"Mama, I feel funny." Mary struggled to haul herself out of bed, her swollen belly making her more clumsy and awkward than usual. No one would come out and say so, but she knew everyone figured her pregnancy to be cursed ever since she fell into that hole, eight months ago. Even though Hannah and Kevin and even Cassandra said there was nothing wrong with her, and nothing to be worried about, the mere fact they had to check said otherwise.
She put on an unnatural amount of weight, everyone said. No one got that bloated from carrying a baby unless something was wrong, everyone said. That boy Harold was too attached to her, everyone said. It rained more than was necessary since she got pregnant, everyone said. The snows were deeper than they ought to be this winter, everyone said. Weeds were more plentiful than they had any right to be in the Spring, everyone said. And, of course, it was all because Mary's pregnancy was cursed, everyone said.
Naturally, it wasn't really everyone, it only felt that way because the gossips made it so.
The girl waddled out to the kitchen, not remotely hungry for the fifteenth day in a row. On the first day, Mama said the baby would come soon and didn't fuss. On the third, she frowned and fetched Hannah, but there was nothing wrong. 'Just make sure she eats something until the contractions start,' Hannah said, then she left again. And so began forcefeeding herself vegetable stew and bread and cheese until she wanted to vomit. Since that only took four bites, she never spent much time doing it.
The first bite was unpleasant, the second uncomfortable, the third unwanted, and the fourth unpalatable. But she ate them, because Hannah said so. Later, at dinnertime, she'd choke down another four bites. Until then, she would putter around the house, trying to do something useful, trying to move around enough to not be jabbed and kicked black and blue on the inside by the baby squirming around. At least it let her sleep at night, but not enough to be cheerful, not for several months now, and the only way it actually happened at all was if she sang to it for half an hour, a quiet lullaby, over and over until her throat hurt.
This baby was going to be trouble, Mama said, so she better not even think about moving someplace else anytime soon.
"You always feel funny," Mama said absently.
"It's different today." Mary put her plate in the sink. She'd wash it, but she couldn't reach properly anymore.
"Maybe that thing will finally come out today." Mama sounded hopeful.
Mary sighed a little in resignation and waddled off to find something she could actually do.
Now that winter finally let go of the village after strangling it for nigh unto six months, there was a lot of work to do. No one had any firewood left, and the nights were still cold enough to freeze careless toes. A crop of weeds the likes of which no one ever saw before had to be pulled before they overran the whole town. Orchard trees had to be pruned of branches that lost the battle against too heavy burdens of snow. Planting was way behind, owing to the snow refusing to even begin to melt until well into Spring. Even when it did start, there was so much of it; the snowbanks reached the bottoms of everyone's roofs, and in some places, the paths were actually tunnels through the snow. The only hope against starvation next winter was a delayed winter, because otherwise, the crops wouldn't have a chance to grow into actual food. Everyone who could manage it was out and planting whatever they could, and the sacrifice for Brax this year was going to severely impact the food supply. Still, better to be hungry than eaten.
Today was the first relatively nice, sunny day in what felt like forever. The air had a chill, but it was still and the sun was warm enough for just two layers. Busy fingers could even go bare, though still ones were best left it pockets. The ground was nothing close to firm or dry, but that was hardly new and wherever it could be done, canvas or cut logs or stones were laid on the roads people used the most. Paths normally used only a little were not used at all. The first early flowers were well into bloom, offering small spots of yellow and purple and white against the dark brown and black of the earth.
Most interestingly, Portia's house, where Mary lived, had a ring of blue daffodils around it. This was interesting for three obvious reasons. First, daffodils do not come in blue. Second, no other daffodils anywhere nearby were more than just barely poking up through the earth. Third, Portia, like everyone else, never wasted her time planting daffodils on purpose and none ever grew there before.
There was also a fourth reason, but that one was much less obvious.
The initial period nearly every fresh couple goes through, where both partners want, both need to be together at all times, had passed; Fionn and Bianca still spend a good amount in each other's company, more often than not, at the young mage's place, but the obsessiveness had passed over the winter and changed into a more normal relationship as per Pentingham's standards.
Now, with the snows finally melting, Bianca - like everyone else - was busily working; weeds had to be cleared from the fields, which in turn had to be planted.
A sizable chunk of Fionn's time was consumed by these mundane tasks, too, and while he did see and understand the necessity of this work, it still didn't agree with him. For the past couple of weeks, the young mage had been doing menial chores, where his lack of skill and clumsiness could actually do some good and next to no harm. Those tasks, however, were solitary. The evenings, the young mage spent amidst books and notes, trying to come up with ways to increase food production; most mages in town were, to the limit of their ability: They had been among the first to warn about possible food scarcity - as was expected of them.
With Bianca working long hours on the fields in addition to her chores at her place often having been too weary to do anything in the evening, the solitude had slowly been becoming hard to bear for even someone as reclusive as Fionn.
Having met Maurice, as he returned from a successful hunting trip, Fionn had decided to invite him and the others for lunch the next day.
Having grown up in a house with two accomplished cooks and where there had always been some food on the stove - either for immediate consumption or being preserved had left its mark on the young mage.
Enjoying eating (and spending years listlessly picking at the bland stuff mage Alex had prepared), Fionn had acquired and honed cooking skills far above what was commonly found among Pentingham's males - skills further honed by living on his own. Those skills had recently reached a new peak when the young mage had mastered ways to conjure foodstuff.
Maurice had offered some of the meat for the lunch, an offer Fionn had gladly accepted. In order to appease his consciousness, the young man had labored the full previous day pulling weeds and picking stones so he could spend this morning to prepare the meal for his friends.
Fionn's house was a comparatively small, single story building at the edge of the village. Its size had probably been the reason it had been empty before Fionn moved in, for it had hardly enough space for a typical household to live in it without people constantly stepping on each other's toes. But for someone living alone, the three rooms were spacious enough. And the large kitchen was very much to Fionn's liking.
The young man had set the table for four and had been busily peeling, cutting and boiling vegetables all morning, interrupted only once as Brighid brought him two loaves of fresh bread.
A pot with hot, thick pumpkin soup was bubbling merrily on the back of the stove, the venison stew was in the oven, next to the roasting carrots, and the potatoes would be ready soon.
The aroma of cloves, bayleaf and onion mixed with the smell of venison stew perumed the almost too warm air in Fionn's kitchen; the hearty lunch was nearly ready.
A frowning Maurice was first to get to Fionn's house. He had spent a lot of time frowning this winter. Hunting had been poor. No one could complain that he hadn't pulled down more than his fair share of game, or that he had not been doing all that he could, well no one except his harshest critic. Himself.
It wasn't that his aim was off, nor that he couldn't find the game. Just there wasn't as much as before and on too many occasions where random bit of bad luck had prevented either a kill or worse, a clean kill. Worse at least to his mind. He told himself when meat was scarce at least he was still providing - but it didn't feel that way to him. Twice he'd been forced to track a wounded buck for the better part of an hour before he'd been able to put the beast out of it's misery. Each time he'd been inconsolable for weeks.
This morning he had brought down a couple of plump birds which wasn't at all bad but he'd had a glimpse of something bigger just when he'd needed to turn back. He'd momentarily considered skipping the lunch but promises had been made and the thought of Fionn's cooking combined with that buck from yesterday couldn't easily be ignored. He'd been content enough when he'd started back to the village but by the time he got back he was already wondering just what he'd missed out on by not following up on that glimpse.
He'd almost not noticed the weird circle blue flowers around the house on the way in. He had even taken a few steps beyond it before it clicked that it was Portia's and hence Mary's. Than brought him pause and he had stopped to stare for a moment before continuing on with yet another worry on his mind.
The smell of the pumpkin and venison quickly wiped all those thoughts from his head and he beamed Fionn a broad and cheeky grin as he planted himself in a chair and rapped the table as if he'd been waiting for ages.
After stirring the soup, Fionn tapped the ladle against the rim of the pot before replacing the lid. He shot Maurice a mock-stern gaze before replying in a mournful voice "You can have a piece of bread to shorten the wait and a cup of hot tea to drive the chill from your bones, young man." unable to maintain the tone the expression, faced with the hunter's grin, Fionn smiled back at Maurice before turning and cutting a slice off the loaf.
After pouring tea in two wooden cups, the young mage handed placed bread and cup both in front of his first guest before bending down in front of the oven to pour a small measure of honeyed water over the carrots and stirring the stew.
Straightening, Fionn wiped his brow and picked up his own cup before sitting down sidewise to keep an eye on the pots on the stove. "The other's should be here soon." Fionn said before blowing on his tea and taking a careful sip.
Fionn seemed... confident and much more at peace than Maurice had ever seen him before.
Harold ached, plain and simple. He had for half a year, in one way or another.
His heart ached for Mary, having been shooed out by the first few months for being far too clingy. He couldn't help it, after nearly losing her beneath the earth, he wouldn't let himself run that risk again. So from then on, he could only manage short bits of visiting to see how she fared and how swiftly she'd grown. This left him crawling back to his uncles' place, much to their deep amusement and rather constant teasing.
His head ached from worry, constantly thinking over what had occurred down in that network of tunnels. He'd pushed to have them flooded or filled or sealed up in some way, but beyond his own protests, he wasn't sure if anything could be done anyhow. But the dread of others falling into that labyrinth kept him always wary during the long wet rains and heavy snows.
Most of all, his body ached, especially his arms and back. This brutal winter had left him little rest from his chores of lumberwork, the only boon being that the snow helped him slide the massive loads of firewood more easily. He'd gotten to be almost intimately knowledgeable about the best types of trees to fell for fires, and just where to be when they began to fall. Thankfully he'd learned those lessons with only a few bruises and sprains for his efforts. Of course, what time wasn't spent chopping and hauling wood was spent shoveling and moving snow, or now pulling weeds from the farmland.
Thankfully he had something brighter to look forward to at lunch time today, and had made sure to set aside some specifically nice branches and split logs to deliver while he did his best to make the border between town and the forest expand with a ring of stumps. Tromping his way through the snow down the narrow path to Fionn's little cabin, he gave the door a firm boot, coaxing it to swing inwards, a massive double-armload of strong resin-filled hickory and applewood nearly blocking his vision. "Oi, Fionn! Got you some of that good wood for roasting you like."
Maurice let loose a guffaw as he moved to help Harold unload the wood, “Is that you under there Harold? Looks like you got enough to build a new hut.”
After he had finished helping stack the wood he slouched back to his seat grabbed the cup of the tea and asked “Seen Vincent? If he's not careful we'll be forced to start without him.”
He considered asking Harold about the flowers around Mary's now then ruled it out. To Maurice Harold seems much to calm if he knew about them and there was something funny up, in fact he probably wouldn't even have made it to lunch. However if he did know about them and they was something that he wasn't too willing to let on it'd be fun to watch his reaction to a direct question. And on the other hand if he didn't know about them that'd be fun to watch too and in that case best wait for Vincent so he could share in the fun too. Also best let Harold get some food in him in case he tried running off to check on Mary straight away.
The double bang of the door first being kicked open and then hitting the wall brought a momentary frown onto the young mage's features, though the expression is born more out of surprise than irritation and vanished upon hearing Harold's voice to be replaced by a smile.
Placing his cup on the table, Fionn got up to help Harold and Maurice unloading the wood into the large basket next to the stove. "Thanks, Harold." Fionn said, smiling. "I can certainly use it." A hint of worry sneaked into his voice as he continued; the topic reminded him of the worried deliberations that had occupied his thoughts for so many hours. Though all villagers were concerned about the hard winter and what it meant for the coming seasons, mages were expected to worry. And provide solutions.
With a deliberate slow breath, the young mage banished those dark thoughts; this meal was meant to be fun and companionship.
Together with Maurice, Fionn stacked the wood quickly into the basket - and, considering his usual awkwardness with manual tasks, surprisingly without any knocking the stack over or dropping a log on his toes.
Smiling over his shoulder at Harold, Fionn motioned to one of the empty chairs. "Sit. Food's nearly done." before pouring another cup of tea and passing it to him.
Vincent's tardiness was a small concern and for a moment, Fionn wondered whether he'd come at all; Vincent was kind of... weird, even for a mage.
Vincent the Wanderer
The slightest rat-a-tat-tat on the door was all that Vincent allowed before entering without acceptance. Once in the door frame, he stood for a moment as if simply to say 'I am here, why are you all so early?", but that too passed without much fuss before he was fully inside and the door was closed behind him. "Hullo." A passive introduction as he dropped a small tweed sack on the table and headed beyond it to the cooking area.
In true form, he inspected but made no comment, poked but gave no opinion. Before long, he had looked over all of the fixings and not given one inch into what his true feelings on the matter were. The Wanderer was in his element.
After a circle of the room and not another word spoken, Vincent returned to the small tweed sack resting on the table. Bundles of dried herbs and concoctions began littering the freshly cleaned table. Each carried a scripted paper clung to it in some fashion, none of which seemed to be items for the meal. "Cassandra said you would want these. Be careful though, she has been sneaking this one," he waved a brittle root around in the air, "into my food for weeks. She thinks I do not know. Fertility." Just as quickly as they were placed on the table -and some were not explained or hardly touched- Vincent stuffed them all back into the sack and then placed the sack on the floor at his feet.
It was common knowledge that even after his apprenticeship was over that Vincent spent many of his nights and possibly most of his days inside Cassandra's home. Her appearances outside of the home dwindled, but not due to illness or age (at least to anyone's knowledge). Some suggested Vincent had simply become her window to Pentingham. An inquiry he never addressed when asked. It was easily a safe assumption that like-minded beasts simply stuck together, and they had no comparable equals outside of that circle.
Unlike many of the others who had done backbreaking work over the winter months to survive, Vincent had probably not been seen doing much manual labor. When he was, it was for the good of his own ambitions more often than not. The magi tended to barter his survival with various people who could use whatever services he was offering, which were hard to pinpoint whenever anyone tried to think them through. It seemed the old parable was not exactly true. The grasshopper can survive the winter, as long as he's still useful to the worker ants.
Vincent's behavior brought a small frown to Fionn's features; entering without waiting for an invitation was fine. After all, the mage could keep people out of he wanted to. Dropping the bag on the table without comment was slightly more bothersome, but that - and Vincent's taciturnity - Fionn had come to expect from the other mage.
Poking his nose into his pots, however, made the young mage bristle.
Arms crossed and eyes sparking, Fionn watched Vincent make his round before, with a conscious effort, softly shaking his head and pushing his annoyance aside. Sharing a look with both Harold and Vincent (and rolling his eyes before shrugging softly), helped.
As the other mage began pulling bundles of herbs from the bag, however, the lingering resentment was quickly being displaced by curiosity and puzzlement - which, in turn, were replaced by embarrassment at Vincent's explanation and disclosure. Feeling his ears heating up, Fionn cleared his throat. "Ahh... convey my... thanks... to Cassandra, then." he replied hesitantly - and without looking at either Harold or Maurice - as Vincent scooped the bundles back into the bag.
There was a long moment of silence before Fionn spoke again, this time with much more enthusiasm. "Well, since we are complete, let's eat."
The young mage immediately followed his own suggestion, transferring the pot of soup from the stove to the table and passing Maurice the dipper to fill the bowls while he turned back to slice some more bread. After filling a mug with tea for Vincent, Fionn sat. "Lig sé blas tú." He said, out of habit using the ancient phrase Rós had always used, before, smiling, adding "Enjoy the meal."
Maurice just chuckled to Harold as Vincent did his thing either oblivious or uncaring that Fionn was frowning hard enough that is was surprising his lips didn't turn purple.
He chuckled even louder at Fionn's discomfort as Vincent quite openly chatted about certain herbs whilst internally making a note to ask Vincent later exactly what kind of effects said herb had. Related thoughts keep his mind occupied so that he was half way through spooning out the soup before he remembered the main reason he was waiting for Vincent to arrive.
So as casually as he could muster whilst filling up Vincent's bowl he looked over his shoulder to Harold and asked, “So what's with all that ring of blue flowers around Mary's place Harold? It really made me pause on the way here when I saw them all standing around her house like little toy soldiers.”
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