When Willow hugged Ra the next day she could feel his bones through his ragged clothing, and this scared her. In all the years she had known him, Willow had never seen him as weak as he was now. But it wasn't only his physical ailments that frightened Willow, it was his behavior this day that caused her the most concern.
He was acting strangely and refusing to make eye contact with her, even when he was speaking to her. She thought he would have been happier about her getting a job, but instead he seemed despondent, and Willow didn't know what to say to make it better for him. They really needed the money.
Willow helped Ra down into the only chair in the room. One leg was shorter than the other and it rocked back and forth under Ra's slight weight.
"You're a good girl, Willow."
Ra spoke in a raspy voice and she could see the whites of his knuckles where his grip tightened on the arm of the chair. "What's wrong?" She begged, peering into his wrinkled eyes. She couldn't take it anymore. If he wanted her to give up the placement she wanted him to say something and get it over with. She couldn't take another moment of his odd behavior.
"Nothing, I was just remembering when you were a child, how you hated cabbage worms."
"Are you hungry? Here, eat these." Willow, who'd been kneeling, jumped up at once and pulled out the few slices of bread she'd taken from the food stand on the way home, and handed the bread to him. She felt guilty about having stole it, but rationalized it by telling herself she would pay them back once she'd saved up a little money from her new job.
Ra laughed unexpectedly which brought on a coughing spell and Willow got up to get him a dipper of water from the barrel just outside the shack's front entrance. She could tell he was still thinking about the past, as he paid no attention to the bread in his hand.
Willow waited patiently while he sipped the water and his coughing slowed. "I remember the first time you tried to get me to eat them." she said, continuing with his earlier thought about the cabbage worms of her youth. She hoped by talking about it she could bring help Ra back into the present.
"What are they?" Willow looked at the squiggling caterpillar in the old man's hands. It was curling up on itself, trying to fold upward in order to get away...or bite the man; she wasn't sure which it was.
The creature's color was a sickly green, and it had red eyes. Willow didn't like the sight of the thing, it was crawly and creepy in only the way bugs could be.
Willow made a face as if she might be sick.
They had been together for a few days and Willow was finding that she liked Rainbow; he was funny and nice to her and good to be around--except, of course, when he was trying to make her eat cabbageworms. Willow thought she could do without those for the rest of her life.
"Now I see why they didn't want you. You're far too picky."
Willow could tell by now when he was teasing her and when he was serious. "Couldn't we just eat the cabbage and leave the worms?" Willow gulped and looked away from him when he stuck one of the creatures into his mouth and bit down with a sickening crunch. She was glad she missed the dribble of green guts that sprang from the worm and dribbled down his chin, where it became entangled in his wiry, grey beard.
Rainbow was already wiping it away when Willow turned back toward him. Her stomach felt sour, and she wasn't hungry anymore.
"Nothin' doin'. Cabbage has very little nutrients. You're better off with the worms. Protein."
And with those words Rainbow stuck another twisting caterpillar into his mouth and bit down. Willow felt sick again and might have thrown up if she wasn't so afraid that he would take advantage of her open mouth and pop a worm into it.
As she spoke of the past, Willow lightly touched the back of Ra's hand. He looked at her as if realizing she was there for the first time. His eyes focused on her and she could tell he hadn't meant to talk about cabbage worms at length. She could tell he had something else to say. Ra tried to get up out of the chair But Willow stopped him with a hand to his thin shoulder. "Don't get up. Is there something you need? I'll get it for you."
Ra coughed out instructions and Willow followed them to retrieve his old satchel.
"I have something for you." Rainbow turned his back to her and she could hear him rummaging around in his pack which she had sat on the floor at his feet.
The pack was the only thing that Ra had kept a secret from her. He'd instructed her never to go into it without his permission, thusly he'd never given her permission. But now he was lifting the flap and Willow could feel her curiosity heighten. She'd always wanted to know what he kept buried in that dirty bag.
When he removed his hand from inside the bag, Willow could see that he had a crystal sculpture nestled deep into his palm. It was small and so clear that Willow could see the dirty peach of his hand right through the shiny mineral.
"Do you like it?"
Willow nodded. She was entranced. Never in her life had she seen something as beautiful as this castle. She almost didn't want to touch it, lest she break one of its many towers. But Ra was holding it out to her, urging her to take it with his eyes. Willow watched Ra's eyes turn from blue to a deep brown in color, but her attention was drawn to the castle more than it was fastened on Ra, so nothing was said about the change.
He urged her, so Willow held her hand so that Ra could place the castle onto her palm.
"This once belonged to my little girl, and now I‘d like for you to have it."
Ra's face grew pinched and reserved and Willow knew not to question him about what he said, instead she remained silent so that he would continue.
"This is the only thing of value that I have ever owned. Keep this... within it is the history of the world."
Willow didn't know what Ra was talking about. The history of the world was lain out before her everyday...it was written on the cobblestone streets, glistening with dirt and rain...it was written in blood on the walls of abandoned houses where feral children gathered. It was written in Willow's blood and in Ra's eyes less brilliant than before and heavy with age. She didn't need a crystal trinket to tell her anything about the history of their world. She witnessed it made everyday.
Willow left shortly after that moment with Ra, the crystal castle nestled securely in her pants pocket. She could feel its heaviness against her leg as she set off toward the outskirts of town. She felt badly about leaving her guardian in his condition but she had no other choice, and it wasn't as if she'd left him on his own.
Willow had enlisted one of Ra‘s many transient friends to drop in and look after him while she was gone. She had given the woman a few dollars (all she had) so that she might bring Ra food each day.
Willow had to trust that the woman would use the money for its intended purpose.
Willow was shown to a housing block just east of a great expanse of lawn by a man with three fingers. And even though they walked together neither of them spoke. Willow was still having mixed feelings about leaving Ra by himself, and the man leading her didn't look like he had much to say, either.
However, Willow did wonder how he'd lost his other two fingers, but didn't ask, instead she turned her attention to the scenery around her.
The lodging was set behind a line of trees, she could see in perfect clarity, the main house from where she stood.
So this was the famed MacLean estate? Willow thought the structure was impressive with it's pitched angles, and solid roof. But it was the mansions stone towers which seemed to dominate most of the afternoon sky, and Willow wondered, if at night they'd light torches in the windows. She thought the yellow glow of firelight would be pretty against a purple sky.
Willow stood waiting for a long time before an older man appeared. He wiped his hands on a rag that he'd pulled out of his back pocket. And then he continued toward her with his hand extended. The three fingered man had left her on her own some time ago.
"I'm Mr. Rory."
There was a kindness in Rory's eyes, and Willow knew she instantly liked him. He reminded her of Ra, in a way. "Will," Willow said simply. She reached out and shook the hand he offered her, trying to make her strength match his as she gripped his larger hand tightly. She would have something to prove, and she knew it. She always had something to prove.
Fire pits loomed in the afternoon sun, adding to the mixture of the metal and smoke smell that had hung in the air since she'd arrived. She wondered if the air always smelled that way, or if the smell was contingent on something specific to that day.
Rory spoke as they walked briskly toward an unknown destination. Willow followed deftly trying to keep pace, but the man was larger and his strides swallowed two of Willow's own strides at a time.
"The cabins have all been taken, but you can bunk in the stables; there is a tack room in the back. You can pull a bale of hay from the barn to set yourself up with a right nice bed."
Rory stopped abruptly and turned back toward her. When he didn't make to restart his forward movement, Willow took this as a dismissal. "Thank you," Willow said and wondered if she should leave. She was sure she could find the stables on her own anyway.
But Mr. Rory stopped her when she would have made to leave, turning back to her as if he'd overlooked something. Willow became nervous. Could he tell that she was different?
"How old did you say you were?"
Rory coughed up some phlegm and spit it on the ground and Willow imagined she saw a look of displeasure on his face. He was still looking at her intently and Willow was beginning to feel uncomfortable, but she held her ground under his scrutiny. If this was some kind of test she was going to pass. Willow hardened her features until she was sure her eyes were glaring just as brightly as an owl's when caught in the firelight.
It must have worked because Rory's face softened again and he laughed and then struck her hard on the back a few times for good measure. Willow had to push her heals into the grass under her feet to stop from toppling forward.
"The stables are over there."
He pointed to a place Willow guessed was behind the cabins. "Thank you," she said. As she walked away she steeled her chin. She'd made it.
Willow was bent over arranging the last of the hay she'd brought from the barn into a pallet on the dirt floor, when the sound of the tack room's wooden door squeaked against its un-oiled hinges. The door was flung open, causing light to stream in unexpectedly.
Willow raised quickly to see a blonde haired girl standing there looking just as surprised to see her there as Willow must have looked to see her. There was a moment of stunned silence between them but Willow was the first to gather her wits enough to speak "Hey! I could have been undressing in here!" she said loudly, but instantly regretted the stricken look she'd caused in the blonde's eyes.
The other girl looked down, and a curtain of hair fell in front of her face. And then she was turning to flee from the small room.
Willow groaned and followed behind the girl as she ran the length of the stables. "Hey...stop!" she called after the girl who was keeping steady pace ahead of her. Willow hadn't meant to hurt her feelings, she'd simply been surprised by her. "Stop," Willow called again as she trotted up behind the blonde.
The blonde stilled and Willow took that opportunity to catch up to her. "I didn't mean anything..." she was speaking through panting breaths.
"I d-didn't know anyone w-was in there."
"It's alright, really. What's your name?" Willow said. She felt guilty for having been surprised into rudeness earlier.
"Will." Willow offered her hand and the blonde took it.
"Is that short for William?"
Willow shrugged and withdrew her hand. She said nothing more.
They walked back to the workers quarters in silence, parting ways just as they reached the cabins; Willow toward the stables, and the blonde in the opposite direction.
Willow didn't watch the other girl leave, instead she headed straight for the tack room. Once she'd entered, she closed the door behind her. Scanning the small room, she found the handle from a broken straw- broom, and stuck it between the door handle and wall, to fashion a makeshift locking mechanism.
Willow was coming to fully realize just how tentative her placement at the MacLean Estate was. If she'd been unclothed when the girl had entered Willow was sure everything would've been over. She'd have to be more careful.
"Why didn't you tell me there was a boy in the tack room?!" Tara was furious. She'd sought out Mr. Rory with confrontation on her mind and had found him in the work shed. He stood with his back to her, putting away odds and ends while she seethed behind him.
"If you had come to me first before taking it upon yourself to go in there, I would have had a chance to tell you about the boy in the tack room."
Rory was laughing heartily in the face of Tara's irritation, which only furthered her annoyance with him. She said nothing more despite all the cutting remarks she could have made. When she didn't speak again Rory turned back to her, humor twinkling in his eyes.
"You can be very headstrong at times, Miss Tara. Think of this as a lesson in prudence."
Rory lifted his eyebrows at her, and Tara, having had enough, flung a watering can at him. Luckily, her aim was way off and the can missed his head by a mile. He smiled at her and Tara stuck her tongue out at him.
"Where were you?"
Tara flinched instinctively at the sound of her father's voice. And thought she couldn't see the man she could tell by the sound of his voice that he was angry. She looked down, quickly surveying the length of her dress. No dirt. Thank God. No dirt.
"I believe I asked you a question!"
Tara's father came through the study door and into the foyer. Tara wondered if he'd been waiting in there for a long time. She could see the golden radiance from the setting sun as it streamed in through the foyer window; the light struck her father's black boots, making them shine.
"U-um...I was..." She couldn't think of what to say and she could tell that he was out for blood that day. She supposed it didn't really matter what she said or didn't say, because she knew he'd already formed his opinion of her day's activities, and was only looking for confirmation.
Tara stood against the cold window with the heated skin of her cheek, where her father had struck her, pressed against the glass. She stared off in the distance, her eyes focusing on the workers quarters. She wished she could disappear.