As is the custom on this blog / website, it is time for me to reveal to you the first chapter of this new book.
I hope it is not too disappointing for you. Trust me, Carol (my precious editor) and I have worked very hard on this one. We hope you appreciate our efforts.
But most of all we hope you appreciate learning about
Hilda’s Younger Years.
1. A day to come home
The mostly sleepy village was enjoying its last peaceful day and its inhabitants weren’t aware of the fact. They enjoyed the laid-back hustle and bustle in the market square where the early shoppers were waiting for the salespeople to put their goods on display. The man selling eggs fresh from under the chicken warned a few children to stay away from his merchandise. He knew them well; they had lifted many of his eggs on previous occasions. While he was threatening six of them, two others were busy opening the cages and harvesting several eggs. They did so very carefully. Otherwise the hens would start making a noise and distract the egg salesman from scolding the egg thieves’ accomplices. On the other side of the market square the fish monger and his wife were laying out their catch of the day. They never really said which day that was, but a bit of oil on the fish made them look fresh. These two stayed away from the egg man as they’d had several run-ins with him. Customers had complained that his eggs smelled of fish and he in turn blamed the fish mongers for that. After a heated dispute that involved throwing eggs and slaps with a trout, the community of Rompford had asked the two parties to move to opposite ends of the market square because it would fall upon said community to clear away the broken eggs and bits of fish after the market was over. This however had happened several markets ago and had nothing to do with the aforementioned last peaceful day. The reason for that was wrapped in two dusty cloaks. More precisely, the reason consisted of two people on the donkey-drawn cart that slowly moved towards Rompford. They were the owners of those cloaks.
“Are you sure this is going to go well?” The speaker was a woman.
“Of course. Nobody knows us here. We’ll just be very calm, pretend to be like them when we meet someone, and no one will know.” The second speaker was not a woman. He looked over his shoulder.
“Stop doing that,” said the woman.
“Looking over your shoulder. I would almost think your head is going to stay staring backwards at some point. They’re not following us.”
The man looked again. “Not yet. How can you be so certain?”
“It’s been three days already. I would wager a wheel of our cart that they would have caught up by now if one was still alive.” The woman shook her head. Dust flew from her flaxen hair. “It’s nice here.” The woman enjoyed the fact that they were going along a river. She liked rivers.
The cart progressed slowly because the sandy path didn’t allow for high speeds, nor did their old donkey. The two seemed made for each other. “There seems to be a village further down the path,” the man pointed. “Maybe we can stop there for a few days. We can’t keep the donkey going on like this much longer; it needs to rest.”
The woman agreed. “I wouldn’t mind staying here a bit longer than a few days. It’s peaceful. And look, it’s as if people are building houses there.” They rode along in silence until they reached the spot where the woman had noticed human activity near large stacks of wood. She was right; along the path near the river a group of men and women were building a row of seven houses. The cart came to a halt and the two travellers watched the workers go about their work. One of them noticed the dusty contraption and ditto people.
“Hello,” the man on the cart said, careful not to divulge too much about himself and his wife.
“Travelling, are you?” the not working worker asked.
“Very perceptive,” the man on the cart said. “Building houses, are you?”
“Yes, how did you know? We’re trying to expand Rompford. Put it on the map, you know. The king asked us to.”
One of the women took a break from tying up beams. “That’s a nice way of putting it. He told us to make the village twice as large or he’d have it burnt to the ground.”
“Oh,” the woman on the cart understood. “Rompford is the name of your village. Why would your king want the village twice the size?”
The not-working workman laughed. “That would get him twice the taxes of course. We think he’s planning on having a kid and guess who has to cough up the silver for that?”
“Brent, that’s such a mean thing to say about the king,” the woman said as she slapped him. “But he’s right of course. And where are you from? Are you staying or moving on? We’d be glad to have people living in these houses.”
“We are… uhm… Ludwig and Zoraia,” the man on the cart said.
“We do plan to stay for a while,” the woman, Zoraia, added. “Is it always so quiet here?”
The woman on the ground nodded. “Rompford’s known for its peace and quiet. We hope that new people who come to live here will appreciate that so it stays that way.”
“Quiet unless there’s the match,” the man next to her said. “Once a year we have our special Rompfordian football game. It can get a little loud then but that’s only one day.” At that moment all eyes flew to one of the houses under construction. A loud noise came from it and the reason was a heavy supporting beam that started to tilt and smash one of the walls. People yelled at each other to be careful and get out of the way when suddenly the beam changed its mind and moved to its intended, upright position again.
“What was that?” the woman on the ground asked. She ran off to the house, staring at the beam that was to hold up the roof.
“I’ve never seen that before,” the man said, “see you later. I have to make sure no one got hurt.” Then he ran off as well.
“That was kind of you, Ludwig,” said the blond woman as she patted her husband on the arm. It was something she regretted for a moment as dust flew off him, but the cloud suddenly disappeared.
“Be careful. They might still watch us.”
She shook her head. “No, they are busy with the house.” Zoraia looked at him. “You know, somehow it feels as if this was a sign.”
“A sign?” Ludwig felt he had to be careful. Zoraia was good with interpreting signs, and she saw them wherever she needed one.
“Yes. In a way you have helped to build this house. Maybe this should become our house.” She looked at the river again. “I’d really like to have a house that is so close to a river. Our children could-”
“Wait. We have no children.”
“I know, but these people mentioned their king wanting a child and that made me think. Perhaps we should start considering children too, Ludwig.”
The wizard, for that was what he was, sighed and seemed to deflate for a moment. “I often think about children and always the words no or not come up instantly, as if they belong to children.”
Zoraia looked at him. She kept looking at him and she knew he wouldn’t be able to divert his eyes from hers. “You will change your mind. Whenever there’s a sign, it means something. I really want to live in that house, Ludwig.” Then she blinked and smiled. Ludwig blinked too, knowing she had done it again.
“We’ll first go into the village and rest. We’ll look around and learn a little more about this area. Just don’t you get any solid ideas into that pretty head of yours, woman.”
Zoraia smiled again and looked at the workers as Ludwig reached for the reins of the donkey. “Don’t give that house to others before asking us,” she called out. “We’ll be in the village for a while longer.”
“We’ll find you,” one of the people replied and waved. “A good place to stay is the Old Inn.”
“Thank you,” Zoraia replied. “Is there a New Inn too?”
“Not yet, but the inn keeper thought it good to be prepared.”
A few of the workers stared at the cart rolling off. One of them shook his head. “I wonder why they have two brooms tied so securely to the side of their cart. As if people would be interested in stealing two old brooms.”
The people in the market place had no idea of all this happening of course. It wasn’t until the donkey was brought to a halt in front of the Old Inn (which still looked quite new) that some of them became aware of the new arrivals. Rompford wasn’t a large village then (it still isn’t) so very soon half the population was aware that two dust-emitting people had stopped in front of the Inn. Even the vendors of the market left their wares to examine the cart from a safe distance. This was naturally a golden opportunity for a few egg-stealers to have a go at some of the fish as well.
Ludwig jumped off the cart and helped his wife down. The wizard pretended not to be magical at all when he turned and asked, “Is there someone who can take care of our animal? It has worked hard for us.” Two young men, known for their love of animals, stepped forward.
“Of course, sir,” one of them said. “We’ll take…” – he looked at the backside of the animal – “him with us to our stable. It’s down there, with the horse and the rooster painted on the wall.” The other one had already started to undo the leather straps from the donkey and as Ludwig and Zoraia entered the inn, the two walked off with the animal.
“Very strange to see that they leave their cart out there just like that,” the egg seller said to the man next him. It turned out to be the fish monger.
“Indeed. It would be a good target for the kids here with their long fingers.” The fish monger had barely finished his sentence when the two turned and ran off to their stalls to discover that long fingers had already struck there.
“You are new here,” the inn keeper said as the two travellers approached him.
“Everyone here is so perceptive,” Ludwig commented, “and that while we’re trying so hard to blend in.”
“You should start by dusting yourselves off then,” the inn keeper advised, glad that he could spread some of his wisdom. “My name is Randolph. What can I do for you?” Zoraia asked for food, something to drink and a room where they could stay for a few nights. That was no problem according to Randolph.
“And the assurance that there are no more Troll Kings would be nice,” Ludwig added to his wife’s requests.
Randolph stared at the dusty man. “There are no Troll Kings.” He had heard of them but those creatures were the stuff that legends and scary stories were made of.
“Not any more, that’s true,” sighed the tired wizard, “at least I really hope so.”
Randolph nodded and decided to leave it at that. Discussions with strange people could bring about strange things and he didn’t like strange things. He showed the two to a room that was available. Every room in the inn was available, lacking travellers (that was the reason why the Old Inn looked so new). Rompford still had to claim its place on the map after all. “I’ll find a few people to bring your things up to your room,” said Randolph.
“That won’t be necessary. We have everything we need here already.”
The inn keeper looked at the dirty cloaks of the two. Strange things started to unfold and made him shiver. “I’ll then see that someone will put your cart where it’s safe.”
“It’s safe already,” said Zoraia, “but thank you for being so considerate. We need a bath.”
“Of course. I’ll have someone heat up the water and inform you when it’s ready.” Randolph hurried out of the room.
“I am really tired,” Zoraia then said. “I had almost told him we only need the water. Heating it up ourselves would be so much faster.” She took off her cloak and hung it from a large hook in the wall. “We’ll have to clean those but I’m just not up for that now.”
Ludwig took off his cloak, threw some magic at it and then did the same with hers. After hanging his own cloak over that of Zoraia he lay down on the bed where she joined him. “This feels better than the wooden bench on our cart.”
“Yes.” After that the room was soon filled with the peaceful breath of two sleeping people who only reluctantly woke up as someone banged on the door to announce the arrival of hot water.
Once the water had been thoroughly muddied by the magical people, they felt a lot better. The food at the inn was better than they’d had in days, and the tea that accompanied the meal made the two feel satisfied. As they sat at the table after getting their stomachs filled, Ludwig pondered settling down here. Of course that had its origins in Zoraia’s careful mentioning of the idea, but she was clever enough to make him think that it was his idea. That always made such things a lot easier. “Maybe we should take a little walk through this village,” he suggested. “Just to stretch our legs of course.”
“Of course. And that’s a very good idea.” Zoraia and Ludwig left the table and the silver coins they’d put on it, and entered the outside world again. Without their dirty cloaks and being clean and refreshed they immediately attracted the attention of most people in the market place because they didn’t have familiar faces. That didn’t deter the magical people though. They sauntered over the square, looked at things and people (especially people because that was the easiest way to make their faces more familiar) and soon they blended in with the small crowd.
“Kind people here,” Ludwig said as they left the square and walked around a small fountain that some industrious soul had built. It looked nice, even though it didn’t work.
“Ludwig, don’t,” Zoraia warned him as she knew what he wanted to do. “It would attract attention, remember?”
“You’re right. Too bad though; having a working fountain would be nice here.” He smiled. Maybe later. They followed where their feet would take them. They passed shops with all kinds of items, from food to garments and even a mirror maker. As Zoraia usually made up the minds of their feet they quickly ended up back on the sand path where the people were still working on the houses. Ludwig and Zoraia watched the proceedings for a while and walked along the river. “Stop doing that,” Ludwig then said.
“Looking over your shoulder. I would almost think your head is going to stay staring backwards at some point.”
“We had this talk before, just the other way around.” Zoraia grinned. “I can’t help it. That house in the middle is so cute.” She knew it would be great for raising a few little witches, but mentioning that wasn’t smart now.
Ludwig stopped walking and looked out over the river. “You really like it.”
“I do.” She stood next to him and wrapped an arm around him. “I love it. I love you more though.”
“Do you really think we’ve reached an age where we should settle down?” he asked.
“Yes. The other four times we tried didn’t work because we were still young and wild.”
The wizard looked at the witch by his side. “Meaning?”
“That we’re still young and wild, but also smarter.”
“Oh.” He nodded thoughtfully. Smarter was a good trait for a wizard. “Do you think that grapes would grow here?”
“Grapes? What would you do with grapes?”
“Make wine,” Ludwig said.
Zoraia laughed. “Perhaps. Well, not normally but if you change a few bits in the air and the earth where you want the grapes, they’d do well.”
“We should have brought the brooms,” Ludwig suddenly said. “I’m curious about that king they mentioned. We could have a look where he lives, what kind of person he is.”
“You are still tired, wizard,” said Zoraia. “Doing that now would be the best way to warn everyone that there are a witch and a wizard near.”
Ludwig nodded. “They’d find out sooner or later anyway.” Zoraia knew she’d won.