Where Mary learns that a lady needs more than manners and social graces to survive.
The fire danced into the sky.
Marshal crouched on the far side of the fire from Mary as he did something more substantial than just poke at it. With his attention on the flames and the meal he tended, Mary let her eyes rest on his form.
She had watched Janey’s husband poke at a fire a time or two, it never did anything, and he always had to call in the parlor-maid to deal with it. The flames seemed to have spread out under Marshall’s knowledgeable ministrations.
He sat back on his heels. He was a big man, built for action. Yet he had put up with her impertinent attitude much longer than Mary would have. His focus was on the flames, and then on the gutted rabbit speared on a spit.
She admired how deftly he checked and turned the meat with long practically graceful fingers. Had he been born into a family of means they most certainly would have had him musically trained. He would have played the piano most beautifully.
He would be a lovely singer with the tones of his voice. She particularity found herself enjoying the way her name sounded when he said it.
Oh, Marshall was saying her name. “What?”
“Shh,” he lifted his finger to his lips. “Your humming was getting louder.”
“I wasn’t…” She hadn’t been humming. Had she?
He pointed behind her.
Several yards away, Kim let out a rumbling sound that Mary had learned was a content noise that beasts of her ilk made. After several days of travel and camping Mary, while still wary of the beast, grew accustomed to the dusty earth and grass smell.
Hanska slept peacefully tucked up next to his sauran. He worked tirelessly, hunting, and keeping Kim under control. He deserved his well-earned rest, especially after bringing in such a feast for their dinner. Not only had he snared a nice big hare, but he found a tree full of plumbs.
“Don’t eat all of these tonight, save some for our breakfast,” he said when he had displayed the bounty.
“Can’t we just go pick more?” Mary had asked.
She realized it had been a stupid question by the expression on Hanska’s face. He had probably walked for miles before he had found the fruit.
“Right,” she said chagrinned.
Both men had kept her safe, fed her, and were making sure she would get to her destination. And all she managed to do was sit around admiring their skills and fortitude. She couldn’t even claim to be halfway attractive at this point. She needed a bath. She tentatively touched her hair, probably permanently tied into a knot on the top of her head. She flinched and began rubbing at her nose, not certain if she cleared away the smudge of soot she was certain was there, or if she was making it worse. She wasn’t even decorative.
Marshall crooked his fingers at her, beckoning her to his side of the fire.
She crawled over the rock she had perched upon and sat in the dirt next to him.
“What’s with the frown? One second you were happy and humming, the next you looked like you want to cry.”
At the sound of his words, Mary did want to cry. She looked at him for a long moment, composing her words.
“I’ve come to the realization that I am completely useless. Without a society to be out in, I have nothing of value. If anything the past few days have helped me to realize society is tenuous at best. How quickly we went from social order to chaos and survival when those bandits attacked the train. And here I am, the woman in this small party, and I have no skills.”
“I was just thinking about how well you’ve been putting up with all of this. And now you go and impress me.”
He wiped a handkerchief across his brow. Smearing more dirt into the sweat on his brow. Mary plucked the square of fabric from his hands and reaching up, wiped his brow clean.
Her breathing stopped and her pulse raced as realization of her actions crashed into her as she placed the handkerchief back into Marshall’s large hand.
His thumb folded over the back of her had, holding it in place. She couldn’t take her eyes from their hands.
With a clearing of his throat, Marshall let go of her. “What do you mean you have no skills?”
“Well, I don’t know how to hunt or fish. I’m sure I could pick fruit or berries, but I have actually never done so. I certainly don’t know how to start or tend a fire. Or cook. I am useless. I have no skills. I can’t even ride a horse.”
“Oh, that can’t be Mary. I’m sure you were raised with the more refined skills that a lady needs to possess. I’d wager you play the piano quite well, and that your needlework is as delicate as the eyelash on a hummingbird.”
Mary didn’t think she had heard anything so poetic in all of her days. She had to blink a moment to clear her thoughts.
“My needlework is atrocious. I’m always stabbing myself and bleeding on the floss, ruining everything. And I’m embarrassed to admit, that while I do enjoy listening to fine musicians I never developed an ear or talent for creating music myself. I cannot play.”
“Not even the piano? Shame, even I can coax a recognizable tune from a piano.”
“I’m sure you can. After all your fingers are so long and skill full. My hands are small with stumps of fingers.” Mary had her hands up, fingers splayed before she realized in her prattling she admitted to noticing Marshall’s long fine fingers. She stared at the backs of her own hands and prayed that he had not noticed her indelicate speech.
He spread his own hands, palms up, and placed them against Mary’s.
“I’d agree your hands are mighty small. But I think I’d use the term delicate before I ever considered stumpy.”
Mary panicked at the touch. She pulled her hands back quickly instead of enjoying his touch as she wanted so desperately to do.
“I think I’d rather have capable hands over delicate ones.”
Marshall didn’t seem affronted by her sudden movement. He lifted the long stick he had tended to the fire with before and handed it to Mary.
“How about we start now,” he said.
“Turning those delicate hands of yours into capable ones. Have you ever tended a fire?”
“Oh no, that’s not appropriate. That’s what the help is for.”
“Sounds like you’re saying you don’t want this?”
“Sorry,” she gulped. “I was merely attempting to coney my utter lack of knowledge on the subject. I’ve seen the maid poke at a fire and it seems to come back to life. And I’ve seen my dear sister’s husband to the same to no avail. It all simply looks like poking.”
Marshall chuckled. “In a way it is. But you want to poke with purpose. You see fire needs oxygen to burn. It’s like us, it needs air to live. But too much and it goes out.”
As he spoke he directed Mary’s hand to fat stick in the fire. Together they poked and lifted exposing the burning wood.
“What you want to do is find the places the fire is being smothered by ash, and lift it back into the air. Shift things around a bit so that air can get in.”
As they poked, the fire jumped higher. Startled Mary fell back with a small exclamation of surprise.
“There, you got it. Now get back up here.” Marshall held the stick out to Mary.
Showing her how to balance on her feet, so she could scurry away from the flames if need be.
“Don’t stoke the flames too high, we want to roast this hare, not burn it.” Marshall released his guiding hold on the stick and eased back while Mary continued to identify areas that were in need of air.
The work was hot, and smoke got in her face. The feeling of accomplishment was almost as giddy as the feeling she got when she looked over her shoulder to see Marshall grinning at her.
Will Mary dispose of her learned manners and adapt to the ways of living off the land? Find out in the next installment…
©2021 Lulu M Sylvian