“What are you doing?”
Bella had heard him coming, naturally, but she was still surprised. She had been sitting with her back to the others, clearly wanting privacy, and Thom was not usually one to intrude. Ooklar, yes, it was impossible to convey social niceties to Ooklar. But Thom was another matter. She looked up at him with a bland face. “Sewing.”
“Yes, I can see that,” Thom answered, squatting down beside her. “But you’ve been doing an awful lot of sewing lately, and you don’t seem to be shy any buttons.” He looked her up and down with an exaggerated air, as if searching for missing buttons on her cloak, which was thrown back over her shoulders to keep it out of the way. “And you keep everything in that one special bag. Are you making something?”
Bella sighed. Of course, Thom would notice. He was a bard, after all, and trained to spot details like that. She focussed once more on her stitching as she answered. “Yes.” That one word was spoken in a tone of finality, making it very clear that this conversation was now over.
But Thom didn’t leave. He didn’t even get up. He simply watched as she made another few stitches. Finally, just as she was about to say something rude to make him go away, he said, “You don’t like me very much, do you.” It was a statement, not a question, and he said it quietly so that no one else could overhear.
She didn’t bother looking at him. “No, I don’t,” she said. He waited a moment, to see if she would answer further, but when she didn’t, he said simply “Why?”
This time she did look at him. “Why should I? You’re useful enough, I suppose, and your fine singing voice has certainly gotten us out of a few scrapes. But you’re a braggart, Thomas the Rhymer, always acting like you’re a cut above the rest of us. And we both know where you came from.” She met his eyes, daring him to contradict her. He held her gaze for a moment, and then shrugged one shoulder and grinned.
“Fair enough,” he said. He sat down crosslegged on the ground across from her, carefully spreading his cloak out to either side. “But I still want to know what you’re making.”
She glared at him in exasperation, and then laughed in spite of herself. “Fine. It’s a quilt. See?” She held up the square she was working on. Thom reached out a hand. “May I?” She shrugged. “Sure, why not?” He took the square from her and examined it in the light of the nearby lantern. It was a dirty white, with a dark green triangle half sewn to the middle of it. Bella held up another triangle, this one a dark brown. “This goes next to the green one. It’s a pretty simple pattern.”
Thom started to hand the square back, stopped, and then looked at it again, this time more closely. “Is that…” he pointed to several rust-brown stains on the white cloth. “Blood, yes,” Bella said. Thom stared at her. “I think that one’s from Egarthis. Ooklar used him as a meat shield, remember? This one is Krant’s.” She held up another piece of white fabric, still ragged around the edges.
Thom cleared his throat. “Let me get this straight. You’re making a quilt out of the clothes of dead men?”
“And women,” Bella retorted. She dug around in her bag for a moment. “Look at this one, it’s from that crazy elf bitch.” She held up a somewhat singed piece of blue fabric, which still managed to look expensive despite the scorch marks and occasional smudge. “That’ll make a pretty square.”
“Wait, I remember now,” Thom said. “I saw you cut that off of her. I thought you were…” he hesitated.
“Stealing whatever I could lay my hands on?” Bella smiled sweetly at him. “Maybe I was. Who knows? But yes, I take fabric from all my kills. Those that wear clothes anyway. Well,” she amended, “sometimes I’m not the one who actually kills them. But as long as I got in a hit or two, yeah.”
Thom pointed to the brown and green triangles. “What about these?”
“Those are from the raiders on the lake,” she said. “You know, the fight where Trilgar spent most of the time putting on his armor?” She rolled her eyes, and they both laughed.
“How long have you been doing this?” Thom asked. “Is it almost done?”
“Oh no,” Bella replied. “There’s a long way to go yet. I learned to sew at the whorehouse at Kaer Maga. I had to repair the whores’ clothes. Some of the customers got quite enthusiastic.” Thom stiffened, but she pretended not to notice. “I was pretty good at it. When I got to Kassen, all the ladies at the orphanage thought it was wonderful that I knew such a useful trade.” She snorted. “It made them happy, and kept them from asking too many questions about what I was doing with my spare time. They were the ones who taught me how to quilt. I made a few quilts out of donated fabric for the younger children. But this one is for me.” She smiled with satisfaction as she looked at her handiwork.
“I see. I think.” Thom leaned over to peer into the bag. He withdrew a square that was so completely stained with dried blood that it was impossible to tell what the original color had been. Various triangles of other fabrics had been pinned to it in an elaborate spiral pattern, but nothing had been sewn down yet. Thom stared at it in fascination. “And this?”
Bella gently took the square from Thom, smoothing it carefully so none of the pinned fabric pieces were disturbed. “This will be the center square. It was Steerpike’s.” Thom looked at her questioningly. “Oh, nobody you know. He was my first kill, and he deserved everything he got. Everything.” Something in the way she smiled at the memory made Thom shiver. “That was before I came to Kassen. Lucky for me I kept something of his, as a… a keepsake? A souvenir?” She frowned. “That’s not exactly right. As a reminder, maybe. Be careful who you get involved with. Something like that.” She put the square back in the bag. “That’ll be the center piece. But I need a lot more material yet. Somehow I don’t think that’ll be a problem, if I keep hanging around all of you.” She gathered up the rest of the fabric and added it to the bag, then carefully stowed the bag in her backpack.
Ooklar’s shout of “FOOD!” brought them both to their feet. “Must be time for elevenses,” Bella said. “I hope Ooklar didn’t put too much cinnamon in the rabbit stew again. I like cinnamon as much as the next hobbit, but he does tend to overspice things.”
Thom was quiet as they made their way over to the cooking fire, where Ooklar was exuberantly ladling stew into bowls. A non-trivial amount slopped onto the ground, but their war mastiffs made sure it didn’t stay there for long. He and Bella accepted overfull bowls from Ooklar, which did indeed smell heavily of cinnamon, and walked over to where the others were already sitting. Suddenly Thom turned to her and spoke. “Thank you for showing me your quilt,” he said. “Maybe we can talk some more sometime. About…” he stopped abruptly.
Bella looked at him, amused. “About the whorehouse?” Thom nodded. She considered it, and then said, “Alright, Thom. But some other time, ok?” She went and took her seat on a log next to Trilgar, who said, in a stage whisper, “He’s put too much cinnamon in it again.”
“What? No, not at all!” Bella said, winking at Thom. She looked over at Ooklar, who grinned proudly. “I think it’s just fine.”