her skin was well darkened by the sun to an almost earth brown and her short wavy hair was the color of rich honey. She wore well cut trousers of worked sheepskin and a hemp shirt dyed a warm green. I had never seen such a brilliant green before and my first thought was to ask her where she’d bought the dye. A year before I would have, but remembering what Suzy had told me earlier, the words stuck in my throat.
Jen made a shallow bow to me, “Miss Weaver.”
She’d never greeted me like that before, not like a potential suitor. She’d always treated me like her little sister’s friend, calling me by my first name with an easy familiarity.
She held out her hand to me to me palm up, “May I have this dance?”
“Yes,” I took her hand, too embarrassed to meet her eyes. Her palm felt warm and callused beneath my own. I knew my palm to be soft from the lanolin and wool I worked with every day, my fingernails stained at the quick from dye.
She led me to the green and I followed. The fiddle slowed into an easy waltz. She pulled me against her, one hand on my waist and the other covering my own. I rested a hand on her shoulder and had to look up to see her face. She was nearly as tall as Rebecca.
She offered me an easy smile, “I like your bracelets Kate.”
“My mother made them for me,” not necessarily the most suave thing to say but the words tumbled out.
“They suit you. I always thought you might be a conceiver.”
I raised an eyebrow, “and not a kindler like Rebecca?” The conversation felt strange, people normally didn’t just talk about things like this.
“I suppose.” A bit of uncertainty flashed across her face and she changed the subject, “I knewyou were gifted since you closed the cut on my forehead two winters past.”
“You got it getting me out of a tree. It was the least I could do.”
“I believe it was my little sister who got you into trouble in the first place.”
Just like Suzy to want to sneak into an orchard and pilfer apples in the middle of a festival night. Four years ago seemed like a long time. Jen had seemed very dashing when she’d come looking for her sister and caught me when I fell out of the tree, perhaps less dashing when my fall sent us both to the ground in a painful tangle and caused Jen to hit her head.
“Fair enough,” I laughed. “Although she’s seldom led me wrong either. She told me I should dance with you tonight.”
“Oh really? I think I should be grateful to her then.”
The song finished and the music changed for a circle dance. We found ourselves pulled apart into two opposite moving circles. By the time that song finished another woman was waiting to ask me to dance.
I didn’t get much chance to rest that night. I’d been at festivals before and most of the women knew me, many from childhood, but that night I was the only gifted wearing her bracelets for the first time.
I’d wanted to ask Jen to dance again but I could never seem to quite get to her before someone else wanted my attention. Friends wanted to congratulate and tease me and women who didn’t know me as well wanted to dance as an excuse to get a better look at me. Before I’d just been a young girl, now I was a conceiver and of age to marry.
As the night wore on I found myself dancing with a woman I’d never met before, which was a rare enough thing among the Five Forts. It wasn’t hard to guess that she was working as part of the fort guard. She had a soldier’s build and the worn but well kept clothes of a mercenary. I was fascinated by her hair, cut just beneath her ears and a deep red that could be found nowhere in the forts. I guessed her age to be somewhere in her early twenties, or slightly younger.
She bowed formally when she asked me to dance and moved with more grace than her rougher appearance suggested.
“My names Cali Walker,” she told me.
“I’m Kate Weaver, I’m from Ash Fort. What about you?”
“North of here”
That was rather vague, which meant either she didn’t want to say where she was from or wasn’t from a fort or enclave at all.
“My sisters and I are mercenaries, we go where there’s work.”
“Tavi and Mel, I’m sure you’ll meet them before the festivals through. They’re almost, but not quite, as good looking as me.” She was certainly good at winking.
As we danced, she pulled me a little closer than decorum would have dictated and I almost yelped when her hand on my waist started to wander. I grabbed her wrist and relocated it back to its proper place. She smirked but kept her hand where I’d put it.
The fiddler took a much deserved cider break and Cali and I wandered back over to the relatively empty tables to find something to drink. I found one of the water pitchers but it was empty.
Cali offered me a tankard and I took it. The un-watered cider was strong and sweet. I sat down at the edge of the table and took a deep drink and then a few more. She sat beside me on the long bench.
She was looking at me with an expression I did not think I had ever been the cause of before, an intense and hungry look. She reached forward and brushed a strand of hair from my face.
“You know, you’re one of the prettiest girls I’ve seen in a long time.”
I opened my mouth to reply and she kissed me. Her lips were soft and warm and her hand at the back of my head was strong. I wasn’t sure what to do but I knew what I wanted to do, so I kissed her back.
The world felt hazy and full with the buzz of the cider, the thrill of the night and the raw excitement of the woman kissing me. She pulled me off the table and half into her lap as she slipped her other hand under my shirt against the bare skin of my back.
I was beginning to realize that I might be in over my head but I didn’t want to stop. A loud and pointed cough saved me. I broke the kiss and looked over Cali’s shoulder. Rebecca was standing there, looking less than amused.
Cali felt me tense and turned her head to see what the interruption was. She gave Rebecca a far too evaluating once over for someone who already had a woman in her lap.
“Let me guess, you’re her big sister?”
“If I said you came from a very attractive family, do you think I could convince you to join us?”
I wasn’t sure if she was joking or not.
Rebecca’s eyes narrowed further.
Cali got the hint, “Right, then. I know better than to cross a protective older sibling.” She helped me up, “Kate, it was a pleasure to meet you. I hope you’ll dance with me again tomorrow night.” She gave a quick formal bow and was gone.
“Bed,” said my sister firmly and took my arm to guide me as I was a bit wobbly on my feet.
“Are you mad?” I asked as we crossed the central square where the fire was beginning to die down.
She sighed, “Not at you Katie, not after what I was like at my first festival away from the fort. You need to be careful though, that woman’s a mercenary and she isn’t from one of the forts. You don’t know her or her family. She was older than you too, she could have taken advantage of you.”
The world was spinning a little. I might have been drunker than I thought, “So I should just kiss girls I know?”
“I think you should walk before you run…or jump into a stranger’s lap”
The small room where we’d laid out our bedding was half empty. Some of our party, including Tobias had found other lodging for the night. I suspected that if Rebecca wasn’t keeping an eye on me she might have done the same.