Chapter One: The Contract
Ama pushed a lock of grey hair into her prim bun. “Any sign of him yet, Bean?”
The young man working in her cottage yard stood straight, wiping sweat from his brow with thick, callused fingers. “No, Mame Ama. He isn’t there… just like the ten times before.”
She flapped the apron at her waist and dispersed the chickens before her, tired eyes still focused on the lonely road. “I’m sorry, Bean… This whole affair must have me more flustered than I’ve realized.”
Bean watched the tall and lanky woman turn her attention back to the hens, then finish shooing them away from the troughs alongside the cottage. “You, of all people, needn’t apologize to me today, Mame Ama!”
Ama nodded squatting down to collect the exposed eggs in the straw. “A fair point, Bean… But I know it weighs heavy upon you too.”
The stout young man shook his head and looked down to the uncut pile of wood to his side.
Ama finished collecting the eggs into the basin her apron and ankle-length skirt formed between long thighs. She rose and winced, then straightened herself slowly.
Raising his hatchet, Bean split a log. “I should try my hand at building you a rope-bed, Mame. I bet it’s far gentler than your mattress alone.”
“That’s very kind of you, but what I have is better than the table I was used to,” Ama said in a voice that retained a young sweetness while her pained expression faded. “Let’s see how I feel about the idea after everything is concluded… Or, if I… still feel anything at all.”
Bean looked up sad-eyed, having tossed the split log into the pile of cut wood to his right. Watching Ama stride with practical grace, her worn hands then gently transferred the eggs from a gathered apron into a small basket sitting on the trough.
“Don’t talk like that,” Bean said in his clear baritone.
The willowy, middle-aged woman patted her beige apron free of feathers, straw and grit. “It could happen, Bean. You know that.”
With a slow nod, Bean withdrew his eyes from her and returned them to the uncut wood by his boots. As his thick frame bent down and hefted a knobby log out of the pile, Ama caught sight of the apple tree in full blossom far behind him. The creases of her face lifted into a smile as she watched its white blooms wave above a fallow field.
“Only the Gods know what shall come for certain, Bean. However, be it my last day or not, at least it’s beautiful!”
“I would rather never see this day come at all,” the young man grumbled regarding the knobby log he held.
Ama looked back, retaining her smile as he traced a finger over a barkless portion of the log’s surface. “Thinking it too poor for old Greywacke’s cord?”
Bean turned before shaking his head. “Actually, I though it might carve into a good mate for the other owl.”
She sighed with kind eyes, then looked to the wooden owl resting beside her cottage door. “You know I would love another, but they’ll fetch a good price if you sell them for coin!”
Bean rolled the knobby log to the side, then tucked thick thumbs over the belt and brown trousers above his hipless waist.
“Thank you, Mame.”
Ama spent another moment admiring the detail of his carving, then turned back with a warm smile lacking several teeth on her weathered face. “You’re very talented, there isn’t a carpenter alive that wouldn’t at least give you journeyman’s work!”
Bean’s flushed cheeks dropped down as he looked to his russet boots without a word.
Ama gently shook her head and the grey bun that adorned it while she walked toward him. “Oh come now, Bean! Don’t be embarrassed. You know your hands are meant for finer things than tilling the land for some spinster like me!”
He grabbed a different log from the deadwood pile and placed it on the chopping block. “You know that’s not it… Well, not all of it.”
Ama nodded and sighed. “Bean please, we’ve already discussed this, it’s too late to —”
“—What you are bearing in my stead is more than I can ever repay, Mame! I don’t know if I can live with the debt I’ll owe to your sacrifice anymore than I can bear Macule’s extortion!”
The woman’s brown eyes narrowed as she came to a stop an arms reach from the young man. “I’d rather bear Macule’s contract than see your life cut short.”
Bean lifted the hatchet with a growl and shattered the log on the block into halves with an angry swipe. “It’s all damned sorcery and demon princes!”
Ama stood looking at the hatchet he left embedded deep into the chopping block. “I agree that it’s unjust. But the greater injustice would be to see you stripped of the full life the Gods intend for you.”
“I’m not worth it,” Bean said looking to the rangy woman with damp eyes on his broad, stubbly face.
She shook her head. “Yes you are, Bean.”
“How can you say that, Mame Ama? I’m just a landless man now with no family to claim, or coins in his pocket!”
Ama looked down at her veiny hands and rubbed them. “Maybe, maybe it’s because my own choices were taken long ago from me, Bean. I wanted to escape this cottage when I was a girl no older than you, but I was the only child ever born on Haricot Farm. My place at my parent’s side until the end was clear. Even as I may have hated the boundaries of their selions, I wouldn’t abandon them. Now that they are gone, this prison is all I have.”
The young man clasped his strong hands around Ama’s fingers and looked up to meet the gaze of the woman who was half-a-head taller than he was. “I could run. I could leave right now.”
She drew in a breath and shook her head at his unexpected touch. “Wanted men seldom come to happy ends, Bean. I want these hands of yours to be carving wood and to be bound to some young flower that deserves their affection. Don’t make me see them grasping at a noose!”
Bean nodded and slumped, letting his hands slip from hers. Turning from Ama so that she wouldn’t see, he then wiped an eye with a callused finger.
“There was no purpose to my remaining days before this, Bean. Let Macule take his ten-thousand! They serve a greater end being surrendered to him and granting you the freedom to live than they would to me, tilling them into the ground.”
Bean’s slumped shoulders straightened with his back still to the thin woman behind him. “I will live twice the life to honor you, Mame Ama.”
“Now that will make me happy!” She said patting him on the back.
The stout man began to turn, but stopped short catching sight of the lonely road that led to the cottage farm. “He’s here.”
Ama tensed and balled her hands into fists. “Hence why we shouldn’t speak a devil’s name.”
The wagon path winding between the acres of peasant farmland was sunken with age, but the trench with its occasional roadside trees was not enough to obscure Macule bobbing along atop his horse. Turning a corner he came into full view a hundred yards from the pair. The lord’s exciseman black attire was in sharp contrast to the white gelding beneath him.
Bean began a gruff walk down the path to the road wearing a scowl and Ama let him get several paces ahead of her while she took a deep breath. She then made her way down the path behind him with long-legged strides beneath her dress.
Ama came to a stop beside Bean as they awaited the approaching horse, and with a sigh she brushed off the wood chips clinging to the rough twill of his green jerkin. Made self-conscious by the woman’s preening, he re-laced and straightened the linen sleeves of the shirt underneath the buttoned jerkin just before the animal came to a stop before them.
Macule dismounted his white steed, and as soon as the soles of his riding boots touched the ground he turned back to unstrap a large satchel of cracked leather the color of brandy. With loathing, Bean recognized the satchel as the one that always accompanied the tax man during his assessments. There were few in the county that didn’t dread the sight of the thing… or the King’s Ledger that most certainly rested within.
Slipping the bag’s strap over his shoulder, Macule turned to face the pair with a pinched face. “Mame Ama.”
Ama interlaced her fingers and placed them on her thin waist as she regarded the exciseman. His matching black doublet and pleated trousers were spotless and fastened by brass buttons.
“And… Marn Bean, ” Macule coolly smiled while tilting the slightest of nods to the dour expression on the young man’s face. “I trust you are both well and affairs are prepared?”
The woman gave a nod to the local lord’s agent. “I’m ready to enter into your contract, once the other papers are signed and witnessed.”
“Of course, of course, and I have everything ready for the quill,” Macule replied straightening the black wool capelet he had bound into a chaperon style hat upon his head.
Ama’s eyes narrowed as the liripipe of Macule’s hat dangled languidly to one side. “Good. Let’s end this business at my table.”
The man in black smirked, rubbing the palms of his riding gloves while surveying the yard of Ama’s thatched-roofed cottage. “Let us, indeed. ”
Looking to Bean first, Ama then turned her back to Macule and started up the path to her home. Before the young man could do the same, Macule snatched his horse’s lead and thrust it at him.
“Go hitch Alabaster to something better than a fencepost. If he gets loose or there is a spot of your filth on him, know that you’ll pay a price!”
Glowering at the command, Bean left Macule standing with the lead outstretched. The hefty man’s sideways glance caught sight of Ama looking back to him with a hard, pleading look before he snatched the leather thong from Macule’s gloved fingers.
Ama saw Macule’s grin before she turned away to hide her scowl.
The exciseman matched Ama’s stature walking up behind her. Under his chaperon, his close cropped hair was the color of bone above a face becoming lined with age.
“He is a rude boy, isn’t he?”
Ama opened the weathered door to her cottage. “He’s a man of twenty winters, Master Macule… and his civility is astounding given the company of hissing adders.”
Macule glared at the back of Ama’s head as she stepped over the threshold and into the building. With a crinkled nose he observed the loose rush and sweet grass strewn just inside her doorway, then forced himself to enter.
“You know where the table is,” Ama said moving toward the low red embers of her hearth.
The soles of Macule’s riding boots left a trail in the hewn straw upon the hardpacked, earthen floor as he strode his way toward the center of the room. “The odor within your hovel is… almost pleasant, Mame Ama. Do you have a secret?”
The grey haired woman grabbed a log from the pile stacked neatly beside the stone masonry of her chimney. “Merely open windows, sweet grass and lavender.”
Macule paused to mentally tally the value of the hearth and chimney as Ama stoked the fire, then concluded the asset was easily the most valuable in the cottage.
The ground floor was a single large room illumed by the hearth-fire and shafts of daylight pouring from five unshuttered windows. Macule passed through the beams of light approaching the long wooden table in the middle, stepping onto the rectangular mat of woven rush it rested on removing a glove.
“You’ll need to shutter the windows before we attend to business.”
Ama slipped a final log onto the coals. “The one-hundred selions of woodland between us and Greywacke’s farm should be concealment enough.”
The exciseman narrowed his eyes and removed another glove. “Not in my opinion.”
“As you wish it, then.” Ama sighed straightening herself up from the hearth.
Macule carefully placed his brandy-colored satchel down on the rough planks of the table as Ama stood on the patch of earthen floor carefully swept clear of straw by the fire. While Macule unbuttoned the clasp of his bag, she looked to the rocking chair in the corner beside her that Bean had crafted. Its empty seat evoked another sigh as she realized that she may never read the Solanic Hymnals within it again.
She walked toward the pair of windows flanking the cottage door with the brown skirt at her ankles barely clearing the scattered rushes. Reaching the open window Ama stretched her legs and aching knees to reach through the open portal that had framed the sunrise earlier in the day, and pulled its shutter closed.
“Go ahead and arrange your things on the table, Master Macule. I want this over with as much as you do.”
The man in black nodded under his chaperon, then placed his riding gloves inside his leather bag. “I have the pardon of debt ready to be signed. Marn Bean need only sign it with an ‘X’… Or whatever he can manage.”
Ama looked out the open doorway on her way to the other window beside it. Her glance found Bean walking gruffly up the path. She motioned him to hurry before shoving the hen resting on the unshuttered window sill outside.
“Bean can sign his name, Macule.”
The young man entered the room as Macule pulled the stubby cylinder of a brass inkwell out of his bag. “Well, that’s impressive!”
Bean slammed the door, startling the exciseman before the small container clattered onto the tabletop. The stout man gave a nod to the evil look Macule tossed at him.
Ama closed the second window, leaving the room darker. “He’s a clever one.”
Macule turned back to his satchel on the table and removed a handful of goose quills. “Then appearances truly can be deceptive…”
Ama ducked under several hanging bundles of lavender and walked toward the window opposite the hearth. “Bean, can you close the other windows please? I’ll fetch a few candles from the chest before we have no light at all.”
Macule reached into the satchel and withdrew his sheathed quill knife, pausing to admire its exquisite handle of black yew bogwood as Bean passed the table. The young man had walked behind the railed stairs that led to the loft above, reaching the open shutters before the soft drop and roll of candles came from the tabletop.
“You needn’t bother with the stink of tallow, Mame Ama. Just bring a flame for my beeswax wicks.”
“I’ll bring it,” a gruff baritone voice said as a shutter was closed.
“Thank you, Bean,” Ama said looking to the open north window above the chest. She then glanced down to the simple offerings and figures of her household altar arranged atop the container.
Bending her long frame carefully and awkwardly so as to not disturb the altar, Ama grasped the latch by her fingertips after several tries, but in pulling the shutter closed she heard the sound of rolling clay figurines. Looking down she found her apron dragging across the chest and leaving toppled Gods in its wake. She stifled a curse as the last open window was closed, bringing a dusty darkness.
Ama peered through the poor light only broken by fingers of daylight seeping through shuttered windows. With shaking hands she straightened the sparse altar to the Seven Gods and whispered a prayer as she returned the clay idol of Aeanna to its proper place. Begging the Goddess to calm her racing heart, Ama rose to join Macule at the table.
Macule was busy placing papers on the tabletop as Ama reached the table. Bean joined her a moment later, his broad face illuminated by a burning splinter he had lit upon the hearth fire under Ama’s hanging cook-pot. He carefully lowered the improvised wick as Ama lifted the beeswax candles, lighting them under Macule’s cold gaze.
Bean licked his thick fingers and extinguished the splinter before tossing it into the hearth flames paces away from the table. The candles provided enough light for Ama to read some of the papers Macule had already placed on the tabletop. She had expected them to be dry and formal sentences, and they were. They lacked the beauty of the stanzas found in her great aunt’s girdle book of poetry… Or the excitement of her beloved copy of Januviel’s Dissertation of the Ozmanaic Uprising that lived in her precious library of four titles.
Macule slapped a palm down and swept the papers from Ama’s sight, startling her as he smirked. He then dropped the heavy tax ledger of Lord Suldur and the king of Ehtrus upon the cleared space with a bang that even made Bean flinch.
The pair watched the exciseman open the thick book and flip though the parchment pages until he came to a ribbon bookmark within. Laying the book flat and open on the tabletop, he looked up to them. “I’ll attend to this bit first.”
Macule reached over and grabbed the black bogwood handle of his quill knife. Removing the leather sheath covering its blade, he then slid its razor edge slowly down the ledger’s paper crevice with a practiced hand. Done in moments, Macule put the knife down and extracted a page with a gentle, experienced tug that left the book looking untampered.
He handed the page to Ama. “You may burn this.”
The woman looked down at the parchment labeled Haricot Farm. Running a trembling finger down the ledger page, she touched its descending numbers scrawled in red. Then Ama looked to Macule and crushed the paper into a wad.
“That’s it? Nothing more than that?”
Macule nodded coolly. “You may consider your debts of estate owed to the king and his Lordship, overlooked…And I will forget them entirely after you enter into the contract.”
Ama looked at the ball of crumpled parchment scowling, then crushed it further before tossing it halfway across the room to be consumed in the flames of her hearth.
She turned back to the exciseman hard-eyed. “Good. Now Bean’s pardon of debt.”
Macule nodded and sorted through the loose papers to his side as Bean put a heavy hand on Ama’s wrist. “You don’t have to do this. I can still enter into the contract instead, as he intended originally.”
Looking up from a sheet of parchment, Macule smiled. “He’s telling the truth you know! I might expect the fullest return of my investment with a young man like Marn Bean.”
Ama shook her head firmly. “No, Bean… This is my choice.”
The tax collector unscrewed the lid of his cylindrical traveling inkwell. “I truly don’t care which one of you enters into the contract, but here is the pardon.”
Ama turned to face the grinning Macule across the table. Her rangy arm reached over and plucked the parchment from his hand, then laid it flat on the table in front of Bean.
Macule brushed the dangling liripipe of his hat to the side. “Just have him sign his chicken scratch to it and then you can do the same as witness, Mame Ama.”
Ignoring the exciseman’s request, Bean sat down on the bench beside the table and began to laboriously read the document in the candlelight. Ama stood over his substantial shoulders, explaining the occasional word as Macule first sighed, then pursed his lips.
Moments accumulated into minutes, and Macule began to arrange his feathered writing quills into neat alignment on the table. Eventually he found a quill whose point did not meet muster in his eyes, and he sharpened it between impatient glances with his knife. Finally, Macule resorted to a hard stare and rapping fingers on the tabletop.
“I had it signed by Lord Suldur in the manor hall, you know! Given the debts involved on the Bean farm, it wasn’t a clemency that was easily obtained… even with the confiscation!”
Ama motioned Bean to keep reading, then looked Macule square in the eye above the candles. “I’d rather put an adder in my bed than have Bean sign a paper we didn’t read and understand. Particularly from you! ”
Macule bristled at the comment. “Those negotiations left a stain on my reputation! I’ve done him a great favor!”
A few more minutes passed before Bean nodded and signed the document under Lord Suldur’s elaborate scrawl. As soon as Ama penned her name as witness in neat light strokes, Macule snatched the paper with a roll of his eyes. He then raised an eyebrow at Bean’s clear if heavy handwriting, bringing a smile to the woman that taught him to write.
Ama dipped a hand between her apron and chemise. Withdrawing a folded sheet of brown linen ragpaper, she handed it to the exciseman. “I’ve deeded the cottage and acres to you as we had bartered. I doubt it reads as well as your handiwork, but the intent should be clear enough. I had Bean witness it already.”
Macule unfolded the paper and was greeted by Ama’s tidy, airy script. His eyes scanned the document for a minute before looking up. “It reads fine. So fine in fact that I think I could put you to work as an amanuensis… if I were so inclined.”
Ama gave a slow nod to Macule’s crumb of flattery. “My mother taught me a skill that has mostly been an idle one, but thank you. You’ll note the part where the deed goes into effect upon my death, not before. If I survive today, you’ll need to wait out whatever time I have left.”
Folding the ragpaper deed into a tight square, Macule smiled as he placed it into his leather satchel. “I do believe I will be able to afford that wait soon enough. ”
Bean bit his tongue and stood as he looked away from the man in black. Creasing the pardon into a strip, he slipped it under his jerkin before Ama touched his hand and smiled.
“That’s it, Bean. Now you’re free.”
The young man shook his head. “I’ll never be free of the burden of this day, Mame Ama.”
Macule withdrew a wad of wrapped cloth twice the size of a fist from his bag and placed it on the tabletop. He next retrieved a small, square decanter of cut crystal from the satchel… whose swirling contents glowed like a lantern of blue luminescence.
Ama eyed the decanter warily and tilted her head in the weird blue light. “What is it?”
“That is a key ingredient of our contract,” Macule replied brushing back the liripipe of his chaperon.
Bean furrowed the brow of his broad face. “Sorcery. Sorcery and demon princes!”
Macule picked up the wadded bundle beside the glowing decanter and started to untie the cloth knot at its top. “The oil was the only missing component for the ritual amongst Jodus’ possessions when I confiscated that debtor’s property for Lord Suldur. Doubtlessly, acquiring it was far beyond the old hedge wizard’s means given the time, expense and secrecy I had to invest in procuring it myself…”
Chapter Two: Sorcery and Demon Princes
Ama looked at the shifting bands of light and dark within the decanter. “Jodus was kind and wise, and more adept than you give him credit for, Macule. With whispered arcana he set my broken arm as a child, and the bone never pained me after.”
Bean nodded and looked away from the bottle’s eerie glow, casting a stern look at the unperturbed face of the exciseman. “Jodus may not have been the king’s magician, but you’re no wizard at all!”
Leaning forward, Ama peered at the luminescent blue fluid that wavered with a living quality. “Do you even understand this magic?”
Macule opened the bundle in his hands, revealing a fist-sized bowl of aged ceramic and flecked enamel. “I’ll admit to lacking an arcane talent. The magic lies in this bowl, however. Within its oil catalyst, and in the contract itself.”
In the shadowed room, Macule’s black clothing made him appear like a disembodied face while his floating hands gently placed the bowl by the decanter. He then took ahold of the King’s Ledger, sliding it back inside the brandy colored satchel before withdrawing a thin, ragged folio from the bag.
“The old wizard’s notes were written in plain scrawl unequal to your elegant quill-strokes, Mame Ama. But it’s no alchemist’s hen-scratch… I’m confident in my understanding and ability to execute the ritual.”
Ama slowly shook her head at Macule’s smirk while Bean crossed stout arms. “Bean has his pardon… That’s what I wanted, and what he needed. Beyond that I’ve given my word to participate in this pact even if it kills me, Macule. So it really doesn’t matter if I think you’re a sage or a fool, does it?”
“No, it does not.” Macule said placing the thin book on the table. He then began to collect the loose papers that remained, sliding them neatly into the satchel.
As he busied himself with the bag, Ama looked at the bowl sitting humbly next to the glowing crystal decanter. It was a modest half-sphere with several chips on the indigo glaze with white flecks that colored the pottery. Her eye became drawn to a silver band encircling the bowl, and tracing its path around the vessel she discovered it was actually a serpent in relief devouring its own tail.
Macule dropped his heavy bag onto the bench beside him with a bang that drew the peasant’s eyes back to him. They watched him turn to the thin folio on the table before flipping through loose, yellowed pages.
Macule removed a sheet of folded vellum concealed at the heart of the book. “This is the contract.”
He handed the document to Ama over the table, who took it with a tremble in her long fingers. The surface of the vellum was smooth and stained with age as she regarded it.
Bean squinted looking at the folded calfskin in Ama’s veiny hands before turning to Macule with a raised brow. “You said there was magic in the contract itself, but if you lack a wizard’s talent then how did you set its terms?”
Macule smiled again. “Open it.”
The men watched Ama unfold the vellum, then she nearly dropped the contract as a weak glow from the opened page illumed her face and fingers.
The exciseman thrust his hand between the drooping document and the beeswax candles below it. “Careful, you cretin! Without the contract the ritual is useless! ”
Ama pulled the vellum away from the burning wicks and showed it to Bean. “These aren’t words as I know them, Macule! What are they? What do they mean?”
Bean’s eyes saw a page filled with fine, hair-like lines that intricately radiated out from two goose-egg sized ovals that sat on opposite vertical ends of the vellum. One was the color of azure, the other indigo.
Macule tapped the ink-stained page of the open folio before him. “What you see is an arcana commissioned and inscribed six centuries ago for the Voranic king Saer by his youngest son, Saermin.”
Leaning in to get a better look at the labyrinthine lines sprawled across the contract, Bean’s hand reached out but stopped short of touching their gently curving arcs. Within the combed flow between the colored ovals were slowly moving strings of blue luminescence, like the oil of the decanter. They inched with pulsing, vascular motion through the spiraling waves meandering to and from the opposing pools of color.
Drawing back his hand, Bean looked to Ama and matched her gaze. “It’s like an elfin sigil, but alive!”
Macule nodded. “Jodus noted that it was an arcana of elven origin, but inscribed by the human hands that also set the contract’s terms.”
“Terms?” Ama said looking to the man in black.
“The ten-thousand days, Mame. Ten thousand days of life to be transferred from Saermin the son to extend the life of King Saer, his father ailed with age.”
Ama ran a worn finger over a luminescent line of the contract. “He must have been a great man, for a son to offer such a sacrifice.”
Shrugging, Macule lifted the decanter and removed its glass topper. “One could assume. The notes allude that the contract functions like a key… It unlocks the magic in the oil and commands the bowl to preform the transfer with that untapped power.”
Macule carefully poured the luminescent blue oil into the bowl. “The contract is consumed as the arcana within it is invoked, so for whatever reason it was never used for its intended purpose. I’ve chosen not to waste my time pondering why. It passed though many hands before coming into Jodus’ possession along with the bowl.”
Ama and Bean watched as Macule tapped the last few drops of oil from the crystal decanter into the vessel and restoppered it. Now pooled and rippling in the bowl, the spiraling bands of luminescent oil fought with the candlelight for dominance of the shadows while the exciseman placed the bottle aside.
“I had to procure the oil myself at the cost of a strongbox of silver ducats paid to an Ozmanaic alchemist … A princely sum, I assure you! But the purchase of life and time is a unique commodity worth nearly depleting coffers for…”
Ama placed the contract flat onto the table and leaned over with a heavy sigh. “Alright, Macule. Do we just sign it?”
Macule’s eyes drifted towards his quill knife on the table. “Blood. We endorse it with blood.”
“We what? ” Ama said over the heartbeat in her ears.
Straightening his chaperon as he looked down at the folio, Macule ran a finger over a line of text in the yellowed notes. “We place thumbprints of our blood in the ovals of the contract. The one forfeiting their days endorses the azure oval, and the recipient of them endorses the indigo. The vellum is then lit aflame, touched to the oil in the bowl and… the rest invokes itself.”
Bean’s hand touched the Ama’s arm. “You might not have ten thousand days to give…”
Ama stood up straight and embraced the thick young man with arms that wrapped around him like a vine. “I may not, Bean, but long years run in the family. I could still have a few to come after this!”
“Mame Ama, I—”
“—No more talking, Bean. If this is my end, I want you to go far away from here. Have an adventure! Take your carving tools and make a new life elsewhere!” Ama said relinquishing her embrace and pulling herself away.
The grey-haired woman ran a sleeve across a moist cheek before her hardening gaze fell to Macule. “Find a young flower looking for a good man, Bean. Make yourselves merry. But whatever you do, don’t be bitter. Don’t stay here… and don’t seek revenge! ”
Macule watched Bean nod to the woman, then back away to leave the pair facing one another across the table. “Sound advice, Mame Ama. Are you ready?”
“Let’s get it over with.”
The exciseman grabbed the black handle of his quill knife and held it aloft. “The instructions say that each should place the cut on the other.”
Ama presented her left hand to Macule and could feel the warmth from the lit candles on the tabletop below. After a moment of squeamish hesitation, he raked the blade across the worn pad of the woman’s thumb.
She winced slightly before pulling away, keeping the dripping blood contained to her palm. “Thank you for the gentle cut, I’ve given myself worse trimming potatoes.”
Ama reached out with her right hand and Macule placed the long handle of the quill knife into it. With a nod of acknowledgement, he then presented his own left thumb to her.
A hard, satisfied smile came to Ama’s lips as she gripped the tool then swiped the blade without warning into his flesh.
“Bloody peasant!” Macule cried out as he recoiled and hot blood ran to his wrist. “Who do you think you are?! A surgeon?!”
Bean chuckled and shook his head behind Ama. Still smiling, she dropped the quill knife to the table with a rolling rattle. “My apologies, master Macule! These old peasant hands, you know.”
Scowling, Macule grabbed the contract with his unbloodied hand. Studying the document for a few seconds, he flipped it around and thrust it at Ama. “This end! Endorse the azure oval with your blood!”
Ama snatched the vellum from his fingers. Bringing her bloodied thumb forward, she pressed it into the azure oval amid its flowing, fine lines. Withdrawing a shaking hand she saw the bloody stain on the calfskin become absorbed by the luminescent strands, taking on a greenish hue of mixing color.
Macule banged a fist on the table, knocking over one of the beeswax candles to pull Ama’s transfixed eyes from the changing light of the contract. “Give it to me!”
She handed it to Macule with half the page diffused with the green lines flowing from the formally azure oval at the bottom. He took it with a harsh yank before laying the contract flat on the table and pressing his thumb into the indigo oval.
With excited breaths, he removed his hand to look at his crimson endorsement and grinned. Ama watched while the blue-green glow flowing through the labyrinthine lines of the contract took over the entire pattern and touched Macule’s oval.
Then she gasped as the vellum flared red, like the embers of her hearth, and pulsed in time with the racing heartbeat in her ears.
Still grinning, Macule rolled the contract into a tube. Its new red light turned inward but still beating within either end of the scroll, he touched it to the open flame of a beeswax candle. Stale smoke rose as fire climbed the side of the ancient document and Ama stepped back from the table. She shook and looked to Bean as Macule plunged the burning contract into the bowl that bore the serpentine Ouroboros.
The luminescent oil exploded into a jet of blue flames that shot up from the container.
Macule screamed, flailing the hand that formerly held the contract behind the column of blue fire that now rose up on the table.
Ama shrieked and stumbled backwards as the narrow vortex of howling flame danced toward the ceiling, casting an eldritch and shifting blue light that filled the room. Dazed but reaching to pull Ama to safety, Bean braced himself for a flash of heat against the intense illumination. Instead, he grasped empty air before a wave of numbing cold washed over him.
Roaring blue flame leapt from the bowl, extinguishing the candles and causing the wooden table to snap and groan at its frigid caress. Shouting Ama’s name half-blinded, Bean caught sight of her silhouette as the bowl ejected a stream of fire that mushroomed against the timber planks above their heads.
Macule stood with mouth agape as the bowl shattered in an explosion of ceramic fragments that flew in all directions. Bean felt an icy shard sting him under the eye, then lost sight of Ama and Macule in the moment it took him to recover. He heard Macule cry out, and turning towards his shout he caught sight of a swaying banner of blue flame departing the table like a rising tail.
Bean looked to the ceiling and coiling above them was an immense, luminescent worm floating against the timbers. Comprised of translucent blue fire, the thing slithered in twisting loops larger than Macule’s horse. Its touch left patterns of ice in its wake, and Bean knew not if it was the featureless worm’s tail or head that swayed past Macule from above.
The exciseman in black dodged backwards, avoiding the frost-bearing touch of the thing as he fell onto the rushes covering the floor. His chaperon hat dislodged and missing, Bean saw an expression of abject terror on Macule’s face.
The opposite end of the coiled worm lurched toward Bean. The stout man threw his arms up in defense, but realized too late that it was Ama only a few paces from his side who was its intended target. Bean was too slow to intervene as the thing whipped past as a blurry blue streak. It grazed Ama, and she fell to her knees hard enough to knock the grey hair from her bun.
Her wide-eyed gaze met Bean’s as the worm slammed into the western wall of the cottage with an explosion of sparks and ice. The young man scrambled to reach her on the earthen floor while the thing rebounded towards Ama’s back, but the translucent coil of azure fire impacted upon her back with a hollow roar an instant later.
Her agonized scream filled the room as Macule made a frantic dash for the door.
Screaming breath became chilled mist as Bean was knocked back by a blast of cold force. The worm’s remaining length uncoiled and darted down from the ceiling, phantasmaly passing through the woman and erupting from her midriff.
Worming blue flame flew over the table towards Macule. It struck him as he grasped the door handle, exploding into a sheath of azure fire that rolled over his black doublet. Yet his bloodcurdling scream didn’t pull Bean’s eyes from Ama, and he watched the woman collapse with the tail of ghostly fire finally passing out of her.
Somewhere in a corner, lapping blue fire flowed over a writhing Macule. He cried out a second time, then was silent as the eldritch light faded with an empty roar. The room was surrendered to darkness as Bean’s dazzled eyes left him temporarily blinded.
Bean groped on his hands and knees as the last of the arcane flames vanished from existence with a snap. His vision struggling to adjust to the shuttered cracks of daylight that remained to poorly light the room, he cried out for Ama. He heard no reply in the cottage that had been left as cold as a winter’s night by the supernatural event he had witnessed.
Crawling and feeling his way along, Bean coughed at the hanging acrid odor the burned oil had left behind. The stench overwhelmed the sweet smell of the rushes and lavender that he brushed aside sweeping the dirt floor with his hands. Then he touched a thin forearm whose flesh was chill, but not frozen.
Bean grabbed the shoulders of the willowy woman lying facedown on the floor and pulled her upright. “Mame Ama! Can you hear me!?”
Her clothing was dank with frost as he shook her limp body in the dark. His callused hands touched an icy face then covered her nose and lips to check for breath. Then Ama coughed weakly into his palm before gasping for air.
“Bean!” she choked out before drawing another breath.
The young man’s stout arms enveloped her. “Thank the Gods!”
Ama shivered as she was pulled into his lap and the warmth of Bean’s embrace began to counteract the wet chill of the frost coating her clothes. “By the Seven Gods, I thought that was the end…”
His hug tightened to nearly painful proportions. “Me too.”
She squeezed his hand with icy fingers, then gave a coughing laugh. “Bean, stop it you bear! You’re going to crush me!”
“I’m sorry, Mame.”
His grip loosened, and Bean helped her pull forward and sit with strength slowly ebbing back into her body. “Where did it go, Bean?”
“It passed right through you like a ghost! Then headed straight for Macule… Honestly, I didn’t see it hit him, but there was a flash and it was gone.”
Ama nodded in the shadows that cloaked them both. “It’s like an ice house in here… and that smell, Bean! Could a troll’s reek be as foul!?”
The young man’s big hand gave a reassuring grip to her shoulder. “I doubt it. Do you feel strong enough to stand, Mame? I think the stairs are nearby… Can you can hold onto them while I open the windows?”
“I think I can if you help me rise,” Ama said sliding her arm over Bean’s broad shoulders and bracing herself on him.
They rose and stumbled through the shadows toward the dim and dusty shaft of light filtering from the loft above. Coming to the stairs moments later, Ama gripped the rough wooden post alongside them before shifting her weight off of Bean.
“I’ll be fine here, get the door open so we can see.”
Nodding, Bean left Ama silhouetted in the moted light. The toe of his boot banged the threshold with a curse after a series of half-blind footfalls, then the door was cast open. Warm spring air and late morning sunlight dispelled the darkness. Ama raised a hand to shield her eyes.
“That’s better,” Ama said squinting at the open door and the trio of peering chickens gathered just outside of it. The fresh air reached her, and she smiled as both the malignant stench and the chill in her limbs began to lift.
Bean opened the shuttered windows to either side of the door. “Good! This will help more, is your strength returning?”
“I’m still freezing, but it’s getting better… Actually, I’m— Merciful Aeanna! ”
Bean stopped mid-stride on his way to the next window after her exclamation. “What?!”
Ama placed a hand over the enormous hole burned in her linen chemise and the apron above it. The gap was the width of the translucent blue worm that had passed through her midriff, and touching her stomach with wavering fingers she expected to feel the crunch of seared flesh. Instead, she found only chilled goosebumps.
Turning her back to Bean, she hid her exposed navel. “I, I’m alright Bean. But my clothes are ruined…”
Bean sighed and shook his head before reaching for the next window. “I think that’s the least of our worries!”
“I know, but…” Ama bundled the sides of the gap together to close it, noticing her apron was practically ripped in two. Its lower half hung by threads dangling to the left, and as she looked down at it her other hand discovered a reciprocal hole on the back of her chemise above the waist.
Bean turned after opening the window and walked up behind Ama as she remained transfixed on her smooth, long fingers holding the gap in her clothing. Somehow they seemed wrong, and she turned her left hand upwards to find no trace of the cut Macule had placed on her thumb.
A hand touched her shoulder and Ama swung about, pelting Bean’s broad face with long chestnut hair as the remains of her prim bun gave way. Unbound, her hair fell to her waist and Ama’s free hand covered her lips before reaching over to brush off the long brown strands clinging to his face.
“I, I’m sorry, Bean! I’m practically indecent and… d, don’t feel right! It’s like the cloth was burned, but it, it isn’t and—”
“—It’s fine, Mame Ama, it’s fine!” Bean grinned as she brushed away hair to uncover his dark, squinting eyes.
“—A, and where the hell is Macule? Is he—”
Bean’s wide-eyed stare stopped her mid-sentence.
Ama paled looking at his expression. “W, what? What is it?”
Struggling with shocked lips, Bean managed to speak a word. “…You’re…”
“I, I’m what? Am I decrepit? Did the magic leave me ogre-touched? What!?”
Bean shook his head. “You’re… young!”
Chapter Three: To Give and to Receive
The lanky young woman with chestnut hair squinted dubiously. “What? What do you mean?”
Bean raised his hands and shrugged. “I mean… you’re young, Mame!”
The grip of Ama’s hand holding the gap in her chemise closed became tighter. Then she shook her head and the long brunette hair falling straight to her waist. “That’s ridiculous! If anything, I should be older having given up my days!”
Bean watched the young woman’s nose waggle back and forth just above his forehead. Reaching out, his firm grip touched her wrist and raised Ama’s free hand to the level of her eyes.
“Mame Ama, just look!”
She pulled her hand back from his grip with narrowing eyes, then turned it side-to-side as she scrutinized it in better light. Her gaze softened, then became wide as she stopped holding her shirt closed and brought both hands to her face. They were smooth and unmarred, appearing as they had long before the decades of hard work that had left them arthritic and worn an hour before.
Bean flinched as Ama gave out a short shriek.
She grabbed a handful of her brown hair and rolled glossy strands between long fingers unable to find a hint of grey. Ama’s dark brown eyes were still wide as she grasped the supple skin of her unweathered and flushed face.
“I- I don’t understand it,” she said with a hand falling to cover a racing heart.
Bean shook his head. “I’m no more of a wizard than Macule, but I’ll venture to guess this isn’t what he intended!”
Ama nodded and gulped. Looking away from him, she rolled the bulge of her tongue beneath her cheeks. With a surprised murmur, Bean watched as she opened her mouth and ran a finger across her teeth.
She turned to him with a youthful smile that was whole and healthy. “Well, I suppose this is far better than anything I was expecting!”
Bean returned and basked in Ama’s smile before he stammered a reply to the now young woman before him. “A-absolutely!”
With hands on thin hips, Ama closed her eyes and straightened her long back without pain for the first time in ages. Bean caught a glimpse of her navel as she did so, and he quickly turned away to hide his reddening cheeks.
“But why am I young, Bean? Macule took ten thousand days from me! I shouldn’t be a young thing with so many days ahead of her… I’d think at best I’d be as venerable as old Greywacke down the road!”
Stout Bean shook his head and searched the room with his back still to her. “I don’t know, but we should find Macule. Because if you’re young—”
“—Oh Gods Bean, I just thought of that too! Where the hell is he?”
“There,” the young man said thrusting a finger at a far corner.
The pair walked cautiously and side-by-side, approaching a dim corner while Bean snuck a glance at Ama. She was still a lean beanpole who moved with practical poise, but the stride of the long legs beneath her sweeping dress was stronger. He turned away furrow-browed, then stopped as they came upon Macule’s body lying in a heap.
Ama fanned out her skirt and kneeled down. “Macule was older than I, Bean. If he’s died of old age—”
“—There will be an inquest,” hefty Bean said squatting to his haunches. “But I think there will be one no mater what happens now.”
They peered down at the withered, ancient face of the little old man on the floor. They only knew it was Macule by the remnants of his clothes. His black doublet was in faded tatters hanging from its brass buttons with holes revealing a shift that was no more than rags underneath.
Bean rolled the scrawny figure onto his back with a push and his fingers shattered a layer of thin ice clinging to the now oversized clothing that grabbed him. Ama held her breath as he placed his ear just above Macule’s withered, blue lips.
“He’s utterly decrepit and as cold as ice… But be it sorcery or a devil’s luck, he’s still breathing.”
“I don’t believe it!” Ama said laying a long palm onto Macule’s bald and wrinkled head.
Bean pulled back from the unconscious man and pondered the sight. “There’s no way that this is what Macule wanted or expected.”
The young woman shook her head withdrawing her hand from Macule’s chilled brow. “He must have misread Jodus’ notes and gotten them backwards somehow… I mean, look at him!”
Bean nodded scratching his stubbly chin. “Macule seems too damned cautious to simply endorse the wrong spots on the contract. Not with so much at stake. I think it’s something else.”
“Go on.”Ama said watching Bean’s lips soften into the understated smile that usually accompanied one of his crafty thoughts.
He turned to Ama as her pleasant face leaned closer. “He said that the contract would take ten thousand days from one life and give them to another. I bet that’s just how Jodus wrote it in his notes, too! Now if I was an exciseman taking things away for living, I’d read that and reckon that gaining the days was far better than giving them up to someone else.”
Ama slowly shook her head. “But isn’t that the point of the thing, Bean? To gain added years to your life?”
She watched Bean crinkle his nose and wink. “Well, yes and no! Think of it this way… If you and I had a dozen apples apiece—”
“—I’d make a pie,” Ama said with a grin and narrowed lashes. “But what’s your point, Bean?”
The young man shook his head and laughed. “The point is that we each have a dozen! You give me six of yours and I take them into my pile. How many do you now have?”
“I would now have six.”
Bean grinned. “And how many would I now have?”
Ama squinted at him but maintained her smile. “It’s simple arithmetic, Bean. You’d have eighteen.”
Bean nodded in agreement. “Now, what if they were days? ”
The woman’s hand smacked her forehead. “Oh! The bastard did get it backwards! If he wanted to extend his life he needed to give up his days, not take on more from someone else! ”
The young man continued to nod looking down to the old man on the floor. “It could have been that Jodus was trying to obscure a truth and trick those who would abuse the magic. We’ll probably never know.”
Ama turned back to Macule from where she kneeled. “Yes, but if it’s true the old wizard saved me a second time.”
“At least Macule deserves this irony, Mame Ama.”
Sad-eyed, Ama took hold of a limp, withered hand. “He’s so cold!”
Bean shook his head. “How can you pity him? He intended this fate to be yours!”
Ama rubbed Macule’s frigid fingers between her palms. “I know. He’s been a wicked man, I won’t deny it. But he’s so old now Bean… He was a generation older than I to begin with, and ten-thousand more days would make him over ninety winters!”
“Yes, and far from robust at that—”
“—He took on my last twenty-seven years, Bean. At ninety-odd I’m amazed he’s alive! Those hard decades had wrung all the youth out of me prematurely, and now he’s twice the age I was bearing them just an hour ago!”
Stout Bean leaned forward with a nod and started to gently prop up the unconscious little man. “I can already imagine Macule’s spoiled sons fighting over his estate. They will probably cloister him away.”
The young woman’s brown eyes bobbed in resolute agreement. “He’s lost everything, so let’s afford the man a little pity… few will do the same.”
Bean lifted Macule’s limp shoulders. “I can afford him that, Mame Ama. And bastard or not, I wouldn’t let him die on your floor.”
He looked back to Ama and found her examining an ugly scar on Macule’s worn thumb. It was obviously from the stroke of the quill knife that she had given him, but now it was a long-healed injury.
She looked up from her pause. “I know you’re too good at heart to do that, Bean. Let’s get him free of these icy clothes.”
The woman’s long arms reached down and tore open the frosted rags that swathed Macule’s chest while Bean looked on somberly. “Lord Suldur will surely call an inquiry as soon as word reaches him of this.”
“Better to present an old man to the magistrate than a corpse,” Ama replied ripping off a rotten strip of Macule’s undershirt.
Bean hoisted the now bare-chested Macule up by his armpits. As his boots dangled with soles coming apart, Ama stripped the wizened man’s lower half.
“We’ll get him into dry clothes and under blankets in the loft. Can you manage bringing him up the stairs alone, Bean?”
The broad-shouldered man shifted the unclothed elder gripped in his arms to carry him. “He weighs next to nothing.”
Ama rose up from the earthen floor and brushed clinging rushes off her skirt approaching the stairs. Tugging it up, quick footfalls brought the long-legged woman to the top of the stairs before Bean had reached the first step.
“One of father’s old shifts will fit him easily,” she said stooping under the rafter and laid thatch roof above the staircase. “Then we can put him in the bed.”
The planks groaned under Bean’s boots as he carried Macule up the stairs. He cast a raised brow up at Ama already standing in the loft above, taking care not to bang the limbs of the clammy, naked man in his arms as he walked.
“I’ve never seen you move so fast, Mame Ama!”
She stroked back a length of her loose hair and looked down with a grin. “Yes! I feel… Well I feel young! ”
“If he’s now ninety-odd… what does that make you, Mame?” Bean asked halfway up the steps.
Ama’s face suddenly became bemused. “I, I hadn’t thought about that yet… But twenty-seven years given away would leave me… just a little younger than you?”
Bean stepped onto the floorboards of the loft as Ama backed away, giving him room to enter while carrying Macule. “I mean no disrespect, but Mame just doesn’t feel… appropriate anymore. Would you mind if I—”
“—Absolutely not!” Ama reached out and laid a hand on Bean’s shoulder as she nodded. “Drop the honorific. It feels odd to me as well now that Fate has made us contemporaries.”
The young man’s face gave a relived smile. “Alright, Ama. I’ll bring him to the bed.”
The brunette watched Bean walk across the room. “I guess I’m just another girl now, then?”
“Not just another girl, Ama,” Bean said kneeling down and cautiously lowering Macule to the mattress.
The young man couldn’t see her eyes dart to the floor where she stood behind his back, or how she wringed the long fingers of her hands together. “I, I’ll get that shift.”
Lavender hung in dried bunches from the rafters of the loft, lending the room below the thatch roof their aroma. The cozy room was full of daylight and warm air drifting in from the unshuttered windows of each wall except the south, where the chimney rose. Next to its masonry of uneven stones, Ama knelt down and rummaged through one of a pair of chests to either side of the chimney until she stood holding a linen shift and blankets.
She made her way to the corner where Bean had laid Macule on her mattress of hemp canvas stuffed with straw. He rose from the interwoven rushes the simple bed rested upon and looked to Ama before backing away. Crossing stout arms he leaned by the open northern window as she took his former position kneeling at the old man’s side.
Sliding the billowing shirt onto Macule before tucking the worn linen blankets over him, Ama touched his forehead. “He’s not as chill as he was, but his lips are still blue. Bean, could you please go downstairs to stoke the hearth and boil water?”
The only reply she heard were the clucks of the hens and birdsongs outside the window. Ama turned to find the young man pinch-faced and narrowly eyeing her direction before matching his gaze and gaining his attention.
“Pondering something, Bean?”
“Yes. Too much so. I’m sorry… I’ll get the kettle on the fire.”
Ama watched him walk to the staircase scratching his chin. “Thank you, I’ll finish up here and be down soon.”
Bean nodded descending the stairs before she rose up on long legs. Looking down at Macule drawing in raspy breaths, Ama shook her head and sighed before walking to the side of the northern window. Grabbing a hanging curtain of yellowed linen, she drew the sheet across a hairy rope hung to screen the bed and its occupant.
Free of anyone’s gaze, Ama lifted her youthful hands and touched quivering fingers to the smooth skin of her face. The shiver spread across her body and she wrapped long arms around herself in a solitary embrace. Eyes wide, she stood slumped and shaking before glancing at the walls around her and the sounds of Bean moving downstairs.
Ama looked back at the drawn curtain and whispered. “I thought your contract would kill me, Macule… and I was right. No one in the village will accept me this way! And even if some did, your position guarantees an inquest from Lord Suldur!”
She looked away, then down at her ruined clothing before covering eyes that began to tear.
“Did you say something, Ama? Do you need me?” Bean called up the stairs.
She choked back a sob with hands still over her eyes. “I, I’m fine Bean. Just talking to myself. I’ll need a little more time… I, I’m going to change my clothes…”
The sound of Bean moving away from the staircase reached the loft above. “You have plentiful time now, Ama. I’ll give you some privacy…”
Ama uncovered eyes that widened with revelation. With a deep breath and a nod she stood straight and free of the quiver that had gripped her.
“You’re a gentleman, Bean!” she yelled down the stairs.
Ama brushed back her disheveled bangs before wiping her eyes with a sniffle. With another deep breath she firmly grabbed the dangling remnant of her apron at the waist. She ripped it free of the few threads that still held it in place. Tossing it to the floor, she turned back to the curtain.
“You’ve slain the life I knew, Macule. Thank you. ”
She walked toward her chest of clothes beside the chimney tall and resolved. Glancing down the stairs, Bean was nowhere to be found as Ama grabbed the iron ring of the box and pulled it backwards. Yanking the chest across the floor, she dragged it to the center of the loft before sitting down on its lid.
She quickly undid the straps on her closed, low-cut shoes and slid them off the bare feet within. Lifting long calves Ama allowed herself a moment to smile, stretching legs and toes that no longer pained her. Then she was on her feet again, quickly untying her skirt and letting it fall into a pile at her ankles.
Her lean bare legs kicked the damp fabric away as she stood clad in her ruined chemise that fell to her thighs. She touched a flat stomach through the flapping hole in the long sleeved shirt before sliding it off and throwing it into a growing pile of discarded garments.
Ama stood gazing down at a body that hung with all the perk and proportion she remembered from her youth. Sighing, she rested her palms on the hips of a willowy figure before pulling back her long disheveled hair and stroked it strait again. Her smile returned as she bent over and opened the chest.
Snatching her spare chemise, she threaded her head and waist length hair though the collar and arms of the billowing shirt. “I won’t be much longer, Bean. And I’m feeling better.”
“I’m glad!” the young man called up from downstairs as Ama slid on an ankle length skirt of light olive green. “You don’t need to rush. That thing left a mess down here, but little is actually broken… ”
Ama tucked the end of her voluminous chemise under the hem at her waist and tightened it before reaching back into the chest. She smiled retrieving a wooden comb and began running it through her chestnut colored locks. “Alright Bean, if you don’t mind I’m going to do something about my hair before I finish dressing then.”
“Take all the time you need,” Bean shouted toward the staircase opening the last closed window downstairs. It filled the room with early afternoon light.
Minutes passed as he walked over the earthen floor with a furrowed brow. The young man righted an overturned bench and straightened the table between thoughtful pauses. Grabbing the rotted remnants of Macule’s clothes, he plucked the brass buttons from the rags before chucking them beside the now warmly blazing hearth. That task complete, Bean looked to the empty stairs and placed the valuable buttons on the tabletop.
Ama’s foot touched the first step of the stairs just as he looked away. Once again in her low-cut shoes, she quietly stepped down the staircase and paused to look at Bean halfway down. His eyes were still heavy with thought as she watched him collect Macule’s chaperon hat off the floor. It had avoided the touch of the blue fire, and he dropped it on the table unchanged.
The young woman smiled and tilted her head at Bean unseen while the stocky man bent down and retrieved a beeswax candle from the floor. Hearing the creak of a loose step as Ama started down the stairs, his narrow eyes consumed in thought were slowly drawn wide as he beheld her.
Ama strained to maintain her smile in his gaze, running a hand along the front laced bodice of brown suede that now hugged her torso flatteringly. “D-do I look alright, Bean? Would this be in fashion with a village girl my age? Or do I look ridiculous?”
Bean stood blinking at her gentle, nervous smile before swallowing with a heavy nod. “Y-you look very well, Ama… They’d be jealous! And I’d be too nervous to introduce myself if I didn’t know you…”
Ama looked down and fidgeted with the woven rope belt at her hips. “You’re very kind… But you’re shy with all the girls, Bean. I’m nothing special, young or old.”
The young man shook his head. “I might not know what to say to the village girls, but I’ve always been able to talk to you… So there! That makes you special!”
Ama laughed coming down the final steps, her voice a little higher and sweeter in its renewed youth. She walked over to him by the table and rested long fingers on her waist. “Well, if you say so!”
He looked up at a graceful oblong face under the bangs of Ama’s long, straight hair. “I’ve been thinking things over—”
“—Yes, I can tell. I thought about a lot upstairs, too.”
“Right. This won’t end quietly.”
Ama nodded attentively leaning closer. “Absolutely. Macule will be missed by nightfall and his sons will start a search with the dawn!”
Her face crept closer to his, and the smell of her hair quickened Bean’s heart. “E-exactly! I-I’m sure that when they find him as old as the hills, and you a pretty young flower—”
Bean winced at his poor choice of words and noticed a rush of color to Ama’s cheeks as she blinked.
“A-anyways! They’ll level a cry of malignant sorcery at you!”
The blush on Ama’s face subsided, replaced by a slight smile as she pulled away slightly. “A flower, Bean? It’s been a long time since someone said that to me—”
“—I’m sorry! I, I didn’t mean it like that! I’m just… it’s because you’re—”
“—Bean! It’s alright! I’m flattered…”
She watched darting eyes slowly calm on a stubbly face. “I-I’m glad of that… But what I’m fumbling to say is that you can’t stay here anymore, Ama!”
The young woman closed her eyes and gave a somber nod. “I’ve been thinking the same. For ill done to a collector of the manor, Lord Suldur will surely summon the king’s men for an inquest.”
Bean folded his strong arms and nodded. “I wouldn’t be surprised, if he survives, to see Macule play the victim in this!”
Ama opened the brown pools of her eyes and looked at Bean. “Oh, that would be like him, I agree… But no mater what Macule’s fate, a torturer will come for a confession with a headsman behind him.”
“It will never end well for small people like us,” Bean nodded.
She could see Bean thinking about his next words carefully before he spoke. “You’re going to refuse and try to send me away because it’s dangerous, but—”
“—Yes,” Ama said firmly. “I need to disappear. We need to disappear! I want to go. And I want to go with you so that we can keep each other safe!”
Bean’s eyes flashed wide, but Ama watched a smile grow as his tensed features relaxed. “Thank the Gods, I thought that would be a far more difficult chore than it was! I couldn’t bear the thought of you travelling alone—”
“—So gallant, Bean!” Ama said reaching out and giving Bean a nudge that made him grin. “Offering to protect such an awkward thing as myself from highwaymen!”
He laughed. “Don’t jest! The road will be dangerous and I’m only good at carving wood with a knife, not brigands!”
Ama’s hand lifted from Bean’s shoulder before she walked past him. “I think I’ll still enjoy the company, and two are safer than one regardless!”
The young man turned and watched her walk towards her household altar across the room. “You’ve read of the kingdoms Ama, where should we go?”
She looked back over her shoulder with a wink. “Anywhere far away from here, Bean! I’ve been given a second chance and I won’t see it cut short by a hangman’s noose!”
He watched her turn back and admired the sweep of her stride with a nod. “True and granted, but we need a destination all the same.”
She stopped before the chest and looked down at the clay idol of Aeanna amongst the other Gods arranged on a simple altar cloth. “We’ll obviously need to flee Ehtrus and not look back. I say we head east for a few days and cross into Ozmana. The kingsmen have little power there, but I’ve got very few coins to get us to the border on.”
“Here, we can add this to our coffer.” Ama turned to find Bean pulling a black leather purse out from under his vest. He jangled the coins with a smile then tossed it across the room where she barely snatched it from the air with a sweep of her long arm.
“I found it in Macule’s satchel, probably his petty cash…”
The woman looked at the purse in her grip. “So, now we’re adding theft to our crime of malignant sorcery?”
Bean waved a hand at the open door. “Well, why do anything half way? He’s got a horse outside that he won’t be using too!”
Ama winked back at him before pulling open the purse strings. “I was wrong about you, Bean. You’re a gentleman and a rogue! ”
“Well, if you say so…” he shrugged as she looked inside the purse with widening eyes.
Her fingers dipped into the pouch and pinched a few of the thumbnail sized copper pennies within. “This might have been petty cash for him… But if we’re careful I bet this can take us south through Ozmana and get us all the way to Adril!”
Bean rested his thumbs upon the flanks of his belt with a smile. “Adril it is then. The Kings of Ehtrus have no love there!”
Ama shook her head holding up an old silver kopin from the purse. “Oh, no love at all! Not since The Covenant of Kings abandoned them with a war unfinished.”
“We should leave at sunset, Ama, and take the trail out back through the forest. No one will be fetching wood in the dark, and it passes well outside the village and Greywacke’s hounds that bay at everything. It might take us all night, but by morning we’ll hit the old imperial road.”
She dropped the kopin back into the purse and pulled it closed. “That’s good thinking, Bean. The peddlers say there’s an inn at a crossroads a day’s travel east on the road. If we can reach that, we’ll already be halfway to the Ozmanian border.”
Ama turned her back to Bean and spread out her skirt, lowering herself down to kneel beside the chest and altar atop it. He walked over as she carefully laid the idols supine and rolled them up into the plain altar cloth.
Bean looked over Ama’s shoulder as she lifted the lid of the chest open. Dipping her hands within, she rose holding a short stack of books in her arms before walking past him with a smile. “I’m taking my library.”
“I’ll gather my small tools,” Bean nodded as she set her books down on the table. “We’ll need to travel light.”
From the top of the stack, Ama picked up the small girdle book of poetry her aunt had bequeathed to her mother long ago. “You’ll find work soon with your talent, I’m sure of it.”
“Let’s hope, but either way we’ll be better off helping each other out,” he said turning toward the door.
She nodded looking at the book in her hand while Bean walked away, then glanced at Macule’s quills and papers scattered on the tabletop. “Perhaps I can find work as a reader, Bean. Maybe even doing scribe’s work?”
Ama took the leather knot at the end of the girdle book’s strap and looped it around her woven rope belt. Once secured she watched the book dangle past her hip, allowing herself to wear it as the accessory it was intended to be for the first time.
She turned with a smile, stroking a hand across the swaying cover by her thigh. “Isn’t it wonderful, Bean? Doesn’t it make me look like a woman of means?”
Bean stared wide-eyed at the steps leading up to the loft. Following the line of his sight with a glance, Ama gasped seeing Macule standing withered, hunched and decrepit on the staircase.
Chapter Four: Ouroboros
Wizened and ancient, the old man stared at Ama and Bean. With one knobby, wrinkled hand trembling as it clutched the railing above the steps, his other held an old linen blanket draped over his shoulders. Like a poor imitation of a regent’s cape, it drooped onto the floor and down the wooden planks of the staircase before him.
“Macule!” Ama shouted next to Bean.
His eyes squinted under a bald and furrowed brow, twitching looks at the young pair frozen below him. Macule started a slow and wobbling decent down the staircase clad in the shift Ama had dressed him in. The shirt hung on his bony frame like a limp sack, falling well past his knees while his hands barely emerged from voluminous sleeves.
Ama and Bean exchanged worried glances before she gulped and spoke again. “Mistakes were made, Macule. You’re lucky to even be alive!”
Hobbling down the steps bow-legged, Macule’s calves and bare feet were laced with varicose veins. They jutted like gnarled sticks from the bottom of his flapping shift, and the old man’s hard squint and droop-faced glower remained unchanged at Ama’s words.
The bent old man reached the earthen floor dragging his blanket behind him as Ama tugged Bean’s wrist and pulled him along with her. Macule’s bald, liver-spotted head looked up at her with a face of deeply folded wrinkles.
“Macule, let us help you. Are you well?”
The ancient figure cocked his head and hard squinting stare to the side.
Ama and Bean passed sideways glances before she spoke again. “Macule, are you well?”
The hunched old man took a few steps forward, licking his lips and a set of gums that retained a single yellowed tooth. Leaning closer to Ama, he lifted a shaky hand to a large, flappy ear.
“What?” he said with a dry, creaky voice.
Ama looked down at Macule perplexed. “Are. You. Well?”
Macule shook his head and scratched the fine white hair that still clung to his temples. “I’m sorry young Mame… You’ll need to speak up!”
Ama blinked, then leaned down to practically shout in his ear. “ARE! YOU! WELL!?”
Macule looked up wide-eyed, then nodded. “Oh! You know to be truthful, Mame… I’ll admit that I don’t quite feel myself!”
He waggled a bushy white eyebrow at Ama, then gave a raspy cackle. “I must apologize to you young-folk, because I’m quite the fool today!”
Ama looked to Bean and watched him shrug his broad shoulders before turning back to Macule. “Uh, that’s very noble of you… Perhaps we—”
“—Yes! It seems that I wandered into your house and fell asleep in your bed!”
She blinked and shook her hair. “No, Macule! WE put you in the bed! You—”
“—Eh?! What?” the old man said straining to hear.
“WE put YOU in the BED!” Ama shouted waving her hand towards herself and Bean.
Macule looked at Bean one-eyed and puzzled. “Um, HE put me in the bed? Why would he do that? I’d think with a pretty girl around… he’d put YOU in the bed!”
Ama gasped pulling back while the old man belted out another dry laugh. “Macule! Bean and I aren’t—”
“—Well he should anyways!” he continued to cackle. “I mean, I would!”
Pulling herself very prim and straight, Ama hid her reddening face from Bean as he covered his eyes. Hands on her thin hips and with rangy elbows akimbo, she leaned over the scrawny old man who smiled nearly toothless.
“Macule! What’s the last thing you remb—”
“—Eh?! What? Speak up, woman!”
“MACULE! WHAT’S—” Ama shouted as Bean flinched at her volume.
“—Who?” Macule said baffled.
She reached out with a long finger and poked him. “YOU! YOU’RE MACULE!”
The old man gave an excited hop. “Oh! That’s good to know! Then, who are you, young Mame?”
Bean plugged his ears before she spoke again. “I’M AMA!”
Macule furrowed his wrinkled brow again. “I’m a… what?”
“NO! I’M AMA!” She shouted patting her chest emphatically.
He scratched his bald pate. “Alright. So I’m a… what, now?”
“NO! I’M—” Cutting herself off, Bean watched Ama fan herself with a long palm before looking way from Macule sour-faced. She then glanced at the young man.
“I may be regretting that we saved him…”
Bean winked looking back with fingers still in his ears. “What?”
“Oh! Be quiet, you! ” Ama shoved the thick man with a long arm even as she smiled. “I can’t do anything about the name father gave me—”
She stopped herself again, tapping lips under thoughtful eyes. Taking a deep breath, she turned back to Macule. “LUPINA! I’M… LUPINA!”
The old man’s eyes widened as he nodded. “Now that’s a pretty name, Mame!”
Bean heard the shouted words past his plugged ears, and shot Ama a narrow glance. She responded with a reserved grin, but Macule spoke before she could.
“And who’s this stout young man that accompanies the fair Mame Lupina?”
He looked at Macule and his nigh-toothless grin. “BEAN!”
“Ooh! Good! I like beans!” the old man cackled.
Bean looked to Ama, removed the fingers from his ears, and slowly shook his head.
Macule pulled the blanket around his hunched shoulders a little tighter, dragging it through the loose rushes on the floor as he stepped forward. “That reminds me, Mame… I have a terrible hunger! You wouldn’t happen to have anything to eat, would you?”
The wrinkled little man ambled past Ama with happy lurches. She turned and intercepted him smiling after a few long strides from her skirt. “MACULE. WHAT IS THE LAST THING YOU REMEMBER?”
He rubbed his oversized nose. “Oh, something about a pie. I think. But it might just be because I’m hungry… I suppose.”
Macule then looked to the hearth fire and noticed the rocking chair beside it. The old man waved his arms and bobbed towards it. “Ooh! A chair!”
Bean came alongside Ama. “He has no memory.”
“He’s befuddled with age, it happens sometimes.” Ama nodded, folding hands over her waist.
“Is it wrong that I like him better this way, Ama?”
She shook her long straight hair. “Not at all… He’s forgotten everything that made him so insufferable! ”
“Few would disagree that a clean slate isn’t an improvement on him…”
Ama nodded watching Macule pull himself into the rocking chair. “It’s a fresh start for him too, then.”
The young man turned at Ama’s comment, and Macule gave a small cry of excitement as he swayed. Seeing Bean’s relieved face, she reached out and touched his shoulder as she matched his smile.
“Lupina is the name my mother wanted to give me, but father disliked it. It became our secret name for me instead.”
The young man’s dark eyes looked up to her. “It’s a good alias. If we’re going to flee, I’d keep it.”
Her smile widened. “Not an alias, Luken Bean. A fresh start!”
“It’s beautiful, and it suits you, Lupina. I’ll have an easier time saying it than hearing you call me, Luken… ”
“Oh, Luken is a fine given name! I like it. Besides, none will confuse it or you with your uncle outside of the village!”
Bean waved the comment away. “Alright, fair enough. There’s lots to be done if we are to leave at nightfall… Will you need help with Macule?”
Ama glanced at the old man wobbling back and forth contentedly watching the hearth. “It’ll be no challenge to keep him occupied. I’ll gather what I want and think we’ll need inside the cottage.”
Bean stepped towards the door. “Well then, if you need me, I’ll be outside becoming a proficient horse-thief.”
“Yes, we’ve become dangerous fugitives indeed!” she laughed.
He thrust up his arms in jest walking out the door. “Luken and Lupina… Outlaws! Should we pen our confessions now or later?”
The young woman covered her laughter with a palm. “Hopefully never! But I will pen a letter for Old Greywacke before we go to tell him our side of the story! His daughter-in-law can read it to him.”
Bean shook his head disappearing into the cottage yard. “Oh, he’ll love that…”
Ama turned from the empty doorway smiling and flush cheeked as she walked towards Macule in the chair. “I’m afraid that I haven’t any pie, Master Macule. But I do have—”
She sighed reaching the hearth-pot, and spooned milkless rye gruel into a wooden bowl.
A brown hen roosted comfortably upon the folds of the blanket covering Macule’s lap while he snored. The old man slept in the rocking chair by the hearth fire as the window behind the pair faded from a twilight orange glow into the black of a star-filled night.
Ama placed a final log into the wood bin, leaving it full before she gave a final stir to the fresh pot of gruel she had prepared for Macule. Then she walked to the table, collecting some loose papers into a neat pile before sliding them underneath the great ledger book of Lord Suldur.
“Bean, can you pin this on the door spike please?” she said handing him a folded parchment letter.
His calloused hand took the letter for Old Greywacke as he turned for the open door. Ama watched him pin it to the spike that faced the outside, then looked back to the table.
The young man turned to her in the open doorway. “Are you ready?”
She grabbed the forest green wool of her father’s traveling cape lying on the tabletop. “Y-yes. Are you?”
“I am,” Bean said catching sight of her worried eyes as she smiled.
Ama affixed the cape over her shoulders, then pulled Macule’s black riding gloves onto her long hands. “I’m grateful that these are a good fit, it feels like it’s a chilly spring night.”
“It’s clear and cool, but the starlight is strong to show us the way.”
The young woman lifted Macule’s chaperon from the table and shook it. “I hope I can don this, how does father’s old capelet fit you?”
Bean grinned, tugged the brown hood he now wore straight. “Snug and warm, thank you.”
“Good. Now if this fits it’ll be much warmer than a kerchief…” A further shake unbound the black wool in her hands and it fell to its natural state. Bean watched Ama gather long auburn hair and bow her willowy body before sliding the hooded capelet over her face. Rising up, she met his gaze and both of their eyes lingered.
Ama blinked behind disheveled bangs. Standing straight a smile creased her lips, and Bean continued to watch her preen and tuck her hair into the tight hood with a long tapered tail.
“I’ll just be another minute, Bean. Do you want to get the horse ready and I’ll meet you outside?”
He turned on his boots and stepped over the threshold into the night. “Y-yes. I’ll unhitch and prepare him.”
With his exit, Ama finished tucking her hair underneath the black hood. Folding hands at her waist, she fought back a shiver looking at the wattle, daub and timber walls of her cottage for the last time.
“I always thought I would die under the same roof that saw my birth… and I did. I died here a little bit at a time over ten-thousand days, hating and loving this farm. Now those days have been lifted. I’m back to where my troubles began… and there is no devil in Hell that will prod me down that path again!”
She wiped a tear from her eye turning for the door. “I’ve said goodbye to my parents lying at the apple tree, now I leave this place unchained.”
Ama closed the cottage door and her parchment letter to Greywacke swayed impaled on its nail. She reached-up and stopped its motion with a sniffle, then ran a sleeve across her eyes as she collected herself.
“I heard talking,” Bean said behind her in the night.
“I, felt the need to say goodbye… I shouldn’t be so sentimental.”
He patted the nose of the white gelding beside him. “It’s fine… I was worried that Macule might have woken up to give you a final round of trouble in there.”
“No, no… He’s a sound sleeper!” Ama said forcing a smile and facing Bean. She walked down the path in the rising moonlight as he tightened the strings of his capelet against the chill.
“You look like a merchant’s daughter… I suppose that I could pass for your servant.”
Ama ran a hand down the long cornette of the hood to where it ended at her hip with a coy turn, then fiddled with the girdle book dangling off her belt. “Nonsense Luken, I don’t look that fine, do I? If anything I’d think a passerby in the night would think us elopers—”
The young woman winced and Bean gave a hard swallow turning back to the horse. “I-I suppose they could, Ama! We should get going.”
“Y-Yes, let’s get on our way!” she said nodding swiftly and with a newly forced smile.
Bean led the horse and Ama matched his pace beside him under the stars and rising moon. Walking between the cottage and the animal shed the pair exchanged retreating glances until Ama stopped wringing her hands and broke the silence.
“I’m sorry Bean, that was a poor choice of word… I didn’t mean—”
“—Of course not! It’s all right,” the stout man replied fixing his eyes forward. “A-and, you had a good point! Maybe it would make a good ruse if we’re questioned?”
They stepped up the gentle slope to the fields behind the cottage as Ama tried to catch Bean’s gaze. “It would… I’ll try to be convincing if you can—”
“—No actor will be my equal!” the young man coughed out still facing forward.
Ama laughed and Bean finally looked to her as the tension left them. She missed his subtle smile glancing back to the cottage fading into the darkness behind them. He faced forward again before she turned back.
She stroked the ivory mane of the horse beside her. “You and Alabaster seem to be getting along.”
“Either he’s a good horse, or I’m a better thief than I thought,” Bean said guiding the animal around a bend in the path.
Ama ran a hand over the brandy-colored leather of the satchel secured to Alabaster’s saddle. “You’ve packed him well for a first attempt. Were you able to bring your carving tools?”
“All of the important ones… The sack wasn’t as heavy as whatever you put in the satchel.”
“I packed our coins, of course, and that wheel of nut-filled cheese Greywacke traded us for the wood will travel well. The candles and idols—”
The low-hanging branches of the apple tree emerged from darkness on Ama’s left. Reaching out she ran her gloved hand through its pink blossoms and whispered a final goodbye.
Bean looked back at her. “We could stop for a moment, if you like.”
Petals fell as Ama’s hand left the blossoms. “No, that’s alright. I’ve said my piece already.”
“As you wish it,” the young man said giving a tug to the horse’s lead. “I slipped a few things into Macule’s bag too. I see you brought his quills and ink along…”
She grinned. “He won’t be missing them, or the quill knife. I pilfered his blank parchment too!”
“There was still room to stuff your library in there after that?”
Her head nodded above the swaying liripipe of her hood. “Yes, I have them all with me! The old Gazetteer of the Five Kingdoms will be useful. I’ve pondered those water-stained pages since I was a child and want to see what I’ve read about for so long.”
“Wonderful. So now we’re on a pilgrimage as well?” Bean said as the woman caught up to him with a few long-legged strides in her skirt.
“Well, not everything it describes,” she laughed, “but what’s along our way for sure! Januviel’s Histories probably won’t be as useful… The High Hymnals and poetry even less so… But I couldn’t leave them behind!”
Bean turned, a smile on the stubbly face within his hood. “Oh, I’m grateful to have your books and wits on the journey, Ama. You know how I get lost, and I’ve never been a day’s travel outside the village before… Have you?”
Ama shook her head before a goat bleated in the night, drawing her eyes to the animal shed and cottage barely visible in the distance.
“I fed the animals as you asked, they’ll be all right,” Bean said stepping over a rut in the path. “Mind your step.”
She turned back to find him offering a hand over the slim hole. Reaching out she slid her long gloved fingers into his, smiling as his strong grip pulled her safely across.
“I know they’ll be fine; I gave them all to Greywacke in the letter. He’ll find it when he comes for the wood tomorrow—”
“—And Macule! I can hear Greywacke’s laughter already!” Bean said taking hold of Alabaster’s halter.
Ama chuckled with Bean before he guided the horse over the rut with a gentle tug. “No doubt! I’ll miss those big belly-laughs of his, Bean! This will surely become a story he’ll recount to the end of his days…”
Bean nodded and they resumed walking through the dark field. “The animals are generous payment for finding Macule like he will tomorrow.”
“And Greywacke will treat them well.” Ama said looking to the tree line that loomed larger to block the stars as the field’s end approached.
“What did you say in the letter, anyways?”
Ama put up her hands and sighed. “I told them the truth… Not that it will matter to the inquisitors. It’s an honest accounting of what happened, except for the omission about my renewed youth…”
Bean snickered. “So it’s only, mostly an honest account then…”
“Mostly… As a ruse, I told them I was now ogre-touched instead!” she winked.
He snapped his fingers before joining her in a laugh. “Brilliant! That’ll throw the Kingsmen off the trail, and I bet we’ll be a day’s travel into Ozmana before they even saddle a horse in pursuit.”
“It’s not like Macule himself will make the situation any less confused either,” Ama nodded as they reached the edge of the woods.
Bean brought the horse to a stop and they looked at the trail under dark pine branches. “And here, our long night begins.”
“All journeys have to begin somewhere, Luken Bean. I’m ready. Are you?”
“Ready as I ever will be,” the young man said turning to her with a smile before patting the horse. “You should ride Alabaster for awhile, Ama. Come, I’ll give you a boost up!”
She looked at Bean’s extended hand and almost took it before pulling back her gloved fingers. His confused gaze met the sad crescents of her eyes.
“I- I don’t want to be Ama any more, Luken. I don’t simply want her name, I want to be Lupina… Just some village girl a few months your junior. Could you treat me like that?”
Lupina’s dark eyes watched Bean become pale as he forced a nod. “I- I can…. I respect and owe more to your compassion than I feel that I can repay, Lupina. Your kindness when Uncle died, your shelter when his debts stripped the selions of my inheritance from me… Even your tutelage in teaching me how to read…”
The young woman’s eyes glistened in the moonlight. “You flatter me, Luken… I never thought my actions so grand…”
“Your eyes have always been a beacon of hope to me! I saw their resolve when you entered into Macule’s contract on my behalf, and when you told me to make a new life elsewhere. Now I see those same eyes gazing from a comely young vessel, serving her lighter heart… And I’m at war with myself! Should I continue to revere her, or embrace her?!”
Lupina shed a tear. “C- could you… do both?”
“Would… you let me?!”
She reached out with her long arms as another tear fell. “I’ll make you privy to a secret, Luken Bean. Many a day came when old Ama said, if I were a young flower, I think Bean would be the one to make me very happy… Ama may be gone now, but the woman who blossomed in her place so wants to find out if she was right!”
Lupina stood under the stars and waxing moon, her hands extended as pale Luken failed to find a voice. Her hooded head sagged as he looked away, palms quivering before they faltered in the darkness.
Then his hands grasped hers.
The stout man pulled the tall woman into an embrace. “If we stood before a priest, a solemn oath would pass from my lips to uphold your heart!”
Lupina’s long arms wrapped around Luken like a loving vine. “From mine as well!”
They remained buried in each other’s warmth, excited breaths becoming mist in the cool air of an early spring night. Lupina lifted her neck and looked down to Luken feeling his hands lifting her up by the waist. Feet off the ground she laughed and beamed a smile that he returned twirling her in a circle.
Placed gently on the horse’s back, she ran a sleeve over her eyes sitting sidesaddle. “It doesn’t matter if we travel all night! I’m so excited now, I won’t sleep for days!”
“Then let’s get started!” Luken said tugging Alabaster’s lead.
Lupina grabbed the horn of the saddle and steadied herself upon the horse’s walking gait. Feet dangling down over the white animal’s side, they began their journey through the woods.
“Yes! Let’s start our adventure together!”
“Together, Lupina! Together like beans in a pod!”
She laughed. “Lupina Bean! I love the sound of that!”
(c) Jason H. Abbott – April 2, 2016