Edward knelt behind Moraelyn, leaning over his shoulder so that he could see the cards the elf held. He was sitting away from the fire, so it was dark for human eyes, but Moraelyn was the only one of the group who would allow Edward to see his hand. The other players, Beech, Mith and Mats said Edward brought them bad luck. Moraelyn said that it was not really a question of luck, but that their hands were reflected in Edward's face for those that had the eyes to see such images. It was too dark for Beech and Mats to see Edward now, and Moraelyn blocked him from Mith's view. And yet, the pile of coins in front of Moraelyn had grown smaller since Edward had taken a place behind him. But this time he had been dealt a good hand. Edward could see that. It was Mats' turn. He was cogitating.
"You're shivering, son," Moraelyn said, "Have you no warmer clothing? We must find something for you. Here, come share my cloak, then. You can hold the cards if you like." The wind was chill; there was a bite to it now that they were farther north and the year had grown older. Edward accepted the shelter of Moraelyn's arm and warm fur cloak and sat close against his side.
"I think I'll just play the cards I hold," Mats said at last, and pushed a pile of coins into the pot, then with sudden resolve, added a few more. "There."
"Throw the hand down, Edward, we're through."
"But there aren't many better hands than what we've got!" Edward protested.
"Edward!" Moraelyn growled.
"Well, how'm I s'posed to learn?" Mats didn't have to show his cards unless they matched his bet.
"By watching. Silently. Oh, very well. No one ever told me that fatherhood came cheaply." He shoved most of his coins into the pot to match Mats' bet and Edward laid the hand down.
"Ah," Mats said, "you needn't do that, my friend. I'll show the boy my cards for free."
"You filthy Nord," Moraelyn said in disgust, "put down your cards and take my gold, if you can beat my hand. Let's see if I'm the one who needs educating on how to play this game."
"You don't," Mats grinned. "Except that you could have accepted my generous offer instead of throwing an insult at me." Mats laid down the perfect hand called The Ladies.
"A taunt like that rates an insult. Mats, that hand is almost worth the viewing price. Five beautiful Ladies! You don't see them together every day; they're not that fond of one another's company."
"How'd you know?" Edward demanded.
"Ah, that'd be telling," Moraelyn grinned. "Some things you're supposed to learn for yourself. That's part of the game. But remember that a good hand's worthless if someone else holds a better."
"I'm sorry." Edward looked ruefully at the few remaining coins.
"No matter. It's foolish to play with Mats on those nights when the God of Luck himself stands at his shoulder and all I have at mine is a runaway Breton prince who should be in his bed. He'd have had that money off me in the end. This way we'll get a bit of sleep."
"Spoilsport," Mats grumped. "It's not every night Sai visits me and I do enjoy his presence."
"He can leave as quickly as he comes. Sai's not someone you want to get overfond of, Mats."
"Who should know that better than I? Nay, do not apologize. I appreciate your concern for me, my friend. It's not altogether unwarranted, but I am mindful of the temptation. I know how undependable Sai's favor is, and how capricious. I play only among my friends, whom I do trust."
"Goodnight, then." Moraelyn and Mith went off to join those who were already asleep, leaving Mats and Beech and Edward by the fire. The dark elves' natural sleep pattern was a period of five or six hours during the day, and a short nap of two or three hours after midnight. Now that they were travelling, they were sleeping only at night, which was a difficult adjustment for Mith and Moraelyn, who had to use spells to cope with it. Edward had slept a bit as soon as they had stopped for the night, while the others prepared supper. In consequence he was now wide awake. Beech was yawning. Mats seemed to require less sleep than the rest.
"Tell me about Sai, Mats. I've never heard of him before. I didn't know there was a god of luck. I thought luck just happened."
"Being as you're Breton, I can understand that. Bretons like things explained, clear and reasonable, in sequence, so one thing follows from another, and you know where you are. Most gods are like that. They lay down rules and if you obey them and pay homage to the god, why then he or she grants you favor. And the better you keep the rules and the more you worship the god, the higher you rise in his favor. Those rules aren't always easy to keep, and one god's rules may require you to violate another's but you know where you are. Well, Sai's not like that. He's not a daedra, but he's got a daedric side to him, for sure. One thing, if you worship him too much, he'll abandon you altogether. They call it 'Sai's Affliction'. It's an overwhelming desire for the god's constant presence. My father suffered from it, poor man. The disease is more than just a desire for the god's presence. The sufferers require continual proof of the god's favor. So they gamble incessantly. Not to win, for all they do with winnings is keep on gambling until they lose. Then they do what they must to raise a stake so they can gamble again.
"Oh, it's a terrible thing. Terrible. My father sold me as a slave because of it. Later he sold my oldest sister. Then, when he was in debt yet again, he killed himself in one of his rare lucid moments when he could see what was happening to him. What he was doing to his family, himself. 'Course I was just a kid when I was sold. I didn't understand. I thought it was because of some fault of mine that I'd been sent away, laziness or stupidity or disobedience, and that if I'd only been a better son it wouldn't a happened. That's Auriel's way. It's intended that children should respect their parents and learn from them, but some parents aren't deserving of respect. Well, it was a sickness in him, so my mother says. I don't know that he should be blamed for it, any more than if he had red plague or leprosy. I believe her, yet sometimes I still feel it was my fault. Well, that was bad luck you might say. But Sai sent me Moraelyn and that was a lucky day indeed.
"What other god would put it into his head to stop one human from beating on another? Any other elf in Tamriel would have turned away in disgust or stopped to watch and laugh at the stupid humans. Two dark elf kids against four grown Nords, and for all they knew I deserved what I was getting. I could have been a thief or murderer. I suppose I was a thief. I'd stolen myself, so to speak."
"Moraelyn can't say himself why he did it. He says he was spoiling for a fight that day and seeing slavecatchers on Morrowind soil did nothing to ease his temper. That's why I say: it was Sai. But it was Moraelyn that listened to the god.
"There's no doubt it's a grand thing to feel Sai's hand on your shoulder. It's like riding the finest horse, like love itself. You're one with the world, and everything goes your way, everything's on your side, instead of being the constant struggle that life really is. You don't have to be smart or handsome or kind or witty. Things just go your way. If you do something dumb it doesn't matter. It'll turn out to be the right thing to have done. Lucky. Some folks do seem to be born lucky, others unlucky. I don't know why. Most everyone feels Sai's presence sometimes, I guess. You have, haven't you?"
Edward shook his head. He'd no idea what Mats was talking about.
"Well, it's a kind of greed, I guess, this Sai's Affliction. You see, there's only so much luck to spread around, and if a few folks got it all, there'd be none left for the rest. Like tonight, I won that last pot, but the others had to lose it. Everyone can't win with Sai. That's not true with other gods, not necessarily. You still don't understand, do you? Would you like to hear a story about Sai?"
Edward nodded. Mats was a good-natured fellow, but usually quite silent. Edward had thought him rather stupid. Mats' luck at cards seemed to have loosened his tongue, and now Edward saw that he thought a lot more than he talked.
Long, long ago, when people were fewer and wolves more numerous than now a young widow named Josea lived smack in the middle of what is now the province of Skyrim. She was an ordinary sort of woman, neither plain nor pretty. She had smooth brown hair, warm brown eyes, a short nose, a full round face, and body to match. She'd been born the only child of peasant farmers. Her parents had been carried off by typhoid when she was seventeen. Shortly afterwards she had married Tom, a strong young woodcutter with a cheerful disposition and a roving eye. He'd gotten her pregnant quickly, then turned his attentions elsewhere. Shortly before the babe was due he'd been killed by the local goldsmith who'd come home unexpectedly, found the handsome woodcutter in bed with his wife, and stuck a knife in his back.
Tom's death had occurred on Heart's Day. The babe, a boy, was born four months later during Mid Year. Two neighbor women came to help her birth him and one stayed a few days. After that she was left to cope with caring for child and smallholding as best she could.
One evening in the next Morningstar, Josea went out to the small barn to do the evening chores, leaving the babe asleep in his crib. The wind was howling. She had to clutch her cloak tightly around her. She milked and fed the cow, fed the pigs and chickens. When she left the barn she walked out into a fierce blizzard. The wind had risen so that the barn door was wrenched from her hand and slammed back against the side of the barn. She couldn't even see the house, which was near the road, and some little distance from the barn, but she set off toward it with confidence.
She'd lived here all her life and knew every inch of ground, although she'd never seen a storm quite this fierce and sudden. Already there were two inches of snow beneath her feet. She struggled against the wind for some time, until at last she realized that she must somehow have gone past the house. She turned back and tried to follow her own footprints, reasoning that at least she'd warm herself in the barn before setting out again. But the snow was falling so thickly that her footprints vanished before her eyes, and she was quite lost, and cold.
Josea struggled on, hoping to come across something recognizable, a boulder or a tree or the road if not house or barn. Her hands and feet were wet and numb. She hadn't dressed heavily and was now chilled to the bone, with ice forming on her eyebrows and lashes.
"Timmy! Tiimmmeee!" She cried her child's name, hoping against hope that the babe would wake and cry and that she might follow the sound to him. She stood and listened, gasping the cold air into her lungs, but there was only the howling of the wind. The wind, or something more? A grey shape took form in front of her, staring at her with slitted yellow eyes. A great grey wolf.
Her heart seemed to stop. Her eyes filled with tears as she thought of her child lying helpless in the house alone, and his mother dead outside. How unlucky, to die so close to shelter! Unlucky. But she had always been unlucky, the unluckiest woman she knew. It might be days before any thought to visit her. She sank down to her knees, exhausted. The wolf sat before her, threw back its head and voiced its dreadful howl.
Her frozen hands scrabbled in the snow, looking for stone or stick, anything with which to defend herself against the pack. Another dark shadow appeared from the whirling white snow. She scrambled backwards in a panic. This one was also gray, but tall and two-legged, gray cloaked and hooded. Its gloved hand reached for the wolf's head and patted it. Her scream died in her throat.
"No need to fear, lass. We'll not bring you harm, nay quite otherwise. Be you the mother of yon child?"
She nodded dumbly. His voice was deep and kind, clear in the high whistling of the wind, but her eyes went to his dread companion.
"No need to fear," he repeated. "My friend Grellan here will lead us back to safety. Unless you indeed do wish to spend the night here." His hands reached for hers and pulled her up, and she leaned on his arm and hobbled alongside him.
When at last they reached her door, he said, "I stopped here hoping for shelter from the storm. I hope you don't mind?"
How could she refuse? Men too could be wolves, but if he were it wasn't likely he'd take no for an answer anyway. "P-p-please come in. I l-left the k-kettle on the boil but I expect it's empty by now," she said inanely.
"I did go in, when there was no response to my knock, and found the babe asleep and alone, and the kettle boiling away. I took the kettle from the fire, but left the babe be. I knew his mother would not be far, and sent Grellan to find you. Lucky for you, but then I have always brought luck to those around me."
He threw back his hood and she saw that he was tall and pale, with silver hair and eyes, but a young face. His countenance was grim, but the silver eyes were kind and his mouth gentle. "My horse too will want shelter on this night. Have you a shed to offer him?"
While he stabled his horse she changed out of her wet clothing and fixed a bit of supper for them: soup and bread and cheese, and elmroot tea. As she dished it up she apologized meekly for the meager fare.
"Why, 'tis a feast compared to my efforts!" He smiled, and fell to, hungrily. Grellan lay by the fire, his eyes fixed on his master, who occasionally flung him a morsel. "He ate well yesterday, luckily for your chickens, else I'd have to buy one from you."
"Nay, nay," she protested. "I'm deep in your debt and glad to share anything I have with you." The babe stirred and cried then, and she picked him up, changed his wet diaper, and put him to her breast.
"Where's your husband, lady?"
She hesitated a moment--the thought flashed that she should not tell this stranger how alone and unprotected she was--then told him the truth.
"A sad tale, truly," he said, "but he's left you a handsome child, and you seem quite comfortable here." His eyes went round the humble one room cottage, crib and feather bed at one end, covered with a quilt of her mother's making, and stone hearth at the other, table and chairs made by her father in the middle. A ladder led to the loft where she'd slept as a child. Suddenly the simple room seemed a palace to her. They were warm and dry and well fed, and indeed what could be better?
"Why, you're right, stranger. I am lucky after all. Now, will you tell me something of yourself?"
"I am less fortunate than you in some ways. I am a wanderer, and born to wanderers, a tinker by trade, though I can turn my hand to most things. I have never been married and have no children, nor have I ever had a home other than the wagon my horse pulls. I've never stayed long in one place. My parents named me Sai, but most folks call me Lucky."
"Lucky is what I will call you then, for you have indeed been lucky for me."
He stood and stretched, and began clearing the remnants of their meal from the table. He poured water from the copper kettle into the basin and washed and dried the dishes, something she had never seen a man do before. After the babe was fed they played with him on the hearthrug while he told her of some of the odd and wonderful places and peoples he had met with on his journeys, and once again her life seemed very narrow and dull. After an hour or two the babe grew tired and cranky, and she took him on her lap and sang to him until he fell asleep. She laid him in his crib and wrapped him warmly in a rabbit fur bunting.
When she went back to the fire, Lucky reached for her hand and held it for a moment, without a word, then they were in one another's arms and kissing hungrily. They shed their clothing and lay together shamelessly, enjoying each others bodies in the flickering rosy firelight. He loved the roundness of her breasts and thighs, belly and buttocks, and said she was as juicy as an apple. His bleached lean muscular body and silken hair fascinated her as much. She had loved Tom and known pleasant moments with him, but nothing like she felt with this stranger.
She woke in bed in the morning, to the baby's crying as usual. Lucky wasn't there and she thought he must have been a vivid dream. Then the door opened and shut, and he was striding toward her, fully dressed, and motioning her to stay where she was. He kissed her lips, then brought the babe to her and stood watching as he suckled. "What a pity that we remember not the pleasure we once knew."
"Yet we have pleasures still that we will remember," she said, and felt her cheeks redden at her boldness. What a wanton he must think her!" he said, and laid his cold hand against her hot cheek.
The storm had stopped during the night, but the snow was deep on the road, and it was clear that it would be days before the horse could pull Lucky's small wagon along the road. That wagon was brightly painted with leaves and vines and flowers in red and blue and green and yellow. The wheels were red with yellow spokes. It had a canvas top, also painted, blue with white fleecy clouds. Josea loved the wagon but it sorted oddly with Lucky's quiet greyness.
Lucky did small jobs for her, mending tools, hinges, and utensils. He cut more wood for her, saying that if she did not need it this year, there would be another. He stayed a week and a thaw came and then a freeze, and the road was rutted but fit for travel. They looked at one another in the morning light, and he said that it couldn't hurt to stay another day, or maybe two...if she was not yet tired of him. She wasn't.
After another week, Lucky asked her if she would come with him. Her heart leaped at the question, but she looked around the little house where she'd spent all her life, thought of her land and village and her babe, and said, "I can't go. I've no desire to travel, and I don't want to bring my babe up as a homeless waif."
Pain flashed across Lucky's pale face, but he only nodded, harnessed up his horse, and kissed her goodbye. Tears clouded her eyes and blurred the gay wagon colors.
Sun's Dawn passed very slowly, with rain and sleet and snow, but nothing like the storm that had brought Lucky to her. Occasionally there was a knock at her door, which started her heart pounding, but always it was just a villager, come to buy the dried herbs she sold. Then, on the first night of First Seed, she heard the creak of a wagon and knew. She flew to the door, her face alight and flung herself into his arms.
"I can't stay," he said. "I'm just passing through--" and that was all the talking they did for quite awhile.
Spring came and crocuses poked their noses up through the snow. Lucky spaded up her garden. Curious neighbors came to call, but found out no more about him than she knew. She sold them eggs -- her chickens were laying very well -- and dried herbs and an elixir she made from her grandmother's recipe, which was sovereign for headache and rheumatism. They hired Lucky for odd jobs, despite their suspicion of him.
Lucky continued to come and go, never saying where or when he'd be back, but he seldom stayed away more than a few days. He spoke no words of love, but loved her fiercely all the same. Josea's round belly grew rounder, and she weaned Timmy to cow's milk. Lucky's trips became shorter and less frequent. All around the land prospered. Even the oldest could not recall a better harvest. In Hearthfire Josea birthed a beautiful baby girl with silver hair, but eyes of cornflower blue. Lucky held his child and joy radiated from him, so that he seemed to burn with a white fire.