The Hob's Bargain

Page 1

SPRING  -  Rebirth

ONE

Changes are frightening, I thought, even when they're changes for the better. From the doorway my cottage I looked across the yard and garden to the barn where my husband was harnessing our chestnut workhorse. My husband. Our workhorse. I tasted the thought in my mind and smiled. Frightening, yes, but exciting and wonderful, too.

The barn wasn't far from the house, but the distance was great enough that I couldn't see the lacings on the harness or the faint, pale lines near my husband's eyes where the sun didn't reach his skin when he smiled. But I could see the horse cock an ear back, listening to Daryn's soft, slow voice. I could see the wheat-gold of Daryn's hair, newly cut in honor of our wedding.

We'd been married all of a night, and though we'd been betrothed this past harvest, I still couldn't quite believe it. I'd never expected to wed at all. The morning was still chilly this early in spring. I drew my shawl more tightly around my shoulders, hugging the warmth closer.

Daryn tied the traces to the croup strap high on the horse's rump so they wouldn't drag the ground all the way to the high field where he'd meet his brother and my father to continue the plowing they'd already begun. The muscles of his back flexed under the wool shirt he wore as he pulled himself to the chestnut's back in one smooth motion.

"Daryn..." I called tentatively.

He saw me in the doorway and grinned. I smiled back with relief. When he'd left the house, I'd been busy cleaning up after breakfast, pretending I fixed morning meals every day when it had always been my mother's task. Near to thirty years old, and I still couldn't make toasted bread without scorching it.

Cleaning had given me a reason for my red cheeks other than the embarrassment that had first caught my tongue when I awoke in bed with him this morning and worsened dismally with the advent of the blackened bread. I'd expected him to be grumpy, as my father always was. I should have known him better than that: Daryn didn't hold grudges.

He spun the horse on its haunches, a trick he'd taught it during the last year's long winter months while I'd watched from my parents' house. If I half-closed my eyes, I could almost see a warrior on his mount preparing for battle rather than a landsman off to work. With a snort, the horse galloped to the small porch where I stood, his heavy feet thundering on the ground like the great horses from Gram's tales of ancient heroes.

Daryn was handsome enough to be a hero, perhaps some lost prince or noble. A clever twinkle seldom left his eye, and good humor colored most of his expressions - attributes all proper heroes should have. The muscles he'd earned tilling the fields were no less impressive than those of a soldier, and probably better than any prince would earn seated upon a throne.

Truth was, he was prettier than I, and the better part of a decade younger. His age had worried me when Father brought him home last fall. I should have remembered how shrewd my father was. Only an idiot could have found fault with Daryn, and I hope I've never been that - or at least not very often.

"Aren, my lass?" Daryn asked after a moment. I realized he'd stopped in front of me some time ago, and I'd been staring at him without speaking.

I started to say something light and funny, something to let him know it was shyness, not moodiness, that I felt, but the words stopped in my throat. A familiar chill settled into my stomach. Not now, I thought desperately. I reached out to his normalcy and warmth, gripping the cloth of his pant leg, and hoped for the feeling to pass. When I closed my eyes against dizziness, I saw...

... a winter lily, scarlet flower drooping and edged with brown, bobbing as something dripped on it.

As an explanation of the dread feeling that choked me, it was a complete failure. Most of my visions were like that. Later, after whatever event the sight had warned of took place, I could nod my head to myself and say, "Oh, that's what it meant." Not very useful.

If I had to be stricken with magic, I would rather have had something like Gram's talent for healing, or my brother's knack for finding things - especially because the consequences of having magic were so deadly. My brother had died for his when I was thirteen.

He'd been in town with Father, trading fresh milk for leather to mend a harness, when Lord Moresh's bloodmage saw him and spoke my brother's death sentence. Quilliar had been fifteen, and he'd had a day to choose whether he would apprentice to the bloodmage or refuse and be put to death.

If he'd chosen to become a bloodmage, he'd have learned to kill and torture for power. After a while he'd have begun to go insane, as all the mages did in the end - some immediately, some after years of a gradual decline into madness.

He'd picked death, but not one delivered by the bloodmage. The bloodmages would have used his death, his dead body, to power their magics. So my brother walked into the middle of a snowstorm and found a place where his body would be safely hidden for three days: enough time to ensure the bloodmage had no power from him.

I couldn't tell Daryn I had the sight, though I'd had all winter to do it. Caution learned so harshly would not drop from me after a few months of exchanged confidences and growing love. After a night of being man and wife, I would have trusted him with my life, but I couldn't risk losing the growing softness in his eyes when he looked at me.

Looking into his eyes, I couldn't tell him what I'd seen.

"Aren?" he asked, concerned. "Is something wrong?"

"No. No, just be careful." I released his leg and stepped back. I hugged myself as if it would help keep my mouth from telling him everything. I wrestled with my conscience, finally deciding that if whatever happened was catastrophic, I would tell him about the sight - punishment for being too selfish to tell him now.

He grinned at me, not seeing the seriousness of my warning. "I'll keep my feet out from under the plowshares and be back at dusk after a dangerous day of plowing fields with your father and Caulem."

The warmth in his eyes kept his speech from being patronizing. He took my words as an expression of concern, perhaps the implied apology for my moodiness this morning that I'd meant to give him when I'd called him over.

Well, my foreseeing was not exact, predicting small harms as well as great. Perhaps someone would twist an ankle today or cut themselves on a sharp rock. Maybe it would rain. I hoped it would rain.

I set the worry to the back of my mind and kissed him when he leaned down. "See that you do," I said.

When I patted his cheek with a motherly hand, he grinned suddenly. He gave me a warm look and turned his head to bite my forefinger gently. I ducked a bit, not wanting him to see the heat in my eyes. He wrapped his hand around a strand of my hair and tugged me close again. This time his kiss left me too breathless to talk, sending the dark warning from my heart as if it had never been.

The horse shifted, pulling us apart.

"Don't fret so much, Aren," he said, and his voice soothed me as it did any of the other beasts he used it on. "You and I'll do very well."

He kissed me again and set the gelding up the path to the field before I recovered enough to speak. He knew I watched him, because he pulled the big horse into a controlled rear just before he rode out of sight. The harness was more hindrance than help in riding, but Daryn sat the horse easily. He blew me a kiss, then horse and rider plunged forward and were lost in the trees.

I shut the door of the cottage and looked about. Daryn had built the little house himself, and each joint of wood and brush of whitewash showed the care he'd taken. There was a loft for our bed, and the kitchen was set in its own nook. I'd helped to sand the wooden floor (along with everyone else in both our families), and I'd woven the small green rug that covered the trapdoor of the cellar which would keep our food cool during the summer. There wasn't much furniture. Daryn promised that when next winter came, he'd build more. Possessively, I ran my hand over the wooden back of my grandmother's loveseat.

Everyone in the village knew there was a strain of magic running in my father's family. That hadn't stopped my sister's wedding. There weren't so many folk around that a taint to the blood kept people from forming alliances, not when it was properly buried a generation or so back. My brother's death brought shame to the forefront; there were no families who would have me after that.

If anyone had found out I was mageborn, they'd have killed me. By the One God's sacred commands, mages are an evil to be eliminated, and since Lord Moresh's great-grandfather's conversion, everyone in Fallbrook followed the teachings of the One God. Death to mages was more popular than some of the other edicts.

I still had nightmares about the old woman who was pressed to death by her family when I was five or six. They'd used a barn door and piled it with stones until she was crushed beneath the weight. I wasn't there when it happened, but the stones still stood. When I passed them, I always tried not to see the remains of the barn door underneath the heaped mound of rock.

Like my brother, I'd still prefer such a death over what a mage would do to me - which was just as well, for I wouldn't be given the choice of apprenticeship. All bloodmages were men.

I stayed away from town when Lord Moresh and his bloodmage were in residence. Fortunately, Fallbrook was neither his only nor his most important holding, so he was seldom here. This year there'd been a war someplace and he hadn't come at all.

I'd expected Quilliar's death to leave me an old maid no matter how hard I tried to appear mundane, but fourteen years had been enough time for memories to fade. My father needed someone to take over the land he held. My sister Ani's husband, Poul, had as much land as he could work. So Father traveled north to Beresford, which was even smaller than our own Fallbrook, and found Daryn and his younger brother Caulem, tenth and eleventh sons of a farmer with only a small plot to divide among his children. So Caulem and Daryn came to my father's house last fall to help with the harvest.

Neither old memories, the pall of the sight, nor the equally dismal embarrassment of burning the toast this morning could rob me of my happiness for very long. The past was gone: Quilliar's death was unchangeable. When I went to the fields at midday with food for the men, I'd warn my father to be careful. Though Ma tried to pretend I didn't have the sight. Father would give proper weight to it. Tomorrow I would do better with the toast.

I looked around the cottage for something to do until lunchtime, but there really wasn't anything. We hadn't been living there long enough to get much dirty. My earlier fit of cleaning had taken care of our few morning dishes.

I pulled out the quilt I was making for my sister's baby. After years of barrenness, Ani was preparing for the birth of her first child in late summer. As fast as I sewed, I might get it done by the child's twelfth year. Even so, the rhythm of sewing was familiar and relaxing.

At midday I folded the blanket and set it aside with a smile and a pat. I was not the best seamstress, but this blanket was going very well. Ma said it was the simplest pattern she knew, and even I couldn't ruin it. Stretching the stiffness of a morning's stitchery out of my shoulders, I started for the cellar to prepare a meal.

I slid the rug aside with my shoe and tugged the trapdoor open. A haunch of salt pork awaited me on one of the shelves. Sliced onto some of Ma's bread, it would make a good meal.

I'd already taken a step down the ladder when I heard a commotion outside.

Hooves thundered, and a male voice shouted something I couldn't quite make out. Horses at this time of year were bad news. Good news could wait until planting was over. I started toward the door.

"Check the barn," rumbled someone. I didn't know his voice, and his accent was odd. "See if they have any horses."

I'd just been ready to call out a welcome, but that stopped me. Bandits, I thought. We hadn't had robbers for a long time. Even though the King's Highway passed through Fallbrook, we were isolated on the outskirts of civilization.

The sound of boots on the porch shook me from the stillness of shock. I pulled the rug across the outside of the trapdoor and held it in place with one hand as I climbed down the ladder. I let the door close almost completely before releasing the rug and pulling my fingers out. I hoped it would conceal the door from a cursory search; it had no lock or bar to keep anyone out.

I heard a crash that might have been the cottage door opening. Daisy, our milk cow, lowed in alarm from the barn. I hunched in the corner of the small cellar behind a barrel of flour. Boots thudded dully on the floor above me. I couldn't tell how many people there were, but certainly more than one.

I remembered the big butcher's knife sitting beside the ham, and I scurried out of my hiding place to get it. I wished Quiluar had shown me how to fight with a knife when I'd asked him, but he'd been growing increasingly conscious of the differences between boys and girls. He told me to ask Father, knowing it would be useless.

Wood splintered above me, and I ducked, certain they'd smashed through the floor - it sounded like someone had thrown our bed from the loft. The floorboards were new and tight. I couldn't see through them to assess the damage the thieves were doing, but they couldn't see me either.

I heard them laughing, and I scuttled back behind the barrel. I hoped they wouldn't think it odd there was no meat in the house, or they might start looking for it. Maybe they wouldn't notice the hollow sound of their boots on the floor.

Who'd have thought the sight had tried to warn me of danger? It never had before. I hunched down against the earth floor, and something more than cold began to seep in my bones.

Magic. I knew what it had to be, thought I'd never felt it before. The ground began to glow dimly, sullen red with small bits of gold here and there. As I watched, the bits of gold began to grow bigger and the red duller.

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