The witch mark on Nin’s hand is a curse. She has no magic powers, whatever the lore says. But the village believes. The old crone’s wisdom is to see her banished. Ragged and hungry, she must serve the Mage. Alone in his tower, she is his chattel. But Mage Thabit is not what Nin expected—the bright green eyes and supple form under his cloak are not the stuff of nightmares, and kindness hides in his brusque heart. Thabit senses that Nin is more than she seems, too. When true nightmares haunt the land, it is precisely her elusive powers that might deliver them…
Please, gods, let him feed me before he does anything else.
Only the Mage, this tower’s owner, stood between her and death in the forest. The massive door in his round stone tower remained closed, taunting her fragile courage. Her trepidation grew as she peered around the curved wall in the hope she might find a window so she could see inside. Thick dark drapes barred her view within the glazed arch.
What happened in there?
Her gut twisted as she lifted her chin and counted four other darkened windows set in deep mullions.
Was the Mage so awesome? Did he really make magic all the day? She’d seen him in the market place when she and Alicia peeked around the edge of the potters workshop. A pity she’d not let Alicia persuade her to go look at the things he traded, but she didn’t have anything worthy to barter. How she wished now she’d been as brave as some of the others who had tried to see under the hood he always wore.
Bile from her empty stomach stung at the base of her throat. Gulping, she swallowed the bitter taste. Shivers ran over her skin, but she did not turn away. Whatever he did, it would be less than the death she faced as an outcast from the village.
A sigh escaped before she set her jaw.
She shouldn’t be foolish about him. She must stay here, if he would allow it.
The sun climbed over the zenith casting shadow on a corner of the door she faced. A long time had passed since dawn when Agnes had yanked her from the tiny wicker cage to face the baying crowd of villagers.
Someone had shoved her from behind toward the gateway. No one had offered a hand when she stumbled. They had simply yelled louder until she dragged herself up. Barefoot, she’d headed out of the village.
Each time she paused on the path, they threw stones to force her onward. Some of the missiles they threw hit, one or two landing hard. Even now, her shoulder ached from one heavy thump. Once she had gotten beyond the gate, the stones rained down like hail. Many of them had landed near enough to force her off the village path, away into the forest edge. The big gates to the village had slammed behind her, and although she’d longed to cry out to be allowed back inside, she couldn’t beg. Her pleas would have only prompted taunts and laughter from those safe within the palisade.
After the iron bolts had rattled shut, she’d searched half the morning among the tall weeds for the path to this tower. As she stumbled along, she’d tried to convince herself Agnes had lied.
The Mage did good things for people. Why would he use her so ill?
Agnes screeched in her thoughts each time she dwelt on the question. “He’ll use you for a whore because you’re a witch and fit for nothing else.”
Shut up you old hag!
Nin laced her fingers together. She squeezed her palms tight until her knuckles went white. He had to be here, and he must let her stay. Any moment she anticipated the gleam of golden wolf eyes in the nearby bushes to announce her death.
A deep breath pushed away the panic. A fragment of courage held tight in her fist, she rapped at the door. The loud thumps echoed on the wood to send the birds squawking.
About to knock again, she raised her hand. The door shot forward. Stumbling back, she yelped at the blow to her fist and stuffed her hand into her armpit to soothe the throb.
“What do you want, wench?” The deep voice came from the shadows.
She whimpered, gritting her teeth, while she pressed her hand tight under her arm. “I’m from the village.” Her voice came out like the squeak of a mouse.
He remained in the gloom of the doorway.
She squinted to make out a brown boot beneath the hem of a green robe. Her stomach rolled. “They’ve sent me to you.”
“Oh, by all that’s blessed! I don’t want them sending me wenches. Go back to your home. Tell them I won’t want a woman until after Samhain. Tell them to send me bread instead.”
She had no hope to do as he ordered. Though she quailed at the risk of his anger, she glanced up when he stepped forward, his green hood absorbing the light. She could not see into its depths. “I can’t go back. I have the mark. They said I belong here.” Tremors shook her so she couldn’t control the babbling words. “They closed the gate behind me.”
He pushed his hood back to reveal more of his face as he bent his head toward her.
“If you won’t take me, I’ll be lost to the forest…” Her voice drained down to a whisper.
His eyes gleamed like January lake water. Green, with dark flecks, and much colder than the lake ever got. “Show me this witch’s mark. Utter superstitious nonsense, but show me.”
Sickened he should name the horror, she held out her cursed palm.
“I can see nothing. Go home. Tell them they are wrong.” He turned away.
No! He mustn’t go yet.
His fine green robe swirled in his haste. She grabbed at his sleeve. He must hear her out.
From the moment Agnes discovered the mark, terror threatened to swallow her. She’d cowered while the old woman jigged about, screeching her discovery. The revulsion on the faces of those she’d known from childhood, who had applauded as the wise woman dragged her by her hair to the vile wicker cage, still filled her vision. Their contempt would haunt her forever.
With no cloak for warmth, no shoes on her feet, she shivered at what her fate might hold. Held captive in the tiny wicker cage, she’d no choice but to listen to the old wise woman who had not left her side, dripping words like poison. Those wounds festered to consume her.
“I can’t go back! They’ll kill me. You know it.” She squashed the need to run. “Please listen. I’m one who is lost. I’m not like them. I’m a witch. I have the mark. If you don’t keep me here, I’ll die.”
He grabbed her hand as he emerged from the shadows and yanked her forward so she scurried after him into a patch of bright sunlight.
She trembled in wait for his judgment. One bare foot lodged on a jagged rock, but she dared not move. While he angled her palm back and forth, she bit her lip, not brave enough to look up from where a beetle scuttled about on the dusty earth. Long seconds passed until, unable to bear more, she glanced up.
The green hood nodded.
A rush of relief surged through her.
“Aye, true enough it is there, but faint. How did anyone see it?”
His words overwhelmed. Her skin crept as if ants crawled on it. She moved her mouth to speak but no sound came.
He gave a loud tut.
The movements tiny so he would not notice, she inched her bare foot off the jagged stone. He gave no sign of understanding her fears and dropped her palm. “What is your name?”
Somehow, she found her voice. “Nin. It’s short for Ninian, but no one calls me that. It’s a boy’s name.” She rubbed at her sore hand. “Aunt Jen said my mother was so disappointed it killed her. You see, Mother was told I would be a boy.”
The mark meant the whole village now shared the regret of her birth. “And I’m not a child. I’ll be nineteen this autumn.” Small in size, she always had to put people right on her age.
He didn’t seem impressed, and with a long finger flicked a greenfly off his cuff. “Then tell me, why have they only found the mark now? If it meant something, the sign should have appeared years ago. You should have been trained from childhood.”
“I don’t know. One day it wasn’t there, the next it came.” Her words fell over each other in her haste. “Agnes. The wise woman, she saw it. They held a moot and cast me out. I am meant for you. Agnes said so.” Unable to face him after saying such a thing, she angled her head so she only saw the leaves moving in the breeze.
He gave a huge sigh. “By the sun and the moon, I don’t want you here. I have no need for an apprentice.”
Any hope of life dissolved, blasted apart by his words. She should return to the woods where all outcasts belonged, but her feet would not budge. Each breath grew harder to take while she waited for him to say something. Anything.
He crossed his arms, shoving both his hands into his wide sleeves. When she still did not move, he turned from her toward the trees. His boot tapped while a leaf sailed to the ground. Her future hovered with the oak leaf.
“Oh, come in, wench. We’ll see what you can do.”
Her mouth dry as ash, her knees unsteady, she followed him into the dark interior.
“Close the door, girl.”
The final crack of daylight was lost as she did as he asked. Darkness shut out the last vestige of her old life. A lump choked her throat. He strode through another doorway. Blinking to accustom her eyes to the gloom, she hurried after him into a circular kitchen.
Two torches burned on the walls. A massive, blackened, stone fireplace took up a huge amount of space, but the low fire gave off little heat.
The Mage sat near a round table. He cast back the hood. His dark hair reached past his shoulders, tied at the nape of his neck with a leather thong. Lodged in the loop was a large tawny owl feather, its black stripes almost as glossy as his hair. Head bowed, she stepped in front of him when he beckoned, then slid to her knees to await his words. The long silence pained her, so she glanced up from where she knelt.
Struck to stillness, she studied his features. Fine cut, slender, and pale. Tales of childhood had told that messengers of the gods were joys to behold. He must be one.
He sat back and rested his chin on his fisted hand as he inspected her. A blue snake tattoo wound its way in spirals around his wrist before the head disappeared beneath his sleeve. “What can you do?”
She swallowed hard, unable to say a word. Instead, she stared down to his boots, following the pattern made by the flicker of flames from the hearth on one shiny patch of leather by his ankle. Eventually she managed to whisper, “Nothing.”
“What do you mean nothing? If you have the mark, you must have a talent. Fire lighting? That’s easy. Can you call clouds on a hot day?”
Gnawing her lip, she shook her head.
“Do you understand the thoughts of others? See the future in the flames?”
She shook her head again. The silence lengthened to become a physical weight. When she glanced up, his hair glittered in the torch light, his sour expression crushing her fragile hope.
“So, you can do nothing, you know even less, yet I’m stuck with you. Oh, just bloody splendid. You’re as rare as a cockerel’s egg!” He drummed his fingers on the table as he studied her.
The lump returned to her throat. She blinked hard and struggled not to sniff until she could hold the tears back no more. Defeated by them, she gulped froglike. Stinging hot, they trickled down to her chin. She had no voice.
He shoved up from the chair and paced around the room, his hands clenched. “I swear since I arrived here, I am interrupted daily by the most inconsequential matters.” The green robe wafted around his legs, flesh showing above his scuffed brown boots. He strode away toward the door. “Don’t snivel. Allow me to think.”
She wiped her nose on her sleeve and fisted the tears away as she focused on the feather in his hair. While the dangling feather twirled, she dragged up the last tiny drop of her courage. “I’m sorry. I’ll think of something I can do.”
He spun back to face her, eyes narrowed. “Oh, do not bother. I can’t spare the time for your intellectual struggles. If I must have you here, I will make sure you earn your keep. You can cook, yes?”
“Of course I can.”
“Do that for a start. You can clean, wash, and sweep, I hope, but most of all”—he glared, his eyes leaf dark—“you keep out of my way when I’m working.”
Every muscle screamed no, but she forced a nod. She’d not expected a warm welcome, but this greeting hurt worse than any nightmare.
He didn’t want her! Why should she stay in his tower? No one wanted her. She’d be better off with the wolves.
Before she left the village, Alicia had managed to whisper to her, “Don’t fear the Mage. He’ll give you more than you’ll find here.” Through the frightening journey, as the morning wore on, she’d tried to turn her fears to hope she would discover what Alicia meant. The misery of being his kitchen drudge hadn’t occurred to her.
The Mage still paced, giving her an occasional glare.
Rebellion broke through the fear. “I’ll try to think of a way to move on, shall I? Find a place to go. Until I can, I’ll do what you ask.”
“No need to sound so resentful. The facts are exact.”
The sneer rubbed at her wounds.
“You cannot go back to the village. The castle would not touch such a one. You have no gift, and even if you did possess an elemental skill, the lady may well say you are too old to be trained.” He arched a dark eyebrow. “Though I am sure the garrison would not be too squeamish to accept your services. Hold your tongue, or I’ll send you to them.”
A shiver of horror ran over her, for she had no doubt what he meant. Agnes’s breathy, lewd descriptions still echoed in her mind. She shut the vile thoughts out when he spoke again.
“You do not have the talent to work with me. You are not one thing or the other.” Slowly, he appraised her. “No, maybe not even the garrison would make allowances for such a grubby wench.”
A blaze of anger surged to help her rise from her trembling knees. He was a brute. True, maybe right now she was dirty, but he didn’t have to say so. How would he have fared in the cage?
Taking a deep breath, she squared her shoulders. “No, I won’t stay here, not with you. I’ll leave. I’ll do as well if I take my chances in the forest.” She turned to make her way out of the smoky, torch-lit room.
“No, girl, there is no need. I will not have your wolf-mauled corpse on my conscience.”
His tone of pained resignation stoked her determination. She reached for the door.
“I said stay!”
The forceful shout stunned her for an instant, but she spun back to face him.
Let him do his very worst.
People had yelled at her all her life. A woman now, even if she was cursed, she’d put up with it no more. “My name is Nin, not ‘girl.’ If I stay here, you won’t shout at me.”
His glance clashed with hers until, like the moon from behind a dark cloud, an amused smile broke. The expression spread across his handsome features. He had a wonderful bright smile. The glow of it began at one corner of his mouth before it spread to rise slowly up to his eyes. “I can see we will have many entertaining discussions. You will stay, Nin. You will work, do as I bid, and you will keep out of my way so I shall have no need to shout at you.”
“You won’t beat me either.” She wanted that rule laid down fast. The way some apprentices and servants got treated was worse than dogs, or so she’d heard.
His smile widened as he shook his head. The feather twirled while he chuckled. “No, Nin, I will not beat you, even if you deserve it. Remember, I am a Mage. I can find many more interesting ways to punish you than simply using a stick.”
Sheer terror soared at his words.
His pale brow wrinkled as his eyes widened in mockery of hers.
Why couldn’t she keep her mouth shut? What could he do to her? His amused laughter brought a blaze of heat to her face.
He went to the round cupboard molded to the wall. The little door creaked as he took out a jug and two horn cups.
Her fears returned as he nudged a low, three-legged wooden stool toward her.
“Sit, Nin, we will drink to the rules.” He poured a red liquid into the cup in front of her. “You will be quiet and obedient, while in return, I will not beat you or turn you into…” His eyes narrowed. The smile returned with a spark in his glance. “A sparrow, I think. Yes, a noisy one.”
Accepting the cup he handed over, she sat. “Agreed,” she whispered. Lifting the cup to her lips, she watched him over the rim. The brew she sipped tasted sweet, made from elderberries, powerful, too. The glow of it burned her throat and set a fire in her empty stomach.
He took a swig from his cup. “Now, so we understand each other clearly, my name is Thabit. You may call me that, or you may call me Mage if you wish. This room will be your domain.” He swept a majestic hand into the air. “I will bring bedding for you to sleep here.” He motioned toward a small alcove cut into the wall.
She nodded and sipped again as she studied his face. His unlined smooth skin had a luminous appeal, like the heartwood of a bough. He was much younger than she first thought, though shadows of sleeplessness smudged under his eyes. His angular, sharp features, made her wonder who’d been so skilled as to carve them. Long, dark lashes enhanced his eyes. In here, his eyes shone like a cat’s in the gloom.
“I hope you’re listening?”
Startled to attention, she gave another quick nod. How had she let her mind wander to his face? He must think her a fool.
“I sleep in the room upstairs. After a night vigil, I often sleep through the day. My workshop is on the top floor. You will not go up to the top floor of the tower unless I say you may. You will not enter the workshop for any reason without me. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” she answered. A new tremble lodged in her leg. She crossed the other over and squeezed to still the movement.
“Good. At the back of the house is a vegetable garden. You will prepare meals from what grows there. Meat will not be cooked in this house.”
“Yes, only vegetables, pulses, and herbs will go in the pot. I do not eat meat. Flesh smothers the mind and dulls the senses. If you wish to remain here, you, too, will neither cook nor eat it.”
She couldn’t care less what she ate if only he would feed her, but he offered naught. What other strange ways would he reveal? She clamped her mouth shut.
“The well is in the yard, and over the rise there is a stream where you may bathe.” He glanced at her gown. “See you do. There, you can also wash clothes.” This time, his slow gaze followed his words.
She glanced down at her soiled, mud-streaked skirt.
“In the yard is a bread oven,” he continued. “I’ve never fired it, but after you clean it, I am sure you can.”
Her irritation niggled, shaving scraps off her fear. Did he think she knew nothing?
“Do you wish to ask me anything?”
Oh, yes, so very many things. Instead, she shook her head, for she did not trust her tongue to be wise in the asking.
“Very well, we’ve had a good beginning. I will work until dusk. When I come down, I shall expect a meal.” He got up from his seat, put the cup on the table, and swept through the doorway to the stairs.
The wine, warm in her stomach, sparked her hunger as she looked at her new home. “Gods, help me, where do I start?”