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.

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