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Warrior's Heart Chapter 5

5


If you want to give me a truly thoughtful gift—let it be a story that brings me strength and hope.

Two laundry baskets—empty finally. Gran scrubbed with salt and soda while Ayleth hung garments. “I hate washing.” Ayleth wrung a shirt and pinned it to the line.

“I love it,” Gran said, stopping her humming long enough to smile.

“Really?”

“No, not really, but daily chores remind me I’m alive. For that, I’m thankful.” Gran poured the water onto a flowerbed and said, “In my youth, I worked as a scullery maid and hated the tedium but now that I serve my family, I see that really, it’s an act of love.”

Ayleth wasn’t sure she felt the same. “It’d have to be, the way these things stunk before we started.” She hung a pair of Dorian’s stockings.

“Has Logan ever told you the story about the potter’s son?”

“No.”

“I think it’s a fine time to take a break. Shall I tell it?”

Ayleth finished with one of Ren’s shirts and sat to hear the tale as Gran packed away the soda tin and washboard.

“There once was a little village between the high mountain peaks and the plains—nestled on the edge of a great forest. In the village, lived a potter and his wife, and their son, who they loved very much. As the boy grew older, he became quiet and withdrawn. He didn’t play with the other children or work like the adults. He just sat on his parents’ porch thinking all alone every day.

“He watched the women hauling their heavy baskets to the river to wash clothes. He watched the villagers working in the fields or in their shops, but he never wanted to do those things.

“One day the boy’s father saw a village elder and spoke his concern for his son. He told the elder that he and his wife were worried that their son was ill in his mind. The elder replied, ‘Do not assume the worst. He is just a bit different. He is becoming a man in his own way. Only time will tell whether he is a wise man or a fool.’

“One day the boy was watching the villagers working, and his father—a respectable and hardworking man and the finest potter in the area saw what he was doing. He got so upset, he threw down a pot he’d been working on and shouted at his son. ‘Why do you waste your life watching and thinking? You are a quickly growing into a fool!’

“The boy, who thought himself particularly wise, felt hurt by his father’s words. He ran off into the forest, angry.

“The boy sat a long time thinking about whether he was wise or a fool, when a wolf wandered by. ‘I have never seen a boy in this part of the forest before. What are you doing here?’”

“‘I am trying to determine if I am a fool or wise.’

“The wolf studied the boy, and said, ‘Is that all that concerns you?’

“‘Yes. It’s all I do every day. I think about what things I should do and I sit by my house and wonder if I am foolish or wise, because I am only the son of a potter. I don’t want to be a potter when I am grown.”

“The wolf frowned in that way that wolves are wont to do.” Gran winked at Ayleth and continued her tale, “He told the boy, ‘Then you are a fool, because a wise man is more concerned with helping the village.’ The wolf walked on.

“Soon after, a squirrel ran down the tree and buried a cheek full of nuts in the ground.

“‘Squirrel,’ the boy said, ‘do you think me foolish or wise?’

“The squirrel looked up from what she was doing and asked, ‘Do you eat?’

“Yes,” the boy answered. “My mother cooks good meals. She is the best cook I know.”

“‘Do you thank her?’ the squirrel asked.

“No,” the boy said. “She cooks for me because I am her child.”

“The squirrel chattered her teeth. ‘Then you are a fool,’ she said, ‘A wise man is grateful for all things.’

“The boy watched as the squirrel scampered off. He nearly fell asleep, when a bee landed upon a flower beside him.”

“‘Hello,’ the boy said to the bee. ‘Do you think I am wise or foolish?’

“‘I do not know,’ the bee answered. ‘Are you well-loved in your village?’

“‘My parents love me very much,’ the boy said with pride.

“‘What of your friends and neighbors?’ the bee asked.

“‘I don’t have any friends, because I don’t talk to the villagers.’

“‘You are a fool,’ the bee said before she flew off. ‘A wise man is a good friend and neighbor.’

“The boy felt saddened by the animals’ responses, but he thought maybe there was one animal who would not think him a fool. He sought out the rabbits who never have a cross thing to say about anyone. Finally, he found a family of rabbits with their kits and he said, ‘Hello rabbits, tell me, do you think me foolish or wise?’

“Mother rabbit stopped nursing her kits and father rabbit stopped repairing the warren. He asked, ‘Do you work?’

“‘No,’ the boy said, ‘I don’t know what to do. My father is only a potter. I don’t know what kind of work I am suited for.’

“Father rabbit hopped right up to the boy and said, ‘It is foolish to shun work.’

“The boy got very upset and began to weep. ‘All the animals of the forest have told me I’m a fool; Wolf, because I’m only thinking rather than helping the village; Squirrel, because I am not grateful for the things I have; Bee, because I am not a good friend and neighbor; and you because I shun work.’

“‘They were all right,” an Owl said, from a tree above. ‘Wisdom is not determined by how much thinking you do, but by what actions you take.’ Father rabbit was so frightened, he shooed his family underground.

“‘I don’t understand,’ the boy said.

“‘Tell me,” the owl said, “why does your father work at his wheel?”

“The boy thought about it. ‘Because he is a very good potter.’

“‘A wise man finds something he is good at and strives to be the best he can be at it so his talent may benefit his family, neighbors, and village. If you are wise, take a lesson from the creatures of these woods. Actions make a man wise, not thoughts.” And with that, owl flew away.

“The boy saw that the sun was low in the sky, so he started walking home. When he entered the village, he passed a woman pushing a cart and it tipped over, spilling her baskets into the road. He picked up the cart and helped her put the baskets in. She thanked him and smiled. He kept walking, wanting very much to see his parents.

“The children’s ball bounced by him and he caught it. A young boy approached and the potter’s son handed him the ball.

“‘Do you want to play?’ the young boy asked.

“‘No, thank you,’ the potter’s son said. ‘But I will surely play tomorrow afternoon after I am done working.’ The boy smiled and hurried away with the ball.

“Upon entering the house, his embraced him. He apologized for leaving and he thanked his mother for all she did for him. He turned to his father and said, ‘Father, I want to learn how to be a potter, like you.’ And the three hugged and wept together.

“As the boy grew up, he was not just a potter, but he was the best potter in the village. And everyone knew him as a very wise man, because he worked hard, helped the villagers, and he was grateful for all things. And he was much loved.”

Gran shielded her eyes from the afternoon sun. “Shall we go in and make some dinner? We’ve still got work to do before Logan brings your brothers home from school and the clothing needs to dry.”

Ayleth followed Gran inside the house and spent all afternoon making Aarin a special gift. When Gran asked what she was so busy writing, Ayleth answered, “I’m writing the story you told me earlier. I want to give a copy of it to my friend, Aarin.”

Gran smiled and helped Ayleth copy the tale of the potter’s son into a brand new leather-bound book she’d just finished. The stab binding, held together with hemp string was nothing spectacular, but Aarin wouldn’t mind its crudeness. He always treated Ayleth’s gifts like treasures.

“Gran,” Ayleth said, “may I go see my friend? I’d like to give it to him.”

“Do you think it’s a good idea?”

“He’s my best friend and I haven’t seen him in a week.”

Gran studied Ayleth’s best attempt at begging eyes. “Hurry up then, before your granddad returns.”

Ayleth skipped along, the little book in her apron pocket. She knocked on the door and Aarin answered. “I was wondering whether you would sneak away.”

“Gran let me come to drop this off.” She handed him the little book.

“A book?” he asked. “But you know I can’t read.”

“I promised to teach you this winter when the fields are fallow. I want this to be the first story you read.”

He accepted the gift. “Why?”

“Because it is about a normal boy,” she said, smiling. “He’s not dissimilar to you. You work very hard and I know whatever you choose to do, you will put all your heart into it and none will be better.”

He clasped the small book to his chest. “Thank you. It’s a thoughtful gift.”

She beamed when he kissed her cheek. “And if poetry is what you choose, I left the other pages blank for you to fill on your own.”

“I wish I could read it tonight to Becca.”

Ayleth smiled and took his hand. “I’ll ask Gran if I may come by tomorrow and read it to you.”

“I look forward to it,” he said.

“Tomorrow then.”

“Good night, Ayleth.”

Late into the night, Ayleth sat with her grandparents, drinking wine in the sitting room after Galen and Dorian went to bed. Granddad Logan strummed a sad melody on his guitar while Gran sang about lovers separated by a storm.

Granddad Logan winked a twinkly green eye and leaned to speak low to Ayleth. “That is the first song Raven sang for me and every time I hear it, it causes my heart to skip a beat, just as it did the first time.”

Gran smiled as her last notes hung in the air.

“It’s one thing that doesn’t weaken as we grow older, our voices. Except perhaps like wine, it ages to fine mellowness. Especially your grandmother’s”

Granddad Logan set down his guitar and Gran crawled forward a step, to stroke his bearded chin and plant a kiss on his lips. Ayleth pulled the ribbon from her braid and combed fingers through unruly blonde tresses. “Da and Mairi never kissed in front of me,” she said. “I hope I’m so in love when I’m old like you.”

Gran rose to set a kettle on the stove and Granddad Logan raised his arm for a cuddle. An invitation Ayleth couldn’t turn down. She scooted over next to him, on the floor. “Don’t be in a hurry, my dear,” Granddad Logan said. “It often takes growing up to realize what we want.”

“And,” Gran called from the kitchen, “while young love is an important part of becoming an adult, it rarely leads to a happy conclusion. It’s as maturity sets in, we make the better decisions.”

*

Ayleth woke late, still feeling the wine from the night before. Granddad Logan was gone but Gran rocked in a chair near the door and said, “If you want to go into the village, I suppose you could just plan to be home for supper.”

After dressing in a hurry, Ayleth rushed to the shack at the end of a rocky lane. The front door was wide open and Aarin’s old nag stood outside the barn alone. Odd. Aarin would be ruined if he lost his horse, unable to plow and too poor to replace her. Ayleth set her hand upon the mare’s bridle and led her toward the barn. Underfoot, hoof prints from shod horses crisscrossed the yard.

But the brown nag didn’t have shoes—Aarin couldn’t afford them.

In the darkness of the rickety barn, a squeak sounded, followed by sniffling.

“Hello?” Ayleth closed the stall gate.

Hay rustled and Becca emerged, stray straws clinging to her tatty dress and messy blonde braids. “Ayleth?” Aarin’s little sister flew from the shadows, wrapping her tiny arms around Ayleth’s middle. Shuddering under the weight of her sobs, Becca buried her face in Ayleth’s chest.

“Gods, Becca, are you alright?” Ayleth pulled free, to see whether the girl was injured. “Where are Meg and Aarin?”

Becca’s renewed bawling filled the barn. Ayleth, unable to make any sort of assessment, dragged Becca outside, into the sunlight. “Stand up, Becca. What’s happened to you?” Ayleth’s heart pounded.

“Soldiers,” Becca said, gasping and wiping her face with her sleeve.

Ayleth pushed stray hairs from Becca’s reddened face. In the southern free states, mercenaries and bounty hunters abounded—drifters who traveled from town to town, looking for work. Village women knew better than to walk alone outside the safety of the village. Becca knew better. “Soldiers. Did they…” Ayleth didn’t want to say it. “Did they hurt you?”

Becca choked on her saliva and Ayleth pulled her close, stroking her hair. “Don’t you worry. We’ll tell Aarin and he can go to Byron Meadows.”

“He’s gone.” Becca’s swollen eyes scrunched closed and she whimpered like a kicked dog. “The s…soldiers, they…took him.”

When Becca started dry heaving, Ayleth pushed aside her own fears, to calm the hysterical girl. “Where’s Meg?”

“She’s gone to see Sheriff Meadows.”

Ayleth blinked back tears. “Can you tell me what happened?”

“Meg and I were in the barn when soldiers came and Aarin was in the yard. Meg shoved me into the hay and told me to hide.”

“Duke Ainsley’s men came here?”

Becca shook her head. “The men wore black clothing and armor and so did their horses. They carried swords and shields painted with a gold lion. They were frighteningly big, both the men and the horses.”

Ayleth brought a hand to her forehead. Duke Ainsley’s men wore white tabards, bearing a blue boar. Not black. She limped to the chopping block and leaned her hands on it. Why would anyone take a peasant boy?

Meg’s footsteps interrupted her thoughts. Shuffling like a sick old woman, proud Meg ambled up the dirt path. Shock painted her face—sullen eyes and a lax jaw. Ayleth rushed to her.

Meg breathed loud, leaning on Ayleth’s shoulder for support.

“Where is he?” Ayleth demanded.

“I don’t know. Early this morning some soldier’s came, with black steeds, black armor, and gold lions on their chests. I was in the barn.” She wiped her eyes, as her voice grew weak. “I shoved Becca into the hay and missed what they said to him, but they brought forth another horse and he got on it. He gave me a stern look as I left the barn, as if to tell me not to speak. He rode off with them.”

Meg hugged her arms to her chest and sobbed. “I called after him, but he didn’t even turn around.”

Ayleth’s knees buckled and she fell to the ground on her hands and knees, her hair hanging in the dust. Her stomach threatened to rebel.

“I went to see Byron Meadows. He said that Aarin’s been paid for.”

Ayleth tilted her chin. “He’s been bought?”

“I’ve told you what Sheriff Meadows said. He didn’t say sold, he said paid for—which might mean…”

“No!” Ayleth rose from the ground. “He’s not dead. He’s been sold. That’s the only possibility that makes sense.” She spun and marched up the road.

“Ayleth,” Meg called. “Where are you going?”

“To buy him back!”

“You’ll never make the keep before dusk.”

Ayleth whipped around, panting in the road. She wiped sweaty hands on her apron and tore it from around her neck, ripping the strings. “Then I’ll sleep outside! They’ll have to let me in sometime!”

Ayleth ran all the way home. Face flushed and sweat running from her temples and brow, she entered the silent house. No sign of Gran or Granddad Logan. Ayleth tore open the kitchen cupboards, one by one, in too much of a hurry to be neat. She threw things on the floor, cleaning the shelves with a sweep of her hand. Ren had gold stashed in the house; he gave Mairi more than she could carry when he sent her away. More than enough to buy Aarin back.

When her investigation turned up nothing, Ayleth looked high and low. She tapped the walls and the floor, listening for some sort of different sound.

“What in the world are you doing?” Galen asked coming in the door.

“Nothing, go away!” Ayleth didn’t look up from the floor.

“You’re weird.” He left the room.

Granddad Logan stood in the doorway. “Ayleth?” he asked.

“Da has money stashed in the house. He gave Mairi a king’s ransom when she left. I aim to find it.”

“What has you looking for gold in the floorboards?”

“Duke Ainsley sold my friend,” she said. “I aim to buy him back.”

“Tonight?”

“I’ll sleep on the ground outside the keep if I must.”

“And you’re going to meet the duke and negotiate by yourself, after stealing from your father?”

Ayleth glanced up at her granddad, “Ren has enough to spare.”

“Perhaps he does,” Logan said, “but it is still stealing. Why didn’t you ask me?”

Already flushed from her run and a frantic search in the warm house, Ayleth hardly felt her blush. “May I have some money?”

“How much?”

“I don’t know.”

“How about I go to the keep in the morning and work out a deal with Ainsley?”

Ayleth’s stomach tightened and she wiped moist eyes. “I…don’t want to wait. I want to know what’s happened to him.”

Granddad Logan opened his arms and picked her up off the floor. “I know, my darling, but there’s nothing we can do tonight. The guards won’t allow us entry so late. In the morning, I’ll go speak to him on your behalf and whatever price he asks, I’ll pay.”

She wept into his shoulder. “He sold Aarin like a goat.”

“I know. It’s hard to understand why serfdom wasn’t outlawed when slavery was, but it’s the way of the Independent South, to hold onto traditional laws. Nobles have the right to sell their land and their serfs as they please. But money speaks louder than words and we can buy him back. Then Aarin will be a free man.”

*

When Logan finally returned to the cottage, Ayleth rushed out to meet him. Granddad Logan took Ayleth’s hand as she began in with questions. “Did you find him? What did the Duke say?”

“I’m sorry, no.” His steady green eyes turned misty. “My darling, there are many things in this world that can be confusing when we are young. Love is the very best example.”

She blinked back tears, confused by his cryptic words.

“Sometimes, it may seem like the people who love us are being cruel and unjust, but they’re really just making difficult decisions because they care for us very deeply.”

“I don’t understand." Ayleth shook her head and let go of his hands. “What does this have to do with Aarin?”

He sighed. “Remember my words and heed them well. Until your heart is able to forgive, it cannot be free to love.”

“Forgive? What are you talking about?”

“Your friend was not sold, but made free.”

“Free? But the soldiers…”

“Delivered his signed papers.” Even Granddad Logan’s arm, snaking around her shoulder, didn’t ease the pain of his words.

“But why did he go with them?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

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