NOTE: This story is part of a series. For the recommended reading order, see Haru's Storyline.
Just when she was beginning to feel as though she could walk no further, Haru came across the little farmhouse.
It was the first dwelling she had seen in miles, and, viewed from a distance, it appeared as just a dark silhouette against the horizon, backlit by the reddening twilight. But, as Haru drew closer, she could make out the flicker of a candle in the cottage’s window.
So Haru willed her feet to keep moving, and she made her way across bare, fallow fields towards the setting sun, and the hilltop cottage it lit from behind.
Haru had been walking all day, and her feet were numb. She had no shoes, which, had the season been different, would have been no matter, for Haru liked feeling the land beneath her feet, feeling soft earth between her toes. But the harvest season had almost ended, and the world was giving way to the quiet months, when the land would sleep, and the nights would grow long, and cold. With nothing but her cassock to warm her, Haru shivered in the gathering chill, and the hardening ground numbed her feet whenever she strayed from the road. So Haru was glad to come across the farmhouse, and the possibility of warmth, and shelter, as the long day passed into the longer night.
The cottage, once she was close enough to see it clearly through the fading light, was modest, and plain – just four wattle-and-daub walls, beneath a sloping, thatched roof, with a chimney in one corner from which curling smoke rose, and scented the air with the smell of burning peat. There was only one window, covered with an oiled sheepskin to ward off the draft, and dried herbs in bunches hung from the eaves, where they swayed gently in the evening breeze.
The farmhouse had a slightly off-plumb wooden door, on which Haru rapped softly with cracked knuckles. She heard sounds of stirring from inside, followed by footsteps approaching. Then the door to the cottage swung open, and a man regarded her curiously from the other side.
He was old, the farmer – old enough that Haru would have put sixty or more harvests beneath his belt – and he wore the weight of his years. His back was bowed from a lifetime of stooping, and his skin was weathered and chapped. His teeth were black and pitted, like rotted-out stumps, and his fingers bore the callouses of pushing a plow. But his eyes were clear, and bright, and they brimmed with unspoken questions as the farmer studied the woman who stood on his doorstep.
“Are you lost?” the man said.
Haru shook her head.
“Then where are you going, at this time of night?”
“I don’t know,” Haru said.
The man appeared to consider that.
“I suppose you can’t be lost, if you don’t know where you’re going,” he said.
“No,” Haru said. “I suppose you can’t.”
Haru waited quietly as the man looked her up and down. His eyes lingered for a moment on her bare, dirt-caked feet, then again on her cracked, calloused hands. But they lingered for longer still on the mark of excommunication she still bore on her forehead.
“Can I help you?” the man asked.
Haru pressed her hands together, and she bowed her head.
“I was crossing the fields when I saw your light,” Haru said, “and I came here to beg shelter for the night, along with some bread and butter, if you have any you can spare.” Haru looked up at the man. “I wish you to know that I do not ask for your charity – I will work for my meal, if there is work to be done.”
The man thought for a second.
“The harvest is mostly brought-in,” he said. “But I have broad beans yet to be picked.”
“I will pick them,” she said.
The man raised a white brow.
“The work will be hard,” he said.
“I am not afraid of hard work,” Haru said.
Slowly, the man nodded, and he stepped to one side, to invite Haru in.
“I have no bed to offer you,” he said. “But the floor is warm by the hearth.”
“The floor will suit me fine,” Haru said, and she offered the man a bow of gratitude, before she followed him inside.
The farmhouse was spartan, but warm. An iron kettle boiled over a simple stone hearth, and a single candle was lit upon the table. One wall was lined with pickling crocks, while other shelves were stacked high with preserves. The floor was packed earth, but tidy, and a pair of boots lay just inside the door. The straw bed in the corner, which could once have fit a family, was the only piece of furniture to speak of, and it was spread with one of the finest quilts Haru had ever seen. Every inch had been hand-stitched, embroidered with an intricate pattern of apple blossoms, and each tiny bloom looked so close to real that Haru felt as though she could smell crumbles, and cider.
The man took a plate off of a shelf, and he put nearly a half-loaf of bread on it.
“No butter, I’m afraid,” he said, as he handed the plate to Haru. “But plenty of jams.” The man selected a jar of deep-red preserves, and, after wiping a knife clean, he offered both to Haru, who accepted them gratefully.
Haru spread thick strawberry jam on the bread, using as much as she could without feeling a glutton. When she closed her eyes, and bit into the treat, she tasted childhood, and summer.
The man prepared himself a similar repast, and poured cups of hot tea, and the two of them ate together in silence.
“Thank you,” Haru said, once the meal was finished.
The man nodded by way of acknowledgement, before pinching out the candle.
“There’s much to be done tomorrow,” he said. “So I’d suggest you get some sleep.”
“Thank you,” Haru said again.
Laying down on the floor, Haru curled up next to the hearth, where the embers still glowed, and the packed earth was warm. The ground was far from soft, but Haru was accustomed to worse, and, as night fell like a blanket across the quiet fields outside, Haru closed her eyes, and she slept.
* * *
The old farmer was already up when Haru awoke with the first light of dawn. She found him outside, moving between rows of short, waxy beanstalks, twisting pods from the branches and dropping them into an old woven basket that hung from a strap around his neck.
“You should have woken me,” Haru said, pausing to bow briefly in the farmer’s direction. “I was meant to be doing this.”
The farmer shrugged his shoulders.
“Four hands will move faster than two,” he said, without looking up from his work. “Besides, from the looks of you, it seemed like you needed the rest.”
Haru was quiet for a moment.
“Thank you,” she said.
The farmer shrugged his shoulders again. Then, standing up, he walked to the edge of the bean field, and retrieved a second basket, which he offered to Haru, who took it, and looped its strap around her neck.
“Have you ever picked broad beans before?” the man asked.
Haru shook her head.
“String beans, and wax beans, yes,” she said. “But not broad beans, no.”
“There’s a trick to it,” the man said, and he called for Haru to stand next to him, so that she could watch as he worked. “You want to take them by the stems, just a little bit above the pod – you don’t want to pull on the pods themselves. Instead, you pinch, and twist, and tug.”
The man demonstrated on a nearby stalk, plucking a large, waxy pod from the branch with a smooth, practiced motion.
“This way, you keep the pods whole,” he said, “and they will keep for longer.”
Haru nodded her head. Then she and the man both set to work.
Haru worked from the west side of the field, facing into the rising sun, while the man worked towards her from the opposite end. Despite the rigors of his age, the man moved quickly, and his hands – while calloused and knotted – were dexterous, too, and were expert at their task.
At first, the man filled his basket twice for every once that Haru filled her own. But, as Haru grew accustomed to her task – to how the bean stems felt between her fingers, to how much pressure it took to twist free a pod – her own movements became purposeful, and economical, so that, by the time the sun had risen to the top of the sky, Haru could match the farmer’s pace, bean-for-bean.
They took a small respite at midday, eating bowls of cold porridge, and drinking water straight from the well. Then, after pausing only briefly to roll the barrels they had filled to the farmer’s root cellar nearby, they came back to the field, and they resumed the day’s work.
The work was hard work, as the man had warned her. Haru was no stranger to hard work, and she had spoken truthfully the night before, when she said that she did not fear it. But picking beans was different from sifting wheat, or from reaping barley, or from digging graves – the forms of labor to which Haru’s body was most accustomed. The effort was concentrated not in her arms, but in her back, and, after long hours spent stooping over, and bending down to pick the beans from the branches nearest to the ground, Haru’s back throbbed, and her thighs and calves burned.
But she kept on working until, just as the afternoon was beginning to wane, she and the farmer met in the middle of the field, and every bean had been picked.
Once the last barrels were sealed, and stored, and stacked safely in the root cellar, the man and Haru returned to the cottage, and took stock of their labors.
“Thank you for your help,” the man said, as he splashed water on his face from the well.
Once he was done, Haru followed suit. Although the day was cool and mild, she felt hot inside her black robe, and her skin was covered with a thin paste of sweat and dirt.
As she washed her face, though, Haru took care not to scrub away the sign which had been marked on her forehead with ash and sap: a miller’s wheel, with all its spokes broken.
“It was my honor to help,” Haru said. “Although you hardly seem to have needed it.”
The man shrugged.
“You helped me do in one day what would have otherwise taken me two. To my mind, you have more than earned your crust. Speaking of which,” the man nodded in the direction of the cottage, “if you would be so kind as to bring some bread, and some salt pork, I believe I would like to sit down, if just for a moment.”
The man told Haru where to find the evening’s meal, and she went inside to fetch it.
When she came back out, with bread and meat in her arms, Haru found the old farmer seated beneath the knotted trunk of a barren tree, which sat alone atop a little hillock, where it looked out across the gently-sloping fields below.
Haru sat down next to the old man, choosing to sit with her legs crossed on the grass, rather than lean back against the knobby tree. She broke the loaf of brown bread in two, and gave half to the man, along with several strips of tough, salted jerky, and the two of them ate together, in companionable silence.
After what felt like a long time, the man spoke.
“Were you walking for long, before you came here?” he asked.
“For about six days, as close as I can reckon,” she said.
The man looked at Haru.
“That’s a long way to walk,” he said.
“I did not mind,” Haru said. “The land is beautiful, here.”
“That it is,” the man said.
Haru nodded at the little thatched cottage, and the farm that spread out from it, across the gently-rolling hills.
“Beautiful,” she said again.
The man just nodded.
After another few minutes spent chewing in silence, the man spoke again.
“The Priory is about six days walk from here,” he said.
“Yes,” Haru said.
“Is that where you came from?”
“Yes,” Haru said.
“You were a sister, then?”
“I was,” Haru said, and she stared off into the distance.
“What happened?” the man said.
“I broke the rules,” Haru said.
The man was silent for a moment.
“How did you break the rules?” he asked.
Haru closed her eyes, and she ran her hand along the ground next to her. She enjoyed the feeling of the grass between her fingertips, of the soil beneath her fingernails. The farmer’s earth was good – Haru could feel it.
“I did what I thought was right,” she said, quietly.
The man sighed.
“That’s the most any of us can do,” he said.
Haru ran her fingertips across good earth, and she nodded her head.
“Where will you go now?” the man asked.
Haru thought about that for a moment.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“That must make for some change, after life in the Priory?”
“There is a silver lining to it,” she said. “If I don’t know where I’m going, then I can’t be lost, can I?”
“There’s truth in that,” the man said.
He finished chewing his pork, then tapped a finger against his forehead.
“Your mark,” he said. “When you were at the well before, you didn’t wash it off.” He looked at her. “Why not?”
Haru thought about that for a moment.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Wherever you go next, no one has to know,” the man said. “You could wash it away, if you wanted to. Begin fresh.”
“I suppose I could,” Haru said, quietly. “If I wanted to.”
“Is that what you want?” the man asked. “To begin fresh?”
Haru glanced at him.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m not sure.” A small smile crept across her lips. “It’s the wrong season for that, I think. Spring is the season for beginning fresh, for planting anew. But now it is autumn, and autumn is the time for reaping what we have sown.”
Haru and the farmer finished their simple meal in silence. By the time they rose to their feet, it was beginning to grow dark.
The man made to return to the cottage, and Haru was about to follow him, when she paused, and took one of the barren tree’s branches in her hand. It was an apple tree, but the tree’s wood was gnarled, and twisted, and its bark bulged every few inches with rough, bulbous growths.
Blackrot, Haru knew. That was why the tree lay barren, and leafless.
“You used to raise apples?” Haru asked the farmer, cradling the fragile branch in her hand.
“Yes,” the man said. “Why do you ask?”
“Your quilt,” Haru said. “It’s beautiful, and it made me wonder.”
The man’s face turned distant, and he nodded his head.
“I used to raise three kinds of apples,” the man said, as he turned and walked back to where Haru stood. “This whole hillside was covered with trees – when they flowered in the spring, you could see the blossoms for miles around.” The man sighed, and he bowed his head. “Then the blackrot came, and it took them all. There was nothing I could do. The trees died, and I cut them down for kindling.” He rested his hand against the barren tree’s trunk. “All except this one.”
“This is where she’s buried,” Haru said, softly. “Isn’t it?”
The man blinked, and his mouth fell slightly open.
“How did you know?” he said.
Reaching down, Haru gathered a small bit of earth from beneath the tree, and she rubbed the fine soil between her fingertips.
“You chose a good spot for her,” Haru said. “The earth is good, here.”
The man closed his eyes, and Haru could see him blink away a tear.
“I should have cut this tree down, too,” he said. “It hasn’t borne fruit for seasons. But, even like this?” He wiped his eye. “It still reminds me of her.”
Haru let the earth in her hand slip between her fingers.
“You chose a good spot for her,” she said again.
The man took a moment to regain his composure. Then he looked up at Haru.
“Will you stay another day?” he asked. “The beans are all picked, but I’m sure that, given the chance, we can find something else for you to do.”
Haru shook her head.
“You have been very kind,” she said. “But, in the morning, I should go.”
“In that case,” the man said, “there is one more thing that you could help me with.”
The farmer led Haru back down to the little cottage, where, after rummaging briefly beneath his bed, he retrieved a battered old basket, from which he extracted a simple peasant’s dress, died a pale, mossy green.
“This was hers,” the man said, as he held out the dress, for Haru to see. “I have no need for it, but I cannot throw it out.” The man folded the dress carefully, and he lay it atop the small wooden table next to the hearth. “If you are leaving tomorrow, then, perhaps, you could take it with you?”
Haru eyed the garment anxiously.
“I have nothing to offer you for it,” she said.
“I would not expect you to pay me,” the man said. He brushed his fingers briefly across the green fabric, before withdrawing his hand. “Rather, I would be indebted to you for taking it.”
Slowly, Haru nodded her head.
“I thank you,” she said. “You have been excessively kind.”
The man shook his head.
“I did what I thought was right,” he said.
The farmer smiled, and Haru smiled back.
They said little for the remainder of the evening. The farmer occupied himself with putting up jars of pickled beets, while Haru busied herself with mending a basket.
When the time came to sleep, the farmer made a brief trip outside, returning from the well with a pitcher of water, which he placed on the table, along with a bit of old rag.
“In case you decide you would like to wash,” he explained, “before you go.”
Haru nodded her thanks.
The man pinched out the candle, and he retired to bed, while Haru lay down next to the hearth, where she spent a second night.
Only this time, as she slept, Haru dreamt.
She dreamt of seasons, of the Goddess of the Fields, and of good earth.
* * *
When the farmer woke the next morning, even before the sun had split the horizon, he found that his guest had gone.
The woman must have woken early indeed, to have left without his noticing, and the farmer found himself wishing that she had stayed, even if only for a little while. It had been nice to have someone to talk to, even just for a day. Now, in the pale, morning light, his cottage suddenly felt very small, and alone.
He was relieved to see that the green dress was gone. The woman’s black cassock lay in its place, neatly folded. The farmer set that garment aside, confident he would find a use for the fabric.
Also on the table, he found that the pitcher was empty. Next to it, the scrap of rag was damp, and was soiled with sticky sap, and dark ash.
The farmer smiled, and he wished the woman safe travels, wherever she was headed.
After a small, quiet breakfast, the farmer went outside, and he went to his toolshed, from which he retrieved his axe. The axe handle felt strange in his hand, as he carried it up the little hillock, to where his last apple tree stood.
But, before he could swing his axe, the man noticed something that made him blink his eyes in disbelief.
There, on the lowest branch of a tree that had been sickened by blight, that had not borne fruit in years, a tiny white blossom had appeared.
The man cradled the little white bloom in his old, calloused hand, and he thought about spring.
Magic: Expanded Multiverse is not associated with Wizards of the Coast. This is a transformative work of fanfiction, protected in the United States under the laws of Fair Use.
All works copyright their respective creators.