In an agrarian world where wielding magical power is dangerous, Nadia Kowalski desperate for a fresh start discovers her ability to sense and wield magic. Guided by the magic to a small town, will she learn to control her power before Mage Karl destroys the source?
Nadia Kowalski snuggles closer to her husband, Josef, wrapping the wool blanket tight around them as her breath fogs the cold air. Traveling with all their possessions piled high on their cart has gotten harder as fall moves to winter, but now that a few months have passed with no pursuit from the authorities, they can use the better roads. Nadia watches the mules pull them through the puddles left by the rain. The slow movement and rhythmic clanking of the pots and pans lulls her to sleep.
A jerking motion of the cart snaps her awake. Rubbing her eyes, she sees Josef handing her the reins. Automatically, she takes them, scanning the area for signs they are being followed. “What’s happened?”
Josef caresses her shoulder. “We’re stuck. I’ll push. You listen for my signal.”
Relieved that they haven’t been found, Nadia peers around the cart’s side , watching as Josef positions planks underneath the rear wheels. With her fingers cold and clumsy, she faces forward, repositioning the reins with her gloved hands. Holding them tight with her shoulders raised, she listens for the signal.
She flicks the reins. “Hiya!” The mules pull and the cart rocks forward and then slips back.
“Keep it going,” Josef shouts.
Nadia slaps the reins. The mules bray and jerk forward when the wheels grab purchase. As Nadia guides the team to the center of the road, she hears Josef curse. Stopping the mules, she stands and leans around to look. “Josef?”
Josef stumbles into view, one hand trailing along the side of the cart, the other trying to wipe mud off his face. Too tired to laugh at her husband, Nadia hides her smile as she fumbles for a cloth in their supplies. Turning, she watches him stomp and brush at his clothes. “Josef, here.” She waves the cloth.
He wipes his face clean, leaving some dirt still clinging to his beard. Shaving hasn’t been a priority since they fled, but she’ll know they are truly safe when he shaves again. Sighing, Josef gives up on getting clean. After scraping his boots on the step, he climbs into the seat and takes the reins.
Continuing to seek a safe place beyond the reach of the debt collectors, they travel through the long day. Pans bang against casks of seed and grain while the chickens cluck and squawk at the movement. The muck clings to the cart’s wheels, threatening to mire the wagon again.
With nothing to do but watch the drenched meadows and trees pass, Nadia remembers the day they ran. They stood in their fields looking at all the crops destroyed by blight. Only their fields. Why? The crops were healthy and then they withered. Since this is the second time that their harvest has failed, there won’t be any help from the neighbors. Josef bent down, grabbed a handful of soil. He crumpled it and let it run through his fingers. “Why can’t anything go right?”
Nadia hugged him. Pulling away, he turned, hung his head and kicked the dirt. Nadia followed him to the house.
Looking back at the waiting cart, she asked, “Must we leave?”
“They’ll take me. How will you survive?”
“Can’t we stay until Sunday?”
“I’m sorry, Love. Everyone knows our crops failed.”
“I want to say goodbye,” she said, swallowing past the lump in her throat.
“I know,” he said, as he kisses her auburn hair. “We can’t risk it.”
With the possessions they need to start over loaded on the cart, Josef attaches the cage of four laying hens and the rooster to the top of the pile. At the back of the cart, he ties lead ropes to the two milk goats and the billy goat. While Josef harnesses the mules, Nadia tests that the ropes securing all their food stores, tools, and seed are taut. To escape the authorities, they will travel on neglected back roads; they can’t afford delays caused by supplies falling from the cart. Nadia wipes her tears, wishing she could revive their crops and pay their debts so she could stay near their son’s grave, her community, and the life they’d built.
Remembering when Josef walked out into their field toward town, she was puzzled as he squatted down among the ruined crops. Then rising, with the wind blowing his dark hair, he threw a lit oil lamp. She heard the sharp crack of breaking glass. What was he doing? She saw a flicker rush along the splashed oil and smoke billowing on the wind, racing the flames. The spark grew into a blaze leaving blackened ash in its wake. With the dried crops burning like kindling, the wind pushed the flames toward town. Her hands rose to her throat. After grabbing a bucket, she ran with the water sloshing, wetting her homespun dress.
Nadia remembers screaming, “What are you doing?” as she tried to push past Josef to dowse the flames before they could turn into a wild fire. The acrid scent filling her nose, and fear for her community pulsed through her.
Josef grabbed her arm, causing the water to spill, and he pulled her close to him. “No, let it burn. No one will help us this time. The magistrate will take me unless the fire gives us a chance.”
Josef brings her back to the present by breaking the silence. “Nadia, we need to make camp before it gets too dark.”
Nadia looks at the sunset tinting the sky pale orange across the rolling hills, dotted with clusters of trees and brush. She sees the road curve over the top of a distant hill. No village in sight. The only evidence of people is the wheel ruts ahead. Biting her lip, she glances at Josef as he guides the mules to the hill's where the ground was packed hard and damp, but not wet. Eventually, they’ll have to risk stopping at a village for the winter. Nadia prays they outrun the magistrate’s orders and that the temperature will stay above freezing tonight. Nadia coughs quietly as she pulls down the milking pails. Josef drops the tent poles and comes to her side.
"Stop," she says, "you worry too much. I'm fine."
He nods. Watching him go back to pitching the tent, Nadia knows why he’s so worried. Their baby wasn’t fine. She shakes her head and scrubs tears away. She doesn’t have a fever yet. She looks over her shoulder and sees that Josef is busy. Sobs wrack her body as she pulls the blanket and hand-carved rattle from under the seat. All she has left. Inhaling deeply, she believes she can still smell his sweet baby scent. She rocks back and forth as she gathers them to her heart. She couldn’t save him. She didn’t know the herbs then. Why did she wait so long to send word to her Babcia? All her fault. She could just let go and join her son. She could give up, but then Josef would be alone. She swallows her guilt.
She coughs again, deeper, hiding it in the folds of the blanket. She must keep Josef from worrying. Nadia remembers that her son’s illness started with a mild cough. Then it worsened, and she held his fever-wracked body until Josef had to pry him away to bury him in the earth. She feels the cold air that causes her to cough even more, and she wraps the scarf around her face, hiding her mementos and returns to the evening chores.
After staking the goats where they can graze, Nadia sits to mind them. Josef sets the chicken cage on the ground so they will scratch for seed and worms. If the chickens don't find enough food, they’ll have to feed them the seed saved for the spring planting. The goats and mules can survive on weeds and grasses along the road, even if they have to push aside the snow. Without the mules, they won’t survive, so Josef’s most important task is caring for the mules’ health. He lifts each hoof and carefully examines it. Using his pick, he removes any dirt, being sure to dislodge rocks and pebbles which could cause the animals to become lame. After brushing their coats, Josef digs their firepit.
To stretch what's left in the larder, Nadia takes down the stockpot, being careful not to dislodge the other supplies from the cart. Even though only a few cabbages and potatoes remain, she puts half back. She sighs and goes to the firepit. Josef is feeding the small fire bits of kindling. Hearing Nadia, he looks up. "I'll get some more firewood."
Nadia nods. “I’ll get the water for the soup.” To reach the water in the barrel, she stands on her tiptoes. "Josef, the water."
"I know. We need water, too." He stands and grabs his ax. "I'll set the snares for rabbit while I'm out." Tears brim in Nadia's eyes. Her husband needs to save her. They can’t go on like this. She has to get out of this weather before she’s too sick to cure herself, and even if they find a place, how will they survive the winter with no supplies?