In the Orchard
I would go out there to watch her every day. Partly because I was fascinated by her, and envious of her, intrigued in equal parts by her strange beauty and her uncommon talents. Partly because she didn't shoo me away. Partly because she would often give me a piece of fruit before I left.
I had chores to do. I had fetching and carrying, I had crawling around on my hands and knees scrubbing stone floors so the maids could come behind them and throw rushes over my work. I had pots to scrub. Fires to stoke. Messages to take. Spices and vegetables to run to the market for. But there were lots of us – a plague of little girls, so it was hardly noticed if one abandoned waif disappeared for some hours; hardly noticed what she did or didn't come back with – not unless it was important, or the castle was desperately short of it. Or sometimes the housekeeper – stern, stone Mistress Breena – would send me out to the orchard.
When she did – or when she didn't, and I went up there anyway – I'd make a beeline for Sathfia, one of the precious, high-ranking sorcerers.
There were few of her – of course. Only a few get born with the talent. Even fewer with the brains and constitution, with the patience and the stable mentality to turn that talent into practised, useful art. Plenty give up. Some go mad – even killing, slobbering, screeching mad. Sathfia did neither: instead she worked miracles in the royal orchard. And I felt privileged to sit and watch her do it.
I would sit beneath the tree she was working on, her spells never losing their fascination for me – never mind how often I watched her.
“Do you think I could ever be like you?”
“Who knows, little lamb? But most people aren't. You'll get your testing when you're older.”
“Do you think I'll pass?”
“I don't know, little lamb,” brushing me out of her way as she knelt beside the trunk of white peach tree, caressing that moon-coloured bark with experienced fingers. Of course, it wasn't a peach tree, not in its entirety. The bark was a colour like marble, pink-touched like quartz, smoother than bark should be; and the sap beneath it was warm, almost more like blood, flowing hot and quickly into the fruit so that they'd ripen four or five times a year. And they were more than ordinary peaches. Her magic let her infuse them with the qualities of other fruit; the bloodline of apples and grapefruits braided into these ones – a tangy, astringent, gently sweet taste, warm with thick, life-giving juices.
“Yes, they have their healing properties,” because sometimes she'd take the time to teach me, “those can be enspelled into the flesh, or into the sap and carried up in the fruit that way.”
“Can you make new fruit? Completely new fruit?”
“Yes, but it's harder.”
“Can you show me?”
“Not now, lamb. There's work to be done.”
Perfect fruits: peach-apple-grapefruit – the essence of magic thrown in. They were wonderful, heady stuff. Much stronger and richer, more nutritious than ordinary fruit. The skilled vintners in the valley below could mix them with grapes to make potent, healthful wines, to make cures and elixirs.
“I could turn you into a frog, little lamb. Of course I could. But only if I could make you eat the right combination of fruit: apple wine, mixed with elderberries, mixed with cranberries and some melon. All of that brewed together with spices and spells. If I gave you that to drink, I could turn you into a frog.”
“Or into a lion.”
“Or into a frog. Don't you go taking drinks from strangers without thinking twice.”
She was a beauty, but not in the usual sort of way. Her hair was dark and thick, a mahogany brown soothed with honey tones and traces of cinnamon, her skin very pale, almost silver in places, her eyes and nose larger than most women's, her mouth pink and generous, her chin very smooth. Her eyes had an odd, almost almond shape to them, and the colouring of opals, thick irises and tiny pupils, lashes that were naturally tinted in lemon and ginger. She wasn't the kind of beautiful that populated knights' tales: wheat-blond and sea-blue eyed, small and delicate, a spun glass figure of woman, head and shoulders smaller than the knight set on rescuing her. Far from it, Sathfia was tall, her limbs were smooth and supple, she had wisdom shining out her face such as nobody could deny.
And she was a sorceress.
I asked her how she could not be married.
Sathfia sat beside me under the peach tree, she hugged her skirts up around her knees. “A lot of us don't; sorceresses.”
“It's... difficult to understand.”
“But I'm your best friend.” A ragged, orphaned kitchen girl, seven or eight years old. What kind of swelling overconfidence made the likes of me think something like that? But I did. I hugged that 'fact' to me when I slept in the hall at night, away from the fires, cold if it were winter.
Sathfia smiled at me. Best friend or not, she was too kind to shatter the illusion. She said: “It's not always easy. We have a rare power, don't we? Something men don't have, only in very rare cases. And so we have a field of suitors who'll have to play second fiddle – at least in some ways. Men who'd have to look up to us.”
“So they should.”
“Well, but a lot of men don't like that. They come like a moth comes to a flame, like a fruit fly comes to a ripe, sweet persimmon. But they don't like to be overshadowed, they come to resent it in the end. And besides, our work in the orchards – or wherever we work – that keeps us busy, it keeps us working long hours.”
I played with a loose strand of wool at my hem. “Don't you want it though?”
“Oh, sometimes, of course. But a life chooses you sometimes, rather than you choosing it.”
I showed my doubt with narrowed eyes and a creased forehead – even though tragedy and poverty between them had done much to set the course of my life – who chooses a life of serving, and sleeping on rushes, bowing to everybody, doing what you're told?
Sathfia said: “You'll see as you get older.”
Grown men and women: they forget what a child can already see.
“You get lonely. So you let me stay and annoy you.”
“Yes. Yes, I do, don' t I?”
“And give me fruit.” I reached for a piece that'd fallen on the ground, a kind of fruit I didn't know, white and thick-skinned, knobbly and long, with wet creases along the middle, leaking juices.
Sathfia caught my wrist.
“But it's on the ground!”
“Watch.” She poked the fruit with a forked stick, and suddenly spikes shot out of it, sharp like thorns, as straight and fine tipped as needles, looking fierce like tiny knives.
“What is it?”
“Defences. Something we're working on. A deterrent for thieves.”
“I'm not a thief.”
“Oh, I know, lamb. But you must be careful.”
And she would give me fruit. We ate those enchanted peaches. The juices ran down my chin, sticky as anything; I wiped them away on my sleeve. She gave me tiny red apples, hybrid gooseberry greengages, a delicate blackberry as big as my fist. She kissed my cheek when she saw me off with the basket of striped apples I was actually sent there to fetch. And I watched her working, still enmeshed with her trees, circling them and singing to them, gifting them with energy and enchantment, while the sun set behind her; warmer, redder, longer – or so I'd always think – just for the fact of her existence.