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walk me home in the dead of night

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i.

Rosethorn waited patiently while Nousha packed her few belongings. It had already been a long day at Urda’s House, and much of her magic and energy was drained from reinvigorating the wilting herbs and failing salves. But this was more important than getting back to her small room and comfortable bed.

Rosethorn had finally gotten the flighty tumbler to agree to come to Winding Circle. It had taken cornering the young woman in her second-story Mire room (by accident, she swears) and catching her in the act of unraveling a blanket plus two more days of convincing not only Nousha but the Dedicate Superior. Sometimes her reputation for being a thorn in the side came in handy.

As the thread mage-to-be tied off the knot on her small pack of clothes, scarves, and personal trinkets, Rosethorn stepped out from the doorframe and into the hallway. The floorboards groaned wearily at the movement. Rosethorn watched Nousha sweep her gaze over the bare room. The woman did not own much so she could not be checking to see if she had left anything; rather, she seemed to be saying goodbye. Though Rosethorn could not see much to miss in the dirty, rundown space, she knew the feeling. She had left her father’s farm many years ago with a similarly conflicted heart.

So when Rosethorn called, “Come on, Nousha. We need to be going,” her voice lacked its usual edge.

Nousha turned back to the doorway. Rosethorn watched as her expression shifted from a sad smile to one of determination. Rosethorn found herself searching for more words to offer the woman, but she was saved by Nousha gliding past and leading the way down the stairs.

Once they exited the ramshackle building, Rosethorn took the lead. Nousha stayed close on her heels in the crowded streets of the Mire, and Rosethorn could feel the threads of her habit sleeves threatening to unravel, seeking to reach the woman at her back. Only Nousha’s years of subconscious control and Rosethorn’s tenuous hold on the cotton kept the threads in place.

They walked in silence until, just a short way from the Winding Circle gates, Nousha started coughing. The coughs were shallow but relentless, forcing the woman to stop walking. Rosethorn paused as well and studied her. Nousha’s whole frame, tall and alarmingly thin, shook with each strained inhale and broken exhale. The plant mage wished she had thought to keep some thyme from Urda’s House with her. Instead, she was left standing, awkward and helpless, until the fit subsided.

“I haven’t walked this far in months,” the dark-haired woman confessed. She offered a half smile, as if trying to joke and apologize at the same time.

“You need to see Healer Moonstream first thing tomorrow morning,” Rosethorn said. “You should be healed from the plague by now.”

“It’s not the plague.” Nousha looked at the ground. “I got the wheezes around Longnight last year, and they ain’t gone away yet.”

“Wheezes? Ah, you probably have asthma then,” Rosethorn said matter-of-factly.

The young woman looked up and met her eyes. “Asthma? How bad is that?”

“Not too bad, I should hope. A daily tea and some medicine for the coughing attacks, and you should be fine,” Rosethorn replied.

Relief and something related to hope passed over Nousha’s face. The pair passed through the Winding Circle gates at last. “Will you make me the medicines?” Nousha asked softly.

Rosethorn did not know. She often helped the Water Temple dedicates produce medicines, but she never knew where they went. However, something about the warmth in the other woman’s brown eyes made her unwilling to overtly deny her. Instead, Rosethorn just turned them down the right path and said, “This way to the dormitories.”

 

ii.

Rosethorn often bathed late at night, either because she got lost in her experiments or because she simply wished to avoid the crowds. Tonight it was the latter. It had been an unbearably hot day, her peas were not cooperating, and to top it off, Crane had spent the better part of an hour breathing down her neck and trying to tell her how to wrangle the damn vines.

She had only been immersed in the warm waters for a few minutes, though, when soft footsteps interrupted the peace. A willowy figure emerged into the cavernous room, clutching a towel and sponge to her chest. Rosethorn moved just enough to cause a soft splash, letting the other woman know she was there.

“Hello, Dedicate Rosethorn,” the woman’s smooth voice replied. Nousha - the lilting greeting was unmistakably Winding Circle’s newest novice. Without waiting for a reply, she continued, “I don’t mean to disturb you. I’ll just be over here.” She inclined her head towards a pool a few over from the one Rosethorn lounged in. The dedicate noticed that her long, unruly curls had been chopped short, very short, so that her hair formed a dark halo around her head. Rosethorn thought the look suited her, though she figured it may have been a practical decision on someone’s part; it was easier to check for lice and fleas that the woman may have picked up in the Mire.

The two women settled into silence, and Rosethorn resumed her bathing practice. She had just finished scrubbing her back with the herb-infused sands, when quiet humming floated across the room. Rosethorn turned to see Nousha working her hands through the short strands of her hair, clearly lost in the comfort of the massage. The humming followed a tune that Rosethorn did not know but found pleasant, like a lullaby. The sound paused, though, as the dark hair dipped under the water. It did not return when Nousha reemerged, but a few moments later, the woman flipped abruptly around to face Rosethorn, who hurriedly ducked her head.

“I was humming, wasn’t I?” Nousha’s voice floated across the room. “Sorry, I sometimes don’t realize I’m doing it.” The sentence ended with a self-conscious chuckle.

Rosethorn peered back up to find the other woman looking at her, her body language open despite the slightly blush on her cheeks. “You were, but I didn’t mind.”

“Oh good. I figured you were here this late to avoid everyone.”

Damn, this girl is perceptive, Rosethorn thought. “One person is hardly everyone,” she quipped back.

Nousha smiled. “But still more than no one. I’ll just be going.” With that, the woman rose out of the water, not turning away to hide her modesty as most of the novices and even some of the dedicates did. She did not hurry to pick up her towel and robe, set on a bench between two pools, but rather glided over. Rosethorn knew she should not stare, but the flickering lamp light made the water droplets on her skin glow and the woman was so unabashed.

Rosethorn waited a few minutes after Nousha left before she too climbed out of the baths and redressed in a shirt and loose trousers that she only dared to wear on late nights like this. The plant mage stopped short when she saw the novice standing just outside the doors, though.

“A little too cloudy for stargazing, isn’t it?” Rosethorn asked.

Nousha turned. Her expression was sheepish and her hands fidgeted, so opposite from the relaxed, confident woman in the baths just minutes ago. But she still met Rosethorn’s eyes as she said, “I realized I don’t remember the way back to the bunks in the dark very well.”

The night was particularly dark, with heavy clouds concealing the moon and stars, and Nousha had only been at Winding Circle for three days, so Rosethorn held back a sigh and nodded. “This way,” she said, pointing to the path leading to the right. “How are you settling in?” She figured small talk would be appropriate, and the girl was kind of her responsibility, after all.

“Well enough,” Nousha replied as they started walking. “They gave me a room to myself, since I’m so much older than all the other novices.”

“Good. Did you see Dedicate Moonstream about that cough of yours?”

“Yes, Mother Hen.” A smirk lifted the corners of Nousha’s mouth. “She said I had that asthma thing you called it, and she gave me some herbs for tea. Yours tasted much better, honestly.”

Rosethorn tsked. “That tea has different herbs than the one I gave you at Urda’s House.” But she still smiled slightly.

“Turmeric, parsley…” Nousha listed slowly.

“Mullein to relax the airways, thyme and ivy for the cough itself, and a touch of ginger to counter any upset stomach,” Rosethorn continued. “Did she give you concentrated mullein for an acute attack?”

“No, she said it hadn’t been tested enough and that I’d be close enough in the temple if the wheezes got really bad,” the taller woman replied.

“Codswallop. Sometimes that woman is too cautious for her own good,” Rosethorn replied rather vehemently for the late hour. “You shouldn’t have to count on getting to the Water Temple in time. I’ll make you a few capsules, but they’re only for emergencies. Understand?”

Nousha nodded. “Thank you, and thank you for walking me back,” she said. Indeed, the pair had arrived at the entrance to the novice dormitories. She offered a smile that made Rosethorn’s stomach flip-flop and said, “Goodnight, Dedicate Rosethorn.”

“Goodnight, Nousha,” the shorter woman replied. She watched until the white novice robes disappeared through the door, then turned and walked back to her own room in the Earth Temple complex, already considering what herbs would pair best with the extremely bitter mullein.

 

iii.

Nousha kept popping up in Rosethorn’s life, apparently undeterred by her scowls and sharp words. It wasn’t enough to be annoying, per se, or obvious, but the young woman would stop to talk with her while she spread mulch around the Temple trees or schedule her visits to the Water Temple for more medicines on the day the plant-mage helped the healers restock. To be fair, Rosethorn only noticed for two reasons. First, she didn’t have many friends among the other novitiates and dedicates, so anyone going out of their way to interact with her was new. And second, Rosethorn had to admit that she found her gaze drawn again and again to Nousha’s graceful walk and the smile lines that were already forming around her bright hickory eyes.

So Rosethorn was not particularly surprised when soft footsteps fell in beside her as she left the temple after midnight services for the Festival of the Green Man. “Will you be joining the dancing tonight, Dedicate Rosethorn?” the woman asked.

“No,” Rosethorn replied. “I was once told I dance like a pregnant sow, and I would rather not subject myself or anyone else to that.”

Nousha laughed, a rich sound that always surprised her. “I’m sure you’re not all that bad. I would offer to teach you, but I’m not much for those parties either. Yazmin always dragged me along – and I’d bet the troupe’s parties were much more of a ruckus than the ones here – but without her…” The woman trailed off. She gave a little shrug that seemed neither particularly sad nor totally indifferent. “Anyways,” her face brightened. “I find myself enjoying what quiet time I can get nowadays. Dedicate Larkspur’s been running me ragged making banners and tablecloths for the festival. I think the thud of the looms might be woven into my brain now!”

Rosethorn couldn’t help the small smile that answered Nousha’s great grin at her joke.

Nousha continued rambling about the new patterns she had learned to help weave the colorful decorations that now covered Winding Circle and how each piece was imbued with spells for prosperity and abundance. With anyone else, Rosethorn might have barked at them to stop nattering on, but Nousha’s voice was low and soothing, and Rosethorn felt she filled the silence instead of chopping it to pieces.

In the background, she could hear the rising noise as more of Winding Circle’s residents spilled out of the temple and joined the clapping and singing in the amphitheater. The festivities would continue until the early morning, celebrating the equinox and the year’s harvest. But Rosethorn and Nousha continued to walk away from the temple.

Until a group of four boys, in their late teens and dressed in novitiate white, stumbled towards them, clearly drunk on Green Man’s wine which was always particularly potent. Rosethorn felt Nousha straighten beside her, and the woman’s light chatter broke off. The plant-mage gave the group her best scowl, but for once, it did not deter them.

Made brash by intoxication, the male novices looked the two women over. Then one of them whistled. Two more echoed in agreement. The boy closest to the women sauntered even closer and said, “Ladies, what are two lovely ladies like yourselves doing so far from the festivities?” He slurred a bit, making the final word a slithering mess of syllables. “Let us escort you back to the party.” He reached out as if to touch Rosethorn’s arm to turn her back the way they had come.

And that is when she broke. Rosethorn surprised the boy by stepping right up into his face and grabbing his ear, yanking his head down to her level so she could stare him in the eyes. “If you continue this line of talk, I will hang you in the well by your toes! Blessed Mila help me if you don’t think I can just because I’m shorter than you. I carry bags of cow dung twice your size every day!” She pulled his head further down so she could glare at the boys behind him. “And that applies to you all too! There are plenty of wells, or maybe I’ll find a nice rooftop instead. I’m sure between the sunburn and dehydration we can make this lesson stick. I – “

Rosethorn broke off her tirade as a slim hand touched her shoulder. “I think you’ve scared them enough, Dedicate,” Nousha’s voice drifted over her. “They won’t be making untoward advances on anyone anymore. Right, boys?” She arched an eyebrow at the group. They nodded their heads as one, looking significantly more sober than they had minutes before.

Rosethorn let go of the boy’s ear and backed up. “Get along,” she growled. “But one last thing: who is your Head of House?” The boys blanched, but one step towards them had the closest mumbling out “Dedicate Windfell” and then hurrying to leave.

“That seemed a little much for just some drunken words,” Nousha offered once the novices had left. “They’re not like the men that came to the Mire looking for a cheap night.”

Rosethorn turned around to face the other woman. She studied the dark eyes and soft lips. But she didn’t see fear or pain on Nousha’s face, and she let out the breath that had lodged in her throat. “Perhaps. But no one should have to deal with anyone thinking they have a right to their bodies or time. This is not the Mire, and we have rules here against such things, rules we can actually enforce.”

Nousha blinked at her, and then Rosethorn watched her words settle on the woman like a blanket, softening her shoulders and loosening her breaths. “That is good,” she finally said.

The pair began to walk again, and Rosethorn resolved to walk with the new mage all the way to her dormitory, in case they encountered anymore drunken idiots.

 

iv.

The month surrounding Longnight was always Rosethorn’s least favorite of the year. There were all the preparations for the festival, from cutting branches off pine and spruce trees in the hills above Summersea – Rosethorn felt every hacking cut from too dull knives or inexperienced novices – to grinding wheat by hand until her arm cramped from shoulder to fingertips – the Head Cook refused to use their mill for the occasion and instead drafted everyone in Temple-mandated shifts. All the while, the plants hardy enough to last the winter fell despondent in the lack of sun, and Rosethorn could feel herself shrivel with them.

To top it off, there was her birthday. Rosethorn knew that some god or goddess had a good laugh at causing a plant mage to be born on the longest night of the year. She had vague memories of the sweetness of honey cakes from her earliest years, but soon those indulgences stopped as year after year of drought stretched thin the pockets of her large farming family. Even when her father forced her to use her magic to increase their yield, the money went to his drinking habit and her birthday remained forgotten.

Now, Rosethorn was okay with her birthday remaining anonymous. She didn’t like any more attention on herself than absolutely necessary. She celebrated the day by climbing to the top of the Tower after the Temple’s vigil ended at sunrise. While everyone else stumbled to their beds, the plant mage climbed the tower stairs to watch the sun bathe Summersea in purple then pink then gold rays.

But when Rosethorn arrived at the top this year, she found she was not alone. Nousha – no, Lark, she reminded herself, as the woman had recently taken her vows – was already leaning against the parapet. Had it been anyone else, she would have turn around and found another place to watch the sunrise; instead, she paused at the top of the steps and took a moment to drink in the tall woman’s graceful form silhouetted in the early light.

In the year or so that they had known each other, Rosethorn had to admit that she had become fond of the thread mage. Lark met her ribs and jibes and downright grumpy moods with soft smiles and bad puns – rather a change from testy Crane, the only other dedicate willing to spend large chunks of time with her. He was more like a fellow thornbush fighting for light. And Lark was not all blind optimism either, which Rosethorn appreciated. She was still learning pieces of the former tumbler’s past that made her ache in her roots.

After a few minutes in silence, Rosethorn spoke up, “I thought I was the only one without the sense of self-preservation to go straight to bed.”

Lark whirled, her green habit twirling around her ankles, a reminder that they shared a patron goddess now. Her voice was not surprised, though, when she replied, “I came to watch the sunrise.”

“Me too.” Rosethorn crossed the floor to join the other woman. Lark turned back to the sea in the distance, and Rosethorn braced her folded arms against the stone edge. Both women stood in silence, consumed in their own thoughts for a while.

Lark’s voice broke the silence once the sun was fully risen. “Longnight is my favorite day of the year,” she murmured.

The green mage lifted her head from where it had come to lean against the parapet. “Really?”

Lark hummed in confirmation. “I love the moment when they re-light the fire. It reminds me that we always have a chance to start over, to find hope in the dark and reawaken ourselves.”

Rosethorn grumbled, “You would see it that way. For me, I’m just thankful it’s over.” She knew she was ruining the moment by being so prickly, but even Lark’s calm voice and relaxed smile could not completely dampen her annoyance with the holiday. So she turned away from the morning sun and began her descent down the winding staircase.

She was not all that surprised to hear light footsteps behind her own heavy trod, but Rosethorn rather wished that the new dedicate would not have followed her. Lark waited until they had finished the five-story climb down to speak again, and Rosethorn could hear the slight rattle that indicated her lungs were protesting the activity when she spoke. “If you dislike Longnight so much, why climb all the way up to watch the sunrise?”

Rosethorn stopped walking, if only to allow the stitch witch to catch her breath, and faced her. Lark’s chest was moving a bit more exaggeratedly than usual as she sought to breathe in enough air, but her gaze was steady as always. Her brown eyes shone wide with their signature brand of compassionate curiosity.

Rosethorn took in those eyes and the cupid’s bow of her lips quirked to one side, and the plant mage knew she couldn’t lie to this woman. She couldn’t even tell half-truths anymore. So she took a deep breath and began, “I was born on Longnight.” The other woman’s eyebrows shot up, but she stayed silent. Rosethorn resumed walking, and she explained about her father and the hard years. She explained the depression that blanketed many green mages in winter. And she explained how it had become her tradition to soak up those first rays of lengthening sunlight, cherishing what little life they gave.

Lark stayed silent the whole time, and it struck Rosethorn how quiet she had been the whole night and that the mage must have been working on her tendency to chatter. At some point, their hands had interlaced, sharing that silent comfort.

They were near the Earth Temple’s houses when Rosethorn concluded, “So it’s my present to myself really. I suppose I’m rather like a plant after all, always turning towards the sun.”

Still silent but smiling, Lark tugged on Rosethorn’s hand to pull her towards a cluster of spruce just off the path and shielding them from view of the temple. Once beneath the evergreens, Lark gathered Rosethorn’s hands between her own and said, “Thank you for sharing that with me. I wish I had known it was your birthday earlier. I would have gotten you a present.”

Rosethorn scoffed. “That’s why I don’t make a big deal out of it. There’s nothing I need, and I certainly don’t want the attention.”

“Perhaps not need, but there must be some things you want,” Lark replied. The taller woman gazed down at the plant witch. Then Rosethorn watched as her eyes zeroed in on a small rip near her elbow from a misbehaving pine bough that she had completely forgotten about. One long-fingered hand moved to sweep gently over the tear, which quickly pulled itself together good as new. “Perhaps some better robes?” Lark’s lips quirked upwards. “I can make you some that will resist snags and dirt.”

“I know you’re good at weaving, but I don’t think even you could make robes that will stand up to my hawthorns.”

“We’ll see,” Lark quipped back, the challenge already rising in her eyes. “But I’d still like to give you something today…” Her voiced dropped low enough that Rosethorn couldn’t quite be sure what she said but it sounded like, “If you’ll have me.”

Then Lark was leaning in, and their lips brushed with a lightness so in contrast to the pressure the Rosethorn figured the thread mage did not know she was applying to their twined hands. Lark pulled back quickly, looking as unsure as Rosethorn had ever seen her.

“Was that okay?” she whispered.

Rosethorn could not help her smile. “I might have to hang you in the well if you don’t do that again.”

Lark’s shoulders bobbed as she released her breath. She smiled brilliantly. “I think I can handle that. Happy Birthday, Rosethorn.” And she leaned in for a second kiss.

 

v.

Night had fallen by the time the mages of Winding Circle flooded out of the Temple after evening services. It would be another month or so before afterglow would hang in the sky long enough to greet them. But tonight the moon was full and bright, lending its light to two mages in dark green robes who broke off from the masses.

It felt strange to not follow the crowd back to the cluster of cottages and dormitories Rosethorn had lived in for seven years since she took her vows to the Living Circle deities. Lark must be feeling the same, she realized, as the dark-haired woman walked slowly, uncharacteristically quiet and pausing often. They finally reached the outer gate to their new home, Discipline Cottage, when Lark completely stopped short and busied herself fussing with an imaginary wrinkle in her habit while staring into the distance. Rosethorn noticed a bed of tulips beside the path, buds still tightly closed. She reached down and sent a tendril of magic into one of the plants. “Do I have to wring it out of you, whatever’s going on in that mind of yours?” the plant mage asked. She was not good at feelings, but she would try for Lark.

The thread mage looked over at her companion, and then her gaze moved down to the tulip Rosethorn had coaxed to open just enough to show the purple of its petals. “Do you think we’ll be any good, Rosie? I feel like I just got my robes; how can I teach anyone?”

Rosethorn couldn’t help her snort. “You charmed Crane into literally giving you the robes off his back; you’ll be fine.”

“The moths had eaten so many holes in it that he looked like that holey cheese Moonstream likes!” Lark laughed. But Rosethorn could still see the worry lining her hickory eyes.

“Besides, any child who touches my peas will wish they had never caused trouble so much that they’ll be out of there in under a week,” the plant mage promised.

Lark straightened abruptly to look the other woman in the eye. “You wouldn’t actually hurt any of them, would you, Rosie?”

Rosethorn backpedaled quickly at the sincerity in her eyes. “Of course not. But we both know you’re better with children. Why Dedicate Moonstream decided I should go with you, I’ll never know.” Lark’s lips quirked as if she might have an idea what the newly appointed Dedicate Superior had been thinking. “You’ll help them bloom like this tulip. It just needed a little guidance, the same as children.” Rosethorn lead the other woman’s hands to wrap gently around the flower and willed its petals to open a little wider.

“Mmmm,” Lark agreed softly. “And love. You gave it love too, my dear.” She pressed a kiss to Rosethorn’s lips before releasing the tulip and rising up. “And love is something we have plenty of.” Her eyes shone with determination again in the moonlight. Lark’s slender hands twined with Rosethorn’s cracked and permanently dirt-stained ones to pull her to her feet, then she turned to face the gate. “Walk me home, Rosie,” she said.

Rosethorn opened the gate and wrapped her arm around Lark’s waist to lead her along the path to their new home, already considering which beds to plant rosemary, thyme, and larkspurs in.