Magic Can Be Murder

Page 2

The jug felt cool in her hands, though she was aware that her fingers left muddy streaks on che damp surface where she grasped it. She wiped her hand on her skirt, hue that hardly helped. On the outside of the jug, where the handle was attached, a single strand of hair was held captive by the dampness.
Nola collected hairs. She couldn't help herself, couldn't let them pass. There was no celling when she might need one. With a gesture too small to alert che unsuspecting, Nola caught up the hair - short and black, it belonged to the man, not his wife - and wrapped it around her fingertip.
With a glance at her mother that warned, Don't say anything, she took a long, satisfying gulp of the cool water. She handed the jug to her mother, who - thankfully - said nothing.
"Thank you," Nola repeated, making to hand the jug back to the man after her mother had had her fill. She assumed he would make his way down the path to where his brother's wife and children also picked berries.
But, "Finish it," the man said, smiling. "It's lighter empty than full."
He must mean to go back to the well lo get another jug-ful for his brother's family, she reasoned. But at the same time, the thought tickled at her mind that he had come to her and her mother first, rather than to his kinfolk.
"Cool yourself down," he suggested. "Pour it over your shoulders." But though he said shoulders, it wasn't her shoulders he was staring at.
At which point Nola decided that regardless of who had originally said it - her mother or her father - she also did not like the way this man was looking at her.
"Not necessary," she told him, and once more tried to hand the jug back.
"It's something I've seen the women in the fields do," he told her. "They pour water on their hands chen run their hands..." He indicated an area of bare skin definitely below shoulder level.
"Ah!" Nola said. "No doubt a trick you learned from your wife." She had seen the wife, who had been the one to answer the door when Nola and her mother had knocked, seeking work: a common woman, Nola had judged from their few moments' acquaintance, who put on airs.
Now the woman's husband grinned and shrugged. "And from my sister-in-law," he said, though obviously he wasn't interested in whether his sister-in-law stayed cool or overheated today. "And others. Why don't you come over to the shade of the peach tree? Lie down. Rest." His voice was calm and rational, and there was no reason to suspect he meant more than he said, except ... Except that Nola did.
The man continued, "The tree can't be seen from the house. My wife is a hard woman who would work you to death. She never needs to know." He ran his tongue over the lip of the jug at the spot from where Nola had drunk.
"Please," Nola said. If she left now, all the work that she and her mother had done the whole morning long would be for nothing.
The man looked at her quizzically, as though to say he had no idea what she was asking.
"I don't want any trouble," Nola said. She could try making a complaint to the town magistrate, but how likely was he to believe her? She imagined her voice, high-pitched and nervous, explaining, Nobody here knows me or my mother, but we worked for the majority of the morning for this man, and then we had to leave without payment because he wouldn't let me be. Maybe the sister-in-law - if he had paid unwanted attention to her - would back her story with experience of her own. But maybe the attention wasn't unwanted in the sister-in-law's case, or maybe she had too much to lose by making a complaint against her kinsman.
Nola thought of the state of her hair and clothes. She could imagine the magistrate saying, This man is a respected member of our community, and you...
Why even try to work out what the magistrate would say? She and her mother would never seek him out. They couldn't afford the attention.
The man took hold of her arm, not roughly, sure she wouldn't resist. "Come," he said.
"You know," Nola said, to give her mother warning, though her mother seemed elsewhere, elsewhen, standing there swaying slightly, humming a lullaby to herself. "You know, my lather once gave me some good advice..."
She kicked the man's knee and ran. The man dropped the water jug, which shattered when it hit the ground. She could hear him yelping and cursing behind her, but louder, closer, she could hear her mother, cackling and laughing, as she ran also, keeping up as Nola ran out from between the bushes, cut across the corner of a fallow field, and leaped over a short stone fence onto the road.
"Your father says to tell you, 'Well done!'" her mother said. Then she turned back and shouted co the man in the blackberry field, "And King Fenuku says to tell you..." She hoisted up her skirt and pointed her rear end in his direction.
"You crazy old witch!" the man yelled, which turned Nola's blood to icc water, even though he showed no inclination to follow. "You're both crazy witches!" He must have realized then that he would have to find an excuse to give his wife. "And you owe me for that jug you broke!"
"Turn him into a toad, Nola!" her mother crowed. "Turn him into a toad!"
"Mother!" Nola cried, hoping they were too far away for the man to have heard.
Her mother got her disappointed, sulky expression. "He'd only look like a toad," she muttered in complaint. "He wouldn't really be one." As though that wouldn't count. "And it would only last a day."
"Enough," Nola warned. A five-foot-tall toad. How likely was that to go unnoticed?
The day couldn't get any worse, Nola thought as she started walking.
But of course it could.
Chapter Two
WALKING FROM NOON till evening, Nola and her mother ended up in a town called Haymarket. It seemed a prosperous place, but apparently every homeowner and business had just enough help to keep things running smoothly. As night closed in around them, Nola began to think they might end the day with no supper. No shelter, either.
"We'll ask as far as the end of this street," Nola told her mother, which meant three more houses. "If we don't find something here..." She was too weary to finish and just waved vaguely toward the setting sun. They'd seen a barn earlier. The fact that the barn looked ready to fell down didn't mean its owners would be willing to let them stay there, so it was best to go after nightfall and not bother to ask permission.
"Good," her mother said. She was cradling her left arm, humming a lullaby to her finger. "The baby is getting tired."
"Just..." Nola didn't know how to finish the thought. Don't let the baby cry? Don't say anything about the baby where people can hear? Don't do anything co ruin whatever small chance we have?
She knocked on the door. Probably not loud enough, she realized. Most likely she'd need to summon the energy to knock again.
But a young woman of seventeen or eighteen opened the door. She might have been the same age as Nola - but she had the look of someone who could take things for granted from day to day: things like that she would most probably eat that day, and the next, and that she would sleep with a roof overhead, and that her mother probably wouldn't get the two of them run out of town or killed for being witches.
"I...," Nola started. But she'd lost track of what it was she had been going to say.
The young woman at the door supplied the words for her, "You're looking for work?"
Or a meal. Or a corner co sleep in - warmth and dryness welcome, but not expected.
Nola nodded her head. But then - since she knew what the answer would be - she turned to leave.
"Wait here," the woman cold her. "This is exceptional good luck."
It is? Nola thought.
"Kirwyn," the young woman called into the kitchen behind her. "Master Kirwyn."
But Kirwyn, whoever he was, wasn't there.
"Wait here," the woman repeated as though afraid Nola would wander off into the evening gloom. She didn't even close the door behind her to make Nola wait outside, as though it never occurred to her that a stranger presented with an open house might run in and steal something.
Nola rested her head on the doorjamb and may or may not have drifted into a few moments' sleep as she stood there. She jerked her head up at the sound of a male voice, loud, but from another room, that demanded, "What in the world do we need more people in the house for now?"
Ah, well, Nola thought. So much for exceptional good luck. But the woman had told her to stay, so Nola stayed. Behind her, her mother was swaying gently, still humming.
Whatever the woman answered - Nola presumed she answered something, because she didn't come right back out again - whatever she answered, Nola couldn't hear her. Once again, Nola dozed on her feet. The sound of approaching footsteps roused her.
The woman came back with two men. One was a sulky-faced youth - Nola immediately connected him with the whining voice that had wanted to send her away - and the other was an older man, with enough family resemblance to the first that Nola concluded they must be father and son.
"This is Master Innis," the woman said, "whose work as a silversmith is so fine that he has customers from as far away as Linchester."
Servant, Nola thought, from the woman's tone. She hadn't been sure before. Wife or daughter-in-law might sound proud, but not so self-consciously flattering.
"And who have we here?" the silversmith asked.
Nola curtsied. "I am Nola. And this is my mother - "
"Mary," Nola's mother interrupted - which was not her name, but at least it was a more seemly name than Eurydice, which she had used in Low Beck, the last town.
Master Innis looked impatient, and Nola realized he hadn't really been interested in their names. The son continued to look sour.
Nola curtsied again. "We are seeking work."
No doubt he had already been told that to get him out here. The silversmith looked at Nola and her mother appraisingly. "Overly thin," he mused, as someone might comment on a horse or hound.
"But strong," Nola assured him. "And willing to work hard."
Something else one might say about horse or hound.
He was looking over her shoulder. Nola was determined not to turn. Best not to know what her mother was doing, since there was no way co stop her, nor to keep anyone from noticing, if she was doing something embarrassing or likely to get them into trouble.
Her resolve didn't last. She couldn't help herself. She made as though to knead a tired shoulder, and shot a glance backward, but her mother wasn't doing anything.
Or - at least - she wasn't doing anything anymore.
Turning back to the silversmith, Nola gave as bright a smile as she could manage.
"Well," Innis said, not sounding quite convinced, "Brinna needs the help, for I will be married within the week and this house needs to be cleaned and prepared for my new wife."
The young servant woman, Brinna, looked pleased with herself and the world now that there were two newer servants to help her.
The son, Kirwyn, wore the expression of one who was sure their upkeep would come straight from his own pocket.
"Congratulations," Nola's mother chirped to the a bout-to-be-married silversmith.
Nola opened her mouth to offer her best wishes also, but she didn't have a chance.
"Congratulations," Nola's mother repeated in a slightly different voice, brisk and efficient, the voice Nola recognized as the one her mother used when speaking on behalf of Mother Superior. And then a third time, in a lower tone, probably one of the men, "Congratulations."
Kirwyn scowled. Even Brinna's smile faded. Only Nola's did not. Trust us, her smile said. We're harmless.
"Yes," the silversmith said, more slowly now. "Well. Come in, then."
Chapter Three
NOLA AND HER mother had come too late in the day to do any work and were in time only to eat, Kirwyn pointed out. Two or three times he pointed it out.
"Enough!" his father finally said. "Kirwyn, you whine and complain like an old fishwife without two pennies to rub together. They will have work enough tomorrow. And if after we have fed them they should run away without working, that will hardly cause our financial ruin."
Nola, who very rarely had two pennies herself, felt Master Innis was coo harsh in his opinion of fishwives. She knew it hardly counted as work to prepare a meal she herself would cat, but she couldn't help resenting the way Kirwyn complained of her: If she wasn't getting much accomplished, it was because he kept getting in her way so that she had to walk around him while she carried in buckets of water from the well and as she readied the table.
Her mother, set in the corner to chop a few extra carrots and to peel an onion, periodically chuckled to herself, but not enough to draw more than passing glances.
Of course, Master Innis and Kirwyn were served first, and it was only when they were finished with their meal that the servants were allowed to sit and eat. The other servant, besides Brinna and now Nola and her mother, was a man named Alan, who was somewhere in age between Kirwyn and his father. Mostly he worked in the shop helping the silversmith, but apparently he did not consider himself above the household servants. Or at least not above Brinna, Nola thought, noting the way his eyes sparkled whenever he watched her. Kirwyn noted this also, Nola saw, when he came into the kitchen while they were cleaning up.
Except that nobody saw Kirwyn until it was too late.
Nola and Brinna were on their knees, scrubbing the stone floor of the kitchen. Nola's mother was trying hard to bring back a shine to a pot that hadn't shone in years. Alan, who'd put away the last of the dishes, approached Brinna from behind, then gave her a playful whack on the bottom.
"Alan!" Brinna protested. But she was laughing. She threw the wet cloth at his stomach, splattering sudsy water both on the man and on the just-cleaned table.
"Oh, good job, Brinna!" Alan laughed. He shook a warning finger at her and said, obviously imitating Kirwyn, "You must take your household duties more seriously!"
"So should you all," Kirwyn said from the doorway.
That was the first notice they had of his presence, and it wiped the smiles off their faces.
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