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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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