Nestled in a low valley, with the Axe Blade Mountains looming like distant ghosts to the north, the Maiden’s Lake to the west, Maiden’s Veil River to the east and once fertile fields to the south, Lee’s Mill seemed the perfect spot to grow a prosperous town. It had been a safe place, far from the blight enveloping the western lands. People had come and built their mills to grind their corn and wheat, and then more people had come to build shops and homes and taverns and a temple. When the first signs of blight were spotted in a field of wheat, they built walls of wood around the town to keep the blight out. Within a year, Lee’s Mill changed from a welcoming town into a gated fort, its people frightened and desperate. But, wooden walls and hope could not keep the blight away. It found its way inside, destroying the mayor’s garden first, then the temple’s apple orchard. In the end, the people of Lee’s Mills had to learn how to live with the blight, just like everyone else.
Athan told Dnara the town’s history as they joined the line of people waiting to get into town through a large lifted gate of felled trees whose ends had been sharpened into earth punching spikes. Dnara craned her neck back to gaze up at those dangerous looking spikes as they passed under them, only to realize another gate of the same waited just a few horses ahead. Once in the inner gate, they stopped for a moment within the shadowed chamber, its stonework and armored guards offering an imposing welcome.
Dnara’s head filled with questions, having never been to a town with such an impressive gate system. Well, she’d never been to a town at all that she could remember, and that opened a further set of questions she wished she’d thought of sooner when Athan had patiently asked if she had any back at their camp earlier that morning. Now, it seemed too late, and she held her tongue as armored guards began their inspection of the large wagon in front of her.
The wagon looked like a house on wheels, decorated in bright paints and fabrics, and it even had a window box with flowers. Pulled by two massive oxen, the wagon had a smaller cart hitched to the back on which were loaded a pyramid of barrels. The owner of the wagon, a man with a beard as large as his stomach, spoke to the guards with a few laughs passed between them before stepping up into the high bench behind the oxen and giving the leather reins a loud crack.
When the wagon cleared its inspection and moved forward into town, Dnara pulled her cloak hood up, made sure her bandaged arms were covered by the cloak’s front, and stifled the nervous desire to hide behind Treven’s backside. Athan reached over past Treven’s head and pulled her hood down. He gave her a subtle shake of the head along with a calm smile, once again giving her the feeling that all would be well. His own hood, too, rested back against his shoulders, giving the gate guardsmen a clear view of his face. Her eyes locked with his for a moment before he faced forward again, then she stared at his profile. Even road weary and dust covered, Athan presented the figure of someone she may deem handsome, if ever thoughts of men and their appealing features had been part of her thinking before just two days ago. More questions sprung to mind, and ever tighter did she keep her mouth shut.
A guardsman approached, dressed in leather armor with metal rivets and a cotton cloak dyed light green. A burly, barrel chested man with a red beard and red hair braided back into a ponytail. At his hip swung a sword much too big for most men to wield, but what Dnara noticed most were the man’s eyes, for they smiled even if his beard-hidden lips did not.
“What business have you in Lee’s Mill?” he asked Athan.
“Same as always, Beothen,” Athan replied in a harassed tone. “To make some coin, sleep in a soft bed and fill my stomach with as much corn stew as my cornsick tongue will allow.”
Beothen leaned down, his height towering over Athan like the mountains looming over the town’s northern border. One bushy red eyebrow slowly raised as he eyed Athan like he were a sack of potatoes to be inspected for blight and contraband. “Since when do there be soft beds at The River’s End?”
“A man can dream, can’t he?” Athan replied on the cusp of a chuckle.
“Aye, that he can,” Beothen replied, a smile breaking apart his beard. “Welcome home, forester. What have you brought to-” The man’s words stopped as his gaze passed over the other side of Treven’s head to where Dnara stood as silent and still as possible. “Well, now, who’s this, then?”
“Dnara,” Athan replied quickly, saving her from answering. “My uncle sent her as a favor to a friend. She’s to be my apprentice.”
“Oh? Apprentice, eh?” Beothen stepped closer to her, his hand resting on the pommel of his sword, more out of habit, she hoped, than threat.
Athan let out a long sigh and scratched the back of his head. “So far, she’s proved better at picking mushrooms than me, but she can’t shoot an arrow to save her life, and she seems to fall into every mud puddle in her path.”
Beothen let out a low chuckle and squinted at her, as if trying to peer past all the mud. “Well now, she’s a pretty sight, eh? Even when filthy as a wolfchild, she is. Course, forestin’ ain’t clean work, so at least she ain’t ‘fraid of getting dirty, right?” He turned back to Athan with a grin. “Sure your uncle don’t mean to make her your wife?”
“My uncle would be so cruel,” Athan bemoaned. “But, a wife in these times?”
“Aye, I hear that truth,” Beothen nodded then leaned down to Dnara, putting his face level with hers. “Best not risk it,” he said, and in his voice, she heard his heartfelt sentiment. “Won’t keep the boy from falling in love, though,” he whispered with a grin.
“Heard that,” Athan said from the other side of Treven’s head as Treven hooved the ground. “Don’t curse me with such words, Beothen. I’m to train her a few seasons then send her back to Lambshire.”
“Lambshire?” Beothen asked with a grimace. “Why would you want to send her back there for? Heard the blights done changed the town’s name to Lambless-shire?” He addressed the last question to Dnara, so she felt the need to finally speak.
“And that is why they are in need of foresters,” she replied, having been informed earlier by Athan of Lambshire’s current deteriorating state in case such a question should come up. “I have a younger sister and an aging father counting on me to provide what the land can offer as our flock continues to decline.”
“Ah, good on you, lass.” Beothen nodded in acceptance of her story with a glint of pride in his eyes. He side-eyed Athan then, his grin now wide with mischievous mirth. “She would make a fine wife, Athan.”
“Oy, what’s the hold up?” a soldier called from behind Beothen, saving Athan from Beothen’s teasing.
Beothen stood back to his full height with a roll of the eyes. “Hold your mangy horses there, Mikos. I’m gaining news of Lambshire from Athan and his new friend.”
“Athan’s returned?” Mikos questioned, his voice brightened by hope. “You find any elk, forester?”
“Afraid not,” Athan replied, toppling the man’s excitement.
“He brought back a girl instead,” Beothen announced with a chuckle, stepping aside to reveal Dnara.
Mikos gave Dnara a once over, his own figure young, lean and dark haired, and his expression morose. “I’d rather have the elk.”
“No need to be rude.” Beothen gave the younger guardsman an irritated glare.
“I beg your pardon, m’lady,” Mikos said with a disingenuous bow and a heavy sigh before turning back to other duties.
“Al’right, let ‘em through,” Beothen called more loudly to the two guards keeping watch on the other side of the second gate before turning back to Athan. “Keep a keen eye, eh? Folks are a bit on edge, more so than usual. The mayor’s daughter caught ill while you were away, and rumor has it she’s gone blightsick, locked in a room at the temple. And on top of that, the wine’s gone sour.”
Athan blinked at the news. “All of it?”
“Aye. Hope you’ve a taste for corn mash, because that’s all the taverns have left for the common folk.”
Athan gave a visible shudder of disgust. “Thanks for the warning.” He pulled a small pouch from his belt and shook hands with Beothen, passing the pouch over. “Spearmint and mullein leaf.”
“Aw, my favorite. Thanks, friend.” Beothen tipped his head then moved further aside, ushering them forward with a smile aimed at Dnara. “Welcome to Lee’s Mill, m’lady of Lambshire.”
“Thank you.” Dnara attempted to smile in return, unused to such attention from strangers. After stumbling into one wagon wheel rut, she moved forward with Athan and Treven. Once they cleared the gate, she glanced over Treven’s nose, her tongue no longer able to be held. “Spearmint and mullein? Is he injured?”
“You do know your herbs, don’t you?” Athan asked, sounding amused. “Beothen used to be in the King’s Guard. After they started burning down farms, he conveniently fell off his horse and hurt his back during a raid. The injury earned him an honorable discharge from the guard, but it also earned him a lifetime of back pain.”
“How does one conveniently fall off their horse?” she asked.
“By not wanting to make a family homeless, blighted fields or not,” Athan replied as he waved to a nearby merchant selling cornbread. “What news, Tobin?”
“Corn and more corn, forester!” the elder merchant replied with a hearty laugh. “What news?”
“Rain, no elk and thorns across my backside,” Athan replied to more laughter.
“Stay clear of Butcher’s Alley, then,” Tobin said as they passed. “Lots of thorns growing there of late. And I hear tale the docks are recruiting.”
“Then I’ll avoid the water.” Athan took a large bundle of herbs from Treven’s saddle and tossed it over. “For Penna.”
Tobin caught it, rubbed his balding head in thought then made to toss the bundle back. “Ah, I can’t afford-”
Athan interrupted with a hand held up, now walking backwards as Dnara and Treven moved on. “I’ll soon need bread for my next outing.”
Tobin clenched the bundle to his breast. “Faedra bless you, lad. It’s worth more than cornbread and you know it.”
“Perhaps, but your wife’s cornbread is the only thing of corn I can still eat in this town without getting cornsick.”
Tobin chuckled then frowned. “Then I’m sorry to tell you about the wine.”
“I’m still sorry about it,” Tobin smirked. “Good travels to you, forester.”
Athan nodded with a two finger salute then faced forward again. Noticing Dnara’s curious glance, he explained. “More mullein, with lemongrass and musk from one of those briarbears.”
Dnara thought on it for a moment. “Breathing problems?”
“His wife, Penna, …and maybe I should’ve told folks you’re an apothecary,” he said in serious thought. “Hey, you know, maybe that’s what you could do; set up a shop in town. Lee’s Mill hasn’t had a proper apothecary in near on three years.”
“Me? A shop?” Dnara blinked at the impossible sounding idea.
“Sure,” Athan shrugged. “Why not? You’re going to have to get coin somehow. I could provide the herbs and other materials, and you could mix the concoctions.”
“But, I’ve no formal training,” she argued, unsure if the idea made her nervous or excited, or if it were possible to feel both.
“Neither have I,” Athan said with a wink.
Yes, she certainly felt both. Nervous. Excited. Anxious? And his wink only added to the muddle of new emotions dancing within her chest. Kept though she may have been, living in the tower had been a simpler affair, and as they breached the inner city, she could only stop and stare at the open market square as more people than she’d seen in her lifetime went about their daily business under a dreary cloak of misty fog.
“At least the rain’s letting up,” Athan said as they paused at the corner of a stone building where the gate’s entryway street ended and a large cobblestone promenade began. “Fog should break up soon, too. Then it might not be a half-bad afternoon.”
Dnara subconsciously nodded along with Athan’s weather observations, but her attention focused intently on the sights and sounds of the bustling market street. Her eyes didn’t know where to look first and darted around the multitude of shops, cart stalls and people. Feeling dizzy, she shut her eyes for a moment and simply listened to the voices, from the merchants hawking their wears to buyers haggling down the price. A waft of warm, corn-scented air drifted into her nose, sweet and buttery enough to make her stomach rumble with hungry curiosity. As Athan had predicted, the afternoon sun broke through the clouds and warmed her face. If this was the world existing in blight, then she welcomed its existence in exchange for the secluded forest that had been her cage.
But then the clouds recovered the sun and shouting carried across the street. Dnara opened her eyes to see a crowd gathering, circling and pressing in around the large, vibrantly decorated, oxen-drawn wagon from before. For whatever reason, the townspeople were not happy with the man who owned it.
“That’s three times the price of last month!” a man’s angered voice rose over the murmuring crowd.
“I understand the truth of that, friend,” the wagon’s owner replied in a loud voice, his hands raised in a search for calm. “But last week, there was much competition to be had. Now, as I hear it, I am the only seller of unsullied wine in town, and we all know that the Sarcisian family vineyard produces the best wine in all of the four kingdoms of Ellium, from the Axe Blade Mountains to the Elvan lands of Greenwood Dale. Fit for the Red Keep, this wine is, but to you I brought it, and for sale at half the Red Keep’s price!”
Four kingdoms? She’d thought there were five. Hadn’t she read it in a book? There was the Pel’Kothor Steppe in the north where the Orc’kothi tribes roamed beyond the Axe Blade Mountains. Next, the lands of Carnath in which she stood. To the south, Orynthis, and beyond that the Elvan lands of Greenwood Dale. And far to the east lay-
“Thief!” a woman shouted from the crowd, followed by more heckles and boos.
“Now, now,” the seller tried to speak, until something flew by his head.
“We’d best move on,” Athan suggested, tugging slightly on Treven’s bridle. “Before they start tossing more than corn cobs.”
Dnara followed Athan onto a side street just as more shouts rose from the crowd and town guardsmen joined the fray. Treven’s hooves clopped on the stone road until it turned back to gravel and dirt on the next right they took. Farther from the busy market thoroughfare and the angry crowd, the town was quiet, feeling almost empty aside from the few people they passed on the street and a woman hanging shirts from a clothesline stretched between second story balconies on either side. None paid them any mind or greeted Athan as had Tobin and Beothen, which suited Dnara just as well. She hadn’t seen any signs of slaves or blackropes in town, yet, but it would be better to remain unremarkable and quickly forgotten.
Athan paused at the next intersection, giving the through street a quick glance before continuing. The sign at the corner read Butcher’s Alley. Dnara paused to look herself.
“I don’t see any thorns,” she muttered.
“What?” Athan asked as they continued onward to the west end of town. “Oh, thorns?” He laughed. “That means thieves.”
“Oh.” And she supposed it would make sense to avoid such thorns. “What did he mean about the recruitment at the docks?”
“Kings Guard,” Athan replied. “They’ve started pulling aside any able bodied man between fifteen and forty seasons, looking for new conscripts in the great war against the blight!” He made the last part sound as if he were a recruiter himself, and the war a noble quest. “They’ll take women, too, if they think them fit for duty. Better to die by sword than by childbirth, they’ll tell them.”
“I don’t like either option,” Dnara said. “And how would the blight kill you with a sword?”
“Good question, that.” Athan stopped and looked at her in silence for a moment, opening his mouth to speak but shutting it again. Treven scuffed the dirt impatiently with a hoof and Athan pointed at the building behind her. “The women’s bathhouse, m’lady.”
All questions of war and blight were forgotten at the mere thought of a hot bath and being clean again. She glanced up at the wooden sign above the door. It had no written words, but instead had the crudely drawn image of a wooden tub with suds next to a lady figure dressed in a fine dress.
“Here.” Athan handed her three pewter coins that had been stamped with the king’s seal on one side and a dragon on the other. “That’ll be enough to get you a full bath and your clothes laundered. Should have the place pretty much to yourself this time of day. I’ve a few errands to run and mushrooms to trade, so take your time. If you’re finished before I get back, please wait.”
She nodded and held the coins tightly. “I will, I promise.”
“Good,” he smiled then started off with Treven.
“Athan,” she called out, suddenly afraid to be left alone. When he turned back to her, she lost the will to speak her fear aloud. Instead, she held the coins to her breast and smiled with gratitude. “Thank you.”
He stood in silence and looked at her, an unspoken thought coming into his eyes but disappearing before she could discern its meaning. Finally, he nodded, with that easy smile of his, and continued off down the street, Treven a step behind. She stood on the bathhouse’s threshold, watching as Athan made a turn at the next street. It was Treven who paused this time, his large eyes looking back down the street at her, his head nodding as if telling her to go get clean and promising they would return, then he too disappeared behind a building.
Of all the foresters in all of Ellium, that she should be found by a kind man and his smart mule felt like a miracle within a life of endless days, lonely nights and a cold collar. As uncertain and unplanned as her previously repetitive existence had now become, she knew Athan would return to the bathhouse. It was a feeling set deep in her bones, like the urges to run or stay; something whispered on the wind, if the wind could speak, holding her in place or pushing her along.
A gentle breeze blew through the narrow street. Her arms beneath the bandages itched, as did her dirt matted scalp. With a deep breath, she pushed open the heavy wooden door and embarked on her first journey into a public bathhouse.