Julianne rapped on the wooden door, fresh white paint glowing in the brightly-lit night, and rubbed her eyes as she waited for it to open. Behind her, Marcus shifted irritably.
“Hush,” Julianne admonished. “And for Bitch’s sake, wipe your feet before we go in?”
Marcus eyed his boots. Mud caked around the edges of each sole, a smeared up one toe where he’d tripped on a clod of dirt. His gaze slid to Julianne’s pristine leather shoes. “Why are yours so clean?” he grumbled.
Julianne knocked again, this time smiling when a grumpy, “Hold your horses!” called from the other side.
“I cleaned them in the creek,” she explained. “And then I rode through the swamp, instead of clomping through the mud like an idiot.”
Marcus opened his mouth to protest—she was the one who’d asked him to lead her horse through a particularly swampy field of grass—but was cut off as the door swung open and hit the wall behind with a thump.
“I don’t know what business you have at this time of night, but—” Annie looked up, her eyes widening and words faltering as she recognised who stood on her tiny front porch. “Well, Bitch bless me!”
She slapped a hand to her mouth at the words. Annie wasn’t one to take the Bitch’s name like that, but damned if she wasn’t shocked to her bones to see these two standing here.
“Annie!” Julianne leaned forward and wrapped Annie in a tight embrace. “I’ve missed you!” she exclaimed. “How are the boys?”
Annie pushed Julianne back to look at her, eyes moist as she clucked over the travel stains on Julianne’s pants. The one pair had lasted her the entire trip through the Madlands and they showed the result of the gory fighting.
“Boys are just fine.” Annie ushered them in, with only a cursory glare at Marcus’s boots. Nevertheless, he slid them off and set them neatly outside the door before stepping inside. “Harlon’s gone to work for Francis, you know. Some kind of secretary, he says. Both are doing well, thanks to you.”
Julianne shook her head at Annie’s beaming smile. “That has nothing to do with me,” she said. “They’re smart, capable men. Francis especially has a gift for working with people.”
Annie couldn’t argue with that, so she set about taking the couple’s packs and piling them by the door. “You’ll be staying the night, I presume? Too late to be traipsing into town.”
“We’d hoped that would be ok,” Julianne said gently. “But if it’s too much bother—” Even Julianne’s words faltered under the furious glare Annie gave them, as if the old woman were offended at the suggestion.
“Have you eaten? Of course not.” She jabbed an elbow at Marcus. “I know the kind of food that one packs when he’s going somewhere.” Nodding, Annie bustled off to the kitchen.
“Hey,” Marcus called. “Any soldier would be happy with my cooking!”
“You’re not feeding for a soldier,” Annie snapped, sticking her head back around the corner and waving a tea-towel at him threateningly. “You’re catering for a lady, and an important one at that!”
Marcus shrugged, grinning at Julianne. “Well, she’s got me there.”
Julianne shook her head, and waved at the bags. “Go put them away and stop hassling the poor woman.”
She wandered into the kitchen where Annie was just sliding a square tin into the oven. White dough puffed out of the top, dusted by tiny black seeds. On the bench beside her, three trays of raw oat cookies were carefully laid out.
“Having a bake up?” Julianne asked, inhaling the comforting scent of cinnamon and apple as she perched on a stool.
Annie scowled. “Since the traders have stopped coming so often, things have been scarce. I thought I’d run these into town first thing tomorrow, see if it don’t make a few smiles crop up amongst the gloom.”
Julianne bit her lip, wincing. She’d come back to Tahn because of the strange portal, but knew that the recent increase in remnant numbers had harried the town in her absence. “How bad is it?” Julianne asked.
“Well…” Annie blushed, an uncharacteristic reaction that Julianne noted with surprise. “A few brave men still make their way down, and they’ve been good enough to make sure we’re not wanting for anything urgent.”
“Oh?” Julianne asked, itching to know what had flustered the other woman so badly, but unsure what question to ask to discover it.
That Julianne could read minds had no bearing here. Annie had not only been good to Julianne, she’d also been clear about her thoughts on reading minds uninvited. No mystic who had met her would intrude there without a damn good reason.
Thudding footsteps announced Marcus’s return and he slipped into the kitchen with a grin. He leaned down to peck Annie on the cheek, then darted away from a flick of her tea towel.
“Don’t you be getting fresh with me, young man,” she scolded. Despite her words, her eyes twinkled happily. “The bread won’t take long to cook. You both go and freshen up.” Her eyes raked Julianne’s blood stained clothes with distaste.
“Thank you, Annie.” Julianne slid off her chair, but paused on her way out. “I have to attend a meeting. You know…” She tapped her temple to signify the meeting would take place in her mind. “I might be a bit late coming down.”
“Get yourself dressed, then go make yourself comfortable on the back porch,” Annie said. “There’s no one here to bother you, and I’ll do my best to make sure this one is too busy to get in your road.”
Marcus lifted his hands. “I never would!”
“Fact remains, I need a man’s strength to help me with something things. You’re a man, if I guessed right?” Annie left the taunt hanging.
“All you had to do was ask.” Marcus’s face was painted with a wounded expression, but it was quickly followed by a grin when Annie rolled her eyes at him.
Julianne quickly ran upstairs to find her things stacked neatly on a bed. It was the same room Annie had put her up in last time she had been in Tahn. The bedsheets were smooth and neatly tucked and despite holding the stale scent of a long-closed room, not a speck of dust marred the thin mantle over the tiny fireplace.
Apart from plain linen curtains and a small corner table, the room was undecorated. Julianne preferred it that way—it suited Annie’s perfunctory, no-nonsense attitude.
Julianne fished the alien creature from her pocket. Uncurled, it was shaped like an almond—if almonds had long, straw-like snouts and flared ridges along each side.
The shell sparkled, a deep rust-red colour that threw flecks of light onto the walls as she held it up to the sun. “I know, boy. It was a long trip and you’re hungry. We’re nearly there, though. You can see your friends again!”
She had no idea if the little beasts has a social structure like bees or ants, or if they were solitary. She didn’t even know if—or how—they mated. Her assumption that she held a boy was based on nothing more than a gut feeling, and the vague memory of a pet rat shed had for a short time as a child.
With her free hand, she dug into one of her bags and pulled out a sheaf of paper. Tearing one off, she twirled it around. The creature shivered in anticipation, shrugged its shell over its head twice and letting out a high-pitched whistle.
The paper jerked from her fingers, and trembled and vanished into a mouth hidden beneath the shell. As it ate, the creature warmed in her hand. Not enough, though—after a good feed, the little beast would heat to burning.
When the door creaked, Julianne jumped.
“It’s just me, girl.” Annie shouldered her way past the door holding a large pitcher and a bowl with a cloth draped over the side, all piled on top of a thick, folded towel. “Water’s warm, but won’t be for long.” Setting the crockery on the table and the towel on the bed, she turned, then jumped back.
“Sorry, Annie.” Julianne held the creature close. “I forgot to tell you—I’ve brought a friend.”
“I’m well familiar with those little vermin,” Annie said. “Ate my only copy of Tessa’s scone recipe, they did.”
“Oh, dear.” Juliane frowned, feeling the tension in the air.
“It’s not that I mind them, so much as I don’t like them,” Annie explained. “That’s no beast of Irth, you mark my words. And that flaming doorway to nowhere your friend found? Nothing but trouble.”
Julianne sighed. “I hope you’re wrong, Annie. I really do. And I wish I could say I thought you were.”
Annie nodded curtly. “You just keep that thing away from my kitchen. Long as it doesn’t eat any more of my important notes, it can stay.”
“Thanks, Annie.” Julianne lifted it to her face and pursed her lips in a kiss. “You won’t be any trouble, will you boy?”
Flicking an eyebrow high, Annie snorted. Then she stomped of downstairs, leaving Julianne to dress.
She set the little beast on the mantle, knowing from long nights watching it that it wouldn’t fall off. As she expected, its little snout felt along the edge and it backed up a safe distance, then settled down to nap again.
Satisfied, Julianne set herself to getting ready. She poured a little water into the bowl and dipped her hands in, scrubbing them together. Then, she dipped the cloth in and carefully sponged off the worst of the travel-dirt and remnant stains.
It took some time, but when she was done it felt like she’d been given new skin. Her flesh glowed pinkly from the scrubbing and despite a brisk towelling off, was still damp when she slipped her dress on.
The fabric clung and bunched up and by the time she’d wriggled it down past her hips, Julianne’s face was flushed and her hair had started to curl from the warmth of her skin.
When she made her way downstairs, the portal-beast back safely in her pocket, Marcus had one of Annie’s windows on the ground and was fiddling with the hinges.
“Making yourself useful?” she asked.
“Well I figured you’d be busy for a while,” he replied. “May as well make myself at home.”
“Good call.” Annie was nowhere in sight, but when Julianne stepped out of the back door onto the small, tidy porch, a pot of tea and a finely painted cup sat ready for her.
She sank into an old white rocker and took a moment to center herself. Steam drifted lazily from the spout of the tea pot, indicating it was still hot. Julianne watched the tendrils rise and twist, then vanish into the crisp evening air.
Blinking to bring herself back to the present, Julianne poured herself a cup and held it in both hands, letting the heat soak into her skin. Her eyes clouded over with a soft white glow as she reached out with her magic