Hot and exhausted, Amaya trudged in from the dusty fields with the rest of the village women and the children old enough to help harvest. They were all tired after working a long day. She could see it in the slow steps and slumped shoulders of the women. The children had long ago stopped laughing and playing. Though autumn was approaching, the days were still long and hot. Onby could use a good rain to settle the dust and cool the air, but the village had received no moisture in the last few weeks. That was good for the harvest, but hard on the spirit.
She just wanted to get home to her cottage, nibble some vegetables and bread, then collapse into bed. Even after a month, she wasn’t used to the hard labor of the fields. Memories of her beloved father threatened to choke her throat. Dead only a month and she still expected to see him each evening. She swallowed hard. She would not cry.
She waved at the other women as each turned away to her own cottage and she turned around the edge of the blacksmith’s cottage to where her own sat behind it. While she liked living so close to Spiln, son of the blacksmith, the loud ringing of the anvil often gave her a headache.
She stopped short at the sight of her cottage. All of her belongings sat in a heap near the front door in the dirt. She rushed over as a man exited carrying some of her clothes.
“Freskin? What are you doing?”
He stopped abruptly and his face flushed red. “I’m sorry, Amaya. I didn’t expect… we didn’t ask—”
“What are you talking about? Why are you in my house?”
That hated voice. Amaya turned as Elbeth walked up to them. Amaya noted that the other woman’s clothes were pristine—no field dust coated the silky fabric, no sweat stains marred the rich azure color of her underdress or the lavishly embroidered tunic. No, Elbeth looked perfect from the top of her blonde head to her dainty feet shod in silk slippers. Next to her, Amaya felt filthy and unkempt and she struggled to keep her hands from trying to fix her appearance. Elbeth would only notice and make some cutting remark.
“There’s been a change in your housing arrangement,” Elbeth announced. “Freskin and Doety had their baby today. Their family is now too large for their cottage, so I’m moving them into your cottage.”
“You can’t do that. This is my home.” She glanced at Freskin for support, but he looked to Elbeth. She waved her hand and he ducked his head as he laid her clothes down on top of a basket and fled inside.
“Your cottage is larger than theirs, suitable for a growing family.” Elbeth gave her a sly glance and a tiny malicious smile. “Since you have not found a man that will have you, you don’t need that much space. You’ll move into their cottage.”
“But my father built this cottage!”
“As Freskin’s father built his. We allocate our resources according to need, Amaya. Their need is greater than yours.”
“You can’t do this. You can’t force me out of my own home.”
“It is already done. Best hurry if you want any sleep before dawn. You’re still expected in the fields tomorrow.” Elbeth’s hair swung as she walked away. Amaya stood there stunned as Freskin came out of the cottage with another armload of her belongings.
“I’m sorry, I’m really sorry…” He dumped the items into her arms and picked up a basket on the other side of the door to carry inside.
“She can’t do this.” Amaya shook her head. There had to be someone she could appeal to. She spotted Deter down the lane. She ran to him, juggling the pile of pottery she carried.
He turned as he reached his doorway. “Good evening to you, Amaya.”
She skidded to a halt in front of him. “It’s not a good evening, not at all.”
“What’s wrong? Why are you carrying all those pots?”
“Elbeth gave my cottage to Freskin and Doety. She says I must move into theirs.”
“Oh.” His look was saddened. “I’m sorry to hear that. Your father was so proud of that cottage on the day he finished it for your mother.” He reached for some of the pottery. “Do you need help moving?”
She was aghast. “No. I need help getting my cottage back. Elbeth can’t do this. She isn’t the headman.”
Deter shook his head, his thin, white hair drifting lightly in the evening breeze. “That does not matter. Her father won’t go against her decisions.”
“But it’s my cottage!”
“And now it belongs to Freskin and Doety.” He patted her hand. “Best to let it go, Amaya. You’ll only bring more pain on yourself by trying to fight Elbeth.”
“She has no right to do this,” Amaya protested.
“No one will gainsay her, so I suppose she has all the rights she needs. Come now, I’ll help you move your things.”
She noted the tired look in his eyes and his drawn face. He’d had a long day working in the Tanglewyld with the men, harvesting ironvine.
“No, it’s all right. I don’t have that much to move. You get some supper.”
“If you’re sure.” His look of relief told her she’d made the right decision.
“Yes, I’m sure. Thank you.”
He smiled at her. “Your father would be proud of you, dear.”
“If he were here, this wouldn’t have happened,” she grumbled, but at his sad look, she pasted on a bright smile. “Good evening, Deter.”
She carried her pots back to her cottage. To Freskin’s cottage, she corrected herself. She stared in dismay at her house, her entire life with her father, all her precious memories, sitting in the dirt. Tears stung her over the injustice, but she swiped them with the back of her hand. She sorted and organized everything into manageable piles and started carting things to her new home. Freskin’s cottage was on the far side of the village and after the third trip, she was dropping with fatigue.
Spiln stepped out of his father’s house as she neared it and she brightened, smoothing her skirt and her hair back from her face. She gathered up her courage.
“Good evening, Spiln.”
He gave her a curt glance and a wrinkled nose. “Amaya.”
Tall and well muscled from working over his father’s anvil, he was the most beautiful man she’d ever seen. “Would you have a few minutes to help me? I need to move some things to Freskin’s cottage.”
She waved a hand. “Just some household goods.”
He laughed and she blinked at him in surprise. “Elbeth did it, huh? She’s been saying she was going to move you out of your cottage.”
“For a while now.” He stretched, showing off his muscles. “Probably because she didn’t want any other females living near me.”
Outrage filled her. Was that really the reason she had been moved? She could understand the necessity of the move to accommodate Freskin’s family, though she didn’t like it, but to move her out of her home simply because of jealousy?
He laughed again. “That’s Elbeth. She does whatever she wants to.” He walked away.
“Wait! Will you help me move?”
“I just got cleaned up. I’m not going to get dirty moving your stuff. I have a walk with Elbeth this evening.” He waggled an eyebrow at her and smirked before he left.
Her shoulders slumped and she went back to her cottage and continued carrying things to her new house. She’d hoped that one day Spiln would see her as a desirable woman, but instead, he only had eyes for Elbeth. All of the eligible young men in the village flocked around Elbeth and her sister, paying no attention to any other girl in the vicinity. Amaya supposed that if her father were the rich headman of the village, she might be the one courted with so much fervor.
If this had been any other village, she would probably be married now. Married with a baby or two at her hips. But Amaya’s red hair and sun-roughened skin couldn’t compete with Elbeth’s silky blonde locks and finely shaped features. Instead, the boys ignored Amaya. Even handsome, strong Spiln. Amaya would give one of Elbeth’s arms for Spiln’s affections.
At last, she was finished. Her possessions were piled on the floor and atop the bare bed frame in Freskin’s house. It was tiny compared to her own cottage, with only one small bedroom and one main room containing a small table and two chairs. She supposed she should be grateful that he left some of the furniture behind for her to use. She couldn’t find gratitude in her heart, however.
She munched on a dry carrot to quell her empty stomach and located a bucket. She needed water to wash up and then she’d get some sleep. Putting her things away could wait until morning after she’d slept.
The shadows were long in the village, stretching from house to house as she walked to the well in the village square. The bucket bumped against her leg, but she didn’t have the energy to hold it steady. She couldn’t even wave a friendly greeting to the few people she passed in the street. She was angry, exhausted, and heartsick over the move. There had to be some way to get her home back.
She lowered the well bucket down into the well and laboriously drew it back up, her arms straining to turn the crank. She carefully maneuvered it to the stone rim and tipped it into her own bucket. The water would be cold for a bath, but she didn’t care. It might even feel good after her exertions and the heat of the day.
“Amaya, what are you doing?”
Her stomach clenched at Elbeth’s voice and she nearly dropped the bucket. She wasn’t afraid of the woman, she told herself, trying to calm her reaction. She finished filling the bucket and then straightened up. Elbeth and Spiln stood nearby with Spiln’s arm wrapped around her waist and Elbeth was frowning at her.
“I’m drawing water.”
“For what purpose?”
“To wash up before bed,” Amaya replied. What business was it of hers?
Elbeth shook her head, her golden curls falling in waves around her face. “The village water is not to be used for bathing purposes. I’ve given orders to ration the water with the dry season we’re having.”
“But I need to wash up.”
Elbeth wrinkled her nose as she stepped closer. “I heartily agree. The smell of you is enough to turn my nose even at this distance.” Spiln chuckled at her comment. “But you can’t use the village water.”
Amaya’s face flushed red. “Then how am I supposed to get clean?”
“Go to the river and wash up there.” Elbeth waved a delicate hand in front of her face. “That should be far enough away that no one else can smell you. Spiln?” She waved at the bucket. He grabbed it and tipped it back into the well.
“She’s right,” he said with a grimace. “You should get to the river fast.” He dropped the bucket at her feet and left with Elbeth, both of them laughing.
Amaya stomped through the few, crispy fallen leaves, enjoying the crunch beneath her shoes. She imagined it was Elbeth’s face that she was grinding into powder. The air in the woods was blessedly cool as night approached and she quickened her steps to reach the river to wash up. Usually she enjoyed the overgrown peacefulness of the Tanglewyld, but tonight all she could think about was the injustice done to her.
She felt sympathy for Freskin and Doety with their growing family, but it was her home. Her safe place, filled with memories of happy times with her father. It was wrong for Elbeth to take her home away.
Amaya didn’t know what the young men of the village saw in Elbeth and her sister. Especially Spiln, always following at Elbeth’s heels. Beauty wasn’t the only appealing quality in a woman. A kind heart and a willingness to work hard were important. A gentle, loving soul was worth far more than pretty hair and fine features.
She imagined returning from the river with a bucketful of mud and “accidentally” slinging it at Elbeth.
The slimy mud drenched Elbeth, sliding wetly down her blond curls, turning them to dull brown clumps.
“Oh, Elbeth, I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you standing there,” Amaya said with a wide-eyed expression of innocence.
Elbeth wailed as mud dripped into her mouth. Behind her, Spiln and her sister Ersony laughed heartily at her bedraggled state. Spiln turned his deep brown eyes to Amaya and gave her a slow wink and a promising smile.
Amaya sighed. How glorious that would be.
She paused at the edge of the river where the land sloped down to the water. Since Elbeth had forced the villagers to dig the well a few years back, hardly anyone ever came to the river any more. After her father died, this had become her own private sanctuary to grieve.
She pulled off her tunic, leaving her underdress in place. They both needed a good washing, but she didn’t think the underdress would have time to dry before she needed to put it on again tomorrow morning. The thought of toiling in the fields after her long evening of moving her household exhausted her, but Elbeth made sure that everyone worked. If you didn’t work, you didn’t get a portion of the produce from the fields.
She stepped carefully onto the large rocks that stretched out into the water. Balancing on one near the middle of the river, she knelt down carefully and lowered the tunic into the water. She scrubbed it in the current, and then used it to wipe down her face and arms. She’d need a full bath to wash out her hair and it was getting dark. That would have to wait.
She wished she had the power to humiliate Elbeth. She wanted her to feel the way she made Amaya feel, small and unloved. Friendless. But she was nobody and Elbeth was rich, beautiful and protected by the power of her father.
The shadows grew longer and she stirred out of her morose mood. Time to get back to the village for some sleep. Maybe tomorrow she would find someone who could help her get her house back.
She stood up, teetering to the side before regaining her footing. Her tunic was far too wet to put back on so she wrung it out and carried it with her. She had crossed the rocks gingerly and stepped back on to the bank before she heard the voice.
“Finally, a commoner.”
A group of men on horseback faced her, dark-outlined shadows in the dusk. She hadn’t heard them approach over the sound of the river tumbling over the rocks, but she heard the man’s words clearly enough now.
“Direct my man to the closest town that offers suitable accommodations for the night. I’m nigh sick of wandering in this forsaken forest.” He slapped at his face, cursing the night insects, and then tossed a water skin at her feet. “Fetch water so I can wash up. All of this nature makes my skin crawl.”
The voice rang with authority and Amaya automatically bent to pick up the water skin. It was rare for strangers to pass through the Tanglewyld. It was thick with trees and bushes and impassable in most areas. Smart travelers stayed on the roads that ran around the forest. Seeing such a large group here in her sanctuary made her uneasy. Still, water was a simple request.
“Zimm, where is my wine? And bring me something to sit on. I will not have this filthy dirt on my coat.”
She filled the water skin as the men dismounted and led their horses to the river’s edge near her. She glanced around curiously, watching the men bustle about. When a pair of feet stopped suddenly beside her, she jerked in surprise. She looked up past legs in leather pants, a long sword, a mail overcoat and a steel helmet held under one arm. She couldn’t discern his features clearly in the shadows cast by the trees.
“Is there a town nearby?” The voice was deep, but not that of the demanding man who had ordered her to the river.
“Onby is the closest, but it’s more of a village.”
“Does it have an inn?”
She shook her head. There was no need for an inn. No one visited Onby. The man sighed, looking back over his own shoulder.
“The headman has a large house, the largest in the village,” she offered. She wondered what Elbeth would think when this group arrived in Onby and smiled at the chaos that was sure to result.
“That will have to do.”
“What news, Zimm? Can we get out of this infernal forest?”
The man turned away. “There is a village nearby. The headman has suitable lodgings.”
“No inn? That is unacceptable.”
“You desired a shortcut through the woods, my Lord. If we had stayed on the main roads-”
“I need no lectures from you! Girl, where is that water?”
She could see a man in a long coat as he seated himself gingerly on a low bench that another man placed for him. He held out a small bowl expectantly. She jumped to her feet and hurried over to him. She couldn’t pour the water from the floppy skin while holding her wet tunic in one hand, so she slung it over her shoulder, wincing as the wet fabric soaked through her underdress.
She bent down to pour the water and the tunic slipped off her shoulder and slapped wetly on the man’s head.
His bellow of outrage startled her and she accidentally squeezed the water skin, squirting water all over his clothes. She scrambled away from him as he surged to his feet and wrenched the dripping tunic off his head, flinging it into the dirt.
“Are you stupid or just blind, girl?” the man roared.
A hand grabbed her arm suddenly, jerking her panicked backpedaling to a halt. She struggled to pull her arm free, but the man clamped a firm hand on her.
“Your command, Magister Yamantheru.”
A Magister? She froze as one of the men lit a torch and held it high. The flickering light now clearly showed the angry man’s rich robes of velvet and silk with a heavy jeweled chain of office, all dripping water. She had a quick impression of short dark hair and a hard face as he wiped it with a dry cloth. She swallowed.
“Blind and stupid from the look of her.”
He lifted a hand to her face. “Since you have no use for your eyes…” He spoke a few strange words as he passed his hand over her face.
The world went completely dark. She blinked, but saw nothing. She lifted her free hand to her face and felt her eyes. They were still open, but she could see nothing.
“What did you do? I can’t see!”
“As I said, since you weren’t using your eyes…”
The man holding her arm released her and she stumbled away from him, arms outstretched.
“What shall we do with her, Magister?”
“I care not.”
There was laughter and she felt bodies crowding around her, pushing her, making her stagger one way and then the other. Hands brushed against her breasts, her hips. She flung her arms out to catch her balance, but they grabbed her shoulders and spun her in a circle, pushing her from one man to another.
“Come here, little rabbit. Let’s have some fun.” They spun her into another man’s arms.
She dropped to her knees, panic welling up inside. She thought of the Magister and remembered the words he had said just before her sight had left her. She softly repeated them, hoping they would restore her sight. “Ialduadi oeryimi.” Her world remained dark, but she heard another roar from the Magister. His men rushed to him and she sensed a gap in the circle they’d formed around her.
She scrambled to her feet and tried to remember which direction the forest lay. She could hear the river bubbling behind her, so she ran forward, pushing her way past the men.
“Stop her!” Magister Yamantheru yelled. “Bring her to me!” The sudden loss of his vision startled him, but he was unconcerned. It could be restored easily enough. The fact that the girl had been able to make him blind was the real issue.
He heard Captain Zimm immediately order his men into the forest after the girl and approach him.
“Magister? Is there a problem?”
“Yes, there’s a problem.” He finished wiping his face. “Ialduadi uvoruchei.” His vision returned and he noted Zimm standing at his side. “Why aren’t you chasing the girl?” he asked irritably.
“I would not leave you unprotected in the Tanglewyld, Magister.”
Yaman grunted at that and sat back down. “Where’s that wine?”
Zimm retrieved the skin and poured him a goblet of the ruby liquid. Yaman sipped it and sighed. He may have been forced out of Cenarris to travel the backwards parts of the country, but he refused to travel without the basic comforts.
“Magister, if I may, why do we seek the girl?”
Zimm was a good captain, but his curiosity was irritating. Yaman shifted on his seat. “Because I said so. That should be enough.”
“Of course.” Zimm bowed and stepped away to build a fire.
Yaman stretched his legs before him, wincing at the dust that coated his finely tooled boots. If the need for new Adepts for the Magistery weren’t so acute, Yaman never would have agreed to this trip. He hated the poverty and filth in the outlying villages. Did the peasants have no pride in their circumstances? Such a dirty, unmannered lot they were. He had not been surprised when his testing had failed to turn up any Adepts in Fairston Crossing. He had not expected to find anyone with a talent for the Words outside of Cenarris.
But here in the depths of the Tanglewyld, he’d stumbled on a peasant girl who had potential. It was imperative that she be located and tested. Niovivi had bragged over the two Adepts she’d found on her last testing trip to the southern tip of the country and Yaman was feeling the pressure to outdo her. He’d heard Magister Prime Fabissan talking highly of her recruiting efforts. That was a grave concern. Fabissan hadn’t announced his successor yet for Magister Prime and Yaman was determined it would be himself, not Niovivi. If only he could finish this trip and get back to Cenarris quickly.
“Zimm, why haven’t the guards returned with the girl yet?”
His captain turned from where he was tending the horses. “They are searching, Magister and will find her.”
“They had better find her and soon. I refuse to spend another night in this fetid forest.”
* * * * *