He leaned back, wiping the sweat from his brow with a grimy handkerchief. Lacet murmured his thanks as he accepted the skin of water that the old farmer handed to him. Taking two gulps, he returned it and turned his attention back to the bleating goat. Strange how his life had diverged so thoroughly from the path he had planned. Animal husbandry had never crossed his mind fourteen years ago at his graduation. Yet here he was, in the thick of it all. Tending to a foolish billy goat that had escaped its pen.
It was clear that he had not thought through the idea of becoming an apothecary in a rural town.
The poultices he had to mix for a whole host of animals required different ingredients from what he had rote learned in the Academy in his healing classes. Of course, those had been aimed for humans. What might be perfectly fine for a human could be poisonous for animals. Doses needed to be carefully measured.
Even worse was the fact that sheep, cows, and horses could not be relied upon to understand that he was trying to help. Lacet could not count how many times he had been bitten when he tried to administer potions to the blasted creatures.
Still, over the years, he had learned that patience and a calming voice worked wonders. And not just with animals. Raising Idana had been a challenge. He had experienced his best moments with his young charge. But his most aggravating and frustrating arguments had also stemmed from her as well. There had been many a day that he thought it easier to look after a rabid dog instead.
Although, now that he thought about it, Idana had not been so bad ever since he had agreed to treat her more as an equal and relenting a little when it came to her lessons. She could still push all the wrong buttons and send him spiralling into a temper. Most days, however, she had learned discretion. When before, she would challenge him, she had bitten her tongue. There was a maturity about her now. It made sense. After all, she was nearing fifteen. There were many that chose to marry at her age or struck out on their own as journeymen apprentices.
Drawing in the flow of energy around him, Lacet focused his wayward thoughts towards the beast struggling beneath his hands. Ever so gently, he sent the magic to knit the torn tissue and set up a stasis on the left hindleg. The goat stilled, sensing that he was trying to help.
"I've done what I can to heal the damage but it's best if you splinter that up and make sure that he doesn't put much weight on it for a couple days," said Lacet once he was sure that the magic was doing its work. Rummaging through his satchel, he took out a small bottle. "Here, take this. It's a salve that will help speed up the healing. Rub it in thoroughly. And if there's still some spare, you can use it yourself for when the bones start creaking once winter has well and truly settled in."
The farmer took it, thankful. "We wouldn't know what to do without you Lacet. Your services have been a boon to us and we're mighty grateful that you decided to stay as long as you have."
Lacet dismissed the comment with a wave of his hand. "I'm sure that any number of travelling apothecaries could have done the same."
"You've the magic in you, boy," said the farmer, shaking his head. "Not many can claim to have that."
"What I can do is nothing special. Most of the potions I brew could just as easily be made with someone without the gift. What's important is this," Lacet pointed to his chest, right above his heart. "Now, if that will be all, I must be on my way."
Within minutes, he was trekking back down the winding dirt path, the bags of his trade in one hand and Minerva on his shoulder. His coin purse was a little heavier, but so were his leaden limbs. The morning had taken its toll and the afternoon looked no better.
Amoleth above, but the last few days must have been exhausting if he was drawing parallels with a diseased pet and Idana. She did not deserve the cruel words he had spat at her the day before. What more could she have done when he continued to refuse to disclose why it was imperative that she stay inside? And she had left a note. He had simply been too tired to notice it on the table.
All that had mattered at the moment was the fact that she had not been where she was supposed to be. When he had stumbled through the doorway and seen her missing, Lacet had panicked. Moments later, she had nonchalantly appeared behind him, humming a tuneless melody that set his teeth to grinding.
He owed her a proper apology, decided Lacet as he arrived at the centre of town.
People hurried through the wide streets, going about their business at day's end. Dusk was just an hour away. Most of the shops had already closed but if he was quick enough, Lacet knew he might have enough time to find the perfect present.
The town of Lastrune sat on the western banks of the mighty Frostlight River. Though it had begun its life as a logging camp, that had all changed with the discovery of gold in the region. For several decades, Lastrune had enjoyed an unprecedent amount of prosperity. When the clamour for the precious metal had died down, Lastrune lost most of its business as prospectors and traders looked elsewhere. Despite that, it had managed to survive.
And it was here, after years of wandering through the kingdom, that Lacet had decided to stay.
At the time, it was supposed to be temporary. A month, at most. Both he and Idana had needed a place to simply disappear. Yet, as the seasons turned and he had established himself as a reliable man of science, it had become much more difficult to vanish into the night.
Lacet stopped before a nondescript shop. He peered through the thick glass, inspecting the wares that were on display. Yes, those would do. Decision made, he pushed open the door. The bell installed up above tinkled ever so softly as he did so. As he stepped up to the counter, a young girl emerged from the back. When she caught sight of him, she startled and took a step back, stumbling into a mannequin. The bowl she had been holding smashed against the ground.
A litany of curses that he would never have considered coming from the mouth of a sailor erupted from the girl's lips. Stunned a little by the foul language, Lacet nevertheless walked over to the other side of the counter. "Let me help with that," he said as a means of apology.
"Oh no, sir. I was clumsy, is all," said the girl as she picked up the broken shards. "I'm just mad at meself for not being more aware. Apologies for my language. It's been a long day. Besides, you was lookin' for somethin', right? Give me a few minutes and I'll be with you shortly, sir."
"If you're sure," answered Lacet. "You know, I could use a spell or two that might be of assistance."
The girl did not seem to hear his offer. Instead she ducked back through the opening and re-emerged with a broom in hand. Within moments, she had swept up the mess and was smoothing out her brown tunic.
If he had not witnessed how efficiently she had completed each task, Lacet could have sworn that she had used magic. As it was, he browsed among the shelves and display cases even as he kept a concerned eye on who he presumed was the shop assistant.
"Sorry to keep you waitin', sir," she said once everything had been cleaned, a smile gracing her lips. "How can I help you today?"
Lacet straightened up and pointed towards the display window that contained several ancient pieces of jewellery. "How much would you be willing to part with that?"
The girl glanced in the direction of his finger. "That old thing? Wait a tic. The owner has a record of all the items we have in stock and their prices. I'll just grab it out and look it up if you wouldn't mind bringin' it over to the counter." Once again, she disappeared into the backroom only to return seconds later with a thick ledger in hand and placed it on the counter.
Cracking it open, she flipped through it until her finger landed on one particular entry just as Lacet approached with his prize and delicately placed the necklace he had retrieved from its plump cushion down next to the register. The chain was of sterling silver, though it had tarnished over the years. Set amidst an intricate floral carving was a gem, a pale gold in colour. Much like the chain, it would need a proper polishing before he could wrap it up for Idana.
"Is this for a paramour of yours, sir?" asked the shop assistant, a knowing tone in her voice as she looked up from the ledger. "She's a lucky lady, she is. Although, given the state it's in, I'm sure the owner wouldn't mind a little discount," she added, conspiratorially.
"It's not for a lover, no. In fact, it's meant to be a gift for my young apprentice. Things ended badly last night and I wanted to find something that could mend the rift between us."
"How much, then, for the necklace?"
"For you, good sir? Five royal eagles, if you would," answered the shop assistant.
He stared at the piece of jewellery then back up at the girl, flabbergasted. "You can't be serious," he said finally.
"I assure you, sir, that this is no joke. Why, the owner has written it clear right here." Without a moment's hesitation, the girl turned and ledger and pushed it towards him. "Right there. You can see it in her clear script. The owner only deals with quality items and artefacts."
"What about the discount? As you can see, I'll need to be up all night trying to polish this for it to even look remotely presentable," said Lacet, motioning to the metal.
The girl shrugged. "Those are the rules, sir. If you aren't willin' to pay, then I'll have to take it back," she said as she leaned over the counter and plucked the necklace up.
"Three eagles," offered Lacet as he reached over and grabbed the shop assistant's hand. "That's all I have left in my coin purse. Please."
A victorious grin broke over the girl's face and Lacet knew then that he had stumbled right into her trap. Hook, line and sinker. Goddess have mercy but it had better be worth it, he thought as he handed over the agreed upon coins and tucked the necklace gently into his pocket.
By the time he had arrived home, night had fallen. When he unlocked the door and pushed through, Lacet spotted Idana seated by the table near the hearth. Minerva was perched up high on one of the many rafters. She hooted a greeting before taking the opportunity to fly through the open entranceway. Either the owl was simply eager to start hunting or she could sense a potential fight brewing.
"You're late," accused Idana, arms crossed before her. "Min returned an hour ago, you know. I know that you hate it when I use magic for trivial things but since I didn't know when you would be coming back, I thought I would keep dinner warm."
Lacet felt properly chastened by his own charge. Once again, he was painfully reminded that this was not the toddler he had raised all those years ago, nor the curious child she had been. There were still quite a few years left before she became a woman, fully grown, but perhaps it was time to see her more than the recalcitrant and rebellious spitfire of yesteryear. That, of course, didn't mean he would unveil each and every secret. Oh no. There would be time enough for that.
But first he needed an excuse that might defuse the rising fury he could see reflected in Idana's eyes. "Time…time slipped away from me," he offered, weakly. "I was caught up with something in town after my job was done."
She stared at him with those piercing green eyes before she finally blinked away. "Could you send me word next time?" huffed Idana. "I thought you might still be mad about yesterday. Or that I did something wrong this morning. Please, Lacet, how many times do I have to say I'm sorry before you'll believe me?"
His heart ached when he heard the sob tinging her voice – the desperate plea she left unvoiced. Lacet stepped up and wrapped her up in his arms and kissed the top of her forehead. "I'm not angry, Idana. All I wanted to do was make amends," he said, pulling out the necklace from his coat pocket. "I was going to give it to you after I'd polished it up a little."
"What's it for?"
"A gift. To say I'm sorry," he answered simply. "I can't promise that I'll be able to rein in my temper should it get the worst of me, considering how busy we've been the last couple days. But what I can promise is that I'll try."
Idana snatched the necklace from his grasp and studied it. "I still haven't forgiven you, Lacet. You might be my master in the ways of magic and you've been with me for all these years but I swear that if you do something like this again, I don't know what I might do."
He stroked her long unruly hair. "I know," said Lacet. "And it would be your right to do so. Now, I hope you've kept abreast on the chapters I've assigned you. There will be a test and a practical demonstration in the coming weeks."
The next morning, he was surprised to find the necklace around Idana's neck. From just a glance, it was clear that she had been up for most of the night. The chain sparkled in the weak light that managed to trickle its way through the open windows. She seemed just as startled to see him seated with a half-finished plate of his own. His presence, however, did not stop her from trotting off to the kitchen to retrieve a plate of food from the kitchen.
When she came back, it was topped with two slices of bread that he had prepared earlier, a side of scrambled eggs and a rasher of bacon. Idana plopped down on the seat beside him.
"You're still here."
"Where else would I be?" asked Lacet, affronted at the insinuation. "It's barely seven in the morning."
Idana shrugged. "It's not often that I see you taking your time with breakfast," she said simply. "You're always so busy that we hardly have any lessons together. Ever since you promised to teach me, it's always been one thing or another and I've been left alone with reading."
The blow had struck far closer to home than he had expected. It was a concerted effort to mask his wince. Nonchalantly, Lacet scooped up the rest of his baked beans and took a bite. He knew exactly what Idana was referring to and chastised himself for not making the necessary preparations. If he had taken some time out of each day, he would have been able to set up projects as he had in the past for her to work on. Idana had always learned best with hands-on instruction. Yet, as had been the case since they arrived at Lastrune, the time had escaped him.
In fact, this had been the first morning in a month that he had not had someone calling upon him at the crack of dawn. Lacet found that it was a relief to actually sit back and enjoy his meal instead of dashing out the door.
"As I said last night, it was difficult to set up lesson plans beyond reading through the prevalent chapters with so many jobs coming through. Besides, knowing your penchant for experimentation, I thought you might have tried putting the formulas into practice."
"Not bloody likely, Lacet. You know as well as I do that you banned me from doing any unnecessary magic."
"Didn't stop you from trying a weather spell when I was away," he commented around a mouthful of toast. "And you had better watch your language."
Idana gaped at him. "How did you know?"
Still an open book, he thought as he swallowed. "I'm not a fool, Idana. Even when I'm exhausted and jumping to wild conclusions. Goddess above, Idana, it does not take a genius to sense what you did. Now, close your mouth before you drop any more eggs on the floor. I'd hate for your first 'proper' lesson to be delayed with you giving the floor a good scrubbing."
With a great shake of her head, Idana broke free from whatever tangles her thoughts had woven and set about wolfing down the food he had painstakingly cooked. In what seemed like seconds, her plate was licked clean. She set it down and grinned up at him.
In that one look, Lacet knew that the day would just be as tiring, if not more so, than the hours he had spent visiting the townsfolk and helping them with their problems. There was a challenge in those green eyes that he had not liked at all. It was one that promised hellfire and damnation should he fail to deliver. Uneasily, he turned his gaze back to his yet unfinished plate. He mouthed a silent prayer to Amoleth, appetite lost as his stomach churned.
Well, as his old teachers used to say: there was no time like the present.
Lacet picked up both his own plate and Idana's, and marched to the kitchen. Though he had drawn up several lesson plans, he had not yet formulated any worthwhile practical demonstrations. She had always learned things quickly, the concepts coming easily to her. Always, she wanted something new and fresh. Over the years, it had become more difficult to keep Idana focused and engaged.
As he set the plates down and began washing them by hand, Lacet thought it was a proper miracle that she had not protested earlier. It was a mystery best left solved another day, he decided as he rinsed off the soap suds.
Just as he was about to stack them on the drying rack, an unfamiliar bird swooped over his head and careened into the pantry. Alarmed, Lacet readied a spell in one hand as he stalked towards it.
Behind him, he heard the creak of floorboards. He glanced over his shoulder and spotted Idana poking her head around the corner, her expression the epitome of curiosity. Of course. Even now she looked ready to say something witty. There were not many things in the world that she feared and there had been little opportunity for her to practice caution. With magic at her fingertips, there had never been the need – even when they were chased out of the last village when a simple sleeping draught had gone awry.
Before she could utter the words on the tip of her tongue, Lacet gestured for silence. Idana rolled her eyes but obeyed. For that, Lacet was glad. Perhaps something good had come from her strange desire to prove worthy of his confidence. She had grown these last few weeks. It was heartening to see her take responsibility and demonstrate a maturity he had thought impossible for her to attain. Ever so slowly, Idana was blossoming into a woman that might work alongside him as he saved lives.
Yet in many other ways she was still a child. And Lacet felt a strong urge to keep her sheltered and protected for just a little longer. Everything he had done had been to keep her safe and uphold the promise he had made all those years ago when he had accepted responsibility for her care.
Cautiously, Lacet tiptoed forward. He was not exactly afraid, only wary, as he exchanged a look with Idana. A raven suddenly appeared amidst the pots and pans, cawing in dismay.
To his shame, Lacet tensed up, his jaw clenched tight. The bird hopped towards him and stopped when it was just within arm's reach. Around its neck was a tightly bound missive.
Tentatively he reached out and removed it, the magic dissipating from his hand. The raven made an affirmative noise before it flapped its wings and was airborne again. It landed near the sink and picked up a piece of leftover bacon from one of the plates before soaring past Idana. There was a muted thud as it found its exit barred.
"I'll go and open the door," said Idana sheepishly, standing near the closed window. With that, she ducked back around to help their feathery visitor.
Alone, Lacet unfurled the tiny scrap of paper. The shorthand was simple enough to decode and though he could not place it, Lacet could not shake the feeling that he had seen the script before. As he continued to read, however, he felt the hair on the back of his neck begin to rise.
When Idana returned, she found her master staring out the window, brows deeply furrowed, and the message that the raven delivered nowhere in sight.