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.”
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.