Laila wiped coarse sugar from her fingers and stared at the stranger with a disapproving frown as he stood out in the yard of her cottage, splitting wood. He hummed as he worked, and the axe split each piece with ease; a rhythm was established in the way he would set the wood on the block, bring down the axe, and reach down for another piece. Now and then one piece got stuck, but strangely enough he was already humming a happily little repetition there, and he never really stumbled or stuttered.
While Laila cooked, staring at the man, she couldn’t help but keep frowning, though it wasn’t of irritation in the slightest. She wasn’t mad at him; she was quite angry with herself.
Here she had a perfect stranger who’d bought a week’s worth of pies, and she had him out front, chopping cookwood!
Except, she reasoned, she had done no such thing. He’d put himself to work almost immediately, cheerfully cleaning, playfully flicking wood chips into her hair when she came out to fuss over him, telling her to go make more pies and stop hovering.
She hummed while she worked as well, and it wasn’t until she was bathed in the waning glow of the afternoon, half-covered in flour and spatters of pie filling, that she realized she was being watched. She looked over her shoulder and flicked her braids back out of her face, quirking a mock-irritated brow at the stranger — whose name, she just realized, she still didn’t know.
How long he’d been standing there, she had no idea, but once she’d stopped humming, he roused himself from his dream and said almost to himself, quite solemnly, “Win’s certainly not going to believe this.”
“And who in Sarad’s name is Win?” Laila wondered, pursing her lips and looking amused. “…and what won’t he believe?”
“She,” Nine Trees murmured, correcting the woman who was now dusting her hands on her apron and looking bewildered.
“Well she, then,” Laila murmured, humoring the young man.
He wandered right back out of the house and she trailed after, holding her apron, her eyes wide. “Wait, wait!” she cried, half-alarmed that she might’ve somehow offended him. “Please wait?” she said, bursting out the door of the kitchen, into the lawn, scattering chickens about the yard.
He looked at her, over an armful of wood, and cocked his head to the side, wondering blankly, “Don’t want the wood just yet?”
Frustrated and half-embarrassed, and oh, how her cheeks flamed as she thought of how she must look, chasing after him in her floured skirts with her brown hands and her half-undone hair, Laila chided herself bitterly and said primly, “In there,” and pointed with an imperious finger toward the woodstove.
He nodded, winking, for he was a scoundrel of a young man, sweet and charming and kind, and though he knew she was half-distressed for some reason, he could not begin to guess why, and so he only sought to see her smile again. If she smiled, she might laugh, and if she might laugh, she might again sing and it was her singing that he truly adored.
Once the wood was down in a neat little pile, Nine Trees dusted off his hands and wandered to the sideboard where he lifted a slice of mutton pie to his mouth and ate it in four quick bites, grinning wolfishly as he licked his lips and then leaned there, eyeing Laila thoughtfully.
“Win is my teacher,” he began. “She knows the art of songlore, and keeps track of the ages of man,” he said to Laila, and she could tell, by the tone of his voice, that this was no longer playful banter. This was the sound of a Truth being told, and she soaked up the knowledge like a reed takes on water, listening attentively. “She has long been searching for the one chosen to usher in the next Age,” he explained patiently, watching Laila’s face as she was made a silhouette in the doorway by the setting sun, afire with the day’s dying light. “Win bid me join her in her search, and bring news of my findings,” Nine Trees murmured.
It was then that the weight of Truths became a little too much for Laila, and she frowned in true distress, opening her mouth to interrupt, but the young man continued to speak, his melodic voice silencing her before the words could leave her lips. How like a little bird she looked, just then, he thought to himself. How like a wren, all brown and small and frightened, caught in a net and only just now realizing.
“You were about to ask me if I have found this chosen one,” Nine Trees supplied her quietly.
Lailah only nodded mutely, narrowing her eyes again.
“Indeed I have found this one, the chosen, Laila,” the young man confirmed, the glittering in his eyes returning. His next word was heavier than all the previous Truths combined: “You.”