If she wasn't practicing her magic, Artur rarely saw her without a book in hand.
In fact, the first time he laid eyes on her, it was in the library of the monastery to which he belonged, widely regarded as one of the largest and most prestigious in all of Renais - next to the palace library, of course.
Based on her clothes, which obviously belonged to a student mage, he had assumed she was researching spells. The library owned an extensive collection of rare spell books, and it wasn't unusual for mages to spend hours upon hours combing through the books, looking for some long forgotten spell with which to impress the sage of the village or a fellow mage who had caught their eye. However, as he drew closer to the girl, Artur was mildly surprised to see she was reading On the Wings of a Pegasus, a book more favored by pegasus knights than by mage students.
She evidently was very engrossed in it, for she didn't even look up when he accidentally knocked a pile of scrolls off a nearby table, though the sound was like a gunshot in the absolute quiet of the library. The girl merely turned a page and pushed a strand of her purple hair back behind her ears as if she had never been disturbed.
Embarrassed, Artur gathered the scrolls he had knocked to the floor and handed them back to the monk who had been translating them before leaving the library to return to his afternoon prayers.
Over the next couple of weeks, he continued to see the girl nearly everyday in the library around noon, her nose stuck in yet another new book. Oftentimes, she did study the spell books, but her other reading material impressed him more. Her interests were as varied as the leaves in autumn, ranging from botany to history to religion. Once, he even caught her reading one of the books he had written on the revenants, though he was much too modest to introduce himself as the author.
Actually, despite ample opportunity, he never spoke to her, claiming to himself that he didn't want to disturb her during her studies. She looked so intent while reading, it seemed almost a sin to bother her with conversation. It appeared everyone else felt the same way as well, for Artur never saw her in the company of friends. She always sat alone at the same small table in the back of the library, a tall stack of books her only companions.
Based on his observations, he felt he had a fairly good idea of her personality: extremely bright, but very quiet and shy. She probably didn't have a lot of friends, if any at all, because of that, so he resolved that the next time he ran into her outside of the library, he would strike up a conversation with her.
The opportunity came sooner than Artur expected. He was walking around the Za'ha Woods just outside the village one day when he heard a rustling of leaves on a nearby tree. At first, he thought it was only the wind, but the breeze was soft that day, hardly strong enough to muss his hair, much less cause a tree to make so much noise.
He stepped back to get a better look, and, shielding his eyes from the bright sun, craned his neck upwards. There, hidden among the leaves was the young girl from the library. Her mage dress of different shades of green camouflaged her well, but there was no hiding her violet hair, which stuck out like a beautiful flower among the foliage.
Remembering his promise, Artur raised his hand in greeting and called out, "Hello up there!"
The girl, surprised to be addressed, faltered a little on the branch she sat on and quickly grabbed onto another branch to steady herself. Once she had regained her balance, she returned the greeting. "Oh, hello, Brother Artur. Beautiful afternoon, isn't it?"
It was his turn to be surprised, for Artur had no idea how she knew his name. "How do you know who I am?"
"Someone like me can always discover any fact she finds worthy to know," the girl replied with a grin.
"My name is worthy to know?"
"Maybe, if only to protect myself."
"What is that supposed to mean?" Artur asked.
The mage shrugged her shoulders and situated herself more comfortably on the tree branch. "I know you've been watching me for the past couple of weeks, so I thought it might be prudent to investigate you in case you were some kind of violent criminal."
"A-A c-criminal?" he sputtered in disbelief. "I'm a monk! What did you think I was going to do to you?"
"Ah, but you don't deny the fact you've been stalking me," she teased, swinging her dangling legs back and forth.
"I was not stalking you. I-I…"
Artur sighed, unable to think of a suitable explanation. He supposed he had been stalking her in a way, though he certainly intended no malice toward her. He had only been intrigued by the girl who was nothing like he had expected.
"Don't worry, though," she continued on as if he hadn't protested her claim. "Your background check came back clean - a little too clean, if you ask me. Tell me something, Brother Artur, do you ever get in trouble, or are you really just that good?"
Artur frowned. "I'm not perfect, if that's what you're asking."
"Well, that's pretty obvious. I read that book you wrote on the revenants and caught an error or two in some of your claims. Still, I must say that it's becoming one of my favorites. I checked it out of the library, and, before I go to bed, I like to read a chapter or two for amusement."
Unsure if he should be insulted or pleased, Artur decided to take the middle road. "Well, I'm glad you are enjoying it, Miss…?"
"Oh, I haven't introduced myself! My name is Lute, mage prodigy and all-around genius extraordinaire."
Prodigy? Genius extraordinaire? She definitely was not what he had expected. "You're not very modest, are you, Lute?"
"Why bother when it's the truth?" she replied, twirling one of her two braids around her finger. "I'm not trying to be boastful. I'm just stating a fact, the same as saying the sky is blue or tomatoes are fruits."
"Tomatoes are fruits? I thought they were vegetables."
"That's actually a common misconception, but, according to To-MAY-to, To-MAH-to, because the tomato is the ovary of a flowering plant, it is in fact a fruit - a berry, if you want to get technical about it. You can verify it yourself if you'd like if you think I'm lying. It can be found in chapter one, page fifteen, second paragraph."
Artur shook his head, his neck beginning to ache from continuing to look up at her in the tree for so long. It would no doubt be sore tomorrow morning when he woke up for his prayers. "No, I believe you," he said, lightly massaging the strained muscles. "Lute, why don't you climb down from there? It doesn't look very safe. One of those branches could break at any time, and I don't want you to see you get hurt."
Lute, however, was not paying any attention to him, her amethyst eyes focused on something he was unable to see from his vantage point. She had the same intense look on her face as she did in the library when she was reading, her eyebrows furrowed together and her lips pursed in concentration.
She dismissively waved her hand in his general direction to show that she had heard him, but her eyes never left whatever had caught her interest. "Finally," Lute breathed, her voice full of awe as she inched a bit further up the branch for what Artur assumed was a better look. "I thought it would never happen."
"What did you think would never happen?" Artur asked, curious despite himself. He squinted, trying to find what she found so interesting, but he saw nothing but branches and leaves. "I can't see anything."
"Charlotte is spinning her web."
"Charlotte? You mean, a s-s-spider?"
Even though he still couldn't see anything, Artur found himself taking a large step backwards, his eyes darting around to make sure there weren't any other of the arachnids nearby, dangling off the branches from their silver threads. There weren't, but that didn't stop a small shiver from running up his spine, which appeared to highly amuse Lute, who had looked away from "Charlotte" long enough to see his reaction.
"Are you afraid of spiders, Brother Artur?"
"I-I have a small fear of them, it's true," he admitted sheepishly. "I was bitten once as a small boy and almost died, so I'm sure you can understand my uneasiness around them."
"I find them rather fascinating myself," she said, her attention back on the spider. Artur could just barely make out the beginnings of a web between two branches close to her head. "Yesterday, I finished reading Web of Lies: The Real Facts About Spiders, so I thought I would see for myself if the author was telling the truth. It was a stroke of luck that I came across Charlotte in this tree. It looks like she's ready to lay her eggs."
"You mean to say there's going to be more spiders living in that tree?"
"Over a thousand, actually. Isn't that amazing? Of course, Charlotte will probably die shortly after the eggs hatch, which is sad, I suppose, but just imagine all the cute children she'll leave behind."
"Spiders are hardly cute creatures, Lute," Artur said, suppressing another shudder. How anybody could find the eight-legged creatures anything other than horrifying was beyond him. "And you should come down from there right now before it bites you. What if that spider is dangerous?"
"She's not. Charlotte's a common house spider, perfectly harmless. They rarely bite, and even when they do, it's nothing serious."
"Even so, I would feel much better if you climbed back down from there. Please?"
Lute looked down at him, seeming to contemplate his request. For a long moment, she just sat there, unmoving, but, finally, she shrugged her shoulders and said, "Okay."
Artur let out the breath he hadn't realized he had been holding and stepped forward to help her down. Even though he barely knew the self-professed prodigy, he felt a strange sort of protectiveness toward the girl and was glad that she had come to her senses.
Taking her time, Lute slowly started her way back down the tree. Artur could tell she wasn't much of an athlete, as she almost lost her footing a number of times, so once she was far enough down the trunk, he placed his hands on her hips and told her to let go so he could catch her.
Unfortunately, Lute was heavier than she looked. The two of them toppled to the ground, Artur positioning himself so that he broke her fall. It inevitably put them in a rather compromising position, but Lute appeared completely oblivious to the blush he could feel spreading across his face like wildfire, for which he was grateful.
"Brother Artur, are you okay?" she asked, raising herself partially off of him and looking down at him with concern. "You aren't hurt, are you?"
Turning his face away from the optimal view he had of her modest cleavage, Artur nodded. "I-I'm fine," he assured her. "What about you? Did you hurt yourself?"
"I don't think so." Lute crawled off him and inspected herself for injuries, allowing Artur to sit back up. "I don't see anything…"
She did look relatively unscathed by the fall, but when she started to stand, Artur noticed a small gush of blood coming from her right knee. "Wait, you're bleeding!"
"What?" She looked down at where he was staring. "Oh, how did that happen?" she mused, not alarmed at all by the sight.
"Lute, sit down on that rock. I need to look at that," Artur said, standing and gently pushing her in the direction of a nearby boulder with one hand while the other tugged at the light blue scarf he always wore around his neck.
"It's just a scratch. Nothing to worry about. I'll clean it up when I get back home."
"Humor me, okay?"
"If you insist."
Lute plopped down on the large rock, her injured knee bent so she could better inspect the injury for herself. "It's really not that bad, Brother Artur," she insisted as he kneeled down in front of her.
Upon closer inspection, he saw that the blood had made it look a lot worse than it really was. The cut itself was fairly clean and superficial. It probably wouldn't require any special treatment besides a band-aid, but, to be on the safe side, Artur dunked one end of his scarf into the creek that ran through the woods and used it to the clean the scratch as best he could. He then wrapped the scarf around her knee to apply pressure and stop the bleeding.
"That's not too tight, is it?" he asked once he tied the scarf into a bow at the back of her knee.
She smiled. "It's perfect. Not too tight, not too loose. I couldn't have done it any better myself."
"Good. Do you think you can walk?"
In response to his question, Lute stood back up and took a few steps. She looked fine to the untrained eye, but Artur noticed she was trying to hide a small limp as she favored her uninjured leg. Turning around, he stooped down slightly and wiggled his fingers behind his back. "Climb on," he said, feeling her stare on his back. "I'll carry you back to the village."
"Brother Artur, thank you, but that's really not necessary. I'll be fi-"
"Please, just call me Artur," he said, "and I insist you let me carry you home."
"Well, when you put it that way… But you better not drop me!"
Lute came up behind Artur and wrapped her arms securely around his neck as he grabbed onto her legs and stood back up. Due to the added weight on his back, he almost toppled over, but Artur eventually found his center of balance and slowly began heading in the direction of their village.
They traveled mostly in silence save for the occasional squeal or gasp from Lute whenever something caught her eye. Artur got the distinct feeling that the young girl did not leave the village often, for it seemed as if even the most simple things, such as a flower in bloom or a mother bird feeding her young, could send her into a fit of excitement. If it weren't for the fact that it was nearing dusk and Artur wanted to get Lute back home before her parents began to worry, he wouldn't have minded stopping and letting her enjoy the sights more thoroughly, but he had to insist they keep going despite Lute's protests.
"We'll come back and explore some other time, when it isn't so late," he promised when she pouted.
The last rays of golden sunlight were just disappearing behind the horizon when Artur and Lute reached the entrance of the village. Lute told him that she would be fine walking the rest of the way, so Artur set her back down on the ground, though his chivalrous nature insisted he still walk her safely home. Outside the small house where she lived, an elderly woman with skin like a ripe prune stood waiting by the door, thumping her walking stick on the ground when she saw the two of them approaching.
"Lute, where have you've been?" the woman demanded to know. Her severe bun and sharp tone reminded Artur of a strict nun he once knew as a boy, but Lute didn't even flinch at the harshness of her voice. "You know very well I don't like you going off without tell me where you are going."
"I took a walk in the woods, Grams," Lute explained, greeting the old woman with a peck on the cheek. "Oh, I wish you could have seen all the adorable creatures we came across in our journey! Spiders and lizards and beetles… The forest is just such a menagerie of fascinating animals!"
"Granddaughter, I'm afraid you're becoming more and more like your parents everyday! They, too, always wanted to know more about the world and were never content to stay in one place, even at the expense of their family and responsibilities."
Lute's grandmother rubbed at her temple. "That wasn't a compliment, my dear," she sighed before finally noticing Artur and nodding in acknowledgement. "Ah, good evening, young man. Thank you for escorting Lute home. I do hope my granddaughter didn't cause you much trouble."
Artur instinctively straightened his posture, feeling as if he was being inspected by a military general. "N-No, none at all, ma'am."
"Grams, this is Artur. He's the monk at the monastery who has been stalking me," Lute said, introducing him to her grandmother and causing Artur to glare at the girl beside him.
"I told you, it wasn't like th-"
"But he is a rather nice man," she continued, "if a bit of a scaredy cat. Can you believe he's afraid of a tiny little spider?"
"It sounds as if he has a good head on his shoulders, if you ask me," the grandmother said. "Spiders are dangerous creatures, and you could stand to follow his example."
"Bah, they're just misunderstood," she insisted. "Now, who wants tea?"
The old woman and Artur shared a look of shared bewilderment as Lute entered the house without waiting for an answer. "Your granddaughter certainly is…unique," he said, wondering how Lute and the woman in front of him could possibly be related. The two of them seemed as different as night and day.
"She's exactly like my husband and my son," she declared, her voice almost wistful for a moment before it reverted back to its natural gravelly timbre. "Well, young man, would you care to stay for tea?"
Artur started to accept the kind offer, but it was almost time for evening prayers. He needed to get back to the monastery. "Perhaps some other time," he said, declining. "I should be heading home now. Please tell Lute good-bye for me, and that I hope we run into each other again soon."
"I will, and please do come again. It's so nice that Lute has finally found a friend. Good night, Brother Artur."
"Good night, ma'am."
Artur waited until the elderly lady had gone back inside the house before turning to leave. He was halfway down the dirt path leading up to the entrance when he heard the door open and somebody come out. Turning around, he saw that it was Lute, her knee now properly bandaged up. She held out his sopping wet scarf, which she had evidently just finished washing, and called out, "Don't forget this, Artur!"
Artur walked back over to retrieve the scarf, frowning when he saw that she hadn't been able to get all the blood out of it, though she had certainly tried. The scarf, which originally had been a pale cornflower blue, was covered with bleach and blood stains, and the thread at one of the ends was unraveling. Upon seeing it was in no condition to be worn again, he handed it back to Lute.
"Why don't you keep it?" he suggested. "I have several more at the monastery, so I won't miss it."
"I can keep it?" she asked, sounding a bit like a child asking her parents' permission to adopt a lost kitten who had followed her home. "Really?"
"Uh…sure. It's just a scarf."
"Thank you!" Though the scarf was still wet, Lute threw it around her neck, accidentally spraying Artur with the excess water in the process. "It's so beautiful! I'll treasure it always."
Artur raised an eyebrow, amused by her reaction to the gift. "Lute, you really do march to the beat of your own drummer, don't you?"
"Thank you," she said again, still admiring her new scarf.
Instead of remarking that he hadn't exactly meant that as a compliment, Artur just shook his head and smiled as the strange girl said her good-bye and headed back inside. Lute may not have been the most conventional of people, but he couldn't help but think that was part of her charm.
As he headed back to the monastery, smiling to himself, Artur decided he would definitely take the old woman up on her offer to visit again.