Her captive was sitting in the shade of her biggest tree, his splinted leg stretched out in front of him. He was fiddling with the grass and rocks within reach and looking around, shifting his weight around, working his mouth around the gag like a horse champing at the bit.
She knew all this because she couldn’t focus. Mieve had found herself working in circles around him.
He’d promised not to run off… she made another circle. The bees were fine without her. The carrots and potatoes and turnips had been watered.
He hadn’t promised not to attack her… she made another circle. The squash had recently been debugged. (One of the advantages to post-hardware-store gardening she had and others didn’t: Abatu Panida, destroy animal, did wonders with a good book of garden pests for magical fumigation).
He had broken his own leg. There were so many ways that Working could have been twisted to attack her, and he’d done none of them. She made another circle, but there was nothing left that really needed plowing and there was nothing left to weed right now.
She could chop wood, but she’d have to go into the woods to do that. She made another loop. He was braiding bits of grass into sad little pieces of rope, holding down the end with a rope. He looked, she thought, miserable.
She made herself work on the garden for a few minutes. She could keep an eye on him there. She shoved the pitchfork into the rough soil she hadn’t planted this year and turned it over. She’d nearly slammed an ax into his leg. She’d nearly slammed an ax into his leg.
“Why?” Her voice was hoarse, and she wasn’t sure if she was asking him or herself. She felt as if she’d been screaming, when she’d been silently walking in circles.
He looked up, as if he’d been waiting for her to say something, and gestured at the gag with a shrug of both shoulders.
“Yeah, yeah.” She hadn’t really expected an answer, anyway. “That’s another why for another day.” She stared at the ground and thrust the pitchfork in again. There was still time for a few short-season crops, never mind that it gave her something safe to attack. The more food she had put away, the safer they would be when the winter came. And all the signs pointed at a bad winter.
“Do you ever stop working?” one of her early Kept had asked her. Implicit in the question – he’d been unused to any sort of hard work – had been another; did he ever get to stop working?
She’d grinned at him at the time, not because it was funny but because she’d spent the first year after the fall having the same argument with herself. “Winter,” she’d told him. “In winter we rest.”
Amrit gave her an answer, probably just to prove her wrong in not expecting one: he mimed eating and raised an eyebrow at her.
“Am I going to keep feeding you?” She stabbed the pitchfork into the ground again, turned over the soil, and stared at him. He was lean – no, skinny. There was muscle on his frame, but he’d clearly seen hungry days.
Everyone had, really. The world was not a kind place.
“Of course I’m going to feed you. You’ll eat what I eat – which, some days, might be a little thin, but I haven’t starved through a winter yet.”
He considered, then, after a moment, mimed something. He pulled one hand back to his ear and held the other one out, then pointed out the pointer finger near his ear.
It took her two repetitions to see the imaginary bow he was drawing and the imaginary arrow he was loosing. “Generally, I use snares,” she admitted. “Sometimes, if things are getting lean, I’ll use Workings, but it always seems creepy.” She leaned on her pitchfork. “You know, I’m really good at calling animals, so here I am, all Snow White – do you remember Snow White?”
He shrugged. That could mean anything. She explained anyway. “All musical princess, singing to the animals or something, and then, bam, killing them. Creepy.” She wrinkled her nose. “Although I’d be thrilled if I could find some chickens. Nobody wants to sell any.”
He looked up at the sky for a moment, then made an elaborate gesture. He repeated it twice, and, finally, Mieve saw the top hat he was taking off and the rabbit he was pulling out of his hat.
“Sadly, I don’t have the ‘create’ Word. You do, though, don’t you?”
He made a so-so gesture, and then made rabbit ears on top of his head. He followed that with a negation.
“Ah, so much more the pity.” She stabbed the pitchfork into the ground and turned over a few more feet. He couldn’t make animals. She couldn’t make animals. “I suppose I’ll just have to go out looking again, then.”
She surprised a frown on his face, or, at least, what she thought was probably a frown, since the gag obscured anything he was doing with his lips – by looking up at exactly the wrong moment. He shrugged and looked away, as if to say it was up to her.
“I haven’t done much exploring,” she mused. “All the years here and I go maybe four places, and that only when I have to.” She turned over a little more dirt, not looking at him. She wasn’t sure she wanted to see his expression. She was certain she wanted to know why he’d been frowning.
Finally, she gave in. She’d turned over a long patch of dirt, all of it a little more aggressively than it really needed. She wasn’t going to get anything else done while she was puzzling over her captive. Obsessing over him, if she was going to be honest with herself. She put the pitchfork back in the garage and gathered up her basket of walnuts.
He snorted and nodded.
“All right.” She sat down beside him and handed him a chisel and hammer. “This basket needs shucking. This is how you do it.” She picked up a walnut and showed him how to crack the outer shell and get the green skin away from it. “Got it?”
He studied the chisel for a minute. Mieve’s heart was in her throat. Then he made a noise through the gag. It took her a moment to identify it as a chuckle.
Curiosity took only a few seconds to overcome caution, and she used a finger of telekinetic power to unlock his gag. He snorted in surprise as the gag fell out, caught it, and set it down next to him. It was harder than it ought to be; she should take it easy for a bit.
“Coulda used this instead of the ax,” he snorted at the chisel and hammer, and then chuckled again. Mieve stared at him for a moment before letting herself giggle
“Might’ve been easier,” she managed, before the giggle turned into a laugh.
He grinned at her, the grin turning quickly into another laugh, and before long, both of them were laughing and snorting.
It took Mieve a good few minutes to pull herself together and catch her breath. “So…” she offered. “Maybe we can skip the walnuts ‘till tomorrow.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Chiseling some shells might be fun. You trust me with this?”
“With a chisel? Yeah. I trusted you with an ax.”
“I was chained, before. And you hadn’t worn yourself out with Workings.”
She really wished he hadn’t noticed that. She knew she went still for a moment, and she knew he noticed, because his expression softened just a bit.
“It’s not like I can do much, my leg all a mess.” He gestured at it. “But, uh. Here. I promise for, um, the next month, I won’t attack you or, like, your bee hives or other things you need to survive, and I won’t, uh, use magic to try to escape or coerce you into letting me go.”
She stared at him. That was… “That’s kind,” she managed. “Thank you.”
He rolled his shoulders uncomfortably. “Yeah, well. I figure you didn’t, like, buy me to be a drain on your resources, and you didn’t buy me to chain me to your plow and make me do all your work. It’s not like you’re an awful person.”
“…I just broke your leg.” Why was she arguing with him?
“I just broke my leg.” He shrugged. “You’re not a jerk. I don’t have to be a jerk. I mean, I still want to leave. I don’t belong to you and I don’t want to be a slave. But I don’t have to be an ass, while I’m here.”
There was something he wasn’t telling her, but Mieve had a feeling she wouldn’t find out what it was by pushing him. She picked up the second chisel and hammer, instead, and started working on the walnuts.
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