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“Yes. For a moment something came back,” the girl acknowledged. “Like a bit of breeze. It drifted past. I couldn’t keep it with me. I wanted—” But she couldn’t say what she wanted. She sighed and shook her head. “It went away.”

“It’s waiting,” Alys said. Carefully she refolded the cloth around the dried petals and leaves and replaced the little packet in the carved trunk. Then, while Claire watched, she strained the dark tea and poured it carefully into small bottles, which she corked tightly. “I’ll take this now to Bryn,” she said.

“Add a raspberry leaf or two to the soup. And some of that sorrel from the garden. It’ll give flavor,” she added. “Those greens you have give bulk, but their taste is ordinary.”

Claire nodded. Alys watched as the girl pushed the chopped onions into a neat pile with the side of her hand.

“Did you cook once, mayhap?” Alys asked.

The girl looked up. She frowned and furrowed her brow. “I don’t think so,” she said, finally.

“But something come back to you a minute ago,” Alys said, “when you breathed the tea.”

Claire stood thinking. She closed her eyes. Then, finally, she looked up and shrugged. “It wasn’t the tea,” she said. “It came from something else, I think.”

“You talk elegant,” Alys said with a chuckle. “Probably somebody done your cooking for you, once.”

Claire took a deep breath, still thinking. Then she picked up the stirring spoon and turned toward the pot of simmering soup. “Well,” she said, “those days are gone.”

The three little girls, Bethan, Delwyth, and Eira, barefoot and grass-stained, smoothed and tidied the little corner of meadow that they called their Tea Place. A flat rock there became their table; they decorated it with blossoms from the clumps of wildflowers nearby. With a leafy branch acting as a broom, Eira swept the ground around the rock. “Sit down, dear ladies,” she said. “Now that it’s tidy here, we’ll have tea.”

It was a game they often played, serving imaginary tea to one another, pretending to be grown women.

“Your hair’s a wee bit straggled, Miss Bethan,” Eira said haughtily as she set the broom aside. “Was you rushed? I’d expect you’d be more primped up, and maybe brush some, when you’ve got a tea invite.”

Bethan giggled and pulled at her unruly curls. “So sorry, Miss Eira,” she said. “This baby in my belly makes me forgetful.” Dramatically she pulled her frock away from her own thin middle.

“Can I have a belly baby too?” whispered solemn-eyed Delwyth.

“Yes. Let’s all.” Eira tugged at her own skirt. “Oh, I do hope mine is born soon, because I’m so weary of being fat.”

“Yes, fat is hard,” Delwyth agreed in a serious voice. “It makes you breathe all puffy.

“When do you expect yours?” she asked the others. “Mine’s coming tomorrow. I do hope for a boy. I’m going to name him . . .” She pondered briefly. “Dylan,” she decided. “Tea?” Delicately she sipped from her own imaginary cup.

“Oops!” Bethan announced. “Mine just be born. A little girl.” She cradled an invisible baby in her arms.

“Mine too!” The other two little girls announced. Rhythmically they rocked their invisible infants.

“My mum be cross with me if she knowed we did this,” Bethan confided. “She says it be bad luck to pretend about a baby.”

Delwyth stopped her rocking motion. “Bad luck?”

Bethan nodded.

“Better we don’t do it, then. We can pretend tea, though.” Delwyth smoothed her skirt. “Want a teacake?” She offered the other girls each a twig.

Eira pretended to chew. “You be a fine cook, Miss Delwyth,” she said.

Delwyth nodded solemnly. “I learnt it from the queen,” she said, “when I be’d a helper in her kitchen.”

Claire, listening from where she stood in a small grove of trees nearby, smiled at the sweetness of the children. But their conversation troubled her, as well, because it reminded her of what she had lost. It was more than the loss of memories. She had no knowledge. She wondered what a queen might be. Had she known that once? Had she played this way, once?

This baby in my belly makes me forgetful, one little girl had said. Claire, working now with Alys, preparing the herbs for Bethan’s mother, understood what the child was pretending. Why did it make Claire feel so unbearably sad?

She straightened her straw hat and walked slowly back to the hut with the herbs she had been sent to find and gather. She resolved that she would learn. She would learn everything—about queens, whatever they were; and herbs, and birds, and how the men farmed and what they thought, and the women, too, how they spent their hours, and what they talked about, what they dreamed, what they yearned for.

It would be a start, Claire thought. Perhaps somehow she would learn her own lost life.

From a field higher up, where he was prying weeds from the rocky soil with his hoe, Tall Andras stopped his work, wiped sweat from his glistening forehead, and watched the mysterious girl walk along the path. She had favored one leg for some weeks, until the bruise and swelling disappeared. He had worried for her, that she might become hunched and lame, as people did when their wounds went unhealed. Andras’s own father, flung years before against rocks when a boat swung around and tipped, still held one arm locked into a curved and crooked shape.

But he could see that Water Claire strode easily now along the path, her legs strong and equal, her feet sure in the soft leather sandals she wore. He watched her make her way easily to the turning; then she disappeared into the woods, heading back to the hut she shared with Alys.

A shadow crossed the ground in front of him, and Tall Andras looked up and waved his arm at the crows that circled the field. His weeding was turning up bugs and worms, morsels that the crows wanted, he knew, and it put his seedlings at risk. He couldn’t afford to lose the crops. Winter was long here, and in the good weather seasons they prepared for it: growing, catching, storing things away. His father was getting old and his mother had been unwell for months, with fever that came and went. Tall Andras was young, just seventeen, but the family depended on him. He would make a bird-scarer, a mommet, he decided. Last summer that had helped. And he had a large gourd in the shed that he could use for a head, with a face carved on it: a fierce face. He twisted his own face, practicing, pushing his lips up against his nose, and then flapped his arms, the way the cloth of his mommet might flap in the wind to frighten away the crows.

Then he stopped, feeling childish and foolish, and glad that the girl had not seen. For her, he wanted to seem a wise and hard-working man, worthy soon of a wife.

Four

They noticed that creatures frightened her. A chipmunk, tamed by the little girls, sat on Eira’s hand nibbling at the seeds they gave to it. But Claire backed away with a startled look.

“You never seen one before, then, Water Claire?” Bethan asked her. “They not be harmful.”

“You can touch him,” Delwyth suggested. “He don’t mind.”

But Claire shook her head no. She was fearful of the smallest of creatures—a mouse, scurrying across the floor of Alys’s hut, almost caused her to faint—and fascinated in a worried sort of way with birds. She found frogs amusing but strange. And she was completely, utterly terrified of cows. Claire held her breath and looked away when she had to pass the place where a scrawny milk cow, its wrinkled mouth moving as it placidly chewed on the rough grass, was fenced beside the cottage where Tall Andras lived with his parents.

“I must try to learn creatures,” she said to Alys apologetically. “It’s not right to be so fearful. Even the smallest of the children feel at home with the creatures.”

“Mayhap you had a run-in with a creature once.” Alys was in the rocker, knitting with gray wool in the dim, flickering light.

Claire sighed. “I don’t know. But it’s not a feeling of a bad memory. It’s as if I have never seen them before.”

“Fish neither?”

“Fish are familiar,” Claire said slowly. “I think I have known of fish somehow. They don’t frighten me. I like how silvery they look.”

“Nary birds?”

Claire shook her head and shuddered. “Their wings seem so unnatural. I can’t get used to them. Even the littlest ones are strange to me.”

Alys thought, and rocked. Her wooden needles clicked in her gnarled hands. Finally she said, “Lame Einar has a way with birds. I’ll have him catch us one, for a pet.”

“Pet?”

“A plaything. A pretty. He’ll make a cage for it, from twigs.”

Claire cringed at the thought, but agreed. It would be a start to the learning.

One afternoon she stood barefoot on the beach, watching the trio of little girls. Using sticks, they had outlined a house and were furnishing it with debris they found in the sand.

“Here’s my bed!” Bethan announced, and patted an armful of seaweed into a shape.

“And cups in the kitchen!” Eira set five scoop-shaped shells in a row. She lifted one daintily and pretended to drink from it.

Delwyth ran to fetch a branch she saw beside some rocks, and dragged it back. Torn from a nearby tree by the constant wind, it was crowned with a thicket of leaves. “Broom! I found us a broom!” the little girl announced happily, and scraped the sand with it. “Wait. It needs fixing.” Carefully she tugged at a thin side branch, broke it loose, and tossed it aside. “There. Now it’s a proper broom.”

Claire, watching, leaned down and picked up the slender branch that Delwyth had discarded. The sand was damp and she saw her own footprints in it. With the tip of the branch, she poked a round hole in each of her own toeprints, then laughed and scribbled the footprints away with the stick. A gentle surge of seawater moved in silently, smoothed the roughened sand, and receded.

She leaned forward and wrote the first letter of her name.

C.

Then L. And A.

But a foamy inrush of seawater erased the letters.

Claire moved back slightly, farther from the sea’s edge, and began again. CLAIRE, she wrote.

“What be that?” A shadow fell across her letters. It was Bethan, looking down.

“My name.”

The little girl stared at it.

“Would you like to do your name beside it?” Claire offered her the stick.

“How?” she asked.

“Just make the letters.”

“What be letters?”

Claire was startled at first. Then she thought: Oh. They haven’t learned yet. She had a sudden image of herself, learning. Of a teacher, explaining the sounds of letters. There was a place she had gone, a place called school. All children did. But she looked around now, at the cliff and hills and huts, at the sea—she could see the boats bobbing in the distance, and the men leaning in with their nets—and she was uncertain.

“Will you go to school soon?” she asked Bethan.

“What be school?”

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