“If I could just see the young lady? I promise not to touch her in any way. I simply want to see her. Possibly ask a question or two. Nothing more.”
The implacable red-rimmed eyes of Old Man Conall gazed up at Kellam from beneath heavy lids and sparse, pale lashes. He twisted thick lips slowly, rolling a much-chewed stick of Gular root from one corner of this mouth to the other. He looked as though he could go on with his slow contemplation for another hundred years.
Kellam drew himself up a little straighter and raised his chin. He knew better than to try to force the issue. These peasant folk could be powerfully stubborn if pushed, and he hadn’t exactly been invited to pay this call. But if he waited until the locals actually asked for his services, he could be sitting up at Roris Towers another ten years, twiddling his thumbs and wondering what in the world had possessed him to return to this gods-forsaken part of the world.
Not that he’d have to wonder long. He knew the real answer. And it had nothing to do with his father’s expectations either . . . .
Kellam shook his head and quickly drove that thought away. It wasn’t worth dwelling on, after all, certainly not in the present circumstances. If he was going to make a life for himself here in Ellee County, he needed to get the locals to accept him. And what better way to do so than to immediately establish his usefulness? When word reached him that Old Man Conall’s only daughter was suffering under some sort of magical malady, he’d seen an opportunity and hastened to seize it.
Now, if he could just get through the front door!
Kellam pulled at the front of his magnificent robes, straightening the line of silver buttons down the front. Maybe it had been a mistake to arrive in full Miphates regalia like this. He’d thought to make an impression, to shock and awe the humble country folk. But men like Rimon Conall weren’t easy to shock, much more difficult to awe. He would have been better off trading garments with one of his stable hands. At least then he might have tried to pass himself off as a man of the people.
“See here, my good fellow,” Kellam began, and immediately knew his mistake. Men like Conall did not appreciate being labeled “my good fellow” by anyone, least of all strapping young idiots in flowing robes and silver buttons who have the audacity to show up uninvited on their doorsteps.
Conall’s heavy lids blinked slowly, like the fall of night itself. When they rose again, one eye squinted slightly more than the other, creating an expression of pure disdain.
A flush roared up Kellam’s neck. He coughed at once and tried to backtrack. “That is to say . . . What I mean . . . I’ve been given to understand that your daughter is suffering under some form of dream-related malady. I myself specialized in the study of dreams and dream-magic at the Miphates University, and I believe that my skills could prove useful under the circumstances.”
“Do you, now?”
It was the first the old man had spoken since his ruthlessly abrupt, “Yes?” upon first opening his door and seeing Kellam standing on his stoop. Kellam decided to take it as a sign of progress and pressed on: “Indeed I do, sir. In most cases, it is a simple matter of establishing a protective barrier, blocking out whatever influence has chosen to prey upon your fair daughter—”
“Gods give you good day, Old Man Conall! You been keeping yourself well?”
At the sound of that bright, bell-like voice, Kellam’s throat closed up tight, blocking off whatever more he might have tried to say. He hadn’t heard that voice in five years. Five years, three months, and twelve days, to be exact. Not since the third evening of the Spring Solstice Festival, when he’d danced in the center of the village green, surrounded by noisy couples but lost in a world of his own. His hands were around that narrow waist, his eyes full of that laughing face beneath a wild tangle of honey-colored hair, and he’d wanted to catch and keep that moment forever. He remembered how his gaze had drifted from those sparkling eyes of hers down to her soft, pink, smiling mouth. He remembered wondering what it would be like to plant a kiss on that mouth. He remembered wondering what she would do if he tried such a thing right then and there, in front of everyone.
He’d not tried, of course. Instead, he’d spent the last five years mentally kicking himself for coward.
“Well enough,” Old Man Conall said, sticking out one red, blunt-fingered hand pushing Kellam to one side so that he could peer around him. “Mother Ulla said she’d be sending you our way.”
“I’m here to help, if I can.”
Kellam turned around. Even as he did so, he pulled his face into an expressionless mask, hoping against hope that the telltale flush in his pale cheeks wasn’t too glaringly noticeable. He’d known he would run into her sooner or later, after all. Ellee County wasn’t all that big.
She stood a few steps behind him, and she was exactly as he remembered her. Farryn. Wild, laughing, madcap Farryn. The only girl who’d ever had the nerve first to tease then to befriend Lord Leocan’s solitary second son. The only girl who’d ever taken him by the hand and dragged him along on her various adventures. Like snatching Fisherman Tob’s rowboat and drifting down the river all the way to Inales County only for the boat to sink, leaving the two of them obliged to hike the fifteen miles back home. She’d laughed the whole way, even when her bare feet were so sore and bleeding Kellam had to convince her to borrow his shoes. Father had paid for the boat, of course.
Or there was that time they’d climbed the fence into Farmer Gorlun’s pasture to see if his red bull was truly fae-cursed. They had soon found themselves running at full-tilt to the tree in the center of the pasture, swinging up into the branches just in time. There they’d clung for three hours before Farmer Gorlun finally found and rescued them. Father had paid for that little adventure as well.
Or, best of all, that time they’d discovered a back window open in Roris Towers and crept into old Mage Wysamenor’s study. They’d spent a whole afternoon poking through his books of magic, whispering spells to one another. There they had discovered for the first time the delicious sensation of simmering magic beneath their fingertips, burning in their brains.
Farryn. She had shaped every truly joyous, wonderful moment of his childhood. She had woven herself into the very pattern of his life.
There she stood now, clad in a simple brown over-dress not quite long enough to disguise her bare feet and trim little ankles. Her hair was the same wild nest of knots and tangles, spilling over her shoulders and down her back. But she had changed in the last five years as well. When Kellam had left for his university studies, Farryn had still been a girl—straight and strong and bony. But time had worked a softening change, filling out gentle curves in her body which even the simple peasant gown could not disguise.
She wasn’t the wild girl anymore. She was a woman. And she had fixed a stern glare hard on his face.
“Mage Leocan,” she said.
“Miss . . . Miss Boddart,” Kellam replied and bowed solemnly. His mind sought for something else to say, something clever or at least not altogether foolish. On the long journey from the city back to Ellee County, he’d imagined dozens of scenarios for this reunion, practicing the perfect turns of phrase over and over again.
Now his mind drew an utter blank, and he was painfully aware of Conall’s eyes watching him, of how the old man rolled his chewing stick around in his mouth.
Farryn tilted her head slightly, her expression enigmatic, then turned to Conall once more. “Would you take me to Ayda?”
“Sure,” Conall said, and gave Kellam another push, dislodging him from his doorstep and clearing room for Farryn to pass through. “She asked for you this morning. When she was awake. She done been asleep for hours now.”
Kellam blinked hard, not quite following what was taking place before him. Then, seizing what he hoped was an opportunity, he took a hasty step forward, putting out a hand to catch Farryn by the sleeve but not quite daring to touch her at the last moment. “You’ve come to visit your ailing friend?” he blurted.
She shot him a sharp glance, her gaze running up and down the line of silver buttons on his breast. “Something like that,” she said.
“I understand she is suffering a dream-sickness, possibly of magical origin. I’ve come to offer my services. As . . . as you’ve probably guessed, I’ve completed my training at the Miphates University, and I believe I may be of assistance in this matter.”
“Yeah?” Her gaze traveled up and down his buttons again before finally returning to his face. “Don’t worry yourself, your mageship,” she said, and dropped a little curtsy, like a bobbing brown wren. “We humble folk can manage ourselves well enough.”
For the first time Kellam looked at the staff she gripped in one hand. Some bell of recognition tolled in the back of his mind. He’d seen Mother Ulla around these parts on more than one occasion after all, and he vividly remembered Mage Wysamenor decrying the presence of such a woman in the county, filling the heads of the peasant folk with her nonsensical notions.
“You’re a witch?” Kellam frowned, hardly willing to believe it. “How . . . when . . .?”
“Apprentice, actually.” Her words came curt and sharp, and her eyes snapped bright like sparks. “Been training with Mother Ulla these last four years.”
“But that’s low-magic!” Kellam looked from her to Old Man Conall and back again, shaking his head. “Low-magic is no match for dream-sickness, not even the simplest varieties. You’d much better let me in to see the girl.”
Once more he’d said the wrong thing. He knew it even as the words left his lips. He watched the line of Farryn’s jaw stiffen, watched the slight uptilt of her chin, the barest narrowing of her eyes, and if he could have turned himself into a toad right then and there, he would have done so. Here he’d been dreaming of meeting her again all these years, and within three minutes of conversation, had already insulted her.
Farryn didn’t bother responding. She turned to Conall and said simply, “Shall we then?”
The old man grunted and stood aside to let Farryn pass through his doorway. Kellam tried to speak her name, but his tongue had cleaved to the roof of his mouth, and his lips opened and closed soundlessly. Conall gave him one last inscrutable stare, shook his head slowly, and crunched down so hard on his chew-stick that if broke in half and fell in the dust on the doorstep. With that, he backed into the cottage and slammed the door.
Kellam stood there, staring at the wooden panels for some moments, his hands clenching and unclenching slowly. “Seven gods damn it all!” he hissed through his teeth.
Then he reached into the silken satchel at his side, withdrew a slim little book adorned with silver clasps and opened it to a middle page.