Black flowers carpeted the floor that morning, cloaking the bedroom in funeral colors. Their petals, large as my hand and soft as suede, belonged to no plant I could name. The salt and midnight smell of them soured the cottage air. I would have liked to make tea before dealing with the evidence of Inae’s magics but, fearing some subtle poison contained in those leaves, I started the day with sweeping.
The petals were thickest around Inae’s bed; his magics liked to cluster about him. I took care to keep quiet as I cleaned, but he showed no sign of stirring. My Inae has always been a night’s child. Back then, before his fourth year, he refused to wake until well into the morning.
I left the petals in a pile outside, hoping they would fade as Inae’s magics sometimes did. After the cottage was clean, something still hung on the air, a whiff of salt and sorrow. I opened the shutters and brought in lavender and sage from the garden.
The choice of those particular herbs, both protective in their way, I might have dismissed as a passing fancy. But when the kitchen stove lit without protest, despite the damp wood, I knew we would have visitors. My magics are good for little more than keeping a pleasant hearth but, in that, they have always served me well. The promise of company set them to tugging at my skirts like Inae begging for a sweet. Sensing I wouldn’t have time to bake new bread, I made biscuits instead, slicing fresh apples into the dough.
Settling onto the porch to wait, I watched the morning’s deer, a doe and her fawn, eat my thyme. In five years, none had made it to the table. But Inae was fond of the deer, and they of him. I let them feast, untroubled.
I didn’t know, as I waited, who my guests would be. If I had, I would have fled with Inae sleeping in my arms. As it was, when they stepped through the trees into my garden, it was already too late. Two strangers, wearing gray and black, as Inae’s father once had. In those days, the god-touched permitted themselves no other colors.
Too late, and still, I thought of running. There were only two of them. I let myself imagine Inae and I might disappear in the forest, down paths only I had the secret of. But I knew it for dreaming. I might get away, but they hadn’t come for me. Inae, with his pet deer and his flower petal dreams, would be easy to find. My hands began to shake; I had to set down my teacup before I stood to greet them.
They paused at the edge of my garden, watching me as if they sensed my thoughts of escape. Perhaps they did. When they finally approached, they did so at a measured pace, avoiding my more delicate herbs. The deer raised their heads from their morning meal and followed behind the pair.
“Good morning, Mistress Linetta.” The speaker rounded his vowels into near incomprehensibility, marking himself as a foreigner. He had the look of a scholar, milky skin and a softness about the waistline undisguised by his fine gray robes. In his left eye, a yellow fish swam, darting in and out of his pupil. I didn’t wonder how he knew my name.
The second stranger was a small, sharp featured woman. The deer clustered behind her like eager children, displaying better manners than they ever showed Inae. She stroked the doe and it leaned into her touch. I felt, to my surprise, a flash of jealousy. What right did she have to the animals I’d hosted? Wasn’t it enough that she’d come to steal my son?
Swallowing bile, I touched the gleaming ember of my power, allowing it to whisper suggestions as I faced my unusual visitors.
“Good morning, Honored Ones.” I dropped into a deep curtsy but met their eyes. They would be tired of cowering, untrusting strangers. “Please, allow me to offer you hospitality.”
“Our thanks,” said the woman. She spoke with the stern, clipped syllables of a northerner. “I am Trua and my companion is called Baighrid.”
My hands stilled as my magics took hold. They would break bread with me. And so, I would make them welcome. What else could I do?
I settled my guests in the sitting room, where the smell of apples and lavender sweetened the morning air. They accepted my offer of tea politely enough, though neither relaxed their stiff, careful posture. I watched them as I poured and saw no hint of emotion on either face, except what might be inferred by the slowing of fin and tail in the man’s eye. I knew the fortress of the god-touched was high in the northern mountains, all stone and ice. Perhaps, given time, such a place stole the warmth from a person’s heart.
And they planned to lock my son up in their towers. My Inae was a somber boy but to wrap him in stone and deny him summer? What life was that for any child? And yet, I understood why they would insist.
I knew the danger in him; I had watched his nightmares tear the sky. He needed the guidance of his own kind. But he also needed the trees which had sheltered his first steps, the birds who had called back his early conversations, the squirrels whose clowning could still set him giggling.
For his sake, I found the strength to smile. It took only a touch of magic to make the expression appear genuine.
“Where is the boy?” Trua asked. She didn’t look at her plate as I set it before her.
“He sleeps, Honored One.” I poured myself a fresh cup of tea. I could taste the magic in it but wasn’t concerned that they would notice. The god-touched burn so brightly they can’t see sparks.
“So late?” Baighrid asked. He drank, first politely, then with thought and care, a crinkling around his eyes revealing a surprising hint of humor. “Cloves?”
At his question, Trua took her first sip. “The flavor is cinnamon, Baighrid. You really have no palate to speak of.” She smiled then, and I saw she loved him. He was clearly unaware. In many ways the god-touched are just as blind as the rest of us. “It is exquisite, though. Where did you come by the mix?”
I didn’t contradict either analysis. They would taste strongest what best suited their desires. “I mix it myself, Honored One.”
“Surely you don’t have a cinnamon tree in your little garden.”
“No, Honored One, not cinnamon. I do grow herbs, those that take to the mild weather here. The rest come as gifts from his lordship.”
“Lord Aride?” Baighrid’s confusion was obvious enough. “We dined with him two nights back. He didn’t seem the sort to invest in herbs.”
“His daughter, Michea, was a breech birth. As I have some experience with such difficulties, he asked me to attend. I believe he likes to keep my simples well stocked.”
“Even so, he seemed a man of ascetic tastes.”
Baighrid was too wise to insult Lord Aride’s hospitality more directly; he started in on his biscuit instead. His posture eased as he ate a meal I knew to be better than any served at the Lord’s table. It was true, Lord Aride didn’t believe in frivolities. Or hadn’t, until he had joyous, bright eyed Michea to pile them on. His guests, alas, weren’t treated with as much indulgence as his daughter.
But I, as the one who had placed her in his arms, fared better.
“Lady Aride lost three babes to still-birth, the fourth a crib death. Michea is their only child.” I didn’t mention Lord Aride’s other gifts: my gardens and the wilds that contained them. Each year, on Michea’s birthday, he pressed some new deed upon me, as if he feared he had to purchase her continued good health. “She’s a sweet girl, if over-indulged.”
Inae, who was fond of Michea, peeked out of our room as I spoke of her. His young brow furrowed at the sight of guests, where other visitors usually merited at least a nod. I imagined him in Trua’s arms and the thought lodged in my throat like a shard of bone. She was spreading jam on her biscuit and looking at Baighrid with a half-hidden smile. Such a smile would have made me like her in other circumstances.
I beckoned Inae and he hurried to my side, his serious gaze fixed on our visitors. His mop of black curls was wild with sleep, and the faint radiance that lit his skin when he dreamed had not quite faded. In his oversized blue nightrobe he looked even younger than he was.
I pulled him into my lap and rested my forehead on his hair. The young-boy smells of dirt and pine mingled with the stranger scents of his magic: clear water, midnight bonfires. He offered me the mercy of his stillness, letting me squeeze him too tightly until I found the strength to ease my grip. My sweet Inae, whose dreams dusted him in starlight.
Inae, whose tantrums brought the wolves skulking out of the woods, set them to howling and tearing at our door.
“Inae, these are our guests, Baighrid and Trua.” The words tore themselves my tight throat. Was it magic or its failure that allowed my grief to show so openly?
Baighrid inclined his head to Inae with the same respect he had afforded me. Too often, adults dismissed my son, leaving him frustrated and irritable. But these two knew better. Indeed, that was the threat of them.
“Good morning, Inae,” he said. “Do you know why we’ve come?”
“You want to take me away,” Inae said. Fear gave a whining edge to his usual even tones. My pulse quickened, worry squeezing my heart. If they saw the truth of him, saw him scream until the trees caught fire, they would not wait. “I won’t go!”
“Inae!” Before the tears could start, I set him on the ground and tipped his chin so he met my gaze. “We treat our guests with hospitality.”
He had his father’s eyes, brown with sparks of amber in their depths. Hurt chased away the maturity his god-touched nature usually bestowed him, leaving only a frightened child I was refusing to comfort. He said, “I don’t want to go.”
I touched his cheek and kissed his dark curls. “I know,” I whispered into his hair. “But you must be brave, for both of us. Come now, show them you can be a gentleman.”
He managed a small nod, and I released him. For an instant, I thought he might run from the room, but he bowed to our guests, as awkward as any child his age.
“Be welcome,” he said, sounding only a little sullen.
I waited until he settled at my feet, then refreshed the tea, handing Inae a small cup. He wouldn’t drink it, but he liked to be included.
“Thank you, Inae,” said Trua, inclining her head to him as Baighrid had done. She drank before speaking again and avoided meeting my eye. “I understand the difficulty of the situation. You are correct, however. We have come to take you home. You must be taught.”
I didn’t argue. How could I argue, when each morning I swept away the evidence of Inae’s dreaming? That morning, it had been flower petals. A week prior, rabbits. Before that, thorn vines. I was still healing from the cuts. My husband’s silly tales of his own misadventures in the icy cliffs of the god-touched lost their laughter when mapped onto Inae, a boy surrounded by the fragile lives of the forest and the village.
But he was my son and all I had left of the man I had loved.
“We understand, Honored One.” I kept my voice level, calling upon the calm I used when dealing with the sick and injured. Hysteria would not help me lead them to feelings of contentment. For Inae’s sake, they must see me as a still, shallow pool. No ripples on the surface, no depths to fear beneath.
With normal visitors, I might have pressed peace, but attempting to nudge the emotions of a god-touched was like trying to heat the ocean with warm stones. Instead, I used my minor abilities on the room, encouraging the birdsong to carry on the light breeze and touching the lavender so the sweetness of its scent filled the air with quiet welcome. The sun had not yet chased away the past night’s chill, but my sitting room grew warm with drowsy summer heat.
“Mama already teaches me,” said Inae, but he hushed when I squeezed his shoulder.
“The god-touched hold in the mountains, don’t they?” I asked, as if we made small talk. “A long ride, that.”
“Three months we’ve been traveling. Another month back to the Blessed Peaks.” Baighrid didn’t quite manage to keep the road-weariness from his voice. “A long, cold ride.”
“Long winters,” I said, hoping the shadow of old sympathy was enough to color my words. “Or so Inae’s father used to tell me.”
I had wondered, until then, if they knew. Trua’s eyes, gone cold again, answered me. I shouldn’t have mentioned him. Now, they would be thinking of his defection, of the secrets he might have shared with me.
“He spoke of it?” Trua threw the words like sharp, gray stones. She shifted and I could see she was ready to stand, to leave and take my Inae with her.
I didn’t flinch. All was lost if I did. Instead, I handed Inae a biscuit of his own, warning him not to make a mess of things. “Of the cold, yes. And of the food, Honored One.” I kept my tone light, forcing myself to think not of Inae, but of the laughter hiding in my husband’s voice as he moaned about the rations he had once lived on. Not fit, he had said, for a mule.
“Ahh…” The cold melted as Trua gave her biscuit a look of pitiable longing. “Yes, that would come up. It’s hard to bring fresh food so far and conjuring dinner is a waste of magic.”
“Potatoes every meal if the crop is good, he said.”
Baighrid, too, look pained. He took a long, indulgent sip of tea. “How I wish denials were possible.”
Inae finished his biscuit and sat with his arms wrapped around himself, his eyes fixed on the ground. With any other guests, I would have reproached him. Instead, I tangled my fingers back through his hair, letting his hurt speak what I couldn’t. Trua and Baighrid, I judged, had been given reminder enough of what awaited them in the mountains; their expressions were almost as storm-ridden as Inae’s.
“Let us speak of closer meals,” I ran a mental inventory of the larder and knew a trip to the village would be necessary. “Will you stay for supper, Honored Ones?”
The look they exchanged wrote its meaning on the air. They would have been two hours walking from the village inn, where they must have taken rooms. I knew the inn-keeper, a sour-faced, irritable man who scrimped on bedding and food alike. We had never gotten on well, but in that moment I adored him.
“We could?” Baighrid made it a question, looking to Trua for permission.
“It would be a late walk, if we did.” Trua’s sigh said she cared for neither walk nor inn.
“You might honor me by sleeping here, then? I have the space. A room for each of you, warded against fleas and other vermin. I fear the inn is not so well protected.”
“We would have to leave at sunrise.” Baighrid said, his slurring accent becoming a guilt-ridden mumble. He met my gaze but his fish hid itself in the depths of his pupil, only a bit of tailfin visible. “Inae, as well.”
My hands began to shake again and I couldn’t steady them. To hear it said, so bluntly, almost undid me. They planned to steal my boy at sunrise. I thought of flinging myself at Baighrid’s feet, weeping. Only after the fantasy passed, and I had control of my voice again, did I speak. “I know. But if you stay, I will have the night with him, and a chance to prepare proper rations for the three of you.”
“That would be well,” Trua said. She didn’t have Baighrid’s open face or tattling fish, but I thought she agreed as much for my sake as for the promise of decent road fare. Her reasons mattered little, so long as she placed herself in my hands.
“Then we will feast tonight, and you will forgive me if I forgo the tubers to which you are accustomed.”
Trua laughed, a bright, glittering noise which appeared to surprise her as much as it did me. “I almost wish we could linger here.”
“You have your duties, Honored One. You must travel as need requires.” I didn’t mention the summer storm, days late, I could feel building in the drowsy heat. Nor did I warn them of Inae’s terror of thunder, the impossibility of getting him outside when lightning cut the sky. Even if the storm broke in the night, the roads would be a misery for days.
And I would make of the house a quiet respite, all warm meals and sweet smells, while outside the storm winds howled. My magics were small, but I had never had a guest leave after only a night of visiting. Even these guests, I knew, would find reasons for delay.
When the storm broke just before dawn the next morning, they begged a day of me. The day became a week; Trua had caught a small cold. By the second week my honored guests had started courting, all longing glances and childish giggling. By the third, I moved Baighrid into Trua’s room.
I kept their days easy. Very little tempts one to idleness quite like comfort. Trua took Inae on daily walks to the river and began teaching him not to fear the water. Every evening, I served a feast out in the garden, pouring wine as the deer came in from the forest to nibble Inae’s curls and lie in Trua’s lap.
On the fourth week, when Baighrid shyly asked if he might plant a few things among my herbs, I knew they would stay. No safety in that. Others would come. Hadn’t they hounded my husband?
When Josen arrived, black-robed and dark-eyed, I feared myself beaten. He ate little, spoke less, and scowled at Baighrid and Trua. Only my Inae, who took to following him like deer followed Trua, claimed his smile. The man was a natural teacher, and my son has always been eager to learn. Inae worshipped him, agreed with everything he said, including the importance of returning to the mountains. After a particularly trying morning, spent chasing the venomous snakes Inae had dreamed, I watched the two of them together and thought of loosing my grip.
“He does not teach, on the mountain,” Baighrid said, coming to stand beside me. “Young men aren’t permitted such duties. He sees to the health of the yaks.”
None of my magics had reached the man. But my son, who I sent running to Josen with even his smallest questions, did. Within two weeks, Inae’s dream magics were under control and my newest resident no longer spoke of taking my son away. Instead, he confessed a love for apple dumplings. I began to bake them nightly.
The following month, two more arrived. We had to expand the cottage, an easy task with so many god-touched to assist. Three weeks later we expanded it again, after Baighrid announced he had invited ‘a few colleagues to visit’. With so many now gathering, I would need to arrange some further distractions.
I found the answer while watching them bicker over time with Inae. They all had knowledge to share and only one child to share it with. But I had heard rumors of other god-touched children, fathered by men of dazzling power and little responsibility. Some mothers called for the god-touched as soon as such a child was born. But others, well, I knew what it was to live as they did. Fearing every magical disruption would bring the god-touched knocking.
They would be desperate, as I had been desperate. It was a simple thing, to spread the rumor of a safe place. A few words to Lord and Lady Aride, a few more in the village commons, where the traveling merchants gathered. Soon enough, the families came to the village, and the children came to my door.
Inae was delighted at the new playmates. First a pair of twins, then a southern girl, then a shy boy who clung to Inae like a shadow.
They grew so quickly, my boy and his new friends. Not locked in some mountain stronghold, but playing tag through sun-dappled forests, making friends with foxes, and getting into trouble with the village children.
The god-touched taught them to twist the very weave of the world. I taught them the best herbs for a broken heart, and how to brew a perfect cup of tea. I made the school their home.
How easy it was, to imagine it would always be that way. Children trickling in, finding safety, and my Inae in the thick of them, part of the great unruly family I’d created to keep him safe.
But home, for a child, feels a cage to a youth. It’s fourteen years since Trua and Baighrid came to my door, and my Inae has all the wanderlust his age implies. He’s planned a grand tour of the three kingdoms and speaks of establishing a new school in the Southlands. He doesn’t speak of returning home.
What can a mother do when faced with such eager abandonment?
Smile. Pack his travel rations carefully. And hope. Somewhere, a brave, warm-eyed girl is blending tea with a whisper of magic. She’ll find a way to bring him to her door.
And he’ll find reason to linger.