I didn’t have the heart to tell her I’d found one. They would worry, I knew it. “I’m fine,” I said to her, then added, “Your partner told me to make sure you bring back meat.”
She shifted uncomfortably, and I was glad to have distracted her from my encounter. Atalanta said, “I got the horse, but it usually isn’t meat that he likes…”
“Better than gruel, I suppose.” I said, then shivered at the low whistle of wind through reeds, all too similar to the song I knew I was not going to be able to get out of my head.
We returned, this time she flew much more softly than before so as to not jostle my aches, and I appreciated the gesture. Also much to my relief, Atticus was ready with his knife to help Atalanta skin the animal, a motley beast with ticks and fleas. He motioned me inside the cottage when I dropped down from the gryphon and collapsed in a heap at his feet. As I gingerly eased open the door, he stopped me with the words, “What happened?”
“I dove, and she…didn’t,” said Atalanta, ducking her head under a claw in disgrace.
But he stared at me. He knew there was more to it than I was telling, and looked at me expectantly, his fingers twitching as though used to being in constant spell-making motion. He didn’t cast one, though. And when I turned away from him and headed into the cottage without adding anything, I felt a twinge of guilt. I told myself I shouldn’t.
I couldn’t rest. It was now midday, slightly sunny, and starting to warm up. I shed my coat, wondered what I was going to do.
I couldn’t go back to my own time. Or could I? Could Atticus possibly send me back? If he could, why would he? I hardly contributed to this little colony. I was a stranger, a random person they found running and decided out of the goodness of their hearts to rescue. I couldn’t pay them.
Fingering the amulet, I knew I could pay him. Except that he would most likely know it was stolen, and then my standing with him would be ruined. No, no I had nothing.
But you do have something.
It was not a something I wanted to go back into again. Pick up a brush. Start again.
No, I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. Or could I? Would I?
That shapeshifter had thought I was invaluable. My uncle had as well,once my parents disappeared and I was left in his custody. He was a decent man, at least to me. To others, though… I wondered what had gotten him started on that path. It was not a good one, it was something he tried to hide from me, and he tried to hide me from his work. It mostly worked, but far from successful.
I scavenged the amulet and decided to keep it with me from now on, putting it in a wrap I tied under my shirt and pulling tight the knot. I had a couple of options right now: I could stay on with these people, or I could move on. Granted, I did not need to walk out the door right now, nor did I think that Atalanta would permit me to, but I felt I should make a choice so I knew what to do. So I knew how fond I should get of Atalanta, how much I should trust with Atticus.
I shouldn’t on either of them. What it came down to, is they were magic users, part of a world I’d been perefially introduced to, and I could not handle getting involved in all that again. I needed to leave before Atalanta befriended me, before Atticus could show me enough magic to make me want to use mine again. I needed to leave before the nokken decided to follow me. Not yet, though. I needed to have an idea—any idea—of where I should go or what I should do. Maybe discover what I could do to provide service for these people.
Just as I was going to get up to do—anything really—Atalanta burst in the door, humming merrily with a wicker basket swinging from her beak, her feathers standing away from her body to make her look fluffy. I lifted my head a little to peer into the basket. Apples, potatoes, yams, and a hunk of bread. She set it down with a little hop.
“There’s a paring knife in here!” she said, “’if you want to start cutting up the veggies, I’ll get the other things around.”
So, I decided to help her with dinner. Atticus came in when the pot was simmering with several thin slices of meat to add to it. All in all, it was a very tasty meal. Atalanta made it hard to want to leave. Here it was warm, here I had food, here I had companions who I was reasonably certain would not want to cause injury to me.
As long as I kept my trap firmly shut.
Midway through dinner, a rap came at the door.