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.
“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.
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-“
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.