Chapter 1. Hoping for Trouble
What’s your name?”
He stood in the doorway with a bright winter’s sun shining low in the morning sky behind him. I squinted to see him better.
Why had a soldier come to our school? Questions formed in my mouth but his tone demanded a quick answer and the tension in his stance spoke of danger.
“Coral. I teach the youngest children here. What’s happening?”
“We’ve had a report of vicious thieves nearby. Get all the kids into the barn, uh, Coral, and shutter the windows. Have them burrow into the hay. Keep them quiet. There’s no time to waste.”
Because my classroom sat at the front of the school, I’d been the one to greet this officer at the door. Now fear surged through me, and I wished another had met him instead. He saw me hesitate.
“Be quick. We rode here as fast as we could. We don’t know how close they are.”
I’d heard of such groups attacking other schools, of course. It didn’t happen often; Ilari was usually as safe as one could hope. But once in a while a band of thieves crossed The Wide River, or came in through the grasslands of Bisu, prepared to grab everything of value they could before they fled our realm. Schools were easy prey and were known to keep coins on hand to handle their expenses. Teachers had died in such skirmishes, and children too.
I yelled to the teachers within earshot to tell the others to get their students to safety. Then I returned to my classroom and my little ones, who had heard everything. Only seven- and eight-years-old, now they huddled together and a few cried.
“No crying,” I said in my firmest tone. “We’ll be fine. The Svadlu are here. See all the nice brave soldiers out there to protect us? Now hush.”
The room quieted. “We’re going to play a game where we all pick up our things and see how fast we can tip-toe into the barn. Like bunnies.” Some of the children giggled at the idea but they all did as I said, running on their toes behind me. A few of the braver ones made rabbit ears with their fingers as they ran.
The well-built barn was one of the finest things about our small country school. During the day it housed the teachers’ horses, as well as those ridden by the older students, and by night it provided informal lodging for those who had to stay over due to bad weather or issues at home. It also served as a storage place, an infirmary for the sick, and a shelter during storms. I don’t know what we’d have done without our barn.
Today the scent of anxious humans mixed with the smells of hay and horses as the barn filled with children. I looked around and saw six of the other seven teachers. Where was Sakina? Had word not gotten to her? Perhaps she’d been in the outhouse.
I had to find her. Yes, I was afraid of being caught outside when the thieves arrived, but what could I do? Sakina was my closest friend. Even if she hadn’t been, I’d have felt responsible. I had been the one to sound the alarm.
I found her by the school door, hands on her hips, exasperated as she tried to get the attention of two older students too busy calling each other names to listen to her.
What? These two kids picked now to have a spat? Didn’t they realize the danger we were in?
“You!” I barked it to the girl as I stepped between the two squabblers and put my face in front of hers. “Sit down. Now.” She sat.
I turned to the other and let my eyes bore into his. “Stop talking. Walk into the barn and do not open your mouth.” He glared at me but did as he was told.
My tone softened as I turned to Sakina. “You have your hands full with these two, don’t you? Go get in the barn, and I’ll bring this other one.”
After the boy disappeared inside, I grabbed the girl by the wrist, gave her a look that said don’t say a word, and led her to the barn door. The soldier who’d apprised me of the danger waited to close it behind me. Odd, I know, but I suddenly realized what an attractive man he was. To my surprise, he gave me a nod and smile of admiration.
“Well done, teacher Coral. My name is Davor. Once we repel these brigands, perhaps you and I could share some wine.”
We spent the cold day hiding in the hay, with the children whimpering about their fear and how badly they needed the outhouse and how much they wanted food and water. I did my best to keep them calm, but as the day wore on, I thought I’d never been so scared and never would be again.
Then I wondered how I would handle it if more frightening things waited for me. If they did, I didn’t want to know. It’s easier to be brave if you don’t know what’s coming.
The brigands never attacked us. The Svadlu decided the thieves saw soldiers protecting the school and fled the realm with what they’d stolen from farms the day before. After an afternoon of hiding, they allowed us to come out. We hugged each other in relief.
Davor sent most of his soldiers back to Pilk, leaving a few to stand guard through the night.
“Do all the children return home each day?” he asked.
“Most do. A few stay over for various reasons and teachers take turns spending the night with any left behind. With winter here, more will stay. Why?”
“I wondered if perhaps you’d be spending the night?”
“Oh. So does a new husband expect you home soon?”
“I’m single, sir.” I felt the flush in my cheeks at his question. Of the seven girls in my family, I alone had been cursed with flaming hair and fair skin that turned warm and pink at the slightest embarrassment.
“I live with my parents. My family never knows whether to expect me or not, given the situation.” I tried to force the heat back out of my cheeks.
“I see.” His smile widened. “I travel with a tent befitting my station. I know it would be a tad peculiar, but under the circumstances, could a Mozdol offer a beautiful young woman…,” at this he reached out and ran his fingers through my hair “… a toast to her bravery and her assistance during a difficult situation?”
A Mozdol? This man was more than a soldier, more than an officer. I’d been flirting with an honorary prince of the realm, a fighter who’d received this high honor for his bravery in battle. Oh my.
I looked closer. He was years older than I, his skin weathered by time in the sun. He was stocky and strong, although a bit short for a man. He had a full head of gorgeous shiny black hair, though, and dark eyes that spoke of mystery. I liked him.
“Well, sir …”
We both knew an unmarried woman like me enjoyed the company of men on the eight holidays of the year, as she sought a suitable husband. However, society considered it inappropriate to bed a stranger at other times. Lovers, of course, were permitted more freedom as they planned to wed, yet that hardly described my situation with this man.
I could avoid disapproval by bidding my fellow teachers farewell, disappearing awhile, then visiting this Mozdol’s tent in secret. I could tell my family I’d stayed at the school. No one would be the wiser.
And I did have a good excuse. I’d been cheated out of my pleasure on the previous holiday. Two anks ago, my parents generously sent three of us sisters off to the great castle to a fabulous end-of-the-year ball. Saddled with seven unmarried daughters, they hoped at least one of us would find a mate while celebrating Kolada.
My mother had done her best. She packaged Ryalgar, our oldest, in a rich red gown that flattered Ryalgar’s dark hair and accentuated her ample bosom. It worked. She caught the eye of a prince from Pilk, the richest nichna in Ilari. I watched them as they danced, and I liked him. He had kind eyes, and he seemed to care for her, and she for him. She could have done far worse.
I didn’t fare as well. I landed in a fluffy pink frock that portrayed me more like a pastry than a woman. A hungry bumpkin from Gruen latched on to me and would not leave me alone. His breath stank of barley and his conversation was pitiful, yet his unwavering presence deterred all others.
In the past, I’d enjoyed the pleasures permitted on holidays as much as any of my sisters, if not more, and I’d looked forward to the joys of the night. But no amount of wine made this young man appealing enough, so before the evening ended, I sent him away, leaving us both annoyed and unsatisfied.
I figured I deserved a second chance. I’d consider a night with this Mozdol to be my own personal Kolada celebration. Surely the Goddess would understand.
Davor’s men erected his tent for him before they left. Dark came early around Kolada. By the time I deemed it safe to sneak back to his campsite, I needed the candle he handed me to see the large interior filled with furs. Their softness invited me in.
“I’m from Lev, originally,” he said as he handed me a small silver goblet. “This wine is from my own family’s vineyards.”
Could this have been more perfect?
I took a sip.
Although I enjoyed the taste of the full-bodied red wine, we didn’t waste much time drinking. He undid the leather lacings of my bodice, and I appreciated his confident touch. How different from the bumbling boys I’d bedded so far. By the time his hand ran gently up the inside of my thigh, barely touching the parts of me only a lover touched, I knew I’d made a wise choice. I’d be visiting this man’s tent as often as he wished.
I returned home the next evening, humming to myself as I rehearsed a tale of needing to stay at school unexpectedly. I figured if things went well with Davor, I’d invent a seemlier way for us to have become close. Until then, surely my little ruse caused no harm.
As I walked into the spacious stone building my family called home, I heard Ryalgar gushing to Mom about her prince and an invitation to come to Pilk to see him again. I watched the two tall, stately women as they leaned in close to each other, whispering and laughing. From the back, only the streaks of gray in mom’s long dark hair distinguished her from her oldest daughter.
I knew Mom dreamed of a prince for Ryalgar. She dreamed of one for all of us.
I decided to keep news of Davor to myself. Ryalgar, only a year older than me, deserved some time to let my family focus on her happiness. If all went well, I could gush about my own prince later.
I spent the six workdays of the next ank wishing for more thieves to attack. I’d have been happy with any kind of trouble requiring the Svadlu to ride out to our Eastern Plains to save us, but through each long day, no danger came. Then I fussed and fretted my way through the three-day ank-break, unusually eager for the workweek to start again.
The following ank, as the first storm clouds of winter hovered low with a promise of snow, a lone horseman rode up to the school accompanied by a second mount laden with camping supplies. I went outside to greet him. My room was at the front, after all, but I also recognized his glossy black hair.
“I love camping on these plains during the first snowfall of winter,” he greeted me. “But it’s far more pleasurable if one shares the tent with a beautiful woman. Could I interest you in a cozy evening together?”
I’m sure the answer yes was written all over my face.
I saw Davor several more times as the winter wore on. He always surprised me at school and brought the supplies we needed for a romantic night. After a while, I stopped worrying he wouldn’t come back. I could tell he was smitten with me, too, and I saw us having a future together.
I wanted that future, right? One with a prince as charming as the nights were long. I’d live with him in Lev, with lush grapevines growing outside my windows, and all my dreams would come true.
Why didn’t this picture make me as happy as it should have?
Shortly after we celebrated Svi, the coldest time of the year, Sakina asked me a question as we walked to the barn together, each preparing for our ride home.
“Remember the day we thought thieves were coming to attack the school?”
Of course I remembered it. My life had become so much more interesting after that day.
“I’ve been wanting to ask you something ever since.”
My heart pounded. Had she seen me sneak off to meet Davor that night? If so, had she noticed other nights as well? Had she talked to others about it? How concerned would the school be about such behavior?
“How did you ever get those two kids to stop bickering?” she said. “I deal with them all the time, and believe me, once those two get started, there is no way to shut them up. I’ve never taught two such difficult ones.”
I laughed with relief. I hadn’t thought about how I’d done it.
“I talked to them the way I talk to my own class. You know. Do it now.”
“No, I don’t know,” she said. “I could say that all day and they’d ignore me.”
I shrugged. She hesitated as if she was about to ask me an impolite question.
“Do you know what a luski is?” she said.
I did. “It’s a make-believe magic person who can force people to do things by the way she speaks. You don’t believe in them, do you?”
“It’s not make-believe. My great-aunt was a luski. It’s rare, but I know it’s real.”
“Are you serious?”
She looked completely serious.
“Wasn’t it creepy having a relative who could make you do things?”
“No, because it doesn’t work that way. It’s an emergency tactic; they can only use it when it’s important. I think you should find out more about it.”
“Why?” Then I realized why. “Oh, wolf scump. Everyone keeps telling me I’m too tenderhearted. I’m certainly no luski.”
“You don’t get it,” she said. “Luskies aren’t monsters; they can be nice people, too. You should ask the Velka at one of their market stalls. I’ve heard they know all about luskies, and can tell if you are one.”
“You think I should talk to the Velka?” Frankly, I found these women of the forest, the keepers of most of the magic in our realm, scary in their own right. I’d only spoken a few words with them and I didn’t wish to ask a Velka if I was some kind of freak.
“No thanks. I’ve got enough problems right now.”
And I did. I had all the problems I knew of, and a few more I hadn’t discovered yet.