On the day the riders came to town, Kella was in the fields with her mother, hunched over with an aching back as she picked vegetables. It was late in the day, and the sun was already dipping low in the sky, but they worked on, unaware that men on horses were already circling the fields.
Kella hummed a simple tune that lulled her into other thoughts. Her fingers worked deftly, but her mind was on other things. She would go from thinking of nothing at all to thinking of spells and reciting them over and over. That would lead to thoughts of magic and wondering how she was going to learn more. Then she would remember her latest acquisition—a book waiting in her room. Thoughts of the book had been distracting her all day, and she knew relief would not come until she had it in her hands again. She and her mother had a secret place within their chimney where she could store forbidden objects, but the book was much too big for the space. That morning, when her mother had finished her coffee and shooed her out of bed, Kella had taken the book and slid it under the covers. Then she carefully folded their blanket and placed it neatly on top. Glancing at it as they left for work, she had been satisfied that no one would be able to see the square lump on the bed. Now she wasn’t so sure. She hoped their nosy landlord wouldn’t search their room while she was gone and find the book.
Eight weeks ago, when they first came to town, it had been hard enough convincing their landlord to let them stay in his home, considering what Kella was rumored to be. If it weren’t for the outrageous rent they paid him—more than half of her and her mother’s earnings from the field—he never would have agreed to let them stay in the first place. No one else in the town wanted them. It had been embarrassing how many times they’d been turned away from home after home. She still remembered the sagging feeling she’d felt in the pit of her stomach as she stood in the street behind her mother. The weight of her bag had been uncomfortable on her back, but not as uncomfortable as her confined feet in her traveling shoes. She had wanted to whisper to her mother that they should move on to the next town. But before the words could leave her lips, the widower opened his door and—hearing that her mother could cook—ushered them inside. So, her mother prepared the lonely man’s meals to keep him in a good mood. And though he thought his secret spying of Kella went unnoticed, she considered his continued interest in her more assurance that they would keep their small and sparsely furnished room for a while longer.
If he found her book and realized it taught magic, he was sure to kick them out. Kella didn’t want that. Her mother was a master at avoiding questions, but Kella had figured out that of all the places they had traveled to; out of all the towns and cities and provinces they had lived and worked in, that this area had special meaning to her mother.
Kella suspected her mother was looking for something.
And that person could be nearby. Her mother had been acting particularly antsy lately.
Standing up to take a break, Kella flipped her thick braid of dark brown hair over her shoulder and waited for her aching back to realign as she took stock of her surroundings. Sweat dripped into her eyes and slithered distastefully down her back. She wiped her brow and sighed. She was near the end of her row, which meant she was almost done for the day. Her mother, in the next row, was close to completing as well. Kella noticed the way the setting sun highlighted the reddish tints of her mother’s hair. It created a halo of light around her face and made her look younger and less weary.
Kella looked up, searching for and finding a few brave stars in the sky. This far south, the stars were always visible earlier in the evening. Dusk was her favorite part of day. She loved how the beckoning night softened everything. The lack of sunlight took away her warmth, however. Her hands were chilled through. She blew on them for a few moments to try and wiggle some life back into them.
Whenever they moved to a new place, she and her mother found work where they could. Sometimes it was in the kitchens of a wealthy lord. Sometimes it was in a nursery caring for children. Working in the fields was the least desirable job and Kella hated it, but they had to do it to survive. When they had enough money saved up to move on, Kella hoped their next job was better. She didn’t like feeling weary down to her bones and watching her little mother slug along trying to do the work of a woman half her age. It’s just that, this nomadic life was all she knew.
Sighing again, Kella was about to stoop down to finish her work when her eyes settled on the Taskmaster. He was talking with someone she had never seen before. The man at his side was tall, muscularly built, and exuded power. She couldn’t see his features from this distance, but the stranger turned in her direction and stared. She could almost feel the cut of his gaze against her skin. Then the stranger shifted his weight, and another man came into view.
Their landlord. He was pointing at her.
Trembling, Kella tried to bend her knees to duck down and hide behind the plants, but her body did not cooperate. A wave of pure fear washed over her, and with it, she felt her cheeks get warm as her heart beat painfully in her chest.
“M-m-ma,” she gasped, unable to find her voice. Somehow her mother heard her and stood up slowly to see what was wrong, stretching tight muscles as she followed the line of Kella’s gaze.
“Who is that stranger?”
Kella heard the wariness in her mother’s voice and for some reason it calmed her a little. She was confident her mother would know what to do.
They watched with growing unease as the stranger turned and vaulted onto his waiting horse, making a signal with his hand. Then his horse galloped in their direction, not even bothering to avoid their field. Even though she was afraid, Kella’s eyes narrowed as she watched his horse carelessly trample their carefully tended garden.
“This is not good,” her mother muttered nervously. Kella didn’t have to look to know she was tugging at the edges of her tunic.
“What do we do?” she asked. She watched as the man rode closer and closer. Riders she had not noticed before materialized from the woods and they were surrounding the field. They formed a ring behind the stranger as he came upon them.
“We have to find out what he wants,” her mother said quickly, before the riders were close enough to hear. “If it’s you, then you have to run into the woods before they find you. Hide until they are gone.”
“What about you?” Kella asked, finally finding the strength to turn her head and stare into her mother’s fearful brown eyes. The sound of approaching hoofbeats was loud in her ears.