Authors: Daisy Banks
Struck to stillness, she studied his features. Fine cut, slender, and pale. Tales of childhood had told that messengers of the gods were joys to behold. He must be one.
He sat back and rested his chin on his fisted hand as he inspected her. A blue snake tattoo wound its way in spirals around his wrist before the head disappeared beneath his sleeve. “What can you do?”
She swallowed hard, unable to say a word. Instead, she stared down to his boots, following the pattern made by the flicker of flames from the hearth on one shiny patch of leather by his ankle. Eventually she managed to whisper, “Nothing.”
“What do you mean nothing? If you have the mark, you must have a talent. Fire lighting? That’s easy. Can you call clouds on a hot day?”
Gnawing her lip, she shook her head.
“Do you understand the thoughts of others? See the future in the flames?”
She shook her head again. The silence lengthened to become a physical weight. When she glanced up, his hair glittered in the torch light, his sour expression crushing her fragile hope.
“So, you can do nothing, you know even less, yet I’m stuck with you. Oh, just bloody splendid. You’re as rare as a cockerel’s egg!” He drummed his fingers on the table as he studied her.
The lump returned to her throat. She blinked hard and struggled not to sniff until she could hold the tears back no more. Defeated by them, she gulped froglike. Stinging hot, they trickled down to her chin. She had no voice.
He shoved up from the chair and paced around the room, his hands clenched. “I swear since I arrived here, I am interrupted daily by the most inconsequential matters.” The green robe wafted around his legs, flesh showing above his scuffed brown boots. He strode away toward the door. “Don’t snivel. Allow me to think.”
She wiped her nose on her sleeve and fisted the tears away as she focused on the feather in his hair. While the dangling feather twirled, she dragged up the last tiny drop of her courage. “I’m sorry. I’ll think of something I can do.”
He spun back to face her, eyes narrowed. “Oh, do not bother. I can’t spare the time for your intellectual struggles. If I must have you here, I will make sure you earn your keep. You can cook, yes?”
“Of course I can.”
“Do that for a start. You can clean, wash, and sweep, I hope, but most of all”—he glared, his eyes leaf dark—“you keep out of my way when I’m working.”
Every muscle screamed no, but she forced a nod. She’d not expected a warm welcome, but this greeting hurt worse than any nightmare.
He didn’t want her! Why should she stay in his tower? No one wanted her. She’d be better off with the wolves.
Before she left the village, Alicia had managed to whisper to her, “Don’t fear the Mage. He’ll give you more than you’ll find here.” Through the frightening journey, as the morning wore on, she’d tried to turn her fears to hope she would discover what Alicia meant. The misery of being his kitchen drudge hadn’t occurred to her.
The Mage still paced, giving her an occasional glare.
Rebellion broke through the fear. “I’ll try to think of a way to move on, shall I? Find a place to go. Until I can, I’ll do what you ask.”
“No need to sound so resentful. The facts are exact.”
The sneer rubbed at her wounds.
“You cannot go back to the village. The castle would not touch such a one. You have no gift, and even if you did possess an elemental skill, the lady may well say you are too old to be trained.” He arched a dark eyebrow. “Though I am sure the garrison would not be too squeamish to accept your services. Hold your tongue, or I’ll send you to them.”
A shiver of horror ran over her, for she had no doubt what he meant. Agnes’s breathy, lewd descriptions still echoed in her mind. She shut the vile thoughts out when he spoke again.
“You do not have the talent to work with me. You are not one thing or the other.” Slowly, he appraised her. “No, maybe not even the garrison would make allowances for such a grubby wench.”
A blaze of anger surged to help her rise from her trembling knees. He was a brute. True, maybe right now she was dirty, but he didn’t have to say so. How would he have fared in the cage?
Taking a deep breath, she squared her shoulders. “No, I won’t stay here, not with you. I’ll leave. I’ll do as well if I take my chances in the forest.” She turned to make her way out of the smoky, torch-lit room.
“No, girl, there is no need. I will not have your wolf-mauled corpse on my conscience.”
His tone of pained resignation stoked her determination. She reached for the door.
“I said stay!”
The forceful shout stunned her for an instant, but she spun back to face him.
Let him do his very worst
People had yelled at her all her life. A woman now, even if she was cursed, she’d put up with it no more. “My name is Nin, not ‘girl.’ If I stay here, you won’t shout at me.”
His glance clashed with hers until, like the moon from behind a dark cloud, an amused smile broke. The expression spread across his handsome features. He had a wonderful bright smile. The glow of it began at one corner of his mouth before it spread to rise slowly up to his eyes. “I can see we will have many entertaining discussions. You will stay, Nin. You will work, do as I bid, and you
keep out of my way so I shall have no need to shout at you.”
“You won’t beat me either.” She wanted that rule laid down fast. The way some apprentices and servants got treated was worse than dogs, or so she’d heard.
His smile widened as he shook his head. The feather twirled while he chuckled. “No, Nin, I will not beat you, even if you deserve it. Remember, I am a Mage. I can find many more interesting ways to punish you than simply using a stick.”
Sheer terror soared at his words.
His pale brow wrinkled as his eyes widened in mockery of hers.
Why couldn’t she keep her mouth shut? What could he do to her? His amused laughter brought a blaze of heat to her face.
He went to the round cupboard molded to the wall. The little door creaked as he took out a jug and two horn cups.
Her fears returned as he nudged a low, three-legged wooden stool toward her.
“Sit, Nin, we will drink to the rules.” He poured a red liquid into the cup in front of her. “You will be quiet and obedient, while in return, I will not beat you or turn you into…” His eyes narrowed. The smile returned with a spark in his glance. “A sparrow, I think. Yes, a noisy one.”
Accepting the cup he handed over, she sat. “Agreed,” she whispered. Lifting the cup to her lips, she watched him over the rim. The brew she sipped tasted sweet, made from elderberries, powerful, too. The glow of it burned her throat and set a fire in her empty stomach.
He took a swig from his cup. “Now, so we understand each other clearly, my name is Thabit. You may call me that, or you may call me Mage if you wish. This room will be your domain.” He swept a majestic hand into the air. “I will bring bedding for you to sleep here.” He motioned toward a small alcove cut into the wall.
She nodded and sipped again as she studied his face. His unlined smooth skin had a luminous appeal, like the heartwood of a bough. He was much younger than she first thought, though shadows of sleeplessness smudged under his eyes. His angular, sharp features, made her wonder who’d been so skilled as to carve them. Long, dark lashes enhanced his eyes. In here, his eyes shone like a cat’s in the gloom.
“I hope you’re listening?”
Startled to attention, she gave another quick nod. How had she let her mind wander to his face? He must think her a fool.
“I sleep in the room upstairs. After a night vigil, I often sleep through the day. My workshop is on the top floor. You will not go up to the top floor of the tower unless I say you may. You will not enter the workshop for any reason without me. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” she answered. A new tremble lodged in her leg. She crossed the other over and squeezed to still the movement.
“Good. At the back of the house is a vegetable garden. You will prepare meals from what grows there. Meat will not be cooked in this house.”
“Yes, only vegetables, pulses, and herbs will go in the pot. I do not eat meat. Flesh smothers the mind and dulls the senses. If you wish to remain here, you, too, will neither cook nor eat it.”
She couldn’t care less what she ate if only he would feed her, but he offered naught. What other strange ways would he reveal? She clamped her mouth shut.
“The well is in the yard, and over the rise there is a stream where you may bathe.” He glanced at her gown. “See you do. There, you can also wash clothes.” This time, his slow gaze followed his words.
She glanced down at her soiled, mud-streaked skirt.
“In the yard is a bread oven,” he continued. “I’ve never fired it, but after you clean it, I am sure you can.”
Her irritation niggled, shaving scraps off her fear. Did he think she knew nothing?
“Do you wish to ask me anything?”
Oh, yes, so very many things.
she shook her head, for she did not trust her tongue to be wise in the asking.
“Very well, we’ve had a good beginning. I will work until dusk. When I come down, I shall expect a meal.” He got up from his seat, put the cup on the table, and swept through the doorway to the stairs.
The wine, warm in her stomach, sparked her hunger as she looked at her new home. “Gods, help me, where do I start?”
Once Nin no longer heard his tread on the stairs, she opened the heavy black drapes. A shaft of light hit the table to reveal a collection of pot marks. Smears of grease shone with rainbow colors. Beyond, sat the hearth, not cleaned in months, maybe years, judging by the pile of cinders, soot, and ash. Cobwebs hung high in the corners where the spiders didn’t feel the heat of his low fire. The flagstone floor resembled the one in the village barn. Uncertain she’d made a good bargain to stay here, she stood and moved to the cupboard to look for a cleaning rag to begin work.
Behind the loose door of the cupboard he’d opened, she found two more of the large wine jugs. She corked the one still on the table before putting it back with the others. The depth of the cupboard made it impossible to see what lay at the back. She closed the door, uncertain of what she might find should she slide her hand deeper into the darkness.
Beside the cupboard stood a door with a black metal latch that squeaked when she lifted it. The open door revealed a large space cut deep into the wall. Many curving shelves could house a wealth of stores, but only a huge, lush, black winter cloak hung from a hook. She bit back another bitter memory. They’d not allowed her to bring her own from the village. The ancient creed for those cursed with the mark held no mercy.
She examined her palm, could scarce see the mark in the gloom. To dwell on the sign was foolish. They’d found the mark, and since legend sat weighty behind its meaning, it must be true. She needed to live, and right now, she must stay here.
The hearth caught her attention again. She gave a snort of disgust. He was stingy with the firewood. How did he expect to keep the place warm, or her to cook? Even Aunt Jen, who had so little, burned a brighter fire than this.
Beside the hearth, a broom leaned against the wall, two buckets stood near, one stacked inside the other. A pan hook, slung away from the fire, held a small copper cauldron. Hopeful of something to eat, she studied the contents. In the bottom of the pot sat a thick, congealed, brownish mess. She sniffed and wrinkled her nose at the unpleasant odor. Unfortunately, it wasn’t porridge. Her empty stomach growled.
A smaller cupboard, low in the wall, yielded a board and a knife for chopping. A bread crock made her mouth water. She tore off the lid. Inside the glazed pot lay half a loaf, the sort baked in the village. Unappetizing green mold covered bits of the thick crust, but still she broke off a piece and chewed it.
There wasn’t much for her to work with. A pity he had no cheese. She’d so welcome a chunk of cheese.
Her mouth watered at the memory of the sharp tang. She pulled another piece off the loaf and swallowed the bread. She glanced again at the grubby hearth and greasy hooks. She’d have to clean before she could cook. This being the only pot, she’d tip out the mess before she looked to find things to go in it. Later, she’d clean the rest of the room.
The afternoon light blinded after the gloom of the kitchen. Eyes narrowed, she strolled through the long grass where a cricket sang, then stepped up the bank to go over the low rise.
Below ran the stream, edged with blue forget-me-knots and white cuckooflowers. She knelt on the mossy bank, scraped out the pot, wrinkling her nose at the earthy stink. What had he cooked? Dirt?
Whatever this was, she hoped he hadn’t eaten any.
She scooped up a handful of pebbles to scrub at the mess before she rinsed the pot. Standing with her toes in the cool water of the stream, she swung the pot back and forth to dry.
Once clean, the cauldron sat small in her hand. Would this little copper vessel hold enough for two?
On her way back from the stream, she rubbed her feet on soft turf to dry them as she strolled to the other side of the tower. Here, she discovered the vegetable garden, and shook her head at the poor little plot. A row of yellowed cabbages lined the low fence. What might be thin leeks grew at the back of the patch, and three lines of carrots, whose mossy tops straggled amid weeds, were all that was left of the winter vegetables.
Near where she stood, in a less weedy patch, sat tripod frames with beans and peas struggling up to the sun on the thin interwoven sticks. None showed ripe this early in the spring. The only thing to grow fat off this garden would be the slugs and snails.
She glanced over at the tower as she ambled back, confused. For a Mage, he wasn’t very well organized. The garden should thrive. What had he done? How had he been living? He didn’t even have a cow or a goat for milk.
At least the water she drew from the well tasted sweet and fresh. She drank her fill before taking the bucket into the kitchen. The table came clean after she scrubbed hard. Beneath, she found an old basket stripped down to the withies for tapers.