Medb raced across the pasture, ringed in thick clumps of blackthorn, their branches still bare. Steam puffed from her mouth. Her nose and cheeks were a stinging red. The last snow had finally melted, but the pasture was covered in a layer of frost. It shone grey in the moonlight.
Soon the blackthorn would bloom with slivers of green leaves and bursts of white flowers. Soon color would creep back into the sky and earth. Spring was a time of growth, a time of warmth, for happiness, so her mother had taught her. But as the nights grew shorter, Medb felt heavier. It was harder and harder to force herself out of bed, about her daily routine. All she wanted to do was lie in bed until it was dark enough, until more everyone within the high wooden palisade of the hill fort had gone to sleep. Then she would slip out of the longhouse.
Once outside, she ran. Quick and quiet with bare feet, she ran right to the gate. Sometimes someone saw. The men at the gate dozed most nights, but sometimes they came huffing and shouting after her. Sometimes someone was out, smoking a pipe by their door, laughing with a friend, then they'd stop to yell at her. They never bothered to stop her. The guards never caught her. She'd lose them in the dark of the wood surrounding the fort.
But she knew the way through the woods and the low slopes of the hills to the flat plain used for pasture and cultivation. The was to the very edge of her new "father's" holdings, to the thick tangle of blackthorn. Once there, she reached out to prick her finger on the shrub tree's thick thorns. She watched her blood well, dark against her pale skin.
She whispered, the name as soft as the breath steaming from her thin lips, and the branches before her creaked. They bent and twisted to reveal the cloaked figure beyond. He stepped out, the dark fabric rippling round him. Beneath all that wool he was tall and lean. Pale hands knocked the hood off a head with hair such a pale blond, it was nearly white. Beneath pale brows were eyes of equally pale blue. All of him was equally pale, but for the tips of his ears permanently singed black. They ended in abrupt, jagged curls and poked through the long thin veil of his hair. His face was long, his features angled.
Smiling at Medb, he asked, "Why have you returned?"
"You offered me a deal, and I intend to take it."
"Have you? When I made the offer, you said—"
"I know what I said."
At the snap of her words, his brows arched. "Your mood has not improved. What troubles you?"
"I want to go home."
He frowned. "Then go."
"With my mother and sisters—I want us all to go back home. We should not be here."
Nodding, he asked, "Do you pledge yourself to my will?"
She chewed at the inside of her cheek. "If I do, you will teach me the old ways? The forgotten histories?"
"You will take us all back home?"
For a long moment, she worried at her cheek and over all the implications of such a pledge. He asked for so much. She wanted to trust him. She wanted to believe that she could trust these feelings—of safety, of familiarity. When she looked at him, she saw everything of which she'd dreamed, everything that could make life for her family as it should be, as they deserved. How could she not accept?
Setting her jaw, pressing her lips into a firm line, she held out her palm to him. "I pledge myself to your will."
A faint smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. Kneeling before her, he took her hands into his. Taller than him now, she looked down at him for the first time. She smiled.
"The first task is simple. You must write out all your mother has taught you."
"I could bring you her tomes."
"But that is not the task. Its purpose is to demonstrate your understanding of the knowledge as well as the knowledge itself."
"Very well. I will do it."
His hands were as cold as hers. But they squeezed tightly.
"And we will learn to trust each other, as it should be between master and apprentice."
Ducking her head, she raised her shoulders and tried to hide her wide grin. He chuckled. Standing, he tapped at her head.
"Now get yourself to bed before you take a cold."
She fixed her expression. Glanced up at him. He'd already turned to wave aside the blackthorn. She watched him walk into the dark beyond then the branches thread and twist back together.