Passing Muster

Anaria smiled gratefully at the burly forester, it was nice to not be seen as the one at fault for a change.

Still, old habits run deep and she stepped in to defend her father, “Sebastian is a toad, but I’m afraid it was my behaviour that goaded father. I was very rude to a guest in his home.”

Liam snorted and pulled the cloth off his now-just-damp head, “You can be snippy when you have a mind for it, town girl, but a few of your friends are downright nasty and don’t care who knows it. Your father has no idea.”

With that, he herded her over to the main table as Sarah dished up the stew that had been softly bubbling over the fire all afternoon.

Anaria was hungry, but the prospect of a post-dinner horde of curious villagers tied her stomach in knots and she found it impossible to eat.

She spoke up, “Will half the village really be here this evening?”

John grinned, “I reckon the only ones not finding an excuse will be the children and those tasked to look after them.”

Sarah looked at Anaria’s pale face and turned to her husband, “I would prefer not to have my home turned into a farmyard. Anaria is still tired and frankly, drained. I’ll have at most five people in to meet her tonight, no more. The rest can wait until tomorrow.”

John opened his mouth to protest, caught his wife’s level stare, glanced at Anaria and subsided.

“Oh, aye, I’ll head the first lot off at the door and they can spread the word.”

Anaria heaved a sigh of relief and found the knots in her stomach easing. Eating was a good idea again.

As they were clearing away, Sarah directing Anaria’s tasks like a good-natured general, the first knock came.

John ambled over to the door, blocking entry and easy sight in for the visitors. His conversation with the group outside was interrupted by a shriek like a scalded cat echoing from further down the village. It was affront, fury and vengeance rolled into one sound and Sarah nodded, “Sounds like someone told Martha.”

Liam looked puzzled, “Why would she yell like that about my bringing Anaria home?”

Two people came through the door, “For a bright boy, you can be awfully dense.”

The speaker turned to Sarah, “Don’t worry about the rest of them, I know you wouldn’t appreciate them tramping mud through your rooms to gawk at some poor girl who’s already trying to adjust. I sent my Tilly around to tell them to warm their own hearths this evening. Plenty of time to meet you tomorrow.”

The last was addressed to Anaria, who found herself facing a bright-eyed sprite of a woman with a clear air of command.

“Anaria, this is Ingrid, the head of the village”, Sarah came over to stand with them, “Ingrid, Anaria is from town and tells me she has a great deal to learn.”

Anaria bobbed a small curtsey, “It’s lovely to meet you.”

Ingrid bubbled over, “Oh but you’re so sweet. Liam how on earth were you able to convince such a lovely girl to abandon all her comforts for the sake of you?”

Anaria blinked. Sweet? Her? Lovely? Her?She opened her mouth, “I’m not that nice really.”

This was met with roars of approving laughter as Liam put his arm around her.

Anaria felt all at sea, only Liam’s solid warmth at her side kept her from swaying. She didn’t understand this warm acceptance, terrified she would do or say something that would turn them all cold and hard.

Liam’s voice was warm and quiet, “Breathe, town girl, it will be alright.”

She looked up at him, eyes suspiciously bright, “Promise?”

“Promise.”

She leaned into his side, letting him anchor her and slowly started to relax.

Sarah’s tact had drawn the others’ attention away from the two of them for a moment, but now the second of the guests stepped forward to be introduced.

Tall, gangly and slightly stooped, he put Anaria somehow in mind of a heron, picking its way around a pond.

He offered his hand and shook hers briefly, “I’m Samuel, Ingrid’s husband and chief lackey. I’m also the village scribe.”

Ingrid explained, “Most of us can read and write after a fashion, your Liam better than most. But Samuel’s had training up at the castle and is tasked with the important letters, village records and contracts.”

Anaria’s eyes rounded, “Do you need an assistant?”

“Like that sort of thing do you?”

She nodded energetically.

“Well I’m afraid there’s not much needing doing at this time of year, but I’d be pleased if you would help me with the annual register of the village over winter.”

Anaria drew in a breath and stepped onto solid ground for just a moment, “I’d love to.”

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