Clever Arula: Chapter One

The sun barely winks over the snow capped mountaintops when I wake. I am another year older, yet I feel no different. My eyes remain swollen after a night of heavy tears, and my chest still clenches with an ache I cannot appease. Like every morning, I make myself rise from the threadbare blankets, quickly don my clothes in the semi-darkness, and nimbly plait my long hair.

I descend the steep stairs from my small attic room as my father rolls up his cot and stows it in the corner of the only other room in our farmhouse. I set water over the hearth to boil while he folds his remaining bedding. The silence between us is comfortable after many years of perfecting our routine, and I leave my father to finish making our breakfast.

Outside in the yard, I feed the chickens. The birds are free to forage for bugs and grasses but peck furiously at the grain I scatter for them. Several hens remain on their roosts, and I gently swat the stubborn birds off their perches to eat while I collect their eggs. I draw water from the well and fill the trough for Adel and Ingrid. The two brown dairy cows saunter over and submit to my morning ministrations. When I have two warm buckets of milk, I fork a generous portion of hay over the fence for the cows and fill a barrel with grain. In the barn, I see to our sturdy draft horse, Britta. Her teeth grinding on fresh hay, I caress her velvet soft nose and give her neck a firm pat.

My father has breakfast on the table when I return. I cook two eggs and pour fresh milk to complete the meal. My father adds a small pot of honey to the table. The golden treat is a luxury we can rarely afford on our meager stipend, and I know my father labored many extra hours to provide it for me on my birthday.

My father senses my line of thought and says, “I know I did not have to bring you a present. You say the same each year.”

“Father,” I begin.

“Arula,” my father stops me. “You deserve so much more than what I can give you here. If your mother saw us now, I can only imagine what she would think.”

It is my turn to interject. “What is past is past. We may not have a grand life, but we manage well enough. Mother would be proud of our hard work.” I drizzle honey on my porridge to show I will not make a fuss this year.

My father’s eyes search my face. Satisfied with whatever he has seen, my father digs into his bland meal. I slide the pot of honey over to him, but as I expect, he refuses to take any for himself. I do not push the subject and allow him to eat his plain porridge, at least for today.

When my father finishes his last swallow of milk, he rounds the table and gives me a stiff hug. I wrap my arms around him and squeeze him tightly, burying my face in his chest. “Happy birthday, dearest Arula,” he whispers into my hair. Then he quickly strides from the house, leaving me to clear the table and wash the dishes.

The sun hangs fully above the mountaintops when I make my way to the barn for the second time. Inside, my father finishes harnessing Britta. He ties a pocketed belt heavy with seeds around his waist. Normally, I sow the seeds, but this morning my father offers me a break from the past week of monotonous labor. The small gift lifts my spirits and I hum as I lead Britta out to the fields. I hitch her to the plow waiting in a plot of unturned soil added to our parcel of land just this spring, and we begin turning the dark brown earth. I guide the plow and my father walks behind sowing our crop in the newly turned soil.

Britta drudges forward, her powerful shoulders straining against the plow to create furrows in the field. The bright sun beats down on my back as I dance the line between the rut behind the plow and the wall of earth not yet overturned. I deftly maneuver around a large clump of dirt and realign myself with the plow. I nearly stumble moments later when Britta stops suddenly. Nothing seems amiss, so I command Britta forward and give her a few encouraging clucks. When she does not move, I leave the plow to undertake a more thorough investigation. I check Britta’s big hooves, which she lifts obligingly for me, but find nothing out of the ordinary. The remainder of my investigation is no more revealing.

My father takes control of the plow as I deal with the uncharacteristically stubborn mood of our normally sweet-tempered Britta. I clutch the bridle under Britta’s black whiskered chin to urge her forward. Her tail whisks across her broad hindquarters to swat away overeager flies. Britta’s nostrils flare and her gusty exhale wets my hand. She sidesteps and beats the earth with one hoof impatiently. I use my full body weight to shoulder her back in line with the row. “Keep moving, Brit,” I murmur into her neck. I take her bridal to coax her forward once more when I notice that my father is on his hands and knees several lengths behind us.

“Father, is everything alright?” I ask, concerned.

My father continues digging, seeds and plow forgotten. “Arula, come give me a hand with this,” my father replies, not pausing his work. His voice is filled with what I can only interpret as excitement, yet I cannot remember ever hearing this emotion from him before, at least not since my mother was alive.

I leave Britta where she stands and go to investigate whatever has captivated my father’s attention.

“When the plow passed by, I saw something that looked like gold,” my father explains, still digging, his hands brown with dirt.

I drop to my knees and begin scooping dirt out of the way. “Are you sure this is exactly where you saw it?” I ask.

“I only caught a glimpse for a moment.” My father gives me a stern look, as if questioning whether I am merely humoring him. “Just help me look, Arula.”

“You know I believe you,” I assure him. To show the truth in my words, I dig faster and harder, clumps of dirt ripping at my nails.

My father pulls an object out of the dirt. “Look for yourself,” he says with pride, passing me the glinting object.

Heavy in my hands, I brush away more dirt and see the object is indeed made of gold. I rub the rest of the dirt off with the hem of my skirt, and the gold shines even more brightly. I hold what looks to be a small golden goblet, but the edges are much too thick. I remember the mortar my mother used to grind herbs, and the dimensions suddenly look less awkward.

My father takes the golden mortar from my hands. “We will bring it to the king at once,” my father announces. “I am sure he will be pleased and reward us handsomely. This is surely a sign of good fortune, and on your birthday no less.”

My father, blinded by his desire to provide a better life for me, is getting carried away by the joy of his discovery. I try to reason with him, “If this is a mortar, as I suspect it to be, the king will expect to have the pestle delivered along with it. If you present it to the king now, he will wonder why we have not brought him the pestle and believe we are withholding the wealth for ourselves.”

“Nonsense,” says my father. “The king will be pleased that we brought it to him as quickly as possible. If we hurry, we will be able to present it to him at the public audience today.” He thrusts the mortar into his pocket and runs to Britta.

Britta tosses her head as my father unhitches her from the plow and drags himself onto her tall back. I grab the horse’s bridle to stay her as my father nears. “Are you sure you will not rethink this? We could look for the pestle today and take the mortar, and perhaps the pestle as well, to the king tomorrow. Surely one day will not hurt anything.”

“Arula, I have made up my mind about this. I want to finally be able to give you what you deserve.” He reaches down, and I let him pull me up behind him on Britta’s broad back.

My skirts hitch up indecently high, but I am the daughter of a farmer, and propriety means little when my prospects of marriage dwindled long ago with our fortune. Besides, there is not much I can do about my exposed calves anyways.

I grab my father’s waist as he nudges Britta into a quick trot across the field towards the road that will take us into the center of Rheinhold and the king’s castle. I already see the spires of the grand residence piercing the sky in the distance. As we near, a sense of unease settles in my gut where it starts up a constant churning that leaves an uncomfortable lump in my throat. Too soon, we ride through the open gate in the huge stone archway leading to the castle.

Within the castle keep, we merge with a great crowd of petitioners and citizens seeking audience with the king. My hopes tentatively rise when I see the length of the line with which we contend. Perhaps fate will smile upon us again and we will not be granted an audience today, allowing us more time to return to the field to search for the pestle.

Our allotment of luck, however, is used up for the time being, and a page ushers us into the throne room before the audience ends. I walk slowly to prolong what is now inevitable. My father walks briskly ahead, his excitement disturbingly palpable as my palms begin to sweat with dread. My father stands before the king, and I see him reach into his pocket for the golden mortar. I stand back in the shadows, repeatedly tucking stray bits of hair fallen loose from my plait behind my ears, afraid of what will come next.

“Your gracious Majesty,” my father begins, kneeling, “I have brought you this golden relic my daughter and I found in the new farmland you so magnanimously gifted us this season.” My father holds out the mortar to the king, head bowed respectfully, and the page dutifully takes the offering from him and places it in the hand of the king.

I examine the king sitting in his rich clothing on his regal throne. He can be no more than a few years my senior with his sharp blue eyes and umber hair untouched by the grey of time. I want to hate him immediately for the bored slouch of his shoulders and relaxed manner in which he reclines uncaringly in his glorified chair, but there is something so astute in his bright blue eyes that belies his disinterested demeanor. I stiffen when I realize the king is no longer looking at my father or the golden mortar in his hands. At the beckoning tilt of the king’s chin, I make myself take several steps forward to stand beside my father and drop into a respectable curtsey.

Before I cringe under his shrewd examination, the king says, “Have you found nothing more besides this golden relic?”

“No, your Majesty,” my father is quick to assure him.

The king’s forehead furrows in thought. “But surely you must realize your golden relic is a mortar, which is not complete without the pestle. I cannot help but wonder if you are keeping part of this wealth for yourself.”

The king’s tone is more contemplative than accusatory, but my heart sinks further on its way towards my stomach.

“No, your Majesty. We would never think of such deceit,” my father says, the first hint of uncertainty creeping into his voice. “Not after all the kindness you have shown us.”

The king looks to me rather than my father for affirmation. I hold my silence, waiting to react to whatever trap the king is setting for us rather than springing it prematurely, for the intense glint in the king’s eyes confirms that this is a game he intends to play to the end.

“What is your name, farmer’s daughter?” asks the king, his posture and tone assuring anyone watching that he does not care in the least. Yet his eyes betray him once again.

“Arula, your Majesty” I answer, mustering all the confidence I do not feel.

“An interesting name, Arula. A name so unique must have an equally intriguing meaning,” he prods. The hint of a smile curves his full lips.

I know the game is underway, but he holds all the cards. I choose my answer carefully. “I thank you for the compliment, your Majesty. You honor me with your kind words.”

The king laughs, the sound deep and slow. “A perfect response, but I am sure a woman as clever as you can come up with something better,” he says.

I try not to let my surprise show on my face. I remind myself that he may not know the origin of my name; he could be making assumptions about me similar to the ones I invent about him.

The king continues, “It was not your idea to bring the mortar to me.” It is a statement, not a question.

“I did not recommend it, your Majesty,” I confess, sure that although the admission could be dangerous, lying to the king would be far worse.

“Why?” The king’s face is deadly serious.

I steel myself and respond, “For the same reason you suggested earlier, your Majesty. The golden mortar is clearly without its mate.”

“And yet here you are.” I swear I see humor in the king’s eyes.

Anger rushes through me quick and dangerous. Who is this puffed up aristocrat to laugh at our plight? “And defy my father?” I ask, keeping my tone as even as possible. “Your Majesty,” I add as an afterthought.

“An excusable offense, assuredly, given the present situation.” His eyes bore into me, seeking.

“If we have no loyalty to our own families, your Majesty, how can we be expected to grow greater as a people?”

For a moment, the spark in the king’s eyes assures me I have struck upon what he sought, but then his detached air settles over him like a mantle.

“Throw the farmer in the dungeon,” he intones cooly. “Either the man is stealing the crown’s riches for himself, or he is a fool for not heeding his daughter’s warning. Both are surely crimes deserving punishment.” He gestures for my father to be taken away.

“Please, your Majesty,” I beg, dropping to my knees in supplication. “Grant us but a day’s reprieve to search for the pestle.”

Guards take my father by the arms to lead him from the room. My father’s head hangs between his shoulders, and he looks like my mother has died again right in front of him. Through silent tears, my father mumbles, “I should have listened to, Arula, my clever Arula.” He repeats the words like a mantra, and his sadness becomes my own. I cannot bear the thought of him losing me; after the loss of my mother, the trauma would surely kill him.

“He did it for me!” I almost scream, tears a hot pressure behind my eyes. “Please, your Majesty, please give us another chance.”

“My sentence is final,” the king decrees, but his eyes are again alight with their inner spark of mischief, and hope flares within me.

“I’ll do anything,” I offer wildly as my father disappears from my sight behind a tapestry on the far side of the throne room.

The king smiles with his victory, a cat with a mouse caught by the tail. “Anything?” he echos.

Instantly, I know I am trapped, but there is nothing I can do. “Anything,” I confirm, meeting the king’s eyes with defiance.

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