Authors: Daisy Banks
Her stomach rumbled loudly.
“Are you hungry again, already?”
“Yes, I ate little yesterday. I had nothing at all for two days before,” she explained.
“Very well, here, you can eat this. I’d brought it as something for the wild birds, but I suppose they’ll not mind a hungry sparrow having it instead.” He handed her a chunk of bread from a cloth tucked inside the fold of his robe.
“Thank you, Thabit.” She could make out the sparkle in his eyes under the wide brim of his hat.
“Come, we go farther. You can eat while we walk. What do you see among those bushes?”
Cramming a chunk of bread in her mouth, she looked toward the direction he pointed. “There’re brambles,” she spluttered through breadcrumbs. She swallowed the rest of the bread. “That means there will be blackberries.”
“Well done. They are not ripe yet, but within a month or two the first of them will be, and you will come back to collect a supply.”
The bread she chewed as they went was days old and hardly the tastiest treat, but it filled the gap in her stomach. All the time they walked, the trees grew denser around the path. The scent of wild garlic filled the air. Shade dappled parts of the forest floor and deep shadows cast gloom over more. When they entered the cool shadows, a shiver ran over her. She glanced across to the Mage.
“There is nothing here to concern you. The wolves will be well fed and asleep at this time in the day. The only thing you should fear are the troops from the garrison, and after Friday their interest will be controlled.”
“Why? How do you know?”
“On Friday, I go to the castle. You will accompany me. The troop will see you are my servant. Therefore, you’ll be safe from any of their unwanted attentions.”
A thrill shot through her. The castle! No one she knew had ever traveled so far from the village. She finished the last bite of the bread. Didn’t his long legs ever tire?
At the base of a tall tree, he stopped. “What tree is this?”
“A beech. It’s a big one.” She glanced up at the main branches. The boughs were thick and spread wide. The tree seemed to clear a space amongst the others for itself.
“I want you to remember this beech tree. You will not go farther from the tower in this direction without me.”
He sat and took off the straw hat. His hair stuck up in dark spikes. She wanted to smooth it into place.
“You know the names of some of the trees, Sparrow?”
“I do.” A surge of pride filled her.
“I will teach you more as we go on.”
“Are we going back to the tower?”
“Not yet. Do you know how to swim?”
“Yes, a bit. I used to swim in the millpond every summer until Aunt Jen said it was unseemly since I was full grown.”
He stood, but didn’t seem to be listening as he donned the hat. She clasped the hand he offered and he yanked her to her feet.
She followed him through a stand of tall trees, then into a clearer section where willow and sedge edged a pool. The dark water silvered when the breeze swept over the surface. She shuddered. The water looked deep.
“Fearful again? That must stop. You can learn nothing of the world if fear controls all you do.”
She didn’t like the way he seemed to read her thoughts with such ease.
He stopped where the turf edged the water. “I will go in first. You can join me once you undress.”
“What? Take the tunic off?”
“Well, I do not normally swim clothed, Sparrow. Do you?”
“No, but…” Fire blazed in her cheeks.
He took off the hat and laughed. “I will not look at you, girl, believe me. I wish to swim, to be cool and give my body the chance to breathe. Yours will learn to breathe, too, but you must give it the opportunity. Forget what they told you in the village. Now, do as I say, close your eyes.”
Her heart beat swift for all the wrong reasons, but she covered her eyes with her hands. Though temptation to steal a glance at him beckoned, she wouldn’t dare. Oh, how Alicia would laugh at her.
The hum of insects grew louder and the breeze rustled the leaves. Soft chirrups of birdsong broke through the quietness.
Water splashed. He called, “All right. You can come in.”
She opened her eyes. His dark head cleared the water. A faint shimmer of his pale shoulders showed beneath the ripples.
“Now, you go behind the bush to undress. I will turn my back until you are in the pool.”
She untied the scarf and, when she stood behind the bush, slipped the tunic over her head. All the time she watched to see if he might peek. He didn’t, but kept his word, even when, as she tiptoed her way into the pool, she yelped as the cold water covered her rear.
“I’m in.” She shivered, neck deep, stretching her toes down to the bottom.
“Good, you swim and relax. Let your body learn from the water—allow yourself to breathe deep.”
He disappeared from the spot in four or five long stokes, cleaving the surface in neat, even movements. She watched him go before she rolled over to float on her back. The cool of the water seeped into her hair, a delicious sensation to remind her of the millpond where she had played with the others in childhood.
The dark water washed soft against her skin. She tilted her head right back listening to him splash along. When she turned onto her front, he swam strongly a distance away.
She reached out and swam for a way in the other direction. The water here seemed to support her so that she could lie on its surface like a leaf. She floated again on her back, drifted past a big willow, and heard Thabit’s movements behind her.
“I am getting out. Wait for a few moments, then join me.” His voice carried over the water. The ducks took flight.
She lay her head back, happy to wait.
“You can come out now,” he called after a few minutes. “Do not fret. I will not look at you. Meet me by the big beech.” His robe billowed as he headed back toward the tall tree.
She scrambled to get out, still uncertain of the way. Not bothering to wring out her hair, she pulled on the blue tunic, grabbed the scarf, and dashed after him.
“Oh, you are ready?”
Her hair dripped on the blue tunic, and he did his best to ignore the outline of her peaked nipples under the damp cloth. “Come then, Sparrow, it is time you led us home.”
She gulped, then glanced about her with widened eyes. A tremble shook her chin. She caught her lip between her teeth.
He waited for her questions, refusal, or anything.
She grasped his hand firmly in hers and yanked him forward. “All right, come on.”
The last thing he’d expected was the edge of determination in her voice. Her bravado pleased him, and his smile grew as she let his hand go. He sensed her certainty as she led him back through the dense part of the forest. Satisfied by her attention to his earlier instructions, he noted when she checked for the markers of their path. “You can talk to me, if you wish.”
“Not now, I need to concentrate.”
He almost laughed and clamped a palm over his mouth to stop any sound, lest he hurt her feelings.
“Here then, we’ve got this far!” She pointed to the top branch of the tall ash tree where he found her last night. Triumph lit her expression when she twirled to face him.
He swallowed hard. Her joyful loveliness caught him. She shimmered with pride. The enchanting smile came from her heart. He could be lost for eternity to her elation if he didn’t control the situation. “Indeed, Sparrow, now the rest.”
Slightly less certain, walking slower, she set off, but she was right, and he followed her lead. Before long, they were in sight of the huge clump of nettles at the base of the old oak tree.
“Very good. I am most impressed.” Doffing his hat, he inclined his head. Her smile spread wide, a glow shining in her eyes. “Now, home,” he said.
Confident in the direction, she strode off, and he admired her self-assured gait. She liked freedom, but more important, she appeared to enjoy the taste of knowledge. Both boded well. Once she’d learned a little of the art, he might be able to teach her to brew the easier simples he used to medicate the villagers.
Once they arrived back by the small well in the yard, her smile beamed in obvious expectation of praise.
He nodded. “Yes, you have done well. Now, I need to work, and you need to remember the path for next time when you will be alone.”
Her smile grew wider still. He went into the tower, dumped the hat on the table in the kitchen, and picked up the small cauldron. She’d polished the copper pot until it gleamed as it had when he first acquired it. He took it up to the workshop.
The messenger from the castle had made it certain he would need the mushroom brew.
A song, not his, hummed loud through his thoughts as he set out his knives. She would have to stop that racket
He strode to the window, yanked the curtain aside, opened the catch, and yelled in the direction of the vegetable patch, “Be quiet.”
No reply came. He was about to slice the mushrooms, when the jumble of sounds returned. Irritation nipped at his calm. The noise grew louder, and his ire rose. He fumed as his worst expectations were fulfilled, his peace shattered. This was exactly the kind of nonsense an apprentice brought. No matter this wench had not yet learned enough to be worthy to claim such a role, still she disturbed him.
The noise grew in intensity, and he dropped the knife onto the board. He’d have to shut her up, one way or another. The door banged against the wall as he slammed it open. She needed a lesson in the obedience she had promised. He hurried down the stairs.
Bent at the hearth, Nin stirred a large long-handled spoon in the black pot. She turned to look up with a guileless smile, the spoon in her hand. Silence filled the room.
No, it wasn’t possible. “I told you to be quiet.”
She arched an eyebrow in question over the smile. “I am. Quiet as a mouse.”
“No, you were singing. I heard it, out of tune, loud, and very distracting.”
She lifted a hand to her mouth and shook her head.
“By the gods of the waters.” The whisper broke from him. He dragged up a stool and sat. Half of what he’d heard since she arrived was thought.
“Are you angry?” Her mouth quivered before she jerked out her chin.
“No, Sparrow. Come here.”
“Oh, the hand is all right. The water helped. I put the bandage back on after we swam.” She held up her palm. The bindings were twisted but that didn’t matter.
“No, it is not the bandage, Nin. Come and sit with me, I want to speak with you.”
Her expression solemn, she sat opposite him. Minutes passed before she looked up.
“Has anyone else ever overheard you when you were quiet?” Looking into her eyes, he knew, for her face flushed a delicate pink, soft and rosy as the rare coral fragments he kept in a jar. “Who heard you, Sparrow?”
“My friend Alicia, we often played the game. I’d sing when she worked in the cowshed or somewhere else, and she’d tell me the song.”
The hairs on the back of his neck prickled, for what she described was no chance communication. “How did she tell you? Was it with the silent words?”
“No, she’d come to me later to tell me. She nearly always got the right one. Did I do wrong? Was it bad?”
He smiled in reassurance. “No, Sparrow, rather unexpected, though. And this happened before the witch’s mark came?”
This, perhaps, explained yesterday’s massive build up of tension. Maybe his disquiet of the previous day, when he had fretted half the afternoon for no reason, was linked to her pain and fear.
The girl was a natural telepath.
For those who could hear, her words rang raw as the shriek of a gull in a stormy dawn. He rested his chin on his hand. How could she have remained hidden so long?
“Sparrow, tomorrow I need to teach you how to keep the songs to yourself. I’ll also teach you ways to keep yourself safe. You will have to study hard to avoid being so loud as to drive me to madness.”
She nodded, a light of interest in her eyes. “Yes, please. I’ll try my best. I don’t want you to become mad.”
The soft, fading pink blush on her cheek fascinated, for it was in perfect contrast to her down-swept, brown lashes. An urge to caress her smooth cheek with his fingers, or to feel her face against his, shook his other thoughts like a breeze among the sweetest apple blossoms. He was familiar with the rising sensation she provoked, even if it were something he infrequently succumbed to, yet, with her as the cause, the desire was unpleasant.
This wench was a mere babe, no matter what her appearance, she was as unlearned as a child in all things, and he would not have his work interrupted by such nonsense, or his life turned upside down by her smiles.
His breath caught in his throat when she looked up. Her brilliant, tremulous smile snapped his resolve like a north wind might blast through a cobweb. He was not the first to be beguiled by a smile, though he doubted there were many as sweet as hers. He must do something about her, even if only to keep her out of harm’s way.
The decision made, the rest would wait until the morning. He would leave her at peace today.
“What’s in the pot?”
“More cabbage and carrots. I’ve added wild garlic leaves and a leek, too.”
“Good, I’m hungry.”
“Is that it then? Shall I get on?” She made to rise from the stool, and he caught her arm.
“Not quite. I’ll take a look at your hand.”
She sat back down, offering him her hand. He undid the bandage. “More marigold balm, I think.” He took up the jar and, ignoring her shiver, smeared on more salve.
Her palm rested in his as he rebound the bandage. He became conscious of her warmth, the way she watched his every movement, but most of all, at the way she bit her lip until it resembled a ripe fruit. One he would savor if he tasted it.
By the gods of the waters, this would not do at all. He finished binding the bandage. “You will find your palm near healed tomorrow. Get on with the meal.”
To break the bewitchment of those dark eyes, he left the room and strode outside by the well, then across to the grassy rise
She must learn self-control. He couldn’t live with her looking at him in such a way.