From 'ODIN'S VOICE '
Kylie kissed Apollo's cheek and squeezed his
softness in her arms until he wriggled, giggling, and she said, “Never let your weapons be more than five paces from your hand! So say I, and you must hear Me." Her voice was both soft and hoarse. It purred, then caught and grated, scratching in her throat.
The blinds were drawn in Freewoman Atwood's
conservatory, dimming the strong sunlight, tinting it orange. The people sat among the flowers and foliage in armchairs,
on straight chairs, on stools, even on cushions on the floor. Kylie stood in the middle of them, twisting and swaying at
the waist and looking, not at them, but at the child in her arms, smiling at him, blowing him kisses, crooning
to him. She hardly seemed to listen to the words that her mouth chanted, and partly for that very reason the others gathered in the room, seated or standing, watched her every movement intently, and listened to every word.
"Never let your weapons be far from your hand! You think these words are not for you? You think yourselves safe and happy?"
The light steel frames of the chairs creaked as people shifted, leaning forward. Kylie was not beautiful. Though thin, she was stocky in build, with short legs and arms, and her dress was cheap, sack-like and a faded navy-blue. Its graceless drab marked it as the sort of dress an owner bought for a bonder. She lifted the child above her head, looking up at him, laughing as he laughed down at her. "I speak these words for one among you more than most! Beware! Be aware! Never let your weapons be more than five paces from your hands!"
Several of her listeners felt a stab of
recognition, knowing themselves to be the special one for whom the words were meant. A woman sitting under the swags of
sky-blue plumbago feared for her job, and could think of several eager to see her gone. The man near the tall cactus had
rowed, yet again, with his partner, and was pricked to a dread of loss, loneliness, trouble. A young woman by
the small pond was in growing debt, but had told no one and done nothing except fret. And there were others whose fears were less distinct.
"Can you - ?" Freewoman Atwood began. "Lord, can you not tell us who the message is for?"
Kylie hugged the child close to her and turned, slowly, to look at them all. Her gaze wondered, moving from face to face, but as slowly and vaguely as if she stared at distant clouds. Her face - not beautiful, not even pretty - was striking in its oddity: the skin pale, yet the hair, brows and lashes very dark, far darker than in most pale-skinned people. The broadness of her face across the cheekbones made it seem childishly round, and the vague, hazel-green eyes were Asiatic. The gathering held its breath, waiting for her to speak.
When her gaze had moved round the room, she
stilled and stared at nothing, silent. They waited.
Through long seconds of chair-creaks and stifled coughs, they waited. The child, bored, squirmed in Kylie's arms and whined. She hugged him closer, stilling him.
People felt their hair prickle and caught their breath. They could feel the presence in the room now: a great, bearish, but invisible body, filling the space between them, looming at the right shoulder of each of them, making their skins tingle with awareness. They waited for a little, ignorant bonder to speak, one with no education, no training, and yet - she had brought God Odin among them.
Kylie spoke, in a low, throaty voice. They heard every word. "I keep My silence," she said - Odin said. A thrill went through them, and they looked at each other. A bonder would seek to please, to give them what they wanted, not deny them. Kylie's lips moved, the mouth of a small, ignorant bonder-girl, but the voice and the words were those of the greatest, wisest and most masculine of Gods. Strange He should choose her as His mouthpiece, but Odin was not to be fenced in by human understanding.
"It is woven," said Odin's voice, a little rasping. "It is not to be unpicked. You will know when the time comes. Keep your weapons close at hand, be of good courage, all will be well. And I leave you."
Kylie threw back her head and left it tipped back on her shoulders, her throat drawn tight, her eyes closed, her mouth gaping at the ceiling. Her audience didn't know how to react. They glanced at each other, and then continued to watch the unmoving girl. It wasn't until the child in Kylie's arms laughed at her and patted her face that she lowered her head and smiled at him. They giggled and pressed their foreheads together. Kylie pirouetted away from her audience, ignoring them - or forgetting them. Either way, they were not used to being ignored or forgotten by bonders. But, of course, Kylie was an exceptional bonder.
Freewoman Atwood rose and swooped to the front of her gathering, stooping, her hands clasped before her. "Now I think we'd like a quiet time for personal meditation, wouldn't we?" She nodded at them and said, firmly, "Yes." She caught the dancing Kylie in her arms, to still her. She didn't mind touching the girl, though she could feel her warmth through her clothes and there was a slight dampness too. But Freewoman Atwood was quite used to Kylie. "Perhaps Apollo would like something to eat or drink? Perhaps you would yourself?"
Gently, she steered Kylie out of the conservatory and into the next room where a buffet was laid out. Certainly her friends would like a chance to reflect on their experience, but it also gave her a chance to feed Kylie before they came through to eat. Of course Kylie was unusual, and she was gifted and charming - favoured by the God, even - but she was still a bonder. Some people felt at ease with bonders - she did herself - and you had to respect where the God chose to give His voice - but not everyone wanted to queue for their food with a bonder.
"Do put that child down, dear. I'm sure his legs will support him." Kylie set the little boy on his feet. "Freewoman Perry is certainly lucky in you, I must say." There was no need to worry about young Freechild Perry when he was in Kylie's care. The girl doted on him. "Would you like some orange-juice, Apollo?"
The little boy looked up at her and put his fingers in his mouth while he considered. Was Freewoman Perry lucky in her son, though? There was something about the boy... He was four years old and, supposedly, bright. Well, anyway, Artemisia Perry told everyone how very bright he was. And yet he couldn't speak properly. This, of course, according to Artemisia Perry, was supposed to prove, in some strange way, how very, very bright he was. He was so bright, it seemed, he couldn't be expected to concentrate on minor things, like learning to talk. Freewoman Atwood had her doubts. Artemisia Perry had been so keen on a child, and naturally, no mere, unexceptional child would do. Apollo was certainly pretty, in an odd, cute way, with startling blue eyes, large and silvery, and wonderfully thick, flaxen hair, but perhaps Eliza had been tempted to value looks over intelligence. There was something about Apollo... Impossible to say what. Possibly he was just a little slow, and in a couple of years' time, would be perfectly normal. Freewoman Atwood poured a glass of orange juice and gave it to the child.
"Take a plate and help yourself, dear," she said to Kylie. "Have as much as you like." She needed to let the girl know that she wouldn't be rebuked or punished for eating whatever she fancied.
She watched as Kylie helped herself to two of the bread rolls shaped like ravens - rather odd, misshapen ravens, but that was what they were supposed to be, in honour of Odin. She also added slices of beef and ham, with salad and pickle, some cheese and herring. She started eating even as she was still scanning the table and loading her plate. The little boy, on the other hand, wasn't much interested in the food, apart from the cakes and biscuits, of which he had one in each hand. Not hungry. Freewoman Atwood wondered if Kylie's mistress fed her properly.
"You must be sure to thank Freewoman Perry, when you get back, for lending you to us today - especially after she said she couldn't spare you."
Kylie looked at her from the corner of her eye, and chewed hard on a mouthful, so she could answer. "I asked her, madam, as a favour to let me come, and she said I could, if I got back on time. I mustn't be late."
"No, we'll see you off in good time." Freewoman Atwood had her doubts about whether Kylie really did have permission to be there, and wouldn't have tolerated such disobedience in her own bonders, but Kylie's presence had made a success of her gathering, so she kept her suspicions to herself. "Are you happy at Freewoman Perry's, dear?"
Again the girl gave her a quick look from the corner of her eye. "Freewoman Perry is a good mistress, madam."
"So you'd be unhappy if Freewoman Perry were to sell you?"
Another quick glance that seemed, to Freewoman Atwood, positively alarmed. "Freewoman Perry is a good mistress, madam."
"I'm sure she is, but - " Sounds of movement came from the garden-room. The gathering was rising and coming in to eat.
"I must go, madam," Kylie said. "I mustn’t be late. Freechild Apollo, come here."
"Can't you stay a little longer? I'm sure some people would like to talk to you." Not eat with her, but talk with her, certainly.
"I mustn't be late, madam. I have to get Freechild Apollo home."
"Oh well, if you must..." For every one of her guests who would have liked to talk to her, there was one who would be uncomfortable with her in the room, now she was no longer speaking for Odin. "Perhaps Freewoman Perry would lend you to us again?"
Kylie lifted Apollo into her arms, smiled vaguely and hurried from the room before the first of the gathering entered by the other doors.