Ash’s friend Rowan is having a baby that just might be his (if he could only remember). He has no idea how to help her. Meanwhile, her cousin Hazel provides some undemanding distraction while Genista the hillfayre girl teases him with possibilities beyond his reach. What with helping his dour father at the charburn, being troubled by three women and dealing with an unexpected stepmother, Ash is thoroughly confused. It doesn’t help that he thinks he looks a bit like a sad frog and usually smells of charcoal.
Ash Coleman had been watching the charburn all day. It was a task he was well used to, and it gave him no pleasure. Watching the burn was dull, but it did not do to let his attention wander. The turves had to be piled or raked back and wet down in sequence. If the fire grew too fierce, then the charcoal would burn away. If it waned, the char would be of a poor quality. In either case, his father would be angry.
Ash eyed a wisp of smoke that rose from the pile. If it billowed up, he would need to damp the turf. He hoped it would wait a little, while he ate his bannock and drank his buttermilk. Food eaten from smoke-soured hands never tasted right.
I’ll be confessed,
for whom I love today…” a voice sang on the path beyond the charburn. “Faugh, what a smell! It makes my teeth ache.”
“Hello, Hazel,” Ash said.
He gestured a greeting as Hazel Roseward came gingerly past the charburn but glanced furtively beyond her in case Rowan Amhill might be keeping her cousin company. He had not seen Rowan since the day at Thorny Ford when he’d invited her to partner him at Summerfeste. The festival was in just a few days, and he had not had an answer.
“I’m on my own,” Hazel said, apparently interpreting his glance. She came to sit beside him, fanning some smoke out of her way. “Did you hear about what happened at the market yesterday, Ash?”
He shook his head. “No. I know something did, because Da was put out when he came home.”
He didn’t add that Teak had reeked of ale and had given him a buffet when he’d tried to help him to bed. Luckily, Teak’s aim had been off, and Ash was used to ducking, so the blow had merely grazed his jaw.
“Is your da home, then?” Hazel’s usually merry face took on a nervous expression as she glanced at the hut.
It pained Ash to know his friends feared and distrusted his father, but he couldn’t blame them. He felt much the same way.
“Da’s home, but he won’t wake for a while yet,” he said, as casually as he could. He rubbed his eyes, which he knew from experience would be red-rimmed with weariness and blackened with soot. “He’ll wake when the burn is finished.” He turned away from Hazel’s pity. He made his voice bright as he said, “So, what was it all about?”
Hazel settled in for a good gossip. “I wasn’t there myself, but Bloss Stepwater was. She’s overnighting with her mam until after Summerfeste.”
Ash nodded. He knew Bellheather Stepwater rather too well. She was a kind woman, but she was also a gossip and a wag-tongue. It followed that her daughter could be equally good at gathering information and equally adept at spreading it.
Hazel went on, “Bloss was at the market with her man. She said she saw Rowan there. She almost didn’t recognise her, because of the scars, you know. It’s odd. I know they’re bad, but I hardly notice them anymore, do you?”
“I notice them,” Ash said.
Hazel looked at him with obvious astonishment. “I thought you were her friend?”
“I am her friend. But she never forgets the scars, so how can I?” He shook his head impatiently as Hazel drew an indignant breath. “Go on with what you’re saying,” he said.
Hazel frowned, then continued, “Bloss said a fairy man was at the market. He’d been to the alewain, and drunk too much, she said. I don’t think that’s likely though, do you? They don’t carry purses, so how would he have paid for it?”
Ash resisted the temptation to give Hazel a shake. She was a lovely girl, but she did talk such a lot and she had a habit of wandering from the point. She was only a few months younger than her cousin, Rowan, but she seemed so much more.
“Never mind how he paid for the ale, or even if he paid for it. Tell me what happened.”
“He was really odd, the fairy man. You know how they don’t talk to any of us? Well, except the one Rowan is in love with. I mean, he must talk to her sometimes, because you can’t be in love with someone who eyes you as if you were an earwig and never opens his mouth, can you? He—I mean, the one at the market, not the one Ro—”
“What?” Ash grabbed Hazel’s wrist, and she cried out in surprise. “Sorry,” he said, noting the smudged dark prints his fingers had left on her bare skin. He should probably offer her a kerchief, but that would make the smudges worse. “Is Rowan still watching for that fairy?”
“Not the one at the market. I wasn’t talking about him.” Hazel broke off to have a good stare at him. “Ash, are you feeling all right? You look awfully tired. Has your father been beating you?”
“My father doesn’t beat me. I’ve been awake all night, that’s all.” Ash waved away her concern. “Hazel, never mind the market. Listen to me and do try to stick to the point. Is Rowan still trying to find that fairy?”
“I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t. She comes to the forest sometimes, but I’m not following her again, not after what she said to me last time. I thought she was going to knock me down. Anyway, the fairy who had the ale at the market was a different one. He wasn’t as handsome, and he didn’t seem well, so Bloss said. Do you want to hear what happened or not?”
“Go on,” Ash said.
“Bloss said he met Pine Hemlock and a younger man… I should think it was Lucerne, wouldn’t you? Those two are often together, and one of them’s as bad as the other.”