Life with two complete strangers was not going to be as strange as Teraania thought it might be. For one, she got on with Mella rather well.
After they'd paused to do a little planning (Well, Teraania did some planning, Mella stared and asked a few questions) the two of them finished cleaning out the ruin of the stables. The structure went from looking like a trash-filled skeleton to being a bare stone foundation with a bit of back wall silhouetted against the forest. There was very little that was salvageable amongst all the rubbish, just a couple of shovel-blades, a pitchfork and a hoof-pick. The dirt and grunge they carted into the forest for compost. The rest made an impressive stack out by the head of the driveway.
"Bonfire," said Mella wisely, looking at it. Teraania leant against the collapsible wheelbarrow she'd created with a spell, nodded and wiped her forehead with her sleeve. It came away gritty. The breeze dislodged some leaves in the pile and they fluttered lazily toward the house.
"Just think how big it'll be when you add all the rubbish in the house to it," she said, and Mella laughed. "Come over to the creek," Teraania said. "I'm thirsty, and I think my face is covered in dust."
Mella wiped a thumb across her dark-skinned cheek and rubbed the ball of her thumb against her fingers. "Oh, yes," she said, making a face.
The water was icy. Teraania watched some minnows race over the stones and wondered idly about fish in the lake. She led Mella over to look at her spell-made hut; Mella regarded it with interest, cocking her head and running her fingers across the seams where the wood was joined without nail or glue.
There was a short silence when they got back to the slab of a table filling the middle of the yard, during which Mella eyed Teraania hopefully. "Lunch?" she suggested.
Teraania let a smile quirk the corner of her mouth. It was about noon, she admitted to herself. "I'll get something," she said. "Get your brothers over, if you want."
Mella nodded and bounded across the yard to the house. Teraania watched her, a little bemused, before nipping back to the hut for some bread and cheese and things.
Teraania approached the table, arms full of food, and saw the three siblings leave the house. She tried hard not to be too self-conscious in front them, especially Mella's brothers, who hulked comparatively large beside their sister.
"Sandwiches!" Mella announced perhaps a little too brightly as the four of them clustered around the table in the yard. Teraania sniggered quietly at this, scattering food along the table as she dumped her armload.
Mella looked sheepish. Javar elbowed her, his face twisted in a youthful smirk, and even dour-faced Demer smiled. Mella huffed and wiped her damp hands on her shirt before unwrapping some cheese, but a small smile played around the corners of her mouth.
They sat around the table and made sandwiches quite companionably. Teraania wondered how socially inept she'd be if she didn't have the benefit of gentility ground into her by her family and offered round some pickled onions.
"Demer, won't you stay a couple of days?" Mella cajoled after the three of them had inhaled their sandwiches. Teraania had barely started her second, and as her mouth was full she couldn't speak without spraying the table with crumbs, so she nodded encouragingly instead.
Demer gave her an uncertain look. "I should really be leaving today," he said.
"Oh, go on, Demer, stay a bit. We've been walking for weeks. Take a rest," Javar said.
Demer paused and looked up at the house.
"I'll stay until tomorrow," he said.
After they had cleaned up the table and swept the crumbs off for the birds, Mella asked whether they would do anything else today. Teraania could see that she really wanted to help; more, that she really wanted to prove that she was a help.
"You two have been cleaning out the house, haven't you?" she asked Demer and Javar. They nodded in tandem. "You can borrow the wheelbarrow, if you'd like to do more," she said. "You can put the burnable stuff on the bonfire-pile and the non-burnable on the compost pile."
"What are we going to do?" Mella asked.
Teraania smiled slowly. "We'll start on the stables," she said. "We should have the framework done by tomorrow."
Mella looked at the incredulous expressions on her brother's faces and forbore asking how they'd manage that in favour of nodding and smirking.
After they had laid out the largest beams (during which Teraania introduced Mella to the saw-spell, to size the timbers), Mella broached the subject Teraania had been waiting for since yesterday.
"You know – who we are, right?" Mella said.
It was obvious that it had gotten around the three of them that she had worked out who they were. "You're the Peleias."
Teraania couldn't stop the smile from creeping across her face and twisting her lips, though she did manage to strangle the laugh before it made it halfway up her throat.
"I've heard the story," she said. "And I must say that the Duke of Craw is an idiot."
Mella laughed wryly, and a little weakly. "Yes, he is," she agreed. "But the trouble we're in isn't all down to him." She sighed and ran her hand through her hair and hesitated, then blurted, "The government outlawed us because the whole practical joke really was a failed coup."
Teraania blinked, astonished.
"It wasn't meant to be much of a coup. Demer had the idea for the joke and, well, the long and short of it is he was connected to a group of real rebels. Who helped him out when he was arrested. So now he's, well, indebted to them."
"Sounds like one of those tremendously long stories," remarked Teraania, but her mind was filling in the blanks. "That must have been an awful lot of misunderstanding – and on so many sides," she said, almost in wonder.
"You see," said Mella wryly. "But the nobility doesn't. Or they don't trust people."
"Nobility looks down and sees only ignobility," Teraania quoted the adage, her expression pained.
Mella gave a small ha. "So, you see, we're damned if we do, and damned if we don't." she paused. "Look, we're being hunted for in a lot of places," she said. "Not here, not yet – it's why we've come here before; that and the rebels have no presence here, but Demer always has to go back to them. They don't trust him." She gave Teraania a very small look. "So I'll understand – we all will – if you want us to, you know, find somewhere else to stay."
Teraania waved this off. "What does Demer actually do with the rebels?" she asked.
"Next to nothing," Mella said with a sigh. "He's a figurehead to them, to be honest. He says they're a bit of a joke, mostly talk, and he's always pushing for them not to do anything illegal – it's one of the reasons the security side of them don't trust him."
Teraania shook her head. "You're free to stay," she said. "All of you."
"But if the government – if they start searching here –" Mella's hair bounced around her face as her head bounced on her neck. "We don't want to impose."
"I'm not particularly fussed by that," said Teraania slowly. "Demer hasn't done anything. If what you say is true, Demer was more or less kidnapped by the rebels, and by the time he was in any position to try to explain himself to the law, it would have been a death sentence to turn himself in. If the government wanted to come up against me by association with you, they'd have to come up against my family, and my family –" She paused, feeling embarrassed. "They're fairly influential," she said. "And they'd react pretty badly to any dirt on the family name."
Mella looked at her sideways. Teraania ducked her head.
"But the rebels –" Mella said.
"Their influence doesn't spread much to the area around the Del, you said it yourself," said Teraania firmly. "And – well – they'd be pretty stupid to come up against a magician on their own ground." She cleared her throat, abashed by her own bravado. "You three need someone on your side," she said, "and it's no skin off my nose if it's me. I need a break from my career."
Mella nodded, managing somehow to look relieved, grateful and downcast at the same time.
They finished laying the skeleton of the stables in relative silence, pausing only to laugh at whatever ludicrous item Javar or Demer were carting out of the house.
They finished at about midafternoon; some high clouds scuddled across the sun and the wind picked up as they tidied away after their efforts. The end result was a great maze of timber laid out around the foundation.
"Let's call it a day," said Teraania.
After Mella had gone off with her brothers for a walk up the lakeshore, she went back to her hut to do a bit of spellplanning.
The next day Mella was up a few hours after sunrise again, and she looked rather grumpy about it. She surveyed the gorgeous morning with a look on her face that wasn't much short of mutiny.
"I hate mornings," she said.
Teraania's lips twitched, but she refrained from making a crack about it.
They laid out the timber for a corral next to the stables fairly quickly. Mella, Teraania noticed, was getting more and more adept with the spells they were using.
"You shouldn't find this next bit too hard," Teraania told her new houseguest after they'd laid the last length of wood. She pulled out some spell-makings and handed Mella a spool of reddish-black thread.
"What are we doing?" asked Mella.
"We're going to lay a spell," said Teraania.
With Mella's help, Teraania managed to lay the groundwork for a spell complex enough for her to be able to cast it herself. Mella had been a bit boggled by her recitation on how she couldn't focus her magic downward but could only do large and complex things.
"It's my fondest wish to know why," Teraania said absently, twisting a green ribbon and looping it over a nail she had hammered partway into a support. "But no one understands everything about magic. It's just one of those things."
Teraania did the little fiddly focusses and the sub-spells with practiced ease while Mella went round with a box of nails and a hammer and the spool of thread, knitting the corral together. She got the hang of the tension required and angle between the threads quite quickly.
"You're very good at this," Teraania commented.
"If this goes on, you'll have to qualify me," Mella said.
"I probably could teach you enough to get you tested as a basic spellmaker, if you want, though there's a lot of boring theory involved," Teraania said, to which Mella looked thoughtful.
It was a little past noon by the time they were done. Teraania told Mella that she would need to be a little way away, especially with the little bit of sensitivity lingering in her blood.
"I'll tell the boys," Mella said excitedly.
"I'll start," said Teraania. Mella looked anxious. "Don't worry, the invocations alone will take five minutes. And I think that's them now."
Mella went to drag them off the porch. Teraania smiled to herself as she paced off a circle around her spellwork and marked the four major compass points. She put her focuses down at their proper points and connected them to the framework with beaded orange ribbon.
Now for the casting.
Teraania started at the north and walked three times deosil around the stables and corral. She paused at the north point and chanted five ritual phrases of binding. Mella was looking on, fascination playing across her face. Javar was wide-eyed. One of Demer's eyebrows was quirked.
Teraania then turned and walked widdershins. At the west point, she paused and chanted again. At the end of the invocation she stamped her right foot once. Dust puffed; the mild breeze toyed with it a moment before blowing it towards the lake. She continued on to the south point. Chanted again. Stamped again.
She made two full circles widdershins, pausing at every quarter. When she got to the north point again, she leant down and strummed the little tangle of strings that was the heart of the spell. It was nearly ready. She could feel each line of the spell echoing back to her. She stamped her left foot once, and shouted out a strengthening spell. The spell-model soaked it up.
She turned to walk deosil. She wedged a scroll into the east focus, and continued to the south to lay its scroll. Then she turned and went back to north and laid the scroll there, and went to the west.
She laid a stone there instead of a scroll.
She glanced at her guests. They were looking befuddled. She stamped twice. Then she went to south and stamped once. To east, and four stamps. Then to north, and three stamps.
At the final stamp, every timber that was part of the spell leapt to attention. There was a large, concerted Ploing! as all the threads between all the nails were snapped, and a Screek! of nails sliding, unhammered, into wood.
The dust settled, and there was a corral and the outline of a stable.
Teraania walked over to her spectators, who were gaping, grinning and smiling slightly, variously. "Time for lunch," she said cheerfully.
Lunch was, again, a rather communal affair taken at the dining table still set in the middle of the yard, though it was also quiet affair, for Demer left soon after it. His eyes lingered on Teraania as though he wanted to corner her somewhere and thank her profusely for 'looking after' his siblings. She was intensely relieved when he nodded at her as he was shouldering his rucksack instead before waving at his brother and sister and turning to set off up the shore of the lake.
Several things occurred to Teraania, rather belatedly.
"Wait," she called. He turned, his eyebrows raised. She beckoned him over to the corral. He came over cautiously. She stopped near to the spot she had tied the garrom.
"Can you ride?" she asked.
"A bit," he said cautiously.
"Do you want to take the garrom?"
He opened his mouth, looking bemused and a little alarmed, but nothing came out.
"It's nothing to worry about," she assured him. "You don't have to feed it or anything, and when the spell runs out you can use it for firewood."
"I shouldn't – it must be worth –"
"The spell would've been worth," she said. "It's not worth much now it's used. Do you want it?"
"It does look pretty docile," he said dubiously. "How long will the spell last?"
"I don't know," she admitted. "It could last only a couple more hours or it could last for months. I didn't make the spell."
"Could – er, could it be traced back to you?" He screwed up his mouth as though the question left a bad taste in it.
She regarded him for a moment. She had to admit she hadn't realised bad things were for the Peleias until Mella had explained it, and it made her rather irritated with the nobility, considering none of them had actually done anything illegal – at least up till their outlawing. "Probably it could be tracked back to me," she said. "Animation spells are pretty rare. But I get the feeling you won't be travelling by road, anyway, so you shouldn't be seen with it."
He eyed it speculatively.
"If you really need to get rid of it – oh, hell," she said, and began rummaging in the spell-sack tied to her belt.
She pulled another bag out of a pocket and gave it to him. "Hold it open," she said. She pulled a spell out of the sack and unwrapped its little cover.
"A firelighter," she said. "It's good for about twenty uses. Pull this bit here – " she showed him the little vellum tab – "and a little flame comes out here. When all the green strings are gone, it's used up. I'll give you a couple."
He opened his mouth to protest, but she waved him off, dropping the little spells into the bag in his hands and fishing out another.
"A drying spell," she said, a little fiercely. She watched it dawn on him that she wanted to help him. He nodded meekly. She saw Mella, off to one side, rub her hand across her mouth to hide an involuntary smile.
She gave him several drying-spells, a compass-spell and a map-spell and a couple of trap-spells for catching rabbits and things in the middle of nowhere, along with brief instructions on how to use each one. Finally she pulled out the kindling-spell.
"This is one-use," she told him, holding up the little ball. "Crush it against the garrom and it will turn it into kindling. It doesn't work on people or animals or on especially green wood. Or on rocks. Just on wood." She paused. "There might be a little flash if you use it on the garrom while there's still some life left in the animation," she said. She thought hard about any other spells she could give him and rummaged again in the sack of spells.
She found what she was looking for and held it up. "A freeze-spell," she said. "Works on spelled things only. Use it on the garrom and you're guaranteed it won't wander off. It's used up when the red thread breaks – should be good for about fifty uses." She pointed out the red thread to him. "Pull this tab here to set the freeze and this one to lift it.
"And you can sell some of these spells if you're strapped for cash," she added. Demer looked at her, his eyes dark, and nodded. She ducked her head, abruptly feeling foolish, and went to untie the rope serving as the garrom's reins.
"You're welcome back here," she said, leading it over and holding out the reins. "Even if they do outlaw you."
"Thank you," he said. He took the reins, then seized her hand and shook it. Odd custom, she thought bemusedly, then realised he must be feeling as foolish as she was. She ducked he head again as he loaded his pack onto the back of the garrom. He managed to mount without too much awkwardness, and he turned the garrom's head towards the lake.
He nodded to her, cocked a hand in an almost-wave to his siblings and clucked to the garrom. Teraania stuffed her hands into her pockets and stood with her new houseguests, watching him amble away up the shoreline.
"That was decent of you," said Mella. Javar, hovering behind her, nodded silently.
"None of you deserve what's happened to you," Teraania said.
Mella bit her lip and ducked her head.
"Thanks," said Javar subduedly.
Teraania smiled as compassionately as she could and led the way back to the ruined house.