The lanky young woman with chestnut hair squinted dubiously. “What? What do you mean?”
Bean raised his hands and shrugged. “I mean… you’re young, Mame!”
The grip of Ama’s hand holding the gap in her chemise closed became tighter. Then she shook her head and the long brunette hair falling straight to her waist. “That’s ridiculous! If anything, I should be older having given up my days!”
Bean watched the young woman’s nose waggle back and forth just above his forehead. Reaching out, his firm grip touched her wrist and raised Ama’s free hand to the level of her eyes.
“Mame Ama, just look!”
She pulled her hand back from his grip with narrowing eyes, then turned it side-to-side as she scrutinized it in better light. Her gaze softened, then became wide as she stopped holding her shirt closed and brought both hands to her face. They were smooth and unmarred, appearing as they had long before the decades of hard work that had left them arthritic and worn an hour before.
Bean flinched as Ama gave out a short shriek.
She grabbed a handful of her brown hair and rolled glossy strands between long fingers unable to find a hint of grey. Ama’s dark brown eyes were still wide as she grasped the supple skin of her unweathered and flushed face.
“I- I don’t understand it,” she said with a hand falling to cover a racing heart.
Bean shook his head. “I’m no more of a wizard than Macule, but I’ll venture to guess this isn’t what he intended!”
Ama nodded and gulped. Looking away from him, she rolled the bulge of her tongue beneath her cheeks. With a surprised murmur, Bean watched as she opened her mouth and ran a finger across her teeth.
She turned to him with a youthful smile that was whole and healthy. “Well, I suppose this is far better than anything I was expecting!”
Bean returned and basked in Ama’s smile before he stammered a reply to the now young woman before him. “A-absolutely!”
With hands on thin hips, Ama closed her eyes and straightened her long back without pain for the first time in ages. Bean caught a glimpse of her navel as she did so, and he quickly turned away to hide his reddening cheeks.
“But why am I young, Bean? Macule took ten thousand days from me! I shouldn’t be a young thing with so many days ahead of her… I’d think at best I’d be as venerable as old Greywacke down the road!”
Stout Bean shook his head and searched the room with his back still to her. “I don’t know, but we should find Macule. Because if you’re young—”
“—Oh Gods Bean, I just thought of that too! Where the hell is he?”
“There,” the young man said thrusting a finger at a far corner.
The pair walked cautiously and side-by-side, approaching a dim corner while Bean snuck a glance at Ama. She was still a lean beanpole who moved with practical poise, but the stride of the long legs beneath her sweeping dress was stronger. He turned away furrow-browed, then stopped as they came upon Macule’s body lying in a heap.
Ama fanned out her skirt and kneeled down. “Macule was older than I, Bean. If he’s died of old age—”
“—There will be an inquest,” hefty Bean said squatting to his haunches. “But I think there will be one no mater what happens now.”
They peered down at the withered, ancient face of the little old man on the floor. They only knew it was Macule by the remnants of his clothes. His black doublet was in faded tatters hanging from its brass buttons with holes revealing a shift that was no more than rags underneath.
Bean rolled the scrawny figure onto his back with a push and his fingers shattered a layer of thin ice clinging to the now oversized clothing that grabbed him. Ama held her breath as he placed his ear just above Macule’s withered, blue lips.
“He’s utterly decrepit and as cold as ice… But be it sorcery or a devil’s luck, he’s still breathing.”
“I don’t believe it!” Ama said laying a long palm onto Macule’s bald and wrinkled head.
Bean pulled back from the unconscious man and pondered the sight. “There’s no way that this is what Macule wanted or expected.”
The young woman shook her head withdrawing her hand from Macule’s chilled brow. “He must have misread Jodus’ notes and gotten them backwards somehow… I mean, look at him!”
Bean nodded scratching his stubbly chin. “Macule seems too damned cautious to simply endorse the wrong spots on the contract. Not with so much at stake. I think it’s something else.”
“Go on.”Ama said watching Bean’s lips soften into the understated smile that usually accompanied one of his crafty thoughts.
He turned to Ama as her pleasant face leaned closer. “He said that the contract would take ten thousand days from one life and give them to another. I bet that’s just how Jodus wrote it in his notes, too! Now if I was an exciseman taking things away for living, I’d read that and reckon that gaining the days was far better than giving them up to someone else.”
Ama slowly shook her head. “But isn’t that the point of the thing, Bean? To gain added years to your life?”
She watched Bean crinkle his nose and wink. “Well, yes and no! Think of it this way… If you and I had a dozen apples apiece—”
“—I’d make a pie,” Ama said with a grin and narrowed lashes. “But what’s your point, Bean?”
The young man shook his head and laughed. “The point is that we each have a dozen! You give me six of yours and I take them into my pile. How many do you now have?”
“I would now have six.”
Bean grinned. “And how many would I now have?”
Ama squinted at him but maintained her smile. “It’s simple arithmetic, Bean. You’d have eighteen.”
Bean nodded in agreement. “Now, what if they were days? ”
The woman’s hand smacked her forehead. “Oh! The bastard did get it backwards! If he wanted to extend his life he needed to give up his days, not take on more from someone else! ”
The young man continued to nod looking down to the old man on the floor. “It could have been that Jodus was trying to obscure a truth and trick those who would abuse the magic. We’ll probably never know.”
Ama turned back to Macule from where she kneeled. “Yes, but if it’s true the old wizard saved me a second time.”
“At least Macule deserves this irony, Mame Ama.”
Sad-eyed, Ama took hold of a limp, withered hand. “He’s so cold!”
Bean shook his head. “How can you pity him? He intended this fate to be yours!”
Ama rubbed Macule’s frigid fingers between her palms. “I know. He’s been a wicked man, I won’t deny it. But he’s so old now Bean… He was a generation older than I to begin with, and ten-thousand more days would make him over ninety winters!”
“Yes, and far from robust at that—”
“—He took on my last twenty-seven years, Bean. At ninety-odd I’m amazed he’s alive! Those hard decades had wrung all the youth out of me prematurely, and now he’s twice the age I was bearing them just an hour ago!”
Stout Bean leaned forward with a nod and started to gently prop up the unconscious little man. “I can already imagine Macule’s spoiled sons fighting over his estate. They will probably cloister him away.”
The young woman’s brown eyes bobbed in resolute agreement. “He’s lost everything, so let’s afford the man a little pity… few will do the same.”
Bean lifted Macule’s limp shoulders. “I can afford him that, Mame Ama. And bastard or not, I wouldn’t let him die on your floor.”
He looked back to Ama and found her examining an ugly scar on Macule’s worn thumb. It was obviously from the stroke of the quill knife that she had given him, but now it was a long-healed injury.
She looked up from her pause. “I know you’re too good at heart to do that, Bean. Let’s get him free of these icy clothes.”
The woman’s long arms reached down and tore open the frosted rags that swathed Macule’s chest while Bean looked on somberly. “Lord Suldur will surely call an inquiry as soon as word reaches him of this.”
“Better to present an old man to the magistrate than a corpse,” Ama replied ripping off a rotten strip of Macule’s undershirt.
Bean hoisted the now bare-chested Macule up by his armpits. As his boots dangled with soles coming apart, Ama stripped the wizened man’s lower half.
“We’ll get him into dry clothes and under blankets in the loft. Can you manage bringing him up the stairs alone, Bean?”
The broad-shouldered man shifted the unclothed elder gripped in his arms to carry him. “He weighs next to nothing.”
Ama rose up from the earthen floor and brushed clinging rushes off her skirt approaching the stairs. Tugging it up, quick footfalls brought the long-legged woman to the top of the stairs before Bean had reached the first step.
“One of father’s old shifts will fit him easily,” she said stooping under the rafter and laid thatch roof above the staircase. “Then we can put him in the bed.”
The planks groaned under Bean’s boots as he carried Macule up the stairs. He cast a raised brow up at Ama already standing in the loft above, taking care not to bang the limbs of the clammy, naked man in his arms as he walked.
“I’ve never seen you move so fast, Mame Ama!”
She stroked back a length of her loose hair and looked down with a grin. “Yes! I feel… Well I feel young! ”
“If he’s now ninety-odd… what does that make you, Mame?” Bean asked halfway up the steps.
Ama’s face suddenly became bemused. “I, I hadn’t thought about that yet… But twenty-seven years given away would leave me… just a little younger than you?”
Bean stepped onto the floorboards of the loft as Ama backed away, giving him room to enter while carrying Macule. “I mean no disrespect, but Mame just doesn’t feel… appropriate anymore. Would you mind if I—”
“—Absolutely not!” Ama reached out and laid a hand on Bean’s shoulder as she nodded. “Drop the honorific. It feels odd to me as well now that Fate has made us contemporaries.”
The young man’s face gave a relived smile. “Alright, Ama. I’ll bring him to the bed.”
The brunette watched Bean walk across the room. “I guess I’m just another girl now, then?”
“Not just another girl, Ama,” Bean said kneeling down and cautiously lowering Macule to the mattress.
The young man couldn’t see her eyes dart to the floor where she stood behind his back, or how she wringed the long fingers of her hands together. “I, I’ll get that shift.”
Lavender hung in dried bunches from the rafters of the loft, lending the room below the thatch roof their aroma. The cozy room was full of daylight and warm air drifting in from the unshuttered windows of each wall except the south, where the chimney rose. Next to its masonry of uneven stones, Ama knelt down and rummaged through one of a pair of chests to either side of the chimney until she stood holding a linen shift and blankets.
She made her way to the corner where Bean had laid Macule on her mattress of hemp canvas stuffed with straw. He rose from the interwoven rushes the simple bed rested upon and looked to Ama before backing away. Crossing stout arms he leaned by the open northern window as she took his former position kneeling at the old man’s side.
Sliding the billowing shirt onto Macule before tucking the worn linen blankets over him, Ama touched his forehead. “He’s not as chill as he was, but his lips are still blue. Bean, could you please go downstairs to stoke the hearth and boil water?”
The only reply she heard were the clucks of the hens and birdsongs outside the window. Ama turned to find the young man pinch-faced and narrowly eyeing her direction before matching his gaze and gaining his attention.
“Pondering something, Bean?”
“Yes. Too much so. I’m sorry… I’ll get the kettle on the fire.”
Ama watched him walk to the staircase scratching his chin. “Thank you, I’ll finish up here and be down soon.”
Bean nodded descending the stairs before she rose up on long legs. Looking down at Macule drawing in raspy breaths, Ama shook her head and sighed before walking to the side of the northern window. Grabbing a hanging curtain of yellowed linen, she drew the sheet across a hairy rope hung to screen the bed and its occupant.
Free of anyone’s gaze, Ama lifted her youthful hands and touched quivering fingers to the smooth skin of her face. The shiver spread across her body and she wrapped long arms around herself in a solitary embrace. Eyes wide, she stood slumped and shaking before glancing at the walls around her and the sounds of Bean moving downstairs.
Ama looked back at the drawn curtain and whispered. “I thought your contract would kill me, Macule… and I was right. No one in the village will accept me this way! And even if some did, your position guarantees an inquest from Lord Suldur!”
She looked away, then down at her ruined clothing before covering eyes that began to tear.
“Did you say something, Ama? Do you need me?” Bean called up the stairs.
She choked back a sob with hands still over her eyes. “I, I’m fine Bean. Just talking to myself. I’ll need a little more time… I, I’m going to change my clothes…”
The sound of Bean moving away from the staircase reached the loft above. “You have plentiful time now, Ama. I’ll give you some privacy…”
Ama uncovered eyes that widened with revelation. With a deep breath and a nod she stood straight and free of the quiver that had gripped her.
“You’re a gentleman, Bean!” she yelled down the stairs.
Ama brushed back her disheveled bangs before wiping her eyes with a sniffle. With another deep breath she firmly grabbed the dangling remnant of her apron at the waist. She ripped it free of the few threads that still held it in place. Tossing it to the floor, she turned back to the curtain.
“You’ve slain the life I knew, Macule. Thank you. ”
She walked toward her chest of clothes beside the chimney tall and resolved. Glancing down the stairs, Bean was nowhere to be found as Ama grabbed the iron ring of the box and pulled it backwards. Yanking the chest across the floor, she dragged it to the center of the loft before sitting down on its lid.
She quickly undid the straps on her closed, low-cut shoes and slid them off the bare feet within. Lifting long calves Ama allowed herself a moment to smile, stretching legs and toes that no longer pained her. Then she was on her feet again, quickly untying her skirt and letting it fall into a pile at her ankles.
Her lean bare legs kicked the damp fabric away as she stood clad in her ruined chemise that fell to her thighs. She touched a flat stomach through the flapping hole in the long sleeved shirt before sliding it off and throwing it into a growing pile of discarded garments.
Ama stood gazing down at a body that hung with all the perk and proportion she remembered from her youth. Sighing, she rested her palms on the hips of a willowy figure before pulling back her long disheveled hair and stroked it strait again. Her smile returned as she bent over and opened the chest.
Snatching her spare chemise, she threaded her head and waist length hair though the collar and arms of the billowing shirt. “I won’t be much longer, Bean. And I’m feeling better.”
“I’m glad!” the young man called up from downstairs as Ama slid on an ankle length skirt of light olive green. “You don’t need to rush. That thing left a mess down here, but little is actually broken… ”
Ama tucked the end of her voluminous chemise under the hem at her waist and tightened it before reaching back into the chest. She smiled retrieving a wooden comb and began running it through her chestnut colored locks. “Alright Bean, if you don’t mind I’m going to do something about my hair before I finish dressing then.”
“Take all the time you need,” Bean shouted toward the staircase opening the last closed window downstairs. It filled the room with early afternoon light.
Minutes passed as he walked over the earthen floor with a furrowed brow. The young man righted an overturned bench and straightened the table between thoughtful pauses. Grabbing the rotted remnants of Macule’s clothes, he plucked the brass buttons from the rags before chucking them beside the now warmly blazing hearth. That task complete, Bean looked to the empty stairs and placed the valuable buttons on the tabletop.
Ama’s foot touched the first step of the stairs just as he looked away. Once again in her low-cut shoes, she quietly stepped down the staircase and paused to look at Bean halfway down. His eyes were still heavy with thought as she watched him collect Macule’s chaperon hat off the floor. It had avoided the touch of the blue fire, and he dropped it on the table unchanged.
The young woman smiled and tilted her head at Bean unseen while the stocky man bent down and retrieved a beeswax candle from the floor. Hearing the creak of a loose step as Ama started down the stairs, his narrow eyes consumed in thought were slowly drawn wide as he beheld her.
Ama strained to maintain her smile in his gaze, running a hand along the front laced bodice of brown suede that now hugged her torso flatteringly. “D-do I look alright, Bean? Would this be in fashion with a village girl my age? Or do I look ridiculous?”
Bean stood blinking at her gentle, nervous smile before swallowing with a heavy nod. “Y-you look very well, Ama… They’d be jealous! And I’d be too nervous to introduce myself if I didn’t know you…”
Ama looked down and fidgeted with the woven rope belt at her hips. “You’re very kind… But you’re shy with all the girls, Bean. I’m nothing special, young or old.”
The young man shook his head. “I might not know what to say to the village girls, but I’ve always been able to talk to you… So there! That makes you special!”
Ama laughed coming down the final steps, her voice a little higher and sweeter in its renewed youth. She walked over to him by the table and rested long fingers on her waist. “Well, if you say so!”
He looked up at a graceful oblong face under the bangs of Ama’s long, straight hair. “I’ve been thinking things over—”
“—Yes, I can tell. I thought about a lot upstairs, too.”
“Right. This won’t end quietly.”
Ama nodded attentively leaning closer. “Absolutely. Macule will be missed by nightfall and his sons will start a search with the dawn!”
Her face crept closer to his, and the smell of her hair quickened Bean’s heart. “E-exactly! I-I’m sure that when they find him as old as the hills, and you a pretty young flower—”
Bean winced at his poor choice of words and noticed a rush of color to Ama’s cheeks as she blinked.
“A-anyways! They’ll level a cry of malignant sorcery at you!”
The blush on Ama’s face subsided, replaced by a slight smile as she pulled away slightly. “A flower, Bean? It’s been a long time since someone said that to me—”
“—I’m sorry! I, I didn’t mean it like that! I’m just… it’s because you’re—”
“—Bean! It’s alright! I’m flattered…”
She watched darting eyes slowly calm on a stubbly face. “I-I’m glad of that… But what I’m fumbling to say is that you can’t stay here anymore, Ama!”
The young woman closed her eyes and gave a somber nod. “I’ve been thinking the same. For ill done to a collector of the manor, Lord Suldur will surely summon the king’s men for an inquest.”
Bean folded his strong arms and nodded. “I wouldn’t be surprised, if he survives, to see Macule play the victim in this!”
Ama opened the brown pools of her eyes and looked at Bean. “Oh, that would be like him, I agree… But no mater what Macule’s fate, a torturer will come for a confession with a headsman behind him.”
“It will never end well for small people like us,” Bean nodded.
She could see Bean thinking about his next words carefully before he spoke. “You’re going to refuse and try to send me away because it’s dangerous, but—”
“—Yes,” Ama said firmly. “I need to disappear. We need to disappear! I want to go. And I want to go with you so that we can keep each other safe!”
Bean’s eyes flashed wide, but Ama watched a smile grow as his tensed features relaxed. “Thank the Gods, I thought that would be a far more difficult chore than it was! I couldn’t bear the thought of you travelling alone—”
“—So gallant, Bean!” Ama said reaching out and giving Bean a nudge that made him grin. “Offering to protect such an awkward thing as myself from highwaymen!”
He laughed. “Don’t jest! The road will be dangerous and I’m only good at carving wood with a knife, not brigands!”
Ama’s hand lifted from Bean’s shoulder before she walked past him. “I think I’ll still enjoy the company, and two are safer than one regardless!”
The young man turned and watched her walk towards her household altar across the room. “You’ve read of the kingdoms Ama, where should we go?”
She looked back over her shoulder with a wink. “Anywhere far away from here, Bean! I’ve been given a second chance and I won’t see it cut short by a hangman’s noose!”
He watched her turn back and admired the sweep of her stride with a nod. “True and granted, but we need a destination all the same.”
She stopped before the chest and looked down at the clay idol of Aeanna amongst the other Gods arranged on a simple altar cloth. “We’ll obviously need to flee Ehtrus and not look back. I say we head east for a few days and cross into Ozmana. The kingsmen have little power there, but I’ve got very few coins to get us to the border on.”
“Here, we can add this to our coffer.” Ama turned to find Bean pulling a black leather purse out from under his vest. He jangled the coins with a smile then tossed it across the room where she barely snatched it from the air with a sweep of her long arm.
“I found it in Macule’s satchel, probably his petty cash…”
The woman looked at the purse in her grip. “So, now we’re adding theft to our crime of malignant sorcery?”
Bean waved a hand at the open door. “Well, why do anything half way? He’s got a horse outside that he won’t be using too!”
Ama winked back at him before pulling open the purse strings. “I was wrong about you, Bean. You’re a gentleman and a rogue! ”
“Well, if you say so…” he shrugged as she looked inside the purse with widening eyes.
Her fingers dipped into the pouch and pinched a few of the thumbnail sized copper pennies within. “This might have been petty cash for him… But if we’re careful I bet this can take us south through Ozmana and get us all the way to Adril!”
Bean rested his thumbs upon the flanks of his belt with a smile. “Adril it is then. The Kings of Ehtrus have no love there!”
Ama shook her head holding up an old silver kopin from the purse. “Oh, no love at all! Not since The Covenant of Kings abandoned them with a war unfinished.”
“We should leave at sunset, Ama, and take the trail out back through the forest. No one will be fetching wood in the dark, and it passes well outside the village and Greywacke’s hounds that bay at everything. It might take us all night, but by morning we’ll hit the old imperial road.”
She dropped the kopin back into the purse and pulled it closed. “That’s good thinking, Bean. The peddlers say there’s an inn at a crossroads a day’s travel east on the road. If we can reach that, we’ll already be halfway to the Ozmanian border.”
Ama turned her back to Bean and spread out her skirt, lowering herself down to kneel beside the chest and altar atop it. He walked over as she carefully laid the idols supine and rolled them up into the plain altar cloth.
Bean looked over Ama’s shoulder as she lifted the lid of the chest open. Dipping her hands within, she rose holding a short stack of books in her arms before walking past him with a smile. “I’m taking my library.”
“I’ll gather my small tools,” Bean nodded as she set her books down on the table. “We’ll need to travel light.”
From the top of the stack, Ama picked up the small girdle book of poetry her aunt had bequeathed to her mother long ago. “You’ll find work soon with your talent, I’m sure of it.”
“Let’s hope, but either way we’ll be better off helping each other out,” he said turning toward the door.
She nodded looking at the book in her hand while Bean walked away, then glanced at Macule’s quills and papers scattered on the tabletop. “Perhaps I can find work as a reader, Bean. Maybe even doing scribe’s work?”
Ama took the leather knot at the end of the girdle book’s strap and looped it around her woven rope belt. Once secured she watched the book dangle past her hip, allowing herself to wear it as the accessory it was intended to be for the first time.
She turned with a smile, stroking a hand across the swaying cover by her thigh. “Isn’t it wonderful, Bean? Doesn’t it make me look like a woman of means?”
Bean stared wide-eyed at the steps leading up to the loft. Following the line of his sight with a glance, Ama gasped seeing Macule standing withered, hunched and decrepit on the staircase.
…The final chapter of A Contract in Azure and Indigo, Ouroboros, will be be posted on Saturday, April 23rd.
Copyright © 2016 by Jason H. Abbott, All Rights Reserved.