The marketplace was crowded and noisy. The bustle of everyone taking advantage of their free Monday filled the streets with shoppers who stopped at what seemed to be every stall and slowly made their way on.

In short, it made for very slow travel.

Plum sighed heavily. Normally, Monday mornings were peaceful, quite mornings. This, however, was worse than a Saturday afternoon.

All I wanted was to get some dried lemon peal for my scones, she thought mournfully as she tried to shove her way through a couple women dillydallying in the middle of the street. I should have remembered about King Marcus day.

The holiday had established over three hundred years ago after King Marcus III sacrificed himself to save an entire village of Eredia. Every year on the thirty-first day of summer, towns, cities and villages held a celebration of the great king's brave last act. Most people had a day off from their jobs, and in the evening there was a great feast and dance.

The dance was fun every year and the food was always delicious, everyone's 'best for the great holiday. It was a day of joy and new beginnings. Every year at least one marriage proposal was accepted at each village dance.

Not that I'll be going, Plum thought bitterly.

She reached the stall she was headed for. An elderly woman minded the produce while her muscular son stood nearby looking impressive. He was meant to scare off thieves, but Plum knew better. If you were to look into Reginald's eyes, you'd see the feeble mind behind their hazel depths.

Reggie's mother Saralee spotted Plum first. Her eyes widened in delighted surprise.

"And how's my little Sugarplum today?" she asked.

"Not so little anymore, Grandmama," Plum replied, giving her grandmother a kiss on the cheek. "Morning, Reggie."

Reggie's face broke into a wide smile at the sight of his niece. "Good morning, Plum." He returned her kiss lightly.

"To what do we owe the pleasure, Sweet?" Saralee asked. She was a plump woman, with a ruddy face and dark, wavy hair. Her blue eyes showed wrinkles from laughter more than anger or stress. Plum looked nothing like her.

"I'm making plum scones. I forgot it was King Marcus day. It took me forever to get here. Maybe I'll take the alleys back."

Her grandmother's ruddy face paled. "Don't you dare! You've heard what's been going on! I don't want to hear such talk from you."

Plum sighed. "It was just an idea," she muttered.

Lately there had been strange rumors of a powerful wizard in town. Or witch. Girls kept turning up raped and murdered in Armanda's alleys. But they had been killed in such strange ways, people had begun to talk magic.

The first girl, a maid in the noble's household nearby, looked as though she'd been strangled. Her neck had snapped and her wind pipe crushed, yet there was no bruise or burn around her neck indicating the use of rope or string.

The second girl had fallen a great distance, more than five house heights. Yet she had been found in a field, where there was no access to such a height. People investigating the death said that the body hadn't been moved from where it died.

The third girl was someone Plum actually knew. Her name was Elizabeth and she had been Plum's best friend when they were six. Things had changed between them but Plum still cared deeply for her old friend, and her death struck a cold blow to her already wounded heart.

Of the three, Elizabeth's had been the most gruesome death. Her body had been found stuck in a small bucket, bent awkwardly as if she had turned rubber. Authorities hadn't been able to figure out how her killer had managed to get her that way until they attempted to remove her from the bucket.

She had no bones.

In fact, she'd had no muscle, organs, or any other body part either. The thing they had found in the bucket was nothing more than skin.

The most horrible part of all, though, was that there were no incisions or scrapes or anything to show how all the parts had been removed. It was if they had just vanished. Plum had seen the body—what was left of it—on accident and had thrown up repeatedly afterward. Her dreams were plagued with the boneless corpse for the next two weeks. She did not want to end up like Poor Elizabeth.

"I won't walk in the alleys," Plum promised her grandmother.

Saralee sighed in obvious relief and changed the subject.

"Did you hear the good news? The war's over! Our knights can come home."

For two years, Eredia had been at war with its neighbor, Jimada. Though relatively short, the battles had been many and full of bloodshed. No town, including peaceful Armanda, had gone unaffected.

"This means that the young lord will be coming home as well, if he isn't already here," Plum's grandmother continued. "Lady Deniver will be pleased to have her son home at last."

Plum nodded absently as she scooped lemon peel into a tiny bag. Her grandmother might devote herself to the town gossip, but frankly Plum didn't waste time thinking about the goings-on of others. Especially the nobles.

"Grandmama," Plum interrupted before Saralee could get carried away. "I need to get going. How much for the lemon peel?"

"Oh, dear, you know you don't have to pay for something like that. Just bring me one of your scones! The gods know you make the best scones in the country."

Plum smiled at the compliment and swiftly kissed her grandmother and uncle goodbye, then took her leave.

She attempted to make her way back through the crowded streets. She walked in the middle of the street, where the pace was a little faster than the sides.

I need to weed, she thought a little absentmindedly. The corn and peas are starting to look like they need it. And the strawberries need to be watered again if I want any for next year.

On the right side of the street was a stall selling seeds and starter plants. Plum made her way over. She knew she shouldn't have, but the grape vines she saw were irresistibly tempting. She wanted to see bout starting her own arbor.

"How much for the grape vines?" she asked, keeping her eyes cast down.

She needn't have bothered. The seller recognized her anyway. "We don't sell to your kind, witch."

Hurt, angry, Plum met the woman's angry gaze. Her eyes were furious, but behind the anger, Plum saw real fear.

Everyone around the stall grew quiet to see what the village witch would do, afraid of a scene. Their worries were irrelevant though. Plum silently walked away from the crowd.

Less people took notice of her the further she got from the plant seller's stall, but she was still tense and angry.

It had been a mistake to talk to one of the villagers. Their distrust for anything or anyone strange caused them to be prejudiced and sometimes just plain mean.

The crowd was getting thinner. She had made her way through the market at last and was now headed on the road that lead to the rest of the village where people bought homes. She was so wrapped up in her thoughts, however, that she didn't see the man until she bumped into him.

"Oh, I'm sorry!" he exclaimed when Plum dropped her bag. "I wasn't watching where I was going. Sorry."

Plum looked up from where she crouched. The man must have been new to Armanda, or else he would have run at the sight of her eyes.

"The fault is mine, sir," she said quietly.

The man looked to be her own age, or a little older. He opened his mouth to say something, but she curtsied the tiniest bit and walked away. She didn't feel very conversational at the moment.

Her little cottage lay off the main road a while, through a little copse of trees. She followed the beaten path to her home and entered the house with a sigh.

It's not as if I eat babies, she thought. I just grow a garden. Dangerous train of thought. She quickly turned away from it.

She hung up her coat and bag and pulled out her lemon peal. She poured a tiny measure into the scone batter already waiting and stirred it in. Her scones were ready for baking.

Plum sighed, looking at the mixture. She was not in the mood for baking at the moment. She'd put them in the oven later. Right now, she was going to garden.

She dressed in an old pair of men's breeches and a loose shirt, pulled her long hair up out of her face, and headed out her back door.

The view from her yard was beautiful. Off to the left was the Harpford manor, home to the Lady Deniver and now, according to Grandmama, Lord James Harpford as well. To the right was the village. Straight ahead was a huge expanse of field belonging to the Harpfords. Horses ran free in the fields. The only thing keeping them from Plum's garden was a low wooden fence.

She sometimes sat on the fence to watch the sun rise, or just to see the view. Beyond the horses there was a forest, and beyond that, the mountains. It was the most beautiful view in the village, except for maybe the manor.

She grabbed her garden tools, knelt in her garden and breathed in the smells of growing things. Smiling, and finally relaxing, she got to work.