Flint couldn’t have said how long he had sat there, reins dropped from his fingers, mind elsewhere…. A dry land. Mountains like cut glass.
Nonsense. Foolishness. Imaginings.
Shaking his head, he slid from the cart’s seat to the ground, walking to drag the oxen away from the mountain clover into which they’d driven him while he’d been woolgathering.
Loam would have t’sked at him. And then she would have gone back to baking pies for the workers’ supper or going over the bewildering slate full of numbers she kept for the farm. He was no good with numbers. No good with baking, when it came to that.
Eighteen months, and he was thinking about her more now than when the spotted fever took her.
And yet, trying to remember his late wife’s face, her touch, he found that he could not.
Betimes, when he woke in their bed in the morning, he thought that he could smell her. But all that came to his mind when he tried to remember the sound of her voice was a dry land. Mountains like cut glass.
In spite of the warmth of the autumn afternoon, he shivered.
Pulling Apple and Clod back onto the road, Flint led the cart forward. No more daydreaming.
No chance of reaching Gont Port before nightfall. A part of Flint was relieved: he’d been struggling with a plan to visit Doxy Street tonight, a spark of fun before the market tomorrow. The idea sickened him, truth be told, but a man could get lonely. Even a man like Flint.
He would spend tonight at Re Albi, get up early, as was his wont, and bring his wool to Gont Port before the market opened.
That was sense.
Flint frowned; if he were pressed to it, he might swear that that last thought carried the unremembered tinge of Loam’s voice.
Checking on Clod’s harness for the last time—he had a habit of slipping out of his stall during the night—Flint was surprised to feel his belly rumble. He’d had naught but an apple to eat since sunrise, and he’d come a long ways since leaving Oak Farm. He’d planned on sleeping in his cart—no need to pay for a bed in the inn, and he’d feel a fool if someone wandered off with his load of good Gontish wool, the product of a year’s hard work by his shepherds, his sheep and himself.
Still, a quick meal in the Falcon’s Nest seemed safe enough. And there were people...
It was just as well that he’d spared himself the temptation of Doxy Street. He didn’t need that.
The tavern was full and boisterous. Not a surprise; others from the south shore of Gont were, like Flint, headed to tomorrow’s market, and were enjoying the company of new faces. All of those faces, of course, bore the high-cheeked look of proper Gontishmen. All but one.
She stood next to the bar, surrounded by a crowd of redfaced young men, her pale skin and straight black hair marking her as foreign—Kargish—even before the musical lilt of her voice reached Flint’s ear. “No more for me, Fold,” she said to the man standing at her elbow. Thin, stone-white fingers pushed a glass across the bar toward the publican.
“C’mon, Goha!” said the young men—it made Flint pause to realize just how old he felt, looking at that bright, smooth, ale-moist face— “you can’t leave us now! Jssst when it’s getting fun!” The young ruffian grabbed her wrist to stop her going.
“Fold,” she said, voice low, but the lout didn’t seem to notice.
Flint found himself stepping toward them.
“Aw, Goha,” wheedled the drunk, and the other drunks wheedled and giggled too, all around the small, pale, unflinching figure. “Tell’s s’more, will you? Ring’f Erreth-Hickebe, ‘n’ Sparrowhawk ‘n’...”
The woman tried to pull her arm back, but the boy—Fold—grabbed her other wrist as well.
Flint—who hadn’t spoken a word but eyup or whoa! since sunup—found his voice. “Let her go, friend.” He placed his hand on the drunk boy’s shoulder.
Silence spread like honey through the room. Flint wouldn’t have guessed that the inn had been quite so noisy if the noise hadn’t disappeared.
The drunk’s head wobbled as he turned toward Flint. “Who you?”
“I’m a farmer from the South Shore who was brought up well enough to know that when a lady asks you to let go,” Flint said, holding the boy’s unsteady glare, “you let go.”
Fold’s face reddened and his sweaty eyes narrowed. Though he let go of one of the woman’s fine wrists, he kept hold of the other as he turned toward Fold. “‘Zat right? Friend?”
“Goha here’s a friend,” one of the other drunks snorted. “She’s a right good friend.”
Flint could count on one hand the number of times that he’d lost his temper—even he could do that amount of figuring. Yet standing there in that West Shore tavern room, he felt rage roaring up through him, as if he were not getting angry, but the anger was becoming him. He reached up with his free hand to the small Kargish woman’s small white shoulder to pull her behind him before the fighting started when suddenly a voice to still a thunderstorm said, quietly, “Stop.”
Everyone stepped back then. Fold let of the woman, and all of them were suddenly some feet away from each other.
Flint followed the others’ gazes to where the sound seemed to have come from: a rumpled, crumpled figure in a grey robe sitting by the fire. The red of his cheeks seemed edged in frost, and his eyes made of snow and shadow. He looked as if a puff from the bellows that sat upon the hearth could blow him to dust, like a burnt out log. And yet they all stepped back, and stayed back. The man—the wizard, he must be—nodded and returned to the steaming bowl on his table.
The woman Goha apparently took the nod to be for her. She nodded back at the old wizard and stepped toward the door.
“May I walk you to your house?” Flint found himself asking her, falling in beside her surprisingly quick stride.
“You needn’t,” she said, not looking up.
“It would be my pleasure,” Flint answered, opening the door for her to step out.
Outside the sounds of early summer washed like gentle rain over Flint. He was never comfortable in taverns nor markets. But outside—there he always felt himself.
The woman walked without pausing onto Re Albi’s one true street, the Gont Road, and turned down toward the edge of the village.
“Your name really Goha?” he asked.
She slowed, then blinked, stopped and turned. Her face like copperwood leaves in the bright moonlight. Imaginings. “I should think that a good Gontishman like you would know that names have power,” she said, but she was smiling.
“Don’t mean your true name,” he said, feeling the blood rise to his face. Indeed, any child out of swaddling knew not to ask for that.
Her smile grew. “Fold and the others call me Goha for my skin,” she said, holding up a pale, fine hand, “and because I spin and weave and mend for Ogion.”
“Ogion?” The old man by the fire. The voice to still a thunderstorm. The voice that had stilled an earthquake. The Archmage’s teacher. Flint’s lips dried to dust. “You... You keep the wizard’s house?”
“Sometimes,” the woman said, her grin twisting slightly. “Mostly I am supposed to be his apprentice.”
“His...?” Flint didn’t want to frown at her, didn’t want to question her, but everyone knew....
She laughed, a rich, light, bell-like sound that seemed to cause the moonlight to brighten. “Yes, I know. It was a favor of his to Sparrowhawk.”
Flint couldn’t even speak to that. His still-empty stomach rumbled.
She laughed again.
Flint stood there, gaping at her, and he found that he couldn’t think of what Loam had sounded like at all. Couldn’t think of what she’d looked like. Couldn’t think what any other women he’d ever met might have been like, not in such a presence.
The white-skinned woman before him shook her head as her laughter rolled to a halt. “Thank you for intervening,” she said. “Fold wasn’t likely to try anything too pushy, but I appreciated your help.”
He found himself nodding. “Didn’t want... No.”
“Thank you.” She smiled up at him again, and he felt clumsy and oxen, looming over her. “What is your name, friend?”
“Flint, of Oak Farm,” he mumbled, and ducked his head, as if he were a boy without a name yet.
“Well, it is a pleasure, Flint of Oak Farm. Are you headed to the market in Gont Port?”
He nodded again.
“Well, perhaps you can stop by and say hello on your way back home.”
He stood cattle-still.
“Good night, Flint of Oak Farm,” she said, and her hand touched his, and it was smooth and moist and Flint felt as if the spring thaw had just set in (a wet land, mountains green and rushing) and his blood flowed again as if for the first time in over a year. Nigh on two. “My name is Tenar.” She lifted her hand, turned, and began walking toward the low shadow of a cottage by the cliff, just off of the road.
“Tenar,” he whispered, and the name felt as fecund as her hand. Foolishness. She stopped—whether she had heard him or not, he was not sure. He meant to wish her good night, or wish her well, or tell her that the moonlight made her black hair glisten against her white neck, but he didn’t. Fool. “Can you do numbers?” he asked.