In the Shadow of the Steward

Part One: The Magician

Chapter One

When Lucinda first met Jareth, the magician, she'd been sweeping the stone walkway leading from the dusty road into The Desert Lily Inn. He looked to be half her grandmother's age, twenty-five or so. He wore robes in dark, swirling colors; black, blues, and grays. Much of his facial features were hidden by shadow, cast upon his face by the hood of his cloak. He didn't seem to be very tall–maybe five and a half feet–and he leaned against a pale staff rather heavily, though he walked with no noticeable limp. A falcon, perched on his shoulder, suddenly screeched and took off, soaring nobly in the light desert air.

As the man grew closer she could make out, vaguely, a few of the markings on the staff. Many seemed to be of animals, plants, trees, but there was also something that looked strangely like another language, but she knew only the common tongue. From the gnarled tip of the staff hung a swath of bright feathers intermixed with strings of beads and shells. It had never occurred to Lucinda, that being able to tell this from a eighth of a mile away was an amazing feat. She hardly paid the true distance any attention; good vision was something she ha grown used to over the course of her seventeen years.

Drawn from her reverie by another screech from the falcon, she hastily stepped back into the inn, eager to tell her grandmother about the strange, exotic man coming up the dusty road. In her haste she left the door wide open and the sagebrush broom in the middle of the walkway. "Nana!"

A short, gray-haired woman stepped out of the kitchen, drying her hands on a wash rag. " What is the matter, Lucinda?"

"There is a stranger coming up the road! He looks like–like a magician! From Kest!"

Nana tutted. Clearly she didn't believe her granddaughter's claims. "Shame! No magician would ever come here! Their business is at the border. Now, when the poor man gets in, give him some cold water straight away."

"Yes, Nana." Lucinda murmured, turning toward the door to collect the broom. He was already there, broom in hand, waiting. How much had he heard?

"Could this be yours?" he asked politely, holding out the broom as if he already knew that it was hers.

She nodded and took the broom, standing there rather dumbly, staring at the handsome man before her. Suddenly she remembered Nana's instructions. "Would you like something to drink?" she asked, setting the broom in a corner and turning to shut the door. The falcon let out a quiet cry and the man shushed him gently.

"No, we don't need anything to eat, or drink. Just a private room, if you don't mind." He pushed his hood back showing sharp, well-defined features like the people who lived near the sea in Sita often bore. He had a slim face and a hawk's crooked, curved nose. His dark hair was cut short, so that only a fine layer covered his head. Her eyes moved farther down, taking in the sight of the strange man, and then she gasped in shock, her face flushing. His should was bleeding profusely. His cloak and robes were soaked, stained a darker color. The falcon screeched again. "Just some bandages and a little warm water so I might clean up a bit, hm?"

She nodded, her eyes still caught on his wound, and called for Nana. The gray-haired woman emerged from the kitchen, looking somewhat ruffled. But when she saw the wound she too gasped, thought much quicker to recover. "Don't just stand there, girl! A room! I'll set out the bandages."

Lucinda nodded again and watched her grandmother flinch as the Falcon screeched again. It was almost as if the bird knew that the older woman was afraid of any bird larger than a dove. "Dress his wounds, Lucinda, while I finish these pantries." She scurried back into the kitchen without another word.

"Nice to know that she cares more for bread than a customer." the man said grimly.

"Of course she doesn't! She's just afraid of your bird. Now, a private room you wanted? The most private we have is the attic. It will be a bit dusty, I expect, but the door locks. . ."

The haw-nosed man followed Lucinda up a flight of stairs at the back of the dinning hall. The staircase was small and narrow, but it served it's purpose well enough. At the top of the flight was a small landing and a door that opened into the attic room. She pushed it open.

"Here you are, sir." she told him. "It's quite private. That door is the only way in, or out. I'll just go get those bandages and some blankets for the bed . . ."

As soon as she was gone from the room, Lucinda let out her breath. The man was handsome, in a steely, arrogant way, but it still attracted her nonetheless. Nana was waiting with a stack of bedding and a collection of blankets. She handed them over with caution. "I do believe you're right, Lucinda. There is something strange about that man. Careful, please."

Lucinda agreed. "Of course. I will just tend his wound and set out his blankets, then I will leave. Do not fret, Nana."

He was at the window when she returned, watching the road. His falcon was seated on the dresser, it's sharp gaze following her every move. "Excuse me. Sir."

"Yes?" he asked, moving from the window toward her.

"My grandmother requires your name. For payment purposes." She set the blankets down.

He paused, looking at the quilts she had offered. "I have many names." he said at last. "But, most call me Jareth." Suddenly he hissed at clutched his shoulder, air rushing through his lips in pain. "Water. Please." he winced. "So this wound can be cleaned."

Lucinda's heart was pounding as she backed out of the room as quickly as she dared. The falcon's yellow eyes followed.

*

The girl was pretty. She dressed brightly in light colors, to ward away the desert sun, and wore loose clothing that allowed for ventilation. Her hair was long and curly, hanging nearly to her waist. He skin was smooth and creamy, the color of caramel, the result of a life in the sun. Her eyes were hazel, but more green than brown, and framed by thick, dark lashes. There was a slight sprinkle of freckles across her nose and cheeks, and there was a healthy pink flush to them that made her look more alive.

Pain returned him to the present and he pulled off his cloak, then his robes, and then his undershirt, stained red. Damn magician, he thought wryly. Never lets me rest. He sat on the bed and a cloud of dust rose around him. Fargo ruffled his feathers in annoyance. Closing his eyes, Jareth let his mind focus on what he wanted and the things that would help. He murmured a few words in Elvish, and his wound began to heal, glowing pale with magic.

*

Lucinda jerked out of the doorway, the basin of water she held crashing to the floor. He looked up, surprise flickering across his face. Run! Her mind screamed. So she did, but before she had even made it to the bottom stair his hand had wrapped firmly around her upper arm.

"Not–a–word." he ordered.

She nodded, her eyes wide and her heart beating frantically in her chest. She pulled away and his hand fell. His dark eyes sought hers and he nodded sharply. Scared, Lucinda turned and scrambled back down the stairs.

Jareth was a magician.

*

Lucinda had no choice but to return directly yo her chores. She said nothing to Nana on the subject of the inn's new guest. She collected three baskets of vegetables from the garden; beans, tomatoes, peas, potatoes, peppers, onions, rhubarb, carrots, beats, turnips, and lettuce heads. She carried the baskets into the kitchen where she washed them and set them out for Nana or Rhea to deal with. Next she had to clear the dishes from dinner and soak them in soap so they would be ready for Rhea to wash that evening. After the dishes had been cleared away and the tables and counters cleaned, the chairs straightened, she returned to the parlor for the remainder of the evening. It was harvest time and each year the inn's guests–many of whom were hired hands–would celebrate. They would play music, dance, sing, tell stories of the gods, and drink Nana's own sweet cider until they were drunk out of their seats.

She made sure that everything was set out with Rhea's help. They put out the cider and ten different types of pastries and pies, all made by Nana. It wasn't long before men and women began to fill the room, all dressed in loose, airy clothes in harvest colors. Many people came, fifty or so, to enjoy the festivities. The parlor, thankfully was one of the largest rooms in the inn and had doors that opened up to a breeze and led out to a shaded veranda..

Lucinda and Rhea excused themselves and went to their shared room to change. "Do you think he will come?" Rhea asked.

She was referring to Bratac, a young man of twenty-five, who held Rhea's eyes. Lucinda smiled. "Don't be silly! Of course he will come!"

*

Jareth waited in the parlor for the girl–Lucinda. It wasn't right, he knew, to be attracted to her, to feel that she was the right one for him, but he had been alive for so long . . . he had enough experience to know . . . but . . . was she the one? Or wasn't she? Was he merely attracted to her more deeply than he had any other girl, but not in love? Frustrated, he let out a growl. One of the guests stepped away uneasily. Jareth didn't even bother to apologize; it wouldn't have done much good anyway.

He looked up, just as Lucinda and another girl entered the room. They matched. Both dresses, light and airy, were made of a very pale blue, and were long, gathered in the chest where they promptly fell downward. He felt a slight twinge of annoyance at their clothes. Girls, and women, in Sita, normally wore more grand gowns, with corsets and laces pulled tight to accent their curves . . . a sight he sorely missed.

Lucinda's gaze caught his and he winked. He grinned as she flushed and ducked away with her pretty friend. He watched as they made their way to the inn mistress and began a light conversation with her. He watched, mostly Lucinda as she spoke, and moved, gently and in time with the music. He attempted to move his gaze from her form, but failed to do so. She glanced at him again and their eyes locked. He smiled and motioned her over.

She came. A shy smile on her lips. "Do you dance?" he asked, taking her small hands in his.

"Not the way that Sitians do." she told him. "Not properly."

"Show me." he invited. She looked shocked at his words. Jareth doubted that any man had ever made such a request of her before. She flushed. It seemed that it was only them in the room, to Jareth.

She shook her head. "No."

He grinned. "Please? I promise I'll leave you alone for the rest of the evening."He watched as she gave in.

Without saying anything she moved a little bit away and danced a few steps. Beautiful. The desert people of Hirum moved more freely when they danced, well, more freely in general. They were a relaxed, loose-knit society. Lucinda paused and was jostled by the by the crowd, suddenly pushed closer. Jareth leaned down and pressed his lips over hers. Within seconds he was pushed roughly away. Laughing, he called upon his magic reserves and disappeared from view.