Not Magic Enough and Setting Boundaries - By Valerie Douglas

Chapter One

The pounding on the heavy wood of the doors of the homestead sounded loudly above the shriek and howl of the storm raging outside. Pulling on her threadbare robe - only half-awake - Delae ran across the cold stone floors in her bare feet to answer it, rubbing her eyes wearily. Doubtless, her aged cook and houseman had been roused, too, by the pounding, and were on their way from their quarters at the back of the homestead - but she was the closer of them. She hated to ask Petra or Hallis to sit by the door of a night, as many landowners did - any more than she set a guard by the gates as many others did. They weren’t so far from the seat of the lesser Kingdom of Riverford that they had much to fear behind stout walls.

Who would be mad enough to be out in such a storm as this? She wondered. It was early in the night, true, but it was still insanity to be caught so far from shelter.

Lifting the bar, she set it aside and released the latch.

The door opened on a blast of wet snow and wind that struck her like a blow - to reveal a stranger standing there, looking windblown, frozen, battered and desperate. She caught him as he almost fell in the door - a young, plain-looking man - a farmer or tradesman, a traveler of some sort not used to the vagaries of the weather at the edges of the Kingdoms. His ragged brown hair was drenched, his clothing soaked, his skin white and his lips nearly blue from the cold.

“Help,” he whispered as he staggered into the relative warmth of the great room.

The fire in the fireplace that dominated the whole of one wall was banked to coals but it still heated the room beyond the chill of the weather outside.

He was clearly injured, with blood covering one side of his face.

“My family,” he croaked, weakly, “the wagon, it overturned. We were on our way home from the birthing…”

“Hush, hush,” Delae said, gently, reassuringly, as she took his weight on her shoulders and guided him to the padded bench by the fire. “What’s your name?”

“Marlan. Lady, you have to help them…!”

“Of course I do,” she said, kindly, although it was no more than her duty as landowner, but also because people needed aid. “We’ll help them, I promised. What happened, Marlan? Where are they?”

“We were coming from Raven’s Nest, heading south for the Heartlands. My sister Jessa had her baby, we were coming home,” Marlan said. His next words were bitter and angry. “Pa thought we could make it to Riverford before the storm hit. I kept telling him no, we should stop at the last village but you can’t tell him anything. So we pressed on.”

As he spoke, Petra and Hallis rushed in. With a shake of her head, Delae indicated they shouldn’t speak.

There was no need, at the young man’s words both turned to rush back down the hall to do what was needed, Petra to get the kitchens going and Hallis to gather up blankets.

“I told him we needed to stop, hunker down to wait out the storm but he wouldn’t,” Marlan said. From the way he spoke, it had the sound of an old complaint, much voiced and now tragically vindicated. “The wagon overturned.”

“Where?” Delae asked. “On the road?”

“Yes, Mistress,” he said, respectfully, as Hallis returned to drape a blanket over his shoulders.

“Petra is making soup, my lady, there will be food soon,” Hallis said, his heart aching for his poor mistress as he bent stiffly to stir up the fire, wrestling another log into place. Tall and spare - his gray hair sparse - Hallis’s hands were knotted with age, bent and twisted.

Hallis looked at his mistress kneeling by the young man. She was such a pretty young woman with a kind, gentle face and a good heart, as graceful as the dancer she’d been in her youth. Tightly curled hair glowed red and gold in the light of the coals, her dark blue eyes were focused only on the young man.

In truth, most landowners would already have put him and Petra to work as drudges in the kitchens or as lesser house staff by now and there were a good many that would’ve put them out to beg on the streets. Neither of them could move fast any more.

Not Delae though. For kindness mostly but also for good reason as