Categories
ttrpgs worldbuilding

creative tire-spinning

There are two wolves. One loves to start new things, buy new games, start new RPG campaigns, take on new hobbies and do anything other than what I was doing last week. The second wolf is an incredibly impressionable one, which loves doing whatever I was just exposed to. If I’ve been watching/listening to something that’s Call of Cthulhu-esque, I’ll immediately start writing a Call of Cthulhu campaign. If I start reading a fantasy novel, I’ll start writing a fantasy novel. If I see some good art, I’ll start thinking about drawing, maybe finishing that art course that I started last year. If I see someone playing a game, I’ll probably start playing that game too, unless there’s something about it which really puts me off. These two wolves combine their energies, and make me someone who loves to start new shit, and that new shit tends to be based on whatever I was last exposed to. This is a problem.

It’s a problem because I see the creation of multi-part works, like books with future sequels, or RPG campaigns, as a promise to the people that experience them. The promise is, generally, ‘this will go somewhere, and will be concluded’. This is something that I’ve complained about when it comes to Game of Thrones (the books), and more recently The Kingkiller Chronicle – series where the author has yet to finish them, and has left the readers waiting for several years. I see it as cruel: the most dedicated readers of the work are the ones who suffer the longest and most; left waiting for a conclusion that may or may not come. There’s an element of bad craft as well. If your first few books came out with a good regularity, but your final one takes you over a decade to write, it suggests that you didn’t plan out the series and have been stuck trying to tie up ends. I think there’s a general intuition that starting things is pretty easy, but ending them satisfactorily is difficult. There are frankly enumerable TV shows that we can point to as a perfect example of this imbalance, especially in the ‘mystery box’ genre, which seems to be vogue right now.

If I told you that I never intended to finish the book that I started posting here, you’d probably think I was an asshole. You’d wonder why I didn’t warn you that it was never going to have a conclusion, and you probably wouldn’t have read it. You might even feel deceived — the feeling that people have when they buy an early-access game that never sees a proper release. I know there’s a lot of emotion around this subject, and folk tend to take the side of creators unless they’ve done something really heinous, but I think it has to be a two way street. Consuming media is not an effortless activity by an audience: sure there’s definitely forms of media that are easier to experience (TV, mobile games, etc), but everything demands some level of engagement from the person experiencing it. If you’ve read all the Game of Thrones novels, and the final one never sees the light of day, then it feels like your effort (as the audience) has not been respected. Money definitely complicates this picture as well. Some scrambled thoughts here, but I guess I’m trying to give you a picture of the internal creative trampoline I live on.

Here’s a list of stuff that I’m currently have mid-flight:

  • Writing a fantasy novel, chapter by chapter, on this blog.
  • The Pathfinder 2e system review post, the last part of which sits in drafts.
  • Creating a PF2e prewritten campaign for levels 1-5.
  • A LANCER campaign that I was meant to run for a second time, but haven’t gotten round to.
  • A D&D podcast idea that came about pre-pandemic, I made some moves towards starting, before it all sort of fell through the floor.
  • Photography bits and pieces, RPG videos using the camera that I explicitly bought for this purpose.
  • Miniature painting a load of minis that are due to arrive very soon.
  • Finishing a udacity character drawing art course.

This list goes on. It sort of sits in a priority order, and I was considering making this an actual page on the blog. “Creative projects that have yet to be finished”, but that felt like normalising the act of never finishing anything. I feared that it’d become something of a ‘Google Graveyard’. I wonder though, is this a problem? Is this the state that I just need to exist in? If I set up enough projects, when I’m inevitably influenced into working on something due to some stimuli, then I can just pick up where I left off? I’ve started reading The Wise Man’s Fear and I can already feel myself being compelled to continue writing the book on this blog. I’ve wondered if there’s an element of arrogance here as well: seeing a piece of media and then thinking I can do better. I’m not sure that I think it’s true, or helpful to think about things that way, but it’s definitely something I’ve considered.

In terms of RPG things, the most successful stuff that I’ve done tends to be in the 3-4 session length. After that, I know that my interest starts to fade, and I start to look for novelty in other things. I think what I need to do, is find a way to satiate that desire for novelty within those projects. If I’m getting tired of the direction a long-running RPG campaign is going in, then I need to find a way of spicing it up for myself. Creating fresh, exciting dungeons. New regions, new maps (I always love making maps, that seems to be the one constant throughout my trampolining) or new NPCs. The same goes for the book, if I feel myself getting bored, maybe I need to write a chapter that occurs in the future but don’t publish it yet.

Anyway, here was some scrambled thoughts, and a semi-explanation for why I’ve stopped posting so frequently on this blog. Partially it’s been because I’ve been thinking about and writing the PF2e prewritten, so I might make a few posts on that just to have something going up every so often.

Categories
story worldbuilding

chapter four

Preparations

ON THE SURFACE, THE day of the mustering was the same as any that had come before it. Dawn broke, and the roads of the village slowly grew in activity. Some emerged from their houses fully-dressed, but with bags under their eyes. Others crept out in smallclothes, to check whether the small-kingsmen had arrived; slinking back inside with relief shortly afterwards when they saw they hadn’t. I had been sat on a step in the square since the small hours, mulling over what Madam Varangia said to me, when Renee emerged from her house on the corner, patting down her sawbones apron as she looked up and down the road. Her eyes found me, and she swiftly hurried along the flagstones towards the little nook where I sat. “You know if Bergholf sees you lounging around on his steps, he’s going to give you another telling off?” I picked myself up and stretched, yawning as I did. “Actually, that was when you were wearing britches. This time he might just let it slide out of sheer discomfort.” I looked down: sure enough I was still in my smallclothes and long tunic, which I immediately pulled down out of self-consciousness.

“Well, I thought I’d try embarrassing the small-kingsmen until they left me behind out of shame. Think it’ll work?” She laughed, far harder than the joke warranted. “No need to lose your dignity, we could fix you something at my house. Take off a leg and tell them you lost it in a horrific tavern scrap last night. We could take out an eye and tell them you took up knife juggling to pass the time.” I belly-laughed and waved a hand, but she continued. “We could tell them you caught Fisherman’s Madness, but you’re in the early stages, before you start sweating saltwater. We could tell them you passed it onto Aldin and Illia too, and that they can’t take you because otherwise they’ll get it — that they have to let you stay because it isn’t safe!” I had stopped laughing, noticing now that her eyes were rubbed raw and bloodshot. She was beginning to tremble, no longer forming words with her mouth but sorrowful noises between shallow breaths. The tension in her shoulders began to fade away, as tears fell down her cheeks in great floods, and her head angled down to face the ground.

“It’s just so awful that you three are being sent away, while I get to stay. I feel so guilty — I’ve not been able to sleep since those people came.” I felt a twinge from deep down at ‘those people’, but quashed it. I took her hands in mine as she gently sobbed. “Renee, the village needs you. Your mother needs you. There’s going to be old folk doing work meant for young people. What these hands know how to do has never been more important.” She straightened up, looking up at me with glimmering eyes behind loose strands of mousy brown hair. “Illia, Aldin and I will be back before you even know it. Illia will have new stories and new worlds. We’ll all walk through the paths together, watching the woods grow and change with the seasons. I’ll even play a snow dancer in the Staehndag next year, if they let me. It-It’ll all be just like before, but better, and this time it won’t end.” I could see her beginning to laugh, and we moved apart as she wiped tears away. “I will hold you to all of that, Raemir of Sael. Do you hear me? Every word.”


I walked back to the forge briskly, keeping from the busiest parts of the village as I did. The roads were alive now, with folks walking and talking like it was any other day. I sighed with relief, as I pushed at the front door of my home and it yielded to me. Hearing some sounds of activity from the smithery, I covertly ascended the stairs and slunk into the bedroom. As I entered, however, I saw a large satchel sat square in the middle of my bed. I hesitated for a moment, unsure if someone was about to make their presence known, but I made my way over to it when no one was forthcoming. The dark leather gave off the fresh scent of tanning salts, and it felt durable to the touch. A couple of large steel buckles held two belts, which wrapped around the whole bag, securing a thick flap against the top opening. I released the buckles, pulling the flap back to reveal the well-packed contents. Inside were at least three tunics, one set of britches, a leather belt, a needle and thread, and several items that I didn’t recognise. There were two sticks of thin wood that seemed tacky to the touch, and weightier than they had right to be. I twiddled them between my fingers, before placing them to the side and pulling out the second thing that eluded my understanding.

It was a disc of polished metal, most likely silver, that was faced with glass. Enclosed within the glass was a piece of faded vellum, pinned with the thinnest piece of metal I’ve ever seen, which seemed to lurch and shift as I moved it around. I inspected it closer, looking for hidden strings to explain the motion, and saw the tiniest engraving on one end of the metal. I nearly dropped it in surprise when my mother’s voice sounded from the doorway. “It’s called a compass.” She walked over, took it from my hand and held it out in front of us. The needle danced again, then finally settled. “If you hold it out like this, it tells you which way north is.” She moved it around in demonstration, and sure enough, the metal maintained its orientation. I felt my jaw slacken. “You enchanted it? It’s magic?” She chuckled and shook her head. “I bought it. There’s lodestone in there, a mineral you’ve not ever worked with. Folk say that all the lodestone in the world came from the far north, and it yearns to make its way back there.”

She put it back in my hand gently. “You keep that to yourself now, don’t let anyone else see it. The folk that don’t know how it works will think you’re an Ardent. The folk that do…they’ll only see the sovereign they’d get for selling it. Best not to find out which one they are.” Her hands went over to the wooden sticks, picking up one and bringing it to my face. “This is a portable fire, useful in a pinch when you can’t find flint or don’t have the time. Strike it on something rough,” she mimed scratching the end across the wood of the bed “and it’ll instantly catch and give you a flame that’ll last a minute in the dry, and a few breaths in the wet.” She went back into the bag and pulled out a small stone cylinder, attached to a hemp cord, which was threaded through a smooth hole in the top. She put the cord over my head, and let the token fall against my chest. “A piece of jewelry that has sat in my family for generations. It’s called Tchanchestia.” She seamlessly transitioned into a completely foreign intonation, then back again but with a new, severe tone of voice. “My mother told me that if I found myself stood in the shadow of someone speaking in many tongues, I was to snap it between my finger and thumb.”

She sat back, laughing off the severity of what she’d just said, and started to rummage in the bag again. Having removed a few items of clothing, she beckoned me to take a look. There were several stitches missing from one of the seams on the inside, leaving a small gap into a hidden pocket. She reached inside, removed a small linen pouch, and tossed it into my hands. I pulled apart the draw-string opening and tipped out a handful of coins, counting thirty slivers, three strips and one bar. I looked up at my mother. She must have read my thoughts right off my expression. “Yes, it’s yours to keep, and no, we’re not going to starve without it. If you’re shrewd, you’ll get two sennachs of a feather bed and a full belly out of it.” She took the pouch out of my hand and started putting the coins back into it. “You don’t carry more than ten slivers on you at a time, and you keep the rest in there. People won’t think you’re worth any more.” She laughed again as I frowned slightly. “Not saying you’re a tired mule my love, just a benefit of looking like one of the folk. People won’t think you a prince, a fact you can use like armour.”

There was a side of my mother that I knew. It was a hard-working, forthright, loving member of the village folk. Never taken for a fool, but nor was she cruel for the sake of it. Then there was another side, a side that had survived the roads of the country for years. One which knew the customs and rumours from dozens of towns, almost as well as the folk who lived in them. It walked to the side of roads, never on them. It slept with a blade in arms reach and a chair against the door. It knew the inns that gave you a warm bed with a trustworthy innkeeper, and the ones which left you with an emptied purse and a slit throat. It knew the face of a seller that’d give you a fair rate, and the face of one that’d rip your eyes out of their sockets with a smile.

I don’t think my mother had a “real side”. If you took one side of her away, the other would fall like a two wheeled wagon without a horse. What had happened over the last three days is that one side had simply stepped back, and the other had stepped forwards.

She packed everything back into place, passing me ten of the slivers from the pouch before stuffing it into the compartment. Wrapping the belts back around the bag, she stood back from the bed and motioned. “Put it on, we’ll need to adjust the strap.” I slung the thick strap over my right shoulder and let the bag fall just below my left hip. She tutted loudly, crossing her arms. “Far too low — you’ll go mad with it bumping your leg. Take in some of the slack”. I did as she asked, and the satchel now sat above my hip, with my left hand resting on it. She uncrossed her arms with a frown, came closer and moved the satchel so that it rest further towards my back. “Better. People tend to fuss with their bags when they hold something valuable, so keep your hand off it when you’re travelling.” She made a point of moving it further behind me. “This is so you don’t keep looking at it, which is the other thing folk do. A bag attracts attention, but a worried-over bag attracts blades.” She stood back again with her hands on her hips. “Reminds me, your father has something for you in the forge.”

She turned around and left for the staircase. I gulped slightly at the idea of getting anything from him, but followed all the same. When we came downstairs he was standing over an anvil, working a thin rod of iron that looked like it was going to become a meat hook. Wordlessly, he set down his hammer and tongs, then moved over to a crate in the corner of the smithery. Opening it up, he pulled out a small dagger covered with a dark leather sheath. “Steel” he said, walking back while removing the sheath, revealing a near-mirror shine on it. “From what we had left over.” There was a small engraving where the blade met the quillon, but he returned it into the sheath before I could make it out, then placed it into my hands. I felt its heft between my fingers, before looking up between him and my mother. “I-I don’t know how to use a da-” I started to say, before he interrupted. “Kolag’s agreed to teach you on the road. You’ll learn.” I nodded. Illia’s father? What does he know of needlework? My train of thought was interrupted by the sounding of a horn outside.

For a moment, I could feel my heart beating against my ribcage. In all of the excitement of getting new things, I’d almost forgotten what it was all for. The horn sounded again, twice. Long blasts, that seemed to shake the walls and roof of the smithy. There was activity on the road outside, some shouting, the sound of heavy footfall. I froze up. The dagger suddenly seemed to weigh a hundred pounds, my satchel gnawed at my shoulder, pulling me into the ground. I felt like I was going to tip over, when a steadying hand found my back. It belonged to my mother. “We should get you to the square before they start counting. Have you got everything?” I quickly checked the contents of the satchel, checked my pockets for the ten slivers, checked the stone token that now hung around my neck. My father took the sheathed dagger from my hand and looped my belt through it, as I stood stock-still. In a lot of ways, I wish he hadn’t made the dagger. If someone is relentlessly cruel and awful, hating them comes easy, but when they’re occasionally kind, it makes it all seem so confused.

We walked out the front door, and I took one look back, back into the house that I’d spent seventeen years. I wonder to myself, when did that boy die? Raemir of Sael, the boy who walked out the door. Was it on that scorched battlefield with the rest? Was it when he joined the Intercessors? Was it when he pierced the throat of his first Ardent? I think it was earlier. I think I was born when he shut the door to that smithy: I was the small part of him that knew he wouldn’t be coming back.


The entire village had emptied out onto the roads. Folks said goodbye to one another, embraced, weeped, prayed, as the small-kingsmen rode into the square. Behind them walked a column of people, dressed in dirty animal furs and blemished leathers, holding a wild assortment of weaponry. A few had swords hanging from their belts in scabbards, wearing armour that looked fit for purpose. Most were dressed for a day’s work, wielding the tools of their trade with familiar hands, but turned to a new, unfamiliar purpose. What startled me most is just how similar to the village folk they looked, their clothing, their features, and their expressions. I had hoped that they would arrive with a song on their lips, with joviality and that sense of adventure I had felt before. Their faces shattered my delusion, and a lump formed in my throat as they shuffled past my house towards the square.

My parents and I pushed past the procession, and arrived just as the three small-kingsmen had begun to dismount. I clenched my teeth when I saw the bald man again. He looked shabbier and dirtier than before, with the few days on the road depriving him of whatever creature comforts he was evidently acquainted with. The severe small-kingsman reached into the saddlebag and pulled out the piece of parchment, which he reviewed before saying “Thirty-one and one hundred” to the bald man, who nodded curtly. He moved into the middle of the square before bellowing, as he had done before. “People of Sael, STAND TO! Step forwards to be counted, then join at the back. Thirty-one and one hundred of you will be joining us this fine day, remember that!” After a span, folk began to step out of the crowd that had ringed the village square, before moving to the back of the formation having been recognised with a nod of the head. I saw Illia and Aldin moving forwards to be counted. They must have already said their goodbyes, so I turned to my parents to say mine.

My father had the same, stern glare that he normally had, but it was tinged with something new. If I didn’t know him better, I would have thought it was concern. My mother was beaming, with a warm, radiant smile that seemed utterly at ends with everything else around us. She must have noticed the souring of my expression, because she spoke first. “I’m not happy that you’ve gotten tied up in some small-king’s business. I’m happy that you’re seeing the world beyond these roads.” She gestured to the paths branching from the village square, and took a deep breath. “Staying in one village your whole life — that’s no life at all. For you to want that, you need to see what else there is. Just wish it was under…better terms.” The crowd was beginning to thin out as more Sael folk took their place at the back of the troop. She drew me into her arms, creating an island of compassion in a sea of commotion, lasting for but a moment before it disappeared beneath the waves. My father and I shared a brief look, consisting of a curt nod from both of us, and that was the end of that. I shrugged to reposition the satchel on my shoulder, then stepped forwards to be counted.


I followed the other folk to the back of the group, walking past the tired faces of the villagers that had come before us. I found Aldin, Illia and her father in the group, laden with their own bags, satchels and backpacks, and joined them. Aldin had strapped a large splitting axe to his back and Illia carried a small hand-sickle with grim purpose. I suddenly became conscious of the comparatively tiny dagger sheathed on my belt, but assured myself that I’d be happier for not having to carry a heavy blade however far we were travelling. Whenever another Saelite joined the group, there was a process of review and self-reflection. Did they look like they were carrying more supplies than me? Had they dressed in thicker leathers? Did they bring a bigger weapon? All of these questions were followed by the same thought: should I have done that? It occurred to me that another cruelty of the small-kingsmen was a complete lack of information. We weren’t told where we were going, we weren’t told how long we’d be gone. Perhaps even the small-kingsmen didn’t know, and they were in the same boat? Despite Madam Varangia’s chastening, attempting to put myself in their shoes sat horribly with me. So much easier to just see them as the enemy.

We stood in solitary companionship. Physically immediate, but so deep in our own thoughts that we could have been in separate villages. This torpor was only broken when Renee walked up to us. She was not dressed for travel, she was not wielding some sawbones implement as a weapon — she was wearing her apron, as she had done when I met her earlier. “I just came here to wish you off.” Her eyes were still bloodshot, but she looked more composed than before. She stared at our packs and weapons, her gaze lingering on my dagger before returning to our faces. “I’m going to need you all back here by summer to help me with herb picking, so if you could get this business all sorted out before then, that’d be acceptable.” The lightest touch of a smile met her face, coming and going like a gust of wind, and I felt myself get lighter for a moment. There was a pause, as though everyone was trying to concoct something suitably poignant, but it was broken when Illia simply walked up to Renee and embraced her tightly. Aldin and I did the same. There were no words that could capture our emotions: only the gentle touch and presence of friends, who know they may never see each other again.

Shortly thereafter, the column of folk began to move out of the village, and we along with it. They had gotten their one hundred and thirty one, and there was a sense of pride in that. That no one had tried to run, or thrust another into their place. We came through the village square and onto the southern road, getting one last glimpse of Sael as we did. My mother and father were standing by the side, along with Renee and everyone else who hadn’t been called, watching us as we passed by like a boat on a calm lake. There were no cheers, yells, or displays of bravado — just the sound of many feet coming down on the open road.

Categories
story worldbuilding

chapter three

A Knife Large Enough

I DID NOT SEE much of my father during the days before the mustering. A lot of the orders we had for the rest of the sennach had vanished immediately; turns out that folks don’t need a replacement wagon brace when they’re not going to be using the wagon. The few that we did have, were from people fortunate enough to not be called: cast iron pots, hooks, nails; the sort of stuff that folk normally bought when they had a few slivers to spare. Conspicuously, there were no orders for axe heads, ripsaws, or hammers. Nearly every carpenter and woodcutter had been swept up in the levy, and for the first time in Sträm knows how long, the mill would fall silent. My father said he’d handle what orders we had, and that I should ‘see to my other business before I’m off’. A part of me wanted to lay him out right then and there for being so cold and detached — as though he thought we were all merely popping up the river for a spell. I settled for balling my fists and storming out of the house.

So how did I spend my precious remaining days, you wonder? Did I spend them with a stick, honing my nonexistent swordplay? Did I go to the eldest in the village, to plumb the depths of their memory for the battle stories of old? Did I go to the most avid of the village fist-scrappers, and ask them to teach me all they knew of real fighting? Did I play the village drum and wait for the echoes to speak? No. I spent my last three days with my friends, trying my utmost to believe none of it had even happened. My mood was pitch black, with my direst of thoughts reserved for the horsemen: the three that had brought a message of death to my fair village. I drilled their faces into my mind, so deep down that I’d sooner forget my name.


I walked up the winding dirt path to visit Aldin at the lumber mill. His arms were swollen, and cords of muscle rippled across his back as he chopped log after log like a man possessed. I leant against the remnants of a tree and watched for a span, before I deigned to disturb his quiet focus. “You know we’re leaving in two days, along with most of the village?” He placed a log on the stump, brought the axe over his head and swung it down. It split into two equal pieces, which flew to the sides. “I know.” He replaced it with another log and assumed his stance. “You also know it’s coming up on the warm season, so people won’t be needing this to not freeze in the night?” The axe came down to the sound of splintering. “I know.” He reached over to the pile and lifted out another log. “So I guess…what I’m asking is: why are you standing out here, chopping wood, when everyone else is making good on their remaining time?” He put the axe to his shoulder and wiped his brow. “I am making good on my time. Folk’ll still need firewood when we’re gone, and chopping it used to be what I was good at”. He regripped the handle and swung it down with a forceful grunt. I raised an eyebrow as he reached over to the pile for another bit.

“Don’t tell me this is some sort of penance for that nons-” the axe came down and struck the log at an angle, sending it tumbling along the grass with a dull thuddering sound. He fixed me with a cool stare. Aldin cut an unashamedly powerful figure after the years of lumber work; I’d have been intimidated if I didn’t know him as well as I did. “…when you’re finished here” I said, pushing myself off the tree, “Illia, Renee and I are going to spend the day by the river, if you wanted to come along. There’s no forge-work for me to do, so-”

“I’ll meet you there.”

He walked over to the stray log, grabbed it with one hand, and placed it back on the trunk. I nodded, and walked back down the path to the resumed sound of splintering.

On the way back to the village, I detoured through to Illia’s farm. The fields were freshly ploughed, and the smell of sodden earth hung in the air as I passed through them. Illia was walking down the rows with a wicker basket, spreading mulch to either side with a leather glove. She noticed my approach and waved, but continued to throw handfuls of muck. As I got closer, I heard that she was whistling a tune to herself, but one that I didn’t recognise. “No rest for the howling eh?” I chuckled as I stopped next to her. A fey smile crept across her mouth, and she whipped a handful of mulch into my chest. “A-hey, this is a fresh tunic!” I picked off some of the more egregious chunks with my fingers. “Eh, we’re going to the river ain’t we?” she shot a jaunty grin, and continued to spread it across the field as her expression began to sour. “My ‘pa got called up too, so we got to straighten’ things out here before we’re off” She continued onto the next patch of dirt. “Awful early to be feedin the soil, but when all you’ve got is three days…” a gust of wind blew across the field, bearing all the scents of spring and catching her dark hair as she spoke. “My ma’s going to have to look after the farm, the fields, the animals…it’s a lot of work. Shan’t do any good for her gammy knee either”

I studied her face as she turned to look at me. The fields around us seemed to contract, until you could throw a stone from one side to another. The little cottage where Illia had lived all her life looked like a toy. Even the barnhouse, which stood a good many hands taller than any other dwelling in the village, felt tiny in comparison to the greater world outside of Sael. We were small fish swimming in a puddle, and we were about to be thrown into the sea — her eyes said it, and I imagine so did mine. I opened my mouth to say something comforting, but I lost the moment in my own muddled head, and we stood in the field once more. “Are you going to finish that thought, or did the wind snuff the furnace out?” She threw a clod of muck just past my face and laughed when I startled. “Anyway, I’m nearly finished up here, then we’ll have all day to caper through the grass like dullards.” I simply grunted in reply. We strolled back to her cottage, she emptied and stowed her basket, then threw me a rag for wiping down my tunic — not before she’d cleaned her hands with it though.

We took the long way from the farm to the village. Renee had said she’d be helping her mother till midday — we had some time till then, judging by the sun. The route took you into a clearing which had a single tree, with roots jutting out from the ground so you could use them for sitting. “There’s somethin I’ve been thinking about. Something that you’ll know better than I about.” Illia said as she picked her way through a thicket. I was following close behind, and was eating the backswing of all the little branches she displaced. “Ye-ach, yeah?” We both emerged through to the other side, and the lonely tree stood a hundred paces before us. “We have a village drum, as a drum is meant to be the closest thing to the sound that Sträm made, when it first created the world…” I laughed out loud with a partially venomous laugh. “Of all the things to be thinking about now, you’ve chosen this to muse on?”

She tilted her head slightly, but continued unbidden. “And you know how folk get real fervid about hearin the echoes of that sound?” We started to walk towards the tree. “Well, it stands to reason, that if we wanted to hear that sound, we wouldn’t make any noise at all. How are you meant to hear it when you’re banging a bloody drum?” I stopped walking and started applauding her loudly. “You’re in the wrong calling. You should head south and study under a sophist, I’ll even write you a letter of recommendation”. I began to write in the air. “This is Illia, born of the Folk. Her keen mind tore down generations of village tradition in three breaths. Please take her from us.” She smacked me lightly on the arm and continued walking. I followed after her. “I think you’ve muddled two different things. Folk play the drum to remember the sound, not listen for it. That would be barmy, even for the most pious of Strammites”. She didn’t respond, as though she was listening to something else.

“If I wanted to hear a sound from a long long time ago, I’d just make a big horn. Use all the wood that Aldin cuts for it. Then, if I put my ear to it and didn’t hear a jot, it’d save folk a lot of time and trouble.” She gestured with her arms to indicate the enormity of this horn. “You blow through a horn to make noise though, right? Not hear them?” I said slowly, feeling like I was making a fool of myself. “Sure, but just as it makes a big noise, you can also hear small noises with them. I learnt this when I put my head in a hollow trunk once: felt like I could hear the whole forest, all at once.” She bent down to act out the whole activity and I chuckled as I scratched my chin, pondering the validity of what she’d said. We reached the lonely tree, and Illia looked for a suitable tree trunk to demonstrate, to no avail. We sat next to each other on a root and kicked our legs out, listening to the wind as we did.

She broke the silence first, looking at me with her almond eyes. “When you said you’d write a recommendation for me, was that entirely a joke or..?” She most likely had no idea what it even was. Even I wasn’t too sure what one was, but I had heard a coinspinner talking about them one time, and about how much people were willing to pay for them. “I’d write one for you, I mean, if I could write. You’re sharp Illia, more than I, anyway. Seems the world needs wits more than it needs another iron pot or ruddy paring knife.” She laughed, and that same fey smile from before emerged on her face. “I don’t think a pair of hands is all that you are, Rae. Think there’s a lot more to you than that.” We sat in that moment, and for a span, the darkness of the world lifted from my heart.


We met up with Renee at her house on the corner of the village square. She was sat on the steps leading up to her front door, and she jumped up as we came closer. “I said I’d be done by noon! Were you lost, or just struck by sudden blindness?” she said, arms folded. I gingerly put my hand through my hair and changed the subject. “Aldin said he would meet us there so we probably should head over, lest he’s stood by the river thinking we’re all awful”. Renee walked down the steps and clapped me tightly on the shoulder. “Indeed, he should be informed that only two in our number could be called such a thing!” She released me and began to pace in the direction of the river as Illia and I fell in behind.

The village was busier than usual, and even someone who wasn’t present for yesterday’s proceedings would have cottoned onto the sense of malaise that seemed to hang over everything. Fear blanketed Sael like a morning fog. You could see it on every face, hear it in every conversation, and feel it in your own bones. This was not the sudden pang of fear from leaning too far back on a stool, or from hearing a sharp sound you didn’t know. It was gnawing, lingering. It stood up with you in the morning and followed you into your sleep, casting your dreams in shadow till you woke once more. Despite this, folk were still folk. There were still smiles in the village, there were still complaints about the weather, there was still village gossip of a sort so insignificant that it wasn’t worth the air it was said with. Sure we were leaving our homes, off to serve as part of some small-king’s plan, but we were doing it together. Where Sael’s folk went, Sael went, and the whole thing started to feel like something of an adventure. I was struck by a sense of childish wanderlust, buoyed by camaraderie and self-assuredness, but calcified by a deep loathing that ate away at me all the while.

“I think he’s been stung by a riddlebeetle” Renee watched as I dramatically swung a stick at some leaves on a branch, tearing a few to the ground. “This is the ‘hysteria’ phase, which is shortly followed by death.” she said, dryly. We had found a spot by the river which was clear of trees, and where the sun shined unobstructed. Illia was lying, flat on her back staring at the sky. Renee sat with her arms resting on her knees, watching my ‘swordsmanship’. I spun around with the stick in my hand. “Stand to, Renee of Three Waters! I challenge thee to a duel to the death, or worse!” I twirled the stick with all the deftness of a pregnant cow. A frequent footstamper’s tale in the Shaded Grove was ‘The Fair Duelist of Three Waters’, a woman who’d publicly challenge nobility and leave them standing in their smallclothes or bare-arsed.

She was free, she was fair, she was lightning,
but the nobles found her to be frightening,
a swish with some flair,
to make a slit and a tear,
for the crowds, it was all very enlightening!

Renee sprung to her feet and began to scour the grass for a suitable stick of her own. She found one, a full finger and a half longer than mine, eliciting a frown from me. “A good craftsman works with what one has to hand! Show me what constitutes swordplay in your contemptible character, Raemir of Sael.” She assumed a position opposite me by the river. What happened next did not as much resemble a duel, as it did two drunken fishermen trying, and failing, to catch the same fish. After a whole minute of swinging, all we had to show for our trouble was a rapped knuckle and a grazed brow. We decided that the whole thing was a rotten idea from the start; the sticks were downed. I rubbed the spot on my forehead as Aldin emerged from the treeline, looking like his regular jovial self. “Hail Aldin!”, I sarcastically beckoned, “How fared the battle with the log-creatures? Is a tree left standing in the forest?” He strolled over to us and sat down. “They came thick and fast m’lord, but all were seen to rightly. I see you were assaulted by them too.” He poked the mark on my head and I winced, swatting his finger away. Renee interjected from where she sat in the grass, seeing an opportunity to verbally pounce.

“Raemir’s abilities don’t extend beyond the metallic I’m afraid. He’ll make an excellent swordbearer for you in a couple of days, though…” Her voice trailed off. The hatred came crawling back, but before it could settle in completely, Illia raised a beckoning hand from the grass. “Do all you hear that?” she said, soft as a whisper. We stood for a moment, listening intently. The gentle rushing of the river, the sound of the wind in the reeds. The birds that sang to one another from the branches, fluttering and dancing from twig to twig. We all stood in the relative silence of the green, straining to hear whatever Illia was hearing. I gave up first. “I…can’t hear anything, ‘cept for the woods.” She brought her hands together in some sort of prayer, her eyes shut tight. “Exactly — ain’t it just great?”


My father worked the small hours until the last evening before the mustering. The forge fires would be lit when I left in the morning, and the clanking of a hammer would still be ringing as I went to sleep. I assumed he was kept busy by the remaining orders we had, and left him to it just as he’d asked. Both of my parents were kept from the call, blessed with the value of being the village’s only smiths, not including myself. My mother was the reason I spent those remaining days with Illia, Aldin and Renne. She encouraged me to see them, and I believed she was the reason that my father decided to release me from my duties. When I went to bed, she’d sit at the end of it and tell me things from the wider world. She was not born here — she came from the other side of the country: a different world, as far as I was concerned. Travelling from village to village, town to town, she plied her trade for folk of many different tongues. Then she came to Sael, and decided that the road had nothing more to offer her.

“Now, the small-kingsman said that the folk up north didn’t have as much time as we do, so it stands to reason they’re going up there to call on folk, but then coming back south, past us, for whatever’s next.” She was using a piece of leather, and a flint to mark it with where Sael was, and where the villages up north sat. The only light in the room was a small candle resting on a stool, which threw harsh silhouettes across the walls. “Couldn’t they have come from the east or west?” I shifted in my bed. “No my love, not east anyway. There’s a long string of mountains, here.” She started scouring little peaks to the east of Sael. “Only place you can get around nearby is from the north, so they would have gone to those villages first if they had. There’s a path through those mountains southeast of us,” she scored a line through the peaks “but you couldn’t get horses to travel it, even if you could talk to them”. She paused, and ran a hand through her curly bronze hair, letting out a sigh. “They could have come from the west, to the border, but I’ve not heard a peep from the coinspinners about a real war. That’s the sort of thing that gets around, ‘specially with those people.”

She brought the flint down to the leather again, and started to mark out a dashed circle below us. “They’ll probably be going down the Two Steps Road: that takes you through here, an old stomping ground of mine. They don’t shake hands down there, on account of a sickness that makes folk’s skin turn foul — so if they offer you a hand, assume that means they know you’re not from there, and they’re looking to fleece you.” She mimed putting her hand out to shake, then quickly pulled it back. “Also, you don’t ever talk about the small-kings; depending on how far down the road you are, it could be any one of three. There’s bad blood about that sort of thing, some folk care, some folk don’t — best not to ever mention it, or get involved if someone else is grumbling. You remember what I told you about that?” I nodded and recited from memory. “Mud is mud, ‘cept when an outlander says it, then it’s gold.” She tussled my hair and smiled, before taking the glowing candle and leaving me to my own thoughts.

Sleep had not come easily, and when I awoke, it was still the small hours. The sounds of night were still abundant, and I could see streaks of blue light bleeding in from the outside. I pushed myself out of bed, threw on a long tunic and small clothes, then crept out of my room as quietly as I could. My parents room was opposite mine, with a wooden staircase leading down to the smithery on the left. I inched my way onto the staircase, tensing as each careful step elicited a sonorous groan from the decades-old wood. However, I reached the bottom without obvious alarm, and after checking that the coast was clear, made for the front door. Gently lifting the heavy iron latch off the hook, I pushed it open just enough for me to slip through, then shut it slowly behind me.

The deep shadows and blue hues of the moonlight made Sael look almost ethereal, as though I was seeing it in the reflection of a pool. The feeling of dirt beneath reassured me that it was real — eyes can lie, and ears may deceive, but feet always know home when they feel it. I followed the path to the village square: one that I’d walked a thousand times, and could have done even if I were still asleep. I stood among the flagstones, took a full breath, and shut my eyes. These places existed within my mind just as much as they did within the world. I could take the path heading west, one whose ground is worn by wagon wheels and footfall, up to where it forks at the rain-smoothed rock. From there I could head downhill, to Illia’s farm: where gusting winds blew the smells of tilled earth for miles; or I could head uphill to the lumber mill, nestled among the tall trees. I saw memories of Aldin and the others, loading up a cart with clean-cut planks, arms slick with work sweat, but smiling all the same. All of them were.

I could take the path heading east, towards the river, where we had played two days prior. I see the tree that Renee tried to climb, the flowers and plants sprawled around it. I look up; the rag is still there, and I see us all laughing as it is pulled down. The colours of spring have been replaced with autumnal shades as my mind puts the scene in its rightful place. I pulled back to the square again. I could take the road north, back to home. I’d climb back into my bed, and awaken to discover that the last few days were merely a dream. No blaggard small-kingsmen had come, no call to arms had been sounded. I’d go down to the forge, fetch my apron and finish that horseshoe as I said I would. I finally opened my eyes, and looked to the south. That was the way I would be going. My head was heavy with that knowledge, and my heart poured scorn on the men that would take us there.

I became dimly aware that I was being watched from under the awning of the Shaded Grove. A woman stepped out from the shadows and into the moonlight, walking with a gnarled walking stick, a light hunch to her back, while clad in thick leathers and fur. “Only two sorts walk the roads this hour. Those with a dark character, or a burdened one.” She jabbed the stick in my direction. “Which one have you, Master Raemir?” Her voice was aged, but gentle, and the words seemed to waft into my ears as she said them. I recognised her as Madam Varangia, the oldest soul in the village, and one of the few that held two names. Like my mother, she was not born in Sael; she came from far away, many years ago, and her tongue rang with sounds unlike any others I knew. Children believed that she could speak with fire when she wanted to, a notion that she’d use to great effect when they were being mischievous, and one with a whisper of truth to it.

“Which one do I have to choose so that you won’t tell my parents I was out this late?” She tapped her stick on the flagstones. “Burdened — but I will be the judge of that.” She slowly trotted over, each step supported by the twisted branch, and she leaned in close until there was barely two fingers of distance between us. Her lips curled in a half-smile. “Should I give you my staff? Worries age the soul and skin, and I consider myself to be youthful compared with what I presently see. What wearisome thoughts have made a boy so old?” I felt my shoulders sink, and a lump emerge in my throat. I began to open up, mostly out of surprise at how brazen her approach had been. “My friends and I…a lot of folk…were called by the small-kingsmen. A lot of us are leaving, and I’m just not sure how the village… I think those men have destroyed it. I hate them like nothing else, for coming here and…” She held up a hand and stopped me, as my head sank low. “These are tired thoughts, child. They’ve been wrung-out before, and they’re sure to be again.” She shifted on her feet as she looked up to the sky. “Years ago, when the village was wracked with an evil sickness, and we burned more houses than we built,”

“I walked the green ways, and screamed out in my tongue and yours. Demanded that the spirits, the birds, the sky, or even the sound would come down, and tell me why. Why must I bear witness to the death of my own kin? Why must I stare into the flames of another home, which just sennachs before had hosted such love and laughter? Why must I hear the weeping of children, who could not even see their parents bodies before we torched them? Give me the culprit, the wrongdoer, so I might mete out my anguish, and lessen its power over me!” Her hand tightened on the head of the staff, then relaxed again. “It was in the silence I received, that I found my truth. There was no grand act of artifice, no puppeteer, no singular voice that came forward and took fault. Should it have been the spirit of the coinspinner who came from the southern road, body filled with disease, or the one who bequeathed it to him? Should it have been the folk who bartered in the square, bringing the poison into their homes with handfuls of goods thereafter? The world is so vast — filled with so many souls, that no knife could cut the blame into small enough pieces to satisfy me.”

She pointed a long, wrinkled finger at my chest and stared directly into my eyes. “The affairs at play here, are selfsame. Do you fault the small-kingsmen, for carrying a writ they had no hand in writing? A writ that, had they refused to carry it, would have brought about their own deaths? Do you curse the name of the small-king, pressed to yield for a call they may themselves gainsay? The council? Who may have believed that they too had no choice, cursing their hands even as they signed it? How far back must your hate be doled out, Master Raemir, before it is fully spent? Apportioning so little to each link in the chain, that you would fare better to empty the seas with a ladle?” She retracted her finger, and rested her hand back on the staff. “Save that hatred for the evils that man does, and spare some warmth for those who are compelled to do them. Your heart will be lighter that way.” She turned to continue walking down the road, before stopping and motioning a hand. “Oh, and if you’re troubled about the fate of the village: I wasn’t called up, so I’ll keep a beady eye on it. I have done so for quite some time, actually.” She continued to trot up the road, and began to whistle as the sun rose.

Categories
story worldbuilding

chapter two

Broken Logs and False Words

SOON AFTER I HAD turned seventeen, the wagons of ingots stopped coming to the village. We had been visited by a small-kingsman, who was not the same man as before but was received as though he were. I do not know what specifically came of the visit, but I do know that we stopped working on weapons shortly after. For a while it seemed that the whole affair had been some sort of dream, an interesting diversion that the whole village would be talking about in their cups. Remember those three seasons where old Craemon and son made nought but cartloads of weapons for the small-king? Bloody tough time, had to repair your tools with yer own hands back then! Everyone would laugh about it, share in the joy of collective reminiscence, then go back to their lives. Within ten years it’d be forgotten, and in twenty, exaggerated to the point that it might as well be a completely different story. The desperate king had beseeched Master Craemon to create him a weapon capable of slaying the Howl. He accepted, and three hard years were spent dragging crop and cutting tree with nout but our hands, as Craemon finished his work. He forged a blade so powerful, so unspeakably mighty, that it had hummed with the newfound fifth echo of Sträm.

The reality was far more mundane. The fact was, the country had no more need of blades; they just needed hands to hold them. That was what they came for next.


The land had just shaken off a most brutal winter, and Sael was about to throw Staehndag, the ‘Standing Day’ in old tongue, a celebration for the arrival of spring. The start was a rehearsed dance, where all the participants would wear dull grey colours, hunch over their shoulders and spiral aimlessly across the village square. The dance would continue until the arrival of the Sun; a dancer wearing bright colours, who would twirl into the middle of the square and, in archaic prose, announce that the winter was over. They would then dance through the square, gently touching the other dancers as they went, causing them to ‘transform’ into flowers. The trick was that the snow dancers wore two layers, an inner layer of bright and pleasing colours, covered by a drab grey outer layer, which was removed in the ‘transformation’. Traditionally the role of the Sun was played by the last snow dancer to be caught, but this tradition was quietly changed for reasons I will get onto.

In the new rules, the Sun dancer was the first snow to be ‘caught’. This avoided an uncomely pursuit, but did lead to an amusing affair where the snow dancers would clump around the Sun as soon as it stepped into the square, as though they were metals drawn to a lodestone. I confess that I was not exactly enthralled by the whole affair, but my friends enjoyed it, and so I enjoyed it with them. The most consistent amusement came from snow dancers which weren’t from Sael, who came from other villages which still observed the old tradition. When the Sun strode onto the square, you’d see them rush off in the opposite direction as fast as they could. I used to call them ‘shooting stars’, and much laughter was had at their expense.

The most entertaining dance, however, was when Saegfrid became the Sun. It was three years ago when she was pressed into being snow by her father, the village tanner, and had perfectly performed the act of wandering around aimlessly. When it came to the Sun’s arrival however, she disregarded all pretense of dance. The idea was to avoid being touched by the Sun, and she was fully committed to that notion. This turned what was normally a ceremony lasting a couple of minutes, into a ten minute ordeal, within which the pursuing dancer also broke character in favour of speed. Eventually he came crashing down in a heap after catching his leg on a raised flagstone. The dance ended there, with the Sun clutching a knee and wailing for his mother. Despite all of this, Saegfrid was made the Sun in the following year, heralding a ‘dance’ of such brevity and intensity that the rules were changed shortly after.

Once the twirling was finished, the remaining festivities would begin, mostly consisting of other smaller games and food. Wild boar seasoned with salt when available, winter herbs, then cooked over an open flame until succulent and spitting. Broth served straight from bubbling cast iron pots, many of which my father and I had forged. It was a taboo to ever ask what was in them, and to quote my mother, you “eat it like you only knew soft tack” – which is to say, you ate it and made exaggerated sounds of enjoyment. Food you didn’t have to hunt or hand over coin for always tasted great anyway. There was also something of a competition between the broth-makers, with recognition for the one who emptied their pot the quickest. Recipes were hoarded as though they were court secrets, and many of the best ones left the world with the folk that created them. There was something enthralling about that notion to me; that the goodness of it, didn’t mean it needed to be around forever, maybe even the opposite. If the recipe was spectacular, we’d keep making it, and then it’d become just another meal. When you had a cup of broth to your lips from the Standing, you knew it might be the last time it passed them. For some of the more ‘exotic’ recipes, however, this was strictly a positive thing.

After sunset, the festival was closed by the krschind, the splitting of a log from the first tree felled in the season. A split in one blow meant that the summer would be long and bountiful, and another boar should be placed on the spit. Two blows, a mediocre summer and a bitter winter: the village drum was to be played continuously until the sun rose. According to the eldest folk, the last time the krschind took three blows was the year that Ropelung nearly destroyed the village. They said that during those days, Death no longer hid in the shaded places; it walked freely among the folk, wearing the faces of their friends and lovers. It came for both of my father’s grandparents, and slew many others. So, the swinger of the axe, the krschindtraegr, was the best arm the village had to offer. For the past two years, this role was played by Aldin, who had performed it in a single blow both times. He was only fifteen for the first, but he had also been chopping logs since he could string a sentence, so his strength was not in question.

Everyone had gathered around the square, with Aldin stood in the middle. A ‘practice log’ was brought out to give him a chance to warm up, which he split adroitly. Then came the real thing, and the folk stood in silence. He whirled the splitting axe over his head in a circular motion, then brought it down with a mighty swing. Aldin’s form was perfect, but his tool was not. The head struck the log, broke from the body, and came clattering down on the flagstones with a sound that pierced the whole village. I cannot forget his face – a face that I still see in my most tenacious of nightmares. His mouth agape, eyes wide, it was as though he had buried the axe in his own mother. He staggered two full steps back and dropped the remains of the handle. Silence filled the square for several, painful breaths, until one of the folk had the wherewithal to yell “Get the boy another axe!“. A replacement was fetched, and the krschint began again.

He brought it back, and swung it down. His grip was too far back this time, and his form was sloppy. The head bit into log on the far side and the handle had struck it simultaneously, dissipating most of the force. I grit my teeth so hard they could have cracked, and muttered a prayer under my breath. Just let it split, Sträm, please. I saw Renee bring her hands to her mouth in shock; even Illia, normally a picture of calm, looked a mote distressed. Aldin put his foot against the wood and violently pulled the axe free. The last hit finally broke it in two, and there was a dull cheer from the crowd. A voice cried out, possibly the same man as before “Two hits! Fetch the drum and light a fire!” Folk began to move around with purpose, the embers beneath the bones of the boar were brought back to life to warm the drummer for a long evening. Aldin stood motionless in the middle of the square, axe still in hand as we ran up to him. His eyes were filled with tears, huge shoulders leaping with each tortured sob that erupted from him. I reflexively put a hand on his back and wore a face of compassion.

“Why do they keep saying it was two hits?” Aldin managed to choke out between heavy breaths. I searched my mind for a plausible explanation beyond folk being so desperate to ignore a bitter truth, that they clung to a blatant lie. “Oh, the first one didn’t count. The axe has to bite for it to count.” I turned my head to Illia and silently begged her to continue. “He’s right. S’not a hit unless it put a good cut in the wood, that’s what ma told me anyways.” Aldin shook his head slowly, as the village drum began to sound from behind us. “It was three hits, it was three“.


It was Aldin’s father who ended up inspecting the remains of the first axe the following morning. He had discovered woodworm right at its shoulder, where the head met the handle. It was only a matter of time before it had broken, and in some ways, Aldin was fortunate that it happened the way it did. If it had been left any longer, it might have come off on a backswing and brained dead some poor passerby. It could have also flown off, struck a flint that was resting in a thatch, and set the whole place to flames. That’s what Illia told him anyway, and the light curl of a smile tugged at his face as she did.

Three sennachs, one and twenty days since the krschint, and folk had just about stopped talking about it. Perhaps the splitting of a log might not dictate the survival of a village. Of course, if you asked anyone, it’d been performed in two hits, so it was nothing to get your hackles raised over. The village drum had been struck too, till the sun rose, as was good and proper! Strife, what idiocy. I was not particularly given to the superstitions of Sael and of the folk around, but I normally knew better than to mock them openly. I will, however, confess that I was a touch priggish during those days, satisfied that another sennach had passed without the sun turning black, or the livestock dropping dead. Even knowing what I know now, I’m not inclined to believe that Aldin’s broken axe brought our doom. It didn’t set a souther’s royal mind on the subject of land ownership. It didn’t write the declaration, marked by all hands of the Council, which set the gears of the nation turning to war. It wasn’t the rider, that carried the commandment to our small-king; a commandment that demanded a levy of two thousand honest folk by month’s end.


We had seen most of spring when the three small-kingsmen came. The sun was shining, but there was a fierce wind that kicked up clothes and dust. It was midday, the village square was busy with folk going about their business, children playing in the pathways as the wind buffeted them. I had stepped outside the forge for a breath of fresh air, and to stretch my legs after a morning spent stooped over a troublesome horseshoe. I had to finish it by the end of the day, so I was preparing to head back in when I heard the commotion. The three men rode in on horseback, bearing the four pointed star on a black piece of cloth, and headed into the middle of the village. They were all remarkably well kept, lacking the wear and tear that folk from here often presented. The middle rider was a man who stood a couple of fingers taller than me, with a thick brown beard and a deep brow. He reached into his saddlepack, produced a piece of parchment, and spoke with an accent utterly unfamiliar to my ears. The words tumbled out of his mouth ponderously, as though each one of the nasal sounds he made needed to be prepared beforehand.

“Stand to hear me, good people of-” he paused for just a moment too long, and then continued “-Sael. I stand before you all bearing an IMPERATIVE from your patron, Lord Elgelae, fifth to bear his name and Warden of the Eigth Staking.” I wasn’t so ignorant as to not know the ‘Eigth Staking’ referred to the tract of land where Sael sat, but I had never heard of this “Lord Ell-guh-lay”. All of this might come easy to you if you’re some bucklebooted city dweller with a town crier yelling it in your ear each morn, but to me, this was no different from a crowdshow. I half expected him to whip out a needled-man, and ask the children if they could help find his button eyes before supper. “Your Lord requires, in consideration of his many years of humble service to yourselves, each man or woman of working years, in possession of good mind and body to hear this summons, and prepare to be called upon-“, he paused again, “-three days hence, upon the ground where we currently stand”.

His eyes flicked back and forth through the crowd, as though he was taking their temperature for his next words. “Lord Elgelae appreciates and sympathises with the upset that such an undertaking will cause, and has committed to paying any man or woman levied at a rate of not more than two slivers per day. Your Lord would also note, that such compensation is not required by Council Law, and as such, is borne of his own generosity and solicitude with you all”. So much breath used to provide so little meaning – if I was suffering this much, Illia must have been chewing on that stone she carried. I hadn’t managed to see her in the crowd, but given the number of folk stood around listening to this drivel, she, Renee and Aldin were going to be here somewhere. I pushed through the encircling crowd as people began to yell questions at the crier man. “Three days?“, “It’s coming up to plantin season!”, “Two slivers per day can’t even feed me dogs!”

I managed to find Renee towards the back of the crowd. She looked a touch pale, and I was about to ask what the tartalker was going on about before another of the three horsemen spoke up. His voice was much harsher, and rattled like something had come loose in it – which I could believe on account of his bald head looking like he apprenticed as a punching bag for a pugilist. “Awright settle it now! The folks north of you don’t even ‘ave three days, due to us needing to travel up there to tell em, so stop your bellyachin!” He stepped off his horse to the sound of clinking metal and raised his voice. “Now, we’ve got to make an account of the village before last light, so start lining up there! Come on!” he pointed in front of him with a leather gloved finger. Folk looked among themselves, and slowly began to line up. The third man, who had yet to say a jot, dismounted his horse and pulled a piece of parchment and nub of charcoal from a satchel. His face was severe, and he looked like a man who’d seen many winter seasons.

The first person in the line stepped forwards, a woman who I recognised from the mill from when I occasionally visited Aldin. “Age?” the bald man grunted. “Four and thirty, but I-“.

He cut in. “Profession?”

“I’m a sawyer up at the sa-“

“Be here in three days”, he nodded to the parchment scribe and waved her off. She paused for a moment as though she was going to say something, but clearly thought better of it. The next person moved forwards. The bearded man started asking people to come forwards too, and the line began to shorten rapidly. Renee was stood in front of me but had not said a word since we started queuing. I tapped her on the shoulder and chuckled as she audibly startled. “Still experimenting with rippleweed, or are you just…” I trailed off as I saw the look in her eyes. “Did you listen to a single thing that they said, or did it not make it through the forge ash clogging your lobes?” Despite the joke, her tone was sharp and urgent. “This is serious Raemir. A small-kingsman coming here is bad enough, but three? With one that’s taking a tally?” she gestured subtly past the queue, to the dour man with the parchment. I leant out of line to look, then jerked back in when he looked up at me. “Alright, I see that…” I paused for a moment. “When the bald man was talking, he said the word “lev-ayed”. What’s it mean?”

“Lev-eed” a man walking down the line corrected me as he stopped. It was Illia’s father, his normally jovial half-smile and soft features were replaced with melancholy and a furrowed brow. “It means to be made a soldier” he said as he stared off down the rest of the line. “What? You saying they’re sending us off to stick some folk?” the initial amusement at the lordly speech was now gone from me, replaced with the sudden pang of fear. His eyes met mine and paused, reading my face with the attention of a sawbones. “Nah, nothin’ like that. They prolly just need something built for soldiers, and swift-like, so they’re dragging us out for it”. It was a plausible lie, and well delivered. After all, they’d only been marking down those who were handsfolk so far, leaving out the people who spent most of their time thinking. “I got to find Illia, see you later” he quickly said as he continued down the queue. I sighed a breath of relief; making something was fine, I’d done that all my life. Whatever they needed making, I’m sure the folk here could have it sorted and be home in time for supper. Despite his reassurance, Renee was still coiled like a spring. She was smarter than I.

We were a few paces from the start of the line when an argument broke out between a woman and the bald man – a woman I recognised as one of the more accomplished broth-makers from the Staehndag. A real fire-soul, she was pointing and yelling. “Curse yer eyes! Have you gone yampy! Look at him!” She gestured to a small boy stood at front of the queue. “He’s barely a hair over fifteen, and you want him to do muckers work?” The words washed over the man, as his eyes darted between her and the now sobbing child. In one swift motion, he went to his sheath and drew his sword. The nattering in the crowd went silent, and the other small-kingsman paused. He held the sword aloft for a moment, then flipped it around such that he held the edge, and offered it to the boy. “Take eet“, he hissed. The boy grasped the hilt in his hand, and the bald man released it. Everyone watched as this boy of no more than fifteen years stood, with tears in his eyes, and a sword in his shaking hand. The bald man turned to the woman with venom. “Looks plenty old enough for me”. He snatched the sword back and curtly waved them both off, as the other small-kingsman returned to questioning. Soon enough it was my turn to be questioned, and I was fortunate enough to get the tarspeaker.

“Age?”

“Seventeen, sir.”

“Profession?”

“I’m a blacksmith, sir.”

I added ‘sir’ and answered quick as I could, just as my mother told me to when speaking with small-kingsmen. Made them feel important, even when they weren’t really sirs. Despite my observation of etiquette, my answer didn’t seem to sit well with him. He was eyeing me up and down while frowning, but had yet to say anything.

“..Sir?”

He seemed to wake back up. “Just thinking you look a bit tender for a blacksmith, though you’ve certainly got the arms for it” He paused again, and looked like he was waiting for a response.

“Y-you could ask my father if you d-” he cut me off.

“He a smith too?”

“Yes sir, you could also ask my mo-“

“Same forge?”

I nodded, and gave up on trying to speak without being interrupted. He crossed his arms and smacked his lips, like he was finally satisfied with the answer. “Aye, fraid that makes you his apprentice” He stressed the word ‘apprentice’, bearing his rows of grotty teeth as he said it. “Got orders to take them too. Be here in three days lad”. I stepped to the side and waited for Renee to be done. The bald man had not believed that she was the daughter of the village doctor, and only accepted it after several folk yelled at him to that effect. She walked over to me, looking down at her feet as she did. “Turns out they don’t want doctors, or their daughters for that matter”. She kicked at a stone on the square. “They do want blacksmiths though” I said as I watched the pebble roll, “or at least their sons”. A flash of sadness drew across her face and crept onto mine. “Let’s…let’s wait for the others, see if they fared better” I muttered, as her sorrowful eyes met mine.


The line was cleared after an hour, and most folk had lingered on around the village square, waiting for something to happen. Renee, Aldin, Illia and I were stood to one corner. Our mood was black, and I had that fear you get when you knew you’d done something wrong, when you knew that your father would find out about it. The small-kingsmen were stood in the middle with their horses, and the dour man was looking over his sheet of parchment. From here I could see that it was scored with black charcoal marks, from top to bottom. “Thirty-one and one hundreds, give or take ten” he said, loud enough for folk to hear but not obviously directed at them. “Not much, but we should get two more on the way north” the bald man snorted as he scanned the square. “Look at these folk; I’ll be stinking of this village for the rest of the sennach. Sträm’s blessing that they don’t need to be clean to hold a…” he trailed off as he noticed the people listening. I hated the way he said “folk”. When the people here said it, it was a word for community, for common being and strife. Recognition that you were bonded with people by more than just your mere proximity to them. When they said it though, it was like they were uttering a curse, or spitting out a piece of gristle.

He raised his voice to the assembled crowd as he began to pace in a circle. “THIRTY-ONE AND ONE HUNDRED. ONE, THREE, ONE” he gestured with his fingers as he said it. “That’s how many we’ll be taking in three days. If you were called on, and you ain’t here, we’ll take someone else in your stead”. He walked back to the other small-kingsmen. They mounted back up onto their horses, stashed the parchment away in a saddlebag, and abruptly trotted out of the square. People were left dotted around like they were spare parts, like their will had been whisked out from them with the horses. I certainly wasn’t going back to the forge to finish that shoe; the whole thing now felt pitifully insignificant.

For the first seventeen years of my life, I can quite rightfully say that I didn’t really thought about what was coming ‘next’. Never needed to. Day flowed into day, sennach into sennach, month into month, season into season. But now I was consumed by thoughts of three days hence. Three days to prepare for whatever was coming next. Three days to say goodbye to Renee, to my mother, to my father. Three days to breathe the fair spring air and walk among the tall trees. Three days to listen to the talking of folk, living in their own little corner of the world. Three days to say goodbye to the village of Sael.

Three days to say goodbye to Raemir, the blacksmith’s boy, and bid greetings to something else.