The liveliest thing about the village was its smell. Jenni noticed it as soon as she passed out from under the trees: an unsavory musk of pigs, woodsmoke, and a cacophony of odors that were purely human all carried down the road to her. She paused and made herself focus on them, separating and categorizing. She had smelled worse things during her apprenticeship, but never with the complexity or the sheer bigness of this.
Once she got used to the idea, she followed the road between the rich, damp fields of earth, lately planted and not yet sprouting. She looked for pigs, but they were too far away or hidden by the village. The human smells took over and rough brown buildings replaced the neat furrows of the fields. It was easy to find the inn. There were only a few large structures among the cluster of houses, and the inn was the second-largest next to the church. Even that wasn't at all impressive. The two probably competed for business. It all depended on which Powers one chose to worship.
The stable was annexed to the inn, and Jenni slipped as quickly as she dared across the muddy yard and through the doors. She hadn't seen anyone, but it was still a relief to get out of the open and into the welcoming thick of the stable. It was dark, dusty, and full of horse and straw. She loved it. Horses were often better people than people, and barn cats always had the best character. No lantern eyes marked her, but a few equine heads pushed out to see who was visiting. Some were fine, some not so fine, but all were friendly.
Jenni realized she had been cringing with her back against the closed doors. She made herself stand up and folded her arms across her belly. There was no reason to slouch about like a robber. It wasn't as though she was doing anything wrong, even if she didn't belong here. Evarel's things didn't, either. She would get them and leave and everything would be fine.
She walked along the row of stalls, going on tip-toe to glance into each one. A black horse whickered at her as she came near. Jenni turned to look. Not the most elegant profile, she thought, but there was something very likeable in the black's expression. Jenni approached and was received with a nudge to her arm. She gave in and scratched under the beast's forelock while it whuffled at her shirt, taking in her scent. She smiled.
"Well? I don't imagine I smell very good. I've been sleeping on the ground in my clothes for days, and there's probably blood on me."
The horse's only response was to blink its great, liquid eyes at her, as if to say, "yes? And?" The silly creature was probably just looking for treats. With a final pat, Jenni stopped petting and looked into the stall.
Well, of course, it would be.
"So," she said to the horse. "I suppose that makes you Sasha."
The mare pushed her soft muzzle at Jenni's midriff again. This was not such ground-shaking news that the attention should stop.
"You knew, too, didn't you? You knew I was looking for you, because I smell of him. And you all but told me." She blinked wide eyes. The stories said that animals raised by elves were more intelligent than ordinary beasts. She was ready to believe it. Sasha was giving her such a deep look as would make anyone wonder.
After a moment, she remembered her purpose and let herself into the stall. She was tall enough to tack the horse without a struggle and, with Sasha's cooperation, she made quick work of it. The problems came with Evarel's gear: a bulging traveler's pack, a guitar in its battered black leather case, a deep red cloak, and—most puzzling—a sword well-wrapped and tied in dark cloth. The pack was too large for her and seemed about to burst its haphazard bindings. She enfolded it in the cloak and hoped it would balance in Sasha's saddle. The sword fit across the rear saddlebags. She took it upon herself to carry the guitar across her front, one arm curled around it like a mother's.
Now, to get back without being spotted. Why in the world did Evarel have to have a red cloak? There were any number of colors less likely to attract attention—but that was just it, wasn't it? She might as well ask why his trousers were butter-yellow. He wanted to be noticed. It just wasn't helpful at this time.
She squared her shoulders and led Sasha out of the stable. The smell closed on her again and she lost herself in it, looking straight ahead of her feet and thinking nothing. Even Sasha seemed to focus on placing her hooves so as not to draw attention. In this way, they passed out of the village. There were one or two people on the road, probably farmers going about their day, but Jenni didn't look at them and they didn't speak.
They found Evarel sitting upright next to the little campfire, which guttered pitifully. Jenni was, by turns, annoyed that he had moved and pleased that he seemed none the worse for the effort. She was completely astounded by what happened next.
"Sasha, my love!" He lurched to his good foot and stood, wobbling like a scarecrow on its last nail until the mare went to him and he threw his arms around her neck. She twitched a muscle in her shoulder as though bothered by a fly, but she stood quite still with her head lowered over his back.
Jenni stared, mouthing empty syllables at them. She had never seen anything more touching, but she had never seen anyone so attached to his horse, either. It made an uncomfortable twisting feeling in her chest, like something in her trying to go two different directions at once. When Evarel noticed her, she looked away.
For his part, he couldn't imagine what was the problem. He turned to her, one arm across Sasha's withers to take his weight. "My dear girl," he said, "I cannot possibly thank you enough. You've done splendidly, quite splendidly. Ah, and you have my guitar there. No trouble, I hope? Is something the matter?" He tilted his head slightly.
"No. I don't know. Nothing," she stammered. "You treat her like a person, that's all." She eyed the two of them sidelong.
"Oh, well!" He couldn't help but laugh. It wasn't the first time he'd made someone think he was mad as a hatter, and she was so painfully shy about it. "You mustn't wonder about that, lass. When your only true companion for months at a time is a good horse, you start to appreciate her more than you ever thought possible." His eyes shone with affection as he caressed the mare's black head, running his clever fingers through her forelock and along each fine, downy-furred ear.
Jenni wasn't less embarrassed, but she nodded. She saw the fire go out from the corner of her eye and she looked around at the trees, the leaves on the ground, and her bedroll (with the blanket neatly folded on top). However temporarily, this was her place. More, it was her patient larking about on a leg she'd only just bound with no regard for himself whatsoever. Holding the guitar case tight, she turned on him.
"Well, if you've dislodged that bandage, no one will thank you for it," she said. "Sit down and let me have a look."
Evarel's fine cinnamon eyebrows jumped for the safety of his hairline, but his mouth smiled. "Easy now, young madam! I've been careful with myself, on my honor."
She carefully knelt down herself to twitch the filleted trouser leg aside. The bandage was still firmly in place. There was a shadow of blood under the outer layers of gauze, but the sphagnum was holding the greater portion of the flow.
"There. It's all right, isn't it?" He didn't dare look himself, no matter how confident he was in himself.
"I'd just as soon not have you standing," she answered. "Or riding. But I suppose you want to be off." She mimicked his head-tilt.
"Yes, indeed, and you shall come with me." Evarel smiled gratitude and nodded once. "I'm sure you can just imagine what a travesty it would be, me trying to take care of myself."
Without thinking about it, she nodded, then caught herself. "That is, of course I'll go with you," she said, avoiding his eyes.
The man laughed. "You haven't offended me, so stop looking so guilty. Let's be off! The next village isn't so far from here. We might make it before sundown. No chance of supper, though." He pursed his lips and looked to Jenni. "What provisions do you have, lass?"
"Um." She had to think about it. In her life, food was largely something that happened to other people. Foraging plus the eclectic tidbits she'd taken from home had kept her alive so far, but there wasn't much to speak of. She shook her head.
Evarel experienced a moment of paternal feeling. It was strange. If he had fathered children—and chances were that he had—he had never been around long enough to hear about it. More familiar to him was the sense that there was a story here, and his desire to learn it.
"Never mind," he said brightly. "These things have a way of working out, you'll see. Just be a dear and help me into the saddle, will you?"
Before that could happen, Jenni had to strike camp and arrange their collective belongings. Her own things were so few that it took only a minute or two to set them in order, but Evarel and his gear presented a challenge. In the end, Sasha was obliged to kneel so that bard and baggage could be loaded with a minimum of difficulty. Then, finally, they left the wood and struck out along the rutted dirt road.
Evarel found the going more difficult than he had imagined. He always rode with his guitar slung over his back, but its comfortable weight grew less so with each of Sasha's steps. The wound and his empty stomach conspired to weaken him. Intolerable nuisance, he thought, looking down at the top of Jenni's head as he debated what to say. It was never a question of speaking or not.
"Tell me, Jennifer," he said at last, deciding that he could go on as long as he had something to distract him. "That is, if you have no objection to me being familiar..."
She looked over her shoulder at him, trusting that her hold on Sasha's bridle would keep her from harm. "Jenni," she said into the space left by the open sentence. "No one calls me Jennifer."
"Jenni," he acceded. "You know how I came to be in the wood, but I can't say the same about you. Would you tell me a little of yourself?"
She fixed her gaze on the road so that Evarel couldn't see her face and was a long time in answering. He waited. A little anticipation in a tale was like a good aperitif.
"I was following the river," she said at last. "I don't have anywhere else to be, so I thought I'd try to find the ocean. I've never seen it."
"Ah." He nodded. "It's a good thing you met me, then. You might have got there eventually, but the most direct way from here is south."
"Indeed. The land here falls to the east, but then it rises again. You would have found yourself among a great many lakes all spilling one into the other, like water passed between cupped palms, until it all falls into the ocean—south."
"Oh." She looked up at him with an expression of fascination. "I'd like to see that, too."
"There are a great many things worth seeing in this world. Places you wouldn't believe. But I daresay you're not looking for a place at all."
"I didn't say—"
He held up one finger and went on. "I know what it is to have nowhere to be. I am not just talking about the village," he added at her misgiving look. "My mother's people never approved of me, so, when I was a few years old and still an infant by their standards, I was sent to my father. He did the best he could, of course, but I'm afraid I was quite the young terror." He chuckled. "I never could stay too long in one place. But you don't want to hear about that, and I can't imagine why a lovely girl such as yourself should feel unwanted."
"I'd rather not talk about it."
The bard was not so easily dissuaded. "What about your healing, then? Where did you learn it? You're young to have been anyone's apprentice, but you made neat work of my silly leg."
Jenni squeezed her eyes shut. "Pritha taught me since I was seven and she's gone now. Please don't ask me any more."
"Pritha?" He talked over her, not heeding her after hearing the name. Surprise made him forget tact. "Not Pritha of Keus?" The girl's wounded, angry look served to answer him. He slumped in the saddle. "I am sorry to hear that. The legendary witch of Keus, gone. That is sad news. But—forgive me, but you were her student?" Evarel had never met the woman, but he had collected stories about Pritha. Keus was near his father's hometown. She had moved away before he was even born, but all the surrounding villages and homesteads knew about Pritha. To think she should end this far abroad, and that her protégé should fall in with him!
Before he could get any further down that tantalizing line of thought, Jenni answered with a thick voice, cutting straight to the heart of the question. "I'm not a witch. She told me she was the last. I only know about herbs and things." She took a deep breath. "Anyway, how do you know about her? She... she lived in Dorcet." She couldn't say 'died.'
"But she was born in Keus," Evarel said. "And she was the last. Leastways, I've traveled farther than most between this region and that, and I've not heard of another in her mold. Oh, some old baggage or young snit of a thing will claim to have power, but it's not the true power. Even elves aren't the magicians they once were, not that they would ever deign to admit it. Illusions, that's all. Fooling the universe for a little while, not actually convincing it to be something different." He sighed. It was a tragedy, really, and it seemed his young friend was bearing the brunt of it.
"I don't know," she said. "She didn't talk about it much."
"Would you like to know more? Well, there's no reason you shouldn't, especially if she's gone. Someone ought to remember."
Jenni shook her head. Evarel waited, but it seemed no qualification of her sentiment was forthcoming.
"I do apologize, dear girl. I only thought to pass the time, and have no desire to cause you pain."
"It isn't your fault," she said. Her voice was different now, brought low in a battle against her emotions. "I'm sorry I'm being like this."
So was he, but that was the kind of statement that left a man slapped and abandoned. "Not at all. I only wish there was something I could do."
There was silence between them as Jenni collected herself. Evarel looked around and tried to ignore the way his calf throbbed in time with Sasha's steps. He found himself tapping the rhythm against the pommel of the riding saddle, ta-ta, ta-ta, ta-top-ta, ta. The girl looked up and he caught a glimpse of her eyes, their color made translucent in the odd way of tears. Peridot would have been a poor second. Abruptly, he reined Sasha to a halt. The mare tossed her head, breaking Jenni's loose hold on her bridle. She stood back, startled and even a little afraid. He smiled down at her, extending one hand in supplication.
"I do wish you would lose your apprehension of me. Now, I can't very well get down, so please come here." He gestured that she should come forward. She did, though snails had hesitated less.
"It isn't you," she said, wringing her hands and avoiding his eyes. "I mean, I don't know you, but... I mean..."
On a whim, the bard leaned down and put his hand ever so lightly on her head. She flinched and drew a sharp breath, but she stood as though the touch had frozen her in place. He traced the line of her hair with a gesture and drew her chin up. She looked at him, it seemed, without expectation—only waiting for whatever he would do.
"Breathe," he reminded her, and she did. He felt the shuddering gulps rock her and gradually relax into an easier pattern. "Now, listen to me. I can see that the loss of your mentor comes very hard indeed, and grief does strange things to people. Perhaps you feel angry... abandoned... yes, I see that I'm right." Between his eyes and his cupped palm, her face spoke volumes. "I quite understand, you know. I can promise faithfully that it won't last, and you will be just fine. Why, with gifts like yours, you could go anywhere you please and no one would refuse you. Young men, beware!" He winked.
"I don't know," she murmured, but he could see his words working on her. "I'm not... not really..."
"Kind? Intelligent? Beautiful? You are, Jenni. Anyone who tells you different is the worst sort of liar, not worth a moment's thought." She shuddered and turned as though to hide herself in his hand. The girl was absolutely starved for affection. Well, he would fix that. "Just you stick with me a while, lass. I can teach you how to make yourself at home anywhere in the world, if you wish it. Come now, chin up!" He encouraged her with a tap of his knuckle. When she looked up, nearly smiling, he took his hand back and straightened in the saddle. Sasha shifted under him, helping the adjustment. "There! What we need now is something to buck us up for the walk ahead. You sing, I trust?"
"Only a little," she admitted, wiping her damp cheeks on her sleeve. "Just snatches."
"Good heavens! That won't do at all. Music is absolutely necessary to any kind of decent life. I'll do the best I'm able to, my dear, but I'm bound to get tired eventually and then you'll just have to carry on however you can."
As they walked, he sang, and his clear tenor swept all thoughts of pain from their minds as the road fell away behind them. Jenni joined in once she picked up the words and even held her own when he had to stop. If he had magic from his elven side, this was it. He couldn't cure pain or grief, but he could allow them both to forget.