Edgar watched the carriage jostle over the rutted road, leaving a cloud of dust in its wake. He thrust his hands into his pockets and headed for a familiar shortcut through the forest. Maybe the walk would help clear his head and make sense of his muddled thoughts. He’d spent most of his childhood playing in these woods. Sometimes he chased after his brothers, but more often he preferred to be alone. In the woods he was free to explore and dream of a world of unlimited possibilities, where he was more than the third son of a lesser nobleman whose prospects were dim at best.
The forest held a magic that beckoned to him. His Gran had once told him there were places in the world where magic still lingered. In these ancient places, the faery folk may have once danced on a moonlit night, long before they were driven away by the men who feared them. Although magic had nearly been driven out of the Kingdom of Thanumor in recent years, some still clung to the old ways. Some, like Edgar’s family, still believed.
He paused by the bank of a shallow stream. Water flowed swiftly, burbling in the tones of a tongue long forgotten. Sunlight dappled the smooth stones beneath the surface. This was one of those ancient places, he was sure of it. He’d often dreamt of this spot and a woman who wore a cloak the color of the turbulent sky before a summer storm, whose eyes were the deep green of an emerald. She was one of the Tuatha, the faery folk, of that he was certain also. But as many times as he’d lingered in this place, he’d never seen any sign of her in his waking hours.
With a sigh, he sat with his back against a tree and tried to let the soothing sounds of the stream wash over him. Unrest had been brewing in Tipton Village for some time. If only his father weren’t so damn stubborn. It didn’t have to be like this. He’d met a number of the peasants at the alehouse in the neighboring town; they weren’t so different from him and his family. Why couldn’t his father simply listen to their requests?
Edgar clenched his fists. He’d half a mind to make his way to Pyredon, where he could apply for a position in the king’s court and leave his family to whatever fate befell them.
The shuffle of leaves made him jump to his feet, startling a woman approaching the stream. She cried out and dropped the basket she carried.
“I’m sorry.” He held out his hands to show he meant no harm. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
She knelt to gather up the clothes that had spilled from the basket. “I beg your pardon, Master Gray,” she murmured. “I didn’t expect to find anyone here. I’ll not disturb you further.”
“No need to leave on my account.” He reached for a pair of dusty breeches and handed them to her. “Do you always come out here for the washing?”
“Do you always lurk so far from the manor?” she countered. She snatched the clothes from his hand. Immediately she dropped her gaze. “My apologies, sir. I’ve no cause to speak to you like that.”
“It’s all right,” he said softly. “It’s been a hard day.”
“It has, sir. Indeed it has.” She gave him a sideways glance and continued to the water’s edge. “I come here when I need to get away for a bit,” she said as she plunged a shirt into the water. “Didn’t think someone like you would know about this place.”
He studied her. They were likely close in age, although her face was tanned from working in the sun, her hands rough and calloused. She wore a simple brown homespun dress. A strand of dark hair had escaped the braid hanging to her waist, and she pushed it back with her arm. After dunking the shirt several times and scrubbing it with a wooden paddle, she shook it out and laid it across a rock.
“Um, do you want some help?” he asked.
Her blue eyes peered up at him. Now it was her turn to study him, and her appraising stare made him feel lacking. “Do you often help with the washing?”
“Not really. But I’ve scrubbed a few pots now and then.”
She laughed. “It’s hardly the same, Master Gray.”
“The name’s Edgar. If I can’t help, perhaps I could offer you some company.”
She raised an eyebrow.
Damn. She must think I’m a fool. His sister often said he was a fool when it came to women. According to Eleanor, women didn’t want a man to be direct. It was maddening. He’d no desire to play those kinds of games. Or maybe he just didn’t care for the women his sister associated with.
“That might not be seemly, Master Edgar.” The corner of her mouth quirked into a smile.
He settled himself on the grass nearby. “Since when is conversation inappropriate?”
“Only when it’s with the master’s son.” She moved on to the breeches, shaking them out several times before dunking them.
Edgar ventured a smile. “I won’t tell anyone if you won’t.”
She raised an eyebrow again.
“I mean … that is….” He faltered for the right words and wanted to smack himself.
She burst out laughing. “I think your meaning is as clear as the mud on my brother’s breeches.” After a moment, she added, “But I thank you, sir. I’d enjoy the company. As you said, it’s been a hard day.”
He tensed. The village boy’s defiant stare burned into his mind. “You know him, don’t you?”
“It’s a small village. Everyone knows everyone.”
“I’m sorry for what happened.”
She stopped scrubbing and fixed him with a stare. “Are you?”
“I said I was. I meant it.”
“It’s an odd thing for you to say, isn’t it, seeing as how you were there in judgment of him.”
He rubbed the back of his neck. Of course that was the reason for his being there, as much as he disagreed with it. “I had no hand in choosing the punishment. I thought it was wrong.” He wasn’t sure why it suddenly seemed so important to convince her.
“Do you know why he did it?” she asked, growing quite still.
“A fair wage. That’s all he asked for. A few coins in his pocket to help his family get through the winter.” She looked away and resumed her vigorous scrubbing. “I don’t expect the likes of you to understand that, Master Edgar.”
“You agree with him?”
“I’d rather not say.”
“I see.” Edgar knew his father would have laughed at whatever the boy might have proposed as a fair wage. The villagers were paid in the land where they were permitted to live and the crops they were allowed to tend for themselves. Tending the master’s lands always took priority, however. “But surely they can provide for themselves. They always have before.”
“Have we? You’ve no sense of how we live, do you?”
He’d never actually been inside one of the thatch-roofed wattle and daub huts that made up the village. They were a far cry from the grand stone manor that had been his family’s home for generations. “I suppose I don’t,” he admitted.
“Then you’d best not sit in judgment of us. Not until you’ve seen your sisters and brothers go hungry at night and wake up nearly blue from the cold each morning. Your own belly aches from the emptiness, but you dare not complain. Others have it much worse, and you know this because every year, you see more of them die.” She jumped up and slung the wet clothes into the basket. “I’d best be going now.”
“Wait.” Edgar scrambled to his feet. “Perhaps there’s something I can do. What is it you need? Food? I can get some for you.”
She clutched the basket to her chest, again studying him with an appraising eye.
For a moment, he wondered if she’d be too proud to accept his offer. “I only want to help,” he added.
Copyright © Cindy Young-Turner