She wore a clean, crisp shirt and trousers, and she oiled her leather boots. She plastered down her curls with water and comb. As the wagon rolled along toward Ruski, the ringlets sprang free, first at her nape and ears. Soon, she wore a little cap of curls that glimmered like gold.
“I’m nervous,” she said.
I perched on the iron eye guiding the harness reins. Anyone would be.
“That’s not very encouraging. You’re supposed to tell me there’s nothing to worry about and no reason to be nervous.”
No. There’s plenty to worry about and every reason to be nervous. This could go very wrong.
“Why did you even come along? Just to watch me make a fool of myself?”
I’m here to pick up the pieces or to report honestly to your father so he can.
“Some friend you are, Muninn.”
You can thank me later.
She pressed her lips tight, scowled, and sulked until she pulled Mazy to a stop in the dusty street. The open windows and doors were yellow with lamplight. There was a single, white star in the western sky, and the east was indigo.
She hissed as she looped Mazy’s reins around the brake. “Don’t talk. You’ll only confuse things.”
Well, that’s rude.
“Ssh” She raised her finger to her lips. “Stay out here.”
Light as a cricket, she hopped from the seat to fetch her wildflowers from the wagon bed. Before she could reach the door, Aetref appeared, blocking the light from inside.
Caught unprepared, she licked her lips and drew a deep breath.
“Hai, Aetref. Um….”
Gem’s silhouette appeared, and he peered past Aetref’s shoulder. Diminutive in their shadows cast from above, Tanuvia lifted her chin and strode to the porch with her flowers. I gave her credit for pluck.
She had practiced different speeches, trying to decide which to use, and this was the result.
“Tanuvia?” Gem was confused to see her back.
“Hai, Gem,” she said. “I…I…I….”
She thought it would be confusing for the raven to speak?
“I brought you flowers. They’re from Bumble’s meadow.”
Aetref took the little jug with water and flowers she held up. “…thank you. Bumble?”
Not knowing what to do with her hands, she clasped them, then wiped them on her thighs, then crossed her arms, then touched her hair. She dug deep to follow her heart.
“I brought a basket, too. I’ll get it.”
Aetref looked over his shoulder at Gem, who shrugged.
“We get paid tomorrow. Maybe we can buy from you then,” Aetref said.
“Oh, no. I don’t want to sell anything. It’s a gift.”
“You already gave us too much, but thank you.”
“But it’s not so much. We have lots of vegetables. Wait there. I’ll get it!”
She had already whirled in the dirt and was climbing into the wagon bed to fetch her basket.
“See, there’s cheese and butter, and there’s bread, and vegetables, and some tea. There’s soap. The cheese and butter, we’ve plenty of that, too. Because—.”
She ended, embarrassed.
“Bumble?” Aetref hazarded a guess.
“We have a cow!” Tanuvia said as if it was a revelation.
Gem chuckled and nudged Aetref. He whispered, “Invite the poor thing in.”
Aetref’s brow furrowed. Tanuvia waited awkwardly, holding her basket in both hands, rapidly blinking, chin quivering. She looked twelve, not eighteen, certainly not the woman who bedded her choice of handsome, hearty men.
“Bring it in. We could use butter, and we could pay you tomorrow.”
He stepped aside, and Tanuvia’s head jerked up with the reprieve. Her jade eyes were glossy with the tears she had fought, but she stepped lightly on the box.
“Where should I put it?”
“The table is fine.”
Despite Tanuvia’s demand I stay put—or because of it—I flew to the windowsill. The men watched her without the admiration I expected of a man for a woman. When she turned around, she paused, perhaps feeling the cool reception, and looked aside. Gathering herself with another deep breath, she looked at Gem.
Aetref intervened. “Thank you, Tanuvia. When will you be in Ruski again? We’ll see you paid.”
“Please. It’s not for sale. That would ruin everything. It’s a gift.”
“I don’t see what buying your vegetables could ruin, but if you feel strongly about it, we accept gratefully. We were just saying how butter would be good with the potatoes you gave us.”
“Or soured cream,” Gem added.
“We have soured cream! I could bring it tomorrow!”
Aetref shook his head and was stern. “No more. Thank you for the basket. That’s more than enough.” He stood aside, this time to let her leave. He still held the jug of flowers.
“Oh.” I had never heard anyone pack that much disappointment into one syllable. “I suppose I should go. Da worries.”
She started to leave, but then stopped and found Gem’s eyes. “Gem, do you…would you…could we…go for a walk sometime?”
Small but scrappy, this young woman.
“Gem doesn’t walk alone with women, Tanuvia,” Aetref said.
“Oh, I see.”
She didn’t see, and neither did I, but she turned to Aetref, realizing she must deal with him, the older brother and spokesman, to get to Gem, and she wasn’t giving up yet. She was in love.
“Perhaps I could invite you both to our house. For supper? Da would like to meet you.”
“Tanuvia, I don’t—.”
Gem caught his brother’s eye over Tanuvia’s head after which Aetref changed his mind. “We would like that. What night?”
“Oh. What night? Um…tomorrow?”
“Is it too soon? I can do it another night. Any night you like. What is your free day? I don’t really have a free day because it’s a farm…well, you can’t not milk the cow. Or not water your peppers, that sort of thing. Da needs to eat, doesn’t he? So, no free day. Any night is fine. I know you have work during the day. But if you want to come during the day on your free day, I can cook then, too. You have free days, right?”
Gem laughed aloud, and even Aetref chuckled at poor Tanuvia’s nonsense. “Ai, we have a tenth day free, but tomorrow night is fine. You’ll have to tell us where you live. Is it far?”
“Too far to walk. Well, you could. But it would take a long time, and…. I’ll bring the wagon to fetch you. Will that be alright?”
“Don’t you have to cook? Maybe your da could fetch us.”
Tanuvia’s hopeful smile evaporated in the heat, and she stood back on her heels, blown by a harsh wind. “Da can’t. He’s…Da can’t walk.” She sagged. Aetref had plucked the flower and left it to wilt.
“Ah, I’m sorry, Tanuvia.”
Gem glared at his brother. Finally, a bit of sympathy. Tanuvia braced up. Her love was fresh and, apparently, unflagging, because even her father’s tragedy couldn’t prevent her from snatching this chance to see Gem again.
“You didn’t know. I’ll drive the wagon here and have everything ready for supper. I’ll finish when we get home. You’ll still come, won’t you?”
“We’ll come,” Gem said.