Surrounded by his retinue, the young lordling sulked as his steed made its steady progress toward Dorby. He knew why his father wanted his involvement in overseeing the stewardship of their lands, but it didn’t mean he wouldn’t rather be practicing his swordplay, or running in the woods, searching for game. Trips like this one meant having to speak properly, and having to listen to Rogers, his father’s Steward, have boring conversations with the villagers about numbers and statistics. Longingly, he thought of his new bow and arrow, waiting for him at home, begging him to test it out.
“Lord Albin, up ahead.”
Called out of his stupor, the young lordling studied the road ahead and saw a commotion. Dorby was near, and the village main seemed uncommonly crowded. Curious, the young lordling bid his men pick up the pace.
They weren’t but a mile out when a desperate figure ran towards them, stopping in the middle of the road and holding her ground despite the danger of their galloping horses drawing near. Before the lordling could call his men to a halt, Mackaby did it for him.
“Pull up!” he shouted, giving the signal with his hand.
As soon as the lordling had managed to stop his steed, the woman ran up to him. Never did he think he’d forget the sight of her disheveled state, rendering itself all the more poignant for the terrified and pleading expression of her face.
“My Lord!” she cried.
Immediately, his men tightened their circle around him, drawing their swords.
“Stay,” he said to them. He was in no danger from this woman.
The noise of the crowd in the commonplace was at such a pitch as to be utterly distracting. All he could see was a solid wall of bodies pressing in upon each other.
“What is going on here?” he asked the woman who had prostrated herself on the ground before him, heaving on unshed tears.
“My daughter, my lord! They will kill her!”
The woman lifted her face, a wretched twist to her mouth. “My daughter has magic. The villagers won’t stand for it. Even now, they are taking her to be drowned.”
Surprised, the lordling shared a long glance with Mackaby. A girl with magic.
Suppressing a wild noise of grief, she said, “I cannot save her. I cannot. I tried. I tried!”
“Woman,” the lordling said in a commanding tone. “Your name?”
“Yula, we will not let this happen. Your daughter will not die this day.”
He nodded to her in final dismissal, and signaling his men, galloped into the commonplace.
The threat of being trod underfoot did much to disperse the press of people, and eventually, as reason dawned upon the minds of the villagers enough for them to recognize who rode in their midst, their voices quieted, and the raucous noise ended.
From his vantage point, the lordling could see a throng of men holding some thrashing thing down in the well. Shouting, he rode towards them, but Mackaby beat him there. Using the hilt of his sword, he knocked their heads about with great efficiency. Another of his men, Johl, quickly joined him, leaving his horse to throw some punches and rescue the wet thing they’d been determinedly drowning.
Johl deposited her, the wet thing, Yula’s daughter, before him, then took his post beside Mackaby. They kept a threatening eye on the crowd, ready for anything.
The lordling watched as Yula’s daughter coughed and sputtered. Her hair was a dark, matted, stringy mass around her head. When she had gained some equilibrium she lifted her head, body shivering. Her gray eyes seemed to take him with a mix of hope and fear.
“Can you stand?” he said.
Wordlessly, she got to her feet.
“What is your name?”
Lifting her chin, she said, “Evadna.”
“What are you accused of, Evadna?”
She was silent a moment, but squared her shoulders and said, “Magic.”
“Magic,” he repeated. Looking around at the crowd of villagers, he raised his voice. “Magic is not a crime. Nor is it punishable by death. Unless, Evadna, you used magic to harm. Did you?”
The lordling looked at her measuringly. He seriously doubted she had been using magic with ill intent.
Mackaby saw his nod and addressed the villagers. “Who are her accusers? Step forward.”
But no one would admit to it. Only silence met him. Most of the people avoided his eyes, only a few meeting his searching glance.
“If no one will accuse her, then she is not guilty of any crime.” Mackaby rode up to Evadna who shied away slightly. “I apologize for your mistreatment this day. This should never have happened.”
“Evadna,” the lordling interjected. “You may have sanctuary at my father’s house. We have need of a magic-user. You would honor our house with your presence.”
Bewildered, Evadna gazed about her, taking in the villagers, the lordling, his attendants. “You aren’t afraid of me?”
“No, I’m not. Neither are my men. We have honor and respect for all who have magic, as is the old way of this land.”
“Could I practice my magic at your father’s house?”
“We would encourage it.”
Evadna gave him a hard stare before nodding her agreement. “I’ll come.”
“Good. Mackaby, take her up. We’ll resume our business here another day.”
Before Evadna knew it, a pair of strong hands pulled her up and she found herself sitting on a horse, her back pressed up against a hard, armored chest. With a few more commands issued from the lordling’s mouth, their party took off and they were galloping away. Evadna tried to find her mother among the faces of those they passed, but she did not see her. Shutting her eyes tight, she tried to forget about the fact that she might never see her mother again. The important thing she had to remember was that she was alive and that she was going to live in a place where she and her magic would be safe.