Authors: Daisy Banks
Every bone in rebellion, and too busy with her thoughts to look around, Nin followed the servant. She longed to return to the hall to reassure the dark-headed lady that her love for Thabit would encompass everything.
I’m meant to be his
. Legend and her wish willed it so.
His kiss still burned her lips as it had done all the way here. The warmth of his mouth made her his in a way no words or ceremony might. He only had to understand how right it was for them to be together.
The low murmur of the lady’s thoughts disappeared from her mind. Grateful for peace, she followed the servant out under a stone arch into sunlight, golden and warm.
A girl, not unlike herself, looked up at her approach. Another, with wide brown eyes and the deepest chestnut braids put down a book and looked, too. Nin bit her lip. Both of them were neat and tidy, dressed in pale blue, not the cheap blue fabric so many servants wore, but the blue that spoke of study, of learning about worlds beyond this one, and they each had shoes.
What would they think of her?
The servant bowed to them. “Lady Cassandra asks you should show this guest the steps you tread.”
The words were exact. Nin wondered if he had any thoughts of his own as she nodded to their welcoming smiles, uncertain if she should curtsey or not.
The fair-haired girl glanced to her companion and then stood with a graceful hand offering welcome. “Hello. Come to sit. Your feet look like they’re sore.”
The girl with the red hair beckoned, indicating the white marble bench. “Come, sit here, I’m Tabeth, most people call me Tab. This is Cecile. We work, live, and learn here with the Lady Cassandra.”
Nin sank down onto the seat with a sigh of relief. Her feet throbbed and ached. Even the excitement of visiting here, or her apprehension that Thabit might leave her here, couldn’t dull the pain.
“You could dabble your feet in the pool,” Cecile suggested.
“That would be good. I’m Nin. I came here with the Mage. It’s a terrible long walk from his tower.”
“It’s only a step or two to the pool. We’ll sit with you and talk.” Tab put an arm under hers.
Nin took a few painful steps to the wide, stone edge of a circular pool, where a small fountain tinkled into clear bright water. The sweet scent of rosemary drifted on the light breeze. She lifted her skirt and sat on the rounded rim of the pool to bathe her feet, while they laughed as they took off their shoes and joined her. The cool water soothed, and she relaxed when they sat, one each side of her.
“Now come, Nin,” Tab said. “Tell us your story, or if you like, we’ll tell you ours.”
Cecile’s blue eyes twinkled with mischief. “Though of course, neither of us have dark, handsome Mages to speak of.”
She held out her palm, unafraid to do so to these two young women. They stared, and Cecile slipped an arm around her. “You know it’s a folk tale, don’t you?” Her soft voice murmured gentle like the water.
“Didn’t feel like it in the cage.”
Tab’s eyes widened. “Oh, gods, they didn’t?”
“Yes, two days and a night while they decided what to do. They talked for what felt like an age, and then they sent me to…” She couldn’t speak his name. Her insides crumbled like dry stone walling after centuries, and she ached for his touch. She wanted so much more than his occasional praise or his stark disapproval.
His kiss had lit her body like a lamp, and she wanted to burn bright. “He let me stay with him, made them fear me, and didn’t do—he isn’t like the old woman said.” These girls were so pretty, so different, with none of the knowledge she had or wanted. Nothing would make her share with them the poisonous words Agnes spoke.
The elegant Lady Cassandra approached. Nin gawped when Lady Cassandra slipped off gilded sandals. The lady sat, skirts like theirs, up around her knees, and feet in the chill water. “Nin, would it pain you to talk with me? I’ll leave you with my students if it would.”
Cassandra’s gray eyes were luminous like crystals. Now away from Thabit, the warmth from this beautiful woman seeped into her. “No, my lady, I can talk with you.”
Tab squeezed her tight, and Cecile stroked her cheek.
“Good. They sent you to the Mage from the village, I hear,” Cassandra said.
“Yes, they threw stones to make me go.” More tormented her, but she didn’t want to tell it.
“Barbarous, we must try to curb the custom. The mark you bear, and old Agnes spotted it, I presume. She is a misguided old crone.”
“Yes, she did, and she is full of evil words.” Nin’s heart beat swift at the memory of Agnes’s unceasing filth, spilling into her mind like dirty water. Would Cassandra, or either of her companions, know what “use you as a whore” might mean?
The lady nodded her dark, silken head before her kind smile beamed wide. “All jealousy you know, don’t you? Years ago I saw you, knew there might be a spark, but your aunt would not hear of you coming to me.” A ripple of Cassandra’s laughter echoed around the herb garden.
Nin clamped her mouth shut.
“Oh, yes, I asked for you, but as I recall, your aunt said you were intended for the Miller’s boy. Now, I assume he is a bride less.” Cassandra continued to smile.
Disbelief and sadness filled her. Nin shook her head. Poor Michael had fallen through the ice and drowned in the millpond two winters ago, but she had never thought herself intended for him.
“No matter, now things are as they should be. You have become what the gods intended, and you have a talent I believe. The Mage will teach you.”
A huge, relieved sigh left her. While Cecile and Tab murmured, Lady Cassandra held up a long pale finger.
“Ladies, do not fret. This little one may join us after Samhain, perhaps.” Cassandra turned to her. “Nin, this is not the answer to your dreams. To become the person you must be, you must learn, and to do so, you must be a student before you can begin to think of being his love.”
Did she love him? Would she stay at the tower and be his?
She stilled the desire to sing. Instead, she covered her face with her hands to hide her wide smile.
“Did you not know it yourself, my dear? You will learn to trust your judgment, and you will discover who you are. The best of yourself will come to you through your study.
“As to the Mage, he will have to deal with himself at his worst, I suspect, before he can be the love you want. Yours won’t be an easy road, much else will occur, but I believe love comes for a reason. You and the Mage will find great joy together if you can travel the road well.”
Nin swiped at her eyes and sniffed. Shades of compassion from both Tab and Cecile filled her.
Lady Cassandra swished her feet in the water. “Now, Nin, while we have the time, will you permit me to look at those blisters?”
She nodded agreement. The four of them turned around on the stone rim. Nin rested her feet on the soft turf. They were pale and wrinkled from the water. She lifted one, wincing at the red swellings and several white blisters beneath.
“Tab, go fetch the peppermint salve and a wad of bindings. Cecile, will you please have the cobbler called here. This girl is going to go home with shoes.”
Tab and Cecile slid off the edge of the fountain as soon as Cassandra spoke, put on their shoes, and left. The lady put a cool hand on Nin’s wrist, inclined her head closer. “Now, we are alone, I will tell you this. Do not fear me, Nin. I will not, and probably could not, take Thabit from you. I doubt anyone could. He is already wrapped around you like the roots of an oak.” Cassandra laughed, tilted her head so her beautiful face looked to the sky. “He doesn’t truly know yet. In that, you must take care. He must discover you like a jewel in the stream. Make him grateful you are with him at all.”
The words offered an answer to the most precious of her hopes and dreams. Happy tears, such as she had rarely shed, made the garden shine and sparkle.
Cassandra smiled, handed her a kerchief, and waited until the storm passed. “Wipe your eyes, Nin. I know sometimes a truth can be harder to hear than we would like.”
She sniffed, but nodded and wiped her eyes. Never in her life had she found anyone like this woman—warmth, kindness, generosity, and all bound with a golden thread of humor.
“Good, and promise me, if things should overwhelm you on occasion at the tower, you will come here. When you leave this evening, I’ll send you home with a pony that will be yours. Simply so our dear Mage will not make you walk here again.” Cassandra’s smile spread wider.
“Better. After Samhain, we will see how you wish to develop your skills. Until then, should you need peace, you will find it here.”
Tab and Cecile entered the garden. Tab held a large salve pot in her hands. A young man with the reddest hair Nin had ever seen trailed behind Cecile.
Cassandra beckoned the young man. “Two pairs of shoes. A light summer pair and a winter pair to keep out the wet. Both must be ready by this eve at the latest.”
The youth bent and measured her feet with large, but gentle hands. The size taken, he bowed and hurried away.
“Now, I shall attend to your feet.” Lady Cassandra took the cloths and salve from Tab. To Nin’s shock, Cassandra knelt and dabbed the cool salve over the blisters and the worst of the sore places.
Cassandra wiped her hands on a cloth as she got up from kneeling on the grass.
“All the time I’ve been here, I’ve not worried where Thabit is or what he’s doing.”
The lady turned to her. “Yes, my dear. Do not disturb yourself. He is busy, and you will find there are times it must be that way. As you develop, you, too, will have responsibilities. Our life, it is not one with little toil. We all have our tasks. Do not worry. You will plague Thabit’s mind when he returns from the scrying. Now, I must go and begin the potion for him.”
A flush of embarrassment heated Nin’s face at Cassandra’s amused smile, for again she had sent her thoughts with no control. She must try harder
“Please, my lady, Thabit asked me to help you so I know what to do.” She made to rise when Cassandra turned to leave.
“Yes, I am sure he did. The girls will bring you down to me. I’ll see you in the workroom.” The hem of the long, dove-gray skirt fluttered over the grass as Cassandra made her way through the herb garden.
Nin leaned on the arms of Cecile and Tab and followed Cassandra. More intrigued by these women than any she had ever met, her fears of the castle and its people dissolved. The sweet scent of herbs helped to soothe her, too.
On the ground floor of the castle, they entered a room she had expected might be like Thabit’s workshop, but here light flooded in through tall windows. Glass jars, full of various herbs, lined the long rows of wooden shelves. Small partitions filled half of one wall and housed roll after roll of scrolls. Leather bound books stood on shelves beneath the scrolls. The air smelt sweet, perfumed, unlike the pungent smells she found in Thabit’s workshop.
A long table stood in the middle of the room, the top scrubbed bone white. By one side of the wide hearth were comfortable padded seats to sit and read. One similarity to Thabit’s workshop shone on the white wall at the far end of the room. There hung a simple, burnished silver star. Below, an ornate carpet and cushions covered the floor. After her lessons at the tower, she understood why.
“So, Nin, if you would sit, I will show you how to make this brew.” Lady Cassandra indicated a stool. “This is fairly simple, but works well when the spirit has wandered and needs rest.”
Tab and Cecile opened small notebooks. After a few moments, they both moved away from the table and went to the cupboards. They brought back a large wooden bowl, a small cauldron, and then fetched jars of dried herbs from the shelves. Cecile went to pull down a large hanging bunch of fresh green leaves and placed them on the table with the other things.
The lady nodded with a pleased smile. “Well done, ladies.” She glanced across to Nin. “This brew is once boiled, no more is necessary. We make others that need far more attention.” Cassandra donned a long white apron.
“You look like a baker about to begin work.”
The lady laughed. A twinkle lit her glance.
Nin bit her lip, humiliated to have sent the thought at all, and using as much force as she could muster, tried to silence the words rampaging through her head. She concentrated hard.
“Oh, well done. Did the Mage teach you?” Cassandra asked.
“Yes, my lady.”
“Excellent, you must practice each day. Don’t allow him to fob you off and say he’s too busy or mustn’t be disturbed. This is important. Do you understand?”
She nodded, disturbed at the urgent force Cassandra had used for the last part of her thought instructions.
From the bemused expressions Tab and Cecile wore, she guessed they had not heard Cassandra’s silent words.
“Nin has a small problem with her voice to deal with, ladies. She is improving. Now, to work.”
Cassandra opened one of the jars. “This is hops to help the Mage sleep. He will need to rest deeply and for longer than normal.” She scooped up a palm full and showed them. A sharp pungent fragrance came from the powdery mix in Cassandra’s hand.
“Next, we add a measure of calming valerian to give him peaceful rest.” The thin roots broke into tiny fragments between Cassandra’s palms and joined the hops in the mix. “You see, we have two strong calming herbs together, yes?”
She nodded to Cassandra’s question. She’d learned from her aunt some plants could be useful, like nettles and rhubarb, but this was different and interested her so much, a part of her longed to find out more.
“To this, I add a portion of lemon balm to help his muscles relax. I like this herb. Its fragrance is wonderful and very good for headaches and emotional upsets.” Cassandra tore the fresh, green leaves in half.
The rich scent filled Nin, and yes, it soothed. She would remember this one. From the lady’s earlier words, she might need to use it.
Cassandra shredded the leaves to tiny sections and dropped them into the bowl. “We pour on a goodly amount of water to cover all the ingredients.” The lady tipped in water from a silver jug and tilted the bowl so Nin and the others could see. “The final step, we heat it up for a little while, not too long. Oh, and I forgot, though this is not a vital ingredient, but Thabit has a sweet tooth. Add a spoonful of honey to the brew.”