I. The Fool

“Once upon a time, the kings of Rhiinas were mortal.”

Old Man Teller was telling his story again, the same one that he been telling ever since Deena could remember. It had become a sort of tradition, every year on the Day of Spring, for Teller to sit down in the town square with his favorite chair and pipe. Children would gather around him, listening with rapt attention, from young ones still unsteady on their feet to boys old enough that their voices cracked. The more nimble of the children would climb up onto the giant oak that dominated the town square, legs dangling over the heads of their less agile peers. Others brought their own chairs, or sat on the stoops of nearby shops. Even the women at the well paused their washing to listen.

“That’s right,” continued Teller. “They were folks like us, folks who grew old and died with the passage of time, as in the natural course of things. Not like these new lords–these Hallowed–who live forever and never age.”

Deena had never heard the story from start to finish. Her mother had never allowed it. When she was younger, she would try to dawdle as they passed through the square, but her mother always tugged her away. “Listen to him,” Mrs Hewe would mutter under her breath, “going on and on like he was there. Nevermind that the Hallowed Revolution was over three hundred years ago. Even among the Hallowed, it’s only a handful who live to be that age.”

“I though they were immortal,” said Deena once.

“Immortal,” scoffed Mrs Hewe. “Don’t you listen to Teller like he knows what’s what. Is Lord Nash still alive? Lord Ajjra? They don’t grow old, is all; disease and injury can still claim them like anyone else.”

She was right, of course, but that didn’t stop Deena from trying to listen, especially once she was old enough to run errands on her own. Sure, Old Man Teller may not be the most reliable authority on history, but it was just a story. Certainly no one else seemed to see the harm in it, including the baker, in whose shop Deena loitered, peering out the open window.

“It’s hard to imagine now,” said Teller, “but there was a time when the Hallowed were thought to be mere legend. Old wives’ tales, they said. Tales to scare children at night. Men and women who could live forever and never grow old? Why, the very idea would’ve seemed laughable. But it weren’t no laughing matter when we learned that the Hallowed had been hiding amongst us all along, biding their time. No, no one was laughing when they finally decided to strike.”

The baker’s wife cleared her throat. “Deena, dear. Your bread’s still on the counter.”

Deena started. “Sorry, Mrs Sandler. I was just, y’know, listening.”

Mrs Sandler smiled. “I’d say that you’re welcome to stay and listen as you like, but I suspect your mother would want this bread to still be fresh when you got home.”

“You’re right,” said Deena, placing the loaf in her basket. She counted out her coins and placed them on the counter. “Happy Day of Spring!”

“You too, dear,” said Mrs Sandler. “Oh, and if you haven’t seen him yet, Joel arrived late last night. You might want to stop by on your way home.”

“Oh, I didn’t see him,” said Deena. “Thanks!”

Outside, Old Man Teller was still talking. “They call themselves the Hallowed–‘blessed’, it means. Blessed by demons, more like. Their ‘revolution’ was little more than an excuse to act like brigands, looting their way across the land and burning what they couldn’t take. Honest folk–folk like us–were slaughtered in their rampage. Those that weren’t killed were driven from their homes or pressed into servitude to work for the fiends.”

Joel Allard was a travelling merchant, and the only one to regularly stop by Taunsgrove. About twice a year, he and his mule would pull a wagon into town, laden with an assortment of goods. As usual, he had hitched his wagon past the outskirts of the square, by the grove of trees behind the carpenter’s shop. A mishmash of goods had been laid out on a tablecloth on the ground. Nearby, the man himself sat reclined against a tree, a wide-brimmed hat pulled low over his face and covering his salt-and-pepper hair.

“Mr Allard!” called Deena as she approached.

Mr Allard pushed back his hat, and Deena noticed that he had a grown a heavy mustache since she saw him last. “Well if it isn’t our little blonde bumble-Dee,” he said. “Still buzzing around, I see. Have you gotten taller?”

“A bit,” admitted Deena, “but I think I’m done growing now.”

“Ah, there’s still a chance for one more growth spurt,” said Allard. “Sixteen is when some girls grow the most, you know.”

“I hope not,” said Deena. “I’m already a full head taller than my mother.”

“And speaking of your mother, how is she?”

“She’s fine, mostly. Actually, she twisted her ankle last week, but Mr Wilmot says it’ll heal in no time.”

“I hope it does,” said Mr Allard. He flipped through his ledger. “Let’s see… Ah, your mother wanted some new embroidery needles, last time.” He got to his feet. “Give me a moment and I’ll fetch it for you.”

Deena waited as Mr Allard disappeared into his wagon. There was a stack of books laid out among the goods on the ground, and Deena bent down to look through them. She picked one off the top and ran a finger along the faded title embossed on the spine: “The Blade of Elyria”.

“Oho, interested in that one, are you?” asked Allard, emerging from his wagon. “Not very accurate, I’m afraid. All very sensationalized.”

“Have you read it?” asked Deena.

“I’ve skimmed it,” said Allard. “It’s not the first time someone’s tried to write a biography about her, and they’ve all been entertaining to read, if you don’t care for facts.”

Deena flipped to the first page. “Since its founding, the Republic of Elyria has had no shortage of assassins and spies, but few have been as feared–or as revered–as Lord Avenel.” It took Deena a moment to remember that women could also be styled as “Lord” in Elyria. “I’ve never heard of her,” said Deena.

“I suspect you wouldn’t, growing up in Taunsgrove,” said Allard. He bent down to pick through the pile of books. “Here,” he said. “You might like this one better. It’s a collection of folktales from Osgola in the East. Seems like the type of thing you would like, if I remember right.”

Deena took the book and flipped through it. She didn’t know much about Osgola, but the stories seemed a good length for reading out loud while her mother did her embroidery. “How much is it?” she asked.

“Five coppers, and the needles will be a silver.” He tipped his hat as Deena handed him the coins. “Thank you for your custom,” he said, “and tell your mother to get better soon.”

“I will,” said Deena, stuffing her purchase into to her basket waving goodbye.

Back in the square, Old Man Teller was still talking. “One by one, the lords of Rhiinas fell, their castles captured by the Hallowed. Even King Trenton, the last king of Rhiinas, was forced to flee, until he was brought back in chains and executed in the very city where he once ruled. We thought the fighting was over, that we could finally have peace. We were wrong.”

Deena’s last stop of the afternoon was the cheesemonger’s, a thin, narrow house squished between the town hall and the town tavern. It was only after pushing futily at the door that Deena noticed the sign: “Back in a few minutes.” Well, that was fine. She wasn’t in a hurry, and anyway, now she had an excuse to listen to more of Teller’s story.

“Their revolution won, the two Hallowed factions fell to squabbling amongst themselves and split the kingdom in two: Ajjraea to the north and Elyria in the south, with the River Rhiine between them. The two nations wasted no time in declaring war on each other. Like oil and water, or maybe violence is just in their blood. Whatever the reason, the fighting continued, and without a thought for all us normal folk whose lives their war had ruined. Well, something had to be done, didn’t it, but what can we do against the might of the Hallowed? It was a man named Taun who had the idea to just leave, to find a forgotten pocket of the continent where we wouldn’t be bothered by either nation. Our forefathers journeyed far and wide to find such a place, but finally they came here, to the base of the mountains near the springwaters of the Rhiine, and made this place our home. And so, Taunsgrove was born.”

Teller looked like he was about to say more, but the town square broke into applause. Deena raised her hands to join in, but the feeling of being watched made her stop. She looked around. There was a woman standing by the doorway of the tavern. A stranger. A visitor, then, from out of town.

Deena looked at her, but the stranger did not look away.

“Um, can I help you?” asked Deena uncertainly.

The stranger shook her head. “I apologize if I made you uneasy,” she said.

“Oh,” said Deena. “No, it’s okay.” Taunsgrove didn’t get many visitors; she supposed she ought to show a bit of hospitality. “Um, what brings you to our town?”

“Merely passing through,” said the stranger. She nodded in the direction of Old Man Teller. “Does he do this every day?”

“No,” said Deena. “Only on the Day of Spring.”

The stranger nodded. “I hadn’t realized it was the Day of Spring,” she said. “One loses time on the road.”

A pair of young women walked past them. One of them glanced at the stranger, nudged the other, and the two of them hurried away.

“Your town distrusts outsiders,” said the stranger.

“S-sorry,” said Deena. “We don’t get many visitors here. Not to mention…” she gestured mutely at the stranger’s outfit, at her leather jerkin, her breeches, and the sword and dagger hanging from her hip.

The stranger looked down at herself. “You really mustn’t get many visitors if travel attire is seen as strange,” she said. She looked back at Deena. “You don’t seem wary of me.”

“My mother was from outside,” explained Deena. “She came here with me when I was a baby.”

“I see,” said the stranger.

There was a tap on Deena’s shoulder, and she turned to see Phea, the cheesemonger’s niece, standing behind her with a large parcel clutched to her chest. “Hi Deena,” she said. “I haven’t kept you waiting long, have I?”

“Forever,” teased Deena. “I’ve died of old age.”

Phea rolled her eyes. “Hold this so I can unlock the door,” she said, shoving her parcel into Deena’s arm. She lowered her voice. “Who, um, who was that you were talking to?”

Deena glanced behind her, but the stranger was already gone. “A traveler,” said Deena. “She said she was passing through.”

“Passing through to where?” asked Phea. “There’s nothing past here but mountains.”

Deena shrugged. “I didn’t ask.” She handed the package back to Phea. “What’s in this, anyway?”

“My dress for the dance tonight,” said Phea. “You won’t tell my uncle that I locked up shop for this, will you?”

“I thought you were going to wear the same dress as last year,” said Deena.

“Oh,” said Phea, blushing. “I was, but the bodice doesn’t really fit anymore on account of–well, you know, my bosom.”

Deena tried to stifle her laugh, but it turned into an indecent sort of snort instead.

“Oh stop that,” said Phea, still crimson. “I tried to make the adjustments myself, but I couldn’t get it to look right. Can you believe how much we’ve grown in a year?”

“How much you’ve grown, you mean,” corrected Deena.

“You’ve grown too,” protested Phea.

“Only length-wise,” said Deena. “I’m a beanpole compared to you.”

“At least you can reach tall shelves,” said Phea, fetching Deena’s usual order from behind the counter. “Anyway, are you coming to the dance this year?”

“You already know the answer. We never go.”

“I know your mother never goes,” said Phea, “but I thought one of the boys might have asked you, now that we’re old enough.”

Now it was Deena’s turn to blush, heat spreading from the tips of her ears. “No,” she said, trying to sound nonchalant. “No, no one’s asked.”

“Really? No one?” Phea frowned. “I was going to go with–but nevermind. We can go together if you like; we’ll be each others’ escorts.”

Deena shook her head. “No, you have fun without me. Besides, I don’t have a dress.”

“You could borrow my old one. We’d have to let it out at the hem, but–”

“It’s fine, Phea. Really.” She took the the wrapped cheese from Phea’s hands. “I’ll stop by tomorrow; you can tell me about it then.”

Outside, Old Man Teller had finished his story and the crowd was quickly dispersing. The women at the well were returning to their work, and a few of the children chased each other around the square before running back to their respective homes. It was time for Deena to be getting home, too, and she readjusted the contents of her basket before heading down the side street that lead to home.

The house she shared with her mother was on the far outskirts of town, where the edges of their garden blended into the forest, and the forest soon turned to mountain. They’d had a few neighbors, when Deena was younger, but Taunsgrove had been shrinking, and now their little cottage had only abandoned shacks for company. Deena’s mother didn’t mind. “It isn’t as though they ever welcomed my presence,” she would say. “If they want nothing to do with me, then fine. I want nothing to do with them.”

“You don’t have to be so contrary, Mama,” Deena had said once. “You’ve lived here long enough.”

“That’s exactly the problem,” said Mrs Hewe. “Sixteen years we’ve lived here, and still they treat me like a stranger.”

Even just outside of town, the trees were tall and dense. A small footpath wound its way through the woods, connecting the cottage to the rest of Taunsgrove. Some early wildflowers had already begun to bloom, dotting the spaces between the trees, specks of color in the undergrowth. Deena let her footsteps slow, to drink in the first warm day of spring. The sounds of the town disappeared, leaving only birdsong and the occasional rustle of leaves. There was the scent of the soil and the grass, there was a gentle breeze caressing her skin, and there was the afternoon sun, shining down through the leaves, casting everything in a dappled green light.

Such peace and serenity was rare in the world, if Old Man Teller was to be believed. Maybe Taunsgrove really was a sanctuary in a land ravaged by war. Deena wouldn’t know; she had only been a few weeks old when she arrived with her mother and had never set a foot outside ever since. There was a time when she used to pester her mother for stories of her life before Taunsgrove, but it was futile effort. Whatever had happened, whatever had driven them to Taunsgrove, it was not something that her mother was willing to discuss.

Inside the cottage, Mrs Hewe sat in her usual chair, working on a piece of embroidery. “Don’t let the door bang shut,” she said without looking up.

It was too late, and the door slammed itself shut with enough force to scare the chickens outside. “Sorry, Mama,” said Deena. “And sorry, Chickens,” she called. “Mr Allard is back, by the way. I brought you your needles, and he says hello.”

“Thank the stars,” said Mrs Hewe. “I wasn’t sure how I’d finish this piece with my old ones.”

“Is that the wedding veil for Tansy?”

“Yes, and her father is paying good money for it, so I want it done right. It’s not every day that a young woman is a bride, you know.”

“What was your wedding veil like? When you married my father?”

Mrs Hewe’s needle paused. “It was plainer,” she said. “We weren’t wealthy.”

“Couldn’t you have made something for yourself?”

“I didn’t have the time. Or the thread. Go set the table for dinner.”

Deena obliged, taking the bread and cheese from her basket and setting out the plates. “There was a notice on the town bulletin,” she said. “Apparently sheep have been going missing.”

“Probably just some boys playing a prank,” said Mrs Hewe. “They’ll bring them back soon enough, once they’ve had a scolding from their parents.”

“Mr Richardson thinks it’s wolves. He thinks something’s been driving them down from the mountains.”

“If that was the case, they’d take our chickens first.” The kettle in the fireplace began to whistle, and Mrs Hewe made to rise to get it.

“No, I’ll get it,” said Deena. “Mr Wilmot said your ankle still needs to rest.”

“Oh, but there’s hardly any swelling left.”

“No, Mama,” said Deena firmly. “I’ll get the kettle.”

Mrs Hewe sat back down with a sigh. “Who knew that being an invalid would be so tiring?”

“It’ll heal faster if you let it rest,” said Deena, lifting the kettle off the hook. “That reminds me, I forgot to stop by and get more of that salve.”

“You can go after dinner.”

“No, Mattieu said they’re closing early today, to go to the dance. I’ll just run down now. You can eat without me.”

“No, the stew can stand to simmer some more,” said Mrs Hewe. “Just don’t dawdle while you’re there. I don’t want another complaint from Wilmot about your loitering.”

Deena made a face. “Mama, that was one time.” She grabbed her basket from the table. “I’ll be back soon, I promise.”

The town square had emptied dramatically, now that Teller’s story was over. Most people would be at home now, preparing an early supper before heading to the dance. She passed by Allard’s cart on her way to the apothecary, but he wasn’t there. At this hour, he had probably gone to the tavern for a bite of food and a drink.

Inside the apothecary, it was just as empty as outside, though that was no surprise. Mr Wilmot himself wasn’t even there, leaving only his apprentice, Mattieu, bent over a book with his hand propping up his chin. He looked up when Deena entered. “I knew you’d remember eventually,” he said with a cheeky grin. Reaching behind the counter, he pulled out a paper parcel tied with twine. “Wilmot wanted to close up already, but I said I’d wait.”

“Sorry,” said Deena, flushing slightly. “I don’t mean to be a bother.”

“It’s fine,” said Mattieu, waving his hand. “It’s nice to have some time alone, without the old man.”

“He doesn’t give you much time off, does he?” asked Deena, taking the package and handing over the money. “Remember when we were younger, and we’d spend whole afternoons by the lake?”

Mattieu grinned. “Yeah, I remember, and I remember you being scared of the water. You still don’t know how to swim, do you?”

Deena made a face. “And you can’t climb trees.”

“Fair point,” conceded Mattieu. He walked with Deena to the door, taking care to lock it behind them. “Hey, are you coming to the dance?”

“O-oh,” said Deena. The question surprised her, and she found her palms were suddenly sweaty. “I don’t–I can’t leave my mother alone at home, not with her ankle.”

“Then tell her to come along too. She doesn’t have to dance; lots of the older folks don’t dance.”

“No, you know she doesn’t like going into town. The way people always talk when she passes by, she doesn’t like it.”

“They only talk because she’s a recluse.”

“Excuse me?”

“You know what I mean,” said Mattieu. “It’s just odd how she always keeps to herself like that. And no one knows anything about her from before Taunsgrove, and–”

“What?” interrupted Deena. “That isn’t anyone else’s business! If she doesn’t want to talk about her past, she shouldn’t have to!”

“I know that,” said Mattieu. “I’m not saying that I think she’s a weirdo, just that everyone else-- Deena, wait, no, that came out wrong–”

“It better have, Mattieu Mason,” snapped Deena, shoving the package into her basket with a bit more ferocity than perhaps was wise. “Have fun at your stupid dance.”

She stomped more than walked all the way home, and the slamming of the door scared the chickens for a second time.

“Oh dear,” tutted her mother, looking up from her needlework. “What is it now?”

“Mattieu’s a jerk,” said Deena, dropping her basket onto the table. “He called you a recluse and–and a weirdo.”

“Is that all?” asked Mrs Hewe. “I’ve been called worse.”

“He shouldn’t have called you anything! He’s my friend!”

“He’s also Roberta’s son. Children repeat the things their parents say, that’s all.”

“He’s not a child; he’s seventeen.”

“Seventeen is still a child, as are you. Or are you saying an adult would throw a tantrum the way you’re doing now? And over some silly words, of all things?”

Deena frowned. “Why did you even come here, just to have people talk behind your back for sixteen years?”

“Because it was the best place for us, at the time. And to be honest, I wasn’t expecting the people here to be quite so nosy or narrowminded.”

“Then why didn’t we leave?”

“Because–” Mrs Hewe sighed. “One day, when you’re older, you’ll understand. There are worse things than looks and whispers.” She set down her embroidery. “Come on, you’ll feel better after dinner.”

Dinner was an uninteresting stew of potatoes and leek, paired with the bread and cheese, but Deena did feel a bit better afterwards. After she had gathered up the dirty plates, she helped her mother apply the salve to her injured ankle.

“Deena,” said Mrs Hewe, “are you happy here?”

Deena looked up. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, do you like it here? Are you content? If one day you have to leave Taunsgrove behind, will you miss it?”

“Why would I have to leave?”

“It’s just a question, Deena.”

Deena thought for a moment. “I don’t know,” she said at last. “I’d like to see the world, just to see what it’s like, but I think I’d like to come back.”

“What if you couldn’t?” asked Mrs Hewe. “Would you miss it here?”

“Of course,” said Deena. “I know the people aren’t always the nicest, but it’s still home. I don’t know anywhere else. And besides, I’d miss Phea and Mattieu.” She stood up and wiped her hands on her apron. “All done. Do you want me to read to you while you work on Tansy’s veil?”

“No,” said Mrs Hewe. “I think you should go to the dance.”

“The dance?” asked Deena, confused. “But we never go.”

“You’re sixteen, Deena. You don’t need me to take you.”

“But I–Your ankle–”

“I’ll manage for an evening,” said Mrs Hewe, smiling. “You’re only young once, Deena. You should be having fun with your friends while you can.”

“But I don’t have a dress.”

Mrs Hewe laughed. “Deena, it’s a town dance, not a ball. Just go and emjoy yourself. And if it’s not to your liking, you can come straight home.”

Deena hesitated.

“Go on already,” said Mrs Hewe. “You’ve only been begging me to take you since you could walk.”

Deena grinned. “I promise not to stay out too late,” she said. She leaned forward to kiss her mother on the cheek, then bounded out the door, scaring the chickens on her way.

Outside, the last dregs of sunlight were fast disappearing through the trees, and a few stars winked into existence in the east. Deena found herself grinning like an idiot as she walked. Wouldn’t Phea and Mattieu be surprised to see her? She imagined dancing with them, laughing. Maybe they’d even sneak a bit of ale when no one was watching.

The dance was already well underway. Though technically hosted at the town hall, the festivities had spilled out to fill the rest of the square. Tables had been brought out and pieced together into a single long bench, at the end of which Mr Richardson had placed a great many casks of ale. A group of people, mostly older folks, sat around the table chatting. There was a gale of laughter as Mr Richardson finished some joke or anecdote, then a great cheer as they all clanged their flagons together. Old Man Teller had already fallen asleep, sitting in his favorite chair, his pipe dangling from his lips.

None of them noticed Deena until she was almost right next to them, and then Mr Wilmot looked up to see her.

“Well well well,” said Wilmot. “If it isn’t Edith Hewe’s girl. Come to loiter around with my Mattieu again?”

“S-sorry,” said Deena instinctively.

“Well, better here than in my shop,” said Wilmot. “Go on, then. He’s inside, last I saw.”

The air outside was cool, but inside the town hall it was steaming with the heat of moving bodies. The entire center of the room was dominated by a ring of dancers, young and not-so-young alike, now arms linked together and now dancing in pairs. They jumped and spun in the time to the music, provided by Mr Sandler on his fiddle, his wife clapping along on a tambourine beside him.

Deena lingered a moment in the doorway. She couldn’t see Phea or Mattieu anywhere, but it was hard to find anyone in this crowd, with everyone moving about.

“Is that you, Deena?”

Deena turned to see the tavernkeeper’s daughter striding toward her. “Hi Nelle,” she said. “Did you just arrive too?”

Nelle nodded. “My mother wouldn’t let me leave, not while we still had a guest under our roof. Thankfully she just left for a stroll, so here I am.”

“Do you mean the woman with the sword?” asked Deena.

“Oh, you saw her, did you?” asked Nelle. She looked as though about to say more when she caught sight of something inside. “Is that Penny Hayes dancing with Lance? My Lance?” And before Deena had time to even turn, Nelle had pushed her aside and was striding across the dance floor towards the offending couple.

Deena skirted around the edge of the crowd, still trying to find Phea and Mattieu. The dance broke off for a moment while Nelle dragged Lance off by the ear, but quickly resumed, with Penny Hayes now dancing with one of the Tanner boys. The dancing couples spun each other, then stepped away, so that all the women linked arms with each other while the men did the same. The two lines moved in time to the music, then linked to form a circle, which broke apart again back into the spinning couples. Deena wondered how they knew where to go and how to move; no one told her there would be steps to the dance.

“Are you just going to stand and watch, or are you going to join in?” asked a voice.

Deena turned, startled. “Mr Allard!” she said. “I didn’t think you would be here.”

“Neither did I,” said Allard, “but the ale was here.”

“The tavern has ale too,” said Deena.

“Ah,” said Allard with a wink, “but the ale here is free.” He raised his flagon to her and drank. “So, are you going to join the dance?”

“I don’t know the steps,” said Deena.

“That’s a shame,” said Allard. “At your age, dances are only fun if you actually dance.”

“I’m mostly just looking for Mattieu and Phea,” said Deena. “Have you seen them?”

“Who? Oh, right, the boy who works at the apothecary and the cheesemonger’s girl, right?”

“Yes, have you seen them?”

Allard smirked into his drink. “I wouldn’t go looking for them if I were you. I saw them sneaking off a little while ago, and I suspect they’ll be wanting some privacy.”

It took Deena a moment to realize what Mr Allard meant. “Oh,” said Deena, her ears and cheeks flushing.

Allard patted her on the shoulder. “I’m going to head back to my wagon. Enjoy the dance, Deena.”

Deena nodded. “Have a good night,” she said.

She watched the dancers for a few minutes more, then wondered if there was any point in staying longer. She had thought that Mattieu and Phea wanted her there, that they were going to enjoy the festivities together, but perhaps they were only being nice. If they had each other, what use did they have for her? No, that wasn’t true. They were her friends, they–

There was a lull in the music, and Mrs Mason’s voice carried clear through the hall: “–and look at her just standing there like a little fool. If Edith Hewe thinks that anyone wants her here–” and then the music started up again.

The room had suddenly become too hot to bear, and Deena turned to hurry out the door. She shouldn’t have come; she didn’t belong there. Why had she come at all? To watch other people enjoy themselves, dancing to a dance she did not know? To be watched and judged by people like Mrs Mason? To wait for Phea and Mattieu, standing around indefinitely while they were off together without a thought for her? How long had they been seeing each other? Why hadn’t they told her? Perhaps they didn’t want to be friends–had never been her friends; after all, she was the daughter of the town recluse, the one no one liked or wanted. She no longer wanted to be at the dance–why had she ever wanted it at all?–with the heat and the music and the people who did not like her.

Outside, it had grown rather chilly. The group of drinkers in the square had gone back inside, their table now sitting abandoned, along with the empty casks of ale. On the second floor of the cheesemonger’s, a light was on in Phea’s room, the flicker of a candle in the window. For a moment, Deena considered throwing a rock at the window to get their attention, but then she would just be inserting herself where she wasn’t wanted. Let them have a good night. At least someone would. She didn’t want to go home, either. Her mother would want to know what was wrong, why she had come home so early, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to explain.

This time of night, and with everyone at the dance, the streets of Taunsgrove were deserted. Deena let her feet carry her where they would, and soon found herself at the edge of town. Not near her home, but the opposite side, behind where Mr Allard liked to hitch his wagon. She kept going, following a familiar footpath as it wound its way through the woods, climbing gradually uphill, until the town behind her had been swallowed by the trees. She could no longer see the houses or the lights, could no longer hear the music or the laughter. The only lights were the stars and moon overhead, and the only sounds were the rustle of the leaves.

She sat on a flat rock and pulled her knees up to her chin. She would wait awhile, maybe another half of an hour, and then she would head back home.

She must have dozed off because when she woke, her legs felt horribly cramped.

“Joel,” said a woman’s voice in the dark.

There was a rustle and a thud. “Stars above!” exclaimed the voice of Mr Allard. “Are you trying to scare me half to death?”

“You would have noticed me if you were less drunk. Or have you just forgotten everything I taught you?”

“Leave me be. I’m a merchant now; I sell things. I don’t have to answer to you anymore.”

The woman gave quiet chuckle. “Oh, you really are drunk to speak to me like that.”

Allard’s reply dripped with sarcasm. “Sorry, your lordship. Can I ask why you’re following me, your lordship?”

“Why are you avoiding me?”

“I’m not avoiding you; I’m trying to take a piss.”

“This far from your cart?”

“I like to be alone when I piss!”

“In that case, you may want to reconsider your location. You have company, twenty paces up the path.”

There was a rustle, and a moment later, Mr Allard emerged from behind a clump of bushes. “Deena!” he said, hurriedly fixing his trousers. “What, uh, what are you doing out here?”

“I was just going for a walk,” said Deena, trying to rub the cramp from her legs, “but I think I fell asleep.” She looked around. “Who were you talking to?”

“Me,” said the woman’s voice. “Up here.”

Deena looked up. It was the stranger from earlier that day, the one by the tavern. She was sitting, or rather lounging, in the branches of a tree. “Oh, hello,” said Deena. “What, uh, what are you doing up there?”

“I enjoy the vantage,” said the stranger. She turned to Allard. “Aren’t you glad I stopped you before you finished unfastening your trousers?”

Allard scowled but otherwise ignored her. “You shouldn’t be out so far by yourself, Deena,” he said instead. “Why aren’t you at the dance?”

“I just wanted to go for a walk,” said Deena. “Um, if I’m interrupting, I could go.”

“Not interrupting,” said Allard. “Not interrupting at all. Come on, let me walk you back to town.”

“Joel,” said the woman again.

“What now?” snapped Mr Allard, then froze. “Oh,” he said. With a rapidity that surprised Deena, he clambered up a nearby tree. At the top, he let out a quiet string of expletives.

“What is it?” asked Deena.

Neither of the others answered, but Allard extended a hand to help Deena up the tree. There, to the south, was an orange glow, and for a single confused moment Deena thought it was sun.

Taunsgrove. Taunsgrove was on fire.