The next day greeted their journey to Lee’s Mill with light drizzle and a cold wind. The gravel path pooled with water in places where the wagon wheel ruts dug deep. The river now ran southward on their left side, picking up speed as it widened.
“It empties into Maiden’s Lake,” Athan explained. “Right after it runs through the gauntlet at Lee’s Mill.”
“Gauntlet?” Dnara wasn’t sure she liked the sound of that.
“It’s what they call the dozen or so water wheels that power the grinding mills. They can eat unsuspecting river boats who don’t mind the currents.”
“Oh. Lee’s Mill,” she said in thought. “Makes more sense now.”
“Named after Garner Lee, who built the first mill a hundred years ago after the blight took hold in the Red Valley and all the corn farmers moved east to settle here.”
“Hector said he was going to grow corn,” Dnara recalled as her toe kicked a pebble. It skittered ahead of them and splashed into a small puddle. “Is corn resistant to the blight?”
“It’s had better luck than other crops, though people are getting a bit sick of eating corn all the time. Corn bread. Corn stew. Corn cake. Corn porridge. Corn fritters.”
“Sounds good to me,” she said.
“Oh sure,” Athan laughed out loud, causing Treven’s ears to perk up. “You say that now. Give it a few weeks, and you’ll be cornsick like the rest of us.”
“At least it’s not cabbage,” she said then bit her tongue at the bitter memory of Athan’s childhood farm that had been taken by the blight.
After their discussion last night, she felt no closer to an understanding of what the blight was. She’d learned of the terrible things it could do, but not exactly how it did them. Was it magical? A natural plague of some kind? A curse from the gods, or the creation of man?
Every time she thought to ask Athan for more details, the memory of what it had done to his family kept her words silent. He’d shared so much already, and despite his ability to smile easily and laugh often, he hadn’t been able to fully conceal the hurt which lingered just under the surface. Perhaps, she thought, the blight was something one had to see for themselves to truly understand.
So, she kept walking at his side, filled with unspoken questions as they traveled along the river road. Morning turned into day, the drizzle came and went then came again, and the farm fields to their right slowly gave way to less open land and more houses. For the first time, they met other travelers on the road heading in the other direction; well, at least other travelers who didn’t attempt to steal Treven and his sacks of goods. Most smiled and waved, and a few stopped to trade news with Athan. Each time, Dnara kept to the other side of Treven’s big head, hiding under the hood of her cloak and content to go unseen. Luckily, Athan explained away her odd behavior with his talent of spinning tales about her shyness, leaving the travelers laughing as they returned to their journey.
“He hails from Brennfield,” Athan said as he walked back from another departing traveler rolling away on a rickety wagon that creaked loudly each time one of the large wheels jutted into a puddle. “A town far southwest of here.”
The look in his eyes said much, and she almost didn’t ask. “Bad news?”
He swept a hand through his hair before pulling up the hood of his cloak as the drizzle returned to dampen all it touched. “More burnings, north of Haden’s Crossing at Four Corners. About a dozen farms, he said. First time the blight burnings have been seen so far north.” He cursed under his breath. “You’d think that crowned fool would’ve figured out by now that burning the fields doesn’t do a damn thing, except make a bunch of already struggling families homeless right before planting season begins.”
Dnara assumed ‘the crowned fool’ meant King Eldramoore. Having only Athan’s words to go on, she wondered if the king was simply as desperate as his people, trying whatever he could to stop the blight even if the fires didn’t seem to work. Still, her keeper had said once that only the truly foolish do the same thing over and over expecting different results.
‘You’ll remember this,’ he’d said.
‘I remember everything, Keeper,’ she’d replied. ‘Everything but what came before.’
‘There is no before,’ he’d huffed. ‘Pay attention, girl! There is only now… and now I need to piss. Cursed aging. Stay here. And don’t touch anything. And no reading!’
‘Yes, Keeper,’ she had replied, but left alone in a room full of books, how could she not?
“Dnara?” Athan touched her shoulder and she startled. “Sorry. You just had this far off look for a moment, and you stepped right in that puddle.”
Dnara looked down to her feet, now ankle deep in muddy water. ‘Pay attention, girl!’
“Oh!” She hopped out of the water and tried to shake her feet dry, her sandals squelching with each step.
Athan chuckled as he steadied her wobbly flailing with a hand on her elbow. “Careful, Lady Thorngrove. Some of these ruts are deep enough to drown in. Perhaps if you-” His words cut off as Treven nipped at his cloak hood and gave a gentle yank back. “Oy, stop that.” Treven did not, and instead yanked harder. Athan stopped walking, his hold on Dnara’s elbow making her do the same. “What is it, Trev?”
Treven stamped once with a front hoof, his muzzle nodding towards the rising slope in the path ahead. Dnara thought it odd and opened her mouth to ask, but Athan held a finger to his lips. His head tilted to listen at the distant hill as her mouth clamped shut, all while Treven’s withers twitched and his ears flipped back to front and back again. Silence surrounded them on the road, broken only by the lightly falling raindrops and a distant rumble of thunder.
As they stood in the rain, the thunder grew louder, then it gained a rhythm. The puddles at their feet echoed rings with each beat. The pounding felt without end. The louder it grew, the closer it came and the less it sounded like thunder.
“What is it?” she asked on barely a whisper, afraid to disturb whatever force trembled the earth.
“Trouble.” Athan moved quickly then, guiding her to the dark alleyway between houses. Treven back-stepped into the alleyway after them, and Athan wrapped the mule’s reins over a nearby post, giving the appearance of an animal parked right where it was supposed to be. Standing silent in the shadows, Athan pulled a rolled blanket from Treven’s saddle and draped it over them, pressing her against a brick wall as his finger rose to his lips once more. She nodded and breathed deep to settle her nerves, not understanding his reason but trusting him to have one.
The thunder stormed into a bone-rattling cacophony, taking on an oddly metallic cling and clank with each rhythmic thump. Tremors shook the ground beneath her feet and the wall at her back, hammering the world in sync with her heart. Athan removed the finger from his lips and pointed to a break between the folds of the blanket before lifting it just enough to give a glimpse of the storm as it passed.
Dnara sucked in a gasp. The storm was made of men and horses, both dressed in shining metal armor and richly tinted cloths of crimson and gold. The horses wore helmets adorned by red feather crests. The men were armed, some with swords sheathed in lavish scrollwork, and others with axe-topped pikes from which flew embroidered banners. On the banners, a red dragon perched proudly on a grey rock overlooking a sapphire sea. Behind the dragon, a sun acted as a halo, and through the sun, a sword framed by the dragon’s raised wings.
Athan leaned in, his breath a whisper in her ear. “King’s Guard.”
Intently marching, they passed; rows of men and horses, wide enough to take up the whole road. Their numbers felt endless as the squadron filed by the hidden alleyway, the count going beyond thirty rows before the last one passed, followed by a single rider atop a mountainous stallion. His armor, different than the others, spoke of title and authority, of battles won and commands given. The wind blew through the drizzle, spattering his armor and soaking the red plume of feathers topping his helmet, but he paid it no mind.
Then, the dark brown horse beneath him stopped with a powerful twitch of constrained muscles and stamping hooves, its large head down, eyes covered by blinders and decorated reins pulled taught. Beyond all reason Dnara could fathom, the knight turned his face to the alley. His youth shocked her; younger than Athan, by a couple years perhaps; a young man to be commanding the King’s Guard, she thought.
Overhead, sheets hung from a laundry line flapped like flags as a cool wind blew. Dark, purpose-filled eyes peered into the shadows from under a gilded helm, and a strong jaw set in concentration. She stared into those eyes, feeling small and certain he would see her.
It was a feeling she’d had before, one wrapped within the scent of pine and smoke, with a dark shadow looming over her back, and the shouts of people and the cry of horses filling her ears. Under the blanket with Athan, she felt both safe and trapped. Her breathing stopped. The man’s eyes, that stranger upon the horse who sat in a strangely familiar silhouette, gave her feet a sudden urge to run. The scars stung beneath their bandages, and her mouth opened into a silent scream.
‘Run!’ a voice called out through the smoke and flames. ‘Run, child!’
A black horse appeared, the shadows parting for him as if by command. A monstrous silhouette backlit by raging fires and topped by a plume of crimson blood. A sword, shining in the darkness and dancing with the flames. Screams in the night and falling to the earth.
“Run, my daughter. Leave me and run!”
‘Papa,’ Dnara could not speak the word, her throat raw from swallowing the scream.
A great wind swept through the alley and Treven raised his head, his mouth full of grass. The knight tarried a moment longer then faced forward again. A kick of the stirrups to his horse’s ribs sent the beast trotting forward to catch up to his squad. Onward they marched until the thunder grew quiet and the tremors faded. Dnara let out the breath she’d held the moment the young knight turned their way.
“By Retgar’s beard.” Athan lowered the blanket and let out a breath of his own. “Thanks for the warning, Trev. Can’t believe he was with them, so far from the Red Keep.”
Treven nodded his head as if understanding and spit out the grass in favor of the carrot Athan produced from a pocket. Pushing away from the wall, Dnara steadied her heart and her voice as the muddled memory clouding her eyes broke away like cobwebs in the breeze. “Who was that man?”
Athan patted Treven’s neck then began rolling up the blanket. “Aldric, First Commander of the King’s Guard. They call him the King’s Sword, and he’s never far from the king’s side. Lelandis must be getting desperate, sending him so far inland to keep the peace.”
“Keep the peace?” she asked, carefully stepping into the light at the end of the alley. The men and their horses were now far down the road, but she could still make out Aldric atop his stallion, and she could still feel his eyes staring into hers. “They look as if they’re going to war.”
“Going to burn down some poor sod’s farm, more like,” Athan muttered as he tied the rolled blanket to the saddle, yanking hard on the rope and causing Treven to give an argumentative low whinny. Athan sighed and patted the mule’s neck. “Sorry.”
A window lifted on the second floor of one of the houses overlooking the alley and an older woman stuck her head out to look below. “You lost?” she asked with a shrewd purse of her lips.
“No, ma’am,” Athan said, putting on his friendly smile. “My sister and I only wished to find a temporary respite from the rain.”
The woman tutted her tongue. “A respite from them soldiers, more like. Best be on about your business and keeping your troubles to yourself.”
“Yes, ma’am. No trouble intended. Have a pleasant day.” Athan cordially bowed to the woman then led Treven back onto the road.
“Ain’t been a pleasant day ‘round here in years,” she grumbled before closing the window with a jerking slam.
Dnara watched the King’s Guard a moment longer, until they disappeared over a hill on the horizon. Running to catch up with Athan, she adjusted her neck scarf and attempted to pay more attention to the puddles in the road. “I thought you were going to tell folks I’m your uncle’s friend’s sister’s…cousin…?”
“My uncle’s friend’s daughter from Lambshire,” he corrected with a grin. “I am, but that woman couldn’t see past her own nose, so I didn’t see the point in complicating my answer.”
“Oh.” She hopped over one puddle and almost stumbled into another as she thought over the meaning behind his words, uncertain if she’d be able to remember who’s daughter’s cousin’s friend she was. Maybe if she asked Athan to write it down so she could read it? The way she could remember written words over spoken ones vexed her as much as it had her keeper.
‘Stupid girl, I said black tea not red.’
‘The kitchen is out of blackleaf,’ she’d lied instead of admitting she’d forgotten on the way between his study at the top of the tower and the kitchen at the bottom.
‘Oh,’ her keeper had said with one white eyebrow rigidly raised. ‘They had plenty this morning.’
That lie had earned her a lashing, one of her first in the early years of being kept. She’d not told many lies since. “Lying is complicated.”
“Can be,” Athan agreed. “But, sometimes the truth can be more complicated than the lie.”
She could see the reasoning behind his words and so said nothing further, minding the puddles and pebbles on the path instead. Nor did she ask why they had slipped into the alley, or how Treven had known of the squadron’s approach. Easier not to have to explain to a man like Sir Aldric who she was, she surmised. Yes, it was easier to simply hide. Sometimes hiding could be less complicated than a lie that is less complicated than the truth. As for Treven, he was indeed a very smart mule, and she patted his neck as they walked, thankful for his company.
“Ah, there it is,” Athan announced as they crested the next hill. Stepping out in front of them, he gave a dramatic bow before extending one arm out towards the valley below. “Welcome, Lady Thorngrove, to Lee’s Mill.”