The angel motioned her over.
“Rosie, this is Free. He’s the leader of the Exiled here at Newland.” Kellareal turned to Free. “This is my adopted niece, Rosie.”
Rosie jerked her attention to the angel. She’d never heard him suggest a title for their relationship before, adopted or otherwise.
“With your permission, I need a couple of minutes with Rosie to say goodbye. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks to check on things.”
“Always good to see you,” Free said to Kellareal, in a voice so gravelly it almost startled Rosie.
The angel took her by the elbow and walked her toward the edge of the settlement, near the wall.
“So here are the rules.”
“Rules?” She almost sounded alarmed.
“Yes. Rules,” he clipped, sounding serious enough to get her full attention. “Extraordinary measures have made these people stronger and smarter than humans. Given the right circumstances, they’re also more dangerous. As far as they know, you’re a human girl, who needs a place to hide out for a bit. I don’t want them to suspect differently. Do you get me?”
She pulled back, looking affronted. “Yes! I get you! You don’t want me to do anything a…” She made quotation marks with her fingers. “…’human girl’ wouldn’t do.”
“Exactly. And lose the adolescent attitude.” She rolled her eyes. “Rosie, please don’t make me look bad.”
She sighed. “Okay. I appreciate this.”
“Well, I hope you still feel that way in a couple of weeks of working here.”
“Working?” She seemed surprised.
“Yes. Working. It’s not all kittens and rainbows here. Pull your socks up.”
Rosie was narrowing her eyes and gearing up for a reply when Kellareal vanished leaving her wondering what ‘pull your socks up’ means. She turned toward the Exiled leader, whom Kellareal had called the Extant, and began walking in his direction. When a gust of wind ruffled her hair, she looked toward the east, where the human city could be seen below and in the distance.
Free looked down at her and smiled when she reached him. “Let’s get you situated. I see you didn’t bring belongings?”
She looked around like she’d misplaced them. “No. I guess I didn’t think about it.”
“No matter. We’ll sort it out. You can stay at my house with my family. We can always use help at the Commons. The unmated males spend a lot of time there. Drinking. Eating. Since they’re not mated.” He added, smiling as if that explained the whole of the universe. “If anybody gives you any trouble or unwanted attention, just come to me. I’ll take care of it.”
For a scant instant she wondered what it might be like to be a young woman who had to worry about men trying to press their physical advantage and thanked the gods she’d never have to find out how vulnerable that would make someone feel.
“Thank you,” she smiled in return. “I don’t have any experience working at… um, working.”
Free looked at her sideways. “You seem capable. You’ll learn.”
By the time they reached Free’s house, it was almost dark and evident that Newland had no power for lighting. The house, like the other buildings, was made of roughhewn logs, with a small but cheerful light coming from the front windows. It appeared to be three stories and larger than most of the other buildings.
Free opened the door and entered before Rosie. The room wasn’t plush or luxurious, but was definitely inviting. The upholstered furniture was worn, but friendly-looking. The fire was small, but welcoming.
“Serene!” His growly voice rumbled. Rosie couldn’t tell if he was displeased or if his voice always sounded like that.
A woman, roughly the same age as Free, appeared from the back of the house wiping her hands. She cocked her head at Rosie. “Hello,” she said. Her voice was also raspy, but not as deep as Free’s.
“Hello,” Rosie replied. “I’m…”
“She’s Kellareal’s ward,” Free interrupted. “She needs a place to stay for a while.”
Serene smiled. “Of course. You’re welcome.”
The door crashed open behind Rosie. “Hey, I…”
Rosie turned to see an extremely good-looking boy staring at her.
“Rosie. This is our youngest son, Charming.”
She looked from Free to Serene for a hint that he was joking, but saw none. Turning back to the new arrival she said, “Nice to meet you, Charming.”
She fully expected him to break into a fit of laughter and tell her that wasn’t really his name. Instead, he said, “Hi. Rosie.”
“She’s going to be staying with us for a while. Show her to Carnal’s room.”
“But…” Charming started.
“Show her to Carnal’s room.” Free repeated with a bit more insistence in his tone. “Then come back down for dinner.”
Rosie estimated Charming’s age at eighteen or so. He had honey colored hair, streaked with blonde, just like his mother. And yellow-green eyes. Also just like his mother. He was as tall as Free with a powerful, athletic build that suggested it would become even more impressive in a couple of years.
He gave Rosie a smile that was, well, charming and motioned for her to follow up the stairs. “This way.” He stopped at the second story landing and said, “Carnal’s room is there.” He pointed down the hall to the right. “My room is up there.” He pointed to a narrower staircase that led upward. “The attic room. It has a great view. I can see just about everything that happens in Newland,” he said proudly.
Rosie smiled and turned toward the room Charming had pointed out, noting that there was another room down the hall.
“Am I, um, displacing someone?”
“Displacing?” He opened the door to a decidedly masculine space. It was minimalist to the extreme. A wood platform bed with four thick square legs, but no headboard. A double shelf unit with a few books, rocks, and feathers on one side and folded clothes on the other side. There was a paraffin lamp on a small square stand by the bed and another on the shelf unit. There wasn’t much there, but what was there was neat as a military barracks. Bed perfectly made. Nothing out of place. “No. Not at all. This is my oldest brother’s room, but he doesn’t come home often.”
“Do you need help with your stuff?”
“No. I, ah, didn’t bring anything. I’ll get my, ah, stuff in the next couple of days.”
Charming nodded. “Well, then, let’s have supper.”
When Rosie told Kellareal she needed a hideout, the last thing she had in mind was becoming an exchange student. She didn’t want to get to know and be part of a family, but not eating would raise suspicion. After all her cover was human and humans must eat. So she said, “Okay,” and followed Charming back downstairs.
“Is Carnal away at school?”
Charming paused mid step to laugh. “Nothing like that. No. He’s on patrol right now.” He resumed descent, but stopped at the bottom of the stairs. “Smell that? We’re having elk stew with parsnips and onions. You’ll love it.”
Rosie had to admit that it did smell good. The kitchen was square with a table and chairs in the middle of the room, but the first thing that attracted her eye was the wood stove and the precision cut stack of firewood next to it. The front panel had been left standing open to heat the room with coals left smoldering from cooking. She’d seen such stoves in books, but never in person.
Charming’s parents had already filled their bowls and were waiting patiently.
She sat down across from Charming and pulled in her chair just as he reached out and tore off a large chunk of brown bread from the dome-shaped loaf in the middle of the table. Next to it sat a pot of stew.
“Go on. Help yourself,” said Charming with his mouth full.
So she stood and ladled a generous portion into her bowl, while Free carried on quiet conversation about livestock.
After a few minutes, Charming said, “Why aren’t you eating?”
Everyone stopped and looked at Rosie.
“Well, it looks so good and smells even better,” she said, looking from one to the other. Serene smiled in response. “But to be honest, I’m worried about the sauce.” It was tomato-based. “These are the only clothes I have at the moment.”
They all looked at her thin white boyfriend shirt, which caused a blush.
Serene rose from the table and retrieved an apron. She flicked it in front of Rosie and tied the top close to her neck.
“There,” she said. “Tomorrow we’ll see about scrounging up some other clothes.” She looked at Free. “What was Kellareal thinking?”
Rosie was grateful enough to warm to the idea of getting to know the family.
Free shrugged. “Got a lot on his mind. Always.”
“Thank you,” Rosie told Serene as she dug into the stew. “Oh my gods. This is incredible!” she said before quite finishing the first bite.
Serene beamed and Free did not miss the signs of her pleasure, which in turn pleased him. He turned to Rosie.
“The large building next door is the Commons. Tomorrowmorning, Charming will take you over there and introduce you to the woman in charge. She’ll lay it out for you and get you started right.”
“Okay. And thank you for having me.”
Serene interjected. “We’re very sincere when we say you’re welcome here for as long as you’d like to stay. Kellareal must think very highly of you. If you’re special to him, you’re special to us.”
Rosie nodded and returned her smile, not wanting to spout off about what a pain he could be. She thought better of being the one to tarnish the rosy esteem in which he was held.
“No reason to wait till tomorrow morning. I’m headed over there right now.” Charming was talking to Rosie. “Come and go with me. I’ll be the envy of Newland, arriving with a beautiful woman.”
Free glanced at me. “Do you want to go, Rosie?”
She hesitated. Charming pled with his eyes in such a cute way she had a hard time saying no. “Maybe for just a little while.”
Free then turned to Charming. “Make it clear that she’s a special guest of mine,” he warned.
“Charming, this is not a joke. Can you be trusted to take care of Rosie?”
Charming grew instantly serious, transforming his looks so that he appeared older. “Yes.”