Arms trembling, chest heaving, Farryn pushed herself up onto her elbows. At first, she kept thinking she saw the hazy dream-reality around her, couldn’t quite believe that she was truly back in the waking world. But slowly her mind calmed, her heightened senses settled back into their normal grooves. She drew a long, steadying breath.

“Ayda!” she whispered.

Her friend lay beside her on the bed, pale and still as she had been in the dream. But was there a flush to her cheek that hadn’t been there before? Still shuddering, Farryn reached out one hand, pressed two fingers against Ayda’s neck, searching for a pulse. A faint but steady heartbeat answered her touch. Farryn breathed out a huge sigh and let her head sag, faint with relief. Ayda was safe! The mirada was banished, and her friend would recover.

The sound of a murmuring voice plucked at her ear, alerting Farryn to another presence in the room. Startled, she sat upright on the bed and twisted to look behind her. She half-expected to see Old Man Conall standing in the doorway of his daughter’s room.

Instead she saw Kellam.

“You!” she blurted.

He looked so out of place in that setting, with his gorgeous Miphato robes and his perfect hair. His head bowed over an open book, which he held up in front of him, and she could just see the fading glow of an activated spell coming to its end.

His eyes closed as the last of the spell-glow faded. Then, opening his eyes again slowly, he lifted his face and met her gaze. He flinched under the intensity of her glare. “Miss Boddart—”

“Don’t you go Miss Boddart-ing me!” Farryn snarled, scrambling up off of Ayda’s bed. Pulling her rumpled skirts straight, she planted her staff firmly on the ground between her and him. She was painfully aware of the broken runes surrounding her, painfully aware of her own failed magic. But, seven gods blast it, she was the one who’d actually banished the mirada, wasn’t she? She had fulfilled her calling like any good ward witch, and she would not let him forget it!

She drew her shoulders back, her eyes flashing. “You were clearly told you weren’t wanted here. You had no business interfering! If you think just because you’ve been and had some fancy schooling at some fancy university—”

“Mister Conall asked me to step in.”

Farryn broke off, her lips sagging mutely. Her stomach twisted painfully in her gut as the mage’s words sank in. “He . . . he did?” She swallowed around the painful thickening in her throat. “Why?”

“He heard a scream. Several screams, in fact.” Kellam coughed and closed his spellbook, tucking it under one arm, and shuffled his feet awkwardly. But he maintained eye-contact with her, his gaze solemn, though she could swear she detected a trace of self-satisfied triumph glittering in their depths.

“But I . . . I told him he might! I told him not to let anyone or it might upset the magic!” Farryn ground the end of her staff into the dirt, half-willing to inscribe a battle-rune then and there and sent it hurling at the mage’s objectionable face.

As though reading the wish in her head, Kellam backed for the closed door, reaching behind him for the latch. “I do beg your pardon if you feel I have overstepped my bounds,” he said. “But from what I observed, you did indeed require assistance, and if I had not—”

“Require assistance?” Farryn nearly spat the words. “If you hadn’t come and broken in, my runes would have held just fine!”

“From what I saw—”

“I don’t give two god-spitting bumpkins what you think you saw!”

Rage vibrating through every limb, every bone of her body, Farryn marched straight for him. Kellam drew back at her approach, stepping out of the add-on room and hitting the back of his head on the lintel as he went. She pushed angrily past, her eyes sparking fire as she looked around the main cottage room.

Old Man Conall crouched by the hearth alongside his boys and his wife. He had the grace to look chagrined at the furious gaze she shot his way. But really, a small, quiet, reasonable part of Farryn’s mind argued, could she blame the man? Here she was, not even a proper witch, merely an apprentice, sent on her first calling. Would she trust herself were she in the man’s shoes? Truth be told, though she liked to think she’d known what she was doing, the whole situation had been beyond her control. Had Kellam not interfered, would she have been able to get back out of that watery pit before the mirada latched hold of her as well?

Maybe . . . maybe not . . . .

Farryn drew a steadying breath, closing her eyes briefly as she sought to rein in her galloping temper. When she opened them again, she faced Conall more calmly. “Ayda is all right,” she said, proud at how even her voice sounded. “The bad dream is gone. She’ll sleep a while yet I fancy, but when she wakes, she’ll be herself again.”

“Praise the gods!” Mistress Conall exclaimed in a soft whisper, setting her mending down in her lap so that she might make a holy sign in the air before her face. Old Man Conall merely nodded and rolled a fresh chew-stick around in his lips. His gaze moved from Farryn to Kellam and back again, his expression considering.

“So,” he said, at length, the chew-stick bobbing with each word, “what do I owe yer?”

Farryn blinked, taken aback by the abruptness of the question. Then again, she shouldn’t expect effusions of gratitude, certainly not from a man like Conall. A witch didn’t work for praise, after all. A witch did her duty, and when her duty was through, she accepted a small compensation. It was all business—a fair, blunt sort of business.

Still, Farryn thought with a wry lift of her brow, she might have expected a father to express some relief at his daughter’s miraculous rescue. “Well, the usual fee—” she began.

But her voice was drowned out by Kellam’s behind her. “I wouldn’t think of taking any money for such a task.”

Farryn stopped, her eyes widening. She turned slowly, staring at the mage over her shoulder. The big lout was bowing grandly, one hand pressed to his heart, his face a perfect mask of nobility and generosity. “I’m only glad I could be of service to the young lady and hope she will make a full recovery.”

“You . . .” Farryn bit down hard on her lip before the word ass could escape along with a searing expletive or two. She faced forward quickly, meeting Old Man Conall’s implacable stare. He chewed his stick and blinked his heavy-lidded eyes at her, awaiting her answer.

And what answer could she give? The usual fee for a ward witch’s calling was three copper bits, and where magical services were required, that was generally upped to five. A witch had to make her living the same as anyone else, after all—Mother Ulla had been quite clear on that score over the last four years.

But if Farryn held out her hand for coin now, word would spread like wildfire throughout the wardship—that the witch’s apprentice demanded a fee, while the Miphato offered his services gratis. And when the next magical malady befell one of the denizens of Ellee County, who would they call to for aid?

Farryn ground her teeth together and flashed a tight smile. “The usual fee won’t be necessary,” she said. “Mother Ulla sends her compliments to you and yours.”

With those words, she bobbed a hasty curtsy and, not waiting to see the flash of knowing triumph in Old Man Conall’s gaze, fled the cottage, out into the too-bright sunlight of the yard. There she found her vision filled with the looming magnificence of Kellam’s coach and four white horses. Her stomach heaved and her chest tightened with too many strong emotions rising up at once.

Mother Ulla was going to skin her alive when she returned without coin in hand.

She heard footsteps behind her and just had time to brace herself before Kellam’s voice touched her ear. “Miss Boddart,” he said, so soft-spoken and genteel, gods blight him. “I’m afraid we may have gotten off to a bad start. I want to assure you that I mean only the best for the people of our fair county. And while I may not fully understand your . . . your practices, I mean no disrespect to you or your—”

Farryn whirled on heel, facing him full on. Gods, but he was much taller than she’d remembered! And the last five years had certainly fleshed out his scrawny frame. Even the flowing Miphates robes couldn’t fully disguise the way his muscular shoulders strained at the seams. Indeed, were she to catch a glimpse of him across the way, she might not even recognize the straw-haired boy with whom she had once run amuck across the local country, looking for trouble and scrapes and making so many memories. Memories she’d worked hard to suppress these last few years.

Memories which now, as she gazed up into his always-sad blue eyes, tried to crowd back to the forefront of her mind.

She steeled her spine, shifting her staff from one hand to the next. “Let me make myself perfectly clear, Mage Leocan,” she said, enunciating his name and title with vicious clarity as though speaking an insult. “You and I—we don’t got any reason to be in each other’s way. You do your work, and I’ll do mine. You stick to your place, and our paths should cross but rarely. Because your work don’t involve the folk hereabouts. They don’t need a Miphato. They need their ward witch. Understand me?”

She watched his throat constrict in a swallow. His pale eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly. “Those runes of yours,” he said, “were . . . well, they were not what I expected. I would like to—”

“Nope.” Farryn lifted her chin and tossed a hank of hair back over her shoulder. “I don’t care what you would like. We don’t have nothing more to say to one another, your mageship. Good day to you.”

With that, she turned on heel and, stepping into the long grass on the side of the road so as to avoid the carriage and horses, hastened back the way she had come. All the while, the burning urge to turn and look back at him tugged in her brain. She ignored it and concentrated on the road ahead of her.

After all, she still had the south plot to weed. Not to mention Mother Ulla’s ire to face when the old witch learned she’d dared come home without payment. She didn’t need to think about Kellam or his strange, sad, searching gaze one moment longer than necessary.

*****

Wonderful. Just wonderful.

He’d gone and botched it all up again. He’d said the wrong thing, done the wrong thing, and driven her away. Exactly like he’d done five years ago. Five years ago, when she’d stood there in the moonlight, gazing up at him, waiting for him to kiss her, and he’d . . . and he’d . . . .

“Gods damn it all,” Kellam muttered viciously. He watched her go until she disappeared around a bend in the road, hidden by the buildings of Sydale Village. Even then he stood longer than he ought, half-hoping she might turn around, might come back, might remember one more sharp-tongued word she wanted to hurl in his face.

He shouldn’t have interfered with her business. But then again, if he hadn’t, would she have survived? He couldn’t live with himself if he’d simply stood back and let her be killed by that parasite. Not when he could do something about it.

But those runes of hers . . . they were impressive. Much more impressive than he might have expected. He’d heard more than one lecture from the learned Miphates at university, disparaging witches and their antiquated ideas of magic and worn-out methods of spell-writing. He’d always assumed his masters were the authorities on such matters.

He’d never thought to question an actual witch, to learn her take on her own magic.

Kellam shook his head, his thumb sliding up and down the spine of the book he held. He was confident in his magic, of course. He’d trained hard over the years, and he knew his way around a spell. The spells he’d brought with him into Ayda’s dream had been well-written and lethal. But never would he have thought to try writing a new spell while actually in a dream. A Miphato always pre-wrote his spells, taking great care and consideration in their crafting. Attempting to bring magic to life while in the heat of the moment? That was a skill far beyond Kellam’s abilities.

And yet he’d watched Farryn write that rune even as the mirada bore down upon her. She’d caught the monster in her spell and banished it. What’s more, she’d made it look easy!

He smiled. It was a small, secret sort of smile, and he was hardly even quite aware of it pulling at the corners of his mouth. Maybe she hated him. Maybe she wanted nothing to do with him. Maybe mages and witches were bound to be, if not outright enemies, than antagonists at least to the end of their days.

But for the moment, just for the moment, he smiled anyway.

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