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.