The Maiden and the Pail

Mag Weathers had heard many a tale of gods and men.

Her father had been peculiarly fond of such stories, a smile always on his face as he came through the screen door of her family's country house. He always carried a bag heavy of goods, pitchers of gold peeking out from under the top of his traveling pack. And Mag, she would race up to him squealing with glee. He would swing her up and around, lifting her towards the worn ceiling always looking upon them with fond remembrance.

"Tell me a story, papa!" Mag would always encourage. Her father would smile, warmly, in return to her delight. He would carry her upon his hip to the rocking chair next to the hearth, and sit her upon his knee as her mother brought him his pipe. "Tell me a story, papa. Tell me an adventure!"

"An adventure, Mag-Bell?" Her father would always say in response, his hand skimming a jaw hard with a knotted beard. And she, Mag, would learn forward, eyes aglow as she eagerly put her face closer to her father's. A story was coming, the young child had always known. "Well, I know of a story of a god which lurked unseen, always watching. He's appear, when man doubted the wonders of the world, when we questioned magic."

"Does magic exist, papa?" Little Mag would interrupted, and her father always smiled. He would bob her on the nose, eyes alight with mirth as he said, "Aye, May Bell. As long as you believe, his distance he shall keep..."

Then she grew up; gone were the stories of knights saving the world from unseen evils. Gone were the bandits stealing money to give to the poor and defeating the oppressive, vile overlords. Into distant memories were the helpless saved, and hope a light always shining down upon the world.

Life was no longer so simple. Hardships were abundant, the unfortunate thin and hungry. The days were long, and they were unforgiving; in the light of morning, with the sun bearing down on her, Mag found herself thinking more and more on the times when she had been nothing more than a naïve child. Climbing the worn stairs up a winding hill, empty pail in hand, her mind turned away from the youth she used to be, a young girl in love with the magic of innocence.

At the top rested an old well, the grey stones proud despite the crumbling mortar. Ivy clung to the old stones, circling possessively around a relic older than the new world, older, even, than the war brewing on the horizon. She paused at the top, and drew in a deep breath as petals of varying hues whirled through the heavens. Exhaling, she tossed the pail she carried over the lip of the well, quiet as it descended.

It hit, moments later. She sat on the edge, hands folded patiently upon her lap. Up on this hill, the world was quiet. The villages seemed far off, a distant place she was no longer part of. Rising, she turned, and grasped the rope slung over the lip of the well. Between calloused hands, she began the process of drawing water from the cold and shadowed depths of a well ancient and alone.

She grasped the bail between warn hands, and hefted it onto the lip of the well. She tossed her dark hair over her shoulder, smiling as the distant neighing of wild horses carried upon the wind. It was music to her ears; exhaling, she rested her hand on the warm stones of the well, closing her eyes to welcome a moment of deep silence.

"Magic," Mag opened her eyes, gaze turning towards the heavens. She combed her fingers through curly hair, the knots catching on browned fingers. The azure sky, it was without a single cloud. The faint song of birds echoed, and she smiled. "Such a wondrous thing, father had always said, but no more than a distant dream. No more than wishful thinking."

She grabbed the pail, and hauled it away from the old, stone well. The winds picked up, the breeze chilled as it curled tight around her. Mag stumbled, water sloshing over the rim of the pail and soaking the bottom of her skirts. She righted herself, obscure curses uttered from underneath her breath. As she stepped away from the well, her skin prickled.

Mag paused. That feeling, it was one she knew. In the nearby village, when she walked through the streets, she often felt it. Like a thousand eyes were upon her, each calculating yet few quiet in what they saw. Judgement. Cold, harsh whispers; so many so that they became a weight upon her.

As she stood by the well, she breathed. It was a similar sort of feeling, this prickling sensation.

Someone is near. Mag righted her skirt, intent to ignore the watchful eyes focused upon her. She stepped away, gaze on the trail winding down into the forest. Taking care as she stepped down the steps leading to the well, Mag breathed. Once in, slowly. Once out, calmly. Someone watches...

"Wishful thinking, is it?"

Mag started, whirling around with a sharp intake of breath. She would have dropped the pail of water, had her nails not bit into the soft flesh of her palm's heel instead. There, sitting on the lip of the well, was an unexpected, impossible sight: a man dressed finely in dark pants, pale hair hanging in light waves around his face.

He uncrossed his leg, foot leaving knee, and stood. He stepped forward, a curious light to his eyes as he made his way down the old, wooden stairs towards her. "It is hard for me to grasp such a thing, this disbelief of yours. Granted, I can't blame you. Few come this far out, where only an old well sets upon an ancient hill. The legends, though? Surely they hold some grain of truth?"

"Truth?" Mag huffed, and then adjusted her grip on the pail she held. She propped her other hand on her hip, eyes narrowing as she stared the man down. Her chin lifted, shoulders squared as she said, "There's many things in the old stories, but truth is not a thing I would dare say."

He advanced slowly, a lazy smile spreading across his face as he begun to circle her in a sea of green and white, dandelion seeds shattering to the wind as he disturbed their rest. His hand skimmed her back, voice light as he asked, "Have you never seen a true wonder? Have you never felt the magic in the air each morning, felt the wind in your lungs and the fire in your loins?"

Mag turned, slowly. "Fire in my loins?"

The man, he returned her slow, cold statement with a wicked grin. Mag flushed and then grit her teeth, pulling away and leveling him with a hard stare when he stepped closer once more. He made an odd sort of movement, then. His shoulders, they made a sharp movement upwards as he gestured with hands attached to bent arms. She eyed those elbows.

Mag turned her gaze onto him, blinking. What an the odd gesture. "What was that?"

"What was what?"

Mag waved a hand at him as she said, "That thing you just did! With the shoulders."

He outright laughed. This man, who did he think he was? He's positively rude, Mag thought to herself. To think he was laughing at a women when she posed an honest question. He was quiet for a moment, and then he said, "I picked that up from one of my travels. It is called a shrug."

The nerve of him! Mag swatted him away, or attempted to; he merely glided to her side, his smile stretching as he lightly ran too-warm fingers over the back of her hand. He smiled, a charming sort of smile. As she stared into his eyes, she couldn't help but notice one thing.

He was smiling, but the gleam in his gaze was anything but nice.

"Where did you come from, anyway?" Mag questioned, lightly. The strange man chuckled as he stepped away. When he reached for the pail of water, she turned, pulling it out of his reach. She narrowed her gaze upon him, disapproving. "This wooden thing is mine and I'll carry it myself. It would be unseemly, for a man like you, to carry a peasant's pail."

"A peasant, you say?" He went silent for a moment, humming lightly under his breath. As she eased around him, heading for the trees, he followed with a wide grin before he said, "Nay, little minx, you be too quick, to defensive, to be a mere peon."

Mag turned her eye upon him, glancing over her shoulder at this strange man, and deemed the comment too something to answer. She was getting a headache, as it were. Turning away, she continued down the path without a backward glance. Her newly acquired stalker did not leave, but he was silent as they walked. His stare, she felt it upon the back of her head the entire time.

It was not long before he made his way around her, gaze shifting through the trees. Mag watched him go, blinking as he stopped from time-to-time. He murmured soft words, lips moving quick, but she could not make out a word he said. Minx, he called me. Mag ran a hand through her hair, bucket swaying as she stepped over a gnarled, twisted root of some ancient, pale-barked tree.

"What shall I call you?" The stranger paused, as if not expecting such a question. He glanced over his shoulder, stray leaves of glowing emerald fluttering around him. He grinned, then. All white teeth, gleaming with a hint of a point. He brushed aside a dangling vine as he said, "Riordan. You, little minx, may call me by Riordan."

Mag dunked under the vine, hands coming together and knuckles white on the bail. The metal was warming, the coiled knot on the top nestled between clenched hands. She shot a look out of the corner of her eye; he —Riordan, Mag reminded herself— walked with a sort of confidence. She took a moment to watch him as he moved about, each step placed with care.

His attention shifted a moment later, the soft pastel of his irises brightening as he turned his gaze upon a rustling bush. It turned a moment later to the sudden, darting squirrel crossing their path, tail flickering with each leap it made. Riordan turned back to her, smiling widely.

"There is nothing quite like seeing an animal dancing about." Riordan paused at an intersection, the beaten path branching into two directions. Mag eyed him for a moment, but he made no move to take either path. Sighing, she took to the left, and, once again, he followed as he said, "It is best to watch them if uncertain, for who knows a better route?"

Mag opted to keep her silence, walking calming down the uneven grounds. Roots stuck up from the earthen path, and Riordan pulled ahead, stopping at intervals to turn his gaze upon her. Her brow furrowed. Neither said anything, and, when he offered his hand when the ground dropped, she took it. His smile widened.

"So who are you?" Mag ventured to ask as the trees began to thin out. A thinner woodland, this one. The well was a good distance away from the house, the ancient watering hole observed with caution and mystery. The people worry needlessly about the woods. Mag saw the edge of the forest approaching as Riordan said, "Answer that I already have; though I suppose there is no harm in telling you even gods take an interest in mortal affairs."

Was he delusional? To outright say deities took an interest in the affairs of humans, let alone a young woman with a bucket, was absurd. She nearly said so, but closed her mouth when he leveled a hard look on her. She looked away. "I hardly think a man can be anything but a man. Even if he is considered to be a god among men."

A low chuckle met her ears. She glanced at him from the corner of her eye; he seems not all that dangerous, but appearances can be deceptive. Mag eyed him, eyebrows drawing together as they crossed the forest's boarder. The wooden path expanded, began clear with the rolling grass rising on either side of them. In the distance, the shadow of a small, crumbling home rose.

He did the shoulder-thing again, shrugging, as he replied, "There are all manners of beings in this world. Spirits. Humans. Animals. Gods and goddesses. Take your pick."

"What about fiends?" He looked over at her, eyes alight with some unnamed emotion matching the twitching smile on his face. Mag held his gaze as she stood near a barbed fence. He did not look away, though she doubted he ever would. Exhaling, Mag pressed, "Phantoms and imps, too?"

"What if I say I am all the above?"

"Then I'd say you, Rio, are a liar." Mag looked away. They reached the edge of her property, and she pushed the rusted gate open. He was right on her heel as they made their way up the path, and she kept going, "If you are a spirit of some sort, than I might as well be a unicorn."

"I'd dare hope not." Riordan stated. "If you were, I'd fear for the virgins near. Yourself included."

"Are you making an assumption?" Mag edged as they reached the steps. Riordan stood just behind her. She could feel his gaze on her back, his stare boring through her skin into her soul. He was so close, she could feel the heat of him. Swallowing, she continued, "I might be married, for all you know. I could have a babe or two waiting."

"You are no more a married woman than I a saint." The words were low, spoken in a fluid way that left her skin crawling. Mag tightened her grip on the bucket's metal bail, swallowing hard as she felt him step closer. His shadow fell upon her as he said, "And there is no man waiting for you, nor a babe waiting to nurse at your teat.

"All that waits within is the darkness of a home where a father once lived and died as a man known only a drunk and an outcast." Her jaw grit together, and she kept her gaze on the dark windows of the house before her. The pail was still, now. The water calm, unmoving. Behind her, Riordan murmured, "It is a place of darkened memories, where childhood innocence was claimed when the world turned its back to you. It has become so dark you can hardly recall the light..."

Mag made her way up the stairs, skin ashen. Riordan, he did not try to stop her. He didn't have to, for she stopped just outside the door. She eyed the old, rusted hinges as she drew in a deep breath. He was still there, just at the base of the steps. She itched to turn, to demand answers.

She dared not, for what if he was some dark spirit intent to haunt her? Silly thought, that. Mag was still, for a while. Shadows were slinking across the ground, the air chilling, but still she did not move. He did not, either. His gaze still pierced her back, intent and frozen.

"Will you not leave me, Riordan? I seek only quiet and peace." She did not turn around. Mag wondered what he looked like, now. Was his light, laughing eyes hard? Did his smile fall? As she contemplated this, his light, echoing laughter weaved through the dark coming upon them.

"I'll go, but I want something first."

"I have nothing to give." She said to the door. The gardens were yielding little food, and the water she bore was all she had. Her hands fisted around the bail, her attention focused on the darkness of the house before her. "Nor shall I let you into my home. I know not what you might intend."

"A kiss, then." Mag whirled about, eyes wide. He stood where he had this entire time, the toes of his boots touching the hard wood of the first step. Not on it, just pressed close. His gaze was on her, eyes dark as she flushed at the words that had just left his mouth. He grinned. "A kiss, and I shall leave you be for tonight."

Mag floundered, at a loss for words. She inhaled, slowly. The gall of some men. She set the water-laden bucket on the porch, gaze on the man who stalked her through a forest to the back door of her home. Has he no mind for conventions?When he made no move to leave, Mag exhaled.

She made her way down the stairs, eyes narrowed. "It that what it will take? A kiss?"

He cocked his head to the side, as if he was thinking over her question. Mag made her way down the stairs as he remained silent, and stopped on the last. It left them closer to the same height, but still she had to look up slightly. She caught his eye, and held his gaze.

"A kiss," he murmured, tasting the words.

Mag felt a shiver crawl up her spine, a sort of odd tremor that wasn't entirely unpleasant. He reached for her, then. Fingers grazed the air right next to her cheek, hand curling around the side of her face but not touching.

The thought of rising on tip-toe, to press her lips to unknown skin, was unfamiliar. It was profane. She inched closer, rising upwards. His gaze bore into hers, a smirk playing across his mouth as she hesitated. He caught her chin, then, and pulled her the rest of the way.

It was chaste, a light touch. The gentlest of sensations. The taste of seasons, of honey and the wilds and something arcane and unfamiliar, filled her senses. She drew it in, and it was like drawing upon the forests she walked upon. It was like breathing in the world, and exhaling its life with each breath she took.

Her hands fluttered, and then her fingers fisted into the silken fabric of his shirt. A moment passed, and then he pulled back with a sharp, wide grin. Flushing, Mag cleared her throat and stepped away. Riordan exhaled, eyes seemingly glowing in the shadows thrown by her home.

"Well?" Mag pressed, cheeks red. Riordan hummed lightly under his breath, and her brow twitched as she regarded the man in front of her. She caught his gaze, and asked, "Will you leave me be, now, as I have granted you the kiss you asked after?"

Riordan laughed. "It would be a start, certainly."

Author's Note (AN): Romance; it's one genre I'm not all that good at, I'll admit. Not a strong point of mine, but, then again, there are many types of romance. Some are happy, others are not. For some time, I wasn't even sure what to write on this note. Romance, it isn't something that comes easily to me, but I wanted to write something. So here this is, a one-shot between a young woman named Mag and a mysterious man named Riordan. Constructive criticism welcomed.

Enjoy, and, if you would be so kind - review.