Even so, when he saw the enchanted bird flying towards him, her wings sparkling with unnatural light, he almost couldn't call out.
"Amella," he whispered.
She swept to him, a beautiful dove even without her magic, and landed on his upraised arm. She dropped a folded piece of paper into his hand, neatly tied with a bit of ribbon. His fingers wrapped gently around the gift.
The dove bowed her head and flew away.
Johan sat on a woodpile and untied the ribbon. He rubbed his fingers against his shirt, trying to clean away the dirt. It did little good, so he finally caught the edge of the paper and shook out the fold, holding it to the waning light of late afternoon.
Father died. Come quickly.
Johan had expected a summons; he hadn't expected this to be the reason for it. Lord Kurt dead? He found that harder to believe than that Lynna had sent to him, as she said she would, a decade ago when they'd been forced to part. He'd waited anxiously through the first weeks, thinking she'd find a way to call him back to court.
The anxiousness died with the first winter as he fought for survival. He knew how to cut wood and how to start a fire. He'd had just enough coin to buy food to keep alive.
Eventually he found work in the little village of Riverside. No one there connected him with his mother who had been caught stealing from Lady Misana and sent to serve her time in the capital jail. She'd never dare come back here. He'd never spent much time with his mother meant he had not been jailed as well. He'd been well-liked and helpful when he was younger and the others stood up for him.
Lord Kurt sent him from the castle instead. He tried to believe it had been a kindness. Lynna had wept and promised when they parted . . . But she'd been twelve and he was fifteen, and he had almost stopped believing.
They'd grown up together, he and the Lord Kurt's bastard daughter who was treated slightly better than the servants, and only because she had a touch of magic.
Lord Kurt dead? Word would spread quickly. There would be death dues to pay for his funeral . . . and that gave Johan an idea of how to get back to the castle with little notice. He could be helpful again.
Late the next afternoon Johan rode into the courtyard in a wagon bringing grain. He shivered as he looked around where nothing seemed to have changed.
"No time to gawk boy," Rusen said with a slap at his shoulder. "Get the grain to the kitchen. Quick now. I'll make our condolences to the Lady."
"Yes sir," he said.
He hefted a bag of grain to his shoulder and headed to the kitchen without being told the directions. The door was partly open this time of day, and he stepped inside.
"What's this then?" Brinda, the head cook, demanded.
"Grain from Riverside, ma'am."
"Ah. Good. Yes, we can use it with all the guests coming. Over there in the bin, boy. Is this all of it?"
"Four more, ma'am."
"Praise the gods. We need all we can get."
"Yes, I imagine so."
He put the grain in the bin, remembering how hard it had been for a twelve year old boy to do the work. He didn't know whether to chuckle or shiver and turned --
"It is you. Johan. Karsi, go find Lynna. Quietly."
The girl left at a run. Johan started away, but Brinda stopped him with a hand on his arm. "We worried about you boy. Lynna worried the most, poor girl. But you look good. A little thin."
He laughed. Those were her favorite words to the children of the castle, just before she would produce some little treat. Which she did now, pressing a piece of cake into his hand.
He ate it with a smile. "I better get the grain. Master Rusen will be mad."
He went out and got the next bag of grain and brought it in, his heart pounding. Lynna wasn't there. So he went out and back in -- out and in, thinking she wasn't going to --"
She arrived just as he finished pouring the last of the grain into the bin, her dark hair flying, her face bright with unexpected joy. He hadn't expected Lynna to throw herself into his arms.
"Hey there, Lynna," he said softly and started to brush his hand over her hair. He drew his dirty fingers back in haste. "Hey there, are you okay?"
"I feared you wouldn't come back," she whispered. "And if I had to leave before you arrived, how would I find you again?"
"Leave?" he said, startled.
"My father is dead. Lady Misana has already hinted that she'll marry me off. Her sons are still too young to rule, you know. It's her choice. I think she even means it as a kindness. But you came back, Johan. I waited. I waited for you."
"And I waited for your note." He hadn't allowed himself to think beyond her call to return. "But Lady Misana --"
"You leave her to me," Brinda said with a laugh. "And I'll handle Master Rusen, too. We're going to keep you close boy."
"I was ordered --"
"Shush now. Lord Kurt is dead, and he never put it to paper, you know. You just go back to work here for a while, and I'll deal with the Lady. Welcome home, Johan."
He stayed. A month later he married Lynna and they moved to a cottage in Riverside where she used her little magic to help others. Amella came with them, a touch of magic always in their lives.
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