Authors: Daisy Banks
She hurried back out to the garden with the kitchen knife in her hand and cut one of the cabbages. Again, she shook her head at the poor crop, then pulled up a leek and two scrawny carrots. Not near enough for a hearty stew, more like a broth, but it would be warm and most welcome. Both her hands were full so she could gather no more. She needed a basket, but so far, the kitchen had revealed none but the one he’d stripped.
She would have to ask if he had a gathering bag or something like one.
Once she prepared all she’d picked, the gloom could not disguise that the vegetables wouldn’t fit in the small pot. She drummed the table. Even though she’d eaten a few of the carrot slices raw, her stomach clenched. She needed this meal.
She toyed with the idea of calling up to him, but she’d promised not to disturb his work, and his temper certainly burned short. If she didn’t call him, she couldn’t cook, and he’d be angry. Yet chances were if she did call him, he’d be angry, too. By the end of her deliberations, she’d grown angry herself.
She might as well get on with it.
I’ve got to have a bigger cauldron!
The door to the stairs creaked on its hinges as she opened it. About to call up, she stilled when his tread sounded at the top of the stone steps.
“You have no need to yell up the stairs.” His voice echoed in the lofty darkness.
“I didn’t.” Was this part of his magic? What else could he do as well as hear what she thought? Only Alicia had ever heard the mind singing, but neither she nor her friend thought the trick was anything but a game. Mind singing couldn’t be magic.
“I distinctly heard you yell.” He hesitated, as though waiting for an explanation. When she offered none, he continued down the stairs. “The cooking pot is here.”
She moved out of the way. He brushed past to reach up to the top of the cupboard where she couldn’t see, and handed her a much larger cauldron than the one on the table.
He glanced toward the hearth and demanded. “Where is the small pot?”
She froze. Was he angry?
A spasm crossed his face and his lip twitched.
“I emptied it in the stream. I meant to use the small pot for the soup.”
“Gods, I am doomed!” His stare blazed green fire. “You have thrown away the finest batch of seeing mushrooms I have made in years.” He ran his hand over his hair. The blue coils around his wrist seemed to writhe like live, spring-woken snakes. “Foolish brat, did you not think to ask?”
She shook her head, gritting her teeth to keep silent.
He glowered. “Nin, a new rule. Here you touch nothing if it contains anything.”
“That’s stupid. You can’t say I mustn’t touch anything. You should have said not to use the small cauldron. I didn’t know.” Ready to bolt, she edged to the door.
“Well, you know now!” His yell almost lifted her feet. “Do you know what a seeing mushroom looks like?”
“Yes,” she murmured. Aunt Jen had pointed them out, so both she and her cousin Lettie knew them. Her aunt had always warned they should never go in the pot, no matter how hungry they all were. The seeing mushrooms were small, sour, but most of all, dangerous. “I’ve seen them.”
“Then go out and pick more. I’ll need twenty-four, at least. I want them before nightfall.”
She backed around to the other side of the table. Safe with something solid between them, her heart hammered less. She quelled her fear. His green robe, it wasn’t so fine. A tear ran up to his knee on one side. It needed stitching. “I’ll make the soup first, shall I? I’ll need a collecting basket.”
He opened the tall top cupboard and yanked down a wicker basket. One of his sleeves bore a patch at the elbow. For a Mage, he wasn’t so well off.
“Here.” He shoved the basket toward her. “And don’t come back without them.”
He stomped up the stairs. She could have spat after him. Several of the more unpleasant names the villagers screeched when she left raced through her mind. He deserved all of those names.
“I heard that,” he called. “Don’t let me hear you cursing again!”
Ice water ran through her veins. He was the Mage, yes, but no one had told her that he could hear thoughts. Agnes had said hundreds of vile things. Most of them she refused to think of, but the wise woman had never mentioned he would know what she was thinking.
Desperate to get out of the room, she threw the vegetables in the big pot and sloshed in a jug of water with a quick prayer to the gods to look after the meal. She fumbled in her haste as she slung the heavy pot on the hook over the fire, but it stayed in place. Certain the soup would cook, she grabbed the basket to flee from his wrath.
* * * *
By early evening, she’d only found twelve small seeing mushrooms. They rolled around in the bottom of the collecting basket. Her feet ached, for in her search she’d walked farther and farther into the darkened shadowy spaces. Worse than sore feet, though, she stared to find her way through the trees until her eyes burned and stung. She had no clue how to get back to the tower. She recognized nothing here through the welter of close-knit leaves.
Maybe he wanted the wolves to eat her. She’d be a nuisance to no one then. How could he be so mean?
She huddled down at the base of a large ash tree where she ran her fingers over a blade of grass so it squeaked. How would she find his tower before dark? Her empty stomach rumbled.
Anger that he’d sent her out here evaporated with the need to find him again. There was no one else who could help her. The twilight shadows grew deeper, wrapping the woods in their embrace. Tiredness blurred her vision. Even if she hadn’t been lost, she’d have been afraid to go back without all the mushrooms he wanted.
The sun sank lower. The first white stars shone in the deepening night-shaded sky. She curled up, wrapped her arms around the basket, and waited for death.
By moonrise, still the wolves hadn’t come, but her fear continued to grow. Her breath shallow, she darted her glance to the trees, to the dark shadows between them, and back again.
If only he would come to find her, she would do anything, she’d be so grateful. A leaf brushed her cheek, so she looked up as she moved it away. If she climbed the ash tree, perhaps light from the tower might lead her back.
Hope warmed her. She swung up onto the lowest branch of the tall tree, gave the next bough a tug to make sure it would take her weight, then clambered up where she clung tight.
The morsel of hope grew as she searched in all directions, but it withered when she saw only more branches and leaves
She grasped the next branch above.
“What, may I ask, are you doing?”
Relief slid over her. Though he didn’t sound pleased, the Mage had come to find her. She swung down onto the first branch, but caught her lip at his frown. He reached up to yank her down into his arms.
“If I discover you have done this to plague me”—his nose loomed tip-to-tip with hers—“I will renege on my promise, and I will beat you soundly before I turn you into a sparrow.”
The sensation and safety of his arms took the spleen from his words. She didn’t care if he might beat her, as long as he took her back to the tower. “I got lost.”
“Hmm, did you? And my mushrooms?” He still held her. His mouth twitched in a half smile.
“I got some. They’re in the basket.”
To her surprise, he didn’t put her down, but strolled over, bent with her in his arms, picked the basket up, and hooked it onto his elbow. His brow wrinkled in obvious displeasure as the little mushrooms rolled around. She closed her eyes, praying they would double or treble in number. Sadly, they didn’t. She hoped he’d not beat her hard.
“You can tell me about it on the way back. I’m sure I will enjoy the tale of how all the mushrooms went away.”
She wriggled. “Put me down. I can walk.”
He shook his head. “Nin, since noon this day, you have destroyed the best batch of seeing mushrooms I have made in an age, interrupted my meditations not once, but twice, put out the kitchen fire, and achieved what I’d imagined to be the impossible. You got lost in the forest but a few yards from the tower. I think you are best where you are, for now.”
The reel of her day’s blunders was meant for one whose wits had wandered. She squirmed, but it was futile since he didn’t set her down. “I didn’t put the fire out.”
“But the soup did. You left it with no lid, and the pot boiled over, so we have no fire to return to.”
She closed her eyes. He thought she was stupid
A sudden pain caught in her chest. She missed Aunt Jen, Cousin Lettie, too. She wanted to go home where the fire often smoldered sulkily, but at least the stew pot hung with something in it most days. She turned her face to his shoulder.
Aunt Jen and Lettie had stood stone-faced with the others to make her go that morning. Only Alicia might have sorrowed to see her leave, but any tears were well hidden behind a scrap of heavy weave fabric her friend called a veil.
With the night dark like her thoughts, the one semblance of comfort came from his embrace.
“When we get back you will sleep. You need to. Tomorrow we will begin again.”
Poor little wretch.
Her head nestled on his shoulder. Thick, light brown eyelashes swept down on her cheeks. Strands of fair hair wisped about her face. At least the damned villagers had left her hair in a messy, loosely tied plait. He’d heard of others cast out shaven and naked.
Bloody fools with their witch’s mark nonsense. What was he to do with the wench? How could the villagers be so superstitious and foolish? She showed little talent for magic, yet, here she was, all for the sake of a mark on her hand.
The tower came into sight. He would put her to bed, then think what should be done about her
He had found a bedroll for her before he realized she must be lost. His annoyance that he had to hunt through the woods had dissolved when he glimpsed her, clinging to the branch. Those helpless, wide, fearful brown eyes could have melted a sterner heart than his.
While he had searched, his plan had been to tell her she would have to go. A ripple of shame stirred. To do so would be worse than sending a kitten out into the rain. He tightened his arms about her. One glance told him he couldn’t send her away.
He shouldn’t have sent her out for mushrooms she had little hope of finding. He’d been wrong, bad tempered, and petty.
Her breath had slowed in the steady rhythm of sleep. He altered his grip, shifting her weight in his arms. She’d told him she was coming nineteen, but he could scarce believe it. True, the village youngsters often looked undersized from years of poor nourishment. In that respect, she appeared no different from the others.
Her hand slipped down from his shoulder. Lost in sleep, she rubbed her nose on his robe.
Tomorrow he would speak with Simon, the village chieftain, to see if he could persuade them to take her back. She should be in the village making ready to find a husband.
He strode on, the moonlight flickering over her face. Though she remained grubby, her features on closer examination struck him as more than pretty. With her small frame, fair hair, and such a tiny pointed chin, she had a charm as unworldly as one of the fae. When he first opened the door at her knock, for a brief second, he had believed her a true fairy, but the loud yell when the door hit her hand showed his mistake.
What would her life be if he sent her back to the village? Even if he persuaded Simon and the elders the old wise woman was wrong, she would still have a bad time of it.
If she did marry, she would perhaps die. How many of the others had drawn their last agonized breath in their effort to bear their first child?
A wave of nausea crawled over him. More than one young woman from the village had died in childbirth since he’d arrived at the tower. The superstitious crones, who attended each prospective mother, usually left it too late for him to help.
He glanced down at her smooth cheek with its smudges of grime. This little one should not bear such a fate. Why should the poor girl suffer for the sake of a meaningless mark on her palm? It was time he took a servant of sorts. He’d not send her away. Tomorrow, for certain, he would regret this moonlight decision, but he would keep her.
The lock was set low in the door, but he managed to balance her as he turned the intricate key. The torches in the kitchen flared at his glance. He dropped the basket from his elbow onto the table before he set her on the bedroll. The tiny pallet proved ample for her, and he covered her over with a blanket.
One swift look commanded the fire. The flames took, burning up bright yellow before they died back. He threw on another log. The remains of broth in the pot warmed. He ate a small bowl full. Her cooking left room for improvement. She stirred on the pallet, but did not wake. There would be time enough for all tomorrow.
He moved the soup pot from the fire and left her to sleep. Before he went to his bed, he went out into the night, walked over the rise, and stripped so he could rinse himself off in the stream. Tomorrow he’d begin the mushroom brew again. Twelve was well less than twenty, but should be enough.
He shivered from the chill of the water. When she woke in the morning, he would have to get her to come out here to bathe. He’d also find her a clean garment to wear. Her dirty brown dress repulsed him. The thing hung like a sack, the kind of rag worn only by the poorest women.
Why had he not seen her when he traded?
A pack of children always scampered about in the village square, like puppies in search of scraps. As to the older girls, the boldest of them haunted his shadow. No matter. Such girls meant trouble, and created the kind of problems he tried to avoid. But this one… He searched for a word. He could think only of small and grubby.
The green robe clutched about him, he went into the tower and made his way upstairs. Dropping the robe onto his bed, he opened the curtain at the window. A patch of silver lit the floor, and he breathed in the cool night air as he opened the glass. He sat cross-legged to meditate until the cool, precious light of the moon dimmed.