❯ Pair of Angels – Chapter 1
Disclaimer: I don’t own Arc the Lad III or its characters. It all belongs to Working Designs.
After the children were finally put to bed and the remains of their evening meal cleared away, Kulara breathed a sigh of relief and settled down in her chair, a pile of patched and worn clothes at her side. She was in the middle of darning a pair of socks when a sudden knock at the front door made her jump, piercing her thumb with the needle. She waited and heard the sound again, more insistent. Kulara snatched up her broom before approaching the door, heart racing. It couldn’t be anyone good, at that time of night.
She opened it a crack, and all the anxiety instantly melted from her face. « Oh, Alec! »
She moved aside to let the Hunter and his friends pass. Cheryl, Lutz, and Theo entered, followed by a girl Kulara had never met, who glanced at the dying fire and pulled her cloak more tightly around her shoulders.
« That’s the last of our wood, » the orphanage keeper said apologetically, picking up a stick and poking at the embers. « You must be famished from your journey. Let me heat you up something – »
« That’s okay, » Alec interrupted. « We already ate. »
« No, we didn – » Lutz began. The Hunter jabbed him in the ribs with his elbow.
Kulara and her guests spoke in hushed whispers, but in a few minutes the children burst out of their room. The boys ran to examine Alec’s new sword, while he watched closely to make sure none of them tried to touch it and hurt themselves on its sharp edge. The girls stared at the newcomer with wide eyes, and Kulara paused a moment to take a look herself. The young woman was dressed in a beautiful pink robe of some shimmery material, and she held a crystal-topped staff in one hand.
« This is Marsia, » Alec said, noticing their interest. « She’s a Gaia magician from Jiharta. »
This revelation sent the children clamoring again. « Where’s that? Tell us! »
« Let them drink in peace, » Kulara scolded, setting a chipped saucer in front of Theo. She appreciated Alec’s concern, but her pride prevented her from letting her guests go without. The children stubbornly refused to go back to bed until someone told them a story.
« Let me! » Lutz cried. « I’ll tell them the one I said on the way here. »
« Over my dead body, » Cheryl snapped. « How could you even think of repeating that to kids? »
The conversation went back and forth until well into the night. Despite their best efforts, the children couldn’t stop their eyelids from slowly falling. Alec gently picked up a boy who had fallen asleep against his knee and helped Kulara shelter the others back where they belonged, ignoring their protests.
With the children gone, the conversation flagged. Kulara saw Alec stifle an enormous yawn and she stood to collect the empty teacups.
« Will you stay the night? » she asked hopefully. « It’s much too late to go to the inn. »
The Hunter accepted her offer, waving aside her apologies for having no extra bedding or blankets to give them.
« Don’t worry about us, » he said, spreading his cape on the floor. « We’ve seen worse. »
Kulara nodded and headed to her own bed, but took a last look at the group over her shoulder. The mage woman still sat stiffly at the table, a grimace on her pretty face. Kulara felt a stab of annoyance, but set it aside and forgot it by morning.
« Good morning! » Theo chirped, glancing up from the stove, when Kulara rushed out into the main room, ashamed at having overslept.
« Where did you get those? » she demanded, staring at the eggs sizzling in the pan. Theo shifted his feet a little guiltily.
« Well, Alec noticed that your pantry was empty, so he went out and brought back some things from the Sabi Wilds. There’s a bird waiting to be plucked for lunch, too. »
« I see. » Kulara smiled and cast about the room for her benefactor, but he was nowhere in sight. « Where is he? »
« Alec? He’s taking a walk with Marsia. »
Kulara’s hand tightened on the plate she had picked up while listening to Theo. Don’t be so childish, she scolded herself. Nevertheless, she found it hard to focus on anything the rest of the morning, and she whirled around the second she heard the door open an hour later. Alec was smiling.
« Did you have a nice walk? » Kulara asked. « You were out for quite a while. »
« We were attacked by bandits, » Alec said with a laugh. « We made short work of them! They’ve never seen anything like Marsia’s magic before. »
The mage blushed and murmured something too softly for the others to hear. Kulara turned away, instantly feeling horrible for doing so.
« What’s wrong? » Alec asked, picking up on it.
« Nothing, » the young woman replied, forcing a smile.
« Okay, » Alec said, relieved. He moved to the stove to see if there was anything left.
Alec and his group stayed for almost a week, far longer than ever before. Kulara was startled to find herself wishing that they would move on. Normally, she welcomed the visits, since they were one of the few opportunities she had to talk with people her own age. She thought about this as she stirred that evening’s stew. Alec told her that they were leaving the next day, and she wanted to make the meal suitably special, even if he provided most of the ingredients.
She was very quiet that night, silently passing the dishes and listening to Lutz, who as usual talked enough for three. But the children loved his jokes, so Cheryl bit her lip and pretended not to hear.
That night, Kulara couldn’t fall asleep, no matter how hard she tried. Just as she began to doze, a sound in the hallway jolted her awake, and she felt the familiar pounding in her heart, even though her mind assured her that nobody evil could have gotten past Alec. She slid into her slippers and threw on her robe, but froze when she reached to turn the doorknob. She thought she heard crying.
She headed to the children’s room, thinking that one of them must have had a nightmare, no unusual occurrence, but one thankfully easy enough to mend with a hug and a cup of water. Then she saw a shadowy form hunched at the end of the hall.
« M-Marsia! » she gasped. The lady sniffed and looked up with reddened eyes, her face blotchy with both crying and embarrassment. Kulara instantly forgot her uncharitable feelings as her nurturing nature kicked in.
« What’s wrong? Here, come into my room. She gently grasped the mage’s elbow. « We can talk more easily there. »
Marsia allowed herself to be led into Kulara’s room, which was more of a closet. Once they were both inside, Kulara closed the door.
« Now, tell me what’s upsetting you, » she said, handing Marsia a napkin. « You’ll feel better for getting it off your chest. »
Marsia accepted the cloth gratefully. « I was just thinking about an old friend, » she confessed, and closed her mouth, but Kulara skillfully coaxed her into speaking more. Before long, the entire story about Tikva tumbled out.
« Thank you for listening, » Marsia said, dabbing at her eyes. « I feel much better now. »
« I’m glad I could help, » Kulara replied with a warm smile, all the more brightly because all of her doubts had been neatly killed at once. « I thought you were sulking because you didn’t like my orphanage. »
« Oh, no! It was nothing like that, » Marsia assured her. « It’s true this isn’t a very nice town, but that makes me admire your hard work even more. »
Kulara flushed a little at her kindness, and noticed that the mage had a very pleasant voice. « Well, we’d better get back to bed, » she said. « You have a long day of traveling ahead of you. »
Marsia agreed, and thanked her again. Once she was gone, Kulara blew out her candle stub and climbed back beneath her sheets. From that day on, the two women became close friends.
« Thanks for everything, » Alec said, after checking to make sure his group wasn’t forgetting any supplies. « We’ll see you later, » he added awkwardly. Farewells were never his strong point.
« He’ll make sure of that! » Lutz quipped. Cheryl gave him a glare that could have easily wilted the toughest dandelion. Kulara watched them go with the old feeling of regret, strengthened because she hadn’t spoken much with the Hunter. The few conversations they did have had revolved around the children. She hoped he wouldn’t –
Then there was an unexpected knock at the door.
« I’m sorry, » Alec said with a sheepish smile. « I forgot a pack of herbs. »
« That’s all right, » Kulara told him, after he found them on the table. « I forgot something, too. »
« You did? »
« Yes. »
And she threw her arms around his neck, ignoring the pleasurably scandalized squeals from the children.