Authors: Daisy Banks
She forced herself to calm, and once he had pulled the hood on his robe up to cover his head, they walked on.
All talk ceased as they entered the tiny market, made up of six wooden tables for stalls. The squawks of chickens and geese, a dog howling in the distance, the high-pitched wail of a child, all seemed loud. The villager’s silence continued.
Keeping her head bowed and her gaze on the back of his boots, she followed close behind Thabit. He stopped at the end of the row of tables. She tugged at the straps on her shoulders and handed him the basket. He set it down at his feet and opened the lid to display the contents to those who may wish to look.
She longed to hide in his pocket.
Surprise, fear, and the odd flash of guilt, all lurked in the hostile glances toward her. A small boy who stared dropped the bread crust he chewed on and gave a furious yell. The day-to-day sounds of talk resumed as his mother dusted off his chunk of bread.
Nin sighed, glad things had not been worse on their arrival. The squat, wooden-framed buildings and homespun-clad people remained familiar. Nothing had changed for them. Such a lot had changed for her. They could have no idea how different she already was from the girl they drove away.
Aunt Jen walked straight by without a greeting, the small basket Nin remembered so well clutched tight to her narrow bosom. She bowed her head with sorrow. The censure of the mark remained.
Cousin Lettie approached and peeked up at Thabit. Though Lettie did not speak, her tiny nod in Nin’s direction before she bent down to examine the scarves gave a little hope for the future.
“Nin, you’re alive!” Alicia rushed across the square.
The three people who bargained at the stall beside the Mage’s, all turned and stared, someone gave a loud tut.
“Do not allow her to make a fuss, simply nod. You can speak with her privately when the goods are traded,” he murmured from the depths of his hood. He turned to a woman to accept a large keg of butter in return for a pale lilac scarf.
“Yes, Alicia, I’m alive.” Even to her, the words sounded cold, but he’d said she should do it. “I’ll find you later,” she whispered.
Alicia backed away in a series of quick steps, her blue eyes full of hurt.
When Nin turned back to the basket, Lettie had gone. Aunt Jen owned nothing valuable enough for her cousin to trade for one of the scarves. Satisfaction brought a small private smile, and she fingered the soft fabric of hers. Wrapped around her waist today, his gift hung bright like a rainbow.
He leaned down, his voice low, only for her. “Well done, Sparrow. They must learn respect for you now, even those who were once friends.”
Alicia backed farther off, her slight form hidden in the shadows. Another woman stepped up to their basket and bent to examine the goods. The woman stooped on creaking joints to take out a jar. She held the jar and looked in question to the Mage. He inclined his hooded head.
“For the aches of the winter and old age,” he explained, and in majestic silence shook his head at the studded leather belt the woman offered to trade.
“What’ll you take?” she asked.
“I want cloth, grandmother, a goodly length, enough for a robe. Oh, and I want it red.”
The large woman set the jar down before she waddled off.
“Yes, red will be good,” he murmured.
Nin darted a glance up. Did he mean the cloth for her?
Gray-haired Agnes approached, and her stomach flipped. The need to run screamed through her. She inched closer to Thabit, who tilted his head to her.
“Do not make a move, not a flicker. Do you hear me?”
The whisper warmed, and her trembles stilled.
He stood straight as a yard pole and inclined his hooded head to Agnes. “You have my thanks, wise woman.”
Agnes froze. People stared, and an instant, heavy silence swelled through the air.
Nin kept her gaze on Agnes, who now shivered. For the way the Mage spoke, deep voice and powerful as a god, would still the most courageous heart.
Thabit nodded his head again to Agnes, who took a small step back. “My thanks for the gift you sent me, wise woman. Be sure I will train her well. Once she is skilled, I am certain she will be prudent and not bear any grudge for those who may have been unkind.”
The urge to laugh was painful to stop. Nin pinched herself. The stooped old woman flashed the sign for protection from evil, turned, and hobbled away through the little group. Only one or two people laughed as she left. Most, like Nin, kept silent.
Once she understood Agnes would not return, her heart fluttered, and she grew easier with the villagers who milled about, bartering what they could. Confidence swelled through her. When she stood beside him, she had nothing to fear. After a woman handed Thabit a sack of oats for a large, blue bottle of potion and bustled off smiling, she whispered up to him, “Thank you.”
The woman who wanted the salve returned and placed a folded length of fabric by the oat sack. Thabit handed over the jar. “This will not fail to ease your pain.”
Excitement sent a tingle to her fingertips. She fought to stop herself reaching out to stroke the material. This looked a long length of well-dyed wool. If she was careful with the stitching, she could make a fiery red gown from it.
Two women stood for a time with them. She knew them by name, but neither spoke to her. Though both were married, and one had two babes, their gazes lingered on Thabit. They craned their necks in their efforts to see into his hood.
The temptation to shout, “Yes, he’s beautiful, and he’s mine
” bubbled hot when they simpered at him, but she bit her tongue. Thabit bargained with the pair, and for a slender needle and three swatches of thread, he swapped small pots of salve they could use on their hands.
“One last thing. We need honey, don’t we?” he murmured, as a man she knew well approached.
Crispin did not look at her. His baldhead shone in the sun when he bent down to the scarves. He exuded the smell of mead, strong enough to mask the normal village scents. He played with the ends of the bright yellow and green patterned scarf hung over the edge of the basket.
Nin hid a smile behind her hand as she took a tiny step back. Crispin must need to make up to his poor wife one more time. He must have done something very bad if one of the scarves would make amends.
“What’ll you take for it?” he asked Thabit, avoiding a glance at her.
Surprised at his politeness, she stared at him. Crispin usually bellowed like a bull at all he met.
“Honey, a large jar, and a can of milk will suffice.”
Thabit asked for a lot. To her astonishment, Crispin nodded and headed across the square toward his house. He returned a few minutes later with a big clay jar in the curve of his elbow, and a milk can slung on his arm.
Thabit handed over the decorated scarf. “It is yours and will bring the wearer good fortune. I will return the can next time we come here.”
Crispin flashed a toothless grin, and even gave her a brief nod of recognition before he strolled off.
“Now, Sparrow, should you wish to speak to your friend, you have a few moments to do so while I pack the trades away. Then we must leave.”
She hurried over to where Alicia stood, half-hidden in the shadows. “Alicia.”
“You’re not hurt?” The bright smile Alicia often wore didn’t appear.
“No!” She smiled as she shook her head. “I’m not hurt, not at all. No matter what filthy old Agnes might say. The Mage isn’t cruel and he hasn’t… he’s not done what Agnes said he would.”
Alicia breathed out with a sigh. “I’m glad. I hope you know I’ve prayed hard to all the gods I can think of to keep you safe.”
“Well, I think you can stop praying now. I’m not sure I want to be that safe anymore. I like it at the tower. I like being with the Mage. I think he likes me, too.”
Alicia’s jaw dropped.
She laughed at her friend’s surprised expression.
The potter’s voice boomed across the small square from his workshop. “Alicia! You’re needed in the house. Your mother needs you.” Alicia’s father always had an eye for what might be going on in the square.
“I’d better go. I hope we meet again soon because there is something I have to ask you.” Alicia patted her arm with a bandaged hand before she hurried off across the small square to her parent’s house.
“Sparrow, it is time we returned to the tower,” Thabit called. She dashed over.
The full basket looked heavy. She struggled in an attempt to lift it.
He gave a low laugh with a shake of his head. “No, I will carry it back.” He stooped to pull the straps over his shoulders, hefted the basket up, and walked toward the gate.
She followed, placing her feet exactly in the marks of his footsteps all the way down the dusty track out of the village.
“I am very pleased with how you behaved. Next time, it will not be as hard. Each visit will get easier the more often we trade here. They know you have the mark, but you are safe with me for training. They understand, one day you will have wisdom beyond their imaginings. Yes, you did very well.”
Her face flushed hot at his praise, but her stomach rumbled. “Thabit, do we have any bread?”
“There are two small loaves in the basket. When we get back you can have bread and butter with honey, but you will have to wait.”
She grinned at his back. Things got better and better. Away from the eyes of the village now, she danced down the overgrown path beside him.
“A Mage’s apprentice should not hop about so, such hopping is for sparrows,” he said with a laugh as they walked on.
True to his word, once Thabit lifted the basket from his shoulders, she took out the fresh bread. She cut thick slices then spread them with butter and honey. Thabit unpacked the rest, setting the oat sack in the storeroom and the fabric, needles, and thread on the end of her bed. The urge to stroke the smooth fabric made her palm itch, but her fingers were sticky with honey. As he’d said nothing about it, she wasn’t sure the red bolt of cloth was truly meant for her.
They went out to eat together. He sat beside her on the grass beside the well and they shared the sumptuous treat.
He finished his third slice. “Tonight, Sparrow, I must complete the mushroom brew in readiness for our visit to the castle.”
Busy licking her fingers, she nodded.
“I will not eat tonight or tomorrow. You only need to cook for yourself.”
“But that’s not right, Thabit. You’ll make yourself ill.”
“Nonsense. I fast so my mind will be clear. In the same way you made your mind quiet, I must make mine open. Do you think you can have the new dress ready to wear for the day after tomorrow?”
A surge of joy raced through her blood, competing with the sweetness from the honey. The red cloth was hers to make the best gown she could. “I’ll try.”
“Please do. I would rather you have a better gown to wear than the brown thing. You can’t go to the castle in my old tunic. This is important. I want the lady to like you.”
“Why is it important the lady likes me?” Despite the thrill of a new red gown, she didn’t like the look in his eyes, not one bit. He planned something. She wanted to know what it might be.
“I hope Lady Cassandra will take you into her enclave so you may study there with her other students. They should have discovered your talent and the mark years ago. Then you would have gone to her when you were a child, not been sent to me as a—”
She grinned. “Woman.”
“I was about to say maiden.”
She shook her head. “Thabit, I don’t want to go there. I don’t want to stay at the castle. This is where I belong now. The mark made me yours. That’s the rule—it’s the sign I am yours. They said it was true. I want to be yours.”
He sighed. “Well, you cannot be.”
“Please, why not?”
“If I teach you, it would be wrong. Also, such a responsibility as teaching a student would slow up my work. You have to learn control. If I do not find you a suitable teacher, what will you become?”
She searched his expression for a sign she could alter his decision. “I promise I’ll try really hard if you’ll teach me.”
He gave no response to the best bargain she could come up with, but determination filled her. If he left her at the castle, she’d run away to come back here. He’d turned the world from a fearful horror to a place she liked, somewhere she felt important and in reach of a wealth of knowledge and beauty. Most of all, she would be with him. She had no comparison for anything better.
Thabit stood. “For once and for all, Nin, you cannot be mine. I will not allow it. You are far too immature to make such a decision, far too unskilled, and I do not…” He ran a hand over his pale forehead.
“Don’t like me?” Her throat caught tight.
He closed his eyes. “No, you are again mistaken. I do like you, Sparrow, very much.” He sighed. “I am going to meditate now. I shall make the seeing brew tonight. I will not be finished until dawn. After, I will sleep. I shall see you tomorrow evening.” He walked toward the tower. Halfway to the door, he stilled and looked back over his shoulder with a frown. “Do not eat all the honey while I am working.”
She jumped up and stood hands on hips. “No, I won’t. I’m not a child. You said so yourself.”
“Hmm.” He entered the tower.
Before she cooked for the evening, she washed her hands to begin work on her new gown. Using the blue tunic as a kind of pattern and the sharpest of the kitchen shears, she concentrated hard as she cut the beautiful fabric to make the gown. The sleeves would hug her arms and the bodice her body. But, she wanted the skirt to look different. She used the length of a long spoon as a measure and cut six panels, so when she walked the skirt would swirl about her, just like his robes. The scarf Thabit had given her would match it perfectly.
Through the evening she sewed, hemming the pieces until the light dimmed too much for her to do more. Careful of creases, she rolled the fabric, ready to continue at dawn tomorrow, and as the bright stars lit up, she ate another slice of bread with butter. The honey pot stood on the shelf to tempt her, but she made sure the lid sat tight shut before she slept.