Authors: Daisy Banks
When she woke the next dawn, the small copper cauldron hung away from the fire. She tugged on her dress and crossed to the hearth. Fascinated by what might be inside, she lifted the lid on the pot and peeked. A tiny amount of the nasty liquid, the same as the brown mess she had thrown out on her first day here, sat in the bottom of the pot. She sniffed the pungent earthy odor of the brew, then carefully replaced the cover. What did he do with the mixture? Surely, he couldn’t mean to drink it.
After she bathed, she checked the peas and beans and assessed the rows of carrots. The cabbages wouldn’t last much longer. Even though she watered the small plot each day, its offerings were still small. Next time they went to the market, he must trade for seeds or roots to plant here. She picked vegetables for enough stew for Thabit, in case he should change his mind about eating.
The rest of the day, she sat on the grass by the well where she sewed until her fingers ached. Her new gown came together as though under a spell. Despite tiredness pricking at her eyes, she hemmed the ten, tiny lace holes on the bodice.
Evening bees droned a lazy hum in the flowers when she finally held up the beautiful finished gown. True, it was plain, very plain, but red like an August sunset. She had no laces to match, but the black ones she already had would work, and she threaded them through.
When she tried the new dress on in the kitchen, a ripple of delight ran over her. She almost called up to him to come and see, for the soft wool clung in just the way she’d imagined. She had never owned anything this pretty, except the scarf he’d given her. The excitement made her long to dance, for she couldn’t wait until he saw her wearing the gown.
She twirled around the kitchen but feared she might spill something so changed back out of it. She caressed the fabric as she folded it, then set it ready for her to wear for their journey in the morning. To visit the castle was a fairy tale. She could hardly believe she would go. Her one concern to spoil the dream remained. Would she come home with him tomorrow night?
One way or another, she’d manage it.
The stew had simmered all day. She ate a little, and after, tidied the kitchen. Only once did she catch her mind in the hums he could hear. She stilled the noise and concentrated hard until her thoughts stayed quiet. The evening light dimmed, but she went out to water the vegetable garden. A fresh surprise greeted her. The first shoots of green along one row. Onions. They must have slumbered from lack of moisture. She’d see them well weeded and watered from now on. Putting down the bucket, she checked again to see if the peas swelled any nearer to ripeness and made sure that the wood ash she’d spread at the base of the canes was thick enough to keep the slugs at bay.
At full dark when she drew the drapes, he still had not come down from the workshop. She fretted about him being hungry, but, as he’d said, she would not disturb him. He must know what he was doing.
Curled on her bedroll, the glow of the banked fire added to her content. Drowsy and ready to sleep, for the first time since she arrived, she made a prayer not driven by desperation.
let me stay here with Thabit.
* * * *
“Wake up, Sparrow, it is time to dress and go.” Thabit called her from the dream where he was just about to kiss her. Her gaze slid up to his face. The skin of her shoulder where his hand had touched seemed to sizzle like spit on a hot coal.
Today, he looked more beautiful than ever. His long dark hair shone glossy like polished ebony as it fell past his shoulders. His robe—a deep, mustard yellow, the finest robe she’d ever seen—was covered in embroidered designs in tiny black stitches. That robe had to be worth more than all the cows in the village.
“You’ll have to wait while I bathe and dress,” she said and sucked in his smile. The blanket clutched to her, she sat up and caught hold of the red gown from where she’d set it last night. She wrapped the cover tight around her body before she slithered off her bed and backed out the door.
“Be quick. We need to be on our way before the sun is much higher.” His call faded as she dashed out to the stream.
Despite the cool dawn, she dunked herself in the chilly water and scrubbed at her grubby feet and ankles. Her skin tingled when she dried herself on the blanket. Gleeful, she wriggled into the red gown. She draped the blanket on a branch to dry. There would be no need of it tonight, because the determination filled her that this night, she would share Thabit’s bed. She had no comb, so she ran her fingers through her hair and pushed the weight of it back over her shoulders. The bubble of excitement grew larger with each step she took. She hurried back to the tower.
* * * *
Thabit checked his pouch once more while he waited. The tiny, dark bottle of mushroom brew remained sealed tight, but he could almost taste the sour bitterness within. He got up to check around the tidy kitchen.
The stew pot set on the largest hook was still over half full. The honey jar had not moved from where he had seen it last night. He smiled, for she had kept her word. At a sound from the doorway, he turned, ready to say how pleased he was, but she took all words away.
How can she be so fair?
This morning, with his concentration on the scrying to come, the glamour had failed. For the first time in two days, she did not appear old, gray-haired, and warty as she stood in the light spilling in from the clean window. This morning she was the sun-kissed, fair fae who had knocked on his door. Not only did she glow, lovely as a dew shimmered lily, but the new gown clung to her lithe body. The wide skirt spread down from her hips in a sweep to the floor. The bodice, pulled skintight by her lacings, outlined her body in detail. Each rounded breast stood ripe like a summer apple, ready for plucking.
“I didn’t expect it to look like that, Sparrow.” He rose from the chair, crossed the room in three swift steps, took her hand, and, unable to resist, bowed.
The pink blush on her cheek beckoned his finger to stroke over the heat. If he didn’t get her out of here now, no question about it, Lord Farel would wait a long time for his arrival at the castle.
Instead of traveling there, he’d spend the morning in the delightful exploration of the sweet, soft curves outlined by the clinging red wool. His mouth grew dry and he couldn’t swallow. Closer now, she smelled fresh, like the woods after rain, and try as he might, he could not dismiss her appeal to his senses.
“Do you like it?”
“Yes, Sparrow, you look like a queen. Lady Cassandra will adore you.” He cast about for any other thought but Nin.
“I don’t want the lady to adore me. I want—”
“No. Not another word.” He put a finger to her lips. They were smooth and soft, warm and tender. When she grinned and opened her mouth to take a mischievous nip, he drowned in sensation. Desire flooded his body. “Stop it, now.”
Smiling, her eyes soft as burnished chestnuts, she stepped closer still.
Gods help him, he could do nothing else but slide his arms around her and gather her in. Her smile dazzled as she tilted her head back to gaze into his eyes.
The red wool warmed under his hands. He leaned in as she closed her eyes, bent his head until her breath touched his cheek. On her little sigh, he covered her mouth with his, and her pink lips, sweet and softer than petals, warmed him like wine.
Her delicious, honeyed mouth opened. He slid his tongue inside to meet hers. She mewed and molded herself to him. The world, like him, breathed deep, as with tiny delicate movements her tongue stroked over his. The room darkened, the only reality her pliant body pressed tight against his.
His blood pounded in a rising match of her rapid heartbeat, its staccato rhythm thudding through her breasts squashed and flattened against his chest. The silky ripples of her hair slid beneath his palms. He curled his fingers through the thick waves as he cradled her head. Every action combined to create a new universe from this moment.
A hot ache for her throbbed in his groin, but when she wriggled against him, a sudden cold wave of awareness flashed through the heat.
This was his Sparrow, and though she looked like a woman today, she was an innocent. He would not be the one to take that from her this day, and not because of a new red gown.
Somewhere in the depths of his honor, he found the strength to take his mouth from hers and hold her at arm’s length away from him. Her brilliant smile shone bright like the early sun, her moist, parted lips beckoned, inviting him to come back soon. He fought to ignore the need rampant in his flesh. “Enough, Sparrow, enough. I swear I’ll not call you girl anymore.”
Her gaze sparkled and she ran a finger over her lip as if to catch his kiss. “Good, and when we come home, Thabit, I’ll lie with you, and then I’ll really be yours?”
He blinked in surprise. She had no qualms in her demands. Right now, such robust honesty was not an admirable trait.
He’d no intention of bedding her. None at all.
That’s a lie.
The way his body throbbed to aching, he would delight in her sweet flesh. He shook his head. “Tonight, I will be exhausted and go alone to my bed.”
Her smile faded, but the challenge in her eyes warned she would not let this matter rest. He would have the energy for the glamour tomorrow, but not today or tonight when he would be weakened. Would it make a scrap of difference to his desire for her if he disguised her charms? Somehow, unless Cassandra kept Nin there this evening he would have to deal with her plans when they returned from the castle.
The sounds of her song invaded his thoughts.
“You have failed to practice while I have been busy.”
She nodded her head and her curls bobbed. Silence came again with her contrite expression.
I could take her now!
He closed his eyes to shut the delight of her out and grasped at anything he could to plunge her back into a servant, or pupil, anything other than this luscious morsel to tempt him. “If you do not practice, you will not improve, and you will drive me to madness. Now come. It is time to go.”
“I’m ready, just waiting for you.” She turned to the door, draped the scarf around her neck with a flourish, and stepped over the threshold.
He swallowed hard before following her along the short hallway. The sway of the gown, the ripple of the fringes of the scarf, only emphasized her curves.
To allow her to stroll on the path before him would be beyond endurance and could lead to only one thing. The image of her, naked beneath him in the dappled shade of the forest, filled his vision.
That was not what he should be seeing this day.
“I thought you were in a hurry?” she called.
He forced his mind back to the task he must complete as he strode outside, slammed the door, and turned to lock it. “You walk behind me. Please, stay quiet.”
She gave a loud sigh as they took the forest path in the opposite direction of the village.
Cassandra monitored the careful actions of the servants who swept the room and cleaned the crystals before they laid a fire in the marbled hearth.
Everything must be perfect.
Her two acolytes worked at the long marble-topped table to prepare the incense mix. They then set out all the Mage would need. When Thabit arrived, the room would be ready.
She sighed. Before the Mage scried for her brother, she must tell him of the visions plaguing her this last week. Each night, the sense of impending danger grew to new heights. She had only waited to discuss this with him because he would visit today. If her brother had not asked the Mage to attend the castle, she would have ridden over to the tower in the woods to seek his advice.
“Cecile, please make sure the central floor panel is well polished.”
The fair-haired girl nodded in response as she moved away from a large, silver tray of incense.
Cassandra turned back to the huge mullioned window. She looked down over the greensward beyond the lake and to the forest where the Mage’s tower stood. Since his arrival a year ago, he had come here several times. Her initial uncertainty had given way to… Well? What could she call it? A kind of fondness.
The fault wasn’t Thabit’s. Her brother believed only a male seer could give him the answers he wanted. Moreover, Thabit had been truthful enough with Ranulf, telling him in detail when the campaigns would fail.
Thabit read the signs with great skill, although he said he didn’t. One of his most endearing qualities remained his humility.
She did wish her brother would reward the Mage’s skill more amply. Thabit’s existence at the tower must be frugal. She would be pleased if he should enjoy the temporal satisfactions more coin would bring. She would speak to Ranulf about it again.
A splash of color broke her thoughts as a troop of the garrison rode over the green plain beyond the lake. The fiery star of her brother’s standard played out behind the lead horse. Saddened, she shook her head. The mail-clad youths, ardent in their daring and skill, full of bluster and bravado, strutted and swaggered in the castle hall. Each one the same, until fate dealt them a blow, and they returned injured for her and the young ones to heal their wounds. Then, she and the girls always heard a different story. Thankfully, the last battle had been months ago. No patients needed their care at present.
However, if her visions spoke true in the last days, soon there would be many to nurse, but not due to war.
Strange niggles of irritation, such as she rarely experienced, invaded her calm. For some unknown reason, she grew very cross, with no adequate idea of the cause.
“Tab, my dear,” she called over to the girl who polished with Cecile. “Get me a cup of wine, something sweetened with honey. Yes, I feel I need the sweetness.”
The girl moved quickly and hurried to do her bidding, but waves of irritation slid over Cassandra as she sat by the window.
What was wrong with her today?
* * * *
“You didn’t say it would be this far. Can’t we stop? My feet hurt.”
This was the second time she had called to stop, but they had no time for rest breaks. “Sparrow, be quiet, unless you want to fly to the castle.”