“You take all your clothes off right there.” Ros said, rising to find him some of Papa’s. “I don’t want any of that mud getting on the furs.” She’d have to get the bath out and fill it. The mud had probably soaked into him so deeply it was leaking out of his bones.
She got back from the outhouse with the copper tub to find him stripped and wrapped in a towel.
“King’s Rider?” Papa was asking. “This far west? What for?”
A Rider! That explained clothes. No one else would be stupid enough to wear all white to travel in. She remembered he’d asked a question just in time to avoid interrupting to ask for news from the east. Ros pulled the tub up to the fire and poured the water in, then put more on the fire.
“I have a message to deliver. Do you know the path to Trelinheim?” There was a glass of water in the rider’s hand, half empty. That made him two for three on Papa’s wraith checklist. He’d touched iron and drank water, which only left entering uninvited. And that one was kind of hard to test.
“Yes.” Papa was saying. “It’s three days walk to the main road east of here. That runs all the way.”
The Rider was covered in tattoos. A circle was emblazoned in black on his chest. Like the sun rising over flat land, with solid rays like six thin triangles. But the land was not filled in solid, but with lines and swirls, almost like writing. The effect was marred by the thick river of scar tissue that ran from the wing of his right shoulder to the bump of his breast.
Lord above. Was that where they’d taken his heart out? She’d heard rumors about the Riders.
“Thank you.” The rider was saying. Ros pulled her eyes back to the pot on the stove.
“Alright Ros.” Papa said. “Go ahead.”
Ros grinned at her father and then turned to the stranger. “How long ago did you leave? Is the war still going? You came over the mountains, right?”
Ros woke before the sun. The air always changed, leaking in cool and sweet. She made breakfast as Papa gathered his things. He was going out hunting, looking for the deer that were leaving their tracks around the garden fence. The traveler, the King’s Rider, slept through breakfast. Ros left a pot of porridge tucked into the stove and walked to the fence with Papa. The morning air was sharp. It curled around her ankles and twisted the hem of her skirt.
Papa squinted up at the clouds, being turned red and orange by the rising sun. “Looks like we’ll have another storm tonight.”
Ros nodded. “You’d better beat it home. Otherwise I won’t let you in. I can’t abide cleaning water off the floor.” She tried to keep her tone light.
Papa wrapped his arm around her and pulled her to his chest. “Don’t worry, little one. I’ll take care, okay?”
“Okay Papa.” Ros said, into his chest. She helped him hang the laundry. They’d taken it down the night before, because sometimes the clouds gathered unexpectedly. Then he hugged her again and strode off into the growing day. Ros watched until he was over the hill, and then fed the chickens, milked the cow and let her out to pasture, and got the bread started. The Rider slept on, snoring gently. Maybe he hadn’t slept when he was traveling through the swamp. She’d heard they didn’t need to sleep or eat, that they were turned to stone when their hearts were removed.
Well, clearly that wasn’t true.
Ros smiled. That was alright. He wouldn’t sleep forever.
He woke two hours after dawn. She was churning the butter and watching the chickens when he came out. Papa’s clothes billowed around his arms and ankles and waist. She nodded good morning, trying to contain her excitement. He was staring at the laundry line.
“You think they’ll dry before it starts?” He asked. His tone was even, almost un-inflected.
“No.” She responded cheerfully. “But Papa will be back in time.”
He looked at her, waiting.
“The hooks for the laundry line are too tall for me.” She explained, with a bright grin. “Mama was taller.”
The Rider nodded. He reached up and touched the bottom of his (now actually white again) shirt. “I see.”
“We’ll put yours by the fire tonight.” Ros added. “You’re in a hurry to get on your way?”
“Yes.” He didn’t sound like he was in a hurry. He sounded kind of dead.
“Did you get enough to eat?” Ros tried.
“Yes. Thank you.” It was like dragging boots out of the mud. Maybe he just didn’t like talking. But his answers had been lively enough last night.
“Did you sleep well?”
He smiled and his eyes focused, and something came into them that hadn’t been there before. Like watching the hens wake up. “Excellently. How long do you expect the storm will last?”
Ros smiled. Now the conversation felt right. “Oh, not more then a day or two. We get them through a lot this time of year.”