With long waves farewell and a hope to one day return, Athan and Dnara left the farm behind with Treven carrying the burden of their journey. Outside the forest’s protective cover, Dnara became grateful for the gifted cloak and its hood to help hide her from the sun rising past noon. After years of living in a forest, the unobstructed sunlight felt harsh and glaring. The soft leather sandals adjusted easily to her feet, and though part of her missed the grounding connection to the earth, she did not miss stepping barefoot on sharp stones and broken sticks.
As they followed the line of the widening, meandering river, their path changed from worn grass to more dirt until the dirt became uneven and marred by wagon wheel grooves. To their left, other roads met with the path in roughly shaped T’s, and farms more frequently dotted the landscape. When they came to the first T junction marked by a sign, it read ‘Bee Valley – 12 Miles’ pointing away from the river, and ‘Rose Bridge Crossing – 1 Mile’ pointing the way in which they were heading.
“Bee Valley?” Dnara questioned as they passed the sign, the sun now low and dusk creeping in around them.
“Never heard of it?” Athan questioned back. “Did your keeper not have any maps?”
“Not that I noticed,” she shrugged. “Not that I had any reason to look at them, thinking I would never be allowed to leave.”
“Oh, right.” Athan looked chagrined as he walked closest to the river, Treven’s head bobbing between them as if interested in the conversation. “Well, Bee Valley is Carnath’s honey production capital. Fields and fields of wildflowers. At least, there used to be…”
Dnara’s head tilted. “Used to be?”
Athan nodded. “The blight’s taken out all but a few fields, from what I’ve heard. Honey’s damned expensive now, too. I’ve been seeing overpriced imports from Orynthis in the marketplace, which isn’t doing much to quell the growing tension closer to the border.”
With no others around, Dnara felt it was time to ask. “What’s the blight?”
Athan stopped, as did Treven. They both looked at her. She felt like she had said something incredibly stupid. It made her uncomfortable, that feeling, the embarrassing revelation of having been shut away from the world for so long she didn’t know about the blight or where honey came from.
“You’re serious?” Athan asked after a silent appraisal, sounding no less dumbfounded than the look in his eyes. “Retgar’s beard, girl, did your keeper keep you in a hole in the ground since birth?”
Dnara shied away from his question and stared down at her sandaled feet. “No, a tower in the forest.”
“A tower in the-?”
“And I wasn’t born there,” she interrupted, one hand fisting the only package not tied to Treven’s saddle.
She had wanted to keep the cloth-wrapped jar of yellow sunberry jam close, in the hopes it would keep the joy she had felt at the farm close, too. But, that joy had begun to fade with the setting sun and the reminders that she had no life waiting on the other side of the bridge or in the town they journeyed to, because she had no life or semblance of an existence before it. She had simply been born…somewhere, then… there had been the tower in the forest; a collection of monotonous days and people who were all forbidden to talk to her.
As her hands began to shake and her eyes stung, Athan pushed Treven’s nose from between them and stepped closer. “I’m sorry, it’s just-”
“Well, what have we here?” came an unfriendly voice calling across a small distance. “Two travelers of the river road, heading for the Rose bridge, I assume?”
Athan’s apology went unfinished as he and Dnara turned to find a group of six young men coming from the opposite direction. The young men were thin, and dressed in equally thin and ragged clothing. Each had a knife clearly visible tucked in their belts, the metal glinting like orange fire with the dying sunlight. Athan immediately stepped forward, a hand moving to rest on his knife’s hilt.
“We are,” Athan answered, his voice kept calm and genial while his free hand kept Dnara behind him. “A good evening to you, fellow travelers. What news have you?”
“Oh, same news as yesterday,” the one in the front responded, his white cotton shirt stained in sweat and dirt and possibly blood. “And the day before that one, and the day before that one. Blight everywhere, spreading like a corpsevine, choking out a man’s livelihood and making folks desperate.”
“A sorry truth,” Athan replied. “Blight be damned.”
“Blight be damned,” most of the men replied in unison, four of them spitting into the dirt next to their feet.
The talkative one took a step closer. “Times seemed to have fared better for you, traveler. Your mule looks quite burdened by goods.”
“Hardly,” Athan replied. “Spent days gathering a few briarbears and young yew branches from the Thorngrove, and I have the scratches to prove it. All the elk have gone. It’s slim pickings for any man these days, be they farmer or forester.”
“The Thorngrove?” one of the other men asked, his eyebrows high. “Must be a desperate man to go in there.”
“Quiet,” the leader admonished.
“Is true, that,” another in the group voiced. “Is ghosts in them trees, there is, and rabid wolves the size of grizzlies.”
“And thorns,” Athan reminded. “Mustn’t forget the thorns.”
“Yes, yes, ghosts and wolves and thorns,” the leader summed up, sounding annoyed. “Be that as it may, dear friend, what you have is more than we, and so we come humbly to ask if you can spare… let us say half? Half for you, half for the seven of us. Seems a reasonable toll to cross the Rose bridge.”
“But, Jorn,” a big man in the back spoke. “There’s only six of us.”
Jorn turned and slowly counted a man on each finger. Meanwhile, Athan gently coaxed Dnara back a few more steps and handed her Treven’s reins. What he intended her to do with them was unclear, but she clutched them as tightly as she clutched the cloth-cradled jam jar to her chest.
“Huh, so there is,” Jorn finally said after counting through the men twice. “Could’ve sworn there were- Well, whatever.” He shrugged and turned back to Athan. “A toll’s a toll, and it remains fifty percent.”
“I’m afraid that would leave us too little, friend,” Athan replied. “My wife, you see, is with child.”
A subtle gasp could be heard from the group of men, their weary eyes opening wider. All, except for their leader. Jorn glared past Athan’s arm where Dnara peeked past. “C’mon out, girl. Let me see you.”
“But, Jorn,” the big one at the back timidly argued. “If she’s with a little one-”
“I said quiet, Yorn,” Jorn bit back. “Dullard,” he muttered. “If you weren’t my brother…” He returned his attention to Dnara. “C’mon, girl. I ain’t gon’ hurt no girl with a babe in her belly, miracle as that would be.”
Confused by his curiosity and his last words, Dnara stepped out from the protection afforded by Athan’s presence. Her hands remained clutched to the reins and the jam, but she attempted to not look as frightened as she felt. Silently, she thanked Hector and his wife again for the scarf, cloak and shoes which helped her to look less a slave than a poor forester’s wife.
“A pretty one, you are.” Jorn smiled, almost friendly like, as he peered past the shadows in Dnara’s hood. “Young, too. How far along are you, girl?”
Athan stiffened next to her. “She’s-”
“I weren’t askin’ you,” Jorn sneered at Athan then softened back to a smile as he addressed Dnara. “Well, girl?”
Dnara took in a long inhale, stalling for time. She didn’t even know how long a woman carried a baby for, much less how he meant to tell if it were true. Her mind searched through book upon book in her memory, but she’d never read a book on pregnancy. The closest she could come was a bittermint tea for morning illness that normally started at six weeks.
“Not long,” she said to keep it vague. “I’ve just started needing bittermint tea in the mornings.” Next to her, Athan whispered a curse under his breath.
Jorn nodded quietly to himself for a moment. “That’s the most difficult time, ‘the bitter days’ as women call it these days. My sister, she lost two during that time. My cousin, three. And my wife-” He paused to swallow harshly. “Ain’t been a babe born in our family in a generation.”
“Blight be damned,” Athan quietly said, as did all the men standing behind Jorn, confusing Dnara further with the reverent sadness lacing their voices.
Jorn looked up to the sun, inhaled deep then glared back at Athan. “Every man knows, if his wife be with child, she ain’t to leave the bed until the bitter time has safely passed, and she sure as shit wouldn’t be walking through a thorn infested woods. Even then, you’d be a lucky man to see your babe born alive, and Gods’ twice blessed not to lose your wife in the process!”
Jorn’s sudden anger made Dnara take a step back. As confused as she remained, two things had become clear. One, she’d said the wrong thing to make her pregnancy believable. And two, the current dangers of childbearing hadn’t been as prevalent during the time her keeper’s old books had been written.
“But, Jorn,” Yorn tried to quell his brother’s temper. “What if-?”
“Quiet!” Jorn raged, his skin heating red. Behind him, the younger men also took a step back. “They ain’t even married, you fool! No ring.” Jorn took out his knife and brandished it with a sweep towards Athan’s barren ring finger.
“Not many men can afford rings these days,” Athan tried to argue.
“Ha!” Jorn blurted out a mad laugh. “Now I know you’re lying. If you’re any kind of a man worthy to marry her, you always find a way to give your girl, the joy of your heart, a ring! Always.”
“I’m sorry,” Athan tried again to soothe over the confrontation, but Jorn’s growing agitation had begun to spread to the men behind him, except to Yorn who looked more sad and lost than angry. “I meant only to save her from harm.”
“Well, you’re doing a piss-poor job of it,” Jorn spat. “And the toll just went up. I’ll be taking all of it, and the mule. And whatever the girl has clutched there, against her breast.”
“But, Jorn,” Yorn spoke up again. “It’s tough times for all folks.”
“Shut up!” Jorn fumed. “And you best be taking that bundle from her yourself, or I’m sending you to the Grey Marsh.”
A deep fright entered Yorn’s big blue eyes, the origin of which Dnara didn’t understand. She’d never heard of the Grey Marsh, either, and was growing tired of all the things she didn’t know about this world beyond the forest. The other men, too, looked uncomfortable with Jorn’s threat. Wherever the Grey Marsh may be, it was obvious no man wanted to be sent there.
“Get on Treven and go,” Athan commanded Dnara, but she remained unmoving, reins in hand. Treven stamped his front hooves into the dirt and snorted. “Don’t argue,” Athan hissed, despite Dnara not having said a word.
“I’ll not leave you to this fate,” Dnara finally did argue.
“They’re thieves, not murderers,” Athan said as the men began encircling them on the road.
“Desperate times,” Jorn said, his voice sounding quite desperate as he waved his knife in warning with a fluid motion. “Just give us the goods, for Faedra’s sake!”
At Jorn’s raised shout, Treven’s entire body vibrated with powerful, twitching muscles, and he gave a warning kick of his own. Dnara held fast to the reins, her heart pounding. Athan unsheathed his knife, more a skinning blade than a weapon, and tried one more time to get her to run.
“Go, damn you!” He shoved Treven’s nose with his free hand. “Get in the saddle,” he pleaded to Dnara.
“Stop,” Jorn warned, stepping within knife’s reach, his blade much longer than Athan’s. “Any sudden moves and I’ll spill your lying guts to the ground.”
“Please, be reasonable,” Athan tried.
“I’m done being reasonable!” Jorn yelled, his words echoing across the river. “Ain’t no reason left in this world. The blight done took it all from me! So damn the bloody blight, and damn Faedra’s Sacred Halls, I aim to take back what little I can.”
“This is not the way!” Athan beseeched.
“It’s the only way we got left!” Jorn shouted back. “Now, brother. Take her now!”
“Sorry, miss,” came Yorn’s unexpected voice from behind. For a big man, he’d managed to quietly approach within their blind spot. He wrapped two solid arms around Dnara’s waist and lifted her from the ground.
Putting the threat of Jorn’s knife to his back, Athan spun around to face the larger brother. “Put her down.”
“Sorry,” Yorn forlornly replied as he backed up with a squirming Dnara in his arms. “Can’t. Don’t want to go to the Grey Marsh.”
Treven whinnied loud and gave another back kick into the air as two men approached from the other side. He snorted low then rammed his head into Jorn, putting the man onto his rear in the dirt. Two stamping hooves landed close to the man’s groin then Treven rotated his large body to face Yorn.
“Whoa now,” Yorn coaxed, his voice unsteady as Dnara continued to struggle.
“Damned mule,” Jorn cursed and coughed as a dust cloud rose. “Get a hold on that animal!”
One of the men braved up and gripped Treven’s bridle and the mule nearly sent the man flying. A yell went up and another man joined. Then a third, but Treven fought on. Only when the fourth man stepped in and put a knife to Athan’s throat did Treven stop his fight.
Athan raised his hands, dropping his knife to the ground. “Lives aren’t worth a few briarbear pelts. Fine, if you want to be dirty thieves, then take them. Take the lot of it, including the sack of moonglows, there, attached to the saddle. But, please, I beg of you to leave my mule and the girl alone.”
“No deal,” Jorn groused.
“It’s a good deal,” Yorn argued.
“To the Grey Marsh with you!” Jorn yelled.
Dnara felt Yorn’s grip lax and she squirmed harder against his faltering grip. With her own palms sweaty from the fight, the cotton slipped loose. The glass jar of bright yellow sunberry jam tumbled to the ground and shattered.
“Aw, now look what you done, girl!” Jorn stood and dusted himself off. “Ruined a perfectly good jar of jam.”
“Them’s my favorite,” Yorn sighed, lowering his arms and putting Dnara’s kicking feet to the ground. “Sunberries. Hard to get this time of year.”
Dnara’s vision fixated on the smeared jam at her feet. It spread into the dirt, thickening to sweetened mud and broken glass. There would be no saving it.
A breeze tugged at the hem of her dress.
“Tried to do this nicely, I did,” Jorn huffed. “Could’ve split that jam evenly between us as friends.”
The trees whispered around them and the ashbirds went silent.
“Now, no one will enjoy it,” Jorn continued. “So, maybe instead, I’ll enjoy something just as sweet…”
“Keep away from her,” Athan warned.
“Desperate times,” Jorn murmured and moved closer to Dnara.
“Brother?” Yorn questioned like a child, his hands letting Dnara go.
A gust blew from the forest, riding the river and billowing a dust cloud along the road.
“Been a year since my wife died,” Jorn said, his hand reaching for Dnara. “Desperate times…”
The flesh of her arms burned, and all around them the ashbirds took flight. There came a whisper in her ear, unintelligible but calming, and a void shadowed her vision. The whisper promised things, no longer an urgency to run, but instead a call to give in. Dust swarmed around her ankles and the air surrounding her squeezed tight.
“Jorn,” Yorn’s words were distant within the void. “Maybe you shouldn’t touch her.”
“I’ll take it all,” Jorn muttered, his words echoing into her heart and dripping with tangible despair.
His calloused fingers wrapped around her thin arm, and the whisper in her ears became a furious howl. A soundless thunder cascaded through Jorn’s hand, rolled up his arm and crushed into his chest. The popping crack of breaking bones preceded his screaming as his eyes went wide. One by one, his fingers snapped upward in unnatural angles. Then, deafening silence, as if all the air in the world had been sucked out, only to be released in a singular vibrating force that knocked Jorn’s broken body past the other men and into the river.
When the whispering buzz in her mind subsided and the sounds of the world returned to her, the void snapped shut and the sunlight blinded. Her arms throbbed painfully and the men were screaming. With her hands clamped over her ears, it took her two struggling breaths to realize she was screaming, too.
Stumbling forward, she squinted past the aching light. A shadow moved nearby. A familiar voice called to her. Athan stood, eyes wide in terror but arms open to catch her as she fell.
“It hurts,” she rasped through a raw throat, and quickly the pain overwhelmed. The whisper returned, calmer and quieter than before, and spoke a single word she could understand.
And she did.