As Dnara would learn, a carrot can go far to earning a new friend when that friend is a mule.
In the tiny hamlet of Farfield, on a small farm nestled between the river and the last trees of the Thorngrove forest, Athan stopped to do the first of his trading with the resources he’d gathered. The elderly couple were grateful for the medicinal herbs Athan had gathered in the forest and the fieldwork done by Athan’s mule. When Dnara learned of the old man’s back pain, she showed them what she’d learned from the book she hadn’t been allowed to read, adding two plants easily found in the garden and turning Athan’s herbs into a tea.
“The medicine is more easily absorbed into the body this way,” Dnara explained. “And the herbs Athan brought will last you twice as long.”
“It tastes better, too,” said the old man after sipping the tea.
“You remember all this from a book you read?” Athan asked as they sat around the kitchen table, enjoying a modest lunch of bread and jam.
“Yes.” Dnara took a bite, savoring the sweet thickness of the preserved fruit. “I remember everything I read.”
“Surely not everything,” the old woman chuckled.
Dnara looked up to the wood beams and thatch overhead as she chewed. “Just about, although I don’t always know what the words mean.”
Athan eyed her skeptically. “Such as?”
“Well,” Dnara took another bite, chewed and swallowed. “On the next page, the book explains how you can take those same herbs and mix them with something called cin… cin-is-vir-ge-um,” she sounded out the word in a failed attempt to say it correctly. “You make a paste with it and place over burns.”
“Cinisvirgeum is an old word for virgin ash,” the old man said.
Dnara blinked at him, pausing in her next bite. “Virgin ash?”
“Ash from wood that’s clean,” the old man explained. “Not used for cooking or anything else.”
“I haven’t heard that word since I was a child,” the old woman reminisced. “And even then, it was an old word. My grandmother used it to make balm for nettle stings. It must’ve been quite an old book you were reading.”
“I think all of my ke-” Dnara coughed on the bite she’d been speaking through and quickly adapted her choice in words. “My uncle’s books were old.”
Athan’s skeptically raised eyebrow had been joined by his other eyebrow in surprise. “And you really remember all of them?”
“Sure,” she shrugged and stuffed a last bite into her mouth. “This jam is very good. What is it?”
“Oh, dear child,” the old woman said in surprise. “You’ve never had sunberries before?”
Dnara shied in embarrassment. “No, ma’am.”
The woman blinked at her. “Goodness, but they grow wild in the fields all throughout the northern hamlets. Are you not from here?”
Dnara glanced to Athan before carefully replying. “I am, but my uncle doesn’t like sweet things.”
It was then that the old woman glanced down to Dnara’s bare feet and dirty, singed skirt hem for the fourth or fifth time since opening the farmhouse door to them. “I see. Well, I will pack a jar for you then.”
“Oh, ma’am, that’s too much,” Athan protested. “That jam would fetch a fair price at market this time of year, and a glass jar besides.”
“Hush,” the old man chided. “You brought me three times the herbs I requested and asked for no more in return. Takes a brave lad to go into the Thorngrove.”
“Or someone who doesn’t believe in ghost stories,” the old woman chided.
“Not ghosts,” the man said with an air of expertise. “Spirits, leading traders and travelers astray. Travelers go into the woods just fine then come out weeks, months later, looking as bewildered as the folks that find them, and not able to speak a word about where they’ve been.”
“Drunk, too, probably,” his wife said back. “Them’s just old tales from old people meant to scare the young’uns and keep them out of the forest for fear of real threats like wolves and snakes.”
Athan scratched the back of his neck as the old married couple lovingly bickered. “Honestly, I was just happy to find someone to watch Treven. He hates the Thorngrove.”
“Smart mule,” the old man said seriously. “I’d warn you further from going back in there if I thought it’d do any good.”
“Oh, go easy on him, Hector,” the man’s wife admonished with a loving smile. “If Athan hadn’t gone into the woods, this young lady might still be lost in them. I can’t believe you were chased in there by bandits. Have people lost their minds?”
“It’s the blight, dear,” Hector sighed. “It’s made folks desperate. Not that it’s any excuse.”
“Certainly not,” the wife scoffed.
Dnara and Athan shared a glance and a small, hidden smile. Athan had come up with that story, too. If you make the story near on unbelievable, he’d said, folks were more likely to accept it as true.
“It must’ve been frightening,” the old woman said, looking at Dnara. “Are you certain you wouldn’t like to stay the night?”
“Thank you, but I need to get home.” Dnara smiled nervously through the lie.
The old woman examined Dnara with a keen eye then leaned away. “All right then. I’ll pack the jam, then you two should be on your way if you hope to make it to Rose Bridge Crossing before dark.”
“Why don’t you go get Treven ready to go,” the old man suggested. “His tack is just outside on the back porch, along with a sack of oat.”
“Hope you didn’t spoil him too much,” Athan said on a smile as he stood from the table. “Stubborn as he is, he may not want to leave.”
“He’s more smart than stubborn,” the old man chuckled. “Smartest mule I’ve ever worked with. Dang near put the plow on himself, and I didn’t have to use a bit or nothing to get him to steer. Worked hard, he did. I’ll have a nice crop of corn come fall, blight be damned.”
“Blight be damned,” Athan repeated, like a sacred vow.
Dnara reminded herself again to ask Athan what the blight was once they were alone. Secluded in the mage tower and its surrounding forest, she’d never caught wind of anything called the blight, even from the few traders allowed to pass through. Asking now would only raise more questions from the old couple, and she would hate to sour the kindness they’d shown.
It was heartening to know that there were people beyond the tower and the forest, kind people who opened their doors to a stranger and his mule, who would trade herbs for jam, and who would see a barefoot woman in a slave’s roughly hewn dress but make no mention of it.
“Dnara?” Athan stood beside her, waiting.
“Oh, sorry.” She stood with a reddening face. “My thoughts sometimes scatter with the wind, or at least that’s how my-…uncle put it.” Dnara bit her bottom lip, regretting her sudden desire to be talkative after years of being as silent as possible. “Thank you,” she said to the old man as he sat smiling up at her. “I hope your back is better and your crop is good.”
“Thank you, my dear.” His smile widened, the wrinkles of his face creating deep crevasses that marked the passage of time. “Perhaps, if you are by this way again, you can come taste my wife’s corn porridge in the fall. It’ll keep you warm through winter.”
“I would like that,” Dnara said, the truth of it felt in her heart along with the sad doubt she would ever see these nice people again. Something inside her continued to push her away from the forest, to run as far and as fast as she could. Her legs, however, remained sore and unwilling to do more than follow where Athan led.
The back porch connected to a small fenced pasture, the earth freshly tilled in neat rows and smelling of spring. Athan picked up a woven bridle, blanket and a hauling saddle from off the fence railing and walked to a different enclosed paddock, this one full of half-eaten clover and one dark copper colored mule. Dnara stopped at the railing between fields, her experience with animals limited to chickens, pigs and a peaceful milk cow named Honey.
Had Honey survived? Had anything survived? She glanced back over the western horizon to where a line of trees stood as foreboding sentinels protecting the forest beyond. She’d last seen Honey in her stall, udder full and sweet eyes asking to be milked. Had she been milked that morning, or was she still in the stall, waiting? The barn, she assumed, had been burned along with everything else.
An ache in her chest brought her hand to the front of her apron. Her fingers clenched the cloth, the sting in her heart prickling like nettles. She’d been so selfish in her desire to flee the chaos, to never look back, she hadn’t even stopped to think of the others, trapped in their collars, or of the animals trapped in their cages.
There had been only the fear and the fire, the roar that made her heart shudder. Run, the voice had cried out. Run, child, and never look–
“Dnara?” Athan’s hands gently grasped her shaking shoulders, his words hushed by concern. “Are you alright?”
Dnara blinked the shadows of memory from her eyes and inhaled sharply the scents of tilled earth, clover, and the forest pine clinging to Athan’s clothes. “W-what?”
Athan’s hands let go. “You were shaking.”
“Sorry, I…” She took in another deep breath an attempted to give a reassuring smile. “I’m fine.”
“You look exhausted,” he said. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather stay the night?”
“No,” she said, still caught up in thought, then clarified. “I’m mean yes, I’m sure. We shouldn’t stay. I think… I think they know, and I wouldn’t risk putting them in danger if…” Her words trailed off, back into memories of men screaming in the flames.
Athan backed off a pace. “You think your keeper may send a tracker after you?”
If he lives… “Yes, it’s a possibility. The quicker we reach town, the quicker we can part ways.”
“Ouch,” Athan said on a smirk, falling back into his casual levity. “Tired of me already?”
“No, I-” she blurted out then stalled as the heat rose up the back of her neck. Athan’s carefree grin did nothing to alleviate it, or the growing worry for his safety. “I’ll not have you put at risk, either.”
“I believe that risk is mine to take, Lady Thorngrove,” he said with a subtle, mock bow. “But your concern is appreciated. Now then, enough talk of keepers and trackers and things unpleasant.” Athan gave a whistle and behind him the mule approached on a trot. “I have a friend who would very much like to meet you.”
Dnara took a step back then steeled her resolve and tried to mimic Athan’s jovial nature. “Me, or the carrot in my pocket?”
Athan chuckled and patted Treven’s nose. “I don’t think Treven knows the difference.”
The mule, however, nipped Athan’s hood and yanked. Athan had to step back with it or risk falling, and Dnara had to cover her mouth to keep the laughter inside. “Seems he knows the difference. Hector said Treven is a smart mule, and I’m inclined to agree.”
As if understanding and appreciating her words, Treven let go of Athan’s hood and came closer. With gentle care, the mule nuzzled her cheek and hair, softly inspecting with lips and snout. Dnara stood still as a statue, until her fear at his soft inspection felt misplaced. With a slow hand, she palmed his cheek. He blew hot air through her hair but did not pull away. With only the touch, she could feel his strength, the power beneath the twitching chestnut hair. That a creature so strong could be so tender…
Treven let out another snort then tugged at the top of her apron with his lips. Dnara laughed with a joy not often felt. She reached into her front apron pocket and withdrew the carrot. As with all his caresses, Treven took the carrot from her palm with placid grace.
“I think you earned this,” Dnara said, Treven’s long ears rotating forward then back as the carrot crunched in his mouth.
“And I think he likes you,” Athan said as he sorted out his hood and half-cloak.
“Smart mule,” Hector said as he approached from the back porch with a bundle in hand. “Told you.”
“Indeed,” Athan replied with a pat to Treven’s neck before adding the bundle of goods to Treven’s saddle hooks. “Unfortunately, he doesn’t like to be ridden, or we could be to town before nightfall.”
“That’s all right.” Dnara watched as Treven’s powerful muscles twitched. “I don’t mind walking.”
“Some mules are like that,” Hector said. “They think they’re better than people, which I’m sure they are better than some people.”
Athan laughed at that. “Treven thinks he is people.”
With a hoof stamping the ground, Treven reached around and unlatched Athan’s backpack from the saddle, sending it falling to the dirt. Athan stopped laughing and retrieved the bag with a huffed “smartass” as Dnara tried not to laugh. Next to her, Hector let out a hooting cackle while slapping a knee.
“Maybe he is people!” Hector took in a long breath then handed the bundle to Dnara. “And you ain’t walking nowhere without shoes, girl.”
On top of the multi-tiered bundle sat a pair of sandals, looking to be her size. “Oh, I can’t,” she protested and attempted to give the bundle back.
“You dang well can,” the old man replied sternly and crossed his arms so she couldn’t hand the bundle back. “Them’s my daughter’s, or was. She passed a long time ago in childbirth. That was her cloak, too. You take ‘em and use ‘em.”
Dnara’s gut wrenched. “Oh, but-”
“No buts.” Hector looked off into the plowed pasture. “Lost my granddaughter that day, too. She’d be about your age now, I think.” He went quiet for a moment, and even Treven went still as the wind tugged at Dnara’s hair. Finally, Hector sighed and looked back to her. “Ain’t no changing things long passed, but I’d be happy to see them put to good use. The missus wrapped up a jar of jam there, on the bottom. Oh, and this.”
Hector pulled a lightweight scarf from his pocket, its center a light blue and the edges stitched with green vines and yellow berries. With Dnara’s hands full, Hector took it upon himself to wrap the scarf around her neck and tie the bow with a practiced hand, as if he’d done it for his own daughter many times as she grew up on the farm. When he leaned away from her, his eyes were red and wet, and a wistful smile tugged at his lips.
“There,” he said on a rough swallow. “Best be careful. A lifetime in a collar leaves a mark on the skin that may take another lifetime to be rid of. If I can see it with my failing eyesight, sure enough a cursed blackrope can.”
Dnara didn’t know what to say in response, though she felt her own eyes stinging. Past a thick swell in her throat, she managed a quiet ‘thank you’, but it all felt so inadequate. She’d never received a gift before, and the bundle in her hands felt like an unrepayable kindness. Wherever this journey would lead her, she could now at least follow it with shoes on her feet, a cloak on her back and a scarf to help her forget from where she had come.
The wind pressed at her back and she no longer felt the urge to run, but she did feel the desire to keep walking forward.