The last days of preserving were easier on Aravis and Ragna than the previous days had been. Aravis couldn't put her finger on it, but their polite conversations came a bit easier and the long silences weren't as awkward. The work went faster on the final afternoon, and Aravis was pleasantly surprised to find that, before long, it was dinner and the men were trickling back to the farmhouse for food. It was significantly cooler that day, a real bite of late September in the air, and there were dark clouds rolling over the hills and hiding the sun.
They heard the first rolls of thunder while passing around bowls of thick stew. Lognar glanced at the ceiling, chewing noisily on a thick roll of sweet bread, and said around his mouthful, "'S good we're more'n half done wi' the 'arvest—t'rain'll rot the grain on t'stalks if'n we don't hurry."
"Finuala 'n I can 'elp tomorrow," Ragna said matter-of-factly. "We finished t'last o' t'preservin' t'day."
"Would be good," Lognar grunted.
The thunder shook the small house, and Aravis's stew quivered in her bowl.
"T'thunder sounds close," said Ragna nervously.
"I'm quite sure there's nothing to be afraid of," Cor said. "In the North, we have the most horrendous storms come from over the mountains."
Lognar eyed him over a goblet of mead. "No, p'rhaps not. But we got t'ocean storms."
His words were accompanied by a loud blast of sound. Ragna gripped the table.
"Is there lightning, do you think?" said Nim, craning his neck to look out the open door.
Lognar stopped chewing for a moment, then got up and strode to the door. He stood on the threshold.
"What is it, Lognar?" Ragna asked, a note of fear in her voice.
He turned suddenly. "Fire."
"Fire!" he roared.
Everyone leapt up and jammed through the doorway; sure enough, far off in the distant fields, thick black smoke was rising into the gloomy sky.
"A lightnin' strike, no doubt," Lognar muttered. "Y'have horses, aye?"
"Yes," said Cor.
"Righ'. Get on 'em—get buckets—Ragna, get us the spades—we 'ave to make a fire barrier—"
The men scattered. As Aravis hurried to the pasture to call Inga, there came another roll of thunder, but this one was sharp and quick, and it shook the ground so hard she nearly lost her balance. Inside the farmhouse, the baby screamed. Inga and the other horses were in distress in the high pasture, too, their ears back and eyes rolling, and only Inga came at their calls and whistles.
"There, there, girl," Aravis murmured, catching the Inga's halter and slipping the bit and reins into place as the creature snorted and pranced around her, craning her neck back in the direction of the smoke. "You're all right. You're just fine."
Inga whinnied loudly as Aravis put one foot on the fence rail and slipped onto her bareback; the other horses, crammed together in the middle of the pasture, flicked their ears and snorted. Aravis couldn't help but think Inga had spoken to them in her horsey way, for when Cor went near Raider with his own bridle and blanket, the big destrier bugled and reared a bit but finally let him approach.
"Good lass," she whispered, rubbing Inga's neck. "Now ride—"
Riding bareback again took some getting used to. Inga was jumpy and difficult to control, and her coat smooth against the fabric of Aravis's trousers; half the time, she clung to the reins to keep from falling off and let Inga navigate the rocky and slippery cart path. Before long, though, they had reached the field.
A smoky orange fire blazed hotly along a field of drying hay. Aravis's first reaction was relief that it wasn't a food crop, but the flames were advancing hungrily toward a field of beautiful red-gold barley, and she knew it was only a matter of time before the flames were licking towards the plain little farmhouse.
"We've no hope of dousing it," came Cor's voice, shouting as he was over the crackle and roar of flame. Raider was arching its fine neck in terror, but held its ground.
"No, not in the least," she agreed. "But we have to protect that barley."
"But where is the fire coming from? We might be able to stop it from growing." As he spoke, Cor dismounted and tied Raider's reins to a branch on a tree on the other side of the road.
"Cor, you can't go over there—it's dangerous—"
"Oh, come, Aravis, since when has that ever stopped you? Come on!"
Feeling a deep sense of misgiving, she slid from Inga, who whinnied loudly, and tied her to the same branch. "It is very acrid," she said as she hurried to catch up with Cor. The smoke stung her eyes, and she held her sleeve over her mouth.
"Indeed—you wouldn't think hay would smoke this badly—"
They edged along the rough boundaries of the hay field. It was slow going, for the land was strewn with stones and stumps that had been uprooted from the soil, and there was thick grass and even several trees to hinder their passage. Cor stumbled over one and pitched forward, landing hard on his hands.
"I told you this was dangerous," Aravis said, helping him up and glancing at his palms for traces of blood.
"I still don't see any sign of a lightning strike," Cor answered. He rubbed his palms on his trousers. "That's strange. You think you'd—"
There was a loud blast of thunder. The concussion made the ground shake, and it was Aravis's turn to lose her balance; Cor helped her up and brushed the dirt from her skirt while simultaneously craning his neck for signs of lightning. "That was the loudest thunder I've ever heard," he said.
"It sounds so close up here," Aravis replied.
They went on, a bit more cautiously than before, for the nearby fire was growing angry. Aravis shaded her eyes from the smoke as she scanned the field for the remnants of anything that could have been struck by lightning. There was nothing but a wilted-looking scrub tree a few hundred feet into the field, and it was as un-blasted as could be; as she gazed at it, though, she saw something strange. "Cor," she called, tugging at his hand, "do you see that there?"
He looked where she was pointing. "The scrub-tree?"
"Yes—that thing hanging from the branch."
"Oh, I see i—"
Aravis's head felt like it was filled with cotton. Her ears rang and her tongue was hot, and her legs seemed a mile away, but there were shaking hands under her arms, around her waist, dragging her, and a persistent voice in her ear that she gradually realized was Cor's. She blinked and felt a slow, sinister burning sensation across her cheeks.
"Aravis—Aravis we have to go—damn it the horses have gone—"
She looked around. They were stumbling along the other side of the road—how they got there she didn't know—and Cor was beside her, streaked with dirt and wearing a grim, grey look on his face. "Are you all right?" she gasped.
"Yes—you were standing in front of me so you got the brunt of it."
"Am I all right?"
He looked at her with a wry smile that instantly eased the pain in her face and hands. "Yes. You landed on me."
She wanted to laugh, but it didn't seem right. "What—what was that? Who would put something like that here?"
"I don't know," he replied grimly, "but I have a pretty fair idea."
"We need to tell Ram," she said, speeding up her pace. "Right away."
Over the distant roar of the fire, they heard the sound of hooves. "Go back!" Cor bellowed when he caught sight of Nim and Ram and the others. "Go back—not safe!"
Nim halted immediately, but Ram urged his horse on and met them a moment later. "Sire—milady—we found your horses—what happened to you?—"
"There are Finnii here," Aravis broke in breathlessly. "We're sure of it. It's not thunder and lightning causing the fire—it's incendiary devices."
Ram turned the color of porridge beneath his red beard, but he nodded briskly. "I'll tell the others. Shall we make preparations to leave, sire?"
"Not yet—we need to help Lognar keep the fire from spreading—though if there are more of those bloody bastards I don't know if I see the point."
"Take Aravis back to the farmhouse, please, right away. You can see she's hurt."
"I'm not hurt," she protested, but Ram nodded succinctly and reached out a hand. "Cor!"
Cor looked miserable. "Aravis, I'm sorry—but you're bleeding—"
She reached a hand up to her forehead and her fingers came away crimson; before she could react, Ram had grabbed her under the elbows and lifted her bodily onto his horse.
"We'll probably be all right without you," Cor called as Ram turned back towards the farmhouse. "But I'm not positive, so get patched up quick…!"
She said nothing as Ram hurried her back to the farm. As soon as they had reached the barnyard, he set her down, made sure she was lucid, and wheeled off again in the direction of the smoke. Aravis walked unsteadily across the yard; Inga whickered at her from beside the barn, where she and Raider were taking turns nibbling at some straw and flicking the flies from their coats. "Silly things," Aravis murmured, glad to see them safe.
"Egad—Finuala! Your face!"
Ragna had come out of the farmhouse with buckets of water, which had she promptly dropped upon seeing Aravis's injuries. "What 'appened? Come 'ere! No, don't walk so fast, you'll fall and break your 'ead—well, do walk a bit faster—"
Aravis made it across the yard in one piece, and Ragna helped her inside. The baby was still crying. "What do you know about Finnii?" she asked impulsively.
Ragna frowned as she sat Aravis down on a stool. "Never 'eard of 'im."
"'Em. Wha'ever they are."
"They're a rebel group," Aravis sighed. Ragna came at her face with a damp towel. "Meaning to overthr—bugger! Ouch!"
"A bit o' liquor al'ays cleans cuts up right nice," Ragna answered blithely.
Aravis's face burned like it was on fire. "Bloody hell!"
"Watch you' mouth, miss," she said with a frown, pouring more clear spirits on a fresh corner of the tower and dabbing the particularly painful spot above Aravis's right eye. "It's no' nearly so bad lookin' when you clean t'blood 'n dirt off, like."
Aravis swallowed a few choice words and dug her nails into her thighs.
"Righ'. You was sayin'?"
"The Finnii—are a group of radicals—" Aravis forced out through clenched teeth as Ragna patted a bit of herb paste into the most painful places on her brow and cheekbone. "They want to—overthrow the king—"
"Good King Lune?" Ragna looked shocked. "But 'e's al'ays been so kind to us—except for 'em taxes, y'know, but Lognar say it's not 'im, it's t'city men, y'know. Is 'at why the Feenay are tryin' to get 'im over?"
"Not quite," Aravis answered. "It's a bit more complicated than that."
Ragna blinked at her.
"There's a man who thinks he has the right to the throne, not the princes Cor and Corin."
Ragna blinked a bit faster. "Corin an'…"
"Tha's a funny happenchance," Ragna said credulously.
"Right," Aravis said slowly. "Anyway, that's who these people are. They're rather dangerous. They're the ones who set your field on fire, we think."
"They set it afire?" Ragna yelped, turning ashen. "Lognar—Lognar said it were ligh'ning—"
"Yes, well, you'd better not tell him otherwise," Aravis answered. "It was explosives. That's how Cor and I got—"
"Is 'e safe?"
"Is Cor safe?"
Aravis paused for a moment. There was a glimmer of pure terror in Ragna's eyes, and she gripped the hand that she had been bandaging with an iron clasp. "He's quite all right," she said softly.
Ragna relaxed with a sigh and her eyes looked strangely bright. It occurred to Aravis at that moment, one she would not forget for a very long time, that for all Ragna's silly, dim-witted and girlish actions, she might very well have genuine feelings for Cor. The thought was deeply disturbing for some reason.
"You're all cleaned up, Finuala," Ragna said brightly, patting Aravis's bandaged hand. "As well as you're goin' to be, anyhow."
Aravis looked down at the neat, clean job the girl had done of her hand. "Thank you," she said begrudgingly. "And I suppose you ought to start calling me Aravis."
"Why? Isn' your name Finuala?"
"No. It's Aravis."
"You look more like a Finuala t'me."
"…My name is Aravis."
Ragna nodded slowly. "Righ'. Air-a-viss."
The men came back hours later, sooty and dirty and soaked with sweat. The fire had been contained, they said, at the loss of an entire field's worth of feed hay. Lognar said grimly that it would cost his farm dearly, but it was better than having lost the barley as well. Aravis wondered if they had told him about the Finnii, but the way in which Ram and Cor kept trading subtle glances made her think not.
Cor decided over a light dinner that it was time to move on. Lognar argued only briefly before ceding that it was safest if the companions went on their way, and agreed to give them everything they had agreed on, since they had stayed almost until the end of the harvest. It was nearly October. As for Ragna, she picked absently at her pheasant, head low over the table, and Aravis fancied she saw a tear drop onto her plate. Cor paid no notice.
"Have you asked her yet?" she said to him as they scrubbed the pots out in the well trough after dinner.
"Asked who what?" Cor answered.
"You know who. Ragna's heartbroken that we're leaving—that you're leaving."
"I think she'll be all right. I only knew her for a fortnight, after all."
"No, see, I don't think you understand. She's quite fond of you."
He stopped scrubbing and sat back on his heels. "Aravis, what are you trying to say?"
Aravis focused intently on a speck of baked-on food, picking at it with her nail. "You need to ask her to come with us."
"As a companion?"
"Don't act stupid, Cor, it doesn't suit you. As your potential queen."
He was quiet for a moment. "Aravis, you said yourself you wanted me to choose between potential brides and you. I chose you, didn't I?"
"That's not what I meant," she retorted, flushing. "You can't go back to Anvard with only two girls. Your father wants four or five, at least."
"But you said to stop thinking with my—"
"I know. But now you're letting me fill my role. I'm making a recommendation, and I suggest you take it. See? A much better arrangement."
"Why? I thought you hated her!"
"Never," she said archly. "Besides. I couldn't let you leave without you knowing. The poor girl's falling in love with you, Cor."
Only then did she chance a look at him. He was gazing at her with a boyish blush on his freckled cheeks, visible even with the soot on his face, and he said, "How do you know?"
"It was only a matter of time," she answered, looking back down at the pot she held. "Women notice these things in other women. So ask her, Cor."
"I don't know…"
"All right. But I'm going to have to be very upfront with her, you know. I'm not in love with her."
"At least tell who you are first. She might change her mind about you. Goodness knows I would have if it hadn't been too late when I found out."
Cor flicked her with the end of his rag. "Is this how it's going to be, then? You decide who I should and should not think about wedding?"
"Yes. And if I had my way, I would decide what you should and should not say."
He laughed. "You best be careful, woman—at this rate, I will not let you go when we get back to Anvard."
"That sounds horrid. Are you going to lock me up in a tower like an evil stepmother?"
"If you make me."
"What do you think the Privy Council will make of a woman advisor?"
"I will listen to their opinions and then ignore them. That's what kings do."
"And what about your father?"
"Is that what you're going to do with all your political opponents?"
"Exile all of them! You, to Telmar. You, to Galma. And you—I particularly dislike you, so it's off to Calavar you go!"
She pushed him over. It was not hard to do, after all; he was laughing so hard at the look on her face that he bobbed right over like a boiled egg, and even rolled a little bit like one too, still giggling helplessly.
"Wha's all this, then?"
Cor's laughter was cut short. Ragna was coming timidly out into the yard, looking sad and wan, and Aravis hastily dumped the rest of the water out of the pots she had been washing and stood up.
"Just a funny story," she said. "I'll go put these away." And she hurried into the farmhouse.