Keisha worked in her healer’s cottage, sorting out packets of cold remedies for future use. Each small basket was easy to tuck into her regular carry-bag, and contained throat soothers, herbs for soup, teas, and other items to make the sick villagers more comfortable while they recovered from the colds that inevitably cropped up during the fall. She concentrated on the familiar task, hoping to clear her mind from the unsettling thoughts that crowded her head.
For one, the Harvest Faire was coming up, and she wanted to go. Now that Nightwind had taught her how to shield properly, the event would be less fraught with the anxiety, elation, and illness of Errold’s Grove. The events of that frightening night, when she had saved little Jendy’s life, no longer gave her nightmares. Instead, she finally felt proud of herself. She deserved a little celebration of her own.
And there was that tiny part of her that wanted Darian to see her as something other than a healer.
They were friends—she was sure of that. She just wasn’t sure how to express her interest in him, in something a little closer than friendship. Keisha knew what the girls of Errold’s Grove would do—they would put themselves in his path. Pick berries along the edge of the field where the object of their affection was working. Ask them for help carrying water or wood. Bake a special bread or pie and bring it to them for lunch. That sort of thing.
Unfortunately, Keisha was not that kind of girl. She was far too busy with her Healing duties to take time out of her day to drape herself around Darian, and he was busy as well with his lessons with Firesong and his work at the Vale. And…she had never been as good at that sort of thing as Shandi.
With a sigh, she tucked the last packet of herbs in the final small basket. That should be enough to last through the next few days, if the weather held. She had a training session with Nightwind and Kelvren this afternoon, and a dyheli would be coming for her soon. Keisha packed her travel basket with her notebook and some embroidery, in case she had any free moments. Her sessions with Nightwind were interesting and helpful in her training—sometimes she felt like a field getting watered after a drought! It felt wonderful to be able to use her Gift properly.
A hoof stamp at the door brought Keisha outside to meet her dyheli volunteer. They used Mindspeech to chat about the harvest, and what to watch out for in autumn in the Errolds Grove area. The villagers were now used to seeing dyheli about, and waved at Keisha on her way to K’Valdemar.
Good, Keisha thought to herself, shielding tightly to keep from bothering the dyheli with her thoughts. They won’t come looking for me at the cottage; people will know to send a runner to K’Valdemar if there is an emergency.
With that matter settled, she relaxed and enjoyed her ride to her lesson.
The lesson went well, with Keisha taking lead on healing a greenstick fracture on an arm of one of the younger scouts. Tayledras were healthy in general, but accidents did happen.
Afterwards, as they were walking to the eating area, Keisha screwed up her courage. “Nightwind, how did Snowfire let you know he was…interested?”
Nightwind raised an inquiring eyebrow. “Dare I guess your real reason for asking this very personal and impertinent question?” Her warm smile eased Keisha’s discomfort. “We worked together as part of a scout team when I first came to the Vales. He was very good at helping Kelvren get used to the differences between the Pelagirs and White Gryphon, and that helped me as well.”
They reached the communal kitchen, and Nightwind took a break while they gathered lunch. When they sat down to eat, she continued. “To someone from White Gryphon, the Tayledras are very attractive in a way that is both different and similar. Did you learn about the history there?”
Keisha nodded. “The Kaled’a’in who left after the mage wars stayed Kaled’a’in, while the ones who stayed split into the Tayledras and the Shin’a’in. Darian talked to me about it, and Shandi wrote about what she learned about the change-circles and the history behind them.” She shook her head. “It’s a little difficult sometimes to think about these huge events, and how they still impacted us here in our corner of Valdemar.”
“So,” said Nightwind, “You know of the history behind our peoples. Though we spring from the same root, we have branched in different pathways. And that includes in courting.” Nightwind laughed. “I didn’t understand why Snowfire kept giving me flowers, then feathers. I would accept them and walk away. Finally, one of the White Gryphon hertasi conferred with her k’Vala compatriots, and explained to me that the gifts were an expression of desire, of intimacy, and all I could say was ‘well, why didn’t he say something?’ She laughed, and the sound rippled through the quiet glade.
Keisha laughed with her, then sobered. “But what if you aren’t quite ready? I mean, I’m interested, but…” She sighed, unable to express the jumble of feelings, and felt them leak outward.
“Shields.” Nightwind said, and patted Keisha’s hand. “You take your time, and let him know how you are feeling. Darian isn’t going to push, and he did spend his childhood in Errold’s Grove. If anything, he’ll want to go slow as well.”
Keisha smiled weakly. “That’s kind of a relief.”
“Now,” said Nightwind. “Isn’t your Harvest Faire coming up?”
This year, the Harvest Faire in Errold’s Grove was going to be the largest yet. Not only were the new Tayledras part of the festivities, but there was still a sizable contingent of Skybolts under the command of one on Captain Kerowyn’s lieutenants, and Ghost Cat tribe wanted to attend and possibly trade as well.
The large Faires in spring, summer, and fall were primarily about trade, but also about celebrating. It was a chance to relax, for the young people of Errold’s Grove to dance and spend time together that wasn’t working on the farm or in the house. Many betrothals were made at the Faires, and weddings often followed within the month.
Darian and Keisha walked through the crowds surrounding the faire vendors, stopping to browse at the various booths. Now that she had been taught to shield, Keisha found the Faire much more enjoyable than she had before, even when Shandi was here. The crowds were thick enough that Darian offered his arm to keep them from being separated by boisterous groups of soldiers, youngsters, and courting couples.
“I remember the faire being smaller,” said Darian.
Keisha smiled. “It was. But the first faire after the big fight, Lord Breon made sure that he and some of his crafters came to Errolds Grove for the faires. Then the Fellowship came, and that brought more traders. More traders meant more dye hunters and trappers, and even more craftsmen moved here. Now…you see how it grew!’
“The town has grown a lot too,” Darian said. “There are more houses, newer houses where the north field used to be. Houses closer to the forest as well.”
“Is that good?” asked Keisha.
“I think so. I think it means people feel safer closer to the forest.” Darian stopped suddenly to let a string of children, waving kites and streamers, run by. “When did that start?”
“After Mandy Lutter’s best sheets were snatched off her line and ripped up to make kites. For once, my brothers were not involved.”
Darian laughed, and Keisha laughed with him. He had a good laugh—unforced and happy. Keisha liked it. “When was this?”
“About two years after you left.” Keisha leaned closer to him to avoid two soldiers walking through the crowd, arms full of packages. “Is there anywhere you want to go?”
“Not particularly. What about you?”
Keisha thought for a moment. “I usually stop by the dyers, and see Steelmind for any plants. But right now it is so crowded that we won’t get the chance...”
“KEISHA!” A familiar voice cut through the noise of the market, and the crowds fell silent. Keisha instantly ran towards her brother’s voice, with Darian right behind her.
Trey spotted them and waved frantically. Keisha sped up—she knew her oldest brothers were participating in some of the competitions. Was one of them hurt?
She reached Trey, panting a little, with Darian next to her, not at all winded. “What is it? What happened?”
“Hammer throw. Rafe was off, somehow, It landed on his leg, and Keisha…” Trey looked green, and Keisha could guess what had happened.
“Are the others about?”
Trey nodded. “Rondey and Da are with him. They send me to find you.”
“Right.” Keisha turned to Darian, “I’m sorry, I have to go…”
Darian touched her arm. “I’m staying with you. If you need the extra energy, I’ll be right there.”
Keisha gave him a small smile. “I’d appreciate that. Let’s go, Trey.”
Trey led them to the competition field, and the circle around her brother opened at her approach. Her father got up from where he knelt next to his son. “They’ve gone for the stretcher,” he said. She could tell he was a little frightened for his son, and when she looked at Rafe she could see why.
Blood seeped into the grass of the recently mown field, and part of Rafe’s shinbone protruded from his lower leg. Keisha sank to the ground next to her brother, who was looking up at the sky and breathing quickly. She could tell he was trying to hide his pain, and about to go into shock.
“Rafe,” she said. “Look at me.” She took his face in her hands and turned his head towards her. “You are going to be fine, you hear me? I will fix this, and you will be in the fields before Da needs your help preparing for winter.” She felt, rather than saw, two of the strong young men she had trained as stretcher bearers approach. “We’re going to move you onto the stretcher, and it’s going to hurt. But it will be over soon, and we’ll get you to my cottage that much quicker.” She looked into her brother’s eyes, the brother who teased her and made her angry, but had also carved a wooden tea set for her ninth birthday. “Do you understand?”
Rafe’s skin shone with sweat, and he was gritting his teeth against the pain, but he nodded at her. Keisha moved around to stay at his head while he was moved onto the stretcher and lifted. She couldn’t completely block his pain, but she could keep him calm and keep him from screaming until she could get some poppy into him.
She glanced at Darian and sent a quick thought to him. :Can you contact Nightwind? I’ll need her for this.: Darian nodded, and as he took one of the stretcher handles, she could almost feel him reaching out to Kuari.
:Done.: Darian sent, and then they were walking as quickly and smoothly as possible to her cottage.
“Trey!” Keisha called. “Will you go into my cottage and make sure that the table is clear? Just put anything on it on the counter.” Fear for his brother still clear on his face, Trey nodded and dashed ahead.
She concentrated on Rafe, murmuring to him to keep him calm, and was happy to see Nightwind at the cottage already. “Hello Nightwind,” she said, keeping her voice light, “My brother decided to see how much I’ve learned so far.” She heard a strangled sound from her father, as if he was trying not to laugh or cry at the same time.
Together they brought Rafe inside the cottage, and Nightwind shooed everyone out except for Darian and Ayver. “Ayver, we may need your strength, and Rafe and Keisha trust you, so you will help keep him calm. Ayver nodded his assent, and looked down at his son.
With that, they set to work. First, Keisha dosed her brother with poppy to keep him still and out of pain. Nightwind nodded as she saw Keisha using her Gift to make sure her brother—nearly six feet tall and built like an oak—got the right dosage. Then the two of them checked the leg.
:This isn’t good.: Keisha sent to Nightwind. :There are more little pieces than I’ve worked with before.:
:You can do this. It is like the greenstick, only further apart.: With that, Nightwind showed Keisha how to move the bone back into place and collect the bone fragments where they could and put them back into place. :You can’t leave any fragments, because they can cause blood poisoning and other problems.:
Together they rebuilt Rafe’s leg, stitched together the layers of muscle and skin, and set it in a cast using a Tayledras mixture that would dry hard and keep the leg immobile until it healed. Darian helped by feeding them healing energy, allowing the two healers to concentrate on Healing, and not their energy levels. They finished well before Rafe woke up, and called for a cart to bring Rafe to the family home.
“Da, he should go in the front room. He’ll need help getting to the privy and back, but the boys can do that. I’ll check on him every day, but call me if he seems feverish or anything seems wrong.” Keisha looked into Ayver’s eyes. “Maybe this will keep him from fooling around with hammers to prove his strength!”
Ayver managed a crooked smile.
Once Rafe was settled and the cottage cleaned of blood and mess, Keisha sat in her chair, while Darian sat at the table and rested his head in his hand. “This isn’t how I planned the day, you know,” he said in a conversational tone. “I wanted to see the faire through your eyes, and ask you to dance.”
Keisha dropped her head back on her chair. “I would have really liked that. I’ve never danced at the dance. I was always too busy dealing with the drunks and fights.” She sighed. “Unfortunately, that was really tiring, even though you shared the energy. It was mentally exhausting, you know?”
“Yes, like learning new magic, only on someone who is close to you,” said Darian. “Did that make it worse, or better?”
“Both?” said Keisha. She thought for a moment. “Better, because I know Rafe, and he’s not good with his own blood. I knew to divert his thoughts. But worse, because he is my big brother, and when the barn cat had kittens he picked out the prettiest for me. He made toys for me, and for Shandi, but I always thought he gave me the nicer ones.” Suddenly all of the emotions that she had been locking down burst to the surface, and she covered her face, trying to stop her sobbing.
She felt Darian put his shields around her—hers were in tatters—and he moved closer and put his arms around her. Keisha knew he wanted to comfort her, and she cried into his chest until she felt that horrible tightness ease.
When she finally sat up, he handed her a soft cloth to bathe her eyes. She smiled at him in thanks, and he smiled back.
Though it wasn’t what she had hoped for when talking to Nightwind, it was still a good start.
Winter Festival in k’Valdemar
Firesong himself invited Keisha to the Winter Festival. Errold’s Grove celebrated the solstice with a solemn service at the temple, after which families would feast together, extinguishing all fires to relight them at midnight. The Fellowship welcomed anyone who would be alone to share in their feast, and it was generally a quiet night.
One of the older healers volunteered to stay in Errold’s Grove, sharing the celebration with the Fellowship, so that Keisha could stay in K’Valdemar Vale. She thanked him humbly, but the senior healer waved her off with a smile. “It’ll be a relief from soldiers drinking themselves into a stupor,” he said, and told her to leave for her few days away with a good conscience.
Once she arrived at the Vale and settled in, Darian came to see her with chief hertasi Ayshen.
“We have, well, the hertasi have a question for you.” Darian glanced at Ayshen. “They would like to do something special for you for the Winter Solstice. However, they weren’t sure how you would react, so they asked me to talk to you.”
Keisha was confused. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing is wrong, exactly,” said Ayshen. “We simply wish to offer you a gift, and do not want you to take offense.”
Still confused, Keisha looked from Darian to Ayshen and back again. “I don’t think I would be offended by a gift from the hertasi.”
“Good!” said Ayshen. “We will bring it before the gathering tonight.” With that, he disappeared from the room.
Keisha asked “What does he mean?”
“Well, you said you wouldn’t be offended by the gift. Which will most likely be an outfit for tonight’s celebration.” Darian sighed. “Hertasi love dressing us up—you see that most of my clothes are a combination of Valdemaran and Tayledras styles? They will most likely do something similar for you.”
“I hadn’t thought of something special to wear,” said Keisha. “Most of what I have gets dirty so quickly—you remember what happened at Harvest.”
“Blood all over your Faire outfit.”
"The hertasi did manage to get the blood out. I was thinking of wearing it tonight.” Keisha worried for a moment. “Would that be wrong for a Tayledras celebration?”
Darian thought briefly. “The hertasi consider clothing and outfit creation art. It would probably upset them if you wore your own clothes rather than what they worked so very hard to create for you.”
“Then I’ll wear it,” Keisha smiled. “Their gift will at least be something different, and hopefully a Tayledras party won’t involve any broken legs!”
“If it does,” said Darian, “will you promise to let Nightwind take care of it?”
Later that afternoon, a hertasi who greeted Keisha at her guest house. She didn’t recognize her, but the lack of shyness showed that she was from White Gryphon. “I am Mereen, Keisha-Guest, and your bath is ready.”
Keisha was ready to relax after a day of training with both Firesong and Nightwind in how to work closely with mages for healing. This process required her to hold her mind in a certain state of both relaxation and attention; she knew it would take time and practice to be completely comfortable.
The bath held herbs that rose on the warm vapor, and she felt her muscles and mind relax completely. She washed her hair quickly to allow herself more time to relax, until the light tap on the door to the bathing room roused her. Keisha toweled herself dry and wrapped herself in a robe over fresh undergarments.
Mereen held up the outfit for her to see. The garment was a silk long tunic cut to flow easily over her body, with a slightly darker long vest to go over it. The silk shimmered through shades of blue and green, with silver embroidery twining in interlocking spirals. The style was a blend of the fluid and comfortable Tayledras fashion with the simple lines of clothing from Valdemar.
It was simply the most beautiful dress Keisha had ever seen, and she gasped in delight. “Oh, Mereen, thank you! I’ve never seen anything so exquisite!”
Mereen sounded pleased at her reaction. “Let’s get you dressed and style your hair, and then you will be exquisite!”
Later, when she was dancing with Darian, Keisha felt like she was glowing with joy. Darian’s smile reflected that joy, and she was happier than she had been in a long time.
Just before midnight, the moment of the turning of the year, Darian pulled her aside. “Keisha, I have something special for you.” He held out a small satin pouch. Keisha opened it to find a hair clasp, decorated with a grey feather and tiny glass beads in blues and greens.
Keisha cupped it gently in her hands. “Is it one of Kuari’s feathers?”
Darian shook his head. “ The hertasi keep molted feathers for artwork. I know you’ve been talking to Nightwind, and what a feather means to the Tayledras. I didn’t want to pressure you.”
Keisha looked up at him, at the expression on his face. “It is beautiful. Will you?” She handed it back to him, keeping the pouch. She held her breath. This was important to him, and to her as well. It meant they were more than friends.
Carefully, Darian placed the clasp in her hair, and then tipped her chin up to kiss her. The feel of his kiss was intoxicating; waves of emotion, both hers and his, washed through Keisha, nearly overwhelming her. The feel of his hands on her waist, his mouth on her, was so much more than her secret dreaming. The pulse of his blood echoed hers, and warmth rushed through her.
Keisha stepped back to catch her breath, and all the lights went out. The only glow was from Aya’s feathers as he rested on Firesong’s shoulder. She leaned forward into Darian’s arms, and together they watched Firesong magically relight the hearth fire, symbolizing the start of the new year.
Things weren’t perfect, of course. Both of them were busy with their duties, but they saw each other as often as they could. The time spent together was treasured, mostly because they had so little of it. Darian and Keisha understood each other’s responsibilities, and that made them more careful about scheduling time as a couple.
They made plans for the Spring Faire, to walk around the vendors and dance the evening away in the town square. Possibly even attend the picnic the next day in the fields to encourage them to grow.
Unfortunately, the newest group of Northern tribesman brought a particularly virulent strain of the Summer Fever, and Keisha spent three weeks in quarantine with the tribesman and three other Sanctuary healers. Darian had Kuari bring letters to Keisha in Sanctuary, and Keisha wrote back each night, detailing the day’s work and promising Darian that she was not ill and in no danger at all. Kuari was patient with her, allowing her to remove and attach the letters calmly.
(She was in danger, though not ill, and he knew it. He knew the promises were out of her deepening feelings for him.)
When the cure was found and the quarantine lifted, Darian was right there to greet Keisha and whisk her away for some much needed rest and comfort.
Keisha could hardly believe that it had been a little over a year since the Tayledras came and K’Valdemar Vale opened. Rondey was married and living at the farm with Trey helping out. Rafe was pledged to the baker’s daughter and apprenticed to the blacksmith. He didn’t limp at all; though his bones did complain a little with the change of seasons.
And Keisha had bloomed. Her newfound confidence in her skills led to the same in other parts of her life. She had passed along the dyeing techniques from Shandi to interested people in both Errold’s Grove and the Vale. She was able to take time in the evenings to relax and chat over handiwork, whether it was with the women of the village or Nightwind and Ravenwing in the Vale. She was valued as a Healer, had her own space, and a wonderful suitor in Darian who truly loved her.
She was happy.
Tonight was a small gathering at the Vale for Darian’s birthing day. Mostly it was his particular close Tayledras kin and friends, and Keisha. She knew exactly what she wanted to bring him.
Carefully she prepared the gift, making sure that it would stay fresh throughout the ride. Mereen had given her a pot glazed with the stylized owls that were Darian’s symbol. She hoped he would understand the meaning of the present.
The celebration started with laughter. Snowfire told the story of how he first met young Darian fleeing from the barbarian fighters, and though Keisha knew how terrifying it must have been at the time, Snowfire’s description of this child preparing to shoot a barbarian with his tiny, home fletched arrows was hilarious. Tyrsell, Kelvren, and Ayshen shared their earliest memories of Darian, who laughed at his childish moments along with everyone else.
Ayshen, with Mereen’s assistance, outdid himself preparing Darian’s favorite foods. Tiny, beautifully crafted bites were provided, along with trays of cooled wine and cider to drink. As the evening wore on and gifts were opened, the boisterous laughter quieted to smiles, and Aya trilled a secret song.
Keisha looked around the glade. Firesong was resting against Silverfox’s shoulder. Snowfire leaned against a tree with Nightwind sitting between his legs, her hands lightly covering his. Wintersky had wandered off to find his current partner. Tyrsell and Ayshen had left, and Kelvren had long sing flown off to his roost. Keisha herself was curled next to Darian. She wanted to give him her gift, but not in front of anyone, even these closest friends.
Nightwind looked up at Snowfire. “I’m feeling tired.” As if that were a signal, the other two couples stood and prepared to leave, giving Darian final birthday wishes. Unseen by anyone else, Nightwind gave Keisha an encouraging wink.
Finally, they were alone.
“Darian, I have my gift for you in the guest house. Will you come with me?” she asked shyly.
“I would like that very much,” answered Darian.
Hand in hand, they walked to the guest house. The Vale was quiet, with occasional bird calls and singing insects blending with the wind in the trees. Once they were inside, Keisha asked him to wait, and brought the gift from her sleeping room.
She held out the pot to him. “It is a root plant from my climbing roses, the ones trained over the back trellis in my garden in Errold’s Grove.” Darian took the pot from her with one hand, and with the other touched the petals of the white rose. He looked at her, wonder in his eyes. “I don’t have a bird,” said Keisha, “But I was told that the gift of a flower is like the gift of a feather. This is from a rose vine grown in my garden, that came from a vine grown in my parents’ garden.” She looked at him, and cupped his hand holding the pot in both of her hands. “I raised this rose from a cutting, and I would very much like you to have this cutting for yourself.”
“Keisha,” Darian breathed. “This means so much to me.”
Carefully, he placed the rose cutting on the floor and caught Keisha’s hands in his own. “Thank you. For giving me a piece of yourself.”
They kissed, and Keisha felt her fears melt away in the warmth of their love.