Dryad-Born (Whispers from Mirrowen)

By: Jeff Wheeler

Another story, Phae. Please!”

“Yes, please! Please!”

The children’s eyes were so full of anticipation that Phae almost relented. She folded her arms and shook her head. “If I tell you too many, there will not be any stories left. One is enough for tonight. It was a long one. To bed…all of you.”

And they did. The trample of little feet made her smile, and then they climbed into the beds filling the loft. There were twelve who slept there, the youngest of the orphans. Little Kriss planted a wet kiss on her cheek before wriggling up the edge of the bed, too proud to ask for help. Phae rubbed her arms and stood, watching them poke and jab at each other as they fussed to get comfortable. It would take a while before they completely settled down, but they would eventually. She retreated to the ladder, waving goodnight to little Owen who smiled shyly at her and waved back.

Phae stepped down the ladder swiftly, giving a last smile before clearing the final rung. There was Brielle, curled up beneath the ladder with a book, half-hidden in the shadows.

“To bed, Brielle,” Phae said.

The little girl never spoke. Her big eyes found Phae’s and she nodded, folding the book shut and clutching it tightly.

“Can you read?” Phae asked her.

Brielle shook her head no. She had never spoken. Not once since she had come to live at the vineyard. She was seven or eight years old. No one knew anything about her except that someone had brought her to the Winemillers to care for. But then again, Phae thought wryly, most of the orphans had ended up here that way.

Clinging to the book, Brielle navigated the ladder and disappeared into the loft.

Children younger than ten stayed in the loft. The older ones shared rooms on the main floor, small cupboard-like rooms, each with a small bed and little else. Phae crossed the hall toward the kitchen, she heard Dame Winemiller’s voice as she sat gabbing with others. She was a talkative woman and rarely let you pass without engaging in a lengthy conversation.

Phae tried to slip by unnoticed, but when Rachael waved to her, it gave her away.

“Phae! Are the children down yet? Good, you are so patient with them. Just the other day, I thought little Owen was going to burn his fingers on the stove as he tried snitching some honey cakes. I think we should name him Owen Carnotha. He is always snitching treats.”

Phae stared at Dame Winemiller a moment, gazing into her eyes. She had her attention fully, eyes locked together. Phae blinked, snatching Dame Winemiller’s memory of seeing her in the kitchen. Before another word could be spoken, Phae slipped away from the kitchen and left through the rear doors of the main house, clutching the memory like a fragile leaf in her mind. She let it drift away into the twilight.

Phae possessed a strange gift. She could make people forget.

It was a form of magic, she believed, some innate ability that no one had ever explained to her. It had happened randomly at first, but eventually she caught on to the pattern and began to understand it. The first time she remembered doing it was when she was a child, perhaps five. They were playing the seeking game and she had hidden herself in a large empty wine barrel. An older boy had found her and was about to call out her name. She remembered how desperately she had wanted to remain hidden, to not let her part in the game end. She had been staring up at him, crouched in the barrel, willing him not to see her. As soon as their eyes met, a strange look came over his face. She wished he would forget he had seen her. She had blinked at him. And then he walked away. When she had asked him why he hadn’t revealed her, he scolded her for telling stories.

The gift made her special. She realized that.

When there were difficult chores to be done, she could make herself escape notice. She did that for several years, actually, until she realized that by stealing memories, she was becoming invisible to the family. No one called her for supper. Her room was given over to others. It frightened her how subtly it developed. The gift transformed into a curse. When she was twelve, she stopped using her power for a full year and things began to change and all for the better. She used it occasionally now, and only for trifling things, like escaping an unwanted conversation when she’d rather use her free time to roam outside. She wanted to be remembered, and more importantly, loved.

The air smelled like summer and she savored it. She was sixteen, full of life and energy and happier than an orphan should be. She could not imagine a better place to live than the Winemiller vineyard. As she walked away from the main house, staring back at the glow coming from lamps in the windows, Phae shuddered with pleasure and tramped briskly toward the rows of grapevines. She delighted in roaming the grounds and being outside and now that her chore of putting the little ones to bed was finished, she wanted to savor the final moments of sunlight.

The sun was nearly down, but she could see well in the dusky sky. They lived in the foothills, west of Stonehollow, leagues away from the city. Their nearest neighbors were not close and she relished the privacy and the feeling of family they had. There were seventeen children in all, some teens like herself, and many younger than Brielle. The Winemillers could not have children of their own, and she considered herself fortunate to have been adopted by them.

Dame Winemiller was short and squat, quick to laugh and tease and tell a story. She was generous and fun-loving, and unfortunately rarely able to keep a conversation brief. Her husband, Master Winemiller, was taciturn and hardworking. He had a temper sometimes, which cowed everyone at the house, but he worked hard and demanded others did as well. He was strong, though not big, and he labored from sunrise to well past sunset, making sure all the chores were done to his standards and threatening dawdlers with a hand gesture that promised a thrashing, regardless of their age.

Phae tousled the grape leaves as she roamed the vineyard, enjoying the give of the sandy earth beneath her work boots and relishing the thought of another fall harvest when the grapes were finished and it was time to make wine. She loved climbing into the vats and pressing the grapes by foot. The small children relished doing that too.

She loved her life. The Winemillers had taught her how to run a homestead, how to make wine, how to bake and sew, how to chop wood and sharpen an axe, how to swim in ice-cold water and dry fruit into raisins. Summer was fun, but her favorite time of year was the fall. Harvest was amazing. And then there was the fortnight when Master Winemiller and the oldest boys took the wagons into Stonehollow and sold the barrels to Preachán traders bound for Havenrook and the auctions. Without his strict hand, it was the most carefree time of the year. Phae longed for it.

There was someone coming up the road.

In the dusk, it was difficult to see. Rarely did a traveler arrive at the end of a day without intending to stay the night. She slowed her walk, continuing to glide through the green leaves. Buds of grapes were just starting to arrive on the stems. They would probably start culling soon. She stared at the approaching figure, feeling a prick of apprehension. There was something familiar about the gait.

“Trasen!” she yelled, breaking into a run.

She had not expected to see him, and when he waved to acknowledge her shout, she ran even faster until she was breathless. He had left the homestead a year before to train to be a Finder. His visits were typically short, but she looked forward to them most of all. They were close in age, closer even more in spirit, and she was more than thrilled to see him.

He met her halfway and scooped her up into a big hug. He was not tall—in fact, he was a little shorter than her, a fact she knew irked him. He had curly black hair and a narrow face, but he had the stamina of a thoroughbred and could outrun her, outdistance her, or outwrestle her any day.