She woke with hazy, glittering fragments of music and laughter buzzing around in her head like angry bees.
An icy drip of water splashed on her neck, and Rin was suddenly aware again of the tree bark digging into her skin, and the bitter cold of the ground beneath her. She was quite alone.
"Dammit," she swore loudly, scowling as the rain became heavier, battering through the canopy of leaves above. She pressed herself more firmly against the tree trunk and spent the remainder of the night in a bitter struggle for sleep.
Dawn arrived in a wash of flat color, looking as tired as Rin felt. It was time to move on. She sat up reluctantly, aching all over and trying to clear her mind of the foggy remnants of half-remembered dreams. With a sigh, she wiped her face on the soggy cloth of her outer cloak. It didn't do anything toward removing weeks of sweat and grime, but going through the motions of washing was somehow comforting.
Unfortunately, her face now smelled unpleasantly of wet wool. "Baths. Clean clothes. Regular meals." She rolled her eyes as she hauled herself upright and located her walking stick, which she had apparently been sleeping on for half the night. This accounted for her stiffness, at least. "And I had to whine about how boring my life was. I had to complain about monotony." She punctuated her words with a savage wave of her walking stick, which only dislodged more water from the sodden shrubbery. "And now when I get back, the mother will spend weeks reminding me to be grateful for what I have, to appreciate the comforts of life." Thwack, thwack. She plowed through the undergrowth in the direction of the main road. "Comforts that it is a privilege to enjoy." Thwack. "No more boring monotony for me. No, I daresay I'll be properly grateful by the time I get back. If I ever get back."
It was a good quarter of an hour later when Rin paused abruptly in her ramblings. She should have been on the road by now, instead of still deep within a tangle of trees. She stopped where she stood, straining her eyes in an effort to see through the suffocating canopy of green. The road was not there. Rin closed her eyes against a wave of uneasiness. It didn't help, she grumbled to the impassive trees, that she was hungry. Food was apparently another little privilege she'd never properly appreciated. She had not thought to carry anything with her – if the road had not obnoxiously insisted on moving sometime during the night, she would have come to a way-house by mid-morning and eaten there.
Stay calm, she told herself. It was possible she'd become disoriented during the night, and had simply set out in the wrong direction. It would be easy to get confused in the dim light of the forest. If she had gone in the wrong direction, then she would just backtrack and start out again in the right direction.
It was a good plan in theory. When Rin tried to put it into action though, she realized she wasn't even sure anymore which way she'd come. She was well and truly lost in the middle of an unfamiliar forest.
Her first impulse was to scream wildly and go tearing off into the brush, not stopping until she came to civilization, any civilization, anything other than endless dripping trees. Instead, she chose the direction in which she thought the road should have been, and kept walking.
By mid-morning, she had to admit that she'd chosen the wrong direction. She kept walking anyway, unwilling and unable to backtrack.
By mid-afternoon, it was hard to focus on anything except the hollow ache in her stomach. It was all very well, Rin thought sourly, for poets to warble about the bounty of the land, but it was the wrong season for berries, she lacked the skill to kill the one scrawny rabbit she'd seen, and she was fairly certain that if she started climbing trees looking for bird eggs, she'd only get another face full of rainwater.
By late afternoon, she started to believe she'd simply settle for a fire. Unfortunately, soaking wet green wood did not burn well at all, especially not when it was Rin trying to start the fire. The air was humid and unpleasantly sticky against her skin, and she began to dream longingly of a bath.
Night fell quickly, the overcast sky making it seem later and darker than it was, and Rin resigned herself to spending another cold, wet night in the woods. The best she could hope for was to find a relatively dry cranny to huddle into – preferably one unoccupied by anything large and hairy.
It was in the last few moments of uncertain twilight that she spotted the smoke. It rose in lazy curls above the tree-tops, beckoning sweetly. For a minute, Rin was sure her eyes were playing a cruel trick But as twilight deepened into true night, the column of smoke only became more visible. Rin headed toward it in as straight a line as she could manage, hope welling painfully within her. It was possible the owner of the fire would not welcome a strange woman wandering out of the depths of the woods, but Rin found she didn't really care. A fire meant warmth and light, and possibly food, three things that Rin very much wanted.
She almost lost track of the smoke several times, but she stubbornly kept walking. She was so hungry and tired that she almost didn't notice when her feet carried her abruptly out of the trees.
Rin blinked stupidly. She was at the edge of a clearing. A very large clearing. Really, it looked to be about several acres of rolling field. And smack in the center of those rolling fields stood the black bulk of a large house. Even in the dim light, the stones of the wall facing her looked worn and uncared for. Yet from the chimneystacks of that house rose the thin wisps of smoke that she had been intrepidly following for the past several hours.
It was all very peculiar, and tired and hungry though she was, Rin hesitated just a moment. All sorts of dreadful things could be in that house.
She stood a moment longer at the edge of the clearing, then grunted, annoyed with herself. Nothing could be much worse than a cold night in the woods. Hefting her walking stick in one hand, she picked her way across the uneven ground. There was a dim light spilling from one of the upper windows, and it provided just enough illumination for Rin to avoid slipping on the slick grass.
She walked around the side of the building and gingerly climbed the steps to the front door. It was massive, showing none of the signs of wear that she had noticed on the exterior of the house. Rin grabbed the heavy knocker and pounded twice, then waited. A long moment passed, and she began to think that she would have to spend the night in the woods after all. No one seemed to be stirring within the house.
The door swung open so suddenly that Rin nearly jumped out of her skin. She looked... down. Down into the face of a young girl who couldn't have been any older than eleven. The girl stared solemnly up at Rin, her nightgown billowing in the draft from the open door, her blond pigtails plaited neatly on either side of her head. Rin simply stared for a moment, speechless. She had been prepared for brigands and cutthroats, but not little girls in nightgowns. Behind the girl, Rin could see into a bare hall that stretched off to some other portion of the house.
"You seek shelter?" the child asked then, breaking the silence. She looked at Rin with huge, wondering eyes.
"I... yes. I am," Rin told the girl firmly, squelching all the questions clamoring to be asked. "I lost my way in the woods. Is there any way I could shelter here for the night? I'm afraid I haven't any money, but anything else I can do..."
"The woods are dangerous," the girl agreed. "Come into the hall. I will ask Ascerius if you may stay." She stood back and beckoned Rin to follow her into the house.
The front hall was chilly and empty, the worn flagstones seeming to suck warmth out of the air, but the child led Rin across the hall to another door, which opened on to a room with a roaring fire. "Stay here," she commanded. Rin nodded, and moved to warm her chilled fingers. The child disappeared back into the hall and out of sight.
As Rin stood waiting for the girl to return, she looked curiously around the room. It looked like it had once been a parlor, but it was now empty except for the fireplace and a rickety- ooking chair. Rin eyed the chair a little dubiously, and finally dropped into a crouch on the hearth instead. She almost drowsed off as she waited for the verdict to arrive on whether she would be allowed to stay. The heat of the fire felt wonderful on her sore bones, and almost made her forget she was still ravenously hungry.
The door finally creaked open again, and Rin looked up. The little girl in the nightgown came in again, quite alone. She nodded as Rin looked up. "Ascerius says that you may stay at least until morning," she announced. "He said you could sleep in the guest room. He also said to tell you there was bread and butter in the kitchen, since you would probably be hungry. Shall I show you to the kitchen?"
"Who is Ascerius" Rin asked, her curiosity momentarily overcoming her hunger.
The little girl bit her lip. "Ascerius is in charge," she explained. "The kitchen is over this way." This last was said over her shoulder as she left, leaving Rin to jump up and hastily follow after.
Rin was silent as she followed the bouncing pigtails of her guide down the hall to the back of the house.
The rear of the house seemed as cold and empty as the front hall, and Rin found it difficult to imagine anyone being able to bear the emptiness for long. "Do you live here?" she finally asked, as the girl ushered her into a cavernous stone room lit only by a dying fire. The girl nodded.
"Me and all the others. And Ascerius," she added.
"What is your name?" Rin asked curiously.
"Marguerite. There's bread and butter on the table." Marguerite waved a hand into the shadows and Rin moved cautiously forward, not wanting to bash her shins on any unseen furniture.
"Marguerite," she repeated absently, "that's a pretty name." Marguerite smiled shyly as Rin groped around and found the table. To one side, she located a half a loaf wrapped up in a napkin and a generous pat of butter in a dish beside it. She needed no second urging to start eating.
Marguerite watched her silently as she tore into the bread. "Won't Ascerius be angry with you for being up so late, and in your nightgown?" Rin finally asked when her mouth wasn't quite so full.
Marguerite seemed to consider this for a moment, and then shook her head. "Ascerius won't be mad."
Rin nodded absently as she chewed. She found that she was becoming exceedingly curious about Ascerius. "I am to meet Ascerius tomorrow?" she asked.
Marguerite nodded. "He said he wanted to see you before you left."
The room was in almost-total darkness by the time Rin finished her makeshift supper. Marguerite led her back out into the cold, drafty corridors and up a wide flight of steps. Either she had eyes like a cat, or she moved with the ease of one long familiar with her surroundings, for Rin couldn't see a thing in the darkness. She had several painful run-ins with the bannister and the treads as she tried to follow Marguerite up.
The room the girl finally led her to was chilly and musty, and Rin guessed it hadn't been used in a long while. But it did have a bed, and she was stretched out atop it and asleep almost immediately.
A/N – reviews of any kind are most welcomed. Tell me what you think.