“What do you expect me to do with her, Lamya-?”
Iyah crouched beside the door, arms looped loosely over her knobbly knees, chin planted firmly atop them as she strained her ears to hear the low growl of his voice of his voice. Her whole body felt sore and heavy from hard riding, her bones bruised. Still, she could tell this was important; adults had a habit of keeping secrets and seldom bothered to explain their actions. She’d learned long ago that so long as she kept quiet, it was easy to be overlooked- or forgotten entirely.
“How should I know-? She’s your daughter too, take some responsibility, damn you! I can’t take her with me this time – it’s too dangerous, she’s only six years old, do you expect me to drag her into the battlefield with me? You’re a clever man, figure something out!” Her mother sounded tense, her voice clipped and impatient. The girl frowned to herself, idly rubbing the pad of her thumb against her arm. It was sparse comfort. The tile floor was cold beneath her rump, and the night air was chilly enough to raise goosebumps against her skin. Briefly, she considered retreating back to the warmth of the stables, then decided against it, huddling against the gatehouse steps stubbornly.
“I have a wife! I have three true-born sons and daughters to contend with! You must choose to either leave her, or take her – think of the girl, for pity’s sake; what is she supposed to believe, with a mother like that? You can’t just keep coming and going – this is unreasonable!” His voice had an edge of frustration, and she could hear his feet against the tiles, the agitated scuff of his hard-soled shoes punctuated his words.
“You think I’ll just leave her with you, just like that-? I have work to do, Mahomet – you should be grateful to know her, to see her and see how strong she grows, even if you won’t tell your wife you’re as faithless as a randy hound with a stolen bone! You think this isn’t difficult for me too-? You think I don’t care about my daughter? What do you know; it’s always been easy for you, hasn’t it!” Her mother’s voice was growing shriller, and Iyah felt the hair on her spine rising as she shrank beside the doorframe. Sure enough, a moment later there was the sound of smashing crockery as something heavy hit the ground hard and exploded into shards of ceramic. The man let out a shout of alarm; briefly, she could hear some sort of altercation as he tried to hold her back. Her heart began to beat a little faster, and she crowded closer to the crack, listening to the grunts and snarls and emanating from within. She wanted to run, to be anywhere but there – instead, she stayed, pressing her head to the door, waiting anxiously for the fight to stop. A few moments later, and they were back to shouting.
“Leki’s tits, woman! You will calm yourself beneath my roof, in my house, or I’ll have you removed!”
“Malooc take you and your damned roof, Mahomet! There’s work to be done – not all of us have the luxury of playing Lord and Household in the city, there’s some that have to earn a living!”
“You watch yourself, Lamya – you’re a madwoman, always have been! Take your leave, then; I’ll keep Daniyah for as long as it takes for you to return for her, but this is the last time, I swear to you! She should stay with me. I can take care of her, I can give her a home to live in, even if I can’t call her daughter; she would be happy here. But this can’t keep happening. You shouldn’t be here.”
There was another crash of crockery as Lamya expressed just what she thought of that idea, and Iyah tensed herself for the sound of more fighting, but instead – there was a abrupt deep throated laugh from the man. A moment’s pause, before it was followed by Lamya’s laughter, and Daniyah breathed a sigh of relief. The girl closed her eyes and pressed her ear to the crack, swallowing hard.
“… look at us, Mahomet; hells, but I’ll repay you for the crockery. You know I can’t just leave her. She needs her mother, and I’ve nowhere else to turn just now… I’ll be back, I swear it, though I cannot promise you you’ll never see your daughter again – you know the nature of my work, and you know it’s no place for a child.”
The man sighed softly, and she could hear the scrape of broken ceramic against tile. Daniyah hugged her skinny arms against her chest, preparing to skitter back to the stables as though she’d never left. “I don’t like it. You should make up your mind; seeing you makes this harder than it needs to be.”
“We both know it could never work, even if you weren’t married- you’re a fickle, faithless rat. We have made our beds, and now we must lay in them- separately.” Her words seemed sharp, but even Iyah could hear an edge of playfulness. “Besides. You’ve gotten too fat, Mahomet; why would I want you?”
The girl frowned to herself, hugging her arms tighter as she puzzled over everything that had been said and done, listening nervously to make sure they weren’t going to hit each other again. But the worst seemed to be over as the man laughed, more quietly this time. Then – a soft gasp and low groan; she tensed again. Was ma hurt-?
“… that’s quite enough, you’ve a wife, you know…” No, Lamya’s voice seemed to almost be a purr. Iyah frowned harder, but shook her head. The worst had passed. It seemed she would be staying here with the man who was her father for a time, while ma fought wars again. Their voices grew too low and quiet to make out what was being said, and Daniyah shivered, slipping away into the darkness on bare feet.
It was a long time before her mother returned. The girl had almost made up her mind to go eavesdropping again, when at last the barn door groaned open, revealing the first pale rays of dawn. Lamya sighed softly as she trudged to the pile of hay where Daniyah waited. She looked a bit worse for the wear – her hair was disheveled, her riding leathers rumpled, and she smelled like someone else’s soap when she bent to kiss Iyah on the cheek.
“I’m going away for a little while. You’ll be staying here; I’ll come back for you as soon as I can, little falcon.”
“You be good and do what you’re told. I’ll bring you a present when I return.”
But she didn’t want presents. Not really. Things had a habit of becoming lost or stolen at the Guild; it was hard to take pride in her belongings when at any moment they might disappear or be left behind. What she wanted was not to be left here, with the strange man who never spoke to her, bossed around by the old servant lady who swatted her when she daydreamed or didn’t move fast enough; she wanted the open road, her mother’s smile and their lessons.
She wanted her ma not to go to war again, because she always seemed older when she returned, prone to long silences and evenings of drinking too much ale. Sometimes she howled like a devil in the night, bursting from the bed as though a Daedra was on her heels. But Iyah knew better than to beg or plead.
She kissed her mother on the cheek and watched her ride away.