Hello dear readers. A brand new story is so exciting, isn't it? For those of you who have made the jump from Stray Kingdom, thanks for having enough faith in me to follow me into new territory. For those of you who are reading along with me for the first time, welcome! It took me a whole year to finish this story, from November 2012 to November 2013. I have revised it quite a bit since then, but I will be going through each chapter one more time before I post it just to make sure there are no small errors. If you notice that some mistakes have slipped by me, please don't hesitate to drop me a review or a PM telling me so. Also, I love constructive feedback. If you have a suggestion for how to make the story better, or you just want to tell me what you thought about it, I would love to hear it. I'll be posting a new chapter every Saturday, so stay tuned for that. For now, let's get into the story…

The Surry Family's Mule-Cart Blues

By Deryn Melmed

Chapter 1

The tan-colored dust rose in little clouds around Sam's feet as he took each step. There had been a rain shower yesterday morning and the ruts in the road were still a little muddy. Sam made sure to walk on the dry dusty edge of the road beside the tall grass that reached out to touch his legs as he passed. Smithy didn't seem to mind the mud though and tramped happily though it. Sam couldn't help thinking he was doing it on purpose in defiance of Sam's efforts to keep him clean for today. The mule's hooves were coated in the thick mud. Sam tugged on the lead rope tied to Smithy's halter, hoping he would respond. But Smithy wasn't budging from that rut.

The late summer sun was sinking in the cloudless western sky, beating against Sam's back. His brown hair was sticking to his forehead and he could feel the sweat trickling down his spine under his thin blue cotton shirt. He reached into the pocket of his khaki shorts and pulled out his pocket watch. It was slightly smaller than his palm, gold plated with the image of an airship in flight standing out in bas relief on the lid. He flipped it open, revealing the tarnished steel on the inside of the lid. The glass cover over the face was in desperate need of cleaning but Sam could plainly see the delicate hands of the clock reading 4pm. Mr. Peak had said 5pm was the best time to bring Smithy over and Sam wasn't about to miss it. This was too important.

Behind Sam, the dirt road lay on flat ground, stretching off to the west. It curved gently south, lined with trees and grasses that grew just out of reach of the hungry animals that grazed nearby. Horses, cattle, sheep, and goats were all in evidence today, scattered around the fields beyond the wooden rail fences. Ahead to the east, Sam saw the road drop out of sight as it started its descent into the lowlands close to the river.

Sam could hear a dull chugging noise from a long way off. He and Smithy stopped under the shade of an oak tree at the edge of the plateau and looked down over the lowlands. From the heights, Sam could see the car coming. Its fenders were black under the layer of dust that clung to them. The steel front grill caught the light as it came around a bend in the road, trailing a cloud of dust, steam, and smoke behind it. It made such a funny picture among the greens and browns that surrounded it, struggling in the deep ruts that threatened to break its wheels at any moment. When the car was closer, Sam could make out a man in the driver's seat. It was Mr. Millstone, Sam knew without actually recognizing him. There was only one man in this town rich enough to own a car. In the distance, Sam could see his large house with the white roof standing on the near bank of the river.

The wide meandering stream that people called the Saint Thomas River was shimmering in the afternoon light, the reeds along its banks waving gently in the little breeze that always seemed to be blowing over the water. The western side of the Saint Thomas was not much different from the uplands that lay behind Sam. The road ran past farms and little houses on its way to an old ivy-covered bridge over the river.

On the other side of the bridge, however, was a different world. The eastern bank was where the town of Spring Valley began. Rising almost straight out of the river were blocky-looking buildings made of pale orange brick and grey stone topped with tiled roofs of red clay. The streets in between were old worn cobblestone. In the center of the town, Sam could see the white spire of Saint Thomas Church sticking up above the shops and halls around it. Though he couldn't see it, Sam knew that the town square opened in front of the church with its stone fountain in the middle.

On the far side of the town, a train was pulling into the station, the last station on the Eastern Line. The smoke and steam belching from its engine and the five cars behind it kept the residents of Spring Valley connected to the rest of the world twice a day at 10am and 4pm.

Looking out beyond the town, Sam could see only hazy green today. But on a clearer day, he knew he would be able to see the border. The road that led across it had been closed for years and Sam had never been down it. But who would want to? Slavery was still legal in Arithia. The border patrol was always chasing bands of slavers back into the hills on the other side and rescuing people who had been kidnapped. Sam's mother had been grabbed by slavers once, but she managed to escape. She used to talk about that sometimes.

Sam tugged on Smithy's lead rope and started down the slope. Mr. Millstone's car kept on coming, bouncing over the hard packed earth of the road. Sam made sure there was enough space on the other side of Smithy for the car to pass. When it finally did, Mr. Millstone honked the horn and waved. Sam waved back, ignoring Smithy's nervous whinny. Sam shut his eyes and held his breath against the dust and smoke as the car chugged on up into the uplands. The sight of Smithy after the cloud settled was enough to set Sam's teeth on edge. He tried to brush off Smithy's face and back as they walked on, but he quickly realized it was hopeless. Between this and the mud, there was no point. Mr. Peak would understand. After all, who ever heard of trying to keep a mule clean anyway?

Mr. Peak's farm was at the foot of the plateau. It was one of the largest in the area and Sam walked past a dozen acres of it before reaching the gate. The opening in the seemingly endless wooden fence was wide enough for the large carriage that Sam knew was kept behind the barn a half mile down the drive. The gate posts and the gate itself were made of wrought iron, spotted red and orange with rust.

In the grass beside the gate, Sam could see the remnants of a wooden sign that had once hung above the gate. The tall thin poles that once held it in place had long since rotted away to nothing. And the sign itself wasn't doing much better. From memory, Sam knew that it read "Peach Bottom", the name that Mr. Peak's grandfather had given this farm when he bought it over eighty years ago. But as the years went by, the Peak family had decided that the name was stupid. They let the sign molder up above the gate until finally a howling winter storm blew it down about ten years ago.

As the gate was standing open, Sam walked on past the sign and up the drive. Smithy had been here before and knew exactly where they were going. The barn looked small from the gate, but as they got closer, Sam was amazed again by its size. It was at least twice the width of Sam's barn back home. Its enormous doors were standing open and Sam could see Mr. Peak bustling about inside.

Mr. Peak wasn't a big man at all. He stood about five and a half feet tall with narrow shoulders and skinny arms. People in town sometimes joked that he was lying about owning a farm. If he really had a farm, he would be bigger and stronger, they said. But the townspeople always missed the part about him owning the farm. Mr. Peak did own the farm, but he did very little of the work himself. He had five farm hands who did all the heavy lifting for him. Most of his day was spent walking around telling them what to do.

Sam and Smithy were almost inside the door when Mr. Peak looked up from the blade of his plow. He brushed some of his dark hair away from his face and smiled.

"Hey there, Sam. You surprised me," he said.

"Really?" Sam was taken aback slightly. "Am I early?"

He pulled out his watch and flipped it open.

"No, no," Mr. Peak said before Sam could read the time. "I just lost track of time in here, that's all."

"Ah, I see," Sam said awkwardly.

Mr. Peak moved closer and Sam moved away from Smithy so that he could get a better look. But Mr. Peak seemed more interested in Sam's watch. He leaned down a little to look more closely.

"That's you father's watch, isn't it?" he asked.

"It was dad's," Sam confirmed. He held the watch up so Mr. Peak could see its face in the light. The older man gazed at it for a few seconds and then he reached over and closed the lid in Sam's hand.

"The airship on the lid," Mr. Peak said. "It's the Winged Fury, right?"

"I think so," Sam said. "I can't really tell since the ship's name isn't on it. But what other ship would it be? Dad had this watch made special in Goldrun City. Why would he put some other ship on it?"

"I suppose you're right," Mr. Peak said. "You know, the Fury was built especially to be the flagship of the national fleet."

"I know," Sam said. "Dad told me."

"When I was your age, every boy with a toy airship was pretending it was the Fury. And men seduced women by pretending to be her captain."

Sam felt the warmth of the flush in his cheeks and glanced away, hoping Mr. Peak wouldn't notice. But he must have.

"Well, that was before your time, of course," Mr. Peak said. "You're only seventeen. What I meant was that your father was lucky. He didn't have to pretend. He may not have been the captain, but just being a crewman on the Fury was something to sing about."

"I know," Sam said, almost to himself.

Mr. Peak stood there and looked at Sam for a moment. Then he took a step to the side and put his hand on Smithy's head. "Alright then," he said. "Let's see what we've got here."

Sam was glad for the change of subject, even though this wasn't the happiest task either. Mr. Peak stared Smithy down for a long minute. Then he did all the right things. He looked at Smithy's teeth, at his hooves, in his ears and eyes. Smithy handled it all with his usual quiet grace. When Mr. Peak was finished with his examinations, he stepped back and regarded Smithy with a critical eye. After a minute, he nodded and gave a sniff of satisfaction.

"Everything seems in order," he said. "I'll give you five hundred for him."

Sam couldn't believe his ears. "Five hundred? But sir, that's too much."

"You think so?" Mr. Peak said with an amused look on his face. "I've known Smithy his whole life, you know. He was born just down the road at the Callaway place. I used to see him and his mother at the fence when I went by on my way into the uplands. I was with you and your father when he bought Smithy."

"I remember," Sam said. "But what…"

"I'm trying to say that I know how much Smithy's worth. He's only four years old. He's smart and strong and healthy. He's twice the mule I could hope to find at a proper breeding farm. So I'm paying for what I'm getting."

Sam didn't know what to say to that. He stood there staring at Mr. Peak and his nearly ever-present smile. It was no secret that Sam's family needed the money. He would never sell Smithy if things weren't so desperate. But five hundred… Twice the money for twice the mule.

"Okay, I guess," Sam said. It's not like I'm lying or cheating, Sam thought. He knows what he's buying.

Mr. Peak clapped his hands and rubbed them together. "Well alright," he said enthusiastically. "Come up to the house with me and I'll get you that money right away."

Sam tugged on Smithy's rope and they followed Mr. Peak around the side of the barn and farther up the drive to where the house stood some two hundred yards away. It was as pretty a house as Sam had ever seen. The green window shutters and door popped against the whitewashed walls. The railing of the wrap-around porch was lined with all sorts of plants in rusty red clay pots that Mrs. Peak made herself. A faded old Herethenan flag was hanging beside the door. How patriotic, Sam thought as he came up to the porch steps. He stopped there while Mr. Peak went to the door.

"Do you want to come in?" Mr. Peak asked, turning back. "I'm sure Mira would like to see you."

Sam shook his head. "I'm fine out here," he said. "I'd like to say goodbye to Smithy."

Mr. Peak nodded. "I'll only be a minute," he said.

When he was gone, Sam stroked Smithy's mane and stared at the flag. It wasn't just spending a minute with Smithy that made him want to stay out here. Mrs. Peak never missed an opportunity to pinch Sam's cheeks when she saw him, and Sam wasn't prepared to put up with that today. This side of the house was sheltered from the breeze so the flag hung limply from its little metal rod. The green and blue halves were slightly uneven, Sam noticed. And the red star in the center was no longer the dark color of blood. For the martyrs, Sam's father had told him more than once. Sam had to look away from it then. His father had been dead for a year and a half and Sam didn't like to be reminded. It was bad enough that Mr. Peak couldn't seem to talk about anything else today. He didn't need to look for his own memories. Instead, he looked at Smithy.

"I'm sorry, buddy," he whispered in the mule's ear. "I wish I had a choice."

Smithy turned his head and nudged Sam with his nose.

The door opened then and Mr. Peak came back out of the house. Sam felt a terrible pang of guilt as he took the blue paper money from Mr. Peak's outstretched hand. For a moment he just looked down at the cash lying across his palm.

"This is the part where you give me the rope, Sam," Mr. Peak said gently.

Sam shifted his gaze from the money to the rope in his other hand. It felt so real now. Once he handed over the rope, the sale was done. Would Kelsey ever forgive him? Sam held out the rope and Mr. Peak took it. The older man put his free hand on Sam's shoulder and gave a kindly squeeze.

"It's alright, Sam," he said. "Smithy will be fine. I'll take care of him. Okay?"

"Okay," Sam heard himself say. "I think I should go home now. Jessie will wonder where I am."

Mr. Peak patted Sam on the shoulder before taking his hand back. "You're right. Go on now," he said. "It'll do no good to linger."

Sam turned and walked away with what felt like painful slowness. He didn't look back. He didn't want to see Smithy being led away towards the barn. He just kept walking forward, down Mr. Peak's drive and out the gate onto the road. He turned west to go home. After a moment, he realized that he still had the money in his hand and he stuffed it in the pocket of his shorts. He looked up again to realize that he was passing by the Callaway farm. Smithy had been born there, just like Mr. Peak said. But it was the story of Smithy's birth that really stuck in Sam's mind.

Five years ago, Mr. Callaway had made a deal to breed his prize black mare to a very well-bred stallion from farther down the river. On the day of the meeting, Mr. Callaway had put his mare in his back pasture to await her handsome suitor. He neglected to tell his son about this, however. So when Ivan came home from the town market with their donkey, he thought he would put the old guy in the back pasture to have some free time.

That afternoon, the stallion arrived and the meeting went brilliantly. But a year later, when Mr. Callaway's mare gave birth, there was a great wave of shock and consternation. Instead of a beautiful, impeccably bred foal, Mr. Callaway found himself the proud owner of an ugly little black mule. The owner of the stallion felt horribly insulted and scandalized and refused to try the breeding again. At that point, Mr. Callaway decided that he hated the little mule and wanted desperately to get rid of him. He went around to all his neighbors and offered to sell him for a fraction of his worth. Mr. Peak was one of the people who received this offer.

At that time, Sam's dad was making a big push to make the family farm more productive. And nothing made a farm more productive than a good mule, he said. So when Mr. Peak told him about Mr. Callaway's offer, he jumped at it. At the age of thirteen, Sam went with his dad and Mr. Peak to look at the little mule. He still remembered seeing Smithy for the first time, trotting up to the fence with his mother and reaching his head out between the fence rails looking for a treat. Sam's dad liked what he saw and so, as soon as the little mule was ready to leave his mother, Mr. Callaway tied a rope around his neck and delivered him to the Surry farm. Kelsey had fallen in love with him right away. She was the one who gave him the name Smithy.

"Smithy," Sam remembered her saying. She was only six years old then.

"No, Kelsey," their dad had said. "His name is Smith."

"His name is Smithy," Kelsey had insisted.

Jessie had laughed at her, but took up the call anyway. "Smithy is a much better name, dad," she said. Jessie was ten years old then.

Their dad had looked from the girls to Sam. "And you?" he asked.

Sam had just shrugged. "I'm fine with Smithy," he said.

Their dad had thrown up his hands then. "I'm outvoted," he said. "Smithy it is."

Kelsey had squealed and thrown her arms around Smithy's neck. Smithy had turned his head towards her and nudged her with his nose, making her giggle. Their dad had lifted her up onto his back and walked him around with her riding and laughing. Sam and his sisters hadn't known it at the time, but Smithy had never been ridden before. Some years later, when his dad had told him, Sam had scolded him.

"Why'd you put Kelsey on him then?" Sam had demanded. "He could have panicked. She could have been hurt."

"But he didn't panic," his dad had said.

"How did you know he wouldn't?" Sam had asked.

His dad had smiled. "I just knew," he said. "Smithy is a gentle creature. He would never have hurt Kelsey."

Sam had been confused by that at first. But now he thought he knew what his dad meant. He'd seen something in Smithy that no one else did. A good soul.

Sam's feet took him up the plateau to the uplands and he just kept going along the road. He would be home soon. He dreaded walking through that gate without Smithy. It was unforgivable, what he'd done. It was like he'd sold one of his sisters. Was he an Arithian now? No, even the Arithians didn't sell their family members. But they needed the money so badly. The bills in his pocket would feed his family for a month or more. They could afford to buy more seed and try for a late autumn harvest. That was what their dad would have wanted. They would have to sell the farm otherwise. Sam couldn't allow that, even if it meant losing Smithy. The farm was everything to the family, the single most precious thing their parents had left them.

When Sam finally caught sight of the gate, he actually stopped for a few seconds. He could see her perched on the fence post beside the gate, waiting. There was no use delaying the inevitable, so Sam started walking again. Kelsey looked up at his approach and stopped swinging her legs. She was ten years old now and Sam couldn't believe how fast she was growing. Her dirty blonde hair was hanging loose around her shoulders and there were tears hanging in her big brown eyes. Sam moved up and stood in front of her, letting Smithy's absence speak for itself. Kelsey met his eyes for a moment and then she hopped down from the fence post and ran. Sam heard a bitter sob break from her as she took off down the drive towards the house. He followed more slowly with his head down. He kicked at the dust as he walked, in no hurry to arrive home.

The Surry farm wasn't very big and if Sam had lifted his head, he could have seen the house right from the gate. It had been white once, but time and weather had turned it a dingy grey. The porch steps at the front were slightly bowed downwards and the windows needed cleaning. The land around it was as flat as the rest of the uplands and there were only a few trees to block the view. Sam knew each tree on the farm like it was an old friend. The great big thousand year oak behind the house that was visible from anywhere on the farm. The Larpanese maple in the barnyard that turned crimson in the fall. The grove of elms and ashes in the southeast corner of the property where Smithy liked to stand on hot summer days like this when they turned him out in the pasture.

Sam was so intent on watching his own feet that he almost walked smack into the porch, and when he looked up, he was surprised to see Jessie glaring down at him over the railing. She didn't say anything right away, so he spoke first.

"Is she okay?" he asked.

"What do you think?" Jessie said, her voice full of accusation.

Sam looked away from her. At fourteen, Jessie had the most intense gaze and the sharpest tongue Sam had ever seen. Her hair was the same dark color as his, inherited from their mother and tied up in a ponytail. She had the same brown eyes as their father and Kelsey, but they looked almost black now with her mood. Sam suddenly remembered the money in his pocket and he pulled it out then. He held it up to show Jessie.

"He gave us five hundred," he told her.

Jessie narrowed her eyes even more. "Are you serious?" she demanded. "Why would he do that?"

"Because he's nice," Sam replied. "He wants to help us out."

Jessie huffed and tossed her head. "Smithy was all the help we needed," he heard her mutter as she turned away from him. She pulled the front door open harder than she needed to and disappeared into the house. Sam shoved the money back into his pocket, ashamed again. But anger quickly rose to distract him. How could she not understand? Didn't she see the position they were in? How hard would Kelsey cry if she had nothing to eat?

The farm had never yielded bumper crops with its thin upland soil. But even so, they did well those first two years after they bought Smithy. It seemed like their dad's plan was really working out. But then their mom had died giving birth to Shayna. Sam and his sisters had watched the loss eat away at their dad for six months. And then he had died too, his heart giving out in the field as he and Sam were seeding the barley. And from that day on, a cloud of bad luck seemed to descend on the Surry family. Violent storms, droughts, and early frosts seemed to come one after another.

The Surrys were not the only ones who suffered. The entire region seemed to sink deeper into poverty before everyone's eyes. After two failed harvests, the family was nearly ruined. The first things to be sold were their mom's jewelry. She had kept some nice things. And then the extra plow that their dad had left in the back of the barn. And then their parents' big double bed. And then their parents' clothes. The cows went next, all three of them, one by one. The chickens never made it to market. As soon as they stopped laying, they were given the chop and served up for dinner. Their old dog Barnabus died and they buried him in the grove. Kelsey had cried for each animal they had to lose. Smithy was the last one left.

Sam hadn't told his sisters that he had kept their dad's watch. It would have fetched a good price in town with its gold plating. But he just couldn't bring himself to sell it. It was the only piece of his dad that Sam could carry around and look at wherever he went. His sisters would never understand why he kept the watch and not Smithy. And he wasn't anxious to incur Jessie's wrath again. So it was his little secret. With the watch in one pocket and Mr. Peak's money in the other, he entered the house to greet his third sister. Unlike the other two, he was sure to get a warm welcome from her.

The front door led straight into the kitchen. The old iron stove sat in the middle of the room, its chimney rising up black and familiar through the second floor and the roof and into the air above. Sam was pleased to see that Jessie had kept the fire burning in it. It meant they could have dinner early tonight and get Shayna to bed on time for once. According to the grandfather clock in the den, Shayna was supposed to be in bed by eight o'clock. But lately, her bedtime had slipped to somewhere around nine thirty. And where was she anyway?

Sam walked through the kitchen, past the hanging pots and the little water pump over the sink and the knives in the wooden holder on the countertop. He made his way through the doorway at the back of the kitchen and into the den, but Shayna was nowhere to be seen. The grandfather clock told him it was almost six o'clock. That was usually when Shayna started begging for food. Sam thought it might be a bad sign that she wasn't around. He could see some of her toys lying here and there. A pull-along wooden horse, a little fishing pole that Sam had made for her out of a willow switch and a piece of string.

Sam kept going to the back door and opened it to look outside. The small back porch was empty and so was the barnyard beyond. The barn door was closed, but he doubted Shayna was in there. She thought the barn was spooky with no animals in it. The staircase on one side of the den groaned when Sam put his foot on the first step. He held onto the rickety hand rail as he climbed. Peeking over the edge of the second floor, he could see right into Jessie and Kelsey's room. Jessie was sitting on the side of the bed beside Kelsey who was curled in a ball with her back to the door.

"Shayna!" he called out.

"Sam!" came the answering call from somewhere off to one side.

No sooner did Sam reach the top of the stairs than a little blonde creature whisked around the doorway of their parents old bedroom and wrapped herself around his leg.

"Sam!" she squealed joyfully.

Sam felt much better then. Shayna was two years old. She didn't mention Smithy or their dad or anything else painful. She was just glad he was home again. In a minute, he would have to pull Shayna off his leg and go back downstairs to put the last of the corn on the stove for dinner. And tomorrow, he would go into town and buy food and some new clothes. But for right now, he wanted to enjoy this.