Prologue

I stepped through the snow of the village, dodging other shoppers and carts dragged by mules. A gust of wind blew suddenly and I grabbed my hood to keep it from blowing back. I flinched as I bumped into a passerby. Ahead of me I saw a young man; I did my best to avoid him. I walked fast, but gave in to the temptation of stealing a glance of him. And as I peeked from across the road, I could've sworn that he saw me, that he recognized me.

"No one, and I mean no one, must know you are there."

I heard it. His voice echoed through my mind. I walked faster away from the boy, bowing my head so nothing could be seen, so I would not be recognizable.

The crowd became thicker and I found my chance. I changed my direction quickly, dashing down an alley. I flew through the village, keeping to the shadows and when I reached the last row of houses, I slowed and stepped into the woods. Immediately I felt his presence.

"I saw that," he said.

I nodded. "I tried my best."

"I know you did. You did well."

I looked up at the crow perched in the tree. "How can you say I did well?" I whispered. "I was almost caught."

"But you weren't," the crow said softly.

Chapter One

I sighed and put my hands behind my head. The apple trees surrounding me smelled a very thick, sweet scent and the clouds scattered the sky. I imagined floating up there with them, or maybe even flying among them.

"Regina!"

My sister's voice cut through the still spring air, interrupting my daydream. I frowned and ignored her as she called several more times. She would give up eventually.

Not even five minutes later, she called again.

"Regina!"

So much for giving up.

"Coming!" I yelled back.I groaned and stood up, brushing off my coarse dress. I took my time getting back to the farm, admiring the weather.

"What?" I asked, finally approaching Anna.

She stood up off of her knees from kneeling in the garden and wiped her hands on her apron. "Took you long enough," she muttered. Sighing, she said, "Can you go to town for me?"

"What do we need?" I asked, suddenly happy to do something.

She stared at me, surprised by my eagerness. "I need some spices, some white and yellow thread, and a few sheets of paper."

I frowned. "Why do you need paper?"

Anna glared. "Why does it matter to you?"

I rolled my eyes and held out my hand. "I'll go right now."

She dug through her apron pockets and pulled out a few coins. "Try to get the best deals you can. We're short on money lately, what with father gone off to war and mother…" She sighed. "Robert can only bring in so much money."

I nodded somberly. "I know. I'll be back later."

::.o.O.o.0.o.O.o.::

Our hometown was actually a village. It was fairly big, but not anything remarkable or significant. It was a market day and the streets were filled with people clamoring for the best sales and the best goods.

I pushed through the crowds surrounding the more popular vendors and made my way to the best spice dealer that came to the market. Her prices were cheap and nobody ever visited her. There were quality spices and she was able to get your order done quickly.

"Regina dear," the woman said, smiling her toothless grin. "What are you in need of today?"

I smiled kindly back. "Cinnamon and chives. Not much, please. I've a very small budget to work with."

"Of course." I watched her old, withered hands gather the chives and scoop the cinnamon and place it all in their bags. She handed them to me and as I handed her two silver pieces and a bronze coin, she only took one silver and the bronze. "Special sale today," she explained. "Now get going."

I smiled and pat her wrinkled hand. "Thank you, ludmila." My mother always taught my sister and I to respect our elders and told us we must call them ludmila, meaning grandmother.

She nodded, smiling warmly at me again.

I moved on and went to a thread vendor, where it was much more expensive. The woman took my money without a smile and I moved on.

Finding paper was tougher. Not many people used paper in this small mountain village. I finally found a stand carrying stationary items. A young man was writing a letter for a village man as I approached. As soon as the writer was finished with the village man, he turned his attention to me. I sighed and asked carefully, "How much paper will three bronze coins buy me? That's all my budget allows and I need a few sheets at least…"

The man looked at his inventory. "Normally one sheet of paper is two bronze pieces. I get very little business, I won't lie: paper's expensive. However, I can give you a deal." He thumbed through different stacks of paper before taking five sheets of plain paper out and putting it into a bag. He smiled and handed it to me. "Three bronze pieces."

I frowned. "I couldn't, that's not fair. Five whole sheets… You're losing seven bronze pieces."

He shrugged. "What's that amount to anyway?" He shook his head. "No, really. Take it. I don't care, I will most likely end up having my business ran into the ground anyway, right? Nobody needs a little thing such as paper during these times. Such a lack of money for everybody." He paused, and retracted the bag from my reach. He took two pieces of nice, pretty paper and stuck them with the plain paper. "Take it or I might just plain give it to you without charge. Three bronze coins."

I stared at him and gave him the three bronze coins and took the bag from him. I suddenly remembered my own money that was leftover from my wages as my winter job as a tutor. I handed him two more bronze pieces. "Now you have to take these," I said firmly. "My own wages. I can't take so much for so little money."

He stared at me, his turn to be surprised. "Thank you."

I nodded and left. I had been planning to use that money on a couple of scones for Anna and I. The young man, though, seemed to need it so much… I shook away the sadness of giving away my wages for our household uses. He needed it, more than you need those scones, I reprimanded myself.

Once home, Anna clucked at my bargains. "I should have you do this every week, Regina. That ludmila must really like you." She sighed over the thread prices, but complained no more when she flipped through the paper. She stared at me. "How did you manage this? Did you sell your soul?" She laughed.

I shook my head. "He just… gave it to me. For five bronze pieces!"

"You're kidding." She sighed. "Today was our lucky day, sister. I think we should get a scone later. She pulled out a single bronze piece from her apron pocket. "While you were out, some noble needed directions." She sounded bitter. "He was so generous to give me a bronze piece, and he made such a big deal about it with his friends." Sighing, Anna dropped it back into her pocket. "Maybe we should save it."

I nodded. "That's probably best," I agreed soberly.

She placed a hand on my shoulder. "You've done so much lately, Regina." She sighed. Rubbing one hand on her extended abdomen and one on her back, she walked back into the house. I stared after her, worried. Our mother died only a few years ago and our father was serving in the war. Robert, Anna's husband, worked hard to support us and Anna's incoming baby.

I bit my lip and followed her inside.