Magnus was worried. The fire he had made should have brought his people. It was an old signal, well-known between them. His men should have reached the village by now—that had been the arrangement. They were bringing traps and provisions, in covered wagons, and hunting dogs and horses. He had been impatient to start his pursuit of the Forest Grendel and so rode ahead, returning with the messenger until that final stretch when the man turned off to his home. He had ridden on alone,
finding the wayside shrine.
But from then, all had gone awry. Instead of the monster, he had found an ailing witch, and the snow storm had lost him more tracks and time.
Magnus shook his head, turning indulgent eyes to the small, still figure on the rough pallet. At least the little witch had slept through the night and day, snug and safe, and he had been able to make her a litter from woven branches. He would give his fire signal a little longer and then return Elfrida to her village. There he might find someone who could translate between them.
Perhaps she did have power, for even as he looked at her, she sat up, the hood of her cloak falling away, and stared at him in return. She said something, then repeated it, and he drew in a great gulp of cold air in sheer astonishment, then laughed.
“I know what you said!” He wanted to kiss her, spots and all.
He burst into a clumsy canter, dragging his peg leg a little and almost tumbling onto her bed. She caught him by the shoulders and tried to steady him but collapsed under his weight.
They finished in an untidy heap on the pallet, with Elfrida hissing by his ear, “Why you have done such a foolish thing as to burn all our fuel?”
He rolled off her, knocked snow off his front and beard and said in return, “How did you know I would know the old speech, the old English?”
“I dream true, and I dreamed this.” She was blushing, though not, he realized quickly, from shyness.
“Why burn so wildly?” she burst out, clearly furious. “You have wasted it! All that good wood gone to ash!”
“My men know my sign and will come now the storm has gone.” He had not expected thanks or soft words, but he was not about to be scolded by this red-haired nag.
“That is your plan, Sir Magnus? To burn half the forest to alert your troops?”
“A wiser plan than yours, madam, setting yourself as bait. Or had your village left you hanging there, perhaps to nag the beast to death?”
Her face turned as scarlet as the fire. “So says any witless fool! ’Tis too easy a charge men make against women, any woman who thinks and acts for herself. And no man orders me!”
Magnus swallowed the snort of laughter filling up his throat. He doubted she saw any amusement in their finally being able to speak to each other only to quarrel. Had she been a man or a lad, he would have knocked her into the snow, then offered a drink of mead, but such rough fellowship was beyond him here.
“And how would you have fought off any knave, or worse, that found you?” he asked patiently. “You did not succeed with me.”
“There are better ways to vanquish a male than brute force. I knew what I was about!”
“Truly? You were biding your time? And the pox makes you alluring?”
“Says master gargoyle! My spots will pass!”
“Or did you plan to scatter a few herbs, perhaps?”
He thought he heard her clash her teeth together. “I did not plan my sickness, and I do not share my secrets! Had you not snatched me away, had you not interfered, I would know where the monster lives. I would have found my sister! I would be with her!” Her voice hitched, and a look of pain and dread crossed her face. “We would be together. Whatever happens, I would be with her.”
“This was Christina?”
“Is Christina, not was, never was! I know she lives!”
Magnus merely nodded, his temper cooling rapidly as he marked how her color had changed and her body shook. A desperate trap to recover a much-loved sister excused everything, to his way of thinking.
She called you a gargoyle! This piqued his vanity and pride.
But she does not think you the monster, Magnus reminded himself in a dazzled, shocked wonder, embracing that knowledge like a lover.