Dryad-Born Page 3

Phae nodded hungrily. “What a story. The Paracelsus Towers. Really? What else?”

“The Queen of Wayland is having an affair with one of the dukes.”

“Rumor, Trasen. An old one too. What else?”

“Boeotia is at war with Silvandom.”

She grinned. “Those people are always fighting. I am glad we live here in the mountains. No army would ever want to invade us. It’s not like you could steal the stone anyway.”

“Not to forget that the roads to enter Stonehollow were carved through enormous boulders. You have never left the valley, Phae, but the tunnels through the rock are narrow and long.” He used his arms to gesture the size. “It would require very few men to hold off an army. There is no way to pass those stony hills except through the road.”

“Enough of tunnels and rumors and armies. Tell me how you are doing, Trasen. How goes your training? Is Holt as harsh as Master Winemiller? Does he work you hard?”

Trasen smiled ruefully. “No man works as hard as Winemiller. Not even the stonemasons. I think Holt was surprised that I already knew how to cook, make rope, and repair a bow. I enjoy the work, Phae. Truly, I do. I’m quite good at it.”

She gave him a probing look. They shared each other’s heart. He was eighteen, and they had been friends for most of their lives, and she knew by the sound in his voice that there was something he hadn’t told her yet.

“What is it?” he asked her, seeing her probing look.

“You are hiding something. Out with it.” She gave him a coaxing smile.

“I don’t know how you do that,” Trasen muttered, his forehead wrinkling, his mouth pursed with unease. “I feel as if all of my secrets are laid bare.”

“Are there secrets between us?” she reminded him, glancing ahead. “We are almost to the house. Tell me now before I wrestle you to the ground and force you.” She knew all of his vulnerable spots too, especially the ticklish ones.

He hugged her with one arm, giving her a smile that faded into a frown. “You did not ask why I have a fortnight leave. Holt enlisted us to join the Wayland army. There is talk of a new treaty. I do not know much about it, but I’ve heard there may be some problems with the trade routes. The King of Wayland is paying handsomely for able men to protect and warn. They say skill with a bow is worth something.”

She stopped, her heart lurching with dread. “Is it dangerous? I thought the Romani govern the trade routes?”

“They still do. But there are rumors that if Havenrook has the Plague, someone else will need to guard the shipments. I can earn more in one year than what a mason can earn in three. It’s good money.”

“Your life is worth more than ducats,” Phae reminded him in a serious tone.

He nudged her playfully. “I’m not afraid of hard work. And I will not be protecting a caravan all alone. If you send enough men, no one will want to attack it. Holt taught me how to fight. How to read signs in the land. I know more than just making wine now, Phae.”

She was devastated but tried not to show it on her face. The thought of him being hurt was unbearable. They closed the gap to the porch steps. “Go on ahead,” Phae suggested. “I have to stack a few empty barrels. They will all want to see you and hear the news. Go.”

He looked at her expression, and she knew they would be talking about it later. She gave him a little shove to move him along and stood in the shadows off the porch, hugging herself for warmth from the sudden chill of the night air. She had a bad feeling about his new job. It disturbed her. The thought of losing him in a war—she did not even want to think about it.

Phae walked to the barns where the new barrels had been unloaded earlier that week. The barn door was open and she strolled in, seeing the stacked barrels just inside. The job was already done, and Winemiller had probably done it. She smiled fondly. The barrels were made of oak, imported from the north and constructed by Winemiller’s brother-in-law in Stonehollow. Uncle Carlsruhe was a carpenter and gifted at making sturdy barrels. The smell of oak was one of her favorite scents. She ran her hands across the rounded slats, enjoying the feel of the grain against her palms. It was in the barn where she had hid in just such a barrel and first used her magic. Being there reminded her of it.

Slowly, she walked down the row of barrels, feeling each one, pausing to approach one, now and then, and to smell it. The smell of oak flavored the wine. It was a family secret.

A body detached from the shadows in front of her. Her first thought was that Master Winemiller was finishing his day late and starting to come back to the house. She nearly thanked him for stacking the barrels. She hesitated, realizing it was not his shape. It was no one from the orphanage at all.

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