They say fortune favours the bold and the brave. The happiest man I have met lived in the same house since the day he was born, married a pleasant woman, and tended a farm since he could work. How fortunate was he.

King Juniper the Second

 

Sarea sat on her doorstep, warm cup cradled in her hands. In the sun, the whole tale sounded ridiculous. Too strange to fit in to her little life.

But that doesn’t make it a lie, she thought.

In the Nut-Berry tree, Ionas lay across a low, wide branch, plucking leaves and weaving their long stems together.

“The hounds,” she said.

“Fire for claws,” Ionas called out. “I did say.”

She winced. They’d sounded like something out of a child’s story, a stand in for an enemy in the real world. “Who are they here for?”

His hands stilled.

“Ionas,” she said.

“And I’m in the perfect position to be hit by stones,” he muttered.

She frowned. “Ionas.”

“I’d love to say they’re after me,” he said, shifting to look at her. “But -”

She went cold. Something in her face must have changed, because Ionas paled. “Sarea,” he said. “It’s not your fault.”

She dropped her cup, stood, and went into the cottage.

Sarea didn’t own very much. The medicines, herbs, and even the cottage were in trust to the local hedge witch, not her. Her belongings were in a small box by the folded beds. She knelt down and opened it. Tineke’s thick, heavy book, wrapped in oil cloth was on top, sat on three changes of clothing, one of them her best dress. Under them was a spare blanket and, as she dug down, the sewing kit, bound up with leather cord. She picked it all up and carried it to the work table.

She could ask after one of Master Junker’s travel bags. She knew the good Mistress still had them. If she packed some of the medicines she’d have something to trade, and prove her skill. And she’d have to write to the nearest hedge witch to say she’d gone away –

“Sarea, what are you doing?” Ionas stepped into the doorway, casting a shadow over the room. The fire was flickering embers, and in the little space it didn’t do much more than light his face.

“I’m a threat to the village,” she said.

“The hounds are,” he said. “You most certainly aren’t. Let me handle them.”

She shook her head.

“Is this all it takes to get you away from them?” Ionas sighed. “Stars, Sarea, it’s not -”

“I’m supposed to care for them,” she said, but it came out like a shout. “That’s what Tineke said! If I stay they’ll lose worse than livestock -”

“Sarea -”

“You wanted me to leave with you!”

“Not like this,” he snapped back. “I wanted you to choose to leave. Not sacrifice your home!”

She shut her mouth and stared at him.

“Even if you’re being treated like dirt and have to help behind the scenes. Giving out basic medicines in a run-down barn? How is that going to help anyone? But I get it, Sarea, I do, this is your home, even if the entire human race is at stake, even if you’re mud on the ground to them -” He stopped, shaking. “No more sacrifices to the night,” he said. “No more.”

Then his face changed. He moved forwards. “I’m sorry.”

“What else can I do?” she said. “What else – with everything you’ve said – what else can I do?”

“Sarea,” he said gently, and pulled her into his arms.

Oh, she thought. I’m crying.

His coat smelt like age and smoke. No one had hugged her in six months. It felt… he felt…

Like he could keep an entire world of darkness away. Like she was safe.

After a while, when the closeness became almost unbearable, she pulled herself away and put her things back in the box. Blanket, clothes, book, sewing kit.

“What were you going to do, earlier?” Ionas said.

She closed the lid. “Mistress Junker needs more berries. I know a place where no one picks them.”

“Well, that sounds fun.” She could feel his damned, ever-ready smile.

“How are you going to deal with the hounds?” she said, voice soft.

A pause. “Never you mind that.”

“I want to help.”

A hand on her shoulder. “We’ll see,” he said.

 

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