Mally was drawing water from the well when she saw the stranger woman.
It was rare enough to see strangers in the village, and this woman didn't look like she belonged to any of the neighboring villages. She wore a brown cloak, longer than what any village woman would wear, and she carried nothing that she would need for a journey. Odder yet, she came from the direction of the forest.
Mally picked up her bucket and started home. She didn't want to be caught staring, but she dawdled so she could see where the strange woman went.
The woman paused in the center of the square, turning to look at the houses around it. Then she strode forward, straight to Mally's house, and knocked on the door.
It swung open. Mally couldn't make out the words spoken, but she saw Mother's look of surprise change to one of polite welcome, and both women vanished inside.
Mally hurried across the square, dropping her bucket. She would get it later, or maybe Tag would, since she was doing most of the chores now. Even if Mally hadn't had so much free time, a visitor was well worth stopping for. She slipped inside.
Mother was pouring cups of root tea from the pot in the fireplace. "Tag did mention you, yes," she was saying. "It was nice to know that someone else can enter the forest and come out unharmed."
Of course. Mally remembered now what Tag had told them yesterday, that she'd met an herb gatherer out in the forest and talked to her. Mother hadn't thought it was nice at all, last night; she had counted it as another danger to worry about. The woman looked quite normal, though, not at all like the addled, hunchbacked hermit Mally had been imagining.
"Actually, I live there," the woman said calmly. "It's been home to Kirchai and me for years now. I find it peaceful."
"Ah, I see. I had thought perhaps you lived alone." Mother set the cups on the table and sat. Her eyes rested on Mally in the corner, but she let her be. "You gather herbs, Tag said?"
"Herbs and plants, as many as anyone could need," said the woman. "The forest is full of gifts. Kirchai goes out hunting, I gather and dry my plants, and on occasion we visit the fair on the other side of the forest. Herbs are valued very highly there." She took a sip of her tea.
Of course they are, thought Mally. People would trade a lot, to keep from having to brave the shadows and wild animals of the forest. Even the hunters weren't stupid enough to go out alone.
"To be certain," said Mother. "Have you ever thought about trading with our villages on this side of the forest? Our healer is very good, but he does appreciate fresh herbs. The gathering at Tenfeast brings people from all the villages, surely as many as the fair you mentioned, and we always welcome new traders."
"That is an excellent idea," said the woman cheerfully. "It's what I was hoping for. The fair was less than a moon ago, however, and there isn't time to pick as many herbs as I would like before Tenfeast. Not to mention, it seems to leave me more and more tired in recent years." Mother was nodding in sympathy. "What I need is a helper, someone young to learn to gather the herbs, as well as the bit of healing I know. It would be truly a blessing."
"I imagine so," agreed Mother cautiously. Mally's sucked in her breath. The woman couldn't be thinking--
"I think Tag would do very well at it," said the stranger.
No she wouldn't! Mally scowled. Tag would run off the first chance she got, just like she did at home.
But Mother actually seemed to be considering. "Mally, run and get Tag, would you," she said.
Mally started to move automatically, but the stranger woman turned, and Mally saw her face for the first time. Disappointingly, it wasn't any odder than the rest of her, just sort of pretty, sort of old, with browny-green eyes that were looking at her curiously.
"Do you like the forest too, young one?" asked the woman.
"Like it?" said Mally. She supposed some people could like it; after all, Tag must. But that was Tag.
"Never mind, then," said the woman, and turned back.
Mally folded her arms, stung. She might have asked what the woman meant, despite the rudeness of the question, but she could feel Mother's eyes on her. She hastened out the back door instead.
"Tag, Mother wants you," she called. Tag looked up from the churning, and Mally ducked back inside.
She watched her sister as she came in. Tag looked startled at first, but as Mother and the woman spoke, her expression turned eager and she started nodding. Within a remarkably short time, Mother had agreed to let Tag go to the forest every day, as long as she did what the stranger woman said and didn't go off on her own. After a few more words, and thanks for the root tea, the woman left.
And Mally was stuck with the chores again.
To be continued...