Authors: Daisy Banks
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He woke with the dawn, listening to the peaceful sounds of earth and sky as he dressed. On the stairs, he heard movement from the kitchen. Nin, too, woke early, it seemed. Surprised to find the fire burned high with golden red flames, he paused in the doorway.
She stood, bent at the hearth, busily stirring a wooden spoon in his smallest cauldron.
“What are you doing?”
She looked up with a tentative smile. She had bathed, for her face glowed clean. The golden shimmers caused by the firelight on her fair hair increased his surprise.
“I found a bag of oatmeal at the back of the cupboard. It’s porridge. Do you have any honey?”
The hopeful glint in her eyes made him laugh. Years of experience and learning all slid away, and he couldn’t help but smile with her. He liked honey, too, but the jar had been empty for weeks. “No, Nin, I don’t. Perhaps we can trade for a pot of it in the village.”
Her mouth dropped open. “I can’t go back. They’ll kill me. Agnes swore they would kill me if I ever went back.” Her dark, fearful eyes locked on him as she moved her hand toward the pot.
Before he could warn of the heat, she yelped with the burn. He strode over, took her hand, and dragged her across the room to thrust her palm into the full water bucket. “I may leave you behind, after all,” he said. “Not that you should fear them, only because of what you might do.”
She bit her lip.
“If you accompany me to the market, believe me, not one of them will lay a hand on you. When they sent you here, Nin, what did they say would happen?”
The red flush on her cheeks confirmed his suspicions, while her closed eyes suggested more. “Tell me if you can,” he said. “I will stir the porridge. Leave your hand in the water until the burn feels cool.”
“I’m lost to them,” she murmured after a minute or two. “I’m marked with the sign. No matter what I do, it will find me out. I can’t live among them. I’m…”
He glanced back over his shoulder. “Yes.”
She opened her eyes and stared up at the ceiling. “I’m meant for you.”
Her words came slow. He sucked in a deep breath at her obvious meaning. Surely, they had spared her the more lurid of the old legends. He studied her, sensing the pain in her hand did not cause her sorrow. How could they?
He concentrated on the pot, in the hope she would feel free to speak while he stirred the porridge. “I see. What did you think they meant?”
“I don’t know.” The water splashed as she raised her hand.
“Put it back in, and Nin, do not keep secrets from me. It could be dangerous to both of us if you do. I can imagine what was said—all lies, of course.” He hoped he’d said enough to reassure her and moved the pot from the fire. “If I discover you have a gift, I will help you use it. So far, your one talent seems to be for trouble, and that is a talent I will certainly not help you use.”
At the table, she watched his every movement with the concentration of a hunting hawk. He spooned the porridge into two bowls and set them both to cool before he reached for her arm. “Show me?”
She gave him her dripping palm.
He assessed the burn. Not too deep, perhaps there might only be a small blister. He slipped her hand back into the water bucket. “In a little while, it will stop hurting, and I will dress it with a marigold salve. And you…” He held her deep, dark stare. “You will learn to take more care.”
Today she met his glance with less of the belligerence she’d worn like a cloak when she arrived. Of course, his mood had been as fierce. He smiled. “I will get the salve. Once I’ve dressed your palm, we will eat.”
Her eyes were not as wary now. She gave him a brief flash of a smile.
Returning from his workshop, he dried her hand. “Does it feel cool?”
She nodded and didn’t even wince when he smeared on the marigold ointment. “I trust you will remember what I say about being more careful.” He wrapped a light bandage over her palm.
“Yes, Thabit, I’ll remember.”
He looked up at the whisper of his name. Her wide eyes remained locked on him.
“Hmm, see you do. After we eat, I will find you something clean to wear. The gown you have on is less than pleasant. What is your favorite color?”
She sat opposite him. “Red.” She picked up the spoon.
“A bold choice.” He placed the porridge in front of her.
This should be easy. His charm on the cloth would show him how susceptible she might be to all manner of magic. While she ate, he went up to his room where he sorted out a long sleeved, knee length tunic he’d worn in his youth. One of the last his mother had made. A good quality cloth, decorated with a little embroidery at the collar. The only patches were on the elbows of each sleeve. Perhaps the tunic would be long enough to gown her small frame. He returned with it tucked under his arm.
She had eaten and sat worrying at the bandage.
“Here, Nin, as fine a red as you will ever see. You can wear this while you wash the dirty gown.”
Her brows drew together. A little wrinkle appeared on the bridge of her nose. She raised a questioning glance as she took the tunic.
“Thabit?” The soft whisper came again along with the down-swept lashes.
Things would be far easier had they not made her so afraid. He picked up the spoon, intrigued by her thoughtful expression. “Yes.”
“This isn’t red. It’s very nicely made, but this is blue. Is it what you meant me to have?”
He dropped the spoon in the bowl. Unless his skills had slipped, his little sparrow had seen through one of his simplest but most effective glamours. “By the gods of the waters, Nin, you may have a talent after all. I know the tunic is blue, but it should fit you well. You put it on.”
“What, change here?” Her swift glance held the spark of challenge he saw so much of yesterday.
“Is the cloth not to your liking?”
Only as she continued to stare, did he notice the little tremble of her chin. He turned his back in sudden haste to give her privacy. Fabric rustled.
He swiveled around and smiled. The tunic covered to her slim ankles, enough for modesty, indeed. The fine-spun, blue wool hung at her small waist, for the thing was too big. “Hmm, not a bad fit.”
Her chin quivered. She gnawed at her lip.
“What is the matter with you, girl?”
“Oh, there’s nothing the matter.” She picked up the grubby brown gown. “Shall I go to wash this now or start to clean up? It will take me a while to tidy in here.” Her eyes glistened, reflecting the torchlight as she stared at the hearth.
He ignored her remark. She had the makings of a sharp tongue, a trait he would curb before it became a real irritation. “You may begin on the kitchen and be quick. I have tasks I must complete. When those are done, we have business in the forest.”
Her gulp in response amused him. She would learn her place quickly if she possessed a modicum of sense.
The dishes done, Nin picked up the broom to sweep the grimy cinders from the hearth. He must be in his workshop by now.
She let go of the anger she’d held in check since his glance swept over her, and with him safe out of the way, she scoured hard at the hearthstones.
Was she such a trouble? Did he not know she was a woman grown?
The broom slowed as her temper cooled. She wished he wouldn’t frown so much.
Her heart beat swift when she stood beside him. No matter how gruff he seemed, she didn’t think him cruel. He’d not beaten her like he threatened over the mushrooms. She didn’t think he ever would. When she woke this morning, she’d made a decision. She wanted to stay with him.
What was it about his eyes that made her believe all his words were true? Why did she want him to be pleased so she could see his smile?
She crossed her hands over the handle, rested her chin on the top, and leaned against the broom as the dust motes sailed in the light. He’d said Agnes lied. She so wanted to believe him, to trust his words. The mark showed she should be his. That was part of what Agnes told her. Thankfully, the brutal way he’d make her his hadn’t come to pass yet, and she didn’t think it would. Not in the way Agnes had said.
He’d never force anyone in that way.
Sudden warmth crept over her face.
His hands were smooth and his fingers skilful. She’d like him to…
Though no one could see her hot cheeks, she closed her eyes for shame. Appalled the idea had been hers, she shook the thought away, opened her eyes, and poked at a cobweb.
Should she feel this way?
His smile, when it came, touched her heart, but he didn’t smile half as much as she’d like.
She’d believed the very worst of what Agnes told. Yet it seemed not even the behavior of a man with a woman, the things she had whispered about with Alicia when no one could hear them, were in his thoughts.
Was it because she was ugly? Maybe he didn’t like her at all. Would she live her whole life this way?
Colors glowed in the hearthstones once she swept away the dusty ash. Green streaks gleamed like those in his eyes.
Why did his eyes return to her mind so often?
She glanced at the flagstones of the rest of the kitchen. They all needed a good scrub, a long job that would probably take most of the morning. Should she begin them now or go to wash the brown dress? She didn’t want to be out of the room when he came down, but needed to go outside. No sound came from above so she hurried out to race over the rise to the stream.
The grubby fabric sank beneath the surface of the rippling water. She hoisted the tunic she wore up to her knees to walk on the cloth where it settled on the streambed. Her toes squeezed out the dirt, mud, and the stink of fear. The stream ran clear. Delicious cool water swirled around her calves. Pebbles on the bed rolled as she rubbed her feet over her old dress.
She looked up at the sound of a horse. Across the stream, at the top of the rise, a fair young man curbed a white stallion.
She frowned. Would she be called “girl” by all for the rest of her life?
“What do you want?”
“Is the Mage home?”
“He’s up at the tower. What do you want?”
“That, little blossom, is his business, not yours.” He turned the horse in an elegant circle so she could get a good look at him before he rode on. He was handsome, with ripples of gilded fair hair, and she’d bet a bead, if she had one, he knew it.
She hauled the sodden bundle from the stream and wrung it out as best she could. A convenient branch gave a place to hang the sopping dress to drip-dry in the sun. Wiping at the damp patches on the tunic, she hurried back up over the rise.
The pale horse sped past, heading away from the tower now, kicking up clods of earth that forced her to jump into the heads of cow parsley.
“Sorry, little blossom, take more care,” the fair youth called back.
She glared as the horse cantered away. Her mood not improved by the messenger, she strode back to the tower.
The Mage waited with a dark wooden stave in his hand. She quickened her steps. He leaned against the wall surrounding the well. A large, wide-brimmed, straw hat shaded his head. He also held something she recognized instantly. The fabric gleamed red, yellow, and orange, with purple and blue splashes shimmering in the sun.
“Oh, there you are. Good.” He held out the long, fringed scarf. “This is for you.”
He gave her a smile, and her heart galloped faster than the white horse. “Thank you,” she whispered. The linen slid through her fingers like the softest down, the tiny little shells sewn onto it chinked. “You make these, don’t you?”
“Yes, one of the goods I make to trade. The village women seem to like them.”
“I know it.” Emulating the way one or two of the women wore them, she wrapped the soft fabric around her head and stroked the long tail of fringed cloth as it hung over her shoulder. All the women in the village prized the scarves he made, the most colorful garment they could possess. No one knew how to dye things in the way he did. She never imagined she would have one of his scarves for her own.
“Come on, we are going for a walk.”
She hurried to catch up with his long-legged stride. “Where are we going?”
“You, Sparrow, will learn your way home.”
“Please, no. Don’t.” Her heart thumped. She swallowed down the sudden panic. “Don’t make me leave.”
“No, no, Sparrow. I want you to know your place in the forest. I will not have the time to fetch you if you decide to stray. When I send you collecting, I will want you to bring back what you pick.”
Was Sparrow any better than girl?
“Keep your eyes open. I want you to notice what we pass, because you will lead us back.”
Her stomach clenched at his words. Fighting a flash of panic, she glanced about to mark things to find her way back to the tower.
They walked for a little way before he pointed to the left. “There is a gnarled oak over there. Do you see it? Tell me what grows at its base.”
“Nettles, lots of them, you can use for dyeing wool.”
A flash of his smile showed. “Yes, I know the colors they can make. Very good, now look at the oak from the other direction, as if you walked back toward the tower. Study and remember it.”
Doing as he asked, she memorized the shape of the ancient oak with its huge lumps and twisted branches. When she turned back, he had stepped well ahead. She dashed to keep up.
“Do you remember?”
“Yes, I think I do.”
They walked on until he stopped. “Do you recognize this place?”
She looked about her. Here, she had waited to die last night. The tall ash she had climbed stood majestic. The memory of his arms around her gave a warm glow inside.
“Nin, do you recognize this place or not?”
“Oh, yes, I know it.”
He tilted his hat backwards. “Are you concentrating? I hope so. Otherwise, we will have a very long walk back.”
“Good, now, see how the branch third from the top points south?”
She counted the branches, studied the angle. “Yes, I think I have it.”
“If you ever find yourself here, follow the direction the branch points. That way you will be heading toward my tower.”