Clever Arula: Prologue

My mother named me Arula so that I would grow up to be brilliant and wise.

The name came from a far-off land in one of the books she delighted in reading. No one in Rheinhold had ever heard such a unique name until my parents announced my birth. Before me, girls were given conventional names like Lena, Utte, and Mila; but my mother was not a conventional woman, nor was she prone to blindly following fleeting trends purely because doing so was fashionable, no matter what my father said.

When I was little, while other mothers taught their daughters to knit delicate doilies and embroider handkerchiefs, my mother taught me to ride a horse and how to brush its coat until the hairs gleamed in even the softest light. We foraged for plants and herbs in the woods surrounding our home and used them to brew restorative teas and make healing poultices until the ingredients were ingrained in my memory. My mother also showed me which plants could cause damage, or even kill; these she warned me never to use. Above all, she shared her passion for books and the knowledge contained within their pages. She spent hours reading to me aloud even after I learned to read myself. We often made a tent of sheets in the middle of my bedchamber with a nest of blankets and pillows inside. Curled up with a lamp late into the night, we spent hours huddled in our cloth fortress reading tales of love and adventure.

On one such night, my mother coughed into her elbow, having worn out her voice from the long hours of reading. I quickly ran to bring her a cup of water from the kitchen in hopes that the story would continue if she were able to wet her dry throat. I returned to find her collapsed on the heap of pillows, her hair splayed out around her as if in sleep, a bright stain of blood on her sleeve. The cup clattered to the ground, forgotten, as I rushed to her side. On my knees, I pressed my ear to her chest and felt a reassuring rise and fall. Relief brought the sting of tears to my eyes, but the droplets began to fall in earnest when I shook her arm and she did not stir.

I screamed for my father in a panic. Suddenly he was there, scooping me into his arms as if I were still a little girl and taking me away. Then the healers came and I was not allowed to see my mother.

Several days passed. I was given permission to sit by her bedside. My mother was propped up with pillows, so weak she could hardly keep her head from tilting to one side. I clutched her too-warm hand in mine, my fingers icy and slick with fear. I did not know what to say to her, or if I should speak at all.

“Mother,” I began, but she shushed me softly. Her fingers tightened almost imperceptibly, curling around my smaller hand.

“Your brilliance, my darling,” she whispered, “will serve you well.”

Her fingers went slack in mine. Her eyes slid closed and her head slipped to the side so her cheek rested against the pillow behind her neck. Afterwards, she never regained her lucidity. She wove in and out of a dreamlike state and unconsciousness. None of the knowledge she painstakingly instilled in me could save her. There was nothing I could do but watch her slowly slip away from me and attempt to ease her pain when the healers gave up on her. My head was filled with knowledge, but it was not enough. In the end, I am not sure what good my mother’s blessing of brilliance did either of us. She is dead, and I am motherless.

My father, who was distant when my mother was alive, became absent. He lapsed into depression and squandered our family’s wealth on gambling and late nights at the tavern. His habits persisted until we owed so much money that the taverns turned him away, the bakers glared whenever I entered their shops to beg for bread, and the crown could no longer overlook our lack of funds. They took our home and land to repay our debts and gave us a small farm to tend on the outskirts of the city with the condition that my father remain sober and our labor prove profitable.

Nearly eleven years have passed since my mother’s death, and my hands are rough and calloused from daily labor in the fields with my father. It is the eve of my twenty-fourth birthday, and I am a poor farmer’s daughter, with nothing but my name to claim as my own.

I have not cried myself to sleep in years, not since the memory of my mother was fresh and I could still smell the scent of the oils she used in her hair, but tonight I feel the desolation of my fate and I let myself cry because tomorrow I will have no time for tears.

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