Chapter One- Rowan
Mai Kenward was driving back to Ravensmere from Salisbury in her husband's, James Kenward's, truck. The gardens at Ravensmere were doing beautifully and the remedies that she and Clare were making up with the herbs and spring water from the Raven were having seemingly miraculous results according to their customers. It was a far state from when she had first stepped the property more than seventeen years earlier. So much had happened since then, she reflected. She had met and married James and she had met Clare and Mark, the new Ravensmere Guardians. They had a handsome son now, Edward Brandon, who was the picture image of his father. She also had a young son, 11 year old Jamie, named for his father. But that depressed her. Everyone seemed to expect that she and James would have the famed Kenward daughter, to marry Eddie, the Aylward son. Jamie was a great boy, but if only he had an elder sister…then the traditions would go on.
Mai stopped momentarily in her reflections as she slowed to take a right hand turn and out of the corner of her eye she saw a figure working hard picking vegetables on a huge farm. Mai pulled over and stopped the truck. She watched as the figure moved back and forth along the rows, never ceasing in her work. The figure- she thought it looked female- also looked young, and Mai could use a young, new assistant. She moved to get out, turning her back to the girl briefly. When she turned around, a new person was out there, a woman by the looks of it. The woman strode over and started hitting the girl, striking her again and again to the ground. Mai hurried over, horrified. She caught snatches of the conversation as she grew nearer "…you worthless dog, you filthy pig…feed you and care for you and all you do is slack off and cause trouble. You…" she trailed off as Mai grabbed her arm. The woman struggled but Mai, her hands strengthened by years of gardening, was more than her match. The woman momentarily silenced, found her tongue again.
"Who are you to challenge me? I am here, minding my business and disciplining this worthless brat, and you come in. Who are you? Why I ought to…" Mai interrupted her swiftly, before she could say another world. The girl was inching slowly away from them.
"I do not care what you ought to do," Mai said forcibly. "It concerns me not. However, it is illegal to beat and hit children, and besides that, it is cruel and evil. Tell me she is not your child."
"That worthless whelp? Impossible. I foster her, have been for six months, the illegitimate brat and she isn't even grateful enough to do her chores properly and promptly." The woman was going to continue but Mai stopped her again.
"In that case, you will not mind if I take her and report you to the proper authorities for neglect and abuse to a foster child. Child," she said, addressing the girl. "You're coming with me. Get your things." Assured that the girl would do so, she turned back to the woman. "Your name?" The woman glared back at her, so Mai applied a little more pressure to her wrist.
"Ow, you're hurting me," the woman complained. "My name is Mrs. Matilda Carenswood. Let me go or else I'll report you for attacking me." Mai let go and the woman rubbed at her wrist. Mai's fingers had left red marks on her fair skin.
"Your threat is worthless and you know it," she replied contemptuously. Just then, the girl came walking towards them from the barn, carrying a tattered backpack on her thin shoulders. Mai beckoned her to follow, turned her back on the woman and walked towards her truck. She spared only a brief glance behind her to make sure that the woman was not following and had not tried to obstruct the girl. From all appearances, the woman had gone back inside her house. Mai and the girl got into her truck and they took off.
"My name is Mai Kenward and I promise I will not hurt you. You can call me Mai. What is your name?" The girl looked at her carefully, analyzing her trustworthiness, Mai thought.
"Rowan, Rowan Barton," she said, her voice low.
"Rowan, I'm taking you to Ravensmere. That's the estate I work at. I need to drop off these plants. Then I guess we'll go to Kenward Farm, my home, and we'll see what's going to happen to you. How old are you by the way?"
"Almost fourteen, I think." The girl said, again in that low voice. They were quiet after that. Mai used the time to observe the girl, trying to wheedle anything out of her appearance so she wouldn't have to ask later. The girl, Rowan, had hair that would be gold-brown if it were clean. As it was, it hung dirty and shaggy around her neck and shielded her thin tanned face and large silvery blue eyes. Her body was thin and as straight as a boy's. Even Mai could tell that she was undernourished and underfed. Her clothes were unclean and little more than rags, as were her tattered tennis shoes. She said she was thirteen, but she was about the same height as Jamie, who wasn't particularly tall for an eleven year old at 145 cm (58 in). She kept repetitively stroking her backpack. At first Mai thought it to be nervousness or a nervous habit, but it seemed after a while to be a calming motion. She soon found out.
"Meow!" said a voice. Mai looked over at the girl who looked positively terrified but could not have made that sound. "Meow!" it said again.
"Is that a cat?" Mai said, mildly amused. At the girl's hesitant nod, she continued. "You might as well let her get a little fresh air. Did you take her from Mrs. Carenswood's barn?" she asked.
The girl let the cat poke its head out of the bag and Mai saw that it was only a kitten, as half-starved as Rowan was. The girl nodded again, and then said hurriedly, "But she was going to kill her!" Her soft, low voice had risen in alarm. "The barn cat had kittens, four of them. I saw them being born one night and she drowned the other three when she found them a couple of weeks later. She didn't know this one existed I guess. Please don't make me get rid of her!"
"Of course not," Mai said calmingly. "I have a few cats of my own. Besides, she's adorable, just a little bit of fluff. How could I not like her? That woman was evil- I would never drown a cat. How old do you think she is?"
"I dunno. Two full moons have passed since she was born, but she was born a bit before the first one. Her mother looked after her for a while, but Mrs. Carenswood wasn't very nice to the mother either." The kitten, a tiny black fluff-ball with hints of white paws and belly seemed exhausted after her hard work getting outside the backpack and lay curled up in Rowan's hand. The girl's other hand was rhythmically stroking and eliciting a response as the kitten's body reacted. It was a calming and touching scene and Mai found her eyes drifting over there again and again for the remainder of the ride.
"See the wall there, to the left?" Mai, said after a while. "That's the outside wall of Ravensmere. We'll be coming up on the gate shortly. It's a beautiful place, Ravensmere. It's been around for more than thirty thousand years, they think. It didn't always look like this. It turned into a residence in the 1500s, and the same family has held it, and its traditions, ever since. I'm in charge of the gardens. Here's the gate." Mai hopped out of the truck and unlocked the iron gates, pushing them open in front of her. She drove through the gates, than closed them behind her. "There's no point in locking them anyway- we'll be leaving in less than an hour." Rowan hardly seemed to hear her. The girl was looking out the window and they drove down the long driveway, completely enraptured. Mai laughed softly to herself. She had felt that way herself just seventeen years before when she first drove down this road on her way to a job interview. It was a feeling hard to describe to anyone who had no felt it, but immediately understood by those who had. An idea began to formulate in her mind- an idea about keeping a girl who had already touched her heart.