“Aye,” said Bhaunbher, in a thrill of wonder. “Ah didnae think this place would be known for its craftsmanship. Ah thought it was just gonna be another huntin’ lodge, with skins and pelts everywhere and o’ that. This is amazin’-- but how does the glass keep in o’ the heat in the winter? True there’s a grand fire in the middle, but near the windows, it must be cold.”
“Cold?” Edmahrid exclaimed, in laughing astonishment. “You speak like an old maid instead of a fearsome hunter, lad. Here you worry about cold when we must go out and hunt in all weather.”
“Aye, we dae, but what about o’ these visitors and workers? What about the wee-uns? There are swarms o’ ‘em. Ah didnae thenk there’d be so manae at a huntin’ lodge.”
“For some of them, the lodge is their home, lad. For others, it is where their parents work, and they join them here for an education in the chapel instead of attending lessons in the town, where they might spend the better part of their day without the company of their mothers and fathers. Other children are frequent visitors, coming with their families from the neaby towns. Their parents watch the hunt and support the local tradesmen, and the children use their time here as a holiday—it nearly is a holiday for the entire villiage. Vendors bring all their wares here for the trading pavilion, musicians travel here to entertain, and even some of the dancers from Hallanys come when they can, to promote themselves and to take in all the regalia. You need not worry about the cold or the children, lad. There is always something to occpy them, for if they are not being looked after by the Brother, they are attacking the caramel apple cart or racing each other through the field, or trying to ride the boar or betting which one of them will be able to milk the goats. Believe me, lad, as one who is often here, I tell you they are busy kept and always warm when there is a fire on. There are pelts aplenty for them to hide under, and many of them will willingly stand beside the oven if it means Deana will offer them bolaig enough to feed a bear.”
Bhaunbher grimaced and looked doubtful. “We liek it well enough, but Ah doant thenk a bear-bear would eat it. The smell o’ it cookin’ might repell ‘em.”
“Aye,” said Bhaunbher. “Dirrald and Ah were cookin’ it once when we were first stationed in the mountains, and the smell aff it near killed yin o’ the brown bears lurkin’ the area.”
“It did. We watched hem comin’ toward us, and when Bhaunbher took the lid from the pot, the smoke rose up and carried over the mountain side, and when it reached hem, he reared and ran. He as onlae a cub, but Ah thenk we offended his ideas o’ eatin’.”
Eadmhaird laughed heartily and shook his head. “Bolaig is enough to fill any stomach and offend any tongue. I had never eaten it until I came to the Westren. I admit to not being fond of it at first, but when the snow came to the mountains, I ate more of it than I ever thought I should. A hard working man hungry enough will eat anything which promises to fill him, lad—“ here was a sly smile, “--which would explain the west’s unnatural love for mardeam. All the farmers, horse breeders, artisans and craftsmen in the kingdom must be poor enough and hardy enough to eat something that tastes like salted tar—Isn’t that so, Gearrog?”
Eadmhaird turned, and just approaching from the corridor was Gearrog, emerging from the teeming crowds with all his usual good nature and hale self-determination.
“Aye, no denyin’ it,” said he, thrusting his hand forth and clasping Eadmhaird’s, giving it a stout shake, “mardeam tastes like the wrong end o’ the sardine barrel, but it’s good for ye. That’ll put the hair on ye, though—“ eyeing Dirrald and Bhaunbher, “don’t think yous lads need anymore than what yous got. Lucky for yous lads all that hair’s just yer arms. Yous lads don’t got a big ol’ wheat stalk sproutin’ up from yer chest like some o’ these walkin round here.”
He nodded toward Eadmhaird, glanced cautiously at the top of his chest, where sprouted a dark and brambled tuft, and Gearrog winked at him and gave his back a hardy slap, and Eadmhaird returned the sentiment, patting Gearrog’s shoulder with the same if not more generous affection.
“Glad to see you, Gearrog,” said Eadmhaird, in a kindly hue. “Glad to see you anywhere that is not beside your kilns.”
“Aye,” said Gearrog, with an amorous sigh, “Rough workin’ the kilns, so it is, but it’s where I love to be masel’—and someone’s gotta be makin’ all these bricks here anyway.”
“Ye repair the lodge?” asked Bhaunbher.
Gearrog shrugged. “Someone’s gotta. I put in all this new brick here in the entrance just last year. Took me the while to get all the mortar in the archway just right, but,” with a pout of proud conviction, “she’s is holdin’ up right well an’ some.”
“And you have not been here since then,” said Eadmhaird archly, the glint in his eye dancing about. “What do you do in your Farriage workshop that requires to much attention you cannot visit your home oftener? They have no need of your bricks and tiles in the east as we do.”
“Aye, well, sure they don’t have as many brick buildin’s and houses like we do here in the west, but eastern folk sure do know how to break things easier. I’m not hurtin’ for business, mind—folk just stopped breakin’ things. Only took ‘em Gods know how long. I like workin’ as much as the next workin’ lad, but there ain’t bolaig enough in the east to keep me goin’ half so long durin’ the eastern winters: they’re wetter, they’re colder—they’re colder ‘cause they’re wetter—and can’t get anyone to make a decent bolaig out there. They’re always leavin’ out all the best parts, like the sheep livers and pork lard. Glad to be in this here lodge— the place smelled o’ bolaig comin’ up to it. Near ran the last stretch of the way just to have first batch of what the cook was takin’ out o’ the fire.” He closed his eyes, inhaled, and gave a prolonged and gratified exhalation. “Yous lads smell that? That’s the smell o’ Westren, that is. Growin’ up in Hathleidh, that’s anybody ever had, bein’ a village of labourin’ lads.”
“So is that why you’ve decided to visit? Was there no bolaig left in the east?“
Gearrog tapered his gaze, and Eadmhaird simpered to himself.
“Finally a break in the work,” was Gearrog’s kind answer. “Finished my last order near two week ago. I says I gotta get home before somebody come and ask me for somethin’ so’s I can enjoy my holiday this year. I was hopin’ to beat the first snow, and hasn’t snowed yet. Had a bit o’ frost, but nothin’ to worry by, nothin’ I can’t travel on. Stayin’ here for the hunt, then goin’ northeast to see the ol’ home. Might be there the while so’s I can do what repairs need doin’ on the house. Yous two lads wanna bring yer kills there, I’ll fire up the kiln and put the potatoes and butter on the spade.”
Dirrald and Bhaunbher glanced charily at one another.
“Ach, don’t worry yerselves, lads,” said Gearrog, waving a hand at them. “We brickmakers cook everythin’ in the kiln. It’s as sanitary as yous lasds cold want. I says when I gotta stay by the kiln for days on end, there ain’t no time to be goin’ back and forth to the house, doin’ the cookin’, mindin’ the stove when I got a kiln to tend.”
“There would be, if you had someone to live with you,” said Eadmhaird.
Gearrog’s face floddered, and he chuffed, waving the hunter off. “Go on way outta that now, “ and then turning to Dirrald and Bhaunbher, “always gotta make it about bein’ unattached. You ain’t attached to nothin’.”
“And so I hope not to be for a long time coming. I am still far too young for that.”
Gearrog gave a dry laugh. “Ha!” he rasped, “Talkin’ all confused now. Yer older than me. Ye might like that autonomy ye got, but can’t say I know any man or women who’d stand the smell aff ye when yer covered in deer fewmets.”
“The animals don’t mind it,” was all Eadmhaird’s defense. “And while they do not assist me in making dinner, they are dinner in one form or another.”
“Well, I got my shovel and my kiln for cookin’. Yous two lads ever had bacon and eggs from the kiln?”
Dirrald and Bhaunbher shook their heads and seemed suspicious.
“Ach, brigade-folk don’t know what’s good. What’re yous lads learnin’ up in the mountains? Not how to cook right, I says. Yous lads gotta learn efficiency. If yous had a kiln up there—“ Here Eadmhaird stared at the ceiling, silently pining over how Gearrog would be led to talk of kilns and brickmaking if asked, “--If yous got a kiln, yous lads got everythin’ yous’re gonna need: yous got heat, yous got a stove, and yous got a light source what can be covered—and if yer after a bit o’ craic, yous can bring some apples to the boil and harvest a steam cider outta it. Yous just build a kiln from straw and mud, light it, and put yer bolaig or what it is yer wantin’ on a clean shovel, and once that kiln’s burnin’ at full heat, yer bolaig’ll come out roasted. Send the whole mountainside full o’ bears runnin’ away from yous. Well, Borras, I’d go on, but I see the eyes startin’ to go. Ach, it can’t be helped for nothin’. I been at my kilns so long--”
“That your desire for variety has dragged you away from them at last…” Eadmhaird interposed. He paused and looked sagacious. “With true affection for your profession, I wonder that you can be here so long. You come for the hunts, but you must stay for someone if you mean to be torn from your beloved furnace.”
Gearrog scoffed and folded his arms. “Aye, have it,” he humphed. “G’on, geez it a go and let it all out, pointin’ the finger at me and takin’ the craic out o’ me when ye ain’t got no one yerself. Been just fine these years with nary a trouble and I don’t go lookin’ for none neither, if ye folla me. I life mahsel’ as mahsel’, so I do, don’t mind tellin’ ye. Don’t mind if this lodge was meant as a meetin’ place for all the hoghmagandy in the west. I says I’ll have none of it, and shise shin, so I won’t. I’ll leave it to yous lads,” nodding toward Bhaunbher and Dirrald. “Sure ‘em pelts yous lads got there’ll attach a few minnows to yer lines.”
Dirrald looked as though he had little idea what the brickmaker meant. “Hoghmagandy?”
“Sure.” Gearrog glanced at the balcony above them. “Every hunter in the kingdom comes here for a bit o’ craic before the hunt—and after the hunt too, the afters probably to make ‘emselves feel better for losin’ to Eadmhaird. There are a hundred rooms in this here lodge, not all of ‘em lived in. What yous think all ‘em rooms are for?” He quirked a brow. “Hunters sleep outside when they don’t got company, if yous lads folla me.”
He pointed to the railing above, where stood four young couple, the men seasoned hunters, with their hulking pelts, dark complexions, and defined forms, and the women, their eyes bright and smiles still brighter, reveling in the close conversancy that such familiarity afforded: a delicate touch, a sobering glare, a whispered vulgarity—these were what charmed their few moments away from the great hall and brought them into a hunter’s arms. Dirrald and Bhaunbher looked and looked away, their complexions crimsoning over as they spied vales being fondled, napes being caressed, parted lips looming close to one another.