04 The Miller’s Daughter
Josah, Conall, Graybard, and Ena waited behind a barn for Caleb. He had entered the building, making sure that it was empty. The group traveled across the Plains of Vandeer through the day, reaching Tuva as the night fell.
“Ena is not going to like being inside a barn,” whispered Josah. “She doesn’t know what it’s like living within walls.”
Graybard dismissed the idea with a wave. “She wants to be with you, inside or out.”
Josah looked around. The barn was outside of the Village, so he hoped Ena would remain a secret. Even with a partial moon, the bright light revealed the building was well maintained. To his right was the wall he expected to see, ten meters away, about waist high. The road on the other side led to Bon Abbi.
When Caleb stepped out of the barn, he beckoned everyone to enter. Conall and Graybard walked in first, while Josah rubbed Ena’s head. The big cat rumbled her delight.
Caleb held the door open for Josah. “Come on!” he huffed.
Josah knew the moment had come. Ena had to decide to leave or follow. He took a few steps then turned to the large cat. “Ena, you need to follow me inside.”
He called her, but she didn’t budge. “Come inside,” Caleb suggested. “We’ll leave the door open for her.”
Against his better judgment, Josah walked into the barn. It was rather dark and took a moment for his eyes to adjust. Without any warning, Graybard pulled down the cloth that hid the large window.
The moon provided some light into the large room. Two carriages stowed inside the building appeared unused. Behind them were empty stalls that once held animals. Stacked along the edges of the barn were bundles of hay.
“We need more light,” Conall said, holding a lantern he found in one of the stalls. “I’ve got Josah’s flintstone. I’ll go out front and get this lit.”
The older Evermore walked to the front door, opening it with caution. Confirming he was alone, Conall left the barn. Caleb, concerned that Ena remained outside, looked at Josah.
“Don’t you think you should call Ena?” Caleb asked. “She needs to come into the barn. What if someone’s dog comes around?”
Josah shook his head. “Villagers keep their working dogs on the farms. You won’t find a dog nearby or when we get to Bon Abbi.”
But understanding Caleb’s concern, Josah step to the door. He could see Ena pacing, opening her mouth but without making a sound. Squatting by the door, he clapped as loud as he dared, then motioned her to come. Convinced Ena wouldn’t enter the barn, Josah stood up.
“That’s enough,” Graybard said. “I’ll get her to come.”
The soldier grabbed Josah’s arm and pulled him away from the door. “What are you doing?” objected the boy.
It was all the commotion Ena needed. She bounded inside the barn and located Josah. The cat positioned herself in front of Josah while staring at Graybard.
“Do something before she decides to attack me!”
Josah grinned and squatted to rub her side. It was enough to direct Ena’s attention to him. Caleb closed the backdoor with nary a sound. In a few minutes, Conall walked in with the lantern burning.
“Hey, I see a village down the road and a pub. Let’s get something to eat.”
Nodding his head, Josah agreed. “I’ll stay here with Ena, get her comfortable. Just remember to bring some food.”
“Come on, boys,” Graybard said. “I could use some ale.”
He led the Evermore brothers out of the barn, pausing to stare at the Village of Tuva. Home fires and torches outside dwellings pierced the darkness, making Tuva feel welcoming.
Wooden fences on either side of the road appeared to divide fields as pastures. The moon shared enough light to reveal the stone wall connected to the barn, leading north. “That must go to Bon Abbi,” Graybard mused.
Conall stepped past Graybard and onto the road that headed to Tuva. “Come on. Let’s not make Josah wait. We have no idea what that Dragoon will do if Villagers discover them at the barn.”
He walked down the path leading to the road, with Caleb and Graybard following. The Villagers, at one time, constructed a few buildings close to the roadway. Other separate dwellings, lit by fire lamps, dotted the landscape.
The group heard laughter and music emanating from the first cluster of buildings. A sign hanging on hooks swayed above the door, displaying a glass of ale with a star above it. “Ah, food and drink, at last,” Graybard muttered.
Ahead of the others, Conall pushed the heavy wooden door that had seen many repairs in its day. As he walked in, the music and laughter stopped. Graybard and Caleb stood behind him, surveying their surroundings. The pub held two rooms with tables and chairs scattered across the beaten plank floors.
With shutters and windows thrown open, fresh, crisp air found its way inside. Flickering candles lit the iron chandeliers, held in place with pulleys and rope. At the back of the second room were doors used by those who served the patrons.
People dressed in linen and leather turned to face the strangers entering the pub. Caleb shut the door behind them before offering a weak salutation. A pleasant-looking woman smiled, walking to the newcomers. She dressed in white linen, with a fitted bodice laced up the front, and brown kirtle.
Her red hair was shoulder-length, tied back with lace, framing her rosy complexion. Without looking, she waved her hands in the air and shouted, with a hint of an accent, “Mind your peas! Play some music!”
The talking started again, and the fiddler played a slow tune, not quite as loud as before. But that didn’t keep the patrons from looking at the strangers. “Greetings to you, as well. I’m Dalia. Most people call me Dali.”
“Well, Dali,” Graybard grinned. He flashed his teeth and extended his right hand, palm up.
Dali placed her hand on Graybard’s, who held on to it a little longer than he realized. “I’ll need that back,” Dali smiled as she withdrew her hand. “Are you coming to work at the farms?”
Graybard cleared his throat, gazing at the two boys before answering. “Sorry. No. Just looking for something to eat and drink. What are your specialties?”
Dali led the group to a table far from the door, turned her apron to the inside, and wiped the table clean. Graybard couldn’t help but watch her every move. He stared at her fair skin and green eyes, without uttering a sound.
“Where do you hail from?” Dali asked as the boys joined Graybard at the table.
“Were from Liez,” Caleb said, pointing to his brother. “I’m Caleb. He’s my brother Conall.”
“And you?” Dali turned to Graybard.
Conall finally answered for the smitten soldier. “He’s Gray the Bard from Buberra. Doesn’t like to talk too much, as you can see.”
Clearing his throat, Graybard said, “I detect a slight accent. You’re not from here, are you?”
Dali smiled. “No. My family comes from Newgil, but we live here now.”
She turned to the Evermore brothers, noticing they were young. “How did you boys manage to make it through Casselberry? We hear they are forcing young men like yourselves to become soldiers.”
“Well,” Graybard finding his courage, said, “We came by way of Filgore Valley.”
Dali placed her hands on the table and leaned in toward the group. She whispered, “Nobody travels through the Valley. Who are you, really? If you’re spies from Casselberry, I’ll have you thrown out!”
“No, no,” said Graybard motioning with his right hand. “We did come through the Valley. We left a friend by the red barn outside the Village. We’re traveling with a big animal, so he stayed behind.”
Straightening up, Dali asked, “What kind of animal? A dog or something wild? We have livestock and fowl to protect. Once, we had a stranger come from Alder Woods with a wolf. Our milking cows didn’t recover for days.”
“No,” said Caleb. “This is more like a-a-a large dog.”
Graybard and Conall turned their eyes down to the table. Dali looked around the room as the patrons took in every word. “Mind your own stories,” she told everyone in the room. “You know I’ll tell you what they said later.”
With that final warning, the patrons returned to their private conversations. “It’s late in the day,” said Dali, “But we do have a few chickens left on our spit. I’ll bring some ale for you and water for these boys.”
Dali walked back to the kitchen, disappearing behind the doors. It was rare to get water without going to a well, cistern, or river. Caleb leaned forward and whispered, “So you don’t do well with Dragoons or women.”
Conall slapped Caleb on the back of the head, smiling. In minutes, Dali returned to the table with two servers. One carried sliced chicken, mashed peas, barley bread on a wooden slab. The other server brought the ale and water. She beckoned to a young boy, sitting in the corner beside the kitchen doors.
Placing her hands on his shoulders, she said, “This is my boy, Milo. I’ll have him bring food for your friend and his animal. But before I do, tell me that Milo will be safe.”
Graybard squared his shoulders and nodded. “He’ll be safe.”
“This place and my son are all I have left. I lost my mate a few seasons ago to the fever. I’m not ready to lose anything else.”
Dali whispered in Milo’s ear and pushed him in the direction of the kitchen. “Let me know when you need something else. I prefer coins when you are ready to pay for your meal.”
Graybard watched Dali walk to another table. He then asked, “That boy will be safe, right?”
Caleb didn’t realize how hungry he was until he took that first bite of chicken. He looked at Graybard, who waited for a response. “The boy is fine. Ena only has an appetite for a particular soldier,” Caleb said with a smirk.
“Right, right,” Graybard nodded with a chuckle.
As they finished their meal, Milo came through the front door and ran to his mother. Whatever he whispered to her made the owner of the pub look at Graybard and the Evermores. She took her apron off and walked to their table.
Dali whispered angrily. “Are you mindless jesters? Your friend is traveling with a Dragoon! How’s that possible? And how could you send my son into danger, knowing such a creature was in our midst?”
“Now, we told you it was a large animal. We didn’t say what type. The young man with the ah…” Graybard paused and looked around, making sure no one was listening. “…the ah, Dragoon, rescued it when it was a mere kitten. She means no harm and shows no aggression.”
“But you can’t bring such a creature here. We have livestock.” Dali pointed to the rafters where Villagers hung various animal hides. They nailed Bandi hides, with its mask and banded tail, next to the Cayoots and red-tailed Foxes. “Anything endangering cattle, sheep or fowl doesn’t live long around here.”
“Ena is her name, and she eats small game, like a hare,” Caleb offered.
Dali placed her hands on her hips and closed her eyes for a moment. “Alright, you’ll want a place to stay. I have two rooms upstairs for the night. Your friend can stay inside the red barn with his animal. Inside. We can sort out everything in the morning.”
She stacked the platters and added, “We only use that barn for hay and some equipment. There were too many vermin eating the grain, so we moved it to other barns. No one ever goes into that old red barn, so they’re safe, for now.”
“Thank you,” said Conall. “We travel with coin, so we’ll pay for the meal and bedding.”
Dali nodded her acknowledgment. “Tell your friend to teach that animal to catch all the field mice it can eat. Then these folks will think it a blessing.”
Caleb pushed his chair back and stood up. “I’ll tell Josah of our plans.”
Leaving the Pub, Caleb ran back to the barn where he found Josah standing in front of the door. He could hear noise coming from the inside. “Where’s Ena?” asked Caleb.
Josah pointed with a nod. “She’s in the barn catching mice. I was afraid I couldn’t keep her from going straight to the Village.”
Caleb laughed. “Dali, the pub’s owner, knows about Ena.”
Shaking his head, he said, “That boy walked into the barn without warning. I held onto Ena, but it wasn’t necessary. She didn’t seem to care.”
Caleb exhaled his relief. “Dali said you and Ena could stay in the barn overnight. You don’t mind if we stay at the pub, do you?”
“Do as you like,” said Josah. “I’ll be happy to stay here. You know I don’t like to stay in confined spaces.”
“Yeah, I know.” Caleb looked back at the pub. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
Josah and Caleb clasped forearms before parting ways. He watched as the younger Evermore walked back to the pub. Then he opened the barn door and closed it behind him.
The moonlight spilled into the barn, through the window and gaps between the boards. Ena came around the carriages stored in the barn with a live mouse dangling from her mouth. She flipped it in the air and crunched down, swallowing the vermin in one gulp.
Josah walked to the cat and rubbed his hand between her ears. “We’ll spend the evening here. Let’s prepare our bedding .”
He led Ena behind the carriages to one of the stalls. Hay parcels tied and stacked to the rafters offered privacy. Grabbing a few bundles, he snapped the ties with his knife and spread the contents across the barn floor.
Josah found a wood handle with tied sorghum tassels at the end and swept the loose hay into piles. He took two horse blankets from the side of the stall and spread them out.
“This looks comfortable. Come,” Josah said, inviting Ena to lay down. She watched Josah stretch out on the blanket. Deciding to join him, she circled twice before settling down.
Ena rumbled as the boy rubbed her side. He remembered playing games with Evelyn in this barn. Life in Bon Abbi wasn’t all bad. He thought of his father, who was always busy running the city. Lord Rando made no time for him, a decision Josah still resented.
Bringing his hands together behind his head, Josah stared into the darkness. “Maybe the girl Graybard talked about isn’t Evelyn,” he hoped. “If so, we’ll leave as soon as I say ‘fare-thee-well’ to my father.”
Then he thought about their trip back to Southport. Josah knew they couldn’t travel through Casselberry. Filgore Valley was their only choice. Looking at Ena, already asleep, Josah wondered what would happen to her, once he returned to the Molly Red.
She had to return to the Valley. With that decision made, Josah yawned and fell asleep. The night was uneventful. He heard scratching sounds, but with Ena there, vermin stayed clear of their stall.
Josah opened his eyes to see the morning sun peeking through the the wood slats along the walls. The crowing roosters in the distance welcomed the start of a new morning. Ena stood and shook off the hay that clung to her coat.
He stood and stretched before he led the big cat out through the back of the barn. Ena yawned, shook her head, then looking around, as everything was new to her. A grove of trees behind the barn provided some cover and a morning meal for Ena.
“Do what you have to and stay close by,” he instructed Ena. Without any prompting, the Dragoon disappeared into the grove. Josah walked into the trees, as well, to relieve himself. He could hear the rustle of bushes as Ena went after small game.
Josah waited for a few moments when everything went silent. He then blasted two short whistles, while extending both hands in the air. Ena surprised him when she came out of the grove.
“Alright,” grinned Josah. “I’ll have to start training you with hand signals and different whistles.”
The two walked back and entered the barn. Caleb, holding a plate covered with a linen cloth, waited at the front with Conall. “Good. You’re here early,” said Josah. Bon Abbi isn’t that far away. We won’t be staying long. Where’s Graybard?”
“He’s with Dali. She is outside the barn and wants to talk with you,” Conall replied.
Caleb walked over to Josah and handed him the plate. “There’s some eggs, meat patties, and barley bread. Eat it before you talk with Dali.”
Josah uncovered the plate and ate with abandon. He threw one of the patties to Ena, who wasn’t interested at first. “What does she want to talk about?” he asked. “Nothing to drink?”
“She wants to talk about Ena,” Caleb said.
Josah tossed the plate to Caleb, wiped his hands, and face with the linen. “This can’t be good. Tell her to come in.”
Conall told Josah she didn’t want to enter the barn for her fear of Dragoons. “Tell her I won’t step out,” said Josah. “We’ll be out of Tuva later this morning.”
“Alright, I’ll tell her, but she won’t leave without talking with you.”
“Fine!” said Josah, somewhat perturbed. “Give me a moment to hide Ena. Then persuade her to come inside.”
Josah walked past Ena, then behind one of the carriages. He repeated the whistle and hand gesture that worked before. The Dragoon stood up and retreated to Josah’s side.
“Good, Ena! Now you have to stay here until I call you.”
He started to walk back to Caleb but had to return as Ena followed. “No,” Josah commanded. “Stay here!”
He whistled one long, low toned blast while he pushed his hands in a downward motion. Taking a step back, he repeated the whistle and hand gesture, then waited. Ena seemed to understand and laid down.
The older Evermore stepped out of the barn, shutting the door with care. Josah wasn’t sure what was taking Conall so long to return. When the barn door finally reopened, Conall, Graybard, and Dali entered. The pub owner stayed near the door, looking around for the Dragoon.
“Josah, I’m Dali. Your friends, I’m sure, told you I own the pub and lead the Village.” She pulled at her apron, nervous about what she was about to say. “As I told Graybard, we can’t have a Dragoon here. That endangers our animals and people.”
“Ena, our Dragoon, has been here for some time now,” Josah responded. “No harm has come to anyone.”
“Not yet, but this a dangerous wild animal. You can’t tell me you don’t worry what the Dragoon, Ena, may do.”
Graybard told Dali of their journey through Filgore Valley. He shared how Ena protected them from other Dragoons. “I can tell you with certainty, Ena shows no aggression.”
“Dali,” Josah said. “You may be right. I’ll let you decide that for yourself.”
He turned and commanded Ena to come to his side. The Dragoon walked to Josah. She dropped down when she heard the low whistle and saw the hand gesture.
Dali had taken a step back toward Graybard before he whispered, “You are safe. No harm will come.”
Josah squatted down and rubbed Ena’s side. She closed her eyes and rumbled ever so soft. “How is it Ena is so, so mild?” Dali asked.
“She’s been this way since we first encountered her in Filgore Valley,” explained Caleb.
“I rescued her when she and I were young. Dragoons form bonds with their rescuers,” said Josah.
“Are you from Bon Abbi?” asked Dali. “My family has been here for seven seasons, and I don’t seem to recognize you.”
Josah ignored the question. “We are heading out to Bon Abbi, and may not return here, once we complete our business. We plan to leave by way of the Valley. You won’t see us again.”
Dali released her apron and tried to smooth the wrinkles with her hands. “You are welcome to use the barn. No one ever comes in, so there is no need to bring any unnecessary attention. You are welcome to stay as long as you need.”
“You are most gracious,” Graybard said as he nodded his head.
“When you head out to Bon Abbi, keep the Dragoon to the east side of the wall.” Dali took a step forward, while Ena kept her eyes on Josah. “She will be safe in the prairie grass. We keep our pasture animals west of the wall.”
“I welcome your advice and plan to follow it,” Josah said. He walked to Dali, causing Ena to stand and move to the boy’s side. “I want you to know you are safe.”
Ena looked at the pub owner, and then back to Josah. Sensing no threat, the big cat sat down. “I never heard of anyone befriending a Dragoon. Ena may not be a threat, after all,” said Dali. “So, what brings you to Bon Abbi?”
Graybard broke the uncomfortable silence. “We’re here to bid farewell to Lord Mayweather. We heard of his passing.”
Dali looked around, then decided to focus on Josah. “It’s been two seasons since Lord Rando passed away. We mourned for those six months, and then selected a new ruler, a few days ago, right here in Tuva. The Council of Seven made their choice.”
“Who did you select?” asked Josah.
“That’s not for me to say. But I will say we have a new Lady in Bon Abbi.” Dali paused before giving her warning. “Do not plan to bring trouble to her door. There are enough challenges, as it is.”
“We mean no trouble. We plan to pay our respects and then leave,” Graybard told Dali.
“Well then, follow the wall, as I said, to Bon Abbi. You’ll find what you came to do.” Dali nodded her head and bid them Godspeed before Graybard escorted her out of the barn.
As the door shut, Caleb whispered with excitement, “When did you teach her to do those things?”
Josah grinned. “I didn’t. She picked it up on her own this morning.”
It didn’t take long for Graybard to return. He asked, “Do we have to leave? We should stay longer.”
“Remember the ship?” Conall asked. “It’s returning in less than a fortnight. We can’t stay.”
“Luka Dey is making his way to Bon Abbi,” reminded Josah. “He’s the last person you want to see. We’ll stay as long as necessary, then be on our way. Let’s not leave anything behind. I don’t intend on coming back to Tuva.”
“I saw a well next to the barn. Let’s clean up and before we go,” Caleb said.
After a few unpleasant comments, they left Ena in the barn, found the well and drew water. Josah glanced down the road toward Tuva, which seemed empty. No doubt, work began early at the various farms.
“Start walking down the road,” Josah instructed. “The wall leads to Bon Abbi, which connects to another community barn. I’ll follow with Ena on the east side.”
“What are we to do then?” asked Caleb.
“We walk to the Square and find this new ruler. She may be able to tell us how Lord Mayweather died.” Josah reached into his leather pouch and pulled out a bright green summer cloak, with a hood. He held and snapped the garment, swung it around him, then fastened the wooden toggle at the neck.
“Why are you wearing that cloak?” asked Conall.
“I want to blend in the background. No need to draw attention,” Josah responded.
“Then you shouldn’t wear that cloak,” chuckled Graybard. “You’ll have the whole city looking right at you.”
Josah couldn’t say he wanted to hide his identity, should they encounter Evelyn along the way. He slipped his pouch and Mandolin around his neck, then said, “Go on. I’ll catch up to you on the other side of the barn.”
Graybard nodded and accompanied the boys back to the barn and onto the road leading north. Josah entered the barn, greeted Ena, then headed through the back door. He could hear the Evermores talking, and Graybard exhaling a sigh with every other step.
Josah whistled, then ran through the grove of trees, followed by a galloping Dragoon. In a few moments, the cat was trotting next to the boy. Josah slowed his pace to a walk once he reached the others.
The stone wall was a meter high and followed the gentle slope of the terrain. The prairie grass grew to the east of the wall, with wildflowers in bloom as far as Josah could see. Clusters of trees grew in various locations and distances. These were perfect retreats for game animals.
On the west side of the wall, barley, wheat, and corn fields dominated the landscape. Fencing separated farms, each with small barns, outbuildings, and green pastures.
The road to Bon Abbi was well-traveled, hardened by frequent use over time. Graybard and the Evermores greeted workers they met on the roadway. Caleb grinned and confirmed that the wall was high enough to hide Ena.
On occasion, farmers guided small carts pulled by animals, such as a dog or goat. Full wagons pulled by horses were a concern for Josah. He kept looking behind him, making sure he had plenty of preparation time to hide Ena. Caleb shouted an alert to Josah when one such wagon came from the north.
When necessary, Josah walked close to the wall and signaled Ena to come near to him. The Dragoon took it in stride, laying down each time she went near the wall. Once the wagon was out of sight, the group continued their journey.
The road led them to the next community barn, as Josah told them. He walked over to the wall, waving to the others to stop. “Let’s survey the area before we go into the Square.”
The barn, painted red with fresh white trim, was stunning. To the right was a spacious covered communal area. Josah recalled his father holding village meetings in that same structure. An alley separated the meeting space from several new structures Josah didn’t recognize.
Across the red barn, and to the left, were merchant buildings, the start of the marketplace. Josah knew behind them was the Manor, where he grew up a lifetime ago. Ena laid down next to the wall, panting with thirst.
“Caleb, can you find water for Ena?” asked Josah. “Conall, go into the barn, and see if there are people inside. I can’t keep Ena out here alone. There is no telling what could happen.”
As the brothers separated, Graybard leaned his elbows on the wall. “How well did you know Lord Mayweather? You never said.”
Josah lifted his shoulders and answered, “Quite well. But it’s been years. I only heard of his passing a few days ago.”
“Did I tell you Buberrans are curious folk?” Graybard raised his eyebrows. “Wondering why you’re trying to hide. And it’s not about Ena.”
Josah hesitated. “Somethings are best left in the past.”
Graybard turned to the barn. He scrutinized people traveling back and forth, in and out of the buildings, shaking his head. “There isn’t a warrior among this bunch. Luka won’t have to do much to take this city.”
Hearing Luka’s name and being back home was more than Josah could bear. “Look, I only want to do what I must and leave.”
“Shouldn’t we warn these folks? Can you leave them without saying something?”
Before Josah could answer, he saw Caleb returning. He carried a kitchen pot, sloshing water over the sides with each step. Walking beside him was a young woman, her long auburn hair braided to the side. It was Evelyn.
Josah couldn’t help but grin, somewhat startled how euphoria caught him by surprise. But his joy evaporated with thoughts of Luka coming to Bon Abbi. His worst nightmare was coming true.
He turned away while raising the green hood over his head. Then he raked his hair with his hands, pulling it forward. Josah wanted to hide his facial features, as best he could. If he could recognize Evelyn, how could he keep his identity a secret?
“Greetings and welcome to Bon Abbi,” said the young girl. “I’m the Lady of this fair city. I ran into Caleb by the water troughs at the Square.”
While Graybard exchanged greetings, Josah lifted himself on the wall. He swung his legs over the other side. There was no time to signal Ena to stay as he jumped to the ground.
He held his breath as Evelyn approached him. Josah leaned forward, allowing his hair to hang in front of his face. Tilting somewhat to the left, Josah exposed his scar beneath his eye. He hoped it was enough to hide his identity.
With Ena behind him and Evelyn in front of him, Josah wished he was back on the Molly Red. There was nothing he could do. So, he prayed under his breath, “Don’t leave me now.”