With the sunrise came the truth. It had not been a dream. She had not died in the mud. Her keeper’s collar no longer ringed her neck, and thin white scars covered her arms.
Dipping her arms into the water from the river’s edge, she washed away what remained of the dirt and thistle-drawn blood. Against her olive skin, the scars stood out with an ethereal quality not matching the thick, raised scars on her back. Her keeper had not a gentle hand when it came to the whip. In contrast, the scars on her arms appeared as if delicately carved in a single, masterful stroke that would’ve taken an artisan a lifetime to complete.
Withdrawing them from the water, she watched as beads dripped back down into the placid rock pool at her feet, set apart from the wide, meandering river beyond. She had done what she could to wash her clothes, but without a tailor’s kit, they were beyond repair to even her practiced mending hands. She scratched at her scalp and pulled out yet another briar, along with several long black hairs. If there was one thing she missed about the mages’ tower, it was the bathhouse.
Using a stick, she tried to comb the tangles from her hair before giving up. Pulling her hair away from her neck, she twisted it up into a bun and secured it with the stick. Somewhere along the way, between almost being incinerated and being knocked into the mud, she’d lost the broken silver ladle handle she’d been using as a hairpin for years. She’d liked its rose pattern, and had felt proud of saving it from the garbage heap.
Casting her gaze northeast along the river bank to the thicket from where she’d come, she supposed she could go looking for it. It was not as if she had anywhere else to go. A foolish thought, to go back the way she’d come, but going forward felt no less uncertain.
“Ready?” Athan’s voice called out before his light footsteps could be heard approaching on the soft grass.
Dnara startled from her thoughts and stood to look at him. As last night, she attempted to offer a smile in return for the kindness he had shown and the meal he had shared. Unaccustomed to it, the corners of her mouth twitched uncomfortably with the effort. The unpracticed smile fell from her lips as she spotted the familiar metal ring in his hand.
She took a step back into the water and he stopped in his approach. Following where her wide, frightened eyes lingered, he held up the collar and offered it out to her. “I thought to chuck it in the fire with the remains of the briarbear, or perhaps to bury it, but then thought that decision is not mine to make. So, what would you have us do with it?”
Her heart calmed as the water lapped at her heels. He did not mean to put it back around her neck and sell her. Stepping from the water, she took it from his fingers, but she had no more an idea what to do with it than him.
“We could sell it,” he suggested as she lingered at the water’s edge, staring down at the metal collar in her thin fingers. “Might raise some questions about how we obtained it, though. And then there’s the fact that it’d just end up around some other poor sod’s neck. Uh, not that you’re a poor sod, or…” He cleared his throat and looked past her to the river. “The spell crystal’s cracked, anyhow, so we’d be selling it for scrap value, not a starstone tithe.”
Dnara stared at the band, the low shimmering hum she’d grown used to over the years now silent. She didn’t know what it might be worth in scrap, nor did she care. To her, its only worth lay in the memories it carried, memories she would sooner forget. Turning to the river, she flung the collar into air and watched in giddy delight as the river swallowed it whole with a gulping plunk.
Behind her, Athan let out a laugh. “Well, that’s that, then.”
She laughed with him. It felt strange, to laugh. Her own laughter sounded foreign, like the way some men sounded when they came to the tower from distant lands and spoke words she’d never heard before. And like those strange words, she didn’t quite know the meaning behind her laughter, either.
It felt good, though, and perhaps that’s all that mattered.
“So, you can laugh.”
Athan had come up beside her as she stood at the river’s edge, cackling like a madwoman. Startled, she spun to face him and her bare feet slipped back into the water. The cold made her gasp.
“Sorry.” He took a step away, hands raised. “Guess you’re not used to casual conversation?”
Standing ankle deep in the pebbled riverbed, she shook her head. “Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize.” Athan looked away from her, back off into the distance as his hand idly rubbed the stubble on his chin. “I’ll just have to remember to keep my distance, is all, until you get used to me.” His hand stopped moving. “Uhm, not that you have to hang around me once we get to town. I can help you get settled, then you’re free to go…wherever.”
The thought of a town set her heart racing, the cold water surrounding her feet forgotten. “Town?”
“Lee’s Mill,” he replied, then tiled his head at her expression. “You’ve not heard of it?”
She shook her head. His eyebrows raised, but he shrugged it off. “Oh, well, it’s on the other side of the river, two day’s walk south.”
Two days. She’d never walked that far before, much less been that far away from the tower and its forest. Her fear of the unknown betrayed her, and her eyes glanced northward to the tree line.
“Unless,” Athan said, drawing the word out in uncertainty. “There’s someplace else you’d rather go? Do you have family, maybe?”
“No.” At least that she could answer with some certainty. There had been a time, long ago, when there had been a family. A mother. A father. A sister, perhaps? The memories had long faded into nothing more than dreams. The glimpse of a warm smile. The sweet smell of flowers. A man’s joyful laugh. Another laugh, newly born, with chubby fingers reaching out.
Yes, she thought, there had been a sister, though she couldn’t remember the name.
Blinking away the phantoms of a past forgotten, she looked back to the man who waited for her to make a decision in the present. He seemed willing to take her wherever she wanted to go, though the reasons for his kindness remained a mystery. The doubt continued to linger, along with the fear, that he may want to take her to a town so he could collect a bounty from the local blackrope.
“The town is your home?” she asked, seeking to put her fears to rest.
“No, not really,” he replied, his answer not settling her unease. “I don’t have a home, per say. I tend to think of the world as my home. Lee’s Mill is just where I currently hang my hat. Well, occasionally at the inn at least. And, I don’t actually have a hat. Fond of hoods, myself. More practical. Every time I’ve had a hat, I’ve lost it.”
He paused to scratch his stubble and she glanced to the half-cloak he wore, its dark brown waxed leather well used and soft, and its hood flopped back behind his neck next to a quiver of arrows and a short yew bow. Practical for hunting through a thick forest and keeping somewhat dry in the rain. It suited him, she thought, not that she had much to go on.
“I’m heading to Lee’s Mill to barter my goods,” he continued, snapping her out of the evaluation of his attire.
“Your goods?” she asked, her curiosity of him growing.
“Well, that briarbear you ate last night had a pelt,” he replied with a grin. “And so did about twelve of his cousins. I’ve also got some dried meat, some medicinal herbs, and a couple good yew branches that whittlers like to carve into canes and bows, like the one on my back. But, the real prize is what I went into the Thorngrove for in the first place.”
Dnara leaned in, her curiosity at its peak. “What’s that?”
Athan opened his mouth then stopped, his grin shifting into a smirk as he held out his hand to her. “Come from the water, Lady Thorngrove, and I will tell you.”
The water? She glanced down, her feet still in the cold water. “Oh!”
With a clumsy splash, she stepped out of the rock pool. Her feet landed on the earthen bank, quickly going from wet to muddy. He sighed at her and withdrew his ignored hand, but his smirk didn’t diminish.
“We should get you some shoes, or folks in town will think you’re a wolfchild.”
“Better a wolfchild than a runaway slave,” she said.
“True, which reminds me. We’ll have to think of something to tell folks, because common folk are a nosy lot, and the guards around Lee’s Mill are even nosier. What if we said you are my younger sister?”
She gave him another glance over. “But, we look nothing alike.”
That made him laugh. “True. Betrothed, then?”
Dnara almost stepped back into the water.
“Joking, joking,” Athan said on a deeper laugh. “Apprentice it is, then. Hmmm… You…were sent by my uncle’s friend in Lambshire to learn the foresters’ trade, because times are tough, your father is ill and you have a large family of brothers and sisters to support.”
Dnara’s eyebrows raised at his colorful description. “Did you just come up with that?”
He shook his head and walked back to where his backpack and supplies rested nearby. “Last night, while you slept. I had a feeling you wouldn’t want to be my future wife.”
“I never thought to be anyone’s wife,” she said.
His footsteps stopped but he didn’t look back. “Right. Sorry.”
Confused, she trailed after him, the bottoms of her muddy feet picking up grass and leaves along the way. “For what?”
Crouching down at his pack, he looked up to her for a quiet moment before waving the thought away. “Never mind.” Shouldering his pack, he stood then held out a large burlap sack. “Your first task, apprentice, is to carry this most valuable sack of goods.”
Dnara took the sack, surprised by the light weight given its size. “Valuable? Is this the prize you came to Thorngrove for?”
“It is.” Athan picked up the last of his belongings, a bundle of furs and yew branches tied together with braided honeysuckle vine. “Well, go on, then. Have a look.”
Skeptical, Dnara untwisted and rolled back the top of the sack. A musty, earthen scent wafted out, so rich it made her toes curl into the dirt. Unable to see within the dark confines of the burlap, she steeled her resolve and stuck a hand inside. She had been a lifelong slave but a few hours ago. Getting a finger bit would not be the worst thing she had ever endured.
Her fingertips touched moist soil, confusing her further. Poking in farther, one finger hit something more solid. Her hand flinched inside the bag, but she pressed onward and grasped the object. Withdrawing it from the bag, she had to laugh at herself.
“A mushroom?” she asked, struggling to see the value in the white bulbous fungus, beyond its place in a soup bowl.
“Ah! But not just any mushroom, my lady.” Athan gently took the mushroom from her fingers and turned it upside down. Bright crimson gills lined the underside of the mushroom’s cap. “This is a royal moonglow. They only grow in the thickest thorny thickets, beneath mounds of dead foliage and dirt. The only way to find them is to crawl through the thorns at night and look for the way they glow a soft white in the darkness beneath all the muck.”
The way he described things made her think him a good storyteller of some practice. Still, it was just a mushroom, even if a hard to get royal crimson kind. “Do you eat it?”
Athan snorted at the idea. “I don’t. I think they taste like mud, and I might as well just eat a fistful of coin instead.” He dropped the mushroom back into the sack. “But noblemen demand them of their court chefs, because some crazy hedge mage a few hundred years ago once said they- Uh…”
As he stopped and trailed off, Dnara leaned in, not wanting the story to end. “They what?”
Athan rubbed the back of his neck and looked to the river. “They increase a man’s… virility.”
“Oh.” Dnara didn’t know what to say in response, and part of her was sorry she’d asked. But then came the reason behind most of the scars across her back, her curiosity. “Do they actually work?”
“No idea.” Athan shrugged and began walking south along the river. “All I know is they help pay for a night with a warm bed, a good meal and a hot bath. Oh, and they’ll help get you some shoes, too.”
“Shoes for a mushroom?” Dnara closed the sack and trotted after him. “Men are strange.”
“That we are,” Athan agreed.
Dnara thought it funny but noble he should agree so readily to calling himself strange. He was, after all, a man, though unlike any she had met before. Still, men were men, and she could not help but think he had a price. “But I did not pick these. They are yours to sell, and I have no means to repay the debt.”
“You’ll repay it in companionship,” he spoke casually, but beside him Dnara stopped walking. When he noticed, he stopped too and stared at her. After a moment of reflection, the rolled bundle fell from his hands to his feet. “Oh, not like that! Gods.” He raised his hand to his face for a moment before swiping the hand through his hair. “I really need to be careful how I word things. I meant your company and conversation.”
“I’m not good at conversation,” she admitted, having spoken more in the past few hours than she had in the past few months. It still felt…odd to her, to speak freely. But, it also felt good.
“You’re doing fine.” Athan hiked the bundle back up into his arms and began walking again. “Besides, I’m sure you have other skills. Keepers don’t keep people to just sit there.”
She had to nod at that as she caught up to his long stride. “My keeper had a great many whom he kept for various reasons. Some to cook. Some to wash. Some to tend the animals, others the books.”
“By Retgar’s beard, girl, were you kept by a high court nobleman?”
“No, Keeper-” Dnara went silent, fearful even the very name may warp Athan’s charity, but it would be wrong to give the man no warning at all. “No. He is no noble, but he is powerful. Dangerously so.”
“Ah, a mage then,” Athan said, shocking Dnara into gasping at his astute guess.
“I- yes.” Dnara looked down to her bare feet as they walked along the riverbank. “I understand if you choose now to send me back. It could be a bad fate, to cross Keeper-”
“Don’t care,” Athan interrupted. “I dislike mages only slightly less than I dislike blackropes.” The conversation ended for a few steps before Athan spoke again. “So, what were you? A cook, perhaps?”
“Hardly.” Dnara nearly laughed. Her one attempt at cooking had ended poorly and earned her a good lashing. “I did enjoy the smell of the kitchen, though.”
“A cleaner, then?” He glanced at her and she shook her head. “Okay. Well, you don’t seem daft, so a book tender perhaps?”
“I wish,” Dnara muttered. “I was not allowed to read the books.”
“Oh. Well, don’t feel bad. Quite a few folks can’t read.”
“I can read,” Dnara corrected with an embarrassed flush brought on by the little pride she had in herself. “I can write, too. Sort of. I know my letters and numbers well enough, at least.”
“That’s great. Better than a lot of the folks you’ll meet in Lee’s Mill. Simple folks, really, farmers and traders and crafters and the like. They know enough to write a bill of sale and read an order, and that’s all most folk need.”
Athan’s casual, non-judgmental tone brought her embarrassment under control. “And you?”
“Hmm?” Athan glanced down, one eyebrow raised then caught the direction of her question. “Oh, sure. I can read and write. I’m not just a hapless forester, you know?”
Dnara’s embarrassment returned. “I didn’t mean… You seem far from hapless.”
“Why thank you, Lady Thorngrove,” he grinned then rubbed his chin in thought. “So, not a cook, nor cleaner, nor book tender. I certainly don’t picture you with the hogs and chickens… I give up. What were you kept for?”
Dnara tried to answer, but she suddenly realized a truth to a question she’d never been asked. “I’m not sure. I had no assignment to my collar. I was… I was simply kept.”
Athan eyed her as they walked, side by side along the river in the growing morning light. Slowly, his eyes turned forward again. “Perhaps he thought to keep you as a future companion, and not the conversational kind.”
A laugh blurted from Dnara without warning, and she covered her mouth with the mushroom sack. She had to stop walking to catch her breath. Athan stopped and set his heavier bundle down at his feet.
“What have I said?” With his hands on his hips, he stared at her in confusion. “I hardly find the idea of forced companionship to be a laughing matter, my lady.”
Dnara inhaled deep, the earthen scent within the sack making her feel connected to the ground beneath her bare feet. “I agree, but if you had seen my keeper… He is old enough to be my great-grandfather. Older, perhaps. I’m not certain he can have companionship, even with this entire sack of mushrooms.”
“Oh. Well, perhaps he hadn’t figured out what to do with a barefooted wolfchild,” Athan teased then hoisted the bundle up, wobbling a step backwards with the awkward weight of it before he continued walking south.
Dnara followed after. “Need help? We can take turns carrying it.”
“It’s heavy,” he warned. “Not sure you have the arms for it.”
“I’m stronger than I look,” she argued back but not without looking at her scrawny arms.
“Of that, I have no doubt,” he said more quietly.
Dnara stared at his back then trotted to catch up. “I carried a great many heavy things for my keeper. I can sew, too. And I can build a fire without flint.” For every one long step he took, she had to take nearly two as she tried to think of what other uses she had to offer, aside from companionship. “Oh, I do know some medicine. Learned it from a book in my keeper’s library.”
“A book you weren’t supposed to be reading?”
Her back stung with the memory of it. “Perhaps. Still, you plan to carry that bundle the entire two-day journey?”
“Well, I have no plans to carry it in my sleep,” he joked. “But, no. I have a friend waiting who will help me carry it.”
Dnara stopped as fear turned her legs to stone and put a hitch in her voice. “A friend?”
“Don’t worry,” Athan assured. “You’ll like him, I promise.”
Athan’s confident assurance helped put her legs in motion. “What if he doesn’t like me?”
Athan stopped, shifted his bundle then withdrew something from a pouch on his belt. “Here.” He tossed the item to her, which she caught between her chest and the mushroom sack. “Keep that in your apron pocket and he’ll follow you anywhere.”
Dnara stared down at the object in her hands with confusion then jogged to catch up. “A carrot?”
“A carrot,” Athan confirmed through a grin but left the rest to speculation.