Blood Was Spilled (An Entirely Unchronological Fantasy Heroine Snippet)
Takes place both some months after and many years before the events of the series/book.
‘I have a question.’
Charlotte completed her practice strike (Leo rated it a 6 out of 10, the angle was a bit off, but a solid start for a new technique) and looked up at him. ‘Mmm?’
‘Why do the caladrius like you so much?’
Charlotte grinned, and swung at him again (better, solidly 7 out of 10). ‘At least four reasons. They prefer women, possibly because they prefer shorter people in general, they don’t like sudden movement, they like quiet people but not silence, and I smell like lavender.’
‘Lavender?’ Rosamund always smelled of it too, now that he thought of it. The oil she put in her hair was perfumed with lavender, there were bags of lavender in all the dressers and closets...he probably smelled of lavender himself at this point, given how ubiquitous its use was in the house.
‘They build lavender into their nests. They’re also absolutely obsessive about lavender cheese.’
He held up his sword by way of demonstration. ‘You’ll find it easier if you angle your wrists this way more.’ She copied him. ‘That’s it. Try again.’ 9 out of 10, much better. ‘But you’re joking about the cheese.’
‘Not even slightly.’ Charlotte frowned at him. ‘The males will start hoarding cheese to present to the females when it’s mating season. Only...they don’t always remember where they put it...’ Charlotte wrinkled her nose. ‘I found some inside the main chapel once, much too high for a human to have left it there. It reeked.’
They practiced for another quarter-hour before supper, but for the rest of the evening Leo was still stuck on birds eating cheese. The caladrius were everywhere on the estate, to the extent that he’d once found one on his actual bed, and they combined their beauty (well, for birds, resembling as they did oversized peafowl in shades of iridescent pearl) with the temperamental moodiness and imaginatively destructive tendencies of three year old children.
The difficulties in breeding them were nearly as well-known as the birds themselves, and the Hawkhurst estate was one of the very few places in Bevoria that actually had a breeding flock. Which made war very profitable for them, given the use of caladrius tears in preventing and curing infection, and in speeding up healing.
Once upon a time, that would have been a reason to suspect them of wrongdoing. And by once upon a time, he meant a handful of months ago.
His life was very strange.
He was still thinking about caladrius and cheese when he got into bed. Rosamund, oblivious to his dairy-related ruminations, was sitting in a chair by the dresser, braiding her hair, and had just asked him how his day was when he blurted out, ‘Do caladrius really hoard cheese?’
She looked a little surprised at the question, but nodded. ‘Lavender cheese particularly.’
‘Is that why you smell of lavender all the time?’ She grinned, reaching for a ribbon.
‘They’re very sensitive to scent, and the smell seems to keep them calm.’
Leo thought about the recent behaviour he had seen from the birds, and raised an eyebrow. ‘Relatively calm,’ Rosamund amended, ‘but they’re moody by nature.’
‘Huh. Charlotte says they like quiet but not silence.’ She raised an eyebrow in return.
‘I think they don’t like people who seem to be sneaking up on them. But you also have to sing to get them to cry, and...you know,’ she said suddenly, ‘it’s been such a long time since this was all explained to me that I forgot how utterly bizarre it sounds. Huh. Did you think Lottie was spinning you a yarn?’
‘Well...yes,’ he admitted, wondering if this was the wrong thing to say.
But she smiled as she slipped into bed beside him. ‘I can understand why. But around here the weird birds are just...normal, I’m afraid.’
Leo straightened out his (mercifully unchewed) pillow and lay down, wondering when his life had become this bizarre.
And why he didn’t seem to mind.
‘Did I ever tell you,’ Rosamund said sleepily, turning towards him and curling an arm around his waist, ‘about the first time they scratched me up?’
‘No...’ He kissed the top of her head. ‘But do feel free to regale me with tales of injuries of yours that weren’t my fault.’
She snorted. ‘Well, Hugo and I got married at midwinter, and in the spring we went to visit my family for my birthday. Horrible trip, bad roads, exhausted from travel, it was an absolute trial. I was so glad to get back here, if you can believe it, for a bit of peace and quiet. The caladrius had tolerated me before I left, and I was just putting some food out...’ Leo closed his eyes.
Rosamund turned her arms over. There were indeed several long scratches, and blood was starting to drip onto the kitchen floor. ‘That is an accurate statement, yes.’
Hugo pointed at a chair. ‘Sit.’
She made a face. ‘Really?’
She shrugged. ‘If you insist.’
Hugo waited until the cook had moved away from the shelf, pulled down a bowl, and started to mix salt into hot water. ‘What did you do?’
Rosamund grimaced. ‘The caladrius were being…difficult.’
‘And so you decided to…fight them?’ he asked carefully.
‘I didn’t decide to fight them,’ Rosamund said, with some energy, ‘I decided to feed them, and then two of them started fighting with each other, and I tried to separate them.’
‘It didn’t go well.’
‘So I see.’
‘Turns out they like fighting me better than fighting each other. Don’t know if they’re mates or siblings but either way, blood was spilled, and most of it was mine.’
Hugo shook his head fondly, and dabbed the cloth on her arm. She hissed at him. He smiled more widely.
‘I can clean my own arms, you know.’ she said, slightly grumpy.
‘I’m aware.’ he said mildly, and continued regardless.
‘I don’t appreciate your bedside manner, either. Too much grinning by half.’
‘You aren’t in bed.’ he said reasonably.
‘No, but if I were, I would write a strongly worded letter to your supervising physician.’
‘Before or after I’d stopped you bleeding all over the page?’
‘Was that a pun, Hugo?’
‘Wouldn’t dream of it, Rosy.’
He finished wiping the blood away, and she stood, shooing his hands away. ‘I don’t require anything further, no, really, they’re very minor, they’ve stopped bleeding already, look.’
‘If you insist.’ He held out his arm, which she took, rather gingerly, and they walked out of the kitchen to the inner ward. Several of the caladrius were chirruping angrily at each other, but that wasn’t unusual at this time of year. Several of the males had their iridescent tails on full display as they conducted what seemed like very angry conversations punctuated by tail-related semaphore.
‘They do seem very agitated,’ Hugo remarked, reaching through the wire to pet a nearby female, and then retracting his hand sharply when she snapped at it.
‘They were fine with me before!’ His wife sounded upset, and honestly, Hugo couldn’t blame her. Much of the estate’s wealth came from selling the ointments and salves they made with caladrius tears. It wasn’t that Rosamund needed to help tend them, but...it boded ill if the lady of the manor was being attacked by their chief income source.
‘Maybe it’s because we went away?’ Rosamund suggested. ‘Maybe they’ve forgotten who I am?’
‘They haven’t forgotten me,’ Hugo pointed out, and she scoffed.
‘You’ve lived here your whole life. They’ve known me for perhaps six months, we’re hardly lifelong friends. But it’s not like I’m any different from when I left.’
It was at that moment that Hugo had A Thought, and suddenly he felt hot and cold at once. ‘Just...wait here one moment. Um. Please?’
He let himself into the enclosure, leaving Rosamund outside. Every bird in the place immediately flocked to him, anticipating treats. A couple of them perched on his shoulders, and he scratched them absently on the head before shaking them off and returning to his wife.
No, clearly they weren’t agitated in general. Just with Rosamund.
‘Rosy,’ he said softly, taking her hands. She looked at him, concerned. ‘Caladrius are...very sensitive to smell.’
‘Yes, I know, that’s why everything I own now smells of lavender. What’s your point?’
‘Rosy, are you…might you be...pregnant?’
Her eyes went wide, and she looked down at the floor, her fingers twitching as she counted.
‘Umm…’ she said, at length, as Hugo tried not to hold his breath, ‘...maybe?’