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.
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.