Stories from the Vale Series: Gifts of the Elven 2 covers

Stories from the Vale Series: Gifts of the Elven by Kathy Ann Trueman

Generations ago, ships full of refugees from a vast war accidentally blew into a narrow, sheltered harbor between the cliffs of two mountain ranges. The people called the vast and fertile valley beyond the harbor the Vale and settled there. The Vale was also home to wild animals, dragons, and magical creatures called elves…and magic.

 

As the years passed, humans with no actual magical talent came to be born with a Gift–a single ability. Among the Gifted, only healers are widely accepted, but for others fear and distrust has led to prejudice, persecution, and even murder. Although elves, humans and dragons essentially live in peace together, the nearly immortal elves are intent on preserving the Vale’s isolation from the rest of the world. At any cost.

 

Stories from the Vale Series: Gifts of the Elven 2 covers
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The Vale is home of The Gifted, those born with magical talent that manifests in unpredictable ways that many look upon with suspicion and fear. Even as the Vale’s king works hard to teach citizens truth and tolerance concerning the gift of magic, the process is slow and politically risky. Many of the Gifted have no choice but to seek shelter in the stronghold city of Safehold. But is safety possible even there?

Sixteen-year-old Arlin is a nobleman’s son, grandson of the king of Vale. Handsome and spoiled, he was born to warrior parents with older siblings who outshine him in every capacity. Misunderstood, his sullen attitude alienates his family. With the sudden appearance of wings on his back–a very rare and visible magical Gift–Arlin has no choice but to, literally, take flight to protect himself and his grandfather’s reputation as an impartial judge of Gifted rights.

Fiella was adopted as an apprentice to the local bookmaster, where she discovered her passion for books and talent for sales. Her parents were killed when she was only seven–an event she witnessed that led to her desperate regret and longing to help others. While traveling on her first book-circuit as a journeyman, she impulsively offers to help Arlin get to Safehold, a sanctuary for Gifted, not realizing the danger she’ll be placed in by doing so. Not the least of her worries is the secret she’s been carefully hiding: She, too, is Gifted.

Shonwin is heir to the lordship of Kuturan. When he was a child, his father was murdered by his own wife. Living with a mercilessly cruel parent led to Shonwin’s single-minded devotion to Kuturan. When the king heard of the ruthless horrors practiced there, he tore away their income and livelihood, denying them the rights other lords of the land were entitled to. To rebuild his heritage and birthright, Shonwin means to have his revenge. Arlin’s Gift will enable him to not only discredit and disgrace the king but strike at the king’s protection of the Gifted and his own beloved grandson, Arlin.

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GENRE: Fantasy      Word Count: 131, 016

Chapter 1

Meeting in the woods

 

Fiella was a round sort of young woman. She had a short, sturdy, well-rounded figure. Her face was round, dominated by large round green eyes. She was even pigeon-toed, as if her feet wanted to complete the rounded picture. She had never seen a mirror, but she knew all these features from seeing her reflection in puddles or glass windows.

Unlike tall people or strong people, short round people didn’t stand out in any crowd. Fiella’s shape fit her personality. Her nineteen years of life had shown her that being overlooked, even invisible, could be a good thing. The thieves who had killed her parents had never seen her cowering in the loft, even when they searched the rest of the house.

The only person who had truly noticed her since her parents’ deaths was Bookmaster Bora. Bora was master of the most profitable business in the area, the creation and selling of that rare item, books. When the temple priestess had presented the orphaned Fiella as a possible apprentice, something about the little girl appealed to Master Bora. Perhaps to her sense of humor, Fiella thought. But for whatever reason, Bora had accepted her as an apprentice. Now, twelve years later, Fiella was a journeyman and about to take her first step toward becoming a master herself. On this day, she would begin her first solo selling trip.

She rose early to have time for a luxury, a cup of hot tea with two spoonfuls of honey. She sat on her back stoop in a pleasant haze of anticipation, sipping the sweet dark liquid, watching the sliver of rising sun throwing light over the village fields. Her dog Biscuit lay at her side, tongue lolling, enjoying the sunrise with her.

Fiella was one of the few journeymen who could afford their own home, although for her, the house was not a mark of wealth. She had inherited it from her slain parents. For the privacy and peace, she had learned to live with the memories. Then, when she had found the fuzzy little puppy which had grown into the enormous Biscuit, she was glad she had the room to keep him. The dog was her best friend.

Biscuit was part of the reason Master Bora was allowing Fiella to go alone on this trip. “No sane bandit will bother you if he has to go through that dog,” Bora had said with a chuckle. Even so, Bora lectured Fiella on road safety and horse care for over an hour. Fiella knew her own abilities, but she had listened attentively and remembered every word. She was ready for this test.

When half the sun’s disk had cleared the mountains, she rose, washed her cup, did one last inspection of her house, shouldered the heavy pack that held all her traveling clothes and gear, then shuttered the windows. She set out for the book shop with a light, eager step, Biscuit padding silent behind her.

She lived on the outside edge of Kireen, close to the fields, and the shop was in the center of the village. On the way, she crossed the bridge over the mill race. Taking the ford upstream from the mill would have shortened her walk, but somehow, even with the flat rocks the villagers had placed across the ford, she always ended up with wet feet. Besides, the bridge was amusing. Since the first day of its completion it had been a target for children who carved words and designs into the wood. Fiella had made this rite of passage in her ninth year, carving the name of her favorite book. Hundreds of words and crude drawings now decorated the bridge, despite repeated attempts by the mayors to end the tradition.

On this day, a child stood at the base of the bridge. Fiella knew him–everyone knew everybody in Kireen. His name was Mit, and he was only eight years old. He balanced on a rock in the race, using a table knife to cut into one of the support posts. Fiella leaned over the rail, alarmed. If he fell in, the surging water would sweep him into the mill wheel to his death.

She had enough sense not to startle him. She hung as far over the rail as she dared, and he saw her shadow on the water and looked up. He gave her a gap-toothed, saucy grin. “Good morning, Miss Fiella. Hello, Biscuit.”

“Good morning, Mit. You should return to the shore. What you’re doing is dangerous.”

She should have known better. Mit stuck out his narrow chest. “I’m not afraid. I’m not done yet. Look, what do you think?”

She stared down at a carved image of a cow, and she shuddered to think how long he’d been standing there to have done so much. “It’s beautiful. In fact, it’s perfect. Why don’t you get to the shore again?”

Now Mit stuck out his jaw. “I haven’t put spots on it yet. It’s a spotted cow.”

She realized the more she pushed him, the more stubborn he would grow. She glanced around. No one else was about. She could use her power voice. Pitching her tone to tap into the power, she commanded, “Mit, you think it’s perfect now. Step back onto the shore.”

Beside her, Biscuit whined, a low, soft sound he always made when she used her Gift.

Mit gave his creation a critical appraisal. “It’s perfect.” Fiella held her breath as he turned, but he leaped onto solid ground without slipping on the wet rocks. Then he looked up at Fiella, his face screwed in worry and thought. For a moment her heart thudded in her chest. He noticed. He knows I manipulated him, whispered the fearful corner of her mind. But he only said, “You won’t tell on me, will you?”

The rail kept her from sagging with relief. “Of course not. I’d never do that to a friend of Biscuit’s.”

The dog woofed as if in agreement. Mit’s grin reappeared, charming despite the lack of one of his front teeth. He waved at them and trotted away, happy with his morning’s handiwork.

Fiella stood on the bridge for another minute, still leaning on the rail. The momentary scare had left her dizzy. She knew she was being foolish. No one had ever discovered her power, and she had used it on adults and on children far more experienced and canny than Mit. Yet no matter how skilled she’d become with it, despite all logic, experience, and common sense, the fear of exposure as one of the Gifted was always ready to pounce. Rumors circulated about what happened to some Gifted, despite the law of King Sefal. She had once seen a corpse when on a trip with Bora, identified as Gifted by a crude G cut into his chest. No one in Kireen would be so cruel, but the image had stayed with her, tucked in a corner of her mind, feeding her fear.

Biscuit pushed his nose into her hand. She knelt and hugged the dog around his thick, soft ruff. Nothing could banish fear faster or better than the affection of her dog. Putting the nervous moment out of her mind, she continued on her way, walking briskly to make up for lost time.

The Bookmaster’s shop was unique, not only to Kireen but to the whole domain of Fordis. On the ground floor, dozens of windows were fitted with glass to let light pour into the rooms for the copyists, limners, and binders. In contrast, the upper floor had only two small windows, both of them in Bora’s narrow office. The rest of the upstairs space was dedicated to storing completed books, because the sun could harm such fragile things.

Outside, a lawn surrounded the entire building, much of it covered by carrels for the copyists and limners to work whenever the weather allowed. Around both yard and shop was a tall fence made of fitted boards, not to keep out thieves–what thieves wanted books?–but to keep the apprentices and journeymen free from the distractions of the outside world.

Fiella loved the shop more than any place she’d ever seen or heard of.

She arrived as the journeyman copyist was unlocking the gate. He didn’t notice her immediately, of course, but when he did see her, he greeted her with a sleepy nod. He wished her luck on her travels, which was as much as she expected from such a brusque young man. She didn’t envy him for his position of responsibility, no more than she envied the journeyman binder and journeyman limner. Master Bora had a knack for choosing the right people for their tasks. All three of those journeymen lacked the ambition to attempt a mastership, but they were excellent supervisors and trainers of the apprentices and laborers who did the everyday work of the shop.

Fiella had always been an excellent worker as an apprentice. When she was a copyist, she’d made no mistakes. As a binder, she had been meticulous and careful. Her work as a limner had involved nothing more than such things as mixing paints and clean-up, but she’d excelled at all her tasks. However, she had never become comfortable with the journeyman’s responsibility to cruise in those crowded rooms, looking for errors to correct or ignorance to instruct. Besides, no one could ever think of her as a person in charge, not for a moment, not even the least and youngest apprentice. Bora in her wisdom had moved Fiella to journeyman seller. For the past two years she had taken Fiella and even Biscuit with her on her selling trips, and to everyone’s surprise except Bora’s, Fiella had blossomed in this task. She had learned so much and so well that Bora was now trusting her, at the age of only nineteen, to do the year’s first selling trip all alone.

She passed along the narrow hall between the limning room on the left from the copy and bindery rooms on the right. The smells of paper, parchment, paint, oil, wood, ink, glue, and leather swirled around her, even with the rooms empty of workers. For Fiella, these were the scents of home, as much as were the scents of her own house. At the end of the hall, behind the stairs, she passed through the narrow door and into the rear yard. Opposite her was the tiny, two-stall barn flanked by a fenced paddock. The barn sheltered the shop’s only horse and the cart it pulled.

The cart was already in the yard, its poles propped up on a bench to keep the bed level. Two wheels, high and broad-set for stability, were topped by wide fenders to keep mud from splashing onto the cover and the crates of books beneath it. The fenders were painted a bright blue, the cart’s body was a sunny yellow, and the wheels and box were green. The cover was red. When Fiella had first seen it, she had blurted out that it looked like a tinker’s cart. “Precisely,” Bora had replied. “Who’s going to want to rob a tinker?”

Smiling at this memory, Fiella climbed onto the box to tuck her pack behind the crates of books. Each of these crates was lined with the same water repellant cloth as the red cover, and the books inside were also protected, wrapped in butcher paper, oil cloth, and canvas. The books were sheltered from the elements better than she would be, but to her, that was appropriate. She loved books with a passion only matched by Master Bora’s.

Her belongings stowed, she went to the barn for the horse. Bramble was a large horse, muscular and hard-boned, solid black, with a long mane and tail, and her legs decorated with long fringes of black hair. She needed more care than the average cart horse, especially brushing her and braiding the mane, but no one begrudged her the effort. She was able to pull a fully laden cart all day on limited food, and she did so without complaint. Sweet and docile, she stood without moving while Fiella groomed her, and when Fiella brought out the harness, she put her head down so Fiella could reach high enough to set the bridle over her ears.

When she led Bramble out to the cart, Bora was waiting for her, Biscuit sitting at her feet. Under her master’s critical eye, Fiella harnessed Bramble to the poles.

“Did you check that harness thoroughly?” Bora demanded.

“Yes, Master.”

“Did Bramble leave any feed in her bucket?”

“No, Master. She’s in good health.”

Bora gave her a shrewd stare. “Are you nervous?”

Fiella ducked her head. “Yes.”

“Good. If you weren’t, I’d worry. Do you remember what I told you yesterday?”

Fiella nodded.

“Do you have warmer clothes? That gown will do for the day, but the nights are still cold.”

“In my pack.”

“Very well. Where is the map?”

“Under the box.” She didn’t need it at hand unless something went wrong, for she had the route memorized.

“Climb up, then.”

Biscuit took this as his cue and leaped onto the box. Fiella used the step and got into place with dignity. As she took up the reins, Bora strode to the outside gate and swung it open. Swallowing hard, Fiella clucked to Bramble, and she was on her way. As she passed Bora, her master said, “Be prosperous, but more than that–”

“Be safe,” Fiella finished for her. “I will, I promise.”

Her first stop on this route was Kapath Castle, due west from Kireen. The roads were good, so she expected to arrive on the second day. She would stay the first night at an inn near the castle. She hoped to do a little extra business with the owner, who had mentioned a book to Bora the year before. After Kapath, she would continue on a meandering trail, visiting various lords and merchants, but always heading south toward Dragonsrise. The capital city was where she would do most of her business. One entire crate of books was the obligatory offering to the Royal Library, which received a copy of every book made by any bookmaster. Bora made no profit on this, but the current king was also a private collector, so Fiella hoped to sell most of a second crate at a good price.

After Dragonsrise, she would follow the western arm of the King’s Road, where she would do the rest of her business. Then she would return to Kireen. In the early autumn, before the harvest, she would make another circuit, north to Lord Maran’s fortress at the Wall, then south along the eastern arm of the King’s Road. In winter, when there was no traveling and little business, she caught up with record-keeping, reading, and cataloging the books as they were bound and stored.

She arrived earlier than she expected at the inn at Welwithy. However, the inn had changed hands and the current owner didn’t read, so Fiella saved some of her traveling funds and took advantage of the hours of daylight left to proceed toward Kapath. She could camp in the forest of the Kapathian hunting preserve that night, and if she rose early, she might even arrive at the castle in the early morning.

She was a mile into the forest shadows when Biscuit, still on the box with her, whined and got to his feet. He was staring at the sky to the south, but when Fiella followed his stare, she saw nothing. “It was probably a hawk,” she told him, ruffling his ears. He settled down again, unalarmed but still alert, his ears pricked high. Despite calming him, she didn’t dismiss his actions, and she remained as alert as the dog. Something was out there, and it most likely wasn’t a hawk, as Biscuit was familiar with those birds.

She was scouting for a good place to stop for the night when Biscuit jumped to his feet again. This time he scrabbled at the side of the box, ready to jump down. Fiella reined Bramble in, and Biscuit leaped to the ground and ran off into the trees.

Fiella wasn’t a woman who cursed. Her sigh was resigned. But Biscuit was not a dog to go chasing after a squirrel, so she climbed from the cart and led Bramble to the side of the road. She couldn’t go far enough into the trees to hide the cart, so she tied the mare, hoping no one with thieving impulses would pass by. Then she lifted her skirts and ran after the dog.

He was waiting for her. As she caught up, he dashed away, then waited ahead until she caught up again. In this leapfrog fashion, they went deep into the forest. Then Biscuit stopped and crouched. They had arrived wherever it was he was taking her, and he was watching whatever it was that had interested him.

She joined him, stopped, and stared.

They were at the edge of a small clearing, where a scattering of rocks broke the earth. On one of the larger rocks sat a dark-haired young man, long legs haphazardly stretched out, shoulders slumped. One hand covered his face, and the other arm was hanging at his side, the hand resting limp on the ground with the palm up and the fingers curled and forgotten. He wore black boots, black trousers, and a tunic and shirt which had once been fine, but were now roughly ripped in two places down his back. The cause of the rips was even more startling than finding such a well-dressed young man in such a remote place. From his back grew a pair of wings, feathered like an eagle’s except they were pure white. They drooped, partly open, the flight pinions displayed, graceful even in this careless pose.

Fiella couldn’t help it. She covered her mouth, but not before a gasp of startled wonder escaped her.

He jumped up and away from her, stumbling over rocks and his own wings. His wide eyes were dark and wild, and he thrust a hand toward her as if to ward her off like some kind of forest spirit. He was tall and lean, and he moved quickly. She should have feared him. He didn’t look rational. But Biscuit hadn’t shown himself, which he would have done, growling, if he thought she was in danger. And she saw the tracks of tears on the boy’s pale cheeks. She couldn’t turn away once she’d seen that.

Instead, she took one step forward. “My name is Fiella. I won’t hurt you.”

At once his mouth twisted into disdain, and the wings opened. “I’m not afraid of you.”

Fiella thought this was pretty silly. “Yes, you are. Not of me particularly. After all, you’re bigger than me, and you can fly away. But you’re afraid I’ll tell someone about you.”

“Which you will.” Under the contempt in his voice and behind the scowl on his face, she could hear the wavering of panic. He would fly away with the least provocation, and she doubted he would end up any place safer than this. She decided to take a chance.

“No, I won’t. I’m Gifted, too.”

The wings slowly folded. He looked down his nose at her. “Not like I am.”

“I’ve never heard of anyone who has your Gift.”

The fire which had brought him to his feet now drained away. He slumped on the rock. “No one’s ever heard of it. I’m unique. Isn’t that wonderful?” he mocked.

She ventured a few steps forward. “Well, yes, it is. But I understand why you don’t think so. How long have you been like this?”

He glanced at the sun. “About an hour.”

No wonder he looked as if he were in shock. She took another step forward. “They’re beautiful. Your wings, I mean.”

“Are they? I haven’t looked. Don’t come any closer. They may look pretty, but they’re dangerous.”

“I know. I’ve been chased by a goose before.”

He stared at her as if she’d spoken in another language. “What?”

“Geese. They have strong wings, and they’ll beat you with them.”

His mouth twisted again. It was a wide, expressive mouth. He would have been handsome, except for the bitter anger that pinched his features. “I’ll have more respect for poultry farmers from now on.”

She stepped close enough to sit on a rock in front of him. “Why are you here?”

“Where else should I go?”

“Home?”

“Not if my life depended on it.”

“But they’d take you in and help you, wouldn’t they?”

The dark scowl deepened. “No, they wouldn’t. I beat up my aunt. I might even have killed her. I don’t know.” In those last two sentences, his expression changed, the scowl wavering. His eyes glistened with tears. Then he scrubbed his hands over his face as if to erase the tear tracks and the expression all at once. “Everyone loves my aunt. They won’t kill me, but I’d rather die than face them. I’d get a lot of forgiveness and understanding and sympathy,” he added viciously, as if those good words were curses.

“What are you going to do, then?”

“I don’t know. That’s what I’ve been trying to think about.” He’d forgotten he was trying to act tough, and his expression was like that of a defeated little boy.

“If you want my advice–”

“I don’t. Why would I?”

“Maybe because I’m thinking clearly, and you’re not?”

He tensed. She thought he might jump up again, even fly away. Then he relaxed. “Good point. But I don’t need your help. I’ll think of something. And you shouldn’t be here. If you’re caught, you’ll probably be punished just for talking to me.”

“You’ll be better off if you let me help you.”

“What can a girl like you do for me?” he snapped, getting to his feet again.

She was growing tired of his mercurial moods. She used her power voice. “Sit down.”

He sat.

She said, “For one thing, I can–”

But he was quick-witted. “Did you make me do that?”

“Um…yes.”

“Is that your Gift?”

“Yes. I would appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone. No one else knows except you.”

He laughed, the sound short and bitter. “I can see that. I’ll go straight to the nearest inn and denounce you. Looking like this.” His wings fanned out.

The display was so beautiful, she smiled. “Why don’t we both agree to keep our secrets?”

“Yours is a little easier to hide.”

“I have an idea about that, if you’ll come with me to where my cart is tied.”

She waited for his agreement. He stared at her. “Why are you helping me?”

It was a good question. She had never risked her life or her reputation for anyone. She tried to find an answer, but it wasn’t simple. It was mired in her attraction to his good looks, in her heart’s pity for his fear and despair, in a natural desire to shelter the helpless, and even in her admiration for those magnificent wings. She spread her hands and said, “I don’t know why. I just want to help you.” She rose. “Come with me if you want my help, or sit here and brood until a better idea comes to you.”

“You’re really bossy, you know that?”

She snapped, “It’s me or that rock. Choose.”

“Why should I trust you?”

“Why shouldn’t you?”

Another long silence followed, while his dark eyes searched hers. She kept her expression stern. At last he conceded, “The rock is too hard to sit on for long.”

“Then come with me.”

“Yes, mistress.”

She started toward the forest. “You do sarcasm well. I guess I should have expected that.”

“Why?”

“It runs in your family.”

“How do you–?” He stopped. “What is that?

He had no cause for his alarm. Biscuit was sitting, tongue lolling, ears pricked.

“Biscuit. He’s my dog. Biscuit, this is our new friend.”

“You and I are not friends.”

“Oh, be sensible for one minute, will you? It’s a word he understands. He doesn’t know words like acquaintance, he’s a dog. Extend your hand, palm out. Yes, like that.” For once, she approved of his behavior. “You’re used to dogs, I see.”

He let Biscuit sniff his hand and wrist, then knelt and stroked the big golden head. Biscuit licked his face. Pleased, he ruffled and scratched the dog’s ears. Biscuit waved his tail and panted in bliss. Fiella said, “You must be nicer than you act. Biscuit doesn’t always make friends so easily.”

“He’s a good dog.” He rose, wings draping down his back. “You’re pretty good with sarcasm, too, in your own way.”

She flushed. “Sorry.”

“No, don’t apologize. Otherwise I’d have to be nicer to you.”

“I wouldn’t want you to strain your manners.”

“That’s better. You’re Fiella, you said?”

She nodded.

“I’m–” His voice, which had been warming, trailed off.

“Don’t bother. Let me guess. Your name is Arlin?”

“How did you know?” He wasn’t angry, he was indignant, as if he’d thought his identity could remain a deep secret.

She resisted rolling her eyes. “I live in your father’s domain, and I’m not stupid. All your subjects know Prince Falin and his family by sight.”

“But I don’t go out and around like the rest of my family. I doubt you could ever have seen me.”

“No, I haven’t, but I’ve seen the rest of them. So, by deduction, you had to be the third one.”

The mouth twisted again. “Yeah, that’s about right, the third one.” Then he said, “How did you know I was from Kapath at all?”

“I’m a bookseller. I know your grandfather well, and you’re very like him. You look more like him than your father does, even.” This was a new idea to him, she saw. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you that?”

“No.”

Didn’t he have a mirror? “You’ll have to take my word for it, then.”

He fell into step beside her, silent now. Ahead of them, Biscuit led the way, the pale gold and white plume of his tail like a beacon. This made Fiella think of something, and she glanced at Arlin. As she suspected, the white of his wings shone like lanterns, glowing in the dimming light of evening. He caught her glance, mistook its meaning, and said, “I’ll need another name, won’t I?”

“That would be wise.”

After another silent minute he said, “It’s going to be hard, but I’ve got to learn to be secret. Someone tried to kill me. Earlier.”

“When? How?”

“When I was–when I was flying, never mind where. He used a bow.”

“Were you hurt?”

“I was far out of his range. But that’s what I can expect from now on, I suppose, if I don’t find a way to hide.”

“We’ll think of something. One step at a time. Let’s get the wings covered and think of a name for you to use, and we’ll go from there.”

“Thank you.” The words came out as if he rarely said them.

When she glimpsed the road between the trees, she breathed a sigh of relief that Bramble and the cart were where she’d left them. Arlin said, “Maybe I should wait here until you’re sure no one else is on the road.”

“No one is. If there had been anyone, Biscuit would have alerted me.”

“Oh.” He followed her, jaw set in a sullen line. She ignored his expression. He said, “That thing is garish. It looks like a tinker’s cart.”

For some reason, his disdain hurt her feelings, which made her angry. “Maybe I’m a tinker.”

“You aren’t.”

“How do you know?”

He gave her a don’t-be-stupid look down his nose. “You told me you were a bookseller.”

She had told him. “I’m surprised you remembered.”

“I’m not an idiot.”

She left that alone. Biscuit was in his normal position on the box. Without a word, she climbed beside him, leaned under the cover, and pulled her cloak from her pack. “This is the best I can do,” she said, scrambling down.

Arlin draped it over himself, tying the strings under his throat. Somehow, his refined features made the cloak look shabby, but when he pulled the hood up, the cloth and its shadows hid his face. However, the cloak was far too short. “That will help, but it won’t do,” she said, looking at his legs. The wings lifted the shoulders of the cloak, making him appear to be hunchbacked, and the cloak had been cut for her, not a tall boy. Beneath the hem, the ends of the wings emerged, lower than his knees.

He glanced down and swore.

“It will work if you stay on the box. We’ll have to buy you a longer cloak at the next town. Do you have any money?”

“Yes. But there isn’t room for me on the box.”

She remembered Biscuit and laughed. “Get down, Biscuit. We have company.”

The dog cheerfully leaped to the ground and stood beside the horse as if he expected to be hitched up. She patted him as she freed Bramble’s tie rope from the branch. “Good dog. But you have other jobs. You don’t need to help pull.”

Holding the reins free, she climbed onto the box. Arlin was already there. He’d hidden the wing tips by letting them fall behind the seat and under the red cover. He looked odd, but not odd enough to draw attention. She nodded once, satisfied, then clucked to Bramble and got back onto the road.

“Where are you going?” Arlin asked, voice rising.

“To Kapath. That’s my first–” She stopped. He had told her he didn’t want to go home. Somehow her destination of Kapath Castle for her job had gotten disconnected in her mind from Kapath Castle as his home. She drew rein and turned to him. “Are you sure you don’t want to go home? Your family are good people, aren’t they? They seem to be. Besides, your grandfather made the law that protects the Gifted, and your aunt is the famous witch Celia, isn’t she?” She stopped, remembering his earlier words, and put her hand over her mouth. “Is Celia the aunt you think you killed?”

His expression confirmed it. No tears this time, only a savage anger at himself. “That’s the one. So I won’t be welcomed home with open arms. Yes, they’ll let me in. They’ll take care of me. I’ll be loved and cosseted. Poor Arlin, they’ll be thinking. He’s finally done something worth noting, and it’s getting himself and everyone else in trouble. They’ll do the smart thing and lock me in a tower room before the servants see me and spread the word, and that’s where I’ll end up staying for my whole life.” He shifted away from her. “I’d rather die.”

The words were melodramatic, but she sympathized. “I think I would, too,” she admitted, getting a startled look from him. She stared at Bramble’s ears, trying to think what to do next.

After a long moment he said, “What are you doing?”

“I’m trying to think.”

“Is it always so hard for you?”

“Are you always so mean?”

He looked at her from under his lashes. “Sorry.”

The look was so appealing, her irritation faded. “I have an idea.”

“What is it?”

“Don’t look so nervous. It’s a good idea. We’ll turn around and go to my home. We’ll have to travel all night, however.”

“For secrecy?”

“That, and also to make up for my lost time.”

“What does an extra day or two matter?”

She was trying to turn the cart, but at this, the reins drooped in her hands. Bramble halted, confused. Fiella drew a careful breath. She had always thought of herself as an even-tempered person, and she could not understand why she was so irritated, so fast. When she could speak with dignity, she said, “Have you never done any work in your life?”

“Of course I have.”

“Don’t you always try to do your best?”

“Depends on the job.”

Her jaw tensed. She snapped, “This is not just a job to me, this is my living. I am a journeyman, in training to be a master. I am responsible for keeping to a schedule, and I take my responsibilities seriously. If rain and mud and bandits and sickness don’t make me lose a day, do you think helping you should?” When he only stared at her, she said, “Never mind. A lifetime of privilege hasn’t taught you responsibility. That’s not your fault.”

“Gracious of you.”

The sarcasm mixed with bafflement. She didn’t think he’d ever understand, but then, as she’d said, it wasn’t his fault. Not exactly. It was his class and his upbringing. She picked up the reins again, avoiding even looking at Arlin.

The trip to Kireen was long and silent. Arlin brooded–that was the only word for it–but Fiella knew he had a lot to think about. However, he made no complaints when he took the reins so she could nap.

They approached Kireen in the grey light of pre-dawn. Fiella was driving again, and she took a farm path so she could reach the back of her house without driving through the entire village. Drawing rein, she climbed from the box, then pointed at the door in the rear of the house. “Go in, and don’t open the shutters.”

He gave her another of his I’m not stupid glares, but he said nothing, only did as she told him. Biscuit followed him. Forgetting Arlin for a while, Fiella unharnessed Bramble and set the tired mare free to roll in the grass. Then she tied her on a loose rope and gave her water.

With the horse’s comfort assured, she went inside. Arlin was sitting on the room’s only chair, and he hadn’t even lit a candle. She was glad of his good sense, but then, he didn’t know what villages were like. She lit two candles and placed them on the table.

“Is that wise?” he asked. Then, again showing some sense, he added, “Someone will see the cart and horse anyway, I suppose, as soon as the sun comes up.”

Her irritation had long ago worn away. She smiled. “By the time the sun comes up, everyone in town will know I’m home. But they won’t see you. We should eat something.”

He nodded. The hood had fallen onto his shoulders, and he looked all around. “You live here?”

The tone of his voice brought her irritation back. “Yes, and I’m lucky to have such a nice home. I realize my entire house would probably fit in your dining hall, but most journeymen have to share a room in a boarding house.”

Now he was smiling. “My bedroom.”

“What?”

“Your entire house would fit in my bedroom.”

She realized he was teasing her, and she laughed. “Really?”

“Almost. Maybe not all of the loft.”

She took a hammer from a neat rack of tools next to the back door.

“What are you doing?”

“First, getting us some food from the cart.”

“You don’t have food in your house?”

“Not when I’m going to be away from home for weeks.”

“Oh. Yes. Very wise. What’s the hammer for?”

“I thought I would break one of the cart’s wheels. Just a little. Then I can take it to the smith to be repaired, and I won’t have to explain why I’m not at Kapath.”

He shook his head. “That’s not smart. Your smith will know the break is recent, and he may need to call in a carpenter. We could be here all day.” He frowned, then said, “I have a better idea. A thrown shoe would be more natural. Do you have a file and nipper around here?”

“A file and what?”

“Never mind. Do you have any horse care tools? Maybe in the cart?”

“Of course. But,” she admitted, a flush rising in her cheeks, “I haven’t ever needed to use them, and I’m not sure how.” Bora had given her precise instructions, but she had no confidence in her ability to follow them. “Do you know?”

“Don’t sound so surprised. You may not approve of my education, but it did include horses. I think I can do this without anyone seeing me, if you bring the horse and the tools to the back door.”

The horse. She supposed he would refer to her as the journeyman. “The horse has a name. Her name is Bramble.”

He studied her a moment, then shrugged. “Bramble, then.” He glanced at the dog. “And Biscuit. You like the letter B?”

What would he find next to tease her about? “I didn’t name Bramble,” she said, and stalked out.

She got the sack of horse tools from under the box, then untied Bramble and led her to Arlin. Shielded from view by the open door and lit by a lamp Fiella held high, he took two long metal tools from the sack. He rubbed Bramble’s neck and poll, making friends with her. He ran his hand down her foreleg, then turned his back to her, bent, and gently but firmly lifted her foot and set it on his knee. He used the edge of the file carefully around the bottom part of the hoof, along the line of nails. Moving to her side, he again picked up the foot and put it between his thighs, but this time facing toward her rear, with the hoof’s bottom up. With the other tool he cleaned the foot, then used it to pry the shoe away from the hoof, a little at a time. The entire operation took only minutes.

He set Bramble’s foot on the ground, patted her, handed Fiella the shoe, replaced the tools in the sack, and picked up the nails from the grass. “Don’t try to save money at the blacksmith’s by giving him that shoe to replace it,” he said. “He’ll know it was taken off, not lost.”

She looked at the shoe, at Bramble, and at Arlin. “That was impressive.”

His response to her praise was, “I’m not a total waste.”

Which ended her momentary approval of him. She turned sharply away and led Bramble to the tree to tie her. She returned to the house and, still not talking to Arlin, she climbed into the loft. There she rummaged in the trunk which now sat where her childhood sleeping pallet had been, found what she wanted, and came down with a cloak draped over her shoulders. She handed this to Arlin. “I think this will work better than my cloak.”

He said nothing about her earlier silence, only took the garment and shook it out. “Much better. It’ll cover me completely. Whose is it?”

“It was my father’s. He was a tall man.”

“Sorry,” he muttered. “I’ll be careful with it.” When he set aside her cloak, the wings opened, seeming to fill the room with their whiteness. Arlin looked as surprised as Fiella was when she saw them. She supposed it would take much longer than a single day to become accustomed to such a thing.

“What are the belts for?” he asked after the mutual pause.

She had also brought two leather belts from the loft, slung over her shoulder. “My father was a big man as well as tall, so these should fit around you and restrict the wings without hurting them.” Then, recognizing she must sound autocratic, she added, “What do you think?”

“I think it’ll work,” he said, his eyes lighting. He had noticed her verbal retreat.

That irritated her again. “Put your arms out. And if you can, furl the wings as close as possible to your body.”

“I can. I’m getting used to them.”

He held out his arms, and under them she wrapped the longest belt around his chest, securing the wings close to his back, with the buckle in front to avoid damaging the feathers. She couldn’t help but trail her fingers over them, surprised such a miraculous thing could feel like a common goose’s wing.

The second belt went around his waist, also securing the wings close. The cloak, when they put it on him, reached to his mid-calf and covered the wings entirely. Fiella surveyed the results from all sides. Arlin said, “Well? Does it work?”

“It does. You look unnaturally broad-shouldered, but not enough to draw a second glance. I think you should wrap your knees in a bit of flannel, like people do in the winter, to hide the wing tips, just in case the wind lifts the ends of the cloak too high.”

“Won’t that look odd at this time of year?”

“No, not on beggars and others who must wear all their clothing, or carry it.”

He smiled, a weak smile but one which reached his eyes. “So I’m posing as a beggar?”

She smiled back. “Maybe an unemployed mercenary, hired to protect me.”

“I left my sword at my aunt’s house.”

His voice fell with the last three words. She realized what their next step would have to be, as little as either of them liked it. She said, “You won’t need it. We have a club under the box, so you can carry that to complete your disguise. But we must discuss something else now.”

“That sounds ominous.”

“You should sit down.”

“That bad?”

“No. I’m getting a crick in my neck, staring up at you.”

He sat, and she perched herself on the edge of her bed. She wanted nothing more than to stretch out and have a long, peaceful sleep, but hours spent on a proper rest might bring someone from the village to check on her well-being. She collected her thoughts. “You aren’t going to like what I’m going to say.”

“Say it anyway.”

“I think our first stop, even before Kapath, should be Fordis. We should check on your aunt.”

“I can’t go there!”

“Yes, you can. No one will be looking for you there. You flew away. They’ll be looking everywhere except there. And until we know exactly how your aunt is faring, then you won’t be able to use your wits. Don’t look offended, it’s only the truth. You’re worried about her. I can see it.”

“It wasn’t my fault, what happened.”

“Don’t raise your voice. Someone may pass by and hear you, and we need to get you out of Kireen undetected. Everyone here knows I am traveling alone.”

His voice remained taut, but he lowered it. “The wings just…came out. I didn’t know about them. One minute we were just–talking–and the next, I had wings. They burst out, and they hit her.”

She didn’t suspect him of lying. He was a poor liar. Still, his account was far from the whole story. Guilt flushed his face and weakened every word. Whatever the truth was, though, she was sure he hadn’t harmed Lady Celia on purpose. “I believe you. But you will be better off knowing how she is, no matter what the result. Being in ignorance is distracting you.”

“If it were your aunt, wouldn’t you be distracted?” he demanded.

“Yes, I would. And I would want to know the facts, so I would be able to concentrate on staying out of any more trouble.”

His anger fell, swiftly and naturally, into resentment. “You always have the answer, don’t you? Well, I have to go where the cart goes, but I don’t have to see or talk to anyone.”

She wasn’t going to try to keep up with his mood changes. They were too swift for her. “You don’t have to talk to her or to anyone. I can’t make you. But if that’s what you want, you should stay well-hidden and never appear, even in disguise. People there know your face.”

“You want me to hide in the cart?”

“That would be best. Nowhere nearby your aunt’s house. I’ll leave you in a hollow I know, and I’ll leave Biscuit with you to warn you if anyone comes near.” She drew a breath. “You should allow me to tell your aunt you’re with me.”

“No.”

“But–”

“I said, no. Tell no one. You don’t know my family. They’ll hear about it, and they’ll find me and swarm down on me.”

“But if your aunt is not seriously harmed–”

“How many times do I have to say it? No.”

He wasn’t merely stubborn. There was steel in him. She’d seen the same quality in his grandfather. She gave up. “At least let me tell her you’re alive and safe.”

He considered that, his struggle plain on his face. He wanted to escape from his aunt and what had happened between them, but he also didn’t want to worry her. To his credit, the latter won out. “You can tell her that. But not that I’m with you.”

She agreed. “Afterward, where do you want me to take you? Where were you trying to fly to, if not your home?”

“Nowhere,” he admitted. “I was flying away from something, not to somewhere. But I’ve been thinking, and I have an idea.” At her expression, he scowled. “Don’t look as if you think I never had an idea in my life.”

“Sorry. What’s your idea?”

“If we can go east by northeast, into the mountains, there’s a town where the Gifted live. Or that’s the rumor, according to my mother.”

“Safehold. I’ve heard of it, too.”

“It’s supposed to be hard to find.”

“Impossible to find.”

“Not for someone with wings.”

“But flying randomly around the mountains might be risky.”

“Not as risky as driving all around the Vale in a thin disguise.”

He had a point. She thought it over, but she could come up with nothing better. This would make her at least a week late on her route, but she would find a way to make up the time. “We’ll try to find it, then. But first we’ll visit your aunt. Don’t sulk.”

“I’m not sulking. I just don’t think that’s necessary. We could always get word some other way.”

He sounded so weak, and so aware of the futility of his words, she refrained from arguing. “That could take weeks. So, it’s settled. West to Fordis, then northeast to the mountains.”

“This is really going to ruin your schedule,” he said.

He wasn’t being flippant. He sounded truly regretful. She gave him a wry smile. “It’s been ruined since the moment Biscuit saw you. What’s a few more days?”

“And what’s happened to your sense of responsibility?”

“Right now, I’m responsible for you.”

The humor fled from his face. That thought hadn’t struck him before. “No.” He leaned toward her, speaking in earnest. “You aren’t responsible for me. I’m grateful for your help, no matter how I act. And I’m going to continue to accept it, because if I go wandering around like I was when you found me, I’m going to be discovered. But you aren’t responsible for me. If the disguise fails, then you act stupid. You didn’t realize what I was. You just gave me a ride when I asked for it. I fooled you. Do you understand?”

“I couldn’t abandon you like that.”

“You can, and you will. Either promise me, or I’ll walk out of here right this minute. In fact, I’ll fly out of here.” When she didn’t speak, he said, “Promise! I don’t want it on my conscience if something bad happened to you for helping me. I couldn’t live with that.”

One minute he was a fool, and the next, he was a princeling. “You know, you sound like your father right now.”

“Shut up and promise me.”

“All right. I promise. But only because I don’t think anything will happen to expose you. Unless, of course, you do something stupid. In that case, I’ll be happy to leave you to your fate. Do the belts hurt the wings?”

Satisfied, he accepted the change of subject cheerfully. “Not at all.”