Laila’s face, weathered and sun-cheeked as it was, held a certain sort of beauty in its amazement and confusion, as she stared at Nine Trees. She couldn’t help but open her mouth a few times as though to speak, and it was finally laughter that broke the silence, on the part of Nine Trees, who helplessly hiccuped and spluttered “Without a doubt, I’d thought you were a bird, but I’m thinking now that instead you’re the fairest fish I’ve ever seen.”
It earned him a clot of dough in the face, and Laila stood with her hands on her hips, feeling much abused by the stranger whose name she still did not know.
“Don’t you laugh at me, sir! I’ve brought you into my home and you tell me strange tales of searches for chosen ones, and how I am to be one myself?” she fumed.
“It was not meant to be a spiteful jest,” Nine Trees stated apologetically, wiping flour from his long eyelashes. “It was only that you were so surprised–” he began, but again fell to laughing; he could not help himself. He lifted his hands to fend off another barrage of dough, which he felt for certain must be coming, but when he found that it was not happening, he opened his eyes to her and at once looked abashed. The heat in his cheeks flamed; she wore an expression of near-pitiable confusion, mixed only with fear.
“I don’t even know your name, sir, and you named me hero. How am I supposed to speak and think after announcements of this nature?” Laila said, her voice quiet, and even afraid.
“First off, I am not sir, and you needn’t address me as such,” Nine Trees tells her. “Though,” he said, dropping into his lowest, courtliest bow, he announced himself in such a rich tone that Laila knew he was quite serious again. “I have the manners of one, I suppose. I am Nine Trees, sent of Medowin, last Child of Raduli–”
“–first child of Sarad,” Laila whispered with him, finishing the statement as she dropped to her knees. “Not, sir, no, but Lord,” she breathed, bowing her face to the dirt. “Forgive me, Lord, I meant no ill, I did not realize when you said Win that you spoke of–”
“Get up,” Nine Trees said impatiently, and was shocked to see Laila pick herself up immediately, her face flushed, her dark eyes wide, her brown hands trembling.
She was in such a state as he had seen too many forest animals treed by kings’ hounds. Certain, then, of her own coming doom, Laila closed her eyes and fought not to faint, for she was not a weak woman, not a milksop maid, but a proud, stubborn thing. Not bawdy, not lusty, not spiteful or wild, but quietly and happily and freely she lived, unbothered by the orders of any. “Yes, Lord,” Laila said quietly, and Nine Trees could not help but be half-ashamed of how he’d bemuddled things.
When he reached for her, to try and shake from her the sudden spell of fear and obeisance, she flinched, and it was then that he’d had enough. “In Sarad’s name!” he cursed. “Stop your bowing and scraping, I work for her; I am not of her line,” he said, exasperated. “I’m just a bastard foundling she took in, Laila, not the gods themselves come to your door. In truth, you are far more important than I — I am only a listener of stories, Laila. You are the one the stories will be about.”
She stared hard at him, certain that for all her struggle, she was still too near to fainting. “Would you please, Lord–”
“Call me Nine, if you would–”
“Nine, then, but you’re the queerest sort I’ve ever met,” she said plainly.
“I’m afraid I get that a lot,” he murmured, shaking his head. “Would you consent to come with me, then, to where you can be further enlightened? This time and place move quickly, and the people here would miss you for the days that you would need be gone to hear these explanations,” Nine Trees said, opening his hands in a gesture of offering, of vulnerability, for it was plain to Nine Trees that he had found the one he had sought for so long, it was there in the music of her movement, of her laugh, but for all that he knew this, there was no way to force her to any path; Laila would have to choose.
“How else would time move but slowly, of course, save when you’re doing as you love,” Laila muttered, looking irritated and confused. “The sun’s gone down and I’m not finished with my work. If you please… Nine, I shall finish it, and when I am finished, we shall break bread. When the nightmeal is done, I am bathing and going to bed. You may stay and sleep in the loft if you like, with the chickens, or on the midden, whichever suits you and your tall tales. In the morning, after breakfast, you will tell me everything, and by everything I mean you will leave not a thing out, and if, by then, I am not satisfied by your strange tales, sir, then you will remove yourself from my home and my sight. Do we have an agreement?” she asked, talking on and on, her words clear and crisp and rapid as an icy river made of spring thaw, “Because if we do, be off with you then, as I’m busy, and if we do not then there is the door and you may walk yourself out it upon your own two legs!”
Nine Trees listened to the tirade much like a child will listen to a thunderstorm in awe, half-smiling politely until she finished, and he painedly said, “May I ask you one thing?”
Laila took a long, hard look at the young man who seemed half-child and half-rogue and found herself surprised that she was crushed for the lack of the merry twinkle in his eyes. “…you just did,” she said pertly, but the twinkle in her eyes proved to wake his, and he smirked, giving a little bow.
“Fair enough, dear Laila,” he murmured. “We have an agreement. May I help you with dinner?”
And so it was that the two moved through the kitchen to prepare for the evening meal; Laila finishing her work while Nine Trees cooked them a veritable feast. Now and again, dough landed in his hair or a bit of gravy spattered her cheek, but they managed to cook and eat and get more of the food in themselves than on themselves.