When the Wind Speaks Chapter 11

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11

Dnara did end up having the bathhouse to herself, and the attendant who took her coin seemed appreciative to have a customer at such an odd hour. Most people, the older woman explained as she tossed logs into a stone oven set beneath a large wash basin, took their baths in the evening, to get clean before bed. A few would come at other times, if they were to meet a boy or attend a social gathering. They wanted to be freshly perfumed and their best dresses ironed, though she had seen less of those sort in the past few years. After talking Dnara’s ear off while preparing the bath, the woman then took the dirty clothes and tottered off with a muttering of ‘I’ll see what I can do with these’.

Thankful for the quiet that followed, Dnara soaked in the warm bath until her skin pruned and the water cooled. Holding her arms under the water, the lavender oil laced suds having long dissipated, she stared down at the scars’ distorted and warped lines beneath the surface. No longer an angry red, they’d miraculously sealed back up into the lightning pattern first seen two nights ago. This time, she wouldn’t hide it from Athan, strange as it was. Perhaps he would have some idea on the how or the why, even if he held no more understanding of magic than she.

Magic. Could it be possible? Her, a mageborne?

The very idea made her shudder in a mix of revulsion and fear. Clenching her hands together beneath the water, she prayed to Faedra’s mercy that it wasn’t true. Magic, like that of the keeper and his assistants, had brought nothing into her life but pain and confinement. Biting her bottom lip, she said another small prayer, begging Faedra to not let the keeper find her, if he had not died with all the others.

Stopping short of wishing for his death, Dnara stood from the water and let it drip a moment before she grabbed the provided towel. It felt incredible to be clean again. Looking down into the dirty water around her knees, her face murkily reflected, she thought perhaps this bath could be the start of a new life to come, one clean and free of her past. She also thought of Athan’s suggestion to open an apothecary. It no longer sounded so ludicrous, and it made her smile.

“Ah, all finished, then?” the old woman asked as she walked briskly into the bathroom.

Dnara startled at her reflection in the water and tried to cover her arms with the towel, then she sucked in a calming breath and did her best to keep the pleasant smile on her face. “Yes, ma’am. Thank you.”

“You clean up nicely, dear,” the old woman smiled genuinely and set down a bundle of clothes on a nearby dressing stool. “That dark hair of yours is not a color I’ve seen before. Looks like raven’s feathers, it does. You’ll find a suitable brush there, on that table with the mirror.”

Dnara didn’t know what a raven looked like, but assumed it to be some sort of bird with feathers of deep black, like her hair. Not wanting to sound stupid, she simply said, “Thank you,” then stared at the clothes for a moment as the woman made to leave the room. “Pardon, ma’am, but I don’t think those are mine.”

The old woman stopped in the doorway and chortled a tiny girlish laugh. “Thems from a sir, m’lady. Handsome lad, name of Athan. Dropped them by for you. Said I was to wrap your old ones up. They’re there, under the new things.”

“Oh.” Dnara’s cheeks flushed to match the giggling old woman’s.

“If you need any help putting them on, just ring that bell there.” She pointed to the rope tied to a bell over the door then left.

Dnara wrung out her hair and stepped down from the wash basin, the clean stone floor cool under her feet. The dark granite stonework sucked up any water that fell, along with her footprints, as she walked over to the pile of clothes. On top of the pile sat a thin, oblong object wrapped in paper. Her hand reached for it but stopped short of opening it. Gifts were not something she was accustomed to, and it almost felt wrong, like stealing, to take these items as hers. Athan had already done so much, more than she believed most would, and she had no means to repay him.

Yet. Her hand picked up the thin package with renewed determination. She could open an apothecary. She could find a way to repay him. She could do anything, now, because now she was free.

And, she suspected, Athan could gain just as much from her as an apothecary, selling her whatever herbs he brought from the land. They could make up some story to tell Beothen and the townsfolk, that Lambshire’s forests had been blighted, and she was to stay and send her earnings back to support her family there. Or, she supposed, it would be simpler to adhere to Beothen’s prediction, that Athan’s uncle had truly intended Dnara to become Athan’s wife.

Dnara’s cheeks heated and her tummy fluttered with the thought. Her, a wife? It had never crossed her mind before, as every day blended into the next. She’d begun to think her keeper would live forever, old but never aging, unchanging like the forest.

But, she’d stepped outside that forest. She’d run from it. Now, it felt like everything would change, even her.

Inside the package, she found a note, two hair sticks of polished white ashwood, and a barrette made of thin copper petals bent and shaped like a rose. The note read simply ‘To replace the twig you’ve been using.’ Athan’s handwriting was smooth and practiced, unexpected for a worker of the land. But, what did she know, having only her keeper’s word to take on such things? She had begun to realize that many things beyond the forest were much different than what she had learned from her keeper or secretly gleaned from his books.

Brushing her hair with the provided, freshly cleaned comb, she thought it time to begin making her own decisions about this world, the first of which being that there were more kind people in it than unkind. She could still feel the hand of Jorn upon her arm and see the desperate look in his eyes. It made her scars itch just to think on it. But, she could also remember Hector and his wife, the friendly travelers Athan stopped to talk with, Beothen at the gate, Tobin selling his cornbread, and the old woman here at the bathhouse.

And Athan. Through it all, from the moment she woke up in his camp, there had been Athan’s patient kindness and disarming smile. Oh, and Treven, too, she thought with a laugh as she began dressing.

The garments weren’t like the fancy dress on the bathhouse’s sign, for which she was grateful. A comfortable, undyed cotton underdress that would be easy to clean, and much softer than the scratchy burlap one she’d worn for years. A light green overdress, a dark green dyed leather halter which tied at the front, and a half-apron with a belt full of pouches completed a perfectly practical set of clothes. She finished with the kindly given sandals and cloak from Hector’s daughter, hugging the fabric as if to hold on to the compassion it represented. These things she would remember, these acts of kindness and friendly smiles.

A buzzing energy surged up her arms beneath the dark green dress sleeves then dissipated, like goosebumps from a cold wind. A blessing for her positive thoughts, or a warning not to be so trusting? Dnara decided to take it as both.

Picking up her old clothes wrapped in butcher paper, she left the bath, said goodbye to the old woman and opened the door to look out onto the street. She found Athan waiting for her, just as he had promised, with a small leather bound book in hand. Taking notice of her approach, he pushed away from the brick exterior, closed the book and shoved it into a pocket. He took not one but two lingering glances of her before speaking.

“Did everything fit?”

“Yes, thank you,” she said, her hand clutching the cotton skirt. Suddenly, her throat had filled with uncertainty and her stomach with butterflies. After a swallow, she managed to add, “And thank you for the hair sticks. And the barrette. They’re quite lovely.” It came out awkwardly stilted, then her tongue decided to continue. “I hope they weren’t too expensive?”

“No, not at all,” he quickly replied. “Better than the twig, I thought. Which, you read in my note. The twig was an inventive solution, though.” His words, too, were stilted. He raised a hand and scratched the back of his neck, his gaze drifting down from her face to her sandaled feet. “Oh, I thought to get you boots, too, as you’ll need them, but then thought it better you were there for a proper sizing. We can do that tomorrow. Most of the shops will be closing soon.”

“Okay,” she replied, once again feeling overwhelmed by his generosity. “I do hope you are keeping track so that I can properly repay you.”

“That’s what the ledger in my pocket is for,” he laughed and patted the pocket where he’d tucked the book. “Joking,” he assured. “But I have thought of a way for you to repay me.”

“How?” she asked, expecting further mention of the apothecary shop.

“You can become my apprentice,” he announced.

“Aren’t we already telling people that?” she asked, confused.

“No, I mean really become my apprentice,” he clarified. “Journey outside the town with me, help me gather and hunt. I also figure there’s more you know about herbs from those books you read, so you can teach me a thing or two as I teach you.”

“Okay,” she said, having no reason to disagree.

“Okay?” He sounded shocked at her quick acceptance.

“Well, it’s not like I have anywhere else to be,” she said as a joke but then thought better of her words. “I mean, I know I have much to learn, and not just about forestry. I don’t know this world, Athan. I feel…lost in it. Except… Except when I’m with you.”

“Oh.” His mouth opened a bit then he gave her a grin. “All right then. I already have orders coming in, so I plan to leave Lee’s Mill in a few days. But, if you aren’t healed up by then, we could postpone.”

“Oh, I wanted to show you.” Dnara pushed up the sleeve on one arm and held it out to him. “They’ve healed.”

Athan blinked at it then took her arm in hand, thumbing the scars. “Well, would you look at that.” His touch set the butterflies dancing in her stomach and she sucked in a breath. He glanced up from her scars, their eyes met and blotches of red appeared beneath freckles she hadn’t noticed on his cheeks before. He let her arm go but didn’t look away.

“Sorry, I didn’t-” He stopped, thought unfinished as his gaze refocused on something behind her in the street, then he glanced at her neck and his eyes widened. “Where’s your scarf?”

His tone sent a chill up her spine as her fingers clutched the paper wrapped garments. “I took it off for my bath. The old woman must’ve wrapped it with the other things.”

A quiet curse left his lips. “Too late now. Just follow my lead.”

“Athan?” She asked, frightened, and made to glance behind, catching the brief dark visage of an approaching horse and rider.

“Don’t,” he whispered. “Keep looking at me. And, laugh a little.”

“What?”

Athan didn’t respond, but instead put on a big grin and let out a laugh. With her heart threatening to pound through her chest, she managed a wooden giggle of her own. Athan kept his eyes on her, no longer looking into the street behind, and began talking about random tricks of the forestry trade. The horse drew closer and slowed, but Athan continued to talk, paying it no mind, and Dnara nodded along with his hand gestures, even asking a question about the toe-trap he’d described.

The horse stopped. A shadow loomed. Athan was finally forced to acknowledge the rider. Dnara looked up and the earth tilted beneath her feet. Hung from the horse’s saddle were three black ropes.

“Good day to you, ma’am,” Athan greeted.

“It may be,” the blackrope replied with a weathered grit to her voice.

Dnara’s hands began to shake, so she clenched her fists and focused on keeping her breathing steady. In all the warnings her keeper had given her about running away and being caught by the deadly blackrope mercenaries, never did he tell her that a blackrope could be a woman. This road-weathered woman dressed in the purest black from head to toe had taken Dnara completely by surprise. In her ignorance, Dnara would’ve been easy prey if it weren’t for Athan being by her side.

After eyeing them both for a silent moment, the blackrope asked in a tone that revealed nothing of intention, “You’re the local forester, yes?”

“One of several,” Athan replied. “Athan Ateiros, at your service, ma’am. Is there an item you would like me to add to my acquisitions list? Can’t promise you elk, not even if you were the king himself, but briarbears and field hens are still aplenty, though they are getting skinnier by the season.”

Athan’s normal friendly planter only seemed to agitate the woman, whose face remained cloaked in the shadow of her hood. The sunlight caught the etching of a deep scar along one cheek and the unexpected glint of silvery grey hair. “No,” she replied to Athan’s offer. “I not be needing no forester’s findings. What I’m looking for is a forester, and I think you might be the one.”

A nervous twitch tugged at the corner of Athan’s eye. “Not certain I follow, friend.”

The blackrope dismounted, her figure tall and no less menacing despite the age her grey hair implied. With a swift move of her hand, she lowered her hood, revealing a black streak on one side of her hair that held onto youth with the same grizzly determination apparent in the woman’s cold gray eyes. In sunlight, the glimpsed scar became a jagged gouge that crossed the woman’s face like a cavern, telling the unspoken story of a battle fought and survived. Gravel crunched under black boots and Dnara shied away, drawing the blackrope’s attention.

“Wasn’t sure,” the blackrope said to Athan without taking her penetrating gaze off Dnara. “Spotted you at the south end stable, dropping off your mule. Heard the tender greet you as a forester, so I followed you to be sure.”

“Sure of what?” Athan asked and attempted to step between the blackrope and Dnara.

“That you was the forester I’m looking for.” The blackrope didn’t step aside. “Crazy tale I heard last night, see. A man come into where I sat drinking at the Beggar’s Cup; a man just off the road and looking like he done rode away from the Shadow King himself. Attacked, he was, him and his friends, one man nearly killed; attacked by a forester on the road, a forester and a mageborne girl.”

Athan swallowed. “A wild tale, that.”

“Wild indeed, and most just laughed at the man, since he looked like a ragged beggar one sip short of the barrel.” The blackrope didn’t look like someone who laughed often. “But I, being a traveler, have heard stranger tales turn true. And now, right before me, I’ve got a forester fresh from the road, and a girl who looks out of place in these parts.”

Dnara glanced to her scarred arms, noting for the first time how her darker skin and even darker hair stood out in a village of pale complexions, brown, red or blond hair and facial features slightly different than her own. She knew the blackrope woman wanted an answer, but Dnara had none to offer. Instead, she stared intently at her boots and ensured the long sleeves of the dress continued to cover her arms.

“Girl?” the blackrope asked in a frustrated bark.

“Leave her be, please.” Athan kept his voice calm and raised an arm between her and the blackrope. “She’s no mageborne, just a friend of the family, and she’s extremely shy about her appearance.”

 “I’ll be the judge of that.” The blackrope pushed Athan further away. “Girl! Look at me!”

‘Pay attention, girl!’ came the memory of her keeper’s shout, carried by the wind.

Dnara snapped out of her thoughts and sucked in a breath. Fear skittered over her skin and a breeze tugged at her hair. The blackrope stood close enough for Dnara to smell the woman’s sour breath and spot another jagged scar across her exposed collarbone. On the left side of the blackrope’s chest, a stitched badge granted her the authority of the crown to act as judge, jury and mercenary.

Dnara’s hands fisted the wrapping paper so hard it ripped. She hated that badge. Rough fingers slipped beneath her chin and lifted it up with enough force to make her back teeth clack together.

The woman had beady eyes, like a rat; eyes that said she had no heart for sob stories nor compassion for bad luck. Her lips sank into a glowering frown as she turned Dnara’s head this way and that, then those beady eyes widened as she lifted Dnara’s chin further to look at her neck.

“Well, what have we here?” the woman asked to no one, because she already knew the answer. “There ain’t even a rookie blackrope who don’t know the signs of a previous collar. See, it takes years, girl.” She leaned in, her spittle slapping across Dnara’s cheek. “Years, to have that mark disappear. What I don’t see is a mark of solvency.”

“No mark was needed,” Athan said, making a move to grasp the woman’s arm but stopping short of assaulting a mercenary of the crown. “Was years ago, her collar, but her skin is slow to heal. Her family’s debt was repaid, by my father no less. Her being so young at the time, they thought not to mar her with the mark of a previous debt for the rest of her life.”

“Smells foul, that tale you’re spinning, lad.” The blackrope pushed Athan away with a stronger hand than her lithe figure belied and his back hit the brick wall. “Stay back, boy, or I’ll slip a rope round your neck for interfering in crown business.”

As Athan let out a pained grunt, Dnara thought only to save the man who had saved her. “Please, stop,” she spoke in the quiet, pleading voice she’d learned through years of passive placation. “He has nothing to do with this.”

The wind curled around her ankles, whipping her skirt as if angered by her submission. It began to feel familiar, the wind and the way her arms tingled. Her mind filled with flashes of the river, of Jorn’s desperation, of the imposing figure of a soldier on horseback surrounded by smoke and a scream carried by the wind; all of it pushing at her back, pulling at her heart, and filling her eyes with shadow.

“Please,” she whispered. “Stop.”

The blackrope hacked a ragged cough in the billowing dust kicked up by the rising wind. She reached for one of the ropes hung from her horse’s saddle, but the horse let out a frightened whinny and stepped back. It snorted and shook its head as the blackrope cursed and pulled at its reins. Hooves frenziedly stamped the ground; the horse would not be calmed.

“Cursed beast!” The blackrope let go of the reins before being carried off her feet. The blackrope’s other hand slid from Dnara’s chin to her neck and wrapped around it tightly like a collar. “This your doing, girl? You an untrained mageborne that done broke her collar somehow?!” The women’s voice nearly screamed over the growing wind as it howled to silence her. “You stop this, now!”

She sounded angry. Scared. Desperate.

“Dnara?” Athan called out but the wind carried his concern away.

“I’ve a right to take you,” the blackrope threatened, clinging onto the badge-given authority, as if it might save her. She managed to fist a rope and yank it off the saddle as the horse reared up and a dusty whirlwind blinded. The magic woven into the rope sizzled and snapped as she brought it near Dnara’s head. “I’ll end this,” she snarled through the grit.

No, Dnara heard the wind say. Her heart echoed it, but in fear for what she had become. Her, a mageborne? No. Please!

“I’m afraid,” Dnara whispered, but her heart screamed the truth of it. She only wanted for it all to end, for the magic to stop, and for the blackrope to forget she ever saw-

The wind died in an instant. The horse calmed. The blackrope stood unmoving.

A tranquil stillness enveloped Dnara, giving her a moment of peace. Through one exhale and another, the air returned and with it the world around her. A man yelling about overpriced bread from down the street shattered the quiet. The rest of the town moved on, oblivious to the three who stood outside the washhouse and the windstorm that had nearly swept them away.

The blackrope’s hand slipped from Dnara’s neck with a startle. “Wh-what?” the woman stuttered. Blinking several times, she looked around the street. “Where…?”

Athan took the woman’s befuddlement as an opportunity to step between her and Dnara. The blackrope looked from the rope in her hand to Athan. No longer coursing with magical energy, the coil of rope hung as limp and blandly brown as any hempen fiber, as did the two remaining ropes on the saddle. The blackrope’s eyes looked less like a rat’s and more like an old woman’s, confused and questioning.

“Who are you?” she asked Athan.

“Athan Ateiros, ma’am.” Athan glanced back to Dnara, who had tears stinging her eyes. He sought an explanation for the windstorm and the blackrope’s confusion, but Dnara had none to give.

The woman lowered the rope and rubbed a small scar on her chin. “And… And who am I?”

Athan turned back to the woman and began artfully spinning a tale with only slight hesitation. “Well, ma’am, I’m not certain. You fell off your horse and hit your head. I’ve heard that can cause temporary confusion.”

The woman nodded and rubbed the crown of her head, accepting Athan’s word as truth without question. “My head does ache a bit.” She looked back to the rope in her hands. “What’s this, then?”

Athan looked back to Dnara with wider eyes as the size of the problem revealed itself. She couldn’t meet his gaze. A pit had formed in her stomach, and it churned with fear and guilt.

“I’m sorry,” Dnara whispered, wishing to take it all back.

The woman stepped closer. “You all right, dear? Oh, what you crying for? I’m fine. Just fell off my… horse, was it?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Athan confirmed as Dnara sniffled.

“Hmm,” the woman hummed. “And, what’s a horse, exactly?”

“The animal behind you,” Athan replied stiffly.

“Ah!” The woman grinned. “Was gonna ask what it was next.”

“Dnara?” Athan quietly questioned as the breadth of what had happened became obvious.

“I didn’t mean to.” Dnara rubbed her arms as they tingled.

“Mean to what?” the woman asked.

“It’s okay,” Athan attempted to console Dnara, but she began crying in earnest then.

It was all too much. She had only wanted to be free. Freedom, it seemed, came with a price.

“Hey, now,” the woman lightly palmed Dnara’s shoulder then brought her into a hug. “It’s okay, dear.” The blackrope suddenly sounded like someone’s lost grandmother; kind and comforting. “It’s okay,” she continued to promise. “Have I forgotten you? Is that why you’re crying?”

Yes, Dnara thought. All she’d wanted was for the blackrope to forget her, to forget Athan, to forget everything and leave them alone. And the woman did.

Dnara should be happy to be forgotten and saved from the blackrope, but that happiness brought with it the guilt and fear that made her nauseous. Despite the woman’s blackrope clothes, the rope in her hands and the badge on her chest, Dnara clung to the woman and sobbed. The blackrope’s hands rubbed circles on Dnara’s back, as if she’d done it before for another frightened girl from a time now forever forgotten. The regret dug deeper and Dnara’s scars began to burn.

She didn’t want this. Not this. Not magic!

“Girl?” the woman asked as Dnara fought for breath.

“Dnara?” Athan caught her as the world went sideways and a shadow pulled her into the darkness.

The fear vanished. The guilt subsided. Here, she felt safe. Here, she could sleep.


Continue Reading  –>

When the Wind Speaks Chapter 10

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10

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’ve heard.”

“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.


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When the Wind Speaks Chapter 9

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9

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.”


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When the Wind Speaks Chapter 8

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8

There had been a family once.

A father. A mother. A sister named-

The names and faces continued to allude, muddied by time and distance. There had been laughter, a field of flowers and a song hummed as they played. The sun had been warm and the joy tangible. They bounded through the field together. They danced. They leapt. They ran.

They fled.

No longer laughing but screaming.

No longer the sun’s warmth but a raging fire.

No longer joy but fear.

And a shadow. A shadow chased. It caught father. It caught mother. It caught-

“Caelin,” Dnara muttered, her mind awash with fading dreams.

Footsteps approached, but she struggled to open her eyes. A hand swept into her hair, raising her head up. A waterskin pressed to her lips. Thirsty beyond reason, she drank deep until the skin ran dry, and even then, she felt as if she could drink the whole river and not be satisfied. The water fought back, and she struggled to breathe through a sputtering cough.

“Careful,” Athan said, pulling the skin away and helping her sit up.

A pain shot through her head when she opened her eyes to the campfire’s light, so she clamped them shut and tried to regain her bearings. “Where…?”

“We’re a half-night’s walk on the other side of the bridge, in a thicket called Elk Grove, not that it’s had any elk for probably a decade or more.”

Dnara tried opening her eyes again, more slowly than the last time. The campfire popped as a log split, and she heard the memory of a scream. She sat up with a gasp and stared down at her arms, their skin still tingling and now bound in cloth bandages. Treven gave a whinnied greeting from the other side of the camp where he stood, chewing through a gathered mound of fodder. Athan waited patiently for her to speak, but she didn’t even know where to begin.

“That man…” She could remember the sound of each bone breaking in his hand. Every snap. Every crack. Every scream. “What happened to him?”

Athan sat back on his haunches, his back to the fire. “Luckily, his brother could swim rather well for a big man. Fished that idiot out of the river after the others ran off to leave them to their fate. He lived, though I’m not sure he’ll ever be able to use that arm again…” Athan looked off into the darkness surrounding them, his hand idly rubbing his other arm in a phantom ache for a moment before he shook the memory loose and looked back to Dnara. “Should be fine aside from that, but I didn’t stick around to see for sure. Tossed you on the back of Treven and got as far from them as possible before exhaustion set in.”

“No,” Dnara said, still looking at her hand. “I mean, what happened to him?” Her eyes rose to meet his. “What happened to me?”

“How should I know?” Athan’s nose wrinkled and he stood up, putting his hands on his hips and facing the fire. “All I know about magic is that it’s usually more trouble than it’s worth. Would’ve been nice of you to tell me, though, that you’re a mageborne.”

“Mageborne? I’m no mageborne.” And the very idea sounded ludicrous to her. She hated mageborne. Granted, the only experience she had with them had been her keeper and his apprentices, but they were all cruel, demanding, arrogant- Being compared to them angered her. “If I had magic like that, do you honestly think I would’ve allowed myself to be kept?”

Athan put his back to the fire and examined her through a squint before rubbing the stubble on his jaw. “Fair point. So, you’re saying, whatever you did back there to that guy, you’ve never done before?”

“No!” As her ire rose, her arms itched beneath their bandages. Her anger shifted into concern. “What did you put on my arms?”

Athan crouched back down near her and took her wrist in hand. “The same stuff you showed Hector how to make, plus some virgin ash like you’d read in that book. Made a nice salve, actually. Thought it would help.”

The concern fell into fear. “Help…? With what, exactly?”

Athan grimaced then untied the knot on top of her wrist and unwound the bandage partway. “Your scars… It’s like they ripped back open.”

With shaking fingers, she touched her unbandaged skin. Beneath the layer of ashen paste speckled with green herbs, her scars were no longer jagged white scars. They were angry looking, the darkest of red and split open like caverns to the underworld.

“They didn’t bleed,” he said, taking a tin of salve from his pocket and reapplying it to the area before rewrapping the fabric around her arm. “Which isn’t even the weirdest thing.” He shook his head, as if trying to wrap his mind around it all, and retied the knot. “For a while, they were glowing.”

“Glowing?” She, too, found it hard to imagine.

“Guess your scars have never done that before, either?” he asked.

Dnara looked away from her arms and off to the side, the omission about her scars catching up with her. “No, but I’ve only had them for a day.”

Athan’s mouth fell open and he blinked at her. “What? But, they were fully healed, aged scars when I found you. How is it possible you’ve only had them a day?”

“I don’t know.” She sighed heavily, looking past his astonishment to stare into the fire. The flames crackled, sending sparks dancing into the air, wafting upwards where smoke melded with night’s dark embrace. Beyond the treetops, she could barely make out the stars, and the moon remained as absent as the night before. Drawing her knees to her chest, she exhaled the weight of uncertainty that continued to cling to her like her own shadow. “I don’t seem to know a great many things.”

Athan let her sulk in silence for a few moments before asking, “Who’s Caelin?”

Dnara lifted her head and stared back into the flames, the name both familiar and not. “I’m not sure…”

“You said the name as you were waking up,” Athan pressed.

She closed her eyes, trying to remember. The wind caught the trails of curling campfire smoke and drifted the scent to her. “Caelin…” The name brought with it glimpses of sunlight and laughter, then of ash and screaming. Dnara flinched away from the memory before it could get too close. “My sister, maybe? It was… a long time ago.”

“A sister?” Athan questioned. “I thought you don’t have any family?”

“I don’t,” she replied, weary of the questions. “I’m pretty sure she died.”

“Oh.” Athan stood back up and walked to the fire, casting shadows over her as he paced. The pacing stopped and the shadows paused. “I’m sorry.”

Dnara watched as he stood in front of the fire, a hand on his hip and another at the back of his neck. He looked as if he carried a great burden on his shoulders, and perhaps he did. Perhaps that very burden sat with her arms bandaged after having nearly killed a man. He hadn’t asked for any of this, no more than she had asked to be kept all those years, away from the world.

“I’m sorry, too,” she said and he turned back around to face her, confusion in his eyes. “For not telling you about the scars,” she clarified, but that wasn’t all. “For… For all of this. You had every right to leave me where you found me, collared in the mud. It could bring you so much trouble, that collar, even from the bottom of the river. And now… Now I’ve nearly killed a man…”

“Word will probably get out,” Athan nodded, confirming her fears in the steadfast, honest tone she’d already grown accustomed to. He crouched down, the corner of his mouth lifting. “An unsanctioned mageborne giving Jorn a swimming lesson, thieving ass that he is, is bound to garner attention.”

Just hearing the man’s name brought back the memory of the desperate madness in his eyes. She shivered, but Athan’s playful smirk made her feel as if it could somehow all be okay. “He was an ass,” she agreed, but wasn’t able to return his smile. “But what I did to his arm… He didn’t deserve that.”

“Desperation isn’t an excuse for what he intended to do to you,” Athan argued. “I could see it in his eyes, and so could his brother. The blight’s madness had taken hold. The cold bath you gave him may’ve saved him from doing something he could never come back from. If a broken arm is his payment for staving off the blight a while longer, then it’s a price well paid.”

Dnara took in his words, but struggled to make sense of it all. “Athan, will you explain it to me? This blight you keep speaking of? I feel as if it’s a secret to none but me, and it’s making me feel so…lost in this world.”

“I can’t believe you’ve never heard of it.” Athan settled cross-legged on the leaf-covered ground, as if the talk they were about to have would be a long one. “I’ll tell you all I know, which is as much as the next man but isn’t near enough, or too much depending on how you look at it.”

“I don’t understand,” she said as her stomach took that moment to announce its hunger.

Athan let out an amused chuckle then headed over to his rucksack. He returned with a few pieces of jerky wrapped in waxed paper. “Sorry, but the hunting here is awful, so smoked briarbear will have to do.”

“It’s fine, thank you.” She took a bite of the tough jerky and chewed well. He’d added some type of spice to the meat, so it wasn’t unpleasant. After swallowing, she asked, “Is the poor hunting because of the blight?”

“It is.” He took a bite too and chewed, his brow weighted in thought. “I always prefer to start at the beginning when I’m telling a story, but with the blight, that’s a hard thing to do. See, no one’s exactly sure when it all started, or how long it’s really been going on. Some folks say a hundred years, because that’s when it started getting bad enough for common folks to notice. Other folks will say three or four hundred years, but it was sporadic, like the coming of locusts every few decades. There are also those, mostly scholars and the like, who say it’s always existed, existed but kept at bay.”

“Kept at bay?” she asked through another long chew. “How?”

“Nobody knows, not even the scholars. There’s rumors of hemlock or oranges or even goats’ blood keeping the blight at bay, but that’s just superstitious folk who’re desperate for a remedy. Heck, ain’t no oranges left, so I doubt spreading the rinds around did any good at keeping the blight from your farmland.”

“No more oranges?” Dnara could’ve sworn she’d had an orange just a few months ago, swiped from the kitchen and eaten under her favorite tree behind the hay shed.

“Not a single one,” Athan confirmed. “Well, maybe in some secret grove somewhere. I mean, it’s hard to image a whole world without oranges, but I haven’t seen one at the market since childhood, and even then they were priced well beyond the shallow depth of my mother’s coin purse.”

Dnara suddenly felt guilty for having eaten such a precious commodity and haphazardly spitting the seeds into the dirt. Her keeper had been a mage of great means, certainly, and she wondered what other rare things she had eaten without knowing their value. “You’ve said the blight affects crops and farms, but also animals? And, men?”

“That it does,” he nodded then smiled at her confusion. “Sorry, I’m probably not making much sense. It’s just strange, having to explain this to someone. I’ve never met a person, child nor elder, whose life hadn’t been touched by the blight in some way.”

“Including you?” she asked before thinking, then thought better of her prying. “Forestry is hard with a lack of animals, I would assume.”

“Yes.” His smile softened into wistful contemplation. “I’d never intended to become a forester. When I was young, I’d planned to take over my family’s farm. We grew cabbages.” He held his hands up to form a large circle. “Big, prize winning cabbages, of the darkest purple and the brightest green.”

Dnara’s nose wrinkled, having survived on a mainstay of cabbage stew and stale bread. “I’m not a fan of cabbages.” 

“Neither is the blight,” Athan said with a brighter smile which faded into a sigh. “At least, that’s what Dad always said. It kept skipping our farm, see, every time it encroached. It’d take the carrot farm a few pastures over, then recede. Next season, it took the sheep. Season after, the beets. But, never our cabbages. Other farmers thought we’d made some sort of magical deal with Demroth, desperate as they’d become. I think they would’ve burned our farm that next season if the blight hadn’t finally gained a taste for cabbages.”

Athan’s expression grew dark. “I think, in the end, Dad would’ve made a deal with Demroth to save our crops, if Demroth actually exists.”

“You don’t think the Shadow King exists?” Dnara asked in a hushed, forboden whisper.

Athan blinked away the gloom in his eyes and tried to rekindle the smile on his lips, giving a dismissive shrug to her question. “Don’t know, don’t really care. Gods and legends, no difference to me. Powerful people who were probably mortal like you and me, but got remembered for things they did a long time ago. I don’t see Retgar coming down from Faedra’s Sacred Halls with blazing axe in hand to smite the blight, do you?”

Dnara shook her head but thought more on his words. Could the gods merely be people of legend from long ago? She’d never considered herself a devoted follower to any of the gods, despite her keeper’s insistence she learn about each one, but she hadn’t even the courage to question her keeper, much less the existence of gods.

“So, your family lost the farm?” she asked instead.

Athan looked past her, into the shadows beyond the trees. “We lost everything. That year, the blight didn’t recede with the winter. It took hold, grew deep roots, and turned everything to ruin. Dad left for the Sapphire Coast, hoping to find work on one of the trade ships; haven’t heard tale of him since. Mom died the next winter, the ill-fated babe Dad left in her belly taking them both to Faedra’s Halls. And my younger brother- Well, he hasn’t been the same since.”

Her curiosity about Athan’s past came back to haunt her in a feeling of guilt at asking him to relive such unpleasantries. A father lost, a mother dead and her baby with it, and a brother forever changed; if it was that the gods didn’t exist, or did but languished in apathy, Dnara could see it made no difference. The here and now spoke the truth of it. The blight affected all it touched, from field to family, and it had torn Athan’s family asunder.

“I’m sorry,” she said, though the words felt inadequate.

He forced a smile and offered her more jerky. “Mine is just a story of thousands. Maybe even yours, too. You were young when you were collared and your sister died, right?”

“I think so, yes.” She selected another strip of meat and suckled the end. “It’s all very hard to remember, blurry and incomplete. I do remember a fire…maybe?”

“Sounds like the blight,” Athan said. “They burned all the fields and farms in our hamlet, by the King’s order. Some farmers refused. Some farmers died at the hands of the king’s soldiers. Maybe King Eldramoore ordered your family’s land burned, too?”

 Eldramoore… It wasn’t a familiar name to her, but by this point she’d stopped being surprised at all the things her keeper had kept away from her. This included her continued ignorance about the blight. “Maybe,” she answered through a yawn, feeling no closer to the truth.

“You should get some more rest,” Athan said as she quietly chewed on the jerky. “We have a half-day’s journey before we reach Lee’s Mill. But, I promise, by this time tomorrow, you’ll be in a bed with a real meal in your stomach.”

“And a bath?” she asked, hopeful.

He laughed as he stood. “And a bath. Can’t have the Lady Thorngrove smelling like a muddy forest, or they’re likely to toss you out of the inn.”

Dnara sniffed her collar, recoiling at the repugnant stench of sweat and muck. “I’d toss me out, too.”

Athan’s light chuckle filled the small clearing and Treven neighed along with it. After all Athan had been through, he found it possible to be jovial and kind and generous. Jorn had become the opposite, his madness springing from pain and desperation. As she chewed her last bite and watched the campfire under drooping eyelids, Dnara contemplated what she would become outside of her forest tower and within reach of the blight. Part of her had to wonder if her keeper’s tower had indeed been a prison, or if it had been a sanctuary.


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When the Wind Speaks Chapter 7

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7
The Traveler

Deep within the Silverwood forest, Serenthel awoke with a scream.

His wide eyes stared wildly up at the tree canopy as his chest heaved in an effort to draw in air. The branches swayed with a strange wind, their forms slowly taking shape to dispel the lingering visions from an unsettling dream. A nesting pair of honey breasted wrens vocally protested his disturbance, and the scattering of deer could be heard through the nearby thicket.

Ah, nettles!, he cursed silently and raised a hand to his aching head. He’d been tracking those deer all morning, hoping to catch sight of the sickened doe reported by a local watcher. The herd had been close, just in the next clearing over, when the dream had overtaken him.

He sat up and found himself alone, nestled in the crook between moss topped tree roots half a man high which jutted from the earth like miniature mountain ranges along the forest floor, connecting each tree to the trees around it. The forest breathed as spring-sweetened breezes played through the branches like an exhale. Above, the wrens gave up their arguments and the forest fell silent once more. In the settling stillness, Serenthel heard his own heart pounding in his sharply pointed ears as an ominous shiver twitched up his spine.

He had never dreamed before.

With legs crossed, eyes closed and his back pressed against the rough tree bark, he focused on reining in his racing heart. A bead of sweat rolled down his smooth jawline despite the cool dampness of the forest floor. His hands fisted over his knees. Behind his eyelids, he once more saw flames trapped within shadow and heard the thunderous roar that followed in its wake.

Unable to shake the dream, he stood and cast his eyes towards his lost quarry. The possibly injured doe would have to wait. One did not simply have a dream within the Silverwood and carry on with their day.

The Silverwood stood as a forest of sky reaching silverbark sequoia whose grey trunks grew thirty feet around and played tricks on the eye to appear as silver as a swordsman’s blade when the light hit them just right. This part of the Elvan lands lay far southeast beyond Lath’limnieir’s Wall and the Greenwood Dale, deeply entrenched in a winding valley that had remained protected from the ever expanding dreams of man. The Elvan thought themselves safe there. They were supposed to be safe there.

Hands on his hips, Serenthel took in a deep breath of loamy air scented by tree sap, dark earth and a nearby stream. The breeze tugged through his auburn hair, lifting it from his shoulders. His nose wrinkled at an unexpected sour note to the wind and he glowered in the direction from whence it came. The herd. Perhaps he was too late and the doe had died. With a disappointed sigh, he gathered his pack and resolved himself to sending a scout to retrieve the poor creature’s corpse so he could at least investigate the cause.

It had been a hard winter, he reminded himself. The doe could’ve been sickened from malnourishment or the infected bite of a wolf hunt not so perfectly evaded. There would be little good in fearing the worst without seeing it with his own eyes. Carnath and its blight, after all, lay a long journey north and beyond the wall.

Even if the blight said to be plaguing the northernmost kingdom of man was truly as bad as the rumors led him to believe, to think it could pass the wall’s protective wards raised more concerns than were prudent without evidence. The troubles of man, he knew, had a bothersome habit of spreading to other kingdoms like wildfire, and with them came the fear and ignorance that could upend entire nations. It had been nigh on a thousand years since the last great helyn’tir, but like the trees surrounding him, the memory of the Elvan people remained long enough to remember it well enough to be worried. The memory of man was short, however, and their kind seemed doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

With a high whistle, Serenthel called to his friend and walked towards the river where he knew his friend would be waiting. His friend came to greet him a small distance from the riverbank and gave a low rumbling call and a shake of velvet covered antlers. Serenthel patted the elk stag’s thickly furred neck and received a customary nuzzle in return.

Vastha lythel, Forfolyn,” Serenthel greeted and checked the loomed cloth riding blanket draped over Forfolyn’s strong back. The stag stared off to the forest behind and dug one front hoof against the earth. Serenthel gave his friend a pat of reassurance. “No, I did not find the doe, my friend, but other troubles must direct our path now. I have had a dream.”

Forfolyn turned his large head back to look at Serenthel, as if understanding those words and their urgent nature. In Forfolyn’s large brown eyes, Serenthel saw the wisdom of the forest reflected. “Do not worry so, my friend,” Serenthel assured as he lifted himself gracefully onto the elk’s back. “We will go and see our Mother. She will know what to do.”

Forfolyn set off along the riverbank without even the slightest nudge to his ribs from Serenthel. They’d been friends for onwards of twenty summers, the Mother’s magic allowing the elk to age at a slower pace in keeping with Serenthel’s own natural progression. Forfolyn ran with the vigor of an elk a quarter his age, and Serenthel had last year concluded the rights of Hyn after reaching the age of thirty summers, passing from youth’s sweet embrace to a role requiring more responsibility. Appearing no more than sixteen in the years of man, Serenthel knew he had barely scratched the beginning of life’s journey. He had over a century and a half of growth yet before reaching Hynna’durai, the age when you chose to lay down life’s burdens and rejoin the land which birthed you, or to become a voice of the land for the people, like the Mother.

Of which option Serenthel would choose when he got there, he had not decided. As it was, he believed the same as his kin: the journey, and not the destination, was what mattered most. And now that he had been gifted a dream, where that journey may take him held uncertain but wondrous promise. A dream, as rare as they had become and even as frightening as his had been, were often the start of great adventures as retold and shared in memories passed down from one generation to the next. Portents of great upheaval and change, yes, but did not all great adventures begin with a great change?

Serenthel did his best to cast off his excitement and maintain a calm presence as he entered the Mother’s Grove. He nodded to the sentries posted in front of two large silverbark trees whose arching bowers served as the entryway. Built along these trees in an ancient technique that could support structures without harming the trees themselves, stairs rounded upwards into landings, communal houses and gathering places. Rope bound wood plank bridges stretched across from tree to tree at dizzying heights. Everbright lanterns lit the way, their soft white glow dotting the tree canopy with small beacons of life and welcoming home the children of the Lwyn’fam

In his thirty years, he had yet to walk through the gate without pausing in awe to look up at all his people had accomplished. He believed that even in his three-hundredth year, the same feelings of coming home would persist. Perhaps becoming a voice of the land would not be disagreeable with him, if it meant he could stay here in this place and stare up at the lighted canopy until the end of time.

“Serenthel, vastha lythel!” a young voice called out.

Serenthel smiled across the clearing as a boy weaved in and out of passing groups with the energy and boundless emotion that would be tempered in his later years. A few of the elders raised their eyebrows in the boy’s direction, and one or two called out for him to slow his pacing, but most joined Serenthel in his smiling at the reminders of what had been left behind after the rights of Hyn. The boy skidded to a stop in front of Forfolyn and set a palm against the stag’s nose in greeting.

“Hail, Efferthas,” Serenthel greeted with a raised hand and restrained levity befitting one of his age. “You come as a spring rabbit newly awakened from the burrow, though less quietly so.”

Efferthas flushed and ducked his head. “I mean no disturbance, brother, but I have been sent to find your arrival. Mother knows of your return and has requested your presence.”

The hairs at the back of Serenthel’s neck raised. Mother must know of the dream, he thought, and was not entirely surprised by the news. Pride had him wanting to share this rare happening with Efferthas, but forethought held his tongue. Dismounting, he handed Forfolyn’s loosely harnessed reins to the boy, who in truth was only four years Serenthel’s junior.

“Please see to Forfolyn,” Serenthel requested. “And see that a scout is sent to the bitterroot thicket just west of Swallows Bend. I believe a doe has met an unfortunate end, and I wish the body be brought to the druids for examination lest it be some sickness that may spread to the others.”

“Best to be assured,” Efferthas agreed, his solemn tone more in keeping with a youth only a few swiftly passing years away from his Hyn. “I will see it is done. You should hurry. Mother seemed… troubled.”

Serenthel set a reassuring hand on Efferthas’s shoulder. “Worry not, brother. All will be well.” He set off across the open market area beneath the canopy, not quite as assured by his own words as he’d like to have been.

He passed by a group of weavers huddled around one loom, the elders passing on their knowledge to the younglings with care and patience. After a hundred years of practice, they would still be considered apprentices. Only a few would ever truly reach the expertise required to be called a meis’wyd, or Loom Master. The Lwyn’fam currently had only two, one a few years from his time of choosing, and another a quarter century behind. The younger weavers watched their elder’s hands move over the loom with rapt attention, in their eyes a hope that their hands would one day would hold as much skill.

Such was the way of the Elvan; an extended youth leading into a century of training and perfecting a chosen profession. Be they weaver or druid or bowyer, each had a skill to be nourished, cherished and shared. Efferthas had already chosen to become a watcher, his love for the elk and exploration setting him on a path towards a Hyn that would allow some freedom to keep his seemingly boundless energy and untempered spirit as he watched over the migrating herds both near and far from the grove. Serenthel, too, once considered the path of the watcher, but in the end, the Mother helped him to see that his was a similar yet vastly different calling. Perhaps then, as now, she had already foreseen the dream that was to come.

He thought over the dream as he walked across the clearing, pausing only to take a piece of flatbread offered freely by a hearthkeeper. “Thank you, sister.”

Unlike the wealth driven economies of man, his appreciative smile was all the payment required for the bread she’d spent the morning making. Her bread was shared to all, and all would in turn share the products of their chosen paths with her. It was hard for him to understand how a society could properly function any other way, with the needs of some being pushed aside for the want of few circles of pressed metal with the face of a crowned man stamped on it. It seemed a strange thing indeed to labor for coins you could not eat only to exchange them for something you could.

The bread’s warm flavors were a welcome distraction from the lingering dream. He thought instead of the talent required to mingle such herbs and get the dough just right to form a soft texture inside a hard crust. He thought of the beautiful blankets and fabrics the weavers created, of the artfully carved longbows that could shoot across a hundred yards without effort, of the music he could hear pleasantly playing along with the breeze dancing in the leaves, of his home; a home he knew he would soon be leaving.

By the time his feet had taken him to the Mother’s Tree, he had finished the bread but felt no less apprehensive. If anything, it had reminded him of all he would soon be called upon to leave behind. He hadn’t known it would come in the form of a dream, but he had known since the day he accepted his path, that a traveler was not destined to remain long in the place of his birth.

Vastha lythel, Serenthel,” one of the Mother’s attendants warmly greeted. She had hand painted beads woven into her blonde hair and a simple dress of white that had been proudly stained brown and green around the edges by hours spent tending the Mother’s garden. “The Mother is waiting for you.”

“Thank you, Lissan.” Serenthel passed under a shaped bower of wild purple wisteria branches and entered the garden. A sense of serenity permeated the air, along with the scents of flowers forever in bloom be it the height of spring or the depths of winter. The Mother’s garden was a place set a part from the outside world, yet fully connected to it in ways Serenthel knew he could never truly understand.

Well-tended flower beds and neatly stoned paths flowed in and out from more chaotic sections that had been left to grow as nature intended. Dark spaces of shade untouched by light juxtaposed bright and airy plots where tulips grew in organized rows of varying colors. Water trickled into a pond topped by lilies and alive with golden scaled fish. Hummingbirds and butterflies and bees flitted from flower to flower, forever dancing within a paradise of unending abundance. Centering it all stood a tree, its light pink flowers forever in bloom despite ripe fruit and silver leaves always hanging from its branches. Its height remained short and its canopy’s shadow never growing beyond the small sloping hill on which it had rooted. The hill gave the most splendid view of the garden, and on it, under her tree, sat the Mother.

Although, she didn’t exactly sit. Like the tree at her back, the bottom of her legs had become wooden, rooted into the earth and connected with it. Unmovable, and forever looking out onto her eternal garden. The price of immortality, they said. At her Hynna’durai, she had chosen to become a voice of the forest for the Lwyn’fam.  The price, her mobility and part of who she had been, served as fertile soil for a seed to grow. From this seed, she had gained sight beyond where she sat rooted, and knowledge older than the trees.

Despite such wondrous gifts, Serenthel was uncertain he would find such a price agreeable. His legs always craved movement, his eyes always seeking something new to see. That he had been named the Lwyn’fam’s first traveler in over a hundred years came as little surprise to those who knew his heart best. The previous traveler had not yet returned, so it fell to the community to become his guide. It seemed everyone in the grove had something to teach him, some small or large piece of advice to share.

Be mindful of your surroundings. Always pack for longer than you expect. This plant is edible, but this one will kill you. Represent our people with dignity, compassion and grace. Humans rarely say what they mean. Do not go into the Grey Marsh. Come back to us.

Observe, learn, but do not interfere. Humans can be dangerous. Come back to us.

Shadows can exist in the most radiant of lights. Do not be tempted by the dreaming.

Come back to us.

With those words whispering across strands of anxious tension, he reverently approached the grove’s first traveler. She had seen the far reaches of the world, observed and learned and brought stories back to her people. She had come back home in her one-hundredth and eighty-seventh year and chose to never leave it again. Would his eyes show him the same fate, he wondered? Would seeing the world lead him to desire such an ending for his journey?

  “Ah, the traveler has come.” The Mother’s greeting rang clear over the garden, almost as birdsong more than a woman’s voice.

Her white, colorless eyes looked up as Serenthel’s shadow joined the speckled shadow of her flowering tree. Long tresses of equally white hair hung in straight lines from her head and pooled around her in puddles of moonlight. Woven between the strands, vines grew and flowers blossomed, their roots clinging to her body and seeping into her milky skin. Her smile was ethereal, and it brought unmeasured joy to his heart.

“Mother,” he said softly and lowered to one knee before her. “I come as summoned, and in search of your guidance.”

“You have dreamed,” she said, the words reverberating into his very soul and carrying with them a weight that foretold his future. “And you now feel the pull of the unseen world upon your spirit.”

“Yes, Mother.” That she understood did not surprise him, but it also did not put him any more at ease. “It both excites and frightens me.”

“As it should, traveler.” She smiled at him and touched a spot on the grass beside her.

He gratefully accepted her invitation and sat next to her, his knees pulled up to his chest in a manner not in keeping with one who had passed his Hyn but more so bearing of the youth he’d been meant to leave behind. There were no elders to judge him in this garden, however, so he forwent the more dignified posture of sitting with his legs tucked under him and knees to the ground. The Mother was more than an elder; she was, well, the Mother, and in her presence he felt but a child.

“Did you know?” he first asked the question most weighing on his mind. “When you said I should be the one to investigate the doe, did you know I was to have a dream today?”

“No,” she replied, her smile wistful.  “I knew only that the winds have changed, and in them I felt your own time of change drawing near. That it would come as a dream is not entirely unexpected, though the nature of it is…disquieting.”

To hear that even the Mother had been troubled by the dream’s darkness made Serenthel hug his knees more tightly. “It was not a pleasant experience. Is it always like that, to dream?”

“There was a time,” she said and cast her gaze out over her garden, “when we welcomed and even sought out the dreams of man. Back when the world was young and man’s place in it younger still, our kind felt drawn to the dream, a magic we could not ourselves create, a magic that man continues to maintain a blind ignorance to. They know not the power of their dreams, and as the nature of man darkened, so too did their dreams. The dreaming claimed many an Elvan spirit before we learned ways to keep safe from their strong allure.”

“Lanth’limnier’s Wall,” Serenthel spoke softly the name of the great wall he had heard stories of but never seen with his own eyes.

He could imagine its towering stones splitting the earth between the Elvan lands and the lands of Orynthis. The great elk statues gleaming alabaster white in the sun. The large iron barred tunnels that allowed water and fish to flow from the Idrisil Riverlands into the Greenwood Dale. The watchers with their bows at the ready to fire warnings at any who dared attempt to sneak into what remained of the Elvan homelands.

Idrisil and parts of Orynthis had once belong to the Elvan people, too, before the fall of D’nas Glas. Now, the Riverland’s tainted source and the ruins of that once great Elvan city lay on the other side of the White Stag Gate, a gate few Elvan would ever walk beyond, a gate he may well soon be seeing for himself. Try though he might, he could not quiet the trepidation quickening his heartbeat. If the Elvan people had once fallen prey to the darker dreams of man and been corrupted by their tempting power, how was he not to become yet another lost spirit when he crossed the wall?

As if hearing every uncertain thought drifting through his head, Mother placed her hand over his. Her long, slender fingers gave his rougher, earth worked skin a squeeze then retreated. In his palm, he found she had left something behind.

“A gift,” she said as he examined the smooth alabaster stone. “It will help keep the darker dreams at bay.”

The milky white, round stone had a hole drilled through it and was hung from a leather band. One side was completely smooth and looked like the full moon. On the other side, the delicate image of a great tree had been carved. Simply holding it within his palm, he felt reminded of home and more at ease with the journey that awaited him.

“Thank you, Mother.” He hung the stone from around his neck and returned her gentle smile. A peaceful silence drifted between them, the traveler and the traveled, until his heart could no longer contain its other questions. “Where do I begin?”

“All journeys begin with but a single step,” she said, her gaze cast back out over the flowers. “Your heart will choose the path.”

A sweet breeze lifted the strands of hair from her brow, and he though he saw the hint of some deep melancholy cross her vision. Heretofore unnoticed wrinkles and signs of time’s heavy weight sagged her ageless face. Her lips parted, a breath came and went, then whispered words broke her silent watch of memories he could not see.

“Promise me, traveler; no matter how steep the path, nor how sharp its stones underfoot, nor how uncertain the bend in the road may be, you will follow it. Follow it to its very end, for only at its end will you find your way back home.”

With his hand clutching the smooth alabaster, he looked upon her garden and answered with his heart. “To its very end, Mother, I promise.”


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When the Wind Speaks Chapter 6

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6
Retgar & the Dragon

And Retgar, fearless sun god and savior of man, came out of the Red City, following the line of the mountains east into Uriman where the great dragon dwelled. Retgar, his red beard bristled and keen eyes sharp, walked without fear nor hesitation, for his heart held true the reason for his quest. He took his mighty axe, its blade shaped by his brother Brodan in the forges of Thaldis Dar, and hunted the dragon from field to forest to mountain to desert. The dragon could not run far enough nor hide deep enough from Retgar’s blade, for the dragon had stolen what Retgar valued most in all Ellium.

The dragon had taken Faedra, Retgar’s beloved, and Retgar would end the whole world to take her back. But there, in the lands of Uriman, the dragon came upon Demroth. Together they conspired of Retgar’s end, for Demroth, too, had fallen in love with the fair Faedra. The battle to come would be fierce, for Demroth held a great magic, and the dragon could topple mountains in a single breath.

Lo there she wept, the fair Faedra, that such grief could be caused by love. From her eyes sprang the Indrisil Riverlands; at their heart, a pool of tears which ran bitterly salted and ripe with death: the Grey Marsh. She cried and begged the shadow lord Demroth not to use his magic, but he could not be swayed. Her pleas fell upon the dragon, and the dragon saw a great truth revealed by the full moon.

When Retgar came to save his beloved, Demroth met him in the field. Demroth gathered his greatest magics about him, ready to strike. Retgar raised his axe and would not be moved. The moonlight glimmered along its blade and caught the dragon moving from the shadows in its reflection. The dragon struck, quick as the wind. It struck, not Retgar but Demroth.

Faedra cried in joy at the dragon’s betrayal. Injured beyond measure, Demroth faded into shadow to save what remained. Retgar, victorious, returned to the Red City. He carried with him Faedra and the powerful magics once hoarded by Demroth, now to be shared with all the lands. The remaining kingdoms rejoiced as Uriman sunk into the sand.

What became of the dragon, no one can say. Some say it  flew south, into the Elvan homelands. Some say it disappeared west over the sea. The truth lies with Demroth, forever trapped within shadows and lost to the wind.

Retgar’s Saga, Chapter 7
Verses 64 – 70


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When the Wind Speaks Chapter 5

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5

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.

Sleep.

And she did.


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When the Wind Speaks Chapter 4

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4

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.


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When the Wind Speaks Chapter 3

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3

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.

“Dnara?”

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.


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When the Wind Speaks Chapter 2

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Part 1 – When The Wind Speaks

They say the wind once had a voice, speaking words people could understand. It spoke in verses that would reach the heart of men, singing them to sleep or calling them to battle. Glimpses of the future were given on light breezes, and the past could be heard in wind borne storms. It wove stories into dreams and back again, and from them came the prelude to legends. It would laugh with us in our times of triumph, and it would cry for us in our follies.

Then, one day, the wind abandoned us.

Where once there stood an unshakable empire now lies a desert. The sands encroach westward, chasing remnants of what was. Lost are the dreams, forgotten are the truths.

The wind no longer speaks to us, us few who remain, but still we wait for its return. We miss its howl of fury, its gentle caress. We linger in stagnant ruins, longing for a single word, a whisper, the note of a song. With our mouths shut and ears to the wind, we wait in silence for it to speak again.

-Ishkar Ankari,
Last Oracle of
Iru


2

Dnara awoke to a gentle breeze tickling her scratched cheek. Her eyelids heavy, she struggled to put the world back together again. There had been a fire… An explosion? It all felt to her like a dream. The pain in her body told her it had been quite real.

She remembered the mud. The cold earth seeping into her skin and the hot wind breathing at her back. The lightning and the thunder. The sound. The sound of-

Dnara startled upright, a whispered word setting a chill up her spine as a fire crackled nearby. A fire? Her gaze shifted to the unexpected flames as they danced in orange and red embers from their stone-circled cage, sizzling and casting shadows to the surrounding trees. The trees themselves stood tall and proud, encircling two fallen brethren who had created a small clearing with their moss covered trunks. Dnara now rested propped up against one of those fallen trees, its bark digging into her skin and reminding her she was alive.

Blinking in the firelight, Dnara struggled to see where she was, or perhaps more importantly, how she had gotten there. Hadn’t she been face down in a mud puddle, clothes soaked and arms burning? She glanced down to her arms, expecting to see the same lightning veins crawling under her skin, but there was only caked mud and a stray leaf. Perhaps it all had been a strange dream, after all.

The fire popped beside her. Dream or not, it didn’t explain how she had come to sit in a clearing next to a campfire, nor who may have built the fire. If only her head would stop spinning so she could focus. A wave of nausea overtook her, and she relaxed back against the log, content for now to simply no longer be running. Her legs ached with the memory of it, and her eyelids once more grew heavy.

Smoke filled her dream as the campfire kept vigil. In the trees overhead, birdsong carried a tune somehow familiar. The fire snapped. She felt herself sink into the earth. The smoke grew a face with lips that smiled, and from those lips came that same word. She strained to hear it, to understand. Around her, the birdsong fell silent. The face no longer smiled. It spoke a new word, one as clear to her heart as the urgent fear which spoke it.

Run.

A roar from the darkness clawed at the wind. The trees shook to the sound of angry thunder. A hundred grey ashbirds took flight.

Gasping for air as the thunder stole her breath, Dnara awoke again, this time to a fire now burning low from hours passed. And, she was no longer alone. From across the fire came the birdsong’s tune of her dream, now played on the soft chords of a wood flute.

Unable to make out the person’s features through the fire’s haze, she sank down lower against the dead tree at her back. The darkness beyond the trees told her night had fallen some time ago. If she could perhaps sneak into the shadows and-

“Ah, you’re awake,” a man spoke, his voice as gently playful as the flute song that had gone silent. “Thank the gods. Wasn’t sure what to do with you if you died. I mean, do I just bury you out in the woods? I don’t even know what name to put on your marker.”

Dnara swallowed on a dry throat, the topic not one you think to wake up to, especially when confronted with a strange man. Still, she wasn’t dead, and he did seem relieved of that fact. He hadn’t harmed her, and could easily have left her. Unless, he meant to sell her to a blackrope. Her fingers immediately raised to her neck, only to find it naked.

“Oh, don’t worry about that thing,” he said, motioning to a nearby stone where the collar rested. “I’m no blackrope, nor a slave trading bastard.”

Her heart calmed as her eyes set on the metal collar. It looked lifeless and strange, seeing it somewhere other than where it had been for too many summers to count. Moving her fingers away from her neck, she swore she could still feel the cold weight of it.

“The starstone in it is cracked anyway,” he continued, taking a small step closer to her but stopping as she flinched. “Which is good, because I needed to take it off to put salve on your wound. Well, one of you wounds. You sure did take a tumble through those briars.”

He paused, but she had no reply. It had become nearly impossible over the years, to speak without being commanded to do so. His hand raised to the back of his neck and scratched while his hazel eyes examined her. He did look friendly, what little experience she had with such a disposition.

“Your ankle looks twisted.” He carried the conversation when it became clear she couldn’t. “Do you hurt anywhere else? I, uh, didn’t check too much, because I didn’t think it’d be appropriate…” His words trailed off and his eyes looked to the fire. “And what I could see… It-” His hand fisted around the wood flute. “It was hard to tell what injuries might be new amongst all the scars.”

Dnara instinctively hugged herself. The scars, she knew, were numerous. Most were across her back, each line representing food she had snuck from the kitchen, times she took too long with her duties, being where she shouldn’t, or getting caught with a book. Those were the most numerous, her book scars, like pages in a story. Each one had been worth the price.

“I’ve never seen scars like those before,” he said. “Most keepers lash their slaves on the back. Never seen one go after the arms. Must be a right sick bastard, your keeper.”

Her arms? Dnara glanced down at them in confusion then began wiping away the mud coating her skin. Never had she been beaten on her arms, but there beyond the flaking dirt were hundreds of tiny scars, threaded together in a pattern matching the paths of her veins. White and jagged, like lightning.

The man tilted his head at her, stepping closer. She tugged down the sleeves of her dress, the fabric torn so badly on one arm it barely covered anything at all. He took a step back, hands and flute raised.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to pry. Just curious is all, I promise.” And once again, his smile seemed friendly, almost familiar.

As if she had seen it a thousand times, or some semblance of it, at least. A hundred-thousand times in pointless wishes for freedom made by the disillusioned mind of a child fueled by an imagination that had died years ago under a keeper’s lash. Dnara closed her eyes to this man’s smile, too. It would only be a matter of time before he sold her, or took her for himself.

The fire’s crackling refrain filled in the silent space left between them as she remained unresponsive to his words. Perhaps if she remained quiet, he would grow bored and leave her alone to the woods and the wolves. The damp, dirty linen curled under her fingers. He should have left her in the mud to die.

Live. The wind tussled her hair and whispered through the leaves. She had wanted to live.

“Are you hungry?”

Dnara opened her eyes to his easy smile. He remained at a distance, now crouching to be eye level with her hunched form. His flute had been moved to a latch on his belt, and instead his hand held out a sharpened branch with a indiscernible hunk of cooked meat on the end. Without warning, her stomach growled its reply.

He let out a laugh, though not mocking nor snide, and stretched the branch closer. “Go on, then. It’s briarbear. Caught and cooked it myself. Now, I know what you’re thinking – briarbears aren’t the best meat, and truth be told, I hate to kill the cute buggers myself, but, well… the elk have been scarce this summer, what with the encroaching blight and all.”

In that moment, with the meat held out close to her nose, she didn’t consider if the small woodland mammals called briarbears were cute or not. The smell of the meat intoxicated her, and a stomach that hadn’t eaten in two days left little to be argued in the man’s choice of game. With hands covered in thicket scratches, she took the branch and sank her teeth into the flesh.

“There we go,” the man said. “A peace offering, that.”

She didn’t know anything about peace, but the meat tasted even better than it smelled. Tender and greasy with an unexpected sweetness, it far outmatched any of the rare meat scraps pilfered off used plates in the scullery. Those has been dry, sour, overcooked carcasses of overpriced fowl or young cattle bought by the mages, not that she had a palate to judge such things. What food there had been for her had always been better than none at all.

Or, so she had thought. This meat was succulent. Grease dripped down her chin with each ravenous bite until her front teeth hit bone. Even then, they scraped and tore for every last morsel the briarbear’s sacrifice would give.

“Gods, you are hungry,” the man said on the cusp of an amused laugh. “I got more, or maybe some dried fish? Also snagged some winterberries from the briar I found you in. They’re on the tart side, but good.”

Mention of the briar brought Dnara back from her stupor, and she eyed the man suspiciously over the skewered remains. He was a man, no doubt, but not old like her keeper, even perhaps younger than the apprentices that had made fun of harassing her with no end. Older than she, most likely, with shaggy, dark brown hair, bright hazel eyes, and tanned skin that spoke of time spent in the forest or tilling the land. There was a subtle strength to him, and she wagered he could move quickly if needed. Powerful but lithe, like the elk he said had been run off by the blight.

Blight? Dnara’s lips parted, curiosity forgetting the collar not even a day off her neck. Before she could produce a sound, the man spoke again.

“I’m Athan, by the way. Athan Ateiros.”

Ateiros. It sounded like a southern name to her, but what did she really know about the northern hamlets outside the small world of the Thorngrove forest and the mage tower it surrounded? Not much, if she chose to be honest with herself.

“So…” Athan drew the word out then pointed from himself to her. “Athan…?”

He wanted a name, obviously. A lie formed in her mind but quickly vanished. What good would a fake name do her now? He had the collar and knew her to be a slave found in the Thorngrove. It would take a monumental feat to not discern from where she had escaped.

Swallowing a last, savory bite, she decided to let him have the truth of it. If she could have just this night to be free and for him to put her back in the collar tomorrow to earn the price she was worth, then she would have this night of freedom with the only thing she had ever truly owned: her name. “Dnara. My name is Dnara.”

The trees rustled overhead as Athan smiled in response. His eyes said what she had not; lifelong slaves carry no last name, but he would not make an issue of it. Standing, he made a show of bowing in a noble way that belied how he had probably never known a day of great wealth or bloodborne luxury. “An honor and a pleasure to meet you, Lady Dnara of the Thorngrove. Now, how about some winterberries?”

Wiping her chin, she could not remember the last time she had smiled. But here, in this strange dream of flute song and friendly company, a smile did appear. If she was still face down in the mud and dreaming, or even dead and this be the gods’ final trick, so be it. Tonight, she would eat her fill of sweet meat and winterberries, she would let Athan have her name, and with the wind in her hair, she would smile.


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