He reached the city gates just as the sun began to rise over the hills. Gasping for breath after running almost constantly for two hours, Paodin moved around the corner to the side wall of the city and collapsed against the cool stone to catch his breath. Here he was, just outside of Lurn. Somehow now he had to figure out a way to find the farmer true to the rightful King and the effort to see that heir back on the throne. Paodin dropped his head into his hands, trying to come up with some kind of plan.”
“Are you alright?” a small voice asked. When he looked up he was looking directly into the eyes of a young boy.
Smiling in hopes of putting the young boy at ease, Paodin answered, “I’m only tired. I’ve just been on a long journey to get here.”
The boy cocked his head as he studied the strange man sitting slumped against the wall. “You need rest,” he observed, “but you won’t get that in the city.” Stretching out his hand, the boy took Paodin by the arm. “Come with me. Mum will give you something to eat and then you can sleep. Come on!”
With the boy tugging impatiently at his sleeve, the exhausted traveler could think of no good reason not to go with him, so Paodin struggled to his feet and followed the boy, his leg muscles burning with every step. He didn’t know what to tell the boy about his journey, afraid of saying too much. His fears proved unimportant, though, because the boy kept talking during the walk from the city.
“Mum and me live out here away from Lurn. My father died a couple years ago, so I take care of us. I come to town for the things we need. Mum doesn’t like me travelin’ alone; she says there’s too many people in Lurn who would take advantage of a kid. I have to tell her to remember I’m not a kid anymore, I’m practically twelve! She always says she should go with me, but I wake up early and go without her. The trip’s too long for her to make it on foot and poor old Red is almost twice as old as me. It would probably kill the old mule if I put a saddle on him. Besides, those people don’t like Mum.” As the boy continued, Paodin glanced down at his face and saw a familiar protective spark in the boy’s eyes.
“When she does go with me they look at her like she’s not worth the dirt she’s walkin’ on. I’m just happy she can’t see that.” His pace slowing some, he added, “But I know she hears all those dumb kids, even though she don’t say so. Sometimes I just want to hit ‘em for the mean things they say, but Mum says not to ‘cause they just don’t know better. She says that they learn it from their parents, that ‘you can’t expect people to be good and kind if their leaders are bad,’ and that those kids just got stuck with bad leaders.” His pace increasing as his anger intensified, he was almost jogging along the road when he suddenly stopped and spun to face Paodin. “Do you know better, mister?” he demanded, shoulders back and tense. Though he didn’t elaborate, Paodin was sure he understood the boy’s meaning.
“I didn’t have a Mum like yours, but my father has always been a good leader. Perhaps you can tell me about your Mum and then we won’t have to worry about-”
“If you really are good,” the boy interrupted, “I don’t have to worry.” He began walking again, telling Paodin all about Red the mule and his escapades. Soon the two were approaching a small cottage tucked into a grove of oak trees. The front door squeaked when the boy opened it, but the home was otherwise in great shape. Paodin was surprised. This boy who was “practically twelve” really was taking care of his mother.
“Hello, Mum!” he called. “I’m home!”
“Adair, I do wish you would stop going to town alone,” came a sweet voice from the kitchen. “Now why don’t you bring your guest into the kitchen and we can all have some breakfast. I’ve made hotcakes.”
Paodin looked at the boy, Adair, his eyes wide and questioning. “There are lots of things about Mum that’ll surprise you,” Adair said, then turned and led Paodin through the cozy front room and into the kitchen, where his mother stood at the fore with her back to the doorway.
“Have a seat and start on those hotcakes,” she said. “I’m just finishing the tea.”
“I would hate to cause you any trouble, madam. You weren’t expecting company, and I’m sure you planned breakfast for two,” Paodin said, reluctant to sit.
The lady laughed. “Oh, nonsense! You must not have known my Addie very long.”
“It’s Adair, Mum!” The boy rolled his eyes as he sat down, but Paodin could still see a smile tugging at the corners of the boy’s mouth.
Her back still to them, Adair’s mother continued, “As I was saying, if you had known my son Adair for long, you would know that he brings some soul home almost each time he ventures in to Lurn. Sit, eat, please.” Though she still hadn’t turned around, Paodin could tell his hostess was smiling with pride in her son. “There, I believe it is ready. Would you like a cup, sir?” she asked as she turned, pot in hand.
Paodin swallowed as he looked up. Though he had hesitated to sit and eat at first, as soon as the woman reinforced her son’s invitation he quickly began chowing down. “Yes,” he started to say as the woman turned around, but his voice caught for a brief moment before he could continue when he saw her face. “I would appreciate some tea, madam.”
“It is Brigitte, please,” she said as she gently patted the table in search of the mug. Finding it, she filled the stoneware mug and then returned the tea pot to its hook over the fire before taking her seat at the table.
As he finished his breakfast, Paodin studied the woman across from him. Her long red hair was pulled back in a tight braid, but the wisps which had escaped betrayed ringlet curls. Her creamy complexion was smooth and without freckles, unlike most redheads. Looking at her tiny frame, Paodin could easily see from where the boy’s small stature came. Brigitte had long slender fingers, but her hands appeared far from fragile. Her movements were sure and steady, the smile on her face unwavering, visible even as she ate. Her beauty could have easily compared with that of any of the Healers. However, Paodin could not ignore her only imperfection. It started at Brigitte’s left temple, crossed both eyes, her nose and right cheek, and twisted down her neck to disappear under the neckline of her pale green dress. The scarred flesh was an angry red, telling Paodin this terrible injury had occurred recently. By the cloudy appearance of both eyes, Paodin could see that Brigitte had been blinded by whatever tragedy had befallen her. Judging by the size of the scars, that injury had most likely been caused by the end of a sword.
As he finished his hotcakes, Brigitte spoke. “Adair, were you able to get out cornmeal today?” The boy started to answer, but his words were jumbled by the food in his mouth. “Son, please do not speak with your mouth full.”
Swallowing, Adair rolled his eyes at Paodin as he answered, “Sort of, Mum. I traded some birds for fifty pounds, but ‘cause I left the cart here this mornin’ I’ve gotta go back for our cornmeal. I’ll go this afternoon, after lunch.”
“Good,” Brigitte smiled, a crooked smile because her right cheek was frozen in place from the scar. “I’ll go with you. I want to go and find some fabric--you are beginning to outgrow much of your clothing.” She stood, clearing her plate off the table and putting it in the dish pail. “Finish your breakfast, Addie, and then we will get to work. Perhaps your guest will be able to help you mend the coop.”
“Of course, madam,” Paodin began, following Adair’s lead and putting his own plate in the pail of water. “I would be happy to help, in appreciation for your hospitality.” Turning to Adair he said, “Why don’t you go gather our supplies and meet me outside? I would like to speak to your mother for a minute if you don’t mind.”
The boy hesitated, staring at Paodin as if he could determine the man’s intentions just by studying his face. Sensing her son’s reluctance to leave her alone with the man, Brigitte spoke up. “Go ahead, Addie. Our guest will be right out.”
“It’s Adair,” he muttered under his breath, giving Paodin a look of warning as he walked out of the room.
“Please, have a seat,” Brigitte said, motioning to the chair across from her as she sat. Once Paodin sat down she continued. “My son is rather… protective. He has been forced to grow up far too much in the past years since his father died, and I’m afraid that he now thinks of himself more as my protector than my son. Now,” she paused, taking a sip of tea, “what brought you here?”
Leaning forward, Paodin laced his fingers together around his mug as he thought about how much to tell Brigitte. Before he could answer, the woman continued.
“You do not have to tell me everything.” At Paodin’s surprised silence she laughed. “I’m sure you wonder how I can be so certain of your hesitation when I cannot see you. To be honest, I can’t say. It just seems as if my perceptions have changed. Now, like I said, you do not have to tell me everything. You are, however, a guest in my home right now, and I believe I deserve some kind of answer. If you do not wish to share your business with me, I must ask you to leave.”
“I do not wish to lie to you,” Paodin began, “but my business is dangerous. I will tell you what I can, and then you can decide if I should leave.” When Brigitte nodded, Paodin said, “My name is Paodin. I am on the run right now from King Simann’s men-”
“Please,” she interrupted, “say no more. You are welcome in our home. Right now, however, Addie is outside waiting for your help in mending the chicken coop.”
Paodin stood. “Thank you, madam. I appreciate your confidence in me, and I promise I will not betray your trust. Now,” he said, his voice brightening, “I assume your coop is behind the house?”
The lady stood, motioning for Paodin to follow her through the small house. “Yes. I would imagine you saw the barn when you first approached with my son. You will find Addie around against the east wall.” Paodin nodded and started out the door then stopped, realizing Brigitte couldn’t have seen his nod of understanding. Turning back toward the door, he started to verbally acknowledge Brigitte but stopped his words short because she had already shut the door between them.