Authors: Daisy Banks
He swiped at a tall daisy head in the long grass
If he was to teach her, and there seemed little choice, it must be in a clearly defined relationship, no nonsense to it. He would never be able to lead her through the rigors ahead if she continued to blink her wide eyes at him.
He kicked a rock from the top of the bank into the stream. She was far too unlearned to find her way to the realms of magic without aid, though he had been much younger when he began. But, he knew from his childhood he was different. He had been eager for knowledge, tutored by the best, fired by study, willing to accept any challenge to find his way to the unseen worlds.
Did she have enough talent, or half the resilience to go so far?
He yanked the thong from his hair as he headed down the slope. Though he attempted to block it, he couldn’t ignore the sensation of her sorrow. She sent flashes of sadness to him. How could she be this powerful with no training at all?
Mind-linking remained a struggle for him, like scrying, one of his weaknesses in the range of magical skills. That her mind could be this forceful was a deep concern, and yet she was defenseless, her gift beyond her control. If she remained untutored, she would be open to many influences and great harm.
The revelation of such a powerful talent disturbed him almost as much as anything else about her. Pretty she might be, and sweetly fragrant now she’d bathed. The long curling waves of her hair would tempt wiser men than him, no doubt.
Perhaps, he should get her to cut it. No, stupid idea. She would never agree and if she did, he wouldn’t be able to live with the guilt.
What could he do with her?
Gods of the water, why me?
He scanned the streambed for shells, picked up a handful, and rolled them in his palm as he thought through the problem. One path beckoned the solution, and she would never know. A glamour to change her appearance. With her charms disguised, he would be able to teach her, and those pert little attractions wouldn’t get in the way. He skimmed a stone down the stream.
Yes, it might work, so he wouldn’t be distracted.
Perhaps, when he took her to the castle, he might be able to persuade Lady Cassandra to take her. Even though it was late for Nin to join the other students, it might be a possibility. If she’d been found earlier, she would be in Cassandra’s care, learning from her skills.
He closed his eyes. This was the best idea he’d had since yesterday afternoon. Cassandra would understand the problem. She could take Nin out of his life, at least until his maiden developed her skills, knowledge, and control.
When had she become his maiden? He couldn’t tell, but after today, he’d never see her as a grubby little wench again. He’d need the stepping skills of a sword dancer to avoid her snare. Tilting his head back, he looked up to the clear blue sky as he tried to work out what he truly wanted.
The spring birds soared and circled, and no answer came to his questions. It seemed he must improve his self-awareness. Scraping his hair back, he tied the leather loop back in place before making his way to the tower.
By the time he walked into the kitchen, she had set dishes out on the table, ready to serve the food. From the look of her, she’d found peace with her sorrow for now.
One eye still on her, he trickled the shells from the stream into the small jar where he kept his collection. When she turned to stir what was in the cauldron, the glamour cloaked her. She moved to the table with the pot.
He stepped back in surprise. Oh! Perhaps he’d been a little extreme, but he’d get over it. Now, her image could not tempt him.
“Dinner’s ready,” she said with a gap-toothed smile.
“Good. I’m hungry.” He settled opposite her and picked up his spoon.
Thabit went down to the warm kitchen to wake her before the dawn. He gave her shoulder, hunched beneath the blanket, a nudge. “It’s time to wake.”
“No, go away, it’s too early.” She rolled in the blanket wrapping and turned over.
He shook her shoulder again.
Turning a tousled head toward him, she opened an eye and glared.
“Get up, Sparrow, or I will be angry indeed.” He put on a deep frown. Not a qualm disturbed him when he threatened. “Get dressed and get up, or I’ll drag you naked to the workshop.”
“All right, wait a minute.” She reached over, grabbed the blue tunic, and burrowed under the blanket. Her body shimmied beneath the cover. When she emerged, the tunic covered her. She kicked the blanket off with a melodramatic sigh.
The antics irritated. Yesterday, she had agreed she needed to learn. She would not get beyond the first hurdle if she continued like this. “Today, you come to my workshop. I will teach you how to keep your busy mind quiet. This way and quickly.” He moved to the stairs.
“What about breakfast?”
“When you have mastered the skill, you will eat. Go up to the workshop now, or you will look for worms in the garden to fill your beak.”
Her thought blasted like a loud yell through his mind. Saucy wench to speak to him so, even if it were in thought alone.
“One more word, Nin, just one
He scowled to hide his surprise, for he had managed to answer thought with thought.
“I hate you eavesdropping.”
“Then come and learn to stop it.”
She huffed out a breath as she climbed the first stair, stomped up past the closed door to his bedchamber, and on up to the next winding flight. At the top, she waited quietly for him to open the door to his workshop.
The first shafts of dawn light flooded through the open roof panel. This device allowed him to see the stars and moonlight, both vital to his work. The opening in the roof remained unseen by others.
He ignored her little gasp when they entered the room, but waited while she stepped forward wide-eyed, staring over at the two semicircular tables covered with herbs, pots, leaves, and twigs.
“Yes, fascinating I know, Sparrow, look your fill. I do not want you distracted. You may look, but please, do not touch anything. I will prepare the incense.”
He kept one eye on her while he poured incense into a large, black metal tray. The costly powder smoldered to life under his glance. Wisps of the fragrant smoke twirled up, calming and sweet.
“Enough,” he said to still her craning neck, her endless examination of the racks of dried herbs hung on the curving rails on one side of the room. “Come, and sit here.” He indicated one of the cushions scattered on the square carpet a little way from the wall where a small, silver star shone.
She sat cross-legged, naturally sliding into the position used for meditation. He brought the incense over and placed the tray before her.
“I want you to look at the star. Breathe in the vapor, but concentrate on the star.”
She nodded, and then took a deep breath, followed by another. The star shone through the pale, sweet-scented smoke. She focused on it.
“Do not turn your head, but tell me, what can you see, Nin?”
“The star,” she murmured.
“Is it bright yet?”
“Yes, very. It’s beautiful.”
The soft tone told more than her words. She had slipped with such ease into the calm of the dream-like state. How could he have missed so much about her?
“I want you to sing as you did yesterday.”
“But you said I was out of tune.”
“I do not care how musical you are. Just sing like you did yesterday.”
He winced when she screeched and was still out of tune.
“You know this is different from when you sing aloud?”
“Yes, this is easy.”
By the river gods, she’d even answered in thought.
A flash of envy at her ability leaped through him. This was no coincidence as he first suspected it might be. He had taken months to learn to speak the silent words clearly, yet she was a bright beacon who burned with a steady power.
“I want you to try to make the song quiet, Sparrow. Make the sounds soft, so it stays in your head. You will have to concentrate.”
She gave a tiny nod. Tilting his head, he took note of her expression.
The pupils of her eyes had expanded to become huge, dark dilated circles, partly due to the incense, the rest, perhaps fear. To let go this fast could cause nausea, or panic if one were unfamiliar with the sensation. He placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
He wished she’d picked a different tune. The song she had chosen spoke of lost love. Sorrow filled its words. The noise from her lessened a little. “If you want breakfast, you will have to make a much better effort.”
He suppressed his desire to laugh at her irreverence. She did not need reassurance, but a reminder of where she sat. “Speak to me in such terms again and you will spend a week as a toad in a jar.”
“Sorry,” she mumbled, but not in a sulk. She had slid deeper into the trance.
Concerned, for he did not wish her to go further, he spoke. “You must center all your thoughts on quiet. Stay with me and try.”
She leaned down toward the incense tray, her gaze fixed on the star. Gently, he urged her upright. The song grew softer.
“A lot better, but you need more control, Sparrow. Come on, I know you can do it. I am sure you are hungry.”
Quiet came slowly, creeping over him in a wave. Not one sound from her broke the morning stillness. “Oh, well done!”
She turned toward him, her gap-toothed smile widened, and the warts on her chin wagged. The noise returned.
“No, now do it again. Make the singing quiet.”
Once more, her voice lowered until it vanished. The sense of her effort radiated to him. “Do not turn to look at me, but remember this sensation. Can you feel it?”
“Good. Examine, learn, and remember it. Whenever the thoughts come fast or hard, you must recall this level of concentration to stop them escaping to disturb others who might hear you.”
He sat back, pleased. All in all, she’d done very well for a first attempt. “Now, I want you to look away from the star and look at the floor instead.”
She tilted her head down.
He smothered the tray of incense with a lid. When he glanced back, she still looked at the floor. “Breathe deep. Stretch your legs out. Relax. When you are ready, look at me.”
After several deep breaths, she slowly straightened her legs and smiled up at him.
He offered a silent prayer of thanks for the power of the glamour. Without the effect of his spell, with her fragile vulnerability and her utter trust in him, she could burrow into his soul. He got up and removed the tray of incense. “Blink, stretch, and now, Sparrow, you can eat.”
“Thabit, did I do it right?”
He ruffled her hair, surprised the gray spikes were so soft beneath his palm. The glamour obviously didn’t penetrate further than a visual illusion. He must remember and not touch her again. “Yes, you did very well. You will continue to practice up here with me. But, Nin…” He stepped back and glanced around at the clutter.
“Yes.” She stood.
“You must never come up here alone. There are things here that could hurt you. I would not want to deal with the repercussions. Now, shall we go down to make porridge?”
While she made the porridge, he bathed in the stream. When he returned, she sat quiet as they ate. Might she be ill? The incense could cause nausea and dizziness if inhaled too fast. “Sparrow, are you all right?”
“Yes, I’m remembering.”
“Good, it is important to identify and recall the sensation of control.” He put down his spoon. “Now, while you go bathe, I will get a basket of things together to trade. We will visit the market today. I intend to show the village I have not killed you…yet.”
Her low laugh caught at him as he headed for the stairs. He packed a dozen small pots of salve and a variety of bottles of popular potions and healing brews to barter. After a few moments to decide which, he folded three of the scarves. He never took too many. The trades seemed better if the villagers saw the fabric as a luxury.
The basket ready, he took it down to the kitchen, left it on the table, and went to change his robe. For today’s purposes, he put on his second best—wine red with a hood. The black leather belt he wrapped around his waist, he only wore on serious occasions. He added his silvered dagger to its black sheath and set his pouch beside it so the dagger lay at his hip. He pulled out the leather thong and combed through his hair.
The villagers would see him powerful today. A mage with an apprentice, if he could call her that, should strike a little fear. He would relish their reactions. Nin lived under his protection since they cast her out. He’d see they would respect her place.
She waited in the kitchen. She’d bathed and changed into the loose, shapeless brown gown. The homespun rag hung like a sack. His old blue tunic was a far preferable garment. She bent to peek into the basket. Arching an eyebrow, he shook his head so she backed off from her investigation. Her mouth formed a perfect O as she stared at him, and the glamour shimmered, revealing the gold of her hair among the gray.
“What is wrong?” He glanced down at himself and forced his level of concentration to steady.
“Nothing, you look…You look…”
He gave her a nod, pleased the gray spikes had returned. “Like a Mage. Thank you, Sparrow. It is time to go. While we trade, we will get you enough cloth to make a new gown. The brown one is as foul clean as it was when dirty.”
He indicated for her to carry the basket and, as they left, pondered why he should find the sack-like gown so offensive. He locked the door.
* * * *
Their walk to the village uneventful, Nin’s surprise grew at how quick it seemed. For when she first trod this path, the journey had been the longest she’d ever made.
Had it only been two days ago?
The gate of the village palisade came into view. She halted because her knees shook. “Thabit,” she whispered, “you won’t let them kill me, will you?”
He paused his steps and shook his head. “You must have courage, Sparrow. Hold your head high when you walk with me. I swear, not one of them will harm you. Now come.”