I sat on a carved wooden bench in my favorite corner in the vegetable garden, watching the boys at their morning sword practice with my father and wishing I was out there with them. My brother Blane, nineteen-years-old and blond like Father, was easily besting the duke's son Kerr, as he usually did.
My favorite of the pure black cats inhabiting the Manor jumped up on my lap, licked a paw, then curled up and promptly fell asleep. It was that kind of warm summer day when, if I wasn't with the boys, I didn't want to do anything more than sit in the shade of the old apple tree and inhale its sweet scent. Since I was ten I've dreamed of learning to feint and parry, thrust and slice like Blane, Kerr, and my other brother Donal. But I'm a girl and it wasn't seemly.
Girls of ten to twenty were relegated to the sewing room where Jannet, the governess and seamstress, taught us the fine art of needlepoint. I couldn't sew a straight line to save myself, and I really wasn't interested in learning. Our only other lessons were in the kitchens. Cook – whose name was Bridey although no one ever called her anything but Cook, not even her husband – taught us to boil an egg and make soup from whatever was available. That wasn't so bad, because we could eat what we made and no one else was the wiser when it tasted awful.
Blane won his match, and next Donal fought a duel with Adair, the duke's younger son. I watched them closely, Donal's red hair and Adair's blond shining in the sun. I hoped I could learn by paying close attention, if not by actually using a sword. Mind you, these were short practice swords, not meant to do much damage. Donal appeared to do much better than I'd seen in the past.
I was startled when someone sat next to me on the bench. It was Madoc, the Manor's resident wizard. I never heard him coming, and yet suddenly he was there, like magic, which was what he wanted everyone to believe.
"Donal has improved, hasn't he?" Madoc hadn't lost his East Island accent. You would think a wizard would do something about that, but his kind of magic came from knowing what others had long forgotten. All I knew was that things had been different in the past. He had knowledge from reading ancient texts and passed some of it on to the boys.
I looked into his warm, dark eyes. "Yes. His movements are more..." I strove to find the right word. "more fluid." I waved my arms about, imitating my brother.
"He's learned how to become one with his sword," Madoc said. "Notice how Adair has to work to make the sword do what he wants, but Donal lets his sword go where it should."
I turned to him. "Did you teach him that?"
"Your brothers both have some magical talent, an understanding of how to connect with everything around them," Madoc explained. "I just helped Donal to recognize how to use that."
"Oh." As much as I wished I’d be allowed to learn to use a sword, my desire to study magic with Madoc was even greater.
He'd come to the Manor when I was eight. The duke's previous wizard was getting old and the duke wanted a younger man to take his place, although I doubt he expected a lad of sixteen. Madoc had shown his abilities on several occasions, despite his youth. He taught the boys who were interested in his art, and gave all of them lessons in science as well.
Now, eight years after his arrival, he was part of our lives, and no one questioned his ability.
“Why aren't you in the sewing room with Morna and the other girls?” he asked.
“I hate sewing.” I hesitated about going on, but the need to tell someone who might help make it happen was too strong. “I would rather learn to sword fight and do magic.” There, I'd said it.
He looked deeply into my eyes and asked, “Why do you hate to sew?”
I shrugged. “I'm not very good at it.”
“Do you hate it because you're not good at it, or are you not very good at it because you hate it?”
That was a question I'd never considered. “Do you think if I liked sewing and thought it would somehow be useful, I'd be better at it?”
Then he really surprised me. “Nissa, you probably have as much magical ability as Blane and Donal.” He paused briefly while I considered that and what it had to do with what we'd been talking about. “Just as your brothers use the energy around us to guide a sword arm, you can learn to use it to improve your sewing.”
I swallowed. “Would you teach me?” I dared to ask. “I mean, show me how, as you've shown them?”
He stared at me for so long that I was afraid he was preparing to refuse, but then he surprised me one more time. “Meet me in my rooms this afternoon when the boys return here for sword practice, and we'll see how good a pupil you can be.”
I thought I would burst with happiness. Madoc was going to teach me to do magic, or rather how to use it!
“I'll be there!” I said. He laughed, but it was a friendly laugh.
The cat woke just then and jumped off my lap. “Well, I guess I'd better get back to Jannet before anyone misses me.”
I could feel his eyes on me as I walked off. It was more of a skip than a walk as I made my way through a wooden side door and down the narrow hallway inside the Manor. But my good mood dissipated when I entered the room where my fourteen-year-old sister Morna and a few other girls sat at two tables, hemming the cloth napkins they would later embroider.
“Narissa Day, where have you been?” Jannet asked, her broad accent deepening with her annoyance. Few people called me by my full name, but usually it was when they wanted to scold me.
“I...I needed some air,” I replied. It was true that this room was stuffy. Lint from the linen cloth we worked with hung in the still air and I could actually see it when the light came through the two tiny east windows that early in the morning.
“Well, you're falling behind. Morna, show your sister what she's to do,” Jannet instructed.
“Yes, Ma'am,” Morna said, smiling her usual radiant smile. She still hadn't outgrown the sprinkle of freckles across her nose, and her bright red hair cascaded over her shoulders. You had to smile with Morna whenever you looked at her.
For the next hour or so, I worked diligently at hemming large squares of cloth under Jannet's critical eye, hoping that my lesson with Madoc in the afternoon would make this task much more pleasant in the future. The time passed slowly on the old hourglass Jannet used to time our work. I was always the last to finish.
Well, this time my finished hems were more or less straight and my stitches were even smaller and more even than Larena's. She was the duke's daughter, and the second worst seamstress after me.
“Very well, ladies. You may all wash up and go to luncheon,” Jannet said.
We stood up and then trooped out toward the dining hall, stopping at the trough just outside to rinse off our hands before we ate. The hall was already filling up. The boys, hungry after their exertions on the practice field, were lined up to get their food. I just hoped they'd leave something for the rest of us.
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