Market Day

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The crowd has already begun to gather by the time I reach the market place. Everything is sold here, everything can be bought. Melons, meat, corn, gold, silver, jewelry. Slaves. I look away when I pass their pens, because the sight still turns my stomach. It wasn’t so long ago that I was up on a block like that, chained up with the rest.

I have no desire to be put back again.

I lead my little donkey into the crowd, find a place in a far corner from the slave market, and spread my rug. My wares are all brought from the east, purchased from caravans that bring them in from Egypt, the Middle East, Jerusalem, Morocco. Everywhere. My little donkey carries everything, and I pat his nose and give him his grain before I set out the wares.

The finest silks, pearls from the east, bronze lamps, copper pots. All of it purchased with my own coins. I look at each of them proudly before I set them on the rug. Slaves don’t sell things like these. Merchants do. And I am a merchant, in my own small way. No one has to know how I came to be one, or where I started out. Slaves in great houses can’t earn money, not the way I can.

No one has to know that I still have men on my tail. They won’t find me anyway. It’s been too long, and I’ve come too far. They will never find me now.

Anne of Green Gables

Last Sunday, I did absolutely nothing.

Like, nothing at all.

I lit a fire in my wood stove, made popcorn, and read the whole day.

It. Was. Lovely.

The book I chose was an old one, and probably familiar enough to most of you. I mean, who hasn’t read Anne of Green Gables?

Besides me, obviously.

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Oh, I’d been introduced to Anne before now. The 1985 mini series was my first introduction to her, Avonlea, Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, and Gilbert Blythe. (Insert dreamy sigh.) I grew up with Anne, you might say. So it was odd that I’d never picked the book up before now, especially since I’ve been devouring every book I could get my hands on since I was about four years old.

Now, finally having read this amazing book, even I can hardly believe it took me so long. (Yes, I finished it in one day. I told you, I had popcorn. And a fire. Where else did you think I was going to be?)

Anne of Green Gables was one of the most charming, enchanting books I’ve ever had the privilege of reading in my life. Lucy Maud Montgomery gives a vivid picture of life in Avonlea, the fields, woods, orchards, gardens, and of course, Green Gables itself. I could see every bloom, every red dirt road, every cottage, every room. By the time I was finished reading, I felt as well acquainted with Green Gables as I was with my own heart.

And her mastery of the settings in this book was nothing to what she did with her characters.

Anne with an e. I loved her for her frankness, her imagination, and her authenticity when I watched the mini series years ago, and I love her no less now for having read the book. She is funny, charming, endearing, and just enough like myself to make me laugh at my own faults. She appears as a little, thin-faced orphan girl seated at a train station, but she has so much more to her than just the poor waif that no one wants. Her mind is her own, and she is frightfully clever with it. (Sometimes a little too clever?) From the mouse in the pudding to the liniment cake and beyond, I loved Anne, and it was a joy to watch her work her way into the hearts of the people around her, just as she was working her way into mine.

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The story follows her through nearly four years of her life, from the moment she is dropped off at a train station to meet Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert (only to find out they had no intention of adopting a little girl when they’d asked for a boy), through her years in school, her dramas, her triumphs, her many, many misadventures, and her long standing grudge against a boy who only ever wanted her to notice him. (Poor Gilbert.)

Anne had a wonderful passion for life, and when she loved, she loved well. May we all find a part of ourselves that recognizes how lovely the world we live in really is.

“Look at that sea, girls—all silver and shadow and visions of things not seen. We couldn’t enjoy its loveliness any more if we had millions of dollars and ropes of diamonds.”

Sugar

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I’m making tea when they arrive. They knock on my door, although anywhere else they would have kicked it in. “It’s a routine search,” they tell me. “Only a formality.”

I let them in. What else am I supposed to do? Even I can’t make them go away, although their master thinks so highly of my talents, my crystal ball, my visions of the future. They tramp through my house in their big boots, search every floor, every room, every closet. Their uniforms are black. Black, but for the red lining their coats and cuffs. Like blood on their hands, on their chests.

I smile at them when they come into the kitchen. “I was making tea. Would you like some?”

They’re embarrassed. No one comes here. They’re usually not allowed, and I know they don’t want to be caught here, even if they were ordered to come. I’m a witch, a diviner, and much as they like my talents, they’re still afraid of me. Of the men who come to consult me.

I could never be a traitor.

They sit down at my table, and I pour hot water into the teapot. My hands don’t shake. The older of the two, a man with black tattoos on his throat and a death’s head on his cap, is sitting right above my cellar, although I doubt he knows it. His black boots rest on the notch in the floor where the handle is.

The people below don’t make a sound. They might have been dead already, for all the noise they’re making. I bless them under my breath. Even the Black Ghost’s little witch would be executed for what they’re carrying in their pockets.

But they won’t be found. We’ve done this before, so many times, and our luck has never failed us. I pour two cups, smile at the men. “Sugar?”

Sheep Pens

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My breath hangs like a cloud in the still air when I step outside. The grass is frozen now, and the needles of the pines are white with hoarfrost. I missed these days during the summer. Our home is beautiful enough during the warm seasons, when the grass is green and the creeks are high. But I think ice suits it better. Ice and wind and snow. It fits our people better, somehow.

The sheep are already gathered when I go down to their pens. They huddle together for warmth, the air soft and hazy and smelling of wet wool and manure. I like that smell. It reminds me of my father, of our home before life became so dangerous, so unpredictable. The sheep don’t feel it, of course. As long as we bring them out to pasture in the morning, they are content.

The crates of ammunition in the back of their pens don’t bother them at all. They bother me. But no one listens to me.

“They’re winter supplies,” my father tells me. “That’s what you tell anyone that asks. That’s all they need to know.”

I drill it into my head. Winter supplies. Blankets and warm clothing, food and grain and flour. Dried meats. Not bullets. Not gunpowder.

We can’t be shot for blankets.

Autumn Winds

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The birds are flying south now. When I go for walks in the morning with my dog, their nests are empty and the trees where they used to sit and sing their songs are bare.

I can’t really blame them.

It’s the wood sprites that chase them out, really. They don’t like the cold or the snow, but only I think they would stay if the little sprites didn’t chase them from their nests, scatter red paint over the leaves, and pick the branches bare.

They really are very naughty.

My dog likes to bark at them. I hush him when he does, because the sprites like to come and tie knots in his fur when he’s too mean to them. It isn’t nice at all, but whoever heard of a wood sprite that was nice?

I tell my neighbors about them, but they only laugh and roll their eyes. Crazy old Mary, they say. What will she think of next? Their children laugh at me, and none of them come to my house when I invite them for cookies and apple cider in the fall. They don’t like the stories I tell about the wood sprites, or the little ghosts I catch in my pumpkin patch, or the faeries I find in my garden in the spring. They don’t like me. They think I’m odd.

But I like being odd. I like my faeries, and I like the wood sprites too, although they’re terribly mischievous. I like being able to see things other people aren’t sure of, or know aren’t there. I write stories about them, although I don’t tell people the stories are true, and my books are scattered through every library and bookstore in the country.

But they still won’t come for cookies. I’ll have to feed them to the wood sprites. Maybe then they’ll leave my magpies alone.

Songs

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“A maiden fair and a knight so fine went riding on a summer’s morn . . .”

The song echoes in the narrow corridors outside my cell, bounding from ceiling to floor, stone to iron bars. I lay my head back against the wall and listen. Another tavern song, written to make the women blush and the men laugh. He knows a thousand of them. I hear them every morning, every evening. Always as loud as he can shout them, always stripped of any real melody.

The songs that keep me alive, keep me breathing.

I can’t bless him enough for them, although I don’t know him at all. Only his songs.

The guards are changing outside the bars of my cell. Men dressed in mail with blades at their sides and blood on their souls pass my door without looking inside. They’ve forgotten I’m here, I think. I’m another bundle of straw on the floor, another sagging bag of clothes still chained to the wall. They’ve forgotten I’m still alive, that I still breathe and think and move.

I’ve forgotten too.

Tara. I trace the name in the dust on the flagstones. It isn’t mine anymore. Not after two years in this cell. I can’t even bring myself to say it.

The song stops. Abruptly. I look up, listening to the sound of iron-shod boots in the corridor outside. Coming closer. Please. Please don’t come here.

The silent plea burns the back of my throat, never voiced, never screamed the way I want to. It doesn’t do any good anyway. They unlock my door and come inside: faceless men with bruises on their knuckles and silver on their belts. The guards whisper about them, say they wear their masks to hide their faces from the devil, to keep their names from death’s black tongue. They pull me up, push me against the wall, and the questions begin again.

Why were you in Belika?

Who paid you to get inside?

Who is Beren Elkinson?

The answers stick to my tongue, to the roof of my mouth. I don’t know. I’ve said it a thousand times since they brought me here. I’ve screamed it, choked it through a mouthful of blood. They never believe me. Now I’m tired. I want to tell them the truth. Tell them that Beren Elkinson is the man who is going to burn their city to the ground, kill their king, and murder all of them in their beds for what they’ve done to his people. To me. I want to tell them that an army waits in the forest beyond their walls, growing, swelling, waiting for the right time to take what should be theirs by right. I want to yank the hoods from their stupid faces so I can see their fear, watch the blood drain from their cheeks.

I want them to be as afraid as I am.

But it isn’t time yet. The army isn’t—or wasn’t when I left them—large enough, our people still too weak to fight. It isn’t time.

It isn’t time, but I have no strength left.

One of the men hits me in the face. My head snaps back against the wall, and I taste blood. I’ve taken this for two years. For two years I’ve repeated over and over the words Beren drilled into me before I was sent to spy, to search the layout of the city and find its weaknesses, its faults. I don’t know. I came to visit my uncle. He’s a shepherd. I don’t know. I’m no one, a peasant’s daughter. We sell wool and wheat. I don’t know.

I don’t know.

I don’t know.

I do know. I know it all, exactly what they want me to tell them, exactly what they want to hear. I used to be afraid they would kill me.

Now I’m afraid they won’t.

Beren will come for me. I know he will. He doesn’t have the strength yet, but he’ll come. Soon.

I don’t think I can wait any longer.

He hits me again. I stare up at the ceiling, searching the weathered, soot-stained stones for a reason to keep holding on, and come up empty. I can already taste my confession, the words in my throat, in my mouth. Bitter as betrayal.

One early morning in the spring,

a drunken fool once met a king.

He bowed his head and bent his knee,

And begged his majesty to flee.

The song rises in the halls outside, loud enough to wake the souls clinging to the stones. I choke on a laugh. It’s another ballad, a stupid, bawdy melody about a drunken sailor who stole the heart of the queen and spirited her away.

The men holding me don’t react. Some say they’re deaf, their hearing ruined by our screams. They say they read our lips now. Maybe it’s true. But I’m not deaf. I can hear him, singing away in his cell at the top of his lungs, defying the slow creep of insanity that catches most men here, driving them mad with silence. But not him.

Not him.

He’s still fighting.

So am I.

The men shake me, ask their question again. The song continues outside my cell, loud and discordant and without a doubt the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard in my life. I smile with blood on my lips and shrug. “I don’t know.”

Going Home

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Everyone else is asleep. The captain confined us to our quarters the moment we stepped on his ship, as if our ragged, bloodstained clothes and battle-scarred weapons threatened him. The others complied easily enough, they don’t mind being confined for a few days or a week. Most of them have done nothing but sleep and eat, and are happy for it.

But I can’t eat. And the nightmares always wake me up when I try to close my eyes.

I’m seated in the bow, nestled just behind the figurehead, and I can see the lights of the coast winking in the distance, through the darkness. None of the sailors have found me yet, and maybe they won’t. I won’t stay out long. Just long enough to let the seaspray and the sight of home settle my racing heart.

But right now, I can still see them when I close my eyes. Faces of men, dead and dying. Men I knew and men I didn’t. Bloodstained fields, the smoke of the cannons. The smell of gunpowder. The screams of horses and men, the shouting of generals and captains. It all comes back. I can’t breathe below decks anymore.

I want to be home.

Home. I want to see the cliffs in the morning, see my father in the fields plowing with his oxen, and the dogs taking the sheep out to pasture with old Jim striding behind them in his big boots. I want to hear the geese cackling in the farmyard, and smell the fresh milk the girls are taking into the house to strain.

I want to be home, not here, not on this ship any longer, not at war. I close my eyes, steadying my breathing.

Tomorrow. We’ll be home tomorrow. I can wait that long.