Authors: Jennifer Carson
Tags: #Hapenny Magick
Mae saw affection in his face as the woodsman scratched under the raven's beak. To treat a bird like that, he had to be better than Gelbane. Perhaps he wasn't a woodsman after all. Maybe he was the Wedge's Protector. A wizard would have a talking bird as sure as a hapenny would have a lavender honey muffin recipe. Perhaps he could explain the odd things happening at the farm. Mae stepped out from behind the tree.
The raven cocked his head. The man followed the bird's gaze. “Maewyn,” the bird called. It felt like an introduction.
Hesitantly, Mae gathered her skirts, her foot lifting to find the first stair. Soft light from the fire fell on her face. The mouth-watering smell of fowl and roasting vegetables teased her nose. The juices from the roast sizzled on the hot coals. Something bubbled in a pot over the fire. Mae hadn't eaten since supper the day before. Her stomach called out for nourishment.
Mae lifted her eyes to the man. The end of his beard was braided like a pack pony's tail, with a thin red ribbon holding it together. The nose that protruded over the beard was broad and squashed at the tip. What should she say? She wound the corner of her apron around her thumb.
“Please, sir, I have walked all night.” Mae pointed to the raven perched on the chair and her belly grumbled again. “That bird led me here.”
The man chuckled, and Mae felt embarrassment crawl up her neck like a tomato vine growing up a fence post. She was foolish to think a human would ever believe that a bird led her through the forest. Foolish to think a human would be better than the worst-tempered hapenny. Foolish to think this man could possibly be the Protector of the Wedge.
Hugging herself, Mae turned from the door and the fire. She would find her way back through the forest. Back to the dishes and the scrubbing of floors. Back to the feeding of chickens. Back to Gelbane.
Mae started at the man's deep voice.
“Come back.” Laughter filled the space between them. “Come back, Maewyn. I wasn't laughing at you. I forgot hapennies always take things so close to heart. I was justâ¦ wasn't expecting aâ¦hapâwell, just wasn't expecting you. That's all.” He held out his hand. “It is nice to meet you, Maewyn.”
Mae reached for the long fingers. The man's grasp was warm as it closed around her hand.
Skin the color of brewed tea crinkled around hazel eyes. Freckles tiptoed across the wide bridge of his nose. In the brim of the man's hat, a small furry creature was curled, asleep. “Are you the Protector of the Wedge?”
“Some call me that.”
“What do the others call you?”
The man chuckled softly. “Callum. The others call me Callum, and so can you.” He let her hand fall from his. “I have a lovely partridge roast and some vegetable soup, but it needs a few more minutes to simmer. Would you like some fresh bread?”
Mae nodded. She had always just accepted what was given; never had Gelbane asked what she would like.
Callum gestured for Mae to follow as he loped down the steps with an easy gait. She had to run to keep up with his long stride. Callum pointed to a meadow behind the cottage. “Do you see the wheat stalks?”
Mae nodded. They looked like pale shafts of moonlight rising from the earth. But this wasn't the right time for wheat!
Callum gathered ripe kernels from the stalks, took Mae's hand, and turned it over in his grasp. He placed the kernels in her open palm. She ran her thumb over their rough surface while Callum strolled to the creek. To make bread you had to have flour, and flour came from grinding wheat kernels into powder. She'd learned that much from Mrs. Birchbeam, the village baker. But how were they going to make bread in time for supper? It needed time to rise.
Returning with a handful of water, Callum dribbled it on the grains. Mae swallowed hard as the kernels grew warm in her hand. Her heart pittered against her ribs. She wasn't sure what to expect.
Using the braided end of his beard like a wand, Callum swirled it above the wheat kernels. “A sweetened loaf is the prize. Grains of flour, quickly rise!”
The kernels wiggled and danced. Water swirled and steamed. Mae's nose twitched with the smell of fresh bread. She watched in awe as the kernels expanded, the hard hulls falling away. Soon Mae held a small, browned loaf of bread. Her mouth watered as a pat of butter appeared and melted over the crusty surface.
“Go on, eat it,” Callum said with a wave of his hand. He turned and strolled back to the fire-lit cottage.
Mae pulled off the end of the loaf and stuffed it into her mouth. The bite was warm and soft, and it didn't hurt her teeth like the stale barley bread she'd always had to eat. “Thank you, sir,” she mumbled through a mouthful.
“It was the least I could do after you've come so far,” Callum said. “Are you coming in or not?”
Mae skipped back up to the cottage. By the time she reached the first step, the loaf was nearly gone. When she reached the threshold, she swallowed the last bite. As she entered the cottage, her curiosity grew bigger than her hunger.
Books were stacked everywhere, with titles on the spines like
Badabing's Cache of Spells, Pognut's Potions and Brews, and Ahem's Book of Proper Grammar for Spell Casting
Mae's mother had owned a lot of books, too. Gelbane had used most for kindling, but Mae was able to sneak a few away and hide them in the rafters of the barn. She'd read those few stories over and over again, until she could nearly recite them by heart. The only book Gelbane had kept was The Hapenny Farmer's Guide to Pig Wifery and Husbanding. It was a large tome explaining the finer points of swine breeding. Gelbane had recited the first rule: “Never breed a pig during a full moon.” Leif's dad, Farmer Burrbridge, said that full-moon piglets would turn feral and grow tusks. Mae wasn't sure if he was teasing her when he told her that, but Mae never touched the book without Gelbane's permission, and then only to wipe the soot from its cover, so she hadn't had a chance to read the truth.
A red, oversized chair stuffed full to bursting sat close to the hearth, with an oval-shaped rug on the floor in front of it made from loops of colorful fabric. Mae was pretty sure she saw a fancy-dressed critter scurry under a tall cabinet in the corner. She dropped to her knees and peeked under, but only caught sight of little footprints in the dust. “What was that?”
Callum ladled soup into a small bowl. “You mean, âWho was that?' That was Trina. She'll come out and introduce herself when she's ready. She's a bit shy, like all red squirrels.” Callum pointed to the furry critter in his hat brim. “This is Beau, her brother. He's a bit braver and already sneaking curious peeks at you, I'm sure.”
Over the brim of the wizard's hat Mae spotted two gleaming eyes, peering at her as she brushed the dust from her skirt. She moved toward the crackling fire and sat on the hearth, and Callum handed her a bowl of soup along with a wooden spoon. The spoon was carved from a twisted twig and worn smooth from use. It was much fancier than the spoons she used at her house. Mae dipped into the broth and sipped.
The sweet taste of onions and potatoes was bliss. She grinned as Callum slipped a piece of partridge into her bowl. Her supper usually consisted of watery cabbage, with bits of tough old chicken thrown in when one of the hens refused to lay more eggs. Mae gobbled the meal down like a pig at a trough.
Callum sat in the overstuffed chair watching Mae. She ate the last spoonful and wished she had a piece of bread left over to sop up the last licks of broth. She sighed with contentment, full for the first time in months. The wizard took the empty bowl and set it on the narrow table near his chair. “How was your supper?”
Mae smiled. “It was the best meal ever!”
“Food is kind of my specialty,” Callum said.
“Thank you, sir.” Mae leaned against the hearth. The stones were warm from the fire and soothing against her tired body. Her eyelids were heavy. It would be so nice to fall asleep, but Mae knew she would have to go home soon. She wasn't looking forward to another wet trek through the woods.
The raven flew to Callum and settled on his shoulder. The wizard patted the bird without much thought. Then, leaning forward in his chair, Callum swung his arms forward to rest on his knees. “I take it your life with Gelbane has been a little, uh, unpleasant.”
Mae's gaze flicked from the man's stare to the raven perched on his shoulder. She shook her head, dropping her gaze to the floor. She followed the curving paths of the wood grain with a finger. “How do you know about Gelbane?”
Callum lifted the front brim of his hat off his head and scratched his scalp. “She's been your guardian since your mother left, hasn't she?”
“She treats you like her servant.”
“I don't want to be a bother to anyone, sir.” Mae twisted the corners of her apron. “She was kind enough to take me in.”
“Hogwash! We both know that Gelbane is anything but kind.”
Tears gathered on Mae's lashes. She didn't like to wallow in her sorrows. What was the wizard trying to get at, anyway?
Callum's voice softened. “Your mother was very kind to invite Gelbane to share your home after her village was invaded by trolls. It's too bad your mother isn't around to see what a fine young lady you've become, despite Gelbane's dreadful treatment.”
The tears that had gathered now hurried down Mae's cheeks. She didn't swipe them away. “I miss her. I wish she would come home.” The raven hopped from Callum's shoulder to the top of the chair and settled to preen his ebony feathers. Mae brushed at the dried mud on her toes. Her ears hung low. “Sometimes, I think it was my fault that she left.”
Shaking his head, Callum clicked his tongue. “Her leaving had nothing to do with you.” He lifted Mae's chin with a finger, his hazel gaze intense. “I know about the wonderful things that happen around you, Maewyn.”
Mae narrowed her eyes. “What do you mean?”
“Hens laying purple eggs, flowers blooming in the winterâ”
“Waking up with my hair in knots, gates coming unlatched,” Mae scoffed, and pulled her chin from the wizard's grasp. “I don't think those things are so wonderful. I need you to tell me how to stop them. That's why the raven led me here, isn't it?”
“Magick can be wonderful, Maewyn, if you know how to use it. The raven brought you here, not to stop these things, but to help you learn how to control them. Perhaps you are even to be the next Protector of the Wedge.”
“That's ridiculous. A wizard must protect the Wedge, not a hapenny.” Mae yawned and stretched her legs. “We are too smallâ¦especially me.”
“Magick is not limited by size or species. Why, the Great Protector, Gythal, was just a tiny man himself, and he's the one responsible for putting the protective runes on the bridge to keep the trolls out of the Wedge. Right, old boy?”
The raven shook his body and flapped his wings, letting out a loud croak.