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The fugitive did not know that his arrival at the small Rud farm was preordained. He would have scoffed at the notion, had he been told. All he knew was that his injured leg hurt abominably, that he was so filthy he was disgusted, and that he was too tired to fight or flee if discovered.
It was night again. He had hardly been aware of the passage of time since his escape, except for the awful sun by day and the cruel chill by night. Dehydration and shivering, with little between except fear and fatigue.
Yet this was a decent region, he knew, if viewed objectively. He heard froogs croaking loudly in the nearby froogpond, and corbean stalks rustling in the breeze. Appleberries and razzelfruits perfumed the air and set his stomach growling. The natives claimed that these bitter fruits could be charmed to become sweet, but he refused to credit such impossible claims. He was not yet so far gone as to believe in magic. But they certainly looked good. Hunger--there was another curse of the moment.
But thought of food had to be pushed aside, as did dreams of a hot bath and a change of clothing. He had come here, he reminded himself sternly, to steal a horse. He hated the necessity, for he regarded himself as an honorable man, but he seemed to have no choice.
He crept nearer to the cottage, orienting on its single faint light. How he hoped that there would be no one awake to challenge him. He did not know how close the Queen's guardsmen were, or how quickly they would appear the moment there was any commotion. How ironic it would be to die ignobly as an unsuccessful horse thief.
He paused, studying the light. Far off there sounded the treblingscreech of a houcat. His pursuers had lost the trail last night, and he doubted that they would swim the river to pick it up again. There were hazards in that water as bad for guardsmen as for thieves, and only a truly desperate man would have been fool enough to risk it. Perhaps the guardsmen thought him dead already. This fool, for the time being, was almost safe.
He came close and peered cautiously in the window. A slender girl sat reading by the flickering light of a lamp. He gazed at the coppery sheen of her hair, the somewhat pointed face, and the gentle swell and ebb of her bosom as she breathed. How lovely she seemed. It was not that she was beautiful, for by his standards she was not, but that she was comfortable and quiet and clean. A girl who read alone at night: what a contrast to the type of woman he had known. There was an aura of decency about her that excited his longing. He could love such a girl and such a life-style, if ever given a chance.
For a moment he was crazily tempted to knock on the window, to announce himself, to say, "Haloo there, young woman, are you in need of a man? Give me a bath and some food, and I shall be yours forever!" But he was not yet so tired that no reason remained. If he did that, she would start up and scream, and the guardsmen would come, and it would be over.
He ducked past the window and tiptoed to the barn. He held his breath as he tried the latch on the stable door. It opened easily, without even a squeak. This was a well-maintained farm. He felt a certain regret that this should facilitate the theft of an animal. It might have been more fitting to steal from a sloppy farm, but a squeaky door would have been an excellent guardian.
From inside came the scent of horse and hay. He felt around in the dark just past the door and found the halter exactly where it should be. The arrangements in good Rud barns were standard.
There was the snap of a broken twig. He turned.
She stood there in the wan light from the window, garbed in a filmy nightdress and a shawl. The first thing he noticed was the way her firm slim legs showed in gauzy silhouette.
The second thing he noticed was the pitchfork she held at waist height, aimed at his chest.
He swallowed, trying to judge whether he could dodge aside quickly enough to avoid the thrust of those sharp tines, and whether he retained the strength to wrestle the implement away from her. And if he did, what, then? How could he hurt a girl he would rather embrace? Perhaps it was a trick of the inadequate light, but her eyes seemed to be the exact color of violets back on his native Earth.
"Speak!" she said. "What is your business here?" Her voice sent a thrill through him; it was dulcet despite its tone of challenge.
What use to lie? He hated this whole business. "I came to steal your horse. I would rather have stolen your heart." And what had possessed him to say that?
"You are a thief? A highwayman?"
She hadn't thrust her fork at him. That was a good sign. He decided to tell her the rest of it. "I'm not an ordinary thief, not even a good one, as you can see," he said with difficulty. "I just had to have a horse. I know you won't believe that I'm not a criminal."
"Why didn't you come openly to my door, then?"
"I--I looked in your window, and saw you reading. You were so--so nice! I thought you would scream if you saw me. I--I'm a fugitive from the Queen's dungeon. I know that doesn't make me a hero, but maybe it carries a bit of weight."
"You have round ears," she said, her voice assuming a soft, strange quality. "You cannot be of this planet. Certainly you are no ordinary thief. Introduce yourself, Roundear."
She seemed to have no fear of him, only a certain caution. It was almost as if she had been expecting him. "John Knight, of Earth," he said.
"A name may be an omen. Knight," she said. She smiled a mysterious witching smile and lowered the fork. "You may call me Charlain. We shall be married on the morrow."
He stared at her. Then, tentatively, he smiled. She returned the smile. Then, unaccountably, he laughed, and she laughed with him.
She took him inside the house and gave him a bath and some food, and when he was clean and fed she kissed him and took him to her bed. He was so tired that he fell almost instantly to sleep despite the presence of her warm body beside him. He didn't even care that this might be a ruse to lull him, so that she could safely turn him in to the Queen's guardsmen. He had to believe in her.
Thus did John Knight first encounter the woman he was to marry. She practiced fortune-telling, so had known he was coming: a round-eared man who was a fugitive from the Queen. She had told no one of this vision, so knew that his arrival was no trap by the Queen. She had known that the man would be completely unprepossessing, but would be the one she could truly love, and that though he had known a woman before her, he would never know one after her.
They married on the morrow, in a secret ceremony, and that evening he was enough recovered to remain awake in her bed for some time. Their life together had begun abruptly, but had an unspoken understanding that was at times mysterious and at other times thoroughly natural to him.
The following year their round-eared baby was born, and two years after that their point-eared baby.
The prophecy that John Knight had not known about was on its way to fulfillment. His life was relatively placid after he settled; not so, that of his children.