That spring brought numerous cases of flu. Ben was in the village for days at a time, going from house to house to heal as he could. With him, fevers broke where they wouldn’t for others. Gossip swirled in the shop, but Da and I kept quiet. If it was important enough, they could ask Ben.
One day Lizanne, still recovering from the flu, asked me to help with the birth of Nelrie’s third child. Births were messy things and I was more squeamish than I cared to admit, but I went.
We waited on the doorstep for Nelrie’s husband to answer our knock, and I knew. I knew Ben was in the house.
I looked at Lizanne. “I think . . .”
Finneran opened the door and showed us inside. “Thank you for coming,” he said. His voice was thick; circles lay beneath his eyes like bruises. “Both the children have flu, and it’s only my second day on my feet.”
“How’s Nelrie?” asked Lizanne.
“Fine, fine,” he smiled. “But Emmett and Syrena are so feverish today that I asked the healer for help. He’s with them now.”
I could’ve told you that.
“Lizanne?” Nelrie’s voice floated from the bedroom.
“Coming, dear!” She turned to Finneran. “I won’t go in – I’m still fluish myself. She’ll be just fine with Maren’s help, but I’m here if they need me. Now go lie down, young man.”
Half an hour later, I wanted to scream as loud as Nelrie. She was having twins – and they refused to come out right. Lizanne hollered instructions, but she couldn’t really see what was going on.
“Can’t you do it, please?” I cried at last.
“Maren, just . . .”
“I don’t know what I’m doing!”
“Here, let me help.”
Ben. At my elbow.
I moved aside. He knelt beside me, his hands moving quickly, skillfully. “So. I think this one actually . . . ah.” He glanced up at Nelrie, her red face glistening. “Almost there, I promise. You’ll be fine.”
Ben muttered under his breath as he eased out the first baby. I took the tiny body from him – a beautiful girl – and wiped her and wrapped her in a blanket. She let out a screech to rival her mother’s, and Nelrie sobbed with joy.
Moments later, Ben was holding the other twin – a boy. I handed him a cloth and he cradled the body against his chest for a moment. Then we handed the babies to their mother and stepped back with Lizanne as Finneran came in.
Ben caught my eye and I smiled. He was magic. Magic of the best kind.
“Maren,” asked Ben as we left Nelrie’s home, “can I prevail upon you to walk with me?” He glanced at the westering sun. “Just a short way.”
“Of course. Ma won’t worry about me until after dark.”
We trudged to the forest trail in silence; then Ben spoke up. “I know Mamsie told you about magicians and immortality.”
I laughed. “She made me feel right silly for believing you live forever.”
“Common enough mistake, as you saw.” He hesitated. “Did she tell you anything about . . . a wizard’s children?”
I chewed my lip. It was easier to watch my scuffed boots than look at Ben. “I’ve never heard of magicians having children.”
“That’s because usually . . . usually they choose not to marry.”
“Choose not to?”
“Aye. It isn’t expressly forbidden, but it is tacitly understood that a magician’s life is far easier when lived alone. For both parties involved.”
Ben stopped and studied the sun, burning deep orange as it dipped low in the sky. I looked at him, at the calmness in his grey eyes, the crinkles at their corners (deeper now than five years ago), the set of his jaw.
“I imagine,” I said quietly, “that the degree of difficulty depends largely on the magician and the way he chooses to exercise his craft.”
Ben turned to look at me. “Exactly. And as many of them prove slightly egomaniacal, perhaps their singleness is no wonder.”
But they are allowed to marry? If they choose to?
I had butterflies in my stomach. Stupid thing. “That makes a lot more sense now. Thank you.”
Ben didn’t speak until we were under the eaves of the forest. I looked up at him. “I’d better go home.”
Before I could turn, he reached out and caught my hand. “Maren.”
I stared at his fingers laced through mine.
“Maren, I’ve thought long and hard and . . .” He sighed. “I’m sorry. I’m not good with words.”
I didn’t know where to look. My tongue had turned to wool.
His words were very soft. “Please will you marry me?”
“Ben! Ben, I didn’t think you could . . . I mean, I . . .” I took a breath. “Is it allowed? Am I allowed to . . . to marry you?”
He smiled. “You must decide. Every magician, at the end of the day, is only answerable to himself. Yes, we have a hierarchy of sorts, but we make our own choices and live our lives based on that. My choice is to marry you.” He knelt before me. “But only if you’re willing. I understand it’s marrying magic as well.”
My eyes filled. “But I want to. I want to marry you and the magic and I don’t . . .” I shook my head and tried to fish the most important words from the flood welling in me. “Yes, Ben!”
Then I was kneeling beside him, and he held me in his arms. He smelled of fresh air, of outside and of freedom. But also of home and safety and protection.
I smiled and wiped my eyes as he helped me to my feet. “Sorry.”
Ben laughed and took my hand. Next thing I knew, we were at the cottage. Mamsie was deep in conversation with one of her flowerbeds, but she looked up as we came near.
One glance at our faces was all she needed. “At last!” she cackled.
And she bombarded us with a flurry of hugs and kisses. By the time we managed to untangle ourselves from the web of happiness and holding on, it was dusk, and I was still far from home.
Mamsie looked at me. “Benjamin, you’ll have to get the lass home, short of carrying her in your arms.”
“Not a bad idea,” he smiled.
I laughed. “A spell will do just fine.”
They hugged me goodnight and kissed my cheeks. I felt Ben slip something into my hand and give it a squeeze. A moment later, when I was safely on my doorstep, I opened my hand. It was a ring, the stone in the centre of the intricate silver band as blue as Mamsie’s eyes.
I was so teary I almost put it on the wrong finger.