About two weeks after the snows had started John and Liam were called out on a task more than a day away through the forest, and when John returned to the cottage two evenings later, he came alone.

“The lad’s gone to his family home for a few days, the old man who taught him his first forester skills, before he came to me, has asked for him.”

Anaria tried to conceal the hurt, John still noticed.

“He’d have come to explain himself if he could lass, but it seemed it was urgent. He promised to be back as soon as possible.”

“It’s just, well, he’s been cross with me for days for not fitting in and, now, he doesn’t want his family to meet me.”

Sarah gave her a hug that managed to convey both affection and exasperation, “He’s worried about you not wanting to be here and he doesn’t want you trapped by family expectations.”

Anaria leaned against Sarah, “Given my family trapped him worse than anything, that’s a bit silly.”

“They trapped you too sweetheart, and that offends Liam’s sense of fairness. He’ll always push to make sure you have free choice.”

“And my constant harping on my inadequacies is making him think I’m unhappy here. I’m not. I want to belong so badly but keep doing things wrong and any time I think I’ve found something I can do, it’s not useful.”

John sat down opposite her, “What do you mean?”

“Teaching the children to read, or working out what some of the things in the old man’s cottage do and how to make them. If they’re anywhere near as clever as the setup for the bath house, they’re likely to be a valuable source of trade.”

“We don’t really do much trade here lass.”

“See? I think of something and it’s no good.”

Sarah frowned, “I disagree. Just because we’ve not traded much beyond wood and Maggie’s weaving in the past, doesn’t mean we should close ourselves off from the idea. The village could always do with a bit more income and contact with the world beyond the trees.”

“If you say so love.”

That earned John a fond smile, “You’ll never see beyond the trees, they’re as much as part of you as your frown when you’re figuring out one of Ana or Liam’s tricky sentences. That’s exactly as it should be but there are others who should be thinking of wider horizons, either for themselves or for the benefit of the village.”

Anaria thought, “You’re thinking about Martha on the first one aren’t you? She’s too ambitious to be happy here, even if she doesn’t know it. That’s why she’s always snippy.”

“I am, but best to keep it to yourself, she doesn’t take kindly to advice from anyone.”

“Let alone the one who supposedly stole her man. Alright, but if anyone is going to town and can see fit to take her with them. There’s a bakery on the west side of the square she’d do well to make a good impression in.”

John frowned (Sarah smiled), “How would she make that good impression then?”

“Easiest way would probably be to take them some of her fresh bread to taste. Fancy cooking is all well and good, but the baker there once told me that the true test of a talented baker was to create something memorable out of the simplest ingredients.”

There was a thoughtful pause, then conversation returned to household matters and plans for the coming days.

A week passed with no sign of Liam, Anaria hoped the walls were thick enough that Sarah and John didn’t realise she’d started crying herself to sleep again.

The walls may have been thick, but the door was not, and Sarah was worried. She sent Anaria on an errand to Samuel and called a conference with Ingrid and Maggie.

“She’s pining for him, but she won’t say anything until she feels she deserves a place here.”

Maggie snorted, “If I ever get my hands on that poor girl’s parents, they’re going to know about it.”

Ingrid nodded then turned to Sarah, “What do you have in mind?”

“She’s a bright girl and in some ways she’s right, she doesn’t belong in the village as it is now. But she would belong in a village that makes proper use of the gifts it has and opens itself up a little more to the world beyond.”

The two women looked confused.

“She’s dying to unravel the mysteries of the gadgets in the Old Man’s cottage and use them to improve trade and income for the village.”

Maggie nodded. “She’s a good girl.”

Ingrid agreed. “She is, but how can she work out what those things do when his own family don’t know?”

Maggie replied. “His own family don’t know because his own family don’t care. You’re saying she needs his notebooks.”

Sarah said. “Yes, so I’d like to include her in the group of workers going up to the castle as extra help for the Summoning Spring ball next week.”

 Ingrid peered at Sarah over her tea, “What do you expect her to do?”

“I expect her to seize an opportunity in a way that none of us are likely to consider. It may come to nothing more than providing a little diversion from Liam’s absence but she may be able to find a person to help her or, well, something. I don’t know what I expect her to do to be honest, but I think she will do something.”

They both looked at Maggie, “It’s Ingrid’s decision, not mine. I think it’ll be a good distraction and hopefully more. Just bear in mind it’s best she’s not serving staff, there may be guests from the town, and the only alternative is the kitchen.”

Sarah groaned, “Which means dealing with both Martha and Anaria’s own sense of shortcoming on the cooking front.”

Maggie snorted, “You’re thinking on it the wrong way. It’s only her bread that’s a problem and even that’s been improving. She’s more than capable of the basic chopping and peeling and stirring the cook will need and that will free up Martha to do the fancy baking she would rather be doing. Both Martha and Cook will be very happy.”

Ingrid smiled, “Well in that case, I can hardly leave her out. In fact, I may even have a quick chat with Miss Martha this evening, make sure she’s prepared for her moment to shine for the castle people.”

Sarah snorted, “For such a poorly behaved young lady, she’s certainly getting some plum options dropped in her lap at the moment.”

At the women’s enquiring looks, she elaborated, “Anaria suggested a bakery in town who would likely be appreciative of Martha’s skills and how to approach them.”

The rest of the tea was drunk to the discussion of past occasions where people deserving and otherwise had been handed great opportunities and what they’d done with them. Anaria returned from her errand to find them roaring with laughter over a long-forgotten incident involving the village blacksmith in his early apprenticeship days.

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