Dryad-Born Page 2

The sun was nearly down, but she could see well in the dusky sky. They lived in the foothills, west of Stonehollow, leagues away from the city. Their nearest neighbors were not close and she relished the privacy and the feeling of family they had. There were seventeen children in all, some teens like herself, and many younger than Brielle. The Winemillers could not have children of their own, and she considered herself fortunate to have been adopted by them.

Dame Winemiller was short and squat, quick to laugh and tease and tell a story. She was generous and fun-loving, and unfortunately rarely able to keep a conversation brief. Her husband, Master Winemiller, was taciturn and hardworking. He had a temper sometimes, which cowed everyone at the house, but he worked hard and demanded others did as well. He was strong, though not big, and he labored from sunrise to well past sunset, making sure all the chores were done to his standards and threatening dawdlers with a hand gesture that promised a thrashing, regardless of their age.

Phae tousled the grape leaves as she roamed the vineyard, enjoying the give of the sandy earth beneath her work boots and relishing the thought of another fall harvest when the grapes were finished and it was time to make wine. She loved climbing into the vats and pressing the grapes by foot. The small children relished doing that too.

She loved her life. The Winemillers had taught her how to run a homestead, how to make wine, how to bake and sew, how to chop wood and sharpen an axe, how to swim in ice-cold water and dry fruit into raisins. Summer was fun, but her favorite time of year was the fall. Harvest was amazing. And then there was the fortnight when Master Winemiller and the oldest boys took the wagons into Stonehollow and sold the barrels to Preachán traders bound for Havenrook and the auctions. Without his strict hand, it was the most carefree time of the year. Phae longed for it.

There was someone coming up the road.

In the dusk, it was difficult to see. Rarely did a traveler arrive at the end of a day without intending to stay the night. She slowed her walk, continuing to glide through the green leaves. Buds of grapes were just starting to arrive on the stems. They would probably start culling soon. She stared at the approaching figure, feeling a prick of apprehension. There was something familiar about the gait.

“Trasen!” she yelled, breaking into a run.

She had not expected to see him, and when he waved to acknowledge her shout, she ran even faster until she was breathless. He had left the homestead a year before to train to be a Finder. His visits were typically short, but she looked forward to them most of all. They were close in age, closer even more in spirit, and she was more than thrilled to see him.

He met her halfway and scooped her up into a big hug. He was not tall—in fact, he was a little shorter than her, a fact she knew irked him. He had curly black hair and a narrow face, but he had the stamina of a thoroughbred and could outrun her, outdistance her, or outwrestle her any day.

“Look at you,” he said with a grin, pushing her back. “You are still growing? This isn’t fair, Phae. Where’s the axe? I should chop off your feet to even it out again.”

“What are you doing here, Trasen?” she said, nearly gasping with surprise. “Where is your master? Is Holt coming too?” She looked over his shoulder, but there was no one else coming up the road.

“He gave me a fortnight leave and so I thought I would come home. I could stay in Stonehollow a few days, but the inns are expensive and…”

“And you thought you’d save your ducats by staying here?” She linked arms with him and they both started back to the house together. She brushed hair from her eyes.

Trasen beamed and started a strong stride back to the house. “I miss everyone, of course. I tell you though, Phae, there are so many stories. So much is happening in the world.”

She squeezed his arm. “The Plague?”

“Rumor says it has already struck the east. Havenrook. The road is blocked. I even heard that someone set fire to the woods to prevent cargo from coming or going.”

“Really!”

“I know. It is difficult to believe. So many rumors. But if there is a Plague, we will all be safe because of you.” He tousled her red hair and she elbowed him in the ribs. She was the only child in the vineyard who possessed the fireblood. The family knew and had trained her how to keep it under control. Because of it, she was never allowed to go to Stonehollow, where they persecuted those with it.

“What else!” she begged. “I am running out of stories and you know how the children get. What else have you heard?”

He pursed his lips. They were approaching the house quickly. “Trouble in Kenatos as well. One of their conjurers went mad. You know—I can never remember what they are called. Paracletes or something? I heard one betrayed the Arch-Rike. In punishment, he ordered their towers demolished. They are selling bricks from the towers in Stonehollow. Several mason families have been commissioned already to reconstruct it. It’s caused quite a stir.”

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